Somewhere in north america

НазваниеSomewhere in north america
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JUNE 1035


They moved through the morning mist like ghosts, silent and eerie in phantom ships. Tall, serpentine prows arched gracefully on bow and stern, crowned with intricately carved dragons, teeth bared menacingly in a growl as if their eyes were piercing the vapor in search of victims. Meant to incite fear into the crew's enemies, the dragons were also believed to be protection against the evil spirits that lived in the sea.

The little band of immigrants had come across a hostile sea in long, elegantly shaped black hulls that skimmed the waves with the ease and stability of trout in a peaceful brook. Long oars reached from holes in the hulls and dipped into the dark water, pulling the ships through the waves. Their square red-and-white striped sails hung limp in the listless air. Small lapstrake boats twenty feet long and carrying extra cargo were tied to the sterns and towed behind.

These people were the precursors of those who would come much later: men, women and children, along with their meager possessions, including livestock. Of the paths Norsemen had blazed across the oceans, none was more dangerous than the great voyage across the North Atlantic. Despite the perils of the unknown, they'd boldly sailed through the ice floes, struggled under the gale-force winds, fought monstrous waves and endured vicious storms that surged out of the southwest. Most had survived, but the sea had exacted its cost. Two of the eight ships that had set out from Norway were lost and never seen again.

Finally, the storm-worn colonists reached the west coast of Newfoundland, but instead of landing at L'Anse aux Meadows, the site of Leif Eriksson's earlier settlement, they were determined to explore farther south in the hope of finding a warmer climate for their new colony. After skirting a very large island, they steered a southwesterly course until they reached a long arm of land that curved northward from the mainland. Continuing around two lower islands, they sailed for another two days past a vast white sandy beach, a great source of wonder to people who had lived all their lives on unending coastlines of jagged rock.

Rounding the tip of the seemingly unending stretch of sand, they encountered a wide bay. Without hesitation, the little fleet of ships entered the calmer waters and sailed west, helped along by an incoming tide. A fog bank rolled over them, casting a damp blanket of moisture over the water. Later in the day, the sun became a dim orange ball as it began to set over an unseen western horizon. A conference was shouted among the commanders of the ships and it was agreed to anchor until morning, in hopes the fog would lift.

When first light came, the fog had been replaced with a light mist, and it could be seen that the bay narrowed into a fjord that flowed into the sea. Setting out the oars, the men rowed into the current as their women and children stared quietly at the high palisades that emerged from the dying mist on the west bank of the river, rising ominously above the masts of the ships. What seemed to them to be incredibly giant trees forested the rolling land behind the crest. Though they saw no sign of life, they suspected they were being watched by human eyes hidden among the trees. Every time they had come ashore for water, they had been harassed by the Skraelings, their term for any foreign-born natives that lived in the alien country they hoped to colonize. The Skraelings had not proven friendly, and on more than one occasion had unleashed clouds of arrows against the ships.

Keeping their usual warlike nature under firm control, the expedition leader, Bjarne Sigvatson, had not allowed his warriors to fight back. He knew well that other colonists from Vinland and Greenland had been plagued by the Skraelings, too, a situation caused by the Vikings who had murdered several of the innocent inhabitants purely out of a barbaric love of killing. This trip Sigvatson would demand that the native inhabitants be treated in a friendly manner. He felt it vital for the survival of the colony to trade cheap goods for furs and other necessities, without the bloodshed. And, unlike Thorfinn Karlsefni and Leif Eriksson, whose earlier expeditions were eventually driven off by the Skraelings, this one was armed to the teeth by men who were blood-hardened Norwegian veterans of many battles with their archenemies, the Saxons. Swords slung over their shoulders, one hand clutching a long spear, the other a huge axe, they were the finest fighting men of their time.

The incoming tide could be felt far up the river and helped the rowers make headway into the current, which was mild due to the low gradient. The river's mouth was only three-quarters of a mile wide, but it soon broadened to almost two miles. The land on the sloping shore to the east was green with lush vegetation.

Sigvatson, who was standing with his arm around the great dragon prow of the lead ship, gazing through the dying mist into the distance, pointed to a shadow in the steep rock palisades looming around a slight bend. "Pull toward the left bank," he ordered the rowers. "There looks to be an opening in the cliffs where we can shelter for the night."

As they drew closer, the dark, forbidding entrance of a flooded cavern grew in size until it broadened wide enough for a ship to enter. Sigvatson peered into the gloomy interior and saw that the passage traveled deep under the sheer walls of the cliff. He ordered the other ships to drift while the mast on his ship was unstepped and laid flat to permit entry beneath the low arch at the cavern's mouth. The fjord's stream swirled around the entrance, but the hardy rowers easily drove the ship inside, shipping the oars only slightly to keep them from striking the flanks of the opening.

