Washington has fallen! Legions of 'grays'—dead soldiers reanimated on the battlefield and pressed back into service of the Southern Cause—have pushed the lines as far north as the Ohio River. Lincoln has moved the government of the United States to New York City. He needs to stop the juggernaught of the Southern undead 'abominations' or the North will ultimately fall. But Allan Pinkerton, his head of security, has a plan...
The Northern newspapers are heralding Braxton Wright as the Hero of Parkersburg, but the engineer who designed the Northern walking monitors—Tall Guns—knows the truth. He acted more out of panic than heroism and is certain he got his best friend, physician Lawrence Hancock, killed in the cold waters of the Ohio as a result. What he would like is to be forgotten.
But at Pinkerton's urging, Lincoln sends Braxton on a mission aboard General Sherman's airship deep into Southern territory. He will find Hattie Lawton, the woman who is the North's most capable spy, and together, they must stop the Southern undead from rising again!
Tracy is a legend in the fantasy field with his DragonLance novels, many of them cowritten with Margaret Weiss. Tracy has also been a friend and fellow instructor at Superstars Writing Seminars. His novel is a weird steampunk version of the Civil War, with the North having giant battle machines and the South fighting with magic and …dragons.
I first met Dan Willis when he volunteered to work with us at the WordFire Press booth at a couple of comic cons. We reissued his solo steampunk novel THE FLUX ENGINE, and he also called our attention to the new book he was finishing with Tracy Hickman.– Kevin J. Anderson
"It's the civil war with dragons, zombies and steampunk technology. What's not to like? With a well-developed main character and a creative plot that moves forward at an ideal pace, Lincoln's Wizard delivers! I love the "what if" possibilities this novel explores and can't wait to read the next book in the series."– Amazon Review
Lieutenant Braxton Wright released his grip on the brass levers controlling the Monitor's gun turret as the craft turned, following a bend in the Ohio River. The condensation of his own sweat chilled the iron plating that surrounded him. He sat on the gunner's seat, bolted to the floor, nervously wiping his hands on his stained cotton trousers. His blue sack coat was stuffed between the rungs of one of the vertical support trusses behind him. A kepi forage cap sat back on his head as he squinted through the gun port, seeking any sign of the enemy on the dark shoreline. Cool air poured in through the observation slits, contrasting with the wet heat welling up through the grating at his feet.
A gibbous moon shone high in the sky, painting the landscape in shades of silver and leaving pools of inky darkness under every tree.
He wiped his hands again down his cotton trousers, trying to calm himself with the repetitive nature of the gesture. If there were Rebs out there, they'd see him long before he saw them. He felt certain all of West Virginia on the other side of the river could hear the Monitor's steam engine as it chugged and hissed from the deck below his feet. The engine had not sounded terribly loud in the factory tests, but in the dark stillness of the Ohio Valley it thundered.
Braxton took a deep breath, wiping his hands a third time, and reminded himself that only a lucky shot would penetrate their armored shell. Fixing this firmly in his mind, he gripped the sweat-slicked levers again and kept his vigil. Outside, a thick growth of trees reached out from the riverbank into their path.
"Come to starboard," he called down through the grated opening in the floor.
"Speak plain," came the answering call from Sergeant Fulton.
"I mean right," Braxton called again. "Come right just a bit."
The Monitor lurched, then began to drift right. Braxton rolled his eyes. Fulton was a good man, but he wasn't the tall gun's regular pilot. The regular crew missed their train at Albany.
All this trouble over a little slip of paper.
A telegram from Colonel Hendricks had reached them as they stopped for water in Steubenville. He'd been worried that the Rebs were preparing for a major offensive. Crew or no crew, Hendricks ordered the train not to stop in Marietta but continue down to Belle Prairie with the Monitor at once. Braxton and what crew he had were to get the Monitor into the fight before Hendricks' lines—weak and still forming up west of Belle Prairie—were overrun.
