A Prisoner of Morro - Upton Sinclair - ebook

About noon of a day in May during the recent year the converted tug Uncas left Key West to join the blockading squadron off the northern coast of Cuba. Her commander was Lieutenant Raymond, and her junior officer Naval Cadet Clifford Faraday. The regular junior officer was absent on sick leave, and Cadet Faraday had been assigned to his place in recognition of gallant conduct. The ropes were cast off, and slowly the tug glided away from the dock and out toward the open sea.

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Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair

A Prisoner of Morro

New Edition




New Edition

Published by Sovereign Classic

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This Edition

First published in 2016

Copyright © 2016 Sovereign

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About noon of a day in May during the recent year the converted tug Uncas left Key West to join the blockading squadron off the northern coast of Cuba.

Her commander was Lieutenant Raymond, and her junior officer Naval Cadet Clifford Faraday. The regular junior officer was absent on sick leave, and Cadet Faraday had been assigned to his place in recognition of gallant conduct.

The ropes were cast off, and slowly the tug glided away from the dock and out toward the open sea.

It was not very long before the harbor of Key West was left behind, and then began the long trip to Havana. It was over a hundred miles, and that meant seven or eight hours’ journey for the Uncas.

But the Uncas was a good, stout vessel, unusually swift for a tug, and she made the water fairly fly when once she got clear of the land.

Clif leaned against one of the rapid-firing guns in the bow and gazed longingly ahead; he was anxious to reach his destination.

There were wild rumors concerning Spanish fleets, Cadiz squadrons and Cape Verde squadrons and Mediterranean squadrons, which were continually being sighted or heard of nearby; and for all Clif knew the decisive battle of the war might be fought at any time.

And he felt that if it took place while he was absent he would never cease to regret it as long as he lived. The Uncas could not do much in such a battle; but she was anxious to do her share.

It was possible, also, that Morro might succeed in provoking an attack. The guns of the Havana defenses kept blazing away at anything that came near, and the American sailors were fairly boiling over with impatience to get a whack at them.

And at any time Admiral Sampson might give the word.

So Clif was restless and impatient as he stood in the bow of the swift tug and gazed southward.

It was a rather damp place of observation the cadet had chosen, for it had been blowing quite a gale that day, and the Uncas was plowing her way through a heavy sea.

The spray was flying over the decks; but who would have thought of going below at such a time as that?

It was not Clif’s turn on duty. Lieutenant Raymond seemed to think that after his struggle on board the Spanish monitor the young cadet deserved a rest. But he was too eager and wide awake just then to wish to take it.

When the tug was well under way the lieutenant came out of the pilot house and joined Clif again.

“Thinking of the weather, Mr. Faraday?” inquired Lieutenant Raymond.

“No, sir,” replied the cadet, “I was thinking of Ignacio. I don’t know how he happened to get into my thoughts, but he did.”

“Who is Ignacio?”

“He’s a Spaniard I’ve had some trouble with,” answered Clif. “You may have heard about one of his exploits.”

“Which one is that?”

“He made an attempt to assassinate Rear Admiral Sampson.”

“Oh, yes, I heard about that,” said the officer. “The admiral told me about it himself. I believe you were the person who interfered.”

“I had the good luck to be standing near,” said Clif, modestly. “And of course, I sprang between them.”

“And the spy stabbed you?”

“Yes. In the shoulder, but he did not hurt me very much.”

“He must be a desperate man.”

“He is. That stabbing business seems to be a favorite trick of his. I hope I shan’t have to face him again.”

Whether Ignacio was a Spaniard or a traitor Cuban, no one could say. Clif had first met him trying to lead astray an American officer who had been sent with dispatches for Gomez.

And Clif had foiled the plot, and had been Ignacio’s deadly enemy ever since. Clif had been keeping a careful watch for him. He knew that the vindictive fellow would follow his every move; Ignacio was acting as a spy for the Spaniards, and so must have found it easy to keep track of the cadet’s whereabouts. But so far Clif had not met him.

“We are likely to have a wild night of it,” said Lieutenant Raymond. “The clouds seem to get darker every minute.”

“It’ll be a night for the blockade-runners,” was Clif’s answer. “We may have some excitement.”

