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   Chapter 20 NARROWING THE QUEST

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 26179

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


That evening, while they sat and smoked on the little porch, Curtis Conrad told Homer of his lifelong quest. It was the younger man's first knowledge of the motive that had been so potent in his brother's life. He listened in silence while his pipe went out, and sat quite still after the other ceased. "Well, Curt," he said at last, with a little tremor in his voice, "this yarn of yours knocks me silly. I can't say I'm pleased with it, at least at first view. It doesn't seem sensible."

Curtis laughed good-naturedly. "Very likely, Homer; I didn't expect it to appeal forcibly to a sensible, practical chap like you. I haven't told you before because there was no use bothering your young head with it when the round-up seemed so far away; but I'm mighty near the end of the trail now, and you've come to a man's age and ways of thinking; so I thought it best to tell you. There's a possibility, of course, that I'll get the worst of it when the mix-up does come; and in that case I'd like you to know what it was all about. But I'm not considering that sort of chance as likely to happen."

"But what do you expect to gain by it, Curt, and why do you want to kill the man?"

Curtis slowly lighted a fresh cigar. "Well, Homer, if you don't see why, it's no use for me to explain."

"I know there's a big difference between us temperamentally; but I don't believe that would keep me from appreciating your motive if it had any basis in right or expediency. Good God, Curt, look at the thing sensibly! Suppose you kill the man when you find him. What earthly good will that do you? You'd probably hang for it, or go to the penitentiary for years. And it seems to me the chance is all the other way. Whoever the man is, he must know you're after him; and you'll find him ready and loaded. If you're not killed you're likely to be badly wounded-perhaps lose an eye or a leg-and what can you gain by it? Bless me if I can see any use or sense or right in the whole business."

Curtis Conrad rose and walked slowly and with bent head the length of the porch and back, his hand resting for an instant on his brother's shoulder as he passed. He stood regarding abstractedly the lightning that was playing among some low-lying clouds above the Hatchet Mountains, far to the southwest. "One night, soon after father and mother died," he began, in a tone so low that Homer could barely catch his words, "I lay awake almost all night, thinking. You were a little shaver barely out of kilts, the girls were young things with their dresses half way to their knees, and I was only fifteen. I had taken you into bed with me because I was afraid you'd wake up in the night and feel lonesome-and, perhaps, because I didn't want to feel quite so lonesome myself. I made plans for hours about how we could get along and the things I meant to do. You tossed in your sleep, and threw one of your hands against mine. My fingers closed over it, and you gripped one of them fast. Somehow, that grip went to my heart, and I promised myself and you that I would do all I could to make up to you the loss we had suffered. I thought of what father had planned for me; and I knew that I should have to give all that up. As I thought of the man who had robbed us of everything-money, opportunity, father and mother-I trembled with anger.

"I had never used an oath until that night. But I sat on the side of my bed, when I couldn't lie still any longer, and clenched my fists and cursed him, mildly at first and under my breath, then aloud and in the reddest language I could think of. As I damned his soul to the hottest corner of hell it seemed to me that he ought to be made to suffer in this life, too, and I said aloud, 'I would like to kill you!' The words sounded so plain that they frightened me. But I said them over again, and the next moment the thought leaped up, 'And I will, too, if I live!' That was how the idea was born in my mind. It struck root and grew, and I've held to it ever since."

Homer nodded. "Yes; I can understand how you would hold to a thing you'd made up your mind to do; I'd hold on just the same way. We've both got the bull-dog grip; it's one of the Conrad characteristics. But even a bull-dog can let go when he knows he shouldn't hold on any longer."

Curtis smiled grimly. "Not always; sometimes you have to pry his jaws loose. Nevertheless, I could let go if I wanted to. But I don't want to, and I don't propose to. The thing has become part of my life, of me, of my very blood."

"Have you been working at it all this time, Curt?"

"Oh, of course I couldn't do much while I was a boy except to think and brood over it. But during that time I learned all I could about Delafield, his schemes, and his personality. I read every newspaper I could lay hold of that had anything in it about him; I've got them all yet. But I didn't do much in the way of actually chasing him down until after the girls were married ten years ago. After that I earned and saved more money, and was free to go about as I wanted. Since then I've spent all the time and money I could spare in hunting him.

