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   Chapter 7 BOGGED DOWN

The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 25096

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Each day during the two weeks that her father had been at the Double R Sheila had accompanied him on his rides of exploration. She had grown tired of the continued companionship, and despite the novelty of the sight she had become decidedly wearied of looking at the cowboys in their native haunts. Not that they did not appeal to her, for on the contrary she had found them picturesque and had admired their manliness, but she longed to ride out alone where she could brood over her secret. The possession of it had taken the flavor out of the joys of this new life, had left it flat and filled with bitter memories.

She had detected a change in her father-he seemed coarse, domineering, entirely unlike his usual self. She attributed this change in him to the country-it was hard and rough, and of course it was to be expected that Langford-or any man, for that matter-taking an active interest in ranch life, must reflect the spirit of the country.

She had developed a positive dislike for Duncan, which she took no trouble to conceal. She had discovered that the suspicions she had formed of his character during the first days of their acquaintance were quite correct-he was selfish, narrow, and brutal. He had accompanied her and her father on all their trips and his manner toward her had grown to be one of easy familiarity. This was another reason why she wanted to ride alone.

The day before she had spoken to Langford concerning the continued presence of Duncan on their rides, and he had laughed at her, assuring her that Duncan was not a "bad fellow," and though she had not taken issue with him on this point she had decided that hereafter, in self protection, she would discontinue her rides with her father as long as he was accompanied by the former owner.

Determined to carry out this decision, she was this morning saddling her pony at the corral gates when she observed Duncan standing near, watching her.

"You might have let me throw that saddle on," he said.

She flushed, angered that he should have been watching her without making his presence known. "I prefer to put the saddle on myself," she returned, busying herself with it after taking a flashing glance at him.

He laughed, pulled out a package of tobacco and some paper, and proceeded to roll a cigarette. When he had completed it he held a match to it and puffed slowly.

"Cross this morning," he taunted.

There was no reply, though Duncan might have been warned by the dark red in her cheeks. She continued to work with the saddle, lacing the latigo strings and tightening the cinches.

"We're riding down to the box canyon on the other side of the basin this morning," said Duncan. "We've got some strays penned up there. But your dad won't be ready for half an hour yet. You're in something of a hurry, it seems."

"You are going, I suppose?" questioned Sheila, pulling at the rear cinch, the pony displaying a disinclination to allow it to be buckled.

"I reckon."

"I don't see," said Sheila, straightening and facing him, "why you have to go with father everywhere."

Duncan flushed. "Your father's aiming to learn the business," he said. "I'm showing him, telling him what I know about it. There's a chance that I won't be with the Double R after the fall round-up, if a deal which I have got on goes through."

"And I suppose you have a corner on all the knowledge of ranch life," suggested Sheila sarcastically.

He flushed darkly, but did not answer.

After Sheila had completed the tightening of the cinches she led the pony beside the corral fence, mounted, and without looking at Duncan started to ride away.

"Wait!" he shouted, and she drew the pony to a halt and sat in the saddle, looking down at him with a contemptuous gaze as he stood in front of her.

"I thought you was going with your father?" he said.

"You are mistaken." She could not repress a smile over the expression of disappointment on his face. But without giving him any further satisfaction she urged her pony forward, leaving him standing beside the corral gates watching her with a frown.

She smiled many times while riding toward the river, thinking of his discomfiture, reveling in the thought that for once she had shown him that she resented the attitude of familiarity which he had adopted toward her.

She sat erect in the saddle, experiencing a feeling of elation which brought the color into her face and brightened her eyes. It was the first time since her arrival at the Double R that she had been able to ride out alone, and it was also the first time that she really appreciated the vastness and beauty of the country. For the trail to the river, which she had decided she would follow, led through a fertile country where the bunch grass grew long and green, the barren stretches of alkali were infrequent, and where the low wooded hills and the shallow gullies seemed to hint at the mystery. Before long the depression which had made her life miserable had fled and she was enjoying herself.

