Chapter XXIII THE RECIPROCITY OF LI SAM

SAM shuffled along the dusty path that was the sidewalk of Shafter. Humming to himself in a plaintive minor strain the little Chinese edged his way around a group of men standing in front of Miner's Rest saloon. They were talking and laughing loudly and boisterously shoving one another about in the fashion that Li Sam had noted was the habit of these Americans when they were in a good humor.

Little more than four feet tall, his thin shoulders slightly stooped under the worn coolie coat he wore even on the hottest days, Li Sam had the face of a small slightly yellowed dried apple. His shaven poll, long denuded of the braided queue of his native China, showed a sparse sprinkling of gray thatch over the ears, but his age was a moot question. How many summers and winters had passed by Li Sam he never said and no man could guess.

Enough that his sprightly, shuffling step took him about his work with unlagging certainty and that the little store of wealth he was accumulating would soon be sufficient to buy the horse and wagon which he needed to expand his vegetable peddling beyond the limits now set by foot travel and a push-cart. Business was good. Therefore Li Sam hummed plaintively as he edged his way by Miner's Rest.

Bull Spofford, jubilant with tequila and an urge for trouble, spied the Chinese and Bull's partially clouded mind saw in this queer little figure an opportunity for the rough hazing which he called fun but which was torture for the victim.

He swung one ham-like hand and clutched the fluttering coolie coat as Li Sam passed.

"Whoa there, Chink," he ordered as he jerked the little man to a halt. "Who told you you could sing in this man's town?" Don't you know there's a law against singing without a license?"

"Law? What you mean? Me no sabe law," protested Li Sam, startled out of his usual calm as he squirmed to free himself from the big man's grasp.

"Yep," laughed Bull, "it's a new law -- just made it myself. Ya can't sing without a permit."

"Allight, me no sing," agreed Li Sam. "Me no sabe law. Me no break law. Lemme go."

"Nothing doing," said Bull. "Ya gotta sing now since you started but ya gotta dance for a permit first. Don't he, boys?"

The rowdy crowd, grinning and laughing at the little Chinese, almost dangling from the grasp of the powerful teamster, gave ready assent.

"That's right, Bull. Make him dance." "Make him call his own number, Bull." "Hop to it, Chink. Let's see you shuffle," came the demands.

The big teamster had not acquired his name by mere accident. His bull-like build, his touchy temper and his bullying of those who could not resist made it to fit him as a glove fits the hand.

Li Sam wriggled in sheer fright. He had seen Bull Spofford conduct a dance before. In rapid pidgin and sputtering Cantonese he pleaded for freedom but his wild pleas drew only laughter from the crowd.

Still clinging to the back of Li Sam's coat, Bull hauled him off to where, with drooping heads, Bull's six-mule team stood hitched to the high-wheeled ore wagon. Coiled on the horn of the saddle which was cinched on the near wheeler was a long lashed whip -- an 18-inch loaded butt, with a 24-foot lash tipped with rawhide.

In the hands of an experienced mule skinner the whip was a deadly weapon. It could be made to sting, to cut or merely to entangle. Li Sam's cries redoubled as Bull lifted the whip from the saddle and with a flick of his arm uncoiled its length in the dust of the street. As the long lash reached out Bull released the little Chinese. Li Sam seeing an opening in the group tried to run, only to have the snake-like lash circle his legs and jerk him to the ground.

"Dance, Chinkie, dance!" roared Bull as his cronies shouted their approval. Too frightened to know what he was doing, Li Sam on hands and knees tried vainly to break away, only to have the stinging lash cut through his thin clothing and draw blood from his trembling legs. No word of sympathy came from the crowd as the Chinese, sobbing with pain and rage, attempted to escape from his tormentors. Another jerk of the long whip had spilled him once more in the dust when a new voice was heard from the edge of the group.

Jack Van Ryder drawing of a cowboy sitting on his horse

"Pull up there, skinner, and let me play!"

The spectators turned to where a stockily built youth on a dust-covered sorrel horse sat slouching in his saddle. Bull, ready to reach again for the struggling Li Sam, stopped his arm in mid-air, for across the pommel of the saddle the new-comer carried a business-like carbine, the muzzle of which stared unblinkingly at the huge teamster. There was nothing playful in the look of the gun.

"Do you always call your dances with a mule whip?" asked the rider. "Or is this something special?"

"It's none of your damned business," blurted Bull, as he noted the quick movement of the crowd, which sensing trouble more dangerous than baiting Li Sam was edging back toward the front of the saloon. Bull, suddenly cut off from his supporters, felt lonely and nervous as he faced the smiling rider.

"Get up, Sam," the latter ordered the Chinese. "Get up and get out of here. You light a shuck for the general store and I'll be over in a minute just as soon as I see what kind of a dancer this skinner is." He turned to Bull. "Didn't you ever learn to shake a foot?" he asked.

Almost as a period to the sentence the carbine shifted and spoke. A burst of dust spurted close to the boots of the sweating Bull, who with a lusty yell leaped aside. "Don't shoot," he begged. "I didn't hurt him and I've no gun. Don't shoot, I tell ya."

The rifle cracked again. Again the teamster leaped madly into the air as the spurting dust marked the place where the bullet struck. A shout of terror accompanied the leap.

