Breee…! The quiet night was suddenly split with police sirens wailing through the darkness, breaking the spell of the moonlight. Broken glass glittered in the flashing lights as the cop cars screeched to a halt next to a towering warehouse. A dark mass struggled in the street, the light flashed on a switchblade, then the mass separated into six boys running in different directions. A few strides and they were gone, melting into the night. Only the glass and a blood stain on the sidewalk were left to show what had transpired.
A boy of seventeen pounded down the alley away from the cop cars, hauling a child after him. “Stop, Jed. The pigs are leaving.” The child’s voice was breathless and pained.
Jed stopped dead in his flight and pressed close against the wall, turning his face to the younger boy. “You all right, Lil’ Man?”
“No.” The child leaned down, pressing his hand against a knife cut on his lower left arm. His voice quavered. “My arm.”
“Let me see.” Jed, with a gentleness so different from the scene they had left, carefully took the child’s arm and looked the wound over. “One of dem cats cut you.” With quick, deft hands he wrapped his handkerchief and a piece of his shirt around it. “There, good as new.”
It wasn’t really true, but the child smiled trustingly up at his brother. “It’ll be ok, Jed?”
“Course it will. Now stick close to me and –“ The youth paused, listening.
From up the alley came the sound of running feet, a whole group coming. And there, voices calling, “Keep sharp! Hunt dem cats out! Burn dem Caesars!”
Jed grabbed his brother in his arms and whispered in his ear. “Change of plans, Lil’ Man. You’re gonna have to hold onto my back and let me dodge and scramble, dig?”
The child nodded seriously and waited while Jed zipped his jacket and pulled his jeans up higher. The feet were coming nearer, echoing up the alley. Jed wrapped his brothers arms and legs securely around him, then took a few steps and jumped, catching hold of the lowest landing of a fire escape. He swung, kicked his feet and got a foothold on it. Silently he rolled onto the landing, then quickly got up and crept higher up the building.
A flicker of movement above him caught his eye and he stopped, watching. There were boys on the roof above him. No escape that way. Jed settled the child’s weight a bit better, then quickly climbed over the railing of the fire escape and onto a narrow ledge. Walking quickly, he worked his way down the alley, until he came to another fire escape. Jed crouched down next to it and looked around. The street below was crowded with Timbers now, what was he to do?
A soft voice whispered in his ear, “We gonna be ok, Jed?”
“We’ll be fine, Lil’ Man.” Jed breathed back.
Clang, clunk, clang. Someone coming down the fire escape. Maybe if he stayed still…
“Hey!” A voice rang out sharply. “You a Caesar, man!”
Jed saw all the faces below turn to stare at him. “Hang on, Lil’ Man.” Jed was up and running back along the ledge to the other fire escape.
Shouts echoed behind him, then bam, bam, bam! Bullets chipped the cement right behind his heels. He reached the railing, jumped it, hit the door, and was inside the apartment building. He paused an instant to lock the door, then raced down the hall, unclipping his gun from his hand-made holster. Down a flight, around the corner, down the hall to a fire escape on the other side of the building. Jed paused a moment on the landing, checking it out. Sweat poured down his face and his breath came short. Running was one thing, but running with an eight-year-old on your back was another.
Jed started down the first flight of stairs. The door slammed behind him and he whirled to face a lanky black boy holding a bat. Jed turned to flee and met the stern eyes of another Timber. “Oh, I’m sorry – chico.” The Timber above him hissed. “Are we in your way?”
“Let me go, I’m warning you.” Jed answered hoarsely.
“Why look at that! Do you always wear your kid brother?” This from the Timber below him, “Suppose you hand him over, then maybe we’ll think about letting you go.”
“You leave mi hermano out of this.” Jed’s eyes were blazing.
“Says who? You ain’t in no place to direct traffic. We’ll take him by force.”
“Don’t look, Lil’ Man.” Jed whispered, pulling his gun out from behind him.
Two rounds and the Timbers were lying on the metal steps. Jed pulled his brother up closer and bounded down the steps. Reaching the bottom landing, he dropped onto the street. At impact the child let go and tumbled off Jed’s back. “My arm, Jed, it hurts to hold on.” The boy whimpered.
