To those, Sir…who would not mind Pugilism,
if Boxing was not so shockingly vulgar—the
following work can have no interest whatever.
—P. Egan, Boxiana (1823)
New York City—Gardner's wharf
13th of June 1830, afternoon
OVER THE COURSE of a rough life filled to the brim with gambling, drinking, swearing and boxing, Edward Coleman had taken residence in eleven different parts of the city in an effort to avoid three things: the creditors, his wife and his mother-in-law, who were all determined to bleed him dry.
Not having heard from any of them in too many years to count made him wonder if perhaps he'd mastered the art of the moonlight flit a bit more than he'd wanted. But then again, fate had never liked him all that much. He didn't even know why he was astounded at glimpsing his mother-in-law pushing through the dust ridden male masses just beyond the milling fence at the match.
The woman had aged considerably since he'd last seen her, but that bundled coif and pert little nose
remained the same. A gaggle of young men in grey wool caps, coats and trousers, whom he knew to be Jane's brothers–and my, how they'd grown—strategically wove through the packed boxing crowd behind her.
Mrs. Walsh had only ever sought him out when she needed one of two things: money or money. The
United States government could make use of a woman like that.
Coleman swung back toward the fence. "We should go."
His friend, Matthew Joseph Milton, leaned toward him. "Go?" Those dark brows rose a fraction, causing the worn, leather patch over his left eye to shift. "What about your fight? You're up next."
"I know." Coleman knotted his shoulder-length hair back with the twine he'd yanked off his wrist. "But something came up. As such, I can't stay."
"Something came up? Whilst we were standing here?"
"Yes and yes."
Matthew lowered his stubbled chin. "I may have one eye, but that doesn't make me stupid. What is it? Are you in some sort of trouble?"
"No, I—" Blood sprayed from the ring past the fence, covering the front of the only great coat he owned. Coleman hissed out an agitated breath and scanned what remained of the fight. "Amateurs. They can't even keep the blood within the boundaries of the fence anymore."
Matthew snorted. "You never do." Still watching the fight, Matthew froze. "That bastard is going down with my dime!" Matthew hooked a rigid right fist. "Feck!"
"I told you not to bet on him."
The well-muscled youth, whose lacerated features had been disfigured by the unrelenting blows of eighteen rounds, attempted to stagger up off his knees, bloodstained trousers barely clinging to narrow hips.
Another bare-knuckled fist bounced off his sweat-soaked head as more blood splattered from that nose and mouth toward the crowd. The youth collapsed onto the wood boards laid out on the flattened sun-burned grass. Several men groaned in disappointment, hitting the fence as the youth was dragged off to the side.
Coleman glanced back again, gauging how much time he had. Mrs. Walsh was still pushing through the crowd and didn't appear to have noticed him. Yet. He propped up the collar on his great coat to better hide his face and tossed out at Matthew, "I'll see you tomorrow. If Stanley comes looking for me, tell him I broke my hand."
"Broke your—" Matthew caught his arm. "Coleman. We need money. Or we're back to robbing shipments at the docks for the next two weeks. Hell, I know our troop is called the Forty Thieves, but do we really have to live up to our name?"
Coleman unhooked his arm from that hold. "If I stay, we'll lose whatever I take from my fight."
"What do you mean? To who?"
A rolled newspaper bounced off the back of Coleman's head. "Thought you'd up and disappear on me, did you?" a woman belted out from behind.
Coleman didn't even bother shielding his head. He deserved it for having ever married Jane. "To her," he told Matthew.
Matthew swung toward the aggressor and shoved the rolled newspaper back and away. "Where is your sense of refinement, woman? A paper is meant to be read. Not mangled on the heads of others. Now put it away."
Coleman grudgingly turned and eyed all nine Walsh boys gathered at varying heights behind their elderly mother. Their wool caps were adjusted in every possible direction but the one they were designed for.
Coleman hesitated. Each wore a black band on the arm of their wool coats. His gaze jumped to his mother-in-law, whose plain gown had been stitched of bombazine. Someone had died. And he knew full well Mrs. Walsh had no living husband or relatives.
His pulse drummed. "Mrs. Walsh. Jane didn't…?"
Tears glazed those dark eyes. "Aye. She did." Drawing thin lips together, she set her aging chin. "Poured too much laudanum into her whiskey barely a week ago. Never woke up. I wasn't there when it happened, but that's what the coroner is sayin'. She was with a—" She wouldn't meet his gaze. "She was with a friend when it happened."
Meaning a man. The very last of several hundred, no doubt. Not that Coleman had been any more loyal. God bless poor Jane. She had her men and he had his women and that was why it had fallen apart. Neither of them were capable of monogamy.
Coleman shifted his jaw and looked away, knowing he should have felt something in that moment.
