VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of www.fictionstories.ca Informational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


Bogged Down








From: The Trail To Yesterday

Each day during the two weeks that her father had been at the Double R
Sheila had accompanied him on his rides of exploration. She had grown
tired of the continued companionship, and despite the novelty of the sight
she had become decidedly wearied of looking at the cowboys in their native
haunts. Not that they did not appeal to her, for on the contrary she had
found them picturesque and had admired their manliness, but she longed to
ride out alone where she could brood over her secret. The possession of it
had taken the flavor out of the joys of this new life, had left it flat
and filled with bitter memories.

She had detected a change in her father--he seemed coarse, domineering,
entirely unlike his usual self. She attributed this change in him to the
country--it was hard and rough, and of course it was to be expected that
Langford--or any man, for that matter--taking an active interest in ranch
life, must reflect the spirit of the country.

She had developed a positive dislike for Duncan, which she took no trouble
to conceal. She had discovered that the suspicions she had formed of his
character during the first days of their acquaintance were quite
correct--he was selfish, narrow, and brutal. He had accompanied her and
her father on all their trips and his manner toward her had grown to be
one of easy familiarity. This was another reason why she wanted to ride
alone.

The day before she had spoken to Langford concerning the continued
presence of Duncan on their rides, and he had laughed at her, assuring her
that Duncan was not a "bad fellow," and though she had not taken issue
with him on this point she had decided that hereafter, in self protection,
she would discontinue her rides with her father as long as he was
accompanied by the former owner.

Determined to carry out this decision, she was this morning saddling her
pony at the corral gates when she observed Duncan standing near, watching
her.

"You might have let me throw that saddle on," he said.

She flushed, angered that he should have been watching her without making
his presence known. "I prefer to put the saddle on myself," she returned,
busying herself with it after taking a flashing glance at him.

He laughed, pulled out a package of tobacco and some paper, and proceeded
to roll a cigarette. When he had completed it he held a match to it and
puffed slowly.

"Cross this morning," he taunted.

There was no reply, though Duncan might have been warned by the dark red
in her cheeks. She continued to work with the saddle, lacing the latigo
strings and tightening the cinches.

"We're riding down to the box canyon on the other side of the basin this
morning," said Duncan. "We've got some strays penned up there. But your
dad won't be ready for half an hour yet. You're in something of a hurry,
it seems."

"You are going, I suppose?" questioned Sheila, pulling at the rear cinch,
the pony displaying a disinclination to allow it to be buckled.

"I reckon."

"I don't see," said Sheila, straightening and facing him, "why you have to
go with father everywhere."

Duncan flushed. "Your father's aiming to learn the business," he said.
"I'm showing him, telling him what I know about it. There's a chance that
I won't be with the Double R after the fall round-up, if a deal which I
have got on goes through."

"And I suppose you have a corner on all the knowledge of ranch life,"
suggested Sheila sarcastically.

He flushed darkly, but did not answer.

After Sheila had completed the tightening of the cinches she led the pony
beside the corral fence, mounted, and without looking at Duncan started to
ride away.

"Wait!" he shouted, and she drew the pony to a halt and sat in the saddle,
looking down at him with a contemptuous gaze as he stood in front of her.

"I thought you was going with your father?" he said.

"You are mistaken." She could not repress a smile over the expression of
disappointment on his face. But without giving him any further
satisfaction she urged her pony forward, leaving him standing beside the
corral gates watching her with a frown.

She smiled many times while riding toward the river, thinking of his
discomfiture, reveling in the thought that for once she had shown him that
she resented the attitude of familiarity which he had adopted toward her.

She sat erect in the saddle, experiencing a feeling of elation which
brought the color into her face and brightened her eyes. It was the first
time since her arrival at the Double R that she had been able to ride out
alone, and it was also the first time that she really appreciated the
vastness and beauty of the country. For the trail to the river, which she
had decided she would follow, led through a fertile country where the
bunch grass grew long and green, the barren stretches of alkali were
infrequent, and where the low wooded hills and the shallow gullies seemed
to hint at the mystery. Before long the depression which had made her life
miserable had fled and she was enjoying herself.

