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Classification Romance (H/M), AU (sort of), adventure
Length Approximately 9,000 words; 22 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers None
Rating GS

 

 


30 August 1812
0600 Zulu
Boston Harbor

 

The sun was just stretching its rays over the eastern horizon as the lone black frigate crept quietly into Nantasket Roads. As a ship of war she had no set sailing schedule; she was not expected in Boston Harbor that day and few were around to welcome her.

An aged fisherman on his way to the docks caught sight of the silhouette on the horizon and shielded his eyes from the brightening light for a better look. His young country was fresh at war with the former motherland and the fear was that the Royal British Navy would blockade the port of Boston cutting off supplies and preventing the fishing fleet from taking its daily catch. The man’s eyes widened in disbelief, and he turned to his son. “Is that what I think it is, Pat?” The younger man put a hand to his brow, stared intently at the incoming frigate, and then he grinned at his father. “It’s the Constitution, Da. And she’s flyin’ a captured British Blue under our own Stars and Stripes!”
 


13 August 2004
1000 Zulu
Boston

 

Harm cursed quietly as he maneuvered the dark-colored official Navy sedan through the congested traffic. It was mid-morning and it seemed as if everyone had cut out of work early to head north to Maine for the weekend. When a particularly aggressive driver with home state Massachusetts plates cut him off forcing him to slam on the brakes Harm’s exclamation of annoyance woke a dozing Mac.

A quick stretch brought her fully awake and she glanced out the window at the Boston skyline. “I thought we agreed when you decided to leave last night that you’d wake me to share the driving.”

“I was on a roll,” Harm replied. “Until we hit this mess—it’s worse than the Beltway!”

Mac grinned at him. “ Be glad you weren’t here a couple of weeks ago when the DNC was in town. I heard that most of the locals took their vacations that week.”

“Then where is all this traffic coming from?” Harm bemoaned. At a snail’s pace they crept northward. Mac was surprised when Harm shifted lanes and signaled for the next off ramp into the mess that was downtown Boston. “Where are you headed, Sailor? Last I checked the Brunswick Naval Air Station was in Maine.”

“Funny, Mac. Actually, the investigation at BNS isn’t really pressing. We aren’t expected there until tomorrow. I wanted to leave early so that we could use these.” He pulled two tickets from his pocket. “Red Sox vs. White Sox at 7:05.”

Mac was already looking forward to a Fenway Frank with lots of ketchup, but she didn’t think Harm was that enthusiastic about professional sports. “Since when were you interested in baseball?”

“Since the Admiral (A.J. Chegwidden would always be “the Admiral” to Harm and Mac, despite his retirement.) said something about not missing an opportunity to experience the game in a classic ballpark like Fenway. He wants me to update him on the repairs to the stadium after the F-18 crash; he’s hoping that it will be restored in time for the World Series.”

“Isn’t that wishful thinking?”

“He’s recovering well; he should be able to attend the World Series.”

“Harm. I meant the Red Sox getting to the World Series.”

He flashed her a grin that told her he had known exactly what she meant. “Well, history is certainly against them.”

“So what are we going to do until 7:05?”

“I thought we’d play tourist. Check out the Freedom Trail, shop at Quincy Market…”

 

Chapter 1

13 August 2004
Docks
Boston Harbor

 

The year old frigate rocked gently in its berth, her masts, which once would have been the tallest structures on the waterfront, dwarfed by modern skyscrapers. Harm and Mac joined the line to board the USS Constitution.

“It’s an active duty station, you know, Mac.”

She smiled up at him. “Ever think of putting in for it?”

He laughed briefly. “Well, other than the fact you can’t land an F-14 on her, I’d have to cut off my legs at the knees to stand comfortably on her gun deck.”

They both stood comfortably on the spar deck as a young female petty officer lectured the group about the ship’s history.

“Now that’s something you wouldn’t have seen, “Harm said.

“What?”

“A female petty officer on board.”

“Are you saying a female couldn’t handle it?”

“I’m just saying that historically it wouldn’t have happened.” They moved down the short stairway to the gun deck as another officer took up the tour. Harm had to duck the crossbeams, but contrary to his comment about cutting off his legs, he could just stand between them.

“Imagine it, Harm. It must have been hell down here in the thick of battle.”

“Probably, but those men were real sailors. It was man against the sea against the enemy…”

 

19 June 1812
Washington Naval Yard
Alexandria, VA

 

Special courier delivered the message via the fifth cutter. Third Lieutenant Harmon Rabb received it, and, as no other senior officer was aboard, he took responsibility for sharing the news with the newly recruited crew. “Attention on Deck! Our government has declared war on Great Britain today. We are at war, gentlemen.”

A murmur started at the stern of the ship and made its way forward. The Gunner, Victor Galindez, stepped up. “The men request permission to give three cheers, Sir.”

“Permission granted.” Lt. Rabb joined in as the crew of the USS Constitution, green as grass but filled with enthusiasm, cheered the news of war.
 


27 June 1812
Potomac River
Annapolis, Maryland

 

Having completed loading supplies at Alexandria, the Constitution moved down river where deeper water permitted loading of her long guns and iron shot. From there she moved to Annapolis for more supplies and her spar deck battery of carronades. The pressure of war was upon them and Captain Isaac Hull knew he’d need a full crew in the months to come.