As they passed through, the women and children leaned over the bulwarks and stared down through water of startling clarity, schools of fish clearly visible swimming over the rocky bottom nearly fifty feet below. It was with no little trepidation that they found themselves in a high-ceilinged grotto easily large enough to hold a fleet of ships three times the size of the little Viking fleet. Though their ancestors had embraced Christianity, old pagan traditions died hard. Naturally formed grottos were regarded as the dwelling places of the gods.

The walls on the interior of the grotto, formed by the cooling of molten rock 200,000 million years earlier, had been sculpted and worn smooth by the waves of an ancient sea against the volcanic rock layers that were an extension of nearby mountains. They arched upward into a domed ceiling that was bare of moss or hanging growth. Surprisingly, it was also free of bats. The chamber was mostly dry. The water level stopped at a ledge that ascended three feet and stretched into the inner reaches of the cavern for a distance of nearly two hundred feet.

Sigvatson shouted through the grotto entrance for the other ships to follow. Then his rowers eased off their strokes and let the ship drift until its stem post bumped lightly against the edge of the second cavern's floor. As the other ships approached the landing, long gangplanks were run out and everyone scurried onto dry land, happy to stretch their legs for the first time in days. The foremost matter of business was to serve the first hot meal they'd eaten since an earlier landing hundreds of miles to the north. The children spread out throughout the caverns to gather driftwood, running along the shelves that eons of water erosion had carved in the rock. Soon the women had fires going and were baking bread, while cooking porridge and fish stew in large iron pots. Some of the men began repairing the wear and tear on the ships from the rugged voyage, while others threw out nets and caught schools of fish teeming in the fjord. The women were only too happy to find such comfortable shelter from the elements. The men, on the other hand, were big, tousle-haired outdoorsmen and sailors who found it unpleasant to exist in rock-bound confinement.

After eating and just before settling in for the night in their leather sleeping bags, two of Sigvatson's young children, an eleven-year-old boy and ten-year-old girl, came running up to him, shouting excitedly. They grabbed his big hands and began dragging him into the deepest part of the cavern. Lighting torches, they led him into a long tunnel barely large enough to stand in. It was a tube passage, a rounded cave system originally formed when underwater.

After climbing over and around fallen rock, they ascended upward for two hundred feet. Then the children stopped and motioned to a small crevice. "Father, look, look!" cried the girl. "There is a hole leading outside. You can see the stars."

Sigvatson saw that the hole was too small and narrow even for the children to crawl through, but he could clearly see the nighttime sky. The next day, he put several men to work smoothing the tunnel floor to ease access and widening the exit hole. When the opening was expended so a man could walk through while standing straight, they found themselves stepping into a large meadow bordered by stout trees. No barren, Greenland timberless land here. The supply of lumber to build houses was limitless. The ground was thick with wild-flowers and grass to graze their livestock. It was on this generous land high above the beautiful, blue fjord bountiful with fish that Sigvatson would build his colony. The gods had shown the way to the children, who led the grown-ups to what they all hoped was their newly found paradise.

The Norsemen had a lust for life. They worked hard, lived hard and they died hard. The sea was their element. To them, a man without a boat was a man in chains. Though feared throughout the Middle Ages for their barbarian instincts, they reshaped Europe. The hardy immigrants fought and settled in Russia, Spain and France and became merchants and mercenaries, renowned for their courage and ability with the sword and battle-ax. Hrolf the Gange won Normandy, which was named after the Norsemen. His descendant William conquered England.

Bjarne Sigvatson was the image of a golden Viking. His hair was blond with a beard to match. He was not a tall man, but broad in the shoulders, with the strength of an ox. Bjarne was born in 980 on his father's farm in Norway, and like most young Viking men grew up with a restless yearning to see what was over the next horizon. Inquisitive and bold, yet deliberate, he joined expeditions that raided Ireland when he was only fifteen. By the time he was twenty, Bjarne was a battle-ripened, seaborne raider with enough pillaged treasure to build a fine ship and mount his own raiding expeditions. He married Freydis, a sturdy self-reliant beauty with long golden hair and blue eyes. It was a fortunate match. They blended together like sun and sky.

