Summary: A story of how Hop Sing came to join the Cartwright family.
Word Count: 6,870
He was a small man. However, he was not so small as most imagined. It was just that he was so often seen bent over, cradling his carpet bag to his chest, and softly walking, running, shuffling along the sidewalk.
No one spoke to him. Most people chose to ignore him. When their eyes met they would be greeted by a wide charming smile from him. Mostly they let their own eyes slide away to look elsewhere.
He had been in the town for two whole weeks. No one knew where he had come from because no one had taken the trouble to ask. No one knew why he was there because they were not bothered. No one knew where he was going because they did not care enough to find out.
He was an enigma. During the day, he was there, seen shuffling quietly about the town with his carpet bag. During the night, he disappeared.
Today was different. Today a man came into the town with a small wagon and two little boys. Well, one little boy and a sweet golden haired toddler.
He watched as the man clambered down from the wagon. He had no intention of prying, but he had all day to do nothing but sit, stand, walk, stare, watch.
“C’mon, Adam, let’s go and see if we can get coffee and milk here.”
“Are you gonna try and git some work here, Pa?”
The high fluting voice of the boy trickled through the traffic of noise and fell upon his ears. He bowed his head. Once he had had a son too, with a high fluting voice. His son had spoken in a language different from this however, and when he had spoken it had been like music to his father’s ears.
“No, son. I want to press on before the winter comes. I’ll just get our basic staples and then we can get going.”
The boy nodded and jumped down from the tailboard. Now he turned and leaned down into the wagon’s interior. From here he produced the infant. Big blue eyes and a round face framed by golden curls.
“Shush, Hoss, be good now.”
Adam pulled the shawl closer around the wriggling infant and struggled to keep him in his arms. It seemed the child had as many arms and legs as an octopus and being a large child, was rather a heavier bundle than the boy could easily manage.
He shuffled quickly from his sheltering shadows and gently took the burden from the boy. He smiled. Sloe black eyes shone in a round face. Boy and infant stared at him.
“Hi,” the boy smiled, and extended his hand, “I’m Adam Cartwright.”
He bowed even though encumbered with the infant in his arms.
“Boy wiggle much?” he observed
“All the time. Fair wears me out.” the boy replied with a grin, “But he’s good most of the time, ‘cept when he’s hungry then he’s a real pain in the…”
“Adam?” A deep voice cut through the boy’s chatter and the tall dark featured man came and carefully set down his bundles in the wagon. He looked at the other man and nodded. “Ben Cartwright.”
The man looked at the extended hand and then up at the face of this Ben Cartwright. The sloe black eyes became even darker, and as he bowed his head Adam was sure he had seen a tear well up in one eye and trickle slowly down the pale cheek.
“Work here, do you?” Ben asked, taking the now calm and still infant from the man’s arms.
“No work. No work at all.”
“You live here?”
“No live here. No.”
Ben pulled a face and looked down at Adam. Adam looked at the man who looked at him before bowing and turning to leave them.
“Wait…” Ben called out to him and he half turned, and looked at him.
There was despair in his face. The black eyes were wells of misery. The mouth drooped with the pathos of the long forgotten.
“What work do you do?”
He stood there in silence. People walked past them and ignored them. The infant yawned, stretched out his arms towards him. The black eyes flickered with love and the sad face shone with the radiance of someone suddenly remembered.
“What work can you do?”
He looked at Ben Cartwright and then at Adam, the boy. He held the infant close in his arms and was reminded of his son as an infant. That was long ago. In the past. In his memories now.
“I cook velly good. Clean house.”
“Could you help build a house?”
“Could help. Not done befoah.”
“Nor me, but we can try together. What did you say your name was?”
“Name – Hop Sing.”
“Hello, Hop Sing. Get on board now, we’re heading for home.”
It was just like that, so instant, so immediate. Two men and two children. A bond created. Hop Sing felt his heart take wings as he knew that now he had a new life of hope extending before him, starting from now.
