The shadow boys live in the Fort Worth & Denver City rail yard amongst the empty cars and tool shacks. When the freight men shuffle the cars or ransack the shacks for parts, tools, or machinery, the boys scatter like rats in a woodpile. The freight men seldom give chase because the boys are far too quick, but if a boy is caught off guard or proves to slow, the freight men will beat him for sport. The FW & DC yard sits due east of Hell’s Half Acre by only a couple of stone throws.
The shadow boys frequent the Acre to steal, beg, and sometimes find gainful, if not always lawful, employment, or work the rough trade for gey cats and quickly duck back to the yard for safety if need be.
The shadow boys come from all points but mostly from the west. Some are orphans, some have been abandoned, most are runaways fleeing no longer bearable lives. The boys make their way to Fort Worth by foot, rail or any means available. Most come from the west because Fort Worth is a beacon for West Texas dreams, but its underbelly is hard and mean and most of those dreams starve out or are brutally beaten to extinction.
In Fort Worth, the cattle drives have ended but the cattle still come, by rail nowadays, not by hoof. The Armour and Swift slaughter factories on the north side leak the stink of death and rot throughout the city. The greasy smoke from the rendering and the effluent into the drainage pipes make the city smell like something Yama dropped in his toilet after a bad meal.
Matilda saw the strip of cloth on the back fence but was unable to get away until the last man had left Harlow’s bawdy house two hours later. The strip of tattered calico hanging from the picket meant one of the shadow boys was in need. Harlow, the house madam, had picked up Matilda from an orphan train eight months prior. Matilda had been scooped off the streets of Baltimore on her way home from spending the night in a back alley off Aliceanna Street. Her father had been killed when she was four and her mother had turned to prostitution to keep food on the table. By the time Matilda was nine the men who came to the tenement in Fells Point began to turn their attention to Matilda and she took to sleeping in the streets to avoid the advances.
The orphan trains were supposed to deliver children to families or Christian homes in the Midwest and South, but Harlow paid a middle-aged couple with a morphine addiction to go to the station, say they were married, willing, and able to care for the girl. It was easy pickings and cheap labor.
Matilda had managed to avoid prostitution in Boston only to be shipped halfway across the country and put to work on her back in Hell’s Half Acre. She left Harlow’s house out the back door and exited the yard through the rickety picket gate, turned left in the alley, and walked the hundred yards to a vacant lot. Red and Milky sat in the dirt. Red was bare-chested as he had taken off his shirt to wrap around Milky’s injured hand. Milky had pretty near sliced his left thumb clean off attempting to open a can of peaches with a rock and a razor blade. Don’t bother looking for the logic in opening a can of peaches with a rock and a razor blade for there is none but don’t judge him either because logic is rare in the mind of a three-quarter starved twelve-year-old boy’s line of thinking.
The point here is Milky’s thumb hung to his hand by the top layer of skin only. Red looked to Matilda with worry in his eye as she walked up on the boys.
“What happened?” asked Matilda. Though mostly obscured by his fire colored hair, Matilda could see enough of Red’s eyes to know Milky was hurt worse than the usual scrape or sprain.
“His thumb is cut bad,” said Red. “It is hanging to his hand. It is a clean slice with a razor.”
Matilda stood over Milky. He looked up at her, his good eye bloodshot and filled with tears, his other eye, as usual, was cloudy, white, and dead. Matilda shuddered. She still had the capacity to shudder when looking at a soul in pain.
“Let’s take him to Harlow, though if it is as bad as you say, ain’t likely she can do much but go ahead and take it clean off,” said Matilda.
Smelling of blood, sweat, and piss, Milky screamed and kicked at the ground. Red wrestled him to his feet and calmed him down. Red could do that to people, this was an ability of Red’s Matilda greatly admired but never showed. The trio walked in silence back to Harlow’s.
