|Two Degrees of Separation
Author: Helen West PM
Heyes returns to New York to try to live out his dream of attending college, but his past threatens to end far more than his academic career. This story follows Hannibal Heyes Goes to New York, which follows Not Again! You really need to read both first. The Kid appears some. Sorry for slower posting.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Drama/Hurt/Comfort - Chapters: 10 - Words: 24,572 - Reviews: 43 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 7 - Updated: 02-09-13 - Published: 01-27-13 - Status: Complete - id: 8953439
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
That spring, as Heyes started his semester as a real college student, he was glad that he had not been able to convince his advisor, Dr. Homer, to let him take more than the usual number of classes. Between freshmen classes in composition, English literature, ancient history, and statistics as well as algebra, he felt overwhelmed. He faced an amazing number of challenges simultaneous: thinking and working in that many subjects at once, while figuring out how to handle his time, a whole range of new people, new social obligations, and new terminology; it was all exhausting and baffling. Even if his problems with language had completely abated, which they certainly had not, it would have been terribly hard. Sometimes he almost forgot to be cautious of policemen and people from the West who might recognize him. Joshua, who was still sharing a tiny Hester Street tenement room with Jim Smith, had to strain to explain to his roommate what all of his obligations were. Just learning to say the names of all the professors and fellow math majors was hard. New names constituted one of his biggest remaining language problems.
As Heyes's first semester advanced, even the most initially hostile students seemed to gain respect for the scrappy westerner with the endless supplies of fresh ideas and right answers. There were still those, like Treadwell and Clarkesdale, who didn't take to Joshua Smith, nor he to them. But most of his fellow students, mostly easterners at least ten years younger than Heyes, had so little in common with him that they largely ignored him. Heyes didn't care much – outside of class they mostly seemed like squeaky-clean little choir boys to Heyes, while he seemed like an exotic and rather frightening western novelty to them
His class-mates' motivation for school work largely varied, in Heyes' eyes, from modest to nothing. Compared to them, Heyes, knowing so well what he had to gain and to lose, was wildly driven. He spent countless hours working in the little room he still shared with Jim, and in the library. The women undergraduates who tried to distract the handsome cowboy mathematician were all turned politely away, not without considerable regret on Heyes' part in some cases. As he had explained to the Kid, he simply didn't dare to get seriously involved with anyone.
There were a few students, however, with whom Heyes was happy to spend time. These included his Philadelphia friend Neal George who had finally made it to college at about the age of forty. George was a rather plodding intellect most of the time, but when he got to talking math with Heyes, his hazel eyes would start to glow and creativity would come bubbling out of him. George and his Long Island native math-major friend Everett Carter, who had met Heyes when he was still just sitting in with classes, were soon spending frequent Friday evenings with their new western friend. They introduced Smith to another new friend, a fiery-haired prodigy named Paul Huxtable. Huxtable was blazing his way through Columbia in his mid-teens. Heyes promptly nick-named Huxtable the Missouri Kid, after his beloved home state, so he sounded like some dangerous gunman rather than the wide-eyed, freckle-faced boy that he looked. All three of Heyes' new friends had started at Columbia a year before he had, so they could offer him useful advice. They were lastingly astonished at how rapidly he was catching up with them despite his lingering linguistic challenges.
One Friday the four oddly assorted math majors were laughing together as they met in the hall after each had come from his last class of the week. Winter was starting to turn into spring and all four men were feeling restless and ready for some fun. They repaired to their favorite corner of the mathematics lounge to discuss the matter. The room was supposed to be just for grad students, but the quartet didn't mind breaking minor rules when they could get away with it. They settled into four easy chairs around a little table littered with dirty coffee cups and plates and old newspapers.
The suggestion of a local bar didn't seem to fill the bill – they had spent too much time there on previous Fridays and they all wanted a new diversion. Heyes, truthfully, found his friends' social habits very dull in comparison with the adventures he had known in the west, but he wasn't about to lead them into lives of sin like his own had been. So he had just gone along with what they wanted to do so he could have the chance to talk with such interesting fellow math majors. Heyes stayed quiet while the others debated the question.
A wicked grin appeared on the Missouri Kid's freckled face, "How about some poker?"
Ev Carter shook his head, "Aw, Missouri, the rich guys and other majors know we majors can beat their pants off, so they won't play us. It gets awful dull just sitting around with math majors passing a few bucks back and forth. We played for a while when we first got here, but we gave it up. You remember."
