The Edge of the Roncador

“The Canal needs men to dig,” said Booker, the head of the firm of
shippers at Kingston, “it’s up to us to get ’em and it’s up to you to
take ’em to Colon–”

“But I’m not running a slaver, I’m a merchantman, by George, an’ you
can go to–”

“Hold on, Captain James,” broke in the man of affairs, “if you can’t
run the _Enos_, a little five hundred ton steamer the way she should be
run, it’ll be about time for me to look for another skipper.”

“But, Mr. Booker, she’s as rotten as punk–there ain’t a plate in her
thicker’n a sheet of blotting paper, an’ blame little stronger. She
really ain’t fit to run passengers even if you bribe the inspectors to
let us. I ain’t kickin’ about the way you’ve treated me, it ain’t that
at all, but to ram that ship full o’ niggers and send her out is mighty
nigh murder, an’, that’s a fact.”

Captain James was a shifty, fat and altogether sodden specimen of the
tropical white islander. He had lost a fine vessel, and being unable
to get another had drifted about the West Indies handling whatever
he could command. Booker, Benson & Co. had found use for him in one
of their old ships which had seen her best days running bananas to
New Orleans. She had made money, paid for herself ten times over, and
now she was just able to stagger along with leaky boilers and scaled
plates to the tune of seven knots, heading, as James always thought,
for the port of missing ships. Each voyage seemed to be her last, but
she somehow drifted in to her port of destination with pumps working
and crew mutinous, to discharge and stagger home again. James could not
afford to give her up. To do so would have meant ruin for him, and as
long as her owners paid him his seventy-five dollars per month–enough
to pay for his rum and clothes–he stuck to her with the sullenness
of a hungry bulldog gripping a dry bone. How he hated her. He cursed
her daily, he swore at her free and fluently whenever she dipped her
dull gray sides into the beautiful blue water of the Caribbean at each
roll, and when he brought her to her dock, which he did with much care
and concern, his exclamations at her perverseness to minding the helm
were marvels of linguistic art. His mate, a tall, thin, saturnine
Scotchman with bleary eyes from rum and cola, would sometimes deign
to look at him with a languid interest during these moments of loud
speech, and once–only once–he had allowed himself to be so absorbed
in contemplating his master, that he forgot to cast the bowline from
the drum of the donkey engine which was winding it in, and by so doing
pulled and tore out an iron cleat upon the dock end. Then pandemonium
had reigned and the silent mate soon retired to the privacy of his room
to still his quaking conscience and steady his shaking nerves with
potations of his favourite beverage, rum and cola.

“You will proceed to Boddertown, and then to Georgetown in the Great
Cayman, and after seeing Jones there, who will see to clearing you all
right, you will run the crowd to Colon, do you understand,” said Mr.
Booker to his ship-master.

“How many will there be?” asked James sullenly, after finding that his
argument was of no avail.

“As many as she will carry–how many do you say, five hundred?”

“Good Lord, Mr. Booker–what? Five hundred niggers in that bit of a
ship? Man, think a little.”

“She has her ventilators–has both holds well-ventilated, a fruiter
is as comfortable below as on deck, has as much ventilation with her
blowers as a liner–”

“Make it three hundred at the limit,” said James with more decision
than his employer had ever given him credit for.

“Er–er, well, let it go at that, then. You’ll attend to stowing ’em,
give ’em plenty of grub–it’s only a couple of days with good weather,
and they can stand on deck for that time.”

“All right, then,” said the sailor with a sigh. He was not a bad man,
only weakened by misfortune. Had he lived a little differently, had
better luck and governed his thirst, he would have compared favourably
with many of the best skippers in the West India trade. He arose,
clapped on his grass hat and mopped his red face, squared his fat
shoulders under his dirty white linen coat, and strode forth into the
glaring sunshine. He went down the street, stopped at a saloon, took
several drinks, and after that went aboard, rousing the chief engineer
and ordering steam for five o’clock that afternoon.

“We will get to sea before dark,” said he to the mate Mr. McDuff.
“Don’t get too drunk, we’ve got a big job–I’ll tell you later.”

