Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012
Poxie Lee peered at Kong Sing Fong through a square hole in the rough-hewn timbers while picking at the patchwork of scabs on his right cheek. Kong fidgeted outside the jail cell, head bowed, worn boots stomping the freshly fallen snow. Their breath hung between them like ghosts.
“Post this letter,” said Poxie on this, the morning of his execution.
Poxie hated speaking so harshly to his friend, but Kong must be warmed to his fate. The others were not from their village and would not protect Kong as he had. He poked a thin, gray envelope through the hole. “Take it,” he said.
Kong surveyed Main Street for early gawkers. Exposed, the Stimson twins hurled rocks in his direction and ducked behind Chrismans’ Store. Kong grabbed the envelope with his good hand and stuffed it in his pocket, the one Poxie had stitched to the outside of his padded jacket after their clash with the Iron Fists. “Here. Keep your other hand warm while you work,” Poxie had told him.
The sun crested the eastern hills like the flash of a knife blade. Bannack crept from the shadows.
“Where shall I send your bones?” asked Kong.
“Bury them below our claim along Grasshopper Creek,” said Poxie. “Bury them deep so the wolves don’t get them.”
“Who will worship your memory?”
Poxie stared at the gallows silhouetted against the broadening sky. From their cabin in Bachelor’s Row, they had watched the poles being raised a few weeks before. Sheriff Plummer’s orders.
It seemed that all of Idaho Territory had come. Poxie and Kong had been among the less eager spectators. But they did not turn their heads when a slap to the flank startled the handsome bay horse from beneath Gentleman John Horan, leaving the Gentleman to gag and sway until his neck was thin and his body dangled like a donkey cock.
And just a few days ago, in a sharp twist of fortune, the Vigilantes hung Henry Plummer and two of his deputies on these same gallows. Poxie and the others had witnessed the show, but he knew now it had all been a mistake.
“Spare me, for chrissakes. I’ll give you the others,” pleaded Plummer. “There and there and there.” He pointed at Poxie, Whiskey John Granger, and the Swede as he cried out their names. “They ride with the Innocents. They wear the black kerchief.”
The hangman placed the noose around Plummer’s neck and tightened the slipknot.
Plummer’s last words: “Please give me a good drop.”
The cell warmed. Poxie’s cheek began to throb. He had only been trying to get ahead, to hasten the return to his village in Kwantung where he would produce sons and greet old age with prosperity. He turned his head to see one Vigilante pointing a rifle at him through the bars while another fumbled with a heavy iron key ring.
The village elder delivered the letter and waited. Hong Mei slipped the knife blade along the triangular fold. A black kerchief fell to the floor. She bent low to retrieve it. The letter was blotched with water stains, the characters uneven and ill-formed as if written by a child. She gave it to the elder. He read aloud:
I’ve met with some hardship and must leave this place. No more letters soon. Take care of your father. Take care of yourself. I will do the best when I get there.
12 January 1864”
The elder returned the letter to Hong Mei and asked about her father-in-law’s illness.
She did not respond.
He asked again more insistently.
“Better now. Thank you,” she said.
The elder left.
Hong Mei grazed the rows of characters with her fingertips. Hum Loy to paper, paper to her. She folded the letter and the kerchief and placed them on the family altar. Head bowed, hands pressed together, she thanked Hum Loy’s ancestors for honoring her with such a loyal husband.