Wild Dog River

Chapter Forty-two – A Change of Heart


Yeuen Liang, emissary of the Dragon Head of the Sheathed Sword Society, rode out on fresh horses with three of the fighters he had brought from China, two men from the Zongbu as guides, and the adolescent Gam, who carried charcoal and paper in a satchel at his side. The Lukinville track was a winding one, following the sweeping courses of the Palmer River through a valley that was at times precipitous, and occasionally broad and gentle.

This was inauspicious in itself, for the Chinese science of geomancy favoured straight paths. A line from the writings of Lu Ban Jing entered Liang’s head, Winding and tortuous as a worm, a crooked path will bring a bad atmosphere. This sixteenth century warning, along with the way the dying sun infused stone ridges with a bloody red, invoked a terrible sense of caution in Liang’s breast. After all, this was no small thing they were setting out to do.

Finally, at the foot of a stony ridge, the scouting party left one man as a guard, tethered their horses, and began to climb a scree of rocks and loose gravel. Reaching a broad shelf of stone, they were forced to move circuitously around a long and broad-scaled serpent that had crept from its hole in the cool of the evening.

Gaining the summit required a vigorous effort, and the smell of sweat emanated from the men as they finally crawled to a pile of rocks overlooking the Zongbu of the Rì Chū Guild – an impressive array of structures that covered several acres.

Liang stared, scarcely breathing, studying the layout of the compound and its defences. The other men in the party did likewise, apart from Gam, who unrolled his paper and took up a lump of charcoal, getting started on a plan of the Zongbu.

The main gate caught Liang’s eye – a grand edifice, hung with lanterns on either side. The two tree trunks that formed the main posts had been carved into scenes of men and mythical beings, the nature of which were unclear from a distance. A short path from the gate led to the Da Lou, or central hall, and behind this was a series of barrack rooms, walled with latticed sticks, formed around a number of small courtyards, some of which were filled with men lounging after a long day of rocking cradles and shovelling gravel. In kitchens without walls, cooks were working busily over woks arranged on glowing coals. The smell of roasting, spiced meats drifted through the air.

At the rear of the compound, on a small hillock, stood a Daoist temple, strongly constructed but very rough by Chinese standards. Even over the cooking smells Liang could identify the scent of burning joss. Curiously, around this structure stood guards armed with rifles.

While Gam continued his sketch, asking the men beside him for estimates of scale, and distances between points, Liang turned to the oldest and most trusted of his men, Chen Ye, who lay beside him, and said, ‘There is no reason to guard a temple unless …’

‘The gold is stored there,’ Ye smiled back, finishing the sentence. Chen Ye was the son of a timberman from the forests of the Nanling mountains, and he had grown up hewing an axe. The transition to more martial weapons had been easy for him.

Liang’s eyes moved to the earthen barrier that surrounded the Zongbu. The full length was patrolled on the outside, and there were sentry posts at every corner, lit with lanterns. The sentries, it seemed to Liang, were alert and would surely be regularly changed to keep them that way.

 Liang had studied Master Sun’s Art of War, and the military histories of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, and he searched through his memories for parallels in past warfare for what he sought to achieve here. He felt no pity for the men down there in the barracks. They were thieves and transgressors. The conundrum was how best to overcome them.

The ride inland from the coast, however, had been arduous and Liang was exhausted in every bone and organ of his body. His mind was not at its best. He waited until Gam had finished his sketching, rolled the paper into a tube and secured it in his satchel.

‘Tonight was for learning the nature of the task,’ Liang announced. ‘Tomorrow we will make plans, but first we must rest.’


It was long after midnight when the scouting party returned to the Sheathed Sword Society Zongbu. After a draught of yellow rice wine, and a supper of cold chow mein, Liang retired to his room. Like much of the Guild compound, the walls were made of woven brush, with a bed of dry grass in the centre, comfortable enough for a man exhausted from days in the saddle.

Liang fell into sleep quickly – a deep and dreamless kind of slumber.

It was still dark when he became aware of an anxious stamp of feet outside the opening to his room, then a loud whisper. ‘My Lord, my lord.’

Liang sat up and reached for the jian he kept under his pillow, silently drawing it from its scabbard before coming to his knees.

‘Who is it?’

‘It is Ching Shih. Will you please wake and come with me?’

Liang heaved a sigh and replaced the sword. Ching Shih was a trusted warrior from his own band – and one of several men he had deputised to help guard the Dragon Head’s son, lest his poison infected the ears of unprepared locals.

‘What is the reason?’ Liang asked.

