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   Chapter 11 A BLIZZARD

The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 18616

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Moya found in Goldbanks much to interest her. Its helter-skelter streets following the line of least resistance, its slapdash buildings, the scarred hillsides dotted with red shaft-houses beneath which straggled slate-colored dumps like long beards, were all indigenous to a life the manner of which she could only guess. Judged by her Bret Harte, the place ought to be picturesque. Perhaps it was, but Moya was given little chance to find out. At least it was interesting. Even from an outside point of view she could see that existence was reduced to the elemental. Men fought for gold against danger and privation and toil. No doubt if she could have seen their hearts they fought too for love.

Miss Seldon was frankly bored by the crude rawness of the place. One phase of it alone interested her. Of all this turbid activity Dobyans Verinder was the chief profiter. Other capitalists had an interest in the camp. Lord Farquhar held stock in the Mollie Gibson and Moya's small inheritance was invested mostly in the mine. The Kilmenys owned shares in two or three paying companies. But Verinder was far and away the largest single owner. His holdings were scattered all over the camp. In the Mollie Gibson and the Never Quit, the two biggest properties at Goldbanks, he held a controlling vote.

It was impossible for Joyce to put her nose out of the hotel without being confronted with the wealth of her suitor. This made a tremendous appeal to the imagination of the young woman. All these thousands of men were toiling to make him richer. If Verinder could have known it, the environment was a potent ally for him. In London he was a social climber, in spite of his gold; here he was a sole autocrat of the camp. As the weeks passed he began to look more possible. His wealth would give an amplitude, a spaciousness that would make the relationship tolerable. As a man of moderate means he would not have done at all, but every added million would help to reduce the intimacy of the marital tie. To a certain extent she would go her way and he his. Meanwhile, she kept him guessing. Sometimes her smiles brought him on the run. Again he was made to understand that it would be better to keep his distance.

The days grew shorter and the mornings colder. As the weeks passed the approach of winter began to push autumn back. Once or twice there was an inch of snow in the night that melted within a few hours. The Farquhar party began to talk of getting back to London, but there was an impending consolidation of properties that held the men at Goldbanks. For a month it had been understood that they would be leaving in a few days now, but the deal on hand was of such importance that it was felt best to stay until it was effected.

One afternoon Moya and Joyce rode out from the ca?on where the ugly little town lay huddled and followed the road down into the foothills. It was a day of sunshine, but back of the mountains hung a cloud that had been pushing slowly forward. In it the peaks were already lost. The great hills looked as if the knife of a Titan had sheered off their summits.

The young women came to a bit of level and cantered across the mesa in a race. They had left the road to find wild flowers for Lady Jim.

Joyce, in a flush of physical well-being, drew up from the gallop and called back in gay derision to her friend.

"Oh, you slow-pokes! We win. Don't we, Two Step?" And she patted the neck of her pony with a little gloved hand.

Moya halted beside the dainty beauty and laughed slowly, showing in two even rows the tips of small strong teeth.

"Of course you win. You're always off with a hurrah before one knows what's on. Nobody else has a chance."

The victor flashed a saucy glance at her. "I like to win. It's more fun."

"Yes, it's more fun, but--"

"But what?"

"I was thinking that it's no fun for the loser."

"That's his lookout," came the swift retort. "Nobody makes him play."

Moya did not answer. She was thinking how Joyce charged the batteries of men's emotions by the slow look of her deep eyes, by the languorous turn of her head, by the enthralment of her grace.

"I wouldn't have your conscience for worlds, Moya. I don't want to be so dreadfully proper until I'm old and ugly," Joyce continued, pouting.

"Lady Jim is always complaining because I'm not proper enough," laughed Moya. "She's forever holding you up to me as an example."

"So I am. Of course I flirt. I always shall. But I'll not come a cropper. I'll never let my flirtations interfere with business. Lady Jim knows that."

Moya looked straight at her. "Were you ever in love in your life?"

