Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirty-seven – The Fallen


The rowing sampan, launched using ropes from the port side of the Kingfisher, was decorated at the forepeak with a carving of the mythical giant bird, Peng, its oversized beak a commanding presence as the crew rowed towards shore. The coxswain expertly steered the craft into the tidal flats upstream from the wharves, away from the eyes of port authorities, pushing into a beach that was more sand than mud.

With a couple of crewmen holding the boat in the shallows, Liang swung his legs over and walked ashore. Accompanying him was a swabbie, a boy named Gam, who had voyaged to this place twice before. He could speak and understand a little English, and knew the streets well enough to act as a guide.

Cooktown in the year of 1876 – in the reckoning of the Yi – the Barbarians – was a wonderous and challenging place to Liang, who had never left China, and had not seen the manner in which the Yi construct houses and places of business. There was no sign of bamboo, the main building material of Guangdong. Most of the buildings were made of sawn hardwood timber, brick or stone.

Commercial establishments were signposted in English, but Liang could still discern different types of businesses – the many taverns were obvious, with white men drunkenly spilling from the bars. A woman’s voice, raised in song, emanated from one such place, accompanied by a piano.

As he walked with Gam up the main street, Liang felt lightheaded and off-balance – that peculiar sensation of the seafarer – the land itself seeming to rise and fall as if with hidden swells – the body’s reaction to finding solid land after many weeks on the ocean. Still, he forced himself to notice everything – the shopfronts belonging to insurance sellers, banks – including one particularly fine brick building – draperies, tinsmiths, produce merchants, solicitors, saddlers, tailors, and tobacconists. Cooktown, he had been told, was the second biggest white settlement in all of Queensland and he could believe it now.

Chinese men – and they were all men – who had arrived on the steamship were still passing by, in groups of half a dozen, their belongings including a bamboo pole on which they would balance their loads. They were heading, Liang guessed, for the lodgings provided by their sponsor organisations – the various triads, tongs and district associations.

Reaching the Chinese quarter, Liang and his guide passed stores and eateries owned by their countrymen. The names of owners, stencilled on the building facades, spoke of heritage from all over China. First, Gee Woh Chung’s general store, then Kwong Yee Yuen’s hardware and Wo Chong’s grocery. Many were open, despite the hour, and people passing on the track raised dust that swirled in the lantern light. One particularly fine building was a music hall called the Garden of Gold Valleys. The sound of sitars and drumming came from the interior and drifted across this fascinating town.

‘The Garden of Gold Valleys,’ explained Gam, ‘is owned by the powerful Nampan League – a cartel of powerful emigres from Namhoi and Pan-yu. They are locked in conflict with the League of Four Yik, and have been since their arrival here, much as we have been with the Rì Chū Guild.’

‘How much further?’ asked Liang, who was overwhelmed by the complexities of this place. Right then he wanted nothing more than to get the shipment of gold loaded and leave this port, as fast as possible.

‘Not far now,’ said Gam.

Ahead was a building made of poles and wooden boards, thatched with palm leaves and painted cardinal red. It was a substantial complex, with two guards at the gate. These men were not slovenly either, but watchful and on edge, their eyes dark probes that examined passersby carefully.

Approaching the guards, Liang lifted the bronze dragon medal from his chest. ‘My name is Yeuen Liang. I come as the emissary of the Dragon Head. Let us pass.’ The guards, it seemed, had not been expecting him, not yet at least, and the pair took their hands from their weapons and kowtowed so fully that their foreheads touched the earth.

‘Please,’ said one. ‘Give me a moment to prepare my elder brothers inside, lest they insult you with their lack of preparation.’

‘Very well,’ said Liang, ‘but could you spare food and drink for young Gam here. He has laboured long at the mast in trying conditions, then faithfully led me here.’

While one guard hurried inside, the other placed his hand on Gam’s shoulder. ‘Walk through that gate yonder, and you’ll find the barrack kitchens. The cook will give you food and drink.’

Once Gam had, with barely restrained eagerness, gone through the gate, Liang waited impatiently until a very tall man in fine robes appeared. Liang showed the dragon medal again, whereupon the official also kowtowed.

‘I am Straw Sandal here in Aodaliya,’ the man said. ‘You are welcome.’ He led Liang through a door, and into an antechamber. Five men kowtowed as he entered, only rising when the Straw Sandal and his guest had moved on down a corridor.

They entered an office lit with lanterns, and Liang had a good look at the Straw Sandal’s face. The long and cultivated moustaches could not disguise the pale hue of his face, and the grey bags under his eyes. He appeared, to Liang’s eyes, to be a worried man.

‘My apologies,’ said the Straw Sandal. ‘I am embarrassed. You have arrived – but no Society boat has docked – I have had a man watching all day and all night.’ He waved at a tray of tea and small cakes on the desk. ‘Please, refresh yourself.’

