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: ...Attempting to rescue Ping's father from being unjustly executed by the German colonial authority, Kirsch and Ping escape with him on a train...only to be captured. Ping's father is killed before their eyes, and Ping may be next...

Chapter Four:   Showdown on the Shantung

Gloeckner was going to kill Ping. The boy lifted his face where I could see his expression, and I beheld the same surrender, the same hopelessness I had seen on the faces of so many condemned Chinese. This was the boy who had taken no action beyond the wall when I had killed Ogara, the boy who had fully anticipated that I would get us out of a jam that looked to get us killed. I had saved his life on other occasions, and he had saved mine, but it was always against Asians. Now our enemies were white, and Ping, my Ping, expected that I would let him die. Like bloody hell I would.

I jammed the fingers of my right hand into my left sleeve as I abruptly ducked and spun toward the German on my right, kicking forcefully at his knee -- ouch, it was a solid hit. I dropped into a crouch, still trying to clear my little Deringer from its forearm holster, then dipped lower just as the German behind me thrust the butt of his rifle at my head. I had anticipated rightly, and the solid weight of the rifle butt passed an inch over my scalp.

The little gun was clear! I spun -- the words screaming in my head, They'll kill us both for this! -- and launched myself at the second target before he could reverse his swing for another strike at me, thumbed back the hammer, and thrust my tiny gun into the flesh under his jaw and pulled the trigger. His head slammed back as the crashing explosion of thunder reverberated within the rail car. I siezed the dying man and thrust him over the flat back of the wood bench then settled into the narrow space between the benches and behind the cover of his body just as rifle rounds in close succession were fired at me -- one of which blasted through the splintered bench inches away from the dead German and even less distance from me.

The soldier across from me had dropped into the seat and was clasping his injured knee with both hands, his face screwed up in a pained grimace. I turned my little gun toward him and he suddenly appeared to realize that more than his knee was in peril. He grasped for his rifle where he had dropped it in the bench, only to discover that he was sitting on the stock -- just as my last pistol round plowed through his right eye and entered his brain. Bugger me -- dashedly lucky shot for a gun with such short barrels.

I dropped the now useless pocket pistol and scrambled for the Mauser rifle that the first dead German had dropped to the floor boards. While I was down I crouched low enough to glance under the bench, hoping to see the open legs of my opponents, or at least see enough to determine their positions. No chance -- the spaces under the benches were packed with baskets, haversacks, and cages of cackling, agitated chickens. Well, if I couldn't see the enemy, they couldn't see me. I returned to the cover provided by the German corpse just as more rifle rounds smashed through the bench to either side of me or smacked into the dead German -- one round entered through the dead man's ribs and exited through a nasty hole in his hip, splattering gore on my face. I shuddered, and chided myself that gunplay was a nasty business.

I opened the bolt of the rifle just enough to see past the action into the magazine, but not enough to eject the round in the chamber -- good, it appeared to have its full five-round load -- then closed and locked the bolt.

My hearing was numbed by the shooting, but I could still hear the sentry from the second-class car banging on the door behind me. Damn this fool's errand to bloody hell, this had to be ended quickly or I was assuredly a dead man -- which might in no way be avoidable in any case. Well, supposedly, he who acts, succeeds, or, in this case, survives. I started to rise, intending to pop up and see where the shooters were, but a round right through the hair on my head convinced me to stay down.

The shooting stopped for the moment, so I edged to the end of the bench, then -- do or die, as the Brits say -- I swiveled on one knee and planted one foot in the aisle and leveled the rifle at the first target I observed -- the sergeant wasn't five feet away and crawling up the aisle in an attempt to take me by surprise. The brave unteroffizier sprang up and lunged at me, and took a seven-point-nine-two millimeter bullet through his gaping and screaming mouth into the base of his brain -- just as he fired his own rifle.

I registered a sharp stab in my left arm at about the same moment that the sergeant's large and heavy body slammed me to my back on the floorboards. The crushing weight of the big, dead man's body saved me from a similar fate; as the wind was driven from my lungs I felt the wind of a rifle round passing an inch from my cheek. Another round hit the poor dead sergeant low in the neck and exploded from just under his jaw, creating a terrible and unsightly mess -- all over me.

Rifle bullets had a lot more powder behind them than handgun bullets did, and inflicted more destructive wounds when they hit. With that fear in mind and almost by instinct I let go of my rifle's trigger and hand grip to check the wound in my left arm. I felt a twinge of pain, but feeling was mostly dulled, though that would quickly change when the nerves recovered from the shock of the wound. The damage appeared to be limited to the muscle tissue of the upper arm -- jolly good luck there, though the wound was bleeding freely. The arm was still functional, and I was still clasping the rifle stock in my left hand.

