“The Red Roses of Tonia”: Have a Hoppy O. Henry Easter
March 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
“The Gift of the Magi” is, on the right day, my favorite O. Henry short story, and IMHO, about the best modern Christmas short story there is.
O. Henry’s short stories are not rife with Christian themes and sentiments, although they do often involve a sense of social justice and sympathy for the down-and-out that is consistent with the teachings of Christ.
While in Austin, O. Henry — or Will Porter, as he was then known — was a regular church-goer and sang in every church choir that would have him (he had a wonderful bass voice). During his prison experience (1898-1901) until his death in 1910, there is no evidence that he regularly – or seldom – attended church. But that is not my point today, nor does it particularly interest me, one way or the other.
In a delicious twist of irony that he would have enjoyed, Christian book stores sell collections of his short stories and the noted atheist, Ayn Rand, once wrote of him, “More than any other author, O. Henry represents the spirit of youth, specifically the cardinal element of youth: the expectation of finding something wonderful around all of life’s corners.”
O. Henry is acknowledged as a master of puns, as well as surprise and ironic endings; hence the punny last half of this post’s title, “Have a Hoppy O. Henry Easter.” Easter bunnies hop, of course, and O. Henry was a hop head, when it came to beer, at any rate.
Will Porter, who could drain a 32 oz. fishbowl of beer without pausing, once summed up the two loves of his life in Austin, in four lines:
“If there is a rosebud garden of girls,
In this wide world anywhere,
They could have no charm for some of the men,
Like a buttercup garden of beer.”
O. Henry wrote three Easter-themed short stories during his short career: “The Red Roses of Tonia,” “The Day Resurgent” and “The Easter of the Soul,” but we will save the latter stories for other times.
“The Red Roses of Tonia” derives from his ranching days in South Texas, before he moved to Austin in 1884. And so, without further ado …
“The Red Roses of Tonia”
A trestle burned down on the International Railroad. The south-bound from San Antonio was cut off for the next forty-eight hours. On that train was Tonia Weaver’s Easter hat.
Espirition, the Mexican, who had been sent forty miles in a buckboard from the Espinosa Ranch to fetch it, returned with a shrugging shoulder and hands empty except for a cigarette. At the small station, Nopal, he had learned of the delayed train and, having no commands to wait, turned his ponies toward the ranch again.
Now, if one supposes that Easter, the Goddess of Spring, cares any more for the after-church parade on Fifth Avenue than she does for her loyal outfit of subjects that assemble at the meeting-house at Cactus, Tex., a mistake has been made. The wives and daughters of the ranchmen of the Frio country put forth Easter blossoms of new hats and gowns as faithfully as is done anywhere, and the Southwest is, for one day, a mingling of prickly pear, Paris, and paradise. And now it was Good Friday, and Tonia Weaver’s Easter hat blushed unseen in the desert air of an impotent express car, beyond the burned trestle. On Saturday noon the Rogers girls, from the Shoestring Ranch, and Ella Reeves, from the Anchor-O, and Mrs. Bennet and Ida, from Green Valley, would convene at the Espinosa and pick up Tonia. With their Easter hats and frocks carefully wrapped and bundled against the dust, the fair aggregation would then merrily jog the ten miles to Cactus, where on the morrow they would array themselves, subjugate man, do homage to Easter, and cause jealous agitation among the lilies of the field.
Tonia sat on the steps of the Espinosa ranch house flicking gloomily with a quirt at a tuft of curly mesquite. She displayed a frown and a contumelious lip, and endeavored to radiate an aura of disagreeableness and tragedy.
“I hate railroads,” she announced positively. “And men. Men pretend to run them. Can you give any excuse why a trestle should burn? Ida Bennet’s hat is to be trimmed with violets. I shall not go one step toward Cactus without a new hat. If I were a man I would get one.”
Two men listened uneasily to this disparagement of their kind. One was Wells Pearson, foreman of the Mucho Calor cattle ranch. The other was Thompson Burrows, the prosperous sheepman from the Quintana Valley. Both thought Tonia Weaver adorable, especially when she railed at railroads and menaced men. Either would have given up his epidermis to make for her an Easter hat more cheerfully than the ostrich gives up his tip or the cigarette lays down its life. Neither possessed the ingenuity to conceive a means of supplying the sad deficiency against the coming Sabbath. Pearson’s deep brown face and sunburned light hair gave him the appearance of a schoolboy seized by one of youth’s profound and insolvable melancholies. Tonia’s plight grieved him through and through. Thompson Burrows was the more skilled and pliable. He hailed from somewhere in the East originally; and he wore neckties and shoes, and was made dumb by woman’s presence.
“The big water-hole on Sandy Creek,” said Pearson, scarcely hoping to make a hit, “was filled up by that last rain.”
