Summary: The aftermath of bloodshed from a different perspective…the one who has to clean it up.
Rated: K+ (3,540 words)
Hop Sing’s back hurt.The day had been long and hot and hellish, and the night promised to be all that and more. But he hadn’t given up yet. After hours of being hunched over while trying to get the stains out, Hop Sing was not willing to admit defeat. Miracles weren’t inevitable, but they did happen. By all accounting, the Cartwrights were due a miracle or two.Muttering quietly in his native language, Hop Sing stepped back and regarded the settee warily. It looked very much the worse for the wear with wet splotches that didn’t hide the fact that something very bad had happened there. Hop Sing had doused the velvet upholstery with cold water, which was always the first approach when dealing with so much blood. Too much blood, as it turned out. Grim-faced, he watched as the water turned the bloody patches from red to bronze. Cold water wasn’t going to be enough this time. From upstairs, he could hear the shouts of agony. There was pain and there was blood. While Hop Sing could throw himself into the work, he couldn’t fix it. He could only clean it up.On either side of him, the brothers were pacing. Back and forth, on and on. Neither were paying him any mind, as if Hop Sing and his housecleaning task were invisible. He didn’t hold it against them. It was his job to care about the things that no one else did. All the same, their pacing was driving him out of his mind. Like him, they were men who needed to be doing something useful to feel satisfied. Pacing was not useful and neither was all that worrying. Worry, worry, worry, and nowhere for that worrying to go! For a minute, he considered ordering them to the well to bring him more water, but decided against it when he took a look at Adam’s face. Hop Sing had known Adam Cartwright since he was a boy, and the look on his face was dark. Very dark and very sad. Hop Sing wouldn’t have wanted to be one of the bandits responsible for all the blood on the settee.
The brothers both wanted to be upstairs but had already been ordered down twice. They’d built a fire, cleaned out all the rifles in the Cartwright arsenal, and helped themselves to the liquor cabinet. And still there was no news from upstairs. So they’d taken to pacing. Their pacing was predictable enough that Hop Sing could measure the passing time by their footsteps. He had never paced in his life. Not useful. It would be like giving time away, and none of them had that sort of time. For just a minute, Hop Sing stopped glaring at the settee and glowered at the two of them instead. They didn’t notice. Adam and Hoss were looking in every direction but the blood, which seemed to be everywhere they weren’t looking.
It was a lot of blood, even for the Cartwright household. Hop Sing was always cleaning up after countless disasters and tragedies, but blood was the worst. It had a way of seeping into cracks and crevices and refusing to fade, even in areas where the sun shone brightly. On his way back to the kitchen, Hop Sing noted that the planked pine floor was also spattered heavily near the entry. He could smell the telltale taint of copper. It must have happened when they carried him in. There had been such a frantic rush of activity when it happened that afternoon. Hop Sing had to steel himself against the memory. Ben, Adam, and Hoss were just sitting down to lunch, when a new cowhand rushed in, not even bothering to knock.
“There’s a problem, sir!” the cowhand had shouted, interrupting a fine meal of cold roast and pole beans that Hop Sing had just set out, but they’d pushed their chairs back so quickly that they knocked two of them over. The glass of milk Hop Sing had set out for Joe tipped over as well, splashing over the platter of meats. They didn’t seem to notice, nor did they bother to ask what the problem was. Hop Sing only bothered to right the chairs but left the milk for when he had time to wipe down the table. He then hurried after them, without chiding anyone for leaving their food uneaten. The young hand had said there was a problem, and everyone knew that problem’s name was Joe Cartwright. Hop Sing tightened his lips grimly, just thinking about it. The milk had dried into a sticky white film, and God only knew when he would be able to see to cleaning it.
And now there was blood everywhere. That was also his problem. The doctor didn’t want him in the room to assist, so for the time being, the blood was his only problem. Hop Sing frowned, mulling over his options. He would try diluted vinegar on the floorboards, letting it seep into the areas where the blood was already thickening between the planks. If the vinegar didn’t work, they could always sand the floor later; the floor was so worn at the entry that most of the varnish was already gone. The damage to the floor was serious, but not nearly as serious as getting the stains out of the settee. If he didn’t handle it correctly, the damage would be permanent. Hop Sing couldn’t count the number of times he’d saved that settee. The Cartwrights were very hard on furniture.
