Part 1 out of 3
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A WAIF OF THE PLAINS
by Bret Harte
A long level of dull gray that further away became a faint blue,
with here and there darker patches that looked like water. At
times an open space, blackened and burnt in an irregular circle,
with a shred of newspaper, an old rag, or broken tin can lying in
the ashes. Beyond these always a low dark line that seemed to sink
into the ground at night, and rose again in the morning with the
first light, but never otherwise changed its height and distance.
A sense of always moving with some indefinite purpose, but of
always returning at night to the same place--with the same
surroundings, the same people, the same bedclothes, and the same
awful black canopy dropped down from above. A chalky taste of dust
on the mouth and lips, a gritty sense of earth on the fingers, and
an all-pervading heat and smell of cattle.
This was "The Great Plains" as they seemed to two children from the
hooded depth of an emigrant wagon, above the swaying heads of
toiling oxen, in the summer of 1852.
It had appeared so to them for two weeks, always the same and
always without the least sense to them of wonder or monotony. When
they viewed it from the road, walking beside the wagon, there was
only the team itself added to the unvarying picture. One of the
wagons bore on its canvas hood the inscription, in large black
letters, "Off to California!" on the other "Root, Hog, or Die," but
neither of them awoke in the minds of the children the faintest
idea of playfulness or jocularity. Perhaps it was difficult to
connect the serious men, who occasionally walked beside them and
seemed to grow more taciturn and depressed as the day wore on, with
this past effusive pleasantry.
Yet the impressions of the two children differed slightly. The
eldest, a boy of eleven, was apparently new to the domestic habits
and customs of a life to which the younger, a girl of seven, was
evidently native and familiar. The food was coarse and less
skillfully prepared than that to which he had been accustomed.
There was a certain freedom and roughness in their intercourse, a
simplicity that bordered almost on rudeness in their domestic
arrangements, and a speech that was at times almost untranslatable
to him. He slept in his clothes, wrapped up in blankets; he was
conscious that in the matter of cleanliness he was left to himself
to overcome the difficulties of finding water and towels. But it
is doubtful if in his youthfulness it affected him more than a
novelty. He ate and slept well, and found his life amusing. Only
at times the rudeness of his companions, or, worse, an indifference
that made him feel his dependency upon them, awoke a vague sense of
some wrong that had been done to him which while it was voiceless
to all others and even uneasily put aside by himself, was still
always slumbering in his childish consciousness.
To the party he was known as an orphan put on the train at "St. Jo"
by some relative of his stepmother, to be delivered to another
relative at Sacramento. As his stepmother had not even taken leave
of him, but had entrusted his departure to the relative with whom
he had been lately living, it was considered as an act of
"riddance," and accepted as such by her party, and even vaguely
acquiesced in by the boy himself. What consideration had been
offered for his passage he did not know; he only remembered that he
had been told "to make himself handy." This he had done
cheerfully, if at times with the unskillfulness of a novice; but it
was not a peculiar or a menial task in a company where all took
part in manual labor, and where existence seemed to him to bear the
charm of a prolonged picnic. Neither was he subjected to any
difference of affection or treatment from Mrs. Silsbee, the mother
of his little companion, and the wife of the leader of the train.
Prematurely old, of ill-health, and harassed with cares, she had no
time to waste in discriminating maternal tenderness for her
daughter, but treated the children with equal and unbiased
The rear wagon creaked, swayed, and rolled on slowly and heavily.
The hoofs of the draft-oxen, occasionally striking in the dust with
a dull report, sent little puffs like smoke on either side of the
track. Within, the children were playing "keeping store." The
little girl, as an opulent and extravagant customer, was purchasing
of the boy, who sat behind a counter improvised from a nail-keg and
the front seat, most of the available contents of the wagon, either
under their own names or an imaginary one as the moment suggested,
and paying for them in the easy and liberal currency of dried beans
and bits of paper. Change was given by the expeditious method of
tearing the paper into smaller fragments. The diminution of stock
was remedied by buying the same article over again under a
different name. Nevertheless, in spite of these favorable
commercial conditions, the market seemed dull.
"I can show you a fine quality of sheeting at four cents a yard,
double width," said the boy, rising and leaning on his fingers on
the counter as he had seen the shopmen do. "All wool and will
wash," he added, with easy gravity.
"I can buy it cheaper at Jackson's," said the girl, with the
intuitive duplicity of her bargaining sex.
"Very well," said the boy. "I won't play any more."
"Who cares?" said the girl indifferently. The boy here promptly
upset the counter; the rolled-up blanket which had deceitfully
represented the desirable sheeting falling on the wagon floor. It
apparently suggested a new idea to the former salesman. "I say!
let's play 'damaged stock.' See, I'll tumble all the things down
here right on top o' the others, and sell 'em for less than cost."
The girl looked up. The suggestion was bold, bad, and momentarily
attractive. But she only said "No," apparently from habit, picked
up her doll, and the boy clambered to the front of the wagon. The
incomplete episode terminated at once with that perfect
forgetfulness, indifference, and irresponsibility common to all
young animals. If either could have flown away or bounded off
finally at that moment, they would have done so with no more
concern for preliminary detail than a bird or squirrel. The wagon
rolled steadily on. The boy could see that one of the teamsters
had climbed up on the tail-board of the preceding vehicle. The
other seemed to be walking in a dusty sleep.
"Kla'uns," said the girl.
The boy, without turning his head, responded, "Susy."
"Wot are you going to be?" said the girl.
"Goin' to be?" repeated Clarence.
"When you is growed," explained Susy.
Clarence hesitated. His settled determination had been to become a
pirate, merciless yet discriminating. But reading in a bethumbed
"Guide to the Plains" that morning of Fort Lamarie and Kit Carson,
he had decided upon the career of a "scout," as being more
accessible and requiring less water. Yet, out of compassion for
Susy's possible ignorance, he said neither, and responded with the
American boy's modest conventionality, "President." It was safe,
required no embarrassing description, and had been approved by
benevolent old gentlemen with their hands on his head.
"I'm goin' to be a parson's wife," said Susy, "and keep hens, and
have things giv' to me. Baby clothes, and apples, and apple sass--
and melasses! and more baby clothes! and pork when you kill."
She had thrown herself at the bottom of the wagon, with her back
towards him and her doll in her lap. He could see the curve of her
curly head, and beyond, her bare dimpled knees, which were raised,
and over which she was trying to fold the hem of her brief skirt.
"I wouldn't be a President's wife," she said presently.
"Could if I wanted to!"
Finding it difficult to explain his convictions of her
ineligibility, Clarence thought it equally crushing not to give
any. There was a long silence. It was very hot and dusty. The
wagon scarcely seemed to move. Clarence gazed at the vignette of
the track behind them formed by the hood of the rear. Presently he
rose and walked past her to the tail-board. "Goin' to get down,"
he said, putting his legs over.
"Maw says 'No,'" said Susy.
Clarence did not reply, but dropped to the ground beside the slowly
turning wheels. Without quickening his pace he could easily keep
his hand on the tail-board.
He looked up.
She had already clapped on her sun-bonnet and was standing at the
edge of the tail-board, her little arms extended in such perfect
confidence of being caught that the boy could not resist. He
caught her cleverly. They halted a moment and let the lumbering
vehicle move away from them, as it swayed from side to side as if
laboring in a heavy sea. They remained motionless until it had
reached nearly a hundred yards, and then, with a sudden half-real,
half-assumed, but altogether delightful trepidation, ran forward
and caught up with it again. This they repeated two or three times
until both themselves and the excitement were exhausted, and they
again plodded on hand in hand. Presently Clarence uttered a cry.
"My! Susy--look there!"
The rear wagon had once more slipped away from them a considerable
distance. Between it and them, crossing its track, a most
extraordinary creature had halted.
At first glance it seemed a dog--a discomfited, shameless,
ownerless outcast of streets and byways, rather than an honest
stray of some drover's train. It was so gaunt, so dusty, so
greasy, so slouching, and so lazy! But as they looked at it more
intently they saw that the grayish hair of its back had a bristly
ridge, and there were great poisonous-looking dark blotches on its
flanks, and that the slouch of its haunches was a peculiarity of
its figure, and not the cowering of fear. As it lifted its
suspicious head towards them they could see that its thin lips, too
short to cover its white teeth, were curled in a perpetual sneer.
"Here, doggie!" said Clarence excitedly. "Good dog! Come."
Susy burst into a triumphant laugh. "Et tain't no dog, silly; it's
Clarence blushed. It wasn't the first time the pioneer's daughter
had shown her superior knowledge. He said quickly, to hide his
discomfiture, "I'll ketch him, any way; he's nothin' mor'n a ki yi."
"Ye can't, tho," said Susy, shaking her sun-bonnet. "He's faster
nor a hoss!"
Nevertheless, Clarence ran towards him, followed by Susy. When
they had come within twenty feet of him, the lazy creature, without
apparently the least effort, took two or three limping bounds to
one side, and remained at the same distance as before. They
repeated this onset three or four times with more or less
excitement and hilarity, the animal evading them to one side, but
never actually retreating before them. Finally, it occurred to
them both that although they were not catching him they were not
driving him away. The consequences of that thought were put into
shape by Susy with round-eyed significance.
"Kla'uns, he bites."
Clarence picked up a hard sun-baked clod, and, running forward,
threw it at the coyote. It was a clever shot, and struck him on
his slouching haunches. He snapped and gave a short snarling yelp,
and vanished. Clarence returned with a victorious air to his
companion. But she was gazing intently in the opposite direction,
and for the first time he discovered that the coyote had been
leading them half round a circle.
"Kla'uns," said Susy, with a hysterical little laugh.
"The wagon's gone."
Clarence started. It was true. Not only their wagon, but the
whole train of oxen and teamsters had utterly disappeared,
vanishing as completely as if they had been caught up in a
whirlwind or engulfed in the earth! Even the low cloud of dust
that usually marked their distant course by day was nowhere to be
seen. The long level plain stretched before them to the setting
sun, without a sign or trace of moving life or animation. That
great blue crystal bowl, filled with dust and fire by day, with
stars and darkness by night, which had always seemed to drop its
rim round them everywhere and shut them in, seemed to them now to
have been lifted to let the train pass out, and then closed down
upon them forever.
Their first sensation was one of purely animal freedom.
They looked at each other with sparkling eyes and long silent
breaths. But this spontaneous outburst of savage nature soon
passed. Susy's little hand presently reached forward and clutched
Clarence's jacket. The boy understood it, and said quickly,--
"They ain't gone far, and they'll stop as soon as they find us
They trotted on a little faster; the sun they had followed every
day and the fresh wagon tracks being their unfailing guides; the
keen, cool air of the plains, taking the place of that all-
pervading dust and smell of the perspiring oxen, invigorating them
with its breath.
