Read CHAPTER XI - CURLS of Ma Pettengill, free online book, by Harry Leon Wilson, on

Ma Pettengill, long morose, for months made hostile of mood by the shortage of help, now bubbled with a strange vivacity.  At her desk in the Arrowhead living room she cheerfully sorted a jumble of befigured sheets and proclaimed to one and all that the Arrowhead ranch was once more a going concern.  She’d thought it was gone, and here it was merely going.  She would no longer be compelled to stare ruin in the face till it actually got embarrassed and had to look the other way.  And it was the swift doings of this here new foreman.  He’d not only got us going again but had put us on a military basis.  And at that he was nothing but a poor old wreck of a veteran from the trenches, aged all of twenty-one, shot to pieces, gassed, shell-shocked, trench feeted and fevered, and darned bad with nervous dyspepsia into the bargain.

Thus described, the bargain seemed to me to be a poor one, for I had not yet viewed this decrepit newcomer or been refreshed with tales of his prowess.  But Ma Pettengill knows men, and positively will not bubble except under circumstances that justify it, so I considered the matter worth a question or two.

Very well then!  What about this mere shattered bit of flotsam from the world welter?  How could so misused a remnant cope with the manifold cares of the long-harried Arrowhead ranch?

Why, he just plain coped, that was all.  He might be mere shattered flotsam, but you bet he was still some little coper, take her word for that!  Matter of fact, though, he didn’t aim to hold the job for long.  Only until this here smarty of a medical officer, that turned him down from going back to the trenches, was retired to private life again.  This here new foreman had to be on the ground when this puppet got out of his uniform and so could be handled proper by the right party without incurring twenty years in Leavenworth.  At this brief meeting the unfortunate man would be told politely that he had guessed wrong on the foreman’s physical condition, after which the same would be proved to him then and there, leaving him to wish that he hadn’t been so arrogant telling parties they was unfit for further service and had better go home and forget all about the war.  Yes, sir; he’d be left himself with something to forget that most likely he’d still be remembering vividly when folks had got to wondering what them funny little buttons with “Liberty Loan” on ’em could ever of been used for.

Still, this palsied wreck was with us for a time and had started in that very morning to carry on.  He used but few words, but treated ’em rough if they come looking for it.  First, they was two I.W.W.’s down to the lower field had struck for three-fifty a day, and had threatened to burn someone’s haystacks when it was coldly refused.  So one had been took to jail and one to the hospital the minute the flotsam slowed up with ’em.  It was a fair enough hospital case for both, but the one for jail could still walk.

Then two other new hands, two of these here demi-cowboys you have to put up with, had kept the bunk house noisy every night with a bitter personal quarrel including loud threats of mutual murder that never seemed to get any further.  So the flotsam, after drinking in some of their most venomous eloquence, had lined ’em up and commanded ’em to git busy and fight it out quick.  And he had then licked ’em both in a quick and exaggerated manner when they tried to keep on talking it out with him.

It was a sharply etched impression over the ranch, now shared by its owner, that this here invalid flotsam would take darned little nonsense from any one.  It was also the owner’s own private impression that he had been expelled from the war for rough behaviour on the field of battle and not because of wounds or sickness.  Most likely they’d told him the latter because they was afraid to tell him the truth.  But that was the real truth; he was too scrappy and wouldn’t let the war go on in peace and quiet.

Anyway, she and the Army was both satisfied, so let it go at that.  Mebbe after a few more arguments over there, when they’d made a convinced pro-Ally out of Germany, she might get some more shell-wracked jetsams like this one, that would step in without regard for the rules of civilized warfare and make the life of a certain beef-cattle raiser just one long dream of loveliness with pink rose leaves dreening down on her.  Mebbe so!

I was charmed indeed to hear the gladsome note from one so long dismal.  So I told the woman that the longest war must have its end and that by this time next year she would be refusing to hire good help at forty-five dollars a month and found, in place of the seventy-five she was now lavishing on indolent stragglers.

