by Ellis Parker Butler
If Booge imagined he had won an easy and permanent victory, leading to a life of listless ease, he misestimated Buddy and Peter. Buddy alone could have kept him busy, but Peter let Booge know immediately that if he was to stay even a day he must earn his food and lodging.
The shore against which the boat now lay was a thicket of willows so close of growth that it was almost impossible to fight through them, and while most were no larger than whips some were as large as a man's wrist. Against the low bank the boat lay broadside and so close that the willow branches reached over her roof, and as soon as Booge had brought his valise inside Peter reached far under the bunk and brought forth an axe.
"Now, Booge ain't going to have time to sing songs to you daytimes, Buddy, because everybody that lives in this boat has work to do," said Peter, "and as I've got to make some spoons, Booge is going to take this ax and clear away a path through the willows. And you want to cut them off close down to the roots," he warned Booge, "or you'll have to do it over again. You cut a path from the front door through that willow clump, so we can pass in and out and get firewood, and when you've got the path you can fetch the firewood. I'm going to stay in today and make spoons."
Booge took the ax and looked at it quizzically.
"Well, if this ain't my old friend wood-splitter I've been dodging for years and years!" he said good-naturedly. "How-do, wood-splitter? How's your cousin bucksaw? Is all the little saw-bucks well?"
"You'd better get at them willows," said Peter.
After Peter had ostentatiously bathed once or twice, Booge became painfully clean. He would come in from the jobs Peter set him and wash his face and hands violently.
"You're getting as clean as them fellows that get five dollars' worth of bathes at the Y. M. C. A., ain't you?" Peter said scornfully.
"A feller can gets lots of things at the Y. M. C. A. for five dollars that he can't get without it," said Booge good-naturedly. "You don't want to knock me all the time, Peter. A horse crops grass one way, and a cow crops it another way, and the Lord is the maker of them all, as the feller said. So long as a man has a clean conscience and a clear eye he can walk right up to any bull alive -- if the bull wants to let him."
"Booge," said Peter suddenly, "how'd you ever happen to become a tramp?"
"How'd you ever happen to become a shanty-boatman?" asked Booge, grinning, but Peter was serious.
"I guess you're right about that," he said. "I hadn't ought to object to what you are, when I'm what I am. I just let myself slide, was how. I had bad lungs was what was the matter with me, when I was a kid, so my pa bought me a farm and put a man on it to run it for me, and I just fooled around and tried to get husky and stout, and by the time I was old enough to run the farm father busted, and then a -- certain circumstances took the farm from me, and I took to the river. It seemed like me and the river was old friends from ever so far back. So I stuck to it and it stuck to me, and -- that's the story."
"Just run down-hill," commented Booge cheerfully. "It's funny, ain't it, that water's about the only thing that don't get blamed for runnin' down-hill! You and the river sort of run down together. What started me was something just about as common as lungs -- it was wives."
"Don't mean to say you had two of 'em?" asked Peter.
"Almost," said Booge. "I had one-half of that many. I'm a naturally happy man, and I've had all sorts of ups and downs, and as near as I can make out, a man can be happy in 'most any circumstances except where he don't give his wife the clothes she wants. My notion of hell is a place where a man has fifty wives and no money to buy clothes for 'em. My wife got to goin' through my pockets every night for money to buy clothes, so I skipped out."
"You don't mean to say a woman would rob a man's pockets whilst he was asleep?" asked Peter. "Was that what she did? Took money from them?"
"No, the trouble was she didn't find no money to take," said Booge. "Light on money and strong on breath was what was my trouble."
He made an expressive drinking motion with his hand.
"Booze," he said. "Booze done it."
"You'd ought to quit it," Peter said. "You don't seem like a common tramp. I wouldn't let you stay here if you was. Look at the harm booze done you."
"That's so," agreed Booge. "It got me a good shanty-boat to sleep in and three square meals a day and a place to practice my voice in. But I suppose you mean it got me where I have to listen to temp'rance lectures from you. That is sort of hard on me."
