Read CHAPTER XIII of The Delafield Affair , free online book, by Florence Finch Kelly, on ReadCentral.com.

THE SECOND SHOT

Four days later the physician gave Conrad dubious permission to return to the round-up. “Well, I may as well say you can go,” he surrendered, “since you are determined to go anyway. But don’t blame me if your wounds get worse.”

Most of this time the cattleman spent at the Bancrofts’, where Lucy and Miss Dent tried to make an invalid of him, and all three enjoyed the comradeship that straightway sprang up among them. Between Lucy and Curtis there was much bantering gayety, but when alone their talk was sure to flow into serious channels. They had many long conversations, wherein each was deeply interested in everything the other said. They had much music also, Miss Dent playing and the others singing duets. Lucy was very happy. She beamed and sparkled, with glowing eyes and dimpling smiles, and her manner, the whole being of her, expanded into maturer womanliness. Between Miss Dent and Conrad there was from the first a mutual liking, which quickly developed into confidential friendship. On his last day in town, while helping Lucy water the plants in her conservatory, he spoke to her admiringly of Miss Dent.

“I’m so glad you like my Dearie!” she responded warmly, looking up at him with a glow of pleasure. “She’s the dearest, sweetest woman! And you always feel you can depend on her. If you put your hand out you always know just where you can find Louise Dent, and you know she’ll be as firm as a rock. She’s been so good to me! And she’s always so restful and calm she has so much poise. But, do you know ” she hesitated as she stopped in front of the cage that held the tanager Curtis had brought for her care. His physician had splinted its broken leg and bound its injured wing, and together they were anxiously watching its recovery. “It’s been eating, Mr. Conrad!” she broke off joyously. “Let’s give it more seeds and fresh water!” As they ministered to the bird’s needs Curtis went on about Miss Dent.

“Yes; she seems to have a calm sort of nature, but when I look at her I find myself wondering if that is because she has never been moved very deeply, or because she keeps things hidden deep down. Her eyes are set rather close together, which generally means, you know, an ability to get on the prod if necessary; and sometimes there is a look in them that makes you feel as if she might break out into something unexpected.”

Lucy was looking up at him with the keenest interest in her face. The southwestern sun had kissed her skin into rich browns and reds, and she carried gracefully her slender girlish figure. Her head, with its covering of short brown curls, always held alertly, gave to her aspect a savor of piquant charm. Curtis looked down into her upturned face and eager eyes with admiration in his own. Under her absorption in the subject of their talk she felt herself thrill with sweet, vague happiness.

“Do you know, I’ve been feeling that very same thing about Dearie,” she said in confidential tones. “She seems more restless lately, although I know she’s perfectly happy here with us. She has just the same quiet, gentle manner, but it seems as if there might be a volcano under it not really, you know, but as if there might be if if I don’t quite know how to say it if things just got ready for it to be a volcano!”

“Do you think anybody would know it,” asked Conrad, “even if it was really there?”

“I know what you mean yes, she has wonderful self-control I never saw anybody who could hide her feelings as she can, and always does. I’ve been thinking lately that if Dearie were in love ” Lucy hesitated a moment while a deeper glow stained her cheek “she’s just the sort of woman to do anything, anything at all, for the sake of it.”

“Yes; and not get excited over it, either,” added Curtis.

When Lucy went to attend to some household duties, Conrad sauntered out to the veranda, where he found Miss Dent with her sewing. He happened to refer to his boyhood; and she asked some questions that led him to speak of his youthful struggles. She was interested, and wanted to know the cause of his father’s financial ruin. He hesitated before replying, the matter touched so nearly the secret core of his life and thought. Few, even among his intimates, knew anything about the vengeful purpose that had motived half his life, and he disliked ordinarily to say anything about the cause of his early misfortunes. But the habit of close and friendly speech into which he and Louise had fallen, coupled perhaps with a softening of feeling toward her sex that had been going on within him, moved him to openness. “It won’t matter,” he thought. “She’s such a level-headed woman; and I’ve told Aleck already.”

“I don’t often speak about it,” he said, “but I don’t mind telling you, for you are such a good friend of the Bancrofts, and Aleck knows the story. Of course, you’ll understand that I don’t care to have it discussed generally. My father’s disasters all came from his getting caught in a specious financial scheme engineered by one Sumner L. Delafield of Boston.”

