After hurrying and scurrying, much telephoning and bad language, a night session was held in Kelly's office in Los Angeles. Kelly was rushed with business; also, he was unlucky. He had brought the best American female prize fighter, Christi Ward, out from New York, arranged the fight for her with Lucy McCarthey, the local star of the female prize ring. But for two days now, carefully concealed from reporters, McCarthey had been lying up being sick - there was a rumor she was pregnant. There was no one to take her place. And now hope had revived, though faintly.
"You've got a hell of a nerve," Kelly addressed Laura Rivera, after one look, as soon as they got together. The malicious determination was in Rivera's eyes, but her face remained impassive.
"I can lick Christy Ward," was all she said.
"How do you know? Ever see her fight?"
Laura shook her head.
"She can beat you up with one hand and both eyes closed."
Laura shrugged her shoulders.
"Haven't you got anything to say?" the fight promoter snarled.
"I can lick her."
"Have you ever fought at all?" Michael Kelly demanded.
Michael was the promoter's brother, and ran the Yellowstone pool rooms where he made goodly sums on the fight game. Laura favored him with a bitter, unanswering stare. The promoter's secretary, a distinctively sporty young man, sneered audibly.
"Well, you know Roberts," Kelly broke the hostile silence. "He ought to be here. I've sent for him. Sit down and wait, though from the looks of you, you haven't got a chance. I can't throw the public down with a bum fight. Ringside seats are selling at fifteen dollars, you know that."
When Roberts arrived, it was patent that he was mildly drunk. He was a tall, lean, slack-jointed individual, and his walk, like his talk, was a smooth and languid drawl.
Kelly went straight to the point.
"Look here, Roberts, you've been bragging you discovered this gaunt Mexican. You know McCarthey's is ill. Well, this little yellow streak has the gall to blow in today and say she'll take McCarthey's place. What about it?"
"It's all right, Kelly," came the slow response. "She can put up a fight."
"I suppose you'll be sayin' next that she can lick Ward," Kelly snapped.
Roberts considered judicially.
"No, I won't say that. Ward's a top-notcher and a ring queen. But she can't hashhouse Rivera in short order. I know Laura. Nobody can get her goat. She ain't got a goat that I could ever discover. And she's a two-handed fighter. She can throw in the sleep-makers from any position."
"Never mind that. What kind of a show can she put up? You've been conditioning and training fighters all your life. I take off my hat to your judgment. Can she give the public a run for its money?"
"She sure can, and she'll worry Ward a mighty heap on top of it. You don't know that girl. I do. I discovered her. She ain't got a goat. She's a little devil. She'll make Ward sit up with a show of local talent that'll make the rest of you sit up. I won't say she'll lick Ward, but she'll put up such a show that you'll all know she's a comer."
"All right." Kelly turned to his secretary. "Ring up Christy Ward. I warned her to show up if I thought it worth while. She's right across at the Yellowstone, throwin' chests and doing the popular."
Kelly turned back to the conditioner. "Have a drink?" Roberts sipped his highball and unburdened himself. "Never told you how I discovered the little tootsie. It was a couple of years ago she showed up out at the quarters. I was instructing Ramona Williams. Ramona's wicked. She ain't got a tickle of mercy in her make-up. She chopped up her male pardner and he quit, and I couldn't find a willing boxer that'd work with her. I'd noticed this little starved Mexican gal hanging around, and I was desperate. So I grabbed her, shoved on the gloves and put her in. She was tougher'n rawhide, but weak. And she didn't know the first letter in the alphabet of boxing. Ramona chopped her to ribbons. But she hung on for two sickening rounds, when she fainted. Starvation, that was all. Battered! You couldn't have recognized her. I gave her a couple of dollars and a square meal. You oughta seen her wolf it down. She hadn't had the end of a bite for a couple of days. That's the end of her, thinks I. But next day she showed up, stiff an' sore, ready for another few dollars and a square meal. And she had done better as time went by. Just a born fighter, and tough beyond belief. She hasn't a heart. She's a piece of ice. And she never talked eleven words in a string since I know her."
