Chapter XXII. The Silver Horde
 

The main body of salmon struck into the Kalvik River on the first day of July. For a week past the run had been slowly growing, while the canneries tested themselves, but on the opening day of the new month the horde issued boldly forth from the depths of the sea, and the battle began in earnest. They came during the hush of the dawn, a mad, crowding throng from No Man's Land, to wake the tide-rips and people the shimmering reaches of the bay, lashing them to sudden life and fury. Outside, the languorous ocean heaved as smiling and serene as ever, but within the harbor a wondrous change occurred.

As if in answer to some deep-sea signal, the tides were quickened by a coursing multitude, steadfast and unafraid, yet foredoomed to die by the hand of man, or else more surely by the serving of their destiny. Clad in their argent mail of blue and green, they worked the bay to madness; they overwhelmed the waters, surging forward in great droves and columns, hesitating only long enough to frolic with the shifting currents, as if rejoicing in their strength and beauty.

At times they swam with cleaving fins exposed: again they churned the placid waters until swift combers raced across the shallow bars like tidal waves while the deeper channels were shot through with shadowy forms or pierced by the lightning glint of silvered bellies. They streamed in with the flood tide to retreat again with the ebb, but there was neither haste nor caution in their progress; they had come in answer to the breeding call of the sea, and its exultation was upon them, driving them relentlessly onward. They had no voice against its overmastering spell.

Mustering in the early light like a swarm of giant white-winged moths, the fishing-boats raced forth with the flowing tide, urged by sweep and sail and lusty sinews. Paying out their hundred-fathom nets, they drifted over the banks like flocks of resting sea-gulls, only to come ploughing back again deep laden with their spoils. Grimy tugboats lay beside the traps, shrilling the air with creaking winches as they "brailed" the struggling fish, a half-ton at a time, from the "pounds," now churned to milky foam by the ever-growing throng of prisoners; and all the time the big plants gulped the sea harvest, faster and faster, clanking and gnashing their metal jaws, while the mounds of salmon lay hip-deep to the crews that fed the butchering machines.

The time had come for man to take his toll.

Now dawned a period of feverish activity wherein no one might rest short of actual exhaustion. Haste became the cry, and comfort fled.

At Emerson's cannery there fell a sudden panic, for fifty fishermen quit. Returning from the banks on the night before the run started, they stacked their gear and notified Boyd Emerson of their determination. Then, despite his utmost efforts to dissuade them, they took their packs upon their shoulders and marched up the beach to Willis Marsh's plant. Larsen, the day-foreman, acted as their spokesman, and Boyd recognized, too late, the result of that conversation he had interrupted on the night of his visit to Cherry.

This defection diminished his boat-crew by more than half, and while the shoremen stoutly maintained their loyalty, the chance of putting up a pack seemed lost. Success or failure in the Behring Sea fisheries may depend upon the loss of a day. Emerson found himself facing a situation more desperate than any heretofore; Marsh had delayed the execution of his plans until the run had started, and there was no possibility of recruiting a new force. Alarmed beyond measure, Boyd swallowed his pride and went straightway to his enemy. He found Marsh well recovered from his flesh-wound of a week or more before, yet extremely cautious for his safety, as he evidenced by conducting the interview before witnesses.

"We are short-handed, and I gave instructions to secure every available man," he announced at the conclusion of Emerson's story. "It is not my fault if your men prefer to work for me."

"Then you force me to retaliate," said Boyd. "I shall hire your men out from under you."

Marsh laughed provokingly.

"Try it! I am a good organizer if nothing else. If you send emissaries to my plants, it will cause certain violence--and I think you had better avoid that, for we outnumber you ten to one."

Stormy accusations and retorts followed, till Emerson left the place in helpless disgust.

Nor had he hit upon any method of relief when Cherry came down to the plant on the following morning, though he and Big George had spent the night in conference. She lost no time in futile indignation, but inquired straightway:

"What are you doing about it? The fish have begun to run, and you can't afford to lose an hour."

"I have sent a man to each of the other plants to hire fishermen at any price, but I have no hope that they will succeed. Marsh has his crews too well in hand for that."

Cherry nodded. "They wouldn't dare quit him now. He'd never let them return to this country if they did. Meanwhile, the rest of your force is on the banks, I presume."

