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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Sunday, October 25, 2020 09:39 EDT



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.



    Larry’s definitive reply was two-fold. Firstly, contacting the indigenous people was a crucial part of the mission because Grantville had made its cooperation with oil extraction contingent upon recognizing the innate and inalienable rights of the peoples who were native to those lands. Secondly, Larry was in charge and had the letter — with Gustav’s seal — to prove it.

    Captain Haraldsen ceded to that authority with about as much grace as could be expected; in other words, some anger but not everlasting hatred. And so the mission to coast-follow along to the mouth of the Mermentau was cobbled together as the crew of Courser began realizing that if they wanted to be sure of eating until the tide moved the sandbars out of the way, they’d better get hunting and start rationing carbohydrates. That last operational caveat came from Larry, who had been given the Army’s full spiel on how protein isn’t enough; that would put you in full ketosis in a few weeks and render the affected person at least temporarily useless.

    So with her almost non-existent draft, the 180 Sportsman was able to cruise back out and follow along the coast, hopping from bay to inlet. They made fine progress for the first two days. In retrospect, Larry damned himself for not having seen that fine weather as a dire harbinger of things to come. After all, he’d been in the military and had learned as only soldiers can that when everything is going according to plan, that means it’s just about to come apart. Spectacularly.

    And so it did. A storm that must have been following in the wake of the hurricane came up out of the southeast really quickly the day they put in at the Calcasieu River, which in this time, was not a reliable inlet to the large inland lake of the same name. The storm was certainly not a large one, but it was enough to do to Larry’s mission what the hurricane had done to Courser: it deposited silt in the narrow inlet. Enough to lock them into the Calcasieu Lake area the same way that Courser was still stuck in Galveston.

    They took shelter on Monkey Island the only high ground nearby and from which they could watch for signs that the silt was washing away — if you could call a meter above the water “high ground.” But that was higher than anywhere else. At least it wasn’t summer, so the bugs were bearable. Barely.

    The team’s frustration with their circumstances was aggravated by the fact that it was just sixty-five nautical miles back to Galveston Bay and comparative safety. But it might as well have been Pluto. At least the commercial radio on the Sportsman had enough range to trade squelch breaks, albeit barely. 

    Fortunately, the raised waters had also removed their potentially greatest problem: a camp of indigenous peoples on the other side of the Calc (as they came to call it), near the mouth of the river on the north end of the bay. And since the best information they had from Grantville was that the only tribe they were likely to encounter here was the Atapaka, that would have meant having cannibals for neighbors. Almost as bad as college kids who were all-night partiers, as far as Larry was concerned,

    The real and unrelenting problems were food and firewood. The water a mile upstream the Calcasieu River was okay for drinking, but where it entered the northern end of the lake, the flow was too sluggish for Quinn’s comfort: bacteria just loved warm, slow moving water. So getting water meant rowing upsteam (thank God Quinn had insisted on retrofitting oar-locks) which in turn meant risking a chance encounter with — whatever. Bears, snakes, natives, boar, and probably a dozen other things that could and would kill them deader than Elvis. So keeping the risk of such an encounter — and therefore, discovery — low meant minimizing the number of trips they took for water. That was further problematized by the limited number of containers they had. All in all, retro-fitted oar-locks notwithstanding, Larry Quinn was less than impressed with his own mission preparations.

    One of the Hibernians, Winkelman, was so dissatisfied with his water ration that he decided to try the water from where the Calcasieu entered the lake of the same name. Seventy-two hours of misery later, he repented his decision — and was the object of considerable resentment: rehydrating him cut deeply into their supplies. Of course, they would have boiled the local water, but then there was that pesky firewood problem. So in order to ensure his recovery, they’d had to lean heavily into their only reserve of truly palatable water, that which they’d taken with them from Courser. It still tasted of the purification tanks, but now, they barely noticed it.

    Fortunately, there was another source of truly clean water: rain. And it just so happened that, according to the almost encyclopedic references that had been compiled for the mission, the Calcasieu/Sabine area was the eighth rainiest region in the continental US. It had precipitation 104 days out of the year, with an average total of about fifty inches. And as luck would have it, January was the rainiest month of its year.

