Blades of Steel


NEGRO Harlem’s three broad highways form the letter H, Lenox and Seventh Avenues running parallel northward, united a little above their midpoints by east-and-west 135th Street.

Lenox Avenue is for the most part the boulevard of the unperfumed — ‘rats’ they are often termed. Here during certain hours there is nothing unusual in the flashing of knives, the quick succession of pistol shots, the scream of a police whistle or a woman.

But Seventh Avenue is the promenade of high-toned ‘dickties’ and strivers. It breathes a superior atmosphere, sings superior songs, laughs a superior laugh. Even were there no people, the difference would be clear: the middle of Lenox Avenue is adorned by street-car tracks, the middle of Seventh Avenue by parking.

These two highways, frontiers of the opposed extremes of dark-skinned social life, are separated by an intermediate any-man’s land, across which they communicate chiefly by way of 135th Street. Accordingly 135th Street is the heart and soul of black Harlem; it is common ground, the natural scene of unusual contacts, a region that disregards class. It neutralizes, equilibrates, binds, rescues union out of diversity.

In a fraction of a mile of 135th Street there occurs every institution necessary to civilization, from a Carnegie library opposite a public school at one point to a police station beside an undertaker’s parlor at another. But one institution outnumbers all others — an institution which, like the street itself, represents common ground: the barber shop overwhelmingly predominates.

Naturally on the day of the Barbers’ Annual Ball this institution clipped off, among other things, several working hours. The barbers had their own necks to trim, their own knots to conquer, their own jowls to shave and massage.

The inevitable last-minute rush of prospective dancers, eager for eleventhhour primping, would have kept the hosts themselves from appearing at the dance hall, in their best, on time. Hence the association had agreed that every member’s door be closed and locked to-day at four.

Shortly before that hour in one of 135th Street’s ‘tonsorial parlors,’ the head barber, for whom a half-dozen men were waiting, dismissed a patron and called ‘Next!’ Already Eight-Ball Eddy Boyd, whose turn it was, had removed coat and collar and started toward the vacated chair.

‘Make it boyish, Pop,’ he grinned to the fat and genial proprietor. ‘And long as you trimmin’ me, lemme have two tickets for the stomp-down tonight.’

Pop Overton smiled goldenly and assumed the grand manner. ‘You means to grace our function wid yo’ attendance? ’

The other’s assent was typical Harlemese: —

‘I don’t mean to attend yo’ function with my grace.’

As Eight-Ball put one foot on the foot rest of the chair, someone pulled him back ungently.

‘My turn, big shorty.’

Eight-Ball turned, recognized Dirty Cozzens, an enemy of several days’ standing.

‘My turn,’ disagreed he evenly.

‘Yo’ mistake,’ Dirty corrected, and moved to brush the smaller man aside.

The move was unsuccessful. The smaller man exhibited something of the stability of a fire plug which one attempts to boot off the sidewalk. Dirty had bumped him without anticipating such firm footing, and now himself recoiled, careening off toward the mirrored wall with its implement-laden ledge. There was a little giggling jingle of instruments as his elbow struck this ledge. Then there was silence. Of the two barbers, one stopped pushing his clippers, but left them resting against the customer’s neck while he gaped; the other halted, his razor poised, his thumb in one corner of his patron’s mouth. Those who sat waiting dropped their papers, their conversation, and their lower jaws. Everybody stared. Everybody knew Dirty Cozzens.

Eight-Ball stood pat, as if awaiting an apology for the other’s rudeness. Dirty also remained where he had landed, his elbow still amid the paraphernalia on the ledge, his eyes glaring, as if to let everyone see how he had been wronged.

The two made a striking contrast. Dirty Cozzens was a peculiar genetic jest. Heredity had managed to withhold his rightful share of pigment even from his hair, which was pale buff. His eyes were gray, their lids rimmed red. His complexion had won him his nickname, ‘Dirty Yaller,’ of which ‘Dirty’ was the familiar abbreviation. In every other particular his African ancestry had been preserved and accentuated. The buff hair was woolly, the nose flat with wide nostrils, the mouth big, bordered by so-called liver lips, unbelievably thick. Within the shadow of a black skin, even, Dirty would have been a caricature; with the complexion that he actually had he was a cartoon, a malicious cartoon without humor.

