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   Chapter 3 MISTAKE, OR BLUNDER

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 14471

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


With eager pleasure Conrad gazed from his car window the next morning at the narrow bright ribbon of verdure with which the Rio Grande pranks itself on its southward course through New Mexico. The unkempt fields, the orchards and meadows, and the softened and caressing sunlight were as balm to his eyes, accustomed to the pale, grim southern plain and its fierce white sunshine. As the train rushed northward along the banks of the muddy stream, he looked at the little adobe houses, wondering how long these peaceful Mexican homes could withstand the pressure of the dominant American. He became aware that the men behind him were discussing the same question.

"It will be only a few years," one of them was saying, "until this rich valley with all this water for irrigation will be in American hands."

"The greasers are safe enough," said his companion, "until they begin to borrow on mortgages. Then their fate is settled."

"I heard the other day," responded the first, "that Dell Baxter's been corralling a lot of mortgages on the land hereabouts."

The other chuckled. "You bet. Dell ain't the man to let a little chance like this slip by him. These paisanos look on him as a sort of 'little father' and borrow money of him with utter heedlessness of the day of reckoning. He jollies them along and tells 'em they're good fellows and hard workers, and he's sure they'll be able to pay when the time comes. Of course they never pay back a blessed peso, and Baxter gets the ranch. I'll bet it won't be long till he'll be exploiting a big land improvement company and selling these 'doby farms for ten times what they cost him."

The talk of the two men drifted into politics, and presently Conrad heard them discussing Bancroft's loyal support of Baxter for Congress. "He's got to do it," said one of them. "Dell's been loaning him money and taking mortgages until Bancroft couldn't do anything else if he wanted to. Dell knows that Bancroft's support is a mighty important asset on account of the confidence people have in him, and Dell's been careful to cinch it good and tight."

As Curtis bought an Albuquerque morning paper from the train-boy he thought indignantly, "That's all poppycock! Aleck's got too much grit to let anybody throttle him with a few dirty pesos. Hullo! What's this about Jenkins?" His eye had caught the name of the man he wished to see in a column of local news. As he read, "Rutherford W. Jenkins came down from Las Vegas yesterday and is stopping at the Metropolitan," his face shone with satisfaction. "Good luck!" he thought. "We'll be in Albuquerque in half an hour, and I'll go for my man like a steer on the prod!"

At the hotel he found Jenkins, with a number of other men, smoking and talking on the porch. He did not expect to be remembered, for they had met only once, months before. But Jenkins came forward with his hand outstretched in greeting. "How do you do, Mr. Conrad! You don't get up to this part of the Territory very often; but we're always glad to see you."

"Thank you, Mr. Jenkins. I've come this time especially to see you, and as soon as you have a moment or two to spare I'd like a private conversation."

"Certainly! With pleasure! Just excuse me for a minute, will you, till I finish up the business I have with these men, and then we'll go up to my room."

Conrad waited, tense and expectant, the quite apparent fact that Jenkins was engaged in mere desultory chat and story-telling increasing his irritation at the delay. He had jumped to the conclusion that Jenkins knew who Delafield was, and his breath came short and chokingly at the thought that in a few minutes he, too, would know. To know would be to act. His revolver was in his hip-pocket, and he intended to go straight from the interview to that meeting which for half his years had been the one goal of his thought. He glanced at Jenkins, saying to himself, "He looks like a weasel, and I reckon he is just enough of one to have wormed around and worked this thing out." Jenkins was tall, slender, and slightly stooped, his face long and thin, with its salient features crowded too close together. "I reckon he knows, all right," Conrad's thought went on, "and he'll tell me if I make the inducement big enough-he'd do anything for money!"

Under cover of the conversation Jenkins had been doing his share of rapid thinking, prolonging the talk for that very purpose. He was putting together, with the acumen of a man in whom detective processes are a natural endowment, enough facts to convince him of the reason for Conrad's visit, considering the while just what he should do. He felt sure that he must expect a direct question about Delafield's identity, but he put off decision upon his response until he should hear the inquiry.