When she reached the river she crossed it at a shallow and urged her pony
up a sloping bank and out upon a grass plain that spread away like the
level of a great, green sea. Once into the plain, though, she discovered
that its promise of continuing green was a mere illusion, for the grass
grew here in bunches, the same as it grew on the Double R side of the
river. Yet though she was slightly disappointed she found many things to
interest her, and she lingered long over the odd rock formations that she
encountered and spent much time peering down into gullies and exploring
sand draws which seemed to be on every side.

About noon, when she became convinced that she had seen everything worth
seeing in that section of the country, she wheeled her pony and headed it
back toward the river. She reached it after a time and urged her beast
along its banks, searching for the shallow which she had crossed some time
before. A dim trail led along the river and she felt certain that if she
followed it long enough it would lead her to the crossing, but after
riding half an hour and encountering nothing but hills and rock cliffs she
began to doubt. But she rode on for another half hour and then, slightly
disturbed over her inability to find the shallow, she halted the pony and
looked about her.

The country was strange and unfamiliar and a sudden misgiving assailed
her. Had she lost her idea of direction? She looked up at the sun and saw
that it was slightly past the zenith on its downward path. She smiled. Of
course all she had to do was to follow the river and in time she would
come in sight of the Double R buildings. Certain that she had missed the
shallow because of her interest in other things, she urged her pony about
and cantered it slowly over the back trail. A little later, seeing an
arroyo which seemed to give promise of leading to the shallow she sought,
she descended it and found that it led to a flat and thence to the river.
The crossing seemed unfamiliar, and yet she supposed that one crossing
would do quite as well as another, and so she smiled and continued on
toward it.

There was a fringe of shrubbery at the edge of what appeared to have once
been a swamp, though now it was dry and made fairly good footing for her
pony. The animal acted strangely, however, when she tried to urge it
through the fringing shrubbery, and she was compelled to use her quirt
vigorously.

Once at the water's edge she halted the pony and viewed the crossing with
satisfaction. She decided that it was a much better crossing than the one
she had encountered on the trip out. It was very shallow, not over thirty
feet wide, she estimated, and through the clear water she could easily see
the hard, sandy bottom. It puzzled her slightly to observe that there were
no wagon tracks or hoof prints in the sand anywhere around her, as there
would be were the crossing used ever so little. It seemed to be an
isolated section of the country though, and perhaps the cattlemen used the
crossing little--there was even a chance that she was the first to
discover its existence. She must remember to ask someone about it when she
returned to the Double R.

She urged the pony gently with her booted heel and voice, but the little
animal would not budge. Impatient over its obstinacy, she again applied
the quirt vigorously. Stung to desperation the pony stood erect for an
instant, pawing the air frantically with its fore hoofs, and then, as the
quirt continued to lash its flanks, it lunged forward, snorting in
apparent fright, made two or three eccentric leaps, splashing water high
over Sheila's head, and then came to a sudden stop in the middle of the
stream.

Sheila nibbled at her lips in vexation. Again, convinced that the pony was
merely exhibiting obstinacy, she applied the quirt to its flanks. The
animal floundered and struggled, but did not move out of its tracks.

Evidently something had gone wrong. Sheila peered over the pony's mane
into the water, which was still clear in spite of the pony's struggling,
and sat suddenly erect, stifling cry of amazement. The pony was mired
fast! Its legs, to a point just above the knees, had disappeared into the
river bottom!

As she straightened, a chilling fear clutching at her heart, she felt the
cold water of the river splashing against her booted legs. And now
knowledge came to her in a sudden, sickening flood. She had ridden her
pony fairly into a bed of quicksand!

For some minutes she sat motionless in the saddle, stunned and nerveless.
She saw now why there were no tracks or hoof prints leading down into the
crossing. She remembered now that Duncan had warned her of the presence of
quicksand in the river, but the chance of her riding into any of it had
seemed to be so remote that she had paid very little attention to Duncan's
warning. Much as she disliked the man she would have given much to have
him close at hand now. If he had only followed her!

