There were hands everywhere Dutchy cast his gaze, and they were all reaching for him and Bumlets. His mouth was dry and his knees were shaking. Deep inside, a small, shameful voice whispered to him that he should have run while he had the chance, but there was no time for regrets. If his life was to end, there was no one he would rather end it with than Bumlets.
In a way, it was almost a relief. He'd spent his life running, ever since the day his family had died. Even after he'd gone to the place where his family had burned and bid them goodbye, there had still been that urge in his stomach, the feeling that any minute he might have to run. But now he was through running for good. One way or the other, he would never run away again.
He clenched his hands into fists. Though the odds were hopeless, he wasn't about to go down without putting up as much of a fight as he could. The clowns weren't going to walk away from this unscathed, he vowed silently.
But before he could so much as draw his fist back, the clowns had moved around, one to each side of him. They grabbed his arms and, despite his struggles, held him firmly in place. Casting about wildly, Dutchy could see that they'd done the same to Bumlets, who was also struggling, but looked vaguely…distracted.
He would have liked to spend hours puzzling over what that look on Bumlets' face. He would have liked to trace that brackets around Bumlets' mouth with his fingers and smooth away the angry little line in between Bumlets' eyebrows, and kiss the worried frown away from Bumlets' mouth. He would have liked to massage the tension away from Bumlets' muscles, and then…
There was just no time, though. There was no time to even think about it, as one of the clowns reached into his coat and withdrew a sleek, black revolver.
A whimper worked its way up through Dutchy's constricted vocal cords and escaped from his mouth. He wasn't even going to get to fight back. The clowns were going to shoot them like dogs, right here, right now. Even if David, Jack, and Denton showed up, it would be too late.
Trembling, he turned his head to look at Bumlets, wanting the last thing he would ever look at to be something pleasant. To his surprise, the distracted look on Bumlets' face had deepened. There was fear there, to be sure, but Bumlets looked like he was trying to make up his mind about something. Whatever it was, it couldn't really matter anymore.
He tried as quickly as possible to trace the lines of Bumlets' face with his eyes, to memorize every angle and curve, but to his great surprise, Bumlets suddenly firmed his chin, took a deep breath, and shouted, "Wait!"
To his even greater surprise, the clowns paused, looking curiously at Bumlets. Dutchy sagged, still being held upright by the tight grips of the clowns.
"Wait," Bumlets said again. "Your friend's death… It was an accident."
From somewhere behind them, Duffer laughed bitterly. "You actually think that pleading for your pathetic life's going to make a difference, kid? You sabotaged that cannon, you killed him for a couple lousy bucks, and you think that anything you could say now would make us let you go?"
"I never touched that cannon," Bumlets spat, struggling. "The fuse was cut too short and I saw it, but I never thought that he'd die. I just wanted enough money for dinner. If I was gonna kill a guy, why would I do it for a dollar and two bits?"
There was a long moment of silence. Dutchy held his breath, wondering if the clowns might actually listen to reason.
"You must've known you would get caught," another clown said.
"Then why would I have bothered at all?" Bumlets demanded. "It don't make sense." Dutchy stared at Bumlets, and Bumlets looked back at him this time. The anguished affection in Bumlets' eyes made Dutchy's chest hurt; Bumlets must think it wasn't going to work.
The clown snorted. "You're just stalling, you little—"
Duffer hissed something angrily, and the clown shut his mouth.
"So," Duffer said, after a few seconds, "you mind explaining to me how someone like you would know how long a cannon fuse should be cut?"
"I grew up in a circus," Bumlets replied tensely. "I know 'em in and out. That fuse should've been at least half a foot longer, but maybe the guy who cut it wasn't trained too good."
"You grew up in a circus," Duffer repeated disbelievingly.
"Yeah. Ever heard of the Flyin' Fretelli Family?" Bumlets asked.
"The acrobats?" Gonzo asked.
Bumlets nodded. "I was the youngest. They called me Baby Fretelli."
"You've heard of them?" Duffer asked Gonzo, moving around to stand in front of the boys.
Gonzo nodded. "I used to work with 'em."
