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Duncan Adds Two And Two








From: The Trail To Yesterday

Had Langford known that there had been a witness to his visit to Dakota he
might not have ridden away from the latter's cabin so entirely satisfied
with the result of his interview.

Duncan had been much interested in Langford's differences with Doubler. He
had agitated the trouble, and he fully expected Langford to take him into
his confidence should any aggressive movement be contemplated. He had even
expected to be allowed to plan the details of the scheme which would have
as its object the downfall of the nester, for thus he hoped to satisfy his
personal vengeance against the latter.

But since the interview with Doubler at Doubler's cabin, Langford had been
strangely silent regarding his plans. Not once had he referred to the
nester, and his silence had nettled Duncan. Langford had ignored his
hints, had returned monosyllabic replies to his tentative questions,
causing the manager to appear to be an outsider in an affair in which he
felt a vital interest.

It was annoying, to say the least, and Duncan's nature rebelled against
the slight, whether intentional or accidental. He had waited patiently
until the morning following his conversation with Langford about Dakota,
certain that the Double R owner would speak, but when after breakfast the
next morning Langford had ridden away without breaking his silence, the
manager had gone into the ranchhouse, secured his field glasses, mounted
his pony, and followed.

He kept discreetly in the rear, lingering in the depressions, skirting the
bases of the hills, concealing himself in draws and behind boulders--never
once making the mistake of appearing on the skyline. And when Langford was
sitting on the box in front of Dakota's cabin, the manager was deep into
the woods that surrounded the clearing where the cabin stood, watching
intently through his field glasses.

He saw Langford depart, remained after his departure to see Dakota
repeatedly read the signed agreement. Of course, he was entirely ignorant
of what had transpired, but there was little doubt in his mind that the
two had reached some sort of an understanding. That their conversation and
subsequent agreement concerned Doubler he had little doubt either, for
fresh in his mind was a recollection of his conversation with Langford,
distinguished by Langford's carefully guarded questions regarding Dakota's
ability with the six-shooter. He felt that Langford was deliberately
leaving him out of the scheme, whatever it was.

Puzzled and raging inwardly over the slight, Duncan did not return to the
ranchhouse that day and spent the night at one of the line camps. The
following day he rode in to the ranchhouse to find that Langford had gone
out riding with Sheila. Morose, sullen, Duncan again rode abroad,
returning with the dusk. In his conversation with Langford that night the
Double R owner made no reference to Doubler, and, studying Sheila, Duncan
thought she seemed depressed.

During her ride that day with her father Sheila had received a startling
revelation of his character. She had questioned him regarding his
treatment of Doubler, ending with a plea for justice for the latter. For
the first time during all the time she had known Langford she had seen an
angry intolerance in his eyes, and though his voice had been as bland and
smooth as ever, it did not heal the wound which had been made in her heart
over the discovery that he could feel impatient with her.

"My dear Sheila," he said, "I should regret to find that you are
interested in my business affairs."

"Doubler declares that you are unjust," she persisted, determined to do
her best to avert the trouble that seemed impending.

"Doubler is an obstacle in the path of progress and will get the
consideration he deserves," he said shortly. "Please do not meddle with
what does not concern you."

Thus had an idol which Sheila worshiped been tumbled from its pedestal.
Sheila surveyed it, lying shattered at her feet, with moist eyes. It might
be restored, patched so that it would resemble its original shape, but
never again would it appear the same in her eyes. She had received a
glimpse of her father's real character; she saw the merciless, designing,
real man stripped of the polished veneer that she had admired; his soul
lay naked before her, seared and rendered unlovely by the blackness of
deceit and trickery.

As the days passed, however, she collected the fragments of the shattered
idol and began to replace them. Piece by piece she fitted them together,
cementing them with her faith, so that in time the idol resembled its
original shape.

