1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 24

Chapter 13

Upper Mermentau River, Louisiana

Major Larry Quinn rested an index finger on young Karl Klemm’s right shoulder as they moved out of the stronger current of the upper Mermentau River. “A little less speed, a little more to starboard.”

The young Bavarian eased back the throttle of the bright red 180 Sportsman motorboat, turned the steering wheel slightly to the right. He glanced across the river to where a tree had collapsed far out beyond its banks. Judging from the lack of mold on the trunk, it couldn’t have been down for more than a few weeks. “Was I not giving it enough clearance, Major? When I read the operation manual for this boat, the section concerning areas of uncertain navigation recommended –“

Larry exerted a little more pressure to the shoulder under his index finger. “Trust me. Look at the bole of that fallen tree, and the shallow angle at which it enters the water. And how close the stump is to the bank.”

Karl frowned as they drew abreast of it at a distance of fifteen yards. “And what do you deduce from these observations, Major?”

It was Kleinbaum who answered. “The trunk is wide. Which means it is a big tree, and so, tall. And it was not deadfall; see how green the stump is? How clean the bole? And mind the angle. Add it together, junge, and it is quite possible that the top of it is beneath us, even here. The closer we passed, the more likely that some branch we cannot see beneath this filth” — he eyed the green-brown Mermentau warily — “will tear our bottom out. And that would be the end of us in this God-forsaken place.”

Karl’s frown deepened. “I see. But as regards our survival: are you so very certain? The handbook on the Louisianna bayou region specifically stated that –“

Larry turned his finger on Karl’s scapula into a pat on the shoulder. “Whether we live or die, it certainly would be the end of our mission. Although I am sure that the handbook had some useful advice if we were to wreck the boat and be forced to fend for ourselves. And I will count upon you to share that information, should we need it.” And Larry knew that Karl would not only have that full store of information ready between his ears, but it would come out of his mouth damn near the way it had been written in the handbook. The young Bavarian was not merely extremely, even terrifyingly, smart, but had what some people called a photographic memory. Which he had demonstrated more than once. And which had saved their bacon when everything went to hell, x months ago.

It had started well before that, with the hurricane. After splitting off from Task Force X-Ray. they had made their way across the Gulf on sail alone, both to conserve the coal in Courser‘s bunkers and to reduce the possibility of other ships sighting them. And Courser, having a hull and rigging layout that was modeled after the USS Kearsarge of Civil War fame, had far superior sailing characteristics to any ship of this age — even the Quality class cruisers, Intrepid and Resolve.

However, because her guns were on a covered gun-deck, not the weather deck, and because that mean her freeboard was increased, she wasn’t as sleek as the steam sloop which had inspired her. She had a faint tumblehome and that cut some speed and maneuverability. Also, her engines were of down-time manufacture. The very finest quality possible, of course, and carried out under Admiral Simpson’s unstinting — not to say hypercritical — supervision, but still, they were only going to get so close to the performance specs that had been achievable with the technology and alloys of the 1860s.

Long story made short, she wasn’t as fast as the ships which inspired her, was heavier, and that all worked against a rapid crossing of an unusually windless Gulf of Mexico. And when they were finally getting close to their destination — Louisiana — they saw a storm mounting high and dark coming in from the southeast.

It was a problem with that part of the Gulf coast, in the undeveloped, undredged world of 1635: there wasn’t anything vaguely resembling a safe anchorage until you got to Galveston. Which they could probably reach in time — if they were willing to burn coal to do it.

Larry, the master of the ship, and Olle Haraldsen, its commander only had to confab for seven seconds: better a ship with low or no coal, than a ship in pieces at the bottom of the Gulf. So they called for full steam ran like hell before the storm. And worst of all, there was no one on board who would have understood any of the puns Larry had in mind regarding the Doors song of almost the same name.

They got to Galveston in time — just — but after the hurricane, its migratory sandbars had rearranged themselves even more than usual. So the channel they’d sounded on the way in was gone. And while it would have been nice to send a message to Eddie and their pals back on Statia to call for help or just send an update, their radio didn’t have the range. At least they kept hearing The Quill’s daily squelch breaks: those short, contentless transmissions that rose just above the background noise. But it had been known from the outset that once Courser got beyond the range where she could still ping back, there was no way to let anyone else know that she was still afloat, much less what was happening to her.

After waiting a while to see if the natural action of the tide would help clear the bay, it was obvious that while the process was occurring, it was doing so at a pace that would have made molasses in winter look like a downhill racer. That was the point at which Larry and Captain Haraldsen had another confab, this one much lengthier and more heated than the first.

The mission was to get to Mermentau River, then the Nezpique Bayou and navigate up toward the closest known coordinates of the Jennings Oilfield. While not as deep and wide as its Texas cousins, Jennings was ultimately easier to reach, produced sweeter crude, and was much closer to the surface. Larry’s contention was that with the Sportsman and all its gasoline, he and a handful of others could continue that mission. They’d follow the Gulf Coast east, get to the entry into the Mermentau basin — for lack of a better umbrella term — and wind their way up to the objective.

Haraldsen countered with far less involved arguments. They boiled down to this: the Sportsman would not survive any major storm. If anything went wrong and they could not proceed, the boat could not hold much in the way of spares or supplies. If they encountered indigenous peoples, even their lever action rifles would not keep so few of them from being overrun. And most importantly, Larry was clearly clinically insane for proposing such a mission.