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   Chapter 5 I'M HERE, NEIGHBOR

The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 17800

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Moya still rode afternoons with her friends, fished occasionally, and took her regular hand at bridge. But it was unaccountably true that her zest in these amusements was gone. She could give no satisfactory reason for it, but she felt as if something had passed out of her life forever. It was as if the bubbling youth in her were quenched. The outstanding note of her had been the eagerness with which she had run out to meet new experiences. Now she found herself shrinking from them. Whenever she could the girl was glad to slip away by herself. To the charge that she was in love with this young vagabond she would have given a prompt denial. Nevertheless, Lady Farquhar recognized the symptoms as dangerous.

On the fifth day after the Gunnison trip the young people at the Lodge made a party to fish Sunbeam Creek. They followed the stream far into the hills, riding along the trail which bordered it. Kilmeny and Verinder carried lunch baskets, for they were to make a day of it and return only in time for a late dinner.

Moya made her brave pretense of gayety. With alacrity she responded to Verinder's challenge of a bet on the relative sizes of their catches. But as soon as the rest were out of sight she sat down in a shady spot and fell to musing.

How long she sat there, a sun-dappled nymph upon whom gleams of light filtered through the leaves of the aspens, she had not the least idea. The voice of a grizzled rider startled her from her dreams. Her lifted eyes took in the grim look of the man, garnished with weapons ready to his hands.

"Mornin', miss," he nodded amiably.

"Good-morning." And swift on the heels of it, "You are a deputy sheriff, are you not?"

"Rung the bell, ma'am. You belong to the English outfit, I reckon."

She smiled. "I suppose so, though I don't know what an outfit is."

"I mean to Lord What's-his-name's party."

"Yes, I think I do. I'm rather sure of it."

"Funny about some members of your crowd having the same name as the man we're looking for."

"Mr. Kilmeny, you mean?"

"Jack Kilmeny! Yes, ma'am."

"He introduced himself to us, but I don't think the name he went by was Kilmeny. I was told it was Crumbs."

"That's just a joke. His friends call him that because his people are 'way up in G. Fine bred-crumbs. Get the idea?"

"I think so."

"Came from the old country, his father did-son of some big gun over there. Likely he's some kin to your friends."

He put the last observation as a question, with a sharp glance from under his heavy gray eyebrows. Moya chose to regard it as a statement.

"Are you still searching for him?" she asked.

"You bet we are. The sheriff's got a notion he's up in these hills somewheres. A man answering his description was seen by some rancher. But if you ask me, I'd say he was busy losing himself 'way off in Routt County, clear off the map. He used to punch cows up there and he knows all kinds of holes to hide in. It don't stand to reason he'd still be fooling around here. He's bridle-wise and saddle-broke-knows every turn of the road."

"Yes," Moya assented listlessly.

"He had his getaway all planned before ever he came down here. That's a cinch. The fishing was all a bluff. The four of them had the hold-up arranged weeks ago. They've gone into a hole and drawn it in after them."

"Don't you think there's a chance he didn't do it?" she asked in a forlorn way.

"Not a chance. Jack Kilmeny and Colter pulled off the play. What the others had to do with it I don't know."

The deputy passed to the fishing in his conversation, hoped she would have luck, stroked his white goatee, and presently departed.

The man had scarcely disappeared around a bend in the gulch before a sound startled her. Moya turned quickly, to see a man drop down the face of a large rock to the ground. Even before he turned she recognized that pantherine grace and her heart lost a beat.

He came straight toward her, with the smile in his blue eyes that claimed comradeship as a matter of course.

"You-here," she gasped.

"I'm here, neighbor. Where ought I to be-in Routt County losing myself?"

Her little hand was lost in his big brown fist, her gaze locked in his.

"You heard him?"

"Couldn't help it. I was working down through that grove of pines to the river when I saw him."

"He may come back." Her quick glance went up the gulch into which the deputy had disappeared.

"I reckon not. Let's sit down and talk."

Her first thought had been of his danger, but she remembered something else now. "No, I think not, Mr. Kilmeny."

The deep eyes that met his steadily had in them the rapier flash. He smiled.

"Because I am a miscreant, I reckon," he drawled.

"You say it, not I."

"Now you're dodging, neighbor. You think it."

"If so, do I think more than the truth?"

A ripple of sardonic laughter stirred in him. "I see you have me convicted and in the penitentiary already."

"Your actions convict you."

"So you think. Isn't it just possible you don't understand them?" There was the faintest hint of derision in his polite inquiry.

A light flashed in her dusky eyes, a shining hope newborn in her eager heart. "Are you telling me that you are innocent?"

"You've been thinking me guilty, then," he countered swiftly.

"What else could I think?"

"You might have waited to hear the defense."

"If you had stayed to make one, but you ran away."

"How do you know I did?"

"You were gone when the officers reached your camp."

His smile was grim and his voice defiant. "There was a man up in the hills I wanted to see in a hurry."

By the look in her eyes it was as if he had struck her. With fine contempt her answer came. "Was there another man up there in the rocks just now that you had to see until the deputy left?"

"Anyhow, there was a young woman down by the banks of Sunbeam I wanted to see after he was gone," the fugitive claimed boldly.

