The Greatest Gift (by Cheaux)

Summary:   Joe overhears what he knows to be a lie, but cannot convince anyone else to believe him.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word count:  7800


 

Ben Cartwright and his youngest son, Joe, heard the ruckus from a 100 yards away and rode up to the ranch house with guns drawn.   They looked around as they dismounted but saw nothing amiss.  Then they heard the cacophony again and realized it was their Chinese cook carrying on in Cantonese and banging pots and pans in the kitchen.

“Joseph,” Ben said, exasperated.  “You take care of the horses, I will deal with Hop Sing.”

“Better you than me, Pa,” Little Joe said as he led Buck and Cochise into the barn.

*****

“What do you think is going on in there?” Adam pondered, looking out the door of the barn towards the house.  He and Hoss had come up from the corral to investigate the noise but Joe had dragged them into the barn quickly before they could get too close.

“Well, it’s somethin’, that’s fer sure!  I ain’t never heard so much yellin’ in all my life,” Hoss said.

“Joe?  Did you overhear what they were saying?” Adam asked.

“Not me, brother.  The yellin’ was going on when we rode up.  We didn’t see anyone else around so Pa sent me in here and I’m not going anywhere near that kitchen until Hop Sing calms down.”

Hoss laughed at the expression on Joe’s face and Adam was likewise bemused. “Since when do you ever do exactly as you are told?”  he asked.

After it grew quiet, the men inched their way into the yard keeping the barn door open just in the event a hasty retreat was necessary.  Although there was no sound coming from the house, they were not so bold as to venture closer than the water trough.  When the front door opened and no one emerged, the brothers looked from one to the other without moving.

“Are you boys going to stand out there all night?”  Ben asked, finally appearing in the threshold.

“No, sir!  Just washing up . . . coming right now, Pa,” Adam responded, grabbing Joe by the elbow and nudging Hoss forward with his shoulder.

The brothers tried to sidestep each other so as not to be the first one inside.  As they reached the front door, Adam gave Joe a shove intending him to move ahead of Hoss, but in a well-practiced move Joe ducked under Adam’s outstretched arms on the right just as Hoss stepped backwards on the left thrusting Adam in front and forcing him to cross the threshold first.

Their father was pacing in front of the fireplace, his hands in his pocket.  The brothers exchanged glances once again and each had but one thought . . . this wasn’t going to be good.

“Boys, take a seat, I have something to tell you.”

Cautiously, Hoss took the settee; Adam draped himself over one arm; and Joe sat on the coffee table, his arms straight and his knuckles white where his hands gripped the edge.

“Hop Sing is leaving us.  He’s going back to China.”

There was silence; then Hoss snorted.

“Aw, Pa, he’s joshin’.  He always says that.  Whatever he thinks we done, we’ll say we’re sorry and—”

“—And just what was it you did?” Ben interrupted.

Adam quickly interjected, “Nothing, Pa, but if Hop Sing is upset with us for any reason, we’ll make it right with him.  We always do.”

“Mmmm.  Joseph?  You’re awfully quiet.  Is there something you also want to confess?” Ben asked.

“Ah, no . . . Pa.  I’ve eaten my whole breakfast every morning this week, honest!”

“But?” Ben queried, knowing his sons all too well.

“I guess we’ve all missed a few meals in the last few weeks, Pa,” Adam spoke up.  “We didn’t mean to, but with the branding, fencing, and—” Adam stopped as Ben interrupted by putting his hand up.

“Never mind, boys . . .  you can relax.  It wasn’t anything you said or did.”

“What was all the yellin’ about, Pa?” asked Hoss.  “It sounded like someone was dyin’ in here!”

“Hop Sing was upset because of some news he received and took it out on the pots and pans.  No harm done,” Ben said, resuming his pacing.

The brothers took turns mouthing ask him!” and “no, YOU ask him” at each other whenever Ben turned away from them as he moved back and forth in front of the hearth.

Finally, Adam broke the silence, “Is that really what you had to tell us?”

Ben took a deep breath and turned to face his sons.  “Yes.  Hop Sing is returning to China to be with his family.”

“How much family could be left?” snickered Joe, “He must have a hundred cousins between here and San Francisco!”

Hoss snorted again and Joe would have joined in if Ben hadn’t given him “The Look.”  Instead, he bit his lip and hung his head, whispering “Sorry.”

“When?” Adam asked quietly.

“As soon as arrangements can be made.”

*****

Within a few days, the news about Hop Sing’s imminent departure had spread among the Cartwrights’ closest friends.  It was a foregone conclusion that Ben and the boys would find some way to honor their friend—for Hop Sing was more than just chief cook and bottle washer.  He had been with them for almost twenty years—since before Little Joe was born—and he had seen them through good times and bad, day in and day out, always at the ready with good food, strong medicine, and tender care whenever it was needed.

It would be several weeks before his ship would be weighing anchor, and Hop Sing had many responsibilities to attend to:  making sure the chuck wagons were loaded for the biggest cattle drive of the year, the ranch’s root cellar and larder stocked—not the least of which was a suitable replacement.  Since they would all be exhausted after the drive, the family decided to throw a farewell party for Hop Sing beforehand.

