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   Chapter 2 THE DIM TRAIL

The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 11579

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Sheila had been dreaming of a world in which there was nothing but rain and mud and clouds and reckless-eyed individuals who conversed in irritating drawls when a sharp crash of thunder awakened her. During her sleep she had turned her face to the wall, and when her eyes opened the first thing that her gaze rested on was the small window above her head. She regarded it for some time, following with her eyes the erratic streams that trickled down the glass, stretching out wearily, listening to the wind. It was cold and bleak outside and she had much to be thankful for.

She was glad that she had not allowed the mysterious inhabitant of the cabin to sleep out in his tarpaulin, for the howling of the wind brought weird thoughts into her mind; she reflected upon her helplessness and it was extremely satisfying to know that within ten feet of her lay a man whose two big revolvers-even though she feared them-seemed to insure protection. It was odd, she told herself, that she should place so much confidence in Dakota, and her presence in the cabin with him was certainly a breach of propriety which-were her friends in the East to hear of it-would arouse much comment-entirely unfavorable to her. Yes, it was odd, yet considering Dakota, she was not in the least disturbed. So far his conduct toward her had been that of the perfect gentleman, and in spite of the recklessness that gleamed in his eyes whenever he looked at her she was certain that he would continue to be a gentleman.

It was restful to lie and listen to the rain splashing on the roof and against the window, but sleep, for some unaccountable reason, seemed to grow farther from her-the recollection of events during the past few hours left no room in her thoughts for sleep. Turning, after a while, to seek a more comfortable position, she saw Dakota sitting at the table, on the side opposite her, watching her intently.

"Can't sleep, eh?" he said, when he saw her looking at him. "Storm bother you?"

"I think it was the thunder that awakened me," she returned. "Thunder always does. Evidently it disturbs you too."

"I haven't been asleep," he said in a curt tone.

He continued to watch her with a quiet, appraising gaze. It was evident that he had been thinking of her when she had turned to look at him. She flushed with embarrassment over the thought that while she had been asleep he must have been considering her, and yet, looking closely at him now, she decided that his expression was frankly impersonal.

He glanced at his watch. "You've been asleep two hours," he said. "I've been watching you-and envying you."

"Envying me? Why? Are you troubled with insomnia?"

He laughed. "Nothing so serious as that. It's just thoughts."

"Pleasant ones, of course."

"You might call them pleasant. I've been thinking of you."

Sheila found no reply to make to this, but blushed again.

"Thinking of you," repeated Dakota. "Of the chance you took in coming out here alone-in coming into my shack. We're twenty miles from town here-twenty miles from the Double R-the nearest ranch. It isn't likely that a soul will pass here for a month. Suppose--"

"We won't 'suppose,' if you please," said Sheila. Her face had grown slowly pale, but there was a confident smile on her lips as she looked at him.

"No?" he said, watching her steadily. "Why? Isn't it quite possible that you could have fallen in with a sort of man--"

"As it happens, I did not," interrupted Sheila.

"How do you know?"

Sheila's gaze met his unwaveringly. "Because you are the man," she said slowly.

She thought she saw a glint of pleasure in his eyes, but was not quite certain, for his expression changed instantly.

"Fate, or Providence-or whatever you are pleased to call the power that shuffles us flesh and blood mannikins around-has a way of putting us all in the right places. I expect that's one of the reasons why you didn't fall in with the sort of man I was going to tell you about," said Dakota.

"I don't see what Fate has to do-" began Sheila, wondering at his serious tone.

"Odd, isn't it?" he drawled.

"What is odd?"

"That you don't see. But lots of people don't see. They're chucked and shoved around like men on a chess board, and though they're always interested they don't usually know what it's all about. Just as well too-usually."

"I don't see--"

He smiled mysteriously. "Did I say that I expected you to see?" he said. "There isn't anything personal in this, aside from the fact that I was trying to show you that some one was foolish in sending you out here alone. Some day you'll look back on your visit here and then you'll understand."

He got up and walked to the door, opening it and standing there looking out into the darkness. Sheila watched him, puzzled by his mysterious manner, though not in the least afraid of him. Several times while he stood at the door he turned and looked at her and presently, when a gust of wind rushed in and Sheila shivered, he abruptly closed the door, barred it, and strode to the fireplace, throwing a fresh log into it. For a time he stood silently in front of the fire, his figure casting a long, gaunt shadow at Sheila's feet, his gaze on her, grim, somber lines in his face. Presently he cleared his throat.

"How old are you?" he said shortly.

"Twenty-two."

"And you've lived East all your life. Lived well, too, I suppose-plenty of money, luxuries, happiness?"

He caught her nod and continued, his lips curling a little. "Your father too, I reckon-has he been happy?"

"I think so."

"That's odd." He had spoken more to himself than to Sheila and he looked at her with narrowed eyes when she answered.

"What is odd? That my father should be happy-that I should?"

