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The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 7480

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

A voice calling his name from the top of the shaft brought Jack Kilmeny back to consciousness. He answered.

A shout of joy boomed down to him in Colter's heavy bass. He could hear, too, the sweet troubled tones of a woman.

"Hurry, please, hurry.... Thank God, we're in time."

"Got that breakfast with you, little neighbor," Jack called up weakly. He did not need to be told that Moya Dwight was above, and, since she was there, of course she had brought him the breakfast that he had ordered from the Silver Dollar.

"Get back into the tunnel, Jack," Colter presently shouted.

"What for?"

"We're lowering someone to you. The timberings are rotten and they might fall on you. Get back."

"All right."

Five minutes later the rescuer reached the foot of the shaft. He stood for a moment with a miner's lamp lifted above his head and peered into the gloom.

"Where away, Jack?"

The man was Ned Kilmeny. He and Lord Farquhar had returned to the hotel just after dinner. The captain had insisted-all the more because there was some danger in it-that he should be the man lowered to the aid of his cousin.

"Bring that breakfast?" Jack snapped, testily.

"Yes, old man. It's waiting up above. Brought some soup down with me."

"I ordered it two hours ago. What's been keeping you? I'm going to complain of the service."

The captain saw at once that Jack was lightheaded and he humored him.

"Yes, I would. Now drink this soup."

The imprisoned man drained the bucket to the last drop.

Ned loosened the rope from his own body and fastened it about that of his cousin. He gave the signal and Jack was hauled very carefully to the surface in such a way as not to collide with the jammed timbers near the top. Colter and Bleyer lifted the highgrader over the edge of the well, where he collapsed at once into the arms of his friend.

Moya, a flask in her hand, stooped over the sick man where he lay on the grass. Her fine face was full of poignant sympathy.

Kilmeny's mind was quite clear now. The man was gaunt as a famished wolf. Bitten deep into his face were the lines that showed how closely he had shaved death. But in his eye was the gay inextinguishable gleam of the thoroughbred.

"Ain't I the quitter, Miss Dwight? Keeling over just like a sick baby."

The young woman choked over her answer. "You mustn't talk yet. Drink this, please."

He drank, and later he ate sparingly of the food she had hastily gathered from the dinner table and brought with her. In jerky little sentences he sketched his adventure, mingling fiction with fact as the fever grew on him again.

Bleyer, himself a game man, could not withhold his admiration after he had heard Captain Kilmeny's story of what he had found below. The two, with Moya, were riding behind the wagon in which the rescued man lay.

"Think of the pluck of the fellow-boring away at that cave-in when any minute a million tons of rock and dirt might tumble down and crush the life out of him. That's a big enough thing. But add to it his game leg and his wound and starvation on top of that. I'll give it to him for the gamest fellow that ever went down into a mine."

"That's not all," the captain added quietly. "He must have tunneled in about twenty-five feet when the roof caved again. Clean bowled out as he was, Jack tackled the job a second time."

Moya could not think of what had taken place without a film coming over her eyes and a sob choking her throat. A vagabond and worse he might be, but Jack Kilmeny held her love beyond recall. It was useless to remind herself that he was unworthy. None the less, she gloried in the splendid courage of the man. It flooded her veins joyously even while her heart was full to ov

erflowing with tender pity for his sufferings. Whatever else he might be, Jack Kilmeny was every inch a man. He had in him the dynamic spark that brought him smiling in his weakness from the presence of the tragedy that had almost engulfed him.

There was a little discussion between Colter and Captain Kilmeny as to which of them should take care of the invalid. The captain urged that he would get better care at the hotel, where Lady Farquhar and India could look after him. Colter referred the matter to Jack.

"I'm not going to burden Lady Farquhar or India. Colter can look out for me," the sick man said.

"It's no trouble. India won't be satisfied unless you come to the hotel," Moya said in a low voice.

He looked at her, was about to decline, and changed his mind. The appeal in her eyes was too potent.

"I'm in the hands of my friends. Settle it any way you like, Miss Dwight. Do whatever you want with me, except put me back in that hell."

After a doctor had seen Jack and taken care of his ankle, after the trained nurse had arrived and been put in charge of the sick room, Captain Kilmeny made a report to Moya and his sister.

"He's gone to sleep already. The doctor says he'll probably be as well as ever in a week, thanks to you, Moya."

"Thanks to you, Ned," she amended.

"He sent to you this record of how he spent his time down there-said it might amuse you."

The Captain looked straight at her as he spoke.

"I'll read it."

"Do. You'll find something on the last page that will interest you. Now, I'm going to say good-night. It's time little girls were in bed."

He kissed his sister and Moya, rather to the surprise of the latter, for Captain Kilmeny never insisted upon the rights of a lover. There was something on his face she did not quite understand. It was as if he were saying good-by instead of good-night.

She understood it presently. Ned had written a note and pinned it to the last page of the little book. She read it twice, and then again in tears. It told her that the soldier had read truly the secret her anxiety had flaunted in the face of all her friends.

"It's no go, dear girl. You've done your best, but you don't love me. You never will. Afraid there's no way left but for me to release you. So you're free again, little sweetheart.

"I know you won't misunderstand. Never in my life have I cared for you so much as I do to-night. But caring isn't enough. I've had my chance and couldn't win out. May you have good hunting wherever you go."

The note was signed "Ned."

Her betrothed had played the game like the gentleman he was to a losing finish. She knew he would not whimper or complain, that he would meet her to-morrow cheerfully and easily, hiding even from her the wound in his heart. He was a better man than his cousin. She could not deny to herself that his gallantry had a finer edge. His sense of right was better developed and his courage quite as steady. Ned Kilmeny had won his V. C. before he was twenty-five. He had carried to a successful issue one of the most delicate diplomatic missions of recent years. Everybody conceded that he had a future. If Jack had never appeared on her horizon she would have married Ned and been to him a loving wife. But the harum-scarum cousin had made this impossible.

Why? Why had her roving heart gone out to this attractive scamp who did not want her love or care for it? She did not know. The thing was as unexplainable as it was inescapable. All the training of her life had shaped her to other ends. Lady Farquhar would explain it as a glamour cast by a foolish girl's fancy. But Moya knew the tide of feeling which raced through her was born not of fancy but of the true romance.

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