Michael O'Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter III. S.O.S.
Mickey, his responsibility weighing upon him, slept lightly and awakened early, his first thought of Peaches. He slipped into his clothing and advancing peered at her through the grayness. His heart beat wildly.
"Aw you poor kid! You poor little kid!" he whispered to himself as he had fallen into the habit of doing for company. "The scaring, the jolting, the scouring, and everything were too much for you. You've gone sure! You're just like them at the morgue. Aw Peaches! I didn't mean to hurt you, Peaches! I was trying to be good to you. Honest I was, Peaches! Aw----!"
As his fright increased Mickey raised his voice until his last wail reached the consciousness of the sleeping child. She stirred slightly, her head moving on the pillow. Mickey almost fell, so great was his relief. He stepped closer, gazing in awe. The sheared hair had dried in the night, tumbling into a hundred golden ringlets. The tiny clean face was white, so white that the blue of the closed eyes showed darkly through the lids, the blue veins streaked the temples and the little claws lying relaxed on the sheet. Mickey slowly broke up inside. A big, hard lump grew in his throat. He shut his lips tight and bored the tears from his eyes with his wiry fists. He began to mutter his thoughts to regain self-control.
"Gee kid, but you had me scared to the limit!" he said. "I thought you were gone, sure. Honest I did! Ain't I glad though! But you're the whitest thing! You're like----I'll tell you what you're like. You're like the lily flowers in the store windows at Easter. You're white like them, and your hair is the little bit of gold decorating them. If I'd known it was like that I wouldn't a-cut it if I'd spent a month untangling it. Honest I wouldn't, kid! I'm awful sorry! Gee, but it would a-been pretty spread over mother's pillow."
Mickey gazed, worshipped and rejoiced as he bent lower from time to time to watch the fluttering breath.
"You're so clean now you just smell good; but I got to go easy. The dirt covered you so I didn't see how sick you were. You'll go out like a candle, that's what you'll do. I mustn't let even the wind blow cold on you. I couldn't stand it if I was to hurt you. I'd just go and lay down before the cars or jump down an elevator hole. Gee, I'm glad I found you! I wouldn't trade you for the smartest dog that's being rode around in the parks. Nor for the parks! Nor the trees! Nor the birds! Nor the buildings! Nor the swimming places! Nor the automobiles! Nor nothing! Not nothing you could mention at all! Not eating! Nor seeing! Nor having! Not no single thing--nothing at all--Lily!
"Lily!" he repeated. "Little snow white lily! Peaches is a good name for you if you're referring to sweetness, but it doesn't fit for colour. Least I never saw none white. Lily fits you better. If you'd been a dog, I was going to name you Partner. But you're mine just as much as if you was a dog, so I'll name you if I want to. Lily! That's what God made you; that's what I'm going to call you."
The God thought, evoked by creation, remained in Mickey's heart. He glanced at the sky clearing from the graying mists of morning, while the rumble of the streets came up to him in a dull roar.
"O God, I guess I been forgetting my praying some, since mother went. I'd nothing but myself and I ain't worth bothering You about. But O God, if You are going to do any big things to-day, why not do some for Lily? Can't be many that needs it more. If You saw her yesterday, You must see if You'll look down now, that she's better off, she's worlds better off. Wonder if You sent me to get her, so she would be better off. Gee, why didn't You send one of them millyingaires who could a-dressed her up, fed her and took her to the country where the sun would shine on her. Ain't never touched her, I bet a liberty-bird. But if You did the sending, You sent just me, so she's my job, an' I'll do her! But I wish You'd help me, or send me help, O God. It's an awful job to tackle all alone, for I'm going to be scared stiff if she gets sick. I can tell by how I felt when I thought she was gone. So if You sent me God, it's up to You to help me. Come on now! If You see the sparrows when they fall, You jest good naturedly ought to see Lily Peaches, 'cause she's always been down, and she can't ever get up, unless we can help her. Help me all You can O God, and send me help to help her all I can, 'cause she can use all the help she can get, and then some! Amen!"
Mickey took one of Peaches' hands in his.
"I ain't the time now, but to-night I got to cut your nails and clean them, then I guess you'll do to start on," he said as he squeezed the hand. "Lily! Lily Peaches, wake up! It's morning now. I got to go out with the papers to earn supper to-night. Wake up! I must wash you and feed you 'fore I go."
Peaches opened her eyes, drawing back startled.
"Easy now!" cautioned Mickey. "Easy now! Don't be scared. Nobody can 'get' you here! What you want for breakfast, Flowersy-girl? Little Lily white."