On Saturday night the Ponderosa was transformed into a magical fairyland filled with well-wishers.  There were colorful Chinese lanterns strung across the yard, in the trees and from the eaves.  Su Ling, the young woman Joe won in a poker game a few months before, had hung wind chimes that caught the evening breeze and tinkled softly.

Sheriff Roy Coffee, Doc Martin, and guests from every ethnic community on the Comstock were there.  Everyone was having a great time and Hop Sing was truly touched, but try as they might, the Cartwrights could not get him out of the kitchen.

“Hop Sing, you’re the guest of honor,” Hoss yelled.  “Ya need to come out here and greet your guests.”

“Too much foolishment,” Hop Sing protested half-heartedly, but allowed himself to be pulled into the center of the activities.

“Where’s Little Joe?” Ben asked Adam quietly.

“In his room.  He won’t come down.  Hoss tried earlier.  Do you want me to go up?”

“No, I’ll go.”

Ben poured himself another cup of punch, said a few words to one of the guests and then made his way into the house and upstairs.  He knocked on the bedroom door and when there was no answer, he opened it anyway.  Although there were no lights on in the room, Ben could see Joe sitting on the window sill, one leg drawn up under this chin and his hands picking at his boot.

“Good punch.   Why don’t you come down and have some?” Ben said lightly.

“I’m not thirsty.”

“Not hungry either?  Some mighty good fixin’s down there.  Mrs. Greenberg and the other ladies set out a magnificent spread.”

Joe turned his head away from his father, laying his cheek on his knee, but saying nothing.

“Son.  Hop Sing is not leaving to punish us.  He has to go.  His family needs him.”

“We’re his family.  We need him, too,” Joe said, rather forcefully and then whispered, “I need him.”

“I know, Joe.  I know,” Ben moved next to his son, putting an arm around his shoulders and pulling him close.  “But sometimes, we have to let go of the ones we love . . . if we love them . . . truly love them.”

“I do.”

“I know.  This is hard on him, too.  He’s loves you almost as much as I do, son, from the moment he first held you in his arms.  But he has an obligation to his own family and he is an honorable man.  You wouldn’t want him to dishonor his ancestors by ignoring his family’s needs, would you?”

“No,” Joe said quietly.  “But—”

“But what, son?” Ben said, lifting Joe’s chin with his finger so he could look him in the eyes.

“I-I didn’t get him anything,” Joe jerked his head toward the window.  Ben looked out and saw a table piled high with going away presents.

Ben smiled and pulled Joe close against his chest once more.  “He needs you to be happy for him and to wish him well.  Can you do that, Joe?  Can you put aside your own heartache long enough to see him off with a smile on your face?  That would be the nicest gift you could give him.”

*****

After washing his face and putting on a clean shirt, Joe joined the party downstairs.  He did his best to remain animated and of good cheer, especially whenever his father or Hop Sing looked his way.   He hated to admit it, but he really was having a good time hearing the anecdotes everyone was telling about Hop Sing.  Most of the stories were familiar, but every once in a while someone shared a remembrance he hadn’t heard before and he stored it up in his memory as a squirrel hordes nuts for a long winter.

After dinner, the guests moved inside.  The furniture had been pushed back to make room for a ribbon dance by Hop Sing’s cousins Numbered 11, 14 and 37 accompanied by Su Ling on the lute.  Joe stood near the stairs watching the faces of guests who were mesmerized by the rhythmic movements of the girls.

Interrupting his reverie, Ben called Joe over to the alcove and handed him a bottle.  “Take this brandy to Mrs. Fleming.  She’ll need it for the cherries jubilee.”

“Right away, Pa,” Joe whistled and threw the bottle up in the air catching it just before it hit the floor.

“Joseph!”  Ben exclaimed in a stage whisper, and then shook his head as Joe’s laugh rang out loud and clear.  “That boy,” he thought.  “As mercurial as the sea.”

Joe cut his laugh short and mouthed a contrite “sorry” to Su Ling, but he continued to chuckle to himself as he turned the corner into the kitchen where he promptly stopped dead in his tracks.

Hop Sing was speaking quietly with a man Joe didn’t recognize.  It was the intensity of the conversation which caused Joe to step back into the shadows and listen.  He knew it was wrong to eavesdrop; his father had chastised him often enough about it, but sometimes it was the only way for the youngest Cartwright to find out what was going on.   In this case, he was probably the only Cartwright to have understood what he was hearing.  Though spoken in hushed tones and in Cantonese, Joe clearly heard Hop Sing tell the man that he would see him in Sacramento.

*****

Joe slid back into the dining room and was trying to get Adam’s attention.

“Adam, psst, Adam!” Joe hissed.  “Come here!”

“What is it, Joe?  I want to hear Su Ling play.”

“It’s important, Adam,” Joe whispered.  “Hop Sing’s not going to China!”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“I just heard him say he was going to Sacramento.”