"Yes."

"How many boats have you?"

"Ten."

"Heavens! And this is the first day of the run! It looks bad, doesn't it? Has the trap begun to fill?"

"No. George is down there now. I guess Marsh succeeded in corking it. Meanwhile all the other plants are working while my Chinks are playing fan-tan."

Cherry gazed curiously at her companion, to see how he accepted this latest shift of fortune. She knew that it spelled disaster; for a light catch, with the tremendous financial loss entailed, would not only mean difficulty with Hilliard's loan, but other complications impossible to forecast. Her mind sped onward to the effect of a failure upon Boyd's private affairs. He had told her in unmistakable terms that this was his last chance, the final hope upon which hung the realization of his dreams. In some way his power to hold Mildred Wayland was bound up with his financial success. If he should lose her, where would he turn? she asked herself, and something within her answered that he would look for consolation to the woman who had stood at his shoulder all these weary months. Sudden emotion swept over her at the thought. What cared she for his success or failure? He was the one man she had ever known, the mate for whom she had been moulded. If this were his last chance, it promised to be the opportunity she had so long awaited; for once that other was out of his mind, Cherry felt that he would turn to her. She knew it intuitively, knew it from the light she had seen in his eyes that night at her house, knew it by the promptings of her own heart at this moment. She began to tremble, and felt her breast swelling with a glad determination; but he interrupted her flight of fancy with a sigh of such hopeless weariness that her pity rose instinctively. He gave her a sad little smile as he said:

"I seem to bring misfortune upon every one connected with me, don't I? I'm afraid I'm a poor sort."

How boyish he was, the girl thought tenderly, yet how splendidly brave he had been throughout the fight! There was a voiceless, maternal yearning in her heart as she asked him, gravely:

"If you fail now, it will mean--the end of everything, will it not?"

"Yes." He squared his tired shoulders. "But I am not beaten yet. You taught me never to give up, Cherry. If I have to go back home without a catch and see Hilliard take this plant over, why--I'll begin once more at something new, and some day I will succeed. But I sha'n't give up. I'll can what salmon we catch and then begin all over again next season."

"And--suppose you don't succeed? Suppose Hilliard won't carry you?"

"Then I shall try something else; maybe I shall go to mining again, I don't know. Anyhow, she would not let me grow disheartened if she were here, she wouldn't let me quit. She isn't that sort."

Cherry Malotte stirred and shifted her gaze uncertainly to the gleaming bay. Abreast of them the fleet of fishing-boats were drifting with the tide; in the distance others were dotted, clear away to where the opal ocean lay. A tug was passing, and she saw the sun flash from the cargo in its tow, while the faint echo of a song came wafting to her ears. She stood so for a long moment, fighting manfully with herself, then wheeled upon him suddenly. There was a new tone in her voice as she said:

"If you will let me have one of your launches, I may be able to help you."

"How?" he demanded, quickly.

"Never mind how--it's a long chance and hardly worth trying, but--may I take the boat?"

"Certainly," said he, "there's one lying at the dock."

He led her to the shore and saw her aboard, then waved good-bye and walked moodily back to the office, gratified that she should try to help him, yet certain that she could not succeed where he and George had failed.

"Fingerless" Fraser had breakfasted late, as was his luxurious custom, and shortly before noon, in the course of his dissatisfied meanderings, he found his friend in the office, lost in sombre thought. It was the first time in many weeks that he had seen this mood in Boyd, and after a fruitless effort to make him talk, he fell into his old habit of imaginary reading, droning away to himself as if from a printed page:

"'Your stay among us has not been very pleasant, has it?' Mr. Emerson inquired.

"'Not so that you could notice it," replied our hero. 'I don't like fish, and I never did.'

"'That is the result of prejudice; the fish is a noble animal,' Mr. Emerson declared.

