Chapter XX. Wherein "Fingerless" Fraser Returns
 

Big George had lost no time, and already the tow-boats were overboard, while a raft of timber was taking form alongside the ship. As soon as it was completed, it was loaded with crates and boxes and paraphernalia of all sorts, then towed ashore as the tide served. Another took its place, and another and another. All that night the torches flared and the decks drummed to a ceaseless activity. In the morning Boyd sent a squad of fishermen ashore to clear the ground for his buildings, and all day new rafts of lumber and material helped to increase the pile at the water's edge.

His early training as an engineer now stood him in good stead, for a thousand details demanded expert supervision; but he was as completely at home at this work as was Big George in his own part of the undertaking, and it was not long before order began to emerge from what seemed a hopeless chaos. Never did men have more willing hands to do their bidding than did he and George; and when a week later The Juliet, with Willis Marsh on board, came to anchor, the bunk-houses were up and peopled, while the new site had become a beehive of activity.

The mouth of the Kalvik River is several miles wide, yet it contains but a small anchorage suitable for deep-draught ships, the rest of the harbor being underlaid with mud-bars and tide-flats over which none but small boats may pass; and as the canneries are distributed up and down the stream for a considerable distance, it is necessary to transport all supplies to and from the ships by means of tugs and lighters. Owing to the narrowness of the channel, The Juliet came to her moorings not far from The Bedford Castle.

To Marsh, already furious at the trick the ice had played him, this forced proximity to his rival brought home with added irony the fact that he had been forestalled, while it emphasized his knowledge that henceforth the conflict would be carried on at closer quarters. It would be a contest between two men, both determined to win by fair means or foul.

Emerson was a dream-dazzled youth, striving like a knight-errant for the love of a lady and the glory of conquest, but he was also a born fighter, and in every emergency he had shown himself as able as his experienced opponent.

As Marsh looked about and saw how much Boyd's well-directed energy was accomplishing, he was conscious of a slight disheartenment. Still, he was on his own ground, he had the advantage of superior force, and though he was humiliated by his failure to throttle the hostile enterprise in its beginning, he was by no means at the end of his expedients. He was curious to see his rival in action, and he decided to visit him and test his temper.

It was on the afternoon following his arrival that Marsh, after a tour of inspection, landed from his launch and strolled up to where Boyd Emerson was at work. He was greeted courteously, if a bit coolly, and found, as on their last meeting, that his own bearing was reflected exactly in that of Boyd. Both men, beneath the scant politeness of their outward manner, were aware that the time for ceremony had passed. Here in the Northland they faced each other at last as man to man.

"I see you have a number of my old fishermen," Marsh observed.

"Yes, we were fortunate in getting such good ones."

"You were fortunate in many ways. In fact you are a very lucky young man."

"Indeed! How?"

"Well, don't you think you were lucky to beat that strike?"

"It wasn't altogether luck. However, I do consider myself fortunate in escaping at the last moment," Boyd laughed easily. "By the way, what happened to the man they mistook for me?"

"Let him go, I believe. I didn't pay much attention to the matter." Marsh had been using his eyes to good advantage, and, seeing the work even better in hand than he had supposed, he was moved by irritation and the desire to goad his opponent to say more than he had intended: "I rather think you will have a lot to explain, one of these days," he said, with deliberate menace.

"With fifty thousand cases of salmon aboard The Bedford Castle I will explain anything. Meanwhile the police may go to the devil!" The cool assurance of the young man's tone roused his would-be tormentor like a personal affront.

"You got away from Seattle, but there is a commissioner at Dutch Harbor, also a deputy marshal, who may have better success with a warrant than those policemen had." The Trust's manager could not keep down the angry tremor in his voice, and the other, perceiving it, replied in a manner designed to inflame him still more:

"Yes, I have heard of those officers. I understand they are both in your employ."

"What!"

"I hear you have bought them."

"Do you mean to insinuate--"

"I don't mean to insinuate anything. Listen! We are where we can talk plainly, Marsh, and I am tired of all this subterfuge. You did what you could to stop me, you even tried to have me killed--"

"You dare to--"

"But I guess it never occurred to you that I may be just as desperate as you are."

The men stared at each other with hostile eyes, but the accusation had come so suddenly and with such boldness as to rob Marsh of words. Emerson went on in the same level voice: "I broke through in spite of you, and I'm on the job. If you want to cry quits, I'm willing; but, by God! I won't be balked, and if any of your hired marshals try to take me before I put up my catch I'll put you away. Understand?"

