The boy called Cowboy was restless again. He lay in bed, staring at the dark ceiling, hands behind his head. The moon was high in the sky but the boy wasn't in the least bit tired. The room was stuffy and hot, full of other boys who had the good fortune of sleep.
Silently, he climbed out of bed, careful not to step on a dangling hand or foot. Racetrack mumbled something like "I'll pay ya back, promise." The window opened smoothly- it was a well-used escape route- and he slipped outside into the night.
"Where ya goin', Cowboy?" Jack spun, startled, and saw Boots heading for the Lodging House. Jack winced inwardly; he'd hoped no one would know about his moonlight wanderings. He was Jack Kelly, Cowboy- the fearless leader, not the hopeless dreamer.
"Nowhere, Boots. Just stretchin' my legs." Boots nodded, looking exhausted. Jack wondered where he'd been, but didn't ask. "The window's open," Jack added as he walked into the night.
He inadvertently found himself outside David's house. Hands in pockets, he looked up at the dark windows of the apartment he sometimes made his home. The Jacobs were a great family. David was his closest friend; Les, a little brother; and Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs like an uncle and aunt. Not a mother and father, though. Jack had parents at one point and there were nothing at all like David's parents.
Then there was Sarah. At first, they'd been in love, or at least what Jack thought was love. But spending so much time at her apartment had made things awkward. He knew Mr. Jacobs didn't approve; he watched Jack like a hawk whenever he slept there. Things had cooled between them; Jack saw her more as a sister or close friend than a love interest now. It was evident that she still had feelings for him, though, and his increasing aloofness was hurting her.
He didn't mean to hurt her. He never meant to hurt anybody unless, of course, they deserved it. The Jacobses were wondering why he didn't frequent their supper table as often. Les often asked why he didn't spend the night anymore.
"How do you do it, Jacky-boy?" Spot had asked over beers one afternoon. It may have been bad for business, but every once in awhile, a hardworking newsboy needs a beer.
"Do what?" asked Jack, taking a drag on his cigarette.
"The family thing," Spot answered. "You know, wit' Davey and all. It would drive me nuts havin' someone you gotta tell before ya go out, always havin' someone worryin' bout ya when ya don't come home."
"I dunno. Takes gettin' used to, I guess."
"It's stiflin' if ya ask me."
Jack had shrugged, and the conversation was over.
The truth be told, it was stifling, even though the adult Jacobses were never overbearing. Jack felt guilty for thinking such a thing. Here he was, a celebrity of sorts, with a family who cared about him, and he wanted out. There was that old dream of hitting the rails to Santa Fe. The dream was still alive, but it was struggling for survival. The other newsies, they'd miss him, but they'd soon move on, find a new leader. People often came and went in the lives of newsies. But the Jacobs' hearts would be broken. And as much as he wanted to, he couldn't say he didn't care.
"That's the trouble with families," Jack said to no one in particular. "They tie ya down." "I'll shecond that," a drunk man slurred as he stumbled by. Jack chuckled and yawned. All this thinking had tired him out. He made his way back to the Lodging House and fell sound asleep.
The next morning, Skittery had to shake Jack awake. "Come on, Cowboy, the headlines ain't gonna wait for you t'get yer sorry butt outta bed."
Jack muttered something unpleasant about newspapers and stumbled out of bed.
"Ya awake, Jack?" Boots joked. "I didn't even hear ya come in."
Jack looked around sheepishly. "Yeah, I'm awake."
"Where'd ya go, Jack?" asked Race as he splashed water on his face.
"No place," Jack said shortly and retreated to the bathroom stall. He hoped he hadn't been to harsh; to make up for it he snapped Duchy with a towel on his way back. The others seemed relieved to see their leader back to his old self.
"Hope we get a good headline today," Race remarked, squinting in the sun on the way to the circulation office. "I could use the money."
"We all could, Race," Pie-Eater countered.
"But I've got a worthy cause," Race retorted.
"What's that? Horseraces?"
"It's worthy! Think a all the bookies who'd go hungry if I didn't donate my hard-earned cash."
The crowd laughed. "So that's what you call it now? Donatin'." Specs chuckled.
The bell rung, the newsies bought their papes, and the day began.
Later on, David caught up with Cowboy. "We missed ya last night at dinner," he said, looking at him. The gravity in his eyes told Jack there was more behind that statement than David was vocalizing.
"Sorry," Jack said, smiling to lighten things up. "I had a previous engagement." He said it as if it were tea with the president.
David laughed. "Should we expect you tonight?"
Jack hesitated, but relented. The Jacobses were good to him. "Yeah, I'll be there."
Sales weren't good that day. Jack's heart just wasn't in it. He had too much on his mind, and the news was slow. Cowboy hated selling papers. He hated the smell of them, the look of them, the way the newsprint alwys rubbed off on his hands. But it was the best thing a 17 year old boy with no education could do.
Except be a cowboy.
The thought of himself mounted on a horse, riding into the sunset was thrilling, but it would never happen. Not while he was stuck in a dirty, overcrowded city selling papers for a penny apiece.
"Hello, Jack!" exclaimed Mrs. Jacobs delightedly. "How nice to see you!" She put an arm around his shoulder and gave him a little squeeze.
"We've missed you, Jack," Mr. Jacobs said, arm still in a sling from a factory accident.
Jack ducked his head, embarassed. He never knew how to respond to welcomes like these. Luckily, Sarah came in from the kitchen. She smiled when she saw him and he smiled back.
"How've you been, Jack?" she asked, setting the steaming bowl on the table.
"Better since I got here," he replied.
David and Les came in as well and they sat down to eat. It wasn't much; the Jacobs didn't have a lot of money since Mr. Jacobs lost his job at the factory.
