The Wilde, Wilde West
by Catherine Siemann
“I have nothing to declare except my
Oscar Wilde, New York Customs, January 1882.
“What he said.”
Hannibal Heyes, upon hearing Wilde’s remark sometime thereafter.
The train left Danville, Wyoming at 12:15, promptly as scheduled, but it didn’t arrive in Wiggins Falls at 3:46 . . . or at 3:56, or 4:16, or even 4:36. Settlements in this part of the territory were so widely spread apart that Wiggins Falls was the next scheduled stop after Danville. The stationmaster paced back and forth, fretting. He’d telegraphed Danville, and been told that the train was running on perfect time. It had to be the Devil’s Hole Gang; that was the only explanation he could think of. They were the only ones good enough. The only surprise was that they hadn’t struck in this part of the territory sooner.
“So where are we, anyway, Heyes?” Kid Curry looked at the landscape around him.
“How should I know, Kid? We’re at a convenient place between two stations to hold up a train. That’s good enough for me, so it should be good enough for you.” Hannibal Heyes gave his partner a quick smile.
“Just tryin’ to pass the time, Heyes.”
“Thought I was the only one that talked when I was nervous.”
“I ain’t nervous, just askin’,” insisted the Kid.
His partner winked at him. “Good thing you’re not, ‘cause I am. Wheat’s been awful quiet lately -- I’m afraid that’s a bad sign. I’m afraid he’s been thinkin’ again, and you know what happens when Wheat tries to do the thinkin’ for the Devil’s Hole Gang.” Reflexively, he looked back to where half-a-dozen members of the gang where standing, just a little ways off. Wheat Carlson was standing with Kyle Murtry, and he wasn’t lecturing him, cajoling him, or anything. That was pretty unusual. Lobo stood a little way off, talking softly with the Preacher. The latter touched his black parsonical hat, and took a swig of whiskey. He always claimed he could shoot just a little straighter when he’d had a few, and as far as Heyes could tell, it was true.
Heyes turned back to the Kid, who shrugged. “Wheat can’t think without movin’ his mouth, from what I've seen. So I think we’re pretty safe there.”
“Hope you’re right.” Hannibal Heyes shaded his forehead with his hand, which probably wasn’t necessary, what with the brim of his cowboy hat and all, but it made him feel like he could see better anyway. “Can you see anything, Kid?”
“Nah. . . . Hey, wait a minute. I can see some smoke in the distance.”
“Okay boys,” Heyes said in a much louder tone. “She’s coming. Hold back, but get into your places. Kyle and the Preacher remounted their horses, and the others took position just behind Curry and Heyes.
It was a risk, stopping a train, but Preacher knew no fear. He always said that he figured the Lord would forgive him, despite his many sins, and he’d do just fine in the afterlife. Anyway, there’d been a lot more Bible reading around Devil’s Hole since Preacher had happened along, even if most of it was the naughty bits from the Song of Songs, and the exciting parts of Revelation, the ones where angels battle the forces of Satan and beat the tar out of them. Besides, as the older man liked to point out, “The Lord thy God is a merciful God, and a damn’ good thing that is for a pack of scoundrels like us.”
Kyle, on the other hand, had been goaded into taking his turn by Wheat, who pointed out he’d had to do it the last two times. Lobo and the others joined in until Kyle had no other choice but to agree to do it. “Why don’t Heyes ‘n Curry ever have to do it?” he’d wanted to know.
“‘Cause we need the Kid’s gun hand, and Heyes is the only one in the gang who can crack safes,” Wheat had explained, in an unusual display of solidarity with his leaders.
Somehow, Kyle wasn’t reassured.
But soon the Kid's sharp eyes spotted a column of steam in the distance, and the gang members took their assigned places. They watched, as the train came closer, and closer. And then, at Heyes' urgent whisper, Kyle and the Preacher rode their horses to just either side of the track, and aimed a pair of shotguns directly at the head of the train. If one of them didn't hit the engineer, the other would.
"Hands up," said the Preacher, "Just like you was prayin' to the Lord."
A head poked out of the train window. "Now you don't really want to hold us up, do you, boys?"
"Sure do," said Kyle. "More important-like, so does Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry and the whole Devil's Hole Gang."
"The D-D-Devil's Hole Gang?" stammered the engineer.
"Yup," said Heyes, showing himself for the first time. "Me and the boys don't want to hurt nobody, since we're not naturally much inclined to violence. But this is a hold-up, and those are the rules -- you cooperate or things might start to get just a little nasty."
