Charlie brought the Chinese kid to me just before dusk. A few drunks already occupied the two cells I had, so Charlie held him while I cleaned one of them out. I didn’t want one of these miners waking up with a Chinaman. I wanted to avoid a killing.
I grabbed the kid by his coat and pulled him to the back. He didn’t offer any resistance. Most of the Chinamen brought in never did. Charlie says that they’re made that way. They fear white man more than they do their gods, he tells me. I don’t know about that, but this one went by me like a passing wind—I barely had to touch him.
When I slammed the cell door shut was the first time I got a real good look at him. The between the dying light and the glow of the lamp he was as young as he looked. He didn’t sit down. He just stood there starring past the iron bars and straight through me with a face that looked more innocent than youthful.
I walked back to my desk where Charlie was helping himself to a cup of coffee. “What did that chink kid do? Didn’t have enough dust to pay the tax?”
“Nope, Tom,” Charlie said with any easy voice, “Murder.”
I hesitated for my cup. “He didn’t kill a white man?” It was rare for a Chinaman to kill a white man; usually it was the other way around.
“Nope,” Charlie said after a few gulps of coffee, “Killed another chink. I was going down to their camp to shake some dust tax, when I heard a scuffle down by the gulch. Ran down and found that China boy standing over his fellow countryman with a bloody pick.” Charlie finished his cup and took out a pouch of tobacco. “Was about to shoot him in the head, but the kid just stood there with that bloody pick in his hand and that heathen stare of his. I tied him up and asked the chinks down at the camp if they knew him. They just gave me that ‘no sabe’ shit.”
Charlie tossed his tobacco pouch to me and I rolled my own cigarette. I lit the smoke and went to take another at the Chinese kid. He was still standing there, looking past the bars.
“Hey, boy!” I shouted, trying to get his attention. The kid kept up his stare and I started to get hot. I leave the Chinese alone for the most part. There are a few here in Poppy Gulch to do laundry and odd jobs. I keep them from getting harassed too much. But other times, I can be just as cruel. “Hey, Hop Sing, Chow Ming. You sabe any English from that yellow mouth of yours?”
I could hear Charlie laughing. “He don’t sabe nothin’.”
The kid just kept staring past the bars. His almond eyes were dark and his mouth tight but hung loose around his face. I was surprised to see such a young Chinese boy up here near the mines. He looked more like a San Francisco houseboy than the rough Chinamen that worked the gulch. For all I knew he could have been a Shanghaied Manchu prince.
I turned my back to him. My mean streak left and I was getting tired.
“You want me to stay here tonight?” Charlie offered.
I should of taken Charlie’s offer and gone back to my room at the Sloppy Sally Saloon. But Charlie had a wife who could be twice as mean as he was. Maybe that’s why he wanted to stay in the jail over night.
“You go on home, Charlie. You’ve been out all day collecting tax. Go on home, that is, if your woman will take you.”
Charlie got up and put out his cigarette in his coffee cup. “She has to take me. No other man would put up with her.”
I made my rounds around town, checking in on some of the more rambunctious saloons and cathouses. Poppy Gulch was typical of the El Dorados that sprouted up wherever there was gold, or a rumor. Most of the forty-niners spent months up in the hills, freezing their nuts off in the creeks and gulches, so it was only natural to cut loose in town. I give them a long leash, but I ain’t shy on pulling iron to make a point.
By one in the morning things had settled down, and it looked like the rest of the night would be quiet. After a few hours of knocking around I headed back of to the jail where a cacophony mumbles and snores kept me company. I didn’t go back to see the kid. I could still feel his eyes staring right past me.
I don’t know when I drifted off. All I remember was lying on top of the cot in front of the office, and then being in a land full of green. At first I thought I was back home, along the Blue Ridge Mountains. But something was different. It didn’t smell like the firs and oaks back home. It smelt like dried leaves and steam. I started walking bare foot along an endless trail across deserts and mountains. Off in the distance, I saw a woman with dark hair. She reminded me of another woman that I knew from another time, only my woman had red hair and didn’t smell of dry leaves and steam. But I felt a longing for this black haired gal, even though I couldn’t tell who she was. My heart began to ache and I tried to reach out to her, but a chasm split between us and filled with a roar of water. I shouted across the growing ocean between us, but I couldn’t understand what it was I was trying to say.
