A Waif of the Plains

Author: Bret Harte

Chapter VII

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. Unfortunately, Clarence, in the conviction of being hopelessly misunderstood, and that dogged acquiescence to fate which was one of his characteristics, was too proud to correct the impression by any of the hypocracies of childhood. He had also a cloudy instinct of loyalty to Jim in his disgrace, without, however, experiencing either the sympathy of an equal or the zeal of a partisan, but rather—if it could be said of a boy of his years—with the patronage and protection of a superior. So he accepted without demur the intimation that when the train reached California he would be forwarded from Stockton with an outfit and a letter of explanation to Sacramento, it being understood that in the event of not finding his relative he would return to the Peytons in one of the southern valleys, where they elected to purchase a tract of land.

With this outlook, and the prospect of change, independence, and all the rich possibilities that to the imagination of youth are included in them, Clarence had found the days dragging. The halt at Salt Lake, the transit of the dreary Alkali desert, even the wild passage of the Sierras, were but a blurred picture in his memory. The sight of eternal snows and the rolling of endless ranks of pines, the first glimpse of a hillside of wild oats, the spectacle of a rushing yellow river that to his fancy seemed tinged with gold, were momentary excitements, quickly forgotten. But when, one morning, halting at the outskirts of a struggling settlement, he found the entire party eagerly gathered around a passing stranger, who had taken from his saddle-bags a small buckskin pouch to show them a double handful of shining scales of metal, Clarence felt the first feverish and overmastering thrill of the gold-seekers. Breathlessly he followed the breathless questions and careless replies. The gold had been dug out of a placer only thirty miles away. It might be worth, say, a hundred and fifty dollars; it was only HIS share of a week’s work with two partners. It was not much; "the country was getting played out with fresh arrivals and greenhorns." All this falling carelessly from the unshaven lips of a dusty, roughly dressed man, with a long-handled shovel and pickaxe strapped on his back, and a fryingpan depending from his saddle. But no panoplied or armed knight ever seemed so heroic or independent a figure to Clarence. What could be finer than the noble scorn conveyed in his critical survey of the train, with its comfortable covered wagons and appliances of civilization? "Ye’ll hev to get rid of them ther fixin’s if yer goin’ in for placer diggin’!" What a corroboration of Clarence’s real thoughts! What a picture of independence was this! The picturesque scout, the all-powerful Judge Peyton, the daring young officer, all crumbled on their clayey pedestals before this hero in a red flannel shirt and high-topped boots. To stroll around in the open air all day, and pick up those shining bits of metal, without study, without method or routine—this was really life; to some day come upon that large nugget "you couldn’t lift," that was worth as much as the train and horses—such a one as the stranger said was found the other day at Sawyer’s Bar—this was worth giving up everything for. That rough man, with his smile of careless superiority, was the living link between Clarence and the Thousand and One Nights; in him were Aladdin and Sindbad incarnate.

Two days later they reached Stockton. Here Clarence, whose single suit of clothes had been reinforced by patching, odds and ends from Peyton’s stores, and an extraordinary costume of army cloth, got up by the regimental tailor at Fort Ridge, was taken to be refitted at a general furnishing "emporium." But alas! in the selection of the clothing for that adult locality scant provision seemed to have been made for a boy of Clarence’s years, and he was with difficulty fitted from an old condemned Government stores with "a boy’s" seaman suit and a brass-buttoned pea-jacket. To this outfit Mr. Peyton added a small sum of money for his expenses, and a letter of explanation to his cousin. The stage-coach was to start at noon. It only remained for Clarence to take leave of the party. The final parting with Susy had been discounted on the two previous days with some tears, small frights and clingings, and the expressed determination on the child’s part "to go with him;" but in the excitement of the arrival at Stockton it was still further mitigated, and under the influence of a little present from Clarence—his first disbursement of his small capital—had at last taken the form and promise of merely temporary separation. Nevertheless, when the boy’s scanty pack was deposited under the stage-coach seat, and he had been left alone, he ran rapidly back to the train for one moment more with Susy. Panting and a little frightened, he reached Mrs. Peyton’s car.