As they entered Harlow’s backyard, Red and Milky stopped short of the wooden steps leading up to the back door. Matilda continued, alone, into the house. When she entered the kitchen, Tweet, one of the older girls, almost seventeen, was removing a whistling copper kettle from the stove. The steaming whistle covered the sound of Matilda’s entrance, and her sudden appearance made Tweet jump a little. “Gracious, girl, you startled me,” said Tweet in her high-pitched voice.
Matilda continued into the kitchen and stared at the door leading to the hallway. “Sorry, didn’t mean to.” Matilda wrung her hands and turned to Tweet. “Have you seen Mrs. Harlow?” To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Harlow was not nor had she ever been married, but she insisted on being addressed as Missus.
“Haven’t seen her but sure as hell heard her screaming at a John mere seconds ago,” said Tweet. She was pouring hot water into a cup through a strainer of tea leaves. “Would you like some tea? I made plenty of water.”
“Yes, I would, but no thank you, I have a favor to ask Mrs. Harlow and I’m a might jumpy. After, though, for sure.”
Looking up from pouring the cup of tea Tweet saw Red and Milky standing in the backyard. Red looked anxious and Milky looked pale. “Lordy, Matilda,” she said, “You are sure enough pushing your luck bringing more of those boys to this back door.” She turned to face Matilda. “You gone waste all your money helping those wastrels. Harlow doesn’t give you near your value and charges you through the roof to patch them up.”
Matilda dropped her eyes to the worn wooden floor and her chin to her chest. Harlow always made a show of not wanting to help the boys. She would scream and throw a commotion whenever they showed up to the back, once she smacked Matilda hard across her temple. She would then make it known to the rest of the house how much money she would take from Matilda’s earnings for the week.
What no one knew was that a week after Matilda had stepped off the Orphan Train, Harlow had come to her room and told her to watch for the strip of cloth signal from the boys, and to bring them in if they really needed help or care. If they were faking or panhandling, Matilda was to shoo them away and tell Harlow who they were so they would be blackballed from ever coming back, but if they were truly in need, Matilda was to bring them to the house. She didn’t want to be known as a soft touch and make no mistake, Harlow was not soft. She only stood 5’ 2” but no man, no matter how drunk, ornery, or full of himself ever felt big or bad enough to mess with Harlow.
Matilda stood in the kitchen gathering gumption to go look for Harlow. As it happened, she did not have to step foot. Harlow came storming into the kitchen screaming bloody hell, “That gotdamn, egg-sucking, rat bastard!” Harlow could string together cuss words better than Preacher Norris could talk money out of the congregation’s pockets.
Harlow was toting two Gladiola flour sacks stuffed full of nine shot riddled quail. As she entered the kitchen she threw one bag forward and sent it sliding across the floor spilling bloody quail at Matilda’s feet. “Imagine having the gall, the GALL, to pay me with quail!” Harlow stopped to draw breath, darting her eyes from Tweet to Matilda. Both girls knew they were not expected to answer the question. “That is some bullshit, right there.”
Harlow stood, hands on her hips, letting the blood drain from her flushed face. Matilda turned and walked to the back door, opened it, and motioned for the two boys to approach.
“Oh, good lord a mercy,” exclaimed Harlow. “More peckers come to cause me trouble. Let that be a hard lesson learned, girls. Peckers mean trouble.”
Red and Milky entered, Harlow saw the blood-soaked shirt wrapped around Milky’s hand, walked over, and began to gently expose the wound.
She unfolded the last piece of cloth and softly said, “Lordy, child.” Matilda and Tweet squeezed their eyes shut as if trying to push out the sight of Milky’s mangled hand from their mind, but neither flinched, they had both seen enough bordello brawls to lose their squeamish.
“Ooo wee, child. There is no saving that thumb,” said Harlow, shaking her head. “You got a bad eye and now you only have nine fingers.” She raised up and began to walk out of the room. “You got parts going bad and falling off one by one. Pretty soon there won’t be nothing left of you but a Cheshire smile.” Reaching the doorway she turned and addressed the group. “Heat a butcher knife red hot, fetch some shine, and get that boy passed out drunk. Call me when everything is set.”
