Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 15



From Key West the Flying Squadron set sail direct for Cienfuegos. The Brooklyn, Massachusetts, Texas, and Scorpion left together, and were followed, twenty-four hours later, by the Iowa, mentioned in the previous chapter, and by the Castine and the collier Merrimac.

Cienfuegos is a town of good size lying on a small bay on the south coast of Cuba, about mid-way between the eastern and western extremities. For several days the Navy Department had been watching, or trying to watch, the movements of the Spanish squadron, satisfied at last that it was somewhere in Cuban waters. One report had it that Admiral Cervera was at Cienfuegos, another that he was at Santiago de Cuba, many miles to the eastward. Commodore Schley was now sent out to bring the truth to light, were it possible to do so.

The rainy season, as it is termed, was at its height in this vicinity, and the showers came down nearly all day, striking the hot metal decks, and converting the water into something closely resembling steam. It was so muggy and uncomfortable that hardly any of the jackies could sleep, and more than one poor fellow was overcome and had to be carried to the sick bay for treatment.

"If that Spanish squadron has passed Santiago and Cienfuegos, and is crawling up around the western turn of Cuba, it won't be long before we see some hot work," observed Caleb, as he lounged at a porthole, devoid of any clothing but his shirt and trousers.

"Any kind of work would be hot," said Walter, laughingly. "Why, I think a fellow could cook eggs on deck."

"Puts me in mind of a voyage I took to South America," put in Si, who had just soused his head into a bucket of water, and was dripping from nose, ears, and chin in consequence. "We lay off the mouth of the Amazon for two days, waiting to get on a cargo of rubber. It was right under the equator, and the tar just poured out of all our seams. One afternoon I ran across the deck in my bare feet, for I was taking a swim, and as true as I live I blistered my feet."

"Oh, that's nothing," returned Caleb, dryly. "I was under the equator once, off the coast of Columbia in the bark Sally D. The captain let us go fishing in the jolly-boat. We caught about a dozen fish and threw 'em in the bottom as fast as they came in, and when we got back to the bark hang me if the first two fish we had brought up weren't baked as nice as you please, all fit for the captain's table." And Caleb turned away and began to whistle softly to himself, while Si continued his ablutions without another word. Among old sailors, "matching yarns" is a constant pastime, and the stories sometimes told would shame even a Baron Munchausen.

The watch on board of the warship was now more strict than ever, and the men slept at their guns, sometimes not seeing a hammock for several nights. Everybody, from the captain down to the apprentices, felt that a crisis could not be far off.

It must not be imagined that while Commodore Schley was skirting the southern coast of Cuba, the northern coast was neglected, for such was not the case. The blockade of Havana and vicinity still continued, and in addition Rear-Admiral Sampson took his own flagship, the New York, and several other warships, and sailed eastward, thinking to occupy the St. Nicholas Channel. Thus, if Admiral Cervera tried to gain the vicinity of Havana by the northern coast, he would be likely to fall in with Sampson; if he took the southern way, Schley would intercept his path. By keeping his ships in the St. Nicholas Channel Sampson remained ever ready to dash northward should the Spanish destroyers take a new course and show themselves along our own coast.

"We are coming in sight of land," cried Walter, toward nightfall, two days after leaving Key West. "I suppose this is some port on the southern coast of Cuba."

"It is Cienfuegos Bay," returned Caleb. "I just heard one of the officers say so. We're to lie at anchor until morning, and then perhaps the fun will commence."

At this announcement Walter's heart beat quickly, and it must be admitted that he did not sleep a wink that night for speculating on what the morrow might bring forth. In this particular, his thoughts were not far different from those of every one else on board.

Daybreak brought more rain, and the big war ship rode on the long swells of the ocean grim and silent. Not far away lay the Texas, and several newcomers could be seen approaching from a distance. "This looks like business," observed Si to Walter, and the boy nodded.

Immediately after breakfast the signal was hoisted to clear ship for action, and once more the jackies rushed to their various places and got into fighting trim. Then the great engines of the Brooklyn began to work, and they crept slowly toward the entrance to the harbor.

"If Cervera is there, he keeps himself pretty well hidden," remarked one of the officers, within hearing of Walter. "I don't see anything that looks like a warship."

