The Men Behind The Times

Out of the north they came in their grimy, bluff-bowed ships--the men

behind the times! Three years away from home; three years outside the

movement of human government, of family life, ignorant of the news of

the world.

The years 1811 and 1812 were remarkable ones in the annals of the

whaling industry; vessels that had been cruising for months unrewarded

managed to fill their holds, and now, deep laden, they were returning

from the whaling grounds, singly or often in companies of a half-score

or more. They were ugly vessels, broad and clumsy, with heavy spars and

great wooden davits. They stenched of blubber and whale oil, and they

oozed in the warm sun as they labored southward, out of the realms of

ice and night into the rolling waters of the Pacific. They buffeted the

tempestuous weather of the Horn and climbed slowly northward along the

coasts of the Western hemisphere.

Sailing together homeward bound for New England in the fall of the year

was a fleet of these Arctic whalers--no matter their exact number or

their destinations. For the beginning, let it suffice that the vessel

farthest to the west was the good ship Blazing Star of New Bedford.

Captain Ezra Steele, her skipper, had made a mental calculation, and he

knew exactly the profits that would accrue to him from the sale of the

barrels of sperm oil that now filled the deep hold of his ship. It was

his custom in fine weather to count these barrels and to go over all

these calculations again and again. He was a part owner of the Blazing

Star, and he had made up his mind exactly what he was going to do with

the proceeds of this cruise. He knew that just about this time of the

year, his wife and many other wives, and some who hoped to be, would be

watching for the sight of welcome sails. The Captain wondered if his

daughter Jennie would accept young Amos Jordan's offer of marriage. He

and Amos had talked it over. Amos was his first mate now, and the

Captain had been thinking of staying at home and sending the young man

out in command of the Blazing Star's next cruise; but perhaps Jennie,

who had a will of her own, had married; or who knows what might have

occurred? It is now late October of the year 1812, and a great deal can

happen in three years, be it recorded.

Captain Ezra had all the sail that she could carry crowded on the

stiff, stubby yards of his vessel. He was anxious to get home again,

but the wind had been baffling for some days, hauling about first one

way, then another. Now, however, they were getting well to the north,

and the continued mildness of the air showed that probably they had

entered the waters of the Gulf Stream. The Captain was dressed in a

long-tailed coat and yellow cloth breeches thrust into heavy cowhide

boots that had become almost pulpy from constant soaking in the sperm

oil. He noiselessly paced the deck, now and then looking over the side

to see how she was going.

The old Blazing Star creaked ahead with about the same motion and

general noise of it that an oxcart makes when swaying down a hill. From

the quarter-deck eight or ten other vessels, every one lumbering along

under a press of stained and much-patched canvas, could be seen, and a

few were almost within hailing distance. All were deep laden; every one

had been successful.

"Waal," said the Captain to himself, "if this wind holds as 'tis, we'll

make Bedford light together in about three weeks."

The nearest vessel to the Blazing Star was the old Elijah Mason.

She had made so many last voyages, and had been condemned so many

times, and then tinkered up and sent out again, that it always was a

matter of surprise to the worthy gentlemen who owned her when she came

halting along with her younger sisters at the end of a successful

cruise. Her present captain, Samuel Tobin Dewey, who had sailed a

letter of marque during the Revolution, was a bosom friend of Captain

Steele. Many visits had they exchanged, and many a bottle of rare old

Medford rum had they broached together. As Captain Ezra turned the

side, he saw that they were lowering a boat from the Elijah Mason,

and that a thick, short figure was clambering down to it. So he stepped

to the skylight, and leaning over, shouted into the cabin.

"Hey, Amos!" he called, "Captain Dewey's comin' over to take dinner

with us. Tell that lazy Portugee to make some puddin' and tell him to

get some bread scouse ready for the crew. We'll keep 'em here for

comp'ny for our lads."

