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A Parting And A Visit








From: The Trail To Yesterday

The problem which filled Duncan's mind as he sat on the edge of the slope
overlooking the river was a three-sided one. To reach a conclusion the
emotions of fear, hatred, and jealousy would have to be considered in the
light of their relative importance.

There was, for example, his fear of Dakota, which must be taken into
account when he meditated any action prompted by his jealousy, and his
fear of Dakota was a check on his desires, a damper which must control the
heat of his emotions. He might hate Dakota, but his fear of him would
prevent his taking any action which might expose his own life to risk. On
the other hand, jealousy urged him to accept any risk; it kept telling him
over and over that he was a fool to allow Dakota to live. But Duncan knew
better than to attempt an open clash with Dakota; each time that he had
looked into Dakota's eyes he had seen there something which told him
plainer than words of his own inferiority--that he would have no chance in
a man-to-man encounter with him. And his latest experience with Dakota had
proved that.

However, Duncan's character would not permit him to concede defeat, and
his revenge was not a thing to be considered lightly. Therefore, though he
sat for a long time on the slope, meditating over his problem, in the end
he smiled. It was not a good smile to see, for his eyes were alight with a
crafty, designing gleam, and there was a cruel curve in the lines of his
lips. When he finally mounted his pony and rode away from the slope he was
whistling.

During the next few days he did not see much of Sheila, for he avoided the
ranchhouse as much as possible. He rode out with Langford many times, and
though he covertly questioned the Double R owner concerning the affair
with Doubler he could gain no satisfying information. Langford's reticence
further aggravated the passions which rioted in his heart, and finally one
afternoon when they rode up to the ranchhouse his curiosity could be held
in check no longer, and he put the blunt question:

"What have you done about Doubler?"

Langford's shifting eyes rested for the fraction of a second on the face
of his manager, and then the old, bland smile came into his own and he
answered smoothly: "Nothing."

"I have been thinking," said Duncan carelessly, but with a sharp side
glance at his employer, "that it wouldn't be a half bad idea to set a
gunman on Doubler--a man like Dakota, for instance."

The manager saw Langford's lips straighten a little, and his eyes flashed
with a sudden fire. The expression on Langford's face strengthened the
conviction already in Duncan's mind concerning the motive of his
employer's visit to Dakota.

"I don't think I care to have any dealings with Dakota," said Langford
shortly.

Duncan's eyes blazed again. "I reckon if you'd go talk to him," he
persisted, turning his head so that Langford could not see the suppressed
rage in his eyes, "you might be able to make a deal with him."

"I don't wish to deal with him. I have decided not to bother Doubler at
present. And I have no desire to talk with Dakota. Frankly, my dear
Duncan, I don't like the man."

"You been in the habit of forming opinions of men you've never talked to?"
said Duncan. He could not keep the sneer out of his voice.

Langford noticed it and laughed softly.

"It is my recollection that a certain man of my acquaintance advised me at
length of Dakota's shortcomings," he said significantly. "For me to talk
to Dakota after that would be to consider this man's words valueless. I
will have nothing to do with Dakota. That is," he added, "unless you have
altered your opinion of him."

Duncan did not reply, and he said nothing more to Langford on the subject,
but he had discovered that for some reason Langford had chosen to keep the
knowledge of his visit to Dakota secret, and Duncan's suspicions that the
visit concerned Doubler became a conviction. Filled with resentment over
Langford's attitude toward him, and with his mind definitely fixed upon
the working out of his problem, Duncan decided to visit Doubler.

He chose a day when Langford had ridden away to a distant cow camp, and as
when he was following the Double R owner, he did not ride the beaten trail
but kept behind the ridges and in the depressions, and when he came within
sight of Doubler's cabin he halted to reconnoiter. A swift survey of the
corral showed him a rangy, piebald pony, which he knew to belong to
Dakota. As the animal had on a bridle and a saddle he surmised that
Dakota's visit would not be of long duration, and having no desire to
visit Doubler in the presence of his rival, he shunted his own horse off
the edge of a sand dune and down into the bed of a dry arroyo. Urging the
animal along this, he presently reached a sand flat on whose edge arose a
grove of fir-balsam and cottonwood.

