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The Ragged Stranger

(c. 1928)

by Charles MacArthur


Chapter VIII.

The program was sent impartially to all the newspapers and so came to the attention of Boone, the deus ex machina of the Journal. He checked over its gala attractions with dismay.

“If that funeral ever comes off, Bunge’s elected,” he complained to his assistant. “The dirty crook is going to get on the air with all this hearts and flowers stuff, and win in a walk. We’re licked -- unless we can crab the act.”

He meditated darkly. Then, “Where the hell is Goosehead?” he shouted.

Goosehead Mallow was to the Journal what Benson was to the Record, a dependable reporter whose artful schemes had more than once pulled his paper out of a hole. He lacked Benson’s finesse, being more inclined to slam bang, bit-and-run methods of achievement; but their honors were equal in point of results. In appearance, Goosehead was chiefly distinguished by a long neck, small, shoe-button eyes, and a horizontal bill that served him as a nose; in general, of a type that modern physicians seek to chloroform at birth. How wrongly, to judge from this specimen: Goosehead was a wonder.

Confronted with the problem, he tucked a chew of tobacco beneath his bill and immediately suggested that some old lady he employed to impersonate the Ragged Stranger’s mother. A rightful claim to the body, he submitted, would wreck all existing funeral plans.

“That’s been done,” objected Boone, gloomily.

“Not for six months,” replied the oracle. “And it’s sure fire. A mother’s claim always comes first.”

“They’ll make her prove it.”

“How? By birthmarks?”

Always Goosehead’s plans were born fully clad, with whiskers and a high silk hat. He now proposed that his aunt, a white-haired old lady, resourceful and discreet, be commissioned to visit Mr. Bunge’s saloon and lay claim to the Ragged Stranger’s remains.

“She has,” he said, “the saddest eyes I ever saw. You want to weep, just looking at her. Give her a little black bonnet and she’ll tear your heart out. Just tailor-made for the job, and she’d do it for fifty bucks.”

“Yes,” Boone demurred, “but suppose they get tough?”

“She’ll get tougher,” Goosehead confidently replied. “Dempsey wouldn’t stand a chance with that baby. They’ll hand over the body or she’ll wreck the joint. Why, we had to put her under peace bonds once. Twice!”

On the strength of Goosehead’s recommendation, Aunt Emmy Mallow was summoned to the office. She more than fulfilled expectations. Besides the admirable qualities referred to by her nephew she walked with a decided limp and wept almost at will. Overjoyed, Boone continued his campaign.

It was arranged that Aunt Emmy, closely shadowed by three strong-armed circulation men, should visit Bunge’s saloon the following morning, well in advance of the ceremony, and establish her rights to the Ragged Stranger. Presumably, Bunge would refuse to surrender the body, in which case, Emmy was to scream her loudest. On this signal the three circulation men were to rush in and slug Mr. Bunge.

“You have every provocation,” Boone advised them, passionately. “Here is a poor old mother who’s been refused the body of her only son, and insulted besides. Any jury would acquit you.”

In the event of a mishap, Boone further arranged to have a friendly judge available for such papers as might seem necessary for possession of the body, together with a half a dozen deputy sheriffs to back up the judge’s orders. Camera men were detailed to catch any scenes of eviction, and reporters were posted to interview everybody concerned and got a graphic story of the expected debacle.

The following day dawned bright and fair for the Journal. As Miss Mallow, clad in discreet black taffeta, feebly made her way to the saloon, utter strangers sprang to assist her across streets; so affecting was her appearance that many a strong man decided to write home to his mother on the spot.

Mr. Bunge himself was touched by some similar thought so he guided her gently toward the Ragged Stranger’s casket; a fact that he remembered bitterly for some time to come. The body lay in the back room of the saloon in a small gray casket that was still nearly twice the size of its occupant. It made an incongruous neucleus for the shocks of white roses and balconies of carnations with which it was surrounded, so shrunken it was, and unreal. It was as if the community had gathered to shed tears over Barnum’s Petrified Man, dead these ten thousand years. For the Ragged Stranger had dwindled to the dimensions and aspects of a gingerbread man, a coffee-colored pigwidgeon weighing just sixty-eight pounds.

Ragged he was no more. Ahrens & Son, conscious that he would be regarded as a sample of their art, had swaddled him in neat Blue serge, magnanimously throwing in a Number 12 collar and seemly black tie, the better to set him off.

So he slept.

Aunt Emmy had the prudence to come to the saloon as an interested neighbor, and so Mr. Bunge had no suspicion of the baleful nature of her errand. Even when her eyes rested on the Ragged Stranger’s face and she uttered a faint cry and sank to the floor, he attributed her distress to very natural and worthy sympathy. With many kind words he raised her to her feet -- whereupon she made her staggering claim.

