MoboReader> Literature > The Trail to Yesterday

   Chapter 8 SHEILA FANS A FLAME

The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 17245

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Sheila departed from the quicksand crossing nursing her wrath against the man who had rescued her, feeling bitterly vindictive against him, yet aware that the Dakota who had saved her life was not the Dakota whom she had feared during her adventure with him in his cabin on the night of her arrival in the country. He had changed, and though she assured herself that she despised him more than ever, she found a grim amusement in the recollection of his manner immediately following the rescue, and in a review of the verbal battle, in which she had been badly worsted.

His glances had had in them the quality of inward mirth and satisfaction which is most irritating, and behind his pretended remorse she could see a pleasure over her dilemma which made her yearn to inflict punishment upon him that would cause him to ask for mercy. His demeanor had said plainly that if she wished to have the marriage set aside all well and good-he would offer no objection. But neither would he take the initiative. Decidedly, it was a matter in which she should consult her own desires.

It was late in the afternoon when she rode up to the Double R corral gates and was met there by her father and Duncan. Langford had been worried, he said, and was much concerned over her appearance. In the presence of Duncan Sheila told him the story of her danger and subsequent rescue by Dakota and she saw his eyes narrow with a strange light.

"Dakota!" he said. "Isn't that the chap who shot that half-breed over in Lazette the day I came?"

To Sheila's nod he ejaculated: "He's a trump!"

"He is a brute!" As the words escaped her lips-she had not meant to utter them-Sheila caught a glint in Duncan's eyes which told her that she had echoed the latter's sentiments, and she felt almost like retracting the charge. She had to bite her lips to resist the impulse.

"A brute, eh?" laughed Langford. "It strikes me that I wouldn't so characterize a man who had saved my life. The chances are that after saving you he didn't seem delighted enough, or he didn't smile to suit you, or--"

"He ain't so awful much of a man," remarked Duncan disparagingly.

Langford turned and looked at Duncan with a comprehending smile. "Evidently you owe Dakota nothing, my dear Duncan," he said.

The latter's face darkened, and with Sheila listening he told the story of the calf deal, which had indirectly brought about the death of Blanca.

"For a long time we had suspected Texas Blanca of rustling," said Duncan, "but we couldn't catch him with the goods. Five years ago, after the spring round-up, I branded a bunch of calves with a secret mark, and then we rode sign on Blanca.

"We had him then, for the calves disappeared and some of the boys found some of them in Blanca's corral, but we delayed, hoping he would run off more, and while we were waiting he sold out to Dakota. We didn't know that at the time; didn't find it out until we went over to take Blanca and found Dakota living in his cabin. He had a bill of sale from Blanca all right, showing that he'd bought the calves from him. It looked regular, but we had our doubts, and Dakota and me came pretty near having a run-in. If the boys hadn't interfered--"

He hesitated and looked at Sheila, and as her gaze met his steadily his eyes wavered and a slow red came into his face, for the recollection of what had actually occurred at the meeting between him and Dakota was not pleasant, and since that day Duncan had many times heard the word "Yellow" spoken in connection with his name-which meant that he lacked courage.

"So he wasn't a rustler, after all?" said Sheila pleasantly. For some reason which she could not entirely explain, she suspected that Duncan had left many things out of his story of his clash with Dakota.

"Well, no," admitted Duncan grudgingly.

Sheila was surprised at the satisfaction she felt over this admission. Perhaps Duncan read her face as she had read his, for he frowned.

"Him and Blanca framed up-making believe that Blanca had sold him the Star brand," he said venomously.

"I don't believe it!" Sheila's eyes met Duncan's and the latter's wavered. She was not certain which gave her the thrill she felt-her defense of Dakota or Duncan's bitter rage over the exhibition of that defense.

"He doesn't appear to me to be the sort of man who would steal cows," she said with a smile which made Duncan's teeth show. "Although," she continued significantly, "it does seem that he is the sort of man I would not care to trifle with-if I were a man. You told me yourself, if you remember, that you were not taking any chances with him. And now you accuse him. If I were you," she warned, "I would be more careful-I would keep from saying things which I could not prove."

"Meaning that I'm afraid of him, I reckon?" sneered Duncan.

Sheila looked at him, her eyes alight with mischief. That day on the edge of the butte overlooking the river, when Duncan had talked about Dakota, she had detected in his manner an inclination to belittle the latter; several times since then she had heard him speak venomously of him, and she had suspected that all was not smooth between them. And now since Duncan had related the story of the calf incident she was certain that the relations between the two men were strained to the point of open rupture. Duncan had bothered her, had annoyed her with his attentions, had adopted toward her an air of easy familiarity, which she had deeply resented, and she yearned to humiliate him deeply.

