WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON
The abode of the Dragon Head was built on an earthen mound, on an island in the river marshes, green with verdant growth. The roof was many-tiered and rose to a towering summit. Inside, priceless vases and sculptures from the famous artists of ancient dynasties sat in corners. Rice paper walls were illustrated with scenes from battles against the oppressive Qing regime.
This island retreat, Liang realised, was a fortress as much as a home, for armed men came and went from their stations around the perimeter. Even when he was given quarters, an opportunity to wash, and a set of clean clothes, he could not fully relax. The beggar who had become the Dragon Head had unsettled him. Liang was a direct kind of man, and subterfuge was not his way.
That evening he was taken to a dining hall filled with well-dressed women and children, sitting at eating-benches of polished teak, food arriving on platters carried by serving boys and girls. A lively hum of conversation filled the room. Having discarded his beggar’s robes, the Dragon Head held court, now wearing a fine but plain silk robe.
Liang was given the most favoured seat in the room, opposite the entrance door with his back against the wall. From this position he could look down along the tables of diners. The Dragon Head, it seemed, had many wives, and his children were even more numerous. There were some very beautiful women in that room, amongst them a girl in her late teens, perfect in complexion, fine of limb, with a face of geometric symmetry.
Two or three times, during that meal, Liang’s eyes met hers, and each time, though she looked demurely away, it was like a lance of fire into his heart. He was a Red Pole in an important triad, with great, sometimes grave responsibilities, but under it all he was just a young man, and there were things he hungered for.
That night, back in his chamber, Liang slept as if he were drugged for two or three hours, at which point his eyes flicked open. Then, unable to sleep again, he listened to the sounds of herons and frogs out on the river and regular, distant voices as the guards changed. He divided his time between thinking about the lovely girl from the dining hall, and worrying about the duties that he had left behind in Kaiping.
At dawn he walked outside to practice Tai Chi Chuan – the art of shadow kung fu – on the riverbank. No one barred his progress and he moved freely. The morning breeze was fragrant as he took his stance. He centred himself thoroughly before running through some fifty moves, beginning with the whip, then the white crane and snake. In tune with all the elements, his body, and the river, Liang’s worries of the night left his mind completely.
Later, while he breakfasted, he saw the beautiful girl again, though she did not turn to look at him as she walked past. He heard a woman call her name. The girl was called Meilin, and the music of those syllables played upon his heart so sweetly that when the Dragon Head summoned him, he was torn between duty and wanting to see her again.
Soon, however, with one of the most powerful men in Southern China as his guide, Liang’s mind was fully engaged with the wonders of that island fortress – first the defences, then working-rooms for scribes, money-counters and advisers. Most interestingly, one small wing was involved in the melting down of raw gold that was brought on ships from across the sea. Liang watched while gold was melted, refined and poured from large ceramic pots into clay moulds to make ingots.
The tour at this point, was over, and the Dragon Head led Liang to his own office – a room made with teak and pressed bamboo, with Western-style glass windows, elevated so it offered views all around the island.
‘Sit down, please,’ said the Dragon Head.
Liang chose a chair with a tangerine cushion, with a sense that finally he would learn the reason for his summons here. The venerable leader of the Sheathed Sword took a chair with a red cushion.
‘Yesterday,’ said the Dragon Head, ‘when I wore the rags of a beggar, I observed you very closely. I had you followed when you set out to perform good deeds, and I was very well pleased with you – except that I believe you treated both antagonists far too leniently. Are you familiar with the work of Master Sun Wu?
‘Yes.’ Liang said. Indeed, a version of the venerable text, The Art of War, based on millennia-old bamboo slips found in a Han tomb was one of his most prized possessions.
‘Then let me tell you a story that you will not find in the book – the salutary lesson given by Sun Wu when contracted to the court of King Helu, advising his generals on the art of command. Master Sun ordered all the King’s concubines, wives and daughters to be brought out to the parade ground. He appointed two of the women as commanders, and asked them to run this unlikely ‘army’ through a series of drills.
‘The ladies thought this was a great joke. They laughed and played the fool. Sun Wu drew his sword and beheaded the women he had chosen as “commanders”, then appointed two new “leaders”. The next command was obeyed instantly.’ The Dragon Head’s eyes became misty and wistful. ‘It is a salutary and simple lesson, and you should never forget it.’
