Demetrios Contos by Jack London
It must not be thought, from what I have told of the Greek fishermen,
that they were altogether bad. Far from it. But they were
rough men, gathered together in isolated communities and fighting with
the elements for a livelihood. They lived far away from the law
and its workings, did not understand it, and thought it tyranny.
Especially did the fish laws seem tyrannical. And because of this,
they looked upon the men of the fish patrol as their natural enemies.
We menaced their lives, or their living, which is the same thing,
in many ways. We confiscated illegal traps and nets, the materials
of which had cost them considerable sums and the making of which required
weeks of labor. We prevented them from catching fish at many times
and seasons, which was equivalent to preventing them from making as
good a living as they might have made had we not been in existence.
And when we captured them, they were brought into the courts of law,
where heavy cash fines were collected from them. As a result,
they hated us vindictively. As the dog is the natural enemy of
the cat, the snake of man, so were we of the fish patrol the natural
enemies of the fishermen.
But it is to show that they could act generously as well as hate
bitterly that this story of Demetrios Contos is told. Demetrios
Contos lived in Vallejo. Next to Big Alec, he was the largest,
bravest, and most influential man among the Greeks. He had given
us no trouble, and I doubt if he would ever have clashed with us had
he not invested in a new salmon boat. This boat was the cause
of all the trouble. He had had it built upon his own model, in
which the lines of the general salmon boat were somewhat modified.
To his high elation he found his new boat very fast—in fact,
faster than any other boat on the bay or rivers. Forthwith he
grew proud and boastful: and, our raid with the Mary Rebecca
on the Sunday salmon fishers having wrought fear in their hearts, he
sent a challenge up to Benicia. One of the local fishermen conveyed
it to us; it was to the effect that Demetrios Contos would sail up from
Vallejo on the following Sunday, and in the plain sight of Benicia set
his net and catch salmon, and that Charley Le Grant, patrolman, might
come and get him if he could. Of course Charley and I had heard
nothing of the new boat. Our own boat was pretty fast, and we
were not afraid to have a brush with any other that happened along.
Sunday came. The challenge had been bruited abroad, and the
fishermen and seafaring folk of Benicia turned out to a man, crowding
Steamboat Wharf till it looked like the grand stand at a football match.
Charley and I had been sceptical, but the fact of the crowd convinced
us that there was something in Demetrios Contos’s dare.
In the afternoon, when the sea-breeze had picked up in strength,
his sail hove into view as he bowled along before the wind. He
tacked a score of feet from the wharf, waved his hand theatrically,
like a knight about to enter the lists, received a hearty cheer in return,
and stood away into the Straits for a couple of hundred yards.
Then he lowered sail, and, drifting the boat sidewise by means of the
wind, proceeded to set his net. He did not set much of it, possibly
fifty feet; yet Charley and I were thunderstruck at the man’s
effrontery. We did not know at the time, but we learned afterward,
that the net he used was old and worthless. It could catch
fish, true; but a catch of any size would have torn it to pieces.
Charley shook his head and said:
“I confess, it puzzles me. What if he has out only fifty
feet? He could never get it in if we once started for him.
And why does he come here anyway, flaunting his law-breaking in our
faces? Right in our home town, too.”
Charley’s voice took on an aggrieved tone, and he continued
for some minutes to inveigh against the brazenness of Demetrios Contos.
In the meantime, the man in question was lolling in the stern of
his boat and watching the net floats. When a large fish is meshed
in a gill-net, the floats by their agitation advertise the fact.
And they evidently advertised it to Demetrios, for he pulled in about
a dozen feet of net, and held aloft for a moment, before he flung it
into the bottom of the boat, a big, glistening salmon. It was
greeted by the audience on the wharf with round after round of cheers.
This was more than Charley could stand.
“Come on, lad,” he called to me; and we lost no time
jumping into our salmon boat and getting up sail.
The crowd shouted warning to Demetrios, and as we darted out from
the wharf we saw him slash his worthless net clear with a long knife.
His sail was all ready to go up, and a moment later it fluttered in
the sunshine. He ran aft, drew in the sheet, and filled on the
long tack toward the Contra Costa Hills.
By this time we were not more than thirty feet astern. Charley
was jubilant. He knew our boat was fast, and he knew, further,
that in fine sailing few men were his equals. He was confident
that we should surely catch Demetrios, and I shared his confidence.
But somehow we did not seem to gain.
