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   Chapter 22 REFLECTION AND REACTION

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 22404

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Conrad stood still and stared at the Mexican's lessening figure, galloping down the road. Presently he walked across to his mare, stroked her nose, and said softly, "By God! Betty B.!" For some minutes he gazed at her abstractedly, swearing under his breath, and now and then muttering, "Aleck! Aleck Bancroft!" Coherent thought was not yet possible. He felt that José had told him the truth, and yet he could not believe it; between the opposing convictions his mind lay dazed and inactive. He mounted and turned Brown Betty's nose toward home, riding at a foot-pace with his head down and his attention all indrawn. For a mile or two the mare plodded on quietly. At last, resenting the lack of the companionable attentions her master was accustomed to bestow upon her when they rode alone, she snorted several times and switched her tail vigorously, flicking his legs. There was no response. She whinnied softly, waited a little, and tried it again. Still her rider was silent. So she stopped, lifted her head, and neighed loudly. Conrad aroused himself. "What is it, Betty?" he said, looking searchingly around the plain. Nothing was in sight save its usual silent habitants. He dismounted, and examined her anxiously. She nipped him playfully, nickered gently, and poked her nose into his coat pocket.

"Betty B., you're a rogue!" he exclaimed, pulling her ear. "You're just lonesome and want me to talk to you! My, but you're spoiled!" He stroked her neck affectionately, then suddenly leaned against her, buried his face in her mane, and a single deep breath that was half a sob shook his body. "Betty!" he muttered, "to find that your best friend is the damnedest villain that ever went unhung!"

The little episode with the mare broke up the paralysis that staggering surprise had set upon both thought and feeling. As he mounted again his heart was hot and his mind working rapidly. "The damned villain!" he exclaimed savagely, "to be pretending such friendship with me when he knew what he had done!"

He spurred Brown Betty to a gallop. The tyrannous habit of mind engendered by long-wonted thought and desire urged him on to face at once the man who had despoiled his father and deprived him of his birthright. The old anger and hate surged over him, and his pulses beat swift and hard. For a while he forgot the personality of the enemy he had run to earth at last. Through his set teeth came whispered curses of hatred and contempt, and his tongue clung to the shameful epithets he longed to throw in the fellow's face. Not fast enough could he ride to keep pace with his desire. Revenge, so long fed with hope and promise, was calling to be sated. "Faster, Betty, faster!" he called to the mare, spurring her on.

But the very violence of his mood presently induced the beginning of reaction. He remembered who it was that he was riding so fast to expose and strike down. "Aleck! Aleck Bancroft!" he murmured, and slowed the mare's racing feet. The tenderness and loyalty of friendship raised still, small voices in his heart. Once again the thing staggered him. It seemed incredible. In the depths of his heart was conviction that José Gonzalez had told him the truth. But could he go to his best friend with such a charge, to taunt, insult, and challenge to death, on the word of a Mexican assassin? The idea repelled him. And he was glad of the misgiving, unwilling to believe that the quest he had followed with such eager determination was leading him to the door of Alexander Bancroft. "I ought-I ought to have confirmation, I suppose," he said to himself, uncertainly. And so, still undecided, feeling that it was truth and yet unwilling to believe, he came to the gate of his own corral. After he had unsaddled and stabled Brown Betty, he went through the kitchen for a drink of water from the big olla, wrapped in a wet coffee sack, that stood always in the drying wind and the shade of a tree beside the door.

Mrs. Peters came in from the store-room with a panful of potatoes. "Hank had to go to White Rock this morning," she said, "and he brought some mail for you. It's on your desk."

Conrad passed through the series of rooms, opening one out of another, to the front. On his desk lay some papers and a single letter. "Littleton!" he exclaimed as he hastily tore it open. He read:

"My dear Curt:-I have at last got for you the information we've been searching for so long."

His eyes eagerly rushed over the next few lines.

"I have satisfied myself that the man we've been trailing all these years is Alexander Bancroft, a banker and prominent man in New Mexico, who lives at Golden,-is that place anywhere near you?-and for a number of years has been considered one of the most solid, upright, and influential citizens of your Territory."

The letter dropped from Curtis's fingers and his heart gave a great thump that sent the blood in a crimson wave over his face. "My God, then, it's true!" he said aloud, and sat for a moment gazing at the letter in the same stupefied way he had looked after Gonzalez's retreating figure. A grim smile twisted the corners of his mouth as he read on.