Matilda walked to a cabinet drawer to the left of the sink, it made a weak, small creak when she pulled it open. She reached in and withdrew the butcher knife. Tweet went to an old red pie safe, opened it, reached in, and grabbed a mason jar of moonshine. The four shelves of the pie safe were lined, three deep, with almost identical jars of shine.
Matilda placed the knife on the open gas flame of the right back burner of the stove. Tweet unscrewed the mason jar and placed it on the table in front of Milky.
“Cain’t he have a glass?” asked Red.
“Are you gonna wash it after he’s through? I do enough dishes around here.” Tweet wasn’t being mean, just practical. “He needs to drink this whole jar and what he don’t finish, I will.”
The four stood around the kitchen table in silence waiting for the knife to heat up, Milky gulping the moonshine best he could. He choked once and almost heaved. Matilda walked to the pantry and returned with a loaf of bread, broke off a heel, and gave it to Milky. “Maybe if you dip it the shine will go down easier.” In another part of town, four children gathered around a kitchen table would look as American as apple pie, but in another part of town, they wouldn’t be drinking shine, and about to cut off a thumb. That kind of thing only happened in Hell’s Half Acre.
Matilda kept one eye on the blade. Harlow walked in just as it began glowing bright orange. Milky was about as gone as the two-thirds empty mason jar. “Close your eyes son, this won’t hurt a bit,” said Harlow. There was a thick, blue oven mitt with embroidered daisies hanging by the stove. She grabbed it, put in on her right hand, and reached for the knife.
Napoleon, all elbows, and knees, ran breakneck down the tracks. He was late for work and that would not do. The wind blowing through the discarded sheet metal, trees, and loose debris sounded like an orchestra tuning to b flat. Napoleon was tall for his fifteen years. The shadow boys called him Napoleon because he was self-conscious of his permanently clinched, twisted, and disfigured left hand and always hid it in his shirt. When his father saw the birth defect, he loaded Napoleon and his mother in the wagon, drove them the thirty-nine miles from Peaster to Fort Worth, and abandoned them in the Acre. His mother dropped him off at the Texas Children’s Home Society, a home for orphans, from which he promptly ran away. His mother disappeared into the bowels of the Acre. His father went back to Peaster, remarried, and had a healthy brood.
Napoleon was one of the few boys to have a job and he was proud of the fact. He always kept a nickel or at least a penny in his pocket to show the advantages of employment and bragged about being able to afford eating fresh, unspoiled food.
Napoleon hit Seventeenth Street at a full gallop heading towards Rusk. He turned right on Rusk, and although winded, picked up his pace, he had to be at the Waco Tap saloon in less than five minutes and it was an eight minute journey at his current stride.
Napoleon’s job at the Waco Tap consisted of sweeping, cleaning, and mopping up blood and beer but if he was late, Tips the bartender would replace him, quick as a lick, with one of the rum bums who was always hanging around looking for free drinks. If he lost his job he would have to hustle and steal for his bread like the other shadow boys. Plus, he would surely lose his fiancé, Essa.
To be honest, Essa was Napoleon’s third fiancé in less than eight months, although, at five weeks, she had lasted the longest. There is also the fact that Essa had absolutely no idea Napoleon existed. She cleaned the rooms upstairs at the Waco Tap and ran errands for the soiled doves working there. Occasionally, she handled overflow customers. Essa was twelve and Tips the bartender paid her mostly in alcohol and laudanum. She barely knew who she was, let alone Napoleon. She was Napoleon’s fiancé in his mind only. In fact, most of Napoleon’s life was a fiction. Tips the bartender rarely paid him for working. He stole to earn his keep like the rest of the shadow boys. His ten hours at the Waco Tap was a roof over his head and sometimes he got to sleep in the storeroom. He was safer at the saloon, even with the nightly knife fights, than he was in the train yard or on the streets.
