I've fought all my life; sometimes for money, sometimes for fun—once in a while for my life. But the deadliest, most vicious fight I ever fought wasn't for none of them things; no, sir, I was fighting wild and desperate for the privilege of getting a bullet through my brain!
Stand by and I'll tell you why I was fighting so me and my best friend would get shot.
I'm the heavyweight champion of the Sea Girl, merchant ship, my name being Steve Costigan. The Old Man is partial to warm waters and island trade, see? Well, we was cruising through the Solomons on our way to Brisbane, taking our time because the Old Man practically growed up in the South Sea trade and knows all the old traders and native chiefs and the like, and is always on the lookout for bargains in pearls and such like.
Well, we hove to at a small island by the name of Roa-Toa which had a small trading post on it. This post was run by the only white man on the islands, a fellow named MacGregor, and him being an old friend of the captain's, we run in for a visit.
The minute the Old Man had stepped onto the ramshackle wharf, Bill O'Brien, my side kick, said to me, he said: "Steve, see that motor launch down there by the wharf? Let's grab it and chase over to Tamaru and see old Togo."
Tamaru was another little island so close to Roa-Toa you could see the top of the old dead volcano. Togo was the chief; that wasn't his name, but it was as near as we could come to pronouncing it. He was a wrinkled old scoundrel and was a terrible sot, but very friendly to the white men.
"The Old Man will likely stop at Tamaru," I said.
"He won't, either," said Bill. "Him and MacGregor will drink up all the whiskey we got on board before he ever weighs anchor from Roa-Toa. He won't stop by Tamaru because he won't have no liquor to give to or trade with old Togo. Come on," said Bill. "We can easy make it in that launch. If we hang around the mate will find somethin' for us to do. Let's get to that launch and scoot before the Old Man or MacGregor sees us. Mac wouldn't let us have it, like as not, if we asked him."
So in a very short time we was heading out to sea, me and Bill, and my white bulldog, Mike. I heard a kind of whooping above the sputter of the motor, and looked back to see the Old Man and MacGregor run out of the trading stores and they jumped up and down and shook their fists and hollered, but we waggled our fingers at them and kept on our course, full speed, dead ahead.
Well, in due time Tamaru grew up out of the ocean in front of us, all still and dark green, with its dead volcano, and the trees growing up the sides of the mountains.
Togo's village was right on the beach when we was there the year before, but now much to our surprise we found nothing but a heap of ruins. The huts was leveled, trees cut short close to the water's edge, and not a sign of human life.
While we was talking, four or five natives come slithering out of the jungle and approached us very friendly, with broad smiles. Mike bristled and growled, but I put it down to the fact that no white dog likes colored people. According to that, no black dog ought to like white people, but it don't work.
Anyway, these kanakas made us understand in their pidgin English that the village had been moved back in the jungle a way, and they signified for us to come with them.
"Ask 'em how come they moved the village," I told Bill, who could speak their language pretty well, and he said: "Aw, they say the salt water made the babies sick. Don't worry about that; they likely don't know theirselves why they moved. They don't often have no reason for what they do. Let's go see Togo."
"Ask 'em how Togo is," I said, and Bill did, and said: "They says he's as free from pain and sickness as a man can be."
The kanakas grinned and nodded. Well, we plodded after them, and Mike he come along and growled deep down in his throat till I asked him very irritably to please shut up. But he paid no attention.
After awhile we come on to a large open space and there was the village. Just now they wasn't a sign of life, except a few native dogs sleeping in the sun. A chill wiggled up and down my spine.
"Say," I said to Bill, "this is kind of queer; ask 'em where Togo is."
"Where at is Togo?" said Bill, and one of the natives grinned and pointed to a pole set in front of the biggest hut. At first I couldn't make out what he meant. Then I did, and I suddenly got sick at my stomach—and cold at the heart with fear. On top of that pole was a human head! It was all that was left of poor old Togo.
