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A Woman On The Trail








From: The Trail To Yesterday

Many disquieting thoughts oppressed Miss Sheila Langford as she halted her
pony on the crest of a slight rise and swept the desolate and slumberous
world with an anxious glance. Quite the most appalling of these thoughts
developed from a realization of the fact that she had lost the trail. The
whole categorical array of inconveniences incidental to traveling in a
new, unsettled country paled into insignificance when she considered this
horrifying and entirely unromantic fact. She was lost; she had strayed
from the trail, she was alone and night was coming.

She would not have cared so much about the darkness, for she had never
been a coward, and had conditions been normal she would have asked nothing
better than a rapid gallop over the dim plains. But as she drew her pony
up on the crest of the rise a rumble of thunder reached her ears. Of
course it would rain, now that she had lost the trail, she decided,
yielding to a sudden, bitter anger. It usually did rain when one was
abroad without prospect of shelter; it always rained when one was lost.

Well, there was no help for it, of course, and she had only herself to
blame for the blunder. For the other--not unusual--irritating details that
had combined to place her in this awkward position she could blame, first
Duncan, the manager of the Double R--who should have sent someone to meet
her at the station; the station agent--who had allowed her to set forth in
search of the Double R without a guide,--though even now, considering this
phase of the situation, she remembered that the agent had told her there
was no one to send--and certainly the desolate appearance of Lazette had
borne out this statement; and last, she could blame the country itself for
being an unfeatured wilderness.

Something might be said in extenuation of the station agent's and the
Double R manager's sins of omission, but without doubt the country was
what she had termed it--an unfeatured wilderness. Her first sensation upon
getting a view of the country had been one of deep disappointment. There
was plenty of it, she had decided,--enough to make one shrink from its
very bigness; yet because it was different from the land she had been
accustomed to she felt that somehow it was inferior. Her father had
assured her of its beauty, and she had come prepared to fall in love with
it, but within the last half hour--when she had begun to realize that she
had lost the trail--she had grown to hate it.

She hated the desolation, the space, the silence, the arid stretches;
she had made grimaces at the "cactuses" with their forbidding
pricklers--though she could not help admiring them, they seemed to be
the only growing thing in the country capable of defying the heat and
the sun. Most of all she hated the alkali dust. All afternoon she had
kept brushing it off her clothing and clearing it out of her throat, and
only within the last half hour she had begun to realize that her efforts
had been without result--it lay thick all over her; her throat was dry
and parched with it, and her eyes burned.

She sat erect, flushed and indignant, to look around at the country. A
premonitory calm had succeeded the warning rumble. Ominous black clouds
were scurrying, wind-whipped, spreading fan-like through the sky, blotting
out the colors of the sunset, darkening the plains, creating weird
shadows. Objects that Sheila had been able to see quite distinctly when
she had reined in her pony were no longer visible. She stirred uneasily.

"We'll go somewhere," she said aloud to the pony, as she urged the animal
down the slope. "If it rains we'll get just as wet here as we would
anywhere else." She was surprised at the queer quiver in her voice. She
was going to be brave, of course, but somehow there seemed to be little
consolation in the logic of her remark.

The pony shambled forward, carefully picking its way, and Sheila mentally
thanked the station agent for providing her with so reliable a beast.
There was one consoling fact at any rate, and she retracted many hard
things she had said in the early part of her ride about the agent.

Shuffling down the slope the pony struck a level. After traveling over
this for a quarter of an hour Sheila became aware of an odd silence;
looking upward she saw that the clouds were no longer in motion; that they
were hovering, low and black, directly overhead. A flash of lightning
suddenly illuminated the sky, showing Sheila a great waste of world that
stretched to four horizons. It revealed, in the distance, the naked peaks
of some hills; a few frowning buttes that seemed to fringe a river; some
gullies in which lurked forbidding shadows; clumps of desert growth--the
cactus--now seeming grotesque and mocking; the snaky octilla; the filmy,
rustling mesquite; the dust-laden sage-brush; the soap weed; the sentinel
lance of the yucca. Then the light was gone and darkness came again.

