Summary: When family is in danger, should the past remain forgotten?
Word Count: 9829
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, setting, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
July 28, 1861 The Territorial Enterprise
Wyatt James “Jimmy” Cheatham, only child of Martha and Earl Cheatham of Virginia City, passed away last night after an uncommonly short period of consumption. Although but 20 years of age, Jimmy was a popular young man—before the characteristic weakness brought on by his fatal illness, his feats of strength had entertained and impressed fellow citizens on many an occasion. Well-regarded by his employer and fellow miners at the Chollar diggings where a bright future seemed assured, only last month young Cheatham had announced his engagement to Miss Audrey Vulpine. He will be laid to rest tomorrow morning in the city cemetery. Mr. and Mrs. Cheatham will receive callers after the graveside service.
“Tragic,” Ben Cartwright said. “His parents must be heartbroken.” Ben rose, pushing his chair back from the dining table and headed to his desk.
“Sure is a pity, him so young and all. Never knew him to be sick a day in his life.” Hoss jabbed the last fork full of pancakes on his plate, swirling it into a puddle of syrup before taking the bite. “That where Shortshanks is this mornin’? At the service?”
Adam hummed in distracted agreement. The reported cause of Jimmy’s death was troubling him. Jimmy Cheatham had been a boisterous, brawny fellow – hardly the typical consumptive. Adam sipped the fresh coffee Hop Sing added to his cup and pondered what he knew of consumption. In his experience, dying from consumption was tortuously slow as the body, wracked by coughing, fever, and pain, wasted away. Adam had seen Jimmy in the past week – the man had been coughing a bit, but otherwise appeared as hale and hearty as ever. Perhaps Jimmy’s lungs had been weak. Maybe working in the mine had somehow triggered the condition to take him so quickly. If he had time on his next visit into town, Adam would stop by and ask Doc Martin . . .
“This young man who just die? He same man who tossed Little Joe over fence into pig sty in spring time?”
Adam jumped a little at Hop Sing’s voice. He hadn’t realized their cook had been listening while he read the paper to his father.
“One and the same. I’d forgotten about that little fracas.”
Hoss snorted, then nearly choked from the ill-timed combination of eating and laughing. As he coughed and gasped, Hop Sing hurried around the table to pound his back.
“What . . . what was them two fightin’ about . . .about . . . anyway? Goldarn it, Hop Sing! Leave off hittin’ me. I’m all right.”
“You know our little brother; thus, you know a woman was involved. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“Boys . . .”
Adam stopped himself from further comment on the memory of Little Joe being pitched over the railing of the nastiest hog wallow in Virginia City. The boy had practically sailed over the high fence, landing face first in the smelly muck. Even a couple of rinses under the nearest water pump hadn’t done much to clean Joe up or rid him of the smell.
“Do you remember the ride home?” Hoss muttered softly.
Oh yes, Adam remembered. They had made their filthy, smelly, downcast little brother ride downwind from them all the way home.Teasing and heckling the kid may also have been involved. It was always entertaining to get Little Joe worked into a snit. When he saw Hoss’s shoulders shake with suppressed laughter, Adam nearly lost his own composure.
“Brother’s bad fortune not funny.” Perfect, now Hop Sing was scolding. How could Adam forget that Hop Sing took grave exception when “his Little Joe” was hurt or upset?
“Aw, we ain’t laughing at Little Joe, Hop Sing.” Hoss may have started out strong, but Hop Sing’s glare soon had him back tracking.“ Well, not at him exactly. You . . .you had to be there.” Hop Sing gave a disbelieving grunt before turning back to Adam.
“This lady who supposed to marry Mr. Jimmy? Say her name again.”
Adam checked the newspaper before answering. “Miss Audrey Vulpine. Why?”
Hop Sing started gathering the remnants of the meal from the table. “Name just sound strange to Hop Sing. Never heard that name before.”
“I suppose it is an unusual name. Maybe her family comes from Italy. In Latin, vulpine is the word for fox.”
“Woah, hang on there, Hop Sing.” Hoss fairly leapt from his chair to save Hop Sing from dropping the stack of dishes and cutlery. “You all right?” Hop Sing nodded and gave Hoss a small bow of gratitude for the timely rescue.
Carefully, Hop Sing placed the stack of china plates and saucers back onto the table—steadying himself briefly against the edge of the table, knuckles white with tension. Adam observed the little man take a deep breath.
“Mister Adam sure lady’s name mean ‘fox’? Very sure?”
Adam felt a little lurch of uneasiness deep in his gut. Hop Sing’s entire demeanor had changed. The little man was dead serious about something that shouldn’t have amounted to a hill of beans, and the cook clearly expected a serious answer.
“Vulpine means ‘fox’ in Latin. I’m sure.” Hop Sing held his gaze squarely for a few more seconds before sketching another small bow.
“Boys. Time to get a move on. Those cows aren’t going to brand themselves.”
Hoss moseyed toward the door. “Now, wouldn’t that be a sight to see? Do you think one cow’d be the boss wrangler, or would each of ‘em have to burn its own hide?” At their father’s laughter, Hoss slapped him on the back and winked at Adam.
One thing about Hoss, when he started spinning a yarn, he knew just how to keep it going. By the time the three men were in hats and gun belts, they were also in stitches.
Deciding he needed that last swallow of coffee before heading out, Adam walked back to the dining room. He expected Hop Sing to fuss at him for interfering with cleaning up. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see Hop Sing grinning in appreciation at Hoss’s joke. Instead, Adam found Hop Sing standing nearly motionless, apparently lost in thought, muttering quietly to himself. Sipping the last of the tepid coffee, Adam thought he heard the man say, “The more things change . . . ”
It occurred to Little Joe as he waited for the preacher to pronounce the final words over Jimmy’s grave, that this was a situation he wished he wasn’t so familiar with. You’d think a man not even 20 years old wouldn’t have been to so many funerals. And, you would think if that man had been to a heckuva lot of funerals, that the man would know how to hold onto to his self-control a little better.
Being familiar didn’t seem to ease the pain of saying good-bye one bit. He and Jimmy had known each for their entire lives. Maybe they hadn’t been close, and okay, maybe they had tussled and fussed some over the years, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t liked each other. It was just so . . . unbelievable that Jimmy Cheatham who’d always seemed like such a force of nature should be gone, so quick no one hardly knew what ailed him, and right when things seemed to be going his way.