“Hey, Tom,” a gag and cough followed by hard spit hitting the floor. “Hey, sheriff, you gonna let us out?”
Another rude voice joined in the grumpy choir. “How come you got us all crammed into one cell? Ain’t right for eight white men to share space and a chink gets a whole cell to himself.”
I got up from my bunk. “You spit on my floor, Dan, and I’m gonna wipe it up with your face.”
I grabbed the keys and let last nights drunk go. A few were still slumbering, but after a few swift kicks to their backsides, they made daylight. I looked down at the Chinese kid. He was sleeping on the floor. It looked like he dropped where he was standing last night. He still had that far off look in his face, even asleep. I gave him a nudge with my boot. The kid looked up at me wide eyed and looked around the cell as if for the first time.
I took the keys out of my hand and showed it to him. “So what am I gonna do with you, Hop Sing?”
The kid just looked at me with those delicate eyes. “Can’t let you go and I can’t take you to a white mans court. No one cares if you chinks kill each other. Hell, some folks pay good money just to see you yellow heathens go at one another with swords and axes.”
I pointed thumb over my shoulder. “Maybe I should hand you over to those Chinamen back at the camp. Maybe they know what to do with you.”
The kid dropped his eyes. Then looked at something past me.
I turned around and noticed the stove. “You thirsty, kid?” I asked, “I ain’t got tea and I’ll be damned if I give you any of my coffee.”
“I make water hot.”
The sound of his voice almost bowled me over. It was rich with texture of his native land and went into my ears like red silk.
“So you can sabe.” That was something at least. Maybe he would stop his silent stares.
“I make water hot.”
“Hell, that’s probably all English you know,” I took out the key and unlocked the door. It wasn’t that I needed him to light the stove, but something about the kid and his eyes and voice, I couldn’t help it.
“Listen up, kid,” I tapped the handle of my pistol. “You do any monkey business and I’ll drop you were you stand. You sabe?”
The kid looked up, his eyes pleading. “I make water hot.”
I opened the cell, “All right, make the damn water hot.”
The kid flew out like a canary out of its cage. I was so startled I had my pistol half drawn out before I saw him, building a good size fire in seconds. He cleaned out the mugs Charlie and coffee pot by the time the water was boiling.
The water boiled and percolated the coffee. I filled my mug and took a few pulls. “Shit, kid, this is some of the best coffee I think I ever tasted.”
I poured another cup of coffee and gave it to him. “You earned it kid. Just don’t tell Charlie I let you use his mug.”
It was the first time the kid smiled and I couldn’t help but smile back. He pushed the mug back shaking his head. Like a magician, he put his hands in his coolie coat and produced a small bluish teapot. A curse blew through my lips at the thought of Charlie doing such a bad job in searching the kid before I threw him in the cell. The kid poured hot water and added some dry leaves. The small porcelain pot began to steam and the images seemed to move. Then the smell hit me. The same smell in my dream. I looked at the kids face and he looked back.
Charlie came in through the front door. “God damn, Tom, you think it’s safe to have that chink kid out of his cell?”
“He’s okay, ain’t you, Hop Sing?”
The kid took his tea pot back to his cell and sat down.
I looked over at Charlie with a shit grin. “I guess he doesn’t like your company.”
Charlie sat down and took his coffee. “Well, there’s a lot of things that chink of yours ain’t gonna like. Got word a tong is coming for him.”
I didn’t like that. Tongs were trouble. Most of the time they stayed in San Francisco or Sacramento. But when they came up to the hills they usually left a few chink bodies.
After Charlie finished his coffee I told him to go make the morning rounds. “And keep your eye out for any Chinamen hanging outside of town.”
“You expecting trouble?”
I stood up and grabbed a double barrel shotgun off the gun-rack. “Always do.”
