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   Chapter 9 PERILS IN THE NIGHT

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 10000

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Red Jack and José Gonzalez joined the forces of the Socorro Springs ranch while the cattle of the morning's round-up were being driven to the watering-place near the ranch house. Across the road from the house stood a large grove of cottonwoods; a little beyond that, in the valley, a deep pond had been dug, into which flowed the outlets from the several springs. The cattle from a score of miles roundabout were accustomed to come to this pond, with its circling belt of trees, for water and for midday rest in the shade.

Here the round-up was in progress, and Conrad galloped out to meet the new hand and give him instructions. As he rode off toward the hills after a bunch of straggling cattle Curtis looked after him with an approving eye. "He knows how to fork a horse, at least," he thought. In the afternoon José was set to work cutting out and bunching the two- and three-year-old steers and later at helping with the branding. Conrad watched his handling of the branding irons, and he and all the rest stopped their work to follow his movements with critical eyes as he roped and brought to the ground a belligerent steer. The superintendent was well satisfied. "At last I've got a man who knows the business and has some sabe," he thought. "If he goes on as well as he begins I'll keep him after the shipping is done."

The next day the round-up crept slowly southward, accompanied by the chuck-wagon and a drove of fresh horses. At noon the cattle gathered during the morning were bunched at Adobe Springs, the next watering-place toward the Mexican border. Gonzalez was the only Mexican among the cowboys, the rest being Americans of one sort or another-from Texas, Colorado, the Northwest, and the Middle West. All felt toward him the contemptuous scorn born of difference in race and consequent conviction of superior merit. They had no scruples about making known their prejudice, and more than once his face flushed and his hand darted toward the knife hidden in his bosom. Yet, as the day wore on and they saw that he excelled the best of them in handling the lasso and in the cunning of his movements when cutting out the steers from the herd, they began to show him the respect that skill of any sort inspires in those who know with what effort it is acquired.

After supper, when they gathered about the campfire, smoking, and scoffing good-naturedly at one another's tales of wondrous experiences, and talking over the events of the day just gone, they received him upon an equality with themselves which was only slightly grudged. He told them, in English more precise than any of them could speak, of Conrad's encounter with Rutherford Jenkins in the Blue Front, and their appreciation of the tale completed the work which his skill as a cowboy had begun. Thereafter they looked upon José as a comrade and a good fellow.

Three small adobe houses, of one room each, with flat roofs and earthen floors, had been built here, as the large and never-failing springs made the spot a sure rendezvous for every round-up. The locality was infested by skunks, and the cowboys, who greatly feared midnight bites from the prowling animals, believing hydrophobia a sure consequence, usually preferred to sleep inside the houses, on bunks filled with alfalfa hay. If they ventured to sleep out-of-doors, they kept small cans of coal oil ready and, whenever a wakeful man saw one of the small creatures near, a quick turn of the wrist drenched its fur with the fluid and a brand from the smouldering campfire tossed after it sent a squealing pillar of flame flying up the hill and saved them from further disturbance that night.

A board nailed across a corner of the largest house served Conrad as a desk. He kept there a lamp, writing materials, and a few books. While the men sprawled around the campfire and the last gleams of dusky red faded from the west and the moon bounded up from behind the eastern hills, he made his memoranda, wrote a letter to be sent to the post-office by the first chance comer, and lost himself for an hour in a volume of Shakespeare. When he went outside the men were walking about, yawning and stretching, ready for sleep. Curtis's imagination was still astir from his reading, and the presence of any other human being seemed an impertinence. But he said, genially:

"Well, boys, you begin to look as if you wanted to turn in. Take whatever bunks you like, if you want to go inside. I'm going to sleep out here."

"Better have a tin of ile handy," said Red Jack. "The polecats are sure likely to nibble your toes if you don't. The night I slept here last week I never saw the cusses so bad; durned if one of the critters didn't get inside and wake me up smellin' of my ear. I was some skeered of him stinkin' up the place so it couldn't be slept in for a year, so I jest had to lay low and wait for him to go outside, and then I doused him good with ile and throwed the candle at him. I sure reckon he's holed up somewhere now, waitin' til

l he can afford a new sealskin sacque before he shows hisself in good sassiety ag'in."

