Winner Take All - Cover

Winner Take All

by Robert E. Howard

Copyright© 2010 by Robert E. Howard

Action/Adventure Story: Steve has to make some quick money so he can get in on a sure-fire investment that will make him rich. First appeared in Fight Stories, July 1930. In the public domain.

Tags: Humor   Pulp Classic  

Me and Bill O'Brien was flat broke when we come out of Jerry Rourke's American Bar. Yes, sir—half a hour ashore, and cleaned along by of a land shark with a pair of educated dice. Not having the coin to pay his fine in case my white bulldog Mike followed his usual custom of tearing off some cop's pants leg, I left him with Jerry till I could raise some dough.

Well, me and Bill sallied forth into the night looking for anything that might mean money, experience having told us that you can find mighty near anything in the wharf-side streets of Singapore. Well, what we did find was the last thing we'd of expected.

We was passing a dark alley in the native quarters when we heard a woman screaming: "Help! Help! Help!"

We dashed into the alley immediately, and in the faint light we seen a girl struggling with a big Chinee. I seen the flash of a knife and I yelled and dived for him, but he dropped the frail and scooted down the alley like a scared rabbit, ducking the cobble-stone Bill heaved after him.

"Are you hurt, Miss?" I asked with my usual courtesy, lifting her to her feet.

"No, but I'm scared stiff," she answered. "That was a close call—let's get out of here before the big Chinee comes back with a mob."

So we legged it out into the street. Under the light of the street lamps we saw she was a white girl—American by her accent, and not hard to look at either, with her big grey eyes and wavy black hair.

"Where at shall we take you to, Miss?" asked Bill.

"I dance at the Bristol Cabaret," said she. "But let's go into the saloon—the bar-keep's a friend of mine and I want to buy you men a drink. It's the least I can do, for saving my life."

"Don't mention it, Miss," said I with a courtly bow. "We was glad to be of service. Howthesomever, if it will give you any pleasure to buy us a drink, we would not think of refusin'."

"More especially as we have just lost all our jack in a crap game, and are slowly but surely perishin' of thirst," said Bill, who ain't got my natural tact.

So we went in and got a back room to ourselves, and while we was downing our liquor—me and Bill, that is, because the girl said she never even tasted the stuff—she cupped her chin in her hands and rested her elbows on the table and gazing deep in my eyes, she sighed deeply.

"If I had a big strong man like you to protect me," she said in open admiration, "I wouldn't have to work in joints like the Bristol, and be abused by such swipes as tried to slit my gullet tonight."

I involuntarily expanded my enormous chest and said: "Well, lady, as long as Steve Costigan, A.B. mariner, can stand on his feet and hit with either maulie, you got no call to be afraid of anybody. The best thing, next to fightin', that me and Bill O'Brien here do is aid ladies in distress."

She shook her head wistfully. "You've been very kind to me, but you sailors are all alike—a girl in every port. But—I haven't even introduced myself—my name is Joan Wells, and I'm from Philadelphia."

"We're mighty glad to meet somebody from the States," said Bill. "But why was that slant-eye tryin' to knife you?"

"I—I really shouldn't tell," said she, looking kind of frightened.

"We ain't tryin' to intrude in your private affairs none," I hastened to add.

"I couldn't keep a secret from a man like you," said she with a languishing glance that made my heart skip a beat, "so I'll tell you. Take a look out the door to see that nobody's listening at the key-hole." Nobody wasn't, so she went on.

"Did you ever hear of the No Sen Tong?" We shook our heads. We knowed in a general way about the big tongs, or merchant houses, which just about controls the Orient, but we hadn't had no experience with them.

"Well," said she, "it's the richest, most secret tong in the world. When I first came here I worked as private secretary for old To Ying, who's one of its highest secret officials. He fired me because I wouldn't let him get fresh with me—the old slant-eyed snake—and I went to work at the Bristol. But once you've been on the inside of an organization like that, you have ways of knowing things that other people don't."

Her eyes sparkled and her fists clenched as she got all excited. "I'm in on the biggest coup of the century!" she exclaimed. "If I live, I'll be a rich woman! Did you ever hear of the Korean Copper Company? No? Well, it's about to go bankrupt. They've never paid a single dividend. Stock's selling at a dollar a share, with no buyers. But, listen! They've hit the biggest copper mine that the world has ever seen! The No Sens are quietly buying up all the stock they can get—at a dollar a share! As soon as I found this out I ran down to the broker's and bought a hundred shares. It took every cent I had. But one of the No Sen spies saw me, and that's why old To Ying tried to have me bumped off. He's afraid I'll squeal.

"Think what a riot there'll be on the stock market tomorrow when the word gets in! Tonight Korean Copper's selling for a dollar! Tomorrow it'll be worth a thousand dollars a share!"