Rumors had already spread through the train station. The prevailing story was that General Longstreet had, under the cover of darkness, ferried a force of five thousand Grays to Blennerhasset Island west of Sharpsburg. Colonel Hendricks had been forced to sortie at once out of Marietta in order to head off the flanking maneuver by Longstreet. The Monitor had to arrive in Marietta before troops landed on the Union side of the Ohio River.
I'm not supposed to be here, he thought angrily to himself before calling down again through the grating. "How's your pressure?"
"Well, I'm a little nervous in this steel coffin of yours," came a different, cheerier voice from below, "and it's hot enough to boil lobster down here, but otherwise I'm fine."
"Not you, Laurie!" Braxton called back. "What's your reading, Fulton?"
Below him, Fulton checked the wall of gauges next to the pilot's seat.
"Normal," he yelled back. "You might want to give the cannon and traverse controls a whirl there, Lieutenant."
Braxton nodded. He pulled back on the lever that elevated the muzzle and, with a rush of steam, the gun barrel rose. He pushed the lever forward and the gun lowered to its original position. Swiveling his chair forward, Braxton stepped onto two metal pedals protruding from the floor. He pushed down on the left one. The turret rotated, rapidly turning left. Braxton used the right pedal to move the gun back. "It's good, Fulton. Get us into position around the bend … and pray this Monitor is just here to look pretty."
The gun controls worked, but that did little to lighten his mood. Braxton wasn't a soldier, he was an engineer. Much of the new tall gun design had been his idea. He was supposed to be back at the Yard, overseeing new construction of more iron-clad tall guns just like this one.
That was before Laurie's letter, offering to meet Braxton in Steubenville when he brought the Monitor down from the foundry. At the time, Braxton thought it a perfect place for a reunion.
"This isn't exactly what I had in mind when I said we should meet," Braxton said in the direction of the deck below.
"Funny you would say so," Laurie called back up. "This was exactly what I had in mind … two old Sharpsburg boys cruising down the Ohio in a war machine of unimaginable destructive power. What could be better?"
Braxton rolled his eyes.
"It was supposed to be an excuse to see you, Laurie," he groused. "Not an invitation to dodge Rebel shells. I was just supposed to deliver the weapon, not put us into harm's way."
"Well, you're in good hands, Brax!" Laurie said. "I'm the Regimental Surgeon for the Army of the Ohio now. If they put a hole in you, I'll patch you up."
"See," Braxton shouted back, "neither one of us are supposed to be here."
"You're my brother," Laurie smiled at him through the grate. "In heart if not in blood … it's just as well we be here together in this infernal contraption. I'm just glad you took the opportunity to deliver this monster in person like I asked. It lets me confirm that I'm still better looking than you."
"Well, that may change," Braxton muttered to himself. "The night's still young."
Braxton had been excited to see his childhood friend, right up to when they had off-loaded the tall gun at Steubenville.
He'd been regretting it ever since.
By all rights Braxton should have piloted the Monitor himself, but neither Fulton, nor Laurie could operate the main gun.
"We oughta be getting close," Fulton yelled up from the pilot house below. "I don't see nothin'."
"Maybe I should send up a Starlight Shell," Braxton called back.
"That beats a bugle call for letting 'em know we've arrived," Fulton snarled.
"We've got to see where we're going … it's not as though we're sneaking in here," Braxton answered. "Be ready to maneuver."
Braxton took his foot off the pedals and swung the gunner's chair around to the rear of the turret. A stove-like pipe descended from the top of the turret with a hinged door in it. Braxton took a long, slender canister from a bag hanging on the sidewall and slipped it into the opening. He shut the breech, locking it in place, and reached underneath, taking hold of a pistol grip attached to the bottom. Gripping the hammer with his thumb, he cocked it back.
"Firing," he yelled, then pulled the trigger.
The hammer struck, and a muffled report issued from the pipe. Silently Braxton counted, turning back to his gun. When he reached ten, a sudden burst of red light washed over the landscape.
The white ghosts of small boats stood out against the black surface of the water and Braxton could see artillery being set up along the shoreline.