Charlie wasn’t gone for two hours when the other Chinaman showed up. He didn’t look like the typical coolie. This yellow dude was dressed in a fine tailored suite and wearing a bowler hat that kept his queue out of sight. Both of his hands were wrapped around a carpetbag.
“Excuse me, sir,” the yellow dude said in English with a slight accent, “Are you Sheriff Tom Banes?”
I pointed to the badge on my chest. “As long as this star is on my chest. What do you want, Mister…”
“I am Chow Ling, a representative of the Joyful Gate Blossom. The man who was murdered by the boy in your jail was part of the guild.” He then did a little bow and smiled with crooked teeth. “May you be so kind as to allow me to enter your office? The business I wish to discuss with you is private.”
Even thought I may not know much about the Chinese, I can tell a shyster when one comes around. But I really didn’t want to be seen with this Chinaman outside so I led him into the jail. I sat down and looked him in the eye. Tuffs of hair dotted his upper lip like clumps of desert grass.
“I apologize,” he started in, “for not coming sooner. I had received word about the cold blooded killing only yesterday and came as quickly as possible. I apologize for any inconvenience that the young man may have caused. I apologize for the time he had taken from you and your town fathers.”
I listened to the Chinaman pour apologies on top of apologies. He was working his way to something. Trying to get somewhere with me.
He took a tea tin out of his bag and scooted it over the table towards me. “Please except this most humble gift in hopes that it will take care of any inconvenience that you may have encountered with a Chinese matter.”
The tin looked as if were made of jade. Painted green with a funny looking flower with a half naked woman coming from the bud. I picked it up. Whatever was inside was heavier than tea.
“You sabe pretty well, there Chow. Not a lot of you Chinamen can sabe three words of English, yet you string them along pretty good.” I put the tin back on the table. Right there in the middle. “Now I’m pretty much the law here. What I do and what I say weighs heavy.” I scooted the tin a bit towards him. “Heavy, but not final.” I saw the Chow smile and nod. “You see the local magistrate here, Judge Havershake, he’s the type of judge who likes a hanging. I’d hate for him to miss a hanging. Even some chink kid.”
“I understand your dilemma, Sheriff, and the tong will also compensate the local magistrate.” Chow kept up his smile and pulled out another tin, sliding it next to the first one. This one was orange with a half naked woman being carried off by a crane. “Now I hope that this concludes our business. If you can turn the prisoner over to me I will leave as soon as possible.”
I picked up both tins and took a look at women painted on them. They had round faces, and looked happy, bursting out of flowers and riding the backs of cranes. But their eyes, looked sad. They reminded me of some of the whores in town, but even sadder. A sadness that I felt in my dream last night.
Chow got up and looked down at me. I put down the tins. “So you’re a representative of this blossom tong. What exactly do them fellers do?”
The Chinaman cocked an eyebrow. “It is of no concern for you, Sheriff.”
“Well I’m no chink scholar, but I doubt that they import blossoms from China.”
“The Guild is an honorable society with the best interest of our countrymen’s well being in mind.”
“And what about you? Like I said you sabe pretty well. Where did you learn your English?”
“I grew up in Hong Kong, a British colony. I learned English and studied law.”
“So you’re a lawyer. A chink lawyer. That’s got to be pretty rare, especially here in California. They must pay you a Manchu princely sum.” I broke into my shit eating grin. “Well if you’re a lawyer then you know I need papers. Legal papers. What needs to be done is a prison transfer form. The only place I can get one of those is Sacramento.”
Chow began to huff a bit. His yellow checks turned a little red. “Sheriff, I had hoped that the compensation all ready given and agreed upon would be sufficient to over ride any legal matters.”
“What’s the rush? Hell, Sacramento is only half a days ride. I’ll have my deputy leave now and will come back tomorrow afternoon. I don’t think your tong wants to do anything illegal in the state of California.”
“Of course not, but the Joyful Gate Blossom wishes to have this murderer in their custody as soon as possible. The man he killed was a very important person and we want justice to be executed soon.” He went into his bag and pulled out another tin and set it on the table. Chow smiled his crocked teeth smile. “I must admit that most lawmen don’t even ask for a bribe. They’re just eager to get the Chinaman out of his cell. Some do hold out for the first bribe, but you, Sheriff Banes, are the first one to hold out for three. I admire a man of your cunning and intelligence. You would do well back in China, even at the Emperor’s court.”
