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Strictly Business








From: The Trail To Yesterday

For two or three quiet weeks Sheila did not see much of Duncan, and her
father bothered her very little. Several nights on the gallery of the
ranchhouse she had seen the two men sitting very close together, and on
one or two occasions she had overheard scraps of conversation carried on
between them in which Doubler's name was mentioned.

She remembered Doubler as one of the nesters whom Duncan had mentioned
that day on the butte overlooking the river, and though her father and
Duncan had a perfect right to discuss him, it seemed to Sheila that there
had been a serious note in their voices when they had mentioned his name.

She had become acquainted with Doubler. Since discontinuing her rides with
her father and Duncan she had gone out every day alone, though she was
careful to avoid any crossing in the river which looked the least
suspicious. Such crossings as she could ford were few, and for that reason
she was forced to ride most of the time to the Two Forks, where there was
an excellent shallow, with long slopes sweeping up to the plains on both
sides.

The first time that she crossed at the Two Forks she had come upon a small
adobe cabin situated a few hundred yards back from the water's edge.

Sheila would have fled from the vicinity, for there was still fresh in her
mind a recollection of another cabin in which she had once passed many
fearsome hours, but while she hesitated, on the verge of flight, Doubler
came to the door, and when she saw that he was an old man with a kindly
face, much of her perturbation vanished, and she remained to talk.

Doubler was hospitable and solicitous and supplied her with some soda
biscuit and fresh beef and a tin cup full of delicious coffee. She refused
to enter the cabin, and so he brought the food out to her and sat on the
step beside her while she ate, betraying much interest in her.

Doubler asked no questions regarding her identity, and Sheila marveled
much over this. But when she prepared to depart she understood why he had
betrayed no curiosity concerning her.

"I reckon you're that Langford girl?" he said.

"Yes," returned Sheila, wondering. "I am Sheila Langford. But who told
you? I was not aware that anyone around here knew me--except the people at
the Double R."

"Dakota told me."

"Oh!" A chill came into her voice which instantly attracted Doubler's
attention. He looked at her with an odd smile.

"You know Dakota?"

"I have met him."

"You don't like him, I reckon?"

"No."

"Well, now," commented Doubler, "I reckon I've got things mixed. But from
Dakota's talk I took it that you an' him was pretty thick."

"His talk?" Sheila remembered Dakota's statement that he had told no one
of their relations. So he had been talking, after all! She was not
surprised, but she was undeniably angry and embarrassed to think that
perhaps all the time she had been talking to Doubler he might have been
appraising her on the basis of her adventure with Dakota.

"What has he been saying?" she demanded coldly.

"Nothing, ma'am. That is, nothin' which any man wouldn't say about you,
once he'd seen you an' talked some to you." Doubler surveyed her with
sparkling, appreciative eyes.

"As a rule it don't pay to go to gossipin' with anyone--least of all with
a woman. But I reckon I can tell you what he said, ma'am, without you
gettin' awful mad. He didn't say nothin' except that he'd taken an awful
shine to you. An' he'd likely make things mighty unpleasant for me if he'd
find that I'd told you that."

"Shine?" There was a world of scornful wonder in Sheila's voice. "Would
you mind telling me what 'taking a shine' to anyone means?"

"Why, no, I reckon I don't mind, ma'am, seein' that it's you. 'Takin' a
shine' to you means that he's some stuck on you--likes you, that is. An' I
reckon you can't blame him much for doin' that."

Sheila did not answer, though a sudden flood of red to her face made the
use of mere words entirely unnecessary so far as Doubler was concerned,
for he smiled wisely.

Sheila fled down the trail toward the crossing without a parting word to
Doubler, leaving him standing at the door squinting with amusement at her.
But on the morrow she had returned, determined to discover something of
Dakota, to learn something of his history since coming into the country,
or at the least to see if she could not induce Doubler to disclose his
real name.

