the supertramp - W.H.Davies - proseClick image for Davies home



WE found the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad easy to beat, and were at the end of our journey in a very few days. When we entered the cattleman's office, from which place owners and foremen were supplied with men, it was evident to me that Red was well known in this place, hearing him make many enquiries of Washington Shorty, New York Fatty, Philadelphia Slim, and others. At this place I made the acquaintance of Oklahoma Sam, an extremely quiet man, very much respected in that he had a cold-blooded fashion of whittling wood and paring his nails with a steel blade nearly a foot long. Another queer character was Baldy, of whom Australian Red related this anecdote. When stranded in Liverpool and hungry, he once took up a position in front of a confectioner's shop, and, being an extremely lazy man, placed his shoulder against the lamp-post, and settled himself for a long reverie. He might have been there an hour or more, when the baker came out and complained of Baldy's person, being ragged and dirty, as the reason why people hurried past his establishment; telling Baldy straight that his presence was detrimental to the trade of any shop that catered to the inner man. Baldy, too lazy to speak, much less show any sign of anger, took a firmer bearing on the post and settled to a more prolonged reverie. Two or three hours elapsed when the baker, who had come several times to stare at him through the window, rushed out and shouted with much irritation-'For Heaven's sake go: here, take this sixpence, and let me see the last of you.' Baldy who had not wished the baker good morning, wished him good afternoon, and strolled quietly away, with the price of a good meal in his hand. Nobody, who thoroughly understood Baldy's disposition, would wonder at this; for this success, after all, was only the result of laziness, but most of his companions gave him credit for using unique strategy in obtaining money.

Shelter only was supplied at this office, and that of the barest kind, being no other than the hard floor, and blanketless. Owing to this the men, who, after making a trip often had to sometimes two or three weeks for another chance, were all good beggars. Some of them had begged Baltimore off and on for ten years, and knew every good house in the city. One would say- 'I shall go to the dressmaker for my breakfast'; another intended to go to the dairy, the fat woman or the dentist; the latter being always good for money in the shape of a ten cent piece.

We had been at this office three days, when the shipper sent Australian Red and myself, with four others, to rope cattle at the yards. Seven hundred and fifty head of cattle had to be shipped that night, and the ropes had to be placed on their necks or horns, with which they had to be fastened to their places aboard ship. After Red had taken a rope, and given me a practical illustration of what was to be done, the cattle began to arrive. They were very wild, having just come from the plains of the west. There was a long narrow shoot in the yards, with one end blocked, and when a number of cattle had been driven into this, and had wedged themselves too close and fast to be capable of any wild movement, it was our business to slip a noose around their horns, or necks, draw this rope as tight as possible, and fasten it with a knot, so as to prevent it from slipping. When this was accomplished, the end of the shoot was opened, and they were rushed out with their ropes dangling, and a fresh batch were then driven in and served likewise. After which they were put in cars and sent to the ship. Now the foreman, knowing Red, asked him if he would like to go with him, to which Red answered yes, at the same time putting in a good word for me, which at once met with the foreman's approval. We were not therefore surprised, on our return, when the shipper called us into his private office to sign articles-Red to receive two pounds for the trip, and myself thirty shillings, an amount seldom paid to a raw hand, except on the recommendation of owner or foreman.

I shall never forget the first night's experience, when the cattle were brought to the ship in a train of cars. A large sloping gangway was erected to span the distance between ship and shore, and up this incline the poor beasts were unmercifully prodded with long poles, sharpened at the end, and used by the shore cattlemen. The terror-stricken animals were so new to the conditions, that they had no notion of what was expected of them, and almost overleaped one another in their anxiety to get away. What with the shout of savage triumph, and the curse of disappointment, and the slipping and falling of the over-goaded steers, I was strongly tempted to escape the scene. As the cattle were being driven aboard, we cattlemen, who had signed for their future charge, caught their ropes, which we were required to fasten to a strong stanchion board. Sometimes one would run up behind, and prevent himself from turning. On one of these occasions, I crossed the backs of others, that had been firmly secured, so as to force this animal to a proper position. The animal, whose back I was using for this purpose, began to heave and toss, and at last succeeding in throwing me across the back of the other, this one tossing and rearing until I was in danger of my life, only the pressure of the other beasts preventing him from crushing my limbs. Taking possession of his rope, I held it to a cattleman, who was standing waiting and ready in the alley, and he quickly fastened this refractory animal to the crossboards. Now the foreman had been watching this, and coming to the conclusion that I was a good man with cattle, said he would like me to be the night watchman. This undoubtedly does require a good man, as I soon discovered, on the first night out. There were two lots of cattle aboard, and for these two foremen, two lots of cattlemen, and two watchmen. As all hands are available in the day, any difficulty with the cattle can soon be attended to; if necessary, all hands taking part. But when there is any trouble at night, one watchman only has the assistance of the other, who, of course, expects the same aid from him, in cases of emergency. Now if a number of cattle have broken loose, and worked themselves into intricate positions, the watchman is supposed to awake the foreman and his men to assist him, but one would rather struggle all night with his difficulties than to take these men at their word, knowing their peevishness and dislike for a man who has disturbed them from a sound sleep. A watchman is therefore told to call up all hands, if he cannot cope with the cattle under his charge, but he is never expected to do so.

