"It ain't my funeral," said one of the card players, "but if I was in your place I'd begin to think that me stayin' here was crowdin' the population of this town by one."
Blanca's teeth gleamed. "My frien'," he said insinuatingly, "it's your deal." His smile grew. "Thees is a nize country," he continued. "I like it ver' much. I come back here to stay. Dakota—hees got the Star too cheap." He tapped his gun holster significantly. "To-night Dakota hees go somewhere else. To-morrow who takes the Star? You?" He pointed to each of the card players in turn. "You?" he questioned. "You take it?" He smiled at their negative signs. "Well, then, Blanca take it. Peste! Dakota give himself till sundown!"
* * * * *
The six-o'clock was an hour and thirty minutes late. For two hours Sheila Langford had been on the station platform awaiting its coming. For a full half hour she had stood at one corner of the platform straining her eyes to watch a thin skein of smoke that trailed off down the horizon, but which told her that the train was coming. It crawled slowly—like a huge serpent—over the wilderness of space, growing always larger, steaming its way through the golden sunshine of the afternoon, and after a time, with a grinding of brakes and the shrill hiss of escaping air, it drew alongside the station platform.
A brakeman descended, the conductor strode stiffly to the telegrapher's window, two trunks came out of the baggage car, and a tall man of fifty alighted and was folded into Sheila's welcoming arms. For a moment the two stood thus, while the passengers smiled sympathetically. Then the man held Sheila off at arm's length and looked searchingly at her.
"Crying?" he said. "What a welcome!"
"Oh, daddy!" said Sheila. In this moment she was very near to telling him what had happened to her on the day of her arrival at Lazette, but she felt that it was impossible with him looking at her; she could not at a blow cast a shadow over the joy of his first day in the country where, henceforth, he was to make his home. And so she stood sobbing softly on his shoulder while he, aware of his inability to cope with anything so mysterious as a woman's tears, caressed her gently and waited patiently for her to regain her composure.
"Then nothing happened to you after all," he laughed, patting her cheeks. "Nothing, in spite of my croaking."
"Nothing," she answered. The opportunity was gone now; she was committed irrevocably to her secret.
"You like it here? Duncan has made himself agreeable?"
"It is a beautiful country, though a little lonesome after—after Albany. I miss my friends, of course. But Duncan's sister has done her best, and I have been able to get along."
The engine bell clanged and they stood side by side as the train pulled slowly away from the platform. Langford solemnly waved a farewell to it.
"This is the moment for which I have been looking for months," he said, with what, it seemed to Sheila, was almost a sigh of relief. He turned to her with a smile. "I will look after the baggage," he said, and leaving her he approached the station agent and together they examined the trunks which had come out of the baggage car.
Sheila watched him while he engaged in this task. His face seemed a trifle drawn; he had aged much during the month that she had been separated from him. The lines of his face had grown deeper; he seemed, now that she saw him at a distance, to be care-worn—tired. She had heard people call him a hard man; she knew that business associates had complained of what they were pleased to call his "sharp methods"; it had even been hinted that his "methods" were irregular.
It made no difference to her, however, what people thought of him, or what they said of him, he had been a kind and indulgent parent to her and she supposed that in business it was everybody's business to look sharply after their own interests. For there were jealous people everywhere; envy stalks rampant through the world; failure cavils at mediocrity, mediocrity sneers at genius. And Sheila had always considered her father a genius, and the carping of those over whom her father had ridden roughshod had always sounded in her ears like tributes.
As quite unconsciously we are prone to place the interests of self above considerations for the comfort and the convenience of others, so Sheila had grown to judge her father through the medium of his treatment of her. Her own father—who had died during her infancy—could not have treated her better than had Langford. Since her mother's death some years before, Langford had been both father and mother to her, and her affection for him had flourished in the sunshine of his. No matter what other people thought, she was satisfied with him.
