The oyster-boat _Bertha B_ lay off her pier at Bivalve, the great New
Jersey oyster shipping centre. On either side of her were other craft of
the oyster fleet, all packed together like cigars in a box, and all held
fast to one another by stout hawsers, for the tide in the Maurice River
was running out at a gallop, driven by a high northeast wind. Yet an
observer could hardly have told whether one boat or a dozen lay off the
pier, so dark was the November morning. Heavy clouds obscured the sky,
hiding star and moon. Not the faintest sign of daybreak was yet visible
in the east. A dense mist, that even in daylight would have made things
appear uncertain and indistinct, drove before the high wind, chilling to
the bone every one it touched.

For despite the early hour, the oystermen were astir. Lamps glowed in
the snug cabins of the oyster-boats. Here and there a lantern bobbed
mysteriously in the dark. Red and green lights were being hoisted in the
ships’ riggings, and white lights fastened astern of many vessels. Harsh
voices were heard calling through the night. The heavy tramp of boots on
wooden decks sounded here and there in the darkness. Now and again there
was a sharp splash as some sailor dropped a bucket into the tide for
water, or a heavy hawser was cast off. On every side was heard the sound
of preparation; for the fleet was about to sail for the oyster grounds.

Suddenly the door of the _Bertha B’s_ cabin opened. A great shaft of
yellow light shot athwart the darkness. Two figures emerged from the

“Hello, Jim,” called one of them. There was no answer. After a moment’s
pause the speaker called again. This time he raised his voice to a great
bellow and repeated his cry: “Hello, Jim!” The second call, magnified by
the fog, went roaring through the fleet. Still there was no answer. “He
ain’t here, Cap,” said the man who had called, to the figure by his
side. “Maybe he went ashore to get some tobacco.”

“Tobacco nothing!” exclaimed the other angrily. “The skunk got his
breakfast and then snuk ashore. I ain’t surprised. He looked like that
kind o’ cattle. Though he did work pretty darned good the three weeks we
had him!”

The speaker, Captain Christopher Bagley, paused an instant. Then,
“Scabby trick!” he exclaimed. “Leaves us deucedly short handed, and he
knowed it. Better go ashore, George, and see if you can find him. If you
can’t, get anybody you can pick up. We got to have another hand.”

The sailor, George Bishop, turned without a word and made his way
ashore, ducking under ropes and rigging, stumbling over chains and
dredges, and stepping carefully from boat to boat, until at last he
reached the ship at the end of the pier. The tide was near ebb, and the
sailor had to climb into the ship’s rigging in order to get on the pier.

The huge shed skirting the shore was dimly lighted by electric lights;
and the illumination from these faintly lighted the pier, along which
the sailor was now making his way. A great pile of burlap sacks was
heaped up near the centre of the pier, and behind these, like a
windbreak, stood a long row of barrels, piled one above another, and at
least three tiers deep. But the sailor took no note of these things. His
glance roved hither and thither through the great shed and on the
various piers, looking for a familiar form. Half-way across the pier, he
met a fellow sailor.

“Hello, Tom!” he called. “Seen anything of Jim Hawley?”

“No. Did he give you the slip?”

“That’s what he did. He come aboard and et his breakfast and then snuk
off. And we was short handed at that.”

“I ain’t surprised. He was drunk last night.”

“Well, he won’t do it again. Captain Bagley won’t stand for that kind
of cattle. Don’t know where we could get another hand, do you? We’re
awful short of men.”

“No, I don’t. Everybody around here that’s willin’ to work was snapped
up long ago. I got to get aboard. I’m late myself. Good-bye.”

The sailor hurried on down the pier and swung himself aboard the ship at
its end.

Sailor Bishop turned on his heel and started along the pier again, to
pursue his search for the missing deck-hand. But hardly had he taken a
step before the pile of burlap bags stirred strangely. The topmost rose
in air and a human figure crawled out from under them.

“Hello!” called this figure after the hurrying form of Sailor Bishop.
“Do you want another hand? I’m looking for a job.”

Sailor Bishop turned sharply and stared in astonishment at the person
before him.

“Who are you? And where did you come from?” he demanded.

“My name’s Alec Cunningham, and I come from Central City, in

“Ever been oystering?”

“No, sir. I never saw an oyster-boat before.”

“Don’t know whether you’ll do or not,” said the sailor. “But come aboard
and talk to the captain. I’ll be back in a minute. Wait for me here.”

The sailor hurried away, to continue his quest for the missing Hawley.
Alec Cunningham returned to the pile of burlap sacks and dug out an old,
battered valise. Then he carefully piled the burlap sacks in order
again, and when Sailor Bishop returned, he was standing near the end of
the pier, stamping his feet and thrashing his arms about his sides, in
an evident effort to get warm.

