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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.
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