In a few minutes he had welcomed Captain Dewey, who, although almost

old enough to remember when his ship had made her maiden voyage, was

ruddy and stout in his timbers and keen of voice and eye. But by the

time that a man has been three years cooped up in one vessel, his

conversational powers are about at their lowest ebb; every one knows

all of the other's favorite yarns by heart, and so the greeting was

short and the conversation in the cabin of the Blazing Star was

limited. It was with a feeling of relief that the captains heard the

news brought to them by a red-headed, unshaven boy of seventeen, that

there was a strange sail in sight to the northwest. The two skippers

came on deck at once. About four miles away they could make out a

vessel heaving up and down, her sails flapping and idle. For, a common

occurrence at sea, she lay within a streak of calm. Her presence had

probably been kept from being known before by the slight mist that hung

over the sea to the west and north. The long, easy swells were ruffled

by the slight wind that filled the sails of the whaling fleet, and were

dimpled to a darker color. But where the stranger lay there was a

smooth even path of oily calm. Beyond her some miles the wind was

blowing in an opposite direction. She lay between the breezes, not a

breath touching her.

"What d'ye make her out to be, Ezra?" asked Captain Dewey, his fingers

twitching anxiously in his eagerness to take hold of the glass through

which Captain Steele was squinting.

"Man-o'-war, brig," responded the taller man. "Sure's you're born,


"You're jest right," responded Dewey, after he had taken aim with the

telescope. "I'll bet her captain's mad, seein' us carryin' this breeze,

an' she in the doldrums. We'll pass by her within three mile, I reckon.

She may hang on thar all day long an' never git this slant of wind at

all. Wonder what she's doin aout here, anyhow?"

In about ten minutes Captain Ezra picked up the glass again. "Hello!"

he said. "By Dondy! they've lowered away a boat, an' they are rowin'

off as if to meet us. Wonder what's the row?" A tiny speck could be

seen with the naked eye, making out from the stretch of quiet water.

The crew of the Blazing Star had sighted her also, and at the

prospect of something unusual to break the monotony, had lined the

bulwarks. Suddenly as the boat lifted into the sunlight on the top of a

wave, there came a flash and a glint of some bright metal. In a few

minutes it showed again. Captain Ezra picked up the glass.

"By gum!" he exclaimed; "that boat's chuck full of men all armed. What

in the name of Tophet can it mean?"

"Dunno--I'd keep off a little," suggested Captain Dewey.

The helmsman gave the old creaking wheel a spoke or two in response to

the Captain's order.

"She's baound to meet us anyhow," put in the lanky skipper. "What had

we better dew?"

"Got any arms on board?" inquired Dewey. "Look suspicshus. Think I's

better be gettin' back to my old hooker," he added half to himself.

Amos Jordan, the first mate, was standing close by. "I reckon we've got

some few," he said.

"Git 'em aout," ordered the Captain, laconically; "and, Cap'n Sam, you

stay here with us, won't ye?"

Amos started forward. In a few minutes he had produced four old

muskets, and a half-dozen rusty cutlasses. But there were deadlier

weapons yet on board, of which there were a plenty. Keen-pointed

lances, that had done to death many a great whale; and harpoons, with

slender shanks and heads sharp as razors. And there were strong arms

which knew well how to use them. The Captain went into the cabin and

came back with three great, clumsy pistols. One he slipped under his

long-tailed coat, and the two others he gave to Captain Dewey and Amos

Jordan. There were twenty men in the Blazing Star's own crew. The

visitors from the old whaler added five more, and with the three mates

and the two captains, five more again. In all there were thirty men

prepared to receive the mysterious rowboat, and receive her warmly

should anything be belligerent in her mission.

"I dunno what they want," said Captain Ezra; "but to my mind it don't

look right."

"Jesso, jesso," assented Captain Samuel.

A plan was agreed upon; a very simple one. The men were to keep well

hid behind the bulwarks, and if the small boat proved unfriendly, she

was to be warned off the side, and if she persisted in trying to board,

then they were to give her a proper reception. The suspense would not

be long. The boat was now so close that the number of men in her could

be counted distinctly. There were eighteen in all, for the stern sheets

were seen to be crowded. The brig at this moment lay in her own little

calm, about two miles directly off the starboard beam. The rest of the

whaling fleet had noticed her, and had sighted the approach of the

armed cutter also. They were edging off to the eastward, evidently

hailing one another and huddling close together. But the Blazing

Star, with just enough wind to move her, held her course.

All was suppressed excitement, for the armed small craft was now within

a half a cable's length. "Ship ahoy!" hailed an officer in a short,

round jacket, standing up. "Heave to there; I want to board you!"

"Waal," drawled Captain Ezra, through his nose, "I dunno as I shall.

What d'ye want?"

