The Louis L'Amour Lost Treasures Project

Ship Wrecked
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"He remembered the moment, the sudden
phosphorescent glow in the sea, the rending,
splintering crash, and then the water
closing over him." . . .

He awakened to memory of struggle, and held himself tightly, warily, inside and out, bringing his thoughts into focus to locate his enemy.

It was all about him. It was the sea.

He was lying face down in a tangle of rigging and canvas where the yard joined the mast. His body trailed half in the water, supported by the mast and the crude, accidental hammock of the sail.

The ketch was gone.

Nor was this mast part of its wreckage. It was, in fact, the derelict mast that had gutted the ketch when they collided during the storm. He remembered the moment, the sudden phosphorescent glow in the sea, the rending, splintering crash, and then the water closing over him. There was a later memory of fighting his way to the surface and deliberately entangling himself in its rigging to keep  afloat.

He lay still, gathering his strength. First of all, he must think, he must plan. If he was to live, to escape from the sea, he must think.

Having unburdened itself of its weight of storm, the sky had drawn its clouds in a taut gray ceiling from horizon to horizon. The flat monotony closed out the leavening beauty of sun and stars, and left only a dead, drab expanse unbroken by any rift. Below, the dark blue and glassy sea curved upward toward the clouds, the higher comers licking at the dingy ceiling with angry tongues, and then splitting distastefully in a salty hail of breaking crest.

Elsewhere there were four directions. Here there was no north, east, south and west. There was but one direction . . . the horizon. Yet in his mind he created the fiction of North.

Northward would lie the Hawaiians, southward, and far it would be, lay Tahiti. Between them, scattered carelessly upon a disinterested sea, there were other islands, but none of them were large. Fanning, Christmas, Jarvis, Malden and Starbuck, and none of them easy to find in the desert of the sea.

Tahiti must lie two thousand miles south, and to the east there was nothing, a vast, unbelievably empty expanse, and most of it rarely traversed by ships. Due west there were more empty miles, and to the north, where lay the Hawaiians, it could be more than four hundred miles, but the shorter distance promised nothing. He was precariously afloat in the open sea with no means of directing his course. He had neither food nor water.

How long could a man exist without water? Somewhere back along the line of his years he had known, and it varied somewhat due to this condition and the temperature and humidity. Now, he was sure of but one thing. He was going to live.

He had never loved the sea. Few men who follow the sea do love it. Poets and landlubbers, yes, but not seafaring men, for they know it too well. In his own case there had been times when he had actually hated the sea, and there was something about sea water itself that awakened revulsion, the physical effect, no doubt, of a memory of early, bitter months on the water.

He faced the sea now as an antagonist. Here was an enemy, cunning and ruthless, an enemy with time and distance to hurry his destruction, and in which he would find no aid more than that he could provide with his own brain and his physical stamina. Now the battle was joined, and staring at the flat, murky sky, he realized subconsciously he had always known this time would come. Possibly, deep in this feeling, lay the reason for his hatred of the sea, and his continual challenge of it.

Lifting himself to a precarious sitting position at the joint of the most and the yard arm, he took stock of his floating world, this accidental raft that was his only weapon against the sea.

Almost all of the sail remained, some of it ripped to thin streamers, but most of it intact. Moreover, and that pleased him, there was a good bit of rope stringing about him, and he had the sailor's feeling for a good line or bit of marline or rope yarn. He hauled in the nearest rope, coiled it neatly, then made it fast to the yard with a bit of rope yarn from a soggy bunch in his belt. With care, he proceeded to gather in all the other loose ropes, making his craft shipshape and at the same time, taking stock of his possessions.

The storm caught him only a few days out of Honolulu, bound for Papeete. For three bitter days he had fought it viciously, every ounce of his strength and skill going into the task of keeping afloat in a typhoon that was littering the ocean with wreckage. And then, in the last hours of the storm the sea had won, hurling this huge mast in his path and ripping the bottom from the ketch.

