The excited cries of the playing youngsters echoed shrilly across the vacant lot. Something had caught their attention and caused them to mill around in a tight little group, jostling, elbowing for position.
Suddenly an unusual silence came over them. A silence that was shocked and startled, so that if they'd noticed it their parents would have come running across the broken, rubble-strewn ground to lead their sons home before they were involved in trouble.
In the centre of the ring one boy stood proudly showing something that glistened when the sun caught it.
The other boys looked at it in silence, a little afraid and very much awed.
"Where did you get it, Joey?" asked one at last.
Joey held it carefully. "It's mine," he said defiantly. "I found it. It's mine!"
"Gwan! It's not yours. You'd didn't find it. It belongs to your Pa."
Joey gave a hoist to his short ragged trousers and wiped a grimy sleeve across his running nose. "It's mine." he protested furiously. "I did find it, too! It's mine!"
The very force of his denial belied his statement. The vehemence with which he contradicted the other boys proved their accusation.
"Gwan! It's your father's. Kids aren't allowed to have guns. You gotta have a licence to have a gun."
"I gotta licence." shouted Joey tearfully. "It's my gun."
Pride of possession had gripped him and the startled awe of the other boys gave him a momentary glimpse of power. He revelled in it and was reluctant to allow this moment of glory to slip through his fingers.
"It's loaded, too," he added fiercely. "I'll show you. It's got real bullets."
They didn't believe him and gathered around as inexpertly he broke the gun at its breech and displayed the gleaming copper heads of live bullets.
"Your ole man'll lam the living daylights outa ya when he finds you've taken it," said one boy whose voice hushed with apprehension.
"It's mine!" boasted Joey fiercely. "Bullets an' all!"
A smaller boy than the others, with mean lips and a pale face that had earned him the nickname of Whitey, sniffed contemptuously. "Dat's nothin'," he sneered. "My ole man's gotta better gat than that."
They closed in around Joey, full of excited interest and vaguely aware they could taunt the highly-strung Joey unbearably if only they could find the right opening.
A stocky, blue-eyed boy, with fair hair cropped close to his skull, saw the opening. "I've got an idea," he cried. "We'll take the gun from him. Then his Pa will half-kill him."
Quick to sense Joey's frantic fear, the other boys moved in quickly, hustled Joey, who frantically thrust the gun away in his pocket, and began to strike out around him, desperate with tearful anger.
"It's my gun!" he sobbed fiercely as he hit out almost crazy with fear that the gun would be taken from him.
The fair boy, who had made the suggestion, was doubled up in pain, hugging his groin where Joey's hard boot had landed. The boy's name was Jorgens, and he had inherited a Swedish temper.
"Crucify the little runt!" he roared, with tears of pain running down his cheeks.
"It's my gun!" screamed Joey. "Nobody's gonna take it! It's my gun!"
With their leader out of the fight and Joey almost crazy with rage, the other boys fell back, just a little afraid of the violence of the emotions they'd aroused.
"He's gone crazy," said one. "He's scratching like a wildcat."
"Crucify the little bastard!" sobbed Jorgens.
They were boys of the same age, between ten and eleven - ragged, poorly clothed and ill-fed, typical children of the Dead-end. Children without a future, whose lives were already pointing along a downward path hedged with poverty, vice and corruption.
They had no sympathy for the crying, highly-strung boy who watched them fearfully, knowing that like ravenous wolves they could attack again in force, tearing at his mind and body.
One of the boys suddenly shouted, gleefully: "I've got his gun! I've got his gun!" He flourished something that glistened in the sun, and the wolf-pack set up a derisive howl of triumph.
I was like a great wave of fear swamping over Joey, so immense and terrifying it shocked his mind. He saw the upraised belt, the flaming eyes of his father, and heard the thwack of leather before pain bit through him. He was frantic with terror, dived his hand into his pocket and almost cried with relief when his fingers closed around the butt of the revolver. Suddenly he felt weak, drained of strength.
The other boys jeered. "That scared him." said one.
"Why don't you leave me alone?" pleaded Joey. "Why don't you guys leave me alone?"
With the mercilessness of youngsters, they taunted him, gibed, laughed and insulted him until he was trembling half with rage and half with self-pity.
