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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.
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