Willis Marsh recoiled involuntarily before the sudden ferocity that blazed up in the speaker's face. "You are insane," he cried.

"Am I?" Emerson laughed, harshly. "Well, I'm just crazy enough to do what I say. I don't think you're the kind that wants hand-to-hand trouble, so let's each attend to his own affair. I'm doing well, thank you, and I think I can get along better if yon don't come back here until I send for you. Something might fall on you."

Marsh's full, red lips went pallid with rage as he said "Then it is to be war, eh?"

"Suit yourself." Boyd pointed to the shore. "Your boatman is waiting for you."

As Marsh made his way to the water's edge he stumbled like a blind man; his lips were bleeding where his small, sharp teeth had bitten them, and he panted like an hysterical woman.

During the next fortnight the sailing-ships began to assemble, standing in under a great spread of canvas to berth close alongside the two steamships; for, once the ice had moved north, there was no further obstacle to their coming, and the harbor was soon livened with puffing tugs, unwieldy lighters, and fleets of smaller vessels. Where, but a short time before, the brooding silence had been undisturbed save for the plaint of wolf-dogs and the lazy voices of natives, a noisy army was now at work. The bustle of a great preparation arose; languid smoke-wreaths began to unfurl above the stacks of the canneries; the stamp and clank of tin- machines re-echoed; hammer and saw maintained a never-ceasing hubbub. Down at the new plant scows were being launched while yet the pitch was warm on their seams; buildings were rising rapidly, and a crew had gone up the river to get out a raft of piles.

On the morning after the arrival of the last ship, Emerson and his companions were treated to a genuine surprise. Cherry had come down to the site as usual--she could not let a day go by without visiting the place-- and Clyde, after a tardy breakfast, had just come ashore. They were watching Big George direct the launching of a scow, when all of a sudden they heard a familiar voice behind them cry, cheerfully:

"Hello, white folks! Here we are, all together again."

They turned to behold a villanous-looking man beaming benignly upon them. He was dirty, his clothes were in rags, and through a riotous bristle of beard that hid his thin features a mangy patch showed on either cheek. It was undeniably "Fingerless" Fraser, but how changed, how altered from that radiant flower of indolence they had known! He was pallid, emaciated, and bedraggled; his attitude showed hunger and abuse, and his bony joints seemed about to pierce through their tattered covering. As they stood speechless with amazement, he made his identification complete by protruding his tongue from the corner of his mouth and gravely closing one eye in a wink of exceeding wisdom.

"Fraser!" they cried in chorus, then fell upon him noisily, shaking his grimy hands and slapping his back until he coughed weakly. Summoned by their shouts, Big George broke in upon the incoherent greeting, and at sight of his late comrade began to laugh hoarsely.

"Glad to see you, old man!" he cried, "but how did you get here?"

Fraser drew himself up with injured dignity, then spoke in dramatic accents. "I worked my way!" He showed the whites of his eyes, tragically.

"You look like you'd walked in from Kansas," George declared.

"Yes, sir, I worked! Me!"

"How? Where?"

"On that bloody wind-jammer." He stretched a long arm toward the harbor in a theatrical gesture.

"But the police?" queried Boyd.

"Oh, I squared them easy. It's you they want. Yes, sir, I worked." Again he scanned their faces anxiously. "I'm a scullery-maid."

"What?"

"That's what I said. I've rustled garbage-cans till the smell of food gives me a cold sweat. I'm as hungry as a starving Cuban, and yet the sight of a knife and fork turns my stomach." He wheeled suddenly upon Alton Clyde, whose burst of shrill laughter offended him. "Don't cry. Your sympathy unmans me."

"Tell us about it," urged Cherry.

"What's the use?" he demanded, with a glare at Clyde. "That bone-head wouldn't understand."

"Go ahead," Boyd seconded, with twitching lips. "You look as if you had worked, and worked hard."

"Hard? I'm the only man in the world who knows what hard work is!"

"Start at the beginning--when you were arrested."

"Well, I didn't care nothing about the sneeze," he took up the tale, "for I figure it out that they can't slough me without clearing you, so I never take no sleeping-powders, and, sure enough, about third drink-time the bulls spring me, and I screw down the main stem to the drink and get Jerry to your fade--"

"Tell it straight," interrupted Cherry. "They don't understand you."

