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The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 21471

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Dinner at the Lodge was just finished. It was the one hour of the day when anything like formality obtained. Each one dropped into breakfast when he or she pleased. Luncheon rarely found them together. But Lady Jim insisted that dinner should be a civilized function. Unless there was to be night fishing the whole party usually adjourned from the dining-room to the river-front porch, where such members of it as desired might smoke the postprandial cigar or cigarette. To-night nobody cared to get out rod and line. In an hour or so they would return to the living-room for bridge.

Voices drifted up the trail and presently riders came into sight. They halted among the trees, where one dismounted and came forward, his trailing spurs jingling as he walked.

He bowed to his audience in general, and again and more particularly to Lady Farquhar.

"Evening, ma'am. My name's Gill-sheriff of this county. I hate to trouble you, but my men haven't had a bite to eat since early this mo'ning. Think we could get a snack here? We'll not get to Gunnison till most eleven."

Lady Farquhar rose. "I'll have the cook make something for you. How many?"

"Six. Much obliged. Just anything that's handy."

Sheriff Gill beckoned to the men in the trees, who tied their horses and presently came forward. All but one of them were heavily armed. That one walked between a 30-30 and a 32 special carbine. It was observable that the men with the rifles did not lift their eyes from him.

Moya felt her heart flutter like that of a caged bird. The blood ebbed from her lips and she swayed in her seat. The prisoner was Jack Kilmeny. Farquhar, sitting beside the girl, let his hand fall upon hers with a comforting little pressure.

"Steady!" his voice murmured so that she alone heard.

Yet his own pulse stirred with the sheer melodrama of the scene. For as the man came forward it chanced that the luminous moonbeams haloed like a spotlight the blond head and splendid shoulders of the prisoner. Never in his gusty lifetime had he looked more the vagabond enthroned. He was coatless, and the strong muscles sloped beautifully from the brown throat. A sardonic smile was on the devil-may-care face, and those who saw that smile labeled it impudent, debonair, or whimsical, as fancy pleased.

"By Jove, the fellow's a natural-born aristocrat," thought Farquhar, the most democratic of men.

Jack Kilmeny nodded with cool equality toward Farquhar and the captain, ignored Verinder, and smiled genially at India. For Moya his look had a special meaning. It charged her with the duty of faith in him. Somehow too it poured courage into her sinking heart.

"Afraid an engagement at Gunnison with Sheriff Gill won't let me stop for any poker to-night," he told his host.

Farquhar was on the spot to meet him in the same spirit. "Verinder will be glad of that. I fancy my pocketbook too will be fatter to-morrow morning."

Biggs appeared to take the newly arrived party in charge. As they started to follow him the prisoner came face to face with Joyce, who was just coming out of the house. She looked at the young miner and at the rifles, and her eyes dilated. Under the lowered lights of evening she seemed to swim in a tide of beauty rich and mellow. The young man caught his breath at the sheer pagan loveliness of her.

"What is it?" she asked in a low, sweet, tremulous voice.

His assurance fled. The bravado was sponged from his face instantly. He stared at her in silence from fascinated eyes until he moved forward at the spur of an insistent arm at his elbow.

India wondered how Lady Jim would dispose of the party. Jack Kilmeny might be a criminal, but he happened to be their cousin. It would hardly do to send him to the servants' quarters to eat. And where he ate the sheriff and his posse would likewise have to dine.

The young woman need not have concerned herself. Lady Farquhar knew enough of the West and its ways not to make a mistake. Such food as could be prepared at short notice was served in the dining-room.

Having washed the dust of travel from himself, the sheriff returned to the porch to apologize once more for having made so much trouble.

Farquhar diverted him from his regrets by asking him how they had made the capture.

"I ain't claiming much credit for getting him," Gill admitted. "This here was the way of it. A kid had been lost from Lander's ranch-strayed away in the hills, y'understand. She was gone for forty-eight hours, and everybody in the district was on the hunt for her. Up there the mountains are full of pockets. Looked like they weren't going to git her. Soon it would be too late, even if they did find her. Besides, there are a heap of mountain lions up in that country. I tell you her folks were plumb worried."

Moya, listening to every word as she leaned forward, spoke vividly. "And Mr. Kilmeny found her."

The sheriff's surprised eyes turned to her. "That's right, ma'am. He did. I dunno how you guessed it, but you've rung the bell. He found her and brought her down to the ranch. It just happened we had drapped in there ten minutes before. So we gathered him in handy as the pocket in your shirt. Before he could move we had the crawl on him."

