Read CHAPTER XII - In search of Adventure of A Gunner Aboard the "Yankee", free online book, by Russell Doubleday, on

When a man-of-war sails from port under what are called “sealed orders,” which means that the orders given to the captain by the admiral are not to be opened for a certain number of hours, or until the ship reaches a certain degree of latitude, there is a mystery about the affair which appeals strongly to the crew.

We of the “Yankee” felt very curious as to our destination when we left Santiago that night, and the interest was greatly stimulated by the discovery, before we had gone very far, that the “St. Louis” and “Marblehead” were following us.

The “Rumor Committee” went into active session without delay.

“Bet I can guess it,” said “Stump,” as a half dozen of us met in the gangway. “We are bound for a cable station somewhere.”

“To cable the news of the fight?” said Flagg.

“No. That was done by one of the other ships.”

“What then?”

“To get permission from Washington to go ashore and reclaim all that steel we wasted in the bombardment.”

There was a laugh at this sally.

“I have been figuring on the cost of the fight,” remarked “Hay,” after a pause. “A five-inch shell is worth $60, and as we fired about two hundred and fifty, it means just $15,000 worth of five-inchers alone.”

“Then there are the six-pounders.”

“They cost $20 a shot,” resumed “Hay,” reflectively. “I guess we must have fired about a million of them.”

“Hardly that,” smiled Tommy, “but we expended enough to bring the total up to $18,000 at the very least. War is a costly thing, boys.”

When the quartermaster on duty came off watch he joined us in the gangway, and reported that we were steering a straight course to the southward.

“If we keep it up we’ll land somewhere near the Antarctic Ocean,” remarked Kennedy, doubtfully. “I wonder ”

“I know, I know,” broke in the “Kid,” eagerly. “We’re going for ice.”

The burning question was solved at daybreak. The morning sun brought into view a stretch of highland which proved to be Cuba. We had steamed out to sea on scouting duty, and had doubled on our tracks, as it were. The port we found to be Guantanamo, a small place some forty miles to the eastward of Santiago.

The town itself lies on a bay connected with the sea by a tortuous and winding channel. The entrance is protected by a fort and several blockhouses, and when we steamed inshore we espied the “St. Louis” and “Marblehead” laying to, waiting for us outside.

The “Marblehead” preceding us, we entered the harbor, and the two ships began a lively bombardment, while the “St. Louis” lay outside. Shortly after the firing began, a Spanish gunboat was seen steaming out past the fort. A few shots in her direction sent her scurrying back again, and that was the last seen of her during the fight. After the battle of the previous day, this affair seemed insignificant, and aroused little interest.

The blockhouses were destroyed and the fort silenced after a short period of firing, and the “St. Louis” proceeded with the duty which evidently had caused our visit. It was the cutting of a cable connecting Guantanamo with the outer world.

Our little fleet steamed to sea in the afternoon, returning just before dark. The fort, showing signs of réanimation, was treated to another bombardment, which effectually settled it. A small fishing hamlet composed of a dozen flimsy huts of bamboo was set on fire and burned to the ground. When we left Guantanamo shortly after dark, bound back for Santiago, we had the satisfaction of knowing that one more blow had been struck against Spanish rule in the fair isle of Cuba.

At dawn the following day, Santiago was sighted. The fleet was still lying off the entrance like a group of huge gray cats watching a mouse hole. As we passed in, the flagship began signalling, and it soon became noised about the ship that we had received orders to leave for Mole St. Nicholas after dark.

“It looks as if the ‘Yankee’ will come in handy as a messenger boy,” said “Stump.” “When the admiral wants ‘any old thing’ he tells his flag officer to send the Naval Reserve ship.”

“It’s a good thing to be appreciated,” grinned “Dye.” “To tell the truth, though, I’d rather be on the move than lying here watching the land.”

“We don’t want to be away when Cervera comes out,” remarked Flagg.

“When he comes out,” retorted “Stump,” emphasizing the first word meaningly. “The old gentleman knows when he is well off and he’ll stay inside.”

“Which, as the Texan said when he was accused of stealing a horse,” put in Tommy, “remains to be proved. Just you keep your eye on the gun and wait.”

“There goes another string of signals on the ‘New York,’” exclaimed “Dye,” pointing toward the flagship. “Whiz! I’d hate to be a signalman aboard of her. They are always at it.”

The flagship of a fleet like that assembled in front of Santiago during the blockade, is certainly kept very busy. In the naval service, everything in the way of routine emanates from the flagship. Every ship in the squadron, for instance, takes the uniform of the day from her. The number of sick each morning must be reported by signal; all orders (and they are legion) are transmitted by wigwag or bunting; scores of questions are asked daily by each ship, and it is indeed seldom that the signal yards of a flagship are bare of colored flags.

In the American navy the present methods of communication are by the use of flags representing numerals, by the Meyer code of wigwag signals, and by a system of colored electric bulbs suspended in the rigging. The latter system is called after its inventor, Ardois.

