Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 26



"Maybe I ain't hot and tired, Walter. I could sleep standing up and go in an ice-house and do it."

It was Si who spoke, as he was washing himself in a bucket of water set on the gun-track. The water had been fresh when Si began his ablutions and was now dirty, but the Yankee youth was still far from clean, for gun smoke and gun dirt have a disagreeable knack of getting into the pores of one s skin.

The bombardment had lasted over an hour and every land battery had been silenced. Yet, as the American ships drew away, one or two guns spat out spitefully after them.

"You'll feel all right in an hour or two, Si, answered Walter. "Oh, but wasn't it glorious! I could stand such bombarding for a week. What a sight it was when that powder magazine went up."

"Such a bombardment costs Uncle Sam a good many thousand dollars," put in Caleb, leaving the gun to get a drink of water from the tub standing by. "A week of it would put a big hole in his pocket, large as it is."

"I presume that is so, Walton. But say, why don't we run in and finish things, now we have knocked the batteries out?"

"Better ask the admiral, lad; he's the one who knows. Remember, we didn't touch Morro Castle nor that fortification on Smith Cay,—and those Spanish warships are somewhere around the bend, out of sight. I reckon the time ain't quite ripe for running in yet. If we run in now and do up that Spanish fleet, we haven't men enough to take Santiago itself. We must wait until Shafter arrives with his army."

"But why did we go at them at all for, then?"

"To keep 'em from becoming too well fortified. Now they'll have their hands full for several days repairing damages, and in the meantime our army may arrive—at least, I hope it does."

Si had been right about the heat. Even in the United States we had a spell of uncommonly hot weather, and down here, under the tropical sun, it was "sizzling," as Walter expressed it. During the noon hour no one thought of going on deck unless it was absolutely necessary. Refreshments of any kind were at a premium, and when a society known as the Colonial Dames sent on a number of boxes of oranges and lemons for distribution, the jackies could hardly contain themselves for joy. Cuban sugar was easily obtained, and lemonade and orangeade became the order of the hour.

Having been away on shore, Walter had not felt the monotony on shipboard so much, but those who had been on the blockade for nearly three weeks felt fearfully bored, especially as reading matter was scarce. Every scrap of a newspaper was saved and passed around, and poor Paul was collared and tossed up in a canvas hammock for having burnt the penny-dreadfuls previously mentioned.

"Mail! mail! mail!" such was the welcome cry which rang through the Brooklyn, several days after the bombardment just described. The news caused a commotion, and all who could rushed on deck and peered eagerly over the side as several heavy mail sacks were hoisted on board. Hardly anybody could wait for the mail to be distributed.

"Three letters for me, and a bundle of newspapers!" cried Walter, joyfully. "Here's luck and no mistake." He studied the various postmarks for a moment. "One from Boston, in my uncle s handwriting; one from Tampa, Florida, and that's from Ben; and one from—yes—Hong Kong, China, and that must be from dear old Larry. Now which shall I read first? Oh, I must hear from Larry first." And dropping on deck he tore open the letter from the other side of the world and perused it eagerly.

"Well, I never!" came from him, a few minutes later. "Si, Walton, listen to this! My brother Larry was with Dewey at Manila and helped whip the Dons! Oh, but Larry's the boy, after all! Just read the letter for yourselves." And he tossed it over.

Ben's letter came next, a rather short communication, for Ben had never been much of a boy to write.

"I am high private in the best company of the Seventy-first regiment of New York," he wrote. "We are down here at Lakeland, near Tampa, getting into condition to invade Cuba. At present things are slow and awfully hot, but we look for livelier times ahead and that keeps up our spirits. My chum, Gilbert Pennington, has joined Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders. I hope we go to Cuba together.

"I suppose you are quite a jack tar by this time and walk with a regular swagger. Larry is now a bigger fellow than either of us, for he was on the Olympia, Dewey's flagship, at the battle of Manila Bay. He wrote me all about it and said he would write to you, too, so I suppose you already have the letter.

"Uncle Job seems to be coming around to his senses—with giving both you and me permission to take care of ourselves. If I were you, I would not let up on him about going to Boston. Those heirlooms ought to be located, and he is the man who must push the work, even if it does cost a few dollars. I want father's watch, and I am sure you and Larry want the wedding rings.

"I have made many friends while in the army, but I also have two enemies, Gerald Holgait and Dwight Montgomery, and I am afraid that sooner or later they will try to play me some mean trick. However, I will be on my guard against them. Good-by and good luck to you."

"I hope Ben does come down," mused Walter. "And if he has any enemies of the Jim Haskett sort he had better look out. And then he turned to the communication from Job Dowling.