The Missouri Kid laughed in his boyish tenor and said, "I wasn't thinking about playing in a dorm room. I was thinking about something more colorful – exotic players with some money, beautiful girls, a bit of danger. Sound better?"
Neal George sighed, "Missouri, you aren't thinking again about going down to those dives by the docks, are you? Those thugs carry knives and guns. We'd be in the river or the hoosegow in about 6 and a half minutes."
Huxtable looked crushed at having his exciting idea shot down by the older men. But then he thought about it and looked at Joshua. "Josh, you played poker out West didn't you."
Joshua couldn't help smiling as he remembered some of the big pots he'd raked in over the years, and the tension around those tables out west. "Yeah, Missouri. I played a lot of poker and black jack. It wasn't undergrads I was playin' either."
But Missouri wasn't done. "And you carry one of those big western knives, don't you?"
Joshua sighed. He wasn't happy with where this was going. He liked adventure as much as the next man, or more, but he know how far out of their depth his friends would be in the dock-side dives he knew so well. He preferred to have a real professional at his side – namely the Kid! And anything that could draw the law's attention to Joshua Smith, like a really bad fight, was something to be avoided. But he was starting to thirst for a little non-academic fun himself and he had to admit, "Yeah, Missouri, I carry a knife."
All three of his new friends turned to stare at the normally low key, even shy, Joshua Smith. Neal George asked cautiously, "And didn't I see you with a gun once?"
"Did you?" Heyes tried to stay casual, although he didn't like the realization that any of his Columbia pays had seen him with a gun. Neal must have been down by the docks or have seen Joshua on his way there, "Then you weren't on campus – I never carry here. It's against the rules." Some campus rules Joshua Smith might ignore, but never anything that could involve the law.
Ev asked in rather envious shock, "You have a gun?! You never told us that."
Smith shrugged. "You never asked. I'm an old cowboy, remember? I told you 'bout all the poker I've played. Don't ever go into one of those saloons without a gun on your hip!" He surely didn't want them to start thinking about the other uses to which he could have put a gun – like armed robbery.
Missouri was getting excited all over. He hadn't read as many western dime novels as Jim had, but he knew the genre, "You wear your gun tied down, Josh?"
Heyes gave his young friend a steady look that he intended as a warning, "Yeah, Missouri. Tied down. When I reach for my Colt, I want to be sure I know exactly where it'll be."
Missouri was more than intrigued, "You any good with it? Can you beat those guys by the docks?"
Smith shrugged modestly. "Sure. They ain't fast."
His friends stared at Joshua – Ev and Neal in horror, the Huxtable with an evident thrill. George said, "You mean you've actually been down there and pulled a gun on those guys?"
Joshua was so causal about this that his friends could hardly believe it. "Sure. I'm not much of a draw the way they figure it out west, but here, no problem."
Now Missouri was really getting worked up and his older friends were getting interested as well. Ev asked, "Would you go down there with us, Josh? With your gun?"
"Would you, Josh?" Asked Neal George. He wasn't the world's most adventurous guy, but this was starting to sound like an interesting evening.
"Only if you let me bring my roomie, Jim. He's pretty slick with a knife and he knows those places. I don't like to work alone. You boys are greenhorns. I mean, I know you aren't bad with your fists, Ev, but that'll get you only so far down there. Lot of those sailors carry, and not just knives. There isn't usually any trouble. You just play and leave and everyone's fine. But if there is trouble, it can get serious pretty fast."
"Sure, Josh. We aren't snobs – we don't mind if you bring someone who isn't at Columbia." Ev was an open-minded guy, especially when there was the promise of some fun.
Heyes sighed and accepted the inevitable. If they were going down to the docks, at least they needed him to watch out for them. But he stood up and demanded their attention with a little speech before they left, "And one more thing, boys. I'm in charge. What I say, goes. If anything happens, you need someone who knows what he's doing."
His friends stared at him. They hadn't seen Joshua Smith in this mood before. He was generally very quiet, even shy. He usually let one of them – Neal George or Ev Carter – take the lead. Now Joshua Smith was taking over. But no one challenged him. They saw a look in his eyes that was new to them and it was a little frightening.
On the way to the docks, the four Columbians went to "The Smith Brothers'" place, as Jim and Joshua Smith's tiny room was popularly known, on Hester Street. Joshua's Columbia friends had all occasionally met Jim Smith, the tough little New Yorker who had been beaten so badly by a gang that he had nearly died. Jim was a patient and now an employee at the Leutze clinic and he was good friends with Joshua. Jim was no scholar and would never think about going to college, but he was game to go down to the docks with his roommate's college friends. He grinned and winked at Joshua. This was going to hand Joshua's pals a whole new kind of education. Frankly, Heyes was hoping it would keep them from ever wanting to go down to the docks again.
