Christmas Story.ca - Find hundreds of christmas stories, christmas carols, articles and exercises celebriting the origin and spirit of christmas. Visit Christmas Story.caInformational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


A Highgrader In Principle








From: The Highgrader

In spite of the warm defense she had made of Kilmeny, the heart of Moya
was troubled. She knew him to be reckless. The boundaries of ethical
conduct were not the same for him as for Lord Farquhar, for instance. He
had told her as much in those summer days by the Gunnison when they were
first adventuring forth to friendship. His views on property and on the
struggle between capital and labor were radical. Could it be that they
carried him as far as this, that he would take ore to which others had
title?

The strange phase of the situation was that nobody in Goldbanks seemed
to give any consideration to the moral issue. If rumor were true, the
district attorney and a good many of the business men of the town were
engaged in disposing of this ore for the miners on a percentage basis.
Between the miners and the operating companies was war. If a workman
could get the better of the owners by taking ore that was a point to his
credit. Even Verinder and Bleyer at bottom regarded the matter as a
question of strength and not as one of equity.

Moya was still in process of thinking herself and life out. It was to
her an amazing thing that a whole community should so lose its sense of
values as to encourage even tacitly what was virtually theft. She did
not want to pass judgment upon Goldbanks, for she distrusted her horizon
as narrow. But surely right was right and wrong wrong. Without a stab of
pain she could not think of Jack Kilmeny as engaged in this illicit
traffic.

In her heart she was afraid. Bleyer was a man to be trusted, and in
effect he had said that her friend was a highgrader. Even to admit a
doubt hurt her conscience as a disloyalty, but her gropings brought no
certainty of his innocence. It would be in keeping with the man's
character, as she read it, not to let fear of the consequences hold him
from any course upon which he was determined. Had he not once warned her
in his whimsical smiling way that she would have to make "a heap of
allowances" for him if she were to remain his friend? Was it this to
which he had referred when he had told her he was likely to disappoint
her, that a man must live by the code of his fellows and judge right and
wrong by the circumstances? Explicitly he had given her to understand
that his standards of honesty would not square with hers, since he lived
in a rough mining camp where questions had two sides and were not to be
determined by abstract rule.

As for Joyce, the charges against Kilmeny did not disturb her in the
least. He might be all they said of him and more; so long as he
interested her that was enough. Just now her head was full of the young
man. In the world of her daydreams many suitors floated nebulously. Past
and present she had been wooed by a sufficient number. But of them all
not one had moved her pulses as this impossible youth of the unmapped
desert West had done. Queer errant impulses tugged at her
well-disciplined mind and stormed the creed of worldliness with which
she had fenced her heart.

A stroll to view the sunset had been arranged by the young people up
what was known as Son-of-a-Gun Hill. Moya walked of course with Captain
Kilmeny, her betrothed. Joyce saw to it that Verinder was paired with
India, Jack Kilmeny falling to her lot. Since India knew that her escort
was eager to get with Miss Seldon, she punished his impatience by
loitering far behind the others.

During the past few days Jack had pushed his tentative suit boldly but
lightly. He understood that Joyce was flirting with him, but he divined
that there had been moments when the tide of her emotion had swept the
young woman from her feet. She was a coquette, of course, but when his
eyes fell like a plummet into hers they sounded depths beneath the
surface foam. At such times the beat of the surf sounded in his blood.
The spell of sex, with all its fire and passion, drew him to this lovely
creature so prodigal of allure.

The leading couples stood for a moment's breathing space near the
summit. Beneath them the squalid little town huddled in the draw and ran
sprawling up the hillsides. Shaft-houses and dumps disfigured even the
business street.

Joyce gave a laughing little shudder. "Isn't it a horrid little hole?"

Jack looked at her in surprise, but it was Moya that answered.

"Oh, I don't think so, Joyce. Of course it's not pretty, but--doesn't it
seem to stand for something big and--well, indomitable? Think of all the
miles of tunnels and stopes, of all the work that has gone into making
them." She stopped to laugh at her own enthusiasm before she added:
"Goldbanks stands to me for the hope in the human heart that rises in
spite of everything. It is the product of an idea."

