Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 24

CHAPTER XXIV


BACK TO THE "BROOKLYN" AGAIN


The steam launch was the neatest craft of the kind Walter had ever seen, and he had come in contact with a great number while sailing on Lake Erie. It was fifty-five feet long, about twelve feet wide, and as beautiful a boat as a designer could plan. It was manned by eight stalwart men, all well drilled to their duties, and carried in addition six marines, each of whom was a sharpshooter, and also a rapid-firing gun of small caliber.

The launch rode the waves like a thing of life and easily made ten miles an hour. Soon Guantanamo was left behind, and they began to creep up the coast in the direction of Baiquiri. In the bow was a lookout, who had a marine glass which was constantly turned shoreward.

"A flag!" said the lookout, about noontime, and immediately the launch came to a stop.

"Where is it, Parkhurst?" asked the officer in charge of the craft.

"Yonder, just below that stretch of rocks, sir," answered the lookout, and handed over his glasses. The commander of the launch took a long look, then ordered the craft turned to starboard, and they steamed into a little harbor not a great distance from a tiny Cuban settlement. A small boat was thrown out, the commander and two launch hands leaped in, and it at once advanced. Then those on the larger craft saw a dozen men rush from the shelter of some brush, one holding a white and the other a Cuban flag.

The small boat was beached in true nautical style, and the Cubans and Americans entered into a conversation lasting the best part of half an hour. Letters were exchanged, and then the party broke up as rapidly as it had gathered. Although Walter did not know it, the letter delivered by the American commander was for the rebel leader, General Calixto Garcia, while that received in return was for Admiral Sampson and General Shafter. All related to the landing of the army of invasion, now so close at hand.

The conference over, the launch darted on her way, and dinner was served, to the officers and sharpshooters first, and then to the crew and Walter. "Oh, we're doing some fine work along this coast," said one of the crew to the youth, while eating. "Those Dons will be greatly astonished some day—when our boys in blue fall on 'em."

It was night before the Brooklyn came into view, looking exactly as she had when Walter had so unceremoniously left her. How the youth's heart beat at the sight of his ship! How would those on board receive him, and what would they say when his story was told?

"Russell!" exclaimed the officer of the deck, when he came up over the side. "Why, we all thought you had fallen overboard and been drowned."

"I came pretty near being drowned," was the reply. "You can't imagine, sir, how glad I am to get back!"

"But where have you been?"

"I've been on the Merrimac, among the Cubans and the Spaniards, and in a Spanish prison, besides being down to Guantanamo Bay with the marines from the Panther, sir."

"Great Scott, boy, do you expect me to believe all that!" burst out the officer, in sheer astonishment.

"As you will, sir; it's true, though."

"But—but—let me see; you said you were on the Merrimac?"

"Yes, sir."

"And on shore among the Cubans, and then among the enemy?"

"Yes, sir."

"And then among the marines at Guantanamo Bay?"

"Exactly, sir. I escaped from a Spanish prison, and was lucky enough to fall in with the marines by accident. I fought with them too, sir."

"Russell, after you disappeared Surgeon Barker said you had been sick—had been troubled with some sort of fever in your head. Don't you believe you went out of your head entirely, and imagined all this?"

"No, sir."

"Well, I reckon that's the truth of the matter, and the best thing you can do is to turn yourself over to the surgeon again for further treatment. How is your head?" And the officer of the deck placed his hand on Walter's forehead. "Ah, rather hot, as I thought. You had better go to bed. And he turned away.

"I don't think I'll go to bed just yet," murmured Walter, and lost no time in reaching the berth deck. Here he came up behind Si and Caleb playing one of their favorite games of checkers, while Paul stood looking on.

"Crown that man," Caleb was saying, when he chanced to glance up, "Walter! or is it a ghost?" he fairly yelled, and leaped up, scattering board and men in all directions. "Walter, where on earth did you come from?" And he reached out his hand.

"It is Walter, back from the grave!" ejaculated Si, and grasped the other hand, while Paul caught the youth by the neck.

"We thought you were drowned!" said all three, simultaneously.

"They said you had gone out of your mind, and committed suicide," added Paul.

