Thieves and Vagabonds by Jim Tully

The following story was transcribed and introduction was written for a ‘zine a few years ago and was never published. I offer it here now because I just rediscovered it on my computer.

Jim Tully is one of my literary heroes, and I don’t have many. Tully was a defacto Satanist, of this I have no question. He lived his life as he saw fit.

Credited with originating the hard-boiled writing style practiced later by such authors as Dashiell Hammett. His own story is on par with such figures as Jim Thompson and Jack London, writing not from fantasies, but from his own hard won experiences.

This red-headed Irish bruiser became one of the most respected writers during the roaring twenties, a time filled with more historical greats than probably ever before or since.

A literary bum, Jim also spent time doing an assortment of jobs to get him from one day to the next. By the time his first book was published in 1922, he’d been a dishwasher, chainmaker, boxer, newspaper reporter, tree surgeon, circus handyman, and Hollywood press agent. Through these jobs he compiled a few lifetimes of experiences and characters to write about.

Just like the most of the once great figures of history, Tully has been all but forgotten. His works slowly went out of print and his name brought up less and less. Just like the legacy of Al Jolson, who was in his time considered to be the greatest entertainer the world had known, is resigned to the intrepid hands of those who search the dustbins of our uniquely American past.

As Satanists, we search these dustbins. Most of the dust it churns up is lung-choking garbage, but once in a while an amazing thing will be found.

“Thieves and Vagabonds” was originally published in H.L. Mencken’s monthly magazine The American Mercury in 1928. This work is being published for the first time in 80 years.

Since we’re talking about Mencken, I’ll quote him now. It’s one I’ve sort of adopted as my own long-form motto:

“I hope I need not confess that a large part of my stock in trade consists of platitudes rescued from the cobwebbed shelves of yesterday… This borrowing and refurbishing of shop-worn goods, as a matter of fact, is the invariable habit of traders in ideas, at all times and everywhere. It is not, however, that all the conceivable human notions have been thought out; it is simply, to be quite honest, that the sort of men who volunteer to think out new ones seldom, if ever, have wind enough for a full day’s work.”
-H.L. Menken, from “In Defense of Women”

Enjoy,

Kevin I. Slaughter

THIEVES AND VAGABONDS

Jim Tully

NO BIRD flew through the air. No bare branch stirred. The turbulent water of Lake Huron was icily supine in the midst of the frozen desolation. The little town in the Thunder Bay river section was buried deep in snow. For days the weather had remained the same.

The cold cut to the marrow of sparsely clad bones, like frost-bitten razor blades. The deep drifted snow glinted chameleonlike under the spasmodically shining sun. It, too, seemed a frozen candle in the sky.

All day the wind had whirled the snow in every direction. It abated by night, and the snow ceased falling. A deadly calm, and a deadlier cold settled over the earth. It was twenty degrees below zero.

Every living thing had hunted shelter for the night. The stars glistened above, as if piercing through the atmosphere with swords of burning steel. The moon was a mist of frozen white and yellow.

To keep beggars from freezing the calaboose was left open. A pine structure for the lesser offenders, it stood on a side street―alone.

A group of vagabonds huddled around a jumbo stove in a wretchedly furnished room that faced a row of cells. The window of the room was stuffed with rags; there were but three unbroken panes of glass left. The door was cracked and frostbitten. The unbroken panes were covered with a heavy frost. A large lamp, fastened with a bracket, was above the door.

The echo of a locomotive whistle was heard, like the faraway sound of vibrant music. The vagabonds listened, and a flare of interest passed over their life-beaten and weather-lashed faces. But no word was said as they turned their eyes to the round stove again, like tired dogs dozing. The engine whistled once lore and all eyes became alert.

“That old boy’s a ramblin’ to git out o’ the cold,” said a derelict with a weazened face. “He thinks !it’ll be warmer ‘n Detroit.”

“Yeap,” said a one-legged man, “it’s a hell of a night for yeggs and hoboes. I wouldn’t even want a railroad bull out on a night like this. We’re gittin’ punished for our sins.”

