Survival, gentlemen. Life is all about survival.
—The Truth Teller, a New York Newspaper for Gentlemen
New York City—Orange Street
WHEN IT HAD BEEN UNCOVERED that their bookkeeper and longtime friend, Mister Richard Rawson, was actually a money-pilfering son of a mudsill, Matthew and his father had sent the authorities straight to Rawson’s house to make an arrest. Rawson, realizing he was about to hang, saddled a horse
and galloped off, leaving behind a clutter of furniture and foppish clothing worth a sliver of nothing. The rest of the money taken from coffers of the Milton newspaper—two thousand dollars of it—Rawson had long since squandered on gambling and countless whores, whose extravagant tastes included every imaginable trinket known to please female humanity.
When armed marshals had finally cornered that bastard just off Broadway and Bowling Green Park, it was there, before all of New York City, Rawson’s own horse heroically intervened by rearing up on its hind legs. Rawson’s neck snapped from the toss and the man was pronounced dead, right along with Matthew’s father’s once-thriving newspaper, The Truth Teller, which had sunk into bankruptcy.
If only such men could die twice. Perhaps then Matthew Joseph Milton would have felt some sense of justice knowing that he and his father, who both had once owned said newspaper and been worth a good three hundred a year, were now worth only eight dollars and forty-two cents.
Lingering beside his father on the street curb of their new neighborhood, Matthew tightened his fingers on the rough wool of the sacks weighing each shoulder. He stared up at that looming unpainted
building, the acrid stench of piss lacing the heat-ridden air.
Could the good Lord truly be this cruel?
Oh, yes. Yes, He could be, and yes, He was.
The sweltering heat of the afternoon sun pierced Matthew’s furrowed brow, beading lines of moisture down his temples. Shirtless men lounged with dirt-crusted bare feet on the sills of open windows, some guzzling bottles of old Irish whiskey, while others leisurely smoked half-cut cigars. It was as if these bingo boys all thought they were on a blanket on the grassy plains of a lake. One of the bearded men in the window directly above him menacingly held his gaze, leaned over and loudly spit. A large pool of thick brown saliva slapped the pavement half a foot away.
The man had been aiming for him.
Matthew glanced toward his father, who still held a crate of newspapers from the print shop. “Was, uh, this the best your associate could do for us? I would think a much bigger discount would have been in order.”
His father, Raymond Charles Milton, slowly shook his head, those silvering strands of chestnut-colored hair swaying as he, too, surveyed the building. It was obvious his father was no more prepared to enter the building than he was.
One of them had to be optimistic. Matthew nudged the man with whatever assurance he could muster. “It could be worse. We could be sitting in debtors’ prison.”
His father gave him a withering look.
Matthew paused as a boy of about six or seven, whose brown matted hair hung into his eyes, wandered past in billowing clothing and large boots. The boy shuffle-shuffle-shuffled in an effort to keep those boots on his small feet.
Upon seeing Matthew, the child jerked to a halt, that oversize linen shirt that came down to his trouser-clad knees swaying against his lanky frame. The boy lingered before them, those large brown eyes quietly scanning Matthew’s cravat and embroidered vest as if assessing their worth.
One day, Matthew knew he’d have a house full of children just like this one. One day. Though he certainly hoped that by that day, he could afford to dress his children a bit better than this child was dressed now. Matthew couldn’t help but smile. “And how are you today, sir? Good?”
The boy’s eyes widened. He edged back and back and then sprinted past and across the street, stumbling several times in those oversize boots.
His father bumped Matthew with the crate. “What did you do?”
“Nothing. All I did was ask how he was. He mustn’t be used to people being…friendly.”
They fell into silence.
The clopping and clacking of carts and the occasional profanity and shouts of men from down the street reminded them that they weren’t on Barclay Street anymore. No more vast treed square, no more pristine lacquered carriages or elegant men and women of the merchant classes. Only this.
“I should have never entrusted Rawson,” his father confided in a strained tone. “Because of me, you have nothing. Not even a prospect of marriage. If it weren’t for me, you would have been married to Miss Drake by now.”
Matthew whipped both sacks to the pavement at hearing that woman’s name. “I can do with the poverty, Da. I can do with the stench and everything that goes with it, but what I can’t do with is listening to you blather as if this was your goddamn fault. To hell with Miss bloody Drake. If she had loved me, as I had stupidly loved her, she would have followed me here. Like I had asked her to.”
His father paused and eyed him. “Would you have followed yourself here?”
Matthew hissed out a breath, trying not to let it hurt knowing he had meant so little to her. “I’m only twenty, Da. I have my whole life ahead of me. One day, I’ll find myself a good woman capable of respecting me, no matter my financial worth.”
His father dug into his vest pocket, balancing the crate on his hip. “God bless you, Matthew, for always making the best out of even the worst.” He tossed him a quarter. “Buy us something to eat. And try to ration it. We have yet to find jobs. I’ll go settle us in. Hand up those sacks, will you?”
Matthew snatched both up from the pavement and stacked them atop the crate. His father tucked the upper wool sack beneath his chin and strode through the open doorway, angling himself up the narrow stairwell.
