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The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 20939

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

About ten o'clock in the morning of a perfect day Sheila left the Double R ranchhouse for a ride to the Two Forks to visit Doubler. This new world into which she had come so hopefully had lately grown very lonesome. It had promised much and it had given very little. The country itself was not to blame for the state of her mind, though, she told herself as she rode over the brown, sun-scorched grass of the river trail, it was the people. They-even her father-seemed to hold aloof from her.

It seemed that she would never be able to fit in anywhere. She was convinced that the people with whom she was forced to associate were entirely out of accord with the principles of life which had been her guide-they appeared selfish, cold, and distant. Duncan's sister, the only woman beside herself in the vicinity, had discouraged all her little advances toward a better acquaintance, betraying in many ways a disinclination toward those exchanges of confidence which are the delight of every normal woman. Sheila had become aware very soon that there could be no hope of gaining her friendship or confidence and so of late she had ceased her efforts.

Of course, she could not attempt to cultivate an acquaintance with any of the cowboys-she already knew one too well, and the knowledge of her relationship to him had the effect of dulling her desire for seeking the company of the others.

For Duncan she had developed a decided dislike which amounted almost to hatred. She had been able to see quite early in their acquaintance the defects of his character, and though she had played on his jealousy in a spirit of fun, she had been careful to make him see that anything more than mere acquaintance was impossible. At least that was what she had tried to do, and she doubted much whether she had succeeded.

Doubler was the only one who had betrayed any real friendship for her, and to him, in her lonesomeness, she turned, in spite of the warning he had given her. She had visited him once since the day following her father's visit, and he had received her with his usual cordiality, but she had been able to detect a certain constraint in his manner which had caused her to determine to stay away from the Two Forks. But this morning she felt that she must go somewhere, and she selected Doubler's cabin.

Since that day when on the edge of the butte overlooking the river Duncan had voiced his suspicions that her father had planned to remove Doubler, Sheila had felt more than ever the always widening gulf that separated her from her parent. From the day on which he had become impatient with her when she had questioned him concerning his intentions with regard to Doubler he had treated her in much the manner that he always treated her, though it had seemed to her that there was something lacking; there was a certain strained civility in his manner, a veneer which smoothed over the breach of trust which his attitude that day had created.

Many times, watching him, Sheila had wondered why she had never been able to peer through the mask of his imperturbability at the real, unlovely character it concealed. She believed it was because she had always trusted him and had not taken the trouble to try to uncover his real character. She had tried for a long time to fight down the inevitable, growing estrangement, telling herself that she had been, and was, mistaken in her estimate of his character since the day he had told her not to meddle with his affairs, and she had nearly succeeded in winning the fight when Duncan had again destroyed her faith with the story of her father's visit to Dakota.

Duncan had added two and two, he had told her when furnishing her with the threads out of which he had constructed the fabric of his suspicions, and she was compelled to acknowledge that they seemed sufficiently strong. Contemplation of the situation, however, had convinced her that Dakota was partly to blame, and her anger against him-greatly softened since the rescue at the quicksand-flared out again.

Two weeks had passed since Duncan had told her of his suspicions, and they had been two weeks of constant worry and dread to her.

Unable to stand the suspense longer she had finally decided to seek out Dakota to attempt to confirm Duncan's story of her father's visit and to plead with Dakota to withhold his hand. But first she would see Doubler.

The task of talking to Dakota about anything was not to her liking, but she compromised with her conscience by telling herself that she owed it to herself to prevent the murder of Doubler-that if the nester should be killed with her in possession of the plan for his taking off, and able to lift a hand in protest or warning, she would be as guilty as her father or Dakota.

As she rode she could not help contrasting Dakota's character to those of her father and Duncan. She eliminated Duncan immediately, as being not strong enough to compare either favorably or unfavorably with either of the other two. And, much against her will, she was compelled to admit that with all his shortcomings Dakota made a better figure than her father. But there was little consolation for her in this comparison, for she bitterly assured herself that there was nothing attractive in either. Both had wronged her-Dakota deliberately and maliciously; her father had placed the bar of a cold civility between her and himself, and she could no longer go to him with her confidences. She had lost his friendship, and he had lost her respect.

