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   Chapter 20 COLTER TAKES A HAND

The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 16038

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Moya combed her long rippling hair while Lady Farquhar laid down the law that hedges a young woman from the satisfaction of her generous impulses. For the most part the girl listened in silence, a flush burning through each of her dusky cheeks. There was nothing to be said that would avail. She might defend the thing she had done, but not the feelings that had inspired her action.

"It is all very well to be independent within limits, my dear, but young women of our class are subject to the penalties that go with our privileges. When I was a girl I rebelled but had to obey. So must you." Lady Farquhar interrupted herself to admire the vivid rebel she was admonishing. "What wonderful hair you have-so long and thick and wavy. It must take a great deal of care."

"Yes," Moya admitted absently.

She did not resent the rebuke Lady Jim had come to give her while she was undressing. No doubt she deserved it. She had been unmaidenly, and all for love of this light-hearted vagabond who did not care the turn of a hand for her. All day her thoughts had been in chaotic ferment. At times she lashed herself with the whip of her own scorn because she cared for a self-confessed thief, for a man who lived outside the law and was not ashamed of it. Again it was the knowledge of her unwanted love that flayed her, or of the injustice to her betrothed in so passionate a feeling for another man. With all her strong young will she fought against this devouring flame that possessed her-and she knew that she fought in vain.

In the shipwreck of her self-respect she clung to one spar. Soon they would be on their way back to that well-ordered world where she would be entirely in the groove of convention. Her engagement to Captain Kilmeny would be announced. Surely among the many distractions of London she would forget this debonair scamp who had bewitched her.

"You should have come to me-or to India for that matter. She is his cousin and is in a different position from you. Don't you see that, my dear?" Lady Farquhar asked gently.

And again Moya said "Yes" wearily.

"James and I understand you-how impulsive you are-and how generous. But Mr. Kilmeny-and Mr. Verinder-what do you suppose they think?"

"I don't care what Mr. Verinder thinks." And Moya began to coil her hair loosely for the night.

"But that's just it-a girl must care. She can't afford to allow anyone an opportunity to think unpleasant things about her. She has to guard her reputation very jealously."

"And I suppose I've been playing ducks and drakes with mine," Moya said, pushing home a hairpin.

"I don't say that, dear. What I say is that Mr. Kilmeny may misunderstand your interest in him."

"He may think I'm in love with him. Is that it?" flashed the girl.

"He might. Give a man's vanity the least chance and--"

A reckless impulse to hurt herself-the same which leads a man to grind on an aching tooth in heady rage-swept Moya like a flame.

"Then he would think the truth," she interrupted. "What's the use of denying it? I ... I'm in love with him."

"Moya." Lady Farquhar's protest came in a horrified gasp.

The young woman turned her slim body in the chair with supple grace so as to face her chaperon. Beneath the dark eyes spots of color burned through the tan.

"It's true. I've cared ... ever since we met him."

"And he-has he ever made love to you?"

"Never. He's thought only of Joyce. That's what makes it more shameless."

Lady Farquhar took a moment to absorb the unwelcome news. "I never dreamed it was as bad as this. Of course I knew he interested you a good deal, but--"

Moya could not keep scorn of herself out of her voice. "But you didn't think I was so lost to decency as to throw myself at his head. You see I am."

"Nonsense," cut in her chaperon with sharp common sense. "You're not the first girl that has fancied a man who won't do. It's imagination-a good deal of it. Make yourself forget him. That's all you can do."

"I can't do that. I've tried," confessed Moya miserably.

"Then try again-and again-and still again. Remember that you are engaged to a man worth a dozen of him. Call your pride to help you."

"It seems that I have none. I've told myself forty times that he's a highgrader and that doesn't help."

Her friend was alarmed. "You don't mean that you would marry a man who is a-a man who steals ore."

"No. I wouldn't marry him ... even if he wanted me-which he doesn't. I haven't fallen that far."

"Glad to hear you say that," answered Lady Farquhar with a sigh of relief. She took the girl in her arms and patted one of the shoulders over which the hair cascaded. "My dear, it's hard. You're intense and emotional. But you've got to-to buck up, as James says. You're brave-and you're strong-willed. Make a winning fight."

"What about ... Ned?"

"Does he suspect?"

"I don't know. Sometimes I think he does. But you know how generous he is. He never says anything, or avoids the subject of his cousin in any way." She added, after an instant: "Ned knows that I don't ... love him-that is, in one way. He says he is ready to wait till that comes."

"Ned Kilmeny is a man out of a million."

Moya nodded. "Yes. That's why this is so unfair to him. What ought I to do? Shall I break the engagement? That's what I want to do, but it will hurt him a good deal."