Joe had to swallow hard to keep from making any telltale sounds. He sniffed as quietly as he could, and wiped a sleeve across his eyes when he thought no one was looking. He’d always been the kid who cried easily, and he was starting to suspect that he was growing into a man who cried easily. It wasn’t something he enjoyed, but he felt like he was finally coming to peace with his nature.
He glanced up at Miss Audrey, Jimmy’s fiancée. She was like a block of carved marble- cold and unmoving. Everything about her from her clothes, her expression, even the way she stood was just what anyone could expect from a young woman who’d lost her lover. If it weren’t for her eyes, bright and inquisitive rather than glossed with tears, Joe might not have stopped to wonder if Miss Audrey had known Jimmy long enough to feel his death very deeply. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, Joe was ashamed of himself. He knew that not everybody showed their feelings the same way. Even so, seeing her stand so dry-eyed next to the gaping hole that was about to swallow Jimmy forever . . . Joe wasn’t sure if he should admire her for the way she held herself together or pity her lack of heart.
It didn’t look to him like Jimmy’s parents were very admiring. When they weren’t sobbing and holding each other up under the weight of their grief, the couple were glaring at Jimmy’s beloved. Hoo boy, that sort of friction didn’t bode well for the Cheatham wake. He’d seen grief-stricken family members quarrel and fuss before today after laying their loved ones in the grave. It was understandable, he supposed. When death steals away a piece of your heart, a body wants something, someone, to blame. Just thinking about the possibility of a ruckus had Joe dreading the idea of calling at Jimmy’s house after the service, but that was the way things were done. Joe figured if Jimmy’s ma and pa could bear to go on without their only child, Joe ought to be able to choke down dry cookies and make small talk for a little while to show the proper respect.
The service felt like it went on forever yet somehow ended too soon when the preacher’s final prayers died away. One by one the mourners tossed a handful of dirt on the coffin, walking away from Jimmy Cheatham for the last time.
The small crowd headed quietly toward the Cheatham house. Joe lingered near the grave, partly to get hold of his emotions and partly to help some of the older ladies navigate the uneven ground. Finally, Joe slowly made his way back to the main road. Head down and hands in his pockets, he almost didn’t see her standing at the gate, one gloved hand resting on the wrought iron.
“Little Joe, would you mind stopping with me for a moment?” Joe halted obediently, closing and latching the gate behind him.
For Audrey Vulpine, sorrow illuminated rather than dimmed her beauty. Her heart may have been broken, but her brow was smooth and her back unbowed. In the morning sunshine, Audrey’s dark hair, smoothly coiled and pinned up, glinted with reddish tones. Her brown eyes appeared nearly amber.
“Miss Audrey, I’m sorry for your loss. Jimmy was a good man, and I’m . . . going to miss him.” Joe was mortified knowing that tears were welling up in his eyes while Jimmy’s grieving fiancée was able to remain so composed. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Would you like me to escort you to the Cheatham house?”
Audrey shook her head. “I was hoping you could walk me back to my rooms. I don’t think the Cheathams want to see me, let alone have me in their house. They didn’t . . . approve . . . of our engagement.”
“I’m real sorry to hear that. Sometimes, grief does funny things to people.”
Joe offered his arm, and the two began the short walk back to Miss Audrey’s boarding house. It occurred to Joe that the only thing he knew about Audrey was that she’d been Jimmy’s girl.
“Do you have family you can turn to, Miss Audrey?” The question seemed to take her by surprise—she took a few moments before answering.
“Most folks would say I have a very large family,” she told him. “We are not at all close, and definitely not in the habit of supporting each other. We were all raised to fend for ourselves, as it were. Even so, if I were more like them, they might feel a touch of sympathy. If they were able to speak to you, they’d tell you they don’t understand me. I’d say they never tried to understand. Oh, who cares what they think? I’ve made some hard choices, but they were my choices, and it shouldn’t make a bit a difference to any one of them. But that’s not how the world works, is it? To dare to be different is asking to be despised. I’m not joking in the least when I say that if I come to a poor end my family would believe it to be only what I deserve.”
How awful. Joe had heard of families who were cold to the point of cruelty, but he couldn’t get used to the idea. Miss Audrey was a young woman. Maybe she had made mistakes. No one was perfect. Rather than help her out of trouble and support her trying to do better, Audrey’s family had driven her away, far away to a rough place like Virginia City. Joe hadn’t ever had to do without people who cared about him, and it hit him hard that this poor woman couldn’t say the same thing. He tried to come up with another topic that might distract her from his thoughtlessness.
“Do you like Virginia City? Are you thinking about moving on to someplace new, Miss Audrey?”
“Would you like me to stay, Little Joe?” Her big brown eyes were wide and innocently questioning.
Joe couldn’t quite see how his opinion mattered, but he wasn’t in the habit of being rude to a lady—especially a lady who had just buried her fiancée.
“I think you should stay wherever you feel comfortable and happy.” His answer evidently pleased her because she smiled pleasantly at him. She seemed a bit too happy for someone walking home from a funeral, but Joe had to admit it wasn’t hard to understand why Jimmy had found her so attractive.
He was able to deliver her to the boarding house without putting his foot in his mouth again. When he shook her hand and wished her the best, Audrey surprised him by leaning in and placing a soft kiss on his cheek.
“Thank you for your kind regard. I believe I will stay in Virginia City for now.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Miss Audrey. Let me know if I can help you in any way.”
Doggone if the offer didn’t earn him another peck on the cheek. Audrey waved and slipped inside her boardinghouse. Joe felt he’d eased her grief, and that made him feel a little better about the prospect of dry cookies and somber small talk at the Cheatham’s home.
Diary entry, July 29, 1861.
Foolish! I thought that finally I was entitled to a normal life, that I could have a family, and take care of them in the simple, domestic ways everyone else enjoys. I never thought I would have to face this again. It makes me angry. It frightens me. People who seen what I have seen would say nothing is out of the ordinary. They would tell me not to worry. Maybe those people would be right. Perhaps I am making much of nothing. There are other plausible explanations. Maybe it is all just my imagination. I pray to God that I am mistaken. My great fear is that God will show me I am right.
