The Discomfiture of Uncle McFuddy
by Charles Hoy Fort
Half a dozen brick scows lying along a pier. Helpless monsters, waiting for a tugboat half the size of one of them, to tow all of them up the river for more bricks. Farthest out, by the head of the pier, lay the Noah Tromper.
The cabin! Like a little "own-your-own-home" cottage; clapboards painted yellow, window frames orange, shutters light green, door dark green, white tin roof.
Inside the cabin! Oil cloth on floor; window curtains tied back with red ribbons; a stove on its legs set in tomato cans nailed to the floor; a lantern swinging from the ceiling.
Captain Brock lounged in an easy chair. An unhealthy-looking, sturdy-looking man, complexion like the look of the river on a foggy day; forehead with exactly five wrinkles in it, as if it had been pressing upon banjo strings; a round-headed man.
Mrs. Brock stood with a dish cloth in one hand, and a dish in the other. Thin woman; pile of hair looking as unstable as a snow summit in avalanche time!
"My old pet," said Captain Brock, "come pull off my shoes and get me my slippers." But Mrs. Brock was looking through the cabin windows, so interested in a crowd of fishermen on the pier that she scarcely heard his command.
"My! What a throw he's going to make of it!" exclaimed Mrs. Brock.
A jug-shaped fisherman, raising his rod, tossed the sinker end of his line behind him. Back and back he bent, as one bends back a strip of whalebone to snap a pellet.
"My! He'll bust off his buttons!" laughed Mrs. Brock. But then far out from the pier flew the sinker-weighted fish line.
Tugboat coming along. Sinker hitting it and hook catching. Away with the fish line, rod snatched after it.
The jug-shaped fisherman put his hands in his pockets and felt, with his lower lip, for a mustache-end to gnaw.
The captain's wife looked pityingly through the window, forgetting dishwashing, though the dishcloth went on revolving around a dish. "Oh say, Bill, that's too bad, ain't it? Maybe he's been looking forwards all week to a little quiet fishing this afternoon."
"Too bad?" said the captain. "Pretty funny, it strikes me. Pull off them shoes"--stretching his feet out upon a hassock and taking up a newspaper. She was slow in obeying. He turned the paper, as if casually turning from page to page, but squinted over it to see his wife still watching the unhappy, jug-shaped fisherman.
He fiercely tore off his shoes and threw them at the pile of dishes on the table.
"Oh, now, Bill, you hadn't ought to carry on like that!" Captain's wife retreating behind the table. "If you do like that, you know--" prepared to dodge behind the dishpan--"there's no use my trying to keep things in order."
"I'm the best-natured feller in the world!" said Captain Brock, gloomily. "I am, when they use me right. Whenever I'm out in company, there ain't nobody popularer than me; but you get me fierce mad at times--what does that kid want?"
A boy had jumped from the pier to the scow and had run into the cabin.
"Oh," said the boy--sharp chin, keen eyes, business-like boy; "excuse me!"
"Young feller," said the captain, "you're pretty fresh, running like this into folks' homes!"
"Homes!" said the boy, wonderingly. "This is a boat, ain't it? But you got a stove here! Do you live here ma'm?"
"Of course, it's homes!" said Captain Brock, still gloomy. "Ain't there homes upon the water, just as well as on the land?--which is poetry, leastwise, I remember something like that in the Third Reader. Whatcher want, young feller?"
"Oh, now, Bill, don't scare the little boy so!"
"I ain't scared, ma'm!" said the boy, brightly. "After living with Uncle McFuddy, it'd take a lot to scare me. I guess I'm rid of him now, though."
"Your uncle?" asked the captain, quickly. His manner became wheedling. "You're running away? I admire your spunk; uster do the same thing myself."
Whereupon a torrent gushed from the boy:
"Uncle McFuddy brought me down from Rhinebeck, where my folks live, and said he'd take me in business with him some day. But he's took me in already and makes me break stones all day in his stoneyard. And my hands--look at them! See the blisters? All blisters so I can't close my hand on the handle of the hammer any more. And, if you'll take me up the river, I'll work my passage at anything--at anything I don't have to close my hands on, because--see, they're all blisters!"
"Bill, you'll let the little boy come up the river with us?"
"He'll stay!" said the captain, grimly.
"Oh, thank you, and I'll work--." But Mrs. Brock understood.