Curry followed suit. “And we do it hate it when we have to resort to violence. Fact, we’re known for hatin’ it. And when we have to . . . well, that just makes me mad.”
“Believe me, you don’t want to see him mad,” Heyes chimed in.
“F-F-Fine,” said the engineer.
Just at that moment, the conductor entered the engine car. “What’s going on here?”
“Hello,” said Heyes, with one of his broad grins. “We’re the Devil’s Hole Gang and we’re figuring on robbing this here train. Hear you got a mighty fat safe in there -- lotsa profits heading East, towards a buncha folks that didn’t do much of the work.”
“Oh.” The conductor stood, motionless. He’d obviously heard of the Devil’s Hole Gang.
“You promise not to hurt anyone, if we cooperate?”
“Nothin’ could make us happier,” said the Kid, his blue eyes sparkling.
“Well, all right then.”
“But the passengers had better get off, just in case somethin’ goes wrong when we try to open up that safe,” Heyes said. “Sometimes we use dynamite.”
The conductor nodded, and disappeared out the back of the engine car. A short time later, the passengers started to file off. Some had their hands in the air, in the manner of prisoners surrendering, while others were grumbling about the delay this whole holdup caused. One group, though, surprised everybody by walking out in a very casual manner, laughing as they came.
Kid Curry leaned to his partner and said, “Heyes, you got any idea what’s going on? I mean, I know we got the reputation of not likin' to hurt anyone when we rob them, and all, but nobody’s ever treated it like it was a party before.”
Heyes frowned, his heavy brows drawing together. He cocked his head and said, “I’m not sure Kid, but I think it must have somethin’ to do with that tall feller over there. They keep lookin’ at him and laughin’.”
“You mean the funny-looking one, in the velvet suit?” asked the Kid, shading his blue eyes with his hand as he peered into the crowd. “Okay, the suit’s a little strange, but it’s rude of them to just keep laughin’ at him. Especially in the middle of their train bein’ robbed and all.”
Hannibal Heyes shook his head. “Kid, I don’t think they’re laughin’ at him. I think they’re laughin’ with him.”
And momentarily, the tall man strode forward. He made a striking appearance, with his long brown curls and his velvet suit, particularly since he was tall and burly and had huge hands. Heyes figured this man could dress any way he wanted, because he could pretty much knock over anyone who laughed at him. Knock ‘em over without even disarranging his prettily-arranged curls.
The man’s face was fleshy, intelligent, pleasant, but not handsome. And in a moment, he’d reached them, and made a courtly bow. “Well, this is my good fortune. Possibly the high point of my entire tour of the Western United States.” He spoke with an English accent of the cultured variety sometimes known as “plummy.” “To experience a train robbery, at the hand of the feared, notorious, but apparently rather pleasant, Devil’s Hole Gang. This will thrill them back at home.”
Heyes shrugged. “Always glad to be of service.”
“Oh, before I forget,” said the tall man, reaching into his breast pocket and producing a billfold. “I’m afraid I’m rather a bit short at the moment. I hope this will do.”
“Keep it,” came the Kid’s quick reply.
“Keep it?” repeated the man. “But I thought we were being robbed.”
“Train’s being robbed, not the passengers.”
“Oh, I see. How good of you.” He pocketed the billfold again, and offered his hand instead. “Oscar Wilde, at your service.”
“Hannibal Heyes, and my partner here’s Kid Curry.” Heyes shook Wilde’s hand, and the Kid followed suit.
“Yes, I had rather assumed. You are not unknown, even on the far side of the Atlantic, though by reputation only, of course.”
“They’ve heard of us in England?”
“By reputation, as I’ve said. Though not the reality, or they would no doubt be singing of the criminal Adonises of the West.”
“Ah,” said Heyes, not quite knowing what an Adonis was, and whether it was a good or a bad thing to be. Mostly, he was thinking about their having been heard of in England and wondering if that was yet another potential escape route cut off. “Well, Mr. Wilde, there’s a safe that needs bustin’. If you’ll excuse me.”
“Oh, may I watch?”
Heyes and Curry looked at each other. Despite their reasonably courteous behavior to the passengers on the trains they were robbing, they weren’t used to said passengers actually requesting to tag along.
“Well, it ain’t procedure, not exactly,” said Heyes.
“Might make Heyes nervous, and that can only be bad,” said the Kid. “Especially with the potential of him usin’ dynamite and all.”
"Oh, please," said the stranger, in a cajoling tone of voice. "I shall be as quiet as a little mouse in a room filled with hungry cats."