Peter, although he would not have admitted it, was growing fond of the careless, happy-go-lucky tramp. Booge had a fund of rough philosophy and, more than all else, he was good to Buddy, and had not Peter resolved to be a different man himself on Buddy's account he would have liked nothing better than to have Booge make his Winter home in the shanty-boat, but he felt that Booge must go. The trouble was to drive him away. Booge would not drive, and Peter thought of a hundred quite impossible schemes for getting rid of him before he hit on the one he finally decided to put in effect.
He had noticed that the farmer on the hill back of the lake had a huge pile of cordwood in his yard, and he tramped across the lowland to the farmer's house and dickered for the sawing of the wood. It was a large contract, and Peter as a rule did not care to saw wood except in dire straits, but he had decided that if he was to be a man of worth he must be a man of work to begin with, and the woodpile was opportunity. It was while walking home after making his bargain with his farmer friend that he had his happy idea -- Booge must saw wood!
He explained it to Booge that evening. Here they were in the shanty-boat, Peter explained, the two of them and Buddy, all eating from the common store of food, and that store dwindling daily. Buddy could not work, but Peter could, and Booge must. Then he explained about the pile of wood, a good Winter's work for two of them. Booge listened in silence. He was silent for several minutes after Peter ceased talking, and then he grinned.
"The man that says he wouldn't rather find a silver dollar in the road than earn five dollars a-workin', is like that man that got killed with a thunderbolt for careless conversation," he said cheerfully. "So I won't say it. Wood-sawin' and me have been enemies ever since I became a tourist. I guess I'll have to go --"
"I bet you would!" said Peter.
"Yes," said Booge, "I'll have to go -- up to that farmer's and saw wood."
His eyes twinkled as he saw Peter's face fall. And he was as good as his word. The two men, taking turns carrying Buddy or leading him by the hand, walked across the snow-covered bottom to the farmer's the next morning, and while Booge did not overexert he at least sawed wood. He sawed enough to prevent any unduly harsh criticism from Peter.
A trip to town had become absolutely necessary. Peter had drawn ten dollars from the farmer and he had some spoons ready for sale. The farmer was going to town and Peter at first decided to take Buddy with him, but the spoon-peddling excursion would, he feared, tire the boy too much, and he ended by planning to let Booge and Buddy stay in the shanty-boat.
It was an index to Peter's changed opinion of the tramp that he felt reasonably safe in leaving Buddy in Booge's care. For one thing, Booge was sure to stay with the boat as long as food held out and work was not too pressing. The river had closed and the boat was solidly frozen in the slough. There was no possibility of Booge floating away in it.
"I won't be back until late," said Peter the next morning as he pinned his thin coat close about his neck, "and it's possible I won't get my spoons all sold out today. If I don't, I'll stay all night with a friend up-town and get back somehow tomorrow. And you take good care of Buddy, for if anything happens to him I'll hunt you up, no matter where you are, and make you wish it hadn't."
"Unless this horse runs away with him there ain't nothin' to happen," said Booge. "You needn't worry."
"And Buddy, if you are a good boy and let Booge put you to bed, if I don't get back, Uncle Peter will bring you something you've been waiting for this long while."
He picked up the boy and kissed him.
Booge worked on a wagon for Buddy all morning. Toward noon he made a meal for himself and the boy, and set to work on the wagon again. He had found a canned-corn box that did well enough for the body, and he chopped out wheels as well as he could with the ax. He wished, by the time he had completed one wheel, that he had told Buddy it was to be a sled rather than a wagon, but he could not persuade the boy that a sled would be better, and he had to keep on.
He worked on the clean ice before the shanty-boat, and he was deep in his work when Buddy asked a question.
"Who is that man, Uncle Booge?" he asked.
Booge glanced up quickly. Across the ice, from the direction of the road, a man was coming. He was well wrapped in overcoat and cap and he advanced steadily, without haste. Booge leaned on his ax and wailed. When the man was quite near, Booge said "Hello!"
