A CLEAN PLATE
Southeast California, 1879. The small town roasted in a three-figure temperature. It was late afternoon and hardly anyone had been outdoors since midday. Now a horseman appeared, coming in from due east. The main street was simply a continuation of the trail and on reaching it he rode its whole length, casting black eyes rapidly from side to side, taking in everything. At the western end of town he came to the livery stable. He left his horse there and walked back eastwards, stopping outside China Joe’s little restaurant.
Pausing on the sidewalk, the stranger slapped dust from his clothing. His high-crowned hat, shirt and boots were black, the short jacket and trousers navy blue, worn shiny in several places. The only contrast to his general appearance of darkness came from the white bone handles of two thonged-down Colt .45 revolvers. They were of the type known as Peacemakers, but the man didn’t look as though that name applied to him. He entered the restaurant by flinging open the door with a force that caused it to rebound sharply from its metal stop, then backheeling it shut with a slam that shook the wooden building.
China Joe had lived in the town for six years and had become a local institution. His real name was not known to anyone but himself and nobody could now remember how the sobriquet had been dreamed up. Though his English was passable, he spoke little and never revealed anything about his background. Within a week of his arrival, he had set up his diner and started providing excellent dishes, both Chinese and American. His fare was so good that the staff of the nearby hotel often passed up their free meals and paid for what he offered. In addition to the gastronomic attractions, people liked to visit Joe’s place on account of his appearance. Six-foot five and beanpole thin, he invariably wore a long, elaborate silk robe with a striking pattern in red, yellow, black and green. No matter how much time he spent in his kitchen, the splendid garment always looked immaculate.
The atmosphere in China Joe’s place was quiet and soothing, as though he had imbued the structure with his own calm personality. The only disturbance had occurred a few months after his arrival, when a young miner got out of hand. With too much drink in him, he refused to pay his bill and became extremely aggressive, finally pulling out a handgun and threatening to use it on Joe. Not one of the other half-dozen patrons was able to follow with any real clarity what happened next. The troublemaker had been standing in the open doorway, waving his weapon, then there was a flicker of movement from Joe and the man was not only disarmed, but sent spinning across the sidewalk to land in the dusty street. From that point on, nobody had cared to antagonise the enigmatic restaurateur.
Joe’s place had only six tables, three on either side of a narrow aisle and all designed to seat four. Diners took one of the chairs with backs to the walkway, or a space on one of four benches, two set against each side wall. The dark-clad man appeared on a Tuesday, Joe’s slackest day. When he stormed in, the only other person in sight was a young man who’d eaten and was finishing his coffee. He took one look at the grim-faced newcomer, left his cup half full and scuttled out.
Joe came out of his kitchen as the stranger shuffled round a table and seated himself on a bench abutting the north wall. He took off his hat, revealing a tangle of black hair, rasped his left hand across several days’ growth of stubble and stared at Joe for ten seconds, then growled: “Get me a big steak an’ some taters, an’ make it quick.”
Joe nodded and returned to the kitchen. He came back a few minutes later and placed before his sole patron a plate laden with a perfectly cooked steak that weighed at least a pound, accompanied by a generous helping of fried potatoes, He also provided a bowl of salad. The stranger looked down for a moment, then glared at Joe. “Call that a big steak?” he barked. “Take it away an’ bring me somethin’ man-sized.” Then he pointed at the salad. “An’ get rid o’ this pap. It ain’t food.”
Without a word, Joe removed plate and bowl and went back into his kitchen. Five minutes elapsed, then he reappeared with an even bigger steak, as well prepared as the first one, plus a larger portion of potatoes. The stranger gave this offering less of his time than he’d devoted to the first one. Pushing it back across the table he narrowed his eyes to slits. “Listen to me, you long streak o’ dog meat,” he snarled. “I want a real big steak an’ plenty o’ taters, cooked right. Now, if I don’t get what I’ve ordered, I’m gonna blow a hole through you that you can put your arm in.”
Joe disappeared again and the stranger took off his coat, put it beside him on the bench and sprawled back in his seat. He knew that there had been no reason to complain, but he didn’t like foreigners, especially those with Joe’s background, and he was satisfied that he had treated the gangling Chinese fellow in a fitting manner.
It was ten minutes before Joe came back with a replacement meal – and what a meal! On a huge oval platter, eighteen by twelve inches, reposed a truly monstrous steak. It was over an inch thick and overlapped the plate at both ends and sides. That gigantic slab of meat must have scaled four pounds. There was an element of artifice about it, for Joe had cut off one edge of each of a pair of vast steaks and deftly sown the two main parts together. Another curious thing about the gut-wrenching acreage of beef was that its whole surface showed a pattern of cross-hatching.
In addition to the meat, Joe plonked down a very large bowl of potatoes. As the man looked goggle-eyed at the food, Joe stepped over to the door, locked it and turned the reversible card to show that his place was closed – an unprecedented occurrence at that time of day. Then he pulled down the blinds to cover the glazed part of the door and the whole window. The stranger stared at these proceedings. He was mystified and speechless. But not for long. Joe took a chair facing him, then nodded at the victuals. “You eat,” he said.
The stranger’s eyes blazed. “Sure I’ll eat, you damned idiot,” he retorted. “But first I’ll put a hole in you, just like I promised.” His right hand flashed down to the gun that had consigned more than one man to the afterlife – but he wasn’t quick enough. With the speed and dexterity of a conjurer, China Joe dropped his left hand into the sash he wore to secure his robe and drew out a knife, which he sent whizzing across the table. It passed through the stranger’s shirt sleeve, took a sliver of the outside of his right forearm with it, and thunked into the pine backrest, pinning the limb.
The man could have freed the arm but chose instead to go for his left-side gun. Joe was ahead of him again. Producing another knife from his sash, he repeated his quasi-magical performance. This time the weapon made a groove in the inside of the stranger’s left elbow and fastened that arm to the bench, too. Before the man could make any further move, Joe delved into the folds of his robe and pulled out a knife that dwarfed the pair he had just used. With a blade over a foot long and more than two inches wide at the hilt, it was a superb example of the cutler’s art. In a flash it was tickling the stranger’s throat, leaving him without the slightest chance of getting either of his guns into action.
Joe flicked a forefinger at his by now very frightened patron. “You put hands on table,” he said. The man pulled his sleeves free and complied. Still holding the big knife close to the man’s throat, Joe pushed a fork across the table. “You eat,” he said again.
“How the hell do you expect me to do that with a blade at my gizzard?” the captive customer replied, all bravado having deserted him.
Joe was inexorable. “You use right hand and fork. You not eat, you die. Now.”
The town doctor, Amos Belfield, was always China Joe’s first customer of the day. His breakfast never varied and he had usually eaten and left before anyone else turned up. At six in the morning after Joe’s one and only early closure, Belfield arrived to find the place apparently open for business as usual. He walked in and saw Joe sitting opposite the stranger, who was sprawled back against the bench with his eyes closed and a large lump of steak in his open mouth. The enormous plate and the bowl in front of him were both empty. Joe pointed at him and glanced in the doctor’s direction. “You looksee,” he said.
Belfield carried out a brief examination of the stranger, feeling various parts of his body, then he nodded curtly and turned to Joe. “If those two pieces of crockery were full when he started eating, I’d say this is a clear case of over-ingestion. Anyway, he’s dead. Now, what about my bacon and eggs, Joe?”
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