Lonely O'Malley/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V

In which the King comes into his own


LONELY awoke, the morning after the Show, dreaming that he was leading the circus procession, on a white horse decked out with a saddle-cloth of gold and wearing ostrich plumes above its ears. He had just ordered the red-and-white clown not to make faces at Annie Eliza, when a piercing scream came from that young woman of unmatched loveliness, who sat on a white stool in the snake-cage, with languid serpents coiled and twined about her spangled hips. For somebody had fed chewing-tobacco to the snakes, and they had gone mad, and were squeezing their mistress to death, squeezing her until she grew visibly longer foot by foot, before Lonely's very eyes. The town constable and the fire brigade came rushing up to effect her rescue. But Lonely waved them aside, and with one hand on his hip, and amid thunderous cheering, entered the cage, and blinded the snakes by putting mustard in their eyes. After which he beheaded them, one by one, and poured red lemonade over the snake-lady, who promptly came to, and cried over him, and amid more cheering presented him with twelve chocolate mice, which he was most woefully anxious to eat before the sun melted them.

And all of this seemed natural and decorous to the wakening Lonely, for he was invariably the hero of his own dreams, and as invariably came off with flying colors—except when he ate too many green things and thereby suffered from colic and nightmare. In fact, Lonely was debating whether or not to accept the snake-lady's offer of marriage, when he fully awoke and found himself half out of bed and his mother calling in to him that Gilead had broken out and was in the Gutbills' garden again.

Such a dream. Lonely felt, was augury of an auspicious day. And, in fact, he had scarcely eaten the second canal through his plateful of corn-meal mush—Lonely always ate his porridge first into two canals, and a lake in the middle, just as he always made animals when he poured his molasses over it at first—when some one whistled and hey-ohed to him over the back fence.

 
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SHE 'LL TACKLE ANYTHING FROM A TOM-CAT TO A TERRIER


This was a proceeding so unusual that he only half finished his breakfast, and hurried forth to discover Dode Johnson awaiting him in the alley, with a raccoon in a little lath-barred dog-kennel.

The two boys looked at each other; no words passed between them, and yet each spoke in a language older and plainer than words.

"Hello!" said Dode, timidly.

"Hello!" answered Lonely, tentatively.

"Wonderin' if you wanted to buy a coon?" the other boy began.

It was only one of the polite conventions of all such circles, and as such the other boy accepted and understood it.

"Tame, or fightin'?" he asked, casually.

"Fightin'! She 'll tackle anything from a tom-cat to a terrier! Lend her to you if you like!"

"I 'm afraid Pop 'd kick—he says he 's gain' to shoot my goat, if I don't get shut of it pretty soon."

By this time the ice had been broken, and Dode was plying Lonely with questions about the Show. These Lonely responded to magnanimously, though with some hauteur, for he began to see that things had changed for him, and that the taint of the Outlander was now wiped away. Yet Lonely could not look upon the owner of the raccoon as a representative chief; he was too youthful and small of stature to be accepted as Chamboro's hostage of concession. And there were old scores to be wiped out.

It was a good two hours later, when Lonely was in the midst of his regular Saturday morning task of washing down the bake-shop windows, that the entire town gang hove in sight, jingling the earliest pocket-money of the season after assisting, at the rate of a penny a box, in gathering the first harvest from Old Sam Kettlewell's strawberry patches.

The usual spirit of abandon, peculiar to such occasions, did not hang over the scattered little berry-stained crowd as it drifted nearer the bakery. They drew up on the opposite side of the street, outwardly impassive, yet doubly ominous because of this seeming unconcern.

Although some of the younger boys showed signs of yielding to the eternal allurement of the little show-window, they were promptly and mutteringly restrained by their elders, who ranged themselves along the sidewalk and continued to stare impassively at the New Boy. And the New Boy, to the careless eye, still seemed absorbed in washing down his window-panes. Yet none of the signs and portents from over the way were lost on Lonely, whose heart, if the truth must be told, was almost in his mouth, while his knees more and more showed signs of a most unseemly and unheroic shakiness. For there was one thing which Lonely could not abide, and that was suspense. Once well in the heat of a fight, he could rush on to the end, blind and reckless; once having flung himself upon the turgid stream of opposition, he could battle exultantly on to the last breath. It was the stillness before the plunge, the squeamish hesitation and meditation upon the brink, which was so odious to his young soul. To this, later in life, might indeed be traced many of his misfortunes, little and big.

