Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 27

CHAPTER XXVII


THE SPANISH FLEET AND ITS COMMANDER


"Now that we are so anxious to catch Admiral Cervera and smash his ships, I should like to know something about the man and his command," remarked Walter, a few days after the army had landed. He addressed George Ellis, who, in his quiet, gentlemanly way had taken a liking to the youth.

The two were seated in the shadow of one of the forward guns, taking it easy, for the morning drills were over and it yet lacked half an hour to mess time. Slowly the Brooklyn rose and sank on the waves of the Caribbean Sea, four miles outside of Santiago Bay. This was the visual distance in the daytime. At night, despite the danger of an attack by a torpedo destroyer, the warships came in much closer, and the glare of the searchlights never left Morro Castle or the narrow harbor entrance.

"I know very little about Admiral Cervera excepting that he has been in the Spanish navy for many years and is said to be one of the finest gentlemen that ever trod the deck of a ship. Why he ever allowed himself to be bottled up like this is more than I can understand. I imagine, though, that he was on his way to Havana, to break the blockade there, when he heard that Admiral Sampson was coming for him one way and our commodore the other, and he concluded that the best thing he could do would be to scoot into the bay yonder and save himself and possibly Santiago. They say he carried a lot of guns and ammunition for the Spanish army. He can distribute those as well at Santiago as he can at Havana, for I understand General Toral here is as hard up as Blanco is at the other city."

"And what of the ships under him? They say he has six. Do you know how big they are?" went on Walter.

"He has four warships and two torpedo destroyers," answered the chief yeoman. "I got that straight from Lieutenant Blue, who went ashore for Admiral Sampson, made a detour of seventy miles, and from the top of a high hill saw the ships in the harbor through his powerful glasses."

"Somebody said all the big ships were armored cruisers."

"That is true, and three of them, the Vizcaya, the Almirante Oquendo, and the Maria Teresa, are sister ships, of seven thousand tons each. Each is about three hundred and sixty feet long and can speed at eighteen to nineteen knots an hour. They carry about five hundred men each, and every one has a main battery of two 11-inch Hontoria and ten 5.5-inch Hontoria guns, with a secondary battery of eight 6-pounders, ten 1-pounders, several machine guns; and they also carry six torpedo tubes each."

"And what of the fourth cruiser?"

"She is the Cristobal Colon, the fastest of the lot, even though her displacement is two hundred tons short of the others. They say she can run eighteen knots an hour with ease and twenty knots if she is put to it. Her armor belt is six inches thick, alongside of twelve inches on the other cruisers. She also carries about five hundred men, and she has a main battery of two 10-inch and five 6-inch guns, and a secondary battery of rapid-firing rifles, 6 and 10 pounders and two Maxim guns. Her torpedo tubes number four."

"Then they are no small fry to battle with," observed Walter. "When their batteries break loose they ought to do some talking."

"They will talk. We mustn't expect any walk over, if Cervera ever comes out of his hole."

"And what of the two torpedo boats?"

"They are sister ships, the Pluton and Furor, each of three hundred and eighty tons displacement. They say that each has a speed of twenty-seven knots an hour, and both are equipped with the latest appliances for such crafts, carrying regular, automatic, and rapid-fire guns, and also fourteen-inch Schwartzkopff torpedo tubes."

"I should say they would be good things to keep out of the way of," exclaimed Walter.

"We've got our eyes wide open for them, lad. To be sure, one or another of them may play us some dirty trick of a dark night—but that is one of the risks to be taken in war times," concluded the chief yeoman, as a petty officer called him away.

All on board the warships waited eagerly for news from the army of invasion. It was known that the Rough Riders had had a severe skirmish at La Guasima, but that was all, so far as the jackies went. Possibly the officers knew more, but if so, they kept the knowledge to themselves.

"Another dull week will come to an end to-morrow," remarked Si, as he and Walter were on their way to the mess table. "Oh, but I'm sick of laying around looking at old Morro. If only those ships would come out, we'd sink them all in less than two hours; I feel sure of it."

Si's growl was becoming a universal one, even the officers grumbling a good deal. All wanted to fight Cervera's fleet, and the more the Spanish admiral kept himself hidden, the more angry did they become. Many almost begged to have their ships forced into the harbor, no matter what the consequences—they stating that anything would be better than this everlasting waiting. The blockade had now lasted five long weeks.

