Jack Tier; or, The Florida Reef (1848)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 77-84.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.  

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

Set during the time of the Mexican War, Jack Tier is a much more realistic sea story than the nautical romances Cooper wrote in the 1820s and 1830s. [1] It begins in New York City where the Molly Swash, tied up at an unattractive wharf near beer halls and an almshouse, is in the process of departure for Key West. Although a sleek, clipper-built brig, the Molly Swash, like her captain, Stephen Spike (now fifty-six), shows signs of age. Most of the crewmen too are beyond the prime of life, and the Negro steward and cabin “boy,” Josh, is sixty. The only young man among the ship’s company is Henry (Harry) Mulford, the first (and only) mate. Three passengers are aboard the brig: Rose Budd, an intelligent and beautiful girl not yet nineteen; Mrs. Budd, her aunt, in late middle age but already failing mentally; and the latter’s Irish maidservant, Bridget (Biddy) Noon. It is Mrs. Budd’s opinion that Rose has incipient tuberculosis and that a sea voyage will cure her malady. She does not tell this to her niece, however, but pretends that she herself has pulmonary problems that a cruise may relieve. Mulford is certain that neither woman has any lung disease. He soon does discover, though, that the widow has a less serious failing, a confirmed case of nautical malapropism. Her late husband, a sea captain, had, with a perverted sense of humor, carefully mistaught her shipboard terms and seaman’s lingo in order to amuse himself and his cronies at her expense.

As they cast off, Captain Spike exhibits a degree of anxiety that suggests he has something to hide. He is disturbed by the appearance nearby of a customs vessel. When the brig is only a few feet from the dock, he is hailed by a tall man who wants the job of harbor pilot to carry the brig through Hell-Gate, a narrow channel in the East River. He is also hailed by a short, fat, waddling little figure with a cracked, dwarflike voice, a seaman who, claiming to be a shipmate of twenty years earlier, asks Spike for a berth aboard his ship. Spike rejects both bids for employment and directs the Molly Swash toward Hell-Gate, which he intends to navigate with his own skill. When the would-be employees follow, however, in a smaller but faster boat, Spike grows so upset that he permits his vessel to graze a dangerous rock in the passage.

[2] The glancing blow sustained by the Molly Swash does not damage her hull. After having the pumps sounded to verify the ship’s tightness, Captain Spike sets sail once again. In the meantime, a skiff comes abeam bearing the stubby seaman who had called from the dock. Eager for a place among the brig’s crew, the man identifies himself as Jack Tier, one of the Molly Swash’s original hands who, having been accidentally left on an island twenty years ago, had shipped on numerous other vessels since. Spike cannot clearly recall the man, but his story is confirmed by Josh, who remembers Tier as a handy steward’s assistant. Although not very presentable or overly clean, Jack Tier is hired as a cabin steward for the ladies’ quarters.

It now becomes apparent that the Molly Swash is being pursued by a large armed steamship in the customs service. Spike tells his mate that since he owes no revenue of any kind, he is determined to avoid the delay that a boarding and search would entail. Mulford takes the captain at his word and diligently supports his efforts to elude the steamer. At dusk they rearrange the sails to convert the brig into what will pass, from a distance at night, as a schooner. When a shot is fired over the Molly Swash, Spike hoists all sails to get a head start before the revenue ship can get up a head of steam. As the government ship begins to gain speed, the brig darts into an anchorage known to Spike and Mulford, a roadstead backed by high, dark bluffs against which the tall masts of the Molly Swash will be all but invisible. The customs vessel, its course revealed by the glow from its stack, sails past the roadstead and temporarily disappears. [3] The following evening the brig escapes both the steamer and a schooner which have laid a trap for her off Block Island.

During all of this maneuvering, Rose Budd begins to have misgivings about the nature of the vessel on which she and her aunt have taken passage. Rose is not deceived by Spike’s explanations for his unusual movements, explanations which are patent falsehoods. She is not alone in her second thoughts about the Molly Swash. Mulford had doubts about Spike’s character even before the voyage started — he had been first mate for a year by then — but having no tangible evidence of misconduct, he had allowed his penury, his interest in Rose, and his attachment to the ship itself to persuade him to sign on for another voyage. Like Rose, he is mystified by Spike’s antipathy to all contact with government ships; for, as he tells her, the Molly Swash has in her hold nothing but flour, hardly a cargo to cause anyone concern.

