Summary: A WHI for The Spitfire. When Joe brings Willow back to the Ponderosa, only one person understands what’s really happening.
Word count: 4,380 words
Taming the Spitfire
Hop Sing heard the horses trot into the yard. Two or three, he wasn’t sure, but more than just the one Cartwright who wasn’t already home. Likely guests for supper, then. He made a quick assessment of his worktable where a bowl of potatoes and a pile of carrots waited to be washed. The trout Mister Hoss had caught earlier awaited their fate in a pail of water.
When no one called for him to make coffee for the guests, he pushed the curtain to one side, and his heart caught. His Little Joe, face streaked with dirt and soot and drawn with grief, stood with shoulders hunched as he talked with Mister Ben.
“I killed her father,” Little Joe said in a low voice.
The words pierced Hop Sing’s heart like a dagger. He knew absolutely that however it had happened, Little Joe hadn’t wanted to do it. Still, a man was dead. Not just a man, but a father. Hop Sing pushed the curtain aside a bit more. Two more horses. One with a body slung across it. The other with a dirty-faced barefoot girl astride. He peered more carefully. A rope bound her to the horse. He let the curtain drop and returned to his work.
Much talking in the yard. The girl screeched like an owl, but no one seemed to notice. Horses left; later, he looked out to see that the one with the body was gone. From the kitchen, he heard the struggle as the Cartwrights—Mister Hoss and Little Joe, from the sounds of it—brought the girl into the house and up the stairs, with her fighting every step of the way, yelling words no lady ever used.
He hadn’t heard Mister Ben come into the kitchen. “Yes, Mister Cahtlight.” His Rs had never been very good.
“Would you heat some water? Our guest will be taking a bath.”
“Missy no sound like she want bath.”
“Well, she needs it.” Mister Ben turned to go.
“Li’l Joe need food?” It was the first thing he thought to offer.
Mister Ben turned back. “I don’t think he’s hungry right now.” Hop Sing waited without comment. “The girl’s father—he was going to burn off some land. Would have killed a lot of people living up in those hills. Little Joe stopped him. He drew on Joe, and Joe shot him.”
“Girl have family?”
“Joe says she mentioned her kin. No idea where they are.”
“Hop Sing make food for girl?”
Mister Ben smiled slightly. “I’m not sure she’s interested in food right now. I sent one of the men to bring Missus Shaughnessy out. She’ll help the girl get cleaned up. We’ll see how things go after that.”
Missus Shaughnessy lived in Virginia City. She wouldn’t be here for hours. “Hop Sing make food for girl.”
Mister Ben looked as if he was going to say something, but stopped himself. “Go ahead,” he said instead.
After Mister Ben left the kitchen, Hop Sing studied his worktable. A girl with a newly dead father needed something gentle on the stomach. He trundled down to the root cellar to fetch a jar of the broth he’d made the last time he thinned out the flock of chickens. While the broth heated, he mixed flour and water in one bowl, and he beat two eggs in another. When the broth was ready, he drizzled the flour/water mixture into the broth, stirring until the soup was just the right thickness. Then, he swirled the eggs into the soup to make egg flowers. He cut two slices from the loaf of bread he’d made this morning and spread the last of the strawberry jam on them. He darted outside and plucked a few of the flowers in his little garden at the side of the house, and he placed them in a glass of water. He draped a tray with a cloth, and he arranged everything. Then, he carried the tray up the stairs.
Mister Hoss and Little Joe stood in the hall outside the guest room. They wore an expression he’d seen many, many times when they were boys and had gotten themselves into something they couldn’t even begin to manage. “What you do!” he snapped in his best authoritative voice.
“See, there’s this girl, Willow, and she’s meaner than a snake—” Mister Hoss began.
“Hop Sing take food.” He reached for the door latch.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Little Joe. “She’s liable to throw it at you.”
Hop Sing paused. There was no sound from inside the room. “Girl in here?”
“I think so,” said Hoss. “’Less she’s gone out the window.”
Little Joe looked alarmed. “You think she has? We should check.” He darted past Hop Sing and clattered down the stairs with Mister Hoss close behind.
Hop Sing tapped on the door. “Missy?”
“You go away! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all!” came a screech from inside.
“Hop Sing bring food.”
“I don’t want food! I don’t want nothing! Let me go!”