Adrenaline flooding his veins, Braxton's hand jerked on the firing trigger and the Monitor's gun roared. He hadn't meant to fire. He hadn't even been aiming.
Fortunately, the Monitor's exploding shells meant a close shot would do. One of the shore batteries vanished in a cloud of fire and smoke as his errant shell hit its powder stash.
Flustered by his accidental shot, Braxton struggled to open the gun's breech. He jerked the release lever back and a smoking shell casing slid free, rattling around on the turret's floor. Somewhere outside, a cannon roared and he heard a ball pass close by, splashing harmlessly in the river.
The ricochets of bullets pinged off their armored hull as Braxton slid a new shell into the main gun. He slammed the breech closed and turned the turret toward the shore artillery. As he struggled to line up his shot, a bullet passed through the gun port, struck the side wall of the turret and embedded itself in the planking of the floor. Braxton cried out in surprise, reflexively jerking his hands off the gun controls. He leaned down to the small grated opening that connected him to the pilot house below.
"They've got us!" he yelled. "Take us up!"
O O O
"Where are they?" Colonel Jonathan Hendricks demanded, squinting through his spyglass across the dark, open field that separated his men from the Confederate lines. Hendricks had deployed his forces along a narrow line just west of Belle Prairie extending from the Ohio River on his left flank, on the south, and to the low Appalachian range on his northern right. Across the field, he knew in his gut, the Rebel force gathered, setting up for their attack. Even with the moon up, the shadows of the trees by the shoreline and the mist off the river obscured any movement, but he knew they were out there. "Do you see anything?"
This last was directed at the Colonel's adjutant, a young lieutenant with a mop of blond hair and a pockmarked face.
"I can't see anything, sir," he responded in a voice that made him sound much too young. "Are you sure they'll come tonight?"
"They'll come," Hendricks said. The Rebs had been ferrying their Grays across the river all day, several thousand of them if his scouts were to be believed.
Grays … an abomination straight out of hell, Hendricks thought. Bad enough the South should deal in live slave trade, but to then to enslave the dead was past the colonel's comprehension. Grays had no fear, no hesitation at charging into the darkness. As soon as the Rebel commander had his artillery in place, he'd attack. Hendricks knew that by the time he could see them, it would be too late to move his artillery. The Grays would sweep his lines, largely unhindered by cannon fire. By the time he got his artillery in position, his forces would be in the press of battle.
Which, he grimaced into the darkness, was why he needed the Monitor.
He took another look through his spyglass and swore. "Where are they?"
"Sir!" the lieutenant grabbed his shoulder as a blaze of light washed over the river bank to their left. "It's a starlight shell. It's them."
"About time!" Hendricks took advantage of the temporary light bathing the landscape in front of him. His heart sank. Three artillery batteries were plainly visible across the field, one covering each flank and one in the center with ranks of Gray troops in the spaces between them, ready to march.
"Can you make out their colors, Lieutenant?" he said, straining to see across the mile that separated them. Each Gray unit had a rallying flag, indicating their unit.
"Antietam sir," he responded. "And it looks like some Hampton Roads."
"Get the war historian up here," Hendricks ordered. "I want to know what we're facing. And get Major Thompson, I want him to redeploy his guns immediately."
The lieutenant saluted, but before he could turn the sounds of cannon fire echoed across the empty field. Hendricks turned back in time to see the Rebel battery on the flank fire to the extreme left. Almost immediately they were answered by a shot that struck a gun in the center of the battery, igniting its powder store and sending burning chunks of metal and wood in all directions.
"Sir, look," the lieutenant called.
Colonel Hendricks didn't need his spyglass to see what happened next. Like a mythical titan of Greek mythology, the Monitor rose up above the line of trees at the riverbank, towering over the Rebel forces. It had a round, barrel-like body supported by three metal legs that held it thirty feet in the air. A turret sat atop the body, looking for all the world like a gigantic, iron infantryman's kepi. Two forty-caliber Gatling guns emerged from slots in the front of the body and Hendricks could see one of them spitting fire as it tore into enemy flank.
