and Dagger Fiction
4-Part adventure and
Previously: ...American adventurer
William Kirsch, working fpr the Chinese government, has managed to
negotiate a peace with some bandits. That done, he and his aide,
Pao-ting-fu (nicknamed Ping) head toward the Ping's home province...
Chapter Two: "He is to be Executed!"
I glanced back at Ping -- he had a nasty habit of walking
or riding to the side of me but three feet behind; when I asked, he
always said it was so he could watch my back, but I knew that in the
rigid Chinese social order he could not walk or ride even with me
because he was not my equal. It sure made for troublesome conversation.
"Ping, I've spent a lot of time teaching you how to fight with both
rifle and knife, yet you made no move for your rifle when I shot
Ogara." I reined in my mount just enough so Ping's horse would bring
him along side me. "Did you freeze up?"
"No, sir, Mister Bill." Ping had a habit of slowly shaking his head
four times every time he said no -- unless he wasn't being truthful,
which wasn't often. His long, braided queue of glossy black hair bobbed
lazily back and forth from shoulder to shoulder. The head shake was a
western mannerism he'd picked up from me, though he greatly exaggerated
it. On the fourth shake he said, "Ping no bloody fool for you." He
spoke in his not particularly good English. We traded: he taught me his
language, I taught him mine. Apparently, he was a better teacher. The
"bloody" he'd picked up from the Brits; the boy was receiving a truly
cosmopolitan education. "Ping know you wish bandits afraid to shoot
because you shoot Bokto for sure if they shoot you. If Ping pick up
rifle, bandits think Ping shoot, so bandits shoot first and kill Ping
and poor Mister Bill. Bloody bad show, Mister Bill."
I laughed abruptly, which startled Ping. "You're right, they would
have! Very good, Ping!"
The boy beamed a smile.
I tried to maneuver to keep my horse along side the boy as he attempted
to slip back, but within fifty feet he had retreated to his customary
station. I sighed. I tended to view rigid social tradition as a yoke of
servility. Well, one battle at a time, I figured.
I had acquired Ping almost five years ago from his father, a
wheelbarrow coolie in Pao-ting-fu, a provincial capital roughly a
hundred miles south-west of Peking. The boy was only nine years old at
the time and too young to be worth much to a man in my line of work.
When I first saw him, I remember thinking that he wouldn't be alive a
week later, such were the starving conditions of the family. Ping's
father, who's name I could never remember, had no regular source of
income. The family had worked the wheelbarrow transport occupation for
six generations -- Ping and his siblings were actually the seventh, but
the coming of the foreign-financed railways changed all that.
Frankly, I had surprised myself that I cared enough about a wretched
looking Chinese boy to save his life. In a good year, one in ten of
China's peasant labor population was near starvation. I had seen
hundreds of emaciated corpses, victims of famine or hard luck, and
Ping's family would have been just a few more, but something in the
boy's intense, fixed stare told me that he could be trained to be of
use to me.
So I bargained with Ping's father. Ping was to be my servant until he
was sixteen. He would receive no pay other than what I deemed were his
life's necessities. Once each year, I would travel to Ping's father and
pay him an annual remuneration of twenty taels of silver, which
amounted to less than thirteen American dollars. What I got for my
thirteen dollars a year was a loyal, inventive, personal boy who,
frankly, had saved my life on several occasions by the application of
what I had learned to call "peasant genius." He had indeed proven to be
worth much, even in my line of work.
It just so happened that the year was up. After I reported the success
of my "trouble shooting" assignment to my superior in Peking (a man
named George Grant, another of those "bloody" Brits), Ping and I would
be off to find his father, who was now employed by the Germans
operating from their port city concession of Tsingtao on the coast of
Shantung Province not far to the south-east of Peking. He was but one
of thousands of Chinese laborers employed by the Germans to build
railway lines to put thousands more half-starved coolies out of work.
One of our own American presidents, Rutherford Hayes, a few years back
wrote that progress was the improvement in the condition of the
workingmen of the world. My experience was that chaos always came first.
Ping and I traveled first-class -- fifteen hours straight from Peking,
sharing the single spacious first-class car in our train with a
snobbish Chinese official, an aloof and portly German couple, and an
overly talkative and coercive American named Doyle Frickey, who
happened to be a Remington Arms salesman from, oddly enough,
Doylestown, Pennsylvania. I wasn't ready to retire my venerable yet
dependable single-action Peacemaker for a selection from Mister
Frickey's wares, but I did capitulate sufficiently to be railroaded
into the purchase of a Double Deringer. The tiny pistol was small
enough to hide in the palm of my hand, yet it fired forty-one caliber
ammunition. The cartridges were shy on powder and the barrels were shy
on length, but the polished nickel finish and the mother-of-pearl grip
plates were sure pretty to look at -- and if the target was in spitting
distance, it was actually useful as a firearm. At eight dollars and
sixty-five cents I knew I was being filched, but I was hardly buying
the piece in San Francisco, and Mister Frickey did throw in a nifty
little forearm holster that would serve to conceal the weapon quite
nicely within the blousy sleeve of my shirts.
