"What is that group over there?" asked Colin, pointing to a small cluster a short distance ahead of them, near some rough frame buildings.
"That's the drive," the agent answered. "The killing-grounds are always near the salt-houses. What's that? The smell? Worst smell in the world, I thought, when I first came here. You can't kill seals in the same place year after year and just leave the flesh to rot without having a frightful odor. One gets used to it after a while."
"It seems to me that you're running the risk of starting up a plague or something!"
"No," was the reply, "it has never caused any sickness here. Then the drive is small now to what it used to be. Time was when three or four thousand seals would be driven, where we only take a couple of hundred now. Fallen off terribly! Fifty years ago, every available inch of all the beach was rookery, settled as thick as in the rookery you saw just now. The holluschickie were here in uncounted millions. These hills, now overgrown with grass, show the soil matted with fine hair and fur where the seals shed their coats for hundreds of years. Now a few scattered rookeries are all that remain."
"Do you suppose the seal herd will ever be as big again?" the boy asked.
The agent shook his head.
"I'm afraid not. The governments interested won't keep up the international agreement long enough," he said regretfully. "It would take thirty or forty years. Yet it would be worth it. You see," he continued, "this is absolutely the only place in the world where the true Alaskan fur seal—the sea bear, as it used to be called, because it isn't a seal at all—can be found. The fur seals on the Russian islands are a different species. Those on the Japanese islands are different from both."
"You say a fur seal isn't a seal at all?" asked Colin. "What's the difference?"
"Not the same at all. Different, entirely. Don't even belong to the same group of animal. They look differently. Their habits are unlike. Oh, they're dissimilar in every way."
"Just how?" asked Colin curiously.
"In the first place, the sexes of the hair or common seal are the same size, not like the fur seal, where the sea-catch is four or five times bigger than the female. Then they don't breed in harems and the male hair seal does not stay on shore. A fur seal swims with his fore flippers, a true seal with his hind flippers. A fur seal stands upright on his fore flippers, a hair seal lies supine. A fur seal has a neck, a hair seal has practically none. A fur seal naturally has fur, the hair seal has no undercoat whatever. A pup fur seal is black, a pup hair seal is white. Different? Obviously! Pity the old name 'sea bear' died out. It would have prevented confusion between fur seal and true seal."
With this beginning, the agent passed into a detailed description of the anatomy of the two different kinds of seal, and wound up with an earnest panegyric of his fur seal family. By the time the agent had completed his earnest defense of the sea bear, lest it should be confused with the more common seal, the two had reached the killing-grounds, where the natives were awaiting the agent's word to begin their work. He stepped up to the foreman of the gang and with him looked over the first 'pod' of about fifty that had been selected for killing, noting one or two that looked either too young or too old or with fur in bad condition, and these points settled, he gave the word to begin.
The 'pod' of seals was surrounded by eight men, each armed with a club about five and a half feet long, the thickness of a baseball bat at one end and three inches in diameter at the other. Behind him, each of the natives had laid his stabbing-knife, skinning-knife, and whetstone. At the word the killing began. Each native brought down his club simultaneously, the first blow invariably crushing the slight, thin bones of the fur seal's skull and stretching it out unconscious. The six or seven seals that fell to each man's share were clubbed in less than a minute for the lot.
The Aleuts then dropped their clubs and dragged out the stunned seals so that no one of them touched another, and taking their stabbing-knives, drove them into the hearts of the seals between the fore flippers. In no case did Colin see any evidence that the seal had felt a moment's suffering.
"Now," said the agent, "watch this, if you like seeing skilful work. Skinning has got to be done rapidly. Precisely! Else the seal will 'heat' and spoil the fur."
Watching the native nearest to him, Colin noticed that he rolled the seal over, balancing it squarely on its back. Then he made half a dozen sweeping strokes—all so expert and accurate that not a slip was made with the knife, nor was any blubber left on the skin. In less than two minutes, by the watch, he had skinned the seal, leaving on the carcass nothing but a small patch of the upper lip where the stiff mustache grows, the insignificant tail, and the coarse hide of the flippers.
The whole sight was a good deal like butchery, and Colin felt a little uncomfortable. Moreover, he was not hardened to the odor arising from the blubber of the seal. He beat a retreat.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Nagge," he called, holding his handkerchief to his nose, "but that's too much for me."
The agent turned and noticed his departure. He called back to the boy:
"Do you see that low hill? To the right of that ruined hut?"
"Yes," Colin responded.
"Just below that are some sea-lions! Go and take a look at them. I'll join you as soon as we are through here. Won't be long. But you'll have to stalk them to the leeward if you want to get close," he added, "they're shy. I'll meet you there and we'll go back to dinner. You ought to be hungry by then."
"I will be, then," Colin responded cheerfully, adding under his breath, as he glanced back over his shoulder at the killing-grounds, "but I'm not now!"
A short walk through the long moss a-glitter with wild flowers, poppies, harebells, monkshood, and a host of sub-Arctic species, brought the lad to the top of the hill. There he paused a moment, to look over the island, treeless save for dwarf willows six inches high and a ground-dwelling form of crowberry. Below him, and some distance away, were the sea-lions, but even from that coign of vantage they looked so big and menacing that Colin wondered whether they might not stalk him, instead of his stalking them.
After a little scrambling, however, he found himself at the bottom of the cliff, and made his way as carefully as he could to the sea-lion rookery. But when he did come near and rounded a large boulder in order to get a fair view, he was inclined to think that shyness was the last idea he would have gained from the looks of sea-lions. Near him, almost erect on his fore flippers, was an old bull, a tremendous creature, well over six feet in height and weighing not less than fifteen hundred pounds.
Apart from size, he was a much more vicious-looking creature than the sea-catch; the tawny chest and grizzled mane gave him a true lion-like look, and an upturned muzzle showed the sharp teeth glistening white against the almost black tongue, while a small wicked, bulldog eye glittered at the intruder. The female sea-lion, near by, was almost as large as a six-year-old bull seal.
Wanting to see something happen, and realizing from the build of the sea-lion that he could not make much progress on land, Colin threw a stone at a pup sea-lion who was asleep on a rock close by.
But the boy was utterly unprepared for the result, for no sooner did the huge sea-lion realize his advance as he strode forward to throw the stone, than it was smitten with panic. When, moreover, it heard the 'crack' of the pebble as it hit a rock behind him, the cowardly creature went wild with fear, and made convulsive and clumsy efforts to reach the water ten feet away, tumbling down twice in doing so, and finally plunging into the ocean trembling as though with ague. At the alarm, the entire rookery took flight, leaving the pups behind, sprawling on the rocks. The parents ranged up in a line about fifty feet from shore and remained at that safe distance as long as Colin was in sight. He watched the pups for a little while, but they were not nearly as interesting as seals, and he was quite ready to go when his friend hailed him from the top of the hill.
"Sea-lions look sort of human in the water, don't they?" remarked Colin as he rejoined his friend, and turned for a farewell glance at the creatures with their upright heads and shoulders and inquisitive look.
"The Aleuts say they are," his friend replied. "They declare their ancestors were sea-lions or seals. That's a general belief on the north coast of Scotland and in the Hebrides, too."
"That men came from seals?"
"Certainly. What do you suppose started all the mermaid stories? Round head, soft tender eyes, and a fish's tail? Seals! Obviously! And, if you notice old pictures of mermaids the tail is drawn as if it were split in two, just like the two long flippers of the seal."
"I never thought of that before," said the boy.
"You've heard of the Orforde merman, of course, haven't you?"
Colin admitted his ignorance.
"Queer yarn. Quite true, though," the agent said. "Documents show it. It happened off the coast of Suffolk, England. About the end of the twelfth century, I think. Some fishermen caught a creature which they described as being like an old man with long gray hair, but which had a fish's tail. It could live out of the water just as well as in it. They brought it to the Earl of Orforde. In spite of all their efforts they could not teach the merman to speak. Naturally! So the priest of the parish suggested that perhaps the creature had something to do with the devil. Characteristic of the time! So they took the 'merman' to church. But it showed no sign of adoration and didn't seem to understand the ceremonies. So they were convinced that it was an evil thing, and put it to the torture, hoping to extract a confession from—a seal!"
"But there are mermaids!" said Colin. "I've seen 'em. Not alive, of course, but stuffed."
"So have I," the agent said, laughing; "that was a trick the Japanese used and fooled a lot of people. Why, there was one in a museum in Boston for years! It was a fake, of course. Obviously!"
"How did they do it?"
"Head and shoulders of a newly-born monkey fastened to a fish's body. I forget now what fish. Then with incredible pains, they laid rows upon rows of fish scales all over the monkey's shoulders and chest. Wonderful work. Each scale was glued on separately, beginning from scales almost microscopic and shading both in size and color exactly into those of the fish hinder portion. The work was so exquisitely done that its artificiality could not be detected. But live mermaids haven't been put in any aquarium. Not yet!"