“Come on,” said the sailor, and the two climbed cautiously from the pier
to the ship’s rigging and then dropped to her deck. Carefully they made
their way across boat after boat, until at last they reached the _Bertha
B_. Sailor Bishop led the way to the cabin and entered, followed by the

“I couldn’t find Jim nowhere, Cap,” explained the sailor, “but I picked
up this fellow here. He ain’t never ketched oysters, but maybe you could
use him at that.”

Captain Bagley stepped forward and looked critically at the stranger. He
saw before him a tall, rangy lad of eighteen years, keen of face, with
dark hair, strong nose, mouth, and chin, and with intelligence plainly
stamped on his open, honest countenance.

“What’s your name?” demanded the captain.

“Alec C-C-C-Cunningham, sir,” replied the lad.

“Do you stutter always?”

“N-N-N-No, sir. I don’t stutter at all. I’m just a little
ch-ch-ch-chilly.” And the lad shivered violently.

“He was sleeping on the pier in a pile of oyster sacks,” said Sailor
Bishop in explanation.

Captain Bagley stepped forward and laid his hand on young Cunningham’s
wrist. It was like ice. The captain ran a quick, investigating finger
over the lad’s shoulder. “Hell!” he exclaimed. “The kid ain’t got
nothin’ on.”

He turned to the cook who was just cleaning up the breakfast dishes.
“Dick,” he said, “give this boy some grub and a bowl of coffee, and make
it hot, too.”

Again he turned to the lad before him. “Get over beside the stove,” he
said. “Why in the deuce didn’t you tell a fellow you were freezing to
death? Sleep out in a pile of oyster sacks! Why didn’t you tell a fellow
you had no place to sleep? You could have had a bunk on the _Bertha B_.”

Alec Cunningham tried to express his gratitude, but the right words were
hard to find.

“I–I–I’m much obliged to you,” he said. “I didn’t get here till late
last night and I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t want to disturb
strangers. But it _was_ cold.”

“Didn’t get here till late last night,” repeated the captain. “Where do
you come from, and what did you come here for, if you don’t know
anything about oystering and don’t know anybody here?”

“I thought maybe I could find my uncle,” replied Alec.

“Then you do know somebody here,” said the captain sharply, and again he
looked searchingly at the lad before him.

“No, sir, I don’t,” replied Alec. “You see, sir, my father died
recently. My mother has been dead since I was a little baby. I have no
one to live with. So I thought I would look up my uncle. My father used
to tell me about him, but I never saw him. He is an oysterman here at

“What’s his name?”

“Thomas Robinson, sir. He was my mother’s brother.”

Captain Bagley turned square around. “Now don’t that beat the deuce,” he
said to himself. After a moment he turned about and faced Alec again.

“My lad,” he said in a strangely altered voice, “you just put your
things in that bunk. The _Bertha B_ is your home as long as you want to
stay on her and work–that is, it is if you don’t play us any scabby
tricks like that scoundrel who left us in the lurch this morning.”

“But you know I don’t know anything about the oyster business,” said
Alec with hesitation.

“Neither does anybody else when he’s born,” growled the captain. “We all
had to learn. And unless I can’t read faces any longer, you can learn as
good as anybody.”

“Then you’ll take me as a hand?”

“You’re engaged already.”

“Oh, sir! I don’t know how to thank you. I–I–I was awfully in need of
work. I haven’t a cent left. I don’t know what I would have done if I
hadn’t found work pretty soon. You won’t be sorry you hired me.”

An idea struck the captain. “When did you eat last?” he demanded

“Yesterday morning, sir,” replied the lad.

“Dick, you darned good-for-nothing cook,” stormed the captain, “what
are you standing around looking at the kid for? Get busy, or I’ll fire

The cook merely smiled. The captain went blustering off to the
wheel-house. Alec looked puzzled, almost alarmed. In perplexity he
turned to the cook.

“What about my uncle?” he inquired. “Won’t the captain let me try to
find him? What did I do to make the captain angry?”

“Lad,” said the cook kindly, “there ain’t no use trying to find your
uncle. He went overboard last spring, when they was h’isting an anchor
on the _Mary Ford_ and the anchor purchase parted. We never seen him
again. He was a buddy of the captain’s. If you just behave yourself,
you’ve got a job with Captain Bagley for life. Now, get busy and eat
your breakfast, for we’re going to cast off in a few minutes.”

Alec picked up the steaming bowl of coffee that the cook had placed
before him and was about to take a swallow from it when a crashing sound
rent the air and the _Bertha B_ swayed violently at her moorings. The
captain stepped from the wheel-house and ran out on deck. The sound of
angry voices arose. A moment later Captain Bagley came back.

