“Hell found me.”
“What did you say?” Stan’s fork froze in mid-air. Spaghetti slowly oozed onto his plate, unnoticed.
“Hell found me,” repeated Grandpa Ellis. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his hands behind his head, and looked at the ceiling as if seeing a ghost.
“I don’t understand.” Stan pushed his long, brown hair off his forehead.
“For years now I’ve been waitin’ for Hell to catch up with me. I’d gotten pretty lazy, thinkin’ I’d outfoxed him. Last night he paid a call. Now I have to pay him back.”
Stan’s face took on the startled-hare look. He lowered his fork to his plate, picked up his napkin, and attempted to wipe sauce and noodles off his once clean shirt. Unsuccessful, he got up and went into the kitchen, his large boots reverberating with each step. “Let’s get this straight. Hell came to see you last night.”
“Yep, that’s right.”
“You owed him for something and now you’ve got to repay the debt,” Stan said as he dabbed a wet napkin on the stain.
“Yep,” Grandpa Ellis said. Dropping his arms on to the tabletop, his body deflated like a punctured balloon. “An’ I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
“What kind of a debt do you owe?” Stan turned to face his grandfather. Frightened by the posture of defeat, something he’d never seen on his proud guardian, Stan rushed to the chair and knelt nearby. “Grandpa, start over. Tell me the story, please? Maybe I can help.”
“There’s nothin’ you can do. Nothin’ you can do. I lost. Hell said he’d catch up with me sometime. Now he’s here an’ there’s nothin’ I can do.” Silent sobs shook his shoulders. He buried his face in his large, calloused hands. “I’ve got to do this by myself, but you’re the one who’ll pay the price.”
Stan gently placed his right arm around his grandfather’s back, an action his grandfather had used when Stan was a small boy. “We can work it out, whatever it is. There is nothing that can break us up, and that’s all that matters. You’ve told me that a million times. Family is what counts in the world.”
Grandpa Ellis raised his tear-streaked face and looked deeply into his grandson’s eyes. “Let’s go sit on the porch so I can smoke. I’ll tell you the story.”
Both men stood and turned to walk outside. From the back, there was little difference between them, except for the grandfather’s head of white hair. Broad shoulders, trim torsos and muscular legs defined them as workingmen: ranching men. They even dressed in a similar manner: dusty jeans, plaid shirts, cowboy boots with spurs, and bandanas tied about the neck.
Not a word was said as they crossed the living room. Grandpa Ellis stopped to pick up his pipe, tobacco pouch, and a book of matches. Stan retrieved his whittling stick from the sideboard.
Out the front door the silent procession continued. Grandpa turned to the right, as usual, and settled into his accustomed chair. Stan turned to the left and sat on the porch swing.
After lighting his pipe and taking the first draw, Grandpa blew a huge smoke ring into the air. “A long time ago, before you were born, I was a rough man. I gambled, drank, an’ participated in shootin’ matches. I was mean as a rattler, an’ ornery as that old donkey out back. I loved my women, an’ ran with a tough crowd. We all acted like we was warriors, an’ I guess we were.
“One day we rode into a dusty little town. Big Ben, one of my friends, got it in his head to rob the bank. It was the manly thing to do, I guess. Now I want you to know I was against it from the start. I might have pushed the law a bit, but I’d never done nothin’ that would of landed me in jail.”
Grandpa blew a series of rings into the air and watched them rise, higher and higher until they disappeared into the porch roof.
“Did Big Ben rob the bank?”
“I’m a gettin’ there.” He drew again on his pipe, held the smoke for what seemed like an eternity, and then pushed out the tainted air with a whoosh. “Big Ben was big, but not too bright. Once he thought it’d be fun to walk acrost that train bridge over the Missouri, where it crosses Crag’s Canyon. He got halfway acrost when the train comes. He had to jump into the river below. He never got hurt with his crazy schemes, but his reputation was that of an idiot who could shoot like the dickens.
“So he sees this little ol’ bank, an’ says that it would be easy to break in. He says that he knows the sheriff is a fat ol’ man who’d rather sleep than chase crooks. He says that the banker goes home at five an’ nobody comes back ‘til early morn.
