Published on Tuesday, September 10, 2013
By T. C. Barlow
The Chinaman's face looked like a crushed-in watermelon, all pulp and juice and seeds. Sheriff Blake Stephens dropped the reins to his dappled gelding and knelt by the body. Snow melt seeped through the knee of his denim trousers. His gaze followed a spatter of pink and red through the windswept snow to the tips of his son Jimmy's black leather boots.
"It wasn't his fault, Sheriff," Tom Elliot said in his nasal drone. At twenty-three, he was six years older than Blake's son, and was trouble in a black duster.
Tom Elliot glowered behind him, arms crossed over his chest. Both wore six-guns, but neither shot well enough to hit a steer from ten paces. They didn't care about being good with a gun, just about showing people they had one. Jimmy had started running with Tom a year ago, and it only took Tom a few weeks to turn an angry boy into a hateful one.
Behind them stood Molly McCoy, golden curls like curtains on either side of her face, hands folded in front of her. Her brown cotton dress appeared intact–the lace at the neck appeared untouched.
"Molly," Blake said. The girl raised her head. "Did it happen like Jimmy says?"
She looked first Tom, then at the body on the ground. The color drained from her face at the sight of the Chinaman. She nodded.
"Head on home, then," Blake said.
Molly hesitated and looked at Tom. He nodded and she left, head lowered.
Further back, behind Jimmy and Tom, stood the rest of the twenty-or-so Chinese. They wore ratty leather boots, coal-stained coveralls, and gray caps. A few held lunch buckets. Fewer wore tattered leather coats to ward off the cold Colorado wind. Not one of them was armed with more than a rusty shovel or a pick. They glared at Jimmy, seething.
Blake pushed past Jimmy and Tom and faced the angry miners.
"Anyone see things different?" he asked. No one replied.
"Damned Coolies don't speak English, Pop," Jimmy said.
A Chinese man with skin like wrinkled leather and a dusting of white stubble on his jaw turned and spoke in Chinese to his countrymen. When no one responded, he looked at Blake and shook his head, then bowed.
Blake should have known. These men were desperate for work. Any work. The Anti-Coolie Act limited them to menial jobs: miners, houseboys, and the like. It didn't matter if they'd been doctors or lawyers in China. Here they were just yellow men. Angry yellow men, now.
At the back of the Chinese group, one person slipped away, moving toward the stand of sheds and tents in which the poor miners lived. Blake saw a lock of long, black hair and a flash of red silk as the figure moved off.
"You don't need to hear any more, Sheriff," Tom Elliot said. "The Chinaman attacked Molly and Jimmy defended her honor. He's a hero."
Blake looked over the scene once more. The Chinese stood like twenty bear traps waiting for twenty legs to mangle. He felt their tension, but if they kept their silence, the case was closed.
He fought back a sigh of relief for his son, not wanting to show bias. He hadn't been the best father in the world, and he knew at least some of Jimmy's anger was his fault. He shared blame for this death.
"You two get home now," he told the boys. "Let these people mourn."
"They don't mourn like us," Tom said. "Yellow men don't value life."
Jimmy nodded, eyes blazing at his father.
"Never mind that," Blake said. "Pull in your horns and let things quiet down."
Reluctantly, Tom strode away, muttering as he left. Jimmy didn't budge.
Blake met his son's glare again.
"Go home. Get cleaned up and get some food."
"You couldn't believe me, Pop?" he asked. "You had to ask the Coolies if I was lying?"
"I have to interview witnesses, Jimmy. It's my job."
"How about your job as my father? You haven't done that in years."
Blake almost rocked back, the words hitting like a fist.
Jimmy stepped forward. He was a couple inches taller than Blake, and broader through the chest. In a few years, he'd be able to take his old man. But not yet. Blake stood his ground.
"I should have known you wouldn't back me," Jimmy said. "You never have."
"Boy, you beat a man to death today," Blake said. "Right or wrong, the law says I have to be objective. Justice isn't served if I put family first. Now hobble your lip and get home."
Jimmy looked like he might argue, but turned and stalked away, following Tom.
Blake watched him go. Jimmy had been a good boy, right until he turned twelve and his mother died of consumption. After watching her die, he hardened like ice on a high country lake.
Blake made it worse, too. He couldn't sit helpless and watch Eleanor die, so he joined a posse and went after a local rustler. By the time he came back, Eleanor was gone Jimmy was staying with her sister. But Jimmy needed a father, not an aunt, and resentment was born. As soon as he'd taken up with Tom, Blake had known trouble was coming. It was as much his fault as Tom's.
He gave the Chinese one last look as they gathered around the body, heads down, voices hushed.
Jimmy had it wrong. All men mourned death. What they might do after they mourned worried Blake, though. Death without closure left, well . . . Jimmy.
