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   Chapter 14 WE ENGAGE IN A SEA FIGHT.

A Gunner Aboard the Yankee"" By Russell Doubleday Characters: 17439

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"Watch on deck, put on your oilers," shouted the boatswain's mates.

The order came none too soon, for as the last man ran up the companion-way ladder, the rain began to drop in sheets.

The rising wind drove the rain in our faces with stinging force, and we were soon wet as drowned rats.

The white-capped seas raced alongside, and the "Yankee" heaved and tossed like a bucking bronco. The lookouts at the masthead swayed forward and back, to and fro, dizzily, and the officer of the deck on the bridge had difficulty in keeping his feet. The pots and pans in the galley banged noisily, and ever and anon the screw was lifted out of the water, and for a few turns shook the ship from stern to stem with its accelerated speed.

A number of men who had partaken too freely of tropical fruits manned the rail and seemed too much interested in the seething water below to notice the rain that was dripping down their necks.

For a time, things were very lively aboard the old hooker, and, though in the main unpleasant, the grandeur of the sea in the tempest made up for all discomforts. The flash of the lightning, the roar of the thunder, the hum and whistle of the wind through the rigging, and the swish of the seas as they dashed themselves to spray against the sides of the ship-all this made an impressive chorus, more stirring even than the roar of cannon and the shriek of shell.

When "hammocks" was blown by the ship's bugler at a quarter to seven, we found it difficult to make our way forward to the nettings. One moment we were toiling up the deck's steep incline; the next, the ship would bury her prow, and we were rushing forward pell mell. The boat seemed to be endowed with diabolical intelligence that night. A man might, perchance, stoop to tie his shoe or examine a freshly stubbed toe, when the ship would seem to divine that she had him at a disadvantage, and would leap forward so that he would immediately stand on his head, or affectionately and firmly embrace a convenient stanchion. "Pride cometh before a fall," and the man who thought he had caught the swing and could walk a chalk line on the deck, soon found that the old boat knew a new trick or two, and in a twinkling of an eye he was sawing the air frantically with his arms, in his efforts to keep his balance.

Though the force of the tropical storm was soon spent, the sea continued high, and locomotion was difficult.

The hammocks were given out by the "hammock stowers" of the watch on duty. They called out the numbers stenciled on our "dream bags," and the owners stepped forward and claimed them. As soon as a man secured his hammock he immediately slung it in place, unlashed it, and arranged the blankets to his liking.

A group gathered around the capstan aft, after the hammock ceremony had been completed.

Some one said, "I'm glad I can sleep in a hammock a night like this; the heave of the ship will be hardly felt."

"Yes," responded the "Kid," "I wouldn't swap my 'sleeping bag' for the captain's bed, to-night."

"That reminds me," said "Stump." "Speaking of beds-when we were in New York a friend of mine came aboard to see me. He had a sister, but left her at home."

"You can thank your lucky stars he did. If she'd seen your weary, coal-covered visage, you could not even have been a brother to her," interrupted "Hay."

"I guess you're right," responded "Stump," with an appreciative grin. "Anyhow, she did not come. So when her brother got home she plied him with questions-this he wrote me afterwards-wanted to know how I looked, asked what the ship was like, inquired about our food, and then she questioned him about my stateroom. Was it prettily decorated? Whose photograph occupied the place of honor on my dressing table?

"Billy, my friend," explained "Stump," "is a facetious sort of chap, so he told her that of course such a large crew could not all have staterooms, but I had a very nice one, that could be folded when not in use, and put to one side out of the way. It was made of canvas, he said, so constructed that it would always swing with the ship, and so keep upright in a rolling sea.

"She listened intently, and finally broke out enthusiastically: 'How nice!'

"Billy almost had a fit at that, and I nearly had, when I read his letter."

We all laughed heartily and trooped below to enjoy a few hours' sleep in our "folding staterooms."

The next day dawned bright and clear, and warm; with nothing to remind us of the storm of the night before except the seedy look on the faces of some of the "heroes" who were prone to seasickness.

The sun had not been up many hours when the masthead lookout shouted, "Sail ho!" To which the officer of the deck replied, "Where away?"

"Dead ahead, sir. Looks like one of the vessels of the fleet, sir."

And so we joined the squadron again, after an absence of twenty-four hours.

Nothing had occurred while we were away. Cervera's fleet was still "bottled up" in Santiago harbor, and the American fleet held the cork so effectively that even a torpedo boat could not get out.

After preparing the ship for the usual Sunday inspection, and arraying ourselves in clean whites, polished shoes, and stockings, we thought we had done all the work that would be required of us for the day. But when the gig returned, bringing the skipper from the flagship, we learned that we were to get under way right after dinner, and steam to the westward.

After "turn to" was sounded at 1:15 o'clock, we noted a long string of signal flags flying from the signal yard, which we found requested permission from the flagship to proceed at once. As the affirmative pennant on the "New York" slowly rose to its place on the foremast, the "Yankee's" jingle bell sounded, and the ship began to gather headway.