Puffing out a breath, Matthew swung toward the dirt road, scanning the wide street of squat buildings plastered with crooked wooden plaques. Unevenly stacked crates of browning fruit and half-rotten vegetables sat unattended alongside open doors. A floating swarm of insects hovered in unison over one crate of food before darting to the next. It was as if the insects themselves were questioning the quality at hand.
He already missed their cook.
A strangled sob made him pause. His gaze snapped toward a commotion just across the street. An oversize russet-haired gent in a frayed shirt and patched trousers held a boy roughly by the hair, shaking him.
Matthew drew in a breath. It was the boy with the oversize boots.
As a coal cart trudged past, the unshaven giant leaned down, shaking the boy by the hair again and again, saying something. The boy sobbed with each violent agitation, stumbling in an effort to remain upright.
Matthew fisted the quarter his father had given him. He’d never formally boxed, but he sure as hell wasn’t about to stand by and watch this. Tucking the quarter into his inner vest pocket, Matthew dodged past women carrying woven baskets filled with wares and dashed across the unpaved street toward them.
“Tell your whore of a mother,” the man seethed, “that I want me money and I want it now. She owes me fifteen cents. Fifteen!”
“She don’t have it!” the boy sobbed, grabbing at his head.M
Matthew jerked to a halt beside them, his pulse roaring. He tried to remain calm, lest this turn into a brawl the child didn’t need to see. “Let him go. I’ll pay whatever his mother owes.”
A sweat-sleeked, sunburned round face jerked toward him. The stench of rotting cabbage penetrated the stagnant air. The man shoved the boy away and stepped toward him, that rather well-fed thick frame towering a head over Matthew’s own. “She owes me twenty cents.”
The bastard. “I heard fifteen.” Matthew dug into his waistcoat pocket. “But here is what I’ll do.” Matthew held up the quarter his father had given him. “I’ll give you an extra ten cents to leave off
this boy from here on out. You do that, and this is yours.”
The man hesitated, then reached out a calloused hand. Grabbing the quarter, he shoved it into his own pocket. “That be fine with me. He’s got nothing I want. His hag of a mother be the problem.”
“Then I suggest you take it up with her. Not him.” Matthew veered toward the child, bent down toward him and nudged up that small chin. “Ey. Are you all right?”
The boy edged back, tears still clinging to those flushed cheeks. He nodded, touching his small hands to his head.
The man grabbed Matthew’s arm and pulled him back toward himself. With a smirk, he fluffed Matthew’s white linen cravat. “Rather fancy and all, aren’t you? I know I’ve always wanted me one of these.”
Matthew jerked back, out of reach, and narrowed his gaze. “I suggest you leave.”
The man lowered his unshaven chin and tightened his own penetrating gaze, those fuzzy red brows creeping together. Raising a thick hand, the man now tilted a sharp blade toward Matthew’s face, the metal glinting against the sun. He leaned in and tapped its smooth edge on Matthew’s cheek. “Are you going to take it off? Or would you rather I slice it off?”
It was unbelievable. Barely twenty minutes in these parts and he was being robbed for helping out a child. Fisting both hands, lest he jump and get sliced, Matthew offered in a low, even tone, “Put away the knife and we’ll talk.”
A full-knuckled fist slammed into his head. Matthew gasped in disbelief against the teetering impact.
The man casually tossed his blade to his other thick hand, announcing that the worst was yet to come. “I say what goes. Now take it off, lest the boy sees something he oughtn’t.”
Shifting his jaw, Matthew slowly and grudgingly unraveled the linen. He wasn’t stupid. Sliding it off, he wordlessly held it out.
The man snatched it away, wrapping it smugly around his own thick neck, and stepped back, tucking away his blade. “Next time, do as I say.”
As if he was going to wait for a next time. Knowing the blade was out of the game, Matthew gritted his teeth and jumped forward, throwing out a straight-faced punch.
The giant grabbed his fist in midair, causing Matthew’s arm to pop back from the swift contact of his large palm. That gaze threatened. “You’re dead.”
A blow hit Matthew’s skull, jaw, nose and eye in such rapid fire, his leather boots skidded against
the pavement with each teeth-jarring wallop. Matthew jumped forward again, viciously swinging back at the bastard, but only decked air as the giant dodged.
The boy, beside them swung his own small fists in the air, stumbling left and right and shouted up at Matthew, “Come on! Pound the dickey dazzler. Pound him!”
A brick of an unexpected whack to his left eye not only made Matthew rear back, but made everything in sight fade to a hazy white. Jesus Christ. He caught himself against a lamppost, his bare hands sliding against the sun-warmed iron.
“Enough!” a man boomed, stilling the boy’s shouts.
No blows followed.
Drawing in shaky, ragged breaths, Matthew squinted to see past the sweltering pain pulsing through his face and skull.
A broad figure with long black hair tied in a queue, garbed in a patched great coat, held a pistol to the side of Matthew’s assailant’s head. “Give this respectable man his cravat, James,” the man casually
offered in an educated New York accent that was laced with a bit of European sophistication. “And while you’re at it, give him your blade.”
