Chapter II. In Which They Break Bread with a Lonely Woman
 

It was perhaps two hours later that Fraser went to the window for the twentieth time, and, breathing against the pane, cleared a peep-hole, announcing:

"He's gone!"

Emerson, absorbed in a book, made no answer. After his encounter with the householder he had said little, and upon finding this coverless, brown- stained volume--a tattered copy of Don Quixote--he had relapsed into utter silence.

"I say, he's gone!" reiterated the man at the window.

Still no reply was forthcoming, and, seating himself near the stove, Fraser spread his hands before him in the shape of a book, and began whimsically, in a dry monotone, as if reading to himself:

"At which startling news, Mr. Emerson, with his customary vivacity, smiled engagingly, and answered back:

"'Why do you reckon he has departed, Mr. Fraser?"

"'Because he's lost his voice cussing us,' I replied, graciously.

"'Oh no!' exclaimed the genial Mr. Emerson, more for the sake of conversation than argument; 'he has got cold feet!' Evidently unwilling to let the conversation lag, the garrulous Mr. Emerson continued, 'It's a dark night without, and I fear some mischief is afoot.'

"'Yes; but what of yonder beautchous gel?' said I, at which he burst into wild laughter."

Emerson laid down his book.

"What are you muttering about?" he asked.

"I merely remarked that our scandalized Scandalusian has got tired of singin' Won't You Open that Door and Let Me In? and has ducked."

"Where has he gone?"

"I ain't no mind-reader; maybe he's loped off to Seattle after a policeman and a writ of ne plus ultra. Maybe he has gone after a clump of his countrymen--this is herding-season for Swedes."

Without answering, Emerson rose, and, going to the inner door, called through to the squaw:

"Get us a cup of coffee."

"Coffee!" interjected Fraser; "why not have a real feed? I'm hungry enough to eat anything except salt-risin' bread and Roquefort cheese."

"No," said the other; "I don't want to cause any more trouble than necessary."

"Well, there's a lot of grub in the cache. Let's load up the sled."

"I'm hardly a thief."

"Oh, but--"

"No!"

"Fingerless" Fraser fell back into sour silence.

When the slatternly woman had slunk forth and was busied at the stove, Emerson observed, musingly:

"I wonder what possessed that fellow to act as he did."

"He said he had orders," Fraser offered. "If I had a warm cabin, a lot of grub--and a squaw--I'd like to see somebody give me orders."

Their clothing was dry now, and they proceeded to dress leisurely. As Emerson roped up the sleeping-bags, Fraser suddenly suspended operations on his attire, and asked, querulously:

"What's the matter? We ain't goin' to move, are we?"

"Yes. We'll make for one of the other canneries," answered Emerson, without looking up.

"But I've got sore feet," complained the adventurer.

"What! again?" Emerson laughed skeptically. "Better walk on your hands for a while."

"And it's getting dark, too."

"Never mind. It can't be far. Come now."

He urged the fellow as he had repeatedly urged him before, for Fraser seemed to have the blood of a tramp in his veins; then he tried to question the woman, but she maintained a frightened silence. When they had finished their coffee, Emerson laid two silver dollars on the table, and they left the house to search out the river-trail again.

The early darkness, hastened by the storm, was upon them when they crept up the opposite bank an hour later, and through the gloom beheld a group of great shadowy buildings. Approaching the solitary gleam of light shining from the window of the watchman's house, they applied to him for shelter.

"We are just off a long trip, and our dogs are played out," Emerson explained. "We'll pay well for a place to rest."

"You can't stop here," said the fellow, gruffly.

"Why not?"

"I've got no room."

"Is there a road-house near by?"

"I don't know."

"You'd better find out mighty quick," retorted the young man, with rising temper at the other's discourtesy.

"Try the next place below," said the watchman, hurriedly, slamming the door in their faces and bolting it. Once secure behind his barricade, he added: "If he won't let you in, maybe the priest can take care of you at the Mission."