Les and Sarah were arguing over whose turn it was to do the dishes that night; Mrs. Jacobs asked David if his cold was any better; Mr. Jacobs mentioned sending all his children back to school after his arm healed. Jack smiled as he looked around the table. He really did care about these people. They gave him so much and he gave them nothing in return. He always felt a pang of guilt whenever he ate with them; they hardly had enough to share. But he always left feeling warm inside, as if he'd just eaten a bowl of hot chicken soup on a cold day.
Jack left that night more confused than ever. He wanted someone to talk to about all of it, but few of his friends would really understand. David might, but he was the last person Jack could talk to.
He sat on the front steps of the Lodging House, cowboy hat in his hands. The sound of footsteps made him look up; Specs was coming his way.
"Somethin' wrong, Cowboy?" he asked, concerned. Jack looked at him for a moment. Specs was always the one to listen to the ones who had problems. Nobody ever admitted to having problems, of course, but Specs always seemed to know and always seemed to get them to talk about it. Jack knew that he'd listen and not think him strange, but still, he was the Fearless Leader. He took a breath.
"Ever let a dream die, Specs?" He winced. The words sounded sappy even to him.
Specs blinked. That certainly wasn't a Jack-like thing to say. He wondered for a moment if Jack was putting him on, but the seriousness in his friend's eyes told him otherwise. Specs sat down next to Jack.
"Well... I dunno if dreams ever die. They just... go to sleep for awhile." Specs felt foolish for saying something like that, but Jack just nodded, staring ahead into the dark, spinning his cowboy hat in his hands. This guy's got somethin' on his mind, he thought. "Lettin' go of a dream, Jack?"
He nodded. "Remember Santa Fe?"
Specs smiled. "Where ya got yer nickname."
Jack nodded again, looking at his hat. Specs waited for him to reply, but all he got was silence. Specs was growing concerned. It wasn't like Jack to be so introspective; that was Specs' job. "You alright?"
Jack shrugged. "I dunno, Specs. This city's draggin' me down. Too many people, not enough space." Specs nodded, waiting for him to go on. "I wanna get outta here."
"Why dontcha? Santa Fe's not goin' nowhere."
"S'not that easy. I don't got the money."
"Keep savin' up, Jack. You'll get enough."
"I don't got no place to stay."
"You don't got no place now, either."
"I wouldn't know where to start allaway out there."
"Ya wouldn't be any worse off than ya are now."
Jack looked at his spectacled friend. "Ya tryin' ta get ridda me, Specs?"
Specs smiled, too. "Naw, acourse not. Where'd we be withoutcha, Jack? But yer just makin' excuses. What's the real reason ya don't wanna leave?"
Jack raised an eyebrow. He'd seen right through his reasons not to leave- Specs was good. No wonder everybody went to him. "It's complicated."
"Try me," Specs said with a half-smile. Jack balked. "It's the Jacobs, ain't it?"
Startled, Jack peered at him. "Is it that obvious?"
"Not ta anybody but me." Seeing Jack's odd look, he added, "Nobody else was lookin' for reasons."
"Yeah... if I leave, I'll be hurtin' 'em. I don't wanna hurt nobody. An' they keep givin' me stuff an' I know they can't afford it. It's nice an' all, but I dunno if I want all that, what's the word?"
"Security?" Specs suggested.
"Yeah, security. I dunno if that's the right thing fer me, ya know? I've spent all this time by myself, on my own, an' I kinda like it. Not havin' anybody waitin' round for me, bein' able to go where I please. If it wasn't fer them, I could go to Santa Fe and do what I wanna do."
"But what would ya have in Santa Fe? I mean, ya don't got much here, but ya got friends, and a place ta sleep sometimes, and a family that cares about ya. Out there, you'd have none a that."
Jack thought about that for a moment. "I'd be doin' what I wanted ta do."
Specs nodded. "Yeah." He paused. "I always wanted ta be a writer. But I can barely read much less write a book or somethin'. If I got a chance ta go ta school an' learn up, I'd do it in a second, even if it meant that I'd be leavin' the people I cared about." He looked at Jack. "Sometimes ya gotta do what's good for you."
Jack looked back at Specs. He'd never had a conversation this insightful before; had never talked about his feelings this much with another human being. Though nothing had been solved, he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Smiling at each other, the two newsies went inside.
Jack sat on the fire escape, mulling over his predicament. The dilemma was beginning to interfere with his everyday life- a lack of sleep made him cross, and he hardly sold any papers. He'd just buy them, then end up sitting somewhere thinking about what he should do. Only Specs knew what the problem was, and he wasn't telling any of the other confused newsies.
Late that sleepless night, Jack stared at the ceiling and decided to pray. God, he thought, I know I ain't been the best person in the world, but I ain't been treated the best either. I've been tryin' to survive, and doin' my best to do the right thing, but we ain't been on speakin' terms since my ma died and my dad went ta jail. I guess I don't got no right askin' for nothin' from ya, but ya ain't given me much anyway. So here goes: I need a sign. Gimme somethin' to show me what I should do- stay here or go to Santa Fe. Specs was right- I almost got enough money. A couple more days sellin' time, and I can make it. But I need ya to show me if I should take the chance. Cowboy opened his eyes, remembered something, and closed them again. Amen. There. It was in God's hands now, hopefully God would make the decision for him.
The next morning he awoke, the prayer a small memory in the back of his brain. But at least he'd slept well for the first time in weeks. Walking outside, he joined his fellow newsies at the Circulation House.
"Hey Davey," he said as his friend approached. "Hiya, Les." He ruffled the younger kid's hair.
"Hi, Jack." They shook hands.
"Guess what!" Les said excitedly, jumping up and down.
"What? Ya get a new comic book?"
"No! Even better! My dad gots a new job!"
Jack looked at David, whose smile was wide. "Really?" he asked.