"You may know him. Delafield's history as we've got it now makes his case one of those curious romances of detective work whose equal could hardly be found in fiction. We missed long ago the clew that would have led us to success, in those gaps in his trail we never tried to fill, because we came upon his tracks again so easily a little later. While working on another case recently I had occasion to look through an omnibus bill passed years ago by an Arizona legislature. It contained an astonishing ruck of things, and among them was a section authorizing William J. Brown to change his name to Alexander Bancroft. I knew that William J. Brown was one of the names under which Delafield had once traded in mines down there, and that, when we next found him after he had dropped that name, it was as John Smith, when he went down into old Mexico with John Mason Hardy. This name of Bancroft, sandwiched in there, and with such pains to legalize it, when we had found no track of it elsewhere, made me prick up my ears. I looked deeper into the matter and found that he had used this name of Bancroft only when he went to visit his wife and daughter, who lived most of the time in San Francisco or Denver, and were known by that name. When last we had track of the man, before I ran across Rutherford Jenkins, it was, you will remember, as Henry C. Williams, and then we lost all trace of him. That was because he went then on a visit to his wife and daughter in Denver and stayed there for some months. He had made a good clean-up about that time and increased it by some lucky trading on the Denver stock exchange. Then he went to New Mexico, kept the name of Bancroft, engaged in other business as well as mining, and settled down to be a permanent citizen.

"I congratulate you upon the successful termination of our long chase. I understand Bancroft is a man of considerable property and I hope you will be able to make him disgorge some of the goods he stole so long ago. I have written this much hurriedly, just to give you an outline of my discoveries at once. But I have all the necessary proofs, and whenever you want to bring the case to trial they are at your service."

Conrad folded the letter carefully, and put it in his pocket. He sat quite still, whispering "Aleck! Aleck Bancroft!" Presently his face went red again and starting up he hurried into the corral and threw the saddle again upon Brown Betty. Outside the gate, scarcely looking which way he went, he headed the mare toward Golden and galloped away, across the hills, and into the distance. He never knew just where or how far he rode that day. Afterward he remembered that sometimes he had galloped along a road and sometimes across the trackless plain, that sometimes he had found himself urging Betty to her utmost speed and again had traversed miles at a walk or had stood for a long time stock-still.

When he left the house the old idea that had enthralled him so long was clamoring in his heart. That may have been why, unconsciously, he rode at first down the road toward Golden. "It was not enough for him to take all my father had, life as well as money, and to make me drudge through my youth, but now he must set a hired killer upon me to stick me in the back!" So galloped his angry thought as Brown Betty's hoofs sped over the ground toward Bancroft's home. "Why didn't he come out in the open like a man and tell me who he was, and let us fight it out on the square? To send a man to live under my roof, and hire him to rope me, or stick me, or shoot me from ambush! And to pretend to be my good friend all the time! Coward! Thief! Murderer!"

Then, somehow, through his seething mind, for the first time came the remembrance of Lucy, and quickly followed the idea that perhaps Bancroft had gone about it in this secret way to save her from all knowledge of his disgraceful past. He checked Brown Betty's gallop to a walk. "He knew I was after him, hot-foot," now ran Curtis's thought, "and he sure had the right to head me off if he could. But he ought to have done it on the square!" He remembered the warnings Bancroft had given him about Gonzalez and about the danger of pursuing Delafield, and chuckled unmirthfully. "I reckon he was squaring himself to his own conscience," he said aloud.

Conrad looked about him and saw that he was on the road to Golden. Then came the flashing idea that he was on his way to kill Lucy's father. Instantly his feeling revolted. Whirling the mare's head he struck off across the plain to the eastward and after some miles struck the road to Randall. By that time he was pondering painfully the matter of Lucy and Homer. That evening, without doubt, Homer would come home, proud and happy, and tell him that he and Lucy were engaged. And this would be his wedding present to the girl he loved and the brother he had cared for almost since babyhood-the dead body of her father!

Then came pelting back the memory of his own wrongs, and Brown Betty was sent scudding down the road as remembrance and habit again lashed his heart. He turned about and raced back along the road toward Golden, hot with the old memories and sore with the newly discovered duplicity of his friend. "Even if I don't kill him," he thought, "I'll tell him what he is! I'll throw his villainy and his cowardice in his face! I'll tell him he's a sneak and a coward, and to draw if he dares!" His imagination rushed on through the scene and showed him, at the end, Bancroft's bleeding body at his feet.

With a shudder he wheeled the mare abruptly, turned from the road, and went galloping across the plain to the south. He began to understand that he could not kill Lucy's father. A sudden bright recollection came to him of how she looked that Spring afternoon when she and Bancroft had stopped at the ranch; how she turned to him in the wind, holding her wide hat down beside her face, and said gayly, "I assure you, Mr. Conrad, the most superior quality of father to be found anywhere in the United States!" And Bancroft seemed as fo

nd of her as she was of him. Yes; there was unusual love and devotion between them. Brown Betty was walking more slowly now; and after a while Curtis realized that she was standing still in the middle of the plain with the road nowhere in sight. And at the same time it was borne in upon him that he did not wish to kill Lucy's father, that the idea had become repugnant to him.

