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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 Six: Contracts

Washington, DC
June 12, 1917:

        A gauzy curtain eased aside and a dour equine figure looked out on the south lawn of the White House as the downpour continued.  It had been raining most of the day in Washington, turning a few roads into shallow streams and alleys into muddy tracks.
        A quote from the Civil War came to him:  “A fine old Baptist downpour.”
        Thomas Woodrow Wilson smiled despite himself.  If nothing else, the rain matched his present mood, not two months after the declaration of war against the Central Powers.
        There was a soft knock on the door and an aide poked his head in.  “Er, Mr. President?”
        The horse straightened, his dark pinstripe suit a contrast against his light gray fur.  “Yes?”
        “Sir, your guest is here,” the aide said diffidently.
        “Ah.  Send her in, please.”  He was not really looking forward to this interview, and he took off his glasses and polished the lenses with a pawkerchief as the woman was shown in.  He replaced the eyeglasses just in time and stood, paws clasped behind his back.
        “The Ambassador of the Rain Coast Republic, Mrs. Van Hook, Mr. President,” the aide announced.  He stepped aside as an equine femme wearing a black dress ensemble walked in.
        The two stood and regarded each other for a moment, with Wilson managing to conceal his distaste.
        She was outspoken, far too much so for a woman, and although he was in favor of women’s suffrage he was of the opinion that Rain Coast had gone entirely too far.
        She smoked – even in public.  Filthy habit.
        She was Socialist, and a Heathen (so he’d been told) in the bargain.
        But Edith liked her.
        His lips quirked into a wintry, formal smile.  “Madam Ambassador,” he said pleasantly.
        Abigail Van Hook returned the smile.  She was a bit shorter than him.  “Mr. President.  I was told by your Department of State that you wished to see me.  What can we do for you?”
        The President gestured to a chair.  “Please, ma’am, have a seat.  I wish to discuss something concerning the war that the United States now finds itself in.”
        Van Hook sat down.  “Yes, Mr. President?”
        “In the past two months we’ve started convoying supplies across the Atlantic to aid the British and the French.  We have also started moving supplies around Scandinavia in an effort to buttress the Russians.”  He paused and glanced at the window.  The rain had stopped, and the sun was shining on the wet grass.  “We would like to do the same thing in the Pacific.”
        The femme thought.  “That would require supplies being brought to Vladivostok.”
        “Correct.  With commerce raiders – or submarines – operating in the Pacific, we would appreciate assistance in keeping the convoys safe.”
        The Ambassador fished her cigarette case from her reticule and lit one.  She smoked for a few moments before asking, “Am I to understand, then, that you wish to hire some of our naval militia units to assist you?”  She smiled.  “That’s quite easily done, Mr. President.  A standard contract can be drawn up by our Embassy’s trade agent – “
        “Yes, Colonel House assured me of that.”
        The mare’s muzzle twisted into a moue of distaste.  “I find I do not like your Colonel House.  If he was any more of a boor, you could put a snout and a curly tail on him.”
        “He’s one of my closest confidants – “
        “Then you should find another.  In my opinion, he’s a far better author than a confidant.”
        The President’s expression grew dourer.  “I shall have Secretary Lansing call on you at your Embassy to set up the contracts.  Good day, Madam Ambassador.”
        Van Hook gazed up at him as she smoked for a few more moments, then snubbed the cigarette out in a nearby ashtray and stood.  She shook paws with him and was walking to the door when he coughed softly.  “Yes?”
        “I had been wondering, Madam, about something one of my aides told me.  Your husband has taken a job as a porter at Willard’s Hotel.”
        Van Hook smiled cheerfully.  “Sergei was bored, and the extra income would be welcome.  Besides,” and she chuckled, “it’ll keep him off the streets and out of bars.”  And she walked out.


June 15:

        “Abby’s a great find,” President Harper remarked to the snickers of the others in the office as they passed her report around.  “I knew she’d shock that parson’s son when she arrived, and I see that now that he needs us he actually has to be nice to her.”
        “We’ve got the contract drawn up, Jaan.  A total of eight militia locals will be involved.  With prize rules,” the Trade Minister added with relish.  “It’d be quite a coup if we captured a U-Boat, wouldn’t it?”
        “Yeah, but I don’t see that happening,” the President replied as he signed his name to the agreement.  “We need to make sure that all of our embassies, especially the one in Berlin, spread it around that we’re not declaring war.  This is just a business deal.”
        The head of Rain Island’s naval militia (the largest in the country, and growing large enough to be dignified with the title ‘union’) laughed.  “Yeah, business – which has the added benefit of keeping some of the boys and girls out of trouble.”