It was at this stage that Christy Ward arrived. Quite a party it was. Her manager and trainer were with her. This dressed up rye mort breezed in like a gusty draught of geniality, good-nature, and all-conqueringness. Greetings flew about, a joke here, a retort there, a smile or a laugh for everybody. Yet it was her way, and only partly sincere. She was a good actress, and she had found geniality a most valuable asset in the game of getting on in the world. But down underneath she was the deliberate, cold-blooded fighter and businesswoman. The rest was a mask. Those who knew her or trafficked with her said that when it came to brass tacks she was Lady-on-the-Spot. She was invariably present at all business discussions, and it was urged by some that her manager was a blind whose only function was to serve as Christy's mouthpiece.
Rivera's way was different. Indian blood, as well as Spanish, was in her veins, and she sat back in a corner, silent, immobile, only her black eyes passing from face to face and noting everything.
"So that's the girl," Christy said, running an appraising eye over her proposed antagonist. "How de do, chicklet! You think for a second you can lick me?" Ward blurted in.
"I want the money," was Rivera's answer.
"You couldn't win from me in a thousand years," Christy assured her. "I've knocked out even men!"
"Then what are you holdin' out for?" Rivera countered. "If the money's that easy, why don't you go after it?"
"I will, so help me!" Christy cried with abrupt conviction. "I'Il beat you to death in the ring, my darling - you monkeyin' with me this way. Make out the articles, Kelly. Winner take all. Play it up in the sportin' columns. Tell her it's a grudge fight. I'll show this fresh gal a few."
Laura's answer was a calculated look of hatred. She despised this lady, even though she considered her as the best female prize fighter.
Barely noticed was Laura as she entered the ring. Only a very slight and very scattering ripple of half-hearted hand-clapping greeted her. The house did not believe in her. She was the lamb led to slaughter at the hands of the great Christy. Besides, the house was disappointed. It had expected a rushing battle between Christy Ward and Lucy McCarthey, and here it must put up with this poor slim tyro. Still further, it had manifested its disapproval of the change by betting two, and even three, to one on Christy. And where a betting audience's money is, there is its heart.
The Mexican girl sat down in her corner and waited. The slow minutes lagged by. Christy was making her wait. It was an old trick, but ever it worked on the young, new fighters. They grew frightened, sitting thus and facing their own apprehensions and a callous, tobacco-smoking audience. But for once the trick failed. Laura had no goat. She, who was more delicately coordinated, more finely nerved and strung than any of them, had no nerves of this sort. The atmosphere of foredoomed defeat in her own corner had no effect on her. Her handlers were chilled, as well, with certitude that theirs was the losing corner.
"Now you gotta be careful," Spider Hagerty warned her. Spider was her chief second. "Make it last as long as you can." All of which was not encouraging. But Laura took no notice. She despised prize fighting. It was the hated game. She had taken up with it, as a chopping block for others in the training quarters, solely because she was starving. The fact that she was marvelously made for it had meant nothing. She hated it. However, since she had started prize fighting, she found the money easy. Not first among the daughters of the mankind had she been to find herself successful at a despised vocation.
As from a remote distance she could hear Spider Hagerty saying to her: "No layin' down at the start. Take a beatin' and earn your dough."
Ten minutes had passed, and she still sat in her comer. There were no signs of Christy, who was evidently playing the trick to the limit.
To Laura's ears came a great roar, as of the sea, and she saw Christy Ward, leading her retinue of trainers and seconds, coming down the center aisle. The house was in wild uproar for the popular hero who was bound to win. Everybody proclaimed her. Everybody was for her. Even Laura's own seconds warmed to something akin to cheerfulness when Christy ducked jauntily through the ropes and entered the ring. Her face continually spread to an unending succession of smiles, and when Christy smiled, she smiled in every feature, even to the laughter-wrinkles of the corners of the eyes and into the depths of the eyes themselves. Never was there so genial a fighter. Her face was a running advertisement of good feeling, of good fellowship. She knew everybody. She joked, and laughed, and greeted her friends through the ropes. Those farther away, unable to suppress their admiration, cried loudly: "Oh, you sweet Christy!" It was a joyous ovation of affection that lasted a full five minutes.
