Into Mexico with General Scott - Edwin Sabin

A Surprise for Vera Cruz

"Boom!" It was such a tremendous explosion that it shook the solid buildings of the city. It also brought Jerry upon his feet, all standing, where he had been asleep for the night in a vacant niche against a stone warehouse. A great many of the people slept this night in the open air, just where they chanced to be, so that they might miss no excitement.

The explosion awakened them all. There was a rush for good viewpoints; perhaps the battle had begun. Right speedily Jerry had scrambled atop the wall at a place between batteries, from which he could see the harbor and the Americans' beach eastward. Nobody objected to him, here.

"Boom—Boom" A double explosion wellnigh knocked him backward. A cloud of black smoke had spurted from the walls of San Juan de Ulloa castle, a quarter of a mile before; but yonder amidst the sand hills the louder "Boom!" had raised a much greater, blacker smoke, where the shell had burst.

The people upon the wall cheered.

"Viva, viva!"

"Now we shall see. San Juan is speaking with his giants."

"Yes, the Paixhans," said a Volunteer. "It is the Paixhans that he is turning loose, to blow the Yankees up. Viva!"

The Paixhan guns were large pieces that threw shells in a line, instead of solid shot or high-sailing bombs like the mortars.

"Boom!" from the castle; and in a moment, "Boom!" from the thickets of the dunes. The smoke jetted angrily; the people imagined that they could see brush and trees and bodies flying through the air; but just how much damage was being done no one might say, because most of the American

army was out of sight, concealed in the wilderness of the jungle.

General Morales, commanding the city and castle, had issued a proclamation calling upon the soldiers and citizens to rally for the defense. All this day the American boats, large and small, plied back and forth between the fleet and the shore, out of range, bringing in horses and mules and cannon and supplies; when the cannon had been landed, soldiers and sailors fell to like ants and helped the long teams drag them across the beach, into the sand hills. The larger part of the army had been swallowed by the chaparral; but now and again a column of blueuni formed men could be sighted, winding through a cleared spot, as if gradually encircling the city on the land side.

All day the city forts and outworks and the castle pitched round-shot and shell into the dunes. There were several little battles when the Mexican lancers and infantry outposts met the American advance. A number of wounded Mexican soldiers were carried in; but the American flags kept coming on, bobbing here and there, bound inland.

"To-morrow it will blow," the weather prophets asserted, noting the yellow sunset. "A norther! Then those gringos will wish they were somewhere else."

"Yes, that is so."

Sure enough, about noon the next day (which had dawned calm), far out at sea a sharp, vivid line of white appeared, approaching rapidly.

"The norther! Hurrah! It is the norther!"

A norther never had been so welcomed before. The shipping was frantically lowering sails and putting out storm anchors. The war vessels at Sacrificios were riding under bare poles. The line of white reached them—they bowed to it, their masts sweeping almost to the water. On it came, at prodigious speed, in a front miles long. The white was foam, whipped feathery by wind. Suddenly all, the shipping in the harbor was in a confusion of scud; the few American small boats plying between war vessels and beach were striving desperately, and see! The dunes had been veiled in a cloud of yellow dust driven by the gale.

The change was miraculous. So strong was the wind that it cleaned the walls of people. Like the rest, Jerry crouched in shelter, while the gale howled overhead.

The dunes were completely shut from view by the cloud of scud and sand. Firing from the city and castle ceased. There was' nothing to do but wait and let the norther work. Somewhere under that sand cloud the Americans crouched also, fighting for breath and to keep from being buried. Here in Vera Cruz everybody was safe and happy, except Jerry Cameron. He was safe, but he was sorry for those other Americans, although he did not dare to say so.

It was a bad norther. It blew without a pause for two nights and days. Then, about noon of the third day, which was March 13, it quit about as suddenly as it had arrived. It left the ocean tossing with white caps and thundering against the sea-wall and upon the beach, but the air over the dunes cleared and all eyes peered curiously to see what had become of the American army.

Why, the flags were nearer! Some of them fluttered at the very inside edge of the hills, not much more than half a mile away, across the open space which skirted the city walls. There were signs that the ground was being dug out, as if for batteries. As soon as the ocean quieted a little, the boats again hustled back and forth, landing more guns and supplies. The forts and castle fired furiously at the American camps. But the Americans had not been stopped by the norther and they were not to be stopped by shot and shell.

Now more than a week passed in this kind of business, with the city and castle firing, and with the Mexican soldiers skirmishing in the brush to annoy the gringos, and with the Americans doing little by day, but each night creeping nearer. One morning a strange new token was to be sighted. To the south the ground had been upheaved, during the night, out from the edge of the dunes, and a line of earth extended like a mole-run into the cleared space. The Americans were burrowing.

