2. The Sucker

by Calico

“Hannibal? Hannibal Heyes! Sheesh! Long time, no see!”

My head swivels from the window, where I’m watching telegraph poles whip past. I see a much work-roughened, though well-scrubbed, hand, gingered all over with freckles stretch towards me. Above it, grins the crooked smile of George Washington (and, boy, did we tease him about the Washington!) Elliot. Four – or is it five – years older, a good half foot taller and not near as scrawny, but, I’d know him anywhere.

I wipe the shock of having my name hollered out for the whole carriage to hear off my face and manage a return smile as I take the offered hand. My eyes flash an apology at Jim Plummer. What with me being the new boy in the gang and all, the last thing I want is to have anything spoil what has so far been a perfectly smooth reconnoitre for next week’s job.

NEXT week this train’ll carry a $30,000 dollar payroll. Leastways, it will until it reaches a spot about forty miles back. A spot Plummer and I marked out – as the best out of two places we had in mind – on the outward journey. Plenty of cover. A bend where the driver has to slow. Shallow river not far off where a trail could be lost. Perfect. We know the routine of the staff and timings of the station stops. Got us a fair idea of the likely number and type of passengers. Plummer says armed robbery tends to be exciting enough without extra surprises. The more surprises, the more twitchy everyone gets – and twitchy and guns don’t mix well. I reckon there’s a lotta truth in there.

I was real pleased when Plummer chose me to help finish the planning. Course I knew he’d picked the right man. If Buck, Frank, Longville and the rest all had twin brothers twice as smart, ME fast asleep would still be smarter than the whole dozen of them wide awake. I was just glad Plummer saw that too.

Still, me being recognised hardly matters. ‘Hannibal Heyes’ might be wanted for a few petty misdemeanours in a few petty towns but, from the complete indifference of the passengers around us, I guess my name registered with absolutely no one.

Plummer’s eyes meet mine with an almost imperceptible ‘no problem’ shrug. He has summed up George with a swift searching glance through the plain glass spectacles he wears along with his ‘respectable’ suit to look as unlike the leader of an outlaw gang as he can. He sees unaffected friendly pleasure at meeting an old acquaintance, no connection to the law, no particular curiousity about my companion, no one particularly bright (sorry George). No threat at all.

“Leonard M Stodhart,” Plummer holds out his hand. He always goes for fancy aliases. He reckons they sound less suspicious than something along the lines of ‘John Smith’. Who would make up an alias like ‘Leonard M Stodhart’? “Why don’t you sit down and visit with Heyes a while?” He indicates the empty seat, gives a friendly smile. “How do you two boys know each other?”

“Oh, Hannibal and me both ended up in the same Home when we lost our folks in the War.”

Plummer makes a sympathetic noise.

“Sheesh, Hannibal! Do you remember how cold that dormitory used to get winter nights? D’you remember havin’ to crack the ice on…”

George always did talk too much. He was okay though. I knew that ever since the time he kept quiet it was me filched the cigars from the Superintendant’s office. Not that anyone meant to set a fire in the old storehouse. Sheesh, no. We just had to make a run for it one night and must have left a butt burning. George wouldn’t lie about knowing, he goes red as his own hair when he lies, so maybe he’s learnt not to even try. But, he took a whipping rather than snitch. He’s okay.

Plummer keeps him going with the odd ‘uh huh?’ and question. When one of the guards from the car holding the safe – not that the contents are much worth guarding THIS week – strolls past, stretching his legs, I realise why. Last time I kept a pretty good poker face, but it wouldn’t have come close to the look of a man having his ear yakked off I’m managing without even trying now. Talkative George, radiating noisy innocence, is perfect cover.

“What are you doing these days, George?” I ask to stem the flow of reminiscence. Sure I’ve a few good memories of the stunts we pulled at Valparaiso. But…

“Guess what? When you and Jed ran off, I got sent out to the place you were due to go fill. I’m still there – you remember, Bailey’s lumber mill, out in Frost Falls.” George interrupts himself, turns to Plummer. “Y’see, Sir, whenever the Home got a chance to place one of the older boys with anyone respectable who’d teach him a trade, they were real keen to take it…”

Sure they were! And no one was too fussy over what counted as a ‘trade’. No wonder; the Home took the first two years wages – such as they were.

I blink at myself. That was not out loud, but boy, was it bitter! How old AM I? It’s one thing thinking that way at fifteen. I sure know better now how hard it is to come by a decent job. I know better, too, how much it cost to feed, clothe, boot and bed all those youngsters whose numbers never stopped growing as the war dragged to a close. All our muttered calculations about how much the staff must be making out of us were – well – kinda naïve.

“…Hard work, but I kinda enjoy it…not much about wood construction I don’t know …y’see for sturdiness what you need is…”

Plummer raises a ‘Can you believe it?’ eyebrow at George’s chirpiness. I know what he means. ‘Hard work? I’ll bet it is. Real hard on the back. Real long hours. We know a better way, huh, Heyes?’

I guess I agree. I must do, mustn’t I? And – me and Jim Plummer are a whole heap smarter’n George Washington Elliot. So, we must be right.

“…folks settlin’ all round. More buildin’ every month. So, a couple of years back, when Mister Bailey needed an extra hand I put in a word for Seth…you remember Seth Bremmer?”

He’s stopped. I realise he’s waiting for an answer. I’m still fitting it together in my head that George – beaming all over his face and happy as a sand-boy – is basically telling me what I’d have been doing the past few years if we hadn’t run.

“Huh?”

“Seth Bremmer. You remember him?”