At sea aboard NM-24 Cedar
1 mile off Astoria, Oregon
July 1, 1917:

        Paws rummaged through a pocket in the heavy coat, coming up with two items wrapped in oilskin.  One was a salt lick, and was put back into the pocket.  The other was a plug of tobacco, and a piece was cut off with a penknife and lifted on the blade to the cervine’s mouth.
        Several minutes of chewing later the stocky elk spat over the bridge rail and scratched one antler as he waited.  His ursine first mate and the ovine helmsfur waited as well, as did the other three ships of the flotilla.
        “Phil, how long are we gonna wait before they come out?” the mate asked.  He squinted up at the sun.  “It’s already afternoon, fer Chrissakes, an’ we’ve been steamin’ in circles an’ wastin’ coal.”
        “Orders’re orders, you know, Jack,” Phil Crow replied.  “They’re supposed to be comin’ out today, so we can sheep-herd the lot to the Russkis.  Look on the bright side – at least we ain’t in the second flotilla,” he added, and at the mention of the ships sent on ahead to Russia the ursine mate stuck his tongue out and grimaced.
        “Cheap vodka,” Jack growled.
        “Cheap women,” the helmsfur said with a grin, and all three laughed.
        One of the speaking tubes to the bridge whistled.  Phil uncapped it and said, “Yeah?”
        “Farris, Boss, up in the crow’s nest.  I see ships headin’ outta the harbor . . . looks like, uh . . . four, five, ten steamers and – yep, a destroyer or some such.”
        “Great to hear it, Farris.  If anything changes let me know.”
        The elk put binoculars to his eyes and scanned the horizon for the oncoming ships.  The lookout was right; the lead ship had four slim funnels and guns.  “Jack, get your lamp and signal them.  ‘About time.’
        The bear laughed as he flashed the message, then watched the blinking light from the approaching destroyer.  “It says, ‘Where’s the beer?’”  The U.S. Navy was a ‘dry’ service, and the Rain Coast had never restricted the use of alcohol in its militia units.  Some of the larger ones had taken to brewing their own beer, notably a tasty ale that one fur said tasted like honey going down, but made your head hum like a swarm of bees.
        “Tell them the beer’s on me - when we reach Vladivostok,” Crow said, “and send a signal to Sequoia and the others to form up on the convoy as agreed.  With luck nothing’ll happen.”
         “Right, Phil.”  The American warship drew closer as the Cedar turned to take its place a mile from the convoy, and its signal lamp started to flicker.
        Jack grunted as he read the message.  “They want to send a liaison over.  What for?  Don’t they trust us?”
        Phil just nodded.  “It’s in the contract,” he pointed out.  “Didn’t you read it before you voted on it, Jack?”
        “Yeah I did, but it’s a good question all the same, Phil.”
        “I imagine they don’t trust us much, since ’12,” the elk said, “so this is a good opportunity to do some business, make some money and change a few minds, huh?”
        “Guess so.  Should I signal him to come aboard?” 

        A small motor launch was swung over the destroyer Grayson’s side and headed over to the Cedar.  A feline clambered up the ladder that was let down for him, while his single sea bag was hoisted aboard on a line.  The shoulder boards on his pea coat bore two stripes, one narrower than the other. 
        He straightened his coat and hat as Phil walked up to him and he asked, “Captain Crow, I presume?”  At the nod he saluted.  “Lieutenant Ken Miller, USN, sir.”
        Crow smiled and returned the salute, then extended a paw.  “Good to have you aboard, Lieutenant – er, junior grade, isn’t it?”
        The feline blushed.  “Yes, sir.  Just got promoted last month.”
        “Congratulations.”  He looked up at the bridge as Jack whistled and waved.  “Come on up to the bridge and I’ll show you around.”
        “Will someone see to my bag, sir?” 
        At the question Crow paused and gave the officer an arch look.  “I expect you will, Lieutenant.  There are no servants aboard my ship,” and he started away, leaving the feline to gather up his sea bag and hurry after him.
        When they got to the bridge Crow gestured to the ursine mate.  “Ken Miller, Jack Morton, my first mate.  You’ll be bunking with him for this trip.”
        The bear and the feline looked each other over, then shook paws.  Miller suddenly said, “Er, look, Captain Crow, I apologize, but -  “
        “But you’re used to having a rating do simple things for you, Lieutenant,” the elk said.  “I understand that.  This is a naval militia, not the United States Navy.  We do things quite a bit differently – here, everyone’s equal, the only differences are on the surface.”
        “And the pay,” the helmsfur said.
        Crow nodded.  “That too.  I was voted into the captain’s position by the crew of this tub.  Jack?  You want to show our guest around?”
        “Sure, Phil.  C’mon, Ken, I’ll show you where the cabin’s at and you can get your gear stowed.”
        The feline looked a bit dazed.  “Sure . . . Jack,” and he followed the bear out of the compartment.
        The helmsfur chuckled and scratched at the wool behind one horn.  “Gonna be an interesting trip, Phil.”
        “Let’s hope not too interesting.”


