To Repel Boarders
by Jack London
“No; honest, now, Bob, I’m sure I was born too late. The twentieth century’s no place for me. If I’d had my way—-“
“You’d have been born in the sixteenth,” I broke in, laughing, “with Drake and Hawkins and Raleigh and the rest of the sea-kings.”
“You’re right!” Paul affirmed. He rolled over upon his back on the little after-deck, with a long sigh of dissatisfaction.
It was a little past midnight, and, with the wind nearly astern, we were running down Lower San Francisco Bay to Bay Farm Island. Paul Fairfax and I went to the same school, lived next door to each other, and “chummed it” together. By saving money, by earning more, and by each of us foregoing a bicycle on his birthday, we had collected the purchase-price of the Mist, a beamy twenty-eight-footer, sloop-rigged, with baby topsail and centerboard. Paul’s father was a yachtsman himself, and he had conducted the business for us, poking around, overhauling, sticking his penknife into the timbers, and testing the planks with the greatest care. In fact, it was on his schooner, the Whim, that Paul and I had picked up what we knew about boat-sailing, and now that the Mist was ours, we were hard at work adding to our knowledge.
The Mist, being broad of beam, was comfortable and roomy. A man could stand upright in the cabin, and what with the stove, cooking-utensils, and bunks, we were good for trips in her of a week at a time. And we were just starting out on the first of such trips, and it was because it was the first trip that we were sailing by night. Early in the evening we had beaten out from Oakland, and we were now off the mouth of Alameda Creek, a large salt-water estuary which fills and empties San Leandro Bay.
“Men lived in those days,” Paul said, so suddenly as to startle me from my own thoughts. “In the days of the sea-kings, I mean,” he explained.
I said “Oh!” sympathetically, and began to whistle “Captain Kidd.”
“Now, I’ve my ideas about things,” Paul went on. “They talk about romance and adventure and all that, but I say romance and adventure are dead. We’re too civilized. We don’t have adventures in the twentieth century. We go to the circus—-“
“But—-” I strove to interrupt, though he would not listen to me.
“You look here, Bob,” he said. “In all the time you and I’ve gone together what adventures have we had? True, we were out in the hills once, and didn’t get back till late at night, and we were good and hungry, but we weren’t even lost. We knew where we were all the time. It was only a case of walk. What I mean is, we’ve never had to fight for our lives. Understand? We’ve never had a pistol fired at us, or a cannon, or a sword waving over our heads, or–or anything….
“You’d better slack away three or four feet of that main-sheet,” he said in a hopeless sort of way, as though it did not matter much anyway. “The wind’s still veering around.
“Why, in the old times the sea was one constant glorious adventure,” he continued. “A boy left school and became a midshipman, and in a few weeks was cruising after Spanish galleons or locking yard-arms with a French privateer, or–doing lots of things.”
“Well–there are adventures today,” I objected.
But Paul went on as though I had not spoken:
“And today we go from school to high school, and from high school to college, and then we go into the office or become doctors and things, and the only adventures we know about are the ones we read in books. Why, just as sure as I’m sitting here on the stern of the sloop Mist, just so sure am I that we wouldn’t know what to do if a real adventure came along. Now, would we?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I answered non-committally.
“Well, you wouldn’t be a coward, would you?” he demanded.
I was sure I wouldn’t and said so.
“But you don’t have to be a coward to lose your head, do you?”
I agreed that brave men might get excited.
“Well, then,” Paul summed up, with a note of regret in his voice, “the chances are that we’d spoil the adventure. So it’s a shame, and that’s all I can say about it.”
“The adventure hasn’t come yet,” I answered, not caring to see him down in the mouth over nothing. You see, Paul was a peculiar fellow in some things, and I knew him pretty well. He read a good deal, and had a quick imagination, and once in a while he’d get into moods like this one. So I said, “The adventure hasn’t come yet, so there’s no use worrying about its being spoiled. For all we know, it might turn out splendidly.”
Paul didn’t say anything for some time, and I was thinking he was out of the mood, when he spoke up suddenly:
“Just imagine, Bob Kellogg, as we’re sailing along now, just as we are, and never mind what for, that a boat should bear down upon us with armed men in it, what would you do to repel boarders? Think you could rise to it?”
“What would you do?” I asked pointedly. “Remember, we haven’t even a single shotgun aboard.”
“You would surrender, then?” he demanded angrily. “But suppose they were going to kill you?”
“I’m not saying what I’d do,” I answered stiffly, beginning to get a little angry myself. “I’m asking what you’d do, without weapons of any sort?”
“I’d find something,” he replied–rather shortly, I thought.
I began to chuckle. “Then the adventure wouldn’t be spoiled, would it? And you’ve been talking rubbish.”
Paul struck a match, looked at his watch, and remarked that it was nearly one o’clock–a way he had when the argument went against him. Besides, this was the nearest we ever came to quarreling now, though our share of squabbles had fallen to us in the earlier days of our friendship. I had just seen a little white light ahead when Paul spoke again.
“Anchor-light,” he said. “Funny place for people to drop the hook. It may be a scow-schooner with a dinky astern, so you’d better go wide.”
I eased the Mist several points, and, the wind puffing up, we went plowing along at a pretty fair speed, passing the light so wide that we could not make out what manner of craft it marked. Suddenly the Mist slacked up in a slow and easy way, as though running upon soft mud. We were both startled. The wind was blowing stronger than ever, and yet we were almost at a standstill.
