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

SENTENCE OF DEATH

As the Spring days passed, in unbroken procession of rosy dawns, cloudless and glowing noons, and gorgeous sunsets, Louise Dent’s resentment against Curtis Conrad grew keen and bitter. She saw the lines of worry appearing in Bancroft’s face, and surprised now and then in his eyes an anxious abstraction; and in her heart she stormed against the man she supposed to be the sole cause of it all. Dreading his next visit lest she might betray her feeling, she longed to drive him from the house, when he should come, with burning, shaming words. But Bancroft, who knew as much of his intention as she did, was on terms of cordial friendship with him, and she must take her cue from her friend and host.

Toward Bancroft himself her heart grew more tenderly solicitous as her womanly instincts divined his feeling toward her. A thousand unconscious touches of tone and manner had already revealed his love, and she surmised that he would not speak because of the imminence of this sore danger. She longed to give him her open sympathy, to counsel with him, to lock hands with him so that they might face the trouble together. Yet she was stopped from word or action by the necessity of seeming to know nothing. The fact of Bancroft’s identity had been disclosed to her by his wife, her dear and intimate friend, who, at point of death, had told her, under solemn promise of secrecy, the whole story, that she might the better shield Lucy should disclosure ever threaten. Now, her heart melting with pity, love, and sympathy for her friend, and burning with angry resentment against his foe, she must perforce sit in apparent ignorance of it all, be calm and cheerful toward Bancroft, and smile pleased welcome upon Conrad. That hidden volcano in her breast, whose possibility Lucy and Curtis had half seriously discussed, had become a reality, and the concealment of it demanded all her self-control.

The only relief she dared give herself was occasional disapproval of the young cattleman in her talks with Lucy. Louise was surprised and puzzled by the varying moods in which the girl received these criticisms. Sometimes she kept silence or quickly changed the subject. Rarely she tossed her head and joined in the condemnation with an angry sparkle of the eye. Or, again, with flushing cheek, she defended him from Miss Dent’s aspersions. Louise decided, with a fond smile, that her vagaries of mood were due to pique at the lack of more constant attentions from Conrad. For the young woman, to her father’s and Miss Dent’s loving amusement, was proving herself adept in the art of queening it over a court of masculine admirers. What with walks over the mesa, rides and picnics up the canyon, music of evenings, and Sunday afternoon calls, Lucy was leading a gay life, and Louise, as her chaperon, a busy one. Being a normal, buoyant-hearted girl, Lucy enjoyed the gayety and the attention and admiration showered upon her in such copious measure for their own sake, and she was glad of them also because, together with her household cares, they kept her too well occupied for sad thoughts.

So the days passed until mid-June was at hand and the time come for the trial of Jose Maria Melgares. Curtis Conrad was in Golden as one of the principal witnesses for the prosecution his first visit to the town since the Spring round-up. Lucy, glancing frequently down the street, was trying to interest herself in Miss Dent’s conversation as they sat together on the veranda. They spoke of the trial, and Lucy said she had seen Mr. Conrad on his way to the court-house when she went down town to market.

“I’ve been disappointed in Mr. Conrad,” said Louise; “I don’t understand how he can talk so recklessly about people needing to be killed. To me it is very repellent. You know how he speaks about Mr. Baxter.”

Lucy’s head went up. “But Mr. Baxter is a very bad man!” she exclaimed. “He has been responsible for a great deal of suffering. Just think of Melgares and his poor wife! But for Mr. Baxter they might still be living happily on their little ranch. And he’s done many other things just as wicked and unjust. Oh, he’s a very bad man, and I can’t blame Mr. Conrad for feeling that way about him.” She broke off, flushing to her brows, then went on more quietly: “But I don’t think, Dearie, that Mr. Conrad means half he says when he talks that way; it’s just his way of feeling how brave he is.”

“If he does not mean it, he should not speak so recklessly of serious matters,” Louise responded with decision. “He must have a cruel nature, or he would not harbor such ideas.”

Lucy leaned forward, her face aglow. “Indeed, no, Dearie! Mr. Conrad isn’t cruel; he’s really very tender-hearted just think of the way he carried that wounded bird all the way to Golden to have its leg fixed. And one day when we were walking on the mesa, he was so distressed because he accidentally stepped on a little horned toad. It’s unjust to call him cruel, Dearie!”

