The sound of hammers clanging against iron could be heard for miles as workers laid rail across the broad plain. It was a steady rhythm, with men driving spikes into the ties just as soon as other men set them into place. Save for the clanging, the workers themselves made very little noise: they’d learned early on to work in silence, their heads down and eyes focused on their individual tasks. There was still the chance that one of the gwailo bosses might come up and beat them for no good reason, of course, but despite that threat, they continued on with their work, hoping that one day the dreams that had brought them to America would be fulfilled. Sadly, they were unaware that the chances of a Chinaman becoming anything more than a common laborer in this country were terribly slim.
Up and down the rail line, the workers kept up the pace. At one section, a pair named Jin and Fong were busy moving a wooden tie into the spot of earth another worker had just leveled. As they bent down to settle it in, Jin overbalanced and fell, the tie barely missing him as it hit the ground. Fong rushed over to make sure his friend was all right, but he soon saw the glassy stare in Jin’s eyes and felt the heat coming off his bone-dry skin.
“Why are you two coolies laying down on the job?” O’Rourke, the team boss, yelled as he stomped over to them. Like many of the Chinese in the railroad’s employ, Fong only understood a handful of English words, but he could read the angry expression on O’Rourke’s face very clearly. “We’ve got a schedule to keep, so get up right now! Chop-chop!” He slapped his meaty hands together violently.
Fong tried to tell O’Rourke what was the matter, but the man had him so flustered, he couldn’t think of the proper words in English. Instead, he made a cupping gesture with his hands and raised them to his lips. In response, O’Rourke slapped Fong’s hands back down, saying, “It ain’t lunchtime yet, you little slant-eyed bugger! Now get up!” He went to grab the two of them and haul them up, but Fong pushed O’Rourke away, wrapping his arms protectively around his friend, which didn’t please their boss at all. He kicked the Chinaman, yelling at him to get on his feet that instant, while the other workers continued on with their jobs, sparing only the briefest of glances their way so as to not incur O’Rourke’s wrath as well.
Then something hit O’Rourke square in the back, hard enough to send him sprawling in the dirt beside the two Chinamen. “Who the Hell did that?” he said as he turned over, itching to throttle whichever coolie had attacked him. But when he looked up, he saw a white man on horseback, casually slipping his dusty boot back into the stirrup. Between the noise of the hammers and O’Rourke’s haze of anger, he hadn’t heard the man ride up.
“Ain’t no reason tuh be treatin’ them fellas like that,” the man said.
“And you ain’t got no reason to be kickin’ me in the back.” O’Rourke climbed to his feet, glaring at the newcomer. Whoever he was, he certainly was an ugly cuss: though his face was partly hidden by the Confederate officer’s hat he wore, what O’Rourke could make out looked like it wouldn’t be out of place on a church gargoyle. “Why don’t you get a move-on before I decide to make both sides of your face match?”
The man said nothing, but then his left hand came up fast as lightning and reached across his waist, towards the ivory-handled Dragoon tucked under his belt. O’Rourke’s eyes widened and he stumbled back, but then he saw the hand pass over the gun and continue on behind the man, and when he brought it back, he was holding a battered canteen, which he promptly tossed at Fong. The Chinaman caught it and, amidst many expressions of thanks in his native tongue, uncorked it and began to pour the water down Jin’s throat.
“Not so fast, yuh’ll drown him,” the man said, then turned his scarred visage towards O’Rourke. “Workin’ out here in the hot sun day after day, an’ yuh ain’t never seen a man with heatstroke afore?” Before O’Rourke could reply, the man spurred his horse and continued on.
O’Rourke watched him go, then realized how quiet it had gotten. He turned around to see most of the workers standing there, stunned to see their loudmouthed boss put in his place by the gray-clad stranger. He waved a hand at them, shouting, “This ain’t no stage show, dammit! Get back to work!”
“Jackass,” Jonah Hex muttered under his breath as he rode parallel to the rail line. He considered turning around and adding a few more boot-prints to the man’s backside, then dismissed it. His destination was in sight, and he’d already wasted enough time following that false lead on his quarry. This time, however, he was quite sure he was on the right track.
The town of Tanglewood hadn’t been much to look at in its early days, but now that the railroad was rolling right up to its doorstep, the place seemed to have grown overnight. It was a lovely spot of civilization in the middle of nothing, offering just about anything a wandering heart could desire. For Hex, that desire was simply to find Big Dan Willis, collect the bounty on said man, then grab a bite to eat and retire to a room that was hopefully free of bedbugs. The sooner he took care of the first two, the sooner he could see about the last two. Catching sight of a saloon, Hex dismounted out front and tied his reins to the hitching post. The way his luck ran, he’d have to hit every damn watering hole in town before he came across Willis, but he had to start somewhere.
Jonah entered the saloon, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible as he scanned the room. A man played piano in the corner, the music mingling with the patrons’ voices and the sound of glasses clinking about until it all became just a wall of noise. Girls in low-cut dresses fawned over half-drunk men as a young Chinese man scuttled about, cleaning up after the white customers. Reckon he wasn’t lucky enough tuh get a job on the rails, the bounty hunter thought sarcastically as he rolled a cigarette, never taking his eyes off the room as he did so. He watched the Chinaman go about with his bucket and rag from one mess to another, slipping between people like the star of some busboy ballet, until one man stood up a mite too fast and jostled the Chinaman right into the neighboring table, where a card game had been in progress. Drinks, cards and poker chips flew everywhere, the majority of them landing on the poor Chinaman as he plunked down on the floor. The men at the table leapt to their feet, cursing and threatening him with bodily harm, but unlike before, Jonah didn’t intervene, he merely hung back and continued to smoke as he watched the room. Then he saw that one of the card players, whose back had been to Hex previously, had a very familiar face. He took a final drag on his cigarette, crushed it beneath his boot, and strolled on over.
“I had a full house, you clumsy slant-eye!” the man was saying as he started to reach for the Chinaman, but he stopped and turned around when he felt Hex tap him on the shoulder.
“Howdy, Willis....remember me?” Jonah said, then belted the man across the jaw, sending him flying into another table, the other patrons backing away from the fracas as quickly as possible. “Thet’s fer pepperin’ muh coat with a load of buckshot o’er in Santa Fe,” the bounty hunter informed Willis as he took hold of the man, then slammed a fist into his gut. “This here’s fer tellin’ thet whore tuh send me in the wrong damn direction.”
Willis spat on him, saying, “That was my sister, you mule-faced sonovabitch.”
“Like Ah said,” Jonah quipped, then threw Willis towards the bar, cracking the man’s head against the mahogany front. “An’ thet’s fer...aw, Hell, Ah’ll think of something later.” Jonah grabbed Willis by the collar and nodded with satisfaction when he saw the man was out cold. He looked up at the bartender and asked, “Y’all got a sheriff ‘round here?”
“S-s-south on Main, two blocks,” he replied.
