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   Chapter 14 LANGFORD LAYS OFF THE MASK

The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 27024

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The sun was still an hour above the horizon when Sheila rode up to the corral gates. While removing the saddle and bridle from her pony she noted with satisfaction that the horse which her father had been accustomed to ride was inside the corral. Therefore her father was somewhere about.

Hanging the saddle and bridle from a rail of the corral fence, she went into the house to find that Langford was not there. Duncan's sister curtly informed her that she had seen him a few minutes before down at the stables. Sheila went into the office, which was a lean-to addition to the ranchhouse, and seating herself at her father's desk picked up a six month's old copy of a magazine and tried to read.

Finding that she could not concentrate her thoughts, she dropped the magazine into her lap and leaned back with a sigh. From where she sat she had a good view of the stables, and fifteen minutes later, while she still watched, she saw Langford come out of one of the stable doors and walk toward the house. She felt absolutely no emotion whatever over his coming; there was only a mild curiosity in her mind as to the manner in which he would take the news of her intended departure from the Double R. She observed, with a sort of detached interest, that he looked twice at her saddle and bridle as he passed them, and so of course he surmised that she had come in from her ride. For a moment she lost sight of him behind some buildings, and then he opened the door of the office and entered.

He stopped on the threshold for an instant and looked at her, evidently expecting her to offer her usual greeting. He frowned slightly when it did not come, and then smiled.

"Hello!" he said cordially. "You are back, I see. And tired," he added, noting her position. He walked over and laid a hand on her forehead and she involuntarily shrank from his touch, shuddering, for the hand which he had placed on her forehead was the right one-the hand with which he had signed the agreement with Dakota-Doubler's death warrant.

"Don't, please," she said.

"Cross, too?" he said jocularly.

"Just tired," she lied listlessly, and with an air of great indifference.

He looked critically at her for an instant, then smiled again and dragged a chair over near a window and looked out, apparently little concerned over her manner. But she noted that he glanced furtively at her several times, and that he seemed greatly satisfied over something. She wondered if he had seen Dakota; if he knew that the latter had already attempted to carry out the agreement to "Persuade Doubler to leave the county."

"Ride far?" he questioned, turning and facing her, his voice casual.

"Not very far."

"The river trail?"

Sheila nodded, and saw a sudden interest flash into his eyes.

"Which way?" he asked quickly.

"Down," she returned. She had not lied, for she had ridden "down," and though she had also ridden up the river she preferred to let him guess a little, for she resented the curiosity in his voice and was determined to broach the subject which she had in mind in her own time and after the manner that suited her best.

He had not been interested in her for a long time, had not appeared to care where she spent her time. Why should he betray interest now? She saw a mysterious smile on his face and knew before he spoke that his apparent interest in her was not genuine-that he was merely curious.

"Then you haven't heard the news?" he said softly. He was looking out of the window now, and she could not see his face.

She took up the magazine and turned several pages, pretending to read, but in reality waiting for him to continue. When he made no effort to do so her own curiosity got the better of her.

"What news?" she questioned, without looking at him.

"About Doubler," he said. "He is dead."

Her surprise was genuine, and her hands trembled as the leaves of the magazine fluttered and closed. Had the nester died since she had left his cabin? A moment's thought convinced her that this could not be the explanation, for assuredly she would have seen anyone who had arrived at Doubler's cabin; she had scanned the surrounding country before and after leaving the vicinity of the crossing and had seen no signs of anyone. Besides, Langford's news seemed to have abided with him a long time-it seemed to her that he had known it for hours. She could not tell why she felt this, but she was certain that he had not received word recently-within an hour or two at any rate-unless he had seen Dakota.

This seemed to be the secret of his knowledge, and the more she considered the latter's excitement during her meeting with him on the trail, the more fully she became convinced that Langford had talked to him. The latter's anxiety to relieve her of the task of riding to Lazette for the doctor had been spurious; he had merely wanted to be the first to carry the news of Doubler's death to Langford, and after leaving her he had undoubtedly taken a roundabout trail for the Double R. Possibly by this time he had settled with Langford and was on his way out of the country.

"Dead?" she said, turning to Langford. "Who--" In her momentary excitement she had come very near to asking him who had brought him the news. She hesitated, for she saw a glint of surprise and suspicion in his eyes.

"My dear girl, did I say that he had been 'killed'?"

His smile was without humor. Evidently he had expected that she had been about to ask who had killed the nester.