"My dearest nephew," began the guardian, and the term of address made Walter smile. "Your letter was a big surprise to me, and I ain't over it yet. That you should meet that thief gets me, and I don't understand it nohow. However, I packed my valise (my new one that cost me a dollar thirty-five, although Wilson says it is worth the money) and the next day I took the cars for Boston on a ticket I got at cut rates, although it was tolerably dear even at that. When I got to Boston I introduced myself to Mr. Phil Newell, the one-legged man you used to work for, and he took me to police headquarters, and now I am stopping here at a boarding-house, on Hammond Street. The police sent a detective to me, and he is going to find them heirlooms and that rascal of a Deck Mumpers, or whatever his name is, or know the reason why. If he finds the things, I'm to give him two hundred dollars in cash; if he don't, I pay his travelling expenses and no more. I wouldn't make such a bargain, but I know all you boys want the things back and I can't do the running after the thief. It's a waste of money, but it can't be helped. I want to show you and Ben and Larry that your uncle means well in spite of what you think of him.

"Newell says for me to tell you he will send you a bundle of newspapers. He says he knows how lonely life on board of a man-of-war gets sometimes. I hope you don t get hurt, if you get into a fight down in Cuba. Keep out of the sun, and write when you can, care of Newell's newsstand—for I stop there every day, after the detective's report. The detective hopes to get the things back before this week is out.

"Your loving uncle,
"Job Dowling."

The letter was a mere scrawl, horribly misspelled, and it took Walter fully quarter of an hour to decipher it. "Well, Uncle Job is turning over a new leaf," he thought, as he put it away. "I only hope that detective is all right, and don't hoodwink him into paying over his money for nothing. I reckon the letters Ben and I wrote him scared him pretty well, otherwise he wouldn't agree to pay two hundred dollars if the heirlooms are recovered."

Caleb had read Larry's letter with much interest. One portion of it, relating to the narrow escape from disaster during the battle, interested him not a little.

"Your brother had a close shave," he said. "To fire a gun when the breech is unlocked is a fearful thing."

"I don't see how it could happen on board of such a ship as the Brooklyn," answered Walter. "Everything works like clockwork here."

"You don t know how a thing would work in the middle of a battle, lad. Men get excited, and sometimes the jarring of the shots breaks the electric connections. More than likely that gunner was firing his piece by hand at the time. I've done the same, when the electric connection gave out. Last month I heard from a friend of mine, a gunner on the New Orleans, that used to be a Brazilian warship. They couldn't get their electric-firing apparatus into shape nohow, and had to do everything by hand,—and that is the time accidents occur. But somebody ought to have been watching that breech-block—your brother or somebody else." And then Caleb turned away to his duties.

Larry had written that he was now in Hong Kong, and did not know whether he would go back to Dewey's squadron, or return to the United States. "You'll hear from me again soon, one way or another," he added in a postscript.

For a day or two, all of Walter s spare time was spent over the newspapers his former employer had been kind enough to send him, but drills and other duties must not be neglected, and now that the army of invasion was hourly expected, discipline on the warships became more rigid than ever.

At last, one clear morning, a cry echoed and reechoed from one warship to another:—

"The transports are in sight! General Shafter's army has arrived!"

What a shouting, cheering, and yelling broke loose! Jackies flew to the deck, and up the military masts, and all other points of vantage. Yes, the news was true, over thirty transports were coming up from the direction of Guantanamo Bay, having rounded Cape Maysi some hours previously. The army of invasion had really arrived, nearly seventeen thousand strong. As that vast fleet came up, convoyed by fourteen warships, it presented a most imposing appearance, and guns boomed loudly to welcome it.

"Is the Seventy-first on board?" was Walter's question; and when at last he heard that it was, his heart beat quickly. "Ben must be there!" he thought. And Ben was there, and thinking of Walter at the same time.

"Santiago is doomed now," said Caleb, as he surveyed the scene.

"That's so," put in Si, tossing up his cap. "And old Cervera must either come out and fight, or haul down his colors. Oh, but won't we just smash things when that army is landed!"

And Walter agreed with both of them.

As soon as it could be arranged, the army was landed at Baiquiri, Siboney, and other points, Guantanamo being reserved as a coaling station for the warships. After the first landing, a strong detachment of regulars and Rough Riders was thrown out, and then followed the battles of La Guasima, San Juan, and El Caney, described in detail in the previous volume of this series. The soldier boys fought bravely, and Ben Russell and his chum, Gilbert Pennington, were well to the front, as we know.

The landing of the troops was no easy matter, for the surf ran high, and it was feared that the Spaniard might make a heavy onslaught at any instant. All the small boats of the warships were called into use, to land men and army stores, and while this work was in progress, many of the ships began to bombard various points along the coast, for the purpose of confusing the enemy, so that they would not realize the truth of what was taking place. The ruse succeeded, and during the landing the Spaniards remained comparatively quiet, hardly knowing in what direction to turn, or what to do, since the Americans were covering over a hundred miles of rugged coastline.

The debarkation at an end, the Brooklyn returned to her position on the blockade. All hands knew that something important would soon happen, and, consequently, everybody slept thenceforth "with one eye open." "Cervera must not be allowed to escape, night or day, under any circumstances," was the order passed, and it was to be obeyed to the letter.