Mr. Bunge was a trusting man and not entirely without the benevolent qualities to which he pretended. It never occurred to him to doubt the genuineness of the demonstration that Miss Mallow proceeded to make. Quite naturally, he invited her to attend the funeral. He was even quite pleased at this turn of affairs -- for a moment. He could see himself lending his arm to the bereaved mother as she ascended the speaker’s platform and tenderly offering his pocket handkerchief at the grave. The old lady represented a needed and highly respectable element of the dream, and he regarded her as so much velvet. That is, until she signified her intention of removing the body from his saloon, at once.

“What’s the big idea?” asked Mr. Bunge in some bewilderment. “You ought to be proud, the way we’re taking care of your boy. We’re giving him the most wonderful funeral you ever heard of. Even the Mayor is going to speak.”

Miss Mallow declared, a little too gratuitously, that she didn’t want any funeral, at all, and hysterically added that no one should see or touch or bury her son but his own rightful mother. Furthermore, she set forth that the presence of his body in a saloon was a heinous and shocking thing, not to be tolerated for another moment. A little coldly, Mr. Bunge informed her that the funeral arrangements were already made and that, to change them would seriously embarrass a great many important people as well as disappoint the entire community.

“What’s the matter with taking him after the ceremony?” he demanded. “Are you trying to do him out of a funeral?”

Miss Mallow screamed that she wanted her boy now, this moment, that Mr. Bunge was a coward to keep him from his mother and that she intended to call the police.

This attack was so voluntary, so violent and unreasonable, that Benson, who had been standing silently by, had an unpleasant inkling.

“Just a minute, boss,” he interrupted quietly. “There’s a nigger in the woodpile here. And my guess is that it’s the Journal. They’re using this old faker for a front.”

At these words, Goosehead’s aunt uttered a loud shriek and screamed for help. The three circulation sluggers instantly bounded in from the street and wanted to know what was going on.

“He insulted me!” screamed Miss Mallow.

“You’re a liar!” retorted Bunge. Goosehead’s aunt uttered an ear-splitting wail. A huge Journal man belligerently asked if Mr. Bunge wanted to make anything out of that last crack. He approached threateningly. Bunge, with a blistering series or short verbs and long nouns, yanked open the back door. The faithful Schnozzle rushed in with a savage howl, saving his master in the nick of time.

“Boys!” cried Benson, profiting by this interruption. “Cut it out. Have some respect for the dead.”

“Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of me!” shouted Bunge, holding his dog none too firmly, “I know who’s back of this! It’s the Journal and the Anti Saloon League and that crooked Crowley-Lewis gang, and all I got to say is, it’s a dirty, cheap political trick -- picking on a poor helpless corpse! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! An old woman like you!”

“You lay off her!” bawled the Journal man. “If you haven’t got any respect for motherhood, I have. And I’ll sink this right in your ugly pan.”

He indicated his fist.

“You call this old fake a mother?” Bunge retorted hotly. “This gray haired old buzzard --”

Again Schnozzle prevented a massacre.

“This is terrible!” Benson interrupted, desperately.

“Well, give her the body then,” demanded the Journal delegation, abandoning all pretense of disinterest.

“Try and get it!” Bunge bellowed.

The three Journal musketeers eyed Schnozzle and retired for a conference. Almost immediately they advised Miss Mallow to accompany them to the West Side Court, where they proposed to obtain sundry warrants against Mr. Bunge. The charges included disorderly conduct, threats to kill and unlawfully withholding property.

“This will be swell publicity for you,” said the spokesman to Mr. Bunge, with sinister emphasis. “In the pig’s eye.”

Tenderly the three assisted Miss Mallow to the street and into a waiting taxicab. Bunge succumbed to a paroxysm of bad temper.

“They’ll be back in ten minutes with the state militia,” he raged. “And I was the guy that let her in! Oh, my God! Now what are we going to do?”

He staggered to the flower-laden bar-room and sank into a chair.

“I’m wise to those crooks,” he said. “They’ll come back here with the sheriff and if we don’t hand over the body, there’ll be a mess that will ruin the whole election.”

“Here’s the stunt,” spoke up Benson, suddenly inspired. “Give them the body --”

“What?”

“Certainly. Tell them to help themselves. And we’ll go right on with the funeral -- only we’ll make it a memorial service. We’ll get Doc Bowen, or somebody else that’s above suspicion to tell just what happened -- how the Journal gang stooped to kidnapping a corpse, the lowest possible crime, just to crab your campaign. We’ll put it all on the air -- the old lady and everything. And if it doesn’t turn out to be a boomerang, I miss my guess.”

The distant clang of a police patrol penetrated Benson’s sanguine plans.

“Here they come!” Bunge writhed. “The dirty bums!”

A loud thump came from the back room, followed by a dragging sound. Bunge sprang to his feet.

“That’s the kind of guys they are!” he roared. “They ain’t satisfied with calling the cops. They’re stealing the body, stealing the body, by God!”

With a terrifying oath, he charged into the back room. The casket was overturned, and empty. The back door swung open.

Seizing a candlestick, he rushed into the alley -- and stopped.

“Schnozzle!” he screamed wildly. “Drop that!”


© 2003-04 The Estate of Charles G. MacArthur. All Rights Reserved.


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