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   Chapter 10 BY A HAIR’S BREADTH

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 16979

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Curtis Conrad rode to the farther side of a hill sloping gently northeast of the houses as the outfit was getting under way the next morning. He remembered having seen there a rather uncommon species of cactus, and he thought to make sure of it in order to secure a specimen for Lucy Bancroft's collection when next he should pass that way on a homeward trip. José Gonzalez noted his action and presently, when a steer broke wildly from the herd and ran back, it was José who dashed after it. But, instead of heading it off and driving it back, he so man?uvred that he contrived to get it around the hill behind which he had seen Conrad disappear. The superintendent was digging busily in the ground with his pocket-knife, having decided to take up the plant and leave it in the house in readiness for his return journey.

Assured that the rest of the outfit was out of sight beyond the hill, Gonzalez left the steer to its own devices and galloped straight toward and behind the kneeling figure, his long knife drawn but concealed against his leg. Conrad's attention was engrossed in what he was doing and his thoughts were all of Lucy Bancroft, of how pleased she would be to get this rare specimen, and of how necessary it would be for him to help her plant it. José checked his horse into a walk and leaned forward, his eyes fastened on the other's back, his knife lying half hidden in his palm. On the soft ground the hoof-beats of the horse made little sound and their faint, unresounding thud was masked by the noises from the moving herd.

Gonzalez drew rein within a few yards of his object and lifted his arm, with the knife balanced in his hand. At that instant the steer bellowed, and Curtis leaped to his feet, on the alert at once lest something had gone wrong with the herd. He saw the single steer and, wheeling around to look for others, his glance took in the Mexican, swerving his horse down the hill and deftly returning the knife to his belt. "Are you after the steer, José?" he called. "Is that the only one loose?"

"Yes, se?or. The rest are all right. This one has given me a chase, but I'll have him back right away."

"Stop a minute, José. Would you mind letting me use your knife? Mine's too short and I haven't anything else."

Gonzalez rode up, dismounted, and held out the knife with a courteous smile. As he stood back with one leg forward, arms folded, and head held high, Curtis thought him an image of dashing, picturesque, masculine comeliness. "José," he said, "how did you get such skill in throwing the knife? I never saw anybody do the trick better than you did it last night. I shouldn't like to have you," and he smiled as he returned the weapon, "aim this thing at me as you did at that polecat."

An answering smile flashed over José's dark face, lighting up his eyes and showing a row of white teeth beneath his moustache. "I have practised it much, se?or. It is not easy."

The next day, Conrad, Gonzalez, and several others were getting together some cattle in the foot-hills when three of the largest steers broke away and raced wildly back toward their grazing grounds. The superintendent called the Mexican to help him, and told the others to take the remainder of the cattle, with all they might find on the way, back to the day herd.

Two gallant figures they made as they galloped across the plain, the wind blowing up the wide brims of their hats, the grace and freedom of strength and skill in every movement of body and limb. Lariats were at their saddle horns, and Curtis carried a six-shooter in his belt, but Gonzalez had only his knife, thrust into his boot leg. They circled and headed off the steers, which eluded and dashed past them again and again, until presently Conrad noticed that the largest of the three acted as a sort of leader. "Rope him, José," he called, "and then we can manage the others."

As Gonzalez in response came galloping toward the animal from one side, Curtis rushed past it on the other to prevent it from getting away and giving another chase. He glanced at the loop that came whirring through the air and his heart gave a bound of vexation. "The fool greaser is throwing too far," he muttered. With an instinct of sudden peril he dug in his spurs and his horse made a quick, long leap. He whirled about in time to see the snakey noose fall on the spot whence they had jumped.

"What's the matter with you, José?" he shouted. "You nearly roped me instead of the steer! Try it again." Gonzalez coiled his rope and galloped after the steer and half an hour later the two men rode into the round-up, driving the panting and humbled animals.

One of the younger and less experienced men, Billy Black, generally known as "Billy Kid," happened to lame his horse and bruise himself that day, and was ordered to stay in camp to nurse his knee. At Rock Springs, where they made camp next day, a man who gave his name as Andy Miller rode up and asked for a job. He explained that he had been working on a little ranch over toward Randall but had got tired of the place and was pushing for the railroad. Hampered by Billy Black's accident, Conrad was glad of the opportunity and tested his skill with horse and rope.

"You'll do," he said. "I'm short of hands, and you can stay with us until we get to the railroad if you like."

The new man was stockily built, and looked strong and agile. Around the campfire that night he won his way at once into the good graces of the other men, cracking jokes, telling stories, and roaring out cowboy songs until bedtime. They were so hilarious that Conrad joined their circle, smoked his after-supper pipe with them, and laughed at Miller's jokes and yarns.