Her friend laughed to cover a faint blush. "What an enfant terrible you are, my dear! Of course I've been-hundreds of times."

"No, but-really?"

"If you mean the way they are in novels, a desperate follow-to-the-end-of-the-world, love-in-a-cottage kind-no. My emotions are quite under control, thank you. What is it you're driving at?"

"I just wondered. Look how cloudy the sky is getting. It's going to storm. We'd better be going home."

"Let's get our flowers first."

They wandered among the hills, searching for the gorgeous blossoms of fall. Not for half an hour did they remount.

"Which way for home?" Joyce asked briskly, smoothing her skirt.

Moya looked around before she answered. "I don't know. Must be over that way, don't you think?"

Joyce answered with a laugh, using a bit of American slang she had heard the day before. "Search me! Wouldn't it be jolly if we were lost?"

"How dark the sky is getting. I believe a flake of snow fell on my hand."

"Yes. There's one on my face. The road must be just around this hill."

"I daresay you're right. These hills are like peas in a pod. I can't tell one from another."

They rode around the base of the hill into a little valley formed by other hills. No sign of the road appeared.

"We're lost, Moya, They'll have to send out search parties for us. We'll get in the dreadful Sunday papers again," Joyce laughed.

An anxious little frown showed on Moya's forehead. She was not frightened, but she was beginning to get worried. A rising wind and a falling temperature were not good omens. Moreover, one of those swift changes common to the Rockies had come over the country. Out of a leaden sky snow was falling fast. Banked clouds were driving the wintry sunshine toward the horizon. It would soon be night, and if the signs were true a bitter one of storm.

"It's getting cold. We must find the road and hurry home," Joyce said.

"Yes." Moya's voice was cheerful, but her heart had sunk. An icy hand seemed to have clutched it and tightened. She had heard the dreadful things that happened during Rocky Mountain blizzards. They must find the road. They must find it.

She set herself searching for it, conscious all the time that they might be going in the wrong direction. For this unfeatured roll of hills offered no guide, no landmark that stood out from the surrounding country.

Moya covered her anxiety with laughter and small jokes, but there came a time when these did not avail, when Joyce faced the truth too-that they were lost in the desert, two helpless girls, with night upon them and a storm driving up. Somewhere, not many miles from them, lay Goldbanks. There were safety, snug electric-lighted rooms with great fires blazing from open chimneys, a thousand men who would gladly have gone into the night to look for them. But all of these might as well be a hundred leagues away, since they did not know the way home.

The big deep eyes of Joyce shone with fear. Never before in her sheltered life had she been brought close to Nature in one of her terrible moods.

From her soft round throat sobbing words leaped. "We're lost, Moya. We're going to die."

"Nonsense. Don't be a goosie," her downright friend answered sharply.

"But-what shall we do?"

Scudding clouds had leaped across the sky and wiped out the last narrow line of sunlight along the eastern horizon. Every minute it was getting colder. The wind had a bitter sting to it.

"We must find the trail," Moya replied.

"And if we don't?"

"But we shall," the Irish girl assured with a finality that lacked conviction. "You wait here. Don't move from the spot. I'm going to ride round you at a little distance. There must be a trail here somewhere."

Moya gave her pony the quirt and cantered off. Swiftly she circled, but before she had completed the circumference the snow, now falling heavily, had covered the ground and obliterated any path there might be. With a heavy heart she started to return to her friend.

Owing both to the lie of the ground and the increasing density she could not see Joyce. Thrice she called before a faint answer reached her ears. Moya rode toward the voice, stopping now and again to call and wait for a reply. Her horizon was now just beyond the nose of her pony, so that it was not until they were only a few yards apart that she saw Two Step and its rider. Both broncho and girl were sheeted with snow.

"Oh, I thought you were gone. I thought you were never coming," Joyce reproached in a wail of despair. "Did you find the road?"

"No, but I've thought of something. They say horses will find their own way home

if you let them. Loosen the reins, dear."