“Mister Rabb!”

“Sir!”

“Post notice that the USS Constitution is looking to fill her lists. We need more able seamen and boys. Heaven help us if we don’t have enough powder monkeys to see us through. They have a habit of getting themselves killed one way or another, and we’ll need reserves.”

“Yes, Sir!”

“And Mister Rabb…”

“Yes Sir?”

“Don’t mention that in the notice. We don’t want to scare them.”

“Yes, Sir.” Third Lieutenant Rabb sighed after he turned from the captain. Recruitment was the least favorite part of his job; now it looked like that was how he’d be spending his last days in port.
 


3 July 1812
Annapolis, Maryland

 

Rising quietly from the mattress on the floor, the young woman crept to the dirt-smudged window and lifted the sash as high as it would go. A loud banging started in the living area again as her father alternately kicked and cursed at the empty cupboards. The woman hesitated and then resolve hardened her features. Quickly she worked her long dark brown tresses into a braid to keep them from her face. She picked up the small bundle that contained her meager belongings and slipped out the window just as she heard her father begin to smash what little pottery they had left.

Sarah MacKenzie had had enough. After eighteen years of living with a drunken father she was making her escape as her mother had several years previous. Joseph MacKenzie was a strong bear of a man who earned a decent wage working on the loading docks in the harbor. Unfortunately most of that decent wage went to purchase intoxication on payday. Every Friday evening was the same; Joe received his pay with perfectly good intentions. Luck would have it that he had to pass by Sullivan’s Tavern on the way home to the cramped accommodations he shared with Sarah, and the scents and sounds emanating from the tavern never failed to call to Joe MacKenzie. Alcohol was his Achilles heel.

Sarah had seen her mother take her fair share of abuse from Joe when he would arrive home drunk and angry. Although it was his weakness for rum that emptied the family coffers, Joe passed blame to his wife for not managing the funds and keeping a better house. When her mother left it fell to Sarah to keep house and to try to keep peace with her father. He never hit her, but he made her life miserable. And it seemed to Sarah that there would be no rescue. No young man in Annapolis would even look twice at the daughter of a drunken wharf rat, and there was no desirable employment for a young lady of any social status, much less hers. The only profession open to her made Sarah shudder with disgust. However, she’d made her decision and she’d stick with it. She would find some way to survive.

 

4 July 1812
Annapolis, Maryland

 

Sarah had spent the night in the shelter of a large elm on the edge of town. After a meager breakfast of stale bread from her bundle, she cautiously headed to the town proper in hopes of finding a way out of Annapolis before her father found her. Eventually she made her way to the docks, all the while keeping an eye out for Joe MacKenzie. Gaining passage on a ship would be the fastest way out of town.

She studied the ships drawn up to the docks to determine how she might stow away on one. It became abundantly clear, however, that stowing away wouldn’t be a simple task; not only did Sarah know nothing of ships, but she also didn’t have enough food to sustain her for a long trip. And she had no idea where any of these ships were bound.

“Listen carefully, boys, before you sign your name to the lists!” At the far end of the docks a small crowd of young men and boys were gathered around a tall, dark-haired man dressed in a naval uniform. Sarah drew closer to listen to what was being said. “Life at sea can be rewarding, but you need to be prepared for its difficulties as well. When you sign on you’re signing on for high adventure, sure, but war is not all honor and glory. If you agree to sign on to the USS Constitution you can expect hard work, salt pork, bad water and weevily biscuits. You can expect to see some of your mates die. However, if you remain true to her, the sea can become your home and you can move up in the ranks, earning yourself a good wage.

“Tomorrow we’re bound north for New York to join John Rodgers’ squadron. I need to fill these lists today. Make your choice, gentlemen.”

Just as the officer was wrapping up his speech, Sarah heard the voice she dreaded. “Saaaayraaaah! Saaaayraaaah! Dammit, where have ya got to, girl!” Joe MacKenzie had made his way through town and finally to the docks in his search for his wayward daughter. In a moment of impulse and desperation Sarah ducked behind some cargo crates and reached into her bundle for the knife she’d taken from her father’s dresser. With a fleeting thought of regret she reached up and drew the blade across her braid. From the bundle she also drew a grubby shirt and pair of pants of Joe’s. Hurriedly she pulled on the pants underneath the skirt of her dress. Then she tore the skirt into a long length of fabric and, after removing the bodice, used it to bind her breasts close to her body. Finally she shrugged into the shirt and, without truly thinking it through, joined the line of boys signing into service aboard the USS Constitution.

Third Lieutenant Rabb was glad that his job of recruiting was almost over. Despite his Captain’s suggestion he couldn’t leave out the negatives when speaking to these boys; he’d seen too many disillusioned youths run away when the ship came to port again. Then not only did he have to recruit more, but he had to mete out punishment for those who were dragged back aboard. Chasing down runaway boys was a pleasurable sport for the young midshipmen who came from the “better” social classes. He looked up to see the last recruit in line, a teenager, short and slight of stature with unevenly shorn hair and baggy, filthy clothes. He looked as if he’d never stand up to the physical demands of a sailing ship.

“You sure you want to sign on for this?”

The young man looked nervously over his shoulder, as the sounds of some drunken lout grew closer. “Yes, sir,” he said as he bit his lip.