    Except, this time, it seemed that the hurricane and the storm behind it had exhausted the rain until February. They also had the additional problem of how to catch it. And that just happened to coincide with the most ominous sign of all: Courser went off the air. No more daily squelch breaks. For Larry, the steam destroyer was no longer as far off as Pluto; it was well past Alpha Centauri.

    Fortunately, no one speculated on the cause of the sudden silence because, as far as Larry could tell, they were all experienced or insightful enough to realize that if they started down that path, they’d go mad with it. Despondency would follow when they realized that there was no reassurance to be gained in that pointless exercise. Not the path you want to be on since it was when things got the worst that you needed morale at its best.

    Thankfully, fate seemed willing to repay them for that minimum wisdom and unflagging determination to survive and believe that all was not lost. Shortly after Courser went dark, their fishing skills began to improve, as did their experiments in sun-drying and salting any excess catch. A week after that, the rains finally arrived, better late than never. And, after a silence of more than a month, Courser resumed her daily squelch breaks.

    Once the emergency codes for breaking radio discipline were exchanged, Larry discovered that although Galveston’s sand bars were beginning to shift and recede, they still had Courser locked in. Fuel to keep the condensers running and radio’s batteries charged had run low, so Captain Haraldsen took the necessary step of sending out foraging parties. They found food and water occasionally, but never more wood than what they needed to cook the game they managed to bring down.

    Once they reached the 10% mark in the fuel bunkers, Capt Haraldsen made the hard but inevitable decision to keep the burner cold until they were ready to attempt to navigate out of Galveston Bay. And since fully draining the charge in their primitive chemical batteries was inadvisable, he made the hardest decision of all: to suspend all radio use until he had enough wood to run the engines, and thereby generate power for the batteries and the squelch breaks.



    In hindsight, he might have been able to make it out of Galveston Bay under sail alone, but in the event that the wind became fickle at just the moment she was running a gauntlet between two close sandbars, Haraldsen had wisely decided that it was essential to reserve a measure of coal to ensure reaching open water. Once there, the wind would allow them to make way, even if Courser‘s bunkers were empty. As it was, yesterday’s signal reported that they had indeed used more than half of their remaining fuel to finally exit the bay, and while they did, to provide power to the condensers to make much-needed fresh water for the boilers.

    With the wind remaining uncooperative, Haraldsen’ last message was that he could not be sure when they would reach Calcasieu. Between dried driftwood and coal, they had barely enough fuel for another thirty minutes of steam and there was no reason to suspect that the weather was done making their lives miserable. Larry told them to bypass Calcasieu, promising that he would meet them near the equally narrow and unreliable mouth of the Mermentau.

    What he didn’t tell them was that if he couldn’t remain in the Calcasieu. The chances of sufficient fish was decreasing and of returning natives was increasing, so Larry and his team would very likely be dead by the time Courser arrived. They had to leave while the channel was still open and they had enough food and water to reach the Mermentau, get inland, and maybe bring down some game.

    The Calcasieu was only thirteen miles from the inlet of the Mermentau, so they made it in one day. But once they found the inlet, and then followed its winding inland course through the Mud Lakes, Grand Lake, and Lake Arthur, the dense bayou foliage did not reveal any game. Even the alligators — if they had been willing to chance taking on one of those left-over wannabe dinosaurs — were few and far between. So as night fell, and with the bugs clearly trying to convince them to return to Texas, they consumed their meager rations of fish and water, crowded together while rank with the chemical stink of ketosis, and slept in the boat.

    Or tried to. Because tomorrow they would enter the Mermentau, where they would either find sustenance or die in the attempt.



    Larry Quinn smiled ruefully at the memory of last night’s sleep-stealing anxiety over dying from hunger or dehydration. Because almost as soon as they had entered the Mermentau this morning, it became evident that they had stealthy company observing their progress. So it turned out Larry and his team had been worrying about the wrong things. It wasn’t starvation that was proving to be their likeliest cause of death: it was an arrow between the eyes.