For an hour, deep in the grove, he watched the cabin, and at length he saw
Dakota come out; saw a smile on his face; heard him laugh. His lips
writhed at the sound, and he listened intently to catch the conversation
which was carried on between the two men, but the distance was too great.
However, he was able to judge from the actions of the two that their
relations were decidedly friendly, and this discovery immediately raised a
doubt in his mind as to the correctness of his deductions.

Yet the doubt did not seriously affect his determination to carry out the
plan he had in mind, and when a few moments after coming out of the cabin,
Dakota departed down the river trail, Duncan slowly rode out of the grove
and approached the cabin.

Doubler stood in the open doorway, looking after Dakota, and when the
latter finally disappeared around a bend in the river the nester turned
and saw Duncan. Instantly he stepped inside the cabin door, reappearing
immediately, holding a rifle. Duncan continued to ride forward, raising
one hand, with the palm toward Doubler, as a sign of the peacefulness of
his intentions. The latter permitted him to approach, though he held the
rifle belligerently.

"I want to talk," said Duncan, when he had come near enough to make
himself heard.

"Pull up right where you are, then," commanded Doubler. He was silent
while Duncan drew his pony to a halt and sat motionless in the saddle
looking at him. Then his voice came with a truculent snap:

"You alone?"

Duncan nodded.

"Where's your new boss?" sarcastically inquired Doubler. "Ain't you scared
he'll git lost--runnin' around alone without anyone to look after him?"

"I ain't his keeper," returned Duncan shortly.

Doubler laughed unbelievingly. "You was puttin' in a heap of your time
bein' his keeper, the last I saw of you," he declared coldly.

"Mebbe I was. We've had a falling out." The venom in Duncan's voice was
not at all pretended. "He's double crossed me."

"Double crossed you?" There was disbelief and suspicion in Doubter's
laugh. "How's he done that? I reckoned you was too smart for anyone to do
that to you?" The sarcasm in this last brought a dark red into Duncan's
face, but he successfully concealed his resentment and smiled.

"That's all right," he said; "I've got more than that coming from you. I'm
telling you about what he done to me if you ain't got any objections to me
getting off my horse."

"Tell me from where you are." In spite of the coldness in the nester's
voice there was interest in his eyes. "Mebbe you an' him have had a
fallin' out, but I ain't takin' any chances on you bein' my friend--not a
durned chance."

"That's right. I don't blame you for not wanting to take a chance, and I'm
not pretending to be your friend. And I sure ain't any friendly to
Langford. He's double crossed me, but I ain't telling how he done
it--that's between him and me. But I want to tell you something that will
interest you a whole lot. It's about some guy which is trying to double
cross you. To prove that I ain't thinking to plug you when you ain't
looking I'm leaving my gun here." He drew out his six-shooter and stuck it
behind his slicker, dismounted, and threw the reins over the pony's head.

In silence Doubler suffered him to approach, though he kept his rifle
ready in his hand and his eyes still continued to wear a belligerent
expression.

"You and me ain't been what you might call friendly for a long time,"
offered Duncan when he had halted a few feet from Doubler. "We've had
words, but I've never tried to take any mean advantage of you--which I
might have done if I'd wanted to." He smiled ingratiatingly.

"We ain't goin' to go over what's happened between us," declared Doubler
coldly. "We're lettin' that go by. If you'll stick to the palaver that you
spoke about mebbe we'll be able to git along for a minute or two.
Meanwhile, you'll excuse me if I keep this here gun in shape for you if
you try any monkey business."

