Chapter V. In Which a Compact is Formed
 

Now that he had committed himself to action, Boyd Emerson became a different being. He was no longer the dispirited cynic of yesterday, but an eager, voluble optimist athirst for knowledge and afire with impatience. On the homeward drive he had bombarded Cherry with a running fusillade of questions, so that by the time they had arrived at her house she was mentally and physically fatigued. He seemed insatiable, drawing from her every atom of information she possessed, and although he was still hard, incisive, and aloof, it was in quite a different way. The intensity of his concentration had gathered all feeling into one definite passion, and had sucked him dry of ordinary emotions.

In the days that followed she was at his elbow constantly, aiding him at every turn in his zeal to acquire a knowledge of the cannery system. The odd conviction grew upon her that he was working against time, that there was a limit to his period of action, for he seemed obsessed by an ever- growing passion to accomplish some end within a given time, and had no thought for anything beyond the engrossing issue into which he had plunged. She was dumfounded by his sudden transformation, and delighted at first, but later, when she saw that he regarded her only as a means to an end, his cool assumption of leadership piqued her and she felt hurt.

Constantine had been sent for Balt, with instructions to keep on until he found the fisherman, even if the quest carried him over the range. During the days of impatient waiting they occupied their time largely in reconnoitring the nearest cannery, permission to go over which Cherry had secured from the watchman, who was indebted to her. The man was timid at first, but Emerson won him over, then proceeded to pump him dry of information, as he had done with his hostess. He covered the plant like a ferret; he showed such powers of adaptability and assimilation as to excite the girl's wonder; his grasp of detail was instant; his retentive faculty tenacious; he never seemed to rest.

"Why, you already know more about a cannery than a superintendent does," she remarked, after nearly a week of this. "I believe you could build one yourself."

He smiled. "I'm an engineer by education, and this is really in my line. It's the other part that has me guessing."

"Balt can handle that."

"But why doesn't he come?" he questioned, crossly. A score of times he had voiced his impatience, and Cherry was hard pushed to soothe him.

Nor was she the only one to note the change in him; Fraser followed him about and looked on in bewilderment.

"What have you done to 'Frozen Annie'?" he asked Cherry on one occasion. "You must have fed him a speed-ball, for I never saw a guy gear up so fast. Why, he was the darndest crape-hanger I ever met till you got him gingered up; he didn't have no more spirit than a sick kitten. Of course, he ain't what you'd call genial and expansive yet, but he's developed a remarkable burst of speed, and seems downright hopeful at times."

"Hopeful of what?"

"Ah! that's where I wander; he's a puzzle to me. Hopeful of making money, I suppose."

"That isn't it. I can see he doesn't care for the money itself," the girl declared, emphatically. She would have liked to ask Fraser if he knew anything about the mysterious beauty of the magazine, but refrained.

"I don't think so, either," said the man. "He acts more like somebody was going to ring the gong on him if this fish thing don't let him out. It seems to be a case bet with him."

"It's a case bet with me, too," said the girl. "My men are ready to quit, and--well, Willis Marsh will see that I am financially ruined!"

"Oho! So this is your only 'out,'" grinned "Fingerless" Fraser. "Now, I had a different idea as to why you got Emerson started." He was observing her shrewdly.

"What idea, pray?"

"Well, talking straight and side-stepping subterfuge, this is a lonely place for a woman like you, and our mutual friend ain't altogether unattractive."

Cherry's cheeks flamed, but her tone was icy. "This is entirely a business matter."

"Hm--m--! I ain't never heard you touted none as a business woman," said the adventurer.

"Have you ever heard me"--the color faded from the girl's face, and it was a trifle drawn--"discussed in any way?"

"You know, Emerson makes me uncomfortable sometimes, he is so damn moral," Fraser replied, indirectly. "He won't stand for anything off color. He's a real square guy, he is, the kind you read about."

"You didn't answer my question," insisted Cherry.

Again Fraser evaded the issue. "Now, if this Marsh is going after you in earnest this summer, why don't you let me stick around here till spring and look-out your game? I'll drop a monkey-wrench in his gear-case or put a spider in his dumpling; and it's more than an even shot that if him and I got to know each other right well, I'd own his cannery before fall."

