The Bent Twig

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The Bent Twig  (1924) 
by Octavus Roy Cohen

Extracted from Everybody's magazine (New York), September 1922, pp. 138-144.


The Bent Twig

What Is That Somethings Present in Some, Absent in Others Which Enables Us to Take Punishment and Go Pack for More? A Question That Is Raised by a Father's Interesting Experiment with His Son

By Octavus Roy Cohen

TOM FERGUSON shoved through the front door with his enormous shoulders. His wife, seated before the gas-logs in the living-room of their suburban bungalow, knew that the big hands concealed behind the muscular back held a gift for Tom Ferguson, junior, aged five. So too, did little Tom know it, and he scampered across the living-room, squealing with delight. Big Tom grinned and went solemnly through the ritual:

“Which hand?”

“That one”—pointing to the left.

The hand was extended—empty.

“Other one,” hazarded Tom, junior.

The package was unusually large, the wrapping far too formidable for the youngster's eager pink hands. Big Tom assisted at the ceremonial of unwrapping—and the present was exposed to the sextet of glowing eyes.

“Boxin'-gloves!” screamed little Tom.

“Uh-huh.”

Mary Ferguson slid into the crook of her husband's arm.

“Ain't they the darlingest things?”

Tom Ferguson, heavyweight prize-fighter, reached for a sofa-pillow, upon which he knelt, after having divested himself of coat and vest. Mary, meanwhile, was tying the tiny gloves on the hands of little Tom, while big Tom slipped three fingers of his enormous paws into each glove. Then the lesson began—earnestly, seriously.

“Left foot out, son—that's the way! Now—left hand extended—loose; just like that. Right in close to the body—no; not that way. So—that's it. Fists clenched—uh-huh; you got it, son—tight; just thataway. Now jab straight for daddy's face, Don't slap—hit!” The blow spanked sharply against big Tom's nose, and the big warrior looked up beamingly into his wife's adoring eyes.

“Say—he's just a natural-born fighter!”

That was little Tom's first boxing lesson.

Six months later, big Tom Ferguson was crowned heavyweight champion of the world.

Tom and Mary had married when he was eighteen and she a year younger. Little Tom came into the world a trifle less than a year later.

They were very happy in a sane, healthy, placid way. They purchased a little bungalow on the eternity plan, furnished it by the same method. They asked little of life, and were supremely grateful for what they had. At first, the neighbors raised their collective eyebrows and made caustic comment anent prize-fighters. But it was not long before Mary's half-timid and wholly appealing wistfulness won into their hearts—and Mr. and Mrs. Tom Ferguson became personages in the simple community.

There was no resisting Mary's timidity, It had won Tom in the first place, and it held him tight forever afterward. She was a shy little thing—yet firm as steel when sheer courage was required. And she was proud to bursting of her husband's pugilistic attainments—despite the fact that he yet joked her about the single time she saw him in action.

That had been soon after they were married; he had been on for ten rounds with the Bronx Tornado. He made a monkey of the gentleman from the Bronx, outboxed him, outslugged him, and finally knocked him out. But Mary didn't see the knockout. Long before that, they had carried her into Tom's dressing-room, unconscious.

“What made you faint, honey?”

She smiled gamely.

“I don't know, Tom. Honest I don't!”

“You didn't think he was lickin' me, did you?”

“No, dear. It wasn't that. But right after the fight started, I got afraid—I don't know what of—but I was afraid. And then the ring started jumping and the crowd got all sort of swimmy, and I was trembling all over—and I couldn't see anything. I'm awful ashamed, Tom.”

He chuckled.

“G'wan, sweetness! There ain't nothin' to be ashamed of.”

She patted his hand, grateful for his understanding.

“It was terrible silly, Tom.”

He fished awkwardly for a compliment.

“Did you think I shaped up pretty good?”

“You're the finest fighter in the world, dear. And you've got the most foolish little wife——

“There ain't but one woman for me, Mary. You're it!”

