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From the moment that Clanton walked out of the corral and left the dead gunman lying in the dust his reputation was established. Up till that time he had been on probation. Now he was a full-fledged killer. Nobody any longer spoke of him by his last name, except those friends who still hoped he might escape his destiny. "Go-Get-'em Jim" was his title at large. Those on more familiar terms called him "Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em."
It was unfortunate for Clanton that the killing of Champa lifted him into instant popularity. Mysterious Pete had been too free with his gun. The community had been afraid of him. The irresponsible way in which he had wounded little Bud Proctor, whose life had been saved only by the courage of Lee Snaith, was the climax of a series of outrages committed by the man.
That Jim had incidentally saved Kittie McRobert from the outlaw was a piece of clean luck. Snaith came to him at once and buried the hatchet. In the war just starting, the cattleman needed men of nerve to lead his forces. He offered a place to Clanton, who jumped at the chance to get on the pay-roll of Lee's father.
"Bring yore friend Billie Prince to the store," suggested Snaith. "He's not workin' for Webb now. I can make a place for him, too."
Billie came, listened to the proposition of the grim old-timer, and declined quietly.
"Goin' to stick by Webb, are you?" demanded the chief of the opposite faction.
"Anything wrong with that? I've drawn a pay-check from him for three seasons."
"Oh, if it's a matter of sentiment."
As a matter of fact, Billie did not intend to go on the trail any more, though Webb had offered him a place as foreman of one of his herds. He had discovered in himself unsuspected business capacity and believed he could do better on his own. Moreover, he was resolved not to let himself become involved in the lawless warfare that was engulfing the territory.
It must be remembered that Washington County was at this time as large as the average Atlantic Coast State. It had become a sink for the riff-raff driven out of Texas by the Rangers, for all that wild and adventurous element which flocks to a new country before the law has established itself. The coming of the big cattle herds had brought money into the country, and in its wake followed the gambler and the outlaw. Gold and human life were the cheapest commodities at Los Portales. The man who wore a gun on his hip had to be one hundred per cent efficient to survive.
Lawlessness was emphasized by the peculiar conditions of the country. The intense rivalry to secure Government contracts for hay, wood, and especially cattle, stimulated unwholesome competition. The temptation to "rustle" stock, to hold up outfits carrying pay to the soldiers, to live well merely as a gunman for one of the big interests on the river, made the honest business of every-day life a humdrum affair.
None the less, the real heroes among the pioneers were the quiet citizens who went about their business and refused to embroil themselves in the feuds that ran rife. The men who made the West were the mule-skinners, the storekeepers, the farmers who came out in white-topped movers' wagons. For a time these were submerged by the more sensational gunman, but in the end they pushed to the top and wiped the "bad man" from the earth. It was this prosaic class that Billie Prince had resolved to join.
To that resolve he stuck through all the blood-stained years of the notorious Washington County War. He went about his private affairs with quiet energy that brought success. He took hay and grain contracts, bought a freighting outfit, acquired a small but steadily increasing bunch of cattle. Gradually he bulked larger in the public eye, became an anchor of safety to whom the people turned after the war had worn itself out and scattered bands of banditti infested the chaparral to prey upon the settlers.
This lean, brown-faced man walked the way of the strong. Men recognized the dynamic force of his close-gripped jaw, the power of his quick, steady eye, the patience of his courage. The eyes of women followed him down the street, for there was some arresting quality in the firm, crisp tread that carried the lithe, smooth-muscled body. With the passage of years he had grown to a full measure of mental manhood. It was inevitable that when Washington County set itself to the task of combing the outlaws from the mesquite it should delegate the job to Billie Prince.
The evening after his election as sheriff, Billie called at the home of Pauline Roubideau, who was keeping house for her brother. Jack Goodheart was leaving just as Prince stepped upon the porch. It had been two years now since Jack had ceased to gravitate in the direction of Lee Snaith. His eyes and his footsteps for many months had turned often toward Polly.
The gaze of the sheriff-elect followed the lank figure of the retreating man.
"I've a notion to ask that man to give up a good business to wear a deputy's star for me," he told Pauline.
