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The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 10954

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Sam Bleyer, superintendent of the big Verinder mines, had been up to see his chief at the hotel and was passing the private sitting-room of the Farquhar party when a voice hailed him. He bowed inclusively to Lady Farquhar, Miss Seldon, and Miss Dwight.

"You called me?"

"I did. Are you in a very great hurry?" Joyce flashed her most coquettish smile at him.

"You are never to be in a hurry when Miss Seldon wants you, Bleyer," announced Verinder, following the superintendent into the room.

Bleyer flushed. He was not "a lady's man," as he would have phrased it, but there was an arresting loveliness about Joyce that held the eye.

"You hear my orders, Miss Seldon," he said.

"Awfully good of you, Mr. Verinder," Joyce acknowledged with a swift slant smile toward the mine owner. "Just now I want Mr. Bleyer to be an information bureau."

"Anything I can do," murmured Bleyer.

He was a thin little man with a face as wrinkled as a contour map of South America. Thick glasses rested on a Roman nose in front of nearsighted eyes. Frequently he peered over these in an ineffective manner that suggested a lost puppy in search of a friend. But in spite of his appearance Bleyer was a force in Goldbanks. He knew his business and gave his whole energies to it.

"We're all so interested in Mr. Kilmeny. Tell us all about him, please."

"That's a rather large order, isn't it?" The wrinkles in his leathery face broke into a smile. "What in particular do you want to know?"

"Everything. What does he do? How does he live? How long has he been here?"

"He has been around here about five years. He has a lease in a mine." There was a flinty dryness in the manner of the superintendent that neither Joyce nor Moya missed.

"And he makes his living by it?"

Above his spectacles the eyes of Bleyer gleamed resentfully. "You'll have to ask Mr. Kilmeny how he makes his living. I don't know."

"You're keeping something from us. I believe you do know, Mr. Bleyer." With a swift turn of her supple body Joyce appealed to Verinder. "Make him tell us, please."

Moya did not lift the starlike eyes that were so troubled from the face of Bleyer. She knew the man implied something discreditable to Kilmeny. The look that had flashed between him and Verinder told her so much. Red signals of defiance blazed on both cheeks. Whatever it was, she did not intend to believe him.

Verinder disclosed a proper reluctance. "Bleyer says he doesn't know."

"Oh, he says! I want him to tell what he thinks."

"You won't like it," the mine owner warned.

"I'll be the best judge of that." Joyce swung upon Bleyer. "You hear, sir. You're to tell me what you mean."

"I don't mean anything." He paused, then looked straight at Joyce with a visible harshness. "I'll tell you what the common gossip is if you want to know, Miss Seldon. They say he is a highgrader."

"And what is a highgrader?" demanded Moya.

"A highgrader is one who steals rich ore from the mine where he works," answered Verinder smugly.

Moya, eyes hot and shining, flashed her challenge at him. "I don't believe it-not a word of it, so far as Mr. Kilmeny is concerned."

"Afraid that doesn't change the facts, Miss Dwight. It's a matter of general knowledge." Beneath Verinder's bland manner there lurked a substratum of triumph.

"General fiddlesticks! Don't believe it, Joyce," cried Moya stormily. "He doesn't even work as a miner. He owns his own lease."

"He used to work in the mines, even if he doesn't now. There are stories--"

"Ridiculous to think it of Mr. Kilmeny," exploded Moya. "We've done nothing but insult him ever since we've known him. First he was a highwayman. Now he is a thief. Anything else, Mr. Verinder?"

"Everybody knows it," retorted Verinder sulkily.

"Then prove it. Put him in prison. Aren't there any laws in the state? If everybody knows it, why isn't he arrested?" the Irish girl flamed.

"Moya," chided Lady Farquhar gently.

Her ward turned upon Lady Jim a flushed face stirred by anger to a vivid charm. "Can't you see how absurd it is? He owns his own lease. Mr. Bleyer admits it. Is he robbing himself, then?"

The muscles stood out on the cheeks of the superintendent like cords. He stuck doggedly to his guns. "I didn't say he stole the ore himself. The charge is that he buys it from the men who do take it. His lease is an excuse. Of course he pretends to get the ore there."

"It's the common talk of the camp," snapped Verinder contemptuously. "The man doesn't even keep it under decent cover."

"Then prove it ... prove it! That ought to be easy-since everybody knows it." Moya's voice was low, but her scornful passion lashed the Englishman as with a whip.

"By Jove, that's just what I'm going to do. I'm going to put our friend behind the bars for a few years," the smug little man cried triumphantly.

The red spots on Moya's cheeks burned. The flashing eyes of the girl defied her discarded lover.

"If you can," she amended with quiet anger.

The soft laugh of Joyce saved for the moment the situation. "Dear me, aren't we getting a little excited? Mr. Bleyer, tell me more. How does a-a highgrader, didn't you call him?-how does he get a chance to steal the ore?"

"He picks out the best pieces while he is working-the nuggets that are going to run a high per cent. of gold-and pockets them. At night he carries them away."