So had heredity handed him over to environment, and environment had done its worst; had put sly cunning into the eyes, had distorted the lips into a constant sneer, had set the head at a truculent forward thrust on the large, lank body. With its present evil face, his was a head that might well have adorned the sceptre of Satan.

His opponent was his antithesis. Eight-Ball had been nicknamed after that pool ball which is black, and his skin was as dark as it is possible for skin to be, smooth and clean as an infant’s. The close-cut hair hugged the scalp evenly, the bright black eyes were alive with quick understanding, the nose was broad but sharp-ridged, with sensitive nostrils, the lips thin and firm above a courageous chin. He was beautifully small, neither heavy nor slight, of proud, erect bearing, perfect poise, and a silhouette-like cleancutness.

In the silence, Dirty’s fingers reaching along the marble ledge found and caressed a barber’s tool; an instrument which is the subject of many a jest, but whose actual use involves no element of humor; a weapon which is as obsolete as a blunderbuss, even among those whose special heritage it is commonly supposed to be — as obsolete and as damaging. Dirty, skilled in the wielding of steel, would never have considered this instrument in a set encounter, but the Devil put the thing now in his hand. He decided it would be entertaining to run his enemy out of the shop.

Pop Overton saw the movement, and it lifted him out of his daze. He said: —

‘Aimin’ to shave yo’self, Dirty?’

‘None yo’ dam’ business,’ snapped Dirty, still eyeing Eight-Ball.

‘No,’ said Pop. ‘’T ain’t none my business. But hit’s my razor.’

Dirty drew himself together, but not erect, — ‘You seen what he done?’ — moved then with slow menace across the distance between himself and EightBall. ‘You seen it, did n’ y’?’

‘Now listen, big boy. Don’t you go startin’ nothin’ in my shop, you hear?’

‘I ain’t startin’ nothin’. I’m finishin’ sump’n. Dis started a week ago. Hot nigger, dis black boy, but I’m go’n’ turn his damper down.’

Eight-Ball spoke: ‘Don’t burn yo’ fingers.’

Dirty advanced another step, knees bent, one hand behind him. Had EightBall retreated a single foot, Dirty would have tossed the razor aside with a contemptuous laugh; would have made a ‘fly crack’ about fast black guaranteed not to run; would have swaggered out, proudly acknowledging that he had picked the quarrel. But Eight-Ball had not retreated. Eight-Ball had stood still and looked at him; had even taunted him: ‘Don’t burn yo’ fingers’; had watched him approach to arm’s length without budging. Ought to take one swipe at him just to scare him good. Ought to make him jump anyhow —

Whatever might have happened did n’t. Instead of the expected swift sweep of an arm, Dirty’s next movement was a quick furtive bending of his elbow to slip the armed hand into his coat pocket; such a movement as might have greeted the entrance of an officer of the law.

As a flame flares just before it goes out, so the tension heightened, then dropped, when eyes discovered that the figure which had darkened the door was only that of a girl. She was a striking girl, however, who at once took the centre of the stage.

‘Whew-eel’ she breathed. ‘Just made it. Hi, Pop. Hello, Eighty. One minute to four! And the head barber waitin’ for me! Some service, I scream — some service.’ Wherewith she clambered into the vacant chair and effervesced directions.

The waiting customers first ogled, then guffawed. It struck them as uproarious that two men should appear to be on the point of bloodshed over a mere turn and neither of them get it. But the girl seemed quite oblivious.

Eight-Ball greeted her, ‘Hello, Effie,’ grinned, and returned to his seat. Dirty shuffled to the wall opposite the mirrors, got his hat, and went toward the door. As he passed the head barber’s chair he paused and spoke to the girl: —

‘It was my turn, Miss Effie — but you kin have it.’ He smiled so that his thick lips broadened against his teeth, and he touched his hat and went out.

His departure released comment: —

‘Nice felluh!’

‘Doggone! Sposin’ he really got mad over sump’n!’

‘He wasn’t mad. He was jes’ playin’.’

‘He better not play wi’ me like dat.’

‘Take ’at thing out’n his hand and he’d run.’

