from the Prologue
New York City, 1860
They found her in the trash. Luck was on the boys' side; the rats hadn't gotten to her yet. Two of the vermin had already climbed onto the top of the covered picnic basket and were frantically clawing at the wicker, while three others were tearing at the sides with their razor-sharp teeth. The rats were in a frenzy, for they smelled milk and tender, sweet-scented flesh.
The alley was the gang's home. Three of the four boys were sound asleep in their make-do beds of converted wooden crates lined with old straw. They'd put in a full night's work of thieving and conning and fighting. They were simply too exhausted to hear the cries of the infant.
Douglas was to be her savior. The fourth member of the gang was taking his turn doing sentry duty at the narrow mouth of the alley. He'd been watching a dark-cloaked woman for quite some time now. When she came hurrying toward the opening with the basket in her arms, he warned the other gang members of possible trouble with a soft, low-pitched whistle, then retreated into his hiding place behind a stack of old warped whiskey barrels. The woman paused in the archway, gave a furtive glance back over her shoulder toward the street, then ran into the very center of the alley. She stopped so suddenly her skirts flew out around her ankles. Grabbing the basket by the handle, she swung her arm back as far as it would go to gain momentum and threw the basket into a pyramid of garbage piled high against the opposite wall. It landed on its side, near the top. The woman was muttering under her breath all the while. Douglas couldn't make out any of the words because the sound she made was muffled by another noise coming from inside the basket. It sounded like the mewing of a cat to him. He spared the basket only a glance, his attention firmly on the intruder.
The woman was obviously afraid. He noticed her hands shook when she pulled the hood of her cloak further down on her forehead. He thought she might be feeling guilty because she was getting rid of a family pet. The animal was probably old and ailing, and no one wanted it around any longer. People were like that, Douglas figured. They never wanted to be bothered by the old or the young. Too much trouble, he guessed. He found himself shaking his head and almost scoffed out loud over the sorry state of affairs in general, and this woman's cowardice in particular. If she didn't want the pet, why didn't she just give it away? He wasn't given time to mull over a possible answer, for the woman suddenly turned around and went running back to the street. She never looked back. When she was almost to the corner, Douglas gave another whistle. This one was loud, shrill. The oldest of the gang members, a runaway slave named Adam, leapt to his feet with the agility and speed of a predator. Douglas pointed to the basket, then took off in pursuit of the woman. He'd noticed the thick envelope sticking out of her coat pocket and thought it was time he took care of a little business. He was, after all, the best eleven-year-old pickpocket on Market Street.
Adam watched Douglas leave, then turned to get the basket. It wasn't an easy task.
The rats didn't want to give up their bounty. Adam hit one squarely on the head with a jagged-edged stone. The vile creature let out a squeal before scurrying back to the street. Adam lit his torch next and waved it back and forth above the basket to frighten the other vermin away. When he was certain they were all gone, he lifted the basket out of the garbage and carried it back to the bed of crates where the other gang members still slept.
He almost dropped the thing when he heard the faint sounds coming from inside.
"Travis, Cole, wake up. Douglas found something."
Adam continued on past the beds and went to the dead end of the alley. He sat down, folded his long, skinny legs in front of him, and put the basket on the ground. He leaned back against the brick wall and waited for the other two boys to join him.
Cole sat down on Adam's right side, and Travis, yawning loudly, hunkered down on his other side.
"What'd you find, boss?" Travis asked, his voice thick with sleep.
He'd asked Adam the question. The other three gang members had elevated the runaway slave to the position of leader one month ago. They'd used both reason and emotion to come to their decision. Adam was the oldest of the boys, almost fourteen now, and logic suggested he, therefore, lead the others. Also, he was the most intelligent of the four. While those were two sound reasons, there was yet another more compelling one. Adam had risked his own life to save each one of them from certain death. In the back alleys of New York City, where survival of the fittest was the only commandment anyone ever paid any attention to, there simply wasn't room for prejudice. Hunger and violence were masters of the night, and they were both color-blind.
"Boss?" Travis whispered, prodding him to answer.
"I don't know what it is," Adam answered.
He was about to add that he hadn't looked inside yet, but Cole interrupted him. "It's a basket, that's what it is," he muttered. "The latch holding the top closed looks like it could be real gold. Think it is?"
Adam shrugged. Travis, the youngest of the boys, imitated the action. He accepted the torch Adam handed him and held it high enough for all of them to see.
"Shouldn't we wait for Douglas before we open the thing?" Travis asked. He glanced over his shoulder toward the entrance of the alley. "Where'd he go?"
Adam reached for the latch. "He'll be along."
"Wait, boss," Cole cautioned. "There's a noise coming from inside." He reached for his knife. "You hear it, Travis?"
"I hear it," Travis answered. "Could be something inside's gonna bite us. Think it could be a snake?"
"Of course it couldn't be a snake," Cole answered, his exasperation evident in his tone of voice. "You got piss for brains, boy. Snakes don't whimper like . . . like maybe kittens."
Stung by the retort, Travis lowered his gaze. "We ain't never gonna find out lessun we open the thing," he muttered.
Adam nodded agreement. He flipped the latch to the side and lifted the lid an inch. Nothing jumped out at them. He let out the breath he'd been holding, then pushed the lid all the way up. The hinge squeaked, and the lid swung down to rest against the back side of the basket.
All three boys had pressed their shoulders tight against the wall. They leaned forward now to look inside.
"Probably nothing," Travis replied. "Least ways, not yet. Maybe though, when he gets bigger..."
"Yeah?" Douglas asked, curious over the sudden excitement that came into Travis's voice.
"I'm thinking we could all teach him a thing or two."
"Like what?" Douglas asked. He reached out and gently touched the baby's forehead with his index finger. "His skin feels like satin."
Travis was warming to the possibility of educating the baby. It made him feel important . . . and needed. "Douglas, you could teach him all about picking pockets. You're real good at it. And you, Cole, you could teach him how to be mean. I seen the look that comes into your eyes when you think someone's wronged you. You could teach the little fella to look like that too. It's real scary."
Cole smiled. He appreciated hearing the compliment. "I stole me a gun," he whispered.
"When?" Douglas asked.
"Yesterday," Cole answered.
"I seen it already," Travis boasted.
"I'm going to get good shooting it as soon as I steal me some bullets. I'm gonna be the fastest gun on Market Street. I might be persuaded to make the little fella second best."
"I could teach him how to get things," Travis announced. "I'm good at finding what we need, ain't I, boss?"
"Yes," Adam agreed. "You're very good."
"We could be the best gang in New York City. We could make everyone afraid of us," Travis whispered. He was so enthralled over the possibility, his eyes shone bright. His voice took on a dreamy quality. "Even Lowell and his bastard friends," he added, referring to the rival gang members they all secretly feared.
The boys all took a moment to look at the pretty picture Travis had just painted for them. Cole rubbed his jaw again. He liked what he was imagining. He had to force the eagerness out of his voice when he spoke again. "Boss, you could teach him all about them books your mama taught you about. You could maybe make him as smart as you are."
"You could teach him how to read, and he wouldn't get whiplashes across his back for learning the way you did," Travis interjected.
"If we keep him, the first thing we got to do is take that sissy dress off him," Douglas announced. He glared at the long white gown and shook his head. "No one's ever gonna laugh at him. We'll see to it."
"I'll kill anyone who even snickers," Cole promised.
Copyright © 1995 by Julie Garwood