The Best Thief
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
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 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
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
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
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,"
"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
"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
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
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
© Joe Hayes
Joe Hayes Books at Cinco
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
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