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   Chapter 17 A BAPTISM OF FIRE

Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 28523

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"This young guest of ours is as smart and as full of pluck as they make them."

These were the lieutenant's words, and those who had the fortune to be acquainted with our hero could not deny their truth; for Hal looked a particularly capable and sturdy young fellow two days after boarding the New York.

"You look a regular sailor," said Gerald, with a laugh. "When I saw you walking the deck with our friend of yesterday, I took you for one of the officers."

"And that is what I should like to be," Hal answered briskly. "Have you given a thought to our position, old man?"

"No, I can't say that I have. Everything seems very jolly, though."

"Yes, exactly; but we are guests aboard, doing nothing for our living."

"That's the fortune of war. We could not help it," answered Gerald.

"No, but I have made up my mind to do something to repay this kindness. The Spaniards began the quarrel, and three days ago I threw in my lot for good and all with America. Now, I said that I wanted to get to the hacienda, for my idea is to see that all is right there, and then to join the invading Yankees. Of course, if there is likely to be trouble near Eldorado, I shall stay; but, otherwise, I shall do all that I can for America. One who knows the country about Santiago should be useful."

"That I can quite understand," Gerald answered; "but how will you get ashore?"

"I do not know, but something may turn up shortly," Hal replied hopefully.

"Matanzas, for instance," said a voice at his elbow, with such suddenness that both lads sprang round, to find themselves face to face with Samuel K. Billing. "Say, boys," the latter continued, rubbing his hands together with pleasure, "Matanzas has turned up. It's over there, on the port bow. I tell you it's nearing a stiff naval action. The commodore has decided to attack the place."

Both lads turned their eyes to the shore, and, with the aid of glasses, saw a low-lying town on the fringe of a bay, the entrance to which was crossed by rocky reefs, through which, however, a wide and very deep channel was left. To right and left forts could be seen, while on a slope farther inland a host of men were busily erecting a sand-bag battery. It was a fine morning, and the unruffled surface of the sea showed the wind had dropped.

"Look, there's Morillo Battery pointing out right clear between the headlands!" exclaimed the lieutenant, jerking his thumb in the direction of a stone-faced fort far on the inland slope. "That promontory on the right has a powerful erection known as Fort Maya, while on the left there is another of just about equal strength, called Rubal Caya. All are armed with modern quick-firing guns, so we may expect a peppering. Say, boys, have you ever heard the sing of a shell?"

"Never. What is it like?" Hal asked.

"Poom! A burst of smoke from the distant gun, if black powder is used, and then a faint kind of whisper, getting bigger every second till it's just shrieking overhead. If she don't it's a dib, dib, dib in the water, a bit of a splash here and there as the shell ricochets, and then plump she goes to the bottom. Hallo! there's the signal flying to the Puritan and Cincinnati. We're steaming in. So long, till next time."

He hurried off, leaving Hal and Gerald in possession of a pair of glasses. For the moment they were occupied in looking at the other ships in company with the New York, and at the latter herself. No one took the least notice of them, and in consequence they walked the length of the decks. What a fine cruiser the New York was! From amidships three mighty funnels poured forth volumes of smoke, while the steam sizzled and roared into the air. From her masts bristled many quick-firers, pointing from the tiers of batteries which are known as "fighting tops," and which are slung at various elevations. And from the decks six long cannon of eight inches' caliber grinned through the ports, the breeches surrounded by eager gunners. Others stood at hand by the ammunition lifts, prepared to supply more cartridges. On the bridge walked the admiral and his officers, smart, cool, and collected, and with eyes fixed upon the distant shore.

Poom! A flash and a billow of smoke burst from Point Maya, and out flew a shell, singing merrily, till it plunged into the sea some distance from the New York.

"The ball opens," said Hal quietly. "Wait till we are closer in. Then it will be warm work. I reckon we are about six thousand yards from the shore, and the Dons judged the distance badly."

His words were cut short by a series of rapidly repeated reports from the guns of the Puritan. Her quick-firers were at work, and found the range almost immediately. Then followed two roaring explosions, so great in volume that they smothered all the others, and deafened everyone within hearing.