"Well, there ain't any Pullmans running to this resort, so I stow away on a coal-burner, but somebody flags me. Then I try to hire out as a fisherman, but I ain't there with the gang talk and my stuff drags, so I fix it for a hide-away on The Blessed Isle--that's her name. Can you beat that for a monaker? This sailor of mine goes good to grub me, but he never shows for forty-eight hours--or years, I forget which. Anyhow, I stand it as long as I can, then I dig my way up to a hatch and mew like a house-cat. It seems they were hep from the start, and battened me down on purpose, then made book on how long I'd stay hid. Oh, it's a funny joke, and they all get a stomach laugh when I show. When I offer to pay my way they're insulted. Nix! that ain't their graft. They wouldn't take money from a stranger. Oh, no! They permit me to work my way. The scullion has quit, see? So they promote me to his job. It's the only job I ever held, and I held it because it wouldn't let go of me, savvy? There's only three hundred men aboard The Blessed Isle, so all I have to do, regular, is to understudy the cooks, carry the grub, wait on table, wash the dishes, mop the floors, make the officers' beds, peel six bushels of potatoes a day, and do the laundry. Then, of course, there's some odd tasks. Oh, it was a swell job--more like a pastime. When a mop sees me coming now it dances a hornpipe, and I can't look a dish-rag in the face. All I see in my dreams is potato-parings and meat-rinds. I've got dish- water in my veins, and the whole universe looks greasy to me. Naturally it was my luck to pick the slowest ship in the harbor. We lay three weeks in the ice, that's all, and nobody worked but me and the sea-gulls."

"You deserted this morning, eh?"

"I did. I beat the barrier, and now I want a bath and some clean clothes and a whole lot of sleep. You don't need to disturb me till fall."

He showed no interest whatever in the new plant, refusing even to look it over or to express an opinion upon the progress of the work; so they sent him out to the ship, where for days he remained in a toad-like lethargy, basking in the sun, sleeping three-fourths of the time and spending his waking hours in repeating the awful tale of his disgraceful peonage.

To unload the machinery, particularly the heavier pieces, was by no means a simple matter, owing to the furious tides that set in and out of the Kalvik River. The first mishap occurred during the trip on which the boilers were towed in, and it looked to Boyd less like an accident than a carefully planned move to cripple him at one stroke. The other ships were busily discharging and the roadstead was alive with small craft of various kinds, when the huge boilers were swung over the side of The Bedford Castle and blocked into position for the journey to the shore. George and a half-dozen of his men went along with the load while Emerson remained on the ship. They were just well under way when, either by the merest chance or by malicious design, several of the rival Company's towboats moored to the neighboring ships cast off. The anchorage was crowded and a boiling six-mile tide made it difficult at best to avoid collision.

Hearing a confused shouting to shoreward, Boyd ran to the rail in time to see one of the Company tugs at the head of a string of towboats bearing down ahead of the current directly upon his own slow-moving lighter. Already it was so close at hand as to make disaster seem inevitable. He saw Balt wave his arms furiously and heard him bellow profane warnings while the fishermen scurried about excitedly, but still the tug held to its course. Boyd raised his voice in a wild alarm, but had they heard him there was nothing they could have done. Then suddenly the affair altered its complexion.

The oncoming tug was barely twice its length from the scow when Boyd saw Big George cease his violent antics and level a revolver directly at the wheel-house of the opposing craft. Two puffs of smoke issued from weapon, then out from the glass-encased structure the steersman plunged, scrambled down the deck and into the shelter of the house. Instantly the bow of the tug swung off, and she came on sidewise, striking Balt's scow a glancing blow, the sound of which rose above the shouts, while its force threw the big fellow and his companions to their knees and shattered the glass in the pilot-house windows. The boats behind fouled each other, then drifted down upon the scow, and the tide, seizing the whole flotilla, began to spin it slowly. Rushing to the ladder, Emerson leaped into another launch which fortunately was at hand, and the next instant as the little craft sped out from the side of The Bedford Castle, he saw that a fight was in progress on the lighter. It was over quickly, and before he reached the scene the current had drifted the tows apart. George, it seemed, had boarded the tug, dragged the captain off, and beaten him half insensible before the man's companions had come to his rescue.

"Is the scow damaged?" Emerson cried, as he came alongside.

"She's leaking, but I guess we can make it," George reassured him.

They directed the second launch to make fast, and, towed by both tugs, they succeeded in beaching their cargo a mile below the landing.

"We'll calk her at low tide," George declared, well satisfied at this outcome of the misadventure. Then he fell to reviling the men who had caused it.

"Don't waste your breath on them," Boyd advised. "We're lucky enough as it is. If that tug hadn't sheered off she would have cut us down, sure."

