Through the Shadows with O. Henry

“The merest flicker of a smile touched his lips. He got up, took my arm and together we helped each other down the street. . . . This was my first jaunt with William Sydney Porter. Together, we struck out on a long road that lost itself, for many years, in a dark tunnel. When the path broadened out again, it was the world’s highway. The man at my side was no longer Bill Porter, the fugitive, the ex-convict. He was O. Henry, the greatest of America’s short-story writers. . . .”

Al Jennings (1863–1961) had already been a runaway, a cowpuncher, and a train-robber before his adventures with O. Henry began. If we are to believe his incredible story, the outlaw was on the lam in Honduras when he first met William Sydney Porter, long before he became a famous writer. When they unwittingly intervene in a local coup attempt during a drunken spree, they again find themselves fugitives, fleeing to Mexico, where Jennings saves his friend from the murderous dagger of a vengeful Spaniard. But that is only the beginning of their adventures, and Jennings goes on to spin a masterful tale of interwoven destinies and unlikely friendship.

A mother’s flight; birth in a snowdrift; the drunken father’s blow; the runaway boy; the fight in the shambles; abandoned on the prairie.

Failure as a bootblack; a friendly foreman; the only kid on the range; flogged at the wagon-tongue; slaying of the foreman; vengeance on the assassin.

Chuck-buyer for the Lazy Z; last journey to Las Cruces; shooting up a saloon; in the calaboose; arrival of the father.

Release from jail; quiet years in Virginia; study of law; a new migration to the West; brawl in court; news of death in the night.

Shot from behind; agonies of remorse; death scene in the saloon; a father’s rebuke to his son; vengeance delayed.

In the outlaws’ country; acquittal of the assassins; a brother’s rage; false accusation; the father’s denunciation; refuge in the outlaw’s camp.

Planning a holdup; terrors of a novice; the train-robbery; a bloodless victory; division of the spoils; new threat of peril.

Hunting the enemy; the convention at El Reno; drama in the town hall; flight of the conspirators; pursuit to Guthrie; failure of the quest; “the range or the pen.”

Frank turns outlaw; the stickup of the Santa Fe; the threat of dynamite; crudity of bloodshed; the lure of easy money.

In the Panhandle; a starving hostess; theft and chivalry; $35,000 clear; dawning of romance; two plucky girls; the escape in the tramp. 

The meeting with O. Henry in Honduras; the celebration of the Fourth; quelling a revolution; a new flight; the girl on the beach.

Voyaging at leisure; the grand ball in Mexico City; O. Henry’s gallantry; the don’s rage; O. Henry saved from the Spaniard’s knife.

In California; the bank robbery; O. Henry’s refusal; purchase of a ranch; coming of the marshals; flight and pursuit; the trap; capture at last.

In the Ohio Penitentiary; horrors of prison life; in and out of Banker’s Row; a visit from O. Henry, fellow convict; promise of help.

Despair; attempt at escape; in the hell-hole; torture in the prison; the diamond-thief’s revenge; the flogging; hard labor; a message of hope from O. Henry.

The new main finger; a tuba solo; failure at prayer; transfer to the post office; literary ambition; O. Henry writes a story.

O. Henry; bohemian; the Recluse Club in the prison; the vanishing kitchen; the tragedy of Big Joe; effect on O. Henry; personality of a genius.

Story of convict Dick Price; grief for his mother; her visit to the prison; the safe-opening; promise of pardon.

Interest of O. Henry; Price the original of Jimmy Valentine; the pardon denied; death of the cracksman; the mother at the prison gate.

The Prison Demon; the beast exhibited; magic of kindness; reclamation; tragedy of Ira Maralatt; meeting of father and daughter.

Methods of O. Henry; his promotion; the singing of Sally Castleton; O. Henry’s indifference; the explanation.

Defiance of Foley the Goat; honesty hounded; O. Henry’s scorn; disruption of the Recluse Club.

O. Henry’s rage against corruption; zeal yields to prudence; a draft of the grafter’s wine.

Tainted meat; O. Henry’s morbid curiosity; his interview with the Kid on the eve of execution; the Kid’s story; the death scene; innocence of the Kid.