But still there was no advance from the gang, now not thirty paces away. There remained to Lonely only one tattered shred of consolation, through all that miserable length of suspense. That was the consciousness that he had at last shown himself to be worthy of their envy and their steel. He knew that now he could get all the fighting he wanted.

But he also knew that another minute of this sort of suspense and uncertainty would surely send him bolting into the little bake-shop, a coward and a fugitive.

So he did what seemed a most heroic thing, but what was, at heart, the very flowering of arrant cowardice, springing as it did from his sheer terror of all indetermination.

He turned, and with a passionate little swear-word, let fly his rubber window-cleaner, straight into the thick of the storm-cloud which refused to let forth its bolt on him.

There was a second of nimble scrambling aside, and the iron-shod rubber hit with a resounding thud on the fence-boards beyond.

Then the storm-cloud flashed forth its lightning. This it did in the form of Piggie Brennan, for two long years the leader of the town gang, the well-tested and duly accredited king and chief of his little tribe.

Being already coatless, he paid sufficient tribute to tradition by flinging down his well-frayed straw hat, and walking directly and savagely over to where Lonely awaited his coming. It was plain that this was not to be the mere shuffle and bluster of the every-day boy fight.

"I kin lick you!" said Piggie, with profound and purposeful conviction.

"Then get at it!" cried Lonely, as he put up his guard and wondered whether or not the enemy, already shod against the stubble and thistles of berry-picking, would try kicking.

The boys swarmed across the street, and circled in about the two squared-up opponents. Piggie Brennan had the advantage of a longer reach, and a good twenty pounds in weight, but there had been enough whispering about as to the circus prowess and gymnastic feats of the New Boy to make the outcome sufficiently uncertain.

In the mean time, and after a fashion quite unknown to the youth of Chamboro, Lonely had begun dancing and jumping agilely round and round the heavier Piggie, very much as a delirious bantam cock might. In fact Piggie was just marveling at this performance, hitherto unknown to him, when he felt a sudden sting between the eyes, and for the first time realized that he had been hit.

This caused no consternation among his followers, for the amount of punishment which the rotund Piggie could stand had long since become proverbial. Piggie only grunted his surprise, swung about, and a moment later the fight had begun.

Now, Lonely had never earned the name of a born fighter,—a fact which earlier in his career had been a source of much disappointment and chagrin to his belligerent father,


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I KIN LICK YOU


Timothy O'Malley. Indeed, before Lonely had even emerged from the petticoat to the knickerbocker era his father, especially during a period of mild inebriation, had played at fisticuffs with him, not only teaching him how to feint, and guard, and uppercut, and deliver half-arm jabs, but also giving him copious and exhaustive lessons in how to stand punishment as an O'Malley ought. These lessons in time became so trying to the pupil that his frightened mother often hid the willing enough Lonely under the bed, and wept in secret on those unhappy days when he was found and dragged forth. Nor did the boy care for fighting; the only thing that appealed to him was the intoxicating sense of delight and pride which crept through him, like wine, or the very ichor of the gods, when he found himself face to face with success. No sop was too small for his Cerberus of self-glory, so that when he did fight he liked best to fight before a crowd, effecting, if possible, a dramatic dénouement and an even more dazzling finale. And nothing, of course, could be further removed than this from true heroism. Added to this, Lonely was the possessor of a sadly ungovernable temper, when pressed beyond certain bounds, and, what was even worse, he had long fed on the pomp and glory of leadership in his old-time village of Cowansburg.

"Does kickin' go?" Piggie breathlessly demanded of his following, as he guarded and wheeled about after the still gyrating Lonely.