        At dinner that night crewfurs would relax and smoke and only occasionally glance at the American, who sat between Jack and Phil during the meal.  For his part, Miller enjoyed the meal, especially the half-pint mug of ale that was served with it.
        The feline finished drinking his beer and lowered the mug.  “That was some fine beer, Cap – er, Phil,” he said, coloring slightly.
        The elk chuckled.  “Relax, Lieutenant.”
        “Please, call me Ken.”  The officer smiled.  “As you say, I need to get used to being here.”
        Jack slapped the American on the shoulder.  “Good, ‘cause we’re on this pleasure cruise for another – what, ten days or so?”
        “Yeah.  Nearer two weeks,” Phil replied.  “The plans are to meet up with another column from Frisco, coal up in Spontoon and then it’s straight on to Vladivostok.”  He glanced at Miller.  “Ever been to Russia, Ken?”
        “No.”  He looked a bit flustered.  “Actually, this is my first trip, ever.”
        Jack started to grin.  “Then why are you here?”
        “I guess the Grayson’s Captain wanted me to get some experience.  And maybe learn a few things about your setup.”
        The captain and first mate exchanged glances.  The young feline’s first trip out?  And he’d be crossing the Line as well?  Yeah, he was in for at least one experience.  “Such as?”
        “Well, um, I notice that you have a lot of women aboard.”
        “Yeah.  About a third of the crew.”
        “Are they really useful aboard?  Women are traditionally bad luck, aren’t they?  I mean, according to tradition.”
        Phil’s muzzle broke into a broad smile.  “All the women here – and on the other ships – can hold their own against any man.  I beat out our chief engineer for Captain by two votes.”
        “Sure.”  Phil put two fingers in his muzzle and whistled.  “Janet!  Janet, you in here?” he called out as the room quieted.
        A pleasant alto replied, “I’m here, Phil.”
        “Come on over here, okay?  Got someone you should meet.”
        Miller’s eyes went wide as a squirrel femme stood up and walked over to the table, her beer mug in one paw.  A reddish cast to her gray fur and her dark red headfur hinted at Southwestern American ancestry somewhere in her family. 
        He stood as she approached out of politeness and noted that, although she had a very pleasant feminine voice, this woman stood an easy two inches taller than his own five foot ten, and looked to outweigh him by about fifty pounds.
        And not an ounce of it fat.
        “Ken Miller, this’s Janet Waters.  Janet, Ken.”
        “Pleased to meet ya,” and her grip matched the rest of her physique. 
        “Pleased to meet you too,” and the feline surreptitiously flexed blood back into his paw.  “Phil says he beat you out for captain by two votes.”
        “Yeah.  His and mine,” she replied.
        “You voted against yourself?  Why?”
        The squirrel grinned.  “Simple, Ken – I know more about engines than he does, an’ he knows more about leadin’ furs than I do.”  She drained her mug and set it on the table, giving a soft burp before adding, “Almost time for my watch.  Later, guys.”
        “Later, Janet.”


        At breakfast the next day, Phil sat down next to Ken as the latter yawned.  “Rough night?”
        “No, slept pretty well,” Ken replied, “but I woke up when Jack woke up.  He had the third watch.”
        Phil nodded as he stirred sugar into his coffee.  The wardroom was largely empty.  “Got a question for you.”
        “Why are you here, on my ship?”
        “Well, the contract requires a liaison, and I suppose it’s good practice . . . ah, I see now what you mean.  Captain Daniels briefed me that I was going to be aboard what was essentially a p - mercenary ship,” the feline said.
        “Pirates, you mean.”
        “Sorry, sir.”
        “No need to be sorry about it.  Tell the truth and although you may hurt someone’s feelings, you won’t go wrong.”  Phil smiled.  “Captain Daniels the skipper of that destroyer out there?”
        “Like to meet him someday, I’m sure we’d have a lot to talk about.”  The elk looked up as a crewwoman walked in and gave him a slip of paper, which he read before stuffing it in a shirt pocket.  “Five more freighters joined us last night,” he said, “so now that we’re all here we can get going west.”
        Miller looked a bit diffident as he said, “A question, Phil.”
        “Your turn, huh?  Okay.”
        “I know I’m the liaison - unwanted cargo - but I could use something to do.”
        Phil grinned at the feline’s self-effacing manner, and chuckled.  “Okay.  You’re now third mate and assistant navigator.  If we take a prize, you get a crewfur’s share, same as all the rest of us.  Deal?”
        “Deal.”  The two shook paws.


