The Silver Horde by Rex Ellingwood Beach
Chapter XIX. In Which a Mutiny is Threatened
Even after they were miles down the Sound, Boyd remained at his post, sweeping the waters astern in an anxious search for some swift harbor craft, the appearance of which would signal that his escape had been discovered.
"I won't feel safe until we are past Port Townsend," he confessed to Cherry, who maintained a position at his side.
"Why Port Townsend? We don't stop there."
"No. But the police can wire on from Seattle to stop us and take me off at that point."
"If they find out their mistake."
"They must have found it out long ago. That's why I've got Peasley forcing this old tub; she's doing ten knots, and that's a breakneck speed for her. Once we're through the Straits, I'll be satisfied. But meanwhile--" Emerson lowered his glasses with a sigh of fatigue, and in the soft twilight the girl saw that his face was lined and careworn. The yearning at her heart lent poignant sympathy to her words, as she said:
"You deserve to win, Boyd; you have made a good fight."
"Oh, I'll win!" he declared, wearily. "I've got to win; only I wish we were past Port Townsend."
"What will happen to Fraser?" she queried.
"Nothing serious, I am sure. You see, they wanted me, and nobody else; once they find they have the wrong man I rather believe they will free him in disgust."
A moment later he went on: "Just the same, it makes me feel depressed and guilty to leave him--I--I wouldn't desert a comrade for anything if the choice lay with me."
"You did quite right," Cherry warmly assured him.
"You see, I am not working for myself; I am doing this for another."
It was the girl's turn to sigh softly, while the eyes she turned toward the west were strangely sad and dreamy. To her companion she seemed not at all like the buoyant creature who had kindled his courage when it was so low, the brave girl who had stood so steadfastly at his shoulder and kept his hopes alive during these last, trying weeks. It struck him suddenly that she had grown very quiet of late. It was the first time he had had the leisure to notice it, but now, when he came to reflect on it, he remembered that she had never seemed quite the same since his interview with her on that day when Hilliard had so unexpectedly come to his rescue. He wondered if in reality this change might not be due to some reflected alteration in himself. Well! He could not help it.
Her strange behavior at that time had affected him more deeply than he would have thought possible; and while he had purposely avoided thinking much about the banker's sudden change of front, back of his devout thankfulness for the miracle was a vague suspicion, a curious feeling that made him uncomfortable in the girl's presence. He could not repent his determination to win at any price; yet he shrank, with a moral cowardice which made him inwardly writhe, from owning that Cherry had made the sacrifice at which Clyde and the others had hinted. If it were indeed true, it placed him in an intolerable position, wherein he could express neither his gratitude nor his censure. No doubt she had read the signs of his mental confusion, and her own delicate sensibility had responded to it.
They remained side by side on the bridge while the day died amidst a wondrous panoply of color, each busied with thoughts that might not be spoken, in their hearts emotions oddly at variance. The sky ahead of them was wide-streaked with gold, as if for a symbol, interlaid with sooty clouds in silhouette; on either side the mountains rose from penumbral darkness to clear-cut heights still bright from the slanting radiance. Here and there along the shadowy shore-line a light was born; the smell of the salt sea was in the air. Above the rhythmic pulse of the steamer rose the voices of men singing between decks, while the parting waters at the prow played a soft accompaniment. A steward summoned them to supper, but Boyd refused, saying he could not eat, and the girl stayed with him while the miles slowly slipped past and the night encompassed them.
"Two hours more," he told her, as the ship's bell sounded. "Then I can eat and sleep--and sing."
Captain Peasley was pacing the bridge when later they breasted the glare of Port Townsend and saw in the distance the flashing searchlights of the forts that guard the Straits. They saw him stop suddenly, and raise his night-glasses; Boyd laid his hand on Cherry's arm. Presently the Captain crossed to them and said:
"Yonder seems to be a launch making out. See? I wonder what's up." Almost in their path a tiny light was violently agitated. "By Jove! They're signalling."
"You won't stop, will you?" questioned Emerson.
"I don't know, I am sure. I may have to."
The two boats were drawing together rapidly, and soon those on the bridge heard the faint but increasing patter of a gasoline exhaust. Carrying the same speed as The Bedford Castle, the launch shortly came within hailing distance. The cyclopean eye of the ship's searchlight blazed up, and the next instant, out from the gloom leaped a little craft, on the deck of which a man stood waving a lantern. She held steadfastly to her course, and a voice floated up to them:
"Ahoy! What ship?"
"The Bedford Castle, cannery-tender for Bristol Bay," Peasley shouted back.
The man on the launch relinquished his lantern, and using both palms for a funnel, cried, more clearly now: "Heave to! We want to come aboard."
With an exclamation of impatience, the commanding officer stepped to the telegraph, but Emerson forestalled him.
"Wait, they're after me, Captain; it's the Port Townsend police, and if you let them aboard they'll take me off."
"What makes you think so?" demanded Peasley.
Turning, the skipper bellowed down the gleaming electric pathway, "Who are you?"
