All Stories, Historical

Hell Cat Laid Low by Marco Etheridge

Maggie slogged through the murky gloom of Water Street, her boots squelching in the muck. Gas streetlamps threw wavering silver cones into the darkness. The feeble light only accentuated the inky Manhattan night. Piles of manure and offal cast eerie shadows across the black mire.

She held her skirts above the reek, but New York streets were hopeless after an April rainstorm. As she approached the Hole in the Wall, she gave it up and let her skirts drag. Their hems were already heavy with filth. Maggie paused outside the doors of the saloon. She kicked the mud from her boots onto the wooden planks of the entryway.

As she pushed through the double doors, Maggie’s senses were assaulted by the noise and smell of the place. The street stench of manure and rotting vegetables was replaced by a pungent mixture of cigar smoke, spilled whiskey, and the animal musk of unwashed men wearing wet wool.

Under the glow of oil lamps, a man wearing a bowler hat banged away on an out of tune piano. A consumptive skeleton stood beside the piano, belting out an Irish ballad over the din of the crowd.

Peering through drifting clouds of smoke, Maggie’s hard green eyes found the person she was looking for. A formidable woman leaned her ample backside into the rough bar, her arms thrown to either side. She stood a head taller than most of the men around her. A well-worn shillelagh hung from a thick leather belt strapped around the woman’s hips. Her rough skirts were held up by wide suspenders that looped over the woman’s broad shoulders.

The woman’s name was Gallus Mag, after the fashion of her suspenders. She was the bouncer at the Hole in the Wall, feared and respected by all the patrons. A broad smile creased the big woman’s freckled face when she saw Maggie.

“Well damn me if the cat hasn’t gone and drug in the Hell-Cat herself. Hullo, Maggie. What brings you out of the Five Points?”

“And a good evening to yourself, Gallus Mag. Have ye bitten off any ears tonight?”

“That I have not, Maggie. The gents have been right well-behaved, but the night is young. Come now, I asked ye a civil question. What brings you down to the Hole in the Wall?”

“I thought I might have a wee drop, Mag, and a bit of conversation if you’ve the time.”

“Drink we have by the barrel, Girl, and as long as none of these louts raise a ruckus, I’ve

nothing but time. What’ll you be having, then?”

“A whiskey and a beer would set me fine.”

The tall woman slapped a hand on the wooden bar.

“Sweeney, a whiskey and draft for the lady, and for me as well.”

She turned back to Maggie and smiled.

“How are things down in the Points? Are the Dead Rabbits still fighting the good fight?”

“That we are Mag, that we are. It’s much the same, as I’m sure you’ve heard. The Bowery Boys still hate the Irish, and we still hate those suit-wearing bastards. Just last week they made a play for a few of our lads, but we sent them packing, and bloodied them as well.”

“Ah, that’s music to me ears, that is. Here’s your whiskey and mine.”

The women reached for their glasses and held them up.

“Sláinte.”

“Sláinte.”

“But tell me true now, Maggie, you did not slog through mud and shit just to have a drink with me.”

“You’ve seen through me, Mag. A drink is always welcome, but I’ve come for a bit of wisdom as well.”

“You are plowing an empty field there, that’s sure, but now you’ve me curiosity. Tell me what is troubling you, and we will see what we may see.”

“I’m most shamed to say it, Mag, but ’tis a man that grieves me.”

“Ah, sure, scratch any trouble and there will be a man at the root of it. He must be fearsome indeed if he can stand against Hell-Cat Maggie. If you’ve come to borrow a pistol, you need only ask.”

“You misunderstand me, Gallus Mag. I don’t want to shoot the lad. The truth is that I am smitten.”

Gallus Mag let out a long whistle and rapped her hard knuckles against the bar.

“Two more whiskies here, Sweeney, and be on the lookout for more.”

The big woman laid a rough hand on Maggie’s shoulder.

“Out with it then. Tell me the tale.”

“I’m out of me depth, Mag. Sure, I can lay the talons and teeth to a man ’til he turns tail, but that’s the whole of it. It started back when I was just a lass. I was thumping two boys who thought they could have their way with me. I were naught more than fourteen. While I was laying lumps to them, a fella strolled up the alley to watch the show. The way I sent those lads running impressed him. He was in the Whyos, and he recruited me into the gang that very day. Used me as a sneak thief he did. I’ve been in the gangs ever since, first the Whyos and then the Dead Rabbits. ’Tis more than ten years now.”

