Wild Dog River

Chapter Forty-three – The Festival of Vengeance

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

The Straw Sandal told them to come, and they came. Hundreds of men from the smaller camps of the Sheathed Sword, from one end of the Palmer goldfields to the other. They came from Maytown and Lukinville; from the diggings at Echotown and German Bar. They came happily, welcoming a respite from the daily labour of mining, bringing a carnival atmosphere and a sense of unity.

They came, some carrying axes, and others stout poles and long knives, arriving in small and large groups, filling the compound and its surrounds to overflowing with their conical hats and baggy trousers. Some wore queue hairstyles – with the front portion shaved close – and the rearmost either braided or captured in a bun. Others wore pigtails. The air was filled with their voices – of song, jokes, boasts and chatter.  

For Liang the arrival of the indentured workforce helped to stoke the fires that were burning fiercely in his heart. He had risen that morning with a plan so audacious that the mere anticipation of it filled his belly with butterflies. He had allowed the idea to steep like dandelion tea, considered all aspects of it carefully as he cleared the centre of his sleeping space to practice Tai Chi Chuan. By the time he had breakfasted, the plan was solid in his mind, and he sought out the Straw Sandal, outlining the idea, highlighting its simplicity and ambition.

 ‘Our mission,’ he concluded, ‘should not be to simply take the gold back. We must avenge an insult to the Society with blood and destruction.’

The Straw Sandal listened in silence, then inclined his head gently in agreement. Within an hour his messengers were riding out on fast horses, to all points of the compass. While they waited, Liang and the leaders amongst his men had discussed and refined the plan, referring often to Gam’s sketch of the Guild Zongbu.

Within twenty-four hours, when four or five hundred men had already answered the call, the Straw Sandal took action. His speciality was organisation, and he recognised the need to feed these vast numbers of men. He purchased ten head of cattle from the Yi, and these were run into the yard in the afternoon of the second day, creating entertainment for the swelling crowd.

The first of the bullocks roared when the steel entered his chest, dropping to his forequarters, before a second blade found his heart and he fell to one side. The butchers swarmed in with knives and hatchets. There was no time to hang the meat, it was cooked still dripping with blood, and juices ran down the faces of hungry men as they gorged themselves on a feast that very few of them, being from poor peasant families, had experienced. A ration of rice wine was issued. Not enough for drunkenness, but sufficient to enliven spirits and encourage a sense of camaraderie.

In the late afternoon three Yi policemen rode up, not bothering to dismount, but clearly wanting to talk. Liang accompanied the Straw Sandal as he walked out to meet them.

The three white men were bearded, and each wore a wide-brimmed felt hat on his head. There were old stains on their trousers and sleeves that might have been blood. The sheer filthiness of these men was repugnant to Liang, and they smelled strongly of sweat, overpowering the livestock stench of their horses.

The eldest of the three wore sergeant’s stripes on his serge jacket, and he carried a bandolier of cartridges across his chest. The butt of a Snider rifle protruded from a scabbard on the off side of the horse.

The Straw Sandal bowed his head and addressed the sergeant, who he appeared to know. ‘Good day, Sergeant Closhy,’ he said.

‘Hey Boss,’ the policeman replied, slipping into Pidgin, the common language of the goldfields. ‘Plenny coollies blong you walkee this-side. What for they come here allasame? I savvy plennee trouble.’

‘No-more trouble,’ said the Straw Sandal. ‘Sergeant Closhy no-more worry.’

‘Then what for them coolies come this-side alla same?’ asked the white policeman suspiciously.

‘Uh so, us fella have-um festival,’ said the Straw Sandal. ‘Eat chow. Plenny haw.’ This last word he illustrated by acting out a man drinking from a cup.

The sergeant narrowed his eyes. ‘Which festival?’

‘Festival of Fu-choo Ji,’ the Straw Sandal said innocently.

The three policemen looked at each other, none willing to admit their ignorance of the occasion. The sergeant covered his discomfiture by appearing to study the crowd, happily eating meat and imbibing of their wine rations.

‘Bym-bye,’ he said at last. ‘No trouble, boss, or lookee out for you-feller.’ He clapped his heels on the horses flanks, riding off with his men following.

