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   Chapter 21 THE SILENT DUEL

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 16883

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

As July sped on Homer Conrad's visits to Golden grew more and more frequent. When Curtis returned from his northern journey, still ignorant of Delafield's identity, Homer was greatly relieved, and tried once more to dissuade his brother. "Anyway, Curt," he urged, "don't do anything more about it now. Let it rest a while, and think about it more coolly and carefully; you'll see how foolish it is if you do that." As Curtis did not mention the subject again, he concluded that his advice had been taken and that there was no reason for immediate anxiety. His mind at rest on that score, he devoted himself more than ever to Lucy Bancroft. He talked of her so much to his brother that Curtis soon saw how complete was his absorption. "I guess they're hitting it off together all right," he concluded.

Curtis Conrad tried to accustom himself to the idea of Lucy as his brother's wife. It cost him many a painful twinge, and once the rebellious thought came into his mind, "If it hadn't been for the Delafield affair I might-" But a little shock, as if he had fallen away from some ideal or been guilty of an irreverence, stopped the notion. Now and then, too, he had misgivings as to what Lucy would think of him if she knew. He shrank from the feeling that her condemnation would be as unsparing as his brother's, with more of horror and disgust. For the first time he began to think about what might lie beyond that longed-for meeting with Delafield. One day, musing upon Homer and Lucy, he had a sudden vision of himself as a commiserated kinsman, and smiled grimly as he reflected, "It might be a good thing for them if I got my quietus in the scrimmage."

These signs of a change slowly going on within him sometimes came as a flash of feeling, while again the thoughts induced held him for hours. The emotion that had so powerfully rushed over him when he first realized his love for Lucy had jarred his grip upon his purpose; and afterward intimate daily association with his brother and knowledge of the young man's severe disapproval united to move him now and then from his old point of view and to give him brief visitations of more wholesome feeling. If his love for Lucy, so suddenly realized, had met with no check, it alone might have been enough in time to turn him from his plans. A man of his temperament cannot be fired by two enthusiasms at the same time. He must give himself wholly to his absorbing desire. Since at the core Conrad's nature was sound and sweet, it is likely that after a little his love would have overmastered his desire for revenge. But Lucy's flirtation with his brother, induced by pique and disappointment at his constant association with Mrs. Ned Castleton, and Homer's prompt infatuation had led him to believe that the two younger people were in love with each other. Consequently he did his best to restrain his own feelings, and so limited their check upon the older sentiment. Francisquita little knew, or would ever guess, what grave consequences were flowing from her innocent effort to keep her sister-in-law within bounds. But for that the outcome of the Delafield affair would have been "another story."

Conrad returned from Santa Fe much disappointed by the failure of the clews that had promised so much. He debated whether it would be worth while to try to compel Gonzalez to disclose the name of his employer should the Mexican attack him again. He was doubtful of the success of such a plan, for he believed José as likely to give up his life as his secret. Nevertheless, he decided it would be worth trying. For several weeks after his return it chanced that whenever he went from home it was with Peters or some of the men, while there was always somebody about the corral and the house. He knew Gonzalez was watching him constantly, awaiting the moment when they should be alone. Toward the end of July he made up his mind to provide the opportunity and bring matters to a focus.

On the day he reached this decision his brother returned from Golden looking dejected. "They've quarrelled," was Curtis's inward comment. He said nothing, nor did Homer mention Lucy's name, contrary to his custom of talking much about her after a day in her society. He was also less talkative than usual upon other subjects. During the evening, while Curtis read, Homer sat by the open door and smoked in gloomy silence, listening to the pouring rain and the rolling and echoing thunder. He was wondering, half in lover's anger and half in lover's downheartedness, why Lucy had been so unreasonable that day, and why she had acted as if she did not care whether he came or stayed away. Well, he would not trouble her with his company again very soon. He and Pendleton had been talking about a camping and hunting trip in the Mogollon Mountains, and he would see if they couldn't get up the party and go at once.

The next morning a sky of pure, deep, brilliant blue shone over a freshening, greening plain. Homer rose from the breakfast table and walked out into the corral, throwing back his shoulders and breathing deeply of the dry, cool, exhilarating air. It seemed a different world from that of yesterday. There was no hurry about the camping trip, after all. "I think I'll ride over to Golden," he said to his brother, "and see if that storm last night did much damage. It looked black in the mountains when I was coming home in the afternoon, and a bad flood may have come down the ravine."

Curtis smiled quizzically. A certain eager masterfulness in the young man's air brought to his mind conviction of the real purport of his brother's errand, and he felt no doubt of its result. "A good idea," he assented. "It was a bad storm and may have done a lot of harm. But I'll have to use Brown Betty myself to-day. You can have your pick of the others."

