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   Chapter 18 TWO AMBUSHES

The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 7131

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The clock at the new Verinder Building showed ten minutes past eleven as Jack Kilmeny took the Utah Junction road out of Goldbanks with his loaded ore wagon. It was a night of scudding clouds, through which gleamed occasionally a fugitive moon. The mountain road was steep and narrow, but both the driver and the mules were used to its every turn and curve. In early days the highgrader had driven a stage along it many a night when he could not have seen the ears of the bronchos.

His destination was the Jack Pot, a mine three miles from town, where intermittently for months he had been raising worthless rock in the hope of striking the extension of the Mollie Gibson vein. It was not quite true, as Bleyer had intimated, that his lease was merely a blind to cover ore thefts, though undoubtedly he used it for that purpose incidentally.

Bleyer had guessed shrewdly that Kilmeny would drive out to the Jack Pot, put up in the deserted bunk-house till morning, and then haul the ore down to the junction to ship to the smelter on the presumption that it had been taken from the leased property. This was exactly what Jack had intended to do. Apparently his purpose was unchanged. He wound steadily up the hill trail, keeping the animals at a steady pull, except for breathing spells. The miner had been a mule skinner in his time, just as he had tried his hand at a dozen other occupations. In the still night the crack of his whip sounded clear as a shot when it hissed above the flanks of the leaders without touching them.

He ran into the expected ambush a half mile from the mine, at a point where the road dipped down a wooded slope to a sandy wash.

"Hands up!" ordered a sharp voice.

A horseman loomed up in the darkness beside the wagon. A second appeared from the brush. Other figures emerged dimly from the void.

Jack gave his mules the whip and the heavy wagon plowed into the deep sand. Before the wheels had made two revolutions the leaders were stopped. Other men swarmed up the side of the wagon, dragged the driver from his seat, and flung him to the ground.

Even though his face was buried in the sand and two men were spread over his body, the captive was enjoying himself.

"This is no way to treat a man's anatomy-most unladylike conduct I ever saw," he protested.

He was sharply advised to shut up.

After the pressure on his neck was a little relieved, Jack twisted round enough to see that his captors were all masked.

"What is this game, boys-a hold-up?" he asked.

"Yes. A hold-up of a hold-up," answered one.

Three of the men busied themselves moving the ore sacks from his wagon to another that had been driven out of the brush. A fourth, whom he judged to be Bleyer, was directing operations, while the fifth menaced him with a revolver shoved against the small of his back.

The situation would have been a serious one-if it had not happened to be amusing instead. Kilmeny wanted to laugh at the bustling energy of the men, but restrained himself out of respect for what was expected of him.

"I'll have the law on you fellows," he threatened, living up to the situation. "You'd look fine behind the bars, Bleyer."

"All those sacks transferred yet, Tim?" barked the superintendent.

"Yep."

"Good. Hit the trail."

The wagon passed out of the draw toward Goldbanks. For some minutes the sound of the wheels grinding against the disintegrated granite of the roadbed came back to Jack and the two guards who remained with him.

"Hope this will be a lesson to you," said the superintende

nt presently. "Better take warning. Next time you'll go to the pen sure."

"Wait till I get you into court, Bleyer."

"What'll you do there?" jeered the other man. "You'd have a heluvatime swearing to him and making it stick. You're sewed up tight this time, Jack."

"Am I? Bet you a new hat that by this time to-morrow night you fellows won't be cracking your lips laughing."

"Take you. Just order the hat left at Goldstein's for the man who calls for it."

For an hour by the superintendent's watch Kilmeny was held under guard. Then, after warning the highgrader not to return to town before daybreak, the two men mounted and rode swiftly away. Jack was alone with his mules and his empty wagon.

He restrained himself no longer. Mirth pealed in rich laughter from his throat, doubled him up, shook him until he had to hang on to a wagon wheel for support. At last he wiped tears from his eyes, climbed into the wagon, and continued on the way to the Jack Pot. At intervals his whoop of gayety rang out boyishly on the night breeze. Again he whistled cheerfully. He was in the best of humor with himself and the world. For he had played a pretty good joke on Bleyer and Verinder, one they would appreciate at its full within a day or two. He would have given a good deal to be present when they made a certain discovery. Would Moya smile when Verinder told her how the tables had been turned? Or would she think it merely another instance of his depravity?

The road wound up and down over scarred hillsides and through gorges which cut into the range like sword clefts. From one of these it crept up a stiff slope toward the Jack Pot. One hundred and fifty yards from the mine Jack drew up to give the mules a rest.

His lips framed themselves to whistle the first bars of a popular song, but the sound died stillborn. Sharply through the clear night air rang a rifle shot.

Jack did not hear it. A bolt of jagged lightning seared through his brain. The limp hands of the driver fell away from the reins and he fell to the ground, crumpling as a dry leaf that is crushed in the palm.

From the shadow of the bunk-house two men stole into the moonlight heavily like awkward beasts of prey. They crept stealthily forward, rifles in hand, never once lifting their eyes from the huddled mass beside the wagon.

The first looked stolidly down upon the white face and kicked the body with his heavy boot.

"By Goad, Dave, us be quits wi' Jack Kilmeny."

The other-it was Peale, the Cornish miner-had stepped on a spoke of the wheel and pulled himself up so that he could look down into the bed of the wagon. Now he broke out with an oath.

"The wagon's empty."

"What!" Trefoyle straightened instantly, then ran to see for himself. For a moment he could not speak for the rage that surged up in him. "The dommed robber has made fool of us'n," he cried savagely.

In their fury they were like barbarians, cursing impotently the man lying with a white face shining in the moonlight. They had expected to pay a debt of vengeance and to win a fortune at the same stroke. The latter they had missed. The disappointment of their loss stripped them to stark primeval savagery. It was some time before they could exult in their revenge.

"He'll interfere wi' us no more-not this side o' hell anyway," Peale cried.

"Not he. An' we'll put him in a fine grave where he'll lie safe."

They threw the body into the wagon and climbed to the seat. Peale drove along an unused road that deflected from the one running to the Jack Pot.

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