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A Meeting On The River Trail








From: The Trail To Yesterday

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.





Next: The Shot In The Back

Previous: A Parting And A Visit



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