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Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 24974

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Well might it be said that the good wishes and anxious thoughts of hundreds followed the gallant Hobson and the meager crew of the Merrimac as she steamed towards Santiago. High hope of success, apprehension increased by the darkness and uncertainty as to her whereabouts, kept everyone in a fever. No one could sleep, and from the open ports, and from the silent and darkened decks of battleships, cruisers, and gunboats, a thousand and more pairs of anxious eyes stared into the gloom.

"Where was she? Had she run aground? Had she lost her bearings in the darkness? Hush! Did anyone hear that? What was it then? Oh, only escaping steam? What a relief to think of it!"

The questions were passed along the decks, time and again, and for the most part left unanswered. Then, as each man became silent in despair of hearing anything, a faint, almost inaudible hail came across the heaving water.

"Hark! Huss-s-s-h! Did anyone hear that? What was it? Discovery?"

Almost instantly a spout of flame shot from a cliff beneath the Morro Castle, cutting the darkness in twain as with an arrow, while a deafening report set the air throbbing and reverberating. Another followed, and then a third, and within a few seconds a line of flaming dots cut along the dark hillside, while shells flashed brilliantly red in the air as they shivered into a thousand pieces. Nor was this all. The torpedo-boat Pluton was patrolling the entrance, and at once added the sharp, angry snap of her quick-firers to the din, while guns from another battery ashore, and from the Reina Mercedes, a battleship anchored within the harbor, played upon the black hull of the devoted Merrimac. Add to this a couple of torpedoes, which were discharged in her direction, and some idea can be obtained of the terrors that assailed her.

Meanwhile Hal had been by no means idle. No sooner had the moorings been dropped, than he opened the cabin door and went into the saloon.

"I'll just stay here till I think we're getting close inshore," he murmured; "then I'll get on deck. Let me think. The small torpedoes are placed to port; that means that I must get away to starboard to escape the explosion. Hobson stays on board for that, and so shall I. When she begins to sink, I shall go overboard, and swim straight for the shore. By Jove! I forgot a life-belt, but perhaps there's one in the cabin."

He ran back, and felt above his head for the racks upon which the belts are usually placed. A low cry of pleasure escaped his lips, for the very thing he wanted was there. Taking it down, he promptly slipped his arms through the slings and quickly buckled the belt on. Then he crept to the companion-way, and sat down upon the bottom step of the ladder, where he waited for what, in his overstrung condition, seemed to be hours.

Bang! The report made him start to his feet, and stand there holding to the rail, while the thump of his heart seemed to shake him from head to foot.

Bang, bang, bang! Crash! The Merrimac shivered as a six-inch shell struck her true in the center, and piercing her thin plates as if they were sheets of tissue paper, exploded forward of the engines, blowing a big gaping hole through the saloon in which Hal sat.

"Another such as that, and I shall get caught down here," he thought. "If I am to be hit, it will be better to receive the wound on deck, for then, when she sinks, I may have a chance, and not be drowned like a rat in a cage."

He felt his way up the ladder, and crawled silently across the deck to the starboard side, where he crouched close to the bulwarks. Above him the bridge appeared dimly, and behind that a circle of sparks flew into the air from the funnel. There, too, standing upon the frail support, was the hero of the hour-Lieutenant Hobson, the gallant officer who had devised the scheme, and begged, not in vain, to carry it out.

More than once, as the guns on the hillside flashed, Hal saw his figure silhouetted clearly against the light. He stepped from the side to the center of the bridge, and, placing his hands to his mouth, so that his voice should not be drowned by the din and uproar, shouted some order in stentorian tones to the man who was stationed at the wheel. Then Hal heard the tiller-chains rattling, and for an instant in the light of a brilliant flash, which had darted suddenly from the battery stationed on the frowning heights of Morro Castle, caught sight of the steersman bending to his work, and putting all his power into the spokes. But the Merrimac kept steadily on, failing to answer to her rudder, which had been smashed to pieces by a shell. At the same moment steam was turned off, and the two men who had been stationed in the engine-room hastily quitted it, and tumbled up on deck as fast as their legs would carry them.

"It's getting nearly time for the torpedoes," Hal murmured, "for I judge that we must now be approaching the entrance of Santiago harbor. Ah! what was that?"

