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   Chapter 19 SOME MEMORIES

The Trail to Yesterday By Charles Alden Seltzer Characters: 14618

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


When Sheila recovered consciousness she was in Dakota's cabin-in the bunk in which she had lain on another night in the yesterday of her life in this country. She recognized it instantly. There was the candle on the table, there were the familiar chairs, the fireplace, the shelves upon which were Dakota's tobacco tins and matches; there was the guitar, with its gaudy string, suspended from the wall. If it had been raining, she might have imagined that she was just awakening from a sleep in that other time. She felt a hand on her forehead, a damp cloth, and she opened her eyes to gaze fairly into Dakota's.

"Don't, please," she said, shrinking from him.

It occurred to her that she had uttered the same words to him before, and, closing her eyes for a moment, she remembered. It had been when he had tried to assist her out of the water at the quicksand crossing, and as on that occasion, his answer was the same.

"Then I won't."

She lay for a long time, looking straight up at the ceiling, utterly tired, wondering vaguely what had become of her father, Duncan, Allen, and the others. She would have given much to have been able to lie there for a time-a long time-and rest. But that was not to be thought of. She struggled to a sitting position, and when her eyes had become accustomed to the light she saw her father sitting in a chair near the fireplace. The door was closed-barred. Sheila glanced again at her father, and then questioningly at Dakota, who was watching her from the center of the room, his face inscrutable.

"What does this mean? Where are the others?" she demanded.

"Allen and his men have gone back to Lazette," returned Dakota quietly. "This means"-he pointed to Langford-"that we're going to have a little talk-about things."

Sheila rose. "I don't care to hear any talk; I am not interested."

"You'll be interested in my talk," said Dakota.

Curiously, he seemed to be invested with a new character. Just now he was more like the man he had been the night she had met him the first time-before he had forced her to marry him-than he had been since. Only, she felt as she watched him standing quietly in the middle of the room, the recklessness which had marked his manner that other time seemed to have entirely disappeared, seemed to have been replaced by something else-determination.

Beneath the drooping mustache Sheila saw the lines of his lips; they had always seemed hard to her, and now there were little curves at the corners which hinted at amusement-grim amusement. His eyes, too, were different; the mockery had departed from them. They were steady and unwavering, as before, and though they still baffled her, she was certain that she saw a slumbering devil in them-as though he possessed some mysterious knowledge and purposed to confound Sheila and her father with it, though in his own way and to suit his convenience. Yet behind it all there lurked a certain gravity-a cold deliberation that seemed to proclaim that he was in no mood to trifle and that he proposed to follow some plan and would brook no interference.

Fascinated by the change in him Sheila resumed her seat on the edge of the bunk, watching him closely. He drew a chair over near the door, tilted it back and dropped into it, thus mutely announcing that he intended keeping the prisoners until he had delivered himself of that mysterious knowledge which seemed to be in his mind.

Glancing furtively at her father, Sheila observed that he appeared to have formed some sort of a conclusion regarding Dakota's actions also, for he sat very erect on his chair, staring at the latter, an intense interest in his eyes.

Sheila had become interested, too; she had forgotten her weariness. And yet Dakota's first words disappointed her-somehow they seemed irrelevant.

"This isn't such a big world, after all, is it?" He addressed both Sheila and her father, though he looked at neither. His tone was quietly conversational, and when he received no answer to his remark he looked up with a quiet smile.

"That has been said by a great many people, hasn't it? I've heard it many times. I reckon you have, too. But it's a fact, just the same. The world is a small place. Take us three. You"-he said, pointing to Langford-"come out here from Albany and buy a ranch. You"-he smiled at Sheila-"came with your father as a matter of course. You"-he looked again at Langford-"might have bought a ranch in another part of the country. You didn't need to buy this particular one. But you did. Take me. I spent five years in Dakota before I came here. I've been here five years.

"A man up in Dakota wanted me to stay there; said he'd do most anything for me if I would. But I didn't like Dakota; something kept telling me that I ought to move around a little. I came here, I liked the place, and I've stayed here. I know that neither of you are very much interested in what has happened to me, but I've told you that much just to prove my contention about the world being a small place. It surely isn't so very big when you consider that three persons can meet up like we've met-our trails leading us to the same section of the country."

