MoboReader> Literature > The Trail to Yesterday

   Chapter 3 CONVERGING TRAILS

The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 18635

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was the barking of a dog that brought Sheila out of a sleep-dreamless this time-into a state of semi-consciousness. It was Dakota's dog surely, she decided sleepily. She sighed and twisted to a more comfortable position. The effort awakened her and she opened her eyes, her gaze resting immediately on Dakota. He still sat at the table, silent, immovable, as before. But now he was sitting erect, his muscles tensed, his chin thrust out aggressively, his gaze on the door-listening. He seemed to be unaware of Sheila's presence; the sound that she had made in turning he apparently had not heard.

There was an interval of silence and then came a knocking on the door-loud, unmistakable. Some one desired admittance. After the knock came a voice:

"Hello inside!"

"Hello yourself!" Dakota's voice came with a truculent snap. "What's up?"

"Lookin' for a dry place," came the voice from without. "Mebbe you don't know it's wet out here!"

Sheila's gaze was riveted on Dakota. He arose and noiselessly moved his chair back from the table and she saw a saturnine smile on his face, yet in his eyes there shone a glint of intolerance that mingled oddly with his gravity.

"You alone?" he questioned, his gaze on the door.

"Yes."

"Who are you?"

"Campbellite preacher."

For the first time since she had been awake Dakota turned and looked at Sheila. The expression of his face puzzled her. "A parson!" he sneered in a low voice. "I reckon we'll have some praying now." He took a step forward, hesitated, and looked back at Sheila. "Do you want him in here?"

Sheila's nod brought a whimsical, shallow smile to his face. "Of course you do-you're lonesome in here." There was mockery in his voice. He deliberately drew out his two guns, examined them minutely, returned one to his holster, retaining the other in his right hand. With a cold grin at Sheila he snuffed out the candle between a finger and a thumb and strode to the door-Sheila could hear him fumbling at the fastenings. He spoke to the man outside sharply.

"Come in!"

There was a movement; a square of light appeared in the wall of darkness; there came a step on the threshold. Watching, Sheila saw, framed in the open doorway, the dim outlines of a figure-a man.

"Stand right there," came Dakota's voice from somewhere in the impenetrable darkness of the interior, and Sheila wondered at the hospitality that greeted a stranger with total darkness and a revolver. "Light a match."

After a short interval of silence there came the sound of a match scratching on the wall, and a light flared up, showing Sheila the face of a man of sixty, bronzed, bearded, with gentle, quizzical eyes.

The light died down, the man waited. Sheila had forgotten-in her desire to see the face of the visitor-to look for Dakota, but presently she heard his voice:

"I reckon you're a parson, all right. Close the door."

The parson obeyed the command. "Light the candle on the table!" came the order from Dakota. "I'm not taking any chances until I get a better look at you."

Another match flared up and the parson advanced to the table and lighted the candle. He smiled while applying the match to the wick. "Don't pay to take no chances-on anything," he agreed. He stood erect, a tall man, rugged and active for his sixty years, and threw off a rain-soaked tarpaulin. Some traces of dampness were visible on his clothing, but in the circumstances he had not fared so badly.

"It's a new trail to me-I don't know the country," he went on. "If I hadn't seen your light I reckon I'd have been goin' yet. I was thinkin' that it was mighty queer that you'd have a light goin' so--" He stopped short, seeing Sheila sitting on the bunk. "Shucks, ma'am," he apologized, "I didn't know you were there." His hat came off and dangled in his left hand; with the other he brushed back the hair from his forehead, smiling meanwhile at Sheila.

"Why, ma'am," he said apologetically, "if your husband had told me you was here I'd have gone right on an' not bothered you."

Sheila's gaze went from the parson's face and sought Dakota's, a crimson flood spreading over her face and temples. A slow, amused gleam filled Dakota's eyes. But plainly he did not intend to set the parson right-he was enjoying Sheila's confusion. The color fled from her face as suddenly as it had come and was succeeded by the pallor of a cold indignation.