Napoleon ran up the back alley to the Waco Tap and into the propped open back door. He was still moving at a brisk clip when he ran, chest first, into a big bass drum. He was whacked back and dropped to his knees, the collision knocking all the breath from his lungs.
A booming voice came from behind the drum, “Watch where you’re goin’ kid.” A giant man in a tattered tuxedo, bald, with a bushy gray beard, carried the drum, stepped around Napoleon, and continued on his way. Three men in matching tuxedoes followed closely behind the giant. Two carried trumpet cases and the third toted a tenor sax, still strapped around his neck. The first trumpet muttered, “Excuse me,” as he passed, the second trumpet said nothing, and the sax player thumped Napoleon on his temple with the bell of his instrument as he passed.
Napoleon rose from his knees, rubbed his smarting temple, and walked into the backroom of the Waco Tap. It smelled of rejected prayers, grain alcohol, and broken dreams with a heaping dollop of despair. Tips the bartender stood in the middle of the room, red-faced screaming at another man, wearing a white tuxedo. The white tuxedo man was also red-faced and screaming. The blue blood vessels on his bald head popped in his temples and skull, looking like the Tarantula map of Fort Worth. There seemed to be a disagreement on payment for services. The band was going home and Tips the bartender was incensed. He saw Napoleon slinking by, “Clear the empties off the tables, then get to mopping, boy!” Tips the bartender wasn’t yelling at Napoleon, per se, he was just hyped from his altercation with the bandleader. Napoleon got a large tray to hold the empties, grabbed a dirty rag, stuck it in his back pocket, and went into the saloon to get to work, still out of breath, and now with a headache to boot.
Two hours later, Napoleon was mopping the floor in front of the bar, being careful not to trip up any stumble drunks. He mopped this particular stretch of the Waco Tap more than all the others combined. From his position in front of the bar, he could see the upstairs balcony reflected in the long mirror behind the bar. It was his best vantage point to catch a glimpse of Essa as she came and went from the rooms, without seeming to stare.
He noticed a table of rodeo clowns, all with cheeks full of chew, spitting all over the floor. He decided to go to the back room to fetch a spittoon or two in the hopes the clowns would use them. In his experience, they likely would not. Rodeo clowns don’t give two shits. The door to the backroom was midway along the east wall, under the balcony, just as Napoleon walked under the balcony and reached for the door handle, he heard a scream, followed by the sound of snapping lumber, and a sickening thud. Napoleon turned to see Essa sprawled on the floor. Splinters of the broken balcony littered around her body and her head perpendicular to her right shoulder. She had fallen through the rail and landed headfirst.
“You dirty son of a bitch!” screamed Rosie, one of the upstairs working girls.
“Bitch would not move out of my way,” retorted a large, well dressed, man.
Tips the bartender came around the bar. No one had made a move to even check if Essa was still alive. “Tips, this bastard, right here was mad because I wouldn’t give him his money back. Hellfire, I blew him for ten minutes, it ain’t my fault he got a limp pecker.”
As Tips the bartender took the stairs two at a time, Napoleon approached Essa. Reaching her, he knelt and put his face close to hers. They were nose to nose.
There is a certain smell to a person’s breath when they are moments from death. It is low and pungent. If it were a color it would be a deep, navy blue, just a whisker lighter than black. Napoleon feels and smells Essa’s last breath. He rises to his feet and walks slowly up the stairs, holding the mop in his good hand, his deformed hand in his shirt.
The table of rodeo clowns rises to their feet. “Don’t that beat all,” said one. He then spits a mouth full of translucent brown tobacco juice on the floor.
