Chapter V: The Battler
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.
Nick stood up. He was all right. He looked up the track at the lights of the caboose going out of sight around a curve. There was water on both sides of the track, then tamarack swamp.
He felt of his knee. The pants were torn and the skin was barked. His hands were scraped and there were sand and cinders driven up under his nails. He went over to the edge of the track, down the little slope to the water and washed his hands. He washed them carefully in the cold water, getting the dirt out from the nails. He squatted down and bathed his knee.
That lousy crut of a brakeman. He would get him some day. He would know him again. That was a fine way to act.
“Come here, kid,” he said. “I got something for you.”
He had fallen for it. What a lousy kid thing to have done. They would never suck him in that way again.
“Come here, kid, I got something for you.” Then wham and he lit on his hands and knees beside the track.
Nick rubbed his eye. There was a big bump coming up. He would have a black eye, all right. It ached already. That son of a crutting brakeman.
He touched the bump over his eye with his fingers. Oh, well, it was only a black eye. That was all he had gotten out of it. Cheap at the price. He wished he could see it. Could not see it looking into the water, though. It was dark and he was a long way off from anywhere. He wiped his hands on his trousers and stood up, then climbed the embankment to the rails.
He started up the track. It was well ballasted and made easy walking, sand and gravel packed between the ties, solid walking. The smooth roadbed like a causeway went on ahead through the swamp. Nick walked along. He must get to somewhere.
Nick had swung on to the freight train when it slowed down for the yards outside of Walton Junction. The train, with Nick on it, had passed through Kalkaska as it started to get dark. Now he must be nearly to Mancelona. Three or four miles of swamp. He stepped along the track, walking so he kept on the ballast between the ties, the swamp ghostly in the rising mist. His eye ached and he was hungry. He kept on hiking, putting the miles of track back of him. The swamp was all the same on both sides of the track.
Ahead there was a bridge. Nick crossed it, his boots ringing hollow on the iron. Down below the water showed black between the slits of ties. Nick kicked a loose spike and it dropped into the water. Beyond the bridge were hills. It was high and dark on both sides of the track. Up the track Nick saw a fire.
He came up the track toward the fire carefully. It was off to one side of the track, below the railway embankment. He had only seen the light from it. The track came out through a cut and where the fire was burning the country opened out and fell away into woods. Nick dropped carefully down the embankment and cut into the woods to come up to the fire through the trees. It was a beechwood forest and the fallen beechnut burrs were under his shoes as he walked between the trees. The fire was bright now, just at the edge of the trees. There was a man sitting by it. Nick waited behind the tree and watched. The man looked to be alone. He was sitting there with his head in his hands looking at the fire. Nick stepped out and walked into the firelight.
The man sat there looking into the fire. When Nick stopped quite close to him he did not move.
“Hello!” Nick said.
The man looked up.
“Where did you get the shiner?” he said.
“A brakeman busted me.”
“Off the through freight?”
“I saw the bastard,” the man said. “He went through here ’bout an hour and a half ago. He was walking along the top of the cars slapping his arms and singing.”
“It must have made him feel good to bust you,” the man said seriously.
“I’ll bust him.”
“Get him with a rock sometime when he’s going through,” the man advised.
“I’ll get him.”
“You’re a tough one, aren’t you?”
“No,” Nick answered.
“All you kids are tough.”
“You got to be tough,” Nick said.
“That’s what I said.”
The man looked at Nick and smiled. In the firelight Nick saw that his face was misshapen. His nose was sunken, his eyes were slits, he had queer shaped lips. Nick did not perceive all this at once, he only saw the man’s face was queerly formed and mutilated. It was like putty in color. Dead looking in the firelight.
“Don’t you like my pan?” the man asked.
Nick was embarrassed.
“Sure,” he said.
“Look here!” the man took off his cap.
He had only one ear. It was thickened and tight against the side of his head. Where the other ear should have been there was a stump.
“Ever see one like that?”
“No,” said Nick. It made him a little sick.
“I could take it,” the man said. “Don’t you think I could take it, kid?”
“They all bust their hands on me,” the little man said. “They couldn’t hurt me.”
He looked at Nick. “Sit down,” he said. “Want to eat?”
“Don’t bother,” Nick said. “I’m going on to the town.”
“Listen!” the man said. “Call me Ad.”
“Listen,” the little man said. “I’m not quite right.”
“What’s the matter?”
He put on his cap. Nick felt like laughing.
“You’re all right,” he said.
“No, I’m not. I’m crazy. Listen, you ever been crazy?”
“No,” Nick said. “How does it get you?”
“I don’t know,” Ad said. “When you got it you don’t know about it. You know me, don’t you?”
“I’m Ad Francis.”
“Honest to God?”
