Shakins and the Tough Four.
Perhaps there are persons who have read some of my previous stories of sea dogs who may think that I never bought a dog but was always picking up homeless ones, but they wrong me, for I have bought several in my life; but after varied experiences with both boughten ones and pick-ups, the latter classes have almost invariably proven to have been the most precious ones, and then again I rather think my fad was for canine waifs and strays.
It was in Liverpool that I picked up Shakins. He looked friendless and as if searching for some one to be good to him, and I called him to me, and patting his head and talking to him, said, “Come along, old fellow,” and he was nothing loth to accept my invitation. When we arrived at the dock gate, the policeman on duty said to me, “Are you going to take that dog aboard your ship, Captain? I hope you are, for he deserves a good home. His former master was the mate of a ship that left here a few days ago. The poor mate died and his dog has been watching for his return ever since. He is half starved, but we feed him at times.”
That settled it with me, and again patting the poor fellow on the head, I determined that he should have as good a home as he had lost. The dog evidently knew that I was to be his new master, and having been indorsed by the policeman, a future home was as good as assured. He was a collie, and a bright, clean one at that; with a clear, loving eye, and as gentle as a little girl. As soon as we got on deck, the dog was wild with joy. He frisked about the decks and barked and frolicked around as if to say, “Home at last!” When we entered the cabin, he went around peering into every stateroom, perhaps in quest of some trace of his late master, but quite as likely to familiarize himself with his new surroundings; at any rate, he soon made himself quite at home. I told the story of the dog to the two mates, and they at once took kindly to the fellow, and before the day was over he was on excellent terms with all hands fore and aft. The second mate christened him “Shakins,” why that name I do not now remember, but it suited me and the dog, and hence that was his name, and one never to be forgotten by anyone who sailed in that ship on that memorable voyage.
Some of my crew that came from New York in the ship got the gold fever and ran away, and I was obliged to ship some new men. Several of these were not to my liking, but they were the best to be had under the circumstances. Four of them the mate christened the “Tough Four,” before they had been on board as many days. However, the marked quartette obeyed all orders promptly and gave us no trouble; but they were a forbidding looking lot of chaps, to say the least. Shakins did not like them at all, and while he was fairly familiar with the rest of the crew, he would have nothing to do with these fellows. Several times I was on the point of telling them to come aft and get their wages and go on shore, but I was confronted with the great difficulty of getting men to fill their places, and finally dismissed the matter from my mind.
The afternoon before we sailed several boxes of specie were delivered alongside the ship, to be put on board. In those days there were no steam lines to Brazil—we were bound to Rio Janeiro—so that specie shipments were of common occurrence on sailing vessels. It so happened that the four toughs had a hand in putting the boxes on board and, of course, knew from their weight and markings that they contained money. They were put in my state room temporarily. Nothing unusual transpired on our outward passage, until we had been out from Liverpool about three weeks, when one night as I was looking into the binnacle to see if the man at the wheel was keeping on his course, he said to me, “Say, Captain, you’ll have to excuse me, but most of us fellows forward don’t like the four fellows we shipped in Liverpool. They’s bad ones, they is. I think they are hatching up some plot to make mischief on board this ship.”
I questioned him closely; but he could not make himself quite clear as to what kind of a plot the fellows were hatching, and after cautioning him to be careful, I asked him to ingratiate himself with the suspects, and gather all he could about the supposed plot and let me know.
All the while Shakins was my constant companion; and his marked intelligence bordered on the miraculous at times. Some of the superstitious old sailors said he was possessed of an evil spirit, and was an uncanny dog that was to be respected if not feared. He knew several colors by name, that is so far as the ship’s flags were concerned, and if told to bring the ensign, the jack, or the house flag, he would do it every tine without making a single mistake. Tell him to bring the quarantine flag—“Q” of the International Code of Signals—and he would pick it out of the nineteen flags of the code. If sent for a ball of cotton sewing twine, he would not bring the hemp twine, although they were in the same locker; in fact, he knew the names of the common things of everyday use on board the ship. He could scent land when we could not see it, and his varying bark—his language—soon became to be as well understood as if he had spoken, as we did, a common language. To the men he was a canine wonder.