“Use your head, Joe.  He has to go through Sacramento to get to San Francisco where the port is.  There are no ocean-going ships in Sacramento.”

“No, Adam.  He said he’d be in Sacramento for the Chung Yeung Festival.  That’s after the ship sails from San Francisco and it means that he is not going to China!”

*****

Hop Sing turned just in time to see Little Joe tiptoe out of the kitchen.  He moved stealthily into the shadows vacated by Joe and heard the brothers speaking.  “Little Joe not so easy to fool,” he thought.  He would have to act quickly if he were to divert Adam from giving any serious consideration to Little Joe’s revelation.

The next morning, Adam was the first Cartwright down to breakfast as usual.  As he descended the stairs, Hop Sing was waiting for him.  He bowed slightly and said obsequiously, “Hop Sing begs to ask favor of Mister Adam.”

“Of course, Hop Sing.  What can I do for you?”

“Very sorry,” he said, pulling several pieces of paper out of his tunic.  “—stage, train, ship all different.  Not make sense.  Much easier come here than leave,” Hop Sing sighed.  “Must not go China before Number 7 cousin come Ponderosa.  Not leave Boss alone with hungry sons after long cattle drive.  Not leave before Little Joe’s special birthday.”

“Special?  Oh, his twenty-first birthday.  Yes, that’s special.  He would very much like you to be here for that, Hop Sing, I know.”

“Mister Adam, you look see.  Tell Hop Sing he can take ship from Los Angeles after birthday, yes?”

“Well, let’s see what we’ve got here,” Adam said, spreading the various schedules out on the nearby round table and leaning over to study them.

“I bring coffee,” Hop Sing said and hurried off to the kitchen.

“Mmmm,” said Adam, absently as he perused the papers.  He was so absorbed in his calculations that he didn’t realize the rest of the family had not only finished breakfast but had also received their marching orders for the day.  Little Joe and Hoss were already out the door with a long list of supplies to pick up from the mercantile in town and instructions to not dilly dally getting home before he realized how late it was.

“Sorry, Pa,” he said, joining his father at the table.

“Hop Sing, could you bring some h—,” but before Ben could state his request, Hop Sing delivered a hot plate of eggs, bacon and biscuits to Adam, along with a fresh pot of hot coffee.

“Hop Sing, sit down please,” Adam said.  “Pa, Hop Sing is concerned because his cousin—”

“—Number 7 cousin, you like.  Very good cook.  Hoss very happy; grow big and strong,” Hop Sing said.

“—yes, Number 7 cousin won’t be able to get here until the middle of October so he doesn’t want to leave until then and ideally not until after Joe’s birthday.  He was looking to book passage on a clipper out of Los Angeles in November.  I’ve been looking at the various options available and while it’s doable I think he would be better off taking a ship out of San Francisco as soon as possible.”

“Mmmm,” Ben nodded.  “The winds would be more favorable, too.  I’ve sailed those waters before.  It could be far more dangerous if he waits.”

“No,” said Hop Sing.  “Too soon.  Number 7 cousin not come Ponderosa ‘til middle October.  I wait.  Go Los Angeles; take ship from there.”

“Hop Sing, the ship from San Francisco is a faster ship over a more direct route with favorable trade winds.  If you sail from Los Angeles, your voyage will be much longer because the ship lays over in Sydney before continuing on to Hong Kong.”  Adam looked at his father, knowing what this sudden departure would mean for the family . . . especially Joe.

“Adam is correct, Hop Sing.  I’ve sailed these waters many times.  You should embark from San Francisco as soon as possible before the winds change.”

*****

While Hoss was eyeing the candy barrels in the mercantile, Joe searched the shelves for a gift for Hop Sing but saw nothing that would do.  He knew it would be a while—both for the supply order to be filled and for his brother to make his selection—so he told Hoss he was going over to the saddlery.  As soon as he was outside, however, he sped off to the area of Virginia City known as Chinatown.

Joe wandered among the stalls and shops greeting his many friends there.  His Pa didn’t like him coming to this part of town alone, but Joe felt quite at home here.  He loved the chatter, bright colors, and wonderful aromas emanating from the giant woks that burned hot with delicacies such as kung pao chicken and moo goo gai pan.  Everyone knew him, for at least once a month since he was five Hop Sing had been bringing the youngster here to shop for the special teas, herbs, and spices he used for medicines and cooking. “That’s it!” Joe thought. “I’ll get some of those special herbs for him to take on the ship,” and he hurried off to the apothecary.

*****

“Pa,” Joe argued, “I’m telling you, Hop Sing is not going to China!”

“Joseph, I am not going to continue arguing with you about this.  Adam has told you that he figured out the best itinerary for Hop Sing and it means he has to depart immediately.  Now, before we leave on the cattle drive.”

“But, Pa—” Joe protested.

“Enough!  I know you are upset about his leaving; we all are.  But we have to respect his wishes.  This is something he feels he must do.  We have no claim on him; no right to keep him from returning to his homeland if that is what he wishes.  And I will not have you upsetting him any further.  It’s bad enough you snuck into Chinatown by yourself.  He was quite distressed about that, you know.”

