History Stories - Whistler's Bones

The Wanderer

One of the most touching stories from Charlie Gaunt’s later years came from a time when he’d left the Australian outback far behind and wandered the Western States of America as a hobo. This is one of many periods of his life there just wasn’t room for in the book.

“From Colorado I hopped fast passenger and freights, today in one state tomorrow in another, and at last my few dollars played out and I was then thrown on my wits and resources. I was now a bum, pure and simple – not really simple, for I took to it like a babe to its mother’s milk. All and sundry I hit up, rich and poor. Shrimps gave good feed as well as the whale. Certainly I chopped wood or did an odd job for the poor lone woman with a yardful of brats, but I avoided doing anything for the wealthy.”

On winter days with no food or shelter Charlie would sometimes knock on a respectable door to ask for help – cadging meals in return for stories, and it’s likely that this was when he refined his yarns, helping remember the detail for that far off day when he decided to write them down.

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Before I could say any more a beautiful girl about seventeen came out of a room into the hall and said, “Who is it, Chloe?”

The maid answered, “Oh, Miss Agnes, only a bum. He wants a drink of coffee.”

The young girl now came to the door and said, “What can we do for you?” and “Shut the door,” she said to the coloured girl.

I spun the tale to the young lady and she caught hold of my hand. “My goodness,” she said with alarm, “Your hand is almost frozen off. Come,” and forthwith I followed her, cap in hand. She led me into a beautiful well-lighted room. Leisurely seated in comfortable chairs were an aristocratic looking old gentleman, hair as long and as white as the driven snow, an old lady; white like the old gentleman, with refined features showing signs of great beauty in her younger days, two lovely young girls and a lad of about eighteen.

They were the most refined and aristocratic family I had ever met or seen. “Dad,” said the young girl, “Here’s a hobo nearly frozen. Today’s my birthday. Can’t we be charitable and let him know that tonight somebody cares for him?”

The old gentleman got up, took my hand, shook it, and all the others did likewise. “Sit down,” he said, and reaching for a decanter of whisky poured me out a stiff peg. “Drink this,” he said and I drank it. It put new life into me.

They had just finished their dinner and the viands had not been cleared away. What a repast! Every time I felt hungry afterwards the vision of that well stocked table used to come before me. “We’ve just finished dinner,” said the old gentleman. “Sit down,” and calling to the maid, gave her orders for a fresh supply to be brought in.

T’was a feast for the gods. Boiled turkey with cream sauce, vegetables of all sorts, a splendid dessert with coffee and last but not least a splendid cigar to top off with. After I had had a sumptuous dinner, which I certainly did justice to, they began to question me. I told them part of my life and adventures – all truth, solid truth.

I couldn’t lie to those people, their courtesy and kindness forbade it. I could not act the part of a hobo. I had to act the part of a man. Like Old Hayseed and his family, these aristocrats were immensely interested in my tales. They told me they were from the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, originally were tobacco planters, and came to live in Pueblo for a suitable climate for the old lady. After a pleasant evening had passed, the old gentleman got up went out of the room, returning in a short time he put an envelope into my hand saying, “A small token for the interesting evening you have given myself, wife, and family.”

I bid them all good night and thanked them sincerely. The young lady whom I had met first escorted me to the door. “Wait a moment,” she said. Running up the stairs she soon came back with a parcel in her hand. Handing it to me she said, “There’s a combination suit of underclothes. You and I are about the same height,” and with a sweet smile she said, “You don’t mind, do you?” and thanking her I said good night and went to look for a bed.

I soon found a rooming house at twenty five cents a room. Lighting the candle I sat on the edge of the bed, took out the envelope, opened it and drew out six crisp and clean five dollar notes – thirty dollars in all (English pounds, six). I then opened the parcel and there was a beautiful suit of lamb’s wool combination underclothes.

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.