An adorable smile illumined the tiny face at the first kindly awakening it ever had known.
"You won't let them 'get' me, will you?" she triumphed.
"You know it!" he answered conclusively. "Now I'll wash your face, cook your breakfast, and fix you at the window where maybe you can see birds going across. Think of that, Lily! Birds!"
"My name's Peaches!" said the child.
"So 'tis!" said Mickey. "But since you arrived to such bettered conditions, you got to be a lady of fashion. Now Peaches, every single kid in the Park is named two names, these days. Fellow can't have a foot race for falling over Mary Elizabeths, and Louisa Ellens. I can't do so much just to start on, 'cause I can't earn the boodle; fast as I get it, you're going to line up; but nachally, just at starting you must begin on the things that are not expensive. Now names don't cost anything, so I can be giving you six if I like, and you are a lily, so right now I'm naming you Lily, but two's the style; keep your Peaches, if it suits you. Lily just flies out of my mouth when I look at you."
This was wonderful. No cursing! No beating! No wailing over a lame-back brat to feed. Mickey liked to give her breakfast! Mickey named her for the wonderful flower like granny had picked up before a church one day, a few weeks ago and in a rare sober moment had carried to her. Mickey had made her feel clean, so rested, and so fresh she wanted to roll over the bed. With child impulse she put up her arms. Mickey stooped to them.
"You goin' to have two names too," she said. "You gotter be fash'nable. I ist love you for everythin', washin', an' breakfast, an' the bed, an' winder, an' off the floor; oh I just love you sick for the winder, an' off the floor. You going to be"--she paused in a deep study to think of a word anywhere nearly adequate, then ended in a burst that was her best emanation--"lovest! Mickey-lovest!"
She hugged him closely, then lifted her chin and pursed her lips. Mickey pulled back, a dull colour in his face.
"Now nix on the mushing!" he said. "I'll stand for a hug once a day, but nix on the smear!"
"You'd let a dog," she whimpered. "I ain't kissed nothin' since granny sold the doll a lady gave me the time we went to the doctor's, an' took the money to get drunk on, an' beat me more'n I needed for a change, 'cause I cried for it. I think you might!"
"Aw well, go on then, if you're going to bawl," said Mickey, "but put it there!"
He stepped as far back as he could, leaned over, and swept the hair from his forehead, which he brought in range of her lips. He had to brace himself to keep from flinching at their cold touch and straightened in relief.
"Now that's over!" he said briskly. "I'll wash you, and get your breakfast."
"You do a lot of washin', don't you?" inquired Peaches.
"You want the sleep out of your eyes," coaxed Mickey.
He brought the basin and a cloth, washing the child's face and hands gently as was in his power.
"Flowersy-girl," he said, "if you'd looked last night like you do this morning, I'd never tackled getting you here in the world. I'd thought you'd break sure."
"G'wan kid," she said. "I can stand a lot. I been knocked round somepin awful. She dragged me by one hand or the hair when she was tight, and threw me in a corner an' took the"--Peaches glanced over the bed, refusing to call her former estate by the same name--"took the place herself. You ain't hurting me. You can jerk me a lot."
"I guess you've been jerked enough, Lily Peaches," he said. "I guess jerkin' ain't going to help your back any. I think we better be easy with it 'til we lay up the money to Carrel it. He put different legs on a dog, course he can put a new back on you."
"Dogs doesn't count only with rich folks 'at rides 'em, an' feeds 'em cake; but where'll you find 'nother girl 'at ull spare her back for me, Mickey-lovest?" asked Peaches.
"Gee, Lily!" he cried. "I didn't think of that--I wish I hadn't promised you. Course he could change the backs, but where'd I get one. I'll just have to let him take mine."
"I don't want no boy's back!" flashed Peaches. "I won't go out an' sell papers, an' wash you, an' feed you, an' let you stay here in this nice bed. I don't want no new back, grand like it is here. I won't have no dog's back, even. I won't have no back!"
"Course I couldn't let you work and take care of me, Lily," he said. "Course I couldn't! I was just thinking what I could do. I'll write a letter and ask the Carrel man if a dog's back would do. I could get one your size at the pound, maybe."
Peaches arose at him with hands set like claws.
