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The Lost Poacher
"But they won't take excuses. You're across the line, and that's enough. They'll
take you. In you go, Siberia and the salt mines. And as for Uncle Sam, why,
what's he to know about it? Never a word will get back to the States. 'The Mary
Thomas,' the papers will say, 'the Mary Thomas lost with all hands. Probably in
a typhoon in the Japanese seas.' That's what the papers will say, and people,
too. In you go, Siberia and the salt mines. Dead to the world and kith and kin,
though you live fifty years."
In such manner John Lewis, commonly known as the "sea-lawyer," settled the
matter out of hand.
It was a serious moment in the forecastle of the Mary Thomas. No sooner had the
watch below begun to talk the trouble over, than the watch on deck came down and
joined them. As there was no wind, every hand could be spared with the exception
of the man at the wheel, and he remained only for the sake of discipline. Even "Bub"
Russell, the cabin-boy, had crept forward to hear what was going on.
However, it was a serious moment, as the grave faces of the sailors bore
witness. For the three preceding months the Mary Thomas sealing schooner, had
hunted the seal pack along the coast of Japan and north to Bering Sea. Here, on
the Asiatic side of the sea, they were forced to give over the chase, or rather,
to go no farther; for beyond, the Russian cruisers patrolled forbidden ground,
where the seals might breed in peace.
A week before she had fallen into a heavy fog accompanied by calm. Since then
the fog-bank had not lifted, and the only wind had been light airs and catspaws.
This in itself was not so bad, for the sealing schooners are never in a hurry so
long as they are in the midst of the seals; but the trouble lay in the fact that
the current at this point bore heavily to the north. Thus the Mary Thomas had
unwittingly drifted across the line, and every hour she was penetrating,
unwillingly, farther and farther into the dangerous waters where the Russian
bear kept guard.
How far she had drifted no man knew. The sun had not been visible for a week,
nor the stars, and the captain had been unable to take observations in order to
determine his position. At any moment a cruiser might swoop down and hale the
crew away to Siberia. The fate of other poaching seal-hunters was too well known
to the men of the Mary Thomas, and there was cause for grave faces.
"Mine friends," spoke up a German boat-steerer, "it vas a pad piziness. Shust as
ve make a big catch, und all honest, somedings go wrong, und der Russians nab
us, dake our skins and our schooner, und send us mit der anarchists to Siberia.
Ach! a pretty pad piziness!"
"Yes, that's where it hurts," the sea lawyer went on. "Fifteen hundred skins in
the salt piles, and all honest, a big pay-day coming to every man Jack of us,
and then to be captured and lose it all! It'd be different if we'd been
poaching, but it's all honest work in open water."
"But if we haven't done anything wrong, they can't do anything to us, can they?"
"It strikes me as 'ow it ain't the proper thing for a boy o' your age shovin' in
when 'is elders is talkin'," protested an English sailor, from over the edge of
"Oh, that's all right, Jack," answered the sea-lawyer. "He's a perfect right to.
Ain't he just as liable to lose his wages as the rest of us?"
"Wouldn't give thruppence for them!" Jack sniffed back. He had been planning to
go home and see his family in Chelsea when he was paid off, and he was now
feeling rather blue over the highly possible loss, not only of his pay, but of
"How are they to know?" the sea-lawyer asked in answer to Bub's previous
question. "Here we are in forbidden water. How do they know but what we came
here of our own accord? Here we are, fifteen hundred skins in the hold. How do
they know whether we got them in open water or in the closed sea? Don't you see,
Bub, the evidence is all against us. If you caught a man with his pockets full
of apples like those which grow on your tree, and if you caught him in your tree
besides, what'd you think if he told you he couldn't help it, and had just been
sort of blown there, and that anyway those apples came from some other
tree—what'd you think, eh?"
Bub saw it clearly when put in that light, and shook his head despondently.
"You'd rather be dead than go to Siberia," one of the boat-pullers said. "They
put you into the salt-mines and work you till you die. Never see daylight again.
Why, I've heard tell of one fellow that was chained to his mate, and that mate
died. And they were both chained together! And if they send you to the
quicksilver mines you get salivated. I'd rather be hung than salivated."
"Wot's salivated?" Jack asked, suddenly sitting up in his bunk at the hint of
"Why, the quicksilver gets into your blood; I think that's the way. And your
gums all swell like you had the scurvy, only worse, and your teeth get loose in
your jaws. And big ulcers forms, and then you die horrible. The strongest man
can't last long a-mining quicksilver."
