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   Chapter 12 OUT OF THE STORM A MAN

The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 15747

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

He stood blinking in the doorway, white-sheeted with snow from head to heel. As his eyes became accustomed to the light they passed with surprise from the men to the young women. A flash of recognition lit in them, but he offered no word of greeting.

Plainly he had interrupted a scene of some sort. The leer on the flushed face of Dave, the look of undaunted spirit in that of the girl facing him, the sheer panic-stricken terror of her crouching companion, all told him as much. Nor was it hard to guess the meaning of that dramatic moment he had by chance chosen for his entrance. His alert eyes took in every detail, asked questions but answered none, and in the end ignored much.

"What are you doing here?" demanded one of the miners.

"Been out to the Jack Pot and was on my way back to town. Got caught in the storm and struck for the nearest shelter. A bad night out, Trefoyle." He closed the door, moved forward into the room, and threw off his heavy overcoat.

Moya had recognized him from the first instant. Now Joyce too saw who he was. She twisted lithely from the bed, slipped past Moya, past the miners, and with the sob of a frightened child caught at his hand and arm.

"Oh, Mr. Kilmeny, save us ... save us!"

Jack nodded reassuringly. "It's all right. Don't worry."

She clung to him, shivering back to self-control. This man's presence spelled safety. In the high-laced boots of a mining man, he showed a figure well-knit and graceful, springy with youth, but carrying the poise of power. His clean-cut bronzed face backed the promise; so too did the ease of his bearing.

Moya gave a deep sigh of relief and sat down on the edge of the bed, grown suddenly faint. At last her burden was lifted to stronger shoulders.

"You ain't wanted here, Jack Kilmeny," the standing miner said sourly. He was undecided what to do, perplexed and angry at this unexpected hindrance.

"Seems to be a difference of opinion about that, Peale," retorted the newcomer lightly, kicking snow from the spurs and the heels of his boots.

"Trefoyle and me own this cabin. You'll sing small, by Goad, or you'll get out."

"You wouldn't put a dog out on a night like this, let alone a man. It would be murder," Kilmeny answered mildly.

"There's horses in the tunnel. You can bed wi' them."

Jack glanced around, took in the whisky bottle and their red-rimmed eyes. He nodded agreement.

"Right you are, boys. We three will move over to the tunnel and leave the house to the women."

"You ain't got the say here, not by a domned sight, Jack Kilmeny. This'll be the way of it. You'll git out. We'll stay. Understand?" Peale ground out between set teeth.

Jack smiled, but his eyes were like steel. "Suppose we go over to the shaft-house and talk it over, boys. We'll all understand it better then."

Kilmeny still stood close to the red-hot stove. He was opening and closing his fingers to take the stiffness of the frost out of them.

"By Goad, no! You go-we stay. See?"

The young man was now rubbing industriously the thumb and forefinger of his right hand with the palm of his left.

"No, I don't see that, Peale. Doesn't sound reasonable to me. But I'll talk it over with you both-in the shaft-house."

Jack's eyes were fastened steadily on Peale. The man was standing close to a shelf in a corner of the cabin. The shelf was in the shadow, but Kilmeny guessed what lay upon it. He was glad that though his legs were still stiff and cold the fingers of his right hand had been massaged to a supple warmth.

"You be warm now, lad. Clear out," warned the big Cornishman.

"Build 'ee a fire in the tunnel, mon," suggested Trefoyle.

"We'll all go or we'll all stay. Drop that, Peale."

The last words rang out in sharp command. Quicker than the eye could follow Kilmeny's hand had brushed up past his hip and brought with it a shining thirty-eight.

Taken by surprise, Peale stood stupidly, his hand still on the shelf. His fingers had closed on a revolver, but they had found the barrel instead of the butt.

"Step forward to the table, Peale-with your hand empty. That's right. Now listen. These young women have got to sleep. They're fagged to exhaustion. We three are going over to the shaft-house. Anything you've got to say to me can be said there. Understand?"

The man stood in a stubborn sullen silence, but his partner spoke up.

"No guns along, Kilmeny, eh?"

"No. We'll leave them here."

"Good enough, eh, Peale?"

Trefoyle's small eyes glittered. Slyly he winked to his partner to agree, then got a lantern, lit it clumsily, and shuffled out with Peale at his heels.

Joyce clung to Jack's arm, bewitchingly helpless and dependent. A queer thrill went through him at the touch of her soft finger tips.

"You won't leave us," she implored. "You wouldn't, would you?"

