Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII


THE MEN BEHIND THE GUNS


By the time Fortress Monroe was reached it was quite dark, so but little could be seen outside of those sturdy and frowning walls behind which were concealed the heavy guns intended to protect the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.

The warships rode at anchor some distance beyond. To the squadron had just been added the protected cruiser Minneapolis, and the New Orleans and St. Paul were also expected, and all was a buzz of excitement alongshore.

"They'll be off before long," said one old soldier. "I know because I saw one of the captains saying good-by to his family. Such a parting means a good deal."

"I understand a Spanish warship was sighted last night," put in another. "We may have a fight right here unless Schley keeps his eyes open."

"Oh, he's got the Scorpion out on scout can take care of any sneak work," was the answer. He referred to the gunboat Scorpion of the auxiliary navy, which was doing duty just beyond the capes. The Scorpion was fast, and carried a strong searchlight, so it was likely nothing could pass her without being detected and the alarm being given. Alarms were numerous, but they were likewise all false, for no Spanish ship of war came anywhere near our coast.

A boat was in waiting at the wharf, and Walter, Si, and the others were ordered aboard without delay. The boat was manned by eight sturdy jackies.

"Up oars!" came the command, and up went the eight blades straight into the air; "Let fall!" and the oars fell into the water; "Give way!" and the blades moved in a clock-like stroke, and they were off to the ships. It was destined to be many a day before Walter should set foot on land again.

"Halt! who goes there?" came suddenly from out of the darkness, and Walter saw that they were lying beside what looked to be a bulging wall of dark-colored steel.

"Aye! aye!" was the answer, and there followed a short talk. "Got ten of them, sir," said the wardroom officer, in charge of the small boat. Then a rope ladder was thrown down, and the newcomers clambered aboard the warship that was to be their home for so long to come.

Walter gazed about him eagerly, but that look was hardly satisfactory, for to the darkness was now added a heavy fog through which the ship s lights shone but faintly. All had their baggage, and without ceremony they were told to fall in, and were then marched below by order of the officer of the deck.

"This looks like home to me," exclaimed Caleb Walton, as he gazed around the berth deck. "I went over the Brooklyn many a time when she was up at the navy-yard, so I know her from stem to stern." He took Walter by the arm. "Here is the baby I hope to manage," he whispered, and pointed to one of the starboard monsters, whose long muzzle pointed frowningly outward. "Isn't she a daisy?"

"I suppose she is," was the boy s reply. "But how in the world do you manage such a mass of metal? Surely a man can't do it by hand."

"It might be done by hand, but nowaday everything is worked by electricity and hydraulic pressure. You'll learn it all after you have been on board awhile. At present just do what you are told and keep your eyes open."

Supper had been served some time before, but as it was not intended to let the newcomers go hungry, a table was set and they messed together. The swinging table and the tableware all interested Walter, especially when he was provided with his own personal cup, plate, spoon, knife, and fork.

"As a gunner I'll mess with the other warrant officers," exclaimed Caleb Walton, in reply to a question about messes from Walter. "You see, there are a great number of tables. The commodore is entitled to dine alone, so is the captain and the commander, while the other officers have what they call the wardroom mess. Then there are the steerage mess, for midshipmen, ensigns, and clerks; the master-at-arm s mess, for yeomen, machinists, boiler-makers, and so on; and three or four other messes besides, including that to which you will belong. We gunners dine with the boatswain, sail-maker, and carpenter."

The meal was a plain one, of bread and butter, coffee, cold corned beef, and apple sauce, but it was well cooked, and all the new men and boys ate heartily. As soon as it was finished, Walton hurried off to interview Captain Cook, if he could obtain that privilege.

"Well, where are we going to sleep? I don t see any beds," said one of the boys, a timid lad named Paul Harbig. His query brought forth a roar.

"Your bed is rolled up and lashed away, Paul," answered Si, who had rather taken to the little lad. "Do you see those gratings over yonder?"

