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A Busy Half-Century

A Busy Half-Century
© 2008 by Walter D. Reimer
(M.A. Stagg, Z. O’Dell and E. DiCaprino courtesy of E.O. Costello.  Thanks!)

Part Five: Gunboats

April 20, 1911:

        “So help me God,” the newly-sworn Assembly intoned as they concluded taking their oaths of office, and the forty-six elected representatives took their seats as the crowd in the gallery cheered.  Having the Assembly elections on April Fool’s Day was a tradition that had started with the ratification of the country’s constitution.
        One member sat, only to end up on the floor amid a welter of broken wood as the rest of the governing body roared with laughter.  Every piece of the chair had been sawn nearly through, guaranteeing that the slightest weight would cause it to collapse.
        Some furs delayed the customary pranks on April 1st just for this occasion.
        “All right, all right, settle down please,” the outgoing Moderator said as he rapped his hammer against the desk.  A new top for the desk had been fitted the previous day, and would be replaced after the Assembly’s term five years from now because of the abuse it would surely take.  “On behalf of the President, I’d like to surrender – “
        “No surrender!”
        “Nail your colors to your tail, Charlie!”
        Several bangs of the hammer against the desk.  “A-hem.  I want to give up the hammer to my successor.  Ma’am?”  There was applause as Mrs. Leona Jones, Rain Coast’s first female Moderator and Prime Minister, stepped forward and took the hammer from the man, who seemed happy to relinquish it.  The schoolteacher hefted the hammer and rapped it twice on the desk. 
        “Settle down, please,” the cougar femme said and nodded to the President.
        Like the Assembly and his Prime Minister, President Jaan Harper was brand new to the job and had been sworn in that morning.  The otter was a Tlingit representing a constituency in Little Wolf Lake.  His neighbors were holding an election to pick his replacement.
        He had larger responsibilities now.
        Like him, most of the Assembly members wore small twists of red cloth on their lapels.  Since declaring independence in 1885, Rain Coast had attracted immigrants with the promise of land, job opportunities and a democratic form of government that appeared freer than either the United States or Canada.  With those immigrants came new ideas, chief among them the Socialist ideal of a better future.
        Many businesses in the country had been cooperative or collective efforts since before Proclamation Day, and the growth of trades unions grew out of that tradition.  But an interesting thing had happened; rather than eliminating capitalism and the idea that there could be rich furs, Rain Coast embraced the capitalist idea as an opportunity for every fur to grow to meet their full potential, while using socialism as a means of helping those less fortunate.
        And another strange thing had occurred – the idea of pride in one’s nation had surfaced.  There was actually talk of a national anthem to replace the current one (an instrumental version of My Country, ‘Tis of Thee).
        “My friends, ladies and gentlemen,” Harper said.  “I hereby call this session of the Rain Coast Assembly to order.  May the gods we worship look after us – “
        “We need all the help we can get!” Someone yelled from the gallery, eliciting a roar of laughter.
        Harper grinned.  “May we have the foresight to guide our people through the years ahead.  Madam Moderator, what is the first item of business?”
        Jones studied the agenda.  “A request made to us by the Spontoon Island Independencies regarding trade and mutual protection.  They declared their freedom less than twenty years ago, and request assistance in defending themselves.  The Moderator recognizes the Secretary for Trade, Mr. Waters.”
        “Thank you, Ma’am.  The request made by the Spontoonies is a sound one.  They act as a shipping agent for some timber concerns and although they’ve had a militia since 1900 or so, they could really use some help in protecting the fishing fleet and their other ventures from pirates.”
        “So you want to contract out some of the naval militias?” one member asked.
        “That’s right,” the Secretary said.  “Terms can be worked out – let’s face it, the Spontoons aren’t rich – and in return they’ll lease us a piece of one of their islands.”  The bobcat looked at the rest of the members.  “It’d also give us the opportunity to make new friends, as we extend ourselves southward.”
        “Do you think the Spontoonies would benefit from one of our aerial militias?” a member from Rain Island asked.  Since the Wright Brothers’ flight in 1903 many nations had started exploiting the potential of flight.  The Rain Coast’s largest constituency had taken the lead in this, and the machines were used for patrol purposes.
        The Secretary smiled.  “Probably.”