He stood by and called out, "Good luck, old fellow!" as Homer mounted his horse, and laughed and swung his sombrero as the other turned away a blushing face. Curtis gazed after him, a swift vision filling his mind of the look that countenance would wear when he returned to tell him proudly that he had won Lucy's promise to be his wife. "And by that time I'm going to know who Delafield is," he thought, his lips compressed, as he turned quickly into the corral.

"José," he called, "I want you to go to Adobe Springs this morning and see if any of the cattle are mired in the overflow from the storm last night. Then deepen the outlet so the water will all be carried away. You'd better start at once. I'll come after you in about half an hour and show you about digging out the outlet."

As Gonzalez mounted his horse at the corral gate he looked back and saw Conrad standing beside his mare, making her hunt through his pockets for sugar. "A brave man is Don Curtis," his thoughts ran. "He is so brave it does not seem right that he must die. But-" and he shrugged his shoulders with the air of one who says, "What would you?"

When José was well out of sight Conrad started after him, at first at a slower pace than usual. His mind was not upon the expected encounter, with its doubtful issue, nor upon the information, so long and ardently desired, that he hoped to extort from the Mexican. A month previous he would have been intent on that one thing, his thoughts absorbed in it, and his heart on fire with anticipation. Now he dwelt upon the idea of marriage between Lucy and Homer. "The lad's a better man than I," he was thinking. "There's more in him, and ten years from now I shan't be able to stack up alongside of him and make any showing at all-even if I'm not in prison or hanged by the neck until dead long before."

He bared his brow, curiously white above the rest of his sunburned face, to the south wind. His lips tightened and his eyes glowed as he looked out over the gray road stretching before him, while his inward vision flashed down the grim and lonely path that led into the future. It was the way he had chosen, the one he had travelled with eager feet for fifteen years, and he must follow it to the end. A few miles farther on that gray track, perhaps just beyond that next hill, the longed-for knowledge was awaiting him. He would force it from Gonzalez, and then-Delafield! The thought fired his heart once more and his eyes blazed with the old indignation as his mind went back to the grief and loss of his early years, to that lonely night of hate and anger when his deadly pu

rpose was born. He touched Brown Betty with his spur, quickening her pace to a smart gallop as he searched the road and plain with ardent eyes. His heart was bounding forward with anticipation, the savor of longed-for vengeance once more strong in his throat. In front of him lay a wide, shallow valley, with steep, storm-torn rims and brows shaggy with mesquite.

"I reckon, Betty B.," he said aloud, "it's about time to be looking for José, and this draw seems a likely sort of place for him."

He drew his revolver, glanced at its chambers, held it across the pommel in his right hand, and made sure of the handful of cartridges he had put in his pocket on leaving home. Brown Betty cantered across the bottom of the valley and, as she climbed the steep bank on the other side, lifted her head and neighed. From somewhere in the distance came an answering whinny. "It's one of our horses," thought Conrad.

At the hilltop he carefully searched the plain; a little way down the road, beside a clump of bushes, he saw a riderless horse. He chuckled. "José's sure hiding out around there somewhere," was his instant conviction. His head was high, his eyes flashing, and his face set in hard lines as he started the mare forward at a brisk trot. His gaze travelled toward the other horse, studying every bunch of mesquite and questioning every clump of amole and yucca that grew between.

His eye caught the motion of branches in a tall, spreading thicket of mesquite a hundred yards away, not far from the road. They swayed against the wind for a moment, trembled back and forth, and then bent before the breeze like their fellows. The growth was dense, but behind it he could distinguish the outlines of a darker mass, and an instant later he saw a tiny flash of light reflected from some small, bright object. "That must be the sun on his gun-sight," said Curtis, "and I reckon it's time to prepare for war."

Dismounting, he threw the mare's bridle over her neck. "No; she'll follow me," he thought, "and she doesn't need to mix up in the Delafield affair."

His eye still on the suspicious clump of bushes, Conrad fastened the mare to an outreaching mesquite limb at the roadside. "This is a better place for you, Brown Betty, nice old girl," he said, reaching back to pat her neck as she nickered after him.

His pistol in his hand and his vision holding the dark object behind the feathery green plumes of the mesquite, he went on briskly until he had covered half the distance between them. Then he saw the object move cautiously a little to one side, where the leaves were not so thick. Plainly visible now were the straw sombrero, the dusky face below it, the outline of the body, and the revolver held steadily between the branches.