"Well, I didn't commit suicide, and I'm as well as ever," was the merry return. "But—but—I don't believe you'll think I'm telling the truth when I give you my story."

"That depends on what sort of a yarn you spin," returned Caleb, dryly. "Where have you been—sinking Cervera's fleet single-handed?"

"Not quite, but I've been pretty close to the fleet, and pretty close to the Spaniards." And dropping on a box Walter told his story, interrupted every few minutes by some newcomer who advanced to shake him by the hand, for since joining them he had made many friends among the jackies and petty officers.

"I don't wonder the officer of the deck wouldn't believe you, lad," remarked Caleb, when he had finished. "It's a big yarn; beats Jonah and the whale all to pieces—not but what that's a true story, seeing as how it's in the Good Book. You are certain you wasn't taken down with the fever while you were on shore?"

"Not enough to lose my mind."

"I believe Walter," put in Si. "But if I were you I wouldn't tell this tale to the others," he added in a lower tone. "They'd be jealous of you, you know."

"I don't care, I'm telling the simple truth," answered Walter, stoutly.

That evening word was passed to him to report at the captain's cabin, and he went, just as soon as he could slip on his best suit of clothing, wash up, and comb his hair, for on board of every man-o'-war a visit to "headquarters" is a big thing to any of the crew, and a "sprucing up" is, consequently, indispensable.

This was the first time Walter had visited the cabin of the Brooklyn, and the elegant surroundings immediately caught his eye. But in days gone by, before he had been compelled to live with the miserly Job Dowling, he had been used to a home furnished just as handsomely, and therefore the surroundings did not overawe him.

There was a small table in the centre of the cabin, at one end of which sat Commodore Schley, looking over a map of the Cuban coast. At the other end of the table sat Captain Cook, the firm and strict, yet well-beloved commander of the flagship.

"You sent for me, sir," said Walter, as he came in, "toed the mark," and saluted.

"You are Walter Russell?" asked Captain Cook, while Commodore Schley dropped the map and looked on with interest.

"Yes, sir."

"You have been absent from the ship ever since June the second, or third?"

"Yes, sir. But I couldn't help it. I was sick and fell overboard,—and I've had a whole lot of adventures since."

"So the officer of the deck tells me," answered the captain, dryly. He looked at the commander of the squadron. "Commodore Schley, would you like to ask Russell any questions?"

At this the commodore smiled and pulled meditatively at the little goatee he wore. "Russell, you can tell us your story in detail. But do not take over ten minutes," he said, and covered his eyes with his hands, as if in deep thought—one of his favorite attitudes.

Standing as before and still "toeing the mark," Walter told his story again, simply but forcefully. Whether his hearers were listening or not he could not tell, for not a word was said until he had finished.

Then, however, came a flood of questions concerning the spot at which he had landed after leaving the Merrimac, the names of the various Cuban and Spanish leaders that he had encountered, and the names of the marines with which he had fought. He was also questioned about the trails and their conditions.

"Could loaded wagons get over them, in your estimation?" asked Commodore Schley.

"Not very well, sir. In one place I saw an ox-team with a load of fruit, and the load was in danger of being dumped every minute. Some of the paths are not fit for a pack-mule to use."

"What of the Cubans you met? Were they well armed?"

"A few of them had guns, but most of them had nothing but their machetes, sir. Ammunition, I was told, was very scarce."

"What of food?"

"That was scarce, too." And Walter smiled. "A good eater would starve to death on what both the Spaniards and the Cubans have to offer."

"Do the Spaniards expect an army of invasion—that is, did you hear any talk on the subject?"

"I caught a few words, sir. I cannot speak Spanish myself."

Commodore Schley mused for a moment. "That is all," he said, addressing Captain Cook. "The boy has certainly had some remarkable adventures. He is better off than poor Lieutenant Hobson."

"That's true," responded the commander of the Brooklyn. He turned to Walter. "You can go, Russell; if we want you again, we will send for you."

"Yes, sir," was the youth s reply, and, saluting, he turned and left the cabin. The interview had been a very formal one, but he was proud to think that he had come into personal contact with his gallant captain and his equally gallant commodore.