As a matter of fact David Dowd Langford allowed no one—not even Sheila—to look into his soul. What emotions slumbered beneath the mask of his habitual imperturbability no one save Langford himself knew. During all his days he had successfully fought against betraying his emotions and now, at the age of fifty, there was nothing of his character revealed in his face except sternness. If addicted to sharp practice in business no one would be likely to suspect it, not even his victim. Could one have looked steadily into his eyes one might find there a certain gleam to warn one of trickery, only one would not be able to look steadily into them, for the reason that they would not allow you. They were shifty, crafty eyes that took one's measure when one least expected them to do so.
Over the motive which had moved her father to retire from business while still in his prime Sheila did not speculate. Nor had she speculated when he had bought the Double R ranch and announced his intention to spend the remainder of his days on it. She supposed that he had grown tired of the unceasing bustle and activity of city life, as had she, and longed for something different, and she had been quite as eager as he to take up her residence here. This had been the limit of her conjecturing.
He had told her when she left Albany that he would follow her in a month. And therefore, in a month to the day, knowing his habit of punctuality, Sheila had come to Lazette for him, having been driven over from the Double R by one of the cowboys.
She saw the station agent now, beckoning to the driver of the wagon, and she went over to the edge of the station platform and watched while the trunks were tumbled into the wagon.
The driver was grumbling good naturedly to Langford.
"That darned six-o'clock train is always late," he was saying. "It's a quarter to eight now an' the sun is goin' down. If that train had been on time we could have made part of the trip in the daylight."
The day had indeed gone. Sheila looked toward the mountains and saw that great long shadows were lengthening from their bases; the lower half of the sun had sunk behind a distant peak; the quiet colors of the sunset were streaking the sky and glowing over the plains.
The trunks were in; the station agent held the horses by the bridles, quieting them; the driver took up the reins; Sheila was helped to the seat by her father, he jumped in himself, and they were off down the street, toward a dim trail that led up a slope that began at the edge of town and melted into space.
The town seemed deserted. Sheila saw a man standing near the front door of a saloon, his hands on his hips. He did not appear interested in either the wagon or its occupants; his gaze roved up and down the street and he nervously fingered his cartridge belt. He was a brown-skinned man, almost olive, Sheila thought as her gaze rested on him, attired after the manner of the country, with leathern chaps, felt hat, boots, spurs, neckerchief.
"Why, it is sundown already!" Sheila heard her father say. "What a sudden change! A moment ago the light was perfect!"
A subconscious sense only permitted Sheila to hear her father's voice, for her thoughts and eyes were just then riveted on another man who had come out of the door of another saloon a little way down the street. She recognized the man as Dakota and exclaimed sharply.
She felt her father turn; heard the driver declare, "It's comin' off," though she had not the slightest idea of his meaning. Then she realized that he had halted the horses; saw that he had turned in his seat and was watching something to the rear of them intently.
"We're out of range," she heard him say, speaking to her father.
"What's wrong?" This was her father's voice.
"Dakota an' Blanca are havin' a run-in," announced the driver. "Dakota's give Blanca till sundown to get out of town. It's sundown now an' Blanca ain't pulled his freight, an' it's likely that hell will be a-poppin' sorta sudden."
Sheila cowered in her seat, half afraid to look at Dakota—who was walking slowly toward the man who still stood in front of the saloon—though in spite of her fears and misgivings the fascination of the scene held her gaze steadily on the chief actors.
Out of the corners of her eyes she could see that far down the street men were congregated; they stood in doorways, at convenient corners, their eyes directed toward Dakota and the other man. In the sepulchral calm which had fallen there came to Sheila's ears sounds that in another time she would not have noticed. Somewhere a door slammed; there came to her ears the barking of a dog, the neigh of a horse—sharply the sounds smote the quiet atmosphere, they seemed odd to the point of unreality.
However, the sounds did not long distract her attention from the chief actors in the scene which was being worked out in front of her; the noises died away and she gave her entire attention to the men. She saw Dakota reach a point about thirty feet from the man in front of the saloon—Blanca. As Dakota continued to approach, Sheila observed an evil smile flash suddenly to Blanca's face; saw a glint of metal in the faint light; heard the crash of his revolver; shuddered at the flame spurt. She expected to see Dakota fall—hoped that he might. Instead, she saw him smile—in much the fashion in which he had smiled that night in the cabin when he had threatened to shoot the parson if she did not consent to marry him. And then his hand dropped swiftly to the butt of the pistol at his right hip.
