If Dance only looked at one side of the street it could almost appear that Grantham had gotten back to normal. There had been a rough few days after the fire, but they’d buried the dead, said words over them, and moved on.
That didn’t mean that things were good but they could've been a hell of a lot worse. Food and supplies were dwindling, but since Dance had organized hunting parties, supplies were dwindling nice and slow. Sure, they'd have to do something about it, but right now the 203 surviving souls of the Town of Grantham were in need of a respite.
If they could keep from getting wiped out by the wildlife or savage tribes – and if the coffee lasted long enough — they just might be O.K.
Having given himself over to a philosophical turn of mind Dance could see how their predicament wasn't any different than any other frontier town. They were on the edge of the unknown struggling to survive. They had plenty of water and the weather, at least so far, was nice. He savored another sip of coffee and he resolved to enjoy what he could while he could.
Walking up the street and taking his own sweet time about it, Speedy Pete was headed towards the jail. When he got close Dance asked, "Pete, how in the hell is it that you ain't dead? I mean I ain't complaining. I'm just saying, I know which way I lay the odds on that one…”
Speedy Pete smiled slow and pushed his hat back. “Well sir, my Mama always said I'd be late to my own funeral. So what I reckon is… Death just shows up to where I'm supposed to be and when I’m not there, all punctual-lie, he get sick of waiting around. Goes off finds somebody else to do business with."
Dance was so stumped by the unexpected elegance of his Deputy’s explanation all he could say was, “Fair enough, Pete.”
"We step inside so I can make my report?"
"No, Pete she's in there schooling up them kids. Did you know that little girl can read?"
"School? But that school Ma’rm ran off. I mean afore we even… wound up here."
“I know Pete. But the Widow Miller is intent on her children getting an education. And I have reconciled myself to the fact that it's wise to stay clear of the entire enterprise so I don't get my head mixed up with any book larnin’. Somebody’s gotta think straight around here,” Dance said with a wink.
Pete missed the joke entirely and said, “You takin’ up with that Widder is one thing, but I’m not sure I'm OK with children living in a jail cell."
“Makes ‘em easy to contain,” said Dance, blowing another joke right by Pete. “Besides, we ain’t got no other use for them cells. They’re for holding people for the Judge, and as the Judge ain’t coming no more. Miscreants are getting fined or hanged.” Dance looked in his coffee and said, “Well, I suppose you could say the one’s gettin’ hanged are just getting fined everything.”
Pete puzzled on this for a moment then shook his head to clear it of philosophical speculations the same way that people will beat a rug to rid it of dust. Then he said,“Well, we got the watches all figured out, and I think them Polacks know where to be and when. But I can't understand a goddamn word they're saying most of the time.”
Dance said, “That's OK Pete, nobody can."
"They was jibber jabberin’ away about laundry! Something about that the Chinaman wasn't doing it for free no more. But I don’t think I heard it right. I mean why would a Chinaman watch a bunch of Polack’s laundry for free? Don't make no damn sense."
"And anything else around here does?" asked Dance.
“Well iffn I’m gettin’ any say in the matter, Sheriff, I'll take my mysteries in a language I can understand.”
Dance finished his coffee and said,”Let’s go down and see what the fuss with the Chinaman is all about.”
He took his cup into the jail and lifted a rifle from the rack. Penelope was sounding out words from a book and Mac looked up from a calculating slate to glare at the Sheriff. Dance couldn’t blame the boy much for his animosity. He reckoned he’d feel much the same. But Laura smiled at him and that was all that mattered.
Then she saw the rifle in his hand and her smile faded. Dance said, “Just have to see about a crazy Chinaman,” by way of reassurance, but Laura’s smile did not reappear.
By the time Dance got back outside the commotion had poured into the middle of the street and was headed right for him. Five thick-necked miners were following the Chinaman as he led a heavily-ladened mule up the middle of the street.
Dance asked, “Now just where in the hell does he think he's going?"
Pete said nothing, which, when Pete could manage it, was how Dance liked him best.
One of the miners, looking about as at home in the sunlight as a freshly upturned mole, seized the mule’s reins. This upset the Chinaman and he shoved the miner, and tried to regain control of his animal. This angered the rest of the miners, and they piled on. Dance had to respect to the little Oriental fella. He didn’t go quietly. He kicked the first one square in the nuts and then started jumping and gesticulating like he had a bad case of the St. Vitus’. It worked well enough at first but there were just too many miners and too few pounds of Chinaman for him to have any real chance.
The Chinaman dropped a second one with a chop to the throat and got a third with a kick to the kneecap. But then somebody got a hold of the Chinaman’s ponytail and gave it a yank and down everyone went into the dust.
