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   Chapter 7 TALK OF MANY THINGS

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 26651

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Golden prided itself upon being "the most American town in the Territory," but for all its energy and progressiveness it had not developed an ordinary regard for its own safety. After the mines which had given it birth had been worked out, it became the depot of supplies for the widespread miles of cattle country in the plains below, the mining regions in the mountains above, and the ranches scattered along the streams within a radius of fifty miles. As its importance increased a railway sought it out, the honor of being the county seat came to it, and the ruthless Anglo-Saxon arrived in such numbers and so energetically that its few contented and improvident Mexicans, thrust to one side, sank into hopeless nonentity. When Lucy Bancroft first set upon it the pleased eyes of youthful interest and filial affection, it was a busy, prosperous place of several thousand souls.

But it still clung to the gulch wherein had been the beginning of its life and fortune. All the houses of its infancy had been built along the stream that sparkled down from the mountains, and there the town had tried to stay, regardless of the floods that occasionally swept down the canyon during the Summer rains. At first its growth had been up and down the creek; afterward cross streets had been extended far out on either side, especially where gradual hill slopes gave easy grades, and roads had also been made lengthwise along the hillsides and even on their crests, where now a goodly number of homes looked out over the plains and down upon the town-filled valley at their feet.

Newcomers gazed curiously at the high sidewalks, raised on posts above the level of the thoroughfares, asking why, if there was such possibility of flood, the people continued to live and do business along the bottom of the gulch. The residents thought the walled sidewalks rather a good joke, a humorous distinction, and laughed at the idea of danger.

Lucy Bancroft's eyes grew wide and solemn as she listened to the tale Dan Tillinghurst told her of the first year he was in Golden, years before, when a mighty torrent roared down the gulch, carried away most of the houses, and drowned a dozen souls. "But the very next day," he added proudly, "the people began rebuildin' their houses on the identical sites from which they had been swept."

"Why didn't they rebuild on higher ground?" Lucy asked. "And aren't you afraid there will be another flood that will destroy all these houses and perhaps kill a great many people?"

"Oh, there's no danger now," he assured her confidently. "The climate's changin'. There's not nearly so much rain as there used to be. The creek is dry half the time nowadays, and in my first years here it never went dry at all. Just look at these flood-marks," and he pointed out to her on the side of the brick building that housed her father's bank the lines to which had risen the high waters of each Summer. She saw that those of recent years were all very low. "Yes," he assured her, "the climate's changin', there's no doubt of that. There won't be any more floods."

Between Lucy and the Sheriff a mutual admiration and good-fellowship had arisen, such as might exist between an elephant and a robin. The day after her arrival Tillinghurst had told Bancroft that his daughter was "the prettiest piece of dry goods that had ever come to Golden, and if he ever let her pull her freight he'd sure deserve nothin' less than tarrin' and featherin' at the hands of an outraged community."

Notwithstanding her confidence in the big Sheriff, Lucy did not like the idea of living in the gulch, and persuaded her father to build their home on the brow of the mesa overlooking the town from the west. She had no definite fear of the floods nor, after her first few weeks in the place, did she so much as think of danger from such a source. She liked the site on the mesa, although it was new and raw and treeless, because it commanded a far-reaching view, to the mountains on the west and north and, in front, across the town and the valley to the wide gray level of the plains.

She sat on the veranda of her new home with Miss Louise Dent, telling her friend what pleasure she was taking in its arrangement and direction. "At first daddy didn't want me to do it. He thought it would be too much care and responsibility for me, and that we'd better board. But I said if a girl eighteen years old wasn't old enough and big enough to begin to take care of her father she never would be, and so he gave up. And now! Well, you'll see how he enjoys our home! He just beams with happiness every time he comes into the house. And I'm perfectly happy. Daddy is so good, and it's such a pleasure to make things nice and comfortable for him!"

"I'm so glad," Miss Dent replied, "that you are happy here with him. He has had so many years of lonely wandering. And I know that he has long been looking forward to the time when you and he could have a home together. Your father hasn't had an easy life, dear. You could never guess all that he has been through. But he is a strong and determined man, and he's finally won success-just as I always knew he would. That's what I admire in him so much-that he never would give up." She stopped, a faint flush mounting to her brow. Lucy threw both arms around her neck and kissed her.

