A Good fer Nawthin'
by Ellis Parker Butler
The river had fallen rapidly and in the little cove where old Bob Morris had tied his cabin boat was left only a stretch of black slime, with here and there a small pool of muddy water.
The rope by which the cabin boat was still tied to a sturdy oak seemed a mockery, for the craft was grounded firmly in the slime, there to remain until the full "rise" or until the slime hardened in the Summer sun, allowing the boat to be "h'isted" on skids and "tooled" to the water.
Old Bob, sat on the bow of his boat, his feet hanging over the side, sadly contemplating the slimy area, through which ran an irregular line of holes, now full of water, that marked his progress from his skiff to the boat.
By all his calculations the river should not have fallen for a week to come, and he had figured on it before he went down to the town to have a little spree. If the river had not fallen he would have left for "down river" this night, and if he hadn't gone on the spree he would have been at home to ease off the boat and keep her in deepwater; but now he was stranded, and he swore long and earnestly, putting all his energy into the matter.
Not that it made any difference whether he was up river or down river or where he was, but he would like to know whether this was a something or other cabin boat or a much worse something alligator "wallerin' in this something else blue mud."
Old Bob was bent and gnarled, with rough, seamy hands, and a seamy bearded face. He wore old, faded, patched clothes and went barefoot most of the time, spending his money for whiskey and tobacco and like necessaries of life and eschewing such luxuries as shoes and new garments. He was in and out a rough, tough, soulless old "rip," and when he had buried his wife he said "Thank God," and went on a spree.
As he sat on the deck of the boat swearing at things in general, his nearest neighbor from the cabin boat around the bend slouched down to the edge of the bank against which the stranded boat lay, and dropped a small dog carelessly on the grass.
"Kinder thick water you're sailin' in, Bob," he said. "I reckon you won't be movin' down below to-night?"
Bob looked over his shoulder and growled.
"Where'd you git ther dorg?" was all he vouchsafed.
"He come up my way this mornin' an' I reckoned Sally'd be a missin' him, so I brung him back. Thought mebby you'd be a movin' down river like you said, but it don't strike a feller up a tree that way now."
Old Bob got up and picked up a club that lay against the side of the boat.
"You go plumb to," he began, and then he stopped. "Sally," he called, "here's your pup come back."
The door of the cabin opened and a small girl, clad in a faded blue dress, came out. Her hair was unkempt and her face thin and not clean. She had already that wearied look which comes so soon to the women of the cabin boats, the "good fer nawthin's," and that is the distinguishing mark of their caste. She was Old Bob's child.
The pup came up the plank that led to the house-boat with that mingled evidence of pleasure and fear, a wagging of the tail that included his entire rear quarters, and a cringing of the head that was pathetically ridiculous; and when he found Old Bob did not intend to kick him this time, he jumped against Sally's skirt and fell entirely over himself in his joy, for he felt like a prodigal son welcomed after a long absence.
Sally bent down and attempted to pat him, but as dire fate decreed, the pup in his gambols struck Old Bob's pipe, which was lying on the edge of the deck. It fell into the slimy mud, and as the pup paused a moment to gaze after it, Old Bob's tough bare foot struck him cruelly in the side and sent him yelping into the mud, where he floundered in a vain attempt to reach the shore.
Instantly Sally ran to the edge of the deck and sprang after him. The soft mud oozed around her, but she took the begrimed dog in her arms and waited for her father to come for her. And the muddy little pup licked her face affectionately as if it were the fairest in the land.
All the next day Old Bob sat on the deck of his boat, smoking and gazing crossly at the mud, on which the sun beat, sending up thin clouds of the vapor of death.
"Somethin' was ailin' of Sally, darn her." She lay on the bed, tossing to and fro, her poor little hands hot, and her brow parched, and only the pup to keep her company and to give her a grateful touch of coolness as he rubbed his cold nose against her fevered face.
The sun went down and Old Bob swore because she tossed so he could not sleep in the bed, and made himself a hard resting-place on the floor. During the night she wanted a drink, but the pail was empty and she dared not waken her father to send him for water, so she tried to lie still and be content, and held the pup close to her breast, for it was a comfort to have any living thing to sympathize with her.
The morning came, and with it came more fever. The thin cheeks were red as they had not been for many months, and the little hands were fiery. Her father looked at her carelessly and started up river to get some quinine. While he was gone she tossed and turned on the bed, and even cried softly, at which the pup licked her face and tried to comfort her.
"Don't do that," he tried to say. "I don't mind having been kicked. I'm used to it. There's no use crying about it. Why, I rather like it, to tell the truth, so please stop crying about it. I have really forgotten all about that kick."
But he did not know of the fires that were burning the poor motherless, unloved child; nor did she know that it was the needed love that made her hold this warm, lifeful little body closer in her arms. Then her father returned.
He had been unable to get any quinine. Tomorrow, if the river should not be too rough, he would go to town for some. "Quit bawlin', for Gawd's sake, an' git that measly pup outen here. He gits more of a nuisance every day. Damned if I don't shoot him tomorrow."
It is always hot in a stuffy cabin boat, but it was more than hot to Sally as she lay on the bed, her wide eyes staring at the rough board roof. It was ages and ages from that morning until the sun went down; through all the long dreadful day her father sat outside cursing his luck, and the pup hid in the woods.
Then came the night. When Old Bob went in to cook his supper, Sally was sitting bolt upright in the bed.
"Where's maw?" she asked.
Old Bob turned sharply from the stove. The big eyes looked at him steadily.
"I want maw," she said.
"You lie down an' go to sleep," he said roughly, "an' shet up your nonsense er I'll bat you across ther head."
"But I want maw,' she insisted. "Where's maw?"
"Shet up now I tell you. Your maw's dead an' you know it, an' I want you ter quit this foolishness."
The sad little figure began to cry, quietly, and to rock itself to and fro.
"I'm so hot," she said," I want maw."
Old Bob went to the side of the bed and reaching out his open hand slapped her across the face.
"Take that fer your maw" he said "an' shet up."
She lay down on the far side of the bed, cowering as close to the wall as she could and watched him closely with her wide, frightened eyes, as he went about is work of preparing supper. When he had finished, and had eaten it, he took his jug from the cupboard and drank a tumblerful of whiskey, and lay down on the floor to spend the night.
Outside, the mosquitoes filled the air with a ceaseless buzzing, like the noise of a distant mill, and on the bed the feverish child lay cowed and quiet in a corner. Motherless, hated, alone, with the fever burning her life away she lay still and waited.
Then at the door she heard the scraping of the pup's claws. Cautiously she raised herself to a sitting position, cautiously slid to the side of the bed, and steadying her weak limbs by a hand placed on the bed, felt her way cautiously to the door where the one living creature that loved her in all the world begged for entrance. As she slowly opened the door the hinges creaked slightly, and Old Bob rose with an oath. In two strides he was at the door, and pushing her roughly aside he kicked the dog into the slime again, and the poor child's only friend was gone to his death.
She stood for a minute where he had pushed her against the side of the boat. She did not cry nor cry out, only raised one thin hand to her head, and then let it fall again, and felt her way back to the bed, where she lay quite still.
Old Bob lay down again and grumbled himself to sleep.
In the morning when his up-river neighbor called to borrow a fish net, and incidentally to enquire "how the gal was a comin' on," he found Old Bob sitting on the edge of his boat smoking his pipe. In the slime on the river side of the boat lay the body of the pup, suffocated in the mud.
"How's Sally this mornin'?" asked the man.
Old Bob took his pipe from between his lips, and spat into the mud.
"She went an' died on me last night," he said.