Excerpt From A Twist at the End

William Sydney Porter in an Austin production of Gilbert & Sullivan's <i>The Mikado</i>.
William Sydney Porter in an Austin production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado.

The following passage follows William Sydney Porter -- later known as O. Henry -- as he makes the rounds of his Austin haunts. The imaginative 22-year-old works hard at the business of leisure: the original Austin slacker, perhaps. It takes place the day after a serial murderer and rapist, whom Porter later dubbed the Servant Girl Annihilator, has butchered his first victim early in the wee hours of December 31, 1884.

Will Porter passed the whole of New Year's Eve knowing nothing about the murder on West Pecan Street.

Had he worked a shift at Harrell's cigar shop, he surely would have heard about it, for a steady stream of customers talked of little else; but Will's services had not been required. Had he spent the day loitering in the parlor of the boarding house, he would have gotten an earful of rumors from the other residents, who came and went all flush with the news. But the day was glorious, with a snap in the air and a pale blue sky scrubbed clean by the norther of the previous night, and on such a winter day Will could hardly stay inside. Had he dropped into a coffee shop on Congress Avenue, he would almost certainly have been drawn into a discussion about the strange events on West Pecan Street; Will, however, was so low on spending money that even coffee seemed an extravagance.

While Dave Shoemaker was investigating the murder and all Austin was buzzing with rumors, Will spent the final day of 1884 "tramping," as he called it -- seeking the company of tramps, who were plentiful enough around Austin, if one knew where to look for them.

From the boarding house, Will headed west on Mesquite Street. After five blocks or so, just past the three-story, high-school building with its handsome mansard roof, he descended into the shallow, wooded valley along Shoal Creek, where a network of trails crisscrossed and ran alongside the water.

In some places the paths were so narrow and closely hemmed with vegetation that a man could imagine himself in a forest miles from civilization. Gnarly scrub oaks were festooned with parasitic clumps of mistletoe and ball moss. Prickly pear, spiny yucca, berry-studded spice bush, and pale winter grasses sprouted amid the interstices of broken, bone-white limestone underfoot. The winter had so far been mild, and even now, brightening the palette of umber bark, gray-green foliage, and white stone, there were little patches of upright purple asters with delicate, spiky leaves, and weedy, unkempt goldenrod resplendent with bright yellow flowers.

Lacy ferns grew along the water's edge. In places, the limestone ledges along the bank had tumbled and worn so as to form natural steps down to the creek, with tree roots intertwined among the stones. Limestone boulders littered the creek bed, like furniture for giants. At one such spot Will came upon a group of tramps warming themselves like lizards on the sun-heated rocks. Will found a place and joined them. He spent the rest of the day listening against a background of trickling water, to the rambling tales of threadbare wanderers and half-wits.

Quite a few of the tramps arguably belonged in the State Lunatic Asylum, but lacked a family to commit them and had so far escaped the attention of the marshal. Others seemed merely to have run out of luck. Most of them Will knew already, at least by name. A newcomer among them was a handsome colored fellow who called himself Alec Mack. Whites and coloreds mixed more freely at the tramp level of society.

Among the old-timers was a grizzled Civil War veteran who called himself the Colonel. He wore a stained and patched gray uniform decorated with medals that dangled from tattered ribbons. The Colonel had an inexhaustible supply of stories about the Lost Cause. Some of his tales seemed far-fetched, but they were seldom dull, and sometimes they were hair-raising. Will had no doubt that the old man had fought in several engagements; of his claim to have won a battle or two virtually single-handed, Will was more skeptical. He could listen to the Colonel's stories for hours, especially if he could lie back against a warm rock with a pile of ball moss for a pillow, studying the sky though a skein of oak branches and sun-dappled leaves.

The day waned. Sunlight faded from the treetops, and even the Colonel ran dry of stories. Will grew hungry. He hiked south along the creek until he came to the Pecan Street bridge, then scrambled up the steep eastern slope out of the creek bed. He crossed Pecan Street at the exact spot where the spectral dog had nipped at the heels of Lem Brooks the night before.

He headed for a little house on Nueces Street, close to the railroad tracks and across from a lumberyard, where a woman named Rodriguez sold tamales for a penny a piece. Sitting on a stool on her back porch, Will ate a plate of tamales and a bowl of pinto beans, washing them down with a glass of Lone Star beer. There were several other diners on the porch, all Mexicans. Their Spanish was too quick for Will to follow, but he overheard several mentions of "una mulata muerta" and wondered about the dead woman they were discussing with such animation.

He arrived back at the boarding house at twilight. The parlor and kitchen were deserted. The upstairs was quiet. The Harrells were planning to see in the new year elsewhere and had already left. The various boarders were either out taking dinner or napping in their rooms in preparation for a late night ahead. Will retired to his room and settled onto his bed, feeling pleasantly tired from the long day outside. He felt inspired to make some sketches of the Colonel from memory and to write down some of the old man's stories. The work carried him deep into the night. Just before the clock downstairs struck midnight he fell asleep on his bed, his notebook on his lap.

So it was that Will Porter woke on New Year's Day, 1885, among the small minority of Austinites who still knew nothing at all about the murder of Mollie Smith. end story

Excerpted from A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry by Steven Saylor. Copyright © 2000 by Steven Saylor. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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