"I don't suppose there's even a water-baby left!" the boy said, laughing.
"No," was the reply. "We couldn't give it any milk now, the sea-cows have been all killed off."
"Big creatures, bigger even than walruses. Lots of them here some time. We find their bones everywhere. Nearly all our sled-runners are made of sea-cow bones. They grazed like cattle below water on the seaweeds of the shore and the natives used to spear them at low tide."
"Are there walruses here, too?"
"I saw three a few years ago, but none since. About two hundred miles north of here, however, on St. Matthew's Island, there used to be scores of them. But I reckon hunters and polar bears, between them, have destroyed most of them."
"Do polar bears come here in winter?"
The agent shook his head.
"The Pribilof Islands are not cold enough for a polar bear. Besides he likes walrus meat better than seal. Bear eats a lot of fish, too."
"I thought they lived almost entirely on seals."
"They couldn't very well," was the reply. "Seal is a better swimmer than a bear, although the polar bear is a marvel in the water for a land animal and can overhaul a walrus. The big white fellows only catch seal when basking on the ice. They get a good many that way. The hunters have left nothing to the Pribilofs except the fur seal and the sea-lion, and not many of those. And unless we can find a way to stop the seal-pirates, those will soon be gone, too."
"Do you have much trouble with that sort of thing?" the boy asked.
"A lot nearly every year. We won't have so much of it now. Great Britain, Japan, Russia, and the United States are united in the desire to prevent pelagic sealing. Good thing, too. A treaty has been signed, forbidding it for fifteen years. So you see, a seal poacher on the rookeries finds everybody against him."
"Wasn't there a lot of trouble some years ago?" Colin asked. "I heard that there was real fighting here."
"Indeed there was, and lots of it! No one, not even the United States Government, ever knew how much. While the islands were leased to a private company the beaches were patrolled by riflemen. Russian and Japanese schooners frequently sent off boatloads of armed men during a fog, to kill as many seals as possible, protecting their men by gunfire. But that was before the Bureau of Fisheries took hold!"
"Has there been any of that lately?"
"Not recently. The last was in 1906, when seven men were killed. The two schooners, the Tokaw Maru and the Bosco Maru, were seized and confiscated. Promptly! The men were taken to Valdez. They were convicted and sent to prison."
"Well, that's desperate enough," the boy said, "but, after all, there's something daring about it. It's the pelagic sealing that seems so mean to me."
"It may be daring enough," the agent admitted. "The way I feel about it, though, is that it seems worse to kill a cow fur seal than a human being. There are lots of people in the world. The human race isn't going to die out, but the small remnant of fur seals on the Pribilof Islands is absolutely the last chance left of saving the entire species from extinction. So," he concluded with a laugh, as they went into the village, "don't let your enthusiasm for a piece of daring tempt you to turn seal-pirate."
Colin laughed, as he nodded to his host, and went to see after one of his new pets, a blue fox pup which had been given him that morning by one of the natives.
Evening seemed to come early because of the dense fog, the damp mist which had been present all day settling down heavily. Colin was thoroughly tired, but not at all sleepy, and he wandered aimlessly through the village for a while after supper.
"I wonder if there's a storm coming?" he said to the agent. "I have a sort of feeling that something's going to happen."
"It may blow a little fresh," was the reply. "That's all. The barometer doesn't seem disturbed."
"I must be wrong then," said Colin, suppressing a yawn, "but I have a queer sort of excited feeling."
"Better take it out in sleep," was the advice given him. "We're all going to turn in soon. Even if you did get a nap this afternoon, you ought to be tired after last night."
The boy could see nothing to be gained by arguing the point, and there was nothing special to do, so he waited a few minutes and then went up to his room, though he had never felt less like sleeping. He got into bed, however, but tossed about uneasily for hours, the distant roaring of the seals on the rookery and other unaccustomed noises keeping him awake. And ever, through it all, Colin was conscious of this presentiment of some trouble on hand. Suddenly, this feeling rushed over him like a flood and, impelled by some force he could not resist, he sprang from bed and hurried to the window.
The fog had thinned considerably, but it was still so misty that he could only just see the edge of the bleak shore where the little waves rolled in idly, looking gray and greasy under the fog. He leaned his arms on the sill, but aside from the seal-roar, everything seemed peaceful and the lad was just about to turn away from the window in the feeling of miserable anger that comes from being tired but not able to sleep, when he saw a flash of light.
Startled, and with every nerve stimulated to alertness, he watched, and again he saw the light. Straining his eyes Colin could just distinguish the figure of a man with a gun on his shoulder and a lantern in his hand, making his way to the coast end of the village.
"Some one who has been making a night of it!" the boy muttered to himself with a short laugh, and got back into bed.
But the figure of the man with the gun and the lantern in his hand had impressed itself on his mind, and though he tried to dismiss the idea and go to sleep, every time he closed his eyes he seemed to see the man go walking silently through the village. Presently he sat bolt upright in bed.
"The native huts are all at the other end of the village!" he said half aloud, with a surprised suspiciousness. "Why was he going that way?"
The boy rose and went back to the open window. It seemed to him that there was more tumult from the rookery than when he had listened half an hour before, but it occurred to him that this was probably the result of the silence of the hour and his own restlessness. Then, not loudly, but distinctly, in spite of its being muffled by the fog, the sound of a rifle-shot came to his ears.
That settled it for Colin. If there was anything going on in the way of sport he wanted a share in it, and as he was wide awake, he decided to follow up and see what was going on. He slipped into his clothes as quickly as possible and tiptoed his way down the rickety stairs. But before he had gone many steps an unaccustomed thought of prudence struck him, and he walked back to a house three or four doors from where he had been staying, the home, indeed, of the villager who had given him the pet fox, and in which Hank had taken up quarters. He knocked on the window and immediately Hank appeared.
"What is it?" he queried. "Oh, it's you, Colin. Why aren't you in bed?"
"I was," the boy answered, and in a few words he told how he had seen the native go by with a gun and a lantern and had heard the shot fired a few minutes ago.
"Sounds like smugglin'," the old whaler said, after a minute's thought. "Well, there's no great harm in that. That is, I don't think so, though the gov'nment chaps might say different."
"Smuggling?" queried Colin; "poaching. Do you mean seal-poaching? Oh, come along, Hank, and let's find out."
"What's the use of huntin' trouble?" said the old man. "Go back to bed."
"Not much," retorted the boy; "if you don't want to come, I'll go, anyway."
"If you're goin' anyway," grumbled the old whaler, "I reckon it's no use my sayin' anythin' to stop you. But I s'pose," he added, and he was secretly as curious as the boy, "I'd better go along with you to see that you don't get into any more mischief than you have to."
"You're coming, then?" asked Colin impatiently.
"I'll be right out," the other answered, and he had hardly disappeared from the window when he appeared at the door. He slipped a revolver into his pocket and handed another to Colin.
"I've got a gun," the boy said.
"All right," responded Hank, "I'll pack this one along, too," and he slipped it into one of the pockets of his big reefer.
They walked in silence for a few minutes until they had passed the end of the village, and then Hank put his hand on the boy's arm.
"You've got a right hunch," he said abruptly, in a low voice. "There's somethin' in the wind."
"What makes you think so?" asked Colin.
The other pointed vaguely to sea.
"There's a ship out there," he said.
Colin did his utmost to pierce the gloom, but the fog had settled down again, the night was dark, and the boy could scarcely see the waves breaking on the shore not twenty feet away.
"I can't see anything," he said. "Whereabouts?"
"I don't know just where," the old sailor replied, "but I know she's there. I feel it."
"Let's hurry!" said the boy.
"Better go slower," warned Hank, pulling him back gently; "we're not far from the rookery."
"I don't see why we should be so careful, and I don't see why we should whisper," Colin objected, whispering nevertheless; "the seals are making noise enough to drown a brass band."
"Listen!" said Hank.
The boy put his hand to his ear, trying to distinguish sounds in the continuous roar.
"Voices?" he queried with a puzzled look.
"I thought so," the whaler nodded. There was a pause, while both listened, then the gunner said:
"It isn't English and it doesn't sound like Aleut or Russian."
"Japanese?" queried the boy at a guess.
The man grasped the boy's shoulder with a grip that nearly dislocated it.
"Japanese raiders!" he said. "Can you run?"
"You bet," said Colin, growing excited; "I'm a crack runner."
"Get back to the agent's house as fast as you know how an' wake him up. He'll know what to do."
"What are you after, Hank?" asked the boy, tightening his belt.
"Whatever comes along," was the terse reply.
Colin pitched off his heavy coat and started. It was over a half-mile run, but the boy was in good condition and the path was smooth, so that two minutes saw him at the agent's bedroom door.