He turned to seek the road, saying to himself, "What, then, shall I do?" The wish was still strong within him to make Delafield suffer punishment for his misdeeds, to make him atone by his own suffering for all that Conrad himself had suffered. There was still the law. "Homer said he would help me if I wanted to go at it that way," thought Curtis. That recollection helped his self-justification for a moment, then his thoughts went on: "But of course he wouldn't do anything of the sort now; and he wouldn't want me to, either." It occurred to him that such a course as that would bring to Lucy as much pain as would her father's death. She was so proud of him and believed in him so thoroughly. "It would break her heart if she knew all this about his past," he decided. Homer, too, how deeply hurt he would be to have Lucy's father disgraced and Lucy herself made utterly wretched! "The lad would never forgive me," he muttered. Presently he was telling himself that Lucy must never be made to suffer the shame and unhappiness of such a disclosure. Nor should Homer ever know the truth about Delafield's identity. He must be able to love and respect his wife's father.

With a loving smile Conrad recalled some of Lucy's indignant remarks about Baxter's dealings with the Mexicans of the Rio Grande valley, and saw again her winsome look as she tossed her curly head and her brown eyes sparkled. Then quickly came the self-questioning: What would she think of him if she knew the purpose that had been animating him all his life? Whether it was her father he had tracked or another, how horrified she would be if she knew she had made such a man her friend! He blushed crimson, and pricked the mare to a faster pace. The old longing for revenge, the old belief in the rightfulness of his course, the old sense of satisfaction in his purpose-it was all dying hard, but he had come to where he could see it as it looked to others. He began to feel ashamed.

Still, it was difficult to give up the feeling that Delafield should be made to suffer some sort of retaliation for the wrongs he had inflicted upon others. Conrad pondered it as he rode aimlessly about, still smarting under the thought of Bancroft's deception during the last few months. He might go to the banker and have it all out by word of mouth. But as he considered that course with cool mind he reached a pretty firm conviction that shots from one or the other, or both, would end the interview. Bancroft was not likely to submit tamely to insult from him. And much shame and sorrow for Lucy and Homer would result. He did not want them to suffer. His head lifted and his lips tightened. "I'll give up the whole thing before I'll let it cloud their happiness," he said aloud. Then he fell to thinking why Bancroft had tried to strike him down secretly.

"I reckon he was doing his best to head me off in a way that would save him from disclosure and prevent Lucy from knowing anything about it," he thought. "Well, I can't blame him for wanting to keep it dark, at this stage of the game. But-why didn't he come and tell me, like a man!" Suddenly he began to recall the sort of things about Delafield and his own expectations that he had been accustomed to say to Bancroft, and smiled grimly.

"Lord! I think likely I've given him some pretty bad minutes! And I reckon what I said didn't invite his confidence. Good God, what a life the man must have lived all these years! It must have been plain hell since he's known I was on his track and has had to listen to the things I've said!"

Compassion for the man he had hounded and, all unknowingly, had so often reviled to his face, began to soften Curtis's heart. He thought of all the years of wandering, the frequent change of name, the ups and downs of fortune, the devious and sometimes crooked ways through which he had traced Delafield, and again he exclaimed aloud: "Good God, what a life! He must all the time have been wanting to get back where he could be settled and respectable! But he didn't dare try it while he was afraid of detection and punishment. And finally he believed he'd got there, I reckon, and was preparing to be happy with his daughter-and then I came along!" Again he mused, for a long time, while the mare took her own pace. At last he lifted his head and said aloud:

"I guess he's had his share of punishment after all; and I've been responsible for a lot of it. Sumner L. Delafield, we'll call it quits!"

Brown Betty was standing still in the middle of the road. The sun was dropping down the west, toward masses of sparkling, fleecy white clouds that piled the horizon high. Ten miles away he could see the green groves of Socorro Springs and the white glimmer of the buildings. He drew a long breath and looked alertly about. The load he had carried so many years had slipped from his back. No longer had he any desire for revenge, and in his heart glowed compassion rather than hatred for the man he had tracked with such determination. He felt a curious exhilaration as he sat there looking about him, while the mare shifted her weight from one foot to another.

"Well, Betty B.," he said, patting her neck, "you and I have had a devil of a time to-day, haven't we, old girl? But we've come through all right, thank God! And nobody is ever going to know a word about it, Betty; so don't you give it away. We're going home now, and you shall have the best supper we can find."