"Only for a little while. Bolt the door. Don't open it unless I give the word." He stepped across to Moya and handed her his revolver. In a very low voice he spoke to her. "Remember. You're not to open unless I tell you to let me in. If they try to break the door shoot through it at them waist high. Shoot to kill. Promise me that."

Her dark eyes met and searched his. The faintest quiver of the lip showed that she knew what was before him. "I promise," she said in the same low voice.

Moya bolted the door after him and sat down trembling by the table, the revolver in her shaking hand. She knew he had gone to fight for them and that he had left his weapon behind according to agreement. He was going against odds just as his father had done before him in that memorable fight years ago. If they beat him they would probably kill him. And what chance had one slender man against two such giants. She shuddered.

"What are they going to do, Moya?" whispered Joyce.

Her friend looked at her steadily. "Didn't you hear? They said they wanted to talk over the arrangements."

"Yes, but-didn't it seem to you--? Why did he give you that pistol?"

"Oh, just so that we wouldn't be afraid."

Hand in hand they sat. Their hearts beat like those of frightened rabbits. The wail of the wind screaming outside seemed the cry of lost souls. Was murder being done out there while they waited?

Kilmeny strode after the Cornishmen with the light-footed step of a night nurse. Beside the huge miners he looked slight, but the flow of his rippling muscles was smooth and hard as steel. He had been in many a rough and tumble fray. The saying went in Goldbanks that he "had the guts" and could whip his weight in wildcats. There was in him the fighting edge, that stark courage which shakes the nerve of a man of lesser mettle. He knew that to-night he needed it if ever he did. For these men were strong as bears and had as little remorse.

Inside the shaft-house, his quick glance swept the dimly lighted room and took in every detail.

Trefoyle put the lantern down on a shelf and turned to the man who had interfered with them. "Is't a fight ye want, mon?"

Kilmeny knew the folly of attempting argument or appeal to their sense of right. Straight to business he cut. "I'm not hunting one. But I reckon this is up to me. I'll take you one at a time-unless you'd rather try it two to one and make sure."

His sneer stung. Peale tore off his coat with an angry roar.

"By Goad, I'm good enough for you."

Head down like a bull, he rushed at his foe. Jack sidestepped and lashed out at him as he shot past. Peale went down heavily, but scrambled awkwardly to his feet and flung himself forward again. This time Kilmeny met him fairly with a straight left, tilted back the shaggy head, and crossed with the right to the point of the jaw.

As the fellow went to the floor the second time Jack was struck heavily on the side of his face and knocked from his feet upon the body of the Cornishman. Even as he

fell Kilmeny knew that Trefoyle had broken faith. He rolled over quickly, so that the latter, throwing himself heavily on top of him, kneed his partner instead of Jack.

His great hands gripped the young man as he wriggled away. By sheer strength they dragged him back. Kilmeny wrapped his legs around Trefoyle to turn over. He heard a groan and guessed the reason. The muscular legs clenched tighter the man above him, moved slowly up and down those of his foe. With a cry of pain the Cornishman flung himself to one side and tore loose. His trouser legs were ripped from thigh to calf and blood streamed down the limb. The sharp rowels of Kilmeny's spurs had sunk into the flesh and saved their owner.

Jack staggered to his feet half dazed. Peale was slowly rising, his murderous eyes fixed on the young man. The instinct of self-preservation sent the latter across the room to a pile of steel drills. As the two men followed he stooped, caught up one of the heavy bars, and thrust with a short-arm movement for Trefoyle's head. The man threw out his hands and keeled over like a stuck pig.

Kilmeny threw away his drill and fought it out with Peale. They might have been compared to a rapier and a two-handed broadsword. Jack was more than a skilled boxer. He was a cool punishing fighter, one who could give as well as take. Once Peale cornered him, bent evidently on closing and crushing his ribs with a terrific bear hug. It would have been worth a dozen lessons from a boxing master to see how the young man fought him back with jabs and uppercuts long enough to duck under the giant's arm to safety.

The wild swinging blows of the Cornishman landed heavily from time to time, but his opponent's elbow or forearm often broke the force. The lighter man was slippery as an eel, as hard to hit as a Corbett. Meanwhile, he was cutting his foe to ribbons, slashing at him with swift drives that carried the full force of one hundred seventy-five pounds, sending home damaging blows to the body that played the mischief with his wind. The big miner's face was a projection map with wheals for mountains and with rivers represented by red trickles of blood.

Quartering round the room they came again to the drills. Peale, panting and desperate, stooped for one of them. As he rose unsteadily Kilmeny closed, threw him hard, and fell on top. Jack beat savagely the swollen upturned face with short arm jolts until the fellow relaxed his hold with a moan.

"Doan't 'ee kill me, mon. I've had enough," he grunted.