“We’ll have it anyway,” said the other. “I don’t know of anything I less rather do than weather a storm while in among the vessels of the fleet. It will be necessary to stay on deck every instant of the time keeping watch for our very lives.”

“I know how it is,” the cadet added. “I was on the Porter dining one such night. And we captured a prize coming out of Havana after almost running her down in the darkness.”

“I heard about it,” said Lieutenant Raymond. “You may repeat the performance to-night if you have a chance. We aren’t likely to meet with anything till we get there.”

As the lieutenant said that he turned and gazed ahead; the broad sea stretched out on every side of them, without a sign of smoke or sail to vary the monotony of its tossing waves.

“But it always lends zest to a trip like this,” the officer added, “to know that it’s possible you may run across a stray Spaniard at any moment. It pays to keep one’s eyes open.”

“And then you have the pleasure of chasing two or three and finding they’re some other nation’s ships,” said Clif, with a laugh.

“That’s about all we’ve done so far,” said the lieutenant. “But we’re still hoping perhaps you’ll bring us good luck.”

“I’ll do my best,” the cadet declared with a smile.

“Better get ready for it by resting a bit. Your dinner’s ready below.”

Clif took the hint and went below. The boat was pitching so violently that he found eating a very difficult operation, and it was generally so unpleasant in the little cabin that he was glad to go on deck again.

And then later in the afternoon, at four o’clock, it came time for him to go on duty. After that he had to remain outside whether he wanted to or not.

The gale grew considerably stronger, and as the darkness came on it got much chillier, but Clif still paced up and down the deck with the glass in his hand watching for a sign of a passing vessel, or of the approaching Cuban coast.

He was left almost alone on deck as the weather got rougher; for the crew made themselves comfortable below, knowing what hard work lay before them through the stormy night.

It was not the custom on the vessel to keep the whole watch on duty except at night; and Clif had only the two sailors at the wheel and the lookout in the bow for company.

But if he felt any jealousy of those who were below out of the cold, he had the grim satisfaction of being able to disturb their comfort before very long.

It was about half past four in the afternoon, and suddenly the lookout turned and called to Clif.

The eager cadet knew what it meant. He seized the glass and hurried forward.

He followed the direction of the man’s finger.

“I think I see smoke, sir,” was what the sailor said.

And Clif took a long look and then turned, his face betraying his excitement.

An instant later his voice rang through the ship.

“Steamer ahoy—off the starboard bow!”



There was excitement on board of the Uncas the instant Clif’s cry was heard. The sailors came tumbling up on deck, Lieutenant Raymond among the first.

He took the glass eagerly from the lad’s hand and anxiously studied the sky in the direction indicated.

“It’s too far west to be near Havana!” he exclaimed.

And he stepped into the pilot house to direct the vessel in a new direction. At the same time the smoke began to pour from the funnel, showing that those down in the engine-room had heard Clif’s hail.

And so in a few moments the Uncas was speeding away in the direction of the stranger. And after that there was a long weary wait while the two vessels gradually drew nearer.

All that could be made out then was the long line of smoke which always indicates a distant steamer. But it took a sharp eye to make even that out.

“This will be a long chase,” said the lieutenant. “If she takes it into her head to run we’ll have a hard time to catch up to her before dark.”

Clif glanced significantly at the bow gun.

“If we can only get within range,” he thought to himself, “we won’t have to wait to catch up to her.”

The lieutenant was standing by the pilot house with the glass in his hand, and every once in a while he would make an attempt to catch sight of the stranger’s smokestack.

“It may be one of our own warships,” he said, “and if it is we don’t want to waste any coal chasing her.”

But such was not the case, and it was only half an hour or so before the lieutenant found it out. The Uncas rose as a high wave swept by; and the officer, who had the glass to his eye, gave an eager exclamation.

“She’s got one funnel,” he exclaimed, “and it’s black, with a red top; and so it’s not an American warship.”

And after that there was nothing now to be done except wait until the two approached nearer.

It was evident from the gradual change of course the Uncas was obliged to make that the vessel she was following was headed in a southerly direction.

