It was clear to me, even before we crossed the equator, that young Johnny Riker had fallen into bad company. What did any of us really know about Nathan Jones? After the news of gold in California, when a group of us decided to throw our lot together and form the New Haven Mining Association someone had put forward his name as a man of energy and resources. A few years in Richmond Virginia had put a polish on his crafty New Haven ways. He makes a good show of himself, I'll give him that. He has a way of drawing men to him, especially the younger ones. It wasn't long into the voyage before young Johnny Riker the cabin boy, and Henry Bownes the Captain's son, were hanging around Nathan Jones whenever they got the chance. You'd see them lounging, laughing and whispering behind their hands. No doubt but what we're a strange and varied lot. There's plenty to catch the interest of a curious young man. Plenty even to poke fun at. Especially in the company of one like Nathan Jones.
The trip started out jolly enough. We were full of excitement about the journey. When we were stalled in New Haven harbor for over a week by bad weather, even that couldn't dampen our spirits. It simply gave more time for last letters, and final purchases to complete our supplies. Then the weather cleared, and we were on our way. Gold fever seemed to be afflicting nearly every unmarried man between the ages of 18 and 35 - some of the married ones as well. Our ship was primarily passengers bound to make our fortunes in the gold fields of California. Our group was better prepared than those traveling independently. We had chosen our number, and carefully rigged ourselves out with what we'd need.
And we weren't leaving culture behind. (Such culture as can be found in New Haven.) We had skilled musicians with their instruments, and there were those with a talent for verse when the opportunity arose. There was plenty of music and poetry on deck during the evenings of those first weeks. Along the way we met gold seekers on other ships with companionable fellowship. From time to time we still sing verses of the ditty Samuel Baker of Maine made up when we met the ship Marianah of Richmond Virginia.
It is pleasant to stay in our wandering way
When afar from the land that we love
And to welcome the cheer of our countriman near
As over the wild billows we rove
Ye seek the land of the Golden sand
Where sun set shadows lie
And the willing hand of a Yankee band
Will meet you, for thither we hie
Other than our memories, and the journal I kept on the trip, those words will no doubt be lost to time. Not that there's particular merit in them. But they fit the scene. I hope future generations will at least remember the courage, and the dreams, of those of us who followed the lure of gold with the best intents.
The sailors treated us well enough, green as we were. Some of our number were pitifully sick during those first weeks at sea. We tended to each other's needs as best we could. Experience was drawing us together as a sort of a family. In any family there are quarrels from time to time. Nothing serious though. Rum drinking fueled the occasional row. It seems unfortunate that rum is as much a necessity as fresh water on board ship.
On Sunday, April 30th, we crossed the equator about 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Crossing this imaginary line, which divides the world into above and below, has great significance for all men of the sea. There are all sorts of superstitions and traditions on board ship. At the equator it is thought that the God of the sea has power over all. They pay homage to that superstition by inviting him to board the ship. Accordingly, Neptune came aboard in the evening to shave such as wanted to be shaved. The sailors say it is the rule when crossing the equator to shave such as never crossed before by dressing up some one in a Fantastical Rig calling him Neptune or God of the Sea. It is, I suppose, a sort of rite of passage for the younger men. It was quite a sight when he came up dripping over the rails, clothed in tattered rags, festooned with rope and shells and holding a rusty harpoon in his hand. He carried on with great roaring bluster, demanding to know by what invitation we came as visitors to his kingdom, threatening great storms, and offering a shave with his rusty harpoon. It was quickly evident that this "Neptune" was not a very expert barber, considering his having had to shave so many since the rage of Gold fever.
What with so many making the trip 'round to California, the play acting has been worked out in elaborate style, for the entertainment of the passengers. All this is by way of a celebration, having made this part of the journey. From here the passage was hot and dull until the dreaded passage around Cape Horn. There were weeks together with not much to do before we reach the ports of Brazil. And so sailors and passengers broke the tedium of the trip with music and dancing in honor of royal Neptune. As much as some might want to experience this particular ritual of the sea, Neptune found no customers aboard the Ann Smith. For green sailor, and landsmen alike, this shaving is done by giving them a good lathering with soap grease and shaving them with a barrel whoop or some old piece of iron and by a finishing touch to souse them in a tub of salt water. If they refuse to be shaved they have to pay the forfeit what ever it is, most generally liquor all round.
