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The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 22651

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

With the thermometer at one hundred and five it was not to be expected that there would be much movement in Lazette. As a matter of fact, there was little movement anywhere. On the plains, which began at the edge of town, there was no movement, no life except when a lizard, seeking a retreat from the blistering sun, removed itself to a deeper shade under the leaves of the sage-brush, or a prairie-dog, popping its head above the surface of the sand, took a lightning survey of its surroundings, and apparently dissatisfied with the outlook whisked back into the bowels of the earth.

There was no wind, no motion; the little whirlwinds of dust that arose settled quickly down, the desultory breezes which had caused them departing as mysteriously as they had come. In the blighting heat the country lay, dead, spreading to the infinite horizons; in the sky no speck floated against the dome of blue. More desolate than a derelict on the calm surface of the trackless ocean Lazette lay, its huddled buildings dingy with the dust of a continuing dry season, squatting in their dismal lonesomeness in the shimmering, blinding sun.

In a strip of shade under the eaves of the station sat the station agent, gazing drowsily from under the wide brim of his hat at the two glistening lines of steel that stretched into the interminable distance. Some cowponies, hitched to rails in front of the saloons and the stores, stood with drooping heads, tormented by myriad flies; a wagon or two, minus horses, occupied a space in front of a blacksmith shop.

In the Red Dog saloon some punchers on a holiday played cards at various tables, quietly drinking. Behind the rough bar Pete Moulin, the proprietor stood, talking to his bartender, Blacky.

"So that jasper's back again," commented the proprietor.

"Which?" The bartender followed the proprietor's gaze, which was on a man seated at a card table, his profile toward them, playing cards with several other men. The bartender's face showed perplexity.

Moulin laughed. "I forgot you ain't been here that long," he said. "That was before your time. That fellow settin' sideways to us is Texas Blanca."

"What's he callin' himself 'Texas' for?" queried the bartender. "He looks more like a greaser."

"Breed, I reckon," offered the proprietor. "Claims to have punched cows in Texas before he come here."

"What's he allowin' to be now?"

"Nobody knows. Used to own the Star-Dakota's brand. Sold out to Dakota five years ago. Country got too hot for him an' he had to pull his freight."


"You've said something. He's been suspected of it. But nobody's talkin' very loud about it."

"Not safe?"

"Not safe. He's lightning with a six. Got his nerve to come back here, though."

"How's that?"

"Ain't you heard about it? I thought everybody'd heard about that deal. Blanca sold Dakota the Star. Then he pulled his freight immediate. A week or so later Duncan, of the Double R, rides up to Dakota's shack with a bunch of Double R boys an' accuses Dakota of rustlin' Double R cattle. Duncan had found twenty Double R calves runnin' with the Star cattle which had been marked secret. Blanca had run his iron on them an' sold them to Dakota for Star stock. Dakota showed Duncan his bill of sale, all regular, an' of course Duncan couldn't blame him. But there was some hard words passed between Duncan an' Dakota, an' Dakota ain't allowin' they're particular friends since.

"Dakota had to give up the calves, sure enough, an' he did. But sore! Dakota was sure some disturbed in his mind. He didn't show it much, bein' one of them quiet kind, but he says to me one day not long after Duncan had got the calves back: 'I've been stung, Pete,' he says, soft an' even like; 'I've been stung proper, by that damned oiler. Not that I'm carin' for the money end of it; Duncan findin' them calves with my stock has damaged my reputation.' Then he laffed-one of them little short laffs which he gets off sometimes when things don't just suit him-the way he's laffed a couple of times when someone's tried to run a cold lead proposition in on him. He fair freezes my blood when he gets it off.

"Well, he says to me: 'Mebbe I'll be runnin' in with Blanca one of these days.' An' that's all he ever says about it. Likely he expected Blanca to come back. An' sure enough he has. Reckon he thinks that mebbe Dakota didn't get wise to the calf deal."

"In his place," said Blacky, eyeing Blanca furtively, "I'd be makin' some inquiries. Dakota ain't no man to trifle with."

"Trifle!" Moulin's voice was pregnant with awed admiration. "I reckon there ain't no one who knows Dakota's goin' to trifle with him-he's discouraged that long ago. Square, too, square as they make 'em."

"The Lord knows the country needs square men," observed Blacky.

He caught a sign from a man seated at a table and went over to him with a bottle and a glass. While Blacky was engaged in this task the door opened and Dakota came in.

Moulin's admiration and friendship for Dakota might have impelled him to warn Dakota of the presence of Blanca, and he did hold up a covert finger, but Dakota at that moment was looking in another direction and did not observe the signal.

He continued to approach the bar and Blacky, having a leisure moment, came forward and stood ready to serve him. A short nod of greeting passed between the three, and Blacky placed a bottle on the bar and reached for a glass. Dakota made a negative sign with his head-short and resolute.