Bumlets' eyes widened. "You did? When?"
"We ask the questions here!" Duffer snapped. He glanced over at Gonzo. "Well?"
"There were six of 'em," Gonzo said. "They did talk about how the youngest boy disappeared several years ago and they never found him."
Looking at Bumlets, Dutchy could count every single emotion that crossed Bumlets' face upon hearing about his family. He wanted to reach out for Bumlets' hand, but he wasn't able to reach that far; the clowns hadn't loosened their grip.
"The kid could've heard about it, though," Duffer muttered to Gonzo, though his words rang out clear in the afternoon air. "Is there a way to prove any of what he's saying?"
Gonzo nodded and fixed Bumlets with a hard gaze. "What's your name, Baby Fretelli?"
Bumlets swallowed visibly. "Alejandro. Alejandro Cortez."
"Cortez," Gonzo repeated slowly, and nodded over at Duffer. "He's telling the truth, Duffer. No one outside of the circus would know their name."
Dutchy licked his lips, now daring to hope that maybe, just maybe, they would get out of this alive.
"I'm still not convinced," Duffer said, and Dutchy's stomach seemed to plummet down to his feet. Duffer glanced around at the faces of the other clowns and appeared to be deep in thought for a long moment. "You say you grew up in this family of acrobats?" Bumlets nodded, and Dutchy wondered uneasily why Duffer had put so emphasis on the word acrobats.
Still held in between two hulking clowns, Dutchy was suddenly very grateful for the support. Staring up at Bumlets, who was standing all alone on a platform high above, nervously eyeing the trapeze, Dutchy was fairly sure that his legs would give out and he would collapse were he not being held upright.
"But," he stammered to the one of the clowns, "Bumlets hates heights!"
The clown did no more than shoot a sideways look at him. "You want your friend to prove himself innocent or not?"
Dutchy shut his mouth and watched Bumlets intently, as though the very power of his gaze could keep the dark-haired boy from falling. Bumlets was mentally preparing himself for the jump; Dutchy could tell that even at this distance.
Suddenly, there was a disturbance back at the entrance to the tent. Twisting his head around, Dutchy wasn't terribly surprised to see Jack and David trying to force their way in, Denton behind them.
Dutchy groaned. He didn't want Bumlets to have to do this, but if Jack and David caused any problems, the clowns might get angry again and decide to off the two of them without any further consideration.
With a quick glance upwards to make sure that Bumlets was about to jump, Dutchy again craned his head back towards the entrance and yelled to Jack and David, "Stop it!" They both heard him, he was sure of that, but neither of them paused. So he yelled again. "You tryin' to get us both killed! Stop fighting!"
This time, they paused. He could see their gaze travel from him, up to Bumlets, so precariously perched, then back down. He smiled as reassuringly as he could manage, given the fact that his stomach was tied up in knots. The two other boys looked confused and more than alarmed, but they obediently took a step back, though Jack still looked ready to spring forward and pound on the most convenient person.
Without another thought, he turned back up and gazed at Bumlets, trying to will him as much strength as he could. He could see the change in Bumlets' posture as, far above, he straightened and prepared for whatever it was he was about to do.
Every eye was turned upwards as Bumlets reached his hands straight out in front of him, his body poised in a graceful arc, and dove from the platform.
Dutchy let out a brief cry; he couldn't help it. Bumlets was going to fall, he was falling, he was going to—
Except… Bumlets wasn't falling. He'd plummeted for a couple of terrifying seconds, but then he'd reached out and neatly grabbed onto the trapeze. Now he swung from the trapeze, easily, and flipped so that he was sitting on the bar of the trapeze.
"Well?" his voice came floating down from above. "Are you satisfied now? Can I get back to my life?"
The clowns shrugged and glanced over at Duffer, who looked every bit as impressed as the rest of them. He sighed and shook his head ruefully. "Okay, kid," he called up to Bumlets. "You can come down now. I'm convinced."
"And my friend?"
Duffer gestured to the two clowns who held Dutchy; they released him immediately. Without them holding him up, Dutchy immediately sank down onto the ground. He was still in shock over seeing Bumlets jump like that, and at realizing how amazing he was at it.