There had been no time. The ketch had been literally smashed from beneath him, food, water, everything gone in one flashing instant, yet even that instant found him fighting, as long before he had fought, battered and blinded with blood, because it had been his instinct to fight. All his life, it seemed, he had been fighting and possibly because he only lived when there was a visible, tangible antagonist. He was a man created for crisis, inclined to loaf along the easy ways until those moments came upon him, or he sought them out.

The prize ring had given him those moments, and other people's wars, and there had been other times, here and there down the usual course of living a restless, somewhat hectic life. Yet now he was facing a situation that threw an overwhelming weight against him. This was no foe on which he could get his hands, this was a yielding yet mighty force, a vast, all encompassing gray distance, surrounding him, holding him.

He could look for no help. His voyage was a casual tramping trip and there was no one who could say where he was. There might be a search for other wrecks, and he might be seen, but in the South Pacific there are many miles, and the slightest wave could block out an eye for the instant long enough to give it a view of only an empty sea.

A lean, powerful man, he had a whipcord body inured to punishment and physical effort, but more than that, he had a mind filled with lore of the sea and sky, and even as he faced his situation, he doubted if any man ever entered such a struggle better equipped from the standpoint of information than himself. Moreover, he had the memory of the survival of other men to help him. What had been done could be done again, even if his own situation was worse than any he had ever heard of.

Balanced at the joint of mast and yard, his feet dangling in the sail hammock that was awash with sea, he took stock of his assets. Clinging to the mast with one hand, he dug into his pockets.

A billfold, stuffed with soggy money. He smiled at it, then returned it to his pocket. For all its value it would buy him nothing here, nothing at all. Yet in another pocket was his heavy sailor's clasp knife.

He had carried it for years, and despite the scoffing of others, the feeling that it was always there had made him comfortable. Only a man who has lived much in  out of the way places can appreciate the value of a good knife. Without doubt it was one of Man's most glorious accomplishments, one of the foundation stones of all civilizations, one of the first and greatest of Man's tools.

In another pocket a soggy white handkerchief, a waterproof matchbox filled with matches, a package of mixed fruit drops, one of which he immediately put into his mouth, then restored the odds and ends to his pockets. There had been a fountain pen, too, and a note book.

The first thing was to make himself as secure as possible and he began work without hesitation, knowing well what he had to do. At the base of the mast, some distance from him, were several large splinters where it had broken off. Crawling along the mast he broke the longest of these away from the butt, and returning, he fitted it in place across the angle from the yard to the upper part of the mast. Then, with a piece of canvas lashed inside this angle he had contrived a crude bucket with which to catch water if it rained. It would catch a spray also, but that could not be helped, and later he might find something better. By making the far side fast only when it rained he could keep it reasonably free of salt.

Thirst was the first thing, and food another. Until the sea died down he could do little, but he kept busy, his shirt and trousers wet and clinging, cold and miserable, he struggled to make things as shipshape as possible.

The canvas of the sail he arranged into a better hammock, hanging between the mast and the yard below his contrived rain catcher. When lying in it he would be in the water, but at least he would be safe from drowning, for he rigged a rope halter made to slip under his arms to keep his head above water while he slept.

It was slow, painstaking work. Nor did the sea let him rest or have even a moment of security. The wind was dying, yet at times it whipped across the sea with gale intensity, and he had to cling to his spar with every bit of his strength to keep from being torn loose. Yet the work gave him satisfaction and a feeling of assurance.

He had only the roughest idea of his position. The storm had carried him east from his route, but how far he could only guess. In the days preceding the wreck he had been unable to get a shot of the sun, and with the sun and stars obscured by clouds he could get no idea of his position or direction of travel. The water was cold now, but with the passing of the storm it would be warm, for this was a region of warm currents.

Generally speaking, if he was far enough south, those warm currents tended to move westward, and the resultant winds blew in the same direction. Yet the wind would influence him but little, and it was upon the current that he must depend. It was to the west that the islands lay, west and southwest. Yet the region a few degrees north of the equator was one of the variable currents and some of them flowed eastward into a vast and empty expanse of sea.

