Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 16

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"Well, this doesn't look much like fighting."

It was Paul who uttered the remark. The youngest member of the gunners' crowd rested in the shadow of one of the long guns, half asleep. Near by sat Walter and Si, each writing letters, although there was no telling when the communications would be taken from the Brooklyn and sent home. At Key West Walter had looked for some word from Ben and from Job Dowling, but none had come.

"I'd like to know if my uncle went to Boston, and if he learned anything concerning that Deck Mumpers and the stolen heirlooms," Walter observed to Si, after nodding to Paul, in agreement that it didn't look like fighting.

"Well, you'll have to possess your soul in patience," answered the young Yankee. "But oh, this is dead slow!" And thrusting his letter into an envelope, he addressed it and laid it away.

Several days had been spent around the mouth of Santiago Bay, without anything being brought to light. If the Spanish fleet was within the harbor, it knew enough to keep out of sight, that was certain.

"If I was Commodore Schley, I'd rush past old Morro and make short work of this," grumbled Paul, stretching himself and yawning. "Why, we'll all die of laziness if this keeps on."

"I hear the Merrimac has broken down," put in Caleb, who had just come below. "That means another wait of twenty-four hours or more, even if Cervera isn't in the harbor. Why under the sun must those dagos play such a game of hide-and-seek? Why can't they come up and fight like men?"

"Perhaps Admiral Cervera is bombarding some of our cities at this very moment—" began Si, when a sudden loud hurrah caused all hands to leap up and make for the deck.

"What's up?" came from a hundred throats.

"The Iowa has just signalled that she has seen a big Spanish warship showing her nose around the harbor point!" was the wild answer. "We've found the Dons at last!"

And then came another hurrah and a wild yell. "Let us get at 'em! Down with the Spaniards! Remember the Maine and Dewey's victory at Manila!"

Commodore Schley was on the afterbridge of the flagship. As the yelling broke loose, he smiled grimly. "Yes, they must be in there," he said to Captain Cook. "And if they are, they'll never get home." Prophetic words, as the events of just five weeks later proved.

Owing to the heavy swells of the ocean, the warships under the commodore's command had drifted somewhat apart, but now, when it was known definitely that Admiral Cervera's ships were in the harbor before them, the various craft were signalled to draw closer, until they lay within four to six miles of the entrance. This may seem a long way off to some of my readers, but it must be remembered that guns of the present day can carry as far as ten to twelve miles when put to it, and a destructive fire can be maintained at seven or eight miles.

The night that followed was a trying one, for no one knew but that Admiral Cervera's warships might come dashing out of the bay at any instant ready to do them deadly battle. The Brooklyn had long since been stripped for action, many articles of wood being thrown overboard, to avoid splinters when shot and shell began to fall. The small boats were covered with strong nets, also to keep splinters away, and everywhere throughout the ship the hoses were connected with the water-plugs, to be used in case of fire, and all water-tubs were kept filled for a like purpose. The magazines were kept open, and every gun, big and little, stood ready to be fired at the word of command. Even the ward-room tables were cleared off and covered with the sick-bay cloths, and the surgeons saw to it in a quiet way that their bandages, knives, and saws were ready to hand.

"Say, but that looks like war, eh?" whispered Paul, jerking his thumb in the direction of one of the improvised operating tables. "Gracious, it's enough to give a fellow a cold shiver."

"Then don't look that way, Paul," answered Walter. "As Si said, life here isn't expected to be a picnic. We may gain lots of glory, but we'll have to work for it,—and maybe suffer, too."

It was the 30th of May, Decoration Day, but no services of a special character were had, although the Civil War was talked of by a dozen veterans of both the North and the South, who were now standing once more shoulder to shoulder, as Washington, Jefferson, and a hundred other patriots of old had intended that they should stand, once and forever. "We're under the stars and stripes to stay," said one man who had worn the gray at Gettysburg. "Just let those Dons show themselves, and we'll lick 'em out of their boots." The man's name was Berkeley, and he was as good a soldier as he was a sailor, and wore both Union and Confederate medals for bravery.

Walter had just fallen into a light doze early in the morning when a dull booming awoke him with a start, and made him leap to his feet. "What is that—guns firing?" he asked.

"That's it, lad," came from Caleb. "The commodore is giving his defiance to the enemy, I reckon. There she goes again," he went on, as half a dozen sullen reports rolled over the water. "I just wish we were in this."