"Now, Mr. Conrad, we'll go straight up to my room," he said cordially, laying a familiar hand upon the other's shoulder. Curtis shrank back a little, falling behind with a promptitude that left no doubt of his intention to keep the interview entirely formal. Jenkins licked his lips with an unwholesome smile, and led the way in silence. As the door closed behind them, Conrad became aware of an increase of repugnance toward this man so great that the necessity of dealing with him was an irritation.

"Well, Mr. Conrad," said Jenkins, cheerfully, giving the other no time to state his mission, "I hear you are putting in some good licks for Johnny Martinez down in Silverside. What do you think of his chances down there? Pretty good, aren't they?"

"Yes, I think so," Curtis replied curtly; and plunged into his own affair. "I have understood, Mr. Jenkins, from my friend Mr. Littleton, of Chicago, whom you met last week, that you are interested in a matter of prime importance to me, and that you have some information I want to get hold of."

"Oh, yes; I remember meeting Littleton last week," Jenkins broke in. "A good fellow, too. So he's a friend of yours, is he? Yes; he and I scraped up quite a friendship and had a good time together. But say, Conrad, the amount of throat varnish that man can stand is something amazing!"

Curtis straightened himself in his chair impatiently. "He wrote me that he had some conversation with you about Sumner L. Delafield, formerly of Boston, but now, I have reason to believe, living here in New Mexico under an assumed name."

"Yes; I believe we did have a little talk about Delafield," Jenkins interrupted again. "But I'll have to confess," he went on jocularly, "that my mental condition wasn't perfectly clear and it's likely my remarks were a little foggy too. But I recall that we did have some conversation about the Delafield affair. Littleton had some personal interest in Delafield's failure, didn't he?"

"No; all the work he has done on the case has been for me. I have considerable interest in it."

"Have you, indeed? Now, this is a coincidence! For some time past I've been a good deal interested in that matter myself. I suppose you were roped into some of his schemes?"

For a moment Curtis took counsel with himself upon what and how much he should say, only to thrust back his repulsion against saying anything at all to this man and plunge frankly into his narra

tive. With the utmost brevity he told of his father's ruin and of his own trailing of the culprit through so many years. Of his motives he said nothing, and of his work in tracking Delafield no more than was necessary. Few, even of his best friends, knew anything about the secret scheme of vengeance he had nursed from boyhood. Even Littleton, the detective who had aided him in the quest, did not know that he wanted to face Delafield for any reason other than to demand restitution.

Having briefly outlined his story, Conrad went on to say that Littleton had led him to think that Jenkins must be engaged in the same search, and suggested that an exchange of their discoveries might be for their mutual benefit.

Jenkins listened with evident interest, asking questions here and there concerning certain points in the other's long chase of the fugitive. "Yes; you've done very well, Conrad," he said, admiration in his voice, "very well indeed. That was a damned crooked trail and you've done a fine piece of work in following it through."

Curtis gnawed his moustache and frowned. Jenkins's evasive speeches were increasing his irritation and repugnance almost beyond his control. "The amount of the matter is," he burst out, "I've got the notion that you know who Delafield is, and I'm willing to pay you for the information. I shall undoubtedly be able to find out for myself if I keep at it a little longer, but it happens that I want to know at once. If you know positively who he is, I am willing to pay you three hundred dollars for the knowledge."

Jenkins walked to the window and stood there silently. He was weighing one thing against another, and deciding whether he should tell the whole truth, a part of it, or none at all. Presently he said to himself that a bird in the hand to-day is worth a whole flock that may be in the bush to-morrow.

"Before I decide about your offer, Mr. Conrad," he began cautiously, "there are two or three things I would like to know. You are doing some good work for Martinez for Congress, I understand."

"The best I can," answered Curtis with surprise.

"Well, as you know, I am warmly in his favor myself. I want to get him the support of as many leading men in the Territory as possible. This man Delafield is one of Baxter's influential lieutenants, and I particularly want to win him over to Martinez. You, I happen to know, have some influence with him."

