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   Chapter 9 CLEAR SHIP FOR ACTION.

A Gunner Aboard the Yankee"" By Russell Doubleday Characters: 17558

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The boatswain's mate's shrill piping and the long drawn out cry, "All hands clear ship for action!" was not entirely unexpected. An unusual activity on the part of the signal men on the flagship "New York" had not escaped our notice, and when the summons to prepare for battle echoed through the "Yankee's" decks it found us in readiness for prompt obedience.

At the time the call sounded a number of us were standing in the port waist idly watching the fleet and the shore. "Bill," a member of the powder division, whose father is a prominent real estate broker of New York, and whose great talent is for practical joking and general fun making, was telling a story. As we scattered at the summons, he started below with me. Even the circumstances could not prevent him following his hobby, and he whispered as we hurried along:

"Say, Russ, this reminds me of a good story I once heard. There was a man who was too lazy to live and the neighbors finally decided to bury him. So they took him out to the village graveyard one morning before day and--"

"Here, you men, pass this mess chest below," interrupted an officer, beckoning to us. "Bill" grasped one end of the object indicated and lugged it to the hatch.

"They took the lazy man to the village graveyard, as I was saying," resumed "Bill," "and they buried him up to his neck in the earth. Then they hid back of tombstones and--"

"Less talking there, men," exclaimed the navigator, hurrying past us. "You 'heroes' do too much yarning to suit me. Get those things below at once. Shake it up."

"They are in an almighty hurry," grumbled "Bill." "The forts won't move. They'll be there to-morrow, I guess. Well, as I was saying, the villagers concealed themselves behind convenient tombstones and waited to see what the lazy man would do when he woke up. By and by day broke, and just as the sun gilded the windows of the old church the fellow who was buried up to his neck--"

"Chase those mess chests below, bullies," called out the boatswain's mate, dropping down the ladder a few feet away. "Lively there; the 'old man' wants to break a record. When you have finished, hustle to the oil and paint lockers and help carry all inflammable material to the spar deck."

For several minutes "Bill" worked away in silence. Between us we managed to lower a number of chests into the hold where they would be out of the way; then we disposed of more objects liable to produce unwelcome splinters, and finally we started toward the paint locker.

The gun deck presented a scene of the most intense activity. The process of clearing ship for action requires the united efforts of the entire crew. On vessels of the regular service, such as the "New York" or "Indiana," where everything has been constructed with a view to the needs of battle, the work is thoroughly systematized and comparatively easy. The "Yankee," being a merchant steamer hastily converted into a vessel of war, presented greater difficulties.

However, the crew was fairly familiar with its duties and the work progressed at a rapid rate. When "Bill" and I reached the paint locker we found several others preparing to convey the oil to the deck. It was a momentary respite, and "Bill" took advantage of it.

"When the sun rose the fellows hiding behind the tombstones saw the lazy man open his eyes," he resumed hurriedly. "He looked around and took in all the details of the scene, the old church with the windows glowing redly, the weeping willows shaking and trembling in the crisp morning breeze, the rows of sod-covered mounds, the crumbling tombstones, and on one side the old rickety fence marking the passing of the road. All this he saw and then-"

"Hear the news, fellows?" interrupted the "Kid," suddenly approaching. "We are going to-what's the matter, 'Bill'?"

For "Bill" had caught him by the slack of the shirt and one arm and was hustling him along the deck. The "Kid," looking aggrieved, went his way, and "Bill" returned.

"As I was saying," he continued calmly; "the lazy fellow saw all those things, then he threw back his head and laughed and laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks. 'Whoop!' he cried, 'this is the best piece of luck I've struck yet. Hurray! blamed if it ain't the resurrection day and I'm the first feller above ground. Whoop!'"

After I had finished laughing I picked up a can of oil and asked:

"Where's the similarity, 'Bill'? It's a good story, but you said this reminded you of it."

"Humph! aren't we going to see the resurrection of some of these old Spanish fossils around here to-day?" "Bill" demanded. "And aren't we the first volunteer force on the spot? I guess that makes the story apropos."

As the "Yankee" was the first vessel manned by Naval Reserves to reach the scene of hostilities, I could not deny "Bill's" claim. Seeing the success of one story, he was on the point of telling another, when word came to hasten the clearing of the ship for action, and we were compelled to devote our energies to the work in hand.

The decks were sanded-a precaution that made more than one wonder if the spilling of blood was really anticipated; all boats and spare booms were covered with canvas to prevent the scattering of splinters, the steel hatch covers were closed down, hammocks were broken out of the racks and made to serve as an added protection to the forward wheel-house, and everything possible done to make the ship fit for action.

The time taken to gain this end did not exceed ten minutes, which was almost a record. Signals were displayed stating that we were in readiness, then all hands were called to general quarters. As we hurried to our stations I saw the entire blockading fleet moving slowly shoreward.

"We are going to bombard the Dagoes this trip for sure," observed the first captain of Number Eight as we lined up. "I see their finish."