A week later the _Enos_ was steaming over the calm and beautiful
Caribbean. The sky was a tropical blue dotted with the lumpy trade
clouds, and the sea was that beautiful tint only seen during perfect
weather. She was running along smoothly down past the Quita-suena Bank,
between it and the Serrano Cays, and so far all had gone well. Jones
had proved an agent worthy of Mr. Booker’s best expectations. He had
managed to get together three hundred and ten strapping fellows who
were destined to dig for the good of maritime commerce, and he had held
out inducements which, while models of veracity, were also works of
art. He had made even the most sordid details of life upon the Isthmus
appear in the garb of most attractive romance, and money–why, money
was the thing the Canal cared less for than anything in the world.
Three hundred and ten men were destined to be rich in this world’s
goods. He had convinced even the most skeptical of this, and the only
thing that kept the rest of the population upon the Cayman was the size
of the _Enos_. He wished to ship five hundred, but James was sturdy
enough to stop him. Under the influence of six copious drinks of rum
and cola, he had managed to put up a determined opposition. He finally
threatened to go ashore and get very drunk if another man was sent him,
and Jones knowing him to be quite capable of keeping his word in this
respect, desisted at three hundred and ten.

“You fat sea-scutt, I’d fry the grease out o’ you if I could get
another man to take the ship,” said Jones in a fury. “I get a dollar
a head for those niggers, an’ you’ve done me to the tune of two
hundred–but you can bet I won’t forget you, you lobster, you blamed
fat lobster–”

Captain James contented himself with calling the agent every name he
could remember that carried disgrace or disrespect along with it, and
after that stood upon the bridge storming and fuming, every now and
then bursting forth when some new and especially choice adjective
happened to reach his memory.

By the time the _Enos_ reached the vicinity of Quita-suena Bank, the
skipper had cooled both mentally and physically, the evaporation of the
rum with which he supplied himself producing a revivifying effect only
to be appreciated by one who is addicted to rum and cola. His wrath had
subsided until he scarcely mumbled his disdain for the energetic Jones,
and his face, always red and swollen from both the fierce sunshine and
his diet, now took on a more natural hue.

“Let her go well to the westward of the Roncador,” said he to McDuff as
the mate came on the bridge that evening. “The current is very strong,
and I ain’t quite certain of the rate of our chronometer. Got a jolt
last voyage and seems to be going wrong ever since. Get your lights
burning brightly to-night–there’ll be some ships passing and there’s
no use saving five cents’ worth of oil for that buzzard, Booker–and
tell the chief to hustle her along, toss in the coals, and if the
second is drunk, turn the hose on him, for we’ll have to drive her
through. The niggers will have to go below at eight bells; can’t have
’em lying about the deck all night getting in the way. It’s cool enough
with the blowers on–keep ’em turned to the wind, that’s your business.
South five east by Standard, and that’ll be about south two by the
binnacle–keep your eye peeled. That’s all.”

Captain James retired to his room while the _Enos_ rolled slowly down
the Caribbean, dipping her gray sides alternately into the smooth sea
which rolled lazily. The gathering darkness still showed the forms of
many big coloured men lying upon the now silent deck, but when eight
bells struck off they were told to go below, and after that the deck
was deserted save by the men of the watch.

Below in the ‘tween-decks, where the banana racks had been removed, the
islanders were grouped in hot and uncomfortable groups. The blowers
made ventilation sufficient, but the air was warm and the odour from
three hundred hot bodies made it far from pleasant. The bo’sn who had
herded the crowd below stood near the hatchway in conversation with a
huge islander.

“Yes, I know it’s yo’ orders, but I don’t see why the captain makes us
stay below. I am a sailor man, sare, and I will not be in the way if
yo’ let me go on deck for the night,” said the negro.

“I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it,” answered the bo’sn, “my orders is
you stay here below–an’ here you stays.”

“But if I give you my word as a sailor man to help on deck, don’ yo’
think yo’ can allow me?” persisted the giant good-naturedly. “Look at
me, sare, I very warm.” And he showed his bare chest running water.

“Aw, you niggers ain’t satisfied wid anything,” said the bo’sn
impatiently. “You’ll get to a hotter place ‘n this before you
leave Panama. Get your crowd to sleep, fer I’m goin’ to fasten the
hatch–there’s water a-plenty in them barrels, you kin drink all you
want, an’ if you get short holler for the second to start the donkey
an’ pump some more in.”

“Very well, I reckon I must do as yo’ say,” and the giant negro
settled himself among his followers, who gradually made the best of
circumstances and went to sleep.