"Goodness! You’re not gone yet," said Mrs. Peyton sharply. "Do you want to lose the stage?"

An instant before, in his loneliness, he might have answered, "Yes." But under the cruel sting of Mrs. Peyton’s evident annoyance at his reappearance he felt his legs suddenly tremble, and his voice left him. He did not dare to look at Susy. But her voice rose comfortably from the depths of the wagon where she was sitting.

"The stage will be gone away, Kla’uns."

She too! Shame at his foolish weakness sent the yearning blood that had settled round his heart flying back into his face.

"I was looking for—for—for Jim, ma’am," he said at last, boldly.

He saw a look of disgust pass over Mrs. Peyton’s face, and felt a malicious satisfaction as he turned and ran back to the stage. But here, to his surprise, he actually found Jim, whom he really hadn’t thought of, darkly watching the last strapping of luggage. With a manner calculated to convey the impression to the other passengers that he was parting from a brother criminal, probably on his way to a state prison, Jim shook hands gloomily with Clarence, and eyed the other passengers furtively between his mated locks.

"Ef ye hear o’ anythin’ happenin’, ye’ll know what’s up," he said, in a low, hoarse, but perfectly audible whisper. "Me and them’s bound to part company afore long. Tell the fellows at Deadman’s Gulch to look out for me at any time."

Although Clarence was not going to Deadman’s Gulch, knew nothing of it, and had a faint suspicion that Jim was equally ignorant, yet as one or two of the passengers glanced anxiously at the demure, grayeyed boy who seemed booked for such a baleful destination, he really felt the half-delighted, half-frightened consciousness that he was starting in life under fascinating immoral pretenses. But the forward spring of the fine-spirited horses, the quickened motion, the glittering sunlight, and the thought that he really was leaving behind him all the shackles of dependence and custom, and plunging into a life of freedom, drove all else from his mind. He turned at last from this hopeful, blissful future, and began to examine his fellow passengers with boyish curiosity. Wedged in between two silent men on the front seat, one of whom seemed a farmer, and the other, by his black attire, a professional man, Clarence was finally attracted by a black-mantled, dark-haired, bonnetless woman on the back seat, whose attention seemed to be monopolized by the jocular gallantries of her companions and the two men before her in the middle seat. From her position he could see little more than her dark eyes, which occasionally seemed to meet his frank curiosity in an amused sort of way, but he was chiefly struck by the pretty foreign sound of her musical voice, which was unlike anything he had ever heard before, and—alas for the inconstancy of youth—much finer than Mrs. Peyton’s. Presently his farmer companion, casting a patronizing glance on Clarence’s pea-jacket and brass buttons, said cheerily—

"Jest off a voyage, sonny?"

"No, sir," stammered Clarence; "I came across the plains."

"Then I reckon that’s the rig-out for the crew of a prairie schooner, eh?" There was a laugh at this which perplexed Clarence. Observing it, the humorist kindly condescended to explain that "prairie schooner" was the current slang for an emigrant wagon.

"I couldn’t," explained Clarence, naively looking at the dark eyes on the back seat, "get any clothes at Stockton but these; I suppose the folks didn’t think there’d ever be boys in California."

The simplicity of this speech evidently impressed the others, for the two men in the middle seats turned at a whisper from the lady and regarded him curiously. Clarence blushed slightly and became silent. Presently the vehicle began to slacken its speed. They were ascending a hill; on either bank grew huge cottonwoods, from which occasionally depended a beautiful scarlet vine.

"Ah! eet ees pretty," said the lady, nodding her black-veiled head towards it. "Eet is good in ze hair."

One of the men made an awkward attempt to clutch a spray from the window. A brilliant inspiration flashed upon Clarence. When the stage began the ascent of the next hill, following the example of an outside passenger, he jumped down to walk. At the top of the hill he rejoined the stage, flushed and panting, but carrying a small branch of the vine in his scratched hands. Handing it to the man on the middle seat, he said, with grave, boyish politeness— "Please—for the lady."

