“A sphere of deadliness” – more action from Hammett’s “Nightmare Town”

Our second and final excerpt from Dashiell Hammett’s 1924 pulp classic, “Nightmare Town”, featuring hard-bitten adventurer Steve Threefall and his trademark weapon – an ebony fighting cane.

Men filled the doorway. An invisible gun roared and a piece of the ceiling flaked down. Steve spun his stick and charged the door. The light from the lamp behind him glittered and glowed on the whirling wood. The stick whipped backward and forward, from left to right, from right to left. It writhed like a live thing — seemed to fold upon its grasped middle as if spring-hinged with steel. Flashing half-circles merged into a sphere of deadliness. The rhythm of incessant thudding against flesh and clicking on bone became a tune that sang through the grunts of fighting men, the groans and oaths of stricken men. Steve and the girl went through the door.

Between moving arms and legs and bodies the cream of the Vauxhall showed. Men stood upon the automobile, using its height for vantage in the fight. Steve threw himself forward, swinging his stick against shin and thigh, toppling men from the machine. With his left hand he swept the girl around to his side. His body shook and rocked under the weight of blows from men who were packed too closely for any effectiveness except the smothering power of sheer weight.

His stick was suddenly gone from him. One instant he held and spun it; the next, he was holding up a clenched fist that was empty — the ebony had vanished as if in a puff of smoke. He swung the girl up over the car door, hammered her down into the car — jammed her down upon the legs of a man who stood there — heard a bone break, and saw the man go down. Hands gripped him everywhere; hands pounded him. He cried aloud with joy when he saw the girl, huddled on the floor of the car, working with ridiculously small hands at the car’s mechanism.

The machine began to move. Holding with his hands, he lashed both feet out behind. Got them back on the step. Struck over the girl’s head with a hand that had neither thought nor time to make a fist — struck stiff-fingered into a broad red face.

The car moved. One of the girl’s hands came up to grasp the wheel, holding the car straight along a street she could not see. A man fell on her. Steve pulled him off — tore pieces from him — tore hair and flesh. The car swerved, scraped a building; scraped one side clear of men. The hands that held Steve fell away from him, taking most of his clothing with them. He picked a man off the back of the seat, and pushed him down into the street that was flowing past them. Then he fell into the car beside the girl.

Pistols exploded behind them. From a house a little ahead a bitter-voiced rifle emptied itself at them, sieving a mudguard. Then the desert — white and smooth as a gigantic hospital bed — was around them. Whatever pursuit there had been was left far behind.

Presently the girl slowed down, stopped.

“Are you all right?” Steve asked.

“Yes; but you’re — ”

“All in one piece,” he assured her. “Let me take the wheel.”

“No! No!” she protested. “You’re bleeding. You’re — ”

“No! No!” he mocked her. “We’d better keep going until we hit something. We’re not far enough from Izzard yet to call ourselves safe.”

He was afraid that if she tried to patch him up he would fall apart in her hands. He felt like that.

She started the car, and they went on. A great sleepiness came to him. What a fight! What a fight!