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   Chapter 21 NEARING THE END

Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 28483

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Hal Marchant returned to Guantanamo with the marines after the successful attack upon the Spanish camp, which was left a mass of flame from end to end. Their arrival was greeted vociferously, for theirs was the first real victory ashore. They found their comrades in a great state of excitement, news having arrived of the army of invasion. It had already embarked, and had actually sailed from Tampa. But, after all, it proved to be a false start, for the very next day brought information that the fleet of transports had been ordered back, for fear that Spain's one remaining squadron of warships, which sailed under the flag of Admiral Camara, should suddenly fall upon and annihilate it.

This, however, proved to be a false alarm; and on Tuesday, the 14th of June, the transports steamed away with their freight of men, horses, and equipment for Key West, where they were joined by a powerful fleet of warships, which were to act as escort. On board the troop-ships were rather more than 15,000 officers and men, while 10,000 more were ready for embarkation as soon as the transports could return to Tampa.

Arrived off the southeastern coast of Cuba, after a delightful sail extending over a week, the fleet lay to, while General Shafter, Admiral Sampson, and their respective staffs went ashore at Asseraderos, and there met General Garcia, who had been the recognized leader of the insurgents for many years. It was an historical meeting, and at its termination Daiquiri was finally settled upon as the point of landing for the long-expected invading army.

"Mr. Marchant, we're removing from here right now," said the marine officer a day after the fleet of transports had been sighted. "Daiquiri is the point of invasion, and we are to steam along in that direction. But I don't expect that we shall have the luck to land; the troops-lucky beggars!-will do that, of course. What on earth sent us to Guantanamo and kept us there is more than I can say. What did we do for the cause? Next to nothing, I guess. Just hashed up one of the camps, and nearly got into a precious mess with those guerrillas."

"It does seem strange that you were sent there," Hal agreed. "Here have we been hanging on to the place and sacrificing valuable lives, and all for nothing. However, the invading force is at hand, and the business is to commence in real earnest. As to Daiquiri, its proximity to Santiago must be the chief reason for its selection, for, situated as it is, it will save a tremendous amount of bush fighting. Fancy marching from Guantanamo through forest and scrub! Why, the Spanish guerrillas would certainly deal with us as the Cubans have with them in former times."

"That is about the truth, I fancy; but, anyway, we're clearing from this right now, so pack up your kit and make all ready," the officer replied.

That night Hal was on board the gunboat, and by dawn they were lying off Daiquiri, surrounded by enormous transports, which were filled with men in boisterous spirits. Beside the troopers the gunboat looked so small that one might have thought she could be of no fighting value. And yet a glance at the underwater fittings of the torpedo-tubes, and the quick-firers upon her decks, showed that, though small in proportions, she was a dangerous customer to deal with, and capable of sinking any of the transports with the greatest ease.

Grouped upon her deck, the marines shouted to their comrades, and looked enviously in their direction more than once. Indeed, they were far from pleased at having had to vacate Guantanamo, after having to fight so stubbornly for it. The brush with the enemy had been keen while it lasted, and had satisfied their martial ardor; but all were disappointed with the order which had compelled them to embark again, and it was no wonder that they asked indignantly why they had ever been sent there if the town and position were not to be held. It was a sheer waste of time and lives, and the men were amongst the first to recognize this.

Meanwhile, General Garcia, with a rag-tag army of three thousand insurgents, watched the point selected for the landing. They were all fairly well armed, but, without exception, they were ragged to a degree, and presented a half-starved appearance.

June 22d broke fine and clear, and straightway a bombardment of the various forts and villages along the coast commenced.

"I imagine that we are knocking bits off the blockhouses, and holding a general action all along the line, so as to mislead the Dons," said the officer of marines. "Hillo! That was fine!"

