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   Chapter 15 WITH THE AMERICAN FLEET

Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 28265

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It was a long swim that Hal and Gerald had started upon, but circumstances were in their favor, and they made light of it. The summer was scarcely at an end, and the water, therefore, was beautifully warm, so that there was no reason to fear an attack of cramp; and the farther they moved from the shore, the more they were helped on their course by a current which, sweeping in from the sea through the long, narrow, neck-like opening, struck a projecting bluff below the Morro Castle, and was deflected to the center of the harbor, carrying the swimmers with it. Halfway across, Hal's hand struck gently against a large iron buoy, to which life-lines were attached, and which was anchored in mid stream. He at once turned to Gerald, laying one hand on his shoulder to attract his attention, while with the other he obtained a firm grasp of one of the ropes.

"We'll rest and get our wind here," he said. "Come round to this side, old boy. It is the farthest from the searchlight, and we shall be hidden in the shadow. Next time it has safely passed us, we'll make tracks straight for the launch, and do our best to get on board before the light revolves in our direction again."

It was a wise course to pursue, for the beam cast by the electric lantern had long ago won the race, and was already sweeping the streets of Santiago, en route for the Morro Castle and the harbor again. Soon it reached the buoy, appearing to hover over it, just as it had done five minutes before in the case of the upturned boat. But it only did so in the imagination of the fugitives, for, in reality, it swept on without a pause, and went trailing its silent, inquisitive way across the lonely water.

"Now is the time," whispered Hal. "When we reach the launch swim to the after-end, and crawl on board. The cabin is right up in the bows, for I took particular note of that when watching from the cell."

Gerald nodded, for floating with one's mouth just clear of the water is not conducive to much conversation. Then he let go his hold of the life-line, and closed up to his friend. With steady and powerful strokes, and without the least sign of haste, they swam through the water, their eyes fixed upon the opposite shore of the harbor, and on the shipping as it flashed into sight. Soon a big object rose up black before them in the darkness, and Hal's hand came in contact with the stone pier. A few strokes farther on he touched the side of a vessel, and, stretching high above his head, was able to grasp the gunwale. A thrill of pleasure at once ran through his frame as he realized that this must be the launch in which they hoped to escape from the harbor. To slide along to the rudder was the work of only a few seconds, when his fingers touched the blades of a screw. He at once obtained a firm grip of the side, and hoisted himself slowly and gently to the deck, where he was joined by Gerald directly afterwards.

"We want a breather. I'm puffed," the latter whispered.

"Yes, but we cannot take it here," was the answer. "Let us get into the stoke-hole. Here it is. Come down gently."

There was a tiny iron ladder leading into a small engine-room and stoke-hole combined, and both at once slid down this, and sat upon the floor.

"Now we can talk," said Hal in a whisper. "But first of all let us settle the question whether anyone is aboard. Sit where you are, Gerald. You're a bit blown, and want rest. I'm as fresh as a daisy, and will just go along to the cabin to see if anyone is there."

He went to the end of the boiler, and, discovering a piece of oily waste, carefully lifted the furnace door. A dull glow immediately escaped, lighting the stoke-hole dimly, and showing at once that it contained only themselves.

"Fires banked to last till morning," said Hal in satisfied tones, which he reduced to little more than a whisper. "That shows that no one intends to look at them during the night. Let me see. Yes, the boiler is full, and the pressure gauge shows just a few pounds of steam. No good to us, though; but we'll soon raise it to bursting-point. Now I'm off."

He stirred the fire, and silently closed the door. Then he ascended the tiny ladder, and crawled along the deck till he came to the cabin, which was roofed with a skylight. Feeling in the darkness for the opening, he soon discovered a catch, and pulling the door open, descended without hesitation, but using the utmost caution all the while. It was even darker down below than on deck, and he therefore stood still, for, if he had moved forward, he might well have stumbled blindly across someone sleeping there. But his doubts were quickly set at rest, for the searchlight again came to the rescue, falling upon the launch, and sending a flood of brilliant rays through the skylight.