"We ain't skeered a bit, are we?" said Susy.
"What's there to be afraid of?" said Clarence scornfully. He said
this none the less strongly because he suddenly remembered that
they had been often left alone in the wagon for hours without being
looked after, and that their absence might not be noticed until the
train stopped to encamp at dusk, two hours later. They were not
running very fast, yet either they were more tired than they knew,
or the air was thinner, for they both seemed to breathe quickly.
Suddenly Clarence stopped.
"There they are now."
He was pointing to a light cloud of dust in the far-off horizon,
from which the black hulk of a wagon emerged for a moment and was
lost. But even as they gazed the cloud seemed to sink like a fairy
mirage to the earth again, the whole train disappeared, and only
the empty stretching track returned. They did not know that this
seemingly flat and level plain was really undulatory, and that the
vanished train had simply dipped below their view on some further
slope even as it had once before. But they knew they were
disappointed, and that disappointment revealed to them the fact
that they had concealed it from each other. The girl was the first
to succumb, and burst into a quick spasm of angry tears. That
single act of weakness called out the boy's pride and strength.
There was no longer an equality of suffering; he had become her
protector; he felt himself responsible for both. Considering her
no longer his equal, he was no longer frank with her.
"There's nothin' to boo-boo for," he said, with a half-affected
brusqueness. "So quit, now! They'll stop in a minit, and send
some one back for us. Shouldn't wonder if they're doin' it now."
But Susy, with feminine discrimination detecting the hollow ring in
his voice, here threw herself upon him and began to beat him
violently with her little fists. "They ain't! They ain't! They
ain't. You know it! How dare you?" Then, exhausted with her
struggles, she suddenly threw herself flat on the dry grass, shut
her eyes tightly, and clutched at the stubble.
"Get up," said the boy, with a pale, determined face that seemed to
have got much older.
"You leave me be," said Susy.
"Do you want me to go away and leave you?" asked the boy.
Susy opened one blue eye furtively in the secure depths of her sun-
bonnet, and gazed at his changed face.
He pretended to turn away, but really to look at the height of the
She was holding up her hands. He lifted her gently in his arms,
dropping her head over his shoulder. "Now," he said cheerfully,
"you keep a good lookout that way, and I this, and we'll soon be
The idea seemed to please her. After Clarence had stumbled on for
a few moments, she said, "Do you see anything, Kla'uns?"
"No more don't I." This equality of perception apparently
satisfied her. Presently she lay more limp in his arms. She was
The sun was sinking lower; it had already touched the edge of the
horizon, and was level with his dazzled and straining eyes. At
times it seemed to impede his eager search and task his vision.
Haze and black spots floated across the horizon, and round wafers,
like duplicates of the sun, glittered back from the dull surface of
the plains. Then he resolved to look no more until he had counted
fifty, a hundred, but always with the same result, the return of
the empty, unending plains--the disk growing redder as it neared
the horizon, the fire it seemed to kindle as it sank, but nothing
Staggering under his burden, he tried to distract himself by
fancying how the discovery of their absence would be made. He
heard the listless, half-querulous discussion about the locality
that regularly pervaded the nightly camp. He heard the
discontented voice of Jake Silsbee as he halted beside the wagon,
and said, "Come out o' that now, you two, and mighty quick about
it." He heard the command harshly repeated. He saw the look of
irritation on Silsbee's dusty, bearded face, that followed his
hurried glance into the empty wagon. He heard the query, "What's
gone o' them limbs now?" handed from wagon to wagon. He heard a
few oaths; Mrs. Silsbee's high rasping voice, abuse of himself, the
hurried and discontented detachment of a search party, Silsbee and
one of the hired men, and vociferation and blame. Blame always for
himself, the elder, who might have "known better!" A little fear,
perhaps, but he could not fancy either pity or commiseration.
Perhaps the thought upheld his pride; under the prospect of
sympathy he might have broken down.
At last he stumbled, and stopped to keep himself from falling
forward on his face. He could go no further; his breath was spent;
he was dripping with perspiration; his legs were trembling under
him; there was a roaring in his ears; round red disks of the sun
were scattered everywhere around him like spots of blood. To the
right of the trail there seemed to be a slight mound where he could
rest awhile, and yet keep his watchful survey of the horizon. But
on reaching it he found that it was only a tangle of taller
mesquite grass, into which he sank with his burden. Nevertheless,
if useless as a point of vantage, it offered a soft couch for Susy,
who seemed to have fallen quite naturally into her usual afternoon
siesta, and in a measure it shielded her from a cold breeze that
had sprung up from the west. Utterly exhausted himself, but not
daring to yield to the torpor that seemed to be creeping over him,
Clarence half sat, half knelt down beside her, supporting himself
with one hand, and, partly hidden in the long grass, kept his
straining eyes fixed on the lonely track.
The red disk was sinking lower. It seemed to have already crumbled
away a part of the distance with its eating fires. As it sank
still lower, it shot out long, luminous rays, diverging fan-like
across the plain, as if, in the boy's excited fancy, it too were
searching for the lost estrays. And as one long beam seemed to
linger over his hiding-place, he even thought that it might serve
as a guide to Silsbee and the other seekers, and was constrained to
stagger to his feet, erect in its light. But it soon sank, and
with it Clarence dropped back again to his crouching watch. Yet he
knew that the daylight was still good for an hour, and with the
withdrawal of that mystic sunset glory objects became even more
distinct and sharply defined than at any other time. And with the
merciful sheathing of that flaming sword which seemed to have
swayed between him and the vanished train, his eyes already felt a
With the setting of the sun an ominous silence fell. He could hear
the low breathing of Susy, and even fancied he could hear the
beating of his own heart in that oppressive hush of all nature.
For the day's march had always been accompanied by the monotonous
creaking of wheels and axles, and even the quiet of the night
encampment had been always more or less broken by the movement of
unquiet sleepers on the wagon beds, or the breathing of the cattle.
But here there was neither sound nor motion. Susy's prattle, and
even the sound of his own voice, would have broken the benumbing
spell, but it was a part of his growing self-denial now that he
refrained from waking her even by a whisper. She would awaken soon
enough to thirst and hunger, perhaps, and then what was he to do?
If that looked-for help would only come now--while she still slept.
For it was part of his boyish fancy that if he could deliver her
asleep and undemonstrative of fear and suffering, he would be less
blameful, and she less mindful of her trouble. If it did not come--
but he would not think of that yet! If she was thirsty meantime--
well, it might rain, and there was always the dew which they used
to brush off the morning grass; he would take off his shirt and
catch it in that, like a shipwrecked mariner. It would be funny,
and make her laugh. For himself he would not laugh; he felt he was
getting very old and grown up in this loneliness.
It was getting darker--they should be looking into the wagons now.
A new doubt began to assail him. Ought he not, now that he was
rested, make the most of the remaining moments of daylight, and
before the glow faded from the west, when he would no longer have
any bearings to guide him? But there was always the risk of waking
her!--to what? The fear of being confronted again with HER fear
and of being unable to pacify her, at last decided him to remain.
But he crept softly through the grass, and in the dust of the track
traced the four points of the compass, as he could still determine
them by the sunset light, with a large printed W to indicate the
west! This boyish contrivance particularly pleased him. If he had
only had a pole, a stick, or even a twig, on which to tie his
handkerchief and erect it above the clump of mesquite as a signal
to the searchers in case they should be overcome by fatigue or
sleep, he would have been happy. But the plain was barren of brush
or timber; he did not dream that this omission and the very
unobtrusiveness of his hiding-place would be his salvation from a
With the coming darkness the wind arose and swept the plain with a
long-drawn sigh. This increased to a murmur, till presently the
whole expanse--before sunk in awful silence--seemed to awake with
vague complaints, incessant sounds, and low moanings. At times he
thought he heard the halloaing of distant voices, at times it
seemed as a whisper in his own ear. In the silence that followed
each blast he fancied he could detect the creaking of the wagon,
the dull thud of the oxen's hoofs, or broken fragments of speech,
blown and scattered even as he strained his ears to listen by the
next gust. This tension of the ear began to confuse his brain, as
his eyes had been previously dazzled by the sunlight, and a strange
torpor began to steal over his faculties. Once or twice his head
He awoke with a start. A moving figure had suddenly uplifted
itself between him and the horizon! It was not twenty yards away,
so clearly outlined against the still luminous sky that it seemed
even nearer. A human figure, but so disheveled, so fantastic, and
yet so mean and puerile in its extravagance, that it seemed the
outcome of a childish dream. It was a mounted figure, but so
ludicrously disproportionate to the pony it bestrode, whose slim
legs were stiffly buried in the dust in a breathless halt, that it
might have been a straggler from some vulgar wandering circus. A
tall hat, crownless and rimless, a castaway of civilization,
surmounted by a turkey's feather, was on its head; over its
shoulders hung a dirty tattered blanket that scarcely covered the
two painted legs which seemed clothed in soiled yellow hose. In
one hand it held a gun; the other was bent above its eyes in eager
scrutiny of some distant point beyond and east of the spot where
the children lay concealed. Presently, with a dozen quick
noiseless strides of the pony's legs, the apparition moved to the
right, its gaze still fixed on that mysterious part of the horizon.
There was no mistaking it now! The painted Hebraic face, the large
curved nose, the bony cheek, the broad mouth, the shadowed eyes,
the straight long matted locks! It was an Indian! Not the
picturesque creature of Clarence's imagination, but still an
Indian! The boy was uneasy, suspicious, antagonistic, but not
afraid. He looked at the heavy animal face with the superiority of
intelligence, at the half-naked figure with the conscious supremacy
of dress, at the lower individuality with the contempt of a higher
race. Yet a moment after, when the figure wheeled and disappeared
towards the undulating west, a strange chill crept over him. Yet
he did not know that in this puerile phantom and painted pigmy the
awful majesty of Death had passed him by.
It was Susy's voice, struggling into consciousness. Perhaps she
had been instinctively conscious of the boy's sudden fears.
He had just turned to the objective point of the Indian's gaze.
There WAS something! A dark line was moving along with the
gathering darkness. For a moment he hardly dared to voice his
thoughts even to himself. It was a following train overtaking them
from the rear! And from the rapidity of its movements a train with
horses, hurrying forward to evening camp. He had never dreamt of
help from that quarter. This was what the Indian's keen eyes had
been watching, and why he had so precipitately fled.
