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The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 16117

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

It was a scene of wild, virgin beauty upon which Sheila Langford looked as she sat on the edge of a grassy butte overlooking the Ute River, with Duncan, the Double R manager stretched out, full length beside her, a gigantic picture on Nature's canvas, glowing with colors which the gods had spread with a generous touch.

A hundred feet below Sheila and Duncan the waters of the river swept around the base of the butte, racing over a rocky bed toward a deep, narrow canyon farther down. Directly opposite the butte rose a short slope, forming the other bank of the river. From the crest of the slope began a plain that stretched for many miles, merging at the horizon into some pine-clad foothills. Behind the foothills were the mountains, their snow peaks shimmering in a white sky-remote, mysterious, seeming like guardians of another world. The chill of the mountains contrasted sharply with the slumberous luxuriance and color of the plains.

Miles of grass, its green but slightly dulled with a thin covering of alkali dust, spread over the plain; here and there a grove of trees rose, it seemed, to break the monotony of space. To the right the river doubled sharply, the farther bank fringed with alder and aspen, their tall stalks nodding above the nondescript river weeds; the near bank a continuing wall of painted buttes-red, picturesque, ragged, thrusting upward and outward over the waters of the river. On the left was a stretch of broken country. Mammoth boulders were strewn here; weird rocks arose in inconceivably grotesque formations; lava beds, dull and gray, circled the bald knobs of some low hills. Above it all swam the sun, filling the world with a clear, white light. It made a picture whose beauty might have impressed the most unresponsive. Yet, though Sheila was looking upon the picture, her thoughts were dwelling upon another.

This other picture was not so beautiful, and a vague unrest gripped Sheila's heart as she reviewed it, carefully going over each gloomy detail. It was framed in the rain and the darkness of a yesterday. There was a small clearing there-a clearing in a dense wood beside a river-the same river which she could have seen below her now, had she looked. In the foreground was a cabin. She entered the cabin and stood beside a table upon which burned a candle. A man stood beside the table also-a reckless-eyed man, holding a heavy revolver. Another man stood there, too-a man of God. While Sheila watched the man's lips opened; she could hear the words that came through them-she would never forget them:

"To have and to hold from this day forth ... till death do you part...."

It was not a dream, it was the picture of an actual occurrence. She saw every detail of it. She could hear her own protests, her threats, her pleadings; she lived over again her terror as she had crouched in the bunk until the dawn.

The man had not molested her, had not even spoken to her after the ceremony; had ignored her entirely. When the dawn came she had heard him talking to the parson, but could not catch their words. Later she had mounted her pony and had ridden away through the sunshine of the morning. She had been married-it was her wedding day.

When she had reached the crest of a long rise after her departure from the cabin she had halted her pony to look back, hoping that it all might have been a dream. But it had not been a dream. There was the dense wood, the clearing, and the cabin. Beside them was the river. And there, riding slowly away over the narrow trail which she had traveled the night before, was the parson-she could see his gray beard in the white sunlight. Dry eyed, she had turned from the scene. A little later, turning again, she saw the parson fade into the horizon. That, she knew, was the last she would ever see of him. He had gone out of her life forever-the desert had swallowed him up.

But the picture was still vivid; she had seen it during every waking moment of the month that she had been at the Double R ranch; it was before her every night in her dreams. It would not fade.

She knew that the other picture was beautiful-the picture of this world into which she had ridden so confidently, yet she was afraid to dwell upon it for fear that its beauty would seem to mock her. For had not nature conspired against her? Yet she knew that she alone was to blame-she, obstinate, willful, heedless. Had not her father warned her? "Wait," he had said, and the words flamed before her eyes-"wait until I go. Wait a month. The West is a new country; anything, everything, can happen to you out there-alone."

"Nothing can happen," had been her reply. "I will go straight from Lazette to the Double R. See that you telegraph instructions to Duncan to meet me. It will be a change; I am tired of the East and impatient to be away from it."

Well, she had found a change. What would her father say when he heard of it-of her marriage to a cowboy, an unprincipled scoundrel? What could he say? The marriage could be annulled, of course! it was not legal, could not be legal. No law could be drawn which would recognize a marriage of that character, and she knew that she had only to tell her father to have the machinery of the law set in motion. Could she tell him? Could she bear his reproaches, his pity, after her heedlessness?