“You don’t look like you can handle it.” For a moment the boy looked him straight in the eye and Harm found he couldn’t look away from the brown depths that faced him.

“I’m tougher than I look. Where do I sign?”

Harm shook his head slightly, feeling like he must be going crazy to be drawn to this young man. Something about him bothered Harm, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. And he’d had enough of recruiting. It was this young man’s funeral. “Name?”

“Ssss….uh, Joe. Joseph MacKenzie.”

“Okay Joe it is. Sign here. See where the other boys are gathered on the Spar Deck? Join them and our purser, Mister Tiner, will provide you with the necessary uniform and other sundries.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” And with one more apprehensive glance over his shoulder Joe MacKenzie boarded the frigate. Harm watched him climb, still bothered by the teen. Perhaps it was the awful secrets he’d seen lurking in the boy’s eyes. Perhaps it was just that he was most definitely running away from something. Shrugging, it was the least of his problems as they prepared for war, he gathered his lists and followed the boys on board.

 

4 July 1812
Annapolis, Maryland

 

As she and the other boys followed the purser from the spar deck to the berth deck Sarah began to question the wisdom of her decision. Would she be able to continue to conceal her gender in the close quarters of the frigate? She would have to find a place somewhat private to change into her new duck trousers and blue flannel shirt. Mister Tiner had to duck a bit as he gave the new boys a tour of the berth deck, pointing out the hammocks that the boys would use in shifts according to which team they were on. Once a sailor was horizontal he had plenty of room in his eight-foot long hammock, but many of the men topped the five feet six inches of clearance that they had on the berth deck.

After the boys had all stowed their extra clothing and personal effects they were ordered back atop the spar deck for assignment to teams. Sarah found herself assigned to the portion of the crew under Lieutenant Rabb’s command. That worried her; he’d given her a long funny stare when she’d signed on, and she didn’t think he’d be easy to fool if she gave him any cause to pay too much attention to her.

The boys weren’t allowed to leave the ship but were told to get some rest, as tomorrow the real work would begin. Sarah was headed below decks when she caught sight of the third Lieutenant and overheard him talking to the Gunner.

“I see the ladies have come to say their goodbyes, Vic.”

“I only have eyes for Jennifer and they know it, Mister Rabb. I think her friends find you more of an attraction.”

That made Lieutenant Rabb laugh. “I’ll add them to my collection, then. Ladies in every port. Who are they?”

“The one in the middle is Harriet, but you had better leave her be. I’ve heard that the second lieutenant has his eye on her.”

“Roberts? I thought he had a thing with the librarian in Washington.”

“Just passing on the scuttlebutt, Sir. Now, Teresa Coulter…there’s a southern belle that has available written all over her. And she’s coming north to Boston with Jen.”

“I’ll think about it,” Rabb said with a smile.

Sarah frowned to herself as she descended into the murky light of the gun deck. It sounded as if the third lieutenant was a womanizer; no wonder he gave her a funny feeling.

 

Chapter 2

5 July 1812
Chesapeake Bay

 

Some men are born to the sea; others have to work at it. As the Constitution rolled down the bay under a light wind many of the new recruits found their stomachs rolling along with her. Sarah was one of those whose guts revolted at the motion of the ship, and she spent the morning hanging her head over the rail and commiserating with one of the other boys in her team. When drill time came she was still a bit green around the gills, but she swallowed her nausea and called on her pride to keep up with the other new boys.

Never in her life had she imagined how much work went into sailing a ship. The Constitution sported three masts and what seemed like acres of sail and miles of rigging. Captain Hull wanted his new crew to become adept at taking down and hoisting the sail at a moments notice. Sarah just wanted to crawl into her hammock and sleep. She had painful new blisters on her hands and could barely hold onto the rigging rope as she assisted her team in hoisting the jib sail.

Despite the sea sickness and the hard work Sarah had managed to keep an eye on Lieutenant Rabb; she noticed right away that, unlike the other lieutenants, he took an interest in all the men in his command right down to the boys such as she. He seemed to have a good sense for finding weak spots in the team and adjusting jobs so as to make them all work more efficiently.

“Joe…Joe…Joe!”

Sarah started and looked up straight into Rabb’s serious face. Darn it! She’d almost forgotten she was supposed to be Joe. “Uh…you can call me Mac, Mister Rabb.”

“Mac?”

“Short for MacKenzie.”

“Okay, Mac. While you were daydreaming you missed my order for you to join Mike in climbing the mainmast.”

It took a minute to sink in. “The mainmast, Sir?”

Rabb grabbed her shoulders and turned her to face the middle of the deck. “That one, the one in the middle of the ship, Mac.”

One look up at the mainmast’s 220 feet was enough to tie knots in Sarah’s stomach again. She didn’t dare disobey the lieutenant, however; earlier in the day she’d learned that the penalty for disobeying an order was 12 lashes. What scared her even more than that was the fact that removing her shirt to receive them would reveal the secret of her gender. So she swallowed hard and followed the other boy, Mike, up the mast.

From the shore, even from directly below on deck, a mast appears to be still, moving straight forward as the sails propel the ship. That, however, is an optical illusion. In reality the mast is rolling with the ship and, due to the physics of the situation, the higher one climbs the more one feels the motion. This Sarah discovered rather quickly as she ascended the mainmast. It wasn’t long before the thought of 12 lashes didn’t matter. Had she anything left in her stomach it would have come up. Instead she clung to the mast with one hand, and grabbed the nearest rigging rope with the other, as her body was racked with dry heaves. She couldn’t move up or down. She was stuck.