She said in that happy case she might consent to adorn the cattle business a few decades longer, but for her part she didn’t believe wars would end.  If it wasn’t this war it would be another one, because human beings are undeniably human.  As how?  Well, I could take it this way.  Say one of these here inventors sets up nights for twenty years inventing a gun that will shoot through a steel plate sixteen inches thick.  All right so far.  But the next day another inventor invents a piece of steel seventeen inches thick.  And it had to begin all over ­just a seesaw.  From where she set she couldn’t see no end to it.  Was she right; or wasn’t she?  Of course!

But now, further, about compelling little boys to wear long curls till maturity, with the idée of blunting their finer instincts and making hellions of ’em, so’s to have some dandy shock troops for the next war ­well, she didn’t know.  Room for argument there.

This seemed reasonable.  I didn’t know either.  It was an entirely new idée, come from nowhere.  This was the very first moment I had supposed there could be such an idée.  But such is Ma Pettengill.  I thought to inquire as to the origin of this novelty; perhaps to have it more fully set forth.  But I had not to.  Already I saw unrelenting continuance in the woman’s quickened eye.  There would be, in fact, no stopping her now.  So I might as well leave a one-line space right here to avoid using the double and single quotation marks, which are a nuisance to all concerned.  I will merely say that Ma Pettengill spoke in part as follows, and at no time during the interview said modestly that she would prefer not to have her name mentioned.

Mind you, I don’t say war’s a good thing, even for them that come out of it.  Of course you can read stories about how good it is in improving the character.  I’ve read pretty ones in these here sentimental magazines that get close to the great heart of the people once a month; stories about how the town tough boy, that robs his gray-haired mother of her wash money to play pool with, goes into war’s purifying flames and comes out a man, having rescued Marshal Fotch from a shell hole under fire and got the thanks of the French nation and his home-town paper.  Now he don’t hang round the pool parlour any more, running down fifteen balls from the break, but shuns his low companions, never touches a cue again, marries the mayor’s daughter and becomes the regular Democratic candidate for county recorder.

These stories may be true.  I don’t know.  Only these same magazines print stories that have a brave fireman in the picture carrying a fainted girl down his ladder through the flames, and if you believed them you’d also believe they had to set a tenement house on fire every time a fireman wants to get married.  And that don’t stand to reason.  Mebbe the other stories don’t either.

But what about the other side of these same stories?  What about the village good boy that goes through war’s purifying flame and comes back home to be the town tough?  Ain’t it time someone showed up the moral ravages war commits on our best young men?

Me?  I just had a talk lately with a widowed mother down to Red Gap and what this beastly war has done to her oldest boy ­well, if she could of looked ahead she would of let the world go right on being unsafe even for Republicans.  She poured her heart out to me.  She is Mrs. Arline Plunkett, one of the sweetest, gentlest mothers that ever guarded a son from every evil influence.  And then to see it all go whoosh!  The son’s name was Shelley Plunkett, or it was until he went out into the world to make a name for himself.  He is now largely known as Bugs Plunkett.  I leave it to you if a nice mother would relish having her boy make that name for himself.  And after all the pains she’d took with his moral development from the cradle up ­till he run away from home on account of his curls!

Arline had been left well-off by her husband, who was president of the Drovers’ Trust Company, and her home was about the most refined home in Red Gap, having full bookcases and pictures of foreign Catholic churches ­though Arline is a Presbyterian ­and metal statues of antique persons, male and female, and many articles of adornment that can’t be had for the ordinary trading stamps.  She lived, of course, only for her two boys, Shelley and Keats.  Keats being an infant didn’t require much living for, but Shelley was old enough to need a lot of it.

