Chapter XXI. A Hand in the Dark
 

While they were talking a tug-boat towing a pile-driver came into view. Boyd asked the meaning of its presence in this part of the river.

"I don't know," answered Big George, staring intently. "Yonder looks like another one behind it, with a raft of piles."

"I thought all the Company traps were up-stream."

"So they are. I can't tell what they're up to."

A half-hour later, when the new flotilla had come to anchor a short distance below, Emerson's companion began to swear.

"I might have known it."

"What?"

"Marsh aims to 'cork' us."

"What is that?"

"He's going to build a trap on each side of this one and cut off our fish."

"Good Lord! Can he do that?"

"Sure. Why not? The law gives us six hundred yards both ways. As long as he stays outside of that limit he can do anything he wants to."

"Then of what use is our trap? The salmon follow definite courses close to the shore, and if he intercepts them before they reach us--why, then we'll get only what he lets through."

"That's his plan," said Big George, sourly, "It's an old game, but it don't always work. You can't tell what salmon will do till they do it. I've studied this point of land for five years, and I know more about it than anybody else except God 'lmighty. If the fish hug the shore, then we're up against it, but I think they strike in about here; that's why I chose this site. We can't tell, though, till the run starts. All we can do now is see that them people keep their distance."

The "lead" of a salmon-trap consists of a row of web-hung piling that runs out from the shore for many hundred feet, forming a high, stout fence that turns the schools of fish and leads them into cunningly contrived enclosures, or "pounds," at the outer extremity, from which they are "brailed" as needed. These corrals are so built that once the fish are inside they cannot escape. The entire structure is devised upon the principle that the salmon will not make a short turn, but will swim as nearly as possible in a straight line. It looked to Boyd as if Marsh, by blocking the line of progress above and below, had virtually destroyed the efficiency of the new trap, rendering the cost of its construction a total loss.

"Sometimes you can cork a trap and sometimes you can't," Balt went on. "It all depends on the currents, the lay of the bars, and a lot of things we don't know nothing about. I've spent years in trying to locate the point where them fish strike in, and I think it's just below here. It'll all depend on how good I guessed."

"Exactly! And if you guessed wrong--"

"Then we'll fish with nets, like we used to before there was any traps."

That evening, when he had seen the night-shift started, Emerson decided to walk up to Cherry's house, for he was worried over the day's developments and felt that an hour of the girl's society might serve to clear his thoughts. His nerves were high-strung from the tension of the past weeks, and he knew himself in the condition of an athlete trained to the minute. In his earlier days he had frequently felt the same nervousness, the same intense mental activity, just prior to an important race or game, and he was familiar with those disquieting, panicky moments when, for no apparent reason, his heart thumped and a physical sickness mastered him. He knew that the fever would leave him, once the salmon began to run, just as it had always vanished at the crack of the starter's pistol or the shrill note of the referee's whistle. He was eager for action, eager to find himself possessed of that gloating, gruelling fury that drives men through to the finish line. Meanwhile, he was anxious to divert his mind into other channels.

Cherry's house was situated a short distance above the cannery which served as Willis Marsh's headquarters, and Boyd's path necessarily took him past his enemy's very stronghold. Finding the tide too high to permit of passing beneath the dock, he turned up among the buildings, where, to his surprise, he encountered his own day-foreman talking earnestly with a stranger.

The fisherman started guiltily as he saw him, and Boyd questioned him sharply.

"What are you doing here, Larsen?"

"I just walked up after supper to have a talk with an old mate."

"Who is he?" Boyd glanced suspiciously at Larsen's companion.

"He's Mr. Marsh's foreman."

"Emerson spoke out bluntly: "See here. I don't like this. These people have caused me a lot of trouble already, and I don't want my men hanging around here."

"Oh, that's all right," said Larsen, carelessly. "Him and me used to fish together." And as if this were a sufficient explanation, he turned back to his conversation, leaving Emerson to proceed on his way, vaguely displeased at the episode, yet reflecting that heretofore he had never had occasion to doubt Larsen's loyalty.

He found Cherry at home, and, flinging himself into one of her easy- chairs, relieved his mind of the day's occurrences.

"Marsh is building those traps purely out of spite," she declared, indignantly, when he had finished. "He doesn't need any more fish--he has plenty of traps farther up the river."

"To be sure! It looks as if we might have to depend upon the gill- netters."

"We will know before long. If the fish strike in where George expects, Marsh will be out a pretty penny."

"And if they don't strike in where George expects, we will be out all the expense of building that trap."

"Exactly! It's a fascinating business, isn't it? It's a business in which the unexpected is forever happening. But the stakes are high and--I know you will succeed."