"You fool!" she shrieked. "You big damn fool! 'A dog's back!' I won't! You try it an' I'll scratch your eyes out! You stop right now on backs an' go hell-bent an' get my breakfast! I'm hungry! I like my back! I will have it! You----"
Mickey snatched his pillow from the floor, using it to press the child against hers. Then he slipped it down a trifle at one corner and spoke:
"Now you cut that out, Miss Chicken, right off!" he said sternly. "I wouldn't take no tantrums from a dog, so I won't from you. You'll make your back worse acting like that, than beating would make it, and 'sides, if you're going to live with me, you must be a lady. No lady says such words as you used, and neither does no gentleman, 'cause I don't myself. Now you'll either say, 'Mickey, please get me my breakfast,' and I'll get you one with a big surprise, or you'll lay here alone and hungry 'til I come back to-night. And it'll be a whole day, see?"
"'F I wasn't a pore crippled kid, you wouldn't say that to me," she wailed.
"And if you wasn't 'a poor crippled kid,' you wouldn't say swearin's to me," said Mickey, "'cause you know I'd lick the stuffin' out of you, and if you could see yourself, you'd know that you need stuffin' in, more than you need it out. I'm 'mazed at you! Forget that you ever heard such stuff, and be a nice lady, won't you? My time's getting short and I got to go, or the other kids will sell to my paper men, then we'll have no supper. Now you say, 'Mickey, please get my breakfast,' like a lady, or you won't get a bite."
"'Mickey, please get my breakfast,'" she imitated.
Mickey advanced threateningly with the pillow.
"Won't do!" he said. "That ain't like no lady! That's like me. You'll say it like yourself, or you won't get it."
She closed her lips, burying her face in her own pillow.
"All right," said Mickey. "Then I'll get my own. If you don't want any, I'll have twice as much."
He laid the pillow on the foot of the bed, saying politely: "'Scuse me, Lily, till I get me a bottle of milk."
Soon he returned and with his first glimpse of the bed stood aghast. It was empty. His eyes searched the room. His pallet on the floor outlined a tiny form. A dismayed half smile flashed over his face. He took a step toward her, and then turned, getting out a cloth he had not used since being alone. Near the bed he set the table and laid a plate, knife, fork and spoon. Because he was watching Peaches he soon discovered she was peeking out at him, so he paid strict attention to the burner he was lighting.
Then he sliced bread, put on a toaster, set the milk on the table, broke an egg in a saucer, and turned the toast. Soon the odours filled the room, also a pitiful sound. Mickey knew Peaches must have hurt herself sliding from the bed, although her arms were strong for the remainder of her body. She had no way to reach his pallet but to roll across the floor. She might have bruised herself badly. He was amazed, disgusted, yet compassionate. He went to her and turned back the comfort.
"You must be speaking a little louder, Lily," he said gently. "I wasn't quite hearing you."
Only muffled sobbing. Mickey dropped the cover.
"I want my breakfast," said a very small voice.
"You mean, 'Mickey, please get my breakfast,' Flowersy-girl," he corrected gently.
"Oh I hurt myself so!" Peaches wailed. "Oh Mickey, I fell an' broke my back clear in two. 'Tain't like rollin' off my rags; oh Mickey, it's so far to the floor, from your bed! Oh Mickey, even another girl's back, or yours, or a dog's, or anybody's wouldn't fix it now. It'll hurt for days. Mickey, why did I ever? Oh what made me? Mickey-lovest, please, please put me back on the nice fine bed, an' do please give me some of that bread."
Mickey lifted her, crooning incoherent things. He wiped her face and hands, combed her hair, and pushed the table against the bed. He broke toast in a glass and poured milk over it. Then he cooked the egg and gave her that, keeping only half the milk and one slice of bread. He made a sandwich of more bread, and the cheese, put a banana with it, set a cup of water in reach, and told her that was her lunch; to eat it when the noon whistles blew. Then he laid all the picture books he had on the back of the bed, put the money for his papers in his pocket, and locking her in, ran down Sunrise Alley fast as he could.
He was one hour late. He had missed two regular customers. They must be made up and more. Light, air, cleanliness, and kindness would increase Peaches' appetite, which seemed big now for the size of her body. Mickey's face was very sober when he allowed himself to think of his undertaking. How would he make it? He had her now, he simply must succeed. The day was half over before Mickey began to laugh for no apparent reason. He had realized that she had not said what he had required of her, after all.
"Gee, I'm up against it," said Mickey. "I didn't s'pose she'd act like that! I thought she'd keep on being like when she woke up. I never behaved like that."