Dance shook his head at the whole mess. He wasn't getting mixed up in that crap, no sir. Beside him, Pete started forward, eager to do his duty. The Sheriff stopped him with his left hand and raised the rifle over his head with his right and fired. As the report died away all eyes in the pile of men looked to the Sheriff. Dance said, “All right! That's enough rolling around in the horseshit for one day."
The pileup slowly disengaged revealing the Chinaman at the bottom. He seemed relatively unharmed. He barked a singsong phrase at the men around him and then started to walk off after his well-ladened mule. One of the Miners grabbed his ponytail and yanked him off his feet once again.
Dance lifted his rifle from his shoulder, stepped in, and clubbed the miner in the back of the head. As the large, fleshy man collapsed to the earth Dance said, "I said enough! And, by God, I meant enough. Now what the hell is going on here?"
The air was filled with languages that the Sheriff did not understand. He yelled for everyone to speak in English but, everyone could not. The one miner who spoke some English had a dislocated jaw, so Dance couldn’t understand him, even thought he was trying his best. The Chinaman stood with his arms crossed, not saying a word, and managed to be the most dignified party in the entire matter. Excepting the mule.
As Dance was trying to sort out the mess, Pete went after the Mule, that was quietly plodding up the street, wisely trying to distance himself from this human foolishness. Then, Pete stopped in his tracks. Coming from the East, silhouetted by the morning sun, was a stranger coming in from the wilderness.
“Sheriff…” said Pete.
The commotion of men arguing and incompatible languages continued behind him, so Pete tried again, louder.
This time everyone looked up and saw the figure in his strange red robes, strolling into town as if he did it every day. All argument ceased. The Chinaman helped the clubbed miner to his feet. The miner, thinking that this meant the fight was still on, raised his fist to attempt a wobbly blow. The Chinaman slapped the fist away and pointed at the stranger coming into town. The miner forgot all about the fight.
Dance, held his rifle loose in both hands, stood beside Pete and squinted at what was coming. He said, “Pete, run go get that Englishman. He's gonna wanna see this."
Pete looked at the Sheriff, then at the stranger, then back to the Sheriff. He tried to get the sheriff the reins of the mule, but the Sheriff didn't take his eyes off the stranger. So Pete just dropped the reins and headed off with all the hurry he could manage.
* * *
By the time Archie arrived, limping in on his bad foot as fast as he could manage, the Stranger was standing at the end of main street. He was dressed in red robes and held a staff of plain wood in this right hand. Around his shoulder we wore a satchel, something like half a saddlebag on a leather strap. He had sandals and if he was scared by the crowd of townspeople that had assembled, he did not show it. His face was worn and his beard and hair were flecked with grey. He could have been anywhere from 50 to 80 years old.
Archie said, “What do we do now?”
The Sheriff said, “We go see if you and he have any languages in common.”
“I’m not much of a translator,” said Archie, “Especially when I’m nervous.”
“Relax. I’ve about half made up my mind to shoot him anyway,” said the Sheriff, and started walking.
Archie hobbled along behind.
As the Sheriff came closer the Stranger smiled and raised his hand in greeting. Dance gave him a thousand-yard stare.
The Stranger said something that no one understood. Archie said something back in a different language. In response, the stranger reached into his satchel and pulled out a skin of water. He took a swig and then offered the bag to the Sheriff and Archie. When no one moved, the stranger shrugged. Then he said, “Orlap Bechtanar thrunce dak.”
The stranger repeated the words then nodded to himself. From his satchel he removed a cut red gemstone, the size of a small melon. The Sun glinted off its facets and as he held in front of him it seemed a thing made of light rather than mineral.
The Stranger took another step forward. Dance cocked the rifle and stepped forward to meet him.
The stranger stopped and smiled again. Then he slowly set his satchel and staff on the ground. He removed his robes and revealed his weathered body, as gnarled as piece of long-dried driftwood. And written in scar tissue across his chest were the remnants of a cruel wound. The ribs of one side of his chest were partially caved in and gave the old man a disturbing asymmetry.
Dance remained unmoved by any of this. And only moved his eyes to scan the horizon in case this was some kind of prelude to an ambush.
Clad in only a loincloth the stranger held the red stone out in front of him with both hands and walked slowly towards the men.
Beside him, Sheriff Dance felt more than saw people reaching for weapons in the crowd behind him. “Easy,” said Dance, “Ain’t no showdown. Worst he’s tried to do is kill us with a bad striptease.” He said it so well he almost managed to convince himself.
The stranger spoke again. This time just a single word, “Mobruk. Mobruk. Morbruk.” He held the stone out to the Sheriff, encouraging him to take it, using the same tone of voice a Mother might use to get a toddler to take a mouthful of food. He looked directly into Sheriff Dance’s eyes and nodded encouragingly. “Mobruk.”
The Sheriff reached out his hand and took the stone. He felt a shiver run up his arm and into his brain. He shook his head and then he understood what the man was saying.
