The boy coughed violently into his dirty handkerchief. The wind howled, and blew snow around the city, since it was even too cold to snow. Specks of blood. He frowned. He hoped it would soon go away, but he had been coughing for a few weeks now.
"Crutchy?" Someone entered the room.
He stuffed the cloth
into his pocket and quickly grabbed his wooden crutch. "What are
you doing up here?"
Crutchy shrugged and took a few steps closer to the obviously younger boy. "Just thinking is all," he murmured. The boy remained silent. "Hey, Boots, d'ya think Jack'll ever send a letter? Prob'ly too busy, huh?"
Boots shook his head. "He'll send one. Don't you worry." His smile faded. "Heard you coughing. You sick?"
"Nah, just a cough, that's all," Crutchy said with a wave of his hand. "I've been through worse winters than this one without a scratch."
"Why don't ya come down with the rest of us?" Boots started toward the door. "Kloppman got the furnace up and running. C'mon, Crutchy. It's warmer down there. Up here—kinda drafty."
"Sure, just gimme a minute." Boots nodded and trotted down the stairs. Crutchy suppressed his could until he believed the boy was out of earshot, then he whipped out his kerchief and coughed, this time much more violently. It took so much effort that he had to sit down. He rubbed his throat. Inside it felt absolutely raw. On his bunk bed, he was so comfortable and he felt so weak and tired. He lay down and his eyelids slowly closed. The handkerchief slipped out of his hand.
Boots led him up the stairs. "I dunno, Mush, I think he's getting worse. Every day he's coughing harder." He stepped into the room and saw Crutchy's prostrate form sprawled out on his bed. "Crutchy?"
Mush pushed past him.
"Crutchy!" He rushed to his side. "You all right?" The
cripple's eyes barely opened. "Hey, there y'are." Mush
smiled. "How ya doing, buddy?"
Crutchy shook his head. "Nah, nah, nah, I'm doing just fine. Don't you try to pin nothing on me!"
Boots picked up the bloody handkerchief and said worriedly, "Mush, I think he's bleeding—are ya bleeding, pal?"
Mush stared at it. "Before me auntie sent me here, I found these all over the house. My mom was sick with something called…tuber—tuberculosis. We couldn't send her away to the sanitarium 'cause we couldn't afford it." He stopped, realizing Crutchy was staring at him, very much awake.
"I'm gonna die, ain't I?" he said quietly.
"We're gonna help you, Crutchy," Mush said defiantly.
Crutchy shook his head. "I don't want no charity from nobody, 'specially from you guys." He tried to sit up, winced, and lay back down, defeated.
Boots licked his lips and said, "I'll go boil some water. When someone weren't feeling so good, Mama always put the kettle on." He disappeared.
Mush leaned the crutch against the wall and pulled up a chair. Crutchy removed his cap and wiped the cold sweat off of his brow. "So, what happened to your mother?" he asked.
"She died." Mush paused, then added quickly, "She was much worse off than you, though. She wouldn't eat or drink or talk to nobody. She was sad all the time. You'll see, you keep your spirits up and nothin' bad will happen to ya."
As the days progressed, Crutchy got worse and worse. The newsies went up one at a time to try and cheer him up and talk to him. Out of all of them, Boots and Mush went most often.
Boots ran up to Crutchy's bed and pulled the chair up close. "Check this out." He sat down and tore open the envelope.
"What's that?" Crutchy asked, his voice merely a rasp now. He cleared his throat and asked more loudly, "Who's the letter from?"
Boots grinned and began reading. "Hello boys! Guess where I am? Santa Fe, New Mexico. I managed to find a nice place to live and work until I can afford a farm for myself. My boss gave me a horse, so I'm one step closer to being a real cowboy! Crutchy, how are you doing? I tell you, I miss that happy-go-lucky, cheery face you got. It was tough for awhile and I really missed you then." Crutchy smiled. "Don't get me wrong, boys, I've missed you all too, but I'm still glad I'm not selling papers no more. Maybe when you guys get sick and tired of it, you'll come down to Santa Fe. Waiting to hear from you, Jack Kelly." Boots folded the letter up carefully. "How'd ya like that, huh? Mentioned you and everything, Crutch—"
He stopped. Crutchy's eyes were open and on his lips was a smile. He wasn't breathing. "Crutchy? Crutchy, don't—don't go like this! You can't just leave!" Boots cried desperately, gripping his friend's hand. He put a hand over his face, letting Crutchy's eyelids close, and tears slid down his cheeks.
"Boots!" Mush ran up the stairs. "Boots, what's wrong?" The boy looked up, forlorn. Mush shook his head. "No…not now." He hurried to Crutchy's side and gently put a hand on his arm. He looked so peaceful, content even.
"I didn't get to say good-bye," Boots murmured.
"Oh, Boots." Mush hugged him tightly, knocking his hat off in the process. Hugging him had seemed to make the boy cry even harder, and Mush rubbed his back soothingly. "Listen, kid," he began as tears welled up in his eyes, "Crutchy knew what was gonna happen to him. All this time you've been spending with him, that was your good-bye."
"He got to hear what Jack said in his letter at least," Boots said quietly. Mush nodded and Boots hugged him again. "I think he was happy. And if you have to go, that's the best way—happy."