A/N: First, a disclaimer: Bowler, Blackbird, the Manhattan girls and all the Bronx newsies (with Souther being a bit of a gray area, as I based him on a briefly seen non-speaking character in the movie) belong to me. Racetrack, Crutchy, Jack, Kloppman, Spot, Kid Blink, Swifty, Dutchy, Itey, Skittery and the other characters from the movie belong to Disney and are being used without permission. I am making no money whatsoever off them, so please don't sue me.

Second, a warning: This story contains some references to domestic violence, emotional abuse, premarital sex, and alcohol use and abuse, as well as character death and child loss. Some bad characters do bad things; some good characters make poor choices, and some bad things just happen. None of those are presented as positive things, nor are they depicted graphically, but they are driving forces in the plot. It is one of my more intense stories, and I vacillated about posting it, but I do believe it has a place.

This story begins about a year and a half after "Nobody Answered" and six months before "Where Angels Fear to Tread."

Double or Nothing

December 2, 1897

Racetrack strolled through the open door of the lodging house, a small bundle slung carelessly over his shoulder and a cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth. He hoped this latest of his vicissitudes in fortune would prove to be for the better. Not dat t'ings could really get any worse. "Heya!" he called to the man behind the desk. He removed the cigar from his mouth. "Dere any beds free?"

"Hmm?" The man nodded and pushed the registration book closer to his end of the counter. Race glanced over the other names in the book. Mush Meyers, Kid Blink, Clouds Shellito, Itey Shellito, Pen Rifton, Bryan Snoddy, Truth Andrews, Pounce Rifton, Queen Delaney, Boots McAleenan, Michael Walsh, Jack Kelly, Swifty, Spot Conlon - an' outta Brooklyn? "First night's free." the landlord continued as Race signed. "After that it's two cents a night. I'm John Kloppman; the boys call me Kloppman. No drinking, fighting or smoking within these walls." He looked pointedly at the cigar, and Racetrack snuffed it out. "That's all. Go on up - the boys'll be on the right."

Race climbed the stairs. Da boys, huh? Well, he'd heard that Duane Street welcomed girl newsies as well as boys. There had been a 'Queen' in the registration book. "Four of a kind," a female voice said sweetly. "Fork over." It was followed by vociferous groans and complaints. At the sound of his favorite game, Race grinned and ran the rest of the way.

"C'mon, Truth!" A blond boy was saying when Racetrack entered the room. He wore a patch over his left eye. "Let somebody else win once in a while!" Some six boys and girls watched resignedly as a petite, innocent-faced blond added to her already substantial pile of winnings. The speaker was the first to glance toward the door and see him. He nudged a boy sitting next to him and nodded.

The second boy looked up, saw Race, and stood. "Heya," he greeted. "What's yer name kid?"

Race sighed. Between his short stature and his baby face, he was invariably branded younger than he actually was. "Racetrack Higgins." He spat in his hand and held it out. "An' you are?"

"Dey call me Cowboy. Jack Kelly to you. So ya here to play or here to join?"

"Both if I can," Race replied. "Ya gotta a place fer me to dump dis?" He swung his bundle off his shoulder.

"Shoa." Jack scanned the room, then pointed. "Ya can bunk under Blink."

"So where, ya from?" Jack asked when Race had dropped his things on the bed and joined the group.

"New Yawk," he replied with perfect veracity. Cowboy rolled his eyes at the evasion. "Ya know what I mean, kid."

"Let him alone, Jack!" A black-haired girl - about sixteen from the look of her - called across the room. "I don't rememba you offerin' any information when you joined." Without waiting for a reply, she returned to her conversation with a tall, curly-haired boy on a neighboring bunk.

"Outta respect fer a lady," Cowboy called back, grinning, "I won't soak ya for dat."

The curly haired boy laughed loudly. "Pen could take ya in a second, Jack!"

"Lady?" one of the other boys scoffed, a twinkle in his eye. "Ain't dat a bit of a stretch? Dis is Pen we're tawkin' about, afta all." This seemed to amuse all the newsies highly.

Teasing it may have been, but the comment upset Racetrack who had firm ideas about the respect due women. He glared at the offender, starting to rise to his feet.

Pen caught the look. "So we've got one gentleman here, at least." The edge of her mouth quirked in the hint of a smile.

"Take a lesson, boys," declared another girl, the words almost lost in the mix of New York slang and thick Italian accent.

"It's aw right - Racetrack, right?" Race nodded at Pen's question. "Dey likes to tease me cuz I ain't never gone wit nobody."

"Yeah," one of the poker players laughed. "Pen's practically da saint a da lodgin' house. Don't believe I'se evah even seen her look at a guy."

Shrugging off a slight embarrassment, Race sat down again, absently lighting his cigar. A few seconds later, he remembered Kloppman's prohibition and put it out again.

"Well, well," came a new voice from behind him. "Don't you get around? Poker in Brooklyn, Blackjack in da Bronx, craps in Harlem, da races ovah on Coney Island - I seem to see youse ev'ywhere I go, Racetrack."

Race turned around. "Heya, Spot," he greeted warily. He'd only met the Brooklyn leader a few times, but those few were enough to gain a healthy respect for him. His left arm ached in memory of a certain disagreement over a bet. That respect was the reason he didn't protest when the boy completely vitiated his evasion by his comment. Spot Conlon had a volatile temper, and two all too ready fists.

"He's harmless, Jacky-boy." Spot sat down. "Bronx."

"Bronx?" Jack's posture became just the slightest bit hostile. Race wondered why, but that line of conversation would lead in directions he'd rather avoid. Avoid? radder forget, but dat ain't possible.

"Harmless?" he protested, instead of answering. "I resent dat. Racetrack Higgins, da greatest poker player on either side of da East River, called harmless?" The newsies, with the important exception of Jack, laughed. Race could tell already that he was going to be trouble. The others all seemed to defer to him - except Spot, of course, who deferred to no one. If Cowboy decided the new boy was more trouble than he was worth, Race was going to find himself on the street again.

For the moment, however, Jack chose to let well enough alone. "Da greatest, huh?" chuckled one of the oldest boys. "Care to put yer money where yer mouth is?"

"When yer ready to deal." He grinned back.

"Let's see how good ya really is." He began shuffling the cards. "Da name's Bowler."

The boy with the eyepatch shook his head. "Truth, ya gots competition!" He reached a hand across the circle to shake. "Kid Blink. Yer bunkin' under me."

"We'll see," the girl replied as Racetrack shook Blink's hand and Bowler began to deal.

April 3, 1897

"Call," said Corks.