His exclamation was caused by the simultaneous lowering of boats from all the transports lying off Daiquiri. Then men swarmed into them, and as soon as they were filled, strings of the tiny craft were attached to launches, which steamed at once for the coast, which had already sustained a fierce bombardment. That evening some six thousand Americans had landed, consisting, for the most part, of the division under General Lawton. In addition, a portion of General Wheeler's brigade of cavalry had disembarked, and with them had come a machine-gun battery. The method of landing the artillery horses and transport mules was most interesting. The animals were thrown overboard, and as they were unhampered with kit or harness of any sort, they came through the ordeal wonderfully.

Hal, ever on the look-out for adventure, had not allowed the day to pass without an effort to get ashore. Indeed, he contrived to find a vacant place in one of the boats, and in due course landed at the tiny jetty which projected from the beach into the sea. As he walked along it, someone, dressed as a trooper, rushed frantically towards him.

"Hal! It's Hal! By Jove, how glad I am! Hang it, old man, don't you know me, or are you too proud? Where the dickens did you come from? I heard that you had gone ashore in the Merrimac. Well, this is a day!"

It was Gerald Brindle, looking strong and well again, but somewhat bewildered and out of breath as he accosted his friend and shook his hands up and down as if he would never cease.

"Steady, old boy! Of course it's Hal! Look out, you're breaking my fingers. There, that's very nice; and now, if you'll stop for a moment, I'll tell you all that is worth telling."

Hal wrenched his hand away, and, stepping a pace backward, stood looking critically at his friend.

Gerald was dressed in a uniform of khaki, not unlike that worn by the British troops in South Africa, but differing in one or more important respects. For instance, in place of the helmet, which is only required in the hottest countries, the American troopers had wide-brimmed, thick felt hats, calculated to withstand a fierce sun, and well able to shelter the head and shoulders when a torrent of rain was descending. Then, again, this felt hat had a decided advantage for men on active service, for, when they were lying down and skirmishing, it would not hit upon the back of the neck and be tilted over the eyes at the most critical moment. Another difference was that the Americans wore a light gaiter, instead of the puttee.

Gerald, with his head-covering pulled rakishly over one ear, looked a very smart and soldier-like young fellow, and seemed to be well able to manage the rifle which he carried in one hand.

"A trooper?" said Hal, looking at him closely. "Well, old man, you look every inch of it. Supposing you tell me how it is to be done, so that I may follow suit, and take my place at your side."

"That's easy enough," answered Gerald: "The ranks are filled up, but we'll find room for you; for I happen to know one of the staff officers, who will arrange for it, if I ask him. Why, Hal, I have a splendid billet! I am one of Roosevelt's own; one of 'Teddy's Terribles,' or 'Roosevelt's Rustlers,' as we are sometimes called. You must have heard of us by now. We're the cowboy lot, and we've all sorts and sizes in our ranks. Fellows who are out of all employment, and who have not so much as a cent to bless themselves with, and others who are the sons of millionaires, or millionaires themselves, with so much to jangle in their pockets that they would not miss it if you took the average man's yearly wages from them. But, whatever their wealth, they are all rattling good fellows, and all bent upon fighting. But we've no horses. That's the joke of this invading army. The fact is that transports are scarce as it is, and none could be spared for the mounts. However, we weren't going to allow that to stop us, and here we are, ready to have a fling at the Dons on foot, if need be."

"So you are one of the 1st United States Cavalry, sometimes known also as the Rough Riders, or by the other terms that you mentioned?" said Hal. "Gerald, I'm for it, too. We'll see this war through together."

"Right, that we will," Gerald answered eagerly. "Look here, we'll just take the bull by the horns, and arrange the matter at once. Let's go right away to the staff officer."

Hal agreed, and they at once ascended the steep slope leading to the camp, till they came to a pile of ammunition boxes, beside which a pole was erected, bearing a piece of crimson bunting, while beneath it stood an officer whose uniform proclaimed that he belonged to the staff.

"Well, Mr. Brindle, what is this?" he asked, with a smile. "Introduce your friend."

"He's Hal Marchant, the fellow who sneaked on board the Merrimac when she was about to be sunk off Santiago. You will remember, Captain Cromer, that the tale leaked out, and that Lieutenant Billing was said to have come in for a wigging."

