Racetrack was to his left; Kid Blink to his right. Like him, they ran in grim silence, broken only by the rasp of harsh breathing and the scrape and thud of boots against uneven pavement.
The same sounds came from behind them—multiple pairs of pounding feet, drawing closer. There was no shouting, either from the pursuers or the pursued. He counted lampposts in his head, watched Petersen's ruined storefront flash by to his right out of the corner of his eye. Overhead, the sky was deep blue and amber, and blessedly clear.
Race hissed under his breath, "Jack—I'se beat—"
"There's...four of 'em—"
"One block." He closed his fingers a little more tightly around the packet in his hand, his grip sweat-slick against the waxed paper. Three against four; not bad odds really, but the sun was setting fast and there were no benefits to a well-matched fight. Lungs beginning to burn, he pushed himself onward.
A chunk of stone smacked into the pavement at his left heel. Instinctively, he and Race sprang apart; just as instinctively, he reached out with his free hand and snagged the shorter boy's shoulder before they drifted too far away from each other.
As one, the three of them swerved to their right around the next corner. It put the sunset behind them, throwing long shadows out in front, like runner's lanes marked on the cobblestones, though running down the center of the street was strictly out of the question. Blink ducked another thrown rock, his shoulder jostling against Jack's chest. Jack levered him back upright with a forearm.
One stumble and it'd be over. Blink slapped his palm against the remains of the brick wall to his other side, quickly regained his footing.
The old tenement block loomed into sight. Jack glanced up at the empty sky, then the three of them abruptly stopped hugging the right side of the street and darted across it instead, heading for the far corner.
"Sampson!" Jack panted as loudly as he dared. "Sampson!" Behind them, he could hear the footsteps break stride at the sudden sound of his voice.
From the interior of a burnt-out streetcar that lay directly in their path, another three boys sprang out. One wielded a heavy, jagged plank of wood; the other two had slingshots aimed and ready. Jack and his companions swept past them, halted and wheeled to face their pursuers.
Now it was six against four.
The boys who'd been chasing them staggered back, re-assessing their chances. One still clutched a rock, but he paused with it only half-raised.
Race took a step forward, catching their gazes, then meaningfully flicked his eyes to the sky.
They hesitated, traded glances. Jack could practically hear their thoughts. How long'll this take? And can we still get back in time? They shuffled one step back, then two—then turned and sprinted back the way they'd come. The one with the rock threw it anyway, not to strike, but to deter; the two boys in front with slingshots neatly sidestepped it, and by the time they recovered their aim, the erstwhile pursuers were already halfway down the block.
"Thanks, guys," Jack said, keeping his voice low. He shook damp hair out of his eyes, only realizing then that he hadn't yet let go of Race. He did so, leaving Race to smooth out his crumpled sleeve with an air of mock offense, then held out his hand to the boy with the wooden plank.
Skittery lowered his makeshift club and returned Jack's handshake. "'S been quiet, Jack. You'se prob'ly the last ones."
"We'll give you twenty." He pushed Skittery in the direction of Blink and Race, tossed Blink the packet he'd been clutching. "Go."
Jack watched the three of them take off, staying as deep within the rapidly-growing shadows as they could. He nodded to the two remaining boys: Chopper and Toms, both of them good shots. They returned his nod. He'd seen them eyeing the packet with curiosity, but they didn't ask, busying themselves with scanning the sky and streets around them instead.
...Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. He took a deep breath, gestured to them, and then it was back to more running. Two blocks and following the el tracks from beneath and threading through an alley, different directions each time. Until, pressed up against the side of the remains of the Postal Telegraph, they peered out across the street at the scorched, wide area that had once been City Hall Park. In the distance beyond City Hall itself rose the World Building, its golden dome crushed like an eggshell.
This was the most dangerous part to run: Broadway and the park were vast and open, although the broken vehicles, smashed masonry from the surrounding edifices, and sorry attempts at provisional shelters—long since abandoned—provided some cover here and there. Jack tipped his head back to the sky and held his breath, listening hard.
He jerked his head at the park and the other two took off towards it, himself following close behind. Crossing the expanse of Broadway, weaving from one pile of rubble to another, they made for the carcass of a large carriage lying almost completely upended just within the scorched lawn beyond the sidewalk. They vaulted the low cast-iron fence and Jack dropped flat, easing himself partway through the small opening between the carriage's frame and the ground, blinking in the sudden darkness. "Sampson," he hissed.
"That you, Jack?"
Sound of a double-barrelled shotgun uncocking. A dim light flared from below as the lantern was uncovered, casting stripes of brightness on the inside of the carriage.
"Anyone else?" Jack asked.
"You'se the last ones."
He backed out as the grating was pushed up silently on well-oiled hinges. He ushered the other two into the carriage and the ventilation shaft, then climbed in himself.
"Lock," someone whispered, and there was a rustle of movement down the line of boys in the shaft. Jack held out his hand, and the metal padlock was pressed into it. He looped it around the edge of the grating, paused as he did every night.
"Key?" he said.
"Right." He snapped the lock shut, yanked on it several times to test. It held. "Go."
Inside, the passageway quickly narrowed until it was only wide enough for one body at a time, so they moved crouching down the sloping shaft single-file. A very tiny bit of daylight filtered in through the metal bars behind him, but it was fading fast, and soon the only light that made it through came from the lantern at the head of the line, blocked and blocked again by the forms of the boys ahead of him. He kept one hand on Chopper's back as they went along.
It took them, ironically enough, partway back across Broadway, opposite the direction in which they'd just run over the surface. There was a slight pause as they reached and collected the next small cluster of guards at the end of the shaft, then they all continued through, more light drifting back to Jack as boys exited the shaft and he got closer to the main tunnel.
He hopped down onto the stacked crates that served as steps leading from the ceiling entrance of the shaft. Descending, he touched bottom in the tunnel proper. This was theirs, their modest kingdom: a circular tube, straight and faced with whitewashed bricks for about a block's length, until it began to curve sideways in a gentle "L" shape for the last eighty-odd paces at the north end; there the walls were iron-plated. The floor was ridged with a set of rusting tracks, bricks laid between. A single dilapidated wooden car sat just beyond the shaft's opening, tucked up against the tunnel's south end. Once an experimental subway before most of the boys had even been born, now it was home sweet home.
As living quarters went, it was by no means either fancy or spacious, as the tunnel was no more than eight feet wide. Still, it was solid and dry, roughly two dozen feet underground, and virtually inaccessible save for the ventilation shaft—and that was so narrow that anyone trying to break in would have a devil of a time trying to mount an attack lined up in single file.
Most important—it was fire-proof.
This fic borrows the premise, though not the characters or the storyline, from Reign of Fire. As the fic is set in 1900, there will naturally be no appearances from the characters of RoF.
Jack is not Quinn, so this will not replicate Quinn's story.
The premise of RoF's particular breed of dragons and the destruction they bring remains intact. For a sleeping creature thousands of years old, what's one century more...or less?
Chapter 2: II
Behind him, boys were "closing the door"—putting one more crate atop the stack and sliding a wide brass panel salvaged from some fancy building between it and the ceiling to block the mouth of the shaft. Snoddy was conscientiously setting the padlock key beside the stack, in the little niche created by a missing half-brick.
Jack closed his eyes just for a moment, partly to savor the blessed subterranean coolness after the dusty exhaustion of the chase, partly to let his vision readjust. The light down here, not that it could properly be called bright, was nonetheless stronger than it had been in the ventilator, although a hundred and forty feet of darkness still separated them from the the north half of the tunnel where they'd made their home. It was obvious the tunnel had been at one time gas-lit: a couple of thin pipes for gas and steam ran down its length, though they were empty now. Resources were scarce and any accidental fire down here would be deadly, but too much darkness meant night terrors and boys too groggy and careless from lack of sleep; so they had compromised, and allowed three kerosene lanterns and four candles in glass jars scattered over the length of half a block, set carefully on flat bricks and cinderblocks and away from anything combustible.
