by Jack London
“I’m not wanting to dictate to you, lad,” Charley
said; “but I’m very much against your making a last raid.
You’ve gone safely through rough times with rough men, and it
would be a shame to have something happen to you at the very end.”
“But how can I get out of making a last raid?” I demanded,
with the cocksureness of youth. “There always has to be
a last, you know, to anything.”
Charley crossed his legs, leaned back, and considered the problem.
“Very true. But why not call the capture of Demetrios Contos
the last? You’re back from it safe and sound and hearty,
for all your good wetting, and—and—” His voice
broke and he could not speak for a moment. “And I could
never forgive myself if anything happened to you now.”
I laughed at Charley’s fears while I gave in to the claims
of his affection, and agreed to consider the last raid already performed.
We had been together for two years, and now I was leaving the fish patrol
in order to go back and finish my education. I had earned and
saved money to put me through three years at the high school, and though
the beginning of the term was several months away, I intended doing
a lot of studying for the entrance examinations.
My belongings were packed snugly in a sea-chest, and I was all ready
to buy my ticket and ride down on the train to Oakland, when Neil Partington
arrived in Benicia. The Reindeer was needed immediately
for work far down on the Lower Bay, and Neil said he intended to run
straight for Oakland. As that was his home and as I was to live
with his family while going to school, he saw no reason, he said, why
I should not put my chest aboard and come along.
So the chest went aboard, and in the middle of the afternoon we hoisted
the Reindeer’s big mainsail and cast off. It was
tantalizing fall weather. The sea-breeze, which had blown steadily
all summer, was gone, and in its place were capricious winds and murky
skies which made the time of arriving anywhere extremely problematical.
We started on the first of the ebb, and as we slipped down the Carquinez
Straits, I looked my last for some time upon Benicia and the bight at
Turner’s Shipyard, where we had besieged the Lancashire Queen,
and had captured Big Alec, the King of the Greeks. And at the
mouth of the Straits I looked with not a little interest upon the spot
where a few days before I should have drowned but for the good that
was in the nature of Demetrios Contos.
A great wall of fog advanced across San Pablo Bay to meet us, and
in a few minutes the Reindeer was running blindly through the
damp obscurity. Charley, who was steering, seemed to have an instinct
for that kind of work. How he did it, he himself confessed that
he did not know; but he had a way of calculating winds, currents, distance,
time, drift, and sailing speed that was truly marvellous.
“It looks as though it were lifting,” Neil Partington
said, a couple of hours after we had entered the fog. “Where
do you say we are, Charley?”
Charley looked at his watch, “Six o’clock, and three
hours more of ebb,” he remarked casually.
“But where do you say we are?” Neil insisted.
Charley pondered a moment, and then answered, “The tide has
edged us over a bit out of our course, but if the fog lifts right now,
as it is going to lift, you’ll find we’re not more than
a thousand miles off McNear’s Landing.”
“You might be a little more definite by a few miles, anyway,”
Neil grumbled, showing by his tone that he disagreed.
“All right, then,” Charley said, conclusively, “not
less than a quarter of a mile, not more than a half.”
The wind freshened with a couple of little puffs, and the fog thinned
“McNear’s is right off there,” Charley said, pointing
directly into the fog on our weather beam.
The three of us were peering intently in that direction, when the
Reindeer struck with a dull crash and came to a standstill.
We ran forward, and found her bowsprit entangled in the tanned rigging
of a short, chunky mast. She had collided, head on, with a Chinese
junk lying at anchor.
At the moment we arrived forward, five Chinese, like so many bees,
came swarming out of the little ’tween-decks cabin, the sleep
still in their eyes.
Leading them came a big, muscular man, conspicuous for his pock-marked
face and the yellow silk handkerchief swathed about his head.
It was Yellow Handkerchief, the Chinaman whom we had arrested for illegal
shrimp-fishing the year before, and who, at that time, had nearly sunk
the Reindeer, as he had nearly sunk it now by violating the rules
“What d’ye mean, you yellow-faced heathen, lying here
in a fairway without a horn a-going?” Charley cried hotly.
“Mean?” Neil calmly answered. “Just take
a look—that’s what he means.”
Our eyes followed the direction indicated by Neil’s finger,
and we saw the open amidships of the junk, half filled, as we found
on closer examination, with fresh-caught shrimps. Mingled with
the shrimps were myriads of small fish, from a quarter of an inch upward
Yellow Handkerchief had lifted the trap-net at high-water slack,
and, taking advantage of the concealment offered by the fog, had boldly
been lying by, waiting to lift the net again at low-water slack.