"'He's not an animal at all,' our hero gently corrected. 'He's a biped, a regular wild biped without either love of home or affection for his children. The salmon is of a low order of intelligence, and has a Queen Anne slant to his roof. No person with a retreating forehead like that knows very much. The only other member of the animal kingdom that is as foolish as the salmon is Alton Clyde. The fish has got a shade the best of it over him; but as for friendship and the gentler emotions--why, the salmon hasn't got them at all. The only thing he's got is a million eggs and a sense of direction. If he had a spark of intelligence he'd lay one egg a year, like a hen, and thus live for a million years. But does he? Not on your Sarony! He's a spendthrift, and turns his eggs loose--a hatful at a time. He's worse than a shotgun. And then, too, he's as clannish as a Harvard graduate, and don't associate with nobody out of his own set. No, sir! Give me a warm-blooded animal that suckles its young. I'll take a farmer, every time,'

"'These are points I had never considered,' said Mr. Emerson, 'but every business has its drawbacks, you'll agree. If I have failed as a host, what can I do to entertain you while you grace our midst?'

"'You can do most anything,' remarked his handsome companion, 'You can climb a tree, or do anything except fish all the time.'

"'But it is a dark night without, and I fear some mischief is afoot!'

"'True! But yonder beautcheous gel--'"

Roused by the familiarity of these lines, Emerson looked up from his preoccupation and smiled at Fraser's serious pantomime.

"Am I as bad as all that?" he inquired, with an effort at pleasantry.

"You're worse, Bo! I guess you didn't know I was here, eh?"

"No. By-the-way, what about that 'beautcheous gel and the mischief that is afoot? What is the rest of the story?"

"I don't know. I never got past that place. Say! If I had time, I'll bet I could write a good book. I've got plenty to say."

"Why don't you try it?"

"Too busy!" yawned the adventurer, lazily. "Gee, this is a lonesome burg! Kalvik is sure out in the tall grass, ain't it? I feel as if I'd like to break a pane of glass. Let's start something."

"I don't find it particularly dull at the present moment." Boyd rose and began to pace the room.

"Oh, I heard all about your trouble. I just left the pest-house."

"The what?"

"The pest-house--Clyde's joint. Ain't he a calamity?"

"In what way?"

"Is there any way in which he ain't?"

"You don't like him, do you?"

"No, I don't," declared "Fingerless" Fraser stoutly, "and what's more I'm glad I don't like him. Because if I liked him, I'd associate with him, and I hate him."

"What's the matter?"

"Well, I like silence and quietude--I'm a fool about my quiet--but Clyde--" he paused, as if in search for suitable expression. "Well, whenever I try to say anything he interrupts me." After another pause he went on: "He's dead sore on this place, too, and whines around like a litter of pups. He says he was misled into coming up here, and has a hunch he's going to lose his bank-roll."

"Last night's episode frightened him, I dare say."

"Yes. Ever since he got that wallop on the burr in Seattle a guinea pig could lick him hand to hand. You'd think that ten thou' he put up was all the wealth of the Inkers."

"The wealth of what?"

"Inkers! That's a tribe of rich Mexicans. However, I suppose I'd hang to my coin the same way he does if I had a mayonnaise head like his. He's an awful shine as a business-man,"

"So he's homesick, eh?"

"Sure! Offered to sell me his stock." Fraser threw back his head and gave vent to one of his rare laughs. "Ain't that a rave?"

"Here he comes now," Boyd announced, with a glance out the window, and the next instant Alton Clyde entered, a picture of dejection.

"Gee! This is fierce, isn't it?" the club-man began, flinging himself into the nearest chair. "They tell me it's all off, finally. What are you going to do?"

"Put up what fish I can with a short crew," said Boyd.

"We'll lose a lot of money."

"Probably."

Clyde's tone was querulous as he continued:

"I'm sorry I ever went into this thing. You bet if I had known as much in Chicago as I know now, I would have hung on to my money and stayed at home."

"You knew as much as we did," Boyd declared, curtly.

"Oh, it's all right for you to talk. You haven't risked any coin in the deal, but I'm a rotten businessman, and I'll never make my ante back again if I lose it."

"Don't whine about it," said Boyd, stiffly. "You can at least be game and lose like a man."

"Then we are going to lose, eh?" queried Clyde, in a scared voice. "I thought maybe you had a plan. Look here," he began an instant later, "Cherry pulled us out once before, why don't you let her see what she can do with Marsh?"

Boyd scanned the speaker's face sharply before speaking.

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean she can work him if she tries, the same way she worked Hilliard."