Sheila shuddered and vainly tried to force down a queer lump that had
risen in her throat over the desolation of it all. It was not anything
like her father had pictured it! Men had the silly habit of exaggerating
in these things, she decided--they were rough themselves and they made the
mistake of thinking that great, grim things were attractive. What beauty
was there, for instance, in a country where there was nothing but space
and silence and grotesque weeds--and rain? Before she could answer this
question a sudden breeze swept over her; a few large drops of rain dashed
into her face, and her thoughts returned to herself.

The pony broke into a sharp lope and she allowed it to hold the pace,
wisely concluding that the animal was probably more familiar with the
country than she. She found herself wondering why she had not thought of
that before--when, for example, a few miles back she had deliberately
guided it out of a beaten trail toward a section of country where, she had
imagined, the traveling would be better. No doubt she had strayed from the
trail just there.

The drops of rain grew more frequent; they splashed into her face; she
could feel them striking her arms and shoulders. The pony's neck and mane
became moist under her hand, the darkness increased for a time and the
continuing rumble in the heavens presaged a steady downpour.

The pony moved faster now; it needed no urging, and Sheila held her breath
for fear that it might fall, straining her eyes to watch its limbs as they
moved with the sure regularity of an automaton. After a time they reached
the end of the level; Sheila could tell that the pony was negotiating
another rise, for it slackened speed appreciably and she felt herself
settling back against the cantle of the saddle. A little later she
realized that they were going down the opposite side of the rise, and a
moment later they were again on a level. A deeper blackness than they had
yet encountered rose on their right, and Sheila correctly decided it to be
caused by a stretch of wood that she had observed from the crest of the
rise where she had halted her pony for a view of the country. After an
interval, during which she debated the wisdom of directing her pony into
the wood for protection from the rain which was now coming against her
face in vicious slants, her pony nickered shrilly!

A thrill of fear assailed Sheila. She knew horses and was certain that
some living thing was on the trail in front of her. Halting the pony, she
held tightly to the reins through a short, tense silence. Then presently,
from a point just ahead on the trail, came an answering nicker in the
horse language. Sheila's pony cavorted nervously and broke into a lope,
sharper this time in spite of the tight rein she kept on it. Her fear
grew, though mingling with it was a devout hope. If only the animal which
had answered her own pony belonged to the Double R! She would take back
many of the unkind and uncharitable things she had said about the country
since she had lost the trail.

The pony's gait had quickened into a gallop--which she could not check. In
the past few minutes the darkness had lifted a little; she saw that the
pony was making a gradual turn, following a bend in the river. Then came a
flash of lightning and she saw, a short distance ahead, a pony and rider,
stationary, watching. With an effort she succeeded in reining in her own
animal, and while she sat in the saddle, trembling and anxious, there came
another flash of lightning and she saw the rider's face.

The rider was a cowboy. She had distinctly seen the leathern chaps on his
legs; the broad hat, the scarf at his throat. Doubt and fear assailed her.
What if the man did not belong to the Double R? What if he were a road
agent--an outlaw? Immediately she heard an exclamation from him in which
she detected much surprise and not a little amusement.

"Shucks!" he said. "It's a woman!"


There came a slow movement. In the lifting darkness Sheila saw the man
return a pistol to the holster that swung at his right hip. He carelessly
threw one leg over the pommel of his saddle and looked at her. She sat
very rigid, debating a sudden impulse to urge her pony past him and escape
the danger that seemed to threaten. While she watched he shoved the broad
brimmed hat back from his forehead. He was not over five feet distant from
her; she could feel her pony nuzzling his with an inquisitive muzzle, and
she could dimly see the rider's face. It belonged to a man of probably
twenty-eight or thirty; it had regular features, keen, level eyes and a
firm mouth. There was a slight smile on his face and somehow the fear that
had oppressed Sheila began to take flight. And while she sat awaiting the
turn of events his voice again startled her:

"I reckon you've stampeded off your range, ma'am?"