She was unsuccessful. Dakota had never taken Doubler into his confidence,
and the information that she succeeded in worming from the nester was not
more than he had already volunteered, or than Duncan had given her that
day when they were seated on the edge of the butte overlooking the river.

She was convinced that Doubler had told her all he knew, and she wondered
at the custom which permitted friendship on the basis of such meager
knowledge.

She quickly grew to like Doubler. He showed a fatherly interest in her and
always greeted her with a smile when during her rides she came to his
cabin, or when she met him, as she did frequently, on the open range. His
manner toward her was always cordial, and he seemed not to have a care.
One morning, however, she rode up to the door of the cabin and Doubler's
face was serious. He stood quietly in the doorway, watching her as she sat
on her pony, not offering to assist her down as he usually did, and she
knew instantly that something had happened to disturb his peace of mind.
He did not invite her into the cabin.

"Ma'am," he said, and Sheila detected regret in his voice, "I'm a heap
sorry, but of course you won't be comin' here any more."

"I don't see why!" returned Sheila in surprise. "I like to come here. But,
of course, if you don't want me----"

"It ain't that," he interrupted quickly. "I thought you knowed. But you
don't, of course, or you wouldn't have come just now. Your dad an' Duncan
was over to see me yesterday."

"I didn't know that," returned Sheila. "But I can't see why a visit from
father should----"

"He's wantin' me to pull my freight out of the country," said Doubler "An'
of course I ain't doin' it. Therefore I'm severin' diplomatic relations
with your family."

"I don't see why----" began Sheila, puzzled to understand why a mere visit
on her father's part should have the result Doubler had announced.

"Of course you don't," Doubler told her. "You're a woman an' don't
understand such things. But in this country when a little owner has got
some land which a big owner wants--an' can't buy--there's likely to be
trouble. I ain't proved on my land yet, an' if your dad can run me off
he'll be pretty apt to grab it somehow or other. But he ain't runnin' me
off an' so there's a heap of trouble comin'. An' of course while there's
trouble you won't be comin' here any more after this. Likely your dad
wouldn't have it. I'm sorry, too. I like you a lot."

"I don't see why father should want your land," Sheila told him gravely,
much disturbed at this unexpected development. "There is plenty of land
here." She swept a hand toward the plains.

"There ain't enough for some people," grimly laughed Doubler. "Some people
is hawgs--askin' your pardon, ma'am. I wasn't expectin' your father to be
like that, after seein' you. I was hopin' that we'd be able to get along.
I've had some trouble with Duncan--not very long ago. Once I had to speak
pretty plain to him. I expect he's been fillin' your dad up."

"I'll see father about it." Sheila's face was red with a pained
embarrassment. "I am sure that father will not make any trouble for
you--he isn't that kind of man."

"He's that kind of a man, sure enough," said Doubler gravely. "I reckon
I've got him sized up right. He ain't in no way like you, ma'am. If you
hadn't told me I reckon I wouldn't have knowed he is your father."

"He is my stepfather," admitted Sheila.

"I knowed it!" declared Doubler. "I'm too old to be fooled by what I see
in a man's face--or in a woman's face either. Don't you go to say anything
about this business to him. He's bound to try to run me off. He done said
so. I don't know when I ever heard a man talk any meaner than he did. Said
that if I didn't sell he'd make things mighty unpleasant for me. An' so I
reckon there's goin' to be some fun."

Sheila did not remain long at Doubler's cabin, for her mind was in a riot
of rage and resentment against her father for his attitude toward Doubler,
and she cut short her ride in the hope of being able to have a talk with
him before he left the ranchhouse. But when she returned she was told by
Duncan's sister that Langford had departed some hours before--alone. He
had not mentioned his destination.

* * * * *

Ben Doubler had omitted an important detail from his story of Langford's
visit to his cabin, for he had not cared to frighten Sheila unnecessarily.
But as Langford rode toward Doubler's cabin this morning his thoughts
persisted in dwelling on Doubler's final words to him, spoken as he and
Duncan had turned their horses to leave the nester's cabin the day
before:

"If it's goin' to be war, Langford, it ain't goin' to be no pussy-kitten
affair. I'm warnin' you to stay away from the Two Forks. If I ketch you or
any of your men nosin' around there I'm goin' to bore you some rapid."