“Much obliged.” Jonah touched a finger to the brim of his hat, then hoisted the unconscious Willis over his shoulder and headed out of the saloon. The noise level in the place didn’t rise back to normal until he was well out of sight, and even then, all the chatter seemed to be focused on what had just occurred. Only the Chinaman, however, dared to walk over to the door and watch Hex as he went down the street to the sheriff’s office, and he didn’t stop watching until the bartender ordered him to start cleaning up the mess.
Later, as the sun began to set, a discussion was held in one of the shanties on the edge of Tanglewood. The majority of the Chinese who worked for the railroad lived there, for while the gwailo had no problem with using them for cheap labor, they certainly didn’t want these strange Celestials living amongst the white population like equals. So the Chinese made do like they always had, fashioning shacks out of whatever materials they could and relying on each other for what they needed. It was far from the best arrangement, but they had little choice in the matter.
There were some Chinese, however, who knew that their people’s normally-reserved nature could very well be their undoing. Thus did three of the elder Chinese sit together that night to discuss the precarious situation. One of them, Mei Xiao-Ping, was well-respected by all in the shantytown, and consulted often on matters of great importance. He and the other two elders spoke at great length that evening, interrupted only by Mei Ling, Xiao-Ping’s daughter, who would bring them a fresh pot of tea when it was needed. They discussed the many wrongs visited upon them by the gwailo: the lack of respect, the physical abuse, the meager wages that were occasionally reduced further without reason, or even not paid at all. It all seemed to take the shape of a vast mountain before them, daunting in its scope and completely impassible.
Then one of the elders mentioned something that his son had told him: earlier in the day, he’d been rescued in the saloon by a strange-looking man dressed in gray, who had beaten up a gwailo that was threatening the young Chinese. This man, who had a face like a demon, was spoken about with both fear and respect by his fellow whites, and even appeared to be on the side of the law. The second elder nodded in agreement at this, saying he’d also heard from many of their people about a demon-faced man in gray coming to the defense of Chinamen, in this case out by the rail line.
Once they had finished telling their tales, Xiao-Ping sat back and stroked his thin beard, lost in thought. Perhaps this was the answer to their problems: a strong, sympathetic man who could act on behalf of the Chinese, and who had the ability to make the gwailo listen to him. As Mei Ling set down another pot of tea, Xiao-Ping spoke of his intentions to go to this man and plead their case. The other two men agreed: of the three elders, his English was best, so he seemed the wisest choice. Now they just had to hope he could find the words to persuade the man in gray.
Jonah Hex lay on his bed in the Grand Hotel, his boots off and his belly full. Capturing Big Dan Willis had brought him a decent payday -- four hundred dollars -- and he’d celebrated with a nice juicy steak and a bottle of good whiskey. He figured on resting in Tanglewood for a day or two before picking out some new owlhoot from the wanted posters in the sheriff’s office, but for now, the only thing he was hunting was a good night’s sleep. Blowing out the lamp on the bedside table, Jonah tucked his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.
His eyes flew open five minutes later when he heard someone coming up the stairs at a fast pace -- not running, but definitely with a sense of purpose. He got up and, grabbing one of his Dragoons, pressed himself flat against the wall beside the door. There was a chance that he was getting keyed up over nothing, but he’d been in too many situations where “nothing” had turned out to be a big something, and he wasn’t about to totally relax just yet.
Sure enough, the footsteps stopped outside his door, followed by a swift knock. “Who is it?” Jonah said, pointing his gun at the door.
“It’s Jenkins, Mr. Hex, from the front desk. There’s someone downstairs to see you.”
“Why don’t they come on up themselves?”
“Well...frankly, sir, the management here doesn’t allow Chinese on the premises. I’m really not even supposed to let them in the lobby, but...”
“Chinese?” Jonah echoed. “Ah don’t know any Chinese.”
“That may be, sir, but he’s asking for you just the same. I think he wants to hire you.”
Hex’s brow furrowed, then he said, “Tell him Ah’ll be down in a minute.” He lowered his gun, then put his boots and coat back on. He had to admit, he was intrigued by the notion, but he couldn’t imagine why a Chinaman would want to hire him. Maybe some fella ain’t paid his laundry bill in a while, he thought as he strapped his gunbelt on.
He left his room, and as he was halfway down the stairs, he spotted an old Chinese man standing near the hotel door, close enough to it that Jenkins could hustle him outside if the manager came by. “Y’all wanted tuh see me?” Jonah said as he walked over to him.
The Chinaman bowed slightly, saying, “Good evening, Mr. Hex. My name is Mei Xiao-Ping. I have heard very much about you.”
“Everybody does, it seems,” he replied. “There a reason fer this social call, Mister Ping, or did y’all just want tuh impress yer friends by sayin’ yuh met me?”
“Mister Mei, if you please,” he gently corrected. “And yes, I am here for a very good reason. I wish to ask your assistance in a matter of injustice.” The old man seemed to draw himself up a bit straighter as he said, “For many years, my people have suffered at the hands of yours. I have been informed that you witnessed some of this suffering very recently.”
“Ah’ve seen muh fair share.”
“Then you know what I speak of. My people have endured much, with little in return. We have toiled long and hard for a reward that always eludes us, yet our desire for that reward does not diminish.”
“Muh heart bleeds fer yuh,” Jonah said flatly. “Don’t see whut one bit of this has tuh do with me, though.”
“We want to end this suffering, Mr. Hex. We want to be given the rights and the respect that we deserve...and we want you to help us achieve that.”
“Me? Who the Hell do yuh think Ah am? President Grant?” he scoffed. “Yo’re barkin’ up the wrong tree, mister, if’n yo’re lookin’ fer somebody tuh fix all yer woes.”
Undeterred by his reaction, Xiao-Ping said, “I know it is a difficult task, and it cannot be achieved overnight, but with a man of authority like you representing us -- one who believes in our cause -- we could finally make our voice heard.”
Hex narrowed his eyes at the man. “Do y’all even know whut Ah do fer a livin’?”
“You are a hunter of men. You uphold the law by bringing those who break it to justice.”
“Thet’s right...an’ Ah don’t do it fer free, neither, so unless yuh got a few hunnert dollars stashed under them pajamas,” Jonah said, pointing at the simple Chinese garments Xiao-Ping wore, “we ain’t got business.”
“But...but we do not have that sort of money. My people barely make enough to survive from day to day. That is why we need your help.”
“Whut y’all need is tuh grow a spine. Every Chinese Ah’ve ever seen gets spooked the second a fella raises his voice, an’ thet’s half yer damn problem.” He hitched his thumbs on his gunbelt and said, “If’n yuh want respect, yuh gotta earn it, an’ yuh sure as Hell ain’t gonna earn it by hidin’ behind somebody else. Ah’m sorry, mister, but Ah ain’t the fella yo’re lookin’ fer.”
Xiao-Ping stood there silently for a moment, then said, “No, it appears that you are not. Forgive me for burdening you with our troubles, Mr. Hex.” He bowed to Jonah once more, then turned and walked out of the hotel.