She had been too exacting, she told herself. Men had ways of dealing with
one another which women could not understand. Her ideas of justice were
tempered with mercy and pity; she allowed her heart to map out her line of
conduct toward her fellow men, and as a consequence her sympathies were
broad and tender. In business, though, she supposed, it must be different.
There mind must rule. It was a struggle in which the keenest wit and the
sharpest instinct counted, and in which the emotion of mercy was
subordinate to the love of gain. And so in time she erected her idol again
and the cracks and seams in it became almost invisible.

While she had been restoring her idol there had been other things to
occupy her mind. A thin line divides tragedy from comedy, and after the
tragedy of discovering her father's real character Sheila longed for
something to take her mind out of the darkness. A recollection of Duncan's
jealousy, which he had exhibited on the day that she had related the story
of her rescue by Dakota, still abided with her, and convinced that she
might secure diversion by fanning the spark that she had discovered, she
began by inducing Duncan to ask her to ride with him.

Sitting on the grass one day in the shade of some fir-balsams on a slope
several miles down the river, Sheila looked at Duncan with a smile.

"I believe that I am beginning to like the country," she said.

"I expected you would like it after you were here a while. Everybody does.
It grows into one. If you ever go back East you will never be
contented--you'll be dreaming and longing. The West improves on
acquaintance, like the people."

"Meaning?" she said, with a defiant mockery so plain in her eyes that
Duncan drew a deep breath.

"Meaning that you ought to begin to like us--the people," he said.

"Perhaps I do like some of the people," she laughed.

"For instance," he said, his face reddening a little.

She looked at him with a taunting smile. "I don't believe that I like
you--so very well. You get too cross when things don't suit you."

"I think you are mistaken," he challenged. "When have I been cross?"

Sheila laughed. "Do you remember the night that I came home and told you
and father how Dakota had rescued me from the quicksand? Well," she
continued, noting his nod and the frown which accompanied it, "you were
cross that night--almost boorish. You moped and went off to bed without
saying good-night."

It pleased Duncan to tell her that he had forgotten if he had ever acted
that way, and she did not press him. And so a silence fell between them.

"You said you were beginning to like some of the people," said Duncan
presently. "You don't like me. Then who do you like?"

"Well," she said, appearing to meditate, but in reality watching him
closely so that she might catch his gaze when he looked up. "There's Ben
Doubler. He seems to be a very nice old man. And"--Duncan looked at her
and she met his gaze fairly, her eyes dancing with mischief--"and Dakota.
He is a character, don't you think?"

Duncan frowned darkly and removed his gaze from her face, directing it
down into the plain on the other side of the river. What strange fatality
had linked her sympathies and admiration with his enemies? A rage which he
dared not let her see seized him, and he sat silent, clenching and
unclenching his hands.

She saw his condition and pressed him without mercy.

"He is a character, isn't he? An odd one, but attractive?"

Duncan sneered. "He pulled you out of the quicksand, of course. Anybody
could have done that, if they'd been around. I reckon that's what makes
him 'attractive' in your eyes. On the other hand, he put Texas Blanca out
of business. Does that killing help to make him attractive?"

"Wasn't Blanca his enemy. If you remember, you told father and me that
Blanca sold him some stolen cattle. Then, according to what I have heard
of the story, he met Blanca in Lazette, ordered him to leave, and when he
didn't go he shot him. I understand that that is the code in matters of
that sort--people have to take the law in their own hands. But he gave
Blanca the opportunity to shoot first. Wasn't that fair?"

It seemed odd to her that she was defending the man who had wronged her,
yet strangely enough she discovered that defending him gave her a thrill
of satisfaction, though she assured herself that the satisfaction came
from the fact that she was engaged in the task of arousing Duncan's
jealousy.

"You've been inquiring about him, then?" said Duncan, his face dark with
rage and hatred. "What I told you about that calf deal is the story that
Dakota himself tells about it. A lot of people in this country don't
believe Dakota's story. They believe what I believe, that Dakota and
Blanca were in partnership on that deal, and that Dakota framed up that
story about Blanca selling out to him to avert suspicion. It's likely that
they wised up to the fact that we were on to them."