"This here town of Kalvik is certainly overjoyed at our arrival," said Fraser, "ain't it?"

But his irate companion made no comment, whereat, sensing the anger behind his silence, the speaker, for once, failed to extemporize an answer to his own remark.

At the next stop they encountered the same gruff show of inhospitality, and all they could elicit from the shock-headed proprietor was another direction, in broken English, to try the Russian priest.

"I'll make one more try," said Emerson, between his teeth, gratingly, as they swung out into the darkness a second time. "If that doesn't succeed, then I'll take possession again. I won't be passed on all night this way."

"The 'buck' will certainly show us to the straw," said "Fingerless" Fraser.

"The what?"

"The 'buck'--the sky-dog--oh, the priest!"

But when, a mile farther on, they drew up before a white pile surmounted by a dimly discerned Greek cross, no sign of life was to be seen, and their signals awakened no response.

"Gone!--and they knew it."

The vicious manner in which Emerson handled his whip as he said the words betrayed his state of mind. Three weeks of unvarying hardship and toilsome travel had worn out both men, and rendered them well-nigh desperate. Hence they wasted no words when, for the fourth time, their eyes caught the welcome sight of a shining radiance in the gloom of the gathering night. The trail-weary team stopped of its own accord.

"Unhitch!" ordered Emerson, doggedly, as he began to untie the ropes of the sled. He shouldered the sleeping-bags, and made toward the light that filtered through the crusted windows, followed by Fraser similarly burdened. But as they approached they saw at once that this was no cannery; it looked more like a road-house or trading-post, for the structure was low and it was built of logs. Behind and connected with it by a covered hall or passageway crouched another squat building of the same character, its roof piled thick with a mass of snow, its windows glowing. Those warm squares of light, set into the black walls and overhung by white-burdened eaves, gave the place the appearance of a Christmas-card, it was so snug and cozy. Even the glitter was there, caused by the rays refracted from the facets of the myriad frost-crystals.

They mounted the steps of the nigh building, and, without knocking, flung the door open, entered, then tossed their bundles to the floor. With a sharp exclamation at this unceremonious intrusion, an Indian woman, whom they had surprised, dropped her task and regarded them, round-eyed.

"We're all right this time," observed Emerson, as he swept the place with his eyes. "It's a store." Then to the woman he said, briefly: "We want a bed and something to eat."

On every side the walls were shelved with merchandise, while the counter carried a supply of clothing, skins, and what not; a cylindrical stove in the centre of the room emanated a hot, red glow.

"This looks like the Waldorf to me," said "Fingerless" Fraser, starting to remove his parka, the fox fringe on the hood of which was white from his breath.

"What you want?" demanded the squaw, coming forward.

Boyd, likewise divesting himself of his furs, noticed that she was little more than a girl--a native, undoubtedly; but she was neatly dressed, her skin was light, and her hair twisted into a smooth black knot at the back of her head.

"Food! Sleep!" he replied to her question.

"You can't stop here," the girl asserted, firmly.

"Oh yes, we can," said Emerson. "You have plenty of room, and there's lots of food"--he indicated the shelves of canned goods.

The squaw, without moving, raised her voice and called: "Constantine! Constantine!"

A door in the farther shadows opened, and the tall figure of a man emerged, advancing swiftly, his soft soles noiseless beneath him.

"Well, well! It's old Squirrel-Tail," cried Fraser. "Good-evening, Constantine."

It was the copper-hued native who had rescued them from the river earlier in the day; but although he must have recognized them, his demeanor had no welcome in it. The Indian girl broke into a torrent of excited volubility, unintelligible to the white men.

"You no stop here," said Constantine, finally; and, making toward the outer door, he flung it open, pointing out into the night.

"We've come a long way, and we're tired," Emerson argued, pacifically. "We'll pay you well."

Constantine only replied with added firmness, "No," to which the other retorted with a flash of rising anger, "Yes!"

