MoboReader> Literature > The Trail to Yesterday

   Chapter 13 THE SHOT IN THE BACK

The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 21144

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


For an instant after discovering Doubler lying in the doorway, Sheila stood motionless at the corner of the cabin, looking down wonderingly at him. She thought at first that he was merely resting, but his body was doubled up so oddly that a grave doubt rose in her mind. A vague fear clutched at her heart, and she stood rigid, her eyes wide as she looked for some sign that would confirm her fears. And then she saw a moist red patch on his shirt on the right side just below the shoulder blade, and it seemed that a band of steel had been suddenly pressed down over her forehead. Something had happened to Doubler!

The world reeled, objects around her danced fantastically, the trees in the grove near her seemed to dip toward her in derision, her knees sagged and she held tightly to the corner of the cabin for support in her weakness.

She saw it all in a flash. Dakota had been to visit Doubler and had shot him. She had heard the shot. Duncan had been right, and Dakota-how she despised him now!-was probably even now picturing in his imagination the scene of her discovering the nester lying on his own threshold, murdered. An anger against him, which arose at the thought, did much to help her regain control of herself.

She must be brave now, for there might still be life in Doubler's body, and she went slowly toward him, cringing and shrinking, along the wall of the cabin.

She touched him first, lightly with the tips of her fingers, calling softly to him in a quavering voice. Becoming more bold, she took hold of him by the left shoulder and shook him slightly, and her heart seemed to leap within her when a faint moan escaped his lips. Her fear fled instantly as she realized that he was alive, that she had not to deal with a dead man.

Stifling a quivering sob she took hold of him again, tugging and pulling at him, trying to turn him over so that she might see his face. She observed that the red patch on his shoulder grew larger with the effort, and her face grew paler with apprehension, but convinced that she must persist she shut her eyes and tugged desperately at him, finally succeeding in pulling him over on his back.

He moaned again, though his face was ashen and lifeless, and with hope filling her heart she redoubled her efforts and finally succeeded in dragging him inside the cabin, out of the sun, where he lay inert, with wide-stretched arms, a gruesome figure to the girl.

Panting and exhausted, some stray wisps of hair sweeping her temples, the rest of it threatening to come tumbling down around her shoulders, she leaned against one of the door jambs, thinking rapidly. She ought to have help, of course, and her thoughts went to Dakota, riding unconcernedly away on the river trail. She could not go to him for assistance, such a course was not to be considered, she would rather let Doubler die than to go to his murderer; she could never have endured the irony of such an action. Besides, she was certain that even were she to go to him, he would find some excuse to refuse her, for having shot the nester, he certainly would do nothing toward bringing the help which might possibly restore him to life.

She put aside the thought with a shudder of horror, yet conscious that something must be done for Doubler at once if he was to live. Perhaps it was already too late to go for assistance; there seemed to be but very little life in his body, and trembling with anxiety she decided that she must render him whatever aid she could. There was not much that she could do, to be sure, but if she could do something she might keep him alive until other help would come.

She stood beside the door jamb and watched him for some time, for she dreaded the idea of touching him again, but after a while her courage returned, and she again went to him, kneeling down beside him, laying her head on his breast and listening. His heart was beating, faintly, but still it was beating, and she rose from him, determined.

She found a sheath knife in one of his pockets, and with this she cut the shirt away from the wound, discovering, when she drew the pieces of cloth away, that there was a large, round hole in his breast. She came near to swooning when she thought of the red patch on his back, for that seemed to prove that the bullet had gone clear through him. It had missed a vital spot, though, she thought, for it seemed to be rather high on the shoulder.

She got some water from a pail that stood just inside the door, and with this and some white cloth which she tore from one of her skirts, she bathed and bandaged the wound and laid a wet cloth on his forehead. She tried to force some of the water down his throat, but he could not swallow, lying there with closed eyes and drawing his breath in short, painful gasps.

After she had worked with him for a quarter of an hour or more she stood up, convinced that she had done all she could for him and that the next move would be to get a doctor.

She had heard Duncan say that it was fifty miles to Dry Bottom, and she knew that it was at least forty to Lazette. She had never heard anyone mention that there was a doctor nearer, and so of course she would have to go to Lazette-ten miles would make a great difference.