So, Race," Souther gave him a sideways look. He never faked casual well. "Ya hoid from yer sista recently?"

Race grinned. "Call an' raise ya ten. Which one?" he teased.

His friend reddened. "Call - you know."

"I'se got t'ree a dem."

Souther's blush deepened.

Racetrack took his time answering, as the other boys laughed at Souther's discomfiture and Smithy folded. "Let's see, I t'ink I might have a letter-"

Whip's entrance interrupted and saved an embarrassed Souther from the spotlight. "Hey!" The Bronx leader called for attention. Eleven heads turned toward him. "Me goil's comin' ovah. I want all a youse on yer best behavior, ya here?"

"Shoa."

"A coise, Whip." A few boys headed for the washroom to spruce up before the lady arrived.

"Whip," one of the twins protested, "Ya accusin' us of evah bein' less den gentlemen?"

"Naw, jist you, Corks!" His brother grinned.

"Aw shaddup!"

Whip squatted down next to the poker players. "Dat goes double fer you, Race," he added in Racetrack's ear.

Race held his tongue. He'd never once tried to put the moves on Jane and didn't intend to start, but he'd given up on convincing Whip of that - or any of the other boys for that matter. Even Souther, his closest friend among the newsies, found it difficult to conceive of a platonic friendship between a guy and a girl. It didn't help that he'd once remarked that Jane could do better than the Bronx leader. Since the black eye had faded, he'd become more discreet.

Whip stood up with a glare and moved around the circle. He whispered in Bouncer's ear. "Call," the younger boy said after a glance at his leader. Race winced inwardly, he'd been certain the boy was on the brink of folding. He usually did when the betting got this high.

"Fold."

"Fold."

Souther folded as well. Only Race and Bouncer were left in the game. Bouncer looked at him in question. D-n. He flicked his cigar. "Three of a kind."

"Straight." Bouncer's eyes widened in shock. "I won?"

Race grinned and patted him on the shoulder. "Yeah, ya won. Good game, kid." He stood up, and stretched. "Well, I'm clean. So who wants to spot me on Crystal tomorra?" Groans and laughter answered him.

"Racetrack!"

On his way to the washroom, he passed Whip. "T'anks a ton," he said sardonically. "Remind me to retoin da favor."

"My pleasure," Whip replied. His hostility dated back to long before Jane had ever come onto the scene, and Race had ceased trying to understand it. He turned away from Race and his eyes lit. "Evenin', beautiful." He smiled charmingly.

Race looked over his shoulder at the door, and saw that Jane had just entered. She blushed and smiled, but Race caught a trace of worry in her eyes. He would have asked what was wrong, but Souther was calling for his attention at the moment.

"Will ya give it up awready?" the redhead warned as Race followed him into the washroom. He splashed some water on his face, soaking his collar. "She's Whip's goil."

"I know dat, an' I don't care." Realizing how that sounded, he added, "Jane's me friend. I toldja dat before. Sides," he teased, deciding a change of subject was in order, "din't ya wanna ask me about somet'in else?"

Souther blushed as red as his hair, and sent a sink's worth of water sloshing at him. "Shaddup!"

"Hey!" Racetrack laughed, and splashed him back. "I'se her brudda, rememba? Ya don't wanna get on me bad side!" Souther muttered something. "What was dat?"

"I bet Beatricia knows ya well enough not to believe what ya says."

"Who brought up Beatricia?" Race's eyes twinkled. "Ya like her or somet'in?" He dodged another spray of water.

"Aw, shaddup! Didja get a letter, though?"

The door opened and Eagle poked his head in. "If youse two are done actin' like five yeah olds, ya might wanna come out an' say hello to Jane. Race, do I say ya had to leave again?"

Race paused. Aw, Whip'll deal. "Naw, I'se here." He wanted to find out what had upset his friend, anyway.

Eagle frowned. "Whip said-"

"Whip'll live," Racetrack snapped.

Eagle gave him one of the sharp looks that had earned the boy his name. "Jist watch yerself. Dey is goin' togedda, ya know." He looked down at the water covering the floor. "What was ya doin' anyways?"

Race looked at Souther. They both laughed.

On the way past his bunk, Race pulled an envelope from under his mattress. The return address read Syracuse, New York, and named the sender as Beatricia Higgins. He extracted a page from the letter and handed it to Souther. "Janie!" He left the boy reading it.

"Racetrack, where've you been lately?" Jane had some schooling, so her grammar was slightly better than the boys'. "Every time I come around, ya's out."

"Sorry, Janie." With teasing gallantry, he kissed her hand. "I jist keep missin' ya." He noted, but ignored Whip's glowering face.

December 2, 1897

"Call, an' raise ya a nickel. Jist a tip, Truth," Race added as the boy next to him - Mush, he learned - called his bet, "If ya's gonna palm a ace, make shoa ya's got at least one low card a da same suit in yer hand. It ain't quite as obvious." The other players looked at him, as Truth demurely returned the card to her sleeve. "Hey, I wrote da book on cheatin' at poker!" he said to their astonished faces. He nodded at Pounce, Pen's sister, voluble in any kind of gossip. "Yer toin."

She glanced down at her hand. "I fold."

"Moment a truth, den."

"Two pair."

"Two pair. An' higher."

"Don't matter. T'ree of a kind."

"Full house. Read dem an' weep." Race laid down his cards. He actually hadn't cheated at the game. For one thing it took the thrill out of the game - the point was the risk, after all, the gamble. He'd only learned the tricks in self defense. For another, the last time he'd cheated in a game with Spot Conlon had left a lasting impression.

###

"All right." He turned to see Kloppman standing in the doorway. The landlord entered the room as the game ended. "All of you, in bed. You got work to do tomorrow, and the presses aren't gonna stop rolling just for you!"

The boys bade good-bye to the girls, and stood up wearily. "C'mon." Kid Blink touched Race's shoulder. "Kloppman'll be gettin' us up at sunrise, an' ya betta be rested. Good playin', by da way. An' good eyes! Ain't many people can catch Truth cheatin'."

"I ain't usually dat sloppy!" the girl called on her way out the door. Both boys grinned.

"Goodnight."

"Night."

April 3, 1897

Whip reclaimed Jane's attention with a glare at Racetrack, and led her over to the corner formed by his the wall and his bed: the premium bunk, of course - within reach of the window, with the best mattress, the thickest blanket and not a single cobweb above it. Nothing but the best for Whip.

