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: ...Arriving in Tsingtao, a city under the control of German colonial authority, Kirsch and Ping discover Ping's father is slatted to be executed for a recent riot -- more as an example, than because of any serious proof he was involved. Kirsch is reluctant to interfere but, after Ping forces him to do some soul searching, he realizes he hasn't much choice...

Chapter Three:   Rails of Death!

Railways were, generally speaking, built in straight lines, and the straight lines of the rails were anathema to the Chinese way of thinking: they disrupted the natural harmony of the land and displaced its benevolent forces and -- much worse -- they allowed demons, who could not turn sharp corners, to roam freely across the Chinese countryside to inflict harm upon the terrified local populace. The Germans amplified the impotent rage of the Chinese with their lordly construction program which they believed licensed them to build where ever they liked, even in the face of Chinese government protest. Can you imagine how Chinese laborers, a people who honored with great reverence the spirits of their dead ancestors, might respond when ordered to build a rail line through a cemetery, rather than around it?

Acquiring the details of the riot was a simple matter of questioning a few administration officials of the China Shantung Railway. They had, of course, interrogated and recorded the testimonies of witnesses, which -- surprisingly -- included some Chinese. As an official of the Imperial government of China, I was allowed access to the records. Many of the witnesses were still in Tsingtao. However, after a day's inquiry, I could find no one who could identify Mister Zhu and could testify that they had observed that he was not involved in the riot. Which meant he would be shot as a murderer -- not necessarily because he was guilty, but because he was Chinese. And now, because of the bugger all morality that Ping had heaped into my lap, I could hardly bloody well stand by and watch such a travesty of justice occur. However, my options were slim; even my status as a government official was of small value with the task at hand. So I would gamble, and hope to bloody hell that I could leave guns out of the fall of the cards. I was, at the very least, going to have a warrant issued for my arrest that would make it impossible for me to ever return to German-controlled territory. I hoped I would still have a job after the political storm hit Peking. I figured my plan would make more sense were I drunk, but sobriety was necessary to keep my wits -- and, with Father Hopfinger's chastising voice clearly in mind, it seemed that the fewer vices involved the better.

* * *

Ping's face lit up as his father and I entered the grand Bahnof station at the terminus of the rail way. The boy rushed to his father, his queue snapping like a whip behind him, and flung his arms around the aging man. Mister Zhu winced, though obviously pleased to see his son; the elder Zhu displayed the evidence of German hospitality: swollen, discolored eyes and lips and a proclivity to tender his ribs.

It had been remarkably easy to bluff the Germans into turning Mister Zhu over to me after I had so successfully convinced them that I was a railway official who required the temporary release of the Chinaman into my care for further interrogation.

I shepherded Ping and his father onto an evening train that was leaving in a matter of minutes, which was part of the plan -- get out of Tsingtao fast before someone caught on to the fact that both myself and the condemned Mister Zhu were missing. In order to draw as little attention as possible, I left Ping and and his father in a third-class compartment and settled myself into a second-class car. It would be a short ride. About sixty miles up the line we would egress from the train at Wei-fang. The trains would then be off-limits for us; they were extra-territorial -- the laws of whatever nation built the line were enforced by that nation's troops, and, in Shantung Province, that would mean German troops. I just hoped we'd get clear of Wei-fang before any telegraph messages concerning us were transmitted along the wire.

The train rolled out of Tsingtao on schedule almost to the minute (the Germans liked their schedules). This seemed a propitious sign, so I settled in with increasing confidence. You can imagine my shock when, only moments later, the barrel of a Mauser rifle was laid over my shoulder.

I turned slowly -- you never want to alarm German soldiers -- to see Hauptmann Rittmeister Albrecht von Gloeckner and three riflemen of the German East Asia Brigade, their rifles all aimed at me.

Gloeckner was obviously miffed -- well, maybe closer to furious. He stared at me down his perfect nose, his lips tightly pursed over his jutting jaw.

I beamed a smile, eyes wide and cheery. "Ah, Herr Gloeckner, I was beginning to think that you missed the train." I nodded to the seat next to mine. "Please, have a seat. I'll call for the steward to bring schnapps -- unless you prefer something more spirited, something . . . foreign."

Gloeckner's upper lip twitched, then he nodded to the soldier closest to me, who clubbed the side of my head with the butt of his rifle.

