“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!

“A whirling black arm of the night”: an excerpt from Dashiell Hammett’s “Nightmare Town” (1924)

Thanks to Chris Amberger (The Secret History of the Sword) for unearthing the adventures of Steve Threefall, the adventurer-hero of Dashiell Hammett’s 1924 novelette “Nightmare Town”, whose fighting cane …

“… was thick and made of ebony, but heavy even for that wood, with a balanced weight that hinted at loaded ferrule and knob. Except for a space the breadth of a man’s hand in its middle, the stick was roughened, cut, and notched with the marks of hard use — marks that much careful polishing had failed to remove or conceal. The unscarred handsbreadth was of a softer black than the rest — as soft a black as the knob — as if it had known much contact with a human palm.”

As Threefall and his associate Roy Kamp take the night air after a poker game …

“Strolling thus, a dark doorway suddenly vomited men upon them.

Steve rocked back against a building front from a blow on his head, arms were round him, the burning edge of a knife blade ran down his left arm. He chopped his black stick up into a body, freeing himself from encircling grip. He used the moment’s respite this gave him to change his grasp on the stick; so that he held it now horizontal, his right hand grasping its middle, its lower half flat against his forearm, its upper half extending to the left.

He put his left side against the wall, and the black stick became a whirling black arm of the night. The knob darted down at a man’s head. The man threw an arm to fend the blow. Spinning back on its axis, the stick reversed — the ferruled end darted up under warding arm, hit jawbone with a click, and no sooner struck than slid forward, jabbing deep into throat. The owner of that jaw and throat turned his broad, thick-featured face to the sky, went backward out of the fight, and was lost to sight beneath the curbing.

Lower half of stick against forearm once again, Steve whirled in time to take the impact of a blackjack-swinging arm upon it. The stick spun sidewise with thud of knob on temple — spun back with loaded ferrule that missed opposite temple only because the first blow had brought its target down on knees. Steve saw suddenly that Kamp had gone down. He spun his stick and battered a passage to the thin man, kicked a head that bent over the prone, thin form, straddled it; and the ebony stick whirled swifter in his hand — spun as quarterstaves once spun in Sherwood Forest. Spun to the clicking tune of wood on bone, on metal weapons; to the duller rhythm of wood on flesh. Spun never in full circles, but always in short arcs — one end’s recovery from a blow adding velocity to the other’s stroke. Where an instant ago knob had swished from left to right, now weighted ferrule struck from right to left — struck under upthrown arms, over lowthrown arms — put into space a forty-inch sphere, whose radii were whirling black flails.

Behind his stick that had become a living part of him, Steve Threefall knew happiness — that rare happiness which only the expert ever finds — the joy in doing a thing that he can do supremely well. Blows he took — blows that shook him, staggered him — but he scarcely noticed them.  His whole consciousness was in his right arm and the stick it spun. A revolver, tossed from a smashed hand, exploded ten feet over his head, a knife tinkled like a bell on the brick sidewalk, a man screamed as a stricken horse screams.

As abruptly as it had started, the fight stopped. Feet thudded away, forms vanished into the more complete darkness of a side street; and Steve was standing alone — alone except for the man stretched out between his feet and the other man who lay still in the gutter.”

Stay tuned for more exciting excerpts from “Nightmare Town” …