Artie's Courage: Chapter 1

 

In all the world, nothing has greater potential to ruin a beautiful day than a missing child. Except, perhaps, two missing children.

Esperanza felt her pulse rising as she checked the back streets, trying not to make eye contact with any of the beggars. Her brothers were not there, nor were they in the plaza or any of the other spots where they often played. She cursed. Her life would not be worth living if news got back to her mother that the boys were missing. She had clearly ordered them not to leave the plaza without telling her, but did they ever listen? How could they do this to her again, today of all days, when Esperanza had promised her mother that she would take good care of them?

Today was supposed to have been her day. She had been so excited to visit Catalina and tell her the good news, the two of them drinking tea and gossiping in the kitchen while the boys played outside. The plaza had just begun to calm as the cloying heat of the day set in, the stalls of fruit and handmade trinkets packing away ready for siesta time. Her brothers had been dancing with their friends in front of the kiosca to some musician or other, and Esperanza had allowed her mind to drift as she watched them through the kitchen window, listening to the soft, lilting music of the guitar and daydreaming about what it might be like to be the wife of a handsome Don.

 

Then she had looked up, and the boys had vanished.

 

At first, Esperanza had not panicked. They had probably just gone to the sweet shop, as they often did on the days when they came down to the pueblo. However, when she went to chivvy them along, the shop owner shrugged and told her that the boys had already been and gone. They were not with their friends, and she couldn’t see them by the stalls or under the trees in the plaza where they sometimes played. They were gone.

 

She gritted her teeth, trying to work out where to go next. They knew she was only at Catalina’s house on the corner if they wanted to go anywhere else. Did they ever listen? Now she was going to be late returning to her mother, and it would only be a matter of time before Louisa got impatient and came looking for them. She would be furious, and Esperanza had neither the will nor the energy to deal with one of her hysterical outbursts today.

She took a turn down the side street towards Tía Victoria’s shop, hoping that the boys had bored and returned to their mother. It was empty. They weren’t at Carlos’ jewellery workshop, and there was no sign of them at the bakery, the shoemaker’s or any of the other shops on the street. Esperanza’s frustration was giving way to fear now. Soon, she was going to have to start asking around, and then there would be no hiding the truth from her mother.

 

“Excuse me, Señor,” she begged the nearest man. “You haven’t seen two young boys, have you? One is twelve and the other is six, they’re my brothers and-”

 

“Señorita, I’ve seen two hundred children who match that description this morning,” the man snapped back. “I’ve no time to help you look for yours.”

She shot him a dark look, but before she could respond, a child’s scream erupted in the surrounding air. Esperanza dropped her basket and ran.

 

Felipe’s voice cried out again from the direction of the plaza, calling her younger brother’s name, and Esperanza stumbled over the cobbles towards it. She spotted them immediately. Felipe was standing near the middle of the square, his hands covering his face in fear. A man knelt beside the kiosca, restraining a small figure whom she instantly recognised as Miguel.

 

She could only see him from the back, but she could tell straight away that the man was one of the many street dwellers of Santa Sofia. He was tall and thin, and his thick, dark hair hung in a tangled mop down past the collar of his ragged shirt. His faded trousers were rolled up almost to the knees, held up by a piece of rope which he was using as a belt, and his feet were dirty and bare. One skinny arm was wrapped tight around Miguel’s chest to stop him from getting away. Esperanza couldn’t see the man’s face, but Miguel’s features were fixed in an expression of wide-eyed terror, and she watched with horror as the man raised his fist and hit the little boy several times on the back.

The child gave a frightened cry, and at once his captor spun him around so that their faces were level, speaking to him in a low voice that Esperanza could not hear. Her nostrils flared, and she flew across the plaza with a snarl like a mountain cat.

 

“Get away from him!” she roared, hurling the stranger to the ground.

The beggar cowered, whimpering like a frightened child as he fell backwards onto the cobbles. Esperanza paused in surprise, her fist half-raised, her anger giving way to uncertainty. She had expected him to fight or even run, but not this.