Race crossed to his bed and picked up the scratch sheet for the next day. The odds on Crystal were one to ten, but longshots had never bothered him. Now that he was fresh out of money, who could he talk into a bet? The twins were usually game for any kind of action . . . He glanced up at Whip and Jane, suppressing a surge of anger. He didn't deserve her! She was far too vulnerable to hurt, and he was far too careless with girls' feelings. To give him credit, Race had never known Whip to raise a hand to a girl, but there was a myriad of ways to hurt someone without ever resorting to violence.

He sighed and turned away. "Souther!" he knocked on the side of the bed. His friend looked up from rereading his letter with a flushed, grinning face. "Hey!" Race exclaimed, feigning sternness. "Dat's me baby sista ya's day-dreamin' about, dere." Souther only grinned in reply. "So, ya got a buck or so to spare to bet on Crystal for me?"

"Yer hopeless!"

"C'mon, I'se serious. Dis hoss, she can't lose!"

Souther shook his head, grinning. "Like Freedom couldn't lose? An' Whirlwind? An'-"

"I'se jist askin' ya to take dis one chance. Look! It ain't even a chance, it's certain! I'll double yer money for ya!"

Souther was already digging under his mattress for his meager savings. "I can give ya two bits, tops," he said finally.

"Two bits? I couldn't even get 'em to accept a bet dat small!" Racetrack exaggerated. Souther knew as well as he that even in the unlikely case of the bookies turning down the paltriest wager, Race could find a dozen people willing to stand his bet. They argued from habit and friendship, rather than genuine aggravation.

"Whip!" Race lost his smile and turned quickly at Jane's cry.

"Put a lid on it, Race," warned Souther at almost the same moment. After the outburst, Jane had begun gesturing animatedly, but her words were too low for Racetrack to hear across the room. "Race," Souther repeated between his teeth.

Race turned back to him, reluctantly. "If he hoits 'er . . ."

"He ain't gonna hoit 'er, Race," Souther reasoned. "He loves 'er. Face it. An' she," he added pointedly, "loves him."

Racetrack ignored the last part. Love her? Whip barely considered women sentient creatures! To his mind, they existed to decorate his arm and provide entertainment. The crack of a fist hitting the wall jerked him out of his reverie, and he turned just in time to see Jane run out the door.

Souther couldn't have stopped him, and Whip's murderous expression certainly didn't. "Janie!" Racetrack was down the stairs in seconds. "Janie!" He did not even spare a glance for the landlord or a thought for the sensibilities of the neighborhood at ten o'clock in the evening. The street was empty. He searched from one end of the street to another, finally trudging back to the lodging house.

"What was ya doin' wit my goil?" He should have known Whip would be waiting for him. The Bronx leader grabbed a handful of his shirt.

Racetrack shoved the hand away. "Absolutely nothin'," he said steelily.

Whip was livid. He swung.

Race staggered. No matter how many times he faced Whip, he was never ready. The boy was too fast. That was how he'd earned his name. The smart thing to do, of course, was to take the punch, back off, and go to sleep. He pretended to do so, then hit back - or attempted to.

His vision clouded with a red haze. As it cleared, he saw the fist coming towards him again, heard a woman's cries, saw another blow not meant for him, and the cries turned to terrified screaming, then to silence.

His eyes flew open on bright sunlight, and he quickly threw an arm over his face, cursing. That did not make the pounding in his skull stop, however. "What happened?"

A gentle shove rolled him out of bed and sent him sprawling to the floor, tangled in his blanket. Race glared up at Souther as he fought free of the sheets. The redhead leaned against the bunk bed and looked down at him with an expression that fell somewhere between sympathy and disgust. "Well, like an idiot ya went afta Whip. He knocked ya senseless an' ya's been takin' up me bed cuz nobody wanted to lift ya to da top bunk." He finally reached down to help him up. "For goodness' sake, Race!"

"Well, dat explains why I feel like a hoss kicked me," he muttered, feeling around for his cigar and finding it by habit that was almost instinct. They'd left him in his clothes as well, all but his shoes, so he had no need to dress. He remembered now. Chasing after Jane, the confrontation with Whip - he touched his right eye lightly and winced. Ya'd t'ink I'd'a loined da las' time! And, of course, he remembered the dream. He shuddered, but covered it. "So, ya reconsider on Crystal?"

December 3, 1897

"Come on! Come on! Get up! Carry the banner!" The shouts shattered Racetrack's dreams. Not that he was particularly sorry. The dreams had not been pleasant ones. Blinking, he took in the rest of the room. Kloppman, already washed and dressed for the day, strode through the room wielding a broom for use on the deepest sleepers. Heads lifted heavily as he passed and plopped back onto pillows in his wake. Gradually, though, movements grew larger, sighs became yawns, then subdued teasing. Well, it's a lot more peaceful den mornin' in da Bronx! he thought, sitting up.

The peace was promptly broken by a thrashing in the bunk above him that shook the entire metal frame. "What, you tryin' to create a one man earthquake up dere?" he asked, standing up and peering at Kid Blink. All he could see of the boy was rumpled blond hair and flailing limbs as Blink ransacked his bed. A lumpy pillow struck him in the face. "Hey!" Race started to climb up, but the shaking stopped.

"We gotta find ya a sellin' spot," said Blink, vaulting down from his bed.

Race shook his head. "I got one."

"In da Bronx?" He turned to see Cowboy standing behind him with his arms crossed. Race hadn't realized the boy was listening. He was going to have to deal with Jack, sooner or later, if he planned on staying. "Pretty long trip."

"Naw, Coney Island," he replied. It was a long trip in its own right, but he was used to it. "Sheepshead Races." Which reminded him - but he didn't think Jack would agree to spot him.

Spot interrupted the confrontation. "Jacky-boy, I gotta tawk to ya." Jack frowned, but turned to join him. "Race," Spot added over his shoulder. "Silver." He flipped a quarter through the air.

Race caught it, watching him for a moment, but decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. He turned back to his bunkmate. "So, ya lookin' fer somet'in earlier, or ya just got a grudge against da bed?"

Blink laughed and shrugged. "I couldn't find me patch."

"We goin'?" Mush asked a little impatiently.

"Yeah, I'se comin'. See ya, Race."

Race grinned back, following them out. "Carryin' da banna'."

April 4, 1897

Souther had not reconsidered on Crystal, but the two bits had sufficed. Race leaned on the railing. The race was nearly over, and Crystal was a close second to Silver Dollar.

"Race?"

He turned quickly. "Janie! Where ya been? What happened?" Her brown hair was tangled, and her eyes, rimmed with red.

She touched his black eye, ignoring the question. "What have you been doing? You didn't sneak into the stables again, did you?" She scolded, laughing nervously.

He winced away and shrugged, not wanting to tell her he'd been in a fight with her boyfriend. "I followed ya las' night, but ya disappeared. I even went by yer aunt's dis mornin'-" He stopped when she burst into tears. "Janie?"