"Eh? What's that? Japanese raiders! You've been dreaming, boy. Go back to bed."
"Do I look as if I'd been dreaming?" Colin said indignantly. "How do you suppose I could run myself out of breath in a dream? Hank was with me. He heard them, too, and sent me back to tell you."
But the agent was already up and busy.
"Wake the village!" he said shortly.
Without waiting to find out how this should be done, Colin started off at a run, and picking up a killing club that lay handy, he sped down the village street, hitting a resounding 'whack' on every door as he passed. As he came back, up the other side of the street, the natives were streaming out of their houses and Colin told them all to go to the agent, whereupon those who understood English started immediately, the rest following. The agent was ready and had all his plans made, some of the men were sent to the boats, and arms for others were laid out.
"They were right on Gorbatch rookery?" the agent asked.
"Yes, sir," Colin replied, "at the Reef Point end."
The party was swinging along at a fast half-run over the sands that lay between the edge of the village and the beginning of the rookery, and with the rising of the moon the fog seemed to thin.
"I had rather we were a little nearer before it gets too light," the agent said, "but we'd better make the best use we can of our time."
On reaching the wall, the agent vaulted lightly over it, the rest following suit, and to Colin's surprise the official led the way behind the rookery, threading in and out between idle bulls, who made a display of great ferocity but never actually attacked. The agent paid not the slightest heed to any of them, merely keeping out of reach of their teeth.
As they turned a corner, a cloud which had partly obscured the moon passed and showed them an unexpected sight. Magnified into gigantic forms by the fog were the figures of six men, apparently all armed, facing Hank, the old whaler, who, with both revolvers, was keeping them at bay. He was close to the shore, standing behind two old, wicked-looking beachmasters, who, in the unnatural light, appeared to be twice their natural size. Hank let out a hail as soon as he saw the government party coming to his assistance, but he did not relax his vigilance.
"I've got this bunch covered," he said, "an' they can't get to their boat. One load did get off."
Hearing his shout the invaders turned quickly, but found themselves overpowered, for a dozen rifles were leveled at them. They knew, too, that natives who are trained to shoot fur seal in the water—as most of those men had done before pelagic sealing was stopped—could be counted on as good shots.
The agent, who spoke sufficient Japanese for simple needs, demanded the surrender of the raiders and asked which was the officer of the party. This question they refused to understand.
"I suppose he went off in the other boat," hazarded the agent. "That's a pity. He stands a good chance of being shot!"
Colin looked up inquiringly.
"How do you expect to catch him now?" he asked.
"The fog is clearing away. Obviously!" the agent answered.
"Quite a lot," the boy admitted.
"Row-boat hasn't much chance against a launch, has it?"
"Oh, I see now," Colin said understandingly; "you covered the water with another party."
"In a very swift gasoline launch we have. While you were waking the village, I got a wireless to a revenue cutter. I caught her at less than fifteen miles away, and she's headed here now."
He turned to the Japanese.
"What is your ship? Schooner or steamer?" he asked.
"Schooner," was the reply.
The agent rubbed his hands delightedly.
"It's a clean haul," he said. "Thanks to you, Hank. Principally. To the boy, too! We've caught six men red-handed right on the rookery, with dead seals, most of them females. The launch ought to intercept the boat. There's not wind enough for a schooner to get far away by the time the revenue cutter arrives. Besides, the schooner will be short-handed since we have six of the crew here."
A sudden puff of wind lifted the fog still further and revealed the schooner herself, lying not far from shore. A row-boat was about one hundred and fifty feet from the vessel and the station launch was two hundred feet away, approaching from a different angle, but outspeeding the row-boat.
"A race!" cried Colin.
It was a closer race than at first appeared. Under the strange light of the full moon shining grayly through the silvering mist upon the seals in their countless thousands, the scene seemed most unreal. Before him appeared the principals in this dramatic encounter, revolvers and rifles in the hands of all parties, the Japs being still covered; while beyond, at sea, the two boats cleaving the water, their objective point the shadowy schooner, looking like a phantom ship, made a picture of weird excitement in an unearthly setting. The seconds seemed like hours. The row-boat was nearer the schooner and was traveling fast, but the launch was speeding even more rapidly, throwing up a high wave at the bow. It looked as though both boats would reach the schooner's side at the same instant.
"She'll do it! She'll do it!" the boy exclaimed. "If only an oar would smash!"
The Japanese, though not saying a word, were bending forward eagerly, watching the race with every nerve on the strain.
Colin fairly danced with excitement, nearly bringing down on himself the wrath of a neighboring sea-catch, who was roaring angrily at this intrusion.
"If she only had another couple of horsepower——" he cried.
The Japanese smiled.
A port in the rail of the schooner opened and the muzzle of a small swivel-gun projected, aimed full at the launch. Colin caught his breath.
A puff of smoke followed, and a couple of seconds later the sharp crack of a small gun. A crash and a few sharp explosions were heard from the launch, but, so far as could be seen from the shore, no one was injured. The engine gave a 'chug-chug' or two—then stopped dead.
Colin dropped his arms limply by his side in despair.
The leader of the Japanese took a quick step forward and whispered a word or two to the nearest man, who passed it down the line. The agent strained his ears to hear what was said, but could not distinguish the words.
"What's that you were saying?" he asked in Japanese.
The man replied calmly, and in English.
"We say nothing," he answered blandly, "only that you have made big mistakes. That is not our ship!"
The agent stared at him, but the Japanese smiled affably.
"We are shipwreck on the island," he said. "We not know what place it is, have no food, hungry, kill some seal for food, anybody do that."
At this impudent and barefaced falsehood, the agent was tongue-tied, but he turned to Hank.
"These men say," he said, "that they are shipwrecked sailors and do not belong to that ship. Let's get this thing right. Tell us what you know about it."
Hank straightened up.
"After the boy left me," he said, "I saw it wouldn't do any good to tackle 'em at once, there bein' no way of gettin' at 'em from the shore side. If I let 'em know they were watched, they would be off, sure, an' what I wanted was to find some way to head 'em off. I knew if you came down the beach after 'em they'd have the start, an' you can't always depend on shootin' straight at night in a fog."
"What did you do, then?" asked the agent.
"I just slipped into the water, down by the end o' the causeway," the old whaler said, "an' there were scores o' seals around, so that it didn't matter how much I splashed."
"You must be half a seal yourself," the agent said. "Swimming among rocks in the dark is no joke."
"I had plenty of time, and I can swim a little," the old man modestly admitted. "Wa'al, pretty soon I saw the boat an' I swam under water till I came up right behind it. The Jap what was sittin' in it wasn't expectin' any trouble an' as he was nid-noddin' and half asleep, I put one hand on the stern o' the boat, bringin' it down in the water. With the other hand I grabbed the back of a blouse-thing he was wearin' an' yanked him overboard."
"You didn't drown him, did you, Hank?" asked Colin.
"Not altogether," the old whaler answered. "I held him under, though, until he was good an' full o' water an' had stopped kickin', an' then I climbed into the boat. Next time he came up I grabbed him an' took him aboard. The fog was pretty thick an' none o' the rest of 'em saw what was goin' on. In a minute or two I could see he was beginnin' to come round an' I didn't quite know what to do. I didn't want to knock him on the head, he hadn't done anythin' to hurt me, an' so I dropped the row-locks overboard, tossed the oars ashore—there they are, lyin' among the seals—an' got ashore myself. As soon as I was on solid ground I untied the painter what held the boat an' set it adrift, givin' it a push off with one o' the oars. The tide's goin' out, so I knew he couldn't get ashore again. I'd hardly got the boat shoved off when he yelled an' the rest of 'em heard it."
"What did they do?"
"Come rushin' for the boats. Most of 'em went over to the south'ard," he pointed down the rookery, "where there was a boat I hadn't seen, but these six tried to rush me. I just had time to shove the boat off, grab my guns, an' face 'em."
"It was a bully hold-up," said Colin delightedly, "one against six."
"Had to," said the sailor, "or the six would have made mincemeat o' the one. Besides, I had to give the tide a chance to get that boat out o' the way. After I held 'em a few minutes I knew it was all right, because they had no boat, their own bein' adrift without oars."
"Big lie," said the Japanese leader placidly, "we shipwreck sailors, nothing to do with that ship at all. This man tell story about boat—we not know anything of that boat. Our boat sunk on rocks, away over there!"
He pointed to the other side of the island.
"But you were killing seals!" protested the agent.
"Yes," said the Japanese, "we think islands have not any person on. Need food, we kill. Of course."
"Clever," said the agent, turning to Hank. "This isn't as simple as it looks. We have no direct evidence that these men belonged to that schooner."
"But we know they did!" said the whaler emphatically.
