The Ballad of Adam McKnight


Adam McKnight rose from his seat as the train screeched to a stop. He stepped out in the aisle, switching his ornate silver tipped cane from one hand to the other, as Minerva Oglethorpe and Gladys Guggenheim entered the coach. Minerva was walking forward, closing her umbrella, but looking over her right shoulder at her traveling companion as Miss Guggenheim kept up a breathless running commentary on everything and everybody.

“It’s going to be such fun,” Gladys said.

“Oh, yes. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. I just know it will be quite an adventure,” Minerva answered and leaned over a seat as Adam McKnight brushed past. Turning, once in the clear, he raised the brim of his bowler and smiled at the ladies.

“Crude oaf.” Miss Oglethorpe slapped at some non-existent dust on her skirts. She gathered her brocaded folds, slid in a seat next to a grimy window and turned to face Miss Guggenheim as her traveling companion dropped in the seat next to the aisle.

“That was Adam McKnight,” Gladys whispered. A woman pushed two young boys in the seats behind Minerva and Gladys.  She shoved one down in a seat next to the window, admonishing the elaborately clothed bundle of squirming flesh to sit still and behave, and jerked the other wiggling youngster in her lap as she sat down in the last available aisle seat.

“Yes. He is such a disreputable bumblebrush,” Minerva said as she lay her parasol on the floor at her feet. “You know, of course, he lost his job in town.”

“No. I heard things weren’t going so well for him, but I didn’t know he lost his job,” Gladys interrupted.

Minerva smiled and nodded. “He’s a ne’er-do-well…,”

“Oh, I knew that,” Gladys interrupted again, bobbing her bonneted head. “Why, I heard Mrs. McKnight telling Mr. Sobworth at the store, just the other day, she didn’t know what was going to come of her son.”

“Why, he’s probably the most luckless individual I’ve ever known,” Minerva said as the train started with a jerk. “You know, he was seeing Abigail Arlington pretty steady and I heard she dumped him, turned him out to graze. Said she wasn’t going to put up with his laziness anymore. Said she knew that there was better pickin’s. Said she wouldn’t stay with a man who spent his afternoons in the pool hall.”

The train’s click clacking wheels picked up speed and the two ladies’ click clacking tongues also picked up speed as they warmed to their subject. Two men sat together in seats at the front of the coach leaning their heads together talking in muted tones, large brimmed hats in their laps covering their hands, their boot spurs making marks in the wood planked floor of the car.

Adam McKnight stepped off the car and crossed the tracks, mounting the steps to the railroad station platform. He squinted his eyes, surveying the busy scene before him, wondering how a newly set free man should occupy his time on a fine day like this. He looked down at his feet, pondering the question, and smiled with a start. Bending over, he picked up the shiny metal object and turned the newly minted twenty dollar gold piece in his fingers. This piece of good luck calls for a toast to good fortune, he thought and, cocking his bowler off to one side of his head with a stroke of his cane, he started off the platform on the way to his favorite haunt.

“Abby was seeing Adam McKnight?” Gladys asked. “That is so hard to believe. I have known Abby all my life. Her poor papa would be absolutely scandalized if he knew his beloved Abigail was seeing Adam McKnight. Why, I do believe he would turn over in his grave. What does poor Mrs. Arlington think of Abby seeing Mr. McKnight?”

“Abigail is not seeing Mr. McKnight anymore, Gladys. I was just telling you how Abigail turned Adam McKnight out to pasture.”

“I bet she was the one who made Abby stop seeing Mr. McKnight.”

“Who was the one?”

“Mrs. Arlington, that’s who. I was just thinking how Mrs. Arlington always was so strict with Abigail. You’d think her upbringing would have directed her in to more genteel pursuits.”

Gladys paused long enough to brush at the fly specks of coal dust that swirled about the car, depositing themselves with unerring regularity in her lap.

