Stork pushed a finger into Tommy’s chest. “Looks like a nice business, Shakespeare. How about if we go partners?”
“I don’t need a partner,” Tommy said. “I’m doing fine just as I am.”
“Yeah?” Stork looked at the pair of shirts Tommy was holding. “Those are nice shirts. Maybe I’ll buy me one.”
“Knock it off, Stork,” Dutch said, but flinched away when the taller boy glared at him.
“I could use a shirt for when I go to the theater,” Stork said, and his friends laughed.
The types of theaters they went to didn’t require fancy clothing.
Stork reached out to touch one of the shirts, and Tommy pulled back. Then Stork grabbed at the shirts and there was a brief tug-of-war. One of Stork’s friends joined in, and Dutch reached in to help Tommy.
There was a ripping sound, and suddenly Dutch had both shirts, but one sleeve was torn. Stork and his friends laughed and walked off.
“Better watch yourself, Shakespeare,” Stork called over his shoulder. “We don’t need any scholars down here taking business away from honest boys!”
“Maybe your ma can mend it,” Dutch started to say, but as he began to give the shirts back to Tommy, he paused and sucked in his breath. “Oh, Shakespeare, I’m sorry ... ” he said.
Where he had grabbed hold of them, the shirts were stained with blacking. They were completely ruined.
Tommy put an arm around his shoulder. “It’s not your fault, Dutch,” he said. “You were trying to help a pal. Anyway, Stork would have torn them both up or stolen them from me if you hadn’t jumped in.”
He looked at the ruined shirts. “I guess my work day is over. Do you want these? They’re a little big for you, but they’re still good, as long as you don’t mind the blacking. You can use them for work.”
Dutch shook his head. “I’d feel lousy every time I put one on,” he said. “Give them to the guttersnipes.” He pointed with his chin at a half-dozen ragged little boys who were behind a bench watching them.
With that, the guttersnipes ran up to them. “Give me one! Give me a shirt!” they all began to shout.
“Careful,” Tommy said, as they jumped up and down. “You’ll tear them up worse! You! What’s your name?”
“Baby Jake,” the little urchin said.
“Where’s your home?” Tommy asked, but he knew the answer.
“Ain’t got one,” Baby Jake replied.
“Any of you got homes to go to?” Tommy asked.
The guttersnipes stuck their chins out defiantly. “We got lots of homes, anyplace we want!” one of them declared.
“How old are you?” Tommy asked.
Baby Jake shrugged. “Dunno.”
Tommy looked him up and down, then turned to Dutch. “What do you think, eight?”
“Seven,” Dutch guessed. “And Baby Jake’s been on the streets as long as I’ve been shining. Three years, Jake?”
Baby Jake shrugged again.
“You’d better take the one that isn’t torn,” Tommy said, and handed the shirt to the little boy. Baby Jake grabbed it and ran back, as if he were afraid Tommy might change his mind.
“Here, this tear isn’t so bad, and you’d have to roll the sleeve up anyway,” Tommy said, handing the other shirt to a dark-haired boy in the group. That boy also snatched at it and moved back quickly, taught by a lifetime of being bullied not to let a good thing get away.
The guttersnipes ran back behind their bench. Baby Jake and the other boy peeled off their filthy, torn shirts and gave them to boys whose own clothes were even worse. Then they began to put on their new shirts, which hung to their knees.
“I guess I’ll go home,” Tommy said. “Good luck with the rest of the day.”
“What are you going to do now?” Dutch asked him.
Tommy shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve got a buck and a half. I’ve got to figure out some way to turn that into a business.”
“There’s newspapers,” Dutch said. “Give your ma the buck and use the rest to buy yourself some newspapers to sell.” He smiled. “I’d say use it to buy a blacking kit, but I’ve seen how you sell. I don’t want you blacking boots next to me!”
“What do I have to do?” Tommy asked, and Dutch shook his head in amazement.
“For a guy with an education, you don’t know much,” he laughed. “You take your fifty cents down to Publisher’s Row tomorrow morning, buy yourself a pack of papers and then sell them!”
“Then you go back in the afternoon and buy a pack of evening papers and sell those,” Dutch said.
He looked at Tommy’s uncertain face and laughed again. “Baby Jake!” he yelled.
Baby Jake came out from behind the bench, rolling up the sleeves of his new shirt as he did.
“You working for anybody these days?” Dutch asked. Baby Jake shook his head.
“Well, tomorrow, you’re working for Shakespeare. He’s going to be a newsboy, and you’re going to show him how.”
Text copyright 2007, Mike Peterson - Illustrations copyright 2007, Christopher Baldwin