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   Chapter 5 A WILD GOOSE CHASE.

A Gunner Aboard the Yankee"" By Russell Doubleday Characters: 18640

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


A howl of disappointment went up from the crew.

"Oh, if she was only within range," cried "Hay," smiting the breech of the five-inch rifle with his hand. "Just one shot, just one shot."

"Guns' crews will remain at stations," ordered the first lieutenant from near the ladder. "Stand by, men. Be ready for instant action."

"Hurray! the old man won't give it up," cheered "Stump," under his voice. "That's the stuff. Now, if only that measly fog lifts and we get a trifle nearer, we'll do something for the old flag."

The minutes passed slowly. It was heartbreaking work, this waiting and watching, and there was not one of the "Yankee's" crew but would have given a year's pay to have seen the mist lift long enough to bring us within range.

Suddenly, just as the fervent wish was trembling on our lips, "Hod Marsh," who was near the port, cried out joyfully:

"She's fading, fellows, she's fading!"

Like a theatre curtain being slowly raised, the mist lifted from the surface of the water. Little by little the expanse of ocean became visible, and at last we, who were watching eagerly, saw the hull of a steamer appear, followed by masts and stack and upper rigging. An exclamation of bitter disappointment came from Tommy. "Durned if it ain't an old tramp!" he groaned. "Fellows, we are sold."

And so it proved.

The fog lifted completely in the course of an hour and we secured a good view of our "will o' the wisp" of the night's chase. It was a great lumbering tramp, as high out of the water as a barn, and as weather-stained as a homeward-bound whaler. She slouched along like a crab, each roll of the hull showing streaks of marine grass and barnacles. There was little of man-o'-war "smartness" in her make-up, of a verity.

For several days the "Yankee" cruised up and down the coast between Delaware Breakwater and Block Island. Many vessels were sighted, and on two occasions it was considered expedient to sound "general quarters," but nothing came of it. We finally concluded that the enemy were fighting shy of the vicinity of New York, and all began to long for orders to the southward.

Drill followed drill during these waiting days. Target practice was held whenever practicable, and the different guns' crews began to feel familiar with the rapid-fire rifles.

The men, accustomed to a life of ease and plenty, found this first month's work an experience of unparalleled hardship.

Their hands, better fitted for the grasp of pen and pencil, were made sore and stiff by the handling of hawsers, chains, and heavy cases. Bandages on hands, feet, and, in some cases, heads, were the popular form of adornment, and the man who did not have some part of his anatomy decorated in this way was looked upon as a "sloper," or one who ran away from work. For how could any one do his share without getting a finger jammed or a toe crushed?

The work that was done, too, during this month of cruising along the coasts of Long Island and New Jersey was hard and incessant. Drills of all kinds were frequent, and sleep at a premium.

The "Yankee" at this time was attached to the Northern Patrol Fleet, of which Commodore Howell was the commander. It was her business to cruise along the coast from Block Island south to Delaware Breakwater, and watch for suspicious vessels. This duty made constant movement necessary, and unwearying vigilance on the part of the lookouts imperative.

Rainy, foggy weather was the rule, and "oilers" and rubber boots the prevailing fashion in overclothing. Sea watches were kept night and day; half of the crew being on duty all the time, and one watch relieving the other every four hours.

The watch "on deck" or on duty on a stormy night found it very tedious waiting for the "watch below" to come and relieve them. The man who could tell a story or sing a song was in great demand, and the man who could get up a "Yankee" song was a popular hero. The night after our wild goose chase, described in the last chapter, the port watch had the "long watch"; that is, the watch from 8 p.m. to midnight, and from four to eight the next morning-which allowed but four hour's sleep.

It was raining and the decks were wet and slippery. The water dripped off the rims of our sou'westers in dismal fashion, and the fog hung like a blanket around the ship, while the sea lapped her sides unseen. Our fog-horn tooted at intervals, and everything was as damp, dark, and forlorn as could be.