A pause, and then,

“Tom?”

“Yeah?”

Her voice was a trifle unsteady.

“Promise me something, Tom?”

“Sure. What is it?”

“Promise you won't ever ask me to watch another fight.”

“You said it, honey.”

And he kept his promise.

WHEN Tom Ferguson married, he had just graduated from the lightweight class into the ranks of the welters. Within two years, he experienced difficulty in making even the middleweight limit. It was a source of keen disappointment to himself and to Mary that, when he finally cornered the middleweight champion, he found himself unable to meet the weight-conditions stipulated by the title-holder.

And so Tom Ferguson stepped into that nondescript and unrecognized pugilistic section known as the light heavyweight division. The championship of that was an empty honor—and Tom took them on at ten, fifteen, twenty pounds above his weight. The night he won the heavyweight championship of the world, he tipped the beam at one hundred and seventy-two. His opponent had a thirty-three-pound weight advantage.

But what Ferguson lacked in sheer avoirdupois, he more than atoned for in hitting power, shadowlike cleverness and indomitable gameness. On his great night, the ex-champion shook Tom's hand.

“S'long's I had to get mine, Tom, I'm glad it was you!”

And Mary—Mary was almost hysterical with delight at this ultimate triumph. She took little Tom on her lap and detailed to him the blows which had won for their man the greatest fistic honor of them all.

“And then,” she explained, “he had him backed in a corner an' coverin' up, an' he ripped home an uppercut—and down he went—” She turned a bit pale and shuddered, then glowed pridefully, ashamed of her momentary feeling of weakness. Little Tom leaped for his own diminutive gloves.

“Bet an acorn I know how he done it!”

Big Tom watched the youngster smilingly.

“Yonder's our real fighter, Mary. Look how he shapes up—why, it's almost like he was born with boxin'-gloves on his hands! Say, sweetness, wouldn't it be great to have our kid get to be a champion?”

She nestled against him.

“Sure would, Tom! It'd be just wonderful!”

From the day of his coronation, Tom Ferguson knew that his reign would be short. There were a good many heavyweights, and each was entitled to his chance. Tom had no intention of side-stepping their defis. Of course, he very naturally took in a slice of the enormous money which is commonly tendered new fistic heroes—vaudeville engagements, personal recommendation of a certain line of sporting goods, exhibition bouts. Then he went again into serious training and announced his readiness to accept all worthy challenges.

Tom was too light to last long as emperor of the big fellows—none knew it better than he. But the sporting world loved him, and promoters worshiped him because, while he was no fool, he yet did not demand the United States Treasury as his end of the purse.

For three years Tom Ferguson held his title against the world—magnificent testimony to his superb stamina. When he finally took the full count, it was after fourteen rounds of fighting which sent the fans home delirious with delight—and filled with a great pity. Even those who had bet against him were sorry to see him dethroned.

And the neighbors in the little suburb tendered Tom a reception which far surpassed their tribute the day following his elevation to the greatest of all fighting-thrones. It was significant of the man's character that he was greater in defeat than in victory.

Mary Ferguson did not weep when he was beaten. She held his big bruised, right hand in both of her little ones.

“I'm sorry, Tom.”

“So'm I, Mary. But it had to come. I just ain't got the weight.”

Little Tom insinuated himself between his father's knees. He was nearly nine now—tall and broad in an awkward, ungainly way.

“Pops?”

“Yes, son?”

“How old do I have to be before I can lick that big stiff who beat you?”

Big Tom grinned affectionately.

“You think you're goin' to be a fighter?”

“Huh! I know it. I'm going to be a champeen.”

Eyes of the parents met proudly—and something like a sigh escaped from between the bruised lips of Big Tom.. He put his dream into words.

“Yes; you're gonna be a champion, son. You're gonna be a real champ!”

