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The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 12537

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Jack strode through the young alders to his horse, swung to the saddle without touching the stirrups, and was off instantly at a canter. He rode fast, evidently with a direct driving purpose to reach a particular destination. The trail was a rough and rocky one, but he took it recklessly. His surefooted broncho scrambled catlike up steep inclines and slid in clouds of dust down breakneck hillsides of loose rubble. In and out he wound, across gulches and over passes, following always as nearly a bee line as was possible.

An hour of rapid travel brought him to the Gunnison road. He swung to the ground and examined the dusty roadbed. Apparently he was satisfied, for he took his sweat-stained horse back into the brush and tied it to a cottonwood. From its case beside the saddle he drew a rifle. He retraced his own steps and selected carefully a place among the thick bushes by the roadside. With his pocketknife he cut eye-holes in the bandanna handkerchief that had been round his neck and tied it over his face in such a way as to conceal his features entirely. Then he carefully emptied from the rifle all the cartridges it contained and dropped them into his pocket.

These preparations made, he sat down and waited. There came to him very soon the rumble of wheels. Presently a one-horse trap appeared at a curve of the road. Captain Kilmeny was the driver.

Jack rose noiselessly and thrust the barrel of his rifle through the bushes. He was within six feet of the road and he waited until his cousin was almost abreast of him.

"Throw up your hands!"

The captain knew in an instant what he was up against. A masked man with a rifle in his hands could mean only one thing. Ned Kilmeny was no fool. He knew when to fight and when to surrender. His hands went into the air.

"Kick that rifle into the road-with your foot, not with your hands."

The Englishman did as he was told.

"What do you want?" he demanded, looking sharply at the masked bandit.

"I want that satchel beside you. Drop it out."

Again the officer obeyed orders. He asked no questions and made no comment.

"There's room to turn here by backing. Hit the grit for the Lodge."

After he had faced about, Ned Kilmeny had one word to say before leaving.

"I know who you are, and there's just one name for your kind-you're an out and out rotter."

"It's a difference of opinion that makes horse races, captain," answered the masked man promptly.

Ned Kilmeny, as he drove back to the Lodge, was sick at heart. He came of a family of clean, honest gentlemen. Most of them had been soldiers. Occasionally one had gone to the devil as this young cousin of his had done. But there was something in this whole affair so contemptible that it hurt his pride. The theft itself was not the worst thing. The miner had traded on their faith in him. He had lied to them, had made a mock of their friendly offers to help him. Even the elements of decency seemed to be lacking in him.

India and Moya were on the veranda when the captain drove up. One glance at his grim face told them something had gone wrong.

"I've been held up," he said simply.

"Held up!"

"Robbed-with a rifle within reach of my hand all the time."

"But-how?" gasped India.

Moya, white to the lips, said nothing. A premonition of the truth clutched icily at her heart.

"A masked man stopped me just as I swung round a bend about three miles from Gunnison. He ordered me to throw out the satchel with the money. I did as I was told."

"He had you covered with a weapon?" asked India.

"With a rifle-yes."

"Did you-recognize him?" Moya's throat was dry, so that her question came almost in a whisper.

The captain's eyes met hers steadily. "He stayed in the bushes, so that I didn't see his body well. He was masked."

"But you know who it was. Tell me."

Ned Kilmeny was morally certain of the identity of the robber. He could all but swear to the voice, and surely there were not two men in the county with such a free and gallant poise of the head.

"I couldn't take oath to the man."

"It was your cousin." Moya was pale to the lips.

The officer hesitated. "I'm not prepared to say who the man was."

The pulse in her throat beat fast. Her hand was clutching the arm of a chair so tightly that the knuckles stood out white and bloodless.

"You know better. It was Jack Kilmeny," she charged.

"I could tell you only my opinion," he insisted.

"And I know all about it." Moya came to time with her confession promptly, in the fearless fashion characteristic of her. "It was I that sent him to you. It was I that betrayed you to him."

India set her lips to a soundless whistle. Her brother could not keep out of his brown face the amazement he felt.

"I don't wonder you look like that," Moya nodded, gulping down her distress. "You can't think any worse of me than I do of myself."

"Nonsense! If you told him you had a reason. What was it?" India asked, a little sharply.

"No reason that justifies me. He took me by surprise. He had come to get the stolen money and I told him we were returning it to the Fair association. He guessed the rest. Almost at once he left. I saw him take the ca?on road for Gunnison."

"You weren't to blame at all," the captain assured her, adding with a rueful smile: "He didn't take you any more by surprise than he did me. I hadn't time to reach for the rifle."

India's Irish eyes glowed with contemptuous indignation. She used the same expression that Ned had. "He must be an out and out rotter. To think he'd rob Ned after what he offered to do for him. I'm through with him."

Her brother said nothing, but in his heart he agreed. There was nothing to be done for a fellow whose sense of decency was as far gone as that.

Moya too kept silence. Her heart was seething with scorn for this handsome scamp who had put this outrage upon them all. It was bad enough to be a thief, but to this he had added deception, falsehood, and gross ingratitude. Nor did the girl's contempt spare herself. Neither warning nor advice-and Lady Jim had been prodigal of both-had availed to open her eyes about the Westerner. She had been as foolish over him as a schoolgirl in the matter of a matinée idol. That she

would have to lash herself for her folly through many sleepless hours of the night was a certainty.