Laura was disregarded. For all that, the audience noticed, she did not exist. Spider Hagerty's bloated face bent down close to her. "No gettin' scared," the Spider warned.
The house began to applaud. Christy was crossing the ring to her. Christy bent over, caught Laura's right hand in both her own and shook it with impulsive heartiness. Christy's smile-wreathed face was close to her. The audience yelled its appreciation of Christy's display of sporting spirit. She was greeting her opponent with the fondness of a sister. Christy's lips moved, and the audience, interpreting the unheard words to be those of a kindly-natured sport, yelled again. Only Laura heard the low words. "I'll fetch the yellow outa you," hissed from between Christy's gaily smiling lips. Another great outburst of applause was Christy's as she walked back across the ring.
When Christy stripped, there was ohs! and ahs! of delight. She appeared before the audience in a short loose boxer pants and a sport shirt, exposing the luxurious legs and arms. Her body was perfect, alive with easy suppleness and health and strength. The shirt covered her powerful prominent elastic bosom making her appearance even more awesome. Her skin was white and smooth as it should be for a real woman. All grace, and resilience, and power resided therein. She had proved it in scores of battles including bouts with men. Her photographs were in the physical culture magazines.
A groan went up as Spider Hagerty helped Laura strip. Her lanky body seemed leaner, because of the swarthiness of the skin. It was visible through her shabby t-shirt that her underdeveloped breasts are tightly bandaged. She had muscles, but they made no display like her opponent's. What the audience neglected to see was the deep chest. Nor could it guess the toughness of the fiber of the flesh, the instantaneousness of the cell explosions of the muscles, the fineness of the nerves that wired every part of her into a splendid fighting mechanism. All the audience saw was a brown-skinned girl of eighteen with what seemed the body of a teenager girl. With Christy it was different. Christy was a woman of twenty-four, and her body was a body of a mature woman. The contrast was still more striking as they stood together in the center of the ring receiving the referee's last instructions.
Laura noticed Roberts sitting directly behind the newspaper men. "Take it easy, Laura," Roberts drawled. "She can't kill you, remember that. She'll rush you at the go-off, but don't get rattled. You just and stall, and clinch. She can't hurt cover up, much. Just make believe to yourself that she's choppin' out on you at the trainin' quarters." Laura made no sign that she had heard. "Sullen little devil," Roberts muttered to the man next to him. "He always was that way."
Back in her corner, Laura waited, standing up. Her seconds had crawled out through the ropes, taking the canvas stool with them. Diagonally across the squared ring, Christy faced her. The gong struck, and the battle was on. The audience howled its delight. Never had it seen a battle open more convincingly. The papers were right. It was a grudge fight. Three-quarters of the distance Christy covered in the rush to get together, her intention to eat up the Mexican babe plainly advertised. She assailed with not one blow, nor two, nor a dozen. She was a gyroscope of blows, a whirlwind of destruction. Laura was nowhere. She was overwhelmed, buried beneath avalanches of punches delivered from every angle and position by a past master in the art. She was overborne, swept back against the ropes, separated by the referee, and swept back against the ropes again.
It was not a fight. It was a slaughter, a massacre. Any audience, save a prize fighting one, would have exhausted its emotions in that first minute. Christy was certainly showing what she could do - a splendid exhibition. Such was the certainty of the audience, as well as its excitement and favoritism, that it failed to take notice that the Mexican still stayed on her feet. It forgot Laura. It rarely saw her, so closely was she enveloped in Christy's man-eating attack. A minute of this went by, and two minutes. Then, in a separation, it caught a clear glimpse of the Mexican. Her lip was cut, her nose was bleeding. As she turned and staggered into a clinch, the welts of oozing blood, from her contacts with the ropes, showed in red bars across her back. But what the audience did not notice was that her chest was not heaving and that her eyes were coldly burning as ever. She had learned to live through man-eating attacks - a hard school, and she was schooled hard.