"Yes."

"Well, all the hammocks for this deck are stowed away behind that. When it comes time to go to bed, we'll get them out, fasten them up to the hooks you see about you, and there you are. And let me tell you there is nothing finer nor a good canvas hammock to sleep in. I'll take it before I take a greasy, dirty bunk in a buggy fo'castle every time."

"But a fellow may fall out," suggested Paul.

"If you're afraid of that, get a rope's-end and tie yourself in," answered Si, philosophically. "But you won't tumble, unless we strike some putty rough weather."

The order was now passed to bring along all baggage, and Walter and Si picked up their satchels. Thinking to take out several things he needed, the Yankee youth opened his bag and put his hand inside.

"By ginger!" came from him in an undertone, but loud enough for Walter to hear.

"What's up, Si?"

"Thet ten-dollar gold piece is gone!"

"Are you sure? Perhaps it has slipped among some of the clothing."

"I'll soon see," was the quick response, and the Yankee youth dumped the articles out in a heap. Sure enough, the golden eagle was gone.

"Somebody has robbed me," came in a groan. "Now who did it, do you suppose?"

"I'm sure I don't know. It might have been done here or on the train, or at the depot."

Si looked around him sharply. Not far away stood Jim Haskett, watching him intently. As soon as the ex-mate of the Sunflower saw that he was noticed he turned away.

"I've got half a notion Haskett was the one to play me foul," he whispered to Walter. "What do you think?"

"He wouldn't be much of a man to rob a mess mate of ten dollars."

"Oh, you don't know Haskett. He's as close as he is brutal. Once we got up a list to give Captain Pepperill a birthday present, but Haskett, although he was first mate, only gave twenty-five cents,—no more than Cooley, the cook, chipped in. In his eyes a ten-dollar gold piece is a big lot of money."

"It wouldn't do you any good to accuse him if you wasn't pretty certain he was guilty," returned Walter, cautiously. "You don't want to get into trouble right after coming on board. If you raised a row, they might put both you and Haskett in the brig."

"I'm going to ask him about it, anyway," answered the Yankee youth. "See, he is looking at us, and it pears to me as if he was enjoying himself to see me in trouble."

Leaving his satchel and scattered clothing as they were, Si advanced upon Haskett and without ceremony caught the man's shoulder.

"Haskett, I want to ask you something," he said, in a low tone. "Do you know anything about this, or don't you?"

"I don't know—" The ex-mate of the Sunflower stopped short. "What are you talking about, Doring?"

"I left my satchel on the train, as you know. A ten-dollar gold piece is missing. I want to know—"

"What! do you accuse me of taking it?" demanded the man, wrathfully.

"I asked you if you knew anything about it."

"No, I don't. I've got my own affairs to look after. More than likely the car porter took your money—if you really had that amount."

"Well, I'm going to find that gold piece sooner or later, as sure as my name is Si Doring," exclaimed the Yankee youth, determinedly, and with a shake of his head he rejoined Walter and Paul Harbig.

The officer who had previously taken them in charge now came forward and assigned them to their various sleeping places. This matter was readily arranged, for one of the main features of the cruiser Brooklyn is her commodious berthing quarters, there being two complete decks, running from end to end of the ship, for this purpose, also an extra forecastle, so that the vessel can accommodate a thousand men if required—a number nearly double that of her usual crew.

"It's a big hotel, with one room on a floor," thought Walter, as he took the hammock assigned to him. He was glad to find Si on one side of him and Paul Harbig on the other. Si showed both boys how to take their canvasses and sling them. This work was just completed, when Caleb Walton came back with a broad smile on his face.

"It's all right," he whispered to Walter. "The captain treated me better than I thought he would. He called up the chief gunner, and we had a talk, and you are to take the place of a man named Silvers, who has gone lame through having a cat-block fall on his foot. If you'll only mind yourself, and study up as I tell you, you'll have the chance of your life."