As the Chinaman left, Jenkins let out a chuckle from his place behind the front desk. “Whut’s so damn funny?” Hex said to him.
“The whole idea of it,” Jenkins replied. “A coolie trying to hire a white man? What was he gonna have you do, guard the laundry?”
Hex was about to tell the man to shut his pie-hole, then stopped when he recalled that similar thoughts had gone through his own mind before coming down. With a grunt, the bounty hunter went back up the stairs to his room. Once he got there, however, it took him some time before he could nod off to sleep.
The next day, O’Rourke and some of his men were standing outside the canvas tent that served as a field office for the railroad crew. They’d been shooting the breeze when one of them nudged O’Rourke, saying, “Looks like something’s up, Sam.”
O’Rourke turned to where his man was pointing to see an old Chinaman walking the length of the track, saying something very loudly in Chinese to the workers as he passed them. Many would pause briefly, then turn back to their tasks, but some of them would lay down their hammers or other tools and begin following the old man -- by the time he reached the tent, there were well over a dozen men behind him.
“What’s all this about?” O’Rourke said as he stepped towards the old man. “Why in blazes are you stirring up the workers? We’ve got a schedule to keep, dammit!”
“You schedule will not be met, unless you give my people what they ask for,” Mei Xiao-Ping said. “We are men, and we ask to be treated with respect, and to be properly paid for the work we perform. Most of all, we ask for dignity, and we expect to get it before one more inch of track is laid.” When he finished, the workers behind him let up a shout, some raising their fists in the air and shaking them at their boss.
While the other railroad men looked concerned over the display, O’Rourke simply stood there, hands in his pockets, and after a minute or so, he calmly stepped forward and said, “Alright, that’s enough! Quiet down now.” Then he turned to Xiao-Ping. “So, it sounds like we’ve got some things to settle up before we can get back to work.”
Xiao-Ping looked the larger man in the eye and silently nodded.
“Okay then...hey, Pat!” he called to one of his men, who came running over. “Why don’t you and the other boys go in the tent and fetch Smith and Wesson. I think they’re just who we need to help settle this matter.”
Pat looked confused. “We ain’t got nobody named...” he started to say, then O’Rourke held up a hand.
“In the tent,” he insisted. “Sitting on a trunk next to my desk...you get me?”
“Yeah...yeah, I gotcha!” Pat grinned, then walked over to the tent, waving to the other men to follow.
“Okay, fellas, listen up!” O’Rourke said to the Chinamen gathered before him. “I want all of you to stand in a nice line facing the tent so Smith and Wesson can get a good look at you when they come out. Make a real nice impression, y’know?” After a bit of coaxing, they began to do as he asked, and when O’Rourke was satisfied, he smiled and stepped away from them, saying, “That’s perfect. Pretty as a picture, you are.”
Xiao-Ping frowned and looked towards the tent, wondering why no one had come out yet. Then he saw O’Rourke’s men step through the flap...and then he saw the guns. He started to turn around, telling his people to scatter, but it was too late: the railroad men brought up their rifles and revolvers, leveled them at the neat line of Chinamen, and fired. Screams rang out with the shots as the workers tried to flee, only to be shot in the back before they could get out of range. Some of the Chinese still at the tracks ran over to help, the chaos of the scene overriding logic, and they too were cut down by O’Rourke and his men.
As the shooting ceased, a thick, whitish cloud of gunsmoke drifted over the area, obscuring the carnage. O’Rourke strode purposefully through it, pausing briefly to examine the bloodied bodies sprawled on the ground before him until he found Xiao-Ping, badly wounded but still alive. “Did you really think you were the first Chink to get uppity on me?” he growled at the old man, then cocked the hammer back on his Smith & Wesson revolver, which Pat had fetched for him. “The railroad pays me well to keep the line moving, no matter what obstacles get in the way...so believe me when I tell you this ain’t personal.”
One final gunshot was heard, followed by O’Rourke yelling at the remaining Chinese, “The next time one of you thinks about talkin’ back or slackin’ off, you’d best remember this, ‘cause I sure as Hell won’t hesitate to do it again!”
Three miles away, the residents of Tanglewood went about their business, most of them thinking that the rumble they’d heard coming from the direction of the railway camp had merely been dynamite charges going off.
“N-n-no, sir.” The barber stood beside Hex with a straight razor in his hand. He’d already given the bounty hunter a trim, and was now halfway through the shave, but he’d become too intimidated by the task before him to finish. “It’s just that...I mean, I...I would hate to...you know...”
“Do yuh honestly think a little slip with thet razor’s gonna make things any worse?” Jonah turned his soaped face so that the hole where his right cheek used to be was more prominent. “Hell, if’n yuh improve it enough, Ah might actually tip yuh.”
The comment did nothing to bolster the man’s confidence, but with a gulp, he continued on anyways. He was nearly done when a young Chinese woman banged open the door to the barber shop, startling him so bad that he nicked Hex’s ear. The bounty hunter cursed and sat up in the chair, but before he could check to see how bad the cut was, the woman came up and slapped the good side of his face. “You killed him!” she said, then struck him again. “You told him to do it and you killed him!”
“Dammit, woman, whut are yuh goin’ on about?” Jonah grabbed her wrist as she came in for another blow, then shoved her back so hard that she fell to the floor. “Ain’t bad enough thet Ah’m bleedin’,” he muttered, tearing off the towel draped over his front and using it to wipe off the shaving soap. “Now Ah’ve got tuh deal with some fool China girl thet’s gone out of her head.” He got out of the chair and stood over her, saying, “Whut’s yer beef, anyhow? Ah shoot some fella y’all was sweet on?”
“My father. You killed him...you...” She stared down at the floor and started crying, arms hugging her chest.
“Stop thet...Ah said stop.” He pulled her to her feet, his fingers digging into her slim arm. “Listen tuh me: Ah ain’t killed no Chinamen, so whoever yer father was, Ah’m not...”
“His name was Mei Xiao-Ping,” she said haltingly. “You spoke with him last night...told him to deal with the gwailo bosses himself, and now he...he’s...” The tears took over again, and she leaned against Jonah’s chest. The bounty hunter was too stunned to do anything but put his arms around her as she sobbed. Then he noticed the barber still standing there, staring at them. “Get out,” Jonah growled at him.
“Me? B-but this is my shop. You’re...”
Hex’s face darkened as he said, “If’n yuh don’t, Ah’m gonna take thet razor an’ make us look like twins, yuh savvy?” The barber did indeed savvy, and beat a hasty retreat into the back room as Hex guided the woman over to the chair. “Whut’s yer name, sugar?” he asked.
She took a moment to compose herself, then said, “Mei Ling.”
“Okay, Mei Ling, tell me whut happened.”
Slowly, the details of the massacre came out -- one of the workers who’d witnessed it firsthand had told her, just as others had spread word about it amongst all the Chinese in the shantytown. “My father was a peaceful man,” she said once she’d finished. “He never would have provoked the gwailo if you hadn’t told him it was the only way to make them listen.”
