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   Chapter 15 VILLAINY UNMASKED

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 19343

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Pendleton, bouncing in his saddle as they galloped southward, bent admiring glances upon the erect figure of his companion, whose seat was as steady as if horse and rider had been welded together. "Say, Curt," he finally called out, "how do you do it? I'd give my bad lung if I could ride like you."

Conrad gave him some instruction, and Pendleton turned all his attention toward learning how to bring his body into rhythmic accord with the movements of his horse. The cattleman, pounding along in silence, thought with satisfaction of the progress his search for Delafield was making and planned how he should carry it on after the round-up, when he would have more leisure. He would make a list of the men in New Mexico rich and prominent enough to come under suspicion, investigate their records, one by one, and so by elimination discover the person he wanted. Then would come the meeting!

His thoughts full of the climax of his search, he rode on in a sort of exaltation, unconsciously humming a song he and Lucy Bancroft had been practising. Presently, through the silence, the sound entered his conscious hearing, and took his thoughts back to the pleasant hour he and she had spent over it. But a vague uneasiness stirred his feelings as the image of Lucy floated past the background of that grisly, dominating purpose. The thought of her persisted; as it clung there, along the edge of his absorption, it brought a sharp and curious suggestion of the maimed bird he had carried in his bosom. He was suddenly conscious of discomfort, as if he had hurt some helpless thing, when his reverie was broken by a series of wild yells from his companion. Pendleton had been lagging behind, but he now came dashing forward, giving vent to his delight because he had so far mastered the art of riding that he no longer bounced all over the horse's back nor fell forward and seized its mane at each change of gait.

A spring welled alluringly from a dimple in the hillside. Pendleton dismounted, saying he was thirsty. "Don't drink from that spring, Pendy," Conrad admonished him. "It's alkali, and you'll wish you hadn't."

"It looks all right, and it's cool," said the tenderfoot, dipping his hand in the water. "My throat's as hot and dry as that road. What harm will it do?"

"Well, pretty soon you'll think you're chewing cotton; and it may make you sick, though this spring isn't strong enough of alkali to do you much harm."

"I'll risk it," Pendleton declared, scooping up some water in his hat-brim. "It's wet when it goes down, anyway. And I reckon I might as well take in an alkali spring, too, while I've got the chance. Everything goes!" An hour later he galloped alongside of Conrad, working his jaws and licking his lips. "Say, Curt," he mumbled, "I know a fellow back home who'd give a thousand dollars for such a thirst as I've got!"

It was midnight when they passed Rock Springs, where the superintendent had left his outfit. Two hours later, when Brown Betty put out her nose and neighed, an answering whinny came back from beyond the next hill. "That's only Five Cottonwoods," thought Curtis. "It can't be they've got no farther than that!" They gained the top of the hill and below them, in the light of the waning moon, they saw the white top of the chuck-wagon, the dark patch of sleeping cattle patrolled by a single horseman, and the figures of the men sprawled on the ground around the dying coals of their evening fire.

"Here we are, Pendy!" said Curtis. "I thought they would have got farther than this, and that we'd have at least two hours more of travel. Now we'll have time for a little sleep before you begin busting those broncs."

They stretched themselves on the ground and almost instantly fell asleep. But it was not long before Conrad, rousing suddenly, sprang to his feet, realizing even before he was fairly awake that the cattle were stampeding. From down the hill came a thundering, rushing sound, the noise of hundreds of hoofs pounding the ground. He called his foreman, seized his saddle, and rushed to the bunch of tethered cow-ponies, Peters, Texas Bill, Red Jack, and José Gonzalez close behind. As they dashed after the flying herd Curtis could see in the dim light the figure of the cowboy who had been patrolling the sleeping cattle. He was following the stampede at what his employer thought a leisurely pace.

"Who was riding herd?" he yelled to Peters, who replied, "Andy Miller."

"Is he trying to drive them farther away?" Conrad muttered angrily, pressing home his spur.

