The door slammed open, and a short cowboy strutted into the cabin. Striding like a puffed-up bantam rooster, the compact figure bustled about the shabby room. Muddy-green eyes peered from a pale face topped with raven hair slicked back with grease. He was dressed all in black and had silver studs decorating his gun belt. A holster tied securely to his thigh bulged with a shiny new six-shooter.
“Artie,” bellowed the dark clad man. He planted both hands on his hips. “Where are you, old man? We got company.”
The door creaked and the barrel of a Smith and Wesson revolver pushed inside. A man of average height and slim build followed the gun into the cabin. His brown hair was receding at the crown and temples. As if to make amends for the hair abandoning the top of his head, gray-flecked sideburns joined forces under his nose to create a bushy mustache. He checked to see if the flashy cowboy was alone, then holstered his weapon and shut the door.
“Who ya’ calling ‘old man,’ Hank? I ain’t old!” huffed the balding man. “You being wet behind the ears don’t make me old.” Artie was in his mid-forties and still fit and strong. “You said somethin’ about company. You found fellas to help with the job? Where they at?”
Before he could answer, they were interrupted by a soft knock. Hank jerked the door open. Two gangly adolescents stood wiping their feet on the wooden steps. The taller, dark-haired boy removed his scruffy hat and nudged his smaller companion with his elbow. The younger boy quickly snatched his battered cap from his head revealing dirty blond curls. The shrewd eyes of the darker boy measured Artie and Hank with a weariness that aged him by decades.
“Come on in, boys,” invited Hank with a hand flourish and a mocking bow.
The blond boy tensed, and his mouth pulled into a hard line. “You makin’ sport of us, Mr. Jessup?” His hand hovered near the small of his back where an old and worn Colt revolver was jammed in his waistband.
The older boy placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Blue eyes flickered to brown, and a dark head barely shook. “It’s all right, Jed. Hank wouldn’t make fun of us. He wants us to do a job for him.”
“What are you thinkin’, Hank,” Artie exploded. “These are boys, not men!”
“I ain’t a boy,” objected Jed.
Hank stepped between the adolescent pair and his older partner. “Everyone settle down. Come on in.” He motioned toward a table with four chairs. “Let’s all sit and get to know each other.”
Artie frowned. The dark-haired boy shrugged and walked inside. The smaller one trailed behind.
“Jed, Heyes, this here’s my partner, Artie Gorman,” began Hank Jessup. “Artie, I want you to meet Jed Curry and Hannibal Heyes.”
Artie’s eyebrows scaled his tall forehead. “Hannibal?” he scoffed.
“Well, yeah—that’s why I’m called Heyes.”
He extended his hand and offered a half-smile to the older man. Artie grasped it firmly and returned the smile. Then he offered his hand to the blond boy. Jed ignored the gesture.
“Howdy, Jed. I’m glad to meet ya’, son.”
“I ain’t your son, and I ain’t a boy.”
“How old are ya’, Jed?” Artie’s tone was gentle.
“Sixteen,” he asserted.
Artie looked his question at Heyes.
Jed hung his head. “Fifteen. Nearly.”
Artie checked with Heyes again who nodded once. “Jed ain’t as young as he looks,” he added.
Jed’s chin rose, and his blue eyes met the gaze of the older man and held it with an unwavering calm.
Artie nodded. “I see what ya’ mean,” he muttered.
A smile spread across Hank’s face. He turned a chair around and straddled it. The others pulled out chairs and sat. “Don’t ya’ see, Art? The kid’s looks is the beauty of it. He could pass for twelve easy, maybe eleven. And he handles a gun real good. He showed me. His aim is dead accurate even with that old relic he’s got stuffed in his pants. He’s quick too.” Hank slammed the tabletop with his palm in exuberance. “Lordy, but it’s perfect! We been lookin’ for some way to get past that suspicious guard and get the drop on the bank manager. Who’s gonna be eyeing the kid here?”
“What business would a rough boy have in the bank?” challenged Artie.
“Who cares?” Hank dismissed his partner’s concern. “We’ll get him some new clothes, so he don’t look so rough. He’ll need something kinda loose anyway. That way the revolver won’t show. I promised him my old Remington as part of his payment for helping with the job.”
“He could be delivering a telegram,” Heyes interjected.
“What?” snapped Hank.
“To get Jed into the bank and into the manager’s office. He could say he’s delivering a special telegram. Needs to go directly to the manager. It should work.”
Hank’s frown pulled his heavy black eyebrows together. He paused a moment, before he relaxed and slapped Heyes on the shoulder. “See, Artie,” he smiled. “Smart, too. These boys are gonna work out just fine.”
