Bibliographic Information

The Plough Boy Journals

The Journals and Associated Documents

The Plough Boy Anthology

19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXVIII, No. 1 (Jul 1868)

Ballou's Monthly Magazine. 31



      "Why do seamen run from ships, on long voyages?" is often gravely and very innocently asked. As well ask, why do we see men of every other calling in life throw up good situations every day in the week to go further and fare worse. I remember reading some years ago, in a publication devoted to the interests of seamen, a series of elaborate papers on the "Wants of Seamen," by a well-known clergyman of high standing, in which the writer undertook to show us the various "causes of desertion." The usual catalogue of grievances was run through and checked off methodically; bad treatment by officers, bad food, bad lodgings and so on; but after arriving at nineteenthly, it was evident the worthy divine had only skimmed the surface of the matter. The difficulty of assigning any sufficient apparent motive, in a large percentage of cases, was well set forth by an old New London captain in conversation with a chaplain stationed at a port in the Pacific; and this, not in any spirit of irreverence, but merely as a most forcible illustration of his meaning. The chaplain argued that if men were well treated and fed, there would be no such thing as desertion. "Do you think so?" said old Captain M––. "Well, I think that if I had a full ship and was bound direct to heaven, touching at ––, on the passage, I should lose some of my crew." But perhaps the episode in my own life which I am about to relate will more fully illustrate my meaning, than any amount of moralizing on the subject.

      I was but eighteen years of age at the time of which I write, and had served about as many months as a green hand, in the good ship Aspasia of Nantucket, Captain Ray. In this ship I was well treated, and the captain had even taken a personal interest in my welfare and advancement. We had been lucky, too; and our prospects were fair for making a short and successful voyage. But I had listened to the seductive yarns of others older in recklessness and sin, till I imagined that I had grounds of serious dissatisfaction with my position on board.

      We had shipped as a boat-steerer, at the Marquesas Islands, an Englishman named Hall, or as he called himself, " 'Arry 'All," an old stager in the Pacific, who had been knocking about there for years by the cruise, never staying long in one ship. After running down to the westward among "the groups," we set boat's crew watches – which was done by dividing the crew into three watches, a boatsteerer being in charge of each. By this arrangement, two-thirds of the crew are on duty in the daytime, and the mates are also all on deck, they standing no night-watch. It fell to my lot to be in Hall's watch; and, as he was an inveterate yarner, I got the full benefit of his experience, which, instead of proving a warning to me, had just the contrary effect, inflaming my love of adventure and excitement, until I fully believed myself a most ill-used and persecuted individual, and was ready to welcome freedom at any cost of danger or difficulty.

      We concerted various plans for desertion, three others of our shipmates being enlisted with us in the mad scheme; and it was finally agreed that, as there was little prospect of the anchor finding the bottom for some months to come, we should make the most of the first good opportunity to desert at sea.

      We had discussed the matter night after night in our watches till it had become a settled thing, and had agreed over and over again to stand by each other through all perils or difficulties that might attend this foolhardy enterprise. We were all in one watch, and comprised the whole of it with the exception of a young fellow named Bradshaw, to whom we had never entrusted our secret; but we could easily manage him.

      One calm but dark night when we had the morning watch it was decided to make the attempt. We held our final council in the evening under the lee of the tryworks, and again plighted our vows to sustain each other to the death if necessary. We were called at two A. M., it being our duty to rouse all hands at about half past five, so as to man the mastheads and wash off decks, which was always an all hands job. As Bradshaw was a very hard sleeper, and always stood several calls, it was no uncommon thing for the larboard boat's crew to turn in, leaving him still in his bunk, to be roused again by his watchmates. As it did not serve our purpose in this instance to give him his extra call, he was allowed to snore quietly on; and, as soon

32 My first and last Desertion.

as sufficient time had elapsed for the other watch to be fast locked in sleep, we made all haste with our final preparations.

      The Aspasia, like many other three-boat ships, carried the fourth on the cranes, rigged, with all the fixtures and craft, ready for active service. This "bow-boat" was to be used for our rash voyage, as being so far forward we should be less liable to awaken any one in the cabin; and we did not so much fear interference from any of the foremast hands. We had two good-sized tarpaulin bags prepared, which we now filled with hard tack, for the bread cask always stood open between decks, accessible to all. There was also some bread in the "lantern keg," which is a part of the outfit of every whale-boat, and which, as its name implies, also contains lantern, candles, tinder, etc. There was a keg in the boat containing about five gallons of water, to which we added two more taken from the other boats. Not wishing to be lumbered with the heavy tub of whale line, we cut off thirty or forty fathoms, which we coiled down in the boat. A few jackets and spare articles of clothing were thrown in; though not much was required in that climate.