He was eight years old when I first seen him, with long golden curls to his shoulders and lace on his velvet pants.  He came in when I was calling on his ma and acted the perfect little gentleman.  He was so quiet and grown-up he made me feel right awkward.  He had the face of a half-growed angel framed in these yellow curls, and his manners was them of Sir Galahad that he read stories about.  He was very entertaining this day.  His mother had him show me a portrait of himself and curls that had been printed in a magazine devoted to mothers and watermelon-rind pickles, and so forth, and he also brought me the new book his pastor had presented him with on his eighth birthday.

It was a lovely bound book, having a story about a sheepman that had a hundred head out on the range and lost one and left the other ninety-nine unprotected from the coyotes and went out into the brush looking for the lost one, which is about the brains of the average sheepman; but it was a pretty book, and little Shelley told me prettily all about the story, and showed me how his dear pastor had wrote in it for him.  He had wrote:  “To Shelley Vane Plunkett, who to the distinction of his name unites a noble and elevated nature.”  I wonder if Bugs Plunkett ever looks at that writing now and blushes for his lost angel face?  Anyway, I thought this day that he was the loveliest, purest child in the world, with his delicate beauty and sweet little voice and perfect manners, all set off by the golden curls.

A couple days later I was going through that same street and when I turned a corner next to the Plunkett house, here was little Shelley addressing a large red-faced man on the back of an ice wagon that had stopped there.  It was some shock to my first notions of the angel child.  I gathered with no trouble whatever that the party on the ice wagon had so far forgot his own manners as to call little Shelley a sissy.  It was a good three-to-one bet he was now sorry he spoke.  Little Shelley was using language beyond his years and words that had never been taught him by his lady mother.  He handled them words like they was his slaves.  Three or four other parties stopped to listen without seeming to.  I have heard much in my time.  I have even been forced to hear Jeff Tuttle pack a mule that preferred not to be packed.  And little Shelley was informing, even to me.  He never hesitated for a word and was quick and finished with the syllables.

The ice-wagon man was peeved, as he had a right to be, and may of been going to talk back, but when he saw the rest of us getting Shelley he yelled to the man in the front to drive on.  It was too late, quick as he went, to save the fair repute of himself and family, if Shelley’s words was to be took seriously.  Shelley had invaded the most sacred relationship and pretended to bare a hideous scandal.  Also the iceman himself couldn’t possibly of done half the things Shelley hotly urged him to do.

Us people that had seemed to linger walked right on, not meeting each other’s eye, and Shelley again become the angel child, turning in at his gate and walking up the path in a decorous manner with his schoolbooks under his arm.  I first wondered if I shouldn’t go warn Arline that her child had picked up some words that would get him nowhere at all with his doting pastor.  Little could the fond woman dream, when she tucked him in after his prayers at night, that talk such as this could come from his sweet young lips.  How much mothers think they know of their sons and how darned little they do know!  But I decided to keep out of it, remembering that no mother in the world’s history had ever thanked a person for anything but praise of her children.

Still, I couldn’t help but worry about Shelley’s future, both here and hereafter.  But I talked to other people about it and learned that he was already known as a public character to everyone but his own dear mother.  It was these here curls that got him attacked on every hand by young and old, and his natural vigour of mind had built him up a line of repartee that was downright blistering when he had time to stop and recite it all.  Even mule skinners would drive blocks out of their way just to hear little Shelley’s words when someone called him sissy or girl-boy.

It seems Shelley never took any of these troubles to his mother, because he was right manly and he regarded curls as a natural infirmity that couldn’t be helped and that his poor ma shouldn’t be blamed for.  He’d always had curls, just as other unfortunates had been disfigured or maimed from birth, so he’d took it as a cross the Lord had give him to bear.  And he was willing to bear it in silence if folks would just let him alone.  Otherwise, not.  Oh, most surely not!