Sheila's eyes closed; she swayed and felt her father's arm come out and grasp her to keep her from falling. But she was not going to fall; she had merely closed her eyes to blot out the scene which she could not turn from. She held her breath in an agony of suspense, and it seemed an age until she heard a crashing report—and then another. Then silence.
Unable longer to resist looking, Sheila opened her eyes. She saw Dakota walk forward and stand over Blanca, looking down at him, his pistol still in hand. Blanca was face down in the dust of the street, and as Dakota stood over him Sheila saw the half-breed's body move convulsively and then become still. Dakota sheathed his weapon and, without looking toward the wagon in which Sheila sat, turned and strode unconcernedly down the street. A man came out of the door of the saloon in front of which Blanca's body lay, looking down at it curiously. Other men were running toward the spot; there were shouts, oaths.
For the first time in her life Sheila had seen a man killed—murdered—and there came to her a recollection of Dakota's words that night in the cabin: "Have you ever seen a man die?" She had surmised from his manner that night that he would not hesitate to kill the parson, and now she knew that her sacrifice had not been made in vain. A sob shook her, the world reeled, blurred, and she covered her face with her hands.
"Oh!" she said in a strained, hoarse voice. "Oh! The brute!"
"Hey!" From a great distance the driver's voice seemed to come. "Hey! What's that? Well, mebbe. But I reckon Blanca won't rustle any more cattle." "God!" he added in an awed voice; "both of them hit him!"
Blanca was dead then, there could be no doubt of that. Sheila felt herself swaying and tried to grasp the end of the seat to steady herself. She heard her father's voice raised in alarm, felt his arm come out again and grasp her, and then darkness settled around her.
When she recovered consciousness her father's arms were still around her and the buckboard was in motion. Dusk had come; above her countless stars flickered in the deep blue of the sky.
"I reckon she's plum shocked," she heard the driver say.
"I don't wonder," returned Langford, and Sheila felt a shiver run over him. "Great guns!" Sheila wondered at the tone he used. "That man is a marvel with a pistol! Did you notice how cool he took it?"
"Cool!" The driver laughed. "If you get acquainted with Dakota you'll find out that he's cool. He's an iceberg, that's what he is!"
"They'll arrest him, I suppose?" queried Langford.
"Arrest him! What for? Didn't he give Blanca his chance? That's why I'm tellin' you he's cool!"
It was past two o'clock when the buckboard pulled up at the Double R corral gates and Langford helped Sheila down. She was still pale and trembling and did not remain downstairs to witness her father's introduction to Duncan's sister, but went immediately to her room. Sleep was far from her, however, for she kept dwelling over and over on the odd fortune which had killed Blanca and allowed Dakota to live, when the latter's death would have brought to an end the distasteful relationship which his freakish impulse had forced upon her.
She remembered Dakota's words in the cabin. Was Fate indeed running this game—if game it might be called?
Looking rather more rugged than when he had arrived at the station at Lazette two weeks before, his face tanned, but still retaining the smooth, sleek manner which he had brought with him from the East, David Dowd Langford sat in a big rocking chair on the lower gallery of the Double R ranchhouse, mentally appraising Duncan, who was seated near by, his profile toward Langford.
"So this Ben Doubler has been a thorn in your side?" questioned Langford softly.
"That's just it," returned Duncan, with an evil smile. "He has been and still is. And now I'm willing him to you. I don't know when I've been more tickled over getting rid of a man."
"Well," said Langford, leaning farther back in his chair and clasping his hands, resting his chin on his thumbs, his lips curving with an ironic smile, "I suppose I ought to feel extremely grateful to you—especially since when I was negotiating the purchase of the ranch you didn't hint of a nester being on the property."
"I didn't sell Doubler to you," said Duncan.
Langford's smile was shallow. "But I get him just the same," he said. "As a usual thing it is pretty hard to get rid of a nester, isn't it?"
"I haven't been able to get rid of this one," returned Duncan. "He don't seem to be influenced by anything I say, or do. Some obstinate."
