The Cruise of the Dazzler

Chapter XIV

Among the Oyster-Beds

Jack London

TIME and the world slipped away, and both boys were aroused by the harsh voice of French Pete from the sleep into which they had fallen.

“Get under way!” he was bawling. “Here, you Sho! Cast off ze gaskets! Queeck! Lively! You Kid, ze jib!”

Joe was clumsy in the darkness, not knowing the names of things and the places where they were to be found; but he made fair progress, and when he had tossed the gaskets into the cockpit was ordered forward to help hoist the mainsail. After that the anchor was hove in and the jib set. Then they coiled down the halyards and put everything in order before they returned aft.

“Vaire good, vaire good,” the Frenchman praised, as Joe dropped in over the rail. “Splendeed! You make ze good sailorman, I know for sure.”

’Frisco Kid lifted the cover of one of the cockpit lockers and glanced questioningly at French Pete.

“For sure,” that mariner replied. “Put up ze side-lights.”

’Frisco Kid took the red and green lanterns into the cabin to light them, and then went forward with Joe to hang them in the rigging.

“They ’re not goin’ to tackle it,” ’Frisco Kid said in an undertone.

“What?” Joe asked.

“That big thing I was tellin’ you was down here somewhere. It ’s so big, I guess, that French Pete ’s ’most afraid to go in for it. Red Nelson ’d go in quicker ’n a wink, but he don’t know enough about it. Can’t go in, you see, till Pete gives the word.”

“Where are we going now?” Joe questioned.

“Don’t know; oyster-beds most likely, from the way we ’re heading.”

It was an uneventful trip. A breeze sprang up out of the night behind them, and held steady for an hour or more. Then it dropped and became aimless and erratic, puffing gently first from one quarter and then another. French Pete remained at the tiller, while occasionally Joe or ’Frisco Kid took in or slacked off a sheet.

Joe sat and marveled that the Frenchman should know where he was going. To Joe it seemed that they were lost in the impenetrable darkness which shrouded them. A high fog had rolled in from the Pacific, and though they were beneath, it came between them and the stars, depriving them of the little light from that source.

But French Pete seemed to know instinctively the direction he should go, and once, in reply to a query from Joe, bragged of his ability to go by the “feel” of things.

“I feel ze tide, ze wind, ze speed,” he explained. “Even do I feel ze land. Dat I tell you for sure. How? I do not know. Only do I know dat I feel ze land, just like my arm grow long, miles and miles long, and I put my hand upon ze land and feel it, and know dat it is there.”

Joe looked incredulously at ’Frisco Kid.

“That ’s right,” he affirmed. “After you ’ve been on the water a good while you come to feel the land. And if your nose is any account, you can usually smell it.”

An hour or so later, Joe surmised from the Frenchman’s actions that they were approaching their destination. He seemed on the alert, and was constantly peering into the darkness ahead as though he expected to see something at any moment. Joe looked very hard, but saw only the darkness.

“Try ze stick, Kid,” French Pete ordered. “I t’ink it is about ze time.”

’Frisco Kid unlashed a long and slender pole from the top of the cabin, and, standing on the narrow deck amidships, plunged one end of it into the water and drove it straight down.

“About fifteen feet,” he said.

“What ze bottom?”

“Mud,” was the answer.

“Wait one while, den we try some more.”

Five minutes afterward the pole was plunged overside again.

“Two fathoms,” Joe answered—“shells.”

French Pete rubbed his hands with satisfaction. “Vaire good, vaire well,” he said. “I hit ze ground every time. You can’t fool-a ze old man; I tell you dat for sure.”

’Frisco Kid continued operating the pole and announcing the results, to the mystification of Joe, who could not comprehend their intimate knowledge of the bottom of the bay.

“Ten feet—shells,” ’Frisco Kid went on in a monotonous voice. “’Leven feet—shells. Fourteen feet—soft. Sixteen feet—mud. No bottom.”

“Ah, ze channel,” said French Pete at this.

For a few minutes it was “No bottom”; and then, suddenly, came ’Frisco Kid’s cry: “Eight feet—hard!”

“Dat ’ll do,” French Pete commanded. “Run for’ard, you Sho, an’ let go ze jib. You, Kid, get all ready ze hook.”

Joe found the jib-halyard and cast it off the pin, and, as the canvas fluttered down, came in hand over hand on the downhaul.

“Let ‘er go!” came the command, and the anchor dropped into the water, carrying but little chain after it.

’Frisco Kid threw over plenty of slack and made fast. Then they furled the sails, made things tidy, and went below and to bed.

It was six o’clock when Joe awoke and went out into the cockpit to look about. Wind and sea had sprung up, and the Dazzler was rolling and tossing and now and again fetching up on her anchor-chain with a savage jerk. He was forced to hold on to the boom overhead to steady himself. It was a gray and leaden day, with no signs of the rising sun, while the sky was obscured by great masses of flying clouds.

Joe sought for the land. A mile and a half away it lay—a long, low stretch of sandy beach with a heavy surf thundering upon it. Behind appeared desolate marshlands, while far beyond towered the Contra Costa Hills.

