1476335Fighting in Cuban Waters — Chapter 18Edward Stratemeyer



Although the Merrimac had been blown up and was sinking, the Spaniards continued to fire upon her without interruption, and as before, the air was filled with solid shot, bursting shells, and the whistling of leaden messengers from rapid-firing rifles.

The order to gather at the starboard was a wise one, for this spot was the best protected on the deck, as the port side was settling rapidly. To take to a small boat or the catamaran would have been the height of foolishness, for a strong searchlight was being thrown on the scene, and the men would have been picked off by the Spanish gunners at will.

With the others Walter rushed to starboard and found a hiding-place close to the rail. "I wonder what will happen next," he muttered. He was certain that something would take place

With a Final Lurch the Merrimac Went Down.

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very soon, for the waves of the harbor channel were already rolling over a portion of the Merrimac's deck.

A few anxious minutes passed, when suddenly the doomed collier gave a heavy list to starboard, and Walter found himself sliding along the rail and unable to stop himself.

"Hold on!" shouted somebody. "Who is that?"

Still weak, and with the flying spray drenching his face, Walter could not answer, and in a second more the questioner had disappeared amid the gloom, smoke, and flying water. Again came a lurch of the collier, and Walter was hurled flat and sent spinning against the smoke-stack. As he arose he saw Lieutenant Hobson and his men climbing over the starboard rail. Realizing, even in his bewildered state of mind, that he could not do better than to follow them, he, too, made for the rail, going over at one point as the courageous commander of the expedition went over at another. The crew were swimming for the catamaran, which had been shoved off from the Merrimac's side, and Walter came after them. Hardly had the catamaran been gained, than, with a final lurch and quiver, the Merrimac went down, partly across the narrow channel, but not exactly in the position in which she would have been placed had not the rudder chain been shot away.

As the craft sank, a yell came from the Spanish battery nearest at hand, the gunners thinking they had sunk an American man-o'-war and not dreaming that the sinking had been done by those on board and purposely. But none of the Americans paid any attention to these cries, all thinking only of escape, now the work of the night was over.

A steam launch under the command of Ensign Joseph Powell had been moving up and down the harbor waiting for a chance to pick Hobson and his men up. But a Spanish picket boat lay between those on the catamaran and the launch, so escape in this direction was now cut off.

The float was still attached by a long rope to the wreck of the Merrimac, and the men were now ordered to remain where they were, clinging to the catamaran with only their heads showing above water. "If you try to swim away, the Spanish sharpshooters will pick you off as quick as a wink," was the word passed around.

Thus cautioned, all the brave crew remained where they were until daylight began to show itself. Then a large launch steamed up, carrying several oarsmen, half a dozen sharpshooters, and Admiral Cervera himself.

"Do you surrender?" came in Spanish, while every sailor on the catamaran was carefully covered.

"We surrender as prisoners of war," was Lieutenant Hobson s reply, and then he and his men were ordered to swim to the launch one at a time and give up their arms, if they had any. This was done, and the steam launch returned to the Reina Mercedes, one of the Spanish warships. Later on, Hobson and his men were sent ashore under a strong guard, marched up a hill to Morro Castle, and turned over to General Toral, the military governor of Santiago Province.

When he made the leap for the catamaran Walter was not as fortunate as those around him. He entered the water close to the Merrimac, and when the great collier sank, the suction drew him under, and he went so far down that he fancied he would never come up. His breath was gone, a gulp partly filled him with water, and when at last the surface of the bay was again reached he came up more dead than alive.

He set out to swim instinctively, the life preserver holding him up, although it had not been light enough to counteract the suction of the sinking ship. Where he was going he did not know, for the glare of the searchlight and the splashing of shots on the water was perfectly bewildering. "I'm lost!" he thought a dozen times. "O God, help me to get out alive!" And that prayer was answered, for presently his foot touched bottom and he saw land ahead,—a bit of sandy beach between Morro Castle and a battery located on Estrella Cove, for the tide was coming in, and had carried him up the harbor instead of down.

As Walter waded out of the water he heard several pickets shouting to each other in Spanish. Without waiting for them to come nearer, he dove out of sight in some bushes back of the beach, and then started to walk to a woods still further inland.

So far, the intense excitement had kept him up, but now came the reaction, and he felt as sick as he had while on the Brooklyn. His head began to spin and strange lights flashed before his eyes, while chills crept up and down his backbone. "I reckon I'm in for a spell of sickness, whether I escape or not," he groaned, and reaching the woods, threw himself down under a mahogany tree to rest.

Walter thought he could not sleep, but presently the pain became less and he sank into a troubled slumber. He roused up to find a tall, fine-looking negro shaking him. As soon as he opened his eyes, the negro began to question him in Spanish.

"I can't understand you," said the youth, and shook his head.

"Americano, mistair?" questioned the negro, and Walter nodded. "You come from big fight, maybe?" he went on, brokenly.

"What fight do you mean?"

"Fight down by Morro last night. Spanish sink your ship, maybe, not so?" And the negro laughed.