The next second two big kanakas had grabbed each of us from behind, and a couple hundred more came swarming out of the huts.
Bill, he give a yell and ducked, throwing one of his natives clean over his head, and he twisted half way round and knocked the other cold with a terrible biff on the jaw. Then the one on the ground grabbed Bill by the legs, and another hit him over the head with a club, laying his scalp open and knocking him to his knees.
Meanwhile I was having my troubles. The minute them two grabbed me, Mike went for them, jerked one of them off me, got him down and nearly tore him apart. At the same instant I jammed my elbow backward, and by sheer luck connected with the other one's solar plexus. He grunted and loosened his hold, and I wheeled round to smash him, but as I did, I felt a sharp prick between my shoulders and knowed one of them was holding a spear at my back. I stopped short and stood still. The next minute me and Bill was tied hand and foot. I looked at Bill; he was bleeding plenty from the cut in his head, but he grinned.
Well, all that took something less than a minute. Three or four natives had went for Mike and pulled him off of his victim, which was howling and bleeding like a stuck hog. The said victim staggered away to the nearest hut, looking like a wreck on a lee shore, and the others danced and jumped around Mike trying to stab him with spears and hit him with clubs, without losing a leg at the same time; while Mike tried to eat his way through them to me.
Then while I watched with my heart in my mouth, crack! went a pistol and Mike went down, rolling over and over till he lay still with the blood oozing from his head. I give a terrible cry and began to rave and tear at my ropes; I struggled so wild and desperate that I jerked loose from the kanakas which was holding me, and fell on the ground, being tied up like I was.
Then they pulled me and Bill roughly around to face a big dark fellow who came swaggering up, a smoking pistol in his hand. At first glance it struck me I'd seen him before, but all I wanted to do now was get loose and tear his throat out with my bare hands for killing Mike.
This bezark stopped in front of us, twirling his gun on his forefinger and I looked close at him. If looks and wishes would kill, he would of dropped dead three times in succession. A big, tall, beautifully built native he was, but he didn't look like the rest. He had a kind of yellow tint to his skin, whereas they was golden brown. And his face wasn't open and good natured like theirs was in repose; it was cruel and slant-eyed and thin-lipped. Malay blood there, I quickly seen. A half breed, with the worst blood of both races. He was dressed in just a loin cloth, like the rest, but somewhere, I knowed, I'd seen him in different clothes and different surroundings. Well, if I hadn't been so grieved and mad on account of Mike, I guess I'd have knowed him right off.
"Well, Meestah Costigan," said the big ham, in a kind of throaty voice, "you visit my island, eh? You like my welcome, maybeso? Maybeso you stay a long time, eh? Glad you come, me; I rather see you than any other man in the world!"
He was still grinning, but when he said the last his heavy jaws come together like the snap of a alligator. And then Bill, who was glaring at him like he couldn't believe his eyes, yelled: "Santos!"
It all come back to me in a flash! And I would of fell over from sheer surprise, hadst I not been tied and held up. Sure, I remembered! And you ought to, too, if you keep up with even part of the fighters that comes and goes.
A couple of years ago I'd met Santos in a Frisco ring. Yeah! Battling Santos, the Borneo Tiger, that Abie Hussenstein had discovered slaughtering second-raters in Asiatic ports. Abie brought him to America after Santos had cleaned up everything in sight over there.
They is no doubt that the big boy was good. In America he went through his first rank of set-ups like a sickle through wheat. He was fast, fairly clever for a big man, and strong as a bull.
Well, his first first-rater was Tom York, you remember, and Tom outboxed him easy in the first round, but in the second Santos landed a crusher that broke Tom's nose and knocked out four teeth. From then on it was a butchery, and the referee stopped it in the fifth to keep York from being killed. After that the scribes raved over Santos more than ever, called him a second Firpo and said he couldn't miss being champion.
