Phantom Fingers

Phantom Fingers  (1916) 
by Ellis Parker Butler

Extracted from Green Book magazine, July 1916, pp. 146-148.

Phantom Fingers


By Ellis Parker Butler

Author of "Why He Married Her," "Pigs is Pigs" the "Philo Gubb" stories and others.

ON account of what a German grenade had done to Jack's right arm they amputated the arm at the elbow, and the clean Canadian blood caused the wound to heal rapidly. The big, blue-eyed boy took it all good-naturedly enough: he was in better case than a lot of the fellows; his legs were all right, and some of the lads had no legs at all. He still had his left arm, too; it is wonderful how thankful a man can be for one good arm. It is wonderful how a man can joke about some things when he is young and has plenty of health left.

"What worries me," said Jacky, sitting in the sun before the tea tent in the convalescent camp somewhere in Kent, "is how I'm going to manicure the finger-nails on the left hand I left over there in Belgium."

The surgeon grinned.

"You feel 'em growing?"

"And sometimes the palm of the hand I kissed good-by in the trenches, itches something rare!" said Jacky. "A bit of the odd, that—what?"

It was odd. It was weird to feel the tickling of a palm you no longer had at the end of your arm, as if a fly were walking across it, as you might say.

"The ends of the nerve," said the surgeon, although Jacky knew that well enough already. "Stupid beggars, those nerves. It takes them a couple of years sometimes to learn they don't have to worry about fingers and hands that are gone."

"I can feel every finger on that right hand," said Jackey.

"No uncommon thing," agreed the surgeon. "Don't you fret. That will wear away."

THERE are some thousands over yonder like Jacky. Missing hands that will not admit yet that they are gone, supply a good bit of ghastly humor. There is a glass on a table, and the stump of an arm readies out for it with phantom fingers that are only the lingering ghosts of fingers a man will never use again. It is weeks before a chap like Jacky remembers not to stick out his stump of a right arm to do a hand-shake with whomever holds out a hand to be shaken. A lost hand "goes to sleep" as convincingly as if it still existed, and it is enough to make a man grin when he wants to rub the dumb member and has to think twice before he remembers it is the end of the stump he must rub. There was Carter, whose right leg was off halfway up the thigh, and whose greatest worldly trouble was that he could feel a grain of sand between his big toe and the next one, and couldn't brush it away because he had no toes.

"Aw, tut, now!" Jacky said a hundred times as he forgot and tried to take his pipe in those phantom fingers, or raised the stump of an arm to rub his head with the hand that was not there.

So, then,—which is the story,—they shipped him back to Canada. Phantom fingers, however real-seeming, cannot pull a trigger.

JACKY was glad enough to be back. They landed him at Quebec, and he had a rousing welcome, for it was a gallant company the ship brought over.

This was all good enough—a man likes to be a hero for a day or two; but what he wants most is a sight of the Girl again. The Girl up there in the Northwest wheat country, you understand. Mary, if you want to know her name.

Now, it was the right arm Jack had put around her when be said farewell at her shack door, and it was the right hand that had held her hand lingeringly. It was with the right hand he had shaken the hand of old Boswell, her father.

In Quebec they handed Jacky a letter from Mary telling Jack he would never shake old Boswell's hand again: the old man was dead. There was other news: Jack's mother had gone to Calgary; Jack's father was alone on the farm. There was other news: "And I love you and love you and love you! x x x x x x x (Kisses)." Stale news, but good news still. I'll give you three guesses whether Jack was eager to get back to the Northwest wheat country.

At the Junction you change cars (that being what junctions are for), and Jacky threw his luggage to the platform with his left hand (after trying to pick it up with that same right he had left in Belgium) and walked across the platform to the bay-window where the agent was working the telegraph. The through train shook the frame station as it rolled onward toward the Pacific.

"And when do I get a train up the branch?" asked Jack.

"Well, you great big horse-thief, hello!" cried the agent, reaching a hand through the open window. "How are you, Jack? How's the trenches?"

"Lie down now!" said Jack, slapping at his stump of a right arm, which reached out impulsively for the handshake. "I can't get the beggar trained, Joe. He thinks he's all there still. The trenches are rotten, if you ask me. I'm one that's glad to be back. When do I get a train north?"

"Eight hours. I heard you lost an arm. Hard luck, Jack!"

"You ought to see how some of us are trimmed!" said jack cheerfully. "What's that yonder?"

It was an engine, panting on a siding, with half a dozen grain-cars.