Many of the boys were already clustered around one of the crates which served as a table, set where the brick walls abruptly changed to iron. There were a number of parcels piled on it; Jack saw that the packet he'd given to Blink had been added to the top.
"Hey, Jack!" It was Mush calling to him, not loudly as he—as any of them—would have done in the old days, but still at something close to normal speaking volume. After all, they were fairly deep underground, and reasonably safe here. "Where'd you find this?"
"Up around Fifty-Seventh." There were murmurs from around the room. It meant a hike of nearly four miles; might as well be forty, these days. Jack forestalled the questions with an upraised hand. "I don't want none of yous going 'til we sit down and plan it out. There ain't much there, and we almost didn't make it back."
"Race said you got chased."
"Thought I recognized one of 'em," Skittery spoke up, while Jack glanced about the room and did a mental headcount despite himself. "One of the Hoffman House guys."
...four sorting out the store of weapons: clubs and slingshots, brass knuckles and their tiny cache of firearms. Twenty-one others scattered throughout, mostly by the crates. He stepped to one side to better see beyond the tunnel's curve. Another five huddled among the blankets, piled at the far end where the tunnel ended, away from the lamps...
"You sure?" Race said.
"Didn't you see?"
"Too busy runnin'."
"They'se far outta their territory," Specs put in.
Race ran a hand through his dark hair, absently rubbing at the long knife scar that trailed from behind his left ear. "So were we."
...Thirty-one. Thirty-one was all that was left of them; and even then, six of the boys in here right now had not originally been one of their own.
Jack nodded to Dutchy and Race, who quickly began tearing into the packets and bags, cutting up the contents where needed, doling out the food the boys had managed to scrounge for the day. There wasn't much: stale crackers with the mold (mostly) scraped off; a small cache of nuts; two little baskets of withered green apples that Bailey, Dutchy, and Mush, beaming with pleasure, announced that they'd found in a cellar; and the packet Jack's group had brought back, containing dried beef. Another group had seen to it that the bottles and canteens had been filled from the pipes, and those were now being passed around.
He watched the boys claim their meager share of food; watched to make sure that a few took extra for those still on the blankets. As the last of the boys drifted away, some in clusters, some on their own, Race beckoned him over with a jerk of his head.
"I saved half the beef, like you said. And half the apples. They'se up on the shelf."
He slapped the other boy lightly on the shoulder. "Thanks, Race."
Race pushed a double portion over to him. "Go. Sit. You been runnin' more'n the most of us."
Someone tapped his arm. He turned to see Snitch, mouth half-full of beef. "Yeah, Snitch?"
"He..." the boy swallowed his mouthful, lowered his voice. "He ain't been eating again." He looked a little nervous, as though he were betraying a confidence. "Nothin' all day. I just thought you oughta know."
"Yeah." He moved away from them to squint into the darkness where the blankets were, searching for one silhouette wedged against the tunnel's walls. Returning, he traded a glance with Race, nudged Snitch in wordless thanks. "Yeah, all right."
Scooping up the small supper, he carried it over there, stepping past boys hungrily devouring their food. He crouched down before the silent figure, holding out a quarter-apple. "Hey."
David stared back at him, eyes hollow. He didn't respond, nor did he make a move to take the food.
Jack waved it a little. "C'mon. How often we get apples, huh?" David's gaze barely flickered. "Aw, I know it's a little dry, but it ain't so bad. Still green, even. Look."
He lifted David's hand, found a relatively clean patch on his own sleeve and wiped David's fingers on it, then closed his fingers around the wedge of fruit. David held onto it, more by reflex than by intent, but that was a start. Jack took a seat beside him. Laying out a small piece of waxed paper on the blanket between them, he piled the rest of their food on the makeshift plate.
He broke off a chunk of thick cracker, wrapped a thin strip of meat around it. With his first bite, the taste of the salty beef exploded on his tongue, reminding him just how hungry he was, how long it had been since he'd swiped a handful of nuts for breakfast just after dawn. His stomach rumbled as he did his best not to wolf down the rest of it, eating slowly instead, careful to catch every crumb.
Another glance at David told him the boy hadn't moved, was merely holding the apple listlessly. "C'mon, Davey." He refrained from trying to nudge a response from him—he'd learned the hard way that a little harmless shove was more than likely to make David simply let go of whatever he was holding. "Mush found 'em first, you know? You don't wanna make him feel bad that you ain't eatin' 'em, do ya? You know how Mush is." Cupping his hand beneath David's, he pushed it gently upward. He got halfway there before David pushed back, irritation and resistance sparking in his eyes.
That was better. It was something. Jack let up immediately, and after another moment, David completed the movement, taking a small bite of the fruit.
"Jack." Boots tossed him a canteen before going back to his own supper.
Jack shook it; a little more than half-full. "Another bite, Dave." David gave him something that was nearly a glare, but he did comply, eventually. Jack handed him the canteen, waited, and then took it back when David only gave a small shake of his head. "Yes, you do," Jack told him. He lifted the spout to David's lips, not above trapping his head against the iron wall behind him. "I'm tippin' it up, so drink it or wear it."
He made good on it, but did so carefully, watching David's throat to make sure he swallowed. When he figured David had drunk a reasonable amount, he let up, and took a drink himself. The water was flat but cool, and he had to check himself before he could gulp it all. They had a relatively convenient source, and they stored as much as possible down here, but fresh water was a precious commodity, and they could never have too much of it. On one or two days, it had been all they had.
He set about smashing almonds with a chunk of brick, noting out of the corner of his eye that the other boy was slowly finishing off the piece of apple. Picking out the largest bits of kernel, he set them in David's palm. David made to drop them atop the pile of remaining food, but Jack shook his head sharply. "No. Go on."
Blue eyes narrowed at him again, but David did not protest, and even, after another minute or two, took up a small strip of beef to chew on. Jack polished off his share and gently bullied his friend into doing likewise, though David seemed unable to choke down the last half-piece of cracker, even with the rest of the water from the canteen. Jack let it go for tonight. He hadn't had time this morning to see that David had gotten anything down—and apparently he hadn't—but this would do, for now. He wrapped the leftover piece in the waxed paper and got up to add it to one of the cast-iron pots placed high on the "shelf" they'd made with stacked crates, where they stored the bulk of their provisions. They'd had no problem with rats in the tunnel so far, and he wasn't about to start now.
He waited in line to rinse his hands in the bucket—it would be thrown out during the morning's ablutions—and brought back a scrap of damp rag for David.
Around him, most of the boys were starting to nod off. There was a general migration towards the sleeping end of the tunnel. Some boys preferred the far end beyond the tunnel's bend, where it suddenly ended in a reassuringly blank and solid-sounding cement wall. Some preferred sleeping closer to the lights instead; a few, like Jack—and he liked to think that David maybe accommodated him in this, never moving too far back into the tunnel—simply felt better just at the elbow of the curve, where one could keep an eye on both sides. Several boys still lingered in the lit part; he could see Blink and Bumlets engaged in animatedly telling some story, with Skittery, Race, and Mush in various stages of drowsy attendance. Specs, Bailey, and Digger extinguished all the lanterns, added another candle, and posted themselves just at the at the edge of the dark, ready for the night's first watch. The almost-perpetual sound of whetstone scraping against metal that had paused during the meal started up again.
