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Christy Passford had been through this channel at least half a dozen times in the Bellevite, and knew all the courses and bearings, though the latter did not count in the dense fog which had settled down on the vicinity of the fort. The lights in the binnacle of the West Wind had not been put out, though they could not be noticed outside of the schooner. The great fortress could not be seen, and it was as silent as a tomb.
"How does she head, Christy?" asked Graines, as they met at the wheel.
"South a quarter west," replied the lieutenant, "which is the correct course. The fog is very dense just now. I think we have passed the obstructions by this time, though I do not know precisely where they are placed."
"I should call it mighty ticklish navigation just here," added the engineer.
"It is all of that, or will be in five or ten minutes 115 more. Sand Island Lighthouse is not more than a quarter of a mile from the middle of the channel, and at that point the course changes. Perhaps the pilot can make out the lighthouse in the fog. If he don't he will run into five or six feet of water in a few minutes, out of eight fathoms or more."
"I suppose you are prepared to let go the towline if anything goes wrong, Mr. Passford?" added the engineer, perhaps as a suggestion rather than as a question.
"I hope it will not come to that, for the schooner might get aground on the Knoll before we could make sail," replied Christy.
"The steamer has shifted her helm," said Graines, to the great relief of the lieutenant. "The fog is lifting again, and the pilot must have seen the lighthouse. We are headed more to the eastward now."
"The course is south by west, three-quarters west, when the lighthouse bears west by south. We are out of the woods now, and there will be no trouble at all till some blockader stirs up the waters," said Christy.
"I wonder where the Bellevite is just now," 116 added Graines, as he looked all about him as the fog lifted a little more, though it was still too thick to make out any vessel, if there were any near.
"If my messenger reached the ship in time, she will be found somewhere near the channel," replied Christy. "Call Lines, if you please, Mr. Graines."
The seaman presently appeared; and the lieutenant directed him to take the wheel, French instructing him how to keep the vessel in line with the steamer.
"I believe you have sailed a schooner, French," said Christy, when he had taken the man to the quarter.
"Yes, sir; I was mate of a coaster for three years, and I should have become master of her if the war had not come, and I felt that I ought to go into the navy, though I haven't got ahead much yet, as I expected I should; but I am satisfied to fight for my country where I am."
"That is patriotic; and I hope a higher position will be found for you. But we have not time to talk about that now," continued Christy. "It may be necessary or advisable for Mr. Graines and myself 117 to leave the West Wind at any moment now. In that case I shall place this vessel in your charge, and you will take her off where the Bellevite was moored last night, and come to anchor."
"Thank you, sir; and I will endeavor to do my duty faithfully," replied French, touching his cap.
"Now call the men aft, and I will explain the matter to them."
The lieutenant explained the situation, and directed the other five seamen to respect and obey the man he had selected as captain. Then he directed French to cast off the stops from the foresail and mainsail, and have the jib and flying-jib ready to set at a moment's notice.
"I don't think Captain Sullendine can get out of his stateroom, where he has been confined, or Bokes out of the deck-house; but if either of them should do so, you must secure them as you think best," continued Christy. "Do you fully understand your orders, French?"
"Perfectly, Mr. Passford; and I will do my duty as well as I know how," answered the able seaman, who, like many others in the service, deserved a better position.
118 The new officer and crew went to work on the sails, and in a few minutes they were ready to be set. Another bank of fog was rolling up, in which the two vessels would soon be involved. But the Tallahatchie was in a position where it was plain sailing now, and her future troubles would all come from the blockaders.
"There you are!" exclaimed the engineer, as the peal of a gun boomed over the water from the westward. "The steamer has been seen by a blockader, and she will catch it now."
"I don't believe that was one of the Bellevite's guns," added Christy. "Captain Breaker would not take a position over to the westward, for that would give him the outside track, and he always goes at anything by the shortest way."
"We have the fog again for the next ten or fifteen minutes. The blockader that fired that shot must have got a sight at the steamer, and she is still pegging away at her. We may get knocked over by our own guns," continued Graines.
"There is no danger at present. She can't hit anything in this fog except by a chance shot."
"And one of them sometimes does the most mischief. The fog is heavier just now than it has 119 been at any time during the night. I can't see the Tallahatchie just now."
"It is blacker than a stack of blackbirds," added Christy. "I am confident that we are at least a mile south of the lighthouse, and we will take advantage of the gloom to hoist the mainsail, and then the foresail if it holds as it is now;" and he gave the order to French, who was assisted by the engineer in the work.............
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