The woman seated behind Miss Guggenheim gave in to her youngsters requests and gave each child a small cup to hold as she pulled a tin thermos out of her large bag and opened it. The train chugged up a small grade and Gladys surreptitiously chugged a swallow of refreshment from a tin flask she removed from her handbag. Taking a deep breath to cool off the fiery liquid, she replaced the flask, gave her traveling companion an embarrassed glance and continued with renewed vigor.

“I heard that Adam McKnight got fired from his job at the milk plant. I heard they caught him gambling in the room where they bag the milk powder.”

“No! That is so like Adam McKnight. I always knew he was no good,” Minerva reached up with both hands to straighten her bonnet. “Even when we were children, he was always gambling behind the outhouse. The teacher—you remember Miss Grovelsmythe—she caught him more than once and warmed his britches, but that never stopped Adam McKnight.” Minerva shook her head in mock dismay sending her carefully coiffed curls swinging over the seat back where the tousle headed urchin grabbed at the tempting tangle of blond coils as he waited for his cocoa. His unsuccessful attempts were met with slaps and whispered scoldings.

“Oh, there was such a ruckus when they found him out.” Gladys was nodding her head and tugging with unrestrained excitement at the ribbons that restrained her bonnet.

The mother in the seat behind Gladys poured a small amount of cocoa in each proffered cup, whispering  instructions not to spill and drink it carefully for it was hot. Her eldest finally snared one of Miss Minerva Oglethorpe’s springy lengths of curls and, giggling, dipped it in his cup while his mother attended her youngest. Miss Minerva was never the wiser, caught up as she was in the mounting discussion.

Adam McKnight entered the pool hall, returning the welcoming halloos as he bumped the brim of his bowler with the silver tip of his cane. He walked over to a table surrounded by a selection of characters of dubious distinction and harrumphed, twisting the ends of his moustache. All the card players looked up and with grunts of acknowledgment invited Adam McKnight in the game. They moved their chairs around the table to make room as McKnight pulled a nearby chair away from its table and swung it around to face his opponents. He sat down and, with a flourish, he removed his gold coin from his vest pocket and placed it carefully on the table.

“Gentlemen, whose deal is it?”

The train pulled to a stop allowing a contingent of firemen to drive a horse drawn fire engine across the tracks. Miss Oglethorpe and Miss Guggenheim were oblivious to the flames leaping from the second story windows of the hotel that bordered the railroad tracks, the shouts and cries of alarm, people in the coach rising to their feet, crowding on one side of the coach to press against the glass on that side of the train, even the fact that the train had stopped.

As the train jerked to a start again, the smallest of the young woman’s two boys fell backward against his seat, and the cup of cocoa flew out of his grasp splashing its contents down the back of Gladys Guggenheim’s dress. The rough horse hair upholstery of her seat absorbed most of the now-tepid liquid but not before it left a dark brown stain spreading across the upper back of her gown.

“I never knew a man to be pursued with such bad luck,” Minerva continued. “You know, of course, he was involved in that petty larceny. You remember, it was when Mr. Goodfellow accused Mr. McKnight of stealing those brass buttons at the store.”

“I thought they decided it was not Adam McKnight who stole those buttons. I thought they decided it was Mrs. Arlington’s little boy, Farnsworthy.”

“Well, yes, it was Farnsworthy who stole the buttons but it was Adam McKnight went to jail for it, don’t you remember?”

“Oh, I just don’t see how anybody could tolerate that scandalous Adam McKnight for one second. Why anybody that can’t stay out of trouble any more than Adam McKnight ought to be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.” Gladys pursed her lips, indignant.

“They don’t do that anymore, Gladys.” Minerva laughed at the outrageous thought.

“Well, they might. In a case like that no account bum Adam McKnight, they just might.”

Adam McKnight lay his hand on the table to gasps of dismay from his friends. “Four of a kind, gentlemen.” He reached across the table to scoop the winnings over and begin stuffing the money in his pockets. One of the other players grumbled, “You beat all I ever seen, Adam McKnight.”

