Five Fingers Make A Fist
by Gemma Files

The Five Points are streets, all intersective: Where they meet, the very beating heart of Old New York, Dirty New York, New York When New York Was Really Wicked flourishes. Each runs together. Each runs away from the other. And each, prospectively, might lead to somewhere--entirely different.

For example...

Mulberry, 1863:

"Thank God," says Bill the Butcher, "I die a true American." And waits for the blow that'll take him away from this terrible moment, the fullest disappointment in all his long, long life. The one as'll usher him on past weak flesh and into the welcome glare of his own, long-cultivated legend.

But Amsterdam Vallon doesn't take the bait--just lurches to his feet and kicks Bill in the face, spitting on him. Says: "You're not worth my time, old man--"

(aw, Jesus! The Priest's revenge in one swift move, for sure)

--and turns away, forever.

After a moment to recollect himself, Bill crawls off to Satan's Circus, looking for a safe place to hide and heal up. But what was once his stronghold's been looted, everything's gone; Emma Loss sees him covered in dust from head to toe and screams at the sight: "Ghost! Ai-yaaah!" Which only brings the rest of 'em down on him quick-smart, all Chinese bucks from the mess that's left of Sparrow's, more'n ready and willing to try out that dishonorable whorehouse shimmy of a fightin' style they practice on their former tormentor's aching bones. It's all he can do to put his cleaver through the nearest one and lunge for the back door 'fore they can follow, still holding his side to keep that shrapnel-wound from spilling his guts in the rubble.

His vision goes red, then black. And then it's night, with Bill coming to all huddled up in that familiar shack out back of the gates of Hell where him and his Ma once squatted, her to turn tricks and him to paw through their pockets once they passed out after--them long-gone good times before she was took to bed, before the Reformers came. Outside, the Municipals're rolling bodies into pits and dumping cartloads of lime down on top of 'em; the city's ablaze just like back in 1835, when it was still more wood than brick, and corpse-candles line every avenue. And Christ, if this ain't Hell, it's as close as Bill ever wants to come for some very long Goddamn time indeed...

But travel means money, and the only possible place he can turn for that is William Tweed, who gapes like a dead fish when Bill thrusts himself through his Tammany Hall office doors. Snarling, without preamble: "Hope you wasn't countin' on the Rabbits to carry you through the next election, 'Boss'--'cause far as I can see, they're as dead as their namesake. Not to mention how Amsterdam's run off, which I guess might make me the jack to know in the Points again, if the Points wasn't pure memory themselves."

"Bill, my God--you look awful."

"I oughtta; been bled near white. That happens sometimes, when ya fight."

He flops down in a chair, legs gone to jelly, while Tweed pulls the bell for whiskey, food, a doctor. Half-expects to see the crushers there when he wakes next morning, all bandaged up in the wreck of Tweed's own bed--but the scheming bastard can be true to his word, seems like, at least when he takes a mind.

And: "So," Bill says, hoarsely, as the doctor feels his side for broken ribs, "where's the chink ya owe me, Tweedy, for services rendered and such? No greenbacks, mind: Just honest coin, the kind'll get me as far from this stinking city as boat, train or coach can go."

"New York without the Butcher? My God, that'd be some sort of heresy, even in these increasingly Godless times." Tweed cuts those too-happy eyes of his at him, gone suddenly soft in their nest of wrinkles. "You could stay, William, if only you might accustom yourself to change."

"Guess so; too bad I can't--won't be your lap-dog, Tweed, not even now. Which means if you really want me outta here, either pay up, or kill me."

"...I believe I'll pay up."

(Thought you might.)

A week later, Bill's wound is already closed, though red and tender still. So he pops his eagle-eye out and buries it in the loose dirt on top of the Priest's grave, and finds the razor while he does so; realizes Jenny and Amsterdam must've already stopped there, on their way to God knows where else. So he brings the cut-piece along when he takes his own leave, without even a thought as to whether or no it's his right--probably one more sin in a long, long line t'do it, but it's not like Bill could dock his time in the Hot by stopping now. And it does seem a fair enough exchange, either way.

He uses the razor to shave off his handlebar and goes West, across the new frontier, becoming a simple travelling barber--'nother calling built on blood, plus one never looked too hard when Monk McGinn did it. And turns out he was all too right 'bout that.

Was a time when 47 seemed the oldest a man could live, too, but 57 seems...younger, somehow: 57, 67, 77. Or maybe it's just that he's not the same man.

Eventually, 'round the century's end, Bill's taking his usual Sunday promenade down the street outside his shop in San Francisco when he runs into Jenny Everdeane and Amsterdam--her still flat and spry in her fashionably bustled gown, for all that the red of her hair now comes out a bottle, while the upstart "boy" he once knew's filled out like a cart-horse, respectable to a fault in his striped silk suit, with a fine gold watch and chain glinting from one pocket. Obviously done well, the pair of 'em...