"That was so. So you're that fellow, are you?" the officer asked, looking closely at Hal. "Now, what's wanted? I know your sort very well. You're dying to be right in the very thick of it; isn't that somewhere near the case?"

"It is the very thing!" Hal exclaimed. "I am anxious to join the Rough Riders till the campaign is over."

The staff officer thought for a few moments, during which he regarded the two lads with some curiosity and amusement. Then he produced a notebook, and hastily scribbled a few lines.

"Want pay?" he asked suddenly.

"No, not a dollar," Hal answered promptly. "I want all the fun, though."

"Then slip along right now with that to General Wheeler's brigade major; I fancy it will just settle the matter for you, so that he'll allow you to go with the boys."

He nodded, and turned to give some directions to an orderly who had just approached, while Hal and his friend hurried off as fast as their legs would carry them. By early morning the former was a temporary trooper in the celebrated Rough Riders.

"I suppose we shall be moving very soon," said Gerald, as he and his friend sat down for a meal. "There is one thing, though, that may delay us. You see, things were so rushed at Tampa that all the equipment most wanted is down at the bottom of the hold, while perfectly useless stuff is at the top. But I hear that they are working very hard to set matters right."

This, in fact, was the case. Disembarkation of stores had been going on day and night, not only at Daiquiri, but also at other parts of the coast. The invading army consisted of three divisions-each split up into three brigades-and of a cavalry brigade. While the second division and the horseless cavalry had been landing at Daiquiri, the first division, under General Kent, had begun to disembark at Siboney. Meanwhile, General Shafter, the Commander-in-chief, had his quarters aboard the transport Seguran?a.

The very day upon which Lawton's division landed, he pushed forward with the greater part to some wooded hills northwest of Daiquiri, which he occupied without firing a shot. As for Hal and Gerald, with their comrades of the cavalry, they left camp early on the following morning, and marched to Siboney. By the time they reached the latter place, both lads were on excellent terms with their fellow-troopers. Indeed, Gerald was already well known, and it wanted only a mention of Hal's adventurous trip ashore in the Merrimac to bring a crowd surging round him, clamoring for all the details.

"Tell yer this, you're born ter be lucky, that's how I size it," said one big cowboy. "Yer see, since this war got started, you've seen a rare lot er moves, and never got so much as pipped with a bullet. That jist shows as you're kept for somethin' more perlite, so I tell yer I shall keep as close alongside as I can squeeze as soon as the shootin' starts."

"Perhaps that might not be quite as secure a place as in front," Hal answered, with a smile. "A Cuban ran beside me only a few days ago, and the bullet which was intended to take my life picked the poor fellow off."

"So? Then I'll stick in front; but, all the same, I guess you're born to be lucky."

The cowboy nodded his head knowingly, and strode off. That night orders were issued to the Rough Riders to prepare for active measures.

"We are to advance against Sevilla, which is three miles away," said Hal, having gleaned some tidings from one of the sergeants. "It seems that all the Spaniards are falling back upon Santiago from the blockhouses and outposts, and a few only are left at Sevilla to bar our progress. Of course we shall soon brush them aside; though, if the fighting is anything like last week's, we shall have our work cut out for us, for it will be bush warfare every foot of the way, and the Dons have shown themselves masters of that particular art."

"And afterwards, what shall we have to face?" asked Gerald.

"That is a difficult question to answer; but if your father is right, some seven thousand half-starved Spanish regulars. They cannot hope to resist for very long, for food has completely run out in Santiago. Even now many of the civil population are said to be dying daily of starvation in the streets."

"Then the sooner we end their misery the better," exclaimed Gerald. "Hillo; orders, I fancy!"

A message from headquarters had just been brought to the troopers, telling them to prepare to march on the following morning.

"The Rough Riders and other cavalry are to advance early to-morrow on Las Guasimas," said the sergeant who had brought the order. "The regulars wil

l march to the right, and will take four Hotchkiss quick-firing mountain guns. Boys, we aer goin' ter turn the Dons out!"