Moya spoke with a business-like cheerfulness meant to deceive her friend. She knew it must be her part to lead. Joyce was as soft and about as competent as a kitten to face a crisis like this. She was a creature all curves and dimples, sparkling with the sunshine of life like the wavelets of a glassy sea. But there was in her an instinctive shrinking from all pain and harshness. When her little world refused to smile, as very rarely it did for her, she shut her eyes, stopped her ears, and pouted. Against the implacable condition that confronted them now she could only whimper her despair.

They waited with loose reins for the ponies to move. The storm beat upon them, confining their vision to a space within reach of their outstretched arms. Only the frightened wails of Joyce and the comforting words of her friend could be heard in the shriek of the wind. The ponies, feeling themselves free, stirred restlessly. Moya clucked to her roan and patted his neck encouragingly.

"Good old Billy. Take us home, old fellow," she urged.

Presently the horse began to move, aimlessly at first, but soon with a steadiness that suggested purpose. Moya unloosed with her chill fingers the rope coiled to her saddle, and threw one end to her friend.

"Tie it tight to the saddle horn, Joyce-with a double knot," she ordered. "And keep your hand on it to see that it doesn't come undone."

"I can't tie it. My hands are frozen ... I'm freezing to death."

Moya made fast one end of the rope and then slipped from the saddle. The other end she tied securely to the saddle horn of her friend. She stripped from her hands the heavy riding gauntlets she wore and gave them to Joyce.

"Pull these on and your hands will be warmer. Don't give up. Sit tight and buck up. If you do we'll be all right."

"But I can't.... It's awful.... How far do we have to go?"

"We'll soon hit the road. Then we can go faster."

Moya swung to her saddle again stiffly, and Billy took up the march in the driving storm, which was growing every minute more fierce and bitter. The girl did not dare give way to her own terror, for she felt if she should become panic-stricken all would be lost. She tried to remember how long people could live in a blizzard. Had she not read of some men who had been out two days in one and yet reached safety?

The icy blast bit into her, searched through to her bones and sapped her strength. More than once she drew up the rope with her icy hands to make sure that Joyce was still in the saddle. She found her there blue from exposure, almost helpless, but still faintly responsive to the call of life.

The horses moved faster, with more certainty, so that Moya felt they had struck a familiar trail. But in her heart she doubted whether either of the riders would come to shelter alive. The ponies traveled upward into the hills.

Joyce, lying forward helpless across the saddle horn, slid gently to the ground. Her friend stopped. What could she do? Once she had descended, it would be impossible to get back into the saddle.

Searching the hillside, the girl's glance was arrested by a light. She could not at first believe her good fortune. From the saddle she slipped to the ground in a huddle, stiffly found her feet again, and began to clamber up the stiff incline. Presently she made out a hut. Stumblingly, she staggered up till she reached the door and fell heavily against it, clutching at the latch so that it gave to her hand and sent her lurching into the room. Her knees doubled under her and she sank at the feet of one of two men who sat beside a table playing cards.

The man leaped up as if he had seen a ghost. "Goddlemighty, it's a woman!"

"My friend ... she's outside ... at the foot of the hill ... save her," the girl's white lips framed.

They slipped on mackinaw coats and disappeared into the white swirling night. Moya crouched beside the red-hot stove, and life slowly tingled through her frozen veins, filling her with sharp pain. To keep back the groans she had to set her teeth. It seemed to her that she had never endured such agony.

After a time the men returned, carrying Joyce between them. They put her on the bed at the far corner of the room, and one of the men poured from a bottle on the table some whisky. This they forced between her unconscious lips. With a shivering sigh she came back to her surroundings.

Moya moved across to the group by the bed.

"I'll take care of her if you'll look after the horses," she told the men.

One of them answered roughly. "The horses will have to rough it. This ain't any night for humans to be hunting horses."

"They can't be far," Moya pleaded.

Grudgingly the second man spoke. "Guess we better get them, Dave. They were down where we found the girl. We can stable them in the tunnel."