Harm watched from below as the boy Mac stopped his climb. “MacKenzie, that was an order!” The boy didn’t move. “Climb, Mac, one way or the other!” When the boy still didn’t move Harm gave a snort of impatience and moved to climb the mast himself.

“I’ll go up after him, Sir!” One of the able-bodied seamen was ready to give MacKenzie a hard time of it.

“Do you think a few years as an officer means that I’ve forgotten how to climb the rigging?”

“No, Sir! I just…”

“I ordered him up there. I’ll get him down.”

Harm climbed confidently up the mast until he was positioned just below Mac. He could see that fear had paralyzed the boy. “You can’t stay there, Mac; first storm we meet you’ll be blown out to sea. Listen to me. I’ll tell you where to place your feet and hands and we’ll make it down, okay?” The boy mustered up a nod and they slowly made their way back down to the deck.

Once there Harm gave the rest of his team a break, waiting until they were alone to address the boy. “I could assign you 12 lashes for disobeying an order.” Although Mac tried to hide it, Harm saw the boy flinch slightly. Harm sighed; he should have gone with his gut instinct and dissuaded this boy from signing on. “Instead I’m reassigning you. During the next battle drill report to the Gunner, Mister Galindez, and he’ll show you your duties as a powder monkey; that should keep you far away from the rigging. Until then you can report to Mister Chegwidden.”

“Chegwidden, Mister Rabb?”

“The cook, boy, the cook. I’m sure he’ll be grateful for the help. Now get yourself to the galley and tell him I sent you!”

“But…”

“Don’t make me regret not giving you those lashes, boy!” Harm watched as the youngster turned and resignedly made his way below deck. His good sense was still telling him something wasn’t right about the boy.

It didn’t hurt that the boy was being reassigned to Galindez’ team. Whatever wasn’t right about Mac, the fact that he himself felt an odd connection with the boy made things awkward at best, and downright frightening at worst. Rabb brought a picture to his mind: the ladies who had come to see the Constitution off. He smiled in appreciation of their beauty. Just as quickly, his smile turned into a frown of puzzlement as Mac’s image superimposed itself over that of the ladies. With a sigh and a shake of his head, Rabb returned to his duties. At this point, keeping busy was his only option.

Sarah had hated being singled out by her failed attempt to climb the mainmast, but she was grateful for the reassignment to the galley. A.J. Chegwidden was a gruff old sea dog, but she could tell it was mostly bluster. And although working with the cook meant long hours to feed the more than 400 crewmembers, it was less physically demanding than working to sail the ship. Her other job as powder monkey wasn’t extremely physical either, but it was very dangerous. In the days following her reassignment they’d drilled nine times at battle stations. Sarah had learned to quickly descend into the filling room located far aft on the lowest, or Orlop, deck. There she received 6 pound packages of powder from one of the gunners mates, and then she ran it as fast as she could to her gun team.

The gun deck was a mass of hellish confusion during battle drills, especially with such a green crew. The long guns recoiled when shot and powder monkeys like Sarah had to grow adept at dodging both men and guns to avoid being flattened. Not to mention avoiding the men lighting the fuses so that her own powder wouldn’t blow her to kingdom come. The noise was deafening; Sarah couldn’t hear a word her team leader said, but he’d give her a good cuff if she was slow—that was all the communication she needed.

The captain demanded a shot every two minutes and Sarah wasn’t about to be the weak link in her team. Every now and then she caught the Third Lieutenant watching her as if he was waiting for her to screw up again; she was determined not to give him the satisfaction.

Harm had kept a sharp eye on the boy MacKenzie during all the battle drills. He was satisfied that he had found the right niche for the boy, but he still wasn’t satisfied that all was right. Mac performed his duties well as long as he didn’t have to climb the rigging again, but he was a loner. He seemed to prefer the company of the cook to the men in his mess. Harm was sure the others tolerated him only because the boy gave them his daily ration of grog.

Of course there was also the question of why he was spending so much time bothered by the boy. He’d never let himself pay over much attention to any of the boys before…

 

16 July 1812
off Egg Harbor, New Jersey

 

Captain Hull was true to his word. He drilled his crew nine times in seven days, and on the 12th of July he had rounded the Virginia Capes and headed north to join Commodore John Rodgers. When ships were sighted northward and inshore of the Constitution Hull headed for them, thinking they might be Rodgers’. However, all five were British men-of-war and the hunt was on.

 

17 July 1812
Somewhere off the US coast

 

The situation was not looking good for Constitution as she tried to outrun her pursuers. At sunrise the wind had died, and the ship would not steer. Captain Hull wasn’t going down without a fight, however; he called on his inexperienced crew to drop two of the cutters in the water and commence towing. Unfortunately the more numerous British were gaining!

“Captain Hull!”

“Mister Morris.”

“Might I suggest, Sir, that we attempt to kedge the ship?”

“Is that possible, First Lieutenant?”

“I believe so, Sir. We’re only in about 20 fathoms. I’m sure the men can kedge her faster than we’re moving now.”

“So ordered then. Have every available man aboard man the capstans!”

