The young narrator of the story explains that it was Joe Dillon who introduced the Wild West to their band of friends. This world came in the form of the stories appearing in popular magazines for boys, like The Union Jack, Pluck, and The Halfpenny Marvel. Every day after school, Joe and his younger brother Leo have a group of friends over so that the boys could play Indian together. In their mock battles, Joe Dillon's band always wins. The narrator describes himself as one of those boys less aggressive than the others, slightly fearful of Joe Dillon. Joe plays too rough for the younger boys.
For the narrator's part, he prefers the American detective stories. But the circulation of all of these stories is forbidden at school. Leo Dillon is caught one day by Father Butler, who angrily rebukes the boy and denounces the stories as the writings of a drunken scribbler. The embarrassing moment, and the image of Leo's dull and puffy face, makes the West seem less thrilling to the narrator than it once was. The evening Indian games also tire. The narrator wants real adventure. Eventually, he resolves with Leo Dillon and a boy named Mahony to play hooky and find a real adventure around the city. The boys pool together eighteen pence for their day.
The narrator is the first to arrive at Canal bridge, their appointed meeting point. Mahony shows up, but Leo does not. Mahony declares the money forfeit, so that he and the narrator will each have nine pence instead of six. As they wander about the city, Mahony carrying his "catapult" (sling shot), Mahony is by far the more unruly of the two boys. They chase a band of ragged looking girls, but then are pelted by stones by two raggedly dressed boys who are motivated by chivalry. Mahony wants to fight them but the narrator objects that the other boys are too small. The boys call Mahony a "Swaddler," a derogatory name for a Protestant, because he's wearing a cricket badge. Both the narrator and Mahony are in fact Catholic, but cricket is considered a very English game.
They buy some buns and eat their little lunch down by the river. They watch the barges and sailing vessels on the river, and talk about running away. The narrator imagines adventures at sea. They cross the Liffey, the river that divides Dublin, in a little ferry. On the other side they see the discharging of a large threemaster. The narrator studies the faces of the emerging sailors.
The boys wander through squalid neighborhoods, munching on more baked goods. Mahony chases a cat down a lane and into a field. Finally, they decide to abandon their original plan of going all the way to the Pigeon House because they have to be home by four to avoid getting caught. As they go into the fields on their way to catch a train, they come across a strange old man. He asks if they've read Thomas Moore, Sir Walter Scott, or Lord Lytton. The narrator pretends that he has read all of the mentioned books. They talk, and the old man asks if the boys have sweethearts. Mahony says he has three; the narrator says he has none. The old man talks about his youth, and the beauty of girls. He talks about all young boys having sweethearts, and the liberalism of the man's manner surprises the narrator. He walks away from them, excusing himself, and after a moment Mahony exclaims: "I say! Look what he's doing!" (18). The narrator never looks up, for an undisclosed reason, and so we never learn what the old man is doing. Mahony calls the man a "queer old josser," or simpleton, and the narrator suggests that they should go by the pseudonyms Murphy and Smith.
The old man returns, and Mahony runs off to chase the cat that previously escaped him, leaving the narrator alone with the old man. The old man tells the narrator that Mahony is a wicked little boy, and he asks if he gets whipped. The old man talks at great length about whipping boys, and how boys should get whipped if they speak to girls, and how much he would like to do the whipping himself. His voice seems toward the end nearly to plead for understanding. The narrator waits until the man finishes to leave him, but as he goes away up the slope he fears that the old man will run after him and seize him. At the top of the slope, he turns around and calls out for "Murphy," and the anonymity seems weak protection. It takes a second call for Mahony to finally come, but when he comes running the narrator is full of gratitude. Mahony arrives as if to bring the narrator help, and the narrator closes: "And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little" (20).