"She won't let me come home!" Jane fought sobs. Race put his arms around her and stroked her head soothingly, and she surrendered. "Race," she sobbed, "I'm sorry . . . I'm so sorry . . . she . . . she said she won't have a girl in her home that ain't respectable . . . I was working for her . . . I got no place to live and no money . . . and I need it more than ever . . . and Whip's angry . . . he can't do much to help either . . . I got no place to go . . ."

"Shhh. It's gonna be fine. As long as I got money an' a place to stay, so do you," he promised, his mind racing over the implications of her words.

She shook her head. "I can't stay with you guys. Even if the landlord would let a girl in - he wouldn't let me . . ." She threatened to turn incoherent and bit her lip to stifle more sobs.

"Janie," he asked carefully. "Yer-"

"I'm having a baby," she confirmed, voice cracking from the strain of crying. "I'm having Whip's baby. Even if I could take care of myself-"

"Ya's gonna be fine," Race repeated. He didn't want to know, but - "Wha'd Whip say?" If he's plannin' on leavin' her, I'll-

She shook her head. "Whip can't take care of a baby. He's got - I can't expect him to. He-"

Not a direct answer, but answer enough. He'd gotten angry and yelled at her, and jealous as he was, he'd likely accused her of sleeping around. Race fumed, frustrated by her defense of him. But da las' t'ing she needs is dat old argument.

"Lissen," he said. "Dere's a boardin' house on Rose - ya know da one?"

She nodded. "But nobody'll take-"

"Dey'll take ya dere," he said firmly. "You go dere now, an' I'll meet ya tonight. Tomorra we'll find ya a job if it means sellin' wit da boys, aw right?"

She buried her face in his shoulder once more, then raised it. "You don't have to do this."

"Fer me friend? Coise I do."

She almost smiled. "Bring Whip when you come. He'll be sorry for yelling, and I don't want him to hate himself."

Race tensed slightly. "I'll bring 'im." It would cost him another shiner, no doubt, but he'd do it. He kissed her forehead. "An' you gotta rest. You had any sleep las' night?" The answer was in her face. "Den go! Rose Street."

"I remember."

She slid through the crowd, and Race turned back to the track with his head in his hands. Silver Dollar had beaten out Crystal, which didn't surprise him, the way his luck was running.

"Keepin' dates wit Whip Tyler's goil?" said a voice at his elbow. "Dat ain't too smart."

Race whirled to the left, startled. The leader of the Brooklyn newsies leaned against the railing next to him, smirking. "It ain't a date," he replied, angry. What's it to you, anyways? he could have asked, but Spot Conlon's business included whatever Spot considered his business. And Race didn't particularly feel like getting soaked two days running.

#

December 3, 1897

"Silver?" asked a voice that was becoming all too familiar.

"He won." Race turned to face Spot. He had a fair idea what the Brooklyn newsie wanted, but he wasn't going give it to him right away. "T'anks fer da tip." An' fer da help.

Spot regarded him through half-closed eyes. "Sooner or latah, Jack's gonna wanna know," he said.

"Jack wants to know now," Race retorted, reaching for his cigar and realizing he'd left it on the nightstand in the lodging house.

Spot's voice took on a slight edge. "Let me rephrase dat. Sooner or latah, Jack is gonna know."

Racetrack tensed. "What are you plannin' to tell him?"

"I ain't tellin' him nothin'," Spot replied. "You are."

Racetrack didn't reply to the implied order. The Brooklyn leader waited expectantly. Race stared back, wondering how long Spot intended the waiting game to continue. The stands were nearly empty by this time. He wished once more for his cigar.

"Ya got my half?" Spot asked at last. Racetrack's mouth quirked. He dug his winnings out of his pocket and divided them equally.

It was getting dark - and colder. Race stopped by a tavern for a cheap meal, a warm drink, and a buyer for his last remaining paper. He caught the ferry and then followed the familiar streets unthinkingly. He was heading for the Bronx before he realized what he was doing. He swore, but the words caught in his throat.

"Hey!" A voice caught Racetrack's attention. He swallowed and turned. "Race, right?" Mush asked. "Ya ain't lost, are ya?"

"Only you get lost in Manhattan, Mush," Blink retorted, as Race fell into step with them. "Who's da one dat has to stop an' ask a cop fer directions?"

Mush straightened his shoulders. "He didn't have any reason to stop me."

"Gets lost his first week sellin'-" Kid continued. "An' Kloppman finds him cryin' on a doorstep one street away-"

"I was not cryin'!" Mush shoved him.

Blink gave Race a commiserating look, causing Mush to hit him again. "So, ya win?"

Race grinned. "Two bucks! You two up fer poker?"

"Don't ask him!" Mush begged. "He already owes me fer da las' week's worth of papes. If you play like ya did las' night, I'm gonna be broke!"

Kid Blink punched him lightly. "I'm betta at it den you! 'Is dis a good hand?'" he mimicked.

"I'd jist loined how to play!" his partner protested.

Blink shook his head, throwing an arm around him. "Yer lucky ya gots me aroun'. Wit aw da dishonest people in da city, ya could get taken advantage of!"

"You implyin' dat you're honest, Blink?" Jack's voice asked in amusement. Cowboy must have joined them as they turned onto Duane Street. Race hadn't heard that easy tone since he'd first arrived. A few doors ahead of them, the doorway of the lodging house glowed invitingly as someone slipped inside.

"Dat'll be da day!" Mush agreed.

Race was the first inside, slapping two cents onto the counter. The others crowded after him. When he looked up from signing in, Cowboy's face had regained that hostile expression. Race pretended not to notice. "Good sellin'?"

#

April 4, 1897

"Where is she?"

Race felt a strange sensation of deja vu. "Heya, Whip," he greeted, finding it difficult to speak through the boy's stranglehold on his collar. "Nice to see you, too."

"Ya want me to black yer odder eye?" Race raised a eyebrow. Whip rarely used threats, firmly believing that actions spoke louder than words. Then he noticed the bouquet of flowers that occupied the hand Whip would normally have hit him with. For Jane, no doubt. And she would accept them, having already forgiven him. That angered Racetrack as much as anything.

"Did it evah occur to ya," Race muttered, "dat if I was runnin' aroun' wit Jane, I'd have da sense to hide it?" Whip only glared.

"Where is she?"

"Ya wanna let me go long enough fer me to take ya dere?" Whip shoved him up against the wall, knocking the wind out of him, but grudgingly released him. After taking as long as he dared to get his breath back, Race led the way to Rose street.