Gallus Mag nodded her head.

“And you’ve made yourself a fine name in the process: Hell-Cat Maggie, the terror of Five Points. But we’re no closer to the problem.”

“Ay, I’m coming to that. The boyos in the gang are me mates. We do jobs together, or knock heads on election day, and afterwards we share a pint or two. If the Bowery Boys show their ugly mugs in our turf, we bloody them and send them packing. That’s how things stood, nice and simple, until Aiden Byrne come along.”

“I take it this Aiden is your fella?”

“That’s the problem, Mag. He ain’t my fella and he ain’t not my fella, not that I can tell anyway. He shows up a fortnight ago, a new recruit to the Dead Rabbits. Tall he is, and a handsome rascal. ’Tis not long before I catch him making eyes at me. And damn me if I’m not making eyes back at him. But there’s the rub. I’ve no experience with this sort of thing. How am I supposed to move the game forward?”

“And have you told the lad that you’re mad for him?”

“That I have not, Mag. I have no earthly notion of how to go about it.”

“Ah, me poor Hell-Cat, perhaps we can set this to rights. Men are simple creatures, sure, and best treated as such. If I fancy one of the pipsqueaks, I just up and tells him so. As a general rule, most of them run. If they don’t, they might be worth my time. I’ve not much use for them, truth be told, unless I’ve got one in me bed. After that, I send them on their way.”

Maggie took in the big woman’s words and washed them down with a swallow of whiskey.

“Just tell Aiden that I fancy him, in plain words?”

“Aye, or you can keep making eyes at him and wait for him to jump, but you might grow old in the process.”

Gallus Mag’s head swung to the smoky barroom, where two men had lurched to their feet, exchanging angry words. Her voice bellowed out across the tables.

“Here, you two lay off that or you’ll taste my shillelagh! I’ll have peace, or I’ll be having one of your ears.”

The two men found their seats without another word, accompanied by the laughter of the other patrons.

“Pardon me, Maggie, I must keep an eye on the rascals. Now, where were we?”

“We were deciding whether I grow old waiting for Aiden Byrne to speak up.”

“And which is it going to be?”

“Damn me if I know, Mag. This isn’t a simple thing like clawing a man’s face off. I’m going to have to think on this, but I surely do appreciate your advice.”

“You are welcome for what it’s worth, Maggie.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of overturned chairs and old curses.

“Will you look at these rowdy louts? Duty calls, Maggie.”

The large woman yanked the cudgel from her belt and charged into the crowd. Her battle cry filled the smoky room.

Hell-Cat Maggie drained her whiskey and stalked toward the doors, her skirts swishing against the sawdust strewn floor.

Before she was ten paces into the night, a man sailed out the doors of the saloon and landed with a sodden flop. The drunk flailed in the muck like an overturned crab. Hell-Cat Maggie laughed despite the haze of whiskey and heartache. She threw a parting shot over her shoulder.

“I’d get myself up and running, Lad, leastwise if you want them ears of yours to stay attached to your head.”

*  *  *

It took more than a week of waiting, but Hell-Cat Maggie felt the time had finally come. She was in one of the dank basement rooms the Dead Rabbits gang used as drinking dens. Maggie’s teeth were freshly filed to sharp points, her sharpened brass talons laid up nearby. She looked as fierce and fine as a new-drawn dagger.

A thin afternoon light filtered down from narrow windows set high in the dungeon walls. Hell-Cat saw Aiden Byrne through the gloom. He was drinking with a pair of mates, his handsome self sprawled over a tattered chair. Aiden glanced in Maggie’s direction, smiled, then turned back to his drink.

Maggie felt the metallic trickle of fear at the back of her throat. She cursed herself for a fool and a coward. This is a fine thing, sure. You’ll claw the face off a man twice your size, but you haven’t the courage to chat up a pretty boy? This cannot go on, Girl. As soon as that lad is alone, you will march over there and tell him that you fancy him. If he runs, you can claw him. If he sticks, you can have him. Now won’t that be nice?