Two loud splashes reached his ear, coming from fore and aft, and a moment's reflection told him that the anchors had been let go. But the Americans were not to have it all their own way, for ill luck again followed the Merrimac. A shell, unfortunate for them, but lucky for the Spaniards had crashed into her stern at a most critical moment, and had smashed her rudder into splinters; and now, when that defect might have been remedied by anchoring fore and aft, and afterwards floating her down to the entrance to Santiago, the anchors, in whose powers Lieutenant Hobson's hopes were centered, failed to grip the bed of the ocean, and in consequence the long black hull forged slowly on through the water till it took the ground near Estrella Point. As it did so, there was a series of loud and deafening reports as her intrepid commander pressed the button and exploded his row of miniature torpedoes.

"That will finish her!" thought Hal. "I'll wait till she sinks lower, and then I'll dive overboard. My best plan will be to swim away from her as far as possible, though there will be no great danger of being carried under as far as I can see, for the water here is very shallow, and will scarcely cover her upper works when the keel is resting upon the bottom. I'll just creep to the bows, so as to make it as short a swim as possible."

He rose to his feet and stole forward. But, unfortunately for Hal, a strong tide was running, and floating the sinking Merrimac free of the land, it swept her into deep water. An instant later, a Whitehead torpedo, discharged by the Reina Mercedes, which lay within the harbor, rushed seething through the water at more than thirty knots an hour, and struck the hull right forward almost directly beneath Hal's feet. There was a terrific concussion, and a blinding sheet of flame seemed to envelop the Merrimac. A column of water started high into the air, while Hal was hurled overboard as if from the arms of a Hercules. Indeed, so great was the shock that he lost consciousness, and might very well have been drowned in that condition. However, the cold water surging about him brought him to his senses almost instantly. Then the instinct of self-preservation asserted itself, and, without exactly knowing why, he commenced to strike out lustily, swimming away from the shore, for he was almost too dazed to know what he was doing.

Suddenly the clatter of quick-firers behind attracted his attention, and, turning, he began to forge a way towards the shore. And now he had cause to congratulate himself upon the fact that he had donned a life-belt, for the shock of the torpedo explosion had sadly deprived him of his strength. Indeed, but for the support he received, he would have sunk there and then, and the name of Hal Marchant would have disappeared from this narrative. He was not, however, the sort of lad to give in without a struggle, so, clenching his teeth, he turned on his side, and struck out with all his power. Something touched his hand-something slimy and covered with weed-which he grasped with thankfulness. Then, having rested for a moment, he dragged himself on to a mass of rock, which jutted into the sea, and seated himself upon it, his head still throbbing painfully, while his brain was dizzy and overcome by the crash of the explosion.

"This won't do," he said at last. "Dawn will be breaking before very long, and it is quite time that I looked for a hiding-place. On the appearance of the first ray of light I should at once be discovered if I were still seated here. Besides, I must not forget that, once the interest in the Merrimac is gone, the sentries whose attention is attracted just now to the entrance of the harbor will become more vigilant in watching for the possible landing of enemies upon the particular part of the coast intrusted to each man's care."

He rose from his seat with an effort, for he was feeling thoroughly done up. Then he groped his way across the rough surface of the rock, and, having waded through a deep pool, was in the act of climbing on to dry ground, when someone pounced upon him with a guttural exclamation of delight, and he found himself in the arms of a Spanish sentinel.

"Halt! cease from struggling, or I will kill you!" the man cried, clutching him by the shoulder and endeavoring to place his bayonet against Hal's breast.

The point pierced the thin clothing he was wearing, and dug slightly into the flesh beneath.

"Halt, I say!" the sentry hissed. "The weapon points to your heart, and, by St. James, I will thrust it home if you do but move an inch! Surrender, I say!"

"Never!" Hal answered hoarsely. Then, shaking the sentry's hand off, and pushing his weapon aside with a hasty movement, he stepped back a pace, and struck out blindly with all his might. His fist hit the Spaniard full on the chest, and sent him staggering backwards, and his rifle crashing to the ground. But he recovered himself in a moment, and threw himself upon his prisoner with an exclamation of fury.

"Pig! Villain!" he cried. "Yield, or I will toss you into the water, and drown you like a rat."