A slight smile passed over the face of Clarence’s neighbors. The bonnetless woman nodded a pleasant acknowledgment, and coquettishly wound the vine in her glossy hair. The dark man at his side, who hadn’t spoken yet, turned to Clarence dryly.

"If you’re goin’ to keep up this gait, sonny, I reckon ye won’t find much trouble gettin’ a man’s suit to fit you by the time you reach Sacramento."

Clarence didn’t quite understand him, but noticed that a singular gravity seemed to overtake the two jocular men on the middle seat, and the lady looked out of the window. He came to the conclusion that he had made a mistake about alluding to his clothes and his size. He must try and behave more manly. That opportunity seemed to be offered two hours later, when the stage stopped at a wayside hotel or restaurant.

Two or three passengers had got down to refresh themselves at the bar. His right and left hand neighbors were, however, engaged in a drawling conversation on the comparative merits of San Francisco sandhill and water lots; the jocular occupants of the middle seat were still engrossed with the lady. Clarence slipped out of the stage and entered the bar-room with some ostentation. The complete ignoring of his person by the barkeeper and his customers, however, somewhat disconcerted him. He hesitated a moment, and then returned gravely to the stage door and opened it.

"Would you mind taking a drink with me, sir?" said Clarence politely, addressing the farmer-looking passenger who had been most civil to him. A dead silence followed. The two men on the middle seat faced entirely around to gaze at him.

"The Commodore asks if you’ll take a drink with him," explained one of the men to Clarence’s friend with the greatest seriousness.

"Eh? Oh, yes, certainly," returned that gentleman, changing his astonished expression to one of the deepest gravity, "seeing it’s the Commodore."

"And perhaps you and your friend will join, too?" said Clarence timidly to the passenger who had explained; "and you too, sir?" he added to the dark man.

"Really, gentlemen, I don’t see how we can refuse," said the latter, with the greatest formality, and appealing to the others. "A compliment of this kind from our distinguished friend is not to be taken lightly."

"I have observed, sir, that the Commodore’s head is level," returned the other man with equal gravity.

Clarence could have wished they had not treated his first hospitable effort quite so formally, but as they stepped from the coach with unbending faces he led them, a little frightened, into the bar-room. Here, unfortunately, as he was barely able to reach over the counter, the barkeeper would have again overlooked him but for a quick glance from the dark man, which seemed to change even the barkeeper’s perfunctory smiling face into supernatural gravity.

"The Commodore is standing treat," said the dark man, with unbroken seriousness, indicating Clarence, and leaning back with an air of respectful formality. "I will take straight whiskey. The Commodore, on account of just changing climate, will, I believe, for the present content himself with lemon soda."

Clarence had previously resolved to take whiskey, like the others, but a little doubtful of the politeness of countermanding his guest’s order, and perhaps slightly embarrassed by the fact that all the other customers seemed to have gathered round him and his party with equally immovable faces, he said hurriedly:

"Lemon soda for me, please."

"The Commodore," said the barkeeper with impassive features, as he bent forward and wiped the counter with professional deliberation, "is right. No matter how much a man may be accustomed all his life to liquor, when he is changing climate, gentlemen, he says ’Lemon soda for me’ all the time."

"Perhaps," said Clarence, brightening, "you will join too?"

"I shall be proud on this occasion, sir."

"I think," said the tall man, still as ceremoniously unbending as before, "that there can be but one toast here, gentlemen. I give you the health of the Commodore. May his shadow never be less."

The health was drunk solemnly. Clarence felt his cheeks tingle and in his excitement drank his own health with the others. Yet he was disappointed that there was not more joviality; he wondered if men always drank together so stiffly. And it occurred to him that it would be expensive. Nevertheless, he had his purse all ready ostentatiously in his hand; in fact, the paying for it out of his own money was not the least manly and independent pleasure he had promised himself. "How much?" he asked, with an affectation of carelessness.