"Of course," agreed the agent. "But we can't prove it. Law demands proof. If we only had that boat, with the schooner's name on, it would serve."
Suddenly there came a hail from the crippled launch which was being brought in under oars.
"Mr. Nagge there?"
"Yes, Svenson," was the reply, "what is it?"
"They smashed our engine all to bits," answered the engineer of the boat, "but we've just picked up another boat, empty."
"That's the boat," said the agent with satisfaction in his voice. "Now we've got them!"
A smile, a very faint smile, crossed the features of the Japanese leader.
"What's the name on the stern of the boat?" the agent called.
There was a moment's pause, then came the answer in tones of deep disgust:
"The name's been painted out!"
The agent looked round despairingly and caught Colin's look of sympathy.
"The slippery Oriental again!" the boy said.
"Not quite slippery enough this time, though," said Hank in a voice which betrayed a discovery.
"What do you mean?" asked the agent.
"Uncle Sam's gettin' into the game," he answered, pointing out to sea.
"The revenue cutter?"
"Hm, hm," grunted the whaler in assent, "I reckon I can see her lights."
No one else could see anything in the fog and darkness, but a minute or two later there came a flash, followed by a dull "boom."
Hank turned to the Japanese leader.
"Pity to spoil that yarn o' yours," he said, "but your ship can't run away from quick-firin' guns without a wind."
CATCHING THE SEA-SERPENT
There was great excitement in the village the next day when the revenue cutter brought in the Japanese raiding schooner and her crew. The boat that had successfully reached the ship had already begun to load her quota of sealskins, and the men had not thrown them overboard, believing that they could get away. Consequently, with the evidence of the raid ashore and with the seals in the boat belonging to the schooner from which witnesses had seen the crew go on board, the case was complete.
"What are you going to do with the prisoners?" asked Colin. "Are you going to put them on trial here?"
"Not here," the agent replied. "The Federal Courts look after that."
"But I thought you were a judge," the boy protested. "Who administers justice on the islands?"
"The chief agent," was the reply. "He is a magistrate. All the natives are employees of the Fisheries Bureau. He has a lot of authority over them. Obviously! But any really grave case is tried at Valdez, because that's the nearest Federal court from here. Sealing questions, too, are so confused with international issues that we don't undertake to decide them."
"And what will happen to the schooner?"
"A prize crew will be put aboard. Take her to Unalaska. The revenue cutter will pick them up afterwards. Probably start for Valdez without delay. Captain Murchison said this morning that he wanted to go along."
"I wonder if I'll have to go?" said Colin. "I'm sure I don't want to, at least, not yet. There's ever so much more that I want to find out about seals, and I've hardly started. If I'm ever lucky enough to get into the Bureau of Fisheries, I hope I shall have a chance to get something to do on this fur seal service."
"Fur seal's very important. But only a small part of the Bureau of Fisheries," the agent said, and outlined to Colin the general workings of the Bureau, in which he showed the practical value of the work.
"I know. I want to join the Bureau," the boy persisted, "not only because I think there's more fun in it than in anything else, but because I like everything about it."
"What do your folks say about the plan?" the Fisheries agent queried.
"They know I want it," the lad replied, "but I never felt that I knew enough about the Bureau to say that I didn't care to do anything else. Father's always wanted me to take up lumbering or forestry or sawmills or something to do with timber. He's quite a big lumberman, you know. But, some way, that never appealed to me."
"Your father ought to know," the other said. "Obviously! And if he owns timber lands, I think it's up to you to be a help. Lots of interesting angles to the lumber business. And if the timber lands are going to descend to you, you'll have to look after them, anyway."
"But they won't," objected Colin; "that's just it. In about ten years that timber will be all cut off. I'm pretty sure Father will let me join the Bureau," the boy continued, "because he's wild about fishing himself. Why, just now, he's down at Santa Catalina, angling for big game."
"Some difference between the Fisheries Bureau and angling for sport," the agent warned him. "I've been in the business all my life. But I've never even learned to cast a fly! It's a serious business, and down in Washington you'll find that the value of the work to the people of the United States is the chief aim of the Bureau."
"It may be serious, but I should think that there is always something new. And, anyway," Colin said enthusiastically, "fishes are ever so much more interesting than animals. There are such heaps of different kinds, too!"
"The interest in work depends on how you look at it," soberly responded the agent. "Obviously! But don't think the Bureau is experimenting with every kind of fish in the ocean. There are only a few food fishes or forms with commercial value that are exploited at all."
"But you were describing to me, only yesterday, the way they handle millions of baby fishes annually. I've just got to get into the Bureau."
"Go ahead, then. I don't doubt we'll be glad to have you. I've done my best to show you what you'll have to face," the official declared, "and if you're still eager for it, why, go in and win. There's always a place somewhere for the chap who is really anxious to work."
At supper that day, the decision was announced that the revenue cutter would start for Valdez next morning, and Colin had to scramble around in a hurry to take a last look at the seals, to get a small crate made for the blue fox pup, which he was going to send home for his younger brother to look after, and to put into a small trunk he had got from one of the villagers the few things he had saved from the wreck and had been able to buy in the village.
The trip down to the Aleutian Islands and through its straits was a delight to Colin, and he became quite excited when he learned that the second lieutenant had for years been attached to a revenue cutter which had a wharf at the Fisheries Bureau station at Woods Hole, Mass. This officer, who had a brother in the Bureau, was only too glad to talk to the boy about the service, and Colin monopolized his spare time on the journey. And when, one day, his friend depicted the immensity of the great salmon drives of the Alaskan rivers, the lad grew so excited that the lieutenant laughingly told him he expected some fine morning to find that he had jumped overboard and had started swimming for the Ugashik River or some other of the famous salmon streams of Alaska.
Shortly before they arrived at Valdez, the lieutenant of the cutter called the boy aside.
"Colin," he said, "didn't you tell me the other day that you were going down to Santa Catalina?"
"Yes, sir," the boy answered. "Father's down there now, and I want to ask him if he won't let me go and join the Bureau of Fisheries."
"Well," the officer replied, "before you do that, I think you ought to get some idea about the sort of work there is to do. It happens that one of my brother's friends is on the Columbia River just now, making some kind of experiment on salmon. He has a cottage not far from one of the state hatcheries, and if you like, I'll give you a letter to him. If you are really determined to enter the Bureau, you might stop on your way to Santa Catalina and see the work from another point of view."
"I'd like to ever so much," said Colin, "but I couldn't very well go uninvited."
"He'll be only too pleased to see you," was the reply; "he's a Westerner like myself, and will enjoy putting you up for a day or two."
"It's right in my way, too," remarked Colin, yielding to his desire to go.
"Quite a few of the steamers for 'Frisco stop at Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River," the lieutenant suggested, "and the professor's cottage is not more than half an hour from there, near the state fish-hatching station at Chinook, Wash."
"Just across the river, then?"
"Exactly. The way I look at it, you're not at all likely to have anything to do with fur seal if you go into the Bureau, certainly not for a good many years. So you can't judge the Fisheries' scope from that, and you ought to see the work that will probably fall to your lot."
"Very well, sir," said the boy, "I'll go gladly, and thank you ever so much."
"I'll drop a note to Professor Todd, then," the lieutenant said, nodding as he turned away, "and as we may be delayed a few days in Valdez, the letter will reach him before you will."
On their arrival at the Alaskan town, Colin learned that some time would elapse before the trial of the Japanese prisoners, as the court would not be in session until later in the summer, and he was told that when his deposition had been taken, there would be no need to keep him as a witness. Accordingly, after the boy had related the story of the discovery and of his entire connection with the affair, he was told that he might leave.
As the revenue officer had expected, within a week a steamer left Valdez for San Francisco, calling at Astoria on the way, and Colin took passage aboard. Aside from meeting on board an old shell collector, who taught him a great deal about the principal valuable sea shells of the world, the voyage was without incident, and he arrived in Astoria in time to proceed the same afternoon to the cottage of the professor, where he was to stay that night, having found a letter of welcome awaiting him in Astoria.
Reaching the house he presented his letter of introduction, and was cordially greeted. Finding that the boy was really interested, his host took him to a tiny laboratory of his own, where he was experimenting on the various diseases of the salmon and the trout.
This gave Colin an entirely new outlook on the Fisheries' activities.
"I never thought of fishes being sick before!" he exclaimed. "Are there fish-doctors in the Bureau?"
"There's a large division of the service given to that very work," the professor replied, "only there are so many millions of fish that we do not try to cure the individual, but only endeavor to prevent the disease. You know what the work of a veterinary is?"
"Of course," the boy responded.
"And you know that the United States Government has an inspector at every place where cattle and sheep and pigs are slaughtered to see that no diseased animals are sold?"
"Yes," the boy answered, "I have heard of that, too."
