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   Chapter 11 BATTLING THE ELEMENTS

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 19303

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The shadows of the little rolling hills still sprawled across the intervening valleys when Curtis Conrad started back at a gallop over the road which his outfit had been slowly traversing for four days. To his foreman, Hank Peters, he had said that he had been thrown and gored by a steer and must go to Golden to have his collar bone set, and ordered him to stay where he was, cutting out and branding, that day and night, and camp the day after at Five Cottonwoods, where he would rejoin them.

The men puzzled and gossiped about the accident to their employer. "I don't see how it was possible," said Peters, "for such a thing to happen to a man that's got the boss's gumption about cow-brutes."

"None of 'em was on the prod when I got to the pond," Red Jack declared. "José, you was with him. Did you see the scrimmage?"

"I did not see the boss when he was down," Gonzalez replied in his precise, slightly accented English. "I was at the spring and heard him yell and I ran down to the pond at once, for I thought he needed help. I stumbled and fell and sprained my shoulder-it hurts me yet-so that when I reached the pond he was on his feet again and trying to drive the cattle into the water. I helped him and then we went back to where his shoes were. That was where Jack saw us. His arm bled a good deal there."

"Somethin' happened," observed Hank Peters, "and if the boss says it was a steer on the prod, I sure reckon it was. But the thing that's troublin' me most is what started them critters off. I didn't see or hear a blamed thing likely to set 'em goin'. Did any of you?"

"I didn't," Texas Bill spoke up; "but Andy was there first. Did you see what it was, Andy?"

Andy Miller, the new hand, stopped to draw several deep whiffs from his newly lighted pipe before he replied. "No; I couldn't make out anything, and I was right at the edge of 'em, too. They jumped and started all at once, as crazy as I ever see a bunch of critters."

"Mebbe you skeered 'em some, they not bein' used to you," suggested Billy Kid.

Andy grinned. "Well, I sure ain't boastin' none about the beauty of my phiz, but no gal ain't told me yet that I was ugly enough to stampede a herd of cow-brutes," and the subject was dropped with the laugh that followed.

Conrad's mare, larger and of better breed than the cow ponies, put the ground rapidly under her feet throughout the early morning. Though never trained for range work and used only for riding, he always took her on the round-up, in readiness for emergencies. His habit of talking to himself, engendered by much solitary riding, was often varied by one-sided conversations with the mare, and whatever the subject which occupied his thoughts and found fragmentary utterance in speech, his sentences were interspersed with frequent remarks to Brown Betty. Apparently she found this custom as companionable as he did, for she was sure to protest at a long period of silence.

"So, ho, my pretty Brown B.," said Conrad gently, as he patted the mare's sleek neck, "that's the pace to give 'em!" A sharp twinge in his shoulder set his lips together, and an oath, having Congressman Baxter as its objective, came from between his teeth. "I'll write that damned Baxter a letter," he broke out savagely, "that will singe his eyelashes when he reads it!"

His thoughts went back to the subject which so frequently occupied them-his lifelong, vengeful quest of the man who had despoiled his father, wrought destruction upon their home, and changed the current of his own life. His heart waxed hot as he recalled his interview with Rutherford Jenkins. Never for an instant had he doubted that Jenkins's statement was a deliberate lie. Smiling grimly, he stroked the mare's mane. "I was a fool, wasn't I, Betty, to suppose I'd get straight goods out of him. It cost me five hundred dollars to find out that he's a skunk,-which I knew before. I deserved all I got, didn't I, Betty, for not having more gumption."

The frontiersman's caution, which grows almost instinctive in one who rides much alone over plain and mountain, sent his eyes now and again to search the long stretch of road that trailed its faint gray band across the hills behind and before him and to scan the sun-flooded reach from horizon to horizon. A red stain accentuated the meeting line of sky and plain in the west.

"Betty Brown, do you see that red mark yonder?" he said, gently pulling her ear. "That means a sand-storm, and we've got to hike along at a pretty stiff pace while we can. What do you think about it, my lady?" The mare raised her head and gave a little snort. "Smell it, don't you?" he went on as he patted her approvingly. "Well, that's where you're smarter than I am, for I reckon I shan't be able to do that for another hour."

