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   Chapter 19 THE WORD UNSPOKEN

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 24784

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The sun was high in the brilliant blue heavens and blazing hot upon the gray-green plain when the company came together in the grove the next morning to listen to speeches. One or another well-known resident of the Territory was called forth, with applause and cheers, to mount an improvised rostrum, where he complimented the ladies, chaffed the men, told funny stories, submitted to guying from the audience and repaid it in kind, until he was able to turn a joke upon some one else so deftly that he could retreat under cover of the hand-clapping and laughter and the calls for the other man to step up and defend himself.

At dinner they spent a jovial hour. Half a dozen cowboys carried the big platters of roasted meat to the tables, where they were flanked by smoking dishes of frijoles and chile con carne, platters of bread, and piles of roasted potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. Pails of lemonade and bottles of beer, just brought from the ice house, were scattered down the tables, and steaming pots of coffee and tea passed from hand to hand. Everybody was in the highest spirits; every jest or bit of fun was caught, bandied back and forth, and passed on with new trimmings. As they gathered around the tables, Conrad asked Lucy Bancroft to save a seat for him beside her. She smiled at him without replying; but when Homer presently came and asked for the vacant place she gave him a gracious welcome.

Conrad, much occupied with his duties as host, soon saw that his brother was at her side, paying her devoted attention, and that apparently she was quite happy. "It's all right," he thought. "He'll have time to look out for her better than I could, anyway; she seems to be having a good time, and that's the main thing." Yet he was conscious of keen disappointment; he had seen so little of her-much less, he was suddenly aware, than he wished. But he had been very busy. Notwithstanding the planning beforehand, something new had been constantly cropping up and demanding his attention. But Homer had been taking good care of her, and she seemed to be enjoying everything. That evening, after the fireworks, he could surely let things go for a little while, and ask her to walk with him in the moonlight to the top of the hill.

At that moment he was passing Mrs. Turner Castleton. With an inviting smile she made room for him beside her. He sat down, poured her a glass of lemonade, and then, noticing that Emerson Mead and his wife were not comfortably seated, went off to look after them. Mrs. Ned, who had seen her sister-in-law's man?uvre, asked him to go into the house with her to see how the lemons were holding out. When they came out she protested that she was starving, that he must be too, and couldn't they sit right down and have something to eat? The seats she chose were at some distance from Mrs. Turner, though directly in range of her eye. They chanced also to be in plain sight from where Lucy was sitting. She, seeing them dining together on such friendly, jolly terms, was more charming than ever to Homer Conrad. Her pique made the task she had set herself no easier; but she held to her determination, telling herself that, even if Curtis did not show her some attention that afternoon, she would try to see him in the evening. For they were to go home in the morning.

After dinner the games began. Cowboys of the ranch and others from small neighboring ranches gave exhibitions of quick roping and throwing and of broncho busting. Curtis Conrad and Emerson Mead had a riding and shooting match. José Gonzalez, dressed in Mexican holiday attire of straw sombrero, braided jacket, and close-fitting trousers, showed his skill as an expert lasso thrower. He made a picturesque figure as he stood in the roadway, striking graceful attitudes and making his rope leap, run, circle, and swirl about him as if it were alive. The visitors crowded to the edge of the grove, watching and admiring.

"He's a sure peach at the fancy racket," said Dan Tillinghurst, "but I reckon Emerson Mead can flirt gravel faster than he can when it comes to the real practical business. Say, Emerson," he called, "can't you give us an imitation of the way you slipped out of Antone Colorow's rope and broke his wrists before he had time to draw his noose? I reckon that was a show sure worth seeing."

Those who knew the story added their voices, "Yes, Mead; show us how you did it!" Others who had never heard of the incident wanted to know about it; and soon everybody was talking about how a cowboy once tried to rope Emerson Mead. Mrs. Turner Castleton was standing beside Curtis.

"Really, Mr. Conrad," she said, "is it true that they ever rope men? And why do the men allow it?"

"Sometimes, Mrs. Castleton, when the men who are roped can't help it." With a sudden smile he threw back his head and his eyes flashed. "We'll show you the game," he went on; "José shall try to rope me, and I'll see if I can keep out of his way. Come, José, get your horse, and bring mine, and then do your best."

