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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.
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