"Wait. Give yourself and him a chance. In a few days we'll be started home."

"That's what I've been telling myself. Everything here reminds me of-him. It will be different then, I try to think. But-down in my heart I don't think it will."

"And I know it will," the matron told her promptly. "Time, my dear, heals all our woes. Youth has great recuperative power. In a year you will wonder how he ever cast such a spell over you."

Moya heard the last belated reveler pass down the corridor to his room before she fell asleep. When she awoke it was to see a long shaft of early sunshine across the bed.

She rose, took her bath, and dressed for walking. Her desire drew the steps of the young woman away from the busy street toward the suburb. She walked, as always, with the elastic resilience of unfettered youth. But the weight that had been at her heart for two days-since she had learned from Jack Kilmeny's lips that he was a highgrader-was still tied there too securely to be shaken away by the wonder of the glorious newborn day.

Returning to the hotel, she met a man on the porch whose face stirred instantly a fugitive memory. He came to her at once, a big leather-skinned man with the weatherbeaten look of the West.

"Aren't you the Miss Dwight I've heard Jack Kilmeny mention?"

"Yes. This is Mr. Colter, isn't it?"

He nodded, watching her with hard narrowed eyes. "Something's wrong. Can you tell me what it is? Jack's mules-two of them, anyhow-came back to the barn during the night with bits of broken harness still attached to them. Looks like there had been a runaway and the wagon had come to grief. The keeper of the livery stable says Bell took the wagon around to Jack's place and left it with him. He was seen driving out of town soon after. He has not been seen since."

Her heart flew to alarm. "You mean ... you think he has been hurt?"

"Don't know. He's not in town. That's a cinch. I've raked Goldbanks with a toothcomb. Where is he?"

"Couldn't he be at his mine?"

"I sent a boy out there. He's not at the Jack Pot."

"What is it that you think? Tell me," she cried softly.

"You're his friend, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"There's some talk around town that he was held up by Bleyer. I came up here to see him or Verinder. Foul play of some kind, that's my guess."

"But-you surely don't think that Mr. Bleyer or Mr. Verinder would ... hurt him."

The look of dogged resolution on the man's granite face did not soften. "They'll have to show me-and by God! if they did--"

Her mind flew with consternation to the attack upon Kilmeny that had been made by Bleyer. But Verinder had told

her nobody had been hurt. Could they have taken the highgrader prisoner? Were they holding him for some purpose?

"Mr. Verinder gets up about this time usually," she said.

"I'm waiting for him. He said he would be down at once."

"Will you tell me anything you find out, please? I'll be on the veranda upstairs."

Colter joined her a quarter of an hour later. "I saw both Bleyer and Verinder. They've got something up their sleeve, but I don't think they know where Jack is or what has become of him. They pretended to think I was trying to put one over on them."

"What will you do now?"

"I'll go out to the Jack Pot myself. I've reason to believe he intended to go there."

"If you find out anything--"

"Yes, I'll let you know."

Moya went directly from Colter to Bleyer. The superintendent entered a curt denial to her implied charge.

"Miss Dwight, I don't know what you do or do not know. I see someone has been blabbing. But I'll just say this. When I last saw Jack Kilmeny he was as sound as I am this minute. I haven't the least idea where he is. You don't need to worry about him at all. When he wants to turn up he'll be on deck right side up. Don't ask me what his play is, for I don't know. It may be to get me and Verinder in bad with the miners. Just be sure of one thing: he's grandstanding."

She was amazingly relieved. "I'm so glad. I thought perhaps--"

"--that Mr. Verinder and I had murdered him. Thanks for your good opinion of us, but really we didn't," he retorted in his dryest manner.

She laughed. "I did think perhaps you knew where he was."

"Well, I don't-and I don't want to," he snapped. "The less I see of him the better I'll be satisfied."

The superintendent of the Verinder properties had found a note addressed to him in one of the sacks of quartz taken from Kilmeny. The message, genial to the point of impudence, had hoped he had enjoyed his little experience as a hold-up. To Bleyer, always a serious-minded man, this levity had added insult to injury. Just now the very mention of the highgrader's name was a red rag to his temper. It was bad enough to be bested without being jeered at by the man who had set a trap for him.

It was well on toward evening before Colter paid his promised visit to Miss Dwight. She found him waiting for her upon her return from a ride with Captain Kilmeny, Verinder, and Joyce.

Moya, as soon as she had dismounted, walked straight to him.

"What have you found out, Mr. Colter?"

"Not much. It rained during the night and wiped out the tracks of wagon wheels. Don't know how far Jack got or where he went, but the remains of the wagon are lying at the bottom of a gulch about two miles from the Jack Pot."