"That fellow done it a-purpose," George swore. "Seamen ain't that careless. He tried to tell me he was rattled, but I rattled him."

"If that's the case they may try it again," said the younger man.

"Huh! I'll pack a 'thirty-thirty' from now on, and I bet they don't get within hailing distance without an iron-clad."

The more calmly Emerson regarded the incident, the more he marvelled at the good-fortune that had saved him. "We had better wake up," he said. "We have been asleep so far. If Marsh planned this, he will plan something more."

"Yes, and if he puts one wallop over we're done for," George agreed, pessimistically. "I'll keep a watchman aboard the scows hereafter. That's our vital spot."

But the days sped past without further interference, and the construction of the plant progressed by leaps and bounds, while The Bedford Castle, having discharged her cargo, steamed away to return in August.

The middle of June brought the first king salmon, scouts sent on ahead of the "sockeyes;" but Boyd made no effort to take advantage of this run, laboring manfully to prepare for the advance of the main army, that terrific horde that was soon to come from the mysterious depths, either to make or ruin him. Once the run proper started, there would be no more opportunity for building or for setting up machinery. He must be ready and waiting by the first of July.

For some time his tin-machines had been busy, night and day, turning out great heaps of gleaming cans, while the carpenters and machinists completed their tasks. The gill-netters were overhauling their gear, the beach was lined with fishing-boats. On the dock great piles of seines and drift-nets were being inspected. Three miles below, Big George, with a picked crew and a pile-driver, was building the fish-trap. It consisted of half-mile "leads," or rows of piling, capped with stringers, upon which netting was hung, and terminated in "hearts," "corrals," and "spillers," the intricate arrangements of webbing and timbers out of which the fish were to be taken.

It was for the title to the ground where his present operations were going forward that George had been so cruelly disciplined by the "interests;" and while he had held stubbornly to his rights for years in spite of the bitterest persecution, he was now for the first time able to utilize his site. Accordingly his exultation was tremendous.

As for Boyd, the fever in his veins mounted daily as he saw his dream assuming concrete form. The many problems arising as the work advanced afforded him unceasing activity; the unforeseen obstacles which were encountered hourly required swift and certain judgment, taxing his ingenuity to the utmost. He became so filled with it all, so steeped with the spirit of his surroundings, that he had thought for nothing else. Every dawn marked the beginning of a new battle, every twilight heralded another council. His duties swamped him; he was worried, exultant, happy. Always he found Cherry at his shoulder, unobtrusive and silent for the most part, yet intensely observant and keenly alive to every action. She seemed to have the faculty of divination, knowing when to be silent and when to join her mood with his, and she gave him valuable help; for she possessed a practical mind and a masculine aptitude for details that surprised both him and George. But, rapidly as the work progressed, it seemed that good-fortune would never smile upon them for long. One day, when their preparations were nearly completed, a foreman came to Boyd, and said excitedly:

"Boss, I'd like you to look at the Iron Chinks right away."

"What's up?"

"I don't know, but something is wrong." A hurried examination showed the machines to be cunningly crippled; certain parts were entirely missing, while others were broken.

"They were all right when we brought them ashore," the man declared. "Somebody's been at them lately."

"When? How?" questioned Boyd. "We have had watchmen on guard all the time. Have any strangers been about?"

"Nobody seems to know. When we got ready to set 'em just now, I saw this."

The Iron Chink, or mechanical cleaner, is perhaps the most ingenious of the many labor-saving devices used in the salmon fisheries. It is an awkward-looking, yet very effective contrivance of revolving knives and conveyors which seizes the fish whole and delivers it cleaned, clipped, cut, and ready to be washed. With superhuman dexterity it does the work of twenty lightning-like butchers. Without the aid of these Iron Chinks, Boyd knew that his fish would spoil before they could be handled. In a panic, he pursued his investigation far enough to realize that the machines were beyond repair; that what had seemed at first a trivial mishap was in fact an appalling disaster. Then, since his own experience left him without resource, he hastened straightway to George Balt. A half-hour's run down the bay and he clambered from his launch to the pile-driver, where, amid the confusion and noise, he made known his tidings. The big fellow's calmness amazed him.

"What are you going to do now?"

"Butcher by hand," said the fisherman.

"But how? That takes skilled labor--lots of it."

George grinned. "I'm too old a bird to be caught like this. I figured on accidents from the start, and when I hired my Chinamen I included a crew of cutters."

"By Jove, you never told me!"

"There wasn't no use. We ain't licked yet, not by a damned sight. Willis Marsh will have to try again."