He fell silent again, thinking of the Delafield matter and Jenkins's assertion that Bancroft was Delafield. "He sure knows who Delafield is," was his conclusion, announced aloud, "but he's not going to tell. He's probably blackmailing the man, whoever he is, and he won't take any chances that would be likely to spoil his income. Well, that proves that Delafield is somebody in New Mexico rich enough and prominent enough to make it worth while for Jenkins to keep his knowledge to himself. I've got that much for my five hundred, anyway. Lord, Betty, wasn't I a tenderfoot!" and he swore under his breath, half angrily, half amusedly, as he turned again to study the road and the plain. The heat haze was rising, and the clear white sunlight was master of earth and sky. Far to one side he noted the silvery lake of a mirage. But the red line had mounted higher, and become a low, dirty-red wall that seemed to fence the western expanse from north to south. "It sure looks like a bad one, Betty, and I'm afraid we shan't be able to get home to-night after all. But we'll make Adobe Springs anyway, if it doesn't catch us too soon."

The pain in his shoulder brought his mind back to the conviction that Baxter had instigated the assault upon him, and he began searching for the motive. Did the Congressman think his political opposition important enough to make his taking off desirable? Suddenly he slapped his thigh and broke out aloud: "Lord! what if Baxter should be Delafield! He sure ought to be if there's anything in the eternal fitness of things. If he should be-ah-h," and he broke off with a hard, unmirthful laugh. Ransacking his memory for all he knew of Baxter's life he presently shook his head regretfully. "No; the facts are against it. There's nothing in that lead. It's a pity, though, for it would be a satisfaction-to say nothing of the public benefit-to knock 'em both off the roost at one pop." His mind busied itself with conjectures about Delafield's identity, as he considered first one and then another of the more prominent men in the Territory. He was silent so long that the mare tossed her head impatiently and whinnied. Curtis smiled and stroked her mane.

"Hello, old girl!" he said aloud, "getting lonesome, are you, and you want to be talked to. Oh, you're spoiled, Betty B., that's what you are. We'll go up the hill and see Miss Bancroft, won't we, Betty, while we're in Golden; and we'll take that cactus to her, and help her plant it. And she'll come out to the fence to see you, Betty; and she'll give you a lump of sugar, and pat your nose, and look as sweet as a pink rose with brown velvet eyes. She's a bully fine girl and we like her, don't we, Betty Brown? The way she sticks by her father is great; he couldn't help being a first-class fellow, could he, B. B., with such a daughter as that?"

The red wall was rising in the sky, devouring its sunlit blue and spreading out into smoky-red, angry-looking clouds. A high wind, hot and dry, swept across the plain from the west. All the cattle within Conrad's range of vision had turned their heads to the east and, although they were still grazing, moved only in that direction. Seeing a herd of antelope headed the same way, Curtis took the red bandanna from his neck and waved it toward them. As the bright signal floated in the wind their leader turned, stared, and began to walk back, the whole herd following with raised heads and gaze fixed in fascinated interest. He flaunted the red square and they came steadily on, until presently the warning of danger in the hot wind and the odor of the approaching storm overcame the compulsion of curiosity, and they wheeled again, away from the threatened peril.

The small life of the plain was fleeing before the furnace-like breath of those red, surging clouds. Jackrabbits leaped across the road on fleet legs, and occasionally Conrad saw coyotes, singly or in packs, running eastward as for their lives. Fat carrion crows hurried their unwieldy flight and, higher in the air, a frequent lone hawk sailed out of the west, while now and then a road-runner cut across his path with hasting feet.

"It's going to be a bad one, I guess," Curtis muttered, jamming his soft hat down closer on his head. The mare seemed to be trying of her own accord to escape the storm, and her swinging lope was steadily leaving the miles behind. "Keep it up, Betty, keep it up," he said encouragingly. "I want to reach Adobe Springs and get this message to Baxter off my mind. My shoulder's aching, old girl, but it ain't aching a bit more than I am to tell him what I think of him."

