It's when Amsterdam Vallon makes it all the way through that first Victory
Day hoy without doing anything--not
making his move against Bill the Butcher, not telling even Jenny Everdeane who he truly is, not letting slip one
sole sound as the knives fly and the fire-glass burns--that he finally knows he's beat and damned for sure. So
much so, he don't even think to question when Bill sets his and Jenny's wedding-night do for Sparrow's Pagoda
too; just gives his grim little twist of a smile, as Jenny grins free and wide to hear it.
"Youse two can count yourselves all but my own get now, same's if I
spawned you rightwise," Bill tells them,
gruffly, clasping their be-ringed hands together. "The props and supports for my old age."
And: "You ain't old, Bill," Amsterdam finds himself saying, though he
knows it's a straight-out lie. Because while
Tammany Hall's backing kept them safe through the Draft Riots, just like Amsterdam counseled Bill to let it, the
Butcher's never been quite the same since that day he saw his city shell its own people and the Points explode
That look in Bill's one eye, so suddenly full to the brim with sad,
painful, unwelcome self-reckoning--same as a
circus monkey's might seem if it could know it was doomed to die, no matter how fast and well it danced, and all
its bright tinsel left behind without it.
"Like every time I said 'America', I really meant New York," Amsterdam
catches him murmuring to himself, of one
particular evening. "And every time I said 'New York', I really meant the Points..."
"What's that, Bill?"
So, yes: Old, now, and getting all the steadily older--snappish, cranky
and as set in his ways as some
septaugenarian, the gilded dragon-scale peeling away at last, one precious flake at a time. His knives don't find
his fingers anything near so ready as they once did, and the tool-belt's more a token of rank than anything else.
He sits in the back of Satan's Circus playing whist far into the night, with fine young whores untapped on either
side and no one bothering to count his winnings, let alone steal 'em; a man alone, further and further out of his
own time. Less and less of use to anyone, even himself.
Bill lets Amsterdam take over the Natives' doings for the most part, ceding him power in all but name;
Amsterdam brings his friends along for the ride, Johnny and Shang and Jimmy Spoils alike, and if he catches
Johnny still watching him from the corner of his eye sometimes, that all fades away the more prosperous they
Jenny opens her own bludgeting fagin's shop, then branches out into
fencing the loot her students pull in. She
and Amsterdam still love each other, after their fashion: Skirmishingly, hot and cold and vicious. But she spends
so much of her time looking after Bill, as the years and his complaints mount, that Amsterdam almost thinks
she's daring him to cheat--and eventually, here and there, he begins to oblige her.
It's fat times for all, even as what's left of the Butcher's firey,
bloody life grows progressively more cold and thin
As the century draws to its close, meanwhile, he and Bill still find
themselves at odds on the question of
immigration, which continues all but unchecked. There's a wealth of good money to be had from these New
Americans' pockets, for all that Bill won't--even now--never stoop to admit so.
"That fool won't put his hatred to rest 'till he dies!" Amsterdam complains
to Jenny, who's cleaning Bill's glass eye
while the man himself has a well-needed bath upstairs; yet another thing he forgets to do unless he's bid,
most-times, and he's no better at taking orders than he ever was.
"Maybe so," Jenny agrees. "Still, it's moot: He won't die 'till he wants
to, that's for sure; I've had proof of it since
I was twelve. I've known him a lot longer than you, y'know."
"Aye," Amsterdam says, without thinking, "but I met him first."
At which they give each other a look, full-on. And Amsterdam sees Jenny
finally realize who he really is, at long,
long last--the Priest's son, a snake lodged deep in the Butcher's bosom. One who's spent the bulk of the last
twenty years teasing his father's ghost with the prospect of revenge, only to let every chance he's had slip away
in the name of...friendship? Gratitude? Lack of a proper plan? Or just, plain...
And: "Jenny!" Bill calls from his tub, fretful, the way a senile old
murderer whose many-times-broken bones ache
is apt to.
"Now's not the time," Amsterdam tells her, knowing her mind. Because
he can still do that, more often than not.
"Now's the *only* time," she says. "It'd be a mercy."
*But I don't owe him mercy,* he starts to say. Then stops, thinking--
A minute later, they're upstairs, levering Bill under his rose-patterned
bedclothes. And Bill catches Amsterdam's
hand in a grip too tight to break for a long moment, seeming to stare at him with both eyes, the real and the
fake--while, a few short steps away, Amsterdam can see Jenny slipping what looks like a full vial of morphine into
the Butcher's nightly snifter of gin.
"Here's something to help you sleep, Bill," says Jenny. And she looks
up at Amsterdam over the top of Bill's
slumped head as she kisses it, lips to those brilliantined, greying locks, her eyes like chips of turquoize in some
dead moll's ring: Hard, and flat, and utterly unreadable. But saying, nevertheless--
*I'm doing this for YOU, for us. Do you see how I love you, Amsterdam? Are you worth it?*
To kill the man who's meant the most to her, always, over all these
years--far more than Amsterdam ever has,
or will: Her father, her lover, her owner and teacher and king. Her own dead baby's Pa, too, for what that's
Amsterdam stays 'till Bill's real eye finally starts to close, then
slips the knife Bill once put on his father's chest from
his boot and places it where Bill can get at it, if he needs to. Saying, hesitant, like to stumble over his own dull
tongue: "You may need this, I'm thinkin'...across the river--"
But it's a poor gift, not the one he was meant to give at all. And Bill's
pupil turns up at the sight of it, fluttering like
a moth in a candle's flame.
