A Man Four-Square
BY WILLIAM MAC LEOD RAINE
AUTHOR OF THE YUKON TRAIL, BUCKY O'CONNOR, STEVE YEAGER, WYOMING, ETC.
I. "CALL ME JIMMIE-GO-GET-'EM" II. SHOOT-A-BUCK CANON III. RANSE ROUSH PAYS IV. PAULINE ROUBIDEAU SAYS "THANK YOU" V. NO FOUR-FLUSHER VI. BILLIE ASKS A QUESTION VII. ON THE TRAIL VIII. THE FIGHT IX. BILLIE STANDS PAT X. BUD PROCTOR LENDS A HAND XI. THE FUGITIVES XII. THE GOOD SAMARITAN XIII. A FRIENDLY ENEMY XIV. THE GUN-BARREL ROAD XV. LEE PLAYS A LEADING ROLE XVI. THREE MODERN MUSKETEERS XVII. "PEG-LEG" WARREN XVIII. A STAMPEDE XIX. A TWO-GUN MAN XX. EXIT MYSTERIOUS PETE XXI. JIM RECEIVES AND DECLINES AN OFFER XXII. THE RUSTLERS' CAMP XXIII. MURDER FROM THE CHAPARRAL XXIV. JIMMIE-GO-GET-'EM LEAVES A NOTE XXV. THE MAL-PAIS XXVI. A DUST-STORM XXVII. "A LUCKY GUY" XXVIII. SHERIFF PRINCE FUNCTIONS XXIX. "THEY CAN'T HANG ME IF I AIN'T THERE" XXX. POLLY HAS A PLAN XXXI. GOODHEART MAKES A PROMISE AND BREAKS IT XXXII. JIM TAKES A PRISONER XXXIII. THE ROUND-UP XXXIV. PRIMROSE PATHS
A Man Four-Square
A girl sat on the mossy river-bank in the dappled, golden sunlight. Frowning eyes fixed on a sweeping eddy, she watched without seeing the racing current. Her slim, supple body, crouched and tense, was motionless, but her soul seethed tumultuously. In the bosom of her coarse linsey gown lay hidden a note. Through it destiny called her to the tragic hour of decision.
The foliage of the young pawpaws stirred behind her. Furtively a pair of black eyes peered forth and searched the opposite bank of the stream, the thicket of rhododendrons above, the blooming laurels below. Very stealthily a handsome head pushed out through the leaves.
"'Lindy," a voice whispered.
The girl gave a start, slowly turned her head. She looked at the owner of the voice from steady, deep-lidded eyes. The pulse in her brown throat began to beat. One might have guessed her with entire justice a sullen lass, untutored of life, passionate, and high-spirited, resentful of all restraint. Hers was such beauty as lies in rich blood beneath dark coloring, in dusky hair and eyes, in the soft, warm contours of youth. Already she was slenderly full, an elemental daughter of Eve, primitive as one of her fur-clad ancestors. No forest fawn could have been more sensuous or innocent than she.
Again the man's glance swept the landscape cautiously before he moved out from cover. In the country of the Clantons there was always an open season on any one of his name.
"What are you doin' here, Dave Roush?" the girl demanded. "Are you crazy?"
"I'm here because you are, 'Lindy Clanton," he answered promptly. "That's a right good reason, ain't it?"
The pink splashed into her cheeks like spilled wine.
"You'd better go. If dad saw you—"
He laughed hardily. "There'd be one less Roush—or one less Clanton," he finished for her.
Dave Roush was a large, well-shouldered man, impressive in spite of his homespun. If he carried himself with a swagger there was no lack of boldness in him to back it. His long hair was straight and black and coarse, a derivative from the Indian strain in his blood.
"Git my note?" he asked.
She nodded sullenly.
'Lindy had met Dave Roush at a dance up on Lonesome where she had no business to be. At the time she had been visiting a distant cousin in a cove adjacent to that creek. Some craving for adventure, some instinct of defiance, had taken her to the frolic where she knew the Roush clan would be in force. From the first sight of her Dave had wooed her with a careless bravado that piqued her pride and intrigued her interest. The girl's imagination translated in terms of romance his insolence and audacity. Into her starved existence he brought color and emotion.
Did she love him? 'Lindy was not sure. He moved her at times to furious anger, and again to inarticulate longings she did not understand. For though she was heritor of a life full-blooded and undisciplined, every fiber of her was clean and pure. There were hours when she hated him, glimpsed in him points of view that filled her with vague distrust. But always he attracted her tremendously.
"You're goin' with me, gal," he urged.
Close to her hand was a little clump of forget-me-nots which had pushed through the moss. 'Lindy feigned to be busy picking the blossoms.
"No," she answered sulkily.
"Yes. To-night—at eleven o'clock, 'Lindy,—under the big laurel."
While she resented his assurance, it none the less coerced her. She did not want a lover who groveled in the dust before her. She wanted one to sweep her from her feet, a young Lochinvar to compel her by the force of his personality.
"I'll not be there," she told him.
"We'll git right across the river an' be married inside of an hour."
"I tell you I'm not goin' with you. Quit pesterin' me."
His devil-may-care laugh trod on the heels of her refusal. He guessed shrewdly that circumstances were driving her to him. The girl was full of resentment at her father's harsh treatment of her. Her starved heart craved love. She was daughter of that Clanton who led the feud against the Roush family and its adherents. Dave took his life in his hands every time he crossed the river to meet her. Once he had swum the stream in the night to keep an appointment. He knew that his wildness, his reckless courage and contempt of danger, argued potently for him. She was coming to him as reluctantly and surely as a wild turkey answers the call of the hunter.
The sound of a shot, not distant, startled them. He crouched, wary as a rattlesnake about to strike. The rifle seemed almost to leap forward.
"Hit's Bud—my brother Jimmie." She pushed him back toward the pawpaws. "Quick! Burn the wind!"
"What about to-night? Will you come?"
"Hurry. I tell you hit's Bud. Are you lookin' for trouble?"
He stopped stubbornly at the edge of the thicket. "I ain't runnin' away from it. I put a question to ye. When I git my answer mebbe I'll go. But I don't 'low to leave till then."
"I'll meet ye there if I kin git out. Now go," she begged.
The man vanished in the pawpaws. He moved as silently as one of his Indian ancestors.
'Lindy waited, breathless lest her brother should catch sight of him. She knew that if Jimmie saw Roush there would be shooting and one or the other would fall.
A rifle shot rang out scarce a hundred yards from her. The heart of the girl stood still. After what seemed an interminable time there came to her the sound of a care-free whistle. Presently her brother sauntered into view, a dead squirrel in his hand. The tails of several others bulged from the game bag by his side. The sister did not need to be told that four out of five had been shot through the head.
"Thought I heard voices. Was some one with you, sis?" the boy asked.
"Who'd be with me here?" she countered lazily.
A second time she was finding refuge in the for-get-me-nots.
He was a barefoot little fellow, slim and hard as a nail. In his hand he carried an old-fashioned rifle almost as long as himself. There was a lingering look of childishness in his tanned, boyish face. His hands and feet were small and shapely as those of a girl. About him hung the stolid imperturbability of the Southern mountaineer. Times were when his blue eyes melted to tenderness or mirth; yet again the cunning of the jungle narrowed them to slits hard, as jade. Already, at the age of fourteen, he had been shot at from ambush, had wounded a Roush at long range, had taken part in a pitched battle. The law of the feud was tempering his heart to implacability.
The keen gaze of the boy rested on her. Ever since word had reached the Clantons of how 'Lindy had "carried on" with Dave Roush at the dance on Lonesome her people had watched her suspiciously. The thing she had done had been a violation of the hill code and old Clay Clanton had thrashed her with a cowhide till she begged for mercy. Jimmie had come home from the still to find her writhing in passionate revolt. The boy had been furious at his father; yet had admitted the substantial justice of the punishment. Its wisdom he doubted. For he knew his sister to be stubborn as old Clay himself, and he feared lest they drive her to the arms of Bad Dave Roush.
"I reckon you was talkin' to yo'self, mebbe," he suggested.
They walked home together along a path through the rhododendrons. The long, slender legs of the girl moved rhythmically and her arms swung like pendulums. Life in the open had given her the litheness and the grace of a woodland creature. The mountain woman is cheated of her youth almost before she has learned to enjoy it. But 'Lindy was still under eighteen. Her warm vitality still denied the coming of a day when she would be a sallow, angular snuff-chewer.
Within sight of the log cabin the girl lingered for a moment by the sassafras bushes near the spring. Some deep craving for sympathy moved her to alien speech. She turned upon him with an imperious, fierce tenderness in her eyes.
"You'll never forgit me, Bud? No matter what happens, you'll—you'll not hate me?"
Her unusual emotion embarrassed and a little alarmed him. "Oh, shucks! They ain't anything goin' to happen, sis. What's ailin' you?"
"But if anything does. You'll not hate me—you'll remember I allus thought a heap of you, Jimmie?" she insisted.
"Doggone it, if you're still thinkin' of that scalawag Dave Roush—" He broke off, moved by some touch of prescient tragedy in her young face. "'Course I ain't ever a-goin' to forgit you none, sis. Hit ain't likely, is it?"
It was a comfort to him afterward to recall that he submitted to her impulsive caress without any visible irritability.
'Lindy busied herself preparing supper for her father and brother. Ever since her mother died when the child was eleven she had been the family housekeeper.
At dusk Clay Clanton came in and stood his rifle in a corner of the room. His daughter recognized ill-humor in the grim eyes of the old man. He was of a tall, gaunt figure, strongly built, a notable fighter with his fists in the brawling days before he "got religion" at a camp meeting. Now his Calvinism was of the sternest. Dancing he held to be of the devil. Card-playing was a sin. If he still drank freely, his drinking was within bounds. But he did not let his piety interfere with the feud. Within the year, pillar of the church though he was, he had been carried home riddled with bullets. Of the four men who had waylaid him two had been buried next day and a third had kept his bed for months.
He ate for a time in dour silence before he turned harshly on 'Lindy.
"You ain't havin' no truck with Dave Roush are you? Not meetin' up with him on the sly?" he demanded, his deep-set eyes full of menace under the heavy, grizzled brows.
"No, I ain't," retorted the girl, and her voice was sullen and defiant.