“Ah didn’t tell him tuh provoke nobody. Ah said him an’ the other Chinese weren’t never gonna earn any respect if’n they didn’t...” Jonah paused, reflecting on his choice of words the previous night: Whut y’all need is tuh grow a spine...thet’s half yer damn problem. He turned his face away from Mei Ling, saying quietly, “Ah didn’t mean it like thet, Ah swear.”
“If that is not what you meant, then why did you say it?”
He didn’t have a good answer for her, so instead he asked, “Does the sheriff know ‘bout this yet?” She shook her head, and he told her, “Then Ah’ll go talk tuh him. Probably won’t take muh word fer it since Ah wasn’t there, so y’all go on home an’ find some of yer folks thet’re willin’ tuh speak up on the matter. Kin yuh do thet fer me, sugar?”
“Yes...yes, I can.” Mei Ling got up from the chair, then paused at the door long enough to say, “And thank you.”
Once Mei Ling had left the barber shop, Jonah turned his attention to the mirror hanging behind the chair. There were still a few unshaven whiskers on the right side of his jaw, not to mention a streak of blood running down his neck from the cut on his earlobe. He picked up the towel again and wiped the blood away, then dug a coin out his pocket and laid it on the barber chair. “The job yuh did ain’t worth two bits,” he called towards the back room as he went to leave, “but Ah reckon Ah owe yuh thet much fer all the ruckus.”
Since the sheriff was already aware of Hex’s reputation, with him having hauled Big Dan Willis into the man’s office the previous day, Jonah figured that he could at least talk the sheriff into writing up a bounty for O’Rourke and the other railroad men. This, of course, was presuming that the sheriff didn’t go out and haul them in for murder himself. The sheriff’s actual response to the whole matter, however, was far from what Jonah expected: the lawman gave him a bored look from behind his desk and said, “So?”
Jonah somehow managed to keep his composure as he replied, “So there’s a half-dozen skunks walkin’ around this town thet think they kin get away with gunnin’ down twenty men! Whut’s tuh stop ‘em from pullin’ leather on anybody else thet rubs ‘em the wrong way?”
“Don’t you think you’re blowing this a bit out of proportion?” The sheriff leaned forward and clasped his hands together on the desk. “I’m not saying that Mr. O’Rourke can act with impunity around here, but we’re only talking about Chinamen. It’s not like he shot up the saloon. I’m sure that he had a good reason for disciplining...”
“Since when is killin’ unarmed folk considered ‘discipline’?”
The sheriff flinched back at the harshness of Jonah’s voice, then said, “Mr. Hex, you’ve only heard about one side of the incident...and that was from someone who wasn’t even there, if I understand you correctly. Did you think to check with O’Rourke before storming in here?”
“Ah didn’t have tuh. From whut Ah’ve seen of him, he strikes me as the sort thet wouldn’t think twice ‘bout shootin’ a Chinese.”
“So you don’t actually know if he did.”
“Yuh callin’ me a liar, boy?”
“Look, let me make it clear to you,” the sheriff said as he got up from his chair. “Before the railroad came along, Tanglewood was little more than a livery and a whorehouse. But that’s changed now, and the people that live here are very grateful for those changes, which means that they’re very grateful for the railroad. It’s brought a new life to this place, and I’m sure they’d be very, very upset with anyone that came along and tried to disrupt that new life.” He came around the desk and stood toe-to-toe with Jonah. “Sam O’Rourke is the representative out here for the rail company, which means if I hauled him in, the work on the railroad would most likely grind to a halt. If that happened, then all that extra revenue the railroad’s bringing to town would also grind to a halt. Now, under any circumstances, losing the railroad’s money would have the townsfolk in an uproar...but under the circumstances you’re describing?” The sheriff shook his head, saying, “No one in this town would sacrifice all that just for the sake of a few dead Chinamen.”
Hex’s eyes narrowed. “Wonder if them folks would change their minds if’n they knew their town was bein’ built on corpses?”
“Whatever you’re thinking of doing, forget it.” He pointed a finger at Hex. “If you interfere with the railroad in any way, I swear that...”
Quick as a rattlesnake, Jonah grabbed the sheriff’s extended finger and bent it backwards until it snapped. “Ain’t polite tuh point,” Jonah said, then left the office as the sheriff fell to his knees, holding his broken hand.
Though Mei Ling had tried as hard as she could, she’d only managed to persuade three of the workers to speak up about what they had witnessed. The fear of further retribution had silenced the rest, as least as far as speaking to other gwailo about it was concerned. Now, Mei Ling and the three workers were sitting in the one-room shack she had shared with her father, waiting for Jonah Hex to show up with the sheriff. She did her best to hide her grief from the others, even though it felt like it was consuming her heart like fire. The only thing that helped was the thought that the killers would be brought to justice -- like her father, she tried to always follow the peaceful path, but she knew those men could not be allowed to hurt anyone else.
There was a knock on the shack’s door, and Mei Ling jumped. The workers tried to hide their nervousness as she opened the door, but to their dismay, they saw only Jonah Hex standing on the other side, hat in hand. “Ah’m sorry, Mei Ling, but the sheriff ain’t comin’,” the bounty hunter said. “Reckon now I see whut yer father was gettin’ at.”
The workers behind her asked in Chinese what was going on, and she told them, surprised at the calmness of her voice. She then said to Jonah, “Thank you for trying, Mr. Hex. It...it was very kind of you.” She bowed slightly to him, then began to close the door, only to have it blocked by Jonah’s hand.
“Yo’re gonna give up on this, ain’tcha?” he asked her. “Yuh cain’t let them get away with this, sugar. Yuh’ve gotta fight.”
Mei Ling could feel her facade of calm cracking at his words, and tears began to flow again as she said, “We have seen what happens when we fight, and it solves nothing. What will more fighting do other than cause more of us to die?”
“Whut if y’all weren’t the ones doin’ the fightin’?” He pushed the door open the rest of the way and stepped inside the shack. “Yer father thought thet somebody like me could make the railroad men listen tuh yer demands, but Ah thought y’all would be better off doin’ thet yerselves.” Jonah paused, took a deep breath, then said, “Ah was wrong, an’ I want tuh help y’all fix this mess.”
“But you said the sheriff...”
“Tuh Hell with the sheriff. It’s only O’Rourke thet we need concern ourselves with. If’n y’all back down now, after whut he did, yuh’ll never have a moment’s peace. Tomorrow, me an’ him is gonna have a little chat, see if’n maybe Ah kin get him tuh meet some of yer demands.” Jonah scratched at his chin, then said, “Of course, like Ah told yer father, Ah don’t work fer free...be bad fer muh reputation if’n Ah started doin’ things like thet. Ah’m gonna have tuh charge yuh fer all this help.”
Mei Ling appeared crestfallen as she told him, “It may be some time before we can pay you anything. Most of the workers make about ten cents a day...and that’s only when the gwailo bother to pay them.”
