Chapter XXIII. In Which More Plans are Laid
 

It seemed to Boyd that he had never felt such elation as during the days that followed. He trod upon air, his head was in the clouds. He joked with his men, inspiring them with his own good-humor and untiring energy. He was never idle save during the odd hours that he snatched for sleep. He covered the plant from top to bottom, and no wheel stopped turning, no mechanical device gave way, without his instant attention. So urgent was he that George Balt became desperate; for the Indians were not like white men, and proved a sad trial to the big fellow, who was accustomed to drive his crews with the cruelty of a convict foreman. Despite his utmost endeavors, he could not keep the plant running to capacity, and in his zeal he took the blame wholly upon himself.

While the daily output was disappointing, Emerson drew consolation from the prospect that his pack would be large enough at least to avert utter ruin, and he argued that once he had won through this first season no power that Marsh could bring to bear would serve to crush him. He saw a moderate success ahead, if not the overwhelming victory upon which he had counted.

Up at the Trust's headquarters Willis Marsh was in a fine fury. As far as possible, his subordinates avoided him. His superintendents, summoned from their work, emerged from the red-painted office on the hill with dampened brows and frightened glances over their shoulders. Many of them held their places through services that did not show upon the Company's books, but now they shook their heads and swore that some things were beyond them.

Except for one step on Emerson's part, Marsh would have rested secure, and let time work out his enemy's downfall; but Boyd's precaution in contracting to sell his output in advance threatened to defeat him. Otherwise, Marsh would simply have cut down his rival's catch to the lowest point, and then broken the market in the fall. With the Trust's tremendous resources back of him, he could have afforded to hammer down the price of fish to a point where Emerson would either have been ruined or forced to carry his pack for a year, and in this course he would have been upheld by Wayne Wayland. But as matters stood, such tactics could only result in a serious loss to the brokers who had agreed to take Boyd's catch, and to the Trust itself. It was therefore necessary to work the young man's undoing here and now.

Marsh knew that he had already wasted too much time in Kalvik, for he was needed at other points far to the southward; but he could not bear to leave this fight to other hands. Moreover, he was anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Grande Dame, with Mildred and her father. One square of the calendar over his desk was marked in red, and the sight of it gave him fresh determination.

On the third day after Boyd's deliverance, Constantine sought him out, in company with several of the native fishermen, translating their demand to be paid for the fish they had caught.

"Can't they wait until the end of the week?" Emerson inquired.

"No! They got no money--they got no grub. They say little baby is hongry, and they like money now. So soon they buy grub, they work some more."

"Very well. Here's an order on the book-keeper."

Boyd tore a leaf from his note-book and wrote a few words on it, telling the men to present it at the office. As Constantine was about to leave, he called to him:

"Wait! I want to talk with you."

The breed halted.

"How long have you known Mr. Marsh?"

"Me know him long time."

"Do you like him?"

A flicker ran over the fellow's coppery face as he replied:

"Yes. Him good man."

"You used to work for him, did you not?"

"Yes."

"Why did you quit?"

Constantine hesitated slightly before answering: "Me go work for Cherry."

"Why?"

"She good to my little broder. You savvy little chil'ren--so big?"

"Yes. I've seen him. He's a fine little fellow. By the way, do you remember that night about two weeks ago when I was at Cherry's house?--the night you and your sister went out?"

"I 'member."

"Where did you go?"

Constantine shifted his walrus-soled boots. "What for you ask?"

"Never mind! Where did you go when you left the house?"

"Me go Indian village. What for you ask?"

"Nothing. Only--if you ever have any trouble with Mr. Marsh, I may be able to help you. I like you--and I don't like him."

The breed grunted unintelligibly, and was about to leave when Boyd reached forth suddenly and plucked the fellow's sheath-knife from its scabbard. With a startled cry, Constantine whirled, his face convulsed, his nostrils dilated like those of a frightened horse; but Emerson merely fingered the weapon carelessly, remarking:

"That is a curious knife you have. I have noticed it several times." He eyed him shrewdly for a moment, then handed the blade back with a smile. Constantine slipped it into its place, and strode away without a word.

It was considerably later in the day when Boyd discovered the Indians to whom he had given the note talking excitedly on the dock. Seeing Constantine in argument with them, he approached to demand an explanation, whereupon the quarter-breed held out a silver dollar in his palm with the words:

"These men say this money no good."

"What do you mean?"

"It no good. No can buy grub at Company store."

Boyd saw that the group was eying him suspiciously.

"Nonsense! What's the matter with it?"

"Storekeeper laugh and say it come from you. He say, take it back. He no sell my people any flour."

It was evident that even Constantine was vaguely distrustful.