Soon the sand-storm was upon them, concealing the landscape and covering the sky with its clouds. Upon man and beast it beat as bitterly as a sand-blast. It pelted and stung Conrad's face and neck, and filled his eyes and ears and nos

trils until he was forced now and again to pull his hat over his face for a moment's respite in which to draw a less choking breath. "It looks as if all Arizona had got up and dusted, and was hell-bent to get out of here," he jested grimly, as he bent over the mare's neck and encouraged her with voice and gentle stroke. "That shows good sense, Betty, though it's mighty hard on us. Come right along, old girl; we must get to Adobe Springs."

"Upon man and beast the sand-storm beat bitterly"

As the air grew thicker there shone from the sky, instead of the vivid white sunshine of a few hours before, only a dim, diffused, lurid light. Even to Curtis, sitting quartering in the saddle with his back twisted toward the wind, Brown Betty's ears were barely visible. For a while he allowed the mare to follow the road herself, until he found that her sense of duty must be supplemented by authority. For, under the discomfort of the belaboring wind and stinging sand, she began to yield to her instinct to turn tail and drift before the storm. Then he knew that he must keep a firm hand on the bridle, and his attention at the highest pitch, or they would soon be wandering helplessly over the plain. He walked long distances beside the mare, with his body shielding her head and with speech and caress keeping up her courage. Their progress was slow, for the force of the storm was so great that, though it beat against them from the side, they could struggle through it only at a walk.

Hour after hour went by, and the only sign of its passage was that a dim, yellowish centre of illumination, that had once been the sun, crept slowly across the sky. As the day grew older Conrad's pain from his injury became more acute. Most of the time he felt it only as an insistent background to the keen outward discomfort of stinging sand and pounding wind. But when an occasional sharper twinge brought it more vividly to his consciousness he swore a little between his teeth, and thought of the letter he was going to write to Dellmey Baxter. The particles of sand filled his hair and encrusted his face and neck until they were of a uniform brick-red. Constant effort and encouragement were necessary to keep Brown Betty in the road, and finally he was compelled to walk at her head most of the time and with a guiding hand on her bridle counteract the unflagging urge of her instinct to drift before the blast.

Thus they battled their way through the hot, beating wind and suffocating sand, while that vague core of light moved athwart the dirty heavens, dropped slowly down the western sky, and was swallowed up in the denser banks of dusk above the horizon. It had been too dark before for the discernment of objects, but a yellowish glare had filtered through the sand-laden air, lending a lurid, semi-translucence to the atmosphere. Now even that was gone, leaving a desert enveloped in pitchy darkness, while the wind roared about the ears of the travellers and pounded their bodies as with cudgels and the sand pelted their skins.

Most of the time Curtis depended upon the feel of the road under his feet to maintain his direction, but now and then it was necessary for him to get down on his hands and knees in order to recover the track from which they had begun to stray. Once his fingers came in contact with a small feathered body. The bird tried to start up under his hand. He knew it must be disabled and placed it inside his shirt. Thus they plodded on through the night and the storm, the pain in his shoulder growing keener and the torture of the wind and sand ever more nerve-racking.

At last the mare raised her head and gave a long whinny. Conrad felt sure that she was announcing their near approach to the food and shelter within the adobe houses. "What is it, Betty? Do you know where we are?" he asked, and she rubbed her nose against his face, nickered, and pulled at the bridle with the evident desire to turn from the direction they were pursuing. Curtis knew they were in a little hollow, and thought it might be that into which the road dipped after leaving the houses.

"All right, Betty," he said. "I'll follow your lead a little way, but be cautious, old girl, and don't tie up to any lying hunches." He slackened his hold on the bridle, and the mare started off eagerly. They climbed a hill, and presently Conrad was aware of a black mass before him. Putting out his hand he felt an adobe wall. The mare crowded close against it, and stopped. She had left the road, which took the hill at a long sloping angle from the foot of the rise, and had climbed straight up the steep incline. He felt his way around the corner, unfastened the door, and entered. An emphatic "Whew!" gave vent to his feeling of relief. The mare, close at his heels, snorted in response, and Curtis, smiling in the dark, threw his arm across her neck in fellowship and said, "Feels good, doesn't it, Betty B., to get out of that hurricane from hell?"