“Well,” Neil hummed and hawed, “in all my varied
and extensive experience as a fish patrolman, I must say this is the
easiest capture I ever made. What’ll we do with them, Charley?”
“Tow the junk into San Rafael, of course,” came the answer.
Charley turned to me. “You stand by the junk, lad, and I’ll
pass you a towing line. If the wind doesn’t fail us, we’ll
make the creek before the tide gets too low, sleep at San Rafael, and
arrive in Oakland to-morrow by midday.”
So saying, Charley and Neil returned to the Reindeer and got
under way, the junk towing astern. I went aft and took charge
of the prize, steering by means of an antiquated tiller and a rudder
with large, diamond-shaped holes, through which the water rushed back
By now the last of the fog had vanished, and Charley’s estimate
of our position was confirmed by the sight of McNear’s Landing
a short half-mile away. Following along the west shore, we rounded
Point Pedro in plain view of the Chinese shrimp villages, and a great
to-do was raised when they saw one of their junks towing behind the
familiar fish patrol sloop.
The wind, coming off the land, was rather puffy and uncertain, and
it would have been more to our advantage had it been stronger.
San Rafael Creek, up which we had to go to reach the town and turn over
our prisoners to the authorities, ran through wide-stretching marshes,
and was difficult to navigate on a falling tide, while at low tide it
was impossible to navigate at all. So, with the tide already half-ebbed,
it was necessary for us to make time. This the heavy junk prevented,
lumbering along behind and holding the Reindeer back by just
so much dead weight.
“Tell those coolies to get up that sail,” Charley finally
called to me. “We don’t want to hang up on the mud
flats for the rest of the night.”
I repeated the order to Yellow Handkerchief, who mumbled it huskily
to his men. He was suffering from a bad cold, which doubled him
up in convulsive coughing spells and made his eyes heavy and bloodshot.
This made him more evil-looking than ever, and when he glared viciously
at me I remembered with a shiver the close shave I had had with him
at the time of his previous arrest.
His crew sullenly tailed on to the halyards, and the strange, outlandish
sail, lateen in rig and dyed a warm brown, rose in the air. We
were sailing on the wind, and when Yellow Handkerchief flattened down
the sheet the junk forged ahead and the tow-line went slack. Fast
as the Reindeer could sail, the junk outsailed her; and to avoid
running her down I hauled a little closer on the wind. But the
junk likewise outpointed, and in a couple of minutes I was abreast of
the Reindeer and to windward. The tow-line had now tautened,
at right angles to the two boats, and the predicament was laughable.
“Cast off!” I shouted.
“It’s all right,” I added. “Nothing
can happen. We’ll make the creek on this tack, and you’ll
be right behind me all the way up to San Rafael.”
At this Charley cast off, and Yellow Handkerchief sent one of his
men forward to haul in the line. In the gathering darkness I could
just make out the mouth of San Rafael Creek, and by the time we entered
it I could barely see its banks. The Reindeer was fully
five minutes astern, and we continued to leave her astern as we beat
up the narrow, winding channel. With Charley behind us, it seemed
I had little to fear from my five prisoners; but the darkness prevented
my keeping a sharp eye on them, so I transferred my revolver from my
trousers pocket to the side pocket of my coat, where I could more quickly
put my hand on it.
Yellow Handkerchief was the one I feared, and that he knew it and
made use of it, subsequent events will show. He was sitting a
few feet away from me, on what then happened to be the weather side
of the junk. I could scarcely see the outlines of his form, but
I soon became convinced that he was slowly, very slowly, edging closer
to me. I watched him carefully. Steering with my left hand,
I slipped my right into my pocket and got hold of the revolver.
I saw him shift along for a couple of inches, and I was just about
to order him back—the words were trembling on the tip of my tongue—when
I was struck with great force by a heavy figure that had leaped through
the air upon me from the lee side. It was one of the crew.
He pinioned my right arm so that I could not withdraw my hand from my
pocket, and at the same time clapped his other hand over my mouth.
Of course, I could have struggled away from him and freed my hand or
gotten my mouth clear so that I might cry an alarm, but in a trice Yellow
Handkerchief was on top of me.
I struggled around to no purpose in the bottom of the junk, while
my legs and arms were tied and my mouth securely bound in what I afterward
found to be a cotton shirt. Then I was left lying in the bottom.
Yellow Handkerchief took the tiller, issuing his orders in whispers;
and from our position at the time, and from the alteration of the sail,
which I could dimly make out above me as a blot against the stars, I
knew the junk was being headed into the mouth of a small slough which
emptied at that point into San Rafael Creek.
