7. The Key to it All

by Sally Wheaton

April 1863

“But Pa. …” began Hannibal as his father placed the small wooden box in the wagon for the trip into town. His voice trailed off, as Alex smiled up at him and rolled his eyes as he climbed up beside him.

“Yes, I know, Hannibal, how is the locksmith going to open the box without the key?”

“Well, how is he, Pa?”

“Son, I know the question,” replied Alex patiently, picking up the reins and urging the horses forward. “But I’m afraid I don’t know too much about the answer – as I’ve already told you several times.”

He stole a quick glance at his son sitting next to him, noticing the frown born of frustration and impatience. Alex smiled gently to himself, because the truth was, he did understand what it felt like when you just knew you needed to know something and nobody around you understood how important it was. His smile deepened a little as he recognised part of himself in his son, though he was careful to make sure Hannibal didn’t see it. Not that he was likely to notice of course, he was far too distracted at the moment.

“We’ll be in town soon enough and you’ll see for yourself,” he tried, probably unsuccessfully he admitted, to calm Hannibal.

Hannibal didn’t even really hear the words, he was too deep in thought about the box and the small padlock keeping it closed. He knew his father couldn’t answer his questions, but he just couldn’t help keep asking in any case. He kind of knew he was badgering his father, in fact he had a sneaky suspicion that the trip into town had been brought forward a day for that very reason and he was feeling more than a little smug about that.


It had all started three days ago when his father had asked Louisa if she’d seen the key to the small wooden box he kept his “papers” in. Hannibal had no idea exactly what these papers were, but he understood that they were important and had to be kept safe. Alex hadn’t been too pleased at all when the key had gone missing, he’d even suggested to Louisa that she keep a better eye on Hannibal’s younger brothers, half-brothers he corrected himself automatically. Hannibal didn’t think his father really thought Samuel or David had taken the key, he had just said it out of frustration. Well, Hannibal could understand that.

What had set his mind whirling though, was his father’s comment that he’d have to take the box into town to the locksmith, and get him to open the padlock for him.

“Does the locksmith have a key for it?” Hannibal had asked.

“No,” his father had replied, still distracted by the search for the key. “But he’ll be able to pick the lock.”

“Pick the lock?” Hannibal had repeated, puzzled.

“With a lock pick,” replied Alex. “He can open any lock with a lock pick.”

“Any lock?” asked Hannibal, wide-eyed.

“Uh-huh,” nodded Alex, peering on to the shelf in the kitchen, lifting everything up to look underneath it.

“Any lock, like any lock anywhere?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Alex slammed the pile of books back onto the shelf. “Louisa!” he called. “Are you sure you haven’t seen it?”

Hannibal stared after his father as he headed back to the barn to search again. This was something new. He hadn’t known it was possible to open a lock without a key. He’d never heard anything about this before. Why had no one mentioned it before? What was the point of a key if you could open it without one? How did you do it anyway? When he said any lock, what exactly did he mean? Any padlock? Or any lock at all? Why had no one told him this before? His head was swimming with questions as his mind raced from one possibility to another. If it were possible to open a lock without the key, then, then …, then … he could hardly keep up with his own thoughts, hardly dared even think about it.


Once in town, Hannibal had become more animated and had insisted that the locksmith was their first stop. Now he stood leaning on the counter, completely still, his eyes transfixed as he watched the locksmith insert what looked like a small hairpin into the lock and wiggle it around. On the ride into town, he’d been warned by his father not to disturb Mr Ward, the locksmith, as he worked and not to ask questions. He remembered his father’s words and he tried not to, he really did, but how could he help it?

“What does that do?” he blurted out, almost surprising himself with the question. He hadn’t intended to ask it, it just sort of came out. He glanced briefly at his father who looked straight back at him, his message quite clear. Quickly, Hannibal looked away and back at the padlock.

“It lifts the pins,” Harry Ward smiled at him, enjoying the boy’s interest.

“What are the pins?” Hannibal asked automatically.

“Hannibal, that’s enough now, Mr Ward needs to concentrate.”

“Sorry, Mr Ward” replied Hannibal reluctantly. He had hoped Mr Ward would explain some of this to him.

“It’s OK,” Mr Ward replied. “This is just a small padlock, it’s a very simple process. Some of the bigger locks take more time and concentration.”

As he spoke, he kept the “hairpin” in the lock and inserted another tool, which had a small L-shape at the top.

“What’s that?” Hannibal slammed his mouth shut the moment the words came out. He knew he shouldn’t disobey his father, he really didn’t mean to, but didn’t his father understand? He needed to know this.

“This is the lock pick,” Mr Ward replied and then, glancing at the boy and sensing the next question which he was trying very hard not to ask, he added helpfully “It’s used to turn the lock, just how you’d turn the key.”