Crashing pain was quickly followed by a star-studded shadowy blackness in my vision. When clear sight returned I discovered I was on my knees in the aisle. I could feel the flow of a warm wetness trickling behind my ear and down my neck. A sudden, murderous rage drove me to my feet and toward Gloeckner, but the misery of my explosive headache and the barrels of two rifles as they were thrust against my chest convinced me to abandon my murderous intent. I settled back into a cushion, hoping to ease the pounding pain in my head. It wasn't my seat, but that hardly mattered; the other occupants were at that moment vacating the car for the first class car forward.

Gloeckner was actually smiling -- not a smile of pleasure, but of sadism. With the pressure of just controlled rage pumping the blood past my eardrums -- making the head ache worse, I promised myself that I would kill him. "Herr Kirsch, as I suspected from our previous communications, you truly are a fool," the German said with an element of joviality. "However, you are an American and a representative of the Chinese government. As such, I am somewhat limited in options, though at the very least I expect to see you expelled from China. But your companions," his expression altered; he was still smiling, though the impression was more like that of a snarling German shepherd, "they are Chinese. It is from them that I will extract my justice; my . . . pound of flesh, as it were."

Gloeckner motioned to the door at the end of the second-class car where, beyond the platform and rail coupling outside, was the door to the first of the third-class cars; no stewards, wood benches instead of cushions, and poor Chinese peasants crammed so tight they could hardly breath. One of my escorts relieved me of my revolver and thrust it into the belt of his field rig, then the soldiers urged me with their rifles towards the door.

I followed Gloeckner into the third-class car to find that it, too, was empty of all occupants other than Ping, his father, Gloeckner, and five East Asia Brigade bullies. Three of the soldiers moved to stand in the benches next to the Chinese and turned to train their weapons loosely at me. After securing the door -- no witnesses wanted, apparently -- the other two stood easy in the benches to either side of me. One soldier was missing; the one who had clubbed me in the head stayed as sentry inside the door of the second-class car.

Ping was lying on the floorboards in the narrow aisle, slowly rubbing a cheek with one hand. His nose was bleeding and one eye was already swelling. He had been beaten. Renewed anger swelled within me. Damn, I hated these Germans.

Ping's father was standing behind the boy, his hands tied behind his back with thick cord. Another cord was loosely tied around his neck, held in place by a big, burly German standing at his back, an unteroffizier -- sergeant, in English parlance. At a nod from Gloeckner the sergeant thrust his rifle into the loose wrap of hemp and began spinning his rifle in a clockwise motion. As he did, the cord formed a series of twists, tightening around Mister Zhu's neck.

The old man stood stone still, his gaze fixed on the floorboards, surrender the only expression visible on his countenance. I had seen the look -- that submission to death -- many times in China; once condemned, there was no appeal, no mercy, no stay of execution.

"Did you know, Herr Kirsch," Gloeckner prattled in mock politeness, "that this is an officially approved form of execution in China?" Oh, how I wished I could have wiped that smile off the smug German's face with the sharp, heavy blade of a Missouri toothpick. "Do you not believe, Herr Kirsch, that a bullet from a Mauser rifle would have been more merciful?"

My only response was a baleful glare.

"No? Well, then, we'll do it the Chinese way."

Mister Zhu suddenly inhaled a raspy breath as the rope began collapsing his wind pipe. The sound was quickly cut off, though the old man's lungs continued to struggle for life-sustaining air. He turned red and his eyes bulged, but in no other way did Mister Zhu fight his executioners.

A rising panic competed with my anger as emotions roiled within my being. This was Ping's father -- I had to do something to stop it. "Gloeck -- Hauptmann Rittmeister -- he's the boy's father. Please -- please don't do this. You say the Chinese are savages. You can't think us any better if we practice a similar savagery -- _please stop this_!"

Gloeckner smirked -- obviously pleased that I had, in his view, degraded myself by begging for the life of a Chinaman. He did not halt the execution.

I shook with rage, my fists clenched, my breath shallow and rapid, my peripheral vision darkened. Yet I kept myself in check. Nothing I did would stop what was happening, and it was possible that I would need to negotiate to save Ping from an unpleasant future as punishment for his participation in freeing his father. Mister Zhu slowly settled to his knees, his body quaking, his facial muscles contorted by his agony. Finally, after a horrifying span of time, his facial muscles relaxed and his body fell limp; death had come.

Gloeckner pointed loosely at Ping. "Now this one." The German glanced menacingly at me, then at the soldiers who stood in the benches on either side of me. "If this stupid American interferes, you may club him with your rifles."

The big sergeant lifted the loose loop of hemp from the corpse of the old man and stepped over him to loom over the boy.

Next - Chapter 4: Showdown on the Shantung

Previous - 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.)