Liang took a sip of herbal tea, tasting strongly of lemongrass, then explained, ‘The port authorities would not permit us to come alongside the wharf, in fact we had to force the issue to be allowed inside the river mouth at all.’

The Straw Sandal nodded sagely, ‘There has been so much fighting between different Chinese groups that the Yi are being very careful who they let in and when. The most recent boatload of our Society’s indentured labourers arrived three days ago. They were kept on board for many hours until a shipment of men from Fukien Province had moved on from town.’

Liang was not surprised, even the men of the two main districts that made up their workforce spoke separate dialects of Cantonese, and practiced different customs. They called themselves the Sam Yap and Sze Yap and were distrustful, even violent with each other at times. ‘We wish to load the gold and leave as soon as possible. Where is the hoard located?’

The Straw Sandal looked away, and his lip appeared to have lost all colour. ‘Let me show you something.’

Liang followed his host down a corridor, through a heavy door and into a room that smelled of mingled putrefaction and the chemical jia-quan. The bodies of six men were laid out on low timber platforms, eyes staring up towards the ceiling. Many had facial injuries, or even mortal wounds that had been sewn up, leaving their features distorted. Some were missing limbs. It was a chilling sight.

‘These were some of our best fighters,’ said the Straw Sandal. ‘They died trying to protect the gold you have come to collect.’

Liang was off balance from the sudden transfer from sea to land, and the horrors of that room, but once he fully understood the official’s words, his heart almost burst with disappointment, worry and outrage. He said nothing yet, however, not here in the presence of the fallen. The ethos of the Sheathed Sword was founded on the correlation between life, death, and heaven. Reverence for those who have died was a cornerstone of Society beliefs.

It was only when they walked back through to the office that Liang gave vent to his fury. ‘The Guild have stolen a second shipment? How could you let it happen?’

The Straw Sandal covered his eyes for a time, as if to demonstrate his pain, then spoke. ‘The Palmer River goldfields are wracked with violence between the men of Macao and Canton. Lawlessness is rife and the Yi police have given up trying to control our countrymen. The gold was hidden in our barracks at the Yi settlement of Palmerville. Guild thieves came in the night, in overwhelming numbers. Those good men who lie in that room died trying to stop them.’

Liang swallowed down the taste of bile. ‘How much gold was taken?’

‘The alluvial fields have yielded well. The Guild thieves took close to five thousand taels of gold.’

Liang was dumbstruck for a moment. A king’s ransom – around six and a half thousand ounces as the white men would measure it. A treasure beyond imagination, and again the Guild managed to steal it away. Dreams were crashing down around him. Marriage to the beautiful Meilin. The promise of alliance and favour from the Society’s leader. Worse, if Liang returned without the gold that the Dragon Head’s ‘monkeys’ had won from the earth, his severed head would surely join the others atop bamboo poles on that remote island.

Liang began to circle the other man deliberately, discomforting him. ‘When did this happen?’

‘Five nights ago.’

‘Have any Guild ships left the harbour since?’

‘No, and I have had men watching.’

‘Where is the Guild holding the gold?’

‘I believe it would be at their headquarters on the Palmer. It is impregnable.’

‘And why was our gold not impregnable?’

‘It should have been.’

Liang drew his short jian sword from under his robe. ‘Can you give me one reason why I should not take your life as punishment. It is you who should have died protecting the gold.’

The Straw Sandal inclined his head. ‘Kill me if you must.’

Liang remembered the Dragon Head’s salutary lesson. That he must learn to be ruthless. Yet what purpose would another body serve? And the Straw Sandal was the organiser, the one who controlled the operation – fed and housed the indentured labourers.

‘How many men can we call on?’ Liang asked.

‘Only twelve trained fighters – and they are at the diggings now, protecting new gold that comes in.’

Liang inclined his head. He had ten more warriors, making twenty-two. ‘How many men do we have on the fields altogether, including miners?’

‘We have just over one thousand men in the goldfields,’ said the Straw Sandal.

‘How many do the Guild have?’

‘About the same.’

‘What is the fastest way to get from here to there?’ Liang asked.

‘We have some horses, used by messengers.’

‘I need twelve of them, ready to ride at dawn. Myself and my ten fighters.’

‘Who is the twelfth horse for?’ asked the Straw Sandal.

Liang thrust out his chin. ‘The twelfth horse is for you. We will either win back the gold, or die trying. There is nothing to lose – our lives are both forfeit if I return without it. I will be back here at first light, we’ll need provisions.’

‘I am not a fighter, sir. I am an administrator,’ said the Straw Sandal.

‘You are a fighter now, and to lose is to die.’

While Liang waited for Gam to be fetched from the barrack kitchens, he wondered if the Guild might still have the previous month’s shipment in their possession as well. That would be a prize of both huge monetary value and a massive blow to the Guild’s prestige if it too, could be taken. There would be risks, he decided, and a careful plan would be paramount.

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

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