Read CHAPTER IV - We get orders to go south of A Gunner Aboard the "Yankee", free online book, by Russell Doubleday, on

Shortly after breakfast the “Yankee” came to anchor outside of Provincetown, Mass. An hour later a large man-of-war was discovered steaming toward us. Rumors were rife at once, and the excitement increased when the vessel, which proved to be the gallant cruiser “Columbia,” passed close alongside, and the captain was observed to lean over the bridge railing with a megaphone in his hands.

“‘Yankee’ ahoy!” came across the water.

“Hello, ‘Columbia!’” replied Captain Brownson.

“I have orders for you.”

“Whoop! we are going to Cuba,” cried young Potter. “It’s dead sure this time. They can’t do without us down ”

“Silence!” called out the executive officer, sternly. “Corporal of the guard, see to that man.”

Poor Potter is sent below in disgrace amid the chuckles and jeers of his unsympathetic shipmates. The little episode nearly earned him many hours of extra duty.

In the meantime the “Columbia’s” captain had communicated the welcome intelligence that we were to cruise to the southward at once to look for several suspicious vessels that had been sighted in the vicinity of Barnegat. This promised action so strongly that a cheer went up from the crew. This time even the officers joined in.

Very shortly after came the order “All hands on the cat falls,” at which every man Jack came running forward. The blue-clothed figures poured up the companion-ways like rats out of a sinking ship, for “all hands on the cat falls” means up anchor, and up anchor meant new experiences, perhaps a brush with a Spanish man-of-war or the capture of a Spanish prize. The anchor was yanked up and guided into place on its chocks in a hurry, and soon the “Yankee” was under way and headed southward. As we passed the “Columbia,” the men of both ships stood at attention, feet together, hands at the side, heads up, silent. So a ship is saluted in the United States Navy, a ceremony dignified and impressive, though not as soul-stirring as the American cheer.

The “Scuttle Butt Navigators,” or, as the “Yankee” boys called them, the Rumor Committee, were very busy that bright day in May. According to them we were to sail seaward and discover Cervera’s fleet, the whereabouts of which was then unknown. We were to sail south and bombard Havana. The older, wiser heads laughed at such rumors, and said it was foolishness, but all were ready and anxious to listen to the wildest tales.

All the time the ship was getting under way the routine work was going on. The sweepers had obeyed the order given by the boatswain’s mate, accompanied by the pipe peculiar to that order, “Gun-deck sweepers, clean sweep fore and aft; sweepers, clean your spit kits.”

At twenty minutes past nine the bugle sounded the first or officers’ call to quarters, a call that sounded like “Get your sword on, get your sword on, get your sword on, get your sword on, get your sword on right away!” Ten minutes later came “assembly,” and the men rushed to their places at the guns and their stations in the powder divisions.

After our division had been mustered, “Long Tommy,” the boatswain’s mate and captain of our gun, said to “Hay,” “I think we’ll have some shooting to-day. I saw the gunners’ mates rigging a target.”

“Good!” said “Hay,” “what does it look like?”

“Why,” explained Tommy, “it’s a triangular sail, having a black spot painted in the middle, supported by a raft, also triangular, which is floated by three barrels, one at each corner.”

“Can’t be very big,” said “Stump.”

“About ten feet at the base, tapering to a point. The red flag that flies from the top is perhaps fourteen feet from the water, I should say.”

“And they expect us to hit that?” broke in “Lucky bag Kennedy.”

“Of course,” said Tommy the confident, “and we shall.”

As soon as the officers of the different divisions had returned from the bridge, where they had been to report, the quick, sharp bugle call which summons the crew to general quarters was sounded.

As the first notes were heard, the men scattered as if a bomb with a visible burning fuse had fallen in their midst. Some hurried to lead out the hose, some to get the gun sights and firing lanyards, some to get belts and revolvers for the guns’ crews, some down into the hot, dark magazines, and some to open up the magazine hoists. All was apparent confusion, but was in reality perfect discipline. Soon boxes of shell were ready by the guns, but the order “load” had not yet been given.

The triangular target was then lowered over the side and cast loose. In a few minutes the six-pounders on the spar deck began to bark. “Getting the range, I guess,” said “Hod,” who had sneaked over from the powder division to get a look at the target.

“Pretty near it,” replied “Stump,” as a shot splashed close to the triangular piece of canvas.

“Here comes Scully,” some one whispered; “now we’ll have a chance.”

