Western Short Story
“Roll out, you old hay-waddy. Rattle yer old bones and let’s go introduce ourselves to the new residents at the end of the hall,” Isaiah calls from the doorway.
“Okay, Okay, you old printer’s devil. Give an old man a minute to get his slippers on.” I snap back at him.
We make our way to the newly occupied room. Noticing the Stetson, a calfskin vest and the mule eared, worn riding boots at the clothes tree along the wall at the head of the bed, I call from the door, instead of knocking, “Hello the camp. Two riders coming in friendly; lookin’ fer a cup of Arbuckle’s.”
A chuckle responds, “ease on up to the fire and draw yer selves a cup.” A grizzled old range rider sits across the chess board from a well-dressed elderly Chinese gent. “Don’t mind us iff’n we don’t get up. Old bones don’t move so well these days,” he waved at the serving trolley loaded with a coffee pot and cups.
We fill cups and drag over a couple of ladder back chairs. “I’m Isaiah Franklin, former newspaper editor and this here old grouch is Cussin’ Curtis, a stationary cowboy. We call him that being a Livery stable owner catering to mules and horses.”
I add, “Isaiah is a nosey old reporter; pokin’ his nose into everybody’s business. Constitutionally, he kain’t keeps no secrets. Don’t tell him none.”
“I’m James Carleton, of the Rocking JC spread up in the panhandle. Call me James. This is my friend and partner Mister Chan. He has other names but since he got married and came to work for me, he is only known as Mister Chan.
Mister Chan puts his palms together under his chin bowing to each of us addressing us in a flow of Chinese. “Mister Chan is honored to have important visitors,” he translated seriously.
“Mister Chan always goes to polite Chinese manners until he gets to know you better.” James explains grinning. “Normally, he talks and swears like any man, just like me. Let me tell you boys our tale so yuh know the men and not the appearances.” He leans back with his eyes half closed drifting down thru his memories.
“I wuz riding along the brushy creek looking fer new calves to brand. I hear noises in the brush and then some voices. So I ease thru the brush and find young Mister Chan and a girl laying on a blanket naked as the day they wuz born. That sight so surprises my horse, he froze up. He never seen humans that a way. Me, being married, weren’t shocked. I seen naked folks before.”
“Mister, you hold up that blanket so your girl can get dressed in some privacy. I’ll ease over there and build a smoke until y’all are presentable.”
A few minutes of rustling clothes and then. “Sir? I hope we can count on your discretion in this matter,” he asks with formal politeness. He stands protectively in front of the girl.
“Are you the son of Chan, the cook, on the Circle M? And you must be a daughter of the China-man from over on the Box B?” I wave my quirly in the ranch directions.
They nod simultaneously. “Our parents will not approve our marriage until I have a job to support us. But as you see, we are small people in your country. Mr. Madison just shakes his head when I ask for job wrangling cattle. He says, “you’re too light for heavy work.”
“Mebby you know of me. I’m James Carleton, owner of this Rocking JC spread. I married my Molly six months ago. Now she is carrying our first child. That makes cooking and caring for the home place somewhat iffy. Mebby,” thinking out loud, “you and I could solve each other’s problems.”
“What do you know of gardening and wrangling chickens and cooking and laundry and such? And you Miss,” I look around him, “what do you know about women having babies?”
She steps up alongside him, “I am Elizabeth, Hue Pak’s oldest daughter. I help with all babies on the ranch and help with last two births. I help with all house cleaning and laundry.” She nudges him.
“I help Father with cooking, garden, chickens, chop wood, clean barn and tools. What we do not know; we can ask.”
“Good to know. You two have the time to ride to my ranch house? My Molly should meet you and hear my idea,” I ask. “I nod at the two horses behind them. “Those your horses or ranch horses?”
“These are ranch horses but only we ride them. Like us they are too small for working cattle.” Chan says as he helps Elizabeth to mount up.
Molly is fanning herself on the porch as she rocks. We sit in our saddles before her. “Remind me never to complain of the cold ever again. Welcome to our ranch. Forgive me if I do not get up to greet you. The heat just wears me out.”
“Molly, I met Mister Chan and Elizabeth Pak out on the range. He needs a job and we could use the help around the house and cook shack. They can get married if there’s a job,” I explain.
She takes a long moment considering each of them as if she can see into their souls. “Elizabeth would you come sit with me as James shows Mister Chan around?” Chan helps Elizabeth dismount. We walk our three horses over to the trough for a drink as I point out the small chicken coop. Tying the horses to a corral rail, we walk past the garden to the cook shack. He quickly scans the kitchen set up. We then walk thru the barn and past the bunk house.
“As you can see, I need help. The boys are busy with my cattle and I hate to take them from the work that pays the bills. Molly and I can’t keep up with the work around here. You game to give it a go?”
He nods, “Nothing here that I cannot or have not done or cannot figure out. I know nothing of babies. What are you offering?”
“Now there, I like a man that is direct and speaks up. I ain’t got it all worked out yet, so I’m a-thinkin’ out loud. I’m figurin’ 20 dollars a month fer you cooking and doin’ outside work and 15 dollars a month fer Elizabeth fer housekeeping and baby care. That puts the two of you paid between a thirty-dollar cowboy and a forty-dollar foreman. Ain’t got room for yuh so we’d build a small cabin for a married couple, maybe 20 foot by 20 foot. You can furnish it or we can build furniture. We eat family style so the two of you would be included. Anything I missed.”
“We want protection for Elizabeth from men. She will need help bearing her children. We want schooling for our children. We look Chinese but we dream to be American. You treat us same as hands. We want horses to ride,” he finished with a shy smile.
“I can’t change the world, but here on this ranch you’re one of the hands. And I’ll hang any man that bothers a woman. Your children will be part of the general flock. All treated the same. Molly already has plans for teaching every kid within her reach. If my Molly and your Elizabeth hit it off, you and I will be hard put to keep up,” I chuckle. “Let’s go talk to our ladies.”
We settled a few details and answered a few questions. Then I wrote letters to the parents and to Mr. Madison about my offer, our plan, and a request to gift or to buy their horses.
“Mr. Chan rode in with a big grin two days later to go to work. Marriage arrangements were settled between the two families. My hands adopted Mister Chan as a member of the bunkhouse. They all pitched in to build the cabin in record time. Mister Chan drove off in my ranch wagon to marry Elizabeth in traditional Chinese fashion. They loaded their meager furniture and goods. Meantime we cooked a feast and invited the parson out to marry them again.”
“We raised a passel of kids, what with the foreman’s kids added in. My first son runs the ranch now. My second son married his third daughter. His first son owns several businesses in Amarillo. Mister Chan was a favorite on the chuck-line; known throughout the corners of the four state area. After my Molly and his Elizabeth died several years ago, the memories were too haunting and us old partners were getting in the way of the young folk. We decided to retreat to this watering hole.”
“Glad to make your acquaintance.”