He looked at her steadily, an intolerant smile playing about the corners of his mouth. "I am aware that you have been suspicious of me ever since you heard that I had a quarrel with Doubler. But, thank God, my dear, I have not that crime to answer for. Doubler, however, has been killed-murdered."

Sheila repressed a desire to shudder, and turned from Langford so that he would not be able to see the disgust that had come into her eyes over the discovery that in addition to being a murderer her father was that most despicable of all living things-a hypocrite! It required all of her composure to be able to look at him again.

"Who killed him?" she asked evenly.

"Dakota, my dear."

"Dakota!" She pronounced the name abstractedly, for she was surprised at the admission.

"How do you know that Dakota killed him?" she said, looking straight at him. He changed color, though his manner was still smooth and his smile bland.

"Duncan was fortunate enough to be in the vicinity when the deed was committed," he told her. "And he saw Dakota shoot him in the back. With his own rifle, too."

There was a quality in his voice which hinted at satisfaction; a peculiar emphasis on the word "fortunate" which caused Sheila to wonder why he should consider it fortunate that Duncan had seen the murder done, when it would have been much better for the success of Dakota's and her father's scheme if there had been no witness to it at all.

"However," continued Langford, with a sigh of resignation that caused Sheila a shiver of repugnance and horror, "Doubler's death will not be a very great loss to the country. Duncan tells me that he has long been suspected of cattle stealing, and sooner or later he would have been caught in the act. And as for Dakota," he laughed harshly, with a note of suppressed triumph that filled her with an unaccountable resentment; "Dakota is an evil in the country, too. Do you remember how he killed that Mexican half-breed over in Lazette that day?-the day I came? Wanton murder, I call it. Such a man is a danger and a menace, and I shall not be sorry to see him hanged for killing Doubler."

"Then you will have Duncan charge Dakota with the murder?"

"Of course, my dear; why shouldn't I? Assuredly you would not allow Dakota to go unpunished?"

"No," said Sheila, "Doubler's murderer should be punished."

Two things were now fixed in her mind as certainties. Dakota had not been to see her father since she had left him on the river trail; he had not received his blood-money-would never receive it. Her father had no intention of living up to his agreement with Dakota and intended to allow him to be hanged. She thought of the signed agreement in her bodice. Langford had given it to Dakota, but she had little doubt that in case Dakota still had it in his possession and dared to produce it, Langford would deny having made it-would probably term it a forgery. It was harmless, too; who would be likely to intimate that the clause regarding Dakota inducing Doubler to leave the country meant that Langford had hired Dakota to kill the nester? Sheila sat silent, looking at Langford, wondering how it happened that he had been able to masquerade so long before her; why she had permitted herself to love a being so depraved, so entirely lacking in principle.

But a thrill of hope swept over her. Perhaps Doubler would not die? She had been considering the situation from the viewpoint of the nester's death, but if Dakota had really been in earnest and had gone for a doctor, there was a chance that the tragedy which seemed so imminent would be turned into something less serious. Immediately her spirits rose and she was able to smile quietly at Langford when he continued:

"Dakota will be hung, of course; decency demands it. When Duncan came to me with the news I sent him instantly to Lazette to inform the sheriff of what had happened. Undoubtedly he will take Dakota into custody at once."

"But not for murder," said Sheila evenly, unable to keep a quiver of triumph out of her voice.

"Not?" said Langford, startled. "Why not?"

"Because," returned Sheila, enjoying the sudden consternation that was revealed in her father's face, and drawling her words a little to further confound him; "because Doubler isn't dead."

"Not dead!" Langford's jaws sagged, and he sat looking at Sheila with wide, staring, vacuous eyes. "Not dead?" he repeated hoarsely. "Why, Duncan told me he had examined him, that he had been shot through the lungs and had bled to death before he left him! How do you know that he is not dead?" he suddenly demanded, leaning toward her, a wild hope in his eyes.

"I went to his cabin before noon," said Sheila. "I found him lying in the doorway. He had been shot through the right side, near the shoulder, but not through the lung, and he was still alive. I dragged him into the cabin and did what I could for him. Then I started for the doctor."

"For the doctor?" he said incredulously. "Then how does it happen that you are here? You couldn't possibly ride to Lazette and return by this time!"

"I believe I said that I 'started' for the doctor," said Sheila with a quiet smile. She was enjoying his excitement. "I met Dakota on the trail, and he went."

Langford continued to stare at her; it seemed that he could not realize the truth. Then suddenly he was out of his chair and standing over her, his face bloated poisonously, his eyes ablaze with a malignant light.

