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   Chapter 13 A NARROW ESCAPE.

A Gunner Aboard the Yankee"" By Russell Doubleday Characters: 17441

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The finger of light sweeping the heavens above the distant horizon meant to us the presence either of friend or foe, and the question was one we had little desire to solve at that moment. Rumors of Spanish warships lurking in the waters adjacent to Cuba were rife, and it had even been stated that another squadron inferior only to Cervera's fleet was somewhere in the neighborhood.

We of the "Yankee" were willing, and I may say, without undue boasting, eager to meet any vessel of equal size or even larger, but to give battle to a whole fleet was a little too much. Nevertheless, when the word was passed to go to "general quarters," there was no sulking nor hesitancy.

The battery was ready in record time.

Our gun was placed in trim, ammunition hatches opened, cartridges whipped on deck, and the piece prepared for instant use so rapidly that the officer of the division, Lieutenant Greene, gave us warm praise.

Then we waited.

It is difficult for a layman-a citizen who has not experienced the test of action and danger in battle-to understand or appreciate our feelings that night. It is hard to describe them, to paint with mere words the intense seriousness and gravity of the situation. You can imagine a dark night at sea-a night so black that the senses feel oppressed. You can add to these a thrill of impending danger and a vision of capture by a cruel enemy and the thought that the very next second will sound the signal for an uproar and outbreak of combat, but your impressions will fall far short of the reality-that must be experienced to be appreciated.

As we stood at our stations surrounding Number Eight gun, I tried to read the faces of my companions, to see if I could find in them traces of worry or anxiety, or of fear. The situation warranted even the latter emotion. The dim light cast by the nickering battle lanterns sent fantastic shadows dancing over deck and bulkhead, and caused the men at the guns to resemble, in their stained white working clothes, so many gaunt spectres.

But they were spectres with a grim purpose in view, and as the officer of the division strode back and forth, alert and watchful, they followed his movements with their eyes, eager for the word that would set them in action. They were not veterans, and their experience in war could have been measured by days, but they were honestly ready to fight and to shed the last drop of their blood for the flag waving over the taffrail.

It was a ticklish situation. Even the "Kid," with his careless, happy-go-lucky mind, would have admitted that; but as time passed without bringing a break in the monotony of waiting, we began to feel restless. The tension was still great, but the first sense of apprehension was gone.

"I do wish something would happen," muttered "Hay," after a while. "Can you see anything from that port, 'Morrie'?"

"A wall of blackness, that's all," replied the Rochester man.

"We've changed our course several times," spoke up Flagg. "I think the 'old man' is scooting for cover."

"Fool if he didn't," growled Tommy. "They have a pretty habit of court-martialling naval officers when they risk their ship unnecessarily. If Captain Brownson should fail to do all in his power to escape from what his judgment tells him is overwhelming odds, he'd find himself in trouble. Discretion is the better part of valor, even in the navy."

Suddenly we began to notice a peculiar glow tinging the darkness, and reflecting from the polished parts of the gun. It came suddenly and with a spurt of ruddy light unmistakable.

"It's a fire somewhere," exclaimed Flagg. "Look! it's getting brighter."

"It comes from this ship," cried "Stump," edging toward the port. "Is it possible the old hooker is on fire?"

We waited for the ringing of the alarm bell, or the call to "fire quarters," but the minutes slipped by without the summons. Outside, the ruddy glare tinged the surface of the sea, sparkling from foam-crested waves, and forming a circle of dancing light through which the "Yankee" speeded on in her flight for safety.

Our curiosity increased apace, and we watched eagerly for passing messengers or for some stray word that would explain the peculiar phenomenon. It was Kennedy who finally solved the mystery-Kennedy the luckless, he whom we dubbed "Lucky Bag," because of his propensity to allow his wearing apparel to find its way into the clutches of "Jimmy Legs." Kennedy had slipped near the port and was trying to perform the difficult feat of scanning the upper deck from the opening.

"Come back here and stop that 'rubber-necking,' No. 7," called out Tommy. "Do you want to get on the report?"

"For the hundred and 'steenth time," added "Stump," with a grin.

"Perhaps he's seasick," suggested "Dye." "It's about due. He hasn't heaved up his boots since noon."

"Did you hear what 'Cutlets' said to him yesterday?" spoke up "Hay." "He was 'wigging' Kennedy, and he remarked in his tender way, 'Look here, you hero, why don't you brace up and be a man? You are continually sick or on the report, and you aren't worth your salt. Get down below now, and fill your billet.' Poor devil! he tries to do his best, I guess."

Just then Kennedy faced around toward us and we saw that he was laughing.

"What do you think?" he said. "It's a fire after all."

"A fire? Where?" we gasped simultaneously.

"In the furnaces. I saw a big flame leaping from the funnel. Gee! they must be whooping her up below to beat the band. Coal piled up to the top of the flues."