The strange train was now coming up at a round trot. It was
evidently well appointed with five or six large wagons and several
outriders. In half an hour it would be here. Yet he refrained
from waking Susy, who had fallen asleep again; his old superstition
of securing her safety first being still uppermost. He took off
his jacket to cover her shoulders, and rearranged her nest. Then
he glanced again at the coming train. But for some unaccountable
reason it had changed its direction, and instead of following the
track that should have brought it to his side it had turned off to
the left! In ten minutes it would pass abreast of him a mile and a
half away! If he woke Susy now, he knew she would be helpless in
her terror, and he could not carry her half that distance. He
might rush to the train himself and return with help, but he would
never leave her alone--in the darkness. Never! If she woke she
would die of fright, perhaps, or wander blindly and aimlessly away.
No! The train would pass and with it that hope of rescue.
Something was in his throat, but he gulped it down and was quiet
again albeit he shivered in the night wind.
The train was nearly abreast of him now. He ran out of the tall
grass, waving his straw hat above his head in the faint hope of
attracting attention. But he did not go far, for he found to his
alarm that when he turned back again the clump of mesquite was
scarcely distinguishable from the rest of the plain. This settled
all question of his going. Even if he reached the train and
returned with some one, how would he ever find her again in this
He watched the train slowly pass--still mechanically, almost
hopelessly, waving his hat as he ran up and down before the
mesquite, as if he were waving a last farewell to his departing
hope. Suddenly it appeared to him that three of the outriders who
were preceding the first wagon had changed their shape. They were
no longer sharp, oblong, black blocks against the horizon but had
become at first blurred and indistinct, then taller and narrower,
until at last they stood out like exclamation points against the
sky. He continued to wave his hat, they continued to grow taller
and narrower. He understood it now--the three transformed blocks
were the outriders coming towards him.
This is what he had seen--
[Drawing of three black blocks]
This is what he saw now--
! ! !
He ran back to Susy to see if she still slept, for his foolish
desire to have her saved unconsciously was stronger than ever now
that safety seemed so near. She was still sleeping, although she
had moved slightly. He ran to the front again.
The outriders had apparently halted. What were they doing? Why
wouldn't they come on?
Suddenly a blinding flash of light seemed to burst from one of
them. Away over his head something whistled like a rushing bird,
and sped off invisible. They had fired a gun; they were signaling
to him--Clarence--like a grown-up man. He would have given his
life at that moment to have had a gun. But he could only wave his
One of the figures here bore away and impetuously darted forward
again. He was coming nearer, powerful, gigantic, formidable, as he
loomed through the darkness. All at once he threw up his arm with
a wild gesture to the others; and his voice, manly, frank, and
assuring, came ringing before him.
"Hold up! Good God! It's no Injun--it's a child!"
In another moment he had reined up beside Clarence and leaned over
him, bearded, handsome, powerful and protecting.
"Hallo! What's all this? What are you doing here?"
"Lost from Mr. Silsbee's train," said Clarence, pointing to the
"About three hours. I thought they'd come back for us," said
Clarence apologetically to this big, kindly man.
"And you kalkilated to wait here for 'em?"
"Yes, yes--I did--till I saw you."
"Then why in thunder didn't you light out straight for us, instead
of hanging round here and drawing us out?"
The boy hung his head. He knew his reasons were unchanged, but all
at once they seemed very foolish and unmanly to speak out.
"Only that we were on the keen jump for Injins," continued the
stranger, "we wouldn't have seen you at all, and might hev shot you
when we did. What possessed you to stay here?"
The boy was still silent. "Kla'uns," said a faint, sleepy voice
from the mesquite, "take me." The rifle-shot had awakened Susy.
The stranger turned quickly towards the sound. Clarence started
and recalled himself. "There," he said bitterly, "you've done it
now, you've wakened her! THAT'S why I stayed. I couldn't carry
her over there to you. I couldn't let her walk, for she'd be
frightened. I wouldn't wake her up, for she'd be frightened, and I
mightn't find her again. There!" He had made up his mind to be
abused, but he was reckless now that she was safe.
The men glanced at each other. "Then," said the spokesman quietly,
"you didn't strike out for us on account of your sister?"
"She ain't my sister," said Clarence quickly. "She's a little
girl. She's Mrs. Silsbee's little girl. We were in the wagon and
got down. It's my fault. I helped her down."
The three men reined their horses closely round him, leaning
forward from their saddles, with their hands on their knees and
their heads on one side. "Then," said the spokesman gravely, "you
just reckoned to stay here, old man, and take your chances with her
rather than run the risk of frightening or leaving her--though it
was your one chance of life!"
"Yes," said the boy, scornful of this feeble, grown-up repetition.
The boy came doggedly forward. The man pushed back the well-worn
straw hat from Clarence's forehead and looked into his lowering
face. With his hand still on the boy's head he turned him round to
the others, and said quietly,--
"Suthin of a pup, eh?"
"You bet," they responded.
The voice was not unkindly, although the speaker had thrown his
lower jaw forward as if to pronounce the word "pup" with a humorous
suggestion of a mastiff. Before Clarence could make up his mind if
the epithet was insulting or not, the man put out his stirruped
foot, and, with a gesture of invitation, said, "Jump up."
"But Susy," said Clarence, drawing back.
"Look; she's making up to Phil already."
Clarence looked. Susy had crawled out of the mesquite, and with
her sun-bonnet hanging down her back, her curls tossed around her
face, still flushed with sleep, and Clarence's jacket over her
shoulders, was gazing up with grave satisfaction in the laughing
eyes of one of the men who was with outstretched hands bending over
her. Could he believe his senses? The terror-stricken, willful,
unmanageable Susy, whom he would have translated unconsciously to
safety without this terrible ordeal of being awakened to the loss
of her home and parents at any sacrifice to himself--this ingenuous
infant was absolutely throwing herself with every appearance of
forgetfulness into the arms of the first new-comer! Yet his
perception of this fact was accompanied by no sense of ingratitude.
For her sake he felt relieved, and with a boyish smile of
satisfaction and encouragement vaulted into the saddle before the
The dash forward to the train, securely held in the saddle by the
arms of their deliverers, was a secret joy to the children that
seemed only too quickly over. The resistless gallop of the fiery
mustangs, the rush of the night wind, the gathering darkness in
which the distant wagons, now halted and facing them, looked like
domed huts in the horizon--all these seemed but a delightful and
fitting climax to the events of the day. In the sublime
forgetfulness of youth, all they had gone through had left no
embarrassing record behind it; they were willing to repeat their
experiences on the morrow, confident of some equally happy end.
And when Clarence, timidly reaching his hand towards the horse-hair
reins lightly held by his companion, had them playfully yielded up
to him by that hold and confident rider, the boy felt himself
indeed a man.
But a greater surprise was in store for them. As they neared the
wagons, now formed into a circle with a certain degree of military
formality, they could see that the appointments of the strange
party were larger and more liberal than their own, or indeed
anything they had ever known of the kind. Forty or fifty horses
were tethered within the circle, and the camp fires were already
blazing. Before one of them a large tent was erected, and through
the parted flaps could be seen a table actually spread with a white
cloth. Was it a school feast, or was this their ordinary household
arrangement? Clarence and Susy thought of their own dinners,
usually laid on bare boards beneath the sky, or under the low hood
of the wagon in rainy weather, and marveled. And when they finally
halted, and were lifted from their horses, and passed one wagon
fitted up as a bedroom and another as a kitchen, they could only
nudge each other with silent appreciation. But here again the
difference already noted in the quality of the sensations of the
two children was observable. Both were equally and agreeably
surprised. But Susy's wonder was merely the sense of novelty and
inexperience, and a slight disbelief in the actual necessity of
what she saw; while Clarence, whether from some previous general
experience or peculiar temperament, had the conviction that what he
saw here was the usual custom, and what he had known with the
Silsbees was the novelty. The feeling was attended with a slight
sense of wounded pride for Susy, as if her enthusiasm had exposed
her to ridicule.
The man who had carried him, and seemed to be the head of the
party, had already preceded them to the tent, and presently
reappeared with a lady with whom he had exchanged a dozen hurried
words. They seemed to refer to him and Susy; but Clarence was too
much preoccupied with the fact that the lady was pretty, that her
clothes were neat and thoroughly clean, that her hair was tidy and
not rumpled, and that, although she wore an apron, it was as clean
as her gown, and even had ribbons on it, to listen to what was
said. And when she ran eagerly forward, and with a fascinating
smile lifted the astonished Susy in her arms, Clarence, in his
delight for his young charge, quite forgot that she had not noticed
him. The bearded man, who seemed to be the lady's husband,
evidently pointed out the omission, with some additions that
Clarence could not catch; for after saying, with a pretty pout,
"Well, why shouldn't he?" she came forward with the same dazzling
smile, and laid her small and clean white hand upon his shoulder.
"And so you took good care of the dear little thing? She's such an
angel, isn't she? and you must love her very much."
Clarence colored with delight. It was true it had never occurred
to him to look at Susy in the light of a celestial visitant, and I
fear he was just then more struck with the fair complimenter than
the compliment to his companion, but he was pleased for her sake.
He was not yet old enough to be conscious of the sex's belief in
its irresistible domination over mankind at all ages, and that
Johnny in his check apron would be always a hopeless conquest of
Jeannette in her pinafore, and that he ought to have been in love
Howbeit, the lady suddenly whisked her away to the recesses of her
own wagon, to reappear later, washed, curled, and beribboned like a
new doll, and Clarence was left alone with the husband and another
of the party.
"Well, my boy, you haven't told me your name yet."
"So Susy calls you, but what else?"
"Any relation to Colonel Brant?" asked the second man carelessly.
"He was my father," said the boy, brightening under this faint
prospect of recognition in his loneliness.
The two men glanced at each other. The leader looked at the boy
curiously, and said,--
"Are you the son of Colonel Brant, of Louisville?"
"Yes, sir," said the boy, with a dim stirring of uneasiness in his
heart. "But he's dead now," he added finally.
"Ah, when did he die?" said the man quickly.
"Oh, a long time ago. I don't remember him much. I was very
little," said the boy, half apologetically.
"Ah, you don't remember him?"
"No," said Clarence shortly. He was beginning to fall back upon
that certain dogged repetition which in sensitive children arises
from their hopeless inability to express their deeper feelings. He
also had an instinctive consciousness that this want of a knowledge
of his father was part of that vague wrong that had been done him.