"Good afternoon," said the stranger. "Are you Peter Lane?"
Booge's little eyes studied the stranger sharply. The man, for all the bulk given him by his ulster and cap. had a small, sharp face, and his eyes were shrewd and shifty.
"Mebby I am," rumbled Booge, crossing his legs and putting one hand on his hip and one on his forehead, "and mebby I ain't. Let me recall! Now, if I was Peter Lane, what might you want of me?"
The stranger smiled ingratiatingly and cleared his throat.
"My -- my name," he said slowly, "is Briggles -- Reverend Rasmer Briggles, of Derlingport. My duty here is, I may say, one that, if you are Peter Lane, should give you cause only for satisfaction -- extreme satisfaction. Yes!"
Booge was watching the Reverend Mr. Briggles closely.
"I bet that's so!" he said. "I sort of recall now that I am Peter Lane. And I don't know when I've had any extreme satisfaction. I'll be glad to have some."
"Yes," said Mr. Briggles rather doubtfully. "Yes, I am the President of the Child Rescue Society, an organization incorporated to rescue ill-cared-for children, placing them in good homes --"
"Buddy," said Booge roughly, "you go into that boat. And you stay there. Understand?"
The child did as he was told. Booge's tone was one he had never heard the tramp use, and it frightened him.
"It has come to my attention," said Mr. Briggles, "that there is a child here. You will admit this is no place for a tender little child. You may do your best for him, but the influence of a good home must be sadly lacking in such a place. In fact, I have an order from the court --"
He began unbuttoning his ulster.
"I bet you have!" said Booge genially. "So if you want to you can sit right down on that bank there and read it. And if it's in po'try you can sing it. And if you can't sing, and you hang 'round here for half an hour, I'll come out and sing it for you. Just now I've got to go in and sing my scales."
He boosted himself to the deck of the shanty-boat and went inside, closing and locking the door. In a moment Mr. Briggles, out in the cold, heard Booge burst into song:
"Go tell the little baby, the baby, the baby,
Go tell the little baby he can't go out today;
Go tell the little baby, the baby, the baby,
Go tell the little baby old Briggles needn't stay."
Mr. Briggles stood holding the court order in his hand. Armed with the law, he had every advantage on his side. He clambered up the bank and stepped to the deck of the shanty-boat. He rapped sharply on the door.
"Mr. Lane, open this door!" he ordered.
The door opened with unexpected suddenness and Booge threw his arms around Mr. Briggles and lifted him from his feet. He drew him forward as if to hug him, and then, with a mighty outthrust of his arms, cast him bodily off the deck. Mr. Briggles fell full on the newly constructed wagon, and there was a crash of breaking wood. Booge came to the edge of the deck and looked down at him. The man was wedged into the rough wagon-bed, his feet and legs hanging over. He was bleeding at the nose, and his face was rather scratched. He was white with fear or anger. Booge laughed.
"I owed you that," he rumbled. "I owed you that since the day you married me. And now I'll give you what I owe you for coming after this boy."
He jumped down from the deck, and Mr. Briggles struggled to release himself from the wagon-bed. He was caught fast. He kicked violently, and Booge grinned.
If he had intended punishing the interloper further, he changed his mind. The lake lay wide and smooth, with only a pile of snow here and there, and Booge grasped the damaged wagon and pushed it. Like a sled it slid along on its broken wheels, and Booge ran, gathering speed as he ran, until, with a last push, he sent the wagon and Mr. Briggles skimming alone over the glassy surface of the lake toward the road. Then he went into the shanty-boat and closed and locked the door.
Peter reached town about noon, and set about his peddling at once, going to the better residence sections, where his spoons were in demand, and so successful was he that by three o'clock he had but a few left to trade at the grocer's. He bought the Bible and the ABC blocks, and a red sweater, stockings for Buddy and socks for himself, and the provisions he needed, and a bright new jack-knife for Buddy. All these he tied in a big gunny-sack, except the knife, slung the sack over his shoulder, and went down to report to George Rapp, stopping at the post-office, where he asked for mail. The clerk handed him, among the circulars and other advertising matter, a letter.
