Jailbirds by Jim Tully – The American Mercury, 1928

Scanned and OCRed on Sept.8th, 2010 by Kevin I. Slaugther. Read “Thieves and Vagabonds” by Tully as well.



THE jail room was thirty-five feet long, twenty-five feet wide, and seven feet high. In this large cage were fifty prisoners. Some had been sentenced and were serving jail terms; others awaited trial, or removal to the penitentiary.

The floor was of thick sheet-metal. Around the walls and ceilings were heavy iron bars, painted a ghastly yellow. On each side of the cage was a row of cells, a dozen in all. Each cell was about five by six feet. There were four hammocks in each, one above the other, two on each side. Each hammock contained a filthy blanket.

The oldest inmates had the choice of blankets and hammocks. The prisoner in jail the longest was the court of last appeal in all disputes.

In case of his release, to go to the penitentiary—or freedom—, the next in order of seniority took his place.

Between the rows of cells was a long pine table. A bench was on each side of it. There was room for only sixteen men on the benches.

Cards were not allowed in the jail, but somehow there was always a game in progress. Cigarettes, cigars, and plugs of chewing tobacco were the stakes.

Each prisoner, upon his arrival, had been deprived of all his possessions, with the exception of tobacco and handkerchiefs.

The daily routine began at five o’clock in the morning.

A guard awoke the inmates by pounding on the steel bars with an iron weight.

There arose from hammock, benches, table and floor as disheveled and terrible a group as ever pleaded for justice before merciless judges.

Swollen from sleep and grim from life, each face was a study for a philosophical misanthrope.

The odor of unwashed bodies was accentuated by the complete lack of ventilation.

There was but one faucet, and at it fifty men washed their faces. They pushed each other out of line like free citizens boarding street-cars.

The senior prisoner was allowed to keep a safety razor. He would shave any of his brothers in misery for the equivalent of fifty cents in cigarettes or tobacco. He plied his trade with the grimness of an executioner.

The blade was duller than a sergeant of police. The water was cold. The only soap available was a cake of coarse yellow naptha. The operation was violent and bloody.

At five-thirty they were called to break-fast. Half the men had not had a chance to wash.

They now stood, two by two, at a steel door which opened into another tank, in which was a long pine table.

Steaming hot chicory in a tin cup, two slices of hard bread, a spoonful of hash and a raw onion made all un-happy for the day.

Ten minutes were allowed in which to eat. It was impossible to gulp the boiling chicory in that time.

While the prisoners breakfasted, trus-ties swabbed the cells. They returned to wet floors and the same odors.

Any cigarettes or trinkets accidentally left in the cells were gone–stolen by the trusties.

Old magazines and daily newspapers strayed into the jail. Every line was read.

If a prisoner had arrived since the preceding morning, he was tried immediately after breakfast by a kangaroo court.

The charge was that of breaking into the jail without the consent of the in-mates. As in the outside world, judge, lawyers and jury took their places in the curriculum of injustice.

The blindfolded prisoner was led before the assembly. The senior prisoner, who was the judge, subjected him to a series of questions.

What was his age? What was he in for? Would he have an auburn or a brunette maiden to ease the loneliness of prison? Did he have dandruff—or any of the nameless diseases? Would he desire his breakfast brought to him by the chosen maiden as he lolled in bed? Would he have his chosen maiden bow-legged or pigeon-toed, or both? Or did he prefer a youthful virgin with a darker skin?

When the poor devil tried to name his preference, he was told to shut up. A roar of mocking laughter followed.

He was then given his instructions and told the rules of the prison. The violation of those rules would mean the infliction of so many lashes with a leather belt from the hand of the senior prisoner.

He was placed upon a blanket in the centre of the room. Suddenly the blanket was jerked from under his feet . He sprawled, still blindfolded, upon the floor.

Never was more moronic entertainment offered in American lodges. After he had nursed his bruises, the bandage was re-moved from the new arrival’s eyes. He was then made one of the bunch.