What soon breaks the spirit of these wild animals is the continual motion of the vessel. There is always plenty of trouble at first, when they slip forward and backward, but in a few days they get their sea-legs, and sway their bodies easily to the ship's motion. The wild terror leaves their eyes, and, when they can no more smell their native land, they cease bellowing, and settle calmly down. This restlessness breaks out afresh when nearing shore on the other side, and again they bellow loud and often, long before the mariner on the look-out has sighted land.

We also had on this trip two thousand head of sheep, quartered On the hurricane deck. When we were six days out there came a heavy storm, and the starboard side was made clean, as far as pens and sheep were concealing, one wave bearing them all away. This happened at night, and on the following morning the sheep-men were elated at having less work to do during the remainder of the voyage. The cattle, being protected on the main deck, and between decks, and their breath filling the air with warmth, make the cattleman's lot far more comfortable than that of the sheep- men. The condition of the cattle can be seen without difficulty, but ten or fifteen sheep lying or standing in the front of a crowded pen, may be concealing the dead or dying that are lying in the background. For this reason it is every morning necessary to crawl through the pens, far back, in quest of the sick and the dead, and It is nothing unusual to find half a dozen dead ones. The voyage would not be considered bad if thirty sheep only died out of two thousand.

What a strange assortment of men were these cattlemen and sheepmen. One man, called Blackey, a bully without being a coward, fell in love with a small white cat, which we had found in the forecastle. His ruffianism at once disappeared, and every time he was at liberty, instead of looking for trouble with his fellowmen, he could be seen peacefully nursing this cat, at the same time addressing it endearingly as 'Little White Dolly,' and such simple language as a child might use.

It was our duty to keep the cattle standing, and not to allow-them to rest too long on their knees; and not let them, on any account, stretch full length in the pens. One reason for this was that a kneeling steer would be overstepped by his nearest neigh-hour, and if the latter happened to rise, their ropes, which were so - fastened as to give them very little freedom, would be tightened and crossed, bringing their heads together in such close proximity that they would make frantic efforts to escape each other's -presence. And another reason for not allowing them to lie down for any length of time was that their joints would become so stiff as to make them almost incapable of rising, though goaded by - the most heartless cruelty. I used the most humane methods to attain this end, and sought to inspire terror in them by the use of a most ferocious war-cry, which often succeeded. If that failed - to raise them, I struck them with a flat stick on the haunches, which they could scarcely feel, at the same time not forgetting to use my voice. Not succeeding in this, I resorted to the old remedy, which rarely fails, standing at their backs and twisting their tails. A bullock can kick in any direction. There is terrible power in his side kick, also his front kick, throwing his hind leg forward with a speed that is remarkable for such an unwieldly animal. But his back kick, when you stand back to back with him, has not the least power to cause hurt. The other watchman and myself had about an equal number of cattle under our charge, and when I was in difficulty he kindly came to my assistance, and I did likewise for him, although he seldom seemed to need other help than his own. We made our rounds about every half hour. Sometimes I found a steer in the alley; by some means or other he had cleared the head board and, still being a prisoner, stood-fastened outside the pen instead of inside. Another time we would find one standing with his tail to the head-board, instead of his head, owing to the rope getting loose, or being broken; after which he had turned himself around to see if there was any way of escape behind him. It required great care, in cases of this kind, to place them again in their original positions.

Up till the fourth night we had experienced no bad weather, and the cattle had been quiet and requiring little care. On this particular night my attention had been drawn several times to a big black steer, which, time after time, had persisted in lying down. At last, in pity for the poor beast, I let him rest, thinking to get him into a standing position at the last moment, when I went off duty, after calling the foreman and his men. But when that last moment came I failed in all my efforts to raise this animal, whose joints, I suppose, had become stiff after a prolonged rest. I was not therefore greatly surprised when the foreman came, after I had gone off duty, to the forecastle, with the complaint of having found a number of cattle lying down, and one, he said, in particular, which must have been lying down half of the night. 'When I left the cattle,' I said, 'nothing seemed to be wrong.' 'Come up and see this one,' he answered. I followed him on deck, and there I saw several cattlemen standing in front of a pen, in which I recognised the big black steer. He was now lying full length in the pen, the others having had to be removed for his convenience. 'See this,' said the foreman, 'this creature should be standing. Twist his tail,' he continued, to a cattleman, who at once obeyed. During this operation another cattleman fiercely prodded the poor creature's side with a pitchfork, which must have gone an inch into the body. At the same time another beat the animal about the head with a wooden stake, dangerously near the eyes. The animal groaned, and its great body heaved, but it made no attempt to move its legs. 'Wait,' said the foreman then, 'we will see what this will do.' He then took out of his mouth a large chew of tobacco, and deliberately placed it on one of the animal's eyes. My heart sickened within me, on seeing this, and I knew that I would have to be less gentle with these poor creatures to save them the worst of cruelty. In a second or two the poor beast, maddened by pain, made frantic efforts to rise, tried again and again, and after seeing its great sides panting, and hearing a number of pitiful groans, it succeeded in the attempt.