Minerva Oglethorpe laughed again and continued, “Well, they certainly let Adam McKnight out of jail in a hurry when little Farnsworthy Arlington confessed to the crime.”

“It was hardly a crime worth mentioning, Minnie. I mean, brass buttons! Really! ‘Course they should have kept Adam McKnight in that jail right while they had him there. To let that scoundrel loose to cause our peaceful little town no end of mischief, well, it’s just inexcusable, that’s what it is.”

The telegraph runner flew through the doors of the pool hall. He paused inside to let his eyes become accustomed to the light, then spotted his quarry at a card table and raced over.

“Telegram for Mr. Adam McKnight.” He thrust the envelope in McKnight’s outstretched hand and stretched out his own for the expected gratuity. He was not disappointed. Adam reached in a vest pocket and, without looking, placed a coin in the runner’s hand. He didn’t bother to notice that he had just made the young recipient  twenty dollars richer than when he arrived in the smoky pool hall mere seconds earlier. He tore open the envelope and removed its contents. A smile crossed his face as he read: Adam dearest, stop. All is forgiven, stop. Please return to my arms at once, stop. I await your sweet kisses, stop. Don’t stop for anything, stop. Your loving sweetheart, stop. Abigail Arlington, stop. “Gentlemen, you must excuse me. I have a pressing engagement that cannot wait. Good day, sirs.”

One of the mother’s little miscreants slid down out of his seat while the mother was busy trying to discreetly blot the cocoa from the back of Gladys Guggenheim’s dress. He dropped to the floor and slid in the slippery cocoa that escaped his little brother’s cup, ran down the back of Miss Guggenheim’s seat and dribbled on the wooden floor. His feet kicked Miss Oglethorpe’s parasol and sent it scooting down the length of the railroad car under the seats until it came to rest against the spurred boot of one of the two men seated at the front of the car. The man never noticed the brightly colored interloper but continued his nervous glancing around the car. He jumped as the conductor entered the car through the front door and began his call: Tickets! Tickets, puh—leese. Have your tickets ready, puh—leeeese.

“Adam McKnight has false teeth, I heard,” Minerva Oglethorpe offered. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if that bowler hat he always wears covers up a toupeé,” she snorted in derision. “Madam Clovary over at the reading parlor says it’s a toupeé. Says she’s seen it off his head. Says it looks like a skunk’s hide.”

“Well, I just wouldn’t doubt that for one little minute. He probably skinned a skunk to get it. As for his false teeth, why, I‘m certain of it. No one who chews tobacco…,”

Minerva shrugged and shivered, puckering her mouth as she muttered, “disgusting habit!”

“…could possibly have such white teeth.” Gladys reached in her purse and pulled out a small tin of snuff. She removed the cover and placed a pinch of the light brown powder next to one nostril and sniffed. Patting her nose with a small lace handkerchief, she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial level as the two men in the front of the car ended their conspiratorial conversation and stood to their feet.

“Don’t say I’m the one told you this, but Abigail Arlington told me that Adam McKnight is just about the world’s best kisser.”

“No! I can’t believe it! I won’t believe it! You don’t say!”

“I do say, but don’t say I’m the one said so.”

The two men pulled big black guns from under their large brimmed hats as they stood up and announced in a voice heard by all but Minerva Oglethorpe and Gladys Guggenheim, “This is a stick-up! Now everyone just remain calm and no one will get hurt.”

“I just can’t see how any woman who is the slightest bit less than desperate can say without choking that Adam McKnight is the world’s best kisser. Why, did you ever get a good look at that huge twirly moustache he wears? I swear, it’s never been trimmed. He just keeps letting it grow and grow. I bet Abigail Arlington has to lift it out of the way before she can even get close enough to his…”

“Minnie! But I know what you mean. He does look the brute, doesn’t he?”