Blake stood from his desk and strapped on his gun belt. He set his fountain pen on top of the report on the dead miner. Something kept him from signing.
The pale orange sun was setting behind the mountains, raking through the front window in a pillar of floating dust. Outside, the wind battered the window and carried the crisp, wet smell of snow as an October storm rushed in. Blake needed to get home before it hit.
He looked again at the report, and had resigned himself to signing when the front door opened. Wind scattered the papers on the floor. A woman entered, closed the door, and kneeled, scooping up the papers with delicate hands.
Blake stood, entranced, as she gathered up his report. She looked up, brushing a thick lock of shiny, coal-black hair from her tilted eyes.
"I am sorry," she said with a slight bow.
She wore a red silk scarf around her head, the only bright color on her. The rest of her attire was gray cotton like the miners, but cut in the traditional Chinese fashion. As she regarded him with those almond-shaped eyes, Blake thought her the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
She flushed and bowed again.
"I am sorry for papers," she said.
Blake gathered his wits and shoved the papers into a drawer, hoping she couldn't read English.
"I'm Blake Stephens." He motioned to the chair across from him.
"I am Chao Xing," she said, sitting. "Li Chao Xing. Li Bo Lin was my brother."
Blake dropped into his chair. "My condolences. Is there anything I can do?"
She placed her hands in her lap and looked him in the eye. Her night-dark gaze held a quiet confidence that unnerved him.
"We want justice," she said.
"Witnesses said your brother assaulted Molly Harris, then attacked my . . . Jimmy Stephens, Miss Xing."
"Miss Li," she corrected. "Li is my family name. Chao Xing is my first name."
She inclined her head as she spoke. "Please forgive my blunt speech, but the other men are not right. My brother did not attack."
Blake shifted on the hard wood of his chair. "Why don't you tell me what happened, then?"
She explained that Tom Elliot had started things by calling her a "yellow whore," and trying to touch her where only a husband should. Jimmy joined in. Bo Lin tried to help her, and the fight with Jimmy ensued.
"When Bo Lin fell," she explained, "Jimmy did not stop. He kept kicking him until . . ."
Blake leaned back in his chair, locked his fingers behind his head, and closed his eyes. He knew in his gut she spoke the truth and it twisted his insides hard.
"Why didn't anyone speak up?" He leaned his elbows on the desk. "You have twenty witnesses."
"We are just 'Coolies.'" Coming from her, the term sounded filthy and demeaning. "Our word is nothing against three white people. And one is the sheriff's son."
He took a deep breath.
"There is nothing I can do without witnesses. It's your word against three others. I could arrest Jimmy, but he'd win during trial."
"The word of one Chinese woman is nothing," she said. Her eyes glistened. "I wish I was a white man."
"You have a darn pretty name," Blake said. "Be wasted on a man."
"Thank you. It means 'Morning Star,' in my language."
"Look, Miss Li," he said, "if you can get your people to come forward and talk to me, you'll have a chance."
"You are Jimmy's father," she said. "Can you not make him . . . what is it called?"
"Confess?" he asked.
"Five years ago, maybe," he said. "But Jimmy's hard now. Frozen."
"I am sorry," she repeated.
Blake shifted on his feet. "I reckon it's my fault. I left when he needed me. He was only a kid, but he needed more than I could give, even when I returned."
"You came back," she said. Her voice was satin-smooth. "That is most important."
"And I still couldn't help him. I can sheriff an entire Colorado county, but I can't reach my own boy."
She gave him a sad smile. "In China, we say, 'it is easier to rule a nation than a child.' I think you know this."
"I suppose I do," Blake said. He breathed deep. "I'll try to get a confession. But it would be easier if people would testify."
She scrunched her forehead.
"Sorry," he said. "I mean if they will tell me what they saw."
"I will try too," she said. "Maybe they will trust you."
He rose and walked her to the door.
"You believe me?" she asked.
He nodded, instantly feeling like he'd betrayed his son.
She seemed to know his thoughts.
"You are Jimmy's father. Deep inside, he knows you tried."
He opened the door for her, letting in a swirl of snow. She paused.
"My people are angry," she said. "There are many of us and few white men."
"We have the guns," he said.
But he realized she was right. There were only about ten adult males in town. Most white families lived on ranches outside town. With the storm moving in, they didn't have time to rally them. Most wouldn't back Jimmy and Tom anyway.
"I hope you will not need your guns," she said.
Then she was gone, lowering her shoulder into the wind.
As she left, movement caught Blake's eye. He looked in time to see Tom Elliot watching him from the window of the saloon. Tom raised a glass to Blake, smirked, and walked away.
Blake thought about Chao Xing's words. He had done his best, but without Eleanor, he'd lost his way. Now it might be too late to find it again.