It is dirty business and sometimes some one of the party gets seriously hurt. One of the sailors told me he had known instances where they had got killed. There was a good deal of Rum drinking on board that evening. Many had too much. Among them was Nathan Jones. While drinking brings out the jolly boy in some men, there are others who expose a darker, meaner side of themselves when they are filled with drink. Nathan Jones was one of those. With just a little drink he was full of good humor, playing slight tricks on the rest of us. Young Johnny Riker and Henry Bownes were quite swept away, playing along with his practical jokes. But as the evening went on, under the influence of too much rum, his pleasant Virginia polish was all worn away. The joking took on a mean edge. Calvin Carrington was the butt of most of it.
M. Calvin Carrington is a quiet man. He was then a Quaker, 42 and rather alone in the world. Poor man, what ever he tried his hand at seemed to end in failure. He had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by trying his luck in the gold mines. His dog Tiger was his closest companion. During the crossing of the Equator Calvin hung back, wanting to stay out of the rough fun. He declined joining in the drinking of rum that night. If there was one thing Nathan Jones couldn't abide it was someone who wouldn't take part in his drinking and joking. The more Carrington held back, the more Jones took it as a personal affront. When Carrington tried to ignore his jibes, Jones began to take his temper out on the dog. "Why don't we bait him with some of the rats from the ship's hold?", Jones would quip. "Let's see what kind of Tiger he really is. I'll be the first to lay a wager. Or is this mongrel like his master? Good for nothing." He tried to aim a kick at the dog, but his balance was none too steady. Carrington said nothing, but you could see the anger in his eyes. With a warning look to Jones he simply picked up the dog, and walked away. Jones looked as though he would follow. One of the sailors took him in arm, and tried to blow the anger out of his temper by diverting his attention to a game of dice. As Jones turned to gambling on deck the tension eased some.
Over the next several days all seemed to be forgiven, if not forgotten. Calvin Carrington tried to keep himself and Tiger out of the way of Nathan Jones. On a ship even as large as this one that was no easy thing. Tiger seemed to do what he could to live up to the dignity of his name. He stood next to his master, as though daring any on the ship to lay a hand on him. I don't think I ever saw a more devoted dog.
During those weeks Johnny Riker and Henry Bownes were always at Jone's side. They'd pass jokes between them, and often aimed a word at Carrington when he was within ear shot. More than once I thought that, for his son's sake, this was a friendship the Captain should discourage. But he seemed to take to turn a blind eye to whatever the boys did. No doubt he came to regret this lack of discipline with those in his care.
On Thursday May 11th Jones used his influence with the boys to break into the rum stores. They knew where the steward kept the key, and they were able to help themselves liberally. In the course of their drinking Jones suggested the idea that it would be great fun to sneak Tiger away from his master without him knowing. Seeing as how they were so close, it would be a great trick to separate the dog from the master. The boys were all for it. John Riker had a way with dogs, for all his being a New York city boy. He'd often befriended strays, the boy being something of a stray himself. It was young Riker who laid hands on the dog. Henry had supplied his shirt to throw over the dog's head, and so muffle his barks and keep him from biting. They carried him on deck. I'm sure that the boys had no thought beyond this bit of fun. But Jones had other ideas. He had carried a grudge against Carrington ever since crossing the equator. Here was his imagined revenge. They took the shirt off the dog's head, and immediately he started barking for all his was worth.
It was 12 Oclock at night when M. Calvin Carrington's dog Tiger was thrown overboard by Nathan Jones, John Riker, the cabin boy and Henry Bownes, Captain's son. In our bunks below we could hear the barking. Calvin Carrington was the first out of his bed. I, being his closest bunk mate, was close behind him. We'd just clambered up the stairs from below decks when Jones cries out, "We'll be discovered. Quick boys, pitch him over!" In their fear, without thinking of what they did, the boys rolled the dog over the rail. As we pulled ourselves on deck we heard the splash. Calvin would have flung himself over if we'd not been there to stop him. The wind that night was blowing a fresh heavy sea, and we were unable to lower away anyone to get him. I'll never forget the sight of the poor dog hauling and swimming after the vessel for his life. Poor fellow, there was no hope for him. Had Carrington jumped in after him, we might well have lost the master as well as the beast. The man's sobs were pitiful, as the ship pulled away from the helpless dog. Rum was the cause of that unpleasant incident.
The next day, May 12th, Calvin Carrington made a complaint about the loss of his dog. We were then treated to a rare scene on ship. In the afternoon there was a court scene in the After Cabin. The Captain and first mate lead the examination. All was done with care and the utmost seriousness. Where discipline had seemed lax before, it was now clear who was master on this ship. They questioned Calvin Carrington as to his complaint. He named the three who had taken his dog from him. Other passengers and sailors added their bits of the story for the examination.
