By Charlie Chin. Posted November 13, 2023.
Dr. Winters carefully filled out the death certificate. Date: The year of our Lord 1868. Location: Mule Shin, Montana. The deceased was named William Borough Belmont, also known as “Texas Willy.” Cause of death: Misadventure with a poisonous snake. As the only doctor in town, Dr. Winters always kept several extra death certificates on hand in his hotel room. This was because death came often in Mule Shin. Sometimes by gun, by knife, or the impromptu hanging by a “Citizens Committee.”
The Montana Gold Rush of 1860’s had brought a strange mix of men to the territory. A few hoping for adventure and a chance for wealth, some desperate men from war-torn lands, a few were run-away slaves hoping to find enough gold to buy their families freedom, and because it was on the edge of civilization, the human trash from the gutters and back alleys of the world.
Dr. Winters came from Baltimore to the gold rush camp to see something of the world before settling down to a comfortable life back in the East. His attraction to the exotic and foreign had begun when he was a boy, sitting on the docks of Baltimore and watching the travelers and sailors from the far ends of the earth come and leave the port. Being too young to join the ‘49ers in the California Gold Rush, he jumped at the chance to see some excitement when the gold strike of 1862 happened in Montana.
Like others in the camp, he usually ate his meals at one of the China Boys noodle houses. There, the clever little men were able to provide nourishing and cheap meals in the little clap board shacks that served as houses. Some of the educated men in the camp had little regard for these Orientals. They clung to a firm belief in the superiority of the Anglo nations. They would concede that the Eastern civilizations were old but explained that they had become effeminate and weak though the worship of pagan gods, and the rapture of opium.
Dr. Winters kept his opinions to himself in such encounters, he had read enough to know the little men with their different ways had been wearing silk and writing poetry two thousand years ago. Their philosophers compared favorably with the Stoics of ancient Greece and the denizens the Far East had their own system of medical skills. Dr. Winters had learned enough though the observation of their medical procedures that he gave up the common practice of bleeding for minor complaints and began to use of several Chinese herbal remedies for some of the major ones.
Over the last year, he had struck up a chatty friendship with a noodle house owner named Lum. Giving by nature to be a gossip, Lum was always ready with comments and information about the camp.
As looked out the front door of the little noodle house, Dr. Winters saw a large burly man with two companions walking on wooden sidewalk of the muddy road that served as the main street of Mule Shin. As he watched, he saw the large man push a passing Chinese into the mud and then spit his chewing tobacco juice on the victim’s head. The Chinese man got up and glared at his attacker but said nothing. Dr. Winters turned to Lum with a questioning look, and Lum explained,
“That White man, he Texas Willy. He no good. Other men, they call Frenchy and Diaz, they also bad men. Many time they eat in noodle house don’t pay money. One-time, noodle house, owner say you must pay for food. Texas Willy shoot owner in foot. Then they all are laughing and walk away.”
“Didn’t anybody do something about that?” Lum wiped the rough wooden counter with wet rag,
“What can do? There no law in Mule Shin.”
“Do you know who the Chinese fellow is?” Lum nodded with sad resignation.
“China fellow he name Hong Ah Ying. This mean eagle.”
“Eagle? Like the bird?”
“Yes, he come Mule Shin looking for his sister, her name Orchid. Maybe two year before in China, she go to work in rice field, some men come and steal her away. They sell her to bad men who take her to America to be Sing Song girl in San Francisco pleasure house. Ah Ying come to America look for her. But San Francisco merchants sell her to somebody, and they take her away Montana. Ah Ying go every mining camp Montana look for her. He don’t find her but always look for her in every camp.”
“So, this Ah Ying, he was a farmer and now a miner?”
“No, he play music, sing song. His family is famous for make poetry song and history telling. Sing about kings, and beautiful woman, long ago war and brave men.”
“Ah, a ballad singer, a minstrel?” Lum wasn’t exactly sure what Dr. Winters meant but nodded yes.
Dr. Winters turned back to watch the broad-shouldered Oriental stand up and brush off the mud and wipe the spit from his head. The Chinese man was angrily glaring at his oppressors but kept his lips pressed tightly together. The trio of toughs smiled tauntingly and pulled their coats open. They tapped their fingers on the handles of the Colt revolvers in their belt holsters in silent warning. The man Lum called Ah Ying turned on his heel and went on down the street to the Little Canton section of camp, followed by the loud guffaws and laughter of the pistoleros.
During the next week Dr. Winters learned more about the three desperadoes. In the saloons, men would take a minute to look over their shoulders to ensure that nobody was listening before whispering what they knew. There was, Ramon Diaz, who was wanted for multiple kidnapping and rape in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Frenchy Collins, a bank robber who claimed to be the bastard son of an African king, and “Texas Willy,” known to have killed at least nine men and who once shot a man for snoring. It was agreed the trio were considered the worst of the ruffians that plagued the Mule Shin diggings.