I kind of kept watch on Shelley’s mad career after that.  It was mad most of the time.  He had already begun to fight as well as to use language, and by the time he was ten he was a very nasty scrapper.  And ready ­it soon got so that only boys new-come to town would taunt him about his golden locks.  And unless they was too much out of Shelley’s class he made believers of ’em swiftly.  From ten to twelve he must of had at least one good fight a day, what with the new ones and the old ones that still couldn’t believe a boy in velvet pants with curls on his shoulders could really put it over on ’em.  His mother believed his clothes was tore and his face bunged up now and then in mere boyish sports, and begged him not to engage in such rough games with his childish playmates.  And Shelley, the little man, let her talk on, still believing he was like little Paul McNamara, that had a crooked foot.  He wasn’t going to shame his mother as well as himself.

I don’t know just how Shelley ever got his big illumination that curls was not a curse put on him by his Maker.  But he certainly did get it when he was round twelve.  After two years of finish fights he suddenly found out that curls is optional, or a boy’s own fault, if not his mother’s, and that they may be cured by a simple and painless operation.  He’d come to the observing age.  They say he’d stand in front of Henry Lehman’s barber shop every chance he’d get, watching the happy men getting their hair cut.  And he put two and two together.

Then he went straight to his mother and told her all about his wonderful and beautiful discovery.  He was awful joyous about it.  He said you only had to go to Mr. Lehman’s barber shop with thirty-five cents, and the kind Mr. Lehman would cut the horrible things off and make him look like other boys, so please let him have the thirty-five.

Then Shelley got a great shock.  It was that his mother wanted him to wear them things to please her.  She burst into tears and said the mere thought of her darling being robbed of his crowning glory by that nasty old Henry Lehman or any one else was breaking her heart, and how could he be so cruel as to suggest it?

The poor boy must of been quite a bit puzzled.  Here was a way out of something he had thought was incurable, and now his mother that loved him burst into tears at the thought of it.  So he put it out of his mind.  He couldn’t hurt his mother, and if cutting off his disgrace was going to hurt her he’d have to go on wearing it.

Shelley was getting lanky now, with big joints and calf knees showing below his velvet pants; and he was making great headway, I want to tell you, in what seemed to be his chosen profession of pugilism.  He took to going out of his class, taking on boys two or three years older.  I never had the rare pleasure of seeing him in action, but it was mere lack of enterprise on my part.  Before he found out that curls could be relieved by a barber he had merely took such fights as come to him.  But now he went out of his way looking for ’em, and would start the action himself.

It got so that boys used to travel in bands ­them that had criticized his appearance so he’d hear it ­but he’d lie in wait for stragglers that was left behind by the convoy, and it would be the same old sad story.  You can know what it meant when I tell you that the last year Shelley went to school they say he could come onto the playground with his long yellow curls floating in the breeze, and not a word would be heard from the fifty boys that might be there.

And so it went till he was thirteen.  One succession of fights and a growing collection of words that would of give his fond pastor something to think about.  Of course word of the fights would get to Shelley’s ma from mothers whose little ones he had ravaged, but she just simply didn’t believe it.  You know a woman can really not believe anything she don’t wish to.  You couldn’t tell that lady that her little boy with the angel face and soft voice would attack another boy unless the other boy begun it.  And if the other boy did begin it it was because he envied Shelley his glorious curls.  Arline was certainly an expert in the male psychology, as they call it.

But at thirteen Shelley was losing a lot of the angel out of his face.  His life of battle had told on him, I guess.  But he was still obedient and carried the cross for his mother’s sake.  Poor thing!  He’d formed the habit of obedience and never once suspicioned that a woman had no right to impose on him just because she was his mother.  Shelley just took to fighting a little quicker.  He wouldn’t wait for words always.  Sometimes mere looks of disgust would start him.

Then, when he got to near fourteen, still with the beautiful curls, he begun to get a lovely golden down on his face; and the face hadn’t hardly a trace of angel left in it.  The horrible truth was that Shelley not only needed a haircut but a shave.  And one day, goaded by certain taunts, he told his mother this in a suddenly bass voice.  It must of startled Arline, having this roar come out of her child when his little voice had always been sweet and high.  So she burst into some more tears and Shelley asked her forgiveness, and pretty soon she was curling his hair again.  I guess he knew right then it was for the last time on earth, but nothing warned the mother.

