Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012
Annie finished lashing Kong Sing Fong’s right arm to his chest to keep it from flopping about when he rode. He wriggled into his buckskin shirt on his own, but allowed her to tie a black kerchief around his neck. Kong thanked her, climbed the arena fence and swung a leg over Vigilante’s back. Her ribcage heaved with each nervous breath. Dust from the Buffalo Hunt still clung to the air like morning mist. Kong tugged at the rigging with his gloved hand, bent forward and for the last time, whispered “For Poxie” into Vigilante’s twitching ear.
“And now, risking life and further limb, matching wits with a wild Appaloosa stallion, in a death-defying display of bravery and equestrian skill, from the Mongolian steppes, on the Northern reaches of the Chinese empire, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you . . . the One-Armed Cowboy.”
Kong leaned back, lifted his knees, then gently raked Vigilante’s shoulders with his spurs. On cue, she leapt through the gate, arching and twisting her way toward the center of the arena, Kong rocking in time with the scripted movements, losing and winning his balance, summoning the usual gasps. Ten seconds. Thirty seconds. Forty-five. Together they rode. Rode until the crowd cheered themselves to a stunned silence. Finally, Vigilante lofted Kong high into the air. He landed boots first, hat in hand, waving to a grateful audience. While Kong solicited the crowd’s appreciation, Vigilante came to an abrupt stop, shook her calico head, snorted great ribbons of mucus from her nostrils, and pawed defiantly at the raw earth. He would miss her and the crowd and the show and all of its pining for lost days. As Kong exited the arena, absorbing the crowd’s final expression of gratitude, he heard a determined chorus rising amidst the cheers, “Get a real cowboy. Send the one-armed Chinaman home,” and he recalled why it was time to leave it all behind.
Vigilante’s head bobbed with each stroke of the curry comb. He was thankful Mr. Cody had agreed to return her to the high pasture of the Wind River Range on his next pass through Wyoming. He’d been well-treated by the Bar S and missed the early days of breaking stock for the ranch hands, many of whom had wandered in like he had, rendered gaunt and penniless by a played-out claim. Vigilante was among the last of the wild horses bartered from the Sioux before their march to the reservation. The long-bearded Cody bought her and lured him with the promise of travel and more than a living wage. Cody had kept his promise. Kong and Vigilante had kept theirs.
After filling Vigilante’s oats bag, Kong wandered out of the stock tent. Cast and crew milled about camp. A roaring bonfire lit familiar faces. Mr. Cody, Annie Oakley, Bill Pickett, Chief Blackhawk. The evening shadows hid others: vaqueros, Indians, cowboys, and the few Chinese cooks and camp tenders who had not yet made their way to the West coast, driven, as Kong was, by an intolerance that seemed to rise with every stop on their Eastern tour.
Whiskey flowed among the gathered. Speeches flared then receded like the flames that erupted whenever a log was tossed in the fire.
“Hold this, Chinaman,” said Annie, handing him a silver dollar.
He placed the coin between thumb and forefinger and held it high above his head.
A shot rang out. The coin fell to the ground thirty feet behind him. A vaquero retrieved it, pressed the coin to his palm, a perfect round hole where Lady Liberty once grinned.
“Take it, Chinaman,” she said, before knocking back a whiskey and joining the others.
Kong placed it inside the beaded pouch given to him earlier by Chief Blackhawk and readied himself for the other well-wishers.
As the sendoff waned, he found himself alone with Cody.
“It’s a damn shame things have ended up like this,” said Cody, raising an empty bottle then flinging it into the embers.
“You’ve been fair.”
“Where will you go?”
“My family is at home, sir.”
“What shall we do with your wages?”
“Same same. Here’s my letter.”
Kong had written it the night before.
It’s less than last time. I’m sorry. I’m going home and need money for the journey. I hope you’ll take me as I am.
24 March 1887”
“I’ll post it, to China, like the others,” said Cody. And then, “Here’s a little something for the journey.” He counted out an extra month’s salary and handed Kong the silver spurs he wore to perform.
Mr. Cody extended his shapely hand. Kong shook it with vigor then drew a long breath, held it till his lungs burned, savoring the taste of the earth and the smoke and the sweet smell of resting animals.
The platform in New York rumbled with the thud of boots and the clop of hooves. Kong paid for a passenger fare but was directed to an open freight car where he waited for the riding stock to be led up a ramp and backed into narrow pens. He would travel to San Francisco with the horses and was glad for the honor inadvertently shown him.