Midnight found the _Enos_ ploughing along over the smooth swell, a
bright moon shining upon the sea and making it almost as light as day.
McDuff on the bridge walked to and fro trying to keep awake, while
the hiss and tinkle of the side-wash was the only sound that broke
the stillness. The slight vibrations from the worn-out engines barely
reached the forward part of the ship, and only the low noise of the
foam told of the ship’s headway. She might almost have been at anchor,
rolling slowly from side to side as she took the long easy swell upon
her beam. The chief mate was warm and dry. He had been without liquid
refreshment for nearly four hours, and he saw a long vista ahead of
him into which the nose of the old ship pointed. He speculated a few
moments. He might go below for a drink, for there was nothing in sight,
and although it was against even the orders of James to drink while on
duty, there was no reason to suppose any one would be the wiser should
he do so. He went down the steps from the bridge and entered his room,
pouring forth from a bottle a good, nifty drink, and fizzing it well up
with the sparkling cola–ah, was there ever such refreshment anywhere
else in the world–what was that? Hark,–a jolt ran through the ship,
a slight jar, causing her to tremble. It seemed to McDuff as if the
engines stopped for a few moments–but no, they were going again, for
he could feel the vibration. He hurried on deck.

When he reached the bridge he looked about the horizon, and for a few
minutes saw nothing save the dim line where the night met the sea. Then
he gradually took in an outline close aboard to port. It was white,
and while he gazed he heard the low snore of the surf of the Roncador.
Almost instantly the chief engineer called up from below through the
tube.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Seemed to hit something an’ knock the engine
out a bit, but she’s goin’ all right now–if there’s anything wrong
let’s have it.”

“Nothin’ the matter I know of–port, hard a port,” he whispered to
the man at the wheel–“nothing wrong here,” he went on to the chief,
speaking through the tube. “If the engine is all right let her go,
ram the coal into her and wake her up.” Then to the man at the
wheel–“Steady, steady as she goes–how does she head now?”

“Sout’ b’ west, half west, sur,” said the sleepy helmsman.

Five minutes later the chief called up the tube.

“Water comin’ in by the jump–must have hit something–started both
pumps, but she’ll be over the fire-room floor in ten minutes–for God’s
sake tell me what has happened.”

McDuff stood petrified, irresolute. Then he drew a deep breath and
looked out over the sea and the ship. All was quiet, there was no sign
of panic or trouble below. Gazing aft he saw the two small boats in
their chocks with their canvas covers, and while he looked he knew it
would be but a few moments before the struggle to take possession of
them would begin. Three hundred and thirty men, or all hands, including
the extra messmen, would have to take to the boats, which would hold
at the most but forty of them. Nearly three hundred were doomed. Before
dawn they would be in the sea unless he ran the _Enos_ upon the bank.
But he could not do this without calling the captain. It was his ship,
or rather his command, and he knew his duty. He went quickly to the
master’s room.

“What, hit the Roncador? How the–” but James was enough of a seaman
to spring on deck without wasting words. He was a bit groggy, but the
sight of the quiet ship steadied him. There was nothing to fear just
yet. He rang off the engines and the dull boom of the gong sounded
strangely loud through the quiet night, reverberating through the hull
and making those awake curious.

“For God’s sake don’t waste any time. Call the chief and second from
below–let ’em keep the pumps going, but we must get those small boats
over and away before the niggers get wind of what is happening. Lord,
if they knew we’d be goners–quick, get the watch quietly and lower
away.”

“But ain’t we going to run her ashore, sir?” asked McDuff.

“Lord, yes, we’ll start her fair for the surf, but we must get away if
we want to live. She won’t hold together half an hour, an’ we’ll be a
good mile from solid land–man, man, hurry for your life–those niggers
will take charge of everything–hurry–”

McDuff needed little urging. He called the watch quietly while the
captain spoke down the tube to the chief, telling him to get his crowd
up as quickly as he could. In less than two minutes men were working
like mad in the moonlight. Straps were cut and lashings cut, while
the low fierce oaths and half-whispered threats of the frantic men
told of their furious haste. The selfish brute was in supreme control,
and it showed in each strained face and trembling hand. The fire-crew
came tumbling from below, cursing each other as they came out of the
hatches, some vowing to take the lives of those who obstructed their
path, all panting, gasping, rushing about with the wild panic of men
who are suddenly forced to face their end. James swore fiercely at them
and struck right and left with a belaying-pin, threatening, begging
them not to alarm the cargo. It was their only chance.

The boats dropped noiselessly over the side, the men sliding down the
tackles, clambering down along the lines, all getting into them as
quickly as possible. The half-naked fire-crew with their bare bodies
shoved and pushed for places, and if there had been even a little sea
on they would have swamped the small craft.