If a prisoner offered resistance to the kangaroo court, he was given the silence. No one talked to him during the day.

The following morning he was called before the court again. If he still offered resistance he was given the silence again, until at last he bowed to the majesty of prison law.

Few held out more than one day.


Guards brought in and took out different prisoners from early morning until late at night.

Some would leave to face juries of their uncaught peers amid the ironical good wishes and ribald sneers of the other prisoners.

The clanking of the iron doors and the calling of convict names by guards and trusties were the oases in the steel desert of monotony.

The next meal was at two o’clock. Chicory, bread, stew or beans. It was the last meal of the day.

A huge, gorilla-like Negro was the comedian of the tank. His crooked black arms hung to his knees. His lips were the size of doughnuts cut in half.

He had been released from the penitentiary four months before. After serving ten years as a two-time loser, he was now sentenced again for burglary. He laughed from morning until night.

“I’s a bad niggah, I is! Tain’t no use lettin’ dis niggah free no moah, nohow. I jist go percolatin’ ’round wit’ a gat an’ gits in trouble agin. I’se too bad a niggah to be loose exceptin’ on a chain.”

His eyes glistening with mirthful tears, he would laugh at his monstrous joke like a film comedian.

“I jis’ do a little burglin,’ an’ hot damn, de cops git me! An’ now dey takes dis heah niggah back home to de Big House agin.”

He would laugh again, louder than be-fore, his great lips shaking.

A pyromaniac was in the jail.

A tall, thin ghost of a man touching the shores of fifty, his eyes were blank, his mouth open. He faced a twenty-year sentence for arson. His gray hair straggled over a scar on his forehead. One shoulder drooped. One leg was shorter than the other.

He shuffled like a man paralyzed.

The ends of his fingers were blistered from holding burning matches. His eyes followed every match that lit a cigarette or pipe, in the hands of other prisoners. He did not smoke. He borrowed matches whenever possible. He would hold the burning piece of wood beneath his fingers. The blaze was lost in the blistered flesh. Prisoners would give him matches just to watch him sit in the corner and strike them on the floor.

Each hour was livened by a song from the Negro:

Standin’ on Fouth street,
Lookin’ up Main,
Cop come along
An’ ask me mah name.

I tol’ him mah name,
It was Dennis McGee,
I got seben wild wimmen
Aworkin’ foh me!

Ashes to ashes
An dus’ to dus’,
Was dey eber a woman
A burglah could trust?

A group would soon gather around him. To the stamping of feet and clapping of hands, the Negro would sing:

He took her to de tailah shop
To have her mouf made small,
She swallowed up de tailah,
De tailah-shop an’ all. . . .

Massa had no hooks an’ nails,
Nor anything like dat,
So on dis darky’s nose he used
To hang his coat an’ hat.

Ashes to ashes
An dus’ to dus’,
Was dey eber a woman
A burglah could trust?


A conglomerate gathering of frayed ras-cals, they were completely detached from the outside world. Regardless of color, innocence or guilt, they fraternized one with the other. Some tried to keep hearts from breaking; others tried only to kill the monotony of the hours. Thrown to-gether by the steel bars of circumstance, they snarled, quarreled, and cursed. Many seemed to bear all their burdens easier than propinquity.

One man among them held himself aloof.

Accused of forgery, with the certainty of conviction and a long term, he walked nervously up and down the tank. Even in misery he made no comradeship with more illiterate and braver rascals. His body was taut, his eyes swollen and strained at a door that did not open—for him.

Slowly the madness came upon him. Each night he sobbed and groaned. He may as well have thrown particles of ice at the sun.

Each time the iron door clanged he would suddenly rush forward and ex-claim, “Yes, sir! I’m ready!”

All but the pyromaniac laughed.

The door would let another prisoner out or in—and clang shut.

The forger would stand transfixed for a moment, and gaze at the iron-grey door. At last it opened for him.

