Chapter IV. In Which She Gives Heart to a Hopeless Man
 

"I dare say Kalvik is rather lively during the summer season," Emerson remarked to Cherry, later in the day.

"Yes; the ships arrive in May, and the fish begin to run in July. After that nobody sleeps."

She had come upon him staring dispiritedly at the fire, and his dejection softened her and drew out her womanly sympathy. She had renewed her efforts to cheer him up, seeking to stir him out of the gloom that imprisoned him. With the healthy optimism and exuberance of her normal youth she could not but deplore the mischance that had changed him into the sullen, silent brute he seemed.

"It must be rather interesting," he observed, indifferently.

"It is more than that; it is inspiring. Why, the story of the salmon is an epic in itself. You know they live a cycle of four years, no more, always returning to the waters of their nativity to die; and I have heard it said that during one of those four years they disappear, no one knows where, reappearing out of the mysterious depths of the sea as if at a signal. They come by the legion, in countless scores of thousands; and when once they have tasted the waters of their birth they never touch food again, never cease their onward rush until they become bruised and battered wrecks, drifting down from the spawning-beds. When the call of nature is answered and the spawn is laid they die. They never seek the salt sea again, but carpet the rivers with their bones. When they feel the homing impulse they come from the remotest depths, heading unerringly for the particular parent stream whence they originated. If sand-bars should block their course in dry seasons or obstacles intercept them, they will hurl themselves out of the water in an endeavor to get across. They may disregard a thousand rivers, one by one; but when they finally taste the sweet currents which flow from their birthplaces their whole nature changes, and even their physical features alter: they grow thin, and the head takes on the sinister curve of the preying bird."

"I had no idea they acted that way," said Boyd. "You paint a vivid picture."

"That's because they interest me. As a matter of fact, these fisheries are more fascinating than any place I've ever seen. Why, you just ought to witness the 'run.' These empty waters become suddenly crowded, and the fish come in a great silver horde, which races up, up, up toward death and obliteration. They come with the violence of a summer storm; like a prodigious gleaming army they swarm and bend forward, eager, undeviating, one-purposed. It's quite impossible to describe it--this great silver horde. They are entirely defenceless, of course, and almost every living thing preys upon them. The birds congregate in millions, the four-footed beasts come down from the hills, the Apaches of the sea harry them in dense droves, and even man appears from distant coasts to take his toll; but still they press bravely on. The clank of machinery makes the hills rumble, the hiss of steam and the sighs of the soldering-furnaces are like the complaint of some giant overgorging himself. The river swarms with the fleets of fish-boats, which skim outward with the dawn to flit homeward again at twilight and settle like a vast brood of white-winged gulls. Men let the hours go by unheeded, and forget to sleep."

"What sort of men do they hire?"

"Chinese, Japs, and Italians, mainly. It's like a foreign country here, only there are no women. The bunk-rooms are filled with opium fumes and noisy with clacking tongues. On one side of the village streets the Orientals burn incense to their Joss, across the way the Latins worship the Virgin. They work side by side all day until they are ready to drop, then mass in the street and knife each other over their rival gods."

"How long does it all last?"

"Only about six weeks; then the furnace fires die out, the ships are loaded, the men go to sleep, and the breezes waft them out into the August haze, after which Kalvik sags back into its ten months' coma, becoming, as you see it now, a dead, deserted village, shunned by man."

"Jove! you have a graphic tongue," said Boyd, appreciatively. "But I don't see how those huge plants can pay for their upkeep with such a short run."

"Well, they do; and, what's more, they pay tremendously; sometimes a hundred per cent. a year or more."

"Impossible!" Emerson was now thoroughly aroused, and Cherry continued:

"Two years ago a ship sailed into port in early May loaded with an army of men, with machinery, lumber, coal, and so forth. They landed, built the plant, and had it ready to operate by the time the run started. They made their catch, and sailed away again in August with enough salmon in the hold to pay twice over for the whole thing. Willis Marsh did even better than that the year before, but of course the price of fish was high then. Next season will be another big year."

"How is that?"

"Every fourth season the run is large; nobody knows why. Every time there is a Presidential election the fish are shy and very scarce; that lifts prices. Every year in which a President of the United States is inaugurated they are plentiful."

Boyd laughed. "The Alaska salmon takes more interest in politics than I do. I wonder if he is a Republican or a Democrat?"

