In “The Hiding of Black Bill,” O. Henry has a story with some twists and turns, an amazing use of diction, and a few uses of the wrongs words…on purpose in a way which actually makes sense in context of the story. It is a joy to read. And O. Henry is good to read in general for learning vocabulary, SAT words, grammar, story-telling, and writing.
Here are some excerpts:
By-and-by Ogden gets out a decanter of Bourbon, and then there is a total eclipse of sheep.
“Do you remember reading in the papers, about a month ago,” says he, “about a train hold-up on the M. K. & T.? The express agent was shot through the shoulder, and about $15,000 in currency taken. And it’s said that only one man did the job.”
“Seems to me I do,” says I. “But such things happen so often they don’t linger long in the human Texas mind. Did they overtake, overhaul, seize, or lay hands upon the despoiler?”
“He escaped,” says Ogden. “And I was just reading in a paper to-day that the officers have tracked him down into this part of the country. It seems the bills the robber got were all the first issue of currency to the Second National Bank of Espinosa City. And so they’ve followed the trail where they’ve been spent, and it leads this way.”
Ogden pours out some more Bourbon, and shoves me the bottle.
“I imagine,” says I, after ingurgitating another modicum of the royal boose, “that it wouldn’t be at all a disingenuous idea for a train robber to run down into this part of the country to hide for a spell. A sheep-ranch, now,” says I, “would be the finest kind of a place. Who’d ever expect to find such a desperate character among these song-birds and muttons and wild flowers? And, by the way,” says I, kind of looking H. Ogden over, “was there any description mentioned of this single-handed terror? Was his lineaments or height and thickness or teeth fillings or style of habiliments set forth in print ?”
“Why, no,” says Ogden; “they say nobody got a good sight of him because he wore a mask. But they know it was a train-robber called Black Bill, because he always works alone and because he dropped a handkerchief in the express-car that had his name on it.”
“All right,” says I. “I approve of Black Bill’s retreat to the sheep-ranges. I guess they won’t find him.”
“There’s one thousand dollars reward for his capture,” says Ogden.
“I don’t need that kind of money,” says I, looking Mr. Sheepman straight in the eye. “The twelve dollars a month you pay me is enough. I need a rest, and I can save up until I get enough to pay my fare to Texarkana, where my widowed mother lives. If Black Bill,” I goes on, looking significantly at Ogden, “was to have come down this way–say, a month ago–and bought a little sheep-ranch and–“
“Stop,” says Ogden, getting out of his chair and looking pretty vicious. “Do you mean to insinuate–“
“Nothing,” says I; “no insinuations. I’m stating a hypodermical case. I say, if Black Bill had come down here and bought a sheep-ranch and hired me to Little-Boy-Blue ’em and treated me square and friendly, as you’ve done, he’d never have anything to fear from me. A man is a man, regardless of any complications he may have with sheep or railroad trains. Now you know where I stand.”
Ogden looks black as camp-coffee for nine seconds, and then he laughs, amused.
“You’ll do, Saint Clair,” says he. “If I was Black Bill I wouldn’t be afraid to trust you. Let’s have a game or two of seven-up tonight. That is, if you don’t mind playing with a train-robber.”
“I’ve told you,” says I, “my oral sentiments, and there’s no strings to ’em.”
When the posse finally follows the money trail to the ranch, they arrest Ogden:
“You’re scooped in, Mr. Black Bill,” says the captain. “That’s all.”
“It’s an outrage,” says H. Ogden, madder yet.
“It was,” says the peace-and-good-will man. “The Katy wasn’t bothering you, and there’s a law against monkeying with express packages.”
And he sits on H. Ogden’s stomach and goes through his pockets symptomatically and careful.
“I’ll make you perspire for this,” says Ogden, perspiring some himself. “I can prove who I am.”
“So can I,” says the captain, as he draws from H. Ogden’s inside coat-pocket a handful of new bills of the Second National Bank of Espinosa City. “Your regular engraved Tuesdays-and-Fridays visiting-card wouldn’t have a louder voice in proclaiming your indemnity than this here currency. You can get up now and prepare to go with us and expatriate your sins.”
I love O. Henry’s use of “total eclipse of sheep,” “overtake, overhaul, seize, or lay hands upon,” “ingurgitating another modicum,” “lineaments or height and thickness or teeth fillings or style of habiliments.” Those are all distinctively O. Henry-isms. And I love the misuse of “hypodermical” when the Saint Clair character means “hypothetical” — i.e., the Saint Clair character means to say he is talking ‘just for the sake of discussion and consideration of possibilities’ (hypothetically) — but of course, he actually means in the story he is accusing Ogden of being Black Bill, but doing so using “if” statements to be nice about it — but ends up saying he is talking ‘to get under Ogden’s skin’ (hypodermically). Yes, O. Henry is a Wordsmith. And we have thought-stretching uses of “perspire,” “indemnity,” and “expatriate.”
Read the rest to see what other twists and turns it contains, and what other masterly uses of diction.