An indrawn breath, sharp and sudden, made him look quickly at his companion. “Have you hurt yourself?” he asked solicitously.

“Oh, I jabbed my needle under my thumb nail. Such an awkward thing to do! It gave me a little shock, that’s all. Go on, please. What sort of a scheme was it?”

He told her briefly the story of his father’s ruin and death, and outlined the transactions that led to Delafield’s failure. As he spoke his heart waxed hot against the man who had caused the tragedy, as it always did when he thought long upon the subject, and he went on impulsively to tell her of his long-cherished purpose of revenge. She listened with drooped eyelids, and when she spoke, at his first pause, there was a slight quaver in her voice.

“You don’t mean that you really intend to kill the man?”

“I do, that very thing. What’s more, it’s my notion that killing is too gentle for his deserts. For, of course, my case is only one out of many. And any man who would deliberately bring ruin and death into so many households don’t you think yourself he’s worse than any murderer?”

She forced herself to raise her eyes and, once she had met his gaze, her own was cool and steady. But if Curtis had not been so absorbed in their discussion he might have seen that her face was paler than usual and her manner nervous, as she replied earnestly:

“But you forget, Mr. Conrad, that the man had no intention of doing these things, and that probably he involved himself in as much financial disaster as he did others. I’ve heard of the case before; I knew some people once who were concerned in it who lost money by it and I’ve always understood that the failure was due more to Delafield’s sanguine temperament and over-confidence in his plans than to any deliberate wrongdoing. Don’t you think, Mr. Conrad, that killing is a rather severe punishment for mistakes of judgment?”

He answered with the rapid speech and quick gestures he was wont to use when under the stress of strong feeling. “I can’t take that lenient view of the case, Miss Dent. My conviction is that he got some money out of the affair, though not as much as he is generally supposed to have taken, and ran away with it. I’ve studied the case pretty thoroughly, and I’ve trailed him along from one place to another for years. I’m hot on his tracks now; and he knows it. I’ve followed him into New Mexico, and I know he’s somebody in this Territory, prosperous and respectable. He can’t escape me much longer.”

She had been thinking intently as she studied the expression of his face. “It’s not worth while to try argument or persuasion with him; opposition would only make him obstinate,” was her conclusion. Her manner was as composed as usual, and only her eyes showed a trace of anxiety as she spoke, slowly and thoughtfully, her gaze searching his countenance:

“Well, if you say you are going to take revenge upon him in this savage way I suppose you will do it if that chin of yours means anything. You haven’t asked my opinion, but I’m going to tell you anyway that it seems to me unwise and unjust and most unworthy of you to allow such an idea to become the obsession that this one has. But I want to know how you managed to keep your family together. That was a wonderful thing for a boy of fifteen to do.”

“Oh, I don’t deserve so much credit for it. Of course, I couldn’t have done it without help. Our guardian wanted to distribute us children around among the relatives; but I wouldn’t have it that way, and begged so hard that at last he gave in. Two of my father’s cousins lent money enough to pay off the mortgage on our home, on our guardian’s representation that he should be able to save enough out of the wreck to pay it back in time. He did so; and we children kept a roof over our heads.

“A cousin of my mother’s, a widow without children, offered to live with us and keep house. We rented part of the place and lived in close quarters in what was left. I worked like a Turk at anything and everything that brought in a penny; and so, all together, we had enough to eat and wear, and I was able to keep the girls and Homer in school. I went to night school and sat up reading anything I could get my hands on when I ought to have been in bed. It was hard sledding sometimes, but we pulled through. And I had good friends who saw that I was never out of a job of some sort.

“After a while our cousin married again and left us; but by that time my sisters were old enough to take charge of the housekeeping, and we got on very well. Ten years ago they both married, and I said to Homer: ’Let’s sell the house and give the money to the girls; you and I can shift for ourselves, and we don’t want them to go to their husbands with nothing at all.’ The kid was game, and so we sold the place and divided the money between Helen and Jeannette. Then I put Homer in school and struck out for myself. I’ve sent him to college, and he’ll be graduated next year. But he’s worked right along, and helped himself a heap. There’s sure good stuff in the lad.