“Mud-flat out here? Never heard of such a thing!”
So Paul exclaimed with a snort of unbelief, and, seizing an oar, shoved it down over the side. And straight down it went till the water wet his hand. There was no bottom! Then we were dumbfounded. The wind was whistling by, and still the Mist was moving ahead at a snail’s pace. There seemed something dead about her, and it was all I could do at the tiller to keep her from swinging up into the wind.
“Listen!” I laid my hand on Paul’s arm. We could hear the sound of rowlocks, and saw the little white light bobbing up and down and now very close to us. “There’s your armed boat,” I whispered in fun. “Beat the crew to quarters and stand by to repel boarders!”
We both laughed, and were still laughing when a wild scream of rage came out of the darkness, and the approaching boat shot under our stern. By the light of the lantern it carried we could see the two men in it distinctly. They were foreign-looking fellows with sun-bronzed faces, and with knitted tam-o’-shanters perched seaman fashion on their heads. Bright-colored woolen sashes were around their waists, and long sea-boots covered their legs. I remember yet the cold chill which passed along my backbone as I noted the tiny gold ear-rings in the ears of one. For all the world they were like pirates stepped out of the pages of romance. And, to make the picture complete, their faces were distorted with anger, and each flourished a long knife. They were both shouting, in high-pitched voices, some foreign jargon we could not understand.
One of them, the smaller of the two, and if anything the more vicious-looking, put his hands on the rail of the Mist and started to come aboard. Quick as a flash Paul placed the end of the oar against the man’s chest and shoved him back into his boat. He fell in a heap, but scrambled to his feet, waving the knife and shrieking:
“You break-a my net-a! You break-a my net-a!”
And he held forth in the jargon again, his companion joining him, and both preparing to make another dash to come aboard the Mist.
“They’re Italian fishermen,” I cried, the facts of the case breaking in upon me. “We’ve run over their smelt-net, and it’s slipped along the keel and fouled our rudder. We’re anchored to it.”
“Yes, and they’re murderous chaps, too,” Paul said, sparring at them with the oar to make them keep their distance.
“Say, you fellows!” he called to them. “Give us a chance and we’ll get it clear for you! We didn’t know your net was there. We didn’t mean to do it, you know!”
“You won’t lose anything!” I added. “We’ll pay the damages!”
But they could not understand what we were saying, or did not care to understand.
“You break-a my net-a! You break-a my net-a!” the smaller man, the one with the earrings, screamed back, making furious gestures. “I fix-a you! You-a see, I fix-a you!”
This time, when Paul thrust him back, he seized the oar in his hands, and his companion jumped aboard. I put my back against the tiller, and no sooner had he landed, and before he had caught his balance, than I met him with another oar, and he fell heavily backward into the boat. It was getting serious, and when he arose and caught my oar, and I realized his strength, I confess that I felt a goodly tinge of fear. But though he was stronger than I, instead of dragging me overboard when he wrenched on the oar, he merely pulled his boat in closer; and when I shoved, the boat was forced away. Besides, the knife, still in his right hand, made him awkward and somewhat counterbalanced the advantage his superior strength gave him. Paul and his enemy were in the same situation–a sort of deadlock, which continued for several seconds, but which could not last. Several times I shouted that we would pay for whatever damage their net had suffered, but my words seemed to be without effect.
Then my man began to tuck the oar under his arm, and to come up along it, slowly, hand over hand. The small man did the same with Paul. Moment by moment they came closer, and closer, and we knew that the end was only a question of time.
“Hard up, Bob!” Paul called softly to me.
I gave him a quick glance, and caught an instant’s glimpse of what I took to be a very pale face and a very set jaw.
“Oh, Bob,” he pleaded, “hard up your helm! Hard up your helm, Bob!”
And his meaning dawned upon me. Still holding to my end of the oar, I shoved the tiller over with my back, and even bent my body to keep it over. As it was the Mist was nearly dead before the wind, and this maneuver was bound to force her to jibe her mainsail from one side to the other. I could tell by the “feel” when the wind spilled out of the canvas and the boom tilted up. Paul’s man had now gained a footing on the little deck, and my man was just scrambling up.
“Look out!” I shouted to Paul. “Here she comes!”
Both he and I let go the oars and tumbled into the cockpit. The next instant the big boom and the heavy blocks swept over our heads, the main-sheet whipping past like a great coiling snake and the Mist heeling over with a violent jar. Both men had jumped for it, but in some way the little man either got his knife-hand jammed or fell upon it, for the first sight we caught of him, he was standing in his boat, his bleeding fingers clasped close between his knees and his face all twisted with pain and helpless rage.
“Now’s our chance!” Paul whispered. “Over with you!”
And on either side of the rudder we lowered ourselves into the water, pressing the net down with our feet, till, with a jerk, it went clear, Then it was up and in, Paul at the main-sheet and I at the tiller, the Mist plunging ahead with freedom in her motion, and the little white light astern growing small and smaller.
“Now that you’ve had your adventure, do you feel any better?” I remember asking when we had changed our clothes and were sitting dry and comfortable again in the cockpit.
“Well, if I don’t have the nightmare for a week to come”–Paul paused and puckered his brows in judicial fashion–“it will be because I can’t sleep, that’s one thing sure!”