Hop Sing could remember when Mrs. Cartwright ordered the ornate piece of furniture. It had to be shipped all the way from New Orleans. Mr. Cartwright had scoffed at such an expense for something he considered impractical, but Mrs. Cartwright had been adamant.
“This is not about furniture, Ben,” she retorted, with the fierce expression that always made Hop Sing hide his smile. “It’s about civilization. Civilization begins with furniture.”
Mr. Cartwright had succumbed, of course. He’d never been able to resist her when she was bound and determined, and nobody really believed that he was all that worked up over an expensive settee. And when the settee arrived, Hop Sing had taken it on himself to protect Mrs. Cartwright’s prized possession. It was the least he could do for civilization or for her. Back when Mrs. Cartwright was alive, Hop Sing didn’t speak much English, but he understood more than he let on. She taught him English over the next few years, but the other Cartwrights taught him more than he’d expected.
They taught him devotion. Hop Sing spoke that language just fine.
He walked into the kitchen to survey his options. Cold water hadn’t done the trick. The red blotches had faded, certainly, but were still there. Everyone would remember what had happened every time they looked at it. Hop Sing was going to get rid of those stains, if it took all night.
Doctor Martin said it might take all night before they would know. That’s what he told Adam and Hoss. Hop Sing brought the doctor everything he’d asked for – a basin of boiling water, two honed cutlery knives, a ream of white cotton. And whiskey. A full bottle of it. Hop Sing had heard Adam mutter that they could use it downstairs. After Hop Sing brought up the supplies, the doctor told him very kindly that he wouldn’t be needed for a while. That he’d be called when his services were required. Hop Sing started to ask the question – will he be all right? But the doctor looked Hop Sing in the eyes and he shook his head ever so slightly. Then he shut the door.
The kitchen was shadowed, only half lit by moonlight. Hop Sing lit another candle so he could see better, even though it really wasn’t necessary. He knew his kitchen like another man would know his own rifle. The pantry had been built to his specifications. Every shelf was arranged to his own purposes, all in perfect order. He kept a tablet at all times, keeping meticulous records of all their supplies. Nothing passed by his notice. There were no surprises. Life was neat and orderly, just like he liked it. What could be taking that doctor so long? Certainly there must be some news after so much time…
It was time to try a different approach. Hop Sing filled a pitcher of water and reached for the small tin of starch that he kept next to the flax seeds. He twisted off the lid and nodded. A paste. He needed to make a paste. He’d never seen bloodstains that couldn’t be eliminated with a decent paste of starch and water. Carefully, he spooned the correct amount of starch into the tepid water. He stirred until it disappeared, and smiled in grim satisfaction. This should do it. Yes, it should. By the time he was finished, the bloodshed would be a memory.
He walked back into the room holding the bowl of starch paste carefully. Despite the circumstances, he couldn’t help but admire the room – the fine proportions, the well-honed woodwork, the impressive rafters. Hop Sing could remember the house being built, like it happened yesterday. He had been hired only a few months before it was finished. He had taken to living with the family in the barn while there was nothing but the framework. The barn had been built in the spring, before they started construction on the ranch house. Livestock came first. It was something that Hop Sing learned quickly from his new employers.
The house was a great source of pride for Hop Sing, and he marveled at it daily. The responsibility of caring for such a house was a great privilege indeed. He had grown up in a small fishing village outside of Shanghai. His own father had died when he was a child, and his mother had struggled to keep her children from going hungry. Young men from their village had left for America, so they could send money home to their families. America was an unimaginable story that the younger boys almost believed was made up. A place as vast as the Ponderosa was the stuff of dreams – Cartwright dreams – and Hop Sing was nothing if not a Cartwright. It hadn’t been what he planned for himself as a young boy at that village. He’d never seen himself as a man who would live mostly indoors, caring for a home and a family. But the reality was that his life had turned out to be more than he hoped for. He was useful and he was needed. The Cartwrights didn’t know everything he did to keep the household running, but part of his job was keeping them from having to know. He knew what he accomplished to keep the Ponderosa running, and that was enough.
