Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 22

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While Walter was in the depths of the Cuban wilderness, trying to escape from the Spanish soldiers, history, so far as it concerned our war with Spain, was moving forward rapidly.

As soon as it was felt that Cervera could not escape from Santiago Bay without running the risk of a fearful battle with Admiral Sampson's or Commodore Schley's squadron, preparations were made to send an army of invasion forward.

For such an army a safe landing-place must be secured, and with this in view, the American warships began the bombardment of various places along the coast, from Santiago Bay to Guantanamo Bay, twenty odd miles farther eastward.

The first of these heavy bombardments took place on the sixth of June, and was directed against Morro Castle, the batteries at Punta Gorda and Zocapa, and at the village of Aguadores, already mentioned. Aguadores is several miles to the east ward of Santiago Bay, to the rear of the rocky promontory upon which Morro Castle is located, and it was felt that if once a footing could be obtained here, the actual invasion by the soldiers would become an easy matter. The bombardment lasted many hours, and the various batteries were much damaged and the Spanish warship, the Reina Mercedes, was so badly riddled that she was later on sunk in the channel, thus blocking the outlet to the bay more completely than ever. No damage was done to the American ships.

Through this bombardment a landing was effected at Baiquiri, not far from Aguadores, by a small body of marines, who burned up some Spanish stores and spiked a number of old-fashioned guns.

Following this attack came one upon Guantanamo and the other settlements clustered around the shores of the bay of that name. Here the fighting was as fierce as before, but before it was over a body of marines from the Oregon were landed, and later on came six hundred marines from the Panther. The Spaniards stood their ground for only a short while and then fled to the mountains, and the American flag was hoisted amid a wild cheering from the troops at hand and those on the warships. No sooner had the landing-places at Guantanamo, Baiquiri, and Aguadores been secured than the army of invasion under General Shafter left Key West for these points, the particulars of which expedition have already been related in "A Young Volunteer in Cuba."

Walter slept "like a rock" during the first night in the cave, being thoroughly exhausted by his long ride. He did not awaken until long after the sun had come up, and for the moment could not realize where he was.

A scanty breakfast was speedily despatched, and he walked out to inspect his surroundings. Mindful of what Gilberto had told him about the enemy, he was careful how he exposed himself, and at the first sign of anything suspicious he ran to cover.

Thus the day passed away slowly. In vain he tried to make out some of the warships far out at sea. To his naked eye they were but specks on that ceaseless tide which glared like molten lead in the fierce rays of the sun.

On the following night the youth underwent a curious experience. He had just thrown himself down to rest when, without warning, the cave was filled with a light that was dazzling. Thinking a fire must have suddenly descended upon him, he leaped up, when, as silently as it had come, the light disappeared.

"Now, what in the world does that mean?" he asked himself, and started for the cave opening, when, swish! the light came back, almost blinding him. Then he understood it all.

"It's a searchlight from one of our ships!" he cried, half aloud. "If only they could see me and take me on board!" He watched for the light to reappear, but it never showed itself again, being trained upon Morro Castle and the entrance to Santiago Harbor.

On the third day in the cave Walter s stock of provisions gave out. No one had come near him, and the loneliness of his situation was maddening.

"I can t stand this any longer," he mused. "I must get out, if only to hunt for something to eat."

Fortunately for him, Gilberto had left him a pistol and several rounds of cartridges. To be sure, the weapon was an old-fashioned affair, but it was better than nothing, and soon the youth was out in the woods to the rear of the rocks trying to scare up something to shoot.

The woods had been well ransacked by both Spaniards and Cubans, but several hours hunt yielded two birds, besides some half-ripe plantains and some nuts. Walter was about to return to the cave to cook the birds when from a distance he heard loud shouting, and presently came the rapid discharge of firearms.

"A battle of some kind is on," he thought, and ran to where he had discovered an ox-cart trail. He had scarcely reached the shelter of a clump of bushes, when a detachment of Cubans, closely followed by two companies of Spanish cavalrymen, rushed past, both parties firing as they moved.

"This is getting hot," thought the youth, and started to retreat, when he heard more soldiers coming from the direction of the cave. As there now seemed no help for it, he crossed the trail and plunged along a side path, leading eastward,—a trail running directly to Guantanamo.

Walter felt that the best thing to be done was to put distance between himself and his enemies, and he did not stop running until several miles had been covered. He had, meanwhile, crossed one small mountain stream, and now he found himself on the bank of another. There was no bridge, and the watercourse looked rather dangerous to ford.

"I might as well follow the bank down to the ocean," he reasoned. "But I must have something to eat first." And finding a secluded nook, he built a tiny fire and broiled his two little birds, both of which made hardly a meal. Then, obtaining the purest drink possible from the river, he continued his journey.

By nightfall Walter had covered many miles, yet no ocean came to view, and now he felt that he must be lost in the wilds of the island. As this conclusion forced itself home to him he smiled grimly.

"Lost in Cuba, and I came down here to help man a gun on the Brooklyn," he muttered. "Was there ever such a turning-around before! I wonder what I had best do next."

This was not an easy question to answer. It was already dark under the thick trees, and to spend the night in such a spot was not pleasant to contemplate.

At last he came to a clearing. Here he was about to settle down, under the shelter of a small cliff of rocks, when something appeared that caused him to yell with all the strength of his lungs. It was a snake, five feet long, and it advanced rapidly, hissing as it came.

Walter had met snakes before, harmless reptiles not half as big as the present one. But he did not know but that this reptile might be poisonous, and gaining the top of the rocks he blazed away with the pistol, not once, but several times. The last shot hit the snake in the tail, and away it darted, out of sight and into the river.

"Ugh! what a horrible creature!" he murmured, as he stood still, watching for the possible reappearance of the reptile. "I wish I was out of this. I'd give a year's wages to be safe on board of the Brooklyn once more."

The words had just left Walter's lips, when he heard a movement behind him. Turning swiftly, he beheld a Spanish soldier gazing at him from a distance of less than fifty feet. The soldier had his rifle, and now the weapon was aimed at the boy's head.

"Alto!" came the Spanish command to halt. "Americano!"

Walter's surprise was complete, yet he kept his wits about him. As the Spaniard raised his gun, the youth made a quick leap for the shelter of a near-by tree.

Bang! went the Mauser, and the bullet clipped the tree bark. Then Walter took aim, and trembling in spite of himself, pulled the trigger of his pistol. The enemy was hit in the shoulder, and uttered a deep cry of pain.

"If there are others with him I'm in for it now!" thought the boy, and took to his heels along the bank of the watercourse. From behind came a cry for help and another to arms, and in less than a minute a whole company of Spaniards were in wild pursuit. A dozen shots rang out, but Walter was not hit, and plunged on. But he was no match for his pursuers, and they gradually drew closer and closer. Then the youth stumbled and fell, and ere he could arise he found himself surrounded.