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Lee had the affrighted look of one roused suddenly from troubled dreams. The whimper that had drawn the attention of Prince must have come from her restless, tortured sleep. Not till his second match flared had she been really awake.
"Thank God!" he cried brokenly, all the pent emotion of the long night vibrant in his tremulous voice.
She began to sob, softly, pitifully.
The match went out, but even in the blackness of the pit he could not escape the look of suffering he had seen on her face. Her habit was to do all things with high spirit. He could guess how much she had endured to bring those hollow shadows under her dusky eyes. The woe of the girl touched his heart sharply, as if with the point of a rapier.
He stooped, lifted her gently, and gathered her like a hurt child into his arms. "You poor lost lamb," he murmured. And again he cried, "Thank God, I came in time."
Her arms crept round his neck. She clung to him for safety, fearfully, lest even now he might vanish from her sight. Long, ragged sobs shook the body resting in his arms. He whispered words of comfort, stroked gently the dark head of blue-black hair, held her firmly so that she might know she had found a sure refuge from the fate that had so nearly devoured her.
The spasmodic quivering of the body died away. She dabbed at her eyes with a rag of a handkerchief and withdrew herself from his arms.
"I'm a nice baby," she explained with a touch of self-contempt. "But it's been rather awful, Billie. I ... I didn't know whether ..."
"It's been the worst night of my life," he agreed. "I've been in hell for hours, dear. If--if anything had happened to you--"
The heart of the girl beat fast. She told herself he did not mean--could not mean what, with a sudden warmth of joy, her soul hunger had read into his words.
Prince uncorked his canteen and she drank. He gave her sandwiches and she devoured them. After he had helped her from the fissure he fired three shots. Faintly from the left came the answering bark of a revolver. What might almost have been an echo of it drifted from the right.
Lee Snaith was the most competent young woman the sheriff had ever met. He knew her self-reliant and had always guessed her sufficient to herself. Toward him especially he had sensed a suggestion of cool hostility. They had been friends, but with a distinct note of reservation on her part.
To-night the mask was off. She had come too close to raw reality to think of her pride. The morning light was sifting into the sky now. Billie could see the girl more clearly as she sat on a slab of rock waiting for the other searchers to join them. Was it his imagination that found in her an unwonted shyness of the dark eyes, a gentle timidity of manner when she looked at him?
His emotion still raced at high tide. What an incomparable mate she would be for any man! The rich contralto of her voice, the slow, graceful turn of the exquisite head, the vividness she brought to all her activities! How easy it was to light in her fine eyes laughter, indignation, the rare smile of understanding! Life with her would be an adventure into the hill-tops. With all his heart he yearned to take it beside her.
There were strange flashes in his eyes to-night that signaled to her a message she had despaired of ever receiving. The long lashes of the girl fell to the hot cheeks. A pulse of excitement beat in her blood. A few minutes before she had clung to him despairingly. Now she wanted to run away and hide.
He stepped close to her and let his hand fall lightly on her arm.
"I've been blind all these years, Lee," he told her. "It's you I love."
She stole a little look at him with shy, incredulous eyes. "Have you forgotten--Polly?"
"I haven't been in love with her for years, but I didn't know it till about the Christmas holidays. She was a habit with me. There never was a sweeter girl than Polly Roubideau. I'll always think a heap of her. But--well, she had more sense than I had--knew all the time we weren't cut out for each other." He laughed a little, flushing with embarrassment. It is not the easiest thing in the world to explain to a girl why you have neglected her in favor of another.
Lee trembled. The desire was strong in her to seize her happiness while she could. Surely she had waited long enough for it. But some impulse of fair play to him or of justice to herself held back the tide of love she longed to release.
"I think ... you are impulsive," she said at last. "If you have anything you want to tell me, better wait until ..."
"Not another moment!" he cried. "I've been in torment all night. I ... I thought I'd lost you forever. You don't care for me, of course. You never have liked me very well, but--"
"Haven't I?" she breathed softly, not looking at him.