A sigh of relief escaped Sheila. The voice was very gentle and friendly.

"I don't think that I have stampeded--whatever that means," she returned,
reassured now that the stranger gave promise of being none of the dire
figures of her imagination; "I am lost merely. You see, I am looking for
the Double R ranch."

"Oh," he said inexpressively; "the Double R."

There ensued a short silence and she could not see his face for he had
bowed his head a little and the broad brimmed hat intervened.

"Do you know where the Double R ranch is?" There was a slight impatience
in her voice.

"Sure," came his voice. "It's up the crick a ways."

"How far?"

"Twenty miles."

"Oh!" This information was disheartening. Twenty miles! And the rain was
coming steadily down; she could feel it soaking through her clothing. A
bitter, unreasoning anger against nature, against the circumstances which
had conspired to place her in this position; against the man for his
apparent lack of interest in her welfare, moved her, though she might have
left the man out of it, for certainly he could not be held responsible.
Yet his nonchalance, his serenity--something about him--irritated her.
Didn't he know she was getting wet? Why didn't he offer her shelter? It
did not occur to her that perhaps he knew of no shelter. But while her
indignation over his inaction grew she saw that he was doing
something--fumbling at a bundle that seemed to be strapped to the cantle
of his saddle. And then he leaned forward--very close to her--and she saw
that he was offering her a tarpaulin.

"Wrap yourself in this," he directed. "It ain't pretty, of course, but
it'll keep you from getting drenched. Rain ain't no respecter of
persons."

She detected a compliment in this but ignored it and placed the tarpaulin
around her shoulders. Then it suddenly occurred to her that he was without
protection. She hesitated.

"Thank you," she said, "but I can't take this. You haven't anything for
yourself."

A careless laugh reached her. "That's all right; I don't need anything."

There was silence again. He broke it with a question.

"What are you figuring to do now?"

What was she going to do? The prospect of a twenty-mile ride through a
strange country in a drenching rain was far from appealing to her. Her
hesitation was eloquent.

"I do not know," she answered, no way of escape from the dilemma
presenting itself.

"You can go on, of course," he said, "and get lost, or hurt--or killed.
It's a bad trail. Or"--he continued, hesitating a little and appearing to
speak with an effort--"there's my shack. You can have that."

Then he did have a dwelling place. This voluntary information removed
another of the fearsome doubts that had beset her. She had been afraid
that he might prove to be an irresponsible wanderer, but when a man kept a
house it gave to his character a certain recommendation, it suggested
stability, more, it indicated honesty.

Of course she would have to accept the shelter of his "shack." There was
no help for it, for it was impossible for her to entertain the idea of
riding twenty miles over an unknown trail, through the rain and darkness.
Moreover, she was not afraid of the stranger now, for in spite of his
easy, serene movements, his quiet composure, his suppressed amusement,
Sheila detected a note in his voice which told her that he was deeply
concerned over her welfare--even though he seemed to be enjoying her. In
any event she could not go forward, for the unknown terrified her and she
felt that in accepting the proffered shelter of his "shack" she was
choosing the lesser of two dangers. She decided quickly.

"I shall accept--I think. Will you please hurry? I am getting wet in spite
of this--this covering."

Wheeling without a word he proceeded down the trail, following the river.
The darkness had abated somewhat, the low-hanging clouds had taken on a
grayish-white hue, and the rain was coming down in torrents. Sheila pulled
the tarpaulin tighter about her shoulders and clung desperately to the
saddle, listening to the whining of the wind through the trees that
flanked her, keeping a watchful eye on the tall, swaying, indistinct
figure of her guide.

After riding for a quarter of an hour they reached a little clearing near
the river and Sheila saw her guide halt his pony and dismount. A squat,
black shape loomed out of the darkness near her and, riding closer, she
saw a small cabin, of the lean-to type, constructed of adobe bricks. A dog
barked in front of her and she heard the stranger speak sharply to it. He
silently approached and helped her down from the saddle. Then he led both
horses away into the darkness on the other side of the cabin. During his
absence she found time to glance about her. It was a desolate place. Did
he live here alone?

