Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 10

CHAPTER X


WALTER SHOWS HIS PLUCK


"And is that all you have to say?" asked Caleb Walton, after a few seconds of silence, during which lie gazed so sharply at Jim Haskett that the fellow felt compelled to drop his eyes. "Because a fellow dreams about a gold piece, must you accuse him of stealing?"

"That's all right, too," responded Haskett, doggedly. "I know he wouldn't dream that way unless there was something in the wind. I'm satisfied he took the money."

"And I am satisfied that he is innocent," cried Caleb. "That boy would never steal a cent from anybody."

"Why, he was after a thief himself before he left Boston," put in Paul, who had now sought protection behind the old gunner.

"Well, suit yourselves," answered Haskett, with a shrug of his somewhat rounded shoulders. "But let me tell you that I won't allow Russell, Doring, or anybody else to speak of me as having taken the money—mind that!" And he shook his fist savagely.

"Here comes Walter now," announced Paul. "Walter, come here!" he called out, before Caleb could stop him.

At once Walter came up, an inquiring look upon his manly face, which was now becoming sunburnt through exposure on deck. "What do you want, Paul?" he asked.

"It's only some of Haskett s nonsense," answered Caleb, ere the boy could speak. "Tell us, lad, do you remember dreaming anything about Si's gold piece?"

For the instant Walter looked puzzled, then his face brightened. "I do," he answered. "What of it?"

"Tell us what you dreamed first."

"Why—I—I can't remember exactly, excepting that I was having a good lot of worry about it," he stammered. "You know how dreams come and go."

"To be sure, Walter."

"You dreamt about the money you hid, didn't you?" said Haskett, sneeringly.

"The money I hid? I hid no money."

"Oh no, of course not!"

"See here, Haskett, what do you mean?" And Walter strode over to the seaman, his face flushing deeply. "Do you mean to insinuate that I took Si's gold piece and hid it away?"

"He just does," burst out Paul. "And he says you talked in your sleep about it, too."

"It is false—at least, it is false that I took the money. I might have dreamed about it and talked in my sleep. We are not accountable for what we do when we are sleeping."

"Perhaps you took the gold piece when you were asleep," said Haskett, squinting suggestively at those surrounding him.

"The gold piece was taken while Si and I were left behind in Washington. It was taken by some body on the train."

"That's your story—and you've been trying to lay the thing at my door. But I shan't stand it—not me," stormed Haskett. "I heard what you said in your sleep, and so did Cal Blinker. If anybody is guilty, it is you!" And he pointed his long, bony finger full in Walter's face.

By this time a crowd of a dozen or more had gathered round, realizing that a quarrel of some sort was in progress. "It's about a gold piece," said one. "Haskett says Russell took it. Say, fellows, we don t want anything to do with a thief."

"Not much we don't!" answered a messmate. "Heave him overboard if he is guilty."

"This matter ought to be reported to the officer of the deck," put in a third. "If there is a thief on board, no man's ditty-box will be safe."

At Haskett's concluding remark Walter's face grew as red as a beet, then deadly pale. For a moment he stood stock still, breathing heavily. Suddenly he leaped forward with clenched fist and struck Haskett a stunning blow on the chin which sent the seaman staggering up against a gun-carriage.

"That, for talking to me in this fashion!" he exclaimed.

"Oh!" grunted the ex-mate of the Sunflower, as he caught at the gun just in time to prevent himself from falling to the deck. "You—you young rascal, what do you mean by hitting me?"

"A fight! a fight!" cried several, and soon a crowd of about fifty jackies surrounded the pair.

"Wasn't that a pretty blow though! And he s only a boy, too!" came from a gunner's mate.

"I'll fix you for this!" went on Haskett, putting one hand to his chin, where a lump was rising rapidly. "I never before allowed anybody to hit me—leastwise a boy." And he rushed at Walter with a fierceness which boded the youth no good.

"Don't you hit him, Haskett," put in Caleb, catching the seaman by the arm. "If you do, you'll have to settle this affair with me."

"He hit me."

"And you as much as said he was a thief."

"And so he is."

"I am not, and I've a good mind to hit you again for saying so," burst out Walter, and before anybody around could separate them he and Haskett had closed in. Several ineffective blows were struck on each side, when they were pulled apart.

"This won't do, Walter," whispered Caleb. "If you're not careful, you'll spend a week in the brig."

"But—but it's awful to have him say I'm a—a—"

"I know, I know. But keep cool, lad; it's best, take my word for it. You've been on board only a few days, but you have made lots of friends, while I reckon most of the men have already sized up Haskett for the meanest chap on board."

"He has no right to talk about me."

"He says you and Si Doring talked about him."

Haskett now pushed his way forward again. "I don't want trouble with the officers, so we'll let this matter drop for the present," he blustered. "But I'll remember you, and some day you'll be mighty sorry we had this little mix-up." And muttering some more that nobody could understand he strode off, the majority of the crowd gazing after him curiously.

"Ran away from a boy!" said one old tar. "He must be a regular coward, and no mistake!"

Many wanted Walter to relate his version of what had brought the encounter about, but Caleb hurried the lad away to a corner, where he took a wash up and brushed off his clothing.

"I want to interview that Cal Blinker," said the youth. "Where can I find him?"

"Down around the forward ammunition hoist," answered Paul, and Walter hurried off, accompanied by his friends.

"Yes, I did hear you say something about a gold piece," the shellman admitted. "You didn't talk very plainly and I understood very little. Haskett said he understood every word. Well, maybe he did. I've been in the navy so long that the noise of the big guns has affected my hearing."

