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ARTHUR L. ZAGAT

TWO WRONGS

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First published in The American Legion Magazine, February 1942

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-03-22
Produced by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

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The American Legion Magazine, February 1942, with "Two Wrongs"



MARTHA POTTER lifted the lid off a pot on the stove and steam from it filled the big kitchen with appetizing fragrance. Boots thudded on the back porch. John came in, the ammoniacal odors of the barnyard that clung to him not unpleasant.

Martha brushed graying hair back from her sweat-dampened forehead. In the look that passed between those two was the warm, placid affection of long years together, but all that she said to him was, "You didn't fetch the mail, I see."

"No." Potter was talk gaunt, his complexion weather-crackled with the consistency and color of fine leather. "Dick will see the flag's up when he passes the box, coming in from the south field." Crossing to the sink, his limp, from a shrapnel wound at Pont--Mousson, was very bad, which meant that he was greatly disturbed "I want him to have time to think it over before he has to tell us it's come. I'm still hoping he'll change his mind." He turned on a tap, picked up soap.

"He won't," Martha sighed, setting on the table a heaped bowl of greens. "As long as Richard thinks he's right, nothing will change him."

"Then he's got to be made to see that's wrong—"

"Hush!" She gestured to the open window at the other end of the room. "Here he comes."

When Dick Potter entered, his father's face was buried in a towel, his mother slicing the crusty bread she'd baked last night.

"Here's your Gazette, dad." He put down the folded and wrapped newspaper beside John's plate. "And a notice of an open meeting of your American Legion Post, Saturday night." This was a blue-printed postcard. "I see some actor's going to do impersonations of outstanding figures of the World War." The corners of his firm, sensitive mouth twitched. "The Great Mistake, they mean."

"Richard!" Martha's cry held pained protest.

"Sorry, mom." Turning to her, he was loose-coupled, a little awkward in his brown work suit as the young Lincoln was awkward. "But you know how I feel about fine, decent men getting together to remind themselves that they were once murderers."

"Soldiers. Dick." John's tone was low, but two pallid patches bloomed at either wing of his blue-scrabbled nose. "Comrades who fought together—"

"To make the World Safe for Democracy." The youth's fingers, calloused by pitchfork and plow-handle, crumpled the long envelope that had remained in them. "Yes, and you won, I've heard, but it seems that democracy still needs saving." There was bitterness in his voice and his gray eyes were sullen. "What better proof do you want of the old adage, two wrongs can never make a right? Killing is wrong—"

"Not always, Dick."

"Always." They'd said all this before, but they couldn't keep from saying it again. "I can't think of anything that would make it right for one man to kill another. If I could—"

"Richard," Martha intervened. "What is in that letter?"

He looked down at it and a pulse throbbed in his broad forehead. "It's from the Draft Board. It say that my claim to deferment as a conscientious objector has been turned down, and that I'm to report for induction Monday morning."

His mother's work-worn hand went to her bosom and her lips trembled. Then she was smiling. "I'll have to look over your socks right—"

"No." Dick's bronzed neck corded. "You don't have to. I'm not going."

She made a small, hopeless gesture and turned to fumble with the bread-knife. The clump of John Potter's boots, going toward the table, was a succession of hammer blows against throbbing silence.

"Get washed up." he said heavily, "so we can get started eating. There's work waiting to be done." He let himself down into his chair as though fatigue had sapped all his strength.

Dick started to say something but tightened his lips again and went to the sink. His father tore the wrapper from the Gazette, unfolded it and held it up in front of him. "What's the news, John?" Martha asked, as she asked at this moment of every noon.

"Manila got it again last night," he told her from behind his screen. "They smashed a hundred women and children to bits. Three more of our ships have been sunk. Here's something. They haven't caught that bandit yet, that Wolf Mullin that held up the bank cross the line in Briardale last week. Seems like the police have clean lost track of him."

Dick's chair scraped. Martha took hers. "All right, father," she said. "We're ready."

He folded the paper carefully, put it down. He bowed his bead. "We thank You, Lord," he began, his tone that of one who speaks intimately to a friend physically present, "for the food we're about to eat. We thank You for our fertile fields and the sun and the rain that promise us a good harvest. We thank You for letting us live as free people in a free land."

Dick's head started to lift, bowed again as he realized that bis father was not through.

"We thank You," John Potter's low voice went on, "for making us want to do what's right, no matter how hard it is to do it, but we ask You to help us understand what's really right. We're all mixed up just now, Lord, and we're awful afraid we might make a bad mistake."

There was a glint of tears in Martha's eyes as she whispered "Amen," but Dick's tension had eased.

"Dad," he said, "you meant that for both of us, didn't you?"

"Yes, son. I meant it for all of us."

The mother piled plates with succulent pork tenderloin, with boiled greens and creamy mounds of mashed potato. In the stove, the fire crackled merrily. The leafy fingers of an old oak tapped at ihe top of the window.

"By the way, Dick," Potter remarked, "Jed Harkins sent word he'll be ready for the roof-raising of his new barn tomorrow morning."