"But-haven't you any policemen here? Why don't you stop them and

search them?"

"The miners' union is too strong. There would be a strike if we tried it. But it has got to come to that soon. The companies will have to join hands for a finish fight. They can't have men hoisted up from their work with a hundred dollars' worth of ore stowed away on them."

"Is it as bad as that, Mr. Bleyer?" asked Lady Farquhar in surprise.

"Sometimes they take two or three hundred dollars' worth at once."

"They don't all steal, do they?" demanded Moya with an edge of sarcasm in her clear voice.

Bleyer laughed grimly. "I'd like to know the names of even a few that don't. I haven't been introduced to them."

"One hundred per cent. dishonest," murmured Moya without conviction.

"I don't guarantee the figures, Miss Dwight." The superintendent added grudgingly: "They don't look at it that way. Bits of highgrade ore are their perquisite, they pretend to think."

Verinder broke in. "They say your friend Kilmeny took ore to the value of two thousand dollars from the Never Quit on one occasion. It ran to that amount by actual smelter test, the story goes. I've always rather doubted it."

"Why-since he is so dishonest?" Moya flung at him.

"Don't think a man could carry away so much at one time. What d'ye think, Bleyer?"

"Depends on how highgrade ore the mine carries. At Cripple Creek we found nearly four thousand on a man once. He was loaded down like a freight car-looked like the fat boy in 'Pickwick Papers.'"

"Should think he'd bulge out with angles where the rock projected," Lady Farquhar suggested.

"The men have it down to a system there. We used to search them as they left work. They carry the ore in all sorts of unexpected places, such as the shoulder padding of their coats, their mouths, their ears, and in slings scattered over the body. The ore is pounded so that it does not bulge."

"Perhaps I'm doing Mr. Kilmeny an injustice, then. Very likely he did get away with two thousand at one time," Verinder jeered with an unpleasant laugh.

"Yes, let's think the worst of everybody that we can, Mr. Verinder," came Moya's quick scornful retort.

The Cr?sus of Goldbanks stood warming himself with his back to the grate, as smug and dapper a little man as could be found within a day's journey.

"Very good, Miss Dwight. Have it your own way. I'm not a bally prophet, you know, but I'll go this far. Your little tin hero is riding for a fall. It's all very well for him to do the romantic and that sort of piffle, by Jove, but when you scrape the paint off he's just a receiver of stolen property and a common agitator. Don't take my word for it. Ask Bleyer." Without looking at him he gave a little jerk of the head toward his superintendent. "Who is the most undesirable citizen here, Bleyer? Who makes all the trouble for the companies?"

Bleyer shook his head. "I can't back my opinion with proof."

"You know what people say. Whom do the men rely on to back them whenever they have trouble with us? Out with it."

"Kilmeny is their king pin-the most influential man in camp."

"Of course he is. Anybody could tell to look at him that he is a leader. Does it follow he must be a criminal?" Moya demanded abruptly.

The superintendent smiled. He understood what was behind that irritation. "You're a good friend, Miss Dwight."

"It's absurd that I am. He did nothing for Joyce and me-except fight for us and see that we were sheltered and fed and brought home safely. Why shouldn't we sit still and let his reputation be torn to tatters?"

Blücher bore down upon the field of Waterloo. "Of course we're 'for' Mr. Kilmeny, as you Yankees say. I don't care whether he is a highgrader or not. He's a gentleman-and very interesting." Joyce nodded decisively, tilting a saucy chin toward Verinder. "We're for him, aren't we, Moya?"

Lady Farquhar smiled and let her embroidery drop to the table as she rose. "I like him myself. There's something about him that's very attractive. I do hope you are wrong, Mr. Bleyer. He does not look like an anarchist and a thief."

"That is not the way he would define himself. In this community highgrading isn't looked on as theft. Last year our sheriff was suspected of buying ore from miners and shipping it to the smelters. Public opinion does not greatly condemn the practice." Bleyer, bowing as he spoke, excused himself and withdrew.

Verinder appealed to Lady Farquhar. The indignation of the newly rich sat heavily upon him. With all his little soul he disliked Jack Kilmeny. Since the man had done so signal a service for Joyce, jealousy gnawed at his heart.

"Of course we've got to be decent to the man, I suppose. He had a big slice of luck in getting the chance to help Miss Seldon and Miss Dwight. And I don't forget that he is a cousin to our friends. If it wasn't for that I'd say to mail him a check and wipe the slate clean. But of course--"

"You'd never dare," breathed Moya tensely. "I won't have him insulted."

"Of course not, under the circumstances. No need to get volcanic, Miss Dwight. I merely suggested what I'd like to do. Now the burden is off my shoulders. I have given you the facts."

"You've given us only suspicions, Mr. Verinder. I don't think it would be fair to assume them correct," the chaperone answered.

But Moya knew that Verinder had dropped his seed in fruitful soil. Lady Farquhar would not forget. Jack Kilmeny's welcome would be something less than cordial henceforth.

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