Clasped in each other's arms, they swayed from side to side upon the rocks which fringe the margin of the sea. Then Hal's foot twisted upon a stone, and both fell to the ground with a crash.

What followed was a blank to Hal. He remembered nothing, and lay upon the seashore silent and apparently lifeless for the space of more than ten minutes. Then a puff of cold air fanned his cheek, and he suddenly found himself lying with his eyes wide open, staring at the stars above.

"Hillo! What's this?" he murmured vacantly. "Stars! A clear sky! Where is the cabin, then? Where is Billing?"

He stretched out a hand, and touched something that was wet. Then his fingers came in contact with a head of hair, and he withdrew them instantly, with an involuntary shudder. At once the struggle with the sentry flashed across his wandering mind, and brought him to his senses with a start.

"By Jove! I wonder whether he's hurt?" he said. "I'll see, and then cut away for safety, for it will never do to remain here."

He stretched out his hand again, and having discovered the sentry's arm, placed the tips of his fingers on the wrist. But there was no movement of the pulse, though he longed to feel it. Struggling into a sitting position, he shuffled closer to the man, and listened to hear if he were breathing. But there was not a sound; not even a sigh rewarded his attention.

"Poor beggar! Dead!" he exclaimed. "Well, it is the fortune of war, for it was my life or his. I suppose he struck his head in falling."

This was, in fact, the case, and to it Hal no doubt owed his life. But he had no time to sit there and think. Dawn was dangerously near, and if he was to reach a safe haven, he must be moving at once.

"Ah, I've got it!" he exclaimed suddenly. "I'll change into his clothes."

He started to his feet, and going to where the body lay, undid the buttons, and tore tunic and trousers off. The boots and socks followed, and were rapidly transferred to his own person. Then he picked up the rifle, and prepared to move away.

"Supposing his comrades come in the morning and find him?" he suddenly asked himself. "They will suspect that someone has landed, and borrowed his clothes. I must tumble him into the water."

He bent over the limp figure of the unfortunate sentry once more, and carefully felt for a heart-beat. But there was none, and it w

as evident that the man was dead.

"It's not nice, I know," Hal murmured. "But it's for my safety, and therefore must be done. He won't be any the worse off, poor fellow!"

It was indeed a trying act for any young man to carry out, and it was not without a fierce struggle that Hal at length overcame his compunction. War was war, he told himself, and this kind of thing was bound to happen. He must put aside all feelings of compassion and act like a man.

The thought braced his nerves, and dropping the rifle for a moment, he stooped, lifted the lifeless form in his arms, and tossed it into the sea.

Then the necessity for instant action asserted itself, and picking up the rifle, he turned inland, and struck boldly for the town, leaving the Merrimac sunk deep at one side of the channel leading to the harbor of Santiago.

Up and up the steep rocks he toiled, till he came to a deep gully, down which a tiny watercourse tumbled towards the sea. He could feel shrubs on either side, and thick grass beneath his feet. Then, as if fortune had determined to follow him, the sky in the east commenced rapidly to lighten, and so enabled him to see his whereabouts.

"There is a thick mist, which will lie on the land till the sun is up," he said with satisfaction. "That will give me time to hit upon a likely spot. Ah! what is this? This should suit me."

He suddenly espied a hollow in the midst of a mass of volcanic rock. It was carpeted with grass, and was overhung by a few big-leaved rock palms and ferns, all dripping with moisture. It was an ideal hiding-place, and he promptly crept into it and sat down, hugging himself in his borrowed tunic, for the morning air was bitterly cold.

A little later the sun came up in all his glory, and, topping the bowlders on either side, poured a flood of grateful heat upon him, warming him, and drying the leaves and grass.

Hal removed his wide-brimmed hat from his head, and cautiously looked out towards the mouth of the harbor.

"Ah! there is the Merrimac," he exclaimed, seeing the top of a mast projecting. "Bad luck! it's in deep water on one side, so that the entrance is not closed. Cervera will be able to come out, after all. But it was a plucky attempt, and I only hope that Hobson and his men have got safely away. Hillo! there's the raft, and I can see men clinging to it."

This was the case, for the explosion had swept the crew overboard, to find that their dinghy had been smashed by a shell. But a long, raft-like float had been prepared, and to this all swam. Even as Hal caught sight of them, a steam-launch flying Spanish colors ran out from behind the headland of cliffs, and steered towards them.