When he returned to his spot, David still hadn't moved, his gaze still unfocused. Despite his apparent apathy, Jack knew he didn't sit idle all day; he'd spent it repairing and splicing the lengths of rope that the boys had managed to scavenge here and there. Rope was a necessity for hauling items, for lowering yourself into ruined sub-basements or climbing into the guts of second- and third-stories (there was rarely a need to go much higher), for defense, for fixing things. There was never enough to go around, or it wasn't strong enough, or long enough, and so David's ability to work with them had proved invaluable. Some of the younger boys, whom Jack had forbidden to go on the more dangerous scavenging raids, stayed in and learned from him. Oh, he didn't really teach them, they'd said. But they could watch him, and pick up the simpler techniques.
Jack reached over and picked up his right hand again, then the other, peering at the fingertips closely in the dim candlelight. David could work his fingers until they bled and never seem to care, or even notice. Calluses and even faint scars had already sprung up, but today there were only mild blisters among them. Satisfied, Jack handed him the dampened rag.
He pulled the knife in its sheath from his belt and set it within easy reach, next to the small metal box where David kept his fids and needle and twine, and nudged David's shoulder. "Tired?"
David's only response was to lie down and curl up, facing away from him. Jack shrugged and tossed a ragged wool blanket over him before wrapping himself in another. The iron walls offered good protection here, but they were damned cold.
Around him, the small band of survivors settled in for another long night.
Chapter 3: III
The sound that woke him was faint. He was not even sure if he'd heard it, but he knew better than to dismiss anything his senses told him. Three out of four times it could be nothing, but the fourth time might be everything.
There it was again. A low wordless sound from beside him. He propped himself up on an elbow, leaned over David's shoulder.
Nearby, someone else stirred. "Jack?" he heard Ten-Pin whisper.
"Shh. Just a bad dream, I think. Go back t'sleep."
The small boy obeyed, but David's head jerked back, almost striking Jack's elbow. "Ma...oh, Ma...I'm so..."
He could see David's eyes were still closed. He laid a hand on one wool-covered shoulder, shook it lightly. "Davey. Hey, Davey. 'S alright."
David only tossed his head again, one hand reaching out, fingers closing on nothing. Jack glanced behind himself, spotted Bumlets among the ones on watch; that meant it was sometime between two and five a.m. "Go back t'sleep, Dave." He touched the damp brow, was relieved to find no fever. "Easy, easy. Go t'sleep."
David's fingers scraped against the chipped brick floor, hard enough to break skin. Jack reached across him and caught his wrist before he could draw blood. Twisting against his grip, David gasped, "Let me go—let me go, I've got to go and find—"
Jack saw the glint of tears start out from under his lids. He shook him hard, once, then dropped to avoid the blow as David abruptly reversed his struggles and lashed out backhanded at him. "Dave!"
He felt the instant that David came awake, going from fight to absolute stillness in the space of a breath. He leaned over David's shoulder again, saw that the blue eyes were open now, staring straight ahead. Jack cautiously let go of his wrist.
There was no response, nor did he really expect one.
"It's..." He swallowed. It's safe here, he wanted to say, but he knew that wasn't the root of it. "It's all right. Go t'sleep, huh?"
No answer, no movement. He reached over, laying his palm over David's eyes. He waited more than a full minute until he felt the downward brush of eyelashes before pulling away, then wrapped his arm around David's waist, hoping he'd relax enough to doze off again.
Hardly anyone else had stirred at the commotion, not even those on watch. Routine, Jack thought, or something like it.
Chapter 4: IV
Most of the younger boys were still asleep at this early hour, but half a dozen of the older ones were clustered around what was referred to as "The Office"—two metal boxes with a sheet of metal laid across it, forming a crude desk. It was one of the few tabletops on which lanterns were allowed to be placed; they had two other upended metal bins, but those were smaller. The wooden crates which served as their other tables posed too great a risk of fire.
One of the few intact maps they'd found, the east edge singed off, was spread out over it. As usual, Dutchy was seated on a low box in front of the tattered page, the others crouched or kneeling beside him; to everyone's pleased surprise, he'd proved to have a good head for maps, for spotting patterns and movements. All of them had carried mental diagrams of the city for years; you couldn't sell a decent pape or find a meal or cross a part of town safely without knowing exactly where you were going. But the landscape changed so quickly these days, and the alliances and hazards with it, and they'd had to resort to paper maps to keep track of it all.
"We gotta start today," Jack said quietly. "It's practic'ly October."
October, and with it a new threat: the coming of winter.
Summer had fled all too quickly. When they'd first come here, at the start of the season, winter had seemed an eternity away. Day-to-day survival had been paramount then; long-term planning had been unthinkable, even impossible, like a heavy burden no one had had the stamina to pick up. If Jack were willing to admit it to himself, he'd say that a small, deep part of him had not truly expected to live long enough to see the winter. Not after Europe, not after Russia...
Three months. Three months ago, he'd had a roof over his head, and meals which, if not quite regular, at least were more or less probable. He'd had a job which, even if it often seemed as though it were headed nowhere, at least had some prospects if he played his cards right. At least had some chance of a future.
He'd had that. They'd all had.
No more. How strange to think that it was now barely one year since their triumph over Pulitzer and the World. What a fight it had been, to bring down the giants of the city. At times, it had seemed like nothing could possibly accomplish it; not without the street fights, the narrow escapes, the monumental task of uniting hundreds and thousands, the betrayals.
Who knew that all they really had to do was wait a few months, and it would have all come crashing down, farther than they could ever have wanted to imagine?
Dutchy swept a bit of dust off the map, and Jack turned his attention back to it. The abandoned subway tunnel they occupied was comfortably cool in summer, but they'd have to find a way to heat it in winter.
If it were just himself, Jack thought, if it were just himself and maybe a handful of the older boys, he might say to hell with heating it up. He'd slept in worse; for that matter, so had pretty much all of them, at one time or another. Nights spent in emptied packing-boxes or in doorways or over a street-vent, sometimes buried beneath a thin layer of straw. At least down here they'd be out of the direct reach of wind and snow. That ought to have been luxury enough. But he couldn't do it; couldn't open his mouth and ask these thirty boys to huddle here shivering for the entire dark length of winter with death hovering just outside their door; couldn't keep his mouth shut and simply let the ice steal up on them while the weeks crept on. Maybe he'd just gone soft, spoiled by the comforts of the Lodging House, with its good walls and running water and cotton sheets.
But maybe, just maybe, it meant something, too, to try to improve what little bit of life and shelter they had now. And none of them, in the few discussions they'd had so far over the "hows" of the matter, had ever tried to challenge the "why."
"I still say we try it," Skittery spoke up. "Just once."
"It" was the obvious plan: moving their quarters to the other end of the tunnel, close to the shaft and using it—naturally—for ventilation when they built fires for warmth.
"A small one, just to try," Specs added. He was standing behind Dutchy, hands working knots from the blond's shoulders. "We can see where the smoke goes. We keep it small, it can't hurt."
"We talked about this before," Jack said. He dabbed absently at the small nick on his chin, a fresh souvenir from that morning's bout with the razor. "Even if it works, that just gets us through...what? November? Then what?"
"If we keep the snow clear—" Skittery protested.
"Work in shifts." Specs again. "Keep an eye on things up top—"
Blink leaned forward. "Yous guys forgettin' the winter before last? Ain't no keeping up with that."
They remembered, of course. They all remembered. The great blizzard of February '99 had practically buried the entire East Coast for days. And the start of that winter...
It hadn't been long after the first snowstorm that season that the very block of buildings they were currently under had burned in terrific fashion. The whole lot of them had forgone sleep and poured out of the Lodging House to watch it with their own eyes, along with the massive crowds of spectators that had jammed the streets. It had been a real sight, flames shooting high into the night sky despite the huge winds and driving rain. Reporters staying late in their offices had had a great view of it. Papes had sold like hotcakes for days.
The collapsed Rogers, Peet building had been rebuilt after; they'd watched its construction every day, easily visible from the Square, growing again from the ground up to eight stories over the course of a year. Its grand re-opening, on the twenty-first of February, had been a triumph.
