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Then they ferried the boy over to the peninsula, and set him on a
trail across the marshes, known only to themselves, which would
bring him home. And when the Editor the next morning chronicled
among his news, "Adrift on the Bay--A Schoolboy's Miraculous
Escape," he knew as little what part his missing Chinese errand boy
had taken in it as the rest of his readers.

Meantime the two outcasts returned to their island camp. It may
have occurred to them that a little of the sunlight had gone from
it with Bob; for they were in a dull, stupid way fascinated by the
little white tyrant who had broken bread with them. He had been
delightfully selfish and frankly brutal to them, as only a
schoolboy could be, with the addition of the consciousness of his
superior race. Yet they each longed for his return, although he
was seldom mentioned in their scanty conversation--carried on in
monosyllables, each in his own language, or with some common
English word, or more often restricted solely to signs. By a
delicate flattery, when they did speak of him it was in what they
considered to be his own language.

"Boston boy, plenty like catchee HIM," Jim would say, pointing to a
distant swan. Or Li Tee, hunting a striped water snake from the
reeds, would utter stolidly, "Melikan boy no likee snake." Yet the
next two days brought some trouble and physical discomfort to them.
Bob had consumed, or wasted, all their provisions--and, still more
unfortunately, his righteous visit, his gun, and his superabundant
animal spirits had frightened away the game, which their habitual
quiet and taciturnity had beguiled into trustfulness. They were
half starved, but they did not blame him. It would come all right
when he returned. They counted the days, Jim with secret notches
on the long pole, Li Tee with a string of copper "cash" he always
kept with him. The eventful day came at last,--a warm autumn day,
patched with inland fog like blue smoke and smooth, tranquil, open
surfaces of wood and sea; but to their waiting, confident eyes the
boy came not out of either. They kept a stolid silence all that
day until night fell, when Jim said, "Mebbe Boston boy go dead."
Li Tee nodded. It did not seem possible to these two heathens that
anything else could prevent the Christian child from keeping his
word.

After that, by the aid of the canoe, they went much on the marsh,
hunting apart, but often meeting on the trail which Bob had taken,
with grunts of mutual surprise. These suppressed feelings, never
made known by word or gesture, at last must have found vicarious
outlet in the taciturn dog, who so far forgot his usual discretion
as to once or twice seat himself on the water's edge and indulge in
a fit of howling. It had been a custom of Jim's on certain days to
retire to some secluded place, where, folded in his blanket, with
his back against a tree, he remained motionless for hours. In the
settlement this had been usually referred to the after effects of
drink, known as the "horrors," but Jim had explained it by saying
it was "when his heart was bad." And now it seemed, by these
gloomy abstractions, that "his heart was bad" very often. And then
the long withheld rains came one night on the wings of a fierce
southwester, beating down their frail lodge and scattering it
abroad, quenching their camp-fire, and rolling up the bay until it
invaded their reedy island and hissed in their ears. It drove the
game from Jim's gun; it tore the net and scattered the bait of Li
Tee, the fisherman. Cold and half starved in heart and body, but
more dogged and silent than ever, they crept out in their canoe
into the storm-tossed bay, barely escaping with their miserable
lives to the marshy peninsula. Here, on their enemy's ground,
skulking in the rushes, or lying close behind tussocks, they at
last reached the fringe of forest below the settlement. Here, too,
sorely pressed by hunger, and doggedly reckless of consequences,
they forgot their caution, and a flight of teal fell to Jim's gun
on the very outskirts of the settlement.

It was a fatal shot, whose echoes awoke the forces of civilization
against them. For it was heard by a logger in his hut near the
marsh, who, looking out, had seen Jim pass. A careless, good-
natured frontiersman, he might have kept the outcasts' mere
presence to himself; but there was that damning shot! An Indian
with a gun! That weapon, contraband of law, with dire fines and
penalties to whoso sold or gave it to him! A thing to be looked
into--some one to be punished! An Indian with a weapon that made
him the equal of the white! Who was safe? He hurried to town to
lay his information before the constable, but, meeting Mr. Skinner,
imparted the news to him. The latter pooh-poohed the constable,
who he alleged had not yet discovered the whereabouts of Jim, and
suggested that a few armed citizens should make the chase
themselves. The fact was that Mr. Skinner, never quite satisfied
in his mind with his son's account of the loss of the gun, had put
two and two together, and was by no means inclined to have his own
gun possibly identified by the legal authority. Moreover, he went
home and at once attacked Master Bob with such vigor and so highly
colored a description of the crime he had committed, and the
penalties attached to it, that Bob confessed. More than that, I
grieve to say that Bob lied. The Indian had "stoled his gun," and
threatened his life if he divulged the theft. He told how he was
ruthlessly put ashore, and compelled to take a trail only known to
them to reach his home. In two hours it was reported throughout
the settlement that the infamous Jim had added robbery with
violence to his illegal possession of the weapon. The secret of
the island and the trail over the marsh was told only to a few.