"I had a schoolmate named Littleton who became a detective when he grew up. We were good friends, and when he happened to find out that I was nosing around in my own way he offered to help me. I was to pay him what I could, and he would put in time on this when he had nothing else to do. Between us we tracked Delafield all over the West and into Canada, back and forth, and under nearly a dozen different names. I don't think he got as much money out of his Boston smash as he was charged with taking, but he got a good lot; and he's since made and lost two or three good-sized fortunes. Most of the time he has been a mining expert, and has owned and dealt in mines; the fact that he's stuck pretty close to that business has made it easier to follow him. Once, in Arizona, we lost the trail completely. It was as if the earth had opened and swallowed him; for a while we thought he must be dead. Later we discovered his tracks in Utah, under a new name. Since then there have been several gaps of that sort; but we've always managed to light on him again after a while.

"My last knowledge of him is that he is living somewhere in this Territory, a well-to-do and respected citizen, prominent in politics, and a supporter of Dellmey Baxter for Congress. The rest of it will be easy; there'll be a quick chase and an early show-down before there's time for another deal. I've got my eye on two men, both of whom fit that description. They live up North, and I'm going up to Albuquerque and Santa Fe next week to look up their records. If it's either one of them, Delafield will meet his deserts before he's many days older."

Silence fell upon them. Curtis leaned against a pillar of the porch and watched the clouds rising higher over the mountains. "It looks as if the rainy season is about to begin at last," he said in a matter-of-fact way. Homer rose and stood with a hand on his shoulder. They looked so much alike in the moonlight that at a little distance it would have been difficult to say which was the younger and which the elder brother.

"I don't need to tell you, Curt," he said in a tone rich with earnest feeling, "how grateful I am for all you've done for me, nor how well I know at what cost to yourself you've done it. You've been father and mother and brother and best friend to me all in one. If I ever do anything worth while the credit will be yours quite as much as mine. You know I'm not ungrateful or unappreciative, don't you, Curt? I can understand how this thing has come to obsess you, since you've explained how it took root in your mind before your ethical ideas were settled. But I can't sympathize with you in this search after vengeance, and I can't approve of what you are planning to do. It seems to me you ought to be able to see things straight by this time and shake off your obsession. If you want to find the man and hand him over to the proper authorities-that's all right; I'd help you in that myself; it's right that he should be punished and made to give up what he has to his creditors. But to take revenge into your own hands, Curt, and to take it at the cost of everything desirable for yourself-why, the thing is so mad that it bewilders me to think it's you that's doing it. I wish I could persuade you to give it up."

Curtis shook his head emphatically. "You needn't waste your breath, Homer. I rather hoped you'd understand better how I feel about it, and see the whole affair a little more as it looks to me. But you're different; and if you can't, you can't, and that's all there is about it. But it's useless to try to persuade me to give up my plans. A thing that you've thought about and dreamt about and planned and worked for through fifteen years gets to be part of your very blood, my boy, and it's not so easily cast aside."

"Well," said Homer, "you are you; and if you've got to do this thing I suppose it can't be helped." He paused, thinking intently. "But when you go North next week-if one of those men proves to be Delafield-you won't-at once-" He stumbled over his words, unable to put his brother's purpose into plain speech.

Curtis took up his meaning. "No; not immediately. I've got to come home again first."

"Then you'll be back here before you do anything? That's sure, is it, Curt?" asked Homer, relief in his voice.

"Yes; sure. I've got some important business that I promised the Castletons I'd attend to the week after, and I'll take no chances till I get that fixed up for them."

The next morning there was a promise of rain in the air and the sky. A dome of pale, bright gray, resting on murky supports of cloud, had taken the place of the usual heaven of vivid blue. But the wind, blowing warm and strong from the west, bore little moisture upon its wings, and the air was laden with an electric tingle that stretched and jarred unaccustomed nerves.

Hank Peters and José Gonzalez were working in the corral when Curtis Conrad came across from the door of his room to give them some directions. Presently he asked if they or any of the boys had seen anything lately of the gray wolf that had skulked about the neighborhood earlier in the season. Nosey Ike, they said, had seen it only the day before in the second draw on the road toward Golden.

"He did?" exclaimed Curtis. "I'm going to Golden to-day, and perhaps I can get a crack at it. I'll be home by six o'clock, Peters, and I want to talk with you to-night about some work at Adobe Springs to-morrow. But to-day's Sunday, boys, and we've come finally where we can stop and take breath once a week. You fellows can do anything you like to-day."