Duncan made a gesture of disgust. "The law!" he said. "What for? I haven't been such a fool. He's got as much right to the open range as I have—as you will have. I bought a section, and he took up a quarter section. The only difference between us is that I own mine—or did own it until you bought it—and he ain't proved on his. He is on the other side of the river and I'm on this. Or rather," he added with a grin, "he's on the other side and you are on this. He's got the best grass land in the country—and plenty of water."
"His rights, then," remarked Langford slowly, "equal yours—or mine. That is," he added, "he makes free use of the grass and water."
"That's so," agreed Duncan.
"Which reduces the profits of the Double R," pursued Langford.
"I reckon that's right."
"And you knew that when you sold me the Double R," continued Langford, his voice smooth and silky.
Duncan flashed a grin at the imperturbable face of the new owner. "I reckon I wasn't entirely ignorant of it," he said.
"That's bad business," remarked Langford in a detached manner.
"What is?" Duncan's face reddened slightly. "You mean that it was bad business for me to sell when I knowed Doubler owned land near the Double R?" There was a slight sneer in his voice as he looked at Langford. "You've never been stung before, eh? Well, there's always a first time for everything, and I reckon—according to what I've heard—that you ain't been exactly no Sunday school scholar yourself."
Langford's eyes were narrowed to slits. "I meant that it was bad business to allow Doubler's presence on the Two Forks to affect the profits of the Double R. Perhaps I have been stung—as you call it—but if I have been I am not complaining."
Duncan's eyes glinted with satisfaction. He had expected a burst of anger from the new owner when he should discover that the value of his property was impaired by the presence of a nester near it, but the new owner apparently harbored no resentment over this unforeseen obstacle.
"I'm admitting," said Duncan, "that Doubler being there is bad business. But how are you going to prevent him staying there?"
"Have you tried"—Langford looked obliquely at Duncan, drawling significantly—"force?"
"I have tried everything, I told you."
Duncan gazed at Langford with a new interest. It was the first time since the new owner had come to the Double R that he had dropped the mask of sleek smoothness behind which he concealed his passions. Even now the significance was more in his voice than in his words, and Duncan began to comprehend that Langford was deeper than he had thought.
"I'm glad to see that you appreciate the situation," he said, smiling craftily. "Some men are mighty careful not to do anything to hurt anybody else."
Langford favored Duncan with a steady gaze, which the latter returned, and both smiled.
"Business," presently said Langford with a quiet significance which was not lost on Duncan, "good business, demands the application of certain methods which are not always agreeable to the opposition." He took another sly glance at Duncan. "There ought to be a good many ways of making it plain to Doubler that he isn't wanted in this section of the country," he insinuated.
"I've tried to make some of the ways plain," said Duncan with a cold grin. "I got to the end of my string and hadn't any more things to try. That's why I decided to sell. I wanted to get away where I wouldn't be bothered. But I reckon that you'll be able to fix up something for him."
During the two weeks that Langford had been at the Double R Duncan had studied him from many angles and this exchange of talk had convinced him that he had not erred in his estimate of the new owner's character. As he had hinted to Langford, he had tried many plans to rid the country of the nester, and he remembered a time when Doubler had seen through one of his schemes to fasten the crime of rustling on him and had called him to account, and the recollection of what had happened at the interview between them was not pleasant. He had not bothered Doubler since that time, though there had lingered in his heart a desire for revenge. Many times, on some pretext or other, he had tried to induce his men to clash with Doubler, but without success. It had appeared to him that his men suspected his motives and deliberately avoided the nester.
With a secret satisfaction he had watched Langford's face this morning when he had told him that Doubler had long been suspected of rustling; that the men of the Double R had never been able to catch him in the act, but that the number of cattle missing had seemed to indicate the nester's guilt.
Doubler's land was especially desirable, he had told Langford, and this was the truth. It was a quarter section lying adjacent to good water, and provided the best grass in the vicinity. Duncan had had trouble with Doubler over the water rights, too, but had been unsuccessful in ousting him because of the fact that since Doubler controlled the land he also controlled the water rights of the river adjoining it. The Two Forks was the only spot which could be used by thirsty cattle in the vicinity, for the river at other points was bordered with cliffs and hills and was inaccessible. And Doubler would not allow the Double R cattle to water at the Two Forks, though he had issued this edict after his trouble with the Double R owner. Duncan, however, did not explain this to Langford.