He faced the Indian with his back to the stove, his voice taking on a determined note. "We won't leave here until we are ready. We're tired, and we're going to stay here--do you understand? Now tell your 'klootch' to get us some supper. Quick!"

The breed's face blazed. Without closing the door, he moved directly upon the interloper, his design recognizable in his threatening attitude; but before he could put his plan into execution, a soft voice from the rear of the room halted him.

"Constantine," it said.

The travellers whirled to see, standing out in relief against the darkness of the passage whence the Indian had just come a few seconds before, the golden-haired girl of the storm, to whom they had been indebted for their rescue. She advanced, smiling pleasantly, enjoying their surprise.

"What is the trouble?"

"These men no stop here!" cried Constantine violently. "You speak! I make them go."

"I--I--beg pardon," began Emerson. "We didn't intend to take forcible possession, but we're played out--we've been denied shelter everywhere--we felt desperate--"

"You tried the canneries above?" interrupted the girl.

"Yes."

"And they referred you to the priest? Quite so." She laughed softly, her voice a mellow contralto. "The Father has been gone for a month; he wouldn't have let you in if he'd been there."

She addressed the Indian girl in Aleut and signalled to Constantine, at which the two natives retired--Constantine reluctantly, like a watch-dog whose suspicions are not fully allayed.

"We're glad of an opportunity to thank you for your timely service this afternoon," said Emerson. "Had we known you lived here, we certainly should not have intruded in this manner." He found himself growing hotly uncomfortable as he began to realize the nature of his position, but the young woman spared him further apologies by answering, carelessly:

"Oh, that was nothing. I've been expecting you hourly. You see, Constantine's little brother has the measles, and I had to get to him before the natives could give the poor little fellow a Russian bath and then stand him out in the snow. They have only one treatment for all diseases. That's why I didn't stop and give you more explicit directions this morning."

"If your--er--father--" The girl shook her head.

"Then your husband--I should like to arrange with him to hire lodgings for a few days. The matter of money--"

Again she came to his rescue.

"I am the man of the house. I'm boss here. This splendor is all mine." She waved a slender white hand majestically at the rough surroundings, laughing in a way that put Boyd Emerson more at his ease. "You are quite welcome to stay as long as you wish. Constantine objects to my hospitality, and treats all strangers alike, fearing they may be Company men. When you didn't arrive at dark, I thought perhaps he was right this time, and that you had been taken in by one of the watchmen."

"We throwed a Swede out on his neck," declared Fraser, swelling with conscious importance, "and I guess he's 'crabbed' us with the other squareheads."

"Oh, no! They have instructions not to harbor any travellers. It's as much as his job is worth for any of them to entertain you. Now, won't you make yourselves at home while Constantine attends to your dogs? Dinner will soon be ready, and I hope you will do me the honor of dining with me," she finished, with a graciousness that threw Emerson into fresh confusion.

He murmured "Gladly," and then lost himself in wonder at this well-gowned girl living amid such surroundings. Undeniably pretty, graceful in her movements, bearing herself with certainty and poise--who was she? Where did she come from? And what in the world was she doing here?

He became aware that "Fingerless" Fraser was making the introductions. "This is Mr. Emerson; my name is French. I'm one of the Virginia Frenches, you know; perhaps you have heard of them. No? Well, they're the real thing."

The girl bowed, but Emerson forestalled her acknowledgment by breaking in roughly, with a threatening scowl at the adventurer:

"His name isn't French at all, Madam; it's Fraser--'Fingerless' Fraser. He's an utterly worthless rogue, and absolutely unreliable so far as I can learn. I picked him up on the ice in Norton Sound, with a marshal at his heels."

"That marshal wasn't after me," stoutly denied Fraser, quite unabashed. "Why, he's a friend of mine--we're regular chums--everybody knows that. He wanted to give me some papers to take outside, that's all."