When she reached the river she crossed it at a shallow and urged her pony up a sloping bank and out upon a grass plain that spread away like the level of a great, green sea. Once into the plain, though, she discovered that its promise of continuing green was a mere illusion, for the grass grew here in bunches, the same as it grew on the Double R side of the river. Yet though she was slightly disappointed she found many things to interest her, and she lingered long over the odd rock formations that she encountered and spent much time peering down into gullies and exploring sand draws which seemed to be on every side.

About noon, when she became convinced that she had seen everything worth seeing in that section of the country, she wheeled her pony and headed it back toward the river. She reached it after a time and urged her beast along its banks, searching for the shallow which she had crossed some time before. A dim trail led along the river and she felt certain that if she followed it long enough it would lead her to the crossing, but after riding half an hour and encountering nothing but hills and rock cliffs she began to doubt. But she rode on for another half hour and then, slightly disturbed over her inability to find the shallow, she halted the pony and looked about her.

The country was strange and unfamiliar and a sudden misgiving assailed her. Had she lost her idea of direction? She looked up at the sun and saw that it was slightly past the zenith on its downward path. She smiled. Of course all she had to do was to follow the river and in time she would come in sight of the Double R buildings. Certain that she had missed the shallow because of her interest in other things, she urged her pony about and cantered it slowly over the back trail. A little later, seeing an arroyo which seemed to give promise of leading to the shallow she sought, she descended it and found that it led to a flat and thence to the river. The crossing seemed unfamiliar, and yet she supposed that one crossing would do quite as well as another, and so she smiled and continued on toward it.

There was a fringe of shrubbery at the edge of what appeared to have once been a swamp, though now it was dry and made fairly good footing for her pony. The animal acted strangely, however, when she tried to urge it through the fringing shrubbery, and she was compelled to use her quirt vigorously.

Once at the water's edge she halted the pony and viewed the crossing with satisfaction. She decided that it was a much better crossing than the one she had encountered on the trip out. It was very shallow, not over thirty feet wide, she estimated, and through the clear water she could easily see the hard, sandy bottom. It puzzled her slightly to observe that there were no wagon tracks or hoof prints in the sand anywhere around her, as there would be were the crossing used ever so little. It seemed to be an isolated section of the country though, and perhaps the cattlemen used the crossing little-there was even a chance that she was the first to discover its existence. She must remember to ask someone about it when she returned to the Double R.

She urged the pony gently with her booted heel and voice, but the little animal would not budge. Impatient over its obstinacy, she again applied the quirt vigorously. Stung to desperation the pony stood erect for an instant, pawing the air frantically with its fore hoofs, and then, as the quirt continued to lash its flanks, it lunged forward, snorting in apparent fright, made two or three eccentric leaps, splashing water high over Sheila's head, and then came to a sudden stop in the middle of the stream.

Sheila nibbled at her lips in vexation. Again, convinced that the pony was merely exhibiting obstinacy, she applied the quirt to its flanks. The animal floundered and struggled, but did not move out of its tracks.

Evidently something had gone wrong. Sheila peered over the pony's mane into the water, which was still clear in spite of the pony's struggling, and sat suddenly erect, stifling cry of amazement. The pony was mired fast! Its legs, to a point just above the knees, had disappeared into the river bottom!

As she straightened, a chilling fear clutching at her heart, she felt the cold water of the river splashing against her booted legs. And now knowledge came to her in a sudden, sickening flood. She had ridden her pony fairly into a bed of quicksand!

For some minutes she sat motionless in the saddle, stunned and nerveless. She saw now why there were no tracks or hoof prints leading down into the crossing. She remembered now that Duncan had warned her of the presence of quicksand in the river, but the chance of her riding into any of it had seemed to be so remote that she had paid very little attention to Duncan's warning. Much as she disliked the man she would have given much to have him close at hand now. If he had only followed her!

She was surprised at her coolness. She realized that the situation was precarious, for though she had never before experienced a quicksand, she had read much of them in books, and knew that the pony was hopelessly mired. But it seemed that there could be no immediate danger, for the river bottom looked smooth and hard; it was grayish-black, and she was so certain that the footing was good that she pulled her feet out of the stirrups, swung around, and stepped down into the water.