"Hooroo! By Jingo we aer," the men shouted.

"We'd do it better if we had horses with us," one of them said. "Say, pard, you've been having gay times with the enemy; what's your opinion on the case?"

"I fancy that we are better as we are," Hal answered, with assurance. "You see, I know the country hereabouts; it is densely covered with bush, in which animals would be worse than useless, for they would stand clear against the green, and would show where we were lying. Without them we shall be more efficient scouts."

"Pass the word there for Trooper Marchant," the sergeant now shouted.

"What is it? Here I am," Hal answered, stepping forward.

"You are acquainted with these parts, I hear?" the sergeant answered.

"Yes, I have ridden through the bush more than once. What then?"

"The general'll be oblee-e-ged to yer ef you'll get ahead of the column and lead the way. We're kind er strangers here, yer see."

"I'll do what I can," Hal answered briskly, being overjoyed at the prospect. "I suppose my friend can come along too? He knows the country much better than I do."

"In course he can. Now, you'll be ready early, that's the order."

Hal nodded, and at once began to talk the matter over with Gerald. Next morning they left the camp with six other men, and marched some five hundred yards ahead of the main body. A Rough Rider, who had been a cowboy right away in the west of North America, was put in charge of the little party.

"Now what aer the partic'lar jokes of these fellers?" he asked Hal, as they pushed along the road. "Yer foller, ef it wur Injuns, or even bad men of the prairie, I'd be onter their games quicken'n a knife. But these here Dons most like has a way of acting out er the ordinary, that aint easy ter catch hold of."

"They have, certainly," Hal replied. "To begin with, from the experience we had at Guantanamo I fancy you will find that the enemy will make a stubborn fight of it. Then they will lie hidden in the bush, and, look as you will, you will never see more than masses of moving green, for they cover themselves with leaves and fronds of ferns."

"Christopher! That aer the game? Wall, pards, whenever yer fall on a movin' bush pull yer trigger at it quicker than yer can wink," cried the cowboy. "Now we'll separate, so's to have about twenty yards between each man. Me and this here pard'll work the center, and t'others can fix onter the sides. When any of yer spots somethin' that's out of the ord'nary, send the warnin' along, and let every feller mark it. Then we'll bring a cross fire ter bear upon it that'll rip through the leaves, and clean the Dons off the face of the airth."

It was a good suggestion on the cowboy's part, and the scouts promptly carried it out, Hal and his new acquaintance taking the central place. And now the road became almost impassable, for rain had fallen, saturating the ground and trees, so that after a few minutes' work in the bush all the scouts were drenched from head to foot.

"It aer moist," the cowboy, whose name was Harman, exclaimed. "But it's warm, so it don't matter no more'n nothing. Say, aer that Spanish fellers thur?"

He pointed to a prominent hill in front, along the face of which were rows of trenches, and, though the distance was great, it was not difficult to decide that this was the enemy's position.

"Yes, those are Spaniards," Hal answered. "But look out! If I am not mistaken, the bush to the left is filled with guerrillas."

Scarcely had he spoken when a volley burst from the scrub in front, the bullets whistling overhead.

"That aer partic'lar bad shootin'," said Harman. "They aer right off the mark."

"I don't think so," Hal answered quickly. "Look away behind; the Dons have spotted the Rough Riders, and other dismounted cavalry, and are firing long-ranging volleys."

This indeed was the case, and the bullets which whistled overhead were meant for their comrades in the distance. Meanwhile, the column, composed of regulars, who were marching on the right, had come in touch with the enemy, while the cavalry were closing up to them on the left. Suddenly the quick-firing Hotchkiss guns opened from the bush, and commenced to shell the Spanish trenches, the reports being the signal for a general rifle engagement.

"This is warm," Hal shouted, as a stream of bullets swept overhead, lopping twigs and leaves from the cover.

"Say, Harman, let us work over there into the bush. It'll be a better place from which to fire."