Boyd shrugged his shoulders indifferently:

"Warrants!"

"Not at all! Not at all!" airily.

Their hostess, greatly amused at this remarkable turn of the ceremony, prevented any further argument by saying:

"Well, French or Fraser, whichever it is, you are both welcome. However, I should prefer to think of you as a runaway rather than as an intimate friend of the marshal at Nome; I happen to know him."

"Well, we ain't what you'd exactly call pals," Fraser hastily disclaimed. "I just sort of bow to him"--he gave an imitation of a slight, indifferent headshake--"that way!"

"I see," commented their hostess, quizzically; then recalling herself, she continued: "I should have made myself known before; I am Miss Malotte."

"Ch--" began the crook, then shut his lips abruptly, darting a shrewd glance at the girl. Emerson saw their eyes meet, and fancied that the woman's smile sat a trifle unnaturally on her lips, while the delicate coloring of her face changed imperceptibly. As the fellow mumbled some acknowledgment, she turned to the younger man, inquiring impersonally:

"I suppose you are bound for the States?"

"Yes; we intend to catch the mail-boat at Katmai. I am taking Fraser along for company; it's hard travelling alone in a strange country. He's a nuisance, but he's rather amusing at times."

"I certainly am," agreed that cheerful person, now fully at his ease. "I've a bad memory for names!"--he looked queerly at his hostess--"but I'm very amusing, very!"

"Not 'very,'" corrected Emerson.

Then they talked of the trail, the possibilities of securing supplies, and of hiring a guide. By-and-by the girl rose, and after showing them to a room, she excused herself on the score of having to see to the dinner. When she had withdrawn, "Fingerless" Fraser pursed his thin lips into a noiseless whistle, then observed:

"Well, I'll--be--cussed!"

"Who is she?" asked Emerson, in a low, eager tone. "Do you know?"

"You heard, didn't you? She's Miss Malotte, and she's certainly some considerable lady."

The same look that Emerson had noted when their hostess introduced herself to them flitted again into the crook's unsteady eyes.

"Yes, but who is she? What does this mean?" Emerson pointed to the provisions and fittings about them. "What is she doing here alone?"

"Maybe you'd better ask her yourself," said Fraser.

For the first time in their brief acquaintance, Emerson detected a strange note in the rogue's voice, but it was too slight to provoke reply, so he brushed it aside and prepared himself for dinner.

The Indian girl summoned them, and they followed her through the long passageway into the other house, where, to their utter astonishment, they seemed to step out of the frontier and into the heart of civilization. They found a tiny dining-room, perfectly appointed, in the centre of which, wonder of wonders, was a round table gleaming like a deep mahogany pool, upon the surface of which floated gauzy hand-worked napery, glinting silver, and sparkling crystal, the dark polish of the wood reflecting the light from shaded candles. It held a delicately figured service of blue and gold, while the selection of thin-stemmed glasses all in rows indicated the character of the entertainment that awaited them. The men's eyes were too busy with the unaccustomed sight to note details carefully, but they felt soft carpet beneath their feet and observed that the walls were smooth and harmoniously papered.

When one has lived long in the rough where things come with the husk on, he fancies himself weaned away from the dainty, the beautiful, and the artistic; after years of a skillet-and-sheath-knife existence he grows to feel a scorn for the finer, softer, inconsequent trifles of the past, only to find, of a sudden, that, unknown to him perhaps, his soul has been hungering for them all the while. The feel of cool linen comes like the caress of a forgotten sweetheart, the tinkle of glass and silver are so many chiming fairy bells inviting him back into the foretime days. And so these two unkempt men, toughened and browned to the texture of leather by wind and snow, brought by trail and campfire to disregard ceremony and look upon mealtime as an unsatisfying, irksome period, stood speechless, affording the girl the feminine pleasure of enjoying their discomfiture.

"This is m--marvelous," murmured Emerson, suddenly conscious of his rough clothing, his fur boots, and his hands cracked by frost. "I'm afraid we're not in keeping."