“That old fool, Tom Hardy, has fouled us,” he said angrily. “He had too
much sail up. But he’ll pay for his foolishness. His bowsprit carried
away. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of here now. The tide’s
jammed him fast! Anyway, you’ll have plenty of time to eat, lad. So go
to it. Now mind you fill him up, Dick.”

“Come over here to the table and set down,” said the cook, with a kindly
smile. So tiny was the cabin that one step took Alec to the proffered
stool. Ravenously hungry though he was, his surroundings were so new and
interesting that for a moment he almost forgot to eat, as he looked
around the cabin.

Tiny it was, indeed. And yet everything in it was so compactly arranged
that half a dozen men could live in it. In one corner stood a small,
square stove, now delightfully hot, with its top guarded by a slender
iron railing, like a miniature fence. Alec knew at once that this was to
keep the pots and pans from sliding off the stove when the ship was
pitching about. Even the dishes were suggestive of rough weather; for
the cook had given Alec his coffee in a big bowl, and the huge plate
which he was filling up with pork-chops, fried eggs, and steaming fried
potatoes, was nothing but a great soup plate. Beside the stove stood a
little cupboard, and this, with the stove, practically filled the stern
end of the cabin. A coal-oil lamp was fastened to the wall between stove
and cupboard.

There was just room enough left in this part of the cabin for the men
to pack themselves around the table. The table, however, occupied less
space than any table Alec had ever heard of, for it was nothing but two
smooth, unpainted boards, perhaps four feet long, and hinged so as to
fold together lengthwise. One end of this table now rested in a frame on
the port side of the cabin, while the other end was slung from the cabin
roof by a rope.

Alec thought he had never tasted anything so good as the pork-chops and
fried eggs. Before he knew it, the cook was filling up his plate again,
and pouring him a second bowl of coffee. Alec dumped some sugar in it
and poured out a generous supply of condensed milk from the tin can the
cook shoved toward him.

Now he noticed that the little cabin had a window and a door on each
side. The stove and the cupboard occupied the stern end of the cabin.
The forward end of the cabin contained bunks, built one above another,
along the sides, where several men could sleep. The forward end of the
cabin had been converted into a little pilot-house, with glass windows
along its entire front and a door at each side, where the captain
operated the boat.

For, like most of the oyster craft, the _Bertha B_ had been changed from
sailing ship to power boat. The four-cylindered gasoline engine that
drove the ship and operated the oyster-dredges stood immediately below
the cabin bunk room. Alec could see the engine, for a little hatchway in
the floor of the cabin led directly to the engine room. The hatch was
open and Alec could see a man oiling and adjusting the engine,
preparatory to getting under way.

When Alec had eaten his fill, the cook began to wash the dishes. Alec
picked up a dish towel and dried them. The cook seemed surprised and
pleased. Alec stacked the dishes away in a tiny cupboard behind the
bunks, at the cook’s direction, while the cook folded up the table and
stowed it in a rack overhead, leaving the tiny cabin clear and orderly.

“Thanks,” smiled Dick, when they had finished; and the way the cook
spoke made Alec feel that he had won a friend.

“If a little thing like drying the dishes will win friends for a
fellow,” said Alec to himself, “I’ll wipe them every time I get a
chance. I never realized until the last few weeks how much friends mean
to a fellow.”

To the cook he said, “Will it be all right for me to go on deck?”

“Sure,” said the cook. “But put this on.” And from a bunk he pulled a
heavy reefing-jacket.

Gratefully Alec pulled on the coat and stepped out on deck. By this time
the eastern sky was aglow. The fog-bank had dissipated. The sun was not
yet up, but there was sufficient light for Alec to see.

The first thing to catch his attention was the ship that had fouled the
_Bertha B_ and the boats alongside of her. These craft, as close
together as the fingers of one’s hand, lay with their noses pointing
up-stream. Across the bows of the outermost was jammed the offending
vessel, the rushing ebb-tide holding her fast. The end of her bowsprit
dangled helplessly and a broken jib-stay was waving about in the wind.
Jammed tight in her rigging was the bowsprit of one of the ships she had
fouled, holding her tight, like an apple spitted on a stick. But no
damage had been done excepting to the offending vessel herself. Men were
pushing against the ship with boat-hooks, while Captain Hardy’s own crew
were pumping at a capstan from which a hawser, stretched tight as a
fiddle string, ran to an up-stream pier.

The master of the boat was an evil-looking fellow, as burly as he was
hard-featured. In a great, roaring voice he was cursing his crew,
blaming them for the mishap he was responsible for himself. With angry
impatience Captain Bagley watched the efforts that were making to free
the boat.

