A hail from the darkness.
The four sailors who were with Clif
fully realized the task which was before them.
It was then about dusk, and the night
was coming on rapidly. Two of the men were stationed
as lookouts, and the other two took the wheel.
Clif set to work to try to calculate
as best he could how far and in what direction he
was from Key West; he wished to take no chances of
running ashore or getting lost.
Those, and the possibility of collision,
seemed the only dangers that had to be guarded against;
the possibility of meeting a Spanish vessel was not
considered, for the chance seemed very remote.
The two lookouts were both stationed
in the bow. That fact and the other just mentioned
sufficed to account for the fact that the real danger
that threatened the crew of the merchantman was not
thought of or guarded against in the least.
For Clif had no way of knowing that
any trouble was to come from behind him; but coming
it was, and in a hurry.
Within the shelter of a narrow inlet
just to one side of the batteries that had made so
much trouble for the Uncas had lain hidden and unsuspected
an object that was destined to play an important part
in the rest of the present story.
It was a Spanish gunboat, of much
the same kind as the Uncas, only smaller. Hidden
by the land, her officers had eagerly watched the
struggle we have just seen.
The Spanish vessel had not ventured
out to take part, for one important reason; she had
not steam up. But she would probably not have
done so anyhow, for the Uncas was the stronger of
And so venturing out would have been
little better than suicide. The Spanish captain
had a plan that put that one far in the shade.
The Uncas was still visible down the
shore, and the merchantman had hardly gotten well
started out to sea before great volumes of black smoke
began to pour from the furnaces of the Spaniard.
Her men worked like fiends; sailors
pitched in to help the firemen handle coal, while
the shores of the dark little inlet flared brightly
with the gleam of the furnaces.
Meanwhile the officers with their
glasses were feverishly watching the distant steamer,
now hull down to the north, and almost invisible in
It was about half an hour later, perhaps
even less, that that Spanish gunboat weighed her anchor
and stole silently out to the open sea.
She breasted the fierce waves at the
entrance to the inlet boldly. A minute later
she was plowing her way through the storming sea.
It was dark then and she could see nothing; but her
captain had the course to a hair’s breadth.
He knew which way his prey was gone,
and he knew to what port she was going. He knew,
too, that she would not dare go near the harbor of
Key West until daylight. And so if by any chance
he missed her in the darkness he would still have
And those on the shore who saw the
vessel glide away chuckled gleefully to themselves.
It was something to look forward to, a chance to revenge
themselves upon the impudent Yankees who had dared
to elude the fire from their guns.
Meanwhile the Yankees, totally unsuspicious
of this last move, were buffeting their way bravely
The lookouts clinging to the railing
in the bow were peering anxiously ahead in the darkness,
and the sailors in the pilot house were wrestling
with the wheel; it was quite a task to keep that vessel
headed straight, for she was going into the very teeth
of the gale.
And as for Clif, he was watchfulness
personified. When he was not eyeing the compass
carefully he was hurrying about the vessel, now down
in the fire-rooms, making sure that those Spaniards
were doing as they were ordered, and again looking
the prisoners over to make sure that the sly rascals
had not wriggled themselves free.
“It would be a fine thing to
do,” he thought to himself, “if they managed
to recapture the ship.”
There was something quite prophetic in that thought.
It is hard to keep awake all night,
but a man can do it if he has to even though he has
been working like a Trojan all day.
Clif kept moving to work off the sleepiness
whenever he felt it coming on.
“I’ll have time enough to sleep by and
by,” he muttered.
He was thinking, grimly enough, of
how he would be stalled in the town of Key West with
his prize, waiting for a chance to get out to the fleet
The vessel did not attempt to make
more than half speed during the trip, and that, against
the storm, was very little.
But there was no need to hurry thought every one.
And so for some two hours the vessel
crept on, wearily as it seemed and monotonously.
The only thing to vary matters was when some extra
high wave would fling itself over the bow in a shower
But that was not a welcome incident,
for it made it harder for the weary sailors to keep
the course straight.
The cadet paced up and down the deck;
he had been doing that for perhaps the last half hour,
stopping only to say a cheery word to the lookouts
and once to prop up Ignacio, who was being rolled unceremoniously
about the deck.
