Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine presents

Six-Guns in the Celestial Empire

4-Part adventure and intrigue in early 20th Century China

James Brian King

Chapter One:   Negotiations...Six-Gun Style

I froze when I heard the clicking of revolver hammers being pulled back, then turned slowly to look behind me, my hand well away from my own revolver holstered low on my right thigh.

Drat. Bandits. They'd been concealed in a ditch that ran alongside the road, and the hot, dry wind that continually blew off the Mongolian plains had blanketed any sound of their approach.

We were taken by a ruse -- the man lying in the road who was fashionably donned in European duds turned out to be Chinese; I suppose the bandits rightly figured that a "long nose" white man wouldn't care that there was a Chinese body in the road and would simply have gone around and continued on.

There were too many bandits, too many guns aimed at both myself and my boy, a Chinese youngster from Pao-ting-fu, who I could remember only as Ping. So I smiled and slowly raised my hand -- my left hand -- and casually waved in greeting. I well remember the first lesson I learned between drinks in the lounge at the Peking Club: never show fear; a white man must appear invincible, superior in every way. It's the only way we stayed alive in a land where the natives would destroy the hated "foreign devils" if they believed they could succeed.

The short -- well, shortest -- of the scowling Mongols was obviously the leader. I knew him by description. He was dressed in the same sheepskin clothing as the rest of his rugged looking bunch, but his craggy, pitted complexion and small size gave him away. He was Ogara, a renegade priest who was now a robber and a murderer -- though apparently still a priest in the eyes of his followers. Once a lama always a lama, I supposed. I was American, but I was also an Imperial representative working for the superindendent of communications as a troubleshooter and I had been sent north from Peking to negotiate with Ogara or to kill him (yeah, just me -- and Ping, of course; sometimes even I marvelled at the super-ego mentality of westerners in China). Ogara, it seemed, didn't take to the poles and wire of the new telegraph line that stretched across the open plains to the Mongolian capital at Urga. He and his bandits might have been anywhere in the 900 miles between Kalgan and Urga, but I figured I'd find him in Chinese controlled territory.

Ping and I had come the 150 miles by rail from Peking to Kalgan, where we learned that the telegraph line was down again. We passed through the arched gateway in the great wall into Inner Mongolia and, mounted on sturdy Mongolian ponies, began our search. I expected the task to require weeks, possibly even months before bribes and rumors would lead us to our quarry. It had taken seven days for them to find us.

I resisted the western impulse to offer Ogara my hand, and instead tipped my head to him; I certainly wasn't going to bow.

"Ogara," I began officiously in my poor Chinese, "My name is William Kirsch. I am sent by the Imperial-"

"I know who sent you, white devil," the bandit leader interrupted. Golly, news travels fast, even without telegraph lines. He smiled, showing me his rotted teeth. It wasn't a friendly smile. "We do not negotiate with the foreign dogs of the Manchus. We kill them." He spat at my feet. A dribble of saliva clung to his chin, but he didn't seem to mind. He obviously despised me, yet his repulsive smile remained to spoil his otherwise plain Asian visage. His expression became malicious, yet the smile persisted. "How should we kill you, white man? Stake you to the ground, slit your stomach and watch while starving dogs tear out your intestines?" He was watching me, I presumed hoping for a fearful response. He didn't get it. "Perhaps a more fitting death for an arrogant long nose would be to bind your hands and feet and drag you over a field of sharp rocks." By his gleeful expression I believe he liked that idea better. "Death would not come until the rocks stripped the skin from your body, tore muscles, broke bones." He nodded. "Yes, we will drag you."

He sounded quite sure of his intentions -- I was pretty sure of his intent myself. For an odd moment, I wondered where the term "troubleshooter" had originated from.

I surreptitiously glanced left and right, then over both shoulders. There were eight of them. One of them smacked my boy's arm with the butt of his rifle, forcing Ping to drop his own rifle to the ground. Ping offered no resistance, but stood rigidly, his expression undiscernable. Ogara and his chief lieutenant in banditry, Bokto I believe he was called, faced me; neither one held a weapon in their hands, though both headmen sported fine examples of Samuel Colt's .44 caliber Peacemakers in their belts. More than anywhere else in the world, Asians of stature did not do their own dirty work -- it was the six lowly bandits to the sides and behind me who loosely aimed their firearms, two Winchester lever-action repeaters and -- wouldn't you guess -- four more Peacemakers, at me. Why is it that, wherever one goes in the world, the bandits are always armed to the teeth with American-made firearms?

I had no intention of suffering a torturous death, but being gunned down in a shootout against eight-to-one odds seemed hardly better. So I would gamble -- and hope Ping would know what to do.

I hadn't always been an authorized representative of bureaucratic government. In fact, it was booze, gambling, and guns that had made it necessary for me to hastily leave Arizona and make my way to San Francisco where, under an assumed name, I boarded a ship for the Orient. Father Hopfinger, a plump, white-haired church man with a bulbous nose who ran a mission in Peking, had informed me in very clear language that booze, gambling, and guns were vices that would -- as God is his witness -- one day kill me. Truthfully, gambling and guns made more sense when booze was involved, but the booze was in my saddlebag on a pony ten yards away. Maybe, without the booze, God would be on my side and I would prove Father Hopfinger wrong; well, at least this time.

I smiled easily and raised my left hand in a conciliatory manner -- I could tell Ogara was waiting for me to say something. I expect what he really wanted was to hear me beg for my life before he slashed it out of me over the rocks. Then, in a flash of movement, I snatched my own Colt Peacemaker -- Americans had fallen in love with Sam Colt's handguns long before Mongols did -- from its low slung leg holster. My left hand, almost of its own volition, fanned the hammer back as I brought the revolver on target and fired a round from the hip. Before Ogara even started to fall I fanned the hammer again and lunged my right foot forward and planted the barrel of my Peacemaker against Bokto's forehead. Even as I did it I heard the crashing report of two other weapons being fired. I wasn't hit, but the bandit standing next to Bokto suddenly went down, grasping at his throat as crimson blood jetted from his exploded neck.

"You live if I live!" I screamed in Chinese.

Bokto, his eyes so wide he could have passed for a tanned white man, quickly raised his hands, screaming, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" Actually, the words were in Mongolian, but I'm pretty sure that's what he said.

The newly promoted bandit leader carefully pivoted his head on the barrel muzzle of my revolver -- he didn't dare to back away -- and gawked incredulously at the silently twitching corpse of Ogara. There was a nice, neat, finger-sized hole in his forehead just above the bridge of his nose. I wasn't a particularly young man. But the years since that incident in Arizona had provided me a lot of experience. True, much of that experience was with booze and gambling, but it was also with guns. Ogara had just learned that experience had made me very good with guns.

"Bokto, my friend, I think we should start over," I stated as best I could in Chinese. "As a representative of the government of China, I am authorized to make you rich. All you and your men have to do is leave the telegraph lines alone from this day on." I hesitated meaningfully and glanced at poor, dead Ogara. "There are, of course, other alternatives . . ."

Next - Chapter 2: "He is to be Executed!"

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This story is copyright by James B. King. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)