"Of course, Dearie," she exclaimed, "you must appreciate my father, for you've known him so long; but it makes me love you all the more to hear you say so-and oh, Dearie, I'm going to make such a beautiful home out of this place!" Lucy looked about, her girlish face glowing with proud and pleased proprietorship. "I know how new and barren it looks now, but just wait till I've been at work at it for a year!"

She went on to speak of her plans, asking Miss Dent's advice. In the back-yard the gaunt wings of a big windmill gave a touch of ultra modern picturesqueness and promised the fulfilment of the girl's hope of a lawn and flowers, trees and shrubbery, in the near future. A little conservatory jutted from the southern side of the house, while a deep veranda ran halfway across the eastern front and around the other two sides. The neutral, gray-green color of the structure melted into the hue of the hills and the surrounding mesa, leaving its barren newness less aggressive.

As they talked Lucy now and then cast a lingering glance down the street that climbed the hill from the town below, and Miss Dent thought that sometimes a shade of disappointment dimmed the bright face for an instant. She was twenty years Lucy's senior, although both looks and manner gave the lie to the fact. The loving friendship between them was one of those unusual ties between a younger and an older woman which, when they do occur, are apt to be marked by an overflowing measure of enthusiasm and loyalty. Louise Dent had been the intimate friend of Lucy's mother and, after her death, had given the bereaved girl such love and care and sympathy as had won her instant and ardent devotion, and the relationship thus established had grown stronger and closer as the years passed and Lucy matured into womanhood. The girl's enthusiastic affection had enabled her to find in Louise Dent intimate friend, elder sister, and mother combined. This complicated feeling making it impossible for her to address the elder woman by either formal title or first name, she had soon settled upon "Dearie" as a substantive term expressing their relationship, and "Dearie" Miss Dent had been to her ever since, whether between themselves or among her own intimate friends.

As the shadows grew longer and the hot white sunlight became less vivid, Lucy seemed to grow restless. She rose and moved about the veranda, or ran down into the yard and back upon some trivial errand, each time stopping on the steps to send an inquiring eye down the street. Standing there, when the afternoon was far spent and the fierce westerly wind had ebbed into a gentle breeze, she pointed out to Louise the statuesque sapphire mass of Mangan's Peak against the turquoise blue of the eastern sky, and told her of the drive thither and back she and her father had taken a fortnight before, and of their call at Socorro Springs ranch. "It's an interesting place," she went on; "such a huge ranch! Why, its grazing rights extend more than a hundred miles south, away across the Mexican border. Father knows the superintendent very well, and we'll get him to drive us out there some day." A higher color rose in her cheeks; she quickly turned away, drew her chair well back, and sat down. "There's Mr. Conrad, the superintendent, coming up the hill now!" she exclaimed. "Daddy told me at luncheon that he was in town."

Lucy bore her new role of hostess with a dignity so easy and gracious that it surprised Louise, and made Conrad think her more attractive than ever. Bancroft came a little later, and Curtis was urged to stay to dinner. Lucy showed him in her conservatory the collection of cactus plants she had begun to make and listened with eager interest while he gave her information about the growth of the species she already had, and told her where she could find others less common. She was anxious to have his opinion whether it would be possible to make a hedge of mesquite to replace the wooden paling around the yard; he did not know, but offered to help her try the experiment.

They dined on the side veranda, where Lucy, with the help of a screen or two and some plants from her green-house, had contrived an out-of-doors dining-room. The high spirits of the two younger people dominated the conversation, as they jested and bantered, laughed, and crossed wits in little wordy sword-plays that called forth applause and encouragement from the others. Lucy sparkled and dimpled, and her color rose, while Curtis's eyes darkened and flashed. Miss Dent, watching them, realized what an attractive young woman Lucy had grown to be, and how much she had blossomed out even in the few months since their last parting. "She will have plenty of admirers," the older woman thought, with a little twinge at her heart. Still, she was very young, and it would be a long time yet before she would think of marriage. But-if she were to marry and leave her father-he would be very lonely-perhaps-and then she felt her cheeks grow warmer, and hastened to resume her part in the conversation.

Louise was pleased with Conrad's face. It seemed full of character, with its broad brow, tanned cheeks, large nose, and well-set chin. She noted especially the strong, firm jaw and chin, saying to herself that they betokened a strength of will and constancy of purpose that foretold success in whatever he might undertake. He was amusing them with an account of the feud between the wives of the Castleton brothers.

"But don't the men take up the quarrels of their wives," Louise asked, "or allow any feeling to come between them?"

