Tom Grogan/Chapter 2
A BOARD FENCE LOSES A PLANK
Twork on the sea-wall progressed. The coffer-dam which had been built by driving into the mud of the bottom a double row of heavy tongued and grooved planking in two parallel rows, and bulkheading each end with heavy boards, had been filled with concrete to low-water mark, consuming not only the contents of the delayed scow, but two subsequent cargoes, both of which had been unloaded by Tom Grogan.
To keep out the leakage, steam-pumps were kept going night and day.
By dint of hard work the upper masonry of the wall had been laid to the top course, ready for the coping, and there was now every prospect that the last stone would be lowered into place before the winter storms set in.
The shanty—a temporary structure, good only for the life of the work—rested on a set of stringers laid on extra piles driven outside of the working-platform. When the submarine work lies miles from shore, a shanty is the only shelter for the men, its interior being arranged with sleeping-bunks, with one end partitioned off for a kitchen and a storage-room. This last is filled with perishable property, extra blocks, Manila rope, portable forges, tools, shovels, and barrows.
For this present sea-wall—an amphibious sort of structure, with one foot on land and the other in the water—the shanty was of light pine boards, roofed over, and made water-tight by tarred paper. The bunks had been omitted, for most of the men boarded in the village. In this way increased space for the storage of tools was gained, besides room for a desk containing the government working drawings and specifications, pay-rolls, etc. In addition to its door, fastened at night with a padlock, and its one glass window, secured by a ten-penny nail, the shanty had a flap-window, hinged at the bottom. When this was propped up with a barrel stave it made a counter from which to pay the men, the paymaster standing inside.
Babcock was sitting on a keg of dock spikes inside this working shanty some days after he had discovered Tom's identity, watching his bookkeeper preparing the pay-roll, when a face was thrust through the square of the window. It was not a prepossessing face, rather pudgy and sleek, with uncertain, drooping mouth, and eyes that always looked over one's head when he talked. It was the property of Mr. Peter Lathers, the yardmaster of the depot.
“When you're done payin' off maybe you'll step outside, sir,” he said, in a confiding tone. “I got a friend of mine who wants to know you. He's a stevedore, and does the work to the fort. He's never done nothin' for you, but I told him next time you come down I'd fetch him over. Say, Dan!” beckoning with his head over his shoulder; then, turning to Babcock,—“I make you acquainted, sir, with Mr. Daniel McGaw.”
Two faces now filled the window—Lathers's and that of a red-headed man in a straw hat.
“All right. I'll attend to you in a moment. Glad to see you, Mr. McGaw,” said Babcock, rising from the keg, and looking over his bookkeeper's shoulder.
Lathers's friend proved to be a short, big-boned, square-shouldered Irishman, about forty years of age, dressed in a once black broadcloth suit with frayed buttonholes, the lapels and vest covered with grease-spots. Around his collar, which had done service for several days, was twisted a red tie decorated with a glass pin. His face was spattered with blue powder-marks, as if from some quarry explosion. A lump of a mustache dyed dark brown concealed his upper lip, making all the more conspicuous the bushy, sandy-colored eyebrows that shaded a pair of treacherous eyes. His mouth was coarse and filled with teeth half worn off, like those of an old horse. When he smiled these opened slowly like a vise. Whatever of humor played about this opening lost its life instantly when these jaws clicked together again.
The hands were big and strong, wrinkled and seamed, their rough backs spotted like a toad's, the wrists covered with long spidery hairs.
Babcock noticed particularly his low, flat forehead when he removed his hat, and the dry, red hair growing close to the eyebrows.“I wuz a-sp'akin' to me fri'nd Mister Lathers about doin' yer wurruk,” began McGaw, resting one foot on a pile of barrow-planks, his elbow on his knee. “I does all the haulin' to the foort. Surgint Duffy knows me. I wuz along here las' week, an' see ye wuz put back fer stone. If I'd had the job, I'd had her unloaded two days befoore.”
“You're dead right, Dan,” said Lathers, with an expression of disgust. “This woman business ain't no good, nohow. She ought to be over her tubs.”
“She does her work, though,” Babcock said, beginning to see the drift of things.