Anything. Remorse. Sadness. Bitterness. But the truth was, he knew it was going to end like this. He had done everything to keep Jane from mixing laudanum into her whiskey. But there were some things a man simply couldn't box.
Mrs. Walsh hesitated and added, "Someone told me you'd be millin' today. I don't want to be a burden, but we need seven dollars to bury her. I won't have her dropped into a dirt hole."
He swiped his face. He didn't have seven dollars.
Matthew leaned in. "Coleman. What is this? Who is she talking about?"
Coleman's chest tightened. Christ. He had spent years crawling away from a past he didn't want to
remember, and now, everyone was about to know his business. Of course, if there was anyone he knew he could trust to know his business, it was Matthew. Though only Matthew. "My wife," he eventually muttered. "She died."
Matthew grabbed his coat. "What? You're married?"
"Yes. I am. Or rather…I was." Eyeing his mother-in-law, who had grown quiet, he sighed. "Mrs. Walsh. I can only offer five if I go in and fight. The prize is for ten and I have others depending on me. Will that be enough?"
She half nodded. "We can do without the wreath and flowers. And I can dress her in one of her old
gowns." She brought her hands together, fingering the newspaper she held. "There be another matter
pertainin' to Jane."
Coleman folded his arms over his chest to keep himself from fidgeting. He had never learned how to say no to a woman. Not even when it came to his damn mother-in-law. It was a curse. "What is it?"
That bundled grey-brown hair, which was sliding out from its pins, bobbed as she unraveled the rolled newspaper. She took apart page after page, tossing it to the ground. "Apparently she contacted these men before she died. I can't read it." She fumbled to fold and refold a page and pointed at what appeared to be an advertisement. "Heaven only knows why, but they came to my door askin' what she knew. I wasn't able to answer. Maybe you can?"
"I doubt it. Jane and I haven't spoken in years." Coleman took the newspaper from her and read it.
A British boy by the name of Nathaniel James Atwood who disappeared in the year 1800
under suspicious circumstance is being sought out by his family. Information pertaining to his
disappearance, his whereabouts or his remains shall be well rewarded. Please send all
inquiries to His Grace, the Duke of Wentworth, or his son, Lord Yardley, who will both be
residing at the Adelphi Hotel on Broadway until further notice.
A pulsing knot seized his throat. He knew he should have never told Jane spit. Coleman crumpled the paper and tossed it at the ground. "I don't know. Maybe she wanted to dirk them for money. Did you ask her?"
"She was already dead." A strangled sob escaped Mrs. Walsh. She covered her mouth with a trembling hand, those features twisting.
He winced. He shouldn't have said anything.
Every single Walsh boy now stared him down, their youthful faces hardening to an age closer to his own. One of them flicked out a razor and rounded his mother.
Matthew yanked both pistols from his leather belt and pointed each muzzle. "Don't make me go click, razor boy."
Mrs. Walsh popped out both arms, to shield her boys, who all scrambled back.
Coleman dragged in a breath. "Put the pistols away, Milton. He's just a boy."
Matthew grunted and shoved them back into his leather belt. "A boy who ought to learn some manners."
The crowd around them dinned.
Coleman heard his name being called.
Knowing his designated fight was set to begin, Coleman flexed his hands and glanced toward the milling fence. A burly dark-haired man stepped into the fenced arena and stripped. Throwing large bare hands into the air, Vincent the Iron Fist, as he was known throughout the ward, yelled at the crowd to cheer as the Umpire repainted the fighting line with broken chalk.
It was time to spray blood and earn ten dollars.
Leaning in toward his mother-in-law, he squeezed her arm. "Stay here." Stripping his coat and yanking his linen shirt up over his head, Coleman bundled them and tossed everything toward the only man he'd ever entrust his clothes to: Matthew. "For God's sake, don't let her watch," he said, gesturing to Mrs. Walsh.
Matthew caught his clothes and slung them over his shoulder. "I'll turn her the other way."
"You do that." Ducking beneath the crudely nailed planks that divided the crowd from the fight, Coleman entered the grass flattened area.
Hordes of men gathered closer to the fence, making the planks sway.
"Fist the piss out of him, Vincent!" someone hollered. "He's a Brit!"
"Brit or no Brit," another joined in, "I've got fifteen dollars riding on him. You hear that, Coleman? Fifteen dollars. So don't let me down!"
It was pathetic knowing his name was only worth fifteen. But then again, it was better than the half-dollar he was worth years ago. Rising shouts filled the humid summer air as he stalked toward the chalked line, the piercing heat of the sun pulsing from the sky against his bare chest and face.
Massive shoulders and heavily scarred knuckles headed toward the opposing chalked line. Vincent the Iron Fist brought two beefy fists up to his unshaven round chin, widening his stance.
