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Two angels on duty.

It was a raw winter's night when Johnny Sentinella set out to find an angel. He hadn't a doubt that he would find one, because he needed one very badly and his mother had told him that when there was no one else to turn to with any particular request he should turn to the mighty angels who come to the earth to help mortals in need.

"Angels are the messengers of God," his mother had told him. "And they have a special care for children."

Johnny Sentinella was eight years of age and lived in a walk-up on West 88th Street not very far from Central Park. He had need of an angel, for his mother was very ill, and he knew that it was serious because people wouldn't talk to him about it. She had been twice to the hospital for what was called an operation, though sometimes people called it surgery. It seemed to be the same thing. Now she had come home, and his father had told Johnny that she wouldn't be going to the hospital anymore. He seemed sad rather than happy when he said this, and a cold feeling had come over Johnny. He tried not to think about it, but the feeling persisted and he knew something terrible was going to happen, and if he thought about what that something terrible was going to be, it would be that his mother would die very soon. So he had desperate need of an angel, and at ten o'clock on a February night he went out to find one.

The best place to find an angel, Johnny decided, would be in Central Park, which was only about two blocks away, and the best place in Central Park would be the place called the Sheep Meadow. Of course, there weren't any sheep or shepherds on the Sheep Meadow anymore. It was just a grassy area at the southern end of the park. Still, that would be the likeliest place to find an angel because angels had a fondness for the places shepherds had been. It was to shepherds that angels seemed to appear most often.

So Johnny put on his snowsuit over his pajamas and then his rubbers and then a scarf his mother had knitted for him, and he was about to leave the house when it occurred to him that it might be nice if he took along a present for the angel. So he looked around and picked up the best present he had, which was a Fanner 50 six-shooter with which he had fought many many times as a veteran of the United States Cavalry under Custer. When he was in the United States Cavalry he was Sergeant Sentinella, and he usually managed to warn General Custer so as to avoid the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

On the way to Central Park, Johnny had to pass a stable where horses were available for rental to the wealthier people who liked to ride around the park. Sometimes he sneaked through the doors of the stable and stood nervously on the tanbark inside while the big horses were saddled for the customers, and one of the grooms had put him on a horse once and let him ride around inside. That was after the groom had discovered that he, Johnny, was at times a sergeant in the United States Cavalry. The stable doors were shut now, but they did not fit very well, and a little soft light came through the crack between the two of them and with it a flow of wann air that smelled of hay and harness. He heard the horses stirring inside, and one of them gave a little nicker.

That will be Kansas, Johnny thought. Kansas was the big gray horse the groom had put him on once. He was, Johnny believed, the fastest horse in the whole stable.

"Hi, Kansas," said Johnny through the crack. "Bet you're surprised that I'm out so late. Well, I'm going to find an angel for my mother." For an answer he heard the heavy sound of a horse stamping its foot on the tanbark and then another nicker. But this seemed to be an urgent nicker, as if Johnny should not be dallying there at the stable door and so he said, "All right, Kansas. I'm going." And off he went.

On the way to the park Johnny was delayed at all the intersections by the traffic lights and was worried by the delay. His father had been in his mother's bedroom when he left, seated by her bed. It was an unusual circumstance, and he knew from it that there wasn't much time. When he was in a hurry Johnny had a habit of counting because it seemed to speed things up, so he counted at each traffic light, and that seemed to make them turn from red to green more quickly, and at last he got to the park. Going through the gates, he turned right and started to run as fast as he could toward the Sheep Meadow.

It was dark in the park compared with the illumination in the streets outside. It was hard to tell which was the darker-the trees or the shadows under the trees. The grass in the open spaces was a little lighter, and Johnny was glad when he came to these light areas, and held his Fannet 50 pretty tight when he had to pass under the trees. There were no people in the park, and it was very cold, not that there was frost around but that there was a light mist which seemed colder than any frost.

"I hope I'm going to be in time," said Johnny. He knew that time was very important, so he ran as fast as he could, and to make himself feel that he was running even faster, he imagined that he was riding Kansas, the big gray horse whose powerful, even stride made him certainly the fastest horse in all New York City. Running away then, as hard as he could, he bumped right into a policeman. This happened going around a little curve where there were some trees, and he crashed right into the policeman, who staggered a little and then held Johnny at arm's length.

"Where do you think you're going?'' asked the policeman.

