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   Chapter 12 THE FIRST SHOT

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 17060

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Alexander Bancroft sat in his private room with Curtis Conrad's return checks before him. They were not many: one in favor of his brother at the University of Michigan, one for a mail order house in Chicago, a small one to a New York publishing concern,-and his eyes fell upon the name of Rutherford Jenkins and the amount,-five hundred dollars. He stared at the slip of paper for a moment, conviction rushing to his mind that his pursuer knew the truth; then he took his revolver from his pocket and examined its chambers. "I may have to do him up myself!" he thought, his lips tightening. But sudden hesitation gripped his heart. Until within a few weeks he had considered Curtis one of his best friends, had liked the young cattleman whole-heartedly, admiring and enjoying his impulsiveness, his geniality, his ardent loyalty to his friends, and his equally ardent hostility to those he disliked. Now the good-fellowship he had been accustomed to feel stopped his hand. "Can it be possible," he asked himself for the hundredth time, "that this eager-hearted, companionable fellow will really carry out his deadly purpose?" He recalled the intensity with which Conrad had spoken of his long quest for revenge, his vehemence toward his enemies, his impetuosity. Again conviction grew strong upon him that, when the man knew, the end would come. The frontier code by which he had lived so long nerved his heart, and he muttered, "He shan't smash things-now! I'll smash him before I'll let him do that!"

He swung the revolver into position and took sight. As his eye glanced down the barrel he saw that it was pointing at Lucy's pictured face, smiling down from the top of his desk; his hand shook as he laid down the weapon. There was a knock at the door, and he made sudden pretence of close attention to the papers before him. The door partly opened and he heard Conrad's voice outside. Surety of imminent peril seized Bancroft's mind. The instinct of self-defence sent his hand to his revolver, and he sprang up, pulling the trigger. Curtis rushed in at the report, calling out, "What's the matter, Aleck?" The banker had just time to stay his finger at sight of the friendly face and solicitous manner.

"I didn't hurt you, did I, Curt?" he asked anxiously, sinking back in his chair and looking at Conrad's arm, helpless in a sling. The bullet, they found, had nicked the top of the door and buried itself in the ceiling. "I was looking my revolver over when you knocked," Bancroft explained, "and had just been aiming at that spot on the wall. My finger must have pulled the trigger unconsciously. The thing's set to a hair, anyway. I must have it fixed. What's the matter with your arm, Curt?"

In the revulsion of feeling that swept over him as he realized that the cattleman was as friendly as ever and that therefore his secret was still safe, he felt genuinely thankful that his bullet had gone wild.

Conrad told of his fight with José Gonzalez. "You're getting the truth about it, Aleck," he went on; "but to everybody else I'm saying that I got horned by a steer, knocked over, and my collar bone cracked. I'm convinced it's some of Dell Baxter's work. I reckon I've been saying out loud just what he is too often to please him. But the letter I've sent him will buffalo him quick enough. José's a good cowboy, and I'm going to keep him. But I don't want the boys to know anything about our little scrap. So I'm saying it was a steer on the prod that did it."

Bancroft's thoughts were active as he lighted his cigar. That check-it must have been Castleton money, to be handled for Johnny Martinez. Perhaps security might still be compassed without bloodshed. In thankfulness that he had not killed the man who was still his friend he revolted against the purpose of the Mexican, to which he knew in his soul he had given tacit consent. He did not want this cordial, confiding, good fellow struck down-if his own safety could be otherwise secured.

"You'd better give the Mexican his time, Curt. He's locoed probably; when you get back you may find he's killed half your men."

"Well, if he tries running a-muck in that gang," the superintendent responded cheerfully, "he'll never do anybody else any harm. Anyway, I've settled him for the present; I busted his knife and threw the pieces into the pond. No; he's in Dell's pay; that's all there is to it; and when Dell reads my letter he'll hike to call his man off. I don't expect any more trouble from José."

Bancroft made no reply and Conrad went on: "By the way, Aleck, for a full minute yesterday I thought Baxter must be my man-the man I'm after, you know-Delafield. I've found out that he's somebody rich and respectable here in New Mexico, and when I felt that Baxter must be responsible for this attack on me, I lit on him for my meat. But it was too good to be true; as soon as I thought it over I saw that Baxter couldn't be Delafield. But they're two of a kind all right. Both of 'em have got their freight loaded ready to pull out for hell at the drop of a hat. Baxter will have to pull his in less than three jumps of a bucking horse if he doesn't call off his man. And Delafield will be pulling his mighty soon anyway."

Bancroft made a gesture of annoyance. "Curt, you talk too easily about killing. You'd make a stranger think you're a bad man of the border, instead of the decent citizen you are. For Heaven's sake, man, why don't you come to your senses, and see what an ass you'll be making of yourself if you try to carry out this fool scheme of revenge that's got hold of you? Why don't you accept his offer to pay back the money as fast as he can? Let him make restitution, and keep a whole skin; perhaps you'll save your own scalp in the bargain."