"Yeah, he's working at the book store. The owner's gettin' too old, and he asked my father to take over. He doesn't mind that he's only got one good arm."
"That's great, Dave!" Jack slapped him on the back. "Tell yer dad I said congratulations."
"There's more!" Les exclaimed. "Soon we'll have enough moneys that we all can go to school!"
"We all?" Jack echoed. He turned to the window. "Hundred papes." He picked up his papers and paid.
"Yeah! Me, David, Sarah, and you!"
"Me?" He cast a quizzical glance at David.
"Yeah, my mother and father want you to go to school, too."
Jack was incredulous. "Yer parents are gonna pay for me to go to school?"
"Yeah! It'll be fun!" Les grinned.
"Dave, I don't think so." He shook his head. "It's a real nice idea, but... you can't afford it! I can't pay ya back or nothin', neither."
"They want to do it, Jack. You're a part of our family now. Where would we be if you hadn't helped Les and I with sellin' papes?"
"Yeah, but school? I ain't been to school a day in my life."
"Better late then never," David countered.
"I can barely write, an' my readin' ain't much better."
"Just think about it, Jack. Ya got time. You're not even supposed to know yet." He threw a glare at his little brother. "But this loudmouth couldn't keep his trap shut." Les looked sheepish, but still maintained his smile.
No way, Jack said. There's no way I can let them send me ta school. They can't afford it. They could use the money for themselves. It ain't like they's livin' in the lap a luxury or nothin'. It ain't right for me ta take their money.
Jack stopped suddenly. Was this the sign? It sure seemed like it could be. But was it for him to stay or go? One one hand, it could be his way of making a better life for himself. On the other, it might be trying to tell him to leave so the Jacobs' could live better. "This isn't much help," he muttered, bringing an odd look from David.
"What was that?" he asked.
"Nothin'," Jack answered, shaking his head.
David paused, then said, "Jack, are you alright? You've been acting funny for the past few- Jack?"
Jack didn't hear him. He was too busy staring openmouthed at a man who'd stepped in front of them and was staring back at Jack.
"Francis?" the man asked in a near-whisper.
Jack couldn't believe it- this was his father, a man he hadn't seen in five years, standing in front of him, alive and well. He opened his mouth to say something but his father enveloped him in a huge hug.
"Oh, Francis. I've missed you so much."
"So've I," Jack lied, pulling away. His father looked him over.
"You've gotten so big," he said incredulously.
"It's been five years, pop."
"Five of the longest years of my life."
Jack nodded slowly. His father's time in jail seemed to have changed him- he wasn't acting at all like he used to. Jack tried to think how many time his father had hugged him after his mother died. It was incredible. Five years ago, hidden in a closet, he'd watched his father get taken away by the cops for robbery. Back then, he was almost happy to see him go. Now that he saw him again, and being so loving, Jack didn't know what to think.
"Um, I'll see ya round, Jack," David said uncomfortably.
"Oh, Jesus," Jack said, finally remembering that his friend was there. "I shoulda introduced ya. Dad, this is my best friend David Jacobs. Davey, this is my pop, Francis Sullivan. Senior," he added.
"Pleased to meet you," David said, politely, shaking hands with the original Francis Sullivan.
"Likewise," he replied. His grip was strong. Francis Sullivan was a big man, muscled and almost a head taller than his son. "Did you call him Jack?"
"Yeah, pop, that's my name now. Jack Kelly," Jack explained.
"You changed yer name? Sullivan not good enough for you?"
"No, pop, I had to, after I escaped from the Refuge."
"I'll explain it later. Why don't we get somethin' ta eat?" He turned to David, whose face was concerned. "I'll meet up whicha later."
"Sure Jack. Seeya."
"Hey Spot," David called to his Brooklyn friend. He was in town a lot- rumor had it he had a girl in Manhattan.
"Yeah, Mouth?" He walked over. "Where's Jack?"
"With his father."
"His fatha? I thought his fatha was in jail."
"Me too. I guess he got out."
Spot eyed him. "Legally?"
"I don't know. I haven't talked to Jack yet. They've been gone most of the afternoon."
Spot thought for a second, considering things. "What's Jack told ya about his fatha?"
"Not much. But enough to make me not like the man," David replied. He thought back to that conversation....
"Why's your father in jail, Jack?" he'd asked. "If you don't mind me askin'."
"Robbed a store," Jack replied simply.
"How old were you?"
"That young? That musta been tough." David couldn't imagine being alone in the world at age twelve.
"Nah. I was glad ta see him go."
"Your father? What was wrong with him?" He didn't mean to pry, but the question just popped out.
Jack swallowed and looked away to the city. "He used ta hit me." He paused. "A lot."
He looked so young then, Jack did, that David felt as if he should protect him. But Jack shook himself and made a joke, and David didn't press the matter....
"Yeah, he ain't the nicest guy around," Spot agreed.
"He seemed real happy to see Jack though."
Spot shook his head. "I dunno. There ain't nothin' we can do now anyways. Wait till he comes back. Keep an eye on him for me, will ya?"
"Sure thing." They parted ways.
"Y'ain't sayin' much, boy," said Francis Sullivan, Sr.
"Sorry pop. It's just a shock, ya know? I figgered I'd never see you again. Ya weren't supposed ta be outta jail for another three years at least." Jack took a bite of his sandwich.
"I got out early for good behavior. I couldn't stay there another second longer than I had to, Francis."
"How'd ya find me?"
"Yer famous. I saw yer pitcher in the paper when you and your pals had that strike. I just never knew you was the leader of it." He smiled proudly at his son. "I went to the Circulation House to look for ya- and I found ya."
Jack nodded, chewing thoughtfully.
"Anyway, I got us an apartment not too far from here. It ain't much, but it'll do. I figger you can sell yer papers and I can work at the textile factory and then- what?" he asked at Jack's strange look.