Suddenly, Jack and David were crouching on either side of him.
"Are you all right?" David asked him concernedly.
Dutchy laughed breathlessly. "Yeah, I – How'd you guys get in here?"
"They let us in," David replied. He glanced around and up at Bumlets, who was in the process of making the trapeze rock enough so that he could dive back over to the platform. "It looks like everything's going to be okay…"
Dutchy only nodded. He wasn't about to take his gaze from Bumlets until Bumlets was safe and back on the ground.
"Yeah," Jack muttered. "Everything's good, except for that we still ain't got a clue who the spy is."
"I've got that under control," David said to Jack. "Trust me."
Jack shrugged. "Dutchy, how'd – How'd you guys convince them that – Why was Bumlets up on the trapeze?"
"Long story," Dutchy said wearily, heart in his throat as Bumlets dove back to the platform and landed safely.
Despite the fact that his legs were still trembling and his head was still pounding, he stood up and made his way over to the ladder up the platform, and waited for Bumlets to climb down. Once Bumlets hopped off the last rung and turned around, Dutchy grabbed him in a tight hug, regardless of the fact that everyone was watching. He'd been amazed at how confident and collected Bumlets had seemed up above, but now, feeling how hard Bumlets' heart was pounding and seeing how the sweat stood out in beads on his forehead, he realized that it had all been an act.
"You okay?" he breathed.
Bumlets nodded tightly, but hissed through his teeth, "I… hate… heights."
"I know," Dutchy replied, and gave Bumlets an extra squeeze before releasing him and turning to find Gonzo and Duffer standing right there. He felt Bumlets wince, and wasn't surprised; even though they had said that they wouldn't hurt him, Bumlets had spent so long in a state of terror that seeing them suddenly right there must still come as a nasty surprise.
"Listen," Gonzo said, "I hope you don't expect an apology or anything."
Bumlets gave a forced bark of laughter. "Apologies? From clowns?"
"Exactly," Gonzo said. "But to make this up to you… I know where your family is."
Bumlets subtly reached out for Dutchy's hand, and Dutchy grabbed it, vaguely thankful that they were still standing close enough together that no one noticed. Bumlets' hand was freezing cold.
"My family? You actually know…"
"Like I said, I used to work with 'em. And they talked about you all the time."
Dutchy took a deep breath. No matter what, he wasn't going to be separated from Bumlets again. Remembering how worried he had been about losing Bumlets to his family, Dutchy almost smiled. How stupid he had been – the answer was so simple. If Bumlets decided to go find his family, well, then Dutchy would go with him.
"Where are they?" Bumlets asked, his voice calm but for a little quaver.
"They're with Barnum and Bailey's Circus," Gonzo replied. "I think it's way out west this time of year."
"Thanks," Bumlets said, exhaling deeply. He glanced over at Dutchy, who smiled at him as reassuringly as he could. "Come on, Dutchy. Let's… let's go."
They nodded to the clowns and left the tent, Jack and David hot on their heels.
The walk back to the Lodging House was quiet. Denton had left them after telling Bumlets how happy he was that Bumlets was safe. David had gone too, citing that he needed to stop back at his family's apartment and would see them back at the Lodging House soon. Dutchy and Bumlets had had many things they'd wanted to say to each other, but with Jack still right there, they didn't dare.
And then when they actually got back to the Lodging House, Bumlets was mobbed by all of the other newsies, and it had been a full half hour before anyone calmed down enough to do something other than jump all over Bumlets and question him excitedly about where he had been and what he had done.
Finally, Bumlets managed to ease himself out of the crowd of boys and made his way over to where Dutchy was sitting on his bed, quietly watching the proceedings. Dutchy hadn't been upset by being left completely out of the celebration; he'd been happy simply to watch Bumlets and to see Bumlets smile. He'd noted, though, not without a certain amount of satisfaction, it wasn't Bumlets' big glowy smile, the one that seemed to be reserved for Dutchy.
"So…" Bumlets said softly, sitting down next to Dutchy.
