Looney the Mutt
By Don Marquis
Lest his well-established reputation as a humorist obscure other considerable story-telling gifts, Don Marquis occasionally turns to an entirely different type of fiction. Here he takes you to the under-world of vagrants and itinerant crooks, and introduces a far from conventional hobo—a witless youth, butt of the crude jokes of coarseand and panhandlers, whose doglike devotion to the one bright star of his life is the appealing theme of an affecting story.
LOONEY had but one object in life, one thought, one conscious motive of existence to find Slim again. After he found Slim, things would be different, things would be better, somehow. Just how, Looney did not know.
Looney did not know much, anyhow. Likely he would never have known much, in the most favorable circumstances. And the circumstances under which he had passed his life were scarcely conducive to mental growth. He could remember, vaguely, that he had not always been called Looney Hogan. There had been a time when he was called Kid Hogan. Something had happened inside his head one day, and then there had come a period of which he remembered nothing at all; after that, when he could remember again, he was not Kid any more, but Looney. Perhaps some one had hit him on the head. People were always hitting him, before he knew Slim. And now that Slim was gone, people were always hitting him again. When he was with Slim, Slim had not let people hit him—often.
So he must find Slim-again; Slim, who was the only God he had ever known. In the course of time he became known, in his own queer world, from Baltimore to Seattle, from Los Angeles to Boston, as Slim's Lost Mutt, or as Looney the Mutt. Looney did not particularly resent being called a dog, but he never called himself the “Mutt”; he stuck to Looney; Slim had called him Looney, and Looney must, therefore, be right.
THE humors of Looney's world are not, uniformly, kindly humors. Giving Looney the Mutt a “bum steer” as to Slim's whereabouts was considered a legitimate jest.
“Youse ain't seen Slim Matchett anywheres?” he would ask of hobo or wobbly, working stiff or yeggman, his faded pale-blue eyes peering from his weather-worn face with the same anxious intensity, the same eager hope, as if he had not asked the question ten thousand times before.
And the other wanderer, if he were one that knew of Looney the Mutt and Looney's quest would answer, like as not:
“Slimmy de Match? Uh-huh! I seen Slim last mont' in Chi. He's lookin' fer youse, Looney.”
One day the Burlington Crip, who lacked a hand, and who looked so mean that it was of common report that he had got sore at himself and bitten it off, varied the reply a bit by saying:
“I seen Slim last week, an' he says: 'Where t'hell's dat kid o' mine? Youse ain't seen nuttin' o' dat kid o' mine, has you, Crip? Dat kid o' mine give me de slip, Crip. He lammistered, and I ain't seen him since. If youse gets jer lamps on dat kid o' mine, Crip, give him a wallop on his mush fer me, an' tell him to come an' find me an' I'm gonna give him another one.'”
Looney stared and wondered and grieved. It hurt him especially that Slim should think that he, Looney, had run away from Slim; he agonized anew that he could not tell Slim at once that such was not the truth. And he wondered and grieved at the change that must have taken place in Slim, who now promised him “a wallop on the mush.” For Slim had never struck him. It was Slim who had always kept other people from striking him. It was Slim who had, upon occasion, struck other people to protect him—once, in a hangout among the lakeside sand-dunes south of Chicago, Slim had knifed a man who had, by way of jovial by-play to enliven a dull afternoon, flung Looney into the fire.
It never occurred to Looney to doubt, entirely, these bearers of misinformation. He was hunting Slim, and of course Slim was hunting Looney. His nature was all credulity. Such mind as the boy possessed—he was somewhere in his twenties, but had the physique of a boy—was saturated with belief in Slim, with faith in Slim, and he thought that all the world must admire Slim. He did not see why any one should tell lies that might increase Slim's difficulties, or his own,
THERE was a big red star he used to look at nights, when he slept in the open, and because it seemed to him bigger and better and more splendid than any of the other stars, he took to calling it Slim's star. It was a cocky, confident-looking star; it looked as if it would know how to take care of itself, and Slim had been like that. It looked go-natured, too, and Slim had been that way. When Looney had rustled the scoffin's for Slim, Slim had always let him have some of the best chow—or almost always. And he used to talk to that star about Slim when he was alone. It seemed sympathetic. And although he believed the hoboes were telling him the truth when they said that they had seen Slim, it was apparent even to his intelligence that they had no real sympathy with his quest.
Once he did find a certain sympathy, if no great understanding. He worked a week, one Spring, for a farmer in Indiana. The farmer wished to keep him, for that Summer at least, for Looney was docile willing enough, and had a natural, unconscious tact with the work-horses. Looney was never afraid of animals, and they were never afraid of him. Dogs took to him, and the instant liking of dogs had often stood him in good stead in his profession.
