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The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 18974

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Had Langford known that there had been a witness to his visit to Dakota he might not have ridden away from the latter's cabin so entirely satisfied with the result of his interview.

Duncan had been much interested in Langford's differences with Doubler. He had agitated the trouble, and he fully expected Langford to take him into his confidence should any aggressive movement be contemplated. He had even expected to be allowed to plan the details of the scheme which would have as its object the downfall of the nester, for thus he hoped to satisfy his personal vengeance against the latter.

But since the interview with Doubler at Doubler's cabin, Langford had been strangely silent regarding his plans. Not once had he referred to the nester, and his silence had nettled Duncan. Langford had ignored his hints, had returned monosyllabic replies to his tentative questions, causing the manager to appear to be an outsider in an affair in which he felt a vital interest.

It was annoying, to say the least, and Duncan's nature rebelled against the slight, whether intentional or accidental. He had waited patiently until the morning following his conversation with Langford about Dakota, certain that the Double R owner would speak, but when after breakfast the next morning Langford had ridden away without breaking his silence, the manager had gone into the ranchhouse, secured his field glasses, mounted his pony, and followed.

He kept discreetly in the rear, lingering in the depressions, skirting the bases of the hills, concealing himself in draws and behind boulders-never once making the mistake of appearing on the skyline. And when Langford was sitting on the box in front of Dakota's cabin, the manager was deep into the woods that surrounded the clearing where the cabin stood, watching intently through his field glasses.

He saw Langford depart, remained after his departure to see Dakota repeatedly read the signed agreement. Of course, he was entirely ignorant of what had transpired, but there was little doubt in his mind that the two had reached some sort of an understanding. That their conversation and subsequent agreement concerned Doubler he had little doubt either, for fresh in his mind was a recollection of his conversation with Langford, distinguished by Langford's carefully guarded questions regarding Dakota's ability with the six-shooter. He felt that Langford was deliberately leaving him out of the scheme, whatever it was.

Puzzled and raging inwardly over the slight, Duncan did not return to the ranchhouse that day and spent the night at one of the line camps. The following day he rode in to the ranchhouse to find that Langford had gone out riding with Sheila. Morose, sullen, Duncan again rode abroad, returning with the dusk. In his conversation with Langford that night the Double R owner made no reference to Doubler, and, studying Sheila, Duncan thought she seemed depressed.

During her ride that day with her father Sheila had received a startling revelation of his character. She had questioned him regarding his treatment of Doubler, ending with a plea for justice for the latter. For the first time during all the time she had known Langford she had seen an angry intolerance in his eyes, and though his voice had been as bland and smooth as ever, it did not heal the wound which had been made in her heart over the discovery that he could feel impatient with her.

"My dear Sheila," he said, "I should regret to find that you are interested in my business affairs."

"Doubler declares that you are unjust," she persisted, determined to do her best to avert the trouble that seemed impending.

"Doubler is an obstacle in the path of progress and will get the consideration he deserves," he said shortly. "Please do not meddle with what does not concern you."

Thus had an idol which Sheila worshiped been tumbled from its pedestal. Sheila surveyed it, lying shattered at her feet, with moist eyes. It might be restored, patched so that it would resemble its original shape, but never again would it appear the same in her eyes. She had received a glimpse of her father's real character; she saw the merciless, designing, real man stripped of the polished veneer that she had admired; his soul lay naked before her, seared and rendered unlovely by the blackness of deceit and trickery.

As the days passed, however, she collected the fragments of the shattered idol and began to replace them. Piece by piece she fitted them together, cementing them with her faith, so that in time the idol resembled its original shape.

She had been too exacting, she told herself. Men had ways of dealing with one another which women could not understand. Her ideas of justice were tempered with mercy and pity; she allowed her heart to map out her line of conduct toward her fellow men, and as a consequence her sympathies were broad and tender. In business, though, she supposed, it must be different. There mind must rule. It was a struggle in which the keenest wit and the sharpest instinct counted, and in which the emotion of mercy was subordinate to the love of gain. And so in time she erected her idol again and the cracks and seams in it became almost invisible.

While she had been restoring her idol there had been other things to occupy her mind. A thin line divides tragedy from comedy, and after the tragedy of discovering her father's real character Sheila longed for something to take her mind out of the darkness. A recollection of Duncan's jealousy, which he had exhibited on the day that she had related the story of her rescue by Dakota, still abided with her, and convinced that she might secure diversion by fanning the spark that she had discovered, she began by inducing Duncan to ask her to ride with him.

Sitting on the grass one day in the shade of some fir-balsams on a slope several miles down the river, Sheila looked at Duncan with a smile.

"I believe that I am beginning to like the country," she said.

"I expected you would like it after you were here a while. Everybody does. It grows into one. If you ever go back East you will never be contented-you'll be dreaming and longing. The West improves on acquaintance, like the people."

"Meaning?" she said, with a defiant mockery so plain in her eyes that Duncan drew a deep breath.

"Meaning that you ought to begin to like us-the people," he said.

"Perhaps I do like some of the people," she laughed.

"For instance," he said, his face reddening a little.

