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   Chapter 11 A PARTING AND A VISIT

The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 17728

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The problem which filled Duncan's mind as he sat on the edge of the slope overlooking the river was a three-sided one. To reach a conclusion the emotions of fear, hatred, and jealousy would have to be considered in the light of their relative importance.

There was, for example, his fear of Dakota, which must be taken into account when he meditated any action prompted by his jealousy, and his fear of Dakota was a check on his desires, a damper which must control the heat of his emotions. He might hate Dakota, but his fear of him would prevent his taking any action which might expose his own life to risk. On the other hand, jealousy urged him to accept any risk; it kept telling him over and over that he was a fool to allow Dakota to live. But Duncan knew better than to attempt an open clash with Dakota; each time that he had looked into Dakota's eyes he had seen there something which told him plainer than words of his own inferiority-that he would have no chance in a man-to-man encounter with him. And his latest experience with Dakota had proved that.

However, Duncan's character would not permit him to concede defeat, and his revenge was not a thing to be considered lightly. Therefore, though he sat for a long time on the slope, meditating over his problem, in the end he smiled. It was not a good smile to see, for his eyes were alight with a crafty, designing gleam, and there was a cruel curve in the lines of his lips. When he finally mounted his pony and rode away from the slope he was whistling.

During the next few days he did not see much of Sheila, for he avoided the ranchhouse as much as possible. He rode out with Langford many times, and though he covertly questioned the Double R owner concerning the affair with Doubler he could gain no satisfying information. Langford's reticence further aggravated the passions which rioted in his heart, and finally one afternoon when they rode up to the ranchhouse his curiosity could be held in check no longer, and he put the blunt question:

"What have you done about Doubler?"

Langford's shifting eyes rested for the fraction of a second on the face of his manager, and then the old, bland smile came into his own and he answered smoothly: "Nothing."

"I have been thinking," said Duncan carelessly, but with a sharp side glance at his employer, "that it wouldn't be a half bad idea to set a gunman on Doubler-a man like Dakota, for instance."

The manager saw Langford's lips straighten a little, and his eyes flashed with a sudden fire. The expression on Langford's face strengthened the conviction already in Duncan's mind concerning the motive of his employer's visit to Dakota.

"I don't think I care to have any dealings with Dakota," said Langford shortly.

Duncan's eyes blazed again. "I reckon if you'd go talk to him," he persisted, turning his head so that Langford could not see the suppressed rage in his eyes, "you might be able to make a deal with him."

"I don't wish to deal with him. I have decided not to bother Doubler at present. And I have no desire to talk with Dakota. Frankly, my dear Duncan, I don't like the man."

"You been in the habit of forming opinions of men you've never talked to?" said Duncan. He could not keep the sneer out of his voice.

Langford noticed it and laughed softly.

"It is my recollection that a certain man of my acquaintance advised me at length of Dakota's shortcomings," he said significantly. "For me to talk to Dakota after that would be to consider this man's words valueless. I will have nothing to do with Dakota. That is," he added, "unless you have altered your opinion of him."

Duncan did not reply, and he said nothing more to Langford on the subject, but he had discovered that for some reason Langford had chosen to keep the knowledge of his visit to Dakota secret, and Duncan's suspicions that the visit concerned Doubler became a conviction. Filled with resentment over Langford's attitude toward him, and with his mind definitely fixed upon the working out of his problem, Duncan decided to visit Doubler.

He chose a day when Langford had ridden away to a distant cow camp, and as when he was following the Double R owner, he did not ride the beaten trail but kept behind the ridges and in the depressions, and when he came within sight of Doubler's cabin he halted to reconnoiter. A swift survey of the corral showed him a rangy, piebald pony, which he knew to belong to Dakota. As the animal had on a bridle and a saddle he surmised that Dakota's visit would not be of long duration, and having no desire to visit Doubler in the presence of his rival, he shunted his own horse off the edge of a sand dune and down into the bed of a dry arroyo. Urging the animal along this, he presently reached a sand flat on whose edge arose a grove of fir-balsam and cottonwood.

For an hour, deep in the grove, he watched the cabin, and at length he saw Dakota come out; saw a smile on his face; heard him laugh. His lips writhed at the sound, and he listened intently to catch the conversation which was carried on between the two men, but the distance was too great. However, he was able to judge from the actions of the two that their relations were decidedly friendly, and this discovery immediately raised a doubt in his mind as to the correctness of his deductions.

Yet the doubt did not seriously affect his determination to carry out the plan he had in mind, and when a few moments after coming out of the cabin, Dakota departed down the river trail, Duncan slowly rode out of the grove and approached the cabin.

Doubler stood in the open doorway, looking after Dakota, and when the latter finally disappeared around a bend in the river the nester turned and saw Duncan. Instantly he stepped inside the cabin door, reappearing immediately, holding a rifle. Duncan continued to ride forward, raising one hand, with the palm toward Doubler, as a sign of the peacefulness of his intentions. The latter permitted him to approach, though he held the rifle belligerently.