The Rock Springs watering-hole was in a hilly region, broken here and there by stony gulches. The outflow from the springs ran through a ravine which furrowed the hillside to its foot, turned abruptly westward, and widened out into a goodly pool, where the cattle waded and drank. The camp lay on the hillside above the springs, and the cattle were bunched over its brow on the other side.

Conrad wakened early and an inviting image came to him of that pool, lying still and clear in the dim gray light, untroubled by the miring hoofs of the cattle. No one else, except the Chinese cook, busy with his breakfast fire, seemed to be awake, and no one stirred as Curtis moved down the hill, past the springs, and over the rise beyond. But Gonzalez, motionless in his blanket, watched his departure. And presently, when the cook had disappeared in the chuck-wagon, José rose, cast a cautious glance over the sleeping camp, and followed Conrad, taking advantage of occasional boulders, clumps of mesquite, greasewood, and yucca to conceal his movements. At the springs he turned down the gulch, following its course to the basin of the drinking hole, where he hid behind a great boulder, barely ten feet from the bank where lay the other's clothing.

With wary eyes he watched while the superintendent waded out to the deepest part of the pool, ducked and splashed, swam a little, and presently returned to the shore. Through the brightening air the lean and sinewy body with its swelling muscles gleamed like rose-tinted marble below the tanned face and neck. Behind the boulder José crouched closer and drew the knife from his belt, while his body grew tense as he watched Conrad rub himself down and put on his clothes.

"Will he never keep still a second?" Gonzalez asked himself impatiently, as he poised his knife. Curtis sat down on a flat stone and reached for his shoes and stockings, whistling a gay little melody from the last comic opera he had heard in San Francisco.

A sound of shouting and the muffled noise of rushing cattle broke through the morning air, which had been as still and untroubled as the surface of the pool. Conrad, his music silenced and nerves alert, faced quickly toward the camp, turning his body from the waist upward and giving Gonzalez a fair three-quarters view of his torso.

The Mexican, ready and waiting, seized an instant of arrested motion, and sent the poised weapon straight for his heart. As it left José's hand, the stone on which Curtis sat, yielding to the twisting motion of his body, slipped under him, and he threw out his left arm to preserve his balance. He was aware of something bright cleaving the air, of a sudden pain in his arm, and a stinging point in his side. But before his brain could realize what had happened,

he saw José Gonzalez leap from behind the boulder and rush toward him, befouling the air with a string of Spanish oaths.

Conrad sprang to his feet and wheeled, with right fist ready to meet the attack, before José could reach him. The Mexican flew at him with both arms outstretched, meaning to seize his throat and throttle him before he could comprehend his danger. Curtis saw the open guard and landed a blow on his chest which sent him staggering backward. But he returned at once, with left arm raised in defence and right hand ready to seize the other's shirt collar and choke him senseless.

For a moment only was Conrad at a disadvantage by reason of the suddenness of the assault. But with the knife still bedded in his bleeding and helpless left arm, his only weapon was his right fist, which he must use for both defence and attack. The Mexican's eyes were fired with the passion of combat, and the other, ignorant of why they were fighting, knew only, by his blanched face and set jaws, that his purpose was deadly.

Gonzalez, after that first blow upon his chest, was wary. He danced around Conrad, making feints and trying to get inside his guard. But Curtis, whose brain was working in lightning-like flashes, did not waste his strength pounding the air. He kept his assailant eluding his feints and jumping to escape pretended charges, thinking to wear him out in that way. He soon saw that he was the superior in boxing skill, as well as being both taller and heavier than his foe, and he began to feel assured of final victory, notwithstanding his useless hand and disabled arm.

José's effort was constantly toward Conrad's left side, and Curtis guessed that he was trying to get possession of the knife still sticking in his arm. He knew that if Gonzalez recovered that weapon his chance of life would be small indeed. His bare feet were bleeding from the sharp little stones on the bank of the pool, but he was conscious neither of that nor of pain in arm or side, though the blood from his wound was making a red streak down his shirt and trousers. But he continued to hear, with a kind of divided consciousness, the sound of shouts, the rushing of cattle, and the hoofs of galloping horses. In the back of his brain he knew that there had been a stampede of the herd, and with attention absorbed in his fight for life, the thought that he was needed at the camp spurred him on to more desperate effort.

José made a dash for his left side, but Curtis turned and with all his force sent a blow which caught the Mexican, intent on the knife, with shoulder unguarded. Gonzalez spun half round and reeled backward. Conrad had planted one foot on a rounding stone, and as he delivered the blow it slipped and sent him headlong. He was up again in an instant, barely in time to save himself from José's fingers, which clutched at his throat. But Gonzalez had got inside his guard and they gripped, the one with one arm and the other with two, for what each felt must be the final struggle. The American caught José's left arm between their two bodies and, reaching around him, grasped the other wrist in his right hand. They swayed back and forth, José exerting all the strength of his muscles to free his arms, while Conrad, gripping him close, used all the remnant of his strength to throw him down.

