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Ironclad
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ISBN-10: 1-77115-084-X
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Steampunk/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 501 Pages
Published: April 2013



From inside the flap

IRONCLAD is a Jules Verne-esque tale of action-adventure set in the closing days of the American Civil War. A band of ruthless Confederates breaks out of beleaguered Charleston in a sleek blockade runner. Their goal is England and a futuristic ironclad dreadnought built to aid the Rebel cause. The voyage is made perilous by a Union agent obsessed with stopping them. In Liverpool, they must escape his pursuit long enough to steal the ship and fight their way to sea. To arm their ironclad, they must face Britain’s most powerful armored battleship. Then, with a hold-full of the newly invented super-explosive called Nitro, they must begin a suicidal run back across the sea. The goal: to launch a terrorist attack at the heart of the Union with the world’s first weapon of mass destruction. And only one man can stop them.

This story blends a fictional tale with much historical fact. The elements of blockade runner, ironclad ram, and nitro-glycerin, along with the events of the Civil War, are all factual. Historical figures also play their parts, from Abraham Lincoln and Alfred Nobel to Walt Whitman and Jules Verne. The plot incorporates the fierce sea war that was waged and the elaborate intrigues and counter-intrigues between North and South in England over obtaining warships to break the strangling U. S. blockade. Finally, the theme of the Civil War’s enormous contribution to the creation of modern warfare is deeply integrated.

Ironclad (Excerpt)


CHAPTER ONE

Cincinnati, Ohio-October, 1862

A stream of bullets ripped into the line of gray-uniformed figures.

They were only crudely painted images of Confederate soldiers on wood planks. Still, the impact of the rounds gave shocking testimony as to what would happen were the bodies real. The heavy slugs stitched holes across the fronts and blew out the backs in sprays of splinters as they tore through to flatten against the chipped stone wall behind.

The six barrels of the single weapon firing this volley clattered on around their central shaft. Each spit its .58 caliber round in rapid succession as it was ratcheted under the hammer by a gunner’s hand upon a cranking handle. A second and third gunner aimed the heavy weapon, pivoting it on its wheeled carriage to sweep the target line at the yard’s far side.

The ferocity of the rapid firing held the nearby group of watching men enthralled. Several in civilian clothes looked positively horrified, openly wincing as if they themselves felt the impact of each shot. Those in the deep-blue uniform of Unites States Army officers were more stoic, but still wide-eyed in appreciation of this destructive power.

The last slug exploded from its barrel. The weapon clacked, clacked, clacked empty for a few revolutions until the enthused man cranking it realized and stopped.

A great silence fell.

The generated haze of gray-white smoke, trapped in a swollen cloud by the enclosed space, now slowly drifted upward to reveal the scene. The targets were torn apart, blasted to shreds, cut right through. The top half of one still teetered, its painted soldier’s body perforated across the belt-line, before toppling and crashing down.

An additional observer peered into the yard from a rooftop three stories above. He now drew back from the edge with a look of astonishment at the devastation wrought below.

"Jaysus save us!" he commented under his breath in mixed awe and dismay.

He drew forward to peek back down again. The three soldiers were now standing at attention beside their weapon. A bearded man in dark suit and high silk hat stepped from the nearby group and strode up to the gun. He was beaming with pleasure.

"Good work, lads," he told the crew.

He put a hand lovingly to one of the gun carriage’s big wheels as if stroking a prizewinning bull, then turned toward the group.

"There is your demonstration, gentlemen," he proclaimed in ringing tones. "Is that good enough for you?"

The lack of any immediate reply from the still-dumbfounded spectators was much a response in itself.

"You see that my gun is hand-cranked." He touched the crooked handle on the weapon’s right side. "Cartridges are fed from this hopper," he indicated the metal canister affixed to the top. "They are dropped, wedged, and fired automatically by six cam-operated bolts."

From his pocket he took a long casing and held it up. "The gun fires these special cartridges, which I am also making here. It is capable of firing six hundred rounds a minute."