"By Jove! the turret guns!" exclaimed Gerald, putting his fingers to his ears.

The Puritan had, in fact, slewed her turret round, and discharged two of her biggest shells, weighing a thousand pounds apiece. Instantly, up went every glass on the ship, and all eyes gazed eagerly shorewards to see what result would follow.

"Hit! Hit! Right up against the battery! There, there, away to the right!" cried Hal. "I saw the dust and bits fly sixty feet into the air."

In the direction in which he pointed, a dark brown column suddenly spurted up into the air, and floated for some moments like a cloud in front of the battery. Then, as the onlookers from the ships kept their gaze fixed upon the shore, the column suddenly subsided, and when they looked again there were the batteries, surrounded by trees and green fields, while there was no sign of damage produced by the shells.

"Hallo! They are opening on us, and here come the shells!" shouted Gerald, a moment later.

As he spoke, all the Spanish forts fired, and though none of the missiles actually hit the New York, they hurtled unpleasantly close overhead.

"This is hot!" cried Gerald, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. "Every time I hear that screech I want to bob badly, and my heart goes down into my boots."

"Yes, it's precious unpleasant," Hal agreed reassuringly; "but the Dons are making bad practice, so we can feel pretty secure. Still, that shriek is horrid. It knocks the courage out of a fellow, for, long before one expects it, you can hear a gentle whistle in the distance, gradually increasing till you'd think that the shell was close beside your ear. Then, while you are still crouching and wondering where it is going to land, you hear a dull poom! in the distance, a sharp report sounds ahead or astern of the ship, and up goes a column of water. You know that you are safe then, but it takes some time to get rid of the feeling of funk that settles upon you when the guns begin to open. But take a look through the glasses. Our shells seem to be plumping into the batteries every time."

The American ships were, indeed, making excellent practice, and within fifteen minutes had silenced the batteries ashore, each mighty shell blowing showers of débris into the air. Then they steamed away, their guns being too hot to be pleasant, and now emitting only thin wreaths of smoke. Rubal Caya, undaunted, threw one last missile, which missed, and to it the Monitor replied with a twelve-inch shell, which seemed to wreck the battery.

The losses of the Spaniards must indeed have been heavy, though they were never accurately known. In any case the earthworks were considerably battered. But this bombardment opened the eyes of many people, for it proved that fortifications do not suffer very severely under heavy fire. The heaps of débris flying into the air make it appear as if havoc were being wrought, whereas the destruction brought about at such very long ranges is nothing compared with that produced in the old days of muzzle-loaders, round shot, and a point-blank range.

"Wall, young sirs, we've had one day at it, and a precious hot one it's been," remarked Lieutenant Samuel K. Billing, "and I reckon we've wiped the eyes of the Dons. There's information to hand that one of our gunboats got mauled a few days ago. So, you see, it's only right that we should have the best of it to-day, and get some luck to make up for the other. Say, Mr. Marchant, sir, how'd you and your chum care for a little excursion? Just a game that's goin' to be started along the coast."

"I am sure we should like it very much," Hal answered. "What exactly is it?"

"That's tellin', sir. You'd like to join, you say, and so you shall; but keep it a dead secret. If the commodore knew that I had let the cat out of the bag, it would be a case of an explosion bigger than those over there."

Hal and Gerald wondered what particular excursion they were to take part in, but four days passed without anything happening. On the fourth night, however, they were turned out of their bunks by their naval friend again.

"Say, boys," he said in a whisper, "the time's come along. Get on deck right away, and make for the after gangway. There's a kettle alongside that's smokin' like a kitchen. It's the Hudson, an armed revenue cutter. Come, shake the sleep out of your eyes, or I withdraw my promise."

They needed no second bidding, but, jumping hastily into their clothes, ran on deck. A rope ladder was hanging overboard, and they descended by this means to the cutter, which was, in reality, a small gunboat.

"Sheer off there!" someone cried, showing a light, and at once the little vessel quivered as her screw revolved. Hal and his friend turned, to find the lieutenant of the New York standing beside them.

