How Weary Willie Spends Christmas
Experiences Related Around the Camp-Fire
The hobo who has addressed the first remark extricated his clothing from its entanglement with the barbs of wire fence and advanced toward the camp fire in the grove of bushes in Mrs. Bonneville's field just this side of the railroad crossing, around which four of his fellow peripatetic travelers were gathered. A large tin can a 50-pound lard tin gave off to the frosty air and the hungry hobobs an appetizing odor, while and old battered coffee pot sent out an invitation to a feast, whether the users of the pot desired it or not.
The can and the pot are a part of the paraphernalia of a hobo camp. Who put them there and by what cabalistic method the other members of this wandering tribe are made aware of their whereabouts, the writer does not pretend to know. He only knows that they are there and that it is a gross violation of hobo ethics to remove them, except it be to establish a new camp somewhere else.
The grove in Mrs. Bonneville's field has long been a hobo camp. The general public is apt to refer to this genus homo as a tramp. That is a mistake. To tramp is to walk. A tramp, therefore, is one who walks. That is a thing the hobo never does except in cases of emergency and they are very rare. The hobo rides. He prefers a freight train to a passenger train, for he is opposed to paying tribute to the railway corporations and there are not so comfortable places for one to secret one's self about a passenger train as in a freight car. A bed in the Waldorf-Astoria is not to be thought of by a genuine hobo in comparison with a burrow in a car of cotton seed. As trains going South and West are compelled to stop at the crossing and the opportunities for hopping on a train is what makes the grove a favorite stopping place with the hoboes. They remain out of sight in the bushes until the signal to start is given and then they rise up like a covey of flushed quail.
"Whatjer got?" enquired a husky big fellow as he lifted the lid from the can, and proceeded to stir the contents.
The newcomer proceeded to empty his pockets. He brought out several packages, wrapped in old newspaper, that contained cold meat and bread; then came four Irish potatoes of different sizes, a large turnip and a medium sized onion.
"You're a brick, you must have been with Coxey," laughed the husky fellow, who seemed to be the ruling spirit of the camp and he laughed at the joke. The onion immediately went into the can.
"Jim, you peel that; Jack, you fix up the potatoes," continued the lord of the camp.
Jim reached down inside his shirt, pull out a little bag that hung at the end of a string and extracted a razor. Then he picked up the turnip and began to peel it. Jack scraped the potatoes with an old piece of iron that looked as if it had once been a piece of cotton tie. After peeling them, he cut them up with the same piece of iron, after which they joined the turnip to again keep companionship with the onion, but this time in the pot, where a few pieces of meat had preceded them.
Before the meal was ready, two other wanderers appeared and both brought contributions to the general larder. They were laid aside for future use. When the meal was cooked a number of old tin cans, the tops melted off to make cups, were produced. Each man had a cup and helped himself to the stew, but there were not enough for each to have one for his coffee, so they had set two cups of coffee in the center of the circle and each man reached for one or the other of the cups as he wanted it. The bread that comes into a hobo camp is usually hard. It is made more palatable after being dipped in a can of stew, and it also affords a means of eating the stew, as there is always a scarcity of spoons.
"Holy Smoke, fellers!" exclaimed one of the party, when the newspaper man joined the crowd and stated his mission. "Here's a guy what wants to know how we spend our Christmas."
"We spends it wherever it finds us, sometimes in jail, sometimes on the road and sometimes in town," spoke up the husky individual, who appeared to labor under the impression that he was a humorist.
There was silence for some minutes after this remark, but on the production of a sack of tobacco and some papers by the visitor, who showed no sign of leaving because he had been given a cool reception, the sentiment of the crowd seemed to undergo a change. After the tobacco had made a circuit of the party, the members became more communicative.
"Jim, remember that Christmas we spent at the cave in the bluff tother side of town?" asked one who had been addressed as Jack.
"Bet I do," replied Jim. "Say, but we had a good warm bunk there. Say, fellers, that was a great joke on Jack. He'd been moseyin' around early in the evenin' and tol' me he knew where there was a lot of chickens and we'd have spring chicken for our Christmas dinner. That night he went off and came back with a chicken, all right, but it was a rooster about 27 years old. He's got the scar in his hand now where the spur piked him when he nabbed old cock-a-doodle-do. We boiled him and made a stew and ou bet he was good."
The prospect of a "can" and Jim's story having broken the ice, Christmas experiences began to be related by all the party.
"I slipped up a little worse than Jack did one time down in New Orleans," said one who answered to the name of Joe. "I read in the papers about the big dinner they was going to give the prisoners on Christmas. I got dead next in a hurry. You know how they run you in for sitting around the squares? Well, I sits down in the middle of a big copper's beat and pretends to go to sleep. Mr. Copper comes up and tries to wake me up and make me move on. I'm dead to the world, an' nothing short of old Gabe's bugle would wake me. Old Cop gets mad and gives me two or three cracks on the head with his billy and then hauls me off to jail. I was laughing to myself then how I was working them, but so help me the old judge didn't do a thing to me the next morning but give me sixty days and I had to work every one of them on the street."
"If you wants to strike a snap always hit a town where there's a Salvation Army on Christmas. They'll give you a big feed and if you put up the right kind of talk you can carry off a lot" put in the husky individual at the head of the table.
"Yes, but if you go in to work the religious racket, you'll miss the free drinks the barkeep sets up in the morning," remarked Joe.
"It's mighty few barkeeps you can work on Christmas or any other day," retorted husky.
"I was in St. Louis one Christmas and I'll never try to work the back doors there any more within a week after Christmas," said the fellow with a week's growth of red beard. "I got nothing but Turkey every place and I got so I couldn't help gobbling every time I saw anything red. I come down through the Cherokee Nation the next week and I saw a drunk Indian with a red feather in his hat. I had to gobble and durned if he didn't pick up his Winchester and take a shot at me."
"Say, this thing of Kentucky hospitality is all hot air," said the one with a big black mustache. "I worked Louisville one Christmas morning. I got out real early and I couldn't spring any thing that would make any of them chase a bottle out to me."
"Did any of you ever spend Christmas in Chicago?" the writer asked.
"Chicago? What's biting you, man? Do you think we are Esquimaux? Why it's as cold as blue blazes there in the winter."
The newspaper man had separated himself from three sacks of tobacco, a box of matches and all his small change before he got out of the camp, so he could not appreciate the invitation to "Call Again."
Fort Smith News Record, Dec. 13, 1903, p. 11