The Trail to YesterdayCharles Alden Seltzer / Western
Produced by Roger Frank and the Online DistributedProofreading Canada Team at http://www.pgdpcanada.net
THE TRAIL TO YESTERDAY
IF YOU WANT THE PARSON TO DIE, DON'T LOOKAT ME WHEN HE STEPS IN.]
THE TRAIL TO YESTERDAY
By Charles Alden Seltzer
Author ofThe Two-Gun Man,The Coming of the Law,Etc.
With Three Illustrations
A. L. BURT COMPANYPUBLISHERS--NEW YORK
Copyright, 1913, byOUTING PUBLISHING COMPANY
All rights reserved
CHAPTER PAGE I. A Woman on the Trail 11 II. The Dim Trail 40 III. Converging Trails 53 IV. This Picture and That 72 V. Dakota Evens a Score 88 VI. Kindred Spirits 111 VII. Bogged Down 121 VIII. Sheila Fans a Flame 146 IX. Strictly Business 163 X. Duncan Adds Two and Two 196 XI. A Parting and a Visit 215 XII. A Meeting on the River Trail 233 XIII. The Shot in the Back 254 XIV. Langford Lays Off the Mask 275 XV. The Parting on the River Trail 303 XVI. Sheriff Allen Takes a Hand 310 XVII. Doubler Talks 323 XVIII. For Dakota 336 XIX. Some Memories 344 XX. Into the Unknown 359
If you want the parson to die, don't lookat me when he steps in. Frontispiece
Won't you please get us out of this? 134
Duncan grasped for his pistol, but the hand holdingit was stamped violently into the earth. 161
THE TRAIL TO YESTERDAY
A WOMAN ON THE TRAIL
Many disquieting thoughts oppressed Miss Sheila Langford as she halted herpony on the crest of a slight rise and swept the desolate and slumberousworld with an anxious glance. Quite the most appalling of these thoughtsdeveloped from a realization of the fact that she had lost the trail. Thewhole categorical array of inconveniences incidental to traveling in anew, unsettled country paled into insignificance when she considered thishorrifying and entirely unromantic fact. She was lost; she had strayedfrom the trail, she was alone and night was coming.
She would not have cared so much about the darkness, for she had neverbeen a coward, and had conditions been normal she would have asked nothingbetter than a rapid gallop over the dim plains. But as she drew her ponyup on the crest of the rise a rumble of thunder reached her ears. Ofcourse it would rain, now that she had lost the trail, she decided,yielding to a sudden, bitter anger. It usually did rain when one wasabroad 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 toblame for the blunder. For the other--not unusual--irritating details thathad combined to place her in this awkward position she could blame, firstDuncan, the manager of the Double R--who should have sent someone to meether at the station; the station agent--who had allowed her to set forth insearch of the Double R without a guide,--though even now, considering thisphase of the situation, she remembered that the agent had told her therewas no one to send--and certainly the desolate appearance of Lazette hadborne out this statement; and last, she could blame the country itself forbeing an unfeatured wilderness.
Something might be said in extenuation of the station agent's and theDouble R manager's sins of omission, but without doubt the country waswhat she had termed it--an unfeatured wilderness. Her first sensation upongetting a view of the country had been one of deep disappointment. Therewas plenty of it, she had decided,--enough to make one shrink from itsvery bigness; yet because it was different from the land she had beenaccustomed to she felt that somehow it was inferior. Her father hadassured her of its beauty, and she had come prepared to fall in love withit, but within the last half hour--when she had begun to realize that shehad 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 forbiddingpricklers--though she could not help admiring them, they seemed to bethe only growing thing in the country capable of defying the heat andthe sun. Most of all she hated the alkali dust. All afternoon she hadkept brushing it off her clothing and clearing it out of her throat, andonly within the last half hour she had begun to realize that her effortshad been without result--it lay thick all over her; her throat was dryand parched with it, and her eyes burned.
