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   Chapter 8 WE JOIN SAMPSON'S FLEET.

A Gunner Aboard the Yankee"" By Russell Doubleday Characters: 15488

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


As the "Yankee" steamed in toward the blockading fleet off the entrance to Santiago harbor, the scurrying torpedo boats and the many little launches darting here and there like so many beetles on a pond, became more apparent, and it was plainly evident to all that something of great importance had recently happened.

The scattered remarks made by Captain Brownson on the bridge formed, when pieced together, such a wonderful bit of news that I could scarcely contain myself as I hurried aft. I wanted to stop and fling my cap into the air. I felt like dancing a jig and hurrahing and offering praise for the fact that I was an American.

As it happened, I was not the only member of the "Yankee's" crew that had overheard the "old man's" words. The second captain of the after port five-inch gun, a jolly good fellow, known familiarly as "Hay" by the boys, chanced to be under the bridge. As I raced aft on the port side he started in the same direction on the starboard side of the spar deck. His legs fairly twinkled, and he beat me to the gangway by a neck.

"What do you think?" I heard him gasp as I came up. "Talk of your heroes! Whoop! Say, I'm glad I am a son of that old flag aft there. It's the greatest thing that ever happened."

"What?" chorused a dozen voices.

"Last night-"

"Yes."

"Last night a volunteer crew-"

"Hurry up, will you?"

"Last night, or rather early this morning, a volunteer crew, under the command of a naval constructor named Hobson, took the collier 'Merrimac' into the mouth of the harbor and-"

"That old tub?" interrupted a marine who had served in the regular navy, incredulously. "Why, she's nothing but a hulk. She hasn't a gun or-"

"She didn't go in to fight," said "Hay." "They were to block up the channel with her."

"To block up the channel?"

"Yes. Cervera and his fleet are in the harbor, you know, and the scheme was to keep them from coming out."

"Did they succeed?" chorused the whole group of eager listeners.

"Yes, but--"

The conclusion of "Hay's" sentence was drowned in a wild whoop of joy, a whoop that brought a number of other "Yankees" to the spot, and also a gesture of remonstrance from the executive officer on the bridge.

"Wait, boys," I said, gently; "you haven't heard all."

There was quiet at once.

"Hobson and his brave men succeeded in accomplishing their object, but they have paid the penalty for it."

"Not dead?" asked one in almost a whisper.

"So the captain read the signals. The 'Merrimac' went in about three o'clock this morning. It seems she reached the channel all right, but she was discovered and sent to the bottom with all on board."

"Hay" took off his cap reverently, and the others instantly followed his example. Nothing more was said. The glory of the deed was overshadowed by the supposed fate of the gallant volunteer crew.

The "Yankee" steamed in to a position designated by the flagship, and the captain went aboard to pay his respects to Admiral Sampson. A Spanish tug, flying a flag of truce, which had emerged from the harbor at noon, met one of our tugs, also flying a flag of truce, and almost immediately a string of signals went up to the signal yard of the "New York."

Then came such a burst of cheers and whistling and tossing of hats from every ship in the fleet that it seemed as if every officer and sailor in Sampson's squadron had suddenly gone daft. Like wildfire, the glorious news spread-

Hobson and his men were safe!

The tug from the harbor had brought an officer sent by Admiral Cervera himself with a message stating that the brave naval constructor and all his crew had been captured alive and were now prisoners in Morro Castle. Later, a press boat came alongside and confirmed the news through a megaphone.

The excitement on board the "Yankee," like that throughout the fleet, was tremendous. Those in the North who had received both the news of the feat and the rescue at the same time, can hardly understand the revulsion of feeling which swept through the American ships gathered off Santiago. It was like hearing from a supposed dead friend.

These heroes were comrades-nay, brothers. They wore the blue and they were fighting for Old Glory. Their praise was ours and their deed redounded to the eternal credit and fame of the American navy. Small wonder that we welcomed the news of their safety, and cheered until our throats were husky and our eyes wet with something more than mere exertion.

All hail to Richmond Pearson Hobson and his men!

Heroes all!

* * *

During the afternoon of our arrival, when we finally secured time to look about us, we were struck with the appearance of the really formidable fleet of warships collected under Admiral Sampson's flag. For size of individual ships and weight of armor and armament, there had never been anything in the history of the United States to equal it.

The fleet consisted of the powerful battleships "Iowa," "Indiana," "Massachusetts," and "Texas," the two splendid armored cruisers "New York" and "Brooklyn," cruisers "New Orleans" and "Marblehead," converted yachts "Mayflower," "Josephine," and "Vixen," torpedo boat "Porter," cable boat "Adria," gunboat "Dolphin," and the auxiliary cruisers "St. Louis" and "Yankee."

