WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON
In the Year of the Pig, first lunar year of the Guangxu era, twenty-eight-year-old Yeuen Liang hurried through the city of Kaiping on an urgent errand, his straw-sandalled feet scarcely making a whisper on the paved street. Despite his status as a Dai-lo, or ‘elder brother’ in the Sheathed Sword Society, to be summoned by Master Chen, the White Paper Fan, was unusual, and Liang did not dare to be tardy.
Carrying a gift, wrapped in red paper, he passed through the bamboo gate, out of the complex where hundreds of men were preparing to sleep in cramped dormitories. Tomorrow they would board the ships currently provisioning at the docks on the broad river nearby. Two guards, straight jian swords in scabbards at their sides, raised their lanterns for Liang as he approached. There were always one or two ‘pigs’ who had signed but then regretted their indenture papers. Some would make a break for their homes and loved ones overnight. The guards were there to discourage such a foolish action. The indentured men were now the property of the triad, for at least two years, sometimes more.
Liang strode down a street of shops and gambling dens, many of which were his personal responsibility, and he kept an eye out for trouble as he went. He was a fit and healthy specimen, tall for a Cantonese and athletic in bearing. Having laboured in his father’s fields from the age of four or five, he had retained a strong musculature through training in Shaolin Kung Fu and other martial arts.
Gamblers coming and going avoided Liang’s eyes or shuffled away, for the men of the Sheathed Sword were respected and feared. Liang was young, but he had been acting in the position of Red Pole, a district leader and enforcer, for almost six months.
The journey to this point, however, had not been easy. In order to join the triad – more properly known as a tiandihui – he had learned and practiced a thousand small rituals. He had drunk from a goblet filled with the mingled blood of other initiates, and let the mixture run from the sides of his mouth. He had repudiated the teachings of the small village school he had attended, heavily based on Confucianism and the Analects, and sworn to gather wealth for the benefit of the Society and family. Wealth made them safe – and he had promised to forever seek the overthrow of the corrupt and incapable Qing Dynasty that ruled China.
Liang’s upbringing had been one of poverty and ceaseless work, even as the Guangdong region had exploded with violence across the last half century – first the Taiping Rebellion, then the revolt of the Red Turbans – culminating in the siege of Guangzhou. War was a fact of life, as were cruel imperial tax collectors. The only protection came from the staunch, well-organised, and multi-faceted Sheathed Sword Society, and Liang had joined as soon as he were old enough to do so.
After thirty minutes of walking, Liang left the urban areas of Sanbu and Chikan behind, following a side-channel from the river, the bank thick with bamboo and croaking frogs. On the other side of the track stood farm hamlets, banana groves and rice paddies. Liang enjoyed the walk, the air becoming sweeter on those country lanes.
Soon he ascended a hill with views down along the River Tanjiang, flowing broadly through the now distant urban sprawl. The river was busy with water craft, mainly local junks with their aft lanterns burning. Two steamships lay alongside the docks, almost ready to begin loading their cargo of human labourers.
It was a stunning scene, and one much loved by Liang – most particularly now while the hills to the north of the river glowed with the last fire of sunset. A breeze stirred the senses, bringing the fragrances of bougainvillea, jasmine, frangipani and the sweet river waters.
The lane that Liang now followed diverged through a garden of decorative bamboo, impatiens and chrysanthemum flowers, leading to a stone footbridge over a pond of golden koi. Some of these fish were as long as Liang’s forearm, their mouths open as they swam to the surface in response to his presence. A wide clearing now, and the path terminated at a broad home of perfect symmetry, with steeply inclined roofs of dark tile. This was the abode of Master Chen, the White Paper Fan of the Sheathed Sword Society.
Two men with thick necks and sloping shoulders flanked the entrance of the house. Both were familiar to Liang. He bowed his head to the guards, and they returned the gesture, making no attempt to block his progress.
Reaching the threshold, glancing at a pair of stone door-gods, with their gargoyle eyes, Liang removed his footwear and waited. A servant, dressed in a robe of white appeared, leading him through a corridor into a room floored with soft, woven mat.
The servant withdrew, and returned with Master Chen, a man of at least seventy years, his hair in a single long braid, the colour of hoar frost. Liang bowed low. The White Paper Fan was an administrator of thousands of triad assets; the paymaster, and behind-the-scenes organiser. He was one of only four or five men with the ear of the Dragon Head, the mysterious and powerful leader of the triad.
While the servant poured tea for both men, Liang passed his gift to the White Paper Fan with both hands, and it was accepted in the same manner. Gifts are far too important to be given or received with one hand. The box of English snuff inside – a well-known weakness of the White Paper Fan – earned a genuine smile.
‘Thank you, Yeuen Liang. Your thoughtfulness exceeds my hospitality.’
The White Paper Fan spoke several languages, and many dialects of Cantonese, but he slipped naturally into the Sze Yup dialect that was familiar to both of them, as he bade Liang to sit on a cushion before a low table.
The tea was bitter but fragrant. They drank in silence, and when they had finished Master Chen proposed a game of checkers. He clapped his hands. The servant appeared. A few moments later a wooden board and set of ivory pieces arrived on a tray. They played three games consecutively, with Master Chen winning all but the last.
When the board and empty teacups had been cleared from the table, the White Paper Fan finally raised the business of the evening.
‘Tomorrow, Liang, you will see the Dragon Head.’
This was momentous news, and unexpected. The Dragon Head was the leader of the Sheathed Sword triad – one of the most powerful men in all Guangdong Province. It was an honour or an unspeakable terror, depending on the reason for the summons. Liang felt a jolt in his heart, but he made sure not to show any emotion on his face. He inclined his head. ‘I am honoured beyond my life.’
In reality, he was frightened. Had he offended an older brother in the society? Not that he could recall. At least his conscience was clear in a pecuniary sense – his honesty with triad cash and goods was beyond scrupulous.
‘These are your instructions,’ Master Chen continued. ‘At the Temple of the Five Immortals, look for a beautiful bird.’
Liang waited for more, but there was nothing. The White Paper Fan smiled, rose and took his leave. The meeting was at an end.
On Liang’s way home he entered and checked the gambling dens along the riverfront, making sure that all was in order. Men and some women were playing Pai Gow and Tin Kau at crowded tables. The smell of opium smoke pervaded the air.
It was ironic, he decided, that some of the gamblers had already been to, and returned from, the river of gold in far away Aodaliya. In a little more than a day, another two ships would sail down the Tan to the Pearl Estuary, from there into the South China Sea, packed with labourers to man the cradles, pans and shovels that were returning such a fortune to the Society.
Heading home at last, Liang put these thoughts aside. Much more important, to him right now, was his meeting with the Dragon Head. It would be, he understood, the most important moment of his life up to that point.
He lay down on his sleeping mat, and in the moments before unconsciousness took him, the White Paper Fan’s words repeated in his head: at the Temple of the Five Immortals, look for a beautiful bird.
©2024 Greg Barron
Read previous chapters here: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/wild-dog-river/
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Continued next Saturday.
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