ff Elizabeth Street, at the Harlem Railroad embankment, where a kind of tunnel burrowed into a hill of earth and cobbles--the gandy dancers for the line stored sledgehammers and ties and spikes there, for use in making repairs--I was walking late, having trotted about early as well. I was tired of walking, but not, I thought, tired enough to sleep. So I had stopped at Uncle Ned's on the Bowery, at that time a notorious gathering place for gamblers, slaggards too filthy and used to be kept in a respectable house, and, of course, members of gangs like the Rabbits and the Ikes (who called themselves the House of Isaac--as nasty a bunch of Jews as the Rabbits were cannibal Irish). In front of a disused shop once specializing in trusses and like medical devices, and across from the embankment, I came, perhaps a little dizzy from dark rum, upon two white men beating a Negro. He dodged and wheeled, so I knew that he wished to resist; and, as he was burly and fit, broad of shoulder and lean of hip, with long, thick arms, I knew that while he chose to protect his head and face by shielding himself, he had deemed it wise not to give the account of himself of which I believed him capable.
"Hold still, Mose, and let me thrash your woolly head," the fatter of the two whites grunted. He slapped at the Negro with a thick black cane. He panted and sweated, and his face, in the gaslight at the corner stanchion, gleamed in oily unhealth. The other fellow, sturdy but short and quite narrow, swung what seemed to be a leather sap and, from its appearance of weight in his small hand, might have been filled with shot, or rock salt.
The fat one swung, this time with both hands, and he caught the Negro at the junction of neck and shoulder. The Negro went to his knees and seemed inclined to remain there. His breath was deep and uneven, whether from debility or fear I could not tell. I wanted to know. I wanted him to tell me.
"Gentlemen," I called, stopping just behind the smaller one. "Are you certain you have the numbers and the weapons you require? Or should I round up five or six armed men to pitch in and defend you from this fellow?"
The littler man, his sap up, turned to challenge me. I assessed his waxed mustache, his silk waistcoat and bright tan shoes. He said, "God almighty, what are you?"
"What you are not," I said.
"If you must involve yourself. This nigger was told to have a wagonload of textiles here tonight, and he brings us himself but not the goods. We are out money, cloth, and reputation. A deal's gone dead, and he's to be punished. If, as I say, it's your affair."
"As a businessman," I said, "I hate to see a businessman lose face. But is this Negro not a businessman as well? You seem to be on the verge of robbing him, too, of a goodly portion of his face."
"As you seem to have lost most of yours. I wonder in what fashion," the fat one said, puffing and perspiring.
I smiled, but of course they could not tell.
To the black man, I said, "You held back because you thought them police, perhaps?"
He said, "I held back because I thought they were white men."
"Before the law, no whiter than you," I said.
"Look, why don't you, at the law a few more times." He searched my mask with red-rimmed eyes. "You don't have to shave that in the morning, I reckon."
I smiled again. Again, they could not tell.
"I apologize for that," the black man said.
"It was clever," I said, "and levelheaded. Do you understand me about the credentials of these men?"
"And do you understand me?"
"They are men of business. I don't know their commercial bona fides, but I can attest to them as men: They are, barely."
"Sir!" cried the fat one.
"Do you dare?" asked the littler man.
I seized his ear and twisted it. He whimpered, then wept. I kept hold of it with my left hand and gestured, far too dramatically, I fear, with my right. "If he raises his sap or, indeed, his body, I will have his ear for a watch fob. Would you, while we wait upon his course of action, see to--your name, sir? Hodboy? Fatcheek? Commander Bulk, perhaps? For you do throw about your weight with great panache."
The Negro climbed reluctantly, it seemed, to his feet, and he sidled toward the one with the cane, who leaned back from the Negro as that man shifted his balance and made a kind of crooning sound, a statement, I thought, of his reluctance to act. Then, grunting of a sudden, as if it were he, himself, who were struck, the Negro swung his punch. Because the fat man was moving, the blow missed his face and landed with a fearful, solid sound on the fat man's chest. He made a noise like a pig's bladder punctured, and he went a color that, in the gaslight, seemed quite green. I thought he was dead on the spot, but the assault, either to his lungs or his heart, was brief in effect--though it was a long moment in which he seemed suspended, and it must have seemed a good deal longer to the one on whose chest the blow had landed.
The little man whose ear I held made as if to rise, and I applied my thumb more firmly to the juncture of the ear and skull. It was a place, I remembered, where I'd once put a killing shot.