‘Leave it in his hand and you’d run.’

Then, to everyone’s astonishment, before Pop Overton had assembled the proper implements, the girl jumped down from the chair, scattering stealthy glances which had been creeping toward the crimson garters just below her crossed knees.

' Whose turn was it?' she asked Pop.


‘Thought so. Come on, Eighty. I got mine this morning.’

‘What’s the idea?’ wondered EightBall.

‘Was n’t it a fight?’

‘Pretty near. How’d you know?’

‘Anything wrong with these?’

A purely rhetorical question. There was certainly nothing wrong with Effie Wright’s eyes — nor with her hair, nor with that rare, almost luminous dark complexion called ‘sealskin brown.’ One might complain that she was altogether too capable of taking care of herself, or that she was much too absorbed in Eight-Ball. Beyond that no sane judgment criticized.

Effie ran a beauty parlor directly across the street, and it was to this that she now referred.

‘I was lookin’ out the window over there. Saw you drive up in your boss’s straight eight. Your friend was standin’ in front of the saloon — he saw you, too, so he come in behind you. Pop’s window’s got too much advertisin’ in it to see through, so I come on over. Seem like I spoiled the party.’

‘Ain’t this sump’n? ’ Eight-Ball asked the world.

‘Angels rush in when fools is almost dead,’ was Pop’s proverb.

‘Well, since you won’t open a keg o’ bay rum, I guess I’ll breeze.—Say, Pop, got an extra safety-razor blade? — Yes. — Oh, a customer gimme a pair o’ pumps to wear to the shindig to-night, and I got to whittle off here and there till I can get ’em on. Cheatin’ the foot doctor. — A single-edged blade if you got it. Pop. Double-edged one cuts your fingers before it cuts anything else. — Thanks. Shall I lock the door on my way out? — Stop by before you haul it, Eighty.’

She was gone in a flurry of words.

‘Can y’ beat that, Pop?’ Eight-Ball laughed.

‘They ain’t but two like her and she’s both of ’em,’ admitted Pop. ‘But what’s that Cozzens boy on you for?’

‘We had a little argument in a darkjohn game a while back.’

‘Yes? Well, watch ’im, boy. Bad boogy what knows he’s bad. And don’t think he won’t cut. He will. Thass th’ onliest kind o’ fightin’ he knows, and he sho’ knows it. They’s nineteen niggers ’round Harlem now totin’ cuts he give ’em. They through pullin’ knives, too, what I mean.’

‘He’s that good, huh?’

‘He’s that bad. Served time fo’ it, but he don’t, give a damn. Trouble is, ain’t nobody never carved him. Somebody ought to write shorthand on his face. That’d cure him.’

‘Yeah? Why n’t you shave him sometime, Pop?’

‘Mine’s accidental,’ answered Pop. ‘Somebody ought to carve him artistically.’

’Well,’Eight-Ball said thoughtfully, ‘ maybe somebody will.’


The Barbers’ Ball does not pretend to be a ‘dickty ’ affair. It is announced, not by engraved cards through the mails, but by large printed placards in barber-shop windows. One is admitted, not by presenting a card of invitation, but by presenting a dollar bill in exchange for a ticket. It is a come-onecome-all occasion, where aspiring local politicians are likely to mount the platform between dances and make announcements and bow while influential bootleggers cheer. It was quite fitting, therefore, that this fête of, for, and in spite of the people should take place on 135th Street — this year in a second-floor dance hall just east of Lenox Avenue.

‘Well, hush my mouth!' exclaimed Eight-Ball as he and Effie entered somewhat before midnight.

‘Do tell!’ agreed she.

For there were decorations. Nothing subdued and elegant, like the So-andSo’s dance. Nothing ‘fly,’ like the Dirty Dozen’s. Just color in dazzling quantity, presented through the inexpensive medium of crêpe paper — scarlet, orange, brilliant green, embracing the lights, entwining the pillars, concealing the windows, transforming the orchestral platform into a float.