“Why won't you stay?” asked the farmer,
“Slim's lookin' fer me, somewheres,” said Looney. And he told the farmer about Slim. The farmer, having perceived Looney's mental twilight, and feeling kindly toward the creature, advanced an argument that he thought might hold him.
“Slim is just as likely to find you if you stay in one place, as if you go travelin' all over the country,” he said.
“Huh-uh,” said Looney. “He ain't, Mister. It's this way, Mister; every time I stop long anywheres, Slim, he passes me by.”
AND then he continued, after a pause: “Slim, he was always good to me, Mister. I kinda want to be the one that finds Slim, instead of just stayin' still an' waitin' to be found.”
They were standing in the dusk by the barn, and the early stars were out. Looney told him about Slim's star.
“I want to be the guy that does the findin',” went on Looney presently, “because I was the guy that done the losin'. One night they was five or six of us layin' under a lot of railroad ties we had propped up against a fence to keep the weather off, an' we figgered on hoppin' a train fer Chi that night. Well, the train comes along, but I'm. See? The rest of t'gang gits into an empty in de dark, an' I don't wake up. I s'pose Slim he t'inks I'm wit' t'gang, but I don't wake up under them ties till mornin'. I went to Chi soon's I could, but I ain't never glommed him since. Mister. I didn't find him dere. An' dat's t' way I lost Slim, Mister.”
“Mavbe,” suggested the farmer, “he is dead.”
“Nit,” said Looney. “He ain't dead. If Slim was croaked or anything, I'd be wised up to it. Look at that there star. Dat is Slim's star, like I told youse. If Slim had been bumped off, or anything, Mister, that star wouldn't be shinin' that way, Mister.”
And he went back to his own world—his world—which was a succession of freight and cattle cars, ruinous sheds and shelters in dubious suburbs near to railroad sidings, police stations, workhouses, jails, city missions, transient hangouts draggled clumps of wood, improvised shacks shared with others of his kind in vacant lots in sooty industrial chance bivouacs amidst lumber piles under dripping water-tanks, lucky infrequent lodgings in slum hotels that used to charge fifteen cents for a bed and now charge a quarter, golden moments in vile barrooms and blind tigers, occasional orgies in quarries or gravel pits or abandoned tin-roofed tool houses, uneasy loiterings and interrupted slumbers in urban parks and the squares or outskirts of villages. Sometimes he worked, as he had with the Indiana farmer, worked with the wheat harvesters of the Northwest, or the snow shovelers of the metropolises, or the fruit-gatherers of California, but more often he loafed, and rustled grub and small coin from the charitably disposed.
It all seemed the natural way of life to Looney. He could not remember anything else. He viewed the people of the world who did not live so, and whom he saw to be the majority, as strange, unaccountable beings whom he could never hope to understand; he vaguely perceived that they were stronger than he and his ever-hiking clan, and he knew that they might do unpleasant things to him with their laws and their courts and their strength, but he bore them no rancor, unlike many of his associates.
He had no theories about work or idleness; he accepted either as it came; he had little conscious thought about anything, except finding Slim again. And one thing worried him: Slim, who was supposed to be looking for Looney, even as Looney was looking for Slim, left no mark. He was forever looking for it, searching for the traces of Slim's knife—a name, a date, a destination, a message bidding Looney to follow or to wait—on freight-sheds and water-tanks, and known and charted telegraph poles and the tool-houses of construction gangs. But Slim, always just ahead of him, as he thought, continually returning and passing him, left no mark, no wanderer's patrin, behind.
Looney left his own marks everywhere, but, strangely enough, it seem that Slim never saw them. Looney remembered that one time when he and Slim were together. Slim had wished to meet and confer with the Burlington Crip, and had left word to that effect, penciled and carved and sown by the speech of the mouth, from the Barbary Coast to the Erie Basin. And the Burlington Crip, with his snaggle teeth and his stump where a hand had been, had joined them on the Brooklyn water-front within two months. It had been simple, and Looney wondered why Slim omitted the easy method of communication. Perhaps Slim was using it, and Looney was not finding the marks. He knew himself for stupid, and set his failure down to that, never to neglect on Slim's part. For Slim was Slim, and Slim could do no wrong.
HIS habit of searching for some scratched or written word of Slim's became known to his whole section of the under world, and furnished material for an elaboration of the standing jest at his expense. When ennui descend upon some chance gathering in one of the transient hangouts—caravanserai as familiar to the loose-foot, casual guests, from coast to coast, as was ever the Blackstone in Chicago or the Biltmore in New York to those who read the simple history—it was customary for some wag to say:
“Looney, I seen a mark that looked like Slim's mark on a shed down to Alexandria, Virginny, right by where the Long Bridge starts over to Washington.”