Artie frowned. He studied Jed and then Heyes. “You boys ever done any robbing before?”
“This’ll be our first bank, but yeah, we’ve robbed folks,” Heyes answered. “Stores mostly, and we helped out on a stagecoach robbery near Dodge City.” He looked at his friend, and his expression softened. “That’s when Jed got his six-shooter. You don’t need to worry about us, Mr. Gorman. Me and Jed might be young, but we ain’t greenhorns at this business.”
“Well son, if we’re gonna be robbing banks together, you’d best start calling me Artie.” He turned and faced Jed. “You too, kid.” At the term ‘kid’ Jed winced, but Artie failed to notice.
The sun was low in the afternoon sky, slanting rays down the dusty street. Jed stopped on the bottom step of the bank entrance and wiped both palms against his new brown trousers. A dark smudge showed where the sweat rubbed from his hands onto the fabric. He pulled his right fist back quickly when he grazed his new revolver secured in a holster under his pants. Drawing a steadying breath, he pulled the envelope from his shirt pocket and marched up the stairs.
The air was cooler in the bank. An alert guard stood to the left across from the teller stations. This late in the day, only one teller was still working. A customer stood at the window. Jed turned to the guard.
“I need to see the manager, sir. I got a real important telegram for him.” He held up the envelope.
The man started to take it. Jed snatched it out of reach.
“I can deliver that for you,” soothed the helpful guard.
“No, sir. I got promised four bits to take it direct to the manager and place it in his hands. Thanks for wantin’ to help, but I need to do this myself.”
The guard chuckled and pointed to an open door down a hall to the right. “Mr. Stewart is in his office over there, son. Go ahead and take him the message.”
Jed tipped his cap to the guard. “Thanks awfully, sir. I’m obliged to ya’.”
Before he entered the manager’s office, Jed placed the envelope in his left hand and slipped the right into his pocket. He grasped the handle of the six-shooter through a hole cut in the fabric. His blue eyes slid sideways to watch the front door open and the sunlight follow Heyes and Artie inside. They paused and glanced around before walking to the teller window. Hank came in as the last customer left.
Jed stepped into Mr. Stewart’s office and drew his gun. The grey-haired gentleman looked up from the ledger on his desk and replaced his spectacles. Jed held the pistol steady, and the man’s eyes grew wide.
“Don’t say nothin’ and place your hands up in the air real slow.”
Stewart did as he was told.
“That’s real good, mister. Now stand up and step back from your desk.”
“Young man, you’ll never get away with this. You really don’t want to do this.” Stewart’s voice was firm and low.
Jed didn’t reply.
“Kid,” called a voice from the other room. It sounded like Hank. “Have you got the drop on him?”
“Yeah, we’re comin’. Time to move, Mr. Stewart. Let’s go.” Jed motioned with the barrel of his weapon, and the manager eased out from behind the desk.
When they entered the main room, Heyes was busy stuffing money from drawers behind the counter into a canvas bag. Artie held a gun on bank employees who were lying facedown on the floor. Hank was tying up the guard and stuffing a gag in his mouth. When he finished with the guard, he bolted the front door and joined Artie. They tied up the people lying on the ground.
“All right, Mr. Stewart—Mr. Almighty Bank Manager,” taunted Hank still pointing a gun at the bank’s employees. “We have a little job for ya’. While the kid there keeps his gun on ya’, walk on over and open up that safe. As long as you do as you’re told, my young friend won’t start shootin’ off pieces of ya’. And don’t you be thinkin’ he won’t do it. He’s small, but he’s mighty handy with that gun.”
The bank manager stared directly into Jed’s blue eyes. “You really don’t want to do this, son,” he said earnestly.
“Just keep quiet and do what my friend over there says,” Jed responded without emotion. Using the weapon, he urged the manager toward the safe.
After only a few steps, Stewart stopped walking. “No. I won’t do it. Go ahead and shoot me if you’re of a mind to, but you won’t get the money in that safe. Take what you got from the teller drawers and go.”
Hank’s smile broadened slowly and dangerously. “Shoot him, kid. Take out a knee or a foot. Leave him his hands to work the safe.”
Jed stalled. He looked for Heyes’ reassuring brown eyes and found them beside him. “Wha…” Jed began, and then he fell silent.
“Shoot ‘em, kid! Do it now!” yelled Hank. His face flushed red.
Heyes stepped between Hank and Jed. “Calm down,” he suggested quietly. “Firing a weapon will just bring the sheriff in here.” His reasonable tone inflamed Hank’s anger.
“Get outta my way, Heyes,” he growled. “Kid, if you’re too yella bellied to shoot that jack-ass bank manager, I’ll do it.”