"Prisoners at any rate," remarked Hal. "That is better than being drowned, and I've no doubt that the Dons will treat them well, and admire them for their bravery; for it was a plucky thing to do."

Hobson and his men were, in fact, received in a most friendly manner. Admiral Cervera was himself on board the launch, and greeted the prisoners in the most courteous way. Then they were taken back to the harbor and placed upon the Mercedes, where the best of treatment was accorded them, Hobson being taken to the first lieutenant's cabin, while the men were sent to the quarters for'ard, where they were regaled with biscuit and coffee, with Spanish cigarettes to follow.

So highly did Cervera think of their bravery that he promptly sent an officer out to Admiral Sampson to acquaint him of their safety.

Hal watched the launch take the eight men on board, and then turned his eyes inland.

High above him, and standing far back, was a battery with open embrasures. It was partly masked in low bush, which extended down to the gully in which he was lying.

"If I wait till night and follow the stream, it will take me to the left of the fort," he said, rising to his knees, and looking between the leaves of the palm trees. "From there I will strike into the bush, and follow its edge till I get behind Santiago. Then away for the hacienda."

He lay back in his hiding-place, and, feeling secure from discovery, opened his packet of food, and ate a hearty meal. A draught from the stream appeased his thirst, which was great after the salt water he had swallowed. Then he lay down, and, worn out by his exertions, fell asleep. He awoke some hours later, when it was getting dark.

"Now for it," he said. "I'm feeling as fresh as a daisy, and, after the trouble I have been put to, mean to reach the hacienda. If anyone tries to stop me, it will be the worse for him."

He jumped to his feet, and looked hastily to his rifle, to make sure that it was in good condition, and the bayonet fixed. Then he stole into the gully, and waded up stream. It twisted and curved, bearing steadily, however, to the left. At last, when Hal judged that he was beyond the fort he stepped on to the bank, and struck off into the bush.

"Now I'll go for the mules," he said, suddenly recollecting that when he and Gerald left the hacienda on their way to Florida for the purpose of fetching more negroes, they had placed their animals in the hands of an aged native living on the outskirts of the town. "The fellow we left them with is sure to have taken good care of them; and if only the Spaniards have not relieved him of his charge, I shall be able to get a mount, and so reach the hacienda long before the dawn breaks."

An hour later he was at the tumble-down cottage in which the native lived, and, having roused him, quickly got him to understand that he required the mules. A few minutes sufficed to saddle them; then he mounted one, and, leading the other, set off towards Eldorado at a brisk canter.

"Halt dar! Who am dat? I fire if you come one step nearer!" a voice suddenly cried out as he rode through the dense plantation of sugar-cane which surrounded the hacienda.

"Don't shoot, boys! I'm Hal Marchant. I'm dressed in Spanish uniform," Hal shouted in reply.

Then he heard a conversation being carried on in low tones, and a moment or two later someone struck a match and advanced with it between his fingers. The tiny, fluttering flame showed the burly figure of a negro, clad in plantation clothes, and bearing a rifle slung over his shoulders.

"Come forward if you de boss," the man cried, "Seems I know de voice."

"Of course you do, Jake," Hal answered, slipping from the mule and stepping up to the man, who was now closely followed by others. "Look at me carefully. Though I am disguised, you who knew me before will have no difficulty in recognizing the overseer."

There were at once shrill cries of delight from the negroes, and they ran towards him with outstretched hands.

"Sure you am de boss right 'nough," Jake cried, for it was he who was in advance of the others. "Oh, won't de missie be glad! Quick, sar; you come right 'long up to de hacienda, and not wait one little moment. All say ebery day, 'Where am de boss Hal and de young master? Am dey killed by de Spanish dog? Oh, where am dey, Jake?'-Jake him not know. No boy know, and eberyone go 'bout wid sad heart, and tink dat José dog get hold ob de masters and shoot. Tink never see 'em more. All de boys plenty sad, sar, and de missie an' de boss more dan all. Come quick, sar; eberyone be plenty glad."

The good fellow held out his hand, and clasped Hal's with a fervor which showed how genuine his feelings were, while the flickering and uncertain light cast by a second match which one of the negroes struck at the moment showed tears in Jake's eyes, for he was very fond of Hal.

