CHAPTER 4 TO THE DEATH
Jack managed to get one free and kicked down savagely. There sounded the sharp crack of broken bone and Crimp cried out. He felt his nose gingerly. Blood spurted through his fingers.
‘He’s broke me nose,’ he cried.
Jack leapt off the ladder and slipped through the crowd of convicts with Crimp and Trench lumbering after him. Jack really did live up to his name and for a good five minutes he artfully dodged and swerved, ducked and dived, eluding the clutching hands of his pursuers. Most of the men were happy to aid him in his flight, having no love for his enemies but a smidgeon of admiration for him.
In the end Trench cried out, ‘A half-crown for the man who catches him.’ Loyalties switched instantly and in moments Jack found himself caught in a web of arms. He was dragged in front of Trench.
‘You broke my friend’s nose,’ Trench said. ‘That was foolish of yer. You’ve got some comeuppance to come.’ He pulled Jack’s Top Hat from his head, put it to his mouth and bit the crown off.
‘You bastard,’ cried Jack, ‘That’s my property.’
‘You’re welcome to it,’ said Trench, dropping the battered hat upon the floor and stamping on it.
‘Let me break his fingers,’ cried Crimp.
‘If you want,’ said Trench, grabbing hold of Jack’s hand and holding it towards him.
‘Not his fingers,’ came a voice from the crowd. A swell of angry voices seemed to agree.
‘Why not?’ said Crimp. ‘He broke my nose. Why shouldn’t I break his fingers?’
‘That’s his trade,’ said the voice. ‘He’s a pick-pocket. You can’t take away the lad’s profession.’
Crimp squeezed on Jack’s fingers. But as he looked at the increasingly angry crowd he suddenly thought better of it and let Jack’s hand drop.
‘Okay then,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave the lad his fingers. But what can I do to him then?’
‘Give him a beating,’ said the voice. ‘But don’t harm his hands.’
Crimp called out to Trench. He grabbed Jack by the neck and held him fast while Crimp sized up where to strike. His first punch hit Jack in the shoulder.
‘There must be a butterfly in here,’ Jack said, peering down as he brushed at his shoulder. ‘I swear its gentle wing just touched me.’
The crowd laughed at his words, jeering at Crimp for his puniness.
Crimp growled in fury and laid into Jack with a will. Jack didn’t say another word.
It was only when he was knocked unconscious and began to slide to the floor that Trench held up his hand. ‘Enough for now, Fred,’ he said. ‘He won’t forget this lesson.’
The next three days were the worst that Jack ever experienced. Every morning he was beaten by Crimp and every afternoon beaten once again. Trench would sit and watch this, chuckling and guffawing as though it was the finest comedy in the halls. The rest of the convicts were angered by it but for the moment no one dared intervene.
On the fourth day, anyone who happened to be lurking in the darkest part of the hold might have seen Jack whispering something in Tommy Windle’s ear. He gave the cabin boy a note.
Jack watched Tom slip away to the ladder leading up to the deck. He bit his lips anxiously and took a deep breath.
Then he turned, strode up to Trench and kicked him on the shin.
‘I’ve had enough of seeing you hide behind your pal,’ he cried. ‘Why don’t you fight your own battles for a change? I challenge you to a prize-fight.’
Artful is available on Kindle and on Smashwords.
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