Leslie Branch was later than the others in arriving, for the baby proved to be a trial and a handicap. His comrades had refused him any assistance on the homeward journey. They expressed a deep, hoarse condemnation of his conduct, and pretended to consider that he had sacrificed all claims to their friendship and regard.
Branch took this seriously, and he was in a state bordering upon desperation when he reached camp. In the hope of unloading his unwelcome burden upon Norine Evans he hurried directly to her tent. But Norine had heard the story; Lopez had warned her; therefore she waved him away.
“Don’t ask me to mother your stolen child,” she said.
“Oh, but you’ve got to,” he declared in a panic. “You’ve just got to.”
“Well, I won’t. In the first place, I have a sick man in my tent.”
“But look! Listen! This baby dislikes me. I’ve nearly dropped it a dozen times. I—I’m going to leave it, anyhow.”
But Norine remained firm in her refusal. “You sha’n’t leave your foundling at my door. If you intend to steal babies you should make up your mind to take care of them.” She was itching to seize the hungry little mite, but she restrained the impulse. “Go ahead and keep it amused until the cow arrives,” she told him.
“Keep it amused! Amuse a starving brat!” tragically cried the man. “In Heaven’s name, how?”
“Why, play with it, cuddle it, give it your watch—anything! But don’t allow it to cry—it may injure itself.”
Branch glared resentfully; then he changed his tactics and began to plead. “Oh, Norine!” he implored. “I—just can’t do it. I’m all fagged out now, and, besides, I’ve got the only watch in camp that keeps time. I didn’t sleep any last night, and it’ll keep me awake all to-night. It’s a nice baby, really. It needs a woman—–”
Norine parted the flaps of her tent and pointed inside, where Esteban Varona lay upon her cot. His eyes were staring; his lips were moving. “Mrs. Ruiz and I will have our hands full with that poor chap. For all we know, he may have some contagious disease.”
Branch was utterly shameless, utterly selfish and uncompassionate. “I’m sick, too—sicker than he is. Have a heart! Remember, I risked my life to get you something nice to eat—–”
“Yes! The most ridiculous procedure I ever heard of. What ever made you do such a crazy thing?” Norine was honestly indignant now.
“I did it for you. It seems to me that the least you can do in return—–”
“The least, and the most, I can do is to try and save this poor man’s life,” she firmly reasserted. “Now run along. I’d take the baby if I could, but I simply can’t.”
“It’ll die on me,” Branch protested.
“Nonsense! It’s the healthiest little thing I ever saw. Wait until it has its supper. You’ll see.” She disappeared into her tent and Branch reluctantly turned away.