But since the interview with Doubler at Doubler's cabin, Langford had been strangely silent regarding his plans. Not once had he referred to the nester, and his silence had nettled Duncan. Langford had ignored his hints, had returned monosyllabic replies to his tentative questions, causing the manager to appear to be an outsider in an affair in which he felt a vital interest.
It was annoying, to say the least, and Duncan's nature rebelled against the slight, whether intentional or accidental. He had waited patiently until the morning following his conversation with Langford about Dakota, certain that the Double R owner would speak, but when after breakfast the next morning Langford had ridden away without breaking his silence, the manager had gone into the ranchhouse, secured his field glasses, mounted his pony, and followed.
He kept discreetly in the rear, lingering in the depressions, skirting the bases of the hills, concealing himself in draws and behind boulders—never once making the mistake of appearing on the skyline. And when Langford was sitting on the box in front of Dakota's cabin, the manager was deep into the woods that surrounded the clearing where the cabin stood, watching intently through his field glasses.
He saw Langford depart, remained after his departure to see Dakota repeatedly read the signed agreement. Of course, he was entirely ignorant of what had transpired, but there was little doubt in his mind that the two had reached some sort of an understanding. That their conversation and subsequent agreement concerned Doubler he had little doubt either, for fresh in his mind was a recollection of his conversation with Langford, distinguished by Langford's carefully guarded questions regarding Dakota's ability with the six-shooter. He felt that Langford was deliberately leaving him out of the scheme, whatever it was.
Puzzled and raging inwardly over the slight, Duncan did not return to the ranchhouse that day and spent the night at one of the line camps. The following day he rode in to the ranchhouse to find that Langford had gone out riding with Sheila. Morose, sullen, Duncan again rode abroad, returning with the dusk. In his conversation with Langford that night the Double R owner made no reference to Doubler, and, studying Sheila, Duncan thought she seemed depressed.
During her ride that day with her father Sheila had received a startling revelation of his character. She had questioned him regarding his treatment of Doubler, ending with a plea for justice for the latter. For the first time during all the time she had known Langford she had seen an angry intolerance in his eyes, and though his voice had been as bland and smooth as ever, it did not heal the wound which had been made in her heart over the discovery that he could feel impatient with her.
"My dear Sheila," he said, "I should regret to find that you are interested in my business affairs."
"Doubler declares that you are unjust," she persisted, determined to do her best to avert the trouble that seemed impending.
"Doubler is an obstacle in the path of progress and will get the consideration he deserves," he said shortly. "Please do not meddle with what does not concern you."
Thus had an idol which Sheila worshiped been tumbled from its pedestal. Sheila surveyed it, lying shattered at her feet, with moist eyes. It might be restored, patched so that it would resemble its original shape, but never again would it appear the same in her eyes. She had received a glimpse of her father's real character; she saw the merciless, designing, real man stripped of the polished veneer that she had admired; his soul lay naked before her, seared and rendered unlovely by the blackness of deceit and trickery.
As the days passed, however, she collected the fragments of the shattered idol and began to replace them. Piece by piece she fitted them together, cementing them with her faith, so that in time the idol resembled its original shape.
She had been too exacting, she told herself. Men had ways of dealing with one another which women could not understand. Her ideas of justice were tempered with mercy and pity; she allowed her heart to map out her line of conduct toward her fellow men, and as a consequence her sympathies were broad and tender. In business, though, she supposed, it must be different. There mind must rule. It was a struggle in which the keenest wit and the sharpest instinct counted, and in which the emotion of mercy was subordinate to the love of gain. And so in time she erected her idol again and the cracks and seams in it became almost invisible.
While she had been restoring her idol there had been other things to occupy her mind. A thin line divides tragedy from comedy, and after the tragedy of discovering her father's real character Sheila longed for something to take her mind out of the darkness. A recollection of Duncan's jealousy, which he had exhibited on the day that she had related the story of her rescue by Dakota, still abided with her, and convinced that she might secure diversion by fanning the spark that she had discovered, she began by inducing Duncan to ask her to ride with him.
Sitting on the grass one day in the shade of some fir-balsams on a slope several miles down the river, Sheila looked at Duncan with a smile.
"I believe that I am beginning to like the country," she said.
"I expected you would like it after you were here a while. Everybody does. It grows into one. If you ever go back East you will never be contented—you'll be dreaming and longing. The West improves on acquaintance, like the people."
"Meaning?" she said, with a defiant mockery so plain in her eyes that Duncan drew a deep breath.
"Meaning that you ought to begin to like us—the people," he said.
"Perhaps I do like some of the people," she laughed.
"For instance," he said, his face reddening a little.
She looked at him with a taunting smile. "I don't believe that I like you—so very well. You get too cross when things don't suit you."
"I think you are mistaken," he challenged. "When have I been cross?"
Sheila laughed. "Do you remember the night that I came home and told you and father how Dakota had rescued me from the quicksand? Well," she continued, noting his nod and the frown which accompanied it, "you were cross that night—almost boorish. You moped and went off to bed without saying good-night."
It pleased Duncan to tell her that he had forgotten if he had ever acted that way, and she did not press him. And so a silence fell between them.
"You said you were beginning to like some of the people," said Duncan presently. "You don't like me. Then who do you like?"
"Well," she said, appearing to meditate, but in reality watching him closely so that she might catch his gaze when he looked up. "There's Ben Doubler. He seems to be a very nice old man. And"—Duncan looked at her and she met his gaze fairly, her eyes dancing with mischief—"and Dakota. He is a character, don't you think?"
Duncan frowned darkly and removed his gaze from her face, directing it down into the plain on the other side of the river. What strange fatality had linked her sympathies and admiration with his enemies? A rage which he dared not let her see seized him, and he sat silent, clenching and unclenching his hands.
She saw his condition and pressed him without mercy.
"He is a character, isn't he? An odd one, but attractive?"
Duncan sneered. "He pulled you out of the quicksand, of course. Anybody could have done that, if they'd been around. I reckon that's what makes him 'attractive' in your eyes. On the other hand, he put Texas Blanca out of business. Does that killing help to make him attractive?"
"Wasn't Blanca his enemy. If you remember, you told father and me that Blanca sold him some stolen cattle. Then, according to what I have heard of the story, he met Blanca in Lazette, ordered him to leave, and when he didn't go he shot him. I understand that that is the code in matters of that sort—people have to take the law in their own hands. But he gave Blanca the opportunity to shoot first. Wasn't that fair?"
It seemed odd to her that she was defending the man who had wronged her, yet strangely enough she discovered that defending him gave her a thrill of satisfaction, though she assured herself that the satisfaction came from the fact that she was engaged in the task of arousing Duncan's jealousy.
"You've been inquiring about him, then?" said Duncan, his face dark with rage and hatred. "What I told you about that calf deal is the story that Dakota himself tells about it. A lot of people in this country don't believe Dakota's story. They believe what I believe, that Dakota and Blanca were in partnership on that deal, and that Dakota framed up that story about Blanca selling out to him to avert suspicion. It's likely that they wised up to the fact that we were on to them."
"I believe you mentioned your suspicions to Dakota himself, didn't you? The day you went over after the calves? You had quite a talk with him about them, didn't you?" said Sheila, sweetly.
Duncan's face whitened. "Who told you that?" he demanded.
"And he told you that if you ever interfered with him again, or that if he heard of you repeating your suspicions to anyone, he would do something to you—run you out of the country, or something like that, didn't he?"
"Who told you that?" repeated Duncan.
"Doubler told me," returned Sheila with a smile.
Duncan's face worked with impotent wrath as he looked at her. "So Doubler's been gassing again?" he said with a sneer. "Well, there's never been any love lost between Doubler and me, and so what he says don't amount to much." He laughed oddly. "It's strange to think how thick you are with Doubler," he said. "I understand that your dad and Doubler ain't exactly on a friendly footing, that your dad was trying to buy him out and that he won't sell. There's likely to be trouble, for your dad is determined to get Doubler's land."
However, that was a subject upon which Sheila did not care to dwell.
"I don't think that I am interested in that," she said. "I presume that father is able to take care of his own affairs without any assistance from me."
Duncan's eyes lighted with interest. Her words showed that she was aware of Langford's differences with the nester. Probably her father had told her—taking her into his confidence while ignoring his manager. Perhaps he had even told her of his visit to Dakota; perhaps there had been more than one visit and Sheila had accompanied him. Undoubtedly, he told himself, Sheila's admiration for Dakota had resulted from not one, but many, meetings. He flushed at the thought, and was forced to look away from Sheila for fear that she might see the passion that flamed in his eyes.
"You seen Dakota lately?" he questioned, after he had regained sufficient control of himself to be able to speak quietly.
"No." Sheila was flecking some dust from her skirts with her riding whip, and her manner was one of absolute lack of interest.
"Then you ain't been riding with your father?" said Duncan.
"Some." Sheila continued to brush the dust from her skirts. After answering Duncan's question, however, she realized that there had been a subtle undercurrent of meaning in his voice, and she turned and looked sharply at him.
"Why?" she demanded. "Do you mean that father has visited Dakota?"
"I reckon I'm meaning just that."
Sheila did not like the expression in Duncan's eyes, and her chin was raised a little as she turned from him and gave her attention to flecking the grass near her with the lash of her riding whip.
"Father attends to his own business," she said with some coldness, for she resented Duncan's apparent desire to interfere. "I told you that before. What he does in a business way does not interest me."
"No?" said Duncan mockingly. "Well, he's made some sort of a deal with Dakota!" he snapped, aware of his lack of wisdom in telling her this, but unable to control his resentment over the slight which had been imposed on him by Langford, and by her own chilling manner, which seemed to emphasize the fact that he had been left outside their intimate councils.
"A deal?" said Sheila quickly, unable to control her interest.