Unaware a parasol snagged on a spur was dogging each step, both men worked their way back through the railroad car, collecting watches, watch fobs, rings, necklaces, and money. They came to Miss Oglethorpe and Miss Guggenheim who were too busy talking about Adam McKnight to notice. The biggest bandit harrumphed pointedly and Gladys continued talking, “You know, they say he beats his dog.”

“Oh, no! Don’t tell me that. You mean that poor little dog with the bandit like mask over both eyes?”

“Yes, that’s the one. They say he beats that little dog for no reason, just out of pure orneriness.”

The bandit bent over slightly and harrumphed a little louder just above Gladys Guggenheim’s bonnet.

“Well, I think that’s cause for a good horse whipping. If there was a real man in the whole town…” Gladys and Minerva held up their cloth hand bags by the draw strings. “…they would go right out and find Adam McKnight and tie him to a post and horse whip him right then and there.”

The train robber looked at his partner and shrugged. His partner was being pummeled about both shins by the little hooligans in the seats behind Minerva and Gladys.  The big man handed his partner his hand gun, took both purses and opened them, examining the contents. He withdrew the cash from each bag, pulled the draw strings closed and placed the purses back in their respective owner’s hands as Gladys and Minerva continued their spirited discussion unabated. The two weary, bruised, confused train robbers hurried out to the rear platform of the car and jumped to the ground, taking the brightly colored parasol along.  The train engineer gave a blast of the whistle and the train jerked to life once more.

“They say Adam McKnight feeds his little dog horse meat once a day and teaches him to bite the post man just for the fun of it.” Gladys’ eyes grew wide as she revealed this latest rumor.

“Oh, I’m sure of it. Why, I’ve known Adam McKnight to pull more than his fair share of dirty tricks in my lifetime and I’m sure he’s not above feeding his little dog horse meat and teaching him to bite people. It just puzzles me why Adam McKnight hasn’t been bitten by that adorable little pit bull before now.” Minerva shook her bonneted head.

“I just can’t understand what a lovely young lady like Abigail Arlington sees in a waste of skin like that Adam McKnight.” Gladys clasped her hands to her ruddy cheeks and sighed, and the train let out a sigh of steam as it chased the steel ribbons to its final destination.

Adam McKnight twirled his highly waxed moustache one final time and shook his best man’s hand.

“Time to go, old chap. Can you stand it? Are you ready for life’s final flourish?” the best man asked Adam McKnight with a resounding thump on the back.

McKnight raised his silver tipped cane to the brim of his well brushed bowler in a brave salute and opened the door. He walked to the dais where Abigail Arlington stood dressed in a flowing white gown and delicate lace veil. Minerva Oglethorpe and Gladys Guggenheim stood together off to one side dressed exactly the same in white bride’s maid’s gowns, holding brilliant bouquets of chrysanthemums interspersed with baby’s breath.

“Oh, look, Minnie! Doesn’t Adam look absolutely stunning?”

“Yes, they are a gorgeous couple. I think they will be very happy together. Abigail could have done worse, you know. Why, Adam McKnight is a very eligible up and coming young man.”

“Yes, and Abigail will never have to worry about finances as long as she lives, what with Adam inheriting all that money from his uncle Horace.”

“What a fine white set of teeth. Just look at that smile! He has a gorgeous smile, don’t you think, Gladys? Why, can you believe some people think they are false.” The minister held a finger to his lips and wheezed a hush as the organ started to play, wheezing and gasping and gaining sonorous momentum.

“Yes, and you just have to admire that fine black head of hair,” Gladys wheezed and gasped, stifling a sonorous cough.  “I just know Abigail will love to run her fingers through it.”

“I’ve heard people say Adam McKnight wears a toupee,” Minerva whispered. The minister frowned and shook his finger at Minerva a second time. “Can you believe anyone would be so stupid to believe such a ridiculous rumor? Why one look at the man and you could tell he’s all original. You know, some people will pass around the most torrid rumors. You just can’t believe what some people will say.”

The End

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