Langford had sneered then, and he sneered now as he rode toward the river,
for he had no doubt that Doubler had uttered the threat in a spirit of
bravado. Of course, he told himself as he rode, the man was forced to say
something, but the idea of him being serious in the threat to shoot any
one who came to the Two Forks was ridiculous.

All his life Langford had heard threats from the lips of his victims, and
thus far they had remained only threats. He had determined to see Doubler
this morning, for he had noticed that the nester had appeared ill at ease
in the presence of Duncan, and he anticipated that alone he could force
him to accept terms. When he reached the crossing at Two Forks he urged
his pony through its waters, his face wearing a confident smile.

There was an open stretch of grass land between the crossing and Doubler's
cabin, and when Langford urged his pony up the sloping bank of the river
he saw the nester standing near the door of the cabin, watching. Langford
was about to force his pony to a faster pace, when he saw Doubler raise a
rifle to his shoulder. Still, he continued to ride forward, but he pulled
the pony up shortly when he saw the flame spurt from the muzzle of the
rifle and heard the shrill hiss of the bullet as it passed dangerously
near to him.

No words were needed, and neither man spoke any. Without stopping to give
Doubler an opportunity to speak, Langford wheeled his pony, and with a
white, scared face, bending low over the animal's mane to escape any
bullets which might follow the first, rapidly recrossed the river. Once on
the crest of the hill on the opposite side he turned, and trembling with
rage and fear, shook a clenched hand at Doubler. The latter's reply was a
strident laugh.

Langford returned to the ranchouse, riding slowly, though in his heart was
a riot of rage and hatred against the nester. It was war, to be sure. But
now that Doubler had shown in no unmistakable manner that he had not been
trifling the day before, Langford was no longer in doubt as to the method
he would have to employ in his attempt to gain possession of his land.
Doubler, he felt, had made the choice.

The ride to the ranchhouse took long, but by the time Langford arrived
there he had regained his composure, saying nothing to anyone concerning
his adventure.

For three days he kept his own counsel, riding out alone, taciturn, giving
much thought to the situation. Sheila had intended to speak to him
regarding the trouble with Doubler, but his manner repulsed her and she
kept silent, hoping that the mood would pass. However, the mood did not
pass. Langford continued to ride out alone, maintaining a moody silence,
sitting alone much with his own thoughts and allowing no one to break down
the barrier of taciturnity which he had erected.

On the morning of the fifth day after his adventure with Doubler he was
sitting on the ranchhouse gallery with Duncan, enjoying an after-breakfast
cigar, when he said casually to the latter:

"I take it that folks in this country are mighty careless with their
weapons."

Duncan grinned. "You might call it careless," he returned. "No doubt there
are people--people who come out here from the East--who think that a man
who carries a gun out here is careless with it. But I reckon that when a
man draws a gun here he draws it with a pretty definite purpose."

"I have heard," continued Langford slowly, "that there are men in this
country who do not hesitate to kill other people for money."

"Meaning that there are road agents and such?" questioned Duncan.

"Naturally, that particular kind would be included. I meant, however
another kind--I believe they are called 'bad men,' are they not? Men who
kill for hire?"

Duncan cast a furtive glance at Langford out of the corners of his eyes,
but could draw no conclusions concerning the latter's motive in asking the
question from the expression of his face.

"Such men drift in occasionally," he returned, convinced that Langford's
curiosity was merely casual--as Langford desired him to consider it.
"Usually, though, they don't stay long."

"I suppose there are none of that breed around here--in Lazette, for
instance. It struck me that Dakota was extraordinarily handy with a gun."

He puffed long at his cigar and saw that, though Duncan did not answer,
his face had grown suddenly dark with passion, as it always did when
Dakota's name was mentioned. Langford smiled subtly. "I suppose," he said,
"that Dakota might be called a bad man."