For a moment he did not answer. He felt her gaze upon him, and he met it, smiling mysteriously. Under the sudden necessity of proving his statement, his thoughts centered upon the conclusion which had resulted from his suspicions—that Langford's visit to Dakota concerned Doubler. Equivocation would have taken him safely away from the pitfall into which his rash words had almost plunged him, but he felt that any evasion now would only bring scorn into the eyes which he wished to see alight with something else. Besides, here was an opportunity to speak a derogatory word about his enemy, and he could not resist—could not throw it carelessly aside. There was a venomous note in his voice when he finally answered:
"The other day your father was speaking to me about gun-men. I told him that Dakota would do anything for money."
A slow red appeared in Sheila's cheeks, mounted to her temples, disappeared entirely and was succeeded by a paleness. She kept her gaze averted, and Duncan could not see her eyes—they were turned toward the slumberous plains that stretched away into the distance on the other side of the river. But Duncan knew that he had scored, and was not bothered over the possibility of there being little truth in his implied charge. He watched her, gloating over her, certain that at a stroke he had effectually eliminated Dakota as a rival.
Sheila turned suddenly to him. "How do you know that Dakota would do anything like that?"
Duncan smiled as he saw her lips, straight and white, and tightening coldly.
"How do I know?" he jeered. "How does a man know anything in this country? By using his eyes, of course. I've used mine. I've watched Dakota for five years. I've known all along that he isn't on the square—that he has been running his branding iron on other folks' cattle. I've told you that he worked a crooked deal on me, and then sent Blanca over the divide when he thought there was a chance of Blanca giving the deal away. I am told that when he met Blanca in the Red Dog Blanca told him plainly that he didn't know anything about the calf deal. That shows how he treats his friends. He'll do anything for money.
"The other day I saw your father at his cabin, talking to him. They had quite a confab. Your father has had trouble with Doubler—you know that. He has threatened to run Doubler off the Two Forks. I heard that myself. He wouldn't try to run Doubler off himself—that's too dangerous a business for him to undertake. Not wanting to take the chance himself he hires someone else. Who? Dakota's the only gunman around these parts. Therefore, your dad goes to Dakota. He and Dakota signed a paper—I saw Dakota reading it. I've just put two and two together, and that's the result. I reckon I ain't far out of the way."
Sheila laughed as she might have laughed had someone told her that she herself had plotted to murder Doubler—a laugh full of scorn and mockery. Yet in her eyes, which were wide with horror, and in her face, which was suddenly drawn and white, was proof that Duncan's words had hurt her mortally.
She was silent; she did not offer to defend Dakota, for in her thoughts still lingered a recollection of the scene of the shooting in Lazette. And when she considered her father's distant manner toward her and Ben Doubler's grave prediction of trouble, it seemed that perhaps Duncan was right. Yet in spite of the shooting of Blanca and the evil light which was now thrown on Dakota through Duncan's deductions, she felt confident that Dakota would not become a party to a plot in which the murder of a man was deliberately planned. He had wronged her and he had killed a man, but at the quicksand crossing that day—despite the rage which had been in her heart against him—she had studied him and had become convinced that behind his recklessness, back of the questionable impulses that seemed at times to move him, there lurked qualities which were wholly admirable, and which could be felt by anyone who came in contact with him. Certainly those qualities which she had seen had not been undiscovered by Duncan—and others.
She remembered now that on a former occasion the manager had practically admitted his fear of Dakota, and then there was his conduct on that day when she had asked him to return Dakota's pony. Duncan's manner then had seemed to indicate that he feared Dakota—at the least did not like him. Ben Doubler had given her a different version of the trouble between Dakota and Duncan; how Duncan had accused Dakota of stealing the Double R calves, and how in the presence of Duncan's own men Dakota had forced him to apologize. Taken altogether, it seemed that Duncan's present suspicions were the result of his dislike, or fear, of Dakota. Convinced of this, her eyes flashed with contempt when she looked at the manager.
"I believe you are lying," she said coldly. "You don't like Dakota. But I have faith in him—in his manhood. I don't believe that any man who has the courage to force another man to apologize to him in the face of great odds, would, or could, be so entirely base as to plan to murder a poor, unoffending old man in cold blood. Perhaps you are not lying," she concluded with straight lips, "but the very least that can be said for you is that you have a lurid imagination!"
In Duncan's gleaming, shifting eyes, in the lips which were tensed over his teeth in a snarl, she could see the bitterness that was in his heart over the incident to which she had just referred.
"Wait," he said smiling evilly. "You'll know more about Dakota before long."
Sheila rose and walked to her pony, mounting the animal and riding slowly away from the river. She did not see the queer smile on Duncan's face as she rode, but looking back at the distance of a hundred yards, she saw that he did not intend to follow her. He was still sitting where she had left him, his back to her, his face turned toward the plains which spread away toward Dakota's cabin, twenty miles down the river.
A PARTING AND A VISIT
The problem which filled Duncan's mind as he sat on the edge of the slope overlooking the river was a three-sided one. To reach a conclusion the emotions of fear, hatred, and jealousy would have to be considered in the light of their relative importance.
There was, for example, his fear of Dakota, which must be taken into account when he meditated any action prompted by his jealousy, and his fear of Dakota was a check on his desires, a damper which must control the heat of his emotions. He might hate Dakota, but his fear of him would prevent his taking any action which might expose his own life to risk. On the other hand, jealousy urged him to accept any risk; it kept telling him over and over that he was a fool to allow Dakota to live. But Duncan knew better than to attempt an open clash with Dakota; each time that he had looked into Dakota's eyes he had seen there something which told him plainer than words of his own inferiority—that he would have no chance in a man-to-man encounter with him. And his latest experience with Dakota had proved that.
However, Duncan's character would not permit him to concede defeat, and his revenge was not a thing to be considered lightly. Therefore, though he sat for a long time on the slope, meditating over his problem, in the end he smiled. It was not a good smile to see, for his eyes were alight with a crafty, designing gleam, and there was a cruel curve in the lines of his lips. When he finally mounted his pony and rode away from the slope he was whistling.
During the next few days he did not see much of Sheila, for he avoided the ranchhouse as much as possible. He rode out with Langford many times, and though he covertly questioned the Double R owner concerning the affair with Doubler he could gain no satisfying information. Langford's reticence further aggravated the passions which rioted in his heart, and finally one afternoon when they rode up to the ranchhouse his curiosity could be held in check no longer, and he put the blunt question:
"What have you done about Doubler?"
Langford's shifting eyes rested for the fraction of a second on the face of his manager, and then the old, bland smile came into his own and he answered smoothly: "Nothing."
"I have been thinking," said Duncan carelessly, but with a sharp side glance at his employer, "that it wouldn't be a half bad idea to set a gunman on Doubler—a man like Dakota, for instance."
The manager saw Langford's lips straighten a little, and his eyes flashed with a sudden fire. The expression on Langford's face strengthened the conviction already in Duncan's mind concerning the motive of his employer's visit to Dakota.
"I don't think I care to have any dealings with Dakota," said Langford shortly.
Duncan's eyes blazed again. "I reckon if you'd go talk to him," he persisted, turning his head so that Langford could not see the suppressed rage in his eyes, "you might be able to make a deal with him."
"I don't wish to deal with him. I have decided not to bother Doubler at present. And I have no desire to talk with Dakota. Frankly, my dear Duncan, I don't like the man."
"You been in the habit of forming opinions of men you've never talked to?" said Duncan. He could not keep the sneer out of his voice.
Langford noticed it and laughed softly.
"It is my recollection that a certain man of my acquaintance advised me at length of Dakota's shortcomings," he said significantly. "For me to talk to Dakota after that would be to consider this man's words valueless. I will have nothing to do with Dakota. That is," he added, "unless you have altered your opinion of him."
Duncan did not reply, and he said nothing more to Langford on the subject, but he had discovered that for some reason Langford had chosen to keep the knowledge of his visit to Dakota secret, and Duncan's suspicions that the visit concerned Doubler became a conviction. Filled with resentment over Langford's attitude toward him, and with his mind definitely fixed upon the working out of his problem, Duncan decided to visit Doubler.
He chose a day when Langford had ridden away to a distant cow camp, and as when he was following the Double R owner, he did not ride the beaten trail but kept behind the ridges and in the depressions, and when he came within sight of Doubler's cabin he halted to reconnoiter. A swift survey of the corral showed him a rangy, piebald pony, which he knew to belong to Dakota. As the animal had on a bridle and a saddle he surmised that Dakota's visit would not be of long duration, and having no desire to visit Doubler in the presence of his rival, he shunted his own horse off the edge of a sand dune and down into the bed of a dry arroyo. Urging the animal along this, he presently reached a sand flat on whose edge arose a grove of fir-balsam and cottonwood.
For an hour, deep in the grove, he watched the cabin, and at length he saw Dakota come out; saw a smile on his face; heard him laugh. His lips writhed at the sound, and he listened intently to catch the conversation which was carried on between the two men, but the distance was too great. However, he was able to judge from the actions of the two that their relations were decidedly friendly, and this discovery immediately raised a doubt in his mind as to the correctness of his deductions.
Yet the doubt did not seriously affect his determination to carry out the plan he had in mind, and when a few moments after coming out of the cabin, Dakota departed down the river trail, Duncan slowly rode out of the grove and approached the cabin.
Doubler stood in the open doorway, looking after Dakota, and when the latter finally disappeared around a bend in the river the nester turned and saw Duncan. Instantly he stepped inside the cabin door, reappearing immediately, holding a rifle. Duncan continued to ride forward, raising one hand, with the palm toward Doubler, as a sign of the peacefulness of his intentions. The latter permitted him to approach, though he held the rifle belligerently.
"I want to talk," said Duncan, when he had come near enough to make himself heard.
"Pull up right where you are, then," commanded Doubler. He was silent while Duncan drew his pony to a halt and sat motionless in the saddle looking at him. Then his voice came with a truculent snap:
"Where's your new boss?" sarcastically inquired Doubler. "Ain't you scared he'll git lost—runnin' around alone without anyone to look after him?"
