A terrible journey.
The details of the capture of the blockade runner commanded by Captain Austin
in the year 1862 is forgotten history, but the fact remains that he, in company with his second in command, was confined in a dungeon in Fort Taylor
at Key West
From their cell a window looked out over the waves of the Gulf of Mexico
that beat fully fifty feet below.
For weeks they languished in captivity, until finally help arrived.
One day a rope was hastily thrust through a
grating, followed by a jug containing a surplus supply of water and a package of bread.
Below the window of the prison a ship floated at anchor, and at her stern was tied a small boat used as a tender.
The location of the ship was marked.
That night was dark.
Securing the rope within the cell, Captain Austin
, with the water jug tied around his neck, climbed from the high aperture and swung out. Hand over hand he went down to freedom.
Owing to the necessary haste his companion was just above him, bearing the bread.
When fully twenty feet above the water Captain Austin
found himself at the end of the rope.
It was too late to go back up. Letting go, he went crashing feet downward into the waves below.
His companion was fairly on top of him when they went under.
Fortunately the noise was not noted, but the water in the uncorked jug was lost, as was also the bread.
With bridges figuratively burned behind them, and terrible suffering ahead, they struck out, according to previous agreement, for the ship.
Securing the yawl, Captain Austin
crawled aboard the vessel.
The watch was napping.
Working fast and quietly, he unscrewed the compass from its place and dropped back with it into the small boat.
It would have been suicidal to have attempted to secure provisions to replace those lost, and so the two sailed away destitute, shaping their course for Havana
Day dawned, and still the two men rowed on, assisted by a makeshift sail.
The heat of the summer sun blazing over a tropic sea was intense.
They were out of sight of land, with ‘water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.’
Still they kept on. Hunger gnawed at their vitals, but safety was in front, not behind.
With the coming of night their suffering had increased to a point that seemed maddening.
Another and another day passed.
Still there was nothing but the burning sun and the salt sea. Havana
was ahead of them.
Loaves of bread and bunches of fruit appeared piled up in luxurious plenty on the sea beside them, only to vanish under touch.
Clear, cool springs rippled from the bottom of the boat, but the water was not for their parched and swollen throats.
Land appeared just ahead, only to fade away, as with renewed efforts they rowed toward it. With sailor instinct they kept to their course.
Another night found the two men raving, stark, starving mad, lying in the bottom of the yawl too weak and emaciated to even cry for help.
Before another day
came, that would have assuredly brought death, the men were picked up by fishermen just off the Cuban coast
a few miles below Havana
Water and food were forced down their throats a little at a time.
At first it seemed as though relief would be as likely to prove fatal as suffering had been before, but slowly, under the ministering hands of the fishermen, they improved.
Almost worn out by their awful experience, they were taken to Havana
and turned over to the authorities.
They were taken before the captain-general
and told their story.
Struck by the tale and by the appearance of the prisoners, he released them on parole.
The freedom of the city was theirs.
But the publicity given the event reached the army authorities in the North
, and an officer was dispatched to bring them back.
When he arrived Austin
and his companion were summoned to appear before the Governor
of the island.
A young lieutenant in his blue uniform was there awaiting them in the private office of the captain general
, who sat at his desk writing.
At last he turned toward the group.
In his hand he held a document which he handed to Austin
It was a certificate of citizenship in Cuba
Snapping their fingers at the officer who had come to get them, they left the Palace free men.
During the remainder of their stay in the Cuban capital Captain Austin
and his companion struck up a close friendship with the Governor
, who had given them their liberty.
This fact proved their salvation later.