The Saving of Dad
The Saving of Dad
On the boundary fence sat James, known as "Jim"; on the stunted grass of the neighboring back yard lay Robert, known as "Bob." In age, size, and frank-faced open-heartedness the boys seemed alike; but there were a presence of care and an absence of holes in Jim's shirt and knee-breeches that were quite wanting in those of the boy on the ground. Jim was the son of James Barlow, lately come into the possession of the corner grocery. Bob was the son of "Handy Mike," who worked out by the day, doing "odd jobs" for the neighboring housewives.
"I hain't no doubt of it," Bob was saying, with mock solemnity. "Yer dad can eat more an' run faster an' jump higher an' shoot straighter than any man what walks round."
"Shucks!" retorted the boy on the fence, with a quick, frown. "That ain't what I said, and you know it."
"So?" teased Bob. "Well, now, 'twas all I could remember. There's lots more, 'course, only I furgit 'em, an'—"
"Shut up!" snapped Jim tersely.
"’Course ev'ry one knows he's only a sample," went on Bob imperturbably. "An' so he's handsomer an'—"
"Will you quit?" demanded Jim sharply.
"No, I won't," retorted Bob, with a quick change of manner. "You've been here just two weeks, an' it hain't been nothin' but 'Dad says this,' an' 'Dad says that,' ever since. Jiminy! a feller'd think you'd made out ter have the only dad that's goin'!"
There was a pause—so long a pause that the boy on the grass sent a sideways glance at the motionless figure on the fence.
"It wa'n't right, of course," began Jim, at last, awkwardly, "crowin' over dad as I do. I never thought how—how 't would make the rest of you fellers feel." Bob, on the grass, bridled and opened his lips, but something in Jim's rapt face kept him from giving voice to his scorn. "’Course there ain't any one like dad—there can't be," continued Jim hurriedly. "He treats me white, an' he's straight there every time. Dad don't dodge. Maybe I should n't say so much about him, only—well, me an' dad are all alone. There ain't any one else; they're dead."
The boy on the grass turned over and kicked both heels in the air; then he dug at the turf with his forefinger. He wished he would not think of his mother and beloved little sister May just then. He opened his eyes very wide and winked hard, once, twice, and again. He tried to speak; failing in that, he puckered his lips for a whistle. But the lips twitched and would not stay steady, and the whistle, when it came, sounded like nothing so much as the far-away fog-whistle off the shore at night. With a snort of shamed terror lest that lump in his throat break loose, Bob sprang upright and began to turn a handspring with variations.
"Bet ye can't do this," he challenged thickly.
"Bet ye I can," retorted Jim, landing with a thump at Bob's side.
It was after supper the next night that the two boys again occupied the fence and the grass-plot. They had fallen into the way of discussing at this time the day's fires, dog-fights, and parades. To-day, however, fires had been few, dog-fights fewer, and parades so very scarce that they numbered none at all. Conversation had come to a dead pause, when Jim, his eyes on the rod of sidewalk visible from where he sat, called softly:
"Hi, Bob, who's the guy with the plug?"
Bob raised his head. He caught a glimpse of checkered trousers, tail-coat, and tall hat, then he dropped to the ground with a short laugh.
"Yes, who is it?" he scoffed. "Don't ye know?"
"Would I be askin' if I did?" demanded Jim.
"Humph!" grunted the other. "Well, you'll know him fast enough one of these days, sonny, never fear. There don't no one hang out here more'n a month 'fore he spots 'em."
"Sure! He's Danny O'Flannigan."
Into Bob's face came a look of pitying derision.
"'Well,'" he mocked. "Mebbe 't will be 'well,' an' then again mebbe 't won't. It all depends on yer dad."
"Sure! He's Danny O'Flannigan, the boss o' this ward."
"But what has that got to do with my dad?"
"Aw, come off—as if ye did n't know! It all depends whether he's nailed him or not."
"Sure. If he nails him fur a friend, he gits customers an' picnics an' boo-kays all the time. If he don't—" Bob made a wry face and an expressive gesture.
The frown that had been gathering on Jim's brow fled.
"Ho!" he laughed. "Don't you worry. Dad always nails folks—never misses hittin' 'em on the head, either," he added, in reckless triumph, confident that there was nothing "dad" could not do.
The boy on the grass sat up and stared; then he lay back and gave a hoarse laugh—a long, chuckling laugh that brought the frown back to Jim's face.
"Well, what you laughin' at?" demanded Jim sharply.
"Oh, gee, gee!—that's too good!" gurgled the boy on the grass, rolling from side to side. "The saint, the sample, the pattern, the feller what treats 'em square, a-sellin' his vote! Oh, gee, gee!"
The ground suddenly shook with the impact of two sturdy little feet, and Bob found his throat in the grasp of two strong little hands.
"Bob Sullivan, quit yer laughin' an' tell me what you're talkin' about," stormed a shrill treble. "Who's a-sellin' their vote?"
Bob squirmed and struggled.
"A feller—can't talk—without—breathin'!" he choked.
"Well, then,—breathe!" commanded Jim, jerking his companion to a sitting posture and loosening his clasp on his throat. "Now—who's a-sellin' their vote?"
"Ye said it yerself, I did n't," snarled Bob sullenly.
"That yer dad would nail Danny O'Flannigan, sure."
"And is that sellin' his vote?"
"What else is it, then?" demanded Bob wrathfully. "He votes as Danny says, an' Danny sends him trade, an'—oh, oh, q-quit it—q-quit it—I say!" choked Bob, breath and speech almost cut off by the furious clutch of Jim's lean little fingers.
"I won't quit it; I won't!" stormed Jim, shaking his victim with a force that was as strong as it was sudden. "You know I never meant it that way; an' dad won't sell his vote; he won't—he won't—he won't!"