They were in the mood to continue their merciless derision until Joey finally broke and ran from them in tears. Then they would follow, still jeering, shouting insults and taunts.
But, as thought by magic, the hoots of laughter suddenly died to silence. Another boy, not much older than them but broader and taller, had arrived. He was young but already his face showed he would be handsome. Already his black eyes reflected a fierce, merciless determination. He said quietly but with such force of will-power that the others obeyed him: "Why don't your guys pipe down? Leave the kid alone can't you?"
"We was only ribbing," said Whitey.
The bigger boy regarded him solemnly. He was sure of himself and confident of his strength. His name was Nicholas. The other boys called him Big Nick on account of him being broader and taller than any of them. He said quietly, without it seeming to be a challenge: "Do you want I should tear your arm off and beat you to death?"
Whitey bit his lip and looked away from Nick, preventing he hadn't heard him.
"What's the matter, Joey?" asked Nick gently.
"They were gonna take my gun," complained Joey. He took it from his pocket and displayed it. "It's my gun," he said. "They wanted to take it."
Nick glared around at the others. "Why don't you fellas leave him alone?" he demanded. "You're always ganging up on him."
Whitey said, with an artful twist to his mean lips: "We was just fooling, Nick. Joey can't take it. He makes a squawk every time you rib him. We were gonna take his gun for a joke."
Nick scowled darkly. "Listen," he said. "If anyone's gonna take that gun, it's gonna be me. You shoulda asked me first."
"It's my gun, Nick," said Joey desperately. "You wouldn't wanna take it, would you? You wouldn't let them take it, would, Nick?
The fear and anxiety of the smaller boy was flattery to Nick's swollen ego. "Leave it to me," he said, grandly. "I'll kill anyone who takes it."
As long as Nick was around Joey knew he was safe. He tried to keep Nick by his side, showed him the gun and showed him the copper heads of the live cartridges. Nick was interested. He examined the gun with shining eyes. "One of these days," he told Joey, "I'm gonna have a gun like that. A repeater. My ole man says no guy's worth his salt unless he's gotta gun, same as the cops."
"This gun's mine," said Joey, still persisting in the lie. "It's loaded too."
"Sure it is," said Nick. "Sure it is. But don't let your ole man know you've taken it. He'll be real mad at you."
The other boys drifted away. Someone produced a ball and a piece of old timber and they began playing a crude game of baseball.
Jorgens, who was still aching from the pain in his groin, was watching Joey with narrowed eyes from a safe distance. He was waiting until Nick should leave him.
He didn't have to wait long for his opportunity. Nick's interest in the gun waned when he decided to show the other boys how to pitch to the batter. He left Joey, and immediately Jorgens, together with three of his friends, moved in on Joey.
They thrust at him, crowded around him and muffled his shrieks of alarm with their bodies. As he struck out frantically they grappled with him, held his arms and stamped heavy boots on his toes, while Jorgens surreptitiously plunged his hand into Joey's pocket, replacing the revolver with a heavy lump of metal.
They danced away from Joey, Jorgens brandishing the revolver, showing the world he'd got it. The other boys quickly crowded around Jorgens, all excitedly whooping.
It was several seconds before Joey realised the weight in his pocket was not the gun. When his fingers curled around the lump of iron he was swept up anew by a wave of fear. He saw again the hard glint of his father's eyes, the upraised arm and the swinging strap. His mind flinched with terror from the swift pain that followed.
He found he was sweating with fear, his mind recoiling from the penalties incurred if his father should discover he'd taken the revolver. Fear allowed him just one angle of escape. He had to get that revolver back from Jorgens!
Unafraid now and cat-footed, Joey stalked determinedly towards his tormentor.
Sensing the sudden desperation and tenseness in the atmosphere, the other boys grew suddenly quiet and fell back, leaving Joey and Jorgens facing each other. One blond and taunting, the other desperately determined and spurred on by a great fear.
"Give it me!" mouthed Joey. His face worked with desperation, beads of perspiration standing out on his forehead.
Jorgens flourished the gun and grinned mockingly. "Come and get it, sucker," he sneered.
"I'll get it!" snarled Joey, and using the piece of iron as a menacing weapon, he advanced on Jorgens slowly.
