Nick Adams stands up. He is by train tracks, and it is dark outside. He sees a train disappearing into the distance. He is angry with the brakeman and with himself. The brakeman lured him over and then hit him hard. Nick has a black eye, but cannot see it in the puddles. He decides he must go somewhere. He starts walking along the tracks. He is annoyed because he had hopped aboard the freight train a while ago. Now he was far from any town he knew. He is hungry and his eye hurts. He crosses a bridge and sees a fire in the distance. He approaches it carefully and sees only one man sitting at it. He greets the man, who asks where Nick got his black eye. Nick tells him that a man punched him off of the freight train. The man at the fire replies that he saw that man dancing along the top of the train as it passed. Nick becomes more annoyed. The man at the fire tells Nick that he is tough, which Nick initially denies. Then, though, Nick simply says that young men like him need to be tough.
Nick notices that this man's face is messed up: The lips are thick, the nose smushed. Then, this man shows Nick that he only has one ear. This makes Nick feel ill, and he starts to move away. The man asks if Nick has ever been crazy. Nick says no and is about to leave when the man introduces himself as Ad Francis, who is a famous boxer. He tells Nick that he won so many fights because his heart beats slowly. Another man appears. It is Ad's friend, Bugs. Bugs and Ad decide it is time to eat. Bugs makes ham and egg sandwiches, warning Nick not to give his knife to Ad. Ad becomes angry and starts threatening Nick. Bugs sneaks behind Ad and hits him, knocking him unconscious.
Bugs apologizes for the way that Ad behaved. Nick asks why he gets like that. Bugs replies that his fame became too much. His sister was his manager. Then, they got married, which disturbed a lot of people. Bugs says that they were not actually brother and sister--that was only for publicity. Still, his wife eventually left him because it was too much to handle. Then he went crazy. He met Bugs in jail. Now, he and Bugs travel the country on the money that she sends him. Bugs tells Nick that he should leave so that Ad does not see him when he wakes up. Nick heads toward the next town over.
In this story, Nick continues his rite of passage. Through the earlier stories, Nick has been in the same place, growing up in his hometown. And, while there, he did not always develop. Sometimes, he circles back to old states of mind. In "The Three-Day Blow," for example, Nick wants to go back to his relationship with Marjorie. In "The Battler," though, he takes a journey, which is a physical reflection of his internal development. Nick, like many male protagonists, goes on an adventure by himself. Along the way, he runs into trouble, like the man on the train. But, he learns from these mishaps.
In addition, he meets people who can teach him something. Ad Francis carries several lessons for Nick. First, he is tough, just like Nick feels that he must be tough. This toughness is part of the manliness that Nick seems to be on the road to. Second, though, Ad is crazy, and that craziness has come from a woman. Ad, therefore, acts as a warning to Nick not to get too close to any woman. If he does, he might end up dependent on her for money like Ad or crazy for love like Ad. As Nick grows up he needs to decide whether he will accept these tenets of manliness--toughness and aloofness from women--which his father also seems to have tried to teach him earlier in life.
Take a Study Break!