Peter turned the letter over and over in his hand. He had a sister, but this letter was not from her. It was addressed in pencil and bore the local postmark. Peter held it to the light, playing with the mystery as a cat plays with a mouse, and finally opened it. It was from Mrs. Potter.
"Now I know all about you, Peter Lane," it ran, "and not much good I must say, although I might have expected it, and I am much surprised and such shiftlessness and you might have let me know that woman was sick, for I am not a heathen whatever you may think. If you have time to saw me some wood I will pay cash, Mrs. Potter."
Peter folded the letter slowly and put it in his pocket. He knew very well the widow had no cause to single him out to saw her wood, and that she would not be apt to write him for that reason alone, however much she might underscore "cash." There was no reason why she should write to him at all, unless the underscoring of "that woman" meant she had heard how he had taken the woman and her boy in and it had given her a better opinion of him.
When Peter entered George Rapp's livery stable Rapp was superintending the harnessing of a colt.
"Hello!" he called heartily. "How's Peter? How's the boat? Friend of yours was just enquiring for you in here. Friend from up the river road."
"She -- who was?"
"You guess it!" laughed Rapp. "Widow Potter. Say, why didn't you tell me you were married?"
"Me? Married to Widow Potter?" cried Peter aghast. "I never in my life married her, George!"
"Oh, not her!" said Rapp. "Not her yet -- the other woman. You with a boy three or four years old, posing around as a goody-goody bachelor. But that's the way with you too-good fellows. Hope you can keep your little son."
"My son?" stammered Peter. "But's he's not my son -- not my own son."
"Gee whiz! Is that so?" said Rapp with surprise. "She was that bad, was she? Well, it does you all the more credit, taking him to raise. Anybody else would have sent him to the poor farm or to Old Snoozer Briggles."
"Who said she was my wife?"
"Why, Widow Potter said so," said Rapp. "Everybody knows about it. And Widow Potter is so interested she can't sit still. She says she's willing to let by-gones be bygones; that it's all as plain as day to her now."
"All what?" asked poor Peter.
"Why, all," said Rapp. "Everything. The whole business. Why you didn't marry her long ago, I reckon. She said a woman couldn't understand that sort of thing, but it was easy to understand when she knew he had a wife somewhere. She said she's sorry for your loss, and she'd like you to come right up and see her."
"Did she say that?" asked Peter.
"I never told anything nearer the truth," Rapp assured him. "She said that she believed, now, you were a fully proper person to raise a small boy, but that if Briggles was bound to take the boy, she --"
"Briggles!" asked Peter breathlessly. "Who is Briggles? What has he got to do with it?"
"Don't you know who Briggles is?" asked Rapp with real surprise. "He used to be a reverend, but he got kicked out, I hear say. He hires a team now and again to take a child out in the country."
"What does he take children to the country for?"
"To put them in families," Rapp explained; and he told Peter how Mr. Briggles hunted up children for the society he had organized; how he collected money and spent the money, and put the children in any family that would take them, and he paid himself twenty dollars a child for doing it, charging mileage and expense extra. "Last time he come down here he had a nice little girl from Derlingport," said Rapp. "Her name was Susie. He put her in a woman's family named Crink."
"Susie? Susie what?" asked Peter.
"I don't know, but I felt sorry for her. He might as well have put her in hell as with that Crink woman. It's 'God help the little children, but give me the money,' so far as I see. He gets an order from the court, just like he did in your case --"
Peter had let himself drop into a chair as Rapp talked, but now he leaped from it.
"What's that? He ain't after Buddy?"
"He drove down today," said Rapp. "I told him --"
But Peter was gone.