    “They’re watching us from the thickets on the right,” Vogel muttered. Maneuvering around the fallen tree had brought them closer to that bank.

    Larry simply nodded and put a hand on Karl Klemm’s tense arm. “Ease off the engine. Let us coast.”

    “Why?” muttered Kleinbaum from his perch back on the barrels carrying the last of their gasoline. “To make us easier targets?”

    Quinn turned and bestowed his “dead-fish eyes” stare upon the woodsman and tracker, who looked away, grumbling inaudibly. If the small, wiry fellow hadn’t come so highly recommended for his work with the Dutch in the jungles of the Pernambuco and the attempted relief of Bahia, Larry would have sent him packing. What Kleinbaum lacked in size he made up for in mouth, and Quinn had already had one sharp, private conversation with him during their sojourn beside Lake Calcasieu. Another frank exchange of views might be necessary, if they lived to have it.

    Karl had brought the throttle back slowly, smoothly, reducing the engine sounds to a dyspeptic mutter. Eckdahl, the Swedish leadsman who’d eased them into Galveston Bay, peered over the bright red nose of the motor boat and commented, “We’re drifting toward weeds, sir. Water lilies of some kind. Could snare the propeller if we drift in too far.”

    “Use the gaff to push us back off. Slowly, gently,” Quinn ordered with a faint nod.

    Eckdahl picked up the pole, lowered it into the water and leaned into it. The Sportsman’s bow veered back toward the center of the Mermentau River. As the boat slowed and Quinn felt the sluggish current begin to push them back toward the Gulf that was now almost fifty miles of meandering river and muddy lakes behind them, he casually asked, “Vogel? Any reaction from our watching friends?”

    “No,” the hunter’s son from Rothenburg-ob-Tauber drawled. “They left.”

    “Do you think they even knew we saw them?” Winkelman wondered.

    Vogel shrugged. “Well, one of them nodded at me.”

    “Nodded at you?” echoed Kleinbaum.

    “Yes. You know, it was one of those ‘I can see that you are watching me watching you’ kind of nods. The one that scouts use to acknowledge the nonsense of having to play hide-and-seek like so many children. But with real weapons,”

    “I mean no disrespect, Herr Vogel,” Karl commented, “but can you be so sure that what a nod means in Europe is what it means here?”

    Vogel smiled; it was not unkind, just mildly amused. “You were the son of a townsman, and then, lived in cities, yes, Herr Klemm?”

    Quinn saw the back of Karl’s neck redden. “That is so.”

    “Then allow me to assure you of this: hunters are hunters the world over, just as scouts are scouts. And from one to another, you have ways to acknowledge the skill of the other. Signs of professional respect, if you will. That nod, and the leaf he turned back that he did not have to, were such signs.”

    “Well,” sighed Larry, “let’s hope that mutual respect means they’re interested in meeting us.” With any luck, raising that possibility would keep Karl from wigging out.

    Vogel cleared his throat. “Er, Major, not all scouts who exchange such compliments are friendly. In fact, most often, they are your enemy. That is why you are hiding from each other, to begin with.”

    Larry nodded, but stared hard at Vogel: you just had to say that, didn’t you? But what he said was, “I am aware of that,” as Karl swallowed loudly. “Well, let’s hope for a different situation here. Karl, we should be coming up on a tributary to the left. There, beyond that stand of willows. That’s the Nezpique Bayou.”

    Karl stared at what looked like a thirty-foot-wide tunnel that vanished into the black shadows of the overhanging trees and Spanish moss. “We are to go in there?” he asked hoarsely.

    “We are. That’s the way to the Jennings oil field. And, hopefully, a meeting with the Atakapas.”

    Karl nodded again and eased the nose of the Sportsman over toward the Stygian hole in the foliage. Standing behind the young German, Larry noticed that Klemm’s embarrassed flush was quite gone. Instead, the back of his neck had acquired a pallor, despite the mild case of sunburn he’d acquired on their coast-hugging trip along the Gulf coast.

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