A faint angry flush glowed delicately beneath the olive of her cheeks. "Evasions-nothing but evasions."

She turned away, sick at heart. He had treated with flippancy the chance she had given him. Would an innocent man have done that?

Swift as an arrow his hand shot out, caught her shoulder, and held her firmly. The eyes that lifted to his flamed with proud resentment.

"I'm not going to let you go like this. Don't think it."

"Sir."

"You'll do me justice first." His hand dropped from her shoulder, but the masterful look of him stayed her steps. "You'll tell me what evidence you've got against me."

Again an insurgent hope warmed her heart. Wild he might be, but surely no criminal-if there was any truth in faces.

What she had heard against him she told. "The robbers were riding horses like yours. You left the fair grounds early. You and your friend were seen going into the corral where you had stabled the animals. This was less than half an hour before the robbery. When you passed us on the road you were anxious about something. You looked back two or three times. Both you and Mr. Colter showed you were in a hurry. Then you ran away before the sheriff reached your camp. Does an innocent man do that?" She put her question as an accusation, but in the voice was a little tremble that asked to be refuted.

"Sometimes he does. Now listen to me. The horses ridden by the robbers were Colter's and mine. We certainly were worried about the time we met you. And we did break camp in a hurry so as to miss the sheriff. Does this prove me guilty?"

She brushed away the soft waves of dark hair that had fallen over her forehead in little escaping tendrils. The fearless level eyes of the outdoors West were looking straight at her.

"I don't know. Does it?"

"We'll say this evidence had piled up against Captain Kilmeny instead of against me. Would you have believed him guilty?"

"No. He couldn't have done it."

"On the same evidence you would acquit him and condemn me. Is that fair?"

"I have known him for years-his standards, his ways of thinking. All his life he has schooled himself to run a straight course."

"Whereas I--" He waited, the sardonic frosty smile on his lean strong face.

Moya knew that the flutter of her pulses was telling tales in the pink of her cheeks. "I don't know you."

"I'm only a workingman, and an American at that-so it follows that I must be a criminal," he answered with a touch of bitterness.

"No-no! But you're-different. There's something untamed about you. I don't quite know how to put it-as if you had been brought up without restraints, as if you didn't care much for law."

"Why should I? Law is a weapon to bolster up the rich and keep down the poor," he flung back with an acid smile. "But there's law and law. Even in our class we have our standards, such as they are."

"Now it's you that isn't fair," she told him quietly. "You know I meant

nothing like that. The point is that I don't know what your standards are. Law doesn't mean so much to people here. Your blood runs freer, less evenly than ours. You don't let the conventions hamper you."

"The convention of honesty, for instance. Thanks, Miss Dwight."

"I didn't want to believe it, but--"

The penitence in her vivid face pleaded for her. He could not refuse the outstretched hand of this slender lance-straight girl whose sweet vitality was at once so delicate and so gallant. Reluctantly his palm met hers.

"You're quite sure now that I didn't do it?"

"Quite sure."

"Even though I've been brought up badly?"

"Oh, I didn't say badly-really. You know I didn't."

"And though I'm wild and lawless?"

"Aren't you?" she flashed back with a smile that took from the words any sting they might otherwise have had.

Mirth overflowed in his eyes, from which now many little creases radiated. "You're a good one, neighbor. But, since you will have it, I am. I reckon my standards even of honesty wouldn't square with yours. I live in a rough mining camp where questions have two sides. It's up to me to play the game the way the other fellow plays it. But we'll not go into that now."

Strong, clear-eyed and masterful, she knew him a man among ten thousand. He might be capable of great sin, but what he did would be done with his eyes wide open and not from innate weakness. Her heart sang jubilantly. How could she ever have dreamed this crime of him? Her trust was now a thing above any evidence.

"And you'll sit down with me now if I ask you, neighbor," he laughed.

She did not wait to be asked, but sat down, tailor fashion, and looked expectantly up with a humorous little twist of the eyebrows. Flakes of dappled sunlight played on her through the moving leaves and accented the youthful bloom of her.

With a sigh of content he stretched himself on the sun-warmed loam. His glance swept up the gulch, a sword cleft in the hills, passed over the grove of young pines through which he had recently descended, and came back to the slim Irish girl sitting erectly on the turf.

"It's sometimes a mighty good world, neighbor," he said.

"I'm thinking that myself," she admitted, laughter welling softly out of her.

The sun lit the tips of the pines, so that they looked like burnished lances in battle array, poured its beams over the scarred hillside, and bathed the little valley in effulgent glory.

"You can always find it somewhere," he said with deep content, leaning on an elbow indolently.

She asked for no antecedent to his pronoun. What he meant was not ambiguous to her.

"If one knows where to look for it," she added softly.

"That's the trouble. We get so busy with our little everyday troubles that we forget to look. But the joy of life is always there if we'll forget our grouch and see it."

"Yes-if having eyes we see."

"I'm comforted a heap to know that you believe in me-even if I'm not Captain Kilmeny," he assured her with his slow rippling laugh.