"Good! It's empty," murmured Hal; "and as it runs right forward into the bows, and right aft to the engine-room, it is clear that we have the boat to ourselves. All the better, say I, for every time we have to silence some fellow we add to our risks; besides, I don't like to be hammering everyone who comes in our way. But now for steam, and a glorious run to the sea. Ah, we'll feed the fires till the plates are red-hot and the funnel melts. Then, when she's trembling with the pressure of the steam in her boiler, we'll set her for the harbor mouth."

He almost clapped his hands in the exuberance of his spirits, for even the least sanguine would have had to admit that now, indeed, success was near at hand. But there was plenty of work to be done, and he returned to the stoke-hole to complete it.

"We've got to make a move soon," he said. "It must be some while after midnight, and daylight will be with us about three o'clock. We'll lift the furnace door again so as to get a good look round. I shall want plenty of fuel close at hand, but it will not do to move more than can possibly be helped till we are out of the harbor; for, on a quiet and still night, sounds, however faint, can be heard a very great distance."

"And when we are out, what then?" asked Gerald.

"Just this, old boy. You'll have to be skipper, and get to the wheel. There is one good point about it, I notice. They've placed it so close to the entrance above that it will be possible to stand on one of the lower rungs of the ladder, and steer without showing much more than your head. No doubt this launch is usually run by one man, who works her engines and wheel alone. That's why they are placed in such handy positions. If we are not discovered, all will be as simple as eating a dinner; but, if we are, then it will be a trifle exciting, and you will have to look out for the bullets. My job is the engine and the furnace. I've played the game before, and know something about it. Now, lend a hand, and go easy, whatever you do. We don't want all those dogs on our track again, if we can avoid it."

Lifting pieces of coal in his hands, Hal cast them one by one into the flames, for to have employed a shovel would have been to run the risk of discovery. It was slower work, but safer by far, and after all, with two hard at it, was soon ended. Now and again Hal went to the ladder, and, standing on one of the lower rungs, put his head up through the opening, and looked at the funnel.

"She'll do," he said at last, in tones of satisfaction. "The fuel is dry, and at present the smoke is scarcely noticeable. Wait till we get away, and put the steam-blast on. Then there'll be flames spouting into the sky, and a regular firework display."

"Yes, and a few shells flying after us," said Gerald, with something remarkably like an excited chuckle. "That's about what it will be, for I cannot see how we can hope to slip out without discovery. If the funnel does not give us away, the searchlight certainly will. But we'll dodge that if we've any luck. Anyway, we will get out of this, whatever happens."

"That's so; we will, old boy, and I fancy it's high time now to be setting about it. I've never before walked off with property belonging to somebody else, but this time it's a case of our lives, and, besides, all's fair, you know."

"Yes, in love and war, Hal. Hillo! I can hear a shindy somewhere. What's it all about?"

Hal darted to the ladder, and, thrusting his head through the opening above, hung there listening.

"There are men coming along the quay," he said. "What can they want? This is the only boat moored over in this direction."

They looked into each other's faces in the dim light given by the fire, and each noticed that the other had turned deathly pale.

"They must be coming here," gasped Gerald.

"Then we must disappoint them," answered Hal. "Quick! throw off the for'ard mooring, Gerald. No, not that way; you will get at it sooner by hopping ashore. Then do the same aft, and jump on board. Quick! hop, I say; for we have very little time to lose."

He turned at once to the furnace, and commenced to shovel coal into it at a rapid pace, keeping his eye all the time fixed on the pressure gauge.

"One hundred and fifteen pounds," he said. "Good! That will help us finely. Now we'll get the bearings warmed."

He turned the steam cock slightly, and sent a cloud of hot vapor rushing into the cylinders.

"Below there! she's loose. I've cast off the moorings," whispered Gerald at this moment, thrusting his head down into the stoke-hole.

"Then give her a good push off, and go to the wheel," answered Hal.