      Now came the delicate operation of "lowering away" without noise; but we had been careful to grease the falls and sheaves well beforehand, and, to delay pursuit in case our departure should be discovered before we had gained sufficient offing, we had cut the davit-falls of all the other boats, and tossed the rowlocks overboard, so that considerable time would be lost, before they could give chase. "With our hearts in our throats" we lowered away little by little, tending the falls carefully, and, as she touched the water, we dropped lightly into her, unhooked, and shoved clear of the ship's side. We stepped the mast and set the sail to catch the light air that was stirring, but did not venture yet to handle the oars. Now, for the first time, a feeling of regret and apprehension crossed my mind as I thought of what we had undertaken. Our intention was to steer for Ocean High Island, which is quite detached from the rest of the group, and is much higher than the generality of them, being visible perhaps twenty miles distant, from a boat. We had two boat compasses with us, also an old battered quadrant belonging to one of our party named Tom Nix, an old salt who knew just enough of the use of it to imagine himself a first class navigator. He had managed privately to copy a page of declinations from the Nautical Almanac, on a scrap of paper, and armed with this and his old "yoke," Nix was confident of his ability to make Ocean Island, or even to circumnavigate the globe, if he had time and provisions enough. Now that we were fairly under way, I began in some degree to realize the peril of which, to tell the truth, I had thought very little before starting.

      As soon as we had forged enough to leeward to be out of hearing from the ship, we sat down to our oars and pulled with a will. Not a word was spoken for an hour or more, each man being intent upon his work. We did not venture to strike a light, but steered by the stars only. We then somewhat relaxed our efforts, pulling more moderately. The dim outline of the ship's sails had long since faded into the surrounding darkness, and we had as yet heard nothing of any alarm on board.

      "Well, I guess we are far enough now to ease up and rest a little," said the young fellow who pulled the tub oar; who, from the fact of his having been an attache of a travelling show before he came to sea, was called "Barnum" from the outset, and was known to his shipmates only by that name.

      "No, no," said Hall "We must keep on pulling so as to be out of sight before the mastheads are manned. If they should see us and have a breeze, they could hover'aul us with the ship, and we are pulling one 'and short, you know."

      "I wonder if little Bradshaw has woke up yet?" said Squier, a fat Connecticut youth, who was puffing and blowing furiously from the effects of his exertions at the heavy midship oar. "Wont he catch it when the mate turns out, eh?"

      "Ay, ay," said old Tom Nix. "There'll be the deuce to pay, and no pitch hot, when they find we are gone. But let them laugh that win. We must keep her jogging another hour yet, and then we shall be safe enough."

      We continued pulling, though not so hard as during the first hour, and also kept the sail set, which aided us a little. As day began to break, all eyes were intently fixed astern to get the first sight of the old ship.

      "Here she is!" cried Barnum, "away off the quarter."

      And sure enough there she was, hull down in the horizon, but the sun struggling up in the background soon showed she was steering off the wind with everything set, but on a course that would carry her many miles to the northward of us. It was evident that our

My first and last Desertion. 33

absence was discovered and that they had made sail and run to leeward as the most that could be done under the circumstances; but we were too far off to be seen even from the masthead, and all danger from pursuit was over. We could now breathe freely as regarded any chance of trouble from that quarter, and again my thoughts reverted to the other perils which lay in our future.

      "Well, Tom Nix," said I, "you think it will take us about four days to go to Ocean Island, eh?"

      "Yes," said Tom. "We ought to make it in four days, anyhow. If we have a good stiff breeze we'll be there in three days. I think we shall get more wind before noon."

      "And are you sure you can find it, Tom?"

      "Find it? yes, boy. Haven't I been there before?"

      "Yes, I suppose you have," I answered. "But I don't see the good of that, if there are no marks to go by."

      "There's marks enough over your head," said old Tom, "and I've got my old yoke here, and the dockyments in my pocket. So now, youngster, don't you trouble yourself with things that you know nothing about. What do you know about navigation, anyhow?"

