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  A Waif of the Plains Bret Harte

Chapter VI

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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.

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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.

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A Waif of the Plains
Bret Harte

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