"A pad piziness," the boat-steerer reiterated, dolorously, in the silence which
followed. "A pad piziness. I vish I vas in Yokohama. Eh? Vot vas dot?"
The vessel had suddenly heeled over. The decks were aslant. A tin pannikin
rolled down the inclined plane, rattling and banging. From above came the
slapping of canvas and the quivering rat-tat-tat of the after leech of the
loosely stretched foresail. Then the mate's voice sang down the hatch, "All
hands on deck and make sail!"
Never had such summons been answered with more enthusiasm. The calm had broken.
The wind had come which was to carry them south into safety. With a wild cheer
all sprang on deck. Working with mad haste, they flung out topsails, flying jibs
and staysails. As they worked, the fog-bank lifted and the black vault of
heaven, bespangled with the old familiar stars, rushed into view. When all was
shipshape, the Mary Thomas was lying gallantly over on her side to a beam wind
and plunging ahead due south.
"Steamer's lights ahead on the port bow, sir!" cried the lookout from his
station on the forecastle-head. There was excitement in the man's voice.
The captain sent Bub below for his night-glasses. Everybody crowded to the
lee-rail to gaze at the suspicious stranger, which already began to loom up
vague and indistinct. In those unfrequented waters the chance was one in a
thousand that it could be anything else than a Russian patrol. The captain was
still anxiously gazing through the glasses, when a flash of flame left the
stranger's side, followed by the loud report of a cannon. The worst fears were
confirmed. It was a patrol, evidently firing across the bows of the Mary Thomas
in order to make her heave to.
"Hard down with your helm!" the captain commanded the steersman, all the life
gone out of his voice. Then to the crew, "Back over the jib and foresail! Run
down the flying jib! Clew up the foretopsail! And aft here and swing on to the
The Mary Thomas ran into the eye of the wind, lost headway, and fell to
courtesying gravely to the long seas rolling up from the west.
The cruiser steamed a little nearer and lowered a boat. The sealers watched in
heartbroken silence. They could see the white bulk of the boat as it was slacked
away to the water, and its crew sliding aboard. They could hear the creaking of
the davits and the commands of the officers. Then the boat sprang away under the
impulse of the oars, and came toward them. The wind had been rising, and already
the sea was too rough to permit the frail craft to lie alongside the tossing
schooner; but watching their chance, and taking advantage of the boarding ropes
thrown to them, an officer and a couple of men clambered aboard. The boat then
sheered off into safety and lay to its oars, a young midshipman, sitting in the
stern and holding the yoke-lines, in charge.
The officer, whose uniform disclosed his rank as that of second lieutenant in
the Russian navy went below with the captain of the Mary Thomas to look at the
ship's papers. A few minutes later he emerged, and upon his sailors removing the
hatch-covers, passed down into the hold with a lantern to inspect the salt
piles. It was a goodly heap which confronted him—fifteen hundred fresh skins,
the season's catch; and under the circumstances he could have had but one
"I am very sorry," he said, in broken English to the sealing captain, when he
again came on deck, "but it is my duty, in the name of the tsar, to seize your
vessel as a poacher caught with fresh skins in the closed sea. The penalty, as
you may know, is confiscation and imprisonment."
The captain of the Mary Thomas shrugged his shoulders in seeming indifference,
and turned away. Although they may restrain all outward show, strong men, under
unmerited misfortune, are sometimes very close to tears. Just then the vision of
his little California home, and of the wife and two yellow-haired boys, was
strong upon him, and there was a strange, choking sensation in his throat, which
made him afraid that if he attempted to speak he would sob instead.
And also there was upon him the duty he owed his men. No weakness before them,
for he must be a tower of strength to sustain them in misfortune. He had already
explained to the second lieutenant, and knew the hopelessness of the situation.
As the sea-lawyer had said, the evidence was all against him. So he turned aft,
and fell to pacing up and down the poop of the vessel over which he was no
The Russian officer now took temporary charge. He ordered more of his men
aboard, and had all the canvas clewed up and furled snugly away. While this was
being done, the boat plied back and forth between the two vessels, passing a
heavy hawser, which was made fast to the great towing-bitts on the schooner's
forecastle-head. During all this work the sealers stood about in sullen groups.