She was surprised at her coolness. She realized that the situation was
precarious, for though she had never before experienced a quicksand, she
had read much of them in books, and knew that the pony was hopelessly
mired. But it seemed that there could be no immediate danger, for the
river bottom looked smooth and hard; it was grayish-black, and she was so
certain that the footing was good that she pulled her feet out of the
stirrups, swung around, and stepped down into the water.

She had stepped lightly, bearing only a little of her weight on the foot
while holding to the saddle, but the foot sank instantly into the sand and
the water darkened around it. She tried again in another spot, putting a
little more weight on her foot this time. She went in almost to the knee
and was surprised to find that she had to exert some little strength to
pull the foot out, there was so great a suction.

With the discovery that she was really in a dangerous predicament came a
mental panic which threatened to take the form of hysteria. She held
tightly to the pommel of the saddle, shutting her eyes on the desolate
world around her, battling against the great fear that rose within her and
choked her. When she opened her eyes again the world was reeling and
objects around her were strangely blurred, but she held tightly to the
saddle, telling herself that she must retain her composure, and after a
time she regained the mastery over herself.

With the return of her mental faculties she began to give some thought to
escape. But escape seemed to be impossible. Looking backward toward the
bank she had left, she saw that the pony must have come fifteen or twenty
feet in the two or three plunges it had made. She found herself wondering
how it could have succeeded in coming that distance. Behind her the water
had become perfectly clear, and the impressions left by the pony's hoofs
had filled up and the river bottom looked as smooth and inviting as it had
seemed when she had urged the pony into it.

In front of her was a stretch of water of nearly the same width as that
which lay behind her. To the right and left the grayish-black sand spread
far, but only a short distance beyond where she could discern the sand
there were rocks that stuck above the water with little ripples around
them.

The rocks were too far away to be of any assistance to her, however, and
her heart sank when she realized that her only hope of escape lay directly
ahead.

She leaned over and laid her head against the pony's neck, smoothing and
patting its shoulders. The animal whinnied appealingly and she stifled a
sob of remorse over her action in forcing it into the treacherous sand,
for it had sensed the danger while obeying her blindly.

How long she lay with her head against the pony's neck she did not know,
but when she finally sat erect again she found that the water was touching
the hem of her riding skirt and that her feet, dangling at each side of
the pony, were deep in the sand of the river bottom. With a cry of fright
she drew them out and crossed them before her on the pommel of the saddle.
With the movement the pony sank several inches, it seemed to her; she saw
the water suddenly flow over its back; heard it neigh loudly, appealingly,
with a note of anguish and terror which seemed almost human, and feeling a
sudden, responsive emotion of horror and despair, Sheila bowed her head
against the pony's mane and sobbed softly.

They would both die, she knew--horribly. They would presently sink beneath
the surface of the sand, the water would flow over them and obliterate all
traces of their graves, and no one would ever know what had become of
them.

Some time later--it might have been five minutes or an hour--Sheila could
not have told--she heard the pony neigh again, and this time it seemed
there was a new note in the sound--a note of hope! She raised her head and
looked up. And there on the bank before her, uncoiling his rope from the
saddle horn and looking very white and grim, was Dakota!

Sheila sat motionless, not knowing whether to cry or laugh, finally
compromising with the appeal, uttered with all the composure at her
command:

"Won't you please get us out of here?"

"That's what I am aiming to do," he said, and never did a voice sound
sweeter in her ears; at that moment she almost forgave him for the great
crime he had committed against her.



He seemed not in the least excited, continuing to uncoil his rope and
recoil it again into larger loops. "Hold your hands over your head!" came
his command.

She did as she was bidden. He had not dismounted from his pony, but had
ridden up to the very edge of the quicksand, and as she raised her hands
she saw him twirl the rope once, watched as it sailed out, settled down
around her waist, and was drawn tight.

There was now a grim smile on his face. "You're in for a wetting," he
said. "I'm sorry--but it can't be helped. Get your feet off to one side so
that you won't get mixed up with the saddle. And keep your head above the
water."

"Ye-s," she answered tremulously, dreading the ordeal, dreading still more
the thought of her appearance when she would finally reach the bank.

His pony was in motion instantly, pulling strongly, following out its
custom of dragging a roped steer, and Sheila slipped off the saddle and
into the water, trying to keep her feet under her. But she overbalanced
and fell with a splash, and in this manner was dragged, gasping,
strangling, and dripping wet, to the bank.