Years in the open had mended the weak lungs that had driven him to the open air, but long before he came in sight of the shanty-boat his breath was coming in great sobs and he was gasping painfully. Time and again he fell, but scrambled up and ran on until at last he caught sight of the light in the shanty-boat window. He stopped and leaned with his hand against a tree, striving to get one last breath sufficient to carry him to the boat, and as he stopped he heard the shrill falsetto of Booge:
"Go wash the little baby, the baby, the baby,
Go wash the little baby, and give it toast and tea.
Go wash the little baby, the baby, the baby,
Go wash the little baby and bring it back to me."
It was Buddy's supper song.
"Sing it again, Uncle Booge! Sing it again!" came Buddy's sharply commanding voice, and Peter wrapped his arms around the tree-trunk, and laid his forehead against it.
Buddy was not gone!
Peter listened while Booge told the story of Mr. Briggles's arrival, reception and departure.
"And he falled on the wagon and broke it," said Buddy, "and Booge slided him. And Booge is going to mend my wagon."
"Maybe Uncle Peter'll mend it for you, Buddy," said Booge. "I guess Booge has got to take a trip tomorrow."
"You couldn't talk sense if you tried, could you?" said Peter with vexation. "You are going to stay here every bit as long as I do. Ain't he, Buddy boy?"
"I'm much obliged to you, Peter," said Booge after a minute, "but I'm afraid I can't stay. I got a telegram saying Caruso's got a cold and I've got to go to New York and sing grand op'ry."
"You're real welcome to stay," said Peter, warming his hands over the stove. "I'd like you to stay. That feller is sure to come back."
"He'll come, all right. He's got my address and number scratched on his face, and I'd ought to clear out right now, but you see how I've got to help you out when trouble comes. We've got to skedaddle and scoot and vamoose -- listen!"
In the silence that followed they could hear voices -- a number of voices -- and Buddy crept to Peter's side and clung to his knee, frightened by the tense expression on the two uncles' faces. Peter stood with one hand resting on the table and the other clutching Buddy's arm. Suddenly he put out his free hand and grasped his shotgun. Booge jerked it away from him and slid it under the bunk.
"You idiot!" he said. "What good would that do you? Listen -- have you got any place you can take the kid to if you get away from here?"
"I've got a sister up near town --"
"All right! Now, I'm going to sing, and whilst I sing you get Buddy's duds on, and your own, and be ready to skin out the back door with him. I can hold off any constable that ever was -- long enough to give you a start, anyway -- and then you've got to look out for yourself."
Peter hurried Buddy into his outer coat and hat, and Booge searched the bread-box for portable food as he sang, in his deepest bass:
"We took the old kazoozer, kazoozer, kazoozer
We grabbed the old ka-snoozer and tore his preacher clothes.
We kicked the old ka-boozer, ka-loozer, ka-goozer,
We scratched the old ka-floozer, and hit him on the n-o-s-e."
He crowded some cold corn-cake into Peter's pocket, and some into his own as he sang, and as his song ended he whispered: "Hurry now! I'm goin' to put out this lamp in a minute, and when it's out you slide out of that back door -- quick, you understand?" He let his voice rise to his falsetto. "Sing it again, Uncle Booge!" he cried, imitating Buddy's voice. "No, Buddy's got to go to sleep now," he growled, and the next instant the shanty-boat's interior was dark. "Scoot!" he whispered, and Peter opened the rear door of the cabin and stepped out.
It was an hour later, perhaps, when he heard Booge's voice boom out, deep and cheerful, repeating one song until his words died away in the distance:
"Go tell the little baby, the baby, the baby,
Go tell the little baby we won't be back today;
Go tell the little baby, the baby, the baby,
Go tell the little baby they're takin' Booge away."
"Come now, Buddy," said Peter, "we can go back to the boat. Uncle Booge says there ain't nobody there now. In the morning we're going to start for your Aunt Jane's."
It was the morning of the third day when Peter and Buddy reached the Iowa shore three miles below Riverbank, just before sunrise. A road ran along the shore, but Peter's destination lay straight back in the hills. The sun came up while he was still struggling across the plowed land, and by the time he reached the road that led up the hillside it was glaring day. Just below his sister's house the road crossed the creek and here Peter climbed the bank. At his sister's gate he paused behind a mass of leafless elderberry bushes, and deposited Buddy on the low bank that edged the road.