Then happened the amazing thing. The whirling, blurring mix-up ceased suddenly. Laura stood alone. Christy, the redoubtable Christy, lay on her back. She had not staggered and sunk down, nor had she gone over in a long slumping fall. The left hook of Laura had dropped her in midair with the abruptness of death. The referee shoved Laura back with one hand, and stood over the fallen gladiatress counting the seconds. It is the custom of prize-fighting audiences to cheer a clean knock-down blow. But this audience did not cheer. The thing had been too unexpected. It watched the toll of the seconds in tense silence, and through this silence the voice of Roberts rose exultantly: "I told you she was a two-handed fighter!"
By the fifth second, Christy was rolling over on her face, and when seven was counted, she rested on one knee, ready to rise after the count of nine and before the count of ten. If her knee still touched the floor at "ten," she was considered "down," and also "out." The instant her knee left the floor, she was considered "up," and in that instant it was Laura's right to try and put her down again. Laura took no chances. The moment that knee left the floor she would strike again. She circled around, but the referee circled in between, and Laura knew that the seconds she counted were very slow. At "nine" the referee gave Laura a sharp thrust back. It enabled Christy to raise, the smile back on her lips. Doubled partly over, with arms wrapped about face and abdomen, she cleverly stumbled into a clinch. By all the rules of the game the referee should have broken it, but he did not, and Christy clung on like a surf-battered barnacle and moment-by-moment recuperated. The last minute of the round was going fast. If she could live to the end, she would have a full minute in her corner to revive. And live to the end she did, smiling through all desperateness and extremity.
"The smile that won't come off!" somebody yelled, and the audience laughed loudly in its relief. "The kick that Greaser's got is something God-awful," Christy gasped in her corner to her adviser while her handlers worked frantically over her.
The second and third rounds were tame. Christy, a tricky and consummate ring queen, stalled and blocked and held on, devoting herself to recovering from that dazing first-round blow. In the fourth round she was herself again. Jarred and shaken, nevertheless her good condition had enabled her to regain her vigor. But she tried no man-eating tactics. The Mexican had proved a tartar. Instead, Christy brought to bear her best fighting powers. In tricks and skill and experience she was the master, and though she could land nothing vital, she proceeded scientifically to chop and wear down her opponent. She landed three blows to Laura's one, but they were punishing blows only, and not deadly. It was the sum of many of them that constituted deadliness. She was respectful of this two-handed dub with the amazing short-arm kicks in both her fists.
In defense, Laura developed a disconcerting straight-left. Again and again, attack after attack she straight-lefted away from her with accumulated damage to Christy's mouth and nose. But Christy was protean. That was why she was the coming champion. She could change from style to style of fighting at will. she now devoted herself to infighting. In this she was particularly wicked, and it enabled her to avoid the other's straight-left. Here she set the house wild repeatedly, capping it with a marvelous lockbreak and lift of an inside uppercut that raised the Mexican in the air and dropped her to the mat. Laura rested on one knee, making the most of the count, and in the soul of her she knew the referee was counting short seconds on her.
Again, in the fifth, Christy achieved the diabolical inside uppercut. She succeeded only in staggering Laura, but, in the ensuing moment of defenseless helplessness, she smashed her with another blow through the ropes. Laura's body bounced on the heads of the newspaper men below, and they boosted her back to the edge of the platform outside the ropes. Here she rested on one knee, while the referee raced off the seconds. Inside the ropes, through which she must duck to enter the ring, Christy waited for her. Nor did the referee intervene or thrust Christy back. The house was beside itself with delight. "Kill her, Christy, kill her" was the cry. Scores of voices took it up until it was like a war-chant of wolves.
Christy did her best, but Laura, at the count of eight came unexpectedly through the ropes and safely into a clinch. Laura lived, and the daze cleared from her brain. It was all of a piece. Very few were interested in her, and they were the certain, definite percentage of a gambling crowd that plays long shots. Believing Christy to be the winner, nevertheless they had put their money on the Mexican at four to ten and one to three. More than a trifle was up on the point of how many rounds Laura could last. Wild money had appeared at the ringside proclaiming that she could not last five rounds, or even four. The winners of this, now that their cash risk was happily settled, had joined in cheering on the favorite.
