CHAPTER ONE

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Sall copped the punch across the cheek and knew it'd drop him. Satisfaction shone from the scrunched face on the end of it, shaded by a low flat cap. Sall went spinning to the floor, his world rattled. They'd told him the dockworker hit like a barge in a hurry, and they were right.

The dockworker swaggered over him. 'Stay down!' he said.

Moments ticked over into seconds. He was losing it all. The fight, the gold, his future, in that order, as each second ticked by. He had to get up.

Sall groaned and rolled onto his side, double vision focusing on the crowd forming the ring.

The punta slipped through them, coming to crouch by his side. 'He's spinny,' he said, then to Sall, 'you done?'

One thousand in pure, solid gold. For a whole, even thousand, free of tax or conditions, he'd take a dozen more.

'Not yet,' Sall said, pushing himself up on his knuckles. The iron taste of blood mixed with his saliva. He spat and braced himself on one knee, feeling better now he was up. He rose amid cheers, and danced a little from foot to foot to clear his head.

'The fight goes on!' The punta spun away.

The dockworker puffed his chest to the crowd's cheers. 'You want another?'

Sall raised his fists. 'Couldn't make me any uglier,' he said, looking at him over the top of his knuckles.

The dockworker, steady, advanced and feinted with a left. Sall saw it coming and ducked into the hand. The real jab shot past his face, missing him this time. Sall cocked his arm back and delivered a blow into the dockworker's ribs, forcing him back a few steps. The dockworker gasped, stung.

Sall stole ground and came at his opponent with a flurry of strikes. The dockworker brought up his guard, deflecting them as best he could. Sall continued to step into him, driving him around the ring so the dockworker had to keep an active mind about his footing, and off his attack. His opponent had a good gauge of Sall's reach, and none of Sall's own straight jabs could land anywhere near his head without the dockworker ducking to one side or leaning back, keeping scarce fractions of an inch out of their path. He wouldn't let Sall get his revenge, and in the flicker of a smile the dockworker knew he'd got under Sall's skin.

Sall gave up on that strategy and switched, drawing breath and tossing jabs into his lower body. The dockworker wanted to settle him with a knockout. Sall was content to work the wind out of him slowly, but he wouldn't turn away the opportunity to punch a few of the dockworker's teeth in, if the opportunity presented itself. The dockworker threw a cross on the back of a jab. Sall brought his hands up, fending off the strike aimed at his chin, and bowed a little into his own back foot.

The dockworker felt the distance grow between them, sensing retreat. Sall lay his bait. The dockworker took it, bringing his fist up as he came into Sall's reach. Sall pushed on his back foot. The dockworker's eyes widened as Sall sprung forward.

Sall brought all his strength into launching his fist into the dockworker's belly. He could tell it hurt by the urk! the stocky fellow made, and the reflexive spasm in the gut muscle at his knuckles. This time Sall had hurt him. The fight was turning in his favour.

The dockworker was knocked back again. He sheltered his belly and stumbled into the arms of the crowd, who with rowdy excitement shoved him back at a waiting Sall. The dockworker, indomitable it seemed, returned at him with a soaring hook and a scowl.

Sall stepped outside the hook's swing and delivered a cross into the dockworker's temple. Blindsided, the dockworker stumbled sideways, but did not lose his feet. He instead spun into a backhand swing. Sall leaned away as it coursed past his nose. Close. The dockworker reeled off the swinging backhand, panting in anger, readjusting his soft cap from its tilt over an eye. Sall brought his guard up and circled him.

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