After amassing a vast fortune from plundering towns and villages up and down Britain and sporting numerous scars from battle, Bjarne retired from raiding and became a merchant, trading in amber, the diamond of its time. But after a few years, he became restless, especially after hearing the sagas about the epic explorations of Erik the Red and his son Leif Eriksson. The lure of strange lands far to the west beckoned, and he became determined to mount his own voyage into the unknown to found a colony. He soon put together a fleet of ten ships to carry 350 people with their families, livestock and farming tools. One ship alone was loaded with Bjarne's fortune in amber and plundered treasure, to be used for future exchange with ships transporting goods from Norway and Iceland.

The cavern made an ideal boat and storage house as well as a fortress against any attack by the Skraelings. The sleek craft were pulled from the water onto trees cut into rollers and placed in hewn cradles on the hard rock shelf. The Vikings constructed beautiful ships that were the marvel of their age. They were not Only incredibly efficient sailing machines but also masterworks of sculpture, magnificently proportioned and lavishly decorated with elaborate carvings on stem and stern. Few vessels before or since have matched their lines for pure elegance.

The long ship was the vessel used for raiding around Europe. She was extremely fast and versatile, with ports for fifty oars. But it was the knarr that was the workhorse of the Viking explorers. Fifty to sixty feet long with a broad fifteen-foot beam, the knarr could carry fifteen tons of cargo over great distances at sea. She relied mostly on her big square sail for the open sea, but mounted as many as ten oars for cruising in shallow water near shorelines.

Her fore and aft decks were planked with a spacious open deck amidships that could be loaded with cargo or livestock. The crew and passengers suffered in the open, protected only by ox hides. There were no special quarters for chieftains such as Sigvatson; Vikings sailed as ordinary seamen, all equal to one another, their leader assuming command for important decisions. The knarr was at home in rough seas. Under gale winds and towering swells, she could barrel through the worst the gods could throw at her and still plunge ahead at five to seven knots, covering over 150 miles a day.

Built of sturdy oak by superb Viking shipwrights who shaped by hand and eye and used only axes to work the wood, the keel was cut from a single piece of oak into a T-shaped beam that increased stabilization in heavy seas. Next came oak planks that were hewn into thin strakes running with the grain and which curved gracefully before being joined at the stern and stem posts. Known as a clinker-type hull, the planks above overlapped the ones below. Then they were caulked with tarred hair from the animals. Except for the crossbeams that braced the hull and supported the decks, there wasn't another piece of wood on the ship that lay in a straight line.

The whole thing looked too fragile for the storms that swept the North Atlantic, but there was a method to the seeming madness. The keel could flex and the hull warp, enabling the ship to glide ef-fortlessly with less resistance from the water, making her the most stable ship of the middle centuries. And her shallow draft allowed her to slip over huge waves like a shingle. The rudder was also a masterwork of engineering. A stout steering oar attached to the starboard quarter, its vertical shaft was turned by the helmsman using a horizontal tiller. The rudder was always mounted on the right side of the hull and was called a stjornbordi-the word came to mean starboard. The helmsman kept one eye on the sea and the other on a bronze, intricately designed weathervane that was mounted on either the stem post or mast. By studying the whims of the wind, he could steer the most favorable tack.

A large oak block served as the keelson where the foot of the mast was set. The mast measured thirty feet tall and held a sail that spread nearly twelve hundred square feet cut in a rectangle only slightly wider than a square. The sails were woven from coarse wool in two layers for added strength. Then they were dyed in shades of red and white, usually in designs of simple stripes or diamonds.

Not only were the Vikings master shipbuilders and sailors; they were exceptional navigators as well. They were born with a genius for seamanship. A Viking could read the currents, the clouds, the water temperature, wind and waves. He studied the migrations of fish and birds. At night he steered by the stars. During the day he used a sun shadow board, a disklike sundial with a center shaft that was slipped up and down to measure the sun's declination by tracing its shadow on notched lines on the board's surface. Viking latitude calculations were amazingly accurate. It wasn't often that a Viking ship became hopelessly lost. Their mastery of the sea was complete and never challenged.

In the following months the colonists built thick wooden long-houses with massive beams to support a sod roof. They raised a great communal hall with a huge hearth for cooking and socializing that also served for storage and as a livestock shelter. Hungry for rich land, the Norsemen wasted no time in planting crops. They harvested berries and netted fish in great abundance from the fjord. The Skraelings proved curious yet reasonably friendly. Trinkets, cloth and cows' milk were traded for valuable furs and game. Sigvatson wisely ordered his men to keep their metal swords, axes anH spears out of sight. The Skraelings possessed the bow and arrow, but their hand weapons were still crudely made of stone. Sigvatson correctly took it for granted that before long the Norseman's superior weapons would either be stolen or demanded in trade.