These new taunts that had finally made a man of Shelley was no taunts from boys, which he could handle easy, but the taunts of heedless girls, who naturally loathed a boy with curls even more than male humans of any age loathe him; and girls can be a lot tauntier when they start out to.  Well, Shelley couldn’t lick girls, and he had reached an age when their taunts cut into his hide like whiplashes, so he knew right well he had to do something desperate.

Then he went out and run away from the refining influences of his beautiful home.  He took to the hills and landed way up on the north fork of the Kulanche where Liver-eating Johnson has a sheep ranch.  Liver-eating, who is an unsavory character himself, had once heard Shelley address a small group of critics in front of the post office, and had wanted to adopt him right there.  He still cherished the fondest memories of Shelley’s flow of language, so he was tickled to death to have him drop along and stop, seeing that though but a lad in years he was a man and brother in speech, even if he did look like a brother that had started out to be a sister and got mixed.

Liver-eating took him in and fed him and cut his hair with a pair of sheep shears.  It was a more or less rough job, because shearing sheep does not make a man a good human barber by any means.  But Shelley looked at his head in the glass and said it was the most beautiful haircut in the world.  Fussy people might criticize it here and there, but they could never say it hadn’t really been cut.

He was so grateful to Liver-eating that he promised to stay with him always and become a sheep herder.  And he did hide out there several months till his anguished mother found out where he was.  After having every pond dragged and every bit of woods searched for her boy’s body she had believed he’d been carried off by kidnappers on account of his heavenly beauty, and she’d probably have to give ten thousand dollars for his release.  She was still looking for a letter from these fiends when she learned about his being with Liver-eating Johnson and that this wretch had committed sacrilege on him.

It was a harsh blow to know that her pet had consorted with such a person, who was not only a sheepman but had earned his nickname in a way that our best people thought not nice.  He’d gone home one day years ago and found his favourite horse had been took by an Injun.  Being a simple-mannered man of few words, he just said that by sundown to-morrow he would of et the liver of the Injun that done the stealing.  I don’t know, personally, what happened, except that he did come back the next night with his horse.  Anyway no one ever begrudged him his title after that.  And here was Shelley Vane Plunkett, who had been carefully raised on fruits and cereals, taking up with such a nauseous character as a social equal.

Arline had the sheriff out at once for her darling, but Shelley got word and beat it farther.  He finally got to Seattle, where he found various jobs, and kept his mother guessing for three years.  He was afraid she’d make him start the curls again if he come home.  But finally, when he was eighteen, he did come, on her solemn promise to behave.  But he was no longer the angel-faced darling that had left, and he still expected at least one fight a day, though no longer wearing what would cause fights.  He’d formed the habit and just couldn’t leave off.  A body could hardly look at him without starting something unpleasant.  He was round like a barrel now, and tough and quick, and when anything did happen to be started he was the one that finished it.  Also, he’d have his hair cut close every five or six days.  He always looked like a prisoner that had started to let it grow about a week before he left the institution.  Shelley was taking no chances, and he used to get a strange, glittering look in his eye when he regarded little Keats, his baby brother, who was now coming on with golden curls just as beautiful as Shelley’s had ever been.  But he done nothing sinister.

In time he might of settled down and become a useful citizen, but right then the war broke out, so no more citizen stuff for Shelley.  It was almost too good to be true that he could go to a country where fighting was legal; not only that, but they’d give him board and lodging and a little spending money for doing the only thing he’d ever learned to do well.  It sure looked like heaven.  So off he went to Canada and enlisted and got sent across and had three years of perfect bliss, getting changed over to our Army when we finally got unneutral so you could tell it.

Of course his mother was almost more anguished about his going to war than about having his curls fixed with the sheep shears.  She said even if he wasn’t shot he would be sure to contract light habits in France, consisting of native wine and dancing, and so forth, and she hoped at least he could be a drummer boy or something safe.

