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HOME > Classical Novels > A Victorious union > CHAPTER XXXI
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The fog was coming and going in the distance, and at times the land could be just discerned. In spite of the number and vigilance of the blockading fleet, several hundred blockade-runners had succeeded in making their way into Cape Fear River, though several hundred also had been captured, not to mention a very considerable number that had been run ashore or burned when escape became hopeless.
It was the policy of the Confederacy to send out vessels to prey upon the commerce of the United States. Some of them began their depredations without making a port in the South, and a few of the swift steamers that succeeded in getting into Mobile, Wilmington, and other safe places, were fitted out for the work of destruction. The fog that prevailed inshore was favorable to blockade-runners; and if there was a vessel of this 346 character in Cape Fear River, the early morning had been such as to tempt her to try to make her way through the blockaders to sea.
"She is not one of the ordinary steamers that run in and out of the river," said Mr. Baskirk, while he and the commander were still watching the progress of the chase, and Paul Vapoor was warming up the engine as he had done before.
"She is larger than the St. Regis, but hardly equal in size to the Bellevite," added Christy. "She cannot draw more than twelve or fourteen feet of water, or she could not have come out through those shallow channels at the mouth of Cape Fear River. She seems to have the speed to run away from her pursuers; but probably not one of them can make fifteen knots an hour."
The three pursuers of the blockade-runner had changed their course when the chase did so; but it was already evident that they had no chance to overhaul her. They were still three miles astern of her, while the St. Regis, at sunset, was not more than three. Not a shot had been fired by any one of the steamers, and it would have been a waste of ammunition to do so.
"We are gaining on her," said Christy, half an 347 hour later. "That steamer is making sixteen knots at least."
"If she has found out that we can outsail her, very likely she will count upon the darkness to enable her to give us the slip," suggested Mr. Baskirk.
"Mr. Vapoor has come to his bearings, and in another half hour we shall be within one mile of her. But I am afraid we shall not be able to settle this affair finally to-night," replied Christy.
The darkness gathered around the two ships, and none of the steamers in the distance could any longer be seen. The officers could just make out the steamer ahead, which still kept on her course. The midship gun was now brought into use, and a round shot was sent on its mission to her; but with little chance of hitting her in the increasing gloom, for the sky was obscured with clouds, and all the signs indicated fog during the night, which would be exceedingly favorable to the chase. A flash was seen in the distance, and then came the roar of a heavy gun.
"She is not merely a blockade-runner; for it appears now that she is an armed vessel, and has some heavy metal on board," said Christy.
348 "But no shot has come within hearing," added Mr. Baskirk. "Perhaps she only wished to inform us that she could bite as well as bark."
The St. Regis kept on her course for another hour. Christy was very anxious, for the chase was plainly a Confederate man-of-war, or a privateer; and if she escaped she might begin her work of destruction the very next day. At two bells in the first watch she could not be seen; but the commander kept on his course another half-hour, and then he ran into a fog.
The log indicated that the ship was making her best speed; and if the chase continued on her former course, she must have been within sight or hearing by this time. Christy peered through the gloom of the night and the fog, and listened for any sound. He kept up a tremendous thinking all the time, and acted as though he was in doubt.
"Make the course east, Mr. Baskirk," said he, calling the executive officer.
"East, Captain Passford?" interrogated the lieutenant; and if he tried to conceal the astonishment he felt, his tones failed him.
"East, Mr. Baskirk," repeated the commander.
The course was given to the quartermaster at the 349 wheel; and the St. Regis came about gradually, and stood off in the direction indicated. Christy had a theory of his own, in regard to the probable movements of the chase, and he desired to be solely responsible for the result: therefore he kept his plan to himself.
"Call all hands, Mr. Baskirk, but without any noise at all," continued the commander, while the ship was still driving ahead at the rate of twenty knots an hour.
The ship's company silently took their stations, and no one on the deck spoke a loud word, though no order to this effect had been given. All the white cotton cloth that could be found on board was brought to the waist, where it was torn into strips about three inches wide, and two feet in length. These two pieces were distributed among the ship's company, with the order to tie them around the left arm, above the elbow.
The fog was deep and dense; and the lookouts, who were stationed on the top-gallant forecastle and aloft, could not see a ship's length ahead. Christy had gone forward, and made his way out on the bowsprit, in order to get as far as possible from the noise of the engine. He listened there 350 for a full half-hour, and while the ship had made ten miles.
"Starboard a little, Mr. Baskirk," he called to the executive officer, who had followed him forward.
"Starboard, sir," repeated the officer, as he sent the order aft.
"Port! Port!" exclaimed the commander with more energy.
The orders were passed rapidly through the line of officers till they reached the quartermaster conning the wheel. The captain continued to listen for another quarter of an hour.
"Steady!" he shouted aloud, and left his position on the bowsprit to take another on the top-gallant forecastle. "We are close aboard of her, Mr. Baskirk! Have your grappling irons ready! Lay her aboard as we come alongside!"
By this time all hands forward could see the dark hull of the enemy. The St. Regis was rapidly running alongside of her, for the chase did not seem to be going at her former speed; and no doubt her commander was busy working out some manœuvre he had devised to escape from his pursuers. The boarders threw their grappling-irons, and fastened to the side of the enemy.
351 The drum was heard on board of her, beating to quarters; but it was too late, for the boarders were springing over her rail. Christy heard one bell on the gong of the other ship, and instantly made the same signal on his own. It was evidently a surprise to the enemy, but the ship's company were promptly rallied. The enemy was overwhelmed in a few minutes, though not till several had fallen on both sides. The captain seemed to have been too busy with his manœuvre to escape to attend to present conditions.
While the commander of the St. Regis remained on the deck, or even on the top-gallant forecastle, the clang of his own engine prevented him from hearing any other sounds; and the enemy appeared not to have seen the ship till she emerged from the fog. The crew of the prize, as she was by this time, were all driven below, and the victory was complete.
"Do you surrender?" demanded Mr. Baskirk of the officer who appeared to be the captain.
"There appears to be no alternative," replied the commander very gloomily: and he did not attempt to explain how his misfortune had come upon him. He had counted upon the fog to insure his salvation; 352 but it appeared to have been the primary cause of his capture, though he certainly had not been as vigilant as a commander should be. Christy came on board, and Mr. Baskirk introduced him.
"I am glad to see you, Captain Passford," said the commander as a matter of form. "I was absolutely sure that you would chase me to the westward, sir; and I had not the slightest expectation of encountering you on this course."
"I took my chances of finding you in this direction rather than in the opposite one," replied Christy. "It appears that I correctly interpreted your strategy, though I dared not even mention my plan to my executive officer."
"I have fallen into my own trap, and being captured as I was, is disgraceful to me," added Captain Winnlock, as his name proved to be; and the steamer was the Watauga.
Christy's opinion of the capture did not differ from that of the commander of the prize, but he made no remark upon it. The Watauga was loaded with cotton, which was to be sent to England from Nassau, while the steamer was to go on a cruise in search of defenceless merchantmen of the United States.
353 "I have a passenger on board, Captain Passford, who bears the same name that you do, and possibly he may be one of your relatives, though he is by no means a Federalist," said Captain Winnlock.
"Indeed! May I ask his name?" replied Christy very much surprised.
"Colonel Homer Passford, sir."
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