John Cameron’s Odyssey Chapt. 9 – Pt 1

John Cameron’s Odyssey Chapt. 9

John Cameron’s Odyssey was published in 1928 as a collection of stories of Captain John Cameron aboard the ship Ebon in the 1890’s. This excerpt describes the time that they spent at Midway Island.

John Cammeron's Odyssey


Scarcely had I returned to Honolulu when the British bark WANDERING MINSTREL, bound from Hong Kong on a sharking expedition, arrived off port and anchored outside the reef. Once again the course of my l8fe was to be profoundly changed: this vessel was to take me into strange waters and singular adventures, in suffering and not a few narrow escapes from death. Here, with a vengeance, was the novel experience I had been craving.

Captain Frederick Dunbar Walker was master of the MINSTREL and had been promoter and organizer of a syndicate t buy the vessel at Hongkong and send her fishing for sharks and beach la mar in the long chain of rocks, atolls, and reefs that extends northwesterly from the eight islands of Hawaii proper. He had drawn a glowing prospectus, a copy of which I saw: it stressed the enormous profits to be gained from the cruise,—nine short months, said Walker, would suffice, though four were already spent; it marshaled an impressive array of figures, and so persuaded many to listen, since fortune ever lies over the next hill or just below the horizon. Thus the company was formed, the WANDERING MINSTREL, long idle and decaying, was acquired; and she sailed notwithstanding some late difficulty because of debts.

From the day she left Hong Kong Captain Walker and his officers had not been able to get along; that trouble, or something approaching mutiny among the crew, had forced her into Honolulu. There a consular court of inquiry was held, the two mates were discharged, and I was requested my Major James Hay Wodehouse, the British commissioner, to join as first officer for the return voyage of four months to Hong Kong. On arrival at that port, the major emphasized, I was to report to the British authorities in detail what had occurred on the passage.

To accept or not? An old friend advised me to take the position” would I not learn what sharking had to offer? Certainly I did’ but much more valuable knowledge might have been gained with less woe. After a little thought, however, I told the commissioner that I would sign the articles, provided the terms were satisfactory. On the next day, December 8, 1887, I met Captain Walker. Staggered by the wages I demanded, though I asked only the current pay of Honolulu, he began to protest, whereto I retorted by steering for the door. At this juncture the British consul, Thomas Rain Walker, held a whispered conversation the skipper, who immediately became less brusque and ended by accepting my terms. “Now, Mr. Cameron,” said he, “if this venture is a success, you will be handsomely rewarded; your salary will be a mere trifle.” “Ah, Captain,” returned I, “I never build air castles. The word ‘salary’ is sweet to to my ear.”

Once aboard the MINSTREL, I discovered that the crew refused duty, were practically mutinous. Regarding this pretty kettle of fish the old fox Walker had forgotten to warn me. There I was, nevertheless, and must make the best of things, as I hoped I could do with the aid of the new second mate, Hanker, a former officer in the service of the North German Lloyd or Hamburg-American Line, a competent man and a thorough sailor. I the crew there were thirty-two foremast hands and three Chinese stewards; and we mustered eight whites: Walker, Mrs. Walker three sons, about thirteen, eleven, and nine years old’ Hanker, myself, and Frank Lord, an American, who described himself as a cook.

A choice lot of cutthroats were the men. Scrapings of every port in the Orient had been assembled, with Filipinos predominating; but there were also negroes, Chinese, and even one man from Mozambique. They could have fitted perfectly into a picture of buccaneers of the Spanish Main if they had only had red sashes about their waists, cutlasses in their belts, braces of pistols in their hands, and above them the Jolly Roger. Without success I tried to persuade them to resume duty; they would not work and demanded leave to see the British consul. By declining to grant this Walker placed himself in the wrong.