"Naval instruction," he said, as if to explain his presence there. "That's what I am flying after; trying to get hold of the games these kettles play."

"Humbug!" exclaimed another officer, approaching at the moment. "You know as well as anyone that it is a lark, a bit of extra excitement that you're wantin'. But you're forgetting, Samuel. Introduce me."

"Right away, Lieutenant Ben Carson."

They shook hands, and Hal inquired of the newcomer their destination.

"We're bound for Cardenas," was the answer. "It's a bit of a warm place to walk into. Reefs and that sort outside. There are three Spanish boats, the same as this, in the harbor, and they are a nuisance. I'll allow that they've proved too much for us up to this, but we'll do for them this time. Say, Mr. Marchant, have you ever been under fire?"

"Once or twice," Hal answered, "and I cannot admit that it was particularly enjoyable."

"That's so; I judge that there are few who revel in the experience," was the answer. "But you must get used to it, and will have another chance, for we're goin' into that harbor right now."

That this was the intention of the Hudson was soon made clear. Joined by the gunboats Wilmington and Machias, and by the torpedo boat Winslow, she lay off the harbor of Cardenas till morning dawned. Then, the men and officers having breakfasted, the little fleet steamed in, piloted through a side channel in the reefs by a Cuban who was well acquainted with them.

"It's queer sort of work, this," remarked Lieutenant Billing, as the little cutter rushed into the bay. "For instance, the main channel's mined, and you'd get blown sky-high if you sailed that way. Then this place is full of rocks, so the fellow who is commandin' has to keep his eyes mighty wide open. But we're in the bay safe enough, and I guess the fun will commence right away."

At this moment the Machias parted company, and steamed to the east, towards Diana Key, where Spanish barracks had been erected. Very soon her guns were heard in action, though not till hours after was it learned that she had put the Spanish garrison to flight, and had sent ashore an armed boat's crew, who hoisted the Stars and Stripes over Cuban soil for the first time in the war.

"Now the band will play," cried the lieutenant excitedly, as the Hudson steamed onward with her consorts. "Say, boys, we're after those gunboats, and I expect the shells will be flyin' about our heads before very long. But we've got to find them first; they'll be about this way somewhere, but exactly where is the particular question. Now, where can they have hidden themselves?"

"What are those over there, then?" said Hal suddenly, lifting a pair of glasses to his eyes, and directing them across the bay to a long, narrow quay, constructed of stone, which projected far out into the water from the coast-line. "I can see something lying behind there. Perhaps it is a gunboat, for that is a likely place behind which to hide."

"Perhaps it is-there is no saying; but I can't make it look like a gunboat," was the answer. "Whatever it is, I reckon the Winslow will soon rout it out. If it's one of those craft, her quick-firers will get to work precious soon, and I think that we shall have a rough time of it; for she's behind the breakwater, while we are stuck out in the open. That won't beat us, though, and if she's there we're goin' to have her."

By this time the three vessels were well in the bay, and while the Wilmington lay to off the town, the Hudson and Winslow rushed in towards the wharves in search of the Spanish gunboats.

These were a constant menace to the Americans, for while they lay under the guns of the forts it was difficult to get at them. And what splendid opportunities of producing havoc amongst the ships of the enemy were in the hands of their commanders! To bold, undaunted men, with plenty of spirit about them, there was practically no limit to the damage they might do. Themselves acquainted with the bay, and with every inch of the formidable reefs that formed a barrier round it, knowing well every turn and twist of the narrow and dangerous inlets and exits so much at their finger-tips that the darkest night was no bar to their traversing them, it was possible for them to keep Admiral Sampson's fleet in a state of perpetual alarm. For who could guess when those long sleuthhounds of the sea would leave their kennels beside the wharves, and slip out into the open? And who could hope to follow those long black hulls racing through the water? It was almost impossible to do so, and it is not to

be wondered at that many a look-out man, when staring into the darkness, sent an alarm ringing through the American fleet when he had only imagined that he had sighted a Spanish gunboat. Then guns would begin to go off, and a perfect pandemonium would take the place of the silence that had reigned before. On one occasion, too, owing to mistakes in showing signals, the Americans almost fired on their own gunboats, which were patrolling the seas around them.