"Thank you, I can take care of myself!" said the girl, in a tone that closed the conversation.

Late one stormy night--Constantine had been gone a week--the two men whom they were expecting blew in through the blinding smother, half frozen and well-nigh exhausted, with the marks of hard travel showing in their sunken cheeks and in the bleeding pads of their dog-team. But although a hundred miles of impassable trails lay behind them, Balt refused rest or nourishment until he had learned why Cherry had sent for him.

"What's wrong?" he demanded of her, staring with suspicious eyes at the strangers.

As briefly as possible she outlined the situation the while Boyd Emerson took his measure, for no person quite like this fisherman had ever crossed the miner's path. He saw a huge, barrel-chested creature whose tremendous muscles bulged beneath his nondescript garments, whose red, upstanding bristle of hair topped a leather countenance from which gleamed a pair of the most violent eyes Emerson had ever beheld, the dominant expression of which was rage. His jaw was long, and the seams from nostril and lip, half hidden behind a stiff stubble, gave it the set of granite. His hands were gnarled and cracked from an age-long immersion in brine, his voice was hoarse with the echo of drumming ratlines. He might have lived forty, sixty years, but every year had been given to the sea, for its breath was in his lungs, its foaming violence was in his blood.

As the significance of Cherry's words sank into his mind, the signs of an unholy joy overspread the fisherman's visage; his thick lips writhed into an evil grin, and his hairy paws continued to open and close hungrily.

"Do you mean business?" he bellowed at Emerson.

"I do."

"Can you fight?"

"Yes."

"Will you do what I tell you, or have you got a lot of sick notions?"

"No," the young man declared, stoutly, "I have no scruples; but I won't do what you or anybody else tells me. I'll do what I please. I intend to run this enterprise absolutely, and run it my way."

"This gang won't stop at anything," warned Balt.

"Neither will I," affirmed the other, with a scowl and a dangerous down- drawing of his lip corners. "I've got to win, so don't waste time wondering how far I'll go. What I want to know is if you will join my enterprise."

The giant uttered a mirthless chuckle. "I'll give my life to it."

"I knew you would," flashed Cherry, her eyes beaming.

"And if we don't beat Willis Marsh, by God, I'll kill him!" Balt shouted, fully capable of carrying out his threat, for his bloodshot eyes were lit with bitter hatred and the memory of his wrongs was like gall in his mouth. Turning to the girl, he said:

"Now give me something to eat. I've been living on dog fish till my belly is full of bones."

He ripped the ragged parka from his back and flung it in a sodden heap beside the stove; then strode after her, with the others following.

She seated him at her table and spread food before him--great quantities of food, which he devoured ravenously, humped over in his seat like a bear, his jaw hanging close to his plate. His appetite was as ungoverned as his temper; he did not taste his meal nor note its character, but demolished whatever fell first to his hand, staring curiously up from under his thatched brows at Emerson, now and then grunting some interruption to the other's rapid talk. Of Cherry and of "Fingerless" Fraser, who regarded him with awe, he took not the slightest heed. He gorged himself with sufficient provender for four people; then observing that the board was empty, swept the crumbs and remnants from his lips, and rose, saying:

"Now, let's go out by the stove. I've been cold for three days."

Cherry left the two of them there, and long after she had gone to bed she heard the murmur of their voices.

"It's all arranged," they advised her at the breakfast-table. "We leave to-morrow."

"To-morrow?" she echoed, blankly.

"To-morrow?" likewise questioned Fraser, in alarm. "Oh, say! You can't do that. My feet are too sore to travel. I've certainly got a bad pair of 'dogs.'"

"We start in the morning. We have no time to waste."

Cherry turned to the fisherman. "You can't get ready so soon, George."

"I'm ready now," answered the big fellow.

She felt a sudden dread at her heart. What if they failed and did not return? What if some untoward peril should overtake them on the outward trip? It was a hazardous journey, and George Balt was the most reckless man on the Behring coast. She cast a frightened glance at Emerson, but none of the men noticed it. Even if they had observed the light that had come into those clear eyes, they would not have known it for the dawn of a new love any more than she herself realized what her reasonless fears betokened. She had little time to ponder, however, for Emerson's next words added to her alarm:

"We'll catch the mail-boat at Katmai."