It was Gloeckner who warned me. I could hear him screeching orders, though I couldn't understand a single word; my German wasn't all that bad, German grandparents and all, but the shooting had left my eardrums painfully dulled. His voice alone was enough to convince me to struggle against the sergeant's body to lift my head just in time to see that the Germans were rushing me.

I could hardly aim, but I didn't need to, so close were the Germans. I worked the bolt to load and fire and dropped the lead soldier on my knees. I loaded again and barely got the rifle tracked on target in time to fire before the second soldier was upon me. He fell along side me, the weight of his body catching and pinning the rifle and my right arm under him.

There was no time to free the rifle. Hauptmann Rittmeister Albrecht von Gloeckner stood over me, his visage of wild rage looming over the angry maw of his Lugar pistol. His booted foot lashed out and kicked at my wounded left arm -- ow! -- feeling was definitely coming back!

Gloeckner's lips twisted, then opened. "Sie idiot Amerikaner!" He spat the words in harsh, gutteral tones. He couldn't have crammed more hate into his countenance even if I were Chinese. His aim altered to my stomach. "I'm going to gut shoot you, Kirsch -- somezing I usually save for wretched Chinese dogs. It vill take a long time to die, maybe hours. I vill delight in your agony." He lowered his head like a bull about to charge, then his eyes widened as if to sear my own with the heat of his gaze. "I vill enjoy every pain wracked moment!"

I heard the crash of a firearm, but I felt no penetration. Instead, Gloeckner abruptly tossed the gun into a bench and raised his hand to his startled face. The smallest finger and its knuckle were entirely missing. The next finger was destroyed just above the knuckle and hanging by a thin stretch of skin; it would have to be removed. He gripped the freely bleeding wound in his good hand and slowly sank to his knees, his legs straddling a thigh of the dead sergeant who's weight kept me pinned.

The door to the cabin crashed in and the German sentry charged through the opening, his rifle positioned at his shoulder. He froze and exclaimed, "Du meine gute!" then trained his rifle -- not at me, so I assumed at Ping, though he did not fire. Another glance at Gloeckner revealed why. Ping stood behind Gloeckner, a Mauser rifle aimed at the back of the German captain's head.

"Soldat, feuern nicht ab!" I yelled out. "Do not shoot!"

The German sentry lowered his rifle just a fraction. Confusion and fright wrangled with each other across the features of his face.

I turned my head to look back at Ping. The boy's countenance burned with livid anger. "Ping, don't shoot. If you do, the sentry will shoot you, and then me." A brief glance was the boy's only response. He remained tense, apparently unwilling to stand down. "Ping, they murdered your father. It was a horrible crime. But five men have died here for it. Let it be enough. Zhu Chongde's son needs to survive."

Ping again glanced at me, his eyes beginning to tear. He nodded his head once in reply.

I turned my attention back to the sentry and spoke in German. "No more need to die here," I said in a quieter, calmer tone. "Surrender your rifle, then you can tend to the injuries of your captain. On my honor, the boy and I will leave the two of you unharmed."

The German considered for a moment, then slowly lowered his rifle to the floor boards. Gee, without a rifle and without an arrogant officer telling him to do nasty things, the soldier was just a strapping, sandy-haired youth with a pimply complexion. Damn, after that observation, I didn't even want to look at the Germans I had just killed.

A wave of unbounded astonishment and delayed terror swept over me. I was alive. Ping and I were alive. I had just taken the biggest gamble of my life -- with my life -- and came out on top. Well, factually, I was on the bottom, but in any case alive. My next thought was to wonder if I would be so lucky when the diplomatic turmoil settled. I suddenly yearned for a drink; not some fruity German schnapps, but rather a big swig of stout American whiskey -- and to hell with what Father Hopfinger with his wagging finger might say.

* * *

We returned Zhu Chongde to Pao-ting-fu and buried him in ground that would have been home to him, ground that was his home until westerners turned his world up-side-down. The Chinese hated us long noses and made heroes of anyone who died fighting us, but Mister Zhu would enjoy little celebrity in his Pao-ting-fu cemetery. The city's cemeteries were crowded with dead from the Boxer Rebellion, killed during a punitive expedition to the city, lead by the Germans, no less.

Ping had said very little to me since watching helplessly as his father was killed. He finally spoke freely three days after the burial. "Mister Bill, you say you no can take Germans with six-shooter, then you go do it with two-shooter." He spoke in English -- my language. I was surprised at how much relief it brought me to hear it. He turned a harsh and fervent gaze upon me. "Next time, use six-shooter." The barest hint of a smile turned up his lips.

I suddenly felt assured that things between us would return to normal. I also sensed that there was something new, a different kind of respect between us. I had learned that the boy was far more important to me than I had ever realized. I had saved his life, he had saved mine. We were back on even terms. Perhaps we were on even terms for the first time.

The End

Previous - Chapter 3: Rails of Death!

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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.)