Ah, it's enough to make any father's heart right proud.

Neither of them recognize him, and he doesn't reveal himself. He just stands there and watches them go by with his slightly ill-set new eye narrowed, thinking:

You'd never know we was anybody, none of us. And we ain't. Not now.

Which he guesses is a sorrowful thought, after all's said and done: All the years, all that hot blood and hotter temper. All that ambition and pride buried deep and lost to memory like the Draft Riots themselves, like the Points where he, Jen and Amsterdam all came of age, in their very different ways--

--none of it come to anything, in the end, but dust.

That night he has a heart attack, alone in his room. And when the earthquake comes it swallows his shop and life's savings whole, in one neat gulp, leaving not even the barest trace behind.

Worth, 1862:

"His name is Vallon! Don't do it, Bill. His name is Vallon..."

And: Of course it is. Of course.

(What else?)

Bill draws back to full height, eye filmed with thought, like a snake's that's about to strike. Remembering a thousand little indications, in that pieces-to-puzzle sort of way--the pugnacious jut of the boy's chin, his half-hooked bruiser's beak, his slant-squint eyes that exact same shade of blue used to lock with his own over the mud behind the Old Brewery whenever he stalked by. Not to mention how whatever ain't attributable t'the Priest himself now reminds him of nothin' so clear but that shave-headed brat always at Vallon's elbow, or hoist on his shoulder--

Here, son, keep shy of them Nativists, will yeh? For God hath given them but a little time to rule here on earth, seein' they'll burn for all eternity as heretic unbelievers down Below...

That lying little son of a bitch. Son of a son of a--BITCH.

Looks back at Johnny Sirocco then, sharply. Asks: "You inform anyone else yet of this same tidbit, John?"

"No, Bill, 'course not. Just you."

Just me.

(Well. And who else?)

'Cause: This is his score to settle, his betrayal to pay back in kind--his, and only his. To will, to dare, to act...or not. To punish, or forgive...

All depends on what happens tonight; what Amsterdam does, or don't. But either way, Bill ain't like to reward no woodenhead skell what'll sell his own out over something so light as where Jenny picks to hang her skirt of nights, no matter how the wisdom thus gained might turn a rising tide in Bill's own favor.

The Butcher favors his trembling prey with a smile, wide enough to curl like his own moustache. Then slips the edge of his blade under Johnny's weak, wobbling chin, right where the pulse hammers strongest--

"That's good," he says. Without any inflection to it at all.

--and pulls.

Cross, 1860:

Jenny's baby lives, though she almost doesn't; wakes all white and trembling, her narrow pelvis shattered, never quite able to flirt and smile so lissome along those Uptown avenues, or even--as it turns out--to walk upright again. But never mind that, 'cause she's done what no other moll could: Gave Bill a son, to wear his name and carry his gang forth to the century's end. A Native American dynasty in the making.

So the Butcher refashions his life around this new family, curbs his born rowster's instincts and cuts the deals he has to in order to hold fast to what he's got, no matter how filthy the world around them turns. And because he thus has no urge to find himself a son--or manufacture one--he has no earthly reason to take Amsterdam under his wing; Amsterdam stays on the outside, part of Shang Draper and Johnny Sirocco's gang. Skulks along behind Bill and his boy like some bad smell, never getting close enough to attack them directly...not 'till tonight, in the Old Bowery Theater, with this fateful presentation of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Just some kid from the streets in a slouch cap, his side-locks braided back and a pistol blazing from one upraised hand: For the blood of the Irish! Still, it ain't 'till McGloin finds the knife Bill killed the Priest with in Amsterdam's boot that the Butcher even thinks to pull the boy he's just gutted's blood-soaked neckerchief aside, disclosing St Michael's frowning, serpent-killing countenance to the whole room.

And oh, but Bill catches his breath at the sight of it--bites down hard, like he's choking on a sixteen-year slice of crow pie, while Jenny screams and wails and rocks Bill Jnr.'s perforated corpse behind him. Realizing in one awful instant how his sins was always doomed to find him out, even after his efforts to erase or repay them: How he's ruined her life and lost her love, offloading the fruit of his crimes onto a child whose one mistake was being born the Devil's own.

How it's all his fault for wanting to win so bad he wouldn't let himself remember the Priest was somebody's father, same as Amsterdam--and every other man he's ever killed, like-a-wise--was somebody's mother's son.

"I know ya woiks," Bill whispers to himself, aloud; looks down at his bloodstained hands in wonder, dumbstruck, like they should come attached to someone else. Feels the empty socket 'round his glass eye clutch the same way a stuck pig's heart does, and knows there's no one left to lay a knife on his chest once the journey's done, no matter how he might need it, 'cross the river.