By fall they were fully prepared for a harsh winter. But this year the weather was mild, with little snow and few frigid days. The settlers marveled at the sunny days that were longer than they'd been used to in Norway and during their short stay in Iceland. With spring, Sigvatson prepared to send out a large scouting expedition to explore the new and strange land. He chose to remain behind to assume the duties and responsibilities of running the now-thriving little community. He picked his younger brother, Magnus, to lead the expedition.

A hundred men were selected by Sigvatson for the journey he expected would be long and arduous. After weeks of preparation, sails were raised on six of the smallest boats while the men, women and children who remained behind waved farewell to the little armada as it set off up the river to find its headwaters. What was to have been a two-month scouting expedition, however, turned into an epic journey of fourteen months. Sailing and rowing except when they had to haul their boats overland to the next waterway, the men traveled on wide rivers and across enormous lakes that seemed as vast as the great northern sea. They sailed on a river that was far larger than any of them had seen in Europe or around the Mediterranean. Three hundred miles down the great waterway, they came ashore and camped in a thickly wooded forest. Here they covered and hid the boats. Then they launched a year-long trek through rolling hills and endless grasslands.

The Norsemen found strange animals they'd never seen before. Small doglike creatures that howled in the night. Large cats with short tails, and huge furry beasts with horns and enormous heads. These they killed with spears and found the flesh as delectable as beef.

Because they did not linger in one place, the Skraelings did not consider them a threat and caused no trouble. The explorers were fascinated and amused by the differences in the Skraeling tribes. Some stood proudly and possessed noble bearing, but others looked little better than filthy animals.

Many months later, they came to a halt when they saw the peaks of enormous mountains rising in the distance. In awe of the great land that seemed to go on forever, they decided it was time to turn back and reach the colony before the first snows of winter. But when the weary travelers finally reached the settlement in midsummer expecting a joyous welcome, they found only devastation and tragedy. The entire colony had been burned to the ground and all that was left of their comrades, wives and children were scattered bones. What terrible friction had caused the Skraelings to go on a rampage and slaughter the Vikings? What had caused the break of peaceful relations? There were no answers from the dead.

Magnus and the enraged and grieving surviving Norseman discovered that the opening to the tunnel leading down to the cavern where the ships were stored had been covered over with rocks and brush by the late inhabitants and hidden from the Skraelings. Somehow the settlers had managed to hide the treasures and sacred relics Sigvatson had plundered in his younger days, along with their most cherished personal possessions, concealing them in the ships during the Skraelings' attack.

The anguished warriors might have turned their backs on the carnage and sailed away, but it was not in their genes. They lusted for revenge, knowing it would most likely end in death. But to a Viking, dying while fighting an enemy was a spiritual and glorious death. And then there was the terrible possibility that their wives and daughters might have been carried away as slaves by the Skraelings.

Wild with grief and rage, they collected the remains of their friends and families and carried them down the tunnel to the cavern, where they placed them in the ships. It was part of their traditional ceremony to send the dead to a glorious hereafter in Valhalla. They identified the mutilated remains of Bjarne Sigvatson and laid him in his ship, wrapping him in a cloak and surrounding his body with the remains of his two children and his treasures from life and buckets of food for the journey. They longed to place his wife, Freydis, beside him, but her body could not be found, nor were there any livestock left to sacrifice. All had been taken by the Skraelings.

Traditionally, the ships and their dead would have been buried, but that was not possible. They feared that the Skraelings would dig up and plunder the dead. So the saddened warriors hammered and chiseled at a huge rock above the grotto's entrance until it dropped in a massive spill along with tons of smaller boulders, effectively sealing off the cavern from the surface of the river. The rock jammed together in a chute several feet below the waterline, leaving a large unseen opening underwater.

The ceremony completed, the Norsemen prepared themselves for battle.

Honor and courage were qualities they held sacred. They were in a state of euphoria, knowing they would soon see battle. Deep within their souls, they had longed for combat, the clash of arms, the smell of blood. It was part of their culture, and they had grown up and were trained by their fathers to be warriors, expert in the art of killing. They sharpened their long swords and battle-axes that were forged from fine steel by German craftsmen-treasured objects, highly prized and worshiped. Both sword and axe were given names as if they lived and breathed.

They donned their magnificent chain-mail shirts to protect their upper bodies and their simple conical helmets, some with nosepieces but none with horns. They took up their shields made of wood painted in bright colors, a large metal rivet in the front attached to arm straps in the rear. All carried spears with extremely long, sharp points. Some wielded broad double-edged swords three feet in length, while others preferred the big battle-ax.