"Katmai!" she broke in, sharply. "You said you were going by the Iliamna route."

"The other is shorter."

She turned on Balt, angrily. "You know better than to suggest such a thing."

"I didn't suggest it," said Balt. "It's Mr. Emerson's own idea; he insists."

"I'm for the long, safe proposition every time," Fraser announced, as if settling the matter definitely, languidly filling his pipe.

Boyd's voice broke in curtly upon his revery. "You're not going with us."

"The hell I ain't!" exploded the other. "Why not?"

"There won't be room. You understand--it's hard travelling with three."

"Oh, see here, now, pal! You promised to take me to the States," the adventurer demurred. "You wouldn't slough me at this gravel-pit, after you promised?" He was visibly alarmed.

"Very well," said Emerson, resignedly, "If you feel that way about it, come along; but I won't take you east of Seattle."

"Seattle ain't so bad," Fraser replied. "I guess I can pick up a pinch of change there, all right. But Kalvik--Wow!"

"Why do you have to go so soon?" Cherry asked Emerson, when the two others had left them.

"Because every day counts."

"But why the Katmai route? It's the stormy season, and you may have to wait two weeks for the mail-boat after you reach the coast."

"Yes; but, on the other hand, if we should miss it by one day, it would mean a month's delay. She ought to be due in about ten days, so we can't take any chances."

"I shall be dreadfully worried until I know you are safely over," said the girl, a new note of wistful tenderness in her voice.

"Nonsense! We've all taken bigger risks before."

"Do you know," she began, hesitatingly, "I've been thinking that perhaps you'd better not take up this enterprise, after all."

"Why not?" he asked, with an incredulous stare. "I thought you were enthusiastic on the subject."

"I am--I--believe in the proposition thoroughly," Cherry limped on, "but-- well, I was entirely selfish in getting you started, for it possibly means my own salvation, but--"

"It's my last chance also," Boyd broke in. "That's only another reason for you to continue, however. Why have you suddenly weakened?"

"Because I see you don't realize what you are going into," she said, desperately. "Because you don't appreciate the character of the men you will clash with. There is actual physical peril attached to this undertaking, and Marsh won't hesitate to--to do anything under the sun to balk you. It isn't worth while risking your life for a few dollars."

"Oh, isn't it!" Emerson laughed a trifle harshly. "My dear girl, you don't know what I am willing to risk for those 'few dollars'; you don't know what success means to me. Why, if I don't make this thing win, I'll be perfectly willing to let Marsh wreak his vengeance upon me--I might even help him."

"Oh no!"

"You may rest assured of one thing: if he is unscrupulous, so shall I be. If he undertakes to check me, I'll--well, I'll fight fire with fire."

His face was not pleasant to look at now, and the girl felt an access of that vague alarm which had been troubling her of late. She saw again that old light of sullen desperation in the man's eye, and marked with it a new, dogged, dangerous gleam as of one possessed, which proclaimed his extreme necessity.

"But what has occurred to make you change your mind?" he asked, causing the faintest flush to rise in her cheeks.

"A few days ago you were a stranger, now you are a friend," she replied, steadily. "One's likes and dislikes grow rapidly when they are not choked by convention. I like you too well to see you do this. You are too good a man to become the prey of those people. Remember George Balt."

"Balt hasn't started yet. For the first time he is a real menace to Willis Marsh."

"Won't you take my advice and reconsider?" urged the girl.

"Listen!" said the young man. "I came to this country with a definite purpose in mind, and I had three years in which to work it out. I needed money--God, how I needed money! They may talk about the emptiness of riches, and tell you that men labor not for the 'kill' but for the pursuit, not for the score but for the contest. Maybe some of them do; but with me it was gold I needed, gold I had to have, and I didn't care much how I got it, so long as I got it honestly. I didn't crave the pleasure of earning it nor the thrill of finding it; I just wanted the thing itself, and came up here because I thought the opportunities were greater here than elsewhere. I'd have gone to the Sahara or into Thibet just as willingly. I left behind a good many things to which I had been raised, and forsook opportunities which to most fellows of my age would seem golden; but I did it eagerly, because I had only three years of grace and knew I must win in that time. Well, I went at it. No chance was too desperate, no peril was too great, no hardship too intense for me. I bent every effort to my task, until mind and body became sleepless, unresting implements for the working out of my purpose. I lost all sensibility to effort, to fatigue, to physical suffering; I forgot all things in the world except my one idea. I focussed every power upon my desire, but a curse was on me. A curse! Nothing less.