The silence brought no answer to this question, and while she continued to
search out objects in the darkness she saw the stranger reappear around
the corner of the cabin and approach the door. He fumbled at it for a
moment and threw it open. He disappeared within and an instant later
Sheila heard the scratch of a match and saw a feeble glimmer of light
shoot out through the doorway. Then the stranger's voice:

"Come in."

He had lighted a candle that stood on a table in the center of the room,
and in its glaring flicker as she stepped inside Sheila caught her first
good view of the stranger's face. She felt reassured instantly, for it was
a good face, with lines denoting strength of character. The drooping
mustache did not quite conceal his lips, which were straight and firm.
Sheila was a little disturbed over the hard expression in them, however,
though she had heard that the men of the West lived rather hazardous lives
and she supposed that in time their faces showed it. It was his eyes,
though, that gave her a fleeting glimpse of his character. They were
blue--a steely, fathomless blue; baffling, mocking; swimming--as she
looked into them now--with an expression that she could not attempt to
analyze. One thing she saw in them only,--recklessness--and she drew a
slow, deep breath.

They were standing very close together. He caught the deep-drawn breath
and looked quickly at her, his eyes alight and narrowed with an expression
which was a curious mingling of quizzical humor and grim enjoyment. Her
own eyes did not waver, though his were boring into hers steadily, as
though he were trying to read her thoughts.

"Afraid?" he questioned, with a suggestion of sarcasm in the curl of his
lips.

Sheila stiffened, her eyes flashing defiance. She studied him steadily,
her spirit battling his over the few feet that separated them. Then she
spoke deliberately, evenly: "I am not afraid of you!"

"That's right." A gratified smile broke on the straight, hard lips. A new
expression came into his eyes--admiration. "You've got nerve, ma'am. I'm
some pleased that you've got that much trust in me. You don't need to be
scared. You're as safe here as you'd be out there." He nodded toward the
open door. "Safer," he added with a grave smile; "you might get hurt out
there."

He turned abruptly and went to the door, where he stood for a long time
looking out into the darkness. She watched him for a moment and then
removed the tarpaulin and hung it from a nail in the wall of the cabin.
Standing near the table she glanced about her. There was only one room in
the cabin, but it was large--about twenty by twenty, she estimated. Beside
an open fireplace in a corner were several pots and pans--his cooking
utensils. On a shelf were some dishes. A guitar swung from a gaudy string
suspended from the wall. A tin of tobacco and a pipe reposed on another
shelf beside a box of matches. A bunk filled a corner and she went over to
it, fearing. But it was clean and the bed clothing fresh and she smiled a
little as she continued her examination.

The latter finished she went to a small window above the bunk, looking out
into the night. The rain came against the glass in stinging slants, and
watching it she found herself feeling very grateful to the man who stood
in the doorway. Turning abruptly, she caught him watching her, an
appraising smile on his face.

"You ought to be hungry by now," he said. "There's a fireplace and some
wood. Do you want a fire?"

In response to her nod he kindled a fire, she standing beside the window
watching him, noting his lithe, easy movements. She could not mistake the
strength and virility of his figure, even with his back turned to her, but
it seemed to her that there was a certain recklessness in his actions--as
though his every movement advertised a careless regard for consequences.
She held her breath when he split a short log into slender splinters, for
he swung the short-handled axe with a loose grasp, as though he cared very
little where its sharp blade landed. But she noted that he struck with
precision despite his apparent carelessness, every blow falling true. His
manner of handling the axe reflected the spirit that shone in his eyes
when, after kindling the fire, he stood up and looked at her.

"There's grub in the chuck box," he stated shortly. "There's some pans and
things. It ain't what you might call elegant--not what you've been used
to, I expect. But it's a heap better than nothing, and I reckon you'll be
able to get along." He turned and walked to the doorway, standing in it
for an instant, facing out. "Good-night," he added. The tarpaulin dangled
from his arm.