"Since there is almost as much fish eaten in this country as there is meat," the professor continued, "Uncle Sam sees to it that no diseased fish are sold for food."
"I don't quite see how," the boy responded; "there can't be an inspector at every place where they catch fish."
"Certainly not, but as long as there is no disease among fish, there can be no diseased fish. We try to prevent the diseases. Now here, for example," he continued, "are a lot of fish that have a kind of malign growth. It comes very frequently among the trout and salmon that are artificially raised, and sometimes we find it among fish that have been reared in a state of nature, and I have been working for some time on this and I hope this year—or at all events by next season—to be able to show the cause of the disease. That is really my problem, Colin, but the details of it are too complicated to explain easily. But you have come at a particularly good time," he continued, "because I have been wanting to do an experiment which I thought might interest you, and I waited until you came. If you like, we'll go out to-morrow."
"I should, ever so much," Colin exclaimed. "What's the experiment?"
"When the salmon come in from the sea," the professor began, "there is a great deal of hesitation among them sometimes before they go up the river to spawn, and we want to find out whether they go back to the sea again, whether they swim directly up the stream, or whether they remain in the brackish water at the mouth of the river."
"If you don't mind my saying so, what is the use of knowing?" asked Colin. "I mean, what does it matter as long as the salmon spawns?"
"The salmon is one of the most important food fishes of the country," the professor said rebukingly, "and it is as important for us to know all about its habits as it is to know about the way a grain of wheat grows."
"I hadn't thought of that," Colin said, a little shamefacedly. "I suppose everything really is important, no matter how small."
The professor smiled at him.
"If you have much to do with studying fish," he said, "or, indeed, with any kind of science, you will find out it is always the little things that tell the story. Take the grain of wheat again. If one kind of wheat ripens two days earlier on an average than another kind, you might think that so small a difference wouldn't be of great importance, but those two days might—and often do—make the difference between a good crop and one which is frost-bitten and spoiled."
"That's a lot easier to see," agreed the boy. "But, sir," he objected, "you can pick out one little bit of a field and work on that, and it will 'stay put.' Fishes wander all over the place."
"We want them to do so, my boy," was the reply.
"How can you work on separate fish? One looks so like another!"
"And for that very reason we're going to tag them."
"With a little aluminum button fastened to their tail, just as bad youngsters fasten a tin can to a dog's tail. Every tag has a number, and we use aluminum because it corrodes rapidly in salt water."
"Then I should think," said Colin, "that was the very reason why you shouldn't use it."
"Why not?" asked the professor mildly. "We know that the salmon are not going to stay in the salt water, because they are going up the river to spawn. If, therefore, we catch a fish in the nets higher up stream, with the tag bright and shining, we know that it hasn't been in salt water at all; if dull and just a little worn away, that the fish with that tag has been staying in the brackish water near the mouth of the river; but if it is deeply corroded, that the fish returned to sea for a time. As you see, a good deal of information is gathered that way. But in the morning you will have a chance to see how it is done, and then the results—when they are published—will seem more interesting."
"Have you been associated with the Bureau of Fisheries, Professor Podd?" Colin asked.
"Not directly," the other replied. "I should have enjoyed it, and it seems to me a work of the first importance, but every man is apt to think that about his own work, or work that is like his own. But I can tell you what decided me, nearly twenty years ago, to give all my spare time to the fishery question."
"What was that?" asked Colin.
"It was a phrase in a lecture that Dr. Baird, the founder of fish culture in America, was giving about the need of the work. He pointed out that there was more actual life in a cubic foot of water than in a cubic foot of land, and closed by saying, 'The work of conserving the Fisheries of the United States will not be finished until every acre of water is farmed as carefully as every acre or land.'"
"I never quite thought of it as farming," said the boy.
"Nor had I, before that time," the professor said. "But ever since then I have seen that we of the present time are the great pioneers, the discoverers, the explorers of this new world. Instead of blazing our trail through a wilderness of trees we dredge our way through a wilderness of waters; instead of a stockade around a blockhouse to protect us against wild beasts and wilder Indian foes, we have but a thin plank between us and destruction; instead of a few wolves and mountain-lions to prey upon the few head of stock we might raise, we have thousands of millions of fierce, finny pirates with which to do battle, and we work against odds the old pioneers could not even have estimated!"
"That's great!" cried Colin, his eyes shining.
"The surface of the sea," the professor continued, warming to his subject, "reveals no more of its mystery than the smoke cloud above the city tells the story of the wild race of life in its thronging streets, or than the waving tips of a forest of mighty trees reveal the myriad forms below. Each current of the ocean is an empire of its own with its tribes endlessly at war; the serried hosts of voracious fish prey on those about them, fishes of medium depth do perpetual war upon the surface fish, and some of these are forced into the air to fly like birds away from the Nemesis below."
"And much is still unknown, isn't it?"
"We are discovering a new world!" was the reply. "No one for a moment can deny the greatness of the finding of America, and Columbus and the other early navigators are sure of immortal fame, but even so, what was the New World they found to the illimitable areas of unknown life, in the bottom of the sea, that have been made known to man. Think of the wonder that has been revealed by the Challenger and other ships that have explored the ocean beds!"
"There is still a great deal unknown, isn't there?"
"Still an unknown universe! Lurking in the utter darkness of the scarce-fathomed deeps of the ocean, what Kraken may not lie, coil on coil; what strange black, slimy, large-eyed forms do their stealthy hunting in perpetual night by the light of phosphorescent lamps they bear upon their bodies? Many of these there are, every year teaches of new species. The land—oh! the land is all well known, even the Arctic and Antarctic regions no longer hide their secrets, but the ocean is inscrutable. Smiling or in anger, she baffles us and her inmost shrines are still inviolate."
The professor checked himself suddenly, as though conscious of having been carried away by enthusiasm.
"We'll try and get at some of the secrets to-morrow," he said, "but it will mean early rising, as the trap is to be hauled at slack water."
Acting on the hint, Colin bade his host good-night, but his sleep was fitful and restless. The sudden passionate speech of the grave scholar had been a revelation to the boy, and whereas he had felt a desire for the Fisheries Bureau before, he knew now that it had been largely with the sense of novelty and adventure. But the professor's words had given him a new light, and he saw what an ideal might be. He felt like a knight of the olden time, who, watching his armor the vigil before the conferring of knighthood, had been granted a vision of all his service might mean. He knew that night that the question he was to ask his father could have but the one answer, that the great decision of his life was made, his work was cut out to do.
Shortly after daybreak the next morning, Colin was called and he dressed hurriedly. After a hearty breakfast in which steel-head trout figured largely, he went down to the pier on the water and was not sorry to have the chance of showing his host that he was a good canoeist.
"How large is the work of the Bureau now, Professor?" asked Colin, as the light craft shot down the magnificent stretches of the Columbia River.
"Over three and a half billion eggs and small fish were distributed last year, if I remember rightly," was the reply. "Of course, a large proportion of these fish did not reach maturity, but perhaps half a billion did so, and half a billion fish is an immense contribution to the food supply of the world."
"But aren't there always lots of fish in the sea?" asked Colin. "When you come to compare land with water it always looks as though there must be so many that the number we catch wouldn't make any sort of impression on them."
"Think a bit," said the professor. "You've just come down from the Pribilof Islands. How did you find matters up there? Had the catching of seals been harmful, or were there so many seals still in the sea that it didn't matter what line of hunting went on?"
"Of course, pelagic sealing had nearly killed off the entire species," said Colin, "but, somehow, fish seem different. Oh, yes, I know why. Seals only have one pup at a time and fishes have thousands of eggs."
"That's a very good reply," the professor agreed, "but why was it that pelagic sealing was so bad? Was it done all the year round?"
"No," said Colin, "principally when the females were coming to the spawning ground."
"And the Pribilof Islands are only a small place. Especially when compared to the range of oceans the seal cover during the rest of the year?"
"Then," said the other, "it is easy to see that the respective size of land and water has very little to do with the general fishery question. But if a seal or a fish must come to the land or to narrow rivers to spawn, it follows that man possesses the power to determine whether spawning shall continue or not, doesn't it?"
"Yes," agreed Colin, "I suppose it does."
"And if you protect the seals, the herd will increase."
"It ought to."
"Very good. That is just the work we are doing here. The salmon come into fresh water to spawn—just like shad and a number of other species of fish—and when you kill a salmon just about to ascend the river, you destroy at the same time the thousands of eggs she bears."
"But I thought salmon were always caught running up a stream?" said Colin in surprise.
"They are," was the quick response; "by far the larger number are caught that way, and as long as a certain proportion go up the stream there's no great harm done. But if every one of the salmon is caught, as happens when nets are put all the way across a stream, there will be none to spawn, and in a few years there will be no fish in that river."
"Do the fish always return, when grown up, to the river in which they spawned?"