Last days of O. Henry in prison; intimate details; his going away outfit; goodbyes; his departure.

O. Henry’s silence; a letter at last; the proposed story; Mark Hanna visits the prison; pardon; double-crossed; freedom.

Practice of law; invitation from O. Henry; visit to Roosevelt; citizenship rights restored; with O. Henry in New York; the writer as guide.

Episodes of city nights; feeding the hungry; Marae and Sue; suicide of Sadie.

Quest for material; Pilsner and the Halberdier; suggestion of a story; dining with editors; tales of train-robberies; a mood of despair.

Supper with a star; frank criticism; O. Henry’s prodigality; Credit at the bar; Sue’s return.

After two years; a wedding invitation; another visit to New York; delayed hospitality; in O. Henry’s home; blackmail.

New Year’s eve; the last talk; “a missionary after all.”

Chapter 1

A mother’s flight; birth in a snowdrift; the drunken father’s blow; the runaway boy; the fight in the shambles; abandoned on the prairie.


A wilderness of snow—wind tearing like a ruffian through the white silence—the bleak pines setting up a sudden roar—a woman and four children hurrying through the waste.

And abruptly the woman stumbling exhausted against a little fence corner, and the four children screaming in terror at the strange new calamity that had overtaken them.

The woman was my mother—the four children, the oldest eight, the youngest two, were my brothers. I was born in that fence corner in the snow in Tazwell County, Virginia, November 25, 1863. My brothers ran wildly through the Big Basin of Burke’s Gardens, crying for help. My mother lay there in a fainting collapse from her five days’ flight from the Tennessee plantation.

The Union soldiers were swooping down on our plantation. My father, John Jennings, was a colonel in the Confederate army. He sent a courier warning my mother to leave everything, to take the children and to cross the border into Virginia. The old home would be fired by the rebel soldiers to prevent occupation by Union troops.

A few of the old negroes left with her. They were but an hour on the road. They looked back. The plantation was in flames. At the sight the frightened darkies fled. My mother and the four youngsters went on. Sixty miles they tramped, half running, half walking, and always beset with alarms. Frank was so little he had to be carried. Sometimes they were knee deep in slush, sometimes they were slipping in the mud. The raw wind cut to the bone. It was perhaps as terrible and as bitter a journey as a woman ever took.

I was born in a snow heap and reared in a barn. They picked my mother up and carried her in a rickety old cart to the mountains. Jack and Zeb, the two oldest, had sent their panicky clamor through the waste. A woodsman answered.

The loft of an old log-cabin church in the Blue Ridge Mountains was our home in those hungry years of the Civil War. We had nothing but poverty. There was never enough to eat. We heard no word from my father. Suddenly in 1865 he returned and we moved to Mariontown, Ill.

I remember our home there. I remember our habitual starvation. We lived in an empty tobacco barn. There was hardly a stick of furniture in the place. Frank and I used to run wild about the bare rooms. I know that I was always longing for, and dreaming of, good things to eat.

Before the war my father was a physician. A little sign on our barn tempted a few patients to try his skill and gradually he built up a meager practice. All at once, it seemed, his reputation grew and he became quite a figure in the town. He had never studied law, but he was elected district attorney.

It was as though a fairy charm had been cast over us. And then my mother died. It broke the spell.

There was something grim and fighting and stubborn about her. In all the misery of our pinched days I never heard her complain. She was perhaps too strong. When she died it was like the tearing up of a prop. The home went to pieces.

Frank and I were the youngest. A pair of stray dogs we were, grubbing about in alleys, bunking on the top floor of an old storehouse, earning our living by gathering coal off the sandbars of the Ohio river. We sold it for 10 cents a bushel. Sometimes we made as much as 15 cents in two days. Then we would stuff ourselves with pies and doughnuts. Usually our dinner was an uncertain and movable feast. Nobody troubled about us. Nobody told us what to do or what to avoid. We were our own law.