Before Hank could act on his threat, Heyes whirled around and smashed the handle of his gun behind the bank manager’s ear. The grey-haired man sank to the ground.
“Now you’ve done it, Heyes,” shouted Jessup. “Stewart can’t open the safe when he’s unconscious. I shoulda known two green pups like you—"
“Shut up, Hank,” Artie cut him off. “The boys are right. Now let’s get outta here before the sheriff shows up.”
The four of them hurried down the hall to the back alley where the horses waited.
The whole cabin shook when Hank slammed through the doorway. Artie, Heyes and Jed sat at the table counting the money from the canvas bag.
“How much?” Hank spat.
“Six-hundred eighty-nine dollars,” Artie answered. “Coulda been a lot worse.”
“Coulda been worse, huh? How?”
“We could be sitting in jail with a murder charge over our heads,” Heyes replied.
Hank decked him with a fist to the jaw.
“Knock it off, Hank,” ordered Artie.
Gorman reached down and helped him stand. Heyes rubbed his jaw and exchanged a look with Jed.
“Hitting Heyes isn’t going to make you right,” continued Artie. “Stewart wasn’t about to open that safe and firing a shot was just gonna bring the law into it. This way we got away clean with nearly $700. Stop all this fussin’ and let’s divide up what we got.”
Hank stood next to the table scowling and breathing hard. He resembled a small bull about to charge.
Artie snorted in disgust and brushed past him. “I’m going to get the whiskey,” he muttered on his way to the back room.
Heyes pulled out a chair. Jed glared daggers at Hank. He flicked his gaze to Heyes who tilted his head toward a seat. Jed frowned, but sucked in a deep breath and started to sit.
Hank drew his revolver and aimed it at Jed. “Stay where you are, kid,” he barked. “Heyes, you stand up!” He motioned with his weapon. “You—kid—place your gun on the table using your left hand. You too, Heyes.”
Heyes laid his gun carefully on the table.
“Do as I say,” Jessup screamed at the younger boy.
Jed set his mouth in a grim line and slowly laid his weapon on the table.
Hank eased back, but continued to aim his gun at them.
“Now—you each got a new set of clothes and a horse from this robbery. Take ten dollars a piece out of the haul, and git!”
“Wait a minute,” objected Heyes. “Me and Jed are supposed to split one quarter of the money. You can’t give us just ten dollars. We stole nearly $700!”
“We agreed to give you one quarter of the haul from the safe. You didn’t get the safe open. You don’t get a quarter of the piddling $700 we got from the drawers. This is all his fault.” He indicated Jed. “So you’re both lucky I’m not paying you in bullets.” He cocked the gun. “Get out before I change my mind!”
Artie stepped out of the back room and jabbed the barrel of his gun into Jessup’s neck. “That’s enough, Hank,” he warned coldly. “We aren’t cheating these kids. They did their part, and it’s not their fault we didn’t get the safe open. Now put down your gun.”
Hank lunged forward and upended the table. Jed staggered backwards when the table hit his knees. Dropping to the floor, he scrambled for a gun. Heyes dove at Jessup’s legs, but came up short. Hank took aim at Jed. A sharp crack echoed through the room. Hank Jessup crumpled to the ground, and his shiny, new Colt revolver slipped out of nerveless fingers. Artie Gorman stood holding a smoking pistol.
No one spoke. For a minute, no one moved.
Finally, Artie’s boots thudded across the wooden floor. He kicked Hank’s gun out of reach before crouching down next to his partner and checking for a pulse. A red stain spread across Hank’s neck and down his shirtfront before it soaked into the floor. Artie stood and wiped the blood off his hands with a handkerchief. He stared at Jed. The boy was shaking and gulping back tears.
“He’s dead,” Artie announced into the silence. “I didn’t plan to kill him.”
“Thank you, Mr. Gorman,” Jed croaked out through the unshed tears. “He meant to murder me.”
“I know he did, kid. I couldn’t let him do that.”
Artie extended a hand to Heyes. The dark eyes noted the traces of blood before he firmly grasped the outstretched hand. He brushed dirt off his pants with shaking fingers.
“Thank you, Artie,” he forced out in a gravelly voice. “We owe you. We owe you big. I don’t think I could have talked him out of shooting. We owe you Jed’s life. Maybe mine, too.”
Heyes walked over and helped Jed to his feet. He placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder and gave it an awkward squeeze. They all stared at the bloody form lying in a silent heap on the floor.
“I’d be much obliged, if you two,” Artie spoke slowly, “Would help me bury him before we split the money and ride out of here.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Gorman,” mumbled Jed.
“And, kid, I said to call me Artie. After all, we robbed a bank together.”