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   Chapter 1 VENGEANCE AVOWED

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 25848

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Curtis Conrad turned from superintending repairs on the adobe wall, and walked across the corral to the gate at the opposite side. As he filled his pipe he looked across the wide, greenish-gray New Mexican plateau stretching far to east and south and west. It was dotted here and there with little groups of grazing cattle, and he noted a straggling procession of the creatures, their figures wavering and distorted in the heat haze, coming down from the distant foot-hills. They were following a trail that cut across the plain in a straight line to the pond across the road from the house, beyond a grove of cottonwood trees.

"Poor devils!" he thought. "They're tramping miles for a drink of water, and to-morrow they'll tramp back again for their breakfast. The Castletons are going to lose big money in dead cattle this Summer, unless there's more rain than there was last. It's awful to see the poor brutes dropping in their tracks. I'll begin looking for a job in a wetter country if this Summer doesn't bring more rain." He turned his attention to his pipe, sheltering bowl and match in his hollowed hand. "No use, in this wind," he muttered. "What a blast it's blowing to-day! Well, there's no sand in it."

The plain stretched away from the ranch-house in low, rolling hills, so evenly sized that it gave the impression of a level surface. Up from one of the little valleys rose a horseman, as if he had sprung suddenly from the depths of the earth. Through the heat that wavered over the plain his horse's legs drew out into long, knobby sticks, and both man and steed became an absurd caricature of the sinewy pony and cowboy rider that presently cantered up to the gate with the mail for which Conrad had been waiting.

"Three cow-brutes are down on the pond trail, just where it crosses the road. One of 'em's got a calf."

"Are they dead?"

"Mighty nigh-will be by night."

"You and Red Jack go and skin them in the morning." Conrad turned toward the house, looking at his letters. His mind still lingered over the calf. "Poor little devil, it ought to have a chance," he was thinking, when his eye caught the name on one of the envelopes. He turned upon the cowboy a gaze suddenly grown preoccupied.

"No, Peters," he said; "the calf won't go with the other cattle while its mother is alive, and I saw that gray wolf skulking along the draw this afternoon. You and Red Jack'd better go down now and put the cows out of their misery. Skin them and bring the calf into the corral till night, and then put it down by the pond with the other cow-brutes."

His eyes quickly returned to the letter that had attracted his attention. "Tremper & Townsend!" he exclaimed with eager surprise. "Why, they were Delafield's attorneys!" He tore open the envelope with an impatient jerk and the rushing wind almost blew from his fingers the check it contained. As his eye ran quickly down the half-dozen lines of the letter his face lighted with satisfaction and amusement.

The sound of a carriage distracted his attention. It turned in at his house-gate and he hastened forward, a lean, long-legged figure of a man, hat doffed and hand outstretched.

"How are you, Bancroft? Glad to see you! And Miss Bancroft, too! Of course you're coming in. Thirsty? I'll bet you are! And you know we've got the best water in Silverside County here. How much better your daughter's looking, Aleck! If you keep on like this, Miss Bancroft, you'll soon forget you were ever ill."

"Oh, I've forgotten that already, there's such magic in the winds you have here," the girl replied laughingly as he lifted her to the ground. "They're strong enough to blow the past out of your memory and make you forget even your own name!" Her father suddenly turned away and began to hitch the horses. He sent back a covert glance at her as she stood at Conrad's side, a slender figure, her face still thin from recent illness but aglow with the pink of returning health, the breeze fluttering the short brown curls that clustered over her bare head.

"Oh, my hat, please!" she exclaimed, with sudden remembrance of the head-covering she had left hanging in the carriage top. Curtis took it down for her and looked on with undisguised admiration while she tied it with a big bow of ribbon under her chin. Bancroft came back, explaining that they had driven since mid-forenoon from the base of Mangan's Peak, and asking if Conrad did not think they had made pretty good time with their new team of horses. Curtis looked them over critically, praising their good points, and approving heartily when Bancroft told him they had been bought for both riding and driving, for he wanted Lucy, now that she was growing strong again, to become an expert horsewoman.

A big cottonwood tree grew beside the gate, and a little plot of grass, enclosed on three sides by whitewashed adobe walls, made a square of welcome green. Lucy Bancroft exclaimed with delight as they entered the tiny yard, stepping mincingly across the grass with lifted gown, and smiling back at the two men, while fleeting dimples played hide-and-seek in her cheeks.

