by R.A. Burns
With a slingshot scepter and a crown of smoke, he rules with all the power of a king.
|Chapter 1- Origin of a King
Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, 1890
I shouldn’t have gone home that night. I knew what was waiting for me there, even at only eight years old. But I headed home, despite my best judgment.
Leaving the relative niceness of greater Manhattan, I found my way through our little Irish ghetto of Hell’s Kitchen, hopping over broken glass, overturned trashcans, and a few passed out drunk bums. Squeezing through a tight alley and ducking under some hanging laundry, I finally came to our little tin-roofed lean-to, which looked like it might fall apart if I so much as knocked.
It wasn’t nearly enough for our family. I was the oldest, having been born in Ireland. Then there were the four year old triplet girls, the three year old twin boys, and Ma’s little baby boy. With everyone else not working, Da and I made the money. And with the liking Da took to the spirits, this was the best we could afford.
Wary of who might be waiting for me inside, I eased the door open and shoved my cap into my back pocket, trying to get lost in the sea of screaming, whining toddlers. I snuck a bit of boiled cabbage from our nearly empty dinner pot, the food coming as a shock to my empty stomach. It was the first I had eaten all day.
A low, slurring voice called my name. “Patrick!”
I approached the voice of the only man who had every really, truly frightened me. Sitting on the floor by the corner, lit by a candle, was my Da. I hated looking at his handsome dark blond hair and crystal blue eyes, knowing that we looked the same. He snapped his fingers wordlessly at me and I handed him the money I hard earned from shining shoes that day.
He drank something from a paper bag as he slowly counted my miserable stack of pennies. I desperately hoped that he was too drunk to notice that it wasn’t nearly enough.
Da shoved the change into his pocket sourly, standing to his full height. “Ya idiot! It ain’t even a dollar!”
I started trembling. “I’se sorry, Da! Dere wasn’t no shoes ta shine!”
He unbuckled his belt, growling, “Shirt off.”
“Please…” I whispered, backed into the corner.
“OFF!” He screamed, making the toddlers cry.
I flinched, and my eyes connected with Ma’s, since she was sitting only a foot or so behind Da. She quickly looked down and concentrated on nursing the baby.
An odd wave of courage came over me and I stopped trembling and stood up straighter. This had been going on for three years, which was far too long. I looked Da straight in the eye. “No.”
“What?” He asked angrily, giving me a chance to change my answer.
“Ya heard me. No.” I repeated, chin out in defiance.
Screaming in fury, he threw a right hook into my jaw, knocking out one of my baby teeth. While I was crouched in pain, he lashed out with the belt, beating me while my shirt was still on. The lashes cut through the fabric and deep into my lower back. With this new cut, my old scars stung as well. Through it all, I didn’t make a sound.
When he was finished, my shirt was ruined and soaked through with blood. I knew that he had just added another scar to my collection. I stood, but he took a cheap shot at my groin.
I collapsed, but still didn’t let myself cry out in pain. Da spat on me and said. “You’se too big for a belt beatin, boy. I’se got ways ta break ya like a man.” His knuckledusters clattered to the floor by my face. I had seen them break bones before.
Once the pain was gone, I laid there, pretending to sleep. In reality I was thinking that I needed to get away. I was tired of all this. Never should I have to live in a place where I feared for my life. I was tired of feeding all those little mouths that were always asking for more. I was sick of Ma just watch Da beat and threaten me. I was downright finished with having Seamus Conlon as a father. I hated Hell’s Kitchen.
Laying there, pretending to sleep, I waited until the very last person was dead to the world. Illuminated by the candle that my sisters had to have burning, I reached up on the very highest shelf and pilfered one of the quarters that Da was saving to pay the rent. Their well-being no longer concerned me. I crept towards the door, stopping only when somebody stirred.
Across the tiny room, a lump on the floor rolled over. I approached it, stepping carefully over my sisters. I stared down at the great heap that had been my Da. Grinning from the small bit of revenge, I spat on him. “Ya ain’t me Da.”
When I hopped out onto the main road, I hit the ground running. My open cut hurt and bled, but I paid it no heed. With every step I felt happier, lighter.
The slap of my shoes on the uneven cobblestones was the sound of freedom.
When I got to the edge of Hell’s Kitchen, I stopped and turned around. The street was illuminated by the few street lamps that weren’t broken, which threw shadows over the shantytown. Laundry hung over the street. A dog barked. In the distance, I heard the tapping of a nightstick on the ground; cops warning each other of a gang fight. The O’Malley’s threw a bottle out their door and it shattered on the street.
Would I play it safe and head back now? If I was quiet, none would be the wiser of my little escapade. If I was caught as a runaway, I would be thrown into the Refuge for Juvenile Criminals. That place was described as the deepest pit of Hell.
Could it be any worse than Hell’s Kitchen?
Smiling again, I worked up a mouthful of blood and spit and let it fly. Then I turned and ran out of Hell’s Kitchen, never looking back again.
As far as I was now concerned, Patrick Conlon didn’t exist anymore.