Before Maggie could put her plan into action, a door burst open with a crash. Daylight spilled down a set of steep stone stairs. The scrawny arms of a shadow ragamuffin waved in the doorway. He shouted his alarm to the gang below.

“The Bowery Boys are coming up Orange Street, and they’re looking for a fight!”

The dim room broke into frantic activity as a dozen Dead Rabbits flung themselves into action. Drinks were spilled and cigars flung away as men grabbed up cudgels and barrel staves.

Hell-Cat Maggie pulled on her leather battle gloves. She flexed her fingers wide, and each fingertip gleamed with a razor-sharp brass talon. Keening a wild scream through her sharpened teeth, she joined the rest of the gang as they scaled the stone stairs.

There was no mistaking their foe. Fifteen rowdies were marching up the center of Orange Street, cudgels swinging from their hands. The interlopers wore stovepipe hats and red shirts, the uniform of the Bowery Boys.

The Dead Rabbits fanned out across the muddy street in a loose phalanx. There was no parley, and no need for one. Battle cries issued from both sides, the two gangs fell upon each other with clubs, fists, and brickbats.

Hell-Cat Maggie did not hesitate. She closed on the nearest Bowery Boy, a thick-necked brute with bushy side-whiskers. The thug’s right hand swung above his head, and with it a wooden club poised for an overhand blow. Before the club could split Maggie’s skull, she dodged under the man’s arm. Her taloned fingertips raked his broad chest, drawing four ribbons of gouting blood.

Her first victim fell to his knees, thick arms clutched over his flayed chest. Maggie spun a swift kick to the back of the man’s head. The stovepipe hat flew in the air, and the brute tumbled face first to the mud.

Maggie’s eyes scanned the swirling melee in search of a fresh foe. To her left, she saw Aiden squared off against a skinny Bowery Boy with a long scar across his crooked nose. Aiden was as handsome as his opponent was hideous. She admired her beau’s loose-limbed body and his fiery red hair. Then a thrown brickbat cracked against her skull, and the afternoon sun reeled into darkness.

*  *  *

When the blackness swirled away, Maggie found herself laid out on a filthy pallet in a dark room. An oil lamp sat atop a wooden crate, and it cast a flickering glow. She saw a shadowed figure leaning over her and tried to raise herself. A sharp bolt of pain shot through her head, and she collapsed back onto the pallet. A man’s thick brogue rolled over her.

“There now, that’ll do, Maggie. I am truly glad to see you amongst the living, but you best lie still.”

“Conor, is that you?”

“Ay, ’tis yer old pal Conor, and I am both nurse and doctor, so ye must heed what I say.”

Maggie put a hand to her aching head, felt the bandage wrapped round her skull.

“What happened? Where’s Aiden?”

Conor’s grey head leaned into the lamplight as he peered into Maggie’s face.

“Calm yourself, there’s a good lass. Everyone is fine, more or less, excepting yourself. We put those bastards to the run right quick. It was a pleasure to see them turn tail, dragging their poxy pals through the muck. Then we found you all crumpled in a heap. Thought you were dead, we did.”

Hell-Cat blinked her eyes and the dark room swam back into focus.

“Conor, where is Aiden? Is he hurt?”

“No, Maggie, not a scratch. Himself is out yonder, drinking with the rest.”

She raised herself on her elbows and was rewarded with another bolt of pain. Conor sputtered in protest, but she waved him off.

“Leave it go, Conor. It was just a knock on the head. I’ve a thick skull.”

Shaking his head, Conor helped her to her feet. She shook off his arm and staggered towards a doorway. Hell-Cat Maggie stepped into the large underground room she had charged out of only a few short hours before. The room was awash in the glow of oil lamps and candles. Knots of men and their consorts were sprawled about the place. The after-battle party was in full swing.

Maggie spied a head of red hair glowing in the lamp light. She managed two wavering steps before another sight pulled her up short as a reined horse.

Aiden Byrne sat on a rickety chair in a loose circle of men. Drinks were hoisted and the men laughed. Draped across Aiden’s lap was a frilly girl, her arms wrapped around Aiden’s strong neck. The little snip of a girl was laughing as well, her mouth close to Aiden’s cheek.

