Summary: A youthful dream becomes an adult nightmare for Hop Sing. Does he have what it takes to save his beloved Cartwrights?
Word Count: 7,348
Crash of thunder.
Flash of lightning
The storm god, Leigong, and his wife Dianmu were busy this night.
Towel in hand, Hop Sing turned to look out the kitchen window that faced onto the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house before walking that way. Outside the wrinkled glass a late autumn storm raged; the heavy rain obscuring all that lay within sight. It seemed to the Asian man that Meiyu, the dragon god of the monsoon, must have tired of China and come to visit this October night. Or, perhaps, Leigong had captured the giant worm and forced it to bear him to the New World upon its winged back. Meiyu – crying out in protest – opened his mouth and a river of water poured from his belly.
In all his years he had never seen so much water.
Another crash, another flash, and still Hop Sing remained beside the window. They were out there somewhere – the men he loved. His family.
For three days now the rain had fallen. The Paiute would call it a ‘hard’ rain, for it was destructive in nature. It was not healing. It did not bring life, but death.
He feared for Mistah Ben and his sons.
Hop Sing sighed and turned from the window. Staring at the rain would not make it stop and he had work to do. The four men would be hungry upon their arrival since they had no breakfast or lunch. Early that morning there had came a rapping on the door. Outside stood Mistah Ben’s foreman. ‘Come! You must come!’ he cried. ‘The river is over its banks and people are dying!’
Within a half-hour, the house was empty save for him.
The Asian man glanced at the colorful shrine near his bedroom door before moving to his work table and placing his hand on the well-worn black book that lay there. He had already asked the ancestors for mercy. Now, he must beg the God of the men he loved for their safe return. Picking up the Holy Bible Mistah Ben had given him not long after he came to work for the rancher, Hop Sing opened it and ran a finger along one thin linen page. As so often happened, the words he stopped on were the ones he needed. He closed his eyes and bowed his head and turned them into a prayer.
“I ask, oh, God of Israel, that when Mistah Cartwright and his sons pass through the waters, you will be with them. Do not let the rivers overflow them, but keep them safe.”
Outside the wind rose, rattling the window panes and then fell silent. The rain continued to fall but with less force, as if Meiyu’s great belly was all but empty.
It was then he heard several loud, strident voices cry out. Next came the thunder of horses hooves and last, the sound of wagon wheels. A horse snorted. A second shrieked as if afraid.
Hop Sing was afraid.
The Asian man placed the Bible on the table before moving to the kitchen door. He drew a breath against his fear, opened it, and stepped onto the porch. Mist rose from the wet ground, so thick he could not tell who approached. The man wore a rain slicker. His black hat was tipped forward to cover his face. Water ran from the brim as he lifted it to reveal a pair of weary hazel eyes.
When he saw those eyes, he wished he had not.
“Where Mistah Adam’s father and brothers?” he asked.
The young man ran a sodden sleeve across his face in a vain attempt to dislodge the water cascading down his cheeks before answering. “Hoss is in the back of the wagon. He’s going to need help. Pa and Joe….” He swallowed hard. “Pa and Little Joe are missing.”
“Missing?” Hop Sing repeated, as if he did not know the meaning of the word.
“Yes, missing! Are you deaf?” Mistah Adam snapped and instantly regretted it. “I’m sorry, Hop Sing. I….” His body sagged and he leaned against the jamb. “I couldn’t do anything! The boat…capsized. I knew it was going over and I couldn’t…do….”
One did not touch Mistah Cartwright’s number one son without permission. Such permission was rare – almost as rare as the tears mingling with the rain on the young man’s cheeks. Hop Sing hesitated and then reached out to place a hand on his shoulder, offering both comfort and support. “Mistah Adam need to change clothes. He shiver and shake.” The Asian man looked past the bedraggled figure to the wagon. A half-dozen men were lifting Mistah Hoss out of it. “I get food, drink. Take care of Mistah Hoss, then – ”
“No! I can’t….” Adam shrugged off his hand. He took a step and staggered. “I have to go back out there. Little Joe and Pa are….”
Hop Sing had not missed the blood that ran down this cherished one’s face. Number two son was not the only one who needed help.
“Father want you to take care of self first,” he said gently.