Martha Cheatham rubbed shaking fingers across her aching forehead. She didn’t believe she’d slept for days, not since the night Jimmy died. How could she sleep when merely closing her eyes sent her mind straight back to Jimmy’s sick room? The memory of him coughing up blood, convulsing with pain and straining for air – no, it was better to avoid sleep until exhaustion overwhelmed her.
A sharp rap sounding from the front door reminded her of both her headache and the fact that she was hardly fit to accept any callers, no matter how well meaning. Martha wasn’t expecting anyone other than ladies from the church who were bringing food and sympathy around suppertime. Should she even answer? There was only one person alive she wanted to see, and Earl wouldn’t be home for hours. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t do to be unpleasant to folks who only meant well. She straightened her back, paused to smooth the creases from her dress, and opened the door with the most gracious attitude she could muster.
The bile in Martha’s throat rose so violently she was almost sick all over Audrey’s shiny little boots. As soon as she mastered that impulse, she gave into another and slammed the door as hard as she could manage—only to have it blocked open by Audrey’s foot.
“What could you possibly want?”
Audrey’s intent gaze – curious, calculating and completely devoid of compassion – only served to remind Martha why she detested this woman. What had Jimmy possibly seen to love in Audrey Vulpine? Martha wasn’t so sheltered that she couldn’t imagine Jimmy’s baser instincts being involved, but love and marriage? There had to be something else.
“I want my ring.”
At first, Martha wasn’t sure she had heard correctly.
“I want the ring Jimmy promised,” Audrey repeated her request. “He said I would have a ring.”
Of all the bald -faced nerve. Yet something about Audrey’s expression and tone suggested that she seriously believed Jimmy owed Audrey a ring.
“There’s no ring,” Martha said. “If you’d gotten married, you would have a ring on the wedding day. There’s no Jimmy anymore. No wedding. No ring. Do you understand?”
“Get off my porch. Don’t you ever come back here or talk to me or Earl again.”
August 5, 1861 The Territorial Enterprise
Sheriff Coffee was called to the residence of Earl and Martha Cheatham to investigate possible criminal activity that seems to have occurred sometime after dark on August 3rd. On the morning of August 4th, upon going to the ice house located at the back of his property to fetch ice requested by his wife, Earl Cheatham reported finding significant damage to the structure — the door was scarred with long, deep scratches and blocked with dirt, branches, and small stones that looked to have been dug out from the icehouse’s foundation. In Sheriff Coffee’s words, “It’s a big mess, all right. Don’t know what I’m supposed to do about it. Probably some animal.” Despite Mr. Cheatham’s rather heated insistence that he was the target of harassment, a thorough search around the ice house turned up no signs of an intruder although there were some animal tracks, most likely dog or fox in the sheriff’s opinion.
Joe halted his purposeful stride toward the Silver Dollar Saloon to wait for Miss Audrey to catch up to him. She looked as pretty as always – her dress was blue, dark as the night sky with white lace at the sleeves and collar. Her long hair fell softly around her shoulders, and her smile was wide and warm as a summer day.
“Miss Audrey,” Joe touched his hat brim. “How have you been?”
“That, sir,” she took his arm and tugged at him until they both started walking down the street, “is just why I wanted to talk to you.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Well, you know what’s wrong.” That pretty smile lost a real quick fight to a pout.
Joe gulped and felt himself blush. He always had his foot in his mouth with Audrey. Here he’d gone and made it seem like he couldn’t remember how much she missed Jimmy.
“I’m just so alone. Other than you, there isn’t a friendly face in town. Can you imagine? I just sit in my rooms all day with nothing to do but stare at the walls.”
That did sound difficult. Joe tried to imagine the isolation, the lack of anyone to reminisce with about Jimmy or just to pat her shoulder. The very idea of her suffering alone was starting to get under Joe’s skin. He could be her friend even if the rest of Virginia City couldn’t be bothered.
“How can I help?”
Audrey smile lit right back up. “Well, I have an idea . . .”
“Joe Cartwright! Just the fellow I was lookin’ for.” Stu Grigsby had walked up while Joe was trying to figure out how to help Miss Audrey. “I need your advice on a nice riding horse for my niece’s birthday. You don’t mind if Joe and I talk, do you, Miss Audrey?”
Stu didn’t wait for an answer which was probably just as well. Audrey’s face might just as well broken out in words. It was quite clear that she did very much mind the interruption.
When Stu had Joe a few yards down the walkway, he leaned in to whisper conspiratorially.
“Little Joe, a word to the wise. That woman is pure trouble. I saw her and Jimmy together more than once, and I ain’t lying when I say I think the gal’s a little wrong in the head. Once they started courting, Jimmy changed. You know how healthy he was, but he started getting sick. The longer they were together, the sicker Jimmy got. Maybe . . . maybe she was poisoning him. You need to stay clean away from her.”
Stu was a good fella, but one of the things you had to know about him was that all those months spent around mining and explosives had made the man a tad deaf. So, for Stu a whisper was as good as a shout for most almost anyone else.
Joe could see Audrey right over Stu’s shoulder, and she clearly heard what Stu was yammering about. She was pretty riled.
“Stu,” Joe threw an arm around the man’s shoulder and drew him even farther away. “Don’t worry about me.” He relaxed when he saw Audrey turn on her heel and stride off toward her boardinghouse. “You can’t be serious to think Miss Audrey would poison anyone, much less Jimmy. The doctor said it was consumption.”
“That’s what she’d like everyone to believe, Joe! You don’t want her to poison you, do ya?”
Where in the world did folks come up with such fool ideas? Joe was beginning to think mining had damaged more than Stu’s hearing.
He gave Stu a confident smile and used the soothing tones that seemed to work well with the wild horses he broke.
“Everything is fine. This is the first time I’ve seen her since the funeral. She just needs a friend.”
“That’s all? Well, all right then. You just remember what I told you. I gotta get to work now. I’ll see you around. You’ll remember what I said, won’t you? ‘Cause it’s important, Joe. Don’t forget.”
“How could I forget?”