“This Summer I’m not going to let him work; the rest of the way is clear enough now, and I want him to come down here with me, and learn to rope a steer and bust a bronco and go camping, and have a good out-doors time of it for his last college vacation.”

As she listened with her eyes fixed upon his face, Miss Dent’s attention had been half upon his story and half upon the man behind it, searching out his character through his words. The conviction settled in her mind that his vengeful intention was rooted deep, and that the more he talked of it the more set would he become in his purpose.

“I like your story,” she said. “It is one of those tales of human effort that make one have more faith in human nature. But the climax you intend to put upon it is horrible!” He noticed the slight movement of repulsion with which she spoke the word. “But that’s your affair,” she went on. “Did I understand you did you say ” In spite of her self-control she was stumbling over the question. She masked her momentary confusion with an absorbed interest in getting her sewing together. “Did you say that Mr. Bancroft knows that you have told him this story?”

“Yes; I told him the outlines of it a little while ago, apropos of a check I had from Delafield. The rascal thinks he can buy me off that way. That shows he’s buffaloed. But he’ll find out I’m not that sort.”

“No; I shouldn’t think you were. But Lucy does she know anything about it?”

He looked up in surprise. “Why, no; of course not.”

Bancroft was coming through the gate, bringing Judge Banks with him; and Lucy joined them a moment later. The talk turned on the coming trial of Jose Maria Melgares, the narrow escape of Pendleton from Melgares’ bullet, and the death of Gaines as the result of his own foolhardy horse-play. They spoke of Little Jack Wilder’s skill with the revolver, and Conrad reminded Bancroft of their agreement to do some target practice together.

“Let’s all go out in the back yard now,” Lucy exclaimed, “and Miss Dent and I will shoot too! Wouldn’t you like it, Dearie? Come on! it will be such fun!”

While they were setting up the target Sheriff Tillinghurst came to speak to Judge Banks upon an official matter; and Lucy asked him to stay and help her shoot.

“You-all use my gun, Miss Lucy, and then you’ll be sure to have good luck,” he replied, drawing his revolver from his pocket. It was a small pearl-handled six-shooter, which the ladies admired, and the men jibed at for its daintiness.

“That’s all right,” he answered good-naturedly. “This gun don’t stack up much beside a cannon for size, but I can pervade and pester with it a right smart heap if I want to. It’s a peach of a shooter, and it don’t show in my clothes. I never have anything on me but that, and I’ve never seen the gun play yet where I got the worst of it. You-all try it, Miss Lucy.”

Lucy took the revolver, telling him that now she would be his deputy, and, with plentiful instruction from Curtis, placed herself in position and fired. She hit the bull’s-eye and won much applause, until she explained that she had fired with both eyes shut and that, if she had made a good shot, it was because she couldn’t help it with such a splendid gun as Mr. Tillinghurst’s. Miss Dent took careful aim and, without lowering her arm, emptied the remaining chambers, making an excellent score. She, too, won a round of applause, to which she replied calmly, “Oh, I’ve known how to shoot for years, and when I am in practice I do fairly well.”

“You two fellows shoot a match,” said Tillinghurst to Bancroft and Conrad. “The judge’ll be umpire, and each fellow use his own gun at thirty paces.”

Louise and Lucy stood at one side, where the Sheriff and Judge Banks joined them, leaving Bancroft and Conrad to begin their match. Beneath her calm exterior Miss Dent’s thoughts were in a tumult, and fierce resentment against the cattleman was rising in her heart. Had not Aleck suffered enough already? Why should he be hunted down like this when he was willing to make restitution, even after all these years? Oh, cruel! to beat him down again, when he had won success and respect once more! This man was a savage in his implacable desire for revenge.

Curtis raised his revolver. With both eyes open and without pausing to take aim, he sent a bullet through the bull’s-eye. “Delafield won’t have much chance against a man who can do that!” he exclaimed in a triumphant undertone to Bancroft.

As the test of skill went on, it developed that the banker excelled if he took time to aim accurately, while he of Socorro Springs was the superior at quick shooting.