      Sure enough. What did I know? Nothing about using a quadrant or other nautical instruments, though perhaps more of the general or geographical principles than anyone else in the boat. Had I known still more, I should have realized how difficult, how almost desperate an undertaking it was, to find a comparatively small island like that with our materials and resources. I should have known that we had no way of getting our longitude but by estimating the run of the boat, and this too, by the uncertain means of a compass standing at our feet in the stern sheets. I should have known what a dubious course we could shape, if we had no means of knowing how much westing we had made from day to day. I should have known that a single day's break in our observations for latitude, if the sun should happen to be obscured at meridian, would place us "where old Jack Kane slept, nowhere." And better than all, I should have known enough to have stuck by the good ship Aspasia, rather than trust myself blindly to the guidance of old Tom Nix and 'Arry 'All, whose long experience had been simply a repetition of errors. But as Tom had intimated I knew but little and considered him something of an oracle. But I ventured on another question.

      "Where did you learn navigation, Tom?" I asked.

      "Where did I learn it, boy?" returned the veteran, turning upon me with a stare of contempt. "Well, I learned it from a man that knew every wrinkle in it. Old Captain Barnes used to say he could stand on one foot on the p'int of a belaying-pin, shoot a lunar through the strap of the jewel block, and hit a buoy moored in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And 'twas said of him, though he didn't say it himself, that if he couldn't see the sun, he'd spit a pond of tobacco-juice at the break of the quarter-deck, and run by that and his dead reckoning anywhere. Now, mind, I don't say I can do as much; but what little I do know, I learned from him."

      This, of course, settled the matter, and I had no further questions to ask. We had steered off a little, so as to diverge still more from the course of the ship, and before it was time to get our observations, her topgallant-sails had sunk entirely below the horizon and we were alone on the expanse of ocean. I had "shinned" up the boat's mast to get a last look, but after straining my eyes in vain, I slid down again with a feeling of loneliness, but I cannot say of utter dependence upon old Nix's pilotage, for I was beginning to think that, though he might have been taught the use of a quadrant, it was probable that he knew less of the general principles and facts of geography than myself, green hand though I was.

      Tom got his "sights" at noon, and, after filling the "clumsy cleet" with clumsier figures, he declared our latitude to be two degrees and twenty miles south. I knew the latitude of the island to which we were bound to be about fifty miles south, and its longitude nearly 171 degrees east. So, by his calculation it must be about ninety miles north of us; but the westing bothered me more, and, to add to my anxiety, I began to see that old Tom knew no more about it than I did, though he displayed any amount of a certain foolhardy confidence which often passes current for knowledge. After consultation we judged we must be in about 176 degrees east. This we deduced from the ship's longitude of the day before, as it had been surreptitiously obtained from the mate's slate, and also from the known vicinity of Hope Island, which had been seen two days before, but which, being now to windward of us, was quite inaccessible against both wind and current. While making our dinner, we discussed the matter of

34 My first and last Desertion.

navigation in full council, and made up our minds to stand north till we got about the latitude we wanted, and then make as near a west course as possible. I argued till I convinced both Squier and Barnum as well as Hall, who could hardly read and write, and knew nothing about the "blarsted navigation," and our united votes overruled old Tom, who was at first for trying to shape a direct course; but the more I thought, the more I was convinced that my plan was the safest

      We hauled up north by compass, which brought the wind nearly abeam, and taking to our oars, pulled ahead moderately, at times giving way hard for a half hour or so, and then peaking the oars to rest awhile for a fresh start. With the oars and sail, we estimated we must have made about thirty-five miles when we set the watch at dark. Each one took his turn to steer and look out while the others slept as best they could. I suggested that we should keep on pulling at night so as to make up our latitude while we were fresh and strong; but here I found myself in a minority, the others contending it was best to use the breeze while we had it, and reserve our muscle for calm weather. We steered as nearly as we could on the same course all night, but the wind fell away towards morning, and by sunrise it was a flat, glassy calm. The sail, being useless, we rolled it up, unstepped the mast and took to our oars, still pulling north. The sun came up bright and hot from his watery bed, giving promise of a scorching day, and nothing indicated that we should have any wind for many hours to come. We pulled lustily for two or three hours, but as the day advanced, the fierce heat of the sun's rays was too much for us to endure, and we again ceased our exertions. The sail was now unrolled and stretched over the boat as an awning, to screen us in some measure from the intense heat, which was unlike anything I have ever seen before or since, even in tropical latitudes. Still more and more intense it became, as the great luminary of day rose steadily towards the zenith, pouring down fierce and unrelenting, penetrating the slight protection of the sail, and seeming to scorch the very marrow in our bones. Dreadful inroads were now made upon the water in the kegs; for we could not be restrained now by considerations of economy; the desire for present relief from the heat and thirst that were consuming us took the place of all prudential calculations, and we swallowed huge draughts of the stale and lukewarm liquid, and again and again laved our burning brows and bodies to get but a moment of partial relief.