And it might be that Looney would start at once, without a word, for Alexandria. Therein lay the cream of the subtle witticism for its perpetrators—in Looney's swift departures.
Or it might be that Looney would sit and ponder, his washed-out eyes interrogating the speaker in a puzzled fashion, but never doubting. And then the jester would say, perhaps: “Why don't you get a move onto you, Looney? You're gonna miss Slim again.”
And Looney would answer, perchance: “Slim, he ain't there now. The' was one of them wobblies' bump-off men sayin' he seen Slim in Tacoma two weeks ago, an' Slim was headin' the way. I'm gonna wait fer him a while longer.”
But he never wait long. He could never make himself. As he had told the Indiana farmer, he was afraid to wait long. It was the Burlington Crip who had made him afraid to do that. The Crip had told him one time: “Looney, Slim went through here last night, while youse was asleep over on that lumber pile. I forgets youse is lookin' fer him or I'd 'a' tipped him off youse was here.”
SLIM had been within a hundred yards of him, and he had been asleep and had never known! What would Slim think, if he knew that? So, thereafter, he was continually tortured by the fancy that Slim might be passing him in the night; or that Slim, while he himself was riding the rods underneath a railway car, might be on the blind baggage of that very train, and would hop off first and be missed again. From day to day he became more muddled and perplexed trying to decide whether it would be better to choose the route or that, whether it would be better to stop here a week, or go yonder with all possible speed. And from month to month he developed more and more the questing, peering, wavering manner of the lost dog that seeks its master.
Looney was always welcome in the hangouts of the wandering under-world. Not only was he a source of diversion, a convenient butt, but few could rustle grub so successfully. His meager frame and his wistfulness, his evident feebleness of intellect, drew alms from the solvent population, and Looney faithfully brought his takings to the hangouts and was dispatched again for more. Servant and butt he was to such lords of life as the Burlington Crip and the English Basher. But he did not mind so long as he was not physically maltreated—as he often was. The occasional crimes of his associates, the occasional connection of some of them with industrial warfare here and there, Looney sometimes participated in; but he never understood. If he were told to do so and so, for the most part he did it. If he were asked to do too much, or was beaten up for his stupidity, and he was always stupid, he quietly slunk away at his first opportunity.
The English Basher was a red-faced savage with fists as hard and rough as tarred rope; and he conceived the idea that Looney should be his kid, and wait upon him, even as he had been Slim's kid. Looney afraid of the man, for a time seemed to acquiesce. But the Basher had reckoned without Looney's faculty for blundering.
He dispatched Looney one day, ostensibly to bum a handout, but in reality to get the lay of a certain house in a suburb near Cincinnati, which the Basher meditated cracking the next convenient night. Looney returned with the food but without the information. He had been willing enough, for he admired yeggmen and all their ways and works, and was withheld by no moral considerations from anything he was asked to do; but he had bungled. He had been in the kitchen, he had eaten his own scoffin's there, he had talked with the cook for twenty minutes, he had even brought up from the cellar a scuttle of coal for the kitchen range to save the cook's back, but he actually knew less about that house, its plan, its fastenings, its doors and basement windows than the Basher had been able to gather with a single stroke of the eye as he loitered down the street.
“Cripes! Whadje chin about with the kitchen mechanic all dat time, you?” demanded the Basher.
“She was stringin' me along,” said Looney humbly, “an' I spilled to her about me an Slim.”
“Slim! —— —— yer, I've a mind t' croak yer!” cried the Basher.
And he nearly did it, knocking the boy down repeatedly, till finally Looney lay still upon the ground.
“S'elp me,” said the Basher, “I've a mind to give yer m'boots! You get up an' beat it! An' if I ever gets my lamps onto you again I will croak you, by Gawd, an' no mistake!”
Looney staggered to his feet and hobbled to a safe distance. And then, spitting out a broken tooth, he dared to mutter: “If Slimmy was here, he'd see de color o' youse insides, Slimmy would. Slimmy, he knifed a yegg oncet wot done less'n dat t'me!”
IT WAS only a week or two after he left the Basher that Looney's faith in Slim's star was tested again. Half a dozen of the brotherhood were gathered about a fire in a gravel pit in northern Illinois, swapping yarns and experiences and making merry. It was a tremendous fire, and lighted up the hollow as if it were the entrance to Gehenna, flinging the grotesque shadows of the men against the overhanging embankments, and causing the inhabitants of a village a mile or so away to wonder what farmer's haystack was aflame. The tramps were wasting five times the wood they needed, after their fashion. They had eaten to repletion, and they were wasting the left-over food from their evening gorge; they had booze; they were smoking; they felt, for the hour, at peace with the world.
“Wot ever did become of dat Slim?” asked the Burlington Crip, who happened to be of the party, looking speculatively at Looney. Even the sinister Crip, for the nonce, was not toting with him his usual mordant grouch.