In the daytime, when ships are within easy distance, wigwagging is commonly used. A small flag attached to a staff is held by the signalman in such a position that it can be seen by the ship addressed. A code similar to the Morse telegraph alphabet is employed. By this system the flag, when waved to the right, represents 1, or a dot; and 2, or a dash, when inclined to the left. Each word is concluded by bringing the flag directly to the front, which motion is called 3. Naval signalmen, generally apprentices, become very expert, and the rapidity with which they can wigwag sentences is really remarkable.

The Ardois system of night signalling consists of electric lights attached to the rigging. There are four groups of double lamps, the two lamps in each group showing red and white respectively. By the combination of these lights letters can be formed, and so, letter by letter, a word, and thence an order, can be spelled out for the guidance of the ships of a squadron. The lamps are worked by a keyboard generally placed on the upper bridge.

The “flag hoist” system, as it is termed, consists of the displaying of different flags at some conspicuous place like the masthead. There are a great many flags and pennants, differing in color, shape, and design, each having its own particular meaning, and when three or four are shown aloft together, a number is formed, the significance of which can only be determined by referring to a code book. Each navy has a private code, which is guarded with great care. So particular are Governments in this respect, that the commanding officer of every ship has instructions to go to any length to destroy the code book, if capture is imminent. During the late war with Spain it was reported at one time that the Spanish code had been secured. This means that the Dons will be compelled to adopt an entirely new code of signals.

Besides the above systems, signalling in the navy includes various other devices. For instance, the fog whistle can be utilized in connection with the Meyer system of numerals. One toot represents 1, two short toots 2, and a long blast the end of a word. In a fog, this is the only means practicable. Similar sounds can be made by horn or gunfire. At night searchlights are often used by waving the beam from the right to the left, thus forming an electric wigwag, or by flash like the heliograph. On small ships not fitted up with the Ardois system, the Very night signal is used. This consists of a pistol made for the purpose, which discharges lights similar to those found in the ordinary Roman candles. The colors are red and green, and they are fired in combinations expressing the numbers from 1 to 9 and 0, so that the numbers to four digits contained in the signal book may be displayed.

The “Yankee” was rigged with the Ardois lamps, and she also carried all the necessary signal flags and other paraphernalia required to communicate with other vessels of the fleet. The signalmen on board had been drilled in their work as members of the Naval Reserve prior to the beginning of the war, and they were experts to a man.

On the evening of June 8th, while we were idling about decks awaiting the order to get under way, a small boat came alongside, having as a passenger a captain of the army. He proved to be a special agent who had succeeded in visiting the vicinity of Santiago, and was on his way to Mole St. Nicholas for the purpose of cabling to Washington. The mysterious manner in which he boarded the ship, and the quickness with which we steamed from port, created some excitement, and we felt the importance of our mission.

The night was dark and muggy an ideal time for torpedo-boat work, and extra lookouts were posted by order of the captain. Nothing of interest occurred, however, until early next morning. The ship was ploughing along at a steady gait, and those of the watch who were not on actual duty were snatching what sleep they could in out-of-the-way corners, when suddenly the call to “general quarters” was sounded. Long practice caused prompt obedience, and the various guns’ crews were soon ready for action.

Very few of us knew just what was on foot until the “Kid,” in passing, contrived to convey the interesting information that a big Spanish fleet had been sighted dead ahead.

“That’s funny,” remarked “Stump,” trying to peer from the port. “We are not changing our course any. Surely the ‘old man’ doesn’t intend to tackle them alone.”

“I guess the ‘Kid’ is ‘stringing’ us,” observed Tommy, sagely. “He’s up to that trick every time. We’re not chasing Spanish fleets alone. The captain knows his business all right, all right.”

Word was brought from the upper deck presently, that we were in pursuit of a strange steamer which had been discovered lurking on the horizon. She failed to respond to our signals, and chase was made forthwith. The “Yankee’s” speed soon proved superior to that of the stranger, and within an hour we had her close aboard.

“It’s an English tramp from the looks of her,” reported “Hay,” who had a choice position near the gun port. “She’s got a dozen people on the bridge and they are badly scared.”

A blank six-pounder was fired, but she did not heed it, so a shot was fired across the stranger’s bows, and she hove-to in short order.

“Steamer ahoy!” came faintly to our ears from on deck. “What steamer is that?”

The answer reached us in disjointed sentences, but we heard enough to set us laughing. Tommy smacked his hand upon the breech of the gun and chuckled: “It’s one of those everlasting press boats. The sea is full of ’em.”

“What in the deuce did they run for, I wonder?” exclaimed Kennedy.

“Afraid of us, I suppose. It’s ticklish times around here, and I don’t blame them. Press boats are not made to fight, you know.”

“That idea doesn’t carry out their motto,” drawled “Dye.”

“How’s that?” asked Flagg, innocently.

“Why, they claim that the pen is mightier than the sword, don’t they?”