"I ain't his keeper," returned Duncan shortly.
Doubler laughed unbelievingly. "You was puttin' in a heap of your time bein' his keeper, the last I saw of you," he declared coldly.
"Mebbe I was. We've had a falling out." The venom in Duncan's voice was not at all pretended. "He's double crossed me."
"Double crossed you?" There was disbelief and suspicion in Doubter's laugh. "How's he done that? I reckoned you was too smart for anyone to do that to you?" The sarcasm in this last brought a dark red into Duncan's face, but he successfully concealed his resentment and smiled.
"That's all right," he said; "I've got more than that coming from you. I'm telling you about what he done to me if you ain't got any objections to me getting off my horse."
"Tell me from where you are." In spite of the coldness in the nester's voice there was interest in his eyes. "Mebbe you an' him have had a fallin' out, but I ain't takin' any chances on you bein' my friend—not a durned chance."
"That's right. I don't blame you for not wanting to take a chance, and I'm not pretending to be your friend. And I sure ain't any friendly to Langford. He's double crossed me, but I ain't telling how he done it—that's between him and me. But I want to tell you something that will interest you a whole lot. It's about some guy which is trying to double cross you. To prove that I ain't thinking to plug you when you ain't looking I'm leaving my gun here." He drew out his six-shooter and stuck it behind his slicker, dismounted, and threw the reins over the pony's head.
In silence Doubler suffered him to approach, though he kept his rifle ready in his hand and his eyes still continued to wear a belligerent expression.
"You and me ain't been what you might call friendly for a long time," offered Duncan when he had halted a few feet from Doubler. "We've had words, but I've never tried to take any mean advantage of you—which I might have done if I'd wanted to." He smiled ingratiatingly.
"We ain't goin' to go over what's happened between us," declared Doubler coldly. "We're lettin' that go by. If you'll stick to the palaver that you spoke about mebbe we'll be able to git along for a minute or two. Meanwhile, you'll excuse me if I keep this here gun in shape for you if you try any monkey business."
Duncan masked his dislike of Doubler under a deprecatory smile. "That's right," he agreed. "We'll let what's happened pass without talking about it. What's between us now is something different. I've never pretended to be your friend, and I'm not pretending to be your friend now. But I've always been square with you, and I'm square now. Can you say that about him?" He jerked his thumb in the direction of the river trail, on which Dakota had vanished some time before.
"Him?" inquired Doubler. "You mean Dakota?" He caught Duncan's nod and smiled slowly. "I reckon you're some off your range," he said. "There ain't no comparin' Dakota to you—he's always been my friend."
"A man's got a friend one day and he's an enemy the next," said Duncan mysteriously.
"Meaning that Dakota ain't so much of a friend as you think he is."
Doubler's lips grew straight and hard. "I reckon that ends the palaver," he said coldly, while he fingered the rifle in his hand significantly. "If that's what you come for you can be hittin' the breeze right back to the Double R. I'm givin' you——"
"You're traveling too fast," remonstrated Duncan, a hoarseness coming into his voice. "You'll talk different when you hear what I've got to say. I reckon you know that Langford ain't any friendly to you?"
"I don't see—" began Doubler.
He was interrupted by Duncan's harsh laugh. "Of course you don't see," he said. "I've come over here to make you open your eyes. Langford ain't no friend of yours, and I reckon that you wouldn't consider any man your friend which sets in his cabin a couple of hours talking to Langford, about you?"
"Meanin' that Langford's been to see Dakota?" Doubler's voice was suddenly harsh and his eyes glinted with suspicion. Certain that he had scored, Duncan turned and smiled into the distance. When he again faced Doubler his face wore an expression of sympathy.
"When a man's been a friend to you and you find that he's going to double cross you, it's apt to make you feel pretty mean," he said. "I'm allowing that. But there's a lot of us get double crossed. I got it and I'm seeing that they don't ring in any cold deck on you."
"How do you know Dakota's tryin' to do that?" demanded Doubler.
Duncan laughed. "I've kept my eyes open. Also, I've been listening right hard. I wasn't so far away when Langford went to Dakota's shack, and I heard considerable of what they said about you."
Doubler's interest was now intense; he spoke eagerly: "What did they say?"
"I reckon you ought to be able to guess what they said," said Duncan with a crafty smile. "I reckon you know that Langford wants your land mighty bad, don't you? And you won't sell. Didn't he tell you in front of me that he was going to make trouble for you? He wants me to make it, though; he wants me to set the boys on you. But I won't do it. Then he shuts up like a clam and don't say anything more to me about it. He saw Dakota send Blanca over the divide and he's some impressed by his shooting. He figures that if Dakota puts one man out of business he'll put another out."
"Meanin' that Langford's hired Dakota to look for me?" Doubler's eyes were gleaming brightly.
"You're some keen, after all," taunted Duncan.
Doubler's jaws snapped. "You're a liar!" he said; "Dakota wouldn't do it!"
"Maybe I'm a liar," said Duncan, his face paling but his voice low and quiet. He was not surprised that Doubler should exhibit emotion over the charge that his friend was planning to murder him, yet he knew that the suspicion once established in Doubler's mind would soon grow to the stature of a conviction.
"Maybe I'm a liar," repeated Duncan. "But if you'll use your brain a little you'll see that things look bad for you. Dakota's been here. Did he tell you about Langford coming to see him? I reckon not," he added as he caught Doubler's blank stare; "he'd likely not tell you about it. But I reckon that if he was your friend he'd tell you. I reckon you told him about Langford wanting your land—about him telling you he'd make things hot for you?"
Doubler nodded silently, and Duncan continued. "Well," he said, with a short laugh, "I've told you, and it's up to you. They were talking about you, and if Dakota's your friend, as you're claiming him to be, he'd have told you what they was talking about—if it wasn't what I say it was—him knowing how Langford feels toward you. And they didn't only talk. Langford wrote something on a paper and gave it to Dakota. I don't know what he wrote, but it seemed to tickle Dakota a heap. Leastways, he done a heap of laffing over it. Likely Langford's promised him a heap of dust to do the job. Mebbe he's your friend, but if I was you I wouldn't give him no chance to say I drawed first."
Doubler placed his rifle down and passed a hand slowly and hesitatingly over his forehead. "I don't like to think that of Dakota," he said, faith and suspicion battling for supremacy. "Dakota just left here; he acted a heap friendly—as usual—mebbe more so."
"I reckon that when a man goes gunning for another man he don't advertise a whole lot," observed Duncan insinuatingly.
"No," agreed Doubler, staring blankly into the distance where he had last seen his supposed friend, "a man don't generally do a heap of advertisin' when he's out lookin' for a man." He sat for a time staring straight ahead, and then he suddenly looked up, his eyes filled with a savage fierceness. "How do I know you ain't lyin' to me?" he demanded, glaring at Duncan, his hands clenched in an effort to control himself.
Duncan's eyes did not waver. "I reckon you don't know whether I'm lying," he returned, showing his teeth in a slight smile. "But I reckon you're twenty-one and ought to have your eye-teeth cut. Anyway, you ought to know that a man like Langford, who's wanting your land, don't go to talk with a man like Dakota, who's some on the shoot, for nothing. How do you know that Langford and Dakota ain't friends? How do you know but that they've been friends back East? Do you know where Dakota came from? Mebbe he's from the East, too. I'm telling you one thing," added Duncan, and now his voice was filled with passion, "Dakota and Sheila Langford are pretty thick. She makes believe that she don't like him, but he saved her from a quicksand, and she's been running with him considerable. Takes his part, too; does it, but she makes you believe that she don't like him. I reckon she's pretty foxy."
Doubler's memory went back to a conversation he had had with Sheila in which Dakota had been the subject under discussion. He remembered that she had shown a decided coldness, suggesting by her manner that she and Dakota were not on the best of terms. Could it be that she had merely pretended this coldness? Could it be that she was concerned in the plot against him, that she and her father and Dakota were combined against him for the common purpose of taking his life?
He was convinced that any such suspicion against Sheila must be unjust, for he had studied her face many times and was certain that there was not a line of deceit in it. And yet, was it not odd that, when he had told her of the trouble between him and her father, she had not immediately taken her parent's side? To be sure, she had told him that Langford was merely her stepfather, but could not that statement also have been a misleading one? And even if Langford were only her stepfather, would she not have felt it her duty to align herself with him?
"I reckon you know a heap about Dakota, don't you?" came Duncan's voice, breaking into Doubler's reflections. "You know, for instance, that Dakota came here from Dakota—or anyway, he says he came here from there. We'll say you know that. But what do you know about Langford? Didn't he tell you that he was going to 'get' you?"
Duncan turned his back to Doubler and walked to his pony. He drew out his six-shooter, stuck it into its holster, and placed one foot in a stirrup, preparatory to mounting. Then he turned and spoke gravely to Doubler.
"I've done all I could," he said. "You know how you stand and the rest of it is up to you. You can go on, letting Dakota and Sheila pretend to be friendly to you, and some day you'll get wise awful sudden—when it's too late. Or, you can wise up now and fix Dakota before he gets a chance at you. I reckon that's all. You can't say that I didn't put you wise to the game."
He swung into the saddle and urged the pony toward the crossing. Looking back from a crest of a rise on the other side of the river, he saw Doubler still standing in the doorway, his head bowed in his hands. Duncan smiled, his lips in cold, crafty curves, for he had planted the seed of suspicion and was satisfied that it would presently flourish and grow until it would finally accomplish the destruction of his rival, Dakota.
A MEETING ON THE RIVER TRAIL
About ten o'clock in the morning of a perfect day Sheila left the Double R ranchhouse for a ride to the Two Forks to visit Doubler. This new world into which she had come so hopefully had lately grown very lonesome. It had promised much and it had given very little. The country itself was not to blame for the state of her mind, though, she told herself as she rode over the brown, sun-scorched grass of the river trail, it was the people. They—even her father—seemed to hold aloof from her.