"I'm so glad, Mr. Conrad," she laughed, "that you haven't any signs up to 'keep off the grass,' for I simply must walk on it. I never saw anything so lovely as this little lawn and this beautiful big green tree, after our long ride across the plain. It makes me think of that line in the Bible about 'the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.'"

"Yes," replied Curtis as he threw open the door. "I never knew until I came to New Mexico how much comfort and pleasure there can be in a few blades of grass. When I come in from a long ride and look at this little checker-board square of turf I feel as if I uncurled a whole yard of wrinkles and squints from around my eyes."

The Socorro Springs ranch-house was a rambling sequence of adobe rooms, so joined one to another that they formed the eastern and part of the northern side of the big square corral. It was low and flat-roofed, and struggling tufts of weeds and grass grew along the top and trailed over the edge, adding their chapter to Nature's endless tale of the unwearied determination of Life to evade and overcome Death. The rooms opened out of one another in a long row, all with outside doors looking toward the east and some with additional doors into the corral. A bare adobe yard sloping eastward was bordered by a trickling stream of water along which grew some willows and cottonwoods. Beyond it spread a golden-green field of young alfalfa, and beyond that the greenish-gray plain stretched to the far horizon. Across the front of the house was a narrow wooden porch, and house and porch, walls and sheds, were all a dazzling white that in the vivid sunshine smote the sight like a blow across the eyeballs. In the low, large room in front gayly colored Navajo rugs were spread on the floor, white muslin curtains hung at the windows, and rose-bedecked paper covered the walls and ceiling. Unpainted shelves of pine above a battered, flat-topped desk were filled with books, and the round table in the middle of the room was littered with newspapers, magazines, tobacco pouches, and pipes.

The housekeeper, Mrs. Peters, brought a pitcher of water, and Conrad explained to Lucy that the springs from which the ranch took its appellation, Los Ojos del Socorro, "The Springs of Succor," had been so named nearly three hundred years before by a party of Spanish explorers, because they had come unexpectedly upon the pure waters when they were almost dead from thirst. At the housekeeper's suggestion Lucy went into the next room to lie down for a half-hour's rest before they should start for their home in Golden, twenty miles farther westward. The door, accidentally left ajar, swung part way open and she could hear plainly the voices of her father and Conrad as she lay with eyes closed and thoughts wandering, scarcely heeding what they said.

The two men were absorbed in a discussion of local politics. "Dan Tillinghurst is all right," said Conrad. "He's made a good sheriff and he ought to have the office again. I shall do all I can to have him renominated and to help elect him afterwards. But Dellmey Baxter for Congress again! That's where I buck, and buck hard, and keep a-buckin'."

"But he's the head of the party in the Territory," objected Bancroft. "He can bring out more votes than any other man we can put up. If we turn him down in the convention they'll beat us at the polls."

"We'll deserve to be beaten if we nominate him, anyway. I can't stomach him any longer, Aleck, and I don't see how you can."

"Oh, you're prejudiced, Curt," said the other, good-naturedly. "You know you can never see any good in a man you dislike, and you took a dislike to Baxter the first day you set foot in the Territory."

"Maybe I am prejudiced; but in Dell Baxter's case there's ample reason to be, and I'd be ashamed of myself if I wasn't. I know he's a friend of yours, but that doesn't prevent him from being the worst scoundrel in the whole Territory. I tell you, Aleck, there's nothing that man wouldn't do, unless it was something square and honest."

"Come, come, Curt, that's rank exaggeration. I've been associated with Dell Baxter financially ever since I located in this part of the country, and I've always found him strictly on the square."

"Then it was because it was to his interest to be square. He'll do you up yet, if he gets the chance and thinks it worth while. He's had his finger in every crooked scheme that's been put through from Raton to El Paso, and his hands are as bloody as his pockets are dirty."

"Don't you think it's going a little too far," asked Bancroft, smiling calmly, "to accuse a man in that wholesale way when you haven't any basis for your assertions but the merest idle gossip?"

Conrad gave an indignant snort. "Oh, I'm not saying he's done the jobs himself. He thinks too much of that fat paunch of his to put that into any danger. But why does he keep those Mexican thugs hanging around him if it isn't to use them for things he wouldn't dare do himself? Why, I heard from Santa Fe only last week that he's taken into his pay that Mexican cutthroat, Liberato Herrara, whom he saved last Winter from conviction for the Paxton murder."