The landlady of the building knew Race, and let them in willingly. This only increased Whip's suspicions, but there was nothing to be done about it. Jane answered their knock on her door, blinking sleepily. She'd followed Racetrack's order to rest, then. She also looked slightly more composed than she had that morning, and her eyes brightened on seeing Whip.

The Bronx leader went down on one knee in the doorway and held out the flowers. "How's me goil an' our son feelin'?" he asked. Only Race noticed the stiffness in his voice.

Jane took the flowers, pulled him to his feet, and kissed him. "You don't even know if it will be a boy," she laughed chidingly.

"Den ya fergive me?" Whip asked with a humility Race could not believe he'd ever felt.

"How can ya ask?"

Whip kissed her forehead. "I love ya."

How easily he said that! Race shifted and cleared his throat. "Uh, Janie, dey's lookin' fer a laundress at da tracks. It's all hoss blankets, an' stuff. Ain't as bad as some a da work ya could get. A friend a mine tol' me, an' I mentioned yer name. Ya can start tomorra, if ya wanna do it."

"Race, thank you!" Jane gave him a grateful hug.

Whip glared at Race over her shoulder, and took her arm. "Ya ain't gonna leave me when I ain't seen ya fer a whole day, is ya?" he said, pulling her into his lap on the room's single chair and gazing at her with brown, puppy-dog eyes.

Jane laughed, and laid her head on his shoulder. "You're that lost without me?" she teased, then noticed Racetrack fidgeting. "Go on, Race. I'm fine. I'll see you tomorrow, all right?"

"Right." Race left.

#

December 3, 1897

"Heya, fellas!" A tall boy, brown hair a tangle of curls, joined the four newsies in the lobby. Race recognized him as the boy with the crutch, but they hadn't yet been introduced.

"Heya, Crutchy," replied Jack warmly.

"Set any new records, Jack?" Crutchy asked, then turned to Race. "Racetrack, right? I nevah got a chance to say hi earlier. I'se Crutchy."

Race spat in his hand to shake. "Dat's me. Nice to meet'cha, Crutchy." Now that he looked at the boy, there was something familiar about him. "Hey, you don't go by da tracks evah, do ya?" he asked. "Cuz, I swear, I know ya from somewheres." He shook his head. "Let's discuss it ovah poker, huh?"

"So how did ya get da name Racetrack?" Kid Blink grinned, as they headed upstairs.

Before the game, however, Race was determined to have a smoke. He'd missed having his cigar, and Blink had assured him that the fire escape didn't count as 'within the walls' of the lodging house. He sat with his back to the wall of the building, watching the sleepless city.

Inevitably, he imagined himself in the Bronx. Corks and Smithy would be up to their usual antics, betting on who could do the most backflips across the bunk room before Eagle bawled them out, or getting a laugh out of teasing some poor new kid who couldn't tell them apart. Four Eyes would take aside the same new kid and instruct him in the fine art of cheating at poker, while Doze boasted about his girl. Not really dat dif'rent from here, Race told himself. Not that different - except for the smell of smoke and Bouncer's eight-year-old enthusiasm and Souther anxiously and loudly awaiting the next letter from Beatricia.

Dis is ridiculous, Race! If you was in da Bronx right now, it wouldn't be a lot a rowdy boys havin' fun. It would be identical stares from the twins, at least one broken arm courtesy of Whip, Eagle's sharp, disgusted gaze, Souther's questions, and Jane . . .

He shook himself and insisted that it was only the cigar smoke blowing in the wrong direction that made his eyes water.

"Anthony Higgins." He turned, at once grateful for the interruption of his thoughts and angry at the invasion of his privacy. Crutchy sat on the window sill and quirked a smile at him.

"Tell da woild, why don't'cha?" Race grinned back - or tried to. "So how is it you remember me, but I don't know who you are?"

Something about Crutchy's smile rang equally false. "Well, fer one t'ing, I was leavin' when you was comin' - an' sellin' newspapers wasn't 'xactly da foist t'ing on yer mind at da time."

In the Bronx, he meant. Race remembered his arrival at the lodging house, cold, hungry and grief-stricken. Two days before he had watched his father shipped off to jail. Two weeks before he had thrown the first clod of dirt and cried onto Maria's shoulder as their mother disappeared under a mound of earth. No, selling newspapers had not been the first thing on his mind.

"I din't notice nobody fer weeks," he said quietly, then looked up. "But by da time I did, you musta been gone, awready. So where've I seen ya?"

Crutchy glanced down at the metal grate, then seemed to steel himself. "Ya know Tom Morris?" he asked.

"Well, shoa!" Race exclaimed. "Ev'ybody knew Tom. Useta bet on him 'fore - da accident." He remembered how the word had spread through the backstreets. The neighborhood hero and a loyal friend, dead before sixteen. A sudden image of a thin, crippled eight-year-old flashed across his mind's eye. Tom had been fiercely protective of his brother.

"Yer Scottie?" Race did not mean it as a question, and Crutchy did not treat it as such. The younger boy had grown suddenly solemn. Race hadn't realized how much a part of him that buoyant cheerfulness was until it disappeared. "Nobody knew what happened to ya. So how'd you get here?"

"Jack found me. He met ya, too, but I don't t'ink he's made da connection yet." He smiled, some of the enthusiasm returning.

Race couldn't help smiling, as well. A world separated that half-orphaned boy from 'the greatest poker place north of Jersey.' Speaking of which . . .

"I gotta get up dat game 'fore tomorra mornin'!" Race grinned. "We betta go in. Ya playin'?"

"I don't usually, but I s'pose so."

July 15, 1897

Race made it a habit to walk Janie to and from the boarding house to the tracks each morning and evening. He enjoyed the chance to spend time with his friend, even if he regretted the circumstances. Jane's moods see-sawed back and forth and he adjusted to fit them. He smiled and tossed out ridiculous suggestions when she thrilled at the thought of becoming a mother and speculated on possible names. He spun outrageous stories to cheer her up when the responsibility seemed far beyond her sixteen years and ordered her to bed with reassurances when the strain began to show in her eyes. Whip was in and out, cursing Jane at one moment and begging her forgiveness the next. For himself, Race alternated between sinking feelings of dread at the thought of his friend's future, anger at Whip who avoided any talk of marriage, and suspicion of Spot Conlon who seemed to be taking an undue interest in the situation.

It was he, for example, who had informed Racetrack about the laundress' job. "T'ings goin' well?"

Speak of da devil. Racetrack turned, immediately on edge. "Aftanoon, Spot." The boy hadn't made an appearance in several days.

"So?"

"It's goin'." He turned back to watch the Race.