Miss Seldon gave a little lift to her superb shoulders. "You're
incurably romantic, Moya. It's only a scramble for money, after all."

"Don't know about that, Miss Seldon," disagreed Captain Kilmeny. "Of
course it's gold they all want. But gold stands for any number of good
things, tangible and abstract--success, you know, and home, and love,
and kiddies, the better development of the race--all that sort of
thing."

"Is that what it means to the highgraders too?" Joyce let her smiling
eyes rest with innocent impudence in those of the miner.

Kilmeny showed no sign of discomfiture. His gaze met hers fully and
steadily. "Something of that sort, I suppose."

"Just what is a highgrader?"

Moya held her breath. The debonair lightness of the question could not
rob it of its significance. Nobody but Joyce would have dared such a
home thrust.

Jack laughed dryly. "A highgrader is a miner who saves the company for
which he works the trouble of having valuable ore smelted."

"But doesn't the ore belong to the company?"

"There's a difference of opinion about that. Legally it does, morally it
doesn't--not all of it. The man who risks his life and the support of
his family by working underground is entitled to a share of the profit,
isn't he?"

"He gets his wages, doesn't he?"

"Enough to live on--if he doesn't want to live too high. But is that all
he is entitled to? Your friend"--he waved a hand toward Verinder,
puffing up the trail a hundred yards below--"draws millions of dollars
in dividends from the work of these men. What does he do to earn it?"

"You're a socialist," charged Joyce gayly. "Or is it an anarchist that
believes such dreadful things?"

"Mr. Kilmeny doesn't quite believe all he says," suggested Moya quietly.

"Don't I?" Behind Jack's quizzical smile there was a hint of
earnestness. "I believe that Dobyans Verinder is a parasite in
Goldbanks. He gobbles up the product of others' toil."

Joyce flashed at him a swift retort. "Then if you believe that, you
ought to be a highgrader yourself."

"Joyce," reproved Moya, aghast.

"I mean, of course, in principle," her friend amended, blushing slightly
at her own audacity.

Her impudence amused the miner. "Perhaps I am--in principle."

"But only in principle," she murmured, tilting a radiant challenge at
him.

"Exactly--in principle," he agreed. There was humor in his saturnine
face.

Joyce ventured one daring step further. "But of course in practice----"

"You should have been a lawyer, Miss Seldon," he countered. "If you
were, my reply would be that by advice of counsel I must decline to
answer."

"Oh, by advice of counsel! Dear me, that sounds dreadfully legal,
doesn't it, Moya? Isn't that what criminals say when----?"

"----When they don't want to give themselves away. I believe it is," he
tossed back with the same lightness. "Before I make confession I shall
want to know whether you are on my side--or Verinder's."

Under the steady look of his bold, possessive eyes the long silken
lashes fell to the soft cheeks. Joyce understood the unvoiced demand

that lay behind the obvious one. He had thrown down the gage of battle.
Was she for Verinder or for him? If he could have offered her one-half
the advantages of his rival, her answer would not have been in doubt.
But she knew she dared not marry a poor man, no matter how wildly his
presence could set her pulses flying or how great her longing for him.
Not the least intention of any romantic absurdity was in her mind. When
the time came for choice she would go to Verinder and his millions. But
she did not intend to let Jack Kilmeny go yet.

She lifted to him a face flushed and excited, answering apparently his
words and not his thoughts. "I haven't decided yet. How can I tell till
I hear what you have to say for yourself?"

"You couldn't find a more charming sister confessor for your sins," the
captain told his cousin.

"I'll do my best," Joyce promised. Then, with a flash of friendly
malice: "But I haven't had the experience of Moya. She is just perfect
in the role. I know, because she hears all mine."

Moya flushed resentfully. She did not intend to set up for a prude, but
she certainly did not mean to treat highgrading as if it were a joke. If
Jack Kilmeny was innocent, why did he not indignantly deny the charge?

"Afraid I'll have to be excused," she said, a little stiffly.

"Miss Dwight doesn't approve of me," explained the miner. "If I
confessed to her she would probably turn me over to the sheriff."

The girl's quick eyes flashed into his. "I don't approve of taking ore
that doesn't belong to one--if that's what you mean, Mr. Kilmeny."

