The talk followed the whiskey, from the fairy-lore of Scotland and Ireland to Kentucky, and over bourbon one of us wondered aloud about whether the South had ever sought supernatural aid during the War Between the States. It was a question that would not seem to prompt an answer from the empty bar, and yet an old man in a grey coat turned in his seat and regarded us. We caught his stare and held it as he rose and came to our table.
To say he loomed belies his true size, for he could not have been less than seven feet tall standing, and was dressed in an old suit that had seen better decades, the grey jacket long and ill-fitting on his lanky frame, as though he had once filled it and the years had deflated him. His beard reached down to the third button, but his blue eyes under the wiry grey eyebrows were piercing and clear.
"They did. Or I should say, they tried." His sonorous voice showed no hint of drink, unless it was that of a Virginia preacher after he had finished off the communion wine.
Well, there was nothing else after that but to ask him to join us, and we fetched forth another bottle - pot-stilled, from Kentucky - and so we got the tale out of him, and this, as near as I can recall, was all of it:
"The Confederacy was always in a bad way for cannon; Tredegar in Richmond was their primary foundary, and Anderson, who ran things, did not respect the latest Northern techniques or designs, and they had great difficulties obtaining the proper iron, copper, and tin - for cannon were cast out of iron and brass both in those days. So too, the generals were against some of the newer styles of gun, even the rifled cannon and shell, and that worked against them.
The winter of 1861-2 was the darkest period of the Ordnance Dept. Heavy guns were wanted in all theaters of war, and there weren't cannon to be had or roads to get them there. So bad it was that when an old Scot came to visit Josiah Gorgas, the Chief of Ordnance, with a plan to call on the fair folk to aid the conflict, he heard the man out.
The Scott was an McDonough, I know nothing else about him, except that he had left with a murder on his head and moved alone into the Appalachians, until secession came. He claimed he knew how to call the fair folk, if the price was right - and he took Confederate dollars rather than gold, so perhaps that is another reason Gorgas heard him out, and on a cold midnight in early December the three men - McDonough, Gorgas, and Anderson - stood together in a circle in a part of the Tredeger works that was quiet and still from lack of hands to man it.
Cold and dark, the last church-bell not even an echo, and only the industry of the men in the other parts of the shop as McDonough gave out the queer call, and laid out the strange food and drink he had brought - and from the shadows they came, lithe and small and mean, with big eyes and big ears, like children grown wisened as old men. McDonough greeted them under the Auld Contract, and they greeted him likewise, and made introductions all around. Then they got to the business.
'We want cannon,' Gorgas said to their chief.
'We forged swords and armor, arrow and dagger.' the elf said, 'Don't know aught about cannon.'
Anderson had predicted this, and unrolled the paper plans. The elf hopped aboard a table and soon they were in the deep of it, two craftsmen deep in their trade, and both Gorgas and McDonough saw that the chief knew his trade well. Anderson too seemed satisfied about the work.
'Only one problem,' the elf said, tapping the paper. 'We can't work no iron.'
'What about bronze?' Anderson said.
'Aye, we can do that.'
So Anderson brought out new plans, and it was for a six-pounder Napoleon - that means the shot it fired was six pounds, and the Napoleons were named after the general, and were all of bronze - and they got to talking and agreed. The elf said that with his men, he could turn out a Napoleon a night for seven nights, provided they could get the bronze, and wanted only seven crates of whiskey in exchange. And all three men and the elf shook hands and drank on that promise.
So they did. Gorgas and Anderson got the bronze, and at night the Tredegar works were alive, though no man in Anderson's employ dared go into that part of the shop, on his orders. And each morning for seven days there was a brand-new Napoleon, beautifully made and finished, out front - and a Napoleon was a week's worth of work, with the casting and cooling, and the finishing besides. Seven week's output in a week! And that on top of the normal output. And the fair folk hadn't just built the cannon, but the caissons and all too, so they were ready to roll out into the field that day.
The trouble came with the proofing - for no cannon was sent to the field until it was inspected and test-fired. And the first shot of the first cannon was fine, and the second shot too - but you wouldn't know, as you've never fired a bronze cannon, but sometimes when you fire them they have a tendency to ring. So it was on the third shot - and as the cannon rang it seemed to grow louder, and soon all seven of the elf-cannons were ringing, so that blood came out of the ears of the men near it, and they had to retreat - and then the first cannon burst. And when it burst, so to did the second, and the third, and all the rest of the cannon that were sitting on a line.
Well, Gorgas was angry, and turned on McDonough, and McDonough was angry and turned on Anderson, and Anderson blamed the elves. So it was decided, after that peculiar test, to deal with elves no more, and the elf-cannons were reduced to scrap."
We sat and drank to that, lost in thought. For seven cannons a week, while it might not have turned the tide of the war, would have been a miracle for the South in any event. Finally, I asked the question the others were thinking. "But why did the cannon burst?"
The old man stroked his beard. "I reckon it was the bronze," he said at last. "They had to get it quickly, and there was only one good source at the time. Church-bells. For bell-metal could make good cannon, and the South more than once called for them - aye, and got them too. But of course Anderson and Gorgas couldn't have known what effect that would have, they thought only of the bronze."
So we drank another drop as goodbye.