“Don’t you believe it?”
Nick knew it must be true.
“You know how I beat them?”
“No,” Nick said.
“My heart’s slow. It only beats forty a minute. Feel it.”
“Come on,” the man took hold of his hand. “Take hold of my wrist. Put your fingers there.”
The little man’s wrist was thick and the muscles bulged above the bone. Nick felt the slow pumping under his fingers.
“Got a watch?”
“Neither have I,” Ad said. “It ain’t any good if you haven’t got a watch.”
Nick dropped his wrist.
“Listen,” Ad Francis said. “Take ahold again. You count and I’ll count up to sixty.”
Feeling the slow hard throb under his fingers Nick started to count. He heard the little man counting slowly, one, two, three, four, five, and on—aloud.
“Sixty,” Ad finished. “That’s a minute.
What did you make it?”
“Forty,” Nick said.
“That’s right,” Ad said happily. “She never speeds up.”
A man dropped down the railroad embankment and came across the clearing to the fire.
“Hello, Bugs!” Ad said.
“Hello!” Bugs answered. It was a negro’s voice. Nick knew from the way he walked that he was a negro. He stood with his back to them, bending over the fire. He straightened up.
“This is my pal Bugs,” Ad said. “He’s crazy, too.”
“Glad to meet you,” Bugs said. “Where you say you’re from?”
“Chicago,” Nick said.
“That’s a fine town,” the negro said. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Adams. Nick Adams.”
“He says he’s never been crazy, Bugs,” Ad said.
“He’s got a lot coming to him,” the negro said. He was unwrapping a package by the fire.
“When are we going to eat, Bugs?” the prizefighter asked.
“Are you hungry, Nick?”
“Hungry as hell.”
“Hear that, Bugs?”
“I hear most of what goes on.”
“That ain’t what I asked you.”
“Yes. I heard what the gentleman said.”
Into a skillet he was laying slices of ham. As the skillet grew hot the grease sputtered and Bugs, crouching on long nigger legs over the fire, turned the ham and broke eggs into the skillet, tipping it from side to side to baste the eggs with the hot fat.
“Will you cut some bread out of that bag, Mister Adams?” Bugs turned from the fire.
Nick reached ii’ the bag and brought out a loaf of bread. He cut six slices. Ad watched him and leaned forward.
“Let me take your knife, Nick,” he said.
“No, you don’t,” the negro said. “Hang onto your knife, Mister Adams.”
The prizefighter sat back.
“Will you bring me the bread, Mister Adams?” Bugs asked. Nick brought it over.
“Do you like to dip your bread in the ham fat?” the negro asked.
“Perhaps we’d better wait until later. It’s better at the finish of the meal. Here.”
The negro picked up a slice of ham and laid it on one of the pieces of bread, then slid an egg on top of it.
“Just close that sandwich, will you, please, and give it to Mister Francis.”
Ad took the sandwich and started eating.
“Watch out how that egg runs,” the negro warned. “This is for you, Mister Adams. The remainder for myself.”
Nick bit into the sandwich. The negro was sitting opposite him beside Ad. The hot fried ham and eggs tasted wonderful.
“Mister Adams is right hungry,” the negro said. The little man whom Nick knew by name as a former champion fighter was silent. He had said nothing since the negro had spoken about the knife.
“May I offer you a slice of bread dipped right in the hot ham fat?” Bugs said.
“Thanks a lot.”
The little white man looked at Nick.
“Will you have some, Mister Adolph Francis?” Bugs offered from the skillet.
Ad did not answer. He was looking at Nick.
“Mister Francis?” came the nigger’s soft voice.
Ad did not answer. He was looking at Nick.
“I spoke to you, Mister Francis,” the nigger said softly.
Ad kept on looking at Nick. He had his cap down over his eyes. Nick felt nervous.
“How the hell do you get that way?” came out from under the cap sharply at Nick.
“Who the hell do you think you are? You’re a snotty bastard. You come in here where nobody asks you and eat a man’s food and when he asks to borrow a knife you get snotty.”
He glared at Nick, his face was white and his eyes almost out of sight under the cap.
“You’re a hot sketch. Who the hell asked you to butt in here?”
“You’re damn right nobody did. Nobody asked you to stay either. You come in here and act snotty about my face and smoke my cigars and drink my liquor and then talk snotty. Where the hell do you think you get off?”
Nick said nothing. Ad stood up.
“I’ll tell you, you yellow-livered Chicago bastard. You’re going to get your can knocked off. Do you get that?”
Nick stepped back. The little man came toward him slowly, stepping flat-footed forward, his left foot stepping forward, his right dragging up to it.
“Hit me,” he moved his head. “Try and hit me.”
“I don’t want to hit you.”