But Shelley never had a safe moment, I guess.  No such thing as a quiet sector where he was.  He fought at the Front, and then he’d fight at hospitals every time he got took back there for being shot up.  He was almost too scrappy even for that war.  He was usually too busy to write, but we got plenteous reports of his adventures from other men, these adventures always going hard with whatever Germans got in his way.  And I bet his mother never dreamed that his being such a demon fighter was all due to her keeping him in curls so long, where he got the habit and come to love it for its own sake.

Anyway, he fought and fought and had everything happen to him that German science had discovered was useful to exterminate the lesser races, and it finally begun to tell on him, hardened as he was by fighting from the cradle up, as you might say.

It was a glad day for Arline when she got word that he was a broken-down invalid and had landed at an Atlantic Ocean port on his way home.  She got arrowroot gruel and jelly and medicinal delicacies and cushions, and looked forward to a life of nursing.  She hoped that in the years to come she could coax the glow of health back to his wan cheeks.  And I wouldn’t put it past her ­mebbe she hoped she could get him to let the golden hair grow again, just long enough to make him interesting as he lay coughing on his couch.

And Shelley come home, but his idée of being an invalid wasn’t anything like his mother’s.  He looked stout as a horse, and merely wished to rest up for a couple weeks before getting some other kind of action suited to his peculiar talents.  And worse, he wasn’t Shelley Vane Plunkett ­he was Bugs Plunkett; and his mother’s heart broke again.  He was shaved like a convict and thicker through than ever, and full of rich outdoor words about what he would do to this so-and-so medical officer for not letting him back into the scrap.  Yes, sir; that man is going to suffer casualties right up to the limit the minute he gets out of his uniform ­and him thinking the world is at peace once more!  Sure, Shelley had been shot through the lungs a couple of times, and one leg had been considerably altered from the original plan, but he had claimed he was a better scrapper than ever before and had offered to prove it to this medical officer right then and there if it could be done quiet.  But this fair offer had been rejected.

So here he’d come back, not any kind of a first-class invalid that would be nice to nurse, but as Bugs Plunkett!  No sooner did he get to town than letters and postal cards begun to come addressed to Mr. Bugs Plunkett or mebbe B. Plunkett, Esquire; and the cards would be from his old pals in the trenches, many of whom had worse names, even, than Shelley had made for himself.

Also the sick warrior turned down flat the arrowroot gruel and Irish-moss custard and wine jelly and pale broth.  He had to have the same coarse food that is et by common working people who have had no home advantages, including meat, which is an animal poison and corrupts the finer instincts of man by reducing him to the level of the brutes.  So Arline Plunkett says.  Shelley had it, though, ordering it in a bass voice that made the statuary teeter.  Steak was cooked in the Plunkett home for the first time since it had been erected, notwithstanding the horrible example it set to little Keats, who still had golden curls as lovely as Shelley’s once had been and was fed on fruits and nuts.

Arline couldn’t of had any pleasant time with her wandering boy them three weeks he was there.  She suffered intensely over the ignominy of this mail that came to him by the awful name of Bugs, with the gossips in the post office telling it everywhere, so that the boys round the cigar store got to calling him Bugs right out plain.  And her son seeming proud of this degradation!

And she couldn’t get him to protect himself from drafts by night.  He’d insist on having a window wide open, and when she’d sneak back to close it so he wouldn’t catch his death of cold he’d get up and court destruction by hoisting it again.  And once when she’d crept in and shut it a second time he threw two shoes through the upper and lower parts so it would always be open.  He claimed he done this in his sleep, having got into the habit in the trenches when he’d come in from a long march and someone would close all the windows.  But Arline said that this only showed that war had made him a rowdy, even in his sleep ­and out of the gentlest-mannered boy that ever wore velvet garments and had a cinch on every prize in the Sunday school; though she did not use coarse words like that.  She told me herself it was time we got this other side of what war did to gently nurtured youths that had never soiled their lips with an oath in their lives until they went into war’s hell.  She said just that!