Laura refused to be licked. Through the sixth round her opponent strove vainly to repeat the uppercut. Laura stunned the house again. In the midst of a clinch she broke the lock with a quick, lithe movement, and in the narrow space between their bodies her right lifted from the waist. Christy went to the floor and took the safety of the count. The crowd was appalled. She was being bested at her own game. Her famous right-uppercut had been worked back on her. Laura made no attempt to catch her as she arose at "nine."
Twice in the seventh, Laura put through the right-uppercut, lifted from waist to opponent's chin. Christy grew desperate. The smile never left her face, but she went back to her man-eating rushes. Whirlwind as she would, be could not damage Laura, while Laura through the blur and whirl, dropped her to the mat three times in succession. Christy did not recuperate so quickly now, and she was in a serious way. But from then till the ninth she put up the gamest exhibition of her career. She stalled and blocked, fought parsimoniously, and strove to gather strength. Also, she fought as foully as a successful fighter knows how. Every trick and device she employed, butting in the clinches with the seeming of accident, pinioning Laura's glove between arm and body, heeling her glove on Laura's mouth to clog her breathing. Often, in the clinches, through her cut and smiling lips she snarled insults unspeakable and vile in Laura's ear.
Bested by this surprise-box of an unknown, she was pinning all on a single punch. She offered herself for punishment, fished, and feinted, and drew, for that one opening that would enable her to whip a blow through with all her strength and turn the tide. As another great male fighter had done before her, she might do a right and left, to solar plexus and across the jaw. She could do it, for she was noted for the strength of punch that remained in her arms as long as she could keep her feet.
In the eighth round, Laura put Christy down again, and herself stood resting, hands dropped at side, while the referee counted. Laura looked hatred at her and waited for Christy to rise. Back in her corner in the minute interval, Christy's earlier surety seemed returned to her. The confidence of her advance frightened Laura. Some trick was about to be worked. Christy rushed, but Laura refused the encounter. She side-stepped away into safety. What the other wanted was a clinch. It was in some way necessary to the trick. Laura backed and circled away, yet she knew, sooner or later, the clinch and the trick would come. Desperately she resolved to draw it. She made as if to effect the clinch with Christy's next rush. Instead, at the last instant, just as their bodies should have come together, Laura darted nimbly back. And in the same instant Christy's corner raised a cry of foul. Christy cursed Laura openly, and forced her, while Laura danced away. Also, Laura made up her mind to strike no more blows at the body. In this she threw away half her chance of winning, but she knew if she was to win at all it was with the outfighting that remained to her. Christy threw all caution to the winds. For two rounds she tore after and into the girl who dared not meet her at close quarters.
Laura was struck again and again; she took blows by the dozens to avoid the perilous clinch. During this supreme final rally of Christy's the audience rose to its feet and went mad. It did not understand. All it could see was that its favorite was winning, after all. "Why don't you fight?" it demanded wrathfully of Laura. "Kill her, Christy! Kill her! You sure got her!"
In all the house, bar none, Laura was the only cold person. By temperament and blood she was the hottest-passioned there; but she had gone through such vastly greater heats that this collective passion of a thousand throats, rising surge on surge, was to her brain no more than the velvet cool of a summer twilight.
Into the tenth round Christy carried her rally. Laura, under a heavy blow, drooped and sagged. Her hands dropped helplessly as she reeled backward. Christy thought it was her chance. The girl was at her mercy. Thus Laura, feigning, caught her off her guard, lashing out a clean drive to the mouth. Christy went down. When she arose, Laura felled her with a down-chop of the right on neck and jaw. Three times she repeated this and three times Christy, battered and heroic, still kept coming up. It was impossible for any referee to call these blows foul. Christy's corner refused to throw in the towel but there was no need to stop the fight, for Christy did not rise after the fourth punch. "Count!" Laura cried hoarsely to the referee. And when the count was finished, Christy's seconds gathered her lifeless body up and carried it to her corner...
"Matter fact, the Mexican girl fights as a Goddess", Roberts said dreamily. "I have never seen such a great bout in all my life!"
"It's time for Christi Ward to get pregnant too", Kelly grumbled.