Frank Nelson in the Forecastle. Or, The Sportman's Club Among the Whalers
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"Come, come, boys! This will never do in the world," said Mr. Gale, suddenly breaking the silence that had reigned for the last half hour. "Wake up, there! What's the matter with you that you look so sober? If we were eight or nine hundred miles out at sea, we'd have something to worry over; but if the wind holds this way, we shall be all right by to-morrow at this time. The Tycoon is going to the Mangrove Islands for water, and maybe we shall be lucky enough to catch her there. If we can't stand it to do without food for that length of time we had better jump overboard at once, for we've no business to be sailors. Come, Lucas, begin there in the bow, and sing a song or tell a story!"
"I can't, sir!" replied the sailor.
"All right. You shan't have any water the next time it is passed around. Go on, Barton. Sing a song or tell a story – a lively one, mind."
"Hold on a bit, sir!" exclaimed Lucas. "I'll do almost anything to get another drink of that water."
This order soon brought about a great change in the feelings of the men. Their minds being diverted from the dangers of their situation, something like merriment soon began to prevail. As it was understood that each one must do his share toward entertaining his companions, and that the first one who failed to tell a story or sing a song when his turn came, should forfeit his next drink of water, this trial of memory and ingenuity was kept up until far in the night. It would seem as though men who had spent their lives amid scenes of danger and excitement could never be at a loss for something to talk about, but even the oldest among the sailors ran short of stories at last, and when this happened they did not hesitate to make up one as they went along; and some of those they told were as ridiculous as the story Dick Lewis told the captain of the fishing boat. Frank drew on his experience among the mountains and in the woods, and his stories must have been worth listening to, for when his turn came the men were all wide awake.
At last when the crew began to show signs of drowsiness, Mr. Gale ordered four of them to make themselves as comfortable as they could and go to sleep, while he and Frank looked out for the boat. Mr. Gale steered by a compass, the face being lighted up by a small lantern with which whale-boats are always provided, and Frank talked to him to keep him awake, and bailed out the water as fast as it ran in. He did not learn anything encouraging during the four hours that he and Mr. Gale kept watch. The mate said they were sure to reach the Islands unless a storm blew them out of their course or swamped them, but he did not like to think of the way they would fare after they got there. The largest of the Islands was often visited by whalers, he continued, but it was almost a land unknown. It was a good place to go to get water and fresh meat in the shape of terrapins, but he had never yet heard of a boat's crew, who, leaving the beach to explore the island, had ever returned to tell what they saw there.Many a fine whale ship which, when last spoken, had her hold nearly filled with oil and was almost ready to set out on her return voyage, had suddenly disappeared, leaving no trace behind. It was supposed that some of them had gone to the Islands for water, and had either been wrecked on the treacherous shoals and reefs with which they were surrounded, or been captured and plundered by the natives. He had seen men who had been held captive there for years, and had only escaped at last by smuggling themselves on board some vessel whose crew was too strong to be successfully attacked. But if they succeeded in getting there they would find an abundance to eat and plenty of water to drink, and that was better than being tossed about on the waves of the Pacific in an open boat.
Frank now began to understand Captain Barclay's plans. There was more in them than he had at first supposed. The skipper wanted to be rid of Frank and his friends, and the whale they had killed and deserted, furnished him with an excuse for sending the boat away from the ship. When he arrived in port he could say that she had been smashed in pieces by the whale, and all her crew sent to the bottom. He took his chances on this. If the event really happened, so much the better; but if they came through the fight in safety, and succeeded in reaching the Islands, the natives would detain them as prisoners. In either case he was clear of them, and they could never appear against him in a court of justice.
"I can understand all that," said Frank, after he had explained this to the mate, "but there is one thing I can't quite see through: Why did he send you off with us? You never said you would prosecute him, did you? And there are two other men in the boat who never made any threats of that kind. I am very sorry that the friendship you have exhibited for me should have brought you into this trouble. I shall never be able to repay you."
"It wasn't that at all," said the mate, in reply. "The captain has always been afraid of me, and he was just as anxious to get me off the vessel as he was to get you off. I'm not the sort of officer that suits him. I have been a foremast hand myself, and I can't see the beauty of banging men about as if they had no more feeling than so many logs of wood. As for sending these two other men with us, he had to give the boat a full crew, you know, and he put in those against whom he had a grudge."
Frank and the mate talked in this way until almost daylight, and then the former called Lucas and Barton, who steered the boat and kept her bailed out, while Frank and Mr. Gale lay down on the thwarts and slept until the sun grew too warm for them. It was then nine o'clock. As they had no breakfast to serve up they took a drink of water all around, which seemed to aggravate rather than relieve their thirst, the supply the mate allowed them being so small; and at one o'clock by Mr. Gale's watch, when the Mangrove Islands were in plain sight, they emptied the keg.