“Seth? Sure. Dark hair. Cowlick that wouldn’t lie flat. Once traded me a whole week of laundry duty for a loan of my ‘Three Musketeers’. You and him arrived the same day…”

“Yeah. We got to be kinda inseparable. Just like you an’ Jed Curry, huh? We were pretty cut up when I got sent all the way out to Frost Falls leavin’ him behind.”

A pause. George clears his throat before he speaks again.

“We all figured that must be why you two ran. You an’ Jed. ‘Cos you’d maybe made some kinda pact not to let ’em split you up.”

Another pause. I give a twitch of the shoulders which George can interpret as ‘uh huh’ if he chooses. So can you – if you choose.

“Me an’ Seth, we thought about it. But…” Pause. “You an’ Jed were always more game for …” Pause. His voice drops. “Guess we were too scared.”

He flashes a quick glance at me – to see if I think they were yellow.

I don’t.

I hope that shows.

I reckon it does, ‘cos when George carries on his voice is cheerful again.

“But, hey! We reckoned it wasn’t as if we had to lose touch. We wrote. Not as if there ain’t a post service, huh? When he got placed out, it was fifty miles off, but we’d arrange the odd visit. Then, like I say – a job came up at the yard and I put in a word with Mister Bailey…”

My attention wanders. I’m remembering. Running. Those first few nights. George and Seth were right to be scared.

“…STILL likes nothing better than to have his nose stuck in a book…don’t reckon I ever set foot in the library, but Seth…he’s been talkin’ to Mister Bailey about some stuff he’s been readin’ ’bout layout plannin’…surprising what extra space you can make if you spend time up front on a floor plan…”

Another look flashes from Plummer. I’ve been known to spend time studying floor plans too – though, I doubt for the same reasons!

“…And I was reckoning we oughta – what’s the word – diversificate…”

Plummer coughs to cover a laugh. George has what you might call quite a drawl – and hearing him drag out the vowels as he mispronounces is, I suppose, funny.

“…and offer a glazin’ service too. You see, so many folk now are fitting glass… best wood for standing up to hard weather…cherry for a contrast… real pretty…so, how is Jed?”

Silence. He’s waiting for an answer again. The question sinks in.

“Jed? Oh he’s fine. You know Jed. So,” I smile encouragingly at George, “…do you ever hear anything of…?” I suspect the smile does not reach my eyes.

Why did I lie? Of course, it may not be a lie. Jed may be fine for all I know. I haven’t seen him for years.

Years.

And we ran away because …

And sitting opposite me, George works side by side with his old friend every day.

Makes you think, huh?

“…the business side too. Mister Bailey has us goin’ to classes at the Institute two evenings a week to learn book-keepin’ an’ accounts…wish I had your head for figurin’ Hannibal, but I’m getting it…managin’ to save…next year we plan to buy a five percent share of the business … a small start, but Mister Bailey’s gonna double it…”

I look over. Again with the eyebrow twitch from Plummer. I guess he thinks ten percent of a small-town lumber yard will look fairly sick beside my share from next week’s job. I guess it will.

I guess.

Still…

Nah. It will.

“…He says he’s gonna call it a wedding present…” George finally shuts up. His tongue has run away with him.

“Hey!” I deliver a joshing punch on the arm to the boy from my past who is turning slowly scarlet, the colour starting at the edge of his collar and climbing. “Are you…?”

George shuffles his feet, even the tips of his ears now burn crimson. His eyes come up. “Beth is …She’s just…She’s…Beth’s…” Clearly this sentence is never going to reach any kind of conclusion. He fumbles inside his jacket. “Wouldya like to see her photograph?”

Now, you already know my schooling was cut short – but I know enough to realise that is dang close to being one of those rhetorical questions. I am seeing Beth’s photograph before George has finished speaking.

Beth’s not exactly a looker, but…

This time, I deliberately do not meet the faintly mocking expression in Plummer’s eyes. Maybe it’s sappy, but I do not feel the slightest urge to join him in making silent fun of George’s fiancée.

“She looks a real nice girl,” I say, quietly. I reckon Plummer’s impressed how sincere I sound. He shouldn’t be. I’m speaking the truth.

—oooOOOooo—

“Hey, Heyes!”

I pause in my shaving, glance over at Buck thumping heavily down on his bed in the cluttered bunkhouse the gang shares at the hideout. He’s dragging off his boots and poking at a sore spot on his toe through a hole in his reeking sock.

“Jim says you saw someone real dumb from your past today! A real sucker!”

Well! If Buck has any intellectual capabilities giving him the right to pass judgement on other folks’ brains, all I can say is – he keeps ’em dang well hidden!

I shrug, turn back to the mirror.

The doubts which have eaten at me all afternoon, suddenly crystallise into a question.

Did I see someone real dumb from my past today?

As I stare hard at my reflection, a tiny inner voice says, “Yup. You sure did.”

I shake my head at that thought, dip to rinse off the foam.

Nah!

Pre-job nerves. That’s all this is. Once next week’s over I’ll have me a twelfth share of $30,000 dollars. A stake a man could do anything with!

He wouldn’t have to blow it on – well – women, whiskey and poker. Unless he chose.

A man wouldn’t have to stick to outlawing if he didn’t choose.

He could quit. Quit before he got a price on his head. If he chose.

He could find some – some congenial honest trade. Settle down. If he chose.

Maybe.

Maybe look up old friends.

Well – maybe.

Yeah, I’ve fallen on my feet joining Plummer.

Next week – I dimple at myself in the glass, square my shoulders – next week I’ll see who made the smart choices and who’s the sucker!

THE END

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