Beast of the Bay Series, Part 1
Christian Baxter Mott
From too far west, where the tattered edges of ancient maps are drawn with undulating sea serpents half-concealed with tails, teeth, or tentacles, the quivering lips of intrepid men have always whispered eastward in the washing quiet of night, when only the darkness itself could be listening over the creaking of the deck, over the rippling of wind in the sails, afeared that speaking the omen outright would consequently breathe it into existence:
Here there be monsters.
Farragut grit his teeth at the thought and swallowed down the old tales he heard back in the West Indies. He peered over the bow of his flagship toward the dark Bay; beyond the Mobile Point peninsula, the three silhouettes of forts stood situated on its sands guarding the mouth of the last of the Confederate port beasts. He’d already taken New Orleans; Mobile was the last protected harbor, the last throat still able to feed the rebellion. Yet the harbor would soon be won, the forts captured, and the port his—in a matter of time, the beast would starve.
Gray dawn approached in a haze. Granger rushed him, sending the army ashore to Dauphin Island, but the belated Tecumseh hadn’t yet arrived from Pensacola. It would, though, at any moment . . . Any moment, now . . .
And when the warship appeared off the horizon of the Gulf, Farragut prepared for the final siege. The bleeding red sun followed the Tecumseh, shedding August light on the maritime battlefield before his fleet. Buoys teetered on the water, marking the perimeter of the naval minefield, forcing any intruders too far east, and far too close to the guns of Fort Morgan.
The rebel navy moved into position just beyond the torpedoes, ready to intercept him and his true Navy. Farragut lifted his nose to the salty breeze, sensing that conditions were ideal, realizing the southwest wind would blow smoke into the faces ofMorgan’s artillerymen.
“Reduce steam pressure,” he said to the man at his side, thinking of the boilers. “The current will give us speed.”
The ships were paired, iron and wood lashed together, to resist the fire of the Fort. If one failed, its partner would carry it through. The Tecumseh lined up in the first column and eagerly fired the first shot. The final battle began.
The eruption of war disturbed the latterly calm waters of morning. A swash to the right of the minefield caught Farragut’s eye, but he deemed its wake negligible. As planned, the old cowcatcher Brooklyn took lead before the Tecumseh and shot forward toward the opposing fleet.
Farragut kept a close eye on the few vessels before him, assessing how they steered east and remained clear of the minefield to the west. The Tecumseh cut it closer than he liked, but all in all swam true to orders. Yet another swash caught his eye; a boiling beneath the surface, a molten shimmering glow, and the piercing sound of ripping metal initiated the lurching of the Tecumseh.
“The torpedoes!” yelled the man at his side. “She steered too close!”
But Farragut had been watching and saw with his own eyes that it was impossible. There wouldn’t be any mines outside the buoys—no, it would’ve been far too dangerous for the rebel blockade-runners.
The injured vessel sunk in a matter of moments, leaving nothing but sailors hanging onto the wreckage or swimming to shore. Fewer and fewer of the men kept their heads above water, and something like oil darkened the blue surface. Farragut spotted Commander Craven grasping the remaining side of the hull, gasping, until a pale cloud of gun smoke passed between the two ships, blocking his view. When it cleared, Craven had disappeared.
Farragut didn’t understand what he’d seen, certain only that it was no torpedo that sunk the Tecumseh.
The smoke was too thick to see. As his flagship passed Morgan now, he climbed to the rigging of the mainmast for a better view. A sailor followed him up, attempting to lash him to it.
“Never mind,” he told the man as he peered into the depths of the Bay waters below, searching through the pale clouds. “I am all right.”
Even so, the man tied him to the forward and after shrouds, but Farragut paid him no mind. He couldn’t proceed without knowing what had taken the Tecumseh. Could it be? Were there truly stray torpedoes outside of the boundary?
He sought out the mines, spotting a few of their dark shapes beneath the clear surface, when he caught sight of another incredible shadow in the water. It swam with a jerking motion, ripping its colossal tail back and forth, craning around and around what must be its rigid serpentine neck. The giant beast circled the sinking Tecumseh, snatching survivors from its wreckage.
A fear took hold of Farragut’s heart, a nauseous sensation he’d subdued since departing boyhood. There, lashed to the rigging, he questioned the goodness of his eyes, doubted his own sanity. It couldn’t be, and yet it had to be.
He could swallow down the old tales no longer. The miserable stories he heard from a grinning, toothless pirate captured in the West Indies were true: a Leviathan guarded the mouth of Mobile Bay, watching and protecting those who unknowingly fed it.
“It breeds chaos,” the bastard had said, repeating the legend. “It feeds on lost souls of the sea, lost by any means necessary—storms, scurvy, sirens . . . Its breath is the fog that darkens lighthouses, its wet stench the foul sea mists of melancholy. Its tempered patience alone allows safe passage to blockade-runners and slave ships, only to devour as many of its passengers as death keeps from reaching the shores . . .”
Anyone who threatened those Bay waters, the pirate had said in not so many words, would challenge the beast. The only way out, he’d said, was in.
Yet Farragut had forgotten the reason why . . .
And then it hit him. We must reach shallower waters. We must, or we all die.
Coming to, remembering his place in this battle, he scanned the naval front. The cowcatcher halted before the destroyed Tecumseh, and the fleet nearly came to a standstill within firing range of Morgan. The ship’s flags signaled a question, requesting orders, but had he not already given them? Farragut gesticulated as best he could, pointing forward and shouting, “Go! Go, damn you!”
Yet it did not proceed. He called down to his man, “The Brooklyn! Why doesn’t she go?”
“Torpedoes in her path!” he yelled over the gunfire. “The Tecumseh blocks safe passage!”
The giant serpent beneath the waters now took the long way round the minefield, and soon it would overtake them from behind, leaving no escape. Farragut realized then, with a wrenching in his gut, what he had to do—what he had to ask his men to do with him.
He peered back from his rigging—the Beast of the Bay ripped nearer—and he thought with a sense of grim satisfaction how, once again, the salvation of a country rested solely in weathering the dark and dangerous waters to the west. But progress was never achieved by fearing the unknown, life never lived by waiting to die . . .
Either endure the wrath of the sea titan, or brave the torpedoes . . .
He prayed they were soused and ineffective.
“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
The man below ran the orders to the Captain, and the flagship pressed on past the cowcatcher, leading the column of fourteen warships through the minefield, steady as she goes. They passed through to the other side unharmed, to shallower waters, where the giant creature could not follow. It remained back in the depths, lashing about in its molten ire, rending apart what remained of the Tecumseh.
The vessels continued in the battle with Farragut distracted by the chaos in the background. In its rage, the Leviathan set off one of the torpedoes, silent in the mess of battle. The waters roiled into a sort of repose, and Farragut was certain no one had seen but he.
Looking on from his rigging, the gun smoke of battle surrounding him, he choked up one last memory of the pirate in the brig, gazing drunkenly at him through the bars; his words now sat on Farragut’s lips, as though an echo first spoken from a specter at the deepest depth of the sea itself:
“How do you kill it? Oh ho, Lieutenant Farragut, it’s already been long dead.”
A clammy, cold sweat now chilling him in the midmorning humidity, he climbed down from the rigging, prepared to halt progress and assess the damage done to his fleet, so they could press onward. For the only way to end the Leviathan, he surmised, taking notice of the Tennessee approaching slow like a shark, would be to cut off the hand that fed it.
He would forget the beast, siege the forts, and take the harbor.
This port would be his.
For here there be monsters.