"Not in the least; nor does there seem to be any ill-feeling between the ladies. They are always good friends, and the men look upon the whole thing as a good joke. If Mrs. Turner, for instance, cooks up some new scheme for getting the better of Mrs. Ned, she tells her husband about it, he tells Ned, and they laugh over it and make bets about which will win."

Lucy was interested in the Castleton ladies. Conrad said that Mrs. Turner Castleton was considered a great beauty, but that he liked Mrs. Ned, who was half Mexican, much the better and thought her the more interesting and charming. She asked if they ever visited the ranch. "Yes," said Curtis; "Ned and his wife come up for a few days every Spring. This year they'll be there after the round-up is over and the cattle shipped. Would you like to meet them? All right, we'll arrange it. While they are there I'll get up a barbecue and a baile, and ask some people. You and Miss Dent and your father must all come."

The American in the Southwest, arrogant and contemptuous as the Anglo-Saxon always is when brought face to face with a difference in race, a difference in ideals, or a difference in speech, regards the Spanish language with frank disdain and ordinarily refuses to learn it. But where the Mexicans are present in large numbers, as in New Mexico, he adopts from the other's language a good many words which soon supplant their English equivalents. An evening party of any sort, whether a public dance in the town hall, a select affair in the house of a prominent resident, or a gathering in the Mexican quarter, is always a "baile," a thriftless, insignificant person of either race a "paisano," while upon "coyote" the American has seized with ready tongue, applying it to any creature, human or other, for which he wishes to express supreme contempt.

Miss Dent had to have baile explained to her, and their talk drifted to the subject of the Mexican people. Bancroft told her the story of the bold theft of Conrad's mare, the chase and capture of Melgares, and the wounding of Gaines. "It is thought that poor Jack cannot live," he said in conclusion, "and the Mexican is held in jail to await the result. If he dies the fellow will be tried for murder."

"I've heard a queer story about Melgares," said Conrad, and went on to tell how the Mexican had lost his little ranch. Lucy listened attent

ively, with indignant eyes fixed on Curtis's face.

"How shameful!" she broke out. "What a detestable way of getting money! The poor Mexicans! Just think of their being turned out of their homes in that way, with nothing to fall back on! I don't wonder poor Melgares became a thief-but he ought to have gone to Santa Fe and stolen Mr. Baxter's horses!"

Bancroft's eyes were fixed on his plate. Had the others been watching him closely they would have seen no more than a flicker of his eyelids as his face took on a stony impassiveness. But they were looking at Lucy who, with head erect, face flushed, and eyes sparkling, made a pretty picture.

"I'm glad you feel that way, Miss Bancroft," Curtis exclaimed, his face alight with approval and admiration. "I think myself it's about as despicable a way of getting money legally as man ever devised. Baxter knows when he loans the money that the poor wretches will never be able to pay back a cent of it. He wouldn't loan it to them if he thought they could, for it's their land he's after. I've heard that he's getting control in this way of a big tract in the Rio Grande valley and that he intends to form a company, advertise it through the East, and sell the land, which is really valuable, at big prices."

"Well, I think it's a shameful piece of business, and I'm surprised that Mr. Baxter is engaged in it!" said Lucy with decision.

"Before you condemn him so severely, daughter," interposed Bancroft, his eyes still lowered, "you should remember that the business of the loan mortgage companies has the full sanction of law and custom, and that many of the most reputable business men of the United States have engaged in it."

"I can't help it, daddy, if all the Congressmen and lawyers and business men, and preachers too, in the United States are engaged in it-that doesn't make it right. Somehow it seems a different matter with these poor Mexicans, they are so helpless. Why, it's almost like stealing their homes. I'm sorry, daddy, to speak so about Mr. Baxter, but that's really the way I feel about it; I suppose he doesn't realize what an injury he's doing them. Oh, daddy," and she leaned forward eagerly, her face flushing, "you and he are such good friends, maybe you could tell him what harm he's doing and persuade him to give up that part of his business!"

Conrad smiled grimly. "It's plain, Miss Bancroft," he said, without waiting for her father to reply, "that you are not intimately acquainted with Dell Baxter. I'm sorry about this Melgares business, for I can't help feeling a sort of responsibility. If the fellow is hung his family will be left destitute. Yes, he has a wife and four children," he continued in answer to Miss Dent. "I had a talk with him about the affair, and he asked me to send for his family for him. He had money with which to pay their fares, though where he got it probably wouldn't bear too close an inquiry."