What would her friends say when they heard of it-as they must hear if she went to the law for redress? Her friends in the East whose good wishes, whose respect, she desired? Mockers there would be among them, she was certain; there were mockers everywhere, and she feared their taunts, the shafts of sarcasm that would be launched at her-aye, that would strike her-when they heard that she had passed a night in a lone cabin with a strange cowboy-had been married to him!

A month had passed since the afternoon on which she had ridden up to the porch of the Double R ranchhouse to be greeted by Duncan with the information that he had that morning received a telegram from her father announcing her coming. It had been brought from Lazette by a puncher who had gone there for the mail, and Duncan was at that moment preparing to drive to Lazette to meet her, under the impression that she would arrive that day. There had been a mistake, of course, but what did it matter now? The damage had been wrought and she closed her lips. A month had passed and she had not told-she would never tell.

Conversations she had had with Duncan; he seemed a gentleman, living at the Double R ranchhouse with his sister, but in no conversation with anyone had Sheila even mentioned Dakota's name, fearing that something in her manner might betray her secret. To everyone but herself the picture of her adventure that night on the trail must remain invisible.

She looked furtively at Duncan, stretched out beside her on the grass. What would he say if he knew? He would not be pleased, she was certain, for during the month that she had been at the Double R-riding out almost daily with him-he had forced her to see that he had taken a liking to her-more, she herself had observed the telltale signs of something deeper than mere liking.

She had not encouraged this, of course, for she was not certain that she liked Duncan, though he had treated her well-almost too well, in fact, for she had at times felt a certain reluctance in accepting his little attentions-such personal service as kept him almost constantly at her side. His manner, too, was ingratiating; he smiled too much to suit her; his presumption of proprietorship over her irritated her not a little.

As she sat beside him on the grass she found herself studying him, as she had done many times when he had not been conscious of her gaze.

He was thirty-two,-he had told her so himself in a burst of confidence-though she believed him to be much older. The sprinkling of gray hair at his temples had caused her to place his age at thirty-seven or eight. Besides, there were the lines of his face-the set lines of character-indicating established habits o

f thought which would not show so deeply in a younger face. His mouth, she thought, was a trifle weak, yet not exactly weak either, but full-lipped and sensual, with little curves at the corners which, she was sure, indicated either vindictiveness or cruelty, perhaps both.

Taken altogether his was not a face to trust fully; its owner might be too easily guided by selfish considerations. Duncan liked to talk about himself; he had been talking about himself all the time that Sheila had sat beside him reviewing the mental picture. But apparently he had about exhausted that subject now, and presently he looked up at her, his eyes narrowing quizzically.

"You have been here a month now," he said. "How do you like the country?"

"I like it," she returned.

She was looking now at the other picture, watching the shimmer of the sun on the distant mountain peaks.

"It improves," he said, "on acquaintance-like the people." He flashed a smile at her, showing his teeth.

"I haven't seen very many people," she returned, not looking at him, but determined to ignore the personal allusion, to which, plainly, he had meant to guide her.

"But those that you have seen?" he persisted.

"I have formed no opinions."

She had formed an opinion, though, a conclusive one-concerning Dakota. But she had no idea of communicating it to Duncan. Until now, strangely enough, she had had no curiosity concerning him. Bitter hatred and resentment had been so active in her brain that the latter had held no place for curiosity. Or at least, if it had been there, it had been a subconscious emotion, entirely overshadowed by bitterness. Of late, though her resentment toward Dakota had not abated, she had been able to review the incident of her marriage to him with more composure, and therefore a growing curiosity toward the man seemed perfectly justifiable. Curiosity moved her now as she smiled deliberately at Duncan.

"I have seen no one except your sister, a few cowboys, and yourself. I haven't paid much attention to the cowboys, I like your sister, and I am not in the habit of telling people to their faces what I think of them. The country does not appear to be densely populated. Are there no other ranches around here-no other cattlemen?"

"The Double R ranch covers an area of one hundred and sixty square miles," said Duncan. "The ranchhouse is right near the center of it. For about twenty miles in every direction you won't find anybody but Double R men. There are line-camps, of course-dugouts where the men hang out over night sometimes-but that's all. To my knowledge there are only two men with shacks around here, and they're mostly of no account. One of them is Doubler-Ben Doubler-who hangs out near Two Forks, and the other is a fellow who calls himself Dakota, who's got a shack about twenty miles down the Ute, a little off the Lazette trail."

"They are ranchers, I suppose?"

Sheila's face was averted so that Duncan might not see the interest in her eyes, or the red which had suddenly come into her cheeks.