The city forts lustily bombarded the place and evidently drove the Americans out of the trench, for there was no reply. In fact, very few gringos were seen, but their flags might be glimpsed, farther back. Where were their cannon?

After this fresh burrows appeared frequently. Still there was no firing by the American cannon. What was being done, in that brush, none of the Vera Cruzans could say from such a distance only—

"It will be a siege," the wise-acres nodded. "Very well. We shall wait until the vomito comes. The vomito will fight for us, in the sand hills where our brave soldiers cannot go. The yellow fever will find those skulking gringos, who dare not attack us."

Then, about two o'clock of March 22, after the Americans had been digging and dragging cannon for almost two weeks, and had advanced their flags in a complete half circle around the city, excitement rose again. A Yankee officer and two other men, bearing a white flag, had ridden out from among the dunes and were boldly cantering forward across the flat strip, for the southern Gate of Mexico.

The three were received by a Mexican officer sent by General Morales. Word spread that the American general, named Scott, demanded the surrender of Vera Cruz! He gave two hours for an answer.

General Morales did not require the two hours. Before the time was up, back went the flag of truce, while the soldiers loudly cheered when they learned that he had refused to surrender. If the Americans wished to try a battle, let them start in; they all would die without having reached the walls; and as for breaching the walls with their cannon, that was impossible.

Four o'clock had been the limit set by the American general, Scott. Usually Vera Cruz slept from noon until four; all Mexico took its siesta then: stores were closed and shutters drawn and nobody stirred abroad; in Vera Cruz even the water carriers who cried "Water! Pure water!" on the streets, dozed like the rest. And by this time, two weeks, the people had grown accustomed to the guns, so that they slept right through.

But this afternoon the city waked early, and by four o'clock the roof tops and the walls were thick with spectators watching to see what would happen. Ragged Jerry gazed with the others. He had paid no attention to the two Manuels. There had been no fagot gathering, and little other business except talk.

The sea was smooth; the ships swung at anchor under a blue sky; out at Sacrificios island, four miles distant to the east, the Stars and Stripes languidly flapped from the mast ends of the men-of-war; the sand dunes shimmered yellow, buzzards circled above them and the chaparral which flowed into the flat strip—the buzzards might see the American army, but few persons in the city could. Nevertheless, from the east clear around into the west the faint sounds of the burrowing blue coats drifted in.

There was no sign of any charge. Then, at four o'clock precisely, from a spot half a mile out, between the city and Collado Beach, a sudden great belch of black smoke issued; a black speck streaked high through the sky, fell—and there was a resounding crash and a mighty shock, from an explosion in the very center of the city. The clatter of stones followed.

Next, while the people gazed at each other, astounded, in the southeast the chaparral was drowned by a perfect torrent of the same smoke, blasts of air rocked the very walls and buildings, all the city shook to explosion after explosion mingled. Several shells had arrived at once; the air was filled with dust and shrieks.

Vera Cruz was being bombarded. The bastion guns boomed hotly, replying; the great guns of the castle chimed in; the chaparral was being torn to pieces. But so was the city; and out in the road-stead the two steam gunboats and the five sloops of war veered nearer and from a mile away began to shoot, also, at the city and the castle both.

The battle had opened. The Americans were firing only seven mortars; that was all—seven. Where were their other cannon? Stuck in the sand and brush, as like as not. The seven mortars were hard to see, but the city forts and the castle would bury them. As for those little ships a mile at sea, one shot from San Ulloa would sink any of them.

However, the mortars stuck to it. They kept firing all night, while it was too dark for the forts and the castle to answer. There was no sleep for Vera Cruz—not amidst that steady "Boom! Boom! Boom!" and "Crash! Crash! Crash!", with showers of iron and rock flying far and wide into all parts of the city.

In the morning ten mortars were at work. The forts and San Ulloa spouted smoke and flame in vain. The walls had not been hurt; but what with the booming, and the crashing, and the yelling and running, assuredly Vera Cruz was no place in which to stay. Jerry resolved to get out before he, an American boy, was killed by shots from his own country.

This afternoon another norther set in, as if to help Vera Cruz. It silenced the mortars, and drove the American gunners to cover. Nobody could see to shoot in such a dust storm. The people were happy over it. They knew that the northers and the yellow fever would come to their rescue. The Americans were crazy, their guns useless, their trenches would be filled faster than they could be dug. But to Jerry the norther looked like a lucky stroke for one American, at least. To slip over the walls and sneak across the flat strip and enter the American camp would be as easy as—well, as cutting a watermelon.