Changing the direction of his gaze, Joe was startled by the sight of a small sloop rolling and plunging at her anchor not a hundred yards away. She was nearly to windward, and as she swung off slightly he read her name on the stern, the Flying Dutchman, one of the boats he had seen lying at the city wharf in Oakland. A little to the left of her he discovered the Ghost, and beyond were half a dozen other sloops at anchor.

“What I tell you?”

Joe looked quickly over his shoulder. French Pete had come out of the cabin and was triumphantly regarding the spectacle.

“What I tell you? Can’t fool-a ze old man, dat ’s what. I hit it in ze dark just so well as in ze sunshine. I know—I know.”

“Is she goin’ to howl?” ’Frisco Kid asked from the cabin, where he was starting the fire.

The Frenchman gravely studied sea and sky for a couple of minutes.

“Mebbe blow over—mebbe blow up,” was his doubtful verdict. “Get breakfast queeck, and we try ze dredging.”

Smoke was rising from the cabins of the different sloops, denoting that they were all bent on getting the first meal of the day. So far as the Dazzler was concerned, it was a simple matter, and soon they were putting a single reef in the mainsail and getting ready to weigh anchor.

Joe was curious. These were undoubtedly the oyster-beds; but how under the sun, in that wild sea, were they to get oysters? He was quickly to learn the way. Lifting a section of the cockpit flooring, French Pete brought out two triangular frames of steel. At the apex of one of these triangles; in a ring for the purpose, he made fast a piece of stout rope. From this the sides (inch rods) diverged at almost right angles, and extended down for a distance of four feet or more, where they were connected by the third side of the triangle, which was the bottom of the dredge. This was a flat plate of steel over a yard in length, to which was bolted a row of long, sharp teeth, likewise of steel. Attached to the toothed plate, and to the sides of the frame was a net of very coarse fishing-twine, which Joe correctly surmised was there to catch the oysters raked loose by the teeth from the bottom of the bay.

A rope being made fast to each of the dredges, they were dropped overboard from either side of the Dazzler. When they had reached the bottom, and were dragging with the proper length of line out, they checked her speed quite noticeably. Joe touched one of the lines with his hands, and could feel plainly the shock and jar and grind as it tore over the bottom.

“All in!” French Pete shouted.

The boys laid hold of the line and hove in the dredge. The net was full of mud and slime and small oysters, with here and there a large one. This mess they dumped on the deck and picked over while the dredge was dragging again. The large oysters they threw into the cockpit, and shoveled the rubbish overboard. There was no rest, for by this time the other dredge required emptying. And when this was done and the oysters sorted, both dredges had to be hauled aboard, so that French Pete could put the Dazzler about on the other tack.

The rest of the fleet was under way and dredging back in similar fashion. Sometimes the different sloops came quite close to them, and they hailed them and exchanged snatches of conversation and rough jokes. But in the main it was hard work, and at the end of an hour Joe’s back was aching from the unaccustomed strain, and his fingers were cut and bleeding from his clumsy handling of the sharp-edged oysters.

“Dat ’s right,” French Pete said approvingly. “You learn queeck. Vaire soon you know how.”

Joe grinned ruefully and wished it was dinner-time. Now and then, when a light dredge was hauled, the boys managed to catch breath and say a couple of words.

“That ’s Asparagus Island,” ’Frisco Kid said, indicating the shore. “At least, that ’s what the fishermen and scow-sailors call it. The people who live there call it Bay Farm Island.” He pointed more to the right. “And over there is San Leandro. You can’t see it, but it ’s there.”

“Ever been there?” Joe asked.

’Frisco Kid nodded his head and signed to him to help heave in the starboard dredge.

“These are what they call the deserted beds,” he said again. “Nobody owns them, so the oyster pirates come down and make a bluff at working them.”

“Why a bluff?”

“’Cause they ’re pirates, that ’s why, and because there ’s more money in raiding the private beds.”

He made a sweeping gesture toward the east and southeast. “The private beds are over yonder, and if it don’t storm the whole fleet ’ll be raidin’ ’em to-night.”

“And if it does storm?” Joe asked.

“Why, we won’t raid them, and French Pete ’ll be mad, that ’s all. He always hates being put out by the weather. But it don’t look like lettin’ up, and this is the worst possible shore in a sou’wester. Pete may try to hang on, but it ’s best to get out before she howls.”

At first it did seem as though the weather were growing better. The stiff southwest wind dropped perceptibly, and by noon, when they went to anchor for dinner, the sun was breaking fitfully through the clouds.

“That ’s all right,” ’Frisco Kid said prophetically. “But I ain’t been on the bay for nothing. She ’s just gettin’ ready to let us have it good an’ hard.”

“I t’ink you ’re right, Kid,” French Pete agreed; “but ze Dazzler hang on all ze same. Last-a time she run away, an’ fine night come. Dis time she run not away. Eh? Vaire good.”

The Cruise of the Dazzler - Contents    |     Chapter XV - Good Sailors in a Wild Anchorage

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