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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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!"