BAD HABITS 

 

By Steve Oliver 



 

Spokane, 1907. 

 

Albert Randall took the last street car that said Garden Springs, hopping easily onto the back of the slow-moving car at ten o'clock at night and taking an empty seat near the rear. He was groggy, hung over from both spirits and opium, half-asleep and irritable. As the car trundled west down Second Avenue he checked his pockets and found that he had a dollar and twenty-eight cents to his name. He would have to find somewhere to sleep tonight. His mother had forbade him coming home and it was November, no time to be sleeping in the parks. He could find a spot with the bums who would have a bonfire going, but he felt uneasy with those men who were mostly older than he, filthy, and untrustworthy. He hoped this job that he had been asked to do would result in immediate payment. 

The day, for November, had been a fine one, clear and sunny, but cold, somewhere in the low thirties during the day and now probably in the twenties. As the car started to climb Sunset Hill he wondered what the work was that Ah Yeck wanted him to do. He had become indebted to the Chinaman through gambling and the use of opium and had done his bidding a number of times, including minor crimes such as burglary from the houses of Ah Yeck's enemies. On this night he had been asked to go to a house in Garden Springs, the site of numerous small gardens tended by the Chinese. What he was to do when he got to this house had not been made clear. He had been told to bring a gun, but not to load it. After he arrived, Ah Yeck said, he would be given instructions by another Chinese man named Ti Gee. Then Ah Yeck had given him a silver dollar, the largest share of Albert's fortune. 

He had not followed Ah Yeck's instructions to the letter. His pocket contained an old Harrington & Richardson .38 caliber revolver fully loaded and ready for business if it came his way. He could see no reason to go into any situation with an empty gun. He would not pull the trigger unless necessary—that would provide sufficient safety for those around him. 

As the car proceeded up the hill a few passengers exited the car at the rear, facing forward and stepping backward onto the gravel street, occasionally having to trot a step or two to compensate for the forward motion of the vehicle they had just departed. Most of the passengers were roughly dressed laborers, a few Chinese men, a couple of businessmen in their suits. The one woman among them sported a huge Merrywidow hat and nearly fell when she exited the car at the top of the hill because she was facing the wrong way when her dainty foot touched the ground. He got a clear view of her difficulties as he was standing behind her waiting for his own stop when she stumbled from the car, mumbling a few not so ladylike words to accompany her trouble. Albert smiled as he descended to the bottom step, gripping the hand-hold and watching for the little store that was his landmark. When he was about parallel he stepped to the ground with his right foot and easily fell into a rapid stride up the hill as the car pulled away. 

The Chinaman's shack was supposed to be just off to the right across from the store near a greenhouse. He was supposed to ask for Ti Gee. As he headed that way he glanced down the hill at Spokane, The lights of its hotels and restaurants gleamed in the night. A year or two ago he would have been excited to see the city from this scenic perspective, but he was nineteen now, out of school, a drunkard and a drug addict and part-time criminal. He had turned his back on the city and it had turned its back on him. He did not think he would ever amount to anything here. If he were ever to amount to anything it would have to be in some big city where no one knew him and where he could forget what he had become in his home town. 

After a block or two on the dirt street Albert saw the shack, a gray hovel nailed together from rough lumber and covered by a roof of rotted shakes. Its windows glowed with the yellow light of lamps within. He was headed down the narrow dirt path bordered by an unkempt lawn and a few fruit trees when the rapid-fire explosions of a large-caliber handgun destroyed the peace of the night air. The din of gunfire was punctuated by cries of pain and fear in the distinctive dialect of panicked Chinamen. 