She sat erect, flushed and indignant, to look around at the country. Apremonitory calm had succeeded the warning rumble. Ominous black cloudswere scurrying, wind-whipped, spreading fan-like through the sky, blottingout the colors of the sunset, darkening the plains, creating weirdshadows. Objects that Sheila had been able to see quite distinctly whenshe 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 animaldown the slope. If it rains we'll get just as wet here as we wouldanywhere else. She was surprised at the queer quiver in her voice. Shewas going to be brave, of course, but somehow there seemed to be littleconsolation in the logic of her remark.
The pony shambled forward, carefully picking its way, and Sheila mentallythanked the station agent for providing her with so reliable a beast.There was one consoling fact at any rate, and she retracted many hardthings she had said in the early part of her ride about the agent.
Shuffling down the slope the pony struck a level. After traveling overthis 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 theywere hovering, low and black, directly overhead. A flash of lightningsuddenly illuminated the sky, showing Sheila a great waste of world thatstretched to four horizons. It revealed, in the distance, the naked peaksof some hills; a few frowning buttes that seemed to fringe a river; somegullies in which lurked forbidding shadows; clumps of desert growth--thecactus--now seeming grotesque and mocking; the snaky octilla; the filmy,rustling mesquite; the dust-laden sage-brush; the soap weed; the sentinellance of the yucca. Then the light was gone and darkness came again.
Sheila shuddered and vainly tried to force down a queer lump that hadrisen in her throat over the desolation of it all. It was not anythinglike her father had pictured it! Men had the silly habit of exaggeratingin these things, she decided--they were rough themselves and they made themistake of thinking that great, grim things were attractive. What beautywas there, for instance, in a country where there was nothing but spaceand silence and grotesque weeds--and rain? Before she could answer thisquestion a sudden breeze swept over her; a few large drops of rain dashedinto 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 thecountry than she. She found herself wondering why she had not thought ofthat before--when, for example, a few miles back she had deliberatelyguided it out of a beaten trail toward a section of country where, she hadimagined, the traveling would be better. No doubt she had strayed from thetrail just there.
The drops of rain grew more frequent; they splashed into her face; shecould feel them striking her arms and shoulders. The pony's neck and manebecame moist under her hand, the darkness increased for a time and thecontinuing rumble in the heavens presaged a steady downpour.
The pony moved faster now; it needed no urging, and Sheila held her breathfor fear that it might fall, straining her eyes to watch its limbs as theymoved with the sure regularity of an automaton. After a time they reachedthe end of the level; Sheila could tell that the pony was negotiatinganother rise, for it slackened speed appreciably and she felt herselfsettling back against the cantle of the saddle. A little later sherealized that they were going down the opposite side of the rise, and amoment later they were again on a level. A deeper blackness than they hadyet encountered rose on their right, and Sheila correctly decided it to becaused by a stretch of wood that she had observed from the crest of therise where she had halted her pony for a view of the country. After aninterval, during which she debated the wisdom of directing her pony intothe wood for protection from the rain which was now coming against herface in vicious slants, her pony nickered shrilly!
A thrill of fear assailed Sheila. She knew horses and was certain thatsome living thing was on the trail in front of her. Halting the pony, sheheld tightly to the reins through a short, tense silence. Then presently,from a point just ahead on the trail, came an answering nicker in thehorse 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 feargrew, though mingling with it was a devout hope. If only the animal whichhad answered her own pony belonged to the Double R! She would take backmany of the unkind and uncharitable things she had said about the countrysince she had lost the trail.
The pony's gait had quickened into a gallop--which she could not check. Inthe past few minutes the darkness had lifted a little; she saw that thepony was making a gradual turn, following a bend in the river. Then came aflash of lightning and she saw, a short distance ahead, a pony and rider,stationary, watching. With an effort she succeeded in reining in her ownanimal, and while she sat in the saddle, trembling and anxious, there cameanother flash of lightning and she saw the rider's face.