“You won’t get out of it that way. You’re going to take a beating, see? Come on and lead at me.”
“Cut it out,” Nick said.
“All right, then, you bastard.”
The little man looked down at Nick’s feet. As he looked down the negro, who had followed behind him as he moved away from the fire, set himself and tapped him across the base of the skull. He fell forward and Bugs dropped the cloth-wrapped blackjack on the grass. The little man lay there, his face in the grass. The negro picked him up, his head hanging, and carried him to the fire. His face looked bad, the eyes open. Bugs laid him down gently.
“Will you bring me the water in the bucket, Mister Adams,” he said. “I’m afraid I hit him just a little hard.”
The negro splashed water with his hand on the man’s face and pulled his ears gently. The eyes closed.
Bugs stood up.
“He’s all right,” he said. “There’s nothing to worry about. I’m sorry, Mister Adams.”
“It’s all right.” Nick was looking down at the little man. He saw the blackjack on the grass and picked it up. It had a flexible handle and was limber in his hand. Worn black leather with a handkerchief wrapped around the heavy end.
“That’s a whalebone handle,” the negro smiled. “They don’t make them any more. I didn’t know how well you could take care yourself and, anyway, I didn’t want you to hurt him or mark him up no more than he is.”
The negro smiled again.
“You hurt him yourself.”
“I know how to do it. He won’t remember nothing of it. I have to do it to change him when he gets that way.”
Nick was still looking down at the little man, lying, his eyes closed in the firelight. Bugs put some wood on the fire.
“Don’t you worry about him none, Mister Adams. I seen him like this plenty of times before.”
“What made him crazy?” Nick asked.
“Oh, a lot of things,” the negro answered from the fire. “Would you like a cup of this coffee, Mister Adams?”
He handed Nick the cup and smoothed the coat he had placed under the unconscious man’s head.
“He took too many beatings, for one thing,” the negro sipped the coffee. “But that just made him sort of simple. Then his sister was his manager and they was always being written up in the papers all about brothers and sisters and how she loved her brother and how he loved his sister, and then they got married in New York and that made a lot of unpleasantness.”
“I remember about it.”
“Sure. Of course they wasn’t brother and sister no more than a rabbit, but there was a lot of people didn’t like it either way and they commenced to have disagreements, and one day she just went off and never come back.”
He drank the coffee and wiped his lips with the pink palm of his hand.
“He just went crazy. Will you have some more coffee, Mister Adams?”
“I seen her a couple of times,” the negro went on. “She was an awful good looking woman. Looked enough like him to be twins. He wouldn’t be bad looking without his face all busted.”
He stopped. The story seemed to be over.
“Where did you meet him?” asked Nick.
“I met him in jail,” the negro said. “He was busting people all the time after she went away and they put him in jail. I was in for cuttin’ a man.”
He smiled, and went on soft-voiced:
“Right away I liked him and when I got out I looked him up. He likes to think I’m crazy and I don’t mind. I like to be with him and I like seeing the country and I don’t have to commit no larceny to do it. I like living like a gentleman.”
“What do you all do?” Nick asked.
“Oh, nothing. Just move around. He’s got money.”
“He must have made a lot of money.”
“Sure. He spent all his money, though. Or they took it away from him. She sends him money.”
He poked up the fire.
“She’s a mighty fine woman,” he said. “She looks enough like him to be his own twin.”
The negro looked over at the little man, lying breathing heavily. His blond hair was down over his forehead. His mutilated face looked childish in repose.
“I can wake him up any time now, Mister Adams. If you don’t mind I wish you’d sort of pull out. I don’t like to not be hospitable, but it might disturb him back again to see you. I hate to have to thump him and it’s the only thing to do when he gets started. I have to sort of keep him away from people. You don’t mind, do you, Mister Adams? No, don’t thank me, Mister Adams. I’d have warned you about him but he seemed to have taken such a liking to you and I thought things were going to be all right. You’ll hit a town about two miles up the track. Mancelona they call it. Good-bye. I wish we could ask you to stay the night but it’s just out of the question. Would you like to take some of that ham and some bread with you? No? You better take a sandwich,” all this in a low, smooth, polite nigger voice.
“Good. Well, good-by, Mister Adams. Good-bye and good luck!”
Nick walked away from the fire across the clearing to the railway tracks. Out of the range of the fire he listened. The low soft voice of the negro was talking. Nick could not hear the words. Then he heard the little man say, “I got an awful headache, Bugs.”
“You’ll feel better, Mister Francis,” the negro’s voice soothed. “Just you drink a cup of this hot coffee.”
Nick climbed the embankment and started up the track. He found he had a ham sandwich in his hand and put it in his pocket. Looking back from the mounting grade before the track curved into the hills he could see the firelight in the clearing.