The Young Runaways

By Pony Girl

The two boys trudged along, kicking up a little cloud of dry dust that followed them as they made their way between the waving fields of wheat which stretched endlessly to either side. The lads themselves were barely taller than the tall stalks, and their two heads bobbing along matched the colors of the Kansas landscape: one as gold as the grain that surrounded them, the other brown like the good earth in which it grew.

"Aren't we there yet, Hannibal?" asked the younger of the two. He raked a grimy hand through his golden curls, pushing them back off his sweaty forehead.

"Just a little further, Jed," his cousin answered. "Gettin' tired?"

"Naw, I was just wonderin'. " There was no way Jed was going to admit he might be having a hard time keeping up with his bigger cousin.

Hannibal squinted ahead and pointed. "See that green patch yonder? That's where we're aimin' for. We can rest a spell and have lunch by the crick there."

Jed gazed beyond the pointing finger. It still seemed pretty far off to him, but "Okay," he agreed and marched determinedly onward. After a short interval, he broke the companionable silence and ventured another question. "Hannibal?"

"Hmm?" the older boy responded abstractedly as he continued looking forward, seemingly lost in thought.

"Are you sure running away is the only way to show our pas how grow'd-up we are? I mean, isn't there something we could stay at home and do?"

"What?" The brown eyes snapped back into focus and stared down into his little cousin's anxious blue ones. "I already explained all this to you, Jed. They're just gonna keep treating us like babies till we show 'em we're not. I'm tired of bein' told I'm not old enough. They're always makin' us stay with the womenfolk. They're always sayin' we'll be in the way. We're not babies. We are old enough. We just gotta show 'em." He scowled down the path. "They'll be sorry. When they come home and find out we're gone, then they'll wish they'd taken us with them. And we won't go home till we do something to prove we're not babies anymore. Then they'll see. Then they'll hafta let us go with the men." He nodded with satisfaction.

"What'll we do to show 'em?" Jed asked.

Hannibal glanced back down at the other boy. "I haven't figured that part out yet. But don't worry. I'm thinkin' on it and I'll come up with something."

Jed wasn't really so sure that they were all that grown-up yet, but he worshipped his older cousin and he would have followed him to the moon if that's where Hannibal said they were going. Jed also trusted his idol to think of something if he said he would -- Hannibal was awful good at thinking up ideas, ideas nobody else could ever have thought up. Not that they always worked, but that wasn't the point. As Hannibal said, they were still good ideas. So now he just said "okay" again and concentrated on keeping pace with the bigger boy and staying quiet so as not to disturb his deep thoughts.

They were finally approaching the green patch near the creek. Jed was looking forward to resting under the shady trees and wading in the cool water. Suddenly the stillness of the afternoon was broken by a loud crack. Then another, and another. Startled, the boys stopped short and looked apprehensively at each other.

"Gunfire!" Hannibal exclaimed, and they ducked off the path. They lay flat for several moments, unsure of their next move. The shots continued.

"Could be somebody hunting," Hannibal said a bit doubtfully.

"What's there to hunt around here?" Jed queried.

"Birds, maybe?" It was more a question than an answer.

"I bet it's a fight!" Jed declared.

"Only one way to find out. Come on, and keep your head down." Hannibal began to circle around toward the sounds of the gunshots. Jed followed. The boys crawled carefully through the greenery and peeked into the clearing.

They saw a young man engaged in target practice. As they watched, he holstered his revolver, then drew it in a flash, aimed and fired, all in one smooth motion. Jed's eyes grew round. He'd never seen anyone draw that fast before. "Did you see that?" he whispered to Hannibal.

"Well, looky what we got here," drawled a voice that definitely did not belong to his cousin. The boys turned slowly around. Standing behind them was another young man wearing a fringed and beaded buckskin jacket. His longish hair was even blonder than Jed's, and he was cradling a rifle in his arms. Reassuringly, he was grinning. "Hey, Jimmy," he called out, "I think I caught us a coupla spies."

"We ain't spies, mister," Jed spoke up.

"Hush," Hannibal interrupted. He watched the stranger suspiciously.

"Well, if you ain't spies, come on over and say howdy," the newcomer invited, then strode into the clearing toward his friend.

Jed looked at Hannibal, waiting for his decision. The older boy thought it over, then shrugged, and they scrambled to their feet and approached the two men.

Jed walked right up to the one the other'd called Jimmy and said, "We were watching you shoot. How'd you learn to draw that fast? Is it hard? Could you teach me?"

"Whoa, pardner," the man answered, "aren't you a little young to be handling guns? Plenty o' time yet to be working on your fast draw. "

Jed drew himself up as straight and tall as he possibly could and announced, "I'm six years old."

"I'm eight and we don't like being told we're too young," Hannibal added.