The cattle tore wildly down the hill, but at its foot their leaders turned up the course of the dry shallow valley instead of pressing up the other side. The men saw the movement, and by cutting across the hillside gained rapidly upon the fleeing animals. As they passed Andy Miller, Curtis shouted to him that he might return to the camp, as they should not need him. The draw soon began to grow deeper and narrower, and the dense mass of cattle was forced to lessen its pace. Conrad remembered that farther on the valley came to an abrupt end against a steep rise. If the brutes stayed in it a little longer they would not be able to get out, and when they came to the end of this blind alley of the hills they would have to stop. So he and his companions galloped easily along beside the shadowy stream of moving backs with its spray of tossing horns that filled the draw, and presently found the leaders, their heads to the bluff, chewing their cuds as quietly as if they had never been frightened in all their lives.

As they rode back to camp behind the staidly moving herd, Conrad asked Peters if he knew what caused the stampede. The foreman did not know, he had been sound asleep when it began. But he went on to tell an excited tale of mysterious accidents that had followed close upon one another ever since the morning of the superintendent's departure. Only the edge of the sand-storm through which he had ridden touched them, though it had kept them in camp all day. Nevertheless, there had been two stampedes, and they had had much trouble getting the brutes together again. Every day since there had been at least one stampede of the herd. He and the others had been kept busy gathering in the flying cattle. This was why they had got no farther than Five Cottonwoods. It seemed as if the devil himself had taken possession of every cow-brute on the range; never in all his years as a cow-puncher had he had such a time.

"Don't you know what starts them?"

"That's the mischief of it. Nobody ever knows. The darned critters just get up and hike. Some of the boys are gettin' skeery about it, and they're likely to pull their freight if it keeps up. They're tellin' ghost stories now after supper, and Andy Miller has been reelin' off the whoppin'est yarns ever you heard. Between the ghost stories and the way the cow-brutes act the boys are gettin' plumb fidgety, and I'm mighty glad you've got back."

"How does Andy get on with the work? Does he sabe?"

"Yes; he's first rate; the best we've got, except José. But Andy does have main bad luck with the cow-brutes. This makes four times they've stampeded under him."

Promise of day was flushing the eastern sky and faintly warming the gray semi-darkness when Pendleton's eyes flew open, to instant conviction of illness. From head to foot he ached with weariness, and he felt wretchedly sick. For a moment he kept quiet, feeling that it would be more comfortable to lie still and die than to try to move. But presently he thought, "I'll never live to die of consumption if I don't get up quick and find my whiskey!"

He scrambled to his feet and looked around. Not nearly so many men were stretched on the ground as he had expected to see, and his friend was not in sight. He looked for his saddle-bags, where he kept his flask. Conrad had taken them from the horse when they unsaddled, and Pendleton had not noticed what he did with them. He could not find the bags, everybody left in camp was sound asleep, and Curtis had disappeared. Wrapped in his blanket he was wandering around forlornly, squirming with pain, when he saw some one moving in the group of horses farther down the hill. He started in that direction and saw the man stoop beside Conrad's mare, Brown Betty.

"Hello, pard! Where's Curt?" Pendleton called loudly. The man straightened up quickly, and put away a knife. He looked at the curious figure coming toward him, and burst into a loud guffaw. "Gee whillikens, stranger! where'd you drop from?" he shouted back.

Pendleton explained, and asked the other to help him find his saddle-bags. They were discovered in the chuck-wagon, and the invalid offered his flask, with a cordial admonition to "drink hearty, pard." The cowboy responded literally, and made several other visits to the saddle-bags before breakfast. By that time he was good-naturedly obstreperous, and had the camp in an uproar with his horse-play and noisy pranks. Conrad asked Peters where Andy got his whiskey. The foreman did not know, and said that this was the first time he had shown any signs of drink. The superintendent went to Pendleton.

"Has Andy Miller been taking a pull at your flask?"

"The cow-punch that's feeling so happy? Sure, Curt. He helped me find my saddle-bags, and I thought I'd be sociable with him. I told him to drink hearty; and by thunder, Curt! you ought to have seen him. He sure had a worse thirst on him than I had yesterday."

"I'll have to ask you not to do it again with any of them. And you'd better let me put your flask in a locked box I have in the chuck-wagon, if you don't carry it in your

pocket, or you may not have any left by night."