Straight away the Captain called John Riker to stand before him, and asked him his account of what happened. The lad confessed all; how he had broken in to the rum stores, how they had conspired to take the dog, and the circumstances of throwing the dog overboard. He admitted that he had laid hands on the dog, but laid the blame for the night's dirty work on Nathan Jones. "He lead us to it. We never would have done a thing without his idea and encouragement." "That may be," said the Captain, glowering over the boy's shoulder at Jones, "but he is a guest and you are part of my trusted crew. Him I have no control over. You are my responsibility, and you will have to bear the guilt. For stealing from the ship's stores, providing drink to an untrustworthy passenger, and the cruel theft and distruction of this man's dog you are sentenced to 84 lashes. "
It was a pitiful sight when the Captain's son was called before him. His guilt and fear were clear on his face. The Captain asked him if he had anything to add. "No Sir," the boy answered in a quiet voice. "Do you have any explanation for your behaviour?" "No Sir. I wasn't thinking sir. I'm very sorry sir." The Captain looked at him with pity and disappointment. Would he order the lash on his own son? How far could he spare his own boy while making an example of the cabin boy? His fury with Nathan Jones was clear. But he couldn't touch a paying passenger.
"Son, to say I am disappointed with you would be a gross understatement. This is a filthy, vile thing that you have done. That you did it under the suggestion of one supposedly older and wiser is of no account. You are a Sea Captain's son. You should know something of leadership, and of right and wrong. In doing what you have done you have acted worse than the stinking beasts in the hold. Maybe the pigs can teach you something of manners. You are sentenced to clean out the Pig Stye. When you are done with that go stay with the Sailors forward, if they'll have you. For now, stay out of my sight."
The third mate took the boy Henry by the arm, and lead him below. He wouldn't have to watch the beating of his friend. The second mate stepped forward with the lash. "We will get this unpleasant business over with right away," the Captain commanded. Carrington asked if the boy couldn't be spared some of the blows. He was only a lad, and didn't know what he was doing. The Captain only shook his head, saying that an example needed to be made. The boy, and others, needed to learn a lesson. While we stood around, John Riker was stripped of his shirt, and his arms lashed to a rail. "Would you like a cloth to bite against the pain, boy?" He nodded that he would, and braced himself for the blows. It seemed to me that the mate held back in his blows. Still, it was a dreadful business. With every stroke Carrington looked hard at Jones, as though willing the bite of the lash into that man's soul. Jones looked off at nothing. But with each smack of the lash he flinched. He didn't look so polished and sure of himself now. I didn't count, but I don't think they reached that awful number of 84 lashes. They beat the poor boy until his back was bloody, and he fell unconscious on the deck. Sailors took him below to tend to his wounds.
Afterwards young John and Henry kept to their own business. After some days in the sailors care, John Riker reappeared on deck. He held himself stiffly, and kept apart from the passengers. Jones tried to seek him out. What he tried to say we'll never know. Justification? Apology? Concern? He never had the chance. Riker turned from him and stood with the crew.
By the time we reached Rio in Brazil a few weeks later, the Captain was keeping his son close by his side and attending to his lessons. Our innocent, cheerful days were over. Other than the diversions of Rio, the trip passed without much account. We had a relatively easy passage around Cape Horn, up through Santiago and on to California. Our mining association did well enough. Over the months some of our number drifted off to find their own future. Jones was one of the first to go. None of us had much to do with him after the unpleasantness, and we were not sorry to see him leave. Once, after Jones had left us, I asked Calvin Carrington if he would like to join with us. We wanted to make it up to him somehow. But he kindly declined, saying that he'd been alone in the world this long, he didn't know if he could fit in with our company. Bad luck seemed to follow him, he said. He'd try his luck in Oregon. The boom town of Portland, perhaps.
I've fallen back to book binding, selling ledgers and account books for the mines. Soon I'll open a store with books from the East coast. "James Minor Bookery" The sign for the door is already painted. After being here a while, men are hungry for stories from the Eastern cities. There are regular passages back and forth. I'll bring them Shakespeare, Blake and Coleridge, as well as the newspapers and magazines. They need some poetry in the stories they'll read. Their own stories are too filled with rust and grit.
All these months later, with everything that has happened on the
voyage and afterwards, it's the story of that poor dog Tiger
which sticks in my mind. Sometimes I wake from dreaming that the
poor fellow is still following the ship. There's the sound of
the lashes on Riker's back, and the dog swimming for all he's
worth. His head held up fiercely against the waves, devotedly
following his master's boat. Though my legs are firmly settled
on land now, I may carry that poor dog in the ocean of my soul
for a long time yet. Looking out from my store front, to the
docks on the bay, I half expect to him him swimming home now.
|© 2001 Pamela Goddard|