"Not well?" Spot nodded in the direction of the building where the girl was working. Racetrack ignored him.

". . . and gaining on third, Classique, but Red Angel is giving him a run for his money . . ."

"Looks like she's doin' fine to me."

Den why're ya askin'? "Great. T'anks," he added a trifle grudgingly.

"Dat's me bisness," Spot replied.

That did it. "Why?" Race demanded, finally turning. "What's da Bronx to you?"

Spot's eyes narrowed slightly. "Dis is Coney Island," he pointed out.

"What's Jane to you?" He was treading on thin ice now and knew it, but didn't care.

"What's she to you?" Spot retorted. "It don't look like you's da one to tawk." Race glared back at the implication, but Spot gave him no chance to answer. "Meself, I ain't too fond a Whip, eidda, but every guy ain't a Clancy Higgins."

Race turned hot and cold in quick succession. His sense of self-preservation - already fraying - deserted him entirely. He hadn't attacked Whip with that much fury. Spot caught his arms and pinned them at his sides. "Don't," he warned.

Racetrack glared back, shaking. If Spot weren't holding him, he'd have gone for the boy's throat. He could cheerfully have killed the Brooklyn leader at that moment.

A chair flew across the tiny room and smashed against the wall. Anthony ducked. "Papa-" He ducked again. The small apartment left little space for this kind of dodging, however.

"Clancy, stop it."

Anthony glanced at his mother, forgetting to keep moving. His father spun him around. "Don't - evah - come - back - to dis - house - without-" Clancy punctuated each word with his fists, and Anthony soon lost the sense of what he was saying.

"Clancy." There was steel in Rossina's voice. Anthony tried to wriggle away or fight back, but he could barely move anymore. "Clancy!" Then suddenly, his father released him. He lay back, and closed his eyes, aware of nothing except his relief - until the screaming started.

Racetrack opened stinging eyes and wet his lips, sick and shaking. He climbed unsteadily out of bed, almost falling off the ladder, and stumbled to the washroom. On his return from ridding himself of a large mug of beer and a memory, he noticed something odd about the moonlit room. Just before falling back to sleep, he realized what was wrong. The premium bed - the top bunk next to the window, the one without a single cobweb above it - was empty.

December 5, 1897

"Aw right, Race!" Crutchy grinned, shaking his head. "Twenty on Northern Lights. I got a feelin' I'se gonna regret dis . . ."

"With dis horse?" Race replied, carrying his stack of papes away from the square. "Never! I ain't a bit worried."

"Since you're bettin' with my money," Kid Blink put in, blue eye twinkling. "I bet ya ain't worried."

"My money, he means." Mush elbowed his partner. Blink hit him back. Race grinned and slapped them both.

"Babies!" Crutchy rolled his eyes at them, grinning.

"Hey!" Racetrack protested in mock anger. "I happen to be t'ree yeahs olda den you!"

"Thus provin' wrong da sayin' dat age equals wisdom," Jack joined in, throwing an arm around his shoulder. "C'mon, ya bums! Let's go!"

"Yes, Mama!"

"Aw, shaddup!"

Racetrack glanced at Jack who apparently intended to sell with him that day. Something had obviously changed. "So I ain't public enemy number one, no more?"

Cowboy had the grace to look ashamed. "I ain't been harassing ya dat bad, have I?" he asked. "Spot yelled at me yesterday, an' den Crutchy got on me case, an' . . ." He trailed off, then added awkwardly, "I'se got some arguments with da Bronx."

"I nevah woulda guessed." Racetrack's smiled dulled the edge of the sarcastic words. "Look at it dis way. I wouldn't be here if I didn't have my own dif'rences wit Whip."

"I sorta figured. An' you got good references," Jack grinned. He held out a hand in apology. "Friends?"

Race stopped to shake. "Aw, why not?" He grinned. "Though, if you really want me to forgive you," he added mischievously. "Say, fifty cents on Northern Lights might do it."

"You idiot!" Jack punched his shoulder and grinned. "See ya later - hey!" he added, walking away.

"Yeah?"

"A lotta us meets a little early before da ev'nin editon comes out. We check in at da lodgin' house aroun' five to decide what we've doin'."

Race smiled at the invitation. "T'anks." Maybe me luck is changin'. Heck, when ya got nothin'...

#

July 16, 1897

Racetrack leaned against the wall on the Journal's distribution center and puffed on his cigar. "Souther, spot me two bits?"

"Idiot!" Souther grinned and handed over the money.

"Oh," Race added carelessly, still smoking. "You got any idea where Whip was las' night?"

Souther looked at him sharply. "Why should I?" he asked uncomfortably.

Race shrugged and blew a ring of smoke. "Don't'cha?"

"Well, odda den da lodgin' house-"

"Souther!" Race turned to him. The redhead looked away.

"I stay outta Whip's business." He paused to buy a stack of papers and turned. "Like you should."

"What's dat s'posed to mean?" Racetrack demanded, nearly forgetting his own papes. The distributer pulled him back by the sleeve. "Whaddaya know, Souther?" Souther shook his head. "Kevin?"

"Low blow, Race! Low blow!" the boy exclaimed with a half-grin, trying to change the subject.

"Jist tell me." After much arguing, he got it out of the boy that Whip had not spent a full night in his own bed for weeks. He was furious. "With Jane-"

"C'mon, Race, where do you think he was?" Souther asked, frustrated.

Racetrack went cold. He swore. "Can't he leave 'er alone?"

Quietly, his friend replied, "I ain't heard Jane protestin'." Racetrack didn't answer. Souther shook his head once before turning the corner.

For the first time in his life, Race felt an urge to get drunk.

December 5, 1897

"Heya, Race!" Kid Blink called. Several others, mostly people he didn't know, also greeted him. For example, he remembered seeing the talkative Snaps and the brown-haired Snoddy, but hadn't caught their names.

"Heya!"

"You know ev'ybody, yet?" Bowler asked. Race shook his head. "Well, dis is Boots, Snipeshooter. Over dere's-"

"Dutchy," a blond-haired boy put in, offering a hand. A tiny fair-haired girl was pulling on his sleeve. "An' dis is me sista."

"Heya," Race greeted the girl gravely.

"I'se Eleanor," she informed him. "I'se four years old."

"Eleanor?" He grinned. "Ain't dat too big a name fer a pipsqueak like you?"

"I ain't a pipsqueak!" the lady squealed indignantly. "Dutchy, did ya here what he called me?"

"How 'bout we jist call ya Pips, huh?" She stood behind her brother and pouted. "Aw, I'se sorry. So tell me how I missed meetin' a beautiful lady like you before dis," Race coaxed.

