The King of the Greeks by Jack London
Big Alec had never been captured by the fish patrol. It was
his boast that no man could take him alive, and it was his history that
of the many men who had tried to take him dead none had succeeded.
It was also history that at least two patrolmen who had tried to take
him dead had died themselves. Further, no man violated the fish
laws more systematically and deliberately than Big Alec.
He was called “Big Alec” because of his gigantic stature.
His height was six feet three inches, and he was correspondingly broad-shouldered
and deep-chested. He was splendidly muscled and hard as steel,
and there were innumerable stories in circulation among the fisher-folk
concerning his prodigious strength. He was as bold and dominant
of spirit as he was strong of body, and because of this he was widely
known by another name, that of “The King of the Greeks.”
The fishing population was largely composed of Greeks, and they looked
up to him and obeyed him as their chief. And as their chief, he
fought their fights for them, saw that they were protected, saved them
from the law when they fell into its clutches, and made them stand by
one another and himself in time of trouble.
In the old days, the fish patrol had attempted his capture many disastrous
times and had finally given it over, so that when the word was out that
he was coming to Benicia, I was most anxious to see him. But I
did not have to hunt him up. In his usual bold way, the first
thing he did on arriving was to hunt us up. Charley Le Grant and
I at the time were under a patrol-man named Carmintel, and the three
of us were on the Reindeer, preparing for a trip, when Big Alec
stepped aboard. Carmintel evidently knew him, for they shook hands
in recognition. Big Alec took no notice of Charley or me.
“I’ve come down to fish sturgeon a couple of months,”
he said to Carmintel.
His eyes flashed with challenge as he spoke, and we noticed the patrolman’s
eyes drop before him.
“That’s all right, Alec,” Carmintel said in a low
voice. “I’ll not bother you. Come on into the
cabin, and we’ll talk things over,” he added.
When they had gone inside and shut the doors after them, Charley
winked with slow deliberation at me. But I was only a youngster,
and new to men and the ways of some men, so I did not understand.
Nor did Charley explain, though I felt there was something wrong about
Leaving them to their conference, at Charley’s suggestion we
boarded our skiff and pulled over to the Old Steamboat Wharf, where
Big Alec’s ark was lying. An ark is a house-boat of small
though comfortable dimensions, and is as necessary to the Upper Bay
fisherman as are nets and boats. We were both curious to see Big
Alec’s ark, for history said that it had been the scene of more
than one pitched battle, and that it was riddled with bullet-holes.
We found the holes (stopped with wooden plugs and painted over),
but there were not so many as I had expected. Charley noted my
look of disappointment, and laughed; and then to comfort me he gave
an authentic account of one expedition which had descended upon Big
Alec’s floating home to capture him, alive preferably, dead if
necessary. At the end of half a day’s fighting, the patrolmen
had drawn off in wrecked boats, with one of their number killed and
three wounded. And when they returned next morning with reinforcements
they found only the mooring-stakes of Big Alec’s ark; the ark
itself remained hidden for months in the fastnesses of the Suisun tules.
“But why was he not hanged for murder?” I demanded.
“Surely the United States is powerful enough to bring such a man
“He gave himself up and stood trial,” Charley answered.
“It cost him fifty thousand dollars to win the case, which he
did on technicalities and with the aid of the best lawyers in the state.
Every Greek fisherman on the river contributed to the sum. Big
Alec levied and collected the tax, for all the world like a king.
The United States may be all-powerful, my lad, but the fact remains
that Big Alec is a king inside the United States, with a country and
subjects all his own.”
“But what are you going to do about his fishing for sturgeon?
He’s bound to fish with a ‘Chinese line.’”
Charley shrugged his shoulders. “We’ll see what
we will see,” he said enigmatically.
Now a “Chinese line” is a cunning device invented by
the people whose name it bears. By a simple system of floats,
weights, and anchors, thousands of hooks, each on a separate leader,
are suspended at a distance of from six inches to a foot above the bottom.