We were little savages fighting to survive. Nothing in our lives made us aware of any obligations to others. It was hardly an ideal environment wherein to raise law-respecting citizens.

My father tried to keep some sort of a home for us, but he was often away for weeks at a time. One night Frank met me at the river. His eyes stuck out like a cat’s in the dark. He grabbed me by the coat and made me run along with him. He stopped suddenly and pointed to a great, black lump huddled against the door of Shrieber’s store.

“That’s paw,” he said. “He’s asleep out there.”

Shame like a hot wave swept over me. I wanted to get him away. I was fond of him and I didn’t want the people in the town to know. I ran up and caught him by the shoulder. “Paw, get up, get up,” I whispered.

He sat up, his face stupid with sleep. Then he saw me and struck out a furious blow that sent me reeling to the curb. White hot with anger and hurt affection, I got up and ran like a little maniac to the river.

I threw myself on the sandbar and beat the ground in a fury of resentment. I was crushed and enraged. I wanted to get away, to strike out alone.

I knew the boats like a river rat. They were loading freight. I crawled in among the boxes of the old Fleetwood and I got to Cincinnati as forlorn and wretched as any runaway kid.

But I was a little cranky. I made up my mind to be a musician. I could play the trombone. The Volks theatre, a cheap beer garden, took me on. I worked like a slave for four days. Saturday night I went around to the manager and asked for my pay. I was starved. I had only eaten what I could pick up. For four days I had haunted the saloon lunch counters. I used to sneak in, grab a sandwich, duck, grab another and get kicked out.

“You mangy little ragamuffin,” the manager swore, with more oaths than I had ever heard before. “Get out of here!”

He knocked me against the wall. I had an old bulldog pistol. I fired at him and ran.

The shot went wild. I saw that, but I saw, too, that I had to run. I didn’t stop until I had climbed onto a blind baggage car bound for St. Louis. Then I crept into a hog car, pulled the hay over me and slept until I was dumped off at the stockyards in Kansas City.

It was the first time I was on the dodge. It is an ugly thing for a boy of 11 to attempt murder, but self-protection was the only law I knew. Society might shelter other youngsters. I had had to fight for almost every crust I had eaten. I was forced to take the law in my own hands or be beaten down by the gaunt poverty that warped my early life.

It was fight that won me a brief home at the stockyards. I had a scrap with the kid terror of the shambles. We fought to a finish. Grown men stood about and shouted with laughter. Blood streamed from my nose and mouth. The fight was a draw.

The terror’s father came over and shook my hand. I went home with them and stayed for a month. The kid and I would have died for each other in a week. We cleaned out every other youngster in the yard. The kid’s mother, slovenly and intemperate as she was, had the sunny kindness of people that have hungered and suffered. She was like a mother to me.

On an old schooner wagon we started across the plains together. Near the little town of La Junta, came the catastrophe that wrecked my existence.

Al Brown got hold of some whiskey. We stopped for the night in the midst of the prairie. The beans were boiling in the open. He walked up to the fire, looked into the saucepan—“Beans, again,” he snarled, and kicked the dinner to the ground. Without a word his wife took up the frying pan and beat him over the head. He went out—cold.

The kid and I had to run out to the edge of the prairie. We always did when they started to scrap.

She came out, hooked up the team and began dumping in her things and the kid’s.

“Johnny, get your duds; we’re going to leave,” she said.

I never felt so isolated in my life. The kid didn’t want to leave me. I started to cry. It was getting terribly dark. The woman came back. “Honey, I can’t take you,” she said.

I was afraid of the dark, afraid of the silence. I caught hold of her. She pushed me away, climbed up on the wagon and drove off, leaving me alone on the prairie with the man she thought she had murdered.

(End of Chapter 1 of Through the Shadows with O. Henry)

Through the Shadows with O. Henry

This Antipodes edition is a republication of Through the Shadows with O. Henry, published in 1921 by the H. K. Fly Company.

ISBN: 978-0-9882026-9-6
238 pages

Antipodes books are distributed worldwide by Ingram Content Group

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