While master and men were getting more at logger-heads I took an inventory of the stores. There were coils of Manila rope of many sizes’ a large quantity of canvas; miscellaneous articles–sufficient gear, in short, for three WANDERING MINSTRELS. The food was good, though the cook was incompetent’ and there was enough liquid refreshment–if I had been permitted to taste it–to make the ship a merry one. What I had found this far impressed me favorably, however unnecessary some of the stores were; but soon I discovered other equipment that puzzled me. “What are these two large pressing machines for?” I asked Walker. “To extract oil from the seals we’ll catch,” he replied. “Captain,” I observed pessimistically, “only a few hair seals are to be found on the islands. You’ll not catch enough to pay for one of the presses.” Astounding indeed were fifty cases of Florida water. “What on earth!” I ejaculated. “Ah, they,” explained the skipper,–“the Florida water is to suppress nasty odors when we’re trying out {that is, rendering oil from} sharks’ livers.” Such a use for perfumed toilet water, the idea of making a fishing vessel’s decks smell like a woman’s boudoir, amused Hander and me enormously.

John Cammeron's Odyssey

A note from the British consul, summoning me to his office, put a stop to my observation of the extraordinary ship on which I had signed. At the consulate I found the British commissioner, the counsel, and a former consul, T. H. Davies,–quite an impressive array of authority. hey read a letter from the crew complaining that the food was insufficient, the forecastle deck leaked, the foremast head was sprung, the captain drank to excess. What was my opinion of all this? I had just joined the vessel, said I, and hardly could reply satisfactorily; but so far as I had observed the food was good; the carpenter easily could repair the forecastle deck; and though I knew nothing of the condition of the foremast head, entries in the logbook regarding gales and typhoons encountered on the voyage from Hong Kong indicated that there could be no serious defect. As for the captain’s drinking, I preferred not to commit myself; so far I had seen him take no more than a little beer.

“What shall we do?” demanded Major Wodehouse. ” British man-of-war is in the harbor,” said I. “Apply to her commander for assistance.” No sooner said that done. With a letter from Major Wodehouse to Captain Oxley of H. B. M. S. CONQUEST I boarded that vessel. Captain Oxley’s reply, in the form of a letter addressed to Walker, was that he should first appeal to the civil authorities for aid in dealing with the drew’ if the people did not act, the warship would. After reading this communication Walker requested me to interview the police. My representing him, I pointed out, would appear strange. “I’ve had enough of the damned shore!” he exclaimed, no doubt with reference to a heckling he had received at the consular court of inquiry. So to the marshal of Hawaii I went. “The men are a bad lot,” I informed him. “Take a force to meet any emergency.” That led him to increase his detain from ten husky Hawaiian policemen to fifteen, and under command of the deputy marshal we set out for the ship.

John Cammeron's Odyssey

Walker unfolded details of the situation and asked the deputy especially to mark two negroes, who should be imprisoned on shore. Then I mustered the crew. The deputy smiled quizzically at me when he observed their miserable appearance and diminutive size. Each man was asked whether he refused duty; each replied doggedly that he did, whereupon irons were clapped to his wrists. Bumpety-bump, the two negroes were dragged, heels first, down the accommodation ladder to a boat; and we marched the others forward and shut them in the forepeak, a dark place of evil smells and a proper sweat-box under a tropical sun. To make sure that they did not escape, we spiked heavy scantlings across the entrance to the companionway; to complete their torment, we put the fellows on a diet of a pint of water and half biscuit a day each.

With this done Walker directed me to report to the consul. That gentleman was none too cheered by the news. “We are no nearer a solution,” he lamented. But I assured him that our treatment would cure almost any mutineer. As time passed, however, with the crew apparently determined to hold out, my forecast seemed about to fail. Then I determined that we must have decisive action. “I’ll resign if we don’t start our voyage,” said I to Walker. His rejoinder was that we could not heave the anchor so long as the men remained in irons. “Can’t we?” I retorted. “Well, let us see as to that.” It is true that we had few hands available: Hanker, two boatswains, the cook, three stewards, the Walker boys and myself; despite that I mustered and put them at the windlass, expecting that they would be able to do no more than take in slack chain, but that this would make a noise which could be heard by the prisoners in the forepeak and might cause them to beg for liberty.