“Oh, I don't be sayin' she don't. She's a dacint woman, anough; but thim b'ys as is a-runnin' her carts is raisin' h—ll all the toime.”
“And then look at the teams,” chimed in Lathers, with a jerk of his thumb toward the dock—“a lot of staggering horse-car wrecks you couldn't sell to a glue-factory. That big gray she had a-hoistin' is blind of an eye and sprung so forrard he can't hardly stand.”
At this moment the refrain of a song from somewhere near the board fence came wafting through the air,—
“And he wiped up the floor wid McGeechy.”
McGaw turned his head in search of the singer, and not finding him, resumed his position.
“What are your rates per ton?” asked Babcock.
“We're a-chargin' forty cints,” said McGaw, deferring to Lathers, as if for confirmation.
“The Stevedores' Union.”
“But Mrs. Grogan is doing it for thirty,” said Babcock, looking straight into McGaw's eyes, and speaking slowly and deliberately.
“Yis, I heared she wuz a-cuttin' rates; but she can't live at it. If I does it, it'll be done roight, an' no throuble.”
“I'll think it over,” said Babcock quietly, turning on his heel. The meanness of the whole affair offended him—two big, strong men vilifying a woman with no protector but her two hands. McGaw should never lift a shovel for him.
Again the song floated out; this time it seemed nearer,—
“… wid McGeechy—
McGeechy of the Fourth.”
“Dan McGaw's giv'n it to you straight,” said Lathers, stopping for a last word, his face thrust through the window again. “He's rigged for this business, and Grogan ain't in it with him. If she wants her work done right, she ought to send down something with a mustache.”
Here the song subsided in a prolonged chuckle. McGaw turned, and caught sight of a boy's head, with its mop of black hair thrust through a crownless hat, leaning over a water cask. Lathers turned, too, and instantly lowered his voice. The head ducked out of sight. In the flash glance Babcock caught of the face, he recognized the boy Cully, Patsy's friend, and the driver of the Big Gray. It was evident to Babcock that Cully at that moment was bubbling over with fun. Indeed, this waif of the streets, sometimes called James Finnegan, was seldom known to be otherwise.
“Thet's the wurrst rat in the stables,” said McGaw, his face reddening with anger. “What kin ye do whin ye're a-buckin' ag'in' a lot uv divils loike him?”—speaking through the window to Babcock. “Come out uv thet,” he called to Cully, “or I'll bu'st yer jaw, ye sneakin' rat!”
Cully came out, but not in obedience to McGaw or Lathers. Indeed, he paid no more attention to either of those distinguished diplomats than if they had been two cement-barrels standing on end. His face, too, had lost its irradiating smile; not a wrinkle or a pucker ruffled its calm surface. His clay-soiled hat was in his hand—a very dirty hand, by the way, with the torn cuff of his shirt hanging loosely over it. His trousers bagged everywhere—at knees, seat, and waist. On his stockingless feet were a pair of sun-baked, brick-colored shoes. His ankles were as dark as mahogany. His throat and chest were bare, the skin tanned to leather wherever the sun could work its way through the holes in his garments. From out of this combination of dust and rags shone a pair of piercing black eyes, snapping with fun.
“I come up fer de mont's pay,” he said coolly to Babcock, the corner of his eye glued to Lathers. “De ole woman said ye'd hev it ready.”
“Mrs. Grogan's?” asked the bookkeeper, shuffling over his envelopes.
“Yep. Tom Grogan.”
“Can you sign the pay-roll?”
“You bet”—with an eye still out for Lathers.
“Where did you learn to write—at school?” asked Babcock, noting the boy's independence with undisguised pleasure.
“Naw. Patsy an' me studies nights. Pop Mullins teaches us—he's de ole woman's farder what she brung out from Ireland. He's a-livin' up ter de shebang; dey're all a-livin' dere—Jinnie an' de ole woman an' Patsy—all 'cept me an' Carl. I bunks in wid de Big Gray. Say, mister, ye'd oughter git onter Patsy—he's de little kid wid de crutch. He's a corker, he is; reads po'try an' everythin'. Where'll I sign? Oh, I see; in dis'ere square hole right along-side de ole woman's name”—spreading his elbows, pen in hand, and affixing “James Finnegan” to the collection of autographs. The next moment he was running along the dock, the money envelope tight in his hand, sticking out his tongue at McGaw, and calling to Lathers as he disappeared through the door in the fence, “Somp'n wid a mustache, somp'n wid a mustache,” like a news-boy calling an extra. Then a stone grazed Lathers's ear.