The rider was a cowboy. She had distinctly seen the leathern chaps on hislegs; 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 roadagent--an outlaw? Immediately she heard an exclamation from him in whichshe 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 manreturn a pistol to the holster that swung at his right hip. He carelesslythrew one leg over the pommel of his saddle and looked at her. She satvery rigid, debating a sudden impulse to urge her pony past him and escapethe danger that seemed to threaten. While she watched he shoved the broadbrimmed hat back from his forehead. He was not over five feet distant fromher; she could feel her pony nuzzling his with an inquisitive muzzle, andshe could dimly see the rider's face. It belonged to a man of probablytwenty-eight or thirty; it had regular features, keen, level eyes and afirm mouth. There was a slight smile on his face and somehow the fear thathad oppressed Sheila began to take flight. And while she sat awaiting theturn 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 direfigures of her imagination; I am lost merely. You see, I am looking forthe Double R ranch.
Oh, he said inexpressively; the Double R.
There ensued a short silence and she could not see his face for he hadbowed his head a little and the broad brimmed hat intervened.
Do you know where the Double R ranch is? There was a slight impatiencein her voice.
Sure, came his voice. It's up the crick a ways.
Oh! This information was disheartening. Twenty miles! And the rain wascoming steadily down; she could feel it soaking through her clothing. Abitter, unreasoning anger against nature, against the circumstances whichhad conspired to place her in this position; against the man for hisapparent lack of interest in her welfare, moved her, though she might haveleft 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? Itdid not occur to her that perhaps he knew of no shelter. But while herindignation over his inaction grew she saw that he was doingsomething--fumbling at a bundle that seemed to be strapped to the cantleof his saddle. And then he leaned forward--very close to her--and she sawthat he was offering her a tarpaulin.
Wrap yourself in this, he directed. It ain't pretty, of course, butit'll keep you from getting drenched. Rain ain't no respecter ofpersons.
She detected a compliment in this but ignored it and placed the tarpaulinaround her shoulders. Then it suddenly occurred to her that he was withoutprotection. She hesitated.
Thank you, she said, but I can't take this. You haven't anything foryourself.
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 astrange country in a drenching rain was far from appealing to her. Herhesitation was eloquent.
I do not know, she answered, no way of escape from the dilemmapresenting 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 tospeak with an effort--there's my shack. You can have that.
Then he did have a dwelling place. This voluntary information removedanother of the fearsome doubts that had beset her. She had been afraidthat he might prove to be an irresponsible wanderer, but when a man kept ahouse it gave to his character a certain recommendation, it suggestedstability, more, it indicated honesty.
Of course she would have to accept the shelter of his shack. There wasno help for it, for it was impossible for her to entertain the idea ofriding twenty miles over an unknown trail, through the rain and darkness.Moreover, she was not afraid of the stranger now, for in spite of hiseasy, serene movements, his quiet composure, his suppressed amusement,Sheila detected a note in his voice which told her that he was deeplyconcerned over her welfare--even though he seemed to be enjoying her. Inany event she could not go forward, for the unknown terrified her and shefelt that in accepting the proffered shelter of his shack she waschoosing the lesser of two dangers. She decided quickly.
I shall accept--I think. Will you please hurry? I am getting wet in spiteof 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 agrayish-white hue, and the rain was coming down in torrents. Sheila pulledthe tarpaulin tighter about her shoulders and clung desperately to thesaddle, listening to the whining of the wind through the trees thatflanked her, keeping a watchful eye on the tall, swaying, indistinctfigure of her guide.
After riding for a quarter of an hour they reached a little clearing nearthe 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, shesaw a small cabin, of the lean-to type, constructed of adobe bricks. A dogbarked in front of her and she heard the stranger speak sharply to it. Hesilently approached and helped her down from the saddle. Then he led bothhorses away into the darkness on the other side of the cabin. During hisabsence she found time to glance about her. It was a desolate place. Didhe live here alone?
The silence brought no answer to this question, and while she continued tosearch out objects in the darkness she saw the stranger reappear aroundthe corner of the cabin and approach the door. He fumbled at it for amoment and threw it open. He disappeared within and an instant laterSheila heard the scratch of a match and saw a feeble glimmer of lightshoot out through the doorway. Then the stranger's voice:
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 firstgood view of the stranger's face. She felt reassured instantly, for it wasa good face, with lines denoting strength of character. The droopingmustache 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 livesand she supposed that in time their faces showed it. It was his eyes,though, that gave her a fleeting glimpse of his character. They wereblue--a steely, fathomless blue; baffling, mocking; swimming--as shelooked into them now--with an expression that she could not attempt toanalyze. One thing she saw in them only,--recklessness--and she drew aslow, deep breath.
