The sun was beating down on Sheepshead as Racetrack wandered down by the track, trying to sell off his last few papers. A few of the racetrack's workers nodded at him, one bought a paper, and he wandered near the stables. He'd been doing that a lot, lately; watching the jockeys and the trainers go in and out with the horses.
A loud yell echoed from inside, and then two people yelling loudly.
"Goddamn beast stepped on my foot, I can't fuckin' walk!"
"Well I'm busy, and someone has to walk the damn thing!"
"I gotta get to a hospital, it'll turn black, oh my god…"
"Stop being such a fucking baby, you moron, it ain't gonna…"
Racetrack hesitantly walked closer and could see the two people fighting; one holding the reigns of one of the racehorses, the other clutching one foot. The horse threw its head back and shook its mane, and the guy holding on to it swore. "She's fuckin' antsy and I got real work to do, so stop being such a—"
He broke off and saw Racetrack standing in the doorway.
"Uh… Buy a pape, sir?" Racetrack asked.
The guy frowned. "Kid, you look familiar."
"I sell here a lot."
He cleared his throat. "There's this rumor," he said. "About some newsboy being the one who called the alarm on Lerror."
"Yeah, I heard that." Race shrugged. "Gotta say I'm jealous. Wish it was me, I could use the money."
"You need some cash, kid?"
"Yeah, wouldn't mind some…" Race cocked his head and gave them an odd look.
The man turned to whoever he'd been yelling at—a stable hand, judging by his clothing, Racetrack guessed. "You, go… Go do something with your damn foot." He rolled his eyes. "Kid, I need someone ta walk this horse around the track a couple times to get her calmed down, cooled off 'cause she just ran."
"I can pay you a buck fifty if you do it and bring her back here. One of the other stable hands will be back by then, can show you what to do with her, and then you come find me an' I'll pay you. Sound fair?"
"Well? Get over here."
So he walked over. The man—Jenkins, he said his name was—handed Racetrack the reigns, warned him that if the horse got away there'd be hell to pay, and sent him back out to the track. And Racetrack talked softly to the horse and she didn't try and bolt, and for the first time, Racetrack looked up the stands from the track instead of the other way around.
The going away party was a tradition; anyone who lived at the lodging house for awhile had a party when he finally moved out. For years, Jack and Mush and the rest had watched older kids move out and move on, but this was the first time one of their friends was leaving.
"Can't believe he's really leavin' for real," Blink said drunkenly, and Mush rolled his eyes. But then, Mush did that a lot when Blink had Hannah sitting on his lap, Race noticed. Of course he noticed. Race noticed everything.
"I think you had enough to drink," Mush answered, and Hannah giggled a little bit.
"Nah, haven't had barely any at all," Blink objected, as Mush tried to take the bottle out of his hand. "Race, it's your party, tell 'im I ain't had too much ta drink!"
"He's okay," Race assured Mush.
"You'se just sayin' that 'cause you ain't gonna have ta deal with 'im tomorrow mornin'!" He gave up trying to pry the bottle out of Blink's hand, but when Hannah reached for it, Blink surrendered it willingly. Mush rolled his eyes. Hannah handed Mush the bottle, and he hesitated, then threw a look at Blink and Hannah, and downed the rest of it himself.
Race smiled. Sometimes, they were so… Them.
"Yeah," Race agreed, grinning, more than a bit drunk himself.
"Not you, too," Mush groaned. "Ain't you s'posed to be sober so we can talk about your… Like, everything you done, or whatever?"
"Drinkin's more fun," Race slurred. "Unless you'd rather play cards."
"No way," Mush said.
"Hey, hey," Jack announced, trying to get people's attention. "Listen, we gotta make a toast, right? 'Cause we'se here to celebrate Racetrack leavin'. I mean, not celebrate that he's leavin', but celebrate because he's—aw, nevermind, I'm too drunk ta make sense. Anyone wanna say a toast?" He waited for a minute, then, "Aw, ta hell with it. Dave, you'se the only one who's sober 'nough ta do it, an you'se the best at talkin' anyways."
David blushed and murmured a disclaimer, but Jack pulled him to his feet. It wasn't often David went to parties at the lodging house, but this was a special occasion. "Okay," he sighed. "Let's see, where to begin…"
"The gamblin'!"' someone yelled. "How he always cheats an' steals our money!"
"I ain't never got ta cheat!" Race yelled back.
Dave cleared his throat. "All right," he agreed. "Well, we all know Racetrack's pretty good with cards. I mean, I've never played him myself, but I can't tell you how many mornings I've had to spot Jack for papers 'cause he'd lost all his money in a poker game."
David paused to keep thinking, and someone else yelled out something about the races, and he took it from there, then someone said something about wise cracking, and… It went on and on.
Racetrack found himself awash in memories and goodwill. Endless stories of card games where he'd pulled off the impossible, how he would casually lend money to anyone who needed it and pretend it wasn't a big deal, how he always had a way to make even the most depressed guy in the city laugh.
It was late enough that it was actually early by the time the party broke up. Racetrack was glad he was a happy drunk, despite the odds against it, because otherwise he'd be wallowing in the misery of leaving the newsies, having finally found out what they really thought of him. His paranoia for all those years was for nothing; they really, honestly liked him. But he couldn't deny how excited he was, either; he'd been offered a job working in the stables. The horses liked him, Jenkins said, and he already knew his way around the track pretty well anyway. And they were looking for a new guy or two…
He collapsed into his bunk in the lodging house for the last time, his head still swimming from the booze. It was so strange to realize that this was the last time; this was the ending of his life as Racetrack Higgins. Starting tomorrow, he'd be Anthony again—but a different Anthony, a grown man making a name and a life for himself.
It was a strange thought. But at least, now he could hope that the new life wouldn't include nightmares. After all, he'd be looking back on seven years spent as a newsie, not on three months spent in hell. He hoped.
Maybe it was that hope, or maybe he'd just had too much to drink. Either way, Anthony Racetrack Higgins collapsed into bed, and for the first time in as long as anyone could remember, he slept soundly until morning.
FINISHED! It's only been...nearly three years since the first chapter of this went up, and over four since I actually started writing it. The albatross is finally off my neck, and it's done!
Thanks to everyone who's read and reviewed, and to my excellent beta readers: TSB, Harmony, and Shimmerwings (wherever you are...).