The latter looked at him with a smooth smile. "It is plain from what you have been telling me," he said, "that there is no possibility of you succeeding in reaching a satisfactory agreement with Doubler, and therefore I expect that I will have to deal with him personally. I shall ride over some day and have a talk with him."
The prospect of becoming involved with the nester gave Langford a throb of joy. All his life he had been engaged in the task of overcoming business obstacles and he had reached the conclusion that the situation which now confronted him was nothing more or less than business. Of course it was not the business to which he had been accustomed, but it offered the opportunity for cold-blooded, merciless planning for personal gain; there were the elements of profit and loss; it would give him an opportunity to apply his peculiar genius, to grapple, to battle, and finally overthrow the opposing force.
Though he had allowed Duncan to see nothing of the emotions that rioted within him over the discovery that he had been victimized by the latter—at least to the extent of misrepresentation in the matter of the nester—there was in his mind a feeling of deep resentment against the former owner; he felt that he could no longer trust him, but for the sake of learning all the details of the new business he felt that he would have to make the best of a bad bargain. He had already arranged with Duncan to remain at the Double R throughout the season, but he purposed to leave him out of any dealings that he might have with Doubler. He smiled as he looked at Duncan.
"I like this country," he said, leaning back in his chair and drawing a deep breath. "I was rather afraid at first that I would find it dull after the East. But this situation gives promise of action."
Duncan was watching him with a crafty smile. "You reckon on running him off, or——" He leered at Langford significantly.
The latter's face was impassive, his smile dry. "Eh?" he said, abstractedly, as though his thoughts had been wandering from the subject. "Why, I really haven't given a thought to the method by which I ought to deal with Doubler. Perhaps," he added with a genial smile, "I may make a friend of him."
He observed Duncan's scowl and his smile grew.
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 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.
SHEILA FANS A FLAME
Sheila departed from the quicksand crossing nursing her wrath against the man who had rescued her, feeling bitterly vindictive against him, yet aware that the Dakota who had saved her life was not the Dakota whom she had feared during her adventure with him in his cabin on the night of her arrival in the country. He had changed, and though she assured herself that she despised him more than ever, she found a grim amusement in the recollection of his manner immediately following the rescue, and in a review of the verbal battle, in which she had been badly worsted.
His glances had had in them the quality of inward mirth and satisfaction which is most irritating, and behind his pretended remorse she could see a pleasure over her dilemma which made her yearn to inflict punishment upon him that would cause him to ask for mercy. His demeanor had said plainly that if she wished to have the marriage set aside all well and good—he would offer no objection. But neither would he take the initiative. Decidedly, it was a matter in which she should consult her own desires.
It was late in the afternoon when she rode up to the Double R corral gates and was met there by her father and Duncan. Langford had been worried, he said, and was much concerned over her appearance. In the presence of Duncan Sheila told him the story of her danger and subsequent rescue by Dakota and she saw his eyes narrow with a strange light.
"Dakota!" he said. "Isn't that the chap who shot that half-breed over in Lazette the day I came?"
To Sheila's nod he ejaculated: "He's a trump!"
"He is a brute!" As the words escaped her lips—she had not meant to utter them—Sheila caught a glint in Duncan's eyes which told her that she had echoed the latter's sentiments, and she felt almost like retracting the charge. She had to bite her lips to resist the impulse.
"A brute, eh?" laughed Langford. "It strikes me that I wouldn't so characterize a man who had saved my life. The chances are that after saving you he didn't seem delighted enough, or he didn't smile to suit you, or——"
"He ain't so awful much of a man," remarked Duncan disparagingly.
Langford turned and looked at Duncan with a comprehending smile. "Evidently you owe Dakota nothing, my dear Duncan," he said.
The latter's face darkened, and with Sheila listening he told the story of the calf deal, which had indirectly brought about the death of Blanca.