When ready, Magnus Sigvatson led his force of a hundred Vikings toward the large village of the Skraelings, three miles distant from the horrible massacre. The village was actually more of a primitive city containing hundreds of huts housing nearly two thousand Skraelings. There was no attempt at guile or stealth. The Vikings stormed out of the trees, howling like mad dogs, and rushed through the short stake fence that surrounded the village, built more to keep animals out than attacking humans.

The smashing onset wrought great havoc among the Skraelings, who stood stunned and were cut down like cattle. Nearly two hundred were slaughtered by the ferocious savagery of the unexpected assault before they could grasp what was happening. Quickly, in groups of five and ten men, they began to fight back. Though they were familiar with the spear and had formed crude stone axes, their favorite weapon of war was the bow and arrow, and soon a hail of arrows filled the sky. The women joined in the chaos, throwing a shower of stones that did little but dent the Vikings' helmets and shields.

Magnus charged ahead of his warriors, fighting two-handed with spear in one hand, gigantic battle-ax in the other, both drenched and dripping crimson. He was what the Vikings called a beserkr, a word that would pass down the centuries as berserk-a seemingly crazed man intent on striking terror in the minds of his enemies. He shrieked like a maniac as he hurled himself at the Skraelings, felling many with his flailing axe.

The brutal ferocity overawed the Skraelings. Those who tried to fight the Norsemen hand-to-hand were beaten off with terrible casualties. Though they were decimated, however, their numbers never diminished. Runners scattered to nearby villages and soon returned with reinforcements, and the Skraelings fell back to regroup as their losses were replaced.

In the first hour, the avengers had worked their deadly way through the village, searching for any sign of their women, but none could be found. Only bits and pieces of cloth from their dresses, worn as adornment by the Skraeling women, were ferreted out. Beyond wrath there is rage, and beyond rage is hysteria. In a frenzy the Vikings assumed that their women had been cannibalized, and their fury turned to ice-cold madness. They did not know that the five women who had survived the slaughter at the settlement had not been harmed but passed on to chiefs of other villages as tribute. Instead, their ferocity mushroomed and the earth inside the Skraeling village became soaked in blood. But still the Skraeling replacements kept coming, and eventually the tide began to turn.

Overwhelmingly outnumbered and severely weakened from wounds and exhaustion, the Vikings were whittled down until only ten were still left standing around Magnus Sigvatson. The Skraelings no longer made frontal assaults against the deadly swords and axes. They no longer feared the Norsemen's spears that had been either thrown or shattered. A growing army, now outnumbering the dwindling Vikings by fifty to one, stood out of range and shot great flights of arrows into the small cluster of survivors who crouched under their shields as the arrows struck and protruded like quills from a porcupine. Still the Vikings fought on, attacking, ever attacking.

Then the Skraelings rose up as one, and with reckless abandon smashed against the Viking shields. The great tide engulfed the small band of Norsemen and swirled around the warriors making their final stand. The few who were left stood back to back and fought to the brutal end, enduring an avalanche of vicious blows by hatchets made of stone, until they could endure no more.

Their last thoughts were of their lost loved ones and the glorious death that was waiting. To a man they perished, sword and axe in hand. Magnus Sigvatson was the last to fall, his death the most tragic. He died as the last hope for colonizing North America for the next five hundred years. And he left a legacy that would dearly cost those who would eventually follow. Before the sun fell, all one hundred of the brave Norsemen found death, along with more than a thousand Skraeling men, women and children they had slaughtered. In a most horrible manner, the Skraelings had come to recognize that the white-skinned strangers from across the sea were a marauding threat that could only be stopped by savage force.

A pall of shock spread over the Skraeling nations. No blood battle between tribes had ever matched the pure ghastly death toll, nor the horrible wounds and mutilation. The great battle was only an ancient prelude to the horrendous wars that were yet to come.

To the Vikings living in Iceland and Norway, the fate of Bjarne Sigvatson's colony became a mystery. No one was left alive to tell their story, and no other immigrant-explorers followed in their path across the truculent seas. The colonists became a forgotten footnote in the sagas passed down through the ages.


FEBRUARY 2, 1894


No one on board the old wooden-hulled warship Kearsarge could have foreseen the catastrophe that was about to strike. Displaying the flag and protecting United States' interests in the West Indies, she was on a voyage from Haiti to Nicaragua when her lookouts spotted a strange shape in the water a mile off the starboard bow. Visibility under clear skies stretched to the surrounding horizons and the sea was calm, the swells rising no more than two feet from trough to crest. The black-humped back of a strange species of sea monster could clearly be seen with the naked eye.

