Despite the drizzly day, Sheepshead Bay was crowded. Even down at the fence, people were crowded against the three gentlemen. These three didn't notice, though; this was where they were comfortable. They threw nods at the walkers who warmed up and cooled down horses along the track; the vendors gave them free lunches. The newsboys who picked their way through the crowds hawking headlines were especially fond of the gentlementhey always bought papers and always tipped well.
Their own mildly sordid pasts as newsboys might have affected that, though.
"My money's on Paul Revere," commented the one at the left. His skin was an oatmealy shade of brown and dark curls spilled out from under his fedora. He nodded at the horse being warmed up in front of them. "I got a pretty good tip; says he's recovered from that foot thing. He's gonna win it. You'll see."
"Says you," answered the gentleman on the right. Unlike his companions, he hadn't grown up in New York; a slight southern drawl was clear in his voice. "Not what the paper says, though." He glanced down at his paper again, hunching over it, trying to protect it from the occasional spatter of rain. "Right here. May 20, 1911, a day at the races. Paul Revere, favored at the beginning of the season, not so ready to race again?"
"Yeah, who cares what the pape says? It also says it's sunny today, shows what the pape knows," said the one in the middle. The others fell quiet; despite his diminutive stature, this was, sort of, their leader. Definitely the brains of the operation.
"Well, me, I'd put dough on Valentine," the second continued. "Pape says he's got good odds."
"Again, who gives a half a damn what the pape says? You ain't got no horse sense, Ben."
"It ain't just the pape, Nate. The jockey's a friend of a friend. I know his brother, right? He's got it made. I'm sure."
"So put your money where your mouth is." Then the middle one, Nathan, smirked. "Wait, that's rightyou ain't got none."
"You neither," the first one said.
"Shut it, Nicky." But Nathan said it fondly. The two of them went way back. "'Sides, I told youI put the word out. Invited the fellas back to the city for a visitand a game. I heard back from a few, too."
"Yeah?" Nick asked eagerly. "Who?"
"Skittery was first, he's just in Boston, can make it no problem. But he passed on the word. He's got Pie comin' up from Florida. An' word on the street, Spot's on his way from Chicago."
Ben let out a slight laugh. "I ain't heard names like that in years," he said. "An' I finally get to meet the infamous striking newsies from New York."
"Speakin' of which." Nathan checked his watch. "I'm supposed to go see Adelaide; you know what happens if I'm late..."
"An' I know who wears the pants in that relationship," Nick answered.
"Shut it. You don't argue with Adelaide any more than I do," Nathan snapped. "Anyway, boysyou've got a lunch meeting. Tell Davey I say hi, and see what you can do about him sneakin' us in."
"Yeah, we know what to do," Nick said confidently.
"Just keep pressin' him, Nick. You know Davemaybe he don't gamble much, but he's a sucker."
"I know, I know."
"An' tell him I'll look out for Les an' Ari."
"I'll tell 'im."
"Don't let up on him, Nicky, I'm serious!" Nathan continued as they wound their way through the crowd. "I'm out of places to hold the game, an' with the guys coming to town...you want to see 'em too, don't you?"
"You know I do, Racetrack." Nick said it with a grin, falling back on their childhood nicknames. Nathan met his grin with a bemused smile.
One thing that hadn't been around when Nickthen known as Mushwas a newsboy was the subway. It had opened a few years after he'd stopped selling papers and moved out of he lodging house. He'd gotten a job in a factory, real back breaking, grueling work. He'd hated every moment of it.
But somehow, three years later, Racetracknow going by his real name, Nathanhad appeared at his doorstep and offered him a job. It was in a ramshackle theater all the way at the end of town; he couldn't see how anyone had ever heard of it, let alone how it turned a profit. Then he'd seen a show, and he understood. The theater didn't want to draw attention to itself; it had a very small, very select audience.
His job was mostly to do whatever was needed: handiwork, selling tickets, security, and following the whims of the theater's star, Adelaide. Which he didn't mind so much, not really, since it beat breaking his back in the factory, and the pay, while not great, was at least regular.
Nick Meyers was pretty easily content, especially when Nathan had told him he could offer a job to his best friend from the factory, a slightly younger worker named Ben. Ben had been a newsie too (he said his nickname had been Tag), but down south. Now they worked at the theater together, doing everything from running Nathan's errands (like this, a lunch date with an old friend) to keeping watch for the cops.
"So what's the big deal about guys coming back to town?" Ben asked, as they made their way out of the gritty subway tunnel and onto the western edge of Central Park. "They all gamblers, or what?"
"Yeah, most of 'em." Nick shrugged. All the newsies had learned to play a few games when they were still kids, though they only bet pennies. As they'd grown up and moved away, only a few of them were really good at it, like Nathan was. But they'd all kept in touch, and they all still knew how to play. "It ain't about the money, though," Nick added.