Also Shelley had contracted the vicious habit of smoking, which was all a body would want to know about war.  She said he’d have his breakfast in bed, including whole slices of ham, which comes from the most loathsome of all animals, and would then lie and smoke the Lord Byron five-cent cigar, often burning holes in the covers, which he said was another old trench habit ­and that showed what war done to the untainted human soil.  Also while smoking in bed he would tell little Keats things no innocent child should hear, about how fine it feels to deflate Germans with a good bayonet.  She had never esteemed Lord Byron as a poet, and these cigars, she assures me, was perfectly dreadful in a refined home, where they could be detected even in the basement.

Little Keats was now thirteen, with big joints and calf knees showing under the velvet pants, and I guess his curls was all that persuaded his mother to live, what with Shelley having gone to the bad and made a name for himself like Bugs.  But little Keats had fell for his brother, and spent all the time he could with him listening to unpretty stories of Germans that had been fixed up proper the way the good Lord meant ’em to be.

After he’d been home a couple weeks or more Shelley begun to notice little Keats more closely.  He looked so much like Shelley had at that age and had the same set-on manner in the house that Shelley got suspicious he was leading the same double life he had once led himself.

He asked his mother when she was going to take Keats to a barber, and his mother burst into tears in the old familiar way, so he said no more to her.  But that afternoon he took little Keats out for a stroll and closely watched his manner toward some boys they passed.  They went on downtown and Shelley stepped into the Owl cigar store to get a Lord Byron.  When he come out little Keats was just finishing up a remark to another boy.  It had the familiar ring to Shelley and was piquant and engaging even after three years in the trenches, where talk is some free.  Keats still had the angel face, but had learned surprisingly of old English words.

Then Shelley says to him:  “Say, kid, do you like your curls?” And little Keats says very warmly and almost shedding tears:  “They’re simply hell!”

“I knew it,” says Shelley.  “Have many fights?”

“Not so many as I used to,” says Keats.

“I knew that, too,” says Shelley.  “Now, then, you come right along with me.”

So he marches Keats and curls down to Henry Lehman’s and says:  “Give this poor kid a close haircut.”

And Henry Lehman won’t do it.  He says that Mrs. Plunkett, the time of the scandal about Shelley, had warned every barber in town that she would have the law on ’em if they ever harmed a hair on the head of a child of hers; and he was a law-abiding citizen.  He didn’t deny that the boy needed a haircut the worst way in the world, but at his time of life he wasn’t going to become an outlaw.

Keats had nearly broke down at this.  But Shelley says:  “All right; come on over to the other place.”

So they go over to Katterson Lee, the coloured barber, and Katterson tells ’em the same story.  He admits the boy needs a haircut till it amounts to an outrage, but he’s had his plain warning from Shelley’s ma, and he ain’t going to get mixed up with no lawsuit in a town where he’s known to one and all as being respectable.

Shelley then threatened him with bodily harm if he didn’t cut that hair off quick, and Katterson was right afraid of the returned soldier, that had fixed so many Germans right, but he was more afraid of the law, so he got down on his knees to Shelley and begged for his life.

Little Keats was now blubbering, thinking he wasn’t going to be shut of his disgrace after all, but Shelley says:  “All right, kid; I’ll stand by you.  I’ll do it myself.  Get into that chair!”

Of course Katterson couldn’t prevent that, so Keats got sunny again and climbed into the chair, and Shelley grabbed a pair of shears and made a sure-nuff boy of him.  He got the curls off all right, but when it come to trimming up he found he couldn’t do a smooth job, and Katterson wasn’t there to give him any hints, having run from his shop at the beginning of the crime so he would have a good alibi when hauled into court.  So Shelley finally took up a pair of clippers, and having learned to clip mules he soon had little Keats’ whole scalp laid bare.  It must of been a glorious sight.  They both gloated over it a long time.

