The Last of the Wanderbund

Damon Runyon

July 1911

J. Bollus had been sitting at the copydesk in the editorial rooms of the New York Cry for several years, judiciously curbing the literary impatience of young reporters and others old enough to know better.

A wisp of springtime breeze sneaked past the venerable office-boys and fluttered the typewritten masterpieces before him. J. Bollus, who was a little man with a weatherbeaten face, raised his head and sniffed. Then he took a deep breath and looked out of a window.

Beyond the spires which hurried toward the sky; beyond the architectural precipices overhung by a light haze, he saw vistas of open country shimmering beneath the sun. He saw broad-shouldered hills, clad in green uniforms, with white helmets, marching solidly across the far horizon. He saw the regular sky-line of Denver, topped only by the gilded dome of the State Capitol, sparkling in the silver glow like a bright jewel set in platinum. He spied in the distance the Tabernacle at Salt Lake, bellying upward like a fat balloon. He saw the heaving bosom of San Francisco Bay, with Goat Island rising stoically from the blue, and Alcatraz looming ghostily out toward the Gate. He heard Market Street laughing gaily, and familiar faces smiled at him from every corner.

“Here!” said J. Bollus, turning to the head of the desk. “You take this job, and be hanged to you—I’m going West!

“It’ll be pleasant to slip back into the good old days for a while,” he mused, as the limited, wheeling Chicagoward, kicked the distance behind it. “I’ll bet the gang along the route will be glad to see me! Perhaps I ought to have gone by way of St. Louis, and rounded up the bunch there.”

So went J. Bollus, Jason-like, in quest of the golden fleece of the good old days.

In the Buon Gusto Cafe, in San Francisco, some weeks later, there sat, beneath an amazingly wide-brimmed Stetson hat, a vehement little man, who plucked nervously at his spaghetti as he talked to Horter, a native-born but sympathetic water-front reporter from the Chronicle.

“A question,” said J. Bollus. “Do the fires of fraternal spirit flicker feebly in matrimonial grates hereabouts? Are the fleshpots of youth and fancy a stench in the nostrils of my old friends?”

“I don’t know,” answered Horter. “I don’t do outside assignments.”

“There’s something in it,” said J. Bollus reflectively; “something that I have missed, and I intend to investigate it upon my own hook later. Harnes, Gillis, Koler, Mull, Lean, Knowles—all the old guard, from Chicago to the spot where I found you today, talk of the same thing—of family lairs and peanuts, and of settling down. Ancient friendships are null, void, and nix. I’ve been buried for a couple of years, and I didn’t see the parade of progress pass. I’ve listened so intently to the call of far fields that I didn’t catch the whisper of destiny concerning firesides, and teething, and such. What changes have there been here ?”

“Some are married,” said Horter. “Some are merely settled down. Tim Sweeley’s in the latter class. But, mostly, there have been no great, unalterable changes, and it happens that I know of a city editor’s job that you might horn into.”

“I’m glad,” said J. Bollus, beckoning to Pietro, the waiter. “I’m very glad. But this thing has set me to thinking. There must be something in settling down, when so many hitherto wholly unsettled people discuss it simultaneously!”

The fleeting visits of J. Bollus as he sped across the long trail had sown the seed of discontent, and it bore the fruit of wanderlust. The runkatunk of train-wheels crept into the dreams of many who had observed his passage.

Harnes gazed moodily out of the window in the Chicago office where he worked. Trying to bring his mind to bear upon a cartoon, he heard a far-away murmur.

“Old Bollus is on his way,” he mused. “Old Bollus and the crowd out West will have a great time! Why shouldn’t I join the reunion ? Why should I stay cooped up in this town when there are things stirring out yonder?”

A few days later, he encountered Gillis in the street, and they discussed the visit of J. Bollus with interest. Harnes confided his thoughts to Gillis.