"I dunno, pop. Last time we was livin' together..." he trailed off, debating whether to continue.
Mr. Sullivan closed his eyes for a moment, sighed, and said, "I've changed, boy. No more drinkin'. No more stealin'." He looked at Jack beseechingly.
"You swear it?" Jack asked, scrutinizing his father's face.
"I swear," he answered.
Jack smiled. "Okay."
Mr. Sullivan returned the smile and continued relaying his plan. "We'll both work, and when we get enough money, we can... now if you don't wanna do this, that's fine, but I know a guy with a ranch out west and he's lookin' for some help. He told me to come out whenever I wanted, so... what do you think?"
Jack just smiled.
"Yer what?" asked Mush.
"Movin' in with my dad." He had already explained everything to his newsies friends a million times, but was still in good spirits.
"That's great, Jack," he said, kind of half-heartedly.
"Thanks Mush," Jack said, gathering his meager belongings together. "I'll still be sellin' papes wit' you bums, don't look so glum!" That cheered up the rest of the newsies and they all offered words of encouragement. Some of them remembered their families and were happy that Jack could go back to his.
"Seeya tomorra, Cowboy," Race called, waving from the window as Jack stepped onto the street. Jack called back and waved in return.
"Jack!" He turned to see David running towards him.
"Hey Dave," he said.
"What on earth is going on?"
Jack explained what had happened that afternoon.
"Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean, from what you told me about your father, I-"
"That was five years ago, Davey. He's changed now."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Look Dave, it's my life. You got a whole family livin' at home. You can least let me have my father without tryin' to ruin it for me."
David looked at the ground. "Sorry, Jack."
"Besides, we're goin' west when we get the money."
David looked up. "You are?"
Jack nodded, brightening a little. "A friend of his has a ranch out there."
"Oh. Well, congratulations." He tried to smile.
"Thanks Dave. I gotta go. I'll see you tomorra."
Jack worked overtime, selling more papes than he ever had before. Watching the money accumulate in the glass jar on the kitchen table was exhilarating. It was going to happen. He would be a cowboy, a real one. He conveniently avoided thinking about the people he would leave behind.
"How ya doin'?" asked Mush later. "We miss ya at the poker games, Cowboy."
"Can't lose all the money I'm makin' ta youse bums," he joked. Mush slapped him on the back, laughing, and paid for his papes. He didn't notice Jack flinch.
It wasn't that bad, really. He and his father had just gotten into a little argument and his father had shoved him into the doorjamb. His shoulder was just a little sore, that's all. Nothing serious. Jack was pretty strong. It was just that his father was a lot stronger.
Not long after that, he showed up with a black eye.
"Woah, Cowboy, where'd ya get the shiner?" Boots asked incredulously.
Jack laughed. "Some dumbass thought he'd try ta take me on," he lied. "You think this is somethin', you shoulda seen him." That brought some laughs, and they went on their ways. Jack thought he was in the clear, but later Specs stopped him.
"Hey, Specs. Guess I'm gettin' the best a both worlds, huh?"
"What do you mean?"
"I got my family an' I'm goin' west."
"Oh." Specs nodded. "Listen Jack, I know you didn't get that shina from a kid on da street."
"Ya think I'm lyin'?"
"Yeah, I think ya are. David told me bout your fatha."
Jack's face grew dark. "What's that gotta do wit' anything?"
"He gave you that, didn't he?" Specs motioned to the ugly bruise under Jack's eye.
"So what if he did? My pop's been through a lot."
"So've you, but it ain't an excuse for him ta hit ya like that."
"You ever been beat before, Specs?" Jack asked hotly.
"Yeah, I have." Specs stared at Jack as if expecting a challenge.
"Then you know this is nothin'. If things get worse, I'll leave."
"They're gonna get worse, Jack, and we both know it."
"My pop is a good man. You should hear some a the stories he told me bout livin' in prison. Then maybe ya wouldn't act like such an asshole." In his heart, he knew Specs was right but his head wasn't listening. The pull of that western dream was still too strong.
"I ain't had a family since I was twelve. Davey's family's great but they don't understand where I'm comin' from. If yer pop came back an' said he wanted you ta come live wit him, an' was givin' you a chance ta do what you wanted ta do most in the world, what would you do?"
Specs hesitated, thinking hard. "I-I don't know. Maybe I'd trade in bein' hit for havin' a dad. Maybe not."
"See? I'm at least waitin' till I get ta the ranch."
Specs and Jack looked at each other for a minute, each trying to read the other's face. Finally, Specs said, "Take care a yerself, okay, Cowboy?"
Jack nodded stiffly and left.
"Specs." Specs swung around, startled.
"Dave, ya scared me." He paused. "How mucha that didja hear?"
"Enough," David said sadly.
"Pop?" Jack called, entering the apartment. He was still fuming from his argument with Specs. He hated when people thought they knew everything about him and what was right for him. "Pop?" There wasn't an answer and he walked into the kitchen. He stopped short when he saw the table.
The money jar was empty.
Maybe he got the tickets, he thought hopefully. Maybe we had enough money. In his heart he knew it wasn't true. His father had taken it all and run off.
"Bastard," Jack muttered. He hadn't changed after all. Furious, he gathered up his things. Even if his dad was coming back, this cowboy wasn't staying. Specs was right. How could I have been so stupid? He comes traipsin' back inta my life sayin' he's a great person an' all an' it's all a lie. He kicked the door to his room angrily. All that money. I coulda gotten a ticket and a half for what I made. That son of a bitch.
"Where tha hell do ya think yer goin'?"