"I'm not married," she said instantly to the parson; "this gentleman is not my husband."

"Not?" questioned the parson. "Then how-" He hesitated and looked quickly at Dakota, but the latter was watching Sheila with an odd smile and the parson looked puzzled.

"This is my first day in this country," explained Sheila.

The parson did not reply to this, though he continued to watch her intently. She met his gaze steadily and he smiled. "I reckon you've been caught on the trail too," he said, "by the storm."

Sheila nodded.

"Well, it's been right wet to-night, an' it ain't no night to be galivantin' around the country. Where you goin' to?"

"To the Double R ranch."

"Where's the Double R?" asked the parson.

"West," Dakota answered for Sheila; "twenty miles."

"Off my trail," said the parson. "I'm travelin' to Lazette." He laughed, shortly. "I'm askin' your pardon, ma'am, for takin' you to be married; you don't look like you belonged here-I ought to have knowed that right off."

Sheila told him that he was forgiven and he had no comment to make on this, but looked at her appraisingly. He drew a bench up near the fire and sat looking at the licking flames, the heat drawing the steam from his clothing as the latter dried. Dakota supplied him with soda biscuit and cold bacon, and these he munched in contentment, talking meanwhile of his travels. Several times while he sat before the fire Dakota spoke to him, and finally he pulled his chair over near the wall opposite the bunk on which Sheila sat, tilted it back, and dropped into it, stretching out comfortably.

After seating himself, Dakota's gaze sought Sheila. It was evident to Sheila that he was thinking pleasant thoughts, for several times she looked quickly at him to catch him smiling. Once she met his gaze fairly and was certain that she saw a crafty, calculating gleam in his eyes. She was puzzled, though there was nothing of fear from Dakota now; the presence of the parson in the cabin assured her of safety.

A half hour dragged by. The parson did not appear to be sleepy. Sheila glanced at her watch and saw that it was midnight. She wondered much at the parson's wakefulness and her own weariness. But she could safely go to sleep now, she told herself, and she stretched noiselessly out on the bunk and with one arm bent under her head listened to the parson.

Evidently the parson was itinerant; he spoke of many places-Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Texas; of towns in New Mexico. To Sheila, her senses dulled by the drowsiness that was stealing over her, it appeared that the parson was a foe to Science. His volubility filled the cabin; he contended sonorously that the earth was not round. The Scriptures, he maintained, held otherwise. He called Dakota's attention to the seventh chapter of Revelation, verse one:

"And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree."

Several times Sheila heard Dakota laugh, mockingly; he was skeptical, caustic even, and he took issue with the parson. Between them they managed to prevent her falling asleep; kept her in a semidoze which was very near to complete wakefulness.

After a time, though, the argument grew monotonous; the droning of their voices seemed gradually to grow distant; Sheila lost interest in the conversation and sank deeper into her doze. How long she had been unconscious of them she did not know, but presently she was awake again and listening. Dakota's laugh had awakened her. Out of the corners of her eyes she saw that he was still seated in the chair beside the wall and that his eyes were alight with interest as he watched the parson.

"So you're going to Lazette, taking it on to him?"

The parson nodded, smiling. "When a man wants to get married he'll not care much about the arrangements-how it gets done. What he wants to do is to get married."

"That's a queer angle," Dakota observed. He laughed immoderately.

The parson laughed with him. It was an odd situation, he agreed. Never, in all his experience, had he heard of anything like it.

He had stopped for a few hours at Dry Bottom. While there a rider had passed through, carrying word that a certain man in Lazette, called "Baldy," desired to get married. There was no minister in Lazette, not even a justice of the peace. But Baldy wanted to be married, and his bride-to-be objected to making the trip to Dry Bottom, where there were both a parson and a justice of the peace. Therefore, failing to induce the lady to go to the parson, it followed that Baldy must contrive to have the parson come to the lady. He dispatched the rider to Dry Bottom on this quest.