Peters thought he'd sleep all day, for he hadn't caught up since the barbecue; but José wanted to visit a Mexican family who had a little ranch beside a spring on the road to Golden.

"All right," said the superintendent. "Take whichever one of the ponies you want, but be sure to get back to-night."

"Curt," said Homer when they sat down to breakfast, "if you're not going to use Brown Betty to-day, would you mind if I rode her over to Golden? Or wouldn't you like to go with me? I'm going to call at the Bancrofts' to see if Miss Bancroft has recovered from the shock she had the other night."

Curtis hesitated a moment as he poured their coffee, his own plan rising before him invitingly. But he remembered how pleased the two young people had seemed to be with each other and recalled his own resolution: "Let the lad have a fair field," he thought.

"Brown Betty? Certainly, Homer," was his reply. "I'll see that she's ready for you. I can't go because I must ride down to Adobe Springs to see about some work the boys must do there to-morrow. Give my regards to the Bancrofts. By the way, Mrs. Ned Castleton gave me a message for Miss Bancroft that I'll let you deliver."

As Homer mounted for his journey he cast an anxious glance at the wet-looking clouds against which rose the purple-blue, statuesque masses of the Mogollon Mountains, and asked, "Is it going to rain?"

"It will sure rain in the mountains," replied his brother, "if it isn't pouring down by the bucketful there already. There may be a shower in Golden, but the creek will get on the rampage anyway, and maybe carry away some of the bridges. We shan't get any here right away, but it's coming, thank God! I tell you, Homer, it's been a cruel thing to see the cattle dying like flies on account of the drouth. For a while last Spring I thought of throwing up this job, I hated so to see the suffering of the poor brutes."

For a while all the man in Curtis Conrad clamored in revolt as he galloped southward across the silent, empty plain and thought of Lucy smiling a welcome from her veranda steps-and not upon him. His love called imperiously, demanding that he make trial of its strength. Should he give up the girl he loved without an effort, even though his rival be his brother? The primeval man in him was quick with the desire to take her in his arms

and bear her away from all the world. But it was not long until he was saying grimly to himself, "What have I to do with love-making and winning a wife? The Delafield affair is my business, and I'd better stick to it."

He pondered over the conversation with his brother on the previous evening, feeling more keenly Homer's condemnation of his purpose. He remembered that every one with whom he had spoken about the matter had sought to dissuade him. Bancroft disapproved, and had begged him many times to desist. Miss Dent called it unworthy of him. Now his brother, upon whose sympathy he had counted, condemned both his feeling and his intention. Nevertheless, he was surely right. It was easy for them to talk, for they had not suffered from the man's crimes, they had not struggled as he had, and they had not spent years in the effort to find Delafield and cast his sins in his face. But still, his cherished purpose had lost a little of its savor. He thought of his journey northward, which he so ardently hoped would consummate his years of effort and desire, and there was not quite the usual pleasure in his mental forecast. He put the thought of Lucy behind him and went over once more that early struggle and the birth of his purpose, brought more vividly to mind by the talk with Homer, and soon the old ideas and intentions recovered their accustomed sway. By the time he galloped homeward in the late afternoon his indignation was once more hot and seething and his mind full of zest for his approaching journey.

He found Homer in the corral unsaddling Brown Betty and humming a college tune. "Say, Curt, I think I'll go hunting to-morrow," said the young man as they walked across to the house. "I want to see if I can't get a shot at that gray wolf you've been telling me about. As I was coming home your Mexican cowboy had sighted it not far from the road, in that valley beyond the hill yonder, and was just about to shoot when I had the bad luck to come along and scare the thing away."

Curtis looked up with quick interest. "José? What was he doing? Did he shoot?"

"He jumped from his hiding-place just as I came along, so suddenly that the mare shied and nearly threw me. He was just ready to shoot-he said the beast was only a little way down the draw-and saw me barely in time to throw up his revolver and send it off at the sky. By that time, of course, the wolf was out of sight. I'm going back there at daybreak to-morrow to see if I can get a crack at it."

Just then Gonzalez came riding into the corral, and Curtis moved his chair to the doorway, in front of his brother. "All right, Homer, I wish you would," he said; "it would be just a tenderfoot's luck, you know, if you should get it." He was rolling a cigarette, but keeping one eye on José, who was caring for his horse. "Was there much rain in Golden to-day?" he asked.