"What do you make of it?" Captain Leigh Hunt asked his first officer, Lieutenant James Ellis, as he stared through a pair of brass binoculars.

Ellis squinted through a telescope, braced against the railing to keep it steady, at the object in the distance. "My first guess is that it's a whale, but I've never seen one move so steadily through the water without showing its tail or diving beneath the surface. Also, there's a strange mound protruding forward of its center."

"It must be some type of rare sea serpent," said Hunt.

"No beast I'm aware of," murmured Ellis in awe.

"I can't believe it's a man-made vessel."

Hunt was a thin man with graying hair. His leathery face and deep-set brown eyes were those of a man who spent many long hours in the sun and wind. He clutched a pipe between his lips that was very seldom lit. Hunt was a navy professional with a quarter century of oceangoing experience and a fine record of efficient conduct behind him. He had been given command of the most famous ship in the navy as an honor before his retirement. Too young to have served in the Civil War, Hunt graduated from the naval academy in 1869 and served on eight different warships, rising through the ranks until he was offered command of the Kearsarge.

The venerable ship had earned her fame after an epic sea battle thirty years earlier in which she'd battered and sunk the infamous Confederate raider, Alabama, off Cherbourg, France. Though evenly matched, Kearsarge had reduced Alabama to a foundering wreck in less than an hour after the start of the battle. Her captain and crew were feted as heroes by a grateful Union after their return to home port.

In later years she had served on cruises around the world. With a length of 198 feet, a beam of 33 feet and a fifteen-foot draft, her two engines and one screw could propel her through the water at eleven knots. Her guns had been replaced ten years after the war with a newer battery consisting of two eleven-inch smoothbores, four nine-inch smoothbores and two twenty-pound rifled barrels. She carried a crew of 160 men. Ancient though she was, she still packed a powerful punch.

Ellis put down the telescope and turned to Hunt. "Shall we investigate, sir?"

Hunt nodded. "Order a ten-degree turn to starboard. Request Chief Engineer Gribble to increase our speed to Full, turn out the crew for gun station two and double the lookouts. I don't want to lose sight of that monster, whatever it is."

"Aye, sir." Ellis, a tall balding man with an expansive, neatly trimmed beard, carried out his orders and soon the time-honored ship began to increase her speed, the waves splitting her bow with sheets of foam as she swung against the wind. A plume of heavy black smoke poured from her funnel along with a spray of sparks.

The decks of the old warhorse trembled with anticipation as she took up the chase.

Soon the Kearsarge began to close with the strange object that neither increased nor decreased its speed. A gun crew assembled, rammed a power charge and a projectile down the barrel of a twenty-pound rifled gun and stood back. The gunnery officer stared up at Hunt, who stood next to the helmsman.

"Number two gun loaded and ready to fire, sir."

"Put a shot fifty yards ahead of the monster's nose, Mr. Merry-man," Hunt shouted through his megaphone.

Merryman simply acknowledged with a wave of one hand and nodded at the man standing next to the gun with the lanyard in his hand and another man who was aiming the elevation screw on the breech.

"You heard the captain. Lay your shot fifty yards ahead of the beast."

The adjustment was made, the lanyard was pulled, the big gun roared and leaped back against the thick stay rope running through the eye ring on its butt. It was a near-perfect shot, and the shell splashed directly in front of the giant hump that effortlessly slipped through the water. Animal or machine, it ignored the intrusion and maintained its speed and course without the slightest deviation.

"It doesn't appear impressed with our gunnery," Ellis said with a slight grin.

Hunt peered through his glasses. "I judge her speed at ten knots against our twelve."

"We should be alongside in another ten minutes."

"When we've closed to three hundred yards, fire another shot. This time, lay it within thirty yards."

All hands except the engine-room crew were lining the rails now, gazing at the monster that was closer to the bow of the ship with every passing minute. There was only a ripple on the surface, but white froth could be seen swirling in its wake below. Then the mound on its back flashed and glinted.

"If I didn't know better," said Hunt, "I'd say the sun is reflecting off some kind of window or port."

"No sea monster has glass built into it," Ellis muttered.

The gun crew reloaded and fired another shot that struck with a great splash between fifteen and twenty yards forward of the monster. Still no reaction. It continued as if the Kearsarge was little more than a passing annoyance. It was near enough now that Captain Hunt and his crew could make out a triangular housing atop the monster, with large round quartz ports.

"She's a man-built vessel," gasped Hunt in amazement.