A Spanish warship, the Christobal Colon, had again showed herself at the entrance to Santiago Bay, and the Iowa, the Massachusetts, and the New Orleans, had been ordered to move to within seven thousand yards and open fire. Away they darted, and passed and re-passed the harbor entrance twice, firing as they sailed. What damage was done it was impossible to tell, but that the Colon was hit seemed very probable, for she soon disappeared. The shore batteries also took part, and sent one big shell directly over the Iowa, where it burst with a noise that was deafening, but without doing any damage.

"Gracious! what a racket!" exclaimed Walter, as he watched the bombardment from afar.

"Racket!" repeated Caleb, who stood beside him. "Why, lad, this is nothing to what we'll have when we get mixed up. I only hope the commodore signals us to line up for the scrap," he went on, for Commodore Schley had left the Brooklyn temporarily, and hoisted his pennant on the Massachusetts. But the signal did not come, much to the old gunner's disappointment.

By dark the bombardment was at an end. It had been brought about by the commodore with the view to ascertain the strength of the enemy, his ability to shoot straight, and the number and location of the shore batteries. Now this information was gained, and it was likely to be of great value in the near future.

It had been decided, should Admiral Cervera's fleet be discovered in Santiago Bay, that Commodore Schley should unload the collier Merrimac as quickly as possible, and then sink the craft directly across the channel at the narrow entrance. If this was accomplished, it would make it impossible for the Spanish warships to escape until the sunken wreck was blown up and cleared away, and in the meantime several other available American vessels could be hurried to the scene of action. A number of spies had been sent ashore, and at last the commodore was positive that the enemy was just where he wanted him. "And now we'll sink the Merrimac, and bottle him up," he said.

The Merrimac was an iron steamboat of five thousand tons' burden. She had previously been a "tramp" steamer; that is, one going from port to port, picking up any cargo that came to hand. She carried a large quantity of coal for the various ships, and, as we already know, had followed the Flying Squadron from Key West to Cienfuegos and the present ocean territory. She was a heavily built craft, carrying two masts, and just the right sort for the plan now at hand.

A heavy salute on the morning of June 1 announced the coming of Admiral Sampson with a number of additional warships,—the New York, Oregon, Mayflower, Porter, and others. The New York, it may be added here, was a cruiser, similar to the Brooklyn, only somewhat smaller. The Oregon was a battleship of the first class, of over ten thousand tons' displacement, and carried four 13-inch, eight 8-inch, and four 6-inch guns in her main battery, over twenty guns in her secondary battery, besides several Gatling guns and three torpedo tubes. This noble vessel had just made a record for herself by steaming, at full speed, from San Francisco, around Cape Horn, to our eastern coast, without a break-down,—a journey without precedent for a heavy battleship, so far as our own navy was concerned. In the past, foreign critics had imagined that our vessels were not quite as good as theirs in thoroughness of build; now these critics were silenced, and they stood looking on, and wondering what those "clever Yankees" would do next.

The Merrimac had been under the command of Captain James Miller, but now she was eased of a large quantity of her coal, and turned over to Lieutenant Richmond P. Hobson, an assistant naval constructor. Hobson had his plans arranged in detail for sinking the Merrimac, and all he asked for was a crew of six or seven men, to aid him in running the collier into the harbor channel. "I know it looks like certain death to go in," he said, "and therefore I want only volunteers with me."

"You can get them easily enough," said Rear-Admiral Sampson, with a smile. "I know a hundred men on the New York who will be only too anxious to go, no matter how dangerous the mission." Volunteers were called for, and, to the credit of our navy, be it said, that the crews of the different ships offered themselves almost to a man.

"We can die only once," said one old gunner; "take me!"

"I'd like to go, captain," said Caleb, appealing to Captain Cook. "Can't you put me on the list somehow?"

"I'll go," said Walter, readily, and Si said the same. Paul was so young that he knew they would not take him.

Of course where only seven men were wanted and hundreds had begged to be allowed to go there were numerous disappointments. At last the list was made up of the following—names to be remembered by every patriotic young American: Lieutenant Hobson, in command; O. W. Deignan, helmsman; G. F. Phillips, engineer; F. Kelley, fireman; J. Murphy, coxswain; G. Charette, mine batteries; D. Montague, anchor hand; R. Clausen, extra wheelman. The men were all experienced sailors, and fully realized the extreme peril which awaited them, when they should run the Merrimac in directly under the fire of Morro Castle and the La Zocapa battery.

A start was made late on Wednesday night, the Merrimac cruising up and down before the harbor entrance, trying to gain a favorable opportunity for entering. But none showed itself, and by orders of the rear-admiral the attempt was postponed until the night following. In the meantime a catamaran was built and attached to the Merrimac's side, to be used in getting away in case the small boats became disabled when the craft was wrecked.