Boyd smiled at her comforting assurance, her belief in him was always stimulating.

"By-the-way," she continued, "have you heard the historic story about the pink salmon?"

He shook his head.

"Well, there was a certain shrewd old cannery-man in Washington State whose catch consisted almost wholly of pink fish. As you know, that variety does not bring as high a price as red salmon, like these. Well, finding that he could not sell his catch, owing to the popular prejudice about color, this man printed a lot of striking can-labels, which read, 'Best Grade Pink Salmon, Warranted not to Turn Red in the Can.' They tell me it worked like a charm."

"No wonder!" Boyd laughed, beginning to feel the tension of his nerves relax at the restfulness of her influence. As usual, he fell at once into the mood she desired for him. He saw that her brows were furrowed and her rosy lips drawn into an unconscious pout as she said, more to herself than to him:

"I wish I were a man. I'd like to engage in a business of this sort, something that would require ingenuity and daring. I'd like to handle big affairs."

"It seems to me that you are in a business of that sort. You are one of us."

"Oh, but you and George are doing it all."

"There is your copper-mine. You surely handled that very cleverly."

Cherry's expression altered, and she shot a quick glance at him as he went on:

"How is it coming along, by-the-way? I haven't heard you mention it lately?"

"Very well, I believe. The men were down the other day, and told me it was a big thing."

"I'm delighted. How does it seem, to be rich?"

There was the slightest hint of constraint in the girl's voice as she stared out at the slowly gathering twilight, murmuring:

"I--I hardly know. Rich! That has always been my dream, and yet--"

"The wonderful feature about dreams," he took advantage of her pause to say, "is that they come true."

"Not all of them--not the real, wonderful dreams," she returned.

"Oh yes! My dream is coming true, and so is yours."

"I have given up hoping for that," she said, without turning.

"But you shouldn't give up. Remember that all the great things ever accomplished were only dreams at first, and the greater the accomplishments, the more impossible they seemed to begin with."

Something in the girl's attitude and in her silence made him feel that his words rang hollow and commonplace. While they had talked, an unaccustomed excitement had been mounting in his brain, and it held him now in a kind of delicious embarrassment. It was as if both had been suddenly enfolded in a new and mysterious understanding, without the need of speech. He did not tell himself that Cherry loved him; but he roused to a fresh perception of her beauty, and felt himself privileged in her nearness. At the same time he was seized with the old, half-resentful curiosity to learn her history. What wealth of romance lay shadowed in her eyes, what tragic story was concealed by her consistent silence, he could only guess; for she was a woman who spoke rarely of herself and lived wholly in the present. Her very reticence inspired confidence, and Boyd felt sure that here was a girl to whom one might confess the inmost secrets of a wretched soul and rest secure in the knowledge that his confession would be inviolate as if locked in the heart of mountains. He knew her for a steadfast friend, and he t'elt that she was beautiful, not only in face and form, but in all those little indescribable mannerisms which stamp the individual. And this girl was here alone with him, so close that by stretching out his arms he might enfold her. She allowed him to come and go at will; her intimacy with him was almost like that of an unspoiled boy--yet different, so different that he thrilled at the thought, and the blood pounded up into his throat.

It may have been the unusual ardor of his gaze that warmed her cheeks and brought her eyes back from the world outside. At any rate, she turned, flashing him a startled glance that caused his pulse to leap anew. Her eyes widened and a flush spread slowly upward to her hair, then her lids drooped, as if weighted by unwonted shyness, and rising silently, she went past him to the piano. Never before had she surprised that look in his eyes, and at the realization a wave of confusion surged over her. She strove to calm herself through her music, which shielded while it gave expression to her mood, and neither spoke as the evening shadows crept in upon them. But the girl's exaltation was short-lived; the thought came that Boyd's feeling was but transitory; he was not the sort to burn lasting incense before more than one shrine. Nevertheless, at this moment he was hers, and in the joy of that certainty she let the moments slip.

He stopped her at last, and they talked in the half-light, floating along together half dreamily, as if upon the bosom of some great current that bore them into strange regions which they dreaded yet longed to explore.

They heard a child crying somewhere in the rear of the house, and Chakawana's voice soothing, then in a moment the Indian girl appeared in the doorway saying something about going out with Constantine. Cherry acquiesced half consciously, impatient of the intrusion.

For a long time they talked, so completely in concord that for the most part their voices were low and their sentences so incomplete that they would have sounded incoherent and foolish to other ears. They were roused finally by the appreciation that it had grown very late and a storm was brewing. Boyd rose, and going to the door, saw that the sky was deeply overcast, rendering the night as dark as in a far lower latitude.