Gently, and without a sound, save the low drone of the fire, and the roar of flames rushing through the funnel, the launch left the quay, and, propelled by a thrust of Gerald's foot, glided some yards into the harbor. She was away only just in time, for, a minute or two later, some twenty soldiers marched up, and voices were heard.

"Halt, men, and see that you keep in your places," someone was heard to exclaim, in far from pleasant tones. "Now, se?or, what is it? These beggarly Americans seem to have disturbed the whole town. First, my comrade is so upset by a blow in the face that I have to take his duty; and then you must needs turn me out at this uncomfortable hour to follow some wild-goose chase. Why could you not use your own ruffians?"

"Grumbling will not mend matters," was the suave answer, in a voice which Hal and his comrade recognized as José d'Arousta's. "These two Americans escaped from a fool of a jailer, and are still about. We have reason to believe that they are in the harbor, for their boots were found not an hour ago, beneath the Morro Castle. I received orders to call you and your men, and to instruct you to come here, so that you might get on board the launch. Caramba, but it is dark! It is like the bottom of a pit. Where can the boat be?"

"Alongside, you said, se?or," the other answered sourly. "Where is it, then?"

Footsteps were heard on the paving as José d'Arousta and some of the soldiers hunted along the quay. Meanwhile the launch lay off at a distance of a few yards, her passengers crouching in the stoke-hole, and hoping to remain undiscovered.

"Look, Se?or Capitan, there is the boat!" one of the men suddenly cried, "I can see flames and smoke coming from the funnel."

"What? The furnaces in full blast!" José shouted. "The fires were banked for the night, and no one was aboard her."

"Perhaps the engineer in charge has got here before us," the officer remarked. "Why not hail him?"

"Hi! Aboard there! Put in alongside the quay," José promptly sang out.

The only answer was a shower of sparks from the funnel, and the splash and noise of churning water, for Gerald had been listening to all that passed, and had rapidly interpreted to Hal.

"Sing out that you are coming," said the latter, "and then steer her for the harbor mouth. I'll give her steam."

He turned to the throttle and opened it wide, at the same time allowing the steam-blast to come into action.

"She's moving now," he cried. "Keep her well away, Gerald, and dodge the searchlight, whatever you do."

* * *

HAL AND HIS COMPANION ESCAPE FROM SANTIAGO.

* * *

"Hi there! Where are you going? Where are you steering to?" a voice cried from the quay; and then, as the launch sped on into the harbor basin, José d'Arousta was heard calling to the soldiers to open fire.

"Ah, treachery!" he shouted. "Something is wrong; for see, she is running away. I have it; those rascally spies are aboard. Let your men open fire at once, se?or."

A single rifle cracked immediately, no doubt fired in order to give the alarm, and almost instantly the searchlight went through the same strange antics as before. Finally it settled on the harbor, and, sweeping slowly across it, lit full upon the launch. In a minute there was a roll of musketry, and a shower of bullets hurtled about her, some piercing her woodwork as if it had been merely paper, but none, fortunately, hitting Hal or Gerald, or any part of the machinery. A minute later they had run into the shadow cast by a long line of shipping, behind which the light failed to reach them. Hal at once thrust his head up through the opening, and then cut off steam.

"They'll expect us to pop out at the other end," he said quietly, "but we'll disappoint them by going about and cutting back by way of the quay. Ready? Then shove the wheel over. There's enough row going on all round to drown any we may make."

And this was the case, for the gyrations of the searchlight and the rattle of musketry had effectually awakened the shipping world. The crews of vessels lying in the harbor came tumbling up on deck, while many of the ships rang their bells, as though a general attack by the enemy in force were imminent. A few who had news of the runaways put off in their boats, and pulled into the open water, their hands shouting loudly for information as to the whereabouts of the escaping prisoners.

"Just keep these ships in line with the searchlight," said Hal, a few moments later, thrusting his head up again. "That will give us a dark patch in which to run, and will carry us almost as far as the exit. That's it. Steady so. I'm going to pile the

coal till she's fit to burst."