"Don't be too sure," said "Stump." "There's many a slip between the muzzle and the target. Maybe we won't do much after all. Just to make it interesting I'll bet you a dinner at Del's that we will only chuck a bluff. What d'ye say?"

"Done, if you make it for the whole ship's company," chuckled the first captain.

"Stump" shook his head.

"A dinner at Del's for over two hundred hungry Reserves, and on a salary of $35 per month. Nope. Not on your life."

"Cast loose and provide," came the order.

There were a few moments of rapid work, then the battery was reported in readiness for firing. Through the open port we could catch a glimpse of the other vessels of the fleet, and the spectacle formed by the low-lying battleships, the massive cruisers, and the smaller, but equally defiant gunboats, was one long to be remembered.

Every ship was cleared for business. On the vessels of the "Oregon" class nothing could be seen but the gray steel of turrets and superstructure. The "New York" and the "Brooklyn" were similarly cleared. On the bridges could be seen groups of officers, but the decks were empty. Every man was at his gun.

The ships steamed in to within a short distance of the beach and then formed a semicircle, the heavier vessels taking the centre where they could directly face the forts. The little "Dolphin" was on the extreme right of the line, with the "Yankee" next.

When within easy range of the guns ashore there ensued a wait. No signal to fire came from the flagship, and there did not seem to be any move toward opening the battle by the forts. We stood at our guns in silence, awaiting the word, until finally patience ceased to be a virtue.

"Seems to me they ought to do something," murmured "Stump," glancing shoreward rather discontentedly. "Ain't we fair targets?"

"Why don't the admiral tell us to sail in?" queried the first captain in the same tone. "The day is fine and the range is good. There's the beggars plain enough with their measly old forts. What more is wanted?"

"Wish they would pipe down and light the smoking lamp," said the second loader. "It would be a great deal more fun than standing here like a dummy."

The sun had passed beyond the top of the hills, but the light was sufficiently strong to bring out in plain relief the batteries guarding the entrance to Santiago. Grim Morro Castle appeared almost deserted. The red and yellow banner of Spain flaunted lazily from the ramparts, but only here and there could be distinguished the little black dots representing the soldiers on guard. The earthworks and smaller forts were equally idle.

"We won't get anything out of them to-day," remarked "Stump" decisively. "It must be one of their eternal feast days when they won't even fight."

"There goes a signal on the flagship," exclaimed the first loader, pointing out the port. "I'll bet a dolla

r it's-"

"The signal to pull out again," groaned "Stump." "Didn't I say so?"

"The admiral intends to postpone the bombardment for some reason," I ventured. "Perhaps it's too late in the day."

Whatever the cause, it was now plain that we would not engage the forts. In obedience to the signals on the "New York," which were repeated by the "Brooklyn," the whole fleet returned to the former station several miles from shore. The word to "secure" was passed and presently the "Yankee" had resumed its former condition of armed watchfulness.

That evening after supper there was a gathering of the choice spirits of the crew in the vicinity of the after wheel-house. "Dye," the chief member of the "Yankee's" choir, started one of "Steve's" little songs, which, although rendered very quietly in deference to the rules observed on blockade, was greatly enjoyed. The air was "Tommy Atkins," and the words ran as follows:

"They made us sign our papers for a year,

And dressed us in a natty sailor's suit;

They taught us how to heave the lead and steer,

And how to handle guns and how to shoot.

We fancied we'd be leaving right away

To capture prizes on the Spanish Main,

And be raising merry hades

With the dusky Spanish laddies,

And within a month come steaming home again.

CHORUS.

"But instead we ran a ferry

All along the Jersey shore,

And our turns were empty very,

And our hands were awful sore.

We would give our bottom dollar

Just to see a cable car,

Just to hear a newsboy holler,

Just to smoke a good cigar.

"In times of peace we do not have to sweep

Or carry coal or stand on watch all night;

We do not have to scrub down decks or keep

Our toothbrush chained, or brasswork shining bright.

We never washed our faces in a pail,

We never heard the fog-horn's awful shriek,

We never ate salt horse,

We combed our hair, of course,

And we never wore our stockings for a week."

CHORUS.

"Suppose you 'heroes' pipe down there," came from the darkness just then. "What do you think this is, a concert hall?"

"It's 'Cutlets,'" muttered "Stump." "He would like to make the ship a funeral barge."

We sat in silence for a while, watching the retreating form of the navigator passing forward; then Tom Le Valley, a zealous member of Number Nine gun's crew, spoke up.

"Do you see those two lights twinkling over there about where the 'Dolphin' should be, fellows?" he asked.

Some one yawned and nodded.