Jack whirled to see his father in the doorway. Jack stood firm to face him with stony eyes. "Where's the money, pop?" He held up the empty jar. "The money for the train tickets." Mr. Sullivan didn't answer. He teetered on his feet, obviously drunk. "You stole it. After you swore you changed." Jack stepped forward to move past his father. He had never felt so betrayed, so disappointed, so angry. "Yer a cheat an' a liar. An' I'm leavin'."
Mr. Sullivan's face grew thundery. "You called me a liar?!"
Jack felt his stomach clench but he didn't back down and he didn't reply. Mr. Sullivan snatched the jar from Jack's hands and shook it at him. "I deserved this money. I worked in that fact'ry all day, earnin' more'n you ever would. I was in prison for five years while you ran the streets! This money was mine by rights! Mine!" He hurled the jar at Jack, who jumped the the side. The jar missed his head but smashed into his shoulder, shattering and falling to the floor. Jack grabbed his shoulder, the blood wetting his fingers. He clenched his teeth against the pain.
"You can have it, pop," he said, voice controlled. You gotta get outta here, Jack. He ain't thinkin' right. He's got that look again. If he gets his hands on you, he'll kill you. He swallowed down his fear so he could think clearly.
"You ain't goin' nowhere, Francis. Not after I paid for this nice place for you'n me. Not after all I done fer you." He grabbed Jack's arm and forced him away from the door. Jack wrenched away. Run, Jack! He flung himself at the door but his father grabbed him around the waist and threw him against the wall. Jack gasped and tried to catch his breath. Mr Sullivan's fist found his son's chin. He was yelling something but Jack's ears were ringing too loudly for him to understand.
"Pop, no!" he shouted, praying that his father would get his sense back. It didn't work, and he tried to block the next blows. Fight back! he shouted at himself. Jack's arm swung up and landed in his father's stomach. He got another hit to his face, but in his drunken state, Mr Sullivan barely felt any of the punches. He only got angrier. "You ungrateful son of a bitch," he slurred and brought his knee into Jack's stomach. He doubled over, feeling sick. Backhanded him across the face and stars danced in front of his eyes. He slumped, and watched helplessly as his father's belt came off.
Suddenly he was ten years old again, backed into the corner of his room, bleeding and crying. The Fearless Leader Jack Kelly, also known as Cowboy, was gone and all that was left was little Francis Sullivan Junior. The pain of the belt was no different now than it was seven years ago. He curled against the wall, trying to get away from the swinging leather, trying to stand. The indignity of being whipped at seventeen was not lost on Jack despite his fading consciousness. Smack. He had to bite his tongue to keep from crying out. With a last ounce of strength, Jack grabbed the belt as it landed and yanked it out of his father's grasp. He staggered, stood, and flung the belt out the window, watching it fall to the alley below like a bird with broken wings. His father pulled him back and beat him into unconsciousness.
"Hey Dave," called Race late the next afternoon. "You seen Jack today?"
Dave shook his head. "Why, haven't you?"
"No, none of us has. Wonder what's keepin' him. Maybe he got a girl or somethin'." He chewed on his everpresent cigar.
"Maybe," said David absently. He'd spotted Specs and ran over to him. "Nobody's seen Jack today," he reported.
Specs peered at him through his glasses. "Nobody?" David shook his head slowly. They both had the same idea. "Do you know where he's livin'?"
"Yeah, I been by a couple times. You thinkin' we should go over there?" Specs nodded soberly. "Me too."
The two slipped away from the rest of the newsies and headed off to Jack's apartment. They ran into Spot Conlon, fresh from a meeting with his Manhattan girl, along the way and relayed the story. Spot immediately became concerned for his friend. Jack had told Spot more about his past than he'd told David, and the idea of Mr Sullivan and Jack under the same roof unsettled him. "Let's go," he said, determination and a little fear in his eyes.
The apartment building was quiet and dark. The three made their way up the dilapidated stairs to Jack's apartment. Tentatively, David knocked. "Jack?" he called. There was no reply. Spot pushed David out of the way and pounded on the door with his fist. "Jack! Hey Jacky-boy, it's me, Spot! Lemme in!" Still no answer.
"I think we should go in," Specs said. The others nodded, and Spot tried the doorknob. It wasn't locked. It swung open eerily, like the door to a creepy house in a horror comic, and the three paused for a moment before entering.
"Jack?" David called again. The house looked deserted. Had they left without saying goodbye? Then he noticed the shattered glass on the floor. "Uh oh," he muttered, just as he heard Specs say in a terrible, horrified voice, "Oh my God."
He was faintly aware of people around him, of hands touching him. He thought it should have hurt, but if it did, he did not feel it. Everything was very dark and very quiet. A voice called to him but he didn't answer. He wasn't sure if he could. He wasn't sure if he wanted to. He was quite comfortable laying where he was, wherever he was. It was peaceful, and all he wanted to do was sleep.
"Oh, Jesus, Jack." Spot's voice was quavery as if he might cry. David couldn't blame him. His best friend was lying on the hard wooden floor, curled up and lying on his side in a pool of blood. His clothes were torn, his shoulder and back bleeding, his shirt ripped. Huge, angry bruises and knots displayed themselves on his chin, neck, eye, forehead. It was a few seconds before any of them could even move, then all of them did at once.
"Jack! Jack, can you hear me?" David yelled, turning him on his back and cradling his friend's head in his lap.
Specs felt for a heartbeat under Jack's tattered shirt. He nodded, a relieved expression on his face. "He ain't dead. But we sure as hell better get a doctor up here now." Seeing that neither David nor Spot was going to leave Jack's side, he got up and ran out the door.
Spot had taken off his shirt and was using it to cover the wound on Jack's shoulder. He was crying now, but trying not to show it. "Jacky-boy, come on. Talk to me. It's Spot." He didn't expect a reply but he had to say something.