Duncan masked his dislike of Doubler under a deprecatory smile. "That's
right," he agreed. "We'll let what's happened pass without talking about
it. What's between us now is something different. I've never pretended to
be your friend, and I'm not pretending to be your friend now. But I've
always been square with you, and I'm square now. Can you say that about
him?" He jerked his thumb in the direction of the river trail, on which
Dakota had vanished some time before.

"Him?" inquired Doubler. "You mean Dakota?" He caught Duncan's nod and
smiled slowly. "I reckon you're some off your range," he said. "There
ain't no comparin' Dakota to you--he's always been my friend."

"A man's got a friend one day and he's an enemy the next," said Duncan
mysteriously.

"Meanin'?"

"Meaning that Dakota ain't so much of a friend as you think he is."

Doubler's lips grew straight and hard. "I reckon that ends the palaver,"
he said coldly, while he fingered the rifle in his hand significantly. "If
that's what you come for you can be hittin' the breeze right back to the
Double R. I'm givin' you----"

"You're traveling too fast," remonstrated Duncan, a hoarseness coming into
his voice. "You'll talk different when you hear what I've got to say. I
reckon you know that Langford ain't any friendly to you?"

"I don't see--" began Doubler.

He was interrupted by Duncan's harsh laugh. "Of course you don't see," he
said. "I've come over here to make you open your eyes. Langford ain't no
friend of yours, and I reckon that you wouldn't consider any man your
friend which sets in his cabin a couple of hours talking to Langford,
about you?"

"Meanin' that Langford's been to see Dakota?" Doubler's voice was suddenly
harsh and his eyes glinted with suspicion. Certain that he had scored,
Duncan turned and smiled into the distance. When he again faced Doubler
his face wore an expression of sympathy.

"When a man's been a friend to you and you find that he's going to double
cross you, it's apt to make you feel pretty mean," he said. "I'm allowing
that. But there's a lot of us get double crossed. I got it and I'm seeing
that they don't ring in any cold deck on you."

"How do you know Dakota's tryin' to do that?" demanded Doubler.

Duncan laughed. "I've kept my eyes open. Also, I've been listening right
hard. I wasn't so far away when Langford went to Dakota's shack, and I
heard considerable of what they said about you."

Doubler's interest was now intense; he spoke eagerly: "What did they
say?"

"I reckon you ought to be able to guess what they said," said Duncan with
a crafty smile. "I reckon you know that Langford wants your land mighty
bad, don't you? And you won't sell. Didn't he tell you in front of me that
he was going to make trouble for you? He wants me to make it, though; he
wants me to set the boys on you. But I won't do it. Then he shuts up like
a clam and don't say anything more to me about it. He saw Dakota send
Blanca over the divide and he's some impressed by his shooting. He figures
that if Dakota puts one man out of business he'll put another out."

"Meanin' that Langford's hired Dakota to look for me?" Doubler's eyes were
gleaming brightly.

"You're some keen, after all," taunted Duncan.

Doubler's jaws snapped. "You're a liar!" he said; "Dakota wouldn't do
it!"

"Maybe I'm a liar," said Duncan, his face paling but his voice low and
quiet. He was not surprised that Doubler should exhibit emotion over the
charge that his friend was planning to murder him, yet he knew that the
suspicion once established in Doubler's mind would soon grow to the
stature of a conviction.

"Maybe I'm a liar," repeated Duncan. "But if you'll use your brain a
little you'll see that things look bad for you. Dakota's been here. Did he
tell you about Langford coming to see him? I reckon not," he added as he
caught Doubler's blank stare; "he'd likely not tell you about it. But I
reckon that if he was your friend he'd tell you. I reckon you told him
about Langford wanting your land--about him telling you he'd make things
hot for you?"

Doubler nodded silently, and Duncan continued. "Well," he said, with a
short laugh, "I've told you, and it's up to you. They were talking about
you, and if Dakota's your friend, as you're claiming him to be, he'd have
told you what they was talking about--if it wasn't what I say it was--him
knowing how Langford feels toward you. And they didn't only talk. Langford
wrote something on a paper and gave it to Dakota. I don't know what he
wrote, but it seemed to tickle Dakota a heap. Leastways, he done a heap of
laffing over it. Likely Langford's promised him a heap of dust to do the
job. Mebbe he's your friend, but if I was you I wouldn't give him no
chance to say I drawed first."