"Indeed you are," said the girl, "and I am delighted to have somebody to talk to. It's very lonesome here, month after month."

"This is certainly a swell tepee," Fraser remarked, staring about in open admiration. "How did you do it?"

"I brought my things with me from Nome."

"Nome!" ejaculated Emerson, quickly.

"Yes."

"Why, I've been in Nome ever since the camp was discovered. It's strange we never met."

"I didn't stay there very long. I went back to Dawson."

Again he fancied the girl's eyes held a vague challenge, but he could not be sure; for she seated him, and then gave some instructions to the Aleut girl, who had entered noiselessly. It was the strangest meal Boyd Emerson had ever eaten, for here, in a forgotten corner of an unknown land, hidden behind high-banked log walls, he partook of a perfect dinner, well served, and presided over by a gracious, richly gowned young woman who talked interestingly on many subjects, For a second time he lost himself in a maze of conjecture. Who was she? What was her mission here? Why was she alone? But not for long; he was too heavily burdened by the responsibility and care of his own affairs to waste much time by the way on those of other people; and becoming absorbed in his own thoughts, he grew more silent as the signs of refinement and civilization about him revived memories long stifled. Fraser, on the contrary, warmed by the wine, blossomed like the rose, and talked garrulously, recounting marvellous stories, as improbable as they were egotistical. He monopolized his hostess' attention, the while his companion became more preoccupied, more self-contained, almost sullen.

This was not the effect for which the girl had striven; her younger guest's taciturnity, which grew as the dinner progressed, piqued her, so at the first opportunity she bent her efforts toward rallying him. He answered politely, but she was powerless to shake off his mood. It was not abashment, as she realized when, from the corner of her eye, she observed him covertly stroke the linen and finger the silver as if to renew a sense of touch long unused. Being unaccustomed to any sort of indifference in men, his spiritless demeanor put her on her mettle, yet all to no avail; she could not find a seam in that mask of listless abstraction. At last he spoke of his own accord:

"You said those watchmen have instructions not to harbor travellers. Why is that?"

"It is the policy of the Companies. They are afraid somebody will discover gold around here."

"Yes?"

"You see, this is the greatest salmon river in the world; the 'run' is tremendous, and seems to be unfailing; hence the cannery people wish to keep it all to themselves."

"I don't quite understand--"

"It is simple enough. Kalvik is so isolated and the fishing season is so short that the Companies have to send their crews in from the States and take them out again every summer. Now, if gold were discovered hereabouts, the fishermen would all quit and follow the 'strike,' which would mean the ruin of the year's catch and the loss of many hundreds of thousands of dollars, for there is no way of importing new help during the short summer months. Why, this village would become a city in no time if such a thing were to happen; the whole region would fill up with miners, and not only would labor conditions be entirely upset for years, but the eyes of the world, being turned this way, other people might go into the fishing business and create a competition which would both influence prices, and deplete the supply of fish in the Kalvik River. So you see there are many reasons why this region is forbidden to miners."

"I see."

"You couldn't buy a pound of food nor get a night's lodging here for a king's ransom. The watchmen's jobs depend upon their unbroken bond of inhospitality, and the Indians dare not sell you anything, not even a dogfish, under penalty of starvation, for they are dependent upon the Companies' stores."

"So that is why you have established a trading-post of your own?"

"Oh dear, no. This isn't a store. This food is for my men."

"Your men?"

"Yes, I have a crew out in the hills on a grub-stake. This is our cache. While they prospect for gold, I stand guard over the provisions."

Fraser chuckled softly. "Then you are bucking the Salmon Trust?"

"After a fashion, yes. I knew this country had never been gone over, so I staked six men, chartered a schooner, and came down here from Nome in the early spring. We stood off the watchmen, and when the supply-ships arrived, we had these houses completed, and my men were out in the hills where it was hard to follow them. I stayed behind, and stood the brunt of things."