"Say, you can go up on that if you want to," said the agent. "Special we are running up for wheat—you wont believe how Government is rushing wheat out of this section. Some days—wait a minute, I'll ask Da'rty to let you off at your place as he passes."

LUCKY circumstance one! Six or seven hours saved, and Mary that much nearer, and a couple of hours' good, fresh war-talk for Da'rty.

"'Ounds, but it looks good to see this country again!" said Jack, looking out of the window of the caboose at the widespread landscape.

"Some different from over there, hey?" said Da'rty.

"Thank God, yes!"

Da'rty climbed atop the caboose when the train slowed down and stopped, and Jacky threw his luggage to the side of the track. Da'rty waved his ams at the engineer and a hand at Jack, and Jack waved his stump, but his eyes were fastened on the spot where his father's shack had stood. There was no shack. Instead, there were ruins as black and as lowly as any he had seen in Belgium. Lucky circumstance number two! Shack and barn lay in lowly ruin, burned to the ground, and neither man nor beast nor structure appeared where Jack had counted on seeing his home. He turned and looked toward Boswell's.

The wheat bent gently under the passing breeze. In his left hand Jack took his luggage and walked toward Boswell's. The distance was a half-mile, even cutting straight through the wheat, and the last thin paring of the sun dipped before he had made half the distance. Darkness came as if shaken out of a box—a thin darkness that the Northwest country had to call a twilight or do without twilight altogether. Jack walked on, creasing a swath through the tall wheat. He hoped his father had sold his old wheat before the barn burned; tough luck, anyway, but there was a royal crop standing, and a shack and such a barn as his father had had were no great loss. They had talked of new buildings, anyway.

THE door of the Boswell shack stood pen. As Jack neared it he shouted, but no one came to the door. He hurried. Twenty feet away he heard Mary's voice angrily, tensely expostulating, and ending in a short, sharp cry. He dropped his luggage and ran.

He heard the thud and a male growl—a snarl. Twice the girl he loved screamed, and he leaped into the low, dusky room.

Mary stood by the table, one arm now held across her eyes and the other hand extended. Bent forward, with his two huge brown hands ready to grasp the girl, Henry—the half-breed man-of-all-work—advanced toward her. Jack shouted. The half-breed stepped back, and Mary lowered her arm from before her eyes.

"Get out of here, you dog!" Jack shouted.

What happened then was little more than a moment's work. I want you to see them as they were that instant in the dim, mellow light like that of a Rembrandt painting: Mary, with her hand back and resting against the table; Jack, his left arm extended to catch her as she fainted and fell; the half-breed, his face contorted with anger and thwarted passion, stooping slightly to grasp as a weapon a stout, rough chair that stood at his right hand. He was a huge brute, black-haired and browned of skin, and across his cheek burned a red line where Mary's nails had already scratched him. He was mad with rage and passion.

MARY went limp in Jack's arm, her head falling backward and her hands inert. He bent with the sudden weight and leaned against the heavy table; but he clasped her waist the closer. The half-breed raised the chair above his head and snarled and leaped forward. Like a bar of living iron Jack's right arm shot out as the half-breed closed in on him. Each of the five fingers on Jack's right hand tingled to grasp the bare throat of the misbegotten wretch. He felt a strength of steel in those fingers; he felt the muscles flex and unflex like a grasping hand. He bent forward and clutched the half-breed by the throat and let the fingers tighten.

The half-breed let the chair fall to the floor and clasped his hands on his neck. He pulled and wrenched at the fingers that were tightening on his throat. His face went red; his knees trembled; he gasped madly for breath; gripped in the vicelike hand he hung limp, held up by the hand that was killing him. Then Jack opened his hand, and the dead man fell to the floor.

For a moment more Jack stood there—Mary still inert and clasped in his left arm, the half-breed in a lifeless heap on the floor, and Jack's own stump of a right arm extended over the dead man.

NOW, that is all there is to it.

There is no use trying to explain it, because it is a thing that could not have happened. Yet it did happen. There were the marks of the phantom fingers on the half-breed's throat, the red witnesses to the fact.

The jury—it never went beyond the coroner's jury—heard Jack tell the whole story and found a verdict of "apoplexy."

Have it that way, if you like. I call it more marvelous that a rugged half-breed should stop with uplifted chair at the pointing of a stump of an arm and, clasping his own throat until his fingers left their marks there, die of apoplexy, than that once—just once more and for their last time—a young man's fingers, alive or dead, should have the power to throttle a wild beast and save the Girl.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1937, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 85 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.