The kedge anchors were strapped to the cutters already in the water. The first moved out about 200 yards and dropped anchor. Meanwhile the men aboard turned the capstans as rapidly as possible to wind the ship to a position over the anchor. As they were doing this, the second cutter was advancing with the second anchor. It was a grueling job and Mac felt as if her limbs were deadweights after the first anchor was wound, but she refused to give in to her exhaustion.

After two hours of kedging the men were ready to drop, and the Constitution was still loosing ground. At 9 AM one of the ships opened fire.

“MacKenzie!”

Mac was so tired she wanted to just crawl into her hammock and die. She had to keep up with the men, though, or she might be discovered.

“Sir,” she spoke wearily.

Harm felt a tug of compassion for the lad and wished that he could let him rest, but today they were not only fighting their enemy, but also the sea. Every man aboard was needed. “Look sharp, Mac! Your gun team has been ordered astern to man one of the guns repositioned there.”

Somehow she found the energy deep down inside to move quickly with her team. At least the stern guns were closer to the filling room. She was sure her heart stopped as she heard the booming carronades of the British, but all their rounds fell short. The Constitution’s shot went over and the chase continued.

Finally the wind came up and all hands put forth a maximum effort to maintain a margin of safety. Captain Hull ordered the drinking water pumped over the side in an effort to lighten ship. Mother Nature played with them as the wind alternately rose and died. By 7 PM Hull had all eight of his small boats towing. Mac was glad that Lieutenant Rabb seemed to overlook her for boat crew duty in the rotation and she alternated between assisting the cook and napping in a corner of the galley.

 

18 July 1812

 

At dawn the men were cheered to discover that their efforts, and a smart overnight breeze, had opened a three-mile gap between the Constitution and their pursuers. By noontime the situation was beginning to be comfortable, but the British were still in dogged pursuit. Captain Hull kept up his efforts to gain every last iota of power from the wind.

Fearful yet fascinated by the power of the wind in the sails, that evening Mac had crept up to the spar deck to watch as men set and reset the sails. It seemed as if the boatswain’s silver pipe never stopped whistling as he blew signals to the men. She saw Captain Hull peer ahead with interest and then confer with First Lieutenant Morris, whose portion of the crew was on duty in the rigging.

“What are you doing up here, Mac?”

She startled, surprised to see Lieutenant Rabb beside her. “Watching.”

“I thought you were afraid.”

“Of climbing, not of being on deck.” She watched the seamen suddenly appear panicked as they took in the topgallant sails and the jib. Men who had moments before been confidently plying the lines suddenly were running into each other. “What’s going on?”

It only took Harm a moment to read the situation. “The Captain has asked them to make it appear that that squall,” he pointed skyward, “is more intense than it really is. Hopefully the British believe it and drop their sails.” He looked down to find the young man listening intently and once more was stirred by what he saw in Mac’s brown eyes. And once more he questioned why he couldn’t seem to ignore the boy. As the rain hit he ordered Mac back below deck to the galley.

The British were fooled! By 11PM, the end of the second day of the chase, only one enemy could be made out, dead astern. Captain Hull continued to make hourly adjustments to the sails, seeking out every advantage. Early on the 19th Hull ordered the crew to wet the sails with seawater to gain more speed. As Constitution sped on the British gave up and turned northward again.

 

19 July 1812

 

In the days of drilling preceding the run-in with the British fleet Sarah had discovered that the officers’ quarters were a relatively safe place to wash up and change from one flannel shirt to another. If she timed it right there was no one in the wardroom and the officers were either asleep or standing watch. It was simple to slip into vacant quarters, to remove her dirty shirt and run a damp cloth over her arms, face and torso, and to swiftly dress again. During the grueling chase Sarah had gotten filthy and sweaty; she couldn’t wait to wash and change. However, she’d also lost track of the time and the watches.

Alone in the third quarters to starboard and believing all the officers to be still on deck, Sarah decided to remove the fabric she’d bound around her breasts so that she could really wash. She had just begun to unwind the cloth when she heard the door to the wardroom open and close. In a panic she grabbed her flannel shirt to her chest and looked for a place to hide, but it was too late.

“What the hell! These quarters are off limits, boy. You’ve earned those lashes this time!” Lieutenant Rabb reached for the boy, intending to haul him on deck and to make an example of him. Instead he got a fistful of flannel shirt and some other, printed fabric. Puzzled he peered at the faded, flowered material. His eyes traveled the length of the cloth and noted its location on her body, and Sarah saw realization dawn in Rabb’s eyes.

Desperate to escape and not thinking clearly about what would happen if she ran to the berthing area in her current state of dress, Sarah tried to duck past the lieutenant.

“Hold on!”

“Let me go!”

“Not a chance!” Harm looked quickly over his shoulder to see if anyone else was in the vicinity. Seeing no one he drew the door to his quarters shut and forced the struggling “boy” onto his bunk. When Sarah struggled even harder he shook her until she lost her breath and could do nothing but close her eyes and breathe so as not to pass out. Harm felt her give in and relaxed his hold, but didn’t let her go. “You little fool! What were you thinking?”

Sarah kept her chin up despite her fear. “I’ve been changing in here for a week!”

“That’s not what I meant. Whatever possessed you to sign onto this ship? Dammit, I knew there was something not right about you, Joe…Mac…whoever you are!”