He dived below again, and, seizing the shovel which had already proved so useful, threw the fuel into the open door of the furnace. By now the dial showed a greater head of steam, but he was not yet satisfied, and kept at the work, even going to the length of tossing an open can of oil into the flames.

As for Gerald, with eyes shifting from right to left, and returning ever and anon to the searchlight, he gripped the wheel and steered the launch in a dead line ahead. Once, a boat suddenly sprang out of the dense darkness directly in front, and he caught sight of the water flashing faintly at the tips of the oars. But he would not alter his course, and went rushing on, only missing the other craft by a foot or two, and leaving it behind in a trice, rocking so violently that it was a wonder that it did not fill and sink at once.

"Where are they? What is all this bother about?" someone cried.

Gerald did not trouble to answer. He kept grimly on till a flash of the broad beam overhead showed him that he was approaching the edge of the harbor. Then, hesitating how to act, he looked down at Hal as if to ask his advice, and saw him stripped to the waist, and standing in the glare of the furnace, into which he was throwing coal as if life itself depended on his exertions-as, indeed, it did.

Round spun the wheel, and the launch swayed to the left, rolling heavily as she did so.

"This is my job," murmured Gerald, unconsciously repeating the words Hal had used when giving him the post of steersman. "I'll see the show through. Now for the channel that leads to the sea."

"Will the searchlight fall upon it just as we enter? Yes-no-perhaps it will not. Ah! it must. It is all up with us!"

The thoughts flashed through his mind, one moment high hope surging through his heart, and the next some movement of the electric beam shattering all thoughts of escape. The light fluttered onto the thin band of water leading out between the steep cliffs to the sea, to safety and friends, and then whisked back to the harbor, flying across every foot of its surface that it was possible to reach, and searching every nook and corner.

Round spun the wheel again.

"In the channel, and now bang straight ahead," murmured Gerald. "If the Dons who man the castle batteries do not spot us we shall be lucky. But how can they fail, when flames like that are pouring from the funnel? They're bound to let fly at us."

He cast an upward glance at the smoke-stack, and longed to be able to smother the flaring streak which poured from it into the night, lighting up the surroundings like a torch. Luck, however, seemed to have followed the runaways, for if anyone noticed them, he made no sign, not thinking that this tiny vessel, rushing so boldly out to sea, could contain any but friends. Perhaps, even, he may have thought it was the officer who had been told off to conduct the search; though then it was strange that he should feed his fires till the funnel was on the point of melting, while the escape steam whistled through the valve with a deafening noise.

Fortunate indeed was it for the fugitives that another part attracted the attention of the Spaniards. From Morro Castle, and from all the defenses, the eyes of the garrison were fixed upon the searchlight. Breathless with excitement, and too occupied to utter as much as a sound, they followed the revolving beam, till at last it fell full upon a launch steaming across the harbor. No doubt it contained José d'Arousta and his men; but the watchers were ignorant of that, and set up a shout of exultation that awoke the echoes. They rushed to their guns and rifles, and would have opened fire had not the workers of the light known more than they, and flashed it elsewhere in search of the escaping prisoners. And all the while Hal and Gerald were speeding, with their most eager efforts, along the narrow track that led to the sea.

"Another half-mile and we shall be away," screamed the latter, looking down at his friend. But the escaping steam smothered his voice, and only the click and scrape of the busy shovel answered him.

Bang! A huge column of water blew up into the night some hundred paces behind, sending a heavy swell rolling along, which caught the launch and caused it to bob sharply.

"A mine!" shouted Hal, who had heard the roar. "I should say that it is about their last. Keep her over to one side, for those infernal machines are usually laid in the center, so as to catch the large ships. A miss is as good as a mile, old boy!"

"We're out now," shouted Gerald, taking a hasty look round, and noticing that the reflection of the flames upon the wet rock on either side had just vanished. "Now where away?"

