Authors: Julie Garwood
Tags: #Historical Romance, #Adult, #Cowboy
For the Roses
The Rose - book 1
No man is an island, entire of it self;
every man is a piece of the continent, a
part of the main; if a clod be washed
away by the sea, Europe is the less, as
well as if a promontory were, as well as
if a manor of thy friends or of thine own
were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind; and
therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
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
"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.
And then they let out a collective gasp. They couldn't believe what they were seeing. A baby, as perfect and as beautiful as an angel from above, was sleeping soundly. Eyes closed, one tiny fist in mouth, the infant occasionally suckled and whimpered, and that was the noise the boys had heard. Adam was the first to recover from the surprise. "Dear Lord in heaven," he whispered. "How could anyone deliberately throw away anything this precious?"
Cole had dropped his knife when he spotted the baby. He reached for it now, noticed his hand was trembling in reaction to his worry over what might be hiding inside the basket, and shook his head over what he considered cowardly behavior. He made his voice sound mean to cover his embarrassment.
"Course they could throw the baby away. People do it all the time. Rich ones and poor ones. Makes no difference. They get tired of something and just toss it out like dirty water. Ain't that right, Travis?"
"That's right," Travis agreed.
"Boss, didn't you listen to any of the stories about the orphanages Douglas and Travis were telling?"
"I seen lots of babies there," Travis announced before Adam could answer Cole's question. "Well, maybe not lots, but some," he qualified in an attempt to be completely accurate. "They kept them up on the third floor. None of the little buggers ever made it that I recollect. They put them in that ward, and sometimes they just plumb forgot they were there. Least, I think that's what happened." His voice shivered over the memories of the time he spent in one of the city's refuge centers for displaced children.
"This little mite wouldn't never make it living there," he added. "He's too small."
"I seen smaller down on Main Street. The whore, Nellie, had one. How come you think it's a boy baby?"
"He's bald, ain't he? Only boys come bald." Travis's argument made perfectly good sense to Cole. He nodded agreement. Then he turned to their leader. "What are we gonna do with him?"
"We ain't throwing him away."
Douglas made the announcement. The other three boys jerked back in reaction to the harshness in his tone of voice. Douglas nodded to let them know he meant what he'd just said, and added, "I seen the
whole thing. A fancy-dressed man in coat and tails climbs out of this expensive-looking carriage. He's got this here basket looped over his arm. He's standing under the streetlamp, so of course I see his face real clear. I seen the woman's face too. She'd been waiting on the corner for him, I figured out, when he gets out of the carriage and goes right to her. She keeps trying to hide her face by pulling the hood down over the top of her head, and the way she's acting makes me think she's good and scared. The man starts getting angry, and it don't take me long to figure out why."
"So? Why was he getting angry?" Cole demanded to know when Douglas didn't immediately continue.
"She didn't want to take the basket, that's why," Douglas explained. He squatted down next to Travis before going on. "She keeps shaking her head, see, over and over. The man's talking up a storm and pointing his finger in her face. Then he pulls out a fat envelope and holds it up in front of her. She comes around then. She snatches it out of his hand as quick as lightning, which makes me think that whatever is inside the envelope is important, and then she finally takes the basket. He climbs back inside the carriage while she's tucking the goods in her pocket."
"Then what happened?" Travis asked.
"She waits until the carriage rounds the corner," Douglas told him. "Then she sneaks into our alley and throws the basket away. I didn't pay the basket much attention at all. I thought there was maybe an old cat inside. Never guessed it could be a baby. Don't think I would have left if I'd known…"
"Where'd you go?" Cole interrupted to ask.
"I'd gotten mighty curious about the envelope in her pocket, so I followed her."
"Did you get it?" Travis wanted to know.
Douglas snickered. "Of course I got it. I don't have the reputation of being the best pickpocket on Market Street for nothing, do I? The woman was in a hurry, but I got into her pocket in the thick of the crowd pushing their way onto the midnight train. She never knew I touched her. Stupid woman. Bet she's just about now figuring out what happened."
"What's inside the envelope?" Cole asked.
"You ain't gonna believe it."
Cole rolled his eyes heavenward. Douglas liked to draw things out. It drove the others crazy. "Honest to God, Douglas, if you don't…"
Travis interrupted his threat. "I got me something important to say," he blurted out. He wasn't the least bit interested in the contents of the envelope. His thoughts were on the baby. "We're all agreed we ain't throwing the little fella away. So now I'm wondering who we're gonna give him to."
"I don't know anyone who'd want a baby," Cole admitted. He rubbed his smooth-skinned jaw the way he'd seen the older, more sophisticated thugs do. He thought the action made him look older and wiser.
"What's he good for?"
"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.