"I believe you mentioned your suspicions to Dakota himself, didn't you?
The day you went over after the calves? You had quite a talk with him
about them, didn't you?" said Sheila, sweetly.

Duncan's face whitened. "Who told you that?" he demanded.

"And he told you that if you ever interfered with him again, or that if he
heard of you repeating your suspicions to anyone, he would do something to
you--run you out of the country, or something like that, didn't he?"

"Who told you that?" repeated Duncan.

"Doubler told me," returned Sheila with a smile.

Duncan's face worked with impotent wrath as he looked at her. "So
Doubler's been gassing again?" he said with a sneer. "Well, there's never
been any love lost between Doubler and me, and so what he says don't
amount to much." He laughed oddly. "It's strange to think how thick you
are with Doubler," he said. "I understand that your dad and Doubler ain't
exactly on a friendly footing, that your dad was trying to buy him out and
that he won't sell. There's likely to be trouble, for your dad is
determined to get Doubler's land."

However, that was a subject upon which Sheila did not care to dwell.

"I don't think that I am interested in that," she said. "I presume that
father is able to take care of his own affairs without any assistance from
me."

Duncan's eyes lighted with interest. Her words showed that she was aware
of Langford's differences with the nester. Probably her father had told
her--taking her into his confidence while ignoring his manager. Perhaps he
had even told her of his visit to Dakota; perhaps there had been more than
one visit and Sheila had accompanied him. Undoubtedly, he told himself,
Sheila's admiration for Dakota had resulted from not one, but many,
meetings. He flushed at the thought, and was forced to look away from
Sheila for fear that she might see the passion that flamed in his eyes.

"You seen Dakota lately?" he questioned, after he had regained sufficient
control of himself to be able to speak quietly.

"No." Sheila was flecking some dust from her skirts with her riding whip,
and her manner was one of absolute lack of interest.

"Then you ain't been riding with your father?" said Duncan.

"Some." Sheila continued to brush the dust from her skirts. After
answering Duncan's question, however, she realized that there had been a
subtle undercurrent of meaning in his voice, and she turned and looked
sharply at him.

"Why?" she demanded. "Do you mean that father has visited Dakota?"

"I reckon I'm meaning just that."

Sheila did not like the expression in Duncan's eyes, and her chin was
raised a little as she turned from him and gave her attention to flecking
the grass near her with the lash of her riding whip.

"Father attends to his own business," she said with some coldness, for she
resented Duncan's apparent desire to interfere. "I told you that before.
What he does in a business way does not interest me."

"No?" said Duncan mockingly. "Well, he's made some sort of a deal with
Dakota!" he snapped, aware of his lack of wisdom in telling her this, but
unable to control his resentment over the slight which had been imposed on
him by Langford, and by her own chilling manner, which seemed to emphasize
the fact that he had been left outside their intimate councils.

"A deal?" said Sheila quickly, unable to control her interest.

For a moment he did not answer. He felt her gaze upon him, and he met it,
smiling mysteriously. Under the sudden necessity of proving his statement,
his thoughts centered upon the conclusion which had resulted from his
suspicions--that Langford's visit to Dakota concerned Doubler.
Equivocation would have taken him safely away from the pitfall into which
his rash words had almost plunged him, but he felt that any evasion now
would only bring scorn into the eyes which he wished to see alight with
something else. Besides, here was an opportunity to speak a derogatory
word about his enemy, and he could not resist--could not throw it
carelessly aside. There was a venomous note in his voice when he finally
answered:

"The other day your father was speaking to me about gun-men. I told him
that Dakota would do anything for money."

A slow red appeared in Sheila's cheeks, mounted to her temples,
disappeared entirely and was succeeded by a paleness. She kept her gaze
averted, and Duncan could not see her eyes--they were turned toward the
slumberous plains that stretched away into the distance on the other side
of the river. But Duncan knew that he had scored, and was not bothered
over the possibility of there being little truth in his implied charge. He
watched her, gloating over her, certain that at a stroke he had
effectually eliminated Dakota as a rival.