The next instant a wrathful, palpitating Bob lay alone on the grass, while a no less wrathful and palpitating Jim vaulted the fence at a bound and disappeared into the next house.
Jim awoke the next morning with a haunting sense that something had happened. In a moment he remembered; and with memory came rage and a defiant up tilting of the chin.
As if dad—dad could do this thing! Very possibly—even probably—Handy Mike had long ago gone down before this creature in the checkered trousers and tall hat; but dad—dad was not Handy Mike!
The ins and outs, the fine points, the ethics of it all were not quite clear to Jim; but the derision in Bob's laugh was unmistakable; and on that derision and on that laugh hung his unfaltering confidence that dad would not, could not, do anything to merit either.
For three nights the boys shunned the fence and the back yard. On the fourth night, as if by common impulse, each took his accustomed place, wearing an elaborate air of absolute forgetfulness of the past. There had been two fires and a parade that day, so any embarrassment that the situation held was easily talked down. Not until Handy Mike on the side porch of his dilapidated cottage had greeted a visitor did there come a silence between the two boys. Even then it did not last long, for Bob broke it with a hoarse whisper.
"It's Danny O'Flannigan, sure's a gun! It's gittin' mos' 'lection-time, an' he's drummin' 'em up. Now, jest watch pap. He hain't no use fur Danny. Oh, of course," he added, in hurried conciliation, "’t ain't as if it made any difference ter pap. Pap works fur the women-folks, an' women don't cut much ice in pol'tics."
And Jim did watch—with his eyes wide open and his hands so tightly clenched they fairly ached. He could not hear the words, but he could the voices, and he noted that for the first five minutes one was jovial, the other sullen; and for the next five minutes one was persuasive, the other contradictory; and for the third five minutes one was angry and the other back to its old sullenness. Then he saw that Danny O'Flannigan jerked himself to his feet and strode away, leaving Handy Mike stolidly smoking on the side porch.
"Humph!" muttered Bob. "Danny hung to longer 'n I thought he would. Must be somethin' special's up."
It was on the next night that Jim, from his perch on the back fence, saw the checkered trousers and tall hat on his own doorstep. Bob, on the grass below, could not see, so Jim held his breath while the door opened and his father admitted Danny O'Flannigan to the house.
Jim's heart swelled, and his eyes flashed with pride. Now, we should see how a man dealt with this thing. Surely now there would be no fifteen minutes' dallying. Danny O'Flannigan would soon find out what sort of a person he had to deal with. He would see that dad was not Handy Mike.
It was on Jim's lips to speak to Bob, that Bob might share with him the sight of Danny O'Flannigan's discomfiture. He longed to display this overwhelming proof of the falseness of Bob's assertion that dad would sell his vote; but—best let by-gones be by-gones; he had punished Bob for that, and, after all, Handy Mike was Bob's father. He could tell Bob of it later—how dad had sent Danny O'Flannigan to the right-about at once. Yes, that was the better way.
So Jim schooled himself to hide his exultation, and he listened with well-feigned interest to Bob's animated account of the morning's fire.
Two, three, five minutes passed, and Danny O'Flannigan had not come out. Jim hitched about on his narrow perch, and sent furtive glances across the expanse of yard to his own door. Six, seven, ten minutes passed; Jim's throat grew dry, and his fingers cold at their tips. His eyes had long ago ceased to look at Bob; they were fixed in growing horror on that closed door, behind which were dad—and that man. Eleven, thirteen, fifteen minutes passed.
"I—I'm goin' in now," faltered Jim. "I—I reckon I don't feel well," he finished thickly, as he slipped to the ground and walked unsteadily across the yard.
In the woodshed he stopped short at the kitchen door. A murmur of voices came from far inside, and Jim's knees shook beneath him—it was not so—it could not be possible that dad was still talking! Jim stole through the back hallway and out on to the grass beneath the sitting-room windows on the other side of the house. The voices were louder now—the visitor's very loud.
Jim raised his head and tried to smile.
Of course!—dad was sending him about his business, and the man was angry—that was it. It had taken longer than he thought, but dad—dad never did like to hurt folks' feelings. Some men—some men did not care how they talked; but not dad. Why, dad—dad did not even like to kill a mouse; he—
There came the sound of a laugh—a long, ringing laugh with a gleeful chuckle at the end. Jim grew faint. That was—dad!
Ten seconds later the two men in the sitting-room were confronted by a white-faced, shaking boy.
"Maybe you did n't know, Mr. O'Flannigan," began Jim eagerly, "maybe you did n't know that dad don't speak sharp. He ain't much for hurtin' folks' feelings; but he means it just the same—that he won't do what you want him to do. He's square and straight—dad is, an' he don't dodge; but maybe you thought 'cause he laughed that he was easy—but he ain't. Why, dad would n't—"
"Tut, tut, not so fast, my boy," cut in Danny O'Flannigan pompously. "Your father has already—"
A strong hand gripped O'Flannigan's shoulder, and an agonized pair of eyes arrested his words.
"For God's sake, man," muttered Barlow, "have you no mercy? Think—have you no son of your own that believes you're almost—God Himself?"
For a brief instant Danny O'Flannigan's eyebrows and shoulders rose in an expressive gesture, and his hands made a disdainful sweep; then his eyes softened strangely.
"As you please," he said, and reached for his hat with an air that was meant to show indifference. "Then the deal is off, I suppose."
"There!" crowed Jim, as the door clicked behind the checkered trousers. "There, I knew you'd do it, dad. Just as if— Why, dad, you're—cryin'! Pooh! who cares for Danny O'Flannigan?" he soothed, patting the broad shoulders bowed low over the table. "I would n't cry for him!"