"That is disputed. But the large proportion of such fish do not travel very far from the mouth of the river in which they were born and the natural impulse for fresh water at spawning-time leads them naturally to the nearest stream. So, it is imperative that some fish be allowed to go up-stream, or in other words, that salmon-catchers allow a certain proportion to escape their wheels and nets."
"They ought to be willing enough to do that, I should think," said Colin; "it's for their own good in the long run."
"A lot of them want quick profits now, without any regard for the future," his host said scornfully. "Of course, there are laws for fishery regulation in many of the States, but inspectors have their hands full in preventing violations. In Alaska, which is a territory still, that supervision is done by the government through the Bureau of Fisheries."
"It must be a little aggravating to the salmon men, just the same," said Colin thoughtfully, "when they are trying to keep their canning factories going full blast, to have to allow half the catch to go on up the stream. But," he continued, "why don't they catch the salmon coming down the stream again? I should think that would settle the whole question."
"It would," said the professor, "if they came down! But they don't. Every single salmon, male and female, that goes up the river in the spawning season dies up there. None of them ever comes down alive."
"I don't think they did that way in Newfoundland!" ejaculated Colin in surprise. "When I was staying with my uncle there I saw lots of salmon, and it seemed to me that they went down the river again."
"They did," was the reply. "The Atlantic or true salmon does not die after spawning, but not a single fish of any one of the five different kinds of Pacific salmon ever spawns twice. Every yard of the shores of the upper reaches of Pacific coast rivers is covered almost solidly with dead salmon from September to December!"
"It makes some places uninhabitable," the professor replied. "Where a market is near enough, the dead fish are collected and sold for fertilizer."
"Is it the fresh water that kills them?"
"No," was the reply; "that is one of the most curious features of the life-history of the Pacific salmon. As soon as the fish are nearly ready for spawning, all their digestive parts shrivel up, so that they can't eat. In the male salmon, too, the end of the upper lip turns into a sort of hook so that the fish can't even open his mouth wide enough to eat anything. Then in the fresh water their scales turn slimy and, as they often get injured trying to leap falls and rapids, all sorts of skin diseases attack them. A salmon in the upper reaches of the Columbia headwaters is a pitiful wreck of the magnificent fish that entered it to spawn."
"Do they go far?"
"As much as a thousand miles," was the reply. "The quinnat and blue back—or the spring and the sockeye, as they are generally known, take the long journeys, but the silver or coho, and the humpback and dog salmon keep to the small streams near the sea. The young fry cannot live in salt water and the instinct of the salmon is to swim up-stream as far as possible, no matter what obstacle is in the way. When they have gone to the very limit, the salmon make pits and holes in the gravel and sand at the bottom of the stream for nests, and drop the eggs in these. The male salmon immediately afterwards floats over the nests and does his share in making sure that the eggs will hatch out."
"How big are the salmon?" asked the boy.
"You'll have a chance to see," the professor answered, as he swung the canoe in to the wharf, at the state hatchery station, "because we're going to measure the ones we tag this morning."
The foreman and one of the men of the station were waiting for them in a good-sized motor boat, towing behind which was a curious-looking affair composed of two small barrels fastened together by long slats.
"Don't you know what that is?" queried the professor, noting Colin's puzzled look.
"That's a live car. The barrels at each end have enough water in them to sink them to a certain depth. Then the slats, as you see, are nailed two-thirds of the way around the barrels, leaving just enough space for the water to flow in and out freely. They put the fish in that to tow them home alive. The slats are better than netting because sometimes the fishes catch their scales in the meshes and get hurt."
The run to the fish-trap was made in a few minutes, and the boat went inside to the 'pound,' the net was partly hauled up, and the professor took out his punch and the buttons. Colin had put on a pair of rubber boots and oilskin trousers, as had all the rest of the party, and he was ready for anything that came along.
"Do you want my slicker?" the professor asked him. "You're apt to get splashed."
"I don't mind a bit, thanks," answered the boy, rolling up his sleeves; "a little shower-bath will feel good on a hot day like this!"
"All right, then," the leader of the party declared, "we'll give you a chance to make yourself useful. Here you are!"
Colin took the large flat-bottomed net and awaited further instructions.
"Catch one of the salmon," he was told; "never mind the rest of the fish. And," he was warned, "don't bring the net clear out of the water."
"Very well, sir," the boy replied, then his curiosity getting the better of him, he asked, "Why not?"
"Because if you do, the salmon will struggle against the meshes of the net, bruise himself, and probably scrape off some scales. I told you how easy it is for a fish to get diseased if he loses any of his scales. If you keep the net about four inches below the water, the fish has the resistance of the water to fight against, and it will tire him out quickly without doing any harm."
"All right," Colin answered, and commenced scooping for the fish. In a minute or two he had a large twenty-pounder in the net and he raised it until the bottom was a little below the water, as he had been told.
"You're right about getting wet!" cried Colin, laughing, as the salmon began to whirl and plunge and dance in the net, sending a shower of water all over him and nearly blinding him by the force with which the drops of water struck as they were splashed upwards by the powerful strokes of the fish's tail.
The instant the salmon stopped struggling, the hatchery boatman seized it by the tail with a strong grip, swung it clear out of the net and over his left arm, laying it immediately on the measuring platform. This consisted merely of a wide board with an upright at one end, a rule giving both metrical and standard measures being nailed to the side of the board. Instantly the measurer called out the length and the professor noted it down, the hatchery foreman—famous for his expertness in judging the weight of a fish—calling out the weight to be recorded. Laying down his pencil, the professor then, with a small punch, made a tiny hole in the tail-fin of the salmon, the fish having been thrown over the captor's left arm again, slipped an aluminum button through the hole, and riveted it securely. The entire process took less than a minute and a half, and by the time the salmon had been released and tossed into the water again, Colin was ready with another fish.
"I don't see why the fish don't die as soon as they come out of the water!" exclaimed Colin.
"For nearly a minute, some fish breathe better out of the water than in it," the professor answered, "but after that the gills stick together and the fish strangles. Two or even three minutes will not injure salmon, and some fish will recover if they are out of water for hours. Indeed, there are some fish that live out of water most of the time."
"Live out of water?" the boy said in surprise.
"Certainly. Some kinds of fish, at least, can't stay in the water very long, but remain perched up on the rocks."
"Perching like birds?" Colin said incredulously.
"I know that sounds a little improbable, but it's true, just the same," the professor said, smiling. "This is a Fisheries story, not a 'fish story.' There's a difference. They come from Samoa and belong to the skippy family. Most of them live on the rocks, and they jump from rock to rock instead of swimming. Some of them even are vegetarians—which is rare among fish—and their gills are smaller and stouter. Plenty of them are only in the water for a little while at high tide, living in the moist seaweed until the tide rises again."
Colin was silenced, and he went on vigorously dipping up salmon.
"How many fish are you going to tag?" the boy asked, when a couple of hours had passed by.
"Sixty," the professor answered, "and we must be nearly through, for I have only a few buttons left."
Secretly the boy was much relieved, for his back was tired from stooping and netting heavy fish for two hours, but he would have worked to utter exhaustion rather than complain. However, within another quarter of an hour, the last fish was dropped over the side and the party was on its return journey.
"Why don't you stop and see the hatchery?" suggested the professor, in return to a host of questions put to him by the boy concerning salmon culture.
"I'd like to, ever so much, if I might," was the answer, and Colin looked up at the foreman.
"Come right along," was the latter's immediate response. "It isn't much of a place to look at, but you can see whatever there is to see."
The hatchery itself was simple and bare, as the foreman had suggested, consisting merely of a row of boxes arranged in such a way that water flowed through them constantly, bringing a steady supply of fresh water without carrying away the light eggs and tiny fry. Colin was thoroughly interested, and followed the foreman from place to place, eagerly watching the processes of hatching the fish and asking unending questions.
"Here," the man said, after he had answered a dozen or more queries. "I'll show you just how it's done and you'll learn more from watching than I could tell you in a week of talk."
He led the way to a large pond not far from the hatchery, which was connected with a small stream, the water of which was almost entirely fresh.
"It's a little early yet for the autumn run," the foreman said, "but maybe there's some salmon ready for their eggs to be taken. We'll have a look, anyway."
"Are there any chinook in there?" queried Colin, who was feeling a little proud of the knowledge he had acquired that morning as to the way of distinguishing the varieties of salmon.
"Don't want chinook," was the reply; "they have got to go away up the river to spawn and wouldn't be in shape if we tried to use them here. We only raise humpback and dog here, the hatcheries for chinook and silver salmon are away up the river."
"Run by the State or the Government?" queried the boy.
"Both," was the reply, "and quite a few are managed by commercial fish companies who are as anxious as any one to see that the annual salmon run does not grow smaller. Their living depends upon it."