Blake led his horse into the musty interior of the little barn, surprised to see Storm, Jimmy's palomino, saddled and stomping nervously in its stall. The sweet aroma of oats did a slow dance with the crisp scent of old leather and the warm, sticky odor of manure.
"There you go," he said, easing Justice into the empty stall beside Storm. "You stay warm tonight."
It had taken Blake longer than he'd expected to get back. Two people stopped him on the street to talk about the coming storm. Too polite to rush away, Blake talked, delaying the unpleasantness at home.
He turned out the oil lamp by the door and listened as the two horses reacquainted themselves in the dark. A horse didn't notice the color of its neighbor. Another horse was friend or stranger, nothing more. He wished that men were more like horses.
He took a deep breath as he latched the barn door. The snow blew sideways, biting at his cheeks and making him squint. His house was barely visible, a hulk of dark wood glimpsed through swirling flakes, but the soft orange glow in the front window guided him.
It wasn't much, this little house of theirs, but Eleanor had called it "the perfect home" for the three of them. Even Jimmy liked it until his mother died. Then he started to complain about their "run-down shack" and that they never ate real meals, never did laundry, never made it a home instead of just a house.
His rants always carried subtle accusations that sliced Blake like a razor.
Inside, he saw Jimmy, hunched over on a kitchen chair, staring into the fire in the stout, black woodstove. His hat lay on the floor beside him. The acrid smell of hardwood smoke made Blake feel at home for a moment. Then he saw a half-empty bottle of whiskey in his son's hand.
Blake hung his gun belt by the door, next to Jimmy's. He hung his hat over the same peg. Jimmy never looked away from the dancing flames.
"I've been waiting for you."
"You always drink when you wait?"
Blake's anger waned a bit.
"Killin' a man's a hard thing," Blake said.
"I didn't kill a man," his son replied. "I killed a Coolie."
Blake pulled a chair up next to him, spun it around and straddled it, facing the fire.
Jimmy had washed the blood off his boots and changed his clothes, so he no longer wore the garish badges of killing. He took a long pull from the bottle.
"You love that yellow woman?" His icy blue eyes stayed on the fire.
So Tom had been here. Blake cursed himself for wasting time.
"I barely know her. Anyway, we didn't talk personal. Just got her side of what happened."
"You believe her lies?"
"Doesn't matter." Blake ran his fingers through his stiff, sandy hair, then reached for Jimmy's shoulder. The boy flinched away. "You have more witnesses. Three against one."
"They're all gonna lie," said Jimmy. "Damned yellows always stick together."
Blake decided to just get to the point.
"Jimmy, tell the truth now," Blake said. "What really happened this morning? Why'd you kill him?"
Jimmy sprang to his feet faster than he should have been able to, half-soaked as he was. He sent the chair skittering across the floor.
"You believe a yellow bitch over your own son?"
Blake kept his seat, despite his flaring anger. He needed his son to confess, not fight. He could still see the old Jimmy, the little boy who needed his father, hidden behind a mask of rage and hurt.
"Jimmy, sit down." He measured out his words with care. "Let's talk about this."
"There's nothing to talk about. You're a traitor to your race. A traitor to your family. A traitor to me!"
He snatched up his hat and stormed to the door.
Blake rose, deliberate and non-threatening. He couldn't let this end in bloodshed. Jimmy paused near the door, hand on his gun belt. Blake stood an arm's length away.
"Jimmy, I'm sorry." The words came out limping like a lame dog. "I know I failed you. Not just when I left, but after I came back, too. You needed more than I could give."
Jimmy's shoulders sagged and his breath left him.
Blake touched his son's shoulder. This time, Jimmy didn't pull away.
"But you changed, son. When your mother died, some part of you died with her."
Jimmy's back straightened again, and his shoulders went rigid.
"What I'm trying to say, is that you can't keep the anger in you. Eleanor's death hurt me too, and–"
Jimmy spun and clocked Blake on the jaw.
"Don't say her name!" Jimmy shouted.
Blake hit the floor, head bouncing off the boards. Jimmy stood over him, face flushed and eyes wild.
As Blake passed out, Jimmy yelled at him. "You ran when she needed you. You're yellower than they are."
When Blake woke up, the storm was rattling the clapboard and pounding the glass. The sky had lightened to a slate gray as the sun tried to punch through the clouds. Blake's anger had punched through, too. He rubbed at his sore jaw. Time to find Jimmy and put an end to this.
Blake saddled and bridled Justice, but the horse took the bit in his teeth as if to say, "I'm not going out there in this." Somehow, though, Blake got it done and rode toward town.
The streets were empty when he rode at a trot down Main. He'd expected that, and town wasn't his final destination, anyway.
North of town, voices rose over the wailing wind. A moment later, points of light were visible through the gray-and-white of early morning. Torches.