The seeker after vengeance laughed blithely.

"Aleck, you've no idea what this thing means to me. Why, man, you talk as if giving up that plan would be no more than changing my coat! You don't know, Aleck-why, to get the drop on Delafield and hold him while I tell him what he is in language that will scald him from head to foot, and then deal out to him the death he deserves-that's the one thing I've lived for all these fifteen years! I'm obliged to you for your advice, Aleck; but I know what I'm about."

Bancroft shrank away a little as Curtis talked. His lips tightened as he picked up the revolver and sighted it at a calendar on the wall. After a moment's silence he looked the other full in the eye and said, impressively:

"You forget one thing, Curt. If this man Delafield knows what you are doing-and you seem to feel sure he does-he'll be prepared for your attack, and you're not likely to have things your own way. Unless he's a fool or a coward he'll defend himself, even if he has to kill you doing it. And if he has any sabe at all he'll be loaded for you when you get there, and have the drop on you before you can say a word."

"Chances of war," Conrad replied serenely. "He's welcome to all he can get. But I'm betting my last dollar, and my scalp in the bargain, that he can't draw as quick as I can, nor shoot as straight. You bet your life, Aleck, when that circus comes off I'll be the star performer."

"Well," said Bancroft slowly, "if you won't listen to reason I suppose you'll have to go on, hell-bent, in the gait you've struck-and take the consequences. But you're a fool to do it, and I hate to see you making such a blind ass of yourself."

Curtis laughed, undisturbed. "That's all right, Aleck. I don't expect you to get the joy out of this business that I shall."

He went over to Bancroft's desk and picked up the revolver, examining its sights. "They're not right, Aleck," he said. "When I get the use of my arm again I'll fix them for you. And you don't use your gun right when you want to take quick aim: you don't swing it up quickly and steadily, as if you were used to it. You ought to practise, Aleck. Out here a man never knows when he may have to defend himself. I've got to stay here several days, the doctor says; and while I'm here I'll show you a few tricks."

"All right, if you like," Bancroft replied, adding, as he pocketed his revolver, "I'm not a very good shot and, as you say, out here a man never knows when he may have to defend himself."

Conrad, turning to go, lingered awkwardly. "By the way, Aleck," he blurted out, "it has occurred to me that perhaps you are getting tied up with Dell Baxter too tight for comfort. I don't want to seem curious about your affairs, you know, and I haven't

got any big pile-you know what my balance is; but whatever I have got you're welcome to, any time, if you want to cut loose from Baxter and it will help any."

Bancroft hid a grim smile behind the hand at his moustache as he thought of sundry checks of his own making their way toward Conrad's balance. "Thank you, Curt; it's very kind and thoughtful of you to make the offer, and I appreciate it. But I don't need anything. Baxter and I are in partnership in a number of enterprises, but it's all straight sailing."

"That's good, and I'm glad to hear it. I was afraid he'd got you under his thumb. But remember, Aleck, that my small pile is at your disposal any time it will be of use to you."

As the young man left the bank he saw Lucy Bancroft turn the corner toward the Mexican quarter and was quickly at her side, relieving her of the little bundle she carried. She was going to Se?ora Melgares, she explained, who could wash laces and embroideries and all kinds of dainty things beautifully with amole root. She was taking her some of Miss Dent's and her own fineries, and hoped to get her a great deal of work from others. "The poor thing!" said Lucy earnestly, her eyes wide and soft with sympathy. "She is so heartbroken over the affair! You've heard? Mr. Gaines died the other day, and Melgares has been indicted for murder. My father says he'll surely be found guilty and will probably be hanged. The poor se?ora!"

When they reached the little adobe house Lucy asked Curtis to go in with her, saying, "I'm not very sure of my Spanish, and I'd be glad to have you come in and help me out." They found Se?ora Melgares sitting with her head buried in her arms, her hair dishevelled, and her face, when she raised it, eloquent of grief and despair. But she greeted them with grave and gracious courtesy. Lucy impulsively took her hand and held it in both her own while she presented Se?or Conrad. At the name the woman drew her slight figure together with a convulsive movement, her dark face lighting with interest.

"Don Curtis? Se?or Don Curtis Conrad?" she asked eagerly.

"The same, se?ora," he answered in Spanish, bowing gravely.

"The same whose mare-?" she began, her expressive countenance finishing the query. Conrad bowed again. The woman sank down in her chair, her face in her hands, swaying back and forth as she moaned and sobbed. Lucy knelt by her side to comfort her, while Curtis bent over the girlish figure and spoke in a low, changed tone that the girl barely recognized, so different was it from his usual brisk utterance. It set her nerves vibrating in quick, half-conscious conviction of a depth and quality of feeling in harmony with her own.