The vessels formed a semicircular line, completely enclosing the entrance to Santiago harbor. From where the "Yankee" rested, on the right wing, a fine view of the coast could be obtained. Two insurgent camps were plainly visible-one on the beach and another in the hills, which at that point rose to the height of fully four thousand feet. Morro Castle, a grim, sullen, gray embattled fort, directly overlooking the channel, was in plain sight, and here and there could be seen little green or sand-colored mounds, marking the site of earthworks.

The stretch of blue sea, edged by the tumbling surf-beaten beach, and the uprising of foliage-covered hills, all brought out clearly by a tropical sun, formed a picture as far removed from the usual setting of war as could be. But war was there, and the scenery appealed to few. There was more interest in the drab hulls of the fleet and the outward reaching of the mighty guns.

That evening-the evening of June 3d-the "Yankee's" decks presented an animated spectacle. The novel surroundings and the prospect of action kept the boys interested. The "Rumor Committee" was in active session, and one of its principal members, the captain's orderly, brought the news forward that the auxiliary cruiser would surely lead a procession of battleships into Santiago harbor the following day.

This was a little too strong for even the marines to swallow. We lay down by our loaded guns that night, feeling that it was well to be within easy reach of our defenders.

Hammocks were laid on the deck close to each five-inch breechloader, and the regular watch was doubled. Lack of experience made all these warlike preparations very impressive, and it was some time before the boys fell asleep. For my part, such a restlessness possessed me that, after trying to woo slumber for a half hour, I left my place and crawled over nearer the open port.

"Hello, Russ," whispered a voice, apparently from the outside. "Just lean out here if you want to cool off. Isn't the night air fine?"

A small figure wriggled in from where it had been hanging over the port sill, and in the faint light I recognized "Kid," as we called him, the smallest boy on board, and so pleasant and popular that we had unanimously elected him the mascot of the ship.

I was glad to see that it was "Kid." His fund of ready wit and his never-failing good-nature made him a welcome companion at all times. He did not belong to my gun

, being a "powder monkey" on No. 16, a six-pounder on the spar deck, but "Kid" was privileged, and he could have penetrated to the captain's cabin with impunity.

"Thought I'd drop down here for a rest," he began, stretching himself and yawning. "Too much tramping about on deck to sleep. Say, looks as if we were going to have a little rain, doesn't it?"

The moon had just passed behind a scurrying cloud, causing the silvery sparkle of its reflection to suddenly fade from the surface of the water. The lights and shadows on the nearby beach changed to a streaky dark smudge. There was a damp touch to the air.

"This would be a proper night for one of those sneaking torpedo boats to give us a scare," resumed "Kid," thoughtfully. "Funny ways of fighting those Dagoes have, eh? It's like prisoner's base that I played when I was a boy."

"Kid's" eighteen years were a mature age in his opinion.

"The two torpedo craft in Santiago harbor could do a great deal of damage if they were properly handled," I ventured. "They are magnificent vessels of their class. Look what Cushing did with a slow steam launch and a powder can on the end of a stick."

"The case was different."

"Yes, but--"

"Cushing was an American," interrupted the boy convincingly.

There was silence for awhile and we lolled in the port, gazing idly at the black spots in the gloom representing the blockading fleet. Between us and the shore was the "New Orleans," the faint tracery of her masts just showing above the distant background of the hills. The dampness in the air had increased, and a dash of rain came in the open port.

"What were you doing at the mast this morning, 'Kid'?" I asked by way of variety.

"Had a mustering shirt in the lucky bag."

I heard the boy chuckle. There was an escapade behind the remark.

"You know that wardroom Jap with the bad eye?"

"Yes."

"It was his shirt."

"But how--"

"It was this way. You know how hard it has been to put up with 'government straight' as a steady diet, don't you?"

I nodded. As "government straight" meant the extremely simple bill of fare provided by Uncle Sam, consisting of salt beef, pork, hardtack, beans, and canned butter, with an occasional taste of dried fruit, I was compelled to admit my acquaintance with it.

"Well, the other night I got to dreaming that I was back in New York," resumed "Kid." "I dreamt I dropped into a bang-up restaurant and ordered beefsteak, fried potatoes, pie, and--"

A groan came from one of the gun's crew, who was within hearing, and "Kid" lowered his voice.

