The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XIX. The First Battle
The promptitude and despatch with which the Kid had attended to the gentleman with the black-jack had not been without its effect on the followers of the stricken one. Physical courage is not an outstanding quality of the New York gangsman. His personal preference is for retreat when it is a question of unpleasantness with a stranger. And, in any case, even when warring among themselves, the gangs exhibit a lively distaste for the hard knocks of hand-to-hand fighting. Their chosen method of battling is to lie down on the ground and shoot.
The Kid's rapid work on the present occasion created a good deal of confusion. There was no doubt that much had been hoped for from speedy attack. Also, the generalship of the expedition had been in the hands of the fallen warrior. His removal from the sphere of active influence had left the party without a head. And, to add to their discomfiture, they could not account for the Kid. Smith they knew, and John was to be accounted for, but who was this stranger with the square shoulders and the uppercut that landed like a cannon ball? Something approaching a panic prevailed among the gang.
It was not lessened by the behavior of the intended victims. John was the first to join issue. He had been a few paces behind the others during the black-jack incident, but, dark as it was, he had seen enough to show him that the occasion was, as Smith would have said, one for the shrewd blow rather than the prolonged parley. With a shout, he made a football rush into the confused mass of the enemy. A moment later Smith and the Kid followed, and there raged over the body of the fallen leader a battle of Homeric type.
It was not a long affair. The rules and conditions governing the encounter offended the delicate sensibilities of the gang. Like artists who feel themselves trammeled by distasteful conventions, they were damped and could not do themselves justice. Their forte was long-range fighting with pistols. With that they felt en rapport. But this vulgar brawling in the darkness with muscular opponents who hit hard and often with the clenched fist was distasteful to them. They could not develop any enthusiasm for it. They carried pistols, but it was too dark and the combatants were too entangled to allow them to use these.
There was but one thing to be done. Reluctant as they might be to abandon their fallen leader, it must be done. Already they were suffering grievously from John, the black-jack, and the lightning blows of the Kid. For a moment they hung, wavering, then stampeded in half-a-dozen different directions, melting into the night whence they had come.
John, full of zeal, pursued one fugitive some fifty yards down the street, but his quarry, exhibiting a rare turn of speed, easily outstripped him.
He came back, panting, to find Smith and the Kid examining the fallen leader of the departed ones with the aid of a match, which went out just as John arrived.
The Kid struck another. The head of it fell off and dropped upon the up-turned face. The victim stirred, shook himself, sat up, and began to mutter something in a foggy voice.
"He's still woozy," said the Kid.
"Still--what exactly, Comrade Brady?"
"In the air," explained the Kid. "Bats in the belfry. Dizzy. See what I mean? It's often like that when a feller puts one in with a bit of weight behind it just where that one landed. Gee! I remember when I fought Martin Kelly; I was only starting to learn the game then. Martin and me was mixing it good and hard all over the ring, when suddenly he puts over a stiff one right on the point. What do you think I done? Fall down and take the count? Not on your life. I just turns round and walks straight out of the ring to my dressing-room. Willie Harvey, who was seconding me, comes tearing in after me, and finds me getting into my clothes. 'What's doing, Kid?' he asks. 'I'm going fishin', Willie,' I says. 'It's a lovely day.' 'You've lost the fight,' he says. 'Fight?' says I. 'What fight?' See what I mean? I hadn't a notion of what had happened. It was half an hour and more before I could remember a thing."
During this reminiscence, the man on the ground had contrived to clear his mind of the mistiness induced by the Kid's upper cut. The first sign he showed of returning intelligence was a sudden dash for safety up the road. But he had not gone five yards when he sat down limply.
The Kid was inspired to further reminiscence.
"Guess he's feeling pretty poor," he said. "It's no good him trying to run for a while after he's put his chin in the way of a real live one. I remember when Joe Peterson put me out, way back when I was new to the game--it was the same year I fought Martin Kelly. He had an awful punch, had old Joe, and he put me down and out in the eighth round. After the fight they found me on the fire-escape outside my dressing-room. 'Come in, Kid,' says they. 'It's all right, chaps,' I says, 'I'm dying.' Like that. 'It's all right, chaps, I'm dying.' Same with this guy. See what I mean?"
They formed a group about the fallen black-jack expert.
"Pardon us," said Smith courteously, "for breaking in upon your reverie, but if you could spare us a moment of your valuable time, there are one or two things which we would like to know."