Mistah Adam snorted. He touched the jagged cut on his forehead. “I tried to reach them. Something…a log, I think…hit me. Hoss….” He choked. “Hoss fished me out. He went under a couple of times and took in a lot of water. I –”
Number one son paled and stepped aside as the men bearing Mistah Hoss came into the house. Once inside, one broke free to ask, “Where do you want us to take him? Upstairs to his room?”
The young man’s heart was with his wounded brother. He did not hear.
“Men put number two son in guestroom downstairs,” the Asian man told them. “Easier for Hop Sing to care for there.”
The ranch hand glanced at him before turning back to Adam. “That okay, boss?”
“Yes,” Adam replied; his eyes still on his brother, “I suppose that makes sense.”
Hop Sing opened the door to the spare room. He went directly to the bed and quickly pulled the covers back before stepping aside to allow the men to enter. Like Mistah Adam, Mistah Hoss had many cuts and bruises. His breathing was shallow and his skin was pale as the underbelly of a fish. The Asian man pulled the covers up to the big man’s chin so he would not take a chill and turned to leave – only to find he could not. Mistah Adam – his jaw tight and his fists clenched in rage – blocked his way. The young man took a step into the room and then turned sharply and rammed his hand into the wall. Fresh tears sprung to his eyes as blood appeared on his knuckles.
Hop Sing feared the young man would run out of the house and back into the storm. Instead, number one son dropped into a chair.
“I have to go back out there,” he announced.
“No one say you have to do anything else,” Hop Sing replied. “But first Mistah Adam need to dry off, change clothes –”
“For what possible reason?!” Adam pointed at the window. “You haven’t been out there. The rain… It’s almost unnatural.” He paused to run a hand through his sopping hair, thrusting the black locks away from his face. “The river…. Dear God, the river is so swollen! It’s burst its banks and is rushing so fast….” The young man’s eyes grew wide with a sight only he could see. “There was this family. Mother. Father. Six kids. Their wagon got caught up in it. Pa took care of the parents. Hoss, Joe, and I, we got most of the kids out, but there was one little girl…a little blonde girl, six, maybe seven years old…. We watched her be swept away. There was nothing we could do. But Joe….” Adam’s voice cracked. He almost laughed. “You know Joe. He wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and he dove right in. Hoss and I had our hands full with the others. We couldn’t do anything to help him, but Pa…” He looked straight at him. “There was a boat that someone had rescued and tied to a tree. Pa didn’t have a chance. We knew it. He knew it, but….”
“Father had to try. He do what he have to do, just like Mistah Adam and brothers.”
Adam glanced at his brother, who had not stirred, and then shot to his feet and walked into the great room. Hop Sing followed close behind and found him pacing in front of the fire. At his approach, number one son found the courage to continue his horrific tale.
“Pa made it to Joe and the girl. We…. Hoss and I couldn’t believe it!” He licked his lips. “We broke away from the others and went to the edge of the shore to watch. The boat was pretty far downstream by then, but we could see it. We heard Pa shout Joe’s name. I saw him bend and reach over the side and then….”
The color drained from Mistah Adam’s face and he fell silent.
“And then?” Hop Sing prompted.
Number one son made a sound deep in his throat. “The boat turned over. Pa disappeared.”
“That when Mistah Adam go in after father and brother and hurt head?”
Adam sat on the table and hung his hands between his knees. “I think I lost my mind. I don’t remember going into the water. All I remember is Hoss catching hold of me and throwing me onto the shore. The children’s father told me later that they watched over me while Hoss went back in. He tried to reach them….” Number one son fell silent. When he spoke again, it was with the voice of a lost child. “They’re dead. God, Hop Sing, Pa and Little Joe are dead.”
He waited a moment. “Does Mistah Adam believe this to be true?”
The young man touched his forehead. “Here! Here, I know it is. But here….” His hand moved to his heart. “No. Here, I can’t believe it. I won’t!”
“Wise father once tell Hop Sing a man’s heart knows the truth even when his mind denies it.” He crossed to where Mistah Ben’s oldest son sat and saw – for a moment – not the man he was, but the boy he had been; a ‘boy’ he had cared for half of his life. “Hop Sing know what best. You go change clothes before you go out again. If dry one minute, it one minute better than none. This one fix food for you and more for missing father and brother. Mistah Ben and Little Joe need it when you find them.”
Adam looked up, a weary smile curling his lips. “Thank you, Hop Sing. I’ll do that – right after I check on Hoss.”