Four months later—three months ago—it had burned again, and this time, there would be no one left to put it back up.
It went without saying. Fire and destruction went without saying.
"We got another month before snow, we'll deal with it then," Skittery said. "Buy us some time."
"Single chimney's too dangerous, Skitts." Jack drummed his fingers on the desk. "It's our only way in and out. What'se we gonna do if we need to get out in a hurry and it's fulla smoke? Or if we need to get in?"
Race shook his head. "Sooner we find a new place, the better. Ain't none of us wants to try movin' in in the cold."
"Someone might get there 'fore us," Dutchy said.
This gave them all pause. It was too true. Competition for space was fierce; habitable places were scarce, and getting scarcer every day.
Jack opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, a thunderous boom shook the tunnel from above. Straight from somnolent stillness boys sprang up, some of the younger ones crying out, grabbing onto each other.
"It's them!" Ten-Pin's voice rose above the rest, high-pitched and thin. "It's the dragons!"
Chapter 5: V
There were some distinct disadvantages to being a newsie: the cold, the heat, the rain; the jacked-up prices, the low returns; the wondering if you were going to get to eat that day, or if you were going to wind up sleeping in the streets.
Then there was the fact that you knew the headlines inside and out, day after day. There was no getting away from it, not if you wanted to sell. The names, the places...the numbers. It was enough to keep you awake, some nights.
It had started in England.
In Rosebridge Colliery, near Liverpool, near Wigan, to be exact. Not that anyone had realized the significance of Rosebridge at the time. It was thought to be an isolated incident—terrible, to be sure, but not a harbinger. Not an omen.
At two thousand, four hundred and forty-eight feet, or perhaps only two thousand, four hundred and forty-five, depending on which paper you read, Rosebridge was the deepest mineshaft on the globe. A marvel of engineering, yes, but no one had thought much about it beyond that. Wigan was full of mineshafts, roughly a thousand of them within five miles of the center of town. What was one more, even if it were the farthest man had ever tunneled into the bedrock of the world?
On March fourth of this year, a massive explosion and fireball had ripped through the mine in the dead of night. It had taken fifty-one miners with it: nearly half of the mine's workers, and, save for a handful still at the surface, the entire back-shift who were underground at the time. These were the men who worked the mine from ten at night to four in the morning; the disaster had occurred shortly before two-thirty a.m.
In the ensuing chaos, some witnesses reported seeing a huge fiery shape, larger and faster than a locomotive, streaking out of the mineshaft and disappearing into the sky. The papers had carried the fantastic accounts, but no one truly believed them. Were not the men traumatized by the explosion, had not the lights been knocked out, were not the site and the sky pitch-dark?
Besides, what could have been in that shaft and still made it out?
It was written off as a giant plume of escaping material, and the explosion itself as due to a hidden chamber of natural gas. It had satisfied the colliery's owners, Messrs. William and Thomas Latham, who were, after all, sensible businessmen who understood the role of science and reason.
It had only made page five in the World—disasters were big news, English coal-mining towns were not; and the production of coal in general had not been unduly interrupted. Despite the lack of front-page status, it had made for snappy pitches and brisk sales, while back at the Lodging House newsies had nonetheless grumbled in newly-awakened indignation and sympathy over the miners' hazardous working conditions.
And then it had been more or less forgotten. Rosebridge had been temporarily shut down, and a wave of safety inspections had rippled through the nearby coalfields; but otherwise, the world moved on.
Seven weeks later, on the twenty-first of April, London had burned.
And that was when they realized that Rosebridge had only been the beginning.
Later, a few more incidents would come to light. The occasional unexplained night-time fire in a remote English farmstead, here and there during those seven quiet weeks, blamed on the uncommonly dry weather that year. No one could have possibly guessed that the dragons were merely biding their time.
The razing of London flew up and down the telegraph wires, and across the Atlantic on the submarine cables. Americans followed the ongoing story with horrified fascination. Newspapers vied with one another for sensational headlines—if the World and the Journal had been at each other's throats for a year and a half over the war in Cuba, that had been nothing compared to this. In truth they hadn't had to try very hard—newsies barely had to open their mouths to sell, and they went home every night with pockets full of change and bellies full of food.
No one knew for sure what the casualty rate was, as there were few bodies remaining to be found, and at any rate the attacks happened too quickly, one upon another before police and fire crews could be efficiently dispatched. Some papers said four hundred died per day; others said seven hundred.
The second week of the London attack brought with it a slight lifting of spirits as the British military, desperately redirecting its attention from its struggles with the Boers in South Africa, finally started to make some headway against the dragons, driving them half out of London. France, knowing that a narrow body of water was no deterrent to creatures like these, lined up a defense on her side of the Channel.
It was no use. The dragons merely streamed out elsewhere, easily evading land-based and sea-based weapons alike, gatlings and howitzers. Devourers of ash, they fed; they multiplied. The number of dead was now in the tens of thousands, and steadily rising.
No sooner did a newsie step out onto the street with his stack of papers than he was besieged by customers. Soon, you had to go back and pick up more copies of both the morning and evening editions. If you made fewer than four trips to the loading dock a day, you were running behind.
American tourists and ambassadors were ordered home, post-haste. Some even made it. Visitors from Europe were granted an indefinite stay—it was impossible to do otherwise. Teddy Roosevelt ("You Know, Jack's Roosevelt"), in the running for Vice-President alongside McKinley, advocated sending aid to Europe. Salisbury, Balfour, and later Loubet had made appeals. Ships of the U.S. Navy's North Atlantic Squadron were dispatched, sailing into God-knew-what.
France was hit at the start of the third week, then Belgium and the Netherlands. In Germany, the military attempted to literally fight fire with fire with their new Flammenwerfers—flamethrowers—only to find that the dragons were essentially resistant to normal flames. Incendiary, acid, and poison missiles were tried, in the hope that even hits in non-vital areas would have some effect, but the bottom line was that the dragons, for all their huge mass, were simply too fast in the air for successful strikes.
Refugees fled by ship to Spain, Africa, Iceland. Until the dragons apparently took notice, targeting vessels with sudden ferocity, immolating battleships and passenger boats alike and sending the population inland once again.
A few merchant and passenger ships made it home to U.S. shores in the first two weeks. The ocean crossing from Europe took an average of eight to ten days; these were the ones who had weighed anchor early. The lack of other arrivals in the following weeks was silent testament to what had befallen those who had waited too long to depart.
The trans-Atlantic telegraph lines began to fail. Western Union's two lines based in Penzance, England, were the first to go, the stations—or at least their operators—destroyed. The six lines based in Ireland went one by one. Newspapers, their overseas reports throttled down to the two operational lines left in France, began to fill their pages with more conjecture than facts, each more outlandish than the next, and the American public snapped them up. Brief afternoon editions started to appear; if you were smart, you got to the loading dock early for those. Rival newsies, too impatient to make the trip back for more papes, began to forcibly take them from the younger carriers. Jack started sending his boys out in groups for their own safety.
It was fact, though, that in the fourth week, Denmark, Switzerland, and Italy were overrun. Dragons were reported as far away as Morocco and Kursk, jumping countries, spreading out over the landmass of Europe and Asia faster than any storm or plague.
It was the last bit of reliable news before the final two lines, owned by the Anglo-American Telegraph and Compagnie Française in their brief monopoly on overseas communications, went down.
America, stunned by the sudden silence from abroad, could only wait, and speculate, and grieve. There was little else to do.
After all, it was half a world away.
Chapter 6: VI
Amid the sudden commotion, Jack snatched up the lantern before it could be bounced off the metal desk. "Quiet, alla yous! Pipe down. Do you want 'em to hear?"
It worked: the volume fell almost instantaneously. He noted Racetrack, Specs, and several others moving amongst the younger boys, herding everyone into the iron-clad section of tunnel.