"We have to find his father," David said quietly. "So I can kill him." He could not believe that a father could do something like this to his own son. He had just noticed the purple welts that striped Jack's back and chest. He looked so much like his old friend, even with the marks on his face. Eyes closed, like he was sleeping. David got that feeling again, like Jack was a little boy in need of protection.
"Not before me, you don't." Spot and David exchanged a tear-filled look. "He's not gonna die." He turned his head to look at Jack. "Ya not gonna die on me, Jacky-boy! You listen ta me! Ya not dyin'!"
The doctor arrived then, with Specs and another doctor close behind.
"I'm Doctor Harper," he said, not looking at either of them but focusing on Jack's still form. "His name is Jack?" He looked him over, a little aghast. "Who did this to him?"
"His father. Francis Sullivan, Senior." Spot spat out the name like it was rotten fish.
The other doctor approached and they shooed the other boys away.
He was aware of voices, and a cool hand on his forehead. The boy called Cowboy tried to open his eyes but suddenly became aware of something else- pain. His whole body hurt more than anything he'd felt before. It was not a place he wanted to be. He slipped back down into the darkness.
The rules at the hospital said that there could only be three people in the room at a time, but the newsies quickly broke it. They crowded around Jack's bed, not saying anything. There was nothing to be said. They came and went throughout the day with pained looks on their faces. Jack looked a little better than he did when Specs, David, and Spot had found him, but not much. The only good news was that Francis Sullivan, Sr. had been arrested for beating another man outside a bar and stealing his money. He'd be going back to jail now, hopefully for good. The message had been bittersweet for the three that stayed by Jack's side all day and all night.
David, Specs, and Spot hadn't left the hospital in three days. The Jacobses were there as much as they could be, but Mr Jacobs couldn't let his new job slip away. Sometimes seeing Jack laying there unconscious became too much for Mrs Jacobs and she had to leave. Sarah went with her, because it hurt her as well, though she wouldn't admit to it. Les was only allowed to stay for a few hours at a time before his parents would make him come home. David, however, was immovable.
Jack Kelly had four broken ribs, a broken wrist, and a deep cut in his left shoulder. He had to have surgery to take care of the internal bleeding. The cuts had been stitched up, the welts iced and salved. There were too many to count. Wires and tubes ran everywhere, attached to his arms, his head, his chest. He had a severe concussion, and the doctors had said that if he didn't wake up soon, he may never wake up at all.
"I shoulda been more forceful," Specs said quietly, his spectacled eyes ringed with dark circles. "I shoulda made him leave."
David shook his head. "Don't blame yourself, Specs. He never woulda listened to you, you know that."
Specs just shook his head, watching Jack.
Spot was terribly silent, speaking only when absolutely necessary. He was at a loss. Any time something bad happened, Spot Conlon could always take care of it. But now this... he felt as if he'd failed somehow. Failed his best friend. They'd known each other for four years and they'd always helped each other. If something was wrong, Spot could count on Jack for help, and Jack always counted on Spot. I shoulda done somethin'. I shoulda asked him about it. Maybe I coulda talked some sense into him, even if Specs couldn't. He thought these kinds of things all day.
David knew better than to beat himself up over this. It would achieve nothing. Or maybe he just couldn't think too much about it without breaking down. Instead he thought of the future. He's gonna wake up, he told himself. And when he does he's coming straight to my place and he's not leaving. Even if he wants to. David wondered about that. How would this event change Jack's opinion of David's family? Would he hate it? Love it? Run off to Santa Fe to get away from everything? He didn't know. All he could do was wait.
When he came to consciousness again, the boy called Cowboy felt better. The pain was less and he contemplated opening his eyes. He still did not know where he was, but that fact didn't bother him too much. He heard those same voices, the ones he always heard when he surfaced from the darkness. They sounded so familiar, who were they? As he tried to place them, he slipped back down into darkness.
The next time he came up, he was aware, and thinking. Where am I? What happened? He struggled to open his eyes. It was quite an effort, his eyelids felt like bricks. The light that he saw was too bright; he shut them again and groaned.
Immediately, Specs, Spot, and David were standing by Jack's bed. "Did you hear that?" David asked.
"Jack? Can you hear us? Are you awake?" Specs asked.
"Hey Jacky-boy, rise and shine."
Jack opened his eyes again and three disheveled heads came into focus. He blinked a few times. Their faces were all concern. Why was he laying here? What had happened? He tried to speak but his throat was a desert. It was too much; Jack started to close his eyes again when there was water at his lips. He didn't know who gave it to him but he swallowed it greedily. The effort wore him out, he fell back asleep.
He hadn't said anything, but the three keeping vigil were so excited that they hugged each other. Quickly they separated, trying to look macho, but the smiles plastered across their faces gave them away.
"He's gonna be alright," David said, more relieved than he thought possible.
Jack opened his eyes, confused, later that afternoon. He was in a bed, and Lord, did he hurt. Was he in a hospital? He was going to turn his head when the pain that shot through him made him change his mind. He blinked furiously as if it would clear his mind as well as his eyes. "Jack?" A face came into view. Jack vaguely remembered seeing it peering down at him before.
"Dave?" he croaked. And suddenly the memory of what caused him to be here came rushing back. He closed his eyes and groaned.
Four more heads appeared over him: Spot, Specs, Race, and Mush. They all were talking at once, each looking eternally relieved. "Are you alright Jack?" "God, we was worried bout you!" "How you feelin'?" "We missed ya, Cowboy!"
Jack was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed. He didn't like everyone looking down on him like that. He felt claustrophobic but he couldn't move to get away.
"Hey, hey, hey, give him some room," Spot ordered, pushing everyone back. He sat down in a chair near Jack's head. Jack, with much strain, turned to look at him. "How ya feelin'?"
Jack licked his lips. "Like I got hit by a train," he said hoarsely.
"That's about right," Spot replied.