The barkeeper cast his eye professionally over the barroom. "I think you said treats for the crowd; call it twenty dollars to make even change."

Clarence’s heart sank. He had heard already of the exaggeration of California prices. Twenty dollars! It was half his fortune. Nevertheless, with an heroic effort, he controlled himself, and with slightly nervous fingers counted out the money. It struck him, however, as curious, not to say ungentlemanly, that the bystanders craned their necks over his shoulder to look at the contents of his purse, although some slight explanation was offered by the tall man.

"The Commodore’s purse, gentlemen, is really a singular one. Permit me," he said, taking it from Clarence’s hand with great politeness. "It is one of the new pattern, you observe, quite worthy of inspection." He handed it to a man behind him, who in turn handed it to another, while a chorus of "suthin quite new," "the latest style," followed it in its passage round the room, and indicated to Clarence its whereabouts. It was presently handed back to the barkeeper, who had begged also to inspect it, and who, with an air of scrupulous ceremony insisted upon placing it himself in Clarence’s side pocket, as if it were an important part of his function. The driver here called "all aboard." The passengers hurriedly reseated themselves, and the episode abruptly ended. For, to Clarence’s surprise, these attentive friends of a moment ago at once became interested in the views of a new passenger concerning the local politics of San Francisco, and he found himself utterly forgotten. The bonnetless woman had changed her position, and her head was no longer visible. The disillusion and depression that overcame him suddenly were as complete as his previous expectations and hopefulness had been extravagant. For the first time his utter unimportance in the world and his inadequacy to this new life around him came upon him crushingly.

The heat and jolting of the stage caused him to fall into a slight slumber and when he awoke he found his two neighbors had just got out at a wayside station. They had evidently not cared to waken him to say "Good-by." From the conversation of the other passengers he learned that the tall man was a well-known gambler, and the one who looked like a farmer was a ship captain who had become a wealthy merchant. Clarence thought he understood now why the latter had asked him if he came off a voyage, and that the nickname of "Commodore" given to him, Clarence, was some joke intended for the captain’s understanding. He missed them, for he wanted to talk to them about his relative at Sacramento, whom he was now so soon to see. At last, between sleeping and waking, the end of his journey was unexpectedly reached. It was dark, but, being "steamer night," the shops and business places were still open, and Mr. Peyton had arranged that the stage-driver should deliver Clarence at the address of his relative in "J Street,"—an address which Clarence had luckily remembered. But the boy was somewhat discomfited to find that it was a large office or bankinghouse. He, however, descended from the stage, and with his small pack in his hand entered the building as the stage drove off, and, addressing one of the busy clerks, asked for "Mr. Jackson Brant."

There was no such person in the office. There never had been any such person. The bank had always occupied that building. Was there not some mistake in the number? No; the name, number, and street had been deeply engrafted in the boy’s recollection. Stop! it might be the name of a customer who had given his address at the bank. The clerk who made this suggestion disappeared promptly to make inquiries in the counting-room. Clarence, with a rapidly beating heart, awaited him. The clerk returned. There was no such name on the books. Jackson Brant was utterly unknown to every one in the establishment.

For an instant the counter against which the boy was leaning seemed to yield with his weight; he was obliged to steady himself with both hands to keep from falling. It was not his disappointment, which was terrible; it was not a thought of his future, which seemed hopeless; it was not his injured pride at appearing to have willfully deceived Mr. Peyton, which was more dreadful than all else; but it was the sudden, sickening sense that HE himself had been deceived, tricked, and fooled! For it flashed upon him for the first time that the vague sense of wrong which had always haunted him was this—that this was the vile culmination of a plan to GET RID OF HIM, and that he had been deliberately lost and led astray by his relatives as helplessly and completely as a useless cat or dog!