As the young man disappeared into the guest room, Hop Sing turned with a heavy heart toward his domain. He would do what he could do. He would gather food and other supplies: herbs, medicines, and rolls of bandages. He would wrap them in oil cloth and place them in Mistah Adam’s saddlebags where they would be safe from the rain. Then he would stand and watch, powerless, as Mistah Cartwright’s number one son went forth to do battle with the mighty river.
No, that was not right. He was not without power.
Returning to the table, the Asian man picked up the black book with its worn leather cover and opened it once more.
And began to pray.
He did not know where he was. His eyes were without sight; his ears, without hearing. Before him, behind him, above and below him was blackness. It was as if he walked an obsidian sky without stars. His footing was unsure – the surface beneath his Manchu boots strangely undulating – and he feared he would stumble and fall. He feared it because he did not know if there would be anything to stop him, or if he would fall for eternity.
Hop Sing, second son of Hop Ling, was afraid.
The young man’s eyes were open. He closed them. He could not escape the darkness, so he did as his father taught him and took it within, making it a part of himself. Then he reached up and covered his ears so that he might better hear that beloved voice.
‘After the darkness comes light, my son.’
‘Silence is a source of great strength.’
He did not know why he needed strength. Only that he did.
Hop Sing drew a breath and waited, and soon the waiting became all. At first there was nothing. No sound. No light. Then he heard his heart thunder in his chest – that heart that drove a torrent of blood through his veins like a raging river. Seconds later images flashed, bright as lightning – an angry tide of yellow water, tall as the Gingko trees, rising above his people’s dwelling places; the tide crashing down, tearing cloth, snapping wood, and driving mud, stone, and thatch before it in its fury. Faces riding the flood – stark, white – their eyes open and unseeing. Children’s toys floating, sinking, rising. Children dying.
Everyone was dead.
‘Hop Sing, son of Hop Ling, for whom do you cry?’
The young man gasped as the words resonated through his bones. His tear-filled eyes flew open and he turned his head from side to side.
Had he imagined it or had someone spoken?
“This one would know who asks,” he replied boldly.
The obsidian sky yawned, showing jagged teeth. Behind the teeth lay a tongue, white as a charnel bone. Hop Sing stepped back, fearful that it would strike out and draw him into its cavernous maw. Then, as quickly as that fear arose, it fled. The teeth became soaring peaks, the tongue, a moon rising behind them, and he knew where he was. Not lost. Not abandoned. Neither imprisoned underground nor locked in a room without windows or door.
He was in the Black Mountains; the source of the Yellow River.
‘Now, do you understand who it is that speaks to you?’
The moon that capped the peaks descended until it hung before him. No longer without face, the pale orb watched him with an old man’s eyes. The wisdom light that shone from them revealed what lay behind – not the form of a man, but of a winged beast with ten thousand scales.
Hop Sing closed his eyes, seeking guidance from the ancestors’ spirits. One must use the correct words when addressing a God – else one would not use words for long.
Looking into the pale face of the river god, he said, “I have traveled many miles from where my people dwell, through plain and field to the high mountains, to ask the mighty Hebo a question.”
The man-dragon shifted, coiling his tail in and rising up like a cobra about to spring.
Hop Sing held his ground.
‘Ah! You do not quake.” Hebo nodded, satisfied. ‘A warrior is worthy. You may ask your question.’
“I am no warrior,” he countered. “Only a man.”
‘As you wish,’ Hebo replied. ‘Still, you may ask.’
His throat was tight; his lips dry. The word stuck to them before falling.
Hebo was the god of the Yellow River. The man-dragon was known to be both benevolent and generous. When he willed, he caused the river waters to flow smoothly, bringing great bounty to the lands below the Black Mountains. But he was also greedy, unpredictable, and dangerously destructive. Twice in his own lifetime Hop Sing had seen the river rise and overflow its banks, flooding the world.
The man-dragon’s gleaming eyes narrowed. ‘You ask ‘why’, warrior? I will tell you why, but there is a price to be paid. Are you willing to pay it?’ Hebo lowered his great head and brought it close. ‘ Think well before you answer!’
He did not hesitate. “I am willing.”
The river god shifted the scales on his belly and used them to pull himself along the ground. Hop Sing followed eagerly. Sometime later – he knew not how long – they stopped at a cliff’s edge. Below them lay the Yellow River, running as a golden ribbon through a young maiden’s ebon hair.
‘Look,’ Hebo said. ‘See.’
