The story begins with the protagonist, Nick, getting up from the side of the road. We discover that he has a black eye as he has been double-crossed by a companion, who has punched him, with the result that he has fallen off the freight train he was riding. However, he is all right, and continues walking up the track.
Nick, we are told, had ridden a freight train nearly to Mancelona and is now hiking along a track by a swamp. After aw hile, Nick comes upon a man sitting by a fire, whom he addresses.
He explains to the man what has happened to him, and the man says he has seen the brakeman who hit Nick, in very high spirits. He advises Nick that he needs to be tough, which Nick says he isn't.
Nick is slightly distressed by the appearance of the man, who is "misshapen" and has only one ear. The man notices Nick looking at him, and says "they all bust their hands on me," but asserts, "they couldn't hurt me." He tells Nick that his name is Ad and that he is "not quite right."
Nick laughs at Ad's assertion that he is crazy, but the man goes on, saying that he is Ad Francis and that Nick should know him. He insists that Nick feel his pulse, which beats only forty beats a minute. Ad Francis, it is later revealed, was a famed prizefighter.
Next, another man joins them, a black man whom Ad addresses as Bugs. Bugs, Ad says, is also crazy.
Ad begins cooking ham and eggs in his skillet, and the three men eat ham, eggs, and bread together. To Nick, who is very hungry, the food tastes delicious. However, when Ad asks for Nick's knife, Bugs advises Nick to hang onto it, which makes Ad angry. He demands to know why Nick has decided to "butt in" and eat other people's food. He tries to start a fight with Nick, demanding, "hit me."
Bugs intervenes, hitting Ad across the back of the head. He then gently splashes water on his friend's face and apologizes to Nick. He explains that he has to hit Ad "to change him when he gets that way," and that he has seen Ad like this many times before. He says Ad has been driven "simple" by too many beatings, and that the two of them met in jail. After they got out of jail, they both took to simply moving around the country, using Ad's money, which his former "manager" sends him.
Bugs and Nick talk for a while over coffee, and eventually Bugs suggests that Nick should move on, as he is going to wake Ad up. He offers Nick a sandwich and explains which way he should go to hit the town of Mancelona.
As he turns to leave, Nick hears Ad waking and the two talking. Although Nick had refused the offer of a sandwich, he finds that the sandwich is in his pocket all the same.
Nick Adams has been riding the rails in Michigan. Essentially innocent and by his own admission not tough, he falls for the ploy of a railroad brakeman on the freight train on which he has hitched a ride. The brakeman spies Nick and tells him to come close because he has something for him. The something that the brakeman has for Nick is a hefty punch that catapults him off the moving train to the earth below. Nursing a black eye, Nick washes up in a nearby tamarack swamp, then makes his way along the roadbed toward Mancelona, some three or four miles distant. As he walks along the tracks he sees a small fire in the distance and heads toward it.
Nick approaches the fire cautiously, hidden by the night and by the beechwood forest in which he lurks. Seeing a man beside the fire, he approaches stealthily. When he gets closer, he greets the man, who looks up and asks him where he got his shiner. Nick then unfolds his story. The hobo has a badly mutilated face and has lost one ear. Nick stares at him so hard that he asks Nick whether he likes his face. Introducing himself...
(The entire section is 1,068 words.)