Kaz had six months to adjust to the idea of sharing his life with another child before a baby boy was born. He was named Jozef in honor of Jozef Pilsudski, and the apartment instantly became smaller and noisier. A second-hand high chair was added to the kitchen table; a tiny, unpainted crib was hauled up the four flights of stairs and squeezed into the main bedroom; and a pair of lusty lungs howled day and night. Despite the disruptions to their quiet life, Uncle and Aunt fussed endlessly over their new son. Uncle's voice softened, and he stopped smoking in the apartment. Even his evening newspaper was often ignored. Kaz had never experienced such affection. He wanted to share in the joy he sensed around him, but he felt excluded. Disappointment filled his heart; he eyed the newcomer with envy.
His thoughts turned to the cold woman who'd refused to accept him as her son. Even though he felt no affection for her, he still longed for some sign of kindness, something to tell him he counted. There were his friends, of course, but they had their own families. The world was clamping down on his head with the grip of a large vise. He grew lethargic, unable to cope with the family scenes unfolding before him. His aunt still greeted him warmly each day when he pulled himself up the stairs after school, but she no longer tousled his hair. He sensed a hint of restraint in her manner. The affection he'd enjoyed from her lost its glow. His uncle showed even less interest in Kaz than he had before. Evening discussions about the news ceased. His attention was consumed by the wriggling figure wrapped in his arms. Kaz retreated to his bedroom, his only sanctuary in the apartment, and stared for hours at the ceiling. It took all his strength to present himself at the dinner table, and his appetite waned. The apartment no longer felt like home.
Disturbing thoughts skittered through his mind, thoughts about metal railings and the undertow of river boats. Life, he decided, was nothing more than a deck of cards, only his deck held too many deuces and not enough aces. Every time he shuffled the cards, he drew a losing hand. One thing was certain. He didn't fit into the family puzzle anymore. He would be better off somewhere else, but where? Not with his mother. She didn't want him anymore than his uncle. Kaz was still orphaned, still abandoned, and now he'd been pushed aside by a crying baby who demanded everyone's attention. He had an overwhelming desire to run away, but there was nowhere to go, no place to hide.
The disturbing thoughts grew more insistent. The inner voice he tried so hard to suppress pushed itself to the surface. It cantered forth with fresh promises of danger and adventure. It told him it was the only way to relieve his pain. His blood stirred. He knew what he must do.
“I'm going back to blood alley,” he announced to Charlie and Woz during lunch at school. “I want to take on that train.”
Charlie scratched his head. Woz scuffed the floor with his shoe. Neither looked at Kaz or said a word. They hadn't returned to blood alley since their first visit. They'd talked about it, about the men that went there to test their courage, but something had held them back. Charlie had finally admitted that the idea of a train bearing down on him was more excitement than he needed. Kaz hadn't agreed, but he'd kept quiet, until now.
“Are you coming?” Kaz demanded.
“The last time you did something like this you damn near killed yourself.” Everyone knew Charlie was talking about the swings in the school yard. “Why should we be part of another one of your crazy stunts?”
“Because you're my friends, and I don't want to jump alone. But if you're too scared, then I guess I will.” Kaz gave Charlie a fierce look that dared him to say no.
Charlie stared back, his body stiff with resentment. He and Kaz had always been competitive with one another, but not like this. This was more than a dare. Kaz was asking Charlie if he had backbone. This was a challenge that couldn't be ignored. He met Kaz's glare and nodded.
Woz let out the breath he'd been holding and did the same. “If you go, we all go.”
“That settles it then,” Kaz said with satisfaction. “There's a freight train every afternoon about half-past four, but we should get there early, in case there's other jumpers. Make sure we get a good spot. Let's go tomorrow.”
They met at four the next day and slithered under the wire fence protecting the tracks. Two men already stood by the rails looking at the curve where the train would appear. Soon, two more arrived. They glanced at the three boys with surprise.
“This is no place for youngsters,” one of them warned.
“Just as right for us as you,” Kaz responded with defiance. “All you need is the will to jump.”