The orchestra also made no pretenses. It was a so-called ‘low-down ’ orchestra and it specialized in what are known as ‘shouts.’ Under the influence of this leisurely rhythm, steady, obsessing, untiring, you gradually forget all else. You can’t make a misstep, you can’t get uncomfortably warm, you can’t grow weary — you simply fall more and more completely into the insistently joyous spirit of the thing until you are laughing and humming aloud like everyone else. You get happy in spite of yourself. This is the inevitable effect of shouts, to which the orchestra to-night largely confined its efforts.

The newcomers joined the gay, noisy dancers, finding their way not too swiftly around the crowded floor. Here someone advised them to ‘get off that dime!’ and there someone else suggested that they ‘shake that thing!’

But the shout to which Eight-Ball and his girl inadvertently kept time had not yet saturated their emotions, and in spite of it they discussed less happy concerns.

’I been so mad I ain’t had no dinner,’ said Eight-Ball.

‘ ’Bout what? ’

‘Notice I did n’t bring the car tonight?’

‘Yes. Boss usin’it?’

‘No. — Know when I left your place this afternoon, after you showed me that trick?’


’Notice anything wrong with the car when I drove off?'

‘Nope. Too busy watchin’ the driver.'

‘I went about half a block and felt somethin’ wrong. Pulled up and got out to look. Two flat tires.’


‘Uh-huh. Front and back on the side away from the sidewalk.’

‘They was O. K. when you parked?’


‘Blow-outs? Slow leaks?’

‘No. Cuts.’

‘ What are you ravin’ about?’

‘ Both tires had a six-inch gash in ’em, made with a knife —’


‘Or a razor.’

Effie stopped dancing. ‘The yellow son of a baboon!’

‘Everybody says they ain’t nothin’ he can’t do with a knife. Looks like they ain’t nothin’ he won’t do.’

The shout, the rhythmically jostling crowd, impelled them back into step.

‘Eighty, you ought to half kill ’im. Of all the low, mean, gutter-rat tricks — you ought to lay ’im up f ’ a year.’

‘How you know I can?’ he grinned.

‘Can’t y’?’

‘I can’t prove nothin’ on him. Who seen him do it?’

‘Nobody didn’t have to see him. You know he did it.’

‘Nope. I can wait. He’s sore. He’ll keep on messin’ around. Thinks he can’t be had.’

‘He can be had, all right. All I’m ’fraid of is somebody else’ll have ’im first. Everybody that knows that guy hates ’im and most of ’em’s scared to boot. Whoever whittles ’im down will be a hero.’

As the jazz relented, the object of her anger took form out of the crowd and approached.

‘Evenin’, Miss Effie,’said he, ignoring Eight-Ball. ‘Been lookin’ f’ you. I give you my turn in d’ barber shop to-day. How ’bout givin’ me mine now ? ’

Effie looked through him at the decorations surrounding a post. As if she and Eight-Ball had been discussing the colors, she commented: —

‘That’s one color I’m glad they forgot—I can’t, stand anything yellow.’

Dirty turned garnet; but before his chagrin became active resentment the music returned with a crash. EightBall and Effie moved on past him, their anger partially appeased by knowing that Effie’s tongue had cut like steel.

And now the shout more easily took hold on them, hammering them inexorably into its own mould. The increasing jam of people pressed them more closely into each other’s arms. The husky mellowness of soft-throated saxophones against the trumpet’s urge, the caress of plaintive blues melody against the thrill of strange disharmonies, the humor of capricious traps against the solidity of unfailing bass — to these contrasts the pair abandoned themselves. Harsh laughter, queer odors, the impact of the mob, became nothing. They closed their eyes and danced.

They might have danced for an hour, only half aware of the jumble of faces about, of their own jests and laughter, of the occasional intervals of rest. Then something woke them, and they suddenly realized that it was at them that people near by were laughing — that a little space cleared about them wherever they moved and people looked at them and laughed.

At first they were unconvinced and looked around them for something comic. Then Pop Overton appeared, smiling roundly.

‘Thought monkey backs was out o’ stvle, son.’


‘Did you have yo’ coat cut to order?’

Effie switched Eight-Ball around and gasped while onlookers frankly smiled. A triangle of white shirt back, its apex between Eight-Ball’s shoulder blades, shone through a vertical vent in his coat, a vent twice as long as any designed by a tailor. In the crush and abandonment of the dance a single downward stroke of a keen-edged instrument, light enough not to be noticed, had divided the back of the garment in two as cleanly as if it had been ripped down midseam. The white of the shirt gleamed through like a malicious grin.