"How did it get there?"

"I wish you could tell me that. Couldn't have been a runaway or the mules would have gone over the edge of the road too." He stepped forward quickly as Verinder was about to pass into the hotel. "I want to have a talk with you."

The little man adjusted his monocle. "Ye-es. What about, my man?"

"About Jack Kilmeny. Where is he? What do you know? I'm going to find out if I have to tear it from your throat."

Verinder was no coward, but he was a product of our modern super-civilization. He glanced around hastily. The captain had followed Joyce into the lobby. Moya and he were alone on the piazza, with this big savage who looked quite capable of carrying out his threat.

"Don't talk demned nonsense," the mine owner retorted, flushing angrily.

Colter did not answer in words. The strong muscular fingers of his left hand closed on the right arm of Verinder just below the shoulder with a pressure excruciatingly painful. Dobyans found himself moving automatically toward the end of the porch. He had to clench his teeth to keep from crying out.

"Let me alone, you brute," he gasped.

Colter paid no attention until his victim was backed against the rail in a corner. Then he released the millionaire he was manhandling.

"You're going to tell me everything you know. Get that into your head. Or, by God, I'll wring your neck for you."

The Englishman had never before been confronted with such a situation. He was a citizen of a country where wealth hedges a man from such assaults. The color ebbed from his face, then came back with a rush.

"Go to the devil, you big bully," he flung out sharply.

Moya, taken by surprise at Colter's abrupt desertion of her, had watched with amazement the subsequent flare-up. Now she crossed the porch toward them.

"What are you doing, Mr. Colter?"

"None of your funeral, ma'am," the miner answered bluntly, not for a moment lifting his hard eyes from Verinder. "Better unload what you know. I've had a talk with Quint Saladay. I know all he knows, that Bleyer and you and him with two other lads held up Jack and took his ore away. The three of them left you and Bleyer guarding Jack. What did you do with him?"

"It's a bally lie. I didn't stay with Bleyer to guard him."

"That's right. You didn't. You came back with the others. But you know what Bleyer did. Out with it."

"I don't admit a word of what you say," said Verinder doggedly.

Colter had trapped him into a half admission, but he did not intend to say any more.

Moya spoke, a little timidly. "Wait a minute please, Mr. Colter. Let me talk with Mr. Verinder alone. I think he'll tell me what you want to know."

Jack's friend looked at her with sharp suspicion. Was she trying to make a dupe of him? Her candid glance denied it.

"All right. Talk to him all you like, but you'll do your talking here," he agreed curtly before he turned on his heel and walked away a few steps.

"You must tell him what he wants to know, Mr. Verinder," urged the young woman in a low voice. "Something has happened to his friend. We must help clear it up."

"I'm not responsible for what has happened to his friend. What do you want me to do? Peach on Bleyer, is that it?"

"No. Send for him and tell Mr. Colter the truth."

"I'll see him hanged and quartered first," he replied angrily.

"If you don't, I'll tell what I know. There's a life at stake," Moya cried, a trace of agitation in her voice.

"Fiddlesticks!" he shrugged. "The fellow's full of tricks. He worked one on us the other night. I'm hanged if I let him play me again."

"You must. I'll tell Captain Kilmeny and Lord Farquhar. I'll not let it rest this way. The matter is serious."

"I'm not going to be bullied into saying a word. That's the long and short of it," he repeated in disgust. "Let Bleyer tell the fellow if he wants to. I'll have nothing to do with it. We're not responsible for what has happened-if anything has."

"Then I'll go and get Mr. Bleyer."

"Just as you please. I'd see this ruffian at Halifax first, if you ask me." The angry color flushed his face again as he thought of the insult to which he had been subjected.

To Colter Moya explained her purpose. He nodded agreement without words.

After two or three attempts she got the superintendent on the telephone at the Mollie Gibson mine and arranged with him that he was to come to the hotel at once. A few minutes later he drove up in his car.

Moya put the case to him.

Bleyer turned to his employer. "You want me to tell Colter what I know?"

"I don't care a turn of my hand whether you tell the fellow or not," drawled Verinder, ignoring the presence of Colter.

The superintendent peered at Moya in his nearsighted fashion over the glasses on his nose. "Can't see that it matters much, Miss Dwight. I'm not worrying a bit about Jack Kilmeny, but, if Colter and you are, I'm willing to tell what I know on condition that you keep the facts to yourselves."

"I'll keep quiet if you haven't injured Jack in any way," Colter amended.

"We haven't. He was sound as a new dollar when I left him Tuesday night. Want to hear the particulars?"

"That's what I'm here for," snapped Colter.

Bleyer told the whole story so far as he knew it.

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