"I can't believe it's possible," Ellis said vaguely. "Who could have built such an incredible contraption?"

"If not the United States, it has to be of British or German origin."

"Who can say? She flies no flag."

As they watched, the strange object slowly slid beneath the waves until it vanished from view. The Kearsarge passed directly over the spot where it sank, but the crew could detect no sign of it in the depths.

"She's gone, Captain," one of the seamen called to Hunt.

"Keep a sharp eye out for it," Hunt shouted back. "Some of you men take to the rigging for a better view."

"What do we do if she reappears?" asked Ellis.

"If she won't heave to and identify herself, we'll pour a broadside into her."

The hours passed and sunset came, as the Kearsarge cruised in ever-widening circles in a fading hope of finding the monster again. Captain Hunt was about to break off the pursuit when a lookout in the rigging shouted down to the deck.

"Monster off the port beam about a thousand yards, heading our way."

The officers and crew rushed to the port railing and stared out over the water. There was still enough light to see it clearly. It appeared to be coming directly toward the Kearsarge at a very rapid rate of speed.

During the search, the gun crews had stood patiently, their great muzzle-loaders primed and ready to fire. The gunners on the port side quickly ran out their guns and sighted on the approaching apparition. "Allow for her speed and aim at that projection aft of her bow," Merryman instructed them.

Adjustments were made and the gun muzzles depressed as the monster loomed in the sights. Then Hunt yelled, "Fire!"

Six of the Kearsarge's eight guns roared, their explosive blasts shattering the air as fire and smoke spouted from their muzzles. Staring through his binoculars, Hunt could see the shells from the two big eleven-inch pivot guns smash the water on each side of the baffling thing. The nine-inch smoothbores added to the geysers erupting around the target. Then he saw the shell from the twenty-pounder rifled gun strike the monster's back, bounce into the air and ricochet across the water like a skipping stone.

"She's armored," he said, stunned. "Our shot glanced off her hull without making a dent."

Unfazed, their nemesis aimed its bow unerringly amidships of the Kearsarge's hull, increasing its speed and gathering momentum for the blow.

The gun crews frantically reloaded, but by the time they were ready for another broadside, the thing was too close and they could not depress their muzzles low enough to strike it. The detachment of Marines aboard the ship began firing their rifles at the assailant. Several of the officers stood on the railing, grasping the rigging with one hand while firing their revolvers with the other. A typhoon of bullets merely glanced off the armored hull.

Hunt and his crew stared in disbelief at the nightmare that was about to ram the ship. Transfixed by the long cigar-shaped vessel, he gripped the railing to brace himself for the inescapable collision.

But the expected shock never came. All any of the crew felt was a slight shudder beneath decks. The impact seemed little different from a slight bump against a dock. The only sound was the faint crunch of shredding wood. In that frozen moment of time, the unearthly thing had slashed between the Kearsarge's great oak ribs as cleanly as a murderer's knife thrust, penetrating deep inside the hull just aft of the engine room.

Hunt gaped in shock. He could see a face through the large transparent view port on the pyramid-shaped housing on top the underwater ram. The bearded face had what seemed to Hunt to be a sad and melancholy expression, as if the man inside felt remorse for the disaster his strange and bizarre vessel had caused.

Then the mysterious vessel quickly backed off and fell away into the depths.

Hunt knew the Kearsarge was doomed. Down below, seawater poured into the Kearsarge's, aft cargo hold and galley. The gaping wound was almost a perfect concave hole through the hull planking six feet below the waterline. The torrent increased as the warship slowly began to list on her port side.

The only thing that saved her from immediately foundering was the bulkheads. In keeping with naval regulations, Hunt had ordered them sealed as if the ship were going into batde. The inrush of water was contained, but only until the bulkheads gave way to the crush of tremendous pressure.

Hunt swung around and stared at a low coral island not two miles away. He turned to the helmsman and shouted. "Steer for that reef off the starboard beam." Then he called down to the engine room for full speed. His main concern was for how long the bulkheads could hold back the flood of water from gushing into the engine room. While the boilers were still able to make steam, he just might have time to run his ship aground before she sank.

Slowly, the bow came around, as the ship picked up speed and set a course for shallow water. First Officer Ellis did not need a command from Hunt to prepare the boats and the captain's gig to be lowered. Except for the engine-room gang, all crew members were assembled on deck. To a man, they focused their eyes on the low, barren coral reef that was nearing with agonizing slowness. The propeller thrashed the water as the boilers were fired by the stokers in a near frenzy. They shoveled coal with one eye on the open grate and the other aimed at the creaking bulkhead, all that stood between them and a horrible death.