[4] Several days later the Molly Swash is overtaken by the U.S. cruiser Poughkeepsie, commanded by Captain Adam Mull, who sends aboard an officer, Lieutenant Wallace, to inspect the freight. Blockading the Mexican coast, the navy is examining all vessels that might bear contraband destined for enemy use. Lieutenant Wallace finds nothing in the hold but what Captain Spike’s papers list: eight hundred barrels of flour. There remains a nagging doubt in the mind of Captain Mull, however, when his junior officer reports his findings. Flour for Florida and Gulf ports normally comes, more directly, down the Mississippi River, not down the Atlantic coast from New York. The Poughkeepsie’s commander determines to make a closer scrutiny of Spike’s flour in a day or two, but once the Molly Swash is out of sight, he does not see it again for some time. Mulford’s suspicions about the business motives of Spike now deepen as the captain first orders the mate to surrender all his navigational instruments and then sets about disguising the brig by repainting her and altering dramatically the configuration of her sails. About Spike’s personal motives for taking aboard his passengers, Mulford now has no doubts at all, for he has overheard the captain’s declaration to Mrs. Budd that he wishes to marry Rose.

[5] The Molly Swash now approaches a cluster of islets among the Dry Tortugas, off the Florida Reef, and anchors near a fully equipped lighthouse that seems to have been very recently deserted. At dusk, Spike enters the lighthouse, trims the lanterns, and lets them burn throughout the night. Harry and Rose discover that this is a signal to a Mexican schooner waiting in the distance for the arrival of the brig. (The lighthouse keeper and his assistant are held imprisoned on the schooner.) A Mexican agent, the gentlemanly Don Juan Montefalderon y Castro, comes aboard the Molly Swash and closes a deal, initiated in New York, for the brig’s cargo. Both crews work diligently to transfer the flour to the schooner as quickly as possible. In their haste, they drop a barrel from the gangplank to the deck of the schooner, where it bursts and reveals amidst the flour a keg of gunpowder. The nature of Stephen Spike’s mission is now disclosed: he is traitorously selling munitions to the Mexican government with which his own country is at war. He is also interested in selling the brig itself and settling in Mexico, he tells Don Juan, with his new bride-to-be, Rose Budd. The Mexican is shocked at the depth of Spike’s depravity and responds evasively to his request for assistance in entering Mexico. Much of this discussion, overheard by Rose, is repeated to Mulford, and the young people now begin to watch for an opportunity to escape from the evil power of Spike.

A tornado strikes the anchorage and sinks the schooner with all hands on board. Spike offers to salvage the Mexican ship for half of the gold it contains, and Montefalderon readily accepts the proposal. By the end of a day the American crew has moved the schooner into an upright position on the sandy bottom and begins to raise her with a number of block-and-tackle purchases swung from the masts of the brig. Pumping starts, and many barrels of flour are moved from the hold of the vessel to its deck.

[6] Before the work can be resumed the following morning, Lieutenant Wallace of the Poughkeepsie comes alongside in a gig and boards the Molly Swash. He is undeceived by Spike’s claim that Don Juan, to whom he is introduced, is a Cuban, but he gives no indication of his disbelief. After an outwardly cordial exchange between Spike and Wallace, the latter departs after promising to send forty or fifty men, if needed, to assist in the salvage operation. Upon his return to the Poughkeepsie, however, he sends not men but heavy shells toward the two ships at the anchorage. When the cruiser’s guns begin firing, Spike and his boatswain, Ben Clench, are neck-deep in water in the cabin of the schooner trying to locate Don Juan’s doubloons. They find one of two bags of gold there and then abandon their efforts as the Poughkeepsie’s guns begin to get the range of their target. As the Molly Swash prepares to sail, Spike, accompanied by Jack Tier, rushes to an islet to recover the passengers who have been tenting there comfortably during the salvage work. When Mrs. Budd and Biddy, reduced to hysterics by the shelling, refuse to budge, Spike begins to carry away Rose until he is struck on the head and then held at pistol point by Jack Tier. A shell falls among a hundred barrels of flour drying on the islet, detonating the kegs of gunpowder they contain. Recognizing the danger to his ship posed by the barrels of flour that cover her deck, Spike, forgetting about the women and Jack Tier, rushes back to the brig and directs the work of casting overboard the now- lethal cargo. As the last of these are being dumped into the sea, a heavy shell passes between the masts of the Molly Swash and then explodes. No damage to the ship is discernible; but apparently Mulford, who had been standing near one of the masts, has been swept away in the vortex of the passing missile. Such is not actually the case; for Harry, determined not to desert Rose under any circumstances, has jumped aboard the small boat Spike vacated and, unobserved, has left the ship during the consternation caused by the near miss of the cruiser’s heaviest gun.