“That would take her toward the western end of Cuba,” Clif thought to himself. “Perhaps she’s sighted us and is running away.”

She must have been a very shy vessel to have taken alarm at so great a distance; but from the slowness with which she came into view that seemed to be the case. And Clif paced the deck impatiently.

It was not very much longer before he went off duty again; but he did not go below. For perhaps an hour he remained on deck watching the strange vessel.

It seemed an age, but Clif had his reward. The chase loomed gradually nearer. The black and red smoke pipe came into view, and then, when the Uncas rose, the top of the black hull as well.

And suddenly the lieutenant handed the glass to Clif.

“You may see now,” he said. “She is a merchant steamer, and she flies the Spanish flag.”

Clif nearly dropped the glass at those startling words. The lieutenant said them as calmly as if he were telling the time of day.

“You don’t seem very much excited,” the cadet thought.

And yet the lieutenant’s statement proved to be true. It was several minutes before Clif got a favorable view; but he kept his eyes fixed on the smoke and he finally caught a glimpse of the hull.

And sure enough there was the hated red and yellow ensign waving defiantly from the stern; it was blown off to one side by the breeze, and could be plainly seen.

Clif was fairly boiling over with excitement at that discovery.

“We’ve got our prize!” he chuckled. “I brought the luck after all.”

Lieutenant Raymond was not nearly so little moved as he chose to pretend; he had announced his discovery in that careless way half in a spirit of fun.

The news got round among the crew, and however the officer may have felt, there was no indifference there.

The engines of the Uncas began to work even more rapidly, and cartridges were hastily brought up for the rapid-firing guns. Nobody meant to let that steamer get away.

She must have suspected her danger by that time, for the smoke grew blacker. But the crew of the Uncas knew that there were few merchant ships could beat that tug, and they rubbed their hands gleefully.

There is something very aggravating about a race like that. In a rowing race you may break your back if you choose, trying to catch the boat in front; and even in a sailing race you may do something. But when it comes to steam you can only grit your teeth and walk up and down and watch and try not to let anybody see how anxious you are.

In that way half an hour passed away, and mile after mile of the storm-tossed waters.

By that time the hull of the vessel was plainly visible on the horizon; and the Spanish flag was still waving from her stern.

Clif had been gazing every once in a while at the lieutenant with an inquiring look upon his face, but the officer had only shaken his head.

“Not yet,” he said. “Wait a little.”

And Clif would then take another stroll across the deck.

But at last his inquiring look brought another answer.

“Go ahead,” said the lieutenant.

And the cadet made a leap at the gun.

It was already loaded, and he sighted it himself. He was no longer nervous and hurried; it was at least a minute before he rose.

And then at his signal the sailor pulled the firing trigger.

There was a flash and a loud report, and every one looked anxiously to see the effect.

Lieutenant Raymond, who had the glass, was the only one who could tell; for the sea was so wild that the slight splash could not be noticed.

The shot of course fell short, for the vessel was still out of range; but it hit right in line, and the officer nodded approvingly.

“Now we’ll wait,” he said. “She may give up.”

But she didn’t; so far as those on the Uncas could tell the shot had no effect whatever. The vessel kept straight on in her course.

“She’s counting on the darkness coming,” said the lieutenant.

But that was not the only reason why the Spaniard did not give up; those upon the Uncas discovered another shortly afterward.

“The Cuban coast,” exclaimed the officer.

Yes, the long, faint line of the shore was at last visible just on the horizon’s edge. It lay to the southward, directly ahead.

“What good will that do her?” asked Clif.

“If she finds she can’t get away,” answered the other, “she may make a run for one of the ports or try to get under the shelter of the batteries.”

For a while after that nothing more was said, and the tug plowed its way through the tossing water. When the lieutenant spoke again it was to point to the gun.

“Try it again,” he said.

And Clif did try it. The two ships were then not over three or four miles apart, and when the cadet fired again he heard the lieutenant give a pleased exclamation.

“They’re within range!”

And then Clif got to work with all his might.

Had he had a calm sea he could have raked that vessel without missing a shot. He had only to experiment and get the aim just right and then leave the gun to stay in that one position while he blazed away.

