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The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 11924

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The sheriff's posse-three men whom he had deputized in Lazette and himself-had ridden hard over the twenty miles of rough trail from Lazette, for Duncan had assured Allen that he would have to get into action before Dakota could discover that there had been a witness to his deed, and therefore when they arrived at the edge of the clearing near Dakota's cabin at midnight, they were glad of an opportunity to dismount and stretch themselves.

There was no light in Dakota's cabin, no sign that the man the sheriff was after was anywhere about, and the latter consulted gravely with his men.

"This ain't going to be any picnic, boys," he said. "We've got to take our time and keep our eyes open. Dakota ain't no spring chicken, and if he don't want to come with us peaceable, he'll make things plumb lively."

A careful examination of the horses in the corral resulted in the discovery of one which had evidently been ridden hard and unsaddled but a few minutes before, for its flanks were in a lather and steam rose from its sides.

However, the discovery of the pony told the sheriff nothing beyond the fact that Dakota had ridden to the cabin from somewhere, some time before. Whether he was asleep, or watching the posse from some vantage point within or outside of the cabin was not quite clear. Therefore Allen, the sheriff, a man of much experience, advised caution. After another careful reconnoiter, which settled beyond all reasonable doubt the fact that Dakota was not secreted in the timber in the vicinity of the cabin, Allen told his deputies to remain concealed on the edge of the clearing, while he proceeded boldly to the door of the cabin and knocked loudly. He and Dakota had always been very friendly.

At the sound of the knock, Dakota's voice came from within the cabin, burdened with mockery.

"Sorry, Allen," it said, "but I'm locked up for the night. Can't take any chances on leaving my door unbarred-can't tell who's prowling around. If you'd sent word, now, so I would have had time to dress decently, I might have let you in, seeing it's you. I'm sure some sorry."

"Sorry, too." Allen grinned at the door. "I told the boys you'd be watching. Well, it can't be helped, I reckon. Only, I'd like mighty well to see you. Coming out in the morning?"

"Maybe. Missed my beauty sleep already." His voice was dryly sarcastic. "It's too bad you rode this far for nothing; can't even get a look at me. But it's no time to visit a man, anyway. You and your boys flop outside. We'll swap palaver in the morning. Good night."

"Good night."

Allen returned to the edge of the clearing, where he communicated to his men the result of the conference.

"He ain't allowing that he wants to be disturbed just now," he told them. "And he's too damned polite to monkey with. We'll wait. Likely he'll change his mind over-night."

"Wait nothing," growled Duncan. "Bust the door in!"

Allen grinned mildly. "Good advice," he said quietly. "Me and my men will set here while you do the busting. Don't imagine that we'll be sore because you take the lead in such a little matter as that."

"If I was the sheriff--" began Duncan.

"Sure," interrupted Allen with a dry laugh; "if you was the sheriff. There's a lot of things we'd do if we was somebody else. Maybe breaking down Dakota's door is one of them. But we don't want anyone killed if we can help it, and it's a dead sure thing that some one would cash in if we tried any monkey business with that door. If you're wanting to do something that amounts to something to help this game along, swap your cayuse for one of Dakota's and hit the breeze to the Double R for grub. We'll be needing it by the time you get back."

Duncan had already ridden over sixty miles within the past twenty-four hours, and he made a grumbling rejoinder. But in the end he roped one of Dakota's horses, saddled it, and presently vanished in the darkness. Allen and his men built a fire near the edge of the clearing and rolled into their blankets.

At eight o'clock the following morning, Langford appeared on the river trail, leading a pack horse loaded with provisions and cooking utensils for the sheriff and his men. Duncan, Langford told Allen while they breakfasted, had sought his bunk, being tired from the day's activities.

"You're the owner of the Double R?" questioned Allen.

"You and Dakota friendly?" he questioned again, noting Langford's nod.

"We've been quite friendly," smiled Langford.

"But you ain't now?"

"Not since this has happened. We must have law and order, even at the price of friendship."

Allen squinted a mildly hostile eye at Langford. "That's a good principle to get back of-for a weak-kneed friendship. But most men who have got friends wouldn't let a little thing like law and order interfere between them."

Langford reddened. "I haven't known Dakota long of course," he defended. "Perhaps I erred in saying we were friends. Acquaintances would better describe it I think."

Allen's eye narrowed again with an emotion that Langford could not fathom. "I always had a heap of faith in Dakota's judgment," he said. And then, when Langford's face flushed with a realization of the subtle insult, Allen said gruffly:

"You say Doubler's dead?"

"I don't remember to have said that to you," returned Langford, his voice snapping with rage. "What I did say was that Duncan saw him killed and came to me with the news. I sent him for you. Since then my daughter has been over to Doubler's cabin. He is quite dead, she reported," he lied. "There can be no doubt of his guilt, if that is what bothers you," he continued. "Duncan saw him shoot Doubler in the back with Doubler's own rifle, and my daughter heard the shot and met Dakota coming from Doubler's cabin, immediately after. It's a clear case, it seems to me."