Hop Sing was torn. He was accustomed to the Cartwrights—especially Little Joe—claiming they didn’t want any food and then eating it when he pressed them, but this was a stranger. Not just any stranger—a lady. A white lady. Everything in him warned him not to presume, but something in her voice sounded—he couldn’t put his finger on it, but she wasn’t just outraged.
So he lifted the latch and entered the room.
“Get out of here! Get out! I’ll kill you!” She looked as if she wanted to charge at him, but she was tied to a chair.
Hop Sing stood perfectly still, holding the tray, as the girl railed at him. He knew now what he heard on top of the rage. The girl was heartbroken. Grief-stricken. And terrified.
Then he heard Hoss and Little Joe clumping back up the stairs. Swiftly, he turned and closed the door. “Stay outside!” he snapped as he heard them arrive, and to his relief, they did.
He turned back to the girl who was still screaming. He didn’t flinch as she cursed at him and called him the same awful names he’d been called countless times by other white people. He’d heard these words enough to know when they were truly meant to wound. This was a desperate child, an orphan using whatever feeble weapons she could muster to protect herself from these strangers—one of whom had killed her father. He didn’t doubt she knew Little Joe had acted in self-defense, nor did he doubt that it didn’t matter a whit to her now.
He couldn’t have said how long he waited until her shrieks began to fade. The soup was likely getting cold. Finally, she was quiet.
“Missy want food?” he suggested without moving closer.
She considered him. “How do I know you ain’t poisoning me?”
“Hop Sing no poison.”
She looked so tired. Such a hard day she’d had. Still, she wasn’t letting her guard down all the way, not yet. “How do I know?”
Hop Sing set the tray on the dresser. He picked up the spoon, dipped it into the soup, and ate it. “See? No poison.”
Grudgingly, the girl said, “Gimme that.”
Hop Sing considered the ropes tying her to the chair. If he untied her, she could get loose and run away. If he didn’t untie her, she couldn’t eat.
“Hey, Hop Sing! Everything okay?” Little Joe called from the other side of the door.
The voice of his employer reminded him of his place. To the girl he said, “Hop Sing sorry, no can untie.” The fire in her eyes began to flare up, but he brought a stool over and sat next to her. He spooned up soup and held the spoon to her lips. For a moment, he thought she might use her head to knock it away, but then she opened her mouth like a baby bird and allowed him to feed her. Her eyes never left his face as she ate, but she finished the soup and the bread. Partway through her meal, tears began to spill down her cheeks, but she said nothing and so neither did Hop Sing. He just kept feeding her.
When the bowl and the plate were empty, he stacked them on the tray. The tears had left clean tracks on her dirty face. Without comment, he dipped the napkin in the pitcher of water on the washstand in the corner. Then, he wiped her tears, and she didn’t try to stop him.
“Hop Sing sorry for loss of father,” he said.
The mention of her father seemed to remind her why she was in this place. “You get out of here!” she shrieked, her rage rekindled as she strained at the ropes binding her hands and feet. Hop Sing merely picked up the tray and left the room.
In the hall, Hoss and Little Joe were still waiting. “You okay?” asked Hoss.
Hop Sing looked from one to another. The girl was still screaming. They meant well—he knew them well enough not to doubt it—but they didn’t understand, not at all. Without answering, he carried the tray down to the kitchen to start supper.
* * *
The potatoes were roasting when the buckboard arrived bearing Missus Shaughnessy. She was a no-nonsense white lady Hop Sing had encountered a number of times over the years. She barely noticed him when they passed on the street even though he always stopped to bow. On occasion, she came out to the Ponderosa when Hop Sing was away, and without fail, he returned to find his pots and pans and knives and bowls in the wrong places. He mumbled to himself as he reorganized his kitchen, but he never said anything about it to the Cartwrights.
The large kettle of bath water had spent the afternoon heating. Missus Shaughnessy had apparently ordered Mister Hoss into the barn for some purpose. Little Joe hauled the bathtub upstairs, and then he hauled up buckets and buckets of water.
At one point, Hop Sing padded out to Mister Ben’s desk. He stood silently until Mister Ben looked up from his papers. “What is it?” Mister Ben asked.
“Girl sad,” said Hop Sing. “Very sad. Very scared.”
“She’s also very wild,” said Mister Ben. “She tried to kill Little Joe after he shot her father.”
It didn’t sound like an unreasonable reaction to Hop Sing, but Mister Ben seemed to think it was, which was peculiar. Still, Mister Ben was very smart with a big heart. If he thought the girl needed to be tied up, Hop Sing would not interfere.