"Yes; quite a storm, with lots of fireworks; I never saw such lightning or heard such thunder in my life. There must have been a flood farther up in the mountains, for the creek came down that ravine fairly booming, just as you said it would. It swept away one of the bridges and washed out parts of the foundations of two or three houses. But it soon went down again."

"Was the bank building injured?" Curtis asked, still following with narrowed eyes the movements of Gonzalez. "It's in a dangerous spot if a really bad flood ever does come down that valley."

"The First National? That's Bancroft's bank, isn't it? Yes; it lost some bricks out of the foundation, and the ground was washed away a little. Nothing of consequence."

"Well, that has happened several times already; some of these days it will happen once too often. Long ago, I'm told, the street and sidewalk had to be moved to the other side of the houses for a block or two along there. You remember the creek elbows toward the bank. If a great mass of water ever comes down that canyon it will rush straight against the side of the building-and the lives of whoever happens to be inside won't be worth two switches of a cow's tail."

"I talked with Mr. Bancroft about that possibility to-day," said Homer, "and he doesn't think the situation is dangerous."

"Yes; nobody in Golden believes there's any danger. And they may be right. They say there isn't as much rain now as there used to be, and that cloud-bursts of any consequence are as rare as six-legged calves. It will all depend on the weather."

The next morning José Gonzalez was hitching up to drive the men to Adobe Springs when Conrad walked up, leaned carelessly against the wheel, and looked him in the eye. The Mexican returned the gaze unflinchingly but respectfully. "José," said Curtis in a low tone, "you made a mistake about that wolf last night, didn't you? It wasn't the wolf you thought it was when you made ready to shoot, was it?"

An amused gleam lighted for an instant José's sombre eyes. "It might have been as you say, Don Curtis," he answered cautiously.

"I don't want any might-have-beens; I want to know if you are making war on my brother as well as on me. It's all right about me, but I won't have anything of the sort where he's concerned. I want the truth, José. Is anything of the kind going to happen again?"

Gonzalez looked at Conrad squarely as he earnestly replied: "It was a mistake, Don Curtis; I swear to you it was a mistake. Your brother looks much like you, it was your mare, and you had said you would be back from Golden about that hour. I saw it was Don Homer barely in time. After this I shall be more careful."

Conrad grinned at the closing sentence, and the Mexican scarcely repressed an answering smile. "Well, I am going away to-day," said Curtis, "to be gone for several days. So it won't be necessary for you to make any mistakes while I'm gone."

José looked up in quick alarm. "You are not going to Don Dellmey?" he exclaimed. "He is not the one who wishes your death!"

"What do you say, José?" the other demanded, starting forward eagerly.

"I swear to you by the Mother of God, Don Curtis," said the Mexican, with voice intense and manner most earnest, "that it is not Se?or Baxter who desires your death."

"Are you speaking the truth, José?"

"I will swear it on the crucifix, Don Curtis!"

Conrad gazed at him steadfastly, and the conviction entered his mind that Gonzalez was speaking the truth. A look of puzzled wonder overspread his face. "In the name of God, then, who is it?" he said, half aloud. The Mexican shrugged a shoulder and turned away.

"Who can it be?" the manager repeated, to himself, but still loud enough for the other to hear. "It must be Delafield!" he exclaimed. José's ear caught the words, and he listened as his employer went on: "He knows I'm after him, and he's trying to kill me first. If I could only make this coyote greaser tell me who his patron is, I'd know who Delafield is. I'd like to choke it out of you, you son of perdition!" He looked so fiercely at Gonzalez that the Mexican took a threatening step forward.

"You needn't worry," Conrad exclaimed contemptuously. "I know you wouldn't tell, even if I choked the life out of you trying to make you peach. It's your patron I'm after." José stooped to hitch the traces, and Curtis broke out impulsively: "I say, José, what makes you do this sort of thing? You're as square as they make 'em in most things; why do you go into this damned rattlesnake business?"

Gonzalez looked up with a confiding smile.

"The patron wishes it; and why not? If I kill a man he gets me off if he can, and then that is all right. If he can't, I pay for it in prison-and that is fair."

"Huh!" grunted the superintendent as he walked away. "So you think you are going to pay for me that way, do you? Well, I guess not!"

The same train that carried Conrad northward to Santa Fe carried also a brief and hurried letter to Dellmey Baxter which José Gonzalez had found time to write before he and the rest started for Adobe Springs, mailing it as they passed White Rock station.