Half a dozen strides more, and he fixed his eyes upon those of Gonzalez, dark and brilliant, gleaming through the scant, fern-like foliage like two coals of brown fire. Conrad's six-shooter pointed straight between them as he walked slowly toward the bush. He knew that José's was levelled at his breast. Revolver cocked and finger at trigger he came on, his eyes holding those of the Mexican. José's pistol hand he disregarded, trusting to his perception of the change, the instant's flash of decision, that would light Gonzalez's face when he pulled the trigger. He knew that, should he stumble or miss his footing and so give advantage, or should any hesitation show in face or eye, that second would the Mexican's bullet fly for his heart.

It was Curtis's intention not to hurt José unless the need became imperative. Therefore he did not fire, but came silently on, and Gonzalez stood, silent and still, behind the sheltering bush, each with pistol cocked and held at steady aim, the gaze of each holding insistently that of the other. It was a silent duel of eyes, of wills behind the eyes, of purposes behind the wills, and of temperament behind the purposes.

"Will he never shoot?" Conrad asked himself once and again as he approached.

"A brave man! A brave man!" was José's thought as he watched that steady advance, secure in his own advantage.

Curtis came on with resolute step-fifteen yards, a dozen yards, ten yards. Barely a score of feet separated the muzzles of the two revolvers, and still the blue eyes and the brown stared into each other with dauntless challenge.

"Why doesn't he shoot?" thought José. "A brave, bold man! It is a pity to kill him."

"A moment more, and I'll have him!" exulted Conrad. Fifteen feet, twelve feet, ten feet-still the space between them lessened, and still the silence was unbroken and their guns at unchanging aim.

Another step, and Curtis saw José's eyes waver; another, and heard him draw a little, gasping breath. He saw irresolution flash across the Mexican's face, saw his finger leave the trigger, his right arm tremble, and drop to his side.

Conrad felt cold sweat break out over his body and there was a loud buzzing in his ears. Yet neither in face nor eyes was there a sign that he had seen any change. With his gaze still fixed on the other's downcast lids, he moved sidewise around the bush, and stood beside Gonzalez.

"Give me your gun, butt first," he commanded in a low, tense voice. José raised his eyes to meet the muzzle of the gun looking blankly between his brows.

"You can take it if you like, Don Curtis," he said unsteadily. "I am not going to shoot you. Here it is."

"Now," said Curtis, pointing both guns at José's head, "tell me the name of the man who hired you to kill me."

The Mexican started in surprise. He shrugged his shoulders, looked at the guns again, shuffled his feet uneasily. "Don Curtis, how can I?" he exclaimed in a reproachful tone. "You should not ask that question. It is not fair."

"Neither was it fair for you to try to stick me in the back before I was onto your game. So we're even now, as you told me once before. You've got to tell! I don't want to kill you, José; but, by God! I will, if you don't give up that man's name. I'll give you one minute to think it over; and if you don't speak out then, I'll blow your head off."

Gonzalez sent one searching glance into Conrad's set face, and dropped sullen eyes to the ground. He knew there was only one thing to do if he wished to live. For half the minute he stared downward, then looked blankly up at Curtis. "Fifteen seconds more," said the stern voice. His face worked, his lips opened and closed again. Then he seemed to gather himself together for the unwilling effort, and the words fairly rushed from his mouth:

"It is your friend, Se?or Bancroft."

"What!" exclaimed Curtis, in a voice that had sunk back into his throat.

Gonzalez repeated his words. Conrad leaned forward, white with anger, and thrust the two revolvers close to the other's face. "José," he said slowly, in hard, sharp tones, "a little while ago a man told me that. I shook him as if he'd been a dog and told him that he lied. I ask you once more, the last time, who is it?"

Gonzalez threw back his head, crossed his arms, and looked his antagonist angrily in the eye. "I am not a liar, Don Curtis," he said proudly. "I may kill sometimes, if my patron wishes. But I do not lie." He placed the muzzle of one of the pistols against his heart. "I have told you the truth, Se?or Conrad," he went on. "I swear to you, by the Mother of God, that I could not say different if you pulled that trigger now."

Conrad trembled and his white face went suddenly crimson. "It is hard to believe," he said; but he lowered the pistols. "I know you are not a liar, José, and you seem to be speaking the truth. You understand, don't you," he added in a tone almost apologetic, "that it is hard for me to believe what you say?"

"It is the truth, se?or."

Curtis put his own pistol away, and looked thoughtfully at the other. "José," he said, "I shall have to think about this thing. In the meantime I'm going to keep your gun."

"As you like, Don Curtis," replied Gonzalez, indifferently. "I shall do nothing more. To-morrow I shall ask for my time."

Conrad eyed him keenly. "Well, then, here's your gun. Go on to Adobe Springs and do the work, as I told you. To-morrow morning, if you want it, you can have your time."

José took the gun, turned the cylinder, and one by one dropped the bullets to the ground.

"It is ended, Don Curtis," he said. Mounting his horse, he galloped down the road.

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