Gonzalez came up with a question, and Conrad remembered the letter he had for him. The Mexican took it with an unconcerned face, and went off behind the chuck-wagon. "I don't need to see the inside of it," thought Curtis; "but I'd like to all the same. Well, he'll be all right now, and I'm glad of it, for I'd hate to have to kill as good a roper as he is."

A few minutes later José strolled toward the cook's fire, twisting the letter in his fingers. He was about to thrust it into the coals when Andy Miller jumped at him with a yell, and caught his hand. "Here, boys; José's got a love letter! Let's read it!" he shouted. Gonzalez resisted; Miller bore him down; and they rolled, struggling, over the ground. José's dark face was pale with anger and his teeth were set as he gripped the bit of paper in one fist and pummelled Andy's face with the other. Miller tried to shield himself from the blows with his arms, while he bent his energies to getting possession of the letter.

"You're fightin', Andy; don't fergit to punch!" yelled Nosey Ike from the group of cowboys looking on. Miller was the stronger of the two, and almost had the Mexican in his power when Conrad came beside them, saying, "If you want the letter burned, José, give it to me."

Gonzalez cast at him one doubtful, desperate look, and threw the twisted paper toward him. The superintendent thrust it in the fire, and he and Peters separated the two men. Gonzalez flashed at him a look of gratitude and walked away without a word.

"Andy," said Conrad, "you're making too much trouble this morning. If you want to work with this outfit you've got to keep straight. If you don't want to do that you can pull your freight right now."

The man turned away sullenly. "I'm not ready to pull my freight yet," he muttered. The other cowboys were saddling their ponies and making ready to begin the day's work. The bunched cattle, with the red rays of the morning sun warm upon their backs, were quietly grazing a little way down the hillside. Andy Miller started toward his horse, but turned and ran rapidly at the cattle. No one noticed what he was doing until, in a moment more, he was jumping, yelling, and swinging his hat at the edge of the herd. Snorting with sudden surprise and fright, the beasts were away again as though fiends were at their tails. Conrad rushed for his horse, but Peters, already mounted, yelled that they would not need him; and the foreman, with half a dozen others, dashed after the stampede.

Andy Miller was coming slowly back, now and then stopping to smite his thigh and laugh. Curtis walked out to meet him. "Andy," he said, "I reckon I don't need you any longer. You can take your time this morning. Here's your money."

The cowboy looked up, grinning, and thrust the bills in his pocket. Then, as quickly and lightly as a cat, he sprang upon the superintendent and pulled him down. Conrad, taken completely by surprise, with his left arm in a sling and at something less than his best of strength, for a moment could do nothing but struggle in the other's grasp. Miller was holding him, face downward, across one advanced leg, when Pendleton, still wrapped in his blanket, bustled up to see what was happening. With upraised hand, Miller yelled:

"Now, then, you'll get it back, every darn' spank, an' more too! Jenkins ain't big enough to spank you himself, but I can do it for him!" His hand descended, but into an enveloping blanket suddenly thrown over him from behind, muffling head, body, and arms.

"I've got him, Curt! Get up, quick, and we'll do him up!" shouted the tenderfoot as he twisted the blanket around Andy's struggling figure.

Conrad wrenched himself free and sprang up, his face white. "Let him up, Pendy," he said, drawing his revolver. The other unwound the blanket, and Miller scrambled out, blinking and cursing. "You make tracks out of this camp as fast as you can go," said Curtis, "and don't let me catch you within gunshot of this outfit again! Clear out, this minute, damn you!"

Miller walked away in silence toward his staked horse, the two men following him part way down the hill.

"He'd better clear out before the boys get back, if he wants to keep a sound neck," said Conrad, his revolver in hand and his eyes on the retreating cowboy. "I understand it all now. And it was a lucky thing, Pendy, that you gave him that whiskey this morning; it got him just drunk enough to show his hand. If it hadn't been for that I might not have caught on till he'd done the Lord knows how much mischief. It's just like that damned skunk, Jenkins, to go at it in this sneaking, underhand way. He's not through with me yet!"