This elicited some noises of surprise, particularly from the officers. Any seasoned fighting man knew it would take two, full, well-trained companies to produce such firepower.

"This type of weapon may seem quite radical to you," the speaker went on, "but, as you saw, it is doubtlessly effective.

"Well, well, gentlemen, come forward then," he invited them. "Feel free to look her over!" And, when no one moved forward at once, he prompted more chidingly, "Come along, sirs. She is not going to bite. At least, not you!"

This implication of their timorousness broke the spell, first on the officers. Talking started up amongst them, and they began moving forward. The civilians followed with more trepidation, most keeping a good distance from the engine of destruction as if it truly were some living monster. The boldest in the group ventured to touch this machine-gun, a few with the thoroughness of buyers examining a horse, the rest like children touching their first snake.

The man on the rooftop drew the black tube of a collapsible telescope from an inside pocket of his coat. He pulled it open and began a close examination of both the weapon and the audience now crowding in about it.

He was a youngish man of wavy, dark-blond hair and lean, well-honed features. Most prominent were the strong line of nose and jaw and the wide-set gray-green eyes. His form, spread prone on the roof’s edge, was a long and slim one, but his bulky garb disguised details of his build.

He was dressed in a common workingman’s clothes of baggy trousers and a loose coat, both well worn. Close beside him was laid a soft, wide-brimmed hat.

Though his clothes were typical for such a general setting, his presence on the rooftop was a clearly unusual one. His spying pose, the telescope, and the coiled rope with grappling hook that lay beside his hat all strongly implied some covert design.

After an inspection of the gun, he moved his glass across the gathered men. He scanned each of the faces, especially those of the officers, pausing on the ones of highest rank. An impressive number of generals were gathered there. Finally he focused on the bearded man, now in close discussion with one of the Union officers-a square-headed and bullnecked man with the epaulets of a major general.

"... and I have got five more of these nearly finished here," the bearded man was at the moment saying. "You could have delivery of them within two weeks, General!"

"We can surely make good use of them, Dr. Gatling," the officer said in pompous tones. He smiled cruelly. "We’ll cut through those rebel ranks like a sharp scythe through wheat." He patted the gun’s still-warm ring of barrels. "What an invention, sir. Why, with enough of these, we’d have this war ended by Christmas!"

Gatling looked gratified by the general’s enthusiasm. "Well, sir, I will certainly try to oblige you. Now, if you will excuse me a moment."

He moved out from the gaggle of men about the gun and turned to address the group, lifting his voice to be heard above the talk.

"Gentlemen, it is nearly noontime. We have a fine luncheon set out for you all inside. You may eat and drink as you wish. But, stay sober, sirs! For, afterward, I mean to give you a tour of my workshop, and there’ll be some stairs to climb. It occupies the third floor."

The half-serious admonishment drew laughter from the men. The speaker lifted an arm to point toward a gateway in a side wall of the yard.

"That way, please," He told them. "My assistants will guide you."

A pair of young fellows in dark suits moved in to herd and usher the group toward the gates. The men went obligingly, still talking in animated tones.

As they moved off, a young officer of captain’s rank detached himself and headed toward Gatling. Unlike the other officers, he was armed, with sheathed saber and holstered pistol at his sides. A tall and broadly built man of late-twenties, he was coarse-hewn in features-broad forehead, high cheekbones, wide nose, and square jaw-line. Dark eyes burned intensely beneath flaring brows, and a wide mouth was set in a firm, tight line. He drew up and stood ramrod straight to formally address his host.

"Dr. Gatling, I must beg a word with you, sir." His tones, though clipped and chill, still evidenced the faint, seemingly incongruous softening of a Southern accent.

"Yes? What is it Captain Casey?"

"I have not yet been allowed to examine security here," he said bluntly. "To be honest, sir, I have my concerns about it, conditions as they are now. I request that you let me see the guns immediately."

