With Bare Hands
By A. HYATT VERRILL
From Pirate Stories magazine, July 1935,
Digital capture by Doug Frizzle, August 2008
The Skipper, "Fightin’ Ben Tilden" of the
In the good old days of wind-jammers and hard-fisted bucko mates, to be famed as a fighting man meant something. And "Fightin’ Ben Tilden” as Captain Benjamin Tilden was known to his cronies and fellow whaling skippers, was all that the nickname implied. It was his favorite boast that he could "lick the everlastin’ stuffin’ outen any man alive" and no one in New Bedford or aboard the whaleships who knew "Fightin' Ben" ever questioned his claim to the title of champion; and strangers and newcomers who had the temerity to contest his claims, invariably changed their minds and arose wiser, if sadder, men after their experiment.
Yet, despite his pugnacious and fistic fame, Cap'n Ben was well liked, for he never picked a quarrel and was no brutal bully. Never had he been known to strike an opponent when down; he never kicked or bit or gouged as was customary in the rough-and-tumble frays of the whalemen, and he never resorted to the use of weapons other than his two fists. In fact, he had the greatest contempt for any man who could not maintain discipline aboard ship by means of his two hands alone, and considered such as weaklings and cowards to boot. No mates were permitted to use handspikes or belaying pins to whip the "greenies" into shape aboard Cap'n Tilden's ship. If a rope's end wasn't sufficient, the captain's fists were, and as a result he got the utmost service out of his crews and had no cripples lying in the fo'c'sle with broken bones or fractured heads. If a man were surly, mutinous or disobedient, the skipper would step towards him, strip off his coat, and in his deep, rumbling voice, remark: "I'm a-goin' for to lick ye, so stand up an' take yer medicine." And most helpful medicine it always proved.
Looking at Cap'n Ben's hands, one instantly realized why he found belaying pins and handspikes unnecessary. They hung at the ends of his huge arms like the tackle-blocks of the mainsheet, and were almost as hard. And they appeared absolutely grotesque, as if grafted upon him by mistake, for the rest of his physique was out of all proportion. He was slender, he stooped slightly, and although his chest and shoulders were broad, he gave no hint of the gigantic strength he possessed. Also, he was as lithe and agile as a cat, a superb swimmer, and he neither swore nor drank. No, I must qualify that statement, once and only once did his mates or crew hear Fightin' Ben curse, and that once became an epic in the annals of the whalemen, and thereby hangs this tale.
In the bark Wanderer Cap'n Ben had sailed from
The second mate had ordered the landlubbers aloft, and when they hesitated, clinging to the shrouds and glancing fearfully at the lofty spars cutting wide arcs across the sky as the bark rolled, the mate seized a heavy bar and leaped towards them.
"Hey, you!" shouted the third mate, forgetting momentarily that he was addressing his superior officer and thinking only of warning him. "Drop that there handspike!"
The other wheeled about with an oath. "Who in thunderation be ye talkin' to?" he demanded. Then, without waiting for a reply, he swung the bar and knocked the third mate crashing into the scuppers. Cap'n Ben, who had been standing on the after-deck under the spare boatskids, had witnessed the whole affair, and without uttering a word he strode forward.
As the enraged second mate turned towards the cowering crew and swung the bar for a blow at the nearest man, the captain's huge hand shot out, seized the handspike, and with a quick twist tore it from the other's grasp with such force that the mate staggered and almost fell. The oath that rose to the second mate's lips was checked as he saw who it was that had interfered, but he glowered savagely. Tossing the bar aside, Cap'n Ben began stripping off his jacket the meanwhile looking at the scowling mate with a broad smile on his face.
"I calc'late you don't know the rules of this here ship," he observed in even pleasant tones. "There ain't no han'spike nor belayin' pins used for knockin' men about on my ships, Mr. Mate. If you ben't man enough to lick the crew into shape with your own hands, then jes call on me. An' you'd best be gettin' that there jacket of yourn offen your back 'cause I'm a-goin' to lick the everlasting stuffin' outen you."
The mate was no craven, and was noted as a tough "bucko" and scrapper. He glanced contemptuously at the skipper's lean figure, but still he hesitated. It was against all rules to fight one's captain, and he drew back, a peculiar puzzled look on his surly face.
"I didn't know nothin' about them rules," he growled. "But as for bein' man enough for to beat up them gutter-rats —say, no one has ever called me a coward yet an' not took it back, an' if ye weren't Cap'n I'd show ye whether I can use my hands or not."
Cap'n Ben chuckled. "Well, I'm callin' of you a coward," he declared. "An' I ain't calc'latin' to take them words back, neither. You're a coward to use that there han'spike on the third mate, an' that's what I aim to lick you for. Just forgit I'm skipper till you wake up, arter I'm done with you."
