Under Dewey at Manila/Chapter 25

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"We're off the island!" whispered Striker to Larry, as both peered through the opening beside their gun.

"It's as dark on the island as it is on the ships," returned the boy. His heart was thumping so violently that he could scarcely speak.

"Silence, men!" came the low command from out of the semi-darkness of the gun-deck. And then, for the time being, nothing more was said.

On swept the flagship at a speed of eight knots an hour. Corregidor Island was now directly abeam, and every glass on the big warship was trained on those dark and frowning works, while a sharp lookout was kept ahead and the "mine catchers" were out in force. In a minute more the Olympia would sweep into Boca Grande, the main channel, supposed to be fairly thick with hidden mines. What if their ship should strike? The thought sent a cold shiver down Larry's back. All in an instant he thought of his former home, of his two brothers, perhaps already in Uncle Sam's service, of the Columbia, of Olan Oleson, and a score of other persons and things. He had turned away from the opening, but now, as Striker caught his arm, he turned back once more.

The Olympia had passed the fort on the island, and still no alarm had sounded forth. Next came the Baltimore, and still the silence remained unbroken. The men on both warships almost felt like giving a cheer.

Suddenly all was changed. Sizz! a colored rocket went sailing up into the darkness of the night, fired from Corregidor Island. Immediately an answering rocket came from the distant shore. The American ships had been discovered!

"The game is up!" cried Striker, and the hum of a dozen voices broke the stillness as the men began again to talk in whispers. "There, they have opened the ball! Now may the best men win, and that means us Yankees, every trip!"

"While Striker was speaking, a dull boom had sounded over the night waters, and now an eight-inch shell whistled over the deck of the Raleigh, the third ship in the line. The shell had scarcely struck the sea beyond when it exploded with a loud noise, scattering the spray in all directions.

"I wonder if we have got to take this in silence," muttered Barrow, when a boom from the Raleigh told that she had answered the enemy's fire. Soon came a shot from the Boston, as that ship passed close to the fort. In the mean time the other vessels were out of range. Not to be outdone by her companions, the Concord sent a six-inch shell into a shore battery that began firing. At that time the damage done was not known, but later on it was ascertained that the shell had landed directly in the battery, and one Spanish soldier was killed and several gunners injured; and thus was the first blood of the war spilt in this part of the world.

But the Americans had suffered a loss too, although not through the illy aimed shots of their enemy. Signalled to run alongside of the big Olympia for protection, the McCulloch reported the death of her chief engineer, a highly esteemed man named Randall, who had been overcome by the terrific heart in the despatch boat's engine-room. This was the first, and, in fact, the only life lost by our side during the world-famous battle now so close at hand.

"We're out of that," said the chief of the gunners, when Corregidor Island had been left in the distance, "And I don't believe they even touched us."

"We're not over the mines yet," said Barrow. "I take it we've got good cause to remember the Maine just now. If we strike anything like that—"

"Don't go for to speak of it!" cried Striker. "It's bad enough to have your nerves up like the string o' a bow, without spittin' out your tongue about it." And several nodded so vigorously at this that the word "mine" was not mentioned again. The lazy ones stretched themselves beside their "big brothers," as they called their guns, but the majority were in no humor to do aught but peer through the portholes, trying vainly to pierce the darkness of the night as the moon scurried beneath some fleeting clouds.

"Four hundred pairs of eyes on the watch and nothing to see but water and sky," mused Striker. "I hope we don't feel anything more either," he added, and that was the last reference the down-easter made to the mines.

However, by one o'clock in the morning the bugbear was a thing of the past, for all the warships were standing out into the middle of Manila Bay, where it was not likely a mine would be encountered. That they had actually passed through a field of mines, though, is a matter of history, and this being so, their complete escape from injury seems little short of a miracle. Some naval experts have said that running the mines was as much to the Americans' credit as what came after.

There now remained nothing to do but to wait for daylight, since Commodore Dewey did not deem it advisable to go in shore in the darkness. The vessels consequently sailed on slowly towards the outer anchorage off Manila. A great many more men turned in to snatch a nap previous to engaging in a battle that was likely to be not far off. From what they had seen off Corregidor Island, those in command felt almost certain that Admiral Montojo's fleet must be in the vicinity.