The remarkable thing about such a line is the hook. It is barbless,
and in place of the barb, the hook is filed long and tapering to a point
as sharp as that of a needle. These hoods are only a few inches
apart, and when several thousand of them are suspended just above the
bottom, like a fringe, for a couple of hundred fathoms, they present
a formidable obstacle to the fish that travel along the bottom.
Such a fish is the sturgeon, which goes rooting along like a pig,
and indeed is often called “pig-fish.” Pricked by
the first hook it touches, the sturgeon gives a startled leap and comes
into contact with half a dozen more hooks. Then it threshes about
wildly, until it receives hook after hook in its soft flesh; and the
hooks, straining from many different angles, hold the luckless fish
fast until it is drowned. Because no sturgeon can pass through
a Chinese line, the device is called a trap in the fish laws; and because
it bids fair to exterminate the sturgeon, it is branded by the fish
laws as illegal. And such a line, we were confident, Big Alec
intended setting, in open and flagrant violation of the law.
Several days passed after the visit of Big Alec, during which Charley
and I kept a sharp watch on him. He towed his ark around the Solano
Wharf and into the big bight at Turner’s Shipyard. The bight
we knew to be good ground for sturgeon, and there we felt sure the King
of the Greeks intended to begin operations. The tide circled like
a mill-race in and out of this bight, and made it possible to raise,
lower, or set a Chinese line only at slack water. So between the
tides Charley and I made it a point for one or the other of us to keep
a lookout from the Solano Wharf.
On the fourth day I was lying in the sun behind the stringer-piece
of the wharf, when I saw a skiff leave the distant shore and pull out
into the bight. In an instant the glasses were at my eyes and
I was following every movement of the skiff. There were two men
in it, and though it was a good mile away, I made out one of them to
be Big Alec; and ere the skiff returned to shore I made out enough more
to know that the Greek had set his line.
“Big Alec has a Chinese line out in the bight off Turner’s
Shipyard,” Charley Le Grant said that afternoon to Carmintel.
A fleeting expression of annoyance passed over the patrolman’s
face, and then he said, “Yes?” in an absent way, and that
Charley bit his lip with suppressed anger and turned on his heel.
“Are you game, my lad?” he said to me later on in the
evening, just as we finished washing down the Reindeer’s
decks and were preparing to turn in.
A lump came up in my throat, and I could only nod my head.
“Well, then,” and Charley’s eyes glittered in a
determined way, “we’ve got to capture Big Alec between us,
you and I, and we’ve got to do it in spite of Carmintel.
Will you lend a hand?”
“It’s a hard proposition, but we can do it,” he
added after a pause.
“Of course we can,” I supplemented enthusiastically.
And then he said, “Of course we can,” and we shook hands
on it and went to bed.
But it was no easy task we had set ourselves. In order to convict
a man of illegal fishing, it was necessary to catch him in the act with
all the evidence of the crime about him—the hooks, the lines,
the fish, and the man himself. This meant that we must take Big
Alec on the open water, where he could see us coming and prepare for
us one of the warm receptions for which he was noted.
“There’s no getting around it,” Charley said one
morning. “If we can only get alongside it’s an even
toss, and there’s nothing left for us but to try and get alongside.
Come on, lad.”
We were in the Columbia River salmon boat, the one we had used against
the Chinese shrimp-catchers. Slack water had come, and as we dropped
around the end of the Solano Wharf we saw Big Alec at work, running
his line and removing the fish.
“Change places,” Charley commanded, “and steer
just astern of him as though you’re going into the shipyard.”
I took the tiller, and Charley sat down on a thwart amidships, placing
his revolver handily beside him.
“If he begins to shoot,” he cautioned, “get down
in the bottom and steer from there, so that nothing more than your hand
will be exposed.”
I nodded, and we kept silent after that, the boat slipping gently
through the water and Big Alec growing nearer and nearer. We could
see him quite plainly, gaffing the sturgeon and throwing them into the
boat while his companion ran the line and cleared the hooks as he dropped
them back into the water. Nevertheless, we were five hundred yards
away when the big fisherman hailed us.