"I am afraid I made a mistake by coming in, Miss Bancroft," he said. "It did not occur to me that she would connect me with her husband's trouble. Won't you please tell her, when she is quieter, that I am very sorry about the whole affair, that I have no feeling against him, and that I'll gladly do for him whatever I can. I think I'd better go now, but I'll wait outside for you, and if I can be of any use you must call me."

When Lucy joined him a little later her face showed signs of tears, and as they walked back she was preoccupied and perturbed. She wished to see her father, so Curtis left her at the door of the bank.

"Daddy!" Lucy exclaimed as she rushed to his side, her eyes shining and her face aglow. "Oh, daddy, Se?ora Melgares has just told me the strangest thing! Mr. Conrad was with me, but he went out because she cried so, and he didn't hear what she said. I tried to quiet and comfort her, and finally she told me that her husband had been persuaded and paid to steal Mr. Conrad's horse by a man who said he wanted to get even with him for something. She told me his name-you and Mr. Tillinghurst and Judge Banks were talking about him the other day-Mr. Jenkins-Don Rutherford Jenkins, she called him."

Anticipation warmed Bancroft's heart as she spoke. If the story was true it might give him just the hold on Jenkins that he wanted. He made her repeat the details of her conversation with the Mexican woman. "Did you say anything about it to Conrad?" he asked in conclusion.

"No, daddy; I thought I ought to tell you about it first."

"Quite right, Lucy. You were very prudent. And don't mention it now, to him or to anybody."

"No, of course not. But, daddy, won't that make it better for poor José Maria? Mr. Jenkins is the one that ought to be punished-he and Mr. Baxter; and poor ignorant Melgares ought to be let off very easily. Don't you think so, daddy?"

One of her hands rested on his shoulder. He took the other in both of his as he smiled at her indulgently. Her news had so heartened him that he hardly noticed her connection of Baxter with the affair. "I don't know about that, daughter. It isn't likely to have any effect, because his indictment is for murder-you know he killed Gaines while resisting arrest-and his motive in stealing the horse has no connection with that crime. I'm glad you told me about it, dear. I'll talk with Melgares myself, and see what can be done. I suppose his wife must be having a hard time. You might give her some money. And ask her," he said as he handed Lucy some bills, "not to speak about this Jenkins matter to any one else. Be sure you impress that upon her. It's a pretty bad case, but you can tell his wife that everything possible will be done for him. Dell Baxter is coming down to undertake his defence; he does it for nothing. So you mustn't think so badly of him hereafter, when you see how willing he is to make what amends he can to the poor fellow."

Lucy threw her arms about his neck and kissed his forehead. "Daddy, you're awfully good and kind-the best man in the world! About Mr. Baxter, though-" she paused to toss her head, and a little sparkle shone in her eyes-"well, I'm glad he has the decency to do it, but it's no more than he ought; and before I think much better of him I'll wait to see if he drives any more of the poor Mexicans out of their homes."

Bancroft began to plan hopefully. He would see Melgares and get the exact facts. If this story was true it would be just the sword he needed to hang over Jenkins. Evidently he had told Conrad nothing; therefore that check must have been campaign money from Ned Castleton to be used for the benefit of Martinez. Jenkins would not be likely to talk: it would ruin his chance of making money out of it himself. As for Curtis-perhaps, after all, he would not be unreasonable about the offer to make restitution. Another check would reach him soon, with assurance of more to follow speedily. Surely the man was too sensible to cast aside such a start in life as this money would give him, just to carry out a crazy notion that would end in his own ruin.

"But if he will go on, he'll have nobody but himself to blame for whatever happens," he thought. "I've given him fair warning."

The encouragement he felt turned his thoughts toward Louise Dent. In the intimacy of their daily life since she had been Lucy's visitor he had found her ever more lovable. He began to think, as he looked into her eyes and felt the restrained sweetness of her manner, that when he should be free to speak she would welcome his feeling, and have for it an intoxicating return. But he could say nothing until the settlement of this affair left no further danger of discovery and disgrace.

"She must not know-neither she nor Lucy shall know-never-never a word or hint," he thought desperately. True, Louise was not so unsparing in her moral judgments as Lucy; she was older, and, with more knowledge of the world, had more tolerance for the conditions under which men lived and worked. But if all that past, the past that he had believed buried beyond resurrection, should suddenly confront him, she and Lucy would be horrified. They would despise him. The respect, honor, and love for which he hungered would die; if they stayed beside him it would only be for compassion's sake. In the fierce mood that possessed him as he thought of going down again into dishonor he was ready to strike out at anybody's pity. This thing must not be. He had won his way back to position, power, affluence; he held the love and honor of his daughter and of the woman he hoped to make his wife; what he had won he would keep. His lips whitened as he struck the desk with his clenched fist.

"The past is dead, and it's got to stay dead," he muttered. "I'll win out yet, by God!"

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