Hannibal smiled as he watched Mr Ward turn the lock pick and slide open the padlock and hand it across to Alex, together with the box.

Hannibal managed to remain silent for the next few minutes as his father took care of business and as they walked out into the sunshine, Hannibal turned to his father.

“Pa, …” he began earnestly, but got no further.

“No,” Alex interrupted quickly and firmly.


“No.” It was said even more definitely and firmly than before.

“No what?”

“No, you can’t have a lock pick.”

“But Pa, … “

“No.” This time it was said in that voice that you didn’t argue with. Hannibal sighed and decided it might be better to pursue this later.

For now, he decided, it couldn’t hurt to be helpful, so he offered to run some of the other errands. Alex decided to let him, and smiled as he watched him run across the street. Sometimes Hannibal didn’t realise just how transparent he was to his father. Alex frowned as a realisation hit him. Surely, he hadn’t been that transparent to his own father when he’d tried those same tactics, had he? No, he decided, he couldn’t possibly have been.


After helping his father unload the supplies back at the farm, Hannibal darted up to the quiet of his room and sat himself on his bed. The trip to town had given him a lot to think about. If you could open a lock without a key, then you could get into anything! This might be the most exciting discovery he’d ever made, well certainly since that time when they’d attempted to fire Jed out of a cannon – that had been quite exciting too. But this, this – he had the feeling this was important.

You could get into all sorts of locked boxes – and maybe even drawers. His mind started on a list and then came to a halt when he thought of the drawer in Miss Field’s desk at the school. That threw up any number of possibilities. She always locked the drawer when she wasn’t there and if he could get into it after school …. He mentally shook himself. That wouldn’t work of course. The door to the schoolhouse would be locked.

His eyes grew wide. Would it work for locks on doors too? His mouth fell open as he stared straight ahead. Could it? Could you open doors without a key? Mr Ward had mentioned bigger locks. He wriggled impatiently, unable to contain his excitement any longer.

He jumped off the bed and flew through the house and out of the door, heading for the barn. He had to ask his father more about this. No! Wait! He stopped. First he had to tell Jed!


It was less than an hour later when Hannibal sat with Jed behind the Curry barn, out of sight of the rest of the family. He had hardly been able to sit still as he told Jed all that had happened and what he’d learnt. Jed’s eyes had widened in amazement at what he heard as Hannibal continued with the tale, embellishing a little wherever he could.

“Jed, just think what this means!” Hannibal finished.

Jed stared at him in awe. “Yep, if you lose your key, you can still open the box.”

Hannibal nodded at him, his own eyes widening too. “Or you can get into boxes you’ve never had a key for!”

Jed frowned slightly, confused. “Why would you have a box you’d never had a key for, Han?”

Hannibal sighed. “Not your box, someone else’s box!”

A smile lit up Jed’s face. “Oh yeah!” he laughed. “So you can open other people’s boxes!”

“Exactly!” Hannibal bit his lower lip, his eyebrows raised, eyes shining brightly as he nodded excitedly.

The smile left Jed’s face and was replaced by a frown. “Don’t sound right to me, Han.”

Hannibal’s face fell. “Why?” he asked.

“Other people’s boxes,” replied Jed seriously. “Don’t seem right to go into their things.”

Hannibal slumped dejectedly. “Yeah, you’re right.”

There was a short silence, then Hannibal’s face lit up once more. “Course, I aint gonna actually do it Jed, just exciting to know that ya can!”


Jed’s words had played on Hannibal’s mind all the way home. Maybe he was right. He supposed it would count as breaking in, especially if you could do it to a door. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing they’d teach you in school. It was a shame, he thought, that they didn’t teach you the really useful stuff or the really exciting stuff in school. You just had to learn that yourself he supposed.

It had made him feel uncomfortable when Jed had said about getting into other people’s things and it had occurred to him, that you could use it to steal things. And of course, he knew stealing wasn’t right, his father had definitely told him that, and his mother, and Mrs Curry, and he’d been told it at school as well, not to mention at church – over and over. Maybe even his stepmother had told him too, though he couldn’t remember that for sure.

He had no intention of stealing anything, but he really did want to know how to open a lock. He really, really did. Was that wrong? Was it wrong to want to learn how to do it? He didn’t think so, not if you didn’t intend to steal anything. It was just that, well, just that he wanted to be able to open things and look inside. He couldn’t help himself. He just always wanted to know what was inside something, especially if it was locked. Definitely especially if it was locked. It wouldn’t be wrong to look – would it? Well anyway, it couldn’t be wrong to know how to do it, just in case he ever lost a key of course.