Then in swift remorse: "But I had the finest mother a fellow ever had to tell me, while she ain't had any one, and only got me now, so I'll have to tell her; course I can't do everything at once. So far as that goes, she didn't do any worse than the millyingaires' kids in the park who roll themselves in the dirt, bump their own heads, and scream and fight. I guess my kid's no worse than other people's. I can train her like mother did me; then we'll be enough alike we can live together, and even when she was the worst, I liked her. I liked her cartloads."
So Mickey shouldered the duties of paternity, and began thinking for his child, his little, neglected, bad, sick child. His wits and feet always had been nimble; that day he excelled himself. Anxiety as to how much he must carry home at night to replace what he had spent in moving Peaches to his room, three extra meals to provide before to-morrow night, something to interest her through the long day: it was a contract, surely! Mickey faced it gravely, but he did not flinch. He did not know how it was to be done, but he did know it must be done. "Get" her they should not. Whatever it had been his mother had feared for him, nameless though the horror was, from that he must save Lily. Mickey had thought it must be careless nurses or lack of love. Yesterday's papers had said there were some children at one of the Homes, no one ever visited; they were sick for love; would not some kind people come to see them? It must have been that she feared. He could not possibly know it was the stigma of having been a charity child she had been combating with all her power.
They had not "got" him; they must not "get" his Lily; yet stirrings in Mickey's brain told him he was not going to be sufficient, alone. There were emergencies he did not know how to manage. He must have help. Mickey revolved the problem in his worried head without reaching a solution. His necessity drove him. He darted, dodged and took chances. Far down the street he selected his victim and studied his method of assault as he approached; for Mickey did victimize people that day. He sold them papers when they did not want them. He bettered that and sold them papers when they had them. He snatched up lost papers, smoothed and sold them over. Every gay picture or broken toy dropped from an automobile he caught up and pocketed for her.
A woman stumbled alighting from a passing car. Mickey dropped his papers and sprang forward. Her weight bore him to the pavement, but he kept her from falling, and even as he felt her on her feet, he snatched under the wheels for her purse.
"Is that all your stuff, lady?" he asked.
"Thank you! I think so," she said. "Wait a minute!"
To lend help was an hourly occurrence with Mickey. She had been most particular to teach him that. He was gathering up and smoothing his papers several of which were soiled. The woman opened the purse he had rescued, taking therefrom a bill which she offered him.
"Thanks!" said Mickey. "My shoulder is worth considerable to me; but nothing like that to you, lady!"
"Well!" she said. "Are you refusing the money?"
"Sure!" said Mickey. "I ain't a beggar! Just a balance on my shoulder and picking up your purse ain't worth an endowment. I'll take five cents each for three soiled papers, if you say so."
"You amazing boy!" said the woman. "Don't you understand that if you hadn't offered your shoulder, I might now be lying senseless? You saved me a hard fall, while my dress would have been ruined. You step over here a minute. What's your name?"
"Michael O'Halloran," was the answer.
"Where do you live?"
"Sunrise Alley. It's miles on the cars, then some more walking," explained Mickey.
"Whom do you live with?"
"Myself," said Mickey.
"All but Peaches," said Mickey. "Lily Peaches."
"Who is Lily Peaches?"
"She's about so long"--Mickey showed how long--"and about so wide"--he showed how wide--"and white like Easter church flowers. Her back's bad. I'm her governor; she's my child."
"If you won't take the money for yourself, then take it for her," offered the woman. "If you have a little sick girl to support, you surely can use it."
"Umm!" said Mickey. "You kind of ball a fellow up and hang him on the ropes. Honest you do, lady! I can take care of myself. I know I can, 'cause I've done it three years, but I don't know how I'm goin' to make it with Lily, for she needs a lot. She may get sick any day, so I ain't sure how I'm going to manage well with her."
"How long have you taken care of her?"
"Since last night," explained Mickey.
"Oh! How old is she?" Questions seemed endless.
"I don't know," answered Mickey. "Her granny died and left her lying on rags in a garret. I found her screeching, so I took her to my castle and washed her, and fed her. You should see her now."
"I believe I should!" said the woman. "Let's go at once. You know Michael, you can't care for a girl. I'll put her in one of the beautiful Children's Homes--"
"Now nix on the Children's Homes, fair lady!" he cried angrily. "I guess you'll find her, 'fore you take her! I found her first, and she's mine! I guess you'll find her, 'fore you take her to a Children's Home, where the doctors slice up the poor kids for practice so they'll know how to get money for doing it to the rich ones. I've annexed Lily Peaches, and you don't 'get' her! See?"