The Brooklyn Bridge, New York City, 1890
A few weeks later, with a new shirt on my back and pennies from shoe shining in my pocket, I stared at the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Glancing behind me for cops, I wondered what could be over the Bridge. I had never been allowed in Brooklyn before.
No cops were watching me in particular. So what was keeping me back? Surely not that old drunkard in Hell’s Kitchen!
I took my first steps over the Bridge.
Brooklyn, New York City, 1890
I had to stop walking and smile at what was over the Bridge. Nothing was grand or pompous like the tall buildings in Manhattan. But it was a far cry from Hell’s Kitchen! There were brick government buildings, colorful row houses and apartments, and plain tenant buildings.
But the people were what sold me to Brooklyn. They were mostly Micks and Jews, and there was something in their eyes that was different from Manhattan people. They had a sort of defiant pride about them, and even the women looked tough as shoe leather. They were like me; they weren’t going to be pushed around.
I had been in Brooklyn for approximately one minute, but it was already more of a home to me than Hell’s Kitchen had ever been.
Honestly, I probably should have gotten to work with my shoe shining so that I could afford to share a tenant with about twenty other people. But instead, I spent some pennies on a hot ear of corn and went looking around the borough.
There was a collection of diners, delicatessens, and vaudeville houses that were centered on the distribution office of the New York Journal. I saw a few newsies exit the gates with huge stacks of the evening edition. One, a boy with messed up teeth, jerked his head at me and whispered something to a curly haired mulatto boy. Both were bigger and older than I. In fact, when I really paid attention to them, the newsies in this borough were all husky or looked slight and dangerous. It was probably best that I should stay out of their way.
My favorite place in Brooklyn was the harbor. The crates that were covered in fishnets created private little corners, and the docks were like a maze. And if you climbed up on the highest stack of crates, you could climb up and watch the hustle of the city go by. I watched Brooklyn go by for hours until I climbed down and curled up next to the crates, falling asleep contentedly.
I was awakened by a hard kick to my side. A boy grinned down cruelly at me, his snaggle tooth yellow. The boy who had whispered about me earlier. “Mornin, little girl.”
I jumped to my feet and brought up my fists, ready to defend myself. There were about three other newsies, and all were big. I was ready for them to all jump me at once. They laughed at my defensive posture. “Ooh, tough guy!” The leader said. Then he held up a hand and the others stopped laughing. “Leave Brooklyn, an dere won’t be no trouble.
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “I would, but I’se busy teachin ya sister how da Irish da things.” And I moved my hips in a vulgar manner.
Two of the kids cracked up but the boy I had just insulted and one other charged at me. I ducked their punches and put a few of my own into their stomachs. I was thankful that I had hit a bit of a growth spurt; I was small enough to evade them, but strong enough that my own jabs did a bit of damage. I got the boy who I had insulted off of me and took a cheap shot at his friend. Then I kicked backwards at the first boy and took off.
Their two friends blocked my exit. When I turned to go another route, the boy I had insulted grabbed me and put a shard of glass to my neck. I felt something warm and wet and one of the newsies pointed at my crotch. “Look! He’s pissed hisself!”
They all started laughing at me and I would have looked down to check, but the boy’s glass shard prevented me. As he laughed, I felt it nick me. He was preparing himself to slit my throat. I sent up a prayer to the Virgin, but both I and the boy were interrupted by a deep voice from above. “Don’t kill da kid yet.”
From the crates above up, a large boy jumped down. It was the husky mulatto boy from earlier, and he put out his cigar and tucked the stub behind his ear. He ginned slightly. “Ya got some fight in ya, Spot. Where’d ya learn dat?” He nodded at my crotch, referencing the wet spot on my trousers.
I shrugged as much as the boy’s hold and the shard would allow. “I was in Hell’s Kitchen last. Pretty rough neighborhood.”
“Ain’t as rough as Brooklyn. Dese guys are twice ya size. Ya gotta name?”
“Gotta first name?”
“Spot Conlon it is, den.” Spot Conlon. I rather liked it; it was a name to be remembered and feared. And if I rumbled with the people who were present here, they would be willing to keep quiet about where the nickname came from. The boy nodded at the guy who was holding me. “Let him go, Swifty.”
The boy threw me to the ground and the mulatto helped me up. “Ya ever hawked papes, Spot?”
I smiled up at him. “I can learn.”
He thumped me on the back. “I’se Seabutch Barsky, District Master Workboy o’ Brooklyn. Welcome ta me crew.” Then we both spat in our palms and shook hands.
Chapter 2- A Prince
Brooklyn, New York City, 1890- 1893
So I joined the Brooklyn newsies as the youngest of their group. Seabutch took me under his wing; he taught me to fight, sell, and how to intimidate someone. He said that my bright blue eyes were already frightening and that all I needed to do was have a perfect glare. I practiced mine so much that eventually anger became my default expression.
I backed up that demeanor with action. When I turned nine, I hit this insane growth spurt and was 5’ 7”. So I began fighting. There was always somebody to rumble with, as the older boys who lived at the Newsboy’s Lodging House were still sore about me being Seabutch’s new favorite. And some weeks, there would be bare-knuckle boxing competitions. After losing only a few of those fights, I learned how to fight with rules and without. Cleverness and speed was my strategy. My jabs were quick and hit people in the right spots. I lost a few times, then never again.