"Hit him where he lived, I guess," he chuckled. "Well, I woke up so hungry that I couldn't stand it any longer. I looked up the Jap and struck him for a hand-out. He wanted a shirt, and I wanted something to eat, and we made a bargain. I brought him my extra mustering shirt-it was too large for me, anyway-and he gave me some bread and butter, cold potted tongue, three bananas, and--"

"For mercy's sake, stow that," muttered a voice from back of the gun-mount. "Don't we suffer enough?"

"That's 'Hand-Out' Hood," grinned "Kid." "He's kicking because he didn't get it. Well, I gave the shirt to the Jap, and what did he do but lose it. My name was on the collar, and 'Jimmy Legs' put me on the report. The 'old man' was easy, though. Gave me four hours extra duty. I asked him if I couldn't work it out in the wardroom pantry."

"Kid's" chuckle came to a sudden stop, and he leaned out through the port.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"Thought I saw something moving over there near the beach."

"Must have been a shadow."

"Guess so. Still, it looked like some kind of a-"

Bang!

The sharp report of a rapid-fire gun cut short his words. Another followed almost instantly, then came a regular volley. The effect on the crew of the "Yankee" was instantaneous. The men sleeping at the guns scrambled to their feet, hammocks were kicked out of the way, and before the word to go to general quarters was passed, every member of the crew was at his station.

"I thought I saw something moving inshore," cried "Kid," as he scurried away.

"It's a Spanish torpedo boat," muttered "Stump." "Great Scott! just listen to the 'New Orleans.' She's firing like a house afire."

Suddenly there came a deep, thunderous roar. It was the voice of a thirteen-inch gun on the "Massachusetts." Sixty seconds later the six-pounders on the "Yankee's" forecastle joined in the chorus, and the action became general.

"Do not fire without orders, men," cautioned Lieutenant Greene, the officer in charge of our division. "Just take it easy and bide your time."

It was our first experience in actual fighting, and our anxiety to "let loose" was almost overwhelming. We were held to our stations so rigidly that but few glimpses could be caught of the outside. The "New Orleans," on our starboard, was still rattling away.

Notwithstanding our own inaction (the gun deck battery was not used), there was a certain exhilaration in even listening to the sounds of conflict, and the eager, tense faces surrounding the guns reflected in the dim light of the deck lanterns such a fierce desire to fight that they were absolutely transfigured.

"Can't stand this much longer," muttered "Hay," the second captain, as a peculiarly vicious report came from the direction of the "Massachusetts." "Why don't they give a fellow a chance?"

"THE SIX-POUNDERS ON THE 'YANKEE'S' FORECASTLE JOINED IN THE CHORUS" (page 112).

"Steady, men," admonished Lieutenant Greene. "Don't be impatient. Our turn will come soon. Steady!"

A turn of the hull-we were under way at half speed-brought the land on the port bow just then. The moon suddenly emerged from behind the clouds, and we who were nearest the port, distinctly saw a long, black object fade into the obscurity of the coast almost directly under Morro Castle.

"She's escaped!" groaned "Stump." "It's the torpedo boat, and she is safe again."

As if to prove the truth of his words the guns on the "New Orleans" and "Massachusetts" became silent; then word was sent below to "secure." Our first action was disappointing, but there was little grumbling. We knew full well that momentous events were bound to occur before long.

The following morning, shortly after daybreak, the torpedo boat "Porter" steamed alongside. Her coming created some excitement, and the "Yankee's" crew promptly lined the railing.

"What's that object on the deck?" asked "Stump," pointing to a long brass cylinder lying abaft the after conning tower.

"It's a torpedo, but not like those used in our navy," replied "Hay."

Captain Brownson leaned over the end of the bridge and waved his hand to Lieutenant Fremont, the "Porter's" commander. The latter was smiling, and as we watched, he made a gesture toward the mysterious brass cylinder.

"See that thing, Brownson?" he called out.

The captain nodded.

"It almost paid you a visit last night."

"What--"

"We picked it up near shore this morning and sunk another. That Spanish torpedo boat made a great attempt to sink one of our ships, and, if I am not mistaken, the 'Yankee' was her intended prey. Congratulations."

As the "Porter" steamed away we felt very much like congratulating ourselves. This was grim war of a certainty. Like the boy who was blown a mile in a cyclone without injury, we experienced a certain pride that we really had been in danger.

About the middle of the afternoon a signal was seen on the flagship. It was read at once, and immediately the boatswain's mate passed a call that sent a thrill of anticipation through us. It was:

"All hands clear ship for action!"

"CLEAR SHIP FOR ACTION!" (page 115).]

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