The One in the Black Hat
by Laura Moretti
“Into the west came many men: some were good men and some were bad men. Some were good men with some bad in them and some were bad men with some good in them. ‘Alias Smith and Jones’ is the story of two pretty good bad men.
“Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry: Together these gentlemen substantially altered the course of America’s frontier. They did a lot to change railroad schedules, too. And in all the trains and banks they robbed, they never shot anyone. This made our two latter-day Robin Hoods very popular—with everyone but the railroads and banks. Because unlike Robin Hood, Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry robbed from the rich and kept the money for themselves. It was a good life. But times were changing. Safes were getting better. Posses were getting bigger. Sheriffs were getting smarter. And modern communications made it only a matter of time till they would be captured, and maybe even killed.”
After the Devil’s Hole Gang, led by Hannibal Heyes, stopped a train to rob, Heyes yelled out to the conductor, “Stand and dee-liver!”
“Who says so?” the conductor wanted to know.
“Kid Curry!” Heyes replied, motioning with his gun toward his partner seated on horseback beside him.
And The Kid added, “Hannibal Heyes!”
Hannibal Heyes. What can be said about him that hasn’t already been said? As one person who signed the Pete Duel Memorial Site Guestbook succinctly put it: “The coolest bandit ever.” That he was. It was his contagious cheer, maybe, or that sincere air of boyish charisma dressed in that dimpled smile and sparkle in those chocolate brown eyes. Or maybe it was that you just didn’t feel all that threatened by him. It almost seemed as if he asked you for your money as opposed to demanded it. You got robbed by the great Hannibal Heyes and you couldn’t help but feel you’d donated to a good cause somehow. He might even give you back your money if you asked for it. That’s how genuinely generous he was deep inside that golden heart of his.
He had a certain common sense way of living in the world; if something was practical, he could easily argue on its behalf. Isn’t that how he came to his decision to win an amnesty for his thieving crimes? It no longer made sense to rob trains and banks; after all, “safes were getting better, posses were getting bigger, and sheriffs were getting smarter.” It made sense to give up his illegal pursuits and join ’em when he couldn’t beat ’em. It made so much sense, in fact, that he was willing to risk his life to stay on the straight-and-narrow to claim that prize. But it wasn’t like his search for amnesty made him a new man; it merely brought the essence of who he was to the surface—something we all saw right from the very beginning: the heart of the man.
I’m not wrong. Think about it. The very first time we laid eyes on Hannibal Heyes he was robbing a train—at gunpoint—right? There he was on horseback, surrounded by the members of his thieving gang, a motley crew of frightening misfits, waving his pistol around in his gloved hand, smart-mouthing to the conductor from the get-go. “Stand and dee-liver!” he yelled. He waved his gun at his partner-in-crime, Jed “Kid” Curry, when he introduced him to the conductor of the train they had held up—when asked who he himself was. Where was that heart I mentioned earlier? Yep, you guessed it. Right there on his face: that broad, ear-to-ear, dimpled smile, his mouth partly open with his excitement, but, c’mon, how scary was that? Behind that smug grin lay the glimpse of a redeemable soul.
And redeem it, he did. From living up to his own words, handed to him by Kyle Murtry when he asked Kyle to check the dynamite fuse because it appeared to have failed (“but what makes you such a great leader, Heyes, is that you never tell no man to do a thing you wouldn’t do yourself”) to his timidness as he snuck up on an active stick or two or three of dynamite that, for all he knew, was about to blow any second. Brave? Hardly. Greedy was more the order of the day. But his impish hesitancy as he peered around the door of that boxcar to examine the safe therein only to find that the dynamite fuse had expired early, was all we needed to know to have an inexplicable warm feeling for him. We were in love. And we weren’t about to ever fall out of it, either (and you know that’s true or you wouldn’t be reading this some nearly fifty years later).
It was a great ride. Climb on board with the amnesty-seeking Hannibal Heyes and you didn’t want to get off. Maybe that first hour in his presence didn’t exactly lend itself to his intellect or his wisdom, and it didn’t do much to further one’s perceptions of his generosity or his underlying morality, but it did reflect his charm, even the little we saw when he romanced a safe. And that’s all we needed to see. He sold us his soul and from that point on he could do no wrong—even when he did wrong things.