“It’ll be hotter ‘n this when you git punished fur your sins, One Leg,” grunted a heavy man with a red kerchief around his neck.

“Maybe so, maybe so,” drawled One Leg. “I been punished enough in my time for all I ever done.”

The heavy man, a crumbling mountain of muscle, smiled a crooked smile, rubbed his week-old beard with a knucklecracked hand, and said, “What da hell, what da hell―gittin’ soft, One Leg? You’d steal pennies from dead men’s eyes.”

“You bet your life I would, Husky. Dead men don’t need no pennies, and they don’t need their eyes shut-they can’t see nothin’.”

The group laughed without mirth.

“I hope no hobo’s on that rattler just pullin’ in. He’d freeze―sure’s Gawd is just,” said the derelict with the weazened face.

“Don’t worry your potato soul, Weazle,” advised the man called One Leg. “They ain’t no smart ‘boes ridin’ freights tonight. And them that ain’t smart―well, the deader the better. Too many dumb ones on the road already.”

The decrepit of the earth lapsed into silence. The husky vagabond arose and reached into the bottom of the wood-box. He pulled out a chunk of wood. “Don’t know what we’ll do when the wood’s gone,” he sneered. “Burn the shack down, I guess.”

“I’d just as soon,” responded One Leg. “These jails are gettin’ rottener every year. A self-respectin’ tramp can’t stop in them no more. It used to be when I first went on the road they was decent jails. You’d git good eats and java. Now all you git is hell from the jailers and corn bread and chicory.”

He was interrupted by the man with the weazened face. “Well, if you don’t like the jails you kin quit trampin’.” Then, scornfully, “Quit your crabbin’! You’re lucky they let the jails open.”

II

The large man moved his shoulder and neck muscles nervously, completely oblivious of the conversation.

“What’s the matter, Husky, old snowbird, do you want a shot?” asked a vagabond, looking at him.

“Naw, I don’t want a shot. Gosh! Can’t a man sit quiet without you mosquitoes buzzin’ at him? I was jist thinkin’ o’ the days I was a man―and a damn good one at that.”

“What you was don’t buy any ham an’ eggs,” laughed One Leg. “People go to Hell ’cause they was what they was. No one gives a cockeyed nigger for what you was. What you was is all over―has-beens ain’t useful to society nohow.”

“That may be, One Leg, but a hasbeen’s better ‘n a never-was, any day. What you were shows what you was-and I was one of the two best men of his weight in the world. Think o’ that, you bums and would-be yeggs! The world’s damn big―and they wasn’t any man in it―millions and millions o’ them―that could lick me. Huh,” he looked about with scorn, “that’ll make your eyes pop out like eggs―huh―the world’s damn big.” He raised an immense hand. “Lookit that mitt―and this mug”―putting his hand to his jaw. “It’s stopped wallops from all o’ them―an’ the best any o’ them ever got was an even break wit’ me―and only one o’ them ever done that.

“I used to go ’round ’em like hoops on a barrel and they called me the Ghost Wit’ the Kick of a Mule. I put the fear o’ Gawd in their hearts, I did. I played on their ribs till they cracked. Didden I put the Chicago Slasher out wit’ a rabbit punch―and he croaks before mornin’? I’ll say I been a man in my time!”

The derelicts looked at Husky in a disinterested manner. He rose and went on.

“When Regan was champeen, who fought him a twenty-round draw? Me! An’ the gong saves him in the last round. I was gittin’ better ‘n the twentieth. I kin hear the crowd hollerin’ yet. No one ever stood up in front o’ him twenty rounds before, neither. In the third round he sez to me, he sez―’Say your prayers, Husky, you’re a goin’ to Heaven to-night,’ and I grunts back at him, ‘Not ’til I gives you hell first,’ I sez. And then we went at it. Lord almighty, what a battle! In the ‘leventh round I drops him for a count of eight. Eight, do you hear that? I jest come within two counts o’ bein’ the champeen o’ the world, I did. But the Kid he gets up and shakes in his knees and then comes at me with his right sailing plumb fer my jaw, an’ quicker ‘n lightnin’ I squared ‘roun ‘n’ hooked my left―an’ doubles him up like a rusty knife.”