There wasn't one boy who didn't sense the sudden difference in the atmosphere. This was no longer a childish prank. Here was a boy goaded beyond endurance, goaded so far that the piece of iron in his hand had become a deadly weapon he would use without hesitation.
Jorgens, too, sensed the dangerous change in Joey. Fear leapt into his eyes and he stretched out one hand placatingly as he backed a couple of paces. "Just a minute Joey," he said. "We was just playing. It was only fun."
Joey said nothing. His eyes were blazing. He advanced on Jorgens steadily, hand upraised and anger written on every line of his face. "Give it to me!" he rasped.
He scared Jorgens. "Get back, Joey," he panted. Instinctively, he raised the gun he held, pointed it at Joey. "Get back, Joey!" he warned again. "Get back or I'll shoot!"
Joey stopped, poised on the brink of indecision, his arm upraised threateningly and anger smouldering in his eyes.
Nick, the one boy who possessed the leadership which could save the situation, stood on one side, calmly watching, one eyebrow upraised, as though he was speculating on the outcome.
Whitey suddenly added fuel to the fire. "You dope, Joey!" he yelled. "He won't shoot. Joey, you sucker, go for him! Take the gun from him. You big dumb-bell! You big dope! Don't be afraid of him!"
The taunts struck home and caused the tight-lipped Joey to advance another pace.
Jorgens' face was white now. He was as desperately afraid as Joey had been a few moments earlier. "I'll shoot, Joey," he threatened. "I'll kill you. I'll shoot." The revolver was trained straight between Joey's eyes.
"Joey, you dope!" shrieked Whitey, jumping up and down excitedly. "You big dumb-bell, you sap! Take it away from him! Sure you can get it. You can kill him now, you sap! Rush him!"
Even at that moment Nick could have saved the situation, intervened between the two boys, silenced the one with words and the other with a gesture. But he hovered, watching with a strange brooding glow in his eyes, almost as though he was hopefully anticipating the grim finale. As Joey trembled with rage, goaded beyond endurance, Whitey's voice sounded again. "Sure you can, Joey. Sure you can kill him. Go for him, dope! Take the gun!"
Whitey's taunting words were all that was needed. They were like the pressing on an electric button. Joey exploded into movement, rushing towards Jorgens with arm upraised to smash, pound and pulverise. For a moment Jorgens' feet were rooted to the ground with fear as he waited, undecided whether to drop the revolver and run or attempt to fight.
Joey swept down upon him, looming large and dangerous, the sun glittering on that upswinging, deadly piece of iron. An automatic self-defence mechanism was set off inside Jorgens. Almost without knowing it, his finger was pressing on the trigger, pulling harder and harder until with a shattering impact it exploded in his ears and eyes as Joey was picked up and hurled to one side by a giant invisible hand.
For a moment all of them were rooted to the spot while the crashing reverberation of that single shot echoed around them. Then they scattered, running blindly, pell-mell, stumbling, tripping, jumping across the broken masonry and loose bricks, scrambling frantically to get anywhere, somewhere out of reach of that awful thing that had happened.
Only one boy didn't run. Nick. With interested speculation in his eyes he bent over Joey and watched the convulsive twitching of the small boy. He knelt over him for a long while, watching intently, obtaining from his vigil a strange sense of power and omnipotence.
He was still kneeling there when folks who'd heard the shot began to arrive. Shirt-sleeved men, aproned women and uniformed cops, all white-faced and shocked.
* * *
"I suppose my name will get in the papers after this?" Nick asked the cop slyly.
The cop eyed him shrewdly. "That ain't nothing to be proud about, son."
"They'll know me then," said Nick proudly. "Everyone will know me. I'll be famous."
The cop snapped the band on his notebook and tucked it away in his tunic pocket.
"You'll learn, son," he said heavily.
The ambulance was there now. They were lifting a small blanketed figure on to a stretcher. The cop called to one of the stretcher-bearers, "What d'ya think?"
The internee shook his head doubtfully. "He's just gotta chance," he said. "Just a slender chance he'll pull through. But he'll never be the same."
Nick asked the cop: "Do I get a reward for telling the name of the guy who did it?"