“I…”

“Do you realize what danger you’re in? Do you realize there are over 400 men aboard this ship? And most of them are not gentlemen. To say nothing of what would happen if we were boarded and you were taken prisoner.”

“I just…”

“What the hell am I going to do with you now? A girl aboard ship…”

During the lieutenant’s ranting Sarah had pretty much figured that her virtue was in no danger from him. And she saw no reason why she couldn’t continue in her job, at least until they arrived in port. “Woman.”

“Excuse me?”

“A woman aboard ship. I’m 18; that makes me a woman.”

“Sweetheart, age has nothing to do with it.”

Sarah felt her face heat at that remark, but she was determined to get her way. “Besides, you don’t have to DO anything with me. I’m earning my way.”

Harm was worried about someone discovering that he’d recruited a woman. He was worried about her safety should they engage in battle. But at the moment he couldn’t think of anything to do with her but return her to her duties. “If anyone finds out…”

“No one suspects. Just let me keep doing my job.”

“I can’t let you continue as a powder monkey!

“I’ve been doing it. And doing a fine job of it, too!”

“You might be killed!”

“And what will happen if you tell the captain about me?”

Harm honestly didn’t know. And he didn’t want to find out. His options were limited. “When we return to Boston you’re leaving the ship.”

“Fine. That’s all I wanted anyway…” Hastily Mac pulled on the cleaner of her two flannel shirts.

“Hey…what am I supposed to call you?”

She smiled slightly. “Keep calling me Mac; MacKenzie is my family name.” That said she left the compartment.

 

Chapter 3

 

Unable to sail into the port of New York, Captain Hull took the Constitution to Boston to see if any orders had been left for him. Finding none, he decided to get clear of the coast and raise havoc with the British. Although the frigate spent six days in port refreshing the supply of drinking water and food stores, none of the enlisted was allowed to leave the ship; Hull didn’t want to risk losing any men now that war had begun. Captain Hull realized that he would need every man jack of his crew - even if they were horribly inexperienced - since their enemy, the Royal Navy, outnumbered them dreadfully and had twenty years of experience fighting the French.

Lieutenant Rabb was frustrated by the captain’s orders. He’d intended to see Mac on solid ground before the Constitution sailed again. However, he could think of no way to remove her from the ship without the captain’s knowledge. Instead he found himself keeping an eye on her whenever they drilled, hoping that nothing would happen to her.

She was right about one thing; she was doing a fine job as a powder monkey. None of the other boys was as fast as she in returning with the powder bags, and she seemed to have a sixth sense for avoiding the recoiling guns. She also continued to serve Chegwidden well; Harm had spoken to the cook and the man actually lost his gruffness when he spoke about the boy.

 

2 August 1812
Boston Harbor

 

The Constitution sailed and life settled into wartime routine over the next weeks. The crew practiced at battle stations, made iron-strapped canvas caps for the boarding parties, and cleaned and readied the small arms. Additional rigging was run parallel to existing lines should any vital piece be shot away.

Mac found herself fairly content during this time at sea. She knew her job and performed it well. She discovered that she liked that knot of anticipation that formed at the bottom of her stomach when the captain ordered battle stations; it was a far different life than she’d been used to in Annapolis. However, she found herself feeling lonely. She didn’t dare befriend any of the sailors, for fear they’d discover her secret. When things were quiet, usually partway into the third watch, she’d carry her loneliness with her up by the catheads, lean over the rail, and let the wind ease her troubles.

“What are you doing up here, Joe? Or should I call you Josephine?”

“Please don’t.”

“I can’t keep calling you Mac. That’s a boy’s name.”

“That’s who I am. In this reality I am Mac. I can’t be anyone else aboard ship.” She felt him move behind her and place a hand on her shoulder. Good sense told her she should shake it off, but she was tired of shouldering her burden alone.

“Why are you here, little girl?”

She felt her anger buoy her up a bit and knew he’d done it on purpose. “I thought we’d agreed that I’m a woman.”

“I haven’t agreed with you on anything yet.”

She sighed. “I had to get away from my father. His drinking drove my mother away years ago. I couldn’t stand it anymore. This seemed like a good option at the time.”

Harm didn’t know what to say, so he said simply, “I’m sorry.”

“I’ll live…unless I get killed by the British first.” She turned to look up at him in the darkness. “What are you doing here?”

“I work here.”

“No, I mean here…now.”

Something about the way she asked made Harm want to open up to her. “This is one of my favorite places aboard ship, here where you can really feel the wind in your face.” He turned her slightly and pointed over her shoulder. “See there up on the bowsprit? When I was a boy…”

“You were a boy?”

“A powder monkey when I was 12, but I wasn’t as quick as you.” He gave her a quick smile. “I used to climb out on the bowsprit when no one was looking. Out there, with nothing under your feet it feels…” He stopped.

“Feels what?”

“You’ll think it’s silly.”

“No I won’t. You listened to my troubles without thinking they were silly. Tell me.”

“It feels like I imagine it must feel like to fly.”

Sarah didn’t reply; she just reached out and squeezed his hand to show she understood. They stood like that for a few minutes, each lost in thought, enjoying the night wind. Then he ordered her below.

“I don’t have to take orders from you,” she said.

“Joe MacKenzie does, and that’s who’s on this ship. You said so yourself.”