‘The prisoner – Haoyu – is asking to see you – he is in an extremely distressed state.’

‘You dare to disturb me for this reason. He is still chained, is he not?’

‘Yes, of course. He insists that he must see you.’ The man paused. ‘He is … weeping, and I have not seen him like that.’

Liang made a noise in his throat, but he rose and followed the other man down the warren of narrow corridors, the sounds of sleeping men on either side, and the smoky, eucalyptus smells of watchfires filling the air.

The Zongbu had a small guardhouse, made of heavy slabs of timber, behind the main hall. Most commonly, it was used for those of the indentured labourers, or ‘pigs’ as they were known, who were caught drinking to excess, fighting or stealing. Now it held a much more dangerous prisoner.

 Approaching the structure, Liang heard sobbing from inside – an inhuman, animal sound that disturbed his senses. Two more guards were standing outside the door, and Liang could sense their unease from the slumped shoulders and shifting eyes. These two were not part of his contingent from the Kingfisher, but were ‘younger brothers’ of the society, brought to the goldfields to help keep order and to protect the gold, a task at which they had been proved incompetent.

‘Open,’ said Liang, and the nearest of the two hurried to produce the key, unfasten the heavy padlock and swing the door open. Feeling a moment of superstitious dread, Liang stood in the doorway and looked inside.

Haoyu was sitting on the sleeping pallet, his much-reduced stomach resembling the abdomen of some giant insect larvae with its many folds of loose skin. His head was in his hands, and his body shook with convulsions of what seemed like grief. As Liang entered, he looked up.

‘At last, my Rock, Yeuen Liang, you have answered my call.’ He crawled across the dirt floor of the cell, chains jangling, and prostrated himself at Liang’s feet. Loud weeping for a moment, then, ‘Oh good and wise one, appointed by my father. I beg your forgiveness. I have woken from a dream that has seen me reborn.’

‘What dream?’ asked Liang.

‘I dreamed of the dragon of my father’s banner, awaking from his cave near the peak of Mount Shikengkong, his eyes like cups of oil, flaring his wings and stoking the fires that burn in his nostrils. Flying from his stronghold in a rage fit to shake the world, laying waste to all before it. I saw myself, scorched of all flesh, screaming and tortured.’ Haoyu’s eyes enlarged, glowing. ‘It must surely be a dire warning, for now I see my selfishness and evil. I place myself at your mercy and beg you to plunge your sword into my heart, so I can atone for my sins and go to the mazes of Diyu with a clear conscience.’

Liang felt a blaze of anger – that he had been forced from sleep to listen to these mad ravings – if indeed they were genuine and not some nefarious plot. ‘You know that I cannot spill your blood in such a manner.’

‘Then let us start afresh. I can be useful to you. I am the Dragon Head’s son. I was suckled on the lore of our organisation and our fight against the corrupt Qing Dynasty. I know intimately of the split between ourselves and the Guild. I can help you to understand them.’

Liang kept his voice even. ‘It isn’t possible to start afresh after the things you have done. You murdered the old woman, Zhiyu. Her blood is on your hands.’

‘I will prove my worth,’ said Haoyu. ‘We can work together, then return to my father with the gold and his son reborn into a man worthy of him.’

‘That is as impossible as deserts becoming oceans, and valleys becoming mountains.’

‘It’s not. Will you give me a chance to gain your trust?’ pleaded Haoyu. 

‘Trust,’ mused Liang, ‘comes from dependability. I trust the Captain of the Kingfisher, Qian Yao, for that reason. I trust my right and left hands, for they have never let me down. You I cannot trust. The dream is over. Go back to sleep.’

Haoyu fell silent for a time, and his breathing was heavy and stagnant in that small space. ‘Oh, you are eloquent for a man of your background. You are a rock from humble origins, yet isn’t it true that back in the mists of time the Stone Monkey King was formed from an egg, sprung from a plain old rock that split in two? His journey with wise Tripetaka, along with the Pig, the Horse and the Sand Monster, changed the world. Could not this rock that I see before me do the same?’

Liang allowed himself a smile. ‘If only I, like the Monkey King, could turn each of the hairs on my head into a trained soldier.’

Encouraged, Haoyu lowered his voice, and reached out to touch Liang’s foot.

‘I will earn your trust, yes I will. Step by step, you will come to count on me.’

Liang shook his foot away. ‘That is not possible,’ he said. ‘Do not let me be disturbed again.’ He left the guardhouse and had the door locked behind him. Then, to the guards. ‘If Haoyu continues to speak, block your ears. His words are more dangerous than spears.’

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

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