THE MYSTERIOUS COCKSWAIN Edit
By H.M.Bigelow Edit
Originally published in Short Stories 1899
The big battleship was rolling majestically to and fro several miles off the coast when the fiery sun appeared above the horizon and bathed in golden hues the stunted palms and deserted shores of Cuba. The bluejackets had been turned to earlier than usual, and the work of the morning watch was already completed. On the forecastle the idlers and marines were performing their morning ablutions, while the jackies who had been washing down decks and cleaning ship were gathered in picturesque groups forward of the big turrets, excitedly discussing the news which had been brought forward by some of the wardroom boys.
"The first luff has been ordered to get out a steam launch and a cutter, and send some one into the harbor's mouth to cut a cable. It will be a dangerous job, for the boats will have to grapple for the cable right in range of the Spanish batteries."
Here, at last, was an end to the monotony of blockading service, and a chance to do something. For weeks the big ship had been steaming idly back and forth, without once firing a shot or even chasing a blockade runner. It was not strange that the news the wardroom boys were telling created a furor of excitement among the jackies on the forecastle, and the early appearance of the younger officers on the deck showed that "steerage" had also been informed of the intended expedition.
Among others who heard the story on the forecastle was Cockswain Welch, who, with his trousers rolled up to his knees, and his muscular arms bared to the shoulder, had just come in from the third cutter, his especial pet and pride, where, with bucket and swab, he had been removing some of the traces of cinders and soot deposited by the big funnels overhead.
Welch was not a popular man among his mates. He had but recently joined the ship, and, to the disgust of many an old shellback, he had hardly been billeted to the after-guard when he was rated a cockswain — vice Murphy, disrated for drunkenness — and now had charge of the best cutter on board. Many strange stories were being whispered about among Welch's mates concerning the new cockswain. He was too young to have been an apprentice, and there were some who said he was now serving his first enlistment, and had obtained his rating because of a pull with some of the youngsters in the steerage. Others averred that "Welch" was not the cockswain's real name, and that he had a story to tell which would make a fine sensation for any of the newspaper correspondents hovering about the squadron on the swift little towboats, could any one guess what it was. But Welch, by his quiet attention to duty, his reticence and gentlemanly manners, had hitherto remained a mystery, which bothered the curious ones among the jackies not a little. Withal he seemed to be a good seaman, and to have the confidence of his superiors, who, if they knew his secret, had kept it well to themselves.
"Tass the word for Welch, the cockswain of the third cutter !" piped the boatswain's mate. "Lay after to the quarterdeck!"
The message was taken up and repeated by the boatswain's mates in the different parts of the ship, and the cockswain, rolling down his duck trousers and setting his watch cap squarely on the top of his head, hurried off in response to the call.
Reaching the quarter-deck Welch stood at attention, forward of the steerage hatch, until his soldierly figure caught the eye of the first lieutenant, who was pacing nervously up and down the weather side.
"Welch !" the executive officer spoke sharply and stopped suddenly in his hurried walk.
The cockswain sprang forward, and bringing his bare heels together in the correct posture of "attention," saluted his superior.
"We're going to try and cut that d n cable to-day, and
shall send in the third cutter with the launch to do the work. It will require a cool head to handle the cutter under fire, and there are many chances that she may not come back unscathed. This work must be done, and everything will depend on the way the boats are handled. Lieutenant De Koven will have charge of the expedition, and Mr. Karl will go in the cutter. Only volunteers will be taken, and I have sent for you to give you a chance to go."
'"Thank you, sir," said Welch, with a tone of self-possession, though his cheeks flushed.
"You may go forward and quietly pick out eight men for your boat. Take only volunteers and good, cool-headed men. When you have selected your crew report to Mr. Karl. That will do."
Welch saluted and hurried forward as fast as his legs would carry him. This was a chance he had been waiting, longing, praying for. The dangers of the expedition did not occur to him, and if they had he would have worried little about them. He now had an opportunity to distinguish himself, and perhaps show some people that — well, he would not think of this just now ; but Cockswain Welch did think of these things just the same, and the more he thought of them the more anxious he was to start on the perilous expedition.