August 8, 1861 The Territorial Enterprise
A little past supper last night, a long-time citizen of Virginia City fell victim to a fatal accident. Stu Grigsby, one of the first men employed by the Chollar Mine, was crushed when his horse spooked and fell atop him. A few minutes after Grigsby had bade his fellow miners good-night following their shift, his friends heard bone-chilling cries of pain from man and beast. Rushing toward the sounds, they found Grigsby barely alive, pinned beneath his struggling horse. Seeing that the horse had broken its leg, the tormented creature was put out of its misery. It took five of the strongest of his fellow miners to extricate Grigsby from beneath the dead horse. In great pain, but still conscious, Grigsby told his rescuers that the accident occurred because a fox had rushed at them, snapping at the horse’s heels.
Accustomed to the risks of mining, Grigsby had considered the possibility of an early death. His friends were told that if the worst should happen, they were to bury him “quick and deep, then raise your glasses to me in farewell.” Anyone wishing to honor Stu Grigsby’s memory should meet in the Bucket of Blood tonight after evening shift.
Diary Entry August 8, 1861
I make sure I hear all of the news from Virginia City, and what I hear grieves me. I may be the only one that realizes what is responsible for the recent accidents, sickness, and trouble causing such turmoil in my new home. Do I intervene? I’m not known here; who would believe me? I trust that time will make all things clear.
That boy didn’t eat enough to keep a bird alive.
Hoss watched Little Joe take only a couple of bites of his breakfast before throwing his napkin on the table and scooching back the dining chair. Good thing for the kid’s hide that Pa and Adam had lit out for Carson City for a couple of days to see about water contracts. Pa had been fussing just last night that Joe was lookin’ scrawny and pale. All of them heard the boy coughing in his room. Nope, pa wouldn’t like seein’ Joe in his Saturday boots and duds first thing of a mornin’ when there was work to be done and trouble to avoid.
“Joseph,” Hoss scraped the remains of Joe’s plate onto his own. No need for it to go to waste after all. “Those are mighty nice boots for a day of branding. Might want to change before we head out.”
Hoss could see the ornery little cuss cut his eyes and put on that sly face. Yup, Hoss knew as well as the next man when a little brother was about to weasel out of work.
“Brother, you don’t need me today. There are only a handful left, and you’re the best in the territory at roping and branding. Those calves hardly have time to bawl for the mamas before you have them up on their feet.”
That was the truth, Hoss was good at it. Nice to be appreciated some. See, you had to be quick and smooth to move those animals along. He hated to see branding rushed – the calves might not remember it, but Hoss was pretty sure that no feller wanted a brand burnt on his own hide. If you were careful and quick . . .
“Joseph, you just hold on a minute. Stop tryin’ to bamboozle me. I know you ain’t goin’ to the branding dressed like that. Where are you headed?”
The prettiest, most charming smile spread across his brother’s face. Hoss knew he was a goner. When Joe put on the charm for mere brothers, something was definitely up.
“I’m going into town to meet Miss Audrey. She’s having a rough time and needs a friend.”
“She needs a friend who’s all slicked up? She don’t like friends to just look regular?”
Joe turned his attention to the wall mirror, adjusting his hat to a jaunty angle. “Pa says a man who takes pride in his appearance shows respect for his friends and neighbors.”
Didn’t that just beat all?
“Pa says! Pa says! I never heard him say nothing like that before, and more than that, I don’t believe Pa would say nothing about getting all slicked up to ride miles into town when there’s all this hard work here on the ranch.”
Joe had his hand on the door knob. “You just don’t listen to Pa as careful as I do. See you tonight.” The boy had the audacity to wink and smirk before saunterin’ through that front door like he owned the world.
Hop Sing could hear the bickering in the kitchen. Nothing new, especially when Mr. Cartwright was away from home. When he heard the door shut, he knew Little Joe had left. Number three son didn’t know how to close the door quietly.
There was time for tea and a little rest before starting the morning’s chore. He knew Hoss would linger for a while to finish his breakfast in peace. Just as he thought, number two son was munching away at a strip of bacon while reading the latest edition of the newspaper. Tea cup in hand, Hop Sing joined Hoss at the dining table.
“Little Joe gone to work?”
Hoss’s first answer was a big, gusty sigh. “Yep, he’s gone. Naw, he ain’t goin’ to work none. I’ll give you three guesses where he went, and the first two don’t count.”
This was bad. Hop Sing had too many reasons not to be cautious since the string of strange events in Virginia City had begun. Leave it to the youngest son to ride into the middle of it. What to do?
“Listen up, Hop Sing. Here’s a good story in the paper.” Hoss cleared his throat and read out loud.
August 11, 1861 The Territorial Enterprise
Freak of Nature
Following up on a report of disturbing noises occurring nightly in the alley behind Mrs. Sutherland’s boarding house, last evening Deputy Clem Foster staked out the alley to get some answers. After spending a few hours huddled behind some crates, the deputy saw a large red-brown fox slink into the alley and start to paw through the piles of refuse. Satisfied he had found the culprit, Deputy Foster sidled out into the alley to get a better look and a clean shot. What he saw then was so surprising, he forgot the revolver in his hand. Foster claims that the fox had a veritable bouquet of tails! Foster said, “I’m pretty sure I counted nine tails before it saw me and lit out of there faster than any fox I’ve ever seen before.”
News of this strange animal has spread quickly through town. Many young men are hard on its trail hoping to capture it alive and display it to public. With any luck, one of these stalwart lads will capture the animal in time for the next fair.
“You ever seen anything like that, Hop Sing? Nine tails? That’s something, ain’t it? You ask me, ol’ Clem was actually sleepin’ and dreamed that up.” Hoss gave the newspaper a shake before folding it messily. “I better get going. Looks like I’m the only Cartwright working here today.”
“Stop.” Hop Sing grabbed his arm to keep him from getting out the door too quickly. “You hitch up wagon for me. I need go to town.”
“Really? Didn’t you just go a couple of days ago? Can’t it wait?”
Hop Sing had shed his apron before Hoss’s half-hearted argument was finished. He grabbed his own hat and coat from the peg and fixed number two son with a stern look.
