Authors: Jon Sharpe
Skye Fargo set the spit down and placed his hand on his Colt. “I don't take kindly to being threatened, you little peckerwood.”
“I do not know what a peckerwood is. But it was not a threat. It was a warning,” Lo Ping said. “You are meddling in matters that do not concern you, and my master will be most displeased.”
“Whose boots do you lick?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You said you have a master.”
“Master Han,” Lo Ping clarified. “I am in his employ. The Hu brothers, as well.” He glared at the girl. “Mai Wing, too, although she refuses to admit it.”
Mai Wing clenched her small fists. “I was not given a say in the matter.”
“You disobeyed, woman,” Lo Ping spat. “You have shamed yourself and those who bore you. And now you seek to shame Master Han.”
“It is not shameful to want to live. I want to live and not as he wants me to,” Mai Wing said.
Lo Ping motioned at the stoic Hu brothers and said something in Chinese.
The pair started forward but halted when Fargo moved between them and the girl. “This is where you skedaddle, mister. And take the gents in black with you.”
“Have a care,” Lo Ping said.
“What I have,” Fargo said, “is a six-shooter.” With a lightning flick of his hand, the Colt was out and leveled at Lo Ping. “Go back to your master and tell him I said you couldn't have her.”
“You know not what you do.”
“I won't say it twice,” Fargo said.
Lo Ping was a study in barely suppressed fury. “That is the one trait I like least of your kind. Your perpetual arrogance.”
“So you're one of those,” Fargo said. He wagged the Colt. “Light a shuck while you still can.”
Lo Ping drew himself up to his full less than considerable height. “You will regret this.”
“The only thing I regret,” Fargo said, “is listening to you flap your gums.” To stress his point, he cocked the Colt.
The Hu brothers might as well have been chiseled from stone for all the emotion they showed. They were staring at Lo Ping as if awaiting instructions.
Lo Ping bared his teeth in a snarl. “We will go. But not because you have the better of us.”
“If that's what you want to tell yourself,” Fargo said.
“Clever talk and a domineering way do not have anything to do with being man at his best.”
“What in hell are you talking about?”
“I quote Confucius.”
Lo Ping smirked. “Arrogance and ignorance often go hand in hand.”
“So do being stupid and lead poisoning,” Fargo said, and raised the Colt.
“I can see there is no reasoning with you.” Lo Ping turned. “You have not heard the last of us.” He barked words in Chinese and stalked into the trees. As before, the Hu brothers dutifully followed.
“I thank you for your help,” Mai Wing said, “but you have made an enemy.”
“I've made them before.”
“I am not talking about Lo Ping or the Hus. I am talking about Master Han.”
“Never met the gent,” Fargo said. He was listening to the retreating footfalls of the three Chinese. They were about as quiet in the woods as cows.
“By thwarting Lo Ping, you have thwarted Master Han. He is a most evil man.”
Fargo deemed it safe to sink back down and pick up his venison. “Where did you learn English?” he asked by way of small talk.
“From a missionary. Father William. He was very kind. It saddened me that I could not convert to his faith as he wanted me to do.”
Fargo had to hand it to her. She spoke better English than he did. He noticed, too, the swell of her breasts under her shirt. It was hard to tell exactly, with her clothes so loose, but he'd bet his poke she had tits the size of melons.
“What are you looking at?” Mai Wing asked.
“Your buttons,” Fargo lied, and bit off a chunk of meat. It had grown cold and he growled in annoyance.
“You make strange sounds.”
“I do that a lot.” Fargo cut off another strip for her and flipped it over the flames.
“You Americans are a mystery to me,” Mai Wing said. “You do not think or act like we Chinese.”
“I reckon we fuck the same,” Fargo said.
Mai Wing froze with the meat halfway to her mouth. “Did you just say âfuck'?”
“That's what my ears heard.” Fargo grinned and winked and chewed.
“I have been told it is a word not to be used in the company of a lady.”
“So some say,” Fargo said. “But even ladies like a frolic under the sheets.”
“You are most remarkable,” Mai Wing said, and lapsed into a thoughtful silence.
Fargo chuckled, remembering the time he got into a discussion with a churchgoing gal about the finer points of lovemaking, and how she'd blushed from her toes to her hairline. Yet later that night she had humped his brains out.
