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The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 12323

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The storm had blown itself out before morning. A white world sparkled with flashes of sunlight when Moya opened the door of the cabin and gazed out. Looking down into the peaceful valley below, it was hard to believe that death had called to them so loudly only a few hours earlier.

Kilmeny emerged from the shaft-house and called a cheerful good-morning across to her.

"How did you sleep?" he shouted as he crunched across the snow toward her.

"Not so very well. Joyce slept for both of us."

Their smiles met. They had been comrades in the determination to shield her from whatever difficulties the situation might hold.

"I'm glad. Is she quite herself this morning? Last night she was very tired and a good deal alarmed."

"Yes. After you came Joyce did not worry any more. She knew you would see that everything came right."

The color crept into his bronzed face. "Did she say so?"

"Yes. But it was not what she said. I could tell."

"I'm glad I could do what I did."

The eyes that looked at him were luminous. Something sweet and mocking glowed in them inscrutably. He knew her gallant soul approved him, and his heart lifted with gladness. The beauty of her companion fascinated him, but he divined in this Irish girl the fine thread of loyalty that lifted her character out of the commonplace. Her slender, vivid personality breathed a vigor of the spirit wholly engaging.

Joyce joined her friend in the doorway. With her cheeks still flushed from sleep and her hair a little disheveled, she reminded Jack of a beautiful crumpled rose leaf. Since her charm was less an expression of an inner quality, she needed more than Moya the adventitious aids of dress.

The young woman's smile came out warmly at sight of Kilmeny. It was her custom always to appropriate the available man. Toward this bronzed young fellow with the splendid throat sloping into muscular shoulders she felt very kindly this morning. He had stood between her and trouble. He was so patently an admirer of Joyce Seldon. And on his own merits the virility and good looks of him drew her admiration. At sight of the bruises on his face her heart beat a little fast with pleasurable excitement. He had fought for her like a man. She did not care if he was a workingman. His name was Kilmeny. He was a gentleman by birth, worth a dozen Verinders.

"Mr. Kilmeny, how can we ever thank you?"

He looked at her and nodded gayly. "Forget it, Miss Seldon. I couldn't have done less."

"Or more," she added softly, her lovely eyes in his.

No change showed in the lean brown face of the man, but his blood moved faster. It was impossible to miss the appeal of sex that escaped at every graceful movement of the soft sensuous body, that glowed from the deep still eyes in an electric current flashing straight to his veins. He would have loved to touch the soft flushed cheek, the crisp amber hair clouding the convolutions of the little ears. His eyes were an index of the man, bold and possessive and unwavering. They announced him a dynamic American, one who walked the way of the strong and fought for his share of the spoils. But when she looked at him they softened. Something fine and tender transfigured the face and wiped out its sardonic recklessness.

"The pressing question before the house is breakfast. There are bacon and flour and coffee here. Shall I make a batch of biscuits and offer you pot luck? Or do you prefer to wait till we can get to Goldbanks?"

"What do you think?" Moya asked.

"I think whatever you think. We'll not reach town much before noon. If you can rough it for a meal I should advise trying out the new cook. It really depends on how hungry you are."

"I'm hungry enough to eat my boots," the Irish girl announced promptly.

"So am I. Let's stay-if our hosts won't object," Joyce added.

"I'm quite sure they won't," Kilmeny replied dryly. "All right. A camp breakfast it is."

"I'm going to help you," Moya told him.

"Of course. You'd better wash the dishes as soon as we get hot water. They're probably pretty grimy."

He stepped into the cabin and took off his coat. Moya rolled up her sleeves to the elbows of her plump dimpled arms. Miss Seldon hovered about helplessly and wanted to know what she could do.

The miner had not "batched" in the hills for years without having learned how to cook. His biscuits came to the table hot and flaky, his bacon was done to a turn. Even the chicory coffee tasted delicious to the hungry guests.

With her milk-white skin, her vivid crimson lips so exquisitely turned, and the superb vitality of her youth, Joyce bloomed in the sordid hut like a flower in a rubbage heap. To her bronzed vis-a-vis it seemed that the world this morning was shimmering romance. Never before had he enjoyed a breakfast half as much. He and Miss Seldon did most of the talking, while Moya listened, the star flash in her eyes and the whimsical little smile on her lips.

Joyce was as gay as a lark. She chattered with the childish artlessness that at times veiled her sophistication. Jack was given to understand that she loved to be natural and simple, that she detested the shams of social convention to which she was made to conform. Her big lovely eyes were wistful in their earnestness as they met his. It was not wholly a pose with her. For the moment she meant all she said. A delightful excitement fluttered her pulses. She was playing the game she liked best, moving forward to the first skirmishes of that sex war which was meat and drink to her vanity. The man attracted her as few men ever had. That nothing could come of it beyond the satisfaction of the hour did not mitigate her zest for the battle.

They were still at breakfast when one of the Cornishmen pushed open the door and looked in. He stood looking down on them sullenly without speaking.

"Want to see me, Peale?" asked Kilmeny.

"Did I say I wanted to see 'ee?" demanded the other roughly.

"Better come in and shut the door. The air's chilly."