It did not help his uneasiness that he could see that one of the
two men, who turned away with a half-laugh, misunderstood or did
not believe him.
"How did you come with the Silsbees?" asked the first man.
Clarence repeated mechanically, with a child's distaste of
practical details, how he had lived with an aunt at St. Jo, and how
his stepmother had procured his passage with the Silsbees to
California, where he was to meet his cousin. All this with a lack
of interest and abstraction that he was miserably conscious told
against him, but he was yet helpless to resist.
The first man remained thoughtful, and then glanced at Clarence's
sunburnt hands. Presently his large, good-humored smile returned.
"Well, I suppose you are hungry?"
"Yes," said Clarence shyly. "But--"
"I should like to wash myself a little," he returned hesitatingly,
thinking of the clean tent, the clean lady, and Susy's ribbons.
"Certainly," said his friend, with a pleased look. "Come with me."
Instead of leading Clarence to the battered tin basin and bar of
yellow soap which had formed the toilet service of the Silsbee
party, he brought the boy into one of the wagons, where there was a
washstand, a china basin, and a cake of scented soap. Standing
beside Clarence, he watched him perform his ablutions with an
approving air which rather embarrassed his protege. Presently he
said, almost abruptly,--
"Do you remember your father's house at Louisville?"
"Yes, sir; but it was a long time ago."
Clarence remembered it as being very different from his home at St.
Joseph's, but from some innate feeling of diffidence he would have
shrunk from describing it in that way. He, however, said he
thought it was a large house. Yet the modest answer only made his
new friend look at him the more keenly.
"Your father was Colonel Hamilton Brant, of Louisville, wasn't he?"
he said, half-confidentially.
"Yes," said Clarence hopelessly.
"Well," said his friend cheerfully, as if dismissing an abstruse
problem from his mind, "Let's go to supper."
When they reached the tent again, Clarence noticed that the supper
was laid only for his host and wife and the second man--who was
familiarly called "Harry," but who spoke of the former always as
"Mr. and Mrs. Peyton"--while the remainder of the party, a dozen
men, were at a second camp fire, and evidently enjoying themselves
in a picturesque fashion. Had the boy been allowed to choose, he
would have joined them, partly because it seemed more "manly," and
partly that he dreaded a renewal of the questioning.
But here, Susy, sitting bolt upright on an extemporized high stool,
happily diverted his attention by pointing to the empty chair
"Kla'uns," she said suddenly, with her usual clear and appalling
frankness, "they is chickens, and hamanaigs, and hot biksquits, and
lasses, and Mister Peyton says I kin have 'em all."
Clarence, who had begun suddenly to feel that he was responsible
for Susy's deportment and was balefully conscious that she was
holding her plated fork in her chubby fist by its middle, and, from
his previous knowledge of her, was likely at any moment to plunge
it into the dish before her, said softly,--
"Yes, you shall, dear," said Mrs. Peyton, with tenderly beaming
assurance to Susy and a half-reproachful glance at the boy. "Eat
what you like, darling."
"It's a fork," whispered the still uneasy Clarence, as Susy now
seemed inclined to stir her bowl of milk with it.
"'Tain't, now, Kla'uns, it's only a split spoon," said Susy.
But Mrs. Peyton, in her rapt admiration, took small note of these
irregularities, plying the child with food, forgetting her own
meal, and only stopping at times to lift back the forward straying
curls on Susy's shoulders. Mr. Peyton looked on gravely and
contentedly. Suddenly the eyes of husband and wife met.
"She'd have been nearly as old as this, John," said Mrs. Peyton, in
a faint voice.
John Peyton nodded without speaking, and turned his eyes away into
the gathering darkness. The man "Harry" also looked abstractedly
at his plate, as if he was saying grace. Clarence wondered who
"she" was, and why two little tears dropped from Mrs. Peyton's
lashes into Susy's milk, and whether Susy might not violently
object to it. He did not know until later that the Peytons had
lost their only child, and Susy comfortably drained this mingled
cup of a mother's grief and tenderness without suspicion.
"I suppose we'll come up with their train early tomorrow, if some
of them don't find us to-night," said Mrs. Peyton, with a long sigh
and a regretful glance at Susy. "Perhaps we might travel together
for a little while," she added timidly.
Harry laughed, and Mr. Peyton replied gravely, "I am afraid we
wouldn't travel with them, even for company's sake; and," he added,
in a lower and graver voice, "it's rather odd the search party
hasn't come upon us yet, though I'm keeping Pete and Hank
patrolling the trail to meet them."
"It's heartless--so it is!" said Mrs. Peyton, with sudden
indignation. "It would be all very well if it was only this boy,
who can take care of himself; but to be so careless of a mere baby
like this, it's shameful!"
For the first time Clarence tasted the cruelty of discrimination.
All the more keenly that he was beginning to worship, after his
boyish fashion, this sweet-faced, clean, and tender-hearted woman.
Perhaps Mr. Peyton noticed it, for he came quietly to his aid.
"Maybe they knew better than we in what careful hands they had left
her," he said, with a cheerful nod towards Clarence. "And, again,
they may have been fooled as we were by Injin signs and left the
This suggestion instantly recalled to Clarence his vision in the
mesquite. Should he dare tell them? Would they believe him, or
would they laugh at him before her? He hesitated, and at last
resolved to tell it privately to the husband. When the meal was
ended, and he was made happy by Mrs. Peyton's laughing acceptance
of his offer to help her clear the table and wash the dishes, they
all gathered comfortably in front of the tent before the large camp
fire. At the other fire the rest of the party were playing cards
and laughing, but Clarence no longer cared to join them. He was
quite tranquil in the maternal propinquity of his hostess, albeit a
little uneasy as to his reticence about the Indian.
"Kla'uns," said Susy, relieving a momentary pause, in her highest
voice, "knows how to speak. Speak, Kla'uns!"
It appearing from Clarence's blushing explanation that this gift
was not the ordinary faculty of speech, but a capacity to recite
verse, he was politely pressed by the company for a performance.
"Speak 'em, Kla'uns, the boy what stood unto the burnin' deck, and
said, 'The boy, oh, where was he?'" said Susy, comfortably lying
down on Mrs. Peyton's lap, and contemplating her bare knees in the
air. "It's 'bout a boy," she added confidentially to Mrs. Peyton,
"whose father wouldn't never, never stay with him on a burnin'
ship, though he said, 'Stay, father, stay,' ever so much."
With this clear, lucid, and perfectly satisfactory explanation of
Mrs. Hemans's "Casabianca," Clarence began. Unfortunately, his
actual rendering of this popular school performance was more an
effort of memory than anything else, and was illustrated by those
wooden gestures which a Western schoolmaster had taught him. He
described the flames that "roared around him," by indicating with
his hand a perfect circle, of which he was the axis; he adjured his
father, the late Admiral Casabianca, by clasping his hands before
his chin, as if wanting to be manacled in an attitude which he was
miserably conscious was unlike anything he himself had ever felt or
seen before; he described that father "faint in death below," and
"the flag on high," with one single motion. Yet something that the
verses had kindled in his active imagination, perhaps, rather than
an illustration of the verses themselves, at times brightened his
gray eyes, became tremulous in his youthful voice, and I fear
occasionally incoherent on his lips. At times, when not conscious
of his affected art, the plain and all upon it seemed to him to
slip away into the night, the blazing camp fire at his feet to wrap
him in a fateful glory, and a vague devotion to something--he knew
not what--so possessed him that he communicated it, and probably
some of his own youthful delight in extravagant voice, to his
hearers, until, when he ceased with a glowing face, he was
surprised to find that the card players had deserted their camp
fires and gathered round the tent.
"You didn't say 'Stay, father, stay,' enough, Kla'uns," said Susy
critically. Then suddenly starting upright in Mrs. Peyton's lap,
she continued rapidly, "I kin dance. And sing. I kin dance High
"What's High Jambooree, dear?" asked Mrs. Peyton.
"You'll see. Lemme down." And Susy slipped to the ground.
The dance of High Jambooree, evidently of remote mystical African
origin, appeared to consist of three small skips to the right and
then to the left, accompanied by the holding up of very short
skirts, incessant "teetering" on the toes of small feet, the
exhibition of much bare knee and stocking, and a gurgling
accompaniment of childish laughter. Vehemently applauded, it left
the little performer breathless, but invincible and ready for fresh
"I kin sing, too," she gasped hurriedly, as if unwilling that the
applause should lapse. "I kin sing. Oh, dear! Kla'uns,"
piteously, "WHAT is it I sing?"
"Ben Bolt," suggested Clarence.
"Oh, yes. Oh, don't you remember sweet Alers Ben Bolt?" began
Susy, in the same breath and the wrong key. "Sweet Alers, with
hair so brown, who wept with delight when you giv'd her a smile,
and--" with knitted brows and appealing recitative, "what's er rest
of it, Kla'uns?"
"Who trembled with fear at your frown?" prompted Clarence.
"Who trembled with fear at my frown?" shrilled Susy. "I forget er
rest. Wait! I kin sing--"
"Praise God," suggested Clarence.
"Yes." Here Susy, a regular attendant in camp and prayer-meetings,
was on firmer ground.
Promptly lifting her high treble, yet with a certain acquired
deliberation, she began, "Praise God, from whom all blessings
flow." At the end of the second line the whispering and laughing
ceased. A deep voice to the right, that of the champion poker
player, suddenly rose on the swell of the third line. He was
instantly followed by a dozen ringing voices, and by the time the
last line was reached it was given with a full chorus, in which the
dull chant of teamsters and drivers mingled with the soprano of
Mrs. Peyton and Susy's childish treble. Again and again it was
repeated, with forgetful eyes and abstracted faces, rising and
falling with the night wind and the leap and gleam of the camp
fires, and fading again like them in the immeasurable mystery of
the darkened plain.
In the deep and embarrassing silence that followed, at last the
party hesitatingly broke up, Mrs. Peyton retiring with Susy after
offering the child to Clarence for a perfunctory "good-night" kiss,
an unusual proceeding, which somewhat astonished them both--and
Clarence found himself near Mr. Peyton.
"I think," said Clarence timidly, "I saw an Injin to-day."
Mr. Peyton bent down towards him. "An Injin--where?" he asked
quickly, with the same look of doubting interrogatory with which he
had received Clarence's name and parentage.
The boy for a moment regretted having spoken. But with his old
doggedness he particularized his statement. Fortunately, being
gifted with a keen perception, he was able to describe the stranger
accurately, and to impart with his description that contempt for
its subject which he had felt, and which to his frontier auditor
established its truthfulness. Peyton turned abruptly away, but
presently returned with Harry and another man.