The house of Zhang Wei was comfortable and well-appointed. He’d found great success in importing from China the items the Virginia City community craved. The man had even found a Chinese bride and been blessed with a handsome son, Zhang Jie, who would eventually take over the father’s business.
Indeed, the man was renowned for the quality of his hospitality, including providing truly exceptional tea. Hop Sing drank the exceptional tea and conversed politely with his host, carefully observing all the usual conventions, well aware that his host was well aware that this was more than a visit to a dear friend.
“So, my friend,” Wei broached the subject of the visit first. “I thought I might expect a visit.”
Hop Sing placed the delicate cup carefully upon the tray. He saw Zhang Wei’s keen interest and understanding shining in his eyes. It was a relief to be spared the effort of explaining.
“You are already aware of what is in our midst?”
“I believe so.” Zhang Wei shifted around a little in his chair. Age made it difficult to sit long without feeling stiff. However, success had rendered him soft, round, and inclined to sit. “Do you intend to intervene? These things are not uncommon in the old country. Ordinarily, the common decision was, as they say here, to live and let live.”
“With all respect, it may have been common, but not in my opinion, correct.” Hop Sing leaned forward. It was time to get to business at hand. “This is more than a mischief maker. This one has killed two men that we know of. Now it has eyes on number three son. This cannot be permitted to continue.”
“As you say,” Zhang Wei smoothed the hem of his silk robe, “It is dangerous. It seems to have an appetite for handsome young men.” Hop Sing saw the great fear for Zhang Jie in Zhang Wei’s expression and hurried to comfort him.
“This will go no further, I promise you. May I have the scroll that you keep in your library?”
“Of course. What else do you require?”
“If you would copy the appropriate verses today so that I could take them away with me, I would be grateful.”
“Hop Sing! What are you thinking? Everyone knows that you are a good Baptist.[i] What would your preacher have to say?” Zhang Wei was laughing softly.
Hop Sing laughed, too. It was a pleasure to speak openly. “After I explained the circumstances to him, I am sure he would say that I am doing God’s work in my own way.” He paused a moment to take another sip of his tea and catch Wei’s eye.
“Of course, I would just as soon not have to burden him with my explanations.”
“You are a charitable man, Hop Sing.”
“So it has been said.”
It was common knowledge in Virginia City that Little Joe Cartwright loved the company of beautiful women. It wasn’t always acknowledged in the kindest way. What most folks didn’t realize was that Joe enjoyed being with women, period. He appreciated them, liked to listen to their stories, sympathized with their difficulties, and managed to find most women, regardless of face, figure, or age, beautiful.
So, strolling alongside Audrey, peering into dressmakers’ windows and accompanying her inside while she tried on hats or ribbons and preened for him was a familiar exercise for Joe. Whether she tried on a hat or held up a length of dress goods, he was enthusiastic and admiring. In Joe’s opinion, most folks just wanted a little honest attention. He was happy to offer it.
Audrey was visibly excited from the outing. Her eyes were shining, and her cheeks were flushed. She made an exceptionally pretty picture. Too bad the good folks of Virginia City weren’t interested. In fact, they made their dislike rather clear. Since Audrey hadn’t seemed to notice, Joe decided not to comment.
Like the gentleman he was, he carried the bundle of packages back to her boarding house. Of course, a gentleman wouldn’t step foot into a single lady’s residence, so he stopped at the edge of the porch.
Giggling, she placed the bundle just inside the door and came back outside to meet him. Taking his hand, she led him around the side of the house where they were out of sight from casual observers.
She threw herself into his arms, pressing the length of her body tightly against his own. This was a bit further than they had ever gone. They’d kissed, but never before had things felt so heated. Today, Audrey kissed him like she’d invented sin. By the time she pushed back a little, Joe was lightheaded in the most pleasant way.
“Come back in an hour,” she kissed along his jaw, nibbling and murmuring until he wasn’t certain he could continue to stand. “Meet me back here. I have someplace we can go, someplace private.”
Well, things were moving a bit fast, and Joe wasn’t complaining in the least. In fact, he found he wasn’t even able to put together a coherent answer to her invitation. In the end, an answer wasn’t required.
“One hour, Little Joe Cartwright. Don’t disappoint me.” She left him then, standing there in a daze until he managed to pull himself together.
So, Joe had an hour to kill. He could handle that. He even knew the drinking establishment perfect for the wait. A sudden attack of coughing had him bent over, clutching his knees for a minute. When he managed to straighten up, he found himself eye to eye with Hop Sing.
“What the heck, Hop Sing! You about scared the life out of me.” Hop Sing winced at his complaint. Good. It was embarrassing to have a family member, or anyone, come up on a man in private moments with a lady.
“Not mean to scare. Heard coughing. Thought I would help.”
Oh, yeah. Joe could see that. But . . . “Why are you in town, Hop Sing?”
“Hop Sing not feeling well. Needed to visit old friend to get remedy for trouble.” Now that Joe took a good look at his friend, the cook didn’t look quite himself. He was pale and one hand pressed against his chest as if he were in pain.
This wouldn’t do at all. Joe loved Hop Sing fiercely and considered him a member of the family. If Hop Sing was really bad off . . . He didn’t want to think about it, but images of Jimmy’s recent funeral floated up before his eyes, and he forgot any irritation he’d felt with him.
“You, . . . you should have said something. Did you get what you needed? Why don’t we go see Doc Martin?”
Hop Sing favored him with an affectionate smile. “Not want to worry family. I get what is needed. Will handle trouble in Chinese way.”
One thing Joe had learned from growing up with Hop Sing was that when he used that tone of voice , there was no arguing with him. “Where’s the wagon? Stay here while I bring it. I’m taking you home.”
Quick as a wink, Joe located the buckboard, tied Cochise’s reins to the tailgate, and bundled the cook into the seat alongside him. Hop Sing seemed to perk up a mite at the attention, as if he enjoyed Joe taking care of him. In fact, he looked more content and satisfied than he had for the last few weeks, except for just a moment as they were pulling away from the boarding house when he caught Hop Sing making one of those “evil eye” gestures.
Oops, Joe had nearly forgotten that he’d promised to meet Audrey in an hour. He should let her know he had to leave. He was just on the verge of climbing down from the wagon, when Hop Sing gave a little grunt and moan before clutching at his chest again.