Husky gulped.

“It was a night like this an’ colder ‘n Hell wit’ the door open. They was forty thousand people there an’ I come near bein’ champeen. You git that―you bread-beggars―you crums―you meat-snatchers―you unbathed bastards! ―an’ don’t make fun o’ your betters! I’m still man enough to clap your heads together.” He slapped his immense broken-knuckled and finger-twisted hands together and went on: “Don’t you never call me Snowbird agin, One Leg, or I’ll make you pick your teeth with that crutch o’ yourn. I’ll make you dig your grave with it if you say I’m a hophead out loud.”

One Leg looked about the room, then turned with a bored expression away from Husky. The other vagabonds did the same.

The ex-bruiser, baffled by their unconcern, trembled with the memory of past glory. The crumbling muscled hero of a little hour that had passed, he looked about forlornly.

His hands dropped from their clenched position; his taut muscles relaxed. He jerked the soiled red kerchief from around his neck and wiped his rheumy eyes. He then seated himself by the stove. A strained silence followed.

III

One Leg broke it with, “Well, ‘boes, any of you want to see my new invention?”

“Sure―what did you invent?” asked Weazle.

“A dog-fooler,” answered One Leg, pulling up the trouser of his remaining leg and showing the calf of it wrapped about with heavy brown paper. “There ain’t a dog in this country can bite through that,” he said proudly.

Husky felt the paper and exclaimed, “Gosh, it’s only paper!”

“Sure! What did you think it was―cement?” One Leg snarled.

“Well, a fellow needs somethin’ like that―there’s a lot of dogs in Michigan,” commented a vagabond.

“Well, I ain’t very fast on this one leg,” resumed the inventor, “so I had to rig up somethin’ to protect it.”

“I’ll bet a Newfoundlan’ kin bite through that,” said a vagabond who had not spoken before. “I seen ’em up in Maine bigger ‘n cows.”

“How about a bull-dog?” asked another.

“Oh, they can’t bite very hard,” answered One Leg. “Their jaws don’t open very far―it takes a big mouth for a hard bite.”

“A collie’s mean, though,” ventured Husky. “They’d bite their uncle if he wasn’t lookin’.”

“Them little terriers are pizen to me,” said a nondescript. “They don’t bite so hard, but they raise old Ned till they git all the darn dogs in the neighborhood after a guy. ”

Husky looked bored. “Let’s forgit about dogs,” he said. “Doc don’t care about dogs, do you, Doc?”

The vagabond addressed might have been any age. from fifty to eighty. His shoulders were round, his hands delicate, slender and bloodless. His face was pinched pink and blue. His hair straggled silver into his bleared and insane eyes.

His pockets were ripped on his buttonless coat, the collar of which hid his thin neck. There remained still a touch of authority in his incisive manner, as if he belonged not in such crass surroundings. With precise enunciation he turned to his mountainous questioner.

“My name is Dr. John Abercombie, if you please, sir, and I may say that I am not at all interested in dogs-only the human brain.” He raised his right hand in the manner of a professor before a class. “It is, gentlemen, the most marvelous gift of God. I speak of man’s brain―not woman’s.”

Laughter interrupted him. He frowned at his audience.

“And I often said to her, ‘But, dear, remember our position―and your own good name―even if you do not love me―you cannot afford a scandal. You surely would not trade a brain specialist for an Italian teacher of the dance! Ah, dear wife, do you not recall the words of the woman-weary Shakespeare, “Frailty, thy name is woman?” Madness lies in getting what we want―one should be careful of the brain. The convolutions of the cerebrum are many―this man belongs in the medulla oblongata position. He has touched the pia mater which connects the nerves of your body―it is that most delicate portion of the brain.’”