They gradually edged through the scrub, till they reached a lower position, where they lay for a time, firing up at the ridge in front of them, and at the hill upon which the main body of the enemy was stationed. From there a machine gun was busily at work, scattering missiles through the foliage, and Hal found it a new and somewhat trying experience; for the distant rattle was accompanied by a rushing hail of long-nosed bullets, which flew low, and swept every corner of the bush. Then the noise would pass away, to be replaced by the zip-zip of Mausers, and by the distant ping-ping of the reports. Soon the main body of the cavalry came up, and, creeping along the ground, the whole force advanced rapidly on the Spaniards, Colonel Roosevelt being some yards in front of his men.

"Reckon a rush'll do it, boys," sang out one of the sergeants. "Just keep yer blinkers on the boss, and look out for a lively time."

Indeed the moment had arrived for something besides firing, for, as the cavalry advanced, the Spaniards had retired slowly and doggedly, firing all the time. And now a wide clearing cut across the front of the Americans. Suddenly Colonel Theodore Roosevelt was seen standing in it, fearlessly exposing himself to the bullets, and holding a smoking rifle in his hand. He pointed eagerly to a tumble-down sugar factory away in front.

"Boys, we'll take it," he cried. "Forward, the Rough Riders!"

A shout rose from the troopers, and springing to their feet, they joined in a mad rush up the hill, firing as they ran. A few shots answered, and then the enemy was seen to be hastily retreating, and within five minutes the factory was captured. At the same moment, the Spaniards retired from the ridge and hill; and the Americans, after sending out scouts and pickets, sat down to rest and talk of their victory.

"It aer a reg'lar fine start off," said Harman, excitedly. "Right from the commencement we've shook them Dons up. That aer better than being pipped all over and getting forced to give back. It'll liven us all up, and, you bet, we'll take Santiago so quick yer'll scarcely believe. My aunt! Aint this fightin' the thing ter make yer blood warm, not ter say boilin'!"

"It aer all that, Harman boy," another trooper broke in. "It aer scorchin', I'll allow. I tell yer, comin' along through the bush, under a sun as hot-wall, as hot and hotter'n blazes, it fairly cooked yer. Then, when the bullets came flickin' like so many flies-why, it kind er made yer queer."

"It did that," Gerald agreed. "My pal and I have compared notes. We were roasting, it was so hot; but when the bullets began to rush, we felt as if cold water had been poured down our backs. However, we got used to it, and mighty quickly felt the broiling heat of the sun again."

"Say, boys, did any of yer see them skunks of Cubans?" asked another Rough Rider.

"See 'em! Not much!" Harman exclaimed disdainfully. "They wur to have come along to-day, but when we marched past their camp, not a single one of the varmint moved. Jist fancy! We're here fightin' fur them critters, too!"

A murmur of indignation and disgust went round the circle, for already the Americans had taken a dislike to the natives. They had begun to discover that these dusky insurgents were very good at lying away at safe but impossible ranges, and firing an immoderate quantity of ammunition. And whenever there was a prospect of plunder with no blows to be feared, the Cubans were much to the fore, as they were also if there happened to be an opportunity of ill-treating Spanish soldiers.

"Ugh!" exclaimed Harman in disgust. "These black critters aren't a patch on the Dons, who aint bright specimens themselves, for they're fellers one can't kind er understand, and then they've picked hold of such a jabberin' lingo. But they can fight! Them aer little chaps aer tarnal good 'uns with a rifle, and I reckon that away here in the bush they'd take some beatin'; they'd knock spots off a Red Injun, and that's the truth."

A chorus of assent came from the men, who at once began to discuss the remarkable pluck shown by the enemy. Then inquiries were made for a list of casualties, but it was not known until later in the day that sixteen had been killed on the American side, and fifty-two wounded.

That evening the Rough Riders and other cavalry lined the ridge and hill of Las Guasimas, and, looking across a patch of open country, could see the hill and fort of San Juan, and, beyond that, Santiago with its harbor and ships. El Caney, a village of small importance, which was destined to become a point of attack, stood close to San Juan.