"You are sure of this?" said Peyton, half-encouragingly.
"As sure as you are that your father is Colonel Brant and is dead?"
said Harry, with a light laugh.
Tears sprang into the boy's lowering eyes. "I don't lie," he said
"I believe you, Clarence," said Peyton quietly. "But why didn't
you say it before?"
"I didn't like to say it before Susy and--her!" stammered the boy.
"Yes, sir--Mrs. Peyton," said Clarence blushingly.
"Oh," said Harry sarcastically, "how blessed polite we are!"
"That'll do. Let up on him, will you?" said Peyton, roughly, to
his subordinate. "The boy knows what he's about. But," he
continued, addressing Clarence, "how was it the Injin didn't see
"I was very still on account of not waking Susy," said Clarence,
"and--" He hesitated.
"He seemed more keen watching what YOU were doing," said the boy
"That's so," broke in the second man, who happened to be
experienced, "and as he was to wind'ard o' the boy he was off HIS
scent and bearings. He was one of their rear scouts; the rest o'
them's ahead crossing our track to cut us off. Ye didn't see
"I saw a coyote first," said Clarence, greatly encouraged.
"Hold on!" said the expert, as Harry turned away with a sneer.
"That's a sign, too. Wolf don't go where wolf hez been, and coyote
don't foller Injins--there's no pickin's! How long afore did you
see the coyote?"
"Just after we left the wagon," said Clarence.
"That's it," said the man, thoughtfully. "He was driven on ahead,
or hanging on their flanks. These Injins are betwixt us and that
ar train, or following it."
Peyton made a hurried gesture of warning, as if reminding the
speaker of Clarence's presence--a gesture which the boy noticed and
wondered at. Then the conversation of the three men took a lower
tone, although Clarence distinctly heard the concluding opinion of
"It ain't no good now, Mr. Peyton, and you'd be only exposing
yourself on their ground by breakin' camp agin to-night. And you
don't know that it ain't US they're watchin'. You see, if we
hadn't turned off the straight road when we got that first scare
from these yer lost children, we might hev gone on and walked plump
into some cursed trap of those devils. To my mind, we're just in
nigger luck, and with a good watch and my patrol we're all right to
be fixed where we be till daylight."
Mr. Peyton presently turned away, taking Clarence with him. "As
we'll be up early and on the track of your train to-morrow, my boy,
you had better turn in now. I've put you up in my wagon, and as I
expect to be in the saddle most of the night, I reckon I won't
trouble you much." He led the way to a second wagon--drawn up
beside the one where Susy and Mrs. Peyton had retired--which
Clarence was surprised to find fitted with a writing table and
desk, a chair, and even a bookshelf containing some volumes. A
long locker, fitted like a lounge, had been made up as a couch for
him, with the unwonted luxury of clean white sheets and pillow-
cases. A soft matting covered the floor of the heavy wagon bed,
which, Mr. Peyton explained, was hung on centre springs to prevent
jarring. The sides and roof of the vehicle were of lightly paneled
wood, instead of the usual hooked canvas frame of the ordinary
emigrant wagon, and fitted with a glazed door and movable window
for light and air. Clarence wondered why the big, powerful man,
who seemed at home on horseback, should ever care to sit in this
office like a merchant or a lawyer; and if this train sold things
to the other trains, or took goods, like the peddlers, to towns on
the route; but there seemed to be nothing to sell, and the other
wagons were filled with only the goods required by the party. He
would have liked to ask Mr. Peyton who HE was, and have questioned
HIM as freely as he himself had been questioned. But as the
average adult man never takes into consideration the injustice of
denying to the natural and even necessary curiosity of childhood
that questioning which he himself is so apt to assume without
right, and almost always without delicacy, Clarence had no
recourse. Yet the boy, like all children, was conscious that if he
had been afterwards questioned about THIS inexplicable experience,
he would have been blamed for his ignorance concerning it. Left to
himself presently, and ensconced between the sheets, he lay for
some moments staring about him. The unwonted comfort of his couch,
so different from the stuffy blanket in the hard wagon bed which he
had shared with one of the teamsters, and the novelty, order, and
cleanliness of his surroundings, while they were grateful to his
instincts, began in some vague way to depress him. To his loyal
nature it seemed a tacit infidelity to his former rough companions
to be lying here; he had a dim idea that he had lost that
independence which equal discomfort and equal pleasure among them
had given him. There seemed a sense of servitude in accepting this
luxury which was not his. This set him endeavoring to remember
something of his father's house, of the large rooms, drafty
staircases, and far-off ceilings, and the cold formality of a life
that seemed made up of strange faces; some stranger--his parents;
some kinder--the servants; particularly the black nurse who had him
in charge. Why did Mr. Peyton ask him about it? Why, if it were
so important to strangers, had not his mother told him more of it?
And why was she not like this good woman with the gentle voice who
was so kind to--to Susy? And what did they mean by making HIM so
miserable? Something rose in his throat, but with an effort he
choked it back, and, creeping from the lounge, went softly to the
window, opened it to see if it "would work," and looked out. The
shrouded camp fires, the stars that glittered but gave no light,
the dim moving bulk of a patrol beyond the circle, all seemed to
intensify the darkness, and changed the current of his thoughts.
He remembered what Mr. Peyton had said of him when they first met.
"Suthin of a pup, ain't he?" Surely that meant something that was
not bad! He crept back to the couch again.
Lying there, still awake, he reflected that he wouldn't be a scout
when he grew up, but would be something like Mr. Peyton, and have a
train like this, and invite the Silsbees and Susy to accompany him.
For this purpose, he and Susy, early to-morrow morning, would get
permission to come in here and play at that game. This would
familiarize him with the details, so that he would be able at any
time to take charge of it. He was already an authority on the
subject of Indians! He had once been fired at--as an Indian. He
would always carry a rifle like that hanging from the hooks at the
end of the wagon before him, and would eventually slay many Indians
and keep an account of them in a big book like that on the desk.
Susy would help him, having grown up a lady, and they would both
together issue provisions and rations from the door of the wagon to
the gathered crowds. He would be known as the "White Chief," his
Indian name being "Suthin of a Pup." He would have a circus van
attached to the train, in which he would occasionally perform. He
would also have artillery for protection. There would be a
terrific engagement, and he would rush into the wagon, heated and
blackened with gunpowder; and Susy would put down an account of it
in a book, and Mrs. Peyton--for she would be there in some vague
capacity--would say, "Really, now, I don't see but what we were
very lucky in having such a boy as Clarence with us. I begin to
understand him better." And Harry, who, for purposes of vague
poetical retaliation, would also drop in at that moment, would
mutter and say, "He is certainly the son of Colonel Brant; dear
me!" and apologize. And his mother would come in also, in her
coldest and most indifferent manner, in a white ball dress, and
start and say, "Good gracious, how that boy has grown! I am sorry
I did not see more of him when he was young." Yet even in the
midst of this came a confusing numbness, and then the side of the
wagon seemed to melt away, and he drifted out again alone into the
empty desolate plain from which even the sleeping Susy had
vanished, and he was left deserted and forgotten. Then all was
quiet in the wagon, and only the night wind moving round it. But
lo! the lashes of the sleeping White Chief--the dauntless leader,
the ruthless destroyer of Indians--were wet with glittering tears!
Yet it seemed only a moment afterwards that he awoke with a faint
consciousness of some arrested motion. To his utter consternation,
the sun, three hours high, was shining in the wagon, already hot
and stifling in its beams. There was the familiar smell and taste
of the dirty road in the air about him. There was a faint creaking
of boards and springs, a slight oscillation, and beyond the audible
rattle of harness, as if the train had been under way, the wagon
moving, and then there had been a sudden halt. They had probably
come up with the Silsbee train; in a few moments the change would
be effected and all of his strange experience would be over. He
must get up now. Yet, with the morning laziness of the healthy
young animal, he curled up a moment longer in his luxurious couch.
How quiet it was! There were far-off voices, but they seemed
suppressed and hurried. Through the window he saw one of the
teamsters run rapidly past him with a strange, breathless,
preoccupied face, halt a moment at one of the following wagons, and
then run back again to the front.
Then two of the voices came nearer, with the dull beating of hoofs
in the dust.
"Rout out the boy and ask him," said a half-suppressed, impatient
voice, which Clarence at once recognized as the man Harry's.
"Hold on till Peyton comes up," said the second voice, in a low
tone; "leave it to him."
"Better find out what they were like, at once," grumbled Harry.
"Wait, stand back," said Peyton's voice, joining the others; "I'LL
Clarence looked wonderingly at the door. It opened on Mr. Peyton,
dusty and dismounted, with a strange, abstracted look in his face.
"How many wagons are in your train, Clarence?"
"Any marks on them?"
"Yes, sir," said Clarence, eagerly: "'Off to California' and 'Root,
Hog, or Die.'"
Mr. Peyton's eye seemed to leap up and hold Clarence's with a
sudden, strange significance, and then looked down.
"How many were you in all?" he continued.
"Five, and there was Mrs. Silsbee."
"No other woman?"
"Get up and dress yourself," he said gravely, "and wait here till I
come back. Keep cool and have your wits about you." He dropped
his voice slightly. "Perhaps something's happened that you'll have
to show yourself a little man again for, Clarence!"
The door closed, and the boy heard the same muffled hoofs and
voices die away towards the front. He began to dress himself
mechanically, almost vacantly, yet conscious always of a vague
undercurrent of thrilling excitement. When he had finished he
waited almost breathlessly, feeling the same beating of his heart
that he had felt when he was following the vanished train the day
before. At last he could stand the suspense no longer, and opened
the door. Everything was still in the motionless caravan, except--
it struck him oddly even then--the unconcerned prattling voice of
Susy from one of the nearer wagons. Perhaps a sudden feeling that
this was something that concerned HER, perhaps an irresistible
impulse overcame him, but the next moment he had leaped to the
ground, faced about, and was running feverishly to the front.
The first thing that met his eyes was the helpless and desolate
bulk of one of the Silsbee wagons a hundred rods away, bereft of
oxen and pole, standing alone and motionless against the dazzling
sky! Near it was the broken frame of another wagon, its fore
wheels and axles gone, pitched forward on its knees like an ox
under the butcher's sledge. Not far away there were the burnt and
blackened ruins of a third, around which the whole party on foot
and horseback seemed to be gathered. As the boy ran violently on,
the group opened to make way for two men carrying some helpless but
awful object between them. A terrible instinct made Clarence
swerve from it in his headlong course, but he was at the same
moment discovered by the others, and a cry arose of "Go back!"