"Well, uh, if you put it like that, I s'pose it's okay."
The safe was a Brooker, but not a late model, and Heyes was able to dispatch it quite rapidly, the tumblers falling into place under his careful touch. The door swung open, to reveal a couple of generously-filled sacks. When Heyes examined them, he found that they were filled with the genuine article, U.S. currency in nice medium-sized bills like twenties -- not lots of bulky ones and fives, but not difficult-to-pass fifties or hundreds either.
"Woohoo!" he shouted. "Boys, that's it."
Kid Curry slung one of the sacks over his shoulder, while Heyes carried the other.
"All right, ladies and gentlemen," said the Kid. "We've done our job. Now, we're just going to ride on out of here, and when we've gone, you can get right back on that train and keep goin'."
The gang had already remounted, and Heyes and Curry followed suit, and were ready to ride away, when they heard a voice calling after them. "Excuse me!" It was Oscar Wilde.
Heyes reined his horse around. "What is it, Mister Wilde?"
"I haven't got another lecture engagement for several weeks, and I want to see as much of your West as I can. If you're off to your outlaw lair, I wonder if I might come along."
"Mister Wilde, I understand they do stuff differently in England, but here in the West, we don't make a habit of inviting the people we've robbed home for dinner. The location of Devil's Hole's a secret, and we'd like to keep it that way."
"It would be good publicity for you," Wilde cajoled.
"We don't actually need any more publicity than we already got," said the Kid.
"But . . . but . . . I was all over the East and the South, and here in the West I've visited mines and ranches and frontier towns and all sorts of things. Only I haven't seen a single outlaws' lair, and I really feel like my knowledge of the American West will be incomplete without one."
"No," said Heyes.
"Absolutely not," added the Kid.
Behind them, came a voice. "Why not?" asked Wheat Carlson. "Don't we got a vote here, or is it just you two?"
"You gone crazy, Wheat?" asked the Kid. "What we want to bring a stranger to the Hole for?"
"Well, because . . . because . . . " Wheat faltered.
"'Cause he was makin' them folks laugh," said Kyle. "Right in the middle of a train robbery. Could be he'd be good company for a bit."
"Kyle's right," said Lobo, laconically. Lobo agreeing with Kyle was something near miraculous.
"'Sides, he's one of God's creatures, like the rest of us," said the Preacher, tipping back his flask. Then, to the Kid, more softly. "Bet he's no good at cards."
"You seem to be outvoted," said Wilde.
Heyes rolled his eyes. "Did I ever say this gang was a democracy?"
"Well, maybe it should be," said Wheat.
"I'll get my things." And Oscar Wilde hurried back into the train.
"All right, let's leave now," said Heyes, turning his horse around.
"Hey, wait a minute," said one of the passengers. "You promised."
"You want to get rid of him that bad?" asked the Kid.
"Not at all," said the passenger. "He's just 'bout the funniest feller I ever met. But he wants to go and most of your gang wants to take him. So it wouldn't be fair if you just rode off without him."
Heyes started laughing. "My gang and the people we just robbed, all conspiring against me. All right, he can come. So what's he gonna do for a horse? He's too big to double up with any of us."
"Kyle and me can double up," said Preacher. "He can take mine."
And with a flourish, Wilde re-emerged from the train, carpet bag in hand. "You'll have them hold my trunks in Denver?"
"Absolutely, Mister Wilde," said the conductor. "Have a good trip. And I hope to catch your lecture in Denver."
Wilde mounted the Preacher's horse, as directed, and with a brief tip of his hat to the collection of passengers behind him, rode off after the gang.
At the end of several days' hard riding, they'd arrived at Devil's Hole. Kyle and Preacher were barely on speaking terms, after sharing a horse for all that time. But Oscar Wilde was fascinated by everything.
"How very picturesque!" he exclaimed, as he examined their cabins. "The rough-hewn wood, the very elements of the natural surroundings echoed in the fabric of your charmingly rustic abodes." He looked around and tossed his head, his long brown curls flowing as he did so.
"Who's Miss Nancy?" Hank whispered to Lobo.
"That's Mister Wilde," Lobo said. "He's English. I hear tell they're all pretty eccentric over there. Only this 'un gets paid for it."
"Well, he looks like a sissy."
"Excuse me," said Wilde. "Perhaps I didn't hear you correctly?"
"Said you look like a sissy," Hank repeated.