When the police had eased into a trot and moved back towards Palmerville, Liang laughed, slapping the Straw Sandal on the back, delighted at the ignorance of the Yi. ‘The Festival of Fu-choo Jie,’ he laughed. ‘The Festival of Vengeance. There is no such occasion, but it is very fitting.’

By the third day the compound was beyond capacity. The incoming flow of coolies had slowed, and finally stopped. Beef, stewed cabbage and rice was distributed in the mid-afternoon, but no wine this time. Red Poles and Elder Brothers of the society, briefed by Liang and the Straw Sandal, moved purposefully from group to group, spreading outrage at the Guild’s murders and theft, until it was all Liang could do to prevent the mob from moving off down the track towards the target, right then and there.

  For Liang, the time passed slowly. He, like his men, dressed in fighting garb – trousers and shaolin robes of dark black, with jian in scabbards at their sides. They had a string of packhorses packed with some provisions, but others with empty saddle bags, ready for a heavy burden they did not yet possess.

At Liang’s order Haoyu was released from the guardhouse, and led, still chained, to the back of a wagon. Submitting quietly to being gagged and bound, the Dragon Head’s son did not complain or fight. Liang watched thoughtfully, still undecided whether the change in his attitude was genuine, or just another ploy.

Meanwhile, the sun sank redly below the horizon, and darkness settled on the land. Liang climbed atop one of the wagons and addressed the crowd that now numbered more than a thousand. He used words like arrows, spreading his rage like a contagion.

Before leaving Liang farewelled the Straw Sandal, who would not accompany them on the attack. If he were killed, the organisation here would be rudderless.

Liang said, ‘If we succeed tonight, we will both find great favour with the Dragon Head.’

‘Then you must succeed,’ smiled the Straw Sandal, bowing deeply.

Liang returned the gesture, then, ‘Farewell, my new and trusted friend.’

‘Farewell. I predict that your star will rise high and bright.’

At that moment, Liang could see the way forward to making that prediction come true.

***

Two hours after sunset, Liang formed more than five hundred men up into a column, and they set off to the west – so many moving bodies that the ground itself seemed to be moving. Yet, in response to Liang’s plea, they made hardly a sound at all – no talking and each footfall as soft as a whisper. They eased along the landscape like a dark ground mist.

Most were equipped with axes, fighting staffs or picks, but rotating teams of ten men carried the squared-off trunk of a cypress tree, fortified at one end with a cap of sheet-metal. This was a crucial part of the plan, and Liang was grateful for the fast work of a handful of Society tradesmen.

Liang rode with his twelve men, and young Gam, to one side of the main ranks. The walk was a long one. It was close to midnight when they neared the Guild Zongbu – but the men were still fresh. Months or even years on the Palmer had hardened them to long hours of walking and hard labour.

 Liang stopped the march just shy of the target. It was time now to send the wagon carrying Haoyu, some of the pack horses and three of his own fighters as guards to a rendezvous point away from the track, a little to the east. At the same time, he allowed the walkers to rest, and sent men from the provisioning wagons through the ranks with waterskins.

At last, they marched again, the lit compound in view now. At a long stone’s throw from the carved gates, Liang stood in his saddle, raised his arm and shouted a shrill cry, unleashing this makeshift army. He kept pace with them easily, watching the moment when they lost control, surging forward in full voice: howling, ululating and screaming, with the battering ram team as the centrepiece. He saw guards drop their weapons and run from their posts.

Liang felt the sound of the ram striking the gate in his chest. Once, twice, three times. The gate sagged inwards and was trodden down by the surging mob. They were not trained warriors, Liang knew, but their enthusiasm could not be doubted.

A team in the rear of the main force were lighting torches, and these were carried forward at a run. The covered guard house beside the gate was the first structure to catch alight, and soon leaping flames illuminated the battle ground with an intense light. The smell of burning now filled the air and the sounds of combat reverberated across the harsh landscape.

Resistance, Liang saw, was forming near the bulk of the main hall – led by sentries who had fallen back from their posts, and others arriving from their positions deeper into the compound. This movement of men to the forefront of the attack was just as Liang had hoped.