Widening his own stance, Coleman squared his bare shoulders and snapped up both fists. Tightening his thumbs around his knuckles, he waited for the umpire's signal, his chest rising and falling in slow, even pumps.
Cheers and shouts rippled through the air.
The umpire lifted his hand and swung it down. "Set to!"
Vincent darted forward and whipped a fist at his head.
Coleman jumped away, boots skidding and jumped back in, determined to rip out every last thought of poor Jane. Gritting his teeth, he rammed a shoulder-powered fist beneath those exposed ribs, hitting the expanse of flesh with a crunching sting that jarred the swinging arm.
Coleman knew the son of a bitch was going down.
Staggering against the hit, Vincent stumbled back toward the fence and onto the ground, chest pumping.
"To the line!" The umpire pointed to the chalked marking. "Half a minute to get to the line. One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six!"
Coleman jogged back over to the line, keeping both fists up. "Come on, Vincent," he called out as the
umpire kept counting. "Get up. Give me and the crowd a fight. You're making us both look bad."
Vincent set his jaw, scrambled up and jogged over to the line before the last ten seconds.
The Umpire raised a hand between them. "Round two, gents. And…set to!"
Vincent darted forward and shot out an unexpected side sweep that cracked into the side of Coleman's head, causing him to stumble against the searing blow. His focus wavered as a blur of hits assaulted his drifting senses. Blood now tinged his mouth and dribbled from his nose as Coleman dodged and blocked only those blows that were necessary in an effort to conserve strength.
The sequence of knuckled fists quickened, cracking down onto and into Coleman's shoulders and arms.
Vincent grunted in an effort to keep the blows steady.
Leveling his breathing, Coleman systematically counted those hard hits as they penetrated his muscle and bone, jarring him with pain. Between ragged, staggering breaths, Coleman counted every swing, until he found the pattern he'd been looking for. Five swings and a pause. Five swings and a pause. The man was a hall clock.
Five brutal punches pummeled Coleman's shoulders again. Darting forward right at the pause, Coleman rammed a fist below that ear. The jarring of his own muscled arm against the side of his opponent’s head announced that he'd delivered the perfect hit: a blood vessel shot.
Vincent's eyes bulged. He staggered, his swollen, blood-slathered hands jumping up to shield his head. Gritting his teeth, Coleman jumped in and hit the now-exposed side until his knuckles were clenchingly numb. Belting out a riled roar he'd been holding, knowing Jane had stupidly lost her last breath to laudanum he slammed a fist up and deep into Vincent's lower ribs, trying to break them all in half.
Vincent wheeled back and collapsed onto the ground. His gnarled, swollen hands covered his side as he gasped. Bright red blood streamed from his nose and lips as he rocked in anguished panting silence.
"Back!" the umpire called, holding out a hand and ordering Coleman to get back to the chalked line.
Peddling toward the chalk line with both fists still up, Coleman waited, chest heaving and nostrils flaring. He could feel his right eye swelling shut as sweat dripped from his forehead to his nose and down the length of his chin. He swiped at it, smearing blood from his nose, and awaited the verdict.
The crowd counted down in unison.
When Iron Fist didn't rise, he knew he'd won.
The umpire pointed at Coleman. "Here be the champion of this here quarter! The next and last quarter is set to begin with new opponents in fifteen minutes. So place your bets, gents!"
Coleman sometimes felt like he was cattle. No one ever even announced his name when he won. But that was street fighting for you. It was about money and blood. Nothing more.
In a blur of shouts and the waving of hats in the dust-ridden summer heat, Coleman dropped his arms, spit out the acrid blood that had gathered in his mouth and staggered over to the side fence where his earnings waited.
Stanley, who always assisted Coleman in coordinating his street fights at fifty cents a piece, tsked,
his unkempt whiskers shifting against his round face. "Why the hell do you keep doin' these measly dollar street fights? You're not gettin' any younger, you know. In fact, most boxers your age are not only retired but dead."
"I appreciate the confidence, Stanley."
"You need to cease runnin' out on the investors I bring and take on bigger fights over on Staten Island, is what. Because it's breakin' you. And it's breakin' me. I can't make a livin' at fifty cents a fight."
"If you don't like the money I bring, walk. Because I'm not about to take on an investor. Every one I've met is nothing more than a money-licking asshole looking to own me." Coleman could feel the welts on his body swelling, stretching his pulsing skin. He refocused. "I want my ten. Now."
Stanley grumbled something and held out the tin bucket. A tied sack, filled with coins, waited. "Ten. And I booked another street fight for you in two weeks. You can pay me then."
"Good. I appreciate it." Coleman reached into the bucket and yanked out the muslin sack. Shifting the weight of the coins in his swollen hand, he jogged back toward the fence.