Abie was sparring for matches in the Garden and he sent Santos back to Frisco to pad his k.o. record and keep in trim by toppling some ham-and-eggers. Then, enter a dark man, the villain of the play—otherwise Steve Costigan. Santos was matched to meet Joe Handler ten rounds in San Francisco. The very day of the fight, Handler sprained his ankle, and they substituted me the last minute. I needn't tell you I went into the ring on the short end of about a hundred to one, with no takers—except the Sea Girl's crew, who seem to think I can lick anybody, simply because I've licked all of them.
Well, I reckon the praise and hurrah and all had went to Santos' head. He come out clowning and playing up to the crowd. He feinted at me with his big long brown arms and made faces and wise-cracks, as I come out of my corner. He dropped his gloves, stuck out his jaw and motioned me to hit him. This got a big laugh out of the crowd, and while he was doing that, with his mouth wide open, laughing, I hit him!
I reckon I was closer to him than he thought, for it was a wide open shot. I crashed my right from my knee, and I plunged in behind it with everything I had. I smashed solid on his sagging jaw so hard it numbed my whole arm. I don't see how I come not to tear his jaw clean off. Anyway, he hit the canvas like he figured on staying there indefinite, and they had to carry him to his dressing room to bring him to.
When everybody got their breath back, they yelled "fluke! fluke!" And it was, because Santos would of licked me, if he'd watched hisself. But it finished him; he'd lost his heart, or something.
His next start he dropped a decision to Kid Allison, and he lost two more fights in a row that way. Hussenstein give him the bounce and he dropped out of view. Santos had gone back to stoking, people supposed; the public had forgot all about him, and I had too, nearly. But here he was!
All this flashed through my brain as I stood and gawped at the big cheese. Say, if Santos had looked tigerish in the ring, in civilized settings, he looked deadly now.
He stuck the pistol back into his girdle and said, easy and lazy: "Well, Meestah Costigan, you remember me, eh?"
"Yeah, I do, you dirty half-breed!" I roared. "What you mean shootin' my dog? Lem'me loose, and I'll rip your heart out!"
He bared his white teeth in a kind of venomous smile and gestured lazily toward the pole where old Togo's head was.
"You come to see your old friend, eh? Well, there he is! What left of him. Now Santos is chief! The old man was fool; the young men, they follow Santos. Now we make palaver; you my guests!"
And with that he laughed in a cold deadly way and said something to the kanakas which was holding us. He turned his back and walked toward his hut, them dragging us along anyway. I looked back, though, and my heart give a jump. Old Mike got to his feet kind of groggy and glassy-eyed, and shook his head and looked around for me. He seen me and started toward me; then he seen Santos, and sneaked away among the trees. I give a sigh of relief. Must be the bullet just grazed him enough to knock him out; nobody had seen him get up and hide but me, and he was safe for the time being, at least—which was something me and Bill O'Brien wasn't—and I guess Bill felt the same way for he looked kind of white. Santos sat down in a chair, which was one the Old Man had give poor old Togo, and we was propped up in front of him.
"Once we meet before, Costigan," he said, "in your country. Now we meet in mine. This my country. I born here. Big fool, me. I leave with white men on ship when very young. I scrub decks; then shovel coal. I fight with other stokers. I meet Hus'stein and fight for him. He take me to Australia—America; I lick everybody. Everybody yell when I come in ring."
The grin had faded off his map and a wild light was growing in his eyes; they was getting red.
"Then I meet you!" his voice had dropped to a kind of hiss. "They tell me you one big ham. Nothing in the head! I think make people laugh! I hold out my face, say: 'Hit me!' Then I think maybeso the roof fall on me."
He was snarling like a wild beast now; his chest was heaving with rage and his big hands was working like my throat was between them.
"After that, I not so good. People say dirty things now at me. They say: 'Yellow! Glass chin! Throw him out!' Hus'stein say: 'Get out! You no drawing card now!' I go to stoking again. I work my way back to my people; my island." He give a short grim laugh. He hit his breast with his fist.