Lucy was looking at him eagerly, her face full of sympathy. "The poor things!" she exclaimed. "When they come you must let me know, Mr. Conrad."

Bancroft abruptly changed the subject, and presently the talk drifted to a story that had just come out about the postmaster at Randall. "It's a characteristic New Mexican tale," said Curtis, turning to the ladies. "You'll soon find out, Miss Bancroft, if you don't know it already, that the cowboy song of 'What was your name in the States?' can often be applied in earnest."

"Confound the fellow," thought Bancroft irritably, "why is he always harping on that subject!"

"This is a particularly audacious case, though-don't you think so, Aleck?" Curtis went on. "Here this man has been living for several years in Randall, a respected citizen, holding office, with influence in the community, when, behold, it is discovered that just before coming here he had skipped from some town in Missouri, where he was postmaster, with all the money in his office and another man's wife. But his sin has finally found him out."

"It always does," observed Lucy coolly.

Louise Dent was conscious of a fluttering in her throat and realized that her heart was beating loudly. The moment's pause that followed seemed to her so long that she rushed into speech, without thought of what she said: "I'm afraid it does."

"Why do you say 'afraid,' Dearie?" asked Lucy, with surprise. "Isn't it right that it should?"

Louise made brief and noncommittal reply and Bancroft hurriedly asked Curtis how the round-up was getting on.

"Well, we've got the thing started, and are ready to move the cattle on the north part of the range toward Pelham. We'll begin shipping within two or three weeks. But something seems to have struck the cowboy market this year; I've been short of hands all the Spring."

"Perhaps I can give you some help," said Bancroft. "A Mexican from up North has been to me looking for work. He came the day you had the chase after Melgares and was in again to-day. He has worked for Baxter, and Dell says he is an expert cowboy and sure to give satisfaction."

"He must be an unusual sort of greaser if he's looking for work," laughed Conrad. "If he's that sort, I guess he'll strike my gait."

They found the Mexican sitting on the steps of the front veranda when they finished dinner.

"Why," exclaimed Curtis with hearty interest, "he's the same chap that told me my mare was stolen. I hope you can ride and throw a rope; I'm obliged to you already, and I'd like to do you a good turn. I'll meet you down town presently, and if you know anything about the business I'll take you behind me on my mare to the ranch to-night, and you can go to work in the morning."

The moon had just risen, and its huge white disk seemed to be resting on the plain only a little way beyond the town. Its brilliant silvery light was already working weird transformations in the landscape.

"Oh, are you going to ride home to-night, through this wonderful moonlight!" Lucy exclaimed. "How I envy you!"

"Yes," he answered, lowering his voice and speaking in a tone different from any she had before heard from his lips; "and it is indeed a wonderful ride! I don't know anything more impressive than the landscape of this country under a marvellous moon, like that over there. I hope we can have a ride by moonlight together, some time, when the moon is full. Does Miss Dent ride?" His voice went back to its usual tone. "I know your father is a fine rider. Perhaps we can make up a party some night, when I don't have to hurry home. I expect my brother here this Summer, to spend his vacation with me. You and Miss Dent will like him, I'm sure, for he's a fine lad. I hope we can all have some pleasant excursions together."

At the sound of his softened voice Lucy felt herself swept by sudden emotion, and hastily put her hands behind her lest he should see that they were trembling. And later that night, when she looked out from her window at the white moon floating in the violet sky, suddenly her nerves went a-quiver again and her eyes sought the far, dim plain as she softly whispered, "Under a marvellous moon, like that over there!"

The Mexican asked Bancroft how to reach the place where Conrad was to meet him, and the banker walked to the gate and pointed out the streets he was to follow. As he finished Gonzalez bent a keen gaze upon him and asked, significantly, "Has the se?or further instructions for me?"

Bancroft's start and the shade of annoyance that crossed his face as he realized that it had been noticed were not lost upon the man, whose searching look was still on him. His equanimity had been well tried already that evening, and this sudden touch upon a half-formed and most secret desire startled him for an instant out of his usual self-control. Heretofore he had merely dallied with the thought that Conrad's removal would mean his own safety, for the rest of his life. It had appeared to him merely as something the consequences of which would be desirable. His hand could not be concerned in it, he wished to know nothing about it-but if Baxter thought best-to further his own ends-why had the Mexican come to him with this impudent question?