Mindful of this possibility, I passed in front of the barred entrance, ostensibly in the execution of some duty. A sidelong glance at the companionway I stole, however. and saw extended hands beckoning. I paid no heed. After a few minutes I again walked close to the forepeak door. This time the men shouted entreaties that they be liberated and pledged that they would work faithfully. Only six did I free; added to the man power already available, they were enough to get up anchor and handle the bark under light canvas, and yet were not too many for me to manage if they proved unruly. To the others I said that they would remain in confinement on their scanty allowance.

From Honolulu we started for our fishing grounds under easy sail. So willingly did the six foremast hands work that I was confident they would give me no further concern. A generous meal cheered them immeasurably, to such a degree, indeed, that Walker’s tear ducts were opened, and he ordered me, then begged me, to release the others. This I would not do–refuse I could, since I had the keys to the handcuffs–until, after ten days, we sighted French Frigate Shoals, about five hundred miles northwest of Honolulu. At last I mustered the remaining prisoners on deck and warned them that severe treatment awaited them if they were not respectful and obedient. To a man they pledged themselves to behave and to do their best. And they kept their word: not even a pretext did I have to find fault with them. Willing as they proved, however, they were not seamen, but ocean laborers, and poor specimens at that Yet to whip and bully them, cajole them, to restore discipline after Walker had let them run wild, was a source of great satisfaction to me, mangy dogs though they were.

At first sight French Frigate Shoals resembles a brig under full sail, a fact that is held to blame for having lured more than one vessel to her grave on the reefs. As one approaches, the brig becomes a two-pinnacled rock, one hundred and twenty feet high, a sentinel over a number of islets. Thirteen there are, or were, for counts have been so variable that it seems currents must be continually rearranging the sand. These islets and their encircling reef extend about nine miles in one dimension and five in the other. Nowhere in the vicinity was there an anchorage really safe, for the shoals were much exposed and the low islets afforded little protection. At length, as the best of a bad bargain, we selected a berth in eight fathoms amid shoals.

John Cammeron's Odyssey

Fish in abundance could be seen, likewise sea fowl and green turtles; but sharks were few and small, not more than six or seven feet in length. Consequently we did no fishing; yet our visit was by no means wasted; Walker and his family cruised in the launch and had a merry picnic time. If he was neglectful of the MINSTREL while thus engaged, I was not. I realized that our situation would be bad in the event of rough weather. “Seek another anchorage!” rang my perpetual cry in Walker’s ears. Lightly did he hear my croakings, either because he feared no danger or was indifferent to the fortunes of his command. Yes, indifferent. Else why should he have discussed the construction of a schooner from the wreck of the MINSTREL if she came to grief? Why did he harp on the sufficiency of gear and tools for such a purpose? We could sail to South America, he rambled on, and sell the schooner.

John Cammeron's Odyssey

For a time, while we had good weather, it seemed that my fears were unfounded. After a week sea and sky became threatening. One evening I called the skipper’s attention to our situation and again pressed him to depart from our berth on a lee shore. Again I spoke to no avail. My disquiet had been increased because I repeatedly found the riding pawls unshipped; thus the whole weight of the vessel, should she strain at her cables, would be cast upon the windlass. A boatswain, whom I charged with neglect, informed me that Walker had ordered the pawls thrown out; the captain, in turn, assured me that the MINSTREL had ridden out two typhoons in Hong Kong without them. Thereto I retorted that the windlass would be smashed if he persisted in such stupidity, and that I intended to see that the pawls were always in place.

During the night the weather became more ominous; wind and sea increased to such an extent that I insisted we depart while we could, the breeze having veered and now affording us an excellent slant. But Walker pleaded that the crew should have breakfast first. “Damn breakfast!” said I. Even the men, always hungry after the fashion of sailors, added their entreaties to mine. With the skipper’s reluctant consent gained we did not delay in heaving anchor and making sail. In the bare nick of time did the vessel clear the reef, for the wind backed into the old quarter and blew hard. We had, however, got away; ere long we had plenty of sea room and headed for Midway Island, six hundred and eighty miles to the northwest.