"Police! We want to come aboard."
"What did I tell you?" cried Emerson.
Once more the Captain shouted: "What do you want?"
"One of your passengers--Emerson. Heave to. You're passing us."
"That's bloody hard luck, Mr. Emerson; I can't help myself," the Captain declared. But again Boyd blocked him as he started for the telegraph.
"I won't stand it, sir. It's a conspiracy to ruin me."
"But, my dear young man--"
"Don't touch that instrument!"
From the launch came cries of growing vehemence, and a startled murmur of voices rose from somewhere in the darkness of the deck beneath.
"Stand aside," Peasley ordered, gruffly; but the other held his ground, saying, quietly:
"I warn you. I am desperate."
"Shall I stop her, sir?" the quartermaster asked from the shadows of the wheel-house.
"No!" Emerson commanded, sharply, and in the glow from the binnacle-light they saw he had drawn his revolver, while on the instant up from the void beneath heaved the massive figure of Big George Balt, a behemoth, more colossal and threatening than ever in the dim light. Rumbling curses as he came, he leaped up the pilot-house steps, wrenched open the door, and with one sweep of his hairy paw flung the helmsman from his post, panting,
"Keep her going, Cap', or I'll run them down!"
"We stood by you, old man," Emerson urged; "you stand by us. They can't make you stop. They can't come aboard."
The launch was abreast of them now, and skimming along so close that one might have tossed a biscuit aboard of her. For an instant Captain Peasley hesitated; then Emerson saw the ends of his bristly mustache rise above an expansive grin as he winked portentously. But his voice was convincingly loud and wrathful as he replied:
"What do you mean, sir? I'll have my blooming ship libelled for this."
"I'll make good your losses," Emerson volunteered, quickly, realizing that other ears were open.
"Why, it's mutiny, sir."
"Exactly! You can say you went out under duress."
"I never heard of such a thing," stormed the skipper. Then, more quietly, "But I don't seem to have any choice in the matter; do I?"
"Tell them to go to hell!" growled Balt from the open window above their head.
A blasphemous outcry floated up from the launch, while heads protruded from the deck-house openings, the faces white in the slanting glare. "Why don't you heave to?" demanded a voice.
Peasley stepped to the end of the bridge and called down: "I can't stop, my good man, they won't allow it, y' know. You'll have to bloody well come aboard yourself." Then, obedient to his command, the search-light traced an arc through the darkness and died out, leaving the little craft in darkness, save for its dim lantern.
Unseen by the amazed quartermaster, who was startled out of speech and action, Emerson gripped the Captain's shoulder and whispered his thanks, while the Britisher grumbled under his breath:
"Bli' me! Won't that labor crowd be hot? They nearly bashed in my head with that iron spike. Four hundred pounds! My word!"
The sputter of the craft alongside was now punctuated by such a volley of curses that he raised his voice again: "Belay that chatter, will you? There's a lady aboard."
The police launch sheered off, and the sound of her exhaust grew rapidly fainter and fainter. But not until it had wholly ceased did Big George give over his post at the wheel. Even then he went down the ladder reluctantly, and without a word of thanks, of explanation, or of apology. With him this had been but a part of the day's work. He saw neither sentiment nor humor in the episode. The clang of the deep-throated ship's bell spoke the hour, and, taking Cherry's arm, Boyd helped her to the deck.
"Now let's eat something," said she.
"Yes," he agreed, relief and triumph in his tone, "and drink something, too."
"We'll drink to the health of 'Fingerless' Fraser."
"To the health of 'Fingerless' Fraser," he echoed. "We will drink that standing."
A week later, after an uneventful voyage across a sea of glass, The Bedford Castle made up through a swirling tide-rip and into the fog- bound harbor of Unalaska. The soaring "goonies" that had followed them from Flattery had dropped astern at first sight of the volcanic headlands, and now countless thousands of sea-parrots fled from the ship's path, squattering away in comic terror, dragging their fat bodies across the sea as a boy skips a flat rock. It had been Captain Peasley's hope, here at the gateway of the Misty Sea, to learn something about the lay of the big ice-floes to the northward, but he was disappointed, for the season was yet too young for the revenue-cutters, and the local hunters knew nothing. Forced to rely on luck and his own skill, he steamed out again the next day, this time doubling back to the eastward and laying a cautious course along the second leg of the journey.
Once through the ragged barrier that separates the North Pacific from her sister sea, the dank breath of the Arctic smote them fairly. The breeze that wafted out from the north brought with it the chill of limitless ice- fields, and the first night found them hove-to among the outposts of that shifting desert of death which debouches out of Behring Straits with the first approach of autumn, to retreat again only at the coming of reluctant summer. From the crow's-nest the lookout stared down upon a white expanse that stretched beyond the horizon. At dawn they began their careful search, feeling their way eastward through the open lanes and tortuous passages that separated the floes, now laying-to for the northward set of the fields to clear a path before them, now stealing through some narrow lead that opened into freer waters.