"For a long time we had suspected Texas Blanca of rustling," said Duncan, "but we couldn't catch him with the goods. Five years ago, after the spring round-up, I branded a bunch of calves with a secret mark, and then we rode sign on Blanca.
"We had him then, for the calves disappeared and some of the boys found some of them in Blanca's corral, but we delayed, hoping he would run off more, and while we were waiting he sold out to Dakota. We didn't know that at the time; didn't find it out until we went over to take Blanca and found Dakota living in his cabin. He had a bill of sale from Blanca all right, showing that he'd bought the calves from him. It looked regular, but we had our doubts, and Dakota and me came pretty near having a run-in. If the boys hadn't interfered——"
He hesitated and looked at Sheila, and as her gaze met his steadily his eyes wavered and a slow red came into his face, for the recollection of what had actually occurred at the meeting between him and Dakota was not pleasant, and since that day Duncan had many times heard the word "Yellow" spoken in connection with his name—which meant that he lacked courage.
"So he wasn't a rustler, after all?" said Sheila pleasantly. For some reason which she could not entirely explain, she suspected that Duncan had left many things out of his story of his clash with Dakota.
"Well, no," admitted Duncan grudgingly.
Sheila was surprised at the satisfaction she felt over this admission. Perhaps Duncan read her face as she had read his, for he frowned.
"Him and Blanca framed up—making believe that Blanca had sold him the Star brand," he said venomously.
"I don't believe it!" Sheila's eyes met Duncan's and the latter's wavered. She was not certain which gave her the thrill she felt—her defense of Dakota or Duncan's bitter rage over the exhibition of that defense.
"He doesn't appear to me to be the sort of man who would steal cows," she said with a smile which made Duncan's teeth show. "Although," she continued significantly, "it does seem that he is the sort of man I would not care to trifle with—if I were a man. You told me yourself, if you remember, that you were not taking any chances with him. And now you accuse him. If I were you," she warned, "I would be more careful—I would keep from saying things which I could not prove."
"Meaning that I'm afraid of him, I reckon?" sneered Duncan.
Sheila looked at him, her eyes alight with mischief. That day on the edge of the butte overlooking the river, when Duncan had talked about Dakota, she had detected in his manner an inclination to belittle the latter; several times since then she had heard him speak venomously of him, and she had suspected that all was not smooth between them. And now since Duncan had related the story of the calf incident she was certain that the relations between the two men were strained to the point of open rupture. Duncan had bothered her, had annoyed her with his attentions, had adopted toward her an air of easy familiarity, which she had deeply resented, and she yearned to humiliate him deeply.
"Afraid?" She appeared to hesitate. "Well, no," she said, surveying him with an appraising eye in which the mischief was partly concealed, "I do not believe that you are afraid. Perhaps you are merely careful where he is concerned. But I am certain that even if you were afraid of him you would not refuse to take his pony back. I promised to send it back, you know."
A deep red suddenly suffused Duncan's face. A sharp, savage gleam in his eyes—which Sheila met with a disarming smile—convinced her that he was aware of her object. She saw also that he did not intend to allow her to force him to perform the service.
He bowed and regarded her with a shallow smile.
"I will have one of the boys take the pony over to him the first thing in the morning," he said.
Sheila smiled sweetly. "Please don't bother," she said. "I wouldn't think of allowing one of the men to take the pony back. Perhaps I shall decide to ride over that way myself. I should not care to have you meet Dakota if you are afraid of him."
Her rippling laugh caused the red in Duncan's face to deepen, but she gave him no time to reply, for directly she had spoken she turned and walked toward the ranchhouse. Both Duncan and Langford watched her until she had vanished, and then Langford turned to Duncan.
"What on earth have you done to her?" he questioned.
But Duncan was savagely pulling the saddle from Dakota's pony and did not answer.
Sheila really had no expectation of prevailing upon Duncan to return Dakota's horse, and had she anticipated that the manager would accept her challenge she would not have given it, for after thinking over the incident of her rescue she had come to the conclusion that she had not treated Dakota fairly, and by personally taking his horse to him she would have an opportunity to proffer her tardy thanks for his service. She did not revert to the subject of the animal's return during the evening meal, however, nor after it when she and her father and Duncan sat on the gallery of the ranchhouse enjoying the cool of the night breezes.