It seemed that she would never be able to fit in anywhere. She was convinced that the people with whom she was forced to associate were entirely out of accord with the principles of life which had been her guide—they appeared selfish, cold, and distant. Duncan's sister, the only woman beside herself in the vicinity, had discouraged all her little advances toward a better acquaintance, betraying in many ways a disinclination toward those exchanges of confidence which are the delight of every normal woman. Sheila had become aware very soon that there could be no hope of gaining her friendship or confidence and so of late she had ceased her efforts.
Of course, she could not attempt to cultivate an acquaintance with any of the cowboys—she already knew one too well, and the knowledge of her relationship to him had the effect of dulling her desire for seeking the company of the others.
For Duncan she had developed a decided dislike which amounted almost to hatred. She had been able to see quite early in their acquaintance the defects of his character, and though she had played on his jealousy in a spirit of fun, she had been careful to make him see that anything more than mere acquaintance was impossible. At least that was what she had tried to do, and she doubted much whether she had succeeded.
Doubler was the only one who had betrayed any real friendship for her, and to him, in her lonesomeness, she turned, in spite of the warning he had given her. She had visited him once since the day following her father's visit, and he had received her with his usual cordiality, but she had been able to detect a certain constraint in his manner which had caused her to determine to stay away from the Two Forks. But this morning she felt that she must go somewhere, and she selected Doubler's cabin.
Since that day when on the edge of the butte overlooking the river Duncan had voiced his suspicions that her father had planned to remove Doubler, Sheila had felt more than ever the always widening gulf that separated her from her parent. From the day on which he had become impatient with her when she had questioned him concerning his intentions with regard to Doubler he had treated her in much the manner that he always treated her, though it had seemed to her that there was something lacking; there was a certain strained civility in his manner, a veneer which smoothed over the breach of trust which his attitude that day had created.
Many times, watching him, Sheila had wondered why she had never been able to peer through the mask of his imperturbability at the real, unlovely character it concealed. She believed it was because she had always trusted him and had not taken the trouble to try to uncover his real character. She had tried for a long time to fight down the inevitable, growing estrangement, telling herself that she had been, and was, mistaken in her estimate of his character since the day he had told her not to meddle with his affairs, and she had nearly succeeded in winning the fight when Duncan had again destroyed her faith with the story of her father's visit to Dakota.
Duncan had added two and two, he had told her when furnishing her with the threads out of which he had constructed the fabric of his suspicions, and she was compelled to acknowledge that they seemed sufficiently strong. Contemplation of the situation, however, had convinced her that Dakota was partly to blame, and her anger against him—greatly softened since the rescue at the quicksand—flared out again.
Two weeks had passed since Duncan had told her of his suspicions, and they had been two weeks of constant worry and dread to her.
Unable to stand the suspense longer she had finally decided to seek out Dakota to attempt to confirm Duncan's story of her father's visit and to plead with Dakota to withhold his hand. But first she would see Doubler.
The task of talking to Dakota about anything was not to her liking, but she compromised with her conscience by telling herself that she owed it to herself to prevent the murder of Doubler—that if the nester should be killed with her in possession of the plan for his taking off, and able to lift a hand in protest or warning, she would be as guilty as her father or Dakota.
As she rode she could not help contrasting Dakota's character to those of her father and Duncan. She eliminated Duncan immediately, as being not strong enough to compare either favorably or unfavorably with either of the other two. And, much against her will, she was compelled to admit that with all his shortcomings Dakota made a better figure than her father. But there was little consolation for her in this comparison, for she bitterly assured herself that there was nothing attractive in either. Both had wronged her—Dakota deliberately and maliciously; her father had placed the bar of a cold civility between her and himself, and she could no longer go to him with her confidences. She had lost his friendship, and he had lost her respect.
Of late she had speculated much over Dakota. That day at the quicksand crossing he had seemed to be a different man from the one who had stood with revolver in hand before the closed door of his cabin, giving her a choice of two evils. For one thing, she was no longer afraid of him; in his treatment of her at the crossing he had not appeared as nearly so forbidding as formerly, had been almost attractive to her, in those moments when she could forget the injury he had done her. Those moments had been few, to be sure, but during them she had caught flashes of the real Dakota, and though she fought against admiring him, she knew that deep in her heart lingered an emotion which must be taken into account. He had really done her no serious injury, nothing which would not be undone through the simple process of the law, and in his manner on the day of the rescue there had been much respect, and in spite of the mocking levity with which he had met her reproaches she felt that he felt some slight remorse over his action.
For a time she forgot to think about Dakota, becoming lost in contemplation of the beauty of the country. Sweeping away from the crest of the ridge on which she was riding, it lay before her, basking in the warm sunlight of the morning, wild and picturesque, motionless, silent—as quiet and peaceful as might have been that morning on which, his work finished, the Creator had surveyed the new world with a satisfied eye.
She had reached a point about a mile from Doubler's cabin, still drinking in the beauty that met her eyes on every hand, when an odd sound broke the perfect quiet.
Suddenly alert, she halted her pony and listened.
The sound had been strangely like a pistol shot, though louder, she decided, as she listened to its echo reverberating in the adjacent hills. It became fainter, and finally died away, and she sat for a long time motionless in the saddle, listening, but no other sound disturbed the solemn quiet that surrounded her.
It seemed to her that the sound had come from the direction of Doubler's cabin, but she was not quite certain, knowing how difficult it was to determine the direction of sound in so vast a stretch of country.
She ceased to speculate, and once more gave her attention to the country, urging her pony forward, riding down the slope of the ridge to the level of the river trail.
Fifteen minutes later, still holding the river trail, she saw a horseman approaching, and long before he came near enough for her to distinguish his features she knew the rider for Dakota. He was sitting carelessly in the saddle, one leg thrown over the pommel, smoking a cigarette, and when he saw her he threw the latter away, doffed his broad hat, and smiled gravely at her.
"Were you shooting?" she questioned, aware that this was an odd greeting, but eager to have the mystery of that lone shot cleared up.
"I reckon I ain't been shooting—lately," he returned. "It must have been Doubler. I heard it myself. I've just left Doubler, and he was cleaning his rifle. He must have been trying it. I do that myself, often, after I've cleaned mine, just to make sure it's right." He narrowed his eyes whimsically at her. "So you're riding the fiver trail again?" he said. "I thought you'd be doing it."
"Why?" she questioned, defiantly.
"Well, for one thing, there's a certain fascination about a place where one has been close to cashing in—I expect that when we've been in such a place we like to come back and look at it just to see how near we came to going over the divide. And there's another reason why I expected to see you on the river trail again. You forgot to thank me for pulling you out."
He deserved thanks for that, she knew. But there were in his voice and eyes the same subtle mockery which had marked his manner that other time, and as before she experienced a feeling of deep resentment. Why could he not have shown some evidence of remorse for his crime against her? She believed that had he done so now she might have found it in her heart to go a little distance toward forgiving him. But there was only mockery in his voice and words and her resentment against him grew. Mingling with it, moreover, was the bitterness which had settled over her within the last few days. It found expression in her voice when she answered him:
"This country is full of—of savages!"
"Indians, you mean, I reckon? Well, no, there are none around here—excepting over near Fort Union, on the reservation." He drawled hatefully and regarded her with a mild smile.
"I mean white savages!" she declared spitefully.
His smile grew broader, and then slowly faded and he sat quiet, studying her face. The silence grew painful; she moved uneasily under his direct gaze and a dash of color swept into her cheeks. Then he spoke quietly.
"You been seeing white savages?"
"Not around here?" The hateful mockery of that drawl!
"I am talking to one," she said, her eyes blazing with impotent anger.
"I thought you was meaning me," he said, without resentment. "I reckon I've got it coming to me. But at the same time that isn't exactly the way to talk to your——" He hesitated and smiled oddly, apparently aware that he had made a mistake in referring to his crime against her. He hastened to repair it. "Your rescuer," he corrected.
However, she saw through the artifice, and the bitterness in her voice grew more pronounced. "It is needless for you to remind me of our relationship," she said; "I am not likely to forget."
"Have you told your father yet?"
In his voice was the quiet scorn and the peculiar, repressed venom which she had detected when he had referred to her father during that other occasion at the crossing. It mystified her, and yet within the past few days she had felt this scorn herself and knew that it was not remarkable. Undoubtedly he, having had much experience with men, had been able to see through Langford's mask and knew him for what he was. For the first time in her life she experienced a sensation of embarrassed guilt over hearing her name linked with Langford's, and she looked defiantly at Dakota.
"I have not told him," she said. "I won't tell him. I told you that before—I do not care to undergo the humiliation of hearing my name mentioned in the same breath with yours. And if you do not already know it, I want to tell you that David Langford is not my father; my real father died a long time ago, and Langford is only my stepfather."
A sudden moisture was in her eyes and she did not see Dakota start, did not observe the queer pallor that spread over his face, failed to detect the odd light in his eyes. However, she heard his voice—sharp in tone and filled with genuine astonishment.
"Your stepfather?" He had spurred his pony beside hers and looking up she saw that his face had suddenly grown stern and grim. "Do you mean that?" he demanded half angrily. "Why didn't you tell me that before? Why didn't you tell me when—the night I married you?"
"Would it have made any difference to you?" she said bitterly. "Does it make any difference now? You have treated me like a savage; you are treating me like one now. I—I haven't any friends at all," she continued, her voice breaking slightly, as she suddenly realized her entire helplessness before the combined evilness of Duncan, her father, and the man who sat on his pony beside her. A sob shook her, and her hands went to her face, covering her eyes.
She sat there for a time, shuddering, and watching her closely, Dakota's face grew slowly pale, and grim, hard lines came into his lips.