Adam took the carpet bag and settled it in with Hoss, before clambering in beside his brother. The two men sat side by side not knowing that to-day had been very special indeed. Not only had a friendship been born, but hope had been reborn in one man’s heart.
It was strange, Ben thought to himself as he lounged against the side of the wagon, that in the time he had known Hop Sing, he had never found out much about him. Even now as Ben puffed on his pipe and enjoyed the silence of the evening, watching the little man with his broad smile and dark almond shaped eyes as he played with Adam and Hoss, he knew only what was obvious to all.
Ben frowned slightly. It was somewhat irritating to feel this bond of friendship, and a protective bond at that, for someone who kept himself so wrapped up within himself. Time and again, during the weeks of travel, Ben had wondered if he were actually harboring and protecting a criminal. But Hop Sing – a criminal? The mere thought of it was ridiculous.
What did he know about the man? He was hard working and an excellent cook. He made wild roots and herbs collected on their travels a feast with the rabbit, wild chickens and such that they could snare. Perhaps aged – Ben frowned again – in his 40’s? Willing, kind, gentle, good humored and much loved already by the boys. Was it enough? Ben watched the three as they ran around the camp fire … Adam so slim and dark, Hoss so sturdy and blond and Hop Sing chasing them with a towel flapping in his hand and jabbering away in his Cantonese.
Laughter followed Hop Sing. Good humored, warm, loving laughter because they loved him. Hoss had turned and stopped and held out his arms to the little man and been generously swept up in a close embrace. Ben smiled. All was well.
Hop Sing held the boy close. Every time he held the child, or touched Adam’s cheek or stroked their hair, he was reminded of the child he had been forced to leave a long way behind him in his native land. Sometimes he could have wept with sadness at the memory. He glanced up now and saw the man watching them. Hop Sing felt a tug of protective affection touch his heart. This man had asked no questions, and had trusted him on sight. This man who had loved and lost two women.
Perhaps, Hop Sing surmised as he released the boy to allow him to run off with his brother, perhaps that was the unspoken bond between them. They had loved and lost. Ben had lost his wives…but he, Hop Sing, had lost – so much.
He went to the fire now and stirred the food slowly. It smelt good. He had learned from his wife how to cook. He had learned how to love from her as well. When the Imperial Army had swept through their village those many years ago, they had carried her away with them, her and their son. He bowed his head and felt the tears well up into his throat. His son who would be fifteen years of age now and whom he had known for only four. It was hard to lose a son. In China, a son was truly an inheritance.
He had followed the Imperial Army on foot. It had taken months to reach the Hidden City and he had crept within its walls like a ragged beggar. Two years searching for information had led to nothing except his own imprisonment. Even now he viewed it as a miracle that he had escaped and accepted that his wife and son had to be consigned to the pages of history…and his heart … and his memory.
He stared into the steam rising from the stew. Like intangible threads of his memory, he recalled how he had returned to his village and together with others escaped the country until they had reached America. Hard work for several years on the chain gangs of the railroad companies in various American States. Hard work, such as only slaves could or would carry out.
Then the miracle had happened.
He had escaped and arrived at a town where Ben Cartwright had ridden in with his wagon and his sons. They had met. Hop Sing sighed contentedly, his heart and mind at rest. He had a family again. He was loved.
His sole intention that particular morning was to go into the wood and set about splitting wood. He swung the axe up onto his shoulder and, taking Adam’s hand, had walked into the leaf shrouded copse feeling at ease and happy. For perhaps the first time in many years Hop Sing had found a measure of joy in his life once again. This family had accepted him willingly and with love. He felt deep within his heart that all he ever wanted to do now was to repay their love with total devotion.
The sun was high in the sky when he finally found the perfect remains of an old tree sprawled across the path. Many years previously during some storm the tree had been struck by lightning and had fallen in all its majesty upon the earth. Now it was the refuge of bugs and fungi.