“The captain says fire when ready, at 1,500 yards,” said Scully, saluting Mr. Greene, the officer of the division. “Captain says, sir, instruct your men to shoot at the top of the roll, and a little over, rather than under the target,” continued he, saluting again.

“Port battery take stations for exercise, load, set your sights at 1,500 yards, and when ready, fire.” Mr. Greene’s orders came sharp and clear; there was never any misunderstanding of them.

Most of us of Number Eight’s gun crew had never stood near a big gun when it spoke, and most of us dreaded it and felt inclined to run away out of ear-shot. It was our business to stand by, however, so we stood by while Tommy, firing lanyard in hand, sighted the machine.

“Right!” he sung out to “Stump” and “Flagg,” who were at the training wheels. “Right handsomely,” added Tommy, working the elevating gear, as the gun moved slowly round. The gun roared and jumped back on its mount six or eight inches, but promptly slid back again forced back by powerful springs. The shell sped on its way, humming as it went, and struck a little short of the target, sending up a great fountain as it was exploded by the impact with the water.

“Hay” pulled the breech lever and the breech plug came out, allowing “Stump,” who wore heavy gloves for the purpose, to extract the empty shell. This he dropped in the concrete waterway, then ran to his place at the training wheel; a fresh shell had been put in the gun, meanwhile, and it was ready for business again. A number of good shots were made by different gunners. Enough to show that, amateur tars that we were, there was the making of good gunners in us. As the “Kid,” in his overweening confidence, said, “Ain’t we peaches? When we get down south we will have a little target practise, and the ‘dagos’ will be so scared that they will haul down their colors tight away.”

During the day we steamed slowly along, a bright lookout being kept by the men at the foremast-head for suspicious steamers. After dinner at eight bells (12 o’clock), the smoking lamp, which hangs near the scuttle butt aft, was kept lighted about fifteen minutes. Smoking is allowed aboard only when the smoking lamp is lighted, and as “Hay” was wont to say, it was lighted “when you did not want to smoke.” At ten minutes past one “turn to” was piped by the boatswain’s mates, followed by the call for sweepers. Then came the order, “Stand by your scrub and wash clothes.” So the “Kid” and I hastened forward, both anxious to see if our initial clothes-washing venture was a success. We had depended on the sun to bleach our much be-scrubbed clothes, but well I would have left them where they were if I could. As for the “Kid’s” after holding them off at arm’s length for a while, he remarked, “Why, I would not use such rags to clean my bicycle at home,” and threw them overboard. He was always a reckless chap.

The infantry drill we had at afternoon quarters at 1:30, served to keep us busy. The same thing had been gone through on the “New Hampshire” many a time and oft. We found it rather difficult to march straight and keep a good line on a swaying deck. So we were kept at it until we had got the hang of it. We were still parading to and fro on the spar deck, when some one sighted land off the starboard bow. The dismissal call was given none too soon, for the curiosity as to what we were heading for made discipline lax and attention far from close.

We soon learned that this was Block Island.

The gig was lowered, and the captain and mail orderly went ashore.

“Now we’ll get our real orders,” said Potter. “Ho! for the Spanish main,” he shouted, forgetting his narrow escape of the day before.

“It will be Ho! for the ship’s brig, and Ho! for five days on bread and water, if you don’t look out,” said “Stump,” dryly.

About dark, the gig came back again, bringing the captain in it and the mail orderly but no mail, and how we did long for a word from home. A scrap of newspaper, even, would be a blessing.

We had just sat down to evening mess when the order, “All hands on the gig falls!” was given, and the master-at-arms chased us off the gun deck. Soon the measured tread of many feet could be heard, and then the order was given by the officer of the deck to the coxswain of the gig, “Secure your boat for sea.”

So we were to go off again. Where?

Within a short time we were under way again. The usual watches were set, but very few of the boys went below. The mere rumor that the enemy was prowling along the coast was enough to prevent sleep. My watch went on duty at four o’clock. We were not called in the usual way, by the boatswain’s whistle, but each man was roused separately. This in itself was sufficient to lend an air of intense interest to the scene.

On reaching the deck I found that the night had grown stormy. A chill wind was blowing off the coast, rendering pea coats and watch caps extremely comfortable. A fine rain began to fall shortly after four, and by the time I had taken my post forward as a lookout it had increased to a regular squall.