It took Albert no time to make the decision to leave the scene, especially after he heard the buzzing sound of a round or two from the unseen handgun passing near him, one thwacking into a nearby tree. He headed back the way he had come, observed by several people in nearby houses who had come out onto their porches. He slowed to an energetic walk to look less like a fugitive and turned right at the dirt road ahead toward the trees that would shield him from view. He spent the next hour or two trudging down Indian Canyon to Hangman creek, then climbing the hill to Browne's Addition, passing through Coeur d'Alene Park and then on to Third Avenue where he found a cheap hotel and paid 15 cents for a room. Once inside he slept the remainder of the night, waking after noon and washing up in the bathroom down the hall. Then he went out onto the street. 

He brought bread and butter and a bottle of milk from a grocery store near the hotel and then paid a penny for a copy of The Spokane Press from a boy peddling papers on a street corner. At the hotel he read the paper as he greedily ate the bread and butter that he had to apply with his finger as he had no knife. The story of the shootings was on the front page:  Two Chinamen killed and Another Wounded—Survivors Claim White Man Did It. 


Two Chinamen are in the morgue at Smith Undertaking Co. and one is in Sacred Heart hospital as the result of a battle with revolvers participated in by four Chinamen at Garden Springs about 11 o'clock last night.
 

How Guen was shot through the heart and died instantly. Sen Men was shot twice through the abdomen and died at Sacred Heart hospital at 9 o'clock this morning. Ah So is shot through the right lung and still lives. 

Much mystery surrounds the shooting. The weapons have disappeared. Every Chinaman thus far interviewed tells the same story about a masked white man suddenly bounding into the room and opening fire.  

 

Albert reread the last paragraph. He felt a shudder of fear. Until now he had been afraid that someone had wanted him dead and had missed. It had given him a scare, but also a sense of relief that they had missed. Now he considered the possibility that he would be sought as the killer. He tried to remember each of the people on the streetcar who might have had a good look at him. There were perhaps half a dozen. They would be able to give the police a good description of his face, which was distinguished not only by his youth, but the pockmarks left after a bout of smallpox when he was a child. He had also been wearing his distinctive slouch hat and a red kerchief. The long coat was another sufficiently distinctive part of his apparel and the combination would make him easy to spot. He wondered what time it was and how long he would have to wait until it was dark and he could try to visit Ah Yeck. He wondered if that was a good idea. Could he trust Ah Yeck? Would the Chinaman be watched by the police? If he couldn't see Ah Yeck he would have to find another place to get his hit. He had little money left, but that didn't worry him as his pistol was still in working order and he could come up with the money from some prosperous citizen in about five minutes. 

But his first attempt of the evening at armed robbery didn't pan out as he had hoped. He had stopped a pair of well-dressed gents near the railroad crossing at Pacific and Howard, telling them, "Put 'em up!" They had held that position for a moment or two, but as he neared them to ask them to "hand it over," he stumbled into a pothole, losing his balance. While he did not fall it gave one of the men the confidence to yell, "Run for it, Bob," and both of the men wearing suits and Bowlers took to their heels like a pair of well-bred race horses. 

He took to his heels as well, fearing that the pair would locate a member of the local constabulary. By the time he stopped running he was on Monroe Street heading north. At the far end of the bridge he encountered a man nearly as young as himself, but dressed as a businessman. 

"Do you have any money on you?" he asked the man. 

"What business is it of yours?" the man replied and Albert showed him the gun. Without another word the man sighed and pulled some coins from his pocket and placed them in Albert's hand. "Three dollars and fifty-eight cents," said the man. "There isn't any point in searching me further—it's all I've got." 

"I'll take you at your word, mister," said Albert, and tipped his hat. "Good evening to you." 

"You'll pardon me if I don't return the salutation," said the man and continued on his way across the bridge. 

Albert considered looking for another victim, but upon reflection it seemed to him that he had done enough. Even the Spokane police were known to become aroused with enough provocation and he was already concerned that his appearance was a subject of discussion in the Chinamen murders. 