"Now, you stay right here, Buddy," said Peter to the boy, "and just sort of look at the landscape over there whilst I run up and tell your Aunt Jane you're coming. She don't like to be surprised."
"I want to whittle," said Buddy. "I want to whittle a funny cat."
Peter looked about for a stick.
"There!" he said. "There's a stick, but if I was you I'd make a funny snake out of it. That stick don't look like it would make a cat. You make a snake, and if it don't turn out to be a snake, maybe it'll be a sword. Now, you stay right here, and Uncle Peter won't be gone very long. I'm going to put you among these bushes, and don't you move."
"I won't," said Buddy.
When Peter left the shanty-boat he had felt that he could walk up to Jane with the front of a lion and demand shelter for himself, and for Buddy all the advantages of a home. From that distance it had seemed quite reasonable, for he owned the house and the small plot of ground on which it stood.
He walked to the kitchen door and knocked, and Jane's voice bade him enter. He took off his hat as he entered. His sister was sitting at the kitchen table where, despite the lateness of the hour, she had evidently just finished her breakfast. As she turned her head all Peter's optimism lied, for Jane's eyes were red with weeping.
"Now, Jane," said Peter uncomfortably, "don't cry! Don't do it! It ain't so bad as all that. Every time I come to see you, you just cry and carry on, and I tell you I don't need it done for me. I'm all right. I get along somehow."
"Never, never once, have I said an unkind word to you. Peter," said Jane damply. "I do what I can to keep your house from falling down on my head. Time and again I've made up my mind to go and leave it, and I would if it wasn't for you. I feel my duty by you, and I stay, but work in a house like this wears me to the bone. It does. To the bone!"
It might have worn someone to the bone, but not Jane. She was one of those huge, flabby women who are naturally lazy; who sit thinking of the work they have to do, but do not do it; and who linger long over their meals and weep into them. To Peter her tears were worse than Mrs. Potter's sharp tongue.
"I wisht you wouldn't cry, Jane," he said. "I want to talk sort of business to you this morning." He paused, appalled by the effect his revelation would be apt to have on Jane. It must be made, however, and he plunged into it. "I've got a boy. I've got a little feller about three years old that come to me one night when his ma died, and he ain't got anybody in the world but me, Jane, to take care of him. You'd be just tickled to death with him. My first notion," he said more slowly -- "my first idee was to have him and me come here, so you could be a sort of ma to him, and I could be a sort of pa, so we'd make a sort of family, like. But I can see how easygoing I am, and how I might be an expense to you, for a while, anyway, so I thought, maybe, if you would take the boy in -- Now wait a minute, Jane! Wait a minute!"
His sister had forgotten her sorrows in open-mouthed amazement as Peter talked, but as the startling proposal became clear she dabbled at her eyes, and sniffled. Peter knew what was coming -- a new torrent of tears, an avalanche of sorrow.
"For Heaven's sake, shut up for a minute till I get through!" he cried in exasperation. "You ain't done nothing but weep over me since I was knee high. Give me a rest for one time. I don't need weeping over. I'm all right. Ain't I just said I'll go away again?"
"You never understand me!" wept Jane.
"Yes, I do, too!" said Peter angrily. "I understand you good. All you want is to weep me out of house and home, and I know it. I'm a sort of old bum, and I know that, too, but I've been fair to you right along, and all I get for it is to be wept over, and I'm sick of it. You ain't a sister, you're a -- a fountain. You're an everlasting fountain. You let me come up and saw your wood, and you weep; and you let me make your garden, and you weep, and if you do give me a meal while I'm working for you it's so wept into that my mouth tastes of salt for a week. I've put up with it just as long as I'm going to."
"I'll go," said Jane sniveling. "I'll go. I never thought to get such unkind words from my brother!"