Never mind, Audrey would be all right. He would explain later.
During the long ride back to the Ponderosa, Hop Sing pondered his next moves. He did feel just a little guilty for manipulating number three son. Lying was a sin, but Hop Sing decided in his own mind that he hadn’t actually lied, he’d just strongly implied—all for a good cause.
Little Joe was quiet for most of the ride. On his expressive face, emotions were ordinarily as obvious as the clouds skidding across the broad Nevada sky. Hop Sing could see fear and worry chased away by more pleasant thoughts—likely of the lovely Audrey – followed by a hint of consternation – likely at the thought of what the lovely Audrey would say to him about leaving her without a word.
Would this be a good time to speak with Joe about Audrey? Hop Sing needed time to work without having to worry about Little Joe’s lack of impulse control making all efforts on his behalf worthless. What would be the most effective means to make Joe listen? Reason or emotion? Hop Sing snorted aloud, startling Little Joe into looking his way.
“You doin’ okay? What did your friend say about making you feel better”
“I am well enough. Said what I knew already. Must not add worry on top of everything. Worry make trouble much worse.”
“Okay, then.” Joe sounded more cheerful—the boy always did better with a little direction. “What’s worryin’ you?”
What a perfect opening. “Li’l Joe, have Hop Sing ever bother you about what you do?”
Joe’s laughter scared nearby birds from the trees. “Of course, you do. You fuss at me all of the time.”
Time to start again. “Hop Sing mean fuss about women.”
Joe wasn’t laughing now. “I don’t think that’s any of your business, Hop Sing . . .”
“Never, never do I fuss about women, yes? Young man’s blood run hot, and I know Li’l Joe always do what is right.”
“What’s your point?”
“Missy Audrey just lose Mr. Jimmy, yes? Must have broken heart, yes? Sometimes, when young person has broken heart, they look to find another person too soon. Need comfort, sometimes think is more.”
Joe didn’t say anything in response. This was a good sign.
“Sometimes, when lady lose someone, she get reckless with heart, maybe go very fast. Later, she know went too fast and is sorry for it. Sorry for self and sorry for other person, too.”
“So, you’re worried,” Joe began thoughtfully, “that Audrey is getting attached to me too soon because she ain’t over Jimmy yet? And, she’s gonna be sorry if . . . ahem, things . . . go too fast.”
“But, what if it ain’t too fast? What if it’s just right? What if she and the next fellow are in love, and they both know that you have to grab hold of love when you can get it?”
Bless this sentimental, foolish lad. His heart was always going to send him headlong into bad romance.
“If time is just right, lady and man together for whole lives, yes? Better to take time at beginning to make sure no regrets.”
“How much time?”
Hop Sing thought fast. He had a plan to make quick work of the problem, but he didn’t want to cut it too close.
“One month. Make promise to wait one month.”
“A month!” Joe was spluttering with disappointment. “Why a whole month?”
Time to be direct. “Li’l Joe, why you need to lie with lady you only know for couple weeks?”
“I don’t need to . . . you know, this is none of your business.”
Hop Sing let out a long sigh and allowed his shoulders and head to droop. “Hop Sing know that. Just worry much about number three son.”
He watched as Joe chewed his lip, sighed repeatedly, and shifted in silent agitation for a few moments.
“Fine,” Joe said in aggrieved tones. “One month. I promise. Will that keep you from worrying?”
It would have to do.
Hoss was closing up the house and snuffing out the lamps. Little Joe had been in bed for an hour, and Hoss could only hope the rest would do him some good. The boy’s cough was a little worse than it had been, and Hoss couldn’t help but think of Jimmy. He was almost ready to take himself upstairs when he heard Hop Sing’s soft voice calling out.
“We must talk.” Hop Sing shooed Hoss toward the cook’s bedroom which was unusual enough to set his nerves on edge.
When they were alone in the room, Hop Sing made him sit down at a small table with a big Chinese scroll spread across it.
“Look at this.” Hoss carefully smoothed out the colorful parchment and took a good look at the picture Hop Sing was pointing at.
“Is that a fox with nine tails? Huh, is this some sort of Chinese fox? Do ya think one of them got loose around here.” Hoss was clearly not getting the point judging by the way Hop Sing rolled his eyes.
“Not a Chinese fox. Is Chinese demon – name huli jing – when fox gets 50 years old can look like human. Get even older, can look like beautiful woman. Stay alive by taking life from young men.”
“What are you talkin’ about? Are you sayin’ there’s some sort of Chinese demon here in Virginia City? Wait, you think that fox the deputy saw was one of these? Wouldn’t Chinese demons stay in China?”
Huh, that had ol’ Hop Sing stumped for a minute. “Don’t know. Maybe this demon is American cousin huli jing. Mostly the same, maybe a little different.”
“You’re losin’ me, Hop Sing, and I’m too tired to listen to fairy tales.” Hoss got up from the desk. He really did need to get to bed. Those cows didn’t brand themselves.
“Too tired to save brother’s life?” That stopped Hoss from leaving. His brothers always came first.
“Are you saying that one of these demon things is tryin’ to hurt Little Joe? Why?”
“Demon need to take life from young men to keep living. Take life when demon lie with young man. He spend his release, and she give him lung sickness.”
“I can’t even . . . lung sickness? You mean, consumption like Jimmy had? Wait, are you sayin’ Audrey is a demon? That they were together, and that’s why he got sick? Even if this were true, how would you know?”
Hop Sing led him back to the chair and urged him to sit. “Back in old China, Hop Sing not cook, not take care of house. Had no family because family killed by demons. Hop Sing learned how to see demons, catch them and get rid of them. Was Hop Sing’s job for long time.
Missy Audrey leave many clues about who she really is. Think maybe clever choosing name that mean fox. Arrogant, all demons arrogant. She not like Mr. Jimmy’s parents—make mess of their ice house. Mr. Grigsby tried to warn Li’l Joe to stay away from her – I hear this from number six cousin. He die when fox attack his horse, yes? Deputy see fox with nine tails close to Missy Audrey’s rooms. Where is such thing as fox with nine tails? Fox do not have nine tails – is foolishness. Demons have nine tails. Missy Audrey want to lie with number three son to steal his life. If happens, he die of lung sickness like Mr. Jimmy.”