He ducked beneath the planks and rejoined the crowd. Leaning toward Mrs. Walsh, he grabbed her bare hand and set the muslin sack into it. Goodbye, Jane. I'm sorry it ended like this for you. "Take all of it. Buy her the wreath and the flowers and a new gown and keep whatever is left for yourself and the boys."
She glanced up. "You loved her. Didn't you?"
Coleman said nothing. He didn't want to lie to her. Because he'd never loved Jane. He'd learned to help women like Jane get out of stupid situations, yes, and enjoyed having sex with said women he got out of stupid situations, yes, but love? He'd never known it or felt it. Nor did he want to. Love was a messy business that not only fucked with a man's head, but made a man do things he shouldn't.
Mrs. Walsh grabbed hold of him and yanked him close. "Come to the funeral."
He flinched against the touch that seared his bruised body. Unlatching her arms, he stepped back and shook his head. "I really don't want to see her in a casket."
"I understand." She patted the small sack of coins. "May God bless." She nodded and moved into the crowd.
The Walsh boys lowered their gazes and disappeared after their mother, one by one.
Coleman blankly stared after them, knowing it would be the last time he'd ever see them now that Jane was gone.
Matthew rounded him and held out his frayed linen shirt. "I've known you for eight years, Coleman. Eight. Why the hell didn't you tell me you were married?"
Coleman grabbed the shirt and pulled the cool linen over his sweaty, blood-ridden body, wincing against the movements. "Because it wasn't much of a marriage. It was more like me helping a girl out of a situation and keeping her legally out of other people's hands."
Matthew held out the rest of his clothing, which Coleman also grabbed and put on. "I'm still sorry to hear she passed."
Coleman shrugged. "It was only a matter of time. She was overly wild and consumed laudanum and
whiskey like water." He perused the trash-strewn ground. Finding the advertisement he'd earlier tossed, he swiped up the balled newspaper and shoved it into his pocket. For later.
Three hefty men, including a tall, well-muscled negro in a frayed linen shirt and wool trousers, suddenly pressed in on him and Matthew.
Coleman's brows went up, realizing it was Smock, Andrews and Kerner—members of their group, the Forty Thieves. "You missed the fight." Coleman thumbed toward the milling fence and smirked. "Although Vincent's blood is still on the ground. Feel free to look around."
Smock swiped a hand across his black, unshaven face. "We're not here for the fight."
Everyone grew quiet.
Matthew quickly leaned in. "Jesus. Is someone dead?"
Andrews scrubbed his oily head with a dirt-crusted hand. "Nah. But it ain't good, either."
Kerner's bearded face remained stoic.
Coleman stared them down. "Does someone want to tell me what the hell is going on? Or are we going to stand here like bricks and play charades?"
Kerner's bushy brows rose to his shaggy hairline. "Apparently, two girls went missing from the local
orphanage. There's been grumblings in the ward as to what happened. We're talking prostitution. Sister Catherine called on me this morning and is terrified knowing the rumors are true. These missing girls are barely eight."
Coleman hissed out a breath. The amount of sick bastards in this world taking advantage of children made him want to break rib cages all day long. He was damn well glad he wasn't the only one putting up fists. The sole reason he and Matthew had created the Forty Thieves was to clean up the rancid aspects of the slums they all lived in. The trouble was, there was too much to clean and very little money to clean it with. "I say we get the boys together and decide who can resolve this mess best. Milton? When and where?"
Matthew pointed at Coleman. "Anthony Street. In three hours. The usual place. Someone has to know something. Maybe we can buy a few tongues. Though God knows with what. Informants these days only want money. Kerner, Smock, Andrews, come with me. We need to get our hands on twenty dollars. Coleman? Clean yourself up. Your face and nose need tending." Matthew rounded into the crowd with the boys following suit and disappeared.
A humid wind blew in from the wharf, feathering Coleman's pulsing skin. He made his way back to the milling fence and stood there, amidst the dust and shouts, staring at nothing in particular.
He probably shouldn't have given Mrs. Walsh all ten dollars. Informants were anything but cheap and expected at least a dollar apiece.
Coleman momentarily closed his eyes, knowing what needed to be done. All that mattered was doing right by those girls and the countless others like them, and giving them the chance he never got when he was their age.
Reopening his eyes, Coleman slowly pulled out the crumpled advertisement from his wool coat pocket and stared at the words well rewarded. He didn't know who the hell this Duke of Wentworth and Lord Yardley were or why they were looking for Nathaniel after almost thirty fucking years, but he did know one thing. He would swallow what had once been and use these men to get as much money as he could, to set him and the Forty Thieves up to help anyone in a similar predicament to these girls. Everything in life came at a price. And knowing there were children whose very lives depended on whatever he and Matthew could buy, it was a price he was more than willing to pay...