Bret Harte.

A Waif of the Plains online

. (page 1 of 9)
Online LibraryBret HarteA Waif of the Plains → online text (page 1 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Donald Lainson





A WAIF OF THE PLAINS

by Bret Harte




CHAPTER I


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 querulousness.

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.

"You couldn't!"

"Could if I wanted to!"

"Couldn't!"

"Could now!"

"Couldn't!"

"Why?"

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.

"Kla'uns."

He looked up.

"Take me."

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 er
coyote."

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.

"Well?"

"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.




CHAPTER II


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 gone."

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.

"Ye-e-s."

He pretended to turn away, but really to look at the height of the
sinking sun.

"Kla'uns!"

"Well?"

"Take me."

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 there."

The idea seemed to please her. After Clarence had stumbled on for a few
moments, she said, "Do you see anything, Kla'uns?"

"Not yet."

"No more don't I." This equality of perception apparently satisfied her.
Presently she lay more limp in his arms. She was asleep.

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 more.

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 blessed
relief.




CHAPTER III


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 greater danger.

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 dropped.

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


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Online LibraryBret HarteA Waif of the Plains → online text (page 1 of 9)