By this time the Mexican's eyes were gleaming with an ugly light and his olive cheeks were flushed with anger. Whatever the purpose that had moved him at first, Curtis saw that he was fighting now with the aboriginal rage of conflict, with the fierce hate born of the blows he had received. He kicked wildly at the superintendent's shins and accidentally planted the heel of his boot squarely upon the other's bare foot. Conrad's face twitched with the hurt, and with a snarling grin Gonzalez lifted the other for similar purpose, forgetting shrewd tactics of battle in the lust of giving pain to his opponent. But Curtis caught the momentary advantage of unstable balance and with a twist and a lunge they came down together, Conrad's left shoulder striking against a stone beside which the Mexican fell. Thrilling with the surety of triumph, his enemy pinned to the ground, Curtis was barely conscious of a snapping in his shoulder and a sharp pain in his collar bone. With one knee on Gonzalez's chest, he pulled the knife from his left arm, broke it across the boulder, and threw the bloodstained pieces far out into the pond. His assailant was at his mercy now and the heat and anger of combat ebbed from his veins as he looked down at the Mexican's unresisting figure.

"You have bested me this time, Don Curtis," said Gonzalez quietly.

"Get up, José," replied Conrad rising, and the two men, panting from their conflict, faced each other. José stood with his arms folded and head erect and looked at his employer with unafraid eyes, in which smouldered only the traces of his recent rage. Conrad surveyed him thoughtfully for a moment before he spoke.

"José, what did you do it for?"

The Mexican smiled but made no reply.

"Have you got anything against me?" Conrad persisted. "Do you think I've mistreated you or injured you in any way?"

"No, se?or, I have nothing against you."

"Then what-by God, are you one of Dell Baxter's thugs? Has he sent you down here to stick me in the back?" Impelled by the flash of sudden conviction, Conrad thrust his face close to the other's and glared into his eyes. Gonzalez stepped back a pace and looked gravely across the hill at the reddening sky. His composed face and closely shut lips showed that he did not intend to answer.

"Oh, all right!" Curtis exclaimed. "I don't expect you to peach on your pal. But I reckon I've sure struck the right trail this time. And look here, José! Was it me you were after when you stuck your knife in that skunk?"

The Mexican's eyes fell and his black brows met in a frown. He was thinking how much trouble this man had given him by springing up so unexpectedly that night. But for that it would all have been so easy and simple!

"I reckon it was!" Conrad went on hotly. "And I reckon it was me instead of the steer you rode after the next morning, with your knife ready when I looked up. And I reckon it was me instead of the steer you tried to rope when you made that remarkable miss. I've been a fool to trust a damned greaser, even when he was in plain sight. But look here, José Gonzalez!" Conrad stopped and glared into the Mexican's sombre and inscrutable eyes. Holding his bleeding left arm in his right hand he leaned forward, head thrust out and eyes blazing.

"Just you look here, José Gonzalez!" he repeated. "I'm onto your little game now, and if I can't be a match for any greaser that ever tried to stick a man in the back, I'll deserve all I'll get! Just come on and try it again whenever you like! Keep at work with the round-up if you want to-I'm not going to give you your time for this. But I am going to write to Dell Baxter that I'm onto his scheme and that the minute you make another crack at me there'll be a bullet in your brain-and another in his as soon as I can get to Santa Fe to put it there, and that he'd better call you off if he wants to save his own skin. But if you can get me without my catching on first you're welcome, that's all!"

The rush of running cattle swept across their preoccupied ears, and both men turned to see a dozen steers sweep past the other end of the pond and up the hill.

"Quick, José! Help me head them off and turn them into the pond!" Conrad exclaimed as he started off in his bare feet. His long strides covered the distance quickly, and with hoots and yells and waving arm he soon turned their course down the hillside toward the water. Gonzalez was close behind, and together they man?uvred the frightened beasts to the pond, where the animals forgot their panic, waded in quietly, and began to drink.

"José," said the superintendent, as he sat down at the water's edge and began to bathe his muddy, bleeding feet, "I shall not mention this affair to any one here. I'll say that a steer horned me just now. I've broken my collar bone, I think, and I've got this cut in my arm, and I'll have to go to Golden at once to get patched up. When I come back I want you to remember what I just told you about getting daylight through your skull if you try any of your tricks on me again. There comes Red Jack after these cattle. Go and help drive them back to camp."

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