The “Yankee” was a splendid sea boat, but in the course of an hour the choppy waves kicked up by the storm set her to bobbing about like the proverbial cork. The gloom of the night had changed to a blackness that made it impossible to see an arm’s length away. Standing on the starboard bridge, I could scarcely distinguish the faint white foam gathered under the forefoot. Aft there was nothing visible save a length of stay which seemingly began at nothing and ended in darkness.

The howling of the wind through the taut cordage of the foremast, the sullen plunging of the ship’s hull in the trough of the sea, the rise to a wave crest and the poising there before falling once more, the smell of the dank salt air, and the occasional spurt of spray over the leaning bow, all made a scene so novel to me that I forgot Spanish ships and my duty and stood almost entranced.

It was a dereliction for which I was to suffer. In the midst of my reverie a hand was suddenly placed upon my shoulder and I heard a familial voice exclaim sternly:

“Lookout, what do you mean by sleeping on post? Why did you not report that light?”

It was Captain Brownson!

Asleep on post! The accusation was grave enough to startle me, and I lost no time in stammering a denial. Luckily, the discovery of the strange light, which was just faintly visible dead ahead, occupied the commander’s attention for the moment and I escaped further rebuke.

Captain Brownson hurried to the bridge and presently word was passed to go to quarters at once. The ports were opened, ammunition made ready for both the main and secondary batteries, and the crew stood at their guns in readiness for action. It was a very impressive sight, the grim weapons just showing in the dim lantern light, the great cartridges standing close to the breeches, the men quiet and steady, their faces showing anxiety but perfect self-control.

I was proud to belong to such a crew, for the majority thought that an action was imminent, and perhaps a superior foe to be fought, yet there was no sign of that fear which is supposed to attack the novice in battle. It was a convincing proof of American bravery and self-reliance.

In the meantime the engines had been called on for full speed, and the ship throbbed and swayed with the increased power. Extra men were presently sent below to the fire room, and it soon became evident that we were in actual chase of the suspicious vessel. From my station at the after port gun I was enabled to catch an occasional glimpse of the sea through the open port.

The squall had passed in part and the night was growing lighter. The rain still fell, though fitfully, and at times a dash of water entered the port, besprinkling gun and crew and fighting tackle, leaving great drops that glistened like dew in the waning light of the lanterns. Alongside, white-capped waves raced with the ship.

As the gloom lightened, the horizon spread, and presently, away in the distance, a dark spot, like a smudge upon a gray background, became visible. “Long Tommy,” attached to my gun, leaned far out of the port with an exclamation of excitement.

“By George! it’s another ship,” he added.

“We are in a nest of the Dagoes,” cried young Potter, rather wildly. “We have run into an ambuscade.”

“You’ve got a great chance to become a dead hero,” remarked the first gun captain dryly.

Word was passed from above to break out more shell, and presently the navigator slipped down the ladder and made a close inspection of the different five-inch guns. As he went from crew to crew he gave whispered instructions to the officers in charge.

“The old man expects trouble this trip,” whispered Tommy. He coolly stripped off his shirt and stood, half-naked, the muscles of his athletic chest and arms gleaming like white marble in the uncertain light. Most of us followed his example, and the spectacle of the swaying groups of men, bared for action, added a dramatic tinge to the scene.

Below, the powerful engines throbbed with a pulsation that set every bolt and joint creaking, the strident echoes of the firemen’s shovels could he heard scraping against the iron floor, and little whistlings of steam came like higher notes in the general tune. Even the noises of the ship were strange and weird and impressive.

The crews had been standing in readiness at their stations for almost an hour when it suddenly became noticeable that the darkness of night was giving way before a gradual dawn. The glimmering flame in the lanterns faded and waned, objects buried in gloom began to assume shape, and the edges of the open ports grew sharp and more defined. Constant waiting brought a relaxation of discipline, and the members of the different crews grouped about the ports and eagerly searched for the chase.

The smudge on the horizon had long since disappeared, but directly ahead could be seen the faint outlines of a steamer. A dense cloud of smoke was pouring from her funnel, and it was plainly apparent that she was making every effort to escape. This in itself was enough to stamp her identity, and we shook our clenched fists exultantly after her.

The night broke rapidly. In the east a rosy tinge proclaimed the coming sun. Just as the first glitter of the fiery rim appeared above the horizon, a gray, damp mist swept across the water, coming like an impenetrable wall between the “Yankee” and the chase.