"I know what Duncan's friendship amounts to," he said harshly. "But isn't your stepfather your friend?"
"My friend?" She echoed his words with a hopeless intonation that closed Dakota's teeth like a vise. "I don't know what has come over him," she continued, looking up at Dakota, her eyes filled with wonder for the sympathy which she saw in his face and voice; "he has changed since he came out here; he is so selfish and heartless."
"What's he been doing? Hurting you?" She did not detect the anger in his voice, for he had kept it so low that she scarcely heard the words.
"Hurting me? No; he has not done anything to me. Don't you know?" she said scornfully, certain that he was mocking her again—for how could his interest be genuine when he was a party to the plot to murder Doubler? Yet perhaps not—maybe Duncan had been lying. Determined to get to the bottom of the affair as quickly as possible, Sheila continued rapidly, her scorn giving way to eagerness. "Don't you know?" And this time her voice was almost a plea. "What did father visit you for? Wasn't it about Doubler? Didn't he hire you to—to kill him?"
She saw his lips tighten strangely, his face grow pale, his eyes flash with some mysterious emotion, and she knew in an instant that he was guilty—guilty as her father!
"Oh!" she said, and the scorn came into her voice again. "Then it is true! You and my father have conspired to murder an inoffensive old man! You—you cowards!"
He winced, as though he had received an unexpected blow in the face, but almost immediately he smiled—a hard, cold, sneering smile which chilled her.
"Who has been telling you this?" The question came slowly, without the slightest trace of excitement.
"Duncan told me."
"Duncan?" There was much contempt in his voice. "Not your father?"
She shook her head negatively, wondering at his cold composure. No wonder her father had selected him!
He laughed mirthlessly. "So that's the reason Doubler was so friendly to his rifle this morning?" he said, as though her words had explained a mystery which had been puzzling him. "Doubler and me have been friends for a long time. But this morning while I was talking to him he kept his rifle beside him all the time. He must have heard from someone that I was gunning for him."
"Then you haven't been hired to kill him?"
He smiled at her eagerness, but spoke gravely and with an earnestness which she could not help but feel. "Miss Sheila," he said, "there isn't money enough in ten counties like this to make me kill Doubler." His lips curled with a quiet sarcasm. "You are like a lot of other people in this country," he added. "Because I put Blanca away they think I am a professional gunman. But I want you"—he placed a significant emphasis on the word—"to understand that there wasn't any other way to deal with Blanca. By coming back here after selling me that stolen Star stock and refusing to admit the deed in the presence of other people—even denying it and accusing me—he forced me to take the step I did with him. Even then, I gave him his chance. That he didn't take it isn't my fault.
"I suppose I look pretty black to you, because I treated you like I did. But it was partly your fault, too. Maybe that's mysterious to you, but it will have to stay a mystery. I had an idea in my head that night—and something else. I've found something out since that makes me feel a lot sorry. If I had known what I know now, that wouldn't have happened to you—I've got my eyes open now."
Their ponies were very close together, and leaning over suddenly he placed both hands on her shoulders and gazed into her eyes, his own flashing with a strange light. She did not try to escape his hands, for she felt that his sincerity warranted the action.
"I've treated you mean, Sheila," he said; "about as mean as a man could treat a woman. I am sorry. I want you to believe that. And maybe some day—when this business is over—you'll understand and forgive me."
"This business?" Sheila drew back and looked at him wonderingly. "What do you mean?"
There was no mirth in his laugh as he dropped his hands to his sides. Her question had brought about a return of that mocking reserve which she could not penetrate. Apparently he would let her no farther into the mystery whose existence his words had betrayed. He had allowed her to get a glimpse of his inner self; had shown her that he was not the despicable creature she had thought him; had apparently been about to take her into his confidence. And she had felt a growing sympathy for him and had been prepared to meet him half way in an effort to settle their differences, but she saw that the opportunity was gone—was hidden under the cloak of mystery which had been about him from the beginning of their acquaintance.
"This Doubler business," he answered, and she nibbled impatiently at her lips, knowing that he had meant something else.
"That's evasion," she said, looking straight at him, hoping that he would relent and speak.
"Is it?" In his unwavering eyes she saw a glint of grim humor. "Well, that's the answer. I am not going to kill Doubler—if it will do you any good to know. I don't kill my friends."
"Then," she said eagerly, catching at the hope which he held out to her, "father didn't hire you to kill him? You didn't talk to father about that?"
His lips curled. "Why don't you ask your father about that?"
The hope died within her. Dakota's words and manner implied that her father had tried to employ him to make way with the nester, but that he had refused. She had not been wrong—Duncan had not been wrong in his suspicion that her father was planning the death of the nester. Duncan's only mistake was in including Dakota in the scheme.
She had hoped against hope that she might discover that Duncan had been wrong altogether; that she had done her father an injury in believing him capable of deliberately planning a murder. She looked again at Dakota. There was no mistaking his earnestness, she thought, for there was no evidence of deceit or knavery in his face, nor in the eyes that were steadily watching her.
She put her hands to her face and shivered, now thoroughly convinced of her father's guilt; feeling a sudden repugnance for him, for everybody and everything in the country, excepting Doubler.
She had done all she could, however, to prevent them killing Doubler—all she could do except to warn Doubler of his danger, and she would go to him immediately. Without looking again at Dakota she turned, dry eyed and pale, urging her pony up the trail toward the nester's cabin, leaving Dakota sitting silent in his saddle, watching her.
She lingered on the trail, riding slowly, halting when she came to a spot which offered a particularly good view of the country surrounding her, for in spite of her lonesomeness she could not help appreciating the beauty of the land, with its towering mountains, its blue sky, its vast, yawning distances, and the peacefulness which seemed to be everywhere except in her heart.
She presently reached the Two Forks and urged her pony through the shallow water of its crossing, riding up the slight, intervening slope and upon a stretch of plain beside a timber grove. A little later she came to the corral gates, where she dismounted and hitched her pony to a rail, smiling to herself as she thought of how surprised Doubler would be to see her.
Then she left the corral gate and stole softly around a corner of the cabin, determined to steal upon Doubler unawares. Once at the corner, she halted and peered around. She saw Doubler lying in the open doorway, his body twisted into a peculiarly odd position, face down, his arms outstretched, his legs doubled under him.
THE SHOT IN THE BACK
For an instant after discovering Doubler lying in the doorway, Sheila stood motionless at the corner of the cabin, looking down wonderingly at him. She thought at first that he was merely resting, but his body was doubled up so oddly that a grave doubt rose in her mind. A vague fear clutched at her heart, and she stood rigid, her eyes wide as she looked for some sign that would confirm her fears. And then she saw a moist red patch on his shirt on the right side just below the shoulder blade, and it seemed that a band of steel had been suddenly pressed down over her forehead. Something had happened to Doubler!
The world reeled, objects around her danced fantastically, the trees in the grove near her seemed to dip toward her in derision, her knees sagged and she held tightly to the corner of the cabin for support in her weakness.
She saw it all in a flash. Dakota had been to visit Doubler and had shot him. She had heard the shot. Duncan had been right, and Dakota—how she despised him now!—was probably even now picturing in his imagination the scene of her discovering the nester lying on his own threshold, murdered. An anger against him, which arose at the thought, did much to help her regain control of herself.
She must be brave now, for there might still be life in Doubler's body, and she went slowly toward him, cringing and shrinking, along the wall of the cabin.
She touched him first, lightly with the tips of her fingers, calling softly to him in a quavering voice. Becoming more bold, she took hold of him by the left shoulder and shook him slightly, and her heart seemed to leap within her when a faint moan escaped his lips. Her fear fled instantly as she realized that he was alive, that she had not to deal with a dead man.
Stifling a quivering sob she took hold of him again, tugging and pulling at him, trying to turn him over so that she might see his face. She observed that the red patch on his shoulder grew larger with the effort, and her face grew paler with apprehension, but convinced that she must persist she shut her eyes and tugged desperately at him, finally succeeding in pulling him over on his back.
He moaned again, though his face was ashen and lifeless, and with hope filling her heart she redoubled her efforts and finally succeeded in dragging him inside the cabin, out of the sun, where he lay inert, with wide-stretched arms, a gruesome figure to the girl.
Panting and exhausted, some stray wisps of hair sweeping her temples, the rest of it threatening to come tumbling down around her shoulders, she leaned against one of the door jambs, thinking rapidly. She ought to have help, of course, and her thoughts went to Dakota, riding unconcernedly away on the river trail. She could not go to him for assistance, such a course was not to be considered, she would rather let Doubler die than to go to his murderer; she could never have endured the irony of such an action. Besides, she was certain that even were she to go to him, he would find some excuse to refuse her, for having shot the nester, he certainly would do nothing toward bringing the help which might possibly restore him to life.
She put aside the thought with a shudder of horror, yet conscious that something must be done for Doubler at once if he was to live. Perhaps it was already too late to go for assistance; there seemed to be but very little life in his body, and trembling with anxiety she decided that she must render him whatever aid she could. There was not much that she could do, to be sure, but if she could do something she might keep him alive until other help would come.
She stood beside the door jamb and watched him for some time, for she dreaded the idea of touching him again, but after a while her courage returned, and she again went to him, kneeling down beside him, laying her head on his breast and listening. His heart was beating, faintly, but still it was beating, and she rose from him, determined.
She found a sheath knife in one of his pockets, and with this she cut the shirt away from the wound, discovering, when she drew the pieces of cloth away, that there was a large, round hole in his breast. She came near to swooning when she thought of the red patch on his back, for that seemed to prove that the bullet had gone clear through him. It had missed a vital spot, though, she thought, for it seemed to be rather high on the shoulder.
She got some water from a pail that stood just inside the door, and with this and some white cloth which she tore from one of her skirts, she bathed and bandaged the wound and laid a wet cloth on his forehead. She tried to force some of the water down his throat, but he could not swallow, lying there with closed eyes and drawing his breath in short, painful gasps.