There had to be a word for what Hoss was feeling—shocked, confused, worried. Any sane man would tell him to laugh at Hop Sing’s fantastic story about demon foxes stealing lives from folks and get himself to bed. But . . . Heaven help him, Hoss believed. Their cook was some sort of demon hunter, and some fox demon thing was after his little brother.
“Hop Sing, what are we gonna do?”
“No worry. Have plan, need your help.”
“Hop Sing, this just ain’t gonna work.”
He could see that Hoss was nearly beside himself with worry and anxious about his ability to do his part. Hop Sing had managed to get Joe to ride out with one of the ranch hands to work at one of the line shacks. Now, he merely needed to manage number two son to help him get rid of a demon.
Hoss was pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, wiping sweaty hands on his trousers.
“She won’t believe me. Anyone who knows me would know I wouldn’t ever do anything like this.”
Hop Sing stepped in front of the big man to stop the pacing. “Then good thing she not know you. Demons not understand humans very well. Go before gets too late.”
Hoss figured he made the ride into Virginia City in record time. He argued with himself the whole way. This was either the dumbest thing he’d ever been talked into (and that was saying something) or the most dangerous. Well, he’d promised he’d help. If the whole thing was some fantasy of Hop Sing’s, he might be kicking himself for a fool later, on the other hand, Little Joe would be beside himself with happiness.
He was just tying Chubb up to the rail outside Miss Audrey’s when he spied her coming down the steps, dressed to travel and carrying a couple of satchels. He hustled himself over there before she could climb into the little freight cart waiting for her.
“Miss Audrey, are you leaving us?”
“Good morning, Hoss. Could you put this in the cart for me. Thank you. Yes, I do believe I have had enough of Virginia City. I thought I meant something to your brother, but it seems I was mistaken.”
For a moment, Hoss was elated. If she was leavin’, they didn’t have to do anything but just let her go. Naw, in for a penny, in for a pound. If what Hop Sing told his was true, she’d just find more young fellers to hurt.
“No, miss, you wasn’t mistaken. That’s why I’m here. Little Joe’s real sorry about leavin’ you yesterday. He couldn’t help it. He wanted me to give you this note.”
She wasn’t really the suspicious sort. She grabbed the note so fast it nearly tore. The biggest grin spread across her face when she read it.
“Do you know what this says, Hoss?”
Even though nothing in that note was true and Hoss had written the note himself, he was almost too embarrassed to answer. “Well, you know, brothers talk. Joe told me how much he cares for you, and that he wants to show you how he feels. Nobody will be at the ranch house except the two of you and our cook.”
Audrey looked at him real hard for a minute. Then she clutched that note, and walked back and forth for a spell trying to make up her mind. Finally, she came back to him.
“If you promise, promise, mind you that it will just be me and Joe, and your cook who had better stay out of the way, I’ll take a rig out to the Ponderosa this afternoon.”
“That would make Little Joe real happy.” Which would be very true if Little Joe had any inkling of what was happening. “You want me to take your things out of the freight wagon?”
“No, leave them. I’ll come to see Joe, but I don’t like Virginia City very much anymore. The bags can go on ahead of me.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hoss watched Audrey pay the driver and walk toward the livery stable without so much as a ‘farewell, thanks for the note’ for him. This had gone much better than he feared. Now he needed to high tail it back to the ranch for the next part of the plan.
About mid-afternoon, Hop Sing heard the distinctive sounds of a small rig pulling into the yard. A peek from the kitchen window confirmed his suspicions. Miss Audrey was here a bit earlier than he’d expected. Evidently, the demon was eager to take advantage of the opportunity presented. No matter, Hop Sing was more than ready.
For the occasion, Hop Sing had chosen his more formal attire, sparkling clean and pressed. He pasted the most obsequious smile he could on his face and checked himself quickly in the mirror before answering the door. Excellent, he looked completely empty-headed.
“Missy Audrey! Welcome to Ponderosa! Very glad, very glad to have you here.” He bowed her into the room, taking her short cape and placing it carefully on the sideboard.
“Where’s Little Joe? I expected him to greet me.” This demon certainly possessed a pretty face, but Hop Sing had a great deal of experience in discerning the evil that could lurk under the most attractive surface.
“Number three son very sorry. Ranch hand come in few minutes ago, said emergency at lumber mill. Little Joe go with him so you and he not be bothered later.” Hop Sing giggled at the implication in his words. When she raised an eyebrow at his impertinence, he became instantly more serious. “Little Joe say I must welcome you and say he back in only one hour. Then he have whole night with you.”
“All right, then. I’ve come this far.” She drifted around the room, examining any object that caught her interest.
“I have special refreshment for you, Little Joe say, serve best wine in honorable father’s house. Here, sit, sit, I will bring.”
Hop Sing led the demon to the small round table already set with an open bottle of wine and two glasses. Audrey was clearly interested, but also clearly hesitant.
“I really shouldn’t. I haven’t had anything to eat today.”
“No worries, missy. Hop Sing have plate of cheese and fruit to go with wine. Will be nice to relax and enjoy, yes?”
This demon was naïve. Thank Heavens, it lacked experience or it would never have sat down so quickly and accepted a large glass of Mr. Cartwright’s best wine. Encouraged by Hop Sing, the demon drank deeply and ate only a little.
She certainly liked wine. She’d finished three glasses before her annoyance at Little Joe became obvious.
“I simply cannot believe this! What does he take me for? Does he think I’m some saloon girl who will simply come running when he calls and waits hours until he gets around to me?”
“No, no, Missy! Not that! Mr. Li’l Joe would be angry at Hop Sing if you think that of him. He will only be a little while longer. Oh, where is head? He tell Hop Sing to give Missy her present when she get here.”
What an avaricious spirit. The moment he said “present,” Audrey was all bright smiles and greedy hands. Hop Sing dropped the brightly wrapped box into her palm and watched her make short work of the bow. Inside was a sparkling bauble on a silver chain he had obtained from Zhang Wei. It was showy, but worthless—much like Miss Audrey.
“Oh, how lovely. Put it on me, put it on me.” When the bauble was fastened around her neck, she rushed to the mirror – wobbling and a bit unsteady on her feet from the wine.