"Our men did the sinking. But who are you? a Spaniard?"

"No, me Cuban, Carlos Dunetta."

"My name is Walter Russell, but I suppose it might be Smith for all the difference it makes to you," replied Walter, moodily. "What do you intend to do? turn me over to the Spanish authorities?"

"To de Spanish? No, no!" Carlos Dunetta leaned forward. "Cuba libre! 'Member de Maine! Not so?" And he smiled broadly.

"Now you are talking!" ejaculated Walter, joyfully. "You are an insurgent, I suppose. Do you belong to General Garcia's troops?"

Again the negro leaned forward. "Carlos Dunetta spy for de general," he whispered. "Come, want to get away, must hurry!" And he took hold of Walter's arm.

Their course was directly into the woods, under broad mahogany and grenadillo trees, and over rough rocks overgrown with rank vines. Insects and bugs were numerous and spider-webs hung everywhere.

"Udder men all caught and taken to prison," said the Cuban as they progressed. "I hear dat from udder spy."

"Well, I'm not out of the woods yet," said Walter, seriously.

"Woods safe place in daytime," answered the negro, not catching his true meaning.

They had progressed less than half a mile when Walter began to lag behind. "I can't go any farther," he declared. "I've been sick and I'm about used up."

"Sick? What is de mattair?"

"I don't know—unless it is malarial fever."

At the word "fever" Carlos Dunetta drew down the corners of his broad mouth. "Fever? Dat is werry bad—Americano canno stand dat. Maybe I best carry you to Josefina's hut. Josefina she my sistair. She take care of you if so you be sick."

The tall negro took Walter upon his back with ease and continued on his way. Presently they reached a trail, and passing along this for the distance of a hundred yards, came within sight of a long, low hut, thatched with palm.

The negro gave a peculiar whistle, and immediately a short, fat negro wench put in an appearance, followed by a man of twenty-five or thirty. The man was fairly well dressed, and evidently a Cuban of Spanish descent.

"It is all right, Carlos!" cried the wench. "This is Señor Ramona."

"Señor Ramona!" exclaimed the negro, and rushing up he dropped Walter and took the outstretched hand of the Cuban gentleman. A long talk in Spanish, followed, of which Walter understood hardly a word. Yet he felt certain the pair were talking about the American warships outside of the harbor, the blowing up of the Merrimac, and about himself. Suddenly the negro ran back to him, at the same time calling the wench.

"You sick—I forget," he said. "Come; nice bed here." And he pointed to a grass hammock suspended from one of the rear corner posts of the hut to a near-by tree. "You lay dare; Josefina make good drink for you; den you feel bettair."

Walter was glad enough to accept the invitation, for standing unaided was now out of the question. As soon as he was in the hammock the negro woman ran off for a wet bandage, which she tied tightly over his forehead.

Carlos Dunetta evidently had an important message for Señor Ramona, for no sooner was the talk between the pair at an end, than the Cuban brought out a horse from the shelter of the trees, and dashed down the trail at a breakneck speed.

"Me watch, warn you if any Spaniards come," said Carlos, on returning to Walter's side. "You bettair rest, or get fever werry bad."

"Do you suppose there is any hope of my getting back to my ship?"

"De ship dat blow up?"

"No, a big warship out there," and Walter waved his hand in the direction of the coast.

At this, the tall negro shrugged his shoulders. "Carlos can take you to de shore—but no got boat. Maybe you swim, not so?"

"Well, hardly," answered Walter. "I may be a pretty good swimmer, but four or five miles is too much for any man."

The negro retired, and Walter lay back watching the woman, who had brought out several bags filled with herbs. Selecting some of the herbs, the woman steeped them in water, and poured the tea into an earthen bowl, sweetening the concoction with sugarcane ends. Bringing the bowl to Walter, she motioned for him to drink.

The youth had expected an unsavory mess, but he found the tea very pleasant to the taste, and ten minutes after he had taken half the contents of the bowl he was in a sound slumber, from which he did not awaken until nearly nightfall. In the meantime Josefina removed the life preserver and made him otherwise as comfortable as possible, proud to think she was serving un Americano who was battling against the enemies of her beloved Cuba.

"You had bettair come into de house now—night air werry bad for you," announced Carlos, as Walter sat up in the hammock and stared around him. "How feel now? weak?"

"I—I dreamed I was back on the Brooklyn and sailing for home," was the hesitating reply. "My head feels better, but I m afraid my legs have gone back on me," Walter went on, as on trying to stand he found he must support himself against the tree. "This is the queerest spell of sickness I ever had."

"Never mind—if only so be dat de fever is broken," said Carlos, seriously. "Come." And he about carried Walter into the hut. Usually negro huts in Cuba are dirty and full of vermin, but this was an exception. In her younger days, Josefina had worked for a titled lady of Santiago, and there had learned cleanliness quite unusual to those of her standing. In a corner of the hut was a pile of fresh sugarcane husks covered with a brown spread, and to this she motioned Walter, and here he rested until the following morning.