Hailed as "one of the greatest chroniclers of the mythical American outlaw life" (Entertainment Weekly), James Carlos Blake turns to the blazing story of Stanley Ketchel, the legendary ragtime-era middleweight boxing champion and daring rakehell, whose brief and meteoric life burned with violence and tragedy in and out of the ring. The Killings of Stanley Ketchel is a sweeping and powerful literary adventure by one of our most daring novelists.
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About the Author
James Carlos Blake is the author of nine novels. Among his literary honors are the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Southwest Book Award, Quarterly West Novella Prize, and Chautauqua South Book Award. He lives in Arizona.
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The Killings of Stanley KetchelA Novel
By James Blake
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 James Blake
All right reserved.
The Golden Smile
Ketchel's manager, Willus Britt, lays it out plain and simple. "We put in the contract that if there's no knockout the fight's a draw. All Stevie and Jack have to do is make it look good from start to finish. The white hope middleweight against the Negro heavyweight. Like David and Goliath, only better. And only it's a draw. I'm telling you, the whole country'll go crazy. They'll be screaming for a rematch. And that's when we make a real killing."
Across the table, George Little, who manages Johnson, smiles and nods.
It is late summer of 1909. They are in a secluded booth next to a window in a San Francisco hilltop restaurant. The fog banking in from the bay is blue in the city's early evening light. Even from this vantage it is difficult to believe that a little more than three years ago the town had been charred rubble.
"Not that we won't do plenty good on this one," Britt says. "Hell, we'll pack Sunny Jim's to the top rows. Plus, the odds'll be so heavy on Jack, we'll rake in even more with side bets on the draw."
"We'd have to spread them bets around so's not to raise suspicion," George Little says.
It's the remark of a man who's decided he's in, and Britt smiles. "Naturally. We'll use fronts to lay the bets."
George Little nods.
Britt leans farther over the table toward him. "Christ almighty, man, they'll pour in for the rematch like the Johnstown flood. We'll charge even more for tickets and still need a place double the size of Sunny Jim's to hold them all. I'm telling you, we'll need a goddamn freight train to carry off the gate money."
He sits back and fingers his red bow tie to ensure its proper lay. A spare man whose perpetual half-smile and sleepy aspect can fool people into thinking he lacks astuteness.
George Little leans back too, smiling small, eyes narrow.
Beside him Jack Johnson grins. His gold teeth gleam in the lamp glow and his shaven head shines like polished ebony. Arthur John Johnson is thirty-one years old and the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. At 210 pounds and just shy of six feet two, he is by far the largest man at the table. The stickpin of his cravat is also of gold, the fob chain looping from his vest pocket, the head of his walking stick. He wears a diamond on his pinky. His suit is custom-tailored. His shoes are of crocodile hide.
Sitting next to Britt, Ketchel smiles too, and thinks how grand it would feel to knock out those gold teeth.
On Johnson's other side is a slender strawberry blonde with cool green eyes, her cheeks and nose powdered with freckles fine as cinnamon. She'd been introduced as Sheila. Although Ketchel is appalled that a white woman would keep company with a Negro, especially a woman as pretty as this one, and especially in public, he affects indifference. Yet he is intensely aware of her, of the push of her breasts against her shirtwaist. He would bet they were freckled too.
Johnson catches Ketchel's appraising glance at her. "She a pulchritudious eyeful, ain't she, Mr. Stanley? Lady from Australia. Say something in Australian for the man, honey." He has a fondness for polysyllabic words, especially of his own concoction, and is prone to the malaprop.
"We speak English in Australia, Jack, as you bloody well know."
"Spake," Johnson says. "Aus-try-lya. Blooody well. Man, I loves that lingo."
She rolls her eyes and looks out the window at the encroaching fog. Johnson puts his hand under the table and she smiles and gives him a sidelong glance.
"What say we stick to business, Jack?" George Little says. He is clearly uncomfortable with the woman's presence, has repeatedly admonished Johnson to be more discreet about the white ones.
Ketchel smiles to mask his indignation. The dinge pawing her in a public place with three white men looking on and the bitch barely shows a blush.
"So?" Britt says. "We got a deal?"
George Little turns to Johnson. "What say, Jack?"
Everybody knows what his answer will be. His share of the purse when he won the title was a pittance, and he hasn't been able to get a big-money fight in the ten months since. He needs the cash. He's a high-roller. He likes the night life, flashy clothes, the horses, the dice. Bold white women. A fight with Ketchel means a payday too big to turn down.
"I say fine," Johnson says. "Make me feel kinda lowdown to mix it up with a little fella, even if it ain't for real, but sometimes you got to take what you can get."
"Gosh, Jack, that's sad," Ketchel says. He'll be damned if he'll let the coon nettle him with that "little fella" crack. He is the world middleweight champ, and at five feet nine inches and 160 pounds is larger than the average man of his day. In more than fifty official fights he has knocked out nearly all of his opponents, more than a dozen of whom outweighed him by at least twenty pounds ...
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