"Stop!" "Keep him back!" Heeding it no more than the wind that
whistled by him, Clarence made directly for the foremost wagon--the
one in which he and Susy had played. A powerful hand caught his
shoulder; it was Mr. Peyton's.
"Mrs. Silsbee's wagon," said the boy, with white lips, pointing to
it. "Where is she?"
"She's missing," said Peyton, "and one other--the rest are dead."
"She must be there," said the boy, struggling, and pointing to the
wagon; "let me go."
"Clarence," said Peyton sternly, accenting his grasp upon the boy's
arm, "be a man! Look around you. Try and tell us who these are."
There seemed to be one or two heaps of old clothes lying on the
ground, and further on, where the men at a command from Peyton had
laid down their burden, another. In those ragged, dusty heaps of
clothes, from which all the majesty of life seemed to have been
ruthlessly stamped out, only what was ignoble and grotesque
appeared to be left. There was nothing terrible in this. The boy
moved slowly towards them; and, incredible even to himself, the
overpowering fear of them that a moment before had overcome him
left him as suddenly. He walked from the one to the other,
recognizing them by certain marks and signs, and mentioning name
after name. The groups gazed at him curiously; he was conscious
that he scarcely understood himself, still less the same quiet
purpose that made him turn towards the furthest wagon.
"There's nothing there," said Peyton; "we've searched it." But the
boy, without replying, continued his way, and the crowd followed
The deserted wagon, more rude, disorderly, and slovenly than it had
ever seemed to him before, was now heaped and tumbled with broken
bones, cans, scattered provisions, pots, pans, blankets, and
clothing in the foul confusion of a dust-heap. But in this
heterogeneous mingling the boy's quick eye caught sight of a
draggled edge of calico.
"That's Mrs. Silsbee's dress!" he cried, and leapt into the wagon.
At first the men stared at each other, but an instant later a dozen
hands were helping him, nervously digging and clearing away the
rubbish. Then one man uttered a sudden cry, and fell back with
frantic but furious eyes uplifted against the pitiless, smiling sky
"Great God! look here!"
It was the yellowish, waxen face of Mrs. Silsbee that had been
uncovered. But to the fancy of the boy it had changed; the old
familiar lines of worry, care, and querulousness had given way to a
look of remote peace and statue-like repose. He had often vexed
her in her aggressive life; he was touched with remorse at her
cold, passionless apathy now, and pressed timidly forward. Even as
he did so, the man, with a quick but warning gesture, hurriedly
threw his handkerchief over the matted locks, as if to shut out
something awful from his view. Clarence felt himself drawn back;
but not before the white lips of a bystander had whispered a single
"Scalped, too! by God!"
Then followed days and weeks that seemed to Clarence as a dream.
At first, an interval of hushed and awed restraint when he and Susy
were kept apart, a strange and artificial interest taken little
note of by him, but afterwards remembered when others had forgotten
it; the burial of Mrs. Silsbee beneath a cairn of stones, with some
ceremonies that, simple though they were, seemed to usurp the
sacred rights of grief from him and Susy, and leave them cold and
frightened; days of frequent and incoherent childish outbursts from
Susy, growing fainter and rarer as time went on, until they ceased,
he knew not when; the haunting by night of that morning vision of
the three or four heaps of ragged clothes on the ground and a half
regret that he had not examined them more closely; a recollection
of the awful loneliness and desolation of the broken and abandoned
wagon left behind on its knees as if praying mutely when the train
went on and left it; the trundling behind of the fateful wagon in
which Mrs. Silsbee's body had been found, superstitiously shunned
by every one, and when at last turned over to the authorities at an
outpost garrison, seeming to drop the last link from the dragging
chain of the past. The revelation to the children of a new
experience in that brief glimpse of the frontier garrison; the
handsome officer in uniform and belted sword, an heroic, vengeful
figure to be admired and imitated hereafter; the sudden importance
and respect given to Susy and himself as "survivors"; the
sympathetic questioning and kindly exaggerations of their
experiences, quickly accepted by Susy--all these, looking back upon
them afterwards, seemed to have passed in a dream.
No less strange and visionary to them seemed the real transitions
they noted from the moving train. How one morning they missed the
changeless, motionless, low, dark line along the horizon, and
before noon found themselves among the rocks and trees and a
swiftly rushing river. How there suddenly appeared beside them a
few days later a great gray cloud-covered ridge of mountains that
they were convinced was that same dark line that they had seen so
often. How the men laughed at them, and said that for the last
three days they had been CROSSING that dark line, and that it was
HIGHER than the great gray-clouded range before them, which it had
always hidden from their view! How Susy firmly believed that these
changes took place in her sleep, when she always "kinder felt they
were crawlin' up," and how Clarence, in the happy depreciation of
extreme youth, expressed his conviction that they "weren't a bit
high, after all." How the weather became cold, though it was
already summer, and at night the camp fire was a necessity, and
there was a stove in the tent with Susy; and yet how all this faded
away, and they were again upon a dazzling, burnt, and sun-dried
plain! But always as in a dream!
More real were the persons who composed the party--whom they seemed
to have always known--and who, in the innocent caprice of children,
had become to them more actual than the dead had even been. There
was Mr. Peyton, who they now knew owned the train, and who was so
rich that he "needn't go to California if he didn't want to, and
was going to buy a great deal of it if he liked it," and who was
also a lawyer and "policeman"--which was Susy's rendering of
"politician"--and was called "Squire" and "Judge" at the frontier
outpost, and could order anybody to be "took up if he wanted to,"
and who knew everybody by their Christian names; and Mrs. Peyton,
who had been delicate and was ordered by the doctor to live in the
open air for six months, and "never go into a house or a town
agin," and who was going to adopt Susy as soon as her husband could
arrange with Susy's relatives, and draw up the papers! How "Harry"
was Henry Benham, Mrs. Peyton's brother, and a kind of partner of
Mr. Peyton. And how the scout's name was Gus Gildersleeve, or the
"White Crow," and how, through his recognized intrepidity, an
attack upon their train was no doubt averted. Then there was
"Bill," the stock herder, and "Texas Jim," the vaquero--the latter
marvelous and unprecedented in horsemanship. Such were their
companions, as appeared through the gossip of the train and their
own inexperienced consciousness. To them, they were all astounding
and important personages. But, either from boyish curiosity or
some sense of being misunderstood, Clarence was more attracted by
the two individuals of the party who were least kind to him--
namely, Mrs. Peyton and her brother Harry. I fear that, after the
fashion of most children, and some grown-up people, he thought less
of the steady kindness of Mr. Peyton and the others than of the
rare tolerance of Harry or the polite concessions of his sister.
Miserably conscious of this at times, he quite convinced himself
that if he could only win a word of approbation from Harry, or a
smile from Mrs. Peyton, he would afterwards revenge himself by
"running away." Whether he would or not, I cannot say. I am
writing of a foolish, growing, impressionable boy of eleven, of
whose sentiments nothing could be safely predicted but uncertainty.
It was at this time that he became fascinated by another member of
the party whose position had been too humble and unimportant to be
included in the group already noted. Of the same appearance as the
other teamsters in size, habits, and apparel, he had not at first
exhibited to Clarence any claim to sympathy. But it appeared that
he was actually a youth of only sixteen--a hopeless incorrigible of
St. Joseph, whose parents had prevailed on Peyton to allow him to
join the party, by way of removing him from evil associations and
as a method of reform. Of this Clarence was at first ignorant, not
from any want of frankness on the part of the youth, for that
ingenious young gentleman later informed him that he had killed
three men in St. Louis, two in St. Jo, and that the officers of
justice were after him. But it was evident that to precocious
habits of drinking, smoking, chewing, and card-playing this
overgrown youth added a strong tendency to exaggeration of
statement. Indeed, he was known as "Lying Jim Hooker," and his
various qualities presented a problem to Clarence that was
attractive and inspiring, doubtful, but always fascinating. With
the hoarse voice of early wickedness and a contempt for ordinary
courtesy, he had a round, perfectly good-humored face, and a
disposition that when not called upon to act up to his self-imposed
role of reckless wickedness, was not unkindly.
It was only a few days after the massacre, and while the children
were still wrapped in the gloomy interest and frightened reticence
which followed it, that "Jim Hooker" first characteristically
flashed upon Clarence's perceptions. Hanging half on and half off
the saddle of an Indian pony, the lank Jim suddenly made his
appearance, dashing violently up and down the track, and around the
wagon in which Clarence was sitting, tugging desperately at the
reins, with every indication of being furiously run away with, and
retaining his seat only with the most dauntless courage and skill.
Round and round they went, the helpless rider at times hanging by a
single stirrup near the ground, and again recovering himself by--as
it seemed to Clarence--almost superhuman effort. Clarence sat
open-mouthed with anxiety and excitement, and yet a few of the
other teamsters laughed. Then the voice of Mr. Peyton, from the
window of his car, said quietly,--
"There, that will do, Jim. Quit it!"
The furious horse and rider instantly disappeared. A few moments
after, the bewildered Clarence saw the redoubted horseman trotting
along quietly in the dust of the rear, on the same fiery steed, who
in that prosaic light bore an astounding resemblance to an ordinary
team horse. Later in the day he sought an explanation from the
"You see," answered Jim gloomily, "thar ain't a galoot in this yer
crowd ez knows jist WHAT'S in that hoss! And them ez suspecks
daren't say! It wouldn't do for to hev it let out that the Judge
hez a Morgan-Mexican plug that's killed two men afore he got him,
and is bound to kill another afore he gets through! Why, on'y the
week afore we kem up to you, that thar hoss bolted with me at
camping! Bucked and throwed me, but I kept my holt o' the stirrups
with my foot--so! Dragged me a matter of two miles, head down, and
me keepin' away rocks with my hand--so!"
"Why didn't you loose your foot and let go?" asked Clarence
"YOU might," said Jim, with deep scorn; "that ain't MY style. I
just laid low till we kem to a steep pitched hill, and goin' down
when the hoss was, so to speak, kinder BELOW me, I just turned a
hand spring, so, and that landed me onter his back again."
This action, though vividly illustrated by Jim's throwing his hands
down like feet beneath him, and indicating the parabola of a spring
in the air, proving altogether too much for Clarence's mind to
grasp, he timidly turned to a less difficult detail.
"What made the horse bolt first, Mr. Hooker?"
"Smelt Injins!" said Jim, carelessly expectorating tobacco juice in
a curving jet from the side of his mouth--a singularly fascinating
accomplishment, peculiarly his own, "'n' likely YOUR Injins."