"I'm right sorry, didn't mean no offense," Jimmy apologized with a slow smile. "Got names to go with those ages?"

"Jed Curry." "Hannibal Heyes." The boys introduced themselves.

"Pleased to meet you boys. I'm Jimmy Hickok and this here's my friend Billy Cody. We're Pony Express riders."

Jed took the hand he extended and goggled at him.

"Hickok?" he squeaked. "Wild Bill Hickok?"

"See there, Jimmy," Cody commented, "your reputation's spreadin' like wildfire. They even heard of you round these parts. "

"Course we heard of him," Hannibal scoffed, "Everybody's heard of Wild Bill Hickok."

"No wonder you were so fast," Jed breathed.

"Now, you boys shouldn't go believing everything you hear or read," Hickok said.

"We can believe what we saw," Jed stated.

Hannibal had been pondering. "The Pony Express doesn't go through here," he now pointed out.

"Oh no, is that so? Hear that, Jimmy? We must be lost!"

Hickok just shook his head at his friend's joshing. "'Scuse him, he thinks he's funny," he confided to the boys.

"Some people just can't appreciate a good joke," Cody grumbled good-naturedly. "No, you're right, young 'un, 'bout us not passin' this way. Not regularly. But we're on what you might call a special assignment for the army. We don't always stick to our usual route these days, not with all this talk of war brewin'. " He looked at the two young faces. "But there's no call to trouble your heads with that, not on this fine day. Tell you what. I'm gettin' powerful hungry. How'd you like to join us and our friends for some lunch?"

"Friends? There are more of you?" Hannibal asked.

"Yup. More riders. They're over by the crick. I'm sure they'd like to see some fresh faces. It'd pure take their appetites away to be stuck with only Jimmy's long face to look at."

They all headed on over to the creek, where they encountered the rest of the group. They had had the same idea as the boys, about using this place as a stop to eat and rest. Their horses were tethered where they could munch on the sweet grass, while the riders rather lazily went about the simple tasks of building a cookfire and unpacking their food. They dropped what they were doing in surprise as Cody and Hickok appeared with the two little boys.

"We got company for lunch," Cody announced. "Two gentlemen come a-callin': Jed Curry and Hannibal Heyes. "

They all stood there a moment, looking measuringly at each other till one rider, also dressed in fringed buckskins not as fancy as Cody's, stepped forward. "This here's the Kid," Cody introduced.

The Kid reached out and touched Jed's hair. "I had a brother named Jed."

Jed looked up at him as his words sunk in. "Had?"

"He died," the Kid said simply.

Jed didn't know what to say to this.

"I'm Lou." Shooting a swift look of concern towards the Kid, another of the riders spoke up to cover the awkward silence.

Jed transferred his attention to the speaker. He saw a face shaded by a floppy hat brim, a slight form muffled in loose clothing, a hand held out to him in a friendly gesture. He extended his own hand and felt a clasp both warm and firm. He looked up past spectacles to the clear eyes behind. Somehow he saw — no, felt — through to the essence beyond the external trappings. "You're a girl," he accused.

Lou's mouth dropped open in astonishment, but she recovered quickly. "Lou is short for Louise," she admitted, "but I don't generally let it get around. Being one of the boys makes my job easier. "

"Girls can't be Pony Express Riders," Jed objected.

The Kid laughed. "Some girls can do anything boys can do," he said. "Lou's a better rider than most boys I know. You won't get very far if you judge what people can do by whether they're a boy or a girl."

Jed didn't look convinced. Lou smiled. "That's too much to think about on an empty stomach," she said. "Let's eat."

Meanwhile, Hannibal was getting acquainted with the two remaining riders. He'd been stealing surreptitious looks at one of them, trying to figure out if he was as completely bald under his hat as he appeared. He kept looking away but his eyes kept straying back of their own accord, till finally they met those of the older boy. He gave a guilty start at being caught in the shameful act of staring, but instead of anger, the response elicited was a gentle smile. The boy made some motions with his hands. Hannibal simply continued to stare. The boy repeated the motions. "Huh?" Hannibal puzzled.

"He saw you wondering about him so he's explaining," interpreted the last rider. "He had scarlet fever when he was little, that's how he lost his hair. He can't speak, so he uses sign language. His name's Ike; I'm Buck."

"Did you teach him that? You're Indian, aren't you?" Hannibal guessed.

"Yes, I am, half anyway. I taught him to sign; he's taught me some things about listening."

"If I couldn't ever talk, I think I'd just explode!" Hannibal avowed sincerely.

Buck laughed. Ike signed his response.

"What'd he say?" Hannibal asked, wide-eyed.

"Ike says he can say plenty, sometimes more than people who never stop talking. If you like to talk, just make sure you have something to say."

For once, Hannibal was rendered speechless while he thought that one over.