She might ride to the Double R ranchhouse, and she thought of going there, but it was at least ten miles off the Lazette trail, and even though at the Double R she might get a cowboy to make the ride to Lazette, she would be losing much valuable time. She drew a deep breath over the contemplation of the long ride-at best it would take her four hours-but she did not hesitate long and with a last glance at Doubler she was out of the door and walking to the corral, where she unhitched her pony, mounted, and sent the animal over the level toward the crossing at a sharp gallop.

Once over the crossing and on the river trail where the riding was better, she held the pony to an even, steady pace. One mile, two miles, five or six she rode with her hair flying in the breeze, her cheeks pale, except for a bright red spot in the center of each-which betrayed the excitement under which she was laboring. There was a resolute gleam in her eyes, though, and she rode lightly, helping her pony as much as possible. However, the animal was fresh and did not seem to mind the pace, cavorting and lunging up the rises and pulling hard on the reins on the levels, showing a desire to run. She held it in, though, realizing that during the forty mile ride the animal would have plenty of opportunity to prove its mettle.

She reached and passed the quicksand crossing from which she had been pulled by Dakota, the pony running with the sure regularity of a machine, and was on a level which led into some hills directly ahead, when the pony stumbled.

She tried to jerk it erect with the reins, but in spite of the effort she felt it sink under her, and with a sensation of dismay clutching at her heart she slid out of the saddle.

A swift examination showed her that the pony's right fore-leg was deep in the sand of the trail, and she surmised instantly that it had stepped into a prairie dog hole. When she went to it and raised its head it looked appealingly at her, and she stifled a groan of sympathy and began looking about for some means to extricate it.

She found this no easy task, for the pony's leg was deep in the sand, and when she finally dug a space around it with a branch of tree which she procured from a nearby grove, the animal struggled out, only to limp badly. The leg, Sheila decided, after a quick examination, was not broken, but badly sprained, and she knew enough about horses to be certain that the injured pony would never be able to carry her to Lazette.

She would be forced to go to the Double R now, there was nothing else that she could do. Standing beside the pony, debating whether she had not better walk than try to ride him, even to the Double R, she heard a clatter of hoofs and turned to see Dakota riding the trail toward her. He was traveling in the direction she had been traveling when the accident had happened, and apparently had left the trail somewhere back in the distance, or she would have seen him. Perhaps, she speculated, with a flash of dull anger, he had followed her near to Doubler's cabin, perhaps had been near when she had dragged the wounded nester into it.

His first word showed her that there was ground for this suspicion. He drew up beside her and looked at her with a queer smile, and she, aware of his guilt, wondered at his composure.

"You didn't stay long at Doubler's shack," he said. "I was on a ridge, back on the trail a ways, and I saw you hitting the breeze away from there some rapid. I was thinking to intercept you, but you went tearing by so fast that I didn't get a chance. You're in an awful hurry. What's wrong?"

"You ought to know that," she said, bitterly angry because of his pretended serenity. "You-you murderer!"

His face paled instantly, but his voice was clear and sharp.

"Murderer?" he said sternly. "Who has been murdered?"

"You don't know, of course," she said scornfully, her face flaming, her eyes alight with loathing and contempt. "You shot him and then let me ride on alone to-to find him, shot-shot in the back! Oh!"

She shuddered at the recollection, held her hands over her eyes for an instant to keep from looking at the expression of amazement in his eyes, and while she stood thus she heard a movement, and withdrew her hands from her eyes to see him standing beside her, so close that his body touched hers, his eyes ablaze with curiosity and interest and repressed anxiety. She cringed and cried with pain as he seized her arm and twisted her forcibly around so that she faced him.

"Stop this fooling and tell me what has happened!" he said, with short, incisive accents. "Who did you find shot? Who has been murdered?"

Oh, it was admirable acting, she told herself as she tore herself away from him and stood back a little, her eyes flashing with scorn and horror. "You don't know, of course," she flared. "You shot him-shot him in the back and sent me on to find him. You gloried in the thought of me finding him dead. But he isn't dead, thank God, and will live, if I can get a doctor, to accuse you!" She pointed a finger at him, but he ignored it and took a step toward her, his eyes cold and boring into hers.

"Who?" he demanded. "Who?"