In a couple of minutes we ran softly alongside the bank, and the
sail was silently lowered. The Chinese kept very quiet.
Yellow Handkerchief sat down in the bottom alongside of me, and I could
feel him straining to repress his raspy, hacking cough. Possibly
seven or eight minutes later I heard Charley’s voice as the Reindeer
went past the mouth of the slough.
“I can’t tell you how relieved I am,” I could plainly
hear him saying to Neil, “that the lad has finished with the fish
patrol without accident.”
Here Neil said something which I could not catch, and then Charley’s
voice went on:
“The youngster takes naturally to the water, and if, when he
finishes high school, he takes a course in navigation and goes deep
sea, I see no reason why he shouldn’t rise to be master of the
finest and biggest ship afloat.”
It was all very flattering to me, but lying there, bound and gagged
by my own prisoners, with the voices growing faint and fainter as the
Reindeer slipped on through the darkness toward San Rafael, I
must say I was not in quite the proper situation to enjoy my smiling
future. With the Reindeer went my last hope. What
was to happen next I could not imagine, for the Chinese were a different
race from mine, and from what I knew I was confident that fair play
was no part of their make-up.
After waiting a few minutes longer, the crew hoisted the lateen sail,
and Yellow Handkerchief steered down toward the mouth of San Rafael
Creek. The tide was getting lower, and he had difficulty in escaping
the mud-banks. I was hoping he would run aground, but he succeeded
in making the Bay without accident.
As we passed out of the creek a noisy discussion arose, which I knew
related to me. Yellow Handkerchief was vehement, but the other
four as vehemently opposed him. It was very evident that he advocated
doing away with me and that they were afraid of the consequences.
I was familiar enough with the Chinese character to know that fear alone
restrained them. But what plan they offered in place of Yellow
Handkerchief’s murderous one, I could not make out.
My feelings, as my fate hung in the balance, may be guessed.
The discussion developed into a quarrel, in the midst of which Yellow
Handkerchief unshipped the heavy tiller and sprang toward me.
But his four companions threw themselves between, and a clumsy struggle
took place for possession of the tiller. In the end Yellow Handkerchief
was overcome, and sullenly returned to the steering, while they soundly
berated him for his rashness.
Not long after, the sail was run down and the junk slowly urged forward
by means of the sweeps. I felt it ground gently on the soft mud.
Three of the Chinese—they all wore long sea-boots—got over
the side, and the other two passed me across the rail. With Yellow
Handkerchief at my legs and his two companions at my shoulders, they
began to flounder along through the mud. After some time their
feet struck firmer footing, and I knew they were carrying me up some
beach. The location of this beach was not doubtful in my mind.
It could be none other than one of the Marin Islands, a group of rocky
islets which lay off the Marin County shore.
When they reached the firm sand that marked high tide, I was dropped,
and none too gently. Yellow Handkerchief kicked me spitefully
in the ribs, and then the trio floundered back through the mud to the
junk. A moment later I heard the sail go up and slat in the wind
as they drew in the sheet. Then silence fell, and I was left to
my own devices for getting free.
I remembered having seen tricksters writhe and squirm out of ropes
with which they were bound, but though I writhed and squirmed like a
good fellow, the knots remained as hard as ever, and there was no appreciable
slack. In the course of my squirming, however, I rolled over upon
a heap of clam-shells—the remains, evidently, of some yachting
party’s clam-bake. This gave me an idea. My hands
were tied behind my back; and, clutching a shell in them, I rolled over
and over, up the beach, till I came to the rocks I knew to be there.
Rolling around and searching, I finally discovered a narrow crevice,
into which I shoved the shell. The edge of it was sharp, and across
the sharp edge I proceeded to saw the rope that bound my wrists.
The edge of the shell was also brittle, and I broke it by bearing too
heavily upon it. Then I rolled back to the heap and returned with
as many shells as I could carry in both hands. I broke many shells,
cut my hands a number of times, and got cramps in my legs from my strained
position and my exertions.
While I was suffering from the cramps, and resting, I heard a familiar
halloo drift across the water. It was Charley, searching for me.
The gag in my mouth prevented me from replying, and I could only lie
there, helplessly fuming, while he rowed past the island and his voice
slowly lost itself in the distance.
I returned to the sawing process, and at the end of half an hour
succeeded in severing the rope. The rest was easy. My hands
once free, it was a matter of minutes to loosen my legs and to take
the gag out of my mouth. I ran around the island to make sure
it was an island and not by any chance a portion of the mainland.