"Nope," said Redney McWilliams for the crowd, seeing that the New Boy was barefooted. One day earlier in his career, and Lonely would never have been treated with this untoward consideration. But a boy who had been a part of the Circus, for even an hour, was something to take seriously.

Lonely realized that such a decision on so mooted a point was a favor to him,—and it was a feather in his cap of vanity.

"Let him kick, the saphead! I can lick him, kickin' and all!" he cried, magnificently, as he saw the heavy blows of Piggie fall short of his own alert little back-jerks.

Piggie's answer to this airy concession was a prompt and stinging kick on the shin-bone, for as a kicker the butcher's son was a finished artist. The sharp pain of this brought the New Boy to his senses. He gave over his bantam-cock antics, and closed hotly in on his adversary. Then the fight began in dead earnest.

But over this old and unlovely scene of two young savages pounding and tearing at one another tooth and nail let us draw the curtain. All boyhood, it is true, is sternly competitive; all boyhood is an eternal arena for the testing of muscle and wit. But life's sternest battles, alas, are not fought with fists. So why describe the sparring and dodging and rolling and twisting, the gasping and puffing and writhing?

Suffice it to record that Lonely, feeling still confident of his powers, beheld Annie Eliza emerge timidly from her gate, and fearing the fray might end before her arrival on the field of action, held off for a temporizing moment or two. His reward for this was a prodigious punch on the nose, which, naturally enough, started that organ bleeding profusely, and through the tears that it brought to his eyes, sadly interfered with his sight. This fact Piggie took immediate advantage of, with three quickly repeated home-thrusts. Lonely, under these, felt his cold, pitiless purpose suddenly buried beneath a shower of falling stars. He struck out blindly and wildly; he felt the blows still raining mercilessly in on him; he made a last grim effort to land one of his often-vaunted Cowansburg upper-cuts, utterly failed in this, leaving an opening which even the well-winded Piggie could not resist. The next moment, consumed by a sudden passion to escape, to collect his wits and gather his wind once more. Lonely turned and fled,—fled incontinently to the bake-shop door, beaten, bleeding, humiliated, chased in over his own threshold by the surprised and exultant Piggie Brennan.

Lonely's flour-covered father, with a great pan of loaves on his shoulder, came in from the bake-oven just as his offspring came in from the street.

Blood streamed from the boy's discolored and swollen nose; his body was convulsed with fierce and passionate little sobs.

"And what 's the meanin' o' this?" cried Lonely's father, as he eyed his offspring, coldly, up and down.

"That b—big b—b—bully out there licked me!" wailed Lonely, trying in vain to stanch the ruddy flow which was making sad havoc of his blue checked shirt.

"Who—what bully?" cried Timothy O'Malley, dangerously, coming out of the gloom toward the front of the shop.

"Piggie Brennan—that—that great big fat boy there!" sobbed the defeated warrior, quakingly pointing out the victor.

"That little runt—that miserable undersized puddin'-head? Now you get out and lick the daylight out o' that kid, or I 'll lick the daylight out o' you!"

"I can't do it, Pop!" wailed the New Boy, miserably,

"Git at him, or I 'll whale the life out o' you!"

He opened the door, and reached down, in a rage, for his oven poker.

Lonely shot through the door, as from a cannon, and all but knocked Annie Eliza over as he went. It so happened that Piggie was minutely and proudly explaining just how he had effected the final blow, when the sheer terror-born momentum of Lonely's flying body caught him fairly in the pit of the stomach.

It was so unlooked-for, so undreamed-of, that the crowd dropped back aghast. Even Piggie's jaw fell at the sight of the drawn and gory and desperate face before him.

"I 'm goin' to kill you now!" Lonely screamed at him, and in the very abandon of utter despair he flung his weary body upon the still open-mouthed victor.

The New Boy paused only long enough to know that Annie Eliza was looking on, to remember that his father was watching him from the shop-window, to warn himself that this was his last and only chance.


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THAT BIG BULLY


Piggie promptly and effectively swung out with his long right arm, but Lonely took the blow with joy, and jumped in for more, half crooning and half wailing as he fought.

