There, suddenly and once for all, the theme was dropped. Some man’s quick word broke in. Fort Morgan had veiled itself in the smoke of its own broadside. Now came its thunder and the answering flame and roar of the Brooklyn’s bow-chaser. The battle had begun. The ship, still half a mile from its mark, was coming on as straight as her gun could blaze, her redskin ally at her side, and all the others, large and less, bounding after by twos. And now in lurid flash and steady roar the lightning and thunder darted and rolled from Morgan, its water-battery, and the Mobile squadron, and from the bow guns of the Brooklyn and Hartford.
How marvelously fire, din and smoke shriveled up the time, which the captain’s small clock so mincingly ticked off. A cabin-boy brought a fragrant tray of breakfast, but the grateful ladies could only laugh at it. There was no moment to observe even the few pretty sail-boats which the fearful import and majesty of the strife lured down about them on the light side-wind.
“Has the Tennessee not fired yet?” anxiously asked Anna, but no one was sure. Across the breeze, that kept the near side of the picture uncurtained, she perfectly saw the Tecumseh close abreast of the flashing, smoke-shrouded fort, the Brooklyn to windward abreast of both, and the Hartford at the Brooklyn’s heels with her signal fluttering to all behind, “Close order.”
“Why don’t the ships—?” Anna had it on her lips to cry, when the whole sunward side of the Brooklyn, and then of the Hartford, vomited fire, iron and blinding, strangling smoke into the water-battery and the fort, where the light air held it. God’s mercy! you could see the cheering of the fleet’s crews, which the ear could barely gather out of the far uproar, and just as it floated to the gazers they beheld the Tecumseh turn square toward them and head straight across the double line of torpedoes for the Tennessee.
We never catch all of “whatever happens,” and neither Callender saw the brave men in gray who for one moment of horror fled from their own guns in water-battery and fort; but all at once they beheld the Tecumseh heave, stagger, and lurch like a drunkard, men spring from her turret into the sea, the Brooklyn falter, slacken fire and draw back, the Hartford and the whole huddled fleet come to a stand, and the rallied fort cheer and belch havoc into the ships while the Tecumseh sunk her head, lifted her screw into air and vanished beneath the wave. They saw Mobile Point a semicircle of darting fire, and the Brooklyn “athwart the Hartford’s hawse”; but they did not see, atom-small, perched high in the rigging of the flag-ship and demanding from the decks below, “why this?” and “why that?” a certain “plain sailor” well known to New Orleans and the wide world; did not see the torpedoes lying in watery ambush for him, nor hear the dread tale of them called to him from the Brooklyn while his ship passed astern of her, nor him command “full speed ahead” as he retorted, “Damn the torpedoes!”