“The old fool,” he muttered, and to Alec he said, “That fellow ought to
be doing time at Trenton. He’s always up to something crooked. The last
time they caught him, he was dredging illegally in the natural beds. He
got off with a fine, but I reckon the next time he gets caught in any
crooked business, he’ll go to prison.”

For a few moments Alec watched the sailors pumping at the capstan. Then
his gaze shifted to other interesting sights about him.

Down-stream and up, rose a forest of masts; for the pier off which the
_Bertha B_ now lay was only one of a score or more parallel piers. And
off each pier were moored six or eight vessels, with still other ships
at greater distances, tied along the shore beyond the great pier shed.
There were scores and scores of boats, mostly two-masted schooners.
Across the river, which was perhaps 1,000 feet wide, was a second great
pier shed that extended along the shore for hundreds of feet, also with
piers running out from it into the river every few rods. And here, and
along the shore above and below the piers, were anchored other scores of
boats. Altogether, the oyster fleet numbered some hundreds of vessels.

On every ship were signs of activity. In every rigging red and green
lights already sparkled, or men were about to hoist them. On some ships
white lights glimmered aloft; while more and more boats were showing
white lights at their sterns.

Fascinated, Alec watched the scene. For ship after ship, on either side
of the river, now cast off her lines, swung gracefully with the current
and headed down-stream. On every hand rose the steady put-put-put of
ships’ motors. For although most of the oyster craft still carried
sails, practically all of them were driven by gasoline, their sails
being used merely as auxiliaries to their engines, or to steady them
when dredging in a wind.

And now Alec saw something that made his eyes fairly pop open with
astonishment. Down-stream came a shapely schooner, sails set and
bellying in the wind. But it was neither wind nor tide that drove her so
fast. For behind her, immediately below her white stern light, was a
chugging motor-boat, nose hard against the schooner, pushing her along
at a merry pace. Alec could hardly trust his eyes. For the little
motor-boat was fastened with its nose high in air and its stern deep in
the tide, and had not a soul aboard of her. But above her, at the wheel
on the stern of the schooner, stood a silent steersman. While Alec was
debating with himself as to whether he should believe what he saw or
not, a second oyster-boat came slipping by, also driven by a little
power boat astern. Before he reached the oyster-beds, Alec saw dozens of
boats so operated; and the cook told him that when the oyster-boats
changed from sail power to motors, some ships, like the _Bertha B_, had
had engines installed in their holds, while others were driven instead
by small power boats.

Presently the ship across their bow was pulled loose, freeing the little
fleet. The outer vessel immediately cast loose, swung in the tide, and
headed down the river. Meantime, a bell rang, there was a sudden
chug-chug-chug alongside, the clank of machinery was heard below, and
the _Bertha B_ began to vibrate. The captain was warming up his motor.

Then, “Cast off!” came the order from the pilot-house. The hawsers were
hauled aboard. The _Bertha B_ moved forward, described a great arc in
the river, and headed for the sea.

Wonderful was the sight that now greeted Alec’s eyes. Like a flock of
closely herded sheep, the oyster-boats were making for the dredging
grounds. Before him, beside him, and behind him, their sails showing
faintly in the dim light, Alec saw scores of moving ships. Now he
understood the purpose of all the lights he had seen hoisted. Ahead of
him dozens of stern lights shone white, showing exactly where each ship
was riding. And astern, red and green lights flashed their guiding

As the light grew stronger, the scenes around the _Bertha B_ stood out
more and more distinctly. Accustomed as Alec was to mountains and
limited views, the pictures that now unfolded before his eyes were like
visions of a new world. The view was boundless. At least, it stretched
level to the distant horizon in every direction. East, west, north,
south, look where he would, the land was as level as a floor. The river
wound about like a snake, and after the _Bertha B_ had traversed one or
two of these serpentine reaches, she seemed to be in the centre of a
vast marsh-land. Everywhere stretched limitless areas of salt meadow.
Cattails, tall rushes, reeds, salt hay, sedges, and other marshy
growths, standing dead and sere, painted the marshes a monotonous brown.
The slightest thing that rose above the general level seemed magnified
into a great bulk. Here and there distant stacks of salt hay stood up
against the sky-line; but they seemed huge, gigantic, unlike any
haystacks Alec had ever seen. And here and there, also, stood solitary
trees or groups of trees, seemingly thrusting their heads into the very

But ever the young oysterman’s roving eye came back to the moving fleet.
Two, three, and sometimes even four abreast, trailing close on one
another’s heels, the white oyster-boats moved out to sea in majesty.
Overhead sailed innumerable gulls, watching for the scraps thrown from
nautical breakfast tables. And when some cook stepped to his deck and
dumped his table scrapings overboard, gulls came darting from far and
near and settled down to fight and cry over the spoils.

