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A Waif of the Plains Bret Harte

Chapter VI

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"Why didn't you loose your foot and let go?" asked Clarence breathlessly.

"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 before--and--"

"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 added darkly.

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 things?"

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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.

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A Waif of the Plains
Bret Harte

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