“May I ask you a question?”
“Are you always so damn polite?” Fargo rejoined.
“We are taught to be courteous from an early age,” Mai Wing said. “It is our nature to always show respect toward others.”
“Hell,” Fargo said. “I'd make a terrible Chinaman.”
“You don't show respect to others?”
“When they earn it.”
“Most remarkable,” Mai Wing said again.
An awkward silence fell, and to break it, Fargo said, “Tell me how you ended up at this camp. What's it called again?”
“Hunan. Master Han has named it after the province he is from. There were some who wanted to give it a different name but they dared not oppose him.”
“How did you get there?” Fargo prompted when she didn't go on.
Mai Wing frowned. “I came to America for the same reason so many of my people do. Opportunity. In China there are a great many people and not so many jobs. Here there is plenty of work. I came with my parents and my grandfather.” Her frown deepened. “My father loved your country. He loved everything about it. He looked forward to much prosperity. But he and my mother took ill on the ship and both died before we ever reached your shores.”
“Sorry to hear,” Fargo said.
“Now I live with my grandfather. And he lives in perpetual fear.”
“Of whom,” Mai Wing said. “Of Master Han, who runs the camp with a fist of iron.”
“Why do the people put up with it?”
“What can they do?” Mai Wing countered. “In China they were peasants. They led simple lives. They do not know how to fight. They can't stand up to the Tong.”
“The what,” Mai Wing corrected him again. “They call themselves a benevolent society but they are anything but. Master Han was high in the councils of the Dragon Tong back in China. He has dozens of hatchet men who obey his every whim.”
“Men like the Hu brothers?”
Mai Wing nodded. “Master Han has only to snap his fingers and they will bury a hatchet in whomever he wants slain.”
“Are there any whites in this gold camp?”
“A few have not left,” Mai Wing said. “But they are as cowed as everyone else. The man who runs the general store you asked about is white. And there is a blacksmith. He is big and bold but even he dares not defy Master Han and the Tong.”
“Seems to me someone should put this Han in his place,” Fargo remarked.
“You know not what you say,” Mai Wing said. “It is easy to contemplate but impossible to do.”
“Nothing's impossible,” Fargo said. He cut more meat for both of them.
Mai Wing grew pensive. She glanced at him several times and finally paused with a piece halfway to her mouth. “I have a request.”
“You want me to make love to you?”
“What? No.” Mai Wing cocked her head. “Why do you keep bringing up sex?”
“You're female. I'm male.”
Mai Wing started to laugh but caught herself. “Father William warned me about men like you. He said sex is all some Americans think of.”
“Smart man,” Fargo said.
“He was very wise. But my request does not have to do with that.”
Fargo sighed. “Figures. What, then?”
“I humbly ask that you take me with you.”
Now it was Fargo who paused. “You don't know where I'm headed.”
“It does not matter. I can't go back to Hunan. If I do, Master Han will punish me. Or Madame Lotus will, and she is worse when it comes to women. There is no telling what she will do. She is capable of anything.”
“What about your grandpa?”
“I told him I was leaving the camp and begged him to come with me but he refused. He is too afraid of Master Han and the Tong.” Mai Wing sat up. “Will you take me? I promise not be a bother, as you would say.”
“I don't know,” Fargo hedged. They'd have to ride double and it would take a week or more to reach the next town. But she did have a nice body, and those unusually large tits for a Chinese gal.
“Please,” Mai Wing said. “If you don't, I must make my way through this wilderness on my own.”
Fargo snorted. On foot, she stood a snowball's chance in hell of making it out of the mountains. “How far did you aim to go?”
“I was thinking I would return to San Francisco. It is where our ship docked and there are many Chinese.”
“I know. I've been there. But San Francisco is to the west and I'm heading east.”
“The direction is not important. Only that I am free.”
“I reckon I could take you as far as Virginia City,” Fargo said, more to himself than to her.
“There are Chinese there, too, I have heard,” Mai Wing said. “It would do as well asâ” She stopped and her eyes widened.
Fargo heard the rush of footsteps and started to turn. He glimpsed a pair of figures in black and realized it was the Hu brothers a split second before the side of his head exploded in pain and his consciousness was sucked into a great black hole.