Dakota was off his pony long before she had reached the solid ground and
was at her side before she had cleared the water, helping her to her feet
and loosening the noose about her waist.

"Don't, please!" she said frigidly, as his hand touched her.

"Then I won't." He smiled and stepped back while she fumbled with the rope
and finally threw it off. "What made you try that shallow?" he asked.

"I suppose I have a right to ride where I please?" He had saved her life,
of course, and she was very grateful to him, but that was no reason why he
should presume to speak familiarly to her. She really believed--in spite
of the obligation under which he had placed her--that she hated him more
than ever.

But he did not seem to be at all disturbed over her manner. On the
contrary, looking at him and trying her best to be scornful, he seemed to
be laboring heroically to stifle some emotion--amusement, she decided--and
she tried to freeze him with an icy stare.

"Now, you don't look dignified, for a fact," he grinned, brazenly allowing
his mirth to show in his eyes and in the sudden, curved lines that had
come around his mouth. "Still, you couldn't expect to look dignified, no
matter how hard you tried, after being dragged through the water like
that. Now could you?"

"It isn't the first time that I have amused you!" she said with angry
sarcasm.

A cloud passed over his face, but was instantly superseded by a smile.

"So you haven't forgotten?" he said.

She did not deign to answer, but turned her back to him and looked at her
partially submerged pony.

"Want to try it again?" he said mockingly.

She turned slowly and looked at him, her eyes flashing.

"Will you please stop being silly!" she said coldly. "If you were human
you would be trying to get my pony out of that sand instead of standing
there and trying to be smart!"

"Did you think that I was going to let him drown?" His smile had in it a
quality of subtle mockery which made her eyes blaze with anger. Evidently
he observed it for he smiled as he walked to his pony, coiling his rope
and hanging it from the pommel of the saddle. "I certainly am not going to
let your horse drown," he assured her, "for in this country horses are
sometimes more valuable than people."

"Then why didn't you save the pony first?" she demanded hotly.

"How could I," he returned, fixing her with an amused glance, "with you
looking so appealingly at me?"

She turned abruptly and left him, walking to a flat rock and seating
herself upon it, wringing the water from her skirts, trying to get her
hair out of her eyes, feeling very miserable, and wishing devoutly that
Dakota might drown himself--after he had succeeded in pulling the pony
from the quicksand.

But Dakota did not drown himself. Nor did he pull the pony out of the
quicksand. She watched him as he rode to the water's edge and looked at
the animal. Her heart sank when he turned and looked gravely at her.

"I reckon your pony's done for, ma'am," he said. "There isn't anything of
him above the sand but his head and a little of his neck. He's too far
gone, ma'am. In half an hour he'll----"

Sheila stood up, wet and excited. "Can't you do something?" she pleaded.
"Couldn't you pull him out with your lariat--like you did me?"

There was a grim humor in his smile. "What do you reckon would have
happened to you if I had tried to pull you out by the neck?" he asked.

"But can't you do something?" she pleaded, her icy attitude toward him
melting under the warmth of her affection and sympathy for the unfortunate
pony. "Please do something!" she begged.

His face changed expression and he tapped one of his holsters
significantly. "There's only this left, I reckon. Pulling him out by the
neck would break it, sure. And it's never a nice thing to see--or hear--a
horse or a cow sinking in quicksand. I've seen it once or twice and----"

Sheila shuddered and covered her face with her hands, for his words had
set her imagination to working.

"Oh!" she said and became silent.

Dakota stood for a moment, watching her, his face grim with sympathy.

"It's too bad," he said finally. "I don't like to shoot him, any more than
you want to see it done. I reckon, though, that the pony would thank me
for doing it if he could have anything to say about it." He walked over
close to her, speaking in a low voice. "You can't stay here, of course.
You'll have to take my horse, and you'll have to go right now, if you
don't want to be around when the pony----"

"Please don't," she said, interrupting him. He relapsed into silence, and
stood gravely watching her as she resumed her toilet.