We were out just thirty-one days from Liverpool, when Shakins demonstrated his prowess as a life-saver and made himself the hero of the ship. After dinner the passengers, of whom we had several on board, including a family with two little girls, went to their rooms for the customary afternoon nap. I had also lain down for the same bit of comfort, when I was awakened by the cry of “Man overboard!”
Rushing on deck I ordered the main topsail laid to the mast, and a boat lowered, sending a man aloft to keep the man in sight that was overboard. Judge of our surprise when the man aloft sung out: “It’s Shakins that is overboard, sir, and he has got something in his mouth, but I can’t just make out what it is yet.”
Just at this time little Minnie Foster’s mother was hunting for the child, a beautiful flaxen-haired girl of about seven years of age. Several joined in the hunt for Minnie, but she was nowhere to be found. Poor Mrs. Foster was running about crying, “Oh, my poor Minnie, it is she that has fallen overboard! She will be drowned!” And then falling into her husband’s arms, went into a faint.
It was not long before the boat was up to where Shakins was calmly holding Minnie by the back of her dress, waiting for the boat’s crew to receive them into their keeping. It seemed to me that the men pulled back to the ship even faster than they pulled away from her, for it was but a very short time from the announcement that Shakins had something in his mouth until Minnie and her rescuer were again in safety on our decks. Minnie told her story before her mother recovered from her swoon. She was playing on the transom locker aft and crawled up to one of the stern ports, lost her balance and fell through into the sea. Shakins saw her go and leaped in after her. I have told the rest. When Minnie’s mother came to, there was a rejoicing, and Shakins came in for a goodly share of that mother’s blessings. The dog was the hero of that ship from that hour until the voyage ended some months later. But before we shall have ended this story, it will be seen he was capable of still greater achievements.
The man at the wheel confessed that the tough four were too deep for him. He was unable to worm himself into their confidence, and must give up the task I had assigned him, and trust to luck to find out what they were up to; for he felt certain that mischief was brewing. I resolved to confide in no one but the mate, whom I could rely upon implicitly, and to him told what the man at the wheel had told me; but we could not between ourselves conjure up just what these four fellows were planning. We watched them closely, but they did their duty well and gave us aft no cause for complaint.
One night the thought came to me that they might be in a conspiracy to seize the ship and attempt to get away with the specie. I acted upon this stray thought, and each hour it weighed heavier on my mind. I loaded the firearms, placed them in a secure place, gave the mate a brace of pistols—there were no revolvers in those days—and began a most careful vigil, especially at night. Shakins now, as I remember, never permitted me to be out of his sight, and he became more adverse to the now to me suspicious four. Most of my sleep I took in the daytime, so that I might be better able to watch by night. I would go to my room as if to take my regular rest, and then when unobserved, come out and sit on the transom, behind the cabin staircase, which led from the quarter deck to the main cabin. After 10 o’clock at night the light was put out in the saloon. Shakins used to lie on the locker by my side or on the floor at my feet.
I had been on deck one night, when the port watch was relieved at 8-bells, midnight, and after passing the time of day with the officers, and cautioning the helmsman to steer a straight course, went below, and, going to my room, struck a match as if going to turn in as usual in my own berth; then silently taking my place on the transom, began my lonely watch. Shakins was by my side. I must have dozed off and been oblivious for some time, when suddenly Shakins rubbed his paw two or three times quickly over my face. I was up in an instant. There in his bare feet, with a big oaken heaver behind his back, one of the tough four was softly coming down the cabin stairs. Shakins was sitting on his haunches, but never a growl came from him. The fellow made for the door of my room. I permitted him to enter, then before he could do a thing, I whispered to him, “Move, speak, and you die, you villain,” at the same time wiping a brass pistol barrel across his face. “Drop that stick, put out your hands.” And quick as a flash I had the fellow handcuffed. “Now if you stir or make the least noise so as to alarm your confederates, I will blow your brains out certain. I know your whole plot.”
