The Best Thief

By Master Storyteller Joe Hayes

From his book "The Day It Snowed Tortillas"

Long ago there lived a poor man and his wife, who had three sons. But they didn't have any money to feed and clothe the boys.

Now, in those days people were very helpful to one another. If a family was too poor to raise a child, the godparents, the padrinos, would take the child and raise it as their own. So the father spoke to his compadres, the boys' three godfathers, and asked them to raise his sons. He also asked that they teach the boys whatever trade they followed, so that the boys could earn a living when they were grown.

The oldest son's godfather was a cobbler, so the boy lived with him and learned to cut and stitch leather into shoes. The boy soon could make better shoes than his godfather, so he went home to live with his parents and help them out by working at his trade.

The second son's godfather was a tailor, and the boy learned to cut cloth and sew fine clothes. When he had become a better tailor than his godfather, he too returned home.

But the godfather of the youngest boy-he was a thief! People said that he was El Mejor Ladron, the best thief in the land. From him the boy learned how to steal things.

One day the thief told the boy, "Come, let's walk down the road together until I find a way to test you to see if you're clever enough to be a thief." They walked along until they came to a tree by the side of the road. Up in the tree was a bird's nest, with the mother bird sitting on the eggs.

The thief said, "I'm going to climb this tree and steal the eggs from under that mother bird. She won't feel a thing. I won't make her fly away. I'll bring the eggs to you. If you can climb back up the tree and put them back under the mother without scaring her off, then I'll know that you're good enough to be a thief."

So the thief climbed the tree. But without his knowing it, the boy climbed the tree right behind him. The thief stole the first egg from under the mother bird and put it in his pocket, and the boy stole the egg from the man's pocket and put it in his own. Then the thief stole a second egg, and the boy stole that one too. And the same with the third.

Then the boy scurried down the tree before the thief ever knew the two of them had been up there together. Back on the ground, the man said, Now it's your turn. Take these eggs ." he reached into his pocket-but there weren't any eggs!

The boy then reached into his own pocket. "Oh," he said, "do you mean these eggs?" And there in the boy's hand were all three eggs.

The man laughed. "They used to say I was the best thief in the land. But I guess I'm second-best. Now you're the best thief in the land!" And he sent the boy home to his parents so that he could help them out by working his trade.

Now, back in those times, the only place to find a job was at the King's palace. The oldest son had gone there as soon as he returned home, and because of his skill he soon became the Royal Cobbler. When the second son returned, he also found work at the palace, and soon he was the Royal Tailor.

So when the youngest son arrived home, the two older brothers went to speak to the King, hoping that the boy might also be able to find work at the palace. "Well, asked the King," what sort of work does he do?"

"He's a thief, Your Majesty. He's the best thief in the whole land!"

"A thief!" the King roared. "I usually hang thieves. I don't give them a job! But you say he's the best thief in the whole land? I have to admit I'm curious about that. Tell him to come and talk to me tomorrow."

The next day the boy went to speak with the King, who said, "I hear you're the best thief in the land."

"Well, then, Your Majesty," the boy replied, "you've heard the truth."

"Well see about that," the King retorted. "I'm going to give yu a test. Tomorrow a pack train of mules loaded with gold will be coming to the palace. If you can steal the gold from those mules without the mule drivers catching you, it's yours. But if they catch you, you'll spend 30 years in my dungeon!"

The boy just shrugged his shoulders and went away. He went to talk to his brother the cobbler, and he had his brother take some leather and make a big doll, as big as a full-grown man. Then the boy set out down the road with the doll over his shoulder.

Soon the boy came to a grove of cottonwood trees not far from the road. He climbed one of the trees with the doll, and set it up among the branches. Then he went off to hide.

A short while later the mule train came up the road. The mule drivers looked over at the tree. They could see someone hiding among the branches. "Mira, son los apaches! It's the Apaches!" some said. But others said, "No. Son los navajoses. It's the Navajos."

But they all knew that whether it was the Apaches or the Navajos, the smart thing was to go right on by and pretend they hadn't seen that Indian scout watching them.

That night when they made camp, they were nervous. They put out double guards and they all slept with their rifles next to them in their bedrolls. The boy waited until late in the night. Then he came running into the camp screaming, "Los apaches! Los apaches! Here come the Apaches!"

The mule drivers jumped up and grabbed their rifles. They all ran for the trees, to fight from behind them. While the drivers were gone, the boy opened all the saddle bags, took the gold, closed the saddle bags again, and went on his way.

When the boy arrived at the palace the next day, the King was furious. "So!" he bellowed. "You got my gold!"

"Your Majesty," the boy corrected, "you mean my gold, don't you?"

"Aaahh, your gold or my gold-whatever! Now I have another test. Tomorrow another pack train will be coming, and these drivers will be wise to you. If you can get their gold, fine, it's yours. But if you fail, you've taken your last look at sunlight. You'll spend the rest of your life in my dungeon."

The boy shrugged and went off to see his brother the tailor. He had him take black cloth and make 11 black robes such as priests wear. He wrapped the robes in a bundle and set out. He made only one stop on his way, and that was to buy a big jug of whiskey.

That evening the mule drivers were coming up the road when they met up with a priest coming down the road from the other direction. He was all covered with dust from his journey, and he carried a bundle under his arm. They greeted him courteously. "Father," they said, "will you stop and camp the night with us?"