Duncan's eyes flashed with venom. "I reckon Dakota's nothing but a damned
sneak!" he said, not being able to conceal the bitterness in his voice.

Langford did not allow his smile to be seen; he had not forgotten the
incident of the returning of Dakota's horse by Duncan.

"He's a dead shot, though," he suggested.

"I'm allowing that," grudgingly returned Duncan. "And," he added, "it's
been hinted that all his shooting scrapes haven't been on the level."

"He is not straight, then?" said Langford, his eyes gleaming. "Not
'square,' as you say in this country?"

"I reckon there ain't nothing square about him," returned Duncan, glad of
an opportunity to defame his enemy.

Again Langford did not allow Duncan to see his smile, and he deftly
directed the current of the conversation into other channels.

He rode out again that day, taking the river trail and passing Dakota's
cabin, but Dakota himself was nowhere to be seen and at dusk Langford
returned to the Double R. During the evening meal he enveloped himself
with a silence which proved impenetrable. He retired early, to Duncan's
surprise, and the next morning, without announcing his plans to anyone,
saddled his pony and rode away toward the river trail.

He took a circuitous route to reach it, riding slowly, with the air and
manner of a man who is thinking deep thoughts, smiling much, though many
times grimly.

"Dakota isn't square," he said once aloud during one of his grim smiles.

When he came to the quicksand crossing he halted and examined the earth in
the vicinity, smiling more broadly at the marks and hoof prints in the
hard sand near the water's edge. Then he rode on.

Two or three miles from the quicksand crossing he came suddenly upon
Dakota's cabin. Dakota himself was repairing a saddle in the shade of the
cabin wall, and for all that Langford could see he was entirely unaware of
his approach. He saw Dakota look up when he passed the corral gate, and
when he reached a point about twenty feet distant he observed a faint
smile on Dakota's face.

"Howdy, stranger," came the latter's voice.

"How are you, my friend?" greeted Langford easily.

It was not hard for Langford to adopt an air of familiarity toward the man
who had figured prominently in his thoughts during a great many of the
previous twenty-four hours. He dismounted from his pony, hitched the
animal to a rail of the corral fence, and approached Dakota, standing in
front of him and looking down at him with a smile.

Dakota apparently took little interest in his visitor, for keeping his
seat on the box upon which he had been sitting when Langford had first
caught sight of him, he continued to give his attention to the saddle.

"I'm from the Double R," offered Langford, feeling slightly less
important, conscious that somehow the familiarity that he had felt existed
between them a moment before was a singularly fleeting thing.

"I noticed that," responded Dakota, still busy with his saddle.

"How?"

"I reckon that you've forgot that your horse has got a brand on him?"

"You've got keen eyes, my friend," laughed Langford.

"Have I?" Dakota had not looked at Langford until now, and as he spoke he
raised his head and gazed fairly into the latter's eyes.

For a moment neither man moved or spoke. It seemed to Langford, as he
gazed into the steely, fathomless blue of the eyes which held his--held
them, for now as he looked it was the first time in his life that his gaze
had met a fellow being's steadily--that he could see there an
unmistakable, grim mockery. And that was all, for whatever other emotions
Dakota felt, they were invisible to Langford. He drew a deep breath,
suddenly aware that before him was a man exactly like himself in one
respect--skilled in the art of keeping his emotions to himself. Langford
had not met many such men; usually he was able to see clear through a
man--able to read him. But this man he could not read. He was puzzled and
embarrassed over the discovery. His gaze finally wavered; he looked away.

"A man don't have to have such terribly keen eyes to be able to see a
brand," observed Dakota, drawling; "especially when he's passed a whole
lot of his time looking at brands."

"That's so," agreed Langford. "I suppose you have been a cowboy a long
time."

"Longer than you've been a ranch owner."

Langford looked quickly at Dakota, for now the latter was again busy with
his saddle, but he could detect no sarcasm in his face, though plainly
there had been a subtle quality of it in his voice.