Dutchy stared straight ahead, not wanting to be too obvious about how much he wanted to turn and gaze at Bumlets. "So…?" he prompted.
Bumlets took a deep breath and seemed to be about to ask him something, but then, suddenly, David marched into the room, walked straight over to them, beckoned Jack, and announced quietly, "I know who the spy is."
"You do?" Dutchy asked.
"The what?" Bumlets asked.
Dutchy gaped for a moment, then remembered how long Bumlets had been gone. "Uh… Hard to explain, Bumlets… A lot happened while you were gone," he said quickly. "So, David, who is it?"
"Yeah, Davey," Jack said, having just made his way over to them, "who's the rat?"
David sighed. "The thing is – He's not actually a rat. He didn't know that he was doing something wrong."
"Davey…" Jack prompted.
"He's out in the hall," David said. "I'll go get him, but – Don't yell at him, okay?"
"Don't yell?" Jack exclaimed. "You expect me not to—"
"You're his hero, Jack," David said firmly as he walked away. "If you yell at him, he'll be crushed."
"Wait a sec," Jack said suspiciously, as David eased through the newsies and over to the door, "is he trying to tell me that the spy is—"
He trailed off, and Dutchy's jaw dropped as David returned, followed by a guilty-looking, crestfallen Les.
"Dutchy," Bumlets murmured, "what's going—"
Dutchy hushed him. "I'll explain later," he replied quietly. "I promise."
Jack was staring down at Les, who was staring unhappily at the floor. David gently elbowed Les, and finally Les spoke.
"I'm real sorry," he mumbled. "I was hiding in the room the day you two were talking, and then when that guy asked me what you'd been talking about – He said he'd give me five dollars! And I – I didn't know that he was a… a bad guy." The small boy finally looked up, and he looked so unhappy that Dutchy couldn't have found it in his heart to be mad at him, even if he'd tried.
He glanced up at Jack, who rubbed a hand across his eyes and sighed. "How'd you figure it out, Davey?" he asked.
David put a comforting hand on Les' shoulder. "I remembered him coming home and saying that he'd found the five bucks lying in the street." He grinned wearily. "Les is a terrible liar, and it wasn't too hard to put two and two together."
"I'm really sorry," Les said again.
Dutchy knew what it felt like to not even realize that he was betraying people he cared about until it was too late. "It's okay, Les," he said quietly. "Any of us could've made the same – It's really okay. Everything turned out all right, an' that's all that matters." He glanced up at Jack.
Jack sighed. "Yeah, it's okay, kiddo." He ruffled Les' hair, and the haunted look in the boy's eyes disappeared almost immediately to be replaced by a large grin.
After that, every single newsie wanted to know what had happened and why Les had looked so sad. What with one thing and another, Dutchy and Bumlets didn't get a chance to really speak to each other until the sun had set and they snuck outside to sit on a bench down the street.
"Think we'll get interrupted out here?" Bumlets asked, a hint of a grin on his face.
"With our luck, they'll follow us out here," Dutchy replied, and there were few enough people out this time of night that he was able to lean his head against Bumlets' shoulder.
Bumlets sighed. "I missed you."
"I missed you too," Dutchy mumbled. "An' I was so worried, the whole time."
Between them, on the bench, their fingers gently intertwined, and Bumlets squeezed Dutchy's hand. Dutchy had the feeling that Bumlets was trying to work up the nerve to say something, so he waited quietly.
Finally, Bumlets cleared his throat. "Dutchy, what you said before, when I said I couldn't stay – about how you'd go with me—" He paused, seemingly unsure as to how to proceed.
"Yeah," Dutchy said cautiously.
"Well, I don't gotta run anymore, but – I'd still like to go. I want to find my family and do somethin' with my life. I can't be a newsie forever," he added.
Dutchy nodded. "I know how you feel," he said, hoping that Bumlets wasn't about to say that he didn't Dutchy to go.
"Anyway, I know that, uh, it ain't an emergency anymore, so if you don't want to go…"
"Hold on!" Dutchy exclaimed. "Didn't we already say all this already today?"
