Sall copped the punch across the cheek and knew it'd drop him. Satisfaction shone from the scrunched face on the end of it, shaded by a low flat cap. Sall went spinning to the floor, his world rattled. They'd told him the dockworker hit like a barge in a hurry, and they were right.
The dockworker swaggered over him. 'Stay down!' he said.
Moments ticked over into seconds. He was losing it all. The fight, the gold, his future, in that order, losing them all as the seconds ticked by. He had to get up. Sall groaned and rolled onto his side, double vision focusing on the crowd forming the ring.
The punta slipped through them, coming to crouch by his side. 'He's spinny,' he said, then to Sall, 'you done?'
One thousand in pure, solid gold. For a whole, even thousand, free of tax or conditions, he'd take a dozen more.
'Not yet,' Sall said, pushing himself up on his knuckles. The iron taste of blood mixed with his saliva. He spat and braced himself on one knee, feeling better now he was upright. He rose amid cheers, and danced a little from foot to foot to clear his head.
'The fight goes on!' The punta spun away.
The dockworker puffed his chest to the crowd's cheers. 'You want another?'
Sall raised his fists. 'Can't make me any uglier,' he said, looking at him over the top of his knuckles.
The dockworker, steady, advanced and feinted with a left. Sall saw it coming and ducked into the hand. The real jab shot past his face, missing him this time. Sall cocked his arm back and delivered a blow into the dockworker's ribs, forcing him back a few steps. The dockworker gasped, stung.
Sall stole ground and came at his opponent with a flurry of strikes. The dockworker brought up his guard, deflecting them as best he could. Sall continued to step into him, driving him around the ring so the dockworker had to keep an active mind about his footing, and off his attack. His opponent had a good gauge of Sall's reach, and none of Sall's own straight jabs could land anywhere near his head without the dockworker ducking to one side or leaning back, keeping scarce fractions of an inch out of their path. He wouldn't let Sall get his revenge, and in the flicker of a smile the dockworker knew he'd got under Sall's skin.
Sall gave up on that strategy and switched, drawing breath and tossing jabs into his lower body. The dockworker wanted to settle him with a knockout. Sall was content to work the wind out of him slowly, but he wouldn't turn away the opportunity to punch a few of the dockworker's teeth in, if the opportunity presented itself. The dockworker threw a cross on the back of a jab. Sall brought his hands up, fending off the strike aimed at his chin, and bowed a little into his own back foot.
The dockworker felt the distance grow between them, sensing retreat. Sall lay his bait. The dockworker took it, bringing his fist up as he came into Sall's reach. Sall pushed on his back foot. The dockworker's eyes widened as Sall sprung forward.
Sall brought the strength of his whole body into launching his fist into the dockworker's belly. He could tell it hurt by the urk! the stocky fellow made, and the reflexive spasm his stomach made. This time Sall had hurt him. The fight was turning in his favour.
The dockworker was knocked back again. He sheltered his belly and stumbled into the arms of the crowd, who with rowdy excitement shoved him back at a waiting Sall. The dockworker, indomitable it seemed, flew at him with a soaring hook and a scowl.
Sall stepped outside the hook's swing and delivered a cross into the dockworker's temple. Blindsided, the dockworker stumbled sideways, but did not lose his feet. He instead spun into a backhand swing. Sall leaned away as it coursed past his nose. Close. The dockworker reeled off the swinging backhand, panting in anger, readjusting his soft cap from its tilt over an eye. Sall brought his guard up and circled him.
The crowd drew breath, waiting to hear the punta cry an illegal move.
The punta strode near. 'No loose hands! Restrain yourselves, gentlemen!'
The dockworker growled and nodded. Sall came under the shade of the ship's mast. Sailors sitting up on the yardarm jeered and waved their mugs of rum mixed with limes and water. He kept circling. A ray of noonday sun split between two furled sails, catching his eye and forcing a blink. A whooshing hand came left. Reflex saved him, slipping the jab.