After she had worked with him for a quarter of an hour or more she stood up, convinced that she had done all she could for him and that the next move would be to get a doctor.
She had heard Duncan say that it was fifty miles to Dry Bottom, and she knew that it was at least forty to Lazette. She had never heard anyone mention that there was a doctor nearer, and so of course she would have to go to Lazette—ten miles would make a great difference.
She might ride to the Double R ranchhouse, and she thought of going there, but it was at least ten miles off the Lazette trail, and even though at the Double R she might get a cowboy to make the ride to Lazette, she would be losing much valuable time. She drew a deep breath over the contemplation of the long ride—at best it would take her four hours—but she did not hesitate long and with a last glance at Doubler she was out of the door and walking to the corral, where she unhitched her pony, mounted, and sent the animal over the level toward the crossing at a sharp gallop.
Once over the crossing and on the river trail where the riding was better, she held the pony to an even, steady pace. One mile, two miles, five or six she rode with her hair flying in the breeze, her cheeks pale, except for a bright red spot in the center of each—which betrayed the excitement under which she was laboring. There was a resolute gleam in her eyes, though, and she rode lightly, helping her pony as much as possible. However, the animal was fresh and did not seem to mind the pace, cavorting and lunging up the rises and pulling hard on the reins on the levels, showing a desire to run. She held it in, though, realizing that during the forty mile ride the animal would have plenty of opportunity to prove its mettle.
She reached and passed the quicksand crossing from which she had been pulled by Dakota, the pony running with the sure regularity of a machine, and was on a level which led into some hills directly ahead, when the pony stumbled.
She tried to jerk it erect with the reins, but in spite of the effort she felt it sink under her, and with a sensation of dismay clutching at her heart she slid out of the saddle.
A swift examination showed her that the pony's right fore-leg was deep in the sand of the trail, and she surmised instantly that it had stepped into a prairie dog hole. When she went to it and raised its head it looked appealingly at her, and she stifled a groan of sympathy and began looking about for some means to extricate it.
She found this no easy task, for the pony's leg was deep in the sand, and when she finally dug a space around it with a branch of tree which she procured from a nearby grove, the animal struggled out, only to limp badly. The leg, Sheila decided, after a quick examination, was not broken, but badly sprained, and she knew enough about horses to be certain that the injured pony would never be able to carry her to Lazette.
She would be forced to go to the Double R now, there was nothing else that she could do. Standing beside the pony, debating whether she had not better walk than try to ride him, even to the Double R, she heard a clatter of hoofs and turned to see Dakota riding the trail toward her. He was traveling in the direction she had been traveling when the accident had happened, and apparently had left the trail somewhere back in the distance, or she would have seen him. Perhaps, she speculated, with a flash of dull anger, he had followed her near to Doubler's cabin, perhaps had been near when she had dragged the wounded nester into it.
His first word showed her that there was ground for this suspicion. He drew up beside her and looked at her with a queer smile, and she, aware of his guilt, wondered at his composure.
"You didn't stay long at Doubler's shack," he said. "I was on a ridge, back on the trail a ways, and I saw you hitting the breeze away from there some rapid. I was thinking to intercept you, but you went tearing by so fast that I didn't get a chance. You're in an awful hurry. What's wrong?"
"You ought to know that," she said, bitterly angry because of his pretended serenity. "You—you murderer!"
His face paled instantly, but his voice was clear and sharp.
"Murderer?" he said sternly. "Who has been murdered?"
"You don't know, of course," she said scornfully, her face flaming, her eyes alight with loathing and contempt. "You shot him and then let me ride on alone to—to find him, shot—shot in the back! Oh!"
She shuddered at the recollection, held her hands over her eyes for an instant to keep from looking at the expression of amazement in his eyes, and while she stood thus she heard a movement, and withdrew her hands from her eyes to see him standing beside her, so close that his body touched hers, his eyes ablaze with curiosity and interest and repressed anxiety. She cringed and cried with pain as he seized her arm and twisted her forcibly around so that she faced him.
"Stop this fooling and tell me what has happened!" he said, with short, incisive accents. "Who did you find shot? Who has been murdered?"
Oh, it was admirable acting, she told herself as she tore herself away from him and stood back a little, her eyes flashing with scorn and horror. "You don't know, of course," she flared. "You shot him—shot him in the back and sent me on to find him. You gloried in the thought of me finding him dead. But he isn't dead, thank God, and will live, if I can get a doctor, to accuse you!" She pointed a finger at him, but he ignored it and took a step toward her, his eyes cold and boring into hers.
"Who?" he demanded. "Who?"
"Ben Doubler. Oh!" she cried, in an excess of rage and horror, "to think that I should have to tell you!"
But if he heard her last words he paid no attention to them, for he was suddenly at his pony's side, buckling the cinches tighter. She watched him, fascinated at the repressed energy of his movements, and became so interested that she started when he suddenly looked up at her.
"He isn't dead, then," he said rapidly, sharply, the words coming with short, metallic snaps. "You were going to Lazette for a doctor. I'm glad I happened along—glad I saw you. I'll be able to make better time than you."
"Where are you going?" she demanded, scarcely having heard his words, though aware that he was preparing to leave. She took a step forward and seized his pony's bridle rein, her eyes blazing with wrath over the thought that he should attempt to deceive her with so bald a ruse.
"For the doctor," he said shortly. "This is no time for melodramatics, ma'am, if Doubler is badly hurt. Will you please let go of that bridle?"
"Do you think," she demanded, her cheeks aflame, her hair, loosened from the long ride, straggling over her temples and giving her a singularly disheveled appearance, "that I am going to let you go for the doctor? You!"
"This isn't a case where your feelings should be considered, ma'am," he said. "If Ben Doubler has been hurt like you think he has I'm going to get the doctor mighty sudden, whether you think I ought to or not!"
"You won't!" she declared, stamping a; foot furiously. "You shot him and now you want to disarm suspicion by going after the doctor for him. But you won't! I won't let you!"
"You'll have to," he said rapidly. "The doctor isn't at Lazette; he is over on Carrizo Creek, taking care of Dave Moreland's wife, who is down bad. I saw Dave yesterday, and he was telling me about her; that the doctor is to stay there until she is out of danger. You don't know where Moreland's place is. Be sensible, now," he said gruffly. "I'll talk to you later about you suspecting me."
"You shan't go," she protested; "I am going myself. I will find Moreland's place. I can't let you go—it would be horrible!"
For answer he swung quickly down from the saddle, seized her by the waist, disengaged her hands from the bridle rein, and picking her up bodily carried her, struggling and fighting and striking blindly at his face, to the side of the trail. When he set her down he pinned her arms to her sides. He did not speak, and she was entirely helpless in his grasp, but when he released his grasp of her arms and tried to leave her she seized the collar of his vest. With a grim laugh he slipped out of the garment, leaving it dangling from her hand.
"Keep it for me, ma'am," he said with a cold chuckle. "But get back to Doubler's cabin and see what you can do for him. You'll be able to do a lot. I'll be back with the doctor before sundown."
In an instant he was at his pony's side, mounting with the animal at a run, and in a brief space had vanished around a turn in the trail, leaving a cloud of dust to mark the spot where Sheila had seen him disappear.
For a long time Sheila stood beside the trail, looking at the spot where he had disappeared, holding his vest with an unconscious grasp. Looking down she saw it and with an exclamation of rage threw it from her, watching it fall into the sand. But after an instant she went over and took it up, recovering, at the same time, a black leather pocket memoranda which had slipped out of it. She put the memoranda back into one of the pockets, handling both the book and the vest gingerly, for she felt an aversion to touching them. She conquered this feeling long enough to tuck the vest into the slicker behind the saddle, and then she mounted and sent her pony up the trail toward Doubler's cabin.
She found Doubler where she had left him, and he was still unconscious. The water pail was empty and she went down to the river and refilled it, returning to the cabin and again bathing and bandaging Doubler's wound, and placing a fresh cloth on his forehead.
For a time she sat watching the injured man, revolving the incident of her discovery of him in her mind, going over and over again the gruesome details. She did not dwell long on the latter, for she could not prevent her mind reviewing Dakota's words and actions—his satanic cleverness in pretending to be on the verge of taking her into his confidence, his prediction that she would understand when this "business" was over. She did not need to wait, she understood now!
Finding the silence in the cabin irksome, she rose, placed Doubler's head in a more comfortable position, and went outside into the bright sunshine of the afternoon. She took a turn around the corral, abstractedly watched the awkward antics of several yearlings which were penned in a corner, and then returned to the cabin door, where she sat on the edge of the step.
Near the side of the cabin door, leaning against the wall, she saw a rifle. She started, not remembering to have seen it there before, but presently she found courage to take it up gingerly, turning it over and over in her hands.
Some initials had been carved on the stock and she examined them, making them out finally as "B. D."—Doubler's. Examining the weapon she found an empty shell in the chamber, and she nearly dropped the rifle when the thought struck her that perhaps Doubler had been shot with it. She set it down quickly, shuddering, and for diversion walked to her pony, examining the injured leg and rubbing it, the pony nickering gratefully. Returning to the cabin she sat for a long time on the step, but she did not again take up the rifle. Several times while she sat on the step she heard Doubler moan, and once she got up and went to him, again bathing his wound, but returning instantly to the door step, for she could not bear the silence of the interior.
Suddenly remembering Dakota's vest and the black leather memoranda which had dropped from one of the pockets, she got up again and went to the bench where she had laid the garment, taking out the book and regarding it with some curiosity.
There was nothing on the cover to suggest what might be the nature of its contents—time had worn away any printing that might have been on it. She hesitated, debating the propriety of an examination, but her curiosity got the better of her and with a sharp glance at Doubler she turned her back and opened the book.
