The Habit of Larceny

An excerpt from The Kid (Scribner), the story of Billy the Kid like it’s never been told

The Habit of Larceny
Billy the Kid by Tim O’Brien

The Kid’s grief over his mother’s death first caused him to feel disoriented and in a trance, then fiery in his anger at Billy Antrim and, irrationally, the Silver City that had failed to heal her. There was a lot of Why me? in his ruminations. And it was his undoing that in his aloneness and loss he fell in with a wild and vice-laden crowd. Would have become an adored, happy, skylarking captain of all he surveyed had he not first linked up with miscreants like Sombrero Jack—so named because of the spangled Mexican hatwear he favored. Jack was ten years older, held a stonemasonry job, and just for company let a lonely fourteen-year-old orphan tag along like a tolerated little brother when Jack was pursuing thievery, an excess of whiskey, or the card games of monte and faro.

Was Jack who urged the Kid to leave his lodgings in the Star Hotel, where he was a waiter and dishwasher, and join him in Mrs. Brown’s rooming house. And it was Jack who goaded him into stealing three pounds of fresh-churned butter from a buckboard, selling it to a grocer on Texas Street for fifty cents. Coroner Harvey Whitehill had just been given the job of sheriff, after the former officer of the law ran off with some of Lincoln County’s funds. And the Kid was one of Whitehill’s first arrests. But the new sheriff just smacked the boy’s cringing head three, four times and wagged a finger as he lectured him, since he knew folks reacted hard to the loss of a mother.

Was Sombrero Jack, too, who one Saturday night smashed out a front window of the Chinese laundry owned by the Celestials Charley Sun and Sam Chung, Jack crawling through moon-glinting shards of glass in order to scavenge two Ruger Old Army cap-and-ball pistols, a stack of wool blankets, and the fineries floating and puffing on the backyard clotheslines in the soft October breeze. Skedaddling out of town and hiding his loot in Crawford’s Mill, Sombrero Jack later realized it was doing him no good there, so he retrieved it and returned to Mrs. Brown’s, telling the Kid he’d go halves with him if the worshipful boy would sell it.

But she doubted him enough to investigate a steamer trunk in his closet when he was gone and found a soap-scented bundle of lady things and a Livingston suit he couldn’t afford, so she hustled out to the sheriff’s office to rain overdue judgment down upon Henry.

Ron Hansen

Sheriff Whitehill felt the late Mrs. Antrim would approve of him scaring her son into gallantry by locking him up in the county jail on the charge of larceny. Whitehill’s children, however, were friends of Henry, sharing a pretty Englishwoman’s classes in the one-room public school, and those seven children raised their voices against their father in high dudgeon that evening, and even the sheriff’s wife wanted him to at least escort the fourteen-year-old to their house for a nice breakfast in the morning.

Sombrero Jack, by then, had heard of the Kid’s arrest and skinned his way out of town and out of this narrative, but he would find Jesus and finally reform his life and wind up a justice of the peace in Colorado.

According to a jailer, the circuit court would meet in session in Silver City the third week of November, six weeks hence, so, forlorn with fear of a final conviction, the Kid conceived a plan to extricate himself from his dilemma. Working on the sheriff’s instinct for leniency, Henry conned him into a free half hour of exercise each morning in the corridor outside his cell, and then when a jailer for once wasn’t watching, the Kid ducked down into the fireplace and, skinny as he was, clawed and scraped and laddered his way up the narrow chimney flue until he could fall out onto the roof and then hurtfully to the ground.

A gardener with a hoe saw the Kid’s soot-blackened hands and face and asked, “You playing in a minstrel show?”

“You won’t tell on me, will you?”

“Oh, I’ll tell. The fix you’re in don’t mean nothing to me.”

Hearing of the escape and getting on his knees to peer up the tight fit of the chimney, Sheriff Whitehill was impressed, telling the jailer, “Henry has an ingenuity with which I have heretofore not been acquainted.”

“You could tell he’s a hard case,” the jailer said. “He’s got them dancing eyes.”

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