The battered face of his companion loomed over the shoulder of Peale. To Kilmeny it was plain that they had come with the idea of makin

g themselves disagreeable. Very likely they had agreed to force their company upon the young women for breakfast. But the sight of their dainty grace, together with Jack's cheerful invitation, was too much for their audacity. Peale grumbled something inaudible and turned away, slamming the door as he went.

The young miner laughed softly. If he had shown any unwillingness they would have pushed their way in. His urbanity had disarmed them.

"They're not really bad men, you know-just think they are," he explained casually.

"I'm afraid of them. I don't trust them," Joyce shuddered.

"Well, I trust them while they're under my eye. The trouble with men of that stripe is that they're yellow. A game man gives you a fighting chance, but fellows of this sort hit while you're not looking. But you needn't worry. They're real tame citizens this morning."

"Yes, they looked tame," Moya answered dryly. "So tame I'm sure they'd like to crucify you."

"I daresay they would, but in this world a man can't get everything he would like. I've wanted two or three pleasures myself that I didn't get."

His gaze happened to turn toward Joyce as he was speaking. He had been thinking of nothing definite, but at the meeting of their eyes something flashed into birth and passed from one to the other like an electric current. Jack knew now something that he wanted, but he did not admit that he could not get it. If she cared for him-and what else had her eyes told him in the golden glow of that electric moment?-a hundred Verinders and Lady Farquhar could not keep them apart.

His heart sang jubilantly. He rose abruptly and left the room because he was afraid he could not veil his feeling.

Joyce smiled happily. "Where is he going?" she asked innocently.

Moya looked at her and then turned her eyes away. She had understood the significance of what she had seen and a door in her heart that had been open for weeks clanged shut.

"I don't know, unless to get the horses," she said quietly.

A few minutes later he returned, leading the animals. From the door of the shaft-house the Cornishmen watched them mount and ride away. The men smoked in sullen silence.


Before they had ridden a hundred yards Joyce was in gay talk with Kilmeny. She had forgotten the very existence of the miners. But Moya did not forget. She had seen the expression of their faces as the horses had passed. If a chance ever offered itself they would have their revenge.

It was a day winnowed from a lifetime of ordinary ones. They rode through a world shot to the core with sunlight. The snow sparkled and gleamed with it. The foliage of the cottonwoods, which already had shaken much of their white coat to the ground, reflected it in greens and golds and russets merged to a note of perfect harmony by the Great Artist. Though the crispness of early winter was in the air, their nostrils drew in the fragrance of October, the faint wafted perfume of dying summer.

Beneath a sky of perfect blue they pushed along the shoulder of the hill, avoiding the draw into which snow had drifted deep. Life stormed in their veins, glowed in their flushed cheeks, rang in the care-free laughter of at least two of them. Jack broke trail, turning often in the saddle with a lithe twist of his lean muscular body, to suggest a word of caution at the bad places. Always then he discovered the deep violet eyes of Joyce Seldon with their smoldering fire. To let himself dwell upon her loveliness of fine-textured satiny skin, set off by the abundant crown of lustrous bronze hair, was to know again a quickened pulse of delight.

When he spoke it was with the languid drawl of the Western plainsman. In humor he feigned to conceal his passion, but Joyce knew him to be alertly conscious of her every word, every turn of her pliant body.

They reached the road, where two could ride abreast. Sometimes he was with the one, again with the other. Moya, who had not much to say this morning, made it easy for him to be with Joyce. She did not need to be told that he was under the allure of that young woman's beauty; and not alone of her beauty, but of that provocative stimulating something that can be defined only as the drag of sex. All men responded to it when Joyce chose to exert herself, many when she did not.

Once he turned to point out to Moya some snow-covered mounds above the road.

"Graves of a dozen mule-skinners killed by Indians nearly thirty years ago. My father was the only one of the party that escaped."

Half a mile from town they met two men on horseback and exchanged news. All Goldbanks had been searching for them through the night. The Farquhar party were wild with anxiety about them.

Kilmeny gave prompt quiet orders. "Get back to town, boys, and tell Lady Farquhar that it's all right. We'll be along in a few minutes."

The news of their safety spread as by magic. Men and women and children poured into the streets to welcome them. It was as much as Kilmeny could do to keep back the cheering mob long enough to reach the hotel. Verinder, Lady Jim, and India came down the steps to meet them, Captain Kilmeny and Lord Farquhar both being away at the head of search parties. India and Lady Farquhar broke down without shame and cried as they embraced the returned wanderers.

"We thought ... we thought...." India could not finish in words, but Moya knew what she meant.

"It was very nearly that way, dear, but everything is all right now," her friend smiled through a film of tears.

"It was Moya saved us-and afterward Mr. Kilmeny," Joyce explained between sobs.

The crowd below cheered again and Moya borrowed India's handkerchief to wave. It touched her to see how glad these people were to know they had been rescued.

Lady Farquhar thanked Kilmeny with a gulp in her throat. "We'll want to hear all about it and to get a chance to thank you properly. Will you come to dinner this evening? Joyce and Moya should be rested by then."

Jack accepted promptly. "I'll be very glad to come."

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