"Sure thing," agreed the Kid.
"In the first place," continued Smith, "would it be betraying professional secrets if you told us which particular bevy of energetic cutthroats it is to which you are attached?"
"Gent," explained the Kid, "wants to know what's your gang."
The man on the ground muttered something that to Smith and John was unintelligible.
"It would be a charity," said the former, "if some philanthropist would give this fellow elocution lessons. Can you interpret, Comrade Brady?"
"Says it's the Three Points," said the Kid.
"The Three Points? That's Spider Reilly's lot. Perhaps this is Spider Reilly?"
"Nope," said the Kid. "I know the Spider. This ain't him. This is some other mutt."
"Which other mutt in particular?" asked Smith. "Try and find out, Comrade Brady. You seem to be able to understand what he says. To me, personally, his remarks sound like the output of a gramophone with a hot potato in its mouth."
"Says he's Jack Repetto," announced the interpreter.
There was another interruption at this moment. The bashful Mr. Repetto, plainly a man who was not happy in the society of strangers, made another attempt to withdraw. Reaching out a pair of lean hands, he pulled the Kid's legs from under him with a swift jerk, and, wriggling to his feet, started off again down the road. Once more, however, desire outran performance. He got as far as the nearest street-lamp, but no further. The giddiness seemed to overcome him again, for he grasped the lamp-post, and, sliding slowly to the ground, sat there motionless.
The Kid, whose fall had jolted and bruised him, was inclined to be wrathful and vindictive. He was the first of the three to reach the elusive Mr. Repetto, and if that worthy had happened to be standing instead of sitting it might have gone hard with him. But the Kid was not the man to attack a fallen foe. He contented himself with brushing the dust off his person and addressing a richly abusive flow of remarks to Mr. Repetto.
Under the rays of the lamp it was possible to discern more closely the features of the black-jack exponent. There was a subtle but noticeable resemblance to those of Mr. Bat Jarvis. Apparently the latter's oiled forelock, worn low over the forehead, was more a concession to the general fashion prevailing in gang circles than an expression of personal taste. Mr. Repetto had it, too. In his case it was almost white, for the fallen warrior was an albino. His eyes, which were closed, had white lashes and were set as near together as Nature had been able to manage without actually running them into one another. His underlip protruded and drooped. Looking at him, one felt instinctively that no judging committee of a beauty contest would hesitate a moment before him.
It soon became apparent that the light of the lamp, though bestowing the doubtful privilege of a clearer view of Mr. Repetto's face, held certain disadvantages. Scarcely had the staff of Peaceful Moments reached the faint yellow pool of light, in the center of which Mr. Repetto reclined, than, with a suddenness which caused them to leap into the air, there sounded from the darkness down the road the crack-crack-crack of a revolver. Instantly from the opposite direction came other shots. Three bullets cut grooves in the roadway almost at John's feet. The Kid gave a sudden howl. Smith's hat, suddenly imbued with life, sprang into the air and vanished, whirling into the night.
The thought did not come to them consciously at the moment, there being little time to think, but it was evident as soon as, diving out of the circle of light into the sheltering darkness, they crouched down and waited for the next move, that a somewhat skilful ambush had been effected. The other members of the gang, who had fled with such remarkable speed, had by no means been eliminated altogether from the game. While the questioning of Mr. Repetto had been in progress, they had crept back, unperceived except by Mr. Repetto himself. It being too dark for successful shooting, it had become Mr. Repetto's task to lure his captors into the light, which he had accomplished with considerable skill.
For some minutes the battle halted. There was dead silence. The circle of light was empty now. Mr. Repetto had vanished. A tentative shot from nowhere ripped through the air close to where Smith lay flattened on the pavement. And then the pavement began to vibrate and give out a curious resonant sound. Somewhere--it might be near or far--a policeman had heard the shots, and was signaling for help to other policemen along the line by beating on the flagstones with his night stick. The noise grew, filling the still air. Prom somewhere down the road sounded the ring of running feet.
"De cops!" cried a voice. "Beat it!"
Next moment the night was full of clatter. The gang was "beating it."
Smith rose to his feet and felt his wet and muddy clothes ruefully.
The rescue party was coming up at the gallop.
"What's doing?" asked a voice.
"Nothing now," said the disgusted voice of the Kid from the shadows. "They've beaten it."