“Ten cents a day, eh? Sounds like a fair rate, under the circumstances.” Mei Ling looked at Jonah in confusion, and he explained, “Ain’t no rule thet says Ah cain’t take a pay cut. If’n y’all only make ten cents a day, then Ah’ll charge yuh the same.”
The workers stared at Hex in shock after Mei Ling translated the conversation for them. A white man willing to work as cheaply as a Chinaman? The fact that he was going to help them was incredible enough, but this new piece of information was almost unbelievable. They came up to him, talking animatedly in Chinese and trying to shake his hand, but Jonah got a sour look on his face and said to Mei Ling, “Call ‘em off, will yuh? Ah ain’t even done nothin’ yet!”
Sam O’Rourke walked the length of the track, satisfied by the sight of dozens of Chinamen silently going about their work. None of them so much as lifted their head as he passed by, but if they had, O’Rourke would have simply patted the revolver holstered at his side to remind them of what he said yesterday. It wouldn’t be very practical to keep shooting the workers, of course, but if that’s what he had to do to keep a sense of order around here, then dammit, that’s what he would do.
He was heading up the track in the general direction of the field office when he saw one of his men running towards him, a panicked look on his face. He skidded to a stop before O’Rourke, gasping for breath and pointing back the way he came. “What the Hell’s going on? Spit it out!” O’Rourke said.
“There’s...a guy...told...” The man took a few deep breaths, then managed to get out, “A guy with a gun...drove us out of the office. Told us not to come back in without you.”
O’Rourke cursed under his breath, then started to run himself. He saw Pat and some of his other men standing a good distance away from the tent, and he yelled at them, “You idiots let one man scare you off?”
“You ain’t seen him yet,” Pat replied, a hand rubbing the bruise forming on his jaw.
O’Rourke pushed past them and headed for the tent, his gun now drawn. He nudged the flap aside with the barrel, saying, “I’m coming in, so don’t try anything.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” a voice answered, and O’Rourke soon saw Jonah Hex sitting behind the sawbuck table that served as a desk, his feet propped up on it as he leaned back in O’Rourke’s chair. Jonah had even helped himself to one of O’Rourke’s good cigars, and he blew smoke towards the man as he said, “Wish Ah could say it’s a pleasure tuh see yuh again, but it ain’t.”
“What are you doing here? Come to kick me in the backside again when I’m not looking?” He stalked up to Hex, his gun pointed directly at him. “Get out of here before I decide to splatter your brains all over the canvas.”
“Do yuh really want tuh try thet? ‘Cause Ah promise yuh, y’all won’t even live long enough tuh regret it.” Jonah’s hand drifted as easy as you please down to his own revolver. “As yuh kin see, Ah ain’t no unarmed Chinaman.”
O’Rourke kept his gun up for a few more seconds, then slowly let it drop. He normally wasn’t the sort of man to back down, but the cold look in Hex’s eyes unnerved him. “Who are you, anyways? And why do you got such a bug up your butt about how I treat my workers?”
“Ah’m not too fond of seein’ folks get pushed around, thet’s all. Now normally, Ah wouldn’t get so deeply involved in other people’s affairs, but from whut Ah’ve seen of how things work ‘round here, there ain’t nobody else thet’s gonna.” He took another drag on the cigar, blowing smoke rings with the air of a man who didn’t just have a gun trained on his head. “So Ah said tuh muhself, ‘Jonah boy, yuh kin spare a bit of time tuh teach these jackasses some manners. Ah’m sure they kin be downright reasonable once yuh get tuh know ‘em.’” There was a faint smile on his face as he said, “An’ seein’ as how Ah’m gonna be representin’ yer workers fer the time bein’, Ah reckon the two of us is gonna get tuh know each other real well.”
“Like Hell we will. I don’t have time for this nonsense, I’ve got a railroad to build.”
“Yuh want it built, Ah suggest yuh make the time.” Hex gestured towards the tent flap, saying, “All’s them Chinamen want is a fair wage an’ no more abuse, an’ Ah’m gonna be hangin’ around here every damn day tuh be sure they get both.”
“And what if I don’t give it to them?”
“Then they walk off the job, plain an’ simple. An’ if’n yerself or one of yer men harms even one of ‘em in retribution, Ah swear thet Ah’ll make the whole lot of yuh suffer fer it.”
“Is that a threat?”
Hex swung his feet off the desk and leaned forward in the chair. “Do Ah look like the sort of man thet stops at threats?” O’Rourke didn’t answer, but Hex could see in the man’s eyes that he most certainly understood. The bounty hunter nodded in satisfaction and said, “Now then, how about yuh take a seat? We’ve got some negotiatin’ tuh do.”
This whole situation wasn’t the sort that Jonah was used to finding himself in. Normally, all that was required of his services was a fast gun and nerves of steel, not going back and forth over increasingly-fine points in a contract. But he told Mei Ling and the other Chinese that he’d do his best to help, so that’s what he did, talking to O’Rourke until Jonah wondered if his tongue might unhinge and fall out of his mouth. He also wondered how in blazes people actually managed to do stuff like this for a living -- the thought that every lawyer, politician, and businessman must eventually go mad from constantly prattling on like this crossed his mind more than once.
After they’d hammered out a deal (and he was relatively sure the railroad men would stick to it), Hex paid another visit to Mei Ling, and soon found himself talking at ridiculous length again, this time with the two Chinese elders Mei Xiao-Ping had met with before his death. They wished to know the details of the deal Jonah had struck on behalf of their people, so he laid it out for them: double their previous wages, along with payment of any money that had been withheld from them over the past few months. Unfortunately, none of this would be immediate, as O’Rourke claimed that his coffers were empty, and the money would have to be sent to them from the rail company’s headquarters back east. Jonah thought it was a damned lie, and said so, but he was willing to give O’Rourke the three weeks it would supposedly take for the payroll to reach them. After that, Jonah promised he would perform the task he was better suited to and bust some heads until the money turned up. The elders were pleased to hear the news...or at least, Mei Ling told Hex that they were. Since their knowledge of English was a bit spotty -- and Hex didn’t know one iota of Chinese -- she served as translator during the meeting, filling in the parts that one party or the other didn’t understand.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, Jonah’s schedule varied little: he’d spend the day out by the rail line, riding his horse at a slow walk up and down the length of it as he made sure O’Rourke and his men kept their word about no longer harassing the Chinamen. There would be the occasional incident between the two groups, but Hex defused them easily enough, and everything would go back to normal. Despite O’Rourke’s predictions to the contrary, work didn’t slow down in the least -- in fact, some of the Chinamen seemed to be working even harder now that they didn’t have that constant cloud of fear hanging over their heads -- but that didn’t stop O’Rourke from throwing Hex a glare every time they passed by each other.