"Bang straight for the deep blue sea, old chap, and the farther out the better. If we could put a hundred miles between us and the Dons within the next few minutes I should feel all the happier."

To steer directly out was, indeed, the best course they could follow, and neither of the lads relaxed his energies till the tiny launch had plowed a way ten miles out to sea. All was in their favor, for the night, though intensely dark, was beautifully calm, and the surface of the water undisturbed by even a ripple. An hour later, when they had obtained a good offing, Hal left the door of the furnace wide open, and stopped the engines.

"I'm peckish again," he said, climbing to the deck, and wiping the perspiration from his forehead with a piece of oily waste. "Skip along, old man, and see whether you can manage to find some grub and something to drink."

Gerald at once left the wheel, and going to the forward part of the launch, descended into the cabin. He had little difficulty in discerning his surroundings, for by this time the sky had lightened considerably, and dawn was close at hand. But he was unsuccessful, and returned with a very long face.

"Not a crust to be seen," he said dismally. "I say, Hal, what shall we do if there is no food aboard, for we shall starve if we do not fall in with a ship pretty soon?"

"Then that is just exactly what we must do," cried Hal cheerfully, "and we'll have to be precious careful that she is not a Spaniard. Yes, it's rough having nothing to eat, but we must not grumble. Just think of what we have escaped. We have left prison and that fellow José d'Arousta behind, and are safe for the present. I'd rather starve for a week than take my place before a file of soldiers at this hour of the morning."

He shuddered when he thought of what a narrow escape they had had, and what fate would have been theirs, had they still occupied their cell in the Morro Castle.

Then away flew his thoughts to the hacienda. Why? Did they dwell for the space of more than a moment upon Mr. Brindle and any of the hands he knew? No, certainly not! Hal would have flushed very red had you suddenly asked him the question; for, in truth, he was thinking of someone else-of Dora, picturing her as he had seen her many a morning, standing at the top of the steps leading from the veranda, a vision of loveliness in white, with a welcoming smile that showed two rows of dainty pearls, and a glance from a pair of dancing blue eyes that always made him feel happy. That was how he had seen her every morning as he rode in from his work, and those were the happy thoughts which invariably filled his mind during the morning meal.

But the scene suddenly changed, José d'Arousta and the rascally Pedro appearing in his mind's eye in place of his employer's daughter, and they were again threatening the hacienda. At the thought, Hal sprang to his feet, his hands clenched, and a look of excitement spreading over his handsome face.

"Yes," he cried, "it is good indeed to live; for I have work to do. I have escaped from the island, but I must return again at the very first opportunity."

"Why should you? It would be madness!" exclaimed his comrade.

"Why, Gerald? Think of the hacienda, and of José d'Arousta's threat. That is my reason, for real danger threatens your father and Dora."

"Phew! I hadn't thought of that," Gerald answered, and then suddenly lapsed into silence, while a queer and sly little smile stole over his face.

"Oh, it's like that, is it?" he murmured a moment later. "But, I say, what about falling in with a ship? What do you propose?"

"As there is no food on board, and we are both famishing, I vote we turn the steam on again, and get as far away from the island as we possibly can. The chances are that it is blockaded by the American fleet, and, as Santiago is a most important harbor, some of the vessels are bound to be down this way. Naturally they would steam up and down within sight of the coast, running in closer at night. We must keep a bright look-out for them, and must hope for their appearance soon. I fancy that we are safe from the Spanish torpedo boats, for they would scarcely dare to run out so far."

"What's that over there, then?" asked Gerald, suddenly pointing to the west.

A big black cloud was floating on the horizon, and Hal looked at it long and earnestly.

"I believe it's the smoke of a fleet," he said at length. "If it is, I am for chancing the Spaniards, and running down towards that cloud."