"Reminds you of a story, eh?" asked "Bill," who was leaning against the rail. "Well, come to think of it I remember a-"

"Several years ago I happened to be a patient in a hospital over in Brooklyn," continued Tom. "I was almost well and about to leave the place when a man in the upper ward-"

"I had a cousin once who used to travel a great deal," interrupted "Bill," taking a seat on the deck with his back against a bitt. "One time he happened to be in a small town just outside of Dublin, Ireland. The inn was crowded and he had to take up his quarters with a family who occasionally rented out rooms. A circus and menagerie was giving exhibitions in the city, and one night the biggest monkey escaped from its cage and skipped out. They instituted a search at once, but the animal could not be found. Well, it happened that the family with whom my cousin was stopping consisted of father and mother and one son about ten years old. The boy, whose name was Mike, was a regular limb. Always in mischief and--"

"As I was saying," broke in Tom at this juncture, "when I was about to leave the hospital, a man in the upper ward concluded to depart this world for a better one. It happened about eight o'clock in the evening, and, as was usual in such cases, the nurse on watch was supposed to get several convalescent patients and a stretcher and carry the body down to a little wooden house a hundred yards from the main building. The nurse, with whom I was on friendly terms, had an important case to attend to just then and he asked me if I wouldn't take charge of the stretcher party. Well, we started down the yard, I leading the way with a lantern, and we finally reached the little house. We entered and--"

"Some people think they are the only story tellers in the group," remarked "Bill" with mild sarcasm at that interesting point. "To tell a good story with a point to it is an art. Now, as I was saying, this boy Mike would rather get into mischief than eat a-what's the Irish for potato?"

"Spud," suggested "Hod."

"Murphy," said "Stump."

"Well, it's immaterial. Anyway the boy was full of mischief. The night the monk got away he had been sent to bed early because of some trick he had played. He slept in a little room at the head of the stairs leading to the second story. His window opened on a lean-to shed, and, as it was a warm evening, the sash was raised. Shortly after the youngster got to bed, something slipped over the back fence, and after prowling about the yard for a moment, climbed upon the shed and through the window into the room where Mike was just in the act of falling asleep. The thing, which was about the youngster's size, crept over the floor toward the bed, and then with a spring, landed squarely upon--"

"Some people use more wind in telling a story than would fill a maintop-sail," drawled Tom. "There's nothing like getting at your subject. Now, when we reached the little wooden house we entered, and after accomplishing our errand, started back to the main building. While on the way it suddenly occurred to me that I had forgotten to close the door between the two rooms of which the house was composed. There was an open window in the front room, and there was no telling what might get in. I told the fellows to go on and I tasked back to the little house. I still carried the lantern, but just as I reached the door, it went out. I tell you, I felt like letting the whole thing go, but I didn't want to get the nurse into trouble. So I unlocked the front door, opened it, and, Great Scott! I saw--"

"There's everything in choosing a subject when you want to tell a good story," calmly interrupted Bill. "This story I am trying to tell has a laugh in it. You don't have to keep your hair down with both hands and feel the cold chills playing tag up and down your spinal column, like you have to do when some people are trying to yarn. Well, when the thing that had crept through the window landed on the bed, Mike let out a yell that could have been heard in Dublin. 'Ow-w-w!' he whooped, scrambling to the floor. He caught one sight of the visitor, and then made a dash for the window and slid clear to the ground, leaving pieces of shirt and his epidermis on every nail on the shed roof. The noise he made roused the father and mother below, and the latter started for the stairs. 'That b'ye 'll be the death av me yet,' she complained. 'I'll go up and give him a slap.' She lost no time in reaching the little room, and when she entered she saw the bed with what she thought was Mike under the clothes. 'Mike, ye rascal,' she exclaimed, 'turn down the sheet this minute. It's mesilf as'll tache ye to raise a noise at this time o' night. For shame, ye spalpane! What, ye won't obey your own mother? I'll show ye. Take that!' She brought her hand down upon the figure outlined under the sheet with a resounding whack. The next second the thing leaped from the bed squarely into her arms. 'Wow! Murther! Mike, what have ye been doing?' she howled, adding at the top of her voice, 'Patrick, Patrick, come quick! The b'ye has got hold of your hair restorer. He's all covered with hair and he's gone daft. Murther!' With that the father made for the stairs as fast as his legs could carry him. Just as he got to the top-"

"The sight I saw when I opened the outer door of the little house almost knocked me silly," broke in Tom, rather excitedly. "There in the other room gleamed-"

"When Patrick reached the second floor," interrupted Bill, raising his voice, "he felt something strike him full in the chest; then two hairy arms clasped him about the throat and-"

"In the other room gleamed two-"

"Oh, give a fellow a chance, will you?" cried Bill. "You want the whole floor. What do you think-"

"Sh-h-h! here comes the executive officer," hastily whispered "Stump." "We've made too much racket. Let's go into the after wheel-house."

"We must be quiet about it," spoke up the "Kid," warningly. "'Cutlets' is chasing around to-night, and if he catches us in there he'll raise Cain."

"All right," replied Bill. "And I'll finish that story if I have to stay up all night."

"Same here," retorted Tom, with evident determination. "Come on."

And we all followed the twain.

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