Meanwhile, the Hudson and the Winslow had been steaming closer to the low stone quay which jutted into the water, and had separated so as to form a smaller mark for the enemy, when there was a roar of exploding artillery, and a hail of shells burst on and around the Winslow.

"Hillo, these fellows are where you said!" shouted Lieutenant Billing; "and what's more, the Winslow's got badly hit, I fancy. Hooroo! we're bearing down to her assistance."

Slewing the helm round, the commander of the Hudson rushed towards the quay from which the guns were firing, using his own batteries meanwhile. Hal, with a pair of glasses raised, watched the conflict, and distinctly saw the Spanish gunboats firing over the top of the quay, while they themselves were more or less protected by the stonework.

"The Winslow is disabled," he shouted, seeing the gunboat suddenly swerve from her course, while a hail of shells burst about her decks. "She's got her steering gear smashed. See, she's drifting nearer to the quay."

"Then we'll have her out of it," shouted the lieutenant. "Say, boys, get to one of those guns, and lend a hand."

He rushed forward, Hal and Gerald running to the after gun. Meanwhile, the Hudson bore down rapidly upon the disabled Winslow, and at once found that she, too, had become a mark for the enemy. But, nothing daunted, her commander kept her straight ahead, in spite of the bursting shells, until quite close to his damaged consort.

* * *

"HAL AND GERALD RAN TO THE AFTER GUN."

* * *

"Stand ready there to heave them a line," he shouted from the bridge. "Now, I am going across her bows."

He placed his mouth to the speaking-tube and called to his engineer to cut off steam, while, with a wave of his arm, he directed his quartermaster to steer the gunboat close beside the Winslow. As he did so, a storm of shot and shell came spluttering around, churning the water up as if huge hailstones were falling into it. It was a most exciting moment, and to those who were watching from the deck of the Wilmington it appeared that all aboard the two boats must be doomed, so close was the range at which the Spaniards were firing, and so heavy the bombardment to which both the Americans were subjected.

More than once was the line thrown, but it failed to reach. Then, as the Hudson struggled manfully to get nearer, she, too, became almost unmanageable in the shallow water, rocking violently, and churning the sea into foam with the frantic revolutions of her propeller.

Bang! Boom! Smash! The sounds seemed to swallow her up, while the patter of bullets beat a loud and unceasing tattoo on her deck and sides. Crash! A shell had struck the rail close beside the gun at which Hal and Gerald were helping, and, exploding with a violent concussion, threw them to the deck. But they were uninjured, and at once sprang to their feet again.

At this moment a more fortunate throw of the line reached the stranded Winslow, and a cable was rapidly passed from the Hudson to her consort, and made fast. Then, putting up her helm, she steamed away at full speed, towing the wrecked gunboat after her till both were out of range. And all the while the stern gun on the deck of the Hudson growled a reply in sharp and angry snaps, while the shells from the Wilmington's big pieces roared and screeched overhead, in many cases to fall upon the stone quay, and injure it and the gunboats flying the Spanish flag.

"Guess that that is a bad business," said Lieutenant Billing. "Those fellows have just pitched into us and knocked us about sadly. Jove, sir, but we'll give it to them next time!"

It was, indeed, a reverse for the American navy, but a very slight one, for which the distinguished gallantry of the Hudson and Winslow more than compensated.

"I never thought it possible for men to live through such a storm of shell," said Hal. "At any other time I should have been in a blue funk, but there was so much to do that I had not time to think."

"That's it," agreed Gerald. "When we ran to the gun, the crew, or part of it, had gone farther aft to heave the line, so that our help was badly wanted. Then, what with handing shell, and watching to see what luck we had in hitting the Dons, I hadn't time for anything else. But it was warm! I say, Hal, old boy, fetch me a glass of water. I feel rather done."

To Hal's astonishment, Gerald suddenly sat down upon a twisted rope fender, and turned deathly pale.