Weazle rubbed his yellow eyebrows in a bored manner.

“Well, one thing’s a cinch―none of us has any brains―that’s why we’re here.” He looked at Doc. “Believe me, herdin’ sheep in Idaho beats this life. The sheep may be dumb, but they hain’t any dumber than us.”

“Chortle for yourself, Weazle,” snapped One Leg.

“Well, I’ll sing, then,” returned Weazle beginning in a cracked tenor voice:

Oh, all you young Dukes and you Duchess,
Just listen to what I do say,
Because it ain’t ourn that we touches,
You send us to Botany Bay.

Singin’ too-ral-too-ral-looralay,
And too-ral-loo-ral-lorray,
Because it ain’t ourn that we touches,
You send us to Botany Bay.

Oh, had I the wings of a buzzard,
I’d spread out my pinions and fly
‘Way back to Old England forever,
And there I’d be willin’ to die!

“Gentlemen,” said Doc slowly, “most anyone would be willing to die in England.”

Weazle flared into a cockney accent:

“England’s a white man’s country―and the women are all beautiful―not like in this hick country.”

Doc rubbed his thin, bloodless hands, and gazed at Weazle with the round eyes of the insane.

“Slandering womanhood ill becomes a gentleman, young man. Perhaps you have never known a real American woman.”

“No―but that wop did.”

Doc was frozen dignity.

“I shall not discuss such matters with children.”

His head sank. He looked a fragment for the pity of his fellows.

All were oblivious except Husky. He rose from his seat and put a heavy hand on Doc’s shoulder. “Don’t take it so hard, old boy. You were up an’ now you’re down. I know what you mean-these yaps don’t. They’re just a lotta hogs an’ they hain’t never seen but one pen in their life. We been in real ones, ain’t we, Doc?”

He patted the remnant of science. Doc did not stir.

“No use talkin’ to these yaps about brains, Doc. They don’t know what you mean.”

IV

The door opened.

A rugged fellow of about thirty-three entered. He held his hands funnel-like to his mouth and blew hot breath upon them.

He wore a dark suit that had been well tailored. Full of the grease-stains of the road and pricked in several places by the sharp pieces of coke upon which he had lain, it nevertheless fit him well and accentuated the lines of his powerful body. He was about six feet tall. His hair curled around the edges of his cap. His face was intelligent, well cut; his eyes a vivid blue. When he removed his hands he showed a sardonic sneer. He tried to smile. The sneer remained.

All in the group save Husky were deferential to the new arrival. They acted as though a man had appeared among them. He walked toward the stove.

“God Almighty, what a night! Is this all the wood you’ve got?” He blew on his hands again. Then as if irritated at the scarcity of wood, “What a hell of a bunch of vagabonds and thieves you are! You’d all sit here and freeze before you’d rustle some wood.”

He pushed One Leg from his chair, tore it apart, and put it in the stove.

He pulled a quart of whisky from a sagging coat pocket.

A constable’s voice was heard.

“Come on, here! It’s a wonder you ain’t froze! You oughta be in school instead of galavantin’ around the country.”

He stood in the door with a youth of fine features.

All the vagabonds looked up except Doc. He still stared at the rotting floor. The youth walked to the stove.

“They’re comin’ younger an’ younger. Soon babies’ll be on the road,” laughed a vagabond.

“Yes―lovely babies,” remarked Doc, looking at the youth. The sound of the constable’s footsteps could be heard, dying.

Tacked to the wall was part of a map of America. The ruffian in the tailored suit walked toward it.

“It’s not all here. The Gulf of Mexico and the Southern States are missing.”

“Well, you don’t count ’em anyhow,” laughed One Leg.

The man traced a route with his finger.

“We’re a hell of a ways from nowhere…and along ways to go.”

He walked away and stood with his back to the stove. His eyes scanned the array of derelicts.

“Where you from, Bozo?” He turned to the youth.

“Over yonder,” returned the lad, circling the room with his hand.

