“I’ll go right on with my pies if you don’t mind,” she said. “I can talk while I work.”
But neither of them talked. She rolled pie-crust while the silence grew significant.
“Are your burns still painful?” she asked at last, to make talk.
“Yes—no. Beg pardon, I—I was thinking of something else.”
Joyce flashed one swift look at him. She knew that an emotional crisis was upon her. He was going to brush aside the barriers between them. Her pulses began to beat fast. There was the crash of music in her blood.
“I’ve got to tell you, Joyce,” he said abruptly. “It’s been a fight for me ever since I came home. I love you. I think I always have—even when I was in prison.”
She waited, the eyes in her lovely, flushed face shining.
“I had no right to think of you then,” he went on. “I kept away from you. I crushed down hope. I nursed my bitterness to prove to me there could never be anything between us. Then Miller confessed and—and we took our walk over the hills. After that the sun shone. I came out from the mists where I had been living.”
“I’m glad,” she said in a low voice. “But Miller’s confession made no difference in my thought of you. I didn’t need that to know you.”
“But I couldn’t come to you even then. I knew how Bob Hart felt, and after all he’d done for me it was fair he should have first chance.”
She looked at him, smiling shyly. “You’re very generous.”
“No. I thought you cared for him. It seemed to me any woman must. There aren’t many men like Bob.”
“Not many,” she agreed. “But I couldn’t love Bob because”—her steadfast eyes met his bravely—“because of another man. Always have loved him, ever since that night years ago when he saved my father’s life. Do you really truly love me, Dave?”
“God knows I do,” he said, almost in a whisper.
“I’m glad—oh, awf’ly glad.” She gave him her hands, tears in her soft brown eyes. “Because I’ve been waiting for you so long. I didn’t know whether you ever were coming to me.”
Crawford found them there ten minutes later. He was looking for Joyce to find him a collar-button that was missing.
“Dawggone my hide!” he fumed, and stopped abruptly, the collar-button forgotten.
Joyce flew out of Dave’s arms into her father’s.
“Oh, Daddy, Daddy, I’m so happy,” she whispered from the depths of his shoulder.
The cattleman looked at Dave, and his rough face worked. “Boy, you’re in luck. Be good to her, or I’ll skin you alive.” He added, by way of softening this useless threat, “I’d rather it was you than anybody on earth, Dave.”
The young man looked at her, his Joy-in-life, the woman who had brought him back to youth and happiness, and he answered with a surge of emotion:
“I’ll sure try.”