"No, Aleck," he went on. "I buck when it comes to Dell Baxter for Congress again. If he gets the nomination and the other side puts up Johnny Martinez, as it's likely they will, I'm going to support Johnny."

"But he's a Mexican."

"I don't care what he is as long as he's a decent man. He won't be a disgrace to the Territory in Washington, and that's more than you can say of Baxter."

Bancroft's impassive face lighted with a bantering smile. "There's no limit to your bad opinion of a man, is there, Curt, if he once gets into your disfavor? By the way, is it true that the Castletons are behind Johnny Martinez?"

"I don't know, and I don't care. I'm their hired man here on the ranch, but my vote's my own, and so's what little influence I may have, and I'll do with both of 'em just what I damn please. And if it came to a show-down, I'd be perfectly willing to lose my job if that would keep Dell Baxter from going back to Congress."

Bancroft laughed again. Conrad's eye, as he turned to his desk for more cigars, fell upon the little pile of letters and papers he had just received. On the top lay the Tremper & Townsend envelope. "By the way, Aleck, you're from Boston, ain't you?" he exclaimed impulsively.

In the next room, Lucy, listening sleepily to the two voices, had been noting the difference in their quality. Conrad's was high and clear, his speech rapid and incisive. Her father's, lower and more deliberate, had in it a subtle, persuasive quality. "Dear daddy!" she whispered softly, her heart warm with affection. Then the new, sharp edge in Conrad's tone gripped her attention and sent her eyes flying open. Wide awake on the instant, she listened for the sound of her father's voice again. Had she been on the scene, she might have noted that he turned an instant's keen gaze upon his companion before he answered, carelessly enough:

"Yes; originally. But I've come from so many other places since then that I almost forget it, unless somebody reminds me. I haven't been back there, or known much about the old place, for years."

Conrad's boyish smile illuminated his face and twinkled in his blue eyes. "Yes," he said; "'most everybody out here is so everlastingly on the lope that it's no wonder some of 'em lose their names every once in a while and have to pick up 'most anything that comes handy. I'm no exception, though I've not yet forgotten 'what was my name back in the States.' But did you know anything about the Delafield affair in Boston, fifteen or sixteen years ago?"

"I heard of it at the time, but it was after I left the city. It was so long ag

o that I forget the details. Skipped, didn't he, with a lot of funds? Or was he the one who defaulted and jumped into the Charles River?"

Conrad had an eagerness of speech and manner that in a man of less vigor would have been accounted nervousness. Voice, face, and gesture were alive with it as he responded: "Jump nothing! except to get out of reach of his creditors! He's alive yet and making money somewhere, and I mean to find him! I've got a particular interest in that man, and when I come up with him he'll have a particular interest in me. For I'm going to give him such a song-and-dance as he's never had before."

Bancroft listened calmly, his face and manner as impassive as usual, but his eyes narrowed as they met his companion's excited gaze. Smiling slightly, he replied, "What has he done to stir you up so? You must have been too young to be interested in financial investments then."

"So I was, directly. Nevertheless, it happens, Aleck, that the Delafield affair has influenced me and my life more than any other one thing. My father lost everything he had in Sumner L. Delafield's smash-up. I was fifteen years old then, and getting ready to go to Michigan University-afterward I was to study law and be a prominent citizen. My father met Delafield first during a business trip to Boston-we lived in central Illinois, and father was well-to-do-and, just like everybody else, he gave the man his entire confidence. You remember, of course, how Delafield came to the top as a regular young Napoleon of business, and soon made a reputation as one of the big financiers. When he turned up missing one fine morning, and it was found that the bottom had dropped out of everything, most people believed he had killed himself. But he hadn't, I happen to know, and he's still alive. Well, my father had been so influenced by Delafield-the fellow must have been a persuasive cuss-that he had put everything he could raise into the man's schemes, and had even mortgaged our home. He had a weak heart, and when he read the news of Delafield's default and disappearance he fell out of his chair dead. The sudden shock of it all prostrated my mother, and she died in giving premature birth to a child. So there was I, a fifteen-year-old boy, suddenly dropped to the bottom of poverty, with two younger sisters and a little brother to take care of.