He wanted to watch, but Hendricks couldn't spare it any more time; he had a battle to wage.
"Why are you still here?" he demanded of the lieutenant, sending the man scrambling back toward the officer's tents.
Hendricks turned his attention to the battle shaping up in front of him. The Rebs had been trying to get across the Ohio from West Virginia and Kentucky for most of the year's campaign. Northern sappers had blown the bridges across the Ohio all the way to the Mississippi Confluence, but the bridges across the Muskingum River that Hendricks himself had just crossed earlier in the day were still intact. Marietta could fall, and that could break the center of the entire Union line.
The lieutenant returned, out of breath but smiling, with Carl Daniels, the war historian, in tow. Daniels was a stocky man in a rumpled suit, with thinning hair, a pallid complexion, and big watery eyes made bigger by his pince-nez spectacles.
"Well," Daniels demanded. "What are we facing?"
"Antietam and Hampton Roads," Hendricks said, ignoring the cannon fire erupting over the field.
There were distinct drawbacks to reanimating dead soldiers. Grays were formidable but their minds only retained the last few hours of their life. In battle, it made them predictable. If you knew where they had fought before, then you likely knew how they would fight again. There were advantages, too. Grays felt no fear or pain or remorse. That's why he needed every edge he could find.
"Most of the Grays from Antietam were recovered from General Hill's division," Daniels said, not bothering to consult the thick, leather bound book he carried under his arm. "They were the ones who drove General Burnside out with a straight on charge in the face of superior numbers. They'll keep coming no matter what."
Hendricks growled at that. "What about Hampton Roads?"
"Those Grays were primarily from General Jackson's division," Daniels said. "When General Grant captured the shipyards there, they drove his forces back in a battle that lasted four hours. One piece of good news," he added. "They were eventually forced to retreat. That means that sooner or later, the Hampton Roads Grays will have to withdraw."
"After four hours," Hendricks said. "I hope we have that long. Thank you, Daniels."
The little man might be a mess, but he knew his business. Hendricks felt his bowels tighten as he processed what the historian told him. He'd hoped these Grays were going to be shooters. In that case, they'd have to stop and reload periodically. A sustained charge, however, would cross the field much more quickly. The Rebel commander hadn't expected the Monitor, but he'd rally almost at once. Hendricks expected those Grays to start crossing the field any minute. By the time he got his artillery redeployed it would be too late to stop them.
"Where is Thompson?" Hendricks yelled at his lieutenant.
"Here sir," a blocky man with a Van Dyke beard called as he came running up the hill.
"Glad you could join us, Major," Hendricks said, letting the displeasure seep into his voice. "Have you seen the enemy lines?"
"Yes sir," the Major reported.
"We're facing Grays that are going to come straight at us," Hendricks said. "No subtlety here, they're going to try to overwhelm us with numbers. I want you to break up your batteries and spread them throughout the line."
"That will take time, sir," Major Thompson said.
"We don't a have a choice," Hendricks said. "We have to thin out that charge if we're to have any chance against the Grays. Now get—"
The urgency in the young lieutenant's voice drew Hendricks' attention. The starlight shell had burned down, but there was still enough light to see that the Monitor had moved. It walked out into the river, pouring fire into the enemy's southern flank. Hundreds of Gray soldiers were rushing it, trying to swarm up the legs, shifting the entire Rebel line left.
A surge of pure adrenalin rushed through Hendricks, and he swore. "They're trying to flank them," he said. "It's pulled the whole Rebel line out of formation."
"They're going to have to reinforce the weakened line from the right," Major Thompson said.
Hendricks nodded in agreement.
"Get your artillery to the right," he told the major. "And pass the word to the cavalry officer," he said to the lieutenant. "Tell him to prepare a charge on the right flank."
The men saluted and scrambled down the hill. Across the field, the starlight shell burnt out, leaving the staccato firing of the Gatling gun and the Rebel artillery the only lights to be seen. Hendricks hadn't expected the shoestring crew aboard the Monitor to do any actual fighting. He'd hoped the mere presence of the tall gun on the field would make the Rebels think better of a fight.