Sheila turned suddenly to him. "How do you know that Dakota would do
anything like that?"

Duncan smiled as he saw her lips, straight and white, and tightening
coldly.

"How do I know?" he jeered. "How does a man know anything in this country?
By using his eyes, of course. I've used mine. I've watched Dakota for five
years. I've known all along that he isn't on the square--that he has been
running his branding iron on other folks' cattle. I've told you that he
worked a crooked deal on me, and then sent Blanca over the divide when he
thought there was a chance of Blanca giving the deal away. I am told that
when he met Blanca in the Red Dog Blanca told him plainly that he didn't
know anything about the calf deal. That shows how he treats his friends.
He'll do anything for money.

"The other day I saw your father at his cabin, talking to him. They had
quite a confab. Your father has had trouble with Doubler--you know that.
He has threatened to run Doubler off the Two Forks. I heard that myself.
He wouldn't try to run Doubler off himself--that's too dangerous a
business for him to undertake. Not wanting to take the chance himself he
hires someone else. Who? Dakota's the only gunman around these parts.
Therefore, your dad goes to Dakota. He and Dakota signed a paper--I saw
Dakota reading it. I've just put two and two together, and that's the
result. I reckon I ain't far out of the way."

Sheila laughed as she might have laughed had someone told her that she
herself had plotted to murder Doubler--a laugh full of scorn and mockery.
Yet in her eyes, which were wide with horror, and in her face, which was
suddenly drawn and white, was proof that Duncan's words had hurt her
mortally.

She was silent; she did not offer to defend Dakota, for in her thoughts
still lingered a recollection of the scene of the shooting in Lazette. And
when she considered her father's distant manner toward her and Ben
Doubler's grave prediction of trouble, it seemed that perhaps Duncan was
right. Yet in spite of the shooting of Blanca and the evil light which was
now thrown on Dakota through Duncan's deductions, she felt confident that
Dakota would not become a party to a plot in which the murder of a man was
deliberately planned. He had wronged her and he had killed a man, but at
the quicksand crossing that day--despite the rage which had been in her
heart against him--she had studied him and had become convinced that
behind his recklessness, back of the questionable impulses that seemed at
times to move him, there lurked qualities which were wholly admirable, and
which could be felt by anyone who came in contact with him. Certainly
those qualities which she had seen had not been undiscovered by
Duncan--and others.

She remembered now that on a former occasion the manager had practically
admitted his fear of Dakota, and then there was his conduct on that day
when she had asked him to return Dakota's pony. Duncan's manner then had
seemed to indicate that he feared Dakota--at the least did not like him.
Ben Doubler had given her a different version of the trouble between
Dakota and Duncan; how Duncan had accused Dakota of stealing the Double R
calves, and how in the presence of Duncan's own men Dakota had forced him
to apologize. Taken altogether, it seemed that Duncan's present suspicions
were the result of his dislike, or fear, of Dakota. Convinced of this, her
eyes flashed with contempt when she looked at the manager.

"I believe you are lying," she said coldly. "You don't like Dakota. But I
have faith in him--in his manhood. I don't believe that any man who has
the courage to force another man to apologize to him in the face of great
odds, would, or could, be so entirely base as to plan to murder a poor,
unoffending old man in cold blood. Perhaps you are not lying," she
concluded with straight lips, "but the very least that can be said for you
is that you have a lurid imagination!"

In Duncan's gleaming, shifting eyes, in the lips which were tensed over
his teeth in a snarl, she could see the bitterness that was in his heart
over the incident to which she had just referred.

"Wait," he said smiling evilly. "You'll know more about Dakota before
long."

Sheila rose and walked to her pony, mounting the animal and riding slowly
away from the river. She did not see the queer smile on Duncan's face as
she rode, but looking back at the distance of a hundred yards, she saw
that he did not intend to follow her. He was still sitting where she had
left him, his back to her, his face turned toward the plains which spread
away toward Dakota's cabin, twenty miles down the river.





Next: A Parting And A Visit

Previous: Strictly Business



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