"What's the matter? What has happened?" demanded Hal anxiously. "Are you hit, or are you simply shaken by the excitement?"

"I'm hit-in here." Gerald bit his lips to suppress a groan, and pointed to his side. Then, to his friend's consternation, he fainted dead away.

"What is this? The youngster gone off! Been upset by the fighting and noise?" asked Lieutenant Billing, hurrying up.

"No, I fear he's wounded," Hal exclaimed. "Somewhere in the side, I fancy."

They ran to Gerald's help, and while Hal held his head on his arm, the lieutenant tore his coat open.

"A bit of shell struck him," he said quietly. "No wonder he feels queer. Say, one of you men, drop below and bring up a basin of warm water and some dressings. Another of you hop along to the steward and get some spirits."

He seemed to know exactly what to do, and, as soon as the things were brought, poured some brandy into a tumbler, and, adding a little water, emptied the contents in small quantities at a time down Gerald's throat. Then he ripped the shirt open, and exposed an ugly gash over the ribs.

"Guess one or more are broken," he said. "I don't profess to be a doctor, but I should say that it's nothing out of the way. The loss of blood has caused him to faint. Now, then, along with the basin."

He took a piece of lint, and utilizing it as a sponge, bathed the wound. Then he applied dressings and a bandage. By this time Gerald was showing signs of regaining consciousness; he was promptly carried to a bunk, Hal remaining by his side.

Meanwhile the Hudson and her consorts were running out of the bay, through the narrow and dangerous channel. They left the town of Cardenas in disorder, fires having broken out in some of the buildings. Outside the barrier they hove to, and the wounded and killed, numbering six in all, were then transferred from the Winslow to the Hudson.

"We're off to Key West, in Florida," said the lieutenant, coming down to speak to Hal. "How's the youngster?"

"Better, I'm thankful to say," was the answer. "He is conscious, and can speak, but I've ordered him to be silent."

"That is the best way, I reckon. Keep him so till we can get him to hospital. That'll be by daybreak to-morrow."

Running at full steam, the Hudson made light of the journey to Florida, and early on the following morning Gerald was slung into a launch and conveyed ashore. Hal accompanied him, and having handed him over to the tender care of a nurse, sauntered into the town. Flags were flying everywhere, and the streets were thronged with townspeople and shipping folk, all of them wearing miniature American flags in their buttonholes.

"What has occurred to cause all the excitement?" Hal asked of a man who was seated outside a restaurant.

"And don't yer know?" was the astonished answer. "Reckon America has knocked spots off the Dons. Why, it aer more'n a week old. Here, look thur, and you'll allow as there's reason to get a small piece uppish."

He tossed a paper across to Hal, and began to sip his coffee. Hal opened the sheets of closely printed matter, and found a complete page given up to one subject. Across the top, in big, bold type, was printed, "Glorious Victory! Dewey annihilates the Spanish fleet at the Philippines! The battle of Manila! Full details! Wonderful gallantry displayed by the enemy! Small American losses!"

Instantly his attention was riveted, and he read the article from beginning to end.

That there should have been fighting at such a distance from America he fully expected, for Spain possessed the Philippine Islands, which lie in the neighborhood of Hong-Kong, and indeed had held them for not less than three centuries, during which period she had made a rich harvest out of them. When war commenced, an American fleet under Admiral Dewey had been lying in Mirs Bay, close to Hong-Kong; while Montojo, the Spanish commodore, was cruising close to the islands. Evidently they had met, and the newspaper had a description of the battle. Hal ran his eye rapidly down the columns of print.

"A glorious victory has been won for our nation this day, the 1st of May," he read. "Admiral Dewey, who, with his fleet of four cruisers, two gunboats, a dispatch boat, and store ships, has been lying snugly in Mirs Bay, awaiting events, sailed from his anchorage on Wednesday, April 27th, and arrived off Manila Bay on the 30th.