"Oh, Bill, you're too mean! It's like when you uster steal dogs and hold them till their owners offered rewards for them. I won't have nothing to do with such meanness as holding a little boy hoping to have his uncle come and give you a couple of dollars. I still hear them poor little dogs crying for their masters--"
"Say, you!" Captain springing from his chair. A shrieking form, and a dish cloth, as a shield, held up in front of a worn, thin face. But the captain wheeled around and caught the boy, who had started to run.
"Stay where you are!" said the captain. "No one's harming you. I said you could come up the river with us, didn't I? Set down! I'd like nothing better than talk over the Third Reader with you. Thinking of that poetry has my mind back onto it. Do you remember the story of the dam bursting?"
Another torrent from the boy:
"But you'll turn me over to Uncle McFuddy if he comes! I was all through the Third Reader long ago. My hands are all blistered. And if you can't hammer with a hammer, how can you hammer stones? You're going to turn me over if he comes!"
"Oh, he ain't coming!" evaded the captain. "It wouldn't be for no reward I'd turn you over anyway, but--my duty!" said the captain, nobly. "Set there, and if nobody don't come, there's no objection to taking you with us as far as we go. Do you remember that Third Reader story about the preearie fire after the little girl?"
Boy looking sullenly out the cabin window.
"You can talk, can't you? That dam busting, beginning with a tiny trickling, was the thrillingest thing I ever read. You can talk, can't you?"
"Oh, look at the fishermen!" cried the boy. The captain turned to look at five excited fishermen reeling in their lines, each exclaiming that he had made a remarkable catch. But the cunning captain switched his eyes back in time to see the sharp boy darting toward the door. A foot shooting out. Boy tripping. Picked up and tossed back in his chair.
"You're a bad lot!" said the captain, reproachfully. "You ain't to be trusted--but do you remember the name of the lad that mounted the brown mare and went arising the denny-zens of the valley?"
Boy turning away his head, eyes moist, lips quivering with helpless wrath.
"My old pet, hand me my pipe."
Mrs. Brock silently handed him his pipe. The silence boiled.
"Well, what's the matter with you?"
"I can't help it!" said Mrs. Brock, excitedly. "I can't but think of them poor little dogs crying for their masters, and now you're holding a little boy the same way."
A very wrathful captain! But his eyes switching back to the boy, whose right foot was creeping forward, as a lever to spring from.
"Five poor little dogs all chained up to once, and you going with a club to them when they cried for their masters!"
"Well, if this ain't pity-bull!" exclaimed Captain Brock, who could not silence undesirable reminiscences, and, at the same time, watch an untrustworthy boy. "This is pity-bull! And me, the best-natured feller in the world! His own wife upcasting bygones to him and that stoopid boy won't talk about the Third Reader to him! Me, that wherever I goes, folks brighten up and glad and cordial, and says, `Here comes Bill Brock, best-natured feller in the world!'"
A loud, cynical laugh out on the pier. In bitter glee, the disappointed, jug-shaped fisherman was laughing at the misfortune of others. Five excited fishermen had reeled in five almost hopelessly tangled lines.
"I got a great feeling heart, and that's why I'm poor!" from the gloomy captain. "Everybody always says, `Bill Brock, he's too kind and tender-hearted for his own good!' Don't they, my old pet? Now, for instance, it's got me positive tearful looking at them poor fishermen out on the pier, and so crowded they can't fish but get their lines all tangled. I'm going to invite them poor fishermen to come and fish here, where they'll have room, because my heart just goes out to them, it does!"
Pitiful, tender-hearted captain stepping to the door, dragging the boy along by his long hair; boy trying to brace himself back with his feet, but finding that this caused only a painful tugging.
"Hey, lads!" called the captain, "Come and fish here if you want to, where you'll have room! Come on; you're welcome, lads!"
Back in the cabin! "Now, boy," said Captain Brock, "recite something from the Third Reader for us."
"I don't know any recitations," the boy answered, sullenly. Momentarily, he had raised himself by the arms of his chair, looking out the windows. He was looking at the pier above, when he saw something that made him spring toward the door. But the watchful captain caught him.
"There's no trusting nobody!" lamented Captain Brock. And he was lost in gloom.
Captain's wife glancing inquiringly at the boy. Boy nodding frankly to her. Then she knew that he had seen Uncle McFuddy on the pier above.
"Bill," said the captain's wife, rather too carelessly, "don't you want to go in and lie down? The tug is filling its tanks up at the company's pier and will be down to make up the tow any minute. Go lie down; I'll tend the hawsers."