Seabutch became like an older brother to me. I shared my first smoke with him and he laughed good naturedly at my hacking coughs. He shared his beat with me and told me how to twist the headlines around to my advantage. He also seemed to accept the fact that I didn’t seem to have a past or a family to speak of and he didn’t pry. When other newsies from different boroughs came to our poker games or boxing matches, he would introduce me to them.
“Dis is me second, Spot Conlon. Toughest kid in New Yawk, an he’s only ten.” I would nod at them, forgetting about my glare. When I met people, they often left with a frightened, bewildered expression. I liked having people be afraid of me; I was on top now. No longer was I a trembling coward. They were.
Seabutch and I often hung around the docks when we could. We would sit on the crates, have a smoke, and watch the city roll by. One cool April evening, a few days before I turned eleven, he said, “Dis’ll all belong ta ya someday, Spot.”
“What?” I asked, pushing my sandy blond hair out of my face. I kept it just long enough to frustrate people, and I was still getting used to it.
He leaned back, stretching his hands behind his head. “I can’t sell papes forever. In a few years, I’se gonna leave, find meself a pretty girl, settle down, get a factory job. Somebody’s gotta keep dese bums in line for me. You’se da best guy for da job.”
I put a home rolled cigarette to my lips and inhaled, slowly letting the smoke out. “Ya want me ta take over da crew, Seabutch?”
He laughed. “Not yet. Brooklyn ain’t ready ta have ya as Master Workboy yet, Spot. When ya do take over, it’ll be da beginnin o’ an era. No borough will dare cross Brooklyn.”
Turning back to the city, I grinned at the thought.
Brooklyn, New York City, 1893
A few weeks later, I got to my beat to see a puny kid already there, selling. He didn’t look like a newsie. He wore a school uniform, complete with a stupid looking necktie and sailor type hat. So some rich hooky player though he could steal my spot, huh? Bad idea on his part.
Walking up to him, I shoved him into the wall. “Dis is me territory. Beat it.” I couldn’t afford to lose this spot. Who did he think he was? If some rich kid though he was tough just because some regular newsies didn’t scare him, I’d show him what a real newsie was like. He wasn’t in Manhattan anymore.
He looked sorry for a moment and I thought he was going to leave. But he punched me in the gut and ducked under my arm.
I was seething with so much anger that what happened next was all a blur. I remember dragging him into an alley by his hair and how he tackled me to the ground. We rumbled for a while and I’ll admit that he wasn’t a half-bad fighter. Smart and that made him very dangerous.
All of what happened next were burned into my memory like photographs, but in color and much sharper.
The sharp sound of glass shattering. My tunnel vision as I eyed a long shard of thick, green glass. It was the exact same shape as a knife.
My blood pounded in my ears and all I could feel was my momentary hatred towards this runt of a boy. I grabbed the glass, but the memory of what I did with it was lost. Those few seconds between memories are black to me.
The agonized scream of pain and the boys footsteps as he stumbled away echoed in my mind. I was keeling and I stared at my hands in horror.
My hands were covered in bright crimson; the boy’s blood. My shard of glass clattered to the ground, dark and covered with the sticky liquid. I was kneeling in a pool of blood and I made a choking sound, horrified.
There was a small round shape in the pool. I nudged it over and through the blood saw a dead brown iris and a pupil. An eye. I’d gouged out his eye.
My own screams rang in my ear as I ran away from what I had done.
Duane Street, Manhattan, New York City, 1893
After three months of searching, I finally found the boy. He was living in the Manhattan Newsboy’s Lodging House on Duane Street, under the name Kid Blink Ballatt.
When I strutted into their Lodging House, I immediately heard their whispers. “Dat’s da boy dat took Kid Blink’s eye.”
A little kid tried to walk up to me, but one of the older ones tugged him back. “Stay away, or Spot Conlon will blind ya as well!” The child screeched in horror and hid his face from me. A few years ago, I would have tried to console him. Now, I grinned smugly at his fear.
I exchanged a spit-laden handshake with Manhattan’s Master Workboy, and eighteen year old who would soon be kicked out of the Lodging House and made to get a factory job. He jerked his thumb up at the bunk rooms. “Me second’s up dere.”
“I don’t wanna see ya second. I wanna see Kid Blink Ballatt.” I allowed my glare to harden for a second. The French surname sounded odd on my tongue.
He nodded. “Same guy. He’s been waiting for ya, Spot.”
Walking up the stairs, I wondered if I should do this. An apology on my part would kill my reputation. Did I really want his forgiveness? Would he even give it to me? We didn’t need to be friends. When we both became Master Workboys of our districts, I would crush him. Forgiveness wasn’t imperative to my survival.
As I stopped in front of the door, I recalled the sermon that Father McFarlane had delivered the previous Sunday. About how all our sins were forgiven with baptism and that Jesus always, always forgave. And we, as Sons of God, were called to do the same. To forgive and to seek forgiveness from our fellow men.