"I'm in for supplies," he laughed, "but not that."

"Not drinkin'?" queried Moulin.

"I'm pure as the driven snow," drawled Dakota.

"How long has that been goin' on?" Moulin's grin was skeptical.

"A month."

Moulin looked searchingly at Dakota, saw that he was in earnest, and suddenly reached a hand over the bar.

"Shake!" he said. "I hate to knock my own business, an' you've been a pretty good customer, but if you mean it, it's the most sensible thing you ever done. Of course you didn't hit it regular, but there's been times when I've thought that if I could have three or four customers like you I'd retire in a year an' spend the rest of my life countin' my dust!" He was suddenly serious, catching Dakota's gaze and winking expressively.

"Friend of yourn here," he said.

Dakota took a flashing glance at the men at the card tables and Moulin saw his lips straighten and harden. But in the next instant he was smiling gravely at the proprietor.

"Thanks, Pete," he said quietly. "But you're some reckless with the English language when you're calling him my friend. Maybe he'll be proving that he didn't mean to skin me on that deal."

He smiled again and then left the bar and strode toward Blanca. The latter continued his card playing, apparently unaware of Dakota's approach, but at the sound of his former victim's voice he turned and looked up slowly, his face wearing a bland smile.

It was plain to Moulin that Blanca had known all along of Dakota's presence in the saloon-perhaps he had seen him enter. The other card players ceased playing and leaned back in their chairs, watching, for some of them knew something of the calf deal, and there was that in Dakota's greeting to Blanca which warned them of impending trouble.

"Blanca," said Dakota quietly, "you can pay for those calves now."

It pleased Blanca to dissemble. But it was plain to Moulin-as it must have been plain to everybody who watched Blanca-that a shadow crossed his face at Dakota's words. Evidently he had entertained a hope that his duplicity had not been discovered.

"Calves?" he said. "What calves, my frien'?" He dropped his cards to the table and turned his chair around, leaning far back in it and hooking his right thumb in his cartridge belt, just above the holster of his pistol. "I theenk it mus' be mistak'."

"Yes," returned Dakota, a slow, grimly humorous smile reaching his face, "it was a mistake. You made it, Blanca. Duncan found it out. Duncan took the calves-they belonged to him. You're going to pay for them."

"I pay for heem?" The bland smile on Blanca's face had slowly faded with the realization that his victim was not to be further misled by him. In place of the smile his face now wore an expression of sneering contempt, and his black eyes had taken on a watchful glitter. He spoke slowly: "I pay for no calves, my frien'."

"You'll pay," said Dakota, an ominously quiet drawl in his voice, "or--"

"Or what?" Blanca showed his white teeth in a tigerish smirk.

"This town ain't big enough for both of us," said Dakota, his eyes cold and alert as they watched Blanca's hand at his cartridge belt. "One of us will leave it by sundown. I reckon that's all."

He deliberately turned his back on Blanca and walked to the door, stepping down into the street. Blanca looked after him, sneering. An instant later Blanca turned and smiled at his companions at the table.

"It ain't my funeral," said one of the card players, "but if I was in your place I'd begin to think that me stayin' here was crowdin' the population of this town by one."

Blanca's teeth gleamed. "My frien'," he said insinuatingly, "it's your deal." His smile grew. "Thees is a nize country," he continued. "I like it ver' much. I come back here to stay. Dakota-hees got the Star too cheap." He tapped his gun holster significantly. "To-night Dakota hees go somewhere else. To-morrow who takes the Star? You?" He pointed to each of the card players in turn. "You?" he questioned. "You take it?" He smiled at their negative signs. "Well, then, Blanca take it. Peste! Dakota give himself till sundown!"

* * *

The six-o'clock was an hour and thirty minutes late. For two hours Sheila Langford had been on the station platform awaiting its coming. For a full half hour she had stood at one corner of the platform straining her eyes to watch a thin skein of smoke that trailed off down the horizon, but which told her that the train was coming. It crawled slowly-like a huge serpent-over the wilderness of space, growing always larger, steaming its way through the golden sunshine of the afternoon, and after a time, with a grinding of brakes and the shrill hiss of escaping air, it drew alongside the station platform.

A brakeman descended, the conductor strode stiffly to the telegrapher's window, two trunks came out of the baggage car, and a tall man of fifty alighted and was folded into Sheila's welcoming arms. For a moment the two stood thus, while the passengers smiled sympathetically. Then the man held Sheila off at arm's length and looked searchingly at her.

"Crying?" he said. "What a welcome!"