"I don't see how that concerns us," said Langford impatiently.

"No," returned Dakota, and now there was a note of sarcasm in his voice, "you don't see. Lots of folks don't see. But there are trails that lead everywhere. Fate marks them out-blazes them. There are trails that lead us into trouble, others that lead us to pleasure-straight trails, crooked ones, trails that cross-all kinds. Folks start out on a crooked trail, trying to get away from something, but pretty soon another trail crosses the one they are on-maybe it will be a straight one that crosses theirs, with a straight man riding it.

"The man riding the crooked trail and the man riding the straight one meet at the place where the trails cross. Such trails don't lead to any to-morrow; they are yesterday's trails, and before the man riding the crooked trail and the man riding the straight trail can go any further there has got to be an accounting. That is what has happened here. You"-he smiled gravely as he looked at Langford-"have been riding a crooked trail. I have been hanging onto the straight one as best I could. Now we've got to where the trails cross."

"Meaning that you want an explanation of my action in burning that signed agreement, I suppose?" sneered Langford, looking up.

"Still trying to ride the crooked trail?" smiled Dakota, with the first note of mockery that Sheila had heard in his voice since he had begun speaking. "I'm not worrying a bit about that agreement. Why, man, I'd have shot myself before I'd have shot Doubler. He's my friend-the only real friend I've had in ten years."

"Then when you signed the agreement you didn't mean to keep it?" questioned Langford incautiously, disarmed by Dakota's earnestness.

"Ten years ago a boy named Ned Keegles went to Dakota. I am glad to see that you are familiar with the name," he added with a smile as Langford started and stiffened in his chair, his face suddenly ashen. "You knowing Keegles will save me explaining a lot," continued Dakota. "Well, Keegles went to Dakota-where I was. He was eighteen and wasn't very strong, as young men go. But he got a job pu

nching cows and I got to know him pretty well-used to bunk with him. He took a liking to me because I took an interest in him.

"He didn't like the work, because he had been raised differently. He lived in Albany before he went West. His father, William Keegles, was in the hardware business with a man named Langford-David Dowd Langford. You see, I couldn't be mistaken in the name of the man; it's such an uncommon one."

He smiled significantly at Sheila, and an odd expression came into her face, for she remembered that on the night of her coming he had made the same remark.

"One day Ned Keegles got sick and took me into his confidence. He wasn't in the West for his health, he said. He was a fugitive from the law, accused of murdering his father. It wasn't a nice story to hear, but he told it, thinking he was going to die."

Dakota smiled enigmatically at Sheila and coldly at the now shrinking man seated in the chair beside the fireplace.

"One day Keegles went into his father's office. His father's partner, David Dowd Langford, was there, talking to his father. They'd had hard words. Keegle's father had discovered that Langford had appropriated a large sum of the firm's money. By forging his partner's signature he had escaped detection until one day when the elder Keegles had accidentally discovered the fraud-which was the day on which Ned Keegles visited his father. It isn't necessary to go into detail, but it was perfectly plain that Langford was guilty.

"There were hard words, as I have said. The elder Keegles threatened to prosecute. Langford seized a sample knife that had been lying on the elder Keegle's desk, and stabbed him, killing him instantly. Then, while Ned Keegles stood by, stunned by the suddenness of the attack, Langford coolly walked to a telephone and notified the police of the murder. Hanging up the receiver, he raised the hue and cry, and a dozen clerks burst into the office, to find Ned Keegles bending over his father, trying to withdraw the knife.

"Langford accused Ned Keegles of the murder. He protested, of course, but seeing that the evidence was against him, he fought his way out of the office and escaped. He went to Dakota-where I met him." He hesitated and looked steadily at Langford. "Do you see how the trails have crossed? The crooked one and the straight one?"

Langford was leaning forward in his chair, a scared, wild expression in his eyes, his teeth and hands clenched in an effort to control his emotions.