A knot of men were gathered under the lee of the after deckhouse, huddled together for warmth and companionship. There was "Stump," "Bill," Potter, and a number of others.

"Say! can't any one sing, or tell a yarn, or whistle a tune, or dance a jig?" said "Bill" in a muffled tone. "If some one does not start some kind of excitement I will go to sleep in my tracks, and Doctor 'Gangway' says I mustn't sleep out of doors." His speech ended in a fit of coughing and a succession of sneezes.

"Here, 'Morse,' give us that new song of yours," said "Steve," as another oilskinned figure joined the group. "Morse" and "Steve" were our chief song writers. Each sat on a quarter six-pounder, one on the starboard, the other on the port. "I will, if you chaps will join in the chorus," answered "Morse." "No, thank you," he added, as some one handed him an imaginary glass. "Nature has wet my whistle pretty thoroughly to-night." "Stump," in his most impressive manner, stepped forward, and in true master-of-ceremonies style introduced our entertainer. He was enlarging on the undoubted merits of the composer and singer, and had waxed really eloquent, when a strong gust of wind blew the water that lodged in the awning squarely down his neck. This dampened his ardor but not our spirits.

"Morse," like the good fellow he was, got up and sang this song to the tune of "Billy Magee Magaw":

When the "Yankee" goes sailing home again,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

We'll forget that we're "Heroes" and just be men,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

The girls will giggle, the boys will shout,

We'll all get a bath and be washed out,

And we'll all feel gay when

The "Yankee" goes sailing home.

The city bells will peal for joy,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

To welcome home each wandering boy,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

And all our sisters and cousins and girls

Will say "Ain't they darlings?" and "See the pearls!"

So we'll all feel gay when

The "Yankee" goes sailing home.

Our patrolling cruise will soon be o'er,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

We'll be happy the moment our feet touch shore,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

And "Cutlets" and "Hubbub" and all the rest

May stick to the calling they're fitted for best,

But we'll all feel gay when

The "Yankee" goes sailing home.

Even "Bill" was able to find voice enough to shout "Good!" and give "Morse" a resounding slap on his wet oilskinned shoulder. The song voiced our sentiments exactly, and cheered us a lot. None of us believed that "Our patrolling cruise would soon be o'er," however, and hardly a man would have taken his discharge had it been offered to him that moment. We had put our names to the enlistment papers and had promised to serve Uncle Sam on his ship the "Yankee" faithfully. We had gone into this thing together, and we would see it through together. Still we would "All feel gay when the 'Yankee' goes sailing home."

"That reminds me of a story," began Potter, when "Long Tommy," the boatswain's mate of the watch, interrupted with, "Potter, take the starboard bridge. I will send a man to relieve you at the end of an hour." So Potter went forward to relieve his mate, who had stood an hour of lookout duty on the starboard end of the bridge.

He went forward, swaying with the motion of the ship, his oilskin trousers making a queer, grating noise as one leg rubbed against the other, and "Stump" said, "I'll bet he won't stay with us long; he talks too much." A prophetic remark, as future events proved.

The group broke up after this. Some who were not actually on lookout duty went into the hot fire room, and after taking off their outer clothing, tried to snatch a few winks of sleep. The "watch on deck" was not allowed to go below at night, so the only shelter allowed us was the fire room and the main companion-way. The latter could hold but a few men, and the only alternative was the fire or "drum" room, into which the heat and gas from the furnaces ascended from the bowels of the ship, making it impossible for a man to breathe the atmosphere there for more than half an hour at a time. The after wheel-house was sometimes taken advantage of by the more venturesome of the boys, but the risk was great, for "Cutlets" was continually prowling around, and the man found taking shelter there would receive tongue lashings hard to bear, with abuse entirely out of proportion to the offence.

A little before twelve o'clock we heard the boatswain's pipe, and the long drawn shout, "On deck all the starboard watch," and "All the starboard watch to muster." So we knew that we would soon be relieved, and would be able to take the much-needed four hours' sleep in our "sleeping bags," as "Hay" called them. The starboard men came slowly up, rubbing their eyes, buttoning their oilskins, and tying their sou'westers on by a string under their chins as they walked.

