Into Mexico with General Scott - Edwin Sabin

In the Naval Battery

"Listen!" Hannibal cried.

He had sharp ears. The beat of drums and the shrill of fifes could be faintly heard, sounding from the rear.

"That means us. It's the Eighth Infantry march, as a warning signal. Expect I'm wanted. Golly, hope I haven't missed musicians' call. Old Peters—he's drum major—will be mad as a hornet. A drummer never gets any rest, anyhow. Good-by. See you again. You look me up."

Away ran Hannibal, and most of the soldiers followed.

"More trench work," they grumbled.

The place seemed very empty. Jerry hesitated, and wandered after. Before he got to the camp he met a double file marching out to tap of drum, their muskets on their shoulders. Hannibal and a fifer led, behind a sergeant. Hannibal wore his drum, suspended from a pair of whitened cross-belts that almost covered his chest. He gave Jerry a wink, as he passed, sturdily shuttling his drumsticks.

Jerry fell in behind, at a respectful distance; soon he lost the file and the sound of the drum, but he kept on, guided by wheel tracks. Next he had arrived among the Volunteers again, where they were laughing and lounging as before, except that these were a different batch, at this particular spot—grimy as if they had just come out of the trenches, themselves. Decidedly it was easy to tell a Volunteer from a Regular, by the clothes and the untrimmed hair and the free off-hand manners.

The sun was high and hot; a perfect day had succeeded to the stormy night. Jerry continued, until he struck the big trench scored by the broad tracks. He was heading back for the naval battery; and presently there he was, once more, his farther way blocked by the great guns and a mass of sailors.

Nobody noticed him. The cross-trench for the battery was ringing with orders and with the crash of shells from the castle and city. The magazine was open—a squad of sailors stood beside each gun—the cannon were being loaded—the charges were rammed home by two sailors to each ramrnerthere was a quick order, repeated by the bo's'ns, who blew their whistles; and as if by magic all the brush fringing the cannon muzzles was swept away with cutlasses and brawny arms.

With a cheer the sailors holding the rope tackle hauled hard and the enormous cannon darted silently forward, so that their muzzles were thrust beyond the parapet.

A sailor behind each breech drew his cord taut. It was attached at the other end to a large lever, like a trigger, connected with an upraised hammer.

A gunner sighted—screwed down, screwed up, sprang aside—

"Aye, aye, sir!"

"Aye, aye, sir!" announced the other squinting gunners, one to each piece.

"Fire!" shouted the battery officer, with dash of sword.

The lock strings were jerked viciously. Such a thunderous blast tore the air to shreds that Jerry's ear drums felt driven right into his head, and the suction of the air, following the report, dragged him upon his nose.

The smoke gushed wider and higher. He could see the officers standing and peering through their spy-glasses, at the city; they shouted—he could not hear a word, but the smoking guns had recoiled inward until checked by ropes and chocks; the rammers swabbed with the swab ends of their long ramrods; other sailors thumbed the vent holes; the swabbers reversed their tools; sailors rapidly inserted a flannel bag of powder into each muzzle; in it went, forced home by the ramrods; shells for some guns, shot for others, had been handed up—were rammed down—out rolled the guns, to the haul on block and tackle

"Aye, aye, sir!"



The sailors appeared to be cheering as they toiled. The guns thundered and smoked—recoiled as if alive and eager, were sponged and loaded and run out again; every man was on the jump, but they all moved like clockwork. Cowering there, back of the magazine, and glued to the side of the trench, Jerry stared roundly. Nobody paid any attention to him. All were too busy to take heed of a ragged boy.

"Bang!" A return shot had arrived. It was a shell, and had burst so near that the fragments and the dirt rained down.

"Bang!" Another. The naval battery had been discovered, and Jerry was under fire.

The naval guns and the guns of the city forts answered one another furiously. What a clangor and turmoil—what a smother of hot smoke from the cannon muzzles and the bursting shells! Solid shot thudded in, too. They ripped across the parapet, cutting gashes and sending the sand-bags flying. They bounded into the trench, and lay there spinning, ugly and black. It was hard to tell whether they were really solid or were going to burst. Horrors! One of the men passing ammunition had lost his head! A solid shot skimming through the same slot out of which a cannon muzzle pointed had taken the man's head off; he crumpled like a sack, and Jerry felt sick at the red sight.

When he opened his eyes and had to look again, shuddering, the body was gone; another sailor—a live one—stood in the place, and the guns were booming as before.

All the guns of the city forts on this side seemed to be firing at the naval battery. Several sailors had been wounded; a young officer was down and bleeding. The wounded were staggering to the rear; one stopped and sank beside Jerry. He had an arm dangling and crimsoned, and a bloody head.

"Ship ahoy, matie," he gasped. Jerry recognized him as his first friend of the night preceding. "You're here again, are you? D' you know where the sick bay is?"

