Ocean Echoes - The Hens, The Cook, The Storm And The Fight
( Originally Published 1922 )
THE captain had for his own private use a dozen hens on board. Occasionally one would lay an egg. These were royal eggs, and. could only be eater by the master. To find an egg when one cleaned the coop was to bring cheer to the commander's heart. The weather was cold now, and the hens were timid about laying eggs. Here is where my story of the fight with the Dutchman begins.
We were to the "southard" and "westard" of the Falkland Islands and almost in the latitude of Cape Horn, but far from being around it. It was then the beginning of summer. The days were long, the winds were becoming threatening and cold. The sea looked boisterous and defiant, with its long deep rolling swell from the south-west.
One morning the bosun ordered me to clean out the hen-coop, and to gather in the eggs, should there be any. The captain, complaining about the eggs, said he wondered if someone had not been stealing them.
The chicken-coop was in a spare room in the midships house. While I was scrubbing in there, the big Dutchman stuck his head into the door and shouted : "You're the damned thief that has been stealing the eggs !" The mate heard him, and came running to the chicken-coop. The captain was walking the poop, and seeing his first mate take on more speed than usual, and wondering what all the noise around the chicken-house might be, hurried off the poop and joined the mate.
"This is the man who has been stealing the eggs," cried the Dutchman. "I saw him just now sucking one."
The mate raved and swore, and the captain took it very much to heart. How dare anyone eat his hen's eggs? I pleaded, declaring that the Hollander was a liar and a cur, and that I didn't steal the eggs. The Dutchman foamed with rage, and said he'd beat me to a jelly.
The captain believed the Dutchman, and as punishment he fined me one month's pay. I cleaned the coop. The captain and mate walked off. I could hear the captain say : "I knew those hens were laying all the time." I, who knew more about hens than I did about the Lord's Prayer, was well aware of the effect of cold weather upon laying hens, and felt that the captain would find out sometime that hens either cannot or will not lay eggs in iceberg weather.
The Dutchman was waiting for me around the fore part of the forecastle.
"Now," said he, "I am going to give you a whipping that you will never forget."
In spite of the third mate's instructions not to lose my temper, in view of my recent trouble I found it hard to remain cool I faced him, grinning with rage, and said : "Come on, you Dutch hound ! It is you who will get the whipping."
He rushed for me as if he would swallow me up. I sidestepped and caught him on the eye. My greatest difficulty was in not allowing him to get hold of me. If this should happen it was all off with me. Back he came at me like an uncaged lion, with his fists flying in front of him. The crew gathered around approvingly, to see a boy not yet nineteen holding his own with a man so much more experienced, and at least fifty pounds heavier.
I caught him again, this time on the mouth, knocking a tooth out, and injuring my hand, which had a sickening effect on me. But I had him groggy, and all that was needed was to give him a swing from my hip to bring him to the deck. He rushed me, like all cowards, with his head down, and his black eyes closed. I heard a voice, the third mate's :
"Put it to him now."
I upper-cut him first, then when he lifted his head swung for him and the big lying Dutchman lay crumpled on the deck.
"Now you can take care of yourself on any ship," said the third mate, as he bandaged my hand. I have done it, on more than one occasion. I only wish that social liars and evildoers were as easily handled as are bullies and liars in the stratum of society in which sailors move !
The Dutchman made many threats as to what he would do to me some dark night, but I had him cowed and he knew it. I was respected in the forecastle, and could grab the first chunk of salt-horse and get away with it.
About a week later we struck a Cape Horn blizzard, and, while I had thought it blew hard off the Newfoundland Banks, that was a mild storm compared to this one. Gale, hail, snow and sleet we had. Hours we spent reefing the icy topsails, clumsy in our clothes, and cold, and sure that if our stiffened fingers slipped there was a quick grave awaiting us. The seas looked larger to me than the mountains in Ireland. The ship had no buoyancy. Her cargo was Scotch whiskey, ale, and porter, and it lay heavy in her bowels. Seas flooded her fore and aft, and life-lines were rigged on the deck for the crew to work ship.
It was hard to get any response from the cook these days. He refused to bake our cracker-hash, which any cook should do, since it represents to a sailor the final good derived from faithful saving of crumbs. The bean-soup was beyond assimilation, and only a sailor with a shark's stomach could get away with it. There was hardly a spot on the cook's face that was not covered with red blotches.
The God of the Sea chooses well for the sailor. The cook was removed from the ship the following day.
It was Sunday, and five o'clock in the morning. The gale had not abated, nor had the sea decreased in mountain volume. Storm trysails and lower topsails were the sails she carried. The wind and waves were a point abaft the star-board beam. The seas had a raking sweep at the decks fore and aft the ship. The cook's galley acted as a seawall for the Cape Horn combers.
Two bells, five o'clock, rang the man at the fo'c'sle-head, and as the rolling tones died away in the crisp morning air we shipped a sea, a rolling green, white-capped comber; and when the decks were clear again we missed the cook, the galley, and the captain's hens. That was the end of the red-spotted cook!
Six long weeks we fought the weather off Cape Horn. Hungry and cold, we struggled with the ship, never giving an inch. Icebergs and gales we met and fought, and when the wind did blow fair for the Pacific Ocean I realized the truth of the sailor's saying, that Cape Horn is the place where Iron Seamen are made.
As the years drift by I can see that a Cape Horn training for our sailors to-day, nay, even for our business and society men, would make better men of the men, and men of the sissies, and perhaps help to perpetuate the strength of the human race.