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

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!"

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, witnesses-"

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 unreadable.

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 –"

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 Kirsch."

* * *

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 status?"

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 Chinese officials?"

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: Negotiations...Six-Gun Style

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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.)