The cunning Spaniard looked so bedraggled
and miserable that Clif would have felt sorry for
him if he had not known what a villain he was.
“He’d stab me again if he got a chance,”
For Clif had saved that fellow’s
life once; but it had not made the least difference
in his vindictive hatred.
“I’m afraid,” Clif
muttered, “that Ignacio will have to suffer this
The Spaniard must have heard him,
for he muttered an oath under his breath.
“It would be wiser if it was
a prayer,” said the cadet. “Ignacio,
you are near the end of your rope, and you may as
well prepare for your fate.”
The man fairly trembled all over with
rage as he glared at his enemy; such rage as his was
Clif was not used to, and he watched the man with a
feeling of horror.
“I don’t like Spaniards!”
was the abrupt exclamation, with which he turned away.
And Ignacio gritted his teeth and
simply glared at him, following back and forth his
every move, as a cat might.
“I may have a chance yet,”
he hissed, under his breath. “Carramba,
if I only had him by the throat!”
But Clif paid no more attention to
the Spaniard. He had other things to attend to,
things to keep him busy.
It was not very long before that was
especially true. For some interesting events
began to happen then.
They began so suddenly that there
is almost no way to introduce them. The first
signs of the storm was when it broke.
In the blackness of the night nothing
could be seen, and the vessel was struggling along
absolutely without suspicion. And Clif, as we
have said, was walking up and down engrossed in his
own thoughts, almost forgetting that he was out in
the open sea where a Spanish warship might chance
to be lurking.
And so it was literally and actually
a thunderbolt from a clear sky.
The blackness of the waters was suddenly
broken by a sharp flash of light, perhaps two hundred
yards off to starboard.
And an instant later came the loud report of a gun.
The consternation of the Americans
it would be hard to imagine. They were simply
aghast, and Clif stood fairly rooted to the deck.
His mind was in a tumult, but he strove
to think what that startling interruption could mean.
“They must have fired at us!” he gasped.
And if there was any doubt of that an instant later
came a second flash.
To a merchantship in war time such
a signal is peremptory. It means slow up or else
take the consequences.
There were two possibilities that
presented themselves to the commander of this particular
merchantship. One was that he had met an American
And the other! It was far less
probable, but it was possible, and terrible.
They might have fallen into the hands of the enemy.
But whatever was the case, there was
nothing for Clif to do but obey the signals.
He could not run and he could not fight.
“If I only knew,” he thought, anxiously.
And then suddenly he learned; for
a faint voice was borne over to him through the gale.
It was a voice that spoke English!
“Ahoy there!” it rang.
And Clif roared back with all his might!
“Ahoy! What ship is that?”
And his heart gave a throb of joy when he heard:
“The United States cruiser Nashville. Who
“The Spanish merchantman Maria,
in charge of a prize crew from the Uncas!”
Whether all that was heard in the
roar of the storm Clif could not tell; but he put
all the power of his lungs in it.
He knew that the story would be investigated.
And so he was quite prepared when he heard the response:
“Lay to and wait for a boarding party.”
And quick as he could move Clif sprang
to the pilot house, and signaled to stop, and the
vessel swung round toward the stranger.
The die was cast, for good or evil. They had
For perhaps five minutes there was
an anxious silence upon the vessel. Every one
was waiting anxiously, while the ship rolled in the
trough of the sea and shook with the crashes of the
waves. Her small crew were picturing in their
minds what was taking place out there in the darkness,
their comrades struggling to get a small boat out in
that heavy sea.
And then they fancied them buffeting
their way across, blinded by the spray and half swamped
by the heavier waves.
“They can’t be much longer,” muttered
“Ahoy there! A ladder!”
It seemed to come from right underneath
the lee of the merchantman. And it was shouted
in a loud, peremptory tone that was meant to be obeyed.
A moment later the rope ladder was flung down.
Clif peered over the side when he dropped it.
He could make out the shape of the
boat tossing about below; he could even distinguish
the figures of the men in the boat.
And then he made out a man climbing hastily up.
He stepped back to wait for him.
He saw a blue uniform as the officer clambered up
to the deck.
And then suddenly he stood erect, facing Clif.
The cadet took one glance at him and gave a gasp of
It was a Spanish officer!
And he held in one hand a revolver
and was aiming it straight at Clif’s head.