At "afternoon quarters"-1:30-a drill, new to us, was taught; called by the officers "physical drill," and by the men "rubber-necking." We hardly felt the need of exercise. The swinging of a swab and use of sand and canvas, to say nothing of "scrub and wash clothes" before breakfast, seemed to us sufficient work to keep our muscles in good condition; but it is one of the axioms in the navy that "Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do," so the men were soon lined up-sufficient space being given each man to allow him to swing his arms, windmill fashion, without interfering with his neighbor.

A regular calisthenic exercise was gone through, such as may be seen in gymnasiums all over the country; but instead of a steady, even floor, upon which it would be quite easy to stand tiptoe, on one foot, or crouched with bended knees, it was quite a different matter to do these "stunts" on the constantly rolling deck.

At the order, "Knee stoop, one," we bent our knees till we sat on our heels. "Heads up, hands on the hips, there!" said Mr. Greene of our division, as some one obeyed an almost irresistible impulse to keep his balance by putting out his hand. The man obeyed, but at that instant the ship gave a lurch, and the poor chap fell over on his head and almost rolled down the berth-deck hatch.

The laugh that followed was promptly suppressed, and though the exercise was not carried out with a great deal of grace or ease, Mr. Greene seemed to be satisfied with the first attempt.

We steamed along all the afternoon past the coast of Cuba and within plain sight of the beautiful, surf-rimmed beach. We looked for signs of the enemy, but not a living thing could be seen. Not a sign of human habitation; not an indication that any human being had ever set foot on this desolate land. So beautiful, so grand, so lonely was it that we longed to go ashore and shout, just to set a few echoes reverberating in the hills.

Toward night, we turned seaward, and the land was lost to view; at the same time the "Yosemite," manned by the Michigan Naval Reserves, who had accompanied us thus far, dropped out of sight in the haze. She was bound for Jamaica.

A ship painted the "war color" now in vogue in the United States navy, will disappear as if by magic when dusk comes on. The lead color makes any object covered with it invisible in half light or a haze.

There had been much speculation during the day and evening as to our probable destination, but we remained in ignorance until the next morning, when it became known that our orders were to call at the port of Cienfuegos, a prominent city of southern Cuba, some three hundred and thirty miles from Santiago.

It was reported that the object of our visit was to intercept and capture a blockade runner said to be aiming for that port. The news received an enthusiastic welcome fore and aft. The billet of "flee

t messenger" was becoming tiresome.

The land had been sighted at two bells (nine o'clock), and all hands were looking for Cienfuegos, but it was past one before the mouth of the harbor was gained. The "Yankee's" crew were at regular quarters at the time, but a hurried order to dismiss and clear ship for action sent the different guns' crews scurrying to their stations.

To add to the interest, word came from the bridge to train the guns aft and to do everything possible to disguise the cruiser.

"We are to masquerade as a blooming merchantman," chuckled "Dye." "This reminds me of my boyhood days when I read pirate stories. Do you remember that yarn about Kydd, where he rigged painted canvas about his ship and hid all the ports, 'Stump'? It was great. The whole piratical crew, with the exception of a dozen men, kept below, and when a poor unfortunate ship came along, the bloodthirsty villains captured her."

"I wish they had caught you at the same time," retorted "Stump." "Then we wouldn't be bothered with your infernal cackle. Here, give me a hand with this mess chest."

By this time the task of preparing for action was an old story, and we made short work of it. The call to "general quarters" followed without delay, and, as we prepared the battery for action, word came from above that a large gunboat, showing Spanish colors, was leaving the harbor in our direction.

"Which means a scrap of the liveliest description," muttered Tommy. "They evidently take us for a trader without guns, and they'll attack us sure."

Boom!

A six-pounder gave voice from the spar deck, instantly followed by a five-inch breechloader in the waist. Number Eight was loaded, and "Hay," who held the firing lanyard, snatched another sight, then stood erect with left hand in the air.

"Ready, sir," he called out to the officer of the division.

"Fire!" came the reply promptly.

With the word a vicious report shook the deck, and the gun muzzle vanished in a cloud of smoke. Eager hands opened the breech, others inserted another cartridge, there was a shifting of the training lever, a turn of the elevating wheel, then "Hay" stood back once more, and coolly made the electrical connection.

Following the second report came a dull, booming sound, apparently from a distance. We eyed one another significantly.

"It's a fort," quoth "Dye." "We've got to tackle both sea and land forces."

Presently, while we were hard at work sending shots at the Spanish gunboat, which was in lively action a short distance away, we became aware of a peculiar whirring noise-a sound like the angry humming of a swarm of hornets. It would rise and fall in volume, then break off short with a sharp crash. Suddenly, while glancing through the port, I saw something strike the surface, sending up a great spurt of water. It was followed by a dull, muffled report which seemed to shake the ship.