Suddenly Alec heard the captain’s voice. “Come in here, youngster. I
want to talk with you.”

Alec made his way through the cabin into the pilot-house, which was just
deep enough to allow a person to stand comfortably or to sit on a stool.
The floor of the pilot-house was considerably higher than the deck
level, and Alec could see much better here. Also, it was warm. And
although he had been so fascinated by the scene that he had momentarily
forgotten about the weather, he now realized that he had been cold out
on the deck.

A flash of light caught his eye. Then another light blinked at a much
greater distance. “What are those lights?” Alec asked the captain.

“Those are the range-lights, to show the way into the harbor. And off
there you can see East Point Light.”

Alec followed the pointing finger of the captain and saw, off the port
bow, a third light gleaming.

“We seem to be catching those fellows ahead,” commented Alec.

“I reckon they’re stuck in the mud,” said the captain. “This northeast
wind’s been blowing hard for eighteen hours. It will make pretty low

“How much water does the _Bertha B_ draw?” inquired Alec.

“Four or five feet,” said the captain.

“Then we ought not to have any trouble,” said Alec. “It looks as though
this river was pretty deep.”

“Oh! There’s plenty of water in the river; but there’s a bar across the
mouth of it, and with this wind blowing there won’t be much water over

Rapidly the _Bertha B_ drew near the boats ahead of her. “They’re all
fast,” commented the captain, as they passed a schooner on which a
sailor was sounding with a pole. “Don’t believe he’s got three feet of
water,” the captain added. “And look there! The bar’s clear out of
water, with a flock of gulls on it. That’s a sight you don’t often
see–the bar out of water.”

Alec looked where the captain was pointing, and there, a long distance
off the port bow, where the river entered the Delaware Bay, was a
distinct black streak in the water, roughened at one end. The rough
spots were gulls. But Alec would never have known that the black streak
was a strip of mud and the knobby end was a mass of birds, had not the
captain told him.

“Are we going to get through?” asked Alec, for the _Bertha B_ was still
slowly forging ahead.

“I don’t know,” said the captain. “We’re in the mud now, but we’ve got a
good engine and if we can keep in the channel, maybe we can make it. But
she’s hard to steer in the mud and most of those boats are right in the

Slowly the _Bertha B_ continued to move through the mud. A short
distance ahead of her a schooner lay directly in the path. The captain
turned his wheel and tried to swing the _Bertha B_ to one side, but she
would not turn. Nearer she came and still nearer to the stranded
schooner. But the captain could not turn her. A collision seemed

“Let go that starboard dredge,” cried the captain to Sailor Bishop, who
was still on deck. At the same instant the captain signalled sharply to
the engineer. For a single moment the propeller ceased to turn. Then the
_Bertha B_ trembled from end to end, as the engine started again, full
speed astern. The effect was instantaneous. The _Bertha B_ almost
stopped in her tracks. Before ever the sailor could reach the dredge and
heave it overboard, the oyster-boat swung slightly to one side and lay

“Never mind that dredge,” called the captain. To Alec he said, “We’re
done. All we can do is to lay here and wait for the tide to float us.”

The _Bertha B_ now lay as motionless as “a painted ship upon a painted
ocean.” The captain released his hold of the steering-wheel and turned
toward Alec, studying his face again.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“I’ll be nineteen on my next birthday.”

“You are pretty big for your age.”

“I’m five feet, ten inches,” laughed Alec, “and I don’t believe I’m done
growing yet.”

“No. You’ll be a six footer before you’re done. Was your father a large

“No, sir. I am already two inches taller than he was.”

“Where do you get your size from? Was your mother large?”

“No, sir. I’ve seen pictures of my mother, and she wasn’t as tall as
Dad. I guess it must come from good food and exercise.”

“If that’s the case, you ought to keep right on growing. You’ll get
plenty of both aboard an oyster-boat.”

“If the breakfast I had was a fair sample, I’m sure there will be plenty
of food.”

“I’ll see that you get plenty of exercise, too,” smiled the captain.

Again he looked Alec over, seemingly in appraisal of his physical
powers. “You don’t look like a working boy,” he said. “What kind of
exercise have you been used to?”

“I never had to work for my living,” replied Alec, “because I was going
to school and Dad supported me. But I did all the chores at
home–chopped the wood, took care of the ashes, dug the garden, and so
on. And I was on the high school athletic teams.”

“Humph!” snorted the captain. “That’s hard work, that is–playing a
little baseball.”