      With much anxiety I noted that old Tom was more overcome by the heat than any other of our number. He seemed partially stupefied, and it required much effort to get him out with his quadrant as it drew towards high noon. It was highly important, nay, it was almost a matter of life and death with us, that we should have a meridian observation, and he was the only one who professed to be able to get it. To do this he would be obliged to expose himself outside of the awning, for the sun's position at noon was almost exactly vertical, it being then near the equinox. I roused him from his stupor, and put the quadrant in his hand. He sat in the head of the boat, and took his position to observe the sun, but his mind seemed confused and wandering, and he made incoherent replies to what I said. He made several attempts to bring the sun to the horizon, but his efforts did not seem satisfactory to him. I had pulled myself partially under the sail again, but lay watching him narrowly and anxiously, when I observed a strange appearance in his face, his eyes rolled, and his head seemed to rock to and fro on his neck, and before I could jump to his assistance, his quadrant dropped from his grasp to the bottom of the boat, and he fell heavily upon it. Hall and Barnum sprung to my aid, and we dragged the old man under the awning; we bathed his head; we threw open his shirt and dashed water upon him, not knowing what else to do for him; but all our efforts to restore him were vain. It was soon evident to us all that Nix's cruise was up, and that we had no longer even a pretended navigator among up. Tom was dying from coup de soleil!

      What little we could do for him in our situation was done, but his sufferings were short, and as he drew his last sigh, we sat in silent stupor round him, till roused again by our own sufferings. Poor Squier, from his fleshy habit of body, suffered more than the others from the heat, and indeed seemed scarcely conscious of what had happened. Hall at length looked at me, and without a word pointed over the side of the boat; we seemed to understand each other intuitively; and, lifting the body of our comrade on the gunwale, composed its limbs as well as possible, and dropped it gently to its final resting-place in the ocean. We drew back under the awning with a feeling of relief; not

My first and last Desertion. 35

a word broke the stillness; prayers indeed were said in the silence of our hearts, for this blow seemed to us like a visitation from high Heaven; but no tears could we shed for our shipmate; they seemed to be scorched up in their very fountains.

      But why dwell upon our suffering through the long, dreamy hours of the afternoon? The day wore away at last and with the declining sun came a little breeze. O, how grateful! as it fanned our fevered brows and put new life into us! Squier revived gradually under its influence, to our great relief, as we had feared he too would fall a victim. Hall, who was still the strongest, took the steering oar, while Barnum and I set the sail, drew aft the sheet, and we sped along once more on our northerly course. Until now I had not thought of the quadrant. I went forward and picked it up from where it had fallen. It was but useless lumber, had we been the best navigators in the world. Both index and horizon glasses were crushed, and their fragments strewed the bottom of the boat! I held it up silently to the gaze of the others, pointed to the empty frames, and threw it from me.

      I sat down for a minute or two, and communed with myself. I felt that we must not give way to despair; and now that I had no longer old Tom's knowledge to lean upon, I seemed to be endowed with new courage.

      "Boys," said I, "I suppose we are all wishing ourselves back on board the Aspasia, but it is too late to think of that. By my calculation we have still about fifteen miles to go to the northward, and if this little breeze holds, we shall be far enough by midnight to ease off the sheet and run down our longitude. We have bread enough to last us ten days with proper care; but our greatest danger now will be scarcity of water. We had better see now how much we have left, and how long it can be made to last." It was found upon examination that, out of fifteen gallons with which we started, we had about eight remaining. By allowancing ourselves to a quart a day, this could be made to last eight days, and this we all agreed to do. We had still one keg full, which had not been breached, and I know not what impulse seized me at that moment to taste from the full keg. I did so, however, and shall never forget the sinking at heart as I took a little in my mouth and spat it out in disgust, or the looks of the others as I handed the keg saying, "Taste!" All did so with the same result. We had five gallons of salt water!