Meanwhile she went through the part required of her. At dinner she tossed the conversational ball back and forth as deftly as usual, and afterward she played her accustomed game of bridge. Fortunately, Kilmeny was her partner. Sometimes when her thoughts wandered the game suffered, but the captain covered her mistakes without comment. She could almost have loved him for the gentle consideration he showed. Why must she needs be so willful? Why couldn't she have given her heart to this gallant gentleman instead of to the reckless young scoundrel whom she hardly knew?

Before the party broke up a ride was arranged for next morning to the Devil's Slide, a great slab of rock some miles away. The young people were to have an early breakfast and get started before the sun was hot. For this reason the sitting at auction was short.

But though Moya reached her room before midnight, it was not until day was beginning to break that she fell into a troubled sleep. She tossed through the long hours and lived over every scene that had passed between her and Jack Kilmeny. It was at an end. She would never see him again. She would ride with the others to the Devil's Slide and he would come to the appointment he had made to find her not there. He would go away, and next day she would leave with the rest of her party for the Big Bend mining country, where Verinder and Lord Farquhar were heavily interested in some large gold producers. That chapter of her life would be closed. She told herself that it was best so. Her love for a man of this stamp could bring no happiness to her. Moreover, she had taken an irretrievable step in betrothing herself to Captain Kilmeny. Over and over again she went over the arguments that marshaled themselves so strongly in favor of the loyal lover who had waited years to win her. Some day she would be glad of the course she had chosen. She persuaded herself of this while she sobbed softly into the hot pillows.

When Fisher wakened her to dress in time for the early breakfast Moya felt very reluctant to join the others. She would have to laugh and talk and make merry, and all the time she would be miserably unhappy. It would be impossible for her to stand Verinder to-day without screaming. A sheer physical lassitude weighted her limbs. In the end she went back to bed and sent for India.

"I'm not feeling fit, dear. Would you mind if I beg off?" she asked with a wan smile.

Her friend took in keenly the big deep-pupiled eyes ringed with weariness. "I don't believe you've slept a wink, Moya. Of course you needn't go. Shall I stay with you? I don't really care about going. I'm about fed up with Dobyans Verinder."

But Moya would not hear of this. She protested so much that India saw it would be a greater kindness to leave her alone.

"You must try to sleep again, dear." India moved about, darkening the windows and shaking up the pillows.

"Yes, I will. I'm all right, you know."

Left to herself, Moya tried to sleep. It was no use. She was wide awake, beyond hope of another nap. No sooner had the voices of the riders died in the distance than she was dressing feverishly. She told herself that she would go outdoors somewhere with a book and rest. Otherwise Lady Farquhar would be asking questions.

Fisher brought her some fruit, a cup of coffee, and a roll. Moya drank the coffee and ate the fruit, after which she went out into the crisp Colorado sunlight. By her watch it was now 9:50.

She made an elaborate pretense with herself of hesitating which way to go. Her thoughts, her eyes, and at last her footsteps turned toward the grove where yesterday Jack Kilmeny had surprised her. But she was too used to being honest with herself to keep up the farce. Stopping on the trail, she brought herself to time.

"You're going to meet that outlaw, Moya Dwight. You said you wouldn't, but you are going. That's why you got out of that ride. No use fibbing to yourself. You've no more will power than a moth buzzing around a candle flame."

So she put it to herself, frankly and contemptuously. But no matter how she scorned herself for it there was not in her the strength to turn her back on her temptation. She had always prided herself on knowing her own mind and following it, but the longing in her to hear this man's justification was more potent than pride. Slowly her reluctant steps moved toward the grove.

Long slants of morning sunlight filtered through the leaves of the cottonwoods so that her figure was flaked with a shifting checkerboard of shadow and shine. She sauntered forward, looking neither to the right nor the left, expecting every instant to hear his cheery impudent greeting.

It did not come. She stole sidelong looks here and there through the dappled woods. They were empty of life save for the chipmunk sitting on its hind legs and watching her light approach. A breeze swept across the river, caught her filmy skirts, and blew them about her ankles. She frowned, brushing down the wind-swept draperies with that instinct for modesty all women share. Shy and supple, elastic-heeled, in that diaphanous half light her slim long body might have been taken for that of a wood nymph had there been eyes to follow her through the umbrageous glade.

Of human eyes there were none. She reached her flat rock and sank upon its moss ungreeted. Her disappointment was keen, even though reason had told her he dared not show himself here after adding a second crime to the first, and this time against her friend, the man who had offered to stand by him in his trouble. An instinct deeper than logic-some sure understanding of the man's reckless courage-had made her feel certain that he would be on the spot.

Mingled with her disappointment was a sharp sense of shame. He had told her to come here and wait for him, as if she had been a country milk-maid-and here she was meekly waiting. Could degradation take her lower than this, that she should slip out alone to keep an assignation with a thief and a liar who had not taken the trouble to come? At any rate, she was spared one humiliation. He would never know she had gone to meet him.

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