“You look very pretty. Mr. Li’l Joe will be pleased. You like more wine while you wait?”
“No, thank you.” She was so muddle-headed she even consented to take Hop Sing’s arm so he could lead her back to the chair. “I think I have had enough wine. I don’t want to be sleepy when Joe gets here.”
“Very true, missy. Hop Sing foolish. Like some hot tea? Make feel awake, yes.” She nodded weakly, fingering the shiny stone glittering against her breast. Hop Sing took his cue to scurry into the kitchen to fetch the tea.
Closing the kitchen door firmly behind him, Hop Sing whispered a quiet, “be ready” to his accomplice.
Quickly, Hop Sing retrieved the parchment with the charm copied by Zhang Wei. With a few muttered words of incantation, he held the paper over the stove burner, causing it to burst into flames. Hoss shoved the bowl underneath the parchment, catching all of the ashes.
“We must be quick,” Hop Sing warned number two son. “She must not go to sleep from the wine.”
Hop Sing stirred the ashes and placed a large spoonful into the tea pot on top of the tea leaves. Pouring hot water over the mixture, he set up a tray with the pot, cup, saucer, sugar and milk. Pushing his way through the door, he carried the tray back to the demon.
“See, all ready. Now, have tea, will make Missy feel much better and ready for evening. Please pardon foolish Hop Sing for trouble.”
The demon looked up, only half-aware and regarded the cup of tea Hop Sing poured out. “Sugar? Milk?” Yes to the sugar, no to the milk. “Please take. Enjoy. Hop Sing get cookies to eat with tea.”
He pretended to hurry to the kitchen, but stopped just outside the door, keeping his eye on Audrey. She took a long swallow, then another. Good, the wine had dulled her sense of taste so that she didn’t notice the ash. Another large swallow, then the silence was broken by the sound of the tea tray thrown to the floor.
“What is this? Do you dare?” Hop Sing was gratified to hear the demon’s true voice, rough and snarling.
He stepped back into the room with Hoss close on his heels. Audrey was not nearly so pretty now – her lips were stretched in a fierce snarl, revealing glistening canines and a lolling tongue. A shadowy figure grew behind the human woman form. Dark and loathsome, it shifted and loomed over Hop Sing and Hoss. So, the demon would put on a show of strength. If it knew who it was facing, it would not have bothered.
“I dare much. No, I dare everything for family. Begone, vile one!”
Putrid mist rose from the cracks in the polished floor and swirled with increasing strength around her human form. Hot wind followed and swirled through the room.The tea pot and cups caught in the maelstrom clattered loudly against the tray. Hop Sing expected this, but he felt Hoss struggling to stand still and breathe normally. Laying a calming hand on the big man’s arm helped Hoss settle back into a stance of grim determination.
Before their eyes, the demon convulsed as bones twisted and shrank. Shrieking in pain and fury as flesh was torn open and fused anew, it sank into the puddle of gown and petticoats. Audrey cursed them both until words were no longer possible. The large fox with nine tails prostrate on the heap of clothing could only bark and growl.
Hop Sing grabbed Hoss’s arm.
“Now, before she tries to fight or run.”
Hoss had never seen anything so awful in this life. Watching the transformation had been nauseating . . . terrifying. To think this . . . thing . . . had been touching his brother, trying to trick Little Joe into giving up his life. He shook off the fear and queasiness at the demon’s display. If Hop Sing could stand up against the monster for the sake of family, Hoss Cartwright could do no less.
Grabbing the cage concealed under the dining table, Hoss approached cautiously—already warned about the dangers of being bitten by this demon.
Hoss circled the snarling beast, prodding it with a long stick and feinting with the rope he’d concealed alongside the cage. With every touch of the stick, the fox jumped and snapped, exhausting itself. Maybe it’d lost some animal instincts from all the time spent looking like a human lady ‘cause he was able to throw a loop around its neck and finagle it into the cage with less effort than he’d feared.
It sure would have been easier to just shoot the demon, even if it wasn’t the sort of poetic justice Hop sing had in mind.
Dropping a blanket over the cage, Hop Sing and Hoss sank down into nearby chairs. Now that it was all over, Hoss was uncomfortably aware of the cold sweat soaking his clothing.
“You very good demon catcher. Did everything just right.”
Hoss huffed out a short laugh. “Well, I don’t wanna do anything like that ever again. I gotta say, Hop Sing, until I saw her change, I wasn’t sure I actually believed she was a demon.”
“Not unusual for first time demon hunter.” Hop Sing patted the big man’s knee in comfort.
“If you say so. Let me get this cage into the rig. I figure I’ll head out a few miles and let her out to fend for herself. You sure she can’t change back?”
“Very sure. She only a fox with nine tails now.”
“What? She’s gone? How do you know?”
Hoss answered with as much of an air of nonchalance he could manage. He didn’t really want to become a good liar, but Joe needed to believe him.
“I ran into Mrs. Sutherland. She said Audrey had packed up all her things and sent them on to Reno. Then she watched her get into a rig and drive away.”
“Huh. I guess Hop Sing was right.”
“What do ya mean?”
“Hop Sing said she might be getting too attached to me too fast and would regret it.”
“Hop Sing is a pretty smart fellow.”
August 20, 1861 The Territorial Enterprise
Oddity Discovered, but Opportunity Lost
Just yesterday, Jake Dunlap came into town bearing confirmation of the incredible fox that Deputy Foster had seen. Dunlap had been coming home from Gold Hill when he spied the carcass of a large red fox. The animal, although savaged and nearly torn to pieces by predators, was clearly a fox and had nine tails. Thus a mystery is solved, but as Dunlap has lamented, “there ain’t no coin in this nasty piece of hide for me.”
Written for the 2019 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament
The suits were: Location of story (clubs); object desired or coveted (diamonds); person to be avoided (hearts); calamity (spades)
The words dealt were:
Joker (free pass)
[i] “The Mark of a Man”
Other Stories by this Author
- Loss (by Belle)
- The Adventure of the Antique Opera Glasses (by Belle)
- Spirit Canyon (by Belle)
- Restitution (by Belle)
- Competition (by Belle)