Her glance darted down the street again, and she saw Curtis nearing her gate. His quick, energetic stride and eager face were like a trumpet call to her youth and her womanhood. Forgetting all but the fact of his presence, she felt her heart leap to meet him with joyful welcome. But instantly came remembrance and reaction, and she greeted him with unusual gravity of manner.

Conrad wanted them at the ranch for the Fourth of July. “We are to have a big barbecue and baile,” he said. “Both the Castletons are coming this year to look things over, and I wrote Ned that if Mrs. Ned was coming with him perhaps it would amuse her if we did something of the sort. The idea seemed to just strike his gait, and he wrote back at once to go ahead and whoop it up for all I’m worth. Mrs. Ned and Mrs. Turner are both coming, and I’m asking a lot of people from all over the Territory. I want you two ladies and Mr. Bancroft to be sure to come out the day before the Fourth and stay at least until the day after, and as much longer as you find convenient. My brother Homer is coming on next week for the rest of the Summer, and he’ll be there too.”

Lucy was delighted, clapped her hands, and declared it would be great fun of course they would go. Repugnant to the idea but knowing that only one course was seemly, Miss Dent gave smiling acquiescence. As they talked, Curtis telling them of the great wealth of the Castleton brothers, the rivalry of the two ladies, the dash and beauty and vogue of Mrs. Turner, and the Spanish ancestry of Mrs. Ned, Lucy’s eyes continually sought his face. Her spirits began to rise, and soon they were gayly tilting at each other after their usual custom, she all smiles and dimples and animation, and he beaming with admiration. They went to the conservatory to see the tanager and presently brought it back with them, telling Miss Dent that they were going to set it free. Lucy stood beside him as they watched it soar away through the sunlight, a flash of silvery pink flame, and it seemed to her that their mutual interest in the little creature had made a bond between them and given her an understanding of his character deeper and truer than any one else could have.

Conrad went down the hill, whistling softly a merry little tune, his thoughts dwelling tenderly upon Lucy. He wished her to enjoy the barbecue and baile even more than she expected it was to be her first experience of that sort and he began to plan little details that might add to her pleasure. So absorbed was he and so pleasant his thoughts that for a time he quite forgot the Delafield affair. But it came to mind again when Bancroft asked him, as they talked together at the door of the bank, if he had had any more trouble with Jose Gonzalez.

“Oh, no; Jose’s all right. He’s the best cowboy I’ve got and as docile as a yearling. He’s agreed to stay right on at the ranch with me. I’m glad to have such a smart, competent fellow to leave under Peters, for after the Fourth I expect to be away a good deal. I’ll have some time for myself then and I’m going into this hunt after Delafield for all I’m worth; I don’t think it will take me long to run him down now.”

Bancroft hesitated a moment, then, laying his hand on Conrad’s arm he spoke earnestly: “For God’s sake, Curt, give up this fool notion of yours. If you don’t, you’ll never get through alive. No sane man is going to let you get the drop on him, as you seem to think you can. He’s undoubtedly watching you right along, ready to put an end to the business as soon as he thinks you’re really dangerous. Let him pay you if he will; but stop this foolishness.”

Conrad laughed heartily and slapped Bancroft’s shoulder. “Why, Aleck,” said he, “the most satisfaction I’ve ever had comes out of knowing that I’m so hot on his tracks that I’ve got him buffaloed. Give it up? Not much! I’m going to lope down that trail at a two-minute gait, and Sumner L. Delafield is mighty soon going to wish he’d never been born.”

Bancroft turned half away, with a tightening of his lips under his brown moustache. “Very well. I’ll not trouble you with any more advice on the subject. But when you meet with disaster, as you undoubtedly will, you must remember that you’ve got nobody but yourself to blame. How’s the trial going?” he asked abruptly.

“Pretty fast; the case will go to the jury to-morrow. It won’t take them more than ten minutes to reach a verdict. You ought to come in and hear Judge Banks’s charge, Aleck. Dan tells me it’s sure to be interesting. He says you never can tell whether Banks will deliver an original poem or make up his charge out of quotations from Shakespeare.”