Alec flushed slightly, but made no reply. He knew well enough that the
captain had never played a hard game of football or he would not have
made that remark.

“Know anything about water or boats?” the captain asked, after an

“I’ve been used to little sailboats and canoes all my life, sir, and I
can swim.”

Alec might have added that he was the champion swimmer of the Central
City High School, but he wisely did not.

“Well,” rejoined the captain, “that may be useful to you. There are too
many sailors who cannot swim.”

“Sailors who cannot swim,” repeated Alec in astonishment. “Why, I
supposed all sailors could swim.”

“Then you supposed wrong. Lots of ’em can’t swim a stroke.”

The captain thrust his head out of a window and surveyed the water.
“Tide’s about run out,” he said.

Alec noticed that the water below them was moving much slower than it
had been. Accustomed as he was to an inland stream, in which the current
always ran one way, the alternating flow of this tide-water stream
interested him deeply. As he looked at the banks of the river, he could
see that the water had fallen several feet.

“How much does the tide fall here?” he asked.

“About six feet, I reckon,” said the captain, “but this is an unusually
low tide. In fact, we haven’t had a tide as low as this in years. I
don’t know when I’ve seen that bar out of water before. This stiff
northeast wind, coming straight down the river, has blown the water all
out into the Bay.”

“Has the river fallen as much back at the pier as it has here?” asked
Alec, examining the shore carefully.

“Sure thing. There’s enough water to float a boat off the ends of the
piers, but the slips between ’em, where you saw the scows, haven’t an
inch of water in ’em. They’re only mud-flats, now.”

In the darkness Alec hadn’t seen much of the scows, but he did not tell
the captain so. Instead, he said, “It’s wonderful. Will it all run back

“You’ll see it start to flow back in a few minutes. Of course this
won’t be a very high tide, for the wind that blew the water out of the
river will keep some of it from running back.”

“Suppose the wind were blowing in exactly the opposite direction,” said
Alec. “Would it blow the river full of water?”

“That’s exactly what it would do. When that happens the water sometimes
gets up over the pier you slept on. That’s a couple of feet higher than

“Whew!” whistled Alec. “That’s like our spring-floods inland. Everything
gets covered with water.”

“Pretty much the same thing,” said the captain. “But we’d a good deal
rather have a high tide than one of your floods. High tides don’t do so
much damage as your floods. And then the tides help us a great deal. But
they was more useful before the days of power boats than they are now.
In them days, if there wasn’t any wind to blow your boat, all you had to
do was to wait for the tide to change, and you could go up-stream or
down without a bit of wind. But now that we use gasoline, we don’t pay
much attention to the tide.”

Alec glanced out of the window again. The chips and bubbles that had
been floating down-stream were now moving ever so slightly in the
opposite direction.

“Look!” he cried. “The tide’s running in.”

“Sure,” said the captain. “I’ve been watching it. We’ll be off pretty

Again the captain leaned out of his window and looked up-stream and
down. “Every last boat in the fleet is hung up,” he said. “Never knowed
that to happen before. Some of ’em always gets through.” He closed the
window and once more faced Alec. “What was you studying in school?” he

“I took the usual required work in high school,” said Alec, “but I was
specializing in biology.”

“What’s that?”

“The study of life processes,” replied Alec.

The captain looked blank. “What do you do in that study?” he asked.

“Why, you try to find out all about the life of an animal, how it is
born and how it grows and eats and multiplies. You dissect animals, and
you examine them under a microscope. In short, you try to find out all
about an animal’s life, just as you oystermen probably do with oysters.”

“Humph!” snorted the captain. Then he laughed aloud. “Now ain’t that an
idea,” he exclaimed, “watching oysters under a microscope! Young fellow,
we ketch oysters, that’s what we do. We ketch ’em for people to eat.”

“But I’m sure it would help you to study them, too. A man can’t know too
much about the things he handles.”

“If that’s the kind of nonsense they teach you at high school, I’m glad
I never went to one. I can read and write, and that’s enough learnin’
for any oysterman.”

Alec made no reply, but the captain’s remark had set him thinking. He
wondered if there were not an opportunity to apply his school training
in the oyster business. He knew that science had almost revolutionized
farming, and he wondered if the oyster business might not be somewhat
like farming was before the days of the agricultural colleges. But he
did not know, and he very wisely kept quiet. He determined that he would
look into the matter as he had opportunity.

He was silent so long that the captain suddenly remarked, “Never mind
what I said, lad. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“You didn’t hurt my feelings,” smiled Alec. “You just set me to

“Tell me more about your life at Central City,” the captain went on.

“Well, there isn’t much to tell. My father worked for the electric light
company, and I belonged to the Camp Brady Wireless Patrol. But that
probably wouldn’t interest you, any.”