By the light of a lantern he led the mare to the spring, stabling her afterward in one of the houses. "In the best society, Betty Brown," he explained, "it's not considered good form for horses to sleep in men's houses. But you deserve the best I can give you to-night, blest if you don't, old girl, and you shall have it, too." He gathered together, for her food and her bed, the alfalfa hay from several of the bunks, and found for her also a small measure of oats. Then, having attended to her wants, he looked about for something to stay his own hunger.

It was his custom to keep some canned provisions in the place, as the station was much used by his men. On a little smouldering fire in one corner of the room, he made some tea in a tin can. A frying-pan hung against the wall, and in it, awkwardly fumbling with his one useful hand, he contrived to warm a stew of tinned chile con carne and pilot bread. Fine sand drifted in and settled in a red dust over the food as he ate, and he could feel its grit between his teeth.

The bird he had carried in his bosom he found to be a Southwestern tanager. Its pinkish-red plumage shone with a silvery radiance in the lamplight. One of its legs was broken, and one wing had been injured. "I'll take it to Miss Bancroft," he said aloud, "and she'll care for it till it can shift for itself again, poor little devil!"

With intense satisfaction Conrad at last sat down to the letter in which he had all day been longing to express his feelings. "I wonder," he thought, "if Dellmey Baxter did it because he don't like the things I say about him. Well, he'll have to get used to it, then, for I'm not going to quit." There was a grim smile on his face as he wrote:

"I consider it the square thing to tell you that I am onto the game of your man, José Gonzalez. We had our first set-to this morning, in which he winged me, but I got the best of him. I could have killed him if I had wanted to, but he is such a good cowboy I hated to do him up. I am going to keep him in my employ, but I want you to understand, distinctly, that if he makes another crack at me I shall go to Santa Fe as quick as I can get there and make a Christmas gift of you to the devil before you know what's happening.

"Yours truly,

"Curtis Conrad.

"P. S. I am still shouting for Johnny Martinez for Congress. C. C."

"There!" he exclaimed, as he sealed the envelope and threw it down contemptuously; "I sure reckon he won't be so anxious for me to turn up my toes with my boots on after he reads that."

The pain in Conrad's arm and shoulder had become so keen that he could not sleep. He lay in his bunk listening to the rattling of the door and the rage of the wind against the house, seeking to keep his mind from the stabbing pain long enough to sink into unconsciousness. But no sooner did his eyelids begin to close down heavily than a fresh throb made him start up again wide awake. This irritated him more than did the other suffering, and finally he jumped up angrily, found a copy of Lecky's "History of European Morals," and, with the muttered comment, "This is about what I need to-night," settled himself on an empty cracker box and read the night away. Toward morning he became aware that the wind was abating, and a little later that less sand was drifting into his retreat.

Breakfast was eaten and Brown Betty cared for by lamplight and with the first dim rays of morning he set out once more upon the road. The bird was again in his bosom, and the cactus, wrapped in old newspapers, rested at the back of his saddle. The storm had passed, but the air was still full of dust particles through which the sun shone, red and smoky. Curtis knew that these would settle gradually with the passing hours and the sky become as clear as usual. Already he could see the road for several rods in front of him, and that was all he needed to keep it flying under Brown Betty's feet.

At the ranch house Mrs. Peters told him that a man had been there looking for work and described his appearance. "Yes; he overtook us at Rock Springs, and I hired him," Conrad said. Then, remembering the account Andy Miller had given of his previous situation, he asked her if the man had said where he came from.

"No," she replied; "he didn't say where he'd been working; but he came from toward Golden."

The superintendent thought the discrepancy rather curious, but decided it was nothing more than a not unusual cowboy eccentricity of statement. He resumed his journey with no misgivings, and mid-afternoon found him arguing with the physician at Golden that he might just as well start back to the round-up that same night.

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