The sheriff retired to the dining-room, whence came presently snatches of cheerful talk between the prisoner and his captors. In their company Jack Kilmeny was frankly a Western frontiersman.

"You passed close to me Wednesday night at the fork of Rainbow above the J K ranch. I was lying on a ledge close to the trail. You discussed whether to try Deer Creek or follow Rainbow to its headwaters," the miner said.

"That was sure one on us. Hadn't been for the kid, I don't reckon we ever would have took you," a deputy confessed.

"What beats me is why you weren't a hundred miles away in Routt County over in yore old stamping ground," another submitted.

"I had my reasons. I wasn't looking to be caught anyhow. Now you've got me you want to watch me close," the prisoner advised.

"We're watching you. Don't make any mistake about that and try any fool break," Gill answered, quite undisturbed.

"He's the coolest hand I ever heard," Farquhar said to the party on the porch. "If I were a highwayman I'd like to have him for a partner."

"He's not a highwayman, I tell you," corrected Moya.

"I hope he isn't, but I'm afraid he is," India confided in a whisper. "For whatever else he is, Jack Kilmeny is a man."

"Very much so," the captain nodded, between troubled puffs of his pipe.

"And I'm going to stand by him," announced his sister with a determined toss of her pretty head.

Moya slipped an arm quickly around her waist. She was more grateful for this support than she could say. It meant that India at least had definitely accepted the American as a relative with the obligation that implied. Both girls waited for Ned Kilmeny to declare himself, for, after all, he was the head of the family. He smoked in silence for a minute, considering the facts in his stolid deliberate fashion.

The excitement of the girl he loved showed itself in the dusky eyes sparkling beneath the soft mass of blue-black hair, in the glow of underlying blood that swept into her cheeks. She hoped-oh, how she hoped!-that the officer would stand by his cousin. In her heart she knew that if he did not-no matter how right his choice might be in principle-she never would like him so well again. He was a man who carried in his face and in his bearing the note of fineness, of personal distinction, but if he were to prove a formalist at heart, if he were going to stickle for an assurance of his kinsman's innocence before he came to the prisoner's aid, Moya would have no further use for him.

When the sheriff presently came out Captain Kilmeny asked him if he might have a word with the prisoner.

"Sure. Anything you want to say to him."

The English officer drew his cousin aside and with some embarrassment tendered to his cousin the use of his purse in the event it might be needed for the defense.

Jack looked at him steadily with hard unflinching eyes. "Why are you offering this, captain?"

"I don't quite take you."

"I mean, what's your reason? Don't like it to get out that you have a cousin in the pen, is that it? Anxious to avoid a family scandal?" he asked, almost with a sneer.

The captain flushed, but before he could answer India flamed out. "You might have the decency to be ashamed of that, Jack Kilmeny."

Her cousin looked at the girl gravely, then back at her lean, clean-faced brother. "I am. Beg your pardon, captain. As for your offer, I would accept it if there were any need. But there isn't. The charges against me will fall flat."

"Deuced glad to hear it. Miss Dwight has just been telling us it would be all right."

India looked straight at Jack out of the steel-blue eyes that were so like his own. "I wasn't so sure of it myself, but Moya was. Nothing could shake her. She's a good friend."

"I had it sized up about that way," the miner replied. "But I've a notion Miss Kilmeny will stand the acid too. Anyhow, I'm much obliged to her."

The prisoner shook hands with both of his cousins, lifted a broad-brimmed gray felt hat from the rack, and delivered himself to the sheriff.

"All right, Gill."

India gave a little exclamation and moved toward the hatrack. Her hand fell upon a second hat, similar in appearance to the first, but much more worn and dust-stained. She opened her lips to speak and closed them without saying a word. For her eyes had met those of Moya and read there a warning.

Jack Kilmeny nodded a brisk farewell to Farquhar, smiled at Miss Dwight, and moved with his guards to the clump of trees where the horses had been left. His eyes had looked for Joyce, but she was not at that moment in sight.

The last faint beat of the retreating hoofs died away. An awkward constraint settled upon the party left at the Lodge. It was impossible to discuss the situation openly, yet it was embarrassing to ignore the subject in the thoughts of all. After a decent interval they began to drop away, one by one, from the group. India followed Moya, and found that young woman in her room.

"What are you hiding?" Miss Kilmeny asked quickly.

Moya produced from her hatbox a gray sombrero and put it on the table. "I didn't know it was you-thought it might be Lady Jim," she explained.

"Why wasn't I to tell Jack Kilmeny that he had taken Ned's hat by mistake?" India wanted to know.

"Because it wasn't by mistake."