Gerald hastily agreed, whereupon Hal dived below again, and having seen to the lubricating of his engine, opened the throttle-valve. Every minute as they ran to the west the cloud became more certainly one of smoke, and within an hour they had made out that six large battleships were bearing down upon them at an easy pace. Then a breeze got up and blew the smoke away, the masts and funnels of the on-coming fleet becoming at once visible, sharply silhouetted against the clear morning sky.

"They're wagging their signals," said Hal, poking his head up above the deck, and taking a long look. "No doubt they have spotted us, and will send at once to find out who we are."

He had scarcely finished speaking, when a long, low hull shot out from behind one of the bigger ships, and came steaming at a great pace towards them.

"A torpedo boat," said Hal. "We'll lie to, and wait for her."

Turning off the steam, he mounted to the deck, and sat down by Gerald's side. A quarter of an hour later the torpedo boat was close at hand, and, surging up beside the launch, rounded to, and circled completely about her, setting the tiny vessel dancing to the swell.

"Hooray! She's flying the Stars and Stripes," shouted Gerald, flinging his cap into the air. "We're safe at last, old boy, and there is a good square meal in sight."

"Aboard there! Who are you?" came the hail across the water. "Where on earth do you come from? and what port are you bound for?"

"We're from Santiago. We left there this morning," Hal shouted back, making a funnel of his hands.

The boat, with its murderous-looking quick-firers, ranged up alongside, and a sailor flung a rope to them.

"Hang on there, and make her fast," shouted an officer standing on a diminutive bridge. "We'll tow you home. You're a prize to the navy of the United States of America."

"Prize indeed!" Hal exclaimed. Then he laughed loudly. "We'll let it rest like that till we get alongside the flagship," he said to Gerald. "Then I fancy there will be some fun, and we shall score off our friend aboard the torpedo boat."

By this time the fleet of warships was only a mile distant, and it took very little time for the powerful destroyer to reach them with the launch in tow. Then, once more, the semaphore wagged confusingly.

"Cast off that rope, and smartly with it," shouted the officer who had hailed Hal before. "Now then, we'll take every one of you aboard to see the admiral. Prize party, make ready to hop on to her, and just knock the fight out of any that are playin' games."

He backed his vessel alongside again, and the launch was rapidly lashed in position, a few fenders being placed between to protect the brittle plates of the torpedo craft.

"Now, who are you anyway?" asked the officer brusquely, boarding the launch with a party of sailors. "One of you looks so black that he might pass for a nigger; and the other,-why,-what's this? It's a boy, a perfect child, and astoundingly like the lads who are to be found right over in the States. Say, who, in the name of all that's curious, are you, youngster?"

"Not your prisoner, at any rate," answered Gerald, with a laugh. "We're Americans. At least, I am; and my friend is a Britisher."

"Britisher! American! That is hard to believe. And what is all this about?" He looked at the decks of the launch, and then at the empty engine-room. "Two lads of our own blood aboard a Spanish craft, and not another soul with them! It is particularly queer!"

"It is, we admit," Hal answered, with a smile; "but you must understand that we had no choice, for we were captured in the town of Santiago in suspicious circumstances, and were thus placed in a cell in Morro Castle, with the cheerful prospect of being shot as spies early this morning. We bolted, and as this launch was lying idle beside one of the wharfs, we just borrowed her, and steamed out to sea. So I fancy that she really belongs to us."

"Borrowed her! I should fancy that was a piece of amizin' cheek," the officer laughed. "And you young fellows got through without so much as a shell whistling loudly in your ears?"

"Not quite. By the merest chance we escaped a mine, which was exploded behind us; and I fancy you will find a few bullet-holes if you care to look round," Hal answered coolly. "But there's one thing very wrong. We're awfully hungry. Have you anything like a meal aboard?"

The officer clapped him on the back. "Come along out of this tub at once," he said. "It's Spanish, and isn't fit for gentlemen. Grub? George, sir! but I've something below in my cabin that will fairly make your mouths water. Leave her there, bo'sun, and signal over to the skipper that all's well, and that the prisoners are busy putting their teeth into the best food we've got, for they are simply famishing."

* * *

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