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The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 11682

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Jack Kilmeny followed the pathway which wound through the woods along the bank of the river. Occasionally he pushed through a thick growth of young willows or ducked beneath the top strand of a neglected wire fence.

Beyond the trees lay a clearing. At the back of this, facing the river, was a large fishing lodge built of logs and finished artistically in rustic style. It was a two-story building spread over a good deal of ground space. A wide porch ran round the front and both sides. Upon the porch were a man in an armchair and a girl seated on the top step with her head against the corner post.

A voice hailed Kilmeny. "I say, my man."

The fisherman turned, discovered that he was the party addressed, and waited.

"Come here, you!" The man in the armchair had taken the cigar from his mouth and was beckoning to him.

"Meaning me?" inquired Kilmeny.

"Of course I mean you. Who else could I mean?"

The fisherman drew near. In his eyes sparkled a light that belied his acquiescence.

"Do you belong to the party camped below?" inquired he of the rocking chair, one eyeglass fixed in the complacent face.

The guilty man confessed.

"Then I want to know what the deuce you meant by kicking up such an infernal row last night. I couldn't sleep a wink for hours-not for hours, dash it. It's an outrage-a beastly outrage. What!"

The man with the monocle was smug with the self-satisfaction of his tribe. His thin hair was parted in the middle and a faint straw-colored mustache decorated his upper lip. Altogether, he might measure five feet five in his boots. The miner looked at him gravely. No faintest hint of humor came into the sea-blue eyes. They took in the dapper Britisher as if he had been a natural history specimen.

"So kindly tell them not to do it again," Dobyans Verinder ordered in conclusion.

"If you please, sir," added the young woman quietly.

Kilmeny's steady gaze passed for the first time to her. He saw a slight dark girl with amazingly live eyes and a lift to the piquant chin that was arresting. His hat came off promptly.

"We didn't know anybody was at the Lodge," he explained.

"You wouldn't, of course," she nodded, and by way of explanation: "Lady Farquhar is rather nervous. Of course we don't want to interfere with your fun, but--"

"There will be no more fireworks at night. One of the boys had a birthday and we were ventilating our enthusiasm. If we had known--"

"Kindly make sure it doesn't happen again, my good fellow," cut in Verinder.

Kilmeny looked at him, then back at the girl. The dapper little man had been weighed and found wanting. Henceforth, Verinder was not on the map.

"Did you think we were wild Utes broke loose from the reservation? I reckon we were some noisy. When the boys get to going good they don't quite know when to stop."

The eyes of the young woman sparkled. The fisherman thought he had never seen a face more vivid. Such charm as it held was too irregular for beauty, but the spirit that broke through interested by reason of its hint of freedom. She might be a caged bird, but her wings beat for the open spaces.

"Were they going good last night?" she mocked prettily.

"Not real good, ma'am. You see, we had no town to shoot up, so we just punctured the scenery. If we had known you were here--"

"You would have come and shot us up," she charged gayly.

Kilmeny laughed. "You're a good one, neighbor. But you don't need to worry." He let his eyes admire her lazily. "Young ladies are too seldom in this neck of the woods for the boys to hurt any. Give them a chance and they would be real good to you, ma'am."

His audacity delighted Moya Dwight. "Do you think they would?"

"In our own barbaric way, of course."

"Do you ever scalp people?" she asked with innocent impudence.

"It's a young country," he explained genially.

"It has that reputation."

"You've been reading stories about us," he charged. "Now we'll be on our good behavior just to show you."

"Thank you-if it isn't too hard."

"They're good boys, though they do forget it sometimes."

"I'm glad they do. They wouldn't interest me if they were too good. What's the use of coming to Colorado if it is going to be as civilized as England?"

Verinder, properly scandalized at this free give and take with a haphazard savage of the wilds, interrupted in the interest of propriety. "I'll not detain you any longer, my man. You may get at your fishing."

The Westerner paid not the least attention to him. "My gracious, ma'am, we think we're a heap more civilized than England. We ain't got any militant suffragettes in this country-at least, I've never met up with any."

"They're a sign of civilization," the young woman laughed. "They prove we're still alive, even if we are asleep."

"We've got you beat there, then. All the women vote here. What's the matter with you staying and running for governor?"

"Could I-really?" she beamed.

"Really and truly. Trouble with us is that we're so civilized we bend over backward with it. You're going to find us mighty tame. The melodramatic romance of the West is mostly in storybooks. What there was of it has gone out with the cowpuncher."

"What's a cowpuncher?"

"He rides the range after cattle."

"Oh-a cowboy. But aren't there any cowboys?"

"They're getting seldom. The barb wire fence has put them out of business. Mostly they're working for the moving picture companies now," he smiled.

Mr. Verinder prefaced with a formal little cough a second attempt to drive away this very assured native. "As I was saying, Miss Dwight, I wouldn't mind going into Parliament, you know, if it weren't for the bally labor members. I'm rather strong on speaking-that sort of thing, you know. Used to be a dab at it. But I couldn't stand the bounders that get i

n nowadays. Really, I couldn't."

