Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII


IN WHICH THE "MERRIMAC" IS SUNK


"It's too bad we can't get places on the Merrimac," observed Walter to Si, as the two walked to their quarters after the selection of men had been made. "If Lieutenant Hobson succeeds in getting the collier up in the harbor entrance and sinking her, it will be a big feather in his cap."

"My idea is that the heavy guns of old Morro will blow the Merrimac clean out of the water before she gets within quarter of a mile of where she is to be sunk," answered the Yankee lad. "Those on board are running the greatest risk of their lives."

"But the glory, Si!"

"No glory if you're killed."

"But you said you would go."

"So I would—but I wouldn't expect to come back alive. I'll wager we never see Hobson again, nor none of his men."

The fierce heat of the day had given Walter a headache. As evening came on it grew worse, and he was not able to sleep during the night.

"I hope I'm not getting the Cuban fever," he remarked to Caleb, who had offered several simple remedies ready at hand.

"Better report and go on the sick list," advised the old gunner. "If it's fever, the sooner you take it in hand the better."

At first Walter demurred, but finally, as the ache in his head began to creep all over him, he reported to one of the surgeons. "I don't want to go into the sick bay," he said, "but I wish you would give me something."

"Yes, you need something," was the answer. "We don't want any men to get down so soon. We may have to stay on the blockade here for some time, if Cervera refuses to come out and fight us."

"Or we block him in with the wreck of the Merrimac," said Walter, with a faint smile.

"Oh, that will be only a temporary check, to give Admiral Sampson time to get his fleet into shape and give the army authorities time to send on an army of invasion. The army is already gathering at Tampa," replied the surgeon.

The medicine was forthcoming, and Walter was at once given a big dose and told to repeat every two hours. "It has quinine in it and will make your ears ring and your head buzz, but that won't hurt you," said the surgeon. "If you feel worse by to-morrow morning, report to me again."

This was at eight o clock. By noon Walter felt as if a buzz saw was in full operation in his head, while he could not hear at all. But he continued to take the medicine, and rested in a hammock slung up in the coolest spot to be found between decks.

"Oh dear!" he murmured, when left alone. "How my head does spin around! If I get very sick, whatever will become of me?" And he buried his face in his jacket sleeve, to suppress a groan that was bound to come.

By nightfall he was worse, if anything, and both Caleb and Si advised him to go into the sick bay for further treatment. But he shook his head. "No, I reckon I can stand it till morning," he said. "There may be a turn for the better by that time."

Midnight found him on deck, under the impression that the fresh night air would do him some good. To tell the truth, he was hardly responsible for what he was doing, for his head was in a worse whirl than at any time previous. He staggered to the side and leaned over. The war ship rose and fell on the bosom of the ocean, and the water danced and twinkled before his eyes. Nobody was near him.

How it all happened he could never tell afterward. He must have leaned over too far, or slipped, for suddenly he seemed to awake as by a shock, and felt himself going down and down into the greenish element which washed up against the Brooklyn's sides. He tried to scream, but his mouth filled with water and he could only splutter.

When at length he arose to the surface, the waves had carried him a hundred feet away from the ship. He tried to cry out, but he was too weak to utter more than a whisper. He threw out his hands and began to swim in a mechanical way. But instead of carrying him back whence he had come, the mighty waves lifted him closer and closer to shore.

Ten minutes had passed, and Walter felt that he could keep up no longer, when he came into contact with a large box which had at one time been filled with naval stores, but which, on being emptied, had been thrown overboard from one of the warships. The box was over four feet in length and built of heavy slatting, and afforded a fair degree of buoyancy. Lying across the top of the receptacle he floated on, wondering in a bewildered way how this strange adventure was going to end.

"If only I could get to one of our ships," he thought. "If I don't, I must either drown or else be cast up on the coast, in which case the Spaniards will most likely capture me. If I—Oh, there is a ship now!"

Walter was right; a two-masted vessel was bearing directly down upon him. The vessel carried no lights and moved along as silently as a ghost.

"I'll be run down!" was the boy's agonizing thought, when, on coming within a few hundred feet, the craft began to turn in a small circle. Then, when halfway around, her engines came to a stop and she drifted idly on the waves.

A chain was dangling from the vessel's stern. It was but three yards away, and making a frantic leap Walter clutched it and hung fast. Scarcely had this been accomplished than the steamer moved off again, dragging him behind her.