[7] Without searching for his first mate or concerning himself further about the fate of Jack Tier and the women, Spike takes the Molly Swash through an opening in the reef and out of the range of the Poughkeepsie’s guns. As the two vessels disappear over the horizon a distance of twenty-five miles is between them. The five people left behind (Mulford, Tier, and the three women) finish bailing out the Mexican schooner and restoring it to its former condition. It is Mulford’s intention to sail the schooner to Key West, only sixty miles away, staying within the Florida Reef lest, shorthanded, they should be carried away by heavy weather in the open sea. With only two or three sails in use, and those at the lowest functional levels of the masts, the mate thinks that they can handle the craft safely. All goes well until Mrs. Budd takes her watch during the night. With officious ineptitude she tries to retie the ship’s dinghy and in the process loses it. Then, failing to waken Harry at the time he had specified, she is responsible for the capsizing of the schooner in a squall.

[8] For two days the five refugees live on the upturned hull of the schooner, which is kept afloat by the air trapped in the hold. They have only a handful of food among them and no water. When their thirst grows almost intolerable, they are given some relief by a brief shower. Once a sail is sighted, and the ship approaches close enough so that they can recognize it as the Poughkeepsie. Despite their frantic signals, however, they are too low in the water to be seen by the lookouts on the warship. Toward the end of the second day, Harry, watching the steady stream of bubbles rising along the waterline, realizes that air has been escaping continuously from the hold. The ship has actually sunk several inches lower in the water, a fact which he keeps to himself. The lost dinghy, shifted back and forth (as they themselves are) by the movement of the tides, had floated by earlier in the day, but sharks had prevented them from pursuing it. [9] Now, as it grows dark, the boat is sighted again; after the others have retired for the night, Harry decides that it must be recovered at any hazard. After much arduous swimming, during which he is several times menaced by sharks, the mate reaches the boat and rows back to pick up his companions just as the schooner is submerging. The group stops momentarily to scoop rainwater from cavities in an exposed reef. As they are about to depart, they are sighted by a lookout on the Molly Swash, which, having barely outrun the cruiser, has returned to the area. After being chased for some time by a boat with Spike at the helm, they are finally captured. Spike leaves Mulford stranded on a bare rock and returns hastily to the brig, which is once again within range of the Poughkeepsie’s guns. Knowing these treacherous waters far better than those aboard the cruiser can possibly know them, Spike soon eludes his persistent enemy.

[10] Back aboard the Molly Swash, Jack Tier tries unsuccessfully to persuade Josh and Simon, the Negro cook, to accompany him that night in the ship’s boat to rescue Mulford, the handsome mate. They would return to the brig themselves and then let Harry escape in the boat. Although the two blacks like the mate and are sympathetic to Jack’s effort in his behalf, they are too intimidated by Spike to become active accomplices. They do arrange to have the boat in readiness, though, and they stand Jack’s watch while he, Rose, and Biddy sail back to the rock and rescue Harry.

[11] Under the cover of darkness Biddy is taken back to the Molly Swash to attend to the needs of Mrs. Budd; then Harry, Rose and Jack proceed to the abandoned lighthouse. [12] Still unaware that Rose and Jack Tier are missing from his ship, Spike later that night awakens and, taking Don Juan Montefalderon with him, goes ashore himself and lights the lanterns in the lighthouse tower. He does this in order to give the impression of normality to any ship that might be in the area. The refugees hide in the keeper’s living quarters; but Harry, recognizing in Don Juan a gentleman who would not ordinarily associate with a degenerate like Spike, speaks to the Mexican as he goes to visit the graves of his drowned countrymen. Harry secures from Don Juan a pledge of whatever assistance he can possibly render. True to his word, Don Juan returns the following night to ferry Jack Tier back to the Molly Swash. (There is a striking ambivalence throughout the novel in Jack Tier’s attitude toward his captain. Although he mutters repeatedly, “Spike is a willian” [p. 343], he refuses to leave the villain.) As the brig is about to leave the isle and its lighthouse, the crew spots Mulford, who has carelessly exposed himself by walking into the moonlight. They think it is the ghost of the first mate left on the barren rock. Spike fires two musket shots, neither of which affects the figure on the shore. Even more ominous, his second shot seems to echo twice and its charge seems to return, singing above the heads of the crew and striking the open water beyond the ship. The shot whose whine they hear is actually return fire from the islet, where boats from the cruiser have just arrived. The Poughkeepsie itself is too far away to see the Molly Swash, much less bring its guns to bear upon her, and again Spike escapes. During the time that elapses before the arrival of the warship, Harry and Rose are united in marriage by the Rev. Mr. Hollis, a naval chaplain who has accompanied Lieutenant Wallace and the sailors in the small boats.