Shutting the door. I turned the key and was just going to call the mate, who was asleep in his room on the opposite side of the cabin, when I saw a shadow in the companion way, gliding along the side of the cabin, was hailed from the deck in a whisper, “Is it all right, shall I come down?” I whispered back, “Yes, come gently.” Down he came. As he passed me—for it was so dark that he could not see me—I grabbed him by the arm, and sticking the cold, brass muzzle of the pistol in his face—I should say on his face—said, “Open your mouth, and you are a dead man, or stir, except as I order, and I will kill you.” Leading him to the door of my room, I pushed him in, saying to the pair, “If you fellows stir, I will send you to hell in a second, and don’t you dare give any alarm.”
Then shutting the door, I ran to the mate’s room and, routing him out, sent him with his pistol to my room door to keep guard over my two captives, and to look out for any more of the gang that might come down into the cabin by the companionway. I then went out the forward cabin door, which was always kept locked after 10 o’clock at night; and to my surprise found the second mate bound and gagged at the main fife-rail. It took but an instant to cut his bonds, and telling him to go aft with the capstan bar—he going to the lee side of the house on deck, while I went up on the weather side—I met the third man of the quartette crouched down near the end of the house waiting for the signal to assist his shipmates. I kicked him and ordered him to go aft, and by the time the second mate had reached the wheel, where the fourth man of the gang was, the tough four were all prisoners. The fellow I had secured I marched down the cabin stairs, leaving the second mate to look out for the man at the wheel. All this time Shakins was a silent but much interested spectator, but never opened his mouth. He seemed to know that this was the time for whispering, and he had not learned how to do that as yet.
After sending the second mate down to my room to change places with the chief mate, I told the mate to go forward and summon all hands aft. Not getting any response to his repeated calls, he went forward cautiously and found the watch on deck stupid, and very difficult to awaken; but the watch below were speedily aroused and came aft. My story was quickly told, and in a few minutes the wheel had been relieved and the four mutineers, or rather pirates, were in double irons and securely stowed away in the carpenter’s shop. The scoundrels had drugged their watch mates and the four thought it was going to be an easy matter to kill the mate and me; and it would have been, but for Shakins waking me up at the right moment.
After breakfast I sent for the prisoners one by one and questioned them. Two refused to talk, but one confessed the whole plot, and the other confirmed what the confessing man had told me. They had planned to murder us all, save the second mate, whom they were to compel to navigate the ship near to the land; then put the specie in the boat, kill him, set fire to the ship and make their escape inland and divide the money. It was Shakins that brought their plans to grief. We carried the tough four into Rio, and delivered them to the American Consul. He jailed them until an opportunity presented itself and then shipped them in double irons for trial before a United States Commissioner at New York. Off Hatteras a vessel collided with the ship in a fog, sinking her. The crew were all saved, but the four that were not to be saved from death by law perished as they deserved to perish.
We finished our loading at Rio and went to Cronstadt, thence to London, and back home to New York. Shakins was made an idol of. In every port his deeds were told, both by the men forward and by us in the after part of the ship. Men petted him and women kissed the dear old fellow; but they never took away one whit of his love for me. He made several more voyages with me, but at last his strength began to fail, his eyesight dimmed, and I did not want to see him suffer on shipboard, so I left him on shore with a friend who I knew would care for him tenderly. When I returned some months afterward poor Shakins had gone to the Heaven prepared for dogs. He sleeps now on the banks of the Hudson in a quiet spot where I know he will not be disturbed. I would dearly love to mark his last resting place with a stone on which would be engraved a fitting tribute to his memory, a token of my love and affection for a friend whose equal I have never met. But, alas! I dare not do this, lest some dog-hater would disturb even the dust of dear old Shakins. Can you wonder I love dogs, and that tears will come when I tell of their goodness to me. B. S. OSBON.
Forest and Stream, Volume 65, 18 November 1905: pp. 406-7
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is, Mrs Daffodil is given to understand, “National Dog Day,” so Mrs Daffodil thought it would be appropriate to share a thrilling story of a loyal sea-dog and his master. Captain B.S. Osbon led a life packed with incident, including standing trial for treason during the American Civil War and establishing the Mexican navy. (See his biography in The Nautical Gazette.) He was also a journalist and his memoir, A Sailor of Fortune, is equally thrilling, Boys-Own-Paper stuff. Shakins was fortunate to have found such a kind friend and companion.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.