"Inasmuch as he is a red salmon, I dare say you'd call him a Socialist," laughed Cherry.

Emerson rose, and began to pace back and forth. "And you mean to say the history of the other canneries is the same?"

"Certainly."

"I had no idea there were such profits in the fisheries up here."

"Nobody knows it outside of those interested. The Kalvik River is the most wonderful salmon river in the world, for it has never failed once; that's why the Companies guard it so jealously; that's why they denied you shelter. You see, it is set away off here in one corner of Behring Sea without means of communication or access, and they intend to keep it so."

It was evident that the young man was vitally interested now. Was it the prospective vision of almighty dollars that was needed to release the hidden spring that had baffled the girl? With this clue in mind, she watched him closely and fed his eagerness.

"These figures you mention are on record?" he inquired.

"I believe they are available."

"What does it cost to install and operate a cannery for the first season?"

"About two hundred thousand dollars, I am told. But I believe one can mortgage his catch or borrow money on it from the banks, and so not have to carry the full burden."

The man stared at his companion with unseeing eyes for a moment, then asked: "What's to prevent me from going into the business?"

"Several things. Have you the money?"

"Possibly. What else?"

"A site."

"That ought to be easy."

Cherry laughed. "On the contrary, a suitable cannery site is very hard to get, because there are natural conditions necessary, fresh flowing water for one; and, furthermore, because the companies have taken them all up."

"Ah! I see." The light died out of Emerson's eyes, the eagerness left his voice. He flung himself dejectedly into a chair by the fire, moodily watching the flames licking the burning logs. All at once he gripped the arms of his chair, and muttered through set jaws: "God, I'd like to take one more chance!" The girl darted a swift look at him, but he fell to brooding again, evidently insensible to her presence. At length he stirred himself to ask: "Can I hire a guide hereabout? We'll have to be going on in a day or so."

"Constantine will get you one. I suppose, of course, you will avoid the Katmai Pass?"

"Avoid it? Why?"

"It's dangerous, and nobody travels it except in the direst emergency. It's much the shortest route to the coast, but it has a record of some thirty deaths. I should advise you to cross the range farther east, where the divide is lower. The mail-boat touches at both places."

He nodded agreement. "There's no use taking chances. I'm in no hurry. I wish there was some way of repaying you for your kindness. We were pretty nearly played out when we got here."

"Oh, I'm quite selfish," she disclaimed. "If you endured a few months of this monotony, you'd understand."

During the rest of that day Boyd was conscious several times of being regarded with scrutinizing eyes by Cherry. At dinner, and afterward in the living-room while Fraser talked, he surprised the same questioning look on her face. Again she played for him, but he refused to sing, maintaining an unbroken taciturnity. After they retired she sat long alone, her brows furrowed as if wrestling with some knotty problem. "I wonder if he would do it!" she said, at last. "I wonder if he could do it!" She rose, and began to pace the floor; then added, as if in desperation: "Well, I must do something, for this can't last. Who knows--perhaps this is my chance; perhaps he has been sent."

There are times when momentous decisions are influenced by the most trivial circumstances; times when affairs of the greatest importance are made or marred by the lift of an eyebrow or the tone of a voice; times when life-long associations are severed and new ties contracted purely upon intuition, and this woman felt instinctively that such an hour had now struck for her. It was late before she finally came to peace with the conflict in her mind and lay herself down to rest.

On the following morning she told Constantine to hitch up her team and have it waiting when breakfast was finished. Then she turned to Emerson, who came into the room, and said, quietly:

"I have something to show you if you will take a short ride with me."

The young man, impressed by the gravity of her manner, readily consented. Half an hour later he wrapped her up in the sledge-robe and took station at the rear, whip in hand. Constantine freed the leader, and they went off at a mad run, whisking out from the buildings and swooping down the steep bank to the main-travelled trail. When they had gained the level and the dogs were straightened into their gait, they skimmed over the snow with the flight of a bird.

"That's a wonderful team you have," Boyd observed, as he glanced over the double row of undulating gray backs and waving plume-like tails.

"The best in the country," she smiled back at him. "They are good for a hundred miles a day."

The young man gave himself up to the unique and rather delightful experience of being transported through an unknown country to an unknown destination by a charming girl of whom he also knew nothing. He watched her in silence; but when he forebore to question her, she turned, exposing a rounded, ravishing cheek, glowing against the white fur of her hood.

"Have you no curiosity, sir?"

