The Improbable Captain Chapter Four: Cat and Mouse
To the east of Hawaii
August 31, 1939, 8:15 pm Hawaii Time (fading evening twilight)
My back itched terribly and there was no one to scratch it.
No matter. The Muskogee endured far worse when driven at gunpoint to faraway Indian Territory…
I straightened my brown, lambskin aviator’s jacket and shook my long, colorful Muskogee dress with its nod to the five flags which had flown over my namesake, willing myself to ignore the irritation.
“Desolation is gaining on us, Captain,” I broke the silence after the relieved Miller departed my bridge. “Commander,” I swiveled my head to face the executive officer who had wisely suggested to my captain that I begin evasive maneuvers earlier, “I may not have time to dodge as effectively if she gets much closer.”
The theatrics on the bridge had been kind of entertaining, for what it was worth. Seeing the pompous ass get justice was oddly satisfying. Bastards like him belonged in the Army, not the Navy. But the time for play was over.
“Doug,” my captain addressed the XO, her husband, “you know this ship better than I do…”
“Until five minutes ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that even in doubt,” the taller man retorted with an irritated grimace. Still, I sensed no malice in it so I chose to stay silent and observe. “Just what is…that…” he gestured toward me with a sideways nod of his head.
“Like I said, Doug, she’s Pensacola. I don’t know why or how, but she’s your ship.” I could sense my captain’s exasperation, but she kept it well in check.
“So she says,” the commander added pointedly.
The voice was haunted, the words pining. Barely a whisper, they echoed across my deck and through my corridors. The sense of loss moved even me. Images of the US Army’s privations on the people native to what was now the Florida panhandle flashed through my mind. I could instantly feel the change in the crew’s mood.
“What…was that?” my captain gasped into the sudden silence, her recent frustration entirely forgotten.
“Desolation, sir,” I answered with the defiance of those same victims one hundred years ago, willing resolve into every man or woman within earshot.
“Desolation is right,” CDR Stirling muttered. “It makes me think of…” his words broke off and the married pair shared a look that seemed to say volumes but only to them. I didn’t like my captain’s newfound uncertainty.
The men in my aft tripod mast stared dumbly at another salvo incoming and I did my best to shove to port in the hopes that Desolation was still toying with us.
If she gets serious with things as they are now…
My sudden, conscious maneuvers jarred nearly everyone from their reverie, as I had hoped might happen. I righted course just as suddenly to continue the effect. Most of the crew shook themselves from the shadow that had come over them.
“Captain,” I interrupted the unspoken wordplay between the two, “Commander,” I added as I looked both alternately in the eye, “The last salvo was a very near miss to the stern. Her aim will only get better as she approaches. The next shot might foul my rudder. I can only make 22 knots with the amount of steam I have to work with right now.”
Truth be told, I felt downright anemic at that moment and longed to have my pipes full to bursting with power. The commander, a decisive man whose judgement I was coming to appreciate in combat, made a quick decision. I was relieved to see how quickly his duty had won out over Desolation.
“Engineering,” the XO ordered into a voice tube, “bring up full steam as quickly as you can. We may need it very soon.” He then turned back in our direction, looking toward my captain. “If we’re drawing it out, Dory, we need to speed up now. If we’re going to engage that thing, we need to turn before we add more speed.”
“The faster we are going, the longer we show our broadside and a bigger target when we turn?” My captain asked as she knocked back an unruly strawberry strand of hair that had wandered into her eyes; eyes that seemed now to be holding back tears with only limited success. She sniffed loudly; none of the crew on the bridge failed to notice. The difference between the two Stirlings could not be missed by anyone present.
“A bigger target, yes,” the commander explained, his words both gentle and confident, “but we can bring all our turrets to bear too. At this distance it’ll become a brawl pretty quick. Pen…Pensacola,” the man tripped over my name again, “do you have any idea what that thing can bring to close combat?”
I thought about the question. I still had no idea how I knew the enemy was named Desolation or that it had combat power enough to challenge me. The details…
“I just know she has similar abilities to me, Commander,” I replied with a creased brow. “I…I don’t know how I know even what I know.”
The commander looked annoyed.
“I only just woke up, you know,” I added curtly.
“It’s okay, Penny,” my captain soothed with a smile. Her eyes were still haunted, but she seemed to have returned to the present. Finally she was breaking out of her funk.
The word finally registered. A nickname. I knew the concept. Most of the crew had one or more nicknames, some not mentionable in polite company. They even had some for me. But to hear my captain use a nickname, and one so…familiar…
“Doug,” my brief reverie was broken by the determined sound in my captain’s voice, “I want whatever that thing is as far away from the destroyers as possible. I don’t think Downes could take another hit, and I doubt either one of them could even scratch Desolation.”
“They couldn’t,” I added when the commander looked ready to possibly argue.