In his weak state it is a wonder that Walter was not compelled to relinquish his hold; but life is sweet to us all, and he hung on grimly, and setting his teeth, began to climb up the chain hand over hand. In a few minutes he reached the taffrail, fell, rather than climbed, over, and dropped unconscious on the deck.

How long he lay in this state Walter did not know. He came to his senses to find himself being shaken by somebody bending over him.

"What are you doing here?" was the rough demand. "Don't you know that all of the regular crew were ordered off at three o'clock?"

"I—I—where am I?" stammered Walter, sitting up.

"Where are you? Don't you know?"

"No, sir."

"You're on board of the Merrimac."

"The Merrimac!" echoed the boy, and attempted to rise to his feet. He was still very weak, but otherwise his involuntary bath had done him much good.

"Exactly; the Merrimac. How dare you remain on board against orders?"

"I didn't remain on board. I—I fell off of my own ship, the Brooklyn, and came near drowning, when this vessel came along and I managed to catch hold of a chain that is dragging over the taffrail. I climbed up and then—then I don t remember anything more."

"Humph! that's a likely story. How did you happen to fall overboard?" went on the man, who was one of the volunteers on this never-to-be-forgotten expedition.

In a few words Walter told him. By this time the youth felt stronger, and got up on his feet. "I hope I shan't be in the way," he said, as he concluded.

"You had better keep out of the way," was the grim return. "Come forward, and I'll report the matter to Lieutenant Hobson. If you have to go in with us, the best thing you can do is to strip off your clothing, and buckle a life preserver around you-just as the rest of us have done. Of course if you were on the Brooklyn you know what we intend to do, and let me tell you we've some mighty hot work ahead of us." And throwing him a life preserver, the man stalked off, leaving Walter standing on the forward deck of the collier in the darkness.

It was a little after three o clock in the morning, and the Merrimac was headed north-northeast, directly for the harbor entrance. From far ahead shone a Spanish flashlight, located on a hill, and by steering for this, Lieutenant Hobson knew the craft would be taken just where he wanted her.

Walter was but lightly attired, and without stripping off any more clothing he placed the life preserver around him, under the arms. "When the Merrimac goes down, we may not even have the catamaran to fall back on," he thought.

Boom! It was the report of one of the Spanish guns on shore, and a heavy shot whizzed over the bridge of the Merrimac, where Lieutenant Hobson and the helmsman were standing, and fell into the waves on the starboard side. The aim was so close that the wind from the shot carried off the helmsman's cap!

Other shots soon followed, and in the excitement of the moment Walter's presence on board was forgotten. The Merrimac was now running at a tremendous rate of speed, her fires roaring fiercely and her boilers threatening to burst at any instant. Quivering from stem to stern under such high pressure, she shot into the harbor entrance and straight for the narrowest part of the channel. By this time the Spanish guns from all sides were sending down on her a shower of shot and shell, awful to contemplate. Seeing he could do nothing, Walter ran for the shelter of one of the companionways.

"Put the wheel hard a-port!" came the order from the bold commander, who, if he was excited did not show it. "Lively now!"

"Ay, ay, sir!" came from the helmsman, and the wheel went over, and was lashed fast.

"She isn't coming over!" came another cry, a moment later, and while shot and shell were flying, in all directions.

"What's the matter there? Charette, go down and look at the steering gear."

At once Charette ran off at his best speed. He was gone but a moment, and came back all out of breath.

"One of the rudder chains has been shot away, sir," he reported.

"Shot away!" came from several. "That's bad."

To this Hobson did not answer, but instantly ordered the engines stopped. "And open the sea-valves and come up," he added. "There is not a minute to lose now, lads, if we want to sink her and escape alive."

Morro Castle and the battery opposite had heretofore been firing alone, but now came shots from Smith Cay, up the harbor, and from a Spanish warship which was bearing down upon the scene.

"We must fire the mines now!" Walter heard somebody say. "Fire them as closely together as possible, and then make for the starboard side amidships."

This order had scarcely been given when the wires attached to the mines were touched off. A sullen roar from beneath the Merrimac followed, and the vessel was thrown high up in the air, while great columns of water spouted up on every side. Then slowly but surely the collier began to sink.