Bumlets shifted. "Yeah, I know, but… leavin' is a big decision, Dutchy. I ain't just gonna assume that you'd go with me."
"If you ain't here, I ain't stayin'," Dutchy said simply, and squeezed Bumlets' hand.
Bumlets let out a long, relieved-sounding sigh, and when Dutchy glanced up at him, Bumlets was leaning his head back and smiling. "You'd really go with me," he murmured.
"Of course I would," Dutchy replied. He hesitated briefly, but continued, "I think I love you, so I ain't about to let you leave without me."
"You love me?" Bumlets asked, sounding amazed.
Dutchy pulled away slightly, suddenly feeling awkward. Maybe he shouldn't have said it…
Bumlets quickly threw an arm around Dutchy and pulled him closer. "Where're you going? I didn't get a chance to reply!"
"Sorry," Dutchy mumbled. "I didn't mean to…"
"What I was going to say, if you'd given me a chance, is that I've – I've loved you for a long time, Dutchy. Ever since that first day."
Dutchy smiled happily; he was amazed by it, despite the fact that Bumlets had always seemed to know what was going on better than he ever did.
The two of them sat there in contented silence for several minutes.
"So, Ale…" Dutchy paused. "What was it, again?"
"Alejandro," Bumlets replied quietly. "And you?"
"Kristoff." Dutchy grinned and tried again, "So, Alejandro, when do we leave?"
"How's tomorrow morning, Kristoff?"
"It's good. And… where're we going?"
Bumlets blinked. "Out west, somewhere, I guess. I'm not… really sure, but –"
Dutchy cut him off. "It's all right. After all… Where we go… Does it matter?"
"I guess not," Bumlets agreed. He paused.
When Dutchy glanced up, Racetrack was standing right there in front of them. Rapidly, Dutchy sat up straight and let go of Bumlets' hand.
"Uh, hi, Race," he said uneasily.
Racetrack rolled his eyes. "You don't gotta pretend in front of me, Dutchy. I'm the one who told you, remember?"
"Told him?" Bumlets asked suspiciously. "Told him what?"
Racetrack actually looked embarrassed, which was an unusual occurrence, at best. "I thought you was dead when I told him, Bumlets."
"You told him that I liked him, didn't you?" Bumlets asked evenly.
"Yeah, I… I told him. Sorry."
Bumlets barely hesitated before smiling widely and saying, "Thank you, Race. I owe you one."
Racetrack laughed and grinned crookedly. "So, you guys are leaving, then?"
"I was standin' right here, yes."
"Yeah, we're goin'," Dutchy said. He glanced over at Bumlets. "We're gonna go find his family and then… Who knows?"
"I'll miss you guys," Race said, suddenly uncharacteristically somber. "You'se both good guys."
"We'll – I'll write," Dutchy said. "An' he will too, once I teach him how."
"Sounds like everything's all planned out, then," Racetrack replied.
"Not really," Dutchy said. "We'll say goodbye to the other guys and go to the train station. After that…" He shrugged and looked over at Bumlets.
Bumlets smiled back. "Yeah, that's the plan, Race. Ain't it a good one?"
"Sounds like fun," Racetrack replied with a twinkle in his eyes. "I'll leave you two alone for now. Just be sure to… get a good night's sleep."
As the two watched Racetrack head down the street, Dutchy wrapped his arm around Bumlets' shoulders. "It's a great plan," he said quietly. "Best damn plan I ever heard in my life."
"Better than the plans you come up with, Kristoff?" Bumlets asked with a hint of a smile.
Loving the way that Bumlets said his real name, Dutchy turned his head to look at Bumlets, to look at those deep, mellow brown eyes, that golden skin, that warm, welcoming smile. He imagined roaming the country with Bumlets by his side, imagined being able to do all those things he'd only ever dreamed about… to be alone with Bumlets, totally alone, to discover every nook and cranny of Bumlets' body, to learn what made him tick, what he thought and felt until he'd know Bumlets inside out. He thought of all this and more in the space of a few heated seconds.
And right before he pressed his lips to Bumlets', he breathed, "Oh, yeah, Alejandro. A million times better, an' don't you ever forget it."