"Marsh isn't in the mood to listen to arguments. I have tried that."

"Who said anything about arguments? You know what I mean."

"I don't care to listen to that sort of talk."

"Why not? I'm entitled to have my say in things." Clyde was growing indignant. "I put in ten thousand of my own money and twenty-five thousand besides, on your assurances. That's thirty-five thousand more than you put up--"

"Nevertheless, it doesn't give you the right to insult the girl."

"Insult her! Bah! You're no fool, Boyd. Why did Hilliard advance that loan?"

"Because he wanted to, I dare say."

"What's the use of keeping that up? You know as well as I do that she worked him, and worked him well. She'd do it again if you asked her. She'd do anything for you."

Boyd broke out roughly: "I tell you. I've heard enough of that talk, Alton. Anybody but an idiot would know that Cherry is far too good for what you suggest. And when you insult her, you insult me."

"Oh, she's good enough," said Clyde. "They're all good, but not perhaps in the way you mean--"

"How do you know?"

"I don't know, but Fraser does. He's known her for years. Haven't you, Fraser?" But the adventurer's face was like wood as they turned toward him.

"I don't know nothing," replied "Fingerless" Fraser, with an admirable show of ignorance.

"Well, judge for yourself." Clyde turned again to Emerson. "Who is she? Where did she come from? What is she doing here alone? Answer that. Now, she's interested in this deal just as much as any of us, and if you don't ask her to take a hand, I'm going to put it up to her myself."

"You'll do nothing of the sort!" Boyd cried, savagely.

Clyde rose hastily, and his voice was shaking with excitement as he stammered:

"See here, Boyd, you're to blame for this trouble, and now you either get us out of it or buy my stock."

"You know that I can't buy your stock."

"Then I'll sell wherever I can. I've been stung, and I want my money. Only remember, I offered the stock to you first."

"You've got a swell chance to make a turn in Kalvik," said Fraser. "Why don't you take it to Marsh?"

"I will!" declared Alton.

"You wouldn't do a trick like that?" Emerson questioned, quickly.

"Why not? You won't listen to my advice. You're playing with other people's money, and it doesn't matter, to you whether you win or lose. If this enterprise fails, I suppose you can promote another."

"Get out!" Boyd ordered, in such a tone that the speaker obeyed with ludicrous haste.

"Fingerless" Fraser broke the silence that fell upon the young man's exit.

"He's a nice little feller! I never knew one of those narrow-chested, five-o'clock-tea-drinkers that was on the level. He's got eighteen fancy vests, and wears a handkerchief up his sleeve. That put him in the end book with me, to start with."

"Did you know Cherry before you came to Kalvik?" Boyd asked, searching his companion's face with a look the man could not evade.

"Only casual."

"Where?"

"Nome--the year of the big rush."

"During the mining troubles, eh?"

"Sure."

"What was she doing?"

"Minding her business. She's good at that." Fraser's eyes had become green and fishy, as usual.

"What do you know about her?"

"Well, I know that a lot of fellows would 'go through' for her at the drop of a hat. She could have most anything they've got, I guess. Most any of them miners at Nome would give his right eye, or his only child, or any little thing like that if she asked it."

"What else?"

"Well, she was always considered a right good-looking party--"

"Yes, yes, of course. But what do you know about the girl herself? Who is she? What is her history?"

"Now, sir, I'm an awful poor detective," confessed "Fingerless" Fraser. "I've often noticed that about myself. If I was the kind that goes snooping around into other people's business, listening to all the gossip I'm told, I'd make a good witness. But I ain't. No, sir! I'm a rotten witness."

Despite this indirect rebuke, Boyd might have continued his questioning had not George Balt's heavy step sounded outside. A moment later the big fellow entered.

"What did you find at the traps?" asked Emerson, eagerly.

"Nothing." George spoke shortly. "The fish struck in this morning, but our trap is corked." He wrenched off his rubber boots and flung them savagely under a bench.

"What luck with the boats?"

"Not much. Marsh's men are trying to surround our gill-netters, and we ain't got enough boats to protect ourselves." He looked up meaningly from under his heavy brows, and inquired: "How much longer are we going to stand for this?"

"What do you mean? I've got men out hunting for new hands."