These cattlemen are, as a rule, great thieves, and well the sailors and firemen know it, and especially the steward and cook. One evening, when the men had finished their day's work, and I was preparing to go on duty for the night, I heard Blackey propose a night's raid on the captain's chickens, which were kept in a small coop under the bridge, and rather difficult to rob, considering the bridge was always occupied by the captain or one of his first officers. But, next morning, On coming to the forecastle, I was not greatly surprised to smell a peculiar and a not unpleasant odour, coming from that place. Blackey and another had made their raid during the previous night, leisurely killing the chickens On the spot, which was certainly the best plan. When I descended the forecastle steps, I saw that the stove was red hot, on which was a large tin can full of potatoes, onions and chicken. I am not ashamed to say that I did not scruple to partake of this rogue's mess, knowing from experience how this company ran their boats, allowing their stewards such miserly small amounts for provisions, that the common sailors and firemen did not get sufficient food to eat, bad as its quality was.

When we arrived at Liverpool, we were not long clearing our decks of cattle. After one is forced to lead, which is often difficult to do, they all follow, and it is the same with the sheep. It is more often necessary to control their mad rush than to goad them on. We received payment aboard-Red two pounds, myself thirty shillings, one other a pound, and the rest ten shillings each, which was to board and lodge us ashore for six days, when we would have passenger tickets back to the port from which we had sailed. If the ship, from any cause, was delayed over this number of days, we were to receive an extra half a crown for every day over. Red, having been in Liverpool several times previously, led the way to a cheap house, at which place I persuaded them to pay down six nights' lodging, so as to make sure of some shelter, not forgetting to caution them against drink, as they would need every penny of the remainder for food, which would be more difficult to obtain in this country than their own.

These cattlemen are recognised as the scum of America, a wild, lawless class of people, On whom the scum of Europe unscrupulously impose. They are an idle lot, but, coming from a land of plenty, they never allow themselves to feel the pangs of hunger until they land on the shores of England, when their courage for begging is cooled by the sight of a greater poverty. Having kind hearts, they are soon rendered penniless by the importunities of beggars. Men waylay them in the public streets for tobacco, and they are marked men in the public houses-marked by their own voices. First one enters and makes a successful appeal, who quickly informs another, and others as quickly follow. These wild, but kind-hearted men, grown exceedingly proud by a comparison of the comfortable homes of America with these scenes of extreme poverty in Liverpool and other large sea-ports, give and give of their few shillings, until they are themselves reduced to the utmost want. And so it was on this occasion. The next day after landing, I made my way to the public library, for I had not enjoyed books for a considerable time. When I returned from this place, Australian Red at once approached me to borrow money, with his old hint of having some concealed. On questioning the others, six in number, I found that these men had not the price of a loaf of bread among them. As for myself, I had not been drinking, and had only spent seven shillings, and a part of that had been given away in charity. For even in the coffee-house ragged lads set their hungry eyes on one's meal, and sidle up with the plaintive remark that they will be thankful for anything that is left. In such cases, who could help but attend to them at once, before attempting to enjoy his own meal? As far as my money went I maintained Red and the others, but the day previous to sailing, there was not one penny left. We were to sail the following night, but would not be supplied with food until breakfast time the next morning. When that hour arrived we were all weak from hunger, not having had food for over forty hours. When the food did arrive in the forecastle, these hungry men strove for it like wild beasts, without any system of equal shares.

What a monotonous life we now had for thirteen days. No work; nothing to do but to eat and sleep. And how I had intended to enjoy this part of the trip! The few hours I had spent in the library, had brought back my old passion for reading, and, had it not been for the distress of others, I had now been the happy possessor of some good books. This was not to be; for I was to lie in my bunk with but one consolation-that I had sufficient tobacco under seal with the steward to last me until the end of the voyage. This new experience was a disappointment, and it was my firm resolve, on returning to Baltimore, to seek some more remunerative employment, to save, and then to work my passage back to England in this same way, and go home with my earnings.

We had a rough passage back, the ship being light, with little more than ballast. One night the vessel made a fearful roll, and the lights went dark, and we thought every moment that she would turn over. A coal bunker was smashed by the waves, and large pieces of coal bounded across the deck with a force that would have broken every bone in ~ man's body. Pieces of heavy wood, that would have cut off a man's feet as clean as a knife, slid across the deck from side to side. We thought the end had come, especially when we saw an old sailor rush on deck in his bare feet, his shirt being his only apparel. Sleep was out of the question for some hours, for we were forced to cling to our bunks with all our strength, to save ourselves from being thrown out, when we would be rolled here and there, and soon battered into an unconscious state.

We reached Baltimore on the thirteenth day, and at once made our way to the cattlemen's office, intending on the morrow to make better arrangements for the future.