I had been forgiven at birth, sprinkled with Holy Water in Killarney, Ireland; we had left for New York the next day. I considered my sins; lying, stealing, and fighting among many others. What I had done to Kid Blink was the very worst of them all and I was forgiven before I had even done it. I was surprised to realize that I wanted to hear the same forgiveness from Kid Blink, even though I didn’t deserve it.
Staring at the door, I crossed myself, feeling oddly nervous. I thought out loud, “Look, I know dat I ruined ya life and took ya eye and all, but I was wonderin in ya still got hard feelins.” I snorted. “Yeah, dat’ll work.”
I turned to leave, but a voice stopped me. “Ya never know unless ya try it out.”
Opening the door, I saw the boy’s back as he walked out the window onto the fire escape. I followed him and he turned away to light a cigarette, the smoldering end glowing orange in the dusk. Then he finally turned to me.
Kid Blink wore a brown eye patch, puffy angry pink scars poking out of the sides. He didn’t look mad at me. Neither was he wielding a shard of glass to take his revenge. Kid Blink’s good right eye stared at me coldly. I wasn’t out of trouble yet.
“Ya ain’t goin ta school no more.” I observed. It was best to start with trivial things.
He nodded. “When I came home like dis,” he gestured at his eye patch dismissively, “me Ma kicked me out. Some nuns stitched me back up, but I still ain’t allowed back.”
“You’se better witout her anyway.” I shrugged. “She ain’t a real Ma if she kicked ya when ya was down. You’se da Master Workboy’s second, right?”
“Yeah…” Kid Blink squinted his one eye.
I lighted my own cigarette. Smoking always calmed me down, especially when I smoked this new tobacco, which smelled like vanilla when it burned. “In a few years, you and I’se gonna take over. You will take Manhattan, and I’se gonna rule Brooklyn. Ya don’t need a family if ya own a city.”
He scowled at me. “Have ya ever had a family? One dat cares for ya?”
I blew my smoke in his face. “Nah. And ya didn’t either, if ya Ma abandoned ya.” I leaned on the bars of the fire escape, glancing back at the newly made cripple. “Da only thing a guy can depend on is hisself an his borough.”
He snorted, leaning on the bar next to me. “Big talk from a street rat.”
I put out my cigarette and tucked it behind my ear. “Ya ain’t any better den me. You’se one o’ us street rats now.”
“Connard!” he cursed at me in French.
I grinned. “Da one an only!”
Blink stamped out his cigarette and shook his head at me, a strange smile tugging at the corners of his lips. He laughed a bit. “You’se something else, Spot Conlon. Thank ya.”
I snorted. “Whaddaya got ta thank me for? I ruined ya life.”
“Yeah, but you’se da reason dat me life’s so good now.” I raised an eyebrow. “I never woulda made it as a newsie before. But wit me eye patch, I get money. It’s da whole reason I’se gonna be Master Workboy someday. You’se da reason, so thank ya.”
I eyed Blink carefully. “Ya ain’t kiddin?”
He shook his head. “No.”
We exchanged a spit shake and I smiled a bit at him. “I like ya, Kid Blink. Come over ta Brooklyn Saturday for some poker. An bring ya buddies.”
From that day on, we were friends. He introduced me to some of his own friends from Manhattan; Mush Myers, a spick who turned to a pile of the soft stuff whenever a slightly pretty girl walked past. And there was also Crutch, a skinny Jewish kid who was named so for the crutch he had to use to help him walk. We made it out custom to play poker every Saturday night in Brooklyn.
Chapter 3- The Crowning
Brooklyn, New York City, 1896
Seabutch threw a party in Brooklyn in honor of my fourteenth birthday. There was poker, a bare-knuckle boxing contest- of which I won- and people gave me small gifts of cigars, lemon drops, and licorice whips. It had been a very good day for me. I had become the top seller in Brooklyn, getting up to three dollars each day. That may have been because some of the girls whose fathers were skilled laborers would give me a nickel and let me keep the change. I don’t know why they did, but they did. And whenever I moved to sell on another street corner, there always seemed to be a busker girl there, playing a fiddle that I could dance to.
In the middle of a poker game, Seabutch folded and left the room, putting his cap on. Before I could wonder where he was going, I was approached by Blink and a clean looking Italian boy with a large nose. I nodded at them, trying to be respectful, since Blink was already Master Workboy. “Spot, dis hea’s Racetrack Higgins. Just made it ta Manhattan a few weeks ago.”
I spat in my hand and shook the new kid’s. “Little Italy?”
“Yep. Me nonno finally kicked da bucket. I’se tryin ta save up ta get our restaurant back.”
I snickered. “Good luck wit dat. Do da two o’ ya want me ta deal ya in?” I motioned at the game I had already started with Mush and Crutch.
They nodded and took their seats. As I re-dealt the cards, I made small talk. “So why do dey call ya Racetrack?”
Crutch smiled that huge grin of his. “Da bloke always goes over to da Sheepshead Tracks when he’s done sellin. He gets back about a
minute before curfew.”