In the meantime, matters elsewhere had not been idle. Chagrined over Dewey's victory at Manila, Spain resolved to send another fleet to the Philippines by way of the Suez Canal, taking, for this purpose, almost all the warships left in her home waters. As soon as this was brought to light, our own naval board decided to send an American fleet to the coast of Spain, and Commodore Watson was placed in command of the expedition. But before the American warships could sail, the Spanish fleet, having gone through the Suez Canal, turned back for home, and the American warships remained where they were, and Dewey was left unmolested at Manila, so far as Spanish operations were concerned, although the insurgents under General Aguinaldo soon began to give him a great deal of trouble.

Saturday morning dawned misty but hot. From a great distance could be heard the rattle of musketry, showing that the army of invasion was slowly but surely advancing.

"They're in it all right enough—" began Si, when there came a sudden call to quarters, and at the same time the Brooklyn's engines began to move and she headed for Santiago Bay. "Hullo, what does this mean?"

"Perhaps we are going to force an entrance!" ejaculated Walter. "Hurrah, if we do!"

"Better not count your chickens before they are hatched," remarked Caleb, who had just rolled from his hammock.

They soon learned the truth of the movement. The shore batteries were again to be bombarded, and this time not even Morro Castle was to be spared, it having been ascertained that Hobson and his men had been removed to safe quarters.

"Down with old Morro; we'll show the Dons a thing or two!" was the cry, and off rushed the men to their guns, their eyes brighter than they had been for many a day, for Morro Castle had been an eyesore to all.

The flagship New York was leading the fleet, which, as before, soon ranged up in a semicircle. Inside of five minutes every vessel had her station.

"Cast loose and provide!"

The now familiar cry was scarcely needed, for the jackies were already at Work, stripped, as before, of all their superfluous clothing. Shot and powder were quickly handled, and the flagship began the firing, which immediately broke forth in all its fury, deafening everybody and sending forth a great cloud of smoke which hung over the war ships like a pall.

"Morro's flag is down!" came the shout. It was true. A gunner on the noble Oregon had taken careful aim and cut the flagstaff in two. The falling of the Spanish emblem was greeted with a wild cheer. At once the Spaniards tried to put another flag up, but it was some time ere they succeeded, and then it was a tiny affair, hardly visible excepting with a glass.

"We'll try for that battery yonder!" exclaimed Caleb, during the height of the bombardment. "I think those fellows have been firing this way ever since they started."

He had scarcely spoken when bang! something hit the armor plate directly under their gun, hurling the gunner, Walter, and several others back by the shock.

"They've struck us, but the shot didn't pierce our armor," remarked Caleb, calmly, as he got up. "All right, you villains, here's the compliment returned!" And he made his preparations with care.

The shot following was the best they had yet placed. It struck into a battery on the west shore of the harbor entrance, ploughed up the foundation of a six-pound gun, and sent the piece flying high into the air.

"My, but that was immense!" cried Walter, while Si and the others cheered wildly. "Give them another!"

And they did give the battery another, and then a dozen more, until at last the place was silenced, showing that what was left of the gunners had fled.

At half-past seven came the order to cease firing, but it was fully twenty minutes later before the last of the warships guns were discharged. By this time not only the batteries but also old Morro were filled with gaping holes. It is more than likely that if the fleet had sought to enter the harbor at this time it could have done so with comparative ease.

The work at the gun had been very hot, and as soon as they were able to do so, Walter and Si scurried to the upper deck to get a bit of fresh air.

"It fairly stews the fat out of a fellow," grumbled Si, running the perspiration from his forehead with his forefinger. "I'll bet I'm ten pounds lighter than before this blockade began."

"Never mind; it's one of the fortunes of war—" began Walter, when of a sudden a strange whir and a singing sound filled the air. It was a shell, fired from Morro Castle, just as the Brooklyn was turning away.

"Look out!" yelled Si, and dropped down, but the words were still on his lips when the shell exploded, sending the fragments flying in all directions. Both boys were struck, and with a groan Walter fell senseless to the deck.