Propelled by a favorable breeze the boat rapidly approached the land, and finally the outlines of the shore and the trees on the hill-sides could be easily distinguished. Suddenly Mr. Gale arose, and standing erect in the stern-sheets, gazed steadily into the little bay toward which the boat was heading. "She's there!" said he, a moment later.
"The Tycoon?" asked Frank, running his eye along the shore in the vain effort to find the object that had attracted the officer's attention.
"Yes, the Tycoon!"
"Will we go aboard of her, Mr. Gale?" asked one of the crew.
"Certainly, just as straight as we can go. We belong to her, don't we?"
The men said nothing in reply, but their actions told what was passing in their minds. Some seemed delighted, while others beat their open palms with their clenched hands, and banged the oars violently down on the thwarts. It was plain that Captain Barclay had some men in his ship's company who would give him serious trouble if they ever found the opportunity.
"There's something wrong with her," continued the mate, still gazing earnestly at the ship, which Frank had at last been able to discover.
"So I was thinking," said the latter. "She's close in shore and has her topsails aback. She can't be lying-to in there."
"No, she's aground," replied the mate, "and they are trying to work her off."
All eyes were now turned toward the ship which came rapidly into view as the boat approached the shore. It was plain that she was hard and fast aground. The crew were running about the deck, pulling the yards first one way and then the other, in the hope of getting the sails full enough to work her off; but the breeze was not sufficiently strong, and besides the tide was running out, so that the ship was every moment sinking more firmly into her bed on the sand bar. Presently one of the crew discovered the approaching boat. It was one of the Kanakas. He gazed at it a moment, then jumped up and clapped his hands, calling out "Galickhee!" or some such tongue-twisting name which he and his people had bestowed upon the third officer. That brought all the crew to the side, where they stood waving their hats and shouting out words of welcome. Frank and the rest were astonished at this reception. Where were Captain Barclay and his mates that they permitted the crew to act in this way?
"O, Mr. Gale, you're just in time," cried one of the men, who answered to the name of Boson, "only I wish you had come a little sooner. We're up to our necks in trouble."
"Not an officer aboard – all gone – the ship a thousand miles from water – or she might as well be, she's so hard a-ground, six men dead and the niggers thicker than blackberries," chimed in Tully, another of the crew, stamping about the deck and swinging his arms wildly in the air.
The men in the whale-boat were greatly amazed. They clambered over the side with all possible haste, each one demanding to know what was the matter. The crew shook each of them by the hand as if they were overjoyed to meet them once more, and then silently directed their attention to different parts of the deck, as if telling them to see for themselves what was the matter. Frank stood speechless while he looked. The deck was in the greatest confusion. Harpoons, spades, lances and handspikes were scattered about, and with them were mingled curious weapons and ornaments that he had never seen before, and blubber-knives, cutlasses and muskets with the bayonets attached. These last came from the ship's armory, and their presence on deck was enough to prove that there had been a fight, even had other indications been wanting.
A feeble attempt had been made to clear up things a little, but the traces that were left of the recent contest proclaimed that it had been a severe and by no means a bloodless one. Frank ran his eye hastily over the crew gathered about him, and saw that there were some familiar faces missing – among them those of the captain, his two mates and his old enemy, Calamity. What if he had been there when the fight came off? Might not he also have been among the missing? Perhaps Captain Barclay's attempt to get him off his vessel had been the means of saving his life.
"What's been going on here, any how?" demanded the mate, as soon as he could speak.
A chorus of hoarse voices arose in reply, each one trying to give his version of the story, and to make himself heard above his companions; but Mr. Gale, finding that there was nothing to be learned in that way, commanded silence, and pointing to one of the crew ordered him to speak for all. The man complied, telling his story in regular sailor lingo which we put into English as follows: —
The Tycoon arrived at the island that morning about three o'clock, and came to anchor two miles outside the bar. The captain, knowing the treacherous character of the natives, kept one watch on deck until morning, but nothing suspicious being seen, the ship stood close in at daylight, and came to; after which the water-barrels were got overboard, and the captain and first mate set out in their boats to tow them ashore. No sooner had the crews touched the beach than they were assailed by a swarm of natives, who had been lying in ambush waiting for them. Almost at the same moment two large war canoes filled with savages made their appearance, coming from one of the numerous little inlets which set into the land from the bay. They headed straight for the ship, their crews brandishing their lances and clubs, and yelling at the top of their lungs.