"It's oil," exclaimed Tommy, gravely. "They are feeding the fires with crude oil. That means the last resort, fellows. The 'old man' is trying to get every ounce of steam possible."

Our curiosity satisfied, we felt more at ease, and we lounged at our stations and listened to the banging of furnace doors and grating of shovels in the fire room below. Occasionally one of us would venture an opinion or try to exchange views, and "Stump" even started a story, but in the main we were quiet and watchful.

From the swaying and trembling of the hull it was evident the "Yankee" was being pushed at her utmost speed. Mess gear rattled in the chests, the deck quivered, and from down in the lower depths came the quick throb-throb of the overworked engines. Presently the red glare caused by the upleaping flames from the funnel died away, and darkness settled down again.

"I guess we are making it," observed Tommy. "We have been a good two hours racing at this gait, which means a matter of almost forty miles."

"They might let us take a run on deck," grumbled Flagg. "What's the use of holding up this gun all night? It's getting monotonous."

"Here comes the 'Kid,'" exclaimed "Dye." "He may have some news."

The youngster brought a message to Lieutenant Greene. As he started off, he whispered:

"We are going to 'secure' in a few moments. It has been a great scoot. I heard the captain say to 'Mother Hubbub' that it would go down in history as a masterly retreat."

"Was it a Spanish fleet?" queried "Hay."

"They are not certain. The skipper now thinks that it was a convoy of transports bringing the army of occupation. He didn't stop to find out, though. Say, you fellows look tired. Why don't you 'pipe down'?"

He scurried off with a laugh, and we were just settling back for another siege of it when the welcome order came to "secure." The order was executed in a jiffy, and then those who had the off watch piled into their hammocks with a celerity seldom equalled. Santiago was reached early the following morning, and before the day was over we heard that our neighbors of the night before were, as the captain had suspected, a fleet of transports bringing troops from the United States.

"Which doesn't alter the fact that we displayed wisdom in taking a 'sneak,'" commented Tommy, grimly. "It's a clever chief who knows when to retreat."

The great gray ships still tossed idly on the rolling blue sea when we took our station at the right of the line.

It seemed more like a panorama, arranged for the amusement of an admiring crowd, than a fleet of floating forts ready at a moment's notice to pour out death and destruction.

The flagship "New York," gay with signal bunting, was the centre of a fleet of launches and small boats. The boats' crews, in white duck, lounged in their places, while the captains were aboard conferring with the admiral.

The torpedo boat "Porter" flashed in and out between the grim battleships in an almost playful way.

A signal boy on the "Brooklyn" held a long wigwag conversation with the flagship, the bit of bright color showing sharply against the lead-colored turret.

It was

hard to realize that only a few days ago these same ships, that now rested so calmly and majestically, were enveloped in clouds of smoke, their great guns spitting forth fire and a fearful hail of steel.

We looked at picturesque old Morro on the bluff, and there, close to the lighthouse, still floated the Spanish colors. It was aggravating, and we would like to have shot the hateful bunting away.

We had no sooner reached our station than the boatswain's call echoed from one end of the ship to the other, "Away gig." Whereupon the gig's crew rushed below and "broke out" clean whites. No matter what happens, the gig's crew must always be clean, both in person and apparel.

Our gig soon joined the fleet of waiting boats at the flagship's gangway, and lay there while the captain went aboard.

The skipper returned about noon and went forward. Immediately, we heard the cry "All hands on the gig falls." Then, before the boat was fairly out of water, we heard the engine bell jingle.

We were off again.

Some active member of the "Rumor Committee" said we were bound for Jamaica. And after consultation with a signal boy, who came aft to read the patent log, we found that we were heading for that island.

The wind was dead ahead and blowing fresh and cool, but the sun was hot, and the boatswain's mates were instructed to keep the men in the shade as much as possible.

The stress and strain of the night before made the few hours of "caulking off," that we now enjoyed, particularly grateful.

We lay so thick on the windward side of the spar deck under the awning, that it would have been difficult to find foot room.

Every hour a signal boy came running aft to read the log, which was attached to the taffrail on the starboard quarter. The log worked on the same principal as a bicycle cyclometer. It had two dials that indicated the miles and fractions of miles as they were reeled off. A long, braided line, having what we called a "twister" attached, trailed behind in the water and made the wheels go round, a certain number of revolutions to the mile.

Hour after hour the ship rushed through the water. The engines throbbed in a regular, settled sort of way, that reminded one of a man snoring. The wind blew softly and caressingly. The ship rolled easily in the long swell. It was soothing and restful, and we felt quite reconciled to life in the navy. We almost forgot that we were on an engine of war; that there was enough ammunition below to blow up several "Maine's," and that we were cruising in the enemy's country.

The men talked cheerfully of home, pursuits, and pleasures, for it was too fine, too bright, to be depressed.

Finally the sun went down in a blaze of glory, dropping suddenly into the sea as it is wont to do in the tropics.

