Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 28

CHAPTER XXVIII


"THE ENEMY IS ESCAPING!"


"Is he dead, surgeon?"

"Oh, doctor, he'll live—say he'll live!"

Caleb and Si had followed the senseless form of Walter to the sick bay of the warship, the Yankee youth with the blood streaming from a deep cut in his left cheek. Both were in distress for fear their comrade was seriously injured.

"Yes, he'll live, but he has had a narrow escape," was the reply of the medical man in charge of the case. "The bit of shell scraped his left temple, as you see. Had it come a little closer, it would have gone through his brain."

Walter had been placed on a swinging cot, and now his head was bound up. Before this operation was over he opened his eyes.

"Whe—where am I?" he stammered. "Wh—what hit me?"

"Praise God, he's himself again!" murmured Caleb, reverently. "I was afraid he was a goner." "So was I," whispered Si. "And I don't know how I could spare Walter—he seems so like a brother."

"You must lie quiet for a while," said the surgeon. "You'll be all right by to-night." And then he gave Walter some medicine to brace his nerves, for they had been sadly shattered by the shock. The remainder of that Saturday was spent in bed.

On this memorable day the fighting on land had been even more fierce than on the sea. The army of invasion had taken the various outposts of Santiago, and the very city itself now lay at General Shafter's mercy. It was felt that a day or two longer would bring matters to a climax.

When Walter joined his comrades after supper he looked rather pale and scared. Almost silently he took Si's hand and wrung it.

"You are all right?" he whispered.

"No hurt to speak of," was the answer.

"But we were pretty close to death. Oh, Si, I never realized before how quick one could be put out of this world!"

"Neither did I, Walter. After this I m going to—well—I'm going to attend church more regularly, that's all. I never did take much to sech matters afore, like you do."

"It's always well to be prepared for death, Si—I'm going to try to be prepared after this," was Walter's low answer, and in the darkness of the berth deck they clasped hands again. They understood each other pretty well, these boys.

On Sunday morning the sun arose clear and strong, and early in the day an awning was spread over the quarterdeck of the flagship Brooklyn, and preparations were made to pass a hot day as comfortably as possible. "We will rest to-day," was the word passed around, and the jackies were not sorry, for the bombardment on Saturday morning had tired them out.

The Brooklyn rested about three miles out from Santiago Bay, and not far off lay the Texas. Between the two ships the long, green waves rose and fell, only making a soft slish-slish as they struck the vessels sides. The jackies lolled here, there, and everywhere, some talking, some reading old newspapers which from frequent handling would scarcely hold together, while a few studied the Bibles they had brought with them.

Presently from the Texas came the musical bugle-call for church service. "I'd like to go on board of her once," said Walter to Si, as they listened to the bell that followed. "She's certainly a fine-looking craft."

"Three bells," put in Caleb, as he came up. "Come on, lads, first Sunday in the month, remember, and the Articles of War have got to be hearkened to."

"That's so; I had forgotten," answered Walter. And he and the others dropped below, to don their cleanest and neatest "rigs," for general muster. Soon the call came, and from all parts of the big cruiser the men hurried to their various divisions, while the higher officers buckled on their swords, and the executive officers prepared to make their inspections.

On the quarterdeck, near the hatchway, sat Commodore Schley, musing thoughtfully, as he gazed over the waters in the direction of Morro Castle. The fighting commodore undoubtedly felt as hot as anybody, for he wore a thin, black alpaca coat and an equally thin, white summer hat. He was now in sole command of the blockading fleet, for the New York had carried Admiral Sampson many miles away, to confer with General Shafter. For some time there had been smoke in the harbor entrance in front of the warships, and many were wondering what it meant. "Must be a supply boat for the batteries," said several under-officers, and this theory was accepted as correct. Nevertheless, Commodore Schley glanced toward that smoke more than once.

"We are going to have general muster, commodore," announced Captain Cook, as he presented himself, followed by Executive Officer Mason, and the commander of the fleet pro tem. nodded. But those keen eyes were still bent shoreward.

Suddenly, from the forward bridge there came a yell through a megaphone, a yell that electrified everybody who heard it.

"After bridge there! Report to the commodore and the captain that the enemy's ships are coming out of the harbor!"

There was no necessity to report, for commodore, captain, and all others heard the cry. There was a second of silence. Could this news be true? Then came the command of the executive officer.

"Clear ship for action!"