We rolled into Tsingtao on the Shantungbahn railway line shortly after
dawn. I had visited the German colony port a number of times during my
China years and I had never gotten over the unsettling notion of how
_wrongly foreign_ the city was. The Celestial Empire was a vast land of
ramshackle, chaotic villages but Tsingtao, _die Innenstadt_, was
disparately European -- a tidy city of perfect rectangles, straight
streets, and solid brown brick that was intended to be a beacon of
western culture and industry; but it was a square peg that didn't fit
in China's board of round holes.
The pungent smell of the sea invaded the morning air that was otherwise
redolent with the aroma of freshly baked brown bread and
bookweitenschubbers -- buckwheat pankcakes -- as Ping and I quickly
made our way to the headquarters building of the China Shantung Railway
and soon gained an interview with a mid-level manager where we hoped to
learn the whereabouts of Ping's father along the Shantungbahn. Imagine
our surprise at discovering that Zhu Chongde (Ping provided the name)
was right there in Tsingtao -- and soon to be executed for complicity
in the murder of a German soldier.
The watch commander of the day, Hauptmann Rittmeister Albrecht von
Gloeckner, stared stonily at me, glancing coldly at my boy only once
after we had been escorted to his well-appointed office. German
military officers had a reputation of austerity, but this spacious yet
cluttered room exibited contrary evidence to that apparent myth; it
looked like the salon from the house of a wealthy Berlin aristocrat
with its fine carpets and elegant furniture. I half expected Herr von
Gloeckner's doting, overweight mother to bustle through the door
burdened with a silver tray of coffee and strudel.
"Herr von Gloeckner, by your description of events, it sounds as if
Mister Zhu was arrested because he _was there_, not because he
participated in the riot." I smiled disarmingly, then shook my head.
"You can hardly execute a man because he was a witness to a murder."
Gloeckner stiffened, his face even more stern. I couldn't help but
think he was the perfect model of German rigid, martial decorum in his
perfectly tailored blue-gray coat with red piping, accentuated by his
dominating forehead and jutting jaw. "It is not _Herr_, it is Hauptmann
Rittmeister. I will implore upon you to do me the honor of addressing
me by my rank." The German's left eyebrow rose in an arch while his
right contracted firmly. The _expression edged on being comical -- I
couldn't help but wonder where the monical had gotten off to. "The
laborer in question had opportunity to participate in the riot. And,
being Chinese, it is likely that he did." Gloeckner almost smirked --
not quite, for that would have broken his stoic disposition. "The
laborer in question will be shot with the rest."
Bugger me, but his English was good. His language instructor was
certainly a better teacher than I would ever be. But his thinking, that
was entirely German.
"Look, ah, Hauptmann Rittmeister, in my country we don't punish a man
because we think he commited a crime. The law requires proof,
Gloeckner abruptly raised a hand to silence me, his firm visage and
piercing gaze daring me to continue and promising some unpleasant
punishment should I choose to do so. When I was silent he attempted a
miserly smile then nodded his head towards me. "We are not in America,
Herr Kirsch. We are not even in Germany. We have left the civilized
world and come to the heathen land of China. A different law applies
here, Herr Kirsch. The exigencies of maintaining order in a country
where civilizing white men are far outnumbered by uncivilized natives
make it necessary to apply a harsh and unrelenting discipline. If we
failed to do so, order would succumb to the yellow hordes of chaos."
The German shrugged his shoulders just slightly. "It hardly matters if
this particular Chinaman is guilty, only that he might be. And he, like
the rest, will serve as an example to other slit eyes who might
consider aggression against their white overseers." Gloeckner thrust
his jaw towards me. "You are a fool if you do not understand that."
A wave of red heat came up by back, through my neck, then across the
muscles of my face. I breathed steady and slow, conquering the sudden
rage that swept over me. My momma many times said -- it was always
after a fight -- that my temper would always get me into trouble, and
never out of it. Letting my temper get the better of me now would
certainly not get Ping's father out of trouble, either.