"Oh, daddy!" said Sheila. In this moment she was very near to telling him what had happened to her on the day of her arrival at Lazette, but she felt that it was impossible with him looking at her; she could not at a blow cast a shadow over the joy of his first day in the country where, henceforth, he was to make his home. And so she stood sobbing softly on his shoulder while he, aware of his inability to cope with anything so mysterious as a woman's tears, caressed her gently and waited patiently for her to regain her composure.

"Then nothing happened to you after all," he laughed, patting her cheeks. "Nothing, in spite of my croaking."

"Nothing," she answered. The opportunity was gone now; she was committed irrevocably to her secret.

"You like it here? Duncan has made himself agreeable?"

"It is a beautiful country, though a little lonesome after-after Albany. I miss my friends, of course. But Duncan's sister has done her best, and I have been able to get along."

The engine bell clanged and they stood side by side as the train pulled slowly away from the platform. Langford solemnly waved a farewell to it.

"This is the moment for which I have been looking for months," he said, with what, it seemed to Sheila, was almost a sigh of relief. He turned to her with a smile. "I will look after the baggage," he said, and leaving her he approached the station agent and together they examined the trunks which had come out of the baggage car.

Sheila watched him while he engaged in this task. His face seemed a trifle drawn; he had aged much during the month that she had been separated from him. The lines of his face had grown deeper; he seemed, now that she saw him at a distance, to be care-worn-tired. She had heard people call him a hard man; she knew that business associates had complained of what they were pleased to call his "sharp methods"; it had even been hinted that his "methods" were irregular.

It made no difference to her, however, what people thought of him, or what they said of him, he had been a kind and indulgent parent to her and she supposed that in business it was everybody's business to look sharply after their own interests. For there were jealous people everywhere; envy stalks rampant through the world; failure cavils at mediocrity, mediocrity sneers at genius. And Sheila had always considered her father a genius, and the carping of those over whom her father had ridden roughshod had always sounded in her ears like tributes.

As quite unconsciously we are prone to place the interests of self above considerations for the comfort and the convenience of others, so Sheila had grown to judge her father through the medium of his treatment of her. Her own father-who had died during her infancy-could not have treated her better than had Langford. Since her mother's death some years before, Langford had been both father and mother to her, and her affection for him had flourished in the sunshine of his. No matter what other people thought, she was satisfied with him.

As a matter of fact David Dowd Langford allowed no one-not even Sheila-to look into his soul. What emotions slumbered beneath the mask of his habitual imperturbability no one save Langford himself knew. During all his days he had successfully fought against betraying his emotions and now, at the age of fifty, there was nothing of his character revealed in his face except sternness. If addicted to sharp practice in business no one would be likely to suspect it, not even his victim. Could one have looked steadily into his eyes one might find there a certain gleam to warn one of trickery, only one would not be able to look steadily into them, for the reason that they would not allow you. They were shifty, crafty eyes that took one's measure when one least expected them to do so.

Over the motive which had moved her father to retire from business while still in his prime Sheila did not speculate. Nor had she speculated when he had bought the Double R ranch and announced his intention to spend the remainder of his days on it. She supposed that he had grown tired of the unceasing bustle and activity of city life, as had she, and longed for something different, and she had been quite as eager as he to take up her residence here. This had been the limit of her conjecturing.

He had told her when she left Albany that he would follow her in a month. And therefore, in a month to the day, knowing his habit of punctuality, Sheila had come to Lazette for him, having been driven over from the Double R by one of the cowboys.

She saw the station agent now, beckoning to the driver of the wagon, and she went over to the edge of the station platform and watched while the trunks were tumbled into the wagon.

The driver was grumbling good naturedly to Langford.

"That darned six-o'clock train is always late," he was saying. "It's a quarter to eight now an' the sun is goin' down. If that train had been on time we could have made part of the trip in the daylight."

The day had indeed gone. Sheila looked toward the mountains and saw that great long shadows were lengthening from their bases; the lower half of the sun had sunk behind a distant peak; the quiet colors of the sunset were streaking the sky and glowing over the plains.

The trunks were in; the station agent held the horses by the bridles, quieting them; the driver took up the reins; Sheila was helped to the seat by her father, he jumped in himself, and they were off down the street, toward a dim trail that led up a slope that began at the edge of town and melted into space.

The town seemed deserted. Sheila saw a man standing near the front door of a saloon, his hands on his hips. He did not appear interested in either the wagon or its occupants; his gaze roved up and down the street and he nervously fingered his cartridge belt. He was a brown-skinned man, almost olive, Sheila thought as her gaze rested on him, attired after the manner of the country, with leathern chaps, felt hat, boots, spurs, neckerchief.

"Why, it is sundown already!" Sheila heard her father say. "What a sudden change! A moment ago the light was perfect!"

A subconscious sense only permitted Sheila to hear her father's voice, for her thoughts and eyes were just then riveted on another man who had come out of the door of another saloon a little way down the street. She recognized the man as Dakota and exclaimed sharply.