"Hurrah! the enemy is coming out at last! To your guns, boys! Remember the Maine!" These and a score of other cries rang out, while men rushed hither and thither, dropping one garment or another as they ran, and kicking shoes right and left, for no Jackie will do work worth the counting unless he is barefooted. Everybody had on his best clothing, but that did not matter, and down into the grimy depths of the big vessel dropped the firemen, coal heavers, and all the rest of the "black gang," as they are termed, for steam must be gotten up in a tremendous hurry or the enemy would surely get away. Ton after ton of coal was thrown onto the fires, and the firemen coaxed and coaxed until the black lumps grew first red and then white, and converted the water in the boilers into high-pressure steam. "Fire up! for the sake of the ship's honor, fire up!" came in a hoarse cry down the speaking-tube, and the men did fire up as never before, until all were ready to drop from the terrific heat. And all this while the engineers were watching their engines, oiling this part and that, and making every pound of steam do its utmost to send the great armored cruiser dashing and hissing through the sea to that point where the Spanish fleet was trying to escape.

For Admiral Cervera could stand it no longer inside of the harbor. With the army of invasion at the very outskirts of Santiago, and with the American fleet beyond his bay of refuge, some thing must be done, and done quickly. He would run for it,—run at the top of his speed—and trust to luck, if not Providence, to get out of range and reach Cienfuegos or Havana. Santiago Bay was "too hot to hold him."

It was the big prow of the Maria Teresa that first showed itself, quickly followed by the Vizcaya, Oquendo, and Colon, with the torpedo boats Pluton and Furor bringing up closely in the rear. All were under a full head of steam, and the thick smoke shot up in heavy clouds from every funnel. For an instant all seemed to pause at the gate way to the sea, then, led by the Maria Teresa, they turned westward along the coast. To this side of the blockade now lay but three American warships, the Brooklyn, Texas, and the little Vixen. If he could only get out of range of these, Admiral Cervera felt that he would, for the time being at least, be safe.

Boom! It was a three-pounder, fired from the Iowa, lying some distance to the eastward of the Texas. She, too, was flying the signal, "The enemy is escaping," in red and white and blue flags. Beyond the Iowa, still further eastward, lay the pride of the western coast, the mighty Oregon, and it was this ship that first started up her engines in pursuit, having, by chance, a good head of steam up. And as the Oregon turned in one direction, the little Resolute turned in the other, to carry the news to the absent rear-admiral.

Three minutes had not yet passed, yet a complete transformation had occurred on the Brooklyn. Five hundred men had scuttled to as many different directions, battle hatches had been lowered, water-tight compartments closed, hose attached and decks wet down, fire tubs filled, magazines opened, hoists put into operation, and ammunition delivered to turret, decks, and to the fighting-tops. Down below, fire had been started under four fresh boilers, and a dozen different connections between engines made.

Nor was this all. Splinter nets had been spread as before, all useless woodwork thrown overboard, and the surgeons operating tables made ready. The warning gun from the Iowa was followed by a gun from the Texas, and then the Brooklyn helped to "open the ball" with her forward eight-inch guns. Another great naval battle, fully equal to that of Manila Bay, was now on.

"It's a question of do or die, boys!" cried Caleb, as he worked over the heavy gun before him. "Hustle now, as you never hustled before, or the dagos will get away. Now then, Polly, do the best you can!" And bang! went the gun, with a noise that was deafening. Ten minutes later Walter felt as if his hearing had left him entirely, so incessant was the firing.

The first fire from the enemy came from the Maria Teresa, and was an eleven-inch shell directed at the Brooklyn. Hardly had this been discharged when the Indiana, coming up behind the Iowa, took a long-range chance and sent a shell directly upon the Teresa's deck, doing not a little damage. Then the firing became general, and shot and shell was hurled in every direction.

So far, the Brooklyn had been headed directly for the harbor entrance, commodore and captain being intent upon cutting off the enemy's westward flight, if possible. This course soon brought the Maria Teresa, Vizcaya, and the Brooklyn into close proximity, and presently all were lost to view in a dense cloud of smoke, from which shot long streaks of fire, as battery after battery was discharged at close range.

"Give it to em!" was the cry that rang throughout the Brooklyn. "Don't let up on em! We must do as well as Dewey did, and better! Remember the Maine, and three cheers for Uncle Sam!" Such cries were truly inspiring, but presently the men became silent, as the work began to tell upon them, and they realized what a fearful task still lay before them.

"The second ship's flag is down!" was the welcome news which soon drifted down from the fighting-tops. It was true, the Vizcaya's big silk flag had been riddled completely and the halyard shot away; but soon another flag was run up. Later on the Brooklyn's flag also came down, but it did not remain so more than two minutes before a jackie had it up again.

The battle had but fairly begun, and the Brooklyn and the Maria Teresa were having it "hot and heavy," when suddenly the bow of the Vizcaya began to turn swiftly. At once a cry rang out. "That ship is going to ram the Brooklyn! See, she is turning full toward her!"

The warning proved true. The Vizcaya was turned fairly and squarely for Commodore Schley's flagship. Bells were ringing on board of her for "Full speed ahead." On and on she came, like a demon of the deep, in one wild, terrible effort to ram the vessel Walter was on and sink her!