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"Lunk-head Johnson" from Short Stories

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Short Stories
Lunk-head Johnson
by Ellis Parker Butler

It is amazing what a little kindness and appreciation will do for a man. There was the case of Lunk-head Johnson, for instance. If ever there was a useless old bum -- but listen to his story.

This Lunk-head Johnson drifted into Dog Leg, the mining camp up Zeno Canyon, with a pick and a shovel and a burro and not much else but the need of a bath and a beard like a pirate, and began making a hole in the rock under the impression that he was making a mine. Forty-two or forty-three advisers immediately told him he was a lunk-head to locate his mine where he did; they were right and he never did get anything out of his mine but rock and the name stuck to him. The miners used to say of anyone who was extra dumb, "He's as loony as Lunk-head Johnson."

Dog Leg, away up there at the head of the canyon, was rough and raw, and some of the toughest specimens of male humanity in Nevada were gathered there. Some of the most worthless, too, but by the time Lunk-head Johnson had been there a year he topped them all. He was dirtier and lazier and hairier than any of them. He lost all hope. His mine was no good and he knew it by that time. He had degenerated into a disreputable ragged old snoozer. He was such a bum that Izzy Bernheimer, who ran the Dog Leg store, would not let him loaf in the store.

The second winter Lunk-head Johnson would have starved if Izzy Bernheimer had not let him have a little sow-belly and a few beans from time to time, but Izzy was kind hearted and did so. Old Lunk-head would come into the store and stand around until he had a chance to edge up to Izzy and say, "Now, I ain't got no food up to my shack --" and Izzy would glare at him a minute and say, "All right! All right!" and cut him off a slab of side-meat and shovel him out a parcel of beans.

"You put it down on my account," Lunk-head would say.

'Lunk-head Johnson' by Ellis Parker Butler

"I should waste my ink!" Izzy would say. "All I ask if you should get out from my store as quick as could be, and stay out."

Old Lunk-head would not say another word. He would look at Izzy like a whipped dog and turn and go out with his shoulders bowed. Sometimes one of the fellows in the store would laugh; sometimes one of them would spit on Lunk-head's ragged boots. He never gave a sign; he was an utterly crushed specimen. He would shuffle, back to his one-room shack and sit close to his sheet-iron stove. He had hardly enough ambition to keep from starving from one day to another.

Then one day toward the end of winter, Lunk-head Johnson stole a can of salmon from Izzy Bernheimer's shelves. The occasion was the arrival of the stage that ran -- sometimes regularly and sometimes not -- between Dog Leg and Plasco. This stage was run by Hank Kane and Blister Owens. Hank was a six-footer with a walrus mustache and a weatherworn countenance and gentle blue eyes, and a dead shot with any kind of a gun; Blister Owens was a young fellow of twenty-three or twenty-four. He was a pleasant boy, this Blister, and the general understanding was that he was a younger son of worthwhile people back East, roughing it out there in Nevada because he had got into some sort of trouble and because he liked the life. Hank Kane had taken a great fancy to him and they were a queer couple -- no one as reluctant of speech as Hank, and no one as boyishly talkative as Blister Owens.

At any rate, the stage got through this day and Hank Kane pulled up his four horses in front of Izzy Bernheimer's store and Blister jumped down and pulled out the mailbag and hustled it into the store. Izzy was the postmaster and had the post office in the front of his store near the window -- a glass fronted rack of pigeonholes. He took the bag from Blister and went behind the post office to sort it out.

Most of Dog Leg usually made a bee-line for Izzy's when the stage came in, crowding the front of the store to see if any mail had come for those who expected some or for those who never did get any, and there were fifteen or twenty in front of the post office when Izzy dumped out the bag. Izzy had been doling out sow-belly and beans to Lunk-head when the stage arrived and had just pushed the parcel of beans across the counter, but he left Lunk-head there this time without the usual, "And now get out and stay out."

Izzy had just picked up the first letter from the pile when out of the corner of his eye he saw old Lunk-head's hand reach across the counter and grasp a can of salmon. In almost one motion Izzy slapped the letter on top of the post office, made a leap, and grasped Lunk-head's wrist. With one hand he jerked the can of salmon away from Lunk-head, and with the other he threw Lunk-head's arm violently back across the counter.

