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The commander of the enemy's ship could not know that the Bellevite intended to board; but he could hardly help regarding with anxiety the rapid progress she was making through the water. The loyal ship was getting nearer to him, and Captain Rombold could not avoid seeing that his situation was becoming desperate. It was absolutely necessary for him to do something, unless he was ready to haul down his flag, which Christy, for one, having been present at a battle with him, did not expect him to do yet.
The executive officer kept a close watch upon the enemy, frequently using his glass, even while he was discussing his suggestion with the captain. There was great activity on deck near the stern of the Tallahatchie, and her commander must have been at least hopeful that the steering apparatus could be restored to some degree of efficiency. In the meantime he could not bring his broadside 170 guns to bear on the Bellevite for he was unable to come about. The Federal ship was headed directly for the enemy, and as Captain Breaker was impatient to board, he could not fire the Parrot or the broadside battery without losing time to put his vessel in position for throwing shot or shell.
"She is starting her screw again!" exclaimed Christy suddenly, as he discovered the stirring up of the water astern of the enemy.
"I see she is," added the commander. "She has not got her extra wheel in position yet, and probably she has pried her tiller over, or hauled it over with a purchase. Make the course west, Mr. Passford."
Christy gave the order to the quartermaster, and without checking her speed, the Bellevite described a quarter of a circle and came to the desired course. The three guns of her port battery were immediately discharged, loaded with shell as on the last occasion. One of them was seen to explode in the midst of the gang of men who were at work on the extra wheel. The other two burst in the air, too far off to do any serious damage.
Very slowly, and apparently with great difficulty, 171 the Tallahatchie swung around, so that her port guns could be brought to bear upon the Bellevite, and the two ships were abreast of each other so that neither could rake the other. The loyal ship continued on her course to the westward, and in ten minutes she had made three miles and a half, which placed her out of the reach of the broadside guns of the Tallahatchie.
Christy did not abate his watchfulness over the movements of the enemy. The shot from the sixty-pounder which had struck on the quarter of the Confederate, had evidently created a great deal of confusion in that part of the vessel. She had intended to describe a quarter of a circle in order to render her port broadside guns available, but she had not made more than the eighth of the circuit before she appeared to be going ahead, and her direction was diagonal to that of the Bellevite.
"What does that mean?" asked Christy of the commander who stood near him, though he had a very decided opinion of his own on the subject.
"It simply means that the last shot which struck her deranged whatever expedient her captain had adopted for controlling the rudder," replied 172 the commander. "It failed when she was half round, and then she went ahead."
"She has stopped her screw again, sir," added the first lieutenant.
"It is time for her to haul down her flag; but she does not seem to be disposed to do it," continued Captain Breaker. "It is certainly a hopeless case, and he ought to spare his men if not himself."
"Captain Rombold is not one of that sort. Though he is a Briton, he is a 'last ditch' man."
"Probably a very large majority of his ship's company are English, or anything but Southern Americans, and he ought to have a proper regard for them."
"I think he must see some chance of redeeming himself and his ship, for I never met a more high-toned and gentlemanly man in all my life, and I don't believe he would sacrifice his people unless with a hope that he considers a reasonable one."
"Come about, Mr. Passford, and bear down on the enemy. Unless he works his steering gear, we have her where she is utterly helpless," said the commander.
"I wonder she does not get a couple of her heaviest guns in position on her quarter-deck, and 173 use them as stern chasers," said Christy, after he had obeyed the captain's order, and the Bellevite was again headed directly for the enemy.
"She appears to require all the space there for the work on her steering appliances," replied Captain Breaker. "In ten minutes more I hope we shall be able to board her; and I think we can then make very short work of this business. About the flanking movement you propose, Mr. Passford, I have never seen anything of the kind done, for most of my fighting experience with blockade-runners has been at long range, though I was in the navy during the Mexican war, where our operations were mostly against fortifications and batteries."
"I do not consider the plan practicable except under peculiar circumstances, like the present," returned Christy. "I am confident that we outnumber the enemy, and the men for the flank movement are available."
"If we were boarding in boats we should naturally attack both on the starboard and port sides. But, Mr. Passford, the executive officer cannot be spared to command the launch and its crew."
"I was not thinking of commanding the flanking party myself, sir."
174 "Neither can the officers of divisions be spared."
"I think I can find a volunteer, not in the sailing department, who would conduct the movement to a successful issue, Captain," added Christy, very confidently.
"Mr. Vapoor? But we cannot spare him from the engine room for a minute," protested the commander, who was well aware that the chief engineer was the lieutena............
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