I nodded. “You’se a gambler, Race?”
“Me nonno and me padre were also. Ya don’t think I’d end up as a gamblin man?” He pulled a half-finished cigar from his pocket and chewed on the end.
I eyed my hand- the Dead Man’s Hand- but Race made a huge mistake. “So, Spot, you’se gotta odd name. What’s it from?”
“Yes.” I said evasively, deciding that it was too good a day to get violent on him. My sharp glare seemed to do the trick anyway. Surely, he had heard the stories about me, and he had seen me win the contest. He was Italian; so he probably didn’t want to fight me. He would hate to get those pressed clothes and that oil slick hair messed up.
He surprised me by winning that round and many others. Race wasn’t just a horse gambler; he was an all-around card shark. Once the game was finished and he came away with two-bits and three pieces of my candy, I shook his hand. “Never thought I’d say it, but you’se alright for an Italian.”
By the half-grin he gave me, I knew that some snarky comment was coming. But as he opened his mouth to say it, there was a loud crash and a police whistle outside. I ran outside, the others following right on my heels. Two policemen had tackled Seabutch to the ground, handcuffing him. A third cop was keeping the few people that were still on the streets away from the scene. I ran up. “What da hell are ya doin! He didn’t do nothin!”
The cop snorted pompously. “If by nothin, ya mean killin da owner o’ a gunnery, yeah he didn’t do nothin. Who is dis boy?”
“District Master Workboy o’ Brooklyn, Seabutch Barsky. He’s an upstandin newsie! Seabutch, Seabutch is it true?”
He was hoisted up to his feet, and I saw blood splattered on his clothes. He grinned. “I was goin ta get ya a revolver for ya birthday, but da old man got in da way, Spot.” He turned to the cop on his right. “Hey, would ya take da slingshot out o’ me pocket?” The cop shook his head and Seabutch rolled his eyes. “I didn’t steal it, I made it. Oh, an take off me suspenders, too. Spot’s big enough for ‘em now.”
The cop tossed me a roughly made slingshot and Seabutch’s suspenders. They were dusty pink, like the roses in Central Park. I glanced up to Seabutch with wide eyes as he was led away, pants almost falling down. He called over his shoulder, “You’se Master Workboy now, Spot! Don’t make da same mistake I just did! Ya gotta lead ‘em well!”
I was so angry, but at what, I didn’t know. He hadn’t done nothing; murder wasn’t nothing! But I wasn’t ready for this. So I turned and decked the closest person to me, which was quite unfortunate for Mush. Once he collapsed, I ran away to the harbor, finding the most remote corner. If I never found my way back, it was alright with me. I punched a crate, cracking the wood, and cried.
For the last few years, I had seen Seabutch as a kind of replacement for my Da. He never hit me, and he only encouraged me. But he had just killed a man…for me. I knew the owner of the local gunnery; Mister Botbol was a kindly old Jewish man who never harmed a fly. He went to synagogue on Sabbath and his granddaughter was one of the girls who would let me keep the change. I didn’t know how Seabutch had done it; a knife or one of the guns on display. But the thought of Botbol’s broken body in a pool of blood made me puke into the harbor. I didn’t puke just from the picture, but also from the thought that it was by Seabutch’s hand.
Once I washed my mouth out with seawater, I leaned back on the crates and looked at Seabutch’s gifts. The slingshot was made of a lightweight wood with a leather sling. My name was scratched into the handle. This had taken him time; maybe even weeks. I saw the caring that had gone into it. How could the same boy that had killed Mister Botbol make this slingshot? How could the same hands that had wielded a knife or a gun have so carefully carved the handle? The same hands that had been handcuffed were the same hands that had scratched my name so deeply into the wood? How?
Picking up a few loose bolts that were on the dock, I fit one into the sling and pulled, aiming with one eye open at a beer bottle that somebody had left on the crate about 100 feet from me. It missed by a mile. I aimed a few more times, adjusting little things but still missing my mark, even though I missed it by less and less each time. With my last bolt, I carefully aimed, taking my time. With a stroke of inspiration, I opened my left eye and saw that the target was an inch to the right of what I had thought. I adjusted my aiming accordingly and let the bolt fly, grinning with satisfaction when the bottle shattered.
Tucking the slingshot into my trousers, I climbed up the stack of crates so that I could be closer to the sky. The night was clear and the stars twinkled like mocking diamonds in the sky. How could the night be so beautiful, when my world was falling apart? It seemed like it should be doomsday! I wanted the sky to rain fire, not sparkle like a vaudeville girl’s dress! I wanted the damn storms to blow away New York, not a light, gentle breeze! It was all unfair!
A small voice at the base of my skull rang out. Life’s unfair. Pull up your skirt and deal with it. I had to remove my feelings from the situation. I was upset and sad that Seabutch was gone, and felt incredibly betrayed by him. Sure, that was understandable. But now I had all the newsies in Brooklyn looking to me. I already had a reputation of being stone-cold, stoic. So that’s how I would do this; I would separate myself from my feelings. People thought that I didn’t have feelings; now, I wouldn’t let myself have them.