"No," the priest replied, "I have to get on to the next village. The people are expecting me. But I would appreciate a cup of coffee. Could you give me that?"

"Of course, Father. It's time to make camp anyway." So they built a campfire and put on a big coffeepot. Then the men got busy with their animals, giving them hay and water. While they were busy, the boy-because that's who the priest really was-took the lid from the coffeepot, pulled the stopper from the jug of whiskey and poured the whole jug of whiskey into the coffeepot.

When the men finished their work, they poured out cups of coffee. But the boy only pretended to drink his. When no one was looking, he poured it out on the ground.

But all the men drained their cups. "Whew! That's good coffee! Let's have another cup!" They poured out another round. "Ah! That coffee gets better with every cup. Let's have some more!"

Soon they all were swaying back and forth, and singing around the fire. Then they all fell asleep. While they were sleeping, the boy not only stole the gold-he also stole their clothes. And he dressed them all up like priests in black robes.

The next day the watchman at the palace was looking out, and he saw 10 priests come walking up the road. "What's this?" he puzzled. "Oh! The Bishop must be coming for a visit!" He ran to inform the priest at the palace. They started ringing the church bell, and everyone turned out. Even the King and Queen were waiting in their royal finery-only to meet their own mule drivers dressed up like priests!

When the boy got to the palace, the King was fuming. "Sooo! You got my gold once again," did you?"

"Your Majesty, you mean my gold, don't you?"

"Your gold! My gold!" the King thundered. "Who cares? I have one more test for you. And this time you won't succeed!"

"Maybe I will. Maybe I won't."

"You won't! Listen to this! Can you come into my bedroom tonight and steal the sheets from my bed while the Queen and I are sleeping on it? Ha! Ha! If you can do that I'll give you half my kingdom! But if you fail-and you will fail-it will cost you your life!"

The boy thought about that for a while. Then he went back to that big cottonwood tree where he had left the doll. He got the doll down and went along to his own home. His father had just butchered a sheep, so the boy cut the doll open and stuffed the insides of that sheep into the doll. He sewed it back up and went on to the palace to await nightfall.

That night the King was lying in bed with his eyes wide open, staring at the door, just waiting for someone to try to come in. He had his sharpest sword at his side. After a while the Queen fell asleep. But the King never even blinked his eyes.

The boy waited until far into the night. Then he held the doll in front of him and went creeping up the stairs to the royal bedchamber. When he got to the doorway, he eased that doll ahead of him into the room.

The King saw someone coming through the door and leaped out of bed. He seized his sword and-slash! The doll fell in two pieces. And blood from the insides of the sheep went splattering all over the room.

"Aha!" the King laughed. "I guess I'm rid of that thief at last." But then he thought, "I can't leave this dead body here for the Queen to see in the morning. I'd better bury him."

So he picked up the two halves of that doll, which he thought was the thief, and carried it out to bury it. While he was gone, the boy came sneaking into the room. And he climbed into bed with the Queen!

"Whew!" he said to the drowsy Queen. "I'm so hot and sweaty! It was a lot of work burying that thief. He was heavy! Move over to the far side of the bed and give me plenty of air." Not really understanding, the Queen moved over as far as she could. And the boy slipped the sheets off half the bed.

Then he said, "I'm still too warm. Let me get close to the window. You come over here!" So the Queen traded places with him, and he took the sheets off the other half of the bed. Then as soon as she drifted back to sleep, the boy crept from the bedroom.

He was hardly out the door before the King came in it. The King climbed into bed, and then he said to his sleepy Queen, "Whew! I'm so hot and sweaty! It was a lot of work burying that thief. He was heavy!"

The Queen opened one eye. "You already said that once!" she scolded. "Are you going to talk about it all night? Can't I get some sleep?"

"What do you mean-'already said that once, talk about it all night long'? What are you .?" Then the King noticed that there weren't any sheets on the bed! He jumped out of bed and started tearing his hair and cursing and kicking the furniture around the room! But what could he do? He had given his word.

And so the next day the King had to sign a piece of paper giving half his kingdom to the boy. The boy took his father and mother and his two brothers, and they all moved into one of the small palaces on their half of the kingdom.

And from that day on, the family was so rich that no one in the family ever had to work again. Not as a cobbler. Not as a tailor. And not even as a thief!

To order "The Day It Snowed Tortillas" or other books by Joe Hayes, visit Cinco Puntos Press.

Copyright © Joe Hayes
Order Joe Hayes Books at Cinco Puntos Press

Joe Hayes, Storyteller

Joe Hayes, professional storyteller and SFAOL contributor, has performed in hundreds of schools, libraries, museums and parks. He tells folktales from many cultures, and among his favorites are the local cuentos, the Hispanic tales of New Mexico. A highlight of every summer in Santa Fe, for children and adults alike, are his storytelling sessions outside the tepee at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe.

In 1982, Mariposa Printing and Publishing company in Santa Fe presented 10 of these stories in "The Day It Snowed Tortillas." Now in its ninth printing, the book has become a regional favorite and has brought delight to readers throughout the country.

From the melodic song of "La Hormiguita"to the classic lament of "La Llorana," "The Day It Snowed Tortillas" is a collection that will captivate hearts for years to come. If you enjoy the stories of Joe Hayes on SFAOL, you can order this book or others he has written by visiting Cinco Puntos Press.

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