It was a fight the like of which had never been witnessed in all Chamboro before.[1] It went down in the annals of the town, along with the drowning accidents, and the big fire, and the wrecking of the Minnie Steiner on the bridge abutment.

It lasted until the gasping and still astounded Piggie Brennan found himself with only one eye to see out of, with a loose tooth and a grotesquely swollen lip, with a sore body and a swimming head, held determinedly down in the street-dust while a shrill and altogether insane young voice cried over him,—

"Had enough? 'Nough?"—punctuating each query with a too well-directed fist.

And when Piggie, in a muffled and gasping voice, confessed that he had had enough, Lionel Clarence, who had arrived on the scene just in time to see the finishing stroke, being eager to exhibit his, recently acquired prowess, audaciously challenged Piggie himself, while Lonely continued to limp up and down in front of the speechless gang, shrilly and drunkenly demanding that some one step forth and fight with him.

This no one seemed willing to do, even after Lonely's individual challenges, carefully repeated up and down the line. So the New Boy stepped to the sidewalk, and turned to his new-made fiefs with a sudden grandly impatient sweep of the arm.

"Now move on, you kids, while I finish my job here!"

At which off-hand yet dramatic climax the scattered little cluster of boys moved off and melted away, while Annie Eliza dutifully brought back Lonely his rubber window-cleaner. That trembling youth, with a smeared but happy grin through the glass at his not altogether displeased parent, waited only for solitude before escaping to the cool assuagement of the back-yard pump.

Yet history would be false to record this as the end of the combat. For Piggie's wounds rankled in his memory, and two days later, as he stood in the doorway of his father's meat-shop, he beheld Lonely weighed down with a clothes-basket heaped with bread,—the faithful Plato having developed an unlooked-for attack of the blind staggers.

Piggie accepted this as the opportunity of a lifetime, and as the baker's son walked by in his innocent and unsuspecting pride of superiority, Piggie, in the security of his own home circle, swung vigorously out and soundly kicked his late conqueror.

Lonely dropped the basket, and made for his assailant. That youth, who had felt so well protected by the shadowing wing of the parental roof, fled into the store. It so chanced that his father was busy in the refrigerator, at the moment, though it is doubtful if even the elder Brennan could have stopped Lonely's fiery pursuit. Seeing himself helpless there, Piggie bolted for the stairway which led up to the Brennan place of residence, immediately above the shop. Up these stairs Lonely still pursued the fleeing Piggie, through the dining-room, and into Mrs. Brennan's own bedroom, where the fugitive was finally seized on and


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INNOCENT AND UNSUSPECTING


soundly pommelled, after which he was led downstairs by the forelock of his tumbled and frowsled hair, where he was not only made to gather up the scattered loaves of bread, but was ordered to purloin from the parental counter a generous slice of Bologna sausage, which Lonely consumed placidly and with much zest, as he made his rounds.

In fact, it must be confessed that Piggie through this incident became the victim of continuous and ever-increasing extortion, at the hands of Lonely and Lionel Clarence alike, until Mr. Sampson, looking into the matter of his son's too frequently occurring dietetic disturbances, wrung from the culprit a complete confession, and later had a serious talk with Butcher Brennan on the matter.

And in this ironically and secretly ignominious way the King of Cowansburg came into his own once more, from that day on being reckoned, either openly or tacitly, as the leader of the town gang.

 

It seems so long ago that we
Across the years forget,
And wake, and still remember not—
So long ago, and yet
Across those outland April hills
Youth's thousand voices seem
To call still past the bars of Birth,
The barriers of Dream!

 


  1. That our poor hero had, alas, a taint of venality in his veins is further borne out by the family tradition of a fight of his, years before, with an aggressive and overbearing country cousin, who, indeed, pommelled Lonely unmercifully. The defeated one, however, on being offered twenty-five cents and half a watermelon by a purposeful maiden aunt, returned to the fray, as in the Piggie Brennan encounter, and soundly and unexpectedly trounced the bully. The only thing Lonely remembered, or cared to remember, about it, was that he ate the half-watermelon, and strutted around the rest of the morning with the shell of it on his head.