When work was over for the day and the Chinamen made their way back to the shantytown, Jonah would accompany them, just in case the railroad men decided to pull something on the sly. Once he was assured that all was well, he would speak briefly with Mei Ling and the elders, to let them know how things were progressing. At first, this constant reporting annoyed him -- he didn’t think it was necessary, as very little changed from day to day, but the elders insisted on it -- but he soon found himself looking forward to it just so he could see Mei Ling. Though they rarely said a word to one another that didn’t concern the business with the railroad, the sound of her voice gave Jonah a feeling that he hadn’t experienced in a long time, as did the soft touch of her hand against his when she would give him a cup of tea. It struck him as strange that Mei Ling would make him feel that way, since he was reasonably sure his heart had turned into a dead lump of muscle in his chest years ago. He still experienced lust, of course, and wasn’t above spending a few dollars at a whorehouse every month or so to quell that age-old urge, but this most certainly wasn’t lust he was feeling.
Trouble was, he didn’t want to feel like this: he’d become quite contented with the notion of being on his own for the rest of his life, thank you very much, and didn’t need to complicate things by becoming attached to some woman. Which is probably why Jonah was rather surprised to find himself lingering outside Mei Ling’s home one evening. The elders had already left, and Hex had been in the process of leaving as well, but just couldn’t bring himself to take up his horse’s reins and actually get moving. He stood beside the animal, one hand on its neck, as his brain tried to override the impulses coming from his very-much-alive heart, until the horse got tired of its master’s indecision and nudged him back a step with its nose. “Y’all ain’t helpin’,” he said to it, to which the horse replied with a snort. Jonah snorted himself, then turned away from the horse and went over to the door of the shack.
The door was partway open, and Jonah could see Mei Ling clearing away the cups on the low table in the center of the shack’s single room -- her back was to him, and his eyes lingered on the delicate curve of her neck, then slid down the simple Oriental dress she wore, all the while the unwanted feelings inside him growing stronger. Then she turned around, giving out a small gasp when she saw him in the doorway. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hex, I thought you had left,” she said. “Is something the matter?”
Jonah stepped into the shack, fumbling with his hat as he did so. He held it close to his chest, looked down at it, rolled the edge of the brim beneath his fingers...basically anything he could think of to do that didn’t involve talking. Finally, he came up with something reasonably innocuous to say: “Y’all had any supper yet?”
She hesitated a moment before replying, “No, not yet.”
More brim-rolling, then he said, “Kin yuh...Ah mean, would yuh like tuh have supper with me? Ah ain’t talkin’ nothin’ fancy or anything like thet, Ah just...” He forced himself to look at her. “Ah’d just like some company, thet’s all.”
Mei Ling said nothing, and Jonah began to wish he’d never even tried to speak with her like this. Then a small, demure smile came to her lips, and she said, “I would like that as well.”
Jonah was too stunned to speak for a moment, but he managed enough rational thought to put his hat back on and offer Mei Ling his arm so he could lead her out. The two of them made their way into Tanglewood proper -- there was a small restaurant within the Grand Hotel, and Jonah figured it would do just fine. When he and Mei Ling entered the lobby and began to walk towards the restaurant area, however, Jenkins popped out from behind the front desk. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hex, but you know the rules,” he said as he stepped in front of them.
To tell the truth, Jonah’s mind had been so focused on Mei Ling that the hotel’s rule about no Chinese on the premises had been briefly forgotten. He wasn’t about to admit that, though, and said to Jenkins, “We’re just goin’ tuh get a bite tuh eat, whut’s the harm in thet?”
“I’m just doing what management told me to do, sir. You can come in, but the woman’s going to have to wait outside.”
“Listen, skunk, all’s we want tuh do is sit down an’ have a nice quiet supper, an’ if’n yuh don’t get out of muh way, Ah’m gonna...”
“Can I help you, sir?” The hotel manager came out of the restaurant, and behind him, more than a few diners were looking up from their meals to see what was going on in the lobby.
“Yeah, Ah’d like tuh have a word with yuh ‘bout this stupid ‘no Chinese’ policy. Ah’m a payin’ customer, dammit, Ah’ve got a room upstairs, an’ y’all ain’t got no right tuh tell me who Ah kin an’ cain’t invite tuh supper.”
“If that’s how you feel, perhaps you’d be better off checking out of this hotel,” the manager replied.
The bounty hunter began to take a step forward, intent on knocking the manager flat, but Mei Ling held onto his arm and said, “It’s all right, Jonah. Let’s just leave.”
“No, it ain’t all right. Ah’m sick tuh death of the way people act in this cussed town. Ah’ve got a good mind tuh set a match tuh the whole damn place an’ be done with it.”
“Jonah...please, I want to leave.”
His jaw set tight, his hands balled into fists, Hex didn’t look like he was about to back down. But Mei Ling’s words slowly overrode his rage, and he turned around to walk out of the lobby. It was a difficult thing to do, it wounded his pride, and he stayed silent as he and Mei Ling walked around town, the setting sun painting the buildings in shades of red and orange. After a while, she said to him, “It was kind of you to invite me, even if it didn’t work out how you wanted.”
“It ain’t fittin’, the way people treat yuh,” Jonah replied, his face showing no emotion.
“No, it’s not...but you’ve been helping to change that.” She leaned against his arm as they walked. “I do not see any need to be violent about it, though. We already know where that path leads.”
“Sometimes violence is the only thing folks understand. Y’all kin talk as sweet as yuh want tuh them, but a good right cross works better.”
“But you understand more than that.” Mei Ling stopped walking and stood in front of him. “There is a gentleness inside you, yet you seem determined to deny its existence.” She took hold of his hands, running her delicate fingers over the scars and calluses upon them, then said, “What happened to you that you would choose to live this way?”
Jonah’s eyes dropped to the ground as he quietly said, “Wasn’t completely by choice. Ah just...it’s just how things came about. Yuh don’t always get tuh decide where life takes yuh.”
“Do you ever wish it had taken you somewhere else?”
“Not tonight, Ah don’t.” He was surprised at how easily he said that, after being so flustered before. Then he looked at Mei Ling, who didn’t seem surprised at all, and took a deep breath. “Sugar, Ah...it’s been a long time since Ah told a gal this, but...but Ah...” His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he tried to force the words out, but they seemed stuck. God ,when was the last time he’d said this? Too damn long ago, so long that doing it now was like working a rusty hinge.
To his relief, Mei Ling gave him a way out: she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him softly on the lips. That simple action freed up whatever inhibitions were holding Jonah back, and he wrapped his arms around her and picked her up off her feet, holding her close as they kissed some more. He could feel his heart swelling with emotion, just a sheer joy and passion that he hadn’t felt in years, to the point where he couldn’t imagine why he’d tried so hard to quash it.