Looney was tending the fire, while he listened to the tales of the spacious days of the great Johnny Yegg himself, and other titans of the road who have now assumed the state of legendary heroes; and he was, as usual, saying nothing.
“Slim? Slimmy t' Match wot Looney here's been tailin' after fer so long?” said the San Diego Kid. “Slim, he was bumped off in Paterson t'ree or four years ago.”
“He wasn't neither,” spoke up looney. “Tex, here, seen him in Chi last mont.”
And, indeed, Tex had told Looney so. But now, thus directly appealed to, Tex just answered nothing. And for the first time Looney began to get the vague suspicion that these, his friends, might have trifled with him before. Certainly they were serious now. He looked around the sprawled circle and sensed that their manner was somehow different from the attitude with which they had usually discussed his quest for Slim.
“Bumped off?” said Tex. “How?”
“A wabbly done it,” said the San Diego “Slim, he was scabbin'. Strike-breakin'. And they was some wabblies there helpin' on the strike. See? An' this wabbly bumps Slim off.”
“He didn't neither,” said Looney again.
“T' hell he didn't? He said he did,” said the San Diego Kid pacifically. “Is a guy gonna say he's bumped off a guy unless he's bumped him off?”
Looney, somewhat shaken, withdrew from the group to seek comfort from the constellations; and particularly from that big, red star, the apparent king of stars, which he had come to think of as Slim's star, and vaguely, as Slim's mascot. It was brighter and redder than ever that night, Looney thought, and sitting on a discarded railroad tie and staring at the planet, Looney gradually recovered his faith.
“ HE AIN'T neither been bumped off, Slim ain't,” he muttered, “an' I'm gonna find him yet.”
And Slim had not been bumped off, however sincere the San Diego Kid may have been in his belief.
It was some months later that Looney found him in a little city in Pennsylvania—or found some one that looked like him.
Looney had dropped from a freight-train early in the morning, had rustled himself some grub, had eaten two good meals and had part of a day's sleep, and now, just as dark was coming on, and the street lamps were being lighted, was loafing aimlessly on the platform of the railway depot. He purposed to take a train south that night, when it became so dark that he could crawl into an empty in the yards without too much danger of being seen, and he was merely putting in the time until full night came on.
While he was standing idly so, an automobile drew up beside the station platform and an elegantly dressed and slender man of about thirty got out. He assisted from the car a woman and a small child, and they made toward the door of the waiting-room.
“Slim!” cried Looney, rushing forward.
For this was Slim—it must be Slim—it was Slimmy the Match in every feature and yet, the car!—the clothes—the woman—the baby—the prosperity— Was it Slim?
“Slim!” cried Looney' again, his heart leaping in his eager body. “It's me, Slim! It's Looney! I've got youse again. Slim! Gawd! I've found yuh!”
The woman hastily snatched the child up into her arms, with a suppressed scream, and recoiled.
The man made no sound, but he, too, drew back a step, not seeming to see Looney's outstretched hand.
But he did see it—he saw more than that. He saw, as if they were flashed before him at lightning speed upon a cinema screen, a dozen scenes of a wild and reckless and indigent youth that he had thought was dead forever; he saw these rough-neck years suddenly leap alive and stalk toward him again, toward him and his; he saw his later years of industry, his hard-won success, his position so strenuously battled for, his respectability that was become so dear to him, all his house of life so laboriously builded, crumbling before the touch of this torn and grotesque outcast that confronted and claimed him, this wavering, dusty lunatic whom he dimly remembered. If his wife knew—if her people knew—if the business men of this town were to know——
He shuddered and turned sick, and then with a sudden recovery he took his child from its mother and guided her before him into the waiting-room.
LOONEY watched them enter, in silence. He stood dazed for a moment, and then he slowly turned and walked down the railroad track beyond the limits of the town. There, upon a spot of turf beside the right of way, he threw himself upon his face and sobbed and moaned, as a broken-hearted child sobs, as a dog moans upon its master's grave.
But after a while he looked up. Slim's star was looking down at him, red and confident and heartening as ever. He gazed at it a long time, and then an idea took form in his ruined brain and he said aloud:
“Now, dat wasn't really Slim! I been lookin' fer Slim so long I t'ink I see Slim where he ain't! Dat was jus' some guy wot looks like Slimmy. Slimmy, he wouldn't never of gone back on an old pal like dat!”
The rumble of an approaching train caught his ears. He got to his feet and prepared to board it.
“Slim, he's waitin' fer me somewheres,” he told the star. “I may be kinda looney about some t'ings, but I knows Slim, an' dey ain't no yellow streak nowheres in Slim!”
And with unshaken loyalty Looney the Mutt boarded the train and set off upon his endless quest anew.