“It’s my specialty in the shooting line,” said Curtis. “You’d better practise it, Aleck. It’s the thing that counts most if you get into a scrimmage.”

He handed his hat, a wide-brimmed, gray felt, to Judge Banks, asking him to throw it up, adding, “I’d do it myself if my left arm wasn’t in dry dock.” He raised his revolver as the hat left the judge’s hand; there were three quick reports, and he sprang forward and caught the descending sombrero on the muzzle of his pistol. The three perforations in the crown of the hat were so close together that a silver dollar covered them.

“Bravo!” exclaimed the judge. “I don’t know but two other men who can do that. Little Jack Wilder never misses the trick, and Emerson Mead, over at Las Plumas, does it as if he were a machine and couldn’t miss. If you ever get a grudge against me, Mr. Conrad, I’ll engage the undertaker and order my tombstone at once!”

Bancroft turned away quickly. He swung his arm upward, fired, and found that his bullet had hardly nicked the outer rim of the target.

“Don’t pay any attention to your gun,” Curtis admonished him. “Keep both eyes open, look at the bull’s-eye, and unconsciously you’ll aim right at it. If you get into a gun play, where it’s a choice between giving up the ghost yourself or getting the other fellow’s, you want to fasten your eyes on his most accessible part, point your gun that way, and shoot on the wink. Between the eyes is a good place, for then you can hold him with your own. That’s the way I shall fix Delafield,” he added, dropping his voice.

Cold anger seized upon Bancroft as the picture of that gun muzzle close to his own forehead came vividly into his imagination. Until now Conrad had not mentioned the subject of Delafield to him since the day of his return to town, and the banker’s friendly feelings had renewed themselves with the growth of his own confidence and with his desire to compass what he wished without violence. But Curtis had only to speak of his purpose in this cold-blooded manner for the banker to know that he, too, was rapidly becoming as implacable as his pursuer.

Judge Banks was talking to Miss Dent about the view and the New Mexican climate, and quoting Wordsworth on “the witchery of the soft blue sky.” She was compelling an expression of smiling interest, while her thoughts were with Bancroft and his danger. The desire possessed her to stand near him, to hover about him, as if her mere presence would protect him from peril. The friendly revolver practice between the two men made her sick at heart, and she was waiting with inward impatience for the moment when she could propose returning to the veranda.

Lucy and Sheriff Tillinghurst were laughing and talking together in a running game of playful coquetry on her part and admiring badinage on his. “Now, Miss Lucy,” he was saying, “if you-all are going to be my deputy, you’ll have to learn to shoot with at least one eye open. I can’t have my deputy shootin’ around promiscuous with both eyes shut. It might be used against me in the campaign.”

“Oh, I’ll keep both eyes open, just as Mr. Conrad says,” she exclaimed, taking the Sheriff’s revolver from his hand. “Just like this,” she went on gayly, pointing the pistol straight at Curtis’s face as he came toward them, saying, “Now you must have another chance, Miss Bancroft.”

Tillinghurst sprang forward as he saw her level the revolver and struck it up with his hand. Her pressure on the trigger had been light, but the contraction of her finger as the Sheriff knocked it upward discharged the weapon. The bullet sang through the air; and she paled and staggered backward, looking wildly from one to the other as she exclaimed:

“Oh, I was sure it wasn’t loaded!”

“A gentleman’s gun is always loaded, Miss Lucy,” said the Sheriff, mild reproof in his tone.

Lucy leaned, trembling, against Miss Dent’s supporting arm. “I I was sure we shot out all the bullets,” she stammered, looking wistfully at Conrad. “I’ll never, never touch a gun again.”

“Don’t feel so worried, Miss Bancroft,” urged Curtis, gently. “You weren’t pressing the trigger, and I’d have ducked if you had, for I was watching your hand. I wasn’t in the least danger, and you mustn’t think about it again. It’ll be your turn next, Miss Dent,” he added jocosely. “Aleck had his the other day, and sent a bullet into the wall just above my head.”

“And you still have confidence in us, you reckless man!” Louise exclaimed with a little effort at gayety, but with eyes on the ground.

“Perhaps he thinks he’ll be in less danger if he teaches you-all how to handle your guns,” the Sheriff commented, as Miss Dent led the way back to the house.