“We’re all from over yonder,” put in Doc.

The wind rose in a terrifying crescendo. The kerosene lamp flickered. A shadow passed over the room.

The wind died down, then rose again, louder than before. Doors and window rattled violently.

“It’ll blow the cells outta the building if it keeps this up,” laughed Weazle.

“Or the wool off a sheep’s tail, eh, Weaz?” suggested One Leg.

Doc spoke in a cracked, appealing voice to the youth who had taken his fancy.

“So you’re from over yonder?” He broke into a half song:

Over yonder―when the roll is called
Over yonder―I’ll be there!

The ruffian in the worn tailored suit took up the words in a rich vibrant voice:

On that bright and glorious morning
When old time shall be no more…
When the roll is called over yonder
I’ll be there!

He beat time with feet and hands. The youth and Weazle took up the song.

They stopped suddenly. The wind pounded at the door. The ruffian in the tailored suit took another drink.

“Gimme a swig o’ that, for God’s sake!” pleaded Husky. “I’m needin’ a drink for a week. I’m goin’ nuts in here―two whole days of it.”

“Who ran your saloon last year? I’m not feedin’ good liquor to hoboes. You get a couple of swigs of this an’ it’d blow your empty can off. It’s not regular liquor, you know. It’s nitro-glycerine. I use it for soup―it opens anything.” He looked at Husky, trembling on his pine box scat.

“Lord, have a little pity, ‘bo! I’d give everybody a drink if I had it. I’d give the sun away an’ sit in the shade… That’s why I’m here.”

The man’s sneer vanished for a second. “I’ll give you a swig-just to watch it work.” He handed him the bottle. “Bathe your troubles on Nitro Dugan.”

V

The vagabonds became alert at mention of the name.

Husky clamped his immense jaws about the neck of the bottle.

“Here―what the hell! I’m giving you a drink―not the whole bottle!”

Nitro Dugan wrestled with Husky, who held the gurgling fluid upward.

Impatient, he stepped backward and slammed a heavy fist against Husky’s jaw. The bottle broke and fell to the floor.

Husky stood, legs apart, the neck of the bottle in his mouth.

“Give a bum a horse and he’ll want a stable,” snapped Nitro, looking at the spilled liquor. The bottle neck rattled to the floor.

Husky’s mountain of muscle trembled as though lava poured through it. He frowned at his benefactor with menace and seated himself on the pine box. Nitro sneered at him, “Now would you like some ham and eggs?” His voice rose. “What do you think I am―a traveling bartender?” Pointing to the floor, “Look what you did-you’d muss up Heaven if they let you in.”

Husky’s heavy voice boomed. “Gwan away from me-afore I tap you on the button!”

“Don’t talk to me that way, ‘bo. I’ll put a hole through you so big you can bury yourself in it,” sneered Nitro Dugan.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen―remember where you are,” pleaded Doc. “It ill behooves men to forget themselves over such trifling matters.”

“Shut up!” snarled Husky, pushing the emaciated vagabond backward.

He stood before Nitro with fearful menace. “Go ahead and try to put your hole through me, ‘bo. They hain’t a bullet made that kin go through my hide.”

Nitro stood with his defiant sneer, his right hand buried in his coat pocket.

All eyes opened startled wide.

“Don’t, for God’s sake! Don’t you see he’s just a wreck? And now you’ve drove him mad with hooch,” the youth pleaded.

“The hell I’m a wreck! I’m Battlin’ Hagen, you whippersnapper! No longlegged sap kin talk about drillin’ holes through me an’ git away wit’ it.”

All drew in closer. The youth held Nitro’s right hand. Nitro commanded, “Hands up, you bum, or I’ll throw a bullet through you!”

Husky dashed toward Nitro. A bullet missed him. He twisted the snub blue revolver from Nitro’s hand. The youth picked it up.

Nitro made a move for the gun, but Husky was upon him.