Eight men for the cutter were quickly selected. He might have had twenty times as many had he been ordered to take them; but the chosen ones were all strong, able men, who could be relied on to do their duty under the most trying circumstances.
Getting his clothes-bag from the bag-room, as the other men were doing, Welch dressed in a clean working suit, with his big black 'kerchief correctly knotted about his throat, and hurried down to report to Mr. Karl.
In the steerage the naval cadets and junior officers were just finishing an early breakfast, and the Japanese servants were hurrying back and forth with tempting dishes and steaming pots of coffee. . The cockswain's knock at the door brought the steerage steward, and to him Welch repeated his message. His words were heard by the youngsters at the table, and one of them sang out in clear, boyish tones :
"Come in, Welch."
The cockswain, hat in hand, entered the room and found himself facing Naval Cadet Karl, who was making short work of a regulation navy breakfast of bacon and eggs.
"I was ordered to report to you, sir," said Welch.
"All right, cockswain, come in here; I want to see you a minute," and Karl, jumping up from the table, pushed open the door of his stateroom and motioned to Welch to enter the little room where the tumbled bunks and general untidy appearance showed that Karl's Japanese boy had not yet put this apartment in condition for inspection.
Such an unusual proceeding on the part of their messmate as to invite a sailor into his stateroom made the eyes of the other young gentlemen at the table protrude from their sockets.
'"Karl always was a genius in eccentricity, but this move beats me," remarked one of the cadets.
There was but one chair in the stateroom, and in this Karl seated the seaman as soon as the heavy drapery at the door
had fallen behind them.
"'See here, Andrew" — Karl was visibly excited, and his voice trembled a little as he spoke — "you're going with me to-day into a veritable hell trap, and before we go I want to tell you something. Until after you had told the commandant of cadets at the Academy that you were guilty of 'gouging' at that 'skinny' exam., I never knew that you cared anything for my sister. I acted like a coward about that affair, and I am willing to acknowledge it. I permitted you to take the whole blame because I was too cowardly to let on that I was the guilty person. I asked you to help me at that examination, and you did it. When old Crook saw on the floor that piece of paper with the skinny problem on it, which you •4- had tried to pass to me, I should have owned up at once that the problem was intended for me and not for you. Well, I didn't own up to it, as I should have done." Karl's face was now flushed, and he was raising his voice a little. "You were dismissed, and never lisped a word to anybody in the Academy about my treachery.
"You took my punishment; you w^re disgraced and your life ruined. You could have ruined me had you been less of a man. No, no" — Welch had now jumped to his feet and was trying to say something — "I say you could have ruined me, but you took my disgrace and for my sake became a homeless wanderer. After you were dismissed from the Academy I learned that Nellie loved you. Yes; she wrote me that she loved you, and, see, here is the letter."
Karl drew from a pigeon-hole in his desk a dainty envelope and passed it to Welch; who sat with his hand shading his eyes, as if dazed.
"Then I began to see how selfishly I had behaved," Karl went on. "When you came on board this ship, an enlisted man, I knew you at once, in spite of your moustache and your changed appearance ; but Bill and the other fellows didn't recognize you. I have done what I could for you here, but it hasn't been much that I could do. I knew you would want to go on this cable-cutting trip, and I asked the first luff to send you with me in the cutter.
"I have kept my secret, but in this letter, which I have just written, I have told the fellows all about you, and how you took my punishment Hke a hero— yes, that's the word, a hero, for you are a hero, Andrew, and Vm a confounded rascal. If I don't get back from this trip we are going on to-day the boys will find this letter in my desk. I have written home, too" — and Karl's face became pale again, and he nervously shuffled the papers in his desk. "Nellie will know about it, too. I have told her all in this letter."
The naval cadet and tlie seaman faced each other in silence a moment, then they separated, each to prepare for the hazardous venture in which they were to participate.
When Welch walked out through the steerage country to the forecastle, tightly clasping in his hand the dainty envelope Karl had given him, his face was paler than usual.
