Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012
By the second day of her pre-spring break, Guo Bo Bo had identified the white-haired horseman on the ad for the Wild West show as Buffalo Bill Cody, the tarnished silver pizza cutters as spurs, the beaded pouch as Plains Indian, and the coin with a hole in the middle as the likely result of a trick shot by Annie Oakley. Grandmother Guo knew little of these relics—only that they had been her Great Grandmother Lu Hong Mei’s, were found together with a bundle of Great Grandfather Lee Hum Loy’s letters, and had survived the Civil War and the disturbances to follow with fewer scars than their ancestors. “Report back to me when you return to Beijing,” Grandmother Guo had said. “Say nothing to the others.”
That was before leaving for Yale two years ago. Since then, Bo Bo had not been home once, her parents preferring to meet her in places like Geneva, Aspen, and Miami. And ten days ago, Grandmother’s letter ending with “What have you found?” And two days later, Professor Hornblatt’s e-mail inquiring about her health before noting that her history paper was late. Why not kill two birds with one stone? she had thought, amused by the English theft of a Chinese idiom.
Bo Bo sat at the desk in her room at the faux cabin hotel puzzling the black kerchief and the connection between Ancestor Lee and Kong Sing Fong, the Wild West’s bronc rider and so-called ‘One-Armed Cowboy.’ She paused to scan the horizon through insect-streaked windows. Cody had surprised her with its blue skies and rim of pine-splashed mountains, a glimpse of the view from her Beijing penthouse rooftop some twenty million people ago. The staff at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center had welcomed her with broad smiles and white teeth. This in spite of their ignorance that she was the only child of the richest man in China. Their warmth impressed her with the naiveté her father used to describe the bumpkins in Qinghai, with whom he had been forced to live during what he called “the lost years,” and it glowed in opposition to the obsequious encounters she frequently had with university trustees, politicians, and businessmen who viewed her as a door to Father’s rare earth empire.
Rare earth. The fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. Prized by the high-technology, clean energy, and weapons industries for their magnetism, luminescence, and strength. This much she had learned from freshman chemistry. Enough to know the wealth derived from these elements—the fount of Hermes, Gulfstream, Azimut, Rolls-Royce, Cartier, Patek-Philippe, Chanel, and Laffite—was, in her family’s circle, anything but rare.
Bo Bo was driving to meet the curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum when her iPhone filled the rented Escape with Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface,” announcing the Princeling’s call.
Her father wasted no energy on small talk. “You’ll receive two deposits in your Swiss account. Wire one to the Caymans and one to Labuan. Your mother will send you the instructions once she gets to Europe.”
“Anything wrong?” she asked, noting with suspicion the change in their routine.
“Just do as I say.” Then, “Are you having a good time?”
“I’m tired of being your mule,” she said.
“And do you tire also of your lavish lifestyle?” he asked.
“I don’t fear you,” she said.
“Perhaps you should start.”
Jim Fry was waiting in the museum lobby when Bo Bo arrived for their 2:30 appointment. He was slim for an American, his paunch barely hiding the belt that cinched his boot-cut Levis to his narrow waist like a pleated skirt. He shook her hand a bit too long for a second meeting and led her to a conference room.
“A stroke of good luck, Miss Guo,” said Jim as he reached into a manila folder and retrieved photocopies of some hand-written documents. “Rarely happens in the archives business.”
She slid her sunglasses to her crown, folded her hands and waited.
“It seems that Mr. Kong, our Wild West trick rider, was partners with a Lee Hum Loy in several Bannack, Montana gold mines. The mines have long been abandoned and are a part of a state park, so no excitement there. But that black kerchief got me to wondering if Mr. Lee might have had some doings with the Plummer Gang. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that this Mr. Lee is the same Poxie Lee that was hung on January 12, 1864 by the Vigilantes. In a nutshell, it looks like Mr. Lee was executed as one of the Innocents and this Mr. Kong abandoned his claims and turned up twenty years later riding with our Buffalo Bill in the Wild West show. Damned if I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“May I have copies of these documents?” she asked.
“These are for you. I’ve also taken the liberty of collecting a few books from our shop that might interest you.”
“That’s very kind.” Real characters, these ancestors, thought Bo Bo.
So. How would this play in Beijing? Their glorious, revolutionary past tainted by inglorious truths. Hong Mei, the Chinese Betsy Ross; Guo Xing-Wei, Southern General whose bold defense in the limestone hills of Guangdong sustained Mao’s Long March; Guo Dong Lai, her father, the Princeling; all descendants of an American thief and murderer. Bo Bo boxed the poster, the spurs, the beaded pouch, and the black kerchief. She would send them to the Historical Center, anonymously. She would burn the letters in the barbecue pit at City Park en route to the Four Seasons Jackson Hole where the sons and daughters of other princelings were already gathering to celebrate their good fortune. She would tell Grandmother nothing. As for the deposit slips, those she would keep safe with the others along with her recordings of conversations with the Princeling. One must take every precaution to preserve the lifestyle to which one has become accustomed.