"I don't think they'll bother me to-night," Curtis responded. At that moment he felt that nothing could disturb him, if only he could be left alone with the moonlight and the plain. "I'll sleep with my boots on, and my cheeks are not as fat as yours, Jack, so there'll be no temptation. Where do you want to bunk, José? You can sleep outside or in, just as you like."

Gonzalez replied respectfully that he would rather go in. But presently he came out again with his blanket and chose a spot against the wall of one of the houses. Conrad had gone out to the herd to speak with the man on patrol and to make sure that all was well. When he returned the men had disappeared. "Good!" he said to himself. "They've all gone inside and I've got the universe to myself." He did not see the still form in its gray blanket close against the wall.

Curtis took the red bandanna from his neck and tied it over his ears, to keep out the tiny things that crawl o' nights, and couched himself in his blanket on the gently rising ground with his saddle for a pillow. He lay down with his face to the east, where the dim and mellow sky, flooded with moonlight, seemed to recede far back, to the very limits of space, and leave the huge white globe suspended there in brooding majesty just above the plain. With long legs outstretched and muscles relaxed, he lay as still as if asleep, his eyes on its glowing disk. He knew all that science had discovered or guessed about the moon's character and history. But it had companioned him on so many a silent ride across long miles of dimly gleaming plain, and on so many nights like this as he lay upon the earth it had gathered his thoughts into its great white bosom, that he could not image it to himself as a mere dead and barren satellite of the earth. More easily could he understand how the living Cynthia had once leaped earthward and been welcomed with belief and love.

Conrad's mind busied itself at first with the play he had just been reading, but presently wandered to his own affairs and the purpose that had been the dominant influence of half his life. He chuckled softly as he remembered the check he had recently received. "I've got him on the run," he thought, "and I'm bound to lay him out sooner or later. Lord, but it will be a satisfaction to face him finally! And he'll not get the drop on me first, either, unless Providence takes as good care of rascals as they say it does of fools." He recalled himself now and then to listen to the sounds from the sleeping herd, to the hoof-beats of the horse as the cowboy on watch rode round and round the bunch, and to his voice singing in a lulling monotone. But gradually thought and will and sense sank back toward the verge of that great gulf out of which they spring.

When next he opened his eyes the moon was dropping toward the western horizon, but he had turned in his sleep and its light was still upon his face. Lying motionless, Curtis listened to the sounds from the herd, his first thought being that something unusual there must have awakened him. The coyotes were yelping at one another from hill and plain, but through their barking he could hear the snorting sigh of a steer turning in its sleep, the tramp of the horse, and the cowboy's lullaby. He recognized the voice as that of Peters, who was to have the third watch, and so knew that it must be well on toward morning. He was about to sink into slumber again when his gaze fell upon a small black and white animal nosing among some rocks near by. "Poor little devil! If it wakens any of the boys it will get a taste of hell out of proportion to its sins," he thought, and decided that he would drive it away before any one else discovered it. But the languor of sleep still held him and not a muscle moved as his eyelids began to droop. Then, through his half-shut eyes, he became conscious that something was moving, over against one of the houses, among the shadows. His eyelids lifted again and he saw the Mexican rise out of his blanket, look about, and in a crouching posture move stealthily toward him. Something in his hand glittered in the moonlight.

"It's José," thought Conrad. "He's coming for the skunk with a can of oil. Quick, or I'll be too late!" He sprang to a sitting posture and flung out one arm. As he did so he noticed with sleepy surprise that José was not facing toward the animal but was coming toward him. Then, before he had time to speak, the Mexican turned, a flying something shone in the moonlight like an electric flash, and Conrad's eyes, following the gleam, saw the little creature pinned to the ground with a long knife through its neck and the gray sand darkening with its blood.

"Why, José, that was a wonderful throw!" he exclaimed.

"Yes, se?or," the man replied quietly, as he stooped to draw out the knife and wipe it on the sand, "I am rather good at that sort of thing."

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