She turned and stepped away, then turned back. “I’m Sarah,” she said, before heading for the stairway. He watched her go and wished he really could fly her to safety.

19 AUG 1812 (2 pm EST - don’t know the ZULU time!)
600 miles SW of Cape Race, Newfoundland

The call came from the southern watch: “Ship sighted, Captain!” Hull immediately gave orders to chase the unknown vessel. Their victories in the previous days had brought much-needed confidence to the men. They had captured and burned one British merchantman, and rescued four American ships under attack by a British war sloop, all since setting sail from Boston. Harm’s team performed admirably during the chase, responding immediately and well to the captain’s orders. It was an hour before they were close enough to determine that she was a full-rigged ship on the starboard tack, and another thirty minutes to determine that she was a frigate.

Shortly after, the pursued frigate lay her main tops’l to the mast. Captain Hull crowed: “That’s the signal! She wants to duel, men! We’ve got our work cut out for us!” He didn’t know how right he was. “Take in the topgallants, stays, and flying jib!” he yelled. “Haul up the fore an’ main! A second reef for the tops’ls, and send down the royal yards!” The crew gave three cheers when the captain beat to quarters.

“And so it begins,” Rabb whispered, “again.” With a brief glance around to see if he could spot Mac - unsuccessfully, as it turned out - he went to lead his team in their vital participation in the battle. It seemed only moments later when the British frigate ineffectually discharged her starboard broadside at the Constitution.

“To larboard, men!” Hull ordered, hoping to disorient the enemy gunners.

“Huzzah!” The crew was ecstatic when the next volley mostly flew over and through the rigging; only two shots made any contact with the ship at all.

“To starboard!” Rabb’s crew worked speedily to make the appropriate alterations to the ship’s course. The British frigate, fearing that the Constitution was maneuvering to rake their bow or stern, kept reversing course to prevent such an attack. Meanwhile, the gunners on the Constitution were firing only single, gauging shots, hoping for a lucky hit.

Below decks, Mac was racing with her loads of shot from the bottom of the ship to her gunner crew. They were preparing a double-shotted volley of round and grape shot for a full broadside against the British frigate. “Hurry up, there, Mac! We need another!!” Mac didn’t waste her breath replying, merely headed back down the precarious route to get more supplies. She managed a moment to think about the Third Lieutenant on the deck with his rigging crew. “Better them than me,” she thought as she raced back to her crew with another load.

Above, in response to the Briton’s flag-signal invitation to slug it out at close quarters, Captain Hull had brought his ship to bear for a broadside volley. He ordered the jib hauled down and let the main topsail shiver, slowing the Constitution down as he pulled up beside their foe. “Now, boys, hull her!” he shouted. Repeatedly, the big guns fired on the Brit and it wasn’t long before the enemy’s mizzenmast tottered and crashed over the starboard side. “Huzzah, boys! We’ve made a brig of her! Next time we’ll make her a sloop!” His crew gave three cheers and kept firing.

The British ship returned fire, but concentrated on shooting high in an attempt to limit the maneuverability of her enemy. Several shots connected, and some of the Constitution's braces were severed, and her fore royal truck was shot away, along with two halyards, one bearing an American flag.

Below, Mac's crew heard the horrific noise, and felt the ship's movement in reaction to the hits. "Mac!" her gun captain yelled. "Go up on deck and see what's happening!" Her speed had enabled her to amass several unused shots, and Mac nodded her assent to leave her post. Swiftly, avoiding the recoiling guns and the other powder monkeys, Mac made her way on deck. Up top, it appeared to her inexperienced eye that all was confusion. Fortunately, it was organized chaos for the men on deck and in the rigging. "What happened?" she yelled to a passing sailor.

"Get below, lad! They've shot through some of the rigging and we don't need you in the way! Can't y' see the fore royal is down??" he rushed on, not waiting to see if Mac obeyed his command.

Mac stepped aside, out of the way, and looked around. She noticed that the halyard with their flag had fallen to the deck. No one else, in the chaos, seemed to be paying attention to it. Biting her lip, she tried to catch the attention of one of the passing sailors. They all rushed by, pushing her aside roughly with gruff comments. "Get below!" "Out of the way, lad." "Off with you, then!"

Mac refused to be intimidated. The flag needed to fly. It represented who and what they were. Their cause. It had to go back up. She dashed across the deck and picked up the flag, and grabbed a sailor who seemed at a lull in his duties. "The flag! It needs to go back up!" she shouted.

"Then get it up there, lad!" With no warning, he hoisted her onto the rigging above them. Mac froze. Cannon fire was exploding all around her, and her own ship trembled from the force of her own volleys. The noise and the motion of the ship seemed exaggerated in her fear. Frantically, she looked around the deck. Her eyes stopped on Lt. Rabb. He was ordering his crew with precision, seemingly unperturbed by the action around him.

Mac screwed up her courage. Slowly, deliberately, she began to climb. Distantly, she heard her name, but she didn't stop.

"Mac! Mac!" Rabb stared in disbelief as ‘his' powder monkey was climbing the rigging. In the middle of a battle. "You're terrified of heights," he whispered to no one in particular.

Gaining the height of the topmast, Mac lashed the flag securely. "Don't look down. Don't look down. Don't look down." It had become her mantra. Carefully, focused on only each next step, she worked her way down the rigging. With a feeling of immense satisfaction, she set foot on the deck again - and was immediately grabbed and turned around.