"Damn you!" he shrieked. "This is what comes of your infernal meddling! What business had you to interfere? Why didn't you let him die? I've a notion--"

His hands clenched and unclenched before her eyes, and she sat with blanched face, certain that he was about to attack her-perhaps kill her. She did not seem to care much, however, and looked up into his face steadily and defiantly.

After a moment, however, he regained control of himself, leaving her side and pacing rapidly back and forth in the office, cursing bitterly.

Curiously, Sheila was not surprised at this outburst; she had rather expected it since she had become aware of his real character. Nor was she surprised to discover that he had dropped pretense altogether-he was bound to do that sooner or later. Her only surprise was at her own feelings. She did not experience the slightest concern over him-it was as though she were talking to a stranger. She was interested to the point of taking a grim enjoyment out of his confusion, but beyond that she was not interested in anything.

It made little difference to her what became of Langford, Dakota, Duncan-any of them, except Doubler. She intended to return to the nester's cabin, to help the doctor make him comfortable-for he had been the only person in the country who had shown her any kindness; he was the only one who had not wronged her, and she was grateful to him.

Langford was standing over her again, his breath coming short and fast.

"Where did you see Dakota?" he questioned hoarsely. "Answer!" he added, when she did not speak immediately.

"On the river trail."

"Before you found Doubler?"

"Before, yes-and after. I met him twice."

She discerned his motive in asking these questions, but it made no difference to her and she answered truthfully. She did not intend to shield Dakota; the fact that Doubler had not been killed outright did not lessen the gravity of the offense in her eyes.

"Before you found Doubler!" Langford's voice came with a vicious snap. "You met him coming from Doubler's cabin, I suppose?"

"Yes," she answered wearily, "I met him coming from there. I was on the trail-going there-and I heard the shot. I know Dakota killed him."

Langford made an exclamation of satisfaction.

"Well, it isn't so bad, after all. You'll have to be a witness against Dakota. And very likely Doubler will die-probably is dead by this time; will certainly be dead before the Lazette doctor can reach his cabin. No, my dear," he added, smili

ng at Sheila, "it isn't so bad, after all."

Sheila rose. Her poignant anger against him was equaled only by her disgust. He expected her to bear witness against Dakota; desired her to participate in his scheme to fasten upon the latter the entire blame for the commission of a crime in which he himself was the moving factor.

"I shall not bear witness against him," she told Langford coldly. "For I am going away-back East-to-morrow. Don't imagine that I have been in complete ignorance of what has been going on; that I have been unaware of the part you have played in the shooting of Doubler. I have known for quite a long while that you had decided to have Doubler murdered, and only recently I learned that you hired Dakota to kill him. And this morning, when I met Dakota on the river trail, he dropped this from a pocket of his vest." She fumbled at her bodice and produced the signed agreement, holding it out to him.

As she expected, he repudiated it, though his face paled a little as he read it.

"This is a forgery, my dear," he said, in the old, smooth, even voice that she had grown to despise.

"No," she returned calmly, "it is not a forgery. You forget that only a minute ago you practically admitted it to be a true agreement by telling me that I should have allowed Doubler to die. You are an accomplice in the shooting of Doubler, and if I am compelled to testify in Dakota's trial I shall tell everything I know."

She watched while he lighted a match, held it to the paper, smiling as the licking flames consumed it. He was entirely composed now, and through the gathering darkness of the interior of the office she saw a sneer come into his face.

"I shall do all I can to assist you to discontinue the associations which are so distasteful to you. You will start for the East immediately, I presume?"

"To-morrow," she said. "In the afternoon. I shall have my trunks taken over to Lazette in the morning."

"In the morning?" said Langford, puzzled. "Why not ride over with them, in the afternoon, in the buckboard?"

"I shall ride my pony. The man can return him." She took a step toward the door, but halted before reaching it, turning to look back at him.

"I don't think it is necessary for me to say good-by. But you have not treated me badly in the past, and I thank you-for that-and wish you well."

"Where are you going?"

Sheila had walked to the door and stood with one hand on the latch. He came and stood beside her, a suppressed excitement in his manner, his eyes gleaming brightly in the dusk which had suddenly fallen.

"I think I told you that before. Ben Doubler is alone, and he needs care. I am going to him-to stay with him until the doctor arrives. He will die if someone does not take care of him."

"You are determined to continue to meddle, are you?" he said, his voice quivering with anger, his lips working strangely. "I am sick of your damned interference. Sick of it, I tell you!" His voice lowered to a harsh, throaty whisper. "You won't leave this office until to-morrow afternoon! Do you hear? What business is it of yours if Doubler dies?"