John Cammeron's Odyssey

On the fourth day out from French Frigate Shoals we sighted Midway. It consists of two islets surrounded by a reef, with a passage on the west for light-draft vessels into Welles Harbor and on the southeast an entrance for boats into the lagoon proper. That body of water is about three miles long by one wide, and from three to eleven fathoms deep. Sand Island, on the west, is about one and one-eighth square miles in area; at its greatest elevation it is some forty feet high. In my time it was nothing but white sand, with a few stunted bushes here and there: a hell of light, where land, sky, and sea joined to blast one’s eyes. So devastating was the glare that on my return to civilization I had to bend spectacles. Eastern, or Scrub, Island is about one-half square mile in area and twelve feet high; back in 1887 it was covered with coarse grass and brush reaching to the shoulder. In the waters fish abounded, mullet the most plentiful. Sea fowl were innumerable: frigate birds, gannets, boobies, tropic birds, guillemots, goonies, curlew, snipe, plover, water wagtails. Does the reader surmise from these details that I made a longer stay on Midway than would be expected of a man paying a call in a shark-fisher? The reader would not be wrong in such a conjecture.

While we were closing in on Midway and skirting the reef we saw a man on shore waving a rag (it proved to be his shirt) frantically, desperately, he desisted only when we hoisted our ensign in response. That was the first of a series of strange events.

John Cammeron's Odyssey

Many false openings into the harbor were likely to lead a vessel astray, as we discovered when we sailed past the narrow channel. At evening we headed offshore under easy sail, intending to attempt the passage in the morning. During the night the weather changed to a gale, which compelled us to reduce canvas. With our miserable crew that was long and difficult; both Hanker and I were required aloft; we spent the greater part of the night in snugging the vessel down, something that would have been child’s play to one-fourth as many white men. Our heterogeneous crowd might be adept at climbing coconut trees, were helpless when it came to furling sails in heavy weather. For three days we lay outside waiting for the blow to moderate. When we did attempt to enter the harbor the wind, lately a gale, died completely, and the vessel drifted dangerously close to a breaking reef. In water of exceptional clarity we could see boulders at depths of eight, nine, and ten fathoms, with deep crevices between. Those coral caves led me to urge that we should not anchor, as I was sure we would lose our hooks and Walker approved my suggestion that our three boats tow the vessel clear. They were making gradual headway when a breeze extricated us from our plight. Before the wind we ran for the passage; we still had trouble, however, with a heavy swell, which broke on both sides of the channel and rolled over our bulwarks. At length we got to an anchorage in Wells Harbor and moored with both anchors in five fathoms; but the locality was unsatisfactory: we had little riding room; the bottom was sand, a poor holding ground and the pace was exposed to the northwest, a quarter from which the wind could blow with a vengeance.

After dinner the captain, his family, and I went ashore to call on and take food to the Robinson Crusoe of Midway, who had so desperately signaled to us. We found him in a small wooden building, the sole inhabitant of the island. To my astonishment he greeted me by name. “How do you do, Captain Cameron? My name is Jergensen. I met you in Honolulu.” I had no recollection of him. “How did you come here?” I asked. “On the schooner GENERAL SIEGEL,” said he. “We were bound from Honolulu on a sharking cruise. The vessel was wrecked, and my shipmates cleared out, leaving me behind.” After his solitary stay on Sand Island, Jorgensen was profoundly moved at seeing men. Small wonder! He accompanied us to the vessel, each minute growing more voluble, even hysterical: he rambled in his talk, darting from one topic to another, as though all his life would be too short for him to relieve his mind of the multitude of thoughts and emotions stored therein while he was king of a desolate island with none but himself to rule. No sooner were we on board ship than he began to follow me about the deck with the aim of unfolding his story. I begged him, however, to belay his jaw tackle until work was over for the day and I could listen in peace.

Supper having put sufficient food under his vest, we got up steam in our pipes, to the castaway’s great pleasure after tobacco-less months. For the good week, let me say, there is no substitute: within a few weeks I myself was driven to smoke leaves and grass but they burned my tongue so severely that I had to stop.–This strange being, then, began his story.