Hop Sing looked. What he saw was a vast bridge of stone, stretching out to span the rushing water. Eons of people passed over it, unaware of what lay beneath. He was not unaware. He saw the water churn and the foam form upon its surface, and knew it for what it was – the body of a great snake.
Madame White Snake.
‘Long has the witch been my enemy!’ Hebo said, his tone sharp. ‘Her hatred of man is great and when her power is enough, she rouses and works her devilry. It is not I, Hop Sing, son of Hop Ling, who causes the waters to rise and flood the world of man, but she! If I make the yellow water rise even higher to force her back into the depths, it is so even more do not die.’
The young man watched as the long, colorless snake flicked its tail before disappearing under the surface of the yellow water.
‘The river is the source of her magic,’ Hebo said, ‘and her life.’
Hop Sing turned to look into the man-dragon’s eyes. “You are the god of the river,” he challenged. “Why do you not destroy her?”
‘It is not for me to do,’ Hebo said.
Horror at all he had witnessed sharpened his tongue. “Then who?” the young man demanded. “Who is it that must do this thing?!”
‘You will know when you answer.”
The man-dragon smiled.
‘Hop Sing, son of Hop Ling, for whom do you cry?’
Crash of thunder.
Flash of lightning
Hop Sing gasped and sat straight up. It took a moment for him to realize where he was – in bed – and several more to still his fast-beating heart. It had been many years since he had dreamed of the river god, Hebo, and his enemy, Madame White Snake. When, as a young man, he had first experienced this nightmare, he had gone to his father to ask its meaning. Hop Ling nodded his head as he listened and said he must think long and hard upon it.
Two days later he returned.
‘This is the meaning of your dream, my son. One day you will be called upon to do battle.’
This was not what he wanted to hear. ‘But my father, I am no warrior!” he protested. ‘I have no skill with weapons!’
‘Nor do you need it. All you need is the answer.’
‘Hop Sing, son of Hop Ling, for whom do you cry?’
The Asian man threw back the cloth that covered him, put on his silk slippers, and walked to the window. Outside the lightning flashed, revealing a pair of eyes. They were not the wise, pale eyes of Hebo, but ones black as the mountains from which the Yellow River flowed. The witch, Madame White Snake, glared at him, daring him to do battle.
Warrior or not, he could not turn away.
Hop Sing stepped out of his kitchen the next morning, prepared to do battle.
Only to find he had no enemy.
During the night, he had risen to check on Mistahs Adam and Hoss. Mistah Adam fell asleep on the settee and did not move. He let him be, hoping the eldest son of his employer and benefactor would gain strength from resting. When he checked on Mistah Hoss, he found him sleeping soundly. Number two son’s color had returned and his breathing eased. He roused the big man and forced a bit of soup into him. They said little while he ate.
Though his injuries were minor, Mistah Hoss’ pain was great, as was his fear for his missing father and brother.
When number two had finished, he bid him goodnight and returned to the great room. The fire had burned low, so he stoked it, and then placed a blanket over Mistah Adam before returning to his bed. This morning, as he dressed, he rehearsed the words he would say to both in order to convince them that it was he and not they who must find and save their loved ones.
His time had been as wasted.
The house was empty.
A note written in haste and left on the credenza offered an explanation where none was needed. Hop Sing knew what had occurred. He could see it in his mind’s eye. Mistah Adam awakening and preparing to leave. Mistah Hoss hearing him; rousing. Number one son telling number two son to stay behind. Him not listening. He had checked. Both young men’s horses were gone, as was the wagon.
They too heard the call to war.
The Asian man remained where he was for a moment, thinking, and then crossed to the front door and opened it. A heavy mist clung to the ground, thick as dust In vacant chambers. The rain had not stopped, but Meiyu had relented. It fell now as if to give the trees a drink and not to drown them. Far in the distance Leigong beat his drum while Dianmu flashed her mirror, sending bolts of bright white light into the sky. The storm was not gone.
Like him, it held its breath in anticipation.
Hop Sing wore a rain slicker, and had placed the wide-brimmed hat he wore to garden in upon his head. With the wagon gone, he had chosen the Cartwright’s small buckboard to bear his ‘arms’. Warm blankets wrapped in oil cloth. Herbs, plasters, and bandages. Much food and many warm drinks. These he wrapped in cloth as well and placed atop a bed of heated bricks. Meiyu’s stomach had emptied over and over again through the night, belching much water. It was unlikely a stick of dry wood remained. When he found his family they would be cold and wet and in need of warmth.
