MoboReader> Literature > The Trail to Yesterday

   Chapter 1 A WOMAN ON THE TRAIL

The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 28389

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Many disquieting thoughts oppressed Miss Sheila Langford as she halted her pony on the crest of a slight rise and swept the desolate and slumberous world with an anxious glance. Quite the most appalling of these thoughts developed from a realization of the fact that she had lost the trail. The whole categorical array of inconveniences incidental to traveling in a new, unsettled country paled into insignificance when she considered this horrifying and entirely unromantic fact. She was lost; she had strayed from the trail, she was alone and night was coming.

She would not have cared so much about the darkness, for she had never been a coward, and had conditions been normal she would have asked nothing better than a rapid gallop over the dim plains. But as she drew her pony up on the crest of the rise a rumble of thunder reached her ears. Of course it would rain, now that she had lost the trail, she decided, yielding to a sudden, bitter anger. It usually did rain when one was abroad without prospect of shelter; it always rained when one was lost.

Well, there was no help for it, of course, and she had only herself to blame for the blunder. For the other-not unusual-irritating details that had combined to place her in this awkward position she could blame, first Duncan, the manager of the Double R-who should have sent someone to meet her at the station; the station agent-who had allowed her to set forth in search of the Double R without a guide,-though even now, considering this phase of the situation, she remembered that the agent had told her there was no one to send-and certainly the desolate appearance of Lazette had borne out this statement; and last, she could blame the country itself for being an unfeatured wilderness.

Something might be said in extenuation of the station agent's and the Double R manager's sins of omission, but without doubt the country was what she had termed it-an unfeatured wilderness. Her first sensation upon getting a view of the country had been one of deep disappointment. There was plenty of it, she had decided,-enough to make one shrink from its very bigness; yet because it was different from the land she had been accustomed to she felt that somehow it was inferior. Her father had assured her of its beauty, and she had come prepared to fall in love with it, but within the last half hour-when she had begun to realize that she had lost the trail-she had grown to hate it.

She hated the desolation, the space, the silence, the arid stretches; she had made grimaces at the "cactuses" with their forbidding pricklers-though she could not help admiring them, they seemed to be the only growing thing in the country capable of defying the heat and the sun. Most of all she hated the alkali dust. All afternoon she had kept brushing it off her clothing and clearing it out of her throat, and only within the last half hour she had begun to realize that her efforts had been without result-it lay thick all over her; her throat was dry and parched with it, and her eyes burned.

She sat erect, flushed and indignant, to look around at the country. A premonitory calm had succeeded the warning rumble. Ominous black clouds were scurrying, wind-whipped, spreading fan-like through the sky, blotting out the colors of the sunset, darkening the plains, creating weird shadows. Objects that Sheila had been able to see quite distinctly when she had reined in her pony were no longer visible. She stirred uneasily.

"We'll go somewhere," she said aloud to the pony, as she urged the animal down the slope. "If it rains we'll get just as wet here as we would anywhere else." She was surprised at the queer quiver in her voice. She was going to be brave, of course, but somehow there seemed to be little consolation in the logic of her remark.

The pony shambled forward, carefully picking its way, and Sheila mentally thanked the station agent for providing her with so reliable a beast. There was one consoling fact at any rate, and she retracted many hard things she had said in the early part of her ride about the agent.

Shuffling down the slope the pony struck a level. After traveling over this for a quarter of an hour Sheila became aware of an odd silence; looking upward she saw that the clouds were no longer in motion; that they were hovering, low and black, directly overhead. A flash of lightning suddenly illuminated the sky, showing Sheila a great waste of world that stretched to four horizons. It revealed, in the distance, the naked peaks of some hills; a few frowning buttes that seemed to fringe a river; some gullies in which lurked forbidding shadows; clumps of desert growth-the cactus-now seeming grotesque and mocking; the snaky octilla; the filmy, rustling mesquite; the dust-laden sage-brush; the soap weed; the sentinel lance of the yucca. Then the light was gone and darkness came again.

Sheila shuddered and vainly tried to force down a queer lump that had risen in her throat over the desolation of it all. It was not anything like her father had pictured it! Men had the silly habit of exaggerating in these things, she decided-they were rough themselves and they made the mistake of thinking that great, grim things were attractive. What beauty was there, for instance, in a country where there was nothing but space and silence and grotesque weeds-and rain? Before she could answer this question a sudden breeze swept over her; a few large drops of rain dashed into her face, and her thoughts returned to herself.