“Here! You! What do you want?” he shouted.
“Keep going,” Charley whispered, “just as though
you didn’t hear him.”
The next few moments were very anxious ones. The fisherman
was studying us sharply, while we were gliding up on him every second.
“You keep off if you know what’s good for you!”
he called out suddenly, as though he had made up his mind as to who
and what we were. “If you don’t, I’ll fix you!”
He brought a rifle to his shoulder and trained it on me.
“Now will you keep off?” he demanded.
I could hear Charley groan with disappointment. “Keep
off,” he whispered; “it’s all up for this time.”
I put up the tiller and eased the sheet, and the salmon boat ran
off five or six points. Big Alec watched us till we were out of
range, when he returned to his work.
“You’d better leave Big Alec alone,” Carmintel
said, rather sourly, to Charley that night.
“So he’s been complaining to you, has he?”
Charley said significantly.
Carmintel flushed painfully. “You’d better leave
him alone, I tell you,” he repeated. “He’s a
dangerous man, and it won’t pay to fool with him.”
“Yes,” Charley answered softly; “I’ve heard
that it pays better to leave him alone.”
This was a direct thrust at Carmintel, and we could see by the expression
of his face that it sank home. For it was common knowledge that
Big Alec was as willing to bribe as to fight, and that of late years
more than one patrolman had handled the fisherman’s money.
“Do you mean to say—” Carmintel began, in a bullying
But Charley cut him off shortly. “I mean to say nothing,”
he said. “You heard what I said, and if the cap fits, why—”
He shrugged his shoulders, and Carmintel glowered at him, speechless.
“What we want is imagination,” Charley said to me one
day, when we had attempted to creep upon Big Alec in the gray of dawn
and had been shot at for our trouble.
And thereafter, and for many days, I cudgelled my brains trying to
imagine some possible way by which two men, on an open stretch of water,
could capture another who knew how to use a rifle and was never to be
found without one. Regularly, every slack water, without slyness,
boldly and openly in the broad day, Big Alec was to be seen running
his line. And what made it particularly exasperating was the fact
that every fisherman, from Benicia to Vallejo knew that he was successfully
defying us. Carmintel also bothered us, for he kept us busy among
the shad-fishers of San Pablo, so that we had little time to spare on
the King of the Greeks. But Charley’s wife and children
lived at Benicia, and we had made the place our headquarters, so that
we always returned to it.
“I’ll tell you what we can do,” I said, after several
fruitless weeks had passed; “we can wait some slack water till
Big Alec has run his line and gone ashore with the fish, and then we
can go out and capture the line. It will put him to time and expense
to make another, and then we’ll figure to capture that too.
If we can’t capture him, we can discourage him, you see.”
Charley saw, and said it wasn’t a bad idea. We watched
our chance, and the next low-water slack, after Big Alec had removed
the fish from the line and returned ashore, we went out in the salmon
boat. We had the bearings of the line from shore marks, and we
knew we would have no difficulty in locating it. The first of
the flood tide was setting in, when we ran below where we thought the
line was stretched and dropped over a fishing-boat anchor. Keeping
a short rope to the anchor, so that it barely touched the bottom, we
dragged it slowly along until it stuck and the boat fetched up hard
“We’ve got it,” Charley cried. “Come
on and lend a hand to get it in.”
Together we hove up the rope till the anchor I came in sight with
the sturgeon line caught across one of the flukes. Scores of the
murderous-looking hooks flashed into sight as we cleared the anchor,
and we had just started to run along the line to the end where we could
begin to lift it, when a sharp thud in the boat startled us. We
looked about, but saw nothing and returned to our work. An instant
later there was a similar sharp thud and the gunwale splintered between
Charley’s body and mine.
“That’s remarkably like a bullet, lad,” he said
reflectively. “And it’s a long shot Big Alec’s
“And he’s using smokeless powder,” he concluded,
after an examination of the mile-distant shore. “That’s
why we can’t hear the report.”
