Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirty-two – Trail of Blood


Haoyu was an unusual man, beloved of his father despite his faults, but there were things he could not do without. As he recovered from his addiction, he compelled the old healer, Zhiyu, to copulate with him, and perform lewd acts by lantern-light in his cabin. This was no substitute for the opium that he craved, but it helped to pass the dark night hours.

In the shade of the sails, he would sit on the deck and gather the seamen around him, testing their loyalty with probes and thrusts of his agile tongue. It was a game that amused him, but it yielded surprising results. After all, Haoyu was the Dragon Head’s son, and this gave him status.

Amongst the seabirds’ cries, he posed questions and spun tales, making the most outlandish desires seem possible, awaking needs and dreams, long buried behind Confucian piety.


For thirty-five days the Kingfisher sailed past lands that had always, to Liang’s ears, sounded like myths – the Spanish ports of the Philippines and the brooding coast of Sulawesi – the straits of Malacca where Qian Yao piled on sail and ran out the stern guns, fleeing from a suspected pirate dhow.

In the Banda Sea a storm front boiled up from the east to challenge the Kingfisher. Grey and black clouds piled like forests and mountains over the sea. Rain hammered on the deck like missiles thrown by demons and the wind turned ripples into waves, and waves into mountains. The boat would have floundered were it not for the consummate seamanship of the master and crew.

Haoyu lounged on deck, eating the rations of three normal men, gathering off-duty sailors around him, talking in low voices of the trappings of wealth, of fleshpots and pleasures that even those hoary boatmen had not yet dreamed of.

When Liang walked past, the conversation would stop, Haoyu staring mockingly, or saying things like, ‘You are a busy man, Rock, the needs of command are great.’

‘I am as busy as you are idle, Buffalo.’

At mealtimes, the seamen no longer talked of filial duty, or how Haoyu had flouted the tradition of paying respect to his family. They talked of bordellos and foreign chateaus and sometimes argued points of fact about Haoyu’s stories.

As the Kingfisher ploughed on southward, Haoyu eschewed the deck, and held court in his cabin. When Liang found one of his ten warriors there, he ejected and berated the man mercilessly, wishing that the Dragon Head had never imposed on him the company of his son.

Rounding the tip of Aodaliya, they passed the outer reef that guarded the waters of Queensland and sailed down the coast. Lookouts strained their eyes, port and starboard, for the carbuncles of sharp coral that would tear open the zaw’s hull like a sharp knife on the skin of a lychee.

On a night when the foreign coast lay scarcely a league to the west, burning yellow long after the great orb had sunk past the horizon, Liang came on watch to find the healer, Zhiyu, standing at the rail. Her face was a mask of despair – a line of tears falling from her face, to the rail, and down into the sea.

‘He is a beast,’ said Zhiyu, and Liang knew who she was talking about. ‘He consumes everything – everyone – around him. I have the gift of sight. I know what he is capable of. I know what he will do.’

‘You can really tell?’

‘The future is a fluid and changeable thing. It rests on so many things. It is like figures in the mist – and time, like mist, hides much. There are things, however, that I know with certainty.’

Liang stood beside her, the knuckles of his hand turning white on the rail. ‘I must take Haoyu back to his father. That is what I promised to do.’

Zhiyu stared back at him. ‘Yes, that is what you must do.’

But that night in his cabin Liang remembered the salutary lesson of the Dragon Head – the death of the highwayman and Zhang the usurper. Would Haoyu’s own father allow him to endanger the shipment of gold?

The next day Liang entered Haoyu’s cabin, furious at the seamen who surrounded him like acolytes to a priest. They scuttled off, however, at a single, shouted command. The cabin was like the cave of a bear. Zhiyu’s stores of herbs and roots still hung from the rafters, and it smelled of human sweat and unwashed blankets.

‘Greetings Rock,’ said Haoyu, lounging on the bed. ‘You seem agitated.’

‘I have come to issue a warning,’ said Liang. ‘I believe that you are fomenting discontent amongst the crew. I believe that you are planning nefarious acts that will not be in the interests of your father and the Sheathed Sword.’

‘The sailors like and admire me. Is that a crime?’

‘Not in itself. My worry is what you plan to do next.’

‘How do you know that I am planning anything?’

The words that Liang spoke next, he would long wish that he had not uttered.

‘Zhiyu knows. If I ask her, she will tell me.’


That night Liang heard a sound. It was a single, muffled scream, then a thump on the boards of the deck. Out of his cot in a bound, he came to his feet and padded out of his cabin and onto the deck, a strong gust of wind striking him in the face.

In the faint light of the poop lantern he saw the massive figure of Haoyu, dragging a body by the hair across the deck, and lifting it over the rail. In his years as Red Pole he had seen many things – the results of violent fights and several murders. He had never seen anything that rendered him so speechless as the sight that met his eyes that night – a dark trail across the boards that could only be blood. The body, he realised, was that of the old healer, Zhiyu.

‘You fiend,’ Liang accused. ‘You’ve murdered her.’

Haoyu lumbered back towards him, blood coating his arms to the elbows and more splashed on his chest. ‘The old witch,’ he said, ‘has had an accident, and fallen overboard.’

By now the officer of the watch had begun to ring the ‘all-hands’ bell, and men were piling onto the deck – the seamen from the gundecks, nooks, and corners where they slept – Liang’s warriors from the main cabin.

The master ordered the helmsman to turn hard about, sending the Kingfisher back into her own wake to look for the woman or her body. They tacked across the last sea mile of progress before giving up and resuming the journey. There was no sign of her on the dark sea.

While his men guarded Haoyu, Liang followed the bloody trail that led along the deck and down a companionway to Haoyu’s cabin. The worst of the blood was on the pile of bedding in one corner where Zhuyu had slept, and beside it was the neck of a bottle and a bloodied sliver of glass as long and sharp as a butcher’s knife.

Returning to the deck, Liang was almost shaking with anger. ‘You killed her.’

Haoyu shrugged, ‘So what if I did? She was nothing to me. No more than a fly or a gnat in importance. Now, if you will forgive me, I am tired and must go to my bed.’

‘You will spend the rest of the voyage chained up in the bilges,’ said Liang. ‘I will let your father judge you when we return.’

The sneer on Haoyu’s face never faltered. ‘Chain me up if you like, Rock. Then see if you can find a man with a heart strong enough to guard me.’

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

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