The pony broke into a sharp lope and she allowed it to hold the pace, wisely concluding that the animal was probably more familiar with the country than she. She found herself wondering why she had not thought of that before-when, for example, a few miles back she had deliberately guided it out of a beaten trail toward a section of country where, she had imagined, the traveling would be better. No doubt she had strayed from the trail just there.

The drops of rain grew more frequent; they splashed into her face; she could feel them striking her arms and shoulders. The pony's neck and mane became moist under her hand, the darkness increased for a time and the continuing rumble in the heavens presaged a steady downpour.

The pony moved faster now; it needed no urging, and Sheila held her breath for fear that it might fall, straining her eyes to watch its limbs as they moved with the sure regularity of an automaton. After a time they reached the end of the level; Sheila could tell that the pony was negotiating another rise, for it slackened speed appreciably and she felt herself settling back against the cantle of the saddle. A little later she realized that they were going down the opposite side of the rise, and a moment later they were again on a level. A deeper blackness than they had yet encountered rose on their right, and Sheila correctly decided it to be caused by a stretch of wood that she had observed from the crest of the rise where she had halted her pony for a view of the country. After an interval, during which she debated the wisdom of directing her pony into the wood for protection from the rain which was now coming against her face in vicious slants, her pony nickered shrilly!

A thrill of fear assailed Sheila. She knew horses and was certain that some living thing was on the trail in front of her. Halting the pony, she held tightly to the reins through a short, tense silence. Then presently, from a point just ahead on the trail, came an answering nicker in the horse language. Sheila's pony cavorted nervously and broke into a lope, sharper this time in spite of the tight rein she kept on it. Her fear grew, though mingling with it was a devout hope. If only the animal which had answered her own pony belonged to the Double R! She would take back many of the unkind and uncharitable things she had said about the country since she had lost the trail.

The pony's gait had quickened into a gallop-which she could not check. In the past few minutes the darkness had lifted a little; she saw that the pony was making a gradual turn, following a bend in the river. Then came a flash of lightning and she saw, a short distance ahead, a pony and rider, stationary, watching. With an effort she succeeded in reining in her own animal, and while she sat in the saddle, trembling and anxious, there came another flash of lightning and she saw the rider's face.

The rider was a cowboy. She had distinctly seen the leathern chaps on his legs; the broad hat, the scarf at his throat. Doubt and fear assailed her. What if the man did not belong to the Double R? What if he were a road agent-an outlaw? Immediately she heard an exclamation from him in which she detected much surprise and not a little amusement.

"Shucks!" he said. "It's a woman!"

There came a slow movement. In the lifting darkness Sheila saw the man return a pistol to the holster that swung at his right hip. He carelessly threw one leg over the pommel of his saddle and looked at her. She sat very rigid, debating a sudden impulse to urge her pony past him and escape the danger that seemed to threaten. While she watched he shoved the broad brimmed hat back from his forehead. He was not over five feet distant from her; she could feel her pony nuzzling his with an inquisitive muzzle, and she could dimly see the rider's face. It belonged to a man of probably twenty-eight or thirty; it had regular features, keen, level eyes and a firm mouth. There was a slight smile on his face and somehow the fear that had oppressed Sheila began to take flight. And while she sat awaiting the turn of events his voice again startled her:

"I reckon you've stampeded off your range, ma'am?"

A sigh of relief escaped Sheila. The voice was very gentle and friendly.

"I don't think that I have stampeded-whatever that means," she returned, reassured now that the stranger gave promise of being none of the dire figures of her imagination; "I am lost merely. You see, I am looking for the Double R ranch."

"Oh," he said inexpressively; "the Double R."

There ensued a short silence and she could not see his face for he had bowed his head a little and the broad brimmed hat intervened.

"Do you know where the Double R ranch is?" There was a slight impatience in her voice.

"Sure," came his voice. "It's up the crick a ways."

"How far?"

"Twenty miles."

"Oh!" This information was disheartening. Twenty miles! And the rain was coming steadily down; she could feel it soaking through her clothing. A bitter, unreasoning anger against nature, against the circumstances which had conspired to place her in this position; against the man for his apparent lack of interest in her welfare, moved her, though she might have left the man out of it, for certainly he could not be held responsible. Yet his nonchalance, his serenity-something about him-irritated her. Didn't he know she was getting wet? Why didn't he offer her shelter? It did not occur to her that perhaps he knew of no shelter. But while her indignation over his inaction grew she saw that he was doing something-fumbling at a bundle that seemed to be strapped to the cantle of his saddle. And then he leaned forward-very close to her-and she saw that he was offering her a tarpaulin.

"Wrap yourself in this," he directed. "It ain't pretty, of course, but it'll keep you from getting drenched. Rain ain't no respecter of persons."