Jack looked down at himself. A blanket covered most of his body but he bet they were covered in bandages and bruises. One arm was in a cast and it was painful to breathe. He suddenly wondered if everyone knew why he was here. He didn't know how he got out of the apartment. Did his father take him in? Could he make up a story about getting mugged? Nobody had to know it was his father; it would be too humiliating.
Before he could ask any of these questions, a doctor came in and made everyone leave. Jack was almost grateful. The doctor checked him over and asked him a lot of stupid questions, like what was his name and how old was he and what year was it? After he left, David, Specs, and Spot returned.
"I feel like I seen too mucha you," Jack said.
"We ain't left since ya got here," Specs said. "Ya really had us worried there, Cowboy."
"You remember what happened?" David asked gently.
Jack looked uncomfortable. "Yeah," he said noncommittally. "How'd I get here?"
"We, uh, we found ya at yer apartment, Jacky-boy," Spot said.
Jack closed his eyes. So they did know. "Does everybody know what happened?" They nodded. Jack moaned. How would he ever face the newsies again, after they knew he'd gotten beat by his own father?
"What's wrong, Jack? You need something?" David queried.
"Naw. Maybe my dignity," he added bitterly.
"What're you talkin' about?" Spot wondered.
Specs knew what he meant. "Nobody thinks any less a ya, Jack."
He looked up at Specs. How did he always know what he was thinking? "I think less a me," he answered quietly.
The three looked at each other. What could they say to that? Spot and David glanced at each other, at Jack looking extraordinarily sad on the bed, and at Specs, the counselor. "We'll leave you two alone," they said, and retreated.
Specs took a seat near the bed. "Why do ya think less a yerself, Jack?"
"Remember how ya felt after ya got beat when you were a kid?"
Specs nodded, not liking the memory. "Uh huh," he said aloud, since Jack wasn't looking at him. He stared at the ceiling, as if looking Specs in the face would be too much for him.
"Yeah, well, I'm seventeen. It's about a hundred times more humiliatin'."
"Nobody thinks a guy gettin' beat up on the street is a wimp," Specs told him. "What's the difference between a street thug and yer father?"
Jack sighed. "Because he's my father," he whispered sorrowfully.
Specs leaned back in the chair and nodded slowly. "Yeah," he said in a low voice.
Jack's physical recovery was progressing well. He'd soon be released from the hospital. The Jacobses had already prepared a bed in David's room for him and refused Jack's assertions that he did not want to impose. He looked much better, but he was not the same Jack that everyone knew.
"It will take him some time to get over his father's betrayal," Dr. Harper told the Jacobses. "In the meantime, let him know that you love him. Just don't push him."
Jack wouldn't talk to any of the doctors about it, so the job of psychologist fell on Specs. "You gotta stop blamin' yerself for this, Jack," he said a few days before Jack's release.
"I don't blame myself," he said, forcing down the hospital food.
"Yeah, ya do," Specs countered. "Ya think it's yer fault for not bein' tough enough. But yer not a rock, Jack. Yer a person, and yer seventeen. Yer father's what, five inches taller than ya, and prob'ly weighs about fifty pounds more. None of us coulda taken him. It ain't yer fault."
"I shoulda listened to ya. I shoulda left."
Specs shook his head. "I was thinkin' bout what you asked me before all this happened, Jack. You asked if I'd go back if my father came back. And ya know, I probably would. We all need somebody. It don't matter if yer seven, seventeen, seventy. Everybody wants somebody ta watch out for em, as much as they say they don't care. And a father-son relationship is hard ta bust."
Specs' wisdom never ceased to amaze Jack. "Yeah, mine's busted now. Along wit' da rest a my body."
"But now ya got a new life now. Wit' da Jacobs."
Jack looked down. "Yeah, I dunno bout that." He paused, breathing, thinking. "Everybody treats me like I'm some poor lost kid or somethin'. Like theys gotta be all quiet an' nice an' everything. It'd be a lot easier if people'd treat me like they used to."
"I think they will, eventually. You know, a lotta the newsies've been in situations like yours."
Jack looked at Specs. "Yeah?"
Specs nodded. "Not all of 'em, but some. They know how ya feel. They ain't gonna think yer any less of their leader."
Jack thought about that for a long time. Specs looked out the window at the setting sun, the colors muddied by the dirt of New York City. Finally Jack shook his head angrily and said, "He shoulda just killed me an' saved me from all this goddamn trouble. I hate that bastard." The venom in his voice was palpable. "I hope he dies in prison. I hope he gets the shit kicked outta him every goddamn day. Then he'd know how it feels. But it wouldn't even be the same, cuz the guys beatin' him wouldn't be people who were supposed to love him." Jack was trying very hard not to let the hot tears building behind his eyes spill over. He felt Spec's hand on his arm. It was a comforting gesture and Jack was thankful for it, though he'd never say so. It was one of those things that boys do but never talk about, like going to see Specs for advice.
"I don't understand," Jack said quietly as the tears fell unbidden. "I don't understand how he could do it. He was supposed ta be my father. He was supposed to take care a me. He was supposed to...." Jack couldn't finish. Jack Kelly, the Fearless Leader of the Manhattan Newsies was crying into his friend's shoulder like a small child. Neither would ever talk about this moment again, but Jack knew Specs would understand. And he did understand; Specs, the eternal observer, had witnessed many a newsie crying into his pillow late at night. He'd done it, too, waking up after a nightmare about his uncle, shaking and full of fear. Everybody wore masks, to hide what they were feeling inside. It's the boys' curse, Specs thought often, to be unable to show what we feel because we have to put up a macho front. We have to hold everything inside until it all comes out, and most of the time, there's nobody there to comfort us, to hold us, to tell us it will all be okay.