As the banker went up the hill to his home he remembered that he had heard Rutherford Jenkins was in town. To-morrow he must see the man and try again to induce him to consider the dangers of an indictment for conspiracy. At any rate, he would hold that affidavit of Melgares’ up his sleeve, and the time might come when it would be efficacious, even should Jenkins still scoff at it now. Conrad he had given Conrad another warning, as plain as day, and if the man would rush on recklessly he must take the consequences. Jose Gonzalez was still at Socorro Springs an accident could happen and there was no time to lose!

Lucy saw her father coming when he was a block away and, instead of running to the gate to meet him, pretended not to have noticed him, and hastened into the house. Louise Dent remained on the veranda, pushing forward a lounging chair for him as he mounted the steps. She saw that he looked paler and more haggard than usual, and she longed to put her arms about him, as a mother might around a suffering child, and charm away his trouble and wretchedness. In her maiden life the innate mother-longing had found little appeasement; and so, when this youthful love came into her enriched and mellowed heart of middle life, it gathered into itself the repressed yearning of her nature, and the maternal side of it was strong and fierce. She neither condoned nor belittled the sins of the man she loved. For his wrongdoing and the suffering he had caused she felt sorrow, pity, remorse remorse almost as keen as if she herself had been the guilty one. But her love enfolded him in spite of his sins, and even included them. For she told herself that if he had not been guilty she might never have known him, their paths might never have crossed.

In gentle, unobtrusive ways she ministered to his comfort; then, sitting beside him, her calm brow and steady eyes giving no sign of the tumult in her heart, she talked with sympathy and interest, gradually leading his thoughts away from the present into happy plans for the future. With keen satisfaction she saw the weary, desperate look fade from his face and eyes, giving place to one of comfort and content, and the assurance that she had made him forget his troubles, even for a little while, filled her heart with pleasure.

Lucy, sitting in her room, heard the murmur of their voices through her open windows. Her high spirits of the hour before were gone, and she sat dejected, her face mournful, and her head hanging like a flower broken on its stem. Presently she slipped down to the conservatory, took the pot of cactus Conrad had given her, ran across the back-yard, and threw it over the fence. Then she joined her father and Louise, seating herself on the arm of his chair and throwing her arm around his neck as she asked with loving concern about his welfare, told him he had not been looking well of late, and that he was working too hard and ought to have a rest. But that evening, after dinner, she rushed across the yard and out of the gate, and gathered up the cactus pot in her arms as if it were some small animal she had hurt. She returned it to its place in the conservatory, pressing her hands around it until its spines brought little drops of blood.

“I can’t help it!” she exclaimed in a vehement whisper. “I have to like him, and I shan’t try any more not to! He wouldn’t hurt daddy, I know he wouldn’t because because he wouldn’t and because he loves me!” A tiny smile curved her lips as she touched the plant caressingly and presently her whisper went on: “If I could only tell daddy that he needn’t be afraid or worried! Oh, I wish I could! But he mustn’t guess I know.” Her lips ceased moving and she stared unseeingly at the cactus, as her thought slowly took shape: “It’s worrying daddy awfully, and I mustn’t let it go on any longer. I’ll tell Mr. Conrad who Delafield is and he’ll stop right then I know he will. He’ll despise us afterward oh, he won’t love me after that! but poor daddy! he won’t be worried any more.”

Bancroft and Miss Dent were alike convinced that his pursuer would be ruthless in the fulfilment of revenge. Arguing from their knowledge of men, their experience of the world, and their observation of his character, each had come to the fixed conclusion that no softening of heart or staying of hand could be expected from him when he knew the truth. Lucy, having neither knowledge of men nor experience of the world to guide her, had not reasoned about the matter at all. She had jumped at once to her conclusion, as soon as she knew her father’s identity, that he had nothing to fear from Curtis. Her decision was partly due to her own temperament, which she instinctively felt to be somewhat akin to Conrad’s, and partly to her knowledge of a side of his character of which Louise knew little and her father still less. It was further strengthened by her intuition that he loved her something the young man himself had not yet realized. Other than this belief in his love she could have offered no reason for her assurance that he would give over his purpose as soon as he learned to whose door his quest was leading him. But neither her father nor Louise, had it been possible for them to argue with her, could have shaken her conviction.