It was a pretty sailing breeze. We were gliding sleekly through
the water, but Demetrios was slowly sliding away from us. And
not only was he going faster, but he was eating into the wind a fraction
of a point closer than we. This was sharply impressed upon us
when he went about under the Contra Costa Hills and passed us on the
other tack fully one hundred feet dead to windward.
“Whew!” Charley exclaimed. “Either that boat
is a daisy, or we’ve got a five-gallon coal-oil can fast to our
It certainly looked it one way or the other. And by the time
Demetrios made the Sonoma Hills, on the other side of the Straits, we
were so hopelessly outdistanced that Charley told me to slack off the
sheet, and we squared away for Benicia. The fishermen on Steamboat
Wharf showered us with ridicule when we returned and tied up.
Charley and I got out and walked away, feeling rather sheepish, for
it is a sore stroke to one’s pride when he thinks he has a good
boat and knows how to sail it, and another man comes along and beats
Charley mooned over it for a couple of days; then word was brought
to us, as before, that on the next Sunday Demetrios Contos would repeat
his performance. Charley roused himself. He had our boat
out of the water, cleaned and repainted its bottom, made a trifling
alteration about the centre-board, overhauled the running gear, and
sat up nearly all of Saturday night sewing on a new and much larger
sail. So large did he make it, in fact, that additional ballast
was imperative, and we stowed away nearly five hundred extra pounds
of old railroad iron in the bottom of the boat.
Sunday came, and with it came Demetrios Contos, to break the law
defiantly in open day. Again we had the afternoon sea-breeze,
and again Demetrios cut loose some forty or more feet of his rotten
net, and got up sail and under way under our very noses. But he
had anticipated Charley’s move, and his own sail peaked higher
than ever, while a whole extra cloth had been added to the after leech.
It was nip and tuck across to the Contra Costa Hills, neither of
us seeming to gain or to lose. But by the time we had made the
return tack to the Sonoma Hills, we could see that, while we footed
it at about equal speed, Demetrios had eaten into the wind the least
bit more than we. Yet Charley was sailing our boat as finely and
delicately as it was possible to sail it, and getting more out of it
than he ever had before.
Of course, he could have drawn his revolver and fired at Demetrios;
but we had long since found it contrary to our natures to shoot at a
fleeing man guilty of only a petty offence. Also a sort of tacit
agreement seemed to have been reached between the patrolmen and the
fishermen. If we did not shoot while they ran away, they, in turn,
did not fight if we once laid hands on them. Thus Demetrios Contos
ran away from us, and we did no more than try our best to overtake him;
and, in turn, if our boat proved faster than his, or was sailed better,
he would, we knew, make no resistance when we caught up with him.
With our large sails and the healthy breeze romping up the Carquinez
Straits, we found that our sailing was what is called “ticklish.”
We had to be constantly on the alert to avoid a capsize, and while Charley
steered I held the main-sheet in my hand with but a single turn round
a pin, ready to let go at any moment. Demetrios, we could see,
sailing his boat alone, had his hands full.
But it was a vain undertaking for us to attempt to catch him.
Out of his inner consciousness he had evolved a boat that was better
than ours. And though Charley sailed fully as well, if not the
least bit better, the boat he sailed was not so good as the Greek’s.
“Slack away the sheet,” Charley commanded; and as our
boat fell off before the wind, Demetrios’s mocking laugh floated
down to us.
Charley shook his head, saying, “It’s no use. Demetrios
has the better boat. If he tries his performance again, we must
meet it with some new scheme.”
This time it was my imagination that came to the rescue.
“What’s the matter,” I suggested, on the Wednesday
following, “with my chasing Demetrios in the boat next Sunday,
while you wait for him on the wharf at Vallejo when he arrives?”
Charley considered it a moment and slapped his knee.
“A good idea! You’re beginning to use that head
of yours. A credit to your teacher, I must say.”
“But you mustn’t chase him too far,” he went on,
the next moment, “or he’ll head out into San Pablo Bay instead
of running home to Vallejo, and there I’ll be, standing lonely
on the wharf and waiting in vain for him to arrive.”
On Thursday Charley registered an objection to my plan.
“Everybody’ll know I’ve gone to Vallejo, and you
can depend upon it that Demetrios will know, too. I’m afraid
we’ll have to give up the idea.”
This objection was only too valid, and for the rest of the day I
struggled under my disappointment. But that night a new way seemed
to open to me, and in my eagerness I awoke Charley from a sound sleep.