After breakfast on the following morning she was standing near the windmill, watching the long arms travel lazily in their wide circles, when she saw Duncan riding away from the ranchhouse, leading Dakota's pony. She started toward the corral gates, intending to call to him to return, but thought better of the impulse and hailed him tauntingly instead:
"Please tell him to accept my thanks," she said, and Duncan turned his head, bowed mockingly, and continued on his way.
Half an hour after the departure of Duncan Sheila pressed a loafing puncher into service and directed him to rope a gentle pony for her. After the puncher had secured a suitable appearing animal and had placed a saddle and bridle on it, she compelled him to ride it several times around the confines of the pasture to make certain that it would not "buck." Then she mounted and rode up the river.
Duncan was not particularly pleased over his errand, and many times while he rode the trail toward Dakota's cabin his lips moved from his teeth in a snarl. Following the incident of the theft of the calves by Blanca, Duncan had taken pains to insinuate publicly that Dakota's purchase of the Star from the half-breed had been a clever ruse to avert suspicion, intimating that a partnership existed between Dakota and Blanca. The shooting of Blanca by Dakota, however, had exploded this charge, and until now Duncan had been very careful to avoid a meeting with the man whom he had maligned.
During the night he had given much thought to the circumstance which was sending him to meet his enemy. He had a suspicion that Sheila had purposely taunted him with cowardice—that in all probability Dakota himself had suggested the plan in order to force a meeting with him. This thought suggested another. Sheila's defense of Dakota seemed to indicate that a certain intimacy existed between them. He considered this carefully, and with a throb of jealously concluded that Dakota's action in saving Sheila's life would very likely pave the way for a closer acquaintance.
Certainly, in spite of Sheila's remark about Dakota being a "brute," she had betrayed evidence of admiration for the man. In that case her veiled allusions to his own fear of meeting Dakota were very likely founded on something which Dakota had told her, and certainly anything which Dakota might have said about him would not be complimentary. Therefore his rage against both Sheila and his enemy was bitter when he finally rode up to the door of the latter's cabin.
There was hope in his heart that Dakota might prove to be absent, and when, after calling once and receiving no answer, he dismounted and hitched Dakota's pony to a rail of the corral fence, there was a smile of satisfaction on his face.
He took plenty of time to hitch the pony; he even lingered at the corral bars, leaning on them to watch several steers which were inside the enclosure. He found time, too, in spite of his fear of his enemy, to sneer over the evidences of prosperity which were on every hand. He was congratulating himself on his good fortune in reaching Dakota's cabin during a time when the latter was absent, when he heard a slight sound behind him. He turned rapidly, to see Dakota standing in the doorway of the cabin, watching him with cold, level eyes, one of his heavy six-shooters in hand.
Duncan's face went slowly pale. He did not speak at once and when he did he was surprised at his hoarseness.
"I've brought your cayuse back," he said finally.
"So I see," returned Dakota. His eyes glinted with a cold humor, though they were still regarding Duncan with an alertness which the other could not mistake.
"So I see," repeated Dakota. His slow drawl was in evidence again. "I don't recollect, though, that I sent word to have you bring him back."
"I wasn't tickled to death over the job," returned Duncan.
Now that his first surprise was over and Dakota had betrayed no sign of resenting his visit, Duncan felt easier. There had been a slight sneer in his voice when he answered.
"That isn't surprising," returned Dakota. "There never was a time when you were tickled a heap to stick your nose into my affairs." His smile froze Duncan.
"I ain't looking for trouble," said the latter, with a perfect knowledge of Dakota's peculiar expression.
"Then why did you come over here? I reckon there wasn't anyone else to send my horse over by?" said Dakota, his voice coming with a truculent snap.
Duncan flushed. "Sheila Langford sent me," he admitted reluctantly.
Dakota's eyes lighted with incredulity. "I reckon you're a liar," he said with cold emphasis.
Duncan's gaze went to the pistol in Dakota's hand and his lips curled. He knew that he was perfectly safe so long as he made no hostile move, for in spite of his derogatory remarks about the man he was aware that he never used his weapons without provocation.