"Yes, clear," said Allen. "The evidence is all against him."

Yet it was not all quite clear to Langford. To be su

re, he had expected to receive news that Dakota had accomplished the destruction of Doubler, but he had not anticipated the fortunate appearance of Duncan at the nester's cabin during the commission of the murder, nor had he expected Sheila to be near the scene of the crime. It had turned out better than he had planned, for since he had burned the agreement that he had made with Dakota, the latter had no hold on him whatever, and if it were finally proved that he had committed the crime there would come an end to both Dakota and Doubler.

Only one thing puzzled him. Dakota had been to his place, he knew that he was charged with the murder and that the agreement had been burned. He also knew that Duncan and Sheila would bear witness against him. And yet, though he had had an opportunity to escape, he had not done so. Why not?

He put this interrogation to Allen, carefully avoiding reference to anything which would give the sheriff any idea that he possessed any suspicion that Dakota was not really guilty.

"That's what's bothering me!" declared the latter. "He's had time enough to hit the breeze clear out of the Territory. Though," he added, squinting at Langford, "Dakota ain't never been much on the run. He'd a heap rather face the music. Damn the cuss!" he exploded impatiently.

He finished his breakfast in silence, and then again approached the door of Dakota's cabin, knocking loudly, as before.

"I'm wanting that palaver now, Dakota," he said coaxingly.

He heard Dakota laugh. "Have you viewed the corpse, Allen?" came his voice, burdened with mockery.

"No," said Allen.

"You're a hell of a sheriff-wanting to take a man when you don't know whether he's done anything."

"I reckon you ain't fooling me none," said Allen slowly. "The evidence is dead against you."

"What evidence?"

"Duncan saw you fixing Doubler, and Langford's daughter met you coming from his cabin."

"Who told you that?"

"Langford. He's just brought some grub over."

The silence that followed Allen's words lasted long, and the sheriff fidgeted impatiently. When he again spoke there was the sharpness of intolerance in his voice.

"If talking to you was all I had to do, I might monkey around here all summer," he said. "I've give you about eight hours to think this thing over, and that's plenty long enough. I don't like to get into any gun argument with you, because I know that somebody will get hurt. Why in hell don't you surrender decently? I'm a friend of yours and you hadn't ought to want to make any trouble for me. And them's good boys that I've got over there and I wouldn't want to see any of them perforated. And I'd hate like blazes to have to put you out of business. Why don't you act decent and come out like a man?"

"Go and look at the corpse," insisted Dakota.

"There'll be plenty of time to look at the corpse after you're took."

There was no answer. Allen sighed regretfully. "Well," he said presently, "I've done what I could. From now on, I'm looking for you."

"Just a minute, Allen," came Dakota's voice. To Allen's surprise he heard a fumbling at the fastenings of the door, and an instant later it swung open and Dakota stood in the opening, one of his six-shooters in hand.

"I reckon I know you well enough to be tolerably sure that you'll get me before you leave here," he said, as Allen wheeled and faced him, his arms folded over his chest as a declaration of his present peaceful intentions. "But I want you to get this business straight before anything is started. And then you'll be responsible. I'm giving it to you straight. Somebody's framed up on me. I didn't shoot Doubler. When I left him he was cleaning his rifle. After I left him I heard shooting. I thought it was him trying his rifle, or I would have gone back.

"Then I met Sheila Langford on the river trail, near the cabin. She'd heard the shooting, too. She thinks I did it. You think I did it, and Duncan says he saw me do it. Doubler isn't dead. At least he wasn't dead when I left the doctor with him at sundown. But he wasn't far from it, and if he dies without coming to it's likely that things will look bad for me. But because I knew he wasn't dead I took a chance on staying here. I am not allowing that I'm going to let anyone hang me for a thing I didn't do, and so if you're determined to get me without making sure that Doubler's going to have mourners immediately, it's a dead sure thing that some one's going to get hurt. I reckon that's all. I've given you fair warning, and after you get back to the edge of the clearing our friendship don't count any more."

He stepped back and closed the door.

Allen walked slowly toward the clearing, thinking seriously. He said nothing to Langford or his men concerning his conversation with Dakota, and though he covertly questioned the former he could discover nothing more than that which the Double R owner had already told him. Several times during the morning he was on the point of planning an attack on the cabin, but Dakota's voice had a ring of truth in it and he delayed action, waiting for some more favorable turn of events.

And so the hours dragged. The men lounged in the shade of the trees and talked; Langford-though he had no further excuse for staying-remained, concealing his impatience over Allen's inaction by taking short rides, but always returning; Allen, taciturn, morose even, paid no attention to him.

The afternoon waned; the sun descended to the peaks of the mountains, and there was still inaction on Allen's part, still silence from the cabin. Just at sundown Allen called his men to him and told them to guard the cabin closely, not to shoot unless forced by Dakota, but to be certain that he did not escape.

He said they might expect him to return by dawn of the following morning. Then, during Langford's absence on one of his rides, he loped his pony up the river trail toward Ben Doubler's cabin.

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