The Account of “Walks Far” – A Charlie Chin Short Story

by Charlie Chin. Posted May 11, 2024

   Discovered in the attic of an old “Noodle House” Chinese restaurant in Helena, Montana, and unread for over a hundred years, the personal account of a Chinese man who participated Black Hills, Dakota Gold Rush, was discovered.  Sent to historian Prof. Chan Gkin Mon for translation, the following are highlights of a section of that remarkable narrative.

   My name is Hong Ah Ying, I left my home in China during the Dai Ping (Translator’s The Great Heavenly Peace Rebellion 1850 -1864 of the Ching Dynasty.)   The rebellion was wide and terrible.  Farmers were driven off their land and became bandits. They stole food, killed those who complained and kidnapped women from our village.  Orchid, my promised bride, being one of them.   (Translators note: A promised bride is an arranged marriage, often made when the couple are still children.)  Evil men were taken our women to sell to foreigners overseas.  Not being able to abide the thought of her being sold into slavery, I filled a cloth bag with a few possessions, slung my Saam Ying (Translator’s note:  A banjo like instrument) over my shoulder and walked the long road that led to the Fragrant Harbor (Hong Kong) and the foreign ships, asking everywhere for news of her whereabouts.

Unidentified Chinese man in Helena, MT.

     In Fragrant Harbor I learned that the bad men who had kidnapped our women sent them to work as “Flower House Girls” and prostitutes among the sons of the Yellow Emperor living in Gum Shan (California).   I boarded another ship and in time found myself in a crude city we call “Dai faow” (San Francisco.)  There were people from every country in that city.  She was not there, but local people explained she might have been taken further East to “Yee faow” (Sacramento).

      I followed the roads that led to Yee faow, still searchingHaving no money or friends, I survived by joining other men of my nation and found work on a great railroad the Americans were building that stretched across their vast land.   Although there were thousands of men from my country employed to work for them, strangely the White men never bothered to learn to speak Chinese.  They would just try to make themselves understood by speaking English very slowly.   I took the opportunity to learn a few dozen words in their language which was enough to start with, and I soon learned many more.  Because I could translate simple commands, I became a track boss for the Chinese men who laid the rail.

     For four long years we built further and further East.   In every Chinese camp, I came to along the way of the railroad, I asked about my promised Orchid, but still did not find her.  After the great railroad was completed, I started for Helena, Montana.  People said that there were many Chinese people living there.  After several days my meager food rations were soon depleted and within a week, I wandered alone into an area that had neither houses, roads, nor fresh water.  I kept on and after three days of walking without sustenance, lost, and weak, I fell from a rocky ledge and damaged my right leg.  Unable to move without pain, I lay down in the shade of a large rock and fell into slumber.

     I was awoken by the sound of somebody speaking.  I opened my eyes and saw two men, dressed in rough animal skin shirts and wearing feathers in their hair speaking in a tongue unknown to me.  They were offering me some water they had held in a gourd cup.  I greedily drank until they gestured that I should not rush.  When I was refreshed, I sat up and looked around at my location.  I had wandered into a dry ravine.   The men had three horses, a couple of crude bows with a few arrows, a simple folded bag of animal skin, simple metal knives in their belts, and some beads strung around their necks.

     I tried to talk to them in the English and then tried some Spanish words that I picked up in San Francisco, but they didn’t seem know what I was saying.  They gestured again to say I should sit down, and rest.  One reached into a painted leather bag and passed to me a strip of dried meat.  It was just sun-dried meat with some berries pounded into it, but it was my first meal of three days.    I started to eat quickly but again they used their hands, signing to say I should not hurry.  I sat back and chewed slowly and thought through the situation.

     These men were kind Buddhas helping a total stranger with water and food.  I had seen some of the native people of this land before.  When I arrived, they were among the many people that filled the streets of San Francisco and Sacramento.  Some had come to live near the forts and towns of the White people for trade or protection.  The White men called them “Indians,” even though they had nothing to do with the country of India or the people of that nation.  They were often treated very badly and with much disrespect by the barbarians.  In some towns, the White men even paid money for their scalps as if they were animals or vermin.

     Other Chinese men on the railroad had told me that for the native people of this land, the White man’s coming was like a poison.  When they decided to fight or chase the White people away, they were slaughtered without mercy, and if they tried to be friendly, they often died of a disease brought by the newcomers, as if their ancestors were punishing them for communing with Devils.

    My benefactors seeing that I could not walk without pain, constructed a simple sled with some poles and rope (a Travis) to one of the horses and then laid me on upon it.   In two days of travel, we arrived at a large encampment.  There were many tents made with tall poles and animal skins.  The tents were arranged in groups of half circles facing the East.  Some people in the camps came out and looked at me with curiosity, but between my suntan skin and waist long hair plated in a queue, most of them must have taken me for a member of another tribe.

