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America to prepare for another fierce struggle with the French and Indians. The coolest heads among the American colonies had foreseen the inevitable long before it came. A terrible, bloody war must result from the struggle between
the two powers, contending for supremacy in the new world.
Elmer and George Stevens were on their first cruise when war was declared and, with all the ardor of youth, looked forward to the time when they should meet the enemy on the sea. When the strange vessel was sighted, the boys hurried to the deck with the others and stood side by side watching the ship as she bore down upon them. She was so large, and their own craft seemed so small, that less courageous lads would have been intimidated.
George, the younger, was delighted. He had heard many stories of wild sea fights and thrilling adventures, and he longed to experience the strange sensations produced by the whistling of iron balls. His great-grandfather Philip Stevens (or Philip Estevan, for he was a Spaniard by birth) had been a sailor in early life, had helped to lay the foundation of Jamestown, and was an intimate friend of Captain John Smith. George had heard so many stories of this worthy ancestor, that he determined to emulate him on the sea.
“Elmer, is it a Frenchman? Zounds! I hope so; for I do so want to make him strike his colors," he declared to his brother.
Elmer, who was older and more experienced than his brother, smilingly answered:
“George, you may get quite enough of this Frenchman.”
“ Is it a Frenchman ?”
“I trow it is, my brother; but wait; the captain will soon know. The fellow is larger than we.”
What boy ever was intimidated or restrained from a fight because another was larger? George was delighted when a whisper ran over the deck that the frigate was a French vessel. The truth of this was confirmed by the captain of the ship commanding:
“ All hands clear the ship for action, ahoy!
The shrill notes of the fife rose on the air; the drum beat to quarters; bulkheads were knocked away; guns were released, and all the dread paraphernalia of a sea fight were produced, and, in a much less time than one would suppose, hurry and confusion were over, and every man and boy was at his post, ready to do his duty for his country. There was only one sick man on the list, and he, at the cry of battle, hurried from his cot, feeble as he was, to take his post of danger. Some of the junior midshipmen were stationed below on the berth deck, with orders, given in the hearing of all, to shoot any man who attempted to run from his quarters.
The approaching vessel showed French colors, and all doubt of her character was at an end.
“We must fight her," was the conviction in every breast, and every possible arrangement to secure victory was made. The guns were shotted and matches lighted. A lieutenant passed through the ship, directing the marines and boarders, who were furnished with pikes, cutlasses, and pistols, how to proceed, if it should be necessary to board
the enemy. He was followed by the captain, exhorting every man to do his duty.
In addition to all the preparations on deck, some men were stationed aloft with small arms, whose duty it was to attend to trimming the sails, and if they came to close action to use their muskets. There were others, also, below, called sail-trimmers, to assist in working the ship, should it be necessary to shift her position during the battle.
George Stevens was stationed at the fifth gun on the main-deck. It was his duty to supply his gun with powder, a boy being appointed to each gun in the ship, on the side to be engaged for that purpose. A woollen screen was placed before the entrance to the magazine, with a hole in it, through which the cartridges were passed to the boys, who covered them with their jackets and ran with them to their respective guns. This precaution was observed to prevent the powder igniting before it reached the gun.
They all reached their places and stood, awaiting orders, in motionless suspense. Many hearts beat wildly that were soon to be stilled forever. At last three guns were fired from the larboard side of the main deck; but the captain cried:
“ Cease firing! You are throwing away your shot.”
Soon after came the order to “ wear ship,” and prepare to attack the enemy with their starboard guns. This brought the gun at which George Stevens was stationed directly in front of the enemy. Elmer ran to him and offered to change positions, as his own was less exposed; but the plucky little fellow would not permit it. A few moments later firing was heard from some other direction, which George Stevens at first thought came from their quarter-deck guns, but which proved to be the roar of the enemy's cannon.
A strange noise, such as he had never heard before, next arrested his attention. It sounded like the tearing of sails just over his head; but he soon ascertained that it was the wind of the enemy's shot. After a few minutes' cessation, the firing recommenced, and the roar of cannon could be heard from all parts of their trembling ship, mingled with the rapid crash of the enemy's guns, making a most hideous noise. By and by the enemy's shot began to strike against the sides of the New England privateer, and the whole scene grew indescribably confused and horrible. It was like some terrible thunder-storm, whose deafening roar was attended with incessant streaks of lightning, carrying death in every flash, and strewing the ground with the victims of its wrath; but in their case the situation was rendered more horrifying by the torrents of blood which dyed the decks.