THE mate, a huge burly fellow, flushed under his tanned skin. "Meb-be ye'll be the one to forget you're skipper," he sneered, as he threw off his coat and bared his enormous biceps.
Meanwhile, on the after-deck, the first mate looked on with amazement, and forward the wondering crew huddled together, watching intently as the two men prepared for battle.
"Ready?" snapped the captain, and before the other could reply, he leaped forward. There was a hollow thud that was heard throughout the length of the bark's decks, and the mate staggered back with blood trickling from bruised and cut lips. With a snarl he lowered his head and, his huge fists driving like piston-rods, he rushed the captain.
But somehow or other he failed to connect. His fists struck only empty air, and Cap'n Ben, swiftly sidestepping, planted lightning-like rights and lefts on the mate's face. Half-blinded and bellowing like a mad bull, the infuriated man rushed again; but before he came within reach of the skipper, the latter's enormous fists shot out, and the mate was lifted bodily in the air by the force of the blows and crashed to the deck—dead to the world.
A cheer rose from the men, and the Portuguese boatsteerers and even the dazed and bruised third mate joined in with a will. Only the first mate was silent, and with a black scowl on his face and a muttered oath, he glared at the captain who, without a scratch or a bruise, slipped on his coat and strode to the after-deck.
As he passed the officer, the latter mumbled something, and instantly Cap'n Ben wheeled on him. "Don't be skeered to speak out, Mr. Mate," he said. "Maybe when Mr. Frisbee can relieve you, you'd like to see if you're a better man than him."
Simpson, the mate, cast an appraising glance at the skipper. "I ain't fightin' with no cap'n," he replied. "Frisbee's no good"—he spat contemptuously over the ship's side—"an' he's a damn fool as well. Like as not if he'd hurt ye, ye'd have logged him for mut'ny."
Cap'n Ben frowned, started to throw off his coat, thought better of it, and glared at the mate. "I ain't never had cause to log a man for mutiny yet, Mr. Simpson," he said in even tones. "When I can't settle my trouble aboard ship in my own way I'll give up bein' skipper."
"Well, ye'll have trouble if ye get beat-in' up of yer officers," retorted the mate. "It's rotten discipline, lettin' the men see ye knockin' Mr. Frisbee about."
Again the skipper half drew off his coat, and again he desisted. "There's only one boss aboard this ship, Mr. Simpson," he exclaimed, "and when I need your advice, I'll ask for it. I ain't never seen the man yet as I can't lick an' if you think you're better fitted to be boss than I be, I'll give you the chance to prove it with your fists. You lick me, by Godfrey, and you can step into my shoes and be skipper!"
Simpson's eyes gleamed, and his face twisted in a sneering grin. He had won many a rough-and-tumble fight and, annoyed at the poor showing his fellow mate had made against the "mainland" skipper, he longed to even scores and show the boastful captain that an "island" man was more than his match.
"I'm ready, any time ye be," he announced. "Mebbe ye ain't never met the man ye can't lick, but ye be a-goin' to right now."
But in the battle that promptly followed, Simpson fared little better than had Frisbee. To be sure, he got in a few blows at the captain, and he proved himself a far better fighter and boxer than his colleague, but within a few minutes he, too, had been knocked down and out.
Turning to the wildly cheering crew, Cap'n Tilden shook a huge fist menacingly. "Just 'cause you've seed me lick them mates, don't you go for thinkin' as you can raise ructions aboard this here bark," he warned them. "Either one of 'em can lick the hearts outen the whole danged bunch of you, an' if they have any trouble a-doin' of it, I'm here to help 'em, by Godfrey! Now fall to and jump to it when a officer speaks to you, if you don't want me to holystone the decks with your faces."
From that time on, there was no further trouble aboard the Wanderer. The mates, realizing that their skipper was a better man than they, and that they had been given a fair chance and had been licked, harbored no ill will or resentment. On the contrary, they held the captain in the highest respect, and as a result there was perfect harmony aft.
Eventually, after many long weeks, the Wanderer rounded
Then, one day the drawling cry: "She blo—ows! She
"Go in on that critter to port, Mr. Frisbee," the skipper ordered as the boats were shoved off from the bark's side. "An' you go along with him, Mr. Porter. I'll atten' to that there bull over to sta'board."
Heading for the south, Frisbee and Porter approached their unsuspecting quarry, the boats pulling toward the whale's head, for a "right" whale cannot see an object directly in front of him. Soon Porter, who was in the lead, was fast with his line smoking through the chocks as coil after coil leaped from the tubs as the whale sounded, while Frisbee, his boat motionless, stood by, the boatsteerer with poised iron bracing himself in the bow, and all eyes watching intently for the stricken whale to breach and afford the chance of heaving a second iron into him.
