Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 29

CHAPTER XXIX


THE DESTRUCTION OF THE SPANISH FLEET


"We are lost!"

"That ship will cut us in half!"

"Give her a broadside, boys, before we go down!"

These and a hundred other cries rang out, as the Vizcaya came leaping over the waves on her awful mission of death and destruction. Then gun after gun roared out, sending shot and shell on the enemy s deck. If this was their last hour on earth, these brave jackies were going to make the most of it.

But commodore, captain, and executive officer were all on the alert and were not to be caught napping. As the Vizcaya came on, the necessary orders were given, and the Brooklyn began to turn in a twelve-point circle to starboard. Like a flash she swept past the warship dashing on to destroy her, and then the command rang out, "Give her another broadside!" And the port guns, twenty in number, vomited out their death-dealing shots and shells, raking the Spanish deck from end to end, and killing and wounding a great number of sailors and officers. To this awful fire was added that from the Oregon, which now came up to assist the flagship. Realizing that the plan to ram the Brooklyn was a failure, the Vizcaya started west ward once more.

It was now high time to turn attention to the two torpedo-boat destroyers, Pluton and Furor, that were coming out of the harbor at a speed of twenty knots per hour. Once these destroyers gained the open sea, to catch them would be impossible. Like long, steel arrows glistening in the sunlight, they darted through the greenish waves and for a moment hid themselves behind their big sisters.

Then on came the Gloucester, a converted yacht, commanded by Lieutenant Wainwright. Wainwright had been executive officer of the Maine when she was blown up in Havana Harbor, and had vowed more than once to sink something if only he were given a chance. Like an avenging angel the Gloucester, but lightly armed, bore down upon the torpedo boats and sent shot after shot into them. Then the destroyers began to turn, as if to sink the little enemy who dared to molest them, but now it was too late, —the big warships were coming to the Gloucester's aid.

It was the Oregon and the Iowa that first came to the converted yacht's assistance, and as the destroyers turned, first one way and then another, as if to ram or to run, a perfect hailstorm of shot and shell landed on their sides and decks, churning up the water into a milk-white froth, and causing the destroyers to look like gigantic whales lashing themselves in their death throes. The noise was even greater than it had been before, and the smoke made the heavens above look as if a violent thunderstorm was at hand.

Finding they could not withstand such a combined attack, and with the Texas hurrying to the scene, the destroyers turned tail, as if to make for the shore. As the turn was made a huge shell, flying over the masts of the Gloucester, hit the Pluton directly amidship, and with a crash and a splutter she broke and sank, leaving the still living members of her crew struggling in the boiling waters for their lives.

Left to herself, the Furor again paused, like some wild animal seeking in vain for cover. She started to get behind the Oquendo, but, in spite of the fire from the shore batteries, the Gloucester went in after her, with every available gun doing its utmost, and fairly filling her with small holes. At last the destroyer could stand it no longer, and with a lurch she struck on a reef and began to break. In a moment more the water poured over her sides, and her crew was compelled to surrender. The instant the surrender was made, the converted yacht, from being an angel of vengeance, became an angel of mercy, and to gallant Lieutenant-commander Wainwright fell the honor of rescuing hundreds of wounded and drowning Spaniards who must otherwise have perished.

Such was the close of this running fight. At the front, the four big warships were, still trying to push on, with the Brooklyn, Oregon, Iowa, Texas, and Indiana in the chase. With a full head of steam the noble Oregon reached a position between Commodore Schley's flagship and the Texas, and every vessel in the line belched forth its messengers of death and destruction.

Presently a cry echoed throughout the squadron regarding the Oquendo. "She is on fire! See, she is burning in three places!"

The report was true. A shell had burst near the quarterdeck of the warship, and now high to the sky arose a column of yellowish red smoke. Then the flames burst out of her bow. In vain the Spaniards tried to man their fire-hose. A shower of projectiles from the fighting-tops of our own ships assailed them and drove them to shelter, while the big guns continued to "pump up" shot and shell as never before.

But the Oquendo was no worse off than the Maria Teresa, if as badly. She staggered on, and a few minutes later passed her sister ship as if looking for aid, when aid could not be given.

"The Maria Teresa is on fire!" was the next cry, but a few minutes later. "Down goes Cervera's flag! Hurrah, boys, we've got 'em on the run! Give it to 'em hot!"

Yes, the admiral's flag was down, and so was the mast that had held it. Would the Spanish emblem go up again? All watched anxiously, and meanwhile the Brooklyn continued to pour in her hottest fire.

"She's going ashore!" rang through the American flagship. "She's burning up!" and then came a heavy shot from the Brooklyn, another from the Texas, and staggering like a thing of life, the Maria Teresa ran for the beach, a mass of seething and roaring flames. Admiral Cervera's doom was sealed. Five minutes later the Oquendo was also cast on the shore.