“So we go into the saloon acrost the street an’ buy ourselves a beer. We tell jokes, play cards, smoke a few, all the time keepin’ our eyes on that bank. This town is so small that no more than five folks walked past the window, an’ there’s only two other customers in the bar an’ they’re both cold drunk.
“Right on time, that banker comes out, closes the door, pulls a key out of his pocket, an’ locks the door. He walks away without lookin’ back. Within minutes the streets are empty. Nothin’ but dust and flies.
“By now we’ve put down a few beers an’ are feelin’ pretty powerful. It’s funny how drink does that to a guy. Blows him up an’ makes him feel like he can do anything.
“The sun goes down, like it’s doin’ now. Pretty as can be. Sky all orange and red an’ purple. Things get mighty quiet. The bartender wakes up the drunks an’ walks them out a the saloon. He tells us to pay up an’ leave, so we do.
“We walk around a bit, up an’ down the streets, checkin’ out the bank from all sides. Randy, the real bandit in our gang, figures out a way to break in. There’s a little window in the back, about ten feet up. Since I was the lightest, Randy’s idea was for Big Ben to lift me up on his shoulders, an’ then I’d open that window an’ go in. Once in, I’d run to the front an’ unlock the door. The guys would come in an’ lock the door behind them. Then we’d break into the vault an’ get the money.”
As darkness fell, Stan watched an airplane traverse the ranch, heading toward the airport at Billings. The red lights blinked a warning signal, telling other planes to stay away. “So what happened? Did the plan work?”
“No. Shortly after Big Ben lifted me up, there was a thumping noise from inside the building. We froze, thinkin’ someone was in there. There was another thump, an’ then an even louder one. Pretty soon that window opened, seemingly by magic. Big Ben dropped me like I was a hot cob a corn an’ took two steps back. I scrambled out of the dirt on all fours. Randy squealed like a little girl an’ took off down the street.
“As I was runnin’ away, a voice called to me. It nearly sacred me to death, it did.”
“What did it say?”
“It said, ‘Hell is callin’ and you’d better answer,’ in a gravely voice that sent chills runnin’ down my spine. I had no idea what this meant or who was speakin’, but I was interested. Those beers had numbed my senses a bit, an’ so my brain wasn’t thinkin’ clearly. So I stumbled back to the building an’ look up. Out of that window stuck a head wearin’ a black hat. Black whickers covered the face.
“I should of run away right then, but my curiosity was stronger than my sense, so I looks up an’ sees that there is now a rope danglin’ from that window. ‘Come on up,’ the man calls. So I grab a hold of that rope an’ climb. I’d never known I could climb so easy. Within seconds I was through that window an’ in the bank.
“It was pretty dark inside, but I could make out the figure of a man standin’ to my right. He was huge: bigger than Big Ben. ‘Welcome to my bank,’ he said as he grabbed my right hand an’ shook it. That man was so strong, I thought my arm was a gonna fall off.
“He turns, still holdin’ my arm, an’ walks me into the heart of the bank. ‘My name’s Hell. What’s yours?’ Without thinking, I tell him. Then he drags me over to the vault. ‘Hold this for me,’ he says an’ hands me the smallest lamp I’ve ever seen. Later I found out it was a miner’s lamp, but at the time, I was stupefied by its size.
“Well, to make a long story short, Hell broke the code to the vault on the first try, like he had it memorized or something. He pulled a cotton bag out of his pocket an’ filled it up with bundles of dollars. ‘Here. Take this. Thanks for helping me,’ he says. ‘Someday I’ll need your help again. I’ll find you, Ellis, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. You’ll help me then, just as you are now.’ With that he disappeared into the darkness, leaving me there holding the money.
“Considering that this had been my gang’s plan all along, I didn’t think much of it. Yes, I robbed a bank, but I figured all I’d done was hold the lamp. I felt pretty smug as I swaggered to the door an’ stepped onto the wooden sidewalk. Randy an’ Big Ben met me there an’ asked what had happened. I explained it all to them as we walked down the empty street. We mounted our horses an’ rode away. Later we divided up the money.”