Kilmeny sprang to his feet, caught up the bar of steel, and poked the prostrate man in the ribs with it.

"Get up," he ordered. "You're a pair of cowardly brutes. Can't be decent to a couple of helpless women in your power. Can't play fair in a fight with a man half the size of one of you. Get up, I say, and throw a dipperful of water in Trefoyle's face. He's not dead by a long shot, though he deserves to be."

Peale clambered to his feet in sulky submission and did as he was told. Slowly Trefoyle's eyelids flickered open.

"What be wrong wi' un?" he asked, trying to sit up.

"You got what was coming to you. Is it enough, or do you want more?"

"Did 'ee hit me, lad. Fegs, it's enough. I give you best."

"Then get up. We'll go back to the house for blankets and fuel. You'll sleep to-night with the horses in the tunnel."

The two girls shivering in the hot room heard the footsteps of the returning men as they crunched the snow. Moya sat opposite the door, white to the lips, her hand resting on the table and holding the revolver. Joyce had sunk down on the bed and had covered her face with her hands.

A cheerful voice called to them from outside.

"All right. Everything settled. Let us in, please."

Moya flew to the door and unbolted it. The Cornishmen came in first, and after them Kilmeny. At sight of the ravages of war Joyce gave a little cry of amazement. The big miners were covered with blood. They had the cowed hangdog look of thoroughly beaten men. Jack's face too was a sight, but he still walked springily.

He gave curt commands and the others obeyed him without a word. Almost the first thing he did was to step to the table and fling the whisky bottle through the door into the storm.

"We'll not need that," he said.

One of the miners gathered up their extra blankets while the other took a load of firewood.

As soon as they had gone Joyce cried breathlessly, "You fought them."

Jack looked at her and his eyes softened. All men answered to the appeal of her beauty. "We had a little argument. They couldn't see it my way. But they're satisfied now."

Moya bit her lower lip. Her eyes were shining with tears. A queer emotion welled up in her heart. But it was Joyce who put their thanks into words.

"You saved us. You're the bravest man I ever saw," she cried.

A deeper color rose to the embarrassed face of the young man. "I expect you didn't need any saving to speak of. The boys got too ambitious. That's about all." He was thinking that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever set eyes upon and thanking his lucky stars that he had come along in the nick of time.

"You can say that, Mr. Kilmeny, but we know," she answered softly.

"All right. Have it your own way, Miss Seldon," he returned with a smile.

"You'll let us doctor your wounds, won't you?" Moya asked shyly.

He laughed like a boy. "You're making me ashamed. I haven't any wounds. I ought to have washed the blood off before I came in, but I didn't have a chance. All I need is a basin of water and a towel."

The girl ran to get them for him. He protested, laughing, but was none the less pleased while they hovered about him.

"Such a dirty towel. Don't you suppose there's a clean one somewhere," Joyce said with a little moue of disgust as she handed it to him.

He shook his head. "It's like the one in 'The Virginian'-been too popular."

Moya gave him the scarf that had been around her head while she was riding. "Take this. No.... I want you to use it ... please."

After he had dried his face Jack explained their disposition for the night.

"We'll stay in the tunnel. You'll be alone here-and quite safe. No need to be in the least nervous. Make yourselves comfortable till morning if you can."

"And you-do you mean that you're going back ... to those men?" Moya asked.

"They're quite tame-ready to eat out of my hand. Don't worry about me."

"But I don't want you to go. I'm afraid to be alone. Stay here with us, Mr. Kilmeny. I don't care about sleeping," Joyce begged.

"There's nothing to be afraid of-and you need your sleep. I'll not be far away. You couldn't be safer in Goldbanks. I'll be on guard all night, you know," he reassured.

It escaped him for the moment that Joyce was thinking about her own safety, while Moya was anxious about his, but later he was to remember it.

He had not been gone ten minutes before Joyce was sound asleep. She trusted him and she trusted Moya, and for her that was enough. All her life she had relied on somebody else to bear the brunt of her troubles. But the girl with the powdered freckles beneath the dusky eyes carried her own burdens. She too had implicit confidence in the champion who had come out of the storm to help them and had taken his life in hand to do it. Her heart went out to him with all the passionate ardor of generous youth. She had never met such a man, so strong, so masterful, and yet so boyish.

Her brain was far too active for slumber. She sat before the stove and went over the adventures of the past two hours. How strange that they had met him again in this dramatic fashion. Perhaps he lived at Goldbanks now and they would see more of him. She hoped so mightily, even though there persisted in her mind a picture of his blue-gray eyes paying homage to Joyce.

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