South of the equator at this time of year the water flowed to the west at a rate of from ten to thirty miles a day. In ten days he might drift from one hundred to three hundred miles, and his position then, if he was alive, would be no better than now. And ten days would be too long, for by that time sun, thirst and hunger would have done for him.

He stared up at the sky, feeling a tightening in his chest, yet even at this moment, he could not feel that he was to die. It was at such times as this that men prayed. His jaws tightened and he looked down at the work he had done. Well, let them pray, let them cry out. He would live or die on his own, asking no favors, living on his own terms or dying with his hands on the throat of the sea.

The sea was darkening now to a dull slate gray, and the swells were longer, breaking less often. The lowering clouds hung heavily above as though to press him down into the water by their very weight.

Night was coming, his first night since the wreck. He sat upon his spar, his arms about his knees, and stared over the ocean. He could not see far from here, a couple of miles, perhaps more, but there was within his sight, nothing. And tomorrow there would be nothing, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Lowering himself into his crude hammock he felt the water rise up around his body, and it was cold. His back against the mast, his head and shoulders held up by the loops beneath his arms, he waited for sleep, watching the sea.

He had always hated the sea, but now he almost smiled. It was cold, but it would grow warm. It had worn out its fury and failing with wind and wave, tomorrow it would begin with heat, thirst, and loneliness. Idly, he watched the far gray line where the dark sea met the dark sky, merging finally into inky blackness that closed around him, soft, velvety.

A low moaning wind stirred across surface, and sometimes a brief spatter of spray against his face, and somehow, quietly nestled in the water, he slept.

He awakened, suddenly, hours later. First, there was a star, and then many stars. The clouds were gone, and over him Orion's splendid constellation was like a setting of rare gems against the black velvet gown of the sky. In his mind he drew a line from [missing word] through Betelgeuse to get his north south line, and from northern star of Orion's belt he could see that he was slightly to the north of the equator. For a long time he watched the stars, trying to judge his drift. It seemed to be westward.

The waves no longer broke, and in the vague light of the stars the water slid by him, black and glassy. He watched the horizon during the slow rise and fall of the wreckage, searching for lights, but there were none. He was alone, alone with the stars and the sea.

A long time later he awakened again to find the sky turning gray in the east, and then the light grew, expanding like an opening rose, then throwing out swords of sunlight that stabbed the sky above and shimmered upon the sea. He watched, welcoming the brightness and cheer, but dreading the heat that was to come, for with the heat there would be thirst.

Drawing himself from the water he lay along the mast, letting his body dry in the warming sun. Far off, he glimpsed a bird flying, but too far to distinguish the type, but it was probably one of those species who remain at sea for months at a time.

There was nothing to do.

His eyes searched the horizon, then studied the sea. With his knife he cut a notch in the mast to denote the passage of the first day and night, and then he knotted rope yarns together to lash the knife to his wrist. There was a steel ring in the end of the knife and from that to a loose loop about his wrist, yet not so loose as to slip off, he knotted the rope yarns. Thus, if the knife slipped from his hand into the sea he would not lose it.

From the dark blue of the sea he knew he was over deep water was well as water with a high degree of salinity. The possibility of sharks did not disturb him for few sharks other than the blue ever go far from land. He was watching the sea not only for the chance of seeing a ship, but for wreckage. The remains of his own ketch might be floating about, or the wreckage of other vessels. In his present situation anything could be of use, any driftwood, cask, or plank.

Once, a fish came near him. It was fairly large, an ocean bonito, he believed, but when he stabbed at it with his knife it slipped away from the blade and was gone. He crouched on his spar in the baking sun, watching like a cat at the mousehole of the sea.

It was very hot now. The sky was a vast and pitiless glare in which there seemed no focal point, but all one enormous sun, blasting down upon the sea. The water warmed, and it lapped lazily against the mast. He removed his shirt and dipped it in water, then put it on again. Now, for the first time, he could not deny his thirst.

