Battle Annie

The Brawl

Murph handed me his wooden mallet and said, “It’s all yours till noon, Annie. Then your harpies better make way for the boys. I can’t turn away paying customers.”

“We’ll be done by then,” I said, eyeing the Lady Gophers, slouched on bar stools, crowded around the rickety tables and then some what was standing against the walls as if to keep the bricks from falling. The room reeked of cheap perfume layered atop the smell of floorboards sodden with beer and rat piss.

Stumpy Malarkey stuck his head inside the door and looked around.

“May the devil break me feckin’ legs,” he said. “You got a full house, my girl.”

I shrugged. These gals were just the tip of the spear. Each of ’em had between thirty and fifty brick hurlers — young and old — she’d be bringing with her when the time came. My ladies loved to rumble.

Their eyes followed me as I walked to the bar and hoisted myself up so’s I was sitting on it. I banged on the bar with Murph’s mallet, the one that had give him his moniker of Mallet Murphy, because of him banging heads with it. The blabbering and the cackling died down.

“I hereby call forth this meeting of the Battle Row Ladies Social and Athletic Club,” I said in a loud voice.

“Hey, shut yer gobs!” Ida, my right hand gal, said to a table of yappers.

“Now, ladies,” I continued. “We got a job to do today. Go get your crews and bring as many wheelbarrows full of bricks as you can. We’ll be hurling till our arms break.”

“And whose side are we on today?”

“The railroad.”

A groan rose up out of their throats. Some of ’em might have a man among the striking workers, but we hurled for the highest bidder. And the railroad bosses was paying top dollar for our assistance to break up the strike. I’d been making a killing from all the “labor unrest.” And it was better work for a lady than laying on her back, picking pocket watches, or pilfering wallets.

The door opened and Sadie skulked in late — again — her feathered hat askew. Might be time to administer some discipline to the dusty little harlot. Setting a bad example for the girls.

“Look what the alley cat dragged in,” Ida spoke up. “Oh, wait, that is the alley cat!”

Sadie stuck her tongue out at Ida.

“Don’t stick that thing out at me. No telling where it’s been,” Ida said, inciting more than a few guffaws from the ladies. Loudest of all was Gallus Mag, one-time bouncer of The Hole in the Wall back in the old days when she was known far and wide as the terror of Hell’s Kitchen. Now the poor old sot was already in her cups.

Sadie sneered and leaned against the wall. I felt a growl burning in my chest, but decided better to ignore the wench and deal with her cheek when we were in private. Sadie had the potential to rise up in the ranks but she needed to learn some etiquette. And I was just the one to take her to the schoolhouse.

“Ladies, you got one hour before exercises commence,” I said. “You take no prisoners. You bite. You gouge. You kick like mules. And you stomp ’em hard. That’s what they pay us for. Let your blood boil, my sisters. They call us the weaker sex. We’ll show ’em what the weaker sex can do!”

I leapt on top of the bar and raised my fist high while the whole flock of them birds rose up and cheered.

Thanks to my silver tongue, I’d ascended to the top of the Social Club. My scurrilous old dad claimed he knew so many words he’d made it a point never to use the same word twice in his lifetime. And I had learned from him the gift of gab. Another reason mighta been that the fellas here in Hell’s Kitchen had what you might call unbridled admiration for me. They knew I’d give better than I got, and they had my back no matter the situation. The top bosses of the local gangs all called me their sweetheart, a sobriquet I accepted because, well, didn’t I deserve it?


We met at the railyard in the heat of the August afternoon, the sun hard as Murph’s wooden mallet on our backs. What did we care? Impervious to pain, we were. The guttersnipes came along, hoping to make a penny or two, handing bricks to the hurlers. One in particular always lurked in my shadow — an orphan girl covered in filth and scabs.

When we approached the picket line of men, fear glimmered in their wide eyes. We strode forth like Roman Centurions, arms raised, clasping our bats and our bricks. We were silent as serpents till we got within throwing distance and then a caterwauling like was never heard except in the depths of hell came full bore out of that horde of women. The bricks flew, and the strikers ducked; we busted skulls and reveled in the blood spilt.

Then the strikers came after us. Only they didn’t have the numbers we had. Sure they landed a punch here and there. They walloped us with their signs, but my ladies can take a punch or a wallop. After all, most of us have been punching bags our whole lives. I myself had an older brother who beat me every day of my first nine years ’til he got the scarlet fever and died in Ma’s arms. God rest his sorry soul. Ma went soon after him. Then it was just me and my old drunk Pa till Pa went to Sing Sing for something wasn’t even his fault when I was thirteen and I was on my own. Now, don’t go feeling sorry for me. Pa’d taught me everything I needed to know to get by on these streets, and now I was passing on my wealth of wisdom to these gals, these ladies. For ladies we surely were and you best not say different.