I looked at the shore, but could see no sign of Big Alec, who was
undoubtedly hidden in some rocky nook with us at his mercy. A
third bullet struck the water, glanced, passed singing over our heads,
and struck the water again beyond.
“I guess we’d better get out of this,” Charley
remarked coolly. “What do you think, lad?”
I thought so, too, and said we didn’t want the line anyway.
Whereupon we cast off and hoisted the spritsail. The bullets ceased
at once, and we sailed away, unpleasantly confident that Big Alec was
laughing at our discomfiture.
And more than that, the next day on the fishing wharf, where we were
inspecting nets, he saw fit to laugh and sneer at us, and this before
all the fishermen. Charley’s face went black with anger;
but beyond promising Big Alec that in the end he would surely land him
behind the bars, he controlled himself and said nothing. The King
of the Greeks made his boast that no fish patrol had ever taken him
or ever could take him, and the fishermen cheered him and said it was
true. They grew excited, and it looked like trouble for a while;
but Big Alec asserted his kingship and quelled them.
Carmintel also laughed at Charley, and dropped sarcastic remarks,
and made it hard for him. But Charley refused to be angered, though
he told me in confidence that he intended to capture Big Alec if it
took all the rest of his life to accomplish it.
“I don’t know how I’ll do it,” he said, “but
do it I will, as sure as I am Charley Le Grant. The idea will
come to me at the right and proper time, never fear.”
And at the right time it came, and most unexpectedly. Fully
a month had passed, and we were constantly up and down the river, and
down and up the bay, with no spare moments to devote to the particular
fisherman who ran a Chinese line in the bight of Turner’s Shipyard.
We had called in at Selby’s Smelter one afternoon, while on patrol
work, when all unknown to us our opportunity happened along. It
appeared in the guise of a helpless yacht loaded with seasick people,
so we could hardly be expected to recognize it as the opportunity.
It was a large sloop-yacht, and it was helpless inasmuch as the trade-wind
was blowing half a gale and there were no capable sailors aboard.
From the wharf at Selby’s we watched with careless interest
the lubberly manoeuvre performed of bringing the yacht to anchor, and
the equally lubberly manoeuvre of sending the small boat ashore.
A very miserable-looking man in draggled ducks, after nearly swamping
the boat in the heavy seas, passed us the painter and climbed out.
He staggered about as though the wharf were rolling, and told us his
troubles, which were the troubles of the yacht. The only rough-weather
sailor aboard, the man on whom they all depended, had been called back
to San Francisco by a telegram, and they had attempted to continue the
cruise alone. The high wind and big seas of San Pablo Bay had
been too much for them; all hands were sick, nobody knew anything or
could do anything; and so they had run in to the smelter either to desert
the yacht or to get somebody to bring it to Benicia. In short,
did we know of any sailors who would bring the yacht into Benicia?
Charley looked at me. The Reindeer was lying in a snug
place. We had nothing on hand in the way of patrol work till midnight.
With the wind then blowing, we could sail the yacht into Benicia in
a couple of hours, have several more hours ashore, and come back to
the smelter on the evening train.
“All right, captain,” Charley said to the disconsolate
yachtsman, who smiled in sickly fashion at the title.
“I’m only the owner,” he explained.
We rowed him aboard in much better style than he had come ashore,
and saw for ourselves the helplessness of the passengers. There
were a dozen men and women, and all of them too sick even to appear
grateful at our coming. The yacht was rolling savagely, broad
on, and no sooner had the owner’s feet touched the deck than he
collapsed and joined, the others. Not one was able to bear a hand,
so Charley and I between us cleared the badly tangled running gear,
got up sail, and hoisted anchor.
It was a rough trip, though a swift one. The Carquinez Straits
were a welter of foam and smother, and we came through them wildly before
the wind, the big mainsail alternately dipping and flinging its boom
skyward as we tore along. But the people did not mind. They
did not mind anything. Two or three, including the owner, sprawled
in the cockpit, shuddering when the yacht lifted and raced and sank
dizzily into the trough, and between-whiles regarding the shore with
yearning eyes. The rest were huddled on the cabin floor among
the cushions. Now and again some one groaned, but for the most
part they were as limp as so many dead persons.