July 7

        The flotilla and the fifteen cargo ships stopped at Spontoon only long enough to replenish their coal and oil bunkers before setting course for Vladivostok. 
        So far, nothing had happened, although the Rain Coast crews were aware that they were being carefully watched by the Spontoonies.  Two semi-rigid airships belonging to the Spontoon Militia floated overhead.
        The Sequoia was equipped with one aerial militia unit consisting of a rigid frame design popularly known as a ‘baby Zeppelin.’  Its Syndic had decided against launching the craft while in Spontoon waters.
        Better part of valor and all that.


July 9
180 degrees West Longitude:

        Ken Miller sighed, stretching to relieve a sudden kink in his back.  He hadn’t had such a hard day since his plebe year at Annapolis.
        The day had started when a group of crewfurs dressed as pirates rousted him out of bed in his underwear and herded him onto the main deck with about a dozen other members of the crew, male and female.  Janet Waters was there wearing a long overcoat, a wicked-looking sword and a three-cornered hat that looked as if it had been made out of paper.  “Kneel, subjects, before the Almighty Queen of the Sea!” she had roared, and swept her sword out in salute.
        The other crew members shoved and elbowed the dozen or so, Miller included, to their knees as Jack stepped out on deck, dressed in women’s clothes complete to a wig crafted from a dirty mop.  A paper crown teetered precariously from the wig as he puffed on a cigar and took a seat on a hatch cover.
        “Queen of the Sea!” Janet said loudly.  “These youngsters have come to humbly ask your permission to travel the seas under your protection.”
        “That so?” the bear asked.  He took another puff on the cigar and said, “They shall have to show me that they’re ready.  You there!” and he pointed at one of the pirates.  “Is the baptismal font ready?”
        “Yeah, Your Majesty.”
        “Then dunk ‘em good and let’s get started.”
        The ‘baptismal font’ was a barrel filled with filthy water from the Cedar’s bilges, coupled with a liberal swabbing of some smelly muck that Miller suspected had started its career somewhere in the galley.  There was a second dunking, and he was grateful he wasn’t the last one to hit the barrel the second time as the water had grown quite foul.
        The rest of the day consisted of a series of ‘tests’ that included scrubbing the entire deck on paws and knees as the sun rose higher in the sky, with lunch made up of hardtack biscuits and water.  Of course, the Queen and ‘her’ piratical crew made things as hard as possible on the hapless furs, taunting and in some cases insulting them as the day wore on.
        Finally the group was on their knees again before the Queen, who had enjoyed the festivities from ‘her’ throne.  “In the name of my husband,” and she spat, “King Neptune, I now proclaim that these puny excuses are now sailors, and they have Our blessing to sail the seas – without having to go through this again.”
        The rest of the crew cheered and mugs of beer were brought out for everyone.


July 11:

        Four days out from Spontoon the convoy entered the island chain that straggled between Vostok Island and the major islands of the Tillamook Confederacy.
        “I don’t like it one damned bit,” Jack murmured as he surveyed the horizon with his binoculars.  On the other bridge wing Ken was busy doing the same thing, helping out the lookouts up in the crow’s nest. 
        “Isn’t there any other way through to Vladivostok?” the feline asked loudly, his voice carrying through the bridge.
        “Nope, not a chance – or if we did it’d take months ‘stead of weeks,” the bear replied. 
        The voice tube whistled.
        At the same time a lookout shouted, “Ship bearing Green Two Zero!”
        Everyone looked to port in time to see a ship about five miles away moving from the cover of an island.
        “Ken, go get Phil.”
        “No need, Jack,” the elk said.  “What have we got?”
        “See for yourself.  Shall we signal the Sequoia and the Grayson?”
        “Hell, yes!  Why the hell that damned gasbag ain’t up yet is beyond me . . . “ Phil’s voice trailed off as he studied the image in his binoculars. 
        “Damn!”  He exclaimed as a puff of smoke erupted from the ship.  “Battle Stations, Jack.”
        “Right.”  He motioned to the helmsfur, who started to sound short blasts on the ship’s whistle. 
        Crewfurs ran to their posts. 
        “Signal from Sequoia – the gasbag fouled on one of its mooring lines.  They were delayed launching, and it’s on the far side of the convoy.  It’s coming as fast as it can.”
        “Good.”  The AM-24 was supposed to hover over the convoy, providing the escorts with a bird’s eye view of the surroundings.  “Tell them to let us know what we’re up against, and get the guns ready.”
        The Cedar, along with its three sister ships, boasted armor plating as well as one-pounder and three-pounder guns.  Only the Pine had hydrophones, which was why it was trailing behind the formation to listen for submarines.  The Grayson, also equipped to listen for submarines, was at the head of the column.  Furs raced to the guns and yanked canvas covers off of them, loaded them and trained them out.
        “Who the hell were they shooting at?” Phil asked.
        “Grayson.  Didn’t hit her, though – fell short,” Jack replied.  “The Yanks are charging at ‘em.” 
        There was a drone as the AM-24 moved overhead, the crew waving to the furs below.  The boat-shaped gondola sported long, thin pipes on either side, and Ken studied the odd-looking airship curiously.
        There was a distant boom and his attention was yanked back to the sea.  “What the?” Ken asked, craning forward as he peered out to starboard.  A column of smoke was rising several miles away.  “Damn – Phil, I think they got one of our ships!”
        Crow swore and started looking as a signalman reported, “Pine reports a submarine just fired on one of the freighters.  They’re hunting the sub now.”
        “Damage to the freighter?”
        “They’re abandoning.”
        “Dammit.  Helm, get us within gun range of the raider.  We need to either sink it or drive it off.”  He crossed himself and mumbled, “I hope Gypsy’ll be okay . . . “
        “Right, Phil.”  The Cedar put on more speed, and her forward three-pounder fired as the range closed.  A splash showed that they weren’t quite close enough yet.
        The raider traded blows with the Grayson as the AM-24 maneuvered to within a few hundred yards.  “They’ll get shot down,” Miller said.
        “Nope,” Jack said with a nasty smile.  “Those aerial militia guys are clever furs.  You watch.”
        A groan erupted from the feline’s throat as smoke wreathed the dirigible, but the groan died as the smoke resolved itself into six separate trails that arrowed down at the raider and struck its wheelhouse.  “Rockets?”
        “Didn’t I tell you?” Jack said gleefully as the raider started to come about and the Cedar joined the Grayson in pouring fire into it.  Fires broke out and debris flew into the air as shells found their mark.
        “So – so that’s what those tubes were for!”
        “Yeah,” Crow said.  “They used those to keep from setting themselves on fire.  Worked out really well, looks like.”
        The signalman came running.  “Captain, the Pine’s reporting it drove the sub off.  Captain Lee sends her regards.”
        Phil smiled.  Gypsy was okay, and he hoped that Joel and Tom, the captains of the Sequoia and the Fir, were as well.
        The surface raider absorbed twelve hits and two volleys of rockets before it too ran for safety.  The convoy remade its formation, now minus one ship, and resumed course through the island chain with the AM-24 flying overhead at an altitude of a thousand feet, the better to see anything approaching.


July 14
Sea of Okhotsk:

        “Message from Sequoia, Phil.  The AM-24’s spotted a destroyer and three frigates headed our way.”
        The elk scowled.  “How far away?  Bearing?”
        “Red Ten, closing at ten knots.  About ten miles away,” Ken replied.
        “Signal the Grayson and sound Battle Stations.”  The cervine pulled his salt lick out of a pocket and ran his tongue over the deeply grooved surface, smacked his lips and wrapped it back up in its oilskin pouch before stepping out onto the bridge wing.
        “Grayson’s signaling, Captain,” Jack said.  “’Ships approaching flying the Saint Andrew.  Friendly.’”  The bear grinned.  “I think we’ve run the gauntlet okay, Phil.”
        “Only lost one ship,” the elk said with a sigh of relief.  With more ships protecting the convoy the remaining fourteen freighters would make port.  And the more ships that made it through safely, the higher the bonus would be.  He turned and looked at the feline from the United States.  “Lieutenant Miller.”
        The captain of the Cedar drew himself up out of his usual slouch.  “Been an honor and a pleasure to have you with us, and I hope you learned something.”
        Miller grinned and saluted; when the salute was returned he said, “The honor and the pleasure are all mine, sir.  And yes, I’ve learned a great deal.  When will I be transferred back to the Grayson?”
        “Not until we reach port.  Too much chance of another submarine or raider showing up.”
        “Okay, Phil,” the younger man said with a smile.
        He was looking forward to his share.

      A Busy Half-Century
       Tales of Rain Island