"You know what I mean," the giant rumbled, his red eyes flaming. "You and I can get Willis Marsh."

Emerson shot a quick glance at Fraser, who was staring fixedly at Big George.

"He's got us right enough, and it's bound to come to a killing some day, so the sooner the better," the fisherman ran on. "We can get him to-night if you say so. Are you in on it?"

Boyd faced the window slowly, while the others followed him with anxious eyes. Inside the room a death-like silence settled. In the distance they heard the sound of the canning machinery, a sound that was now a mockery. To Balt this last disaster was the culmination of a persecution so pitiless and unflagging that its very memory filled his simple mind with the fury of a goaded animal. To his companion it meant, almost certainly, the loss of Mildred Wayland--the girl who stood for his pride in himself and all that he held most desirable. He thought bitterly of all the suffering and hardship, the hunger of body and soul, that he had endured for her sake. Again he saw his hopes crumbling and his dreams about to fade; once more he felt his foothold giving way beneath him, as it had done so often in the past, and he was filled with sullen hate. Something told him that he would never have the heart to try again, and the thought left him cold with rage.

Ever since those fishermen had walked out on the evening before, he had clung to the feeble hope that once the run began in earnest, George's trap would fill and save the situation; but now that the salmon had struck in and the trap was useless, his discouragement was complete; for there were no idle men in Kalvik, and there was no way of getting help. Moreover, Mildred Wayland was soon to arrive--the yacht was expected daily--and she would find him a failure. What was worse, she would find that Marsh had vanquished him. She had kept her faith in him, he reflected, but a woman's faith could hardly survive humiliation, and it was not in human nature to lean forever upon a broken reed. She would turn elsewhere--perhaps to the very man who had contrived his undoing. At thought of this, a sort of desperation seemed to master him; he began to mutter aloud.

"What did you say?" queried Balt.

"I said that you are right. The time is close at hand for some sort of a reckoning," answered Boyd, in a harsh, strained voice.

"Good!"

Emerson was upon the point of turning when his eyes fell upon a picture that made him start, then gaze more intently. Out upon the placid waters, abreast of the plant, the launch in which Cherry had departed was approaching, and it was loaded down with men. Not only were they crowded upon the craft itself, but trailing behind it, like the tail of a kite, was a long line of canoes, and these also were peopled.

"Look yonder!" cried Boyd.

"What?"

"Cherry has got--a crew!" His voice broke, and he bolted toward the door as Big George leaped to the window.

"Injuns, by God!" shouted the giant, and without stopping to stamp his feet into his boots, he rushed out barefoot after Boyd and Fraser; together, the three men reached the dock in time to help Cherry up the ladder.

"What does this mean?" Boyd asked her, breathlessly. "Will these fellows work?"

"That's what they're here for," said the girl. After her swarmed a crowd of slant-eyed, copper-hued Aleuts; those in the kyaks astern cast off and paddled toward the beach.

"I've got fifty men, the best on the river; I tried to get more, but-- there aren't any more."

"Fingerless" Fraser slapped himself resoundingly upon the thigh and exploded profanely; Boyd seized the girl's hands in his and wrung them.

"Cherry, you're a treasure!" The memory of his desperate resolution of a moment before swept over him suddenly, and his voice trembled with a great thankfulness.

"Don't thank me!" Cherry exclaimed. "It was more Constantine's work than mine."

"But I don't understand. These are Marsh's men."

"To be sure, but I was good to them when they were hungry last winter, and I prevailed upon them to come. They aren't very good fishermen; they're awfully lazy, and they won't work half as hard as white men, but it's the best I could do." She laughed gladly, more than repaid by the look in her companion's face. "Now, get me some lunch. I'm fairly starved."

Big George, when he had fully grasped the situation, became the boss fisherman on the instant; before the others had reached the cook-house he was busied in laying out his crews and distributing his gear. The impossible had happened; victory was in sight; the fish were running--he cared to know no more.

That night the floors of the fish-dock groaned beneath a weight of silver- sided salmon piled waist-high to a tall man. All through the cool, dim-lit hours the ranks of Chinese butchers hacked and slit and slashed with swift, sure, tireless strokes, while the great building echoed hollowly to the clank of machines and the hissing sighs of the soldering-furnaces.