The two men shrugged and moved on. Kaz surveyed the area. The men were all standing by the tracks near where they entered. They smoked and chatted while passing the time. Kaz estimated by their casual demeanor that they had been there before. They’d chosen prime spots, but there was still room for two or three more. Charlie and Woz stepped forward and picked an area where the ground looked firm. They nervously turned their attention to the tracks. The fence where they'd entered was about ten feet away at that point, leaving enough room for half-a-dozen steps before making the jump. A black coating of cinders from the trains' smokestacks blanketed the area. To Kaz's left, the fence sloped away from the tracks to avoid an outcropping of rocks, which left more room for a running start. Here, the black cinders mingled with loose gravel, and the footing was less certain. He wandered over and inspected the ground. The problem was simple. If he could run faster, he could jump when the train got closer, but if he slipped, all would be lost. It was a matter of timing and luck. All he had to do was time his jump properly. The voice in his head laughed; it liked his thinking.
Kaz tested the ground where he would plant his feet for the jump and tried a few quick starts. The gravel shifted under his weight, but the soil underneath remained firm. His heart thrummed in his chest as he calculated the distance he would need to travel and the time it would take. He wiped his clammy hands on his trousers and counted the steps. He was momentarily distracted by the sound of trucks clamoring along a nearby thoroughfare. He glanced toward the sound, but the trees and bushes outside the fence blocked his view. Kaz returned his attention to the tracks, set his feet and sprinted forward. He hit his takeoff spot and leaped across the rails in a graceful motion. He was ready.
No sooner had he finished his practice run than a great shriek split the silence. It resonated in the chilled air and swept over the waiting men with the force of an ocean wave. All eyes swiveled to the place where the tracks disappeared. Anxious moments passed without any sign of the monster approaching them. A flicker of hope pulsed through the group. Perhaps, it wasn't the train after all. That hope was quickly dashed when a geyser of angry, gray smoke burst through the foliage, and a fiendish face in the shape of a blackened, full moon rounded the bend, accompanied by the heaves and sighs of a laboring engine and the squeals of metal wheels grinding on iron rails.
Kaz knew instantly that this was a far greater challenge than anything he'd faced before. The train charging down the tracks both frightened and mesmerized him. He wanted to defy its power and embrace it at the same time. Would it be so bad to jump into its arms? His life would be over, but his pain would be gone. He recalled the bullet that had zinged past his ear. It had nearly ended his life, but he’d been glad to escape it. He realized that he had no desire to die now, either. Not by his own hand. Only a hunger to test the limits of his courage.
There was no more time to think. His friends were already in position next to the four men. Kaz hurried to his spot. The sounds of the engine straining against the limits of its power roared at him as the train hurtled forward. Events began moving too quickly for him to do more than react to what he saw. The first two men ran and jumped across the rails well ahead of the engine. The next two waited longer, poised in a contest to see who was the braver. One leaped and cleared the train with feet to spare. The other followed, but too late. The engine's great, blackened face seemed to snarl as it struck the man's leg and sent him spinning off the tracks.
He disappeared from sight behind the charging train. Charlie and Woz froze when they saw the body flipping away from them and didn't move. Kaz ignored them. All his thoughts were focused on that cunning blackened face rushing toward him. Instincts took over and he was off, sprinting across the gravel into the mouth of hell. A rush of air pushed at him as his feet left the ground and his body soared into the air. The noise of the roaring engine enveloped him. His mouth, dry as sand, opened in a scream that joined the squeals of the tortured track beneath the train's wheels. The engine’s face was so close, Kaz thought it would surely devour him. He braced for the impact of steel against flesh, but nothing happened. The face was gone, and the train whooshed past him. Hot air blasted him as he tumbled to earth beyond the rails. The train had had him in its grasp and let him go. Kaz rolled over in the cinders and watched in wonder as a parade of boxcars groaned past him. His right arm stung where he'd landed on it. His head ached from the noise. His lungs chafed from the choking smoke and coal dust. But he was alive! Slowly, the train retreated down the tracks with a steady click-clack, click-clack, click-clack that grew fainter and fainter.
Kaz's chest heaved with heavy breaths as he rose to his feet. The air tasted cool; he gulped it in. Charlie and Woz raced toward him with shrieks of laughter, but his attention was drawn to the man who'd been struck by the train, afraid of what he might see. To his amazement, he found him standing on his feet and leaning against his friend while he tested his right leg. He'd defied death just as Kaz had done and survived the challenge. The man caught his gaze and tipped his cap with two fingers in a salute of respect. Kaz nodded in return. He knew they had both beaten life's odds that day. It was unlikely either would return to blood alley to do so again.