Hop Swing took off his outer jacket and folded it neatly across one end of the tree’s rotting stump. He smiled over at Adam who was standing nearby with a serious expression on his face, and his eyes fixed on something beyond Hop Sing.
“Boy pay attention. Hop Sing splitting wood and you take to father for campfire.”
Adam looked back at the man and nodded, but with a distracted air. Hop Sing shook his head and sighed. The boy, he had decided shortly after their meeting, was a daydreamer and preferred to give his attention to words in a book more than anything he said. He spat into the palms of his hands and rubbed them together and picked up the axe.
“Look, Hop Sing. Over there …” Adam pointed to a direction beyond the woodland and caught Hop Sing wrong footed. The axe wobbled and came to the earth with a whack.
“Hop Sing show boy how to…” Hop Sing began and then paused.
Like shadows, the riders drifted into the wood. Laughing and talking in hushed tones, they bantered together. With a move so swift that Adam had his breath knocked from his lungs, Hop Sing had dived upon the boy, and swept him into the dense cover of the undergrowth.
“Boy – hush,” Hop Sing whispered and placed a warning hand over the boy’s mouth.
Adam needed no telling for he had encountered such situations several times during this journey with Pa. Now he crouched close to the Chinese man’s body and watched as the Indians rode slowly through the trees. The laughing and talking had ceased. It was as though they also had been warned for caution.
Hop Sing watched with narrowed eyes as the riders rode in single file past them. Questions buzzed through his head along with prayers for if these men were to find the little campsite with Ben and Hoss, what would they do? He felt the slight body of the child quiver by his side and knew that the same fears had also come into his mind.
Silence and not a sound of horse or rider for several minutes. Man and boy crept from their cover. Together they listened for sounds of gun fire, the wild whoops of savages, the cries of the victims. There was only silence.
No more thought of splitting wood now. Together they hurried back to the campsite. As they passed through the trees and light dappled them here and there, Hop Sing’s mind seethed with the memories of long ago. The time when his village had been subject to the hostilities of a ruthless provincial Governor, who had been given power and authority from the Imperial Majesty himself. Hop Sing had fled just like this with his son running by his side and his wife, Soo-Li, on the other. She had fallen, cried out to him to take the child. But he had hesitated, faltered, and the child had released his hand from his father’s and fled to the side of his mother.
“Run on. Run on,” she had cried, “I shall follow.”
So he had run to safety. But she had not followed. Now he stopped as the memories overwhelmed him once more. High in the sky a lark sang its song and was joined in rapturous chorus by another. He raised his head high to watch and listen. Back then, in China, there had only been the screams and cries of the dying and the stench of burning buildings and paddy fields. He groaned deep within himself. Here he was so many thousands of miles away from that time and that scene … yet still there was the same hate, the same fear, the same inhumanity to man performed by man. Hop Sing felt his heart break yet again.
It was growing cold now. Autumn was fast approaching and the days were closing in upon the travelers. Ben Cartwright rode beside the wagon with the concerns of the day weighing heavily upon his shoulders. Having Hop Sing as a trusted companion had been an answer to a prayer, even though it had been an unspoken one. He glanced now at the other man who had the reins in his hands and was guiding the horses carefully through the woodland.
Ben was in the act of raising his hand to bring them to a halt when the sounds of other travelers came to his ear. Obviously in haste for the noise of their approach could be heard for miles. He looked at Hop Sing and then back over his shoulder as he wondered about the necessity to find some shelter, some hiding place. Then he realized the futility in doing such a thing, after all, Indians would never have made such a rude announcement of their approach.
Adam peeked through the gap in the canvas and looked anxiously at his father but upon receiving a reassuring nod of the head, he retreated back inside to care for Hoss.