An island it certainly was, one of the Marin group, fringed with a sandy
beach and surrounded by a sea of mud. Nothing remained but to
wait till daylight and to keep warm; for it was a cold, raw night for
California, with just enough wind to pierce the skin and cause one to
To keep up the circulation, I ran around the island a dozen times
or so, and clambered across its rocky backbone as many times more—all
of which was of greater service to me, as I afterward discovered, than
merely to warm me up. In the midst of this exercise I wondered
if I had lost anything out of my pockets while rolling over and over
in the sand. A search showed the absence of my revolver and pocket-knife.
The first Yellow Handkerchief had taken; but the knife had been lost
in the sand.
I was hunting for it when the sound of rowlocks came to my ears.
At first, of course, I thought of Charley; but on second thought I knew
Charley would be calling out as he rowed along. A sudden premonition
of danger seized me. The Marin Islands are lonely places; chance
visitors in the dead of night are hardly to be expected. What
if it were Yellow Handkerchief? The sound made by the rowlocks
grew more distinct. I crouched in the sand and listened intently.
The boat, which I judged a small skiff from the quick stroke of the
oars, was landing in the mud about fifty yards up the beach. I
heard a raspy, hacking cough, and my heart stood still. It was
Yellow Handkerchief. Not to be robbed of his revenge by his more
cautious companions, he had stolen away from the village and come back
I did some swift thinking. I was unarmed and helpless on a
tiny islet, and a yellow barbarian, whom I had reason to fear, was coming
after me. Any place was safer than the island, and I turned instinctively
to the water, or rather to the mud. As he began to flounder ashore
through the mud, I started to flounder out into it, going over the same
course which the Chinese had taken in landing me and in returning to
Yellow Handkerchief, believing me to be lying tightly bound, exercised
no care, but came ashore noisily. This helped me, for, under the
shield of his noise and making no more myself than necessary, I managed
to cover fifty feet by the time he had made the beach. Here I
lay down in the mud. It was cold and clammy, and made me shiver,
but I did not care to stand up and run the risk of being discovered
by his sharp eyes.
He walked down the beach straight to where he had left me lying,
and I had a fleeting feeling of regret at not being able to see his
surprise when he did not find me. But it was a very fleeting regret,
for my teeth were chattering with the cold.
What his movements were after that I had largely to deduce from the
facts of the situation, for I could scarcely see him in the dim starlight.
But I was sure that the first thing he did was to make the circuit of
the beach to learn if landings had been made by other boats. This
he would have known at once by the tracks through the mud.
Convinced that no boat had removed me from the island, he next started
to find out what had become of me. Beginning at the pile of clamshells,
he lighted matches to trace my tracks in the sand. At such times
I could see his villanous face plainly, and, when the sulphur from the
matches irritated his lungs, between the raspy cough that followed and
the clammy mud in which I was lying, I confess I shivered harder than
The multiplicity of my footprints puzzled him. Then the idea
that I might be out in the mud must have struck him, for he waded out
a few yards in my direction, and, stooping, with his eyes searched the
dim surface long and carefully. He could not have been more than
fifteen feet from me, and had he lighted a match he would surely have
He returned to the beach and clambered about, over the rocky backbone,
again hunting for me with lighted matches, The closeness of the shave
impelled me to further flight. Not daring to wade upright, on
account of the noise made by floundering and by the suck of the mud,
I remained lying down in the mud and propelled myself over its surface
by means of my hands. Still keeping the trail made by the Chinese
in going from and to the junk, I held on until I reached the water.
Into this I waded to a depth of three feet, and then I turned off to
the side on a line parallel with the beach.
The thought came to me of going toward Yellow Handkerchief’s
skiff and escaping in it, but at that very moment he returned to the
beach, and, as though fearing the very thing I had in mind, he slushed
out through the mud to assure himself that the skiff was safe.
This turned me in the opposite direction. Half swimming, half
wading, with my head just out of water and avoiding splashing, I succeeded
in putting about a hundred feet between myself and the spot where the
Chinese had begun to wade ashore from the junk. I drew myself
out on the mud and remained lying flat.
Again Yellow Handkerchief returned to the beach and made a search
of the island, and again he returned to the heap of clam-shells.
I knew what was running in his mind as well as he did himself.
No one could leave or land without making tracks in the mud. The
only tracks to be seen were those leading from his skiff and from where
the junk had been. I was not on the island. I must have
left it by one or the other of those two tracks. He had just been
over the one to his skiff, and was certain I had not left that way.
Therefore I could have left the island only by going over the tracks
of the junk landing. This he proceeded to verify by wading out
over them himself, lighting matches as he came along.