      Blank despair was imprinted upon all our faces as we took in the terrible truth. But my courage soon rose again to the occasion, and I was the first to speak, for I felt that I must be the leader now.

      "Well," said I, "instead of eight gallons of water, we have only about three. It is of little consequence to us now how this water became salt, but I think I know. It is one of the kegs the cooper made for oil, and was put in the steerage among other spare ones. The last time the larboard boat lowered for whales she lost her boat keg, and this one was taken by mistake, filled and put into that boat. You will see that the bottom head has been cut from the head of a beef barrel saturated with pickle. The water has never been tasted until now. There is no help for it, our allowance must be a pint a day instead of a quart If we are blessed with rain we are all right; if not, we have enough to last six days, and by that time, we must make the land or fall in with a passing ship."

      "But," said Hall, "'ow are we to keep up any strength on a pint of water a day? It's not 'arf enough in this climate."

      "I know it, but it will keep us alive, and that is the best we can do. If we catch any rain we will be able to increase the allowance. Soaking our clothes in sea water will help us a little; at least, I have heard say it will, and we can try that, at any rate. So don't let us despair yet. I think we shall get a rainy day to-morrow."

      I had no particular reason for thinking so, but I said it with a very confident air, and I could perceive that it had some effect.

      At midnight as near as we could judge, we swung her off with a flowing sheet, and lashed the jib tack out on the bow oar, so as to make a sort of studding-sail of it and thus ran wing-and-wing, steering west by north, which, as I judged, would make a course west, there being nearly one point variation in this part of the ocean. We held on this course for three days and nights, making good way through the water, sometimes assisting her with the paddles for a short time; but we were becoming enfeebled in strength, and could labor only for short periods. We had some squalls of rain, which were of only a few minutes' duration, but we made the most of them, and this eked out our scanty supply of water and helped us to keep up our vital powers. We had still enough bread for a week, but water was our greatest want. We relieved each other from time to time at the

36 My first and last Desertion.

steering oar, keeping her as straight as possible on her course; and on the third day I had calculated that we ought certainly to see the land before noon. This breeze had freshened since morning, and we were going at least six miles an hour. The labor of steering had become quite severe to us in our weakened state; but we took short spells, relieving each other about every half hour. I had kept up the courage of my companions by telling them we should certainly see the land this forenoon, and had demonstrated it as well as I could, by figures. Every eye was now strained for the first sight of the desired land; which, though nothing but a den of savages, was now the El Dorado of our hopes. Hour after hour went by, and the expression in our faces gradually changed from hope to anxiety, from anxiety to apprehension. Noon has come and passed – the sun wanes towards the west – no land in sight. Still another hour or two – I may have made a mistake in my reckoning – "Relieve the steering oar, and keep her straight," and on we speed at the same swift rate, with breeze and current in our favor.

      The sun is only about an hour high, and the line of sea and sky along the western horizon is as clear and sharply defined as ever. Hall asks me with a look of desperation, "Well, what are we to do next?" for he had gradually come to yield himself to my guidance and look to me for advice, not to say for orders; although he had originally led me and the other two young men into this mad adventure.

      "Stand on till sundown," said I, "and then heave to."

      I try to say it bravely, but there is a sinking at my heart; for the truth is dawning upon me; I think I know the error I have made; and if it is as I surmise, I have lost almost my last hope of being saved. The sun is dipping – still all is clear to leeward. "Take in the jib, Barnum" – "Squier, let her round to, and we will roll up the sail." My orders are instinctively obeyed – and the light boat soon lies tossing up and down ou the sea.

      "Where's the land?" said Hall, doggedly, while there was a look in his eye which I did not like; for he was still, physically, the strongest man of the four.

      "I think," said I, "we must have passed it, and it is now to windward of us."

      "Then we must all die of thirst and starvation."

      "I hope not," said I, affecting to speak cheerfully. "This is a favorite cruising ground for sperm whales, and we may be picked up by some ship to-morrow. It is not impossible, perhaps, to make Pleasant Island."

      I knew in my own mind that this was but a desperate chance.

      "How far off is that?" pursued Hall.

      "As near as I can judge, it must be about two hundred miles," I replied, for I would not lie to him, even under the circumstances.