Whoever operated the Monitor had done something no one had expected, and thanks to that bold move, they had a chance. That man was a damn genius.
O O O
"I don't know what I'm doing," Braxton yelled down through the floor grate.
"Just keep shooting," Sergeant Fulton called up from the pilot's seat. "Whatever you're doing, you sure kicked over their hornet's nest."
A cannonball careened off the iron body of the Monitor, and Braxton would swear it rattled one of his fillings loose. When he could hear again, he leaned down toward the grate.
"Get us out of here, Fulton," he yelled.
"I can see our lines now," Fulton yelled back. "Welcome to the war, Lieutenant!"
The Monitor lurched and began moving. Braxton loaded another shell in his gun and fired into a knot of Grays that were forming up around the artillery. The recoil pushed back against the tall gun's motion but Braxton knew that Fulton could compensate. Almost immediately the Monitor jerked to a halt, teetering dangerously before coming to rest.
Braxton leaned down to the grate, but before he could call down, Laurie's voice reached up to him.
"Braxton, get down here," he yelled.
Braxton slid out of the gunner's chair and opened the trap door that led down to the Monitor's body. As he descended the ladder, he saw Fulton lying on the deck behind the pilot's chair. Laurie held him, pressing a cloth to a bloody wound in the Sergeant's head.
"It came though the view slot," Laurie said.
"Will he live?" he asked.
Laurie looked at him and their eyes met before he shook his head. Braxton opened his mouth to speak but another cannon ball hit the Monitor. Its iron hide rang like a bell.
Braxton stepped over Fulton and slipped into the pilot's chair. The shot that hit the Sergeant had come through the view port, a rectangular opening that allowed the pilot to see the ground. Braxton reached up and closed it until only a small slit remained. He flinched as bullets hit the armor and shattered.
"Is there anything you can do for Fulton?" he called to Laurie.
"No," Laurie said. "He's dead. Should I get back on the Gatling gun?"
Braxton shook his head as he grasped the levers that operated the Monitor's legs. "With the view port closed this far I can't tell which direction we should go. I need you up in the turret."
Laurie scrambled up the ladder as Braxton eased the Monitor forward. He could see the ground where the legs would step but not much else.
"Go left," Laurie called down after a moment.
Braxton did as he was told, moving the Monitor left and forward at the same time.
"They're moving their artillery," Laurie called. "They've cut us off from the field. Can we step over them?"
"It's too dangerous," Braxton yelled. Being that close to enemy guns would give the Rebs a much better chance to hit one of the Monitor's legs. It might not bring the tall gun down, but it could render them immobile.
"We need another direction," he yelled up through the grate.
"Head into the river," Laurie yelled.
Braxton wasn't sure he'd heard that right.
"That's where they enemy is," he said.
"No," Laurie said. "Their main force is on the Ohio side of the river. If we can get across to the West Virginia side, we'll be pushing through their support column. Then we can head downriver until it's safe to cross back."
Braxton didn't like it, but with bullets and shells bouncing off the Monitor, he didn't see any better options. The Monitor could take the guns, but sooner or later some Reb would try to blow up one of her legs with a powder keg and then he and Laurie would be dead.
"I'm taking us out," Braxton called over the chugging of the engine.
He gripped the control levers and turned the Monitor into the river. The low narrow strip of Blennerhassett Island lay to his left and he could make out the confusion among the Rebels swarming there like a kicked-over ant hill. With the tall gun's height, they should be able to cross as long as he took it slow and didn't get the legs hung up on anything. He pushed downriver to the west, hoping to get around the island rather than try to cross through the Confederate ranks, but the island seemed to go on forever. When they moved, the cannon hits stopped as they passed out from in front of the Rebel artillery. Braxton breathed a sigh of relief, knowing it would take them several minutes to realign their guns. He had almost relaxed when something smashed against the boarding hatch.
"Someone's under us," he yelled to Laurie.
"They've sent out boats with Grays," Laurie replied, panic in his voice. "They're climbing up the legs."