“I’ve felt it myself,” said Gillis, without shame. “I’d like to see the old crowd. This settling down is all right, and I told Bollus he ought to try it; but a fellow should have some pleasure now and then to keep from going stale.”

“I told him the same thing,” said Harnes. “We could go together in a month or so,” he added, temptingly.

Meanwhile there came filtering out of the far West the news that Bollus was city editor of a big paper in San Francisco. It came by way of Salt Lake City, through Denver and Kansas City, and it was regarded as extremely opportune by more persons than Harnes and Gillis.

When those two went marching into Kansas City, they found Jack Knowles and Heck Lean astir.

“You couldn’t keep us away with a shotgun,” said Heck. “Good old Bollus! Won’t he be glad to see us? And to think! I told him he ought to settle down!”

“So did I ,” confessed Knowles. “He gave me the laugh.”

When the party, four strong, landed in Denver, they found that the wander-fever had been smoldering in the bosoms of George Mull, Bill Koler, Dick Macon, and even the imperturbable Ed Charlis, lashed though Charlis was to a matrimonial stay. Soon the spreading fires of unrest were raging fiercely.

The story of that westward march from Chicago to the Oakland Mole is history in newspaper circles beyond the big river. At Salt Lake City the party picked up Hank Burmester and Pete Noonan, who had been in Goldfield. It was the greatest hegira of journalistic talent in the memory of man. The journey was enlivened with song and story, and with a discussion of plans for a rousing greeting to Bollus.

“And to think I told him he ought to settle down!” said Bill Koler, a friend of Bollus’s earliest ballad, salad days.

“Well,” said Charlis, “I talked to him about the advantage of a fireside, and the pleasure in hearing the voices of wee folks when you came home from a hard day’s work.”

“I didn’t go as strong as that, but I warned him that the game now demands steady men,” said Mull. “I forgot that I was with him the only other time he went rambling in five years.”

“He’ll be tickled to death to see us,” said Macon. “What a bunch of native sons are due to lose their jobs when this crowd lights! Old Bollus will give enough of us situations to keep the rest going until we all catch on—and won’t we have some reunion in the little old town beside the Gate ?”

For though they were strong in numbers, these journalistic Argonauts were financially enfeebled.

A little man, who wore glasses at the extreme end of his nose, sat at a desk in the city-room of a great San Francisco newspaper, diligently perusing a string of clippings. He was a calm-looking little man, who had been known to receive a tip on the sinking of a Pacific liner without much of a tremor; a man who glanced up coolly when a wave of turbulence in the form of ten young men swept into the room and filled it with their presence.

Mull, who had a deep voice, acted as spokesman for the delegation.

“Is old Bollus in?” he demanded. “Tell him there’s a bunch of his old pals out here who want to see him quick!”

“Your business?” queried the little man placidly.

“Jobs,” said Mull. “Jobs and a hello to old Bollus!”

“Tell the little half-portion we know he’s under that big hat, because we saw him go under,” put in Charlis jocularly, and Koler added a jovial comment to lend strength to the impression that they knew J. Bollus very well.

A few men scattered about the city-room looked on curiously. Outside, a warm wind was gently laving the streets; a strong sun glared from an opaque sky, and the air was pleasant and healthful. Inside the newspaper office there slowly fell a distinct, searching chill, as if some one had left a door open to a wintry blast. The little man with the nose-glasses was inspecting the crowd.

“Strangers in the city, I presume?” he observed softly.

“Yes,” replied a weak chorus. The little man ran his eyes up and down each one meditatively, and each man, in his turn, shivered slightly. Finally he spoke in a low, rehearsed manner:

“Mr. Bollus said that if there were any applicants for situations from outside the city, I was to explain to them that he never employs travelers. He wants nothing but steady men.”

“But—but—where is Mr. Bollus?” inquired Mull in a subdued voice.

“Mr. Bollus,” replied the little man carefully, “is over at Berkeley, getting married to the society editor.”