Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 11



"We are off at last!"

It was Walter who broke the news, as he came tumbling down the stairs to the berth deck, where Si and Caleb were engaged in a friendly game of checkers on the top of a ditty-box.

"Off!" cried the old gunner, and leaped up, scattering the men on the checkerboard in all directions. "Who told you?"

"The signal has just been hoisted on the military mast. I couldn't read it, but Sandram could and he translated it for me."

Caleb waited to hear no more, but rushed on deck, with Walter and the others following. The news was true, the signal flew the words, "Weigh anchor and follow the flagship," and the heavy black smoke was pouring in dense volumes from every warship's funnels.

"I wonder where we are bound?" questioned Walter, whose heart was thumping within him at the thought war might soon become a stern reality to him. "Of course we are going after Admiral Cervera s ships."

"I reckon that's right, but there's no telling," responded Caleb. "The officers don't consult us when they want to move, you know." And he said this so dryly that both Walter and Si had to laugh.

The warships at hand were four in number,—the Brooklyn, which I have already described, and the Massachusetts, Texas, and Scorpion. With them was the collier Sterling, loaded to the very rail with huge bags of coal, for the exclusive use of the Flying Squadron.

The Massachusetts was a battleship of the first-class, a sister ship to the Indiana. She had a displacement of over ten thousand tons, and a speed of sixteen knots per hour. Her massive armor was eighteen inches thick—enough to withstand some of the heaviest shots ever fired from any gun. Her armament consisted of a main battery of four 13-inch and eight 8-inch guns and four 6-inch slow-fire guns. The secondary battery comprised twenty 6-pounders, four 1-pounders, four Gatlings, and two field-guns. Besides this she carried three torpedo tubes and an immense quantity of small-arms. Captain Francis J. Higginson was in charge, with Lieutenant-Commander Seaton Schroeder.

The Texas was a battleship of the second class, her displacement being only 6315 tons. She had the honor to be the first vessel built when our navy began its reconstruction, in 1886. Her armor was just one foot thick, and she could speed along at the rate of nearly eighteen knots an hour. Two 12-inch and six 6-inch slow-fire guns made up her main battery, while her secondary battery counted up six 1-pounders, four Hotchkiss and two Gatling guns. There were two torpedo tubes. The Texas was under the command of Captain John W. Philip and Lieutenant-Commander Giles B. Harber.

The Scorpion was a despatch boat of the gunboat pattern, with a displacement of six hundred tons, and a rapid-firing battery of four 5-inch and six 6-pounders. She was a swift craft, and had done duty as a scout for a long time.

The signal to weigh anchor was hoisted on the flagship at four o'clock in the afternoon, and in side of half an hour the Flying Squadron and the collier were standing down Hampton Roads toward the capes, each ploughing the waters at a twelve to fifteen knot rate. The wharves alongshore were lined with people, who waved their hats and their handkerchiefs, and shouted out their best wishes for the departing ones.

"Remember the Maine, boys, and send us a good account of yourselves!" shouted one old Southern veteran, as he shook a partly empty coat sleeve at them. "I wish I was younger; I'd go along and fight as well for the old stars and stripes as I once did for the stars and bars."

"Now you're talking," responded a Union veteran. "That other quarrel was our own, eh, neighbor? Let foreign nations keep their hands off Uncle Sam's family and the children seeking his protection. Three cheers for Old Glory and Free Cuba!" And the cheers were given with a will, while Fortress Monroe thundered out a parting-salute.

A number of other vessels, including the protected cruisers Minneapolis and New Orleans and the auxiliary cruiser St. Paul had been left behind, to join their sister ships later on. The New Orleans was a warship but recently purchased from the Brazilian government, and formerly known as the Amazonas. The St. Paul had formerly been a trans-Atlantic steamer, and was commanded by Captain Charles E. Sigsbee, who had so gallantly stuck to his post until the last moment when the Maine was destroyed.

Each of the warships had a harbor pilot on board and proceeded under a full head of steam for the passage between the capes, which were passed a little after seven o clock in the evening. Leaving Cape Henry well to starboard, the pilots were dropped, and the warships, taking the middle course, as it is termed, disappeared from the gaze of those who had watched their departure so eagerly.

"We're out for a fight now, sure enough," said Caleb, as he and Walter went below, each to the mess to which he had been assigned. "Orders are to prepare for action, so I've just been told."