By the time Lunk-head stopped staggering backward a dozen hands had grabbed him. Someone hit him on the side of the face with an open hand. He hunched his shoulders and bent his head, and the next moment he was thrown out into the street on the back of his neck,

"Such a business!" Izzy Bernheimer cried as he went back to the post office. "A bum he is, and all winter I feed him, and now he is a thief also and steals from me a can salmon!"

There was great indignation in the store. Some of the fellows wanted to go out and lynch old Lunk-head then and there -- hang him up and shoot him full of holes -- and they would have done it if they had not been waiting for the mail to be distributed. It was a serious case. Lynching was the penalty for any crime in Dog Leg, from theft to murder, and this crime of Lunk-head's was about as mean as anything could be. He had robbed the man who had been provisioning him all winter and, worse than that, he had smashed the generally understood rule that no one was to do anything to annoy Izzy Bernheimer while he was sorting mail.

Izzy was so mad he forgot entirely the letter he had slapped on top of the post office. He went on sorting the mail and the letter lay forgotten for many days. It was the only letter than had come for Lunk-head Johnson for many months.

That evening the informal committee that was all the government Dog Leg had met in Izzy Bernheimer's store to decide what to do about Lunk-head. This committee was made up of what might be called the respectability of Dog Leg, the men Izzy allowed to loaf in the store -- a rough and ready bunch of whiskered and bearded fellows but no out-and-out murderers -- and after a lot of confab and opinion it was decided that, as long as Izzy did not want to press the matter, they would not hang Lunk-head but merely kick him out of camp.

They would have kicked Lunk-head out of Dog Leg that night or the next day if Izzy had not put in another plea for him,

'Lunk-head Johnson' by Ellis Parker Butler

"You should listen once," he pleaded. "Winter it is yet, and this Lunk-head he ain't so young any more. He ain't so healthy, maybe, such a few sow-belly and beans he is eating all winter. Where does he go when we kick him out from Dog Leg?"

"Who cares?" asked One-eye Simmons.

"Maybe nobody," said Izzy, "but it ain't so good that Dog Leg sends out an old feller to die from cold and starving when he don't steal but a can salmon which he don't get away with even. Rather I should make him a present of two can salmon than them fellers at Plasco or wherever finds him dead and says, 'Look once! for a can of salmon them Dog Leg devils let an old man freeze to death.'"

"What you want us to do then, Izzy?" One-eye Simmons asked.

"Kick him out, yes," said Izzy. "For such a bum we ain't got no use in Dog Leg. But we could wait till spring and it don't hurt nobody."

So that was agreed. Lunk-head Johnson became a pariah and an outcast in Dog Leg. Nobody spoke to him, nobody had anything to do with him. There was no jail, but his shack was his jail; there was nowhere for him to go. The old reprobate kept to his shack, waiting for the day when Dog Leg would come and speed him on his way with a kick. And then the thaw came.

The thaw came with a rush. One day it was winter and the next day the warm wind came from the south and the snow began to melt. By the next day rain came. Everything was wet, the road was a river, the canyon creek was a raging river, every gully was a river.

Hank Kane and Blister Owens had gone down to Plasco with their stage before the thaw and nobody expected them to attempt the up trip for two weeks, three weeks or a month, but a week after the thaw they reached Dog Leg. They had borrowed a pair of mules at Plasco, but even with their four good horses and the mules it had been all they could do to get through. The stage was mud from tire to top and their beasts were mud from hoof to ear tip. Twice the stage had overturned; half a dozen times it had stuck in the mud; again and again it had almost gone over the edge into the canyon. But Hank and Blister had fought through. They were all but exhausted when they pulled up in front of Izzy Bernheimer's store. Izzy himself came out front.

"Was you crazy or what, such a road coming by?" he asked as Blister handed him the mailbag. "What comes that you make the trip now? Is it a war or something?"

"There's hell to pay. Izzy," Blister said, wiping a blob of mud off his chin. "We just had to come through. Has Lunk-head Johnson been chased out yet?"

