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 stranger.