Youthful longing for adventure and escape are dominant themes in this story. Joyce himself certainly understood those sentiments. He left Ireland as a young man, and for most of his adult life he lived abroad. For the boys in this story, dissatisfaction with the provinciality and dinginess of Dublin life find an outlet in American stories about the Wild West. The American frontier is a symbol for absolute freedom and adventure, not only in America but around the whole world; the boys use the games of cowboys and Indians to sate their only partially articulated desire to leave the tiny world of Dublin. For gentler boys, such as the unnamed narrator, the more cerebral American detective stories are preferable. But in both cases, the contraband stories of adventure and danger are juxtaposed to the dreary grammar school exercises the boys are forced to endure. When the boys have their day out, they spend a good part of their time watching the ships come in. The ships are symbolic of escape and freedom; unlike the boys, they get to leave Dublin and go around the world.
This story is yet another story of childhood, continuing with the ages-of-life structure of Dubliners. While the first story dealt with the transforming moment of a child's first dramatic experience with death, this story also deals with a kind of change. For our young narrator, the turning point comes when the games become tired. While Joe Dillon is satisfied using his Indian war games to affirm his dominance over the other boys (he and his band always win), the young narrator wants a piece of real adventure. The decision to play hooky marks the point where the story can begin.
The adventure is, of course, a disappointment to the children. One of the boys is not daring enough to go, but the other two boys go about Dublin finding little in the way of Western sunsets and native tribes. While the change from the numbing routine of school life is welcome, the Dublin they encounter is bleak, dirty, and full of unglamorous dangers the boys barely comprehend.
Part of Dublin's bleakness is its poverty. Instead of Indians, Mahony and the narrator encounter only small girls in ragged clothes. Mahony begins to bully them, and he also wants to beat up the smaller boys who come to the girls' rescue. Our gentle narrator intercedes, but not before Joyce has shown us some of the class differences in Dublin. Because of Mahony's cricket badge, the boys are mistaken for Irish Protestants. Class differences are clear, and also clear is the fact that this neighborhood's children are far poorer than either Mahony or the narrator. Dublin's divisions are not merely between Catholic and Protestant, but also between rich and poor. As power is centered in English and Protestant hands, to poor Catholic eyes it is often difficult to discern between Protestants and Catholics of a higher socio-economic level. The whole encounter conveys some of the bleakness and difficulty of Dublin's social landscape. It also does not speak well of Mahony and his upbringing, and by extension his class. His bullying of the ragged children has obvious echoes of class exploitation, rich preying upon poor, educated attacking the uneducated.
What adventure the boys do find in Dublin is sinister and dangerous, with little in the way of fun or glamour. The old man clearly entertains sexually charged fantasies about children. His sadistic fantasies about whipping boys are well outside the narrator's frame of reference; although the boys sense something is not quite right with the man, they do not flee immediately. Mahony even leaves the narrator alone with the man, indicating that he sees no immediate danger.
Isolation is a recurring theme of Dubliners. Communication fails constantly. In the encounter between the narrator and the strange old stranger, the boy initially thinks that this old man is one with whom one can actually speak. His frank talk of young boys having sweethearts comes off as refreshingly liberal, and the narrator feels that the old man is dealing with them as thinking beings. But the old man soon reverses his position, spinning off into his own fantasies about whipping boys, leaving the narrator frightened and baffled. Each character is as isolated as when the encounter began. At one point, the old man leaves, and does some undescribed thing that makes Mahony call the narrator's attention to him. Whatever the act is, it makes Mahony say the man is a "queer old josser," an odd buffoon or simpleton. We can guess with some confidence that whatever Mahony saw was in some way sexual.
Isolation is an important theme in Joyce's psychological portrait of the narrator. From the beginning, we know that the narrator is gentler and more cerebral than other boys. His friendship with Mahony seems an ill match, as he does not enjoy bullying children or small animals. But as he's left alone with the old man, he longs for Mahony's reassuring presence. When Mahony does come, the narrator is grateful to his friend, and guilty for the secret dislike he has of him. We end on this lonely note. The boy narrator is grateful enough for Mahony's company, but their friendship is not a deep or affectionate one.