Had he been looking at her he would have seen the telltale color tide her cheeks. "If that is a comfort you are welcome to it. I might have known the idea of connecting you with such a thing was folly."

He glanced whimsically at her. "Don't be too sure of me, neighbor. I'm likely to disappoint you. What one person thinks is right another knows is wrong. You'd have to make a heap of allowances for me if I were your friend."

"Isn't that what friendship is for-to make allowances?"

"You've found that out already, have you?"

The long-lashed lids fell to her cheeks in self-defense. Not for worlds would she have had him guess the swift message ready to leap out toward him. He seemed to be drawing her soul to his unconsciously. Tingling in every nerve, athrob with an emotion new and inexplicable, she drew a long slow breath and turned her head away. A hot shame ran like quicksilver through her veins. She whipped herself with her own scorn. Was she the kind of girl that gave her love to a man who did not want it?

His next words brought to her the shock she needed, the effect of a plunge into icy water on a warm day.

"What about your friends-what about Miss Seldon-did she believe me guilty too?" He could not quite keep the self-consciousness out of his voice.

"Hadn't you better ask her that?" she suggested.

In spite of his interest in their talk, Kilmeny's alert eyes had swept again and again the trail leading up the gulch. He did not intend to be caught napping by the officers. Now he rose and offered her a hand up.

"Your friends are coming."

Swiftly Moya came to earth from her emotions. In another moment she was standing beside the fugitive, her gaze on the advancing group. Captain Kilmeny was in the lead and was the first to recognize her companion. If he was surprised, his voice failed to show it.

"No, no, Verinder. I had him hooked all right," he was saying. "Dashed poor generalship lost him. He went into the rushes like a shot. I persuaded him out-had him in the open water. Looked to me like a two to one shot, hang it. Mr. Trout develops a bad break to the off and heads under a big log. Instead of moving down the bank I'm ass enough to reel from where I hooked him. Leader snaps, and Mr. Trout has the laugh on me."

To the sound of that high cheerful voice Moya roused at once. The rapt expression died from her face.

"How many?" called India, holding up her string.

"I haven't been fishing," Moya answered; then gave herself away. "It surely isn't time for luncheon already."

She took a step toward her friends, so that for the first time Jack Kilmeny stood plainly revealed. India's pretty piquant face set to a red-lipped soundless whistle. Joyce stared in frank amusement. Verinder, rutted in caste and respectability as only a social climber dubious of his position can be, ejaculated a "God bless my soul!" and collapsed beyond further articulation. Captain Kilmeny nodded to the Westerner without embarrassment.

"Mornin', Mr. Crumbs."

"Good-morning. But you have the name wrong, sir."

"Beg pardon." The captain's eyebrows lifted in inquiry.

"Kilmeny," the American corrected.

Nonchalantly the captain came to time. "Same name as ours. Wonder if by any chance we're of the same family. Happen to be any relation of Archibald Kilmeny, who died in Colorado fifteen years ago?"

Jack looked at him quietly. "A son."

"Makes us cousins. He was my father's brother."

The Westerner nodded coolly, not in the least impressed. "Yes."

It would have been easy to read hostility in his bearing, but India sailed past her brother with hand extended. "Glad to meet you, Cousin Jack. 'Member me? Last time you saw me I was a squalling five-year-old."

The American warmed a trifle. "I remember you, all right. Never saw a kid before so fond of currant jam."

"Still am. You've improved in your personal appearance. Last time I saw your eye it had been beautifully blacked, kindness of Ned."

"Fortune of war. My lip was swollen for a week," her brother laughed as he extended his hand.

"Ned got caned for fighting with a guest. Served him jolly well right," Miss Kilmeny said.

Joyce sailed forward into the picture gracefully. Her radiant beauty took the Westerner's breath.

"You'll stay with us for luncheon," she said with soft animation. "For, of course, this is an occasion. Long-lost cousins do not meet every day."

Verinder, making speechless sounds of protest at this indiscretion, grew very red in the face. Would he have to sit down to eat with a criminal at large?

Jack hesitated scarcely a second. He could not take his gaze from this superb young creature, whose every motion charmed, whose deep eyes glowed with such a divine warmth of molten gold.

"Thanks awf'lly, but I really can't stay."

He bowed to one and another, turned upon Joyce that look of dumb worship she had seen on the faces of many men, and swung off into the pines, as elastic-heeled, confident, and competent a youth as any of them had seen in many a day.

India's eyes danced. She was Irish enough to enjoy a situation so unusual. "Snubbed, Joyce, by a highwayman," she laughed.

But Joyce merely smiled. She knew what she knew.

"If you ask me, he's got the deuce of a cheek, you know," Verinder fumed.

Miss Kilmeny pounced instantly upon him. "Referring to our cousin, Mr. Verinder?" she demanded sweetly.

"But-er-you said yourself--"

"That was all in the family," she informed him promptly.

Joyce came to the assistance of Verinder with one confidential glance of her incredibly deep eyes of velvet. "Of course he's cheeky. How could he be India's cousin and not be that?" she asked with a rippling little laugh. "Come and help me spread the tablecloth, Mr. Verinder."

Deeply grateful, the millionaire flew to assist.

* * *

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