"I noticed that lights were being extinguished," answered the youth. "Do you suppose they are afraid that the Spanish warships are coming up this way?"

"No telling, lad. It s a game of hide and seek, until one fellow or the other sneaks up and thumps his opponent in the neck. I only hope we're in it to do the first thumping."

Mess was scarcely over when there came a call to quarters. Ports were closed with massive steel covers, the battle hatches were put down, and the big guns were carefully loaded. Watches had, of course, already been established, and now the men were ordered to take turns at standing by the guns.

"Which way are we pointing, eastward or down the coast?" questioned Walter of Si, who had come up during his off hours to take a look at the cloudy sky from which only a few stars were peeping.

"We are moving almost directly southward," was the slow reply of the Yankee youth, after a long look overhead. "And where will that bring us to, Si?"

"It will take us to Cape Hatteras first, and if we keep on long enough it will bring us to the neighborhood of San Salvador Island. But I reckon we'll change our course after Hatteras is passed."

"Isn't Hatteras a bad point to pass?"

"Is it? You just ought to try it in dirty weather. Many a craft has left her hulk off that cape. But such a craft as the Brooklyn, with her high bow, ought to weather almost anything. To my mind, the worst thing we can run into is a fog-bank, and that's just what we are likely to do in this vicinity."

The regular lights of the warship had been extinguished, but behind its hood the great search-light glowed and spluttered, ready to be turned to one point or another at a second's notice. All was quiet on board, save for the rumble and quiver of the powerful engines which were driving this floating fort on her way through the rolling ocean. While daylight lasted the vessels kept more or less apart, but with the coming of night they closed in, and the fretting and puffing little Scorpion darted ahead on picket guard.

Walter's duty at his gun came to an end at midnight, and none too soon for the lad, whose head had suddenly begun to spin around like a top. "I guess I m getting seasick," he murmured to Si; and the Yankee lad at once led him away to a secluded corner, where he might have matters all his own way, and where none might look on and enjoy his misery. Once Haskett started to pass some uncomplimentary remarks about Walter, but a single stern look from Caleb silenced the seaman, who tumbled into his hammock without another word. For several days Jim Haskett had kept his distance, but he was only biding his time to "even up," as he termed it. "I'll make young Russell feel mighty sore before I'm done with him," was what he promised himself.

Walter was expected to go on duty again at four o'clock, but he was in no condition for service, and sent Caleb word to that effect. Paul took the message and soon returned with a reply.

"You're to take it easy until you're all right," said Paul. "Walton will fix it up so there will be no trouble."

"He's the best friend a fellow ever fell in with," sighed Walter. "If I hadn't met him I don t know what I should have done."

"Oh, you would have taken care of yourself," answered Paul, lightly. He had not yet forgotten the attack Haskett had sustained at Walter s hands.

Daybreak found the squadron running into the first of a series of fog-banks. At once the speed of each warship was reduced, and presently it became necessary to use the fog-horns and ship-bells. In the meantime all hands were put through several drills, "to get them into fighting trim," as the officer of the deck explained. The drills lasted until dinner time, and in some way they made Walter feel much better. As a matter of fact, his spell of seasickness was of short duration, and once gone, the malady never returned.

"I'm a fine specimen of a Jackie, am I not?" he said to Caleb, with a faint smile, on first presenting himself. "Why, a Spaniard could knock me over with a feather."

"Don't you go for to find fault with yourself," was the old gunner's reply. "I've known men who have been on the ocean for years to get sick the first day out. It's something they can't overcome, try their best. Why, I saw several officers of the marines as sick as so many dogs."

Mess over, Walter went on deck for a breath of fresh air. They had just left a fog-bank and were standing out boldly into the ocean. The youth sauntered slowly forward as far as the rules permitted.

"Sail O!" came suddenly from the military mast.

"Where away?" demanded the officer on the bridge.

"Dead ahead, sir."

"Is she flying any flag?"

"I think not, sir."

"What does she look like?"

"I can't make out very well, for she is running into the fog. I don't know but that she looks a bit like a warship," continued the lookout, after some hesitation.

Without delay Commodore Schley and Captain Cook were notified. A brief consultation took place, and it was decided to pursue the unknown craft and find out what she was and where she was going.