There was a touch of amusement in Gatling’s tones for this overzealous young man as he replied:

"I believe I can assure Mr. Pinkerton and the President that it is quite safe."

"That is for me to judge, sir. And I have full authority to do so, no matter what you believe."

Gatling realized this officer was wholly serious. His own amusement died.

"Look here, Captain," he said sharply, "this will just have to wait. My guests... "

"They are not my concern," Casey curtly interrupted. "Only those guns are, as they should be for you."

Gatling eyed the officer searchingly. "Do I sense a certain distrust for me in your demeanor, sir?"

"It is a bit troubling, sir, you being born in North Carolina."

"I might ask just what part of our Southland you hail from yourself, Captain," Gatling shot back.

"I am of Virginia, sir. But it is of no matter here. I am not the one building weapons which might well benefit the rebel cause."

Gatling drew himself up stiffly. "Do you suspect me of being a Southern sympathizer, Captain? You insult me, sir! Can you believe I mean to give away my guns?"

"That suggestion is your own, Dr. Gatling, not mine. However, it is a fact that you have chosen a factory in Cincinnati, right on the Kentucky border. It is also a fact that General Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi has driven to the very outskirts and that, at this moment, its elements lie just across the Ohio River, so close that I can smell their rebel stench."

"And Buell’s Army of the Ohio lies on this side, sir, less than a mile away," Gatling countered. "These guns are my life’s work, Captain. I will certainly not hand them over to the Secessionist cause."

"Then let us just say that neither of us wants those guns to fall into enemy hands. But, with danger so near, you must see why all precautions have to be taken. To that end I have a squad of men waiting outside."

"There are more than enough guards about this factory now," Gatling argued.

"I must decide that myself. And, if there are not, I can assign my men to help."

"Oh, very well," Gatling agreed in exasperation. "But not just now! Please, Captain, I must see to my guests. I mean for them to buy my guns, and that is now my main concern. All this can surely wait until after our tour!"

He turned at that and strode off. Casey looked after him in stern disapproval and then reluctantly followed. The others had by this time gone through the gate. These two were the last out of the yard.

From the roof, the watching man followed them out with his spyglass. He snapped the tube closed and slipped it away. After sidling back from the edge well out of sight from anyone below, he arose. He picked up his hat, settled it firmly on his head, and then took up the rope, slinging its coils over a shoulder.

He turned and looked around him. The flat expanse of the building’s rooftop was spread before him, marked only by the square frames of large skylights spaced some dozen feet apart. Beyond its far edge the tops of other factory structures were visible. From them sprouted a forest of slender chimneys belching black coal smoke up to mar a brilliantly blue fall sky.

He pulled a scrap of paper from a vest pocket and unfolded it. A crude floor plan scribbled there showed both an elevation and an overhead view of the building. A circle marked a skylight near one end of the third floor.

He started across the ordinance factory’s rooftop, passing by one skylight to reach the raised frame of another. Taking off the hat, he dropped it and the rope beside him. He leaned forward and cautiously peered down. He could see nothing. The glass was so filthy from years of accumulated soot it was all but opaque. He cautiously cleaned a small spot with his coat sleeve and peeked down through it.

Below him was the floor of a factory workroom. Dimly he could see gleaming metal objects and men moving about them, but as through a dense fog. He cleaned his spot farther, finally reaching the bare glass, and peeked through again.

This was clearly the final assembly point for the Gatling guns. Five of the weapons in various stages of construction sat about the floor amidst racks and tables filled with tools. A dozen men in laborer’s caps and long aprons were swarming busily about them, like worker ants tending a queen. A portly gentleman in dark suit waddled about in supervision. His flaring mustaches added even more to his walrus look.

The man watching from above pulled a pocket watch from his vest. Its hands had already moved five minutes past noon. He watched the activity below for some moments more as parts were attached to guns, firing levers were cranked experimentally, and mechanisms were tested and adjusted. Two of the weapons looked to be all but finished.

