John Barleycorn HTML version
Gradual as was my development as a heavy drinker among the oyster pirates, the real
heavy drinking came suddenly, and was the result, not of desire for alcohol, but of an
The more I saw of the life, the more I was enamoured of it. I can never forget my thrills
the first night I took part in a concerted raid, when we assembled on board the Annie--
rough men, big and unafraid, and weazened wharf-rats, some of them ex-convicts, all of
them enemies of the law and meriting jail, in sea-boots and sea-gear, talking in gruff low
voices, and "Big" George with revolvers strapped about his waist to show that he meant
Oh, I know, looking back, that the whole thing was sordid and silly. But I was not
looking back in those days when I was rubbing shoulders with John Barleycorn and
beginning to accept him. The life was brave and wild, and I was living the adventure I
had read so much about.
Nelson, "Young Scratch" they called him, to distinguish him from "Old Scratch," his
father, sailed in the sloop Reindeer, partners with one "Clam." Clam was a dare-devil, but
Nelson was a reckless maniac. He was twenty years old, with the body of a Hercules.
When he was shot in Benicia, a couple of years later, the coroner said he was the
greatest-shouldered man he had ever seen laid on a slab.
Nelson could not read or write. He had been "dragged" up by his father on San Francisco
Bay, and boats were second nature with him. His strength was prodigious, and his
reputation along the water-front for violence was anything but savoury. He had Berserker
rages and did mad, terrible things. I made his acquaintance the first cruise of the Razzle
Dazzle, and saw him sail the Reindeer in a blow and dredge oysters all around the rest of
us as we lay at two anchors, troubled with fear of going ashore.
He was some man, this Nelson; and when, passing by the Last Chance saloon, he spoke
to me, I felt very proud. But try to imagine my pride when he promptly asked me in to
have a drink. I stood at the bar and drank a glass of beer with him, and talked manfully of
oysters, and boats, and of the mystery of who had put the load of buckshot through the
We talked and lingered at the bar. It seemed to me strange that we lingered. We had had
our beer. But who was I to lead the way outside when great Nelson chose to lean against
the bar? After a few minutes, to my surprise, he asked me to have another drink, which I
did. And still we talked, and Nelson evinced no intention of leaving the bar.