"Then you know me?" he said.

"No. I don't know you. I've put two and two together. I heard that Duncan
was selling the Double R. I've seen your daughter. And you ride up here on
a Double R horse. There ain't no other strangers in the country. Then, of
course, you're the new owner of the Double R."

Langford looked again at the inscrutable face of the man beside him and
felt a sudden deep respect for him. Even if he had not witnessed the
killing of Texas Blanca that day in Lazette he would have known the man
before him for what he was--a quiet, cool, self-possessed man of much
experience, who could not be trifled with.

"That's right," he admitted; "I am the new owner of the Double R. And I
have come, my friend, to thank you for what you did for my daughter."

"She told you, then?" Dakota's gaze was again on Langford, an odd light in
his eyes.

"Certainly."

"She's told you what?"

"How you rescued her from the quicksand."

Dakota's gaze was still on his visitor, quiet, intent. "She tell you
anything else?" he questioned slowly.

"Why, what else is there to tell?" There was sincere curiosity in
Langford's voice, for Sheila had always told him everything that happened
to her. It was not like her to keep anything secret from him.

"Did she tell you that she forgot to thank me for saving her?" There was a
queer smile on Dakota's lips, a peculiar, pleased glint in his eyes.

"No, she neglected to relate that," returned Langford.

"Forgot it. That's what I thought. Do you think she forgot it
intentionally?"

"It wouldn't be like her."

"Of course not. And so she's sent you over to thank me! Tell her no
thanks are due. And if she inquires, tell her that the pony didn't make a
sound or a struggle when I shot him."

"As it happens, she didn't send me," smiled Langford. "There was the
excitement, of course, and I presume she forgot to thank you--possibly
will ride over herself some day to thank you personally. But she didn't
send me--I came without her knowledge."

"To thank me--for her?"

"No."

"You're visiting then. Or maybe just riding around to look at your range.
Sit down." He motioned to another box that stood near the door of the
cabin.

Once Langford became seated Dakota again busied himself with the saddle,
ignoring his visitor. Langford shifted uneasily on the box, for the seat
was not to his liking and the attitude of his host was most peculiar. He
fell silent also and kicked gravely and absently into a hummock with the
toe of his boot.

Singularly enough, a plan which had taken form in his mind since Doubler
had shot at him seemed suddenly to have many defects, though until now it
had seemed complete enough. Out of the jumble of thoughts that had rioted
in his brain after his departure from Two Forks crossing had risen a
conviction. Doubler was a danger and a menace and must be removed. And
there was no legal way to remove him, for though he had not proved on his
land he was entitled to it to the limit set by the law, or until his
death.

Langford's purpose in questioning Duncan had been to learn of the presence
of someone in the country who would not be averse to removing Doubler. The
possibility of disposing of the nester in this manner had been before him
ever since he had learned of his presence on the Two Forks. He had not
been surprised when Duncan had mentioned Dakota as being a probable tool,
for he had thought over the occurrence of the shooting in Lazette many
times, and had been much impressed with Dakota's coolness and his satanic
cleverness with a six-shooter, and it seemed that it would be a simple
matter to arrange with him for the removal of Doubler. Yes, it had seemed
simple enough when he had planned it, and when Duncan had told him that
Dakota was not on the "square."

But now, looking covertly at the man, he found that he was not quite
certain in spite of what Duncan had said. He had mentally worked out his
plan of approaching Dakota many times. But now the defect in the plan
seemed to be that he had misjudged his man--that Duncan had misjudged him.
Plainly he would make a mistake were he to approach Dakota with a bold
request for the removing of the nester--he must clothe it. Thus, after a
long silence, he started obliquely.

"My friend," he said, "it must be lonesome out here for you."

"Not so lonesome."

"It's a big country, though--lots of land. There seems to be no end to
it."

"That's right, there's plenty of it. I reckon the Lord wasn't in a stingy
mood when he made it."

"Yet there seem to be restrictions even here."

"Restrictions?"