"See you don't, lessen yo' want me to tickle yore back with the bud again. I don't allow to put up with no foolishness." He turned in explanation to the boy. "Brad Nickson seen him this side of the river to-day. He says this ain't the fustest time Roush has been seen hangin' 'round the cove."
The boy's wooden face betrayed nothing. He did not look at his sister. But suspicions began to troop through his mind. He thought again of the voices he had heard by the river and he remembered that it had become a habit of the girl to disappear for hours in the afternoon.
'Lindy went to her room early. She nursed against her father not only resentment, but a strong feeling of injustice. He would not let her attend the frolics of the neighborhood because of his scruples against dancing. Yet she had heard him tell how he used to dance till daybreak when he was a young man. What right had he to cut her off from the things that made life tolerable?
She was the heritor of lawless, self-willed, passionate ancestors. Their turbulent blood beat in her veins. All the safeguards that should have hedged her were gone. A wise mother, an understanding father, could have saved her from the tragedy waiting to engulf her. But she had neither of these. Instead, her father's inhibitions pushed her toward that doom to which she was moving blindfold.
Before her cracked mirror the girl dressed herself bravely in her cheap best. She had no joy in the thing she was going to do. Of her love she was not sure and of her lover very unsure. A bell of warning rang faintly in her heart as she waited for the hours to slip away.
A very little would have turned the tide. But she nursed her anger against her father, fed her resentment with the memory of all his wrongs to her. When at last she crept through the window to the dark porch trellised with wild cucumbers, she persuaded herself that she was going only to tell Dave Roush that she would not join him.
Her heart beat fast with excitement and dread. Poor, undisciplined daughter of the hills though she was, a rumor of the future whispered in her ears and weighted her bosom.
Quietly she stole past the sassafras brake to the big laurel. Her lover took her instantly into his arms and kissed the soft mouth again and again. She tried to put him from her, to protest that she was not going with him. But before his ardor her resolution melted. As always, when he was with her, his influence was paramount.
"The boat is under that clump of bushes," he whispered.
"Oh, Dave, I'm not goin'," she murmured.
"Then I'll go straight to the house an' have it out with the old man," he answered.
His voice rang gay with the triumph of victory. He did not intend to let her hesitations rob him of it.
"Some other night," she promised. "Not now—I don't want to go now. I—I'm not ready."
"There's no time like to-night, honey. My brother came with me in the boat. We've got horses waitin'—an' the preacher came ten miles to do the job."
Then, with the wisdom born of many flirtations, he dropped argument and wooed her ardently. The anchors that held the girl to safety dragged. The tug of sex, her desire of love and ignorance of life, his eager and passionate demand that she trust him: all these swelled the tide that beat against her prudence.
She caught his coat lapels tightly in her clenched fists.
"If I go I'll be givin' up everything in the world for you, Dave Roush. My folks'll hate me. They'd never speak to me again. You'll be good to me. You won't cast it up to me that I ran away with you. You'll—you'll—" Her voice broke and she gulped down a little sob.
He laughed. She could not see his face in the darkness, but the sound of his laughter was not reassuring. He should have met her appeal seriously.
The girl drew back.
He sensed at once his mistake. "Good to you!" he cried. "'Lindy, I'm a-goin' to be the best ever."
"I ain't got any mother, Dave." Again she choked in her throat. "You wouldn't take advantage of me, would you?"
He protested hotly. Desiring only to be convinced, 'Lindy took one last precaution.
"Swear you'll do right by me always."
He swore it.
She put her hand in his and he led her to the boat.
Ranse Roush was at the oars. Before he had taken a dozen strokes a wave of terror swept over her. She was leaving behind forever that quiet, sunny cove where she had been brought up. The girl began to shiver against the arm of her lover. She heard again the sound of his low, triumphant laughter.
It was too late to turn back now. No hysterical request to be put back on her side of the river would move these men. Instinctively she knew that. From to-night she was to be a Roush.
They found horses tied to saplings in a small cove close to the river. The party mounted and rode into the hills. Except for the ring of the horses' hoofs there was no sound for miles. 'Lindy was the first to speak.
"Ain't this Quicksand Creek?" she asked of her lover as they forded a stream.
He nodded. "The sands are right below us—not more'n seven or eight steps down here Cal Henson was sucked under."
After another stretch ridden in silence they turned up a little cove to a light shining in a cabin window. The brothers alighted and Dave helped the girl down. He pushed open the door and led the way inside.
A man sat by the fireside with his feet on the table. He was reading a newspaper. A jug of whiskey and a glass were within reach of his hand. Without troubling to remove his boots from the table, he looked up with a leer at the trembling girl.
Dave spoke at once. "We'll git it over with. The sooner the quicker."
'Lindy's heart was drenched with dread. She shrank from the three pairs of eyes focused upon her as if they had belonged to wolves. She had hoped that the preacher might prove a benevolent old man, but this man with the heavy thatch of unkempt, red hair and furtive eyes set askew offered no comfort. If there had been a single friend of her family present, if there had been any woman at all! If she could even be sure of the man she was about to marry!
It seemed to her that the preacher was sneering when he put the questions to which she answered quaveringly. Vaguely she felt the presence of some cruel, sinister jest of which she was the sport.
After the ceremony had been finished the three men drank together while she sat white-faced before the fire. When at last Ranse Roush and the red-headed preacher left the cabin, both of them were under the influence of liquor. Dave had drunk freely himself.
'Lindy would have given her hopes of heaven to be back safely in the little mud-daubed bedroom she had called her own.
Three days later 'Lindy wakened to find a broad ribbon of sunshine across the floor of the cabin. Her husband had not come home at all the night before. She shivered with self-pity and dressed slowly. Already she knew that her life had gone to wreck, that it would be impossible to live with Dave Roush and hold her self-respect.
But she had cut herself off from retreat. All of her friends belonged to the Clanton faction and they would not want to have anything to do with her. She had no home now but this, no refuge against the neglect and insults of this man with whom she had elected to go through life. To her mind came the verdict of old Nance Cunningham on the imprudent marriage of another girl: "Randy's done made her bed; I reckon she's got to lie on it."
A voice hailed the cabin from outside. She went to the door. Ranse Roush and the red-haired preacher had ridden into the clearing and were dismounting. They had with them a led horse.
"Fix up some breakfast," ordered Ranse.
The young wife flushed. She resented his tone and his manner. Like Dave, he too assumed that she had come to be a drudge for the whole drunken clan, a creature to be sneered at and despised.
Silently she cooked a meal for the men. The girl was past tears. She had wept herself out.
While they ate the men told of her father's fury when he had discovered the elopement, of how he had gone down to the mill and cast her off with a father's curse, renouncing all relationship with her forever. It was a jest that held for them a great savor. They made sport of him and of the other Clantons till she could keep still no longer.
"I won't stand this! I don't have to! Where's Dave?" she demanded, eyes flashing with contempt and anger.
Ranse grinned, then turned to his companion with simulated perplexity. "Where is Dave, Brother Hugh?"
"Damfino," replied the red-headed man, and the girl could see that he was gloating over her. "Last night he was at a dance on God Forgotten Crick. Dave's soft on a widow up there, you know."
The color ebbed from the face of the wife. One of her hands clutched at the back of a chair till the knuckles stood out white and bloodless. Her eyes fastened with a growing horror upon those of the red-headed man. She had come to the edge of an awful discovery.
"You're no preacher. Who are you?"
"Me?" His smile was cruel as death. "You done guessed it, sister. I'm Hugh Roush—Dave's brother."
"An'—an'—my marriage was all a lie?"
"Did ye think Dave Roush would marry a Clanton? He's a bad lot, Dave is, but he ain't come that low yet."
For the first and last time in her life 'Lindy fainted.
Presently she floated back to consciousness and the despair of a soul mortally stricken. She saw it all now. The lies of Dave Roush had enticed her into a trap. He had been working for revenge against the family he hated, especially against brave old Clay Clanton who had killed two of his kin within the year. With the craft inherited from savage ancestors he had sent a wound more deadly than any rifle bullet could carry. The Clantons were proud folks, and he had dragged their pride in the mud.
If the two brothers expected her to make a scene, they were disappointed. Numb with the shock of the blow, she made no outcry and no reproach.
"Git a move on ye, gal," ordered Ranse after he had finished eating. "You're goin' with us, so you better hurry."
"What are you goin' to do with me?" she asked dully.
"Why, Dave don't want you any more. We're goin' to send you home."
"I reckon yore folks will kill the fatted calf for you," jeered Hugh Roush. "They tell me you always been mighty high-heeled, 'Lindy Clanton. Mebbe you won't hold yore head so high now."
The girl rode between them down from the hills. Who knows into what an agony of fear and remorse and black despair she fell? She could not go home a cast-off, a soiled creature to be scorned and pointed at. She dared not meet her father. It would be impossible to look her little brother Jimmie in the face. Would they believe the story she told? And if they were convinced of its truth, what difference would that make? She was what she was, no matter how she had become so.
On the pike they met old Nance Cunningham returning from the mill with a sack of meal. The story of that meeting was one the old gossip told after the tragedy to many an eager circle of listeners,
"She jes' lifted her han' an' stopped me, an' if death was ever writ on a human face it shorely wuz stomped on hers. 'I want you to tell my father I'm sorry,' she sez. 'He swore he'd marry me inside of an hour. This man hyer—his brother—made out like he wuz a preacher an' married us. Tell my father that an' ask him to forgive me if he can.' That wuz all she said. Ranse Roush hit her horse with a switch an' sez, 'Yo' kin tell him all that yore own self soon as you git home.' I reckon I wuz the lastest person she spoke to alive."
They left the old woman staring after them with her mouth open. It could have been only a few minutes later that they reached Quicksand Creek.
'Lindy pulled up her horse to let the men precede her through the ford. They splashed into the shallows on the other side of the creek and waited for her to join them. Instead, she slipped from the saddle, ran down the bank, and plunged into the quicksand.
"Goddlemighty!" shrieked Ranse. "She's a-drowndin' herself in the sands."
They spurred their horses back across the creek and ran to rescue the girl. But she had flung herself forward face down far out of their reach. They dared not venture into the quivering bog after her. While they still stared in a frozen horror, the tragedy was completed. The victim of their revenge had disappeared beneath the surface of the morass.