When he arrived at the point where I had first lain, I knew, by the
matches he burned and the time he took, that he had discovered the marks
left by my body. These he followed straight to the water and into
it, but in three feet of water he could no longer see them. On
the other hand, as the tide was still falling, he could easily make
out the impression made by the junk’s bow, and could have likewise
made out the impression of any other boat if it had landed at that particular
spot. But there was no such mark; and I knew that he was absolutely
convinced that I was hiding somewhere in the mud.
But to hunt on a dark night for a boy in a sea of mud would be like
hunting for a needle in a haystack, and he did not attempt it.
Instead he went back to the beach and prowled around for some time.
I was hoping he would give me up and go, for by this time I was suffering
severely from the cold. At last he waded out to his skiff and
rowed away. What if this departure of Yellow Handkerchief’s
were a sham? What if he had done it merely to entice me ashore?
The more I thought of it the more certain I became that he had made
a little too much noise with his oars as he rowed away. So I remained,
lying in the mud and shivering. I shivered till the muscles of
the small of my back ached and pained me as badly as the cold, and I
had need of all my self-control to force myself to remain in my miserable
It was well that I did, however, for, possibly an hour later, I thought
I could make out something moving on the beach. I watched intently,
but my ears were rewarded first, by a raspy cough I knew only too well.
Yellow Handkerchief had sneaked back, landed on the other side of the
island, and crept around to surprise me if I had returned.
After that, though hours passed without sign of him, I was afraid
to return to the island at all. On the other hand, I was almost
equally afraid that I should die of the exposure I was undergoing.
I had never dreamed one could suffer so. I grew so cold and numb,
finally, that I ceased to shiver. But my muscles and bones began
to ache in a way that was agony. The tide had long since begun
to rise, and, foot by foot, it drove me in toward the beach. High
water came at three o’clock, and at three o’clock I drew
myself up on the beach, more dead than alive, and too helpless to have
offered any resistance had Yellow Handkerchief swooped down upon me.
But no Yellow Handkerchief appeared. He had given me up and
gone back to Point Pedro. Nevertheless, I was in a deplorable,
not to say dangerous, condition. I could not stand upon my feet,
much less walk. My clammy, muddy garments clung to me like sheets
of ice. I thought I should never get them off. So numb and
lifeless were my fingers, and so weak was I, that it seemed to take
an hour to get off my shoes. I had not the strength to break the
porpoise-hide laces, and the knots defied me. I repeatedly beat
my hands upon the rocks to get some sort of life into them. Sometimes
I felt sure I was going to die.
But in the end,—after several centuries, it seemed to me,—I
got off the last of my clothes. The water was now close at hand,
and I crawled painfully into it and washed the mud from my naked body.
Still, I could not get on my feet and walk and I was afraid to lie still.
Nothing remained but to crawl weakly, like a snail, and at the cost
of constant pain, up and down the sand. I kept this up as long
as possible, but as the east paled with the coming of dawn I began to
succumb. The sky grew rosy-red, and the golden rim of the sun,
showing above the horizon, found me lying helpless and motionless among
As in a dream, I saw the familiar mainsail of the Reindeer
as she slipped out of San Rafael Creek on a light puff of morning air.
This dream was very much broken. There are intervals I can never
recollect on looking back over it. Three things, however, I distinctly
remember: the first sight of the Reindeer’s mainsail; her
lying at anchor a few hundred feet away and a small boat leaving her
side; and the cabin stove roaring red-hot, myself swathed all over with
blankets, except on the chest and shoulders, which Charley was pounding
and mauling unmercifully, and my mouth and throat burning with the coffee
which Neil Partington was pouring down a trifle too hot.
But burn or no burn, I tell you it felt good. By the time we
arrived in Oakland I was as limber and strong as ever,—though
Charlie and Neil Partington were afraid I was going to have pneumonia,
and Mrs. Partington, for my first six months of school, kept an anxious
eye upon me to discover the first symptoms of consumption.
Time flies. It seems but yesterday that I was a lad of sixteen
on the fish patrol. Yet I know that I arrived this very morning
from China, with a quick passage to my credit, and master of the barkentine
Harvester. And I know that to-morrow morning I shall run
over to Oakland to see Neil Partington and his wife and family, and
later on up to Benicia to see Charley Le Grant and talk over old times.
No; I shall not go to Benicia, now that I think about it. I expect
to be a highly interested party to a wedding, shortly to take place.
Her name is Alice Partington, and, since Charley has promised to be
best man, he will have to come down to Oakland instead.