And he would find them.
Hop Sing walked through the great room, past the empty dining table, and into the short hall that led to his kitchen. Once there, he paused to lay his hand on the black leather book that told the story of the God of Israel, and then moved on to the ancestors’ holy place. He had already spoken to Yahweh this morning and asked that He bless his mission and make it successful. Now, he went to the god of his fathers. The Asian man struck a match and lit the candle in the small wooden pagoda. He did not need to ask for direction – Hebo had shown him where he must go – but he did ask for courage. When his prayer was done, he blew out the candle and closed the doors of the shrine. He did the same to the kitchen door after stepping outside.
He did not expect to open either one again.
The way was difficult. Many trees had fallen to block the road. Their roots, white as worms, reached into a sky gray as smoke. Time and again Hop Sing was forced to stop and clear them before he could pass. At times the water rose above the hubs of the wheels. When it receded, it left ankle-deep mud through which the wheels could not go.
In spite of this, he pressed on.
As he traveled, the son of Hop Ling considered the dream of his youth. When young, it had frightened him. It did no longer. The man he had become knew there was nothing to fear. The river god’s words had not been meant to harm, but to help. ‘For I know the plans I have for you’, declared the God of his friend and employer. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.’
Hop Sing drew in a breath before refocusing his gaze on what lay ahead – the last rise before the stone bridge that spanned the mighty river.
Only it was not the rise he saw, but the broken wagon that lay before it.
Mistah Cartwright’s wagon.
A Cantonese curse cut the mist that clung to the earth as the Asian man drew the buckboard to an abrupt halt. He stood and called out sharply.
“Mistah Adam! Mistah Hoss? Are you here?!”
“Hop Sing! Yes! We’re over here!.”
He waited – his heart thudding in his chest – until Fengbo, the god of the wind, bore Mistah Adam’s words to him, giving him direction. Then, with the speed and agility of a man half his age, he leapt from the wagon and ran. Number one son was leaning on a branch just without the mouth of a small cave. Fengbo had taken his hat and his jacket was missing. The young man’s hair was soaked; the black locks plastered to his forehead with mud and blood. Mistah Adam blew out a breath as he hobbled forward.
“I don’t know what you’re doing out here, Hop Sing,” he said, utterly weary. “But you’re an answer to prayer.’
Hop Sing pressed a finger to his lips as he inclined his head toward the cave mouth. Mistah Adam nodded and followed him. He limped to a rocky seat, which nature had created, and dropped onto it.
“Number two son sleep,” the Asian man said. “Now turn of number one.”
Adam shook his head. “I just need to rest for a bit. I’m all right. I’ll go back out soon.”
The Asian man considered mentioning the fact that Mistah Adam was in no shape to go; that his head wound was bleeding again, and his leg injured.
But he knew better.
“Who take care of brother if you go?” he asked instead.
The young man frowned. “I thought you said Hoss was all right.”
“Hop Sing say he all right, but not ‘all right’ to leave alone.”
“Then you stay!” Mistah Adam snapped; then thought better of his tone. “I’m sorry. I’m worried about Hoss. I….” He dropped his head into his hands. “Pa. Joe. They’re…. Dear God, they have to be….”
“Hop Sing go find father and number three son.”
Adam looked up. “You? Hop Sing, it’s a nightmare out there! Anything could happen! We were doing fine and then that tree came down. The horses spooked. Hoss was thrown.”
He nodded toward the young man’s leg. The bandage he’d placed on it earlier was red with blood.
“Mistah Adam thrown too. Hurt. Need rest as much as brother.”
Number one son shot to his feet – and just as quickly sat back down. He swallowed, paused. “I’m fine. Like I said, I just need a minute.”
“You not fine,” Hop Sing corrected. “Just like little brother not ‘fine’. How you find little brother if you fall on face and drown in water?”
Adam rose again – more slowly this time – and limped to the cave mouth. “It doesn’t matter. I have to go and go soon. The trouble is, there’s no way of knowing what’s happened to Pa and Joe, if they’re hurt or…even alive. If I only knew where to look!”
“Hop Sing know where to look. He go. Send father and brother back to you.”
Mistah Ben’s son spun on his heel. “You know where…? Tell me!”