The Bedford Castle was a steel hull whose sides, opposed to the jaws of the ponderous masses, would have been crushed like an eggshell in a vise. Unlike a wooden ship, the gentlest contact would have sprung her plates, while any considerable collision would have pierced her as if she had been built of paper. Appreciating to the full the peril of his slow advance, Captain Peasley did all the navigating in person; but eventually they were hemmed in so closely that for a day and a night they could do nothing but drift with the pack. In time, however, the winds opened a crevice through which they retreated to follow the outer limits farther eastward, until they were balked again.
Opposed to them were the forces of Nature, and they were wholly dependent upon her fickle favor. It might be a day, a week, a month before she would let them through, and, even when the barrier began to yield, another ship, a league distant, might profit by an opening which to them was barred. For a long, dull period the voyagers lay as helpless as if in dry-dock, while wandering herds of seals barked at them or bands of walruses ceased their fishing and crept out upon the ice-pans to observe these invaders of their peace. When an opportunity at last presented itself, they threaded their way southward, there to try another approach, and another, and another, until the first of May had come and gone, leaving them but little closer to their goal than when they first hove-to. Late one evening they discerned smoke on the horizon, and the next morning's light showed a three-masted steamship fast in the ice, a few miles to the westward.
"That's The Juliet," Big George informed his companions, "one of the North American Packers' Association tenders."
"She was loading when we left Seattle," Boyd remarked.
"It is Willis Marsh's ship, so he must be aboard," supplemented Cherry. "She's a wooden ship, and built for this business. If we don't look out he'll beat us in, after all."
"What good will that do him?" Clyde questioned. "The fish don't bite--I mean run--for sixty days yet."
Emerson and Balt merely shrugged.
To Cherry Malotte this had been a voyage of dreams; for once away from land, Boyd had become his real self again--that genial, irrepressible self she had seen but rarely--and his manner had lost the restraint and coolness which recently had disturbed their relations. Of necessity their cramped environment had thrown them much together, and their companionship had been most pleasant. She and Boyd had spent long hours together, during which his light-heartedness had rivalled that of Alton Clyde--hours wherein she had come to know him more intimately and to feel that he was growing to a truer understanding of herself. She realized beyond all doubt that for him there was but one woman in all the world, yet the mere pleasure of being near him was an anodyne for her secret distress. Womanlike, she took what was offered her and strove unceasingly for more.
Two days after sighting The Juliet they raised another ship, one of the sailing fleet which they knew to be hovering in the offing, and then on the fifth of the month the capricious current opened a way for them. Slowly at first they pushed on between the floes into a vast area of slush-ice, thence to a stretch as open and placid as a country mill-pond. The lookout pointed a path out of this, into which they steamed, coming at length to clear water, with the low shores of the mainland twenty miles away.
At sundown they anchored in the wide estuary of the Kalvik River, the noisy rumble of their chains breaking the silence that for months had lain like a smother upon the port. The Indian village gave sign of life only in thin, azure wisps of smoke that rose from the dirt roofs; the cannery buildings stood as naked and uninviting as when Boyd had last seen them. The Greek cross crowning the little white church was gilded by the evening sun. Through the glasses Cherry spied a figure in the door of her house which she declared was Constantine, but with commendable caution the big breed forebore to join the fleet of kyaks now rapidly mustering. Taking Clyde with them, she and Boyd were soon on their way to the land, leaving George to begin discharging his cargo. The long voyage that had maddened the fishermen was at last at an end, and they were eager to begin their tasks.
A three-mile pull brought the ship's boat to Cherry's landing, where Constantine and Chakawana met them, the latter hysterical with joy, the former showing his delight in a rare display of white teeth and a flow of unintelligible English. Even the sledge-dogs, now fat from idleness, greeted their mistress with a fierce clamor that dismayed Alton Clyde, to whom all was utterly new and strange.
"Glory be!" he exclaimed. "They're nothing but wolves. Won't they bite? And the house--ain't it a hit! Why, it looks like a stage setting! Oh, say, I'm for this! I'm getting rough and primitive and brutal already!"
When they passed from the store, with its shelves sadly naked now, to the cozy living quarters behind, his enthusiasm knew no bounds. Leaving Chakawana and her mistress to chatter and clack in their patois, he inspected the premises inside and out, peering into all sorts of corners, collecting souvenirs, and making friends with the saturnine breed.
Cherry would not return to the ship, but Emerson and Clyde re-embarked and were rowed down to the cannery site, abreast of which lay The Bedford Castle, where they lingered until the creeping twilight forced them to the boat again. When they reached the ship the cool Arctic night had descended, but its quiet was broken by the halting nimble of steam- winches, the creak of tackle, the cries of men, and the sounds of a great activity. Baring his head to the breezes Boyd filled his lungs full of the bracing air, sweet with the flavor of spring, vowing secretly that no music that he had ever heard was the equal of this. He turned his face to the southward and smiled, while his thoughts sped a message of love and hope into the darkness.