Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes

From Sun to Snow

Against the tall palms, entangled vines and foliage that grew in tropical abundance to the water's edge, arose the tall masts of a man-of-war. The surface of the bay was as calm and smooth as a mirror. From the neighboring forest strange cries called and echoed. Beautifully plumaged birds fluttered out of the high branches, and strange monkeys swung themselves to and fro in the tree tops.

It was the Brazilian coast. The place was a little harbor known as St. Catherine's and the tall-masted frigate was the Essex.

So calm was the surface that the reflection of the ship seemed to stretch away down beneath her, and so clear was the water that if you looked over the side you could see odd-looking fish and long, waving sea grass, or occasionally a huge white-vested shark with his evil-looking eyes glancing upward. Now and then a rakish-looking fin extended above the surface, and woe be it to any poor Jacky who tumbled overboard.

A longboat was pulling out from a little cove. She was laden almost to the gunwales with piles of wood and' filled water casks. The men at the oars swung slowly back and forth. A little midshipman, with a wide straw hat shading his eyes, was perched in the stern sheets. He was sunburned and browned and changed a little, but no one would have failed to recognize David Farragut: Despite the heat, he was sitting with his back straight and his head erect.

"Way enough there!" he called to the men. Boat your oars."

The heavily laden cutter came neatly to the frigate's side, and David climbed up the ladder and came on deck to report.

The awnings were spread forward and aft, and there was a smell of tar and blistering paint. Walking along the quarter deck, he approached an officer who was standing in the shade of a sagging wind sail.

"Last boat alongside, Mr. Wilmer," he said, saluting.

"Very good, sir," was the answer. "Hurry the people with the cargo, and get your boat in at the davits. We will probably try to get out with the evening breeze."

The singing of the windlass hoisting the wood and the casks over the side quickened in its time. The last load is the lightest always, and in a few minutes more the cutter was hauled from the water against the great wooden davits. Then all hands rested, and soon the shadows of the trees crept farther and farther out from shore, and the cries of the birds and beasts seemed to redouble as the sun, glowing and red, sank down in the west.

A long canoe paddled by five or six dark-skinned men came about a point of land and approached the Essex. A piratical-looking man with a long black mustache stood up. He answered the hail of the lookout in a jargon of Spanish and Portuguese.

"Here, send for some one who can speak to this fellow," said Mr. Wilmer, who was officer of the deck.

Middy Odenheimer could speak Spanish. He stepped to the gangway and listened attentively to what the man was saying.

"He is one of those rascally pilots, Mr. Wilmer," he replied. "It may be that he is speaking the truth. He says that there is an English ship twice as big as ours only a few miles off the point."

The Bay of St. Catherine's was a bad place to be caught in, but, luckily, darkness was coming on quite fast, and with it a breeze from land sprang up. It dimpled the waters, and caused the sighing of the great deep forest to be plainly heard as an under-current to the humming and chattering of its myriad forms of life.

Soon another sound broke the stillness. It was a shanty song accompanied by the shrill piping of a fife. The men were running about the capstan, and the clicking and rattling of the cable as it poured through the hawse pipes and down into the hold showed that Captain Porter was not going to linger in this uncertain position.

In a few minutes more the Essex tripped her anchor and slowly gathered headway toward the sea. She passed the cape, squared away, and stood farther out, but nothing was seen of the line-of-battle ship which she was endeavoring to escape from. It was supposed, however, that the latter was the Montague, a seventy-four.

It seemed that the Essex must have been launched under a lucky star. Already had she sent home three or four prizes of minor importance, and one that was very rich, being the British Government packet Nocton, in whose hold was discovered fifty-five thousand dollars in specie.

When Captain Porter had left the Capes of the Delaware he sailed under orders to join Commodore Bainbridge's squadron, which was then in Brazilian waters. But if he failed to meet his superior at any one of the rendezvous appointed, he was to set sail on a cruise of his own at his own discretion.

St. Catherine's was the last place where he hoped he might fall in with the Constitution (Bainbridge's flagship), and so now he was free to go where he pleased.

