“I COME from San José,” he said. “San José, Calaveras County, California: that’s my place.” I pricked up my ears at the mention of Calaveras County. Bret Harte has made that sacred ground.
“Yes?’’ said I politely. Always be polite to a gentleman from Calaveras County. For aught you know he may be a lineal descendant of the great Colonel Starbottle.
“Did you ever know Vermilyea of San Luis Obispo?” continued the stranger, chewing the plug of meditation.
“No,’’ said I. Heaven alone knows where lies San Luis Obispo, but I was not going to expose my ignorance. Besides, there might be a story at the back of it all. “What was the special weakness of Mister Vermilyea?”
“Vermilyea! He weak! Lot Vennilyea never had a weakness that you might call a weakness until subsequent events transpired. Then that weakness developed into White Rye. All Westerners drink White Rye. On the Eastern coast they drink Bourbon. Lot tried both when his heart was broken. Both—by the quart,”
“D’ you happen to remember what broke his heart?’’ I said.
“This must be your first trip to the States, sir, or you would know that Lot’s heart was broken by his father-in-law. Lot’s congregation—he took to Religion—always said that he had no business fooling with a father-inlaw. A good many other people said that too. But I always adhered to Lot. ‘Why don’t you kill the animal, Lot?’ I used to say. ‘I can’t. He’s the father of my wife,’ Lot used to say. ‘Loan him money then and settle him on the other side of the States,’ I used to say. ‘The old clam won’t move,’ Lot used to say.”
“Half a minute. What was the actual trouble between Vermilyea and his father-inlaw? Did he borrow money?”
“I’m coming to that,” said the stranger calmly. “It arrived this way. Lot had a notion to get married. Some men get that idea. He went to ’Frisco and pawned out his heart—Lot had a most feeling heart, and that was his ruin—to a girl who lived at back of Kearney Street. I’ve forgotten her given name, but the old man’s name was Dougherty. Guess he was a naturalised Irishman. The old man did not see the merits of Lot when he went sparking after the girl evenings. He fired Lot out off the stoop three or four times. Lot didn’t hit him because he was fond of the daughter. He just quit like a lamb; the old man welting into him with anything that came handy—sticks and besoms, and such. Lot endured that, being a tough man. Every time Lot was fired out he would wait till the old man was pretty well pumped out. Then he used to turn round and say, ‘When’s the wedding to be?’ Dougherty used to ramp round Lot while the girl hid herself till the breeze abated. He had a peculiar aversion to domiciliary visits from Lot, had Dougherty. I’ve my own theory on the subject. I’ll explain it later on. At last Dougherty got tired of Lot and his peacefulness. The girl stuck to him for all she was worth. Lot never budged. ‘If you want to marry her,’ said the old man, ‘just drop your long-suffering for half an hour. Stand up to me. Lot, and we’ll run this thing through with our hands.’ ‘If I must, I must,’ said Lot, and with that they began the argument up and down the parlour floor. Lot he was fighting for his wife. He set considerable value on the girl. The old man he was fighting for the fun of the affair. Lot whipped. He handled the old man tenderly out of regard for his connections. All the same he fixed him up pretty thoroughly. When he crawled off the old man he had received his permission to marry the girl. Old man Dougherty ran round ’Frisco advertising Lot for the tallest fighter in the town. Lot was a respectable sort of man and considerable absorbed in preparing for his wedding. It didn’t please him any to receive invitations from the boss fighting men of Trisco—professional invitations, you must understand. I guess he cussed the father-in-law to be.
“When he was married, he concluded to locate in ’Frisco, and started business there. A married man don’t keep his muscle up any. Old man Dougherty he must have counted on that. By the time Lot’s first child was born he came around suffering for a fight. He painted Lot’s house crimson. Lot endured that. He got a hold of the baby and began yanking it around by the legs to see if it could squeal worth listening to. Lot stretched him. Old man howled with delight. Lot couldn’t well hand his father-in-law over to the police, so they had it, knuckle and tooth, all round the front floor, and the old man he quit by the window, considerably mashed up. Lot was fair spent, not having kept up his muscle. My notion is that old man Dougherty being a boss fighter couldn’t get his fighting regularly till Lot married into the family. Then he reckoned on a running discussion to warm up his bones. Lot was too fond of his wife to disoblige him. Any man in his senses would have brought the old man before the courts, or clubbed him, or laid him out stiff. But Lot was always tender-hearted.
“Soon as old man Dougherty got his senses together off the pavement, he argued that Lot was considerable less of a fighter than he had been. That pleased the old man. He was plastered and caulked up by the doctors, and as soon as he could move he interviewed Lot and made remarks. Lot didn’t much care what he said, but when he came to casting reflections on the parentage of the baby. Lot shut the office door and played round for half an hour till the walls glittered like the evening sun. Old man Dougherty crawled out, but he crowed as he crawled. ‘Praise the blessed saints,’ he said, ‘I kin get my fighting along o’ my meals. Lot, ye have prolonged my life a century.’
“Guess Lot would like to see him dead now. He is an old man, but most amazing tough. He has been fighting Lot for a matter of three years. If Lot made a lucky bit of trade, the old man would come along and fight him for luck. If Lot lost a little, the old man would fight him to teach him safe speculation. It took all Lot’s time to keep even with him. No man in business can ’tend his business and fight in streaks. Lot’s trade fell off every time he laid himself out to stretch the old man. Worst of it was that when Lot was made a Deacon of his church, the old man fought him most terrible for the honour of the Roman Catholic Church. Lot whipped, of course. He always whipped. Old man Dougherty went round among the other Deacons and lauded Lot for a boss pugilist, not meaning to hurt Lot’s prospects. Lot had to explain the situation to the church in general. They accepted it.
“Old man Dougherty he fought on. Age had no effect on him. Lot always whipped, but nothing would satisfy the old man. Lot shook all his teeth out till his gums were as bare as a sand-bar. Old man Dougherty came along lisping his invitation to the dance. They fought.
“When Lot shifted to San Luis Obispo, old man Dougherty he came along too—craving for his fight. It was cocktails and plug to him. It grew on him. Lot handled him too gently because of the wife. The old man could come to the scratch once a month, and always at the most inconvenient time. They fought.
“Last I heard of Lot he was sinking into the tomb. ‘It’s not the fighting,’ he said to me. ‘It’s the darned monotony of the circus. He knows I can whip him, but he won’t rest satisfied. ‘Lay him out. Lot,’ said I; ‘fracture his cranium or gouge him. This show is foolish all round.’ ‘I can’t lay him out,’ said Lot. ‘He’s my father-in-law. But don’t it strike you I’ve a deal to be thankful for? If he had been a Jew he’d have fought on Simdays when I was doing Deacon. I’ve been too gentle with him; the old man knows my spot place, but I’ve a deal to be thankful for.’
“Strikes me that thankfulness of Lot’s sort is nothing more nor less than cussed affectation. Say!”
I said nothing.