She had stepped lightly, bearing only a little of her weight on the foot while holding to the saddle, but the foot sank instantly into the sand and the water darkened around it. She tried again in another spot, putting a little more weight on her foot this time. She went in almost to the knee and was surprised to find that she had to exert some little strength to pull the foot out, there was so great a suction.

With the discovery that she was really in a dangerous predicament came a mental panic which threatened to take the form of hysteria. She held tightly to the pommel of the saddle, shutting her eyes on the desolate world around her, battling against the great fear that rose within her and choked her. When she opened her eyes again the world was reeling and objects around her were strangely blurred, but she held tightly to the saddle, telling herself that she must retain her composure, and after a time she regained the mastery over herself.

With the return of her mental faculties she began to give some thought to escape. But escape seemed to be impossible. Looking backward toward the bank she had left, she saw that the pony must have come fifteen or twenty feet in the two or three plunges it had made. She found herself wondering how it could have succeeded in coming that distance. Behind her the water had become perfectly clear, and the impressions left by the pony's hoofs had filled up and the river bottom looked as smooth and inviting as it had seemed when she had urged the pony into it.

In front of her was a stretch of water of nearly the same width as that which lay behind her. To the right and left the grayish-black sand spread far, but only a short distance beyond where she could discern the sand there were rocks that stuck above the water with little ripples around them.

The rocks were too far away to be of any assistance to her, however, and her heart sank when she realized that her only hope of escape lay directly ahead.

She leaned over and laid her head against the pony's neck, smoothing and patting its sho

ulders. The animal whinnied appealingly and she stifled a sob of remorse over her action in forcing it into the treacherous sand, for it had sensed the danger while obeying her blindly.

How long she lay with her head against the pony's neck she did not know, but when she finally sat erect again she found that the water was touching the hem of her riding skirt and that her feet, dangling at each side of the pony, were deep in the sand of the river bottom. With a cry of fright she drew them out and crossed them before her on the pommel of the saddle. With the movement the pony sank several inches, it seemed to her; she saw the water suddenly flow over its back; heard it neigh loudly, appealingly, with a note of anguish and terror which seemed almost human, and feeling a sudden, responsive emotion of horror and despair, Sheila bowed her head against the pony's mane and sobbed softly.

They would both die, she knew-horribly. They would presently sink beneath the surface of the sand, the water would flow over them and obliterate all traces of their graves, and no one would ever know what had become of them.

Some time later-it might have been five minutes or an hour-Sheila could not have told-she heard the pony neigh again, and this time it seemed there was a new note in the sound-a note of hope! She raised her head and looked up. And there on the bank before her, uncoiling his rope from the saddle horn and looking very white and grim, was Dakota!

Sheila sat motionless, not knowing whether to cry or laugh, finally compromising with the appeal, uttered with all the composure at her command:

"Won't you please get us out of here?"

"That's what I am aiming to do," he said, and never did a voice sound sweeter in her ears; at that moment she almost forgave him for the great crime he had committed against her.

"WON'T YOU PLEASE GET US OUT OF THIS?"

He seemed not in the least excited, continuing to uncoil his rope and recoil it again into larger loops. "Hold your hands over your head!" came his command.

She did as she was bidden. He had not dismounted from his pony, but had ridden up to the very edge of the quicksand, and as she raised her hands she saw him twirl the rope once, watched as it sailed out, settled down around her waist, and was drawn tight.

There was now a grim smile on his face. "You're in for a wetting," he said. "I'm sorry-but it can't be helped. Get your feet off to one side so that you won't get mixed up with the saddle. And keep your head above the water."

"Ye-s," she answered tremulously, dreading the ordeal, dreading still more the thought of her appearance when she would finally reach the bank.

