Ocean Echoes - The Loyal Legion Button
( Originally Published 1922 )
THE railroad fare from Sacramento to San Francisco was two dollars and fifty cents. I bought a ticket and rode there, to the City of Crimps. I knew what to expect once l fell into their hands, but beggars can't be choosers, six dollars wouldn't last long, and sooner or later it would be a sailor's boarding-house for me, and then away to the ends of the earth on anything that carried sail.
When I got off the train in San Francisco I walked around like a stray dog smelling for sympathy. The street lights flickered in the evening shadows; the smell from Fourth Creek, where the city sewage emptied into Mission Flats, was thick and nauseating; coastwise schooners were discharging lumber in the creek, and that part of the city was as tough as the Barbary Coast.
There was a saloon at the corner of Fourth and Berry Streets which was owned by a Dane whose Irish wife was bartender. It seemed odd to me that I chose this saloon to go into, and certainly Fate awaited me there, in the person of a man about sixty years old. As I entered he was in the act of raising a glass of whiskey to his lips, and immediately asked me to join him. I thanked him, and ordered a glass of steam beer.
He introduced himself as Captain Glass, now master of a bay scow. He was entering into a discussion of his merits in the most interested possible way, when a man in a Seymour coat tightly buttoned to the chin and a cap pulled down over his left eye, swaggered into the saloon, picked up the Captain's whiskey deliberately from the bar, and drank it. The Captain made a lunge at him with both fists, and missed him.
Then the crook, as deliberately as he had drunk the whiskey, knocked the old captain down onto the sawdust floor. As he lay there I could see a little copper button shining in the lapel of his pilot-cloth coat. I didn't know then what the little copper button meant, but a few minutes later I found out that he belonged to the Grand Army of the Republic, and had fought in the Civil War.
I wasn't going to let the crook get away with his rough Muff. One of mother's cardinal principles, in which she had thoroughly trained me, was respect for old age. The Irishwoman bar-tender dropped my beer, wailing, "Shure, an' where's policemen now? Oh you'll niver foind thim whin you want thim!"
I threw off my ragged coat and cap and flung them on the bar, then flew at the crook. I was so mad with rage that I forgot the training the third mate on the lime-juice ship had given me. I was knocked down twice before I realized that my present style of fighting favored the crook. Then I got into position, got my head, and gave him the whipping of his crooked life. To finish it right I picked him up, and carried him to the street and threw him in the gutter. Both my eyes were black, my nose was bleeding and my lip was cut.
The old Captain was on his feet again when I backed into the saloon, and helped me on with my coat. Three teeth were missing from his false set--he didn't know whether he had swallowed them or not, an egg-shaped bump was also developing on his right jaw. Willing as he was to talk, he found difficulty in moving his jaws.
We had our drink in peace this time He praised me for my good fighting, and the Irish woman, not to be outdone, said:
"Shure and it is as pretty a piece of fighting as fiver I see in this bar-room. Drink up, me boys, and have another wan on me."
"What do you do for a living?" asked the Captain, steadying his jaw with his hand so that he could enunciate.
"I'm a sailor, looking for a ship."
"I'll give you a job. Two dollars a day with board."
"All right, I'm your man. But what's the work to be?"
"Sailing with me up the Sacramento River. As I said, I'm the Captain of a little schooner, or a bay scow, as they call them here. I sail up the river, and carry cargo back to the city. Now we'll take another drink and go on board."
We went out, and down to the Mission wharf, where the Captain had a small boat moored to the slip. We got into her, and I rowed off under his direction, out into the bay, where anchor lights and side lights were as thick as stars in the heavens above. They seemed to be welcoming me home.
I rowed past screeching tugs and warning ferry-boats and square-rigged ships with raking masts that loomed out of the darkness like gigantic creatures of the deep come out to breathe of the night air.
"That's her over there, pull to your right a little."