Martha's fork stopped on its way to her mouth. "It's a wonder Jed don't hire his work done instead of asking all you men around here to drop your own and come do it for him. 'Tain't as if he needs your help, what with that pile of money everybody knows he's got hid on his place and him with no kinfolk to spend it on."

"Why, mom!" Dick roused from his brown study. "That doesn't sound a bit like you! Jed's our neighbor and he's got the right to ask us for help, whether to our way of thinking be needs it or not. That's the way this country was built, by neighbors helping one another."

"Neighbors," John mused. "Can you tell me, son, how far away folks have to live before they stop being our neighbors?"

The youth's brows knitted. "Well, dad, that's kind of hard to say. In pioneer days, of course, anyone who lived within a day's journey of you was your neighbor, but now that you can fly almost half around the world in a day you can't figure by that any more."

"No?" Potter asked softly. "Why not?"

"Good Lord, dad! Do you mean to—" Dick broke off. Stiffening, his look was on the closed door to the front rooms. "Someone's in there," he whispered. "I heard a footfall."

"So did I," Martha breathed.

"What's got into you two?" Potter's voice seemed needlessly loud. "This the first time someone's dropped in—"

"Anyone who might be dropping in would know to come 'round here to the back." Dick shoved erect. "I'm going to see—"

The door opened and closed again, and a man stood before its age-darkened panel.

"Thought there was nobody home." His thin smile was not reflected in the eyes under the brim of his felt hat. "Then I made out talking back here."

Road dust powdered his sallow, ferret-like face and his tweed suit, and his right hand was buried in his coat pocket. "Don't you hicks believe in keeping doors locked?"

"We've no reason to," Dick told hira. "Folks around here know enough to knock or yell before walking inlo someone else's house."

"I did knock." He seemed to look at a11 three of them and out of the window, all at the same time. "I guess you didn't hear me. My car broke down at the bottom of the hill here and I thought maybe you could tell me where I can find someone can fix it"

"My boy's good at that sort of thing," Martha said. "I'm sure he'll be glad to see if he can help you soon's we're finished dinner. Meantime, you just set down and eat with us." She rose, without waiting for acceptance, and bustled off to the dish cupboard.

"Thanks," the man grunted, using his foot to pull a chair up to the table. "I don't mind if I do."

Dick came toward him, holding out a hand. "Let me take your hat" A small muscle knotted in his dark cheek. "And if you'd like to wash up—"

"What's the use washing?" The stranger jerked off bis hat, tossed it to the kitchen dresser. "You only get dirty again. Sit down, kid, and take a load off your feet."

"That's right, Dick, sit down," John put in before the resentment flushing his son's face could find expression in words. "Are you traveling far, Mister—er—?"

"Smith." Once more there was that odd, humorless smile. "Nat Smith. I'm hunting a one-horse burg called Lonsdell."

"Then you've got only about seven miles more to go, straight down the dirt road you're on to where it hits the highway."

"The hell you say." Smith looked surprised. "Say. Maybe you know an old codger named Harkins lives somewhere near that Lonsdell."

"Jed Harkins?"

"Yeah."

"Yes, we know him. Matter of fact, he lives just the other side of this hill, less than a mile through the woods you can see out that window there."

"You don't say. This stuff's damn good, lady." Smith cut another big lump of meat, stuffed it into his mouth. Dick put down his own utensils, said, "Don't pour my coffee yet, mom. I just recalled I got to 'phone Elmer down at the store and tell him to order those special disks for our cultivator." He shoved his chair back, got long legs under it. "If he don't get the letter off on the two-four—"

"Sit still, punk." A stub-nosed revolver was abruptly fisted in Smith's hand. "You ain't 'phoning nobody." The black gun nosed from Dick to John Potter, rigid in his seat, to Martha at the stove and back again to Dick. "Spread your hands on the table, both of you."

The youth put his hands flat on the table. "What—?" Potter gasped. "What's all this?"

"He's Wolf Mullin, dad." Dick's lips were grayish, numb-looking. "I knew be was lying when he said his car broke down at the bottom of the hill. With the wind the way it is, we should have heard it coming along and we hadn't. And just now I remembered the picture in last week's Gazette."

Mullin's mouth opened in a silent, canine laugh. "Okay. So my name ain't Smith and my jaloppy threw its crankshaft a couple miles back, but that just makes it sure no nosey's going to spot it and come up here looking for me." His slitted eyes shifted to Martha. "You got some rope handy?"

Her fingers plucked at the hem of her apron. "There—there's a coil of clothesline in the broom closet."

"Get it."

She stumbled across the floor, almost as if she'd gone blind. Mullin was on his feet when she returned with the coil of strong cord. His revolver was watchful as, at his order, she lashed Dick's elbows behind the chair's back and then, when he'd sliced the rope with the bread knife, her husband's.

Mullin inspected the knots, grunted satisfaction and went back to his seat, taking along the length of cord that was left over.

"Fill up another plate of meat and be quick about it." He put the gun down ready to his hand. "I've been on the lam so long my belly thinks my throat's cut."

John Potter's Adam's apple moved up and down his wrinkled neck. "Where do you think this is going to get you?" he asked hoarsely. "You can't keep us prisoners here forever."