Within minutes the riders made their appearance. Six men, all armed. Ben glanced them over thoughtfully, before looking at the man who appeared most likely, from his garb and bearing, to be the leader. This man was dressed in bespoke city clothes, wore spectacles – although that made little difference to his rank – and rode a magnificent white horse. He was the one who now edged his horse forwards to come abreast of Ben. He extended his hand, whilst his eyes flicked over to Hop Sing, before returning to look at Cartwright.
“I’m James Clitheroe.”
The extended hand was shaken. Clitheroe nodded over to Hop Sing and once again spoke to Ben, “With all due respect, Mr. Cartwright, but I happen to be looking for some Chinese workers who ran off some while back. They signed a contract with me and my Company.”
“What has that to do with me? Or my friend?” Ben said quietly whilst his black eyes narrowed as he now surveyed the other five men who had barely moved but now appeared threatening.
“If his ‘chop’ isn’t on this paper…” Clitheroe produced a piece of paper which appeared to be a perfectly legally written up contract, “then it won’t have anything to do with either of you and we’ll leave you in peace. But if he has left his ‘chop’ on here, then he’s bound to return with us to the railway workings.”
“Railway workings?” Ben frowned and glanced once again at the five men who stared stonily back at him. In some way their five rifles now presented danger.
“I hired a batch of men to work for me on the Pacific line that’s being extended yonder. Twenty men escaped…”
“Escaped?” Ben frowned, “What kind of workings do you run? When you talk about men escaping, you make me think of guards and chains, in which case I wouldn’t blame any man wanting to escape.”
“Wrong word,” Clitheroe said glibly, “They broke their contract and left without permission. They incited a riot in which several men were injured. I could call in the law, you know, and have this man arrested.”
“You have yet to prove that he’s the man you want,” Ben said coldly, “Is his signature on that contract?”
Clitheroe was about to speak when one of the other men yelled “He’s gone!”
True enough. When Ben and Clitheroe turned their heads to observe the wagon, Hop Sing was missing.
Hop Sing felt the ground slip from beneath his feet and the breath knocked from his body as he slid and slithered down an embankment. Of course he had recognized Clitheroe. Of course he had recognized his henchmen with their rifles and grim faces. He knew only too well that once he was back in their clutches it would mean a life of squalor, hunger, brutality. There was nothing back there but an undignified death. He would be just another unknown, a man without a name or history to these Americans who forced a man, and woman, to work beyond their capabilities so that they dropped from exhaustion as a result of their labors.
He lay hidden beneath undergrowth while he struggled to regain both his breath and his senses. He had to think. Could he trust Ben Cartwright now? White men were so unpredictable and had their own code of honor by which they lived. Hop Sing closed his eyes and recalled the time when he had arrived in America along with so many other Chinese. The pleasant faced man who had approached a group of them was kindly and had greeted them in their own language. Yes, he had assured them, they had done wisely to come to America, for there was work for all. He had produced a paper and a Chinese man had come and translated it for them. Everything was so good and Hop Sing had been more than willing to place his chop, his thumbprint, on the paper.
They had been given food and money. The American had told them to enjoy the facilities of the town and then to meet him the next morning when he would take them on the first leg of the journey. It had all been very exciting. Hop Sing had become quite drunk in the anticipation of this new life and had fallen asleep with his companions, light hearted and optimistic of the future.
That was until they had arrived at the camp and at the memory of that day Hop Sing shriveled up inside himself. He curled into a tighter ball and tried to become so small that even a man with the eyes of an eagle would have been unable to espy him.
Ben’s deep voice held a note of command that the boy knew he could not ignore. He would never have ignored his father anyway, but at this present moment of time he would have liked to have done so. Telling Pa the truth at the best of times was sometimes to his disadvantage, telling Pa the truth at the worst of times was going to be … well, very hard.
As he stepped down from the wagon, Adam glanced at the men who sat astride their horses in a ring around the wagon and his Pa. He swallowed and looked at Ben. He knew without doubt that this was going to be a very hard time. He tried to avoid Clitheroe’s hard gaze, but it was impossible to avoid that of his Pa.