Reaching the top of the stairs, Napoleon let loose a guttural scream, raising the mop above his head, he runs towards the well-dressed man. Tips the bartender turns steps aside as if to let him by, but as he passes, Tips the bartender trips Napoleon, and he falls, sprawling out on the deck. The well-dressed man walks up and kicks Napoleon in the head. He then pivots, raises his right leg, and slams his boot heel square in the back of Napoleon’s one good hand, crushing sixteen of its twenty-seven bones.
Napoleon woke in the alley behind the Waco Tap. He had blacked out after the kick to the head. He had pissed his pants, had caked blood from his right ear down his neck, and his good hand was swollen three times normal size.
The sun was not yet above the horizon, but shadows were growing. A drizzling rain washed the soot from the air and coated everything in what looked like black newspaper ink. The setting moon reflected in one of the rain-filled ruts running down the alley. The reflection slowly crawled into the morning traffic on Rusk Street. A cat drank from a pan filled with rain until a rat, half again bigger than the scrawny cat, chased it away.
Red wasn’t good at waiting. He never knew what to do with his body, he felt awkward and conspicuous unless he was moving with purpose. After Harlow amputated Milky’s thumb, she told Red to go to the vacant lot two days later at sundown, and Matilda would deliver fresh bandages and iodine. Red had come early. He shuffled his feet like a marionette controlled by a puppeteer with delirium tremens.
“You ain’t supposed to be here, yet,” said Matilda, approaching Red from behind.
Matilda had come down the alley and Red had expected her to come up. He quickly swiveled and faced her. “You startled me a might.”
“Harlow sent me out to get sundries for the girls and bandages and iodine to leave here. She said you wouldn’t be here until dark.”
“I was hoping to catch you,” said Red.
“Ain’t nobody catching me, Red.” Matilda put one bag down and began rustling through the other for the bandages and iodine.
“Thank you for helping get Milky fixed up,” said Red.
Matilda did not look up from her search. “It ain’t for sure that stump won’t get gangrenous and kill him anyway,” said Matilda. She found the iodine and handed the small, brown bottle to Red.
“Thanks.” Red examined the bottle, it was corked at the top and had a large skull and crossbones on the front and back. “Who would be daft enough to drink iodine,” said Red.
“You never know the weeds that grow in other people's minds, Red.” Matilda gave up searching the bag for the bandages and turned her attention to the one on the ground. “Where in tarnation are those bandages.”
“Mama’s Boy got a real job at O.B. Macaroni,” Red blurted with some excitement.
“I don’t know him, do I? There it is,” she said as she drew her hand out of the burlap bag. “Bandages,” she said, holding them out.
“Thank you,” Red said as he took the bandages. “I don’t think you know him, but the point is he said he could get me on. Get me a real job.”
“That would be great, Red,” said Matilda. “I’m happy for you.”
“With a job, I could afford to get a room and save enough to get a proper little cottage. It might take a while, but I was hoping after I got on my feet, we could be together, Matilda. Start a family, live like real folks.” All the blood rushed to Red’s head, he became flushed. “I been prayin’ on it.”
Matilda picked up the bag on the ground and looked Red straight in the eyes so he would listen. “Prayers are just dreams, Red. When I got taken from my momma and put on the train, I told them fella’s I had a family. I wasn’t no orphan. I prayed and prayed someone would listen to me. I prayed the whole time, when the train pulled away and my life, my family, became smaller and smaller, so did my prayers, until they was gone.”
The boys huddled around the fire in a small patch of mesquite to the southeast of the rail yards. The fire was below ground level and smokeless so as not to attract unwanted attention. A shadow boy, whose name no one remembered, dug a Dakota fire hole long ago. The story goes he dug it overnight with his bare hands and a piece of glass from a broken beer bottle. He dug the Dakota fire hole, which consists of a one foot deep pit connected to a six-inch tunnel running off to the side to provide air to the fire, after a pack of hoboes had been attracted to the boy’s fire the night before and had beaten him badly and killed his sister. As long as dry wood is used, little to no smoke is produced and if the wind is blowing in the direction of the tunnel, the fire will burn long and hot. The boys were roasting a fresh dog carcass and two quail Red had brought from Harlow.