Therefore he forced a smile. "You ain't running no Blanca deal on me," he said. "Calling me a liar ain't going to get no rise out of me. But she sent me, just the same. I reckon, liking you as I do, that I ought to be glad she gave me the chance to come over and see you, but I ain't. We was gassing about you and she told me I was scared to bring your cayuse back." He laughed mirthlessly. "I reckon I've proved that I ain't any scared."
"No," said Dakota with a cold grin, "you ain't scared. You know that there won't be any shooting done unless you get careless with that gun you carry." His eyes were filled with a whimsical humor, but they were still alert, as he watched Duncan's face for signs of insincerity. He saw no such signs and his expression became mocking. "So she sent you over here?" he said, and his was the voice of one enemy enjoying some subtle advantage over another. "Why, I reckon you're a kind of handy man to have around—sort of ladies' man—running errands and such."
Duncan's face bloated with anger, but he dared not show open resentment. For behind Dakota's soft voice and gentle, over-polite manner, he felt the deep rancor for whose existence he alone was responsible. So, trying to hold his passions in check, he grinned at Dakota, significantly, insinuatingly, unable finally to keep the bitter hatred and jealousy out of his voice. For in the evilness of his mind he had drawn many imaginary pictures of what had occurred between Dakota and Sheila immediately after her rescue by the latter.
"I reckon," he said hoarsely, "that you take a heap of interest in Sheila."
"That's part of your business, I suppose?" Dakota's voice was suddenly hard.
Duncan had decided to steer carefully away from any trouble with Dakota; he had even decided that as a measure for his own safety he must say nothing which would be likely to arouse Dakota's anger, but the jealous thoughts in his mind had finally gotten the better of prudence, and the menace in Dakota's voice angered him.
"I reckon," he said with a sneer, "that I ain't as much interested in her as you are."
He started back, his lips tightening over his teeth in a snarl of alarm and fear, for Dakota had stepped down from the doorway and was at his side, his eyes narrowed with cold wrath.
"Meaning what?" he demanded harshly, sharply, for he imagined that perhaps Sheila had told of her marriage to him, and the thought that Duncan should have been selected by her to share the secret maddened him.
"Meaning what, you damned coyote?" he insisted, stepping closer to Duncan.
"Meaning that she ain't admiring you for nothing," flared Duncan incautiously, his jealously overcoming his better judgment. "Meaning that any woman which has been pulled out of a quicksand like you pulled her out might be expected to favor you with——"
The sunlight flashed on Dakota's pistol as it leaped from his right hand to his left and was bolstered with a jerk. And with the same motion his clenched fist was jammed with savage force against Duncan's lips, cutting short the slanderous words and sending him in a heap to the dust of the corral yard.
With a cry of rage Duncan grasped for his pistol and drew it out, but the hand holding it was stamped violently into the earth, the arm bent and twisted until the fingers released the weapon. And then Dakota stood over him, looking down at him with narrowed, chilling eyes, his face white and hard, his anger gone as quickly as it had come. He said no word while Duncan clambered awkwardly to his feet and mounted his horse.
"I'm telling you something," he said quietly, as Duncan lifted the reins with his uninjured hand, turning his horse to depart. "You and me have never hitched very well and there isn't any chance of us ever falling on each other's necks. I think what I've done to you about squares us for that calf deal. I've been yearning to hand you something before you left the country, but I didn't expect you'd give me the chance in just this way. I'm warning you that the next time you shove your coyote nose into my business I'll muss it up some. That applies to Miss Sheila. If I ever hear of you getting her name on your dirty tongue again I'll tear you apart. I reckon that's all." He drew his pistol and balanced it in his right hand. "It makes me feel some reckless to be talking to you," he added, a glint of intolerance in his eyes. "You'd better travel before I change my mind.
"You don't need to mention this to Miss Sheila," he said mockingly, as Duncan urged his horse away from the corral gate; "just let her go on—thinking you're a man."
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?"
"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.
"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.
"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?"
"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."
"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.
"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?"
"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!"
DUNCAN ADDS TWO AND TWO
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.