"Not yet."

"Thank God for that!" Blister exclaimed.

The stage-greeting crowd was gathering and the questions began but Blister cut them short.

"Give us a chance, fellers," he begged. "Hank and me are mighty near played out. Leave us get some mud off us and some grub into us."

Hank Kane put in his plea for a chance to get cleaned up and fed, too. He turned his animals over to a couple of the men, begging them to feed the beasts and rub them down.

"We won't take no longer than we have to," Hank said. "We didn't bust through all that mud to waste time when we got here. Give us half an hour --"

"An hour," said Blister. "I'm going to eat for half an hour."

"Give us an hour," said Hank. "And them of you that wants to do what is right and proper meet us here in Izzy's store. And fetch Lunk-head. That's who is the meat in this nut -- Lunk-head Johnson."

An hour later they were all there. The store was so crowded with the manhood of Dog Leg that men not only sat on the counters but stood on it. In a choice location close to the stove old Lunk-head sat in a chair, close guarded by One-eye Simmons and Snap Canahan. The old man was slumped down, indifferent to his fate, his eyes closed. He did not care what happened to him now. Lynching or being kicked out were all the same to him.

Hank Kane and Blister Owens came in from Billy's Star Restaurant and pushed their way through the crowd to the stove where Izzy Bernheimer was standing. Hank was pulling the end of his walrus mustache and Blister was rubbing the back of his neck as he did when serious and thoughtful, and both had the countenances of men who have heavy business on hand and know it. The men around the stove made room for them.

"You tell 'em, Hank," Blister said, and Kane looked at old Lunk-head a moment and then at the crowd.

"Well, boys," he began slowly, "I reckon you know mighty well that me and Blister wouldn't be dumb fool enough to try to yank that stage through from Plasco in a thaw if there wasn't a reason for it. We might have come through and we might be down there in the canyon somewhere, the both of us dead. The chances was just about even. We took them chances and we're here."

"We had to get here," said Blister. "There wasn't no two ways about it."

"Because," said Hank Kane, "it seems like that when we got down to Plasco there was a girl there -- a young female girl. She had come into Plasco on Ben Hurley's stage, and she was waiting there for me and Blister to come with the stage and fetch her to Dog Leg."

"But we didn't fetch her," said Blister.

"No, sir," agreed Hank Kane. "We didn't do so. God and this here thaw gave us a chance to say we wouldn't fetch a female lady up this canyon on no account till the road cleared up. We said it was death for a female to chance it -- and so it might well be. So said one and all at Plasco which she appealed to."

"So me and Hank come on through alone," said Blister Owens.

"Because," continued Hank, taking a chew of tobacco from his plug, "we wasn't going to fetch this Marjorie Manners to Dog Leg until we put the proposition to you fellers and see what you wanted to do about it."

At the mention of Marjorie Manners old Lunk-head raised his hair-tangled head and looked at Hank Kane. His hand came up and clawed at his whiskers, and he opened his mouth as if to speak, but Hank Kane was going on.

"Miss Marjorie Manners, that's what her name is," Hank said, "and the hell of it is. fellers, she says she's the niece of this Lunk-head Johnson here, and I got to believe it. She told us as how her ma had died, which was this old snoozer's sister, and how this Lunk-head is the only folks she has got."

"She was coming up to live with him, and do for him in his shack," said Blister Owens. "Uncle Peter she calls him, and says he's a miner and likely prosperous, seeing as he used to send money home to his sister once, till his sister didn't need it no more."

"And, gents," said Hank, "human heart couldn't bear to think of that nice sweet girl coming up here and finding that her Uncle Peter was a dirty old busted bum on the edge of being kicked out of camp. Human heart couldn't stand to think of it."

"Not when she was that kind of a girl," said Blister Owens. "She ain't no mining camp kind. She ain't no wind-dried female like them at Plasco. She's like a little tender rose, fellers."

"Like a mayflower, more, Blister," Kane corrected him. "She ain't got a thorn nowhere. Sweet, that's what she is. And tender. Gentle. And full of hope and gladness that she's going to be with her Uncle Peter -- the ring-tailed old diplodicus yonder."

