By Alison Bruce
A tiny fellow with a scarred cheek and eager eyes, John John the Chinese laundry man was the laughingstock of Weaverville, California. For months during he had been washing the Anglo miners’ clothes and never had charged even a penny for his services.
The Anglos thought he was stupid, and intentionally took advantage of him. But a year later, according to prospector John Hoffman, who followed gold and silver trails through the Sierras for nearly three decades, one of the white miners came across John John wearing fine clothes in Sacramento. The Chinese laundry man had washed enough gold dust out of pants cuffs and shirttails to set himself up for life!
It started with five words.
Maggie, the western romance writer’s best friend, would give us five words to spin a yarn, or at least a thread. Those five-word writing challenges inspired me to start Holiday Shorts, followed by Valentine Shorts and Summer Shorts. Instead of five words, I gave participants a loose holiday theme… but Maggie’s five words inspired the venture. A year later, they also inspired Rawhide ‘n Roses, an anthology of western romance short stories.
I jumped at the chance to participate in the anthology, but the timing was terrible. I was up to my ears in work and my brain was trying to gear up to edit my next book. Naturally, when I couldn’t think of anything to write, I asked Maggie for five words. One of those words was miner.
Since I knew next to nothing about mining in the old west, aside from what I’d seen in movies, research was required. Being the research junkie that I am, one thing led to another and the next thing I knew, I was reading up on Chinese hand laundries. That scenic route led me to John John the Chinese laundry man. John John (and a certain Jackie Chan movie) inspired the birth of Uncle Chon.
Augie, born in August and christened Augustus Ramsey Travers, was sixteen. He looked younger, mind you. He had a roundish face, shaggy brown hair and big brown eyes that made him look like a lost puppy. A look he cultivated, I might add.
I was born in May, two years before him, shared his coloring, but looked older than my years. Augie might not have filled out yet, but I had. That was the reason Mama didn’t like me poking around the backs of saloons. I got away with it because everyone assumed Augie was a bit slow and still needed me looking after him.
Augie learned the trick from Uncle Chon. “Smile lots. Look harmless. No bother.” For Uncle Chon, it was a recipe for being a stranger in a strange land. For Augie, it was a way of slipping in where he didn’t belong.
Papa had his faults, the chief one being he was too trusting, but he was devoted to his family. That’s why he dragged us across the country to be with him when he followed the gold rush west. He said he’d been parted from us long enough during the war.
He would never have agreed to a partnership that cut his family out on his death. Even Mama couldn’t believe that. Augie and I set out to prove it.
“I found the contract and it’s exactly as we thought. Papa’s share is divided between the three of us.”
“How much of the document do we have to copy so it will pass when we make the switch?”
“Not much. It’s folded and tied so all you see is the title and date of the contract. I can do that part. There’s a seal on it. We might need Uncle Chon’s help with that.”
Wang Chon was Mama’s partner in the laundry, though most people thought she worked for him. He was our partner in crime.
For more about Uncle Chon, Augie and especially May Travers, read Gold Mountain in Rawhide ‘n Roses, coming out March 15, 2014.
Alison Bruce has had many careers and writing has always been one of them. Copywriter, editor and graphic designer since 1992, Alison has also been a comic book store manager, small press publisher, webmaster and arithmetically challenged bookkeeper. Single mother of two wonderful children, Alison balances parenting with her freelance and fiction writing career and working as Publication Manager for Crime Writers of Canada. Story writing isn’t just a vocation; it’s a way of keeping her sanity.