The Mexican stooped to coil his rope. As he rose his glance darted across the faces of the crowd under the trees until it met the eyes of Alexander Bancroft, standing beside Dellmey Baxter, at the end of the long group. Baxter saw the two pairs of eyes meet and hold each other for an instant, and his curiosity was aroused. But he seemed to notice nothing, and saying, "Come, Aleck, let's go and see what they're up to now," he led the way to the upper end of the grove.

The two horsemen cantered out into the open and began their man?uvres. The people crowded along at the edge of the shade, and some of the men stepped out into the sunlight to get a better view. Emerson Mead was much interested and walked out farther than the rest. The snakey rings and lengths of the Mexican's rope were whistling through the air, and the two men were wheeling, stopping, rushing forward, jumping sidewise, in graceful evolutions. The noose circled through the space between them, poised over Conrad's head, and darted downward like some voracious bird of prey. An exclamation ran through the intent crowd, "He's got him! He's got him this time!" But the superintendent jerked his horse to its hind legs, swung it to one side, galloped a little way, and came back laughing. "Good! that was first rate!" Emerson Mead called out.

José wound his rope for another trial, and cantered leisurely back and forth, making sudden feints of throwing and watching his employer's movements of evasion. Suddenly he wheeled, charged, and threw the loop from a distance of only a few paces. He had calculated on the other's spurring forward to escape; instead Conrad brought his horse to a standstill, and the noose fell over its ears. A cheer went up from the grove, and Curtis turned to wave his broad-brimmed hat. In the one swift glance he was aware of Lucy, watching so eagerly that she had stepped forward into the sunshine, and of his brother, raising a sunshade over her head.

Gonzalez also waved his sombrero to the company, and coiled his rope anew. It darted out like a serpent's tongue, and this time it caught Conrad unawares; he had thought his antagonist would not throw so soon and for the instant was off his guard. The noose fell over his head just as his horse was at mid-bound. He heard it whistle as it dropped past his ears, and as quick as a flash jerked his pony backward to a sudden stop. Apparently José had expected the horse to leap forward, for, as he felt the slacking of the rope, there was a dextrous turn of his wrist, and a dig of his spur that sent his pony dancing to one side. The noose tightened around Curtis's neck. Instinctively he clutched it, and his fingers, caught against his windpipe, ground into his own throat.

"The greaser did that on purpose!" exclaimed Emerson Mead in a hard, swift undertone, as his hand gripped the revolver at his waistband. But Gonzalez was already beside Conrad, and lifting the noose from his neck. The American choked and gasped for breath once or twice.

"You-you caught me square that time, José," he said.

"We are even now, se?or," replied the Mexican; "you gave me my life once, and now I give you yours. It would have been only a second more; and it was plainly an accident; nobody would have known. I have paid my debt."

The people were cheering. Both men faced toward the grove and waved their hats. "You damned impudent coyote!" said Curtis through his teeth. Then he grinned, and added, "But I like your nerve, though."

At the grove side the manager threw his bridle to the Mexican, but turned impulsively and called, "Here, José, wait a minute. I want you to show these people how you can throw the knife." A stride or two took him to José's side. "And I'll be your target, damn you!" he added in an undertone. He walked back where Lucy, Miss Dent, and his brother were standing, humming a stave or two from a comic opera under his breath. Homer noticed that his face was rather pale and that his eyes were blazing, but thought it due to his annoyance at having been roped.

Gonzalez came back from the corral, carefully testing with his finger the edge and point of his knife. Conrad, his head held high, a smile on his face and exhilaration in his manner, was telling the company to stand a little to one side, to make sure they were out of the way of the knife. As Gonzalez came up, he stepped in front of the nearest tree, with the Mexican facing him ten or twelve paces distant. Judge Banks called to him to watch out for the knife himself, and he turned a smiling face for an instant as he answered gayly, "Oh, I'm all right!" In the same tone he called, "Start her up, José! And remember, you're to do your level best."