One trusty took his head, another his feet. He was hurried out one morning with a leather strap around a swollen purple throat—a suicide.

The Negro laughed as he told his decrepit mates: “He’ll git up to Heaven and de good Lawd, He’ll say, `What foh you done fohged ma name foh? Ahse goin’ to put you to writin’ down de names of de preachehs an’ judges who keeps comin’ to Hell forebeh and ebeh.’ . . .”

A trusty brought in a paper which con-tained the picture of the forger’s wife and daughter. The young girl was posed by the photographer so as to show her beauti-ful legs. Her picture was fastened to the wall.

Otherwise life went on in the prison as though the forger had not lived among the men who knew of neither dawn nor dusk.

All day the electric lights burned. At night, all of them save a dim bulb over the door were switched out.

The pyromaniac would sit on his cot and bum a last match before going to sleep.

At intervals in the night, the main lights were switched on and off. The door clanged open and shut. A new face appeared in the morning.

A dope fiend, eaten with disease, was always well supplied with “snow.” The guards either knew or feigned ignorance for money. The prisoners knew. A stool-pigeon told a guard. No action was taken.

A friend regularly brought him clean handkerchiefs. The hem contained cocaine. Sometimes a spot soaked in morphine would be marked with a lead pencil. The saturated cloth would be soaked in a spoon of water. A match under the spoon, a safety pin jabbed into the arm, … dreams again!

Tobacco smoke circled, heavy as fog, about the steel room.

Men paced up and down, up and down, like automatons on a wire stretched across the empty chasm of life. It was night al-ways—with never a ray of day in the jail. . . or in their hearts. The Negro burglar alone was happy.

After many days the monotonous hum of voices would tell on their nerves.

They ached for solitude away from iron bars and caged men.

Each night a trusty came with a large can of Epsom salts. Coarse food, no exer-cise, bad air and overwrought nerves made indigestion king.

Ignorance and false pride sustained the inmates. Pride and hope. Alone, they might have given way to tears.

The Negro hoped for chicken again—in fifteen years.

Minds dulled with too much revery, with too much smoking, too many incessant tunes, often took on the illusion that they had always been behind the bars.

Among the two or three-time losers there was always much talk. Notes were com-pared. Denver Shorty, Texas Gyp, and Gimp the Red, each with a coterie of friends about him, talked of robbed banks and bullets in the night.

Young first offenders, actuated by the ego that makes the Pope and the yegg twin brothers, listened with awe.

“I blazed it out with the rube marshal and heard him fall in the alley. Another yap threw a bullet against the wall in back o’ me. . . . We got away with twenty grand—but Sailor Pete fell. A rube dis-trict attorney took three thousand an’ got him off with a little rap of a year. We sprung him in ten months.”

And Denver Shorty called, “Ain’t that so, Gimp?”

Gimp answered, “Yeah—what is it?”

In this world of iron bars and dim lights, ego paraded with braggadocio. Many lies were told.

“My kid brother’s only twelve years old, but he’s the best thief you ever saw,” was Texas Gyp’s contribution.

Young lads never before in jail told tales of long incarcerations for desperate crimes. Like snobs the world over, they wished to edge into the society which they admired.

Two brothers were in for automobile stealing. The younger, not over eighteen, was taken out of the jail one morning at nine o’clock.

The older brother walked the jail, mum-bling: “If those cops are givin’ the kid the third degree, I’ll kill ‘em.”

A guard brought the boy into the jail that afternoon. His face was black and blue. He staggered from exhaustion.

Ferocious hulks of life gathered about guard and boy. Among them was the brother. The guard, to whom the beaten boy had been delivered by the police, now met a heavy fist with his jaw.

A riot started. Other guards dragged their comrade out of the jail. The young criminal’s brother was knocked unconscious with a blackjack, and dragged out of the door. He died next day in a hospital.