"But surely they didn't undertake to injure you?" said Emerson, now thoroughly interested in this extraordinary young woman.

"Oh, didn't they!" she answered, with a peculiar laugh. "You don't appreciate the character of these people. When a man fights for money, just plain, sordid money, he loses all sense of honor, chivalry, and decency, he employs any means that come handy. There is no real code of financial morality, and the battle for dollars is the bitterest of all contests. Of course, being a woman, they couldn't very well attack me personally, but they tried everything except physical violence, and I don't know how long they will refrain from that. These plants are owned separately, but they operate under an agreement, with one man at the head. His name is Marsh--Willis Marsh, and, of course, he's not my friend."

"Sort of 'United we stand, divided we fall.'"

"Exactly. That spreads the responsibility, and seems to leave nobody guilty for their evil deeds. The first thing they did was to sink my schooner--in the morning you will see her spars sticking up through the ice out in front there. One of their tugs 'accidentally' ran her down, although she was at anchor fully three hundred feet inside the channel line. Then Marsh actually had the effrontery to come here personally and demand damages for the injury to his towboat, claiming there were no lights on the schooner."

Cherry Malotte's eyes grew dark with indignation as she continued: "Nobody thinks of hanging lanterns to little crafts like her at anchor under such conditions. Having allowed me to taste his power, that man first threatened me covertly, and then proceeded to persecute me in a more open manner. When I still remained obdurate, he--he"--she paused. "You may have heard of it. He killed one of my men."

"Impossible!" ejaculated Boyd.

"Oh, but it isn't impossible. Anything is possible with unscrupulous men where there is no law; they halt at nothing when in chase of money. They are different from women in that. I never heard of a woman doing murder for money."

"Was it really murder?"

"Judge for yourself. My man came down for supplies, and they got him drunk--he was a drinking man--then they stabbed him. They said a Chinaman did it in a brawl, but Willis Marsh was to blame. They brought the poor fellow here, and laid him on my steps, as if I had been the cause of it. Oh, it was horrible, horrible!" Her eyes suddenly dimmed over and her white hands clenched.

"And you still stuck to your post?" said Emerson, curiously.

"Certainly! This adventure means a great deal to me, and, besides, I will not be beaten"--the stem of the glass with which she had been toying snapped suddenly--"at anything."

She appeared, all in a breath, to have become prematurely hard and worldly, after the fashion of those who have subsisted by their wits. To Emerson she seemed to have grown at least ten years older. Yet it was unbelievable that this slip of a woman should be possessed of the determination, the courage, and the administrative ability to conduct so desperate an enterprise. He could understand the feminine rashness that might have led her to embark upon it in the first place, but to continue in the face of such opposition--why, that was a man's work and required a man's powers, and yet she was utterly unmasculine. Indeed, it seemed to him that he had never met a more womanly woman. Everything about her was distinctly feminine.

"Fortunately, the fishing season is short," she added, while a pucker of perplexity came between her dainty brows; "but I don't know what will happen next summer."

"I'd like to meet this Marsh-hen party," observed Fraser, his usually colorless eyes a bright sea-green.

"Do you fear further--er--violence?" asked Emerson.

Cherry shrugged her rounded shoulders. "I anticipate it, but I don't fear it. I have Constantine to protect me, and you will admit he is a capable bodyguard." She smiled slightly, recalling the scene she had interrupted before dinner. "Then, too, Chakawana, his sister, is just as devoted. Rather a musical name, don't you think so, Chakawana? It means 'The Snowbird' in Aleut, but when she's aroused she's more like a hawk. It's the Russian in her, I dare say."

The girl became conscious that her guests were studying her with undisguised amazement now, and therefore arose, saying, "You may smoke in the other room if you wish."

Lost in wonder at this unconventional creature, and dazed by the strangeness of the whole affair, Emerson gained his feet and followed her, with "Fingerless" Fraser at his heels.