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   Chapter 22 THE ACID TEST

The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 12457

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Jack Kilmeny opened his eyes to find himself in darkness utter and complete except for a pinpoint of light gleaming from far above. His head was whirling and throbbing painfully. Something warm and moist dropped into his eyes, and when he put his hand up to investigate the cause he knew it must be blood from a wound.

Faintly the sound of voices and of harsh laughter drifted down to him. Presently this died away. The stillness was almost uncanny.

"Something laid me out, I reckon. Must have been a bad whack." His finger found a ridge above the temple which had been plowed through the thick curly hair. "Looks as though a glancing bullet hit me. Golden luck it didn't finish the job."

He moved. A sharp pain shot through his lower right leg. Trying to rise, he slipped down at once from a badly sprained ankle. Every muscle in his body ached, as if he had been jarred by a hard fall.

"Better have a look around first," he told himself.

Groping in his pocket, he found a match case and struck a light. What he saw made him shudder. From the ledge upon which he lay fell away a gulf, the bottom of which could be only guessed. His eyes, becoming accustomed to the darkness, made out that he was in some sort of shaft, thirty feet or more below the surface. Rotten from age, the timberings had slipped and become jammed. Upon some of these he was resting. The sprained ankle, by preventing him from moving, had saved him from plunging down the well.

He held out a silver dollar and dropped it. From the time the coin took to strike Jack judged he was a hundred feet from the bottom.

The flare of a second match showed him a wall ladder leading down, but unfortunately it did not extend above him except in rotting fragments. What had happened he could guess. Supposing him to be dead, his enemies had dropped the body down this deserted shaft. Not for a moment did he doubt who they were. The voices had been unmistakably Cornish, and even without that evidence he would have guessed Peale and his partner as the guilty ones.

Since he could not go up he went down, moving warily so as not to jar loose the timbers upon which he lay. Every rung of the ladder he tested with great care before he put his weight upon it. Each step of the journey down sent a throb of pain from the ricked ankle, even though he rested his weight on his hands while he lowered himself. From the last rung-it was by actual count the one hundred forty-third-he stepped to the ground.

Another match showed him a drift running from the foot of the shaft. Along this he dragged himself slowly, uncertain of direction but determined to find out what possibility of escape his prison offered. For two hundred yards the tunnel led forward and brought him up sharply at an impasse. A cave-in blocked farther advance.

"Check," Jack told himself aloud grimly.

He knew now that his situation was a very serious one, for he had been flung alive into a grave that offered only a slight prospect of escape. He was without food, effectually cut off from the surface of the earth, and none but those who had assaulted him knew that he was buried.

The alternatives that lay before him were plain. He might climb the ladder again to the timber ledge and keep calling for help, or he might attempt to dig a way over the cave-in with his hands and his pocketknife, trusting that the tunnel led to another shaft. The former was a chance pure and simple, and a slender one at that. It was not likely that anybody would pass the mouth of a deserted shaft far up in the hills at this season of the year. But it was quite within the probabilities that the tunnel led to some of the workings of a live property. Many miles of underground drifts were connected by intercepting stopes of adjoining mines. If he could force a way through the cave-in there might be safety beyond. To go moling into such a place without timbering would be a dangerous business, but the crisis was one that justified any risk.

He took stock of his assets. Fortunately he had bought at a lunch counter a ham sandwich to stay his appetite during the night trip. This was still in his pocket, badly mashed but still edible. Five cigars were in the case he carried and upon his person all told he found eleven matches. A little trickle of water ran through the tunnel and gave assurance that he would not die of thirst. His pocketknife was a serviceable one and he had plenty of physical strength.

Jack decided that he would eat half of the sandwich that day and reserve the rest for the second one. His cigars were precious luxuries to be indulged in once every twenty-four hours after he had knocked off work.

He attacked the cave-in with the cool energy that characterized him. Out of a piece of board he fashioned a kind of shovel with his knife. Bits of broken timbering lay at the foot of the shaft. These he dragged into the tunnel for fuel to feed a small fire which he built to give light for the work. All through the night and till noon the following day he dug among the fallen rocks and dirt, cleaning this débris away after he had loosened it with his bare hands.

The impact of the fall when he had been thrown down the shaft had jarred him greatly. With the slightest movement of the body his back and shoulders ached, sending shoots of pain in protest to his brain. The sprained ankle he had bound tightly in a wet handkerchief, but every time his weight rested on that leg he had to grit his teeth. But it was not in him to quit. He stuck to his job till he had done the shift set himself.

At noon he crawled back to the foot of the shaft. He was fagged to exhaustion. For half an hour he lay stretched on his back with every muscle relaxed.

Presently he cut from his coat the pocket that contained the sandwich and divided the mash of ham and bread into two parts. One of these he ate. The other he returned to the coat.

Favoring his ricked ankle as best he could, Jack climbed the wall ladder to the ledge upon which he had found himself lying the previous night. Five minutes' examination of the walls showed him that there was no chance to reach the top of the shaft unaided. He tested the jammed timbers to make sure they w

ere secure before he put his weight upon them. During the next six hours he called aloud every few minutes to attract the attention of anyone who might chance to be passing near.