He quickly walked east to the Division Street bridge and crossed back over the river, keeping to the darkness when possible, avoiding the street lights. He checked the pockets of his coat, removing the gun and putting it in the front pocket of his trousers. Then on Front Street he entered the Brook saloon and hung up his hat and coat. The bar was crowded enough that many men were standing as the chairs were all occupied. He sauntered this way and that for a moment, doing his best to judge if he were being particularly observed, then made his way back to the hats and coats, chose a pair of articles as unlike his own as possible—a black hat and a workman's plaid coat, and headed out the door. Only when he was outside did he put them on, feeling fairly satisfied that he had guessed their size correctly enough. Perhaps tomorrow he would go to a second hand store and trade them in and buy something a little more to his taste. For now it would do that he would not be spotted for himself.  

The sweating and shaking that had been apparent earlier was now nearly intolerable. He felt as bad as he had earlier in the year when he'd had flu. He badly needed a smoke. He couldn't trust Ah Yeck, not after the murders. He had become spoiled, comfortable after he had been befriended by Ah Yeck. He had always had a place to go and plenty to smoke as long as he did his bidding. He wondered what had happened? Had he done something to offend Ah Yeck? Or had he merely become a convenient tool, someone to blame? 

He knew of a couple of places he could go, places that he had frequented during the early months of his addiction. There was the noodle joint on Front Street—but that was within a block of the police station and in his present condition he was afraid of some copper deciding to stop him on the street. The other place was a laundry on Havermale Island. 

He reached into his pants pocket to be sure the gun was there. As he moved it into the coat pocket he felt something else, a cigar. He took it out and smelled it. It was still intact. He walked east on Front street as he searched his trouser pockets for a match, struck it on his zipper and lit the cigar. The smoke helped him calm down. He headed for the laundry on Havermale. 

The night was dark and cold. He shivered as he made his way from street light to street light until he was near enough to the laundry he could make the rest of his way in the dark. He located the side door on the old wooden building and knocked. After a minute or so and the sound of mumbling from the other side, he heard a board scrape against wood as it was lifted from its resting place. The door opened a few inches and in the dim golden light of an oil lamp he saw the small Chinese man named Lee he had dealt with before. The man simply nodded and turned, walking down the dark hallway. Albert entered, shut and locked the door, and followed. 

 

It was good to sleep. Albert was at peace now in opium dreams. He had no worries, no cares. He wasn't angry. He wasn't sad. He wasn't happy. He wasn't avaricious. He didn't long for a woman. He was at peace. 

The room he was in was dark and warm and he was on a narrow bunk about five feet off the floor. The mattress was thin, cotton ticking with a cotton cover and a sheet. Coal burned in a stove on the other side of the small room, putting out a fierce heat that comforted him, warmed and reassured him that he was in a safe place where he could recover from the events of the past two days. 

His sleep was, of course, not a normal sleep. He wasn't always sleeping, and even when he was awake he was in another state, a beautiful country full of dreams. He could not imagine his life without opium. What other life did he have? His mother would not speak to him. He had no father. His former girlfriend, Abigail, had refused to see him after he had quit school. His only family for six months had been the Chinaman Ah Yeck and a cat that lived in the boarding house that Ah Yeck paid for. For a long time as he slept and woke, slept and woke, he thought about that cat. He really loved that cat.  

 

He had paid Lee extra money to let him stay one night, but he stayed two. Late on the afternoon of the second day he washed up in the porcelain bowl that Lee had left on a table, but he was unable to shave. He combed his hair with his hands using a metal mirror on the wall.  

He walked downtown at dusk. He kept the collar of his new coat high and pulled his hat down to keep his face obscured. At first, it seemed strange to be out on the streets with the throngs of other people and he worried that everyone knew that he was an opium addict and was wanted for murder. After a time he began to relax and as it became dark he stopped into the Ondawa Inn, walked to the far end of the bar and ordered a beer and a bump. The bartender, a big man in a white shirt and vest slapped a shot glass on the bar and yelled down the bar "draw one," to the other bartender. He took a bottle from beneath the bar and filled the shot glass as the beer arrived on its own power from the other end of the bar. 