Of late she had speculated much over Dakota. That day at the quicksand crossing he had seemed to be a different man from the one who had stood with revolver in hand before the closed door of his cabin, giving her a choice of two evils. For one thing, she was no longer afraid of him; in his treatment of her at the crossing he had not appeared as nearly so forbidding as formerly, had been almost attractive to her, in those moments when she could forget the injury he had done her. Those moments had been few, to be sure, but during them she had caught flashes of the real Dakota, and though she fought against admiring him, she knew that deep in her heart lingered an emotion which must be taken into account. He had really done her no serious injury, nothing which would not be undone through the simple process of the law, and in his manner on the day of the rescue there had been much respect, and in spite of the mocking levity with which he had met her reproaches she felt that he felt some slight remorse over his action.

For a time she forgot to think about Dakota, becoming lost in contemplation of the beauty of the country. Sweeping away from the crest of the ridge on which she was riding, it lay before her, basking in the warm sunlight of the morning, wild and picturesque, motionless, silent-as quiet and peaceful as might have been that morning on which, his work finished, the Creator had surveyed the new world with a satisfied eye.

She had reached a point about a mile from Doubler's cabin, still drinking in the beauty that met her eyes on every hand, when an odd sound broke the perfect quiet.

Suddenly alert, she halted her pony and listened.

The sound had been strangely like a pistol shot, though louder, she decided, as she listened to its echo reverberating in the adjacent hills. It became fainter, and finally died away, and she sat for a long time motionless in the saddle, listening, but no other sound disturbed the solemn quiet that surrounded her.

It seemed to her that the sound had come from the direction of Doubler's cabin, but she was not quite certain, knowing how difficult it was to determine the direction of sound in so vast a stretch of country.

She ceased to speculate, and once more gave her attention to the country, urging her pony forward, riding down the slope of the ridge to the level of the river trail.

Fifteen minutes later, still holding the river trail, she saw a horseman approaching, and long before he came near enough for her to distinguish his features she knew the rider for Dakota. He was sitting carelessly in the saddle, one leg thrown over the pommel, smoking a cigarette, and when he saw her he threw the latter away, doffed his broad hat, and smiled gravely at her.

"Were you shooting?" she questioned, aware that this was an odd greeting, but eager to have the mystery of that lone shot cleared up.

"I reckon I ain't been shooting-lately," he returned. "It must have been Doubler. I heard it myself. I've just left Doubler, and he was cleaning his rifle. He must have been trying it. I do that myself, often, after I've cleaned mine, just to make sure it's right." He narrowed his eyes whimsically at her. "So you're riding the fiver trail again?" he said. "I thought you'd be doing it."

"Why?" she questioned, defiantly.

"Well, for one thing, there's a certain fascination about a place where one has been close to cashing in-I expect that when we've been in such a place we like to come back and look at it just to see how near we came to going over the divide. And there's another reason why I expected to see you on the river trail again. You forgot to thank me for pulling you out."

He deserved thanks for that, she knew. But there were in his voice and eyes the same subtle mockery which had marked his manner that other time, and as before she experienced a feeling of deep resentment. Why could he not have shown some evidence of remorse for his crime against her? She believed that had he done so now she might have found it in her heart to go a little distance toward forgiving him. But there was only mockery in his voice and words and her resentment against him grew. Mingling with it, moreover, was the bitterness which had settled over her within the last few days. It found expression in her voice when she answered him:

"This country is full of-of savages!"

"Indians, you mean, I reckon? Well, no, there are none around here-excepting over near Fort Union, on the reservation." He drawled hatefully and regarded her with a mild smile.

"I mean white savages!" she declared spitefully.

His smile grew broader, and then slowly faded and he sat quiet, studying her face. The silence grew painful; she moved uneasily under his direct gaze and a dash of color swept into her cheeks. Then he spoke quietly.

"You been seeing white savages?"

"Yes!" venomously.

"Not around here?" The hateful mockery of that drawl!

"I am talking to one," she said, her eyes blazing with impotent anger.