I watched silently as the man grimaced but closed his mouth. He sighed, and then shrugged. “Pensacola, make best speed with whatever steam you have. Helm,” he turned to face the man at my wheel, “turn 45 degrees to port. Whichever of you two controls the ship,” he looked back at me before turning again to the helm, “keep course erratic to make us harder to hit.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” the man said crisply as his eyes met mine. “All ahead full. Forty five degrees to port then evasive erratic.” I nodded to the man and allowed a smirk to grace my lips. The man’s eyes widened, then he allowed himself a nervous smile. The ship increased speed with no human intervention but the course changed with the motions of the wheel. Without a word we had reached an understanding.
The feeling of steam through my veins, my boiler heart pumping, and the wind in my rigging hair was exhilarating.
This was what I was born for! Now if only…
“Assuming that thing keeps following us and doesn’t turn back for easier pickings, that’ll put more distance between us and the others. May we at least return fire with the aft turrets, Dory?”
The man read my mind…
I could feel my captain’s gaze fall on me but she said nothing. The steam filling me, the fire driving me, the power I felt within me, gave me the confidence to push the matter.
“Sir, I would very much like to answer Desolation’s challenge."
My captain hesitated.
Normally she’s so decisive, much more like her husband. Why is she wavering in middle of combat?
The words were barely a whisper this time, moaning through the ship like the creaking of timbers on an old schooner. My captain grimaced at the sound although the crew in general seemed better able to fend it off this time. Perhaps my own sense of purpose was helping them persevere.
“Earlier you said she’s playing with us. Will firing back change that?”
I glanced at the commander who shrugged back. I liked him…I had since he came first aboard…and honestly felt I understood his mind better than my captain’s. Still, despite her current troublesome hesitation, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time and still cannot articulate well, I had no doubts up to and including that moment that I had made the right decision.
“It might,” I admitted. “But her latest shots have seemed more serious. I don’t think she likes the chase.”
“I get the sense that we can’t outrun that thing and even if we could, it could just double back on the DDs,” the executive officer kept the argument going. “There’s a lot of sea between us and Pearl, Dory; a lot of darkness before dawn. Eventually it’ll hit us, the law of averages if nothing else demands it.”
“The commander is right,” I added. “Damn it all I think Desolation is slightly faster than I am. She’s still gaining, however slowly, and I’m pretty much at my limit now.”
“Maybe two hours.”
Another salvo arrived as she thought it over. The latest had essentially bracketed my stern. The fact she had us perfectly targeted was not lost on the commander…or the helmsman who had stopped wheeling about. He’d recognized that the evasion itself could cause us to be hit.
The words were more insistent now, almost demanding. The women in my lower berths almost at once all grasped their children about them. The fathers in the crew, the helmsman included, were suddenly possessed of a fierce protectiveness. For most aboard, the mood shifted from a sense of loss to a fear of loss.
But the effect on my captain was different. She looked like she’d been punched in the gut, and the commander seemed little better.
“Commander, please!” the chief petty officer, Frank, implored his uniformed superior.
Being chastened by the chief shook the senior professional from his counterproductive reverie. “Numbers three and four turrets, prepare to fire!”
My captain didn’t countermand the command; instead she seemed lost in her own world.
It was at that moment that I came closest to regret for my decision. I felt rudderless, adrift.
The commander’s command voice broke me out of my own tailspin. I looked up into his eyes. Whatever his uncertainty about me before, he now demanded my contribution. Here was a true professional and I gave myself to him.
“Sir, numbers three and four turrets armed and ready to fire on command,” I responded crisply from attention.
“Can you fire them?” he asked with an arched eyebrow.
“Absolutely, sir! With the accuracy of your dreams, sir!”
The man shook his head with a chuckle and a wry grin. “Why the hell not, then. Fire!”
For the first time in my life, I fired my guns in anger.
I had been created for this!
A heady feeling consumed me. I was a weapon and this man was wielding me!
A warmth grew within me. I wanted more of this.
I wanted blood. I wanted him!
Moments passed, then a scream.
The outraged cry seemed to shake my captain from her navel gazing.
“Lookouts report fires on the target,” I reported to whoever was interested. “She just fired back!” I added urgently.
The XO didn’t miss a beat. “Helmsman, evade! Everyone, prepare for impact!”
The commander and I were thinking alike. The rage in Desolation’s latest cry left no doubt for either of us that she wasn’t going to play with us anymore.
“Why did we fire on her?” My captain’s dismay left me confused. The uncertainty was contagious, made worse when the salvo impacted just forward of my stern. My previous headiness evaporated like morning dew in the August sun.
“Dory, I love you but just shut up and let me fight this ship! Pensacola, damage report!”
I looked to my captain and she just nodded miserably, gesturing with her head to her husband. My look of disappointment bordering on disgust just made her shrink further.
“Damn it!” I vented aloud. I then turned to the commander. “Rear tripod hit but I’ve mostly shrugged it off. Several causalities among the spotters, however no fires. Rear guns unaffected and ready for another salvo in about ten seconds.”
“Are you affected by the loss of spotters?”
“Then fire at will.”
“With pleasure, sir!”