"What did you think you were doing? There's a battle going on up here, and you are supposed to be below!!" Rabb couldn't hold her, so he settled for shaking her. "Now go!"

Mac blinked back tears as she raced toward the hatch. It wouldn't do for the men to see her crying.

"Mac! Wait!" Rabb grabbed her arm just as she made it to the ladder. He forced her chin up and met her accusing gaze. "That was a very brave thing you did." He held her gaze until he was sure she understood, then gave her an encouraging pat to send her below.

Rabb turned as he felt the impact of shot on the Constitution's hull. "Huzzah!" a sailor cried, "Her sides are made of iron!" And so the nickname of "Old Ironsides" was born.

The battle raged, with Constitution and Guerriere dueling mightily, each maneuvering for victory, but "Old Ironsides" succeeded once more. Hull scuttled the captured ship the next day, having overcome due to the strength and speed of his ship, and his crew.

He headed "Old Ironsides" for Boston, to accomplish repairs and resupplying, arriving on 30 August 1812.

 

30 August 1812

 

The triumphant Constitution sailed quietly into the harbor in the early morning light. The sail home had been uneventful, but the sailors were still high from their success against HBMS Guerriere. America had needed some good news, as the public had received nothing but bad reports from other fronts. Captain Hull was feeling generous and, as soon as Constitution was snugged to the docks, he allowed all but a skeleton crew to celebrate on shore.

Mac carefully folded her uniform and placed it atop her stowed hammock. She wished she could take it with her as a memento of her time aboard ship, but she didn’t want to be accused of stealing. It was bad enough that Joe MacKenzie would go down in the record books as deserting ship. The thought of the midshipmen looking for a boy who would be impossible to find did make her smile though.

She’d waited until most of the men had disembarked, wanting to slip away unnoticed. What she hadn’t realized was that Third Lieutenant Rabb couldn’t help but notice her.

“Where are you off to, sailor?”

“Mister Rabb. Shore leave, sir.”

“You’re out of uniform, boy.”

She smiled sadly at him. “How very true, Sir.”

He left the spot where he’d been leaning against the capstan and moved to her side. Looking down into her eyes he said, “Where will you go, Mac?”

“I…I’m not sure.”

“Perhaps I can help.”

Mac was unsure of his intentions. “I don’t…”

“Mac, let me help,” he interrupted. He raised his eyes and, looking over her head, nodded to someone waiting by the helm. The Gunner, Victor Galindez, stepped forward to join them. Mac felt panic at the thought of her secret being revealed, but the lieutenant’s hand on her shoulder kept her from running away. “He already knows, Mac. You can trust him.”

“Ready, Sir?”

“We’re ready, Vic.”

The Gunner shook his head in disbelief as he stared at Mac a moment. “My best powder boy…”

The three disembarked and left the docks behind. Soon they came to an Inn and Tavern where they were met by the three ladies Mac had seen when they left Annapolis. Victor grabbed the dark haired one and swung her around in a hearty hug before planting a kiss on her lips. The lieutenant gave each of them a more reserved embrace and a chaste kiss on the cheek. Mac stood back awkwardly, not knowing what to expect, but Rabb turned and pulled her forward.

“Here she is, ladies. Can you help her?”

Teresa Coulter smiled when she saw the way the lieutenant looked at the young lady dressed in hideous men’s garb. “Of course, Lieutenant. We have everything we need upstairs. Why don’t you and Victor just enjoy a meal and let us take care of things.” With no other options, Mac let herself be pulled along in Teresa’s wake by Jennifer and Harriet as they chattered about what they would do with her hair.

Harm had finished a hearty meal and was staring out the window nursing his ale when he felt her presence by his side. He looked up to see a beautiful young woman standing at his side. She’d been fidgeting nervously, but when his mouth spread into a slow approving smile she smiled shyly back. Her hair, which had grown back somewhat during her two months at sea, was gently curled, emphasizing her femininity. The simple cut of the dress revealed her curves. How in the hell had he ever thought she was a boy?

Wordlessly he rose from the table and took her hand, drawing her with him out the door and to a private nook in the street. Then he lowered his lips to hers and kissed her gently. He saw surprise in her eyes when he pulled back.

“I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.”

“You…well, why didn’t you?”

“That would have been a sight aboard ship; the lieutenant kissing a powder monkey.”

She was still overwhelmed by everything. “Why now?”

“Because a different location changes everything. I couldn’t kiss Joe MacKenzie, but I can kiss Sarah.”

And he did again. This time she kissed him back.

 

13 August 2004
Boston Harbor

 

After the guided tour they were given a few moments to wander the ship. Harm and Mac had separated as she took interest in the collection of small arms on display. She found him on the top deck near the bow of the ship, his face to the breeze blowing in off the harbor.

“What are you looking at, Harm?”

“I’m not looking at anything, Mac.”

She was a bit puzzled. “Then what are you doing up here?”

“I was just thinking,” he smiled, “that in her heyday, if you stood right here and she caught a good wind…well, it would feel sort of like flying.”

Mac smiled back at him. “You’re right, flyboy. I guess it would.”

Harm glanced at his watch although he knew she would be able to tell him the time if he asked. “Let’s go, Sarah. We have a date with the Red Sox.”

 

The End

 
 
   

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