"It will either be a case of meeting that fleet or bombarding Manila, see if it ain't," remarked Striker, as he and Larry turned in near the gun. Getting into one's hammock under the circumstances was out of the question.

At four o'clock, just as the first streaks of dawn were beginning to show over the distant mountains of Luzon, there was a call for something with which to arouse the men, and strong coffee was served, to which were added hardtack for any one who cared for them. As Larry sipped his steaming coffee and munched a soaked-up hardtack, he looked occasionally through the port and over the distant waters, and beheld what looked like a mass of shipping backed up by a solidly built-up town. This was Manila itself.

"It looks exactly as it did when I was here years ago," remarked Striker. "That part over to the right is old Manila, where the military post used to be. The main shipping is dead ahead of us, in the new territory. There is a river running between the two portions."

"I don't see anything like a warship," said Larry, "though, to be sure, it's too dark yet to see much."

"They'll see all they want to see when the sun is a bit higher, lad, and they get out their best glasses. But I don't think the Spaniards would put their battleships in the midst o' that shipping—it wouldn't be fair, if they were expecting us."

The squadron now began to move along the front of Manila harbor, with glasses trained on the shipping, from which, as the sun came up, could be seen floating the flags of various nations. Some of the flags were Spanish, but these were on merchantmen and fishing craft.

"We haven't catched the Spanish admiral yet," sighed the tall down-easter, as word drifted below that Manila harbor did not hold the fleet they were after. I wonder what the commodore will do now?"

No one on the Olympia was kept long in suspense over this point. The squadron was moving southward, in the direction of the long neck of land upon which was located, as previously mentioned, Fort Cavite, or, as it is locally termed, the Cavite Arsenal.

"They have found the Spanish fleet!" The cry ran from one ship to another, and soon it was on the lips of everybody, from the men in the tops to the stokers in the depths of the coal bunkers. The warships of the enemy had been discovered lying in the little bay formed by the curving shore of old Manila and the neck of land supporting Fort Cavite. The distance from Fort Cavite to Manila is almost eight miles in a straight line. Along such an imaginary line, and back of it, was Admiral Montojo's fleet, flanked on the right by Manila's shore batteries, and on the left by the powerful guns of the fort.

The Spanish fleet was a formidable one. If their individual ships were not the equal of the American vessels, they had they had, moreover, the assistance of the shore batteries and the powerful fort. A glance at their vessels will not come amiss to the reader who wishes to know some of the particulars of this stirring encounter.

The real flagship of the Spanish fleet was the cruiser Reina Cristina, of 3100 tons, carrying twenty guns of small and large caliber, including six rapid-firing guns supposed to be of first-class pattern and efficacy. Like the Olympia, she carried about four hundred officers and men.

Next in size to the flagship came the cruiser Castilla, the temporary flagship, of 3300 tons, carrying a mixed battery of eighteen guns, and manned by three hundred well-trained Spanish tars. Two other cruisers were the Don Antonio de Ulloa and the Don Juan de Austria, of about 1100 tons burden each, and each carrying nine guns and manned by a crew of one hundred and seventy-three. There was another cruiser at hand, the Velasco, but she was out of repair, and her best guns had been placed near the fort, for use from shore.

Of the gunboats, of which there were quite a number, the principal ones were the Isla de Luzon and the Isla de Cuba, each, of a thousand tons, carrying a mixed battery of ten guns, and manned by a hundred and sixty officers and men. There were also the General Lezo, mounting half a dozen guns, the Del Dueroe, and also the Spanish mail steamer, Mindanao, which had been hastily pressed into service as an auxiliary cruiser, with a battery of no mean proportions. Added to these vessels were four torpedo boats and the transport Manila. The total number of officers and men on the various vessels was estimated to be between eighteen and nineteen hundred—about a hundred more than in the American forces.

A word may be added concerning Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasaron. He was not only the commander of the fleet, but also the commander at Cavite. He was an old and trained naval officer, known to be brave to the degree of rashness, and even by Americans it was felt that he was a foe fully worthy of Commodore Dewey's steel. The men beneath the Spanish admiral were as bold and hard fighters as himself. All in all, the coming contest was to be a battle of giants, and what the outcome of that mighty contest was to be no person at the outset could tell.