"The Spanish admiral had barely entered, having cruised up to Subic Bay to examine its defenses. Following in his wake, Dewey boldly steamed into Manila Bay, which, as our readers will doubtless know, is some thirty miles wide. It was a night of intense excitement. Not an unnecessary sound was made, the engines worked at their slowest, and every light was masked. Breathless with longing to be up and doing, and yet held quiet and still by love for their country, the crews, grouped round their guns, waited for something to occur.

"Like a column of ghosts the mighty battleships, cruisers, and gunboats forged ahead, a line of a mile and a half in length, at least. Led by the Olympia, the flagship, they entered the deep channel and steamed steadily past Corregidor Island. Not a sound broke the stillness; not a light was to be seen. One, two, three fine ships stole by, and yet there was no alarm. Were the Spaniards dozing? Hark! What was that?

"Another and yet another of Dewey's ships passed the forts. The sixth, the Boston, was abreast, when suddenly the darkness was cleft in twain by a mighty flash, while a loud report echoed from the island.

"'Ah, that aer more like it!' exclaimed the lads. 'That'll relieve the suspense. Swish! Aint that a shell?'"

"It was indeed a big shell, but it whizzed harmlessly overhead, to be answered next moment by the guns of the Raleigh, Concord, and Boston. Unscathed, with not so much as a rope shot away, the fleet pushed into the bay, and, turning northeast, steamed at a pace only just sufficient to maintain steerage way. Hour succeeded hour, and, instead of lessening, the excitement became even more intense. The men were ordered to sleep beside their guns, but who of them could be expected to obey? It was a physical impossibility. They lay on the hard decks, perspiring in the heat, and maintaining for the most part a grim silence.

"At last, when a weary age seemed to have passed, the east suddenly flushed rosy red in the light of another dawn, the last that many a poor Spaniard was to see. As the daylight grew, the distant coast-line, rocky headlands, and gorgeous patches of fresh green rose up out of the mist. Then, away in front, the town of Manila came into view, and a gasp of astonished delight burst from the American crews, for there was the enemy's fleet, part drawn up across the entrance of Cavité Bay, and under easy steam, while the remainder were moored farther in.

"Still, not a sound broke the silence, save the gentle, half-mournful throb, throb of the engines. Grimly, steadily, and with earnest purpose, the fleet, led by Admiral Dewey, bore down upon the enemy-the spangled banner that we love floating slowly in the tropical breeze.

"Clinkety-clink! the engine dials rang out eight knots ahead, and away steamed our vessels straight for the Spaniards. Boom! boom! Splash! The water of the harbor boiled in foam, and rose in an enormous pinnacle dead ahead of the Olympia, and then subsided as the ship rode proudly on, for the Dons had exploded their only mines unsuccessfully. Still not a sound, save that monotonous throb, throb. At last a gun report was heard, then another, and within a minute the Spanish ships were all engaging our fleet, their shells hurtling and buzzing everywhere. And from the Americans as yet not so much as a shout. But there is a limit to human patience. A burly giant, stripped to the waist, climbed on to the mounting of the big gun in the stern of the admiral's ship, and, waving his cap, shouted, 'Boys, remember the Maine!' It acted like magic. The shout was taken up from end to end of the fleet, and seemed to spur the admiral on to action, for a minute later the big turret guns thundered, and were very quickly followed by a perfect hurricane of shell. Shifting his course, the commodore turned, and, followed by his consorts, moved down the whole length of the Spanish line. Then he steamed back again, using his other guns.

"Five times did he traverse the line, drawing nearer every time. Two hours had passed like so many minutes, and by that time every Spanish ship was ablaze, and sinking or deserted by her crew. Then the fleet drew away, and, it is reported, steamed to Cavité, where the arsenals and shipping were destroyed.

"The Spaniards are said to have fought with heroic courage, and to have manned old and obsolete ships armed with useless guns. This would appear to be correct, for our losses amount to eight wounded, while one man died of heat-stroke. The Spaniards are said to have suffered very severely.

"Further particulars are expected every moment, but what has already reached us across the wires is sufficient to show that Dewey has crushed the naval power of Spain in the Philippines.

"Let us hope that the war is already at an end in that quarter of the globe."

"Phew! what a victory!" said Hal, lifting his eyes from the paper.

* * *

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