      "Darnation!" he muttered, his eyes rolling in frenzy, as he staggered forward to the bow of the boat. I knew not what he might do in the state of mind he was in. It might be he was contemplating suicide; it might be murder. I looked at my two young comrades. The last change had been stealing over them, the change from apprehension to stony despair; but now I could see by their glances in return, that they were alive to the situation. I observed Squier to draw instinctively nearer to the boat keg, which contained at this time about one gallon of water – our last hold upon life. Barnum did not move; but his right hand was thrown, as if carelessly, upon the handle of a paddle that lay near him. Hall stood brooding in the head of the boat for a minute or two, then seizing the boat-knife from its sheath, he turned and confronted us. The madness of despair was upon him, and the expression of his face was perfectly diabolical.

      "Water! water!" he shouted, hoarsely. "Give me water! I will have it and drink my fill!"

      "Hall!" said I, looking him as steadily as I could in the eye, "you can have your share of water with the rest of us. All our lives are dependent upon the little in this keg, and we will share alike, and live or die together. Shall we not, boys?"

      "Yes, yes!" responded the other two.

      "I tell you I will have the water!" roared Hall, leaping aft. "Give me the keg!"

      With one impulse, we rallied round the precious liquid, to defend it with our lives. Hall's knife gleamed in the twilight and flashed within an inch of my throat, when the paddle met him full in the face, he was thrown from his balance, and with the lurch of the boat, fell over the gunwale into the sea. Horror-struck we all sprung to the side of the boat but the waves had closed over him, and stunned by the blow, he rose no more.

      The paddle had dropped from Barnum's

My first and last Desertion. 37

hand and he sat as if paralyzed. A convulsive groan came up from his chest – and tears started.

      "Good God!" said he, in a voice choked with agony, "what have I done?"

      "You have done right," cried Squier and I, both in the same breath. "I am indebted to your timely movement for my life, Barnum," I continued, "though perhaps that may not be worth much at the present time. But we were all acting in self-defence against a madman, and it is well as it is. We three will take our chances together, live or die. And now let us get supper," I continued, with an attempt to smile.

      Said supper consisted of a bit of hard tack moistened with about a gill of stale water.

      "We will lie here and drift all night, boys, and trust to Providence. In the morning we will consider what can be done next. Do you two sleep if you can, and I will keep the first watch."

      I sat alone on the stern sheets, with my back against the loggerhead, thinking, for at least three hours after my companions were quietly stretched out, perhaps sleeping, but that I cannot say. I was now satisfied that I had made a fatal mistake in my navigation which had brought us where we now were. I had used one point variation in shaping my course, but had applied it the wrong way! The variation must have been easterly, and steering west-by-north we had made a west-northwest course, instead of west as I had intended. If so, we must now be more than a hundred miles to the northward of Ocean High Island; and had passed to leeward of it this morning. The chances were very small of finding Pleasant Island, which was lower than the other, and its position at that time, as I had heard Captain Ray say, somewhat uncertain; while my own position or whereabouts was surely much more so. Still it would be as well to steer to the southwest to-morrow, as there was a straw for a drowning man, in the chance of being picked up by some whaler cruising between the two islands.

      The night shut down dark and lowering, with heavy clouds, threatening rain on the morrow, which I should hail as a godsend, for it would furnish the one great means of prolonging life – water. There was, as yet, no increase of wind; the trades blew moderately, and our light whale-boat tossed buoyantly about at the sport of wind and wave. Her drift would be considerable through the night, but it would be nearly in the direction I wished to go. I was sustained by a presentiment that I should in some way be saved, for I still clung to life and hope – I reviewed my past life, cursed again and again my folly and wickedness in deserting from a good ship, stealing the boat and other property, and thus casting myself away; and, in sincere penitence, prayed that I might not be permitted to perish in any unknown and mysterious manner, as two of our number had already. I thought of all the friends I had at home, for I had friends, though I had no parents or very near relations living, and had been orphaned at a very early age; but I thought again what a good friend I had thrown away when I left Captain Ray, and probably, by my conduct, had embittered him forever against me, even should my life be spared ever to see him again. I solemnly promised to God and my conscience that, if I were spared to reach land, this night should be the turning point in my life.