"I've overstayed my welcome," he ventured, and smiled at her answering laugh.

With a trace of solicitude, she said:

"Wait! I'll get you a rain-coat," but he reached out a detaining hand. In the darkness it encountered the bare flesh of her arm.

"Please don't! You'd have to strike a light to find it, and I don't want a light now."

He was standing on the steps, with her slightly above him, and so close that he heard her sharp-drawn breath.

"It has been a pleasant evening," she said, inanely.

"I saw you for the first time to-night, Cherry. I think I have begun to know you."

Again she felt her heart leap. Reaching out to say good-bye, his hand slipped down over her arm, like a caress, until her palm lay in his.

With trembling, gentle hands she pushed him from her; but even when the sound of his footsteps had died away, she stood with eyes straining into the gloom, in her breast a gladness so stifling that she raised her hands to still its tumult.

Emerson, with the glow still upon him, felt a deep contentment which he did not trouble to analyze. It has been said that two opposite impulses may exist side by side in a man's mind, like two hostile armies which have camped close together in the night, unrevealed to each other until the morning. To Emerson the dawn had not yet come. He had no thought of disloyalty to Mildred, but, after his fashion, took the feeling of the moment unreflectively. His mood was averse to thought, and, moreover, the darkness forced him to give instant attention to his path. While the waters of the bay out to his right showed a ghostly gray, objects beneath the bluff where he walked were cloaked in impenetrable shadow. The air was damp with the breath of coming rain, and at rare intervals he caught a glimpse of the torn edges of clouds hurrying ahead of a wind that was yet unfelt.

When the black bulk of Marsh's cannery loomed ahead of him, he left the gravel beach and turned up among the buildings, seeking to retrace his former course. He noticed that once he had left the noisy shingle, his feet made no sound in the soft moss. Thus it was that, as he turned the corner of the first building, he nearly ran against a man who was standing motionless against the wall. The fellow seemed as startled at the encounter as Emerson, and with a sharp exclamation leaped away and vanished into the gloom. Boyd lost no time in gaining the plank runway that led to the dock, and finding an angle in the building, backed into it and waited, half-suspecting that he had stumbled into a trap. He reflected that both the hour and the circumstances were unpropitious; for in case he should meet with foul play, Marsh might plausibly claim that he had been mistaken for a marauder. He determined, therefore, to proceed with the greatest caution. From his momentary glimpse of the man as he made off, he knew that he was tall and active--just the sort of person to prove dangerous in an encounter. But if his suspicions were correct there must be others close by, and Boyd wondered why he had heard no signal. After a breathless wait of a moment or two, he stole cautiously out, and, selecting the darkest shadows, slipped from one to another till he was caught by the sound of voices issuing from the yawning entrance of the main building on his right. The next moment his tension relaxed; one of the speakers was a woman. Evidently his alarm had been needless, for these people, whoever they were, made no effort to conceal their presence. On the contrary, the woman had raised her tone to a louder pitch, although her words were still undistinguishable.

Greatly relieved, Boyd was about to go on, when a sharp cry, like a signal, came in the woman's voice, a cry which turned to a genuine wail of distress. The listener heard a man's voice cursing in answer, and then the sound of a scuffle, followed at length by a choking cry, that brought him bounding into the building. He ran forward, recklessly, but before he had covered half the distance he collided violently with a piece of machinery and went sprawling to the floor. A glance upward revealed the dim outlines of a "topper," and showed him farther down the building, silhouetted briefly against the lesser darkness of the windows, two struggling figures. As he regained his footing, something rushed past him--man or animal he could not tell which, for its feet made no more sound upon the floor than those of a wolf-dog. Then, as he bolted forward, he heard a man cry out, and found himself in the midst of turmoil. His hands encountered a human body, and he seized it, only to be hurled aside as if with a giant's strength. Again he clinched with a man's form, and bore it to the floor, cursing at the darkness and reaching for its throat. His antagonist raised his voice in wild clamor, while Boyd braced himself for another assault from those huge hands he had met a moment before. But it did not come. Instead, he heard a cry from the woman, an answer in a deeper voice, and then swift, pattering footsteps growing fainter. Meanwhile the man with whom he was locked was fighting desperately, with hands and feet and teeth, shouting hoarsely. Other footsteps sounded now, this time approaching, then at the door a lantern flared. A watchman came running down between the lines of machinery, followed by other figures half revealed.