Eastern Island
Spontoon Independencies
December 11, 1911:

        “Bad flying weather today,” Bill Eason growled as he opened his curtains and faced the morning.  A low overcast hung over the atoll, and it had just stopped raining.  Behind the lean feline several other furs – the other members of their unit – stirred and started to wake up.
        Perhaps a hundred yards outside the window squatted the mostly-deflated gray bulk of the AM-5, staked down where it had been tethered after landing so that the airship would not be damaged by any winter winds during the night.  Nearby, a low open shed held the hydrogen gas cylinders and fuel tanks for the blimp and its engines.
        The AM-5 was one of two non-rigid airships in the Spontoons; the other, the AM-4, was temporarily moored at the western end of the atoll.  A message sent by a native runner explained that as soon as the weather cleared the crew would resume their patrol.
        One of the ground crew furs was already up, scratching himself absently while he got the wood-burning stove started.  When the fire was going, he took the coffeepot out to the pump to fill it.
        An actual base had been leased from the Spontoonie government, over on Moon Island, and it would act as a staging area for the naval militias.  It was an excellent investment, and Spontoon was benefiting from the money coming in as buildings were erected and roads paved.  Until then, the aerial militia crews were quartered with their ships on the largest piece of near-level ground in the area.
        There was a metallic sound as the crewfur put the coffeepot on the fire.  “We going out today, Bill?”
        Eason looked out the window again.  There was a chance . . .  “Yeah, Jim, I think we will.  Okay, guys and gals,” he said louder, clapping his paws, “let’s get up and greet the day.”
        He must have started slipping.  Only two furs told him what he could do with the day (starting with folding it until it was all sharp corners).

        After a full breakfast (and noting a general improvement in the weather) the crew, wearing leather flying suits and heavy coats, stepped out to the AM-5.  While gas lines were being connected Eason noted a few early-rising locals watching the proceedings.  He waved, and they waved back.  So far, the Spontoonies were friendly and very eager to trade with their new neighbors.
        There was a loud hissing and Eason turned to watch as the dirigible’s envelope started to fill.  A group of furs held onto the mooring lines as the bag swelled, stirred and gently lifted itself off of the ground.  The envelope strained at the lines and slowly the gondola started to move free of the ground.  As it filled out, a painted insignia consisting of a silver bird set in a blue square spread out.  Beside it in black was the airship’s designation.
        The gondola was a metal frame, covered in canvas and housing a rudder and control planes, room for three furs and the blimp’s single gasoline engine.  The propeller was clear of the envelope by this time, so he and two other members of the flight crew, another feline and a jenny climbed aboard while a wolf moved to stand by the propeller.
        The wolf swung the propeller as hard as he could; the engine coughed, then sputtered and finally roared to life.  The ground crews paid out their mooring lines until the AM-5 hovered, swaying, some twenty feet above the ground.
        Eason surveyed the ground and gave his craft a cursory glance, then waved.  The ground crew chief waved back and the feline slowly advanced the engine’s throttle.
        He could see one Spontoonie, a small kitten who was pointing up at the dirigible, and despite the sound of the engine he knew the child was saying “It is balloon!” in awestruck tones. 
        Eason had to admit he was impressed as well, and he’d been piloting the AM-5 for two years.  He’d probably continue to be impressed with the ingenuity involved in getting a contraption like this off the ground.
        He waved back down at the ground chief, then pointed to the east.  Receiving a wave of acknowledgement from the unit’s actual boss (Hank was the shop steward), he steered a course toward the morning sun and increased power to the engine so he could start patrolling.

        About two hours later the AM-5 was anchored securely to the ground and partially deflated so that its gas tank could be topped off and the engine serviced.  The rest of the crew was eating lunch while Eason and a mechanic looked over everything.
        “I’ve been thinking,” Eason said musingly, “we’d be better off if this gondola was a boat.”
        “Yeah, it’d make sense, seeing as you spend a lot of time over the water,” the goat said as she tested a bracing wire, then tightened it.  She tipped him a quick grin.  “I’ll think about it, and maybe ask a few people.”
        “Thanks, Sally.  I appreciate it.”
        “No problem.”  She glanced to the west, sniffing.  “Isn’t Gary and his crew overdue?”
        “Well, they were down because of the weather, and Gary’s more cautious than I am.”  Eason looked west, sniffing.  “Still . . . smoke, you think?”
        Sally nodded.  “You want take the ship up again and go looking?”
        “Might be a good idea.”