Sall brushed away the dockworker's inquiring jabs and kept working him around the ring. There was plenty of space on the wide main deck of the tall ship Red, whose name was stencilled in the transom above the entrance to the stateroom. On the quarterdeck the Red's captain watched the fight with the captains of two other ships moored nearby.
Over their heads and past were the grey nubs of broken mountains where this border country opened into the wild, uncharted waters of the Obotema.
The dockworker kept his left hand a little low. Sall batted it to distract him, to remind him of his form. The dockworker's attention split. Sall drove with his right and clocked a dominating smack! across his cheek. The dockworker swung back at him with a crossed left, shifting to his front foot, and countering Sall's follow through with blinding series of jabs that turned Sall away and stopped him taking more ground.
Sall brushed away a variety of cuts, but the last nailed Sall in the side. Sall buckled into it. The dockworker saw his opportunity and his next blow came from high, bringing his heavy fist down to crush Sall's nose.
It was a clever throw. Sall had to take it, but he could lessen his hurt. He turned his face away, letting the blow hit the taut muscles along the side of his neck. It forced a gasp, but Sall shrugged away and brought his hands back up in time to block another blow as the dockworker advanced, seeing another chance to finish him.
Sall went teetering back. The dockworker flung heavy blow after heavy blow, each one harder to brush off. The crowd's drinks were forgotten, waiting with bated breath for the the dockworker's final punch.
But Sall hadn't fought his way across the lands to get knocked out by a dock worker. He'd grown up a brawler on the mean streets of St. Augustine, a grey city of stone buildings and cold hearths, and kept himself out of the gangs with nothing but his fists and his wits. He'd fought his way out of there, and a crippling dependence on strong drink, and now he'd fought his way to the edge of civilisation itself. This wasn't the end.
He twisted a heel, pivoted sideways, and as the straight punch passed his nose by inches threw a jab in from outside it, a strike the dockworker couldn't avoid. His knuckles drove into the dockworker's temple.
Sall levered off the punch and danced back a step.
The crowd roared as the dockworker stumbled back, blinking, shaking his head to clear it. The punch had stung.
There wouldn't be anything holding either of them back now. They stood a few feet apart. Sall could see in the dockworker's eyes neither of them wanted this fight to drag, and so pointed at a spot halfway between them. They were going to fight there. The dockworker nodded.
Muscles tense before movement. He was coming at Sall's right. Sall dodged his swinging hook, hearing it slip past his ear. Sall fed a jab low. Instead of raising his guard again he bunched his right shoulder. The dockworker had expected him to block.
His eyes went wide.
Sall's straight punch collected speed and struck crosswise across his cheek. The strike landed clean. Stall stepped into it, using all his weight to return the same blow that had almost felled him.
It wasn't the first set of eyes he had made go dull. It always reminded him of pinching a lit wick. He won more often than he lost. The dockworker was laid out on his back.
Now the largest cheer rose from the crowd, and continued as the punta dropped to a kneel and checked over the dockworker. He slapped the downed fighter awake. The dockworker stirred, and in a daze tried to rise, but seeing Sall standing was enough. He lay back, moaning. He was defeated.
Now the fight was over people flooded the ring. Sall was surrounded by gleeful sailors waving their little red betting slips in victory, dancing and clapping, coming close to pat Sall on the back. Behind them, losers cast away their slips. Dozens of losing slips littered the floor, a scrunched and crumpled confetti.
A boy in a shabby dress uniform sent them fluttering as he came down from the quarterdeck and hastened through the milling crowd with a small, but decidedly weighty hessian sack clutched close to his breast. He came right to the punta and offered it to him with both hands.
The punta took it and thanked the boy. His burgundy tailcoat flared as he swept through the crowd and took Sall by the wrist. 'You're ready for the big leagues now,' he said, and raised Sall's arm into the air. He projected his voice across the scrum, getting their attention. 'The winner is decided! By knockout, the brawler from St. Augustine, who has fought thirteen men from thirteen cities and braved them all, who today stands before you undefeated in the fifth annual Fight Carnival! I present to you your champion, Sall Edwards!'