"Not by mistake! What would he want with another man's hat?"

"I'm not sure about that. Perhaps he didn't want his own. You see, I had started myself to tell him a

bout the mistake, but his eyes asked me plain as words not to speak."

"But why-why?" India frowned at the hat, her active brain busy. "It would be absurd for him to want Ned's hat. He must have had some reason, though."

"Don't they search prisoners before they lock them up?" Moya asked abruptly.

India shook her head. "I don't know. Do they?"

"Of course they do." Moya's eyes began to shine. "Now suppose there is something about that hat he didn't want them to see."

"How do you mean?" India picked up the hat and turned it round slowly. "It's worn and a bit disreputable, but he wouldn't care for that."

Moya found a pair of scissors in her work basket. With these she ripped off the outer ribbon. This told her nothing. Next she examined the inside. Under the sweat pad was a folded slip of paper. She waved it in excitement.

"What did I tell you?"

"But-if he is innocent-what could there be he wanted to hide?"

"I don't know." Moya unfolded the paper enough to see that there was writing in it. "Do you think we ought to read this?"

"I don't know," India repeated in her turn. "Perhaps it may be a message to you."

Moya's face lighted. "Of course that's it. He wanted to tell us something when the rest were not there, so he used this method."

Three cramped lines were penciled on the torn fragment of paper.

At wharf above camp.

Twelve steps below big rock.

In gunny sack three yards from shore.

Two pairs of puzzled eyes looked into each other.

"What can it mean?" India asked.

"I don't know, unless--"

"Unless what?"

"Can it be a direction for finding something?"

"But what? And why should it be hidden in his hat? Besides, he would have no chance to put it in there after he was captured."

"Then perhaps it isn't a message to me at all."

"That's what we must find out. 'At wharf above camp.' That probably means his fishing camp."

"What are you going to do, India?"

"I'm going to get Ned to help me find that gunny sack."

Moya found herself trembling. She did not know why. It was not doubt of her reckless friend, but none the less she was in a panic.

"Do you think we'd better?"

Miss Kilmeny looked at her in surprise. In general nobody came to decision more quickly than Moya.

"Of course. How else can we tell whether it is something he wants us to do for him?"

"When shall we look?"

"The sooner the better-to-night," answered the other girl immediately. "The wharf above the camp. It's not a quarter of an hour from here. I'll not sleep till I know what he means."

"Lady Jim," Moya reminded her.

"She needn't know. She can't object if we take Ned and go fishing for an hour."

Moya consulted her watch. "They'll be gathering for bridge pretty soon. Let's go now. We can be back in time for supper."

"Get into your fishing togs. I'll get Ned and we'll meet you on the west porch in a quarter of an hour."

Within the appointed time the three slipped away down the river bank trail as silently as conspirators. The captain was rather inclined to pooh-pooh the whole thing, but he was not at all sorry to share an adventure that brought him into a closer relationship with Moya Dwight.

"Must be this wharf," India said presently, as a bulky shadow loomed out of the darkness.

"Shouldn't wonder. Here's a big rock just below it. Didn't the paper say something about a rock?" asked the captain.

"Twelve steps below big rock, it says."

The soldier paced off the distance. "What now?"

"Three yards from the shore," called his sister. "There should be a gunny sack, whatever that is."

"Afraid he's spoofing us," Kilmeny said with a laugh as he moved out in his waders against the current. "Here I am. What's the next direction?"

India giggled. She was Irish enough to get the humorous side of things and could not help being frivolous even when she was greatly interested. "Now you look over your left shoulder at the moon and wish."

Her brother's high voice cut in. "I say. My foot's kicking something. Wait a jiff."

He braced his feet, dived suddenly down with one arm till his face touched the water, and grappled with his fingers for a hold on something lying between two rocks at the bottom. When he straightened again it was with an effort. He did not attempt to raise his burden from the stream, but waded ashore with it. Using both hands, he dragged his find to land.

"It's a sack," India cried excitedly.

The captain's eyes met those of Moya. His face was grave, but she was white to the lips. Both of them felt sure of what they would find in the sack.

"Open it," she told him tensely.

With his pocketknife Kilmeny cut the string that tied the sack. He drew out a heavy valise so full that it gaped. Silver and gold coins, as well as bills, filled it to the mouth. They had found the money stolen from the treasurer of the Gunnison County Fair association.

All three of them were sick at heart. Jack Kilmeny then was guilty, after all. The message in the hat had not been intended for them, but had been merely a note of identification of the spot. He had taken the captain's hat merely because he did not want the officers to find the directions under the sweat pad. He had in essence lied to Moya and to the cousins who had offered to stand shoulder to shoulder with him in his trouble.