"Brother nothing!" said Peter, thoroughly exasperated. "What did you ever give me but shoves, wrapped up in sorrow and grief? What did you ever do but jump on me, and tear me to pieces, and pull me apart to show me how worthless I was, whilst you let on you was mourning over me? I've had it done to me long enough to see through it, Jane, so you may as well shut off the bawling. You ain't no sister -- you're a miser!"
Jane did not flare up. She dropped her head on her table and cried again, but with real self-pity this time.
"Now, it ain't worth while to cry," said Peter coldly. "I've said all I've got to say on that subject. All I've got now is a business proposition, and you can take it or not. If you want to take Buddy in and feed him, sleep him and treat him white, the way he deserves, I'll pay you for it just as soon as I earn some money, and I'm going to get work right away. If you won't do that you can take the house and have it, and I'm through with you."
Her reply came so suddenly that it startled Peter. She jumped from her chair and stamped her foot angrily.
"Oh!" she cried, clenching her fists, while all her anger blazed in her face, "hain't you insulted me enough? Get out of my house! Don't you ever come back!"
Peter put on his hat. He paused when his hand was on the doorknob, his face deathly white.
"If you ever get sick, Jane," he said, "you can leave word at George Rapp's livery stable. I'll come to you if you are sick," and he went out, closing the door softly.
Buddy was waiting where Peter had left him.
"I'm making a funny snake for you, Uncle Peter," he said.
"Well, I should think you were!" said Peter summoning all his cheerfulness. "That's just the funniest old snake I ever did see, but you better let Uncle Peter have your jack-knife now, Buddy. We'll get along."
All the way back to town Peter held the boy very close in his arms, and did not think of his tired muscles at all. He was thinking of his perfidy to the trusting child, for he was without money, and he could see nothing to do but deliver the boy to Briggles and the Unknown.
The Marcy's Run Road on which Peter's sister lived led into Riverbank, past the cemetery, and near the cemetery stood a group of small stores. One of these, half grocery and half saloon, was even more unkempt than the others, but before its window Peter stopped. In the window was a square of cardboard announcing "Hot Beef Soup Today." Hot beef soup, when a man has tramped many miles carrying a heavy child, is a temptation.
The whole place was miserably dirty. The bar was of plain pine, painted "barn-red," and the whole arrangement was primitive and cheap. Beyond the barroom a partition cut off the living room, and this completed "Mrs. Crink's Place."
Mrs. Crink had a bad reputation. She was a thin, sour-faced, angular woman, ugly alike in face and temper. When Peter opened the door a bell sounded sharply, but the high voice of Mrs. Crink in the living room drowned the bell. She was scolding and reviling at the top of her voice -- swearing like a man -- and a child was sobbing and pleading. Peter heard the sharp slap of a hand against a face, and a cry from the child, and Mrs. Crink came into the barroom, her eyes glaring and her face dark with anger.
"Well, what do you want?" she snarled.
"I'd like to get two bowls of soup for me and the boy, if it ain't too much trouble," said Peter.
"Everything's trouble," whined Mrs. Crink. "I don't expect nothing else. A woman can't make a living without these cranks tellin' her what she shall and what she sha'n't. Shut up that howlin', you little devil, or I'll come in there and bat your head off!"
She went into the living-room and brought out the two bowls of soup, placing them on one of the small tables. Peter lifted Buddy into a chair. Mrs. Crink began wiping off the beer-wet bar.
"I wonder if you could let me have about a dime's worth of crackers and cheese?" he asked, and Mrs. Crink dropped the dirty rag with which she was wiping the bar.
"Come out here, and shut up your bawlin', and swab off this bar," she yelled, and the door of the back room opened and a girl came out. She was the merest child. She came hesitatingly, holding her arm before her face, and the old hag of a woman jerked up the filthy, wet rag and slapped her across the face. It was none of Peter's business, but he half arose from his chair, and then dropped back again. It made his blood boil, but he had not associated with shanty-boat men and women without learning that in the coarser strata of humanity slaps and blows and ugly words are often the common portion of children. He would have liked to interfere, but he knew the inefficiency of any effort he might make, and like a shock it came to him that it was from things like this that Briggles rescued -- or pretended to rescue -- little children. It was not so bad, then, after all. If he must give up Buddy, there would be some compensation in telling Briggles of this poor child, who deserved far more the attention of his society. All this passed through his mind in an instant, but before he could turn back to his bowl of soup Buddy uttered a cry of joy and, scrambling from his chair, ran across the floor toward the weeping girl.