Now that she could see him up close, she realised he was much younger than she had expected; more a boy than a man, and certainly no older than herself. His face was clean-shaven, his nose and cheeks smudged with dirt. There was something distinctly underfed about him, with his high, pronounced cheekbones and long skinny limbs. Now that she looked at him, it was very difficult to see him as any sort of physical threat at all; he looked as though a strong wind could blow him over.

 

When no further attack came from her, he peered out at her from between his fingers, and she saw a glimpse of large, chestnut-coloured eyes shining up at her through his uncombed hair.

The street boy lowered his hands. His eyes met hers, and a look of shock and wonder passed over his features. They stared at each other, and for a moment she felt as though time was standing still. Those eyes were so expressive, so familiar somehow, although she couldn’t think of where she had seen them before. For a second, she forgot why she was so angry.

A quiet whimper from Miguel jolted her back to her senses, and she raised her fists again with a growl.

“What did you think you were doing, hitting my little brother like that?” she snarled at the boy on the ground, making him flinch again. “What did he ever do to you?”

 

The boy made no reply. He was still staring into her eyes as though hypnotised, his lips moving soundlessly. Somehow, it was more irritating than if he had chosen to argue with her.

 

“Hermana…” interrupted Miguel through his tears, slipping his sticky little hand into hers. “Hermana, he wasn’t-”

“Let him speak for himself,” she snapped. “Well? What’s wrong with you, can’t you speak?”

The boy nodded his head and swallowed, still not taking his eyes from hers.

 

“Then explain yourself, and choose your words well. They may be your last.” She flexed her fingers threateningly, trying to intimidate him, but the boy didn’t even seem to hear her. He just continued to stare up at her through his long, thick eyelashes, wearing a ridiculous awestruck expression that made her want to kick him.

“Please, Hermana,” interrupted Miguel again. “Don’t be cross with him. He was only being kind to me.”

 

“Kind?” Esperanza wheeled around to face the child, unsure whether she should be angry at him too for taking the street boy’s side over hers. “How is hitting a little child being kind?”

 

“He wasn’t trying to hurt me.” Miguel’s face was tear-stained, his eyes wide and shining. “I was eating my sweet, and it got stuck in my throat and I couldn’t breathe. This man ran over and banged me on the back and the sweet came out.”

Esperanza froze for a second, her fists still balled ready to strike, her mind whirring as she tried to process his words.

“It’s true,” Felipe joined in, putting his arm around his brother. “We were dancing and Miguel started choking on his sweet. He went a funny colour and I shouted for help, then this man came running over and saved him.”

A strange wave of guilt washed over Esperanza. If what the boys were saying was true, then she had been guilty of a grave error of judgement. No wonder Miguel had looked so frightened if he hadn’t been able to breathe. She pictured again how the man had held Miguel, how he had struck him between the shoulders until the little boy cried out with relief, and the more she thought about it the more obvious her mistake became.

She turned back to the young man, but he had vanished.

“Señor?” she called across the plaza, looking around uncertainly for a sign of where he might have gone. “Wait, please… I’m sorry.”

 

“He can’t hear you,” Felipe pointed out. “You scared him off with all your shouting, and now he’s run away.”

 

“Yes, I got that, thank you,” said Esperanza through clenched teeth. “I’m sorry. I panicked, I thought he was trying to rob Miguel.”

 

“For what? All he’s got is boiled sweets.”

 

“If he wants my sweets he can have them,” Miguel told her earnestly. “I don’t want to ever eat sweets again after today.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little paper bag, holding it up to show her. “He did look hungry, didn’t he?”

 

“Si,” she sighed. “He did. But I didn’t think he was after your sweets. I thought… I don’t know what I thought. Maybe he was after money or something. I don’t know. All I saw was some ragged stranger hitting my little brother, it was only natural to assume that he was trying to rob you. He’s a beggar, sometimes they can get desperate.”