“How much was there?” Stan had known that his grandfather had lived a rough life, but discovering that he had been a bank robber was a huge surprise.
“Somewhere near ten thousand dollars. That was a lot of money back then. Feelin’ kind of guilty, I only kept two thousand. It was enough that I could stop my roaming days an’ settle down. I bought this spread, built me a house, an’ bought some horses. Not the best stock, but as good as I could get. I figured with careful breedin’ I’d make out fine.”
Far off in the distance, a horse whinnied, followed by a chorus of others in response. The porch swing creaked as Stan rocked back and forth. After closing up his pocketknife that had never touched his carving, Stan sighed. “What does this guy Hell want?”
“He wants the money back. And not just what he stole, but a whole lot more. He wants twenty thousand. Hell says that with time, my share has grown in value. He says that unless I give him the money, he’ll go to the police an’ turn me in.”
“That was a long time ago, Grandpa. They can’t try you for a crime committed that many years back.”
“You don’t get it, boy. Hell’s a big-time lawyer in Billings now. He’s got all the politicians eating off his plate. He’s thinking about running for office and his platform is cleaning up old crimes. He says it’s me against him, an’ no one’d believe that he’d ever done something like rob a bank.” He stood, arched his back and stretched his arms over his head. He turned toward the front door.
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’m a gonna give him the money.”
Stan gasped. That money was his college fund, most of it from his inheritance when his parents died. Some was from selling breeding stock. It was earmarked for his tuition and fees at the University of Montana.
“Hell’s robbin’ you of your education, boy. I can’t think of nothin’ else to do. If’n I don’t give him the money, I might end up in jail. If’n I do give him the money, then you can’t go to college. Hell’s got me backed into a corner so tight it hurts. What do you think I should do?”
Stan stared into the black fields of the ranch. Grandpa Ellis stood silent, waiting to hear what his grandson had to say.
“Don’t give him the money yet. Mary’s father is a lawyer. I’ll ask him what the law says about crimes that old. He’s a good man and has done right by many of the ranchers out here. When’s Hell coming back?”
“He gave me a week. That was on Saturday.”
“We’ve got two days left. I’ll go over to Mary’s tomorrow morning before her dad leaves for work. He’ll help us out.” Stan stood and walked over to his grandfather. He grabbed hold of his guardian’s right arm and squeezed. “Let me try, anyway. If Mary’s dad can’t help, then we’ll give Hell the money. I’ll stay here and go to the community college.”
Grandpa Ellis nodded silently and walked into the house. He put away his pipe and pouch, and then climbed the stairs to his bedroom. Stan went into the kitchen to wash the dinner dishes. Once that task was complete, he, too, went to bed.
In the morning, Stan drove to his girlfriend’s house. Her father listened to the story, not interrupting until Stan was through.
“How long ago was this?”
“At least sixty years ago. Grandpa said he was a young man. He married my grandmother in his twenties, and this was well before then.”
“You’re right, Stan. There is a Statute of Limitations that keeps a man from being tried for old crimes. Even if there wasn’t, if Mr. Ellis is telling the truth, he wasn’t totally responsible for the break-in. He was an accomplice, true, but the circumstances were unusual. A voice out of nowhere, a man called Hell, and a mysterious rope falling.”
“So what does he tell this guy?”
Reaching into his coat pocket, Mary’s father pulled out his business card. “Give your grandfather this. Tell him to hand this card to Hell when he shows up. That should take care of it.”
Stan looked at the card and was surprised at what he saw. A host of silver angels danced across the top of the card, and a beam of golden light encircled the imprinted words.
Mary’s father laughed as he stood. “I work for Jesus Mendoza. He thought it made for an interesting business logo.”
‘Chase away your demons with Jesus’ law service’ floated just below the heavenly angels. In the bottom right hand corner, a red devil with pitchfork in hand, cowered in fear. “Hell might have found Mr. Ellis, but Jesus will be standing between the two of them. Jesus always wins his cases, and Hell knows this. Tell your grandfather that there will be no further trouble.”
Speechless, Stan stood and shook the man’s hand. He pocketed the card and followed Mary’s father out the door. He got into his car, started it up, cranked up the radio, and sang all the way home as he dreamt of college.