Meantime it had fared hard with the fugitives. Their nearness to
the settlement prevented them from lighting a fire, which might
have revealed their hiding-place, and they crept together,
shivering all night in a clump of hazel. Scared thence by passing
but unsuspecting wayfarers wandering off the trail, they lay part
of the next day and night amid some tussocks of salt grass, blown
on by the cold sea-breeze; chilled, but securely hidden from sight.
Indeed, thanks to some mysterious power they had of utter
immobility, it was wonderful how they could efface themselves,
through quiet and the simplest environment. The lee side of a
straggling vine in the meadow, or even the thin ridge of cast-up
drift on the shore, behind which they would lie for hours
motionless, was a sufficient barrier against prying eyes. In this
occupation they no longer talked together, but followed each other
with the blind instinct of animals--yet always unerringly, as if
conscious of each other's plans. Strangely enough, it was the REAL
animal alone--their nameless dog--who now betrayed impatience and a
certain human infirmity of temper. The concealment they were
resigned to, the sufferings they mutely accepted, he alone
resented! When certain scents or sounds, imperceptible to their
senses, were blown across their path, he would, with bristling
back, snarl himself into guttural and strangulated fury. Yet, in
their apathy, even this would have passed them unnoticed, but that
on the second night he disappeared suddenly, returning after two
hours' absence with bloody jaws--replete, but still slinking and
snappish. It was only in the morning that, creeping on their hands
and knees through the stubble, they came upon the torn and mangled
carcass of a sheep. The two men looked at each other without
speaking--they knew what this act of rapine meant to themselves.
It meant a fresh hue and cry after them--it meant that their
starving companion had helped to draw the net closer round them.
The Indian grunted, Li Tee smiled vacantly; but with their knives
and fingers they finished what the dog had begun, and became
equally culpable. But that they were heathens, they could not have
achieved a delicate ethical responsibility in a more Christian-like
way.

Yet the rice-fed Li Tee suffered most in their privations. His
habitual apathy increased with a certain physical lethargy which
Jim could not understand. When they were apart he sometimes found
Li Tee stretched on his back with an odd stare in his eyes, and
once, at a distance, he thought he saw a vague thin vapor drift
from where the Chinese boy was lying and vanish as he approached.
When he tried to arouse him there was a weak drawl in his voice and
a drug-like odor in his breath. Jim dragged him to a more
substantial shelter, a thicket of alder. It was dangerously near
the frequented road, but a vague idea had sprung up in Jim's now
troubled mind that, equal vagabonds though they were, Li Tee had
more claims upon civilization, through those of his own race who
were permitted to live among the white men, and were not hunted to
"reservations" and confined there like Jim's people. If Li Tee was
"heap sick," other Chinamen might find and nurse him. As for Li
Tee, he had lately said, in a more lucid interval: "Me go dead--
allee samee Mellikan boy. You go dead too--allee samee," and then
lay down again with a glassy stare in his eyes. Far from being
frightened at this, Jim attributed his condition to some
enchantment that Li Tee had evoked from one of his gods--just as he
himself had seen "medicine-men" of his own tribe fall into strange
trances, and was glad that the boy no longer suffered. The day
advanced, and Li Tee still slept. Jim could hear the church bells
ringing; he knew it was Sunday--the day on which he was hustled
from the main street by the constable; the day on which the shops
were closed, and the drinking saloons open only at the back door.
The day whereon no man worked--and for that reason, though he knew
it not, the day selected by the ingenious Mr. Skinner and a few
friends as especially fitting and convenient for a chase of the
fugitives. The bell brought no suggestion of this--though the dog
snapped under his breath and stiffened his spine. And then he
heard another sound, far off and vague, yet one that brought a
flash into his murky eye, that lit up the heaviness of his Hebraic
face, and even showed a slight color in his high cheek-bones. He
lay down on the ground, and listened with suspended breath. He
heard it now distinctly. It was the Boston boy calling, and the
word he was calling was "Jim."




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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