I got up and put my hand on my pistol butt. “This ain’t China. There isn’t no Emperor. And whether your compensation is enough to sway me there still a matter of legality.”
Chow picked up his bag and then starred at me. His eyes reminded me of a snake ready to strike. “I am fully aware of the legal matters in California in regards to the Chinese. How tax collectors collect gold from Chinese. Or how California justice protects the rights of the Chinese.” Chow looked at the end of the cell and yelled something out in Chinese. “I will be back tomorrow afternoon for my prisoner and I trust there will be no further delay.” Chow then turned and walked out the door.
I sat down and stared at the third tin. This was red and had a half naked woman being swallowed by a dragon. The eyes of the dragon reminded me of Chow. I picked it up. It was heavy too.
I walked to the end of the jail. The Chinese kid sat in a corner with his head between his knees rocking back and forth. Something like a prayer escaped his trembling lips. “Anyone willing to pay out what your friend just did wants you really bad.” I put my hand on the bars. They were cold to the touch. “You just killed the wrong guy, kid. Only crime you did.”
The Chinese kid picked up his head. His eyes stared at me. They were dark and drawn me into his sadness. I sat, staring at those gals, feeling things I haven’t felt in a long time.
Charlie came through the door. “That chink boy starting to rub on you, Tom? You drinking tea now?”
Charlie looked at the tea tins on the table with a confused look on his face.
I shook my head and smiled. “I need you to leave for Sacramento tonight and see Judge Havershake.”
“Ah hell, Tom. I won’t be able to get there till night time and Judge Havershake will be in bed and I ain’t about to wake him up. Crazy bastard end up sending some buckshot my way.”
I tossed Charlie one of the tins on the table, the one with the crane. “First thing in the morning you get that formed signed and then get back here as fast as you can.” Charlie opened up the tin and I swear I never seen a man smile so wide.
“You got it, Tom.” And Charlie was out the door as his words hung in the air.
I put the last two tins in the safe where Charlie and I keep the dust tax. I took one last look at the kid before I went out to do my rounds. Poppy Gulch was quiet and killed time by inspecting saloons and poker tables. But the look of the Chinese kid wouldn’t leave me.
So I left the whiskey and whores and went back to the jail to look in on the Chinese kid. He sat there, mumbling something in his tongue and staring at the wall. I fired up the stove and heated up some water. I made enough for a few cups of coffee for myself, and then set the kettle in front of the bars. If he wanted it, he’d have to move.
But he didn’t move.
“Why are you here, son?” I asked him. “Why come all this way to kill a man?”
I caught a whiff of something smelling green, fresh dirt, and the early morning dew. The kid had reached out between the bars and had poured some hot water into his blue pot. He mumbled something, his eyes closed, and his hands moving swift and sure. The last thing I remember seeing clearly was the kid putting a single leaf into the pot.
A simple smell wafted around and it made me think of simple things: the Blue Ridge Mountains in the morning and plowing fresh earth. It made me think of Sara Ann and her red hair blazing as the sun came up behind her.
I opened my eyes. A cup of steaming tea was set at my boot toe. Steam was sweating out from the white porcelain just like the sweat coming out from my forehead. The kid continued his chanting and picked up his tea cup and kept motioning me to do the same. I should have known better. Common sense was screaming at me not to take the cup at my feet, but for some damned reason I did. I picked up the cup and when the kid tilted his head back, I let the hot liquid drop down into my throat.
The tea turned into fire in my soul and my mean streak came back. I felt my blood begin to boil. I staggered back to the front of the jail and grabbed one of the shotguns. It was Wong. I didn’t know why, but I wanted him dead.