"We seen it wouldn't do," said Blister. "It would bust her heart wide open."

Izzy Bernheimer turned to old Lunk-head.

"What you know about it?" he asked.

"Nothing," Lunk-head said. "Nothing. I have a niece and that's her name. I didn't know she was coming. I did not know her mother was dead. I got no word."

Izzy stared at him a moment. Then he slapped his hand to his head.

"Help me, Moses!" he exclaimed. "A letter comes, sure enough. In my hand I have it when this feller steals a can of salmon. I put it -- Ben Fuller, is a letter on top of the post office yet?"

Ben Fuller, standing on the counter by the post office partition looked. He found the letter.

"Here," he said. "'Mr. Peter Johnson,'" and he handed the letter to one of the men, and it passed down the line until Izzy handed it to Lunk-head. The old man tore it open. He held it far from his weak eyes and read it.

"It's like you say, Hank," he said "She's coming. Marjorie is coming. Her ma is dead and she's coming, Marjorie is," and he handed the letter to Izzy Bernheimer. The storekeeper read the letter aloud. No sound disturbed the store as he read. It was an affectionate letter such as a young girl still grieving for her mother would write. Tears stood in some of the tough old miners' eyes as they listened, for no one but an innocent young girl could have written such a letter -- a girl unsullied by the sin and harshness of the world these men knew.

When Izzy read the closing words of the letter -- "Your loving niece, Marjorie" -- his voice trembled and he put one hand for a moment across his eyes. He could not speak. He was too deeply affected. It was Hank Kane, standing by the stove facing the men whose stern countenances indicated their appreciation of the seriousness of the occasion, who spoke.

"Well, fellers," he said, pulling at his mustache, "there's how she is. That's how she stands. I reckon you can see now why me and Blister come busting through to get to Dog Leg before that sweet young innocent girl could get here. Fellers, no human man that wasn't a filthy coyote would want that tender young girl to come here and find her uncle was a low-down no-good salmon-stealing son of a sawbuck like this Lunk-head here."

"No, by criminy!" declared Blister Owens. "It wouldn't be right nor yet decent."

"And that's why me and Blister come through," continued Hank Kane. "That's why we left that young sweet girl there and wallowed up here through that mud and all. We come to give fair warning she was coming, so as you could run this Lunk-head out of camp afore she got here."

He shook his head emphatically and tugged at his mustache again.

"Or hang him for stealing that can of salmon," he added. "I don't care which so long as we get shut of him in ample time."

"Before she gets here," said Blister Owens, "and gets her heart broke seeing what a cussed old rip he is."

Old Lunk-head had sunk down in his chair again. He heaved a sort of gusty sigh with his eyes closed, and made a futile gesture with his hand as if to say it was all the same with him. Izzy was still holding the letter.

"Boys," Izzy said, "you have heard what our good friend Hank says."

'Lunk-head Johnson' by Ellis Parker Butler

"Hang the old rooster," someone in the store shouted.

"Run him out of camp," shouted another.

"Hold on, now," One-eye Simmons said. "Where's he going to go if we run the old snoozer out of camp? There ain't no ways for him to go but to Plasco, is there? This here Marjorie is going to meet up with him if he goes there, ain't she? I say string him up and get done with him."

"String him up! Yank him to kingdom-come! Hang him!" men shouted here and there.

"I'm ready, boys," Lunk-head said. "It don't make no difference to me. I'm nothing but a played out old wreck with nothing to look forward to. Do what you want to."

"A trial!" someone shouted. "Give him a trial right here and now and get shut of him. One-eye Simmons be judge."

I'm right pleased and honored, boys," A said One-eye Simmons. "This here court of Dog Leg will come unto order, and let us proceed all neat and orderly. Lunk-head Johnson, you are at this here bar of justice for to be tried according to the rules and regulations as upheld in Dog Leg off and on and more or less. You are accused of -- what's he accused of, fellers?"

"Stealing," said one of the men. "He went and stole a can of salmon from Izzy whilst Izzy was sorting the mail."

"Izzy Bernheimer will give testimony and testify to the crime as named and stated," said One-eye. "Did this here old wallopus steal a can of salmon from you, Izzy?"