"Afraid?" She appeared to hesitate. "Well, no," she said, surveying him with an appraising eye in which the mischief was partly concealed, "I do not believe that you are afraid. Perhaps you are merely careful where he is concerned. But I am certain that even if you were afraid of him you would not refuse to take his pony back. I promised to send it back, you know."

A deep red suddenly suffused Duncan's face. A sharp, savage gleam in his eyes-which Sheila met with a disarming smile-convinced her that he was aware of her object. She saw also that he did not intend to allow her to force him to perform the service.

He bowed and regarded her with a shallow smile.

"I will have one of the boys take the pony over to him the first thing in the morning," he said.

Sheila smiled sweetly. "Please don't bother," she said. "I wouldn't think of allowing one of the men to take the pony back. Perhaps I shall decide to ride over that way myself. I should not care to have you meet Dakota if you are afraid of him."

Her rippling laugh caused the red in Duncan's face to deepen, but she gave him no time to reply, for directly she had spoken she turned and walked toward the ranchhouse. Both Duncan and Langford watched her until she had vanished, and then Langford turned to Duncan.

"What on earth have you done to her?" he questioned.

But Duncan was savagely pulling the saddle from Dakota's pony and did not answer.

Sheila really had no expectation of prevailing upon Duncan to return Dakota's horse, and had she anticipated that the manager would accept her challenge she would not have given it, for after thinking over the incident of her rescue she had come to the conclusion that she had not treated Dakota fairly, and by personally taking his horse to him she would have an opportunity to proffer her tardy thanks for his service. She did not revert to the subject of the animal's return during the evening meal, however, nor after it when she and her father and Duncan sat on the gallery of the ranchhouse enjoying the cool of the night breezes.

After breakfast on the following morning she was standing near the windmill, watching the long arms travel lazily in their wide circles, when she saw Duncan riding away from the ranchhouse, leading Dakota's pony. She started toward the corral gates, intending to call to him to return, but thought better of the impulse and hailed him tauntingly instead:

"Please tell him to accept my thanks," she said, and Duncan turned his head, bowed mockingly, and continued on his way.

Half an hour after the departure of Duncan Sheila pressed a loafing puncher into service and directed him to rope a gentle pony for her. After the puncher had secured a suitable appearing animal and had placed a saddle and bridle on it, she compelled him to ride it several times around the confines of the pasture to make certain that it would not "buck." Then she mounted and rode up the river.

Duncan was not particularly pleased over his errand, and many times while he rode the trail toward Dakota's cabin his lips moved fr

om his teeth in a snarl. Following the incident of the theft of the calves by Blanca, Duncan had taken pains to insinuate publicly that Dakota's purchase of the Star from the half-breed had been a clever ruse to avert suspicion, intimating that a partnership existed between Dakota and Blanca. The shooting of Blanca by Dakota, however, had exploded this charge, and until now Duncan had been very careful to avoid a meeting with the man whom he had maligned.

During the night he had given much thought to the circumstance which was sending him to meet his enemy. He had a suspicion that Sheila had purposely taunted him with cowardice-that in all probability Dakota himself had suggested the plan in order to force a meeting with him. This thought suggested another. Sheila's defense of Dakota seemed to indicate that a certain intimacy existed between them. He considered this carefully, and with a throb of jealously concluded that Dakota's action in saving Sheila's life would very likely pave the way for a closer acquaintance.

Certainly, in spite of Sheila's remark about Dakota being a "brute," she had betrayed evidence of admiration for the man. In that case her veiled allusions to his own fear of meeting Dakota were very likely founded on something which Dakota had told her, and certainly anything which Dakota might have said about him would not be complimentary. Therefore his rage against both Sheila and his enemy was bitter when he finally rode up to the door of the latter's cabin.

There was hope in his heart that Dakota might prove to be absent, and when, after calling once and receiving no answer, he dismounted and hitched Dakota's pony to a rail of the corral fence, there was a smile of satisfaction on his face.

He took plenty of time to hitch the pony; he even lingered at the corral bars, leaning on them to watch several steers which were inside the enclosure. He found time, too, in spite of his fear of his enemy, to sneer over the evidences of prosperity which were on every hand. He was congratulating himself on his good fortune in reaching Dakota's cabin during a time when the latter was absent, when he heard a slight sound behind him. He turned rapidly, to see Dakota standing in the doorway of the cabin, watching him with cold, level eyes, one of his heavy six-shooters in hand.

Duncan's face went slowly pale. He did not speak at once and when he did he was surprised at his hoarseness.

"I've brought your cayuse back," he said finally.

"So I see," returned Dakota. His eyes glinted with a cold humor, though they were still regarding Duncan with an alertness which the other could not mistake.

"So I see," repeated Dakota. His slow drawl was in evidence again. "I don't recollect, though, that I sent word to have you bring him back."

"I wasn't tickled to death over the job," returned Duncan.

Now that his first surprise was over and Dakota had betrayed no sign of resenting his visit, Duncan felt easier. There had been a slight sneer in his voice when he answered.