She disliked to accept his offer of the pony, but there seemed to be no
other way. She certainly could not walk to the Double R ranchhouse, even
to satisfy a desire to show him that she would not allow him to place her
under any obligation to him.

"I've got to tell you one thing," he said presently, standing erect and
looking earnestly at her. "If Duncan is responsible for your safety in
this country he isn't showing very good judgment in letting you run around
alone. There are dangers that you know nothing about, and you don't know a
thing about the country. Someone ought to take care of you."

"As you did, for example," she retorted, filled with anger over his
present solicitation for her welfare, as contrasted to his treatment of
her on another occasion.

A slow red filled his cheeks. Evidently he did possess some
self-respect, after all. Contrition, too, she thought she could detect in
his manner and in his voice.

"But I didn't hurt you, anyway," he said, eyeing her steadily.

"Not if you call ruining a woman's name not 'hurting' her," she answered
bitterly.

"I am sorry for that, Miss Sheila," he said earnestly. "I had an idea that
night--and still have it, for that matter--that I was an instrument--
Well, I had an idea, that's all. But I haven't told anybody about what
happened--I haven't even hinted it to anybody. And I told the parson to
get out of the country, so he wouldn't do any gassing about it. And I
haven't been over to Dry Bottom to have the marriage recorded--and I am
not going to go. So that you can have it set aside at any time."

Yes, she could have the marriage annulled, she knew that. But the
contemplation of her release from the tie that bound her to him did not
lessen the gravity of the offense in her eyes. She told herself that she
hated him with a remorseless passion which would never cease until he
ceased to live. No action of his could repair the damage he had done to
her. She told him so, plainly.

"I didn't know you were so blood-thirsty as that," he laughed in quiet
mockery. "Maybe it would be a good thing for you if I did die--or get
killed. But I'm not allowing that I'm ready to die yet, and certainly am
not going to let anybody kill me if I can prevent it. I reckon you're not
thinking of doing the killing yourself?"

"If I told my father--" she began, but hesitated when she saw his lips
suddenly straighten and harden and his eyes light with a deep contempt.

"So you haven't told your father?" he laughed. "I was sure you had taken
him into your confidence by this time. But I reckon it's a mighty good
thing that you didn't--for your father. Like as not if you'd tell him he'd
get some riled and come right over to see me, yearning for my blood. And
then I'd have to shoot him up some. And that would sure be too bad--you
loving him as you do."

"I suppose you would shoot him like you shot that poor fellow in Lazette,"
she taunted, bitterly.

"Like I did that poor fellow in Lazette," he said, with broad, ironic
emphasis. "You saw me shoot Blanca, of course, for you were there. But you
don't know what made me shoot him, and I am not going to tell you--it's
none of your business."

"Indeed!" Her voice was burdened with contempt. "I suppose you take a
certain pride in your ability to murder people." She placed a venomous
accent on the "Murder."

"Lots of people ought to be murdered," he drawled, using the accent she
had used.

Her contempt of him grew. "Then I presume you have others in mind--whom
you will shoot when the mood strikes you?" she said.

"Perhaps." His smile was mysterious and mocking, and she saw in his eyes
the reckless gleam which she had noted that night while in the cabin with
him. She shuddered and walked to the pony--his pony.

"If you have quite finished I believe I will be going," she said, holding
her chin high and averting her face. "I will have one of the men bring
your horse to you."

"I believe I have quite finished," he returned, mimicking her cold,
precise manner of speech.

She disdainfully refused his proffer of assistance and mounted the pony.
He stood watching her with a smile, which she saw by glancing covertly at
him while pretending to arrange the stirrup strap. When she started to
ride away without even glancing at him, she heard his voice, with its
absurd, hateful drawl:

"And she didn't even thank me," he said with mock bitterness and
disappointment.

She turned and made a grimace at him. He bowed and smiled.

"You are entirely welcome," she said.

He was standing on the edge of the quicksand, watching her, when she
reached the long rise upon which she had sat on her pony on a day some
weeks before, and when she turned he waved a hand to her. A little later
she vanished over the rise, and she had not ridden very far when she heard
the dull report of his pistol. She shivered, and rode on.





Next: Sheila Fans A Flame

Previous: Kindred Spirits



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 498