She looked at him with a taunting smile. "I don't believe that I like you-so very well. You get too cross when things don't suit you."

"I think you are mistaken," he challenged. "When have I been cross?"

Sheila laughed. "Do you remember the night that I came home and told you and father how Dakota had rescued me from the quicksand? Well," she continued, noting his nod and the frown which accompanied it, "you were cross that night-almost boorish. You moped and went off to bed without saying good-night."

It pleased Duncan to tell her that he had forgotten if he had ever acted that way, and she did not press him. And so a silence fell between them.

"You said you were beginning to like some of the people," said Duncan presently. "You don't like me. Then who do you like?"

"Well," she said, appearing to meditate, but in reality watching him closely so that she might catch his gaze when he looked up. "There's Ben Doubler. He seems to be a very nice old man. And"-Duncan looked at her and she met his gaze fairly, her eyes dancing with mischief-"and Dakota. He is a character, don't you think?"

Duncan frowned darkly and removed his gaze from her face, directing it down into the plain on the other side of the river. What strange fatality had linked her sympathies and admiration with his enemies? A rage which he dared not let her see seized him, and he sat silent, clenching and unclenching his hands.

She saw his condition and pressed him without mercy.

"He is a character, isn't he? An odd one, but attractive?"

Duncan sneered. "He pulled you out of the quicksand, of course. Anybody could have done that, if they'd been around. I reckon that's what makes him 'attractive' in your eyes. On the other hand, he put Texas Blanca out of business. Does that killing help to make him attractive?"

"Wasn't Blanca his enemy. If you remember, you told father and me that Blanca sold him some stolen cattle. Then, according to what I have heard of the story, he met Blanca in Lazette, ordered him to leave, and when he didn't go he shot him. I understand that that is the code in matters of that sort-people have to take the law in their own hands. But he gave Blanca the opportunity to shoot first. Wasn't that fair?"

It seemed odd to her that she was defending the man who had wronged her, yet strangely enough she discovered that defending him gave her a thrill of satisfaction, though she assured herself that the satisfaction came from the fact that she was engaged in the task of arousing Duncan's jealousy.

"You've been inquiring about him, then?" said Duncan, his face dark with rage and hatred. "What I told you about that calf deal is the story that Dakota himself tells about it. A lot of people in this country don't believe Dakota's story. They believe what I believe, that Dakota and Blanca were in partnership on that deal, and that Dakota framed up that story about Blanca selling out to him to avert sus

picion. It's likely that they wised up to the fact that we were on to them."

"I believe you mentioned your suspicions to Dakota himself, didn't you? The day you went over after the calves? You had quite a talk with him about them, didn't you?" said Sheila, sweetly.

Duncan's face whitened. "Who told you that?" he demanded.

"And he told you that if you ever interfered with him again, or that if he heard of you repeating your suspicions to anyone, he would do something to you-run you out of the country, or something like that, didn't he?"

"Who told you that?" repeated Duncan.

"Doubler told me," returned Sheila with a smile.

Duncan's face worked with impotent wrath as he looked at her. "So Doubler's been gassing again?" he said with a sneer. "Well, there's never been any love lost between Doubler and me, and so what he says don't amount to much." He laughed oddly. "It's strange to think how thick you are with Doubler," he said. "I understand that your dad and Doubler ain't exactly on a friendly footing, that your dad was trying to buy him out and that he won't sell. There's likely to be trouble, for your dad is determined to get Doubler's land."

However, that was a subject upon which Sheila did not care to dwell.

"I don't think that I am interested in that," she said. "I presume that father is able to take care of his own affairs without any assistance from me."

Duncan's eyes lighted with interest. Her words showed that she was aware of Langford's differences with the nester. Probably her father had told her-taking her into his confidence while ignoring his manager. Perhaps he had even told her of his visit to Dakota; perhaps there had been more than one visit and Sheila had accompanied him. Undoubtedly, he told himself, Sheila's admiration for Dakota had resulted from not one, but many, meetings. He flushed at the thought, and was forced to look away from Sheila for fear that she might see the passion that flamed in his eyes.

"You seen Dakota lately?" he questioned, after he had regained sufficient control of himself to be able to speak quietly.

"No." Sheila was flecking some dust from her skirts with her riding whip, and her manner was one of absolute lack of interest.

"Then you ain't been riding with your father?" said Duncan.

"Some." Sheila continued to brush the dust from her skirts. After answering Duncan's question, however, she realized that there had been a subtle undercurrent of meaning in his voice, and she turned and looked sharply at him.

"Why?" she demanded. "Do you mean that father has visited Dakota?"

"I reckon I'm meaning just that."

Sheila did not like the expression in Duncan's eyes, and her chin was raised a little as she turned from him and gave her attention to flecking the grass near her with the lash of her riding whip.

"Father attends to his own business," she said with some coldness, for she resented Duncan's apparent desire to interfere. "I told you that before. What he does in a business way does not interest me."

"No?" said Duncan mockingly. "Well, he's made some sort of a deal with Dakota!" he snapped, aware of his lack of wisdom in telling her this, but unable to control his resentment over the slight which had been imposed on him by Langford, and by her own chilling manner, which seemed to emphasize the fact that he had been left outside their intimate councils.