"Odd that anyone who i

s happy in one place should want to leave that place and go to another. Maybe the place he went to wouldn't be just right for him. What makes people want to move around like that?"

"Perhaps you could answer that yourself," suggested Sheila. "I am sure that you haven't lived here in this part of the country all your life."

"How do you know that?" His gaze was quizzical and mocking.

"I don't know. But you haven't."

"Well," he said, "we'll say I haven't. But I wasn't happy where I came from and I came here looking for happiness-and something else. That I didn't find what I was looking for isn't the question-mostly none of us find the things we're looking for. But if I had been happy where I was I wouldn't have come here. You say your father has been happy there; that he's got plenty of money and all that. Then why should he want to live here?"

"I believe I told you that he is coming here for his health."

His eyes lighted savagely. But Sheila did not catch their expression for at that moment she was looking at his shadow on the floor. How long, how grotesque, it seemed, and forbidding-like its owner.

"So he's got everything he wants but his health. What made him lose that?"

"How should I know?"

"Just lost it, I reckon," said Dakota subtly. "Cares and Worry?"

"I presume. His health has been failing for about ten years."

Sheila was looking straight at Dakota now and she saw his face whiten, his lips harden. And when he spoke again there was a chill in his voice and a distinct pause between his words.

"Ten years," he said. "That's a long time, isn't it? A long time for a man who has been losing his health. And yet--" There was a mirthless smile on Dakota's face-"ten years is a longer time for a man in good health who hasn't been happy. Couldn't your father have doctored-gone abroad-to recover his health? Or was his a mental sickness?"

"Mental, I think. He worried quite a little."

Dakota turned from her, but not quickly enough to conceal the light of savage joy that flashed suddenly into his eyes.

"Why!" exclaimed Sheila, voicing her surprise at the startling change in his manner; "that seems to please you!"

"It does." He laughed oddly. "It pleases me to find that I'm to have a neighbor who is afflicted with the sort of sickness that has been bothering me for-for a good many years."

There was a silence, during which Sheila yawned and Dakota stood motionless, looking straight ahead.

"You like your father, I reckon?" came his voice presently, as his gaze went to her again.

"Of course." She looked up at him in surprise. "Why shouldn't I like him?"

"Of course you like him. Mostly children like their fathers."

"Children!" She glared scornfully at him. "I am twenty-two! I told you that before!"

"So you did," he returned, unruffled. "When is he coming out here?"

"In a month-a month from to-day." She regarded him with a sudden, new interest. "You are betraying a great deal of curiosity," she accused. "Why?"

"Why," he answered slowly, "I reckon that isn't odd, is it? He's going to be my neighbor, isn't he?"

"Oh!" she said with emphasis of mockery which equalled his. "And you are gossiping about your neighbor even before he comes."

"Like a woman," he said with a smile.

"An impertinent one," she retorted.

"Your father," he said in accents of sarcasm, ignoring the jibe, "seems to think a heap of you-sending you all the way out here alone."

"I came against his wish; he wanted me to wait and come with him."

Her defense of her parent seemed to amuse him. He smiled mysteriously. "Then he likes you?"

"Is that strange? He hasn't any one else-no relative. I am the only one."

"You're the only one." He repeated her words slowly, regarding her narrowly. "And he likes you. I reckon he'd be hurt quite a little if you had fallen in with the sort of man I was going to tell you about."

"Naturally." Sheila was tapping with her booted foot on his shadow on the floor and did not look at him.

"It's a curious thing," he said slowly, after an interval, "that a man who has got a treasure grows careless of it in time. It's natural, too. But I reckon fate has something to do with it. Ten chances to one if nothing happens to you your father will consider himself lucky. But suppose you had happened to fall in with a different man than me-we'll say, for instance, a man who had a grudge against your father-and that man didn't have that uncommon quality called 'mercy.' What then? Ten chances to one your father would say it was fate that had led you to him."

"I think," she said scornfully, "that you are talking silly! In the first place, I don't believe my father thinks that I am a treasure, though he likes me very much. In the second place, if he does think that I am a treasure, he is very much mistaken, for I am not-I am a woman and quite able to take care of myself. You have exhibited a wonderful curiosity over my father and me, and though it has all been mystifying and entertaining, I don't purpose to talk to you all night."

"I didn't waken you," he mocked.

Sheila swung around on the bunk, her back to him. "You are keeping me awake," she retorted.

"Well, good night then," he laughed, "Miss Sheila."

"Good night, Mr.-Mr. Dakota," she returned.

Sheila did not hear him again. Her thoughts dwelt for a little time on him and his mysterious manner, then they strayed. They returned presently and she concentrated her attention on the rain; she could hear the soft, steady patter of it on the roof; she listened to it trickling from the eaves and striking the glass in the window above her head. Gradually the soft patter seemed to draw farther away, became faint, and more faint, and finally she heard it no more.

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