He had known Mistah Adam since he was a child. All the signs were there. His usually tanned skin was the color of morning mist and he trembled like an autumn leaf blown in the wind. Beneath the mud and blood, his cheeks burned crimson with fever. Number one son was sick. He would not take twenty steps before he fell.
Hop Sing shook his head. “No.”
“No!” Adam’s ebon brows peaked. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“Hop Sing will not tell you where. You stay here with brother. Hop Sing go.” The Asian man hesitated and then added, his words tinged with wonder. “This Hop Sing’s war, not Mistah Adam’s.”
Number one son thrust an arm toward the cave mouth. “War? What do you mean war? There’s nothing out there but a mindless storm!”
“Storm not mindless,” he countered quietly. “It have mind behind it. Wicked, angry mind.”
“Look, Hop Sing, I know your people personify the elements, but –“
“How you explain such a flood?” he demanded. “Mistah Adam live in territory for many, many years. In all those years he ever see such a one?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean….”
“Mind behind it,” he repeated. “Mind without heart, want only to destroy. How she come here, Hop Sing not know. He only know she is here and he must stop her!”
He would not name the witch. His father had taught him that naming a thing gave it power. “Hop Sing go to war,” he repeated. “Find her. Stop her.”
Number one son sat down hard on his rocky chair. “No. I can’t let you go alone. It’s far too dangerous.”
“Hop Sing must go. You stay. Look after brother.”
“It’s my responsibility ,” Adam protested weakly. “I’m the oldest.”
The Asian man knelt and placed a hand on the young man’s leg. When he touched it, Mistah Ben’s son gasped. “Leg infected,” he said. “Before man can help others, he must first help self. I treat again. You rest.”
“I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” Mistah Adam said wearily, “but after you tend my leg, I’m going. Not you. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re no warrior. If there’s a battle to be fought, I’ll be the one to fight it.” Number one son looked at him. “Is that understood?”
Hop Sing said nothing, but rose and went to his kit. As he unpacked and ordered the medical supplies he had brought with him, he placed a pot of hot water on the fire and threw a handful of herbs into it. When Mistah Adam came over to ask what it was, he told him it was a strengthening tea and he must drink it before resting.
He lied. The tea would not strengthen, but it would make the boy rest.
Long enough for him to do what had to be done.
Hop Sing walked the landscape of his dream.
Before him, behind him; above and below him lay blackness. He was grateful for it. By the light of the waning October day, he had seen things he wished not to see. Many lay dead. Men, women, children, and their animals. The mud became their grave. He did not stop to look and see if any wore a green corduroy coat or a fine linen shirt of blue. He knew the ones he sought were not here – they were there – beneath the stone bridge that lay a quarter mile before him.
In the lair of Madame White Snake.
In his dream he climbed into the Black Mountains, to the place where Hebo dwelt. Now, he descended into the black river water, feeling it rush past and tug at his pant legs, seeking to draw him down into its embrace. The wind was strong; its voice loud – but not so loud he could not hear. Far off a man was calling out. The Asian man halted to listen. The cry would give him direction. Sadly, Fengbo, the spirit of the wind, was a trickster. He rose in power and ate the man’s words – swallowing them and spitting them out – so that he did not know which way to go.
‘Mighty Hebo,’ he muttered under his breath. ‘God of Jacob, direct me!’
Three steps. Ten. Twenty. On Hop Sing went, not knowing where he went, but trusting he would be guided.
Then – came a miracle!
Amazed, he turned his face to the sky. It was no longer black. The moon had slipped out from under its blanket of clouds and shone with a pallid light, revealing a familiar figure standing in front of what should have been a bridge, but was not.
“Mistah Ben!” Hop Sing shouted as he stumbled toward the ruins. “Mistah Ben!”
Ben Cartwright – one arm dangling useless at his side – turned a haggard face toward him. His lips parted, but no sound came out.
A moment later he found his voice.
“Hop Sing! Thank God! My prayers have been answered!” Mistah Ben gestured toward the river. “Joseph fell in. The wreckage of the bridge stopped him from being swept away, but he’s trapped – caught somehow! He was all right at first, but…the water is rising. We have to get to him before – Joseph!” The rancher staggered forward and shouted. “Hurry, Hop Sing, he’s going under!”
He did not know how he had missed the white face floating on the surface of the water. He saw it now, watched it disappear, and held his breath until – sputtering – Little Joe reappeared.