But I’ve gotten away from my story.

The brawl was a beaut. I lost myself in the melée that day, kicking and shoving, filled with delirious joy as I bloodied a poor sot’s face and broke another’s arm. Gallus Mag bit a striker’s ear clean off, just like she used to when she owned the Hole in the Wall, young Ida cracked a couple of noses, and Sadie broke some ribs with her bully club. By the time the coppers came and broke it up, we’d done our worst. I had blood dribbling down my chin and bruises on my body and a fingernail broken clean off. But I felt no pain. Molten steel runs through the veins in the midst of battle. You wear invisible armor, and you can’t feel a thing. Sure, the next day you’ll be a feckin’ wreck, moaning and groaning about your aches and pains, but till then nothing can hurt you, and if you happen to die on the battlefield, well there’s no better way to go, is there?

After the brawl, I dug out a nickel for the orphan girl. Her dirty little hands had kept me supplied with bricks the whole time. When the wheelbarrow was empty, she’d dashed into the battle and collected more. Brave little bug.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Cora,” she said, her eyes pinned to the coin.

“Cora? You’re my little protegé now, ain’t ya,” I said and tossed the coin to her. Then I hobbled down the street, sheets and undergarments hanging high above me liked tired ghosts. Kids clung to iron balconies and cheered for me. Their mothers stood in the doorways and shook their heads.

I made it to an abandoned warehouse across from the waterfront, ducked inside and stumbled my way back to Stumpy’s hidey hole. The gangsters in Hell’s Kitchen had got the name “gophers” because they lived down in the depths of the city under the tenements. They had a fierce reputation but unlike the other gangs around the city they had no organization, no real leader, though there were more than one angling for the job.

Stumpy Malarkey was waiting for me with a bucket of clean water. Stumpy had a big square face, one of his eyes drooped, and he’d lost a pinkie finger for not paying a debt, but he had a sly grin that I liked. As one of the toughest gophers in the territory, he wanted to be the boss, but it weren’t easy with all the rivalries among the Gorillas, the Rhodes Gang, and The Parlor Mob — all factions within the motley group of gophers.

The room was a cluttered mess and smelled like months-old wet sheets, but he had a bed of sorts in the corner. I undressed and sat on a bench whilst he dunked a sponge in the bucket and slowly doused me with cool water. My whole body trembled as the heat of the battle ebbed and the blood violence that had been screaming inside me became a whisper and finally died down altogether. Streams of water trickled over my back and down my breasts and arms. I closed my eyes, and for a minute or two, my mind became a blank wall. It was like I forgot my own name.

“Ah, Annie, me girl, you got a lot of heart,” he said. He slowly washed me off, touching each of my bruises gently.

Eventually, Stumpy got worked up by the sight of all that mayhem on my body, and after I was naked and clean, I lay down on the bed and let him do what he needed to do as long as he went slow and gentle like. As he roughly caressed me where I was wet and warm, I imagined the warriors of old, how they clashed on battlefields, swinging their iron swords, cutting off arms and heads. Maybe they won. Maybe they lost. But not a man regretted the cost. War was different these days. I’d heard plenty of stories about the war between the states that started the year I was born.

Pa had fought on the Union side, but it was all guns and cannons and terror, he said. I had a sour feeling Pa had been a coward and done what he could to escape the fields of body parts. These thoughts roved through my head as Stumpy put his hard little joint against me so as not to make babies and slowly stroked in such a way he didn’t lean on my poor battered flesh. He was considerate like that.

All the bosses called me their sweetheart, but it was only one or two I allowed bump uglies with me. I worried sometimes Stumpy wanted to stake a claim on me. If he ever became boss of the gophers and they became a real gang, I might let that happen. Right now I needed to sleep. Down here in the cool cellar with Stumpy and the rats would be good enough.

“You know,” I said after he was done and we were spooning, “if you could get the gophers to listen to you, you’d have the toughest gang in the city, tougher than those Five Points rowdies. Youse could become The Gophers.”

“You’re right there, gal. If only we could get the boys in line like you done with the ladies. Maybe you should use your powers of persuasion to help me out,” he said. Then he added with a rueful slant, “If you were a man, you’d be mayor of the feckin’ city by now.”

I lay in his arms, and soon enough his snores honked in my ear like a freight train. As I wrangled with the gods of sleep, I noticed a feeling of moroseness creeping into my thoughts — the dark devil that liked to wrap his claws around my heart in the dead of night. Pa said the only way he could keep it at bay was the drink. For me, it was the blood-rushing battle. When the battle was over, my dark devil would slip into my head where he made a crackling sound like a thousand men marching in hob-nailed boots on a gravel road.

“Go away,” I whispered. “I’ll not give in to you. Not tonight.”

The sounds subsided and I drifted off.