As he was walking back to the settee, he abruptly tripped and splashed some of the water on the floor. Frowning, he looked down and stopped short. The green jacket, carelessly discarded, was lying next to the table. Nobody had noticed it in all the upheaval. Hop Sing held the jacket out and appraised it. It was torn and blood-soaked, the waste of violence evident all over it. Shaking his head sorrowfully, Hop Sing hung it over a chair; it would have to wait its turn for his attention. Some would say that the jacket was beyond repair, but they didn’t know his dedication. The blood had not set for long; the rips and tears were not irredeemable. If only the rest of the day’s damage could be mended so easily.
The room was now empty. Adam and Hoss had gone outside to tend to the horses, to one horse in particular. It was no wonder they kept checking on the pinto. Hop Sing had seen the bloodstains covering the saddle. The animal had done well getting its rider home alive. Hop Sing had already seen to it that the horse’s trough was filled with spring oats as thanks for a job well done. Frowning at the thought of the blood soaked saddle, Hop Sing strode across the room to the settee. He gave it a hard look. The wet patches were fading; he could already see that in the lamplight. But the bloodstains were still there.
Hop Sing crouched down and got to work, applying the paste to the stains. He applied it vigorously, trying to distract himself from what he was hearing. Upstairs, the moans of the son were getting louder, and the comforting voice of the father was also rising in a disturbing cadence. They were trying to get the bullet out, and once again, Hop Sing wondered why he wasn’t up there with them. Without a doubt, they’d need more supplies by now. He considered going up and checking, but the doctor’s instructions had been explicit – if we need you, we’ll let you know. Surely, he was needed now.
It was the doctor’s voice, from behind the closed door. Doctor Martin was not a man given to theatrics, and Hop Sing applied the starch paste even more resolutely. He had no control over what was happening upstairs, but he was going to see to it that everything downstairs was restored like nothing had happened at all. Like everything was going to be fine.
He should have known better. Sometimes, things got better; sometimes they didn’t. Hop Sing’s own mother had died when he was sixteen years old. She’d died of consumption, and he’d watched her cough her life away during that last year. Before she died, she made him promise that he would try another life than the village. When he’d boarded the schooner for America, he’d been an obedient son, but it had been more than that. He been striking out in hope – sometimes there was a better way. Sometimes, things worked out when you didn’t expect them to. You had to be an optimist to find your way out West in the first place.
Marie Cartwright had felt the same. She came to the Ponderosa a year after Hop Sing, and they’d been kindred spirits from the beginning. She spoke more French than English, and he only spoke Chinese, but somehow, they understood each other. They were both immigrants in their own way. When Little Joe had been born, the baby had been another bond between them. She often gave him the baby to care for, and he treated the responsibility as an honor. After she died on that terrible day, Hop Sing had made a promise that he wouldn’t lose a single thing she’d entrusted to him. Not her furniture, nor her poetry books or journals, and certainly not her son.
Hop Sing regarded the settee. So much blood. The bullet had lodged in a bad location. It had nicked a vein, the doctor said. It had been a miracle that he made it home without bleeding to death…
“A miracle.” From behind, Adam said the words bitterly, as if he could read Hop Sing’s mind. “Doc said it was a miracle that he still had any blood left at all.”
Hop Sing looked up, startled. He’d been so intent on the task at hand, he hadn’t noticed the brothers coming back in. They were standing behind him, regarding his accomplishment. The settee was practically covered with white paste. It was obvious that the stains had faded, but they had to wait to see if the rest of it would come out. Hop Sing felt the burden of his responsibility, like he was an ox harnessed to a laden cart. If this didn’t work, he wasn’t sure what he would do next.