"Study! I'm ready to begin right off," answered Walter, earnestly. "I'm just crazy to get at that gun you pointed out to me. Can't you show me something to-night?"

Caleb Walton laughed outright. "Don't try to learn it all before you go to bed, Walter," he said. "Of course, you know more than some landlubbers who think that on warships of to-day they handle the guns as they used to, when one man took the powder and ball from the powder-monkeys, another rammed them home in the gun, and the gunner sighted his piece and pulled the string. Those days are gone, and a head gunner like myself has very little to do, even if the position is a responsible one. Come, I'll get permission to go below, and show you just how a big gun is served from start to finish. Folks talk about 'the man behind the gun' when they really mean from eight to twelve men."

The two hurried off, and presently descended an iron staircase which seemed to lead into the very bowels of the ship. At last they came to a steel trap-door, barred and locked.

"Below this door is one of the magazines," explained Caleb. "It contains the ammunition for the eight-inch guns in the turret above. The keys to the magazine are in the captain's cabin, and can only be had on special order and by certain persons. The magazines are kept locked continually, excepting when in use or when being inspected. All of them are connected with huge water tanks, so at the first sign of a fire they can be flooded, thus lessening the danger of an explosion."

"Yes, I remember the Spaniards tried to prove that the Maine blew up from one of her magazines."

"Such a thing couldn't happen in the American navy, because the discipline is too strict. Now, when a gun is being served, several men in the magazine get out the shells for the shellmen, who load them on the ammunition hoist over there, which is nothing more than a warship dumb waiter. The hoist takes the shells up to the guns, in this case in the forward turret. Other hoists supply the rear turret and the secondary battery and other guns, including the rapid-firing weapons in the military tops."

"You mean those platforms around the upper ends of the two masts?"

"Exactly. The tops are the places for the sharpshooters and the range-finders."

"The range-finders?"

"Exactly. You see, it is a difficult matter to get an exact range on an enemy several miles off, and we have to try to get the range in various ways. One of the simplest ways is to station two range-finders in the tops, as far away from each other as possible. Each man gets a bead on the enemy with his glasses, and then proceeds to get the angle between the bead and an imaginary line drawn between his station and that taken by the other fellow. The three points—that is, the two range-finders and the enemy—form a triangle, and having one line and the two angles to work on, the working out of the problem gives the distance the gunners are hunting for."

"That makes pointing a gun nothing but a mathematical problem doesn't it?"

"It makes it partly a mathematical problem, lad. But having the distance isn't everything, for that will only give us the height at which a gun should be elevated in order to make its charge cover that distance and hit the mark, instead of flying over it or ploughing the water below it. After getting the distance we have to calculate on how the enemy's vessel is moving, if she is under steam, and then, most important, we have to let the gun go off at just the right motion of our own craft. In some navies they discharge the guns on the upward roll of the ship, and in others on the downward roll. My private opinion on that point is, a downward roll in clear weather, and an upward roll in a choppy sea, when you don't know just what is coming next."

"I see. Firing a gun isn't so easy as one would imagine."

"Easy enough if you want to waste ammunition, as those Spaniards did at Manila. Gun practice is expensive, and Spain hasn't any money to waste in that direction. Come, we'll have to get up to sleeping quarters now," concluded the old gunner, as a drum beat was heard sounding throughout the warship. "That's tattoo. It will soon be two bells, nine o'clock, and then comes pipe down."

"All right, I'm willing enough to go to sleep," said Walter. "But just one question more. How do you count the time by bells on a warship?"

"Just the same as on any ship, lad. The bell strikes at each half-hour, starting at half-past twelve at night, which is one bell. This makes one o'clock, two bells, half-past one, three bells, and so on, up to four o'clock, which is eight bells, when you start again from the beginning. By this means the day and night are divided into periods of time called watches, as morning watch, middle watch, dog watch, and the like. You'll get the lay of it soon," finished Walton, and then, having reached the berth deck, the pair separated for the night.