        “Pretty country down there,” the jenny, a short, slim femme named Alice said.  She almost had to shout over the racket made by the engine.
        “Yeah,” Eason replied, taking one paw off the control stick to put a pair of binoculars to his eyes.  He craned forward.  “What do you see there, Alice?”
        She raised her own set of binoculars and looked.  “Signs of a fire, Bill.  Looks like wreckage, too.”
        “Damn.  Let’s go and look.  Stand by to drop the grapple.  We’ll snag something and winch ourselves down.  You and Al make sure you have your shotguns ready, just in case.”
        Holding the control planes so that the blimp would descend, Eason piloted the AM-5 lower until the dangling hook dragged and caught a fallen tree that was sturdy enough to handle the stress.  Alice and Al took turns at the crank while the engine was switched off, and finally the gondola’s small wheels hovered a foot from the ground.
        Eason drew his pistol, jumped lightly out of the gondola and headed for the stretch of beach.  There were no native villages in the area.

        “Holy Peter,” Eason breathed.
        The gondola of the AM-4 was a charred skeleton, the engine laying in pieces half-sunk into the sand.  Around the remnants of a campfire lay the corpses of the other crew.
        His friends.
        Murdered in their sleep.
        Whoever had done this had moved quickly, killing the crew as they slept before looting the camp of anything of value, including Gary’s wedding ring.
        Alice dried her eyes and Al said, “We’ll have to lighten ship, Bill.  Drop the ballast?”
        “Huh?  Yeah, yeah, right.  We’ll have to drop ballast or lose buoyancy.”  He knelt and dug his fingers through the soft sand.  It would have been comfortable to sleep on.  “Otdikh v mirye, Gary, Jonny, Rick.”  He then crossed himself in the Orthodox manner and got to his feet to help his crew.

        “Pirates, had to be,” Eason said later after the wake the aerial militia had held for their murdered comrades.  The naval militia crews had also joined the group, offering their own condolences while a telegram had been sent off to Seathl.  The Spontoonies had also attended the wake, offering gifts of food and prayers for the AM-4’s crew.
        “Yep, pirates,” the militia’s steward said.  “What are we going to do about it?” 
        The gaze Eason turned on the crew chief was feral.  “We hunt, that’s what.  That’s what they pay us for, right?”


190 miles WNW of Spontoon
August 7, 1912:

        Hunting had been good.
        Preying on passing fishing boats and cargo steamers had shown profitable results and the crew’s leader had been generous in apportioning the prize money.  They had even landed on the south island of the Spontoon group and made off with some of their women.
        They’d only had to kill two of them before selling them to a buyer who paid handsomely.
        But the other crews were getting too good at their trade, so staying in the Spontoons was out.  Some of their employers were sympathetic, but not to the point of giving them room and board.  And there was another damn gasbag in the area to supplement the two that were already flying out of Eastern Island.
        But he had hit on the perfect spot to set up shop and prey on the shipping and surrounding islands, a large island with plenty of places to hide, a small harbor behind a barrier reef and fresh water.
        All that was required was to take it away from its inhabitants.
        “Look sharp, guys,” the fox said.  “Freddy, you got that Gatling gun ready?”
        “Ja, Paul,” came the reply from the bear.  He was the only fur big enough to pick it up by himself.  Its stand and ammunition was carried by a single sweating wolf who clearly resented having the job.
        Paul Helmuth splashed ashore, struck a theatrical pose and said in a very bad Italian accent, “Ah claim-a dis land-ah fer Spain!”
        Several furs laughed but the wolf carrying the Gatling’s ammunition growled, “Dammit Paul, do you have to do that on every island we land on?”
          “Ah, whadda you know, Jeff?  You never got higher’n third grade,” Paul said, pulling a crude map from his pocket.  While the others came ashore he pored over it and said, “Now, ‘cording to this, there should be a track or trail . . . there!” and he pointed over a small rise.  “That’ll lead us up to the settlement.”
        They left the Gatling gun on the beach, with the bear and the wolf to guard it and to cover them if they had to make a dash back to their boat.  Apart from the squawking of a flight of parakeets, there wasn’t any sound.
        A sign on a post proclaimed that the place was called Fort Bob, but the place was deserted.  A ragged Union Jack fluttered from a pole, and one of the crewfurs took it down.  “That’s good,” Paul said.  “This place is ours now, by God.”
        “Where’d everyone go?” one asked.
        “I think they’re over there,” another said, pointing to a mound of recently-turned earth with a crude cross set up beside it.
        “Brit flag, bunch of dead Limeys . . . who did it?” Paul asked.  He shrugged then and started walking around, his pistol held in one paw in a casual grip.
        The place was indeed deserted, but would make a great base of operations when they got it cleaned up and let the other crews know what had been found.  On a rise overlooking the town there was a small church, and he headed up to it.
        Inside it was cool and dark, but he felt the fur on the back of his neck creep as he walked in and ran a paw over the altar.
        The altar felt . . . oddly cold to the touch.


Accounting Island, Spontoon Independencies
September 2, 1912:

        So far it had been a horrible six months in the Spontoons.