There was no response to this; the officer merely turned to his crew:

"Give way!" he ordered, and in half a dozen strokes the cutter had slid

under the Blazing Star's quarter. The man in the bow turned and made

fast to the main chains with a boat-hook. Captain Steele was smoking an

old corncob pipe. He looked to be the most peaceful soul in the world

as he stepped to the gangway, but under his long coat-tails his hand

grasped the old horse-pistol. Several heads now showed above the

bulwarks. The strange officer, who had evidently not expected to see so

many, hesitated. Captain Ezra blew a vicious puff of smoke from between

his firm lips.

"Better keep off the side," he said; "we don't want ye on board; who be

ye, anyhow?"

"Damn your insolence, I'll show you!" cursed the stranger. "On board

here, all you men!" He sprang forward. Captain Ezra did not pull his

pistol. He stepped back half a pace and his eye gleamed wickedly. The

unknown had almost come on board when he was met full in the chest by

the heel of Captain Ezra's cowhide boot. Now the Captain's legs were

very long and strong, and aided by the firm grasp he had on both sides

of the gangway, the gentleman in the round, brass-buttoned jacket flew

through the air over the heads of his crew in the boat below and

plumped into the water on the other side. One of the men in the boat

instantly drew a pistol and fired straight at the Captain's head--the

ball whistled through his old straw hat! But that shot decided matters.

It was answered by the four old rusty muskets, the last one hanging

fire so long that there was a perceptible time between the flash in the

pan, and the report. Two men fell over on the thwarts of the small

boat. The man who had fired the pistol sank back, pierced through and

through by the slender shank of a harpoon. But the crowning effect of

this attempt to repel boarders occurred just at this minute. A spare

anchor, that had been on deck close to the bulwarks, caught the eye of

Amos Jordan. "Here, bear a hand!" he cried, and with the help of three

others he hove the heavy iron over the bulwarks. It struck full on the

cutter's bows, and crushed them as a hammer would an eggshell. The

shock threw most of the occupants from off the thwarts; the boat filled

so quickly that in an instant they were struggling in the water--one

man gained the deck, but a blow on the head from the butt of Captain

Dewey's pistol laid him out senseless. One of the Mason's crew hurled

a lance at one of the helpless figures in the water. It missed him by a


"Avast that!" roared Captain Ezra. "We don't want to do more murder!"

The officer who had been projected into the deep by the Captain's

well-timed kick had grasped the gunwales of the sunken boat. His face

was deathly white; thirteen of his crew had managed to save themselves

by laying hold with him. One of them was roaring lustily for some one

to heave a rope to him. To save his life, Captain Ezra could not help


"Waal," he said, "this is a pretty howdy do. Ye kin come on board naow,

if ye want tew, only leave them arms whar they be." As if in obedience

to this order, a sailor in a blue jacket with a white stripe down each

arm and trimming the collar, unbuckled his heavy belt with his free

hand and cast his cutlass far from him. Two others followed suit.

"Naow," said Captain Ezra, "one at a time come on board, an' we'll find

aout what ye mean by attackin' a peaceable whaler with dangerous

weapons, who's homeward baound an' hain't offended ye."

The first man up the side was a red-cheeked, black-whiskered

individual, who mumbled, as he sheepishly gazed about him: "Douse my

glims but this is a bloody rum go."

"Tie 'im up," ordered Captain Ezra. The man submitted to having his

hands made fast behind his back.

"Now for the next one," said Captain Ezra, blowing a calm puff of smoke

up in the air, and watching it float away into the hollow of the

mainsail. In turn the thirteen discomfited sailors were ranged along

the bulwarks, and no one was left but the white-faced officer, clinging

to the wreckage of the boat that was now towing alongside, for one of

the crew had heaved a blubber-hook into her, at the end of a bit of


"Spunky feller, ain't he?" suggested Captain Ezra, turning to Captain

Dewey, who, in the excitement had taken two big chews of tobacco, one

after another, and was working both sides of his jaws at once. "The

last t' leave his sinkin' ship. That's well an' proper."

The young man--for he was scarcely more than thirty--needed some

assistance up the side, for Captain Ezra's boot-heel had come nigh to

staving in his chest.

"Naow, foller me, young man," Captain Ezra continued, walking toward

the quarter-deck. He ascended the ladder to the poop, and the dripping

figure, a little weak in the knees, guarded by a boat-steerer armed

with a harpoon, obeyed and followed. As the Captain turned to meet him

he noticed that the man in uniform still had his side-arms.