The younger brother, bleeding and groaning all night, was taken away in an ambulance.

Added to the charge of stealing against him was the new one of resisting an officer.

The trusties were really the rulers of the little world. Their unpaid services added to the graft of the jailer. Like others of their kind, they assumed a great dignity with their little authority.

Prisoners serving jail sentences, they had privileges. They could run errands.

They had ample time to eat their meals. They were given as much food as they liked. Nonentities in the outer world, they were despots in a shutaway wilderness of iron.

Many of them were reluctant to leave when their terms expired. One had been a trusty at alternating periods for twenty years. Old, hopeless, broken, derelict, he would purposely commit small crimes in order to reenter the jail and become a trusty again.

He had never been in the Big House, or penitentiary. He scorned all those who had. Like most criminals, petty and great, he was really a moralist at heart.

Nearing seventy, bent double, with an awful leer on his face, he was known as Old Babyface in mockery. Intensely a Christian, he pored over his Bible with fanatical eyes. As bitter as St. Paul, and meaner in heart than Calvin, life had put glue on his fingers.

They stuck to everything.

He told everything to the guards . . . stole every-thing from the men.

Youths facing the State penitentiary the first time eagerly asked him questions about the Big House. He told them be-tween sneers of the hard way of crime.


A newcomer slept in a heroin stupor.

There was blood on his hands and clothes. The morning paper came. A man was dead.

He was the murderer. The prisoners stared at his neck in silence.

He slept peacefully in the last moments of untroubled oblivion he was ever to have.

His hat was on the floor beside him. His shirt was torn to the belt. His collar was gone. His four-in-hand scarf was in a hard knot, as though a hand had pulled it tight.

He did not remember the quarrel.

A clean-shaven fellow had been brought into the jail with the murderer. His eyes were furtive and rheumy. His manner was a conciliatory apology. He told with weak gusto of being caught in the at-tempt to rob with a deadly weapon. He established himself on terms of familiarity with everybody in the jail. But the two-time losers, with an air of suspicion, with-drew from him.

“They got ‘im in here to pump the guy that bumped the fellow off. Then they’ll use it agin him at the trial,” was Gimp the Red’s comment.

It went around the jail, like gossip at a woman’s club. The new arrival was a stool-pigeon.

Gimp the Red and Denver Shorty were in the wash-room with a dozen other prisoners.

The loquacious fellow with the furtive eyes was among them.

There was a sudden groan. A fist crashed at the base of his brain. His eyes went tight shut with pain. Blows whistling with sudden speed smashed his face and body. A foot caught him in the groin. Bleeding, twisted, groaning, he writhed on the slippery floor.

The prisoners regained composure and washed themselves in the nonchalant manner of men at a hunt club.

A guard came, asked many questions, made many threats.

No one seemed to know who hit the stool-pigeon.

The bleeding mongrel was taken away. The prisoners went without breakfast that morning.

The old plan of the police to have one criminal win another’s confidence and be-tray him had been frustrated.

A few weeks later the murderer returned from the court-room. In his ears still rang, “To be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul!”

His hands, in steel bracelets, were before him. His eyes stared unseeing.

The handcuffs were removed. His cell door was closed. The guard left.

He fell wearily to his cot. His head sagged low. As if unable to hold it up, he placed his elbows on his knees and rested his jaw in the palms of his hands, in the manner of Rodin’s “Thinker.”

Only the pyromaniac noticed him.

He looked at the bent-over figure for several minutes. Walking to his cell door, he asked, “Have you got a match?”

The man lifted his furrowed face.


He rose unsteadily and handed the pyro-maniac a small box of matches.

The incendiary’s eyes glowed. “Thanks—thanks!” And then, “Is it all over?”

“Yeap —I drew the rope. They’re stretchin’ it now, I suppose.”

The pyromaniac lit a match. It burned into his fingers as he watched.

“Well, it don’t make much difference,” he finally said. “Everybody kicks the bucket sooner or later.”