"Anyone out?" Jack called to Blink.
"No. Just at the front door—"
The prolonged shriek of tortured metal against asphalt sounded from up above, sending everyone ducking on instinct. Jack pictured the creature dragging the twisted hulk of a streetcar down Broadway like a cat batting at a toy.
A glance down the length of the tunnel showed nothing but a dim moving light. They had a clear line of sight from here through to the mouth of the shaft, but any true visibilty was easily swallowed up by the hundred and forty feet of intervening darkness. He took one look at Blink's anxious face and grabbed his arm with his free hand. "Bumlets, Skittery, you'se with us!" A huge metallic crash from aboveground—the dragon tipping something over—barely gave Jack and the others pause as they took off towards the faint glow of light at the far end.
They'd gone hardly more than half a dozen steps before they were met by the glow and the three boys carrying it, sprinting from the other direction. Jack huffed in relief at the sight of the guards who'd been posted at the shaft. At least no one had been outside, and so there'd been no guards up at the grating, either. "Everyone okay?"
"Yeah," Snoddy panted. His hands were steady on the Parker shotgun. Blink shouldered his way through to Mush and flung an arm about him, shaking him a little when Mush flashed him a half-grin.
Terrible scraping from overhead: the rasp of the dragon's claws and dragging wingtips as it moved about, the rattling of scales as the heavy, serpentine tail slithered over the ground. The sound seemed to reverberate right through the earth and brickwork and straight into their bones. Something smashed into something else just beyond them in the darkness, but now was not the time to find out. "Back. Now," Jack said, and they turned and made for the quarters, fairly skidding into the suddenly-crowded iron-clad area where the rest of them were crouching.
He and Mush set down their lanterns before joining them. "Wait it out," Snoddy was saying, his calm voice pitched to carry to the entire group. "Wait it out. Everybody sit tight."
Jack picked his way with some difficulty through the huddled figures to where Boots, with Ten-Pin and another young boy named Dime clinging to him, was just pulling back from checking on David. Jack dropped down beside him. In the darkness, it was hard to see David's face, but his skin was clammy to the touch and he seemed to be hardly breathing.
Soft wailing still echoed through the tunnel; there were old traumas that even new terrors could not stifle. He could see Racetrack with two of the kids in his arms, cajoling them to stay quiet.
"Shh," he could hear Dutchy murmuring, somewhere off to his left. "Fizzer, stay here. Puley, don't..."
No older than six, they were two of the youngest that the group had adopted, and the most prone to outright panic during attacks. Jack didn't want to think too deeply about why. They'd been found wandering the streets, spattered with blood not their own, and that had said more than enough.
"Fizzer, stay here—!" Specs lunged and caught the boy's ankle, pulling him back. Fizzer's sobs were quickly muffled as Specs gathered him up.
There was a series of other crashes, the percussion of heavy stone falling, now to their north. Jack took deep breaths, curled his fingers around the back of David's neck; found himself vaguely wishing for a cigarette to settle his nerves, just as quickly banished the thought. He could hear Specs and Dutchy give in and let Puley and Fizzer bury themselves hysterically beneath a mound of blankets.
More silence from above: the dragon waiting, listening. That was what dragons did, or had started doing now that people no longer swarmed the streets, free for the taking: tried to frighten their prey into breaking its cover, or giving itself away. More than once, they'd seen it happen, the beasts following the sounds of panicked screams, ruthlessly digging out their victims.
Not us, Jack thought fiercely.
Razor-sharp tips scraped ground again, the dragon turning a complete circle. Then a long, distinctive sound, both of its massive hindclaws gripping the cobblestones, before it launched itself into the air and away.
Chapter 7: VII
"Hey, kid...you'se all right." Kneeling, Jack lifted Puley from the nest of blankets as Dutchy scooped them aside. The small body was drenched with sweat and shaking like a leaf. Beside them, Specs was excavating Fizzer from a similar heap.
He tried to hand Puley to Dutchy, but the kid was having none of it, burying his face into Jack's neck, fists clenched in Jack's shirt.
"Hey..." Jack lightened his tone. "You'se gettin' too big to carry, you know?"
"No!" Chipped nails dug into Jack's shoulders as Puley tightened his grip ferociously. Jack bit back a wince. Dutchy caught it anyway, and reached over to loosen the kid's fingers with what wasn't quite the ease of long practice, but was close enough.
There was a shout as Fizzer slipped from Specs' hold again, tumbling blindly into the backs of several of the older boys. One of them, nerves still on edge from the dragon's appearance, shoved back hard, sending the small boy stumbling into Mush.
"Knock it off, O'Dell," Specs snapped. "Kid's just scared."
"Yeah?" O'Dell growled, starting to rise. Stocky and brown-haired, he was one of the newer members of their group. One look at Fizzer's tear-stained face seemed to stay him, however, and Jack kept an eye on him as he subsided. "Watch where ya go next time, yeah?" he added, not unkindly.
Hefting Puley's weight a little higher on his shoulder, Jack stood and continued to make his way along the tunnel. They'd taken a quick headcount despite the fact that the attack had amounted to nothing more than a bad scare, but sometimes you just had to make the rounds. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Mush leading Fizzer over to the wall, pointing to one of the several small pictures tacked to it, distracting the boy with a question.
Aside from these two, no one else seemed particularly distressed now that the immediate danger had passed, not even the other younger ones who'd been so frightened just minutes ago. Street rats and gutter trash they might be, but resilience was in their very core, and Jack was damned proud of them for it.
He stopped next to Bumlets, who was examining the back of Snitch's upper arm. "You all right?" Jack asked.
"Scratched it." Snitch's voice was a little rueful. Clean water, while not plentiful, was a least available; soap was harder to find. He twisted, trying to see the welt, but the angle was awkward.
"Ain't bad," Bumlets pronounced. "Hardly broke skin. I think you'll live."
"Forget the arm," Jack said breathlessly. "How's the shirt?"
Snitch leaned back. "Lookin' better'n yours, Cowboy."
"That's 'cos you'se still dreaming." Jack stepped away and sank down at his usual spot, letting Puley lean against him. David was more or less as he'd been when Jack had left: pressed up against the wall, the two blankets Jack had wrapped around him now hanging loosely about his shoulders. The shivering had ebbed but not disappeared, the aftermath of too much adrenaline and too much enforced stillness.
Someone had set a small tin cup of water in front of him. It was only half-full, but Jack suspected it was untouched. He picked it up and wedged it against the wall where it wouldn't tip.
"Hey." He tried to catch David's eye, but David was staring past him, gaze focused on something beyond the mere eight feet of the tunnel's width. Jack shifted to sit next to him, clearing the passageway. Reaching out, he took David's left forearm, chafing it with his palms, trying to chase away the last of the shivers and draw David back to the present.
A slight commotion and a barrage of curious questions heralded Snoddy's return from the other end of the tunnel. Jack looked up. "Well?"
"It wasn't nothing down here," Snoddy said, "so me and Chopper went to have a look upstairs. The fence just around the corner's banged up pretty good. He bumped the carriage, too."
"Bad?" Jack asked. The cast-iron fence that ran around the perimeter of the park was no particular concern of theirs, but their entrance grate and drinking-fountain sat just inside it, and the carriage that had been upended over the grate served as both shelter and concealment. It blocked the rain and wind, and hopefully the eyes of any roving bands out there that scoured the streets looking for an easy raid.
"Nah. But we got lucky. If he bashed in the fence just a few feet over, it woulda come down right on us." Snoddy hefted his double-barrelled Parker into a more comfortable position in the crook of his elbow. "One of the boards in the water-hole came down, but it ain't too bad. Once we clear out the sand, we'll be fine."
"What about the carriage?" Mush said.