“Now we’ll take it―man to man―you yellow dog!” Nitro, with the same defiant sneer, twisted a left fist upward. It connected under Husky’s chin. The blood spurted from his teeth.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” pleaded Doc. A wild blow caught him. His jaw went to one side. His eyes popped. He fell unnoticed.

One Leg decided against Husky and thumped him with his crutch. The blows rattled from his head.

Then, as if irritated, Husky pulled his right shoulder back in the midst of the general melee. His fist caught One Leg on the right ear. It shot him perpendicular for at least six feet. He then fell like a telegraph pole, chopped low.

Husky did not look at him.

Now roused, he rushed in relentlessly, using every trick long years in the ring had taught him.

Nitro parried, feinted, and stalled for time. His blows rattled on Husky’s jaws like pebbles on an iron roof.

Hurtling bodies drowned the noise of the roaring wind. Nitro’s coat was torn from his shoulders. Crushed against the door, he began to push his knees upward in an effort to cripple Husky. The ex-bruiser, equal to the occasion, used the same tactics.

“Stop it! Stop it! I’ll shoot,” the youth cried.

The gun was leveled at the bloody assailants. As if eager for a breathing spell, they stopped hostilities and looked at the youth.

Doc sat erect, rubbing his jaw. He rose shakily and stood, a ghoulish spectator, blood dripping from the corners of his mouth.

One Leg still slept, like a crippled soldier, with the crutch across his breast.

The blue gun was held firmly. The monsters of men looked down its barrel.

The lamp above the youth accentuated his fine cut features. A strand of blondishbrown hair fell from under his cap. The vagabonds faced him in a half-circle as he leaned against the door.

“You wouldn’t shoot, would you, kid? Why do you care if we kill each other?” coaxed Nitro.

“I don’t―but if you do, they’ll blame it on us―and throw the key away.”

“Ho ho―that’s it―lookin’ out for yourself!” Nitro again sneered, stepping closer.

“Sure―ain’t I human? But stand where you are!”

The revolver was shoved forward.

“Now quit your fightin’―both of you. You’ll get us all thrown out in the cold. If you want a fight, beat it on out of here. Then you kin freeze and go to Heaven like little babies swattin’ flies.”

Husky sprang forward. He grabbed the gun with one hand; and with the other he ripped the youth’s clothing to his waist. The lad’s cap came off in the scuffle.

The half-circle of vagabonds gasped in unison.

“God Almighty! It’s a girl!”

VI

The words awoke One Leg. He clattered to his one foot.

Centuries fell from every face save Doc’s. Impassive as stone, he saw not a girl, but a fellow vagabond.

The girl, with hair falling over her slender shoulders, now stood with the expression of a trapped animal; arms folded across her breast. The half-circle began to close in.

“You dirty devils! Now you want to paw me! You’re all alike―every one of you―even the damned preacher in the Reform School!”

Her words made them hesitate. Her left hand searched for the door knob. An awful stillness followed. The wind could be heard trumpeting outside.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” pleaded Doc.

“Shut up, you nutty yap!” from Nitro Dugan.

Husky, his mind on weightier matters, held the revolver loosely in his hand. He touched the girl’s arm. She shrank.

Nitro Dugan moved closer, and delivered a powerful blow to Husky’s Jaw. He grappled for the gun.

It turned downward and exploded. A moan followed.

The girl looked upward for a second. Her left hand searched for the door-knob again. Her right crashed the lamp to the floor. A blue flame spread over the kerosene in Husky’s direction.

Dodging low, she was gone. The door slammed shut.

Husky awaited the fast creeping flames. Nitro Dugan jerked the door open with,

“Well, it’s our move―damn the luck!” Doc remained.

The other vagabonds scurried after Nitro Dugan.

“Wait a moment, gentlemen,” Doc called. “Perhaps he isn’t dead.” No hobo heard.

An obscure paragraph in a Detroit paper announced next day that the jail at______ had burned to the ground.

Two unknown tramps, seeking shelter for the night, had been found dead among the ruins.