“You mean that you know something about wireless telegraphy?”

“Sure. I’ve got a little outfit with me in my valise. It isn’t much of
an outfit, though, for I made it myself. But I can send and receive over
a pretty good radius, even if it is home-made.”

The captain looked at Alec with evident admiration. “Do you mean you
made the set yourself?”

“Absolutely. I can install it here on the _Bertha B_ and take messages
for you, if you’ll let me.”

“It’s a nice thing, wireless is,” replied the captain, “but it wouldn’t
be any use on an oyster-boat. Besides, it would be in the way. You see
how cramped we are for room. These boats was all right as long as they
stuck to sails, but they filled up the hold with engines and winders and
a lot of machinery when they turned ’em into power boats, and they ain’t
big enough any longer. We can ketch twice as many oysters with power
boats as we used to with sails, and we don’t have room to carry ’em when
we get a big catch. Some day they’ll build oyster-boats of a new sort.
They’ll make ’em bigger and higher and have room in the hold where we
can put oysters. Then we can catch ’em all winter.”

“Don’t you catch them in winter now?” asked Alec in astonishment, for he
distinctly recalled eating oysters all through the winter season.

“We have to carry ’em on deck,” explained Captain Bagley, “and in cold
weather they freeze. Then we have to stop dredging. Your winter oysters
come from the Chesapeake, I reckon; at least in real cold weather. But
tell me some more about this Wireless Patrol. What was it?”

“Oh! Just a bunch of us fellows who had wireless outfits. We used to
talk to each other at night and listen in to all the news that’s flying
about; and we used to go camping, too. When the war came, we knew enough
about wireless to be of some use. We caught the German dynamiters at Elk
City, and four of our boys helped the Secret Service in New York run
down the secret wireless of the Germans. One of our boys, Henry Harper,
is a government wireless man now, and Roy Mercer is wireless man on the
steamer _Lycoming_ running between New York and Galveston. Charley
Russell is a forest ranger back home in the state forest, and he got his
job largely because of his ability with the wireless. They’re going to
install a wireless system in his section of the forest, it is so useful
in fighting forest fires.”

“You don’t say!”

“Sure. You see, Charley started as a fire patrol and he saved a tract of
the finest timber in Pennsylvania because he was able to call help
promptly with his wireless. He’d have had to hike twenty-four miles over
the mountains and back to get help if he hadn’t had his wireless outfit
with him, and the fire would have got such a start it would have burned
up the whole tract before they could have stopped it. Oh! You can do
most anything with wireless. I’m sorry I can’t use my outfit aboard the
_Bertha B_. I could string up my aerial between the masts, and I don’t
believe my wires would be one bit in your way.”

The captain smiled indulgently. “Wireless is all right, I know,” he
said. “But we ain’t got any use for it on an oyster-boat. Our business
is to ketch oysters.”

“Don’t you ever have accidents?” inquired Alec. “With so many ships
sailing in the same place, I should think you would have collisions
every day. Why, I should think the oystermen would almost come to
blows, like those gulls there fighting for table scraps.”

“I don’t quite get you,” said the captain. “Why should we fight?”

“To see who shall get the oysters, of course. Suppose that ship over
there wanted to dredge in exactly the same spot you have in mind. How
are you going to prevent her from doing it? And where will you get your
oysters then?”

“Well, you are a landlubber, for sure,” laughed the captain. “Why, no
other oysterman would dare come on my grounds. I’d send him to jail, if
he did.”

“What!” cried Alec. “You don’t mean that you own part of the oyster-bed?
I supposed the government owned all navigable waters. Our Susquehanna
River is a public stream.”

“Right you be, lad. The government does own the Delaware Bay, but it
leases the oyster-beds, or at least land for oyster-beds, to private
individuals. Each oysterman has his own grounds, just as each of your
Pennsylvania farmers has his own farm.”

“Are you kidding me?” asked Alec, mindful of the reputation sailors have
for spinning yarns.

“Not a bit,” replied the captain. “I thought everybody knew that.”

“But how could a man have an oyster-bed separate from all the other beds
in a big body of water like the Delaware Bay? Why, it must be miles and
miles in width. How could anybody tell just where his oysters were, in
such a vast expanse of water?”

“How could he tell?” snorted the captain. “How can a farmer tell where
his farm is, with so much land all around it?”

“Why, he’d fence it in, of course, or mark the boundary lines in some

“Well, young fellow, oystermen have just as much brains as farmers. And
they are just as particular to fence in their own grounds, too.”

Alec’s face was blank for a moment. Then he smiled broadly. “Now you
_are_ kidding me,” he said.