There is no time to tell of the fun and frolic held on board the Essex when she had crossed the equator; crossing the line has been told very many times; but the midshipmen enjoyed it all, and the antics of old Kingsbury as Neptune, and Phoebe, the old darky, as his buxom wife, were long to be remembered.

Captain Porter was now shaping his course for that test of the seamanship in the old sailing days—rounding the Horn.

The weather grew colder as they sailed down the coast of Patagonia. The light clothing which David and the rest of the lads had been wearing in Brazil had been changed for greatcoats and double trousers.

Now for a while the good luck of The Essex seemed to have deserted her. For twenty-one tiresome days she beat to and fro, encountering adverse winds and currents, heaving-to often at night, to find herself miles and miles back of where she was in the morning. But there was no immediate danger nothing but discomfort—until one day, the 3d of March, 1813.

David was on the forecastle superintending getting in the foresail (it had been ripped in a blow the night before); the sea was running high, when suddenly he saw, a mile away, a great wall of water topped with white, rearing against the whole horizon line. The ship was yawing to and fro, as she was in a cross-current, and was carrying little sail. At once David saw the danger.

"Hard aport!" he shouted, running aft as tight as he could foot it.

The men at the wheel could see nothing, but the spokes flew around and the Essex slowly answered. They had seen in the face of the little midshipman something that had warned them to be quick; but just as the Essex swung about, the current caught her and again she fell off to leeward. At the same moment, before a word of warning could be called, the great sea was upon them. It rose high& than the bowsprit, and with a rush and roar caught the frigate almost on her side and tumbled over the bulwarks in a great mass of green and white on to the deck.

David grasped a rack and hung on tightly. The lee quarter boat went off the davits and smashed to pieces. The water poured in cataracts down the hatchways, and before he knew it the little midshipman was swept off his feet, half drowned, and bumped down the ladder to the gun deck below. There he saw a curious sight. The row of ports from the bow to the quarter were stove in to a great gaping wound. The guns were slued 'this way and that, but most fearful of all was the terror and confusion that for an instant reigned among the crew. Many seamen, brave men and tried, were on their knees, making what they thought to be their last prayer. But the wind had caught the Essex so she heeled over the other way, and the water was pouring out through the farther ports.

Suddenly above the confusion a voice sounded like the roar of a lion. It hardly seemed that a human throat could make such sounds.

"Avast there! Put your best foot forward, my hearties! There's one side of her left yet!" were the words.

Old William Kingsbury had come to the front in proper fashion. The effect was wonderful. The men jumped to their feet. Four or five officers came running down from above, and like bees the crew went to work.

A sail was lowered over the bows and by great exertion the water that had been pouring in was kept outside, where it belonged, and in half an hour it was easier to breathe.

The next day, as if to make up for the blow they had delivered, the elements were kinder. The wind changed, the sea went down, and the Essex, after three weeks' buffeting about, and almost despair to all on board, passed the dangerous point and swept on into the waters of the Pacific.

The crew were called on deck (it is said that Captain Porter always knew the right time to make a speech), and there they were thanked in a few heart-felt words, and those that had been foremost in their duty the day before were promoted on the spot. Unfortunately, there was no post left for William Kingsbury, but the Captain took his hand before all the crew, and the old sailor fairly blushed.

The wind that sprung up held good and ran the Essex up to the island of Mocha, near the coast of Chili, and here she came to anchor. Provisions had run scarce, and the men were on half rations. The island abounded with wild horses and hogs. The meat of the former was very much better than the pork, which was fishy and unpalatable.

On the first day David had landed with Lieutenant McKnight and gone with a shooting party on the island.

It is strange sport stalking horses, but different conditions suggest different ideas, and the thought that these were the same patient friends of man did not enter his head. They were wild as deer, and after hard tack and salt meat their flesh seemed tender and juicy.

Unfortunately, a lieutenant of the Essex, in firing at a wounded horse, shot and mortally wounded a seaman named Spafford. The man's words when they picked him up were typical of the spirit which animated the crew. The poor lieutenant was crazed with grief, but the seaman only said, "Please carry me on board that I may die under my country's flag."

It is often the words of the lowest that express the very highest sentiments and animate others to fine deeds and actions.

The crew had a good run on shore, and then the Essex set sail for Valparaiso.