"I thought you was meaning me," he said, without resentment. "I reckon I've got it coming to me. But at the same time that isn't exactly the way to talk to your--" He hesitated and smiled oddly, apparently aware that he had made a mistake in referring to his crime against her. He hastened to repair it. "Your rescuer," he corrected.

However, she saw through the artifice, and the bitterness in her voice grew more pronounced. "It is needless for you to remind me of our relationship," she said; "I am not likely to forget."

"Have you told your father yet?"

In his voice was the quiet scorn and the peculiar, repressed venom which she had detected when he had referred to her father during that other occasion at the crossing. It mystified her, and yet within the past few days she had felt this scorn herself and knew that it was not remarkable. Undoubtedly he, having had much experience with men, had been able to see through Langford's mask and knew him for what he was. For the first time in her life she experienced a sensation of embarrassed guilt over hearing her name linked with Langford's, and she looked defiantly at Dakota.

"I have not told him," she said. "I won't tell him. I told you that before-I do not care to undergo the humiliation of hearing my name mentioned in the same breath with yours. And if you do not already know it, I want to tell you that David Langford is not my father; my real father died a long time ago, and Langford is only my stepfather."

A sudden moisture was in her eyes and she did not see Dakota start, did not observe the queer pallor that spread over his face, failed to detect the odd light in his eyes. However, she heard his voice-sharp in tone and filled with genuine astonishment.

"Your stepfather?" He had spurred his pony beside hers and looking up she saw that his face had suddenly grown stern and grim. "Do you mean that?" he demanded half angrily. "Why didn't you tell me that before? Why didn't you tell me when-the night I married you?"

"Would it have made any difference to you?" she said bitterly. "Does it make any difference now? You have treated me like a savage; you are treating me like one now. I-I haven't any friends at all," she continued, her voice breaking slightly, as she suddenly realized her entire helplessness before the combined evilness of Duncan, her father, and the man who sat on his pony beside her. A sob shook her, and her hands went to her face, covering her eyes.

She sat there for a time, shuddering, and watching her closely, Dakota's face grew slowly pale, and grim, hard lines came into his lips.

"I know what Duncan's friendship amounts to," he said harshly. "But isn't your stepfather your friend?"

"My friend?" She echoed his words with a hopeless intonation that closed Dakota's teeth like a vise. "I don't know what has come over him," she continued, looking up at Dakota, her eyes filled with wonder for the sympathy which she saw in his face and voice; "he has changed since he came out here; he is so selfish and heartless."

"What's he been doing? Hurting you?" She did not detect the anger in his voice, for he had kept it so low that she scarcely heard the words.

"Hurting me? No; he has not done anything to me. Don't you know?" she said scornfully, certain that he was mocking her again-for how could his interest be genuine when he was a party to the plot to murder Doubler? Yet perhaps not-maybe Duncan had been lying. Determined to get to the bottom of the affair as quickly as possible, Sheila continued rapidly, her scorn giving way to eagerness. "Don't you know?" And this time her voice was almost a plea. "What did father visit you for? Wasn't it about Doubler? Didn't he hire you to-to kill him?"

She saw his lips tighten strangely, his face grow pale, his eyes flash with some mysterious emotion, and she knew in an instant that he was guilty-guilty as her father!

"Oh!" she said, and the scorn came into her voice again. "Then it is true! You and my father have conspired to murder an inoffensive old man! You-you cowards!"

He winced, as though he had received an unexpected blow in the face, but almost immediately he smiled-a hard, cold, sneering smile which chilled her.

"Who has been telling you this?" The question came slowly, without the slightest trace of excitement.

"Duncan told me."

"Duncan?" There was much contempt in his voice. "Not your father?"

She shook her head negatively, wondering at his cold composure. No wonder her father had selected him!

He laughed mirthlessly. "So that's the reason Doubler was so friendly to his rifle this morning?" he said, as though her words had explained a mystery which had been puzzling him. "Doubler and me have been friends for a long time. But this morning while I was talking to him he kept his rifle beside him all the time. He must have heard from someone that I was gunning for him."

"Then you haven't been hired to kill him?"