His name, said he, was Adolph Jorgensen; he was a native of Denmark; by trade a ship carpenter. His age, I estimated, was twenty-seven; he was a giant of a man, more than six feet one inch in height; fair-haired and blue-eyed; his shoulders were slightly stooped, no doubt from swinging a broadax in the shipyards of Hamburg, where he had been employed for some time. He was of a powerful build, muscular and rawboned, without an ounce of fat. I soon discovered that he was a kind and obliging nature, eager to please others, and himself easy to satisfy.

“You must remember, Cameron,” said he, “that the schooner GENERAL SEIGEL was fitted out in Honolulu more than a year ago for a cooperative sharking expedition to the nor’-nor’west islands. There were seven of us in the venture. On our way here we had fitful success. Bird Island, our first call, was a barren rock swarming with sea fowl but having few sharks. Neckar, which came next, had many sharks and a few hair seals, the flesh of which was excellent bait. Cheered by our luck, we continued to French Frigate Shoals, where the sea was alive with sharks and many turtles could be seen in the islets. By and large our cruise was succeeding; on board ship, too, all was going well. Our stores were ample, and we had plenty of fish, turtles, eggs, and flesh of seals.

John Cammeron's Odyssey

“From French Frigate Shoals we sailed for Maro Reef, a wicked place, the rocks of which showed through breaking surf like so many fangs. Rewarded by a small catch there, we headed for Laysan Island. It has a good harbor for small craft, safe enough except from October to April. Then a heavy swell rolls in from the northwest. At Laysan our luck was fair; sharks were numerous, though rather small. We took advantage of the harbor to clean the schooner’s bottom, overhaul our sails and rigging, and give all hands a week ashore before proceeding to Lisiansky. At that island there is a large lagoon, in which we remained for six weeks, pushed on with our fishing, and caught many sharks, besides some turtles and a few seals. With almost a full cargo we came to Midway. Here we intended to complete our catch, take on water, and generally prepare for the run to Honolulu.

“Since Welles Harbor appeared safe, we anchored closer in than the WANDERING MINSTREL is lying; and carried on with our fishing, until we had a full cargo. Up to this time there had not been the slightest trouble; every man had done his level best. How dissension arose I don’t know,–probably because we didn’t have enough work to keep us busy; but there was no serious quarrel until after the schooner was wrecked. That happened on the very day we were to sail for Hawaii. We had been busy getting the vessel shipshape, and were chafing one another as we planned what grand sprees we’d have in port. You know, Cameron, how sailors on their homeward voyages look forward to one devil of the time ashore.”–Dear Bacchus and Venus, did John Cameron not know!

“Air castles I’d call the sprees we planned,” said Jorgensen. “Down they tumbled. Before daybreak a heavy storm set in, and a tremendous sea burst through the passage until everything was white with spume and spindrift. The poor old schooner pitched, rolled, surged back and forth, and strained at her anchors, while seas swept her decks and made clean breaches over her. We hoped, of course, for the best; we were fated to have the worst. As the storm became more violent and the waves higher, both chains parted, and the SEIGEL drove upon the beach. Luckily for us she ended on sand, so we had a chance to save our clothes, food, and some other supplies before she broke up, only an hour after she struck. She had seen her best days, and could not stand much pounding.

“There we were, our venture, which had promised so much, ended in wreck; ourselves on a desert island, with prospects of rescue not the brightest. We did find shelter,”–This was a house of redwood, roofed with redwood shingles, built thirty years or so before American scientists who had come to Midway to observe a transit of Venus. That the structure was still in good condition speaks much for the wood.

“In the house we took up our quarters,” Jorgensen went on. “We would have been comfortable enough if we could have agreed. But in our idleness we couldn’t keep from bickering. Our quarrels ended seriously and strangely. One of the crew, an old man, Peter Larking, went fishing with dynamite. I suppose he forgot himself as he watched the movements of a shoal of fish or maybe the fuse was poor.”–Could such a thing have been? Is it possible that some manufacturer did ship fourth-rate fuse to Hawaii?–fuse that would burn slyly down a side or shoot like a rocket from hell through the center and cost some earnest dynamiter of fish an irreplaceable hand?

