The Celestial

an excerpt



I sat down on the ground, wiping the sweat from my brow, and trying to rub the sting from my eyes. I heard the approaching footsteps. I glanced up through squinted eyes.

Without speaking, Lao Jian sat down beside me. Neither of us spoke for a good minute or two, as we just stared out over the destruction. Then he reached into his coat pocket, and pulled out a small ceramic jar and a cloth. He held the cloth out to me.

"I need your help with this, please."

I wasn't sure what I was to do. Lao Jian motioned the cloth toward me a couple times, to indicate I was to take it, which I did. Then he opened the top of the jar, and placed it on the ground. He dipped the fingers of his left hand into the jar and scooped up a green paste. After he set the jar down, he pushed up the sleeve of his coat with the heel of his hand, and started to spread the paste on his right hand and forearm.

"You're burned," I said, staring at his blistered skin.

"Only a little."

"It looks painful."

"This paste will help."

"What is it?"

"Something from theā€¦" He seemed to be searching for the word.

"Doctor?" I said.

He shook his head.

"Apothecary?"

"I don't know. The man who deals with healing plants."

"Herbalist, I guess they would call him."

Lao Jian spread the paste on thick. "Can you tie the cloth around this for me?"

The cloth was soiled, and I didn't think that was the best way to heal a burn, but it wasn't likely we'd find anything better with all that was going on at the moment, so I wrapped it around twice and tied it off at Lao Jian's wrist.

"Thank you."

"I'll bill you in the morning."

He looked up at me.

"That's just a joke," I said.

He smiled, though I wasn't sure he understood my pathetic attempt at humor. But when I studied his all-too-rare expression of happiness, I felt a tingle in my chest. I wouldn't have thought that he could look even more handsome than he did.

"I do so like your smile," I said. I felt a tad embarrassed for admitting this fact.

He studied his arm. "It hurts more with the paste on it. I hope it was the right jar."

I grew concerned, until he nudged my arm. "That's my joke."

Maybe we both needed to practice our humor.

Lao Jian reclined onto the ground. "I'm so tired now," he said. He rested his head in the crook of his uninjured arm.

I picked up the jar and sniffed it. It smelled like grass.

"Don't eat it," Lao Jian said.

"I'd sooner starve."

As I put the lid back on, I saw a figure approaching us. A broad-built man with a beard, though beneath the facial hair and the hat I could see a face that probably wasn't much beyond twenty-five or so years old.

"Like to thank you for pitching in," he said, stopping a few feet from me.

"I didn't have to think twice about it. Seemed the only right thing to do."

"Wish the majority of this town felt the same." He stuck out his hand. "Name's Tom Grasham."

I stood up. "Todd Webster Morgan. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Grasham."

"You can call me Tom."

We shook hands. "That's Lao Jian," I said, tilting my head.

Lao Jian didn't stir. It seemed he'd already succumbed to sleep.

"You new to town?" Tom asked. "Don't recall seeing you around here before." He looked down to Lao Jian. "Either of you."

"Sort of new. More passing through, truth be told."

Tom looked back over the smoldering buildings. "Second time in so many months we've had this happen."

"Do you know the cause?"

He took off his hat, and scratched the top of his head. "I suspect some bastards from town did it on purpose, though none of us have been able to prove it. And the sheriff don't seem any to interested in investigating. He considers it a Chinese problem."

I nodded. "I heard that same refrain earlier tonight. That what happens in Chinatown isn't of concern to the rest of Truckee."

"For the most part, unfortunately." Tom looked back down at Lao Jian. "I worked with a lot of these men up on the railroad a couple years back. More loyal and hardworking than most of the louts up there on that mountain."

Lao Jian made murmuring noise, and rolled over.

"He a friend of yours?" Tom asked.

"Yes." It felt good saying it. I was proud to admit it. "A good friend."

The sun was showing itself above the trees. The chugging of a locomotive sounded off in the distance, growing closer to us.

"First train of the day," Tom said. "Must be nigh on six a.m. or so."

"Grasham," someone called from behind us. Tom turned to his right.

"Here!" Tom said.

A man standing near the burned fifth building raised his hand. "I'm off to talk to the law."

Tom shook his head. "I admire your perseverance," he called out. "But I fear you're wasting your time."

"I plan to keep on 'em."

Tom waved, and the man started back toward downtown.

"Do you feel he's wasting his time?" I asked.

"The Chinese have few friends here. They were needed once, to get that railroad built, but now everyone sees them as invaders. Rivals to their employment, their land."

"Clear that you don't see them that way."

"Clear about you as well," Tom said, nodding toward Lao Jian. "That said, seems I'm standing here preaching to the converted. I'd best get back to my wife and babies." He slid his hat back on. "If you're planning to stay on in town for a spell, likely I'll see you again."

"I'd like that," I said. "Pleasure to meet you, Tom."

He turned, and went on his way back toward downtown.

I stared into the rising sun. The squeal of the slowing train rose up from the depot. I sat down next to Lao Jian. I lay back, and studied the clouds drifting overhead. It wasn't long before the sandman claimed me, too.