As Eight-Ball examined himself unsmilingly, Pop Overton sobered. ‘ I thought it was torn accidental,’ he said. ‘Judas Priest! I bet that—! Say, Eighty, fo’ Gawd’s sake don’t start nothin’ here. We ain’t never had a row —’

Eight-Ball and Effie, faces set, stood looking at each other in silence.

Dirty Cozzens stood in the shadow of the doorway beside that leading to the Barber’s Ball, and in return for a generous drink unburdened himself to a buddy.

‘It was in d’ back room at Nappy’s place. Dis li’l spade turns a black jack and wins d’ deal, see? Well, he’s a-rifflin’d’ cards and talkin’ all d’ same time, and he says, “You guys jes’ git ready to loosen up, cause I’m gonna deal all d’ dark johns home. I promis’ my boss I would n’ gamble no mo’, but dis is jes’ like pickin’ up money in d’ street.” Fly line, see? Den he starts dealin’. Well, I figgers dis guy’s been so lucky and jes’ turned a black jack for d’ deal, it’s time fo’ his luck to change. So I ups and stops his bank fo’ twenty bucks, see? And I be dam’ if he don’t deal himself another black jack — makin’ two in a row!

‘Well, he picks up all d’ money befo’ we can git our breath, see? Everybody laffs but me. I figgers dey’s a trick in it. Would n’ you?’

‘Sho’ I would. Two black jacks in a row. Huh!’

‘So I calls ’im crooked. But he jes’ laffs and tells me to talk wid mo’ money and less mouf. Natchelly dat makes me mad. A guy pulls a crooked deal and says sump’n like dat. Would n’ you ’a’ got mad?’

‘Sho’ I would. Sho’, man.’

‘So I tells him to pass back my twenty, long as he said he was n’t gamblin’. Den he stops dealin’ and asts me is I big enough to take it. Tryin’ to start sump’n all d’ time, see?’

‘ Sho’ he was. Tryin’ to staht sump’n.’

‘So I says I’ll either take it out his pile or off his hips, see? But when I starts for him, d’ guys won’t let me put it on him, see? Fact, dey puts me out d’ game. So natchelly I jes’ got to get me some o’ dis li’l spade’s meat, dass all. I got to. He can’t git away wid nuthin’ like dat.’

‘Tryin’ to git away wi’ sump’n. Huh!’

‘ Sho’ he is. But I ’ll git ’im.’

‘What you aim to do?’

‘I been primin’ ’im fo’ a fight.’

‘Dey claim he’s pretty good wif ’is hands.’

‘Ain’t gonna be no hands. See dis?’

He drew from his right-hand coat pocket what appeared to be a quite harmless pocketknife. He pressed it under his thumb and a steel blade leaped forth, quick as the tongue of a snake, a blade five inches long with a sweeping curve like a tiny scimitar. It was hollow-ground and honed to exquisite sharpness. A little catch fell into place at the junction of blade and handle, preventing the protruding blade from telescoping shut. The steel gleamed like eyes in the dark.

‘Whew-ee!’ admired the observer.

‘He won’t be d’ fus’ one I ever put it on. And here’s how I figger. His boss is tight, see? Fired two guys already fo’ roughin’. Dis boogy’s got two new tires to account fo’ now. And when his boss sees he been cut, he’ll find out it’s ’count o’ some gamblin’ scrape and fire him too. Dass where I laff. See?’

‘’Deed, boy, it’s a shame fo’ all dem brains to go to seed in yo’ head. You could sell ’em and buy Europe, no stuff.’

Then abruptly both shrank into deeper shadow as Eight-Ball and Effie came out.


Diagonally across the street from the dance hall stands Teddy’s place, an establishment which stays open all night and draws all manner of men and women by the common appeal of good food. Oddly, it was once a mere barroom lunch, and the mahogany bar counter still serves the majority of Teddy’s patrons, those who are content to sit upon stools and rub elbows with anybody. But there is now a back room also, with a side entrance available from the street. Here there are round-top tables beside the walls, and here parties with ladies may be more elegantly served. It is really a ‘high-class’ grillroom, and its relation to the barcounter lunchroom, the whole situated on democratic 135th Street, marks Teddy a man of considerable business acumen.