AT SIXTEEN years of age, little Tom weighed a hundred and sixty-four pounds in fighting-togs. His father's expert appraisement was that the youngster would scale two hundred before attaining his full growth.

“And at two hundred pounds,” reflected big Tom, “that kid will lick the world.”

Almost every day since the presentation of the infant boxing-gloves, little Tom had been in training. While yet a child, he had been crammed so full of fistic craft that it was instinct with him. Little Tom didn't have to think while boxing; he did the right thing because it was right. He was a sparring machine.

At sixteen years of age he was entered in the local amateur championships. The result was intensely amusing. He was lightning on his feet, packed a knock-out wallop in either hand, and proved himself a master of ring-strategy.

At seventeen he weighed ten pounds more and annexed the amateur heavyweight crown in the national tourney. At eighteen he scaled two hundred pounds—and retained his title with ridiculous ease. Sport-writers nodded sagely.

“A block off the old chip,” said one. “He's got everything the old man had—plus!”

Tom Ferguson, senior—“Old Tom” he was called then affectionately—was thirty-seven years old when the youngster fought his first professional fight at the age of eighteen. The old champion took has son to a Middle-Western city for his initiation and stacked the lad up against a fourth-rater. Mary Ferguson went with them, and all day long battled valiantly against her almost hysterical nervousness. Twice she locked herself in her room and gave way to tears. She was proud—oh, very proud!—but in all these years as the wife of a fighter she had never lost her timidity. It was something innate—something which she could not help any more than she could help loving her husband and adoring her magnificent son.

The bout ended in the third round. Young Tom was a human streak—in, out, in again; smashing his blows home from every angle and any distance—blocking, covering, countering—occasionally fighting furiously wide open. But never hit. The referee stopped the fight to save Ferguson's opponent from unnecessary punishment. It went into the records as a technical knock-out.

For six months there was rigid training with old Tom, and a series of battles against mediocre—but veteran—heavy weights. Young Tom's professional record was an unbroken line of kayoes—that is, until he met Battling Carrigan.

Tom was nearly twenty years of age when he faced Battling Carrigan. He weighed two hundred pounds stripped to his clear pink flesh. He was beginning to be recognized in the fistic world as a heavyweight phenom. It was agreed that already he was the cleverest and speediest big man who had ever crawled between the ropes, that he packed a wallop with sufficient sting to have flattened the best of the old-time punch-eating gladiators.

The Carrigan fight took place in Jersey City. Old Tom and young Tom were supremely confident. Even the sight of his opponent caused him no apprehension, and that is saying a good deal.

Carrigan was, in appearance, all that the uninitiate believe every fighter to be. His visage was evil, his nose flattened grotesquely, both ears scientifically cauliflowered, jaw a trifle out of alignment. His enormous chest was covered with thick matted hair; huge, apelike arms bulged with knotty muscles. Carrigan was a killing puncher.

For the first four rounds, young Tom was a living flash—feinting the battler into vicious knots, then straightening him out with hooks and jolts to his jaw and body. Money was wagered at the ringside that the battler would not answer the call for the seventh round. Old Tom crouched outside the ropes at young Tom's corner, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

In the fifth round it happened—purely by accident, but it happened, nevertheless. Ferguson feinted with his left, stepped in for a right cross to body, and Battling Carrigan, nearly out on his feet, swished a terrible right uppercut to the point of the jaw.

Young Tom went back on his heels, brain befogged, temporarily dazed. Instinct—begotten of fifteen years of instruction—threw him into a clinch. And in the clinch he held desperately.

He was hurt—hurt badly—stung for the first time in his fighting career.

In the corner, old Tom saw and understood. His heart sang as the lad dropped into a clinch—he marveled that the boy retained his feet.

“He can take 'em!” exulted the father. “That blow would have put me down and out—even at my best!”

The bell! Young Tom flopped on his stool, a new inquiring, very strange light in his eyes. Old Tom worked over him expertly, massaging knees and stomach.