Hop Ling, his father, had taught him to always be prepared. Before he left the Ponderosa ranch house, he had gathered up what things he thought he might need for a water rescue. At the last moment, he had added a length of rope. The Asian man dropped the pack he carried, opened it, and pulled the twisted cord out. He hung it on his shoulder and then – as an afterthought – reached for what lay beneath. With the object safely tucked behind his belt, he rose and turned to face the broken bridge. Beneath it – within sight of where Mistah Ben’s number three son struggled to remain above water – a serpentine form writhed, white as sea foam. It was the witch, Madame White Snake. She meant to claim Little Joe.
It was up to him to stop her.
The rancher came to his side. When he realized what he intended, his employer and friend reached out to stop him.
“Hop Sing! No! You can’t go in. You’ll drown too!” Mistah Ben paled at the meaning of his words before indicating the shore with a nod. “There’s a long, strong branch over there. With my arm broken, I couldn’t lift it. You can! Together we can use it to reach out to Joseph and bring him –
Though it was dark and silent beneath the waves, the pale face of Hebo shone above, revealing all. The remnants of the once mighty bridge, devastated by the flood, rose behind Little Joe and held him so he could not wash away. The boy’s boots rested on a portion of it, allowing him to keep his head above the water. If not for the malice of Madame White Snake, whose long tale was wrapped around Little Joe’s slender form, number three son could have walked to the shore.
He did not like the water as a boy and had no desire to enter it to refresh himself as the other boys did – not until the first time the Yellow River rose. It was then his father taught him how to swim and he became like a fish. In time, he learned to hold his breath longer than any of the others and was sent to dive for the shining pearls men coveted. Hop Sing understood his friend’s fear for him, but he did not share it. He knew it was not his destiny to drown.
It was his destiny to save the one he loved.
Hop Sing stretched out a hand and used the hard stone to anchor himself. By the light of Hebo’s face he was able to see the white witch’s tail wrapped around Little Joe’s left leg. The boy struggled, but his strength was almost gone.
Soon he would sink beneath the waters, never to rise again.
The Asian man dropped the rope he carried. It was worth nothing. Instead, he reached for the object God had caused him to tuck behind his belt – a large kitchen knife. The blade caught the moon’s light and flashed as it came down on the witch’s tail, cleaving it in two. As Little Joe kicked free and rose, Madam White Snake’s blood – pale as the oyster’s pearls – swirled about him, stinging his eyes and filling his nostrils. A face appeared before him; its malevolent black eyes at once human and not. It opened a gaping maw.
Hop Sing reared back. He felt pain.
And knew no more.
When his eyes opened, Hop Sing smiled.
He knew he was in Heaven.
He had to be in Heaven for an angel leaned over him; her soft, golden curls cascading down to brush his cheek. The Asian man was surprised, though not dismayed, that her skin was not dark like his but pale as ivory. A pair of wide blue eyes stared at him with concern, and then lit with delight.
So it was not Hebo, but the God of Jacob who had answered his prayers.
Fingers touched his cheek and the angel spoke. He could not hear her words. Within his ears the river rushed still. It rushed so fast it carried him away again, past the broken stones of the bridge, back to the land of his childhood, and up into the Black Mountains.
The next time Hop Sing opened his eyes there was no angel, but a field of stars. He lay for some time staring up at their diamond hardness, wondering on which side he walked – earth or in heaven? Did his spirit wander the world he had known, reluctant to bid goodbye to the ones he loved, or was he on the other side of the clouds looking down on them? This last thought comforted him, for if it was true then – even dead – he could still watch and tend.
Fear gripped him at the sound of that beloved voice. No. No!
‘Little Joe not belong in land of dead! You go home!’ he shouted.
Or at least he did in his head.
A shadow blacked out a portion of the field of stars. “Pa! Pa! You gotta come! Hop Sing’s awake!”
“Not…dead?” he managed to rasp out.
Someone crouched beside him and a hand fell on his shoulder. The Asian man blinked and looked up at Ben Cartwright. “Thank God, no. You’re still with us,” the rancher said with a smile – that lasted less than a heartbeat. “Don’t you ever do anything like that again! You frightened me out of ten years of life!”
“Hop Sing had to….save Little…Joe.” He swallowed to clear his throat. “If not…Madame White Snake…would have…”
“Here, drink this,” another voice said as a hand holding a tin cup appeared above him.
He sipped the water and then looked up. Mistahs Adam and Hoss were there. Between them stood his pale, blonde angel.
“Is he going to be all right?” she asked.