But put Hannibal Heyes on the straight-and-narrow, give him an honest job, and he’ll show you his true colors. Not burdened with the anxiety of planning and executing a heist, but still motivated by greed, Heyes is free to display his finest feathers. Even after practically being robbed himself by the wealthy Big Mac McCreedy during a poker game in which only his opponent knew the hidden rules, Heyes keeps his cool and plays by the book. Knocked around more than he shoved back—and perhaps it was ‘just desserts’ for all his crimes—he shined on occasion, and dodging McCreedy’s sting was a perfect example. The Hannibal Heyes poker face was that warm, dimpled smile, his boyish innocence, and that seemingly convincing expression that he trusted you—and you should trust him back. You would discover only later that it was you who’d been duped.
Big Mac was certain, through a card trick, that he’d win back the money he paid Heyes and Curry for retrieving ‘his’ bust of Caesar from Armendariz, but all his wealth and all his conniving ways were no match for the sharp wit and the shrewder mind of Hannibal Heyes. “I’ll bet you the whole bundle, $20,000, that I can cut the Ace of Spades on the first try,” McCreedy insisted. Heyes accepted the dare and we held our breaths. Of course, the odds were near-to-impossible to “cut” the Ace of Spades from a card deck, unless one did as McCreedy did, and stabbed the deck with a sharp knife clear through to the table. But they were zero to none in this instance because the great Hannibal Heyes had already, through sleight of hand, removed the card from the deck during the shuffle.
And he did it all with a smile.
Oh, that smile.
He had to know what he wore on his face, didn’t he? I mean, he used it enough. Take my money with that smile? Here, you can have my jewelry, too. Anything else I can do for you, Mr. Bandit Man?
Granted, Heyes was naive to think the road to amnesty was going to be a smoothly traveled one. He, like Kid Curry, planned to blend into the scenery, to take one day at a time, to make ends meet as much as possible, hope for their pot of gold, and bide their time till they were officially free men. And we couldn’t wait to see them realize their dreams, could we? Despite their setbacks, they were on a roll and we were certain they’d get there—with all of us cheering them along the way—right up until that terrible day.
You remember where you were, how you found out, just as I remember. That day in our youth we would never forget. For me, it went like this:
She had to be mistaken. She couldn’t possibly have remembered which one I was fond of. Oh, God, please let her be mistaken.
“The one you like,” she repeated. She was frustrated with me. What didn’t I understand about what she was telling me? How could she be any more clear without impossibly remembering his name? One of the actors in that television show I loved to watch, that western, she said, you know, “Alias Smith and Jones,” well, one of them, the one I liked, had shot and killed himself during the night. It was all over the news, she said. How had I missed it? She sat there on her bicycle at the curb on the corner, across the street from her house and several doors down from mine, and tried again to explain it to me. “The one you like. That one.”
No. Not possible.
She couldn’t have meant that one. She had to be wrong about the one she thought I liked. If there was a God in Heaven, she didn’t mean that one, the soul of my soul, the one with the dark chocolate brown eyes and the winning smile, that fun-loving, life-embracing cowboy with the dimples in his cheeks, not that one. And, oh, I did not wish such a thing on the other one, please understand, but if there was any justice at all in the world—and I guess there isn’t—she didn’t mean that one.
I stared blankly at her, too stunned and shocked and numbed to move, too desperately begging on the inside that I was living a bad dream, a cruel nightmare, some sick practical joke, an inexplicable case of gravely mistaken identity. My heart was on the verge of being smashed to smithereens and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop the shattering. What was his name? She couldn’t remember. He was the one I liked; wasn’t that telling enough? And then she said the only other thing she could think to say, the words that sealed fate, that crashed my world, that put the light out in all that darkness that had been my youth and had it cave back in on me, six words I would never forget for as long as I lived: “The one in the black hat.”
For me, at that very instant and not one any sooner or later, Pete Duel was born the day he died. I lost Hannibal Heyes; well, I thought I had. Only time would prove that Heyes had been forever immortalized—and in digital form, no less. But it would take me decades from that infamous day to truly appreciate what the world had lost, what Pete’s fans and his friends, and what his family, in particular, had lost. What he himself had lost.
In 1971, I was just a little girl, a naíve and sheltered, abused and frightened little girl. I cried for me that day—and for so many days thereafter, for years, truth be told. But one balmy summer night, less than a decade ago, it struck me—as an adult—what it must have taken for him to end his life that night. The tears I’ve shed since are for him. And for all those lonely hearts he broke, the ones who still remember him. And will forever.