"Me king, now! Togo old fool; friend to white man! Bah! I say to young men: make me king! We kill white men, and take rum and cloth and guns like our people did long ago. So I kill Togo, and old men that follow him! And you—" His eyes burned into me.
"You make fool of me," he said slowly. "Aaahhh! I pay you back!" He looked like a madman, gnashing his teeth and rolling his eyes as he roared at us.
I looked at Bill, uncertain like, and Bill says, nervy enough, but in a kind of unsteady voice: "You don't dast harm a white man. You may be king of this one-horse hunk of mud, but you know blame well if you knock us off, you'll have a British gunboat on your neck."
Santos grinned like a ogre and sank back in his chair. If he'd ever been half way civilized, which I doubt, he had sure reverted back to type again.
"The British have come," said he. "They knocked our village to pieces and killed a few pigs. But we ran away into the jungle and they could no find us. They shoot some shells around and then steam away, the white swine! That was because we fire on a trading boat and kill a sailor."
"Well," said Bill, "the Sea Girl's anchored off Roa-Toa and if you harm us, the crew won't leave nobody alive on this island. They won't shoot at you from long range. They'll land and mop up."
"Soon I go to Roa-Toa," said Santos, very placid. "I think I like to be king of Roa-Toa too; I kill MacGregor, and take his guns and all. If your ship come here, I take her, too. You think I no dare kill white man? Eh? Big fool, you."
"Well," I roared, the suspense being too much for me, "what you goin' to do with us, you yellow-bellied half-breed!"
"I kill you both!" he hissed, smiling and playing with his gun.
"Then do it, and get it over with," I snarled, being afraid I'd blow up if he dragged it out too long. "But, lem'me tell you somethin'—"
"Oh, no," he smiled, "not with the pistol. That is too easy, eh? I want you to suffer like I suffered."
"I don't get yuh," I growled. "It's all in the game. I don't see why you got it in for me. If you'd a-licked me, I wouldn't of kicked. Anyway, you got no cause to bump off Bill, too."
"I kill you all!" he shouted, leaping up again. "And you two—you will howl for death before I get through. Arrgh! You will scream to die—but you will no die till I am ready."
He came close to me and his wild beast eyes burned into mine.
"Slow you will die," he whispered. "Slow—slow! For that blow you strike me, you suffer—and for all I suffer at the hands of your people, you shall suffer ten times ten!"
He stopped and glared at me.
"The Death of a Thousand Cuts shall be yours," he purred. "You know that, eh? Ah, you been to China! I know you know it, because your face go white now!" I reckon mine did, all right. I knew what he meant, and so did Bill. "Me, I show them where to cut," went on Santos, "for I have seen the Chinese torture like those."
I felt froze solid and my clothes were damp with sweat; also I was mad, like a caged rat.
"All right, you black swine!" I yelled at him, kind of off my bat, I reckon. "Go ahead—do your worst! But remember one thing—remember that I licked you! I knocked you cold! Killin' me won't alter the fact that I'm the best man!"
He screamed like a maddened jungle cat and I thought he'd go clean nuts. I'd sure touched him to the quick there!
"You did no beat me!" he howled. "I was big fool! I let you hit me! White pig, I break you with my hands! I tear your heart out and give it to the dogs!"
"Well, why didn't you?" I asked bitterly. "You had your chance, and you sure muffed it! I licked you then, and I can lick you now. You wouldn't dare look at me crost-wise if my hands wasn't tied. I'll die knowin' that I licked you."
His eyes was red as a blood-mad tiger's now, and they glittered at me from under his thick black brows. He grinned, but they was no mirth in it.
"I fight you again," he whispered. "We fight before I kill you. I give you something to fight for, too: if I whip you, and no kill you—you die under the knives; and your friend, too. If I whip you, and kill you with my hands—your friend die under the cuts. But if you whip me, then I no torture you, but kill you both quick." He tapped his pistol.