“Just accident, son. Couldn't happen again in a million years. You've got him—just jab him off this round. Then in the next—finish him. He's a goner.”

Young Tom followed instructions. But in the seventh round he paid no heed to his father's instructions that he wade in and finish his man. A new and terrible feeling possessed him. The pain of the wild upper-cut—and the effects of it—had passed. But he could not forget.

Young Tom Ferguson was afraid!

He tried to uncover and fight as he had fought up to the fifth round. He knew that it could not happen again, knew that he had Battling Carrigan whipped. But memory of that punch begot an apprehension which made his almost craven covering a reflex action.

And old Tom, watching from the corner with glittering eyes, saw, diagnosed—and understood. He was not angry; he was only sorry—very, very sorry.

“The kid's timid,” he communed sorrowfully. “'Taint that he ain't game—he's just timid.

He advised between rounds in a quiet, insistent voice. The boy went forth to battle for each new session fired with determination to stand the gaff and swap punch for punch. But something which was mightier than his own muscles kept him on the defensive—nerves aquiver, splendid body vanquished by an inherent weakness.

Sport-writers the following morning proclaimed the battle a draw. They remarked wonderingly on young Tom's reversal of form following a single stinging punch. But none of them guessed the truth. Only old Tom Ferguson was able to put it into words—and he did that in the sanctuary of his room behind locked doors.

“The kid is afraid,” he reflected. “'Taint his fault. He inherits it from his mother."

EIGHT months passed. Young Tom's record of ring achievement assumed an imposing appearance. But his matches were all against men noted for their cleverness and lack of punching ability. Against them young Tom showed as a champion of champions. But old Tom was not deluded; he knew that the heritage was there—not a lack of gameness, no absence of stamina, but a simple physical inability to drive himself within range of a grueling fighter. A second battle with Carrigan proved that the youngster was content to hang on, stall off, and jab at a distance through fifteen rounds to a favorable decision.

TWO nights later, old Tom made a suggestion.

“You're gettin' awful good, son.”

“Thanks, dad.”

“There ain't but two or three heavies worth fightin' now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I was thinkin'”—the older man tried to make his tone casual—“of matchin' you for a fifteen-round bout against Sam Norris.”

He saw the boy wince, observed that his eyes closed, then opened—as though under the impact of a blow.

“Sam Norris?”

“Uh-huh.” Old Tom was infinitely patient; he knew that the hour for threshing out the matter nearest his heart had arrived.

“He—he hits an awful hard blow, don't he, dad?”

“They say he's the hardest hitter who ever stepped into a ring, son. But I don't think he packs a harder punch than you.”

“I've never seen him myself,” hazarded the boy. “But if he hits that hard——

“You've got to lick him, Tommy, before the champ will give you a fight.”

“I could lick the champion,” proffered Young Tom eagerly.

“Uh-huh—sure you could! But we'll have to fight Norris first—eh?”

Silence fell between them. A slow flush dyed the lad's cheeks, and he showed his gameness by looking his father full in the eyes.

“I'm sorry, dad—I can't.”

“Can't what?”

“Fight Sam Norris.”

“Why?” Old Tom liked his son's directness.

“Because”—and it was patent that the confession wrenched the very soul of him—“I'm afraid of Sam Norris.”

Old Tom hitched his chair closer and placed a hand on his son's knee.

“I'm glad to hear you say that, my boy.”

“Glad?”

“Yeah. I've known you were afraid of a puncher—ever since that first Carrigan fight. But you've made me feel sort of good—by admittin'——

“Then you must understand”—the boy spoke with passionate eagerness—“how I feel. It isn't that I'm afraid of Norris or Carrigan or any other slugger. If I was I'd die when I answered the first gong—I ain't afraid—I keep on telling myself that I can lick 'em, trying to drive myself in—to slug. But I can't do it—there's something—something I can't explain—that holds me back. I get cold; my muscles won't work. I guess, after all, dad, I just ain't game. The very idea of taking a beating—a real beating—sickens me. I—I—” He paused, then went on bravely—“It makes me feel as though I was going to faint.”