Jack was released from the hospital and received into the Jacobs' home. He was prepared for the awkwardness, but not for the outpouring of love. Now more than ever did Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs treat Jack as if he were their own son, preparing him for school, quizzing him over things he should know. Since Jack was so far behind, having little schooling, David tutored him to bring him to the level of most seventeen year olds. He was a quick and eager learner, and devoured books as fast as David could give them to him.
School was another story. Sitting in a desk all day was terribly uncomfortable, and Jack was often reprimanded for daydreaming. His thoughts were still on Santa Fe, though not nearly as much as before. He had toyed with the idea of leaving after he was well enough, to leave everything behind, but Specs told him that running from his problems would only make it worse. Jack agreed to give living with the Jacobs a try, and he was surprised to find that he liked it. After a few transitional weeks of settling in and adjusting to the Jacobs' ground rules, Jack found the routine comfortable.
He missed the other newsies, however, and met with them whenever he could. Weekdays were consumed by homework, but Jack, David, and Les still sold papes on the weekend. Sometimes Jack would purposefully lose David and Les in the crowds to stay out later with the newsies who didn't have to be home at a specific time.
"You stayin' to play poker wit' us, Cowboy?" Race asked hopefully.
Jack nodded. "Ya damn right I am. Youse bums are gettin' too rich fer yer own good." Whenever he was with the newsies, the proper grammar he was learning slipped into the familiar language of the streets.
"Dontcha gotta be home fer bed, Cowboy?" Spot teased. He was one of the only people who could get away with saying something like that to Jack without getting a punch in the arm.
"Naw, I'm breakin' the rules tonight." He struck a rebellious pose and accepted the cards handed to him.
The game lasted very late, and Jack was getting worried about what the Jacobs' would say to him when he arrived home. He pushed the thought out of his head though. I'm havin' fun. I ain't been out late wit' the boys in a long time. They won't care that much. Still, he left the game earlier than most of the other newsies.
He looked for Specs on the way home, hoping to talk to his friend. They'd grown much closer through the events of the past months, but with school and homework, Jack hadn't been able to see him much. He didn't run into him on the way back home (it had taken him awhile to think of the Jacobs' apartment as home) and he climbed up the fire escape to sneak in the window.
There were no lights on in the apartment; Jack thought he might be safe. When he opened the door to his room, however, he saw the adult Jacobs sitting there.
"Where have you been, Jack?" asked Mr. Jacobs sternly.
"Just out with my friends," Jack replied. "I didn't realize it was so late."
"The sun set hours ago."
"Sorry," Jack said, pulling off his everpresent bandana and tossing it on the table next to his bed.
"I know you're getting used to everything here, Jack, but you need to understand that we have rules here."
Jack felt resentment and anger rising in his stomach, but not at the Jacobs. He was resentful that David and Les and Sarah had parents who cared about them enough to worry when they weren't home; angry that his father had never cared, and anger that he had to compromise his fun and freedom to abide by the rules that these people who weren't even technically his parents placed upon him. The emotions ran up against each other, his thoughts confused him, and he tried to calm down.
"I think you will stay home tomorrow night, Jack," said Mr. Jacobs.
"I will what?" Jack echoed. "I'm not staying home. I'll go out if I damn well please."
"You think you can tell me what to do? You're not my parents." He regretted saying that the instant he said it, but he couldn't take it back.
Mrs. Jacobs' face fell. "We're trying to look out for you. We know we're not your parents, but we still love you. We still want what's best for you."
"How do you know what's best for me? You hardly know anything about me!"
"We would if you would just talk to us!" she exclaimed, and Jack was afraid that he'd made her cry. It was true, though. Jack was closemouthed about what his family life was like, even though he knew it would help the Jacobs understand him better.
"You wanna know everything about me? Doesn't this tell you enough?" He pointed at the scar on his forehead. "Or this?" Pointed to the scar on his shoulder. "You saw me in the hospital, you know what my goddamn life was like before I ran away!"
Mrs. Jacobs really was crying now. Mr. Jacobs had an arm around her. He looked at Jack and said quietly, "You know we love you and care about you. I think we'd better talk about this in the morning after we've all calmed down."
"Sure," Jack said bitterly. "If I'm still here. I don't need your stupid rules or your stupid family. I can get along fine by myself." With that, he slammed the door.
Through the thin walls, he heard Mrs. Jacobs'soft crying and her husband's voice calming her down. Jack laid on the bed and stared at the ceiling. What the hell am I doing? What the hell is going on? I'm so damn confused. So much was going through his head. He did love the Jacobses, he didn't want to hurt them. But the anger surfacing from his past, his resentment, everything kept getting in the way. Yes, he still wanted to leave; yes, he hated the rules, but he loved the warmth of the apartment at mealtimes. He loved reading books in his room, knowing that there were people in the other rooms that cared about him. The thoughts spiralled around in his brain until he thought it would burst.
He didn't realize he'd fallen asleep until he awoke, gasping for air and covered in a cold sweat. His father was coming, he had to hide, he had to run, he had to-- Jack suddenly realized he was safe in his room at the Jacobses. He'd had a nightmare, nothing more. Sitting up, he put his head in his hands, still trying to calm himself. Suddenly, he heard the door open; Mrs. Jacobs peeked her head in. A shaft of light from the hallway fell onto Jack's bed; he was looking up at her with those eyes, those eyes that always showed her that Jack was just a scared and hurt young man trying to cover up his pain with that facade of his devil-may-care attitude. A sheen of frightened sweat covered his face; Mrs. Jacobs moved to his bed. She didn't say anything, just knelt down next to him and rubbed his back as she used to do for David when he awoke from a nightmare.
"I'm sorry," the boy called Cowboy said quietly.
"It's okay." As his eyes closed and his breathing turned to deep, even breaths, she brushed the hair from his forehead, smiled, and watched him sleep.