“Not for a minute,” said the captain. “Do you see that boat over
there–the _Mary and Hattie_?”


“Do you see those long poles she carries over her starboard rail, near
the stern? They’re long saplings with all the branches trimmed off but
the top ones.”

“I see them,” said Alec.

“Well, those are the kind of markers we use to stake off an oyster-bed.
You see there are natural beds in the Bay, where the state won’t allow
any dredging except to ketch seed-oysters for spring planting. But an
oysterman can lease as much land elsewhere as he wants and plant it with
oysters. The state surveys it and then the oysterman marks it off with
those poles. And if anybody but the owner dredges oysters in that ground
he’ll get just what a fellow would get if he went into a farmer’s field
and stole his crops. The oysterman owns every oyster in his bed.”

“Honestly?” asked Alec, who was so much astonished that he forgot his
manners. “Why, I supposed that the oysters grew anywhere on the bottom
and that the oystermen just dredged wherever they felt like dredging.”

“Humph!” said the captain. “There’d be a lot of oysters left in a few
years if we did that. The beds would be dredged clean. That’s the way
they used to ketch oysters, and the state had to put a stop to it in
order to save any oysters at all. Why, the whole Atlantic coast used to
be covered with oysters, and now there’s only a few beds left. This bed
in the Maurice River Cove is one of the most valuable in the whole
United States. But it wouldn’t last long if the state didn’t regulate

“How does the state regulate it?” asked Alec.

“Well, there’s the natural bed I told you about. That lies above what we
call the Southwest Line. Nobody dare dredge above that line except in
May and June to ketch seed-oysters. That gives the oysters in the
natural bed a chance to multiply from year to year, so as to provide the
necessary seed.”

“But what’s to prevent a boat from slipping in there and dredging
oysters on the sly? If the boats are scattered all over the Bay, and
each boat is busy dredging on its own ground, I don’t see what’s to
hinder a dishonest captain from stealing the state’s oysters.”

Captain Bagley lowered a window-sash and craned his neck, so he could
look up-stream. “See that long, low power boat up there?” he asked,
after running his eye over the fleet behind him. “That’s one of the
guard-boats. The state has four of ’em. They’re fast little craft and
they watch the fleet every minute. I think that’s the _Dianthus_. She
knows just where every boat belongs, and if a fellow dredges on state
land or on some other fellow’s ground, she’ll nab him quick.”

“Why, that’s just like a police force,” said Alec.

“That’s exactly what it is. You see this oyster business has grown to be
a big thing. We shipped nine million dollars’ worth of oysters out of
Bivalve last year, and the state ain’t takin’ no chances on having that
business wrecked. So the state keeps pretty close watch on us.”

“Don’t it make you kind of nervous, to be watched all the time?” asked

“Lord bless you!” said the captain. “We ain’t got no reason to be
nervous. We’d rather have that guard-boat there than not. It protects
our property when we’re not around. Most of the oystermen in this fleet
is as honest as the day is long. They wouldn’t touch another man’s
grounds if you’d pay ’em. But we do have a few crooked ones, like any
other business, and they have to be watched. The guard-boats don’t pay
much attention to the rest of us, but they keep pretty close tab on
skippers that are known to be dishonest. Hello! The _Dianthus_ is
moving. We’ll see what we can do.”

The captain leaned forward and rang his bell. The motor began to turn
and the ship once more vibrated. Slowly the _Bertha B_ moved ahead. The
captain swung her toward the channel. Around her the water was inky
black, where her propeller was churning up the mud. The water deepened
and the vessel gained headway. In a moment she was going smoothly. The
bar ahead had disappeared. The tide was rising rapidly. All about her,
other ships were starting or trying to start. Those with power forged
slowly ahead through the mud until they reached the centre of the
channel. A few that depended upon their sails alone were forced by the
wind to circle about before they could head toward the oyster grounds.
Everywhere the scene was one of animation. Ahead of the _Bertha B_ and
behind her, ships by the score were once more in motion. The water
sparkled in the light of the rising sun. And as the river widened into
the Bay, the water began to roll and billow under the strong sweep of
the rising wind.

On went the _Bertha B_. To her left stretched East Point, a long, low
finger of sand, reaching far out into the water, the square, white
lighthouse, surmounted by its round light tower, bulking huge against
the horizon. On the right stretched limitless reaches of brown
marsh-land. Behind her ran the serpentine river. And before her lay the
Bay, a waste of tossing water. As far as Alec could see, nothing else
was visible. It was his first sight of salt water, and he stood
entranced, fascinated by the picture of the tumbling waves, the darting
gulls, and the fair white ships, heading out to the oyster grounds, like
sheep on the way to pasture.