Doubler placed his rifle down and passed a hand slowly and hesitatingly
over his forehead. "I don't like to think that of Dakota," he said, faith
and suspicion battling for supremacy. "Dakota just left here; he acted a
heap friendly--as usual--mebbe more so."

"I reckon that when a man goes gunning for another man he don't advertise
a whole lot," observed Duncan insinuatingly.

"No," agreed Doubler, staring blankly into the distance where he had last
seen his supposed friend, "a man don't generally do a heap of advertisin'
when he's out lookin' for a man." He sat for a time staring straight
ahead, and then he suddenly looked up, his eyes filled with a savage
fierceness. "How do I know you ain't lyin' to me?" he demanded, glaring at
Duncan, his hands clenched in an effort to control himself.

Duncan's eyes did not waver. "I reckon you don't know whether I'm
lying," he returned, showing his teeth in a slight smile. "But I reckon
you're twenty-one and ought to have your eye-teeth cut. Anyway, you ought
to know that a man like Langford, who's wanting your land, don't go to
talk with a man like Dakota, who's some on the shoot, for nothing. How do
you know that Langford and Dakota ain't friends? How do you know but that
they've been friends back East? Do you know where Dakota came from? Mebbe
he's from the East, too. I'm telling you one thing," added Duncan, and now
his voice was filled with passion, "Dakota and Sheila Langford are pretty
thick. She makes believe that she don't like him, but he saved her from a
quicksand, and she's been running with him considerable. Takes his part,
too; does it, but she makes you believe that she don't like him. I reckon
she's pretty foxy."

Doubler's memory went back to a conversation he had had with Sheila in
which Dakota had been the subject under discussion. He remembered that she
had shown a decided coldness, suggesting by her manner that she and Dakota
were not on the best of terms. Could it be that she had merely pretended
this coldness? Could it be that she was concerned in the plot against him,
that she and her father and Dakota were combined against him for the
common purpose of taking his life?

He was convinced that any such suspicion against Sheila must be unjust,
for he had studied her face many times and was certain that there was not
a line of deceit in it. And yet, was it not odd that, when he had told her
of the trouble between him and her father, she had not immediately taken
her parent's side? To be sure, she had told him that Langford was merely
her stepfather, but could not that statement also have been a misleading
one? And even if Langford were only her stepfather, would she not have
felt it her duty to align herself with him?

"I reckon you know a heap about Dakota, don't you?" came Duncan's voice,
breaking into Doubler's reflections. "You know, for instance, that Dakota
came here from Dakota--or anyway, he says he came here from there. We'll
say you know that. But what do you know about Langford? Didn't he tell you
that he was going to 'get' you?"

Duncan turned his back to Doubler and walked to his pony. He drew out his
six-shooter, stuck it into its holster, and placed one foot in a stirrup,
preparatory to mounting. Then he turned and spoke gravely to Doubler.

"I've done all I could," he said. "You know how you stand and the rest of
it is up to you. You can go on, letting Dakota and Sheila pretend to be
friendly to you, and some day you'll get wise awful sudden--when it's too
late. Or, you can wise up now and fix Dakota before he gets a chance at
you. I reckon that's all. You can't say that I didn't put you wise to the
game."

He swung into the saddle and urged the pony toward the crossing. Looking
back from a crest of a rise on the other side of the river, he saw Doubler
still standing in the doorway, his head bowed in his hands. Duncan smiled,
his lips in cold, crafty curves, for he had planted the seed of suspicion
and was satisfied that it would presently flourish and grow until it would
finally accomplish the destruction of his rival, Dakota.





Next: A Meeting On The River Trail

Previous: Duncan Adds Two And Two



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