Sheila did not answer, but pressed the door latch. His arm suddenly interposed, his fingers closing on her arm, gripping it so tightly that she cried out with pain. Then suddenly his fingers were boring into her shoulders; she was twisted, helpless in his brutal grasp, and flung bodily into the chair beside the desk, where she sat, sobbing breathlessly.

She did not cry out again, but sat motionless, her lips quivering, rubbing her shoulders where his iron fingers had sunk into the flesh, her soul filled with a revolting horror for his brutality.

For a moment there was no movement. Then, in the semi-darkness she saw him leave the door; watched him as he approached a shelf on which stood a kerosene lamp, lifted the chimney and applied a match to the wick. For an instant after replacing the chimney he stood full in the glare of light, his face contorted with rage, his eyes gleaming with venom.

"Now you know exactly where I stand, you-you huzzy!" he said, grinning satyrically as she winced under the insult. "I'm your father, damn you! Your father-do you hear? And I'll not have you go back East to gab and gossip about me. You'll stay here, and you'll bear witness against Dakota, and you'll keep quiet about me!" He was trembling horribly as he came close to her, and his breath was coughing in his throat shrilly.

"I won't do anything of the kind!" Sheila got to her feet, and stood, rigid with anger, her eyes flaming defiance. "I am going to Doubler's cabin this minute, and if you molest me again I shall go to the sheriff with my story!"

He seemed about to attack her again, and his hands were raised as though to grasp her throat, when there came a sound at the door, it swung open, and Dakota stepped in, closing the door behind him.

Dakota's face was white-white as it had been that other day at the quicksand crossing when Sheila had looked up to see him sitting on his pony, watching her. There was an entire absence of excitement in his manner, though; no visible sign to tell that what he had seen on entering the cabin disturbed him in the least. Yet the whiteness of his face belied this apparent composure. It seemed to Sheila that his eyes betrayed the strong emotion that was gripping him.

She retreated to the chair beside the desk and sank into it. Langford had wheeled and was now facing Dakota, a shallow smile on his face.

There was a smile on Dakota's face, too; a mysterious, cold, prepared grin that fascinated Sheila as she watched him. The smile faded a little when he spoke to Langford, his voice vibrating, as though he had been running.

"When you're fighting a woman, Langford, you ought to make sure there isn't a man around!"

Mingling with Sheila's recognition of the obvious and admirable philosophy of this statement was a realization that Dakota must have been riding hard. There was much dust on his clothing, the scarf at his neck was thick with it; it streaked his face, his voice was husky, his lips dry.

Langford did not answer him, stepping back against the desk and regarding him with a mirthless, forced smile which, Sheila was certain, he had assumed in order to conceal his fear of the man who stood before him.

"So you haven't got any thoughts just at this minute," said Dakota with cold insinuation. "You are one of those men who can talk bravely enough to women, but who can't think of anything exactly proper for a man to hear. Well, you'll do your talking later." He looked at Sheila, ignoring Langford completely.

"I expect you've been wondering, ma'am, why I'm here, when I ought to be over at the Two Forks, trying to do something for Doubler. But the doctor's there, taking care of him. The reason I've come is that I've found this in Doublet's cabin." He drew out the memoranda which Sheila had placed on the shelf in the cabin, holding it up so that she might see.

"You took my vest," he went on. "And I was looking for it. I found it all right, but something was missing. You're the only one who has been to Doubler's cabin since I left there, I expect, and it must have been you who opened this book. It isn't in the same shape it was when you pulled it off me when I was talking to you down there on the river trail-something has been taken out of it, a paper. That's why I rode over here-to see if you'd got it. Have you, ma'am?"

Sheila pointed mutely to the floor, where a bit of thin, crinkled ash was all that remained of the signed agreement.

"Burned!" said Dakota sharply.

He caught Sheila's nod and questioned coldly:

"Who burned it?"

"My-Mr. Langford," returned Sheila.

"You found it and showed it to him, and he burned it," said Dakota slowly. "Why?"

"Don't you see?" Sheila's eyes mocked Langford as she intercepted his gaze, which had been fixed on Dakota. "It was evidence against him," she concluded, indicating her father.

"I reckon I see." The smile was entirely gone out of Dakota's face now, and as he turned to look at Langford there was an expression in his eyes which chilled the latter.

"You've flunked on the agreement. You've burned it-won't recognize it, eh? Well, I'm not any surprised."