His pony was in motion instantly, pulling strongly, following out its custom of dragging a roped steer, and Sheila slipped off the saddle and into the water, trying to keep her feet under her. But she overbalanced and fell with a splash, and in this manner was dragged, gasping, strangling, and dripping wet, to the bank.

Dakota was off his pony long before she had reached the solid ground and was at her side before she had cleared the water, helping her to her feet and loosening the noose about her waist.

"Don't, please!" she said frigidly, as his hand touched her.

"Then I won't." He smiled and stepped back while she fumbled with the rope and finally threw it off. "What made you try that shallow?" he asked.

"I suppose I have a right to ride where I please?" He had saved her life, of course, and she was very grateful to him, but that was no reason why he should presume to speak familiarly to her. She really believed-in spite of the obligation under which he had placed her-that she hated him more than ever.

But he did not seem to be at all disturbed over her manner. On the contrary, looking at him and trying her best to be scornful, he seemed to be laboring heroically to stifle some emotion-amusement, she decided-and she tried to freeze him with an icy stare.

"Now, you don't look dignified, for a fact," he grinned, brazenly allowing his mirth to show in his eyes and in the sudden, curved lines that had come around his mouth. "Still, you couldn't expect to look dignified, no matter how hard you tried, after being dragged through the water like that. Now could you?"

"It isn't the first time that I have amused you!" she said with angry sarcasm.

A cloud passed over his face, but was instantly superseded by a smile.

"So you haven't forgotten?" he said.

She did not deign to answer, but turned her back to him and looked at her partially submerged pony.

"Want to try it again?" he said mockingly.

She turned slowly and looked at him, her eyes flashing.

"Will you please stop being silly!" she said coldly. "If you were human you would be trying to get my pony out of that sand instead of standing there and trying to be smart!"

"Did you think that I was going to let him drown?" His smile had in it a quality of subtle mockery which made her eyes blaze with anger. Evidently he observed it for he smiled as he walked to his pony, coiling his rope and hanging it from the pommel of the saddle. "I certainly am not going to let your horse drown," he assured her, "for in this country horses are sometimes more valuable than people."

"Then why didn't you save the pony first?" she demanded hotly.

"How could I," he returned, fixing her with an amused glance, "with you looking so appealingly at me?"

She turned abruptly and left him, walking to a flat rock and seating herself upon it, wringing the water from her skirts, trying to get her hair out of her eyes, feeling very miserable, and wishing devoutly that Dakota might drown himself-after he had succeeded in pulling the pony from the quicksand.

But Dakota did not drown himself. Nor did he pull the pony out of the quicksand. She watched him as he rode to the water's edge and looked at the animal. Her heart sank when he turned and looked gravely at her.

"I reckon your pony's done for, ma'am," he said. "There isn't anything of him above the sand but his head and a little of his neck. He's too far gone, ma'am. In half an hour he'll--"

Sheila stood up, wet and excited. "Can't you do something?" she pleaded. "Couldn't you pull him out with your lariat-like you did me?"

There was a grim humor in his smile. "What do you reckon would have happened to you if I had tried to pull you out by the neck?" he asked.

"But can't you do something?" she pleaded, her icy attitude toward him melting under the warmth of her affection and sympathy for the unfortunate pony. "Please do something!" she begged.

His face changed expression and he tapped one of his holsters significantly. "There's only this left, I reckon. Pulling him out by the neck would break it, sure. And it's never a nice thing to see-or hear-a horse or a cow sinking in quicksand. I've seen it once or twice and--"

Sheila shuddered and covered her face with her hands, for his words had set her imagination to working.

"Oh!" she said and became silent.

Dakota stood for a moment, watching her, his face grim with sympathy.

"It's too bad," he said finally. "I don't like to shoot him, any more than you want to see it done. I reckon, though, that the pony would thank me for doing it if he could have anything to say about it." He walked over close to her, speaking in a low voice. "You can't stay here, of course. You'll have to take my horse, and you'll have to go right now, if you don't want to be around when the pony--"

"Please don't," she said, interrupting him. He relapsed into silence, and stood gravely watching her as she resumed her toilet.

