Author's Note: I'm going back to my roots! "Newsies" got me into in the first place, and I figured it was high time that I make a contribution to "Newsies" fanfiction.
Some cowboy he'd make. He was fine at playacting that role, but he always knew that he was only impressing a bunch of city kids. Being "Cowboy" made him stand out. It was his signature. There may have been hundreds of Francis Sullivans in the city, and even more Jack Kellys, but he was the one and only Cowboy.
And then there was the Santa Fe "dream." For a while he had really, truly wanted to move out west, especially if it would get him away from Snyder. Now and then he still daydreamed about it: that unbroken sky going on for miles, the ranchland stretching out in front of him with a tiny silhouette of a fence on the horizon, and the nights. Those were what he thought of most often. The nights, out there in the west, would be darker than he'd ever seen. A fellow could really hide out there, get lost in that darkness. There wouldn't be any streetlights or electric lamps around, only the stars and the moon, and they'd be bright enough. When the moon was full it would shine down stronger than every footlight in Medda's, and his shadow at midnight would stretch out for a mile behind him. Yeah, he thought about it, but he always knew he'd never see it.
Never mind the money. If he'd really wanted, he could have gotten the money easy enough. He had a bit saved, not much, but enough to at least get out of town, and he knew that Medda would let him have some if he asked the right way. Even if she didn't, well, there were other ways to get money, and if he were skipping town anyway, it didn't make that much difference where he got it from, or how. But he had a sense of honor that he cursed sometimes, even if it wasn't always what the law thought was right, and it kept him from indiscriminately taking what wasn't his. Nah, it wasn't the lack of money that was keeping him in New York.
It wasn't any great love for the city, either. It was filthy and hard, and it didn't care about people like him. Every time a carriage rattled by him on the street and he glimpsed the rich folks inside, he felt a welling of anger and pride inside him. They might look down on him, they might think they were better than him, but he was smarter than them, and the city would never be the same for him being there. Not everyone could say that, but he'd become something for a while. He'd stood up to his enemies and made them back down, even when they were more rich and powerful than he was. Them riding in their carriages would never know what the city was really like, beautiful even in its cruelty. They would never have to wake up before dawn to earn their living and be rewarded with the sight of the sun rising over the East River. They would never know the color or the scent of the soil in the park when their face had been pushed down into it during a fight. Those rich people might be able to leave anytime they wanted, but that didn't make them any better. If anything, it made them weaker than he was. Escaping, the easy way, never made you stronger. Fighting to live and thrive did. That knowledge was probably the only thing that'd make him any good a cowboy.
Les was running toward him, with Crutchy hobbling along after. Their breath showed in the cold air, and Les looked to be wearing his brother's jacket, hanging halfway down to his knees. Jack briefly wondered where Dave was that he didn't need his jacket. He had been smoking, and thinking about Santa Fe. When it got cold--and it got cold in the city--he imagined the fine, dry heat of the western summers, sweating in the saddle and putting that bandana of his to the use it was meant for, wiping dust and sweat from his eyes. He'd been standing there, leaning against the cold brick of the Lodging House, his eyes closed and his face tipped up to catch the sun. He wished he could actually be as warm as he imagined, and thought that it probably didn't snow out there. If it did, the snow didn't turn brown from the life of the city. It would be allowed to collect without hitting tenements and factories, without mingling with smoke and the breath of millions of people. It would fall straight down and cover the wide open places, and miles of it would stay untouched, clean, sparkling until spring melted it away. He squinted, imagining looking out over a field of white where the sun caught single snowflakes and turned them into a blanket of diamonds, then opened his eyes.
"Jack, I got you something!" Les was still as excitable as ever. He sold with Crutchy sometimes, and the combination of the "crip" and the little boy was irresistable. Sometimes they stationed themselves outside St. Paul's Chapel, not too far from the Brooklyn Bridge, or Trinity Church, and sold papers to the women and men who couldn't help feeling charitable at the sight of two obviously needy boys. Even if Crutchy didn't feel up to walking that far, they always brought in a quite a haul together. Jack smiled. He would never admit it out loud, but Les was one reason he would never leave. If anyone asked, he'd say, "The kid would be lost without me," but he knew that he'd be lost without the kid.
"You got me something?"
Les nodded, panting slightly from running. "It's an early Hanukkah present. Or, or Crutchy said it could be a Christmas present, too, but I wanted to give it to you now." He held out a small, flimsy rectangle wrapped not in an old newspaper, as was the newsie gift-giving tradition, but in actual blue wrapping paper. He took the object and Les said, "I got the man to wrap it, too. It's a brand-new one, and I wanted to get it for you before you got it yourself."
Jack stood looking at the present in his hands. No one had ever given him something that looked this nice before, at least not out of love. All Pulitzer's clothes and shoes had been snappy, but the old man certainly didn't care for him, not like the shivering kid standing in front of him, looking up at him with an expectant expression.
"Hey, come on, it's cold. Let's go inside," he said, pushing open the door to the Lodging House and guiding Les inside. Crutchy had caught up, and Jack stopped him in the doorway.
"Where'd this come from?" he asked, holding up the small package.
"A store," Crutchy answered with a grin. "But I can't tell you which one or it'll ruin the surprise."
"Did he buy anything else?"
Crutchy shook his head. "He's been waiting weeks for that to come in. Spent the whole day asking how many papes we had left so we could go get it." He laughed and patted Jack on the shoulder. "You better hurry up and go open it or he'll think the world is comin' to an end."