“Adam, these men have come to look for Hop Sing. They claim that he worked for them and promised to work for them for a long time. You know it’s wrong to break a promise, don’t you?”
“Yes, Pa.” Adam nodded. It seemed odd to talk about promises that had been made by someone else. Why should it concern him, after all?
“Well, it seems Hop Sing has broken his promise. He’s run away now and Mr. Clitheroe was wondering whether or not you had seen in which direction he had gone.”
“Tell the truth, boy…” Clitheroe said harshly, and he looked threateningly at Ben, who squatted upon his haunches to get to Adam’s level.
“Did you see in which direction Hop Sing went when he left the wagon?” Ben asked his son gently.
Adam looked at his father and blinked. It seemed to him that his father looked at him in a most peculiar manner. An earnestness of look, a wink of the eye, a lift of the brow. The boy bowed his head and then raised his eyes to look once again at his father. Usually telling Pa the truth was a fairly normal matter… Pa would look sternly at him and expect the truth, but he would never act in this kind of way. Adam glanced over at Clitheroe who was glaring at him whilst some of the other men were looking about them in different directions as though Hop Sing was about to leap up from a shrub or from behind a tree to attract their attention.
“Well, Pa …” Adam felt the grip of his father’s fingers tighten round his arm, and a look of anxiety came into the brown eyes. It seemed to the boy that time stood still … he took a deep breath, “One minute Hop Sing was sitting there and then I had to look after Hoss and then when I looked again, Hop Sing was gone. I don’t know where, Pa …”
“You didn’t see which direction?” Ben asked sternly.
Ben nodded, his grip relaxed and he stood up. Adam could sense the feeling of relief that his father was experiencing as he turned to face the other men.
“I’m sorry, we aren’t able to help. The man traveled with us for only a short time, and he certainly told us nothing of his past history.”
“Then you should be more careful who you choose to travel with…” Clitheroe snarled and with a sharp glance at Adam he turned his horse and vacated the camp site.
When the sounds of their departure had finally disappeared Ben looked down at his son and smiled. He placed a gentle arm around the boy’s shoulders,
“Well done, son. You did very well.”
“Sure, Pa.” Adam smiled up at his father. He wondered, briefly, if his father had expected something other than the truth. His next thought was … where did Hop Sing go?
Hop Sing cradled his head in his arms and huddled into the foliage that grew in rich abundance along the river’s edge. He dared hardly to breathe yet every breath was a prayer that he would survive this latest ordeal. He could smell his own sweat and recognized the stench of fear.
As he cringed against the river bank, his mind drifted back to the years when he had been a free man. Free from fear, persecution and memories. He had been born in Nanchon, which province had been established since the Sung dynasty in the 12th Century. He had been born to a well-connected family but had still been the only child of six to have survived infancy. He had prospered. His extended family was large with many cousins, some poorer, some richer. He had lived and been happy and had never known the meaning of fear.
Hop Sing sighed as his memories lingered over those years with Soo-Li. What joyful times they had shared together, and what happy moments when their son had been born. No man, he was sure, could ever have been happier. He could recall her graceful body, and the sloe blackness of her long-lashed eyes. But he groaned within himself as he realized that he could not recall the sound of her singing anymore. The only sounds he remembered was her urging him to run, run to freedom.
But there had been no freedom. Not here in this supposed land of the free to which he and many of his cousins had fled. Here he was huddled in a mess of stinking reeds, smelling of the same fear as he had all those years ago in China when he had fled from his burning village and later, when he had escaped from the prison where they had chained him.
He strained his ears now to hear what was happening about him…surely the white men would seek and find him. Would they have dogs? He had seen the dogs they used to hunt down runaways at the camp where so many toiled to build the great railways. If he heard dogs, where could he run? He thought of the campsite, of Ben Cartwright and the children. He could not run there, he could not bring danger to them. Had it not been for Adam, he would never have had the courage to run from the wagon. It had been the boy’s urging that had sent him fleeing to what, he prayed, would be safety.