"Did I say I stole the piece?" insisted Walter. "I don't know as you did. All I could make out was 'ten dollars in gold' and 'the gun—just the place.'"

This was all Cal Blinker had to say. He was rather old and it was plain to see that he wanted nothing to do with the controversy, one side or the other.

Si Doring had been attending a special boat drill, and it was not until an hour had passed that he came below and heard what had occurred. Without hesitation he slapped Walter on the shoulder.

"Don't you take this to heart," he said. "No matter what that mean old rascal of a Haskett says, he'll never make me believe that you are any thing but perfectly straight. I believe yet that he took the gold piece and that some day I'll be able to prove it." And there the incident, for the time being, dropped.

The manner in which Walter had "sailed into Haskett," as Caleb expressed it, made the youth many friends among the crew, for if there is one thing a jack tar loves it is to see a messmate stand up for himself. "You're all right, you are," said more than one, and caught Walter's hand in a grip calculated to break the bones. Several, who had thought to play a few tricks on the "greeny," reconsidered their ideas on the subject and concluded that it was best not to run any chances with such a spirited lad.

For some time Walter was afraid that the executive officer would hear of the encounter and bring him to book for it; but if the "mix-up" was reported, nothing came of it. As a matter of fact, Uncle Sam's officers just then had affairs of more importance requiring their attention.

For every hour on board of the warships composing the Flying Squadron increased the anxiety concerning the Spanish ships which it was felt were preparing to make a quick dash for Cuba or for our own coast. How soon would these warships sail, and where would they make their presence felt? those were the all-important questions commodore and captains asked of each other. "They'll most likely try to break the blockade at Havana," said one. "No, they'll bombard one of our down-east seacoast cities," said another. "I think they'll rush through the Suez Canal to fight Dewey," was the conclusion reached by a third. Under-officers and men speculated quite as much as did their superiors, arriving at equally opposite conclusions. "They have our whole seacoast and Cuba to pick from," Commodore Schley said. "They will go where they can do the most good—to their way of thinking. I think they'll go to Cuba or Porto Rico." How correct the commander was history has shown.

Although the Scorpion was patrolling the ocean just outside of the capes, a strict watch was kept on every one of the warships, night and day. Rumors were numerous, and one was to the effect that the Spaniards had a submarine craft in their service and that this boat would soon arrive along our eastern seacoast, to destroy the shipping from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. In these days, when we know the truth, we can afford to laugh at such a report, but to the jackies on the warships, who remembered only too well the fate of the Maine, it was no laughing matter. Even when off duty, many would go on the spar deck and lie flat, gazing into the dark waters for the best part of a night, hoping to catch a glimpse of the unknown terror, should it come to that vicinity.

Sunday, with its deeply impressive church service, came and went, and still the squadron lay at anchor. In the meantime it was rumored that Sampson would soon take his most powerful vessels from the blockade and bombard Havana. The newspapers reported this, but if such was the plan of the Navy Department, it was altered at the last moment.

On May 12 came news of a fierce fight in the harbor of Cardenas, a seaport a hundred and twenty miles east of Havana. In an attempt to effect a landing, the torpedo boat Winslow had her boiler blown to pieces and several men were killed and injured, among them Ensign Worth Bagley, who was thus the first American officer to fall in the war. Two other warships, the Wilmington and the Hudson, also took part in the contest, but were repulsed after a gallant onslaught lasting over an hour.

"This is war," said Caleb, as he read the news from the paper that one of the gunners had just brought on board. "Those fellows on the Winslow caught it hot. Think of running right into that harbor and having a shell drop and smash your boiler and send the live steam all over you. I tell you Ensign Bagley was a plucky one, all honor to his memory."

The next day brought even more important news. Dewey had gained a foothold in the Philippines, the main city of Cuba was in a state of blockade, and now Rear-Admiral Sampson had shifted the scene of action to Porto Rico, by shelling the forts of San Juan, the principal city of Spain s only other possession in the West Indies.

"We're getting there!" cried Caleb, excitedly. "We'll soon give the Dons all they want."

"If Sampson succeeds in making the San Juan forts surrender, the whole city will be at our mercy," said Walter. "Hurrah for the American navy, and every ship and man in it."

"We are bound to get them on the run," put in Si. "Here is another report about a fight at Cienfuegos. Where is that?"

"On the southern coast of Cuba," answered Walter, who had always had a good head for geography, and who, since the war had started, had studied the map of Cuba closely. "Havana, San Juan, and Manila! Say, but this is becoming a war of magnificent distances."

"It's a naval war, that's what it is," said Caleb. "If we—hullo! Did any of you see this telegram?" He pointed to his newspaper. "The Spanish Squadron under Admiral Cervera has slipped away from Cape Verde Islands and is undoubtedly bound westward."

"And here is another report that some strange vessels, supposed to be warships, have been sighted off Martinique, Windward Island," added Walter, quickly. "I'll wager we leave soon!"

"But where—to the Windward Islands?" queried Si. "That's for Commodore Schley to decide. Rest assured he'll find this Admiral Cervera sooner or later, just as Dewey found old Admiral Montojo."

The news was spreading, and officers and men gathered in knots to discuss the situation. As for Commodore Schley and Captain Cook, they smiled knowingly, but said nothing. Everybody in the Flying Squadron remembered what Dewey and his men had accomplished, and all were on their mettle accordingly.