She disliked to accept his offer of the pony, but there seemed to be no other way. She certainly could not walk to the Double R ranchhouse, even to satisfy a desire to show him that she would not allow him to place her under any obligation to him.

"I've got to tell you one thing," he said presently, standing erect and looking earnestly at her. "If Duncan is responsible for your safety in this country he isn't showing very good judgment in letting you run around alone. There are dangers that you know nothing about, and you don't know a thing about the country. Someone ought to take care of you."

"As you did, for example," she retorted, filled with anger over his present solicitation for her welfare, as contrasted to his treatment of her on another occasion.

A slow red filled his cheeks. Evidently he did possess some self-respect, after all. Contrition, too, she thought she could detect in his manner and in his voice.

"But I didn't hurt you, anyway," he said, eyeing her steadily.

"Not if you call ruining a woman's name not 'hurting' her," she answered bitterly.

"I am sorry for that, Miss Sheila," he said earnestly. "I had an idea that night-and still have it, for that matter-that I was an instrument- Well, I had an idea, that's all. But I haven't told anybody about what happened-I haven't even hinted it to anybody. And I told the parson to get out of the country, so he wouldn't do any gassing about it. And I haven't been over to Dry Bottom to have the marriage recorded-and I am not going to go. So that you can have it set aside at any time."

Yes, she could have the marriage annulled, she knew that. But the contemplation of her release from the tie that bound her to him did not lessen the gravity of the offense in her eyes. She told herself that she hated him with a remorseless passion which would never cease until he ceased to live. No action of his could repair the damage he had done to her. She told him so, plainly.

"I didn't know you were so blood-thirsty as that," he laughed in quiet mockery. "Maybe it would be a good thing for you if I did die-or get killed. But I'm not allowing that I'm ready to die yet, and certainly am not going to let anybody kill me if I can prevent it. I reckon you're not thinking of doing the killing yourself?"

"If I told my father-" she began, but hesitated when she saw his lips suddenly straighten and harden and his eyes light with a deep contempt.

"So you haven't told your father?" he laughed. "I was sure you had taken him into your confidence by this time. But I reckon it's a mighty good thing that you didn't-for your father. Like as not if you'd tell him he'd get some riled and come right over to see me, yearning for my blood. And then I'd have to shoot him up some. And that would sure be too bad-you loving him as you do."

"I suppose you would shoot him like you shot that poor fellow in Lazette," she taunted, bitterly.

"Like I did that poor fellow in Lazette," he said, with broad, ironic emphasis. "You saw me shoot Blanca, of course, for you were there. But you don't know what made me shoot him, and I am not going to tell you-it's none of your business."

"Indeed!" Her voice was burdened with contempt. "I suppose you take a certain pride in your ability to murder people." She placed a venomous accent on the "Murder."

"Lots of people ought to be murdered," he drawled, using the accent she had used.

Her contempt of him grew. "Then I presume you have others in mind-whom you will shoot when the mood strikes you?" she said.

"Perhaps." His smile was mysterious and mocking, and she saw in his eyes the reckless gleam which she had noted that night while in the cabin with him. She shuddered and walked to the pony-his pony.

"If you have quite finished I believe I will be going," she said, holding her chin high and averting her face. "I will have one of the men bring your horse to you."

"I believe I have quite finished," he returned, mimicking her cold, precise manner of speech.

She disdainfully refused his proffer of assistance and mounted the pony. He stood watching her with a smile, which she saw by glancing covertly at him while pretending to arrange the stirrup strap. When she started to ride away without even glancing at him, she heard his voice, with its absurd, hateful drawl:

"And she didn't even thank me," he said with mock bitterness and disappointment.

She turned and made a grimace at him. He bowed and smiled.

"You are entirely welcome," she said.

He was standing on the edge of the quicksand, watching her, when she reached the long rise upon which she had sat on her pony on a day some weeks before, and when she turned he waved a hand to her. A little later she vanished over the rise, and she had not ridden very far when she heard the dull report of his pistol. She shivered, and rode on.

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