"You will see Se?or Conrad in Santa Fe," the Congressman read in his office the next morning, "but you need not be anxious. I have sworn to him that it is not you who desires his death, and he believes me. I heard him speak to himself, and he said it must be Delafeel who wishes him dead. He said he would like to choke out of me who my patron is, for then he would know who Delafeel is. Don Curtis is a very brave man. I like him much."

Baxter chuckled over the closing sentences as he tore the letter into bits. Poking them musingly with a fat forefinger he thought: "It's a sure bet that his patron just now is Aleck Bancroft; and that makes it look as if Aleck might be this mysterious Delafeel-I'll have to find out who Delafeel is and what he's done some time or other; then I sure reckon I'll have a cinch on Aleck that will keep him from trying to step into my shoes as long as I want him to keep out." He looked out of his window into the little tree-filled plaza, cool and green in the morning sunlight, and saw Curtis Conrad walking across it from the hotel on the other side. He took a six-shooter from his pocket, made sure of its cartridges, and replaced it. From a drawer in his desk he took another, examined its chambers, and laid it on his desk, under an open newspaper. A moment later he was rising from his chair with outstretched hand and beaming smile.

"Why, how do you do, Mr. Conrad! I'm sure glad to see you. How did you leave things down in old Silverside? That was a high old time we had at the barbecue, wasn't it? Have the Castletons gone yet? A fine figure of a woman is Mrs. Turner Castleton! And I tell you right now it was a great shave she gave me!" The Honorable Dellmey Baxter rubbed his cheek, and chuckled. But his right hand rested on his desk, close beside the newspaper which he had apparently just thrown down.

"Mr. Baxter," said Conrad, ignoring the stream of questions and remarks, "some weeks ago I wrote you, saying frankly that I believed you responsible for attempts against my life, made by a Mexican who had come from you to me. I find myself mistaken, and I have come to apologize to you for my suspicions."

"That's all right, Curt, that's all right!" Baxter broke in, relief apparent in his countenance. "I'll admit I felt hurt by your insinuations, but as long as you've found out you were wrong and are willing to do me the justice of saying so, it's not worth speaking of again."

"Understand," Curtis went on, "that I'm not taking back or apologizing for anything else I've said about you, and I'm still shouting for Johnny Martinez for Congress."

"Johnny is to be congratulated for having your support," Baxter rejoined genially; "I wish I could get it away from him. Has that measly greaser made any more attempts on your life, my dear Conrad? You're too good a citizen for the Territory to lose in that way."

Curtis smiled carelessly. "I don't think my life is in any danger. No damned greaser will get the chance to stick me in the back when I've got both eyes shut and one foot tucked up in my feathers, if I'm onto his game. I don't care anything about José; it's his patron I'm after."

"His patron!" exclaimed Baxter in apparent surprise. "You don't mean to say that José's got a patron in that business!" His visitor nodded and the Congressman went on: "You don't say so! I didn't suppose you had an enemy in the Territory. This is interesting! We must get at the bottom of this, Mr. Conrad, for we can't afford to lose you. Have you any idea who's behind the greaser?"

Curtis considered a moment. He might get some information from Baxter that would help him; it would do no harm to speak cautiously. "Yes, and no, Mr. Baxter. I know who he used to be, but I don't know who he is now. His name used to be Delafield, back in the States."

"Delafield-Delafield," mused Baxter. He had got the conversation where he wanted it. "I don't remember having heard that name in New Mexico."

"That hasn't been his name for a good many years. Don't you remember the Delafield affair in Boston, some fifteen years ago-Sumner L. Delafield, who made a big spread in the financial world, defaulted, and ran away?"

"Why, of course!" The Congressman brought his fat fist down on the table with a thump. "The Delafield affair! Yes; I remember it, and how Delafield slid out and covered up his tracks completely. And you say he's living in New Mexico now?"

"Yes; he's a rich, prominent, and respected citizen of New Mexico. But I haven't discovered which one of 'em, and he doesn't want me to find out. My father lost all he had in the smash."

They talked a little longer, and Curtis learned enough about the history of the two men he had in mind to be satisfied that neither of them was the one he sought.

After Conrad went away, Baxter leaned back and folded his hands across his waist-coat, his left eyelid drooping and his face beaming with smiles. "Now," he thought, "I've got Aleck Bancroft exactly where he can do me the most good!"

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