At eleven o'clock the battleship and the rest of the squadron moved in toward the harbor and opened fire on the Spanish batteries, several miles distant. While the big guns roared and the shells were flying toward the beach, sending the Spanish gunners scurrying Uke frightened rats into their holes, the steam launch with the cutter in tow shoved off from the battleship.
The location of the cable was known, and when the cutter was a mile from shore the grappling irons were thrown overboard and the work was begun in earnest. The cutter, cast adrift from the launch, worked in toward the shore, while the launch moved out into the harbor and was out of range when the Spaniards opened fire.
Soon the water about the cutter fairly sizzled with the rain of rapid-fire projectiles, but the Yankee tars, with their faces hard set and their eyes fixed on the two men handling the grappling lines, pulled doggedly away at the oars.
Karl and Cockswain Welch kept the boat moving steadily in toward the beach, nearer and nearer the batteries. The poor marksmanship of the Spaniards caused the cutter's crew to smile grimly, and one irrepressible Irishman in the bow muttered something under his breath that caused a laugh among the oarsmen.
"Silence in the boat!" commanded Karl. "Cockswain We "
Crash ! crash ! and a shriek of pain from the stroke oarsman.
The flying si)linters wounded three or four of the men, and the boat officer was down with a scarlet stream staining his white service blouse, just below the heart. A well-directed shot from a rapid-fire gun on the beach had smashed a hole through the gunwale, and at the same time a ball from a Mauser rifle had brought down Karl.
The naval cadet was moaning with pain and bleeding terribly from his wound. One of the men pulling at stroke was dead, and his thwart-mate badly wounded. Fortunately, the boat was not severely damaged. After a moment of confusion the calm voice of Cockswain Welch brought the cutter back on its course and the grappling for the cable went on.
On the battleship the accident to the cutter was witnessed, and the firing was redoubled, but the rain of lead and steel from the shore continued, and the cutter's crew no longer laughed as they tugged at their oars. The men at the grappling lines were leaning over the side of the boat, and, encouraged by the coolness of the cockswain, whose face betrayed not the slightest anxiety or fear, their work went steadily" on.
"We've got it!" shouted both the seamen in almost one voice as the iron hooks dragging along the bottoqi caught the big cable.
Welch waved the wigwag flag for the launch, which quickly eaded toward the cutter and came gallantly down to them at full speed, amid a veritable hell of shot and shell. All hands on the grappling line, and the big cable was hauled up over the side of the boat, and just as Lieutenant De Koven came alongside with the launch, Welch brought the axe down upon the slimy cable and, after two or three strokes, severed it, the two ends sinking to the bottom, one of them moored by a water breaker attached to the grappling line.
By this time several other men were down in the bottom of the cutter, while the sides and floor gratings were splashed with blood. Quickly taking the cutter in tow, the launch headed out toward the fleet and out of range.
Cockswain Welch and the cutter's crew were the heroes of the hour. Down in the sick bay several badly wounded sailors and Cadet Karl were being tenderly cared for by the medical men of the ship, while two dead bodies were prepared for the sacred service of the morrow.
When Karl was invalided home on the dispatch boat Cockswain Welch took him out to her on the third cutter. As the boat was speeding along Welch bent over the young officer and said :
"Here is the letter you left to be read by the officers in the steerage. I got it from your desk, and you see the seal hasn't been broken. And, if you will, sir," continued Welch, as he drew from his blouse another envelope, addressed in a characteristic hand, "I wish you would give this letter to your sister for me."
"God bless you, Welch," rhurmured Karl, "you are a hero if ever there was one. Your letter shall be delivered if- 1 reach home alive."
The officers on the dispatch boat marveled much as they helped Karl over the side to see him stop at the gangway and warmly shake the tall cockswain's hand, while the tears rolled down the cadet's pale cheeks.
A few weeks later Cockswain Welch received an official document containing his discharge from the navy, and inclosed in another envelope, addressed to "B. D. Welch, U. S. S. M.," was a commission of acting ensign. United States Navy, signed by Secretary Long, and addressed to Mr. Andrew S. Carter. But a letter in a lady's handwriting received by B. D. Welch was far more interesting to its recipient than either of those.