"I'm going to find an angel," said Johnny. "I've got to get one. It's very important."

The policeman seemed shocked by this statement and did not say anything right away, but stared at Johnny, There was a lamp standard nearby which threw a little light around, but the policeman's face looked very dark to Johnny, who thought that he seemed a very stern man.

"What's your name, son?" the policeman asked. His voice was neither friendly nor unfriendly, but impartial.

"Johnny Sentinella."

The policeman thought about this for a while. "You live on West 88th Street?" he asked.

"Yes," said Johnny. "Please let me go. I'm in a hurry. It's for my mother."

"Your mother's sick, isn't she?" said the policeman, and his voice seemed even graver.

"Yes," said Johnny. "I'm in a real hurry. I've only got a little time. What time is it?"

"Eleven o'clock," said the policeman. "And you ought to be home. In fact I ought to take you home, but I can't leave here right now. Still maybe it won't hurt if I start a little early." He reached for Johnny's wrist, but Johnny jerked away and darted off, going as hard as he could.

He didn't dare look behind him because he knew the policeman was following him. He could hear his footsteps so he ran as hard as he might and the mist thickened a little and after a while the footsteps stopped and he heard the policeman calling him. But he ran on, headed for the Sheep Meadow and counting so as to make himself go faster. He fell down twice and got up sobbing. But still he went on, and at last he got to the Sheep Meadow.

It was a big open place of grass, almost entirely devoid of trees. But now that Johnny had reached it, it seemed terribly desolate as if no one had ever been on the Sheep Meadow in all its history. There was a little mist over the ground and Johnny just stood where he was, looking at the empty place, and appalled by its emptiness.

He looked up at the night sky. Over the city the stars were hardly visible at all, but over the Sheep Meadow, where the lights of the city did not interfere, he could see a few stars twinkling in the sky. He looked for an especially big one to appear which would mean that an angel would be coming soon, for that, his mother had told him, was a sign of the coming of angels. But though there were several bigger than the others, they all seemed far away and impersonal, and he was suddenly desperately lonely.

"Please," he said, holding out the Fanner 50. "It's very important."

But no big star appeared. There were only the whiteness of the mist and the desolation of the Sheep Meadow and the remote impersonality of the sky. He stood there patiently waiting. It got colder and he started to shiver. After a long while he heard a clock in some nearby church start to strike the hour, and the hour was midnight. He tumed to go home, his head bowed and his shoulders slumped. He wasn't crying. What he felt was too much for tears, for he felt completely alone, as if he had been forsaken for the first time in his life. He walked a little way, and then, feeling that it could not possibly be true that there wouldn't be an angel when he had come to look for one, he turned and saw someone approaching through the mist. He couldn't say anything at all, but just stood in wonder, his heart pounding. And then his wonder changed to resignation, for what was approaching him was just another policeman- The policeman seemed, however, to be looking for someone, and seeing Johnny, he ran toward him and picked him up.

"My goodness," said the policeman"I'm glad I found you. I was sent out from headquarters specially and told that you just might be here. Come on. We've got to get home right away. Are you all right?" "Yes," said Johnny sadly.

"What were you doing here anyway?"

"I was looking for an angel," said Johnny. "For my mother. But there aren't any."

"I wouldn't say that," said the policeman. "I wouldn't say that at all. But it's a dangerous thing to go looking for an angel in Central Park at nighttime ." "Why?" asked Johnny. "Why?" said the policeman. "Because you might find the wrong one--that's why. It's a good job you found me-or I found you. Quite a stir in headquarters about you, my boy. But let's stop wasting time. We've got to get home right away ."

"Is something the matter with my mother?" asked Johnny, suddenly afraid.

"We've got to get there in a minute," said the policeman. "It's desperate-I pray God we can make it. Can you run?" "Yes," said Johnny.

"Well, start running," said the policeman and he took Johnny by the hand and the two of them went flying away over the grass. They didn't go straight up the park but headed for a road that circles the park.

"If we could find a taxi, I think we might be in time," said the policeman. "But who could find a taxi at an hour like this?" On they ran, and it seemed to Johnny that he'd never run so fast in all his life, and at last they rounded a curve and found one of the horsedrawn carriages that take people around the park. It was standing under a lamppost by the road. It shouldn't have been there at all, but at the south side of the park near the Plaza Hotel.