The sailors on board the Tycoon, who had witnessed the massacre of their shipmates without the power to aid them, now found themselves called upon to provide for their own safety. The second mate, who was in command, made an effort to bring the ship about and run out of the bay; but she struck the bar in going around, running on with sufficient force to knock all the crew off their feet. They could not run, and their only chance for life was to beat off their assailants, who outnumbered them five to one. The weapons that were left in the arm-chest were quickly brought up, muskets, pistols and cartridges to put into them were distributed among the crew, lances, harpoons and spades placed about the deck in convenient nooks, so that they could be readily seized, and by the time these preparations were completed, their foes were upon them. They made the attack at two different points, one canoe running under the bow and the other coming alongside at the starboard quarter. The sailors met them at both places, and the first assault was repulsed. The seamen, having the advantage of position, knocked their assailants over the side as fast as they could climb to the top of the bulwarks, but the natives persevered, and overwhelming numbers began to tell. They succeeded in gaining a footing on deck, and drove the sailors before them toward the waist.
Almost in the beginning of the fight the second mate had been struck down by a lance, and as there was no one to direct the movements of the sailors, each man fought on his own hook, and did just what he thought best, without paying any attention to his neighbors. Boson probably saved the day. While the sailors were retreating he caught up the mate's revolver, which was lying on deck, and turning fiercely on his foes fired all the barrels in quick succession, every shot striking a native and bringing him dead or wounded to the deck. That was more than the enemy could endure. Appalled by the havoc the six-shooter created, they beat a hasty retreat, followed by the sailors, who thinned their ranks very perceptibly before they could clamber over the side into their boat. As they were about to push off, Boson and Tully added a grand finale to the victory. The former threw a harpoon at one of the natives, which, missing its object, passed through the bottom of the boat, knocking a hole in her that would have caused her to sink long before she could reach the shore, even had Tully not followed it up, as he did, with the heavy snatch-block, which made a complete wreck of her.
The enemy being beaten at the quarter, the sailors who defended that part of the ship ran to the assistance of their friends in the bow; but the fight was over there, also. The natives, failing to gain the deck, became discouraged, and dropping back into their boat, made all haste to reach the shore. Some succeeded, others did not. The sailors rushed for their muskets and pistols, which they had thrown to the deck after firing their contents at the foe, and hastily ramming down cartridges, opened fire on the natives. Those of their companions who were not provided with these weapons, employed themselves in clearing the deck of the dead and wounded the savages had left behind them, tumbling them all unceremoniously over the side, and never looking to see what became of them afterward.
The battle being ended, the crew began to look about them and make an estimate of their losses. They found that six of their number had fallen beneath the war-clubs and lances of their assailants, which, counting in the twelve that had gone ashore in the boats, made eighteen men they had lost out of thirty-five. Greatly alarmed, disheartened by the loss of all their officers, and afraid to risk another encounter with their diminished numbers, they hastily committed the bodies of their dead companions to the deep, and set to work to get the ship afloat. They had kept hard at it for more than six hours. They had moved her a little, but the tide began to fall just at the wrong time, and there she was as fast as if she had been nailed to the ground.
The new-comers listened to this story with breathless attention. If any evidence was needed to convince them of its truthfulness, they found it in the frightened faces of the men and the disordered state of the deck, which bore unmistakable signs of the conflict. Their assailants had left some of their property behind them in the shape of lances, war-clubs and head-dresses, and close alongside the ship floated the wreck of the canoe, which was slowly moving out to sea with the tide. A moment later additional and most unexpected evidence was produced. A warning exclamation uttered by Lucas, under his breath, drew all eyes toward him. Frank saw him pick up a lance that happened to be lying near, and following the direction of his gaze, saw that it was fastened upon a head which was slowly rising above the combings of the fore hatch – a head covered with a mass of shaggy hair. It was one of the natives, who had no doubt been knocked into the hold during the fight, and was now coming up to see if the coast was clear, so that he could make his escape. Not a man moved. Every one held his breath as Lucas raised the long, slender whale-lance in the air and held it poised in both hands.
The head was raised slowly, cautiously, inch by inch, above the combings of the hatchway, and presently a dark-brown forehead and then a pair of eyes appeared. At that instant the lance whistled through the air. Thrown by a practised hand and flying true to its aim, its keen point was buried in the combings exactly in range with the spot where the head had been a second before. Its owner had seen the weapon coming and dodged just in time, but his escape was a narrow one.
"Avast, there!" cried a voice from the hold. "Ain't you Christians enough to give a white man a chance for life and liberty?"
The sailors stood and looked at one another without speaking.