"None! Nothing but satisfaction," he observed.

It was his first attempt at gallantry, and she flashed him a bright, approving glance. Then, as if suddenly checked by second thought, she frowned slightly and turned away. She had mapped out a course of action during the night in which it was her purpose to use this man if he proved amenable, but the success of her plan would depend largely on a continuance of their present friendly relations. In order, therefore, to forestall any possible change of base, she began to unfold her scheme in a business-like tone:

"Yesterday you seemed to be taken by the fishing business."

"I certainly was until you told me there were no cannery sites left."

"There is one. When I came here a year ago the whole river was open, so on an outside chance I located a site, the best one available. When Willis Marsh learned of it, he took up all of the remaining places, and, although at the time I had no idea what I was going to do with my property, I have hung on to it."

"Is that where we are going?"

"Yes. You seemed eager yesterday to get in on a new chance, so I am taking you out to look over the ground."

"What's the use? I can't buy your site."

"Nobody asked you to," she smiled. "I wouldn't sell it to you if you had the money; but if you will build a cannery on it, I'll turn in the ground for an interest."

Emerson meditated a moment, then replied: "I can't say yes or no. It's a pretty big proposition--two hundred thousand dollars, you said?"

"Yes. It's a big opportunity. You can clean up a hundred per cent. in a year. Do you think you could raise the money to build a plant?"

"I might. I have some wealthy friends," he said, cautiously. "But I am not sure."

"At least you can try? That's all anybody can do."

"But I don't know anything about the business. I couldn't make it succeed."

"I've thought of all that, and there's a way to make success certain. I believe you have executive ability and can handle men."

"Oh yes; I've done that sort of thing." His broad shoulders went up as he drew a long breath. "What's your plan?"

"There's a man down the coast, George Balt, who knows more about the business than any four people in Kalvik. He's been a fisherman all his life. He discovered the Kalvik River, built the first cannery here, and was its foreman until he quarrelled with Marsh, who proceeded to discipline him. Balt isn't the kind of man to be disciplined; so, not having enough money to build a cannery, he took his scanty capital and started a saltery on his own account. That suited Marsh exactly; he broke George in a year, absolutely ruined him, utterly wiped him out, just as he intends to wipe out insignificant me! Thinking to bide his time and recoup his fallen fortunes George came back into camp; but he owns a valuable trap site which Marsh and his colleagues want; and before they would give him work, they tried to make him assign it to them, and contract never to go in business on his own account. Naturally George refused, so they disciplined him some more. He's been starving now for two years. Marsh and his companions rule this region just as the Hudson's Bay Company used to govern its concessions: by controlling the natives and preventing independent white men from gaining a foothold.

"No man dares to furnish food to George Balt; no man dares to give him a bed, no cannery will let him work. He has to take a dory to Dutch Harbor to get food. He doesn't dare leave the country and abandon the meagre thousands he has invested in buildings, so he has stayed on living off the country like a Siwash. He's a simple, big-hearted sort of fellow, but his life is centred in this business; it's all he knows. He considers himself the father of this section; and when he sees others rounding up the task that he began, it breaks his poor heart. Why, every summer when the run starts he comes across the marshes and slinks about the Kalvik thickets like a wraith, watching from afar just in order to be near it all. He stands alone and forsaken, harking to the clank of the machinery, every bolt of which he placed; watching his enemies enrich themselves from that gleaming silver army, which he considers his very own. He is shunned like a leper. No man is allowed to speak to him or render him any sort of fellowship, and it has made the man half mad, it has turned him into a vengeful, hate-filled fanatic, living only for retaliation. Some time I believe he will kill Marsh."

"Hm-m! One seems to be forever crossing the trail of this Marsh," said Boyd, who had listened intently.

"Yes. His aim is to gain control of this whole region, and if you decide to go into the enterprise you must expect to find him the most unscrupulous and vindictive enemy ever man had; make no mistake about that. It's only fair to warn you that this will be no child's play; but, on the other hand, the man who beats Marsh will have done something." She paused as if weighing her next words, then said, deliberately: "And I believe you are the one to do it."

But Emerson was not concerned about his destiny just then, nor for the dangerous enmity of Marsh. He was following another train of thought.

"And so Balt knows this business from the inside out?" he said.

