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Bill Thayer

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Bill Garnet's Yarn

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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The Fatal Prediction
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p48  Pat Bradley's Yarn

"He tries his tongue, his silence softly breaks."

"About eight years ago I shipped in a brig at Halifax, bound to Pernambuco, she was as nice a little craft as ever swam salt water, and with eight hands before the mast, we could do anything with her we pleased; there was one chap amongst the crew by the name of Dick Fisher, as stout, active, and handsome a young fellow as you'd see here and there in a crowd; he was about eighteen years of age, and hailed from Baltimore, but I always thought he had some Spanish blood in him;​a but no matter for that, him and I got pretty thick on the passage, being both in one watch, and finally we got to be regular chummies. I must say, I never saw that shipmate since, I thought so much of as I did of him, and I had good reasons for this. One day when we were three or four degrees to the northward of the line, all hands were roused on deck to reef topsails, and indeed, not without cause, for I never saw such an appearance of a gale of wind in my life; it ain't often on a passage to Brazil you have very bad weather, but when it does come, you have it hot and heavy while it lasts, I tell you. We had to move sprightly to get sail taken in before the squall would strike us; myself and Fisher were on the main topgallant yard, trying to spill the sail which was standing almost perpendicular above our heads — the squall now began to near us, and our little brig off before it, believe me, was making tracks; by some means or another the leech of the topgallant-sail got over the end of the yard arm, and in my laying out to clear it, she gave a heavy pitch, the sail disentangled itself, and with the jar I fell back a little, and as I grabbed one of the beckets on the yard to save myself, it carried away, and overboard I went; I struck something as I fell, for when I came to the surface of the water I could scarcely strike out, I felt a kind of dizziness in my head; and knowing our jolly-boat was on board stowed on top of our launch, and 'twould take them some time to get her afloat, I gave myself up for lost. How long I  p49 remained in the water I could not tell, for when I came to my recollection I was on board the brig; and I found out that 'twas to Fisher I owed my life; for he came down on deck as quick as lightning when he saw me fall, sprang over the side in an instant, and being an excellent swimmer, kept me above water till the boat took us both on board; after this, you must think, I loved him better than ever, and why shouldn't I, after risking his own life to save mine.

"Well we arrived safely in Pernambuco, discharged our cargo, and went to a small place called Paraiba, to take in a load of cotton for Liverpool; it was a very sickly place, and I was knocked down on my beam-ends for thirty days with a heavy fever; 'there was now I had an opportunity of trying the constancy of Fisher's affection; he nursed me in my sickness; aye shipmates, as a mother would nurse her beloved dying child; was at the side of my bunk all hours of the day and night, even denied himself the privilege that was allowed him and all the rest of the crew, of going on shore to enjoy themselves every evening after the decks were cleared up, and all for my sake; don't blame me then if I say, after these proofs of his kindness, that I loved him; aye, better than I ever loved the brother that was brought up in infancy with me: I soon began to gain my strength, and in two or three weeks returned to my duty, though I was worn away almost to a complete skeleton; well, to cut the yarn short, we arrived safe in Liverpool, and Fisher and myself of course boarded in the same house; I found he was a very wild customer when ashore, up to all manner of mischief, and taking part in every row or squabble that came in his way, and very seldom going to leeward, for the fellow that could whip him, fair play, had to work sharp I tell you. — We both joined a ship bound to New Orleans, and as luck would have it, became watch-mates once more; we had but one chest between us, for what was mine was his, and what was his was mine, and a strange thing too between chummies, we never had an angry word together.

"We had a pretty good passage of it, and at the Balize a tow‑boat hooked on to us and a Boston brig from the Mediterranean, and we started up the river: it was in the month of February, and I can  p50 assure you the nights were pretty cold; I never felt colder weather in Orleans before or since, and I've made many a voyage there; we kept a sea‑watch on deck, but it was merely the name of the thing, for all we done during our four hours was to keep a good fire in the galley to sit and smoke our pipes by, and to make hot tea and coffee, of which we were allowed plenty: the first night I had the mid‑watch, and as soon as I came on deck I took up my billet in one corner of the galley, determined to finish the snooze there that I had just been waked out of. Fisher went on board the boat amongst the firemen no doubt to raise some whiskey, plenty of which was to be had for the asking: how long I slept I can't well tell, but a noise of men talking very loud on board the steamboat, awakened me, and amongst them I could hear Fisher's tongue quite plain. I opened the galley door and jumped out, fearing that he had got into some row with the deck hands: as I reached our ship's gangway, it was pretty dark, I saw two men scuffling, and before I could gain the boat to endeavour to separate them, one with a sudden jerk wrenched himself clear of the person that appeared to hold him fast, and with the force of the effort, staggered towards the quarter and fell overboard. I jumped on the steamboat's deck and strained my eyes till they ached again, but could not see a single sign of him, for I imagined it was poor Fisher, and upon inquiry I found that my fears were but too true: what I felt at his loss, shipmates, you can't imagine, and I'm sure I can't describe; to say that I cried would be a lie, for I couldn't shed a tear, but a something was at my heart the like I had never felt before.