     My rescuers took me to a large tent that had a hairy ox painted on it.  When I inspected it, they repeated the word, “Kathanka,” which I took to mean a male ox. (American Bison?)   A man came out of the tent and greeted me.

     “Buena Dias, Good morning.   Me amigo.”  The man spoke Spanish and some English.  I answered,

     “Mi nombre es Ah Ying.”

     “My name Tall Bear. De donde es usted?

     “Soy de China.

   Other curious folks started to come by to look at me.  They asked questions but I couldn’t answer.  The man Tall Bear did his best to roughly translate.

    When I told them that I had come from a land far away, even beyond California and the great ocean.  People laughed.  They had heard of a great ocean but none of them had ever seen it.  Tall Bear spoke at some length and gestured to the west, and then they grew serious.  When they asked how long it had taken me to get to their land, I cupped my hand and waved it in a half circle meaning the passing of many days.  Tall Bear pointed at me saying in English, “He Walks Far.”

   The people were most curious about my musical instrument.  At first, they didn’t know what it was for, so I plucked the strings and sang an old love song.

  “I see your bright face in the morning sun.

   I see your jade smooth arms chilled by the moonlight.

  Remembering our childhood days like brother and sister.

  Being far from you, how can I keep the tears from falling? “

     They had no idea what the words meant, but they broke into smiles.  Their people had flutes and drums, but nothing like a Three String Lute.

     Still recovering from my long trip, I was grateful that Tall Bear seemed to be taking me in as a guest.  I rested in his tent and in a few days was able to hobble around with a stout stick as a crutch.  Tall Bear had a wife, Red Bird, and two adult sons.   His wife was most kind to me, feeding me the same simple food they ate and while his sons were at first suspicious of me, they were respectful.   Over the next days I watched the daily goings on in the camp.  Tall Bear’s people seemed to live on horses.  They used the animals for riding, moving their possessions, for trade, and for racing about the edge of camp.

    I observed that they gathered wild plants for food but planted neither rice nor wheat and didn’t use any form of money.  They hunted for meat, and they used the skins of the “Kathanka,” for clothes, shoes, even their tent dwellings.  I asked where the “Kathanka” came from, Tall Bear pointed to the sky.

     When I asked where all the “Kathanka” were now, Tall Bear complained, “Wasichu” (White men) kill much already.”

     It occurred to me that the very railroad I had helped to build had brought thousands of Wasichu from the Eastern American States and that was in large part the cause of the great slaughter of the animals that Tall Bear’s people so much depended upon.

     Over the next several days there was much commotion in the camp.  People were talking excitedly, and young men were laughing and gesturing with their bows and guns.  I got the impression that something big was about to happen.  In the next few days, several other groups of these native people, speaking different languages, came to camp and brought many horses with them.   When the sun set, they built big fires and played large drums made of animal skin as they danced and sang in high pitched voices.

     Tall Bear did his best to explain.

    “Nostotros caballeros come for en pie de guerraWasichu take holy land, this Black Hill our land.”  He pointed out the many tents in the encampment and recounted, “This Hunkpapa Akicita (warrior) this Lakota, this Oglala, this Arapaho, this Cheyenne.”  In all I counted several hundred tents and even more than that number in horses.

    After two weeks, feeling stronger and ready to travel again, I decided to go on to Helena, where I knew there were some Chinese people, and then hopefully back to Sacramento.  By my reckoning it was the sixth month of the year, and not knowing how many days on foot it would take to reach Helena before the first winter snow fell, I thought it best to start.  Using hand signs and gestures, I pantomime that I was leaving and going west.   Tall Bear graciously offered me a small pony, but I declined.   Controlling a horse was beyond me and I was accustomed to walking.

     Tall Bear seemed genuinely sad.   He beckoned me into his tent and rummaged among his possessions and pulled out a small bundle of dried meat to give me.  I said “Mucho Gracias,” many times and in return I gave him some Chinese copper coins in my possession which I knew his people could use as ornaments.

     Tall Bear walked me to the edge of camp and pointed me in the direction of Helena, Montana.  As I left, he said “Washte,” which I took to mean goodbye.   As we parted, more pony warriors were arriving.  I asked where everybody was going.   With a grim face he explained, “We go make much coup, (French. For striking the enemy and taking his horses, considered an act of bravery.)

      We go this place we call, Greasy Grass.  Blue coat soldier call this place Little Big Horn.”

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Author’s Bio:  Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).