The russet-haired oaf froze against the barrel of that pistol set against his head. His grubby hand patted and pulled out the blade, extending it and the cravat to Matthew.
Pushing away from the lamppost, Matthew tugged his morning coat back into place, trying to focus beyond the heaviness and blur that clouded his one eye. He reached out, his arm seemingly floating and slid the scrap of linen toward himself.
“Take the blade,” the man with the pistol ordered.
Matthew didn’t want the blade, but he also didn’t want to argue with a man holding a pistol. In his opinion, they were all mad. He blinked, trying to refocus. Though he could see where the men stood in
proximity to him, an eerie dense shadow lingered, making him feel as if he were seeing the world on an angle. Matthew took the blade.
Pressing the pistol harder against his assailant’s temple, the man gritted out, “If you touch either of them again, James, we go knuckle to knuckle over at the docks until one of us is dead. Now, brass off.”
James darted, shoving past others, and disappeared.
The man jerked toward the child. “Away with you, Ronan. And for God’s sake, stay out of trouble.”
The boy hesitated. Meeting Matthew’s gaze, he grinned crookedly, his brown eyes brightening. “I owe you a quarter.” Still grinning, he swung away and thudded down the street in those oversize boots.
Matthew huffed out a breath in exasperation. At least he got the boy to smile, because he doubted he’d ever see that quarter again.
Lowering the pistol and methodically uncocking it, the man before him adjusted his billowing great coat. Piercing ice-blue eyes held his. “Where the hell did you learn how to mill? At a female boarding school?”
Matthew self-consciously stuffed the cravat into his coat pocket, his hand trembling at the realization that the dense shadow in his eye remained. “Where I come from, boxing isn’t really a requirement.” He fingered the wooden handle of the blade still weighing his hand. “I appreciate your assistance.”
“I’m certain you do.” The man waved the pistol toward Matthew’s embroidered vest. “Nice waistcoat. Sell it. Because fancy won’t matter for shite when you’re in a grave, and I’m telling you right now, it’s
only a matter of time before you get robbed of it. Now, go. Off with you.”
Matthew hesitated, sensing this man wasn’t like the rest of these rumpots. He held out a quick hand. The one that wasn’t holding the blade. “The name is Matthew Joseph Milton.”
The man shoved his pistol into the leather belt attached to his hips. “I didn’t ask for your name. I told you to go.”
Matthew still held it out. “I’m trying to be friendly.”
“I don’t do friendly, and in case you haven’t noticed, no one else here does, either.”
Matthew awkwardly dropped his hand to his side. “Is there anything I can do for you? Given what you just did for me? I insist.”
“You insist?” That dark brow lifted. “Well. I could use a meal and whiskey, seeing I’m between matches.”
“Done.” Matthew paused. “Matches? You box?”
The man shrugged. “Bare-knuckle prizefighting.” He patted the leather belt and pistol. “This isn’t me being lazy. It ensures I don’t injure myself during training. An injury means I don’t box. And if I
don’t box, I don’t eat.”
“Ah. Isn’t bare-knuckle prizefighting…illegal?”
The man stared him down. “I’ll have you know the bastards who publicly go about condemning my fights are usually the same ones merrily throwing big money at it. I’ve already had three politicians and two marshals try to buy me out for a win. So, no. It isn’t illegal. Not whilst they’re doing it.”
Knowing a professional boxer in these parts would be a good thing. A very good thing. “And what is your name, sir?”
The man shifted his stubbled jaw. “I have several names. Which one do you want?”
How nice. It appeared this man was involved in all sorts of illegal activities. “Give me the one that I won’t get arrested for knowing.”
“Coleman. Edward Coleman. Not to be confused with the other Edward Coleman running about these parts, who by the by, is murder waiting to happen. Stay away from that imp of Satan.”
“Uh…I will. Thank you.”
Coleman pointed at him. “I suggest you learn the rules of the ward.
Especially given that you appear to be a do-gooder. ’Tis simple really-- don’t overdress, and always carry a weapon.”
“I will heed that.” Matthew held out the blade weighing his hand. “Except the weapon bit. Here. I’m not about to—”
Grabbing his wrist, Coleman yanked it forcefully upward, jerking the sharp tip of that steel toward Matthew’s face.
Matthew froze, his gaze snapping to those ice-blue eyes.
The smell of leather penetrated the air between them.
Coleman smirked and let the blade playfully scrape the skin on the curve of Matthew’s chin. “You ought to keep it. You never know when you’ll need it to slice…vegetables.” He released his hold, allowing Matthew to lower the blade. “I’ll teach you how to use a blade, how to box and do a few other fancy things in exchange for meals.”
Matthew self-consciously tightened his grip on the blade. “I know how to use a blade. One simply points and—”
Coleman jumped toward him. With a quick hard hit to the wrist and a jab and twist, the blade clattered from Matthew’s hand to the pavement. Coleman kicked the blade away with his whitened leather boot and eyed him. “Lessons for food.”
Food wasn’t going to be all that useful if he was dead. “Agreed.”