Left to herself, Moya unlaced the shoes of Miss Seldon. Vigorously she rubbed the feet and limbs till the circulation began to be restored. Joyce cried and writhed with the pain, while the other young woman massaged and cuddled her in turn. The worst of the suffering was past before the men returned, stamping snow from their feet and shaking it from their garments over the floor.

"A hell of a night to be out in," the one called Dave growled to his fellow.

"Did you get the horses?" Moya asked timidly.

"They're in the tunnel." The ungracious answer was given without a glance in her direction.

They were a black-a-vised, ill-favored pair, these miners upon whose hospitality fate had thrown them. Foreigners of some sort they were, Cornishmen, Moya guessed. But whatever their nationality they were primeval savages untouched by the fourteen centuries of civilizing influences since their forbears ravaged England. To the super-nervous minds of these exhausted young women there was a suggestion of apes in the huge musclebound shoulders and the great rough hands at the ends of long gnarled arms. Small shifty black eyes, rimmed with red from drink, suggested cunning, while the loose-lipped heavy mouths added more than a hint of bestiality. It lent no comfort to the study of them that the large whisky bottle was two-thirds empty.

They slouched back to their cards and their bottle. It had been bad enough to find them sullen and inhospitable, but as the liquor stimulated their unhealthy imaginations it was worse to feel the covert looks stealing now and again toward them. Joyce, sleeping fitfully in the arms of Moya, woke with a start to see them drinking together at the table.

"I don't like them. I'm afraid of them," she whispered.

"We mustn't let them know it," Moya whispered in her ear.

For an hour she had been racked by fears, had faced unflinchingly their low laughs and furtive glances.

Now one of the men spoke. "From Goldbanks?"


"You don't live there."

"No. We belong to the English party-Mr. Verinder's friends."

"Oh, Verinder's friends. And which of you is his particular friend?" The sneer was unmistakable.

"We started out this afternoon for wild flowers and the storm caught us," Moya hurried on.

"So you're Verinder's friends, are you? Well, we don't think a whole lot of Mr. Verinder out here."

Moya knew now that the mention of Verinder's name had been a mistake. The relations between the mine owners and the workmen in the camp were strained, and as a foreign non-resident capitalist the English millionaire was especially obnoxious. Moreover, his supercilious manners had not helped to endear him since his arrival.

The man called Dave got to his feet with a reckless laugh. "No free lodgings here for Mr. Verinder's friends. You'n got to pay for your keep, my dears."

Miss Dwight looked at him with unflinching eyes which refused to understand his meaning. "We'll pay whatever you ask and double the amount after we reach camp."

"Don't want your dirty money. Gi' us a kiss, lass. That's fair pay. We ain't above kissing Verinder's friends if he is a rotten slave driver."

Moya rose to her slender height, and the flash of courage blazed in her eyes.

"Sit down," she ordered.

The man stopped in his tracks, amazed at the resolution of the slim tall girl.

"Go on, Dave. Don't let her bluff you," his companion urged.

The miner laughed and moved forward.

"You coward, to take advantage of two girls driven to you by the storm. I didn't think the man lived that would do it," panted Moya.

"You'n got a bit to learn, miss. Whad's the use of gettin' your Dutch up. I ain't good enough for 'ee, like enough."

The girl held up a hand. "Listen!"

They could hear only the wild roar of the storm outside and the low sobs of Joyce as she lay crouched on the bed.

"Well?" he growled. "I'm listenin'. What, then?"

"I'd rather go out into that white death than stay here with such creatures as you are."

"Doan't be a fool, lass. Us'n won't hurt 'ee any," the second man reassured roughly.

"You'll stay here where it's warm. But you'll remember that we're boss in this shack. You'n came without being asked. I'm domned if you'll ride your high horse over me."

"Go on, Dave. Tak' your kiss, man."

Then the miracle happened. The door opened, and out of the swirling wind-tossed snow came a Man.

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