José's teeth shone in a gleaming smile as he replied significantly, "I shall, Don Curtis!" He took an alert, graceful posture, one foot set back and head thrust slightly forward. The muscles of his arm were still relaxed as his knife slid along his wrist and nestled into place. Conrad drew himself up tensely and his eyes narrowed as he fixed them upon the Mexican's. For an instant they eyed each other; then, like a flash, José's arm swung back.

Not until that moment did any member of the company understand that Curtis was deliberately making himself a target; even then many did not realize the significance of the game with death he had set himself to play. Ned Castleton's face went white, and his voice died in his throat as he tried to call to José to stop. Alexander Bancroft stared with devouring eyes, his breath coming hard. The overmastering desire for freedom and safety was upon him, and he could not take his gaze from the Mexican's poised figure. Louise Dent, beside him, drew one gasping breath and covered her face with her hands. Afterward she knew that she had not done this so much to shut from her eyes the next moment's expected sight as to hide from her soul's vision the glimpse she had caught of the desire springing to life in her own heart.

"Like a flash José's arm swung back, ... and Curtis sprang lightly aside as the knife struck deep into the tree"

Homer Conrad, sitting beside Lucy, his attention fixed upon some small damage to her fan which he was trying to repair, did not see what was going on until a sudden stiffening of her attitude and a sharp, indrawn breath made him look up. She was leaning forward, with face white and eyes staring and hands clenched against her breast. He followed her gaze and saw the knife flash from José's hand. His heart went sick and he sat powerless to move as his eyes marked the long blade, dark against the sunshine, but with little sparkles on its edge, through what seemed an interminable flight.

Then Curtis sprang lightly aside as the knife struck deep into the tree at the level of his throat, pulled the weapon out, waved it at Gonzalez, and called out triumphantly, "Try again, José; and be quicker next time!"

Ned Castleton sprang forward, with Turner close behind, and grasped his arm. "Are you crazy, Curt?" he exclaimed. "This is fool's play! We don't want any more of it!"

"There's no danger," Conrad replied jauntily. "I knew I could jump quicker than he could throw, and I wanted to prove it to him. There's not a bit of danger; I can do it every time. But if you don't like it we'll have something else. Hello, kid!" he said as Homer

rushed up and seized his arm; the young man's face was pale and tears stood in his eyes. "You've no reason to be frightened," Curtis went on easily. "All I had to do was to watch his eyes. If there had been any real danger I wouldn't have tried it."

Lucy Bancroft sat quite still for a few moments, her eyes on the ground, but presently she started toward the house, contriving to pass Conrad when there was no one beside him. She touched his arm and he wheeled toward her as if he had felt an electric shock. "It was a most foolish thing to do," she said in a low voice, "but-you are the bravest man I ever saw," and hastened on without giving him time to reply.

At night there were fireworks and dancing. After the knife-throwing episode Curtis tried again and again to have speech with Lucy, but whenever he came near she seemed not to see him, and was so interested in conversation with her admirer of the moment that he could find no opportunity. Homer attended her like her own shadow. The hours hurried past, and still, piqued and wilful, she postponed making the opportunity for her revelation.

Conrad was master of the fireworks; while he was busy setting off sky-rockets and mines Lucy and Homer called to him that they were going to the top of the hill beyond the alfalfa field to see how the display looked from there. It was the very walk Curtis had intended to ask her to take with him, and he glanced after them, keenly disappointed. But he said to himself that as soon as he could get the fireworks out of the way there would be nothing to demand his attention for the rest of the evening, and then he could surely get a little time with her.

Half an hour later he saw her, through a glare of red fire, setting off fire-crackers with his brother and Pendleton. Dan Tillinghurst had just joined them, and she turned to him with a laughing threat, a lighted cracker in her hand. He called to Pendleton, whose pockets were bulging with packs of the crackers, to see fair play and give him weapons of defence. The cool night wind was tossing her brown curls, her bright face was full of animation, and the red light enveloped her in a rosy sheen. He looked at her, his face aglow with admiration, then turned back to the sky-rockets. As he stooped over the box he heard a scream in a girlish voice, followed by the stern command, "Sit down! Sit down!" in Dan Tillinghurst's heavy tones. Springing up, he saw a white heap sinking to the ground amid leaping tongues of flame and the three men stripping off their coats and beating the fire. He rushed forward, taking off his coat as he ran, and in a moment they had whipped the flames down to a ring of charred muslin and flickering sparks. A dozen others had hurried to the spot, but it was Curtis's outstretched hand that Lucy took as he bent anxiously over her, his arm upon which she leaned as she staggered to her feet. She went at once into the house with Miss Dent, and did not reappear that evening. When Louise returned she explained that Lucy had gone to bed, but that, except for the nervous shock, she had suffered no harm.