"'S okay. Just bumped it. Moved it a coupla inches."
They'd gotten lucky on both counts, then. A twisted iron fence or a displaced vehicle could've trapped them all inside, sealing the grating better than any lock. And they simply couldn't afford to lose the water-hole.
"Is he gone?" Ten-Pin piped up. Jack released David's left arm, reached across and took up his right instead. At the movement, David finally seemed to to register his presence, half-turning to look at him. He slumped a little against Jack's shoulder, easing his arm from the older boy's grip. Jack let him go. On his other shoulder, Puley had become a heavy sleeping weight.
"He's gone, all right," Snoddy said. "Not a whiff of fire, neither. Racetrack smoked more'n this boy did."
"Twenty-three skidoo," Boots muttered in Ten-Pin's ear.
Chapter 8: VIII
When the dragons struck New York, it was just after ten p.m. on the twenty-ninth of June.
Inside Miner's Bowery Theatre, it was a bright spring afternoon in El Paso.
Chester the Crooning Cowboy had just finished the first part of his act with a bow and a flourish, much to the audience's general approval. With a few flicks of his wrist, he coiled the lasso up neatly, beaming at the crowd's cheers and applause.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jack could see David flip open his father's pocketwatch, grimace slightly, then snap it shut again. Slipping the watch back into his vest, David leaned over to him, shouting to be heard above the din. "I have to go!"
Jack added a piercing whistle to his applause for Chester, who had, in Jack's opinion, just risen to the rank of best rope-trick artist in the West—hell, probably in all of America. The man waved his broad-brimmed hat at him, and David rolled his eyes at Jack's grin. "Aw, Davey..."
Chester was calling for silence, aided by the small band off to one side of the stage who struck up a mournful tune, and David lowered his voice accordingly. "Do you want me to get another lecture from my father? I'm turning into a bad influence on Les, you're a bad influence..."
"O bury me not on the lone prairie..."
"Yes, you. Out half the night and who knows what else."
"These words came low and mournfully..."
"Wouldn't you wanna know."
"From the pallid lips of the youth who lay..."
"On his dying bed at the close of day..."
"But you'se gonna miss the next act, and then will you be sorry!"
"O bury me not on the lone prairie..."
"Yeah? Who's the next act?"
"Where the wild coyote will howl o'er me..."
"Dunno. Ow! What'd ya hit me for?"
"Where the buffalo roams the prairie sea..."
David only shook his head, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "'Night, Jack."
"O bury me not on the lone prairie..."
"Happy birthday, Skittery."
"See ya, Mouth."
"It makes no difference, so I've been told...Where the body lies when life grows cold..."
"Psst! Jack! I heard they sings this song so much out West, they shoots you 'fore you can even open yer yap!"
"But grant, I pray, one wish to me..."
"Well, we's ain't out West now, is we? So shut up and lemme listen."
That settled the rest of them down some. Blink had pushed Mush from the row behind Jack into the vacated seat, setting off a little chain of audience-members climbing one seat forward; Jack, meanwhile, could hear David making his way quietly and politely out of the balcony crowd toward the door at the back. The Jacobses had agreed to let Les stay out this late tonight provided he remained at the well-lit Duane Street Lodging House and didn't go with the older boys to Miner's, and that David got him home before ten-thirty. Protestations from Les that he'd been to even Irving Hall before hadn't swayed his parents in the least. Fortunately, a life-or-death marbles competition had started up in the Lodging House just before they left for the show, and Les had been sufficiently distracted.
Over a dozen newsies were up in the balcony tonight. Medda had the rare night off, so they'd forgone the lengthy trek up to Irving and had settled for an easy walk to Miner's instead; the loss of their favorite headliner was a disappointment, but no reason not to go to a show. Skittery's alleged birthday was a good enough excuse. Tomorrow night, it might as well be someone else's.
Absently, Jack calculated the chances of their getting home before midnight, when the doors of the Lodging House would be shut and they'd have to bed down in the streets. This was only the fourth act of an eight-act show (the final act could pretty much be skipped without tears, but if you'd already paid to get in, you might as well get your money's worth), and it'd gotten off to a late start. Still, they'd probably be out of here by eleven-thirty, and downtown Bowery was conveniently near home besides. They'd make it, easy, nothing to worry about. If worst came to worst and the boys were disposed to dawdle, he could probably wheedle Kloppman into letting them in anyway...
Someone in the band hit a wrong note, probably the horn-player. Mush had found an apparently fascinating scrap of paper on the floor and was showing it to Blink. At Jack's other elbow, Race had given up all pretense at interest and was deeply into a game of tossing dice with the two boys—neither of them newsies—next to him.
Chester turned to glare at the band as they went off-key again, but when the players traded perplexed glances with each other, Jack sat up. The note had been flat and wrong, but it hadn't come from them. It wasn't until it sounded again—louder, this time, overlapped by a similar tone—that Jack identifed the source. Church bells.
There was shouting from downstairs. Chester and the band stumbled to a halt, and there was no mistaking it now—church bells up and down the street, clanging more urgently now, joined by others.
Everyone leaped to their feet in a babble of confusion and questions. There was a general push towards the doors, not out of panic, but curiosity.
He'd never heard the bells ring like that, not ever. Not at ten o'clock on a Friday night. The crowd poured through the lobby and out the doors.
Out here, the volume of the bells doubled and tripled, echoing from cobblestones and walls, sounding the alarm again and again. The Bowery's wide roadway was jammed, traffic held at a standstill by the mass of pedestrians. People were streaming out of the nearby theatres and drinking-houses to stand bewildered, shouting questions to each other.
There was no obvious sign of danger, which was the only thing keeping the crowd relatively calm. Most of the boys had stuck together and were now clustered around Jack; Race and Skittery both had a grip on the back of his shirt so that they wouldn't drift too far away. Jack wondered how far David had gotten. It couldn't be much; he'd just left, and the streets were now so blocked he'd be making slow progress, if any. He briefly thought about going after him, but how would you even find anyone in this horde?
The ringing slowly began to die away; first one church-tower, and then another. Shrill, distinctive whistles sounded from the south end of the street, coming closer. Jack stood on tip-toe, tried to see. Three Bulls on horseback were quickly cutting a path through the crowd. They stopped nearly a block away, blew on their silver whistles in repeated blasts, then the one in the lead climbed atop a stalled streetcar, raised a speaking-trumpet to his lips and bellowed for silence.
It took a few moments, but he got it. Everyone leaned forward, straining to hear.
Despite the speaking-trumpet, the policeman's voice was easily swallowed by the width and length of the street. Jack caught a few words here and there. "...Navy has engaged them...shore of Long Island...towards Brooklyn...has ordered...stay inside, find...brick or stone..."
Jack was already swiveling his head, trying to locate the nearest likely shelter.
He'd obviously left that word until the end, for no sooner had he pronounced it than a few screams rang out and the shoving began, people trying to flee in different directions. The whistles sounded again, the policemen pushing forward, presumably to repeat their message further up the street, but the crowd was already a sea of motion. Horses hitched to carts and carriages reared in panic and tried to bolt; even the Bulls were having a tough time keeping their own trained mounts under control.
Jack reached out and snagged Mush and Snoddy. "We'se going back!" he shouted to his boys. "Get to the Sun!" They weren't far from either Newspaper Row or the Lodging House, and Jack couldn't fathom running in any other direction. Duane Street had its share of wooden buildings; Newspaper Row loomed in his mind's eye like a stony cliff. The Sun's building, at a mere five stories, stood dwarfed by and nestled between the World and the Tribune, both of which towered over it at twice its height. Jack had no illusions about the lofty fortress that was the World; the tallest were often the first to come down. "You goes into the basement and you waits there! Break in if you hafta! I'se going to the Lodging House and get—"
"No!" Race tightened his grip on Jack's shirt, shook him. "We'se goin' with you! You can't get all the boys out by yourself!"