She detected a compliment in this but ignored it and placed the tarpaulin around her shoulders. Then it suddenly occurred to her that he was without protection. She hesitated.

"Thank you," she said, "but I can't take this. You haven't anything for yourself."

A careless laugh reached her. "That's all right; I don't need anything."

There was silence again. He broke it with a question.

"What are you figuring to do now?"

What was she going to do? The prospect of a twenty-mile ride through a strange country in a drenching rain was far from appealing to her. Her hesitation was eloquent.

"I do not know," she answered, no way of escape from the dilemma presenting itself.

"You can go on, of course," he said, "and get lost, or hurt-or killed. It's a bad trail. Or"-he continued, hesitating a little and appearing to speak with an effort-"there's my shack. You can have that."

Then he did have a dwelling place. This voluntary information removed another of the fearsome doubts that had beset her. She had been afraid that he might prove to be an irresponsible wanderer, but when a man kept a house it gave to his character a certain recommendation, it suggested stability, more, it indicated honesty.

Of course she would have to accept the shelter of his "shack." There was no help for it, for it was impossible for her to entertain the idea of riding twenty miles over an unknown trail, through the rain and darkness. Moreover, she was not afraid of the stranger now, for in spite of his easy, serene movements, his quiet composure, his suppressed amusement, Sheila detected a note in his voice which told her that he was deeply concerned over her welfare-even though he seemed to be enjoying her. In any event she could not go forward, for the unknown terrified her and she felt that in accepting the proffered shelter of his "shack" she was choosing the lesser of two dangers. She decided quickly.

"I shall accept-I think. Will you please hurry? I am getting wet in spite of this-this covering."

Wheeling without a word he proceeded down the trail, following the river. The darkness had abated somewhat, the low-hanging clouds had taken on a grayish-white hue, and the rain was coming down in torrents. Sheila pulled the tarpaulin tighter about her shoulders and clung desperately to the saddle, listening to the whining of the wind through the trees that flanked her, keeping a watchful eye on the tall, swaying, indistinct figure of her guide.

After riding for a quarter of an hour they reached a little clearing near the river and Sheila saw her guide halt his pony and dismount. A squat, black shape loomed out of the darkness near her and, riding closer, she saw a small cabin, of the lean-t

o type, constructed of adobe bricks. A dog barked in front of her and she heard the stranger speak sharply to it. He silently approached and helped her down from the saddle. Then he led both horses away into the darkness on the other side of the cabin. During his absence she found time to glance about her. It was a desolate place. Did he live here alone?

The silence brought no answer to this question, and while she continued to search out objects in the darkness she saw the stranger reappear around the corner of the cabin and approach the door. He fumbled at it for a moment and threw it open. He disappeared within and an instant later Sheila heard the scratch of a match and saw a feeble glimmer of light shoot out through the doorway. Then the stranger's voice:

"Come in."

He had lighted a candle that stood on a table in the center of the room, and in its glaring flicker as she stepped inside Sheila caught her first good view of the stranger's face. She felt reassured instantly, for it was a good face, with lines denoting strength of character. The drooping mustache did not quite conceal his lips, which were straight and firm. Sheila was a little disturbed over the hard expression in them, however, though she had heard that the men of the West lived rather hazardous lives and she supposed that in time their faces showed it. It was his eyes, though, that gave her a fleeting glimpse of his character. They were blue-a steely, fathomless blue; baffling, mocking; swimming-as she looked into them now-with an expression that she could not attempt to analyze. One thing she saw in them only,-recklessness-and she drew a slow, deep breath.

They were standing very close together. He caught the deep-drawn breath and looked quickly at her, his eyes alight and narrowed with an expression which was a curious mingling of quizzical humor and grim enjoyment. Her own eyes did not waver, though his were boring into hers steadily, as though he were trying to read her thoughts.

"Afraid?" he questioned, with a suggestion of sarcasm in the curl of his lips.

Sheila stiffened, her eyes flashing defiance. She studied him steadily, her spirit battling his over the few feet that separated them. Then she spoke deliberately, evenly: "I am not afraid of you!"

"That's right." A gratified smile broke on the straight, hard lips. A new expression came into his eyes-admiration. "You've got nerve, ma'am. I'm some pleased that you've got that much trust in me. You don't need to be scared. You're as safe here as you'd be out there." He nodded toward the open door. "Safer," he added with a grave smile; "you might get hurt out there."