“But, Pa . . . that’s what I’m trying to tell you.  I saw him at the apothecary today.  He was with a white woman and they were talking about his going to Sacramento, not China.  He is going to work for them.  He’s leaving us for another family, Pa!  How can he do that?” Joe’s voice kept rising as he was talking and Ben could hear as well as see his distress.

“Son,” Ben said, taking a deep breath and lowering his own voice.  “Joe.  Come over here, sit down and listen to me carefully.”

Joe reluctantly sat down on the settee and started to sway slightly as his Pa rubbed the back of his neck.

“Joe, Hop Sing had not planned to leave for several more weeks.  He wanted to be here when we returned from the drive, and more importantly, he wanted to be here for your birthday.  But when Adam looked at the schedules, he realized that Hop Sing would have to leave immediately if he were going to sail in fair weather.  We’ve booked his passage and wired the money to the shipping line.  Hop Sing must leave tomorrow and that’s all there is to it.”

“But I’m telling you that I saw Hop Sing at the apothecary shop with this woman and I heard him.  I heard him, Pa!  I heard him say he would be with them in Sacramento for Chung Yeung!”

“And you heard him say this in English?” Ben asked patiently.

“”N-no,” Joe stammered.

“In Cantonese?”

“Y-yes.”

“Joseph, Hop Sing told me he is quite proud of you for having learned all about Chinese traditions like this, this—”

“Chung Yeung.  Ninth day of the Ninth Month.”

“—Chung Yeung festival.  But Chinese is a very difficult language, with many dialects and intonations which can alter the meaning if spoken incorrectly. You simply misunderstood. The ship sails on September 10 from San Francisco.”

Joe was miserable.  Nothing he said or did would convince his father he was right.

Hop Sing again had listened to this exchange from the passageway into the kitchen.  He did not like deceiving the young lion, as he fondly thought of Little Joe, and he knew he would need help in the aftermath of his departure to deal with the consequences so he enlisted the aid of Su Ling.

*****

“How may I serve most venerable sir?” asked Su Ling, bowing deeply.  Hop Sing had located her among the stalls in Chinatown where she was shopping for roots and herbs for Dr. Kam Lee, her benefactor and employer.

“Su Ling,” Hop Sing bowed slightly.  “I need your most able assistance.  Young Joseph is most distressed at my departure from the Ponderosa and has wished to detain me beyond what is prudent given the circumstances.”

“That is indeed most unfortunate, but understandable.  I know in what great regard he holds your most esteemed self as indeed the whole family does.”

“Yes, I truly regret this situation, but you of all persons can appreciate the urgency with which I must travel to Sacramento.”

“Of course.  How may I be of assistance?”

“He observed me with Mrs. Brooks yesterday as I was making final arrangements.  I need to . . . alter his perception about my ultimate destination.”

“I see,” said Su Ling, frowning.  She lowered her eyes when she spoke.  “Forgive this most unworthy girl for questioning the wisdom of an elder, but perhaps this . . . ‘altered perception’ . . . is not a prudent course of action in this instance.”

“Your concern is most appreciated, Su Ling,” Hop Sing replied, “but I have made my decision.  I only seek your help in delivering a message on my behalf.”  Hop Sing handed her a rolled scroll, sealed with wax and tied with string.

“I kowtow to your wishes,” said Su Ling, bowing deeply once again, and placing the scroll in her basket.

*****

It was nearly dusk when Ben rode into the camp at a gallop.  Hoss grabbed his reins and settled the horse down as his father dismounted.

“Where is he?” Ben asked.

“Cookie’s patching him up.  He’s bruised and bloodied—and he’ll be sore as all get out in the morning—but nothing’s broken.”

“I want him out of here!” Adam said angrily, dismounting from his own horse as he rode in from the opposite direction.

“What?” Ben exclaimed.

“You heard me.  I want him gone!  His head is not in the game and he’s a danger to himself and others.  I’m sending him home,” Adam continued as he stomped off toward the chuck wagon.

Ben grabbed Adam’s arm as he passed, “Adam, you can’t do that!”

“Either I’m trail boss or I’m not, make up your mind!” Adam ripped his arm from his father’s grip and continued on the path towards the chuck wagon.

“Adam!” Ben yelled, then turning toward Hoss, he asked, “Laredo told me he could have been killed.  Is that true?” Ben didn’t know whether to be furious or worried.

“Yeah.  Yeah, I reckon,” Hoss said reluctantly.

*****

Cookie had finished washing Joe’s scrapes and bruises and wrapping his bare chest.  He was just putting tincture of iodine on the cut above Joe’s eye when Adam—nearly apoplectic—stormed over to the wagon with Ben in close pursuit.

“Just what did you think you were doing?  You’ve been holding the cut since you were nine years old.  You had more sense then than you showed today!”  Adam yelled as he repeatedly poked Joe’s torso, not stopping even when his brother winced.

“I’m sorry, Adam.  I don’t know what happened,” Joe responded contritely, rubbing his chest.

