Sincerely, Hannibal Heyes
July 10, 1877
Well, I guess things didn't go exactly the way I planned, huh? Guess it shows even a Hannibal Heyes plan can backfire sometimes. Next time you say you have a bad feeling about a job, I'll listen. I sure never suspected that engineer was a Bannerman man in disguise. Guess they must have been waiting for us on the train all along. It's the price of fame, I guess--we just got too successful.
I hope the gang all got off the train okay. I think they did, there aren't any here in jail with me, so that's good. There's just some drunks here, and a couple of Indians--the town sheriff keeps beating on them. He's a real bastard, that guy.
Funny, turns out the Bannerman man isn't a bad guy at all. Edwards, his name is, don't think we ever ran into him before. The sheriff was whaling on me, too, when he caught me on the train, and the Bannerman guy stopped him cold.
Now, Kid, I saw you riding after the train as it pulled away. You crazy fool. What do you think you could do against a sheriff, three deputies, and about ten Bannermen men? It's just my bad luck I got caught, nothing anyone can do about it.
I'm sending this letter to Silky's in the hope that you'll get it. His place isn't too far from here, and I figure that you'll need a place to hole up, and might go there. Listen to me, Kid. Don't do anything stupid. You're never going to get me out of here, so please, leave it alone. Don't get yourself killed trying.
PS This cell is so small, I can cross it in six steps. I think I've covered about 50 miles, I'm starting to wear a trench in the floor. Sheriff keeps hollering at me to stop pacing or he'll bash my head in. How a person can get any sleep in a cell like you do beats me.
July 17, 1877
I saw you at the trial--I recognized you right off. It was a pretty good disguise, I had to look real close. But I knew it was you under the beard, and that old hat. Thing is, that sheriff knows damn well what you look like, and he was watching you, too. He's a suspicious son of a bitch, and mean too. For God's sake, Kid, stay away.
July 21, 1877
I suppose you know already, the trial is over. I was surprised it dragged on so long. That Bannerman guy, Edwards, has been very decent to me, even got me a lawyer. And the lawyer was really good. Talk about a silver tongue. But even he couldn't get me off in the end. You probably read about the verdict in the paper--just like we always thought it would be. 20 years.
Well, Kid, I haven't seen you for a while. I'm glad you decided to take my advice for once. They're taking me to Yuma Prison tomorrow, and I don't guess I'll be able to send any letters out of there. Edwards has been willing to mail these for me, but in Yuma things'll be a bit different, I expect. Don't think they have mail service or visiting hours. So I guess this is goodbye.
I'm going to miss you, Kid, but I'm sure glad you're not here. Listen, there's one last thing I want to ask you to do--one last favor. Do it for me, would ya, partner?
Do anything you can to stay out of trouble. Get out of the bank and train robbing business, and find some other line of work. We'd talked about doing that, wish we'd done it sooner. And Kid, change your name, so no young fool of a would-be gunslinger will take a shot at you, to prove he's faster than Kid Curry. Don't let anyone get to you. Walk away, count to ten, turn the other cheek. Play the coward, play the fool. Live your life all the way through, like I wish I could live mine. I'll be an old man when I get out.
Well, I hope I see you again sometime, Kid. If I don't, remember me. I'll remember you.
July 23, 1877
Dear Mr. Edwards,
I just wanted to offer you my sincere apologies for the events of yesterday. You were very good to me when I was in jail, and I am grateful to you for that. I am extremely sorry about the bullet that my partner felt obliged to put into your leg, and I'm glad that luckily he didn't hit any vital areas. I read in the paper that you are expected to recover fully.
Please tell the sheriff, however, that we're not sorry at all about shooting him in the leg, or locking him in his own cell, or about the headache he's going to have when he wakes up. Maybe that will remind him not to beat on prisoners quite so hard.
Well, thanks again for your kindness, and I devoutly hope that we never meet again.
PS Luck had nothing to do with it. I aimed low and wide on purpose because you were decent to my partner. Tell that sheriff that next time I see him I'll aim higher.
They cased the building very carefully--Heyes insisted on that. If you were planning a robbery, it was necessary to be extremely thorough. Painstaking. Cautious. And well prepared, he told Kid. Especially if the robbery was your very first one.
Heyes peered down at the ramshackle old farmhouse from the branches of the tree they had climbed to get a better look at the windows and doors. The house was dark, no gleam of light showing from any of the large windows. It was a spooky old house, the white paint chipped and peeling, the sagging porch in need of repair; the closed shutters looked as though they hid secrets, or ghosts.
On a branch above him, Kid was also craning his neck at the house. "See any open windows?" Heyes whispered.
"Nope, all locked up tight," Kid muttered. He climbed a little higher, swinging from branch to branch easily--like most eleven-year-old boys, he was completely at home in a tree. Heyes stared at the shutters, trying to see how they were fastened. "We'll have to get closer," he said. "Those downstairs windows ought to be low enough for us to reach. Come on."