"What will be the next move?" asked Gerald, as he and Hal sat down side by side that night, and waited for their turn of sentry-go.

"That is difficult to say," Hal answered thoughtfully, "but I fancy that the first thing will be to feed the troops. It is a question which seems to have been entirely forgotten. Then we must remember that the stores are still aboard the transports, and if they have been packed as carelessly as reported, days must pass before we get guns and sufficient ammunition and food. In any case, before we advance on Santiago, there should be a reconnaissance, and the approaches should be thoroughly explored."

That the latter was a necessary precaution the least experienced in military matters will say, and yet, strangely enough, the necessity for a careful survey did not seem to have struck the leaders of the American troops. And this, no doubt, was one of the evil results of a hastily organized army. Soldiering cannot be learned in a day, and amateurs cannot maneuver troops when they have had no practice. From first to last the Americans had suffered from the inexperience of their various leaders. Troops had been concentrated in the southern camps of America, where the heat was very trying, and had been kept there for a long time inactive, and exposed to disease. As a result, many had died, while other young fellows had returned home with health shattered-and this without having fired a shot.

Then, too, the commissariat arrangements had been indifferent, and quite insufficient. Troops were indeed conveyed safely to Cuba, but after they had had a taste of war, they were left in the heart of the unhealthy bush, with nothing better to eat than salt pork and hard biscuit; coffee, tea, sugar, and such necessaries were unheard of.

And on the beach at Daiquiri and Siboney a growing pile of useless articles collected, while cases of food were searched for-articles which the wisdom of some inexperienced person had placed first of all in the ship, when they should have gone in last. No wonder that the heat and moisture soon found victims, for men cannot stand hardship and exposure if they are ill fed. Indeed, the week's delay before fighting recommenced laid the seeds of disease in many men. And then the fatal moment arrived when lack of precautions on the part of those in authority was to cost many a poor fellow his life in the attack upon San Juan.

Beyond Las Guasimas was an open stretch of country to which troops must march by one of two roads that led through the bush and forest, and upon the openings of these the Spaniards had naturally concentrated their guns, with a certainty of shooting accurately, for the ranges were known. On the American side, no attempt was made to open up other tracks, and this proved disastrous to the men; for on the 1st of July, when another forward move was made, many unfortunate troopers were struck dead at the first volley. This was, indeed, a memorable day for both attackers and attacked. Marching northwest from Las Guasimas, the divisions separated, Lawton's, accompanied by four guns, making for El Caney, a village of small proportions, and situated on an elevation. General Kent's division, marching with the cavalry and Rough Riders, made the fort and hill of San Juan their objective. In both cases open country had to be traversed; but in the latter the troops had first to make their way through a dense belt of forest which gave place to the open quite suddenly, and only two tracks existed.

To describe each phase of the big engagement would be to puzzle the reader; for it was like a game of chess, the pieces being in this case the various units going to complete the divisions, and the board an area covering square miles.

On the right, after nine hours' stubborn fighting with a force less than a tenth of his own, Lawton's division captured El Caney, and some hundred prisoners.

In the center, Kent's men, with the dismounted cavalry, and our two heroes, lay at the edge of the forest, suffering heavy loss for some hours; for the Spaniards sent long-ranging volleys into the trees, which did much execution. Then, too, their quick-firing guns had the range to a nicety, and sent showers of shrapnel sweeping through the ranks. At length, unable to bear this loss without retaliating, the Americans burst into the open, and stormed the hill and fort, every man fighting desperately. Indeed, when the day was done, victors and vanquished admitted that both sides had shown undaunted courage. Undoubtedly the Spaniards had fought a brilliant rearguard action, and their stubbornness, and the fact that half their small numbers were killed or wounded, showed the spirit which possessed them.

As for the Americans, though many of them had been soldiers for only a few weeks, they attacked with a courage and a sternness of purpose that were truly admirable, and did credit to the stock from which they came.

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