“Oh! Was it?” said Tonia sharply. “Thank you for the information. I suppose a new hat is nothing to you, Mr. Pearson. I suppose you think a woman ought to wear an old Stetson five years without a change, as you do. If your old water-hole could have put out the fire on that trestle you might have some reason to talk about it.”
“I am deeply sorry,” said Burrows, warned by Pearson’s fate, “that you failed to receive your hat, Miss Weaver ─ deeply sorry, indeed. If there was anything I could do ─ “
“Don’t bother,” interrupted Tonia, with sweet sarcasm. “If there was anything you could do, you’d be doing it, of course. There isn’t.”
Tonia paused. A sudden sparkle of hope had come into her eye. Her frown smoothed away. She had an inspiration.
“There’s a store over at Lone Elm Crossing on the Nueces,” she said, “that keeps hats. Eva Rogers got hers there. She said it was the latest style. It might have some left. But it’s twenty-eight miles to Lone Elm.”
The spurs of two men who hastily arose jingled; and Tonia almost smiled. The Knights, then, were not all turned to dust; nor were their rowels rust.
“Of course,” said Tonia, looking thoughtfully at a white gulf cloud sailing across the cerulean dome, “nobody could ride to Lone Elm and back by the time the girls call by for me to-morrow. So, I reckon I’ll have to stay at home this Easter Sunday.”
And then she smiled.
“Well, Miss Tonia,” said Pearson, reaching for his hat, as guileful as a sleeping babe. “I reckon I’ll be trotting along back to Mucho Calor. There’s some cutting out to be done on Dry Branch first thing in the morning; and me and Road Runner has got to be on hand. It’s too bad your hat got sidetracked. Maybe they’ll get that trestle mended yet in time for Easter.”
“I must be riding, too, Miss Tonia,” announced Burrows, looking at his watch. “I declare, it’s nearly five o’clock! I must be out at my lambing camp in time to help pen those crazy ewes.”
Tonia’s suitors seemed to have been smitten with a need for haste. They bade her a ceremonious farewell, and then shook each other’s hands with the elaborate and solemn courtesy of the Southwesterner.
“Hope I’ll see you again soon, Mr. Pearson,” said Burrows.
“Same here,” said the cowman, with the serious face of one whose friend goes upon a whaling voyage. “Be gratified to see you ride over to Mucho Calor any time you strike that section of the range.”
Pearson mounted Road Runner, the soundest cow-pony on the Frio, and let him pitch for a minute, as he always did on being mounted, even at the end of a day’s travel.
“What kind of a hat was that, Miss Tonia,” he called, “that you ordered from San Antone? I can’t help but be sorry about that hat.”
“A straw,” said Tonia; “the latest shape, of course; trimmed with red roses. That’s what I like ─ red roses.”
“There’s no color more becoming to your complexion and hair,” said Burrows, admiringly.
“It’s what I like,” said Tonia. “And of all the flowers, give me red roses. Keep all the pinks and blues for yourself. But what’s the use, when trestles burn and leave you without anything? It’ll be a dry old Easter for me!”
Pearson took off his hat and drove Road Runner at a gallop into the chaparral east of the Espinosa ranch house.
As his stirrups rattled against the brush Burrows’s long-legged sorrel struck out down the narrow stretch of open prairie to the southwest.
Tonia hung up her quirt and went into the sitting-room.
“I’m mighty sorry, daughter, that you didn’t get your hat,” said her mother.
“Oh, don’t worry, mother,” said Tonia, coolly. “I’ll have a new hat, all right, in time to-morrow.”
When Burrows reached the end of the strip of prairie he pulled his sorrel to the right and let him pick his way daintily across a sacuista flat through which ran the ragged, dry bed of an arroyo. Then up a gravelly hill, matted with bush, the horse scrambled, and at length emerged, with a snort of satisfaction into a stretch of high, level prairie, grassy and dotted with the lighter green of mesquites in their fresh spring foliage. Always to the right Burrows bore, until in a little while he struck the old Indian trail that followed the Nueces southward, and that passed, twenty-eight miles to the southeast, through Lone Elm.
Here Burrows urged the sorrel into a steady lope. As he settled himself in the saddle for a long ride he heard the drumming of hoofs, the hollow “thwack” of chaparral against wooden stirrups, the whoop of a Comanche; and Wells Pearson burst out of the brush at the right of the trail like a precocious yellow chick from a dark green Easter egg.
Except in the presence of awing femininity, melancholy found no place in Pearson’s bosom. In Tonia’s presence his voice was as soft as a summer bullfrog’s in his reedy nest. Now, at his gleesome yawp, rabbits, a mile away, ducked their ears, and sensitive plants closed their fearful fronds.