He turned abruptly and went to the door, where he stood for a long time looking out into the darkness. She watched him for a moment and then removed the tarpaulin and hung it from a nail in the wall of the cabin. Standing near the table she glanced about her. There was only one room in the cabin, but it was large-about twenty by twenty, she estimated. Beside an open fireplace in a corner were several pots and pans-his cooking utensils. On a shelf were some dishes. A guitar swung from a gaudy string suspended from the wall. A tin of tobacco and a pipe reposed on another shelf beside a box of matches. A bunk filled a corner and she went over to it, fearing. But it was clean and the bed clothing fresh and she smiled a little as she continued her examination.

The latter finished she went to a small window above the bunk, looking out into the night. The rain came against the glass in stinging slants, and watching it she found herself feeling very grateful to the man who stood in the doorway. Turning abruptly, she caught him watching her, an appraising smile on his face.

"You ought to be hungry by now," he said. "There's a fireplace and some wood. Do you want a fire?"

In response to her nod he kindled a fire, she standing beside the window watching him, noting his lithe, easy movements. She could not mistake the strength and virility of his figure, even with his back turned to her, but it seemed to her that there was a certain recklessness in his actions-as though his every movement advertised a careless regard for consequences. She held her breath when he split a short log into slender splinters, for he swung the short-handled axe with a loose grasp, as though he cared very little where its sharp blade landed. But she noted that he struck with precision despite his apparent carelessness, every blow falling true. His manner of handling the axe reflected the spirit that shone in his eyes when, after kindling the fire, he stood up and looked at her.

"There's grub in the chuck box," he stated shortly. "There's some pans and things. It ain't what you might call elegant-not what you've been used to, I expect. But it's a heap better than nothing, and I reckon you'll be able to get along." He turned and walked to the doorway, standing in it for an instant, facing out. "Good-night," he added. The tarpaulin dangled from his arm.

Evidently he intended going away. A sudden dread of being alone filled her. "Wait!" she cried involuntarily. "Where are you going?"

He halted and looked back at her, an odd smile on his face.

"To my bunk."

"Oh!" She could not analyze the smile on his face, but in it she thought she detected something subtle-untruthfulness perhaps. She glanced at the tarpaulin and from it to his eyes, holding her gaze steadily.

"You are going to sleep in the open," she said.

He caught the accusation in her eyes and his face reddened.

"Well," he admitted, "I've done it before."

"Perhaps," she said, a little doubtfully. "But I do not care to feel that I am driving you out into the storm. You might catch cold and die. And I should not want to think that I was responsible for your death."

"A little wetting wouldn't hurt me." He looked at her appraisingly, a glint of sympathy in his eyes. Standing there, framed in the darkness, the flickering light from the candle on his strong, grave face, he made a picture that, she felt, she would not soon forget.

"I reckon you ain't afraid to stay here alone, ma'am," he said.

"Yes," she returned frankly, "I am afraid. I do not want to stay here alone."

A pistol flashed in his hand, its butt toward her, and now for the first time she saw another at his hip. She repressed a desire to shudder and stared with dilated eyes at the extended weapon.

"Take this gun," he offered. "It ain't much for looks, but it'll go right handy. You can bar the door, too, and the window."

She refused to take the weapon. "I wouldn't know how to use it if I had occasion to. I prefer to have you remain in the cabin-for protection."

He bowed. "I thought you'd-" he began, and then smiled wryly. "It certainly would be some wet outside," he admitted. "It wouldn't be pleasant sleeping. I'll lay over here by the door when I get my blankets."

He went outside and in a few minutes reappeared with his blankets and saddle. Without speaking a word to Sheila he laid the saddle down, spread the blanket over it, and stretched himself out on his back.

"I don't know about the light," he said after an interval of silence, during which Sheila sat on the edge of the bunk and regarded his profile appraisingly. "You can blow it out if you like."

"I prefer to have it burning."

"Suit yourself."

Sheila got up and placed the candle in a tin dish as a precaution against fire. Then, when its position satisfied her she left the table and went to the bunk, stretching herself out on it, fully dressed.

For a long time she lay, listening to the soft patter of the rain on the roof, looking upward at the drops that splashed against the window, listening to the fitful whining of the wind through the trees near the cabin. Her eyes closed presently, sleep was fast claiming her. Then she heard her host's voice:

"You're from the East, I reckon."

"Yes."

"Where?"

"New York."

"City?"

"Albany."

There was a silence. Sheila was thoroughly awake again, and once more her gaze went to the window, where unceasing streams trickled down the glass. Whatever fear she had had of the owner of the cabin had long ago been dispelled by his manner which, though puzzling, hinted of the gentleman. She would have liked him better were it not for the reckless gleam in his eyes; that gleam, it seemed to her, indicated a trait of character which was not wholly admirable.

"What have you come out here for?"