Back in the kitchen, Hop Sing heard thumping and yelling from upstairs. He peeked out the window to see Mister Hoss carrying a wooden contraption with a hole in it. Hop Sing had never seen anything like it. He waited until the front door closed, and then he scurried up the stairs behind Mister Hoss.
No one noticed as he stood in the doorway, mouth agape. Missus Shaughnessy was barking orders like a general as Little Joe poured buckets into the tub and Mister Hoss peered through the hole in the wooden contraption. Missus Shaughnessy told him to put it over the tub. The girl was pounding on the door to the little side room, hollering and demanding to be released.
Mister Hoss and Little Joe sounded as if they were worried about Missus Shaughnessy, as if she might get hurt. Missus Shaughnessy told them not to worry in a voice that made a shiver run down Hop Sing’s spine. He slipped around the corner, his back pressed to the wall as Mister Hoss and Little Joe came out of the room and closed the door.
The shouting got louder. So did the thumping. The girl screeched, “Leave me alone!” Missus Shaughnessy’s sharp tone wasn’t as easy to decipher, but moments later, the door opened and her hand held out what looked like a small pile of rags. “Burn this,” she said, and slammed the door.
Hop Sing stared at the rags. It was the dress the girl had been wearing earlier. Still dirty, and now torn. The woman had taken away the girl’s clothes. The screeching escalated to a full-blown howl as water splashed, and then he heard what sounded like a person underwater who was trying to yell for help.
Without thinking, Hop Sing flung open the door. “You stop!”
Missus Shaughness was sitting on top of the wooden contraption which in turn sat atop the tub. Hop Sing could hear the splashing. The girl poked her head up through the hole, and Missus Shaughnessy pushed it back down.
The evil man pushed Yu Yan beneath the water. . . .
“Stop! Stop!” Hop Sing shouted, his voice shrill with frantic.
Missus Shaughnessy barely looked at him. “Get out,” she said. “We’re fine here!”
“Not fine! Not fine!” Never in his life had Hop Sing spoken this way to a white person—especially a white lady—but all he could think of was the tears running down the girl’s face as he fed her soup, and Yu Yan. “You go! Leave!” He grabbed her plump arm and flung her away from the tub, from the girl, barely noticing as she slammed into the wall.
“What the—don’t you you tell me what to do, you little servant!” Missus Shaughnessy was on her feet. “You get down there!” she added to the girl, who had poked her head up again, and Missus Shaughnessy planted her ample bottom on the contraption.
“No! No!” Hop Sing flung himself at her again, but she was bigger than he and she stayed put.
“What’s going on?” Mister Ben demanded as he ran up the stairs, Mister Hoss and Little Joe on his heels.
“Your little Chinese boy’s trying to interfere with my work!” Missus Shaughnessy said while the girl wailed and Missus Shaughnessy kept pushing her head down and Hop Sing tried to wrestle her off the contraption.
“Mister Ben, no! No let lady do this! Girl so scared!” Hop Sing struggled to find the English words to explain. “No drown girl! Girl scared!” He knocked the evil white lady off the contraption and this time he flung himself on her to keep her from climbing back up.
“Pa, Miz Shaughnessy said—” Mister Hoss began.
“All right, all right, everybody hush!” thundered Mister Ben. “What in tarnation is that girl doing in there?”
“Miz Shaughnessy needed to give her a bath,” said Little Joe.
Mister Ben looked incredulous. Hop Sing could see him struggling for words. Before he could speak, Missus Shaughnessy said, “Your boys said you want me to clean her up. Now do you or don’t you? Because if you don’t, I can leave.” She shoved Hop Sing aside and moved as if to get back on top of the contraption.
“No, no, wait.” Mister Ben held out his hand, and Missus Shaughnessy stayed in place.
“Mister Ben.” Hop Sing could hardly make his voice heard.
Mister Ben turned to him. “It’s all right,” he said. “The girl is fine. Missus Shaughnessy won’t hurt her.”
“No. No. Mister Ben—no.” But he had lost, he knew he had. The girl was in the dark water, frightened and grieving, and he could do nothing to help. Yu Yan would die, and it would be his fault.
Then, something exploded inside him. Hop Sing slammed into Missus Shaughnessy with all his might, knocking her to the floor again. “Bad lady! Bad, bad lady!” he shouted. As Missus Shaughnessy yelled and the Cartwrights lunged into the room, Hop Sing pivoted and pulled the contraption off the tub.