Langford had partially recovered from the shock occasioned by Dakota's unexpected appearance, and he shook his head in emphatic, brazen denial.

"There was no agreement between us, my friend," he said. "The paper I burned was a forgery."

Dakota's lips hardened. "You called me your friend once before, Langford," he said coldly. "Don't do it again or I'll forget that you are Sheila's father. I reckon she has told you about Doubler. That's why I came over here to get the paper, for I knew that if you got hold of it you'd make short work of it. I know something else." He took a step forward and tried to hold Langford's gaze, his own eyes filled with a snapping menace. "I know that you've sent Duncan to Lazette for the sheriff. The doctor told me he'd met him,-Duncan-and the doctor says Duncan told him that you'd said that I fixed Doubler. How do you know I did?"

"Duncan saw you," said Langford.

Dakota's lips curled. "Duncan tell you that?" he questioned.

At Langford's nod he laughed harshly. "So it's a plant, eh?" he said, with a mirthless chuckle. "You are figuring to get two birds with one stone-Doubler and me. You've already got Doubler, or think you have, and now it's my turn. It does look pretty bad for me, for a fact, doesn't it? You've burned the agreement you made with me, so that you could slip out of your obligation. I reckon you think that after the sheriff gets me you'll be able to take the Star without any trouble-like you expect to take Doubler's land.

"You've got Duncan to swear that he saw me do for Doubler, and you've got your daughter to testify that she saw me on the trail, coming from Doubler's cabin right after she heard the shooting. It was a right clever scheme, but it was my fault for letting you get anything on me-I ought to have known that you'd try some dog's trick or other."

His voice was coming rapidly, sharply, and was burdened with a lashing sarcasm. "Yes, it's a right clever scheme, Mister Langford, and it ought to be successful. But there's one thing you've forgot. I've lived too long in this country to let anyone tangle me up like you'd like to have me. When a man gets double crossed in this country, he can't go to the law for redress-he makes his own laws. I'm making mine. You've double crossed me, and damn your hide, I'm going to send you over the divide in a hurry!"

One of his heavy revolvers leaped from its holster and showed for an instant in his right hand. Sheila had been watching closely, forewarned by Dakota's manner, and when she saw his right hand drop to the holster she sprang upon him, catching the weapon by the muzzle.

Langford had covered his face with his hands, and stood beside the desk, trembling, and Sheila cried aloud in protest when she saw Dakota draw the weapon that swung at his other hip, holding her off with the hand which she had seized. But when Dakota saw Langford's hands go to his face he hesitated, smiling scornfully. He turned to Sheila, looking down at her face close to his, his smile softening.

"I forgot," he said gently; "I forgot he is your father."

"It isn't that," she said. "He isn't my father, any more. But-" she looked at Dakota pleadingly-"please don't shoot him. Go-leave the country. You have plenty of time. You have enough to answer for. Please go!"

For answer he grasped her by the shoulders, swinging her around so that she faced him,-as he had forced her to face him that day on the river trail-and there was a regretful, admiring gleam in his eyes.

"You told him-" he jerked a thumb toward Langford-"that you wouldn't bear witness against me. I heard you. You're a true blue girl, and your father's a fool or he wouldn't lose you, like he is going to lose you. If I had you I would take mighty good care that you didn't get away from me. You've given me some mighty good advice, and I would act on it if I was guilty of shooting Doubler. But I didn't shoot him-your father and Duncan have framed up on me. Doubler isn't dead yet, and so I'm not running away. If Doubler had someone to nurse him, he might-" He hesitated and looked at her with a strange smile. "You think I shot Doubler, too, don't you? Well, there's a chance that if we can get Doubler revived he can tell who did shoot him. Do you want to know the truth? I heard you say a while ago, while I was standing at the window, looking in at your father giving a demonstration of his love for you, that you intended going over to Doubler's shack to nurse him. If you're still of the same mind, I'll take you over there."

Sheila was at the door in an instant, but halted on the threshold to listen to Dakota's parting word to Langford.

"Mister man," he said enigmatically, "there's just one thing that I want to say to you. There's a day coming when you'll think thoughts-plenty of them."

In a flash he had stepped outside the door and closed it after him.

A few minutes later, still standing beside the desk, Langford heard the rapid beat of hoofs on the hard sand of the corral yard. Faint they became, and their rhythmic beat faster, until they died away entirely. But Dakota's words still lingered in Langford's mind, and it seemed to him that they conveyed a prophecy.

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