"Why'd...you wait...so damn long?" He whispers.
In the morning, Jenny's gone: To San Francisco, probably, though Amsterdam
never tries to look for her there.
And Amsterdam sits silent next to Bill's body, feeling like he's buried two fathers fifty years apart, and never got
nothing for the pleasure. Feeling, all in all, like he's just spent a lifetime burying himself.
The century turns, the Points shrink and disappear. And Bill's grave
lies next to the Priest's, 'till New York City
itself wipes the memory of them both from history's pages.
"I was wrong on the Butcher," the Priest becomes more and more apt to
say, as time goes by. "A man of honor
after all, in his own fearsome way. Let's drink to him, boys!" And he hoists his ritual glass of fire higher with every
year, while William Cutting's votive portrait stares down lop-eyed at him from the Old Brewery wall.
It's sixteen years after the battle of Paradise Square, and the Rabbits
rule the Points. Amsterdam is Prince
Regent to the Priest's King-Pope, with interests spanning the width of all five streets at once. He runs a string of
pretty gals who're proud to work the streets for him, and saunters down Mulberry of every morning with the
best one on his arm as the crushers grind their teeth with envy: A fine piece with gay red hair and a sharp
tongue, for which Amsterdam's occasionally had to chastize her. But she knows her place now, his pretty Jenny.
Uptown, with the War Between States closing in on New York from all
sides, the Americans are thinking to have
themselves a Draft at Irishmen's expense. But the Priest's not for that, no more than is Amsterdam himself. So
they rise early one Spring morning in 1863, take communion and march down to the water's edge, raising their
pike of rabbit-skins high enough for even those ships offshore to see...
A cry from an upper window: Is that Jenny's voice? There's something
running down the street towards them,
all grey and baggy and huge as a damn house, trumpeting through its tusks into the sky--
And then, without even fair warning, the world explodes around them.
Amsterdam spends his last month in Hellgate chewing hard over his father's
last words, and finally decides the
question for good and all: As far as he can tell, "Don't never look away" is *not*--of a strict necessity--secret
code for "Kill Bill the Butcher for me, when yez grow a man." And sixteen years in this rat-hole is more than
enough, either way.
He gets on the ferry, goes two miles down, then transfers onto the next
ship he sees. Ends up all the way
around Cape Horn and up again to America's Western coast: San Francisco, a city of mud and ruts and hills as
far as the eye can see. They claim you can pull gold out of the river with your own hands 'round here, a theory
Amsterdam feels himself right willing to test as soon as humanly possible.
As he's coming up the street, though, he sees the most beautiful girl
he's ever laid eyes on coming the other
way--all in green from her head to her toe, with her red hair up high under a ribboned bonnet and a darting,
roguish look in her bluish eyes. She trips on one of the ruts and falls right into him, apologizing prettily; shoots
him a smile wide enough to make him hallucinate a whole lifetime in the flash of her teeth and her flirting, melting
"My name's Amsterdam," he tells her, to which she laughs.
"And here I was thinkin' I'd left New York behind," she says. "Well!
Good morning to you, Amsterdam; I leave
you in the grace and favor of the Lord."
A New York girl, here in San Fran. Sure, it's a tiny world.
It's enough to lift his spirits a bit, put a spring in his step and
a lilt to the tune he's whistling. Until he gets a bit
further away, at least, and realizes she's lifted his father's medal--the only thing he brought with him, from that
hellish city they both were born in, that he'd ever wanted to keep.
"This is foolish," says the Priest. "We'll kill each other, sure, but
nothing'll really change. You got to build an
empire to keep an empire, Bill. So why don't we set all this aside, for now, and say you marry my daughter when
she's of age?"
Bill casts his one eye over at the tiny girl who sits by the battlefield's side; thinks a moment, while all the rest of
the Natives and Rabbits wait. Then nods, at last, and throws his cleaver down.
"Done," he says.
"You broke my heart, Vallon," Bill tells Amsterdam--right in his ear,
slow and rough, too low for any of the
Sparrow's Pagoda crowd to hear as he hugs Amsterdam to him, tight enough to twist and bruise. "Cut my soul
down the center same as you'd put a knife through it. Do you really think it'd do your father proud, to see how
you done me?"
A hard thing to hear, under any circumstances. Yet it's nothing but
the truth, after all--no way on earth
Amsterdam could deny it, even if he thought Bill were likely to give him the chance to.
So he shuts his eyes tight and hears Jenny scream Bill's name one last time, so high and thin and far and away,
a gilded door finally shut fast in the face of all his imagined futures. And he waits for the Butcher's heated knife to
part his traitorous throat like a dragon's kiss, cauterizing as it goes.