To Moya the next hour was a nightmare. They returned to the Lodge and slipped into the house by way of a French window opening upon the deserted north porch. Kilmeny hid the sack of treasure in his trunk and divested himself of his fishing clothes. Presently he joined Moya and his sister on the front porch, where shortly they were discovered by Verinder in search of a fourth at bridge.

India, knowing how greatly her friend was shaken, volunteered to fill the table and maneuvered Verinder back into the living-room with her. The millionaire had vaguely the sense of a conspiracy against him and resented it, even though of late he had been veering from Moya to Joyce in his attentions.

Captain Kilmeny, left alone with the girl of his dreams, wisely said nothing. He was himself indignant, his family pride stung to the quick. His cousin was not only a thief but a liar. Born of a race of soldiers, with the traditions of family and of the army back of him for generations, the latter offense was the greater of the two. He understood something of how Miss Dwight felt. She had let herself become greatly interested in this vagabond cousin of his. Openly she had championed his cause. Now her feelings were wounded, her pride hurt, and her anger ablaze. The fellow's offense against her had been flagrant.

So far the captain had guessed correctly. Moya writhed like a bruised woodland creature. Her friendship had been abused. She had been as credulous as a simple country wench, while he no doubt had been laughing up his sleeve at her all the time. No longer had she any doubt as to his guilt. She visualized the hurried run for safety to camp, the swift disposal of the treasure in the river because of the close pursuit. When she lived over again that scene on Sunbeam the girl flogged her soul like a penitent. As one grinds defiantly on an ulcerated tooth, so she crushed her pride and dragged it in the dust.

But the wound was deeper even than this. To give herself in friendship impulsively was her temperament, though not many were judged worthy of such giving. This blue-eyed scamp had won her as no man ever had before. She had seen him through a glamour. Now his character stood stripped in its meanness. Her sweet trust was crushed. In the reaction that was upon her she craved rest and safety. No longer had she any confidence in her own judgment. Against the advice of her friends she had been wayward and headstrong, so sure that she knew best.

Kilmeny, sitting beside her in the deep shadows cast by the wild cucumber vines, became aware that she was weeping silently. His heart bled for her. He had known her always buoyant, gallant as Galahad, vibrant of joy to the finger tips.

"I say, don't," he pleaded. It was impossible for him to voice adequately his feelings. Greatly daring, he let an arm rest across the shoulders that were being racked by suppressed pianissimo sobs.

"You mustn't, you know. I can't stand it." And, again, "Please don't."

She gulped down the lump in her throat and turned upon him filmy eyes, the lashes of which were tangled with tears. This fine strong soldier represented the haven of rest toward which she was being driven. Had she never met his American cousin she knew that she would probably have accepted him in the end. The swift impulse swept her to anchor her craft for life in a safe harbor. She had tried rebellion, and that had left her spent and beaten. What she wanted now was safety, a rest from the turmoil of emotion.

"Do you still ... want me?" she asked lifelessly.

He could not on the instant take her meaning. Then, "Want you!" he cried in a low voice no words could have expressed fully. "Want you? Oh, my dear!"

"You know I don't love you ... not in one way," she told him na?vely. "Lady Jim says that will come. I don't know. Perhaps you won't want to take the risk."

She could see the desire of her leap to his honest eyes. "By God, I'll take my chance," he cried.

"You'll give me all the time I want-not push me too hard?"

"You shall set your own time."

Her dusky head was leaning wearily against the back of a wicker porch chair. From sheer fatigue her eyes fluttered shut. Her lover could see the round bird-like throat swell as she swallowed the lump that had gathered. Pity for her and love of her rose in him like a flood. He would have given anything to wrap her in his arms and fight away her troubles. But he knew it would be months before he could win the right to do this.

"Would you mind if ... if we didn't tell the others just yet?"

"It shall be as you say, Moya, dear."

She nodded languid thanks. "You're good. I ... I think I'll go to bed. I'm so tired."

He kissed the tips of her fingers and she vanished round the corner of the house.

Kilmeny sat down again and looked for long across the moonlit river. His sweetheart had promised to marry him, but in how strange a fashion. He was to be her husband some day, but he was not yet her lover by a good deal. His imagination fitted another man to that r?le, and there rose before him the strong brown face of his cousin with its mocking eyes and devil-may-care smile.

His promised wife! He had despaired of winning her, and she had crept to him as a hurt child does to its mother. There was no exultation in his heart. Poor child! How sad and tired her eyes had been.

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