Time ticked away the minutes and trickled into hours. He huddled there, terrified to move, stiff and cold … night fell, dark and forbidding. It was a night he would never forget.
Adam Cartwright stirred lightly in his blankets. Something had trickled through his sub-conscious and prompted him to awaken. It was hard to open his eyes for his lids felt as though they were glued together. He stifled a yawn and looked around the shadows within the confines of the wagon. One familiar dark shadow within the shadows was missing. He forced his eyes to look more intently for that well loved shape elsewhere but there was no doubt at all, his father had gone.
He listened intently. His ears seemed so sharp now that he could hear more than the gentle snoring of his infant brother who slept beside him. He could hear the horses cropping grass, humphing as they lolled their big bodies down to sleep, or their hooves treading down upon the tussocks as they walked to a more generous patch of greenery.
Out there it was dark. He was aware of the darkness outside because of the depth of the shadows within the wagon. Very slowly he crept over and peeked through a gap in the tarpaulin. The sky was full of pin pricks of light. Clouds obscured the moon’s luminous presence. He saw the black shapes of the horses. Trees, like skeletons with hundreds of talons, swayed in the very lightest of breezes, blacker than the night, silhouetted against the blue black of sky.
Now he could hear other sounds. Dogs baying. Barking.
Hop Sing raised his head and sighed. Thus far he had come in this promised new world of freedom. No further now, he could hear the dogs, freedom and life was over.
Something gripped his foot.
Fear was an emotion so strong now within him that he had not even the strength to cry out. He merely sighed in acquiescence and bowed his head.
Could anyone else have a voice such as this man’s? Hop Sing swallowed bile, vomit, fear. He looked up and into the dark eyes of Ben Cartwright. Words gushed round and round in his brain as he struggled to find the English words among all the Cantonese that were caught up in the maelstrom of adrenalin that was now coursing through his body.
“Hop Sing, come with me.”
The little man clutched at the hand reaching out to him. There were times when trust had to over-ride other emotions and in all the short time he had known Ben Cartwright, he had learned that he could trust him. He gripped the hand tightly and was carefully assisted from his hiding place.
They stood together on the banks of the river and observed one another closely. Two men from different worlds. Two men drawn instinctively together through the aching loss of loved ones that ate through their whole persons.
“Give me your jacket, Hop Sing. Then take this horse and ride across to the other side of the river. When you get there, keep to the shallows and ride as far from here as you can. Do you understand?” Ben pushed the reins of the horse into the other man’s hand as he spoke and in exchange took the worn jacket that Hop Sing had been wearing on the day they had met.
“They have dogs…” Hop Sing whispered and sighed deeply; he bowed his head and shook it from side to side. “They will find me.”
“Not if I have anything to do with it. Hurry now, man, hurry.”
Ben gave him an impatient push, and reluctantly, slowly, maddeningly slowly, Hop Sing mounted the horse. It was Ben who slapped the beast on the rear, sending it into a fast trot towards the river. It made the barest of splashes as it entered the water and slipped into the darkness of the night.
Ben held the jacket close to his chest and smelt the odor of sweat and toil, of something unpleasant, and something sweet. For the briefest moment he paused, and then quickly turned and mounted the horse waiting patiently in the shrub. There was little time to lose now. He could hear the dogs drawing closer.
He tied a rope around the jacket and then mounted up into the saddle. He dug his heels into the beast’s sides and keeping his head low he galloped away from Hop Sing’s little hiding place, away from the campsite where his sons slept. The jacket bounced behind him along the ground, tossed this way and that, snagging on stones, on branches of shrubs, leaving a trail wafting, seeping into the earth it passed over.