"Ben Doubler. Oh!" she cried, in an excess of rage and horror, "to think that I should have to tell you!"

But if he heard

her last words he paid no attention to them, for he was suddenly at his pony's side, buckling the cinches tighter. She watched him, fascinated at the repressed energy of his movements, and became so interested that she started when he suddenly looked up at her.

"He isn't dead, then," he said rapidly, sharply, the words coming with short, metallic snaps. "You were going to Lazette for a doctor. I'm glad I happened along-glad I saw you. I'll be able to make better time than you."

"Where are you going?" she demanded, scarcely having heard his words, though aware that he was preparing to leave. She took a step forward and seized his pony's bridle rein, her eyes blazing with wrath over the thought that he should attempt to deceive her with so bald a ruse.

"For the doctor," he said shortly. "This is no time for melodramatics, ma'am, if Doubler is badly hurt. Will you please let go of that bridle?"

"Do you think," she demanded, her cheeks aflame, her hair, loosened from the long ride, straggling over her temples and giving her a singularly disheveled appearance, "that I am going to let you go for the doctor? You!"

"This isn't a case where your feelings should be considered, ma'am," he said. "If Ben Doubler has been hurt like you think he has I'm going to get the doctor mighty sudden, whether you think I ought to or not!"

"You won't!" she declared, stamping a; foot furiously. "You shot him and now you want to disarm suspicion by going after the doctor for him. But you won't! I won't let you!"

"You'll have to," he said rapidly. "The doctor isn't at Lazette; he is over on Carrizo Creek, taking care of Dave Moreland's wife, who is down bad. I saw Dave yesterday, and he was telling me about her; that the doctor is to stay there until she is out of danger. You don't know where Moreland's place is. Be sensible, now," he said gruffly. "I'll talk to you later about you suspecting me."

"You shan't go," she protested; "I am going myself. I will find Moreland's place. I can't let you go-it would be horrible!"

For answer he swung quickly down from the saddle, seized her by the waist, disengaged her hands from the bridle rein, and picking her up bodily carried her, struggling and fighting and striking blindly at his face, to the side of the trail. When he set her down he pinned her arms to her sides. He did not speak, and she was entirely helpless in his grasp, but when he released his grasp of her arms and tried to leave her she seized the collar of his vest. With a grim laugh he slipped out of the garment, leaving it dangling from her hand.

"Keep it for me, ma'am," he said with a cold chuckle. "But get back to Doubler's cabin and see what you can do for him. You'll be able to do a lot. I'll be back with the doctor before sundown."

In an instant he was at his pony's side, mounting with the animal at a run, and in a brief space had vanished around a turn in the trail, leaving a cloud of dust to mark the spot where Sheila had seen him disappear.

For a long time Sheila stood beside the trail, looking at the spot where he had disappeared, holding his vest with an unconscious grasp. Looking down she saw it and with an exclamation of rage threw it from her, watching it fall into the sand. But after an instant she went over and took it up, recovering, at the same time, a black leather pocket memoranda which had slipped out of it. She put the memoranda back into one of the pockets, handling both the book and the vest gingerly, for she felt an aversion to touching them. She conquered this feeling long enough to tuck the vest into the slicker behind the saddle, and then she mounted and sent her pony up the trail toward Doubler's cabin.

She found Doubler where she had left him, and he was still unconscious. The water pail was empty and she went down to the river and refilled it, returning to the cabin and again bathing and bandaging Doubler's wound, and placing a fresh cloth on his forehead.

For a time she sat watching the injured man, revolving the incident of her discovery of him in her mind, going over and over again the gruesome details. She did not dwell long on the latter, for she could not prevent her mind reviewing Dakota's words and actions-his satanic cleverness in pretending to be on the verge of taking her into his confidence, his prediction that she would understand when this "business" was over. She did not need to wait, she understood now!

Finding the silence in the cabin irksome, she rose, placed Doubler's head in a more comfortable position, and went outside into the bright sunshine of the afternoon. She took a turn around the corral, abstractedly watched the awkward antics of several yearlings which were penned in a corner, and then returned to the cabin door, where she sat on the edge of the step.

Near the side of the cabin door, leaning against the wall, she saw a rifle. She started, not remembering to have seen it there before, but presently she found courage to take it up gingerly, turning it over and over in her hands.