"I see," said the woman. "But you're mistaken----"
"'Scuse crossing your wire, but I don't think I am," said Mickey. "The only way you can know, is to have been there yourself. I don't think you got that kind of a start, or want it for kids of your own. My mother killed herself to keep me out of it, and if it had been so grand, she'd wanted me there. Nix on the Orphings' Home talk. Lily ain't going to be raised in droves, nor flocks, nor herds! See? Lily's going to have a home of her own, and a man to take care of her by herself."
Mickey backed away, swallowing a big lump in his throat, and blinking down angry tears.
"'Smorning," he said, "I asked God to help me, and for a minute I was so glad, 'cause I thought He'd helped by sending you, so you could tell me how to do; but if God can't beat you, I can get along by myself."
"You can't take care of a girl by yourself," she insisted. "The law won't allow you."
"Oh can't I?" scoffed Mickey. "Well you're mistaken, 'cause I am! And getting along bully! You ought to seen her last night, and then this morning. Next time I yell for help, I won't ask to have anybody sent, I'll ask Him to help me save our souls, myself. Ever see that big, white, wonderful Jesus at the Cathedral door, ma'am, holding the little child in His arms so loving? I don't s'pose He stopped to ask whether it was a girl, or a boy, 'fore He took it up; He just opened his arms to the first child that needed Him. And if I remember right, He didn't say: 'Suffer little children to be sent to Orphings' Homes.' Mammy never read it to me that way. It was suffer them to come to 'Me,' and be took up, and held tender. See? Nix on the Orphings' Home people. They ain't in my class. Beaucheous lady, adoo! Farewell! I depart!"
Mickey wheeled, vanishing. It was a wonderful exhibition of curves, leaps, and darts. He paused for breath when he felt safe.
"So that's the dope!" he marvelled. "I can't take care of a girl? Going to take her away from me? I'd like to know why? Men all the time take care of women. I see boys taking care of girls I know their mothers left with them, every day--I'd like to know why. Mother said I was to take care of her. She said that's what men were made for. 'Cause he didn't take care of her, was why she was glad my father was dead. I guess I know what I'm doing! But I've learned something! Nix on the easy talk after this; and telling anybody you meet all you know. Shut mouth from now on. 'What's your name, little boy?' 'Andrew Carnegie.' 'Where d'you live?' 'Castle on the Hudson!' A mouth just tight shut about Lily, after this! And nix on the Swell Dames! Next one can bust her crust for all I care! I won't touch her!"
On the instant, precisely that thing occurred, at Mickey's very feet. With his lips not yet closed, he knelt to shove his papers under a woman's head, then went racing up the stone steps she had rolled down, his quick eye catching and avoiding the bit of fruit on which she had slipped. He returned in a second with help. As the porter lifted the inert body, Mickey slid his hands under her head, and advised: "Keep her straight!" Into one of the big hospitals he helped carry a blue and white clad nurse, on and on, up elevators and into a white porcelain room where they laid her on a glass table. Mickey watched with frightened eyes. Doctors and nurses came running. He stood waiting for his papers. He was rather sick, yet he remembered he had five there he must sell.
"Better clear out of here now!" suggested a surgeon.
"My papers!" said Mickey. "She fell right cross my feet. I slid them under, to make her head more pillowlike on the stones. Maybe I can sell some of them."
The surgeon motioned to a nurse at the door.
"Take this youngster to the office and pay him for the papers he has spoiled," he ordered.
"Will she--is she going to----?" wavered Mickey.
"I'm not sure," said the surgeon. "From the bleeding probably concussion; but she will live. Do you know how she came to fall?"
"There was a smear of something on the steps she didn't see," explained Mickey.
"Thank you! Go with the nurse," said the surgeon. Then to an attendant: "Take Miss Alden's number, and see to her case. She was going after something."
Mickey turned back. "Paper, maybe," he suggested, pointing to her closed hand. The surgeon opened it and found a nickel. He handed it to Mickey. "If you have a clean one left, let this nurse take it to Miss Alden's case, and say she has been assigned other duty. See to sending a substitute at once."
Every paper proved to be marked.
"I can bring you a fresh one in a second, lady," offered Mickey. "I got the money."
"All right," she said. "Wait with it in the office and then I'll pay you."
"I'm sent for a paper. I'm to be let in as soon as I get it," announced Mickey to the porter. "I ain't taking chances of being turned down," he said to himself, as he stopped a second to clean the step.