"Come on. Come on!" he muttered impatiently.

The rotund foreman below finally pulled his own fat watch from a waistcoat pocket. Its hands indicated the time as just one past twelve.

"Noontime boys!" he called loudly to the rest and smacked his lips in anticipation. "Let’s go eat."

There was no delay by the men in putting down tools and bustling out of the area, breaking into light, bantering conversation.

The man above watched the last of them move out of his view. He waited longer, counting slowly to one hundred under his breath. No one came back into sight.

He went quickly into action.

He first lifted his left arm, pulling back the loose coat and shirtsleeve with his right hand. This revealed a contraption strapped about his forearm and wrist-a slingshot-like framework with a thick rubber band. He made certain it was well fastened and then hid it away again.

Next he pulled back the coat, revealing the butts of handguns in shoulder holsters hung under each arm. From the left one he pulled a massive LeMat revolver. He checked the cylinder’s nine .42 caliber loads and their primer caps, then the tenth one-a 20-gauge shotgun load-that formed its axis. He settled the first gun back in its holster, then drew and checked the second, a double-action, .44 caliber Starr.

Satisfied, he tugged the coat back into place and knelt down beside the skylight. Now pulling a small pry bar from inside his well-equipped coat, he forced up the hinged glass panel and folded it back. He carefully set the grapple’s hooks on a section of the iron rim.

Leaning in, he boldly thrust his head through the opening and thoroughly scanned the room below. It looked empty. He dropped the coil through. It unrolled as it fell, the last few feet slapping to the plank floor.

Climbing in through the window, he grasped the rope in gloved hands and lithely, swiftly lowered himself hand-over-hand.

He landed catlike, crouched. A hand whipped the heavy revolver out and he peered warily about him at the workroom.

The floor of the factory was a single, open space some fifteen yards wide and forty long. This huge area was broken only by a single rank of iron support pillars running up the center. Broad, high windows lining both long walls provided the light. Halfway along one wall were broad double doors. They opened to the access tower that housed the stairway and loading ramps.

The gun assembly seemed confined to his end of the room. Assured he was alone, he swiftly moved about the area. He paused at a large drafting table to examine the plans laid out. They detailed the workings of the guns. He moved to one of the weapons that looked mostly assembled. He touched the multiple barrels capable of spewing so much death and shook his head.

"Almost finished," he murmured. "Can’t be lettin’ that happen."

He looked about him searchingly, as if seeking something of particular note. His gaze stopped and fixed on a sign at the room’s farther end. It read "Danger, Ammunition Stores."

He strode up the room to its middle. The other half of the floor was mostly filled with long tables lined with stools. Crimping tools and racks holding hundreds of small metal tubes filled the tabletops along with bins of paper cartridges. Obviously this was the area where workers put together the special ammunition for Gatling’s guns.

Beside each table was a collecting hopper for the loaded tubes and an opened case of the cartridges. Additional scores of unopened cases were stacked against the far wall.

The man crossed the room to the stacked cases. He stopped by a short stack and slipped his gun away. With his pry bar he opened the top case’s lid and peeled back its foil liner to expose the neatly packed paper cocoons of hundreds of black-powder charges. He reached into yet another pocket and pulled out a foot-long section of capped pipe and a tight coil of fuse. He set them down and pulled out his watch again. It now read "12:20."

"12:25" read the hands of another watch at that same moment being consulted. It lay in the palm of Captain Casey. He snapped its case closed with an irritated sharpness and slipped it away as he looked impatiently around.

He was now in a long, high-ceilinged dining room, very well appointed for what one might have expected in a weapons factory. A lengthy table was loaded with a most sumptuous repast. It was surrounded by most of Gatling’s distinguished guests, eating, drinking, and talking with equal gusto.

Nearby, at a sideboard well set up with liquor, several more men stood with filled glasses, engrossed in intense discussion with Gatling himself.

Casey headed across toward this group, marching stiffly. He pulled up to stand close at Gatling’s elbow.