The Dragon Head stayed silent for a few moments, as if to let the lesson sink in, then said, ‘Let us now move on to the matters at hand. I showed you the minting of gold for a reason. I have a problem. My monkeys travel far across the sea to gather berries for the dragon, but the berries must come home to me.’
Liang guessed that the berries were the tiny flakes of alluvial gold, small nuggets and irregularly shaped reef gold that were being refined and cast nearby.
‘Each month,’ the Dragon Head went on, ‘boats anchor at the jetty here, carrying gold found by indentured men whom we send to auriferous areas across the world. The most important of these, as you know, is the River of Gold in Northern Aodaliya.’
‘An admirable system,’ said Liang.
‘Yes, but at the end of the season of chūn tiān, my trusted man, who commanded the expeditions to bring back the gold to our treasury here, fell ill and died on the return voyage. I appointed a new man, but he failed me. Last month our great rivals of the Rì Chū Guild hijacked and stole our full shipment – a great fortune in gold, hard won by our people.’ The Dragon Head paused and looked seriously at Liang. ‘I have been looking for a new man – a good man – to bring me back my berries – another shipment is ready, more than two thousand ounces, gleaned by our labourers from that harsh, foreign river.’
Liang realised what he was going to be asked to do. The enormity of it staggered him. He had not imagined having to leave China.
The Dragon Head continued. ‘Will you accept the honour of commanding a small contingent to travel by sea to Aodaliya? Will you accept promotion to the rank of Straw Sandal in the Sheathed Sword? Will you bring home the gold that is ours – the gold that makes this organisation strong?’
‘I accept with all my heart,’ said Liang.
The Dragon Head barked an instruction. The door opened and an assistant carried in a case made of ebony wood. The Dragon Head took the case, dismissed the man, then lifted a bronze disk on a chain, holding it and rotating it slowly so Liang could see.
On one side was the face of a dragon familiar to Liang, and common on banners, frescos and mosaics around the island. The Sheathed Sword was partly a benevolent institution. It assisted members and their families, paid debts, loaned money for businesses and expedited commercial networks. It also ran its own profitable enterprises – everything from opium smuggling and supply to gambling, and the indenture of labourers for both mining and agriculture. It was also, however, martial in nature. Officers of the Sheathed Sword were trained in war, and it was the dragon on the face of that bronze medal that represented conflict and the hidden power of the society.
On the other side of the medal were the words, etched in Chinese Characters: The bearer carries the authority of the Dragon Head. Disobey at your peril.
The Dragon Head lifted the medal by the chain and hung it around Liang’s neck. ‘From the moment you sail from China you walk on my legs, you strike with my arm, and you speak with my tongue. Bring back my hoard of berries, and no resource is barred to you.’ He paused. ‘My wives tell me that you admire the beautiful Meilin?’
Liang did not attempt to hide his feelings. ‘That is true.’
‘When you return, if you wish, you may marry her.’
Liang almost choked, so great was his surprise and pleasure. To be offered such a beautiful bride, and to marry into the Dragon Head’s own family, was almost too great an honour to bear.
‘I have a sampan waiting for you at the jetty. It will bear you home to Kaiping, where you will prepare for imminent departure. One last thing, and this is a personal matter. I want you to take my second-eldest son with you. He needs a firm hand and a staunch friend – you will collect him in Xiangshan.’
A scribe entered the room to consult the Dragon Head on some other matter. Liang realised that the audience was at an end. He bent low, so that his forehead touched the floorboards, and withdrew from the room.
Later, the Dragon Head and most of his family came to the jetty to bid the new Straw Sandal farewell. Wearing the bronze medal around his neck, Liang held a long, lingering glance with the girl he was promised to marry, and climbed on board a sampan, white sails flapping impatiently. As the sampan moved away with the wind and current, passing the defenders on the island, he saw three poles extending from the earth, each with a dead man’s head on top. Two were those he had seen the previous day – Zhang and the bandit he had fought on the eastern road. The third was much older, most of the flesh removed by ravens, ants and rot.
Liang heaved a sigh, certain within himself that it was the head of the man who had let the Rì Chū Guild steal the gold shipment from the previous month – the man who had last carried the bronze medal he now wore around his neck.
©2024 Greg Barron
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Continued next Saturday.
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