The single screw thrashed the water, driving the ship toward what everyone hoped was salvation. The helmsman called for help in fighting the wheel as the ship became sluggish with the escalating weight from the incoming flood and the list to port that had increased to six degrees.

The crew stood at the boats, ready to board them and abandon ship at Hunt's expected command. They shifted uneasily as the deck sloped ominously beneath their feet. A leadsman was sent to the bow to throw out a lead weight and sound the bottom. He called out the depth in fathoms.

"Twenty fathoms and rising," he yelled out with the barest trace of optimism.

They needed another hundred-foot rise in depth before the Kearsarge's keel would strike bottom. It seemed to Hunt that they were approaching that tiny strip of coral with the pace of a drunken snail.

The Kearsarge was settling deeper in the water with each passing minute. Her list was nearly ten degrees, and it was becoming almost impossible to sustain a straight course. The reef was coming closer. They could see the waves striking the coral and bursting in a glistening spray under the sun.

"Five fathoms," the leadsman called out, "and rising fast."

Hunt wasn't going to risk the lives of his crew. He was about to give the order to abandon ship when the Kearsarge drove onto the coral bottom, her keel and hull gouging a path through the reef until she came to an abrupt stop and rolled over until she rested on a list of fifteen degrees.

"Praise the Lord, we're saved," murmured the helmsman, still gripping the spokes of the wheel, his face red from the effort, his arms numb with exhaustion.

"She's hard aground," Ellis said to Hunt. "The tide is ebbing, so the old girl won't be going anywhere."

"True," Hunt acknowledged sadly. "A pity if she can't be saved." • "Salvage tugs might pull her off the reef, providing the bottom isn't torn out of her."

"That damnable monster is responsible. If there's a God, it will pay for this travesty."

"Maybe she has," Ellis said quietly. "She sank pretty fast after the collision. She must have damaged her bow and opened it to the sea."

"I can't help but wonder why she didn't simply heave to and explain her presence."

Ellis stared thoughtfully over the turquoise Caribbean water. "I seem to remember reading something once, about one of our warships, the Abraham Lincoln, encountering a mysterious metal monster about thirty years ago. It tore her rudder off."

"Where was this?" asked Hunt.

"I believe it was the Sea of Japan. And at least four British warships have disappeared under mysterious circumstances over the past twenty years."

"The Navy Department will never believe what happened here," said Hunt, looking around his wrecked ship with growing anger. "I'll be lucky if I don't get court-martialed and drummed out of the service."

"You've got a hundred and sixty witnesses who will back you up," Ellis assured him.

"No captain wishes to lose his ship, certainly not to some unidentifiable mechanical monstrosity." He paused to look down into the sea, his mind turning to the job at hand. "Start loading supplies into the boats. We'll move ashore and wait for rescue on firm ground."

"I've checked the charts, sir. It's called Roncador Reef."

"A sorry place and a sorry end for such an illustrious ship," he said wistfully.

Ellis threw an informal salute and began directing the crew to shuttle food, canvas for tents and personal belongings onto the low coral cay. Under the light of a half-moon, they labored all night and into the next day, setting up camp and cooking the first of their meals ashore.

Hunt was the last man to leave the Kearsarge. Just before he climbed down the ladder to a waiting boat, he paused to stare down into the restless water. He would take to his death the sight of the bearded man staring out of the black monster at him. "Who are you?" he murmured under his breath. "Did you survive? And if so, who will be your next victim?"

In the next several years, until he died, whenever a report reached him of a warship that had vanished with all hands, Hunt could not help but wonder if the man in the monster was responsible.

Kearsarge's officers and men existed without hardship ashore for two weeks before a trail of smoke was sighted on the horizon. Hunt sent out a boat with First Officer Ellis, who stopped a passing steamer that took Hunt and his men off the cay and carried them to Panama.

Strangely, when Hunt and his crew returned to the United States, there was no board of inquiry, a very unusual circumstance. It was as if the secretary of the Navy and the admirals wanted to sweep the incident quietly under the carpet. To Captain Hunt's surprise, he was elevated in rank to full captain before his honorable retirement. First Officer Ellis was also promoted and given command of the Navy's newest gunboat, Helena, and saw service during the Spanish-American War in Cuban waters.

Congress authorized $45,000 to raise the Kearsarge from Roncador Reef and tow her home to a shipyard. But it was found that natives from nearby islands had set her on fire to salvage her brass, copper and iron. Her guns were removed, and the salvagers returned to port, leaving her hulk to disintegrate in a coral tomb.

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