She felt her father turn; heard the driver declare, "It's comin' off," though she had not the slightest idea of his meaning. Then she realized that he had halted the horses; saw that he had turned in his seat and was watching something to the rear of them intently.

"We're out of range," she heard him say, speaking to her father.

"What's wrong?" This was her father's voice.

"Dakota an' Blanca are havin' a run-in," announced the driver. "Dakota's give Blanca till sundown to get out of town. It's sundown now an' Blanca ain't pulled his freight, an' it's likely that hell will be a-poppin' sorta sudden."

Sheila cowered in her seat, half afraid to look at Dakota-who was walking slowly toward the man who still stood in front of the saloon-though in spite of her fears and misgivings the fascination of the scene held her gaze steadily on the chief actors.

Out of the corners of her eyes she could see that far down the street men were congregated; they stood in doorways, at convenient corners, their eyes directed toward Dakota and the other man. In the sepulchral calm which had fallen there came to Sheila's ears sounds that in another time she would not have noticed. Somewhere a door slammed; there came to her ears the barking of a dog, the neigh of a horse-sharply the sounds smote the quiet atmosphere, they seemed odd to the point of unreality.

However, the sounds did not long distract her attention from the chief actors in the scene which was being worked out in front of her; the noises died away and she gave her entire attention to the men. She saw Dakota reach a point about thirty feet from the man in front of the saloon-Blanca. As Dakota continued to approach, Sheila observed an evil smile flash suddenly to Blanca's face; saw a glint of metal in the faint light; heard the crash of his revolver; shuddered at the flame spurt. She expected to see Dakota fall-hoped that he might. Instead, she saw him smile-in much the fashion in which he had smiled that night in the cabin when he had threatened to shoot the parson if she did not consent to marry him. And then his hand dropped swiftly to the butt of the pistol at his right hip.

Sheila's eyes closed; she swayed and felt her father's arm come out and grasp her to keep her from falling. But she was not going to fall; she had merely closed her eyes to blot out the scene which she could not turn from. She held her breath in an agony of suspense, and it seemed an age until she heard a crashing report-and then another. Then silence.

Unable longer to resist looking, Sheila opened her eyes. She saw Dakota walk forward and stand over Blanca, looking down at him, his pistol still in hand. Blanca was face down in the dust of the street, and as Dakota stood over him Sheila saw the half-breed's body move convulsively and then become still. Dakota sheathed his weapon and, without looking toward the wagon in which Sheila sat, turned and strode unconcernedly down the street. A man came out of the door of the saloon in front of which Blanca's body lay, looking down at it curiously. Other men were running toward the spot; there were shouts, oaths.

For the first time in her life Sheila had seen a man killed-murdered-and there came to her a recollection of Dakota's words that night in the cabin: "Have you ever seen a man die?" She had surmised from his manner that night that he would not hesitate to kill the parson, and now she knew that her sacrifice had not been made in vain. A sob shook her, the world reeled, blurred, and she covered her face with her hands.

"Oh!" she said in a strained, hoarse voice. "Oh! The brute!"

"Hey!" From a great distance the driver's voice seemed to come. "Hey! What's that? Well, mebbe. But I reckon Blanca won't rustle any more cattle." "God!" he added in an awed voice; "both of them hit him!"

Blanca was dead then, there could be no doubt of that. Sheila felt herself swaying and tried to grasp the end of the seat to steady herself. She heard her father's voice raised in alarm, felt his arm come out again and grasp her, and then darkness settled around her.

When she recovered consciousness her father's arms were still around her and the buckboard was in motion. Dusk had come; above her countless stars flickered in the deep blue of the sky.

"I reckon she's plum shocked," she heard the driver say.

"I don't wonder," returned Langford, and Sheila felt a shiver run over him. "Great guns!" Sheila wondered at the tone he used. "That man is a marvel with a pistol! Did you notice how cool he took it?"

"Cool!" The driver laughed. "If you get acquainted with Dakota you'll find out that he's cool. He's an iceberg, that's what he is!"

"They'll arrest him, I suppose?" queried Langford.

"Arrest him! What for? Didn't he give Blanca his chance? That's why I'm tellin' you he's cool!"

It was past two o'clock when the buckboard pulled up at the Double R corral gates and Langford helped Sheila down. She was still pale and trembling and did not remain downstairs to witness her father's introduction to Duncan's sister, but went immediately to her room. Sleep was far from her, however, for she kept dwelling over and over on the odd fortune which had killed Blanca and allowed Dakota to live, when the latter's death would have brought to an end the distasteful relationship which his freakish impulse had forced upon her.

She remembered Dakota's words in the cabin. Was Fate indeed running this game-if game it might be called?

* * *

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