Almost the first object that caught her gaze was a piece of paper, detached from the leaves, with some writing on it. The writing seemed unimportant, but as she turned it, intending to replace it between the leaves of the book, she saw her father's name, and she read, holding her breath with dread, for fresh in her mind was Duncan's charge that her father had entered into an agreement with Dakota for the murder of Doubler. She read the words several times, standing beside the bench and swaying back and forth, a sudden weakness gripping her.
"One month from to-day"—ran the words—"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."
Signed: "David Dowd Langford."
There it was—conclusive, damning evidence of her father's guilt—and of Dakota's!
How cleverly that last clause covered the evil intent of the document! Sheila read it again and again with dry eyes. Her horror and grief were too great for tears. She felt that the discovery of the paper removed the last lingering doubt, and though she had been partially prepared for proof, she had not been prepared to have it thrust so quickly and convincingly before her.
How long she sat on the door step she did not know, or care, for at a stroke she had lost all interest in everything in the country. Even its people interested her only to the point of loathing—they were murderers, even her father. Time represented to her nothing now except a dreary space which, if she endured, would bring the moment in which she could leave. For within the last few minutes she seemed to have been robbed of all the things which had made existence here endurable and she was determined to end it all. When she finally got up and looked about her she saw that the sun had traveled quite a distance down the sky. A sorrowful smile reached her face as she watched it. It was going away, and before it could complete another circle she would go too—back to the East from where she had come, where there were at least some friends who could be depended upon to commit no atrocious crimes.
No plan of action formed in her mind; she could not think lucidly with the knowledge that her father was convicted of complicity in an attempted murder.
Would she be able to face her father again? To bid him good-bye? She thought not. It would be better for both if she departed without him being aware of her going. He would not care, she told herself bitterly; lately he had withheld from her all those little evidences of affection to which she had grown accustomed, and it would not be hard for him, he would not miss her, perhaps would even be glad of her absence, for then he could continue his murderous schemes without fear of her "meddling" with them.
There was a fascination in the paper on which was written the signed agreement. She read it carefully again, and then concealed it in her bodice, pinning it there so that it would not become lost. Then she rose and went into the cabin, placing the memoranda on a shelf where Dakota would be sure to find it when he returned with the doctor. She did not care to read anything contained in it.
Marveling at her coolness, she went outside again and resumed her seat on the door step. It was not such a blow to her, after all, and there arose in her mind as she sat on the step a wonder, as to how her father would act were she to confront him with evidence of his guilt. Perhaps she would not show him the paper, but she finally became convinced that she must talk to him, must learn from him in some manner his connection with the attempted murder of Doubler. Then, after receiving from him some sign which would convince her, she would take her belongings and depart for the East, leaving him to his own devices.
Looking up at the sun, she saw that it still had quite a distance to travel before it reached the mountains. Stealing into the cabin, she once more fixed the bandages on the wounded man. Then she went out, mounted her pony, and rode through the shallow water of the crossing toward the Double R ranch.
LANGFORD LAYS OFF THE MASK
The sun was still an hour above the horizon when Sheila rode up to the corral gates. While removing the saddle and bridle from her pony she noted with satisfaction that the horse which her father had been accustomed to ride was inside the corral. Therefore her father was somewhere about.
Hanging the saddle and bridle from a rail of the corral fence, she went into the house to find that Langford was not there. Duncan's sister curtly informed her that she had seen him a few minutes before down at the stables. Sheila went into the office, which was a lean-to addition to the ranchhouse, and seating herself at her father's desk picked up a six month's old copy of a magazine and tried to read.
Finding that she could not concentrate her thoughts, she dropped the magazine into her lap and leaned back with a sigh. From where she sat she had a good view of the stables, and fifteen minutes later, while she still watched, she saw Langford come out of one of the stable doors and walk toward the house. She felt absolutely no emotion whatever over his coming; there was only a mild curiosity in her mind as to the manner in which he would take the news of her intended departure from the Double R. She observed, with a sort of detached interest, that he looked twice at her saddle and bridle as he passed them, and so of course he surmised that she had come in from her ride. For a moment she lost sight of him behind some buildings, and then he opened the door of the office and entered.
He stopped on the threshold for an instant and looked at her, evidently expecting her to offer her usual greeting. He frowned slightly when it did not come, and then smiled.
"Hello!" he said cordially. "You are back, I see. And tired," he added, noting her position. He walked over and laid a hand on her forehead and she involuntarily shrank from his touch, shuddering, for the hand which he had placed on her forehead was the right one—the hand with which he had signed the agreement with Dakota—Doubler's death warrant.
"Don't, please," she said.
"Cross, too?" he said jocularly.
"Just tired," she lied listlessly, and with an air of great indifference.
He looked critically at her for an instant, then smiled again and dragged a chair over near a window and looked out, apparently little concerned over her manner. But she noted that he glanced furtively at her several times, and that he seemed greatly satisfied over something. She wondered if he had seen Dakota; if he knew that the latter had already attempted to carry out the agreement to "Persuade Doubler to leave the county."
"Ride far?" he questioned, turning and facing her, his voice casual.
"Not very far."
"The river trail?"
Sheila nodded, and saw a sudden interest flash into his eyes.
"Which way?" he asked quickly.
"Down," she returned. She had not lied, for she had ridden "down," and though she had also ridden up the river she preferred to let him guess a little, for she resented the curiosity in his voice and was determined to broach the subject which she had in mind in her own time and after the manner that suited her best.
He had not been interested in her for a long time, had not appeared to care where she spent her time. Why should he betray interest now? She saw a mysterious smile on his face and knew before he spoke that his apparent interest in her was not genuine—that he was merely curious.
"Then you haven't heard the news?" he said softly. He was looking out of the window now, and she could not see his face.
She took up the magazine and turned several pages, pretending to read, but in reality waiting for him to continue. When he made no effort to do so her own curiosity got the better of her.
"What news?" she questioned, without looking at him.
"About Doubler," he said. "He is dead."
Her surprise was genuine, and her hands trembled as the leaves of the magazine fluttered and closed. Had the nester died since she had left his cabin? A moment's thought convinced her that this could not be the explanation, for assuredly she would have seen anyone who had arrived at Doubler's cabin; she had scanned the surrounding country before and after leaving the vicinity of the crossing and had seen no signs of anyone. Besides, Langford's news seemed to have abided with him a long time—it seemed to her that he had known it for hours. She could not tell why she felt this, but she was certain that he had not received word recently—within an hour or two at any rate—unless he had seen Dakota.
This seemed to be the secret of his knowledge, and the more she considered the latter's excitement during her meeting with him on the trail, the more fully she became convinced that Langford had talked to him. The latter's anxiety to relieve her of the task of riding to Lazette for the doctor had been spurious; he had merely wanted to be the first to carry the news of Doubler's death to Langford, and after leaving her he had undoubtedly taken a roundabout trail for the Double R. Possibly by this time he had settled with Langford and was on his way out of the country.
"Dead?" she said, turning to Langford. "Who——" In her momentary excitement she had come very near to asking him who had brought him the news. She hesitated, for she saw a glint of surprise and suspicion in his eyes.
"My dear girl, did I say that he had been 'killed'?"
His smile was without humor. Evidently he had expected that she had been about to ask who had killed the nester.
He looked at her steadily, an intolerant smile playing about the corners of his mouth. "I am aware that you have been suspicious of me ever since you heard that I had a quarrel with Doubler. But, thank God, my dear, I have not that crime to answer for. Doubler, however, has been killed—murdered."
Sheila repressed a desire to shudder, and turned from Langford so that he would not be able to see the disgust that had come into her eyes over the discovery that in addition to being a murderer her father was that most despicable of all living things—a hypocrite! It required all of her composure to be able to look at him again.
"Who killed him?" she asked evenly.
"Dakota, my dear."
"Dakota!" She pronounced the name abstractedly, for she was surprised at the admission.
"How do you know that Dakota killed him?" she said, looking straight at him. He changed color, though his manner was still smooth and his smile bland.
"Duncan was fortunate enough to be in the vicinity when the deed was committed," he told her. "And he saw Dakota shoot him in the back. With his own rifle, too."
There was a quality in his voice which hinted at satisfaction; a peculiar emphasis on the word "fortunate" which caused Sheila to wonder why he should consider it fortunate that Duncan had seen the murder done, when it would have been much better for the success of Dakota's and her father's scheme if there had been no witness to it at all.
"However," continued Langford, with a sigh of resignation that caused Sheila a shiver of repugnance and horror, "Doubler's death will not be a very great loss to the country. Duncan tells me that he has long been suspected of cattle stealing, and sooner or later he would have been caught in the act. And as for Dakota," he laughed harshly, with a note of suppressed triumph that filled her with an unaccountable resentment; "Dakota is an evil in the country, too. Do you remember how he killed that Mexican half-breed over in Lazette that day?—the day I came? Wanton murder, I call it. Such a man is a danger and a menace, and I shall not be sorry to see him hanged for killing Doubler."
"Then you will have Duncan charge Dakota with the murder?"
"Of course, my dear; why shouldn't I? Assuredly you would not allow Dakota to go unpunished?"
"No," said Sheila, "Doubler's murderer should be punished."
Two things were now fixed in her mind as certainties. Dakota had not been to see her father since she had left him on the river trail; he had not received his blood-money—would never receive it. Her father had no intention of living up to his agreement with Dakota and intended to allow him to be hanged. She thought of the signed agreement in her bodice. Langford had given it to Dakota, but she had little doubt that in case Dakota still had it in his possession and dared to produce it, Langford would deny having made it—would probably term it a forgery. It was harmless, too; who would be likely to intimate that the clause regarding Dakota inducing Doubler to leave the country meant that Langford had hired Dakota to kill the nester? Sheila sat silent, looking at Langford, wondering how it happened that he had been able to masquerade so long before her; why she had permitted herself to love a being so depraved, so entirely lacking in principle.