He rode for an hour to where they had last made camp. He dismounted, untied the jacket and tossed it into the branches of a tree. Then, with a last glance about him, he remounted the horse and made a swift turnabout towards where the wagon awaited him.
It had taken several hours. The moon slid from her hiding place and shed down light. A small white face peeked from the gap in the tarpaulin and a thin blanket covered the boy’s shoulders. Adam, the sentinel, raised his head, blinked wearily, smiled.
“I was waiting for you, Pa.”
“You should be asleep.” Ben’s voice was gruff; he was tired, and anxious, and the boy being there, waiting for who knew how long, gripped his heart in a paroxysm of fear.
“I couldn’t sleep without you here, Pa.” Adam yawned and put out his arms towards his father who swept him up into his embrace.
“It’s nearly morning,” Ben said softly as he held the boy tightly, and the black curly headed child nodded, pushed his head into his father’s shoulder, and sighed.
“Did he get away, Pa?”
“Hush. Go to sleep.”
Again the child sighed and his warm breath was like the kiss of an angel upon his father’s cheek. By the time Ben had settled him down upon the cot beside Hoss, the boy was sound asleep.
The dogs howled in unison. They leapt up and down in the hysterical whinings of the pack that had found its prey. One succeeded in gripping the jacket with its fangs and pulling a shred down. Then another pulled it to the ground.
Clitheroe watched and scowled. He sat astride his horse and failed to see the beauty of the pink and orange and gold dawn of a new day. He saw the old jacket, the slathering dogs, the remains of a cold dead camp fire.
“He’s given us the slip, boss.”
He glared at his foreman and tight-lipped, he turned his horse’s head, and stared out over the horizon. “Someone made sure that he would,” he growled.
“You thinking of that Ben Cartwright?”
“Who else would bother?” Clitheroe hissed through his clenched teeth. His jaw ached, his temples throbbed, he had unconsciously had his teeth clenched for so long that it was a wonder they had not cracked.
What was so important about this particular Chinese? Why had he felt so compelled to hunt him down, humiliate him in front of all his peers back at the rail workings? He was just a little man. Just an ignorant peasant of a man. A man with no voice. No strength. Nothing. A nothing. Clitheroe spat a stream of spittle into the cold ashes of the fire. “We’ll find him. Let the dogs get the scent.”
“They’ll only be going round in circles,” Smithson advised, taking off his hat deferentially. “They’re hungry, boss. We all are, and tired with it…”
Clitheroe straightened his back and looked at the men sitting like so many listless mindless sacks of coal. The dogs had torn the jacket into pieces now. He dismounted and walked among them, picked up part of what had been a sleeve. He felt the material soft between his fingers. There was a pattern woven into it, and he frowned more deeply. This was not the material a peasant would have worn. It was not a garment to be cast aside so easily. He stared down at it and the eye of a dragon winked back at him.
Two days had passed and Ben Cartwright wondered once again as he prepared the morning meal, how Hop Sing had fared. Was the little man safe from his predatory followers? Had he reached safe harbor? He sighed and stirred the oatmeal without enthusiasm. He knew it would be eaten by his sons without enthusiasm as well. He ladled it into the bowls and looked over at Adam, and then at Hoss. “Breakfast anyone?”
A mutinous look slipped over Hoss’ face and the blue eyes screwed up. “Don’t want it.”
“Come on, Hoss, it’s good for you,” Ben cajoled.
“Adam, come and get your breakfast, and make sure Hoss gets his,” Ben said sharply. He had more on his mind that getting them to eat this thin gruel. He walked over to the wagon and picked up his rifle, and turned to face the horsemen as they rode into his camp.
“Good morning, Mr. Cartwright. We meet again.”
Clitheroe glanced about the campsite, at the two children, at the dark young man cradling the rifle in his arms. He smiled thinly. “I see you are still without your friend. He has not returned home then?”
“He’s a long way from home,” Ben replied honestly, “What do you want here, Clitheroe?”