He liked the bartender, whose name was Bud, who told stories about the farmer's daughter, and the salesman and a school boy named Johnny. He forgot that he was a fugitive for a while and remembered his uncle Edward who told such stories when he was helping him with the chores on their dairy west of Spokane. Albert laughed at the stories and said little as he was shy, even when he'd had several drinks in him. The bartender commented that Albert was a "good kid" a couple of times to the older man at the bar next to him, one of several in the bartender's audience. 

He stayed the evening, three or four hours, and as the beer and whiskey flowed through him he became more and more disheartened and morose. He was in the company of jolly men and wished he were there after a day of honest work. But the world he came from was not one of normal work, but that of a lacky to a Chinese criminal. He had no home to go to, no mother to prepare his lunch before work in the morning. He put his hand in his coat pocket and touched the pistol that rested there. As he drained the remainder of his beer he looked at the clock behind the bartender. It was just after ten o'clock. He could go look for a room for the night or he could pay Ah Yeck a surprise visit. He owed Albert money, and he owed him an explanation for the gunfire.  

Albert laughed at that. Ah Yeck could barely speak a word of English, the heathen. He could explain nothing. 

"What's so funny, kid?" asked the bartender. 

"I dunno," said Albert, laughing again. 

"I think the kid's drunk," said Gus, the older man to his right. 

"I think he is," said Bud, and the men around Albert laughed and one of them slapped him on the back. Then Bud started another joke. He seemed to have an endless supply. 

Albert ignored the joke and thought about Ah Yeck, the Chinaman who owed him money and had probably set him up to be killed, or at least arrested for the murder of his Chink buddies. Ah Yeck had opium, half-pound tins that he received from San Francisco. He kept at least one of them in his office, in an old desk, locked in the bottom drawer. Albert wanted that opium and a pipe and the other fixings so that he could take care of his needs without having to deal with the Chinese anymore. He wished he were merely an alcoholic, satisfied with the pleasures of beer and whiskey, but he had developed a liking for opium and even now, while he was drunk, thought of those hours of pleasant dreams, the only happy hours he had now that he was a refugee from decent society. 

He reached into his pocket and came out with a couple of coins and put them on the bar, one to pay for his last beer and the other as a tip for Bud. 

"You all done, kid?" said Bud, taking the coins. He offered his hand. "Well, good luck to you." They shook hands and the other men around him muttered well wishes and the old fellow next to him clapped a hand on his back. Albert staggered through the bar and out onto the street feeling the glad tidings of his fellow countrymen and a hatred of the Chinese. 

The air outside was cold and sobered him a little. He walked east toward Division until he reached Browne where he turned to the south. As he neared First and Browne fewer people were on the streets and Albert found that he was not so drunk. He had begun thinking about what he would do when he entered the noodle joint that Ah Yeck ran with his brother. 

He still felt pretty good after his evening of fellowship, but his good feeling did not extend to his oppressor. He was thinking that it should not be hard to get some money and opium from the little man and that would be the end of it. He would go somewhere, to Seattle perhaps. There were trains running even later this evening and he could sleep on the train. He would need to get his suitcase which was stored in a room in the back of the restaurant. 

That is what he would do. He would go to the backroom for his suitcase, then he would go to Ah Yeck's office. If Ah Yeck was there he would pull out his pistol and tell him to hand over some money—not all of it, not so much that he would want to come after Albert, just what he owed after his betrayal, and then one tin of opium, enough to last for a while in Seattle as Albert pursued a new life. 

By the time he reached the noodle joint, Albert was shivering and much of his good spirit had faded with the warmth. He put his right hand in the gun pocket as he used his left hand to push the big red entrance door open. Inside the warmth and the smell of food and oriental incense washed over him in a pleasant wave of familiarity and comfort. He had spent many hours here being treated to Chinese meals and beer and opium. Ah Yeck had been kind to him as had all the employees of the restaurant; an American adopted by a family of Chinese cooks and waiters. He felt an outcast and traitor as he grasped the gun and walked through the reception area, noting the sound of laughter and the clink of glasses coming from several of the boxes, tall wooden barriers and locked doors hiding the inhabitants of these private booths where all manner of questionable activity was carried on without notice. 