"Hurry up there, will you?" calls out a port watch man, as the men of the other watch sleepily climb the ladder. "Get a move on and give us a chance to get out of this beastly wet." A sharp retort is given, and the men move on in the same leisurely way. The men of both watches are hardly in the best of humors. It is not pleasant to be waked up at midnight to stand a four hours' watch in the rain and fog, nor is it the most enjoyable thing in life to be delayed, after standing a four hours' watch in the rain, realizing all the time that each minute of waiting takes that precious time from the scant four hours' sleep.

But finally "all the watch" is piped, and we go below and flop into our hammocks, to sleep as soundly and dreamlessly as babies. A sailor will sleep like a dead man through all kinds of noises and calls, but the minute his own watch is called he is wide awake in an instant, from sheer force of habit.

So when the boatswain's mate went around with his pipe, singing out as he dodged in and out among the swinging hammocks, "On deck all the port watch," each of us jumped out of his swaying bed and began to climb into his damp clothes and stiff "oilers." We then made our way through the darkness, often bumping our heads on the bottom of hammocks, and earning sleepy but strongly worded rebukes from the occupants; colliding with stanchions, and stubbing our toes on ring bolts and hatch covers. All arrived at length, formed an unsteady line on the forecastle deck, and answered to our names as they were called by the boatswain's mate. So began another day's work on one of Uncle Sam's ships.

It was Sunday, and after a while the fog lifted and the sun came out strong and clear. All the men who were off duty came on deck to bask in the sun, and to get dried and thawed out.

"Steve" poked his uncombed, sleepy head through the "booby" hatch cover. "Well, this is something like! If the 'old man' will let us take it easy after inspection, I won't think life in the navy is so bad after all."

"Well, inspection and general muster and the reading of the ship's bible will take up most of the morning," said gunner's mate "Patt," as he emerged from the hatch after "Steve," wiping his grimy hands on a wad of waste, for he had been giving the guns a rub. "And if we don't have to go chasing an imaginary Spaniard or lug coal from the after hold forward, we'll be in luck," he continued.

"What about the 'ship's bible'? What is 'general muster'?" queried half a dozen of us.

"Why," said "Patt," "the ship's bible is the book of rules and regulations of the United States Navy. It is read once a month to the officers and crew of every ship in the navy. The officers and crew will be mustered aft-you'll see-the deck force and engineer force on the port side, the petty officers on the starboard side forward, the commissioned officers on the starboard side aft, and the marines athwartships aft. This forms three sides to a square. See?"

"I don't see the use of all this," broke in the irreverent "Kid." "Do we have to stand there and have war articles fired at us?"

"That's what, 'Kid,'" replied "Patt," good-naturedly.

"After all hands have taken their places," continued our informant, "the 'old man' will walk down the galley ladder in that dignified way of his, followed by the executive officer. 'Mother Hubbub' will then open the blue-covered book that he carries, and read you things that will make your hair stand on end and cause you to consider the best wording for your last will and testament." "Patt" was very impressive, and we stood with open mouths and staring eyes.

"When old 'Hubbub' opens the book, all hands, even the captain, will take off their hats and stand at attention. Then the war articles will be read to you. You will learn that there are twenty-seven or more offences for which you are liable to be shot-such as sleeping on post, desertion, disobedience, wilful waste of Government property, and so forth; you will be told that divine service is recommended whenever possible-in short, you are told that you must be good, and that if you are not there will be the deuce to pay. Then the captain will turn to 'Scully' and say, 'Pipe down,' whereupon 'Scully' and the other bosun's mates will blow a trill on their pipes, and all hands will go about their business."

So concluded our oracle.

"Gee whiz!" said the "Kid." "I nearly got into trouble the other night, for I almost dozed when I was on the buoy. I'm not used to getting along on eleven hours' sleep in forty-eight yet," he added, apologetically.