"Dutchy makes me go to bed early," she said, aggrieved. "Jist cuz I'se liddle."

Jack joined them. "Playin' up to da ladies, aw ready, Race?"

Race grinned back. "Pips here is gonna be my date tonight," he replied. "Right?"

Eleanor looked doubtful. "I can't," she whispered loudly. "I'se wit Dutchy." Someone laughed.

"Well, it's my loss den," Race said. "Ya betta tell him he's lucky to have ya."

"He knows," she replied with assurance. This time everyone laughed.

December 1, 1897

Racetrack waited on the front steps as usual, growing concerned. Neither Mrs. Carmello, nor Jane had appeared in the fifteen minutes he'd been standing there. What's wrong? Somet'in's up.

When another few minutes passed without a sign, he ventured inside and found the landlady's desk empty.

"Anthony!" Mrs. Carmello stood halfway up the staircase. Race tolerated her use of his real name because she'd known his mother.

"Yes, ma'am? Is Jane okay?" he asked quickly.

"Nothing to worry about," she replied. "She's upstairs in bed and doing fine. You'd best go on to work."

"In bed?! She-" He stopped mid-word as he realized it. "It's da baby."

Mrs. Carmello nodded impatiently. "I'm afraid you'll only get in the way right now. If you'll just-"

Racetrack was already out the door.

###

"Whoa! Watch it!" Souther tumbled to the ground. "Race?"

Racetrack picked himself up off the ground amid a circle of newspapers. Two had fallen in a puddle and several more were already being carried merrily away by the wind. "Clear the way!" a carriage driver yelled. The two boys dashed out of the way as the horses trampled the remaining papers into the dirty snow.

After it had gone Souther picked up one of the dirty papers and threw it back to the ground with a muttered imprecation. It was a spectacle when Souther cursed. Despite his fifteen years, he was still so new at it that he blushed until his freckles disappeared.

Race looked at a day's livelihood destroyed. "Sorry," he muttered.

Souther sighed. "Ain't yer fault. What happened?"

Race came back to himself. "I need to find Whip," he explained urgently. "It's Jane."

"Jane? Race!" Souther exclaimed. Racetrack wasn't usually one to go looking for trouble. He waited until it came to him and then stood on the sidelines and took bets on how it would turn out.

Race shook his head. "It ain't a fight, an' it's important. He ain't sellin' in his usual spot today." In fact, he'd been all over the Bronx looking for the newsies' leader before running into Souther.

Souther glanced at the scattered papers once again. "I know where he might be-" he said cautiously.

Racetrack watched a laughing Whip leave the building and seethed.

"I didn't want to tell ya," Souther began.

"Don't say it," Race whispered.

"Well, da way you talk - would ya rather he was with Jane?"

Right now? "Yes!" Race crossed the street and met Whip. The Bronx leader's eyes narrowed on seeing him.

"Whaddaya want, Racetrack?"

Race could barely contain his anger. "It's time," he said shortly. Whip looked blank. "It's Jane," he snapped, turning to head back to the boarding house.

Whip caught him by the back of the collar and began running.

December 12, 1897

"Raise ya two bits."

Absently, Race noticed Snipeshooter enter the bunkroom. He was more interested in the fact that Blink was raising the stakes yet again. Kid either had a very good hand or was bluffing.

"Yeah, he's here," Snipeshooter said brightly from somewhere behind him. "Dere's a poker game goin' on, though."

If Blink was bluffing, he was doing a good job of it. First Skittery, then Bowler, then Pounce bowed out of the game. "Where Race is, dere's always a poker game goin' on."

That voice so startled Racetrack that he nearly swallowed his cigar. Once he was certain he wasn't going to choke, he laid out his cards and turned to Souther. "Hey," he greeted uncertainly, barely noticing as Blink laid out a straight flush, a hand almost impossible to beat.

"Heya, Race." Souther shifted nervously.

"Beat dat, Race!" Blink crowed, sweeping the money towards himself. "Ya wanna play - uh-?"

Race started. "Guys, dis is Souther."

"-Naw dat's okay," Souther said quickly. "Race, when ya ain't busy-?"

"Sure." Race stood up. "Deal me outta dis hand," he said distractedly. Ignoring glances from the others, he led Souther out onto the fire escape. "So?"

#

December 1, 1897

Whip was not a patient waiter. He paced the hallway of Mrs. Carmello's boarding house, muttering as if the whole situation was a deliberate plot to inconvenience him. Race wondered, not for the first time, if Whip expected his relationship with Jane to revert to the way it had been nine months before.

"What's takin' so long?"

Racetrack had the experience of awaiting the births of his younger sisters, but was concerned as well. The sun was sinking. Certainly, night came early these days, but it had been hours. The sound of Whip's impatient feet, his own tapping on the wooden counter and the silence from upstairs were grating on his nerves. Whip had sent Souther back to the lodging house - none of the other newsies knew about Jane's condition - so Race did not even have him to talk to.

G-d, he called silently, more out of habit than fervent belief. A disgusted sigh broke the pacing. G-d. Some sound - any sound from above would be more welcome than this silence. Every child born is double or nothing. He had no idea where the thought had come from. Something he'd overheard at the tracks? Mrs. Carmello herself when Beatricia was born?

But dat's wrong. Sometimes da baby lives an' not da mudda - or da mudda an' not da baby. Sometimes it's twins. He tried to force his mind off that track, but it seemed stuck. The sky grew darker.

"Is Mister - Whip? - here?" The woman on the steps must have been another of Mrs. Carmello's tenants. Race jumped to his feet and looked around, but the lobby was empty. Whip must have given up. "Mrs. Jane-" The landlady had seen no reason to mention that Jane had not married her child's father. "-is asking for him."

Race glanced around again and swore inwardly. Without bothering to mention that he was not 'Mr. Whip,' Race raced up the stairs past the woman.

The room was still quiet. "Janie?"

"Race?" Jane's eyes held dark circles under them, and stood out glaringly against her white face. In a basket away from the bed lay the newborn, oddly blue and still. He looked at Mrs. Carmello in alarm, but she shook her head, pressed a finger to her lips and gestured at Jane. "Did ya see my little boy?" Jane whispered, trying to smile.

Race glanced at the dead child again, and swallowed. "Yeah, I saw 'im. How ya doin'?"

"Tired," she whispered, then, "where's Whip?"

Racetrack's tongue tangled for a moment. "He's been waitin' fer ya," he said truthfully. "Jist went out."

She gave another tired smile. "He likes to surprise me."

"Yeah," he agreed quickly.

"Tell him to come up, please?"