Anything sounded better than the thousand cuts business, and, anyway, I'd have a chance to go out fighting.
"And suppose I kill you?" I asked.
He laughed contemptuously. "No chance. But if you do, my people shoot you quick."
"Take him up, Steve," said Bill. "It's the best of a bad bargain, any way you look at it."
"I'll fight you on your own terms," I said to Santos.
He grunted, yelled some orders in his own tongue, and the stage was set for the strangest battle I ever had.
In the open space between the huts, the natives made a big ring, standing shoulder to shoulder, about three deep, the men behind looking over the shoulders of those in front. The kids and women come out of the huts and tried to watch the fight between the men's legs.
A sort of oval-shaped space was left clear. At each end of this space stood a thick post, set deep in the ground. They tied Bill to one of these posts. "I can't be in your corner this fight, old sea horse," said Bill, kind of drawn-faced, but still grinning.
"Well, in a way you are," I said. "You can't sponge my cuts and wave a towel, but you can yell advice when the goin's rough. Anyway," I said, "you got a good view of the fight."
"Sure," he grinned, "I got a ringside seat."
About that time the kanakas unfastened my ropes, and I worked my hands and fingers to get the circulation started again. Bill's hands was tied, so we couldn't shake hands, but I clapped him on the shoulder, and we looked at each other a second. Seafaring men ain't much on showing their emotions, and they ain't very demonstrative, but each of us knew how the other felt. We'd kicked around a good many years together—
Well, I turned around and walked to the middle of the oval, and waited. I didn't have to wait long. Santos came from the other end, his head lowered, his red eyes blazing, a terrible smile on his lips. All he wore was a loin cloth; all I had on was an old pair of pants. We was both bare-footed; and, of course, bare-handed.
I'd never seen anything like this in my life before. They was no bright lights except the merciless tropic sun; they was no cheering crowds—nothing but a band of savages that wanted our blood; they was no seconds, no referee—only a hard-faced kanaka with gaudy feathers in his hair, holding Santos' pistol. They was no purse but death. A quick death if I won; a long, slow, terrible death if I lost.
Santos was rangy, big, tapering from wide shoulders to lean legs. Speed and power there was in them smooth, heavy muscles. He was six feet one and a half inch tall; heavier than when I first fought him, but the extra weight was hard muscle. I don't believe he had a ounce of fat on him. He must have weighed two hundred, which gave him about ten pounds on me.
For a second we moved in a half circle, wary and deadly, and then he roared and come lashing in like a tidal wave. He shot left and right to my head so fast that for a second I was too busy ducking and blocking to think. He was crazy to knock my head off; he was shipping everything he had in that direction. Well, it's hard to knock a tough man cold with bare-knuckled head punches. The raw 'uns cut and bruise, but they ain't got the numbing shock the padded glove has. You'll notice most of the knock-outs in the old bare-knuckle days was from blows to the body and throat.
The moment I had a breathing space, I hooked a wicked left to the belly. His ridged muscles felt like flexible steel bands under my knuckles, and he merely snarled and lashed back with a right-hander which bruised my forearm when I blocked it. He was fast and his left was chain lightning—he shot it straight, he uppercut, and he hooked, just like that—zip! blip! blam!
The hook flattened my right ear, and almost simultaneously he threw his right with everything he had. I ducked and he missed by a hair's lash. Jerusha! I heard that right sing past my head like a slung shot, and Santos spun off balance and went to his knees from the force of it. He was up like a cat, spitting and snarling, and I heard Bill yell: "For the love of Mike, Steve, watch that right, or he'll knock your head clean off!"
Well, I guess in a ring with ordinary stakes, Santos would have finished me; but this was different. I'm tough any time; now I was fighting for the privilege of me and my pard going out clean. The thought of them sharp little knives put steel in me.