"Hold everything!" I said, kind of dizzy. "You mean you shoot a buck and get a thousand on the spin of the wheel?"

"I sure do—say, why don't you men buy some stock? It's the chance of a lifetime! Most of it has been bought up by the No Sens, but I know where I can get you a few hundred shares."

Bill laughed bitterly. "Sister, it might as well be sellin' for a thousand per right now as far as we're concerned. We ain't got a dime! And my watch is in a pawn-shop in Hong Kong."

"I'd gladly lend you some money," said she, "but I spent all mine on stock—"

"Wait a minute," said I, getting on my feet, "I got a idee. Miss Wells—Joan, is it safe for you to be left alone for a few hours?"

"Sure; the bar-keep goes off duty in a few minutes, and he can see me home." "All right. I think we can raise some dough. Where can we see you, in say about three hours?"

"Come to the Alley of the Seven Mandarins," said she, "and knock on the door with the green dragon carved on it. I'm going to hide there till the No Sens quit looking for me. I'll be waiting for you," said she, giving my rugged hand a timid, shy little squeeze that made my big, honest heart flutter like a boy's.

Then me and Bill was out in the foggy dim lighted streets and making tracks. I led the way through narrow streets and garbage-strewn back alleys till we was in the toughest section of Singapore's waterfront. It's dangerous in the daytime; it's pure Hades at night.

Right on the wharfs we come to a big ramshackle building, which a struggling sign announced as Heinie Steinman's Grand International Fight Arena. This dump was all lighted up, and was shaking with the ferocious roars which went up inside.

"Hello, Steve; hello, Bill," said the fellow at the door, a dip who knowed us well. "How 'bout a couple good ringside seats?"

"Gangway," said I. "We ain't got no money—but I'm fightin' here tonight." "G'wan," said he, "you ain't even matched with nobody—"

"One side!" I roared, drawing back my famous right. "I'm fightin' somebody here tonight, get me?"

"Well, go in and fight somebody that's paid to git mutilated!" he squawked, turning slightly pale and climbing up on the ticket counter, so me and Bill stalked haughtily within.

If you want to study humanity in its crudest and most uncivilized form, take in one of Heinie Steinman's fight shows. The usual crowd was there—sailors, longshoremen, beach-combers, thugs and crooks; men of every breed and color and description, from the toughest ships and the worst ports in the world. Undoubtedly, the men which fights at the International performs to the toughest crowds in the world. The fighters is mostly sailors trying to pick up a few dollars by massacring each other.

Well, as me and Bill entered, the fans was voicing their disapproval in a tone that would of curled the hair of a head-hunter. The main event had just driven the patrons into a frenzy by going to the limit, and they was howling like a pack of wolves because they'd been no knockout. The crowd that comes to Heinie's Arena don't make no talk about being wishful to see a exhibition of boxing. What they want is gore and busted noses, and if somebody don't get just about killed they think they have been gypped, and wreck the joint.

Just as me and Bill come in, the principals scurried out of the ring followed by a offering of chair bottoms, bricks and dead cats, and Heinie, who'd been acting as referee, tried to calm the mob—which only irritated them more and somebody hit Heinie square between the eyes with a rotten tomato. The maddened crowd was fast reaching a point where they was liable to do anything, when me and Bill climbed into the ring. They knowed us, and they kind of quieted down a minute and then started yelling fiercer than ever.

"For my sake, Steve," said Heinie, kind of pale, wiping the vegetable out of his eyes, "say somethin' to 'em before they start a riot. Them two hams that just faded away only cake-walked through the bout and these wolves is ready to lynch everybody concerned, particularly includin' me."

"Have you got somebody I can fight?" I asked.

"No, I ain't," he said, "But I'll announce—"

"I don't see no announcer," I growled, and turning to the crowd I silenced them by the simple process of roaring: "Shut up!" in a voice which drowned them all out.

"Listen here, you tin-horn sports!" I bellered. "You've already paid your dough, but do you think you've got your money's worth?"

"No!" they thundered in a voice that started Heinie's knees to knocking. "We been robbed! We been rooked! We been gypped! Give us our money back! Wreck the dump! Hang that Dutchman!"

"Shut up, you Port Mahon baboons!" I roared. "If you're sports enough to jar loose and make up a purse of twenty-five dollars, I'll fight any man in the house to a finish, winner take all!"

At that they lifted the roof. "'At's the stuff!" they whooped. "Shower down gents. We know Steve! He always gives us a run for our money!"

Coins and a few bills began to shower on the canvas, and two men jumped up from among the crowd and started for the ring. One was a red-headed Englishman and the other was a lithe black-haired fellow. They met just outside the ropes.

"One side, bloke," growled the red-head. "H'I'm fightin' this bloody Yank!"