"Look!" a woman's voice screamed. "Look!"
All eyes jerked upwards, to the south-eastern sky.
Chapter 9: IX
When Europe and Asia went silent, the newspapers did not lack for news.
Everywhere, the reverberations were felt. Investors with overseas interests found themselves bankrupt overnight. Luxury stores—Stern Bros., Macy's, and Siegel-Cooper chief among them—stepped up the prices on their imported goods to near-unattainable heights. California's vineyards were in sudden demand as the premier source of fine wines.
American owners of trans-Atlantic steamship lines, particularly the Red Star, saw their fortunes slowly collapse; although they did their best to route their passenger ships elsewhere and, due to the fact that no one felt safe journeying too far from American waters, shifted their focus to shoreline cruises. Foreign liners, unable to return to their home ports, floated uselessly at harbors up and down the coast. Arguments raged over whether homeless ships, like the mighty Kaiser Wilhelm (which, the papers were fond of pointing out, had won Germany the Blue Riband not two years ago), belonged to their captains or could be claimed by the government as abandoned property.
Foreign merchant ships faced the same problems, but for the most part the crews of those vessels managed to hoard their precious merchandise and sell them for outrageously inflated prices. American merchant lines, meanwhile, struggled to overcome the loss of both cargo and resources.
The Immigration Service processed stranded visitors with feverish speed. Richer tourists could afford to stay in the city's hotels; most of the the rest were funneled into the already-crowded Lower East Side to find someplace to live in the immigrant-heavy tenements. Meanwhile, Manhattan's primarily Irish and German immigrant population had plunged deeply into mourning, while the more extreme proponents of American nativism wasted no time noting with barely-veiled glee that at least the wave of immigration had come to a stop.
Hardly a day went by that the papers didn't report the disintegration of a business, or the skyrocket success of an entrepreneur who'd struck it rich by capitalizing on his possession of goods that no one else had, or the suicide of a company-owner who'd lost his entire life's savings. Two young Frenchwomen, beautifully-dressed and suddenly orphaned and homeless, threw themselves in dramatic fashion off the Brooklyn Bridge. The public continued to snap up any new developments. Newsies, grown used to the sudden selling boom, found their earnings only slightly reduced, although sales gradually began to dwindle again as late May and early June wore on and things began to settle into some sort of new routine.
New York, at the cusp of the twentieth century, was stronger now than even she had realized. The huge metropolis wobbled precariously but, despite all that was happening, did not slip as deeply back into the economic depression that she and the remainder of the nation had escaped just three years past.
It did not mean, however, that she was invincible.
Roosevelt and Mayor Van Wyck and Tammany Hall, ostensibly united for once, called for reinforcements; the F.D.N.Y. and N.Y.P.D. were hastily beefed up with new recruits. There was even talk of re-instating the volunteer brigade, but some things worked only so well in theory.
Also filling the news—despite the newspaper rivalry, the boys kept an eye out for Denton's articles, wired to the Sun from his latest assignment in D.C.—was the military, already spread thin by the recent war with Cuba and the ongoing Philippine Insurrection. The Navy was still scrambling to recover from the destruction of the North Atlantic Squadron in Europe. Even worse was the massive loss of troops in the Philippines; some had been pulled back before Asia had fallen, but not nearly enough; and now the War Department and the government fought over how best to distribute the remaining forces. Armed with outdated weapons—the World in particular decried the continued use of the clumsy black-powder Springfield rifles rather than the newer Krag-Jorgensens carried by the regular Army—the National Guard nonetheless prepared itself. Funds for revamped arms were pouring in, but it would take time. The largest hurdle was the lingering sense of disbelief. Over three thousand miles of water distance, broken only by relatively small landmasses like Greenland and Iceland, separated America from the scenes of devastation. Could it happen here? Could it really?
In the City herself, the Astor Battery and the local units of the National Guard—such as Manhattan's Squadron A and Twenty-second Regiment, and Brooklyn's Twenty-third—made ready their men and weaponry. New Yorkers soon became accustomed to the sight of their daily drills in the streets.
U.S. battleships patrolled the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, alert for any signs of attack.
Perhaps, in retrospect, that was a mistake. But no one could have done otherwise.
"Look!" a woman's voice screamed. "Look!"
All eyes jerked upwards, to the south-eastern sky.
From behind the buildings that lined the Bowery, the hanging cloud cover was suffused with a yellow-orange glow that threw the silhouettes of rooflines into sharp relief. It could have come from the next street over, or perhaps the next, but something told the eye that it was not so simple. It looked much farther away, and yet, somehow, it also looked not quite far enough.
It looked a lot like Brooklyn.
Spot, Jack thought numbly. Oh god—Spot and his newsies, they'd probably had no warning at all—
Clutching at arms and wrists and shirts, the boys moved more or less as a group down the street, forcing their way past the frightened mobs. A handcart had tipped over in the roadway, rolling apples and oranges suddenly turning into deadly objects underfoot, sending pedestrians down with startled cries. Jack hauled Skittery back upright before he could slip to his knees. The streetcars were attempting to move again, people trying to jump off while others tried to climb on, and those accidentally pushed onto the tracks pushed back doubly hard. Overhead, the el rumbled past with a sound like thunder.
He spotted an intersection up ahead, a little tributary of relative calm off the river turbulence of the Bowery. "Turn right up ahead! Turn right!"
He shoved and dragged the rest of them towards it, got them around the corner and into a tiny bit of breathing space. People still filled the smaller street, but at least the press of bodies was diminished. His stomach twisted as he did a quick headcount and came up three short.
Go back and look, or keep going before it was too late? Surely the missing boys would catch up with them sooner or later at the Lodging House or the Sun...but if they were hurt...
Toms had already let go of Chopper, a step away from diving back into the main thoroughfare. "I'se gotta find—"
Before Jack could open his mouth to send most of the group on ahead, Chopper let out a whoop, waving his arms wildly. He was joined immediately by Blink and Mush, and Jack looked up to see the missing Cork, Flick, and Snitch fighting their way over to them from the opposite curb.
An immense black shadow swept by overhead, with such incredible swiftness that for a second Jack was sure he must have hallucinated it in the confusion of the moment.
"What the hell was that?" Racetrack screamed.
Chopper and Toms reached out and yanked the returning three into the side-street. "Go on," Jack hollered, "Go—"
The relief was short-lived as the shadow made another pass, so low that the walls of the buildings around them kept them from seeing the entire shape. It wheeled with a sound like giant canvas sails snapping taut in the wind, turned to their right up the Bowery—
A blast of heat and light like nothing Jack had ever witnessed before roared from around the north corner. Jack didn't even wait to lean out and see what had happened just up the wide street; he shoved his boys onward, resorted to ramming several with his shoulder when they stood there, frozen. Horrified screaming echoed around them, mixed with the crack of burning timber.
"Keep running! Go!" There was no time now for respites. The boys kept moving, down one street and across another, ducking as flames sprang up one narrow alleyway to the left of them. Shouts and clanging preceded the fire-engines that rushed past them; the horses reared and shied, and the engines' bells rang impotently amid the frenzy. How many firemen could they carry, how much water could they pump? Enough to put out the Bowery? Enough to put out Brookyln?
They kept moving, always headed south and west. Jack breathed a silent prayer of thanks that whoever was up front knew where they were going.
It was when they got within four blocks of City Hall that Jack knew his plan would fail.
Chapter 10: X
It was when they got within four blocks of City Hall that Jack knew his plan would fail.
It was almost impassable. The huge open area of City Hall Park was bounded on the far side by Broadway—the main thoroughfare of the city, such a hazard to cross in the daytime, though it was generally more manageable at night. But now the church-bells had brought everyone out, and they must have packed even Broadway's imposing width, for the tide of the crowd spilled out even to where the boys were, several streets away. The crush only got worse the closer they drew.
