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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

O. Henry in Fredericksburg

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

The writer O. Henry was naturally curious. Wherever he went he spent a lot of time soaking up the local flavor. His stories came from hotel lobbies, dance halls, saloons, park benches and lamp posts. Each story was a window into the world he was living in at the time.

Born William Sydney Porter in 1860, O. Henry was one of the world's great story tellers. At age 19 he came to Texas from his home in North Carolina, spending time in San Antonio, Austin and Fredericksburg.

In San Antonio he published a newspaper called The Rolling Stone. His readers enjoyed the poems, cartoons and funny stories although the San Antonio Germans occasionally scolded him for what they perceived as unflattering images of their culture.

O. Henry
O. Henry
Wikimedia Commons

O. Henry came to Fredericksburg sometime in the 1880s to collect subscriptions for The Rolling Stone. Mrs. Dora Reagan, granddaughter of Captain Charles Nimitz, recalled hearing her grandfather tell of O. Henry spending days at the Nimitz Hotel.

Just about everyone who likes to read has his or her favorite O. Henry story. My favorite, "A Chaparral Prince," came from that that road trip to Fredericksburg.

The story, in brief, is about Lena Hildesmuller, an 11 year old girl from Fredericksburg sent to work as a kitchen maid 30 miles away at the Quarrymen's Hotel. She worked hard; too hard for a little girl "no bigger than a frankfurter." Her only source of enjoyment, in fact the only thing that kept her going, was spending her evenings with Grimm.

Then one night Mrs. Maloney, the lady who ran the hotel, took Grimm away. Mrs. Maloney, who was mean as a rattlesnake, claimed it was not good for servants to read stories about children lost in enchanted forests and gallant princes who rescued maidens from the witch's hut.

Servants needed their rest, so no more Grimm.

Unable to carry on without Grimm, Lena wrote a letter begging her mother to come and get her. Otherwise Lena planned to drown herself in the river.

But the letter fell into the hands of an outlaw named Hondo Bill who, along with and his gang, robbed the Fredericksburg mail wagon.

Hondo Bill was a tall, strong man with a soft voice, a rough unshaven face and a fondness for schnapps.

During the robbery, Fritz the mail wagon driver tried to shield Lena's letter, but Hondo Bill, his curiosity aroused, opened it. The letter was written in German. Hondo Bill forced Fritz to translate it into English.

Before making his getaway, Hondo Bill tied Fritz to a tree. Fritz fell asleep only to be awakened several hours later by Hondo Bill.

"Hit it out for home, Dutch," Hondo Bill commanded, untying the driver, shoving him into the wagon seat and placing the reins in his hands. "You've given us lots of trouble and we're pleased to see the back of your neck."

When Fritz arrived in Fredericksburg, Frau Hildesmuller asked Fritz if he had news from her daughter Lena. Fritz told her about the letter.

Believing Lena may have drowned, Frau Hildesmuller began to cry. Then she heard a faint voice coming from the rear of Fritz's wagon. There was little Lena, half asleep, hidden among the mail sacks.

Frau Hildesmuller's sobs turned to tears of joy.

No one was more surprised to see Lena than Fritz. "How did you get in the wagon?" he asked.

"The prince brought me," Lena replied. "I always knew he would. Last night he came with his armed knights and captured the ogre's castle. They broke the dishes and kicked down the door. They pitched Mr. Maloney into a rain barrel and threw flour all over Mrs. Maloney. Then the prince came up, wrapped me in bedclothes and carried me away. He was tall and strong. His face was rough as a scrubbing brush. He had a soft, kind voice, and he smelled like schnapps. I fell asleep in his arms and woke up here."

"Rubbish," cried Fritz. "Fairy Tales."

"The prince brought me," Lena said.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" December 1, 2019 Column

Sources:
"O. Henry and San Antonio - A Love Affair," San Antonio Light, January 25, 1970.
"San Antonio's O. Henry," San Antonio Light, May 27, 1917.
"O. Henry and Al Jennings," Washington Post, September 14, 1919.


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