Old Tom's mind flashed back to the night when Mary had fainted at the ringside—Mary, proud of him as a man and a fighter—Mary, who didn't understand what made her faint—Mary, who loved him and gloried in his career and his achievement—but whose timidity was little short of terror.

“That's it, son. I understand—sure I do! But you only think you can't take a lacin'.”

“I can't—I know I can't——

“Sure you can!”

“It ain't in me.”

“It is in you. Bein' my son, I know the right stuff is there.”

“If I only thought so—but you don't know how I felt when Carrigan hit me. I was willing to take a beating, but I couldn't open up—not if my life depended on it. Something made me fight a yellow fight—something that was a heap stronger than I was. Oh, I know it sounds silly to you——

“No; it don't sound silly, son. I understand just what you mean. But you're wrong, boy; you're wrong. You've got the guts—but you don't know it. And you never will know it until you've stood toe to toe with a slugger and licked him at his own game—just battered him down by takin' his punches and slammin' your own home. Once you do that, boy, you'll always have what you say you ain't got now. That's why I want to match you with Sam Norris. He's the greatest of all killin' sluggers. But you can stand flat-footed and lick him——

“Please! I couldn't fight him.”

Old Tom nodded. Two days later he went into rigid training. But he vouchsafed no explanation.

FOR six months, neither father or son made reference to their conversation. On a single occasion the parents discussed it Mary shook her head.

“He gets it from me, Tom. The boy can't help it.”

“I know he can't, honey. But he's got to. The lad can take it—but he'll never know that till he once does it. And then—when he's stood it once—he'll never have to fear it again. I know.”

Her eyes were filled with apprehension.

“What are you trainin' for, Tom?”

He kissed her.

“I'm trainin' to make our boy the heavyweight champion of the world, dear. Ain't that worth while?”

Even old Tom was surprised by the rapidity with which he rounded into fighting-form. He knew—and none better—that the old snap had gone from his punch, that his judgment of distance was no longer uncannily accurate as it had been in the old days, that his eye was slower at discerning an opening. But he was a friend to Jack Britton, welter-weight champion of the world at thirty-seven, and he was only two years older than that superb warrior.

To young Tom he said nothing of his purpose. But he worked out with the lad—good stiff work-outs where real blows were exchanged—the son near to bursting with pride of his fighting father. Nor was the name of Sam Norris again mentioned. True, young Tom read of the gory achievements of the great Pacific Coast heavy whom he had never seen—and newspapers clamored for a match between the two. But the boy's fighting was confined to clever men—men whom he whipped with ease and without danger to himself.

And then, one day, old Tom broached the subject again.

“There's no one left for you, Tom—except Sam Norris and the champ.”

The lad flushed.

“I can whip the champion, dad.”

“You can whip Norris, too.”

Young Tom did not evade the issue.

“No, sir.”

“Why not?”

“I'm afraid of him—that is. I'm not afraid, but I am afraid, just the same. Sounds foolish, I know—and you can't understand, but—” And he paused.

“Yes—I understand. But you don't. You don't realize that if you once stood up to that big bruiser—nice chap, Norris is, too; I've known him for years—and swapped punches with him—once you'd stood up to him, you'd have his number and you'd get over this fear of a punch. It ain't your fault, lad—your dad knows that. With the blood that's in you, you couldn't help but be game—once you had to.”

The boy was trembling.

“I'll fight him, dad—and do my best—if you say so.”

And old Tom shook his head.

“Not with you feelin' like you do.”

Three weeks later, old Tom gave a half-holiday to all the helpers round his private gymnasium. And when they had gone, the ex-champion went to the telephone and called a number. Young Tom glanced curiously at his father. He knew that something unusual—out of routine—was about to occur. Old Tom motioned his son to the showers.