Suddenly there was a sharp exclamation from the tub oarsman. "Hey, Cap'n's boat's stove!" he cried.
Frisbee turned and peered across the waves to see the other whale lashing the water into foam with its enormous flukes, while in the white churning froth could be seen the wreckage of the skipper's boat and the black dots of struggling men.
With a sharp order, Frisbee swung his boat around, the boatsteerer dropped his harpoon and seized an oar, and with every man pulling for dear life, the boat went speeding to the succor of the captain and his men. Quickly the half-drowned men were pulled into the rescuing boat, but Cap'n Ben was missing. "Where's the Old Man?" demanded Frisbee as the first dripping fellow was hauled over the rail. But before the man could reply, the mate ripped out a surprised oath and stood staring toward the whale only a few hundred feet away. Instantly all eyes were turned in the same direction and the men stared speechless, incredulous at what they saw.
WITH powerful overhand strokes Cap'n Ben was swimming, and after him, rushing at him with blind fury, went the giant whale. In an instant the vast creature was upon him, and the men held their breaths as their skipper disappeared in a smother of foam. But the next moment a cheer burst from their throats as the captain's head bobbed up beyond the maddened brute. But the whale had also seen him, and turning as on a pivot, striking out viciously with its flukes, the bull again rushed at the struggling man. Up reared the monster's head and with the thunder of an avalanche, it came crashing down, throwing a great column of water high in the air. A sigh that was almost a groan came from the onlooking boat's crew. Surely Cap'n Ben was finished! Nothing could have withstood that fearful blow, and with gritted teeth and in tense voice Frisbee ordered his men to their oars and cautiously approached the whale, hoping to recover the skipper's mangled body. But before the boat had moved a score of feet a shout from the boatsteerer drew all eyes to the whale once more. There, apparently unharmed and still swimming strongly, was Cap'n Ben, striving to escape from his infuriated enemy.
To approach closer with the boat was impossible, and resting on their oars, absolutely fascinated, the men watched what was probably the most remarkable, the strangest duel that ever mortal eyes have seen—a battle between a maddened eighty-foot whale and a swimming man.
Over and over again the enormous head was raised high and brought crashing down. Time and again the twenty-foot, trip-hammer flukes leaped from the foaming sea, and whistling through the air, struck death-dealing blows at the puny being tossing in the turmoil. A score of times the watching men felt certain the end had come; a score of times the monstrous head or lashing flukes appeared to strike the struggling captain. But each time he reappeared, swimming strongly, apparently unharmed.
Unable to approach closely enough to heave an iron into the whale or to rescue their skipper, the boat's crew could only watch and wait as the captain—diving, dodging, turning this way and that— evaded by seeming miracles the onslaught of the whale. Then, as they watched, the men saw that the captain was ever striving to get ahead of the creature. Turn and swing as the whale might, the skipper was constantly working his way towards the head, and each time that he reappeared on the surface, he was nearer to the barnacle-encrusted snout of his antagonist.
For three-quarters of an hour the battle had been going on, and it seemed impossible that any swimmer could maintain himself much longer in that maelstrom of sea. Then, with staring eyes, the watchers saw their fighting captain bob to the surface within a few feet of the whale's nose. They caught the flash of steel as the skipper's hand rose and lunged downward. With a terrific stroke of his tail, the whale lifted itself half out of water, and breaching high, it twisted about in mid-air and the next instant was racing away, leaving a wake like a steamship.
"I'll be everlastin'ly plowed!" cried Frisbee as the men bent to their oars and the boat leaped forward towards the captain. "Danged if the Old Man didn't knife the critter's nose!"
Frisbee was right. Fightin' Ben had actually driven his sheath-knife into the whale's nose—the most sensitive spot on a right whale—and the monster, suffering excruciating agonies, had turned and fled!
A moment later the exhausted captain was being hauled into the boat. "I allers said as how nothin’ could lick ye, 'ceptin' a elephant or a bull whale," exclaimed Frisbee as he bent over the blowing, panting skipper.
Cap'n Ben heaved a mighty breath and sat up. "Lick me!" he cried, his eyes blazing. "Licked me, did he? Didn't I lick hell outen the critter? Didn't I, damn his dod-rotted hide? You bet ye I did, by Glory! I ain't never met nothin' I can't lick, not yet I ain't, and"—with a tone of regret—"this here's the first time I've ever had need to use anythin' but my bare hands for a-doin' of it!"
With a self-satisfied sigh, Cap'n Tilden sank limp and unconscious upon a thwart, while from the throats of the men three lusty cheers were roared for "Fightin’ Ben," their still unconquered skipper.