"I want to talk," said Duncan, when he had come near enough to make himself heard.

"Pull up right where you are, then," commanded Doubler. He was silent while Duncan drew his pony to a halt and sat motionless in the saddle looking at him. Then his voice came with a truculent snap:

"You alone?"

Duncan nodded.

"Where's your new boss?" sarcastically inquired Doubler. "Ain't you scared he'll git lost-runnin' around alone without anyone to look after him?"

"I ain't his keeper," returned Duncan shortly.

Doubler laughed unbelievingly. "You was puttin' in a heap of your time bein' his keeper, the last I saw of you," he declared coldly.

"Mebbe I was. We've had a falling out." The venom in Duncan's voice was not at all pretended. "He's double crossed me."

"Double crossed you?" There was disbelief and suspicion in Doubter's laugh. "How's he done that? I reckoned you was too smart for anyone to do that to you?" The sarcasm in this last brought a dark red into Duncan's face, but he successfully concealed his resentment and smiled.

"That's all right," he said; "I've got more than that coming from you. I'm telling you about what he done to me if you ain't got any objections to me getting off my horse."

"Tell me from where you are." In spite of the coldness in the nester's voice there was interest in his eyes. "Mebbe you an' him have had a fallin' out, but I ain't takin' any chances on you bein' my friend-not a durned chance."

"That's right. I don't blame you for not wanting to take a chance, and I'm not pretending to be your friend. And I sure ain't any friendly to Langford. He's double crossed me, but I ain't telling how he done it-that's between him and me. But I want to tell you something that will interest you a whole lot. It's about some guy which is trying to double cross you. To prove that I ain't thinking to plug you when you ain't looking I'm leaving my gun here." He drew out his six-shooter and stuck it behind his slicker, dismounted, and threw the reins over the pony's head.

In silence Doubler suffered him to approach, though he kept his rifle ready in his hand and his eyes still continued to wear a belligerent expression.

"You and me ain't been what you might call friendly for a long time," offered Duncan when he had halted a few feet from Doubler. "We've had words, but I've never tried to take any mean advantage of you-which I might have done if I'd wanted to." He smiled ingratiatingly.

"We ain't goin' to go over what's happened between us," declared Doubler coldly. "We're lettin' that go by. If you'll stick to the palaver that you spoke about mebbe we'll be able to git along for a minute or two. Meanwhile, you'll excuse me if I keep this here gun in shape for you if you try any monkey business."

Duncan masked his d

islike of Doubler under a deprecatory smile. "That's right," he agreed. "We'll let what's happened pass without talking about it. What's between us now is something different. I've never pretended to be your friend, and I'm not pretending to be your friend now. But I've always been square with you, and I'm square now. Can you say that about him?" He jerked his thumb in the direction of the river trail, on which Dakota had vanished some time before.

"Him?" inquired Doubler. "You mean Dakota?" He caught Duncan's nod and smiled slowly. "I reckon you're some off your range," he said. "There ain't no comparin' Dakota to you-he's always been my friend."

"A man's got a friend one day and he's an enemy the next," said Duncan mysteriously.

"Meanin'?"

"Meaning that Dakota ain't so much of a friend as you think he is."

Doubler's lips grew straight and hard. "I reckon that ends the palaver," he said coldly, while he fingered the rifle in his hand significantly. "If that's what you come for you can be hittin' the breeze right back to the Double R. I'm givin' you--"

"You're traveling too fast," remonstrated Duncan, a hoarseness coming into his voice. "You'll talk different when you hear what I've got to say. I reckon you know that Langford ain't any friendly to you?"

"I don't see-" began Doubler.

He was interrupted by Duncan's harsh laugh. "Of course you don't see," he said. "I've come over here to make you open your eyes. Langford ain't no friend of yours, and I reckon that you wouldn't consider any man your friend which sets in his cabin a couple of hours talking to Langford, about you?"

"Meanin' that Langford's been to see Dakota?" Doubler's voice was suddenly harsh and his eyes glinted with suspicion. Certain that he had scored, Duncan turned and smiled into the distance. When he again faced Doubler his face wore an expression of sympathy.

"When a man's been a friend to you and you find that he's going to double cross you, it's apt to make you feel pretty mean," he said. "I'm allowing that. But there's a lot of us get double crossed. I got it and I'm seeing that they don't ring in any cold deck on you."

"How do you know Dakota's tryin' to do that?" demanded Doubler.

Duncan laughed. "I've kept my eyes open. Also, I've been listening right hard. I wasn't so far away when Langford went to Dakota's shack, and I heard considerable of what they said about you."

Doubler's interest was now intense; he spoke eagerly: "What did they say?"

"I reckon you ought to be able to guess what they said," said Duncan with a crafty smile. "I reckon you know that Langford wants your land mighty bad, don't you? And you won't sell. Didn't he tell you in front of me that he was going to make trouble for you? He wants me to make it, though; he wants me to set the boys on you. But I won't do it. Then he shuts up like a clam and don't say anything more to me about it. He saw Dakota send Blanca over the divide and he's some impressed by his shooting. He figures that if Dakota puts one man out of business he'll put another out."