“Come on, Lil’ Man.” Jed whispered, picking the boy up, “I’ll carry you in front for a bit. We gotta make tracks before the cats see us.”
“We gonna make it back, Jed?” The child asked, worried.
Jed hugged his brother close and started running again. “Don’t worry, niño, we’ll make it to home turf.”
The child smiled and laid his head down on his brother’s shoulder, tired out from the late hour and the danger. Jed ran on, pausing at street corners to check up and down the street. All seemed strangely deserted, where was everyone? It made Jed’s skin crawl.
He paused at a corner and glanced to the right. There was a cop car sitting there silently, all the lights off, about a block up the street. Suddenly shots rang out from the left, causing the child to wake and jerk up. “What –“ The child cried sleepily.
“Shhh. It’s alright.” Jed whispered quickly.
Breee…! The cop car flashed to life, speeding down the street. Jed drew back into the shadow and watched up the street for a moment. Suddenly a stream of boys spilled out of the dark, rushing towards him. It was a mixture of Timber and Caesar roiling and fighting as they came. So that was where the rumble had gotten to.
Jed crouched in the shadow, clutching the child and watching the rumble pass, willing them not to see him. Then they were gone and the street was quiet again.
“Alright, Lil’ Man, we’re almost there.” Jed murmured into the boy’s hair.
He wearily got to his feet and jogged across the street, up one more block, and turned in at a dark hole of a doorway. Three flights of stairs, and then he was opening his door and laying the boy on the bed. The child was already asleep. How nice to be able to sleep through some of that.
Jed sank into a chair, so tired… so tired. Just wanted to sleep, his arms and shoulders aching from the weight of his brother. “Oi. You aren’t so small anymore, mi hombre pequeño.” Jed said with a wry smile.
Then getting up, he gently shook his brother. “Hey Lil’ Man, wake up. I’m going, but you stay here like I tell you this time, and don’t worry. I’ll be home when you wake up.”
The little brother nodded sleepily and was back asleep in an instant. If only Jed could join him, but no, he had to go back and find the rumble. If he didn’t, the gang would know it, and that would mean anything from teasing to murder depending on the mood. So, he jogged back down to the street. The rumble was louder now, and he followed the sound of it.
Hours dragged by in the wild confusion of a night jitter. Attack , chase, counterattack, run, jump, climb, attack… Hit, slash, kick, run… On and on and on until at last the Timbers broke and ran for the last time. They were scattered this time and it was soon apparent that the Caesars had won – though the field of battle was scattered with the casualties. Time to go home.
Jed dragged himself up the stairs for the last time that night, or well, morning. It was about five AM. Jed limped into the apartment and locked the door. The child had moved position, but was still asleep. Jed looked down at him, longing for the peaceful, unbroken sleep of childhood.
Slowly he turned away and limped to the washbasin. The water went from clear to pink to red as he washed out his wounds and rinsed the dried blood out of his hair. He suddenly became aware that his brother had awakened and was watching him. “You alright, Jed?”
Jed grimaced in pain and answered, “I’ll be alright.”
“You burn ‘em timbers last night?”
“Yeah, we burn ‘em.” The answer was flat.
Where was the joy of victory when you were bleeding and bone tired? When every time you close your eyes, you see blood and injured boys – maybe even dying? He wouldn’t know the numbers until tomorrow at the earliest.
His brother’s voice broke in on his thoughts again. “When I big like you, I gonna rumble like –“
Jed turned suddenly, “Don’t say it, Lil’ Man.”
“I ain’t gonna hear it. You join a gang over my dead body.”
The child fell silent, wide eyed. Jed went on, his face livid. “There’s no way out for me, Lil’ Man. But you can stay out and live. You can get a job and be somethin’. You wanna join cause you wanna be like me? Well, why you wanna be like me? I’m nothin’. Nothin’!”
The child ran to his brother and Jed put his arms around him, sobbing. “I love you too much ta let you do that, Lil’ Man.”
The child pulled away at last and went to the one window. Outside, dawn broke and the street came to life. Traffic hummed along like normal. Far away was the wail of a police siren.