Wilde sighed dramatically. "Why my penchant for the aesthetic misleads people into impugning my manliness, I've never been able to understand." And with an almost offhand blow, he knocked Hank clean off his feet. "Now, if anyone else would like to critique my sense of style, I'd be happy to hear it."
The other members of the gang looked at each other, shook their heads and muttered, "No" and "Not at all" and such things, and Kyle finally piped up, "I think yer sky blue coat is downright purty."
"Glad to hear it. And Mister Lobo?"
"Uh, yeah?" Lobo looked nervous, afraid Wilde would dish out the same treatment to him that he had to Hank. Eccentric wasn't as bad as sissy, was it?
But the big man only smiled. "Not English. Irish. Though I do currently reside in London. Well, when not touring your great land, that is."
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, with Wilde observing everything that went on, merely making a quip from time to time. When evening rolled around, however, and the men had finished with their chores, they settled down in the bunkhouse to an evening of talking and drinking.
Wilde, of course, was bound to be an asset in the talking department. But Hank, who was still angry about the punch on the jaw, had whispered to some of the others that even if he could hit, surely he couldn't drink like a real man.
"Whatcha gonna do 'bout it?" asked Kyle.
"We'll just settle down to some real drinkin' tonight, and you watch him drop like the sissy he is."
"I like the feller, but bet you're right, there," chimed in Wheat. "Be fun to drink 'im under the table."
A short while later, Heyes, Curry and their guest entered the bunkhouse. "You don't gotta stay," the Kid whispered. "You could go back over to the other cabin if you want."
"Nonsense," said Wilde. "I want to see the American outlaw in his natural habitat, at play as well as at work."
"Well," said Lobo, "we was thinkin' that in honor of our guest, we might break out some o' that good corn whiskey."
Heyes and Curry exchanged glances and shrugged. "If you want to, go ahead," said Heyes. "Me and the Kid are only gonna stay for a few, though."
"Got some railroad timetables to go over, boys." The Kid smiled.
"So soon?" asked Wheat. "We just done scored big."
"Not so big as we could've," said Heyes. "Winter looks to be settin' in early this year, and if we want a trip to Denver and enough supplies to last us, we want one more big hit before then. We had an awful lot of fun in town last month, after we hit that bank down south of Virginia City, and what we got from this job's pretty much all we have. 'Sides, they won't be expectin' us to strike again so soon, so there's a good chance everyone's guard'll be down."
Preacher did the honors with the whiskey, and everyone had a first glass.
"My," said Wilde, his eyes watering slightly. "Good strong stuff. Never be mistaken for single malt scotch, though."
Another round, and Heyes and the Kid excused themselves, returning to the cabin Heyes, as leader, had inherited from Big Jim.
"Where ain't we been lately?" asked Heyes, pulling out a pile of maps and railroad timetables. "Where won't they be lookin' out for us?"
"Where we ain't been lately is San Francisco," said the Kid, looking just a little dejected. "Sure wouldn't mind visitin' Silky sometime soon. Nice soft beds, fancy cookin' and pretty girls. Not much of that around here. Where won't they be lookin' out for us? Pretty much no place."
But the maps yielded a couple of promising results. "Well," said Heyes, "might as well go over and rejoin the celebration."
"Make sure they're not mistreating our honored guest too much?" asked his partner, with an impish smile.
But as they approached the bunkhouse, they noticed it was awfully quiet. When they went inside, they discovered that Wheat, Lobo, Hank, Kyle and the others were all passed out cold. Only two people were still upright and communicating. Preacher was half-seas over, but still seated. Wilde appeared to be fairly sober, though Preacher rushed to assure them, however incoherently, that their guest had drunk them all under the table. And then he, too, slumped over and began snoring.
"I have made an important discovery," Oscar Wilde assured them, "that alcohol, when taken in sufficient quantities, produces all the effects of intoxication."
"Don't seem to have intoxicated you much," said the Kid.
Wilde looked thoughtful. "A little. Even when I was at university I found that wine and whiskey affect me less profoundly than they do others. If I should ever take to drink in a serious way, I suppose I should have to become an absinthe-drinker."
"When they wake up in the morning, you're either gonna have a whole lotta new best friends, or a whole lotta men blamin' their headaches on you." Heyes winked.
But the next morning, the men woke up in good humor in spite of the collective hangover, since they'd had their version of a good time.
"Guess he showed you," Kyle whispered to Hank.
"He can hold his liquor all right," Hank responded. "But how's he at cards?"
That evening the drinking was moderate, but the cards came out. "How's about a little game of dollar ante?" asked Preacher.