"Meanin' that Langford's hired Dakota to look for me?" Doubler's eyes were gleaming brightly.

"You're some keen, after all," taunted Duncan.

Doubler's jaws snapped. "You're a liar!" he said; "Dakota wouldn't do it!"

"Maybe I'm a liar," said Duncan, his face paling but his voice low and quiet. He was not surprised that Doubler should exhibit emotion over the charge that his friend was planning to murder him, yet he knew that the suspicion once established in Doubler's mind would soon grow to the stature of a conviction.

"Maybe I'm a liar," repeated Duncan. "But if you'll use your brain a little you'll see that things look bad for you. Dakota's been here. Did he tell you about Langford coming to see him? I reckon not," he added as he caught Doubler's blank stare; "he'd likely not tell you about it. But I reckon that if he was your friend he'd tell you. I reckon you told him about Langford wanting your land-about him telling you he'd make things hot for you?"

Doubler nodded silently, and Duncan continued. "Well," he said, with a short laugh, "I've told you, and it's up to you. They were talking about you, and if Dakota's your friend, as you're claiming him to be, he'd have told you what they was talking about-if it wasn't what I say it was-him knowing how Langford feels toward you. And they didn't only talk. Langford wrote something on a paper and gave it to Dakota. I don't know what he wrote, but it seemed to tickle Dakota a heap. Leastways, he done a heap of laffing over it. Likely Langford's promised him a heap of dust to do the job. Mebbe he's your friend, but if I was you I wouldn't give him no chance to say I drawed first."

Doubler placed his rifle down and passed a hand slowly and hesitatingly over his forehead. "I don't like to think that of Dakota," he said, faith and suspicion battling for supremacy. "Dakota just left here; he acted a heap friendly-as usual-mebbe more so."

"I reckon that when a man goes gunning for another man he don't advertise a whole lot," observed Duncan insinuatingly.

"No," agreed Doubler, staring blankly into the distance where he had last seen his supposed friend, "a man don't generally do a heap of advertisin' when he's out lookin' for a man." He sat for a time staring straight ahead, and then he suddenly looked up, his eyes filled with a savage fierceness. "How do I know you ain't lyin' to me?" he demanded, glaring at Duncan, his hands clenched in an effort to control himself.

Duncan's eyes did not waver. "I reckon you don't know whether I'm lying," he returned, showing his teeth in a slight smile. "But I reckon you're twenty-one and ought to have your eye-teeth cut. Anyway, you ought to know that a man like Langford, who's wanting your land, don't go to talk with a man like Dakota, who's some on the shoot, for nothing. How do you know that Langford and Dakota ain't friends? How do you know but that they've been friends back East? Do you know where Dakota came from? Mebbe he's from the East, too. I'm telling you one thing," added Duncan, and now his voice was filled with passion, "Dakota and Sheila Langford are pretty thick. She makes believe that she don't like him, but he saved her from a quicksand, and she's been running with him considerable. Takes his part, too; does it, but she makes you believe that she don't like him. I reckon she's pretty foxy."

Doubler's memory went back to a conversation he had had with Sheila in which Dakota had been the subject under discussion. He remembered that she had shown a decided coldness, suggesting by her manner that she and Dakota were not on the best of terms. Could it be that she had merely pretended this coldness? Could it be that she was concerned in the plot against him, that she and her father and Dakota were combined against him for the common purpose of taking his life?

He was convinced that any such suspicion against Sheila must be unjust, for he had studied her face many times and was certain that there was not a line of deceit in it. And yet, was it not odd that, when he had told her of the trouble between him and her father, she had not immediately taken her parent's side? To be sure, she had told him that Langford was merely her stepfather, but could not that statement also have been a misleading one? And even if Langford were only her stepfather, would she not have felt it her duty to align herself with him?

"I reckon you know a heap about Dakota, don't you?" came Duncan's voice, breaking into Doubler's reflections. "You know, for instance, that Dakota came here from Dakota-or anyway, he says he came here from there. We'll say you know that. But what do you know about Langford? Didn't he tell you that he was going to 'get' you?"

Duncan turned his back to Doubler and walked to his pony. He drew out his six-shooter, stuck it into its holster, and placed one foot in a stirrup, preparatory to mounting. Then he turned and spoke gravely to Doubler.

"I've done all I could," he said. "You know how you stand and the rest of it is up to you. You can go on, letting Dakota and Sheila pretend to be friendly to you, and some day you'll get wise awful sudden-when it's too late. Or, you can wise up now and fix Dakota before he gets a chance at you. I reckon that's all. You can't say that I didn't put you wise to the game."

He swung into the saddle and urged the pony toward the crossing. Looking back from a crest of a rise on the other side of the river, he saw Doubler still standing in the doorway, his head bowed in his hands. Duncan smiled, his lips in cold, crafty curves, for he had planted the seed of suspicion and was satisfied that it would presently flourish and grow until it would finally accomplish the destruction of his rival, Dakota.

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