The eyes of the naked girl in the tub grew large and round. “Aaaaaaack!” she screamed. As one, the Cartwright men turned around, their instinctive chivalry asserting itself. As Missus Shaughnessy got to her feet, Hop Sing moved in front of the girl, blocking everyone’s view. Trembling, but without looking at her, he held out a towel. He felt the girl take it from his hand. Thus assured, and with a fury he hadn’t known since that awful day so long ago, he yelled, “Out! Everybody out!”
“Listen to me, you little—” Missus Shaughnessy began.
“OUT! OUT! EVERYBODY OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!” Hop Sing bellowed, the shrill note in his voice betraying everything.
“Come on,” said Mister Ben, holding out his hand to Missus Shaughnessy without turning enough to see the girl. Sputtering, the lady allowed Mister Ben to help her to her feet. Hop Sing heard her muttering decidedly unladylike things as everyone left. He closed the door after them. Then, when the room was quiet, he said, “Hop Sing turn around?”
“Yeah. I’m decent.”
Hop Sing turned. The towel barely covered the parts a lady would want covered. He took all the other towels stacked on the wash stand and set them next to the tub. “Missy finish bath. Hop Sing make sure nobody else come in.” Just as he lifted the latch, he heard the quietest words.
“Hop Sing not mister. Hop Sing just Hop Sing.” He opened the door and went out into the hall, closing it firmly behind him and crossing his arms as he stood in front of it as if daring anyone to come near.
He could hear Missus Shaughnessy downstairs, haranguing Mister Ben about Hop Sing, her nasal voice making his ears hurt. How rude he was, she said. How awful. How that little Chinese man not know his place. Hop Sing know his place, he wanted to say. His place was to protect the ones who needed him. No, this girl wasn’t a Cartwright, but she still needed him. She was an orphan, all alone. She had nobody. She needed Hop Sing.
When he had waited long enough, he tapped on the door. “Hop Sing come in?”
He opened the door. The girl perched on the very edge of the bed, as covered with towels as she could manage. His eyes downcast, he approached her. When he could see her bare feet, he held out the brown robe he had retrieved from Little Joe’s room. “Missy wear this until Hop Sing find better.” He was careful not to look up as she stood. When the towels had fallen to the floor and he saw the hem of the brown robe in place, he picked up the wet towels and nodded his head, still not looking up.
“Mister Hop Sing.”
He smiled. No one had ever called him that. “Yes, Missy.”
“My name’s Willow.”
He nodded, still facing away from her. “Missy Willow.”
“Mister Hop Sing—thanks.”
“Mister Ben, Mister Hoss, Little Joe—they mean well.” He wasn’t going to say a word for Missus Shaughnessy.
“That boy killed my pa.” Her voice broke.
Hop Sing turned then. Tears streaked the girl’s now-clean cheeks. She looked so tiny, so alone. Hop Sing knew how she felt. Something in him wanted to hold her, to let her cry on his shoulder, but he could not. He was a servant, she was a guest. She was white, he was Chinese. So he gave her what he could: “He not want to. He have no choice.”
“I know.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “But Pa’s still dead.”
Hop Sing nodded to show he knew, he understood. He moved past her to turn down the covers. “Missy take nap? Hard, hard day. Missy need rest.”
“In this?” Her mouth dropped open.
“This Missy bed while she on Ponderosa. Missy sleep here.”
She laid her hand on the coverlet. “I never slept in a bed like this.” Her eyes darted side to side, an animal frightened of dropping its guard.
“Missy safe,” Hop Sing said. “Hop Sing make sure.” He moved to the windows and drew the drapes.
The tears welled up in her eyes again. “Thanks, Mister Hop Sing,” she whispered.
* * *
When Hop Sing reached the bottom of the stairs, there was no sign of Missus Shaughnessy. Mister Ben was at his desk, watching him come down. His heart began to pound, but then he caught a whiff and bolted for the kitchen.
The potatoes were almost burned, but not quite. Right on the edge of too much, but he could serve them and not be ashamed. He moved them to a bowl and covered it. Luckily, the carrots were still simmering. Mushier than he liked, but also good enough. He drained them and placed them in another bowl. Then he set to work cleaning the trout, and he pretended that he did not hear Mister Ben come into the kitchen.
“Missus Shaughnessy left,” said Mister Ben when Hop Sing didn’t speak.
Good, Hop Sing thought, but did not say.
“You want to tell me what that was all about?”