To distract himself, he began to run over in his mind ancient tales of the sea, assembling bits of lore for future use, considering again his position. The hours drifted by in a slow procession of solemn minutes and the sun remained a livid white flame. Always, he watched the sea, crouching like a beast above the water, eyes alert for something he could kill.

The water had settled now to a flat calm. He stretched out again on the mast, letting the sun dry him. In his mind there was the story of an Indian who survived on a waterless island by lying in pools left by the tide, but he would have time enough in the water.

Some birds indicated the presence of land, and some fish also. Bougainville discovered four islands by his knowledge of fish, and knew from the contents of one's stomach that he was near land, for he had eaten fish that only lived close inshore.

He removed a piece of marline from a rope end and then another piece. He knotted them carefully together, making a fair length of line. He lacked anything in the nature of a hook, so catching a fish was out of the question for the time being yet he knew that fish were attracted by floating objects and often gathered in the darkness beneath them. Also, he had his pocket mirror and reflected moonlight on the water will often attract fish.

It would not rain. The sky told him that, and he must have water. He must then, have fish. He gripped his opened knife and studied the water beneath him, then removed two pearl buttons from his shirt and tied them to the end of the marline, lowering them into the water. He lay then with his knife ready, and watched. There were no fish.  A man could survive dehydration by eating raw fish, for there was juice enough in the meat.  Twice, late in the afternoon, he glimpsed fish, but too far away.

Night was a creeping blackness that pushed up from the east and brought the stars along. He looked for the belt of Orion, and found the northern star was not yet above his head. He seemed to have made some progress west, but if he had it was very little, and he might be doing some wishful seeing.

His mouth and lips were dry and it was difficult to swallow. He lay along the mast and listened in a dreamy half world to the lazy lapping of the water. And then his half closed eyes saw phosphorous in the water, and a fish circled near. Instantly, he was awake and alert, his knife ready, his eyes widened for better sight but the fish was wary, and stayed beyond the reach of his arm and blade.

When he could remain awake no longer he lowered himself into his hammock again, feeling the water rise about him, warm as a luke warm tub and comfortable. He slipped the ropes under his arms and leaned back, grateful for the chance to relax.

High in the sky and far away to the south gleamed the bright star Alphard, the star the old Polynesians used to find their way to Tongareva. Westward was Procyon, a star that passed over the sea somewhere between the Marshalls and the Gilberts. Signposts in the sky for those who knew how to read them.

Twice during the night he awakened, and finally, long before daylight, he crawled out on the mast. Bobbing near him on the water was a hatch cover, reaching from the mast he managed to snare it, and hauled it alongside, and lashed it to the mast and the yard.  This gave him a much more comfortable place to lie. And then, almost before the sun was up, he had his second success. He got a fish.

It was a good sized trigger fish, loitering lazily alongside the wreckage. He saw it as it rolled on its side, studying him with complete detachment, and he gripped his knife, waited an instant to

- End of Fragment -

BEAU L'AMOUR'S COMMENTS: The sea, its promise and its threat, was a big part of Louis's life.  While he went to sea on freighters the idea of wandering the world on a sailboat like Bernard Moitessier, living a life where travel was free and every day was an adventure had a great appeal.  But, as my father said on many occasions: Adventure is just a romantic word for trouble.

Dad didn't swim.  Many sailors of his day did not.  That fact must have upped the life or death aspects of many a trip to sea.  In the early 1970s, when we moved into a more affluent neighborhood, our house had a pool.  As kids my sister and I and many of our friends were in the water all the time.  But I can remember Dad who, though happy we were all having such a great time, would look at the water with deep suspicion.  When he walked around the pool he seemed to glare at it as if to say to the water: 'Stay back, you didn't get me when I was a young man and you're not going to get me now!'

I'm not entirely sure that Louis really intended every one of these fragments to pay off and become a fully fledged short story or novel.  Some of them may simply have been exercises to keep his mind agile. 

To slow the process of unconscious creativity is to begin to lose it.





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