"But," argued Clarence hesitatingly, "you said it was a week
"Er Mexican plug kin smell Injins fifty, yes, a hundred miles
away," said Jim, with scornful deliberation; "'n' if Judge Peyton
had took my advice, and hadn't been so mighty feared about the
character of his hoss gettin' out he'd hev played roots on them
Injins afore they tetched ye. But," he added, with gloomy
dejection, "there ain't no sand in this yer crowd, thar ain't no
vim, thar ain't nothin'; and thar kan't be ez long ez thar's women
and babies, and women and baby fixin's, mixed up with it. I'd hev
cut the whole blamed gang ef it weren't for one or two things," he
Clarence, impressed by Jim's mysterious manner, for the moment
forgot his contemptuous allusion to Mr. Peyton, and the evident
implication of Susy and himself, and asked hurriedly, "What
Jim, as if forgetful of the boy's presence in his fitful mood,
abstractedly half drew a glittering bowie knife from his bootleg,
and then slowly put it back again. "Thar's one or two old scores,"
he continued, in a low voice, although no one was in hearing
distance of them, "one or two private accounts," he went on
tragically, averting his eyes as if watched by some one, "thet hev
to be wiped out with blood afore I leave. Thar's one or two men
TOO MANY alive and breathin' in this yer crowd. Mebbee it's Gus
Gildersleeve; mebbee it's Harry Benham; mebbee," he added, with a
dark yet noble disinterestedness, "it's ME."
"Oh, no," said Clarence, with polite deprecation.
Far from placating the gloomy Jim, this seemed only to awake his
suspicions. "Mebbee," he said, dancing suddenly away from
Clarence, "mebbee you think I'm lyin'. Mebbee you think, because
you're Colonel Brant's son, yer kin run ME with this yer train.
Mebbee," he continued, dancing violently back again, "ye kalkilate,
because ye run off'n' stampeded a baby, ye kin tote me round too,
sonny. Mebbee," he went on, executing a double shuffle in the dust
and alternately striking his hands on the sides of his boots,
"mebbee you're spyin' round and reportin' to the Judge."
Firmly convinced that Jim was working himself up by an Indian war-
dance to some desperate assault on himself, but resenting the last
unjust accusation, Clarence had recourse to one of his old dogged
silences. Happily at this moment an authoritative voice called
out, "Now, then, you Jim Hooker!" and the desperate Hooker, as
usual, vanished instantly. Nevertheless, he appeared an hour or
two later beside the wagon in which Susy and Clarence were seated,
with an expression of satiated vengeance and remorseful
bloodguiltiness in his face, and his hair combed Indian fashion
over his eyes. As he generously contented himself with only
passing a gloomy and disparaging criticism on the game of cards
that the children were playing, it struck Clarence for the first
time that a great deal of his real wickedness resided in his hair.
This set him to thinking that it was strange that Mr. Peyton did
not try to reform him with a pair of scissors, but not until
Clarence himself had for at least four days attempted to imitate
Jim by combing his own hair in that fashion.
A few days later, Jim again casually favored him with a
confidential interview. Clarence had been allowed to bestride one
of the team leaders postillionwise, and was correspondingly
elevated, when Jim joined him, on the Mexican plug, which appeared--
no doubt a part of its wicked art--heavily docile, and even
"How much," said Jim, in a tone of gloomy confidence,--"how much
did you reckon to make by stealin' that gal-baby, sonny?"
"Nothing," replied Clarence with a smile. Perhaps it was an
evidence of the marked influence that Jim was beginning to exert
over him that he already did not attempt to resent this fascinating
implication of grownup guilt.
"It orter bin a good job, if it warn't revenge," continued Jim
"No, it wasn't revenge," said Clarence hurriedly.
"Then ye kalkilated ter get er hundred dollars reward ef the old
man and old woman hadn't bin scelped afore yet got up to 'em?" said
Jim. "That's your blamed dodgasted luck, eh! Enyhow, you'll make
Mrs. Peyton plank down suthin' if she adopts the babby. Look yer,
young feller," he said, starting suddenly and throwing his face
forward, glaring fiendishly through his matted side-locks, "d'ye
mean ter tell me it wasn't a plant--a skin game--the hull thing?"
"A what?" said Clarence.
"D'ye mean to say"--it was wonderful how gratuitously husky his
voice became at this moment--"d'ye mean ter tell me ye didn't set
on them Injins to wipe out the Silsbees, so that ye could hev an
out-an'-out gal ORFEN on hand fer Mrs. Peyton ter adopt--eh?"
But here Clarence was forced to protest, and strongly, although Jim
contemptuously ignored it. "Don't lie ter me," he repeated
mysteriously, "I'm fly. I'm dark, young fel. We're cahoots in
this thing?" And with this artful suggestion of being in
possession of Clarence's guilty secret he departed in time to elude
the usual objurgation of his superior, "Phil," the head teamster.
Nor was his baleful fascination exercised entirely on Clarence. In
spite of Mrs. Peyton's jealously affectionate care, Clarence's
frequent companionship, and the little circle of admiring courtiers
that always surrounded Susy, it became evident that this small Eve
had been secretly approached and tempted by the Satanic Jim. She
was found one day to have a few heron's feathers in her possession
with which she adorned her curls, and at another time was
discovered to have rubbed her face and arms with yellow and red
ochre, confessedly the free gift of Jim Hooker. It was to Clarence
alone that she admitted the significance and purport of these
offerings. "Jim gived 'em to me," she said, "and Jim's a kind of
Injin hisself that won't hurt me; and when bad Injins come, they'll
think I'm his Injin baby and run away. And Jim said if I'd just
told the Injins when they came to kill papa and mamma, that I
b'longed to him, they'd hev runned away."
"But," said the practical Clarence, "you could not; you know you
were with Mrs. Peyton all the time."
"Kla'uns," said Susy, shaking her head and fixing her round blue
eyes with calm mendacity on the boy, "don't you tell me. I WAS
Clarence started back, and nearly fell over the wagon in hopeless
dismay at this dreadful revelation of Susy's powers of
exaggeration. "But," he gasped, "you know, Susy, you and me left
"Kla'uns," said Susy calmly, making a little pleat in the skirt of
her dress with her small thumb and fingers, "don't you talk to me.
I was there. I'se a SERIVER! The men at the fort said so! The
SERIVERS is allus, allus there, and allus allus knows everythin'."
Clarence was too dumfounded to reply. He had a vague recollection
of having noticed before that Susy was very much fascinated by the
reputation given to her at Fort Ridge as a "survivor," and was
trying in an infantile way to live up to it. This the wicked Jim
had evidently encouraged. For a day or two Clarence felt a little
afraid of her, and more lonely than ever.
It was in this state, and while he was doggedly conscious that his
association with Jim did not prepossess Mrs. Peyton or her brother
in his favor, and that the former even believed him responsible for
Susy's unhallowed acquaintance with Jim, that he drifted into one
of those youthful escapades on which elders are apt to sit in
severe but not always considerate judgment. Believing, like many
other children, that nobody cared particularly for him, except to
RESTRAIN him, discovering, as children do, much sooner than we
complacently imagine, that love and preference have no logical
connection with desert or character, Clarence became boyishly
reckless. But when, one day, it was rumored that a herd of buffalo
was in the vicinity, and that the train would be delayed the next
morning in order that a hunt might be organized, by Gildersleeve,
Benham, and a few others, Clarence listened willingly to Jim's
proposition that they should secretly follow it.
To effect their unhallowed purpose required boldness and duplicity.
It was arranged that shortly after the departure of the hunting
party Clarence should ask permission to mount and exercise one of
the team horses--a favor that had been frequently granted him; that
in the outskirts of the camp he should pretend that the horse ran
away with him, and Jim would start in pursuit. The absence of the
shooting party with so large a contingent of horses and men would
preclude any further detachment from the camp to assist them. Once
clear, they would follow the track of the hunters, and, if
discovered by them, would offer the same excuse, with the addition
that they had lost their way to the camp. The plan was successful.
The details were carried out with almost too perfect effect; as it
appeared that Jim, in order to give dramatic intensity to the
fractiousness of Clarence's horse, had inserted a thorn apple under
the neck of his saddle, which Clarence only discovered in time to
prevent himself from being unseated. Urged forward by ostentatious
"Whoas!" and surreptitious cuts in the rear from Jim, pursuer and
pursued presently found themselves safely beyond the half-dry
stream and fringe of alder bushes that skirted the camp. They were
not followed. Whether the teamsters suspected and winked at this
design, or believed that the boys could take care of themselves,
and ran no risk of being lost in the proximity of the hunting
party, there was no general alarm.
Thus reassured, and having a general idea of the direction of the
hunt, the boys pushed hilariously forward. Before them opened a
vast expanse of bottom land, slightly sloping on the right to a
distant half-filled lagoon, formed by the main river overflow, on
whose tributary they had encamped. The lagoon was partly hidden by
straggling timber and "brush," and beyond that again stretched the
unlimitable plains--the pasture of their mighty game. Hither, Jim
hoarsely informed his companion, the buffaloes came to water. A
few rods further on, he started dramatically, and, alighting,
proceeded to slowly examine the ground. It seemed to be scattered
over with half-circular patches, which he pointed out mysteriously
as "buffalo chip." To Clarence's inexperienced perception the
plain bore a singular resemblance to the surface of an ordinary
unromantic cattle pasture that somewhat chilled his heroic fancy.
However, the two companions halted and professionally examined
their arms and equipments.
These, I grieve to say, though varied, were scarcely full or
satisfactory. The necessities of their flight had restricted Jim
to an old double-barreled fowling-piece, which he usually carried
slung across his shoulders; an old-fashioned "six-shooter," whose
barrels revolved occasionally and unexpectedly, known as "Allen's
Pepper Box" on account of its culinary resemblance; and a bowie-
knife. Clarence carried an Indian bow and arrow with which he had
been exercising, and a hatchet which he had concealed under the
flanks of his saddle. To this Jim generously added the six-
shooter, taking the hatchet in exchange--a transfer that at first
delighted Clarence, until, seeing the warlike and picturesque
effect of the hatchet in Jim's belt, he regretted the transfer.