“Get into your clothes, Tom.”

“Aren't you?”

“No. Not yet.”

“But, dad——

“Do as I say, Tommy.”

Dressed, young Tom returned to the gymnasium. His father was seated on an old wrestling-mat, and beside him was another man—a huge, muscular, evil-visaged fellow dressed in too loud clothes. The man was obviously a fighter—more, a bruiser. His battered face gave mute testimony to many grueling battles. Young Tom's expert eye surveyed the stranger's frame. “Two hundred an' fifteen if he weighs a pound.”

“Son, I want you to meet a friend of mine; a fine scrapper.”

They shook hands. Old Tom spoke quickly.

“You wait here. Tommy—we'll be back in a minute.”

The boy wondered as he waited. The atmosphere was surcharged with suppressed drama. Tom seemed out of it, yet in it. There was something which he could not understand, but he knew that his heart was beating too rapidly—and apparently without reason.

The two older men returned from the locker-room, the stranger carrying a new set of five-ounce fighting-gloves, old Tom bearing tape for the hands.

“You bandage us up, Tommy,” commanded the father. “We're goin' to work out a little.”

A glimmering of understanding penetrated the boy's brain. He compressed his lips and went silently about his task of bandaging the fighters' hands. It was not until they demanded that he lace on the gloves that he put his doubt into words.

“What are you going to do, dad?”

The older man answered very quietly:

“This man is a friend of mine, son. What happens here this afternoon will never be known beyond these walls. And what I'm gonna do—I'm gonna fight him, fight him to a finish——

“Good God, dad, he'll half kill you! He's forty pounds heavier, and younger.”

“Sure he's gonna lick me, son! That's what he's here for. You see, my boy, I've always told you about the blood that's in those veins of yours. It's my blood—and the stamina you've got is my stamina. You've never seen what it is. You think you can't take punishment—you don't know that you couldn't be a son of mine and not do it. And this afternoon I'm gonna let you sit back in that corner yonder and see your father—a man with the same name that you've got—take a beatin' that'll open your eyes. When he's finished with me, my boy, you'll know that anybody named Tom Ferguson can take a classic licking—and go down grinnin'.”

The lad protested wildly:

“It ain't fair, dad! I ain't going to let you do it.”

“Yes, you are, son. You can't help yourself. I'm gonna teach you that any Tom Ferguson is game—game right to the core.”

Cold perspiration stood on the boy's forehead.

“Let me fight him—I'll be game.”

“Sure you would, Tommy; sure you would! But that wouldn't do you any good. You'd be game, and you'd take your lickin'—but you'd be scared all the time. And what I'm drivin' at is to show you that there ain't nothin' to be scared of. Once you know the stuff that's in you, son—once you see it with your own eyes—you'll lick the world. See?”

The boy didn't see; the thing impressed him as a nauseatingly unnecessary ordeal. But his protests were unavailing.

“You're timekeeper, son—and I want this fight run on the level. We're gonna fight three-minute rounds, one minute rest, protect ourselves at all times. And we're gonna fight to a finish. And my orders to you, Tommy—a square deal—and don't butt in.”

The youngster nodded grimly as he took his place outside the ropes. The two fighters stood in the center of the ring, chatting amiably—real friends—good fellows both. It was absurd, utterly absurd, to think that within half a minute or so they would be at each other in a finish fight—to battle until one or the other of them lay unconscious.

Old Tom grinned into his friend's eyes.

“Ready?”

“Uh-huh.”

“All right, son—the gong!”

THEY were at it—young Tom, heart thumping wildly, fists clenched, muscles of his jaw rigid, sat humped forward in his ringside chair, eyes riveted on the picture.

From the bell it was plain that this was to be no sparring-match. The fighting-expression of old Tom Ferguson appeared for the first time in years. His opponent took on an evil scowl. They circled warily.