Toward evening he treated himself to his first cigar, making the most of the comfort that it gave him. When the stub grew short he held it on the small blade of his knife so as not to miss a puff. What was left he wrapped in a pocket handkerchief for later use.

As the stars began to come out in the little patch of blue sky he could see just above his prison Jack lowered himself again to the foot of the shaft. Here he lay down a second time and within five minutes had fallen into a deep sleep.

About midnight he awakened and was aware at once of a ravenous hunger. He was still resolute to win a way out, though the knowledge pressed on him that his chances were slender at the best. Till morning he worked without a moment's rest. The fever in his ankle and the pain of the sprain had increased, but he could not afford to pay any attention to them. Blood from his scarred, torn hands ran down his wrists. Every muscle in his abused body ached. Still he stabbed with his knife into the earth that filled the tunnel and still he pulled great rocks back with his shovel. All his life he had fought for his own hand. He would not let himself believe fate had played so scurvy a trick as to lock him alive into a tomb closed so tightly that he could not pry a way out.

When his watch told him it was eight o'clock he staggered to the shaft again and lay down on his back to rest. Before climbing to the platform above he finished the sandwich. He was very hungry and could have eaten enough for two men had he been given the opportunity. Again for hours he called every few minutes at the top of his voice.

In his vest pocket were a pencil and a notebook used for keeping the accounts of the highgraders with whom he did business. To pass the time he set down the story of the crime which had brought him here and his efforts to free himself.

After darkness fell he let himself down to the foot of the shaft and slept. Either from hunger or from fever in his ankle he slept brokenly. He was conscious of a little delirium in his waking spells, but the coming of midnight found him master of himself, though a trifle lightheaded.

It was impossible to work as steadily as he had done during the two previous nights. Hunger and pain and toil were doing their best to wear out his strength. His limbs moved laggardly. Once he fell asleep in the midst of his labor. He dreamed of Moya, and after he awakened-as he presently did with a start-she seemed so near that it would scarce have surprised him if in the darkness his hands had come in contact with the soft flesh of her vivid face. Nor did it strike him as at all odd that it was Moya and not Joyce who was visiting him when he was in prison. Sometimes she came to him as the little girl of the Victorian, but more often the face he saw was the mocking one of the young woman, in which gayety overran the tender sadness of the big, dusky eyes beneath which tiny freckles had been sprinkled. More than once he clearly heard her whisper courage to him.

Next day the notes in his diary were more fragmentary.

"Broke my rule and smoked two cigars to-day. Just finished my fourth. Leaves one more. I drink a great deal. It helps me to forget I'm hungry. Find a cigar goes farther if I smoke it in sections. I chew the stubs while I'm working.

"Have tunneled in about seventeen feet. No sign that I'm near the end of the cave-in. There's a lot of hell in being buried alive.

"Think I'm losing my voice from shouting so much when I'm in the shaft. Gave it up to-day and let little Moya call for me. She's a trump. Wish she'd stay here all the time and not keep coming and going."

The jottings on the fourth day show the increase of the delirium. Sometimes his mind appears to be quite clear, then it wanders to queer fancies.

"Last cigar gone. Got sick from eating the stub. Violent retchings. Kept falling asleep while working. Twenty-nine feet done-surely reach the end to-morrow.... Another cave-in just after I crawled out from my tunnel. All my work wiped out. Moya, the little devil, laughed and said it served a highgrader right....

"Have telegraphed for help. Can't manage alone. Couldn't make it up the shaft and had to give up the climb. Ordered a big breakfast at the Silver Dollar-steak and mushrooms and hot cakes. The telegraph wires run through pipe along floor of tunnel. Why don't the operator stay on his job? I tap my signals and get no answer."

He began to talk to himself in a rambling sort of way. Sometimes he would try to justify himself for highgrading in jerky half-coherent phrases, sometimes he argued with Peale that he had better let him out. But even in his delirious condition he stuck to his work in the tunnel, though he was scarce able to drag himself about.

As the sickness grew on him, the lightheaded intervals became more frequent. In one of these it occurred to him that he had struck high grade ore and he filled his pockets with samples taken from the cave-in. He spent a good deal of time explaining to Moya patiently over and over again that the business of highgrading was justified by the conditions under which the miners lived. There was no sequence to his thoughts. They came in flashes without logical connection. It became, for instance, a firm obsession that the pipe running through the tunnel was a telegraph wire by means of which he could communicate with the outside world if the operator would only stay on duty. But his interest in the matter was intermittent.

It is suggestive of his condition that when Moya's answer came to his seven taps he took it quite as a matter of course.

"The son of a Greaser is back on the job at last," he said aloud without the least excitement. "Now, I'll get that breakfast I ordered."

He crawled back to the foot of the shaft in a childish, absurd confidence that the food he craved would soon be sent down to him. While he waited, Jack fell into light sleep where he lost himself in fancies that voiced themselves in incoherent snatches of talk.

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