"Call Me Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em"
The boy had spent the night at a water-hole in a little draw near the foot of the mesa. He had supped on cold rations and slept in his blanket without the comfort of glowing pinon knots. For yesterday he had cut Indian signs and after dark had seen the shadow of Apache camp-fires reflected in the clouds.
After eating he swung to the bare back of his pony and climbed to the summit of the butte. His trained eyes searched the plains. A big bunch of antelope was trailing down to water almost within rifle-shot. But he was not looking for game.
He sniffed the smoke from the pits where the renegades were roasting mescal and judged the distance to the Apache camp at close to ten miles. His gaze swept toward the sunrise horizon and rested upon a cloud of dust. That probably meant a big herd of cattle crossing to the Pecos Valley on the Chisum Trail that led to Fort Stanton. The riders were likely just throwing the beeves from the bed-ground to the trail. The boy waited to make sure of their line of travel.
Presently he spoke aloud, after the fashion of the plainsman who spends much time alone in the saddle. "Looks like they'll throw off to-night close to the 'Pache camp. If they do hell's a-goin' to pop just before sunup to-morrow. I reckon I'll ride over and warn the outfit."
From a trapper the boy had learned that a band of Mescalero Apaches had left the reservation three weeks before, crossed into Mexico, gone plundering down the Pecos, and was now heading back toward the Staked Plains. Evidently the drover did not know this, since he was moving his cattle directly toward the Indian camp.
The young fellow let his cowpony pick its way down the steep shale hill to the draw. He saddled without a waste motion, packed his supplies deftly, mounted, and was off. In the way he cut across the desert toward the moving herd was the certainty of the frontiersman. He did not hurry, but he wasted no time. His horse circled in and out among the sand dunes, now topped a hill, now followed a wash. Every foot of the devious trail was the most economical possible.
At the end of nearly an hour's travel he pulled up, threw down his bridle reins, and studied the ground carefully. He had cut Indian sign. What he saw would have escaped the notice of a tenderfoot, and if it had been pointed out to him none but an expert trailer would have understood its significance. Yet certain facts were printed here on the desert for this boy as plainly as if they had been stenciled on a guide-post. He knew that within forty-eight hours a band of about twenty Mescalero bucks had returned to camp this way from an antelope hunt and that they carried with them half a dozen pronghorns. It was a safe guess that they were part of the large camp the smoke of which he had seen.
Long before the young man struck the drive, he knew he was close by the cloud of dust and the bawling of the cattle. His course across country had been so accurate that he hit the herd at the point without deflecting.
An old Texan drew up, changed his weight on the saddle to rest himself, and hailed the youngster.
"Goin' somewheres, kid, or just ridin'?" he asked genially.
"Just takin' my hawss out for a jaunt so's he won't get hog-fat," grinned the boy.
The Texan chewed tobacco placidly and eyed the cowpony. The horse had been ridden so far that he was a bag of bones.
"Looks some gaunted," he commented.
"Four Bits is so thin he won't throw a shadow," admitted the boy.
"Come a right smart distance, I reckon?"
"You done said it."
"Where you headin' for?"
"For Deaf Smith County. I got an uncle there. Saw your dust an' dropped over to tell you that a big bunch of 'Paches are camped just ahead of you."
The older man looked at him keenly. "How do you know, son?"
"Smelt their smoke an' cut their trail."
"Know Injuns, do you?"
"I trailed with Al Sieber 'most two years."
To have served with Sieber for any length of time was a certificate of efficiency. He was the ablest scout in the United States Army. Through his skill and energy Geronimo and his war braves were later forced to give themselves up to the troops.
"'Nuff said. Are these 'Paches liable to make us any trouble?"
"Yes, sir. I think they are. They're a bunch of broncos from the reservation an' they have been across the line stealin' horses an' murderin' settlers. They will sure try to stampede your cattle an' run off a lot of 'em."
"Hmp! You better go back an' see old man Webb about it. What's yore name, kid?"
For just an eye-beat the boy hesitated. "Call me Jim Thursday."
A glimmer of a smile rested in the eyes of the Texan. He was willing to bet that this young fellow would not have given him that name if to-day had not happened to be the fifth day of the week. But it was all one to the cowpuncher. To question a man too closely about his former residence and manner of life was not good form on the frontier.
"I'll call you Jim from Sunday to Saturday," he said, pulling a tobacco pouch from his hip pocket. "My name is Wrayburn—Dad Wrayburn, the boys call me."
The Texan shouted to the man riding second on the swing. "Oh, you, Billie Prince!"
A tanned, good-looking young fellow cantered up.
"Meet Jimmie Thursday, Billie," the old-timer said by way of introduction. "This boy says there's heap many Injuns on the war-path right ahead of us. I reckon I'll let you take the point while I ride back with him an' put it up to the old man."
The "old man" turned out to be a short, heavy-set Missourian who had served in the Union Army and won a commission by intelligence and courage. Wherever the name of Homer Webb was known it stood for integrity and square-dealing. His word was as good as a signed bond.
Webb had come out of the war without a cent, but with a very definite purpose. During the last year of the Confederacy, while it was tottering to its fall, he had served in Texas. The cattle on the range had for years been running wild, the owners and herdsmen being absent with the Southern army. They had multiplied prodigiously, so that many thousands of mavericks roamed without brand, the property of any one who would round them up and put an iron on their flanks. The money value of them was very little. A standard price for a yearling was a plug of tobacco. But Webb looked to the future. He hired two riders, gathered together a small remuda of culls, and went into the cattle business with energy. To-day the Flying V Y was stamped on forty thousand longhorns.
The foreman of the Flying V Y was riding with the owner of the brand at the drag end of the herd. He was a hard-faced citizen known as Joe Yankie. When Wrayburn had finished his story, the foreman showed a row of tobacco-stained teeth in an unpleasant grin.
"Same old stuff, Dad. There always is a bunch of bucks off the reservation an' they're always just goin' to run our cattle away. If you ask me there's nothin' to it."
Young Thursday flushed. "If you'll ride out with me I'll show you their trail."
Yankie looked at him with a sneer. He guessed this boy to be about eighteen. There was a suggestion of effeminacy about the lad's small, well-shaped hands and feet. He was a slender, smooth-faced youth with mild blue eyes. It occurred to Webb, too, that the stranger might have imagined the Apaches. But in his motions was something of the lithe grace of the puma. It was part of the business of the cattleman to judge men and he was not convinced that this young fellow was as inoffensive as he looked.
"Where you from?" asked the drover.
"From the San Carlos Agency."
"Ever meet a man named Micky Free out there?"
"I've slept under the same tarp with him many's the time when we were followin' Chiricahua 'Paches. He's the biggest dare-devil that ever forked a horse."
"Micky's face is a map of Ireland. He's got only one eye; a buck punched the other out when he was a kid. His hair is red an' he wears it long."
"A bristly little red mustache."
"That's Micky to a T." Webb made up his mind swiftly. "The boy's all right, Yankie. He'll do to take along."
"It's your outfit. Suits me if he does you." The foreman turned insolently to the newcomer. "What'd you say your name was, sissie?"
The eyes of the boy, behind narrowed lids, grew hard as steel.
"Call me Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em," he drawled in a soft voice, every syllable distinct.
There was a moment of chill silence. A swift surprise had flared into the eyes of the foreman. The last thing in the world he had expected was to have his bad temper resented so promptly by this smooth-faced little chap. Since Yankie was the camp bully he bristled up to protect his reputation.
"Better not get on the prod with me, young fellow me lad. I'm liable to muss up your hair. Me, I'm from the Strip, where folks grow man-size."
The youngster smiled, but there was no mirth in that thin-lipped smile. He knew, as all men did, that the Cherokee Strip was the home of desperadoes and man-killers. The refuse of the country, driven out by the law of more settled communities, found here a refuge from punishment. But if the announcement of the foreman impressed him, he gave no sign of it.
"Why didn't you stay there?" he asked with bland innocence.
Yankie grew apoplectic. He did not care to discuss the reasons why he had first gone to the Strip or the reasons why he had come away. This girl-faced boy was the only person who had asked for a bill of particulars. Moreover, the foreman did not know whether the question had been put in child-like ignorance of any possible offense or with an impudent purpose to enrage him.
"Don't run on the rope when I'm holdin' it, kid," he advised roughly. "You're liable to get thrown hard."
"And then again I'm liable not to," lisped the youth from Arizona gently.
The bully looked the slim newcomer over again, and as he looked there rang inside him some tocsin of warning. Thursday sat crouched in the saddle, wary as a rattlesnake ready to strike. A sawed-off shotgun lay under his leg within reach of his hand, the butt of a six-gun was even closer to those smooth, girlish fingers. In the immobility of his figure and the steadiness of the blue eyes was a deadly menace.
Yankie was no coward. He would go through if he had to. But there was still time to draw back if he chose. He was not exactly afraid; on the other hand, he did not feel at all easy.
He contrived a casual, careless laugh. "All right, kid. I don't have to rob the cradle to fill my private graveyard. Go get your Injuns. It will be all right with me."
Webb drew a breath of relief. There was to be no gunplay after all. He had had his own reasons for not interfering sooner, but he knew that the situation had just grazed red tragedy.
"I'm goin' to take the boy's advice," he announced to Yankie. "Ride forward an' swing the herd toward that big red butte. We'll give our Mescalero friends a wide berth if we can."
The foreman hung in the saddle a moment before he turned to go. He had to save his face from a public back-down, "Bet you a week's pay there's nothin' to it, Webb."
"Hope you're right, Joe," his employer answered.
As soon as Yankie had cantered away, Dad Wrayburn, ex-Confederate trooper, slapped his hand on his thigh and let out a modulated rebel yell.
"Dad burn my hide, Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em, you're all right. Fustest time I ever saw Joe take water, but he shorely did splash some this here occasion. I wouldn't 'a' missed it for a bunch of hog-fat yearlin's."
Webb had not been sorry to see his arrogant foreman brought up with a sharp turn, but in the interest of discipline he did not care to say so.
"Why can't you boys get along peaceable with Joe, I'd like to know? This snortin' an' pawin' up the ground don't get you anything."
"I reckon Joe does most of the snortin' that's done," Wrayburn answered dryly. "I ain't had any trouble with him, because he spends a heap of time lettin' me alone. But there's no manner of doubt that Joe rides the boys too hard."
The drover dismissed the subject and turned to Thursday.
"Want a job?"