He smiled at her eagerness, but spoke gravely and with an earnestness which she could not help but feel. "Miss Sheila," he said, "there isn't money enough in ten counties like this to make me kill Doubler." His lips curled with a quiet sarcasm. "You are like a lot of other people in this country," he added. "Because I put Blanca away they think I am a professional gunman. But I want you"-he placed a significant emphasis on the word-"to understand that there wasn't any other way to deal with Blanca. By coming back here after selling me that stolen Star stock and refusing to admit the deed in the presence of other people-even denying it and accusing me-he forced me to take the step I did with him. Even then, I gave him his chance. That he didn't take it isn't my fault.

"I suppose I look pretty black to you, because I treated you like I did. But it was partly your fault, too. Maybe that's mysterious to you, but it will have to stay a mystery. I had an idea in my head that night-and something else. I've found something out since that makes me feel a lot sorry. If I had known what I know now, that wouldn't have happened to you-I've got my eyes open now."

Their ponies were very close together, and leaning over suddenly he placed both hands on her shoulders and gazed into her eyes, his own flashing with a strange light. She did not try to escape his hands, for she felt that his sincerity warranted the action.

"I've treated you mean, Sheila," he said; "about as mean as a man could treat a woman. I am sorry. I want you to believe that. And maybe some day-when this business is over-you'll understand and forgive me."

"This business?" Sheila drew back and looked at him wonderingly. "What do you mean?"

There was no mirth in his laugh as he dropped his hands to his sides. Her question had brought about a return of that mocking reserve which she could not penetrate. Apparently he would let her no farther into the mystery whose existence his words had betrayed. He had allowed her to get a glimpse of his inner self; had shown her that he was not the despicable creature she had thought him; had apparently been about to take her into his confidence. And she had felt a growing sympathy for him and had been prepared to meet him half way in an effort to settle their differences, but she saw that the opportunity was gone-was hidden under the cloak of mystery which had been about him from the beginning of their acquaintance.

"This Doubler business," he answered, and she nibbled impatiently at her lips, knowing that he had meant something else.

"That's evasion," she said, looking straight at him, hoping that he would relent and speak.

"Is it?" In his unwavering eyes she saw a glint of grim humor. "Well, that's the answer. I am not going to kill Doubler-if it will do you any good to know. I don't kill my friends."

"Then," she said eagerly, catching at the hope which he held out to her, "father didn't hire you to kill him? You didn't talk to father about that?"

His lips curled. "Why don't you ask your father about that?"

The hope died within her. Dakota's words and manner implied that her father had tried to employ him to make way with the nester, but that he had refused. She had not been wrong-Duncan had not been wrong in his suspicion that her father was planning the death of the nester. Duncan's only mistake was in including Dakota in the scheme.

She had hoped against hope that she might discover that Duncan had been wrong altogether; that she had done her father an injury in believing him capable of deliberately planning a murder. She looked again at Dakota. There was no mistaking his earnestness, she thought, for there was no evidence of deceit or knavery in his face, nor in the eyes that were steadily watching her.

She put her hands to her face and shivered, now thoroughly convinced of her father's guilt; feeling a sudden repugnance for him, for everybody and everything in the country, excepting Doubler.

She had done all she could, however, to prevent them killing Doubler-all she could do except to warn Doubler of his danger, and she would go to him immediately. Without looking again at Dakota she turned, dry eyed and pale, urging her pony up the trail toward the nester's cabin, leaving Dakota sitting silent in his saddle, watching her.

She lingered on the trail, riding slowly, halting when she came to a spot which offered a particularly good view of the country surrounding her, for in spite of her lonesomeness she could not help appreciating the beauty of the land, with its towering mountains, its blue sky, its vast, yawning distances, and the peacefulness which seemed to be everywhere except in her heart.

She presently reached the Two Forks and urged her pony through the shallow water of its crossing, riding up the slight, intervening slope and upon a stretch of plain beside a timber grove. A little later she came to the corral gates, where she dismounted and hitched her pony to a rail, smiling to herself as she thought of how surprised Doubler would be to see her.

Then she left the corral gate and stole softly around a corner of the cabin, determined to steal upon Doubler unawares. Once at the corner, she halted and peered around. She saw Doubler lying in the open doorway, his body twisted into a peculiarly odd position, face down, his arms outstretched, his legs doubled under him.

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