Taking a deep breath of the cool air, I held my breath for a few seconds, letting the anger, hurt, and sadness build up. Then I let it all out and felt much calmer.
Carefully, I removed my old, torn suspenders and threw them into the harbor. Then I took the pink suspenders- Seabutch’s suspenders- and clipped them onto my trousers. Then I turned away from the harbor to face Brooklyn. You ready, Brooklyn? I sure am.
Chapter 5- A King
Brooklyn, New York City, 1896-1898
Things had changed since I had become Master Workboy. It was as Seabutch had predicted; nobody messed with Brooklyn anymore. I no longer had to fight people that upset me or talked bad about Brooklyn. My crew was made of the toughest, meanest boys in New York. I never let anyone join my crew without proving that they could keep up with the rest of us. Sure, there were other newsies in Brooklyn, but they weren’t part of my crew and I didn’t look out for them. If they got in trouble, it was their own fault for not leaving Brooklyn.
I made history by having a Negro as my second. Fish was the youngest son of former slaves who told him to go to New York instead of staying and working on the plantation. He was loud, obnoxious, and constantly teased people. But he was also loyal to me and would die for Brooklyn; he was strong and built like a barrel, which was good for intimidating people. He came to Brooklyn as a hayseed named Tom Walker, and I dubbed him Fish because he always tried to catch something out of the harbor.
Respect for Brooklyn spiked up almost overnight. Now, the newsies in boroughs that had before acted indifferent towards us were commanded to either pay respects, or to be an enemy of Brooklyn. Most immediately brought me peace offerings of slingshot shooters, cigarettes of my favorite tobacco, or shoe strings and candy. But some decided to disrespect me and act like they were bigger. That wasn’t good when the toughest newsie led the toughest group in the toughest borough. It created rivalries between the boys in my crew and the disrespectful people. Even I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of the hatred my crew had towards people who were disrespectful of Spot Conlon.
While I owned Brooklyn, Blink and I owned New York City.
Brooklyn, New York City, 1898
In the summer of 1898, Brooklyn decided to have a party for absolutely no reason. Sometimes I did that; send out a general invite to all newsies who would be respectful of me and my boys. It’d be a night of gambling, dancing, and a bare-knuckle boxing contest. I wouldn’t be fighting in it unless somebody directly challenged me, though. And it was pretty unlikely that I’d be challenged- too many people knew my reputation of never losing a fight.
By the time people from other boroughs had shown up, I had set myself up in the corner of the dark room, in the shadows. As much as I liked being feared, I also enjoyed having a veil of mystery around me. Was Spot Conlon angry today? Was he happy with the peace offerings? I was in shadows and nobody could read the permanent scowl on my face. All they could see of me was my shoes that were propped up on the table in front of me. I had become nothing but an unknown, dangerous entity to all but the Brooklyn boys and the crew in Manhattan. And that was the way I liked it.
When the Manhattan boys showed up, they had someone new with them. The boy was tiny and…almost dainty looking. He was small to the extreme, and very short. He didn't take off his cap as he came inside, instead sitting at a table with a few of my boys and started betting on a fight. I called Blink over.
He sat on the table by my feet. “How’s it rollin, Spot? Things goin good in Brooklyn?” We did the customary spit-shake.
I shrugged. “Pretty much so. Dem Roughriders sure do bring in people.”
He nodded and laughed a bit, and I changed the subject to the new boy. “Whose da new guy ya brought wit ya?”
He glanced over at the table to boy was sitting at. One of my boys, a one-armed kid named Army, was glaring at the new kid. “Uh, dat’s Flick. He hawks in Staten Island.”
I nodded, watching Army grab Flick’s shirt collar and threaten him. “Ah, dat’s why I’se never seen him. Also explains why he’s gettin in trouble wit me crew.”
Blink glanced over at the mini fight that was breaking out between Flick and Army, and his one eye widened. “Damn, I better go break dat up. Flick ain’t used ta Brooklyn boys.”
I grinned and laughed. “Aw, let it happen. It’ll put hair on his chest.”
As Blink walked away and the fight started- Race against Fish- I lit a cigarette and started to enjoy the evening, watching everyone else have fun. When I glanced over at the table when the new kid was sitting, Army was gone, and Luka, one of my Russian boys, was talking with Flick. Flick had his cap pulled down over his face, and I couldn’t see anything. Suddenly, Army approached me.
I grinned at him. “I saw ya getting in a fight wit da kid from Staten. What’s it bout?”
Army was not in high spirits. “I was pokin fun at him, real harmless, cause he wasn’t bettin like a man. He called me a pansy, one thing led ta another, an now he wants ta fight ya.”
I raised an eyebrow and looked over at the tiny boy. Luka was gesturing at us, Flick staring at my little corner. “Da guy challenged me? Is he stupid?”
Army shook his head. “Nah, he’s cocky. Bout what, I dunno. But he said ta me, dat he could soak ya. Even put a quarter on it.”
My eyes narrowed and I felt something boiling in the pit of my stomach. “Da fight’s on.”