"A coise." Race couldn't move. Mrs. Carmello put a hand on his shoulder and guided him gently out the door.

"That was kind of you," she said, closing the door.

"Why ain't ya told her?" Race demanded in a whisper.

Mrs. Carmello shook her head. "Not now. She doesn't need the shock now. She needs to concentrate on getting better."

"Getting better?" He'd known the moment he walked in. Double or nothin'.

"Don't fret. There's still a chance of her recovering." The landlady's eyes belied her words. "It was hard on her."

Racetrack breathed in sharply, glanced at the door, cursed the Bronx leader silently and headed for the stairs. "Tell Janie, Whip'll be in soon."

###

He stopped at the bunkroom only long enough to see if Whip had checked in, then took off again. There was no time to waste, his fear kept telling him. Any minute . . . He skimmed every cheap bar in the South Bronx, drawing several joking invitations to sit down and forget his troubles. Double or nothin'. He had to get back. He had to find Whip, but he had to get back before - anything - happened.

"Whip?" Jane's hopeful whisper left Race aching for something to hit. The boy hadn't returned.

"Naw, it's Race. Whip's comin'. Shouldn't'a ya get some sleep?" He regretted the words as soon as he said them. If she went to sleep, she might not wake up before he returned.

"I slept a little earlier," she replied. "He probably didn't want to wake me."

"Yeah, yeah, dat's right." He sat gingerly on the bed next to her.

"They won't let me see my baby, yet. Cuz he's sleeping. Ya know, I didn't even hear him cry? A sweet, quiet baby boy."

"Right." He didn't dare leave, but- "I'll be back in a minute, aw right."

"Don't tell him it's a boy. I want to surprise him."

"Yeah."

It took little longer. Racetrack paced around the room like a ghost, drawing curtains, lifting sheets, until Mrs. Carmello gently ordered him home. One of the women who had been assisting took his hand and squeezed it in sympathy for 'the loss of his wife.' Ironic that, he thought.

He heard a clock striking as he climbed the steps of the lodging house. Could it really be only midnight? He supposed so.

"Race, where ya been?"

"Race, ya okay? Ya look dead!"

"Corks!"

"Ow! Hey, what was dat for?!"

"Race?"

"Lost yer tongue, Race?" That voice snapped him out of his daze.

"Where have you been?" He rushed Whip, furiously. Even the Bronx leader was taken aback for a moment, though not for long. Race was soon losing the fight, but he didn't care. He had no intention of quitting.

Fights in the lodging house were far from uncommon, and usually the boys stayed out of matters that didn't concern them. This was different. Both boys had a certain look in their eyes . . .

Eagle stepped in. "C'mon!" He dodged a fist. "Break it up! Now! C'mon!" Souther joined him. For several minutes, Racetrack still struggled to fight. He was too blinded with tears to see where his fists landed, however, and most passed harmlessly through air.

"Now what's dis about?" Eagle demanded. "An' if I hears da name 'Jane,' I swear I'se gonna soak somebody."

Whip glared. "Dis bum's been makin' up da me goil-"

"She's dead!" Race spat at him. "Dey's both dead! Ya unnerstand dat? An' yer drunk." He had a feeling he shouldn't be laughing, but he was as he realized it. "She's dead an' yer drunk! While yer son is bein'-"

"Yer son!" Whip spat back. "Ya been sleepin' wit Jane fer months, an' don't t'ink I don't know who's kid she's havin'-"

"She ain't havin' nobody's kid! She's dead! Did ya get dat? She's dead!" He was crying again, not quite sure how it happened. He barely felt Eagle's hands drop away from him.

"A kid?"

Where Race was winding down, Whip had only begun working himself up. "Yeah, a kid. Janie's little baby, an' he can't keep his hands off 'er-"

"Race?" Slowly Racetrack realized he was the center of attention. All the boys were staring at him, the twins as if suddenly discovering a stranger in their midst, Doze, eyes wide-open for once, Banker, absolutely still. He looked blankly at Eagle, who still waited for an answer.

"You-?" He turned again in disbelief to see a dozen more pairs of eyes on him. Speechless, he crossed the room to his bunk. The newsies made way for him as if he carried some kind of disease. Dazedly, he lifted his mattress and pulled out a bundle of letters. The few extra clothes he own were folded under the pillow. He could take those. The pillowcase was his too. Good. He needed something to hold everything. One extra cigar. He'd forgotten he had that. The day's scratch sheet. Well, that was useless now. Was that all? Yes - no. His razor was in the washroom. He collected that and added it to his bundle.

"Race." He looked up. Souther blocked the door. "Is it true?" Race stared. "Jist answer yes or no," he pleaded. "One woid an' I'll take it as gospel."

Race found he still had a tongue. "If you evah believed a woid I'se said, ya wouldn't hafta ask."

He walked out the door.

December 12, 1897

"We went t'rough dis," Race said flatly.

"Race-"

"If yer dat anxious-"

"I got a letta from Beatricia," Souther said quietly. Race stopped mid-word, and his friend continued awkwardly, "Ya oughta give 'er yer new address. I wrote her . . ."

"Wha'd ya tell 'er?" Racetrack asked quietly.

"Nothin'!" Souther exclaimed. "Whaddaya expect me to tell her? What can I tell her? I wasn't gonna say anyt'in witout tawkin' to you foist!"

Racetrack glanced down at the envelope in Souther's hand. "I'd t'ink you'd be pretty shoa a what to tell her," he said.

"I asked ya fer one woid, Race! Is dat too much?"

Racetrack's reply- if he'd intended to make any - was cut short by a tap on the window. Jack's head poked out. "Race, somet'in wrong?"

Leave it to Cowboy. For once Race blessed Jack's nonexistent sense of tact. "Naw, nothin's wrong."

Blink's head appeared next to Jack's. "We's gettin' a liddle tired a holdin' dis game." He fended off a blow from Mush's hat.

Race looked at Souther. "Anyt'ing else?"

The red-head sighed. "Naw." He straightened up. At his movement toward the window, the boys pulled their heads back inside.

Race hesitated, blowing a ring of smoke upwards, not entirely certain he wanted to rejoin the boys. A spark fell from the cigar to land on the iron rail of the fire escape. It smoldered there for a moment before the wind caught it and carried off into the snow-covered street below.

"Race?" came Blink's concerned voice.

He extinguished the cigar. "I'se comin'. Souther!" he called as he climbed in. The Bronx boy turned on his way out the door. "No."

Souther paused, nodded, tensed shoulders relaxing, and walked out.

"Now," said Race to Blink closing the window. "I bet you can't repeat dat." He grinned. "Double or nothin'."

THE END