"Oh! Susie! Susie! My Susie!" he shouted and threw himself upon her.
The impetus of his coming almost threw the child off her feet, and she staggered back, but the next instant she had clasped her arms around the boy, and was hugging him in a close, youthful embrace.
"My Buddy! My Buddy!" she kept repeating over and over, as if all other words failed her, as a child will in an excess of sudden surprise. "My Buddy! My Buddy!"
The woman stared for an instant in open-mouthed astonishment, and then her eyes flashed with anger. She reached out her hand to grasp the girl, but Peter Lane thrust it aside. His own eyes could flash, and the woman drew back.
"Now, don't you do that!" he said hotly.
"You git out of my store, then!" shouted Mrs. Crink. "You take your brat and git out!"
"I'll get out," said Peter slowly, "as soon as I am quite entirely ready to do so. I hope you will understand that. And I'll be ready when I have ate my soup."
The woman glared at him. She let her hand drop behind the bar, where she had a piece of lead pipe, and then, suddenly, she laughed a high, cackling laugh to cover her defeat, and let her eyes fall. She slouched to the front of the shop for the crackers and cheese, and Peter seated himself again at the small table and looked at the children.
"Where's mama?" he heard the girl ask, and Buddy's reply: "Mama went away," and he saw the look of wonder on the girl's face.
"Come here," he said, and the girl came to the table.
"I guess you're Buddy's sister he's been tellin' me about, ain't you?" said Peter kindly, "and I'm his Uncle Peter he's been staying with on a shanty-boat. Your ma --" he hesitated and looked at the girl's sweet, clear eyes, "your ma went away, like Buddy said, Susie, but you don't want to think she run away and left him, for that wouldn't be so, not at all! She had to go, or she wouldn't 've gone. I guess -- I guess she'd 've come and got you. She spoke of you quite a little before she went on her trip."
"I want you should take me away from here," said the girl suddenly.
"Well, now I wish I could. Susie," said Peter, "but I don't see how I can. Maybe I can arrange it --" He poised his spoon in the air. "Did Reverend Mr. Briggles bring you here?"
"Not here," said Susie. "Mrs. Crink didn't live here then."
"Well, that's all the same," said Peter. "I just wanted to enquire about it. You'd better eat your soup. Buddy boy. Well, now, let me see!"
Peter stared into his soup as if it might hold, hidden in its muggy depths, the answer to his riddle. It was a strange picture, the boy eating his soup gluttonously, Peter Lane in his comedy tramp garb of blanket and blanket strips, and the little girl staring at him with big, trustful eyes. Mrs. Crink put the crackers and cheese on the table.
"If you've got through takin' up time that don't belong to you maybe I can git some work out of this brat," she snapped.
"Why, yes, ma'am," said Peter politely. "It only so happened that this boy was her brother. We didn't want to discommode you at all."
Susie turned away to her work of swabbing the bar, and Peter divided the crackers and cheese equally between himself and Buddy.
"I don't care much to have tramps come in here, anyway," said Mrs. Crink. "I never knew one yit that wouldn't pick up anything loose," but Peter made no reply. He had a matter of tremendous import on his mind. He felt that he had taken the weight of Susie's troubles on his shoulders in addition to those of Buddy, and he had resolved to ask Widow Potter to take the two children!
The parting of the two children had for them none of the pathos it had for Peter. When Buddy had eaten the last cracker he got down from his chair.
"Good-by, Susie," he said.
"Good-by, Buddy," she answered, and that was all, and Peter led the boy out of the place.