"A deal?" said Sheila quickly, unable to control her interest.

For a moment he did not answer. He felt her gaze upon him, and he met it, smiling mysteriously. Under the sudden necessity of proving his statement, his thoughts centered upon the conclusion which had resulted from his suspicions-that Langford's visit to Dakota concerned Doubler. Equivocation would have taken him safely away from the pitfall into which his rash words had almost plunged him, but he felt that any evasion now would only bring scorn into the eyes which he wished to see alight with something else. Besides, here was an opportunity to speak a derogatory word about his enemy, and he could not resist-could not throw it carelessly aside. There was a venomous note in his voice when he finally answered:

"The other day your father was speaking to me about gun-men. I told him that Dakota would do anything for money."

A slow red appeared in Sheila's cheeks, mounted to her temples, disappeared entirely and was succeeded by a paleness. She kept her gaze averted, and Duncan could not see her eyes-they were turned toward the slumberous plains that stretched away into the distance on the other side of the river. But Duncan knew that he had scored, and was not bothered over the possibility of there being little truth in his implied charge. He watched her, gloating over her, certain that at a stroke he had effectually eliminated Dakota as a rival.

Sheila turned suddenly to him. "How do you know that Dakota would do anything like that?"

Duncan smiled as he saw her lips, straight and white, and tightening coldly.

"How do I know?" he jeered. "How does a man know anything in this country? By using his eyes, of course. I've used mine. I've watched Dakota for five years. I've known all along that he isn't on the square-that he has been running his branding iron on other folks' cattle. I've told you that he worked a crooked deal on me, and then sent Blanca over the divide when he thought there was a chance of Blanca giving the deal away. I am told that when he met Blanca in the Red Dog Blanca told him plainly that he didn't know anything about the calf deal. That shows how he treats his friends. He'll do anything for money.

"The other day I saw your father at his cabin, talking to him. They had quite a confab. Your father has had trouble with Doubler-you know that. He has threatened to run Doubler off the Two Forks. I heard that myself. He wouldn't try to run Doubler off himself-that's too dangerous a business for him to undertake. Not wanting to take the chance himself he hires someone else. Who? Dakota's the only gunman around these parts. Therefore, your dad goes to Dakota. He and Dakota signed a paper-I saw Dakota reading it. I've just put two and two together, and that's the result. I reckon I ain't far out of the way."

Sheila laughed as she might have laughed had someone told her that she herself had plotted to murder Doubler-a laugh full of scorn and mockery. Yet in her eyes, which were wide with horror, and in her face, which was suddenly drawn and white, was proof that Duncan's words had hurt her mortally.

She was silent; she did not offer to defend Dakota, for in her thoughts still lingered a recollection of the scene of the shooting in Lazette. And when she considered her father's distant manner toward her and Ben Doubler's grave prediction of trouble, it seemed that perhaps Duncan was right. Yet in spite of the shooting of Blanca and the evil light which was now thrown on Dakota through Duncan's deductions, she felt confident that Dakota would not become a party to a plot in which the murder of a man was deliberately planned. He had wronged her and he had killed a man, but at the quicksand crossing that day-despite the rage which had been in her heart against him-she had studied him and had become convinced that behind his recklessness, back of the questionable impulses that seemed at times to move him, there lurked qualities which were wholly admirable, and which could be felt by anyone who came in contact with him. Certainly those qualities which she had seen had not been undiscovered by Duncan-and others.

She remembered now that on a former occasion the manager had practically admitted his fear of Dakota, and then there was his conduct on that day when she had asked him to return Dakota's pony. Duncan's manner then had seemed to indicate that he feared Dakota-at the least did not like him. Ben Doubler had given her a different version of the trouble between Dakota and Duncan; how Duncan had accused Dakota of stealing the Double R calves, and how in the presence of Duncan's own men Dakota had forced him to apologize. Taken altogether, it seemed that Duncan's present suspicions were the result of his dislike, or fear, of Dakota. Convinced of this, her eyes flashed with contempt when she looked at the manager.

"I believe you are lying," she said coldly. "You don't like Dakota. But I have faith in him-in his manhood. I don't believe that any man who has the courage to force another man to apologize to him in the face of great odds, would, or could, be so entirely base as to plan to murder a poor, unoffending old man in cold blood. Perhaps you are not lying," she concluded with straight lips, "but the very least that can be said for you is that you have a lurid imagination!"

In Duncan's gleaming, shifting eyes, in the lips which were tensed over his teeth in a snarl, she could see the bitterness that was in his heart over the incident to which she had just referred.

"Wait," he said smiling evilly. "You'll know more about Dakota before long."

Sheila rose and walked to her pony, mounting the animal and riding slowly away from the river. She did not see the queer smile on Duncan's face as she rode, but looking back at the distance of a hundred yards, she saw that he did not intend to follow her. He was still sitting where she had left him, his back to her, his face turned toward the plains which spread away toward Dakota's cabin, twenty miles down the river.

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