Jack followed Crutchy in and walked to where Les sat on the stairs, bouncing in anticipation. He crossed his arms and looked down on the boy. "Did you rob a bank?" he asked sternly.
"No!" Les shouted. "I saved up for that! It didn't take too long." Jack sat down next to him.
"Oh, you're that good? What are you going to do when you start looking like an old man, like me?"
Les giggled. "By then I'll be almost as good a newsie as you. Don't you want to know what your present is? Open it!"
"Are you sure you don't want to open it?"
"It's yours. You have to open it," Les said stoutly.
Jack looked again at the present in his lap. The paper was tied with a piece of silver ribbon. He carefully undid the knot and coiled the ribbon around two of his fingers before sliding the loop off. "Sarah will like that, you think?" Les nodded as Jack slipped the ribbon into a pocket for safekeeping. He had been about to tell Les to take it to his sister, but he'd seen what came out of Les' pockets. Jack turned his attention back to the paper, blue like twilight on the horizon. He unwrapped the present carefully, straightening out every crease before refolding the sheet and putting it to one side to keep. Then he looked at what Les had bought him.
It was just a Western Jim story, the latest one to come out. "In this one, Western Jim has to fight off the cattle rustlers who want to steal his cows and his girl!" Les declared. That was about what happened in every Western Jim story. Jack looked down at the thin little book in his hands. It was new, and clean, and meant just for him. It was the first time someone had given him something that he didn't need. On the cover Western Jim had his six-shooters trained on an evil-looking man on horseback, and Jack knew that he was no Western Jim. Les shook his arm, demanding, "What do you think? Do you like it?"
Jack turned to look at the boy sitting next to him. He was small, and impatient, and pale, and he could be annoying when a guy was broke or tired, and he thought Jack would be a perfect cowboy. Before his eyes started to water, Jack grabbed Les and hugged him close and tight. He couldn't even start to pretend the gift was no big deal. Les put his arms around Jack for a minute, and then laughed.
"You could've just said you liked it." Jack laughed too, and they sat on the steps reading about Western Jim together.
A few days later Jack hadn't sold all his papers until late in the afternoon. He could make it to dinner at Tibby's if he hurried, but he didn't feel like hurrying. Instead he turned the other way and walked south without any destination in mind.
He hadn't meant to walk all the way to the tip of Manhattan, but there he was at the Battery. The day was had been grey, and the water in the harbor looked fierce, with steely waves and a sharp wind slicing over them. Jack watched some men working at a fishing boat docked nearby, then shifted his gaze out to the harbor.
Denton told him once that the statue out there had been a present from the French. Why the French had wanted to give Americans a big statue, Jack wasn't exactly sure, but it was a nice statue. Denton had also told him that Pulitzer'd helped raise money to build the pedestal the statue stood on, which Jack grudgingly admitted wasn't a bad thing for Pulitzer to do. The statue was a few years younger than Jack himself, but it would certainly last longer. And it would never move from where it stood.
The wind burned his face as he stood looking over the water. It would probably snow soon, if he was any judge, and after spending eighteen years working in the streets, he figured himself a fair judge. Snow was no good for business; people either stayed inside or hurried to get wherever they needed to go. Besides that, at least one of the boys always got sick whenever it snowed, and Jack couldn't help but feel responsible for them.
There wasn't any ocean out there in Santa Fe. Instead of the waves and the smell of salt and fish there would be sand and... he didn't know what. And that was one of the reasons that he could never go out west. Kloppman always said "Better the devil you know than the one you don't." New York City sure was a devil at times, Jack thought with a smirk, but at least it was a devil he'd lived with for years. Sometimes he had the devil outsmarted, and sometimes the devil had the upper hand, but you had to keep fighting that devil, no matter what. Maybe that made him scared, maybe that made him proud. All he knew was that it was the way he was.
It was dark by the time he made it back to the Lodging House, and the streetlights winked above him like stars. He always told the younger ones not to go out alone at night, but he wasn't scared. He was probably too stupid to be scared; he probably thought knowing the city like he did gave him some special pass that kept him safe. He ducked into a doorway as a couple of cops walked by on their rounds, then rounded the corner to see Racetrack sitting on the back stoop.
"Race." Jack never felt like he had to pretend with Race--or rather that the other newsie always knew when Jack was bluffing. He took a seat on the stoop next to his friend, and they remained in silence for a moment as Race puffed a cigar.
"So they got racetracks out there in Santa Fe?"
Jack laughed. "Nah. They need to save the horses for real work."
Race smiled in return, still staring out into the night. "You down on Fulton Street today? You stink like fish." He paused, looking at Jack out of the corner of his eye. "And don't even think of telling me what I stink like."
A few minutes later he spoke again. "Heard Les telling Kloppman 'bout the present he got you. Another western book, huh? He was telling about what happened in the book and instead of Joe or whatever his name is he said Jack." Jack shook his head, a little embarrassed by Les' adoration. "Sometimes I think we're all just like a bunch of cows and you're the one keeping us in line. Not that I'd call myself a cow..." he chuckled. "Don't know what we'd do without you, though."
Jack turned and looked at his friend, whose eyes remained firmly trained on something straight ahead of him. "I ain't going, Race. You know that."
Racetrack nodded, and stood. "It's too bad," he said, looking down at Jack. "You would've been some cowboy."