We all looked forward to "general muster" with a good deal of interest, and when it occurred, and the captain had inspected our persons, clothes, the ship, and mess gear, we decided that "Patt's" description fitted exactly, and were duly impressed with its solemnity.

We found to our sorrow that we of Number Eight's crew were not to enjoy sunshine undisturbed, but were soon put to work carrying coal in baskets from the after hold forward, and dumping it in the bunker chutes.

This work had been going on almost every day, and all day, since we left Tompkinsville. The coal was in the after hold and was needed in the bunkers forward, so every piece had to be shovelled into bushel baskets, hoisted to the gun deck, and carried by hand to the chute leading to the port and starboard bunkers. A dirty job it was, that not only blackened the men, but covered the deck, the mess gear, the paint work, and even the food, with coal dust.

Number Eight's crew had been at this pleasant occupation for about an hour, with the cheerful prospect of another hour of the same diversion. "Hay" was running the steam winch, "Stump" was pulling the baskets over the hatch coaming as they were hauled up by the winch, and the other five were carrying.

"Say, this is deadly slow, tiresome work," said "Flagg," who was carrying with me. "I'd give almost anything for a little excitement."

The last word had scarcely been uttered when there came the sounds of 'commotion on deck. A voice cried out in sharp command, the rudder chains creaked loudly, the ship heeled over to starboard, and then we who were at the open port saw a long, snaky object shoot out from the edge of the haze and bear down upon us.

"My heaven!" shouted "Stump," "it's a torpedo boat!"

The commotion on deck had given us some warning, but the sudden dash of the long, snaky torpedo boat from out the haze came as a decided shock. For one brief moment we of the after port stood as if turned to stone, then every man ran to his quarters and stood ready to do his duty. With a cry, our second captain sprang to the firing lanyard. Before he could grasp it, however, the officer of the division was at his side.

"Stop!" he exclaimed authoritatively.

The interruption was fortunate, for, just then, a swerve of the oncoming torpedo boat revealed a small flag flying from the taffrail staff. It was the American ensign.

The reaction was great. Forgetting discipline, we crowded about the port and laughed and cheered like a lot of schoolboys. Potter, in his joy and evident relief, sent his canvas cap sailing through the air. A rebuke, not very stern, however, came from the lieutenant in charge of the division, and we shuffled back to our stations.

"Cricky! what a sell," exclaimed the second rifleman, grinning. "I was sure we had a big job on our hands this time. I'm rather glad it is one of our fellows after all."

"I'm not," spoke up young Potter, blusteringly. "What did we come out here for, hey? I say it's a confounded shame. We might have had a chance to send one of the Spaniards to the bottom."

"It may be a Dago after all," suggested "Bill," glancing from the port. "The flag doesn't mean anything. They might be flying Old Glory as a ruse de guerre. By George! That craft looks just like the 'Pluton.'"

We, who were watching, saw Potter's face lengthen. He peered nervously at the rapidly approaching torpedo boat, and then tried to laugh unconcernedly.

"You can't 'string' me," he retorted. "That's one of your Uncle Samuel's boats all right. See! they are going to hail us."

A bell clanged in the engine room, then the throbbing of the machinery slackened to a slow pulsation. The rudder chains rattled in their fair-leaders, and presently we were steaming along, with the torpedo craft a score of yards off our midships.

On the forward deck of the latter stood two officers clad in the uniform of the commissioned service. One placed a speaking trumpet to his lips and called out:

"Cruiser ahoy! Is that the 'Yankee'?"

"You have made a good guess," shouted Captain Brownson. "What boat is that?"

"'Talbot' from Newport. Any news? Sighted you and thought we would speak you."

Our commander assured them that we were in search of news ourselves. The "Talbot's" officers saluted and then waved a farewell.

The narrow, low-lying craft spun about in almost her own length, a series of quick puffs of dense black smoke came from the funnels, and then the haze swallowed up the whole fabric.

We were left to take our discomfiture with what philosophy we could muster. When "secure" was sounded we left our guns with a sense of great danger averted and a feeling of relief.

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