Hell-Cat Maggie felt a blow to her gut like nothing she had ever known. She spun away from that little girl’s laughing face, from Aiden Byrne’s handsome profile, wanting only to flee into the night. As she climbed the stone stairs out of the dungeon, her rage climbed with her. She burst through the door and into the darkened street, a howling thing in the gloom. As a banshee heralding death, she wailed as she ran.

*  *  *

Gallus Mag leaned her wide backside against the rough wooden bar and sipped her first whiskey of the day. Outside the open doors of the Hole in the Wall, a fierce July sun baked Water Street. Each passing wagon raised a choking cloud of manure dust.

The big woman was pondering the news of the city, and there was much to ponder. Hell-Cat Maggie had reappeared, three months after taking a brick to the head in a minor skirmish. Where she had gone, and what had led to her sudden resurrection, was a mystery to all.

The tale from Five Corners was of Hell-Cat Maggie rising to lead the Dead Rabbits. The gang invaded the turf of the Bowery Boys, intent on dealing their archenemies a knockout blow. A violent battle erupted in the mean streets of the Bowery, the deadliest fight anyone could remember. The riot lasted an entire day and night, and in the middle of the fray was the Hell-Cat.

Gallus Mag threw off the rest of her whiskey and slapped the glass to the bar. It was a fine tale the survivors told, that was the truth. She pictured it in her mind, the fierce image of Hell-Cat Maggie at the thick of it; clawing, biting, and kicking. She was in a fury, felling foe and friend alike, bloodying anyone within her reach. As the battle raged, Hell-Cat raged with it, up and down the streets of the Bowery. And then, when the militias finally broke up the fight, Hell-Cat Maggie had vanished.

The Hell-Cat’s body was not in the morgue, laid out amongst the eight dead. Neither was she one of the many wounded dragged from the embattled streets. She was in none of the jails, not a prisoner of the Bowery Boys, nor captured by one of the militias. As far as any of her comrades could say, Hell-Cat Maggie had simply disappeared in a whirling cloud of fury and rage. The Dead Rabbits waited for her to reappear, bloody and jubilant, but they waited in vain.

Gallus Mag contemplated the empty barroom and the fate of the Hell-Cat. Had she crawled into an alley to die, alone and forgotten? Or was she on a ship back to the green of Ireland, finally done with the choked streets of New York? If it was not the thrust of a knife, or a bullet from a gun, what had laid Hell-Cat Maggie low?

The rough woman rapped her hard knuckles against the bar. Sweeney the barman slid another whiskey across. She raised the glass to the street outside the bar, a silent toast to her lost friend.

Marco Etheridge

Image: View of fight between two gangs, the “Dead Rabbits” and the “Bowery Boys” in the Sixth Ward, New York City included within newspaper “Four scenes from the riot in the Sixth Ward, New York City between the “Bowery Boys” and the “Dead Rabbits” showing: women and men throwing brickbats down on the police, a “Dead Rabbit,” a “Bowery Boy,” and a “Dead Rabbit,” falling at the feet of policeman Shangles” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

4 thoughts on “Hell Cat Laid Low by Marco Etheridge”

  1. Hi Marco,
    I found this to be very entertaining!
    I liked the two women characters. You would love to have a beer with them but never would you want to piss them off!
    I hated the phrase wet wool – Not that you did anything wrong, it’s just that the thought of wet wool against my neck gives me the fear!
    The reference towards the gangs, ‘The Dead Rabbits’ etc seemed well researched. (Not that I’m an expert but I knew that the film ‘Gangs Of New York’ was based on that riot and there were some references that I recognised.)
    I thought the open ending was good. The romantics may think she found her love and left New York or the cold hearted may have thought she was left rotting somewhere.
    I find this type of history very interesting and what it led to even more so.
    Beautifully told my fine friend!!
    Hugh

    Like

  2. I liked the historical romance of it, the first paragraph ambiance introduction, and the Hell-Cat character. Hell-Cat should’ve gone with Conor, the “nice guy,” but wouldn’t you know it, hopelessly crushed on handsome bad boy Aiden. That’s interesting she filed her teeth, gangbangers today are also focussed on tooth appearance. The open ending was cool, left you wondering.

    Like

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