Evidently he intended going away. A sudden dread of being alone filled
her. "Wait!" she cried involuntarily. "Where are you going?"

He halted and looked back at her, an odd smile on his face.

"To my bunk."

"Oh!" She could not analyze the smile on his face, but in it she thought
she detected something subtle--untruthfulness perhaps. She glanced at the
tarpaulin and from it to his eyes, holding her gaze steadily.

"You are going to sleep in the open," she said.

He caught the accusation in her eyes and his face reddened.

"Well," he admitted, "I've done it before."

"Perhaps," she said, a little doubtfully. "But I do not care to feel that
I am driving you out into the storm. You might catch cold and die. And I
should not want to think that I was responsible for your death."

"A little wetting wouldn't hurt me." He looked at her appraisingly, a
glint of sympathy in his eyes. Standing there, framed in the darkness, the
flickering light from the candle on his strong, grave face, he made a
picture that, she felt, she would not soon forget.

"I reckon you ain't afraid to stay here alone, ma'am," he said.

"Yes," she returned frankly, "I am afraid. I do not want to stay here
alone."

A pistol flashed in his hand, its butt toward her, and now for the first
time she saw another at his hip. She repressed a desire to shudder and
stared with dilated eyes at the extended weapon.

"Take this gun," he offered. "It ain't much for looks, but it'll go right
handy. You can bar the door, too, and the window."

She refused to take the weapon. "I wouldn't know how to use it if I had
occasion to. I prefer to have you remain in the cabin--for protection."

He bowed. "I thought you'd--" he began, and then smiled wryly. "It
certainly would be some wet outside," he admitted. "It wouldn't be
pleasant sleeping. I'll lay over here by the door when I get my
blankets."

He went outside and in a few minutes reappeared with his blankets and
saddle. Without speaking a word to Sheila he laid the saddle down, spread
the blanket over it, and stretched himself out on his back.

"I don't know about the light," he said after an interval of silence,
during which Sheila sat on the edge of the bunk and regarded his profile
appraisingly. "You can blow it out if you like."

"I prefer to have it burning."

"Suit yourself."

Sheila got up and placed the candle in a tin dish as a precaution against
fire. Then, when its position satisfied her she left the table and went to
the bunk, stretching herself out on it, fully dressed.

For a long time she lay, listening to the soft patter of the rain on the
roof, looking upward at the drops that splashed against the window,
listening to the fitful whining of the wind through the trees near the
cabin. Her eyes closed presently, sleep was fast claiming her. Then she
heard her host's voice:

"You're from the East, I reckon."

"Yes."

"Where?"

"New York."

"City?"

"Albany."

There was a silence. Sheila was thoroughly awake again, and once more her
gaze went to the window, where unceasing streams trickled down the glass.
Whatever fear she had had of the owner of the cabin had long ago been
dispelled by his manner which, though puzzling, hinted of the gentleman.
She would have liked him better were it not for the reckless gleam in his
eyes; that gleam, it seemed to her, indicated a trait of character which
was not wholly admirable.

"What have you come out here for?"

Sheila smiled at the rain-spattered window, a flash of pleased vanity in
her eyes. His voice had been low, but in it she detected much curiosity,
even interest. It was not surprising, of course, that he should feel an
interest in her; other men had been interested in her too, only they had
not been men that lived in romantic wildernesses,--observe that she did
not make use of the term "unfeatured," which she had manufactured soon
after realizing that she was lost--nor had they carried big revolvers,
like this man, who seemed also to know very well how to use them.

Those other men who had been interested in her had had a way of looking at
her; there had always been a significant boldness in their eyes which
belied the gentleness of demeanor which, she had always been sure, merely
masked their real characters. She had never been able to look squarely at
any of those men, the men of her circle who had danced attendance upon her
at the social functions that had formerly filled her existence--without a
feeling of repugnance.