It was a shell!

"Whiz! they are coming pretty fast," remarked Flagg. "That last one didn't miss us by a dozen yards."

"This isn't Santiago shooting," put in Tommy. "These beggars know how to aim."

During the next ten minutes the fighting was fast and furious. It was load and fire and load again without cessation. There was the old trouble in regard to the smoke, and half the time we had to aim blindly. Notwithstanding that fact, "Hay" did so well that word came from Captain Brownson complimenting him warmly.

The "Yankee" seemed to be the centre of a series of eruptions. The Spanish shells kept the water continually boiling, and with the splashing of each projectile there would arise a geyser-like fountain accompanied by a muffled explosion which could be plainly felt on board the ship.

"THERE WAS TEMPORARY CONFUSION" (page 208).

It was the first real naval battle experienced by us-the bombardment of Santiago being of an entirely different calibre-and it needed only the grewsome setting of surgeons and wounded and blood to make it complete. That soon came.

We of Number Eight gun were working at our stations, so intent on our duties that the uproar of shot and shell outside claimed little attention, when suddenly there came a louder explosion than usual directly in front of the open port.

There was a blinding flash, a puff of stifling smoke, and then Kennedy, who was just approaching the gun with a shell, staggered back, and almost fell to the deck. Tommy, the first captain, made a gesture as if brushing something from his breast, and then leaped to the injured man's assistance.

"It was a piece of shell," cried "Stump." "It came through the port."

There was temporary confusion. The surgeon and his assistants came on a run, but before they could reach the spot, Kennedy recovered and advanced to meet them. He presented a horrible spectacle, with his face and neck and body spattered with blood, and we who were nearest saw that he had been frightfully wounded in the left shoulder.

Notwithstanding that fact, he remained cool and steady, and never made the slightest indication that he was suffering. When he finally disappeared down the berth-deck ladder we exchanged glances of surprise and sympathy.

"That isn't Kennedy," murmured "Stump," softly.

"We didn't know him after all," said "Hay." "Poor devil! I hope he isn't badly injured."

"He has been in the hardest kind of luck since we left New York," spoke up Tommy. "Seasick half the time, always in trouble, and bucking against homesickness and everything else. And now he has to be wounded. It's a shame."

Our thoughts were with our comrade as we served the gun, and when word came a few moments later that he was doing fairly well, we could hardly repress a cheer.

There was little time, however, for displaying emotion. We were right in the thick of the fight, and the "Yankee's" battery was being worked to the limit. It seemed as if the air fairly reeled with the noise and clamor of combat. Shells buzzed and shrieked about us, and smoke gathered in thick, stifling clouds all about the ship.

While we were laboring, stripped to the waist, and trying our utmost to disable or sink the Spanish gunboat, an incident was occurring on deck which seemed more fitted for the pages of a novel than those of a story of facts.

It was a display of daredevil courage seldom equalled in warfare.

The lad whom we familiarly termed the "Kid" was the central figure and the hero. The diary of No. 5 of the after port gun, from which this narrative is taken, says of him: "'Kid' Thompson is the ship's human mascot and all-round favorite with officers and men. His bump of respect is a depression, but his fund of ready wit and his unvarying good nature are irresistible. He is eighteen years of age, and is a 'powder monkey' on Number Sixteen, a six-pounder on the spar deck. This gun and Number Fifteen were the last to obey the order to cease firing during the bombardment of Santiago."

During the fight with the Spanish gunboat it chanced that the port battery was not engaged for a brief period, so the "Kid," with the rest of Number Sixteen crew, were at rest. To better see the shooting the "Kid" climbed upon the after wheel-house roof. The shells from the gunboat and the forts were dropping all around, fore and aft, port and starboard; they whistled through the rigging, and exploded in every direction, sending their fragments in a veritable hail of metal on all sides.

The fact that the "Yankee" had so far escaped injury aroused in the "Kid's" breast a feeling of the utmost contempt for the Spanish gunners. Coolly standing upon his feet, he assumed the pose of a baseball player, and holding a capstan bar in his hands, called out tauntingly:

"Here, you dagoes, give me a low ball, will you? Put 'em over the plate!"

As a shell would fly past with a shriek, he would strike at it, shouting at the same time:

"Put 'em over the plate, I say. Do you expect me to walk up to the fo'c's'le to get a rap at 'em? Hi, there! wake up!"

Then as a shot fell short, he laughed: "Look at that drop, will you? Do you think I'm going to dive for it?"

A moment later a shell flew past so close that the windage almost staggered him, but the daring lad only cried banteringly: "That's more like it. One more a little closer and I'll show you a home run worth seeing."

And so it went until he was espied from the bridge and peremptorily ordered down.

In the meantime, while this little episode was in progress, we on the gun deck were laboring without cessation. A dozen shots had been fired from Number Eight alone, when suddenly another fort secured the range, and began a deadly fusillade.

The situation was becoming extremely serious!

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