But the Uncas in climbing over the waves was now up and now down, so that sometimes the shots fell short and sometimes they went high.

But every once in a while he had the satisfaction of hearing that he had landed one.

After that the chase was a lively one, for the Uncas kept blazing away merrily. The people on board that fleeing vessel must have had a very large time of it that afternoon.

It was just what Clif Faraday liked; he was beginning to be quite an expert in target practice, and he was willing to experiment with that ship just as long as the ammunition held out.

But his opportunity did not last very long, for the land in front was neared very rapidly, and after that there was less fun and more work.

The stranger headed round gradually to the west. She evidently had no idea of being driven toward Havana.

The Uncas swerved more sharply, in order to head her off. Lieutenant Raymond was in the pilot house, and Clif soon saw by the way he managed things that he was an expert in all the tricks of dodging.

And those who were handling the merchant ship saw it, too; they would have been soon headed off. So they turned in another direction quite sharply, making straight in toward shore again.

Under ordinary circumstances with the short range that he had by that time, Clif could have riddled the vessel in short order; but aiming in that sea was so far a matter of luck that comparatively little damage could be done.

No one knew what the enemy’s last move could mean.

“But we can go in any water that’s deep enough for them,” thought Clif, grimly, as he blazed away.

And so thought the lieutenant, too, for he was soon racing in. For perhaps ten minutes pursuer and pursued kept straight on, the firing never ceasing for a moment.

“Perhaps she may run on shore on purpose,” said the lieutenant, coming out of the pilot house for a moment.

“On purpose?” echoed Clif.

“Yes; so that we can’t get the cargo.”

“But she’ll be beaten to pieces on the rocks,” Clif objected.

“They may chance it anyhow; you see they aren’t more than a mile or two from the shore now, and they’re running in still.”

“If that’s the trick they try,” Clif thought to himself, “we can stay out and pepper her to our heart’s content—and help the waves to wreck her.”

But the Spaniard had a far better plan than that, as her pursuers learned some time later.

Clif studied the coast in front of them, as well as he could see without a glass; there was simply a long line of sandy shore without a bay or an inlet of any kind. And there were no towns or batteries visible.

“I don’t see what she can be hoping for there,” he muttered.

But he had no time to speculate in the matter, for it was his business to keep firing. By that time the range was short and he was beginning to do damage.

It took an expert to fire at the instant when the tossing ship was level, but Clif had time to practice, and he soon got the knack of it.

And then it must have been exceedingly unpleasant living on that ship. One after another the heavy six-pound shots crashed through her stern; and even at that distance it began to exhibit a ragged appearance.

The cadet expected at any moment to reach the engines or the rudder of the fleeing ship, and so render her helpless. But probably her cargo served to protect the former, and the rudder was very hard to hit.

“She must have something important in view to stand all this,” Clif thought to himself. “But I can’t see what it is.”

The chase at that time was a very exciting one. The Spanish merchantman was dashing in shore at the top of his speed. And a mile or two beyond it was the Uncas tearing up the water, plunging along at her fastest pace and banging away half a dozen times a minute with her bow gun.

Lieutenant Raymond’s eyes were dancing then; he had taken the wheel himself and was hard at work. And as for Clif, he was so busily engaged that he seemed to see nothing except the high stern of that runaway.

“But she’s a fool,” he growled to himself. “She’ll be so torn to pieces she won’t be worth capturing. I wish I could kill the captain.”

But the captain of that vessel knew his business, as those on the Uncas found later on. He was a Spaniard, and simply gifted with Spanish cunning.

He had no idea of running his ship aground; but he knew that coast perfectly, and he used his knowledge.

When he neared the land the tug was still some distance astern. As that did not suit the Spaniard’s purposes, he very calmly slowed up.

And that in spite of the fact that the tug was so close that the rapid-firing gun was hitting him every other shot!

That the vessel had slowed up, Lieutenant Raymond of course could not tell. But he wouldn’t have cared anyhow, for he had made up his mind to go in there no matter what was there, torpedoes or the very Old Nick himself.

And he went; for perhaps five minutes more the Uncas dashed in at full speed, and the merchantman still never swerved.

“They’re within a quarter of a mile of the shore!” gasped Clif.