Then, for four lightning-fast rounds, old Tom showed his son the stuff of which he was made. The veteran warrior was in and out, fighting like a streak—jabbing, hooking and uppercutting—slamming in his punches with more than a hint of his old-time killing power—a master of ringcraft at all times.

And the stranger stood flat-footed and absorbed all the punishment which the veteran handed out, drank it into his cast-iron system—a figure indomitable, purposeful, hopelessly stolid and unyielding. Young Tom experienced a wild desire to scream—even at that stage of the fight the termination was as inevitable as death itself.

Between rounds came the metamorphosis, for at such times the two fighters were friends again—grinning cheerfully at one another. Then, the gong again—and a resumption of the vicious fighting.

Not until the seventh round did the pace begin to tell on old Tom. Then, slowly and surely, he slowed up; his arms were tired—very, very tired. And inexorably the stranger bored in, crouched wickedly, arms held close over solar plexus and jaw, huge knotty frame weaving, weaving, fists slamming venomously from a few inches.

In the ninth round Tom went down. Like the ring veteran that he was, he took the count, rose, slid into a clinch. Exerting his superior strength, the stranger shook him loose—then stepped in and shot a right to the short ribs and hooked a vicious left to the eye. When old Tom rose, the canvas was crimson.

From then on, the spectacle ceased to resemble a fight. It became a veritable slaughter. Young Tom could not believe that the fighters were friends. The stranger was a fiend—evil, deliberate—cutting the older man to pieces, chopping him with terrific jolts to the face, ripping home killing rights and lefts to the weened body. Young Tom leaped into the ring.

“Stop it! He'll kill you!”

“Get out of here, son.” Old Tom spoke with difficulty through lips thick and swollen and blood. “Get out—and remember that the man who is takin this lickin' is named Tom Ferguson!”

Through the remainder of the battle the boy sat outside the ropes. He saw his father battered and bruised and bleeding, staggering about the ring—going down every now and then but rising to the spur of his unquenchable courage, facing the battery of merciless punches, fighting back in a weak, puny, helpless, noble way. It was not until the sixteenth round that old Tom Ferguson remained on the canvas until after the solemn count of ten.

The stranger lifted him in his arms as though he were a baby and carried him to the dressing-room. He laid old Tom on the lounge and found the eyes of young Tom burning menacingly into his.

“Come back into that ring,” breathed the young man fiercely. “I'm going to kill you for that!”

The stranger's answer was inexpressibly gentle, almost fatherly.

“No, son; not now. That isn't what your father wants. He isn't interested in what you do while you're mad—and, besides, I'm kinda played out myself—after this here fight. Wait until next week.”

“You'll fight me here—this way—next week?”

“Yes, Tommy,” came the kindly answer.

Young Tom looked down upon the bruised form of his father. The older man was struggling back to consciousness. And young Tom wanted to weep. As through a haze, he heard the words of the stranger:

“Not a yeller bone in his body—Tom Ferguson hasn't!”

A NEW dignity appeared to settle on the shoulders of young Tom Ferguson during the week which followed. He seemed to have matured very suddenly. There was a new squareness in the set of his fine jaw, a steadiness of eye reflecting tenacious purpose.

He avoided his father as much as possible. Of course they couldn't work out together. For three days old Tom lay in bed, administered by Mary Ferguson—tender, solicitous, understanding. And so, silently, almost fiercely, young Tom trained with Kayo Gorman, a hefty middleweight who was a protégé of old Tom.

No reference was made to the forthcoming battle between young Tom and the stranger. And if young Tom was afraid, he did not show it. True, he was dogged in his training; there was something sinister in the way he mauled the heavy bag. And on Tuesday night young Tom made his first reference to the fight.

“To-morrow afternoon at three o'clock, dad.”

“He's an awful punisher, son.”

“I know it.”

“He's going to hit you hard—and often.”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right, Tommy—three o'clock to-morrow.”