Albert's expectation of a quiet and quick transaction, as well as the peace and quiet of this den of iniquity, was ended suddenly and without warning as a loud bang was followed by a punch to Albert's shoulder that included a searing pain. Without thinking, but with anger rising in his chest, Albert pulled the pistol and fired all his shells in the direction of the smoke that emanated from a doorway to the back. To his surprise the door of one of the boxes flew open and two men who emerged also fired toward the doorway and a third held a gun pointed at Albert. Albert, out of ammunition and feeling faint, sank into a chair at a small table by the entrance. He released the gun onto the surface of the table and held his shoulder, watching blood gush over his hand. As his sight faded he saw two of the men with guns hurrying toward the rear doorway. 

 

When Albert woke he was in some pain, but he didn't mind it so much because he was floating in a pool of well being, buoyed by the familiar lift of an opium-like sense of the ethereal. He was in a narrow bed in a hospital ward and his left shoulder was heavily bandaged. The room was about three-quarters full with patients, perhaps ten or twelve in all. A nurse was passing in front of his bed and Albert was about to call her when he noticed the man sitting in a chair by his bed. The man's face was familiar and Albert frowned as he tried to recall it. 

"Bert Wheeler," said the man. "You remember me, Albert—your neighbor. We haven't seen you in a while—your mother said you went to live by yourself." Bert scooted the chair so that he was sitting closer and could look right at Albert's face. "How do you feel, boy?" 

Albert felt guilty because of the pleasure he took from the morphine. He felt just fine, better than he had in weeks. "Okay," he managed to whisper. His throat hurt and his voice sounded hoarse. 

"You're a hero, boy," said Bert. "When I read the paper I hurried down here so I could tell your mother how you were doing." 

Albert saw the newspaper in Bert's hand and pointed at it. Bert unfolded the paper and held it in front of Albert's face. 

"Quite a story," said Bert as Albert tried to focus on the words on the page. 

 

LOCAL BOY FIGHTS OFF DESPERADOS 

Albert Randall of West 413 Boone avenue, this city, fought with armed desperados as they robbed the Hop Li noodle joint on Second avenue. Three men who pretended to be customers suddenly fired on the staff of the restaurant and broke into a back office where they murdered owner Ah Yeck and took money and other valuables from his desk and safe. 

Randall, who had apparently gone to the restaurant for a late evening meal, was found near the front door with an empty revolver and a serious wound in his left shoulder. He had apparently attempted to thwart the robbery and been shot for his trouble. He is today recovering at the Sacred Heart hospital. 

The three men are being sought today by police and sheriff's deputies and are believed to be in the Cheney area where they may have traveled by trolley late last night. An operator of the Cheney Traction car reported three men getting onto the car late last night. A posse is being formed and Harry Draper has been contracted by the city to track the men with his famous bloodhounds. 

 

Albert stopped reading and looked at Bert for some explanation of this mysterious turn of events. 

"Humdinger of a story, aint't it?" said Bert, smiling his friendly smile. "Your mother cried when I showed it to her and asked me to come here and talk to you. She wants you to come home. When you are feeling better I'll take you down to the mill. I can get you a job on the green chain when your shoulder is better. I know you've been having your troubles, but it's time for you to get a job and take care of your mother." Bert smiled at Albert in a way that said that he had no doubt that Albert would do the right thing. 

Albert, who had felt euphoria a moment before, now was in pain. His chest hurt and his throat hurt and his eyes were full of water. Bert took a small towel off the back of a nearby chair and handed it to Albert. "Here," he said, "dry your eyes. Your mother will be here in a moment. You don't want her to see you crying."