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New York CityGardner'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 brothersand my, how they'd grownstrategically 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. "Thoughtyou'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 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." Cole-man took the newspaper and read it.
INFORMA TION WANTED 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 own 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.