He returned and was waiting when the nurse came. She was young and fair faced; her hair was golden, and as she paid Mickey for his papers he wondered how soon he could have Lily looking like her. He took one long survey as he pocketed the money, thinking he would rush home at once; but he wanted to fix in his mind how Lily must appear, to be right, for he thought a nurse in the hospital would be right.
The nurse knew she was beautiful, and to her Mickey's long look was tribute, male tribute; a small male indeed, but such a winning one; so she took the occasion to be her loveliest, and smile her most attractive smile. Mickey surrendered. He thought she was like an angel, that made him think of Heaven, Heaven made him think of God, God made him think of his call for help that morning, the call made him think of the answer, the beautiful woman before him made him think that possibly she might be the answer instead of the other one. He rather doubted it, but it might be a chance. Mickey was alert for chances for Peaches, so he smiled again, then he asked: "Are you in such an awful hurry?"
"I think we owe you more than merely paying for your papers," she said. "What is it?"
Again Mickey showed how long and how wide Lily was. "And with hair like yours, and eyes and cheeks that would be, if she had her chance, and nobody to give her that chance but just me," he said. "Me and Lily are all each other's got," he explained hastily. "We're home folks. We're a family. We don't want no bunching in corps and squads. We're nix on the Orphings' Home business; but you must know, ma'am--would you, oh would you tell me just how I should be taking care of her? I'm doing everything like my mother did to me; but I was well and strong. Maybe Lily, being a girl, should have things different. A-body so beautiful as you, would tell me, wouldn't you?"
Then a miracle happened. The nurse, so clean she smelled like a drug store, so lovely she shone as a sunrise, laid an arm across Mickey's shoulders. "You come with me," she said. She went to a little room, and all alone she asked Mickey questions; with his eyes straight on hers, he answered. She told him surely he could take care of Lily. She explained how. She rang for a basket and packed it full of things he must have, showing him how to use them. She told him to come each Saturday at four o'clock, as she was going off duty, and tell her how he was getting along. She gave him a thermometer, and told him how to learn if the child had fever. She told him about food, and she put in an ointment, instructing him to rub the little back with it, so the bed would not be so tiresome. She showed him how to arrange the pillows; when he left, the tears were rolling down Mickey's cheeks. Both of them were so touched she laid her arm across his shoulder again and went as far as the elevator, while a passport to her at any time was in his pocket.
"I 'spect other folks tell you you are beautiful like flowers, or music, or colours," said Mickey in farewell, "but you look like a window in Heaven to me, and I can see right through you to God and all the beautiful angels; but what gets me is why the other one had to bust her crust, to make you come true!"
The nurse was laughing and wiping her eyes at the same time. Mickey gripped the basket until his hands were stiff as he sped homeward at least two hours early and happy about it. At the last grocery he remembered every word and bought bread, milk, and fruit with care "for a sick lady" he explained, so the grocer, who knew him, used care. Triumphing Mickey climbed the stairs. He paused a second in deep thought at the foot of the last flight, then ascended whistling to let Peaches know that he was coming, then on his threshold recited:
"One't a little kid named Lily, Was so sweet she'd knock you silly, Yellow hair in millying curls, Beat a mile all other girls."
She was on his bed; she was on his pillow; she had been lonely; both arms were stretched toward him.
"Mickey, hurry!" she cried. "Mickey, lemme hold you 'til I'm sure! Mickey, all day I didn't hardly durst breathe, fear the door'd open an' they'd 'get' me. Oh Mickey, you won't let them, will you?"
Mickey dropped his bundles and ran to the bed. This time he did not shrink from her wavering clasp. It was delight to come home to something alive, something that belonged to him, something to share with, something to work and think for, something that depended upon him.
"Now nix on the scare talk," he comforted. "Forget it! I've lived here three years alone, and not a single time has anybody come to 'get' me, so they won't you. There's only one thing can happen us. If I get sick or spend too much on eating, and don't pay the rent, the man that owns this building will fire us out. If we, if we" Mickey repeated impressively, "pay our rent regular, in advance, nobody will ever come, not ever, so don't worry."
"Then what's all them bundles?" fretted Peaches. "You ortn't a-got so much. You'll never get the next rent paid! They'll 'get' me sure."
"Now throttle your engine," advised Mickey. "Stop your car! Smash down on the brakes! They are things the city you reside in furnishes its taxpayers, or something like that. I pay my rent, so this is my share, and it's things for you: to make you comfortable. Which are you worst-- tiredest, or hungriest, or hottest?"