“Well,” he grunted, “what’s the matter?
“No,” I replied, “but my head is. Listen
to this. On Sunday you and I will be around Benicia up to the
very moment Demetrios’s sail heaves into sight. This will
lull everybody’s suspicions. Then, when Demetrios’s
sail does heave in sight, do you stroll leisurely away and up-town.
All the fishermen will think you’re beaten and that you know you’re
“So far, so good,” Charley commented, while I paused
to catch breath.
“And very good indeed,” I continued proudly. “You
stroll carelessly up-town, but when you’re once out of sight you
leg it for all you’re worth for Dan Maloney’s. Take
the little mare of his, and strike out on the country road for Vallejo.
The road’s in fine condition, and you can make it in quicker time
than Demetrios can beat all the way down against the wind.”
“And I’ll arrange right away for the mare, first thing
in the morning,” Charley said, accepting the modified plan without
“But, I say,” he said, a little later, this time waking
me out of a sound sleep.
I could hear him chuckling in the dark.
“I say, lad, isn’t it rather a novelty for the fish patrol
to be taking to horseback?”
“Imagination,” I answered. “It’s what
you’re always preaching—‘keep thinking one thought
ahead of the other fellow, and you’re bound to win out.’”
“He! he!” he chuckled. “And if one thought
ahead, including a mare, doesn’t take the other fellow’s
breath away this time, I’m not your humble servant, Charley Le
“But can you manage the boat alone?” he asked, on Friday.
“Remember, we’ve a ripping big sail on her.”
I argued my proficiency so well that he did not refer to the matter
again till Saturday, when he suggested removing one whole cloth from
the after leech. I guess it was the disappointment written on
my face that made him desist; for I, also, had a pride in my boat-sailing
abilities, and I was almost wild to get out alone with the big sail
and go tearing down the Carquinez Straits in the wake of the flying
As usual, Sunday and Demetrios Contos arrived together. It
had become the regular thing for the fishermen to assemble on Steamboat
Wharf to greet his arrival and to laugh at our discomfiture. He
lowered sail a couple of hundred yards out and set his customary fifty
feet of rotten net.
“I suppose this nonsense will keep up as long as his old net
holds out,” Charley grumbled, with intention, in the hearing of
several of the Greeks.
“Den I give-a heem my old-a net-a,” one of them spoke
up, promptly and maliciously,
“I don’t care,” Charley answered. “I’ve
got some old net myself he can have—if he’ll come around
and ask for it.”
They all laughed at this, for they could afford to be sweet-tempered
with a man so badly outwitted as Charley was.
“Well, so long, lad,” Charley called to me a moment later.
“I think I’ll go up-town to Maloney’s.”
“Let me take the boat out?” I asked.
“If you want to,” was his answer, as he turned on his
heel and walked slowly away.
Demetrios pulled two large salmon out of his net, and I jumped into
the boat. The fishermen crowded around in a spirit of fun, and
when I started to get up sail overwhelmed me with all sorts of jocular
advice. They even offered extravagant bets to one another that
I would surely catch Demetrios, and two of them, styling themselves
the committee of judges, gravely asked permission to come along with
me to see how I did it.
But I was in no hurry. I waited to give Charley all the time
I could, and I pretended dissatisfaction with the stretch of the sail
and slightly shifted the small tackle by which the huge sprit forces
up the peak. It was not until I was sure that Charley had reached
Dan Maloney’s and was on the little mare’s back, that I
cast off from the wharf and gave the big sail to the wind. A stout
puff filled it and suddenly pressed the lee gunwale down till a couple
of buckets of water came inboard. A little thing like this will
happen to the best small-boat sailors, and yet, though I instantly let
go the sheet and righted, I was cheered sarcastically, as though I had
been guilty of a very awkward blunder.
When Demetrios saw only one person in the fish patrol boat, and that
one a boy, he proceeded to play with me. Making a short tack out,
with me not thirty feet behind, he returned, with his sheet a little
free, to Steamboat Wharf. And there he made short tacks, and turned
and twisted and ducked around, to the great delight of his sympathetic
audience. I was right behind him all the time, and I dared to
do whatever he did, even when he squared away before the wind and jibed
his big sail over—a most dangerous trick with such a sail in such
He depended upon the brisk sea breeze and the strong ebb-tide, which
together kicked up a nasty sea, to bring me to grief. But I was
on my mettle, and never in all my life did I sail a boat better than
on that day. I was keyed up to concert pitch, my brain was working
smoothly and quickly, my hands never fumbled once, and it seemed that
I almost divined the thousand little things which a small-boat sailor
must be taking into consideration every second.