Four of the enemy's ships had been laid low, but the great fight was by no means over. Shot and shell were flying around the Vizcaya and Cristobal Colon, but both warships kept on their way, the Colon slowly but surely forging to the front. Both Spanish ships were returning the Americans' hot fire, and many a shot hit the Brooklyn and many a shell burst over her deck. But as yet no serious damage had been inflicted.

But a calamity was at hand, as rapid in its execution as it was appalling. Near the forward eight-inch turret George Ellis was standing, watching the struggle of the enemy's ships to escape.

"Ellis, give us the range again!" shouted Captain Cook.

"I'll have it in a moment, captain," answered the chief yeoman, and took up his stadiometer. Making his calculation, he turned to Commodore Schley, who was but a short distance away. "It is fourteen hundred yards to the Vizcaya, sir," he said.

These were the last words he ever uttered, for an instant after there was the whistling of a shell, and those standing around were horrified to see Ellis's headless body drop to the deck below. The poor fellow had been killed instantly, in the very midst of his duties. What a shock this was to those about him I will leave my readers to imagine. Never until now had they realized what this awful war meant. "Poor Ellis, he was such a fine man!" murmured one comrade as he turned away. And then his face grew even more sober. "But he s the first on board of this ship. What of those poor Dons yonder, who are going down by the wholesale?" And though they were enemies, his heart beat in sympathy for the poor wretches who were struggling madly amid shot, shell, fire, and water for their lives. Fortunately the Iowa was already coming to the succor of the defeated ones.

"We're going to catch it now, lad," remarked Caleb to Walter, as he pointed through a rift in the cloud of smoke hanging over the gun. "There are two of the enemy's ships, and they are both going to pound us. Where in the world are our other vessels?"

"The Oregon is coming up!" came from the after-deck, a minute later. "And the Texas isn't far behind."

Around the gun it was suffocating, and every hand was ready to drop. Indeed, fainting fits were frequent, but the most that could be done for a sufferer was to either throw some water over his head or yell out to the surgeons' helpers to carry the men to the ward room for treatment. As the Brooklyn was struck here and there, splinters began to fly, and a number were injured, although no one seriously.

The Texas had done wonderful work on the Maria Teresa and the Oquendo, and now did her best to keep to the front of the chase. But the speed was too great for her, and gradually she dropped behind, although still continuing to throw shot and shell after the Vizcaya that had dropped some distance behind the Colon. It was now apparent to all that if any vessel was going to get away it was to be the Colon, for her speed was greater than the Vizcaya and as yet she had hardly been touched.

"The Vizcaya, boys, the Vizcaya!" came the cry from the quarterdeck. "Don't let her screen the Colon!"

"We'll pound 'em both!" was the answer. "Remember the Maine! Remember Manila Bay!"

And then the mighty guns of the Brooklyn and Oregon roared out swifter than ever, and the Vizcaya, doing her best to sink one or the other of the American warships, was raked as if passing through a blizzard of fire, until her men were forced again and again from their posts, and at last the guns were abandoned. Then fire caught the craft in its awful embrace, and rolling from side to side, she, too, sought for a harbor of refuge, but found none. Down came her colors, and at the same instant she struck with a crash on the rocks. The fight had started at quarter to ten. Now it was but quarter past eleven,—just an hour and a half,—and all the Spanish ships but one had been destroyed. Such is the appalling swiftness of modern naval warfare. Where in olden days jack tars had fought for hours, they now fought for minutes.

But the destruction of the Vizcaya had taken time, and the Colon was forging onward, panting and throbbing like a thing of life trying to escape from unspeakable terrors. Down in the bowels of the warship the furnaces were at a white heat, and the engineers had long since pushed their engines far past the danger point. "Faster! faster!" came the cry from the deck and tower. "It will be better to blow up than to allow the Yankee pigs to sink us. We must save at least one ship!" And the engines pounded and quivered, threatening each instant to blow into a million pieces. For once Don Quixote was making the run of his life.

Unable to stand the heat, Walter had obtained permission to lay off for a few minutes and get some fresh air. A look from the spar deck had showed him the Colon dashing far ahead, enveloped in a thin line of smoke. Every few seconds a flash of fire would come from her stern guns, but the marksmanship was poor and no serious damage was done to the Brooklyn.

The boy returned to his gun to find Caleb and the others in deep perplexity. Something was wrong with a shell, and it had become wedged in the gun and could not be pushed forward to its proper place or hauled back. "We can't use Polly any more!" groaned Caleb.

"I'll fix her!" cried Si Doring, and caught up a rammer. In a moment the brave Yankee lad was crawling out over the smoking piece toward the muzzle. But he had scarcely reached the outward end of the gun than the Brooklyn gave a lurch and down he slipped over the side and into space!