Presently the flagship came to a halt, and the Texas steamed past her and quite close to the harbor. Here the Spaniards had a small land battery, but it kept silent. The inner portion of the bay was hidden from view by a high spur of land.

What to do next was a problem. If the Spanish squadron was really there, it would be foolhardy to rush in and do battle while the enemy would have the support of the shore battery. Commodore Schley thought the matter over and, ever on the alert, decided to play a waiting game.

Sunday passed without anything unusual developing, and so did the day following. The strain on the men at the guns was great, for they were on duty constantly. Night and day the bosom of the outer bay was closely watched, for it was known that Cervera had with him one or two torpedo-boat destroyers, and these were dreaded more than anything else.

"Let one of those torpedo destroyers get near us, and we'll go up as quickly as did the Maine," said Caleb. "I'm not afraid of the dagos, but let me get out of the way of a torpedo boat every time." And this opinion was shared by all Walton s messmates.

"There's another boat coming up," announced Si, at six o'clock on Tuesday morning. "Walton, what do you make her out to be?"

"She's the Marblehead," was the old gunner's answer, after a long look at the craft. "And she's got despatches for the commodore," he added, as the signal went up and a small boat put off for the Brooklyn. Soon Commander McCalla of the Marblehead came on board, and a long conference with Commodore Schley resulted, after which the newly arrived officer departed for his own warship with all possible speed. McCalla's mission was to communicate with the Cuban insurgents who were encamped near Cienfuegos, with a view to ascertaining if Admiral Cervera's ships were really in the harbor.

The morning passed quietly, and by noon the Marblehead and her commander returned. The Cuban spies had made an investigation, and not a single ship of war belonging to Spain had been found, outside of a little harbor vessel of small moment.

It was now thought that if Admiral Cervera was not at Cienfuegos he must either be on his way hither or at Santiago. Accordingly, toward evening, the squadron received orders to sail for Santiago.

"We're off for Santiago Bay," said Caleb. "And if we don't find the dagos there, I'll give up where they are. Perhaps they have gone back to Spain." He continually alluded to the Spaniards as dagos,—a term which became quite common among soldiers and sailors during the war, although many referred to the enemy as the Dons.

It had cleared off, and the sun shone down fiercely on the deck and elsewhere. Inside of the steel turrets the air was stifling, and no one could remain at his post over a couple of hours. From below, the engineers, firemen, and coal-heavers came up constantly for a whiff of fresh air.

"We're badly enough off," remarked Walter. "But look at those poor chaps. Why, some of the firemen look ready to melt."

"Yes, and the worst of it is they never get any credit when it comes to a battle," added Caleb. "Now to my mind, the engineer who sticks to his engine during a battle, obeying orders and running the risk of having a shot plough through a boiler and scald him to death, is just as much of a hero as the chap behind a gun—and in one way he's more of a hero; for if the ship should start to sink, a gunner has got the chance to leap overboard and swim for it, while the man below is likely to be drowned like a rat in a trap."

"And the coal-heavers work harder than negroes," put in Paul. "Just think of the tons and tons of coal they shovel every twenty-four hours when we are under full steam. I'm quite certain such work would break my back."

"Oh, life on a warship isn't all a picnic," was Si's comment. "If a fellow enlists to have an easy time of it, he deserves to get left. I enlisted to serve Uncle Sam, and I m going to do it—if Providence will give me the chance.

As Commodore Schley sailed toward Santiago from Cienfuegos, Rear-Admiral Sampson, gaining additional information concerning the whereabouts of the enemy, moved slowly and cautiously east ward toward Cape Maysi and the Windward Passage. Thus, if Cervera was where he was supposed to be, he was bound to be discovered before many more days passed.

"Do you know anything about Santiago Bay?" asked Si of Walter. "I've travelled to South America and Central America, but I never stopped anywhere in Cuba."

"I know only what the geographies teach," answered Walter. "It is on the south side of Cuba, a hundred and some odd miles from the eastern end of the island. It is said to be a very pretty harbor, about eight miles long and one to two miles wide. Santiago, which is the next largest Cuban city to Havana, is located on the northeast shore. I heard Caleb say that the entrance to the harbor is shaped like the neck of a crooked bottle, and that on the eastern side there is a strong fortress called Morro Castle, and opposite to it a heavy concealed battery called La Zocapa. Somehow, it's in my mind that we'll see a good deal of the harbor before we come away," concluded the boy.