"Wouch!" cried Captain Brock. Something had shot through the window, striking him on the forehead.
"My sinker!" a fisherman bursting excitedly into the cabin, searching for his sinker, suddenly delving into Mrs. Brock's work-basket, and away with him!
"Say!" roared the captain, "If I wasn't the best-natured feller--"
"He's run away with my emery bag for a sinker!" cried Mrs. Brock.
"If I wasn't so good-natured"--from the ferocious captain--"but I am, and it's kept me poor, but I can't help it. Never mind, my old pet, I'll get you another emery bag, or whatever it is. Johnnie, can't you talk about the Third Reader? Wasn't there something about a general besieging a town, and was very thirsty, and he seen something issuing from the walls of the city, and he was going to charge and slaughter it, and it was little children bearing him cherries, something luscious? Wasn't there? And he says, `Go in peace; I don't make no war on children!' My! That was touching! I got an awful tender heart, and them things do move me--"
The bitter, cynical laugh of the unhappy, jug-shaped fisherman! Captain stepping to the door, dragging the boy with him. His new hat had been lying on the water barrel. A hook swinging out. New hat slung far out in the river.
"Say, you there that done that, get me back my hat, or I'll have the lives of the lot of youse!"
New hat drawn back, a neat white film of floating oil covering it. Just them along came the tugboat to make up the tow, and if he wished the boy to break stones for him Uncle McFuddy would have to appear within a few minutes.
"Oh, my! My!" said Captain Brock, returning to his easy chair, dragging the boy after him, "My old pet, how can you ever say I'm the least bit bad-tempered? Look at this hat! If I wasn't as mild and meek as a little lamb, I'd go kick off every one of them pirates." He was thrown headlong across the floor, but, even in stumbling, he grasped and carried the boy with him. Cabin in an uproar! Five excited fishermen struggling to catch a large eel that had slipped away from them.
"What in blazes do you mean by this?"
"Cut his head off!" cried the excited fishermen. "Jab him in the gills! You can't do nothing with an eel till you cut his head off!"
"Do you hear me tell the lot of youse to clear out of my cabin?"
"Get him between your fingers! There he goes! Under the table! Grab him! Under the stove!"
But the captain caught the eel and threw it out the window. And he shouted:
"Now back to your pier with every one of you! I'll be the death of any one lingers one second."
Loud and derisive jeers from the jug-shaped fisherman, as the other fishermen, muttering their indignation, fled from the cabin.
And the captain's wife saw that the boy was looking desperate and hunted. He was looking out at the pier. She looked out the window.
"Bill," cried Mrs. Brock, "lock the door so nobody can get in and bother us!"
"Let anyone else try it!" snarled Captain Brock.
"Oh, Bill, what a shame for them to treat you so! And after you so good to them fishermen!"
"You so good to them! You was always too kind-hearted. Oh, Bill, if here ain't another! Such a cheek he has! I just feel like putting him off myself! I wouldn't stand any more nonsense, Bill!"
"Me? I don't stand no nonsense from nobody!" cried out the easily enraged captain. Running to the door. Plunging out on deck.
A lean old person just clambering down from the pier!
"You! Get back where you belong!" shouted the wrathful captain wildly.
Lean old person spluttering indignantly. Showing no intention of going back.
Enraged captain running to a pile of broken bricks. "I mean it! No more of youse gets aboard here!"--grabbing pieces of brick, throwing them in a fusillade at descending heels. Heels pausing, in descending, to kick furiously backward.
"Let me catch you on this deck and I'll stuff you fuller of bricks than you can digest all summer!"
Then the lean old person scrambled back on the pier; raising his fists as high as he could; frantically beating them together; shrieking rage and futile threatening; screeching that he should return with a policeman; running down the pier, fists still frantically beating together.
Then Captain Brock remembered the boy. Darted to the cabin door! But the boy was not trying to escape. In ecstasy, he was imitating the gestures of the enraged old person; the captain's wife clapping her hands delightedly.
"Whew!" said Captain Brock, seriously, "But that was a tough old customer! He'll have to do his fishing somewhere else, though."
Only a few minutes later! Tow starting up the river.
And that evening, having gone over the whole Third Reader, Captain Brock suddenly repeated:
"Whew! But that was a tough old customer, and took on something fierce because I prevented him fishing. He'll have it in for me. I wonder who he is?"
But they never told him.
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