"Yes," laughed Langford; "restrictions on a man's desires."

Dakota looked at him with a saturnine smile. "Restrictions on a man's
desires," he repeated slowly. Then he laughed mirthlessly. "Some people
wouldn't be satisfied if they owned the whole earth. They'd be wanting the
sun, moon, and stars thrown in for good measure."

Langford laughed again. "That's human nature, my friend," he contended,
determined not to be forced to digress from the main subject. "Have you
got everything you want? Isn't there anything besides what you already
have that appeals to you? Have you no ambition?"

"There are plenty of things I want. Maybe I'd be modest, though, if I had
ambition. We all want a lot of things which we can't get."

"Correct, my friend. Some of us want money, others desire happiness, still
others are after something else. As you say, some of use are never
satisfied--the ambitious ones."

"Then you are ambitious?"

"You've struck it," smiled Langford.

Dakota caught his gaze, and there was a smile of derision on his lips.
"What particular thing are you looking for?" he questioned.

"Land."

"Mine?" Dakota's lips curled a little. "Doubler's, then," he added as
Langford shook his head with an emphatic, negative motion. "He's the only
man who's got land near yours."

"That's correct," admitted Langford; "I want Doubler's land."

There was a silence for a few minutes, while Langford watched Dakota
furtively as the latter gave his entire attention to his saddle.

"You've got all the rest of those things you spoke about, then--happiness,
money, and such?" said Dakota presently, in a low voice.

"Yes. I am pretty well off there."

"All you want is Doubler's land?" He stopped working with the saddle and
looked at Langford. "I reckon, if you've got all those things, that you
ought to be satisfied. But of course you ain't satisfied, or you wouldn't
want Doubler's land. Did you offer to buy it?"

"I asked him to name his own figure, and he wouldn't sell--wouldn't even
consider selling, though I offered him what I considered a fair price."

"That's odd, isn't it? You'd naturally think that money could buy
everything. But maybe Doubler has found happiness on his land. You
couldn't buy that from a man, you know. I suppose you care a lot about
Doubler's happiness--you wouldn't want to take his land if you knew he was
happy on it? Or don't it make any difference to you?" There was faint
sarcasm in his voice.

"As it happens," said Langford, reddening a little, "this isn't a question
of happiness--it is merely business. Doubler's land adjoins mine. I want
to extend my holdings. I can't extend in Doubler's direction because
Doubler controls the water rights. Therefore it is my business to see that
Doubler gets out."

"And sentiment has got no place in business. That right? It doesn't make
any difference to you that Doubler doesn't want to sell; you want his
land, and that settles it--so far as you are concerned. You don't consider
Doubler's feelings. Well, I don't know but that's the way things are
run--one man keeps what he can and another gets what he is able to get.
What are you figuring to do about Doubler?"

Langford glanced at Dakota with an oily, significant smile. "I am new to
the country, my friend," he said. "I don't know anything about the usual
custom employed to force a man to give up his land. Could you suggest
anything?"

Dakota deliberately took up a wax-end, rolled it, and squinted his eyes as
he forced the end of the thread through the eye of the needle which he
held in the other hand. So far as Langford could see he exhibited no
emotion whatever; his face was inscrutable; he might not have heard.

Yet Langford knew that he had heard; was certain that he grasped the full
meaning of the question; probably felt some emotion over it, and was
masking it by appearing to busy himself with the saddle. Langford's
respect for him grew and he wisely kept silent, knowing that in time
Dakota would answer. But when the answer did come it was not the one that
Langford expected. Dakota's eyes met his in a level gaze.

"Why don't you shoot him yourself?" he said, drawling his words a little.

"Not taking any chances?" Dakota's voice was filled with a cold sarcasm as
he continued, after an interval during which Langford kept a discreetly
still tongue. "Your business principles don't take you quite that far, eh?
And so you've come over to get me to shoot him? Why didn't you say so in
the beginning--it would have saved all this time." He laughed coldly.

"What makes you think that you could hire me to put Doubler out of
business?"