Late on Friday afternoon a local boy came to Dr. Winter’s rooms at the Northern Star Hotel to deliver a message.
“Doc, them men over by the arroyo camp are needing some help. The one they call “Texas Willy” come over sick and he needs doctoring bad.”
Dr. Winters despised men like “Texas Willy”, but he took the Hippocratic oath seriously.
“Tell the boys I’m coming presently.” Dr. Winters tied his cravat, and picked up the worn leather grip bag that held his potions and medicines.
When Dr. Winters reached the crude tent dwelling of “Texas Willy,” he found him in his bed groaning. Dr. Winters made several mental notes as he inspected the patient. Willy’s leg had swollen to almost twice its normally thickness. He had a raging fever, labored breathing, his bedding was foul with the man’s constant vomiting. Dr. Winters cut open Willy’s pants to age a better view of the affected limb. He noticed a small set of red marks on the enlarged leg. They were as small as two insect bites. He questioned the moaning Willy.
“You get bit by a flea or mosquito recently?’ Willy shook his head no.
“What about last night. Were you sleeping out of doors? Maybe on the ground?” Again, Willy shook his head. Dr. Winters turned to Willy’s henchmen.
“Frenchy, Diaz, did you see anything? Was he bit by a critter?” They glanced at each other. Frenchy offered,
“Tell you the truth Doc. Texas Willy is usually so drunk by fall of night, he wouldn’t have felt a horse kicking him in the head by the time he was in his bunk. Wasn’t till this morning I heard him moaning and I see’d his leg all swoll up. Maybe one of them saloon whores put a hex on him out ‘a vengeance.”
Dr. Winters stood back and reviewed his thoughts. This man had been bitten by a snake. Most snakes avoid humans. They only bite when surprised or disturbed while sleeping. In any event, the patient was beyond help. The doctor didn’t feel the need to say that Texas Willy would not live to see the next morning.
“There’s nothing I can do here.” Dr. Winters closed his medicine bag and put on his hat. As he left the arroyo camp, Frenchy and Diaz were already arguing.
“I get his horse.”
“The hell you do. That horse is mine.”
As he walked back to his rooms, the doctor passed an open-door shop in Little Canton. The sound of men singing drew his attention. He peered in and saw men celebrating. Curious, he stepped in and looked about. With arrival of a White man, the singing stopped the Chinese men in the room stood up and looked down in deference. Dr. Winters was embarrassed to have stopped the festivities.
“Sorry, very sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. Do you understand what I’m saying?” A Chinese came forward. Dr. Winter’s recognized him as the man he saw being abused in the street by “Texas Willy” and his cohorts. The man spoke slowly,
“I know what you are saying. I’m speaking some English.” Dr. Winters smiled and extended his right hand, speaking slowly to be better understood.
“How do you do? My name is Dr. Winters. What is your name?” The man stood silently for a minute, analyzing what the doctor might be up to and came to a decision. The man rolled his shoulders back and stood a little taller.
”My name is Hong Ah Ying.” Dr. Winters was curious.
“You speak English very well. Where did you learn?” The man was still cautious.
“I learn working on railroad. I am foreman for China boys. I learn English for make more money.”
“How is that?” The man smirked as if explaining to a child.
“The man who can speak two language, is worth two men.” The doctor noticed the musical instrument the man was holding. The doctor made a strumming motion with his hand.
“What kind of instrument is that?” Hong Ah Ying held up the instrument.
“This we call, Saam yin. Means three string. We use for singing history, use for singing poem.” The doctor leaned forward and inspected the object.
“What is it made of?” Ah Ying turned it over to show all sides.
“This is made of Hung Muk, you call rose wood. Drum part is made of snakeskin.” The Doctor recognized the pattern of the snakeskin that covered the drum part of the instrument. It was the Western Diamond Back Rattle snake. He thought for a second and asked,
“How do you get the snakeskin?”
“We catch snake. Put in bag.”
“Catch snake? How? Using a trap?” The man laughed.
“No, I can catch with hand. Easy if know how. Hold snake behind head. Then he go sleep.”
“What happens when the snake wakes up?”
“He very angry. He bite, he run away.” Dr. Winters was impressed.
One of the Chinese men offered Dr. Winters a cup of what they were drinking. He accepted it and took a taste of the liquor. It was a simple brew made from rice, sugar, and yeast. He had two more cups before he left. As he walked back to his hotel, he reviewed what he knew.
A Chinese musician named Hong Ah Ying had hands so fast he could catch snakes. Normally there was no reason for a snake to be in a man’s bunk unless somebody put it there. But any rumor in the camp that a Chinese had killed a White man and there would be lynching within minutes.
To that end, Dr. Winters concluded the camp was better off without “Texas Willy.” His thoughts were interrupted by a man shouting,
“Doc., Doc. Winters, you better come now. There’s been a shooting over at the Pair of Dice Saloon. Frenchy Collings and Ramon Diaz was fighting and done shot each other to death.”
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).