Gatling glanced around to see the tall officer looming at his side. Venting a sigh of irritation, he broke off his discussion with the others and turned to address Casey.

"And how may I help you now, Captain?"

"I have no more time to waste, sir," Casey said brusquely. "I need to see to your security at once."

"All right, Captain," Gatling snapped in reply, his own patience ended. "Anything to be done with you. But I will not leave my guests yet." He lifted an arm and signed one of the young assistants toward him. "Perkins, take the Captain up to the workshop, please."

The assistant briskly moved up. "This way, Captain," he said and headed away.

They passed out of the dining room through wide doors and entered a large foyer. Here two uniformed men of sergeant’s rank, armed like Casey with pistols and sabers, were lounging on plush sofas. But they snapped to attention as Casey appeared.

"Murphy! Karnes! With me!" he ordered as he sailed through after his guide, not even slowing down.

The two soldiers instantly fell in behind. The little group moved through a second set of doors that took them outside.

They came out in front of the factory’s main office building. A dozen horses were tethered here, and a squad of blue-uniformed enlisted men lounged smoking and talking. Like the sergeants, they also snapped to, but just long enough for their officer to pass.

A broad avenue ran past the front of the main office and on between rows of long factory buildings. It was bustling with workers heading to and from lunch shifts or at work loading and transporting materials.

Gatling’s assistant turned left, leading the soldiers along the next building to the stone access tower protruding at its middle. The guide opened a door and ushered his charges onto a broad stairway.

"Up to the third floor, gentlemen," he invited.

In the factory above them, the intruder still crouched over the open cartridge case, at his dangerous work. Though it was delicate, no tensing of his features betrayed any concern. He was just finishing gingerly imbedding the pipe’s length deep in the center of the packed charges. He then inserted the end of the coil of fuse firmly through a hole pierced in one cap of the pipe. It looked now like a large holiday firework, but very much more potent here.

Completed with his sensitive task, he rose and slowly backed away, uncoiling the fuse as he went. He had backed almost to the door when he reached the coil’s end. He held the end in one hand while he fished in a vest-pocket with another, drawing out a stick match. Flicking the match to life with a thumbnail, he touched the flame to the fuse. As the fuse began to sputter and flare, he dropped it to the floor. He moved away through the tables to the midpoint of the room and paused there to glance back.

The fuse was burning steadily, slowly eating its way across the floor.

He went on, re-entering the gun assembly area where his escape rope hung. But he was not leaving yet. Moving very swiftly now, he crossed to the drafting table. He began to gather the plans there and roll them into a tight tube. But a sharp sound made him freeze.

His gaze lifted toward it. The doors from the stairway tower were swinging open to reveal Gatling’s assistant. He ushered Casey through, the two sergeants close behind.

Casey pulled up in surprise. His quick, darting gaze took in the open skylight, the dangling rope, and the startled man clasping a handful of the gun’s designs.

Eyes narrowing in suspicion, Casey stepped forward, hand going to his holstered gun.

"Who are you?" he demanded. "What are you doing there?"

There was neither time nor reason for any subtlety now. The intruder dropped the plans and yanked out his Starr revolver, opening fire. The Union soldiers pulled their own pistols, and a fierce little gun battle erupted.

Casey and the sergeants ducked their assailant’s first shot and dove for cover behind worktables, returning fire. The frightened assistant recoiled and stumbled backward off the landing, tumbling half a stair flight. He lay stunned a moment before forcing himself up and limping painfully on down.

Behind him, intruder and soldiers were exchanging a few rounds with no effect. Casey hollered a firm warning:

"Give it up, man! There is no way out of here!"

His opponent listened and glanced around him. It certainly seemed so. He looked up at his rope. Trying to climb that in the open would be suicide. He looked past the armed trio blocking the only exit, toward the far end of the room.

The fuse there was burning on across the floor, unknown to the Union men, drawing closer to the ammunition.