Perhaps there was something of this in his face, for the clerk, staring at him, bade him sit down for a moment, and again vanished into the mysterious interior. Clarence had no conception how long he was absent, or indeed anything but his own breathless thoughts, for he was conscious of wondering afterwards why the clerk was leading him through a door in the counter into an inner room of many desks, and again through a glass door into a smaller office, where a preternaturally busy-looking man sat writing at a desk. Without looking up, but pausing only to apply a blotting-pad to the paper before him, the man said crisply—

"So you’ve been consigned to some one who don’t seem to turn up, and can’t be found, eh? Never mind that," as Clarence laid Peyton’s letter before him. "Can’t read it now. Well, I suppose you want to be shipped back to Stockton?"

"No!" said the boy, recovering his voice with an effort.

"Eh, that’s business, though. Know anybody here?"

"Not a living soul; that’s why they sent me," said the boy, in sudden reckless desperation. He was the more furious that he knew the tears were standing in his eyes.

The idea seemed to strike the man amusingly. "Looks a little like it, don’t it?" he said, smiling grimly at the paper before him. "Got any money?"

"A little."

"How much?"

"About twenty dollars," said Clarence hesitatingly. The man opened a drawer at his side, mechanically, for he did not raise his eyes, and took out two ten-dollar gold pieces. "I’ll go twenty better," he said, laying them down on the desk. "That’ll give you a chance to look around. Come back here, if you don’t see your way clear." He dipped his pen into the ink with a significant gesture as if closing the interview.

Clarence pushed back the coin. "I’m not a beggar," he said doggedly.

The man this time raised his head and surveyed the boy with two keen eyes. "You’re not, hey? Well, do I look like one?"

"No," stammered Clarence, as he glanced into the man’s haughty eyes.

"Yet, if I were in your fix, I’d take that money and be glad to get it."

"If you’ll let me pay you back again," said Clarence, a little ashamed, and considerably frightened at his implied accusation of the man before him.

"You can," said the man, bending over his desk again.

Clarence took up the money and awkwardly drew out his purse. But it was the first time he had touched it since it was returned to him in the bar-room, and it struck him that it was heavy and full— indeed, so full that on opening it a few coins rolled out on to the floor. The man looked up abruptly.

"I thought you said you had only twenty dollars?" he remarked grimly.

"Mr. Peyton gave me forty," returned Clarence, stupefied and blushing. "I spent twenty dollars for drinks at the bar—and," he stammered, "I—I—I don’t know how the rest came here."

"You spent twenty dollars for DRINKS?" said the man, laying down his pen, and leaning back in his chair to gaze at the boy.

"Yes—that is—I treated some gentlemen of the stage, sir, at Davidson’s Crossing."

"Did you treat the whole stage company?"

"No, sir, only about four or five—and the bar-keeper. But everything’s so dear in California. I know that."

"Evidently. But it don’t seem to make much difference with YOU," said the man, glancing at the purse.

"They wanted my purse to look at," said Clarence hurriedly, "and that’s how the thing happened. Somebody put HIS OWN MONEY back into MY purse by accident."

"Of course," said the man grimly.

"Yes, that’s the reason," said Clarence, a little relieved, but somewhat embarrassed by the man’s persistent eyes.

"Then, of course," said the other quietly, "you don’t require my twenty dollars now."

"But," returned Clarence hesitatingly, "this isn’t MY money. I must find out who it belongs to, and give it back again. Perhaps," he added timidly, "I might leave it here with you, and call for it when I find the man, or send him here."

With the greatest gravity he here separated the surplus from what was left of Peyton’s gift and the twenty dollars he had just received. The balance unaccounted for was forty dollars. He laid it on the desk before the man, who, still looking at him, rose and opened the door.

"Mr. Reed."

The clerk who had shown Clarence in appeared.

"Open an account with—" He stopped and turned interrogatively to Clarence.

"Clarence Brant," said Clarence, coloring with excitement.