"That isn't surprising," returned Dakota. "There never was a time when you were tickled a heap to stick your nose into my affairs." His smile froze Duncan.

"I ain't looking for trouble," said the latter, with a perfect knowledge of Dakota's peculiar expression.

"Then why did you come over here? I reckon there wasn't anyone else to send my horse over by?" said Dakota, his voice coming with a truculent snap.

Duncan flushed. "Sheila Langford sent me," he admitted reluctantly.

Dakota's eyes lighted with incredulity. "I reckon you're a liar," he said with cold emphasis.

Duncan's gaze went to the pistol in Dakota's hand and his lips curled. He knew that he was perfectly safe so long as he made no hostile move, for in spite of his derogatory remarks about the man he was aware that he never used his weapons without provocation.

Therefore he forced a smile. "You ain't running no Blanca deal on me," he said. "Calling me a liar ain't going to get no rise out of me. But she sent me, just the same. I reckon, liking you as I do, that I ought to be glad she gave me the chance to come over and see you, but I ain't. We was gassing about you and she told me I was scared to bring your cayuse back." He laughed mirthlessly. "I reckon I've proved that I ain't any scared."

"No," said Dakota with a cold grin, "you ain't scared. You know that there won't be any shooting done unless you get careless with that gun you carry." His eyes were filled with a whimsical humor, but they were still alert, as he watched Duncan's face for signs of insincerity. He saw no such signs and his expression became mocking. "So she sent you over here?" he said, and his was the voice of one enemy enjoying some subtle advantage over another. "Why, I reckon you're a kind of handy man to have around-sort of ladies' man-running errands and such."

Duncan's face bloated with anger, but he dared not show open resentment. For behind Dakota's soft voice and gentle, over-polite manner, he felt the deep rancor for whose existence he alone was responsible. So, trying to hold his passions in check, he grinned at Dakota, significantly, insinuatingly, unable finally to keep the bitter hatred and jealousy out of his voice. For in the evilness of his mind he had drawn many imaginary pictures of what had occurred between Dakota and Sheila immediately after her rescue by the latter.

"I reckon," he said hoarsely, "that you take a heap of interest in Sheila."

"That's part of your business, I suppose?" Dakota's voice was suddenly hard.

Duncan had decided to steer carefully away from any trouble with Dakota; he had even decided that as a measure for his own safety he must say nothing which would be likely to arouse Dakota's anger, but the jealous thoughts in his mind had finally gotten the better of prudence, and the menace in Dakota's voice angered him.

"I reckon," he said with a sneer, "that I ain't as much interested in her as you are."

He started back, his lips tightening over his teeth in a snarl of alarm and fear, for Dakota had stepped down from the doorway and was at his side, his eyes narrowed with cold wrath.

"Meaning what?" he demanded harshly, sharply, for he imagined that perhaps Sheila had told of her marriage to him, and the thought that Duncan should have been selected by her to share the secret maddened him.

"Meaning what, you damned coyote?" he insisted, stepping closer to Duncan.

"Meaning that she ain't admiring you for nothing," flared Duncan incautiously, his jealously overcoming his better judgment. "Meaning that any woman which has been pulled out of a quicksand like you pulled her out might be expected to favor you with--"

The sunlight flashed on Dakota's pistol as it leaped from his right hand to his left and was bolstered with a jerk. And with the same motion his clenched fist was jammed with savage force against Duncan's lips, cutting short the slanderous words and sending him in a heap to the dust of the corral yard.

With a cry of rage Duncan grasped for his pistol and drew it out, but the hand holding it was stamped violently into the earth, the arm bent and twisted until the fingers released the weapon. And then Dakota stood over him, looking down at him with narrowed, chilling eyes, his face white and hard, his anger gone as quickly as it had come. He said no word while Duncan clambered awkwardly to his feet and mounted his horse.

DUNCAN GRASPED FOR HIS PISTOL, BUT THE HAND HOLDING IT WAS STAMPED VIOLENTLY INTO THE EARTH.

"I'm telling you something," he said quietly, as Duncan lifted the reins with his uninjured hand, turning his horse to depart. "You and me have never hitched very well and there isn't any chance of us ever falling on each other's necks. I think what I've done to you about squares us for that calf deal. I've been yearning to hand you something before you left the country, but I didn't expect you'd give me the chance in just this way. I'm warning you that the next time you shove your coyote nose into my business I'll muss it up some. That applies to Miss Sheila. If I ever hear of you getting her name on your dirty tongue again I'll tear you apart. I reckon that's all." He drew his pistol and balanced it in his right hand. "It makes me feel some reckless to be talking to you," he added, a glint of intolerance in his eyes. "You'd better travel before I change my mind.

"You don't need to mention this to Miss Sheila," he said mockingly, as Duncan urged his horse away from the corral gate; "just let her go on-thinking you're a man."

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