Half an hour later, he was sitting cross-legged in the corner of the barn. His father was out working in the fields and his stepmother was busy with the little ones and he knew no one would come looking for him for a while. He’d managed to find one of his stepmother’s hairpins and after a good search around the barn, he’d found something amongst his father’s tools which looked a little like a lock pick. Well, only a little, he admitted. In fact, hardly at all really, but it was all he could find so it would have to do. In the corner of the barn was a big wooden chest, full of his father’s worktools and which he kept locked with a small padlock. It was the perfect place to learn he figured, after all there was nothing inside that he’d want to steal.

He inserted the hairpin into the keyhole and wiggled it about a bit and then pushed the ‘lock pick’ in and turned it. Nothing noticeable happened. He pulled them out and tried to open the padlock. It was still locked. He smiled to himself and scooted a little closer, peering into the lock.

This was even better than he’d hoped. He’d thought it would be easy, that he’d just open the chest up and look inside. But it had turned into something more than that, it had turned into a challenge. And if there was one thing Hannibal Heyes loved, it was a challenge.

He settled down intently to work on the problem.


He spent the next three days working on it whenever he could and when he wasn’t working on it, he was thinking about it, trying to figure out the problem. The things he had to do every day, like his chores and school, and mundane things like eating and sleeping, started to become an annoyance to him. His mind was filled with the problem of the lock and he found himself rushing through the things he had to do so that he could get back to it.

It wasn’t so much of a problem at home. His stepmother was distracted herself by the younger children and hardly had time to notice where he was and what he was doing. Mrs Curry had quizzed him if all was well when he’d seemed less keen than usual to spend time at the Curry house, but he’d quickly come up with a story about having extra chores to do and not wanting to worry his father, which she’d readily accepted. Jed had looked at him quizzically when he’d said that, no doubt wondering why he hadn’t mentioned any of that to him and Hannibal had felt guilty when he saw his friend’s face.

Miss Field had been more difficult to deal with. She’d always been a little harder to convince with his stories than either his stepmother or Mrs Curry, in fact she was almost as good at spotting his “stories” as his father. He was usually a very attentive student, enjoying his schoolwork and classes immensely, but the last couple of days she had caught him not paying attention on several occasions, clearly distracted by something.

Yesterday, he’d even skipped half of his breakfast. During the night, he’d come up with a new idea which he was keen to try and while Louisa had been busy around the kitchen, he’d only eaten one biscuit and then darted out to the barn to put his idea into practice.

As far as he could work out, there was something inside the lock which he could move if he positioned the hairpin correctly. He assumed these were the pins which Mr Ward had spoken of. He figured that usually the key did this part.

It was a bit hit and miss as it was difficult to feel them inside the lock. You had to keep your hands very still and move very slowly or you could easily miss them. As the days progressed, however, he’d begun to get a “feel” of where the pins were and how to position the hairpin to lift them.

Once he had the pins lifted, he had to use the lock pick to turn the lock, just as Mr Ward had told him. This was tricky because he’d worked out that he also had to keep the hairpin in the same position without moving it. At first, he’d felt like he needed six hands to do everything all at the same time and he felt like a juggler as he kept dropping the hair pin and lock pick on the floor, time after time after time, usually just when he’d got them positioned correctly. When he dropped them, it would then take an age to get them positioned correctly again. Sometimes it seemed impossible, but the more he struggled, the more determined he became.


On the fourth day of his battle with the padlock, he had managed to sneak into the barn earlier than usual. He’d rushed through his chores as quickly as he could and skipped a bit on his homework – he’d have to come up with a story for Miss Field tomorrow.

He sat down once again in front of the chest and picked up the padlock. His fingers moved over it carefully, looking at it, admiring it, wondering how such a simple thing could have become such a puzzle. He took the hairpin and slotted it into the lock, then wriggled it about very gently. His fingers were becoming sensitive to the slightest movement within the lock, and he felt, almost sensed, when the hairpin was in the right place. He held it perfectly still with his left hand, picked up the lock pick with his right and inserted it carefully but steadily, without disturbing the hairpin. Gently he turned the lock pick – and this time his eyes widened in surprise as it moved.

He kept turning it until he felt it click, just like turning the key. As he removed the hairpin and lock pick, his hands started to tremble in anticipation. Had it opened? Had he really done what he thought he had just done? Slowly, he pulled at the padlock and a huge smile lit up his face as it opened. He held it up in front of him, his body fidgeting with the excitement. He put the padlock down and opened the chest to take a peek at the tools he knew his father kept inside.

Except it wasn’t tools he found. His face creased into a puzzled frown as he stared into the chest. Why were there so many? Why did his father keep them here locked in the barn? He felt a sense of unease and looked around the barn, but there was nobody there. Quickly, he closed the lid, replaced the padlock and ran for the familiarity of the house.


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