Some initials had been carved on the stock and she examined them, making them out finally as "B. D."-Doubler's. Examining the weapon she found an empty shell in the chamber, and she nearly dropped the rifle when the thought struck her that perhaps Doubler had been shot with it. She set it down quickly, shuddering, and for diversion walked to her pony, examining the injured leg and rubbing it, the pony nickering gratefully. Returning to the cabin she sat for a long time on the step, but she did not again take up the rifle. Several times while she sat on the step she heard Doubler moan, and once she got up and went to him, again bathing his wound, but returning instantly to the door step, for she could not bear the silence of the interior.

Suddenly remembering Dakota's vest and the black leather memoranda which had dropped from one of the pockets, she got up again and went to the bench where she had laid the garment, taking out the book and regarding it with some curiosity.

There was nothing on the cover to suggest what might be the nature of its contents-time had worn away any printing that might have been on it. She hesitated, debating the propriety of an examination, but her curiosity got the better of her and with a sharp glance at Doubler she turned her back and opened the book.

Almost the first object that caught her gaze was a piece of paper, detached from the leaves, with some writing on it. The writing seemed unimportant, but as she turned it, intending to replace it between the leaves of the book, she saw her father's name, and she read, holding her breath with dread, for fresh in her mind was Duncan's charge that her father had entered into an agreement with Dakota for the murder of Doubler. She read the words several times, standing beside the bench and swaying back and forth, a sudden weakness gripping her.

"One month from to-day"-ran the words-"I promise to pay to Dakota the sum of six thousand dollars in consideration of his rights and interest in the Star brand, provided that within one month from date he persuades Ben Doubler to leave Union County."

Signed: "David Dowd Langford."

There it was-conclusive, damning evidence of her father's guilt-and of Dakota's!

How cleverly that last clause covered the evil intent of the document! Sheila read it again and again with dry eyes. Her horror and grief were too great for tears. She felt that the discovery of the paper removed the last lingering doubt, and though she had been partially prepared for proof, she had not been prepared to have it thrust so quickly and convincingly before her.

How long she sat on the door step she did not know, or care, for at a stroke she had lost all interest in everything in the country. Even its people interested her only to the point of loathing-they were murderers, even her father. Time represented to her nothing now except a dreary space which, if she endured, would bring the moment in which she could leave. For within the last few minutes she seemed to have been robbed of all the things which had made existence here endurable and she was determined to end it all. When she finally got up and looked about her she saw that the sun had traveled quite a distance down the sky. A sorrowful smile reached her face as she watched it. It was going away, and before it could complete another circle she would go too-back to the East from where she had come, where there were at least some friends who could be depended upon to commit no atrocious crimes.

No plan of action formed in her mind; she could not think lucidly with the knowledge that her father was convicted of complicity in an attempted murder.

Would she be able to face her father again? To bid him good-bye? She thought not. It would be better for both if she departed without him being aware of her going. He would not care, she told herself bitterly; lately he had withheld from her all those little evidences of affection to which she had grown accustomed, and it would not be hard for him, he would not miss her, perhaps would even be glad of her absence, for then he could continue his murderous schemes without fear of her "meddling" with them.

There was a fascination in the paper on which was written the signed agreement. She read it carefully again, and then concealed it in her bodice, pinning it there so that it would not become lost. Then she rose and went into the cabin, placing the memoranda on a shelf where Dakota would be sure to find it when he returned with the doctor. She did not care to read anything contained in it.

Marveling at her coolness, she went outside again and resumed her seat on the door step. It was not such a blow to her, after all, and there arose in her mind as she sat on the step a wonder, as to how her father would act were she to confront him with evidence of his guilt. Perhaps she would not show him the paper, but she finally became convinced that she must talk to him, must learn from him in some manner his connection with the attempted murder of Doubler. Then, after receiving from him some sign which would convince her, she would take her belongings and depart for the East, leaving him to his own devices.

Looking up at the sun, she saw that it still had quite a distance to travel before it reached the mountains. Stealing into the cabin, she once more fixed the bandages on the wounded man. Then she went out, mounted her pony, and rode through the shallow water of the crossing toward the Double R ranch.

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