They had worn man-shapes, of course, but somehow they had seemed to lack
something real and vital; seemed to have possessed nothing of that
forceful, magnetic personality which was needed to arouse her sympathy and
interest. Not that the man on the floor in front of the door interested
her--she could not admit that! But she had felt a sympathy for him in his
loneliness, and she had looked into his eyes--had been able to look
steadily into them, and though she had seen expressions that had puzzled
her, she had at least seen nothing to cause her to feel any uneasiness.
She had seen manliness there, and indomitability, and force, and it had
seemed to her to be sufficient. His would be an ideal face were it not for
the expression that lingered about the lips, were it not for the reckless
glint in his eyes--a glint that revealed an untamed spirit.

His question remained unanswered. He stirred impatiently, and glancing at
him Sheila saw that he had raised himself so that his chin rested in his
hand, his elbow supported by the saddle.

"You here for a visit?" he questioned.

"Perhaps," she said. "I do not know how long I shall stay. My father has
bought the Double R."

For a long time it seemed that he would have no comment to make on this
and Sheila's lips took on a decidedly petulant expression. Apparently he
was not interested in her after all.

"Then Duncan has sold out?" There was satisfaction in his voice.

"You are keen," she mocked.

"And tickled," he added.

His short laugh brought a sudden interest into her eyes. "Then you don't
like Duncan," she said.

"I reckon you're some keen too," came the mocking response.

Sheila flushed, turned and looked defiantly at him. His hand still
supported his head and there was an unmistakable interest in his eyes as
he caught her glance at him and smiled.

"You got any objections to telling me your name? We ain't been introduced,
you know?" he said.

"It is Sheila Langford."

She had turned her head and was giving her attention to the window above
her. The fingers of the hand that had been supporting his head slowly
clenched, he raised himself slightly, his body rigid, his chin thrusting,
his face pale, his eyes burning with a sudden fierce fire. Once he opened
his lips to speak, but instantly closed them again, and a smile wreathed
them--a mirthless smile that had in it a certain cold caution and cunning.
After a silence that lasted long his voice came again, drawling,
well-controlled, revealing nothing of the emotion which had previously
affected him.

"What is your father's name?"

"David Dowd Langford. An uncommon middle name, isn't it?"

"Yes. Uncommon," came his reply. His face, with the light of the candle
gleaming full upon it, bore a queer pallor--the white of cold ashes. His
right hand, which had been resting carelessly on the blanket, was now
gripping it, the muscles tense and knotted. Yet after another long silence
his voice came again--drawling, well-controlled, as before:

"What is he coming out here for?"

"He has retired from business and is coming out here for his health."

"What business was he in?"

"Wholesale hardware."

He was silent again and presently, hearing him stir, Sheila looked
covertly at him. He had turned, his back was toward her, and he was
stretched out on the blanket as though, fully satisfied with the result of
his questioning, he intended going to sleep. For several minutes Sheila
watched him with a growing curiosity. It was like a man to ask all and
give nothing. He had questioned her to his complete satisfaction but had
told nothing of himself. She was determined to discover something about
him.

"Who are you?" she questioned.

"Dakota," he said shortly.

"Dakota?" she repeated, puzzled. "That isn't a name; it's a State--or a
Territory."

"I'm Dakota. Ask anybody." There was a decided drawl in his voice.

This information was far from being satisfactory, but she supposed it must
answer. Still, she persisted. "Where are you from?"

"Dakota."

That seemed to end it. It had been a short quest and an unsatisfactory
one. It was perfectly plain to her that he was some sort of a rancher--at
the least a cowboy. It was also plain that he had been a cowboy before
coming to this section of the country--probably in Dakota. She was
perplexed and vexed and nibbled impatiently at her lips.

"Dakota isn't your real name," she declared sharply.

"Ain't it?" There came the drawl again. It irritated her this time.

"No!" she snapped.

"Well, it's as good as any other. Good-night."

Sheila did not answer. Five minutes later she was asleep.





Next: The Dim Trail

Previous: A Man Is Born Again



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