Curtis Conrad went on sending off sky-rockets and Roman candles in the amaze of a new knowledge. That moment of Lucy's peril, brief as it was, had revealed to him the love that, unconsciously to himself, had been bourgeoning in his heart throughout the Spring. So absorbed had he been in his own grim purpose that he had not realized the meaning of his liking for Lucy and his enjoyment of her society. But in the light of the flames by which he had seen her circled her dearness had flashed upon him its real significance. When she leaned upon him as she arose, it had demanded all his self-control to keep from taking her in his arms. His nerves were thrilling yet with the slight pressure of her body upon his arm as she regained her footing. So sudden and forceful was the rush of his emotion that it swept him from his accustomed moorings, and filled heart and mind to the exclusion of every other idea. Lucy-Lucy-Lucy-he said her name over and over in his innermost thought, even while he danced with Mrs. Turner, strolled with Miss Whittaker to the hilltop,-as he had wished to do with Lucy,-talked with Martinez, or listened to Judge Harlan's stories. The thought of her was constantly with him, enveloped in a wonderful tenderness; his memory was incessantly recalling images of her as she looked leaning against this tree, seated beside that table, walking across the road. He hovered around Miss Dent until she, to escape from his attention and his solicitude about Lucy, which intensified the aversion and resentment she already felt, retired to the house early in the evening.

But, when all the merrymakers had gone to bed and quiet had settled upon the ranch, Conrad began to feel a violent wrenching of his heart. When he stretched himself upon the roof of the house and gazed into the silvery violet sky his lifelong purpose reasserted itself. For so many years it had been his habit, as he composed himself for sleep, to think over his plans for the pursuit of Delafield and feed his heart with the desire for revenge that he quickly felt its tyranny. For a moment all emotion ceased and his mind stood back, aghast at itself, bewildered. Then the old idea took possession again, and he said to himself, almost with anger, "What business have I to fall in love?" To think of Lucy in connection with his own dark and bloody aims was repellent, and his thoughts turned away in quick reaction. Then came the remembrance of Homer's devotion to her and of how welcome, apparently, had been his attentions. So, for that time at least, Lucy and love were turned out of his heart and his last waking thoughts were of his plan to go to Albuquerque and Santa Fe within a few days, there to run down the clews that promised most.

Because of all that had gone on in his mind and heart as he lay on the roof that night Conrad's manner toward Lucy the next morning was graver and more restrained than usual. He was keenly alive to the magic of her presence, but for that he rebuked himself and went near her no oftener than he could help. Lucy tried in vain to find an opportunity for private speech with him. And so the time came for their departure and the fateful words had not been said. "Well," she consoled herself, "he will come to see us in Golden before long, and I will tell him then."

As they drove away the house was filled with the bustle of leave-taking. The guests who had come by rail were being driven to the station at White Rock to catch the forenoon train. Others were leaving by horse or carriage for Golden or Randall. As the dust from the last of the departing vehicles rose in thin gray stains against the vivid blue of the sky Ned Castleton called to his wife from the shade of the tree beside the gate. She had been saying good-bye to the Bancrofts and had stopped in the sun beside the adobe wall to play with a horned toad that Gonzalez had caught for her.

"Fanny," he said, "I know I haven't got horns, but if you'll come here in the shade I'll prove that I can be just as interesting as that toad."

She came, holding the weird little creature on her palm. "Look at him, Ned! Isn't he cunning? He's the dearest thing I ever saw-except you."

"Oh, thanks; it's kind of you not to put me in the same class. As a reward I'll tell you some news. Your little scheme for balking Lena's designs on Conrad has succeeded perfectly. Turner has just told me that she has suddenly decided she wants to go to Santa Barbara at once, and they're leaving this afternoon. I told him to go ahead, and I'd stay here a few days longer and finish things up with Curt."