Hop Sing gave Mister Ben his most innocent look. It should work. He’d learned from watching his Little Joe. It almost always worked for Little Joe. He would never have admitted, but sometimes Little Joe could even make it work on Hop Sing.
He knew Mister Ben wasn’t here to scold or lecture. They’d had plenty of arguments in their time, he and Mister Ben. Enough that Hop Sing knew the difference. Number Four Cousin said Mister Ben and Hop Sing were more like an old married couple than master and servant. Hop Sing scolded Number Four Cousin for being disrespectful, but Hop Sing also knew no other white man would allow him to speak his mind so freely.
Mister Ben stood quietly, waiting. He did this with Little Joe, too. It meant the innocent look hadn’t worked. Without looking up, Hop Sing said, “Girl so scared. So sad. Orphan need kind, not Shaughnessy.”
Mister Ben was silent for a long minute. “We thought we were doing what was best for her,” he said finally.
Hop Sing looked up then. “Hop Sing know. But this time, Mister Ben wrong.” He said it with the utmost respect, but they both knew he was right.
“Where is she now?”
“Girl sleep. Very tired. Hard day.”
Mister Ben nodded. “What did you do with her dress?”
Hop Sing almost let himself smile. Mister Ben was so practical. “Dress need wash, mend. Maybe better for new one.” He didn’t want to ask, but he had to: “Lady bring dress?”
“She did.” Mister Ben smiled. “Do you want to take it up to her? She may want to get dressed for supper.”
“Missy Willow likely sleep through supper. Hop Sing take dress up later, leave in room for morning.” He could see the question in Mister Ben’s eyes, and he answered it. “Hop Sing give her Little Joe robe to wear.”
“I’m sure that’ll be fine with him,” said Mister Ben. A daring response darted through Hop Sing’s mind, but he did not say it. He and Mister Ben might be like an old married couple, but Hop Sing knew where the lines were drawn.
Mister Ben left the kitchen, and Hop Sing focused on cleaning the trout. He blinked hard as he maneuvered the knife. It wouldn’t do to think about that day. About Yu Yan, with her beautiful smile, her delicate hands, her exquisite spirit. How Hop Sing, who loved her so, tried so hard to protect her from the evil men. How the evil men seized Hop Sing and beat him and held him back, forcing him to see as they did such horrible things to her. How Hop Sing struggled, helpless, wailing in despair, as they held her under the water until she never came up. How Hop Sing’s heart was forever broken.
Never would Hop Sing stand by and let anyone—not even the Cartwrights—treat a poor girl with anything other than kindness. It did not matter that they meant well, that they would never do to anyone what the evil men did that day. This girl had no one. She needed help. She needed kindness. She needed someone to hold her, someone who could tell her that tomorrow, the sun would come up and the world would go on, and one day, she would be happy again.
Hop Sing could not hold her; he knew that. He could not tell her the sun would come up and the world would go on, because her father was still dead. He could not tell her she would be happy someday, because she had no reason to believe him. He barely believed it himself.
But he could give her food and a robe. He could show her kindness. He could make sure Mister Ben and his boys did the same. He could keep the likes of Missus Shaughnessy away. He could keep her safe.
He put the skillet on the stove. From the living room, Mister Hoss grumbled about supper being late. Let him grumble. Hop Sing had important things to tend to.
Hop Sing nodded, his focus still on the trout.
“Can you—can you just tell her I’m sorry, and I didn’t want to do it?”
Hop Sing looked up then. His Little Joe stood in the doorway. No tears in his eyes, but tears in his voice.
“Maybe Li’l Joe tell.” His voice was gentle. “Mean more.”
Little Joe stood in the doorway for a long minute. “I guess you’re right,” he said at last.
Hop Sing set down the cleaver he used to chop the trout into pieces. He held out his hands. In the sacred privacy of Hop Sing’s kitchen, his Little Joe did what he would never, ever have done anywhere else: he moved into Hop Sing’s arms and clung to his friend for a long minute, the boy’s lean body shuddering. Then they released each other, and Little Joe whispered, “Thanks,” and he slipped out of the kitchen as silent as a shadow.
Hop Sing flung a chunk of butter onto the skillet. He nodded appreciatively as it sizzled. “Supper almost ready!” he shouted. He placed the trout pieces in the skillet, and as his family splashed in the bathhouse, he watched the trout carefully to make sure it didn’t burn.
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine (other than Yu Yan), but the story is. Not making a dime off any of it.
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