Jack London

         Demetrios Contos

             From "Tales of the Fish Patrol"

     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
     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
     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 keel!"
     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 him.
     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
     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
     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? House afire?"
     "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 beaten."
     "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 hesitation.
     "But, I say," he said, a little later,  this time waking me out of a sound
     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
     "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 Grant."
     "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 Greek.
     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
     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 a
     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
     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 
     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
     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
     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 other argument.
     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 to jail.
     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.

     First published in The Youth's Companion, Apr. 27, 1905


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