Sheila smiled at the rain-spattered window, a flash of pleased vanity in her eyes. His voice had been low, but in it she detected much curiosity, even interest. It was not surprising, of course, that he should feel an interest in her; other men had been interested in her too, only they had not been men that lived in romantic wildernesses,-observe that she did not make use of the term "unfeatured," which she had manufactured soon after realizing that she was lost-nor had they carried big revolvers, like this man, who seemed also to know very well how to use them.

Those other men who had been interested in her had had a way of looking at her; there had always been a significant boldness in their eyes which belied the gentleness of demeanor which, she had always been sure, merely masked their real characters. She had never been able to look squarely at any of those men, the men of her circle who had danced attendance upon her at the social functions that had formerly filled her existence-without a feeling of repugnance.

They had worn man-shapes, of course, but somehow they had seemed to lack something real and vital; seemed to have possessed nothing of that forceful, magnetic personality which was needed to arouse her sympathy and interest. Not that the man on the floor in front of the door interested her-she could not admit that! But she had felt a sympathy for him in his loneliness, and she had looked into his eyes-had been able to look steadily into them, and though she had seen expressions that had puzzled her, she had at least seen nothing to cause her to feel any uneasiness. She had seen manliness there, and indomitability, and force, and it had seemed to her to be sufficient. His would be an ideal face were it not for the expression that lingered about the lips, were it not for the reckless glint in his eyes-a glint that revealed an untamed spirit.

His question remained unanswered. He stirred impatiently, and glancing at him Sheila saw that he had raised himself so that his chin rested in his hand, his elbow supported by the saddle.

"You here for a visit?" he questioned.

"Perhaps," she said. "I do not know how long I shall stay. My father has bought the Double R."

For a long time it seemed that he would have no comment to make on this and Sheila's lips took on a decidedly petulant expression. Apparently he was not interested in her after all.

"Then Duncan has sold out?" There was satisfaction in his voice.

"You are keen," she mocked.

"And tickled," he added.

His short laugh brought a sudden interest into her eyes. "Then you don't like Duncan," she said.

"I reckon you're some keen too," came the mocking response.

Sheila flushed, turned and looked defiantly at him. His hand still supported his head and there was an unmistakable interest in his eyes as he caught her glance at him and smiled.

"You got any objections to telling me your name? We ain't been introduced, you know?" he said.

"It is Sheila Langford."

She had turned her head and was giving her attention to the window above her. The fingers of the hand that had been supporting his head slowly clenched, he raised himself slightly, his body rigid, his chin thrusting, his face pale, his eyes burning with a sudden fierce fire. Once he opened his lips to speak, but instantly closed them again, and a smile wreathed them-a mirthless smile that had in it a certain cold caution and cunning. After a silence that lasted long his voice came again, drawling, well-controlled, revealing nothing of the emotion which had previously affected him.

"What is your father's name?"

"David Dowd Langford. An uncommon middle name, isn't it?"

"Yes. Uncommon," came his reply. His face, with the light of the candle gleaming full upon it, bore a queer pallor-the white of cold ashes. His right hand, which had been resting carelessly on the blanket, was now gripping it, the muscles tense and knotted. Yet after another long silence his voice came again-drawling, well-controlled, as before:

"What is he coming out here for?"

"He has retired from business and is coming out here for his health."

"What business was he in?"

"Wholesale hardware."

He was silent again and presently, hearing him stir, Sheila looked covertly at him. He had turned, his back was toward her, and he was stretched out on the blanket as though, fully satisfied with the result of his questioning, he intended going to sleep. For several minutes Sheila watched him with a growing curiosity. It was like a man to ask all and give nothing. He had questioned her to his complete satisfaction but had told nothing of himself. She was determined to discover something about him.

"Who are you?" she questioned.

"Dakota," he said shortly.

"Dakota?" she repeated, puzzled. "That isn't a name; it's a State-or a Territory."

"I'm Dakota. Ask anybody." There was a decided drawl in his voice.

This information was far from being satisfactory, but she supposed it must answer. Still, she persisted. "Where are you from?"

"Dakota."

That seemed to end it. It had been a short quest and an unsatisfactory one. It was perfectly plain to her that he was some sort of a rancher-at the least a cowboy. It was also plain that he had been a cowboy before coming to this section of the country-probably in Dakota. She was perplexed and vexed and nibbled impatiently at her lips.

"Dakota isn't your real name," she declared sharply.

"Ain't it?" There came the drawl again. It irritated her this time.

"No!" she snapped.

"Well, it's as good as any other. Good-night."

Sheila did not answer. Five minutes later she was asleep.

* * *

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