Jack liked the flare of temper in her. She was very human in her
impulses. At bottom, too, he respected the integrity of mind that
refused to compromise with what she thought was wrong.

But no admission of this showed in his strong brown face. His mordant
eyes mocked her while he went into a whimsical argument to show that
highgrading was really a virtue, since it tended to keep the rich from
growing richer and the poor poorer. He wanted to know by what moral
right Verinder owned the Mollie Gibson and the Never Quit any more than
he did.

The mine owner, puffing from the exertions of the last bit of ascent,
exclaimed indignantly: "Own 'em, by Jove! Doesn't a Johnny own what he
buys and pays for?"

"You don't suppose that when God or Nature or the First Cause created
that ore vein a million years ago he had Dobyans Verinder in mind as the
owner," derided Kilmeny.

"That's all anarchistic rot, you know. Those mines are my property, at
least a commanding interest. They're mine because I bought the shares.
Government is founded on a respect for property rights."

"So I've observed," retorted Jack dryly. "I'd back that opinion, too, if
I owned half of Goldbanks."

"I suppose Mr. Kilmeny's highgrading friends are superior to law. It
isn't necessary for them to abide by the rules society has found best
for its protection," Moya suggested.

The engaging smile of the accused rested upon Miss Dwight. "I met you
and your friends in a motor car yesterday. I'll bet that speedometer
said twenty-five miles, but the town ordinance puts the speed limit at
fifteen. What about that?"

"You know that's different. No moral question was involved. But when it
comes to taking what belongs to another--well, a thief is a thief."

"Right as a rivet, Miss Dwight. But you're begging the question. Does
that ore belong to Dobyans Verinder any more than it does to--well, to
Jack Kilmeny, say for the sake of argument? I go down there and risk my
life blasting it out. He----"

"But you don't," interrupted Moya.

"Not to-day perhaps--or yesterday. But I did last year and the year
before that. I've brought up in my arms the bodies of men torn to pieces
and carried them to their wives and kiddies. How about those women and
children? Haven't they earned an interest in the mine? Isn't their moral
claim greater than that of Mr. Verinder, who sits in London and draws
the dividends?"

"They are pensioned, aren't they?"

"They are not," returned Jack curtly. "The mine owners of Goldbanks
don't believe in encouraging negligence. If these workmen hadn't taken
chances they probably would not have been killed, you see. But if they
didn't take chances none of the men could earn a living for their
families. It is plain how very much to blame they are."

Moya looked across the summits of the hills into the brilliant sunset
that lay like a wonderful canvas in the crotch of the peaks. A troubled
little frown creased her forehead. For the first time there had come
home to her the injustice of the social system under which she and her
friends thrived. No adequate answer came to her. Verinder and Joyce
joined in argument against the young miner, but Moya did not hear what
they said.

She was unusually silent on the way home. Once she looked up and asked
Captain Kilmeny a question.

"After all, two wrongs don't make a right, do they?"

"No, dear girl. Life's full of injustice. I dare say some of the men I
lead are better than Ned Kilmeny, but I've got to forget that and sit
tight in the seat that's been dealt me by the cards. If Jack is trying
to justify highgrading, he hasn't a leg to stand on."

She sighed. "You don't think, do you, that----?"

He answered her broken sentence. "Don't know. He doesn't play the game
by the same rules we do, but my judgment is that the gossip about him
has no basis of fact."

The girl he loved gave him one grateful look and fell again into
silence. She wished she felt more sure. Only that morning she had read
an editorial in one of the local papers warning the men that the
operators were determined to suppress highgrading at any cost, even if
some of the more flagrant offenders had to be sent to the penitentiary.
That such a fate could befall Jack Kilmeny was unthinkable. Yet what
more likely than that the managers should choose him for an example if
they could prove him guilty?

The dusk had fallen over the hills and the lights were glimmering out
from the town below through the growing darkness. Captain Kilmeny walked
beside his slim, tall, worshipful sweetheart with a heavy heart. She was
his promised bride. That she would keep faith he did not doubt. But the
progress that he made in winning her love was so little that he seemed
to himself to be marking time. The shadow of his vagabond cousin still
lay between them.





Next: One Maid Two Men

Previous: Prove It! Prove It!



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 415