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Between The Millstones
by [?]

He stood before the recruiting officer, trembling with nervousness, anxious of face, and clothed in rags; but he was clean, for, knowing the moral effect of cleanliness, he had lately sought the beach and taken a swim.

“Want to enlist?” asked the officer, taking his measure with trained eye.

“Yes, sir; I read you wanted men in the navy.”

“Want seamen, firemen, and landsmen. What’s your occupation? You look like a tramp.”

“Yes,” he answered bitterly, “I’m a tramp. That’s all they’d let me be. I used to be a locomotive engineer–before the big strike. Then they blacklisted me, and I’ve never had a job above laborin’ work since. It’s easy to take to the road and stay at it when you find you can’t make over a dollar a day at back-breakin’ work after earnin’ three and four at the throttle. An engineer knows nothin’ but his trade, sir. Take it away, and he’s a laborin’ man.

“I’d ha’ worked and learned another, but they jailed me–put me in choky, ’cause I had no visible means o’ support. I had no money, and was a criminal under the law. And they kept at it,–jailed me again and again as a vagrant,–when all I wanted was work. After a while I didn’t care. But now’s my chance, sir, if you’ll take me on. I don’t know much about boats and the sea, but I can fire an engine, and know something about steam.”

“A fireman’s work on board a war-vessel is very different from that of a locomotive fireman,” said the officer, leaning back in his chair.

“I know, sir; that may be,” the tramp replied eagerly; “but I can shovel coal, and I can learn, and I can work. I’m not very strong now, ’cause I haven’t had much to eat o’ late years; but I’m not a drinkin’ man–why, that costs more than grub. Give me a chance, sir; I’m an American; I’m sick o’ bein’ hunted from jail to jail, like a wild animal, just ’cause I can’t be satisfied with pick-and-shovel work. I’ve spent half o’ the last five years in jail as a vagrant. I put in a month at Fernandina, and then I was chased out o’ town. They gave me two months at Cedar Keys, and I came here, only to get a month more in this jail. I got out this mornin’, and was told by the copper who pinched me to get out o’ Pensacola or he’d run me in again. And he’s outside now waitin’ for me. I dodged past ‘im to get in.”

“Pass this man in to the surgeon,” said the officer, with something like a sympathetic snort in the tone of his voice; for he also was an American.

An orderly escorted him to the surgeon, who examined him and passed him. Then the recruit signed his name to a paper.

“Emaciated,” wrote the surgeon in his daily report; “body badly nourished, and susceptible to any infection. Shows slight febrile symptoms, which should be attended to. An intelligent man; with good food and care will become valuable.”

The tramp marched to the receiving-ship with a squad of other recruits, and on the way smiled triumphantly into the face of a mulatto policeman, who glared at him. He had signed his name on a piece of paper, and the act had changed his status. From a hunted fugitive and habitual criminal he had become a defender of his country’s honor–a potential hero.

On board the receiving-ship he was given an outfit of clothes and bedding; but before he had learned more than the correct way to lash his hammock and tie his silk neckerchief he was detailed for sea duty, and with a draft of men went to Key West in a navy-yard tug; for war was on, and the fleet blockading Havana needed men.

At Key West he was appointed fireman on a torpedo-boat, where his work–which he soon learned–was to keep up steam in a tubular boiler. But he learned nothing of the rest of the boat, her business, or the reason of her construction. Seasickness prevented any assertion of curiosity at first, and later the febrile symptoms which the examining surgeon had noted developed in him until he could think of nothing else. There being no doctor aboard to diagnose his case, he was jeered by his fellows, and kept at work until he dropped; then he took to his hammock. Shooting pains darted through him, centering in his head, while his throat was dry and his thirst tormenting.