"We got up to Orleans, made the ship fast, and lonely and sorrow­ful I took my things ashore, and every craft that came up the river for a week afterwards I boarded, making enquiries respecting Fisher, for I had a slight gleam of hope that he might possibly have got ashore, or have been picked up; but all my inquiries were in vain; so with a heavy heart I shipped in a little Baltimore built schooner, bound down on the main: she was under Spanish colours, but the captain and mate were Americans, and the crew, with the exception of the cook and steward, were Americans also. — We started down  p51 the river the same evening, and outside the Balize we took a fine dashing wind, and after an elegant passage arrived in Laguira; our mate left us as soon as we dropped anchor, him and the captain having had some words the day before, and I was taken into the cabin as first dickey. We made but very little delay at Laguira,​b for the consignee started us right back again to Orleans, with something like one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in specie. One dark night on our passage back, I catched to go forward for some purpose or another, and as I passed by the galley, I heard the voices of our cook and steward in conversation; they were talking in their mother tongue, being both Spaniards, and at that time I could understand Spanish tolerably well; hearing them mention money, I was curious enough to lesson to their discourse, and found they were concerting a plan, as soon as they arrived, to raise a gang of ruffians, board the schooner the first night of her arrival, and possess themselves of the specie. I immediately went aft and informed the captain of the affair, but he appeared to take no notice of it whatever, saying that he knew the steward would be the last person in the world to think of such a thing, as he had sailed with him several voyages before, and always found him strictly honest. — Well shipmates, as the watch is almost out I must cut it short: we arrived without any accident at Orleans, and made the schooner fast late in the evening in Picayune tier, and all hands went on shore except myself, the captain and a boy about fourteen years old; and I assure you, when I saw the cook and steward leave the schooner without even cleaning themselves, I felt a little timid, and went below and loaded all the fire-arms in the cabin, to be in readiness, should they pay us a visit. I told the captain he had better get a few trusty persons to keep watch until morning, but he only laughed at me; he paid dear enough though for disregarding my advice; he and the boy turned in about nine o'clock, but I remained sitting up in the cabin, until at last, in spite of myself, I fell asleep; the deep baying of the dog on deck awoke me, and before I could ascend the companion-ladder to see what the matter was, four or five men rushed below. The captain, who had awakened, sprung from his bunk in a moment, and discharged  p52 a pistol amongst them; a yell followed, and in many instant a knife was buried in his side: in the scuffle that now ensued, the lamp was extinguished, and with a pistol in my hand I took advantage of the darkness and rushed up the ladder for the purpose of giving the alarm; but I had scarcely reached the deck, when a tall power­ful looking man, armed with a knife, who appeared to be a kind of look‑out, and perhaps guessing my intention, endeavoured to force me below again; but knowing my life was at stake I snapped the pistol, the ball whizzed through his brain, and he fell at my feet a corpse.

"Six or seven persons now rushed on board, being alarmed at the report of the fire-arms, and we all proceeded below; but we were too late, the villains had fled, without however accomplishing their object. — We soon struck a light, and found the captain lying on the floor with a severe wound in his side; the boy had made his escape through the cabin windows at the first alarm, unhurt. — We now took the light on deck, to examine the wretch that had fallen by my hand; there he lay in a complete pool of blood, and as one of the bystanders raised his head, and the reflection of the lantern played on his face, I perceived before me, to my horror and astonishment, the corpse of my best and dearest friend, poor Fisher: — Yes, shipmates, it was him; and I whose life he had perilled his own to preserve, was the means of sending him to a bloody grave."

Thayer's Notes:

a In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "Spanish blood" was often a sort of code word for "part African ancestry" — used when it was found useful or tactful to draw a veil over the fact. Such may be the case here, which would explain the bit that follows — "no matter for that".

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b The Venezuelan port of La Guaira.

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Page updated: 3 Oct 21