It was Demetrios who came to grief instead. Something went
wrong with his centre-board, so that it jammed in the case and would
not go all the way down. In a moment’s breathing space,
which he had gained from me by a clever trick, I saw him working impatiently
with the centre-board, trying to force it down. I gave him little
time, and he was compelled quickly to return to the tiller and sheet.
The centre-board made him anxious. He gave over playing with
me, and started on the long beat to Vallejo. To my joy, on the
first long tack across, I found that I could eat into the wind just
a little bit closer than he. Here was where another man in the
boat would have been of value to him; for, with me but a few feet astern,
he did not dare let go the tiller and run amidships to try to force
down the centre-board.
Unable to hang on as close in the eye of the wind as formerly, he
proceeded to slack his sheet a trifle and to ease off a bit, in order
to outfoot me. This I permitted him to do till I had worked to
windward, when I bore down upon him. As I drew close, he feinted
at coming about. This led me to shoot into the wind to forestall
him. But it was only a feint, cleverly executed, and he held back
to his course while I hurried to make up lost ground.
He was undeniably smarter than I when it came to manoeuvring.
Time after time I all but had him, and each time he tricked me and escaped.
Besides, the wind was freshening, constantly, and each of us had his
hands full to avoid capsizing. As for my boat, it could not have
been kept afloat but for the extra ballast. I sat cocked over
the weather gunwale, tiller in one hand and sheet in the other; and
the sheet, with a single turn around a pin, I was very often forced
to let go in the severer puffs. This allowed the sail to spill
the wind, which was equivalent to taking off so much driving power,
and of course I lost ground. My consolation was that Demetrios
was as often compelled to do the same thing.
The strong ebb-tide, racing down the Straits in the teeth of the
wind, caused an unusually heavy and spiteful sea, which dashed aboard
continually. I was dripping wet, and even the sail was wet half-way
up the after leech. Once I did succeed in outmanoeuvring Demetrios,
so that my bow bumped into him amidships. Here was where I should
have had another man. Before I could run forward and leap aboard,
he shoved the boats apart with an oar, laughing mockingly in my face
as he did so.
We were now at the mouth of the Straits, in a bad stretch of water.
Here the Vallejo Straits and the Carquinez Straits rushed directly at
each other. Through the first flowed all the water of Napa River
and the great tide-lands; through the second flowed all the water of
Suisun Bay and the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. And where
such immense bodies of water, flowing swiftly, clashed together, a terrible
tide-rip was produced. To make it worse, the wind howled up San
Pablo Bay for fifteen miles and drove in a tremendous sea upon the tide-rip.
Conflicting currents tore about in all directions, colliding, forming
whirlpools, sucks, and boils, and shooting up spitefully into hollow
waves which fell aboard as often from leeward as from windward.
And through it all, confused, driven into a madness of motion, thundered
the great smoking seas from San Pablo Bay.
I was as wildly excited as the water. The boat was behaving
splendidly, leaping and lurching through the welter like a race-horse.
I could hardly contain myself with the joy of it. The huge sail,
the howling wind, the driving seas, the plunging boat—I, a pygmy,
a mere speck in the midst of it, was mastering the elemental strife,
flying through it and over it, triumphant and victorious.
And just then, as I roared along like a conquering hero, the boat
received a frightful smash and came instantly to a dead stop.
I was flung forward and into the bottom. As I sprang up I caught
a fleeting glimpse of a greenish, barnacle-covered object, and knew
it at once for what it was, that terror of navigation, a sunken pile.
No man may guard against such a thing. Water-logged and floating
just beneath the surface, it was impossible to sight it in the troubled
water in time to escape.
The whole bow of the boat must have been crushed in, for in a few
seconds the boat was half full. Then a couple of seas filled it,
and it sank straight down, dragged to bottom by the heavy ballast.
So quickly did it all happen that I was entangled in the sail and drawn
under. When I fought my way to the surface, suffocating, my lungs
almost bursting, I could see nothing of the oars. They must have
been swept away by the chaotic currents. I saw Demetrios Contos
looking back from his boat, and heard the vindictive and mocking tones
of his voice as he shouted exultantly. He held steadily on his
course, leaving me to perish.
