“All you need to be a winner is to find the pea!” the man said, as he lifted the domed shell in the middle and revealed the small ball underneath. The crowd pushed forward to look, and he covered it up again and began moving the three shells around the small board on the tripod. “Did you see where it went? Do you know where it is? Place a bet and win!”
Tommy and Jake were at the far edge of the crowd, trying to see past the adults who grouped around the man on the sidewalk. “This guy is going to win,” Jake predicted.
The young man at the front of the crowd put a silver dollar on the board and pointed to the shell on the left. Sure enough, when the man lifted the shell, there was the pea. “And you’ve done it!” he said, adding one of his own dollars to the one on the table and pushing them both towards the young man.
“Now, don’t you wish you’d bet five?”
The young man just took the money and walked away, and another man pushed up to play next. The shells began to move around the board, and Tommy leaned over to Jake. “What about this guy?”
“He’ll lose, but not much,” Jake said confidently. “He’s not the one they’re after. The guy who just won is a ‘shill.’ That means he works with them and they let him win to get other people to try. But this guy isn’t anybody. I can’t see who they’re after.”
“Watch the derby,” said a quiet voice with a German accent. Tommy turned to see a girl behind them, a bit younger than him but older than Jake, with two long, auburn braids tied with gingham cloth.
“See?” she said, “He’s working that big one, the railroad man. Railroaders got paid today.”
The boys turned back to scan the crowd. Sure enough, near the front of the crowd, a short man in a derby hat was talking to a large man in overalls with a bandana around his neck, pointing to the game and saying something.
“She’s right,” Jake said. “He’s the ‘outside man.’ He’ll make friends with that guy and then he’ll win a whole lot of money himself, and get the railroader to bet all his pay. And, of course, he’ll lose it all.”
“Unless he happens to guess right,” Tommy said, but Jake just laughed.
“There’s no guessing in this game,” he replied. “It won’t be under the shell, whichever one he picks.”
They watched another man try to win, and then another, and each time, the man with the derby and the railroad man inched closer to the board. As Jake predicted, the man with the derby began to bet and to win, and, each time, he’d turn to the railroad man and laugh and say something about how easy it was.
“Uh-oh,” the girl with the accent said. “They made a mistake. He’s not alone.”
The boys turned and she nodded toward a hotel across the street, where four or five men in overalls had been sitting on the porch. Now they were standing up and beginning to watch the game, and two of them stepped down from the porch and began to cross the street.
“Cheese it!” the girl said. “There’s going to be trouble!” She turned and began to walk quickly away, and Tommy and Jake followed.
“What’s going on?” Tommy asked.
“When they see he’s been cheated, they’ll start a fight,” Jake said. “But they think it’s just one guy, the thimblerigger. They don’t know there’s a whole gang spread out in the crowd.”
The three kids went down an alley beside a hardware store and then Jake caught up with the red-haired girl and tugged at the sleeve of her dress. “What kind of farm girl says ‘Cheese it?’” he asked her. “And how did you know to spot the outside man?”
“Same as you, I’ll bet,” she said. “I hear your New York accent. Did you boys come out on the train?”
“No, we came out with his family,” Jake said, nodding at Tommy. “With our family, I mean. You came on the train?”
“Two years ago,” she said. “My name’s Anna.”
“I’m Jake; this is Tommy,” Jake said.
“We came on the train, too,” Tommy said, but Jake shook his head.
“She means the Orphan Trains,” he explained. “When the Children’s Aid sends kids out West so they can get adopted.”
“They’re supposed to adopt you,” Anna said. “Sometimes, it doesn’t work out so well. Some of them just want a free servant. But my family is very nice.”
“His family adopted me before we came west,” Jake said. “So, where are you from?”
“East Side,” she said. “Cherry Street. Then over a little, Thirty-Eighth. Then the shelter, and then I was on the train. Where did you live?”
“Everywhere,” Jake said. “Mostly the Battery, Publisher’s Row, down by the Wall Street ferry. Then I partnered up with Tommy to sell papers and moved in with his family on Hester Street.” He nodded back towards the street. “So what were you watching that for? Thinking about setting up a shell game out here?”
Anna frowned and shook her head. “No, but I have to find a way to take some money from a very bad man.”
Text c. 2010, Mike Peterson - Illustrations c. 2010, Christopher Baldwin