"I don't have to." The way he gorged, he hadn't lied about being half-starved. "I'll be on my way soon's I'm filled up. Say. You wouldn't happen to know where your friend Harkins hides his dough, would you?"

Dick's nostrils flared but his father answered, evenly. "No. Jed's never told anyone and never will."

"Says you." The fellow leered at him, winked. "What do you want to bet he won't be begging me to let him spill his guts to me ten minutes after I go to work on him?"

A dish she was taking off the table slipped from Martha's hold with a crash. Mullin's gun leaped into his hand—"You rat," he snarled. "I ought to—"

"Damn you, Mullin!" Swollen veins bulged Dick's brow. "Call her that again and I'll—" The flat of the gun smacked against his cheekbone, came away to leave a scarlet ooze of blood.

"There's plenty more where that came from, punk," rasped from straight, cruel lips. "And you'll get it if you don't keep your mouth buttoned."

"Please, Richard," Martha begged. "Please be quiet. I'm sure Mr. Mullin won't hurt us if we don't make trouble for him."

"That's the ticket," Mullin grinned. "You behave and you won't get hurt. I don't want nothing from you. Okay, mom. Spill me some coffee with plenty of sugar and cream, and hand over a slab of that cake I see there."

And then, for long minutes, there was only the sound of heavy breathing in that kitchen, the drag of the woman's feet as she waited on the thug who'd invaded her home and did as he pleased here, under threat of his black gun.

At last he was sated. "Okay," he grunted, rising. "Now plank your fanny down in that chair and put your arms back like they've got theirs."

She obeyed and he lashed her elbows with the piece of clothesline that had been left over when she'd tied up her men. "Through those woods out there, you said, didn't you?" He leered at Potter, let his gun snout at Dick for a terrible second, then turned and strode to the back door, out through it.

Breath whistled from between Potter's teeth. Dick's chair creaked as he strained forward, blood purpling his face, and then he was up out of it, his lashings sliding limp down the chair back.

"I knew I could get loose," he threw over his shoulder as he pounded to the door through which Mullin had entered. "But I didn't dare try with him watching." In the entry beyond he twirled the crank of a wall 'phone. "I'll have the cops.... Hell!" He stared at a wire that dangled from the receiver. "He's cut—"

"The rifle, Dick," John yelled. "It's loaded, and I can see him kiting across the barn lot."

"Got you!" The youth snatched the long gun from the bracket of deer antlers across which it lay, thudded back into the kitchen and to the window. The rifle butt jammed against his shoulder and his face was a taut, expressionless mask as sunlight flashed on the polished barrel. The rifle cracked.

"He was almost in the woods," Dick said, peering out. "I had to make the first shot good, and I did. He's pitched into the brush but there's a bullet in his skull or I never brought down a stag in those woods."

"You killed him," Martha sobbed. "Richard. You've killed a man,"

He turned, slowly, and his eyes were veiled. "I aimed to kill him. I had to. You heard what he was going to do to our neighbor. I couldn't let him do that, I had to stop him."

"You were right," John Potter said. "Don't let anyone ever tell you that you weren't right to aim to kill him."

"How could anyone—?" Dick caught himself. "I see. I see what you mean." He came slowly to the table. "There wasn't any question in my mind that I wasn't right to try and kill him."

As he put the rifle down, it brushed the Gazette off and automatically, absorbed in his thoughts, he bent to pick it up.

"That was one time killing certainly wasn't wrong."

"No son," Potter said softly, his seamed countenance glowing with an inner light. "There are times when it's right to kill. There are things it's right to kill for. Your home. Your neighbor's home. Human freedoms that have been won by blood and sweat and tears and that must be preserved by sweat, and tears—and blood if need be."

"Yes." It is very hard for youth to admit that it has been wrong. Admitting it, Dick couldn't bring himself to meet his father's gaze but watched his own hands smooth out the newspaper.

"Yes. Now I see how wrong I—" He checked. "Dad!" Now he did look at his father, and his eyes blazed with anger. "This headline—'Briardale Bandit Nabbed!'—That wasn't Wolf Mullin and you knew it!"

John Potter's cheeks sucked in. "No. He wasn't Wolf Mullin, son. He's Ben Foster, the Legionnaire who's going to do those impersonations at the Post, and you didn't kill him. I loaded that rifle with blanks, this morning after you'd gone out."

His look met the anger and contempt in his son's face bravely, but there was a quiver of panic in his voice. "Tom Coster, our Adjutant, is Chairman of the Draft Board. He 'phoned me last night that notice was coming, and I knew I had to do something to make you understand the difference between a murderer and a soldier. So—so we hatched up this act between us and... and...."

"You tricked me." Dick Potter's hands were closing into fists on the table, and his throat was thick. "You lied...."

"Richard!" Martha strained to him against the tightness of her bonds. "Richard, dear. Perhaps it was wrong of your father to play a trick on you, but that doesn't make what you've just said any the less right. You thought it was Wolf Mullin you aimed your rifle at, and you knew you were right to do that."

The youth's hands opened again and the anger died out of his eyes.

"Okay, mom," he grinned, "You better start looking over my socks."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.