Lathers sprang through the gate, but the boy was half way through the yard. It was this flea-like alertness that always saved Mr. Finnegan's scalp.
Once out of Lathers's reach, Cully bounded up the road like a careering letter X, with arms and legs in air. If there was any one thing that delighted the boy's soul, it was, to quote from his own picturesque vocabulary, “to set up a job on de ole woman.” Here was his chance. Before he reached the stable he had planned the whole scene, even to the exact intonation of Lathers's voice when he referred to the dearth of mustaches in the Grogan household. Within a few minutes of his arrival the details of the whole occurrence, word for word, with such picturesque additions as his own fertile imagination could invent, were common talk about the yard.
Lathers meanwhile had been called upon to direct a gang of laborers who were moving an enormous iron buoy-float down the cinder-covered path to the dock. Two of the men walked beside the buoy, steadying it with their hands. Lathers was leaning against the board fence of the shop whittling a stick, while the others worked.
Suddenly there was an angry cry for Lathers, and every man stood still. So did the buoy and the moving truck.
With head up, eyes blazing, her silk hood pushed back from her face, as if to give her air, her gray ulster open to her waist, her right hand bare of a glove, came Tom Grogan, brushing the men out of her way.
“I knew I'd find you, Pete Lathers,” she said, facing him squarely; “why do ye want to be takin' the bread out of me children's mouths?”
The stick dropped from Lathers's hand: “Well, who said I did? What have I got to do with your”—
“You've got enough to do with 'em, you and your friend McGaw, to want 'em to starve. Have I ever hurt ye that ye should try an' sneak me business away from me? Ye know very well the fight I've made, standin' out on this dock, many a day an' night, in the cold an' wet, with nothin' between Tom's children an' the street but these two hands—an' yet ye'd slink in like a dog to get me”—
“Here, now, I ain't a-goin' to have no row,” said Lathers, twitching his shoulders. “It's against orders, an' I'll call the yard-watch, and throw you out if you make any fuss.”
“The yard-watch!” said Tom, with a look of supreme contempt. “I can handle any two of 'em, an' ye too, an' ye know it.” Her cheeks were aflame. She crowded Lathers so closely his slinking figure hugged the fence.
By this time the gang had abandoned the buoy, and were standing aghast, watching the fury of the Amazon.
“Now, see here, don't make a muss; the commandant'll be down here in a minute.”
“Let him come; he's the one I want to see. If he knew he had a man in his pay that would do as dirty a trick to a woman as ye've done to me, his name would be Dinnis. I'll see him meself this very day, and”—
Here Lathers interrupted with an angry gesture.
“Don't ye lift yer arm at me,” she blazes out, “or I'll break it at the wrist!”
Lathers's hand dropped. All the color was out of his face, his lip quivering.
“Whoever said I said a word against you, Mrs. Grogan, is a —— liar.” It was the last resort of a cowardly nature.
“Stop lyin' to me, Pete Lathers! If there's anythin' in this world I hate, it's a liar. Ye said it, and ye know ye said it. Ye want that drunken loafer Dan McGaw to get me work. Ye've been at it all summer, an' ye think I haven't watched ye; but I have. And ye say I don't pay full wages, and have got a lot of boys to do men's work, an' oughter be over me tubs. Now let me tell ye”—Lathers shrank back, cowering before her—“if ever I hear ye openin' yer head about me, or me teams, or me work, I'll make ye swallow every tooth in yer head. Send down somethin' with a mustache, will I? There's not a man in the yard that's a match for me, an' ye know it. Let one of 'em try that.”
Her uplifted fist, tight-clenched, shot past Lathers's ear. A quick blow, a plank knocked clear of its fastenings, and a flood of daylight broke in behind Lathers's head!
“Now, the next time I come, Pete Lathers,” she said firmly, “I'll miss the plank and take yer face.”
Then she turned, and stalked out of the yard.