“Well I know what happened . . . you were careless and stupid and you nearly got yourself killed and someone else with you!”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Sorry doesn’t begin to cover it, boy.”

“Who are you calling ‘boy’?”

“Who do you think?”

“I’m not a boy!  I’ll be twenty-one in a few weeks.”

“If you live that long!  Pick up your gear and go home.”

“Are you firing me?”

“Yes.  Clear out.  Now!” Adam turned on his heels and stomped off.  Ben, who had been watching this exchange with a growing sense of foreboding, looked at Adam’s retreating back and then at Joe’s quivering lip, which was currently about twice its normal size.  Inexplicably—at least to Joe—Ben turned and followed Adam.

*****

“I dunno, Pa,” Hoss said.  “Adam has a point.  Little Joe’s head sure ain’t been on business.”

“Hop Sing?”  Ben questioned.  The family—minus Joe—had said farewell to Hop Sing two days before when they put him on the stage for the first part of his journey to Hong Kong.  Joe was, no doubt, filled with remorse for not saying goodbye.

“He’s still convinced Hop Sing is staying in this country and going to work for another family.”

“Hoss,” Ben sighed.  “I just don’t know what to do with your brother.  Adam’s tried; you’ve tried; we’ve all tried to explain what he’s heard or seen—or thinks he’s heard or seen—is not true.  I don’t know what else we can do, but he’s got to get over this.”

“Let him go, Pa,” a voice said from the shadows.  Adam approached the campfire slowly and sat down on a nearby barrel.  “I don’t want him here in his current state, but I was wrong to tell him to go home.”

“What are you saying, Adam?” Ben asked.

“I’m saying that I think we ought to let him go to San Francisco and see for himself—with his own two eyes—that Hop Sing will board that ship and sail away,” said Adam.  “It’s the only way he will finally let go of this obsession.”

“It’s not an obsession,” Joe said walking into the circle of light cast by the fire’s glow.  “But if it takes my going to San Francisco to prove it to you, I will.”

The camp was awake before first light.  Adam, Hoss and the drovers had gotten the cattle on their feet and moving as dawn was breaking.  Ben remained behind to talk to Joe, who—as Hoss had predicted—was smarting mightily from his bruises.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe insisted as Ben tugged on the bandage around his chest to make sure it was tight enough.

“Of course you are,” Ben replied as he pulled his son’s shirt down.  “Now, listen to me carefully.”

“Yes, Pa.”

“When you get to San Francisco, you are to go directly to the shipping agent, W.T. Coleman & Co. on Wall Street.  They will be able to direct you to the dock where Young America is birthed.  Although you are a couple days behind Hop Sing, the ship isn’t scheduled to leave until next Saturday.   After the ship sails, you are to return home directly, do you understand?”

“Yes sir.”

“No going to the Barbary Coast or to Chinatown.”

“No sir.  When I get to San Francisco, I won’t go to the Barbary Coast or to Chinatown.  I promise.”

“Good.  Now,” Ben said, giving his son a hug, “Be careful.  Ride safely.  Give our best Hop Sing.”

“Goodbye, Pa.  I’ll see you soon.”

*****

After a day of hard riding, Joe was exhausted.  His ribs hurt and his head was pounding,  When he came to the proverbial fork in the road, he decided to take a break and found a tree under which he could take a short nap and Cochise could graze, but sleep alluded him.   He sat up and stared at the signpost.  The road to San Francisco was one way; the road to Sacramento another.  Despite what his family said, he knew in his gut that he was right:  Hop Sing was going to Sacramento, not China.  But if I’m wrong, I’ll miss Hop Sing altogether and won’t be able to say goodbye.  In the end, his gut won out.

*****

Joe’s first stop when he arrived in Sacramento was the bank where the family did business.  One of the Chinese girls who worked in the apothecary shop had told him the name of the woman Hop Sing spoke with:  Mrs. Evangeline Brooks.  The banker informed Joe that she was from a very wealthy family; her father was a state senator and her husband ran a clinic on the north side of town known as Brookhaven.

Never fond of doctors himself, he couldn’t imagine voluntarily wanting to work in a hospital surrounded by sick people.  However, it seemed a pleasant enough place from the front.  Built in the hacienda style like the buildings he had seen in Monterrey, the clinic was a long and low adobe with white stucco and a red tile roof.

Joe entered cautiously.  There was a large tiled atrium and a front desk, but no one was behind it at the moment.

He could hear water gurgling and when he looked through the arches behind the desk he saw a courtyard with a fountain and both hanging and potted plants.  There were benches scattered here and there and some people milling around, patients or visitors he couldn’t tell.  He could see now the building was square, with long covered porticos on each side off the courtyard.

Joe stepped quietly down the corridor, mindful of the tranquil nature of the facility.  Most of the doors to the rooms were closed.  As he rounded one corner he came to a large open area with tables and chairs and a piano in one corner.  A dining room, he thought, and where meals are served, there must be a kitchen.  Sure enough, Joe spied batwing doors at the far side of the room and headed that way when a young woman called out to him.