That was all. At two-forty-five they met in the gymnasium—the evil-visaged stranger and the two fighters who bore the name of Tom Ferguson. There was little said as they undressed and allowed old Tom to bandage their hands and tie on the fighting-gloves. Then the father climbed out of the ring and left them together.

“To a finish?” asked the youngster briefly.

“Uh-huh.”

“Protect at all times?”

“Yep.”

“All right. Dad, we're ready!”

The gong! They sparred at long range. The stranger stepped in suddenly and uppercut for the jaw—an unusual procedure this early in the battle. The intent was deadly. Young Tom backed away—then stepped in swiftly and jabbed three times. They sparred again.

The first round was all Tom's. So, too, were the second and third. As yet the stranger had not landed cleanly; he seemed unable to locate the phantom boxer. But in the fourth round he fell into his close, protected pose and started weaving in. A temporary feeling of faintness assailed young Tom as he set himself and tried to hook and uppercut through the other's guard. And then——

The stranger was inside, and it seemed as though young Tom's ribs had caved in. He gasped with the sheer agony of it. His knees trembled. He fell into a clinch. But the other man ripped free and shot home another and yet another of his smashes to the midriff. The boy staggered away, his head cloudy—vague blackness beckoning. He wasn't afraid, and yet he did not want to keep his feet.

The stranger dropped his hands and turned toward old Tom.

“Guess it wasn't no use, Tom. The kid just ain't there.”

Old Tom Ferguson said nothing. He sat forward, clutching the lower rope in both hands—a pitiful prayer in his eyes.

THE mind of the boy reverted to the scene of the previous week—his father bruised and battered and bleeding, down and up and down again, but always coming in for more. A new fearless coldness came to him, and the son of old Tom spoke.

“I'm coming after you!”

He didn't do much in the remainder of that round, but in the fifth he set himself to the stranger's vicious, protected, weaving attack. And then he deliberately took the first crushing blow of his opponent—took it and winced and wondered that he did not go down—and set himself flat-footedly and shot his right home to the body, his left to the side of the head and his right to the jaw.

The men stood toe to toe and mixed, fought a rally which was superb. Neither would give an inch of ground; both stood punishment which would have flattened any but a superfighter. And into the heart of old Tom Ferguson there came a great gladness.

Through the sixth round and the seventh there was nothing save the thud of glove against-flesh. Rip! Smash! Rip! The youngster stood motionless, taking all that the stranger had to give, content to exchange punches. It was a glorious fight.

The beginning of the ninth round found both men hardly able to stagger to their feet. They met in the center; they were at it again—toe to toe, bodies bent at the waist, no thought save to hit and be hit until one went down—and out.

Young Tom was fighting in a daze. He had long since lost consciousness of pain. He didn't even know that his right hand was swollen and out of shape—but he did know that he was not afraid, that something within him greater than himself kept him at it—ceaselessly at it—no thought in his mind save that this man must go down—go down and stay down.

And in the eleventh round the stranger sank to the floor. It was not a spectacular knock-out; no single punch which did the work. It was merely that the giant frame could not stand another blow, that the courageous brain no longer commanded the weakened body.

The lad stood looking down at his bleeding opponent. And then, as old Tom carried the beaten stranger to his corner, young Tom sat down suddenly upon the floor—just sat there and stared, knowing that he, too, had been taxed beyond his physical limit. Then the arm of old Tom was round the boy's shoulders, assisting the lad to his feet, and there were tears in the father's eyes.

“I knew it, son; I knew it! The stuff is all there. Tommy—all there.” Young Tom nodded. “And let me tell you, son; the man you have just whipped is Sam Norris—the Sam Norris. I paid him for these two fights—and nothin's to be said outside. But, son, you've licked the greatest slugger in the world! I was afraid to tell you it was Norris.”

And the puffed lips of young Tom Ferguson expanded into a pain-twisted smile.

“That's all right, dad. I've known it for the past three days.”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1959, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.