Ben guffawed. "Yeah, right; for Nathan, everything's about the money."
"Really?" Ben sounded skeptical.
Nick sighed. "Look, you said yourselfwe were the newsies who went on strike. It was a long time ago, but...you go through that, you want to keep track of each other. We was close."
"So what happened? Why did all your friends split town, then, if you was so close?"
For just a second, Nick actually looked angry. What he finally said was, "Jack Kelly."
"I don't suppose you're gonna tell me what that means, this time?" Ben asked.
"I don't talk about Jack," Nick answered. "None of us do. An' whatever you do, don't bring him up in front of Dave."
Ben nodded. He didn't know much about Jack Kelly, except that he'd been the strike leaderand that he'd done something that had made every former-friend he had in New York very mad at him. Especially David Jacobs.
They approached Fifth Ave and the site where the library would be opening in just a few days, and sure enough, David was waiting for them outside, holding a newspaper over his head to protect from the sputtering rain. "Nice umbrella, Dave," Nick greeted him.
"Hey, guys," David said amicably. "Shouldn't you be at work? I thought Adelaide had a new number opening tomorrow."
"Yeah, she does," Ben said. "Nathan's taking care of the dress rehearsal, though..." He shot a sideways look at Nick as they started walking towards the diner where they routinely ate early dinners before heading to the theater. He cleared his throat. "Though he really wishes he had time to get the game ready."
"The game." David rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't even mind, you guys, but Les has got Ari playing. Ari doesn't have the money to spare." He sighed. His younger brother and his soon-to-be-brother-in-law were regulars at Nathan's games, though they rarely had much cash. "I swear, Les lost his whole month's pay a couple weeks ago."
"Yeah," Ben said. "That was a bad night for a lot of us. I only just got back on my feet."
"Maybe you should stop gambling your salary away," David said.
"Prob'ly." Ben smiled.
"I'm lookin' forward to losing it all in a couple of days, though," Nick said. "I mean, everyone's gonna be there."
"Everyone?" David raised an eyebrow. "The usual crowd?"
"Nope." Nick grinned. Time to let it not-so-casually slip. "Nathan said something like he got the word out to our old friends. Skitts and Spot and Swifty are gonna be there for sure...Maybe Pie, maybe Snoddy...Prob'ly Dutchy."
David stared. "Are you serious?"
"Sure am. They start getting to town tomorrow, some of 'em, for Adelaide's big opening. Nathan didn't want to get no one's hopes up, in case it didn't work out, but he's been schemin' this for months."
"Wow." David grinned a little himself.
"You should drop by. Even if you don't gamble, you should drop in and see the guys."
"I will." David nodded. "Where is it?"
Ben cleared his throat. "Actually...we were hoping you could help us with that," he said. "'Cause...well, you got a key to the library, right? An' it's not open yet, right?"
"So?" David asked warily.
"So...well, we...Mostly Nathan...figured, all the building is done now, it's just getting ready to open, right? So we was wondering if maybe you couldn't...sneak us in?"
"Well," Nick said quickly, "we was thinkingyou got all that space in there. There won't be that many of us. It's more a, a reunion than a game, right? So we'd sneak in...play awhile, shoot the breeze for awhile...and sneak out. Wouldn't touch nothin'!"
"You guys really thought I'd do that?" David demanded. "Let a bunch of...of grown hooligans into the new library?"
"But Dave, we don't got nowhere else to play!" Ben said. "An' if there's nowhere to play, the guys ain't gonna be together, an'..."
"You don't care about that," David said. "You've never even met them."
"But I want to!" Ben protested. "I heard all these stories about 'em, for years now. An' I want to meet 'em at last..."
"Don't call me that," David snapped. "I'm not a newsboy any more; I don't want to pretend I am."
His voice was harsh; it was clear the conversation was over. Nick wasn't surprised, though. David was kind of in charge of the library openinghe was even picked to be the main speaker at its dedication ceremonyand it was highly unlikely to begin with. And he didn't even like to reminisce like the rest of them did. But Mush understood that. Jack had hurt all of them, but he'd hurt David worst, and now virtually every memory David had of those days was...tainted.
"Well," Nick said, "we'll tell Nathan we tried. I'm sure he'll find somewhere else for the game... An' he'll invite you, even if you weren't helpful when he needed it."
"Yeah," David muttered. "Nathan's just a great guy like that."
Nick sighed. "Those days weren't all bad, Dave," he murmured, following his own thoughts. "You didn't think so back then."
"I don't want to hear it, Nicky."
So Nick shrugged. He'd expected that. David hated Jack, Nathan hated Jack...even Nick himself did, sometimes. But sometimes, he also wondered where the hell Jack Kelly was, and what he'd made of himself. And when he was feeling particularly kind-hearted, Nick wondered if he'd ever see Jack Kelly again.