"Not to worry," Braxton called back. "There's nothing on the Monitor's legs that would be vulnerable to a few Grays."
Something heavy crashed into the hatch and it buckled.
Braxton blanched. The boarding hatch, however, was another story. If they got that open, they could shoot him easily.
"They've got a boat underneath us," Braxton yelled, his chest tightening so that his words ended in a gasp. "They're breaking through."
"Should we surrender?" Laurie asked.
"To the Grays?" Braxton squawked. Laurie didn't sound as panicked as Braxton felt and that gave Braxton some measure of courage. The hatch banged again, jumping almost free and bending the heavy brass bolt that secured it.
Without taking time to think it through, Braxton leapt from the pilot's seat. The rapid-fire guns had a bad habit of jamming, so Braxton had them mounted to the ceiling on swivel arms, allowing them to be pulled inside the cabin so that their gunners could clear them, getting them back in action. Braxton seized one of the Gatling guns, and swung it around, pointing its muzzle inside the Monitor's lower compartment.
It stopped well short of the boarding hatch.
For safety reasons, the gun arm didn't swing around so that the gun would point at the inside of the cabin. The hatch banged again and Braxton heard the wood splinter. The Grays below must have a hammer or a crowbar.
A desperate idea leapt into Braxton's mind. Above him, the Gatling gun support arm was bolted to the ceiling. If he loosened two of the three bolts, he could move the gun far enough to cover the hatch. As this idea took full possession of his mind, Braxton sprinted across the deck to the tool box. Waves of heat assaulted him when he drew close to the boiler. A wooden tool box was secured to the wall there, and Braxton grabbed the large wrench. He had to drop it immediately as it burned his hand. He made a mental note to relocate the toolbox and untucked his shirt, using the fabric to grab the wrench.
As he turned back to the gun, the boarding hatch burst open and a horror tried to climb in.
Braxton had never seen a Gray soldier up close before. Its skin, as its name implied, was gray, with white eyes that seemed to leak some foul fluid. Its hair stuck up from beneath its kepi, like the straw of a broom, and a great scar ran across its face still showing the X pattern of stitches where it had been closed. In the center of its forehead the word "Antietam" had been tattooed in scrolling letters.
The Gray reached inside the cabin to pull itself up.
Braxton's breath squeezed from his body as if a great pressure were bearing down on him. The rushing of his blood sounded in his ears and every nerve screamed at him to flee. But there was nowhere to go.
He let out an incoherent yell and charged the lifeless soldier. Wielding the hot wrench like a club, he slammed it down into the nightmare's face.
The Gray blinked and it fell back against the far side of the hatch, but it seemed not to have felt the blow. Without a groan or sound of protest, it reached into the cabin and clawed at the floor, trying to find enough purchase to pull itself inside.
Braxton's skin crawled and he had to force himself to swing again. This time he put all his force into it and he heard the Gray's skull crack with the blow. Whether the damage incapacitated the Gray or it simply lost its grip, he didn't know, but it dropped out of sight, followed by a thud as it hit the boat, and a splash as it flopped into the water.
Trembling, Braxton forced himself around the now open hatch. He had to get the gun free.
Before he reached the gun, something latched on to his trouser leg and jerked. Braxton cried out and fell, slamming down hard on the deck and losing his grip on the wrench. A gray arm in a gray coat reached through the hatch and had him by the leg. As it pulled, Braxton slid toward the hatch and another pallid, dead face rose up as from the depths of hell itself.
Braxton yelled in terror and lashed out, kicking the Gray in the face. The thing lost its grip on his trouser leg, but had gained enough ground to begin pulling itself inside with its other hand.
"What's going on down there?" Laurie yelled.
Braxton ignored him. Seizing the discarded wrench, he smashed the Gray in the chin with all his force. He heard the neck break with a sickening snap and the second Gray followed the first down into the cold waters of the Ohio.
Before another Gray could take its place, Braxton slammed the boarding hatch closed and wedged the wrench through the bolt cleat, securing the door, at least for the moment. Almost immediately, something heavy banged into the hatch and Braxton moved on top of it, adding his weight to help keep it closed.