"I'll trouble you for that thar fancy blubber-knife, young man," he

said, "an' then I'll talk t' ye." The officer detached his sword from

his belt and handed it over. He had not offered yet to say a word.

"Naow," said Captain Ezra, holding the sword behind his back, "who be

ye, an' what d' yer want? as I observed before."

"I'm Lieutenant Levison of His Majesty's brig Badger."

"Waal, ye ought to be ashamed of yourself," broke in Captain Ezra.

"I am," responded the young man. "You may believe that, truly."

"Waal, what d'ye mean by attackin' a peaceful whaler?"

"Why, don't you know?" replied the officer, with an expression of


"Know what?"

"That there's a war between England and America?"

"Dew tell!" ejaculated Captain Steele, huskily, almost dropping his

pipe. He stepped forward to the break of the poop.

"Captain Dewey," he shouted, "this here feller says thar's a war."

"So these folks have been tellin'," answered the Captain of the Elijah

Mason; "but I don't believe it. They're pirates; that's what they be."

"Gosh, I guess that's so," said Captain Ezra. "I reckon you're

pirates," turning to the officer. "I hain't heard tell of no war."

"We are not pirates," hotly returned the young man. "Damn your

insolence, I'm an officer of His Britannic Majesty, King George!"

"Tush, tush! no swearin' aboard this ship. What was you goin' to do,

rowin' off to us?"

The officer remained silent, fuming in his anger. "I was going to make

a prize of you; and if I had you on board ship, I'd----"

"Belay that!" ordered Captain Ezra, calmly. "Ye didn't make a prize of

me, an' you're aboard my ship. Don't forgit it."

"Well," broke in the young man, angrily, "what are you going to do with

me?" Captain Dewey had by this time come up on the quarter-deck,

followed by the mates.

"I presume likely," said the skipper of the Blazing Star, rather

thoughtfully, "I presume likely we'll hang ye."

The Englishman--for all doubts as to his nationality were set at rest

by his appearance and manner of speech--drew back a step. His face,

that had grown red in his anger, turned white again, and he gave a

glance over his shoulder. The brig, hopelessly becalmed, lay way off

against the horizon.

As he looked, a puff of smoke broke from her bows. It was the signal

for recall. He winced, and his eye followed the glance of the stalwart

figure with the harpoon that stood behind him.

"For God's sake, don't do that!" he said hastily. "I tell you, sir,

that there is a war. There has been war for almost four months now.

Upon my word of honor."

The two captains exchanged looks of incredulity. Suddenly the

prisoner's face lit up. "I can prove it to you," he said excitedly.

"Here is a Yankee newspaper we took from a schooner we captured off the

Capes five days ago."

"The New Bedford Chronicle, by gosh!" exclaimed Captain Ezra, in

astonishment, taking the soaked brown package. He spread it out on the


"It's true, Cap'n Sammy, it's true," he continued excitedly. "Thar's a

war; listen to this," and he read in his halting, sailor manner, the

startling headlines: "The Frigate Constitution Captures the British

Frigate Guerriere. Hurrah for Hull and his Gallant Seamen! Again the

Eagle Screams with Victory."

There was much more to it, and Captain Ezra read every word. "Young

man," he said at last, "I owe ye an apology. If ye'll come daown into

our cabin, I kin mix ye a toddy of fine old Medford rum. Between lawful

an' honest enemies there should be no hard feelin's, when the fate of

war delivers one into the hands of 'tother. Cap'n Sammy," he observed

as he reached the cabin, "if we had really knowed thar was a war, we'd

a gone back and took that thar brig."

"Yaas," returned Captain Dewey, "we be summat behind the times."

His eyes twinkled as he glanced out of the cabin window. Still becalmed

and almost hull down, H.M.S. Badger was but a speck against the


The Englishman drew a long deep breath.

"Come, sir," spoke up Captain Ezra. "Don't get down hearted. 'Live an

learn,' that's my motto. We're drinkin' your good health, sir, join

right in."

* * * * *

When the Blazing Star arrived in port, she turned over to the United

States authorities an officer and twelve men, prisoners of war.

The Man And The Cannon The Merchantman And The Pirate facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail