A Raid on the Oyster Pirates
by Jack London
Of the fish patrolmen under whom we served at various times, Charley Le Grant and I were agreed, I think, that Neil Partington was the best. He was neither dishonest nor cowardly; and while he demanded strict obedience when we were under his orders, at the same time our relations were those of easy comradeship, and he permitted us a freedom to which we were ordinarily unaccustomed, as the present story will show.
Neil’s family lived in Oakland, which is on the Lower Bay, not more than six miles across the water from San Francisco. One day, while scouting among the Chinese shrimp-catchers of Point Pedro, he received word that his wife was very ill; and within the hour the Reindeer was bowling along for Oakland, with a stiff northwest breeze astern. We ran up the Oakland Estuary and came to anchor, and in the days that followed, while Neil was ashore, we tightened up the Reindeer’s rigging, overhauled the ballast, scraped down, and put the sloop into thorough shape.
This done, time hung heavy on our hands. Neil’s wife was dangerously ill, and the outlook was a week’s lie-over, awaiting the crisis. Charley and I roamed the docks, wondering what we should do, and so came upon the oyster fleet lying at the Oakland City Wharf. In the main they were trim, natty boats, made for speed and bad weather, and we sat down on the stringer-piece of the dock to study them.
“A good catch, I guess,” Charley said, pointing to the heaps of oysters, assorted in three sizes, which lay upon their decks.
Pedlers were backing their wagons to the edge of the wharf, and from the bargaining and chaffering that went on, I managed to learn the selling price of the oysters.
“That boat must have at least two hundred dollars’ worth aboard,” I calculated. “I wonder how long it took to get the load?”
“Three or four days,” Charley answered. “Not bad wages for two men – twenty-five dollars a day apiece.”
The boat we were discussing, the Ghost, lay directly beneath us. Two men composed its crew. One was a squat, broad-shouldered fellow with remarkably long and gorilla-like arms, while the other was tall and well proportioned, with clear blue eyes and a mat of straight black hair. So unusual and striking was this combination of hair and eyes that Charley and I remained somewhat longer than we intended.
And it was well that we did. A stout, elderly man, with the dress and carriage of a successful merchant, came up and stood beside us, looking down upon the deck of the Ghost. He appeared angry, and the longer he looked the angrier he grew.
“Those are my oysters,” he said at last. “I know they are my oysters. You raided my beds last night and robbed me of them.”
The tall man and the short man on the Ghost looked up.
“Hello, Taft,” the short man said, with insolent familiarity. (Among the bayfarers he had gained the nickname of “The Centipede” on account of his long arms.) “Hello, Taft,” he repeated, with the same touch of insolence. “Wot ‘r you growling about now?”
“Those are my oysters – that’s what I said. You’ve stolen them from my beds.”
“Yer mighty wise, ain’t ye?” was the Centipede’s sneering reply. “S’pose you can tell your oysters wherever you see ’em?”
“Now, in my experience,” broke in the tall man, “oysters is oysters wherever you find ’em, an’ they’re pretty much alike all the Bay over, and the world over, too, for that matter. We’re not wantin’ to quarrel with you, Mr. Taft, but we jes’ wish you wouldn’t insinuate that them oysters is yours an’ that we’re thieves an’ robbers till you can prove the goods.”
“I know they’re mine; I’d stake my life on it!” Mr. Taft snorted.
“Prove it,” challenged the tall man, who we afterward learned was known as “The Porpoise” because of his wonderful swimming abilities.
Mr. Taft shrugged his shoulders helplessly. Of course he could not prove the oysters to be his, no matter how certain he might be.
“I’d give a thousand dollars to have you men behind the bars!” he cried. “I’ll give fifty dollars a head for your arrest and conviction, all of you!”
A roar of laughter went up from the different boats, for the rest of the pirates had been listening to the discussion.
“There’s more money in oysters,” the Porpoise remarked dryly.
Mr. Taft turned impatiently on his heel and walked away. From out of the corner of his eye, Charley noted the way he went. Several minutes later, when he had disappeared around a corner, Charley rose lazily to his feet. I followed him, and we sauntered off in the opposite direction to that taken by Mr. Taft.
“Come on! Lively!” Charley whispered, when we passed from the view of the oyster fleet.
Our course was changed at once, and we dodged around corners and raced up and down side-streets till Mr. Taft’s generous form loomed up ahead of us.
“I’m going to interview him about that reward,” Charley explained, as we rapidly over-hauled the oyster-bed owner. “Neil will be delayed here for a week, and you and I might as well be doing something in the meantime. What do you say?”
“Of course, of course,” Mr. Taft said, when Charley had introduced himself and explained his errand. “Those thieves are robbing me of thousands of dollars every year, and I shall be glad to break them up at any price, – yes, sir, at any price. As I said, I’ll give fifty dollars a head, and call it cheap at that. They’ve robbed my beds, torn down my signs, terrorized my watchmen, and last year killed one of them. Couldn’t prove it. All done in the blackness of night. All I had was a dead watchman and no evidence. The detectives could do nothing. Nobody has been able to do anything with those men. We have never succeeded in arresting one of them. So I say, Mr. – What did you say your name was?”
“Le Grant,” Charley answered.
“So I say, Mr. Le Grant, I am deeply obliged to you for the assistance you offer. And I shall be glad, most glad, sir, to co- operate with you in every way. My watchmen and boats are at your disposal. Come and see me at the San Francisco offices any time, or telephone at my expense. And don’t be afraid of spending money. I’ll foot your expenses, whatever they are, so long as they are within reason. The situation is growing desperate, and something must be done to determine whether I or that band of ruffians own those oyster beds.”
“Now we’ll see Neil,” Charley said, when he had seen Mr. Taft upon his train to San Francisco.
Not only did Neil Partington interpose no obstacle to our adventure, but he proved to be of the greatest assistance. Charley and I knew nothing of the oyster industry, while his head was an encyclopaedia of facts concerning it. Also, within an hour or so, he was able to bring to us a Greek boy of seventeen or eighteen who knew thoroughly well the ins and outs of oyster piracy.
At this point I may as well explain that we of the fish patrol were free lances in a way. While Neil Partington, who was a patrolman proper, received a regular salary, Charley and I, being merely deputies, received only what we earned – that is to say, a certain percentage of the fines imposed on convicted violators of the fish laws. Also, any rewards that chanced our way were ours. We offered to share with Partington whatever we should get from Mr. Taft, but the patrolman would not hear of it. He was only too happy, he said, to do a good turn for us, who had done so many for him.
We held a long council of war, and mapped out the following line of action. Our faces were unfamiliar on the Lower Bay, but as the Reindeer was well known as a fish-patrol sloop, the Greek boy, whose name was Nicholas, and I were to sail some innocent-looking craft down to Asparagus Island and join the oyster pirates’ fleet. Here, according to Nicholas’s description of the beds and the manner of raiding, it was possible for us to catch the pirates in the act of stealing oysters, and at the same time to get them in our power. Charley was to be on the shore, with Mr. Taft’s watchmen and a posse of constables, to help us at the right time.
“I know just the boat,” Neil said, at the conclusion of the discussion, “a crazy old sloop that’s lying over at Tiburon. You and Nicholas can go over by the ferry, charter it for a song, and sail direct for the beds.”
“Good luck be with you, boys,” he said at parting, two days later. “Remember, they are dangerous men, so be careful.”
Nicholas and I succeeded in chartering the sloop very cheaply; and between laughs, while getting up sail, we agreed that she was even crazier and older than she had been described. She was a big, flat-bottomed, square-sterned craft, sloop-rigged, with a sprung mast, slack rigging, dilapidated sails, and rotten running-gear, clumsy to handle and uncertain in bringing about, and she smelled vilely of coal tar, with which strange stuff she had been smeared from stem to stern and from cabin-roof to centreboard. And to cap it all, Coal Tar Maggie was printed in great white letters the whole length of either side.
It was an uneventful though laughable run from Tiburon to Asparagus Island, where we arrived in the afternoon of the following day. The oyster pirates, a fleet of a dozen sloops, were lying at anchor on what was known as the “Deserted Beds.” The Coal Tar Maggie came sloshing into their midst with a light breeze astern, and they crowded on deck to see us. Nicholas and I had caught the spirit of the crazy craft, and we handled her in most lubberly fashion.
“Wot is it?” some one called.
“Name it ‘n’ ye kin have it!” called another.
“I swan naow, ef it ain’t the old Ark itself!” mimicked the Centipede from the deck of the Ghost.
“Hey! Ahoy there, clipper ship!” another wag shouted. “Wot’s yer port?”
We took no notice of the joking, but acted, after the manner of greenhorns, as though the Coal Tar Maggie required our undivided attention. I rounded her well to windward of the Ghost, and Nicholas ran for’ard to drop the anchor. To all appearances it was a bungle, the way the chain tangled and kept the anchor from reaching the bottom. And to all appearances Nicholas and I were terribly excited as we strove to clear it. At any rate, we quite deceived the pirates, who took huge delight in our predicament.
But the chain remained tangled, and amid all kinds of mocking advice we drifted down upon and fouled the Ghost, whose bowsprit poked square through our mainsail and ripped a hole in it as big as a barn door. The Centipede and the Porpoise doubled up on the cabin in paroxysms of laughter, and left us to get clear as best we could. This, with much unseaman-like performance, we succeeded in doing, and likewise in clearing the anchor-chain, of which we let out about three hundred feet. With only ten feet of water under us, this would permit the Coal Tar Maggie to swing in a circle six hundred feet in diameter, in which circle she would be able to foul at least half the fleet.
The oyster pirates lay snugly together at short hawsers, the weather being fine, and they protested loudly at our ignorance in putting out such an unwarranted length of anchor-chain. And not only did they protest, for they made us heave it in again, all but thirty feet.
Having sufficiently impressed them with our general lubberliness, Nicholas and I went below to congratulate ourselves and to cook supper. Hardly had we finished the meal and washed the dishes, when a skiff ground against the Coal Tar Maggie’s side, and heavy feet trampled on deck. Then the Centipede’s brutal face appeared in the companionway, and he descended into the cabin, followed by the Porpoise. Before they could seat themselves on a bunk, another skiff came alongside, and another, and another, till the whole fleet was represented by the gathering in the cabin.
“Where’d you swipe the old tub?” asked a squat and hairy man, with cruel eyes and Mexican features.
“Didn’t swipe it,” Nicholas answered, meeting them on their own ground and encouraging the idea that we had stolen the Coal Tar Maggie. “And if we did, what of it?”
“Well, I don’t admire your taste, that’s all,” sneered he of the Mexican features. “I’d rot on the beach first before I’d take a tub that couldn’t get out of its own way.”
“How were we to know till we tried her?” Nicholas asked, so innocently as to cause a laugh. “And how do you get the oysters?” he hurried on. “We want a load of them; that’s what we came for, a load of oysters.”
“What d’ye want ’em for?” demanded the Porpoise.
“Oh, to give away to our friends, of course,” Nicholas retorted. “That’s what you do with yours, I suppose.”
This started another laugh, and as our visitors grew more genial we could see that they had not the slightest suspicion of our identity or purpose.
“Didn’t I see you on the dock in Oakland the other day?” the Centipede asked suddenly of me.
“Yep,” I answered boldly, taking the bull by the horns. “I was watching you fellows and figuring out whether we’d go oystering or not. It’s a pretty good business, I calculate, and so we’re going in for it. That is,” I hastened to add, “if you fellows don’t mind.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, which ain’t two things,” he replied, “and that is you’ll have to hump yerself an’ get a better boat. We won’t stand to be disgraced by any such box as this. Understand?”
“Sure,” I said. “Soon as we sell some oysters we’ll outfit in style.”
“And if you show yerself square an’ the right sort,” he went on, “why, you kin run with us. But if you don’t” (here his voice became stern and menacing), “why, it’ll be the sickest day of yer life. Understand?”
“Sure,” I said.
After that and more warning and advice of similar nature, the conversation became general, and we learned that the beds were to be raided that very night. As they got into their boats, after an hour’s stay, we were invited to join them in the raid with the assurance of “the more the merrier.”
“Did you notice that short, Mexican-looking chap?” Nicholas asked, when they had departed to their various sloops. “He’s Barchi, of the Sporting Life Gang, and the fellow that came with him is Skilling. They’re both out now on five thousand dollars’ bail.”
I had heard of the Sporting Life Gang before, a crowd of hoodlums and criminals that terrorized the lower quarters of Oakland, and two-thirds of which were usually to be found in state’s prison for crimes that ranged from perjury and ballot-box stuffing to murder.
“They are not regular oyster pirates,” Nicholas continued. “They’ve just come down for the lark and to make a few dollars. But we’ll have to watch out for them.”
We sat in the cockpit and discussed the details of our plan till eleven o’clock had passed, when we heard the rattle of an oar in a boat from the direction of the Ghost. We hauled up our own skiff, tossed in a few sacks, and rowed over. There we found all the skiffs assembling, it being the intention to raid the beds in a body.
To my surprise, I found barely a foot of water where we had dropped anchor in ten feet. It was the big June run-out of the full moon, and as the ebb had yet an hour and a half to run, I knew that our anchorage would be dry ground before slack water.
Mr. Taft’s beds were three miles away, and for a long time we rowed silently in the wake of the other boats, once in a while grounding and our oar blades constantly striking bottom. At last we came upon soft mud covered with not more than two inches of water – not enough to float the boats. But the pirates at once were over the side, and by pushing and pulling on the flat-bottomed skiffs, we moved steadily along.
The full moon was partly obscured by high-flying clouds, but the pirates went their way with the familiarity born of long practice. After half a mile of the mud, we came upon a deep channel, up which we rowed, with dead oyster shoals looming high and dry on either side. At last we reached the picking grounds. Two men, on one of the shoals, hailed us and warned us off. But the Centipede, the Porpoise, Barchi, and Skilling took the lead, and followed by the rest of us, at least thirty men in half as many boats, rowed right up to the watchmen.
“You’d better slide outa this here,” Barchi said threateningly, “or we’ll fill you so full of holes you wouldn’t float in molasses.”
The watchmen wisely retreated before so overwhelming a force, and rowed their boat along the channel toward where the shore should be. Besides, it was in the plan for them to retreat.
We hauled the noses of the boats up on the shore side of a big shoal, and all hands, with sacks, spread out and began picking. Every now and again the clouds thinned before the face of the moon, and we could see the big oysters quite distinctly. In almost no time sacks were filled and carried back to the boats, where fresh ones were obtained. Nicholas and I returned often and anxiously to the boats with our little loads, but always found some one of the pirates coming or going.
“Never mind,” he said; “no hurry. As they pick farther and farther away, it will take too long to carry to the boats. Then they’ll stand the full sacks on end and pick them up when the tide comes in and the skiffs will float to them.”
Fully half an hour went by, and the tide had begun to flood, when this came to pass. Leaving the pirates at their work, we stole back to the boats. One by one, and noiselessly, we shoved them off and made them fast in an awkward flotilla. Just as we were shoving off the last skiff, our own, one of the men came upon us. It was Barchi. His quick eye took in the situation at a glance, and he sprang for us; but we went clear with a mighty shove, and he was left floundering in the water over his head. As soon as he got back to the shoal he raised his voice and gave the alarm.
We rowed with all our strength, but it was slow going with so many boats in tow. A pistol cracked from the shoal, a second, and a third; then a regular fusillade began. The bullets spat and spat all about us; but thick clouds had covered the moon, and in the dim darkness it was no more than random firing. It was only by chance that we could be hit.
“Wish we had a little steam launch,” I panted.
“I’d just as soon the moon stayed hidden,” Nicholas panted back.
It was slow work, but every stroke carried us farther away from the shoal and nearer the shore, till at last the shooting died down, and when the moon did come out we were too far away to be in danger. Not long afterward we answered a shoreward hail, and two Whitehall boats, each pulled by three pairs of oars, darted up to us. Charley’s welcome face bent over to us, and he gripped us by the hands while he cried, “Oh, you joys! You joys! Both of you!”
When the flotilla had been landed, Nicholas and I and a watchman rowed out in one of the Whitehalls, with Charley in the stern- sheets. Two other Whitehalls followed us, and as the moon now shone brightly, we easily made out the oyster pirates on their lonely shoal. As we drew closer, they fired a rattling volley from their revolvers, and we promptly retreated beyond range.
“Lot of time,” Charley said. “The flood is setting in fast, and by the time it’s up to their necks there won’t be any fight left in them.”
So we lay on our oars and waited for the tide to do its work. This was the predicament of the pirates: because of the big run-out, the tide was now rushing back like a mill-race, and it was impossible for the strongest swimmer in the world to make against it the three miles to the sloops. Between the pirates and the shore were we, precluding escape in that direction. On the other hand, the water was rising rapidly over the shoals, and it was only a question of a few hours when it would be over their heads.
It was beautifully calm, and in the brilliant white moonlight we watched them through our night glasses and told Charley of the voyage of the Coal Tar Maggie. One o’clock came, and two o’clock, and the pirates were clustering on the highest shoal, waist-deep in water.
“Now this illustrates the value of imagination,” Charley was saying. “Taft has been trying for years to get them, but he went at it with bull strength and failed. Now we used our heads . . .”
Just then I heard a scarcely audible gurgle of water, and holding up my hand for silence, I turned and pointed to a ripple slowly widening out in a growing circle. It was not more than fifty feet from us. We kept perfectly quiet and waited. After a minute the water broke six feet away, and a black head and white shoulder showed in the moonlight. With a snort of surprise and of suddenly expelled breath, the head and shoulder went down.
We pulled ahead several strokes and drifted with the current. Four pairs of eyes searched the surface of the water, but never another ripple showed, and never another glimpse did we catch of the black head and white shoulder.
“It’s the Porpoise,” Nicholas said. “It would take broad daylight for us to catch him.”
At a quarter to three the pirates gave their first sign of weakening. We heard cries for help, in the unmistakable voice of the Centipede, and this time, on rowing closer, we were not fired upon. The Centipede was in a truly perilous plight. Only the heads and shoulders of his fellow-marauders showed above the water as they braced themselves against the current, while his feet were off the bottom and they were supporting him.
“Now, lads,” Charley said briskly, “we have got you, and you can’t get away. If you cut up rough, we’ll have to leave you alone and the water will finish you. But if you’re good we’ll take you aboard, one man at a time, and you’ll all be saved. What do you say?”
“Ay,” they chorused hoarsely between their chattering teeth.
“Then one man at a time, and the short men first.”
The Centipede was the first to be pulled aboard, and he came willingly, though he objected when the constable put the handcuffs on him. Barchi was next hauled in, quite meek and resigned from his soaking. When we had ten in, our boat we drew back, and the second Whitehall was loaded. The third Whitehall received nine prisoners only – a catch of twenty-nine in all.
“You didn’t get the Porpoise,” the Centipede said exultantly, as though his escape materially diminished our success.
Charley laughed. “But we saw him just the same, a-snorting for shore like a puffing pig.”
It was a mild and shivering band of pirates that we marched up the beach to the oyster house. In answer to Charley’s knock, the door was flung open, and a pleasant wave of warm air rushed out upon us.
“You can dry your clothes here, lads, and get some hot coffee,” Charley announced, as they filed in.
And there, sitting ruefully by the fire, with a steaming mug in his hand, was the Porpoise. With one accord Nicholas and I looked at Charley. He laughed gleefully.
“That comes of imagination,” he said. “When you see a thing, you’ve got to see it all around, or what’s the good of seeing it at all? I saw the beach, so I left a couple of constables behind to keep an eye on it. That’s all.”