O’ Henry is the pen name of American short-story author William Sydney Porter (1862-1910)
who is famous for writing stories with twisting and surprising endings, ready wit and
conciseness. The story in question, “Hearts and Hands” is not an exception. The reader can come
across a surprising jolt when the story ends with a sharp twist.
The story starts with the description of the setting and place of the story that are train and
Denver respectively. It is set in a train that is going from west to east coast. This story occurs
during the time of American westward expansion, when living in west was considered as an
adventure, in comparison to live in already established east; and the people started to visit the
west often in search of ‘wild entertainment’. We can see the personification of those people in
the character of Miss Fairchild who is “an experienced traveler” and who is also one of the three
main characters of the story.
After the description of the Ms. Fairchild as “pretty young woman” and of her “elegant
taste”, the author moves forward to describe the two young new comers who get the seat that is
facing the woman.
One of the two new comers is depicted as “handsome presence with a bold, frank
countenance and manner” who is Mr. Easton; while the other one is presented as a “ruffled,
glum-faced person”, who is “heavily built” and “roughly dressed”. The author describes the two
men as a “linked couple” for they are handcuffed together, that is Mr. Easton’s right hand is
bound to left hand of the glum-looking man.
After the description of the appearance of the three main characters of the story, the
writer proceeds the story by building the interaction among the characters. Miss Fairchild looks
at the new comers seated in front of her with a swift and disinterested glance, but suddenly her
face begins to have a “lovely smile” as she recognizes Mr. Easton as an old friend. Her
identification of Mr. Easton brings a slight embarrassment to him as he clasps Ms. Fairchild’s
held out hand with his left hand by showing his handcuffed right hand to Mr. Fairchild. Here,
Ms. Fairchild’s “lovely smile” changes to “bewildered horror”.
The other glum-looking person who reads the changing expression of Mr. Fairchild,
interrupts their conversation explains the handcuffs by saying that he has been sentenced to
seven years in jail for counterfeiting and Mr. Easton, a marshal, is taking him to the prison, and
that all the marshals handcuff themselves to their prisoners so they can’t get away.
When, during the conversation, Ms. Fairchild says that the people who run after money
are “stupid”, the glum faced man suddenly intervenes again by saying that he needs to smoke
and have a drink. So, the two “linked men” go to the smoker room.
At this point in the story, two more characters enter in the story. They are passengers and
have been listening to the whole conversation among the trio. One of them says that Mr. Easton
is an amazing person as he holds the post of marshal at a very young age. The other person
disagrees with the former by rhetorically asking, “… did you ever know an officer to handcuff a
prisoner to his right hand?” This is the moment in the story, when the reader comes to know that
it is actually Mr. Easton who is going to prison for counterfeiting and the glum-faced person is a
marshal in fact.
Here, the question arises in the mind of the reader, “Why does the glum looking person
save Mr. Easton from embarrassment in the story, twice? The answer to this question actually
explains the title of the story “Hearts and Hands” too. Although, Mr. Easton and glum-faced
person share a contrasting relation of a prisoner and a marshal, and their hands are bound to each
other, so do their hearts too. He saves his convict from embarrassing himself in front of an old
friend who seems to be fascinated by him. He senses the embarrassment of Mr. Easton, as their
hearts go alike and he can feel the heartbeat of his prisoner. The story presents a compassion of a
marshal to his convict.