Unfortunately, Jonah’s attention was so fixated on Mei Ling that he never noticed the man watching them from the shadow of a nearby building. When the two of them had sated their desires long enough to continue walking, the man followed, doing his best to stay out of sight in case Hex suddenly turned around. It never happened, though, even after they made their way into the shantytown -- the man stayed with them the whole time, stopping only when he saw the bounty hunter and the China girl enter one of the shacks. “So that’s the way it is, eh?” the man said under his breath, then hightailed it back the way he came until he’d reached the town saloon. “Boss! Hey, boss!” he yelled as he ran up to one of the poker tables.
“Quiet, Sullivan,” O’Rourke said, not even bothering to look up from his cards. “I’ve already lost eighteen dollars tonight, and I’m not letting these boys get another penny out of me.”
“But, boss...I figured out how to get rid of Hex!”
That got O’Rourke’s attention. He looked at Sullivan and said, “You’d better not be joshin’.” Sullivan insisted he wasn’t, and O’Rourke folded out of the game. “Now, what’s all this about?” he asked once the two of them stepped away from the table.
Sullivan laid it all out for his boss, starting with the argument he’d overheard when passing by the Grand Hotel, and ending with what he saw in the shantytown. “Judgin’ by the way him and that little coolie was actin’ out in the open, I’d say things are gettin’ pretty hot in that shack right about now, if you know what I mean,” Sullivan said.
O’Rourke pulled at his bottom lip as he mulled over the information. Ever since Hex first stuck his nose into their affairs, he and the other men had tried to come up with a way to get rid of him permanently. But once they learned of Hex’s reputation, none of them were willing to risk a confrontation with the man, not so long as there was a possibility of him being armed -- even going after him at night up in his hotel room seemed risky, not to mention the witnesses that might crop up. However, if he was in the midst of having relations...and doing it out in that shantytown, to boot...Hell, it was too perfect to pass up. “Go round up as many of the fellas as you can find,” he told Sullivan, “and meet me back here. Make sure everybody’s got a firearm of some sort too. We’re gonna make that ugly sonovabitch sorry he ever set foot in this town.”
Despite Sullivan’s innuendoes, the couple didn’t jump right into bed the moment they entered the shack. Jonah did have some sense of decorum, and even though he’d passed many a night with all sorts of women, he’d never forced himself on any of them. That simply wasn’t his way. As he stripped off his gunbelt and coat in between kisses, he began to notice Mei Ling’s increasing hesitation. “Did yuh change yer mind ‘bout me?” he asked, trying to hide the disappointment he felt.
“No, it’s just...” A blush came to her cheeks. “I have never been with a man before.”
Jonah tried not to laugh as he thought, Is thet all? Then he said to her, “If’n yuh want tuh stop, we will. I ain’t gonna make yuh do anything yuh don’t want tuh.”
She laid her head against his chest as they stood in the middle of the room, their arms around each other -- she could hear the strong beating of his heart, feel the warmth of his body, and a sense of trust and safety came over her. “Just go slowly,” Mei Ling said. “That’s all.”
He agreed, and they did. Whenever she hesitated again, he stopped until she told him it was okay, eventually moving to the woven mat that Mei Ling used for a bed. As she began to slip out of her dress, Jonah pulled off his longjohns, and in the flickering candlelight, she could see the dozens of scars all over his body. She’d grown used to seeing the ruin on the right side of his face, but hadn’t imagined that the damage went even further than that. He caught her looking, and without a word, he gently took her hand in his, guiding her fingertips over the old wounds on his chest and belly. “Do they hurt?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Depends,” was all he said, then pulled her closer to him on the mat, draping the blanket over them as he did so. Before they got much further than that, however, Jonah’s body suddenly tensed, the look in his eyes going from ardor to anger in a flash. Mei Ling, fearful that she was the cause of that look, said to him, “What’s wrong?”
Jonah didn’t answer, he simply pushed her away and rolled out of bed, reaching for his gunbelt on the floor as he did so. He nearly had it in his grasp when O’Rourke, his own pistol already drawn, kicked the shack’s door wide open. “Sorry to interrupt,” the man said, then took aim at Hex and fired. Luckily, the gunfighter was already in motion, and the bullet missed him by a hair. The two men coming in behind O’Rourke, however, were able to draw a better bead on Hex, and nailed him square in the thigh and shoulder, causing him to fall to the floor. Despite the blood gushing over his bare flesh, Jonah tried to get up, only to find the muzzle of a rifle shoved in his face. All the while, Mei Ling screamed, huddled within the blanket like a child.
“Well, that was easy,” O’Rourke said as he scooped up Jonah’s Dragoons, tucking them beneath his own belt. “Maybe this fella’s reputation ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“What about her, boss?” The other man was standing near Mei Ling and taking in the view. “Shame to let her go to waste.”
O’Rourke shrugged. “If you like ‘em yellow, then by all means. I think me and Pat can finish off her old beau by ourselves.”
Pat laughed, turning his head slightly to watch the other man move towards Mei Ling. It was the last mistake he’d ever make: Jonah reached up and yanked the rifle out of his hands, then flipped it around and blew Pat’s head off. The bounty hunter quickly cocked the lever and pointed the rifle at O’Rourke next, but the railroad man was rather quick himself, grabbing his other man and pulling him into the line of fire -- instead of a roll in the hay, the letch got a hole blasted through his chest as O’Rourke darted back out of the shack. Meanwhile, Jonah limped over to Mei Ling, whose screams had deteriorated into hysteric sobbing. “It’s okay, darlin’, they’re gone,” he said, but every time he reached out to reassuringly touch her face, she recoiled from his bloodied hand.
Then they heard O’Rourke yell from outside, “Shoot the whole damn place to pieces!”
Seconds later, bullets began to pound through the flimsy walls, and Jonah threw himself over Mei Ling to protect her. The barrage went on for nearly ten seconds, then a pause came as the men outside reloaded their weapons. Jonah took advantage of it by smashing the butt of the rifle against the shack’s back wall, knocking enough planks loose to make a hole, then he grabbed Mei Ling and shoved her through the opening. There wasn’t much room between the shanties, but they squeezed through as best they could until they reached an alley of sorts about twenty feet away. The shooting resumed about the same time, and Jonah pulled Mei Ling close to be heard above the din, saying, “Y’all go get help, while Ah try an’ take these skunks out.”
“But you’re already hurt!” She clutched at him, afraid to let go. “They’ll kill you!”
“An’ if’n they figure out we ain’t in there no more, they might take it out on yer neighbors,” he answered, pushing her off. “Now get movin’!” He glared at her until she began to run down the alley, away from the sound of guns, the blanket still wrapped tight around her. Once she was out of sight, Jonah leaned hard against the shanty next to him and put a hand to the small of his back -- when he brought it up to his face, he saw blood, just as he expected. Least yuh kept the bullet from goin’ into Mei Ling, he told himself, then limped off in the direction of the fight, the rifle cocked and held at the ready. Wish Ah’d remembered tuh grab muh trousers too, he thought. Ah really don’t want tuh die naked as a jaybird.