The punta raised the purse high, to the swelling cheers of the crowd.
'And to a champion go his spoils! The grand prize! One thousand shekels!'
The punta thrust the purse into Sall's chest. Sall took it, and the punta kept talking. 'Thank you one and all for coming, on behalf of the Squire Party I have been-' The crowd stopped paying attention to him. Sall stopped hearing the noise of the crowd. It faded, his tiredness looming, his mouth thirsting for a drink. The punta slapped him on the back, and Sall barely felt it. The dockworker was picked up and carted off, and Sall didn't notice. He heard only the jingle of the gold in the sack in his hands. There was comfort in its weight. He jingled it again, if only to hear that sound, the sound of a new world coming to form.
He checked the purse, to make sure they had not tried to hand him a bag of brass nuts. He always checked the purse. Take enough blows to the head and people start to think you're stupid. He peeked inside, making sure no other inquiring eyes could see. Soft nuggets of gold clinked in there. He smiled.
The noise of the crowd rushed back. Sall saw the dockworker leaving with two other locals propping him up. He was still woozy, but as they came to the gangplank leading down to the docks he shrugged them off and insisted on walking himself. After a dizzy wobble he was steady, and looked back over his shoulder. He gave an angry shake of his head and went down the gangplank, his friends keeping close, mindful company.
The crowd was growing bored and restless. Now the fight was over nobody cared about Sall, their minds turning now to filling their cups once or twice more. They'd be put off the ship soon, then drenched in the town's taverns, but the grog was cheaper where they were now, and the sunlight was fine. Sall went to get his coat. He sidestepped the bulk of the revellers, trying to ignore the looks he was getting and keeping his prize close. Many of those who had lost money on him looked at Sall like he owed them a piece. He'd left his shirt and coat with one of the punta's boys before the fight, and now searched around for him.
He picked him out of the crowd and caught his eye. Already the boy had recovered his bundle and was bringing it to him, bobbing against the tide streaming towards the bar.
His face glowed with admiration. He looked Sall up and down and had to crane his neck. 'Here, Mister Edwards.' Sall cradled the sack in his arm and let the boy help him put the coat on. He stooped and shrugged his free arm into its sleeve, already feeling the aches taking hold. The boy drew a nervous breath, intimidated in his hulking presence. 'That was the best fight I've ever seen. What're you gonna do with the money?'
Sall shrugged into the other sleeve. With the shirt next he wiped the blood and sweat off his face and stuffed it into a pocket. 'There's a piece of land, over that way.' He pointed east, and the boy looked. 'It's gonna have my name on it.'
Sall pat him on the shoulder and flicked him a coin from his pocket. Light fingers picked it from the air and slipped it away in the folds of his uniform. At a sharp whistle the boy spun on a heel, his attention stolen. Sall looked for the source of the noise. The punta was waving at him over the scrum. A rolled cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, which wobbled as he beckoned.
'Get over here, boy! We need more hands on the slips.' He produced a match from a hand wadded with betting slips and lit it with a flick of his thumbnail. He puffed the cigarette alight and took a moment to enjoy the first exhale, looking up into the afternoon sky with a measure of satisfaction before doling out more winnings – minus his percentage. It was truly he who was taking home the grandest prize, and all without throwing a punch.
The punta and his helpers still faced their own fight keeping the rabble pressing around them reasonable and at bay. Quick hands ferried winnings out and snatched away slips. 'No need to rush!' the punta shouted. 'Every man gets his piece! Except the unlucky, of course.'
He nodded his head as he counted. Sall turned away. The boy was gone. He looked up at the captains. They had their share. Their attention was focused on themselves, as the winners counted their fresh banknotes. Two of them had bet against the third.
The third was a pirate. That was clear. He was dressed well, but there was no mistaking the stiff way he stood, or that outsider look in his eye. He was anxious around the men with patches on their shoulders. He clasped his hands behind his back. He didn't belong, and he knew it, that he was only there on allowance of the cash he'd brought. He was a tall, proud man with black hair, wearing a simple grey vest. His trousers were pressed and his hair sleeked back, pronouncing the angular lines to his face.