‘Now!’ he called to his warriors. ‘With me.’

They followed his lead, spurring their horses past the conflagration, galloping behind the shelter of the compound walls. A sentry who had stood his ground blocked the way, and Liang aimed his horse directly at him, feeling the thump as he was struck and trampled underneath.

 Reaching the far corner of the Zongbu’s outer walls, Liang turned his mount sharply to run parallel to the most distant section. From the plan Liang knew exactly where the temple stood, and he drew rein at the closest point, his men close behind.

It was time for Liang to endanger himself. To lead by example. The outer wall was too high to climb without help, but this had been part of the plan from the start. Urging his horse on until it was adjacent to the wall, he dropped the reins and stood on the saddle. From this height he was able to reach up and clamber over the wall. Beside him, the others were doing likewise. They were in. No one was watching this side. All eyes were on the attack on the gate.

Liang dropped to the ground. Two Guild sentries had remained at their posts around the temple, but their backs were turned. Liang nodded at Chen Ye, who ran up behind the first, seizing his hair with one hand, and spearing his knife into the man’s throat with the other. The second had time to turn, raising an arm to parry before Liang stabbed deep between his ribs and into his heart.

Together the two men entered the temple, the smell of joss filling their nostrils with sweetness. The gold would be hidden, but Liang knew where to look. He opened the door to a second room, noting fine robes on racks, and cupboards. A brace of candles provided sufficient light to operate.

The others had arrived by then, and Liang ordered three of the best to form a guard out the front of the temple while they searched. He ransacked cupboards, some filled with supplies of joss, beeswax, silverware and cloth.

While Chen Ye ransacked chests that stood against one wall, Liang tore rugs up from the floor and examined the boards, using his jian to pry into cracks. Minutes passed, the sounds from the battle at the front of the compound growing in volume – not just voices and the clash of weapons, but the roar of flame.

Liang’s blade slipped deep into a crack and when he lifted, a square of boards the size of a boat hatch levered away from the frame.

‘Quick, bring a candle,’ he ordered, and with the help of the flame they saw the hoard inside. There it was, in rough ingots, small nuggets and bagged alluvial flakes – a vast fortune. Liang had already estimated the weight. If there was 5000 taels of gold it would equal the weight of two or even three men – a heavy burden indeed.

With just two fighters on guard now, the others began to carry out the gold, one or two heavy ingots at a time, passing it over to the men on the other side, who were secreting it into the packs, carefully balancing the weights. The process was not fast, but they made sure to take every last flake.

Liang was last out, and he saw that the battle had moved beyond the main hall, the front runners of the Sheathed Sword mob were in view now, and two more of the sentries were in the process of falling back to the temple. A rifle fired and the bullet passed nearby. Liang drew his weapon, calling the only two of his men still on this side of the wall to run, and help the others to finish the loading.

Now he ran to engage the sentries, one of whom was busy trying to reload his rifle. Liang pierced him through the chest, but the next man was a tougher proposition. He moved well on his feet, and in quieter times Liang might have enjoyed sparring with him.

Now he used his height and strength to batter his way through the other man’s defences, feinted once, then pinned him in the gut. It was not a mortal wound, but enough for him to fall to the earth.

 Now, he too ran for the wall, clambering over and dropping down into his saddle. Checking only that the loading was done, and all was in readiness, Liang ordered the small but important column to move off into the darkness.

Reaching the rendezvous point a short time later. Liang gave his orders quickly. The wagon could not accompany them. It would be left behind. It was necessary for Haoyu to ride, attached by a long lead to Liang’s horse.

By dawn they were heading into the wilderness, cresting the range of hills beyond the north bank of the river.

Liang looked back and smiled to see the smudge of smoke that marked the Zongbu of the Rì Chū Guild. He felt a surge of exultation in his breast to know of its destruction. He had been ruthless. He had done what the Dragon Head himself would have done.

Liang turned and urged his horse onwards. A hundred leagues lay between his party and the river where the Kingfisher waited. A hundred leagues of the roughest terrain on earth, burdened with both a fortune in gold and a prisoner he mistrusted to the depths of his soul.

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

Read past chapters here.

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