"I need another man. Since you sabe the ways of the 'Paches I can use you to scout ahead for us."
"What you payin'?"
"Fifty a month."
"You've hired a hand."
"Good enough. Better pick one of the boys to ride with you while you are out scoutin'."
"I'll take Billie Prince," decided the new rider at once.
"You know Billie?"
"Never saw him before to-day. But I like his looks. He's a man to tie to."
"You're right he is."
The drover looked at his new employee with a question in his shrewd eyes. The boy was either a man out of a thousand or he was a first-class bluffer. He claimed to have cut Indian sign and to know exactly what was written there. At a single glance he had sized up Prince and knew him for a reliable side partner. Without any bluster he had served notice on Yankie that it would be dangerous to pick on him as the butt of his ill-temper.
In those days, on the Pecos, law lay in a holster on a man's thigh. The individual was a force only so far as his personality impressed itself upon his fellows. If he made claims he must be prepared to back them to a fighting finish.
Was this young Thursday a false alarm? Or was he a good man to let alone when one was looking for trouble? Webb could not be sure yet, though he made a shrewd guess. But he knew it would not he long before he found out.
Webb sent for Billie Prince.
"Seems there's a bunch of bronco 'Paches camped ahead of us, Billie. Thursday here trailed with Sieber. I want you an' him to scout in front of us an' see we don't run into any ambush. You're under his orders, y' understand."
Prince was a man of few words. He nodded.
"You know the horses that the boys claim. Well, take Thursday to the remuda an' help him pick a mount from the extras in place of that broomtail he's ridin'," continued the drover. "Look alive now. I don't want my cattle stampeded because we haven't got sense enough to protect 'em. No 'Paches can touch a hoof of my stock if I can help it."
"If they attack at all it will probably be just before daybreak, but it is just as well to be ready for 'em," suggested Thursday.
"I brought along some old Sharps an' some Spencers. I reckon I'll have 'em loaded an' distribute 'em among the boys. Billie, tell Yankie to have that done. The rifles are racked up in the calf wagon."
Billie delivered the orders of the drover to the foreman as they passed on their way to the remuda. Joe gave a snort of derision, but let it go at that. When Homer Webb was with one of his trail outfits he was always its boss.
While Thursday watched him, Prince roped out a cinnamon horse from the remuda. The cowpuncher was a long-bodied man, smooth-muscled and lithe. The boy had liked his level eye and his clean, brown jaw before, just as now he approved the swift economy of his motions.
Probably Billie was about twenty years of age, but in that country men ripened young. Both of these lads had been brought up in that rough-and-ready school of life which holds open session every day of the year. Both had already given proofs of their ability to look out for themselves in emergency. A wise, cool head rested on each of these pairs of young shoulders. In this connection it is worth mentioning that the West's most famous outlaw, Billie the Kid, a killer with twenty-one notches on his gun, had just reached his majority when he met his death some years later at the hands of Pat Garrett.
The new rider for the Flying V Y outfit did not accept the judgment of Prince without confirming it. He examined the hoofs of the horse and felt its legs carefully. He looked well to its ears to make sure that ticks from the mesquite had not infected the silky inner flesh.
"A good bronc, looks like," he commented.
"One of the fastest in the remuda—not very gentle, though."
Thursday picked the witches' bridles from its mane before he saddled. As his foot found the stirrup the cinnamon rose into the air, humped its back, and came down with all four legs stiff. The quirt burned its flank, and the animal went up again to whirl round in the air. The boy stuck to the saddle and let out a joyous whoop. The battle was on.
Suddenly as it had begun the contest ended. With the unreasoning impulse of the half-broken cowpony the cinnamon subsided to gentle obedience.
The two riders cantered across the prairie in the direction of the Indian camp. That the Apaches were still there Thursday thought altogether likely, for he knew that it takes a week to make mescal. No doubt the raiders had stopped to hold a jamboree over the success of their outbreak.
The scouts from the cattle herd deflected toward a butte that pushed out as a salient into the plain. From its crest they could get a sweeping view of the valley.
"There's a gulch back of it that leads to old man Roubideau's place," explained Prince. "Last time we were on this Pecos drive the boss stopped an' bought a bunch of three-year-olds from him. He's got a daughter that's sure a pippin, old man Roubideau has. Shoot, ride, rope—that girl's got a lot of these alleged bullwhackers beat a mile at any one of 'em."
Thursday did not answer. He had left the saddle and was examining the ground carefully. Billie joined him. In the soft sand of the wash were tracks of horses' hoofs. Patiently the trailer followed them foot by foot to the point where they left the dry creek-bed and swung up the broken bank to a swale.
"Probably Roubideau and his son Jean after strays," suggested Prince.
"No. Notice this track here, how it's broken off at the edge. When I cut Indian sign yesterday, this was one of those I saw."
"Then these are 'Paches too?"
"Goin' to the Roubideau place." The voice of Billie was low and husky. His brown young face had been stricken gray. Bleak fear lay in the gray eyes. His companion knew he was thinking of the girl. "How many of 'em do you make out?"
"Six or seven. Not sure which."
"They passed here not an hour since."
It was as if a light of hope had been lit in the face of the young man. "Mebbe there's time to help yet. Kid, I'm goin' in."
Jim Thursday made no reply, unless it was one to vault to the saddle and put his horse to the gallop. They rode side by side, silently and alertly, rifles across the saddle-horns in their hands. The boy from Arizona looked at his new friend with an increase of respect. This was, of course, a piece of magnificent folly. What could two boys do against half a dozen wily savages? But it was the sort of madness that he loved. His soul went out in a gush of warm, boyish admiration to Billie Prince. It was the beginning of a friendship that was to endure, in spite of rivalry and division and misunderstanding, through many turbid years of trouble. This was no affair of theirs. Webb had sent them out to protect the cattle drive. They were neglecting his business for the sake of an adventure that might very well mean the death of both of them. But it was characteristic of Thursday that it never even occurred to him to let Prince take the chance alone. Even in the days to come, when his name was anathema in the land, nobody ever charged that he would not go through with a comrade.
There drifted to them presently the faint sound of a shot. It was followed by a second and a third.
"The fight's on," cried Thursday.
Billie's quirt stung the flank of his pony. Near the entrance to the canon his companion caught up with him. From the rock walls of the gulch came to them booming echoes of rifles in action.
"Roubideau must be standin' 'em off," shouted Prince.
"Can we take the 'Paches by surprise? Is there any other way into the canon?"
"Don't know. Can't stop to find out. I'm goin' straight up the road."
The younger man offered no protest. It might well be that the ranchman was in desperate case and in need of immediate help to save his family. Anyhow, the decision was out of his hands.
The horses pounded forward and swept round a curve of the gulch into sight of the ranch. In a semicircle, crouched behind the shelter of boulders and cottonwoods, the Indian line stretched across the gorge and along one wall. The buildings lay in a little valley, where an arroyo ran down at a right angle and broke the rock escarpment. A spurt of smoke came from a window of the stable as the rescuers galloped into view.
One of the Apaches caught sight of them and gave a guttural shout of warning. His gun jumped to the shoulder and simultaneously the bullet was on its way. But no living man could throw a shot quicker than Jim Thursday, if the stories still told of him around camp-fires are true. Now he did not wait to take sight, but fired from his hip. The Indian rose, half-turned, and fell forward across the boulder, his naked body shining in the sun. By a hundredth part of a second the white boy had out-speeded him.
The riders flung themselves from their horses and ran for cover.
The very audacity of their attack had its effect. The Indians guessed these two were the advance guard of a larger party which had caught them in a trap. Between two fires, with one line of retreat cut off, the bronco Apaches wasted no time in deliberation. They made a rush for their horses, mounted, and flew headlong toward the arroyo, their bodies lying low on the backs of the ponies.
The Indians rode superbly, their bare, sinewy legs gripping even to the moccasined feet the sides of the ponies. Without saddle or bridle, except for the simple nose rope, they guided their mounts surely, the brown bodies rising and falling in perfect accord with the motion of the horses.
A shot from the stable hit one as he galloped past. While his horse was splashing through the creek the Mescalero slid slowly down, head first, into the brawling water.
Billie took a long, steady aim and fired. A horse stumbled and went down, flinging the rider over its head. With a "Yip—Yip!" of triumph Thursday drew a bead on the man as he rose and dodged forward. Just as the boy fired a sharp pain stung his foot. One of the escaping natives had wounded him.
The dismounted man ran forward a few steps and pulled himself to the back of a pony already carrying one rider. Something in the man's gait and costume struck Prince.
"That fellow's no Injun," he called to his friend.
"Look!" Thursday was pointing to the saddle-back between two peaks at the head of the arroyo.
A girl on horseback had just come over the summit and stood silhouetted against the sky. Even in that moment while they watched her she realized for the first time her danger. She turned to fly, and she and her horse disappeared down the opposite slope. The Mescaleros swept up the hill toward her.
"They'll git her! They'll sure git her!" cried Billie, making for his horse.
The younger man ran limping to his cinnamon. At every step he winced, and again while his weight rested on the wounded foot as he dragged himself to the saddle. A dozen yards behind his companion he sent his horse splashing through the creek.
The cowponies, used to the heavy going in the hills, took the slope in short, quick plunges. Neither of the young men used the spur, for the chase might develop into a long one with stamina the deciding factor. The mesquite was heavy and the hill steep, but presently they struck a cattle run which led to the divide.
Two of the Apaches stopped at the summit for a shot at their pursuers, but neither of the young men wasted powder in answer. They knew that close-range work would prove far more deadly and that only a chance hit could serve them now.
From Billie, who had reached the crest first, came a cry of dismay. His partner, a moment later, knew the reason for it. One of the Apaches, racing across the valley below, was almost at the heels of the girl.
The cowpunchers flung their ponies down the sharp incline recklessly. The animals were sure-footed as mountain goats. Otherwise they could never have reached the valley right side up. It was a stretch of broken shale with much loose rubble. The soft sandstone farther along had eroded and there was a great deal of slack debris down which the horses slipped and slid, now on their haunches and again on all fours.
The valley stretched for a mile before them and terminated at a rock wall into which, no doubt, one or more canons cut like sword clefts. The cowpunchers had picked mounts, but it was plain they could not overhaul the Apaches before the Indians captured the girl.