Black-head's right shot out like a battering ram and red-head kissed the floor, and laid still. The mob went into hysterics of joy and the winner hopped over the ropes, followed by three or four of the most villainous looking mugs I ever hope to see.

"I weel fight Costigan!" said he, and Heinie give a deep sigh of relief. But Bill swore under his breath.

"That's Panther Cortez," said he. "And you know you ain't been trainin' close lately."

"Never mind," I growled. "Count the money. Heinie, you keep your hands off that dough till Bill counts it."

"Thirty-six dollars and fifty cents," announced Bill, and I turned to the slit-eyed devil which called hisself Panther Cortez, and growled: "You willin' to fight for that much—winner take all, loser gets nothin' but a headache?"

He grinned with a flash of white fangs. "Sure!—I fight you just for the fun of knocking you cold!"

I turned my back on him with a snarl and, giving Heinie the money to hold, though it was a terrible risk to take, I strode to one of the make-shift dressing rooms, where I was given a pair of dingy trunks, which Heinie pulled off a preliminary boy which had gone on earlier in the evening and was still out.

I gave little thought to my opponent, though Bill kept grouching about the fact that I was going to get so little for knocking out such a man as Cortez.

"You oughta be gettin' at least a hundred and fifty," Bill grumbled. "This Cortez is a mean puncher, and shifty and dirty. He ain't never been knocked out."

"Well," said I, "it ain't never too late to begin. All I want you to do is watch and see that none of his handlers don't sneak around and hit me with a water bottle. Thirty-six shares means thirty-six thousand dollars for us. Tomorrer we'll kick the Old Man in the slats for a token of farewell, and start livin'! No more standin' watch and gettin' sunburnt and froze for somebody else—"

"Hey!" yelled Heinie, looking in at the door, "hurry up, will ya? This crowd's goin' clean nuts waitin'. The Panther's already in the ring."

As I climbed through the ropes I was greeted by a roar such as must of resembled them given by the Roman mobs when a favorite gladiator was throwed to the lions. Cortez was seated in his corner, smiling like a big lazy jungle cat, the lids drooping down over his glittering eyes in a way that always irritated me. He was a mixed breed—Spanish, French, Malay and heck knows what else, but all devil. He was the choice fighting man aboard the Water Snake, a British vessel with a shady reputation, and though I'd never fought him, I knowed he was a dangerous man. But, gosh, all he represented to me just then was thirty-six dollars and fifty cents, which in turn represented thirty-six thousand dollars.

Heinie waved his arms and said: "Gents, you all know these boys! Both of them has fought here plenty of times before, and—"

The crowd rose up and drowned him out: "Yeah, we know 'em. Cut the introductions and le's see gore spilt!"

"Weights," yelled Heinie to make hisself heard. "Sailor Costigan of the Sea Girl, one hundred ninety pounds! Panther Cortez of the Water Snake, one hundred eighty-five pounds!"

"That's a lie!" roared Bill. "He weighs one-ninety if he weighs a ounce!"

"Aw, stow yer gab, ye bleedin' mick!" snarled one of the Panther seconds, shoving out his lantern jaw. Bill bent his right on that jaw and the limey went over the ropes on his head. The mob applauded madly; things was going just to their taste! All they needed to make it a perfect evening was for me or Cortez to get our neck broke—preferably both of us.

Well, Heinie chased Cortez' handlers out of the ring, and Bill climbed out, and the slaughter was on. Heinie was referee, but he didn't give us no instructions. We'd fought enough there to know what we was supposed to do, and that was to sock and keep on socking till somebody kissed the canvas and stayed there. The gloves we wore was at least a ounce and a half lighter than the regular style, and nothing was a foul at the International as long as both fellows could stand on their feet.

The Panther was lithe, rangy, quick; taller than me, but not so heavy. We come together in the middle of the ring, and he hit with cat-like speed. Left to the face, right to the body and left to the jaw. Simultaneous I shot my right to his chin, and he hit the canvas on the seat of his trunks. The crowd howled, but he wasn't hurt much, mainly surprised and mad. His eyes blazed. He took the count of nine, though he could of got up sooner, and bounced up, stopping me in my tracks with a hard left to the mouth. I missed with a looping left, took a right to the ribs and landed hard under the heart. He spat in my face and began working his arms like pistons—left, right, left, right, to the face and body while the crowd went nuts. But that was my game; I grinned savagely and braced my feet, boring in and slugging hard with both hands.

A minute of this, and he backed away in a hurry, blood trickling from a cut on his cheek. I was after him and sank a left deep in his midriff that made him clinch and hold on. On the break he nailed me with a straight right to the head, and followed it up with a hard left to the eye, but failed to land his right, and got a wicked right hook to the ribs. I battered away at his body, but he was all elbows, and, irritated, I switched to his head and nearly tore it off with a blazing right hook just at the gong.

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