“Excuse me, sir.  May I help you?” she asked pleasantly enough.

“I found what I was looking for, thank you,” he said and continued towards the kitchen.

She was swift and before he reached the doors, she grabbed his arm.

“I’m sorry sir, but no one is allowed in the kitchen.  Our cook is very strict.”

“You’re telling me!”

“Sir?”

“I’m here to see Hop Sing.  He works . . . used to work for my family.”

“Hop Sing?” the woman inquired.

“Yes.  Hop Sing . . . your cook,” Joe replied.

“I’m sorry sir.  We have no Chinese cook.  In fact, we have no one named Hop Sing working here.  Now please, you must leave,” she said, tugging firmly on his arm.  “We do not permit strangers on the premises.”

Not one to be dissuaded by the mere slip of a girl—even a pretty one—Joe broke easily from her grasp and pushed the doors open.  Aside from the usual array of pots and pans, racks of dishes, and some storage barrels, he saw no one.  He turned back towards the woman, about to say something and ran into a very large, muscled orderly with bulging arms crossed over a massive chest.   Joe gulped and, before he could speak, found himself planted gently, but firmly outside the hacienda.

“Good day, sir.”

“Wait!  I am looking for Hop Sing, our . . . our former cook.  He’s working for the Brooks.”

The orderly stopped and sighed.  “Senator Brooks?  Why didn’t you say so?  Try the main house on the hill.  Perhaps the man you seek is working there.”

“How do I get there,” Joe asked.

The orderly stepped off the porch, walked to the edge of the garden and pointed to a hill about a mile and a half away.

“Thank you,” Joe said, but the man was already gone.

*****

The house was massive.  Joe had only seen pictures of mansions like this in Adam’s architectural books.  Even the silver barons in Virginia didn’t have houses like this.  No wonder Hop Sing wanted to work here.  His cooking skills were legendary in Virginia City and Senator Brooks must have offered him a lot of money to work for them.  It would be prestigious to do so.

Defeated, Joe turned to leave, head hung low.

“Can I help you, young man?” a grey haired woman said as she stood up from the rose bushes where she had been working.   She was dressed in a simple cotton work dress and had a wide brimmed straw hat tied to her head with a silk ribbon.  As she dabbed the perspiration from her face with a handkerchief she exclaimed, “Lordy, but it’s hot today!  Why don’t you come with me up to the house out of the sun.  We’ll have some lemonade and you can tell me all about it.”

“All about what, ma’am?”

“All about that long face.  God didn’t intend a countenance such as yours to be squandered on a frown.  Come along, don’t dawdle.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Joe replied meekly, hat in hand.

She motioned to the swing under a magnificent chestnut-leaf oak that must have been 80 feet high and then disappeared inside the house.  Joe moved in the direction she indicated but stood on the rise looking out over the valley.  From this vantage he could see miles of orchards, gardens, and fields of every kind of crop.  It wasn’t as green as home and it lacked the majestic Ponderosa Pines, but it was a magnificent piece of property.  He could see why Hop Sing would like it here, fresh vegetables and fruit year round, no cold winters.  His misery intensified.  He should just go.  He wiped his nose with his sleeve, put his hat back on, and turned to leave.

He hadn’t even heard her approach, but she was already sitting on the swing.  Her hat off was off and her blue eyes penetrated him.

“Sit,” she commanded, patting the cushion next to her.  “You came a long way.  That’s a Ponderosa brand on your horse, isn’t it?”

“Yes!” he said, shocked that she had seen the brand, much less recognized it.  “You know my father?”

“No, but I’ve heard of the Ponderosa.  My husband was a rancher and a member of the Cattleman’s Association.  Had a Ponderosa steak or two in my time.  Prime beef.”

“Thank you.  I thought your husband was a senator?”

“Goodness no!” she laughed.  “Hiram about had a coronary when Newton went into politics.  Newton’s our son, the senator.  My Hiram’s gone now,” she said wistfully.

“I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am,” Joe said quietly.  “Did he pass recently?”

“Hiram?  No.  Many years ago.  It’s what made David—our grandson—want to become a doctor . . . find a cure.  He’s devoted his life and his inheritance to it.”

For a moment, the woman appeared to have fallen into a trance.  “Lost in memories,” Joe thought.  He wondered whether he should fetch someone, then she snapped back to the present and gazed at him again with those piercing blue eyes.

“Now, what’s that long face all about?”

“I came here . . . to . . . to try and talk Hop Sing into coming home, but I can see you’re good people.  He’d be happy here, so I should just go.  I’m sorry to have bothered you,” and Joe stood up.

“What is a Hop Sing?” asked the woman.

“The name of your cook,” Joe said.

“No one by that name working here.   Did you try the clinic?”

“They sent me up here,” Joe replied more than a little irritated.  His head hurt and he was hot and tired.  Getting up suddenly had made him dizzy.

“I see.   You’re quite sure he is in Sacramento?” the woman was relentless in her questions.