“Moved your lambing camp pretty far from the ranch, haven’t you, neighbor?” asked Pearson, as Road Runner fell in at the sorrel’s side.
“Twenty-eight miles,” said Burrows, looking a little grim. Pearson’s laugh woke an owl one hour too early in his water-elm on the river bank, half a mile away.
“All right for you, sheepman. I like an open game, myself. We’re two locoed he-milliners hat-hunting in the wilderness. I notify you. Burr, to mind your corrals. We’ve got an even start, and the one that gets the headgear will stand some higher at the Espinosa.”
“You’ve got a good pony,” said Burrows, eyeing Road Runner’s barrel- like body and tapering legs that moved as regularly as the piston rod of an engine. “It’s a race, of course; but you’re too much of a horseman to whoop it up this soon. Say we travel together till we get to the home stretch.”
“I’m your company,” agreed Pearson, “and I admire your sense. If there’s hats at Lone Elm, one of ’em shall set on Miss Tonia’s brow to-morrow, and you won’t be at the crowning. I ain’t bragging, Burr, but that sorrel of yours is weak in the fore-legs.”
“My horse against yours,” offered Burrows, “that Miss Tonia wears the hat I take her to Cactus to-morrow.”
“I’ll take you up,” shouted Pearson. “But oh, it’s just like horse- stealing for me! I can use that sorrel for a lady’s animal when ─ when somebody comes over to Mucho Calor, and ─ “
Burrows’ dark face glowered so suddenly that the cowman broke off his sentence. But Pearson could never feel any pressure for long.
“What’s all this Easter business about, Burr?” he asked, cheerfully. “Why do the women folks have to have new hats by the almanac or bust all cinches trying to get ’em?”
“It’s a seasonable statute out of the testaments,” explained Burrows. “It’s ordered by the Pope or somebody. And it has something to do with the Zodiac. I don’t know exactly, but I think it was invented by the Egyptians.”
“It’s an all-right jubilee if the heathens did put their brand on it,” said Pearson; “or else Tonia wouldn’t have anything to do with it. And they pull it off at church, too. Suppose there ain’t but one hat in the Lone Elm store, Burr!”
“Then,” said Burrows, darkly, “the best man of us’ll take it back to the Espinosa.”
“Oh, man!” cried Pearson, throwing his hat high and catching it again, “there’s nothing like you come off the sheep ranges before. You talk good and collateral to the occasion. And if there’s more than one?”
“Then,” said Burrows, “we’ll pick our choice and one of us’ll get back first with his and the other won’t.”
“There never was two souls,” proclaimed Pearson to the stars, “that beat more like one heart than your’n and mine. Me and you might be riding on a unicorn and thinking out of the same piece of mind.”
At a little past midnight the riders loped into Lone Elm. The half a hundred houses of the big village were dark. On its only street the big wooden store stood barred and shuttered.
In a few moments the horses were fastened and Pearson was pounding cheerfully on the door of old Sutton, the storekeeper.
The barrel of a Winchester came through a cranny of a solid window shutter followed by a short inquiry.
“Wells Pearson, of the Mucho Calor, and Burrows, of Green Valley,” was the response. “We want to buy some goods in the store. Sorry to wake you up but we must have ’em. Come on out, Uncle Tommy, and get a move on you.”
Uncle Tommy was slow, but at length they got him behind his counter with a kerosene lamp lit, and told him of their dire need.
“Easter hats?” said Uncle Tommy, sleepily. “Why, yes, I believe I have got just a couple left. I only ordered a dozen this spring. I’ll show ’em to you.”
Now, Uncle Tommy Sutton was a merchant, half asleep or awake. In dusty pasteboard boxes under the counter he had two left-over spring hats. But, alas! for his commercial probity on that early Saturday morn ─ they were hats of two springs ago, and a woman’s eye would have detected the fraud at half a glance. But to the unintelligent gaze of the cowpuncher and the sheepman they seemed fresh from the mint of contemporaneous April.
The hats were of a variety once known as “cart-wheels.” They were of stiff straw, colored red, and flat brimmed. Both were exactly alike, and trimmed lavishly around their crowns with full blown, immaculate, artificial white roses.
“That all you got, Uncle Tommy?” said Pearson. “All right. Not much choice here, Burr. Take your pick.”
“They’re the latest styles” lied Uncle Tommy. “You’d see ’em on Fifth Avenue, if you was in New York.”
Uncle Tommy wrapped and tied each hat in two yards of dark calico for a protection. One Pearson tied carefully to his calfskin saddle-thongs; and the other became part of Road Runner’s burden. They shouted thanks and farewells to Uncle Tommy, and cantered back into the night on the home stretch.
The horsemen jockeyed with all their skill. They rode more slowly on their way back. The few words they spoke were not unfriendly. Burrows had a Winchester under his left leg slung over his saddle horn. Pearson had a six shooter belted around him. Thus men rode in the Frio country.