"I don't know," she said.
"Then I'll make a clean get-a-way," said Mickey. "Washing is cooling; and it freshens you up a lot."
So Mickey brought his basin again, bathing the tired child gently as any woman could have done it.
"See what I got!" he cried as he opened bundles and explained. "I'm going to see if you have fever."
Peaches rebelled at the thermometer.
"Now come on in," urged Mickey. "Slide straight home to your base! If I'm going to take care of you, I'm going to right. You can't lay here eating wrong things if you have fever. No-sir-ee! You don't get to see in any more of these bundles, nor any supper, nor talked to any more, 'til you put this little glass thing under your tongue and hold it there just this way"--Mickey showed how--"three minutes by the clock, then I'll know what to do with you next. I'll sit beside you, and hold your hands, and tell you about the pretty lady that sent it."
Mickey wiped the thermometer on the sheet, then presented it. Peaches took one long look at him and opened her lips. Mickey inserted the tube, set the clock in sight, and taking both her hands he held them closely and talked as fast as he could to keep her from using them. He had not half finished the day when the time was up. If he had done it right, Peaches had very little, if any, fever.
"Now turn over so I can rub your back to make it all nice and rested," he said. "And then I'll get supper."
"I don't want my back rubbed," she protested. "My back's all right now."
"Nothing to do with going to have it rubbed," said Mickey. "It would be a silly girl who would have a back that wouldn't walk, and then wouldn't even try having it doctored, so that it would get better. Just try Lily, and if it doesn't help, I won't do it any more."
Peaches took another long look at Mickey, questioning in nature, then turned her back to him.
"Gosh, kid! Your back looks just like horses' going to the fertilizer plant," he said.
"Ain't that swearin's?" asked Peaches promptly.
"First-cousin," answered Mickey. "'Scuse me Lily. If you could see your back, you'd 'scuse worse than that."
"Feelin' ull do fer me," said Peaches. "I live wid it." "Honest kid, I'm scared to touch you," he wavered.
"Aw g'wan!" said Peaches. "I ain't goin' screechin' even if you hurt awful, an' you touch like a sparrer lookin' for crumbs. Mickey, can we put out a few?"
"For the sparrows? Sure!" cried Mickey. "They're the ones that God sees especial when they fall. Sure! Put out some in a minute. Still now!"
Mickey poured on ointment, then began softly rubbing it into the dreadful back. His face was drawn with anxiety and filled with horror. He was afraid, but the nurse said this he should do, while Mickey's first lesson had been implicit obedience. So he rubbed gently as he was fearful; when Peaches made no complaint, a little stronger, and a little stronger, until he was tired. Then he covered her, telling her to lie on it, and see how it felt. Peaches looked at him with wondering eyes.
"Mickey," she said, "nothin" in all my life ever felt like that, an' the nice cool washin' you do. Mickey-lovest, nex' time I act mean 'bout what you want to do to me, slap me good, an' hold me, an' go on an' do it!"
"Now nix on the beating," said Mickey. "I never had any from my mother; but the kids who lost sales to me took my nickels, and give me plenty. You ought to know, Lily, that I'm trying hard as I can to make you feel good; and to take care of you. What I want to do, I think will make you better, so I'm just nachally going to do it, 'cause you're mine, and you got to do what I say. But I won't say anything that'll hurt you and make you worse. If you must take time to think new things over, I can wait; but I can't hit you Lily, you're too little, too sick, and I like you too well. I wish you'd be a lady! I wish you wouldn't ever be bad again!"
"Hoh I feel so good!" Peaches stretched like a kitten. "Mickey, bet I can walk 'fore long if you do that often! Mickey, I just love you, an' love you. Mickey, say that at the door over again."
"What?" queried Mickey.
"'One't a little kid named Lily,'" prompted Peaches.
Mickey laughed and obeyed.
Neatly he put away all that had been supplied him; before lighting the burner he gave Lily a drink of milk and tried arranging both pillows to prop her up as he had been shown. When the water boiled he dropped in two bouillon cubes the nurse had given him, and set out some crackers he had bought. He put the milk in two cups, and when he cut the bread, he carefully collected every crumb, putting it on the sill in the hope that a bird might come. The thieving sparrows, used to watching windows and stealing from stores set out to cool, were soon there. Peaches, to whom anything with feathers was a bird, was filled with joy. The odour of the broth was delicious. Mickey danced, turned handsprings, and made the funniest remarks. Then he fixed the bowl on a paper, broke the crackers in her broth, growing unspeakably happy at her delight as she tasted it.