It was madness to think of resisting, with the guns of a man-of-war not a
biscuit-toss away; but they refused to lend a hand, preferring instead to
maintain a gloomy silence.
Having accomplished his task, the lieutenant ordered all but four of his men
back into the boat. Then the midshipman, a lad of sixteen, looking strangely
mature and dignified in his uniform and sword, came aboard to take command of
the captured sealer. Just as the lieutenant prepared to depart his eye chanced
to alight upon Bub. Without a word of warning, he seized him by the arm and
dropped him over the rail into the waiting boat; and then, with a parting wave
of his hand, he followed him.
It was only natural that Bub should be frightened at this unexpected happening.
All the terrible stories he had heard of the Russians served to make him fear
them, and now returned to his mind with double force. To be captured by them was
bad enough, but to be carried off by them, away from his comrades, was a fate of
which he had not dreamed.
"Be a good boy, Bub," the captain called to him, as the boat drew away from the
Mary Thomas's side, "and tell the truth!"
"Aye, aye, sir!" he answered, bravely enough by all outward appearance. He felt
a certain pride of race, and was ashamed to be a coward before these strange
enemies, these wild Russian bears.
"Und be politeful!" the German boat-steerer added, his rough voice lifting
across the water like a fog-horn.
Bub waved his hand in farewell, and his mates clustered along the rail as they
answered with a cheering shout. He found room in the stern-sheets, where he fell
to regarding the lieutenant. He didn't look so wild or bearish after all—very
much like other men, Bub concluded, and the sailors were much the same as all
other man-of-war's men he had ever known. Nevertheless, as his feet struck the
steel deck of the cruiser, he felt as if he had entered the portals of a prison.
For a few minutes he was left unheeded. The sailors hoisted the boat up, and
swung it in on the davits. Then great clouds of black smoke poured out of the
funnels, and they were under way—to Siberia, Bub could not help but think. He
saw the Mary Thomas swing abruptly into line as she took the pressure from the
hawser, and her side-lights, red and green, rose and fell as she was towed
through the sea.
Bub's eyes dimmed at the melancholy sight, but—but just then the lieutenant came
to take him down to the commander, and he straightened up and set his lips
firmly, as if this were a very commonplace affair and he were used to being sent
to Siberia every day in the week. The cabin in which the commander sat was like
a palace compared to the humble fittings of the Mary Thomas, and the commander
himself, in gold lace and dignity, was a most august personage, quite unlike the
simple man who navigated his schooner on the trail of the seal pack.
Bub now quickly learned why he had been brought aboard, and in the prolonged
questioning which followed, told nothing but the plain truth. The truth was
harmless; only a lie could have injured his cause. He did not know much, except
that they had been sealing far to the south in open water, and that when the
calm and fog came down upon them, being close to the line, they had drifted
Again and again he insisted that they had not lowered a boat or shot a
seal in the week they had been drifting about in the forbidden sea; but the
commander chose to consider all that he said to be a tissue of falsehoods, and
adopted a bullying tone in an effort to frighten the boy. He threatened and
cajoled by turns, but failed in the slightest to shake Bub's statements, and at
last ordered him out of his presence.
By some oversight, Bub was not put in anybody's charge, and wandered up on deck
unobserved. Sometimes the sailors, in passing, bent curious glances upon him,
but otherwise he was left strictly alone. Nor could he have attracted much
attention, for he was small, the night dark, and the watch on deck intent on its
own business. Stumbling over the strange decks, he made his way aft where he
could look upon the side-lights of the Mary Thomas, following steadily in the
For a long while he watched, and then lay down in the darkness close to where
the hawser passed over the stern to the captured schooner. Once an officer came
up and examined the straining rope to see if it were chafing, but Bub cowered
away in the shadow undiscovered. This, however, gave him an idea which concerned
the lives and liberties of twenty-two men, and which was to avert crushing
sorrow from more than one happy home many thousand miles away.
In the first place, he reasoned, the crew were all guiltless of any crime, and
yet were being carried relentlessly away to imprisonment in Siberia—a living
death, he had heard, and he believed it implicitly. In the second place, he was
a prisoner, hard and fast, with no chance to escape. In the third, it was
possible for the twenty-two men on the Mary Thomas to escape. The only thing
which bound them was a four-inch hawser. They dared not cut it at their end, for
a watch was sure to be maintained upon it by their Russian captors; but at this
end, ah! at his end—
Bub did not stop to reason further. Wriggling close to the hawser, he opened his
jack-knife and went to work. The blade was not very sharp, and he sawed away,
rope-yarn by rope-yarn, the awful picture of the solitary Siberian exile he must
endure growing clearer and more terrible at every stroke. Such a fate was bad
enough to undergo with one's comrades, but to face it alone seemed frightful.