[13] When the cruiser arrives, Lieutenant Wallace reports to Captain Mull on everything that has occurred at the lighthouse, as well as on Mulford’s separation from the Molly Swash. At first dubious about Harry’s integrity, Mull is soon won over by the mate’s frankness and directness. The young man agrees to guide the cruiser to the site of the sunken schooner, to which Spike has gone to recover the lost bag of Mexican gold.

During this time, the Molly Swash has sailed directly to the wreck, and Spike commences at once to raise the vessel lust far enough to make accessible the cabin containing the doubloons. There is no intention this time of trying to salvage the schooner itself. A ship carpenter who cuts a hole in the deck above the cabin is ordered to enter the opening and bring out the money. One of the poles propped under the schooner breaks, and the vessel sinks back to the bottom. No effort is made to rescue the trapped carpenter, who, Spike knows, cannot swim. Such cruel disregard for human life shocks Don Juan, but Spike yawns at his remonstrance and observes that carpenters are expendable. The captain’s only concern is the gold still in the schooner.

[14] The Poughkeepsie arrives with the dawn, and the quest for gold is abandoned. Spike pilots his ship among the rocks of the reef as shells from the cruiser begin to destroy its rigging. Without masts and spars from which to swing tackle, it is impossible to get the ship’s launch over the side. [15] Instead, the yawl is lowered, and into this much smaller craft everyone rushes when the Molly Swash founders on a bank of projecting coral. Greatly overloaded with its eighteen passengers, the yawl cannot possibly escape the four cutters from the man-of-war. Three of these cutters return to the Poughkeepsie when the Molly Swash breaks apart on the rocks; but the fourth, commanded by Lieutenant Wallace, who is accompanied by Mulford, continues the pursuit. As the distance lessens between the cutter and the yawl, a brutal drama of self-preservation begins on the latter. To lighten the load of his boat, Spike forces overboard, one at a time, its defenseless occupants, first Josh, Simon, and Don Juan, then five of the crewmen who attempt to save the Mexican, next Mrs. Budd (whose wrist is slashed to release her grip on the boatswain’s hand) and Biddy Noon, and finally Jack Tier. Of these helpless victims only Jack is saved as he swims stoutly into the path of the oncoming cutter. As the pursuers continue to gain on the pursued, a desperate struggle begins among the six remaining seamen, each trying to keep his place in the yawl while forcing others overboard. When the frantic fight has ended only Clench, the boatswain, remains in the boat with Spike. A volley of musket fire from the cutter kills Clench and fatally wounds Spike.

[16] Spike is taken to a small naval hospital at Key West where he is attended by Jack Tier and Rose Budd. While Rose is out of the sickroom, Jack Tier, now wearing woman’s clothing, reveals to the dying captain that she is Mary Swash, the wife he had left on an island twenty years earlier when he had become interested in another woman. She nursed a seaman dying of yellow fever who had accidentally been left behind on the same island, a short stubby man named Jack Tier. Pretending to be Jack Tier herself, she while still in her late twenties had assumed the mien and role of a man and had sailed on ship after ship, knowing eventually she would find Spike again. This had taken her twenty years, during which time she had aged markedly and had grown coarse in her features. Only Rose Budd and her aunt had, until now, known her real identity.

The dying man is forgiven by his long-suffering wife before he expires, but his final moments are horrible as he mingles cursing and shouts of fear, sullen defiance and cries for mercy. After Spike’s death and burial, Harry and Rose return to New York City, where they make Jack Tier — she still goes by that name — part of their household, more a companion than a servant. Although Spike’s illegally gained gold is confiscated, his honest earnings go to his wife and heir, Mary (nicknamed Molly), and these are invested for her in a way to make her fairly independent. As she recovers from her years of hardship, she becomes more feminine, even to the point of forsaking chewing tobacco for snuff!

With funds from Rose’s fortune, increased now by the inheritance of her late aunt’s estate, a ship is purchased for Harry to command. A son born to the couple provides the final tie of affection to hold Jack Tier to the Mulford home and a settled life ashore.

Midshipman Archer, Barlow, Bill, Mrs. Budd, Rose Budd, Ben Clench, Rev. Mr. Hollis, Josh, Don Juan Montefalderon y Castro, Henry Mulford, Captain Adam Mull, Bridget Noon, Sam, Simon, Captain Stephen Spike, Strand, Jack Tier [Mary Swash Spike], Tom, Lieutenant Wallace.