"Yes, I dare say that all will be glad," Hal answered gayly, "especially when the news I bring of the young master is so good. But there, trot along, Jake; I'm in a hurry to reach Eldorado."

"Quiet there, my men! What is this sudden commotion? Who is that standing there with the mules?"

It was Mr. Brindle's voice which came through the darkness, and Hal at once shouted to him.

"It's Hal Marchant," he cried. "I'm just returning, and Gerald is well, and in Florida at this very moment."

"What? Hal again! Where on earth have you been? What has happened to you both since you left us? Come into the hacienda at once. My dear, dear lad, how rejoiced I am to see you again!"

Mr. Brindle rushed forward and shook Hal eagerly by the hand, till his arm positively ached.

"What does this mean?" he asked, noticing the Spanish uniform. "Dressed as one of the enemy! But not one, really, I am open to wager all that I possess. Come in, though. You can tell the tale when we are seated."

They hurried to the hacienda, and were just stepping upon the veranda, and were close beneath a lamp which threw all its light upon them, when Dora ran out, having been disturbed by sounds in the plantation. Instantly her eyes fell upon Hal; she stopped abruptly, brushed her hand across her forehead, as if uncertain of the reality of what she saw, and then staggered towards him with a low, quavering cry upon her lips.

"Hal-Hal Marchant back to life again!" she murmured doubtfully.

"Yes, the same, safe and sound, too, and come back home again," said our hero, advancing boldly and taking her by both hands. "Are you glad to see me Dora?"

It was a question that might well have been left unasked, for the truth was clearly to be seen in her upturned face, which was flooded with the light from the lamp, and showed eyes sparkling with joy, and overflowing with tears of thankfulness, while her lips trembled with emotion as she endeavored to speak to him. Poor Dora could not steady herself to do more than whisper his name, but she did that which was far better, and went a long way to make amends; for, like the brave, simple-hearted girl she was, she straightway stood on tiptoe, and, placing a hand on either shoulder, kissed Hal on the cheek.

"There," she said at last, with a return to her old playful mood, "you may see for yourself, sir, whether or not I am pleased and glad at your home coming. Glad! I am overjoyed! A weight is lifted from my heart, for now I know that you are safe, and a glance at your face is sufficient to tell me that Gerald, too, is well."

"Yes; he was wounded, but is recovering fast," Hal answered, still in some confusion after his hearty welcome, and the honest way in which Dora had shown it. "No wonder that you have been upset at our long absence, and at receiving no news. We have had many adventures, and as I can see that you are both longing to hear all about them, I'll run through them right away.

"Let me see; we had scarcely left the hacienda, when we were arrested as spies in Santiago. Things then were bad enough, for we offered resistance, and, I am sorry to say, damaged the face of the officer who was foolish enough to attempt to arrest us. We were captured after a chase, and then José d'Arousta turned up like a bad penny, and made the aspect of affairs infinitely worse. We were found to be carrying arms; and, in short, with that fellow's evidence against us, we were convicted of spying, and were sent to the Morro Castle with the pleasant prospect of an early breakfast, a short walk, and then death at the hands of a file of soldiers. I need not tell you that we managed to get the better of our captors, and escaped from our prison during the night. A launch happened to be in the harbor, and we promptly steamed out to sea in her. Since that we have been with the American fleet. There, you have it all, I fancy."

"Escaped! Slipped out to sea in a launch! Why, a prisoner in the Morro Castle is deemed as secure as bullion in the strong rooms of the Bank of England! And you two lads managed it? Splendid! Just what we might have expected. Now I can understand the noise and excitement that occurred in Santiago on the night of your arrival there. But tell us how it is that you have been so long away."

Mr. Brindle rattled off his remarks and his questions in a manner that was most confusing, and Hal at once prepared to give a full account of his adventures.

"Come," said Dora, with a smile, "Hal is thirsty, and, no doubt, hungry too. Let us take him in and give him something to eat and drink. Then perhaps he will be good enough to satisfy our curiosity."

"That I will!" Hal exclaimed. "I can tell you that I am as hungry as a hunter or as fifty hunters, for the matter of that, for I have not tasted more than a bite since I swam from the sinking Merrimac twenty hours ago."

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