I glanced at Ping. His body was rigid, his gaze unmoving, fixed on some
point on the wall behind the German, his _expression entirely
I forced my hands to relax, hoping the watch-commander hadn't noticed
the fists. "Look, maybe I can arrange something through the Chinese
government that will satisfy authorities here in Tsingtao and allow me
to take custody of Mister Zhu â€“"
Gloeckner abruptly sprung to his feet. "Ver you here during ze
rebellion, Herr Kirsch?" The German's tone was clipped, his voice loud,
and his accent more pronounced now that his temper was aroused. "I vas
here eleven years ago. I saw vat zese savages did to our people, Herr
Kirsch. I saw missionaries, some of zem women, zer skin flayed from zer
bodies vile still alive. I saw piles of corpses, children and infants,
ze children of missionaries and of Chinese Christian converts, ze heads
of all of zem hacked off." Gloeckner's _expression was now a snarl. He
visibly struggled to regain control of his composure before continuing,
his voice calmer, though still sharp. "When the combined expeditionary
forces relieved the siege of the foreign legations in Peking, we
exacted our revenge. We killed thousands of Chinese. It hardly mattered
if they had participated in the Boxer uprising. We did not investigate.
We did not hold courts of inquiry. No, it was much simpler than that;
we shot every Chinese male we found, simply because he was there. Now,
tomorrow morning, the rioters will be
shot by firing squad." The German thumped the desk with his knuckles.
"All of them -- because they were
there. Your interview is terminated. Auf Wiedersehen, Herr
I had discovered during previous visits to Tsingtao that the Cafe
Dachsal was the best place to come for spannferkel -- perfectly
seasoned, spit roasted baby pig, which I always ordered with
krabbensalat -- shrimp salad. The cuisine at the Cafe Dachsal reminded
me of my grandmother's cooking; my grandparents on my father's side had
married in Frankfurt, then promptly emigrated to the states. Of course,
it was always necessary to have the chef hold the sauerkraut. German
heritage or no, it was beyond me how a whole nation could come up with
such a disgusting cultural culinary favorite -- but most everything
else was jolly good. The atmosphere in the restaurant was as German as
the food, but I had learned to overlook that. Truth was that I didn't
like the Germans any more than I liked the Japanese. In my view they
were both arrogant, overweening imperial bullies who would steal China
right out from under the other powers if they overslept one morning. I
say bugger both the bloody upstart imps. But, hey, at least the Germans
could cook, and it was never boiled rice.
Ping was obviously upset about the plight of his father; I had figured
it would make him feel better if I treated him to the same meal as
myself, but a glance at the boy soured that notion and made me feel
like I was trying to buy off his right to feel distressed over his
father's wrongful fate. He had eaten nothing.
"Ping, you know I did what I could. Did you expect me to do more?"
"No, Mister Bill, no more." His gaze did not meet mine, but remained in
his lap. He had said "no" and did not shake his head.
I sighed. "Ping, my hands are tied. I have no power in Tsingtao, no
connections. Surely, you understand that these people wouldn't give a
sow's ear for my government position, not for a -- your father."
There was a long silence before Ping lifted a hard and hidden
countenance to fully face me. "You mean, not for a Chinese coolie. What
can a white man be expected to do for a heathen slit eye with no
I was shocked beyond words. Ping had always known his place. He had
never in five years shown the slightest disrespect or insubordination.
Anger quickly rose within me.
"Look here, boy. I am one man.
What do you expect me to do, take on the whole German East Asia Brigade
with my trusty six-shooter?"
Ping flinched away from my anger, but his resolution quickly returned.
"When we were beyond the wall, when you killed Ogara, you stopped to
help a man whom you thought was a European. Would you have bothered to
stop for a Chinaman?" Ping, in his desire to better learn my language,
spoke almost entirely in English in our daily discourse, but at that
moment he chose to speak in his native Chinese. "How much more would
you do if my father were American, and he was about to be executed by
The thought was ludicrous, but that was the point Ping was making. Only
under extreme circumstances would the Chinese think they could execute
a westerner without skirting the danger of western reprisal. Yet
Chinese were executed for even minor crimes in the western concessions
and no one thought much of it. Half the time the Chinese were invisible
to the eyes of westerners. Much worse, many westerners treated them
like they were hardly better than dogs -- I'd seen the door signs all
over the western concessions: No dogs or Chinese allowed.
The worst truth was that Ping was right about the incident up north; I
would have reined my pony around the body of a Chinaman. In my defense,
I had never viewed the Chinese as dogs and I would never treat them as
less than human. But the question that Ping was making me ask myself
was, did I see Chinese lives as being less important, having less value
and fewer rights, than the lives of white men? Damn and bloody hell,
what a question to come to grips with just now -- I knew the answer was
going to get me into trouble, and Ping knew it, too.
Next - Chapter 3: Rails of Death!
Previous - Chapter 1:
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