Another native extended a coin, saying;

"We want money like this."

Boyd took the piece and examined it, whereupon a light broke upon him. The coin was stamped with the initials of one of the old fishing companies, and he instantly recognized a ruse practiced in the North during the days of the first trading concerns. It had been the custom of these companies to pay their Indians in coins bearing their own impress and to refuse all other specie at their posts, thus compelling the natives to trade at company stores. By carefully building up this system they had obtained a monopoly of Indian labor, and it was evident that Marsh and his associates had robbed the Aleuts in the same manner during the days before the consolidation. Boyd saw at once the cause of the difficulty and undertook to explain it, but he had small success, for the Indians had learned a hard lesson and were loath to put confidence in the white man's promises. Seeing that his words carried no conviction, Emerson gave up at last, saying:

"If the Company store won't take this money, I'll sell you whatever you need from the commissary. We are not going to have any trouble over a little thing like this."

He marched the natives in a body to the storehouse, where he saw to it that they received what provisions they needed and assisted them in loading their canoes.

But his amusement at the episode gave way to uneasiness on the following morning when the Aleuts failed to report for work, and by noon his anxiety resolved itself into strong suspicion.

Balt had returned from the banks earlier in the morning with news of a struggle between his white crew and Marsh's men. George's boats had been surrounded during the night, nets had been cut, and several encounters had occurred, resulting in serious injury to his men. The giant, in no amiable mood, had returned for reinforcements, stating that the situation was becoming more serious every hour. Hearing of the desertion of the natives, he burst into profanity, then armed himself and returned to the banks, while Boyd, now thoroughly alarmed, took a launch and sped up the river to Cherry's house, in the hope that she could prevail upon her own recruits to return.

He found the girl ready to accompany him, and they were about to embark when Chakawana came running from the house as if in sudden fright.

"Where you go?" she asked her mistress.

"I am going to the Indian village. You stay here--"

"No, no! I no stop here alone. I go 'long too." She cast a glance over her shoulder.

"But, Chakawana, what is the matter? Are you afraid?"

"Yes." Chakawana nodded her pretty head vigorously.

"What are you afraid of?" Boyd asked; but she merely stared at him with eyes as black and round as ox-heart cherries, then renewed her entreaty. When she had received permission and had hurried back to the house, her mistress remarked, with a puzzled frown:

"I don't know what to make of her. She and Constantine have been acting very strangely of late. She used to be the happiest sort of creature, always laughing and singing, but she has changed entirely during the last few weeks. Both she and Constantine are forever whispering to each other and skulking about, until I am getting nervous myself." Then as the Indian girl came flying back with her tiny baby brother in her arms, Cherry added: "She's pretty, isn't she? I can't bear ugly people around me."

At the native village, in spite of every effort she and Boyd could make, the Indians refused to go back to work. Many of them, so they learned, had already reported to the other canneries, evidently still doubtful of Emerson's assurances, and afraid to run the risk of offending their old employers. Those who were left were lazy fellows who did not care to work under any circumstances; these merely listened, then shrugged their shoulders and walked away.

"Since they can't use your money at the store, they don't seem to care whether it is good or not," Cherry announced, after a time.

"I'll give them enough provisions to last them all winter," Boyd offered, irritated beyond measure at such stupidity. "Tell them to move the whole blamed village down to my place, women and all. I'll take care of them." But after an hour of futile cajolery, he was forced to give up, realizing that Marsh had been at work again, frightening these simple people by threats of vengeance and starvation.

"You can't blame the poor things. They have learned to fear the hand of the companies, and to know that they are absolutely dependent upon the cannery stores during the winter. But it's maddening!" She stamped her foot angrily. "And I was so proud of my work. I thought I had really done something to help at last. But I don't know what more we can do. I've reached the end of my rope."

"So have I," he confessed. "Even with those fifty Aleuts, we weren't running at more than half capacity, but we were making a showing at least. Now!" He flung up his hands in a gesture of despair. "George is in trouble, as usual. Marsh's men have cut our nets, and the yacht may arrive at any time."

"The yacht! What yacht?"

"Mr. Wayland's yacht. He is making a tour of this coast with the other officers of the Trust and--Mildred."

"Is--is she coming here?" demanded Cherry, in a strained voice.

"Yes."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I don't know, I didn't think you would be interested."

"So she can't wait? She is so eager that she follows you from Chicago clear up into this wilderness. Then you won't need my assistance any more, will you?" Her lids drooped, half hiding her eyes, and her face hardened.

"Of course I shall need your help. Her coming won't make any difference."

"It strikes me that you have allowed me to make a fool of myself long enough," said Cherry, angrily. "Here I have been breaking my heart over this enterprise, while you have known all the time that she was coming. Why, you have merely used me--and George, and all the rest of us, for that matter--" She laughed harshly.