"What if he's got a dog?" inquired Kid. "Just thought of it."
"Well, he might," Heyes admitted. "You've heard all the stories about the old man. He's mean enough to have ten watchdogs."
They crept closer to the house, sneaking from bush to bush. The full moon cast eerie shadows in the overgrown, untended garden. Finally they were just beneath one of the windows. "Here," Kid hissed, picking up a rock. "Just bash it through the glass."
"Bash it through the glass, are you crazy?" demanded Heyes under his breath. "We gotta be more sneaky than that. We gotta use finesse." He studied the latch on the window. "Let me see..." he said thoughtfully. He fiddled with the latch for a long time, while Kid fidgeted and sighed. The stars moved slowly through the branches of the dead tree that loomed over the house.
"You sure you don't wanna use the rock, Heyes?" Kid asked for the fourteenth time. He was interrupted by a sharp snick and the window swung open. "Nice," said Kid admiringly.
Heyes grinned. "Finesse," he said. "Come on."
They clambered through the window into the dark room. Heyes looked around uneasily at the unfamiliar furniture, broken chairs and a huge old couch that looked like a crouching lion in the gloom. They were breaking into someone else's house. This was against the law. But there didn't seem to be any other option for a couple of scared and hungry fugitives from the orphanage. They had to have money or starve.
"Now what?" Heyes whispered.
"I don't know," answered Kid, looking around with wide eyes. "The old man is supposed to have a house full of gold coins, hidden away somewhere. I guess we gotta find them."
"Yeah, but where?" said Heyes. The huge room was full of cupboards and shelves. "Come on, let's try the desk." He opened one of the drawers, trying to slide it out silently, and wincing at the slight squeak it made. Nothing inside but papers. The next three drawers also held dull legal-looking documents.
Kid slid open the center drawer, and drew in his breath sharply. "Look!" he hissed.
"Hush!" said Heyes nervously, looking over his shoulder. Then he glanced down at the drawer. In it was a small pearl-handled revolver. "Wow," he said, his eyes wide.
Kid reached out a tentative hand and picked it up. "Put that back!" said Heyes sharply. "It's not ours."
"What are you, crazy?" said Kid indignantly. "We're here to rob the guy, for crying out loud!"
"Sorry," Heyes muttered. He pushed resolutely from his mind the thought of what his mother would have said, and watched Kid handle the gun lovingly. "Be careful with that thing!" he said.
Kid peered at the gun, handling it with sureness. "I think it's loaded."
"Come on, that won't do us any good. Put it back and let's look in some of those cupboards."
Kid slipped the gun into his pocket, and nodded. "Okay, you go that way and I'll look in the next room," he said, and went off into the shadows.
Heyes looked around at the room again. There was a tall dresser with shelves and cupboards against the wall, and he stood on tip-toe to reach up to the top shelf. His fingers felt nothing but dust. He checked the lower shelves, finding nothing but cups and plates. Then he bent to open the lower cabinet. He peered inside, straining his eyes in the dark.
Suddenly he was hurled into the wooden shelf as a tremendous blow struck his back. He shook his head dazedly, and scrambled to his feet, but another blow came out of the darkness and he crashed to the floor, his head spinning. A light flared, and he realized groggily that someone had struck a match and lit a candle.
"What do you think you're doing, you young varmint?" came a reedy, thin voice, and Heyes looked up to see a small, stooped figure bent over him, holding the biggest stick he'd ever seen.
"I was just ..." he began, trying to think of a plausible excuse for looking into someone's cupboards in the dead of night, but the stick descended again, catching him painfully on the knee, and he gave a yelp.
"You were just trying to rob me, you little bastard, I'll tan your hide right and proper," snarled the voice.
The stick was raised again. As it started down, another voice cut through the dark. "Hold it right there, mister, or I'll blow your brains out." The voice sounded so adult, so commanding, that Heyes blinked, expecting to see a grown man standing behind him. It was just the Kid, eleven years old, scrawny and thin, but the look in his narrowed eyes was convincing enough that the old man stopped his swing and stood goggling at the boy. Heyes scrambled to his feet and got well out of range of both gun and stick.
"All right," said Kid, holding the pistol with both hands. "You're right, we're here to rob you. Where's the gold?"
"Gold?" said the old man with a surprisingly pleasant smile. "What makes you think a poor old man like me has any gold?” He was not much taller than Heyes, a shrivelled figure in a white nightshirt and shabby slippers. Long, stringy gray hair fell from under his nightcap, and he blinked pale, watery eyes at them in the dim glow of the candle.
“Oh, come off it,” said Kid. “We’ve heard all the stories. You’ve got more money than Fort Knox in here.”
“Yeah,” said Heyes, rubbing his knee. “Cough it up and no one will get hurt.” The old man looked uneasily from one to the other. Kid pulled the hammer back on the gun, and closed one eye in careful aim.
“All right,” said the man hastily. “I give in. Don’t hurt an old man, boys. I see I can't outsmart two such daring outlaws as yourselves.”