At his request one of the men commenced scooping up some of the salmon in the pool to see if any of them were ripe, and meantime the foreman—who was still wearing his oilskins—picked up a tin pail, holding it between his knees. In a minute or two the man came in holding a ripe female salmon.
"Now watch," the foreman said to Colin, "and you can see the whole performance."
He seized the salmon by the tail, and all the eggs ran down toward the head. Then, holding the fish head upward, he pressed it slightly, and the eggs ran out from the vent rapidly, striking the bottom of the pan with considerable force. The foreman had hardly got the eggs when his assistant came in with a male salmon, and the same plan was repeated, the milt falling upon the eggs. Both male and female salmon then were returned to the pool. The eggs and milt were shaken violently from side to side until thoroughly mixed, a little water being added to help the mixture. Then he took the pail to the faucet.
"But you're washing the milt off again!" cried Colin, as the foreman filled the pail with water.
"It's had plenty of time to work," was the answer, and the eggs were poured into a flat pan and washed several times.
"Now we'll put just a little water in the pan," the foreman continued, "and leave it here to swell."
"Why should it swell?" asked Colin.
"The egg isn't really full when it comes from the mother fish," the foreman answered, "the yolk rattles around inside the shell, but after it has been mixed with the milt, it begins to suck up water, and in about half an hour it's full."
"What happens next?" queried Colin.
"That's about all. We put the eggs in frames so that the water has a chance to circulate freely, and then we go over the frames once or twice a week to pick out any eggs that may happen to die or not to grow just right."
"How long does it take before a fish comes out?" Colin asked interestedly. "About a couple of weeks?"
"Weeks!" was the surprised answer; "we look for hatching to begin in about five months, and during all that time every tray of eggs is picked over once or twice a week. That keeps dead eggs from infecting live ones."
"You must keep them a long time, then?"
"Nearly a year altogether. Those in that trough right behind you are just hatching, they're from the first batch of spawn in the early spring run. Most of them are hatched out now, for you see only a few eggs in the tray."
Colin looked in and saw, as the foreman said, only half a dozen eggs left in the tray, while in the shallow water of the trough below were hundreds of tiny fish, like transparent tadpoles still fastened to the yolk of the egg. Some, which were just hatched, were less than three-quarters of an inch long, and scarcely able to move about in the water because of the great weight of the yolk about the center of their bodies. A few had consumed a large part of the sac.
"It'll take them about six weeks to get rid of the yolk," the foreman said, anticipating the boy's question, "and if they were in a natural stream they would be able to look after themselves. We feed them tiny grubs and worms and small pieces of liver. From that time on it is merely a question of giving them the proper food and keeping the troughs clean. When they are five or six months old we set them free."
"Do you do any work except salmon hatching here?" Colin asked, as, after a morning spent in the station, they walked toward the pier.
"No," the foreman answered, "we distribute a million and a half young fish every year and that keeps us busy enough."
"Well," said Colin, shaking hands, "I'm ever so much obliged, and I really feel now as if I knew something about a hatchery. And I've had a share in one experiment, anyway!"
On his return to the cottage he found the professor getting out fishing-tackle.
"Going out again?" queried Colin.
"I thought you might like to try a little sport-fishing," was the answer; "you said you were going down to Santa Catalina, and you might as well get your hand in. You can stay over another day, can't you?"
"I suppose I could," Colin answered, "and I should like to catch a really big salmon with a rod and line, not only for the fun of it, but because I happen to know that Father's never caught one, and I'd like to beat him out on something. It's pretty difficult, though, to get ahead of Dad!"
The professor shook his head with mock gravity.
"That's not a particularly good motive," he said, "and I don't know that I ought to increase any boy's stock of conceit. It is usually quite big enough. But maybe you won't catch anything, and I'll chance it."
"Oh, but I will catch one," Colin declared confidently; "I'm going to try and get one of the hundred-pounders that I've read about."
"You'll have a long sail, then," his host replied, "because fish of that size don't come far south of Alaskan waters. Twenty-five or thirty pounds is as big as you can look for, and even those will give you all the sport you want."
"Very well," Colin responded, a little abashed, "I'll be satisfied."
"It's rather a pity," the professor said, when, after lunch, they had started for the fishing-grounds in a small catboat, "that you haven't had a chance to go up to The Dalles to see the salmon leaping up the falls and the rapids. I think it's one of the most wonderful sights in the world."
"I've seen the Atlantic salmon jump small falls," Colin said, "but I don't think I ever saw one larger than ten or twelve pounds."
"I have seen hundreds of them fifty to eighty pounds in weight leaping at falls in the smaller Alaskan rivers. I remember seeing twenty or thirty in the air at a time while the water below the falls was boiling with the thousands of fish threshing the water before their leap."
"How high can they jump?" asked Colin.
"About sixteen foot sheer stops even the best of them," the professor said, "but there are not many direct falls like that. Nearly all rapids and falls are in jumps of five or six feet, and salmon can take that easily. Still, there is a fall nearly twenty feet high that some salmon must have leaped, for a few have been found above it, and they must either have leaped up or walked round—there's no other way."
"How do you suppose they did it?"
"In a very high wind, probably," the professor answered; "a gale blowing up the canyon might just give the extra foot or two at the end of a high leap."
As soon as they were about four miles out, the sail was taken in and, following the professor's example, Colin dropped his line over the stern. The shining copper and nickel spoon sank slowly, and the boy paid out about a hundred feet of line. Taking up the oars and with the rod ready to hand, Colin rowed slowly, parallel with the shore. Two or three times the boy had a sensation that the boat was being followed by some mysterious denizen of the sea, but though in the distance there seemed a strange ripple on the water, nothing definite appeared, and he forgot it for the moment as the professor got the first strike.
With the characteristic scream, the reel shrilled out, and the fish took nearly a hundred feet of line, but the angler held the brake so hard that the strain rapidly exhausted the fish, and when it turned toward the boat, the professor's deft fingers reeled at such a speed that the line wound in almost as rapidly as the rush of the fish. As soon as the salmon saw the boat it tried to break away, but its captor had caught a glimpse of the fish, and seeing that it was not too large for speedy action, reeled in without loss of time, and gaffed him promptly.
"Small chinook," he said, as he tossed him into the boat.
He had hardly finished speaking before Colin made a grab for his rod, and the catch was repeated in almost the same manner. This went on until five fish had been caught, the last one, which fell to the professor, putting up the most gamy fight of them all. But still it was too easy for real sport.
The ripple which Colin had been watching had come nearer, and in the catching of the last fish, the boat had been brought quite close to it.
Then, noiselessly, and like a strange vision, out from the undulating ripples rose slowly a creature more fantastic than the boy's wildest dreams. The head was green, with large unwinking, glittering eyes. In slow contortions, the body, of a transparency that showed the light through, writhed like a tremendous ribbon-snake, and a sharp row of serrated fins surmounted all its length, from which, near the head, scarlet streamers floated like a mane. A moment thus it held its head erect, then sank below the surface. The boy sat with his eyes fixed upon the spot where he had seen this weird appearance, unknown and ghostly-seeming.
"Colin," said the professor, and his tone was so imperative that the boy turned sharply, "what is the matter? What are you watching?"
"I don't know, sir," said the boy; "I don't know much about fish, and I was waiting until it came nearer. I was going to say——"
He stopped suddenly.
"What?" asked the professor, a little impatiently.
"You'd laugh at me," the boy answered.
"I saw a big green head with large eyes and spines on its back put its head out of the water," Colin said doggedly, "and it had a bright red mane. I couldn't think of anything but—but,"—he hesitated and then gulped out,—"a sea-serpent."
He half feared to look at his companion, feeling that a pitying smile would greet his news, but after a few seconds' silence, he glanced up and saw that his fellow-fisherman was looking grave and thoughtful. At that instant the boy felt a quick snap at his line and he struck, the salmon whirling away instantly. It was a good fight, and the fish was full of grit, sending a curious thrumming sensation up the line that set every nerve aquiver. At last he got the fish stopped, and had just started to reel the big salmon in, when the apparition thrust its head out of the water not twenty feet from the boat. It distracted Colin's attention, and a few seconds later his line snapped.
"The salmon's got away," said Colin disgustedly.
"What does that matter?" said the professor. "We've something else to do."
"Catch your sea-serpent," was the reply, as the older man pointed to the green and scarlet gleam in the water.
"It must be thirty feet long," Colin said, then realizing that his tone suggested that he was afraid, he added boldly, "but I'm game. What is it, anyway?"
"You're not so far off in calling it a sea-serpent," his companion said; "at least, it's more like the fabulous monster than any other fish that we know."
"But how are you going to catch it?" the boy asked.
"By hand," the professor replied, slipping off his outer clothes.
"You mean you're going in after it?" queried the boy with amazement.