Now those lines seemed fragile, and at something one of the others said they became pronounced as his cheeks went red. With a tight grimace he reached inside his vest for a further wad of cash. He passed the banknotes over to the Red's captain. Even from here Sall could tell the others were mocking him. The captain, dressed in a fine military jacket, took the bills with fingers encrusted by shiny rings. Running these events seemed to provide him more luxury than the service could, and to Sall he did not seem much better than a pirate himself. There were smart pirates, Sall supposed, and today the dark-haired pirate was not one of them.
The loser felt he had been mocked enough. His grimace became a scowl. Penniless and belittled, the pirate decided to take no more and departed down the stairs. He kept his head high even as the other captains' jeers followed in his wake.
The pirate pushed through the crowd and raised his voice. There was a gravelly cut to it. 'We're leaving! All crew of the Bitter End must be back on the ship in one hour! Anyone not aboard by then can stay in this godforsaken shithole!' A few drunken men and women in loose sailing clothes weathered by sun and salt fell in behind their captain, and the crowd moved aside to let them through. As the crowd parted their path brought them by Sall. The captain saw him. His face went hard, and his eyes narrowed. There was a cold fury turning inside them. The brown of his flaring irises were so dark they were nearly black.
He stomped down the gangplank with his crew. Sall watched them walk up the pier and disappear into the hubbub at the docks.
Sall stopped, hiding the sack away in his coat. The punta was calling him. 'Wait. Wait.' He pushed through a group of sailors. Sall turned to face him.
'Leaving already?' The gambling official thumbed through slips while he talked to Sall. Sall didn't mind him. He didn't pander Sall with attention like some of the other puntas did. Those thought of him as their investment, at worst, their pet.
Sall nodded, looking out over the thatched rooftops of the new town studding the rocky slope up from the old town. The sun was setting through the rambling stone buildings overhanging the erosion. 'I've booked a stage,' he said.
The punta put on a mock sadness. 'That's truly a disappointment. There's more competitions out there, you know. Places you could win five times that,' he took the cigarette out of his mouth and ashed it in the direction of Sall's purse. Sall had heard of those places. He wanted nothing to do with them. 'Where you headed?'
'I was going to head to Baneswall, and make my way from there.'
The punta's eyes flashed recognition. He nodded. 'We're going to Baneswall. We'll get you there safely. Don't take a stage, there's bandits all through those hills.' He nodded towards the town.
Sall thought this fine naval vessel probably crewed more thieves than honest men. He'd be keeping a close hand on his prize regardless, but the Red would get him there faster.
'I'm not afraid of bandits,' Sall said.
'I'm sure you're not,' the punta said, knowing he had Sall on the hook.
Sall put a thumb over his shoulder. 'That captain who just left, the one Hartham brought with him,' Sall said. 'Who was he?'
The punta clucked his tongue. Everything was deception with these puntas. 'That friendly fellow was Granger Strommken, Captain of the pirate ship Bitter End. I suspect he'll be headed back to the Obotema, where he belongs.' The punta's attitude towards the pirate was clear. 'Sign of the times when pirates knock shoulders with naval officers.'
Sall nodded. 'World's not what it used to be,' he said. He felt the sack weighing heavy against his side.
The punta gave him a mild look. 'I've gotta get back on these slips,' he said.
'If you plan to keep me aboard so you can milk this gold from me, you'll find I'm not much of a gambling man. I will sail with you until Baneswall, my thanks to the captain.'
'I'm sure it's with his thanks,' the punta said. 'He won a lot of money on you.'
Sall hoped to avoid a fee at the next port. 'I'll work for my passage.'
The punta scoffed and clapped his shoulder. The Red's captain caught his eye at the same time. He gave a nod and raised his glass to Sall, and went back to his conversation. 'Of course you will, nobody gets a free ride,' the punta said.