“Damn right,” said Heyes, lifting his chin. “We've got you good, mister. Come up with the gold and be quick about it.”
“All right,” sighed the old man. “It’s right this way. In the kitchen.”
“The kitchen?” Heyes asked suspiciously.
“That's right, I keep it hidden in case of robbers just like you two fellows. Follow me.”
“Don’t worry,” said Kid. “We'll be right behind you.” As the old man turned away, Kid gave Heyes a wildly excited grin. Heyes grinned back. Things were going perfectly.
The old man shuffled off down a narrow hallway, his back bent, leaning on his stick. He muttered to himself as he slowly made his way down the corridor, carrying the candle, Heyes and Kid almost stepping on his heels in their excitement.
They entered a cavernous, dark room, and the old man lit a lamp. The light grew strong, pushing the shadows aside, and gleaming off copper pots and a huge iron stove. There were strings of onions and three great hams hanging from the rafters, and sacks of beans, flour and potatoes propped in corners.
“Well,” said Heyes, glancing around impatiently. “Where’s the money?”
“Oh, right over here, young sir,” said the old man, pulling out a heavy sack of flour. “I see I can't fool you. All I’ve got is right in here.”
“Where?” said Heyes, eyeing the bulging bag eagerly.
“Right in here,” said the man, opening the sack wide. “I keep the coins hidden in the flour, you see. Look right in here.” Heyes bent and peered inside the bag, and Kid leaned over to get a look, too.
“I don t see any thing but flour,” said Heyes.
“Let me see,” said the old man. “Ah, it’s just under here.” He reached his veined, trembling hand into the sack. “Here you go, young sir,” he said. “Take all you want!”
He flung a handful of flour in Heyes’s face. Heyes snorted and gasped as the flour went up his nose, and filled his mouth. The old man heaved a second handful with accuracy, full in Kid’s surprised face. Kid’s finger tightened on the trigger instinctively, but the shot whined harmlessly off the stove.
“Here, would you like some more?” inquired the old man. “Help yourselves!” He flung handful after handful in their faces. Heyes grasped his throat, choking; the fine meal filled his eyes and rubbing only made it worse. He could hear Kid close by, coughing and shouting words that had always been strictly forbidden at the orphanage.
“Why, gentlemen, I'm dreadfully sorry!” cried the old man. “I've gotten your clothes all floury. The least I can do is to dust your jackets for you.” He picked up his stick, and Heyes felt a tremendous blow on his back. He heard Kid shout with pain as another whack echoed in the dim kitchen. The old man flailed away, pounding the two stumbling figures again and again, making the flour fly from their clothes in clouds. “I’ll teach you young hooligans a lesson, free of charge,” he said. “Stand up straight and pay attention.”
Finally Heyes got enough flour out of his eyes to glimpse a pale gleam of moonlight. He shouted to Kid, and they floundered over to the big window. “Must you go so soon?” cried the old man as Heyes desperately shoved open the wooden shutters. “Well, I won’t keep you. I hope you boys have learned your lesson good. Come on back if you'd ever like any more of the same.” With one last blow, he turned away.
The two boys leaped out the window and landed on their stomachs in a patch of weedy, overgrown rosebushes. They took to their heels and fled out the gate and up the quiet, moonlit road. They ran, limping and sobbing for breath, till they couldn't run anymore. Grabbing Kid’s arm, Heyes pulled him off the road into the cover of some thick bushes. They both lay in the grass, panting and spitting out flour.
Finally Heyes’s breathing slowed and he rolled over. He lay looking up at the moon sailing silver overhead, glittering through the leaves above them. His shoulders ached, and his head and knee were sore. “You okay?” he said to Kid.
There was no answer. He looked over and saw that Kid was sitting with clenched fists. Blood dripped down his forehead from a gash over his eye. “That old coot,” he said fiercely, though his voice shook. “That old...we should go back and teach him a lesson, Heyes, teach him a lesson.”
Heyes sighed, and reached up, grabbing Kid’s shoulder and pulling him over backwards gently. They lay side by side in the soft grass.
“No, he taught us the lesson,” Heyes said after a long silence. “I think I've learned a lot tonight.”
“Learned not to rob folks, like he said?” asked Kid bitterly. “Learned how to stay out of trouble?”
“No,” said Heyes. “Learned how to do it better next time.”
He caught Kid’s eye and they finally both broke out laughing, the kind of laughter that comes when it hurts too much to cry.
Author’s note: Some readers may recognize this plot (and also that of my story “Gisborne”) as being lifted straight from the old English ballads of Robin Hood. After all, Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry are described as “latter-day Robin Hoods.” Sometimes I just totally run out of plot ideas, and then I turn to my old friends Robin and Little John.
This story is from the ancient ballad "Robin Hood Meets a Beggar-Man." It's a wonderful old tale of how Robin and Little John thought they were being clever, but were outsmarted by the wily old man who flung flour in their faces and then "dusted their jackets for them."