Billie, even while galloping at full speed, began a long-distance fire upon the enemy. One of the Mescaleros had caught the bridle of the young woman's horse and was stopping the animal. It looked for a moment as if the raiders were going to make a stand, but presently their purpose became clear to those in pursuit. The one that Billie had picked for a renegade white dropped from the horse upon which he was riding double and swung up behind the captive. The huddle of men and ponies opened up and was in motion again toward the head of the valley.
But though the transfer had been rapid, it had taken time. The pursuers, thundering across the valley, had gained fast. Rifles barked back and forth angrily.
The Indians swerved sharply to the left for the mouth of a canon. Here they pulled up to check the cowboys, who slid from their saddles to use their ponies for protection.
"That gorge to the right is called Escondido Canon," explained Prince. "We combed it for cattle last year. About three miles up it runs into the one where the 'Paches are! Don't remember the name of that one."
"I'll give it a new name," answered the boy. He raised his rifle, rested it across the back of his pony, and took careful aim. An Indian plunged from his horse. "Shoot-a-Buck Canon—how'll that do for a name?" inquired Thursday with a grin.
Prince let out a whoop. "You got him right. He'll never smile again. Shoot-a-Buck Canon goes."
The Indians evidently held a hurried consultation and changed their minds about holding the gorge against such deadly shooting as this.
"They're gun-shy," announced Thursday. "They don't like the way we fog 'em and they're goin' to hit the trail, Billie."
After one more shot Prince made the mistake of leaving the shelter of his horse too soon. He swung astride and found the stirrup. A puff of smoke came from the entrance to the gulch. Billie turned to his friend with a puzzled, sickly smile on his face. "They got me, kid."
The cowboy began to sag in the saddle. His friend helped him to the ground. The wound was in the thigh.
"I'll tie it up for you an' you'll be good as new," promised his friend.
The older man looked toward the gorge. No Indians were in sight.
"I can wait, but that little girl in the hands of those devils can't. Are you game to play a lone hand, kid?" he asked.
"Then ride hell-for-leather up Escondido. It's shorter than the way they took. Where the gulches come together be waitin' an' git 'em from the brush. There's just one slim chance you'll make it an' come back alive."
The boy's eyes were shining. "Suits me fine. I'll go earn that name I christened myself—Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em."
Billie, his face twisted with pain, watched the youngster disappear at a breakneck gallop into Escondido.
Ranse Roush Pays
Jim Thursday knew that his sole chance of success lay in reaching the fork of the canons before the Indians. So far he had been lucky. Three Apaches had gone to their happy hunting ground, and though both he and Billie were wounded, his hurt at least did not interfere with accurate rifle-fire. But it was not reasonable to expect such good fortune to hold. In the party he was pursuing were four men, all of them used to warfare in the open. Unless he could take them at a disadvantage he could not by any possibility defeat them and rescue their captive.
His cinnamon pony took the rising ground at a steady gallop. Its stride did not falter, though its breathing was labored. Occasionally the rider touched its flank with the sharp rowel of a spur. The boy was a lover of horses. He had ridden too many dry desert stretches, had too often kept night watch over a sleeping herd, not to care for the faithful and efficient animal that served him and was a companion to his loneliness. Like many plainsmen he made of his mount a friend.
But he dared not spare his pony now. He must ride the heart out of the gallant brute for the sake of that life he had come to save. And while he urged it on, his hand patted the sweat-stained neck and his low voice sympathized.
"You've got to go to it, old fellow, if it kills you," he said aloud. "We got to save that girl for Billie, ain't we? We can't let those red devils take her away, can we?"
It was a rough cattle trail he followed, strewn here with boulders and there tilted down at breakneck angle of slippery shale. Sometimes it fell abruptly into washes and more than once rose so sharply that a heather cat could scarce have clambered up. But Thursday flung his horse recklessly at the path, taking chances of a fall that might end the mad race. He could not wait to pick a way. His one hope lay in speed, in reaching the fork before the enemy. He sacrificed everything to that.
From the top of a sharp pitch he looked down into the twin canon of Escondido. A sharp bend cut off the view to the left, so that he could see for only seventy-five or a hundred yards. But his glance followed the gulch up for half a mile and found no sign of life. He was in time.
Swiftly he made his preparations. First he led the exhausted horse back to a clump of young cottonwoods and tied it safely. From its place beside the saddle he took the muley gun and with the rifle in his other hand he limped swiftly back to the trail. Every step was torture, but he could not stop to think of that now. His quick eye picked a perfect spot for an ambush where a great rock leaned against another at the edge of the bluff. Between the two was a narrow opening through which he could command the bend in the trail below. To enlarge this he scooped out the dirt with his fingers then reloaded the rifle and thrust it into the crevice. The sawed-off shotgun lay close to his hand.
Till now he had found no time to get nervous, but as the minutes passed he began to tremble violently and to whimper. In spite of his experience he was only a boy and until to-day had never killed a man.
"Doggone it, if I ain't done gone an' got buck fever," he reproached himself. "I reckon it's because Billie Prince ain't here that I'm so scairt. I wisht I had a drink, so as I'd be right when the old muley gun gits to barkin'."
A faint sound, almost indistinguishable, echoed up the gulch to him. Miraculously his nervousness vanished. Every nerve was keyed up, every muscle tense, but he was cool as water in a mountain stream.
The sound repeated itself, a faint tinkle of gravel rolling from a trail beneath the hoof of a horse. At the last moment Thursday changed his mind and substituted the shotgun for the rifle.
"Old muley she spatters all over the State of Texas. I might git two at once," he muttered.
The light, distant murmur of voices reached him. His trained ear told him just how far away the speakers were.
An Apache rounded the bend, a tall, slender young brave wearing only a low-cut breech-cloth and a pair of moccasins. Around his waist was strapped a belt full of cartridges and from it projected the handle of a long Mexican knife. The brown body of the youth was lithe and graceful as that of a panther. He was smiling over his shoulder at the next rider in line, a heavy-set, squat figure on a round-bellied pinto. That smile was to go out presently like the flame of a blown candle. A third Mescalero followed. Like that of the others, his coarse, black hair fell to the shoulders, free except for a band that encircled the forehead.
Still the boy did not fire. He waited till the last of the party appeared, a man in fringed buckskin breeches and hickory shirt riding pillion behind a young woman. Both of these were white.
The sawed-off gun of Thursday covered the second rider carefully. Before the sound of the shot boomed down the gorge the Apache was lifted from the bare back of the pony. The heavy charge of buckshot had riddled him through and through.
Instantly the slim, young brave in the lead dug his heels into the flank of his pony, swung low to the far side so that only a leg was visible, and flew arrow-straight up the canon for safety. Thursday let him go.
Twice his rifle rang out. At that distance it was impossible for a good shot to miss. One bullet passed through the head of the third Mescalero. The other brought down the pony upon which the whites were riding.
The fall of the horse flung the girl free, but the foot of her captor was caught between the saddle and the ground. Thursday drew a bead on him while he lay there helpless, but some impulse of mercy held his hand. The man was that creature accursed in the border land, a renegade who has turned his face against his own race and must to prove his sincerity to the tribe out-Apache an Apache at cruelty. Still, he was white after all—and Jim Thursday was only eighteen.
Rifle in hand the boy clambered down the jagged rock wall to the dry river-bed below. The foot of his high-heeled boot was soggy with blood, but for the present he had to ignore the pain messages that throbbed to his brain. The business on hand would not wait.
While Thursday was still slipping down from one outcropping ledge of rock to another, a plunge of the wounded horse freed the renegade. The man scrambled to his feet and ran shakily for the shelter of a boulder. In his hurry to reach cover he did not stop to get the rifle that had been flung a few yards from him when he fell.
The boy caught one glimpse of that evil, fear-racked face. The blood flushed his veins with a surge of triumph. He was filled with the savage, primitive exultation of the head-hunter. For four years he had slept on the trail of this man and had at last found him. The scout had fought the Apaches impersonally, without rancor, because a call had come to him that he could not ignore. But now the lust of blood was on him. He had become that cold, implacable thing known throughout the West as a "killer."
The merciless caution that dictates the methods of a killer animated his movements now. Across the gulch, nearly one hundred and fifty yards from him, the renegade lay crouched. A hunched shoulder was just visible.
Thursday edged carefully along the ledge. He felt for holds with his hand and feet, for not once did his gaze lift from that patch of hickory shirt. The eyes of the boy had narrowed to slits of deadly light. He was wary as a hungry wolf and as dangerous. That the girl had disappeared around the bend he did not know. His brain functioned for just one purpose—to get the enemy with whom he had come at last to grips.
As the boy crept along the rock face for a better view of his victim, the minutes fled. Five of them—ten—a quarter of an hour passed. The renegade lay motionless. Perhaps he hoped that his location was unknown.
The man-hunter on the ledge flung a bullet against the protecting boulder. His laugh of cruel derision drifted across the canon.
"Run to earth at last, Ranse Roush!" he shouted, "I swore I'd camp on your trail till I got you—you an' the rest of yore poison tribe."
From the trapped wretch quavered back a protest.
"Goddlemighty, I ain't done nothin' to you-all. Lemme explain."
"Before you do any explainin' mebbe you'd better guess who it is that's goin' to send yore cowardly soul to hell inside of five minutes."
"If you're some kin to that gal on the hawss with me, why, I'll tell you the honest-to-God truth. I was aimin' to save her from the 'Paches when I got a chanct. Come on down an' let's we-uns talk it over reasonable."
The boy laughed again, but there was something very far from mirth in the sound of that chill laughter. "If you won't guess I'll have to tell you Ever hear of the Clantons, Ranse Roush? I'm one of 'em. Now you know what chance you got to talk yoreself out of this thing."
"I—I'm glad to meet up with you-all. I got to admit that the Roush clan is dirt mean. Tha's why I broke away from 'em. Tha's why I come out here. You Clantons is all right. I never did go in for this bushwhackin' with Dave an' Hugh. I never—"
"You're a born liar like the rest of yore wolf tribe. You come out here because the country got too hot to hold you after what you did to 'Lindy Clanton. I might 'a' knowed I'd find you with the 'Paches. You allus was low-mixed Injun." The boy had fallen into the hill vernacular to which he had been born. He was once more a tribal feudist of the border land.