“He’s not a beggar,” Miguel argued. “He’s a músico. We were listening to him playing his guitar before I choked on my sweet. He was nice, he let us dance with him in the kiosca.”

So that must have been why she recognised the boy. He was the musician who had been playing in the kiosca while she was at Catalina’s house, the one she had seen her brothers dancing to. All that time, they had been right there in the plaza, if only she had thought to look up at the stage. Still, it didn’t explain why she had felt such a jolt of nostalgia when she looked into those chestnut eyes.

“All right, so he’s not a beggar,” she conceded. “But he’s still a street boy. Mamá would go mad if she knew you were dancing in the plaza with someone like him. She would never let you come around town with me again.”

“Good,” Miguel pouted, turning his back on her. “I never want to go around town with you again. You’re horrible. If he is a street boy like you say, then I think his life is hard enough already, without having mad loco girls like you attacking him just because he wears raggedy clothes.”

 

Esperanza’s conscience gave a guilty twist. If she had seen a well-dressed man behaving like that towards her brother, would she have still assumed the same thing? Or would she have at least given him a chance to explain? She couldn’t be sure. A memory stirred of an argument she had once had with her mother. She had only been around Miguel’s age, and Louisa had dragged her home and scolded her for playing with one of the ragged street children. It had taken Esperanza a long time to forgive her mother for taking away her new friend. Her brothers were right; she had jumped to unfair conclusions about the boy in the plaza, just like her mother had that day so long ago.

 

“I’m sorry, Gordito,” she admitted, trying to put a soothing arm around her brother. “You’re right, I was very mean to that poor street boy, and I’m very sorry for it. I was just so frightened when I saw him hitting you like that. Are you all right now?”

 

“Si, thanks to him,” Miguel sniffled, shrugging her off. “I never want to eat another sweet again.”

Esperanza laughed.

 

“I doubt that your hatred of sweets will last for very long, mi príncipito, but still. Would it make you feel better if I promise to watch out for your friend the next time I’m near the plaza, and tell him how sorry I am for being mean to him?”

 

“Si,” Miguel sniffed. “You promise?”

“I promise.” Esperanza hugged him, and he nodded, brushing the tears from his eyes. “Now, we need to get back to Mamá and the cart. We’re already late, she’ll be worried sick. I think maybe it’s best that she doesn’t find out about this, all right?”

 

Esperanza knew it would be best for everyone if they all kept quiet. As nobody had ended up harmed on this occasion, there was nothing to gain from troubling Louisa with it.

 

“Si, all right,” Miguel agreed. He ran over to the kiosca, pulled out the little paper bag of sweets, and balanced it against the railings where the street musician would see it.

“Just in case he comes back,” he explained. “It will give him something to eat.”

 

“I’m sure he will be very grateful,” said Esperanza, trying to ignore the tightening knot of guilt in her stomach. “Now, come on. Time to go.”

 

She took her brothers’ hands and led them towards the taverna on the outskirts of the pueblo, where she knew old Rafael would be waiting with her mother and the cart, resolving to put the boy from her mind for now. After all, she had far more important things to think about today. This was the day that her future was to begin, and she had to make sure that she was ready.

 

She did not see the large pair of chestnut eyes watching her from behind the kiosca steps, or the smile of wonder on the boy’s dirt-smudged face.

As soon as he was sure that the girl and her brothers had gone, he crept out from his hiding place and examined the bag that the little boy had left for him. The child had been right; he had been hungry, although his appetite seemed to have evaporated now.

 

He had recognised her immediately, even after all this time. Those eyes had always been there in the back of his mind, every day for the last… how long had it been now? Twelve years? Too long, he knew that much. He took a deep, calming breath, trying to stop his hands from shaking. It had been silly to hide from her, although he had not done it due to fear. He had just felt so overwhelmed at seeing her again that he didn’t know what else to do. He was aware of how dirty and ragged he looked, and had been ashamed of what she must think of him.

 

Next time, he vowed, he would be more prepared. And there would be a next time. Somehow, he would make sure of it.

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