Fargo came around with a start and a groan. He was on his back, his left leg bent under him and hurting like hell. His head was worse. It pounded to the beat of an invisible hammer. Propping himself up on his elbows, he slowly rose high enough to look around.
The Ovaro was where he had tied it, thank God. He moved his hand to his holster and was relieved to find the Colt was still there. His hat was upside down next to him.
The fire had burned to a few red embers. Flies buzzed about the dead buck.
There was no sign of Mai Wing.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Fargo sat up. He gingerly explored his head above his ear and found a lump the size of a hen's egg. No blood, though. Evidently, whichever of the Hu brothers struck him did so with the flat of the hatchet and not the edge.
“Bastards,” Fargo growled, and carefully placed his hat back on. Getting to his feet, he roved in a circle, probing the woods.
The girl and her captors were long gone.
Bubbling with anger, Fargo went about gathering additional firewood. He rekindled the flames, half filled his coffeepot with water from his canteen, and put coffee on.
Sullen with anger, he sat and brooded. He had a decision to make. He could forget about Mai Wing and continue on eastâor he could pay the gold camp a visit.
He didn't owe the girl anything. They were strangers who happened to meet in the middle of nowhere and shared a few pieces of venison. He was under no obligation to her whatsoever.
Fargo put a hand to the lump, and winced. He wasn't one to turn the other cheek. When someone hit him, he hit back. When they shot at him, he shot back. The Hu brothers, at Lo Ping's instigation, had given him a hen's egg.
He'd like to repay the favor.
Presently the coffee was ready and he sipped the first cup. Should he leave it be? A smart gent would. A smart gent would get on his horse and light a shuck for anywhere but the gold camp.
He thought about Mai Wing. How she was being forced to do something against her will. Lo Ping had made it plain he would be sticking his nose in where it wasn't wanted.
Not that that had ever stopped him before.
Fargo sighed. His outlook on life had never been live and let live. If he had to sum it up, he would say it was leave-me-be-or-eat-your-teeth.
He chuckled at the notion and it provoked more pain.
Half an hour went by. By then he could think clearly again and move his head without feeling too much discomfort.
The tracks were plain enough. Mai Wing had put up a struggle and dragged her heels until they'd hauled her to where three horses had been tied. She'd been thrown over an animal and they'd headed south.
Fargo did the same. He doubted they would lie in ambush but he kept his hand on his Colt just the same.
Eventually the trees thinned and he came out on a bench that overlooked a winding canyon.
Down the center meandered a stream. On either side the camp had sprung up, a miles-long collection of tents, shacks and cabins, and other buildings. More like a settlement than a camp.
Along the stream, menâall of them Chineseâpanned and worked sluice boxes.
Fargo clucked to the Ovaro and descended. He was almost to the mouth of the canyon when he heard the
of an ax. Rounding a cluster of spruce, he came on a skinny Chinese boy of twelve or so, going at a slim oak with an ax. The boy was terrible at it; he handled the ax as if it were a club.
Drawing rein, Fargo leaned on his saddle horn. “Are you chopping that tree down or beating it to death, boy?”
The skinny kid jumped and turned and nearly tripped over his own feet. He blurted something in Chinese.
“I don't savvy your lingo,” Fargo said. “Any chance you speak English?”
The boy set the ax head down and mopped at his sweaty brow with a loose sleeve. “Little bit,” he said.
Fargo nodded at the oak. “You're going about it all wrong. Who taught you to use an ax?”
The boy seemed to rack his brain before replying. “No one.”
“Could have fooled me.” Grunting, Fargo dismounted. He walked over and held out his hand. “How about I show you how it's done?”
Uncertainly, the boy looked at the ax and then gave it to him. “I not good?”
Fargo touched one of the many cuts in the trunk. They were all over the place. Some were inches apart. “You're terrible. It'd take you a month of Sundays at the rate you're going.” He motioned. “Stand back.” When the boy obeyed, Fargo hefted the ax, and swung, saying, “It needs to go in at an angle. Chop down and then up.” He demonstrated, slicing the ax in a downward stroke, pulling it out, and burying it at an upward slant. Chips flew, leaving a V-shaped gash. “See?”
The boy grinned and nodded.
Fargo continued to chop until he was about halfway through, then lowered the ax and held it out. “Your turn.”
The boy examined the cut as if it were a revelation. “Chop fast now.”
“That's the idea,” Fargo said.