“I thought he was . . . I was so sure.  Foolish.  He said I was foolish and I didn’t believe him . . . I’ve wasted so much time.  I should have gone directly to San Francisco.  At least I could have seen him one last time, told him . . . told him how much he means . . . how much I’ll miss . . . .  Too late now.   Too late.”  Joe looked up at the green swirling canopy above him.  He reached out for the trunk of the tree to steady himself, but missed.  The next thing he tasted was dirt and his world went black.

*****

“Never got around to telling me his name, but I think he’s from Nevada,” the old woman said.

“Mmm, ” murmured Dr. David Brooks, listening to Joe’s heartbeat and checking his vital signs.

“How bad is he hurt?  Looks like he’s been in a fight.”

“Possibly.  Or a fall of some kind.  Nothing broken though.  Dehydrated mostly.  Fluids, food, and a good night’s sleep will do him wonders.  Do you want me to have him moved down to the clinic, Grandmother?

“No.  Let him sleep here.  He looks a sight more peaceful in that bed than he did in the dirt.”

“What’s he doing this far from home?” the doctor asked as he pulled the coverlet up.  A cool breeze had come up now that the sun was down.

“He was looking for someone who used to work for them.”

“Them?”

“The Ponderosa Cartwrights.”

“I recently visited the Ponderosa; met Ben Cartwright and his sons, but not this boy.”

“Well, he thought their cook had come to work for us for some reason.”

“Hop Sing?”

“Yes!  That was the name he said.  How do you know Hop Sing?”

“Dr. Kam Lee introduced us.  Seems he had this patient that he couldn’t do anything for and asked me to take a look.  He’s in the clinic now undergoing treatment.”

*****

“You mean he’s here right now?” Joe exclaimed.  He had awakened refreshed but ravenous the next morning having slept nearly 18 hours.  He was eating breakfast on the east patio with his hostess, Mrs. Mary Newton Brooks, when the doctor came by to check on him.

“Yes, Joe.  He’s here, but he’s very, very sick.  That’s probably why he told you all he was leaving, so you wouldn’t worry.”

“How sick, Dr. Brooks?”  Joe put his fork down, no longer hungry.

“He has a gastric ulcer.  That means essentially a hole in his stomach that is aggravated every time he eats.”

“But you have to eat to live.”

“Exactly, son.”  The doctor didn’t believe in sugar-coating any prognosis.  He saw what false promises and ill-conceived treatments had done to his grandfather and he was determined not to let that happen to his patients.  He had built his practice and the clinic’s reputation using every possible means available to the medical community, including some unorthodox methods such as meditation and herbal remedies.  “The treatment we are using is a new method developed by a British doctor by the name of Foster.  There are no guarantees, but it’s yielded some promising results.  Still, Hop Sing’s prognosis is guarded.”

“What kind of treatment?”

“Essentially, I’ve prescribed complete and utter rest in a recumbent position.  That means no sitting up, no getting up.  No food or water . . . nothing that will cause the stomach to produce acid.”

“For how long?”

“A week to ten days. Then we will slowly reintroduce cool bland food in very minute portions to see if he can tolerate it.  If he can, we build slowly from there.  If not, we may have to repeat the recumbent procedure.”

“But a body can’t live without food and water!” Joe said

“You are correct.  We have been administering nutritive enematas in an effort to sustain him.”

“En-e-what?”

“An enema.  Do you know what that is?”

“Yes,” Joe said, thinking “Ick.”

The doctor smiled at the look on the young man’s face.  “Believe me, Joe, my patients—especially those who have been frightened out of their wits by hemorrhaging—are more than happy to undergo the procedure because it eliminates their distress.  We administer of solution of milk, beaten eggs, beef tea, mixed with a little brandy every two hours.  And once or twice a day, I add a small portion of opium to manage the pain.”

“I want to see him.”

“Joe, he’s in a great deal of pain.  When he arrived from the arduous trip, he was hemorrhaging.  We’re doing everything we can to help him, but he’s very ill.  You must understand that it may be too late to save him.”

“All the more reason for me to see him now,” Joe said as he straightened his back and set his jaw.  The last vestiges of youth dropped away and the boy became a man before the doctor’s eyes.

*****

Joe knelt on the floor beside the bed and held the Chinaman’s hand while he slept.  “He looks so old and small, Joe thought, not believing this was the same man who could carry heavy barrels from the wagon into the root cellar without breaking a sweat, or who would chase him and Hoss around the kitchen brandishing a rolling pin.

When Hop Sing awakened and saw Joe sitting beside him, he started to get up but Joe easily restrained him with one hand.

“Doc said you’re not to move,” Joe said.  Part of him relished being the one to give that admonition instead of receive it, but he’d trade places with Hop Sing in a heartbeat if he could.

“Little Joe should not be here.  Make father very angry.”

“I know, but I had to come.”

“Very foolish, must leave now.”

“The Ponderosa can wait.”

“I go China.”

“No.  You’re coming home with me when you’re ready to travel.”

“Hop Sing not need little boy to tell him what is right.”

“It’s not right for you to leave us.”