“Peter Larkin lost a hand, Cameron,” said Jorgensen. It was torn to shreds. Not pretty, that stump. We dressed it as well as we could; yet we were no surgeons. In spite of our bungling, Larkin seemed to be getting on well, although he did complain much, as almost any one would. One afternoon, when his pain was great, he groaned and screamed. This seemed the last straw to Jacobson, who acted as captain ‘I’ll soon fix him!’ said Jacobson savagely. He got a dose of something for Larkin from the medicine chest. Immediately after swallowing it Larkin began to cry that his stomach was afire. For two hours he yelled and writhed. Then he died. He wouldn’t bother Jacobson any more. I came to the conclusion that the captain poisoned him. What do you think, Cameron?” I can form no opinion, Jorgensen,” said I: “go on with your story.”

“After Larkin’s death,” Jorgensen resumed, “a Dane named Brown hinted before Jacobson that Larkin had been poisoned; but the captain seemed to take no notice. One day, however, he and Brown went to Eastern Island;—and the captain returned alone. To our questions he replied coolly that Brown had shot himself by accident and that he had buried the body where it fell. Of course I suspected murder, and I made up my mind to learn the truth. On the next day I went to Eastern Island with Jacobson and a German boy. The captain showed me the grave; I dug up the body, keeping a weather eye on Jacobson as I did so; pulled the corpse from the pit, scraped off the sand that stuck to it, and searched for a wound. It was a bullet hole–in the back of the head. No man can shoot himself from behind, Cameron. Jacobson looked on indifferently——”

I myself have never been able to conceive of the captain’s bearing in this ghastly ordeal: accompanying Jorgensen to the islet, indicating the grave, waiting while the corpse was disinterred, an examination made, and that conclusive bullet hole in the back of the head disclosed. And this “indifferently”! What assumption shall illumine this tenebrous affair? God alone knows the truth.

“Jacobson looked on indifferently,” said Jorgensen, “as I scraped the sand from the body, looked it over and buried it the second time. I said nothing. The fact is, Cameron, that I was in deathly fear of the skipper.” Yet the reader may retort that Jorgensen had courage to uncover the corpse and expose that tiny break in the skull through which brain and life had oozed. What is truth? Pilate asked the same question.

John Cammeron's Odyssey

Nevertheless, despite all that had occurred, Jorgensen and Jacobson several days afterward crossed once more to Eastern, this time to get eggs, since there were none on Sand Island, all the sea fowl, frigate birds and goonies excepted, having flown to sea, not to return for nesting until November. “When I gathered many eggs,” Jorgensen’s tale ran, “I sauntered to the boat and sat waiting for Jacobson. He did not return; I searched for him: no trace could I find. I returned bewildered to Sand Island and reported his disappearance. To my horror, my shipmates accused me of murder. I protested my innocence; but they roared me down
“On the next day all went to Eastern Island to search for Jacobson. It seemed that he had vanished into the air. And while I was hunting for the captain the others cleared out, leaving me without food and water–which on Eastern Island is unfit to drink– and with no means of kindling a fire. My mates, besides, knew I could not swim: they had left me there to die.

“It appeared impossible for me to cross to Sand Island, though I almost went crazy raking my mind for a way of escape. Finally it occurred to me that I might tie together some drift logs, which had been washed above high water, and so make a raft. But where could I get lashings? I wondered, too, whether I could move the logs to the water After a terrible struggle I managed to roll, drag, and slide them over the sand–the hardest work I ever did. With my suspenders and strips torn from my clothes I bound the logs together; with a light piece of wood as a paddle I began my voyage across the lagoon. I made good progress until I was halfway; then a breeze kicked up a choppy sea and held me back. Soon the raft grew logy; next the lashings parted, leaving me with a single log and it well submerged.

“Sick with terror,—that’s what I was, Cameron, when I thought that the lagoon was full of sharks. How I got to the beach I don’t know. It was after an effort so fearful that I fainted. Not until late afternoon did I come to. I found myself on the sand, barely clear of the water unable to rise to my feet. When I could get up, after lying there for a long time, I still had to fight off a deadly fit of dizziness, which left my head aching horribly and spinning like a top. If you had seen me on my way to the cottage you’d have thought I was drunk. That’s how I was staggering. My brain burned with hate of my shipmates. At that time I had a mind to kill them all. That would have been no crime; only just punishment for their attempt to murder me with starvation and thirst. Little by little I reeled toward the house; stopped often to rest;—and went on.