And besides, the very act he was performing was sure to bring greater punishment
In the midst of such somber thoughts, he heard footsteps approaching. He
wriggled away into the shadow. An officer stopped where he had been working,
half-stooped to examine the hawser, then changed his mind and straightened up.
For a few minutes he stood there, gazing at the lights of the captured schooner,
and then went forward again.
Now was the time! Bub crept back and went on sawing. Now two parts were severed.
Now three. But one remained. The tension upon this was so great that it readily
yielded. Splash the freed end went overboard. He lay quietly, his heart in his
mouth, listening. No one on the cruiser but himself had heard.
He saw the red and green lights of the Mary Thomas grow dimmer and dimmer. Then
a faint hallo came over the water from the Russian prize crew. Still nobody
heard. The smoke continued to pour out of the cruiser's funnels, and her
propellers throbbed as mightily as ever.
What was happening on the Mary Thomas? Bub could only surmise; but of one thing
he was certain: his comrades would assert themselves and overpower the four
sailors and the midshipman. A few minutes later he saw a small flash, and
straining his ears heard the very faint report of a pistol. Then, oh joy! both
the red and green lights suddenly disappeared. The Mary Thomas was retaken!
Just as an officer came aft, Bub crept forward, and hid away in one of the
boats. Not an instant too soon. The alarm was given. Loud voices rose in
command. The cruiser altered her course. An electric search-light began to throw
its white rays across the sea, here, there, everywhere; but in its flashing path
no tossing schooner was revealed.
Bub went to sleep soon after that, nor did he wake till the gray of dawn. The
engines were pulsing monotonously, and the water, splashing noisily, told him
the decks were being washed down. One sweeping glance, and he saw that they were
alone on the expanse of ocean. The Mary Thomas had escaped. As he lifted his
head, a roar of laughter went up from the sailors. Even the officer, who ordered
him taken below and locked up, could not quite conceal the laughter in his eyes.
Bub thought often in the days of confinement which followed that they were not
very angry with him for what he had done.
He was not far from right. There is a certain innate nobility deep down in the
hearts of all men, which forces them to admire a brave act, even if it is
performed by an enemy. The Russians were in nowise different from other men.
True, a boy had outwitted them; but they could not blame him, and they were sore
puzzled as to what to do with him. It would never do to take a little mite like
him in to represent all that remained of the lost poacher.
So, two weeks later, a United States man-of-war, steaming out of the Russian
port of Vladivostok, was signaled by a Russian cruiser. A boat passed between
the two ships, and a small boy dropped over the rail upon the deck of the
American vessel. A week later he was put ashore at Hakodate, and after some
telegraphing, his fare was paid on the railroad to Yokohama.
From the depot he hurried through the quaint Japanese streets to the harbor, and
hired a sampan boatman to put him aboard a certain vessel whose familiar rigging
had quickly caught his eye. Her gaskets were off, her sails unfurled; she was
just starting back to the United States. As he came closer, a crowd of sailors
sprang upon the forecastle head, and the windlass-bars rose and fell as the
anchor was torn from its muddy bottom.
"'Yankee ship come down the ribber!'" the sea-lawyer's voice rolled out as he
led the anchor song.
"'Pull, my bully boys, pull!'" roared back the old familiar chorus, the men's
bodies lifting and bending to the rhythm.
Bub Russell paid the boatman and stepped on deck. The anchor was forgotten. A
mighty cheer went up from the men, and almost before he could catch his breath
he was on the shoulders of the captain, surrounded by his mates, and endeavoring
to answer twenty questions to the second.
The next day a schooner hove to off a Japanese fishing village, sent ashore four
sailors and a little midshipman, and sailed away. These men did not talk
English, but they had money and quickly made their way to Yokohama. From that
day the Japanese village folk never heard anything more about them, and they are
still a much-talked-of mystery. As the Russian government never said anything
about the incident, the United States is still ignorant of the whereabouts of
the lost poacher, nor has she ever heard, officially, of the way in which some
of her citizens "shanghaied" five subjects of the tsar. Even nations have
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