The next day Bancroft, Conrad, and Pendleton went together to the court-house to see the closing scenes of the Melgares trial. The leading men of the town were there, as well as the usual hangers-on of a court-room, and a few women, both Mexican and American, sat in a little railed space at one side. Every seat was filled, and a standing line of late comers fringed the walls. Across the room Bancroft saw Rutherford Jenkins. The crowd was disappointed by the judge’s charge to the jury, which was brief, simple, and confined to bare statements of law and fact. So it sat still and waited after the jury had filed out, feeling sure that the deliberation would not be long, and that something interesting might be expected afterward from the judge; for he had the reputation of doing and saying whimsical things. He was a bookish man, who studied his law volumes much, but for relaxation turned often to romance and poetry. He had a knack for making jingles himself, and his pronouncements from the bench, whether he was charging a jury, calling for order, sentencing a prisoner, or making peace between warring attorneys, were as likely as not to be in rhyme of his own improvisation or in aptly applied quotations from the words of the mighty.

The jury came back presently with a verdict of murder in the first degree. Judge Banks asked the prisoner if he knew of any reason why the court should not sustain the finding of the jury. Melgares said nothing, and Dellmey Baxter, his counsel, who had made the best fight for the Mexican that he could, shook his head; he had given his services, and cared to take no further trouble. All that now stood between the prisoner and the gallows was a little space of time. The judge looked out of the window into the trembling green depths of the cottonwoods beside the court-house, and for a moment there was silence in the room. He was a slight man, with dreamy blue eyes, and a square, fine face, framed by side-whiskers, short and thin. It was quite like him to be trying to realize, in that brief moment, just how it would seem to have the gallows looming in one’s path so short a way ahead.

He ordered the prisoner to stand. Sheriff Tillinghurst, his usual smile absent from his kindly face, helped Melgares to his feet. The Mexican’s wife, who had been seated beside him, drooped forward, her breast shaken with sobs and her lips moving in whispers of prayer.

“Jose Maria Melgares, you have heard the finding of the jury,” began the judge, and waited for the sonorous voice of the court interpreter to send the words rolling in musical Spanish over the room, “and it is now necessary for me to pronounce upon you the sentence of this court. The rains will soon be here, Jose Maria Melgares, the grass will spring forth, the flowers bloom, and all the plains and hillsides grow green and luxuriant. But you will not be here to see and enjoy their beauty, Jose Maria Melgares. The rains of Summer, the golden days of October, the storms of Winter, will all alike pass unknown and unheeded over your head. Spring will come again with its new life, and the lambs will frolic beside their mothers and the little calves bleat in the valleys. But your eyes will not see the sights, nor your ears hear the sounds, Jose Maria Melgares. It will not matter to you that the skies of New Mexico bend blue and beautiful above your head. The stars will march across the midnight heavens, proclaiming that God is good, and that He holds the universe in the hollow of His hand. Day after day the sun will rise in his fiery might and blazon forth upon earth and sky the goodness and the glory of the Almighty. The moon will swim across the violet skies of night, wax from slender crescent to fair white disk, and wane again. But to you, Jose Maria Melgares, it will all be as nothing. For you, life is a tale that has been told; there is nothing more for you now, Jose Maria Melgares, save the moral, and even that is no longer of interest to you. For you have been guilty of a heinous crime, Jose Maria Melgares; you have taken the life of your fellow-man, and therefore your life is forfeit. It is the sentence of this court, Jose Maria Melgares, that you be hanged by the neck until dead. And may God have mercy upon your soul!”

The last melodious syllables of the interpréter’s voice resounded through the room, and died in sudden silence. Then the moment’s hush was broken by a shriek as Senora Melgares sprang to her feet, stretching her arms out wildly to the judge.

“No, no, Senor Judge! It is not right that my husband should die,” she cried out in Spanish. “He was made to steal the mare, and the man who hired him to do it and brought all this trouble upon us he is the one who should die! There he sits over there! Senor Jenkins, Don Rutherford Jenkins! He is the one who made my husband steal the mare, who gave him money to do it, because he had a grudge against Senor Conrad; and he is the one ”

Sheriff Tillinghurst, his hand on her shoulder, was urging her to sit down, her husband was ordering her to stop, and there was a sudden hubbub all over the room. The judge rapped on his desk and threatened to have the room cleared. Jenkins sat quite still, glaring wrathfully at Bancroft. Conrad clenched his fist, his blue eyes blazing as he exploded an oath into Pendleton’s ear; it was his first intimation that the man from Las Vegas had been behind the attempted theft of his mare.