"Certainly," the other answered; "it's harmless enough."
"It doesn't look it," said Colin, but he was not to be outdone, and prepared to follow his host into the water.
They ran the boat close to the creature, which swam but feebly despite its immense length, and the professor plunged over the side, holding the loop of a rope. A few strokes took him to the long, ribbon-like form, which was not thicker than a man's body, and he threw his arms about it, back of the head. The fish struggled weakly, but the professor did not let go, and in a few seconds Colin had brought up the boat. He then took the rope, which had been passed around the soft and flabby body. Then, jumping overboard also, the boy helped the professor lift the fish from below, for the flesh was so soft that a rope would cut right through it. With great exertion, for the creature was heavy, they got it on board, half swamping the boat in doing so. Despite its size, the strange visitor from the deep seemed scarcely able to struggle and lay motionless in the boat.
"What is it?" asked Colin, as he gazed on the snake-body and the strange head which, with its brilliant crimson mane, was reminiscent of some fiery horse of ancient legend.
"What can it be?" he repeated wonderingly.
"An oarfish," the professor answered.
"That isn't what I think it is," Colin replied. "I'm sure it's something quite different."
"What?" asked the professor, smiling.
"I believe something has killed the sea-serpent at the bottom of the sea and this is its ghost!"
CLUTCHED BY A HORROR OF THE DEEP
In order that the valuable specimen of the oarfish might be properly preserved, for the creature was so soft-fleshed that it would quickly shrivel in the hot sun, the professor accompanied Colin to Astoria the following morning, and shortly after they landed, the city was buzzing with news of the wonderful find. Before the boy left for Santa Catalina that evening he found his name in all the afternoon papers as being one of the men who had "caught the sea-serpent." As this was the first specimen in perfect preservation that had reached any city of the United States and, indeed, only the sixth ever reported from American shores, a great deal of interest was excited, and Colin was compelled to give an interview to a reporter, telling the story of the capture. He was sorry that his brother—to whom he had sent the blue fox—was not with the rest of the family in Santa Catalina, so that he could tell him all about it, but the younger lad was at a boys' camp.
Making a stay of only a couple of hours in Los Angeles, the boy went from there straight to San Pedro, where he took the steamer for Avalon, the only large town on Santa Catalina, and the most famous place in the entire world for taking big game fish with rod and reel.
The passage was only of two hours' duration, and the weather ideal. The water of the channel was like a mirror, but the daily breeze sprang up at eleven o'clock, its accustomed hour.
Although no more attentive to scenery than most boys of his age, Colin fairly cried aloud with admiration as the steamer rounded the point and turned into Avalon Bay. Almost a perfect semicircle, the beach of glistening white sand enclosed a basin of turquoise sea in which were reflected the dark, rich tones of the cliffs, all glowing like an opal beneath the sun, while above rose the hills covered with the wild lilac and greasewood of California. Even the tame sea-lions which frequent the harbor and follow incoming boats, and which frequently are to be seen hauled up on small fishing-craft, seemed to fit wonderfully into the scene. A passenger who heard the boy's exclamation of delight, turned to him.
"That's the way I feel about it," he said. "I think it more beautiful every time I come."
"It makes me think of an abalone shell," Colin remarked thoughtfully, "before the outside is polished; the bay looks just like the glow of the shell inside and the sand-hills resemble the rough outside of the shell, with barnacles growing on it."
"Perhaps that is why it is called Avalon?" his companion said; "abalone, Avalon—it's not improbable, though I never heard such a derivation before; the Vale of Avalon in Pennsylvania is supposed to have been the prime factor in giving the name. But it's a wonderful place in itself, and besides, there's not one of those hundreds of boats moored in the harbor but could tell some thrilling tale of big game at sea. Look," he continued, as the steamer drew near to the entrance of the harbor, "there's a chap who's hooked to something big. By the way he's playing the fish it's probably a leaping tuna. Wait a minute and I'll tell you."
He unslung his fieldglasses and focused them on the boat.
"Yes, he's got a tuna," he continued, "for the flag is flying."
The news spread rapidly over the boat, for almost every one on board was going to Avalon for the angling, and the capture of a large tuna is an event. The glasses were handed from person to person, and presently were passed to Colin, who noted with eager interest the little motor-boat and the big flag. Then he turned the glass on the people in the boat, and flashed out excitedly:
"Why, that's Father!"
"He's in luck, then," said the boy's companion. "I hope I get a chance this season. Still, it's a good omen, seeing a catch like this when coming into the harbor."
"Sure thing," said Colin confidently, "there are probably lots of them this season. Do you suppose Father will land him?"
"About nine out of ten get away," was the reply, "and it takes a good fisherman to bring them to the gaff. Has your father been here before? Perhaps I may know him."
"He comes nearly every year," Colin answered. "Dare is his name, Major Dare."
"Oh, you're Dare's son, are you?" was the response, as the older man held out his hand. "I've known your father for years. He holds a blue tuna button, doesn't he?"
"I've never heard of it, if he does," Colin answered. "What's that for?"
"It is the greatest fishing honor that is to be got anywhere. Only about seventy members of the club have gained it; two, I believe, being women, and the second largest tuna ever caught on rod and line was brought to gaff by a woman angler. It is given for catching a tuna weighing over one hundred pounds, on a light rod."
"That must be fearfully hard to do," the boy said; "even a twenty-pound fish is a strain to a light rod."
"It is difficult," was the reply, "but the club rules require the use of a rod the tip of which shall be not less than five feet long, weighing not over sixteen ounces in weight, and a line not over a 'twenty-four' or smaller than the usual trout-line. With this equipment, to conquer a tuna weighing over one hundred pounds is an angling achievement of the highest rank, and for this the blue tuna button is given by the club."
"And Father never told me!" Colin said reproachfully, watching the contest with the fish as well as he could considering his distance from the scene of action.
"Major Dare is a thorough sportsman," the angler said, "and I suppose he thought it would look like boasting. What's happening there in the boat?"
"It looks as though they had started out to sea," Colin answered, handing back the glass.
"That's what's the matter!" the angler said. "By Jonah's whale, how she is flying through the water!"
The two watched the boat until a turn of the cliff hid it from sight and then, Colin, turning round, saw that the steamer was nearly at the pier, close enough for him to distinguish his mother and sister waiting there and waving to attract his attention. He signaled enthusiastically in reply, and in a few minutes the steamer was alongside the wharf.
The greeting was most exciting, for the boy was simply bursting with news, and there had been a good deal of anxiety felt by his parents on his behalf while he had been wandering in the Behring Sea. But their talk was broken in upon by an enthusiastic angler friend, who begged Mrs. Dare to come to the extreme end of the pier and watch the battle with the big tuna.
"Oh, Mother," eagerly said the boy, "do you mind if I jump in a boat so that I can go out and watch Father better? I'm sure he wouldn't object."
"I think I would like to have you with me for a little while, Colin," his mother said with a gentle smile, "after you have been away so long. But you are just the same, after all, eager to do everything immediately. I know you would be happier in going, so you can desert us if you like."
"I don't mean that, Mother!" said the boy, feeling a twinge of self-reproach.
"No, I know. But you can tell us all the rest of your adventures when you get back. Lucy quite thinks that you have become a sort of 'Robinson Crusoe.'"
Colin gave his little sister—of whom he was very fond—an unobserved hug, and then fairly sped down to the end of the pier and called a boatman to take him off. The boatman, who was a native of the place, and to whom everything connected with angling was an old story, laughed at the boy's excitement.
"Goin' to catch a tuna with your hands, sir?" he asked, seeing that the boy was not carrying any fishing-tackle.
"No," the boy answered, "but I just came in on the steamer and, as we passed the point, saw Father's boat, and he seemed to have something big on the line, so I want to go out and see the fun."
"I heard Major Dare had a tuna this mornin'," the boatman said, casting off and starting the little engine, "although there haven't many of 'em showed up yet this season. Are you his son?"
"Yes," Colin answered, "I'm the oldest."
"I hope you're goin' to take after him, then," the boatman said approvingly; "he's a fine angler. Looks like the tuna was comin' in," he continued a moment later, as the boat with the flag flying came speeding into the harbor. But the fish was darting from side to side in short rushes, and it was evident that he was tiring.
"Hullo, Father," called the boy, as they came within hearing; "are you going to land him?"
"Is that you, Colin?" his father answered, without taking his eyes from his line, however. "Glad to have you back. Yes," he continued, answering the boy's question, "I think I'll land him all right, but I'm pretty well tuckered out, I hooked him over three hours ago."
Even recalling what the angler aboard the steamer had told him about the sportsmanlike rules that obtain at Avalon, it seemed absurd to Colin for any one to try and catch so heavy a fish as the tuna seemed to be, with a rod and line that would be thought light for trout.