They watched while Miller saddled his horse, hung his rope at the saddle-horn, and mounted. Then they turned back toward the camp, but presently, at a whinny from Brown Betty, Curtis faced about. Miller had ridden to where she was standing, a little apart from the other horses, had leaped to the ground, and was making toward her hind-quarters. His body was in profile, and as he stretched out his arm Conrad saw the flash of sunlight upon a knife blade. Instantly his arm swung upward, and there was an answering flash from the muzzle of his revolver. The report boomed across the valley, and Andy's right arm dropped. He rushed toward them, yelling foul names, but halted when he saw the pistol levelled at his breast.

"No more tricks, Andy," called the superintendent, "or it'll be through your heart next time. Git, right now!"

From up the valley came the shouts of the men. They had turned the cattle and were hurrying them back to camp. Miller cast one quick glance in their direction, and leaped to his saddle. He made a wide detour, the tail of his eye on Conrad's gun, and galloped away on the road over which the outfit had come. The others trooped up where Curtis and Pendleton, at the top of the hill, were watching his lessening figure.

"Boys," said the ranchman, "that's the chap that's been stampeding the cattle!" Peters swore a mouth-filling oath and smote his thigh. "He was just on the point of ham-stringing Brown Betty," Curtis went on, his eyes blazing, "and I put a bullet through his arm barely in time to prevent it."

A light broke upon Pendleton. "Darn my skin, if that wasn't the trick the critter was up to this morning, when he saw me and stopped!"

"Let's go after him, boys!" shouted Peters. The group of riders shot forward, like racers starting at the word, and thundered down the road after the culprit. Conrad looked after them grimly, his eyes flashing blue fire, and Pendleton, wrapped in his blanket again, danced about and yelled, "Go it, boys, go it! I wish I was with you!"

For an hour they chased him. He, knowing what his fate would be if he fell into their hands, put spurs to his horse until he brought out its utmost speed. Having so much the start he kept well in the lead, and finally they gave it up and returned to camp.

With his left arm still in a sling and his shoulder bandaged, Conrad kept at the head of the round-up, which went on without further accident. He was too busy to think of the pain, except at night, when it often kept him awake. At such times his mind was sure to busy itself, sooner or later, with the trailing of Delafield, reaching out in every direction for some clew to guide his next step. By some trick of subconscious mental action, thoughts of Lucy Bancroft began to intrude upon his mind when it was thus engaged. It pleased him well enough to think of Lucy at other times, of her bright, piquant face, of the positive opinions she was in the habit of pronouncing with that independent little toss of her curly head, and of her dimpling smiles. But it annoyed him that the thought of her should come into conflict with his one absorbing idea. And, just because he had been consciously disturbed by it twice or thrice, association of ideas brought back the image more and more frequently. Once, when he had been vainly wooing sleep for an hour, he caught himself wondering what Lucy would say about the Delafield affair. He muttered an angry oath at himself, and with a mighty effort put both subjects out of his mind. It was not until they reached Pelham, the railway station whence the cattle were to be shipped, that his shoulder became free enough from pain for him to sink into sleep as soon as he lay down; and thereafter his mind forbore its irritating trick.

During all that time, although Conrad did not believe he had anything to fear from José Gonzalez, he never left his revolver out of easy reach, and never turned his back upon the Mexican. But Gonzalez kept on his way as calmly and apparently as unconsciously as if he had had no part in that episode beside the pool at Rock Springs. Near the end of the shipping Curtis asked him if he would like steady work at the ranch.

The Mexican gave a little astonished start and cast at the superintendent a glance of suspicion. Conrad frowned and his eyes flashed. Then he grinned good-naturedly, showing his strong white teeth under his sunburned moustache. "That's all right, José. I'm not that sort. As long as you behave yourself I'm your friend. If you don't, I've told you what will happen. You've struck my gait in the cow business, and I want to keep you. If you want to stay you can understand right now that you run no risks, unless you make 'em yourself."

Gonzalez threw at him a keen glance. "You know I have nothing against you, Don Curtis," he began, hesitating a moment before he went on; "I like to work for you very well, se?or, and I will stay."

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