Jack would never be able to take the entire House through it to the safety of Newspaper Row.
Most people were pushing their way east and north—Jack and his boys were going directly against the flow. East and north! Didn't they know? Didn't they know that Brooklyn, the Bowery, were on fire? The group's progress had slowed as they hit the near edge of the sidewalk, but the boys in the lead—whether Dutchy had lost his cap by accident or had taken it off deliberately, Jack could spot his fair hair up front—pushed on grimly anyway. They had to get to Duane. Possibly they were too late already; the boys there would have streamed out onto the streets along with everyone else when the bells had sounded, and perhaps they had already scattered.
Skittery jumped to the side without warning, pushing Jack and Toms along with him. A bicycle shot past just inches from them, then another. Cyclists whizzed along the streets, building up as much speed as they could and counting on pedestrians' own instincts of self-preservation to get out of their way. More often than not, people stepped into their paths out of sheer confusion, and the resulting collision only added to the chaos. Rifle barrels gleamed in the distance, National Guardsmen trying to herd the populace back into some sort of order.
Fresh screams and the snapping of bullets sounded up ahead, and not one but two dragons soared into view above them, wing-spans inconceivably wide, blotting out the sliver of new moon and the too-bright clouds. Electric light and firelight glinted off scales and claws and what might even have been one cold, dark eye. With a flick of their serpentine tails, they vanished beyond the rooftops.
To Jack's horror, they had come from the southwest.
They saw the smoke and flames long before they got there, but they ran for it anyway. No one blocked their path; despite the fact that three streets intersected here, the corner was almost completely deserted except for them, and it was terribly apparent why.
They skidded to a halt in disbelief. Nothing was left of the Lodging House or the adjoining two buildings but a red pit of fire. Large pieces of charred wood were scattered about the street, as though a giant hand had rooted through the ruins, tossing aside whatever it didn't choose. All seven stories had collapsed; even the words on the very top—"Home for Newsboys" boldly lettered on the once-pale roof, something they'd made a game of climbing just the right buildings to spot—were no longer remotely legible. The blaze was already dying down, more smoke than flame, obviously having burned for some time. Oh god, for how long?
Jack unthinkingly sprang forward, and was almost immediately grabbed from behind. He threw an elbow backwards, heard a grunt and flung himself out of the loosened grip, only to run straight into Mush.
"Jack, no!" Mush cried, seizing his shoulders. "Ain't nothing left in there!" His voice cracked, faltered. "Nothing!"
Jack stared at him for the space of several harsh breaths, then swallowed hard. He turned, momentarily at a loss. Behind him, boys were still clutching at each other; no longer because of any crowd that might separate them, but because they looked like they simply didn't know how to let go. Snitch was helping Snoddy back up to his feet.
Blink and Race were moving swiftly towards a group of figures a short distance away. Jack caught up with them, shock and relief flowing through him at the sight of four of the younger newsies, clad only in their trousers and under-shirts and their faces streaked with tears and soot, gathered around David.
"...are you sure?" David was saying. He was kneeling, hands on Ten-Pin's thin shoulders, looking like he was trying desperately not to shake the kid. "No back door, no other way?"
Ten-Pin could only shake his head.
"Dave?" Jack touched his back, and the rest of the older boys joined them, encircling the younger ones. Blink picked Dime up, and Dutchy and Specs were trying to determine if the other two were hurt.
David lowered his head for a moment. Jack saw his jaw clench before he deliberately relaxed his muscles and let Ten-Pin go. Dutchy quickly scooped up the kid.
"They heard the bells," David said, not getting up. His voice was strained, almost unrecognizable. "Most of them were sleeping, and they got up and went downstairs. These four and Itey were the first ones out the door, and the bells were still ringing when the—when the dragon came. Itey pushed them towards the alley and ran back inside—"
"No," Snitch moaned.
Mush tried to get hold of Snitch, but he twisted violently away.
"And that's when..." David's voice dropped to a whisper. "That's when."
Jack stared at the wreck of the the Lodging House. It was beginning to smoulder, flakes of ash falling gently. Impossible to think that that twisted, blackened—flattened—heap could have once contained so much life.
Impossible. Over a hundred faces in that House, over a hundred souls. The image blurred, and for a moment he thought he'd forgotten how to even breathe.
David shuddered convulsively beneath his hand, and Jack wanted to say something, anything, but the words wouldn't come.
Cork's head snapped up. "Didja hear that?"
"I heard it too," Toms said. He and Cork scrambled towards a darkened shopfront just beyond the burnt buldings.
Then Jack heard it as well—a high-pitched sound, like a muffled cry of fear—
"Hey!" Cork shouted.
The rest of them hurried over just in time to see Cork and Toms draw three more young boys out of the deeply recessed doorway. They, too, seemed upright and unhurt. Cork pulled the cap off one of them—
"Les!" David lunged forward and swept up his younger brother, burying his face in the boy's hair. "Oh god—Les—"
Jack reached out to pat the kid on the back, needing some tangible proof that he really was alive and well, but he stopped himself just before doing so. Family Jack might call them, but there was a time and a place for everything. This reunion was theirs, and he would not interrupt.
He knelt down instead in front of one of the other kids, a redheaded ten-year-old named Pocket. Unlike the four whom David had found, these three were fully dressed.
"Was you out somewheres?" Jack asked quietly.
Pocket met Jack's eyes nervously, then quickly glanced away.
"You can tell us, kid," Jack said. "We needs to know."
Pocket licked his lips. "We snuck out. Les said nobody was to know, 'cos he had to stay in. We...we wanted t'see where they found old man Beecham."
Jack nodded to himself. Two days ago, the body of a relatively wealthy clothes-merchant named Walter Beecham had been discovered floating just off a Hudson River pier belonging to the Lehigh Valley Railroad. An investigation had been opened, and newspapers eagerly speculated on whether it had been an accident, suicide, or murder. They wouldn't find out, now, Jack realized. They'd never find out.
The pier wasn't far from here, almost due west. A tempting short trip.
"...And we was coming back. The bells started ringin' and we sees the fire..." He trailed off.
"So you hid," Jack said.
Pocket nodded, scrubbing one scraped fist across his watering eyes in angry embarrassment. Racetrack crouched next to them, pulling a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and wrapping it about the kid's hand. "Here."
David drew a deep breath and pulled away from Les just far enough to look into his face. "Why didn't you let us know you were here?"
"I wasn't s'posed to be out," Les sobbed. "I thought you'd be mad."
"Mad...!" David looked like he was struggling to find any suitable response, then gave up and hugged him close again.
The sound of returning footsteps made Jack look up. Renewed hope had sent the rest of the older boys scouring the street for any other survivors, but when Jack met their bleak expressions, he didn't even have to ask.
"We can't stay," Jack said, rising to his feet. Shouts and the clatter of hooves on cobblestones warned them and they sprang back to the curb just before a wagon, laden with adults and children and what looked like a jumble of possessions, hurtled around the corner and past them at full speed.
David took a few steps back, still holding Les. "I gotta get home—"
"I'se comin' with you." Jack held out a hand to stop him just for a moment. The ruins of the House loomed in his peripheral vision; he turned his head away, looked to the rest. "The Sun ain't no good. Takes too long to cross the Park, and you'se stuck out in the open the whole time."
"The Remington offices," Dutchy said.
Jack nodded. The building, owned by the typewriter-manufacturing company, stood on the near side of Broadway at Worth Street. It was just several blocks north and east of them. Five stories tall and fronted with marble, the middle of a row of three identical, adjoining buildings, it was well-shielded on either side. "Go. I'll be there soon's I can."
The boys slipped away.
Jack turned to David and Les. "C'mon."