"No," said Izzy. "He don't steal nothing from me. Maybe he picks up a can salmon but I don't know does he only want to look at the picture from fish on the label or what. He don't steal no can salmon."

"Now, hold on!" said One-eye. "This here trial ain't going to get nowhere if he ain't stole nothing."

"Well, I got to tell it the truth, ain't I?" asked Izzy.

"Why, sure, sure!" One-eye said. "Ain't he stole nothing from you?"


"Well, boys," said One-eye, "it looks like that crime wasn't no crime. Has anybody got any other complaint of crimes or misdemeanors to make against this here Lunk-head Johnson?"

No one spoke up. There was no crime to charge Lunk-head with. Crimes and misdemeanors -- unless he had indeed meant to steal the can of salmon -- were not his trouble; his trouble was poverty and discouragement. One-eye Simmons waited a minute or two; he did not know what to do. He scratched his ear.

"Lunk-head Johnson," he said then, "this court declares you free and guiltless of the crime you was hereby charged with, and I'm cussed sorry for it." He scratched his ear again. "Boys," he asked, "what in tunket are you going to do with the old geezer now?"

Some called out, "Hang him!" despite the verdict, and some shouted, "Run him out!" but Izzy Bernheimer and Hank Kane and Blister Owens had their heads together.

"You should wait a moment," Izzy said to the crowd, and went on with his confab with the stage driver and Blister. They called One-eye Simmons into the consultation and the four talked and seemed to reach an agreement. One-eye faced the men of Dog Leg again.

"Well, boys," he said, "the four of us here have had a talk together and -- seeing as there are more of the men of Dog Leg here than mostly gets together at one time -- Izzy here says to put a proposition up to you. This here camp has been going along sort of hit-and-miss without no organization, and it's about time we got organized and was something. Will somebody make a motion that the Town of Dog Leg be and is organized?"

The motion was put and carried with cheers.

"The next thing," said One-eye, "is to elect a mayor of this good and growing metropolis of Dog Leg. We've got to have a mayor that can give time to seeing this town is cleaned up and kept all nice and respectable and so that the citizens are decent and respectable likewise. And the first thing the mayor has got to do is to handle this here case of Lunk-head Johnson."

"I move that Dog Leg have a mayor," said Hank Kane. "and that he do like you say. and that he be paid fifty dollars a month for doing it."

The motion was carried with a yell. "I nominate Izzy Bernheimer for mayor," some man shouted, and the whole crowd seconded the nomination enthusiastically. Izzy held up a restraining hand. "Gentlemens." he said, "I got it in my heart a feeling I could not tell you to have such an honor like you would give me. But I couldn't do it. I got me my store what takes all my time, and I was postmaster already and could not your mayor be. Also we got it here a man has time to do the job, what ain't got no mine worth nothing. I nominate this, now, Lunk-head Johnson."

"Second that nomination," said Hank Kane and Blister Owens in unison,

"And I'll let him have a suit of clothes and pair of shoes and a couple shirts which he pays when he gets his salary also," said Izzy. "He ain't no such bad feller, this Lunk-head, only he got it such bad luck."

"You heard the nomination," said One-eye Simmons. "All you that wants this Lunk-head made mayor, and cleaned up, and fixed so this Marjorie niece of his'n won't be all-cussed ashamed of him, say so."

They said so with another yell. For a minute or two old Lunk-head seemed dazed. Then he stood up and he was like a new man. He held his head high, and threw back his shoulders, and his eyes shone with the light of pride and new hope.

"Boys!" he said, and his voice choked with emotion. "Boys! Fellow citizens --"

He could not go on. He struggled for words.

"Boys," he began again, "I'll make a good mayor for you. I'll --"

He stopped again. Hank Kane was patting him on the back. Blister Owens was shaking his hand.

"Boys --" said old Lunk-head again.

"Quiet!" Izzy called. "The mayor was going to say something."

"Boys," said old Lunk-head, "who'll loan me a dollar? I'm going to get me a shave and a haircut."

The regeneration of Lunk-head Johnson had begun.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:19:50am USA Central
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