“Just passing by,” the other man replied, and he looked again at the two children. “You’ve fine sons, Mr. Cartwright.”
“I have,” Ben said quietly, his voice deep with its softening tone.
“You should be more careful then with what you do with your life. It would be a shame for them to be without their father.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Just that if I knew for sure that you had helped that man escape the other evening, your life would not be worth living.”
“Is that a threat, Mr. Clitheroe?”
Their eyes met. Cold steel caressed freezing ice. Then Clitheroe turned his head away and shrugged. “Just a warning.” He said nothing more, but urged his horse forwards. Behind him his men followed with their dogs. Hoss clapped his hands, delighted to see the animals and oblivious to their danger. Adam merely placed a gentle hand on his brother’s shoulder as a protection against harm. Within a few minutes, they had all disappeared from sight.
He was just a little man. No one took much notice of him as he walked with his quick shuffling pace along the board walks. He paused here and there to scrutinize the faces of the men that passed him. It was hard at times for him to distinguish the features of the white men although the face of the man he sought was distinctive and one he felt sure he would never have forgotten.
It was summer again. Warmth from the sun bathed his bones. He felt renewed energy. Time had passed and he was free. He was a long way from railroads, and slavery. He had found some of his cousins and worked with them, lived with them. It had been a fine time for healing the wounds of his mind and heart.
Soo-Li no longer haunted him. She was a sweet visitor in his dreams and he could awaken with a smile having heard her voice and that of his son during his sleeping hours. Life was renewed with optimism and hope. Now he was here, looking for his friend.
His number four Cousin twice removed had told him of a man with two children who had arrived in the small settlement four days walk from their settlement. In a few months time, both settlements would merge into one as new settlers arrived to build their homes, erect stores, section off land for planting and harvesting. That was still future and Hop Sing was not that much bothered about what would happen to these settlements, his only concern now was finding this man with the two children.
Ben Cartwright counted out the money slowly. He had worked hard to earn the money but it had been honest labor and he had gained the respect of the family by whom he had been employed. His sons had eaten well over the weeks and been given new clothing. He looked down at them now and felt a glow of pride touch his heart at the sight of them.
Hoss pointed to the window. Jars of sticky toffee and candy in all colors of the rainbow had caught his attention. He pointed and jabbed at the window.
“All right, son, I get your drift,” Ben said with a chuckle in his voice and he ruffled the blond hair gently before lifting the boy into his arms, “Adam, keep an eye on the wagon. I’ll not be long.”
The older boy said nothing, but stepped back to the vehicle and placed a hand on the neck of the nearest horse. It nodded its big head as though pleased at the unexpected gesture. Even a horse could be grateful for affection.
Ben was not long in the makeshift store. He came out of it with some provisions in his arms and Hoss by his side, chewing contentedly on something sweet and certainly likely to cause havoc with his digestion.
The big man put his hand on the rail to hoist himself up onto the seat, then paused. The little man who sat there beside Adam nodded and smiled, cheeks round like apples, black eyes like sloes disappearing into the creases created by the wide smile on his face,
“I bling back hoss you gave me,” he said. “Best you get in saddle, Mistuh Ben, then I take wagon.”
“Take the wagon? Where?” Ben asked, his words swallowed by the boom of a laugh that had escaped him quite involuntarily at seeing Hop Sing so merry and cheerful, even, he observed, quite glowing and plump.
“Home, Mistuh Ben, home.”
“But we don’t have a home yet,” Adam said looking alternatively at Hop Sing and his father with a grin on his face.
“Will have, will have some day, soon,” came the cheerful reply from the little man who had taken the reins in his hands with a determination that quite amazed Ben. Surely this was not the lackluster friend of bygone days?
Hop Sing nodded and smiled again, his eyes twinkled. Wherever it was that they would settle, wherever it happened to be that they would build their house, they would be together, and it would be – their home.