"What is 'dollar ante'?" asked Wilde, looking bored.
And soon they were at play. Heyes and Curry once again sat it out, mostly because the men didn't much like Heyes playing with them, since he almost inevitably won. Hank, Kyle, Lobo and Wheat filled up the table, after insisting their guest join them. The hand was dealt, and Hank called for two cards, Wheat for one, and Wilde for one. Kyle and Preacher dropped out. Hank bet five dollars, and Wheat raised him give. Wilde murmured something doubtful sounding, but put in his money.
"Ten more," said Hank.
"Ten more'n you." Wheat seemed to be restraining a grin.
Oscar Wilde frowned and said "The o'ershadowing sky is murky, but I must stay. I will--how do you phrase it?--call. I will call on you."
Hank laid down his cards, smiling triumphantly. "Three ladies."
"Full house," said Wheat, putting out his hand for the pot.
"Too-too," said Wilde, and laid down four aces. "Now that I remember it, gentlemen, we used to indulge in this little recreation at Oxford."
At this the men burst into laughter. "Can't put nothin' over on him," said Kyle. And with that, the card game was at an end.
"That Oxford, Mississippi?" asked Lobo. "My folks came from down that way."
"So," asked Heyes. "What do you think of our fair country, Mister Wilde?"
Wilde thought for a moment. "Well, we have really everything in common nowadays, except, of course, the language."
"You been all over the East, too?" This from Wheat. "Did ya get to see that Niagara Falls?"
"Simply a vast unnecessary amount of water going the wrong way and then falling over unnecessary rocks. You're really not missing anything, Mister Carlson."
Wheat preened at being called "Mister Carlson," while Kyle chimed in. "What about American girls?"
"Pretty and charming-- little oases of charming unreasonableness in a vast desert of practical common sense."
Later that evening, the visitor took Heyes aside. "I've enjoyed this visit very much, but I'm afraid I really ought to be going soon. My lecture tour starts up again in a week and I suspect there's a bit of riding between here and there. Would it be possible for me to purchase one of your horses, and to be accompanied part way to the nearest settlement? I assume I'll need to be blindfolded again."
The next day, Kid Curry rode out with him. After several hours had passed, and the approach to Devil's Hole was no longer visible, he took the blindfold off Wilde and gave him the reins of his own horse. "I'll ride with you a ways longer," said the Kid. "'Til I'm sure you're on a clear trail into Eagle's Rock.
"Delighted," said Wilde. "You know, it was quite inspiring, your camp. It rather reminded me of the Spartans of old."
"Spartans?" asked Curry, sounding dubious. "This one of them ancient things, like the Hannibal that Heyes' folks named him after?"
"Indeed. Young warriors who did without creature comforts that they might remain fit for battle."
"Well, we do without creature comforts partly 'cause they're mighty hard to get up at the Hole. We get our share when we ride into Denver, from time to time."
"But still, it's inspiring. All those men, training and working together, in the absence of the fairer sex . . . "
"Purely practical. It's a good hideout for the gang, and nobody brings their girls 'cause that can lead to jealousy and trouble. Plus any girl you really like, you wouldn't want to make her come here. Wouldn't be fair. Anyway, no posse's ever been able to track us there, and you're one of the few outsiders that's ever seen it."
"I'm honored," said Wilde, and changed the subject, suddenly talking about a Miss Constance Lloyd whom he'd known back in London.
Hannibal Heyes lowered his newspaper, and looked at Kid Curry. "Well, look here. Do you remember Oscar Wilde?"
"Of course I do, Heyes. He was one of the only outsiders we ever let visit the Hole. That was a long time ago. Must be close on twenty years. Didn't we see one of his plays in San Francisco, a couple of years back?"
"Says here he just got two years hard labor, back over in England."
"Oscar Wilde? What for? He wrote plays, right? Never heard that was against the law." Heyes handed him the paper, and Curry's eyes grew wider. "You can get jail time for that? But it don't say he hurt anyone, does it?"
"Nope. Beats me. Coupla bank and train robbers like us never saw the inside of a prison for more'n a week at a time, and here poor old Oscar Wilde's in jail for somethin' that's nobody's business but his."
Kid Curry shook his head. "Sure is a funny world."
A couple of incidents from Hesketh Pearson's biography, Oscar Wilde, have been adapted wholesale. Several of Wilde's sayings have been taken directly from The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde, edited by Alvin Redman. The definitive biography is Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde, though he seems to have missed Wilde's sojourn in Devil's Hole. Can't think why. This one's for Carole H.