"No, sir," said Jerry.

"It's aft some'ers down this bloomin' trench. Lend me a tow, will you? I've got a spar nigh shot off and a bit o' shell in my figgerhead. Hard for me to keep a course, d' you see?"

"All right. You tell me where to take you."

"Right-o, my hearty. Steady, there. P'int due sou'-sou'east. The sick bay and the bloody saw-bones 'll be some'ers abeam. You'll smell the arnicky "

With the shells exploding and the cannon-balls pursuing they made way down the trench, the sailor leaning with his sound arm on Jerry's shoulders.

The sick bay, or hospital, was a sandbag-covered room at one side; not a pleasant place—oh, no, for wounds were being dressed and things were being cut off by the navy surgeon and his assistant. Still, it seemed to be safe from the shot and shell, and there were not many wounded, yet; only four or five. So Jerry lingered, until the surgeon espied him and set him at work picking lint, serving water, and so forth.

The reports from the battery were encouraging, judging by the conversation. The six guns were all in action, together: the three Paixhans, which threw shells eight inches in diameter and weighing sixty-eight pounds, and the three solid-shot pieces, which threw balls, six inches in diameter, and weighing thirty-two pounds. These were the heaviest American guns firing yet, for breaching.

"Yes, shiver my timbers!" growled Jerry's sailor to one of the other wounded. "Scott axed for 'em, didn't he Would the commodore please to land a few o' the navy toys and furnish the bass in this here music? Would the navy lend the army some genuyine main-deck guns, of a kind to fire a broadside with and send the bloomin' dons to Davy Jones? 'Bless my bloody eyes!' says the commodore. 'Sartinly I will, general. But I must fight 'em.' And ain't we a-fightin' of 'em? Well, I guess we are, matie!"

So being navy guns, they were being "fought" by the navy. From seven hundred yards their shot and shell were tearing right through the walls of the city. The astonished Mexicans were fighting back with three batteries, all aimed at the naval battery, to put it out.

The army was erecting another battery, nearby—Battery Number 4, of the heaviest army cannon, sixty-eight-pounders and twenty-four-pounders. Pretty soon these would join with the navy fire.

The work in the sick bay slackened, and Jerry stole up "forward" again. The din and the rush were as bad as ever. The sailors, bared to the waist, were black with powder grime and streaked with sweat, on faces, bodies and arms. The guns were alive and alert—they were monsters, belching, darting back, fuming while they waited to be fed, then eagerly darting to belch once more.

After each shot the gun squads cheered, peering an instant through the fog.

"Another for the dons' lockers!"

"Hooray, lads! We've cut his bloosnin' flag away."

"No, no! It's up again."

Yonder, across the heaving plain, the figure of a Mexican officer had leaped upon the parapet of a bastion fort set in the walls and was fastening the Mexican flag to its broken flagpole. It was a brave act. Cheers greeted him.

The crew in front of Jerry reloaded at top speed. The great gun spoke.

"They're serving those pieces like rifles," said somebody, in Jerry's ear. "By thunder, they're planting shot and shell exactly where they please." That was the surgeon, who had come forward for a view. "But the enemy's making mighty good practice, too. He has German artillery officers."

Suddenly the surgeon yelled, and grabbing Jerry forced him flat.

"Look sharp!"

The parapet of the battery was scored ragged. The gun platforms and the trench were littered with shell fragments and spent solid shot. Now there had sounded a soft "plump" or thud. A round black sphere as large as Jerry's head had landed in the bottom of the wide space behind the guns—it was only a few feet to the rear of the quarter-gunner who stood holding in his arms a copper tank containing the powder charges. Each charge weighed ten pounds.

He heard the thump, and what did he do but turn and stoop and put his hand upon the thing! Evidently it was hot—it was smoking—a shell! Down dived the quarter-gunner, quick as a wink, plastering himself against the ground. There was a chorus of startled shouts, and—"Boom!" the shell had exploded.

The tremendous shock drove Jerry rolling over and over. As seemed to him, the trench and the emplacements and the battery and all the men had been blown to bits. But when he picked himself up amidst the dense smoke, instead of seeing bloody shreds everywhere, he saw the men likewise picking themselves up and staring about dazedly. The ammunition chest had exploded also, but even the quarter-gunner had not been harmed. One lieutenant had had his hat-brim torn off; that was all.

"A thirteen-inch bomb, from the castle," the surgeon remarked. "Young man, we'd better get out of here, and stay where we belong."

"Send that boy out of fire," an officer barked. "Now, my hearties! Show those fellows we're still alive."

Cheering, the sailors jumped to their task.

His head ringing, Jerry stumbled back with the surgeon. And at the hospital he got a quick dismissal. "You heard the orders, youngster. Follow your nose and keep going."

That was good advice, when such shells were landing and he could be of no use. So Jerry scuttled back down the trench, hoping to run upon Hannibal somewhere.