From the bedroom, Ben was pleading, “Doctor, you’ve almost got it – we can’t give up now…”
With a heavy heart, Hop Sing regarded the settee. He dipped a rag in cold water and gently wiped away the starch. He spent a long time wringing the cloth in the cool water until most of the starch was gone. To his dismay, he had not been successful. The blood was still visible, although it was faint like corroded rust. Every time they looked at it, they would remember. Hop Sing was shaking even though he wasn’t cold. He couldn’t fail at this any more that Doctor Martin could fail at his job. They would both be successful at this – they would!
“You could try spitting on it,” Hoss suggested, with a peculiar expression on his face. “Ain’t nothing that works better. Spit gets the blood right out.”
Dumbfounded, Hop Sing gaped at the huge Cartwright boy, before letting loose with a string of Chinese epitaphs that left no doubt whatsoever what he thought of that idea.
“I reckon you don’t like that idea much,” Hoss said with a sidelong smile at Adam.
Adam smiled back at his brother but uncharacteristically placed his hand on Hop Sing’s shoulder.
“You’ve done what you can,” he said gently. “Why don’t you get some sleep? This will wait until tomorrow.”
Hop Sing shook his head and glared at them fiercely. He could feel the need for sleep making his eyes ache, wearing him down, but he could never sleep when this needed to be done. “Don’t understand,” he retorted. “Little Joe’s blood have to be cleaned up. Can’t leave. Stain sets forever, if nobody wipes it away
“If nobody wipes it away,” Adam repeated absent-mindedly, his mind obviously elsewhere. He sighed deeply. “It’s going to take more than water and cornstarch to make this go away. You know that.”
“I do this for Little Joe,” Hop Sing said.
They stared at him, and Hop Sing wondered what they were thinking. The Cartwright brothers obviously didn’t think about housecleaning often. His work was common and necessary. He did it for all of them every day, but it usually wasn’t anything anyone noticed or remembered. Many times, they would burst through the doors at the end of the day, laughing and tracking mud across his clean floor. When they realized it, they always apologized and sometimes cleaned up after themselves. Hop Sing knew they didn’t mean it. They simply weren’t men who spent much time paying attention to such things – they were too busy plowing forward, living out their lives. Hop Sing didn’t mind; he was proud of them. All he wanted was for their lives to go back to the way that they were before. He wanted them to forget what had happened. To forget about the blood. It was Hop Sing’s job to get rid of all the reminders. He would make it possible for them to move on.
“All the blood will come out,” he pronounced.
Hop Sing glared at the settee. Then he turned and glared at the Cartwright brothers, as if daring them to argue. They shrugged, giving in to him, as they usually did, and Hop Sing’s thoughts traveled back to Hoss’s suggestion. Spitting at blood – absurd!
But desperation could drive a man to absurd places. And Marie would have tried it. She would have tried anything once.
Almost defiantly, he spit into his palm and rubbed it vigorously between his hands. With a reverent apology to the offended sensibilities of his ancestors, he laid his hands over the blood stained velvet, rubbing it in almost tenderly. It’s all I can do to be of use, he thought to himself in his own language. He wouldn’t say it out loud. It would never have translated well. He rubbed and rubbed, until he was sure his own eyes were deceiving him. Sure enough – the blood seemed to be disappearing.
“Who would have known?” Adam said, truly impressed, and Hoss was about to respond, when they suddenly heard the words they’d been waiting for.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the doctor swore from the landing, “if your fool brother doesn’t confound us all. It wasn’t easy but I got the bullet out. Boys, you can go see him now, but for God’s sake, be quiet about it…”
Adam and Hoss broke out into huge grins and practically knocked each other over trying to make it to the stairway first. Hoss tipped over a bowl of fruit on his way but didn’t seem to notice. Even though Hop Sing would point out every bruise on every apple for the next week, on this night, he would pick up the apples and not mind a bit.
Hop Sing turned his attention back to the settee. He sighed deeply and this time spat into his palm with an enormous feeling of satisfaction. The area he’d cleaned looked almost as good as new. No sign of blood at all. You’d have to be a Cartwright to know it was there…
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