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- The Argonauts of North Liberty - 10/19 -
keep any one out. It's only a wonder that you ain't overrun with thieves and sich like."
"There are usually servants about the place," said Demorest, carelessly.
"Ef they're the same breed ez that Manuel, I reckon I'd almost as leave take my chances in the road. Ef it's all the same to you I kalkilate to put a paytent fastener to my door and winder to-night. I allus travel with them." Seeing that Demorest only shrugged his shoulders without replying, he continued, "Et ain't far from here that some folks allow is the headquarters of that cattle-stealing gang. The driver of the coach went ez far ez to say that some of these high and mighty Dons hereabouts knows more of it than they keer to tell."
"That's simply a yarn for greenhorns," said Demorest, contemptuously. "I know all the ranch proprietors for twenty leagues around, and they've lost as many cattle and horses as I have."
"I wanter know," said Ezekiel, with grim interest. "Then you've already had consid'ble losses, eh? I kalkilate them cattle are vally'ble--about wot figger do you reckon yer out and injured?"
"Three or four thousand dollars, I suppose, altogether," replied Demorest, shortly.
"Then you don't take any stock in them yer yarns about the gang being run and protected by some first-class men in Frisco?" said Ezekiel, regretfully.
"Not much," responded Demorest, dryly; "but if people choose to believe this bluff gotten up by the petty thieves themselves to increase their importance and secure their immunity--they can. But here's Manuel to tell us supper is ready."
He led the way to the corridor and courtyard which Ezekiel had not penetrated on account of its obscurity and solitude, but which now seemed to be peopled with peons and household servants of both sexes. At the end of a long low-ceilinged room a table was spread with omelettes, chupa, cakes, chocolate, grapes, and melons, around which half a dozen attendants stood gravely in waiting. The size of the room, which to Ezekiel's eyes looked as large as the church at North Liberty, the profusion of the viands, the six attendants for the host and solitary guest, deeply impressed him. Morally rebelling against this feudal display and extravagance, he, who had disdained to even assist the Blandfords' servant-in-waiting at table and had always made his solitary meal on the kitchen dresser, was not above feeling a material satisfaction in sitting on equal terms with his master's friend and being served by these menials he despised. He did full justice to the victuals of which Demorest partook in sparing abstraction, and particularly to the fruit, which Demorest did not touch at all. Observant of his servants' eyes fixed in wonder on the strange guest who had just disposed of a second melon at supper, Demorest could not help remarking that he would lose credit as a medico with the natives unless he restrained a public exhibition of his tastes.
"Ez ha'aw?" queried Ezekiel.
"They have a proverb here that fruit is gold in the morning, silver at noon, and lead at night."
"That'll do for lazy stomicks," said the unabashed Ezekiel. "When they're once fortified by Jones' bitters and hard work, they'll be able to tackle the Lord's nat'ral gifts of the airth at any time."
Declining the cigarettes offered him by Demorest for a quid of tobacco, which he gravely took from a tin box in his pocket, and to the astonished eyes of the servants apparently obliterated any further remembrance of the meal, he accompanied his host to the veranda again, where, tilting his chair back and putting his feet on the railing, he gave himself up to unwonted and silent rumination.
The silence was broken at last by Demorest, who, half-reclining on a settee, had once or twice glanced towards the misshapen cactus.
"Was there any trace discovered of Blandford, other than we knew before we left the States?"
"Wa'al, no," said Ezekiel, thoughtfully. "The last idea was that he'd got control of the hoss after passin' the bridge, and had managed to turn him back, for there was marks of buggy wheels on the snow on the far side, and that fearin' to trust the hoss or the bridge he tried to lead him over when the bridge gave way, and he was caught in the wreck and carried off down stream. That would account for his body not bein' found; they do tell that chunks of that bridge were picked up on the Sound beach near the mouth o' the river, nigh unto sixty miles away. That's about the last idea they had of it at North Liberty." He paused and then cleverly directing a stream of tobacco juice at an accurate curve over the railing, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and added, slowly: "Thar's another idea--but I reckon it's only mine. Leastways I ain't heard it argued by anybody."
"What is that?" asked Demorest.
"Wa'al, it ain't exakly complimentary to E. Blandford, Esq., and it mout be orkard for YOU."
"I don't think you're in the habit of letting such trifles interfere with your opinion," said Demorest, with a slightly forced laugh; "but what is your idea?"