Then the smell hit me and my heart began to slow down. The heat that engulfed me was blown away by a cool misty breeze. The gray stonewalls of the jail disintegrated and I found myself in a grassy prairie that went beyond the horizon in all directions. Then I saw the black haired gal and I started to run to her. Suddenly a dragon swooped from the sky and snatched her away. I ran after them, through deserts, over mountains, until an ocean swelled up and separated me from her. I could see her fighting yet I was so far away I couldn’t do anything. She reached out her hand and I tried to grab it but the ocean was too wide yet I could see her being swallowed. Then the dragoon disappeared.
“Tom! Damn Tom, you okay?”
I opened my eyes. Charlie stood above me, shaking me, but I couldn’t get up. The only thing I could do was moan.
“Christ, Tom, what the hell happened?”
I didn’t know what Charlie was talking about. “My head feels like it got kicked in by a pair of mules.”
“Why you’d let him go?” Charlie asked.
“What the hell you talking about?”
I got to my feet with my vision clearing but still a blur. Charlie’s hands on my head groping around for God knows what.
“I don’t see any lumps, so nobody came in and hit you over the head.”
I pushed Charlie away and began to rub my temple. I could hear Charlie pick up the kettle and put it back on the stove and the shotgun in front of me on the desk. “You get those papers?” Things were coming back to me. “Get the kid ready.”
“Hell, Tom, don’t you know? That chink kid is gone.”
I stopped rubbing my eyes and made my way to the back of the jail, ignoring my throbbing head. The cell door was wide open. The key, my key, hung in the lock. The small teapot and teacup were still on the floor. I kicked both against the wall. “Son of a…”
“That high end chink dude is coming.” Charlie said at the door.
I went back to the desk. I was mad. I couldn’t think. My mean streak came back and I grabbed the shotgun and walked out.
“Sheriff,” It was Chow and he brought some help with him. “If you please, the prisoner is to be transferred to my custody.”
I looked at him with that crooked smile and snake eyes. “Your boys gone. Escaped last night.”
Chow and his boys didn’t like the news. They began to mumble to each other in Chinese and then yelled at each other. Not out of anger, but out of fear.
“How did he escape?” Chow asked me. His smile was gone and his eyes wide.
“I don’t know.” I held the shotgun tight in my hands.
“When will you recapture him?”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it and they didn’t like it. But I didn’t care. “You want that kid so bad, you can go after him.”
“This was not part of our understanding, Sheriff. How exactly did he escape?” Chow was getting closer to me.
“I don’t know and I don’t much care. Now I suggest you and your boys get going. He couldn’t have gone far.”
Now I don’t know what exactly happened. I mean I know what happened, but I don’t know why. Charlie was the only other one there, and he said it was justifiable. It was what he said that happened was what I couldn’t understand.
Chow and I locked eyes. He said something in Chinese to his boys, and for some reason, I understood. It was something the dragon said in my dream. Then I said something the dragon had said.
Chow and his chink highbinders looked at me, as if I was not of this world. I leveled the shotgun at them and let loose both barrels. The two Chinaman in the front evaporated. Chow caught some of the buckshot and fell on the ground. The rest of the highbinders turned to run. I dropped the shotgun and slapped leather, gunning them in the back.
My blood was pumping, but it wasn’t my mean streak. I felt like I was doing something I should have done a lifetime ago. Chow crawled on the ground like a snake. I kicked him onto his back. Now Charlie says I said something in Chinese. I don’t know if I did or not, but I do know blowing Chows head off like you do to a rattler.
When it was all over I came back to my senses. Five bodies littered the street. It was the most men killed in Poppy Gulch ever in one gunfight. I went back to the jail, dropped my badge on the desk, and put myself in the same cell as of the kid.
I wasn’t charged for murder, due to Charlie’s testimony that the Chinese tried to jump me. But I still gave up the badge and left Poppy Gulch as soon as I was cleared. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone, not even Charlie.
I headed for San Francisco, where I found out the Joyful Gate Blossom Tong had put a bounty on my head, but nobody tried to collect. The city fathers gave me a badge and I patrolled Chinatown, picking up some of their habits. I was trying to figure out that kid, wondering if his revenge was fulfilled. A part of me knows it’s not, making my blood boil until it’s complete.