"I swear I hadn't a thing to do with that," the man cried eagerly. "You shore done got that wrong. Dave an' Hugh done that. They're a bad lot. When I found out about 'Lindy Clanton I quarreled with 'em an' we-all split up company. Tha's the way of it."
"You're ce'tainly in bad luck then," the boy shouted back tauntingly. "For I aim to stomp you out like I would a copperhead." Very distinctly he added his explanation. "I'm 'Lindy Clanton's brother."
Roush begged for his life. He groveled in the dust. He promised to reform, to leave the country, to do anything that was asked of him.
"Go ahead. It's meat an' drink to me to hear a Roush whine. I got all day to this job, but I aim to do it thorough," jeered Clanton.
A bullet flattened itself against the rock wall ten feet below the boy. In despair the man was shooting wildly with his revolver. He knew there was no use in pleading, that his day of judgment had come.
Young Clanton laughed in mockery. "Try again, Roush. You ain't quite got the range."
The man made a bolt for the bend in the canon a hundred yards away. Instantly the rifle leaped to the shoulder of the boy.
"Right in front of you, Roush," he prophesied.
The bullet kicked up the dust at the feet of the running man. The nerve of Roush failed him and he took cover again behind a scrub live-oak. A memory had flashed to him of the day when he had seen a thirteen-year-old boy named Jim Clanton win a turkey shoot against the best marksmen of the hill country.
The army Colt spit out once more at the boy on the ledge. Before the echo had died away the boom of an explosion filled the canon. Roush pitched forward on his face.
Jim Clanton lowered his rifle with an exclamation. His face was a picture of amazement. Some one had stolen his vengeance from him by a hair's breadth.
Two men came round the bend on horseback. Behind them rode a girl. She was mounted on the barebacked pinto of the Indian Clanton had killed with the shotgun.
The boy clambered down to the bed of the gulch and limped toward them. The color had ebbed from his lips. At every step a pain shot through his leg. But in spite of his growing weakness anger blazed in the light-blue eyes.
"I waited four years to git him. I kept the trail hot from Tucson to Vegas an' back to Santone. An' now, doggone it, when my finger was on the trigger an' the coyote as good as dead, you cut in an' shoot the daylights out of him. By gum, it ain't fair!"
The older man looked at him in astonishment. "But he is only a child, Polly! Cela me passe!"
"Mebbe I am only a kid," the boy retorted resentfully. "But I reckon I'm man enough to handle any Roush that ever lived. I wasn't askin' for help from you-uns that I heerd tell of."
The younger man laughed. He was six or seven years older than the girl, who could not have been more than seventeen. Both of them bore a marked likeness to the middle-aged man who had spoken. Jim guessed that this was the Roubideau family of whom Billie Prince had told him.
"Just out of the cradle, by Christmas, and he's killed four 'Paches inside of an hour an' treed a renegade to boot," said young Roubideau. "I'd call it a day's work, kid, for it sure beats all records ever I knew hung up by one man."
The admiration of the young rancher was patent. He could not take his eyes from the youthful phenomenon.
"He's wounded, father," the girl said in a low voice.
The boy looked at her and his anger died away. "Billie sent me up the gulch when he was shot. He 'lowed it was up to me to git you back from those devils, seein' as he couldn't go himself."
Polly nodded. She seemed to be the kind of girl that understands without being told in detail.
Before Thursday could protect himself, Roubideau, senior, had seized him in his arms, embraced him, and kissed first one cheek and then the other. "Eh bien! But you are the brave boy! I count it honor to know you. My little Polly, have you not save her? Ah! But I forget the introductions. Myself, I am Pierre Roubideau, a tout propos at your service. My son Jean. Pauline—what you call our babie."
"My real name is Jim Clanton," answered the boy. "I've been passin' by that of 'Thursday' so that none of the Roush outfit would know I was in the country till I met up face to face with 'em."
"Clanton! It is a name we shall remember in our prayers, n'est-ce pas, Polly?" Pierre choked up and wrung fervently the hand of the youngster.
Clanton was both embarrassed and wary. He did not know at what moment Roubideau would disgrace him by attempting another embrace. There was something in the Frenchman's eye that told of an emotion not yet expended fully.
"Oh, shucks; you make a heap of fuss about nothin'," he grumbled. "Didn't I tell you it was Billie Prince sent me? An' say, I got a pill in my foot. Kindness of one of them dad-gummed Mescaleros. I hate to walk on that laig. I wish yore boy would go up on the bluff an' look after my horse. I 'most rode it to death, I reckon, comin' up the canon. An' there's a sawed-off shotgun. He'll find it..."
For a few moments the ground had been going up and down in waves before the eyes of the boy. Now he clutched at a stirrup leather for support, but his fingers could not seem to find it. Before he could steady himself the bed of the dry creek rose up and hit him in the head.
Pauline Roubideau Says "Thank You."
Jimmie Clanton slid back from unconsciousness to a world the center of which was a girl sitting on a rock with his rifle across her knees. The picture did not at first associate itself with any previous experience. She was a brown, slim young thing in a calico print that fitted snugly the soft lines of her immature figure. The boy watched her shyly and wondered at the quiet self-reliance of her. She was keeping guard over him, and there was about her a cool vigilance that went oddly with the small, piquant face and the tumbled mass of curly chestnut hair that had fallen in a cascade across her shoulders.
"Where are yore folks?" he asked presently.
She turned her head slowly and looked at him. Southern suns had sprinkled beneath her eyes a myriad of powdered freckles. She met his gaze fairly, with a boyish directness and candor.
"Jean has ridden out to tell your friends about you and Mr. Prince. Father has gone back to the house to fix up a travois to carry you."
"Sho! I can ride."
"There's no need of it. You must have lost a great deal of blood."
He looked down at his foot and saw that the boot had been cut away. A bandage of calico had been tied around the wound. He guessed that the girl had sacrificed part of a skirt.
"And you stayed here to see the 'Paches didn't play with me whilst yore father was gone," he told her.
"There wasn't any danger, of course. The only one that escaped is miles away from here. But we didn't like to leave you alone."
"That's right good of you."
Her soft, brown eyes met his again. They poured upon him the gift of passionate gratitude she could not put into words. It was from something much more horrible than death that he had snatched her. One moment she had been a creature crushed, leaden despair in her heart. Then the miracle had flashed down from the sky. She was free, astride the pinto, galloping for home.
"Yes, you owe us much." There was a note of light sarcasm in her clear, young voice, but the feeling in her heart swept it away in an emotional rush of words from the tongue of her father. "Vous avez pris le fait et cause pour moi. Sans vous j'etais perdu."
"You're French," he said.
"My father is, not my mother. She was from Tennessee."
"I'm from the South, too."
"You didn't need to tell me that," she answered with a little smile.
"Oh, I'm a Westerner now, but you ought to have heerd me talk when I first came out." He broached a grievance. "Say, will you tell yore dad not to do that again? I'm no kid."
"You know." The red flamed into his face. "If it got out among the boys what he'd done, I'd never hear the last of it."
"You mean kissed you?"
"Sure I do. That ain't no way to treat a fellow. I'm past eighteen if I am small for my age. Nobody can pull the pat-you-on-the-head-sonny stuff on me."
"But you don't understand. That isn't it at all. My father is French. That makes all the difference. When he kissed you it meant—oh, that he honored and esteemed you because you fought for me."
"I been tellin' you right along that Billie Prince is to blame. Let him go an' kiss Billie an' see if he'll stand for it."
A flash of roguishness brought out an unexpected dimple near the corner of her insubordinate mouth. "We'll be good, all of us, and never do it again. Cross our hearts."
Young Clanton reddened beneath the tan. Without looking at her he felt the look she tilted sideways at him from under the long, curved lashes. Of course she was laughing at him. He knew that much, even though he lacked the experience to meet her in kind. Oddly enough, there pricked through his embarrassment a delicious little tingle of delight. So long as she took him in as a partner of her gayety she might make as much fun of him as she pleased.
But the owlish dignity of his age would not let him drop the subject without further explanation. "It's all right for yore dad to much you. I reckon a girl kinder runs to kisses an' such doggoned foolishness. But a man's different. He don't go in for it."
"Oh, doesn't he?" asked Polly demurely. She did not think it necessary to mention that every unmarried man who came to the ranch wanted to make love to her before he left. "I'm glad you told me, because I'm only a girl and I don't know much about it. And since you're a man, of course you know."
"That's the way it is," he assured her, solemn as a pouter.
She bit her lip to keep from laughing out, but on the heels of her mirth came a swift reproach. In his knowledge of life he might be a boy, but in one way at least he had proved himself a man. He had taken his life in his hands and ridden to save her without a second thought. He had fought a good fight, one that would be a story worth telling when she had become an old woman with grandchildren at her knee.
"Does your foot hurt you much?" she asked gently.
"It sort o' keeps my memory jogged up. It's a kind of forget-me-not souvenir, for a good boy, compliments of a Mescalero buck, name unknown, probably now permanently retired from his business of raisin' Cain. But it might be a heap worse. They would've been glad to collect our scalps if it hadn't been onconvenient, I expect."
"Yes," she agreed gravely.
He sat up abruptly. "Say, what about Billie? I left him wounded outside. Did yore folks find him?"
"Yes. It seems the Apaches trapped them in the stable. They roped horses and came straight for the canon. They found Mr. Prince, but they had no time to stop then. Father is looking after him now. He said he was going to take him to the house in the buckboard."
"Is he badly hurt?"
"Jean thinks he will be all right. Mr. Prince told him it was only a flesh wound, but the muscles were so paralysed he couldn't get around."
"The bullet did not strike an artery, then?"
"My brother seemed to think not."
"I reckon there's no doctor near."
Her eyes twinkled. "Not very near. Our nearest neighbor lives on the Pecos one hundred land seventeen miles away. But my father is as good as a doctor any day of the week."
"Likely you don't borrow coffee next door when you run out of it onexpected. But don't you get lonesome?"
"Haven't time," she told him cheerfully. "Besides, somebody going through stops off every three or four months. Then we learn all the news."
Jimmie glanced at her shyly and looked quickly away. This girl was not like any woman he had known. Most of them were drab creatures with the spirit washed out of them. His sister had been an exception. She had had plenty of vitality, good looks and pride, but the somber shadow of her environment had not made for gayety. It was different with Pauline Roubideau. Though she had just escaped from terrible danger, laughter bubbled up in her soft throat, mirth rippled over her mobile little face. She expressed herself with swift, impulsive gestures at times. Then again she suggested an inheritance of slow grace from the Southland of her mother.
