Cowboy

Four months ago Jack Kelly escaped from the Refuge. He showed up at the Newsboys Lodging House with a pulp novel, length of rope as a belt, and a lot of stories about a place called Santa Fe. While playing poker on the first floor with Snipeshooter, Specs, and Snoddy, Racetrack listened to him paint the sand and sunsets with hands as much as words. The kid was full of nonsense, Race thought each time with a skeptical smile easing around his cigar, but he told a damn fine yarn.

* * *

Two weeks later he took to calling Jack "Cowboy."

"Hey, Cowboy," he called over the crowd, trading in two cards and hoping for a straight from the flop, "you ever been on a horse -- one that doesn't look like Snoddy's sister?" Or, "Hey, Cowboy, you gonna herd cattle or just talk 'em to death?" And, "Hey, cowboy, tell us about the time you battled it out with those Indian braves."

At first he was just taunting, just reminding the kid he wasn't the only one with a speaking voice, since all the other boys sat there entertained into near silence. But then Race found he did it to keep Jack going, to see where he would take it. Because what Race grudgingly liked about Cowboy was that his comments never shut him down -- he picked up on Racetrack's pointed questions like they were the next thing he was going to say and spun another effortless story.

* * *

A month and a half later Racetrack arrived back at Duane Street from Sheepshead just as Jack was heading in. "Hey, Cowboy," he greeted unthinkingly. Easily. Without insult.

In fact, it sounded almost affectionate or, at very least, friendly.

A little shocked at himself, Race paused in the slipping sunlight and watched as Jack slowed from a trot to an amble. He was wearing a red kerchief knotted tidily around his neck. "What, you gussied up for a girl?" Race teased.

Jack accepted the jibe with a loose grin. "No girl.Not gussied. It's a bandana. Cowboys wear 'em. Like this." He worked the knot loose and unrolled the fabric into a triangle then tied it again at the back of his head, flat edge covering his nose. He signaled completion by holding out his hands. "Keeps the dust outta your mouth," he explained, excitement evident.

With a half smile, Race wagged his head. They were walking together now, still a ways from the Lodge. "So you're the real thing now, huh?" Race took out a cigarette and flicked a match.

Jack pulled the bandana down below his chin and looked up to where the last streaks of sun were fading to dark. "Almost. Still got to get out there."

Racetrack let the taste of smoke roll on his tongue instead of responding and considered the boy beside him. Head tilted up, hands in pockets, shoulders slack, and gate lanky -- Jack Kelly, the idealist cowboy.

He'd been on the street too long to believe in dreams coming true anymore, but Racetrack thought he might be willing to bet on this one.

* * *

By November they'd fallen into an affable routine of a nightly cigarette.

The first time he tried one, Jack spluttered and coughed. Racetrack had just smirked, clapped him on the back, and said, "Makes you a man, Cowboy."

Jack smiled though he continued coughing. "Then how come you're such a scrap?"

Grin pinched around his own cigarette, Race darted an arm around Jack, trapping him in a half nelson and knuckle scrubbing his scalp. "Scrap?" he asked rhetorically. Jack struggled, but Race gave it to him good -- until Jack managed to get a hand free and goosed him firmly. Race choked on his surprise and Jack wrestled out of his loosened grip.

Race was still stunned silent, but Jack just stood easy as you please, grinning wickedly. "Yee-ha," he deadpanned, and Racetrack broke into laughter. That was the start.

On thislate November night, Jack was wearing that same shit-eating smile. It was stinging cold that night, so they'd hurried the first part of their little ritual, pressed together in the dark, Jack's chin and cold nose against his cheeks, chill fingers sliding under warm shirt, and steaming breath between them.

Now they were below the dim light at the Lodging House door, not planning to linger long with their smokes. Race studied Jack in the flickering gold light. Jack's back and sole of one shoe propped against the brick, knee stabbing the night air, and he nipped tobacco from him tongue with his thumb and forefinger. It struck Race that something from that image was missing.

It took a week of consulting that image from memory for him to figure out what it was.

* * *

A month later, the day before Christmas Eve, Racetrack approached Newises' Square warily, keeping a sharp eye out for snowball assailants. He was an easy target and defenseless with his hands behind his back to hide the oddly shaped package, shoddily wrapped in brown paper.

Shiny scraps of colored foil littered the square and crack-pops sounded among the shouts and laughter. Here and there boys paired off quickly, each yanking at a foil end of a Christmas cracker tube and scrambling to claim the prize that fell to the snow with a bang before dodging back into the snow fight.

Somebody must have swiped a box of the treats from a nearby shop, Race figured, and he had a good idea who.

Across the cobblestones, Jack ducked out from around the Horace Greeley statue to pelt Snipeshooter in the gut. Race whistled hard and loud, and luckily only Jack's head went up. He tossed Race an inverted nod, dusted snow off the front of his coat and seat of his pants, and trotted over.

Race smothered the nervous feeling that made him want to bounce on the balls off his feet and fidget. "Hey, Cowboy," he greeted with his best droll as Jack stopped in front of him.

"What's up?"

They were well away from the shouts and snow brawl. They didn't need to be, Race realized. Maybe it was more suspicious to give Jack this gift away from the crowd than in the middle of it. He stamped down the inner debate and drew the rumpled package from behind him and shoved it out to Jack without a word.

Jack laughed, but for once didn't say anything. He paused to squint suspiciously at Race but Racetrack didn't flinch or smile or shrug. Jack accepted the parcel with both hands.

The paper fell away easily and Jack was left holding a black felt Stetson cowboy hat with a shiny leather band. Race did finally smile when Jack's jaw went slack, relief and pride spreading warm through his chest.

A snowball shot between them at eye level for Race but Racetrack ignored it, concentrating instead on Jack.

"Where'd you get --" Jack started.

Race didn't let him finish. "I know a guy. It's not new. Anyway, a cowboy needs a hat."

At that Jack's sloppy grin appeared and he affixed the hat on his head confidently, one hand on the back brim, the other cresting the crown. It fit. And looked good.

"A cowboy needs a hat," Jack agreed. "Know what else a cowboy needs?" There was something sly in his smile.

"What's that?" Race crossed his arms.

Jack reached down and picked up a stray piece of red Christmas cracker wrapper. He pinched and twisted one end then held up the foil feather. "An Indian."

Race produced a sarcastic snort, immediately bending to scoop snow into a ball. Jack turned to run, but Race's snowball pegged him between the shoulders.

Then Jack shouted, sides were chosen, more foil feathers appeared stuck in caps and coat pockets, and Christmas cracker pops became gunshot fire in the field of battle. In the end, by dusk, the cowboys beat the Indians. As Racetrack rolled his nightly smoke with Jack by his side, after the younger boys having trooped soggy and tired inside, he decided he didn't much mind.

He had no way of knowing that that afternoon was the closest Jack Kelly would get to being a real cowboy. He didn't know that in less than a year Jack would have his chance and pass it up, that Jack would leave Santa Fe before he ever left New York City. But he did know he had made one of Jack's stories -- his dream -- come true.