"Every Saturday you get a box of that from the Nurse Lady," he boasted. "Pretty soon you'll be so fat I can't carry you and so well you can have supper ready when I come, then we can----" Mickey stopped short. He had started to say, "go to the parks," but if other ladies were like the first one he had talked with, and if, as she said, the law would not let him keep Peaches, he had better not try to take her where people would see her.
"Can what?" asked Peaches.
"Have the most fun!" explained Mickey. "We can sit in the window to see the sky and birds; you can have the shears and cut pictures from the papers I'll bring you, while I'll read all my story books to you. I got three that She gave me for Christmas presents, so I could learn to read them----"
"Mickey could I ever learn to read them?"
"Sure!" cried Mickey. "Surest thing you know! You are awful smart, Lily. You can learn in no time, and then you can read while I'm gone, so it won't seem long. I'll teach you. Mother taught me. I can read the papers I sell. Honest I can. I often pick up torn ones I can bring to you. It's lots of fun to know what's going on. I sell many more by being able to tell what's in them than kids who can't read. I look all over the front page and make up a spiel on the cars. I always fold my papers neat and keep them clean. To-day it was like this: 'Here's your nice, clean, morning paper! Sterilized! Deodorized! Vulcanized!'"
"Mickey what does that mean?" asked Peaches.
"Now you see how it comes in!" said Mickey. "If you could read the papers, you'd know. 'Sterilized,' is what they do to the milk in hot weather to save the slum kids. That's us, Lily. 'Deodorized,' is taking the bad smell out of things. 'Vulcanized,' is something they do to stiffen things. I guess it's what your back needs."
"Is all them things done to the papers?" asked Peaches.
"Well, not all of them," laughed Mickey, "but they are starting in on some of them, and all would be a good thing. The other kids who can't read don't know those words, so I study them out and use them; it catches the crowd for they laugh, and then pay me for making them. See? This world down on the streets is in such a mix a laugh is the scarcest thing there is; so they pay for it. No grouchy, sad-cat-working-on-your-sympathy kid sells many. I can beat one with a laugh every inning."
"What's 'inning,' Mickey?" came the next question.
"Playin' a side at a ball game. Now Ty Cobb----"
"Go on with what you say about the papers," interrupted Peaches.
"All right!" said Mickey. "'Here's your nice, clean morning paper! Sterilized! Deodorized! Vulcanized! I like to sell them. You like to buy them! Sometimes I sell them! Sometimes I don't! Latest war news! Japan takes England! England takes France! France takes Germany! Germany takes Belgium! Belgium takes the cake! Here's your paper! Nice clean paper! Rush this way! Change your change for a paper! Yes, I like to sell them----' and on and on that way all day, 'til they're gone and every one I pick up and smooth out is gone, and if they're torn and dirty, I carry them back on the cars and sell them for pennies to the poor folks walking home."
"Mickey, will we be slum kids always?" she asked.
"Not on your tin type!" cried Mickey.
"If this is slum kids, I like it!" protested Peaches.
"Well, Sunrise Alley ain't so slummy as where you was, Lily," explained the boy.
"This is grand," said Peaches "Fine an' grand! No lady needn't have better!"
"She wouldn't say so," said Mickey. "But Lily, you got something most of the millyingaire ladies hasn't."
"What Mickey?" she asked interestedly.
"One man all to yourself, who will do what you want, if you ask pretty, and he ain't going to drag you 'round and make you do things you don't like to, and hit you, and swear at you, and get drunk. Gee, I bet the worst you ever had didn't hurt more than I've seen some of the swell dames hurt sometimes. It'd make you sick Lily."
"I guess 'at it would," said the girl, "'cause granny told me the same thing. Lots of times she said 'at she couldn't see so much in bein' rich if you had to be treated like she saw rich ladies. She said all they got out of it was nice dresses an' struttin' when their men wasn't 'round; nelse the money was theirn, an' nen they made the men pay. She said it was 'bout half and half."
"So 'tis!" cried Mickey. "Tell you Lily, don't let's ever be rich! Let's just have enough."
"Mickey, what is 'enough?'" asked Peaches.
"Why plenty, but not too much!" explained Mickey judicially. "Not enough to fight over! Just enough to be comfortable."
"Mickey, I'm comf'rable as nangel now."
"Gee, I'm glad, Lily," said Mickey in deep satisfaction. "Maybe He heard my S.O.S. after all, and you just being comfortable is the answer."