There was nothing to do but to swim for it, which, in that wild confusion,
was at the best a matter of but a few moments. Holding my breath
and working with my hands, I managed to get off my heavy sea-boots and
my jacket. Yet there was very little breath I could catch to hold,
and I swiftly discovered that it was not so much a matter of swimming
as of breathing.
I was beaten and buffeted, smashed under by the great San Pablo whitecaps,
and strangled by the hollow tide-rip waves which flung themselves into
my eyes, nose, and mouth. Then the strange sucks would grip my
legs and drag me under, to spout me up in some fierce boiling, where,
even as I tried to catch my breath, a great whitecap would crash down
upon my head.
It was impossible to survive any length of time. I was breathing
more water than air, and drowning all the time. My senses began
to leave me, my head to whirl around. I struggled on, spasmodically,
instinctively, and was barely half conscious when I felt myself caught
by the shoulders and hauled over the gunwale of a boat.
For some time I lay across a seat where I had been flung, face downward,
and with the water running out of my mouth. After a while, still
weak and faint, I turned around to see who was my rescuer. And
there, in the stern, sheet in one hand and tiller in the other, grinning
and nodding good-naturedly, sat Demetrios Contos. He had intended
to leave me to drown,—he said so afterward,—but his better
self had fought the battle, conquered, and sent him back to me.
“You all-a right?” he asked.
I managed to shape a “yes” on my lips, though I could
not yet speak.
“You sail-a de boat verr-a good-a,” he said. “So
good-a as a man.”
A compliment from Demetrios Contos was a compliment indeed, and I
keenly appreciated it, though I could only nod my head in acknowledgment.
We held no more conversation, for I was busy recovering and he was
busy with the boat. He ran in to the wharf at Vallejo, made the
boat fast, and helped me out. Then it was, as we both stood on
the wharf, that Charley stepped out from behind a net-rack and put his
hand on Demetrios Contos’s arm.
“He saved my life, Charley,” I protested; “and
I don’t think he ought to be arrested.”
A puzzled expression came into Charley’s face, which cleared
immediately after, in a way it had when he made up his mind.
“I can’t help it, lad,” he said kindly. “I
can’t go back on my duty, and it’s plain duty to arrest
him. To-day is Sunday; there are two salmon in his boat which
he caught to-day. What else can I do?”
“But he saved my life,” I persisted, unable to make any
Demetrios Contos’s face went black with rage when he learned
Charley’s judgment. He had a sense of being unfairly treated.
The better part of his nature had triumphed, he had performed a generous
act and saved a helpless enemy, and in return the enemy was taking him
Charley and I were out of sorts with each other when we went back
to Benicia. I stood for the spirit of the law and not the letter;
but by the letter Charley made his stand. As far as he could see,
there was nothing else for him to do. The law said distinctly
that no salmon should be caught on Sunday. He was a patrolman,
and it was his duty to enforce that law. That was all there was
to it. He had done his duty, and his conscience was clear.
Nevertheless, the whole thing seemed unjust to me, and I felt very sorry
for Demetrios Contos.
Two days later we went down to Vallejo to the trial. I had
to go along as a witness, and it was the most hateful task that I ever
performed in my life when I testified on the witness stand to seeing
Demetrios catch the two salmon Charley had captured him with.
Demetrios had engaged a lawyer, but his case was hopeless.
The jury was out only fifteen minutes, and returned a verdict of guilty.
The judge sentenced Demetrios to pay a fine of one hundred dollars or
go to jail for fifty days.
Charley stepped up to the clerk of the court. “I want
to pay that fine,” he said, at the same time placing five twenty-dollar
gold pieces on the desk. “It—it was the only way out
of it, lad,” he stammered, turning to me.
The moisture rushed into my eyes as I seized his hand. “I
want to pay—” I began.
“To pay your half?” he interrupted. “I certainly
shall expect you to pay it.”
In the meantime Demetrios had been informed by his lawyer that his
fee likewise had been paid by Charley.
Demetrios came over to shake Charley’s hand, and all his warm
Southern blood flamed in his face. Then, not to be outdone in
generosity, he insisted on paying his fine and lawyer’s fee himself,
and flew half-way into a passion because Charley refused to let him.
More than anything else we ever did, I think, this action of Charley’s
impressed upon the fishermen the deeper significance of the law.
Also Charley was raised high in their esteem, while I came in for a
little share of praise as a boy who knew how to sail a boat. Demetrios
Contos not only never broke the law again, but he became a very good
friend of ours, and on more than one occasion he ran up to Benicia to
have a gossip with us.