Sea Stories

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, sir." "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 hair's-breath. "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 grinning. "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 ratline. "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 astonishment. "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 rail. "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 horizon. 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.

Previous: Reuben James Able Seaman
Next: The Coward

Add to Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon

Add to Informational Site Network