"I tell you, I swore vengeance on that man. I promised myself I'd hunt him down if it took a lifetime. I'm on his trail now, and I'm not going to leave it until I run him into his hole. Then I'm going to stand him up and call him to his face all he deserves; and give him a gun, so he can have a fair chance for his worthless life, and take one myself; and then I'll put a bullet through his scoundrel brain if I have to hang for it afterward!"

In the adjoining room Lucy Bancroft, with wide eyes and heightened color, was listening to Conrad's story. The thrill of keen-edged purpose in his tense and eager tones had set her nerves to vibrating until her body was a-tremble. At his last sentence Curtis brought his fist down on the table with a crash that almost startled her into outcry. A moment of silence followed, and then she heard her father's cool and even voice, "But suppose he should put one through yours first?"

"Oh, he's welcome to do that if he can draw quicker or shoot straighter than I can. He'll get one through his head before the baile is over, and that's all I care about. The round-up's coming, and I reckon he knows it. For to-day I got a letter from Tremper & Townsend of Boston, who settled up his affairs after his disappearance, enclosing a check for five hundred dollars, saying he wished it sent to me as the first instalment of the amount he owed my father, which he hopes, before long, to be able to pay in full."

Bancroft flicked the ash from his cigar with unusual care, looked at it with contemplative interest, and drew a whiff or two before he spoke. Turning to Conrad with a quizzical smile, he said: "Well, Curt, doesn't that rather take the edge off your purpose? Why are you still shaking your gory locks and roaring like a wounded bull at him when he's evidently doing the square thing by you? Why don't you let up on your chase and give him a chance?"

"Not on your life," was Conrad's emphatic rejoinder. "It's too late in the game for me to take repentance and an honest purpose on the hoof! He's found out that I'm getting hot on the scent and he wants to buy me off-that's all that check means. It's not the loss of the money that sticks in my craw; it's the deviltry he worked years ago. Whenever I find that he's discharging his debts to all his other creditors, who aren't after him hot-foot, then I'll consent to wait for my parley until he has settled the whole score."

Lucy arose from the bed depressed with a vague sense of trouble. The longing seized her to be out-of-doors again, alone with her father on the wide plain, with the wind smiting her face and filling her lungs and making her forget everything but her own joy in being alive. She rubbed her eyes, smoothed her face, and forced herself to smile at the reflection in the mirror until her agitation was subdued. And presently, smiling and self-possessed, she opened the door into the front room, just as her father was finishing some friendly advice to Conrad.

"Well, Curt, it's your affair," he had said, "and if you are so dead-set on getting that kind of revenge I suppose you'll go ahead and get it. But you'd better be careful; if this man is desperate he might try to head you off by the same means. And you couldn't exactly blame him for objecting to being shot in his tracks, or for taking measures to keep you from doing it. For my part, I never thought revenge was a paying investment, and I still believe you're foolish to waste your time, energy, and money in that sort of business.

"Ah, Lucy, is that you?" he went on, as she opened the door. "Come in, dear. Have you had a nap, and do you feel better?"

"Yes, thank you, I've rested beautifully, and I'm ready to start whenever you wish," she replied.

Conrad produced a bottle of port wine, telling them as he filled their glasses that it had been sent him by a friend in California in whose cellars it had lain for twenty years, and that it would be a good tonic for Miss Bancroft. The friend had promised to send him more, and with her permission he would take a bottle to her the next time he went to Golden.

As they stepped out of the house Lucy looked toward the west, whence the wind came, and as it struck her full in the face she gasped for breath and her slender body swayed in its rushing current. She grasped her wide hat brim with both hands and held it down so that it made a frame for her face. Laughing with joy she turned to Curtis.

"Oh, I love these winds, Mr. Conrad! I know they blow sand into your eyes and pelt your face with gravel, but they make you feel so good! I always want to dance when I've been out in a wind like this for a minute or two." She took half a dozen dancing steps across the little lawn. "And they are so pure and sweet," she went on more seriously, "and make you feel so-so right that it seems as if they ought to blow all the wickedness out of one's mind."

"Jiminy! I wonder if she heard what I said in there!" thought Conrad with inward panic. But he smiled down at her glowing young face and his eyes shone with admiration as he replied: "That is a beautiful theory, Miss Bancroft, but I'm afraid it doesn't pan out much in practice. It rather seems to me that most people who come to New Mexico have that sort of thing blown into them instead of out of them. As for myself," and he grinned broadly, "I can't say that I feel any increase in righteousness, no matter how much I waltz around in these zephyrs."