"That thar wasn't any accident."
"No accident?" replied Demorest, raising himself on his elbow.
"Nary accident," continued Ezekiel, deliberately, "and, if it comes to that, not much of a dead body either."
"What the devil do you mean?" said Demorest, sitting up.
"I mean," said Ezekiel, with momentous deliberation, "that E. Blandford, of the Winnipeg Mills, was in March, '50, ez nigh bein' bust up ez any man kin be without actually failin'; that he'd been down to Boston that day to get some extensions; that old Deacon Salisbury knew it, and had been pesterin' Mrs. Blandford to induce him to sell out and leave the place; and that the night he left he took about two hundred and fifty dollars in bank bills that they allus kept in the house, and Mrs. Blandford was in the habit o' hidin' in the breast-pocket of one of his old overcoats hangin' up in the closet. I mean that that air money and that air overcoat went off with him, ez Mrs. Blandford knows, for I heard her tell her ma about it. And when his affairs were wound up and his debts paid, I reckon that the two hundred and fifty was all there was left--and he scooted with it. It's orkard for you--ez I said afore--but I don't see wot on earth you need get riled for. Ef he ran off on account of only two hundred and fifty dollars he ain't goin' to run back again for the mere matter o' your marrying Joan. Ef he had--he'd a done it afore this. It's orkard ez I said--but the only orkardness is your feelin's. I reckon Joan's got used to hers."
Demorest had risen angrily to his feet. But the next moment the utter impossibility of reaching this man's hidebound moral perception by even physical force hopelessly overcame him. It would only impress him with the effect of his own disturbing power, that to Ezekiel was equal to a proof of the truth of his opinions. It might even encourage him to repeat this absurd story elsewhere with his own construction upon his reception of it. After all it was only Ezekiel's opinion--an opinion too preposterous for even a moment's serious consideration. Blandford alive, and a petty defaulter! Blandford above the earth and complacently abandoning his wife and home to another! Blandford--perhaps a sneaking, cowardly Nemesis--hiding in the shadow for future--impossible! It really was enough to make him laugh.
He did laugh, albeit with an uneasy sense that only a few years ago he would have struck down the man who had thus traduced his friend's memory.
"You've been overtaxing your brain in patent-medicine circulars, Corwin," he said in a roughly rallying manner, "and you've got rather too much highfalutin and bitters mixed with your opinions. After that yarn of yours you must be dry. What'll you take? I haven't got any New England rum, but I can give you some ten-year- old aguardiente made on the place."
As he spoke he lifted a decanter and glass from a small table which Manuel had placed in the veranda.
"I guess not," said Ezekiel dryly. "It's now goin' on five years since I've been a consistent temperance man."
"In everything but melons, and criticism of your neighbor, eh?" said Demorest, pouring out a glass of the liquor.
"I hev my convictions," said Ezekiel with affected meekness.
"And I have mine," said Demorest, tossing off the fiery liquor at a draft, "and it's that this is devilish good stuff. Sorry you can't take some. I'm afraid I'll have to get you to excuse me for a while. I have to take a ride over the ranch before turning in, to see if everything's right. The house is 'at your disposition,' as we say here. I'll see you later."
He walked away with a slight exaggeration of unconcern. Ezekiel watched him narrowly with colorless eyes beneath his white lashes. When he had gone he examined the thoroughly emptied glass of aguardiente, and, taking the decanter, sniffed critically at its sharp and potent contents. A smile of gratified discernment followed. It was clear to him that Demorest was a heavy drinker.
Contrary to his prognostication, however, Mrs. Demorest DID arrive the next day. But although he was to depart from Buenaventura by the same coach that had set her down at the gate of the casa, he had already left the house armed with some letters of introduction which Demorest had generously given him, to certain small traders in the pueblo and along the route. Demorest was not displeased to part with him before the arrival of his wife, and thus spare her the awkwardness of a repetition of Ezekiel's effrontery in her presence. Nor was he willing to have the impediment of a guest in the house to any explanation he might have to seek from her, or to the confidences that hereafter must be fuller and more mutual. For with all his deep affection for his wife, Richard Demorest unconsciously feared her. The strong man whose dominance over men and women alike had been his salient characteristic, had begun to feel an undefinable sense of some unrecognized quality in the woman he loved. He had once or twice detected it in a tone of her voice,
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