The gun, Jim meantime explained "extry charged," "chuck up" to the
middle with slugs and revolver bullets, could only be fired by
himself, and even then he darkly added, not without danger. This
poverty of equipment was, however, compensated by opposite
statements from Jim of the extraordinary results obtained by these
simple weapons from "fellers I knew:" how HE himself had once
brought down a "bull" by a bold shot with a revolver through its
open bellowing mouth that pierced his "innards;" how a friend of
his--an intimate in fact--now in jail at Louisville for killing a
sheriff's deputy, had once found himself alone and dismounted with
a simple clasp-knife and a lariat among a herd of buffaloes; how,
leaping calmly upon the shaggy shoulders of the biggest bull, he
lashed himself with the lariat firmly to its horns, goading it
onward with his clasp-knife, and subsisting for days upon the flesh
cut from its living body, until, abandoned by its fellows and
exhausted by the loss of blood, it finally succumbed to its victor
at the very outskirts of the camp to which he had artfully driven
it! It must be confessed that this recital somewhat took away
Clarence's breath, and he would have liked to ask a few questions.
But they were alone on the prairie, and linked by a common
transgression; the glorious sun was coming up victoriously, the
pure, crisp air was intoxicating their nerves; in the bright
forecast of youth everything WAS possible!
The surface of the bottom land that they were crossing was here and
there broken up by fissures and "potholes," and some circumspection
in their progress became necessary. In one of these halts,
Clarence was struck by a dull, monotonous jarring that sounded like
the heavy regular fall of water over a dam. Each time that they
slackened their pace the sound would become more audible, and was
at last accompanied by that slight but unmistakable tremor of the
earth that betrayed the vicinity of a waterfall. Hesitating over
the phenomenon, which seemed to imply that their topography was
wrong and that they had blundered from the track, they were
presently startled by the fact that the sound was actually
APPROACHING them! With a sudden instinct they both galloped
towards the lagoon. As the timber opened before them Jim uttered a
long ecstatic shout. "Why, it's THEM!"
At a first glance it seemed to Clarence as if the whole plain
beyond was broken up and rolling in tumbling waves or furrows
towards them. A second glance showed the tossing fronts of a vast
herd of buffaloes, and here and there, darting in and out and among
them, or emerging from the cloud of dust behind, wild figures and
flashes of fire. With the idea of water still in his mind, it
seemed as if some tumultuous tidal wave were sweeping unseen
towards the lagoon, carrying everything before it. He turned with
eager eyes, in speechless expectancy, to his companion.
Alack! that redoubtable hero and mighty hunter was, to all
appearances, equally speechless and astonished. It was true that
he remained rooted to the saddle, a lank, still heroic figure,
alternately grasping his hatchet and gun with a kind of spasmodic
regularity. How long he would have continued this would never be
known, for the next moment, with a deafening crash, the herd broke
through the brush, and, swerving at the right of the lagoon, bore
down directly upon them. All further doubt or hesitation on their
part was stopped. The farseeing, sagacious Mexican plug with a
terrific snort wheeled and fled furiously with his rider. Moved,
no doubt, by touching fidelity, Clarence's humbler team-horse
instantly followed. In a few moments those devoted animals
struggled neck to neck in noble emulation.
"What are we goin' off this way for?" gasped the simple Clarence.
"Peyton and Gildersleeve are back there--and they'll see us,"
gasped Jim in reply. It struck Clarence that the buffaloes were
much nearer them than the hunting party, and that the trampling
hoofs of a dozen bulls were close behind them, but with another
gasp he shouted,
"When are we going to hunt 'em?"
"Hunt THEM!" screamed Jim, with a hysterical outburst of truth;
"why, they're huntin' US--dash it!"
Indeed, there was no doubt that their frenzied horses were flying
before the equally frenzied herd behind them. They gained a
momentary advantage by riding into one of the fissures, and out
again on the other side, while their pursuers were obliged to make
a detour. But in a few minutes they were overtaken by that part of
the herd who had taken the other and nearer side of the lagoon, and
were now fairly in the midst of them. The ground shook with their
trampling hoofs; their steaming breath, mingling with the stinging
dust that filled the air, half choked and blinded Clarence. He was
dimly conscious that Jim had wildly thrown his hatchet at a cow
buffalo pressing close upon his flanks. As they swept down into
another gully he saw him raise his fateful gun with utter
desperation. Clarence crouched low on his horse's outstretched
neck. There was a blinding flash, a single stunning report of both
barrels; Jim reeled in one way half out of the saddle, while the
smoking gun seemed to leap in another over his head, and then rider
and horse vanished in a choking cloud of dust and gunpowder. A
moment after Clarence's horse stopped with a sudden check, and the
boy felt himself hurled over its head into the gully, alighting on
something that seemed to be a bounding cushion of curled and
twisted hair. It was the shaggy shoulder of an enormous buffalo!
For Jim's desperate random shot and double charge had taken effect
on the near hind leg of a preceding bull, tearing away the flesh
and ham-stringing the animal, who had dropped in the gully just in
front of Clarence's horse.
Dazed but unhurt, the boy rolled from the lifted fore quarters of
the struggling brute to the ground. When he staggered to his feet
again, not only his horse was gone but the whole herd of buffaloes
seemed to have passed too, and he could hear the shouts of unseen
hunters now ahead of him. They had evidently overlooked his fall,
and the gully had concealed him. The sides before him were too
steep for his aching limbs to climb; the slope by which he and the
bull had descended when the collision occurred was behind the
wounded animal. Clarence was staggering towards it when the bull,
by a supreme effort, lifted itself on three legs, half turned, and
These events had passed too quickly for the inexperienced boy to
have felt any active fear, or indeed anything but wild excitement
and confusion. But the spectacle of that shaggy and enormous
front, that seemed to fill the whole gully, rising with awful
deliberation between him and escape, sent a thrill of terror
through his frame. The great, dull, bloodshot eyes glared at him
with a dumb, wondering fury; the large wet nostrils were so near
that their first snort of inarticulate rage made him reel backwards
as from a blow. The gully was only a narrow and short fissure or
subsidence of the plain; a few paces more of retreat and he would
be at its end, against an almost perpendicular bank fifteen feet
high. If he attempted to climb its crumbling sides and fell, there
would be those short but terrible horns waiting to impale him! It
seemed too terrible, too cruel! He was so small beside this
overgrown monster. It wasn't fair! The tears started to his eyes,
and then, in a rage at the injustice of Fate, he stood doggedly
still with clenched fists. He fixed his gaze with half-hysterical,
childish fury on those lurid eyes; he did not know that, owing to
the strange magnifying power of the bull's convex pupils, he,
Clarence, appeared much bigger than he really was to the brute's
heavy consciousness, the distance from him most deceptive, and that
it was to this fact that hunters so often owed their escape. He
only thought of some desperate means of attack. Ah! the six-
shooter. It was still in his pocket. He drew it nervously,
hopelessly--it looked so small compared with his large enemy!
He presented it with flashing eyes, and pulled the trigger. A
feeble click followed, another, and again! Even THIS had mocked
him. He pulled the trigger once more, wildly; there was a sudden
explosion, and another. He stepped back; the balls had apparently
flattened themselves harmlessly on the bull's forehead. He pulled
again, hopelessly; there was another report, a sudden furious
bellow, and the enormous brute threw his head savagely to one side,
burying his left horn deep in the crumbling bank beside him. Again
and again he charged the bank, driving his left horn home, and
bringing down the stones and earth in showers. It was some seconds
before Clarence saw in a single glimpse of that wildly tossing
crest the reason of this fury. The blood was pouring from his left
eye, penetrated by the last bullet; the bull was blinded! A
terrible revulsion of feeling, a sudden sense of remorse that was
for the moment more awful than even his previous fear, overcame
him. HE had done THAT THING! As much to fly from the dreadful
spectacle as any instinct of self-preservation, he took advantage
of the next mad paroxysms of pain and blindness, that always
impelled the suffering beast towards the left, to slip past him on
the right, reach the incline, and scramble wildly up to the plain
again. Here he ran confusedly forward, not knowing whither--only
caring to escape that agonized bellowing, to shut out forever the
accusing look of that huge blood-weltering eye.
Suddenly he heard a distant angry shout. To his first hurried
glance the plain had seemed empty, but, looking up, he saw two
horsemen rapidly advancing with a led horse behind them--his own.
With the blessed sense of relief that overtook him now came the
fevered desire for sympathy and to tell them all. But as they came
nearer he saw that they were Gildersleeve, the scout, and Henry
Benham, and that, far from sharing any delight in his deliverance,
their faces only exhibited irascible impatience. Overcome by this
new defeat, the boy stopped, again dumb and dogged.
"Now, then, blank it all, WILL you get up and come along, or do you
reckon to keep the train waiting another hour over your blanked
foolishness?" said Gildersleeve savagely.
The boy hesitated, and then mounted mechanically, without a word.
"'Twould have served 'em right to have gone and left 'em," muttered
For one wild instant Clarence thought of throwing himself from his
horse and bidding them go on and leave him. But before he could
put his thought into action the two men were galloping forward,
with his horse led by a lariat fastened to the horn of
In two hours more they had overtaken the train, already on the
march, and were in the midst of the group of outriders. Judge
Peyton's face, albeit a trifle perplexed, turned towards Clarence
with a kindly, half-tolerant look of welcome. The boy's heart
instantly melted with forgiveness.
"Well, my boy, let's hear YOUR story. What happened?"
Clarence cast a hurried glance around, and saw Jim, with face
averted, riding gloomily behind. Then nervously and hurriedly he
told how he had been thrown into the gully on the back of the
wounded buffalo, and the manner of his escape. An audible titter
ran through the cavalcade. Mr. Peyton regarded him gravely. "But
how did the buffalo get so conveniently into the gully?" he asked.
"Jim Hooker lamed him with a shotgun, and he fell over," said
A roar of Homeric laughter went up from the party. Clarence looked
up, stung and startled, but caught a single glimpse of Jim Hooker's
face that made him forget his own mortification. In its hopeless,
heart-sick, and utterly beaten dejection--the first and only real
expression he had seen on it--he read the dreadful truth. Jim's
REPUTATION had ruined him! The one genuine and striking episode of
his life, the one trustworthy account he had given of it, had been
unanimously accepted as the biggest and most consummate lie of his
With this incident of the hunt closed, to Clarence, the last
remembered episode of his journey. But he did not know until long
after that it had also closed to him what might have been the
opening of a new career. For it had been Judge Peyton's intention
in adopting Susy to include a certain guardianship and protection
of the boy, provided he could get the consent of that vague
relation to whom he was consigned. But it had been pointed out by
Mrs. Peyton and her brother that Clarence's association with Jim
Hooker had made him a doubtful companion for Susy, and even the
Judge himself was forced to admit that the boy's apparent taste for
evil company was inconsistent with his alleged birth and breeding.