"And you must have given them a fair trial, too!" she laughed back. "But you may make all the fun you like of my little pet theory, Mr. Conrad. I shall believe in it just the same, and like the country just as much."

"No; she didn't hear, and, besides, she said she'd been asleep, so it's all right," thought Curtis with much relief, as he went on eagerly: "I'm glad you're pleased with us and our winds, so that you'll want to stay. I assure you, Miss Bancroft, you can't find such a superior quality of wind anywhere else in the United States."

"Oh, I'm going to stay, not on account of the wind, but on account of my father, who, I assure you, Mr. Conrad, is the most superior quality of father to be found anywhere in the United States! I've been away from him so much that now I'm perfectly happy to be with him all the time. You see, when my dear mother died five years ago, father put me in a boarding-school, and afterward sent me to Chicago for a year to study music, and there I had that attack of typhoid fever that came so near to killing me. But I'm here with him at last, and I mean to stay. And I'm learning to ride now, Mr. Conrad, and father thinks I'm getting on very well; don't you, daddy?" She turned to her father, as he came beside them at the carriage wheel, with a fond smile and a touch of her hand upon his arm.

"Oh, yes," he answered, returning her smile and patting her shoulder; "you are doing bravely, Lucy. You'll soon be scouring the plain like the heroine of a dime novel."

"No New Mexican girl," said Conrad as he helped her into the carriage, "thinks she can really ride until she can rope a steer. If you're going to be such an enthusiastic New Mexican you'll have to learn tricks of that sort. Get your father to bring you out here some day, and I'll give you lessons in cowboy riding."

"Agreed! that would be great fun!" she exclaimed, smiling down at him, her eyes twinkling and the dimples dancing in and out of her cheeks. "We'll come out, won't we, daddy, after Miss Dent comes. I shall remember your promise, Mr. Conrad."

Curtis waved a last good-bye as they turned the corner of his corral, and went back to his desk and his interrupted mail. "A mighty good fellow Aleck Bancroft is," he said in a half-aloud tone. "He doesn't palaver a lot, but he makes you feel he's your friend. I wonder if I said too much about Delafield. That check had wound me up and I sure talked more than I meant to." Long hours of solitude out-of-doors with only a silent plain around him and a silent sky above are likely to make a man so yearn for the sound of a human voice, though it be only his own, that he falls into the habit of thinking aloud. Conrad had the social temperament and it had not taken the wide and silent spaces of earth and air long to engender in him the habit of making companionship out of his own speech.

He pulled thoughtfully at his sunburned moustache for a moment as he considered the matter. "It might have been just as well if I hadn't said so much," he went on aloud, "but he's close-mouthed and a good friend of mine. No, she didn't hear me-that's sure. How pretty she is when her eyes twinkle and her dimples come and go! I hope that wine will come in time for me to take her a bottle the next time I go to Golden. Well, I can call on her, anyway, and apologize because it hasn't. Hello! Here's a letter from Littleton! Has he got hold of something new about Delafield?"

"I was down in the northern part of your Territory last week on other business," he read, "and I happened to meet a man who is, I think, on the trail of the very same person we're after, though he's been working it from the other end. If I'm right about it, the man we want is now some prominent and respected citizen of New Mexico, and maybe some good friend-or enemy-of yours at this moment. The man I met is Rutherford W. Jenkins, of Las Vegas. You probably know him-"

"Sure! And know him to be a skunk!" Conrad exclaimed with a contemptuous snort.

"I couldn't get much out of him," the letter went on, "although I gave him a tip about the trail we're on and a little of Delafield's history as a bait. He snapped at it, and then began to dissemble his satisfaction, so I'm sure it is of value to him. But not even firewater would make him give up anything more. However, I feel pretty sure that he either knows already who Delafield is or expects soon to find out. I think he's working at it with an eye to the possibilities of blackmail of one sort or another. Perhaps if you see him yourself you can get something out of him."

Conrad's face glowed with satisfaction as he finished the letter. "The birds won't get a chance to make any nests in my hair this trip! I'll sashay up the line this very night and I'll find out who Delafield is from Jenkins, if I have to choke the life out of him to do it. God!" His vengeful desire glowed like a blue flame in his eyes. He jumped to his feet, stretched out his arms, and clenched his fists. "Sumner L. Delafield, it's getting time for you to say your prayers!"

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