"It's a lie!" he shouted. "I didn't kill him! Ned Keegles--"

"Wait!" Dakota rose from his chair and walked to a shelf, from which he took a box, returning to Langford's side and opening it. He drew out a knife, shoving it before Langford's eyes and pointing out some rust spots on the blade.

"This knife was given to me by Ned Keegles," he said slowly. "These rust spots on the blade are from his father's blood. Look at them!" he said sharply, for Langford had turned his head.

At the command he swung around, his gaze resting on the knife. "That's a pretty story," he sneered.

Dakota's laugh when he returned the knife to the box chilled Sheila as that same laugh had chilled her when she had heard it during her first night in the country-in this same cabin, with Dakota sitting at the table-a bitter, mocking laugh that had in it a savagery controlled by an iron will. He turned abruptly and walked to his chair, seating himself.

"Yes," he said, "it's a pretty story. But it hasn't all been told. With a besmirched name and the thoughts which were with him all the time, life wasn't exactly a joyful one for Ned Keegles. He was young, you see, and it all preyed on his mind. But after a while it hardened him. He'd hit town with the rest of the boys, and he'd drink whiskey until he'd forget. But he couldn't forget long. He kept seeing his father and Langford; nights he'd start from his blankets, living over and over again the incident of the murder. He got so he couldn't stay in Dakota. He came down here and tried to forget. It was just the same-there was no forgetfulness.

"One night when he was on the trail near here, he met a woman. It was raining and the woman had lost the trail. He took the woman in. She interested him, and he questioned her. He discovered that she was the daughter of the man who had murdered his father-the daughter of David Dowd Langford!"

Langford cringed and looked at Sheila, who was looking straight at Dakota, her eyes alight with knowledge.

"Ned Keegles kept his silence, as he had kept it for ten years," resumed Dakota. "But the coming of the woman brought back the bitter memories, and while the woman slept in his cabin he turned to the whiskey bottle for comfort. As he drank his troubles danced before him-magnified. He thought it would be a fine revenge if he should force the woman to marry him, for he figured that it would be a blow at the father's pride. If it hadn't been for a cowardly parson and the whiskey the marriage would never have occurred-Ned Keegles would not have thought of it. But he didn't hurt the woman; she left him pure as she came-mentally and physically."

Langford slowly rose from his chair, his lips twitching, his face working strangely, his eyes wide and glaring.

"You say she married him-Ned Keegles?" he said, his voice high keyed and shrill. He turned to Sheila after catching Dakota's nod. "Is this true?" he demanded sharply. "Did you marry him as this man says you did?"

"Yes; I married him," returned Sheila dully, and Langford sank limply into his chair.

Dakota smiled with flashing eyes and continued:

"Keegles married the woman," he said coldly, "because he thought she was Langford's real daughter." He looked at Sheila with a glance of compassion. "Later, when Keegles discovered that the woman was only Langford's stepdaughter, he was mighty sorry. Not for Langford, however, because he could not consider Langford's feelings. And in spite of what he had done he was still determined to secure revenge.

"One day Langford came to Keegles with a proposal. He had seen Keegles kill one man, and he wanted to hire him to kill another-a man named Doubler. Keegles agreed, for the purpose of getting Langford into--"

Dakota hesitated, for Langford had risen to his feet and stood looking at him, his eyes bulging, his face livid.

"You!" he said, in a choking, wailing voice; "you-you, are Ned Keegles! You-you-- Why--" he hesitated and passed a hand uncertainly over his forehead, looking from Sheila to Dakota with glazed eyes. "You-you are a liar!" he suddenly screamed, his voice raised to a maniacal pitch. "It isn't so! You-both of you-have conspired against me!"

"Wait!" Dakota got to his feet, walked to a shelf, and took down a small glass, a pair of shears, a shaving cup, and a razor. While Langford watched, staring at him with fearful, wondering eyes, Dakota deftly snipped off the mustache with the shears, lathered his lip, and shaved it clean. Then he turned and confronted Langford.

The latter looked at him with one, long, intense gaze, and then with a dry sob which caught in his throat and seemed to choke him, he covered his face with his hands, shuddered convulsively, and without a sound pitched forward, face down, at Dakota's feet.

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