He turned to his third box of cartridges with a grim smile on his face. For he knew that something must happen soon.

It did, too—very soon.

It began when the merchantman suddenly swung round to starboard.

“Aha!” chuckled the cadet. “They’re as close in as they dare. And now I suppose they’ll run down shore awhile.”

Lieutenant Raymond was much puzzled to think why the vessel had risked going so close in that storm; but he wasted no time in speculating, but drove the wheel around with all his might.

The Uncas swerved and sped over to shut the merchantman off; at that same instant the reason of the whole thing was seen.

The Uncas was not a mile from shore, and as she turned her broadside to the land a masked battery in the sand let drive with a dozen guns at once.

The whole thing was so sudden that for a moment it quite frightened the Americans. Clif even stopped firing long enough to stare.

But the sudden alarm did not last very long; it left the men on the Uncas laughing. For they had quite forgotten the character of the Spanish gunners’ aim.

A shot tore through the tug’s funnel, another chipped a piece from her bow, half a dozen shells whistled over her. And that was all.

Clif turned calmly to his gun again.

“If that’s the best they can do,” he thought, “they’re welcome.”

But that was not the best.

It wasn’t that the batteries were aimed better next time. They were aimed far worse in their eager haste. They did not even touch the Uncas.

But an instant later something happened that showed that the captain of the Spanish merchantman had one more string to his bow.

He not only knew the location of the batteries, but he knew the location of the sand bars. While his own vessel sped on in safety, on board the Uncas there suddenly came a grinding thud, and an instant later the tug stopped short, so short it almost sent Clif flying over the top of the gun he was working.

And at the same time a shout was heard from Lieutenant Raymond, one that made the sailors’ hearts leap up into their throats: “We’re aground! We’re aground!”

And in front of a Spanish battery!



It would be hard to imagine a vessel in a much greater predicament than the Uncas was at that moment. Everything was in confusion in an instant.

That is everything except one thing. Lieutenant Raymond was too busy to notice the coolness of one person on board; but he remembered it afterward, and with satisfaction.

It was Clif Faraday; he picked himself up from the deck where he had been flung and took one glance about him. Then he turned to the guns.

Whatever the position of the tug his duty just then remained the same. He could not free her, and so he did not waste any time rushing about. There was that Spanish merchantman calmly walking off to safety.

And there was a gleam of vengeance in the cadet’s eye as he went to the gun again.

Those on board of the fleeing vessel had seen the success of their clever plan and they gave a wild cheer. It was answered from the shore batteries.

The steamer turned at once and headed out to sea; that put her broadside to the Uncas, and instantly the six-pounder blazed away.

That was the time to do the work, too. The vessel was quite near, and a fair mark. The Uncas was now steady, too, Clif thought grimly to himself.

One of the sailors saw what he was doing, and sprang to aid him. They banged away as fast as they could load.

At the same time the Spanish batteries opened. They had a fair mark, likewise, and plenty of time to aim. It was a race to see who could smash up their prey the quickest.

Clif would certainly have disabled the fleeing vessel if it had not been for an unfortunate accident. What the accident was may be told in a few words. It spoiled his chance.

He turned away to get more cartridges. And at that instant a shell struck the six-pounder gun.

It was a miracle that Clif was not hit; his uniform was torn in three places and his cap knocked off. The sailor next to him got a nasty wound in the arm, made by a flying fragment.

And that of course made the merchantman safe—she steamed off in triumph.

It was bad for the tug, too, for it showed the batteries were getting the range.

The plight of the Uncas was a desperate one. She was being tossed about by a raging sea and cut up by the fire from the guns. Whether she had struck on rocks or sand or mud no one had any means of telling.

But her engines were reversed the instant the accident occurred. And a hasty examination of the hold showed that whatever the danger was there was no leak.

But that seemed cold comfort, for at the rate the heavy batteries were blazing away there was likely to be a number of leaks in a very short while. And even a steel tug will not hold together long with a sea pounding over her like this one was.

Yet as it actually happened, that sea was the only thing that got the vessel out of her unfortunate predicament.

They were a great deal luckier than they would have dared to hope to be. For when they realized they were aground there was not a man on board who did not think his last hour was at hand.