As the bight at Turner’s Shipyard opened out, Charley edged
into it to get the smoother water. Benicia was in view, and we
were bowling along over comparatively easy water, when a speck of a
boat danced up ahead of us, directly in our course. It was low-water
slack. Charley and I looked at each other. No word was spoken,
but at once the yacht began a most astonishing performance, veering
and yawing as though the greenest of amateurs was at the wheel.
It was a sight for sailormen to see. To all appearances, a runaway
yacht was careering madly over the bight, and now and again yielding
a little bit to control in a desperate effort to make Benicia.
The owner forgot his seasickness long enough to look anxious.
The speck of a boat grew larger and larger, till we could see Big Alec
and his partner, with a turn of the sturgeon line around a cleat, resting
from their labor to laugh at us. Charley pulled his sou’wester
over his eyes, and I followed his example, though I could not guess
the idea he evidently had in mind and intended to carry into execution.
We came foaming down abreast of the skiff, so close that we could
hear above the wind the voices of Big Alec and his mate as they shouted
at us with all the scorn that professional watermen feel for amateurs,
especially when amateurs are making fools of themselves.
We thundered on past the fishermen, and nothing had happened.
Charley grinned at the disappointment he saw in my face, and then shouted:
“Stand by the main-sheet to jibe!”
He put the wheel hard over, and the yacht whirled around obediently.
The main-sheet slacked and dipped, then shot over our heads after the
boom and tautened with a crash on the traveller. The yacht heeled
over almost on her beam ends, and a great wail went up from the seasick
passengers as they swept across the cabin floor in a tangled mass and
piled into a heap in the starboard bunks.
But we had no time for them. The yacht, completing the manoeuvre,
headed into the wind with slatting canvas, and righted to an even keel.
We were still plunging ahead, and directly in our path was the skiff.
I saw Big Alec dive overboard and his mate leap for our bowsprit.
Then came the crash as we struck the boat, and a series of grinding
bumps as it passed under our bottom.
“That fixes his rifle,” I heard Charley mutter, as he
sprang upon the deck to look for Big Alec somewhere astern.
The wind and sea quickly stopped our forward movement, and we began
to drift backward over the spot where the skiff had been. Big
Alec’s black head and swarthy face popped up within arm’s
reach; and all unsuspecting and very angry with what he took to be the
clumsiness of amateur sailors, he was hauled aboard. Also he was
out of breath, for he had dived deep and stayed down long to escape
The next instant, to the perplexity and consternation of the owner,
Charley was on top of Big Alec in the cockpit, and I was helping bind
him with gaskets. The owner was dancing excitedly about and demanding
an explanation, but by that time Big Alec’s partner had crawled
aft from the bowsprit and was peering apprehensively over the rail into
the cockpit. Charley’s arm shot around his neck and the
man landed on his back beside Big Alec.
“More gaskets!” Charley shouted, and I made haste to
The wrecked skiff was rolling sluggishly a short distance to windward,
and I trimmed the sheets while Charley took the wheel and steered for
“These two men are old offenders,” he explained to the
angry owner; “and they are most persistent violators of the fish
and game laws. You have seen them caught in the act, and you may
expect to be subpoenaed as witness for the state when the trial comes
As he spoke he rounded alongside the skiff. It had been torn
from the line, a section of which was dragging to it. He hauled
in forty or fifty feet with a young sturgeon still fast in a tangle
of barbless hooks, slashed that much of the line free with his knife,
and tossed it into the cockpit beside the prisoners.
“And there’s the evidence, Exhibit A, for the people,”
Charley continued. “Look it over carefully so that you may
identify it in the court-room with the time and place of capture.”
And then, in triumph, with no more veering and yawing, we sailed
into Benicia, the King of the Greeks bound hard and fast in the cockpit,
and for the first time in his life a prisoner of the fish patrol.