He did not understand the contradictions of her and they worried him a little. Billie had told him that she could rope and shoot as well as any man. He had seen for himself that she was an expert rider. Her nerves were good enough to sit beside him at quiet ease within a stone's throw of three sprawling bodies from which she had seen the lusty life driven scarce a half-hour since. Already he divined the boyish camaraderie that was so simple and direct an expression of good-will. And yet there was something about her queer little smile he could not make out. It hinted that she was really old enough to be his mother, that she was heiress of wisdom handed down by her sex through all the generations. As yet he had not found out that he was only a boy and she was a woman.
Pauline Roubideau knew the frontier code. She evinced no curiosity about the past of this boy-man who had come into her life at the nick of time. None the less she was eager to know what connection lay between him and the renegade her brother had killed. She had heard Jim Clanton say that he had waited four years for his revenge and had followed the man all over the West. Why? What motive could be powerful enough with a boy of fourteen to sway so completely his whole life toward vengeance?
She set herself to find out without asking. Inside of ten minutes the secret which had been locked so long in his warped soul had been confided to her. The boy broke down when he told her the story of his sister's death. He was greatly ashamed of himself for his emotion, but the touch of her warm sympathy melted the ice in his heart and set him sobbing.
Quickly she came across to him and knelt down by his side.
"You poor boy! You poor, poor boy!" she murmured.
Her arm crept round his shoulders with the infinitely tender caress of the mother that lies, dormant or awake, in all good women.
"I—I—I'm nothing but a baby," he gulped, trying desperately to master his sobs.
"Don't talk foolishness," she scolded to comfort him. "I wouldn't think much of you if you didn't love your sister enough to cry for her."
There were tears in her own eyes. Her lively young imagination pictured vividly the desolation of the young hill girl betrayed so cruelly, the swift decline of her stern, broken-hearted father. The thought of the half-grown boy following the betrayers of his sister across the continent, his life dedicated for years to vengeance, was a dreadful thing to contemplate. It shocked her sense of all that was fitting. No doubt his mission had become a religion with him. He had lain down at night with that single purpose before him. He had risen with it in the morning. It had been his companion throughout the day. From one season to another he had cherished it when he should have been filled with the happy, healthy play impulses natural to his age.
The boy told the story of that man-hunt without a suspicion that there was anything in it to outrage the feelings of the girl.
"If it hadn't been for old Nance Cunningham, I reckon Devil Dave an' his brothers would have fixed up some cock an' bull story about how 'Lindy was drowned by accident. But folks heard Nance an' then wouldn't believe a word they said. Dad swore us Clantons to wipe out the whole clan of 'em. Every last man in the hills that was decent got to cussin' the Roush outfit. Their own friends turned their backs on all three. Then the sheriff come up from the settlemint an' they jest naturally lit out.
"I heerd tell they were in Arizona an' after dad died I took after 'em. But seemed like I had no luck. When I struck their trail they had always just gone. To-day I got Ranse—leastways I would'a' got him if yore brother hadn't interfered. I'll meet up with the others one o' these times. I'll git 'em too."
He spoke with quiet conviction, as if it were a business matter that had to be looked after.
"Did you ever hear this: 'Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord'?"
He nodded. "Dad used to read that to me. There's a heap in the Bible about killin' yore enemies. Dad said that vengeance verse meant that we-all was the Lord's deputies, like a sheriff has folks to help him, an' we was certainly to repay the Roushes an' not to forgit interest neither."
The girl shook her head vigorously. "I don't think that's what it means at all. If you'll read the verses above and below, you'll see it doesn't. We're to feed our enemies when they are hungry. We're to do them good for evil."
"That's all right for common, every-day enemies, but the Roush clan ain't that kind," explained the boy stubbornly. "It shore is laid on me to destroy 'em root an' branch, like the Bible says."
By the way he wagged his head he might have been a wise little old man. The savage philosophy of the boy had been drawn in with his mother's milk. It had been talked by his elders while as a child he drowsed before the big fireplace on winter nights. After his sister's tragic death it had been driven home by Bible texts and by a solemn oath of vengeance. Was it likely that anything she could say would have weight with him? For the present the girl gave up her resolve to convert him to a more Christian point of view.
The sun had sunk behind the canon wall when Pierre Roubideau arrived with a travois which he had hastily built. There was no wagon-road up the gulch and it would have been difficult to get the buckboard in as far as the fork over the broken terrain. As a voyageur of the North he had often seen wounded men carried by the Indians in travois across the plains. He knew, too, that the tribes of the Southwest use them. This one was constructed of two sixteen-foot poles with a canvas lashed from one bar to the other. The horse was harnessed between the ends of the shafts, the other ends dragging on the ground.
Clanton looked at this device distastefully. "I'm no squaw. Whyfor can't I climb on its back an' ride?"
"Because you are seeck. It iss of the importance that you do not exert yourself. Voyons! You will be comfortable here. N'est-ce pas, Polly?" Pierre gesticulated as he explained volubly. He even illustrated the comfort by lying down in the travois himself and giving a dramatic representation of sleep.
The young man grumbled, but gave way reluctantly.
"How's Billie Prince?" he asked presently from the cot where he lay.
"He will hafe a fever, but soon he will be well again. I, Pierre, promise it. For he iss of a good strength and sound as a dollar."
Pauline, rifle in hand, scouted ahead of the travois and picked the smoothest way down the rough ravine. The horse that Roubideau drove was an old and patient one. Its master held it to a slow, even pace, so that the wounded boy was jolted as little as possible. When they had reached the entrance to the gorge, travel across the valley became less bumpy.
The young girl walked as if she loved it. The fine, free swing of the hill woman was in her step. She breasted the slope with the light grace of a forest faun. Presently she dropped back to a place beside the conveyance and smiled encouragement at him.
"Pretty bad, is it?"
He grinned back. "It's up to me to play the hand I've been dealt."
That he was in a good deal of pain was easy to guess.
"We're past the worst of it," Pauline told him, "Up this hill—down the other side—and then we're home."
The bawling of thirsty cattle and the blatting of calves could be heard now.
"It iss that Monsieur Webb has taken my advice to drive the herd up the canon and into the park for the night," explained Roubideau. "There iss one way in, one way out. Guard the entrances and the 'Paches cannot stampede the cattle. Voila!"
From the hill-top the leaders of the herd could be seen drinking at the creek. Cattle behind were pushing forward to get at the water, while the riders on the point and at the swing were directing the movement of the beeves, now checking the steady pressure from the rear and now hastening the pace of those dawdling in the stream. To add to the confusion cows were mooing loudly for their off-spring not yet unloaded from the calf wagon.
Near the summit Jean with the buckboard met the party from the canon. He helped Clanton to the seat and drove to the house.
Webb cantered up. "What's this I hear about you, Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em? They tell me you've made four good Injuns to-day, shot up a renegade, rescued this young lady here, 'most rode one of my horses to death, an' got stove up in the foot yore own self. It certainly must have been yore busy afternoon."
The drover looked at him with a new respect. He had found the answer to the question he had put himself a few hours earlier. This boy was no four-flusher. He not only knew how and when to shoot, was game as a bulldog, and keen as a weasel; he possessed, too, that sixth sense so necessary to a gun-fighter, the instinct which shows him how to take advantage of every factor in the situation so as to come through safely.
"I didn't do it all," answered Clanton, flushing. "Billie helped, and the Roubideaus got two of 'em."
"That's not the way Billie tells it. Anyhow, you-all made a great gather between you. Six 'Paches that will never smile again ought to give the raiders a pain."
"Don't you think we'd better get him to bed?" said Pauline gently.
"You're shoutin', ma'am," agreed Webb. "Roubideau, the little boss says Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em is to be put to bed. I'll tote him in if you'll give my boys directions about throwin' the herd into yore park and loose-herdin' 'em there."
The Missourian picked up the wounded boy and followed Pauline into the house. She led the way to her own little bedroom. It was the most comfortable in the house and that was the one she wanted Jim Clanton to have.
Billie Asks a Question
Roubideau rounded up next day his beef stock and sold two hundred head to the drover. During the second day the riders were busy putting the road brand on the cattle just bought.
"Don't bust yore suspenders on this job, boys," Webb told his men. "I'd just as lief lie up here for a few days while Uncle Sam is roundin' up his pets camped out there. Old man Roubideau says we're welcome to stick around. The feed's good. Our cattle are some gaunted with the drive. It won't hurt a mite to let 'em stay right here a spell."
But on the third day came news that induced the Missourian to change his mind. Jean, who had been out as a scout, returned with the information that a company of cavalry had come down from the fort and that the Apaches had hastily decamped for parts unknown.
"I reckon we'll throw into the trail again tomorrow, Joe," the drover told Yankie. "No use wastin' time here if we don't have to stay. We'll mosey along toward the river. Kinder take it easy an' drift the herd down slow so as to let the cattle put on flesh. Billie an' the kid can join us soon as they're fit to travel."
The decision was announced on the porch of the Roubideau house. Its owner and his daughter were present. So was Dad Wrayburn. The Texan old-timer snorted as he rolled a cigarette.
"Hm! Soft thing those two boys have got sittin' around an' bein' petted by Miss Polly here. I've a notion to go an' bust my laig too. Will you nurse me real tender, ma'am, if I get stove up pullin' off a grand-stand play like they done?"
"The hospital is full. We haven't got room for more invalids, Mr. Wrayburn," laughed the girl.
"Well, you let me know when there's a vacancy, Miss Polly. My sister gave me a book to read onct. It was 'most twenty years ago. The name of it was 'Ivanhoe.' I told her I would save it to read when I broke my laig. Looks like I never will git that book read."
By daybreak the outfit was on the move. Yankie trailed the cattle out to the plain and started them forward leisurely. Webb had allowed himself plenty of time for the drive. The date set for delivery at the fort was still distant and he wanted the beeves to be in first-class condition for inspection. To reach the Pecos he was allowing three weeks, a programme that would let him bed the herd down early and would permit of drifting it slowly to graze for an hour or two a day.