The circle of lamplight became as if by mutual consent a general rendezvous. Three gray-clad policemen, tough, clean-shaven men with keen eyes and square jaws, stood there, revolvers in one hand, night sticks in the other. Smith, hatless and muddy, joined them. John and the Kid, the latter bleeding freely from his left ear, the lobe of which had been chipped by a bullet, were the last to arrive.
"What's been the rough-house?" inquired one of the policemen, mildly interested.
"Do you know a sport of the name of Repetto?" enquired Smith.
"Jack Repetto? Sure."
"He belongs to the Three Points," said another intelligent officer, as one naming some fashionable club.
"When next you see him," said Smith, "I should be obliged if you would use your authority to make him buy me a new hat. I could do with another pair of trousers, too, but I will not press the trousers. A new hat is, however, essential. Mine has a six-inch hole in it."
"Shot at you, did they?" said one of the policemen, as who should say, "Tut, tut!"
"Shot at us!" burst out the ruffled Kid. "What do you think's been happening? Think an aeroplane ran into my ear and took half of it off? Think the noise was somebody opening bottles of pop? Think those guys that sneaked off down the road was just training for a Marathon?"
"Comrade Brady," said Smith, "touches the spot. He--"
"Say, are you Kid Brady?" enquired one of the officers. For the first time the constabulary had begun to display real animation.
"Reckoned I'd seen you somewhere!" said another. "You licked Cyclone Dick all right, Kid, I hear."
"And who but a bone-head thought he wouldn't?" demanded the third warmly. "He could whip a dozen Cyclone Dicks in the same evening with his eyes shut."
"He's the next champeen," admitted the first speaker.
"If he juts it over Jimmy Garvin," argued the second.
"Jimmy Garvin!" cried the third. "He can whip twenty Jimmy Garvins with his feet tied. I tell you--"
"I am loath," observed Smith, "to interrupt this very impressive brain barbecue, but, trivial as it may seem to you, to me there is a certain interest in this other little matter of my ruined hat. I know that it may strike you as hypersensitive of us to protest against being riddled with bullets, but--"
"Well, what's been doin'?" inquired the Force. It was a nuisance, this perpetual harping on trifles when the deep question of the light-weight championship of the world was under discussion, but the sooner it was attended to, the sooner it would be over.
John undertook to explain.
"The Three Points laid for us," he said. "This man, Jack Repetto, was bossing the crowd. The Kid put one over on to Jack Repetto's chin, and we were asking him a few questions when the rest came back, and started shooting. Then we got to cover quick, and you came up and they beat it."
"That," said Smith, nodding, "is a very fair precis of the evening's events. We should like you, if you will be so good, to corral this Comrade Repetto, and see that he buys me a new hat."
"We'll round Jack up," said one of the policemen indulgently.
"Do it nicely," urged Smith. "Don't go hurting his feelings."
The second policeman gave it as his opinion that Jack was getting too gay. The third policeman conceded this. Jack, he said, had shown signs for some time past of asking for it in the neck. It was an error on Jack's part, he gave his hearers to understand, to assume that the lid was completely off the great city of New York.
"Too blamed fresh he's gettin'," the trio agreed. They seemed to think it was too bad of Jack.
"The wrath of the Law," said Smith, "is very terrible. We will leave the matter, then, in your hands. In the meantime, we should be glad if you would direct us to the nearest subway station. Just at the moment, the cheerful lights of the Great White Way are what I seem chiefly to need."
* * * * *
So ended the opening engagement of the campaign, in a satisfactory but far from decisive victory for the Peaceful Moments' army.
"The victory," said Smith, "was not bloodless. Comrade Brady's ear, my hat--these are not slight casualties. On the other hand, the elimination of Comrade Repetto is pleasant. I know few men whom I would not rather meet on a lonely road than Comrade Repetto. He is one of nature's black-jackers. Probably the thing crept upon him slowly. He started, possibly, in a merely tentative way by slugging one of the family circle. His aunt, let us say, or his small brother. But, once started, he is unable to resist the craving. The thing grips him like dram-drinking. He black-jacks now not because he really wants to, but because he cannot help himself. There's something singularly consoling in the thought that Comrade Repetto will no longer be among those present."
"There are others," said John.
"As you justly remark," said Smith, "there are others. I am glad we have secured Comrade Brady's services. We may need them."