But a thrill of hope swept over her. Perhaps Doubler would not die? She had been considering the situation from the viewpoint of the nester's death, but if Dakota had really been in earnest and had gone for a doctor, there was a chance that the tragedy which seemed so imminent would be turned into something less serious. Immediately her spirits rose and she was able to smile quietly at Langford when he continued:
"Dakota will be hung, of course; decency demands it. When Duncan came to me with the news I sent him instantly to Lazette to inform the sheriff of what had happened. Undoubtedly he will take Dakota into custody at once."
"But not for murder," said Sheila evenly, unable to keep a quiver of triumph out of her voice.
"Not?" said Langford, startled. "Why not?"
"Because," returned Sheila, enjoying the sudden consternation that was revealed in her father's face, and drawling her words a little to further confound him; "because Doubler isn't dead."
"Not dead!" Langford's jaws sagged, and he sat looking at Sheila with wide, staring, vacuous eyes. "Not dead?" he repeated hoarsely. "Why, Duncan told me he had examined him, that he had been shot through the lungs and had bled to death before he left him! How do you know that he is not dead?" he suddenly demanded, leaning toward her, a wild hope in his eyes.
"I went to his cabin before noon," said Sheila. "I found him lying in the doorway. He had been shot through the right side, near the shoulder, but not through the lung, and he was still alive. I dragged him into the cabin and did what I could for him. Then I started for the doctor."
"For the doctor?" he said incredulously. "Then how does it happen that you are here? You couldn't possibly ride to Lazette and return by this time!"
"I believe I said that I 'started' for the doctor," said Sheila with a quiet smile. She was enjoying his excitement. "I met Dakota on the trail, and he went."
Langford continued to stare at her; it seemed that he could not realize the truth. Then suddenly he was out of his chair and standing over her, his face bloated poisonously, his eyes ablaze with a malignant light.
"Damn you!" he shrieked. "This is what comes of your infernal meddling! What business had you to interfere? Why didn't you let him die? I've a notion——"
His hands clenched and unclenched before her eyes, and she sat with blanched face, certain that he was about to attack her—perhaps kill her. She did not seem to care much, however, and looked up into his face steadily and defiantly.
After a moment, however, he regained control of himself, leaving her side and pacing rapidly back and forth in the office, cursing bitterly.
Curiously, Sheila was not surprised at this outburst; she had rather expected it since she had become aware of his real character. Nor was she surprised to discover that he had dropped pretense altogether—he was bound to do that sooner or later. Her only surprise was at her own feelings. She did not experience the slightest concern over him—it was as though she were talking to a stranger. She was interested to the point of taking a grim enjoyment out of his confusion, but beyond that she was not interested in anything.
It made little difference to her what became of Langford, Dakota, Duncan—any of them, except Doubler. She intended to return to the nester's cabin, to help the doctor make him comfortable—for he had been the only person in the country who had shown her any kindness; he was the only one who had not wronged her, and she was grateful to him.
Langford was standing over her again, his breath coming short and fast.
"Where did you see Dakota?" he questioned hoarsely. "Answer!" he added, when she did not speak immediately.
"On the river trail."
"Before you found Doubler?"
"Before, yes—and after. I met him twice."
She discerned his motive in asking these questions, but it made no difference to her and she answered truthfully. She did not intend to shield Dakota; the fact that Doubler had not been killed outright did not lessen the gravity of the offense in her eyes.
"Before you found Doubler!" Langford's voice came with a vicious snap. "You met him coming from Doubler's cabin, I suppose?"
"Yes," she answered wearily, "I met him coming from there. I was on the trail—going there—and I heard the shot. I know Dakota killed him."
Langford made an exclamation of satisfaction.
"Well, it isn't so bad, after all. You'll have to be a witness against Dakota. And very likely Doubler will die—probably is dead by this time; will certainly be dead before the Lazette doctor can reach his cabin. No, my dear," he added, smiling at Sheila, "it isn't so bad, after all."
Sheila rose. Her poignant anger against him was equaled only by her disgust. He expected her to bear witness against Dakota; desired her to participate in his scheme to fasten upon the latter the entire blame for the commission of a crime in which he himself was the moving factor.
"I shall not bear witness against him," she told Langford coldly. "For I am going away—back East—to-morrow. Don't imagine that I have been in complete ignorance of what has been going on; that I have been unaware of the part you have played in the shooting of Doubler. I have known for quite a long while that you had decided to have Doubler murdered, and only recently I learned that you hired Dakota to kill him. And this morning, when I met Dakota on the river trail, he dropped this from a pocket of his vest." She fumbled at her bodice and produced the signed agreement, holding it out to him.
As she expected, he repudiated it, though his face paled a little as he read it.
"This is a forgery, my dear," he said, in the old, smooth, even voice that she had grown to despise.
"No," she returned calmly, "it is not a forgery. You forget that only a minute ago you practically admitted it to be a true agreement by telling me that I should have allowed Doubler to die. You are an accomplice in the shooting of Doubler, and if I am compelled to testify in Dakota's trial I shall tell everything I know."
She watched while he lighted a match, held it to the paper, smiling as the licking flames consumed it. He was entirely composed now, and through the gathering darkness of the interior of the office she saw a sneer come into his face.
"I shall do all I can to assist you to discontinue the associations which are so distasteful to you. You will start for the East immediately, I presume?"
"To-morrow," she said. "In the afternoon. I shall have my trunks taken over to Lazette in the morning."
"In the morning?" said Langford, puzzled. "Why not ride over with them, in the afternoon, in the buckboard?"
"I shall ride my pony. The man can return him." She took a step toward the door, but halted before reaching it, turning to look back at him.
"I don't think it is necessary for me to say good-by. But you have not treated me badly in the past, and I thank you—for that—and wish you well."
"Where are you going?"
Sheila had walked to the door and stood with one hand on the latch. He came and stood beside her, a suppressed excitement in his manner, his eyes gleaming brightly in the dusk which had suddenly fallen.
"I think I told you that before. Ben Doubler is alone, and he needs care. I am going to him—to stay with him until the doctor arrives. He will die if someone does not take care of him."
"You are determined to continue to meddle, are you?" he said, his voice quivering with anger, his lips working strangely. "I am sick of your damned interference. Sick of it, I tell you!" His voice lowered to a harsh, throaty whisper. "You won't leave this office until to-morrow afternoon! Do you hear? What business is it of yours if Doubler dies?"
Sheila did not answer, but pressed the door latch. His arm suddenly interposed, his fingers closing on her arm, gripping it so tightly that she cried out with pain. Then suddenly his fingers were boring into her shoulders; she was twisted, helpless in his brutal grasp, and flung bodily into the chair beside the desk, where she sat, sobbing breathlessly.
She did not cry out again, but sat motionless, her lips quivering, rubbing her shoulders where his iron fingers had sunk into the flesh, her soul filled with a revolting horror for his brutality.
For a moment there was no movement. Then, in the semi-darkness she saw him leave the door; watched him as he approached a shelf on which stood a kerosene lamp, lifted the chimney and applied a match to the wick. For an instant after replacing the chimney he stood full in the glare of light, his face contorted with rage, his eyes gleaming with venom.
"Now you know exactly where I stand, you—you huzzy!" he said, grinning satyrically as she winced under the insult. "I'm your father, damn you! Your father—do you hear? And I'll not have you go back East to gab and gossip about me. You'll stay here, and you'll bear witness against Dakota, and you'll keep quiet about me!" He was trembling horribly as he came close to her, and his breath was coughing in his throat shrilly.
"I won't do anything of the kind!" Sheila got to her feet, and stood, rigid with anger, her eyes flaming defiance. "I am going to Doubler's cabin this minute, and if you molest me again I shall go to the sheriff with my story!"
He seemed about to attack her again, and his hands were raised as though to grasp her throat, when there came a sound at the door, it swung open, and Dakota stepped in, closing the door behind him.
Dakota's face was white—white as it had been that other day at the quicksand crossing when Sheila had looked up to see him sitting on his pony, watching her. There was an entire absence of excitement in his manner, though; no visible sign to tell that what he had seen on entering the cabin disturbed him in the least. Yet the whiteness of his face belied this apparent composure. It seemed to Sheila that his eyes betrayed the strong emotion that was gripping him.
She retreated to the chair beside the desk and sank into it. Langford had wheeled and was now facing Dakota, a shallow smile on his face.
There was a smile on Dakota's face, too; a mysterious, cold, prepared grin that fascinated Sheila as she watched him. The smile faded a little when he spoke to Langford, his voice vibrating, as though he had been running.
"When you're fighting a woman, Langford, you ought to make sure there isn't a man around!"
Mingling with Sheila's recognition of the obvious and admirable philosophy of this statement was a realization that Dakota must have been riding hard. There was much dust on his clothing, the scarf at his neck was thick with it; it streaked his face, his voice was husky, his lips dry.
Langford did not answer him, stepping back against the desk and regarding him with a mirthless, forced smile which, Sheila was certain, he had assumed in order to conceal his fear of the man who stood before him.
"So you haven't got any thoughts just at this minute," said Dakota with cold insinuation. "You are one of those men who can talk bravely enough to women, but who can't think of anything exactly proper for a man to hear. Well, you'll do your talking later." He looked at Sheila, ignoring Langford completely.
"I expect you've been wondering, ma'am, why I'm here, when I ought to be over at the Two Forks, trying to do something for Doubler. But the doctor's there, taking care of him. The reason I've come is that I've found this in Doublet's cabin." He drew out the memoranda which Sheila had placed on the shelf in the cabin, holding it up so that she might see.
"You took my vest," he went on. "And I was looking for it. I found it all right, but something was missing. You're the only one who has been to Doubler's cabin since I left there, I expect, and it must have been you who opened this book. It isn't in the same shape it was when you pulled it off me when I was talking to you down there on the river trail—something has been taken out of it, a paper. That's why I rode over here—to see if you'd got it. Have you, ma'am?"