        The two groups of warships – a laughable term, that; they were barely larger than corvettes or frigates (and one had sails), but they were armed nevertheless – had withdrawn, harried out of the lagoon by the naval militias and small groups of armed Spontoonies.  But once the last ship had departed, the defenders had fallen back to leave only a few ships watching the channel.
        Behind them, the marauders had left scenes of devastation.
        Several villages had been shelled and were still ablaze, testaments to the firepower brought to bear by ships after their landing parties had been resisted by the natives.  The lesson was a hard one, but the captains of the ships had apparently felt it was a lesson that needed to be taught.
        The lesson had been especially hard for two villages on the southern island, where a modern variant of an ancient weapon had been given its first test.  The streams of liquid flame the devices spat were very effective whether the targets were wooden longhouses, tilled fields or flesh.
        Parts of Accounting Island had been occupied, sacked, deserted and occupied again, by warring factions from almost half a dozen different parties.  Only three had bothered with flags or any other insignia but it was possible (if one cared) to figure out from languages what nationality was invading.
        The atoll’s only Catholic priest had done his part to try and save as many as possible, but the ovine couldn’t be everywhere at once.  The small hospital on Meeting Island was overflowing and smoke rose over the entire atoll.

Eastern Island
September 20, 1912:
        “Any sign of the Orel?” Bill Eason demanded.
        “No.  Runner bring quick-quick sign ship with balloon, feline who flies outlander,” and the native crewfur loped off to help fuel the AM-5.  The lanky feline shook his head.
        His ground crew were now a mix of Rain Coasters and Spontoonies, and the dirigible had been improved by the pressures brought about by the months since the loss of the AM-4.  Its gondola had been replaced with a boat hull and it had a newer, more powerful engine.  Several of his crew had been killed, and others had reached the end of their contracts and left for home.
        Others had stayed, either joining the naval militias or helping the natives wherever they could.
        He picked up his shotgun and walked out of the longhouse across the field to the AM-5, grateful that so far the battles hadn’t destroyed the craft or disrupted the supply of hydrogen for it.  The tanks were heavy and the ships bringing them from Seathl had to be quick and stealthy to avoid being pirated.
        Alice was still there, loading her own rifle.  She looked up and grinned at him.  “Any sign of it yet?”
        Rumor had it that a ship capable of operating a dirigible from its deck had been sighted in the waters north of the atoll.  Another rumor had the ship, known as the Orel, sunk during the cruiser battle off what was now being called Gunboat Island. 
        Eason hoped it hadn’t been sunk, as the Orel belonged to Vostok Island, ostensibly a colony of the Russian Empire.
        And he’d learned that it was the Vostokies, who were either acting on their own or on orders from far-off Moscow, that had hired the pirate crew that killed the crew of the AM-4.
        The AM-6 and AM-7 were patrolling away to the west after scattered reports had reached Eastern Island that another pirate band had been spotted.  The AM-7’s crew carried a box of dynamite, which should prove to be a very nasty surprise to any pirates they encountered.
        Eason didn’t care about politics, and didn’t really care about who paid whom or what the entire quarrel was really about.  All he wanted was a bit of revenge.
        And he had a surprise of his own in store if an enemy gasbag showed itself.