But as it actually happened, the sand bar upon which the tug had driven lay some distance beneath the surface. And it had caught the vessel by the keel.

The engines throbbed wildly, doing their noblest to pull the vessel off; and then one after another came the great waves, tossing her this way and that, wrenching and twisting, lifting and lifting again, while every one on deck clung for his life.

There was a minute or two of agonizing suspense, while the shore batteries kept up a galling fire and the merchantman steamed out to sea, proud of her triumph.

And then suddenly came a wild cheer from the imperiled Americans. Then men fairly shrieked in a transport of delight.

“She’s moving! She’s started! She’s safe!”

And the men fairly hugged each other for joy. Slowly, then faster, then faster still, and finally at full speed backward. The gallant tug had torn herself loose from the grip of the sand—and was free!

The baffled Spanish batteries redoubled their fire at that. One could almost imagine the gunners grinding their teeth with rage as they saw their prey escaping.

But grinding their teeth did not seem to sharpen their eyes. Their aim was as bad as ever, and the Uncas seemed like the proverbial man in the rainstorm who keeps dry by “dodging the drops.”

The confusion on board of the “escaped” vessel may be imagined. How that triumphant captain must have sworn Spanish oaths.

It was a ticklish task that Lieutenant Raymond had before him then. He knew there were sand bars about. But he did not know where they were. And the task was to avoid them.

He did it by creeping along very slowly, in absolute indifference to the galling fire from the shore guns. He knew that there must be a channel, for he and the Spaniard had come in by it.

He had only a vague idea where it was. But the Uncas stopped and then crept slowly forward, heading north.

And after five minutes of torment they knew that they were safe. They were far enough from shore to start up again and get away from those Spanish guns. The gallant tug was quite battered by that time, but nobody cared for that in the wild rejoicing that prevailed.

The vessel swung around to port.

“And now for that prize!” muttered the lieutenant.

And he went for her, too, full speed ahead. He was mad now.

The vessel had gotten a start of about two miles. She had apparently exhausted her resources in the neighborhood of Cuba, for she was heading north, out to sea again.

“And so it’s only a question of time,” chuckled Clif. “We’ve got her!”

And so they had. The Spaniards must have realized it, too.

“Mr. Faraday,” said the lieutenant, “try a shot from the starboard gun.”

The shot was fired; and it did the work.

The merchantman had evidently had enough, and saw that there was no further hope.

For in full view of the shore batteries she swung round and came slowly to a halt, a signal that she surrendered. It made the Americans give another cheer, and it must have made the Spaniards on shore fairly yell.

For they began banging away, even at that distance, though they couldn’t come anywhere near the tug.

As for the Americans, they sighed with relief. They had worked hard for that victory. And they felt that they had earned it. The race was over then, and they were happy.

Clif was so wearied by his heroic labor at that gun (he must have lifted and rammed some two hundred six-pounder cartridges) that he sat down on the wreck of the machine to wait until the two vessels drew near.

And the lieutenant gave up the wheel to one of the men and came out to look his capture over at leisure.

She was a fairly large vessel and seemed to have a big carrying capacity. What she was loaded with no one could guess, but at any rate she was a big prize for a small crew like that of the Uncas.

“I think I’ll retire from business after to-day,” Clif heard the old boatswain remark.

That personage had had one arm badly damaged in the struggle that had taken place in the morning with the Spanish gunboat; but he seemed to have forgotten his wounds in the general excitement.

The little tug steamed up boldly toward her big prize, which lay idly tossing on the waves. One could see her officers and crew standing on deck watching the approach.

“I’ll bet they feel happy!” Clif muttered to himself.

The lieutenant loaned him the glass. Then he could see the faces of the men.

There was one of them he might have recognized had he been careful; but he did not recognize it, and so he failed to save himself some mighty unpleasant adventures indeed.

They were all typical Spanish faces, dark and sullen; but there was one there even darker and more sullen than the rest.

And the owner of that countenance had a glass in his hand and was staring at those on the tug. Though the cadet did not know it, that man was at that instant watching him.

And there was an expression of furious hate on his face as he looked.