"Well," drawled the stocky little rider, "ya don't dance so good but you're sure hell on howling.  And you can jump like a frog. But I'm busy, so git! If you ever use that whip on Li Sam again I'll look ya up. Sam's a friend of mine."

With a twitch of the rein he turned the sorrel and rode off toward the general store where Li Sam had taken refuge. Behind him a thoroughly cowed bully crawled onto his mule and hazed his ore wagon down the trail that led out of town.

Weeks passed. Li Sam, who had been painfully but not seriously hurt, had fully recovered from his whipping but he had forgotten neither Bull Spofford nor the stocky little rider.

Business had been good and now Li Sam rode on the bouncing seat of a dilapidated wagon. Under a spreading wagon sheet it contained the motley collection of boxes and sacks in which Li Sam carried his huckster's wares.

Li Sam, once more in a singing mood, hummed merrily as his horse plodded along the trail which dipped sharply into a draw between the low rugged hills that lined the border. The wagon wheels creaked and squealed on the rocks as Li Sam eased his outfit down the grade. At the bottom of the draw a little creek, fed by recent rains, rippled over the stones. Li Sam planned to stop here to rest and was already guiding his sober-minded horse off the trail when an object coming toward him caused him to pull up sharply.

A sweat-streaked horse, its rider swaying in the saddle, came walking head down toward Li Sam's wagon. As it reached the huckster's horse the weary mount stopped and the man, his clothing stained with sweat and blood, slipped from the saddle. With one hand he steadied himself by the saddle horn, looked up at Li Sam and grinned.

"Howdy, Sam, how're doin'?" he asked shakily.

Li Sam recognized the rider who had interrupted Bull Spofford's dance at Shafter.

The Chinese scrambled down from his wagon, his wrinkled face reflecting his concern. "Whatsa matta, you hurt?" he cried. "Here, you sit down. Li Sam fix. You shot up bad? Who shot you? Sit down; sit down. You clazy!"

While his sputtering questions gave the cowboy no chance to answer, the little Chinese hurried the silent rider to a hummock of sand, seated him there and dashed for the creek with a small pail which he had snatched from the wagon as he passed. Soon he was back, kneeling by the wounded man and holding the tin pail to his lips as he drank. He clucked sharply as he saw the bullet wound.

"Thanks, Sam. I needed that," wheezed the cowboy. "Now I guess I'd better be going. They're pretty close to me and that horse is just about done." His effort to rise was a failure. With a grimace he leaned back, his weight falling on the frail little Chinese.

Li Sam asked no more questions. He had lived on the border too long. He only knew that his friend had been shot from behind. He cared little about the cause.

Turning swiftly to his wagon, he climbed in over the tall-gate and began tossing boxes and sacks aside. He cleared a strip of the wagon almost to the floor then climbed down and helped the wounded man to the tall end. There, by boosting, pulling and tugging, he managed to get the cowboy into the wagon and stretched out on the floor. He dampened a piece of cloth, laid it over the man's face and then arranged boxes and sacks so that he was concealed from sight. With anxious eyes he surveyed his work.

But Sam was not through. There remained the sweat streaked sorrel horse standing by the creek bank. Its drawn flanks and blood-stained saddle would tell their own tale.

Li Sam stripped the saddle from the sorrel and climbed off the trail into the brush where he hid it behind a pile of rock. Then with heavy pinchers which he took from his wagon he returned to the horse.

Quickly he jerked the shoes from the sorrel then, carrying a branch pulled from a dead tree, he led the pony off the trail and down the draw to where the marks of loose range horses showed their trail to the water hole.

There he twisted the strands of the sorrel's tail about the dried branch, peeled the bridle from the horse's head and slapped the animal's rump smartly with the reins. The dried branch bounced against the pony's heels and, tired as the sorrel was, it leaped into a run down the draw.

Li Sam figured the horse would soon lose both the branch and its terror and that in the meantime the tracks of its unshod feet would attract little attention among the others on the trail to the water hole.
He climbed back to the seat of his wagon.

Some fifteen minutes later Li Sam was shaking the lines over his plodding horse when a cloud of dust told him that hard-riding men were coming toward him. Soon a group of them surrounded the wagon. Li Sam, who well knew who several of these men were, gave no sign of recognition.

One of them kneed his horse close to the wagon to ask: "Chink, you savvy English? You see cowboy on sorrel horse pass here? Which way he go?”

He had used such simple words that Li Sam understood. "Me savvy cowboy," replied the Chinese, "but you no ketchum now. He ride like hell for Marfa – three, mebbe five mile back. He go Marfa; you no ketchum now."

"Come on, Keegan," said one of the men impatiently.  "Let's get back across the line before that jackrabbit gets to a telephone. If we fool around here he'll have a whole darn company down on us."
The group rode off leaving Li Sam sitting unsmiling on the wagon seat.

As he slapped the lines across his horse's back and started to move along the trail toward where he could find a friendly ranch a voice from inside the wagon called: "Sam, ya darned old heathen, why don't ya sing? But first come lift these potatoes off my neck."

For the first time that afternoon Li Sam's wrinkled face broke into a grin. "Whatsa matta in there?" he wanted to know. "You no like plotato?  They plenty good for cowboy."

Continue with Chapter XXIV SHORTY INVESTS A FIVE SPOT