Love irradiated and warmed her. She forgot all she had suffered during the years she had waited for him to know his mind. She forgot the privations of the past two days. Her eyes were tender with the mist of unshed tears.
"It's going to be the biggest thing in my life. If there's any chance at all I'll wait as long as you like. Of course, the idea's new to you because you haven't ever thought of me that way--"
"You know so much about it," she replied, a faint smile in her dark eyes that had in it something of wistfulness, something of self-mockery. She looked directly at him and let him have it full in the face. "I ought to be ashamed of it, I suppose, but I'm not. I've thought of you--that way--lots of times. All girls do, when they meet a man they like."
"You like me?"
She might have told him that her heart had been his ever since that first week when she had met him and Clanton on the river. She might have added that all he had needed to do was to whisper "Come" and she would have galloped across New Mexico to meet him. But she made no such confession.
"Yes, I ... like you," she said, a little tremor in her voice.
He noticed that she did not look at him. Her eyes had fallen to the fingers laced together on her lap. Under compulsion of his steady gaze she lifted her lashes at last. What he read there was beyond belief. The wonder of it lifted his feet from the earth.
"Lee!" he cried, joy and fear in the balance.
She answered his unspoken question with a little nod.
His hand shook. "I've been a blind idiot, dear. I never guessed such a thing."
"You were thinking about Polly all the time. I don't blame you. She's the sweetest thing I ever knew."
Billie sat down on the spar of rock beside her. His hand slipped down her arm till it covered hers. With the contact there came to him a flood of courage. He took her in his arms and kissed her with infinite tenderness.
Still unstrung from her adventures, she wept a little into his shoulder out of a full heart.
"D--don't mind me," she urged. "It's just because I'm so happy."
If Clanton, when he found them together a few minutes afterward, guessed what had happened, he gave no evidence of it but a grin, unless his later comment had a cryptic meaning. "I'll bet Billie is the glad lad at findin' you. He always was a lucky guy."
"I think I'm a little lucky too," Lee said with a grave smile.
Before starting, Prince examined the soles of the girl's boots. Out of his hat he fashioned a pair of overshoes and fastened them with strings to her feet.
"They'll help some," he promised. "I reckon you're not goin' to do much walkin' anyhow with three husky men along."
By this time the searcher on the other flank had joined them. The return trip was a long, hard one, but with Billie on one side of her, and Jim on the other, Lee found it easy travelling. They aided her over the sharp rocks and lifted her across the rougher stretches of lava.
At the edge of the lava bed a buggy was waiting to take Lee to Live-Oaks in case she should be found. Prince helped Lee in and took the place of the boy who had driven it out.
Clanton put his foot on the hub of the wheel. "Just a minute, Billie. I'm wanted for the killin' of Homer Webb. I didn't shoot him an' I don't know who did. Somebody must have been lyin' there in the chaparral waitin' for him. I'll give myself up an' stand trial if you'll guarantee me fair play. No lynchin' bee. No packed jury. All the cards dealt fair an' honest above the table."
The sheriff had smiled at Pauline Roubideau's implicit faith in Jim Clanton's word. But now, face to face with his friend, he too believed and felt a load lift from his heart.
"That's a deal, Jim. You won't have to reckon with any mob or any hand-picked jury, I'll tell you the truth. I thought you did it. But if you say you didn't, that goes with me. I'll see you through."
"Good enough. I'll drop in to-morrow an' we can fix things up. I'd like to be tried outside of Washington County. There's too much prejudice here one way an' another. Well, take this little lady home an' scold her good for the way she's been actin'. She'd ought to get married to a man that will look after her an' not let her go buckin' into cyclones."
Billie smiled. "I'll talk to her about that, old scout."
Miss Snaith blushed furiously, but the best she could do was a bit of weak repartee. "I used to have hopes that you would ask me, Jim."
Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em laughed with friendly malice. "I used to have hopes, too, in that direction, Lee, but I haven't any more. You be good to her or we also-rans will boil you in oil, Billie."
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