He kicked Justice into a gallop. They skidded to a stop outside the shacks and tents of the Chinese miners, and Blake sucked in a breath.
Jimmy and Tom stood back-to-back, pistols drawn, surrounded by a ring of Chinese miners. The miners carried picks, shovels, and torches. Jimmy held Chao Xing, arm locked around her throat. He pushed the blued barrel of his pistol to her ribs. Only Jimmy's hold on Chao Xing kept the miners back.
Blake drew his pistol and fired a single shot in the air. All heads turned toward him. Several Chinese lowered their weapons, but Jimmy's wild eyes found his father through the blowing snow. He turned and put Chao Xing between them.
"See, Pop, they're savages. We came here to talk and they did this."
Blake dismounted and took two steps forward.
"You didn't come here to talk," he said.
"You're siding with the Coolies again? I knew I couldn't count on you. Never could."
Blake ignored the jab. He still wanted to end this without blood.
"I talked to Molly," he bluffed. "She told me everything. Put the gun down and you'll get a fair trial. You're my boy. I don't want it to end this way."
Even through the pelting snow, Blake could see his son's face turning purple. His heart sank. He was losing him.
"I don't think so," Jimmy said, nodding to the Chinese girl. "She's my ticket out of here."
"Only a coward hides behind a woman."
Jimmy laughed, a rough, coughing sound that dripped of madness and fury.
"No, Pop, a coward shins out when his wife is dying. A coward leaves his son to bury his own mother, then rides back into town to play father, even though he doesn't mean it."
Chao Xing met Blake's gaze, her face calm somehow.
"You're right," Blake shouted over the wind. "I did you wrong. I failed as your father. But that doesn't make this right. You hurt her and you'll leave me no choice, son."
"There are two of us," Jimmy replied. "And one of you."
Blake shook his head.
"I count twenty-one of me. You two can't shoot straight in good weather. You'll sure-as-hell miss in this mess. Then those Chinese men will rip you apart. I won't be able to stop them."
Jimmy's eyes darted from his father to the Chinese, then back to Chao Xing. He raised the gun and pressed the barrel against her temple.
"They won't do anything as long as I have her," he shouted. "We're gonna ride out of here with her as insurance."
"I can't let you do that."
Jimmy pulled back the hammer on the gun at Chao Xing's head.
"Then I'll kill her!"
Blake's fingers twitched near his own sidearm. The miners pressed closer now, weapons ready.
It was time to end this.
"What good will that do?" he asked. "It won't bring back your mother. It won't kill me. You're right–I ran. So shoot me, not her. She didn't hurt you, I did. Now face me like a man."
With a scream, Jimmy tossed Chao Xing aside and fired at his father. The muzzle flash lit up the scene as the bullet whizzed past Blake's ear.
Blake drew and shot. Jimmy rocked back, then fired again and again. The last bullet took Blake in the left shoulder, nearly spinning him around. Blake fired a second shot and his son went down, dropping his gun.
To the right, Tom dropped his weapon, staring wide-eyed at Jimmy. The miners rushed in and kept him corralled, but they didn't attack.
Blake ran to Jimmy, fell to his knees beside him, and cradled his head. Jimmy's blood ran into the snow, taking Blake's anger with it. Killer and sheriff were gone, leaving just a boy and his father.
"Pop," the boy said, looking up. "I'm sorry."
Blake shushed him.
"I killed . . ." Jimmy's words were lost in a racking cough. He pointed behind his father. Blake turned and saw Justice was down, blood pooling around him.
Chao Xing appeared at Blake's side.
"I'm sorry," Jimmy told her. "I didn't want to hurt you."
The Chinese woman gave him a silent nod.
"Pipe down now," Blake said.
"I'm scared, Pop." Blood foamed at the corner of his mouth.
"I'm here, son."
Jimmy coughed again. "Why did you leave? I needed you so bad."
"I know, son. It hurt so much losing your mom that I thought running would make it stop. But losing you hurt worse. I see that now."
Jimmy's eyes brimmed, and he nodded.
"I thought you ran because you didn't care."
"I ran because it hurt."
Jimmy coughed again. His hand found his father's and he smiled. Blake squeezed his son's hand, resisting the urge to flee again. Running didn't stop the pain. It followed you like a wolf tracking a deer, waiting to bring you down.
"I love you, dad," Jimmy said. Then he was silent.
Blake put his head on his son's chest and fought back tears. "I'm here, son," he said. "I won't leave you."
And he didn't.
T.C. Barlow is a retired Air Force senior non-commissioned officer who grew up in upstate New York, but has lived all over the world. He wrote his first novel at age fourteen, and has been writing ever since. He holds a Bachelor's degree in English from University of Nebraska at Omaha, and is pursuing his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, focused on popular genre fiction, with Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, CO. He currently lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.