I said to the one whose ear I held, "Get him to his feet once he's able, and lead him away. It would be best to never burden this Negro again with your business arrangements. Make new ones."
I took the sap from his fingers as he stood. I gestured to the Negro--his hands were at his mouth, then eyes; he trembled as he moved his hands upon his face--and I said, "Let's walk, if you will, across the tracks. Down where the hill dips, on the other side."
He stayed where he was, and I saw he was weeping.
"Are you hurt?" I asked, watching the little man try to pry the fat one from the stones of the street. "Was it the blow to your neck?"
He cupped his face in his hands, at last, and he bathed himself in his own tears. Finally his bulkier assailant sat, and I took the Negro's elbow and moved him along with me.
"I never," he said, smearing his nose with the back of his hand.
We crossed the tracks of the Harlem line and went down the incline toward Rivington. There were fewer lights here, and the noises of the Jews in bakery shops and their crowded small rooms came as if from a forest warren one could smell--the sourness of yeast; the sweetness of fresh bread; the rich, dark smells of simmered inner organs of sheep and cow--but one could not descry them; those people were mysterious even in the homeliest of aspects.
Again, he said, as we drew near the coffee shop of Alsatian Jews with whom I had business dealings, "I never."
"What, then? You never what?"
"You were there," he said, though the "there" was almost--not quite--"dere."
"You saw. How many of that have you seen?"
"Oh," I said. "Ah. Of course. I beg your pardon."
"You don't ever have to beg me for anything," he said. "Just ax one time."
"You were talking about the blow you struck." "I never even did talk back to a white man. Then I up and hit one." "You surely did. You squashed his breastbone and lit up his lights. You stopped his heart, I think."
"White man's heart."
"What passes for that particular white man's heart."
We stood at the shop, Alain Freres. I knew that he would not come in, so I tugged once more at the cloth of his shirt and we continued east.
"I hit me a white man," he said. "Do I thank you? Or do I curse you? Do I owe you, or do you owe me?"
"Will you tell me your name?"
"Tackabury's Adam is what they call me on the papers I was given. I am a freed man."
"You are all freed."
"Only some can walk around in any circles they choose, and others are freed to do what some white man says."
"Still," I said--as if what he told me was surprising. I did so for his dignity's sake.
He said, "Still, and forever and ever. Amen, if you like."
"It's the name I use. Adam Tackabury."
"Adam. Where do you live?"
"Back that way and down. Centre Street."
"Near the Points. As do I."
"A gentleman in the Points?"
"Two of us gentlemen in the Points. I can find you by asking for Adam?"
He said,"You ax. I'll hear."
"I might, one day." I could smell jute on his shirt, and the wax from seals on cotton. He worked at the docks. I said, "I'm a tradesman, myself."
He nodded, waiting.
"You know a little, I think, about the edge of the river."
"It's how niggers live. On the edge of the water. If they will get to live. Railroad to dock or wagon to dock or brigantine to dock--we are the same as cargo, and we move how cargo moves. So I do know the edge of the river. And you can call on me. Can I know your name?"
"Bartholomew. William Bartholomew."
"Bartelmy. I'm in your debtedness, Mist Bartelmy."
"You're free, damn it."
"Did you earn that face in freeing me?"
"I do not need to shave it."
"Didn't mean an insult."
"None taken. What is under the mask, I every now and again must shave, however. Beards, you know, grow even on the flesh of the dead. And so with me."
"I did wonder. I do thank you."
"Adam, I won my wound in the pursuit of my own ends. Though I am heartily pleased to see no man enslaved."
"What was the end, Mist Bartelmy?"
"It is a question I haven't ever answered truly, even to myself. I do not know. I cannot learn it. It's an answer I await."
"Yes, sir," he said, as if I were lying.
"In truth," I said.
"Centre Street," he said, dismissing me. "You ax." He clasped his hands, for I think, in spite of his disappointment with me, he would have taken my arm or hand to say his thanks and his confusion. "Adam," he told me. "Ax."
He was the color of the night, and he went into it, and disappeared. For my part, I wandered back in the direction, on a whim, of the embankment where I'd found them beating him. I wondered if I would find a corpulent corpse, or a detective of police. I took from my pocket the sap I'd lifted from the littler assailant, and I threw it into the street. My face, it seemed to me, still stung from the impact of his question about my motives in the War. I was blushing, and I was pleased that neither I nor anyone else could see the furrows and puckers and craters of my face go crimson with what might be shame.
Excerpted from The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch. Copyright © 1998 by Frederick Busch. Excerpted by permission of Crown Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.