“What the hell!?!” said the Sheriff.
“Good, we have connection,” said the Stranger. “We can now understand each other.”
“But, I…” said Dance. He looked back to Archie and asked, “Can you understand him?”
“Not a word. You can?”
“I can. I don’t know how, but I can.”
“Please share the gift of Ba-El with others. So that all may understand and peace may be on the world."
The Sheriff looked at the stranger in his loincloth and said, “Yeah, I got a peacemaker too. Never seems to work like I want it to though."
Archie said, “What does he say? If you can understand him, you must translate."
Sheriff Dance handed Archie the glowing orb. Archie touched it and his eyes went wide.
"Yes," said the stranger, "you see now, his peace will spread. Glory be to Ba-El father of Harmony!"
Archie said, “Wait. Run that by me one more time. Ba-El is some kind of deity? What is this then?” He asked holding up the orb,“and by what source is this powered?”
The Priest of Ba-El said, “Please, I will answer all questions in time, but first spread Ba-El's gift, so that all may speak the same language."
Dance took the orb back from Archie and asked, “You think everybody knowing what people are really sayin’ is going to bring peace?"
"It is a consummation devoutly wished," said the Priest of Ba-El.
"Well, let's just see about that.” Dance turned to the battered Miners and beleaguered Chinaman. He threw the orb to the Chinaman who caught it deftly. Dance said, “Pass it round!”
The Chinaman’s eyes went wide with the shock of understanding the words. He looked at the orb, then back to the Sheriff. "How can you be speaking Chinese?!?"
"I don't know, how are you speaking English?"
"It is Ba-El’s gift,” said the Priest of Ba-El as he smiled at the wonder of shared understanding.
“Yes you’ve said that,” said Archie.
“Chinaman, give it over to them Polacks,” said Dance.
“My name is not Chinaman, it is Liu Sung.”
“Alright Loose Un’, give it over.”
Liu Sung offered the orb to the Polish Miners. First, none of them wanted it, but finally the man Dance had hit with the rifle stretched out his hands and took the orb. Dance asked “Can you understand us?”
“He stole our silver!!!” said the Miner
“I did not. You try to rob me!" countered Liu.
As the argument continued, Sheriff Dance looked back at the Red Priest and said, “Yeah, all sorted out. Happily ever after.”
The Miner said, “His mule is full of silver. This crazy Chinaman was washing clothes for free. We didn’t pay him no silver. He didn’t mine no silver. The only way for him to get it was to steal it.”
“Ah,” said Archie, “Deduction.”
“I never steal,” said Liu.
“Then how’d you get it, Chinaman!”
“Liu. Liu Sung!”
Dance stepped between them. “Easy Loose Un’! Let’s just take it one step at a time. Pete, fetch that mule over here.”
The mule, who somehow was the most even-tempered party in the whole matter, was freighted with heavy panniers on each of his flanks. Sheriff Dance looked inside and found them filled with small leather sacks. He opened one of the sacks and found it filled with silver dust.
“Alright. He’s got a shitload of silver. Mr. Chinam— I mean Loose ‘Un, you want to explain how you got all this silver?”
“I did not steal,” said Liu Sung.
“And I ain't saying that you did, but I am curious as to where it came from, and where you think you might be going out into that savage wasteland with it?”
“I go back to the middle kingdom, back to civilization."
"Ain't no civilization left, or ain't you noticed? We're on our own son,” said the Sheriff.
"Sung, Liu Sung. Sung is a proud name. The Sung do not steal.”
“If I may promote harmony...” said the Priest of Ba-El.
“Little harmony be real nice for a change around here,” offered Pete.
“He looks as if he comes from the Kithai people, a vast empire far to the NorthEast of here.”
Liu Sung said, “There has always been a middle kingdom. There will always be a middle kingdom."
"An empire you say?” asked Archie. “There is a civilization? More than one? Then why? And who attacked us? And the tower that he saw?”
The Priest of Ba-El smiled again and asked, “Which question would you have me answer first?”
Dance said, “Now, just hang on. Let's get one thing straight before we go bending all the rest. Loose Un, where did the damn silver come from?”
“These men work in the mine, chip, chip, chip, all day. They bring clothes to Liu Sung,” he said with particular emphasis on Sung, “and I wash them. End of day I pour out the water and save all the little pieces of silver I find. Why else I no charge them for laundry.”
“We just though you vere crazy,” said one of the Miners.
“I told you that was our silver!” said another.
“If it's anybody silver it's DuMonts’, and that useless son of a bitch is dead. Loose Song,” said Dance, sincerely trying to get his name right. “You ain’t broken any law and as far as I’m concerned I wish you’d stick around. We need all the smart people we can get. But I suggest you stick around long enough to see what we can learn from our new friend." Dance turned to the Priest of Ba-El and said, "and you, new friend, you're gonna draw us a map.”