A nervous start betrayed the strain Conrad was under, and an eager look lighted his face. Jenkins saw it, smiled blandly, and inwardly decided to demand another hundred dollars. "It has occurred to me," he went on, "that you might be able to influence him when I couldn't. Combine this leverage with your friendship, and I believe almost anything is possible. If I let you have this information will you agree to use it and your influence in such a way as to induce him to join in with Johnny Martinez?"

The look that blazed in Conrad's eyes, coupled with the same involuntary shrinking movement that he had made in escaping Jenkins's hand at the foot of the stairway, showed the rapid ebbing of his self-control. Jenkins noticed both look and movement, and a gleam of angry resentment flashed into his dark eyes. But it was quickly repressed, as he suavely asked, "Well, what do you say?"

"I don't know that I can promise," said Curtis, stiffly, "that my influence would count as much as that. Possibly it will be enough to keep him from supporting Dellmey Baxter. Yes," he went on with a grim look, "I think I can assure you he will be neutral through the rest of this campaign."

"That might perhaps be satisfactory," said Jenkins meditatively, inwardly deciding to raise the price another hundred dollars in lieu of the aid for Martinez. "But if that is all you're sure of doing I shall have to ask more money for the information. It has cost me a great deal of time and effort, and if I can't bring about this result with it I must repay myself some other way. I will tell you what you want to know, Mr. Conrad, if you will give me five hundred dollars and your promise to do your best to get him to support Martinez."

"That is what I said I could not do; and you are asking more money because I could not promise it."

"Well, then, if you will promise to induce him to remain neutral during this campaign."

"Yes; I will promise that, and I will give you the five hundred dollars."

"Very well; it's a bargain."

Curtis wrote his check for that sum on the First National Bank of Golden. Jenkins examined the bit of paper, folded it away in his pocket-book, rubbed his hands, and smiled at Conrad.

"You will be surprised," he said, "when you hear the man's name. He is well known to you, and he is universally regarded, all over New Mexico, as a model citizen, as square and honest as any man in the Territory-and much more so than most of them."

"Yes?" said Conrad, rising and reaching for his hat.

"Yes, you will be astonished, I promise you," Jenkins went on, rising and facing Curtis, still smiling and rubbing his hands together in satisfaction. "For Sumner L. Delafield, the fugitive from justice,"-he began speaking slowly and impressively,-"the absconding defaulter, the man who sank the fortunes of hundreds of people, the man who had to hide in Canada and slink around in out-of-the-way places for so many years, is now known as"-there was a brief pause to give his revelation its fullest dramatic effect-"is now known in New Mexico as Alexander Bancroft, president of the bank on which your check is drawn."

Conrad started, and his attitude of eager attention stiffened. For an instant half a dozen Jenkinses seemed to be whirling about the room. Out of the repugnance, contempt, and anger boiling in his veins shot a definite idea,-the desire to choke the man who had said this thing about his best friend. He leaped forward, seized Jenkins by the collar, and shook him as if he had been a ten-year-old boy. Although his arms were flying hither and yon Jenkins grabbed wildly for the pistol in his pocket. Curtis saw the movement, and with his left hand seized the butt. As he pulled it out Jenkins caught its barrel; but with a twist of his right arm and a jerk with his left Conrad wrested the gun from the other's hand and threw it under the bed.

His face white and his eyes blazing, he grasped Jenkins by the shoulders and jammed him against the wall until the windows rattled. With two quick, backward strides he gained the door. Opening it with a hand stretched behind him, Curtis spoke with deliberate emphasis, pointing his words with a menacing forefinger:

"Rutherford Jenkins, you are the damnedest liar and vilest skunk that ever made tracks in New Mexico, and if you ever tell that lie about Bancroft to another living soul I'll wring your neck!"

Jenkins sprang toward the door, but as it closed from without he stooped, shook himself together, and swore under his breath. He took out the check, and chuckled. "I'll get it cashed before he changes his mind," he thought. Then a wave of anger and resentment rolled over him and he shook an impotent fist at the closed door. "Damn him!" he said aloud, "I'll get even with him yet."

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