"I'm not hiring you," was his curt answer.

"Certainly not, se?or," the man answered calmly, his head erect, his arms folded, and one foot advanced. The trio on the veranda noted and laughed over his attitude. Lucy said he looked like a hero of melodrama taking the limelight. Miss Dent added that he was handsome enough for a matinee idol, and Conrad declared that there was no telling how many se?oritas' hearts he had already broken. Bancroft turned to go back to the house, but paused an instant, and the Mexican quickly went on in a softly insinuating voice: "But if the se?or should wish to say anything particular? Don Dellmey thought it might be possible."

Bancroft lingered, flicking the ashes from his cigar. "I-I know nothing about it," he blurted out, uncertainly. "If Don Dellmey had anything to say to you I suppose he said it."

As he turned away he heard the man say gently, "Thank you, Se?or Bancroft. I shall not forget our talk." There was no reply, and the Mexican, whistling a Spanish love tune, disappeared down the hill in the weird mixed lights of the fading day and the brilliant moon.

Alone on the veranda, Alexander Bancroft walked restlessly to and fro, stopping now and again as if to listen to the music from within, which he did not hear, or to look at the moonlit landscape, which he did not see. Over and over he was saying to himself that he had no idea what Dellmey Baxter had said to this Mexican, and, whatever it was, he had distinctly told the creature that he knew nothing about it. The man had come to him recommended as an expert cowboy, he had passed the recommendation on to Conrad, and that was all there was about it.

Nevertheless, he knew he had reason to believe-the Congressman had intimated as much in his letter-that the man who called himself José Gonzalez was in reality Liberato Herrara, guilty of at least one murder and probably of others, whom Baxter's legal skill had saved from the gallows. Curtis had said that he should carry the man behind him to the ranch that night. Before Bancroft's inward eye a sudden vision opened: wide miles of silent plain, a great white moon hanging low in the sky, a long stretch of deserted road, and then two men on a single horse-and the light gleaming on a long knife! He shuddered as the blade flashed, and turned his face away from the plain. Then, as there came to him a sudden sense of tremendous relief, with breath and thought suspended he turned slowly, fascinatedly, and with greedy eyes searched the distant plain, as if eager to find in it some proof, at last, of his own safety.

Lucy's voice rose in a gay little song above the piano and fell upon his ears. With a deep, long-drawn breath his thought leaped out and seized upon all that freedom from Curtis Conrad's pursuit would mean for him. José Gonzalez would sink out of sight, and Liberato Herrara would be back in his own home, unsuspected and silent. Some excitement would follow, search would be made, a body would be found in a mesquite thicket,-and then the interest would die out, and there would be only another grewsome tale of mystery to be added to the hundreds already told through the Southwest. And he-Alexander Bancroft-would be safe-secure in fortune and reputation and the love and honor of his daughter as long as they should live.

The music within ceased and Lucy's voice rippled out in girlish laughter. His heart sank as he seemed to hear again her hot denunciation of Baxter's loan and mortgage operations. "I'll sell out to Dell and she'll never know I've had anything to do with it," he thought. Then there came ringing through his memory, as he had heard them so many times since they rode home from the Socorro Springs ranch, her passionate words, "He must have been a wicked man," and "I should hate him, with all my strength," and again his longing face turned impulsively toward the plain.

"I'd kill him myself, rather than let her find out," he whispered, with teeth set. "And a man has got to protect himself out here!" his urgent thought went on. "I'll be a fool if I don't stop him before he gets his chance at me!" With a sudden stirring of conscience he remembered that this man whose death he was so ardently desiring was his friend and trusted his friendship. "I-I don't want him stuck in the back," he muttered. "I might warn him. He may not have started yet."

He walked uncertainly toward the veranda steps. There was a flutter of white drapery and Lucy was laying an affectionate hand on his arm. "Oh, daddy dear," she coaxed, "won't you come in and try this duet with us? Dearie will play the accompaniment for us to sing. She brought it to me, and I'm dying to try it."

"Yes, if you wish it, daughter," the banker replied, hesitation in his voice, "but I was thinking of going down town." He saw the shade of disappointment that crossed her face, and drew her hand into his arm. "It doesn't matter," he went on, "and I would rather stay at home." To himself he said as they moved to the door, "Conrad has gone by this time, and, anyway, I've no reason to think this Mexican intends to do him any harm."

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