“Within the hut I could hear the others talking and laughing, no doubt because they had been so clever in tricking me. Bursting upon them, I took them completely aback, so little had they imagined I could escape Before they could recover from their astonishment I caught a glimpse of my rifle in a corner; I leapt for it and brought it to bear. Not to kill anyone,—I was cooler then; just to frighten the cowards. That I certainly did; they sat paralyzed. Only when I demanded their reasons for abandoning me did they speak. They were, said they, not safe with me. ‘Fools and cowards!’ said I. ‘So many, to be afraid of one! Here is my rifle. Take it.’ And I handed over the weapon. ‘I’ll harm no one. For God’s sake, behave like men!’

“Some days afterward we fitted out a boat for a voyage to the Marshall Islands, fifteen hundred miles distant. It had drifted on shore, probably from a wreck’—the name DUNOTTER CASTLE was on the stern. It was a strong clincher-built, double-ended boat, only slightly damaged.” “The DUNOTTER CASTLE,” I was able to inform Jorgensen, “was lost on Ocean Island, fifty-five miles westward, about two years ago.” “A fortunate wreck for us,” he remarked. “I repaired the boat and strengthened it thoroughly to withstand heavy weather; in fact, I made it strong enough to sail around the world.

“But when everything was ready my shipmates said that I could not go in the boat. I was too dangerous! ‘This was staggering. I begged not to be left behind; I prayed to them;—they would not listen. I even offered to let them tie me hand and foot and keep me bound during the voyage. Nothing moved them. One evening they started without me; but anchored a short distance from shore and next morning made an early departure. During the night I searched madly for a punt we had used in good weather, with the aim of paddling out to the boat for one last appeal. Not a trace of the punt could I find. No wonder; a few days afterward I ran across it, filled with stones and sunk by those devils of men. They had overlooked nothing; and I–what a fool! How I damned myself for surrendering my rifle! Twice those fiends had tried to murder me. They’ll be a pretty score to settle if ever we meet.

“Here was I, left with only a few boxes of matches,–everything else had been taken. What would become of me? Would a vessel find me before I died? Would I go crazy? How can I describe my hopes and fears? My mind was a hell while I wandered all day about the island, muttering and cursing, to return to the house at night, then to fall exhausted, yet unable to sleep. Finally I became seriously ill. How long I remained so I can’t say. I must have been delirious for quite a time; my calendar, at least, is out nine days as compared with yours. Then my recovery was slow. My food, nothing more than sea birds and their eggs, helped me little to rally. Weak as I was, I could hardly search for anything to eat. Even after I grew better I felt impelled to kill myself. Time and time again I debated suicide. In the end, after harder and more sensible thinking, I decided that i needed work.

“What better job could I do than repair and strengthen the dwelling house for the winter? I could get material from some lighters, though they were nearly three-quarters of a mile from the house and were almost buried in drifting sand.” “Those lighters, Jorgensen,” I interposed, “were left here by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, or more probably by the U.S.S.SAGINAW, which was sent from the States to deepen a channel through the reef, so that the Pacific Mail could use Midway as a coaling station. The SAGINAW was lost on Ocean Island in 1870. I have a faint recollection that some of the crew went in a small boat to Kauai. But all the men except one were drowned when the boat capsized. That lone survivor got word of the wreak to Honolulu, and the crew were rescued.

“To keep my hands and mind occupied,” Jorgensen resumed. “I decided to build a veranda about the hut. My first task was to clear sand from the lighters. This proved I was far from well. Still I carried on, increasing my work as I improved, until I was able to go a full day without tiring. It was not pleasant to trudge in yielding sand between the hut and the lighters; that, however was only the beginning. Clearing away the sand was no easy job; then came the hard task of dismantling the lighters with the few tools I had. Once the planks were off, I still had to get them to the house. They were two by ten inches by twenty feet long, heavy, and they taxed my strength, though I am not a weak man. Yet I stuck to the work until I had the material I needed.—All this time, Cameron, I had observed one day as Sunday: I needed rest and also set apart the day for giving thanks that I had been saved from death. Now I know that this “Sunday” fell on a week day. But God would not hold such a mistake against me.

