Tommy Tapscott Tells a Tale

By Ida Arminda Moss

Hadleyburg, New Mexico Territory, April 17th, 1880

Matt Tapscott opened the door to the cabin he and his family occupied whenever they came to Hadleyburg. After he had spent money for a good dinner at the café, he could not help but be a little discouraged that first his son and then his wife had left the table, unable to finish the meal.

He wondered what was wrong with his family. In the back of his mind, he could still see the two outlaws as they had looked when he saw them last. Behind bars like that, they had both looked a little pathetic—not at all like two dangerous bank and train robbers. He pushed that thought out of his mind.

Bess greeted her husband with a quiet smile. Face down on the sofa in the corner, Tommy gave no sign he had heard his father’s entrance.

“Tommy?” The boy rolled over and sat up, the lamplight picking out the tearstains on his face. Matt came forward quickly, sitting down beside him. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“Nothin’, Pa.”

“Now don’t you give me that! There’s no shame in a boy cryin’, or a man. I just wanna know what it’s about.”

Tommy’s eyes went to his mother, who nodded.

“Well…,” the boy said, between sniffs. “There’s something I gotta tell you. I shoulda said it before, but I thought you’d be mad.”

“We won’t get mad. Promise,” said Bess gently.

“No. Nothin’ to get mad about. We’re here, we’re all safe, and we got this big reward comin’,” said Matt. “Go ahead.”

Tommy wiped his nose and went on. “It was three days ago. You ’member, in the wagon? The outlaws asked you to untie their feet so they could keep their balance. So I did that, and then, a little later, you gave me the rifle, Ma, and told me to watch ’em, while you went to take Pa some water.”

“Yes,” said Bess, “and you did just fine.”

“You don’t understand.” Tommy sniffed again. “The wagon went over somethin’ in the road, and there was a big jolt that made me drop the rifle, right in between them.”

Matt put a hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “Go on. What happened? What’d they do?”

“The one with the blue eyes—Mr. Curry—put his foot on it in a hurry. Then they just kinda looked at each other for a minute or two, and he put his boot toe underneath the rifle and kicked it back to me.

“I said, ‘Why’d you do that? You could’ve got away!’ and he said they couldn’t pick up the gun with their hands tied. Mr. Heyes said they’d just have to knock me out and hope my parents didn’t hear.”

The adults looked at one another in consternation.

“Then he said—I remember the exact words—‘knockin’ a tough kid like you out, well, that wouldn’t be easy.’ And he winked at me! They didn’t say nothin’ else, and a minute later, you came back, Ma. And then, this afternoon, they locked ’em up, and they both looked so sad. Not mean or nothin’, like outlaws would, just sad. So I—well, anyway, that’s why I didn’t feel like eatin’, Pa. I’m sorry.”

“No need to be sorry. The waitress packed up the food for us to take with us. It won’t go to waste,” Matt reassured him. His gaze went back to his wife, whose eyes were wide with something almost like fright. He took her hand for a minute. “Tommy, since you’re not hungry and it’s gettin’ late, why don’t you go to bed? You didn’t do nothin’ wrong, ’cept I kinda wish you’d told us this before. Go on to bed now.”

Obediently, the boy got up and climbed to his bed in the loft of the inner room, leaving his parents to stare at one another.

Bess said, in a low, shaken voice, “Matt, he could have been killed!”

“Killed, or badly hurt,” he agreed. “They’d have had to kick him in the head to knock him out, or jumped on top of him—broken bones would have been the least of it.”

“And they didn’t.”

“No. Heyes winked at him, and Curry gave the rifle back. No wonder he didn’t wanna eat this evening.”

“They gave up the only chance they had to get away,” said Bess, “because it would have meant hurting a child, and they wouldn’t do that. We owe them. And now they’re gonna spend twenty years in prison. Matt, you’ve gotta do something! ”

“I guess I do.”

*** *** ***

The next day, after visiting the jail, Matt Tapscott returned to the cabin. Tommy was outside, playing with a couple of other boys, so he went straight to the point. “Bess, I tried to smuggle a gun in—” he extracted his Colt Pocket Pistol from the back of his trousers and laid it on the table “—but the sheriff said visitors had to be searched, so of course he found it and kept it till I finished talkin’ to Heyes and Curry. Anyways, I asked ’em how they liked the food, and they said it was pretty bad, so I said maybe you could cook up somethin’ for ’em. Then I left. Wasn’t much to stay for. Heyes said they wasn’t feelin’ too chipper, ’cause of waitin’ to be sent off to Wyoming. They thanked me for comin’, though.”

Bess Tapscott was thinking. “I could bake a pie. I’ve got the blackberries I put up earlier in the summer.”

“A pie, that’s it! And put the gun in it, just like in them dime novels Tommy reads.”

She looked doubtful. “If you don’t think the gun would go off while it was baking.”

“Oh, no, it won’t go off.” Now Matt was on familiar ground, since he worked with gunpow-der and other explosives frequently. “Oven wouldn’t be hot enough. It’ll be all right if I make sure the charges, wads, and balls are rammed down tight with no spilled powder. That way the powder won’t be wet, and they can use the gun and eat the pie.”

Hadleyburg, three weeks later

Matt and Bess Tapscott, just released from custody, watched as Detective Harry Briscoe of the Bannerman Agency lit the fuse on a large rocket and stepped back. The firework soared into the sky and burst in a shower of sparks.

Tommy Tapscott slipped from the hands of the woman who had been looking after him and dashed up to his parents. “Look, Ma, Pa! Wasn’t that great? But why’s Detective Briscoe settin’ off fireworks?”

“I wonder,” replied Matt. He looked around to make sure no one was within earshot, and lowered his voice. “That rocket’d make an awfully good signal. Wonder if those boys are somewhere around? I’d kinda like to thank ’em. I guess there ain’t much doubt who paid for the lawyer.”

Counsellor Brubaker came up behind them. “Very astute, Mr. Tapscott. May I suggest that you allow me to take you and your wife and son out to a steak dinner at the hotel? We can discuss this further there.”

“That’s very kind of you, Mr. Brubaker,” responded Bess, putting her arm around Tommy’s shoulders. The four walked down the street together.

Over the best steak dinner in town, Matt looked at the smart lawyer. “Is it true? Did Heyes and Curry pay for your services, and was Briscoe signalling to them about the outcome of the trial?”

“Yes to both. It was, of course, unwise for them to enter the town, so it’s probable you’ll never see them again. I don’t know precisely when I’ll see them, either, but when I do, I’ll tell them you sent your thanks. They don’t really want to be thanked. They felt they owed you a debt, not the other way around. And they asked me to give you this.” He handed over a fat envelope. “I’d suggest waiting to open that until you are well away from here, and then banking its contents in a different town. It’s the five thousand dollars remaining from what Heyes won at that casino in Colorado Springs. They wanted you to have it. They remembered you wanted to send Tommy to school and get a better place to live.”

Matt and Bess Tapscott exchanged wondering smiles, while Tommy made short work of his steak.