"You don't understand," said Boyd. "Miss Wayland--"

"Oh yes, I do. I dare say it will gratify her to straighten out your troubles. A word from her lips and your worries will vanish like a mist. Let us acknowledge ourselves beaten and beg her to save us."

Boyd shook his head in negation, but she gave him no time for speech.

"It seems that you wanted to pose as a hero before her, and employed us to build up your triumph. Well, I am glad we failed. I'm glad Willis Marsh showed you how very helpless you are. Let her come to your rescue now. I'm through. Do you understand? I'm through!"

Emerson gazed at her in astonishment, the outburst had been so unexpected, but he realized that he owed her too much to take offence.

"Miss Wayland will take no hand in my affairs. I doubt if she will even realize what this trouble is all about," he said, a trifle stiffly. "I suppose I did want to play the hero, and I dare say I did use you and the others, but you knew that all the time."

"Why won't she help you?" queried Cherry. "Doesn't she care enough about you? Doesn't she know enough to understand your plight?"

"Yes, but this is my fight, and I've got to make good without her assistance. She isn't the sort to marry a failure, and she has left me to make my own way. Besides, she would not dare go contrary to her father's wishes, even if she desired--that is part of her education. Oh, Wayne Wayland's opposition isn't all I have had to overcome. I have had to show his daughter that I am one of her own kind, for she hates weakness."

"And you think that woman loves you! Why, she isn't a woman at all--she doesn't know what love means. When a woman loves, do you imagine she cares for money or fame or success? If I cared for a man, do you think I'd stop to ask my father if I might marry him or wait for my lover to prove himself worthy of me? Do you think I'd send him through the hell you have suffered to try his metal?" She laughed outright. "Why, I'd become what he was, and I'd fight with him. I'd give him. all I had--money, position, friends, influence; if my people objected, I'd tell them to go hang, I'd give them up and join him! I'd use every dollar, every wile and feminine device that I possessed in his service. When a woman loves, she doesn't care what the world says; the man may be a weakling, or worse, but he is still her lover, and she will go to him."

The words had come tumbling forth until Cherry was forced to pause for breath.

"You don't understand," said Boyd. "You are primitive; you have lived in the open; she is exactly your opposite. Conservatism is bred in her, and she can't help her nature. It was hard even for me to understand at first; but when I saw her life, when I saw how she had been reared from childhood, I understood perfectly. I would not have her other than she is; it is enough for me to know that in her own way she cares for me."

Cherry tossed her head in derision. "For my part, I prefer red blood to sap, and when I love I want to know it--I don't want to have it proved to me like a problem in geometry. I want to love and hate, and do wild, impulsive things against my own judgment."

"Have you ever loved in that way?" he inquired, abruptly.

"Yes," she answered, without hesitation, looking him squarely in the eye with an expression he could not fathom. "Thank Heaven, I'm not the artificial kind! As you say, I'm primitive. I have lived!" Her crimson lips curled scornfully.

"I didn't expect you to understand her," he said. "But she loves me. And I--well, she is my religion. A man must have some God; he can't worship his own image."

Cherry Malotte turned slowly to the landing-place and made her way into the launch. All the way back she kept silence, and Boyd, confused by her attack upon the citadel of his faith and strangely sore at heart, made no effort at speech.

"Fingerless" Fraser met him at the water's edge.

"Where in the devil have you been?" he cried, breathlessly.

"At the Indian village after help. Why?"

"Big George is in more trouble; he sent for help two hours ago. I was just going to 'beat it' down there."

"What's up?"

"There's six of your men in the bunk-house all beat up; they don't look like they'd fish any more for a while. Marsh's men threw their salmon overboard, and they had another fight. Things are getting warm."

"We can't allow ourselves to be driven from the banks," said Boyd, quickly. "I'll get the shoremen together right away. Find Alton, and bring him along; we'll need every man we can get."

"Nothing doing with that party; he's quit like a house cat, and gone to bed."

"Very well; he's no good, anyhow; he's better out of the way."

He hurried through the building, now silent and half deserted, gathering a crew; then, leaving only the Orientals and the watchman to guard the plant, he loaded his men into the boats and set out.

All that afternoon and on through the long, murky hours of the night the battle raged on the lower reaches of the Kalvik. Boat crews clashed; half- clad men cursed each other and fought with naked fists, with oars and clubs; and when these failed, they drove at one another with wicked one- tined fish "pues." All night the hordes of salmon swarmed upward toward the fatal waters of their birth, through sagging nets that were torn and slit; beneath keels that rocked to the impact of struggling, heedless bodies.