        “Bill!  Bill!” Alice shouted a few hours later, the jenny running to him as fast as her hooves could take her.  “We just got word of a balloon coming over the big island.”
        He had been half-asleep; now he was instantly awake.  “Where?”
        She pointed.  “Northwest of us.  I’ve already ordered the crew to get the AM-5 inflated.”
        He paused in the act of putting on his flight suit, grabbed the startled equine by the shoulders and kissed her.  “Great job, Alice,” and as she rubbed her mouth he finished getting dressed and bolted from the longhouse.
        The crew aboard and the gas envelope inflated, Eason started the engine and yelled, “Let go the lines!” while easing his throttle forward and levering the control planes up.  The AM-5 strained at her restraints, then fairly flew upward as the ground crew let go at the same time.  Eason leveled the craft off when it was about two hundred feet off the lagoon’s surface and steered it around until it faced northwest.
        There it was, rounding the high mountain on the island – a small gray shape.  He raised a pair of binoculars and noted that it sported an insignia consisting of a white shield bearing a two-headed crowned vulture in black.
        Vostok Island.
        Eason pulled on a pair of goggles and shouted at his crew, “Get your guns ready!  We’re going to attack!” and he yanked back on the control planes while accelerating and dropping ballast.
        The AM-5 rose fast and soon Eason guessed they were up above five hundred feet.  That was good; he wanted all the advantage he could get.  He drew his revolver and put it between his legs so he could reach it more easily, then started forward.
        The Vostok dirigible pivoted and rose as well, and small bright flashes could be seen coming from its blocky gondola.  “Holy!” Al yelped.  “They’re shooting at us, and we’re too damned high up!”
        “As soon as you get the range, start shooting back, Al,” Eason barked.  The feline eased back on the throttle as the Vostokie ship tried to get higher.  There was the sound of a shot as Al started firing his bolt-action rifle.
        A plume of sand vented from the Vostokie’s belly and it rose higher.  “Damn!” Eason said, and moved his throttle forward.
        The two blimps maneuvered, each one jockeying for the twin advantages of height and direction.  Eason tried to keep the AM-5 broadside-on to the enemy despite the danger to himself, his crew or the gas envelope.  Facing broadside allowed all three of them to fire at the other blimp.
        A tug on his left shoulder, like a hard shove, followed by a burning pain and a sick realization that he’d just been shot.  Eason took his paws off the stick long enough to examine the wound.  It looked superficial, so he shook away the encroaching fog of shock and returned fire. 
        “Bill!  Bill” Alice cried, and when he looked back at her she pointed.  “They’re putting holes in us!”
        He nodded his comprehension, and yanked back on the ballast lever.
        The AM-5 shuddered as it lost all its remaining ballast and it rose dramatically.  Eason throttled the engine up, yanked back on the control stick, and the dirigible rose – over the enemy blimp.
        “Now!” he yelled.
        Al took careful aim and threw the surprise they had prepared.  It was a boathook, the metal parts sharpened to an almost harpoon-like edge, and it bore a slim cylindrical object with a string trailing behind it.  With a dull sound it penetrated the Vostokie ship’s envelope and hung there, a barely audible hissing sound as the hydrogen vented.
        Al yanked on the cord.
        The flare tied to the boathook ignited.
        The AM-5 barely made it away as the Orel exploded into flames, the flaming envelope collapsing over the gondola as it fell earthward.  The debris crashed into a field near the largest village on the main island and burned.  The fuel tank exploded after a few minutes.
        Eason slumped forward as Al and Alice cheered, finally feeling the pain and the dizzying blackness of shock trying to overtake him.  The wound was more serious than he’d thought, apparently.
        He – what was it he had to do?  Oh, yes – he had to get the AM-5 safely down with no ballast.  Eason looked at the controls, then at the ground.
        “Alice!  Start valving off the hydrogen – slow, okay?  Al, come up here and lend a paw, please.”  When Al came up to his seat he indicated the control lever.  “Keep us headed down, Al.”
        “With the holes in us, I’m surprised we’re not falling faster.  Hey!  You’ve been hit!”
        “I know.”
        “Looks bad, Bill.”
        “Thanks,” the feline said as he eased the throttle forward.
        Between the downward thrust, the leaks punched by Vostokie bullets and Alice’s careful use of the envelope’s relief valve, the AM-5 drew closer to the water near Accounting Island until it sat a foot over the surface.  Canoes and a few larger boats were converging on it.
        “Vent the rest of it, Alice,” Eason gasped as he killed the engine and leaned back in his seat.
        Darkness swooped over him then, the concerned, then frantic voices of his crew becoming impossibly faint.

January 17, 1913:

        President Jaan Harper sat and placed his paws on the desk in front of him, lacing the fingers together as he looked up at his Secretary for War.  He gazed up into the weasel’s eyes, then down at his paws as if he could see the blood on them.
        “It was our decision to send the militias to Spontoon,” he whispered.
        “The reports were true, Jaan – some of the militia units did go pirate and started working against us.”  The mustelid sighed heavily.  “They’re – hell the whole setup – is starting to become a problem.  Apart from each town’s posse they’re the only military we have, and I fear we’re starting to lose control of them.”
        “You may be right . . . and a lot of innocents died as a result.”  Harper opened a drawer and pulled out a small sheaf of paper.  The title on the first page read Treaty of Mutual Assistance.
        “That’s our contract with Spontoon?” the Secretary asked.
        “Yes,” the otter said as he flipped through pages to the one describing the financial terms and, specifically, how much Spontoon was to pay for services rendered to it by the Rain Coast.  As the weasel watched, the President got out his pen and lined through the figure, then wrote in a figure only one-third as high.
        Harper then signed the document and looked up at the weasel.  “Nothing can wash away the guilt of what’s been done,” he said, “but we shouldn’t burden the survivors.”

      A Busy Half-Century
       Tales of Rain Island