"I saw you shoot Blanca," said Langford. "And I sounded Duncan." It did
not disturb him to discover that Dakota had all along been aware of the
object of his visit. It rather pleased him, in fact, to be given proof of
the man's discernment--it showed that he was deep and clever.

"You saw me shoot Blanca," said Dakota with a strange smile, "and Duncan
told you I was the man to put Doubler away. Those are my recommendations."
His voice was slightly ironical, almost concealing a slight harshness.
"Did Duncan mention that he was a friend of mine?" he asked. "No?" His
smile grew mocking. "Just merely mentioned that I was uncommonly clever in
the art of getting people--undesirable people--out of the way. Don't get
the idea, though, because Duncan told you, that I make a business of
shooting folks. I put Blanca out of the way because it was a question of
him or me--I shot him to save my own hide. Shooting Doubler would be quite
another proposition. Still----" He looked at Langford, his eyes narrowing
and smoldering with a mysterious fire.

It seemed that he was inviting Langford to make a proposal, and the latter
smiled evilly. "Still," he said, repeating Dakota's word with a
significant inflection, "you don't refuse to listen to me. It would be
worth a thousand dollars to me to have Doubler out of the way," he added.

It was out now, and Langford sat silent while Dakota gazed into the
distance that reached toward the nester's cabin. Langford watched Dakota
closely, but there was an absolute lack of expression in the latter's
face.

"How are you offering to pay the thousand?" questioned Dakota. "And
when?"

"In cash, when Doubler isn't here any more."

Dakota looked up at him, his face a mask of immobility. "That sounds all
right," he said, with slow emphasis. "I reckon you'll put it in writing?"

Langford's eyes narrowed; he smiled craftily. "That," he said smoothly,
"would put me in your power. I have never been accused of being a fool by
any of the men with whom I have done business. Don't you think that at my
age it is a little late to start?"

"I reckon we don't make any deal," laughed Dakota shortly.

"We'll arrange it this way," suggested Langford. "Doubler is not the only
man I want to get rid of. I want your land, too. But"--he added as he saw
Dakota's lips harden--"I don't purpose to proceed against you in the
manner I am dealing with Doubler. I flatter myself that I know men quite
well. I'd like to buy your land. What would be a fair price for it?"

"Five thousand."

"We'll put it this way, then," said Langford, briskly and silkily. "I will
give you an agreement worded in this manner: 'One month after date I
promise to pay to Dakota the sum of six thousand dollars, in consideration
of his rights and interest in the Star brand, provided that within one
month from date he persuades Ben Doubler to leave Union county.'" He
looked at Dakota with a significant smile. "You see," he said, "that I am
not particularly desirous of being instrumental in causing Doubler's
death--you have misjudged me."

Dakota's eyes met his with a glance of perfect knowledge. His smile
possessed a subtly mocking quality--which was slightly disconcerting to
Langford.

"I reckon you'll be an angel--give you time," he said. "I am accepting
that proposition, though," he added. "I've been wanting to leave
here--I've got tired of it. And"--he continued with a mysterious
smile--"if things turn out as I expect, you'll be glad to have me go." He
rose from the bench. "Let's write that agreement," he suggested.

They entered the cabin, and a few minutes later Dakota sat again on the
box in the lee of the cabin wall, mending his saddle, the signed agreement
in his pocket. Smiling, Langford rode the river trail, satisfied with the
result of his visit. Turning once--as he reached the rise upon which
Sheila had halted that morning after leaving Dakota's cabin, Langford
looked back. Dakota was still busy with his saddle. Langford urged his
pony down the slope of the rise and vanished from view. Then Dakota ceased
working on the saddle, drew out the signed agreement and read it through
many times.

"That man," he said finally, looking toward the crest of the slope where
Langford had disappeared, "thinks he has convinced me that I ought to kill
my best friend. He hasn't changed a bit--not a damned bit!"





Next: Duncan Adds Two And Two

Previous: Sheila Fans A Flame



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