It ain't what you don't know that gets you in trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so. — Mark Twain

Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes




The Approaching Conflict

The morning following the rescue of the escaped prisoner the Phoebe and Cherub hoisted their anchors under cover of the darkness and stood for the mouth of the harbor. At daybreak they were seen cruising to and fro, maintaining a patrol of the entrance.

The Phoebe, which was the farther out, began to fly little signal flags, and soon the Cherub answered.

Lieutenant McKnight was watching them through the glass. A man who swung aloft painting the top-gallant mast shouted something down on deck. What he said was caught by one of the quartermasters, who came running aft.

"The man up aloft says there's a sail out to seaward, sir."

Porter happened to come out of his cabin at this moment. As usual, if there was anything to be done by the midshipmen, he called upon David to do it; and soon the latter had scrambled up into the rigging.

He could make out the topsails of a large ship off to the westward, and so reported. Immediately the Essex, Jr., was ordered to set sail and to reconnoitre.

All hands on the Essex gathered at the side to watch her leave. No sooner was she under way than the Phoebe and Cherub both spread their lighter sails and started after her; but they were well to leeward, and so long as the wind held, Downes could have kept them at a distance. But winds are fickle, and after half an hour had passed a cry went up from the fore, castle. The group of midshipmen gasped.

The Englishmen had squared away and had got the wind (it had changed three or four points) astern.

"They will head her off!" was the cry which arose from the forecastle.

It was an anxious moment. Lieutenant Downes had evidently seen his position and had turned his vessel's prow back to the haven of safety; the offshore breeze in the new direction held only a few minutes, when it fell dead calm. But the Englishmen were not to be cheated of their prey. They lowered their boats and, getting out hawsers, were attempting to tow their vessels into gunshot range.

Porter had commenced to give his orders. All the cutters and even the longboat of the Essex were soon alongside, and the crews tumbled into them. David had command of the second cutter. The starboard stroke was Pumpkin Billy, and the man on the thwarts alongside of him was the black cook, who was a volunteer for the occasion. It was a race for rescue and a good three-mile pull ahead. The perspiration poured down the men's faces. The oars bent at every stroke and the cutters forged ahead. The cook was a great oarsman, and in Pumpkin Billy he had his mate.

"You're gaining on them, lads," said David, standing up and shouting encouragement.

The negro turned his head. The sunlight flashed on the gold rings in his ears. He broke out into a swinging song. It was a relic of the paddling choruses of his ancestors on the. Congo. The men got the rhythm, and soon David's cutter was leading the rest. Every minute counted. As soon as they had reached the Essex, Jr., hawsers were rigged and made fast to the stern thwarts, and the men slowly towed her in toward the shore.

The Englishmen were rowing almost abreast of them now, but far beyond range, and soon, seeing that the chase was fruitless, they took in their boats and gave it up, and Lieutenant Downes resumed his old anchorage.

The strange sail proved to be a store-ship of the English, and she anchored far out in the harbor.

Two days later the Essex got under way and, taking advantage of having the enemy to leeward, sailed into the offing. If it had been Porter's intention to escape, now would have been his time, for it was soon evident that he could outsail his antagonists in any wind or weather; but escape was not what he wanted. As old Kingsbury had said, the "war horse" wished to fight. So, having settled the matter of sailing to his satisfaction, he put back again, and taking up one of the prizes, the Hector, he again made for the harbor's mouth. Here he set the prize on fire and again returned to the port. This was on the afternoon of the 26th of the month.

The following day was full of excitement.

Angered at the burning of the prize under their very noses, the Phoebe and Cherub stood boldly into the harbor. At five o'clock in the afternoon the Phoebe hove to and fired a gun. There was not a man on board the Essex that did not interpret this as a challenge to single and mortal combat between the larger ships. Cheer after cheer was given as the Essex's anchor rose and she spread her sails. Now in the minds of the midshipmen there was no doubt that they were to see a battle, and the excitement that had been so long smoldering rose to fever heat.

Nearer and nearer the vessels came, the Phoebe standing offshore and the Essex creeping up on her, foot after foot, her men at the guns eager to get within range.

The gun's crews had named the great weapons they served "Bouncing Billy," "Hawley's Pet," "Jumping Jack," "Saucy Sal," and the like.

David's station in action was close to Captain Porter. He was to act as messenger and carry orders to various parts of the ship. Having been sent forward, he caught some of the talk of the men. Pumpkin Billy slapped caressingly the breech of one of the great carronades. One might have thought that he was talking to a restive horse.

"Can't hold her in very much longer, Mr. Farragut," he said, grinning. "She is gettin' restive."

"He patted Brown Bess," and laid his cheek against the cold, unresponsive iron, but a shout of disappointment came from the deck above.

The Phoebe had borne away before the wind and had run down to the Cherub, which had sailed out to meet her. Porter had not bargained to fight both vessels, and so for the third time the men were disappointed—the Essex swung about on her heel and returned to her resting place.

And thus it continued as it had been before—weary days of waiting and nothing done.

One night a boat expedition had been organized, and the men, under cover of the darkness, had approached close enough to the British vessels to hear the talk on board. As it was evident that the crew were lying on their arms, the cutting-out party rowed back.

Grumbling had now commenced forward in the forecastle.

"We will leave our bones here," one of the sailors was overheard to remark.

"Aye, mates, the war may be over and we not know it," said another.

The midshipmen also caught the feeling of despondency, and feared they should never come to action. But the prognostication of the foremast hand and the forebodings in the steerage were soon to be proved wrong, and the midshipmen of the Essex were to be witnesses and active participants in one of the greatest tragedies of naval history.