After the laugh had subsided, “Morrie,” one of the Rochester detail, who acted as a shellman in the crew of Number Eight, said seriously:

“I am a great admirer of the press representatives down here, fellows. They are capable, good writers, and there is not a branch of the whole outfit that has been more faithful to duty. They were sent here to get the news, and they get it every time. There has never been a war more ably reported than this, and, although the correspondents have to hustle day and night, they still find time to keep us informed, and to give us an occasional paper from home. They are good fellows all.”

“Amen!” said “Hay.”

After a time, the press boat sheered off, and we continued on our course. Later in the morning another steamer was sighted. The “Yankee” was sent after her at full speed. The chase crowded on all steam, but she was soon overhauled, and found to be a Norwegian trader. After a satisfactory explanation she was permitted to go. Three hours later the “Yankee” dropped anchor off Mole St. Nicholas, a Haytian seaport brought into some prominence through the location of a cable station.

Mole St. Nicholas is a little collection of tropical-looking houses set among palm trees at the foot of a large hill, which in places aspires to the dignity of a mountain. The town itself is rather picturesquely situated, the foliage-covered background and beautiful inlet of pure clear water giving it a natural setting very attractive to our eyes.

After we had been anchored an hour or so, a bumboat came out, manned by a crew of two coal-black negroes who spoke a French patois, intermingled with comical English. The boat itself was a queer, stubby craft propelled by home-made oars. Before the morning was well advanced the ship was surrounded by boats carrying shells, limes, prickly pears, green cocoanuts, bananas, fish, and “water monkeys.” The latter were jugs made of a porous clay, and they were eagerly purchased. The “water monkey” is a natural cooler, and when placed in a draught of air will keep water at a temperature delightful in a warm latitude.

We parted with our mysterious passenger, the army officer, and weighed anchor just as the sun was setting. Lookouts were posted early, and special instruction given by the captain to maintain a vigilant watch. The fact that we were in the very theatre of war, and that several Spanish cruisers, including the Spanish torpedo boat “Terror,” were reported as being in the vicinity, kept a number of us on deck.

“It is one thing lying off a port with a lot of other ships and bombarding a few measly earthworks, and another to be sneaking about in the darkness like this, not knowing when you will run your nose against an enemy twice as large,” said Flagg, as several of Number Eight’s crew met on the forecastle. “I tell you, it feels like war.”

“Reminds me of a story I heard once,” put in “Stump,” lazily. He was lounging over the rail with his back to us and his words came faintly. The deck was shrouded in gloom, and the vague outlines of the pilot-house, only a dozen feet away, was the length of our vision aft. A soft, purling sound came from over the side where the waves lapped against the steel hull. A shovel grated stridently now and then in the fire room, and occasionally a block rattled or a halliard flapped against the foremast overhead. The surroundings and the strange, weird “feel” of the darkness were peculiarly impressive.

“I don’t know whether we care to hear any story,” observed “Hay.” “Better keep it until later, ‘Stump.’ The night’s too wonderful to do anything except lounge around and think. Whew! isn’t it dark?”

“This story I was going to tell you requires a setting like this,” replied “Stump.” “It is about a ship that started from England years and years ago. She had as passengers a lot of lunatics who were to be experimented upon by a doctor about as crazy as they. He bought the ship, fitted it up with a number of little iron cages, and set forth with his queer cargo. Ten days out, the lunatics broke from their quarters and captured the vessel. One of them, who had been a sea captain in his time, took charge, and proceeded to carry out a little idea of his own, which was to make sane people crazy.”

“That was turning the tables with a vengeance,” drawled “Dye,” from his perch on an upturned pail. “I wonder if he was any relation to ’Cutlets’?”

“A lineal ancestor, I’ll bet a biscuit,” chimed in “Hay.” “Don’t you remember the quotation, ‘By these acts you will know their forefathers,’ or something like that?”

“Well,” resumed “Stump,” “the crazy captain put the doctor and the crew in the cages and began to feed them hardtack and berth-deck scouse and salt-horse and ”

“Must have been a Government naval contractor in his time,” murmured “Morrie.”

“I bet I know the rest,” exclaimed the “Kid,” coming up in time to grasp the situation. “The captain set his prisoners to carrying coal from the after hold forward and then back again, didn’t he?”

“If you fellows think you can tell the story better than I can, go ahead,” retorted “Stump,” in disgust. “You are like a lot of old maids at a sewing circle. I give ”

“What was that?” suddenly cried “Hay,” springing to his feet. “If it wasn’t a flash of light I’ll eat my ”

A figure hastily emerged from the gloom aft.

“Go to your stations at once, you men,” called out a voice. “General quarters!”

As we scurried toward the hatch a great shaft of light appeared off the port beam, and began sweeping back and forth across the black of the horizon.

“Good heavens!” exclaimed “Hay,” “it’s a searchlight on some man-of-war. We’re in for it now!”