In one corner of the grillroom there is an excellent phonograph which plays a record repeatedly without changing. A song ends; you wait a few moments while the instrument is automatically rewound and adjusted; and the song begins again.

To-night the long-distance record was Tessie Smith’s ‘Lord Have Mercy Blues,’ a curious mingling of the secular and the religious, in the tragic refrain of which the unfortunate victim of trouble after trouble resorts to prayer. The record was not playing loudly, but such was the quality of Tessie Smith’s voice that you heard its persistent, halfhumorous pain through louder, clearer sounds.

Just now there were no such sounds, for the room was almost empty. The theatre crowd had departed; the crowd from the dance halls had not yet arrived. Three or four couples sat about tête a tête, and near the phonograph Eight-Ball and Effie. Eight-Ball’s back was turned toward the wall to hide the gape in his coat.

The phonograph wailed: —

‘My man was comin’ to me — said he’d let me know by mail,
My man was comin’ to me — said he’d let me know by mail —
The letter come and tole me
They’d put my lovin’ man in jail.’

Grief, affliction, woe, told in a tone of most heartbroken despair; desolation with the merest tincture of humor — yet those who listened heard only the humor, considered only the jest.

‘ Mercy — Lawd, have mercy!
How come I always get bad news?
Mercy — Lawd, have mercy!
How come I always got the blues?’

‘Them’s the blues I ought to be singin’,’ said Eight-Ball.

‘You’ll feel better after you eat,’ soothed the girl.

’I’ll feel better after I get one good crack at that half-bleached buzzard.’

‘You ought to pick your comp’ny, Eighty.’

Her tone surprised him. He encountered her look, mingled tenderness and reproach, and his eyes fell, ashamed.

‘All right, kid. I’m off gamblin’ for life. — But if that dude keeps messin’ around — ’

‘Don’t forget—he cuts.’

‘He better cut fast, then.’

As if willing to oblige, Dirty Cozzens appeared at the door. He stood looking about, head hunched characteristically forward, right hand deep in his right coat pocket; calmly observed the relative desertion of the dining room; then slowly advanced across the open space in the centre of the floor.

Quickly Effie reached into her bag, drew something forth, put it into Eight-Ball’s hand. The movement could have been seen, but the object passed was too small for the closest observation to make out. She might merely have been indulging in a heartening handclasp. Eight-Ball looked at her, first with puzzlement, then with understanding and resolution.

This time Dirty ignored Effie. This afternoon he might have had a chance with her; now he knew he had not. Then he had hidden his weapon from her; now he wanted her to see. That, too, had been largely bullying; this was serious challenge. Then he had sought but a momentary satisfaction; the satisfaction pending now would last, arising as it would out of the infliction of physical injury which should cost the victim his job. Let Effie share all of this — by all means let her see.

‘Gimme my twenty bucks.’

Eight-Ball looked up, allowed his gaze to pause here and there over his enemy’s frame; then patted his left trousers pocket. ‘It’s right here.— You big enough to take it?’

‘ Listen, lampblack. You been tryin’ to git fly wid me ev’ry sence las’ week, ain’t y’? Put d’ locks on me wid a crooked deal. Tried to start sump’n in d’ barber shop to-day. Tole yo’ woman to freeze me at d’ dance to-night. Aw right. I’m warnin’ y’, see? I done warned you twice. I put my mark on yo’ two shoes to-day and I put it on yo’ coat to-night. D’ nex’ time I’m gonna put it on yo’ black hide. See?’

Eight-Ball sat quite still, looking up at the lowering face.

‘I tole y’ I’d either take it out yo’ pile or off yo’ hips. Now put up or git up, you — ’

Eight-Ball went up as if he’d been on a coil spring, suddenly released. Dirty staggered backward, but did not lose his footing.

Naturally none of Teddy’s three waiters was in sight — it is unlikely that they would have interfered if they had been. Indeed, had they seen the initial blow of Eight-Ball, — a familiar patron, — they would have been satisfied to let him take care of himself. As for the other guests, they were interested, but not alarmed. One does not yell or run at such a time unless a pistol is drawn.