They were standing very close together. He caught the deep-drawn breathand looked quickly at her, his eyes alight and narrowed with an expressionwhich was a curious mingling of quizzical humor and grim enjoyment. Herown eyes did not waver, though his were boring into hers steadily, asthough he were trying to read her thoughts.
Afraid? he questioned, with a suggestion of sarcasm in the curl of hislips.
Sheila stiffened, her eyes flashing defiance. She studied him steadily,her spirit battling his over the few feet that separated them. Then shespoke deliberately, evenly: I am not afraid of you!
That's right. A gratified smile broke on the straight, hard lips. A newexpression came into his eyes--admiration. You've got nerve, ma'am. I'msome pleased that you've got that much trust in me. You don't need to bescared. You're as safe here as you'd be out there. He nodded toward theopen door. Safer, he added with a grave smile; you might get hurt outthere.
He turned abruptly and went to the door, where he stood for a long timelooking out into the darkness. She watched him for a moment and thenremoved 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 inthe cabin, but it was large--about twenty by twenty, she estimated. Besidean open fireplace in a corner were several pots and pans--his cookingutensils. On a shelf were some dishes. A guitar swung from a gaudy stringsuspended from the wall. A tin of tobacco and a pipe reposed on anothershelf beside a box of matches. A bunk filled a corner and she went over toit, fearing. But it was clean and the bed clothing fresh and she smiled alittle as she continued her examination.
The latter finished she went to a small window above the bunk, looking outinto the night. The rain came against the glass in stinging slants, andwatching it she found herself feeling very grateful to the man who stoodin the doorway. Turning abruptly, she caught him watching her, anappraising smile on his face.
You ought to be hungry by now, he said. There's a fireplace and somewood. Do you want a fire?
In response to her nod he kindled a fire, she standing beside the windowwatching him, noting his lithe, easy movements. She could not mistake thestrength and virility of his figure, even with his back turned to her, butit seemed to her that there was a certain recklessness in his actions--asthough his every movement advertised a careless regard for consequences.She held her breath when he split a short log into slender splinters, forhe swung the short-handled axe with a loose grasp, as though he cared verylittle where its sharp blade landed. But she noted that he struck withprecision despite his apparent carelessness, every blow falling true. Hismanner of handling the axe reflected the spirit that shone in his eyeswhen, 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 andthings. It ain't what you might call elegant--not what you've been usedto, I expect. But it's a heap better than nothing, and I reckon you'll beable to get along. He turned and walked to the doorway, standing in itfor an instant, facing out. Good-night, he added. The tarpaulin dangledfrom his arm.
Evidently he intended going away. A sudden dread of being alone filledher. 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 thoughtshe detected something subtle--untruthfulness perhaps. She glanced at thetarpaulin 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 thatI am driving you out into the storm. You might catch cold and die. And Ishould not want to think that I was responsible for your death.
A little wetting wouldn't hurt me. He looked at her appraisingly, aglint of sympathy in his eyes. Standing there, framed in the darkness, theflickering light from the candle on his strong, grave face, he made apicture 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 herealone.
A pistol flashed in his hand, its butt toward her, and now for the firsttime she saw another at his hip. She repressed a desire to shudder andstared with dilated eyes at the extended weapon.
Take this gun, he offered. It ain't much for looks, but it'll go righthandy. 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 hadoccasion to. I prefer to have you remain in the cabin--for protection.
He bowed. I thought you'd-- he began, and then smiled wryly. Itcertainly would be some wet outside, he admitted. It wouldn't bepleasant sleeping. I'll lay over here by the door when I get myblankets.
He went outside and in a few minutes reappeared with his blankets andsaddle. Without speaking a word to Sheila he laid the saddle down, spreadthe 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 profileappraisingly. You can blow it out if you like.