"What happened?" Laurie called from the turret, poking his head down from the opening above the ladder.
Braxton opened his mouth to answer, but an unearthly scream cut him off. Something hit the top of the Monitor and the river was bathed in light. Fire erupted through the view ports and Laurie cried out, scrambling down the ladder amid a shower of curses.
"What was that?" Laurie demanded.
Braxton felt the hair on his neck rise.
"Quiet," he said, waving Laurie silent. "Listen."
After a moment of stillness, where the only sound was the chugging of the tall gun's engine, Laurie shook his head.
"What am I listening for?"
"Mortars," Braxton said. "Did you hear any mortars fire?"
"No," Laurie said. "It sounds like all the guns have stopped."
"Get out," Braxton yelled, grabbing Laurie by the arm and dragging him toward the boarding hatch. "We have to get out now."
Laurie never finished the question. The shriek turned into a roar that shook the Monitor, and a moment later something slammed into it with the force of a hundred cannons. Braxton and Laurie were thrown to the floor as the tall gun tipped sideways. The machine groaned in metallic protest as it fell, slamming into the water with tremendous force.
Braxton came to his senses. He lay against the Monitor's sidewall with the Ohio pouring through the gun slot and soaking him. It took a moment to remember how he'd gotten there, but when he did, adrenaline surged through him, propelling him up. Before he was even half way up, pain shot through his side and he doubled over. Carefully, he prodded his ribs, wincing as he found the broken one.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Braxton struggled to get his feet under him.
"Laurie," he yelled, shaking the limp form of his friend, draped over a support strut. "Come on, brother, we've got to get out. When the water hits the boiler it'll blow."
He cast a furtive glance up at the boiler, now hanging above him. If they'd fallen the other way it would have been plunged under water and they'd both be dead.
Laurie groaned and pushed himself up. Blood ran into his face from a cut on his forehead and he blinked repeatedly to clear his eyes.
"I'm okay," he said, sounding a little dazed. "Let's go."
He grabbed Braxton by the shoulder and turned toward the hole in the wall that used to be the boarding hatch. Braxton gasped in pain at the pressure and dropped to one knee.
"What is it?" Laurie said, kneeling beside him.
"Cracked rib," Braxton said through clenched teeth. "Maybe broken"
"I'll have a look when we get out," Laurie said, helping Braxton rise. "I can boost you up to the hatch. Do you think you can make it to shore?"
The thought of swimming with the cracked rib made Braxton's side throb, but what choice did he have? He nodded.
Laurie leaned him on the planking that used to be the floor, just below the hatch.
"Give me your foot," he said. "I'll lift you."
Braxton did as he was told, groaning as Laurie lifted, sliding him up the sloping floor. When he reached the hatch, Braxton clutched his injured rib and rolled through the opening.
The icy water of the Ohio hit him like a hammer, threatening to suck the air from his lungs. He struggled to the surface, using his free arm and legs to make for the shore. Above him the Monitor was lit by the glow of the burning goo that still clung to its armor, casting a ruddy light over the dark water.
An angry hiss filled his ears and he knew he was out of time. Hoping the water would shield him, Braxton gulped as much air as he could and dove down.
The Monitor's boiler exploded. Even underwater, the sound was deafening and it took all of Braxton's will not to gasp as the pressure wave hit him. Shrapnel and chunks of metal the size of pumpkins plunged past him like iron rain, sinking slowly once their initial momentum was spent.
When Braxton could hold his breath no longer, he made for the surface, breaking through with a ragged gasp. All around him, burning wreckage bobbed on the water and a tree had caught fire on the far side of the river. From somewhere in the darkness, cheers were going up from the Confederate lines, and beyond them the sounds of battle raged, but Braxton heard none of it nor cared for any of it in that moment.
"Laurie!" Braxton yelled.
Grunting in pain, he turned himself around, scanning the rolling water for any sign of life.
"Laurie!" he called again, but there was no answer.