Two thousand fishermen from Cape Cod had gone off to enlist in the Continental Army, and in their absence the British had repeatedly landed raiding parties to harass the citizens.
Every man, woman and child on the Cape hated the soldiers and sailors of King George and would do anything to work them harm. When the Somerset was wrecked off Truro in 1778 the crew were helped ashore, but they were immediately marched to prison.
It was November – the night before Thanksgiving Day in fact – and ugly weather caused a British three-decker warship to yaw wildly and drift toward land with a broken tiller. No warning signal was raised on the bluffs; not a hand was stirred to rescue. The New Englanders who saw the accident watched with sullen satisfaction.
Ezekiel and Josiah Breeze – father and son – stood at the door of their cottage and watched the warship’s peril until three lights twinkling faintly through the gray of driving snow were all that showed where the enemy lay, straining at her cables and tossing on a wrathful sea.
They stood long in silence, but at last the boy Josiah said “I’m going to help the ship.”
“If you stir from here to help King George’s men, you’re no son of mine,” said Ezekiel.
“But she’s in danger, dad.”
“As she should be. By morning that warship will be strewn along the shore and not a spar to mark where she’s swinging now.”
“And the men aboard?”
“It’s a judgment from God, boy. Remember the sailors from the British ship Ajax?”
The lad remembered how the sailors of the Ajax had come ashore to burn the homes of peaceful fishermen and farmers. How women had been insulted. How his friends and mates had been cut down by British lead and steel at far-off Long Island.
He also recalled how when he ran to warn away an Ajax crewman who was robbing his garden, the man had struck him on the shoulder with a cutlass. He had sworn then to get revenge. But to let an entire crew go down to death and never lift a helping hand—was that a fair revenge?
“I’ve got to go, dad,” he stated with grim determination. “Tomorrow morning there’ll be five hundred faces turned up on the beach, covered with ice and staring at the sky, and five hundred mothers in England will wonder when they’re goin’ to see those faces again. I’ve got to go, dad, and I will.” So saying he rushed away and was swallowed up in the gloom.
Ezekial stared after him, then, with a revulsion of feeling, he cried, “You’re right, Josiah, I’ll go with you, son!” But Josiah couldn’t hear him in the roar of the wind and crash of the surf. As he reached the shore he saw faintly on the phosphorescent foam his son’s boat climbing a hill of water.
It was lost over the crest of one wave and reappeared on the wave beyond; it showed for a moment on the third wave, then it vanished from sight.
“Josiah!” his father cried out over and over again. No answer. In half an hour a thing washed ashore and fell with a crash beside him—a boat bottom up: his son’s.
Next day broke clear, with new snow on the ground. In his house at Provincetown, old Captain Jonathan Breeze – the Patriarch of the family – was awake and overseeing Thanksgiving meal preparations. Soon his son Ezekiel, his grandson Josiah, and all other relatives who were not at the front with Washington were coming for the family feast.
Plump turkeys were ready for the roasting, great loaves of bread and cake stood beside the oven, delicious pies of pumpkin and apple filled the air with scrumptious aromas. The family members arrived and chattered around the old Captain’s cheery fire about the damage that the previous night’s storm had done.
Suddenly Ezekiel Breeze stumbled in, his face haggard, his lips working, and a tremor in his hands. He said, “Josiah” in a thick voice, then leaned his arms against the chimney stones and pressed his face upon them. Among fishermen whose lives are in daily peril the understanding of misfortune is quick, and the old sea dog John put his hand on the shoulder of his son Ezekial and bent his head.
The day of Thanksgiving had become a day of gloom. As the news went out, the house began to fill with sympathizing friends and there was talking in low voices through the rooms. Suddenly a cry of surprise was heard outside.
A British warship, cased in tons of ice, was forging up the harbor, her decks swarming with English blue jackets, some of whom were beating off the frozen masses from lower spars and rigging. The vessel followed the channel so steadily that it was obviously guided by a wise hand at her helm. The ship’s anchor ran out and she swung on the tide.
“The Ajax, as I’m a sinner!” exclaimed Ezekial Breeze. A boat put off from her, and people angrily collected at the wharf, with talk of getting out their guns to use on the Britishers if they came with hostile intent. Soon a boyish figure arose in the stern, and was greeted with a shout of surprise and welcome – it was Josiah Breeze.
The boat touched the beach, Josiah Breeze leapt out of it, and in another minute his father had him in a bear hug, making no attempt to stop the tears that welled out of his eyes. A British officer had followed Josiah to shore, and going to the assembled New Englanders he said “That boy is one to be proud of. He put out in a sea that few men could face, to save an enemy’s ship and pilot it into the harbor. I could do no less than bring him back alive to his loved ones.”
There was praise and laughter and clasping of hands and grateful prayers offered up. When the Thanksgiving Dinner was served at last the commander of H. M. S. Ajax and rotating crew members were among the jolliest and most gracious guests at Captain Breeze’s table.
The morrow would see the Britishers return to sea and all present knew that if they ever met again it would be for blood, but all of them relished the warm respite of this Thanksgiving affair when compassion had won out over hatred. ++