"Oh, I wouldn't," she said quickly.
"Why not? He'd be a good man for the job. I want some one game--some one who will go through when he starts."
His questioning eyes rested on hers. She felt a difficulty in justifying her protest.
"I don't know--I just thought--"
"I'm waiting," said Prince with a smile.
"He wouldn't take it, would he?" she fenced.
"If it was put up to him right I think he would. Of course, it would be a sacrifice for him to make, but good citizens have to do that these days."
"He's had so much hard luck and been so long getting a start I don't think you ought to ask him." The color spilled over her cheeks like wine shaken from a glass upon a white cloth. Polly was always ardent on behalf of a friend.
"I can't help that. There's another man I have in mind, but if I don't get him it will be up to Jack."
"Will it be dangerous?"
"No more than smoking a cigarette above an open keg of powder. But you don't suppose that would keep him from accepting the job, do you?"
"No," she admitted. "He would take it if he thought he ought. But I hope you get the other man."
Billie dismissed the subject and drew up a chair beside the hammock in which she was leaning back.
"This is my birthday, Polly," he told her. "I'm twenty-four years old."
"Good gracious! What a Methuselah!"
"I want a present, so I've come to ask for it."
With a sidelong tilt of her chin she flashed a look of quick eyes at him. Her voice did not betray the pulse, of excitement that was beginning to beat in her blood.
"You've just been elected sheriff. Isn't that enough?" she evaded.
"That's a fine present to hand a man," he answered grimly. "An' I didn't notice you bubble with enthusiasm when I spoke of givin' half the glory to Goodheart."
"But I haven't a thing you'd care for. If I'd only known in time I'd have sent to Vegas and got you something nice."
"You don't have to send to Vegas for it, Polly. The present I want is right here," he said simply.
She reached out a little hand impulsively. "Billie, I believe you 're the best man I know--the very best."
"I hate to hear that. You're tryin' to let me down easy."
"I'm an ungrateful little idiot. Any other girl in town would jump at the chance to say, 'Thank you, kind sir.'"
"But you can't," he said gently.
"No, I can't."
He was not sure whether there was a flash of tears in her brown eyes, but he knew by that little trick of biting the lower lip that they were not far away. She was a tender-hearted little comrade, and it always hurt her to hurt others.
Billie drew a long breath. "That's settled, too, then. I asked you once before if there was some one else. I ask you again, but don't tell me if you'd rather not."
"You mean there is."
Again the scarlet splashed into her cheeks. She nodded her head three or four times quickly in assent.
"Not Jim Clanton?" he said, alarmed.
A faint, tender smile flashed on her lips. "I don't think I'll tell you who he is, Billie."
He hesitated. "That's all right, Polly. I don't want to pry into yore secret. But--don't do anything foolish. Don't marry a man with the notion of reformin' him or because he seems to you romantic. You have lots of sense. You'll use it, won't you?" he pleaded.
"I'll try to use it, Billie," she promised. Then, the soft eyes shining and the color still high in her cheeks, she added impulsively: "I don't know anybody that needs some one to love him more than that poor boy does."
"Mebbeso. But don't you be that some one, Polly." He hesitated, divided between loyalty to his friend and his desire for this girl's good. His brown, unscarred hand caught hers in a firm grip. "Don't you do it, little girl. Don't you. The woman that marries Jim Clanton is doomed to be miserable. There's no escape for her. She's got to live with her heart in her throat till the day they bring his dead body back to her."
She leaned toward him, and now there was no longer any doubt that her eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Perhaps a woman doesn't marry for happiness alone, Billie. That may come to her, or it may not. But she has to fulfill her destiny. I don't know how to say what I mean, but she must go on and live her life and forget herself."
Prince rejected this creed flatly. "No! No! The best way to fulfill yore life is to be happy. That's what you've always done, an' that's why you've made other people happy. Because you go around singin' an' dancin', we all want to tune up with you. When I was out bossin' a freight outfit I used to think of you at night under the stars as a little Joybird. Now you've got it in that curly head of yours that you 'd ought to be some kind of a missionary martyr for the sake of a man's soul. That's all wrong."