The weeks that followed were red-letter ones in the life of Jim Clanton. They gave him his first glimpse of a family life which had for its basis not only affection, but trust and understanding. He had never before seen a household that really enjoyed little jokes shared in common, whose members were full of kind consideration the one for the other. The Roubideaus had more than a touch of the French temperament. They took life gayly and whimsically, and though they poked all kinds of fun at each other there was never any sting to their wit.
Pauline was a famous little nurse. It was not long before she was offering herself as a crutch to help young Clanton limp to the sunny porch. Two or three days later Billie joined his fellow invalid. From where they sat the two young men could hear the girl as she went about her work singing. Often she came out with a plate of hot, new-baked cookies for them and a pitcher of milk. Or she would dance out without any excuse except that of her own frank interest in the youth she shared with her patients.
One of the Roubideau jokes was that Polly was the mother of the family and her father and Jean two mischievous little boys she had to scold and pet alternately. Temporarily she took the two cowpunchers into her circle and browbeat them shamefully with an impudent little twinkle in her eyes. Whatever the state of Billie's mind may have been before, there can be no doubt that now he was fathoms deep in love. With hungry eyes he took in her laughter and raillery, her boyish high spirits, the sweet tenderness of the girl for her father. He loved her wholly—the charm of her comradeship, of her swift, generous impulses, of that touch of coquetry she could not entirely subdue.
Pierre had been a chasseur in the Franco-Prussian War. His daughter was very proud of it, but one of her games was to mock him fondly by swaggering back and forth while she sang:
"Allons, enfants de la patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrive."
When she came to the chorus, nothing would do but all of them must join. She taught the words and tune to Prince and Jimmie so that they could fall into line behind the old soldier and his son:
"Aux armes, citoyens! formez vos bataillons! Marchons! Marchons! Qu'un sang impur abreuve nos sillons."
It always began in pretended derision, but as she swept her little company down the porch all the gallant, imperishable soul of France spoke in her ringing voice and the flash of her brown eyes. Surely her patriotism was no less sound because the blood of Alsace and that of Tennessee were fused in her ardent veins.
The wounds of the young men healed rapidly, and both of them foresaw that the day of their departure could no longer be postponed. Neither of them was yet in condition to walk very far, but on horseback they were fit to travel carefully.
"We got all the time there is. No need of pushin' on the reins, but I reckon the old man isn't payin' us fifty dollars a month to hold down the Roubideau porch," said Prince regretfully.
"No, we gotta light a shuck," admitted Jim, with no noticeable alacrity. He was in no hurry to leave himself, even if he did not happen to be in love.
Billie put his fortune to the touch while he was out with Polly rounding up some calves. They were riding knee to knee in the dust of the drag through a small arroyo.
The cowpuncher swallowed once or twice in a dry throat and blurted out, "I got something to tell you before I go, Polly."
The girl flashed a look at him. She recognized the symptoms. Her gaze went back to the wavelike motion of the backs of the moving yearlings.
"Don't, Billie," she said gently.
Before he spoke again he thought over her advice. He knew he had his answer. But he had to go through with it now.
"I reckoned it would be that way. I'm nothin' but a rough vaquero. Whyfor should you like me?"
"Oh, but I do!" she cried impulsively. "I like you a great deal. You're one of the best men I know—brave and good and modest. It isn't that; Billie."
"Is there—some one else? Or oughtn't I to ask that?"
"No, there's nobody else. I'm awfully glad you like me. The girl that gets you will be lucky. But I don't care about men that way. I want to stay with dad and Jean."
"Mebbe some day you may feel different about it."
"Mebbe I will," she agreed. "Anyhow, I want you to stay friends with me. You will, won't you?"
"Sure. I'll be there just as long as you want me for a friend," he said simply.
She gave him her little gauntleted hand. They were close to a bend in the draw. Soon they would be within sight of the house.
"I'd say 'Yes' if I could, Billie. I'd rather it would be you than anybody else. You won't feel bad, will you?"
"Oh, that's all right." He smiled, and there was something about the pluck of the eyes in the lean, tanned face that touched her. "I'm goin' to keep right on carin' for my little pal even if I can't get what I want."
She had not yet fully emerged from her childhood. There was in her a strong desire to comfort him somehow, to show by a mark of special favor how high she held him in her esteem.
"Would you—would you like to kiss me?" she asked simply.
He felt a clamor of the blood and subdued it before he answered. It was in accord with the charm she held for him that her frank generosity enhanced his respect for her. If she gave a royal gift it was out of the truth of her heart.
Without need of words she read acceptance in his eyes and leaned toward him in the saddle. Their lips met.
"You're the first—except dad and Jean," she told him.
The feeling in his primitive heart he could not have analyzed. He did not know that his soul was moved to some such consecration as that of a young knight taking his vow of service, though he was aware that all the good in him leaped to instant response in her presence, that by some strange spiritual alchemy he had passed through a refining process.
"I'm comin' back to see you some day. Mebbe you'll feel different then," he said.
"I might," she admitted.
They rounded the bend. Clanton, on horseback, caught sight of them. He waved his hat and cantered forward.
"Say, Billie, how much bacon do you reckon we need to take with us?"
In front of the house Pauline slipped from her horse and left them discussing the commissary.
On the Trail
The convalescents rode away into a desert green with spring. The fragrant chaparral thickets were bursting into flower. Spanish bayonets studded the plains. Everywhere about them was the promise of a new life not yet burnt by hot summer suns to a crisp.
During the day they ran into a swamp country and crossed a bayou where cypress knees and blue gums showed fantastic in the eerie gloom of the stagnant water. From this they emerged to a more wooded region and made an early camp on the edge of a grove of ash trees bordering a small stream where pecans grew thick.
Shortly after daybreak they were jogging on at a walk-trot, the road gait of the Southwest, into the treeless country of the prairie. They nooned at an arroyo seco, and after they had eaten took a siesta during the heat of the day. Night brought with it a thunderstorm and they took refuge in a Mexican hut built of palisades and roofed with grass sod. A widow lived alone in the jacal, but she made them welcome to the best she had. The young men slept in a corner of the hut on a dry cowskin spread upon the mud floor, their saddles for pillows and their blankets rolled about them.
While she was cooking their breakfast, Prince noticed the tears rolling down her cheeks. She was a comely young woman and he asked her gallantly in the bronco Spanish of the border if there was anything he could do to relieve her distress.
She shook her head mournfully. "No, senor," she answered in her native tongue. "Only time can do that. I mourn my husband. He was a drunken ne'er-do-well, but he was my man. So I mourn a fitting period. He died in that corner of the room where you slept."
"Indeed! When?" asked Billie politely.
"Ten days ago. Of smallpox."
The young men never ate that breakfast. They fled into the sunlight and put many hurried miles between them and their amazed hostess. At the first stream they stripped, bathed, washed their clothes, dipped the saddles, and lay nude in the warm sand until their wearing apparel was dry.
For many days they joked each other about that headlong flight, but underneath their gayety was a dread which persisted.
"I'm like Dona Isabel with her grief. Only time can heal me of that scare she threw into Billie Prince," the owner of that name confessed.
"Me too," assented Clanton, helping himself to pinole. "I'll bet I lost a year's growth, and me small at that."
Prince had been in the employ of Webb for three years. During the long hours when they rode side by side he told his companion much about the Flying V Y outfit and its owner.
"He's a straight-up man, Homer Webb is. His word is good all over Texas. He'll sure do to take along," said Billie by way of recommendation.
"And Joe Yankie—does he stack up A 1 too?" asked the boy dryly.
"I never liked Joe. It ain't only that he'll run a sandy on you if he can or that he's always ridin' any one that will stand to be picked on. Joe's sure a bully. But then he's game enough, too, for that matter. I've seen him fight like a pack of catamounts. Outside of that I've got a hunch that he's crooked as a dog's hind leg. Mebbe I'm wrong, I'm tellin' you how he strikes me. If I was Homer Webb, right now when trouble is comin' up with the Snaith-McRobert outfit, I'd feel some dubious about Joe. He's a sulky, revengeful brute, an' the old man has pulled him up with a tight rein more'n once."
"What do you mean—trouble with the Snaith-McRobert outfit?"
"That's a long story. The bad feelin' started soon after the war when Snaith an' the old man were brandin' mavericks. It kind of smouldered along for a while, then broke out again when both of them began to bid on Government beef contracts. There's been some shootin' back an' forth an' there's liable to be a whole lot more. The Lazy S M—that's the Snaith-McRobert brand—claims the whole Pecos country by priority. The old man ain't recognizin' any such fool title. He's got more 'n thirty thousand head of cattle there an' he'll fight for the grass if he has to. O' course there's plenty of room for everybody if it wasn't for the beef contracts an' the general bad feelin'."
"Don't you reckon it will be settled peaceably? They'll get together an' talk it over like reasonable folks."
Billie shook his head. "The Lazy S M are bringin' in a lot of bad men from Texas an' the Strip. Some of our boys ain't exactly gun-shy either. One of these days there's sure goin' to be sudden trouble."
"I'm no gunman," protested Clanton indignantly. "I hired out to the old man to punch cows. Whyfor should I take any chances with the Snaith-McRobert outfit when I ain't got a thing in the world against them?"
"No, you're no gunman," grinned his friend in amiable derision. "Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em is a quiet little Sunday-go-to-meetin' kid. It was kinder by accident that he bumped off four Apaches an' a halfbreed the other day."
"Now don't you blame me for that, Billie. You was hell-bent on goin' into the Roubideau place an' I trailed along. When you got yore pill in the laig you made me ride up the gulch alone. I claim I wasn't to blame for them Mescaleros. I wasn't either."
Prince had made his prophecy about the coming trouble lightly. He could not guess that the most terrible feud in the history of the West was to spring out of the quarrel between Snaith and Webb, a border war so grim and deadly that within three years more than a hundred lusty men were to fall in battle and from assassination. It would have amazed him to know that the bullet which laid low the renegade in Shoot-a-Buck Canon had set the spark to the evil passions which resulted in what came to be called the Washington County War. Least of all could he tell that the girl-faced boy riding beside him was to become the best-known character of all the desperate ones engaged in the trouble.
Half a dozen cowboys cantered up the main street of Los Portales in a cloud of dust. One of them, older than the rest, let out the wild yell he had known in the days when he rode with Quantrell's guerrillas on the infamous raids of that bandit. A second flung into the blue sky three rapid revolver shots. Plainly they were advertising the fact that they had come to paint the town red and did not care who knew it.