A Cattleship Mystery Solved
by Charles Hoy Fort
There's so many asks me do I know Blinkstave and what become of him that I'll just out with it in the public prints and answer them once for all.
Sure I know Blinkstave! Sailed with him a hundred times. But for the benefit of them which doesn't know about cattlesteamers let me begin by saying that for every consignment of cattle there's a boss, and from the North River to the Mersey he's responsible for every horned head in his cargo. Lots of times there's two consignments; then there's two boss cattlemen. Us lads is the paid cattlemen, and it's our job to get as much work out of a gang of Polacks and Dagoes and such trash as you can get out of trash that pays its five dollars apiece to get over the ocean instead of getting pay for their labour.
Blinkstave and Lambert was both boss cattlemen, and, though it was a dead case of soreness between them, they sailed right along together. And whenever there was a run-in between them there would sure be trouble for Lambert with his cattle. There didn't seem to be no suspicion against Blinkstave, because there didn't seem nothing to connect him with the trouble, which just came and no one could tell how or why. But it was Blinkstave's ways that caused the run-ins mostly. When a vessel's rolling, I've seen some Dago come staggering along and swash a whole bucket of water all over Blinkstave. But the boss would say it was all right and no harm was done, and he'd go on down the deck. Someone not happening to be working just that second reels against him, and Blinkstave is off with a slat from a sheep pen and, like kids with a rubber ball, sees how many times he can keep the lad bouncing up and back to the deck without missing no stroke on him. That was the way Blinkstave felt towards labor. He felt something contemptuous for common cattlemen, but his respectfulness for work was so much that any man working was his equals as long as the work lasted.
I guess the trouble started one morning when we was having a hard time of it with Lambert. It was Lambert's way to bully and nag and yell at us every time he wanted to, but the divil a word, not even of fatherly advice, sort of, could any other man give any one he had working for him.
Lambert, who wouldn't let no one also speak even just a little coarse-like to us, yelled himself hoarse at us and then went in to watch the ship's carpenter, liking to see shaving curl up through a plane, wondering how long will they be before breaking. With him out of the way I was glad enough to give my gang a little swing and loaf around some with them. We was sitting down in the hold on bags of dried corn, when Blinkstave sticks his red face and stiff-curled moustache ends, like the horns of a little bullock, through the hatchway.
"Come up out of that, you lot of lazy wasters!" he says. We starts to string up the iron ladder, but Lambert runs from the carpenter shop.
"You lads stay right where you are!" he shouts. "You never mind any men of mine, Blinkstave, you've got all you can do to look out for your own affairs." He most falls into tears because someone spoke a little rude to his men, and then kicks a couple into the hold again, just because he's got nothing else to do. And from Blinkstave's scowl he wasn't overlooking no such talk as he got, we could see.
It wasn't no more than half an hour later that something happened. The men was to dinner when all of a sudden something got ahold of the cattle. They leaps and tugs at their ropes, butting against headboards and smashing their horns something astonishing, seeing how dopey they was when we left them. There's a rope breaks and there's a bullock gored to death. The donkey man hoists the carcass up on deck and that's Lambert's first loss this trip. But he loses more than that before Blinkstave is reached. It's most every day this strange excitement, something most unusual, breaks out, and steers is gored to death all the way across.
We come back steerage, and, though Lambert's a little melancholy thinking of his bad luck, he and Blinkstave sort of makes up, seeing they're boss cattlemen and ain't got their equals to associate with. But off again to Liverpool we all go not much later than we're once more to New York. Cattle forward's Lambert's consignment, and cattle aft is Blinkstave's. And the steamer's not more than to the Narrows when there's trouble between them two again.
Most likely most of youse wasn't never in the business, but the first work is to tie the cattle to a headboard that runs along the front of a pen. The cattle swarms down a gangway, wild, scared, and crazy, crowding and turning so that when a pen's full some is lodged with their tails to the headboard. Holes is in the board, there's a short rope tied to each pair of horns, and to draw them ropes through the holes, then knotting the ends so's they can't slip back, is the first thing to be did.
"Jump in there with youse!" says Lambert, cussing away at the scared looks of men not used to cattle, not seeing anything in it for them to leap into a pen something turbulent and catch a rope to drag around a bullock facing the wrong way.
"Youse jump in, I tell you!" says Lambert, thinking nothing of jumping in hisself among the crazy cattle. But the tyrant in him has to come out, and he's so disgusted with a skinny little Polack wringing his hands in not knowing what to do, that, in his favorite little way, he kicks Polack into the hold.
Polack crawls out and runs before a headboard, most amusing, trying to let on he's doing as much as anybody, he's got such a scare on him from Lambert. And the cattle had him scared so he's calling to them and coaxing and snapping his fingers like he'd say: "Here, pussy, pussy!" to a big, crazy steer.
Blinkstave butts in. He says: "Come here, you! Come tie knots for the ropes these lads is holding. Is that all you're good for?"
Men's swarming outside and cattle's swarming inside. There's excitement enough for anybody, but with it all Lambert takes time to drop everything and yell: "You mind your own men, Blinkstave!"
And, just because some one else's been rough, he says, fatherly like, to the scared Polack, who is jumping and throwing his arms about to show all he's doing:
"You sit down there, lad; these heroes is more used to this, and later on we'll find lots and plenty for you."
Polack sits stiff with his scare on a hatch cover, and Blinkstave is took so bad he hammers the nose of a bullock. It don't matter what he does or where he tries to look, his eyes have to go back to the Polack, who's doing nothing. He cant' stand for it; seeing a man not working gets his goat, so he goes up and kicks sheep. He has to come back, fascinated like, and look down from the sheep deck at the Polack doing nothing. He jumps away with such roars that I for one wouldn't change places with Lambert.
We're cracking corn and teasing out baled hay all morning, and then it's chuck-time. The cattle deck's quiet, when all of a sudden, it's pandemonium. There's bullocks gored and there's leaping and crazy scrambling, all the more curious seeing cattle at sea is usually half seasick.
Lambert don't say much but he's begun to do some thinking. Some of us has been thinking, too, and there's going to be developments next day at chuck-time. Lambert is going to sneak behind a ventilator and take a look for himself and see what it is that always gets ahold of his cattle and never Blinkstave's.
Sure enough! There's roars the next time we're in the fo'c's'le, and out we swarms to see Lambert got Blinkstave by the jowls, got him caught dead in the act, and taking it out of his hide for him, lamming him in the lug, and Blinkstave not much more than only pushing out his hands a little, like as if he's overcame by being caught guilty.
Blinkstave's down and out, and it's what was found under his coat that drove him from the business back to the farm somewheres. Lambert drags it out and give it to the ship's carpenter to hold as evidence. And to carry it past the cattle, the carpenter he wraps it up good and tight in paper. For a red shirt ain't no article wanted on no cattleship.
To return to the Table of Contents for Charles Hoy Fort's Short Stories, click here.
To return to the Fortean Web Site of Mr. X, click here.
To send electronic mail to Mr. X, (email@example.com), click here.
© X, 1998, 1999