The condemned man rolled a cigarette. The pyromaniac held a match for him.

He watched the blaze while the murderer smoked feverishly.

“You know,” he said, lighting another match, “I wouldn’t be afraid to die. I’d rather like it. I wish this place’d burn up now.”

“But I’d want the judge in it,” snapped the murderer, “and that damn pie-faced jury. I raved in my sleep last night at the hangman—he painted my neck white where it was swollen an’ purple. . . an’ he put me in an iron coffin an’ gave me a hammer, sayin’, ‘Here, pal, you kin pound your way out.’ They dropped me through the trap—and I laughed and wriggled my way outta the rope.” He felt his throat. “I wish to God it was over.”

“It don’t take long,” said the pyromaniac. “Not over a minute.”

“No, it’s the waitin’ that kills. I gave the guy I bumped a better deal. He only died once.”

“O’ course you’ll have a preacher at the last,” suggested the pyromaniac.

“If they send me a preacher they’ll hang me twice,” was the answer.

Over his face passed clouds of reality.

“But, Bralen,” continued the pyromaniac, “it wouldn’t do no good to have the judge and jury die. . . they’d just get others.”

The murderer looked at the incendiary between puffs of smoke.

“Besides, you shouldn’t feel that way about ‘em. They hain’t no worse’n us—just different.”

He struck another match.

“If you die feelin’ happy towards every-body, you’ll wake up in tother world with your soul clean like fire.”

“Maybe you’re right,” answered the man about to die.

The incendiary walked to a group of prisoners.

“Bralen got the rope,” he said.


It was evening.

The Negro was starting for the peni-tentiary. He sang like one going on a glori-ous adventure:

Hang up de fiddle and de bow,

Lay down de shovel and de hoe,

Deys no moah stealin foh pooh ol’ Ned,

He’s goin wheah de bad niggah’s go.

He walked about getting ready, an antediluvian monster with the gift of laughter, his doughnut-lipped mouth open from ear to ear.

With crooked short legs, gigantic chest and baggy green-striped pants, the frayed bottoms of which dragged on the floor, and with a collarless shirt that was grimy and tom, he faced the meaningless futil-ity of his chaotic life with the laughter of a fool.

The fat guard waited, his hard lower lip and undershot jaw twisted in a smile at the Negro.

“Come on here, Rastus—time to go. They cain’t wait your Pullman all night, you know.”

“Dat’s all right, Mistah Guand. Tell ‘em foh me dat Geohge Washington Jones’ll be comin’ right along, an’ tell none o’ dem boys to come to de train to meet me, ’cause I’se been deah befoah.”

His eyes turned to the murderer’s cell.

“Ah’ll be waitin’ foh you, boy.”

“Go on, you black devil—an’ chew on a bone like an ape!”

The Negro laughed louder than ever.

“jis’ heah dat white boy talk! You bettah jist say all you kin, ’cause dey’s goin to buhn youh neck till it pops, an’ make it all red!”

The murderer stood up, his hands grip-ping the cell door until his fingers were white.

His heavy lantern-jaw was hard set. He scowled at the Negro. The Negro went on: “Bettah grin a little, white boy . . . ’cause you’se goin’ to dance till youh knees cave in—an’ you bettah pray hand too, Mistah Man, ’cause deys gonna hang you so fast it’ll be three days befoah de Lawd knows you’se daid.”

“Come on, Rastus,” laughed the guard.

The Negro put a shapeless hat on a bul-let head and shouted, “So long, eberybody! See you all in jail! Why dey allus takes you away at night so’s you cain’t see no purty country is moah’n I know.”

Guard and convict moved toward the door. It opened. Another guard entered. “Bring Bralen,” he said.

The murderer’s cell was opened. He was handcuffed to the Negro.

One smiled. The other frowned.

They marched away.

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”


Kevin I. Slaughter


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.”


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.


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.”


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.”


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!”


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.