“Construction of a veranda went forward as well as a one-man gang could manage. I lost no time. Eight-hour day! I worked from dawn to dark, and slept,—God, Cameron, how I slept! Well, you saw the veranda. What do you think of it?”

“An excellent job,” said I. “It took muscle. Voluntary slavery, that task was. But you knew you would be snugger and safer in the westerly gales of winter. How did you manage for food?”

“Fairly well,” replied the castaway. “Seabirds were plentiful. The breasts of frigate birds are very good, a fair substitute for beefsteak, tender when cooked; for a change, delicious grilled. I easily caught the foul and also fish, which I had in great variety. They were tasty boiled, fried, roasted, or steamed. Nor did I lack eggs. A soup to smack your lips over can be made from small birds, which I snared, with well-beaten eggs added when the liquid was slightly cooled. Fish soup I made after the same recipe. As for the eggs alone—sometimes I boiled them, or fried or roasted them; or again made them into a pancake on a frying pan improvised from an old shovel. Tea and coffee consisted of beaten eggs in hot water.”

John Cammeron's Odyssey

“You’re a first-rate carpenter,” I remarked, “and an excellent cook. Many men have died of scurvy on fare no different from yours.”

“My good health,” Jorgensen explained, “is due to work—to that and not worrying after the first few weeks. My one trouble was a shortage of matches. How to use few was my special study. But with much driftwood and coal [also left on Midway by the Pacific Mail or the SAGINAW] I seldom let the fire die. Each night I banked it; in the morning a little raking started blaze.

“When the veranda was done I put in a stock of eggs, for there would be many bad days during the winter when I couldn’t forage. About the first of November the goonies returned to rest. Each hen laid two or three eggs, a trifle short of a pound in weight, one of which she ate while she was hatching her chicks. If the eggs were taken she would lay one or two more, but smaller. Trouble enough I made for the birds. In November alone I stored more than ten thousand eggs, and have almost that many in the house to-day [January], packed in dry leaves in boxes. You may see and taste some to-morrow. I think they are all right; at least they kept me from going hungry at times, and they always gave me a change from fish and birds.

John Cammeron's Odyssey

“By the time the WANDERING MINSTREL hove in sight I was resigned to whatever might happen. Things were a bit trying in bad weather, when I couldn’t work. Then my single amusement was a rat, the only one on the island. He was as lonesome as I; and we became fast friends. He ate from my hand without fear; and he and I held long conversations; at any rate, I talked, and he as a listener was perfect, for he never interrupted.

John Cammeron's Odyssey

“Ah, yes, I have something else to tell you. Soon after the boat sailed for the Marshalls I caught a shark, about eight feet long, and cut it open to get the liver for lamp oil. In the stomach was a man’s shoe with the foot still inside it. The boat, I knew, was Jacobson’s. He had been drowned, I suppose, and the shark had eaten him, but hadn’t digested the leather of the shoe. Someday I’ll show you where the foot is buried, close to the cottage.”

About this stage sleep overpowered me. How long Jorgensen talked I do not know. Early next morning he made a fresh start; I was, however, to busy to listen. One thing and another prevented my seeing the foot. For that matter I was not in the least interested; and the Dane never alluded to it again.

So here I have given Jorgensen’s yarn as he spun it in the wardroom of the British bark WANDERING MINSTREL at Wells Harbor, Midway Island. No doubt the reader will weigh the story and form his own conclusions, which may be modified by what I shall say later of Jorgensen. This I will add here: Three years afterward I met one of his shipmates in the Marshall group. He laid all the responsibility on Jorgensen; yet closed like a clam when I asked him some pertinent questions. I told him that Jorgensen was in the archipelago and would certainly kill him should they meet; for my part, I concluded, I would not blame the Dane in the least.

John Cameron’s Odyssey To Be Continued… Part 2 Click Here

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