The rider had found that there was no regular parson in Dry Bottom and that the justice of the peace had departed t

he day before to some distant town for a visit. Luckily for Baldy's matrimonial plans, the parson had been in Dry Bottom when the rider arrived, and he readily consented-as he intended to pass through Lazette anyway-to carry Baldy's license to him and perform the ceremony.

"Odd, ain't it?" remarked the parson, after he had concluded.

"That's a queer angle," repeated Dakota. "You got the license?" he inquired softly. "Mebbe you've lost it."

"I reckon not." The parson fumbled in a pocket, drawing out a folded paper. "I've got it, right enough."

"You've got no objections to me looking at it?" came Dakota's voice. Sheila saw him rise. There was a strange smile on his face.

"No objections. I reckon you'll be usin' one yourself one of these days."

"One of these days," echoed Dakota with a laugh as strange as his smile a moment before. "Yes-I'm thinking of using one one of these days."

The parson spread the paper out on the table. Together he and Dakota bent their heads over it. After reading the license Dakota stood erect. He laughed, looking at the parson.

"There ain't a name on it," he said, "not a name."

"They're reckonin' to fill in the names when they're married," explained the parson. "That there rider ought to have knowed the names, but he didn't. Only knowed that the man was called 'Baldy.' Didn't know the bride's name at all. But it don't make any difference; they wouldn't have had to have a license at all in this Territory. But it makes it look more regular when they've got one. All that's got to be done is for Baldy to go over to Dry Bottom an' have the names recorded. Bein' as I can't go, I'm to certify in the license."

"Sure," said Dakota slowly. "It makes things more regular to have a license-more regular to have you certify."

Looking at Dakota, Sheila thought she saw in his face a certain preoccupation; he was evidently not thinking of what he was saying at all; the words had come involuntarily, automatically almost, it seemed, so inexpressive were they. "Sure," he repeated, "you're to certify, in the license."

It was as though he were reading aloud from a printed page, his thoughts elsewhere, and seeing only the words and uttering them unconsciously. Some idea had formed in his brain, he meditated some surprising action. That she was concerned in his thoughts Sheila did not doubt, for he presently turned and looked straight at her and in his eyes she saw a new expression-a cold, designing gleam that frightened her.

Five minutes later, when the parson announced his intention to care for his horse before retiring and stood in the doorway preparatory to going out, Sheila restrained an impulse to call to him to remain. She succeeded in quieting her fears, however, by assuring herself that nothing could happen now, with the parson so near. Thus fortified, she smiled at Dakota as the parson stepped down and closed the door.

She drew a startled breath in the next instant, though, for without noticing her smile Dakota stepped to the door and barred it. Turning, he stood with his back against it, his lips in straight, hard lines, his eyes steady and gleaming brightly.

He caught Sheila's gaze and held it; she trembled and sat erect.

"It's odd, ain't it?" he said, in the mocking voice that he had used when using the same words earlier in the evening.

"What is odd?" Hers was the same answer that she had used before, too-she could think of nothing else to say.

"Odd that he should come along just at this time." He indicated the door through which the parson had disappeared. "You and me are here, and he comes. Who sent him?"

"Chance, I suppose," Sheila answered, though she could feel that there was a subtle undercurrent in his speech, and she felt again the strange unrest that had affected her several times before.

"You think it was chance," he said, drawling his words. "Well, maybe that's just as good a name for it as any other. But we don't all see things the same way, do we? We couldn't, of course, because we've all got different things to do. We think this is a big world and that we play a big game. But it's a little world and a little game when Fate takes a hand in it. I told you a while ago that Fate had a queer way of shuffling us around. That's a fact. And Fate is running this game." His mocking laugh had a note of grimness in it, which brought a chill over Sheila. "Just now, Miss Sheila, Fate is playing with brides and bridegrooms and marriages and parsons. That's what is so odd. Fate has supplied the parson and the license; we'll supply the names. Look at the bridegroom, Sheila," he directed, tapping his breast with a finger; "this is your wedding day!"