At half-past seven in the morning they rode to the top of a hill and saw the Espinosa Ranch, a white spot under a dark patch of live-oaks, five miles away.
The sight roused Pearson from his drooping pose in the saddle. He knew what Road Runner could do. The sorrel was lathered, and stumbling frequently; Road Runner was pegging away like a donkey engine.
Pearson turned toward the sheepman and laughed. “Good-bye, Burr,” he cried, with a wave of his hand. “It’s a race now. We’re on the home stretch.”
He pressed Road Runner with his knees and leaned toward the Espinosa. Road Runner struck into a gallop, with tossing head and snorting nostrils, as if he were fresh from a month in pasture.
Pearson rode twenty yards and heard the unmistakable sound of a Winchester lever throwing a cartridge into the barrel. He dropped flat along his horse’s back before the crack of the rifle reached his ears.
It is possible that Burrows intended only to disable the horse ─ he was a good enough shot to do that without endangering his rider. But as Pearson stooped the ball went through his shoulder and then through Road Runner’s neck. The horse fell and the cowman pitched over his head into the hard road, and neither of them tried to move.
Burrows rode on without stopping.
In two hours Pearson opened his eyes and took inventory. He managed to get to his feet and staggered back to where Road Runner was lying.
Road Runner was lying there, but he appeared to be comfortable. Pearson examined him and found that the bullet had “creased” him. He had been knocked out temporarily, but not seriously hurt. But he was tired, and he lay there on Miss Tonia’s hat and ate leaves from a mesquite branch that obligingly hung over the road.
Pearson made the horse get up. The Easter hat, loosed from the saddle-thongs, lay there in its calico wrappings, a shapeless thing from its sojourn beneath the solid carcass of Road Runner. Then Pearson fainted and fell head long upon the poor hat again, crumpling it under his wounded shoulders.
It is hard to kill a cowpuncher. In half an hour he revived ─ long enough for a woman to have fainted twice and tried ice-cream for a restorer. He got up carefully and found Road Runner who was busy with the near-by grass. He tied the unfortunate hat to the saddle again, and managed to get himself there, too, after many failures.
At noon a gay and fluttering company waited in front of the Espinosa Ranch. The Rogers girls were there in their new buckboard, and the Anchor-O outfit and the Green Valley folks ─ mostly women. And each and every one wore her new Easter hat, even upon the lonely prairies, for they greatly desired to shine forth and do honor to the coming festival.
At the gate stood Tonia. with undisguised tears upon her cheeks. In her hand she held Burrow’s Lone Elm hat, and it was at its white roses, hated by her, that she wept. For her friends were telling her, with the ecstatic joy of true friends, that cart-wheels could not be worn, being three seasons passed into oblivion.
“Put on your old hat and come, Tonia,” they urged.
“For Easter Sunday?” she answered. “I’ll die first.” And wept again.
The hats of the fortunate ones were curved and twisted into the style of spring’s latest proclamation.
A strange being rode out of the brush among them, and there sat his horse languidly. He was stained and disfigured with the green of the grass and the limestone of rocky roads.
“Hallo, Pearson,” said Daddy Weaver. “Look like you’ve been breaking a mustang. What’s that you’ve got tied to your saddle ─ a pig in a poke?”
“Oh, come on, Tonia, if you’re going,” said Betty Rogers. “We mustn’t wait any longer. We’ve saved a seat in the buckboard for you. Never mind the hat. That lovely muslin you’ve got on looks sweet enough with any old hat.”
Pearson was slowly untying the queer thing on his saddle. Tonia looked at him with a sudden hope. Pearson was a man who created hope. He got the thing loose and handed it to her. Her quick fingers tore at the strings.
“Best I could do,” said Pearson slowly. “What Road Runner and me done to it will be about all it needs.”
“Oh, oh! it’s just the right shape,” shrieked Tonia. “And red roses! Wait till I try it on!”
She flew in to the glass, and out again, beaming, radiating, blossomed.
“Oh, don’t red become her?” chanted the girls in recitative. “Hurry up, Tonia!”
Tonia stopped for a moment by the side of Road Runner.
“Thank you, thank you, Wells,” she said, happily. “It’s just what I wanted. Won’t you come over to Cactus to-morrow and go to church with me?”
“If I can,” said Pearson. He was looking curiously at her hat, and then he grinned weakly.
Tonia flew into the buckboard like a bird. The vehicles sped away for Cactus.
“What have you been doing, Pearson?” asked Daddy Weaver. “You ain’t looking so well as common.”
“Me?” said Pearson. “I’ve been painting flowers. Them roses was white when I left Lone Elm. Help me down, Daddy Weaver, for I haven’t got any more paint to spare.”