Boyd had pinned his antagonist against the cold sides of a retort at last, and with fingers clutched about his throat was beating his head violently against the iron, when by the lantern's gleam he caught one glimpse of the fat, purple face in front of him, and loosed his hold with a startled exclamation. Released from the grip that had nearly made an end of him, Willis Marsh staggered to his feet, then lurched forward as if about to fall from weakness. His eyes were staring, his blackened tongue protruded, while his head, battered and bleeding, lolled grotesquely from side to side as if in hideous merriment. His clothes were torn and soiled from the litter underfoot, and he presented a frightful picture of distress. But it was not this that caused Emerson the greatest astonishment. The man was wounded, badly wounded, as he saw by the red stream which gushed down over his breast. Boyd cast his eyes about for the other participants in the encounter, but they were nowhere visible; only an open door in the shadows close by hinted at the mode of their disappearance.

There was a brief, noisy interval, during which Emerson was too astounded to attempt an answer to the questions hurled broadcast by the new-comers; then Marsh levelled a trembling finger at him and cried, hysterically:

"There he is, men. He tried to murder me. I--I'm hurt. I'll have him arrested."

The seriousness of the accusation struck the young man on the instant; he turned upon the group.

"I didn't do that. I heard a fight going on and ran in here--"

"He's a liar," the wounded man interrupted, shrilly. "He stabbed me! See?" He tried to strip the shirt from his wounds, then fell to chattering and shaking. "Oh, God! I'm hurt." He staggered to a packing-case and sank upon it weakly fumbling at his sodden shoulder.

"I didn't do that," repeated Boyd. "I don't know who stabbed him. I didn't."

"Then who did?" some one demanded.

"What are you doing in here? You'd a killed him in a minute," said the man with the lantern.

"We'll fix you for this," a third voice threatened.

"Listen," Boyd said, in a tone to make them pause. "There has been a mistake here. I was passing the building when I heard a woman scream, and I rushed in to prevent Marsh from choking her to death."

"A woman!" chorused the group.

"That's what I said."

"Where is she now?"

"I don't know. I didn't see her at all. I grappled with the first person I ran into. She must have gone out as you came in." Boyd indicated the side door, which was still ajar.

"It's a lie," screamed Marsh.

"It's the truth," stoutly maintained Emerson, "and there was a man with her, too. Who was she, Marsh? Who was the man?"

"She--she--I don't know."

"Don't lie."

"I'm hurt," reiterated the stricken man, feebly. Then, seeing the bewilderment in the faces about him, he burst out anew: "Don't stand there like a lot of fools. Why don't you get him?"

"If I stabbed him I must have had a knife," Emerson said, again checking the forward movement. "You may search me if you like. See?" He opened his coat and displayed his belt.

"He's got a six-shooter," some one said.

"Yes, and I may use it," said Emerson, quietly.

"Maybe he dropped the knife," said the watchman, and began to search about the floor, followed by the others.

"It may have been the woman herself who stabbed Mr. Marsh," offered Emerson. "He was strangling her when I arrived."

Roused by this statement to a fresh denial, Marsh cried out:

"I tell you there wasn't any woman."

"And there isn't any knife either," Emerson sneered.

The men paused uncertainly. Seeing that they were undecided whether to believe him or his assailant, Marsh went on:

"If he hasn't a knife, then he must have had a friend with him--"

"Then tell your men what we were doing in here and how you came to be alone with us in the dark." Emerson stared at his accuser curiously, but the Trust's manager seemed at a loss. "See here, Marsh, if you will tell us whom you were choking, maybe we can get at the truth of this affair."

Without answering, Marsh rose, and, leaning upon the watchman's arm, said:

"Help me up to the house. I'm hurt. Send the launch to the upper plant for John; he knows something about medicine." With no further word, he made his way out of the building, followed by the mystified fishermen.

No one undertook to detain Emerson, and he went his way, wondering what lay back of the night's adventure. He racked his brain for a hint as to the identity of the woman and the reason of her presence alone with Marsh in such a place. Again he thought of that mysterious third person whose movements had been so swift and furious, but his conjectures left him more at sea than ever. Of one thing he felt sure. It was not enmity alone that prompted Marsh to accuse him of the stabbing. The man was concealing something, in deadly fear of the truth, for rather than submit to questioning he had let his enemy go scot-free.

Suddenly Boyd paused in his walk, recalling again the shadowy outlines of the figure with whom he had so nearly collided on his way up from the beach. There was something familiar about it, he mused; then, with a low whistle of surprise, he smote his palms together. He began to see dimly.

For more than an hour the young man paced back and forth before the door of his sleeping-quarters, so deeply immersed in thought that only the breaking storm drove him within. When at last he retired, it was with the certainty that this night had placed a new weapon in his hand; but of what tremendous value it was destined to prove, he little knew.