The five men splurged on taking a pair of cabs down to the docks. Three of them looked around curiously and apprehensively. Joshua and Jim kept a sharp eye out. They took the boys to the safest bar they knew there – which wasn't saying much. The Green Parrot hosted a wide variety of sailors and longshoremen from all over the world and they didn't always get along. As the Columbians who hadn't been there before settled into a large stud poker game with some sailors, they were fascinated to see how Joshua Smith communicated with this polyglot crowd using silent hand signals that habitués knew well. Until recently, after all, Smith had been very limited in his ability to speak. And hand signals were a real help between nationalities – in fact, Smith's repertoire of signs was starting to be adopted by other players by the docks.
A lovely and voluptuous Danish girl named Alina came and stayed at Smith's side, much to the amusement of his college pals. Joshua's college friends could see that Joshua and Alina knew each other very well. This was a different man than the quiet scholar of the classroom. The intensity he brought to poker was familiar to his friends, though. The rough dockside characters smiled to see the innocent college boys, but the powerfully built longshoremen who were regulars knew Joshua and Jim. With the two Smith's alert eyes on them, the regulars didn't get too rambunctious.
At least at first they didn't. As the night progressed, the rum and whiskey flowed. The patrons of the Green Parrot started to get louder and rougher. "Come on boys," said Joshua. "It's gonna get rough in here soon. You've had your fun. Get back to your dorms before something happens that you can't handle." Joshua, as usual, hadn't touched anything more powerful than beer, but his Columbian pals had been trying out the rum.
"Aw, Josh," said Missouri, "we're just gettin' warmed up. They sure got pretty girls here!"
Ev, eying a lovely blonde and then contemplating his promising poker hand, agreed, "Yeah, Joshua, don't be a wet blanket."
A bunch of British merchant marines who knew Joshua had been drinking plenty of rum at the next table. One of them, a burly, much-tattooed sailor, looked over at Huxtable and laughed to Joshua, "Yank, you best throw that little fish back! He ain't fit to eat!"
Jim and Joshua knew better than to respond hostilely and merely laughed. But Huxtable, too drink to have good sense, rose to the bait. "And you can't even speak English!"
The British sailors laughed, but the one Missouri had addressed yelled back, using an old British nick-name for Americas, "Jonathan, you wouldn't know the King's English from Cantonese! Go – yourself!" And he flung the rest of his ale at the young red-head. Ev threw a picked egg at the Brit, and then the drunken Brits and nearly as drunken Columbians were getting to their feet, threatening to start a terribly one-sided brawl. The muscle Brits outweighed the young Americans by about 40 pounds each and they knew how to use that weight, even when they weren't too steady on their feet.
Joshua and Jim didn't wait to take action. Joshua took Huxtable by the collar and bodily hauled him away from the fray. He cocked an eye at Jim, who took the hint and obligingly smashed a chair over the largest British sailor's head to give Joshua some time to work. Joshua shouted for Ev and Neal to get out and take Huxtable with them. The westerner stood behind his four friends, making sure that none of the crowd of angry toughs followed them out. He pulled his knife and brandished it threateningly. The sailors were armed also, yet they allowed the Columbians and Jim to get safely away. The sailors laughed, but they looked at Joshua Smith with respect and one tossed him a salute.
Joshua and his friends made their escape with few bruises except to their egos and pocket books. His young friends had left their cash (what they hadn't already lost of it) on the poker table. The elder Smith, it turned out, had unobtrusively pocketed his own considerable winnings just as the ruckus broke out. He was hardly new to barroom brawls and could spot one brewing long before fists flew. It escaped no one's notice that the real reason the Columbia University group had escaped safely was that no one in the Green Parrot had wanted to tangle with Joshua Smith.
It had also not escaped Neal George's attention that Joshua had neatly taken charge when there was trouble. He had, as he had told them before they left campus, known exactly what to do and he had made sure that it got done. He was a leader in ways his friends had never suspected. Neal looked hard at his western friend as they parted under a street lamp. What he had seen was quite consistent with the saddle bum Joshua Smith had described himself as being. Under his breath Neal muttered a question, "Who are you really, Joshua?" But by then Heyes was too far down the dark street to hear him.