Behind him, Jenny weeps on and on, unappeasable. And Bill the Butcher stands stock-still, froze upright, a man with all the endless deep of Hell's abyss spread open at his feet. But not able, even after all this, to unbend his own stiff spine just far enough... fall.

Orange, 1846.

Ain't usual for a female to brawl, but all you have to do is look at that Mick virago Hell-Cat to see the idea ain't no pure impossibility, neither. Thus the career of Willa Cutting, whore, thief and knife-artist, who runs her own gang of jack-rolling chloral hydrators from the tavern the Points call Satan's Circus--Native to her teeth since Marcus Goodge himself gave her the introductory hay-roll, straight out the Orphan Asylum on Blackwell's Island. A judicious alliance t'be sure, when all's said and done; some even date that cub of hers to Marcus's attentions, though it's not like she's ever restricted her clientel beyond them who could pay the going rate--or given the boy a name but "Cutting" since his birth, neither.

Amsterdam Cutting, running barefoot through Paradise Square while his Ma's gals turn tricks up above, and the Dead Rabbits scowl at him from the Old Brewery's doors. Them with the brains God give a goat might venture to point out Goodge don't sport eyes so piercing blue, any more than does Willa...if they didn't know better than to risk their own necks, over such a relatively immaterial observation.

But: When she hears the bouncers downstairs start to yell, Willa knows straightaway which other's finally made that same connection. So she grabs Jenny Everdeane up from her scrubbing by a tangle of red curls, and orders: "You run down the street to the Americus Club, 'fore them Rabbits can block the back door--tell Marcus the Priest's makin' hay with his investments, so's he'd best send troops, and plenty of 'em. Now, ya got that straight, or does it bear repeatin'?"

"Yes, ma'am; no, ma'am."

"Good gal." Then: "Amsterdam! Come here t'me, boy."

Which he does, without the slightest hesitation. And when the Priest breaks her office doors down a moment later, cross in hand, she's already armed and waiting: Knives close to reach, yet hidden. For she's fairly certain the big Paddy bastard won't attack her head-on, not with her--


--child sitting balanced, eyes wide, in her very lap.

"I hear you been keepin' secrets from me, yeh high-nosed Yankee harlot," he says, without preamble. To which she just snorts, replying:

"High-nosed and high-priced, Paddy. So come back when ya got the fawney, or don't come back at all; ain't nothing of mine that's any part yours, 'cept maybe by the hour." "A man has the right t'the rearing of his own get, Willa! All yeh have t'do is look at him--"

"--and see what, exactly? That God-botherer collar'a yours must've cut off the blood to ya head."

The Priest's moustache bristles. Stepping forwards, slowly: "Then maybe I'll just take him."

Willa snarls, and has a knife to her lower lid before Vallon can even react. "Rather cut my own eye out, you thick Mick son of a thick Mick bitch. Want to watch?"

She digs the blade in, drawing blood; Amsterdam makes a noise, and the Priest draws back. Which is when the Natives break in.

And: Damn, but that man can take a beating, Willa thinks, as they drag him back down like dogs with a bull. Makes her recall why she introduced his coin to her purse in the first place, for all she suspected (even then) it'd probably end up costing her just as dear.

A month on, the Priest comes back with a formal challenge: Dead Rabbits vs. Natives, ostensibly for who holds sway over Points and Square alike, though it's obvious he's expecting Satan's Circus--and Amsterdam--to come along with his victory. So Willa shows up to the battle in full regalia, handing her boy over to Jenny before stepping to take her place beside Goodge, her war-belt heavy and chinking with armament.

Goodge: "Quite the grand fuss for an unwary night's roll in four-leaved Paddy clover, Willa."

She shoots him a glance, testing the edge of her cleaver against her thumb. "Aw, you know it always would'a come to this, sooner or later; I just give ya a reason, is all. So quit yer yammer."

"If he really is Vallon's--"

"He's MINE, is all. Comes from me, like I come from right here: New York as New York itself, from cobbles t'curbs. And I'll kill any bastard says different, no matter what his name is."

Goodge smiles at her outsized passion, same as always: Such an arrogant, Uptownified prick he's becoming, with his silken airs and pretenses. Checking the hour's advancement on his bright new timepiece, and drawling, while he does--

"Well, then. Since it's your call...I'll leave the response to you."

He drops her a stiff little bow; she hitches up her Betsy Ross flag-apron, grins, and curtsies. And steps out to meet the Priest, with a knife in either hand--

But all the passion in the world can't give her a man's reach or a man's weight, not in an all-out rowdy's heat and turmoil, so she's the one who dies in the snow with Vallon stroking her hair, as Amsterdam stares down in mute agony. And thus all her fine words come to nothing.