I prefer to have it burning.
Sheila got up and placed the candle in a tin dish as a precaution againstfire. Then, when its position satisfied her she left the table and went tothe bunk, stretching herself out on it, fully dressed.
For a long time she lay, listening to the soft patter of the rain on theroof, looking upward at the drops that splashed against the window,listening to the fitful whining of the wind through the trees near thecabin. Her eyes closed presently, sleep was fast claiming her. Then sheheard her host's voice:
You're from the East, I reckon.
There was a silence. Sheila was thoroughly awake again, and once more hergaze 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 beendispelled by his manner which, though puzzling, hinted of the gentleman.She would have liked him better were it not for the reckless gleam in hiseyes; that gleam, it seemed to her, indicated a trait of character whichwas not wholly admirable.
What have you come out here for?
Sheila smiled at the rain-spattered window, a flash of pleased vanity inher 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 aninterest in her; other men had been interested in her too, only they hadnot been men that lived in romantic wildernesses,--observe that she didnot make use of the term unfeatured, which she had manufactured soonafter 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 ather; there had always been a significant boldness in their eyes whichbelied the gentleness of demeanor which, she had always been sure, merelymasked their real characters. She had never been able to look squarely atany of those men, the men of her circle who had danced attendance upon herat the social functions that had formerly filled her existence--without afeeling of repugnance.
They had worn man-shapes, of course, but somehow they had seemed to lacksomething real and vital; seemed to have possessed nothing of thatforceful, magnetic personality which was needed to arouse her sympathy andinterest. Not that the man on the floor in front of the door interestedher--she could not admit that! But she had felt a sympathy for him in hisloneliness, and she had looked into his eyes--had been able to looksteadily into them, and though she had seen expressions that had puzzledher, she had at least seen nothing to cause her to feel any uneasiness.She had seen manliness there, and indomitability, and force, and it hadseemed to her to be sufficient. His would be an ideal face were it not forthe expression that lingered about the lips, were it not for the recklessglint in his eyes--a glint that revealed an untamed spirit.
His question remained unanswered. He stirred impatiently, and glancing athim Sheila saw that he had raised himself so that his chin rested in hishand, 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 hasbought the Double R.
For a long time it seemed that he would have no comment to make on thisand Sheila's lips took on a decidedly petulant expression. Apparently hewas 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'tlike Duncan, she said.
I reckon you're some keen too, came the mocking response.
Sheila flushed, turned and looked defiantly at him. His hand stillsupported his head and there was an unmistakable interest in his eyes ashe 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 aboveher. The fingers of the hand that had been supporting his head slowlyclenched, he raised himself slightly, his body rigid, his chin thrusting,his face pale, his eyes burning with a sudden fierce fire. Once he openedhis lips to speak, but instantly closed them again, and a smile wreathedthem--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 previouslyaffected 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 candlegleaming full upon it, bore a queer pallor--the white of cold ashes. Hisright hand, which had been resting carelessly on the blanket, was nowgripping it, the muscles tense and knotted. Yet after another long silencehis 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?
He was silent again and presently, hearing him stir, Sheila lookedcovertly at him. He had turned, his back was toward her, and he wasstretched out on the blanket as though, fully satisfied with the result ofhis questioning, he intended going to sleep. For several minutes Sheilawatched him with a growing curiosity. It was like a man to ask all andgive nothing. He had questioned her to his complete satisfaction but hadtold nothing of himself. She was determined to discover something abouthim.
Who are you? she questioned.
Dakota, he said shortly.
Dakota? she repeated, puzzled. That isn't a name; it's a State--or aTerritory.
I'm Dakota. Ask anybody. There was a decided drawl in his voice.
This information was far from being satisfactory, but she supposed it mustanswer. Still, she persisted. Where are you from?
That seemed to end it. It had been a short quest and an unsatisfactoryone. It was perfectly plain to her that he was some sort of a rancher--atthe least a cowboy. It was also plain that he had been a cowboy beforecoming to this section of the country--probably in Dakota. She wasperplexed 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.