Who did this runt of a boy think he was? To be challenging me, telling people that he’d win? Nobody was better than me! Nobody!
I’d crush him. He was so small, that I’d break him in half. The rage I felt was equivalent to what I had felt that day in the alley with Blink. If the boy got out of our fight alive, I’d find him in Staten and finish the job. Nobody was going to get away with challenging my power!
During the regular fights, Army went around collecting bets on our fight, and I just let myself boil and steam in my corner. I hated every inch of the small boy, from the brim of his cap to the tips of his shoes. And I couldn’t wait to fight him.
Finally, the regular fights were over and Army went to the center of the ring and announced our fight. I walked backwards into the ring, so that I wasn’t looking at Flick. I heard him right behind me explain why he wasn’t going to take off his shirt or his cap, something about his religion, and his voice sounded like it hadn’t even changed yet. Blink started yelling at Flick, but soon, Flick and I were back to back.
Army grinned. “Ya better shake hands first.”
I spun around and glared at the face of the insolent boy. He was a head shorter than me and I still couldn’t see his face very well, although I saw him swallow and his lip trembled. We spit shook and the boy whispered in a trembling voice. “Good luck.” His hand was incredibly frail, like I could break his fingers by squeezing too hard.
I nodded. “Ya gonna need it.”
We both backed up two paces and Flick secured his cap and rolled up his sleeves while I removed my shirts, going bare chested. The boy seemed unsure as he got into a fighting stance, bringing up shaking fists. I had to keep from laughing out loud at it. So instead, I glared at the boy and had one thought. I will kill you.
The signal for the fight to begin rang out and Flick surprised me by attacking first. He tried a right hook that was easy for me to dodge and counter with my own. Flick was technically good with bare-knuckle boxing, but there was no power to his punches and he hesitated too much. Soon, there was nothing he would do as I rained punches down on his face, chest, arms, and under his ribs. Under my barrage, he somehow got through my defense and punched me in the eyebrow, hard enough to lightly bruise me. In revenge, I kneed him in the gut and he fell.
That was not the end of it. My thirst for blood had not been quenched. I kicked him in the chest, the back, and his head while he was down, ignoring his cries of anguish. He started to bleed from the head, but I only kicked more. People were starting to stand, and Blink yelled, “Spot, dat’s enough! Ya beat him. Now let him up!”
I brought my foot back and kicked Flick in the chest as hard as I could. “I gotta teach dis kid a lesson! Nobody’s better den Spot Conlon!”
I only got in a few more kicks before Fish and two others dragged me away, and I screamed and kicked the entire way. Fish slapped me across the face. “Get yaself together, Spot! Ya might of killed Flick!”
Brought back to reality and humanity, I joined the crowd that was watching Race attend to the boy. Flick was lying nearly motionless on the ground, battered and bleeding. Blink protested as Race unbuttoned the boy’s shirt, but Race ignored it. But when he unbuttoned Flick’s shirt, something wasn’t right. Flick was wearing a woman’s camisole, and had a strip of fabric wrapped around his ribs.
No, it couldn’t be.
Race gasped and ripped the cap off the boy. Long, curly red hair spilt out onto the floor and I saw Flick’s face for the first time. It was a girl, her features already marred by what I had done. Race yelled, “Dammit Spot! Ya soaked a girl!”
No! I ran to Race’s side as he shook the girl by the shoulders. “Are ya alright, Kathleen?” But the girl was blacked out, limp.
Chapter 4- The Girl
Brooklyn, New York City, 1898
The girl was Kathleen McCabe, a fifteen year old immigrant from just outside Dublin. She worked as a maid and a gardener for Bill Hawkins, the most influential lawyer in the city. Blink allowed her to dress as Flick from Staten Island because she needed cheering up after Mush broke her heart. After calling Blink a bastard in English, French, Italian, and Gaelic, I ended the party to care for her.
She was still out cold, and we all agreed that it’d be a bad idea to move her back to Manhattan. So I carried her up to the bunk room and put her in a bottom bunk, while I took the top. I didn’t sleep that night and stayed by her bedside, waiting for her to wake up.
Kathleen’s face was swollen, mottled with bruises. From what I could tell, her nose was sprinkled with freckles, and she had the tell-tale small features of an Irish lass. She had beautiful curly red hair, which was almost the color of a penny. She must have been a looker, to have gained Mush’s attentions. I couldn’t tell if she was because of the bruises, though.
When the Superintendent came in to wake us up before the sun, he found me already dressed, trying to dribble water into her unresponsive mouth. Begrudgingly, I went to work, leaving the Superintendent with instruction to check up on her every half hour and try to get her to drink every hour. I wanted to know the minute anything changed.
The whispers about me had changed. Normally, they were fearful from the adults and admiring from both boys and girls alike. But now, they were talking about a Spot Conlon who ruthlessly beat up women. This wasn’t the notoriety that I wanted!
But more troubling than my reputation was the fact that Kathleen still hadn’t woken by the time night rolled around. The swelling had gone down, so I could finally see what she looked like.