"And I had so counted on the cowboys. I'm going to be disappointed, I think," Miss Dwight said to the Westerner quietly.

Verinder had sense enough to know that he was being punished. He had tried to put the Westerner out of the picture and found himself eliminated instead. An angry flush rose to his cheeks.

"That's the mistake you all make," Kilmeny told her. "The true romance of the West isn't in its clothes and its trappings."

"Where is it?" she asked.

"In its spirit-in the hope and the courage born of the wide plains and the clean hills-in its big democracy and its freedom from convention. The West is a condition of mind."

Miss Dwight was surprised. She had not expected a philosophy of this nature from her chance barbarian. He had the hands of a working man, brown and sinewy but untorn; yet there was the mark of distinction in the lean head set so royally on splendid shoulders. His body, spare of flesh and narrow of flank, had the lithe grace of a panther. She had seen before that look of competence, of easy self-reliance. Some of the men of her class had it-Ned Kilmeny, for instance. But Ned was an officer in a fighting regiment which had seen much service. Where had this tanned fisherman won the manner that inheres only in a leader of men?

"And how long does it take to belong to your West?" asked the young woman, with the inflection of derision.

But her mockery was a fraud. In both voice and face was a vivid eagerness not to be missed.

"Time hasn't a thing to do with it. Men live all their lives here and are never Westerners. Others are of us in a day. I think you would qualify early."

She knew that she ought to snub his excursion into the personal, but she was by nature unconventional.

"How do you know?" she demanded quickly.

"That's just a guess of mine," he smiled.

A musical voice called from within the house. "Have you seen my Graphic, Moya?"

A young woman stood in the doorway, a golden-white beauty with soft smiling eyes that showed a little surprise at sight of the fisherman. A faint murmur of apology for the interruption escaped her lips.

Kilmeny could not keep his eyes from her. What a superb young creature she was, what perfection in the animal grace of the long lines of the soft rounded body! Her movements had a light buoyancy that was charming. And where under heaven could a man hope to see anything lovelier than this pale face with its crown of burnished hair so lustrous and abundant?

Miss Dwight turned to her friend. "I haven't seen the Graphic, Joyce, dear."

"Isn't it in the billiard room? Thought I saw it there. I'll look," Verinder volunteered.

"Good of you," Miss Joyce nodded, her eyes on the stranger who had turned to leave.

Kilmeny was going because he knew that he might easily outwear his welcome. He had punished Verinder, and that was enough. The miner had met too many like him not to know that the man belonged to the family of common or garden snob. No doubt he rolled in wealth made by his father. The fellow had studied carefully the shibboleths of the society with which he wished to be intimate and was probably letter-perfect. None the less, he was a bounder, a rank outsider tolerated only for his money. He might do for the husband of some penniless society girl, but he would never in the world be accepted by her as a friend or an equal. The thought of him stirred the gorge of the fisherman. Very likely the man might capture for a wife the slim dark girl with the quick eyes, or even her friend, Joyce, choicest flower in a garden of maidens. Nowadays money would do anything socially.

"Cheekiest beggar I ever saw," fumed Verinder. "Don't see why you let the fellow stay, Miss Dwight."

The girl's scornful eyes came round to meet his. She had never before known how cordially she disliked him.

"Don't you?"

She rose and walked quickly into the house.

Verinder bit his mustache angrily. He had been cherishing a fiction that he was in love with Miss Dwight and more than once he had smarted beneath the lash of her contempt.

Joyce sank gracefully into the easiest chair and flashed a dazzling smile at him. "Has Moya been very unkind, Mr. Verinder?"

He had joined the party a few days before at Chicago and this was the first sign of interest Miss Seldon had shown in him. Verinder was grateful.

"Dashed if I understand Miss Dwight at all. She blows hot and cold," he confided in a burst of frankness.

"That's just her way. We all have our moods, don't we? I mean we poor women. Don't all the poets credit us with inconstancy?" The least ripple of amusement at her sex swelled in her throat and died away.

"Oh, by Jove, if that's all! I say, do you have moods too, Miss Joyce?"

Her long thick lashes fluttered down to the cheeks. Was she embarrassed at his question? He felt a sudden lift of the heart, an access of newborn confidence. Dobyans Verinder had never dared to lift his hopes as high as the famous beauty Joyce Seldon. Now for the first time his vanity stirred. Somehow-quite unexpectedly to him-the bars between them were down. Was it possible that she had taken a fancy to him? His imagination soared.

For a moment her deep pansy eyes rested in his. He felt a sudden intoxication of the senses. Almost with a swagger he drew up a chair and seated himself beside her. Already he was the conquering male in headlong pursuit. Nor was he disturbed by the least suspicion of having been filled with the sensations and the impulses that she had contrived.

Miss Seldon had that morning incidentally overheard Lady Farquhar tell her husband that Dobyans Verinder's fortune must be nearer two million pounds than one million. It was the first intimation she had been given that he was such a tremendous catch.

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