Jenkins was waiting for Bancroft at the door of the bank. “I want to see you at once, in private,” he said curtly, and without a word the banker led the way to his office. “A nice trick you played me,” Jenkins began, his voice hot and sneering. “I thought of going straight to Conrad; and that’s what I ought to have done, to serve you right.”

“Well, why didn’t you?” Bancroft asked, impassively.

Jenkins took quick alarm. Had the young ranchman, with his impetuous loyalty, told his friend what had happened in the Albuquerque hotel? But perhaps Bancroft was only bluffing, in which case he himself could bluff as well as another. “I didn’t because I thought it would be the square thing to see you first, and find out if you have any explanation to offer of that woman’s performance. Unless you can satisfy me you had nothing to do with it, I shall see Conrad and tell him everything he doesn’t know about you before I leave town to-night.”

Bancroft reflected. If Jenkins approached Curtis in that young man’s present mood there was ample likelihood that the blackmailer would never trouble him again. Yet there was the chance that he might say in time to save himself the word that would stay Conrad’s hand. He dared not take the chance.

“I advise you,” he said slowly, “if you value a whole skin, not to go near Curt Conrad while he is in the state of mind in which I just left him. As for Senora Melgares, are you crazy enough to suppose I had anything to do with that?”

“It’s evident, Bancroft, that you put her up to something you were afraid to do yourself. You wanted to put me in a hole, and you got her to do it for you.”

Bancroft made a gesture of annoyance. “Oh, well, if you’ve got no more sabe than that ” he began, but went on quietly, “I give you my word of honor ”

“The word of honor of Sumner L. Delafield!” Jenkins sneered.

The banker’s eyes flashed as he made an impulsive start, but he went on with quiet emphasis: “I give you my word of honor that I knew no more than you what the Melgares woman was going to say when she jumped up. You ought to see yourself that it would have been to my advantage to keep this knowledge entirely in my own hands.”

“Nevertheless,” Jenkins replied sullenly, “you could have prevented her outbreak if you’d wanted to; and if there are any legal proceedings started against me because of what she said I expect you and Dell Baxter to stop them at once. And I want you to give me, before I leave this room, a sum of money or a check equal to what I receive on the first of every month. And understand that this has no connection with that payment, which will come on the first of next month, as agreed. It’s little enough, after this outrage.”

Bancroft glared at his companion for a moment; Jenkins sat up with a defiant look and glared back. The banker turned to his desk and wrote the check without a word. “And the woman’s charge?” the other asked threateningly, as he took it.

“If any action is begun I’ll do my best to stop it.”

Well satisfied with the result, Jenkins hastened down the street, intending to cross over to his hotel at the next bridge and wait in the privacy of his room until train time. As he approached the court-house corner Sheriff Tillinghurst, Little Jack Wilder, Pendleton, and Conrad came out of the building. Curtis saw the hurrying figure, and the light of battle leaped into his eyes. He rushed past the others, and before Jenkins had time to draw his revolver was upon him and had pinioned his arms.

Pendleton ran forward, shouting, “Give it to him, Curt! He deserves it!”

“Jack,” smiled the sheriff, “I reckon this is goin’ to be a sure good scrap, but we don’t need to see it. We’d better hike.” And they disappeared up the side street.

Jenkins was vainly struggling to reach his hip pocket. Conrad got him down, set one knee on his chest, plucked forth the gun, and threw it to Pendleton. “Now, you damned skunk,” he exclaimed, “you’re going to get every lick that’s coming to you! I won’t dirty powder by using my gun on you, but I’m sure going to set the standard for lickings in this town.”

And to this day, in the city of Golden, the pummelling that Rutherford Jenkins forthwith received is spoken of as the utmost measure of punishment that a man may take and live. At the end Conrad took the limp body under one arm and carried it to the physician’s office. “Here, Doc,” he said, “is some work for you. Send the bill to me.”