“What do you know?  You are foolish little boy.”

“I know how sick you are.  I talked to Dr. Brooks.  When your treatment is over you’ll come back to the Ponderosa.  You belong there . . . with your family who loves you, not with strangers.  You need us.”

“Not need Cartwrights.  Spend many years without them.  You leave.  I go China.”

“All right.  China then . . . only I’m not leaving you.  Not now.  Not ever.”

“Foolish boy.”

“Stubborn man.”

*****

As instructed, Su Ling waited until the Cartwrights returned home before making the journey out to the Ponderosa.

“Su Ling!” greeted Ben Cartwright.  “What a pleasant surprise to see you again so soon.  Will you come in, please, and have some refreshment?”

“You are most gracious, Mr. Cartwright, but I am here to speak with Mister Joseph on a most urgent matter.”

“I’m afraid Joe isn’t here.  He went to San Francisco to see Hop Sing off.  He should have been back long before now,” Ben said, his anger again renewed at Joe’s disregard of his specific instructions to return as soon as the ship sailed.  Oh, he had learned the ship’s departure had been delayed, but did he learn that from his son . . . no!  He had to find that out from the shipping line, just as he had learned of the final date of embarkation.  But a word from his son?  No!

“I’m sorry, Su Ling, I was distracted for a moment,” Ben apologized and then realized she seemed preoccupied and hadn’t noticed his distress at all.  “Is there something troubling you, my dear?”

“Venerable Mr. Cartwright is most perceptive, but should not concern himself with fretting of unworthy girl.”

Su Ling reached into her tunic and withdrew the rolled scroll.  “Please to forgive this humble servant for being the bearer of unhappy news.  I bring message from Hop Sing to family.”

“To fam—?  Su Ling, what are you talking about?”  Ben had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach all of a sudden.  He broke the seal and unrolled the scroll.  It took him a moment to read the small even strokes, but as he did, he blanched.  It was Hop Sing’s Last Will and Testament.

“Su Ling,” Ben asked, “When is the Double Ninth Festival?”

“Chung Yeung is the held on the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese calendar.  This year, the Festival falls on October 21 of your calendar.”

*****

Why hadn’t he believed his son?  That’s what Ben wanted to know.  He was so sure Joseph was mistaken.  They all were.  Joe had long ago proven his “hunches” were more often right than not.  Why was it so hard for them to believe that Joe could see things that they couldn’t?  Once again they had underestimated him.

Before boarding the stage to Sacramento, Ben visited with Dr. Kam Lee and learned the devastating news that Hop Sing had been gravely ill for some time.  As a last resort, Dr. Lee had contacted a colleague who ran a clinic in Sacramento specializing in disorders of the stomach.  Hop Sing had met with the doctor and his wife when they were traveling through Virginia City.  The doctor was the man in the kitchen that Joe overheard the night of the party and his wife was the woman in the apothecary shop.

Ben pulled the scroll out of his vest pocket and read the first page again.  It was—he had learned—a poem traditionally read on Chung Yeung, the Festival honoring ancestors:

As a lonely stranger in the strange land,
Every holiday the homesickness amplifies.
Knowing that my brothers have reached the peak,
All but one is present at the planting of zhuyu.

 

Hop Sing had believed he would die this year.  Was Joseph there in time to say goodbye, to help him climb that mountain?  And what would it do to Joe to bear solitary witness to that journey?  Ben’s heart ached for his son and for his friend.

*****

Upon arriving at the clinic Ben was immediately directed without explanation to the house on the hill a short distance away.  As he walked up the path to the mansion he saw a gathering under the spreading chestnut-leaf oak.

Joseph.

Son greeted father with a fierce embrace and Ben was reassured that Joe appeared fit, although somewhat fatigued and thinner than he thought he should be.  But the smile on Joe’s face was radiant.

“There are some people I’d like you to meet,” said Joe as he handed his father a glass of chrysanthemum wine and guided him around the circle making introductions as they went.

And there, in the middle of the crowd on a chaise lounge, was Hop Sing.

“It will be a couple more weeks before I can come home, Pa,” Joe said.  “But when I do, Hop Sing is coming with me.  Isn’t that the greatest birthday gift ever?”

Although he nodded in the affirmative, Ben thought. “No.  The greatest gift was your birth.”  And he could tell by the way Hop Sing gazed at Joe that the feeling was mutual.

***The End***

August 2010

Author’s notes:  “Holding the cut” is a necessary cowboy skill. Several ranches or outfits would often combine their cattle for a long drive. Separating the cattle according to brand was known as “cleaning up the herd.” After being cut, an animal would try to rejoin its companions. To prevent this, a skillful cowboy would pass the animal on to another rider who was said to be “holding the cut.”  In this story, Adam’s statement that Joe has been “holding the cut since he was nine years old,” is fanon invented by Harper in her story (“Holdin’ the Cut”) which can be found on line at several sites.

The medical treatment (and the enemata recipe) prescribed for Hop Sing was an innovative procedure developed by a UK physician in the mid-1800s.

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