"Thoroughly; every dip, angle, and spur of it, so to speak. He's practical and he's honest, in addition to which his trap-site is the key to the whole situation. You see, the salmon run in regular definite courses, year after year, just as if they were following a beaten track. At certain places these courses come close to the shore where conditions make it possible to drive piling and build traps which intercept them by the million. One trap will do the work of an army of fishermen with nets in deep water. It is to get this property for himself that Marsh has persecuted George so unflaggingly."

"Would he join us in such an enterprise, with five chances to one against success?"

"Would he!" Cherry laughed. "Wait and see."

They had reached their destination--the mouth of a deep creek, up which Cherry turned her dogs. Emerson leaped from the sled, and, running forward, seized the leader, guiding it into a clump of spruce, among the boles of which he tangled the harness, for this team was like a pack of wolves, ravenous for travel and intolerant of the leash.

Together they ascended the bank and surveyed the surroundings, Cherry expatiating upon every feature with the fervor of a land agent bent on weaving his spell about a prospective buyer. And in truth she had chosen well, for the conditions seemed ideal.

"It all sounds wonderfully attractive and feasible," said Boyd, at last; "but we must weigh the overwhelming odds against success. First, of course, is the question of capital. I have a little property of my own which I can convert. But two hundred thousand dollars! That's a tremendous sum to raise, even for a fellow with a circle of wealthy friends. Second, there's the question of time. It's now early December, and I'd have to be back here by the first of May. Third, could I run the plant and make it succeed? It must be a wonderfully technical business, and I am utterly ignorant of every phase of it. Then, too, there are a thousand other difficulties, such as getting machinery out here in time, hiring Chinese labor, chartering a ship, placing the output--"

"George Balt has done all that many times, and knows everything about it," Cherry interrupted, with decision. "Every difficulty can be met when the time comes. What other people have done, you ought to be able to do."

But he was not to be won by flattery. Youth that he was, he already knew the vanity of human hopes, and it was his nature to look at all sides of a question before answering it finally.

"The slightest error of judgment would mean failure and ruin," he reflected, "for this country isn't like any other. It is cut off from the rest of the world, and there's no time to go back and pick up."

"The odds are great, of course," she acquiesced, "but the winnings are in proportion. It isn't casino, by any means. This is worth while. Every man who has done anything in this world believes in a goddess of luck, and it's the element of chance that makes life worth living."

"That's all right in theory," he answered her, somewhat cynically, "but in practice you'll find that luck is largely the result of previous judgment. For every obstacle I have mentioned, a thousand unsuspected difficulties will arise, any one of which--" The girl interrupted him sharply for a second time, looking him squarely in the eyes, her own flushed face alight with determination.

"There's only one person in the whole world who can defeat you, and that person is yourself; and no man can finish a task before he begins it. We'll grant there's a chance for failure--a million chances; but don't try to count them. Count the chances for success. Don't be faint-hearted, for there's no such thing as fear. It doesn't exist. It's merely an absence of courage, just as indecision is merely a lack of decision. I never saw anything yet of which I was afraid--and you're a man. The deity of success is a woman, and she insists on being won, not courted. You've got to seize her and bear her off, instead of standing under her window with a mandolin. You need to be rough and masterful with her. Nobody ever reasoned himself out of a street fight. He had to act. If a man thinks over a proposition long enough it will whip him, no matter how simple it is. It's the lightning flash that guides a man. You must lay your course in the blue dazzle, then follow it in the dark; and when you come to the end, it always lightens again. Don't stand still, staring through the gloom, and then try to walk while the lightning lasts, because you won't get anywhere."

Her words were charged with an electric force that communicated itself to the young man and galvanized him into action. He would have spoken, but she stayed him, and went on:

"Wait; I'm not through yet. I've watched you, and I know you are down on your luck for some reason. You've been miscast somehow and you've had the heart taken out of you; but I'm sure it's in you to succeed, for you're young and intelligent, cool and determined. I am giving you this chance to play the biggest game of your life, and erase in eight short months every trace of failure. I'm not doing it altogether unselfishly, for I believe you've been sent to Kalvik to work out your own salvation and mine, and that of poor George Balt, whom you've never seen. You're going to do this thing, and you're going to make it win."

Emerson reached out impulsively and caught her tiny, mittened hand. His eyes were shining, his face had lost the settled look of dejection, and was all aglow with a new dawn of hope. Even his shoulders were lifted and thrown back as if from some sudden access of vigor that lightened his burden.

"You're right!" he said, firmly. "We'll send for Balt to-night."