James had run to the bridge intending to point the vessel for the edge
of the reef. He ran the wheel over, but at that moment the second
engineer, who had been told to start the ship ahead, not understanding,
or caring for the cargo, shut off steam and climbed over the side into
the boat below him. There was nothing for the captain to do but go
or be left behind, and he hesitated not an instant, but followed the
second over the side just as the men were pushing off. They rowed
rapidly away from the horrible vicinity, heading due west. Few cared
even to look back at what they felt must become a scene of slaughter,
and only now and then did some conscience-smitten seaman fix his eyes
upon the hull which now rolled silently upon the sea.

By daylight the boat in charge of McDuff sighted the liner bound for
Colon, and in a few moments their hail was answered. Signals were
made and within an hour the entire outfit was aboard the big ship and
heading for their port of destination.

It was a terrible tale the men told, a tale of a foundering ship which
had sprung a leak–how the crowd of negroes had fought for the boats
and how the crew, after desperate efforts, had driven them back. There
were many little deficiencies in the tales which their kind-hearted
rescuers essayed to fill, allowing that the stress and excitement had
made the imaginations of many quite acute. James landed the second day
afterwards and reported his vessel lost in mid-ocean, having suddenly
sprung a leak which all efforts failed to stop. She was somewhere in
the vicinity of the Roncador Bank.

Two days later, while he was standing upon the clock at Colon waiting
for passage on the steamer to Kingston, he noticed a strange-looking
ship coming into the harbour. She was lying on one side until her deck
was awash and she was slowly steaming at the rate of about four knots
an hour. Deep she was in the water, so deep that her plimsoll mark
was several feet under, but she was working slowly in. Upon her decks
were a crowd of negroes. As the ship drew near he noticed a huge black
fellow upon the bridge who walked athwart-ships with a determined
stride. The ship was the _Enos_, there was no mistake about it, his
ship afloat and coming to dock, and the man who walked the bridge and
commanded her was the giant islander, the foreman of the working gang.

“Yes, Ah’m a sailor man,” said the good-natured giant an hour later,
after the tugs had gotten to work pumping the flooded bilge. “Ah’m a
sailor man, an’ I brought the Captain James his vessel. I sho’d like to
know if he is still alive, fo’ I’ve reason to think he must hab been
lost in de small boats–has yo’ heard anything about him? Yo’ kin tell
him Bahama Bill would like to see him!”

“Yes, he’s here all right,” announced the inspector.

“Well, I’d like to have a minute’s talk with him, just a moment’s
little talk,” said the man gently in his musical voice.

“I’ll send for him at once,” said the official, “but how did you save
the ship? He said she foundered.”

“Ah, yes, it was a small matter, a matter of a mattress and some
lines–we drew it over the side and under the bilge whar she hit the
edge of de Roncador–oh, yes, it soon stopped and wid the pumps we kep’
her goin’, hundreds of us, sare, passin’ the water over the side in
barrels and buckets,–yo’ think I kin see de captain soon,–Ah’m very
anxious toe speak with him; I sho’ is–yo’ reckon I kin?”

Before the ship was properly docked the steamer for Kingston had pulled
out, and upon her decks a crowd of men gazed at the strange vessel
which had just come in. Captain James and McDuff stood side by side
at the rail, and as the ship passed they noticed the giant black man
coming forth from the pilot-house of the _Enos_. He gazed at them long
and intently.

“Come, it’s all over with us,” said McDuff sullenly, “let’s go get a
drink.”

The islander stood long in the sunshine, shading his eyes with his
hand, until the steamer was a mere speck out at sea.

“I sho’d like to hab spoken to Captain James,” he said to an agent who
had come to see him about the men to work on the Canal. “Yes, I sho’
feel that he missed somethin’–My name is Bahama Bill.”

“Well, well, never mind him now. Let’s get down to business. Let’s see
what we can do with this gang. He’ll be back after he has seen his
owners and straightened out this affair. He says you acted pretty rough
about trying to take his boats and he had to drive you off. He’ll be
back all right an’ you can talk with him–”

“No, he will never come back. No sah. I shall miss dat little talk with
him, but–well, as you say, I’ll check off the cargo of men, they’re
all good fellows every one. Come–”

“They’re a good gang,” said the agent to the engineer of the local
work that afternoon; “they’re as good a set of men as we’ll get. Lazy?
Of course they’re lazy, did you ever see a black man who wasn’t lazy?
Fight? No, they’re not much on a fight, but I believe there is one
fellow, the foreman, a Fortune Islander, who is set upon killing–he
has a way of asking after a fellow, the captain of the ship that
brought ’em here, that makes me a bit nervous, he’s so blamed gentle
and insistent about seein’ him–but he never will, so what’s the
difference. I’ll turn ’em to in the morning.”