      At this point, becoming excited in feeling, I rose to my feet. Glancing to windward I perceived something like a flash of light off the quarter. For an instant only I saw it, then all was gloom again. I stood several minutes intently gazing, and was about giving it up as a mere freak of imagination, when another flash, brighter than the first, illumined the sky, lasting longer than before, so long that I felt sure I was not dreaming, but that I had seen a light! Even now, I would not call my shipmates, for fear of raising hopes that might by reaction dash their spirits still lower. Seizing the steering oar I gently laid the boat's head to windward, and let her fall off on the southern tack, heading towards the quarter where I had seen the light. I had not done this without disturbing the feverish rest of one of my companions, for as I pushed the oar back into its becket, Barnum stood by my side. Just then the light appeared again, strong and clear, and I could feel the trembling of my comrade as his hand clutched my shoulder, while his breathing would have been audible at the bow of the boat.

      "What can it be, Barnum?"

      "God be praised for his mercies!" replied the young man. "It's more than we deserve! A ship, boiling, and headed towards us! There! see the light is cut by the lee clew of his foresail! Squier! Here, look up, man, and be saved! Here's help close at hand!"

      "Yes," said I, "she is not far off, and is headed at us! He must have been just

38 My first and last Desertion.

starting his fires when I saw the first faint light. We can be alongside of him in half an hour. Step the mast and loose the sail! Haul the sheet flat, Squier, and we can lay right up for him! There's old Hallett!" I shouted, in my excitement, as a fresh scrap kindling up on the back arches, lighted up the whole waist of the ship, revealing the mainmast with all its tracery and hamper, the mainsail snugly furled, while his cutting gear with the falls rove aloft could be distinctly seen, for the light now burned steadily.

      We were rapidly nearing the ship, so rapidly indeed that we soon rolled up the sail and took it out of our way. Her fore-topsail was on the cap, and the head-yards thrown aback, showing that she had a whale alongside and was "lying by" one, while she boiled out another.

      "Do you know what ship that is, Barnum?" asked Squier.

      "No!" said Barnum, "nor do I care. She has Christian men on board, I suppose, who would not leave a fellow to starve to death in an open boat."

      "That's the Aspasia," said Squier, quietly.

      "How do you know?" asked his companion.

      "Don't you see those stars on the head of the waist-boat? I painted them myself and know just how they are arranged. Now the mainmast is lit up again! look at that band where the mizzen-stay is hooked, I should know that among a hundred."

      It was even so! our old ship again; and we rejoicing at the opportunity to sneak ignominiously alongside of her once more. As we drew along under her lee, and the fat crispy smell of the blubber came floating down to us, Barnum, who had the strongest lungs, hailed her.

      "Aspasia, ahoy!"

      "Halloo!" came ringing back over the water in the stentorian tones of Mr. Barnard our mate, as he ran to the side, and jumped up into the lee quarter-boat. "What boat is that?"

      "The Bow Boat, sir!" I answered. "Why, that's Dick's voice! Come along side here! Look out for this warp here, one of you!" he shouted, to his watch, who all stood gaping in amazement. "Only three men in her! Where's the rest of you?"

      "It's a long story, sir," I answered.

      "All right! we'll hear it by-and-by. Captain Ray!" he yelled, at the companion way, "here's our boat and men alongside!" but he might have saved his breath, for, by this time, "the old man" was on deck.

      "Thank God! you are back again! some of you at any rate," cried the captain. "Help the poor boys up the side and get them comfortable. Don't stop to ask them any questions now! we'll hear it all in good time."

      No language can do justice to my feelings, as, with downcast head and tearful eyes, I staggered towards the scuttle butt, for I had been cramped up in the boat so long, to say nothing of my weakness, that I could scarcely keep my footing on the comparative terra firma of the ship's deck.

      "Well, Dick!" said the old man. "Rather thirsty, eh! I'll bet you are as glad to get back to the old hooker as you were to get away from her, eh?"

      I could make no reply, but overpowered by his kindly greeting, I wilted down on the booby hatch and sobbed aloud.

      "There! never mind, boys," said the old man. "Let the past be thrown overboard. I think your crime has carried its own punishment along with it."

      The next day, I sat by his side in the cabin, and told him the truth freely and without reservation. The kind old man was affected to tears by my account of the awful death of old Nix, smitten by sunstroke; and shuddered at the fate of the maniac, Hall, knocked overboard in self-defence. He advised me to keep my own counsel, and I endeavored to do so. But as there were other depositories of the secret, it all leaked out eventually; and at this distance of time, when the surviving parties are scattered far and wide, there is no good reason why I should not record, as a warning to all young seamen, the true history of my first and last attempt at desertion.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: My First and Last Desertion.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol 28, No. 1 (Jul 1868)
Pages: 31-38