Recovering balance, Dirty Cozzens drew his right hand from his pocket. It is difficult to believe possible the expression of evil that now contorted his features. That expression, however, was not more evil than the glint of the miniature scimitar, whose handle his right hand grasped.

He held the weapon in what pocketknife fighters consider best form — three fingers firmly encircling the handle, but the index finger extended along the posterior, dull edge of the blade, tending to direct, brace, and conceal it. A sufficient length of the curved point extended beyond the end of the index finger to permit the infliction of a dangerously deep wound.

Eight-Ball stood ready, leaning a little forward, arms lax, both palms open — and empty.

Dirty’s scowl concentrated on EightBall’s hands, and that he did not move at once was probably due to his astonishment at seeing no weapon in them. Any such astonishment, however, promptly gave way to quick appreciation of an advantage, and he did what a knifer rarely does: he rushed, bringing his blade swiftly across and back in a crisscross sweep before him.

Eight-Ball neither side-stepped nor attempted to block the motion. Either might have been disastrous. Instead, he ducked by suddenly squatting, and, touching the floor with his left hand for balance, kicked suddenly out with his right foot. The sharp crack of his heel against his antagonist’s shin must have almost broken it. Certainly he gained time to jump up and seize Dirty’s wrist before it could execute a second descending arc.

One loss skilled than Eight-Ball would have found this useless. From such a wrist-hold the knife hand is effectively liberated by simply inverting the weapon, which the fingers are still free to manipulate. The blade is thus brought back against its own wrist, and any fingers surrounding that wrist usually let go at once. Eighty had forestalled this contingency by a deft slipping of his grip upward over the fingers that held the knife handle. The hold that he now fastened upon those fingers was the same that had yanked two slashed balloon tires off their rims some hours before, and it held Dirty’s fingers, crushed together around their knife, as securely as a pipe wrench holds a joint.

And now those who had watched this little fellow empty-handed win the advantage over an armed and bigger adversary saw a curious thing occur. Regularly in the ensuing scuffle EightBall’s right hand landed open-palmed against Dirty’s face — landed again and again with a sounding smack; and for every time that it landed presently there appeared a short red line, slowly widening into a crimson wheal.

Before long Dirty, rendered helpless now and losing heart, raised his free hand to his face, and as his fingers passed across it the crimson wheals that they touched all ran together. He looked at the tips of those fingers, saw they were wet and red; his mouth fell open; the hand which Eight-Ball held went limp, the knife fell to the floor; and Dirty Cozzens quailed, as craven now as he’d been evil a moment before.

He began to stammer things, to deprecate, to plead; but Eight-Ball was deaf. The muscles of the latter’s left arm seemed about to burst through their sleeve, while the artificial vent in the back of the coat ripped upward to the collar, as with one tremendous twist he brought the other man to his knees.

In that mad moment of triumph no one may say what disproportionate stroke of vengeance might not have brought on real tragedy. But with that strange and terrible open palm raised, a voice halted Eight-Ball’s final blow:

‘Mercy — Lawd, have mercy!’

Tessie Smith’s voice, wailing out of an extremity of despair: —

‘Letter come and tole me
They’d put my lovin’ man in jail.’

The entire engagement had occupied only the few moments during which the phonograph automatically prepared itself to repeat. Now the words came as warning and plea: —

‘Mercy—Lawd, have mercy!’

Eight-Ball released Dirty Cozzens, stepped back, picked up a crumpled paper napkin from the table where Effie still sat.

‘Wipe y’ face with this. Go on ’round to the hospital.’ He urged Dirty, whimpering, out of the side door.

Then he turned back toward Effie, stood over the table a moment, returned her rather proud smile. Two of the men who had looked on came up. Said one: —

‘Buddy, show me that trick, will you ? ’

Eight-Ball extended his right hand, palm downward, and spread the fingers wide open. Freed from its vise-like hiding place between firmly adjacent fingers, something fell upon the porcelain table top. It fell with a bright flash and a little clinking sound not unlike a quick laugh of surprise — the safety-razor blade which Effie had borrowed that afternoon from Pop Overton.