"That's just splendid, Ned! We'll have some lovely rides, won't we? And it will be such a rest not to have to keep an eye on Lena. I felt sure last night that she was going to give up the game and pretend she hadn't been playing, because she suddenly lost all interest in the cattle business."

"Of course you know, Francisquita, that you have been behaving shamelessly; but I'll forgive you, because you've saved our model superintendent for us."

"Ned, you know very well that I didn't do a thing but just help Mr. Conrad make it pleasant for all the people-except, perhaps, Lena. I'm afraid she'd have had a better time if I hadn't been here. But I've been thinking this morning, Ned, that maybe it wasn't necessary for me to help quite as hard as I did. What do you think about it?"

"I think I don't know what you're talking about. As the cowboys say, you've flung gravel along the road a little too fast for my gait."

"Ned, you're the blindest thing! What could I mean except that Mr. Conrad didn't need to be distracted from Lena, especially as her methods are so broad?"

"Well, go on, dear. We'll get there after a while."

"Go on! Why, Ned, that's all! Isn't that enough? Why should a man want more than one pretty girl to protect him from the designs of a lady who-well-who wants to shave him? You never needed anybody but me."

"True, Fanny! But you always were equal to an army in yourself, and now you are equal to two-which is only another way of saying that you grow more fascinating every day. And now I think you might be gracious enough to tell me what you're talking about."

"Why, Ned, I'm afraid Miss Bancroft didn't enjoy it any more than Lena. I wasn't quite sure of it until this morning; but I really think, Ned, that Lena would have been left out in the cold just the same if I hadn't-hadn't helped Mr. Conrad entertain the people quite so much."

Castleton laughed. "Oh, I begin to see! You are feeling the pangs of remorse because you've been putting snags in the course of true love. But you needn't worry, dear. Curt isn't the sort of man, if he cares anything about her, to let a little thing like that make any difference."

"But he'll be too busy with you to go over to Golden and see her again for a long time, won't he?"

"Oh, we can get through this week, I think."

"Good! Then we can leave on Saturday, and on Sunday he can gallop over to Golden, and by that time she'll want awfully to see him and she'll be very sorry she flirted so outrageously with Don Homer. And next Fall we'll send them a wedding present, and they'll come to see us on their wedding journey,-she's a dear, sweet girl, Ned, and I like her,-and I'll explain to her why I-why I helped Mr. Conrad make things pleasant at the barbecue, and we'll have a jolly laugh over it. There he is now, Ned! Do go right along and begin your work, so we'll be sure to leave on Saturday."

When Conrad bade the Castletons good-bye at the railway station at the end of the week, Francisquita said to him:

"When you see that pretty Miss Bancroft again-" here she gave him a significant glance and then demurely lowered her eyes-"please tell her that I hope to see her again, and that if she ever comes to San Francisco she must let me know-you can give her our address. We'd be delighted, Ned and I, to help her have a good time. She's a dear, lovely girl and I'd really like to know her better."

Curtis drove home, declaring to himself that Mrs. Ned was one of the most charming women he knew. He would ride over to Golden to-morrow afternoon and deliver her message. He lingered fondly over the image of Lucy's slender figure standing at the top of her veranda steps and smiling upon him a gay and gracious welcome, and a strong desire rose in his heart to know just how glad she really would be to see him. But the recollection of his plans for the ensuing week came crashing through his pleasant thoughts like a runaway horse through a flower garden. For a moment the purpose that held his life in thrall seemed strangely unworthy. But presently he jammed his hat down on his head and, with compressed lips, said savagely to himself:

"No; the Delafield affair is my first love, and I'll stay with it." As he thought over his plans and hopes for the immediate future his heart grew hot again with the old indignation over all that ruin and struggle, and the old purpose regained its accustomed vigor.

After a little, nevertheless, he decided that he would ride over to the Bancrofts' the next day and deliver Mrs. Castleton's message. It would do no harm for him to see Lucy occasionally, in the friendly way in which they had always met.

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