Little Water, 1841

Never give away nothing that's yours to keep, no matter the odds; that's what Bill's Pa taught him, in between tales of beating the British off at Bridgewater--let the bastards take it their ownselves, if they can. So that's how he's played it every year since he took the old man's shop over, fending off Natives and non- alike with equal zeal, a self-made terror: Knives, height, handlebar like a snarl atop a snarl, hawk-nose broke near flat with ten years' worth of rowsting to make sure no gangster lays claim to what's his by blood and ingenuity.

The Irish flood in like locusts these days, but it still don't point him in the 'Federation's direction. Let Marcus Goodge claim they'll infiltrate the Butchers' Guild all he wants--Bill wasn't raised to hate a man for where he comes from, as opposed to his actions once installed on American soil, and all it ever takes is a peek at Old Glory to remind him of that, most-times. His father's former battle-standard spread out proud atop the very table Bill carves and packages at each day, emblazoned with words designed to show how it's other nations the Union has to fear, not the immigrants that flee 'em: Native Americans, Beware Of Foreign Influence.

Hard words to live by some days, though. 'Specially when Bill prowls past the latest challenger, leaning back against the Old Brewery wall with the rest of his cronies like he ain't got a care in this world, for all he still bears the print of Bill's boot on his jawline. One of Monk McGinn's set, fresh-off-the-boat Irish from Ireland--Vallon's the name, calls himself the Priest, for all he don't sport even the barest pretense to no holy Catholic manners. And the big thug gives him a glance as Bill goes past, smiling at him under his moustache like he's some sort of public spectacle: Oh, it boils him, is all. Top to Goddamn toe.

It's four hours later when Bill hauls the tripe-buckets out back for dumping, only to find this same gamester waiting on him with a Mick at either elbow--McGloin, Happy Jack, Hell-Cat Maggie lurking in the shadows beyond, the Priest's little son on her hip. Bill shifts into a throwing stance, hands automatically gone to his belt, but pauses when the Priest puts up a placatory hand. Thinking, as he does--

Well, THAT's something new.

"Now, now--surely yeh won't fight a man without even hearin' him out first, will yeh?" Then, stepping forward, while Bill keeps a watchful silence: "Oh, you've a fearsome temper to yeh, Mr Cutting. Are yeh certain you've no Irish in yeh at all?"

"Nope. And none needed, neither."

That lazy sidelong eye-flick again, set slant under a fierce red brow. "Look, Bill--may I call yeh Bill? It's a pure shame t'lose one of your skill, fair fight or no, and especially over such trifles. The way you conduct yourself, it'll be the Natives as soon as any of ours what lays yeh under the sod. I want yeh mine, not dead: Standin' beside, knife at the ready--for with a man like you to back me, I'd rule the Points in a year.We're new to this country, like you and yours was, once; shall we really waste time we don't neither of us have with fightin'? What d'yeh say?"

And oh, it all sounds so reasonable, don't it? Not that Bill's ever been one to listen to reason, most-times...

New, indeed. Much like that traitorous voice at the back of Bill's head, which purrs:

Might be a thought, to live a little longer and prosper 'long with it--find strength in numbers, for once. To not ALWAYS be lookin' over your shoulder, the one man in all the Points what has to walk alone...

Mmmm. Might be.

Got to set some standards first, though, like Pa used to say: Be no man's doxy, not 'less you can quote him a fair price first. So he squares his hips, stands up straight and stares Vallon right in the eyes, refusing to be too impressed by the offer--

(not yet, anyroad)

"I ain't like to ally myself with no man don't give America its due and proper," Bill tells the Priest, scowling. Only to get a soft curl of the lip in return, amused and almost affectionate, remarkable for its restraint.

"Yeh mean New York, don't yeh? Seein' it's all either of us've seen of the country proper, truth t'tell."

"Don't tell me what I mean," Bill snaps. Then softens, himself: "Look, all's I'm saying is--might be I'm no Nativist, but I'm Native-born to my boot-heels nonetheless, like all of my name what come before on back unto infinity. Which is why I can't work with no man don't love this country enough to fight for it even at the risk of dyin', just like my own father done."

"Huh. Well--sure, I think I might learn to love it yet, eventually. If you was the one what taught me."

A strange turn of phrase, and it's equal strange how Bill's heart all but leaps to hear it. Like he can already see their partnership stretching out over years, one long, unbroken string of victories lasting clear to the century's end. Just one glorious battle after another, and another, and another.

The Priest's little son smiles up at him, hesitant. And Bill--almost before he can stop himself--realizes he's already begun smiling back.

Looks like you already made your mind up, son.

(Yeah. Does, don't it?)


"Then, Mr Vallon," Bill the Butcher says, finally, "you got yaself a deal."

And he stretches out a hand, letting the Priest's huge paw enfold his completely: Five fingers knit with five more, to make a fist of ten.


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