"Hey, we don't want to miss out on the grub. Let's go eat," Buck said.

It was a lively lunch, and Cody was a spellbinding storyteller. The way he talked about all the places he'd seen made the boys just itch to travel all over the whole west so they could see 'em with their own eyes. Everyone was so friendly and easy, and no one asked a single question about what the boys were doing out there alone. They just made them feel so comfortable and welcome that Hannibal soon found himself just naturally sharing their situation with their new friends.

"Well, now, I don't think I'd be so quick to strike out on my own if I didn't absolutely have to," said Cody. "That's just my personal opinion, o' course."

"That all depends on their plan, Cody," Jimmy pointed out. "It makes a difference if you got a good plan."

Hannibal opened his mouth, then closed it again. As much as he'd thought on it all the way here, he hadn't exactly come up with any workable ideas yet.

"It appears to me a person knows how much of a man he is inside, not by what other folks think," Buck remarked thoughtfully.

Hannibal gave him a long look, struck by what he'd said. Was it really his father he was trying to prove something to, or himself?

"Family's important," added Lou, "even though sometimes they can be the ornriest critters you know. I had to leave my brother and sister so's I could help them, but I'd sure rather have them with me. I'm the oldest, so I have to look out for them."

That hit home. Hannibal wondered if he was really looking out for Jed properly. Maybe this wasn't the best way for him.

Jed shot a sidelong glance at his cousin. He hadn't wanted to mention to Hannibal that he'd been thinking about missing his mama.

"We might be thinkin' about changing our plans and going back to the farm," Hannibal tentatively suggested, waiting for a reaction.

It came from the Kid. "Nothing wrong with changing your mind. It takes a big man to see he might be mistaken and try another way."

"Big words, Kid. I hope you remember 'em next time we have a disagreement," teased Lou.

"Waddya say, Jed? Ya wanna go home?" Hannibal asked.

Jed considered. The Kid must be twice as old as Hannibal, yet he didn't mind people calling him a kid. There must be something to what they were all saying, though he wasn't really sure he understood it all. He did know he wouldn't be sorry to turn around and go back home, but what it came down to — what it always came down to — was that he'd follow wherever Hannibal led. "Whatever you wanna do, Hannibal."

"We'll go home, then." There, it was settled. And somehow it didn't feel like he was backing down. It felt right.

They finished eating and said good-bye to their new friends. The riders had to get on with their mission. Lou didn't want to leave the boys to walk all the way back home, however. "It doesn't sound like it’d be that far out of our way for a couple of us to give them a ride back and then catch up with the rest," she said.

"Oh, what a beautiful horse." Jed had spotted the Kid's pinto.

"Her name's Katie. Would you like to ride her?" offered the Kid.

"Would I!" Jed fervently answered.

The Kid lifted him onto Katie's back. "Lou and I can take the boys home," he agreed. "We'll catch up."

Lou smiled down at Hannibal. "I think Katie's made a new friend, too." She indicated Jed happily patting the mare's neck. "Looks like you're riding with me." As she lifted him up onto her horse she said, "I think Jed's real lucky to have you for a cousin. I can see he looks up to you. I know what it's like to be the oldest and I have a notion you're up to it." She mounted behind him just as Hannibal felt himself blush right down to his toes. He'd never thought about it much. Looking out for Jed had just always been such a natural part of his life that he couldn't imagine what it would be like not to have him tagging along all the time. He reckoned he was lucky, too, to have Jed for his cousin.

As they rode along, Jed was having his own thoughts on the subject. What a day it had been! What an adventure they'd had! He got to ride this wonderful horse and they'd met some Pony Express riders. He thought about their new friends. They were nice, even Lou. Maybe girls weren't so bad after all. He could hardly believe they'd really met Wild Bill Hickok! He'd made up his mind: he was going to shoot like that some day. Somebody had to look out for Hannibal. His cousin spent so much time readin' and thinkin' and dreamin' that his ma said he didn't see the real world around him half the time. Jed did, though. He'd practice and get good enough to watch out for 'em both so Hannibal could just keep on thinkin' up his grand ideas.

Lou and the Kid dropped them off at the edge of their land and waved good-bye. With any luck, their parents wouldn't ever even know they'd run away. "We can tell 'em everything that happened, Jed, we'll just say we went exploring. We don't have to tell 'em about something we were just thinkin' about doing, seein' as how we didn't really do it."

He was right. Their mothers were just glad they'd kept out from underfoot all day. It was as if they'd never left. Nothing had changed. Well, maybe one thing. When Hannibal's father came home that evening, he said, "Son, I've been doing some thinking. It appears to me you're getting old enough. How'd you like to come along with the men next trip?"

So it was that easy. It just took growin' into it. Maybe some growin' inside as well as outside. Hannibal's eyes shone. "I'd like that fine, Pa."

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