At the ranch his first inquiry was for Homer. The young man had returned an hour before. Surprised that he was not in beaming evidence, Curtis went in search of him and found him in his own room, bending over his trunk, his belongings scattered about as if a cyclone had been swirling within the four walls.

"Why, Homer," exclaimed Curtis, stopping in astonishment at the door, "what are you doing?"

Homer lifted a dismal face. "I'm packing up. I'm going away."

"Why, lad, what's the matter? I thought-" Curtis stopped, hesitating and embarrassed.

Homer energetically jammed some books into a corner of the trunk, and from its depths took up the unfinished sentence. "Yes; so did I. That is-I hoped. But it wasn't so. She-she says she's never going to leave her father-that he needs her-that she's always going to stay with him."

"Yes," said Curtis, lamely; "I know she's very devoted to him." He stopped; Homer went on with his packing. "I-I suppose, lad," the elder brother stumbled on, in kindly tone, "it hurts now, but-you'll get over it after a while." There was silence again while Homer threw a litter of neckties, collars, and handkerchiefs into his trunk. "I'd like you to stay here all Summer with me," Conrad went on presently, "but if you think you'd be more comfortable somewhere else, it's all right. I understand."

Homer looked up. "I'm going to Denver. I've got a classmate up there whose father I know will give me a job till college opens next Fall."

Curtis walked out into the corral and leaned upon the gate. Would there be a chance for him, then? Likely not, for she had surely shown more favor to his brother than to him. But he would try. His heart rose at the possibility. Yes, he would try. He looked at his brown, sinewy hands and thought of Lucy's little white ones lying in them. "Thank God, they're free from blood!" he said to himself with solemn gladness. Then the crimson dyed his face. Even if Lucy cared for him, which he hardly dared to hope, would she marry a man who had so long guided his life by such purposes as he had cherished? "But I'll tell her," he thought with grim determination, "just how bloody-minded I've been. It will likely spoil my chance-if I have any-but she must first know just what I am. I'll tell her all about it, without giving a hint of who the man is that I've followed. And after that-well, I'll feel that I've been square about it, anyway."

The sun was setting, and the whole sky was ablaze with its glory. The fleecy white clouds of two hours before, which had mounted higher and multiplied themselves many times, had become mountains of glowing color, masses of sea-shell tints, wide expanses of pink and pearly gray, hearts and beckoning hands of flame. Curtis gazed at the glowing kaleidoscope of the heavens, feeling its gorgeous beauty mingle with the thankfulness that filled his heart. It was good to be done with all those old ideas and feelings and to have come out of it without ruining anybody else's life.

Through the crimson and purple lights and shadows that enveloped the plain he saw Gonzalez galloping up the road, a fine, graceful, centaur-like figure.

"José," said Conrad as Gonzalez entered the corral, and his tone struck the Mexican as being unusually gentle, "I know that you spoke the truth to me this morning. But what you told me shall go no further. Mr. Bancroft shall never know that you told me, and neither he nor anybody else shall suffer harm because of it. There is no longer any need of a feud between you and me, and I wish you would stay and work for me. It isn't every day that I can get hold of a cowboy that knows enough to hit the ground with his hat in three throws."

José smiled, and shook his head. "No, Don Curtis. I like you much, and you are a very brave man. You are a braver man than I am. But to-morrow I am going back to Santa Fe."

"Well, then, if you won't stay I'll give you your time whenever you want it. But, I say, José, why don't you give up this rattlesnake business? You're on the level every other way; and you're too good a fellow to discredit all your race with this sort of work when you could be a first-class cowboy if you wanted to."

The Mexican looked at him with a wondering smile, shook his head, and went on into the corral. Conrad strolled to the little porch at his front door, stood there a moment watching the sunset colors; then, with his head in the air, went inside and sat down at his desk. He began a letter to Rutherford Jenkins:

"I have found that you told me the truth in that interview we had in your room in the hotel at Albuquerque some months ago. I do not know by what mysterious dispensation of Providence this strange thing happened, but I acknowledge now that it was the truth. I still maintain, however, that my final remark to you on that occasion was absolutely correct.

"I suppose you have been using this information about Mr. Bancroft's previous life to blackmail him. I advise you to stop it and to let him alone hereafter. If you don't, I tell you right now that you will surely wish you had. I shall take pains to find out whether or not you heed my warning, and if you don't I promise you that you will soon be able to sympathize with a skunk after a cowboy has thrown at it a can of oil and a blazing stick.

"Yours truly,

"Curtis Conrad."

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