That confused him. Should his angel not know?
“He’ll be fine, Lily. Don’t you worry. We just need to get him home and into his own bed.” Mistah Ben patted his shoulder before rising to his feet. “Hoss, come with me. We need to finish fixing up the wagon.”
“I’ll get the horses ready,” Adam said, and then added quickly, “Joe, no. Don’t even think about it! You are not riding. You’ll rest better in the wagon with Hop Sing.”
“I don’t need to rest. I’m fine!”
“Sure you are. Fine as frog’s hair,” number one son said as he touched his brother’s curly head. “Humor me. You almost drowned.” Adam glanced down at him, where he lay on the ground. “You both could have drowned.”
Hop Sing hid his smile as Mistah Adam walked away. “Can someone tell this one what happened?” he asked into the silence that followed.
“You hit your head,” Lily said as she knelt beside him. “You’ve got a big bump at the back.”
“Apparently when you cut me free, I kicked out or something,” Little Joe said, chagrinned. “You reared back and hit a piece of the stonework. If Hoss and Adam hadn’t come along….” The boy looked at him, tears in his eyes. “Thanks, Hop Sing. You saved my life.”
“How you get in river in first place?” he asked, a little more sharply than he intended. “Father say you ‘fall’?”
“Well, sort of.” Mistah Joe scratched his head. “I thought I saw something moving. Something big and white. I guess I was curious.”
“Or stupid,” Lily chimed in.
Number three son laughed. “Yeah, that too. The stone pathway was still there. All I had to do was walk across it. I didn’t think that I might get caught on something, or that the water would rise that fast.”
Lily wrinkled her nose. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re not stupid, Joe. You’re really brave. If Hop Sing saved you, then you saved me!”
Joe touched her cheek. “I guess we were all pretty brave today.”
Her curly head turned toward the voice. “Yes, Mister Ben?”
“We’ve got the back of the wagon padded. With this arm,” he patted his sling, “I don’t want to try climbing in the back. I need someone to try it out to see if it’s comfortable enough for our two invalids. Would you like to help?”
“Yes, sir! I want to make sure everything is just right for Little Joe…and Hop Sing, of course.” Lily started to go, but turned back and leaned down. Hop Sing felt her lips brush his cheek. “Thank you for saving Little Joe,” she breathed in his ear and was gone.
Number three son watched her go before crouching beside him. His young face was thoughtful. “Hop Sing?”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“First Little Joe help Hop Sing sit up. Then ask question,” he huffed. “Position on ground most undignified.”
Mistah Joe held out his hand. “Okay, but you gotta take it easy. That stone really walloped you good.”
The world spun as he rose from the ground, and settled again as he sat and leaned against a tree. Hop Sing closed his eyes to allow his stomach to catch up, and opened them to find Little Joe watching him closely.
“So what leng chai want to know?”
Number three son frowned at the childhood endearment, but said nothing. “Did you see anything strange while you were down there?” he asked.
He shook his head. “Water very dark.”
“Yeah, but the moonlight was on it.” Little Joe scowled. “Pa said it was probably some root or something that got wrapped around my leg, but….it didn’t feel like a root.”
“What it feel like?”
The boy turned to look at the river. The rain had stopped and Fengbo departed, so its surface was calm and reflected the star-studded sky like a mirror. “It felt like whatever had hold of me was alive. Like it had a mind and could predict what I was going to do.” He shuddered before turning back. “I thought for sure I was going to drown.”
“Did Little Joe pray to the God of Jacob?”
Joe nodded. “Yeah, I did. Pa was praying too. How about you?”
“Hop Sing pray much to anyone who listen,” he answered honestly.
“Well, I guess everyone was listening because we’re all okay.” Little Joe turned to look at the wagon. “So is Lily. Tomorrow, we’ll take her back to her family. They’ve got to be worried sick.”
“Hop Sing worried too.” He took hold of number three son’s hand and squeezed. “Leng chai okay?”
“Yeah, your ‘pretty little boy’ is okay,” Little Joe replied with a snort. “Oh no,” he added a second later, “ don’t do that! Don’t you dare do that to me. You’ll get me going!”
Tears streamed down his cheeks. The question that had haunted him for so many years had been answered.
‘Hop Sing, son of Hop Ling, for whom do you cry?’
This warrior’s tears were tears of joy, and they were for his family.
Tags: Ben Cartwright, flood, Hop Sing, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright
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