"Well, here's a miracle," said the policeman. "And God be praised for it." There was no coachman in the carriage. He had perhaps gone off to get a cup of coffee. But the policeman jumped up on the driver's seat, pulled Johnny up beside him, took the whip, flicked it over the horse's back and away they went down the road at a very smart clip.

"Why," cried Johnny looking at the horse as they passed beneath a lamp standard, "that's Kansas, the fastest horse in all New York. He's my friend."

The horse cocked one ear back in Johnny's direction and gave a little whinny and thrust more powerfully forward between the shafts, the big muscles on his haunches and shoulders rolling with strength beneath his hide. They were soon near the gate, but all the time the policeman had kept glancing ahead and around as if he were expecting to see someone on the side of the road.

"Did you see anyone else?" asked the policeman after a while, as they went bowling through the park.

"I met another policeman," said Johnny. "What did he look like?"

"I didn't see his face. It seemed kind of dark. He wanted to take me home, but I ran away from him. I didn't want him to catch me."

"There were two of us sent out from headquarters. Me and the other one. He has a kind of a dark face. How long was it between when you met him and me?"

"About half an hour," said Johnny after considering the question for a while.

"Well, he's always on time but he doesn't hurry," said the policeman.

"We have a chance." From this Johnny gathered that in looking around while he was driving, the policeman had been looking for his colleague. He was very troubled that headquarters should have sent two ofricers out for him and even more worried that they were in such a hurry to get to his home. Perhaps he had been wrong after all in going out to look for an angel. Perhaps something terrible had happened to his mother and he wasn't there. This thought was too much to be borne and he thrust it from his mind.

When they got to the gate the light was red, but the policeman ignored it and shouted "giddap" to the horse and drove on through the red light.

The policeman was standing now, calling to Kansas to give of his best, and Kansas broke into a canter, flinging the road behind him, the carriage rolling a little from side to side like a boat that has cleared the harbor and met the first swells of the ocean. A few people in the street, out late on pleasure or business, stopped in surprise to see carriage and horse and boy' and policeman flying down the street. They called after them, shouts of excitement and wonder, and it was with a litany of such calls stringing behind them, like a streamer sound, that the carnage pulled up before the walk-up apartment house where Johnny lived.

The policeman was out of the carriage in one jump, reached up and grabbed Johnny and started racing up the stairs, saying all the time, "I pray God we are not too late."

He was going up the stairs three at a time, for he was a big man, and when they got to the last flight there was the other policeman whom Johnny had first met in the park, going up more slowly, step by step. Hearing the commotion behind him, he turned, and the policeman who was carrying Johnny pushed his comrade aside, saying, "I'm here first. The duty is mine." He was in front of the door of their apartment a second later, flung it open without knocking, shut it immediately in the face of the other and then, resting his back against it, and with Johnny still in his arms, said, "Phew. That was a near one."

Johnny's father came out of the bedroom and looked at him.

"The boy's mother," said the policeman. "I've got to see her."

"You can't," said Johnny's father. All the sorrow in the world was on his face.

"I've got to," said the policeman. "It isn't too late yet." He moved past Johnny's father without another word and went into the bedroom.' Johnny followed. His mother was lying propped up on pillows, but her face was like wax and her eyes were shut.

"I've come," said the policeman softly, standing by the bed. "I was sent from headquarters. Because of the boy." Johnny's mother opened her eyes and looked up at the policeman who towered above her.

"You?" she said in surprise. "I was expecting someone else."

"Me," said the policeman. "I got here first."

"What is your name?" asked Johnny's mother.

"Gabriel," said the policeman gently. "I am the one who brings good news."

"And-the one I was expecting?"

"He has no name," replied Gabriel. "He is always on time and never hurries. I passed him on the stairs and got here first."

"He is the one who brings... ?"

"He is the one with the dark face who bringsDeath. You will not see him for a long time, though you must see him eventually ."

"Thank God," said Johnny's mother, and she closed her eyes. "I was ready except for my son," she said.

"It was he who came looking for an angel, with no doubt in his heart," said Gabriel. "He found the dark one first, but, still believing, he came on alone looking for me."

He turned and had reached the door of the apartment when Johnny remembered something and ran out of his mother's bedroom after him. "It's my best one," he said and handed him his Fanner 50.

"Thank you," said the angel. And he went back, smiling, to report to headquarters.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Wibberley, Leonard
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Previous Article:You're wanted on the set.
Next Article:Solving the Roman riddle.

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