“I can’t remember my momma, no more,” said Nine-Toe.
“At least you knew her and had something to forget,” said Crooked. “I never had a momma.”
“Everyone has a momma, just some momma’s don’t want their kids,” said Falldown. “Besides, sometimes forgettin’ is better. My momma carried a fire poker like a walking cane and used to beat us kids with it for no reason.”
“My momma was good,” said Nine-Toe. “She had blue eyes, like me.”
“Your eyes are brown,” said Falldown.
“I don’t think Red is coming back tonight,” said Crooked. “It is late. We best scatter.”
“Likely so,” agreed Falldown.
The boys divvied up the dog and quail. Crooked stood but did not straighten from being hunched over the fire. His arthritis twisted his spine and hitched his gate so he always looked as if he were walking at a forty-five-degree angle. He headed north into the moonlight.
Falldown stood and headed east. Nine-Toe stared into the pit for several minutes before standing, kicking enough dirt into the pit to extinguish the fire, and headed south.
The moon is a waxing gibbous, two days shy being full. Stratus clouds hang near motionless in a breezeless, black sky.
Red had been walking the tracks heading southeast for hours. He felt the vibration in the crossties long before the light from the train becomes visible. He quickened his pace. In the moonlight, the smoke from the boiler billowed, swirled, and disappeared as if it never existed.
Matilda dreamed of Baltimore, her father, still alive, and two brothers. She could smell the crab cakes her mother made on Sundays, hear the ‘tink’ of her father tapping his pipe on his brass ashtray, and feel the rhythm of her brothers’ breathing as they napped in the corner of the living room. Matilda only allowed herself emotions in her dreams, but it made the waking world all the more dead.
Crooked climbed the lone live oak in the rail yard and perched himself betwixt the fork of two large branches. His back gave him no peace. He could only drift off lying on his belly, almost bear hugging the limb. From his vantage, Crooked could see the stacks of the meatpacking plants on the north side curling smoke into the sky twenty-four hours a day.
Harlow sat at her writing desk with the house ledger open, pen in hand. The house was only silent between five and eight in the morning. In these quiet times, Harlow balanced the books, listened to the gears of the grandfather clock rhythmically turn, and allowed herself to look old and tired. Seven envelopes sat neatly stacked to the right of the ledger, already precisely addressed. One for the gas, one for the police, one for the prosecutor, one for the grocer, one for the doctor, one for the florist, and one for the Texas Children's Home and Aid Society.
Nine-Toe walked the back alleys of the Acre, looking for drunks to roll or gey cats to ply the rough trade. He slept only during daylight.
Tweet lay on a bed of red coals, her flesh sizzling and cracking, her body weightless but paralyzed, her mouth twisted but silent. She would wake from the dream in thirty seconds and examine her body for burns. There would be none, of course, for dreams only scar the mind, not the body. When she laid her head back on the pillow she knew she would dream the dream again. She always did. In wake or sleep, Tweet lived an ongoing nightmare.
Milky slept soundly under the stacks of sheet metal and lumber by the tool shop in the Fort Worth Denver City rail yard. His hand, freshly bandaged, ached and throbbed but he had grown used to the discomfort. Tomorrow he planned on tracking down Napoleon to learn how he managed to survive with only one good hand.
Falldown slept fitfully in the culvert running east of the rail yard. The other shadow boys thought him daft for sleeping in a place where hobos traveled night and day and rats woke you every hour or two by taking a bite out of your hand or cheek.
Napoleon floated facedown the Clear Fork branch of the Trinity River, his arms spread out welcoming, like Christ. His body so bloated his clothes had all split off except a portion of his right pant leg still encircling his ankle. He bobbed in the water like a cork float on a cane pole.
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