Then Keats says:  “Now you come with me and we’ll show it to mamma!” But Shelley says:  “Not me!  I have to draw the line somewhere.  I shall be far away from here to-night.  I am not afraid of enemy soldiers, for I’ve been up against them too often.  But there are worse things than death, so you’ll have to face mamma alone.  You can tell her I did it, but I will not be there to hear you.  So good-bye and God help you!” And Shelley retired to a position less exposed.

That was an awful day for the Plunkett home, because little Keats, being left to his own resources, tried to use his brain.  First he gathered up the long shining curls and wrapped ’em in a newspaper.  Then he went out and found Artie Bartell, who is a kind of a harmless halfwit that just walks the streets and will do anything whatever if told, being anxious to please.  Keats gives Artie a dime to take the curls up to his dear mother and tell her that her little boy has been run over by a freight engine down to the station and these here curls was all that could be saved of him.

Then he hurries home the back way and watches, and pretty soon he sees some neighbours come rushing to the house when they hear his mother scream, so then he knows everything is all right.  He waits a minute or two, then marches in with his hat off.  His mother actually don’t know him at first, on account of his naked skull, but she soon sees it must be he, little Keats, and then has hysterics because she thinks the freight engine has clipped him this way.  And of course there was more hysterics when she learned the terrible truth of his brother’s infamy.  I guess Shelley had been wise all right to keep off the place at that time, soldier or no soldier.  But that’s neither here nor there.

The point is that little Keats may now be saved to a life of usefulness and not be hanged for murder, thanks to his brother’s brave action.  Of course Bugs himself is set in his ways, and will adorn only positions of a certain kind.  He’s fine here, for instance, just at this time when I got to hire all kinds that need a firm hand ­and Bugs has two.

Sure, it was him took the job of foreman here yesterday.  We had quite a little talk about things when he come.  He told me how he released his little brother from shame.  He said he wouldn’t of done such a radical thing except that peace is now coming on and the world will no longer need such fighting devils as curls will make of a boy if let to stay long enough.

“Keats might have turned out even worse than I did,” he says, “but if there wasn’t going to be any way where he could do it legally, what was the use?  He’d probably sometime have killed a boy that called him Goldilocks, and then the law might have made it unpleasant for him.  I thought it was only fair to give him a chance to live peaceful.  Of course in my own case mamma acted for the best without knowing it.  We needed fighters, and I wouldn’t have been anything at all like a fighter if she hadn’t made me wear those curls till my whiskers began to show above the surface.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I was a born coward, but those golden strands took all that out of me.  I had to fight.

“And see what it did for me in the Army.  I don’t want to talk about myself, but I made a good average fighter and I would have been there to the last if I’d had my rights.  And I simply owe it all to my dear mother.  You might say she made me the man I am.  I wouldn’t ever have been tough if she’d cut my hair humanely from six years on.  I certainly hope Keats hasn’t gone too long.  One of us in a family is enough.”

That’s the way Bugs talks, and it sounds right sensible.  What I say now is, the idée had ought to be took up by the War Department at Washington, D. C. Let ’em pass a law that one boy out of, say, twenty-five has got to wear curls till his voice changes.  By that time, going round in this here scenic investiture, as you might say, he will be a demon.  In peace times it may add to our crimes of violence, but look what it will be when another war comes.  We’ll have the finest line of shock troops the world has ever produced, fit and anxious to fight, having led an embittered existence long enough to make it permanent.  No line would ever stand against a charge of them devils.  They would be a great national asset and might save the country while we was getting ready to begin to prepare a couple months after war was declared on us.

Still I don’t suppose it will be took up, and I ain’t got time to go down and preach it to Congress personally.

And now let me tell you one thing:  I’m going to sleep to-night without a care on my mind for the first time in a year.  This here Bugs unites to the distinction of his name a quick and handy nature, and my busiest troubles are over.