"Is it?" she asked him with a crooked, little, wistful smile. "How about you? Do you want to be sheriff? Is it going to make you so awfully happy to spend your time running down outlaws for the good of the country? Aren't you doing it because you've been called to it and not because you like it?"
"That's different," he protested. "When the community needs him a man's got to come through or be a yellow hound. But you've got no right to toss away yore life plumb foolishly just because you've got a tender heart." Billie stopped again, then threw away any scruples he might have on the score of friendship. "Jim is goin' to be what he is to the end of the chapter. You can't change him. Nobody can. In this Washington County War he's been a terror to the other side. You know that. For such a girl as you he's outside the pale."
"I heard Jean say once that Jim had never killed a man that didn't need killing," she protested.
"That may be true, too. But it wasn't up to him to do it. It isn't only killin' either. He's on the wrong track."
The young man could say no more. He could not tell her that Clanton was suspected of rustling and that his name had been mentioned in connection with robbery of the mail. These charges were not proved. Prince himself still loyally denied their truth, though evidence was beginning to pile up against the young gunman. He had warned Clanton, and Jim had clapped him on the shoulder, laughed, and invited him to take a drink with him. This was not quite the way in which Billie felt an innocent man would receive news that he was being furtively accused of crime.
"Yes, he's going wrong," agreed Pauline. "But we can't desert him, can we? You're his best friend. You know how brave he is, how generous, how at the bottom of his heart he loves people that are fine and true. If we stand by him we'll save him yet."
The young man's common sense told him that Clanton's future lay with himself and his attitude toward his environment, but he loved the spirit of this girl's gift of faith in her friends. It was so wholly like her to reject the external evidence and accept her own conviction of his innate goodness.
"I hope yore faith will work a miracle."
"I hate the things he does more than you do, Billie. It is horrible to me that he can take human life. I don't justify him at all, even though usually he is on the right side. But in spite of everything he has done Jim is only a wild boy. And he's so splendid some ways. Any day he would give his life for you or for me or for Lee Snaith. You feel that about him, don't you?"
He was not satisfied to let the subject drop, but for the present it had to be postponed. For a young man and a young woman were turning in at the gate. They were a handsome pair physically. Each of them moved with the lithe grace of a young puma. Pauline rose to meet them.
"I'm glad you came, Lee. Didn't know you were in town, Jim,"
Clanton smiled. "I rode up from the Hondo to congratulate our new sheriff. Don't you let any of them outlaws escape, Billie."
Prince looked directly into his audacious eyes as he shook hands with him.
"Not if I can help it, Jim. I want you to be my chief deputy in cleanin' up the county. If you'll help me we'll make such a gather of bad men that it won't be safe for a crook to show his head here."
Pauline clapped her hands. "What a splendiferous idea! It's a great chance for you, Jim. You and Billie can do it too. I know you can."
The other young woman had recognized Prince only by a casual nod. It was her custom to ignore him as much as possible. Now her dark, velvety eyes jumped to meet his, then passed to Clanton. She recognized the significance of the moment. It was Jim's last opportunity to line up on the side of law and order. Lee, with Billie and Pauline, had stood his loyal friend against a growing public opinion. Would he justify their faith in him?
After a long silence Jim spoke. "No, I reckon not, Billie. I've got interests that will take all my time. Much obliged, old scout. I'd like to ride in couples with you like we used to do. I sure would, but I can't."
"That's all nonsense. It's no excuse at all," broke out Lee in her direct fashion. "Mr. Prince has more important affairs than you a good deal. He is dropping his to serve the people. You'll have to give a better reason than that to convince me."
Billie knew and Lee suspected what lay back of the spoken word. The duty of the sheriff would be to hunt down the men with whom Clanton had lately been consorting. He felt that he could not desert his friends to line up against them. Some of these were a bad lot, the riff-raff of a wild country, but this would not justify him in his own mind for using his knowledge of their habits to run them to earth.
"No, I can't talk business with you, Billie," the young fellow said decisively.
"Why can't you?" demanded Lee.
Jim Clanton smiled. "You're certainly a right persistent young lady, but by advice of counsel I decline to answer."
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