"What do you mean?" Sheila was on her feet, trembling, her face white with fear and dread.

"That we're to be married," he said, smiling at her, and she noted with a qualm that there was no mirth in the smile, "you and me. The parson will tie the knot."

"This is a joke, I suppose?" she said scornfully, attempting a lightness that she did not feel; "a crude one, to be sure, for you certainly cannot be serious."

"I was never more serious in my life," he said slowly. "We are to be married when the parson comes in."

"How do you purpose to accomplish this?" she jeered. "The parson certainly will not perform a marriage ceremony without the consent of-without my consent."

"I think," he said coldly, "that you will consent. I am not in a trifling mood. Just now it pleases me to imagine that I am an instrument of Fate. Maybe that sounds mysterious to you, but some day you will be able to see just how logical it all seems to me now, that Fate has sent me a pawn-a subject, if you please-to sacrifice, that the game which I have been playing may be carried to its conclusion."

Outside they heard the dog bark, heard the parson speak to it.

"The parson is coming," said Sheila, her joy over the impending interruption showing in her eyes.

"Yes, he is coming." Still with his back to the door, Dakota deliberately drew out one of his heavy pistols and examined it minutely, paying no attention to Sheila. Her eyes widened with fear as the hand holding the weapon dropped to his side and he looked at her again.

"What are you doing to do?" she demanded, watching these forbidding preparations with dilated eyes.

"That depends," he returned with a chilling laugh. "Have you ever seen a man die? No?" he continued as she shuddered. "Well, if you don't consent to marry me you will see the parson die. I have decided to give you the choice, ma'am," he went on in a quiet, determined voice, entirely free from emotion. "Sacrifice yourself and the parson lives; refuse and I shoot the parson down the instant he steps inside the door."

"Oh!" she cried in horror, taking a step toward him and looking into his eyes for evidence of insincerity-for the slightest sign that would tell her that he was merely trying to scare her. "Oh! you-you coward!" she cried, for she saw nothing in his eyes but cold resolution.

He smiled with straight lips. "You see," he mocked, "how odd it is? Fate is shuffling us three in this game. You have your choice. Do you care to be responsible for the death of a fellow being?"

For a tense instant she looked at him, and seeing the hard, inexorable glitter in his eyes she cringed away from him and sank to the edge of the bunk, covering her face with her hands.

During the silence that followed she could hear the parson outside-his voice, and the yelping of the dog-evidently they had formed a friendship. The sounds came nearer; Sheila heard the parson try the door. She became aware that Dakota was standing over her and she looked up, shivering, to see his face, still hard and unyielding.

"I am going to open the door," he said. "Is it you or the parson?"

At that word she was on her feet, standing before him, rigid with anger, her eyes flaming with scorn and hatred.

"You wouldn't dare to do it!" she said hoarsely; "you-you--" She snatched suddenly for the butt of the weapon that swung at his left hip, but with a quick motion he evaded the hand and stepped back a pace, smiling coldly.

"I reckon it's the parson," he said in a low voice, which carried an air of finality. He started for the door, hesitated, and came back to the bunk, standing in front of Sheila, looking down into her eyes.

"I am giving you one last chance," he told her. "I am going to open the door. If you want the parson to die, don't look at me when he steps in. If you want him to live, turn your back to him and walk to the fireplace."

He walked to the door, unlocked it, and stepped back, his gaze on Sheila. Then the door opened slowly and the parson stood on the threshold, smiling.

"It's sure some wet outside," he said.

Dakota was fingering the cylinder of his revolver, his gaze now riveted on the parson.

"Why," said the latter, in surprise, seeing the attitudes of Dakota and his guest, "what in the name of--"

There came a movement, and Sheila stood in front of Dakota, between him and the parson. For an instant she stood, looking at Dakota with a scornful, loathing gaze. Then with a dry sob, which caught in her throat, she moved past him and went to the fireplace, where she stood looking down at the flames.

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