"At first I took misfortune philosophically; but when it came and slept with me, I began to rage at it. Month after month, year by year, it rose with me at dawn and lay down by me at night. Misfortune beleaguered me and dogged my heels, until it became a thing of amusement to every one except myself. To me it was terrifying, because my time was shortening, and the last day of grace was rushing toward me.

"Just to show you what luck I played in:--at Dawson I found a prospect that would have made most men rich, and although such a thing had never happened in that particular locality before, it pinched out. I tried again and again and again, and finally found another mine, only to be robbed of it by the Canadian laws in such a manner that there wasn't the faintest hope of my recovering the property. Men told me about opportunities they couldn't avail themselves of, and, although I did what they themselves would have done, these chances proved to be ghastly jokes. I finally shifted from mining to other ventures, and the town burned. I awoke in a midnight blizzard to see my chance for a fortune licked up by flames, while the hiss of the water from the firemen's hose seemed directed at me and the voice of the crowd sounded like jeers.

"I was among the first at Nome and staked alongside the discoverers, who undertook to put me in right for once; but although the fellows around me made fortunes in a day, my ground was barren and my bed-rock swept clean by that unseen hand which I always felt but could never avoid. I leased proven properties, only to find that the pay ceased without reason. I did this so frequently that owners began to refuse me and came to consider me a thing of evil omen. Once a broken snow-shoe in a race to the recorder's office lost me a fortune; at another time a corrupt judge plunged me from certainty to despair, and all the while my time was growing shorter and I was growing poorer.

"Two hours after the Topkuk strike was made I drove past the shaft, but the one partner known to me had gone to the cabin to build a fire, and the other one lied to me, thinking I was a stranger. I heard afterward that just as I drove away my friend came to the door and called after me, but the day was bitter, and my ears were muffled with fur, while the dry snow beneath the runners shrieked so that it drowned his cries. Me chased me for half a mile to make me rich, but the hand of fate lashed my dogs faster and faster, while that hellish screeching outdinned his voice. Six hours later Topkuk was history. You've seen stampedes--you understand.

"My name became a by-word and caused people to laugh, though they shrank from me, for miners and sailors are equally superstitious. No man ever had more opportunities than I, and no man was ever so miserably unfortunate in missing them. In time I became whipped, utterly without hope. Yet almost from habit I fought on and on, with my ears deaf to the voices that mocked me.

"Three years isn't very long as you measure time, but the death-watch drags, and the priest's prayers are an eternity when the hangman waits outside. But the time came and passed at length, and I saw my beautiful breathing dream become a rotting corpse. Still, I struggled along, until one day something snapped and I gave up--for all time. I realized, as you said, that I was 'miscast,' that I had never been of this land, so I was headed for home. Home!" Emerson smiled bitterly. "The word doesn't mean anything to me now, but anyhow I was headed for God's country, an utter failure, in a worse plight than when I came here, when you put this last chance in front of me. It may be another ignis fatuus, such as the others I have pursued, for I have been chasing rainbows now for three years, and I suppose I shall go on chasing them; but as long as there is a chance left, I can't quit--I can't. And something tells me that I have left that ill-omened thing behind at last, and I am going to win!"

Cherry had listened eagerly to this bitter tirade, and was deeply touched by the pathos of the youth's sense of failure. His poignant pessimism, however, only seemed to throw into relief the stubborn fixedness of his dominant purpose. The moving cause of it all, whatever it was--and it could only be a woman--aroused a burning curiosity in her, and she said:

"But you're too late. You say your time was up some time ago."

"Perhaps," he returned, staring into the distances. "That's what I was going out to ascertain. I thought I might have a few days of grace allowed me." He turned his eyes directly upon her, and concluded, in a matter-of- fact tone: "That's why I can't quit, now that you've set me in motion again, now that you've given me another chance. That's why we leave to- morrow and go by way of the Katmai Pass."