A look of determination came over the boy. He spat into his palms, gripped the long handle, and went at the oak again. The ax was almost too heavy but he managed. His first few blows were awkward but he soon settled into a rhythm.
When Fargo gauged the time was right, he said, “Hold on.”
Breathing heavily, the boy looked up and arched his eyebrows.
“We give it a push,” Fargo said, and placed his hand on the trunk above the cut.
Eagerly, the boy set down the ax and imitated him.
It didn't take much effort. Another cut or three and the oak would have fallen on its own. With a rending crash, the tree toppled, striking the ground with a loud thud. Many of the branches broke and snapped.
Fargo turned to go. “It's all yours.”
“Wait,” the boy said, and clutched his arm. “I have name.”
“Yes.” The boy tapped his chest. “I Chun,” he said. “I chop tree for wood. Sell wood for money.”
“Firewood at this time of year?” Fargo said. “Who would use it?”
“Cold in morning,” Chun said, and wrapped his arms around himself and shivered. “People make fire.”
On second thought, Fargo reflected, the idea wasn't that harebrained. Early mornings were cool in the mountains, and a lot of folks would rather pay for firewood than chop it themselves.
Chun picked up the ax and set to work on the tree.
Fargo debated lending a hand, and turned to the Ovaro. He'd done his good deed for the day and had something more important to do: finding the bastards who damn near caved in his skull. He gripped the reins and the saddle horn and was raising his boot to the stirrups when three men in black came out of the woods.
The boy didn't notice.
They were dressed much like the Hu brothers. All three glanced at Fargo but paid him no more mind than if he were a bug. They came up behind Chun, and as he went to swing the ax, the tallest grabbed the handle and tore it from his grasp.
Startled, the boy turned. He bleated in surprise and fear and tried to run but the other two sprang and each seized an arm.
To Fargo's amazement, the tall one then backhanded the boy across the face so hard, Chun would have collapsed if not for the pair holding him up.
The tall one angrily barked in Chinese and shook the ax in the boy's face.
The other two smirked in amusement.
Chun said something, and the tall one smacked him again. Chun sagged and drops of blood trickled from a corner of his mouth.
The tall one snarled in Chinese and raised his arm to strike the boy a third time.
By then Fargo was there. He streaked out the Colt and slammed it against the tall man's head and the man folded like an accordion.
Surprise rooted the other two, but only for a few heartbeats. Then they let go of the boy and came at Fargo in a rush. The one on the left aimed a kick at Fargo's knee but he sidestepped.
Shifting, Fargo struck him across the temple with the Colt and sent him staggering.
The third man produced a hatchet from his sleeve.
A gleam of metal out of the corner of his eye gave Fargo an instant's warning. He twisted and the hatchet flashed past his throat. Had it connected, it would have sliced his neck wide. Quick as thought, he smashed the Colt against the man's elbow. The Chinese cried out and recoiled, and Fargo was on him.
The Colt caught the sunlight as the hatchet had done; once, twice, three times, and the man ended up in a crumpled heap.
Chun yelled and pointed.
Fargo whirled. The third man had recovered and drawn a hatchet. Hissing in Chinese, the man sought to bury it in Fargo's chest.
Fargo jerked back, barely in time. He unleashed an uppercut with his left fist and caught the man flush on the chin. About broke his hand, too, but the blow flattened his attacker like a poled ox.
Just like that, it was over.
Fargo stared at the three still forms, thinking he could have made it easy on himself and simply shot them.
The boy was rooted in astonishment.
“You all right?” Fargo asked.
Chun tore his gaze from the trio and glanced apprehensively at the gold camp. “Bad,” he said. “Very bad.”
The boy pointed at the men. “Tong.”
“Why were they after you?” Fargo wanted to know.
“Ax not mine,” the boy said.
“You stole it?”
“IÂ .Â .Â . What is word?” Chun scrunched up his grimy face. “IÂ .Â .Â . borrow.” Unexpectedly, he spun and ran into the forest but stopped to look back and gesture. “Go!” he yelled. “Go far.” With that, he disappeared into the undergrowth.
“Well, now,” Fargo said. He checked the Colt and twirled it into his holster. He supposed he should take the boy's advice. But his head still hurt, and then there was Mai Wing.
Forking leather, Fargo rode into the camp.