"Ranchers?" There was a sneer in Duncan's laugh. "Well, you might call them that. But they're only nesters. They've got a few head of cattle and a brand. It's likely they've put their brands on quite a few of the Double R cattle."

"You mean--" began Sheila in a low voice.

"I mean that I think they're rustlers-cattle thieves!" said Duncan venomously.

The flush had gone from Sheila's cheeks; she turned a pale face to the Double R manager.

"How long have these men lived in the vicinity of the Double R?"

"Doubler has been hanging around here for seven or eight years. He was here when I came and mebbe he's been here longer. Dakota's been here about five years. He bought his brand-the Star-from another nester-Texas Blanca."

"They've been stealing the Double R cattle, you say?" questioned Sheila.

"That's what I think."

"Why don't you have them arrested?"

Duncan laughed mockingly. "Arrested! That's good. You've been living where there's law. But there's no law out here; no law to cover cattle stealing, except our own. And then we've got to have the goods. The sheriff won't do anything when cattle are stolen, but he acts mighty sudden when a man's hung for stealing cattle, if the man ain't caught with the goods."

"Caught with the goods?"

"Caught in the act of stealing. If we catch a man with the goods and hang him there ain't usually anything said."

"And you haven't been able to catch these men, Dakota and Doubler, in the act of stealing."

"They're too foxy."

"If I were manager of this ranch and suspected anyone of stealing any of its cattle, I would catch them!" There was a note of angry impatience in Sheila's voice which caused Duncan to look sharply at her. He reddened, suspecting disparagement of his managerial ability in the speech.

"Mebbe," he said, with an attempt at lightness. "But as a general thing nosing out a rustler is a pretty ticklish proposition. Nobody goes about that work with a whole lot of enthusiasm."

"Why?" There was scorn in Sheila's voice, scorn in her uplifted chin. But she did not look at Duncan.

"Why?" he repeated. "Well, because it's perfectly natural for a man to want to live as long as he can. I don't like them nesters-Dakota especially-and I'd like mighty well to get something on them. But I ain't taking any chances on Dakota."

"Why?" Again the monosyllable was pregnant with scorn.

"I forgot that you ain't acquainted out here," laughed the manager. "No one is taking any chances with Dakota-not even the sheriff. There's something about the cuss which seems to discourage a man when he's close to him-close enough to do any shooting. I've seen Dakota throw down on a man so quick that it would make you dizzy."

"Throw down?"

"Shoot at a man. There was a gambler over in Lazette thought to euchre Dakota. A gunman he was, from Texas, and-well, they carried the gambler out. It was done so sudden that nobody saw it."

"Killed him?" There was repressed horror in Sheila's voice.

"No, he wasn't entirely put out of business. Dakota only made him feel cheap. Creased him."

"Creased him?"

"Grazed his head with the bullet. Done it intentionally, they say. Told folks he didn't have any desire to send the gambler over the divide; just wanted to show him that when he was playin' with fire he ought to be careful. There ain't no telling what Dakota'd do if he got riled, though."

Sheila's gaze was on Duncan fairly, her eyes alight with contempt. "So you are all afraid of him?" she said, with a bitterness that surprised the manager.

"Well, I reckon it would amount to about that, if you come right down to the truth," he confessed, reddening a little.

"You are afraid of him, too I suppose?"

"I reckon it ain't just that," he parried, "but I ain't taking any foolish risks."

Sheila rose and walked to her pony, which was browsing the tops of some mesquite near by. She reached the animal, mounted, and then turned and looked at Duncan scornfully.

"A while ago you asked for my opinion of the people of this country," she said. "I am going to express that opinion now. It is that, in spite of his unsavory reputation, Dakota appears to be the only man here!"

She took up the reins and urged her pony away from the butte and toward the level that stretched away to the Double R buildings in the distance. For an instant Duncan stood looking after her, his face red with embarrassment, and then with a puzzled frown he mounted and followed her.

Later he came up with her at the Double R corral gate and resumed the conversation.

"Then I reckon you ain't got no use for rustlers?" he said.

"Meaning Dakota?" she questioned, a smoldering fire in her eyes.

"I reckon."

"I wish," she said, facing Duncan, her eyes flashing, "that you would kill him!"

"Why--" said Duncan, changing color.

But Sheila had dismounted and was walking rapidly toward the ranchhouse, leaving Duncan alone with his unfinished speech and his wonder.

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