Early the next morning, Jessie picked her way around a sleeping Jason to get dressed. She was messy by nature, and her clothes were scattered about. She wore only her underclothes, so she wanted to be dressed before Jason woke up. She quickly got dressed, then searched in the drawer under the table for a comb. She found money, cards, marbles, all sorts of odd things, before finally finding a small comb. She fought a losing battle with her tangled golden curls before tying her kerchief over them and leaving them as they were. She glanced at Jason, assured herself he was asleep, and quickly scrambled out the window above the bed.

Jessie walked quickly along the shore of the river, headed towards where she knew all the food vendors were at this time of the morning. She sneaked up behind a fruit vendor’s cart and waited. At just the right moment, she tucked an apple into her pocket. When he turned again, she took another. After retrieving three apples, she moved on to the bread cart. She was expert at stealing from this cart, and soon had a small loaf of bread.

With food for the day secure, Jessie quickly slipped away to the dressmaker’s shop. The second a wealthy and particularly fussy woman entered the store, Jessie scrambled up the roof of the woodshed next to the shop, up the roof of the kitchen, and to the peak of the roof. The attic window was easy to pry open, and she was quickly inside. There was very little to gather: two aprons, a shawl, another kerchief, money, her knife, a comb, a bunch of cigarettes, and her prized deck of cards. Everything was rolled up into a bundle, and she was on her way again.

“Where’ve ya been?” asked Jason when she waltzed through the front door.


“Doin’ what?”

She tossed him an apple. “Gettin’ muh stuff. Don’t worry ‘bout me, I ain’t a liddle kid that yuh gotta worry ‘bout.”

“Well, yuh ain’t that big,” he said. “And from what I’ve heard ‘bout yuh, I’d worry.”

Jessie made a face and bit into her apple. “What’ve yuh heard?”

“Well, yer a real good poka playa, yuh always win. Yer always runnin’ from th’ police. Neva found widout a smoke. An’ yer an expert pickpocket.”

“Speakin’ o’ which, why don’t yuh go out an’ steal wi’ yer boys?”

“Broke muh knee few years back. Neva healed quite right, so I can’t run too well.”

“Sorry,” she said, geniunely sympathetic.

“Eh, ‘t’ain’t that bad. I keep meself busy wi’ tryin’ t’keep this place in order.”

“Ya don’t do a bad job,” she complimented.

“Thanks,” he replied. “So, yuh plannin’ on stickin’ ‘round ‘ere fer a bit?”

“If yuh don’t mind.”

“Course not, yer welcome.”

“Well, that’s more than I can stay ‘bout anywhere I’ve been b’fore,” she said matter-of-factly.

“How many places yuh been?”

“Well, first, I was wi’ me parents, o’ course. Then I spent some time workin’ on th’ pier, then… then I stayed in a tavern fer a while. Then ‘t’was… hmm… somewhere else, then th’ dress shop. Th’ owna neva liked me much, she was always threatenin’ t’throw me out. She hated th’ way I gambled everything I had. Didn’t matta t’her that I always ended up wi’ more than I started out wi’.”

“That’s th’ joy o’ gamblin’, if yer good.”

“Ain’t ya any good?”

“I ain’t bad, but I ain’t good.”

“Just need some practice, prob’ly.” She reached into her pocket. “C’mon, I’ll play ya a game o’ poka, right ‘ere, right now.”

Jason grinned. “Deal me in.”

Jessie alternated between going out and stealing with the rest of the boys, and staying at the warehouse to keep Jason company. She was an expert pickpocket, as Jason had said, and was soon stealing a decent living. In her bundle of belongings, she had a good deal of money, as well as fine jewelry. Gambling only increased the amount of money she was saving. She was supposed to give fifty percent of her earnings to Jason, as were all the other boys, but she was getting so much that if she gave him only thirty percent, he had no idea he was being cheated. Besides, she always thought to herself. He ain’t that crippled - he could go out an’ steal if he wanted to, he’s just lazy, an’ why should I have t’give up half my earnings to him?

One night, Jessie sat outside the warehouse watching the clouds roll in. She had just beat every last one of the boys out at poker, and had earned at least three dollars - she hadn’t bothered to count it yet.

“Looks like a storm, eh?” commented Jason, sitting down beside her.

She nodded quietly. “Sure does. Ya can tell, it’s so dark. It’d be hell t’be out on th’ sea t’night.” Jessie sat there silently, staring up at the stars. Suddenly she felt Jason’s lips on hers and pulled back in shock. “What ‘re ya doin’?” she shrieked.

“Smoke… Jessie… Eva since ya brought Michael here, I’ve wanted t’do that an’ I couldn’t stand waitin’ anotha second. If ya neva wanna talk t’me eva again - ”

Jessie interrupted him by returning the kiss. “C’mon, let’s go inside, it’s warmer in there.”

Jason nodded in agreement. They both hurried inside as the storm struck.

The next morning, Jessie awoke neck-deep in shame and self-hatred. I can’t believe I did that, she thought regretfully. Glancing at Jason, still sleeping next to her, she dressed and fled the house.

For a week, Jessie was rarely seen around the warehouse. She left before dawn and didn’t return until the middle of the night. How she managed to avoid the other boys, no one could figure out, and no one dared approach her. James and Tommy were sent to spy on her, and they reported that she was often seen around the docks, walking alone or sitting by herself.

Finally, after a week, Jason couldn’t take it anymore. The stony silence was getting to him. One afternoon, he took to looking through her bag of belongings. Knife, cards, cigarettes, matches, the usual… then he saw her hoard of money and jewelry.

Hearing the curses coming from the room, James and Tommy rushed to Jason, certain they were about to learn something about Smoke.

“What’s wrong, boss?” called James.

“Look at this! Look at all th’ stuff she’s got saved! No way she’s givin’ me th’ half she owes me!”

“Th’ lousy liar! No wonda she ain’t talkin’!” exclaimed James.

“Dat’s it, we’re waitin’ up till she gets back an’ then we’re gonna ask ‘er what’s goin’ on.”

At half past two in the morning, Jessie stumbled over to the door and cautiously opened it, expecting to find darkness and sleeping boys. She was shocked to find all fourteen standing and staring.

“Care t’explain this, Smoke?” asked Jason, holding up her bag. The anger and betrayal in his voice was clear.

“I was sick o’ givin’ up half me earnin’s t’you when ya could be out stealin’ well as I could,” she said.

“Get out,” he said. “Ya ain’t gettin’ away wit lyin’ and hidin’ stuff like dis. Live on da streets.”

“That won’t be happenin’, Jason. I got a honest job at th’ docks - I’m sick o’ lyin’ and stealin’ an’ cheatin’. I hope I neva see th’ likes o’ ya again.”

“Same t’you!” shouted Jason, storming out of the warehouse. The other boys either followed or scattered, except Tommy.

“I’ll, uh, go get yer stuff,” he said quietly. He returned with a large bundle. “I’m sorry ‘bout what happened.”

“Dere’s more than ya know, Tommy. Don’t worry ‘bout it. Now take care o’ yaself, ya hear me?”

“Sure. Same t’you, Smoke.”

She nodded with a small grin. “I’ll sure’s hell try, Tommy.”


Jessie “Smoke” Schaefer kept her “honest job at the docks,” helping to clean and load the ships before they sailed. Just about a year later, she had enough money to buy a ticket on a boat to New York City. She arrived there alone and nearly penniless, but soon joined up with the Harlem newsies. Jessie never spoke a word about her past, her family, or her one-night fling with Jason Nichols. Fourteen years of her life became smoke in the wind…

The Past is Past
* 1 * 2 *

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© by Emily H., 2000