Gunsmoke drifted down the street as Hex peeked his head out of the alley. Down the way, he could see O’Rourke and five other men reloading their guns once more in front of what remained of the shack. “I don’t hear anything,” O’Rourke was saying, “we must’ve got him.” He pointed at one of his men. “Sullivan, go poke your head in and see what’s what.”
As Sullivan went in, Hex took aim at O’Rourke with the rifle. Unfortunately, the slug in his own shoulder wasn’t exactly helping matters, and when he fired, he only clipped the man. The ones who’d already reloaded immediately whipped around and returned fire, and Hex caught a bullet high in the chest as he let off another shot. He fell to his knees, but still managed to cock the weapon again as O’Rourke and the others advanced on him. Unfortunately, when Jonah pulled the trigger, he only heard a dull click. He cursed and swung the empty rifle at his assailants, but they batted it away easily and dragged the bounty hunter out of the alley. “Looks like I was wrong about you,” O’Rourke said, one hand clutching at the bullet wound on his bicep as his men dropped Jonah at his feet. “You’re pretty damn hard to kill.”
“Thinkin’ the same...’bout yerself,” Jonah rasped, blood trickling out of his mouth.
“Kind of a shame, really. I could use a tough man like you out on the rail line; help keep the Chinks from acting up. Too bad you’ve got such a soft spot for ‘em.” He drew one of the Dragoons and aimed it at Jonah’s head, saying, “Oh well, live and learn, eh?” Before he could pull the trigger, however, a small rock came sailing out of nowhere and hit O’Rourke right square in the face. He staggered back a step, more from surprise than pain, then another came at him from a different direction and glanced off the side of his head. “Who the Hell’s doing that?” he yelled as both he and his men turned to look around them.
That’s when they saw close to thirty Chinese -- men and women, young and old -- surrounding them on all sides. They’d stayed hidden when the first shots were heard, afraid of being cut down themselves, but as it progressed, many began to put aside those fears, if only to help the man who’d been so willing to help them. Some picked up rocks like others had done and threw them at the railroad men, while others brandished short planks of wood or cooking knives, waving them in the air and telling the gwailo in Chinese that they’d better get out of here before things got ugly. To their credit, the railroad men didn’t start shooting right away: they were simply too stunned by what was going on to remember that they were armed.
Then O’Rourke discharged the Dragoon in his hand, knocking over a young Chinaman near him. “Keep back, all of ya!” he yelled, then shoved one of his men, who was cowering behind his shotgun. “Dammit, what’s the matter with you? Clear a path through ‘em!”
“There’s too many of ‘em, boss,” he replied, “and they’re armed...”
“They’ve got sticks and rocks, you jackass!” O’Rourke knelt down and grabbed Hex by the throat. “Call ‘em off, right now. They’ll listen to you.”
“They’re human beings...not dogs,” Hex said. “Could’ve saved yerself some trouble...learned that afore...”
A gunshot rang out, and O’Rourke thought for a moment that his men were finally fighting back. Then he heard someone yell, “All of you, drop your weapons and put your hands in the air!” He looked up to see the sheriff approaching, rifle in hand, along with over a dozen people from town. Mei Ling was there as well, someone’s coat thrown over her shoulders as she walked beside the sheriff. The railroad men did as ordered, laying their guns on the ground, and many of the Chinese lowered their makeshift weapons as well, even moving back to let the lawman through. The only holdout was O’Rourke, who didn’t move an inch when the sheriff told him, “Get your hands off that man, Sam. I’m placing you under arrest.”
“You’re arresting me? Are you out of your goddam mind? Hex is the one who started this!” He shook the bounty hunter, saying, “Go on, tell him what you did! Tell him!”
“Any quarrel you had with him should have been taken up with me,” the sheriff said. “But instead, you went and formed a lynch mob, then shot an unarmed, naked man full of holes. I’ve been letting you and your boys do what you please out by the railroad, but I can’t in good conscience let you get away with murder right here in town.”
O’Rourke’s face twisted into a snarl. “Ain’t no way I’m going to jail over some ugly, coolie-lovin’ bastard,” he said, then started to bring the Dragoon up, intent on shooting the sheriff. Then he felt something poke him under the chin, but before he could figure out what it was, a bullet crashed through the top of his skull as Hex pulled the trigger -- while O’Rourke was busy throttling him, the bounty hunter had pulled his other Dragoon free of O’Rourke’s belt. The man’s body keeled backward from the force of the bullet, much to Hex’s relief, as he didn’t think he was in any shape to deal with all that weight falling on top of him.
The danger now gone, Mei Ling rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Jonah, who then tried to pull part of the long coat Mei Ling had been given over himself -- he’d had quite enough of being naked in public for one night. “Hope yuh...didn’t mind,” he said to the sheriff, his voice weary. “Wasn’t sure...how good a shot yuh is...with a busted finger.”
“I appreciate the thought,” the sheriff replied. “Makes me wish I’d listened to you a little closer a couple weeks back. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten it busted.”
Jonah grunted in reply, his eyes on the ceiling. The bullet wounds he’d sustained were healing fine, but the doctor still wanted him confined to bed for a few days, and was keeping him in the back room of his office to make sure of it. Not the most ideal situation for a man like Hex, though having Mei Ling stop by for a visit helped lessen the sting.
“He’ll be bringing along the money we’re owed, as well,” she continued. “Apparently, O’Rourke had never requested a cent in our favor...and according to Mr. Sullivan and some of the other men, they’d all been pocketing a good amount of the railroad budget.” She shifted a bit in her chair, then said, “It’s still up in the air about whether or not those men will be...sentenced.”
“Hanged, yuh mean,” Jonah said. “Considerin’ whut they did tuh yer father, Ah figured yuh’d want ‘em tuh swing.”
“I wanted to see justice done, and I have in a way, but...killing those men won’t really change anything.”
“Pretty enlightened thinkin’. Ain’t how most folks would look at it, thet’s fer certain.”
“And which way do you look at it?” she asked. Jonah said nothing, keeping his eyes on the ceiling, and Mei Ling reached out and touched his hand, saying, “That night we were together, you dared to show me a beautiful side of yourself...and since then, you have buried it. Is there any hope that I might see that side of you once more?”
A shadow seemed to pass over his face, then he finally turned his gaze towards her. “Ah want y’all tuh understand something, sugar. Over the years, Ah’ve lost more people than Ah’d care tuh talk about, an’...an’ it seems tuh me thet it usually happened ‘cause Ah let down muh guard in some way. Thet’s why them fellas got the drop on us. Ah almost got yuh killed ‘cause Ah...” His mouth twisted, and he looked away for a good long time. Then his hand clasped hers tightly, and when he looked at her again, his eyes had begun to mist over. “Ah love yuh, Mei Ling. Ah love yuh, an’ Ah cain’t bear the thought of losin’ yuh.”
Mei Ling’s eyes were misting over as well, the tears soon spilling down her cheeks as Jonah strained to sit up in bed, then pulled her close to him. They remained like that for some time, arms around each other as Jonah repeated those three simple words over and over, as if realizing for the first time in his life what they meant.