"With Clarence Brant. Take that deposit"—pointing to the money— "and give him a receipt." He paused as the clerk retired with a wondering gaze at the money, looked again at Clarence, said, "I think YOU’LL do," and reentered the private office, closing the door behind him.

I hope it will not be deemed inconceivable that Clarence, only a few moments before crushed with bitter disappointment and the hopeless revelation of his abandonment by his relatives, now felt himself lifted up suddenly into an imaginary height of independence and manhood. He was leaving the bank, in which he stood a minute before a friendless boy, not as a successful beggar, for this important man had disclaimed the idea, but absolutely as a customer! a depositor! a business man like the grown-up clients who were thronging the outer office, and before the eyes of the clerk who had pitied him! And he, Clarence, had been spoken to by this man, whose name he now recognized as the one that was on the door of the building—a man of whom his fellow-passengers had spoken with admiring envy—a banker famous in all California! Will it be deemed incredible that this imaginative and hopeful boy, forgetting all else, the object of his visit, and even the fact that he considered this money was not his own, actually put his hat a little on one side as he strolled out on his way to the streets and prospective fortune?

Two hours later the banker had another visitor. It chanced to be the farmer-looking man who had been Clarence’s fellow-passenger. Evidently a privileged person, he was at once ushered as "Captain Stevens" into the presence of the banker. At the end of a familiar business interview the captain asked carelessly—

"Any letters for me?"

The busy banker pointed with his pen to the letter "S" in a row of alphabetically labeled pigeon-holes against the wall. The captain, having selected his correspondence, paused with a letter in his hand.

"Look here, Carden, there are letters here for some chap called ’John Silsbee.’ They were here when I called, ten weeks ago."


"That’s the name of that Pike County man who was killed by Injins in the plains. The ’Frisco papers had all the particulars last night; may be it’s for that fellow. It hasn’t got a postmark. Who left it here?"

Mr. Carden summoned a clerk. It appeared that the letter had been left by a certain Brant Fauquier, to be called for.

Captain Stevens smiled. "Brant’s been too busy dealin’ faro to think of ’em agin, and since that shootin’ affair at Angels’ I hear he’s skipped to the southern coast somewhere. Cal Johnson, his old chum, was in the up stage from Stockton this afternoon."

"Did you come by the up stage from Stockton this afternoon?" said Carden, looking up.

"Yes, as far as Ten-mile Station—rode the rest of the way here."

"Did you notice a queer little old-fashioned kid—about so high— like a runaway school-boy?"

"Did I? By G—d, sir, he treated me to drinks."

Carden jumped from his chair. "Then he wasn’t lying!"

"No! We let him do it; but we made it good for the little chap afterwards. Hello! What’s up?"

But Mr. Carden was already in the outer office beside the clerk who had admitted Clarence.

"You remember that boy Brant who was here?"

"Yes, sir."

"Where did he go?"

"Don’t know, sir."

"Go and find him somewhere and somehow. Go to all the hotels, restaurants, and gin-mills near here, and hunt him up. Take some one with you, if you can’t do it alone. Bring him back here, quick!"

It was nearly midnight when the clerk fruitlessly returned. It was the fierce high noon of "steamer nights"; light flashed brilliantly from shops, counting-houses, drinking-saloons, and gambling-hells. The streets were yet full of eager, hurrying feet—swift of fortune, ambition, pleasure, or crime. But from among these deeper harsher footfalls the echo of the homeless boy’s light, innocent tread seemed to have died out forever.


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Chicago: Bret Harte, "Chapter VII," A Waif of the Plains, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in A Waif of the Plains (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920), Original Sources, accessed January 22, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWGI8KFDZ7G81T1.

MLA: Harte, Bret. "Chapter VII." A Waif of the Plains, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in A Waif of the Plains, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Jan. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWGI8KFDZ7G81T1.

Harvard: Harte, B, 'Chapter VII' in A Waif of the Plains, ed. . cited in 1920, A Waif of the Plains, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 January 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWGI8KFDZ7G81T1.