In a few minutes it was dark. In these latitudes there is practically no twilight; the sun jumps into his full strength in the morning, and quenches his glory in the sea before one realizes the day is gone.

Soon after dark the lookouts began to report lights, and before long we found ourselves steaming into a fine harbor, which we learned was Port Antonio.

A delightful feeling of security stole over us. We were at anchor in a friendly port, the inhabitants of which spoke the same tongue as we did and sympathized with us. We turned in at the earliest possible moment, and as we lay in our "elevated folding beds," as "Hay" called them, we could hear unmistakable shore sounds-the barking of dogs, the crowing of cocks, and according to some active imaginations, even the bell of a trolley car.

At one o'clock we were wakened by the call, "All hands on the cat falls." We slipped out of our "dream bags" with the best grace we could muster, and went forward to pull up the anchor to its place on the forecastle deck.

So we gave up the pleasant idea that we were to spend the night undisturbed, and the guns' crews of the watch on deck made themselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, on their wooden couch around the guns; viz., the deck.

When the sun rose next morning, we found that land was plainly visible from the port side, and we soon learned that we were still in Jamaican waters and would arrive at Montego Bay about ten o'clock.

The programme was carried out to the dot.

The "Yankee" steamed into the beautiful bay, the crew "at quarters," in honor of the English man-of-war "Indefatigable," which lay at anchor there, and we had hardly let down our anchor when a fleet of "bumboats" came chasing out to us.

Though an American warship had never visited this port before, we seemed to be recognized by these enterprising marine storekeepers as easy prey.

The native "bumboat" is a dugout affair very narrow for its length, and seemingly so cranky that we marvelled at the size of the sail carried. They brought fruits of all kinds, and tobacco, so we didn't stop to criticise their rig, but showed plainly that we were right glad to see them.

The boatmen and women were all colored people and, like the race the world over, were most fantastically and gaily clothed. The women wore bright-hued calico dresses, and brighter bandana handkerchiefs on their heads. The men wore flaming neckties, gay shirts, and, in some cases, tall white or gray beaver hats.

The boats were filled with yellow, green, and red fruits and brightly-colored packages of tobacco, the whole making a most vivid and brilliant display of color.

The crew bought eagerly, regardless of price. Limes, oranges, mangoes, bananas, and pineapples came over the side in a steady stream, while an equally steady, though smaller, stream of silver went back to the boats.

It was a harvest day for the Montego Bay "bumboatmen."

Though we bought the fruits without hesitation, we bit into them gingerly, for, to most of us, many of them were strange.

Tom LeValley brought me a mango and said that I could have it if I would sample it and tell what it was like. I accepted, for I had not been lucky enough to get near a boat to buy for myself.

He handed me something that looked like a pear but was of the color of an orange. I was just about to bite into it when I chanced to look up. I saw that I was the target of all eyes. Putting on a bold front, I sunk my teeth in the yellow rind. I found it was pleasant to the taste, but unlike anything that I had ever put in my mouth before. Still the fellows gazed at me. Was it a trick mango I had tackled so recklessly? I determined not to be stumped, and took a good big bite. In a moment, I discovered why I was the "observed of all observers." The last bite loosened a good deal of the peel, and the thing began to ooze. It oozed through my fingers and began to run down my sleeve; it dripped on my trousers and made an ineradicable stain; my face was smeared with it, my hands were sticky with it, my mouth was full of it, and still the blamed thing oozed.

Then the unfeeling crowd laughed. Some one shouted "get under the hose." Another yelled "Swab ho," whereupon a none too clean deck swab was brought and applied to my face and hands, protests being unavailing.

I afterwards remarked to Tom that he had better try experiments on himself, or present me with a bathtub along with the next mango, and I have since learned that a Distinguished Person came to the same conclusion when first introduced to this deceitful fruit.

We enjoyed our stay in this beautiful island port very much, and it was with great reluctance that we obeyed the order to "haul on the cat falls." As we were walking away with that heavy line, we saw a liberty party from the English warship start for shore in the ship's cutters, and we envied them with all our hearts.

The town looked very attractive, set as it was on the side and at the base of a high hill, the red-tiled roofs of its houses showing against the graceful, green palm trees. On our left, a grove of cocoanut palms flourished, and beneath grazed a herd of cattle.

Soon the ship began to back out, and then, as the bay grew wider, she turned slowly and headed for the open.

"Lash your mess chests," said messenger "Kid" to the berth deck cooks. "Orders from the officer of the deck," he added.

He turned to us, who were standing by the open port. "I guess we'll have a lively time of it, for I heard 'Cutlets' say the barometer is dropping at a terrible rate."

The "Kid" scurried further aft to give the order to the boatswain's mates and master-at-arms.

We looked out to seaward and noted the black sky and the rising wind.

"I guess you 'heroes' will have a chance to show what right you have to be called seamen," said "Stump," mimicking "Cutlets."

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