Her face was like the rest of her, small and pointy. She had thin lips, a small, sharp nose, and high cheekbones. She wasn’t conventionally pretty, which was a relief to me. The pretty ones were often the stupid, shallow ones, at least here in Brooklyn. Even with her eyes closed and her mouth somewhat open, she looked sensible. Gingerly, I moved a lock of her hair away from her face, touching the curls as if they were gold.
Fish’s voice came from behind me. “Dis is da longest you’se ever looked at a pretty girl, Spot.”
“Whaddaya mean? Dere’s plenty o’ girls in Brooklyn.”
He snorted. “Yeah, an ya don’t ever give ‘em da time o’ day. Ya know dat dey’s tryin ta win ya affections when dey let ya keep da change, right?”
I hadn’t been really paying attention and snapped out of my reverie, looking away from her. “Huh? Well, it ain’t workin for ‘em, Fish. Maybe money ain’t what I want.”
He smiled knowingly. “Ya want da tiny redhead right dere.”
I rolled my eyes and stood, rubbing at my tired eyes. “Fish, don’t talk dat way. Besides, da last time she saw me, I was beatin her up. I didn’t even beat her fairly! I kicked her when she was down.” I collapsed back into the chair and groaned, looking at her motionless form. “She’s never gonna wake up an it’s all me fault.”
Fish narrowed his eyes, pulling a crate over to sit on as he looked at her. He surprised me when he said, “Yes, she will.” I looked at him sharply and he pointed at her. “See how her eyes is racin beneath da lids? An her breathin is irregular.” She was starting to look restless.
“What does it mean?”
Fish smiled. “She’s just sleepin now. She ain’t unconscious, maybe she can even hear us talkin now.”
I reached towards her arm but Fish held me back. “Let her sleep. She’ll prolly be up tomorrow.”
I sighed and pulled the chair away from the bed, taking my cap off of the nail it was hanging on. “When she wakes, she’s gonna want ta put on normal clothes for a girl. I’ll be back.”
A few streets over, there was a small Jewish slum, where the people hung their laundry over the street. I hesitated about half a second before I went looking around for some clothes that would fit Kathleen. She was so small that it took me a while to find a shirtwaist, skirt, and sash. Then I went to the local Convent, claiming to the nuns that my little sister needed shoes. They gave me a pair of sturdy women’s boots and stockings. The piece de résistance was the kerchief that I pickpocketed for her hair.
When I got back to the Lodging House, I laid the clothes neatly by her feet, pleased that she had seemed to roll over while I was away. I slept a bit that night, relieved that I had at least not killed her.
The next morning, she still hadn’t woken up and I went to work, distracted so much that I didn’t even really know what the headline was. I just spouted off the words on the front page.
When I got back to the Lodging House as the sun was starting to fall, Fish yelled to me, “Spot, da broad’s awake!”
I thumped him upside the head and whispered harshly, “Are ya off ya trolley, Fish? Shuddup. Go outside an take da others wit ya. I wanna talk ta her alone.”
She was still lying down, and she flinched when they slammed the door behind them. I sat on the edge of her bunk and asked, “Ya feel like sittin up?” When she nodded, I propped some pillows against the wall and put my hand behind her back to help her sit up. She winced in obvious pain and looked around the bunk room before looking up at me. Kathleen’s eyes widened in fear and she flinched away from me, not bothering to mask the stark fear in her stormy gray eyes.
Why would I think that she would forgive me right away? She probably hated and feared me; and while I was content with having most people fear me, I didn’t want her to, for some reason. There was no way she would ever do that without an apology. “Listen, uh, I’se real sorry dat I beat ya up. I wouldn’t have even gotten in da ring wit ya if I’d known dat ya was a girl. I didn’t even beat ya fairly!” I fumbled over my words, as I hadn’t apologized to anyone since I’d apologized to Kid Blink.
Kathleen shrugged and winced again. She spoke with the soft lilt of a country person who lived near Dublin, Ireland. My own voice was rough and uneducated compared with hers. “I should have known better than to challenge you to a fight. I’ve never fought somebody before.”
I crinkled my brow at her. “Why’d ya do it, den?” She had gone into the fight knowing that she was about to lose. Why would she ever risk something like that? Army’s story about how the challenge was initiated was starting to crumble.
She sighed heavily. “I was trying to prove something to this boy who called me a pansy for not betting much. I said that I could beat him up and he said that I didn’t even have the guts to challenge you.”
She’d been manipulated into it! “Who was it?” I asked quietly, trying not to scare her more with my anger. Of course, I had a pretty good idea already, but I wanted to hear it from her.
She narrowed her eyes, searching for a memory. “All I remember is that it was a boy with only one arm. It was one of your Brooklyn boys.”
I nodded and patted her arm gently before I stood. “I’m gonna leave ya ta get dressed. I borrowed some clothes from me friend’s sister, but I dunno if dey’ll fit. I’ll be outside if ya wanna talk ta me more.”
Once I was outside, I grabbed Army by the collar and pulled him to the harbor.
I will add more chapters to Spot's story as I write them