I saw the outline of a small two topmast schooner riding gracefully in the ripples of an ebb-tide. We boarded her, and tied the dinkey astern. The Captain invited me into the cabin to have a bite to eat before we set sail. The cabin was small, and reminded me of the Swede's sloop in Glasgow. It was clean, and there was a place for everything. The old man had a decided sense of order.
The small stove that was lashed to the bulk-head smoked while he was lighting the fire. While he was cooking the supper I went up on deck to look around my new ship. She was about seventy tons, round bottom and center-board. The lower masts and topmasts had been scraped and a coat of oil rubbed into them,
Their pine brightness gave them a lofty appearance against the starry horizon. The main boom looked large for so small a craft. It projected about fifteen feet over the stern. The sails were furled in gaskets, and neatly stowed between the gaffs and the booms, the decks were clean, and all ropes coiled neatly in sailor-fashion.
"Come on," roared the Captain, with difficulty through his aching jaw, "have something to eat. It's ready now."
We munched in silence, I guarding my cut lip from the hot Wienerwurst, the Captain nibbling at his delicacies with a groan. We washed the food down with hot coffee, that seemed to me delicious in spite of its leathery taste, and when the dishes had been put away went out on deck to set the mainsail, heave up the anchor, and give her the jib and foresail. So we were off with the night breeze, for Clarksburg on the Sacramento River, for a cargo of baled hay.
The Captain was a thorough sailor and knew every move of his little craft. He pointed out channel lights with one hand while he steered with the other. I could hardly see them, for my eyes were very sore and swollen. I wondered how the crook was feeling by that time, and whether I should ever see him again.
There were stretches in the river where the wind would be fair, and again we would round a bend where it was dead ahead. Here he would haul the little schooner sharp onto the wind and beat to where the breeze was fair again. In this way we made Clarksburg in two days against the current, and sailed right up to the bank, drop-ping the sails and making her fast to the cotton-wood trees, for there was no wharf to tie her to.
The baled hay we were going to load was piled high upon the river bank, and loading it was hard work for me, since strength was what I used instead of the handy jerk and heave that old hands acquire. So that, with working in the hot sun all day, fighting mosquitoes at night, and drinking muddy river water, I was pretty well used up by the time we were loaded. The Captain seemed to thrive. He knew the trick of loading, and old as he was he could work rings around me.
In three days we had filled the hold and stowed most of the deck cargo, which was the greater part of the whole. To-morrow we should start or San Francisco, and that evening the Captain asked me to finish loading while he went for a walk.
About nine o'clock he came back, roaring drunk. He carried a jug which he handed to me.
"Drink some of that, young fellow," he said, with great pride.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It don't make a damned bit of difference what it is. Drink it any way. I'll tell you this much," he growled, as he fell over the cabin stool, "it's the world's greatest cure for chills 'n' fever."
What chills and fever were I did not know then (although I was to find out soon enough), nor what the "world's greatest remedy" might be. So I said : "Captain, I'll not touch it till you tell me what it is."
He tumbled into his bunk with a groan. Then he tried to get out of the bunk and couldn't. He murmured softly as his head fell back upon the dirty pillow : "Jackass brandy."
Jackass brandy again ! The Devil in our midst ! None of that for me ! I put the jug away, and taking a blanket and a piece of mosquito netting went up on deck to sleep.
At four o'clock in the morning the Captain came up with a tin dipper to take a drink out of the river, Seeing me asleep between the tiller ropes he shouted : "What did you do with that jug?"
In vain I urged him not to drink any more. He would have it, so I finally told him where it was, and he went down to the cabin after it.
I rolled out of the blanket, took off my clothes, jumped overboard, and had a refreshing swim. Better than that other time when I had the jackass's kick to thank for an icy plunge!
When I came aboard again, the Captain, apparently perfectly sober, was elevating the deck-platform in line with the load of hay, in order to see where to steer. He told me to make the coffee while he reefed the fore and mainsail, which was necessary with so high a deckload.
The Captain drank my coffee, but refused to eat anything, saying that his stomach was out of order, which was not, I thought, to be wondered at. At nine o'clock that morning we let go from the cottonwoods, set the sails, and drifted away with the current.