Continuing the exploits of an adventurer in early 20th Century China
They were carrying me, and none too gently. I heard the harsh orders of someone in charge but my head was too foggy to make out what was said. I did have sense enough to discern the old city wall and the massive gates through which we passed; we were leaving the foreign settlement and headed into the maze of winding, narrow streets within the ancient walled city. Finally, we turned into the doorway of a house, the posts at each side of the door garishly decorated with crouching warriors with fiercely glaring faces.
I was unceremoniously dumped onto the tile floor in front of armed soldiers. Blue-gray uniform coats, reddish-brown boots, light gray felt hats. Drat. Germans.
"It is indeed a pleasure to see you again, I assure you, Herr Kirsch," one of them spoke with a malice that was at odds with the polite words.
That voice brought me fully alert; I could hardly mistake its arrogance as belonging to any other than my old enemy Hauptmann Albrecht von Gloeckner.
Gloeckner must have had spies telegraphing my activities. Chinan-fu was the gateway to the German-dominated province of Shantung. I should have been more cautious. Instead, I had walked right into his grasp.
"Ah, Albrecht," I began, then pressed my eyes shut against the flaring pain from my head. But I wasn't finished conveying my insults, so I continued, "pardon me if I don't get up, but I was accosted by no account street thugs in grey coats."
"Poor Mister Kirsch," Gloeckner replied petulantly, "always opening your mouth to prove the lowliness of your station."
I opened my eyes in time to see Gloeckner's smirk shift from me to someone else. Then I heard the unmistakable smack of a fist striking someone's face. The Germans were beating Ping. The fists struck again and again, but the boy made not the slightest whimper. Boiling with sudden rage, I pushed myself up onto one elbow and called out, "Stop it. Stop it now or I'll kill you." Gad, how my head hurt.
Gloeckner knelt next to me and his facial features hardened into the cool, rigid expression I most remembered. His left hand gripped my jaw and he turned my head to view my injury. The contented widening of his firm lips indicated he liked what he saw.
In turn I pointedly stared at his right hand, concealed within a tight-fitting black leather glove. I well knew that the third and fourth fingers of the glove were stuffed; Ping had shot the fingers off in our last encounter. I slowly raised my eyes to Gloeckner's and beamed an exuberant smile of triumph.
Gloeckner's expression soured and his eyes narrowed dangerously. Of course, I knew I would trigger his anger, but, golly, I just couldn't help myself.
"I so looked forward to ze day I vould kill you, Kirsch," Gloeckner vented in a near-growl, his perfect English slipping. A sudden upturn of his lips softened his rigid face and he said, "Then a different, far-reaching opportunity for revenge was presented to me."
The German abruptly stood and motioned to one of the soldiers standing near who turned out, once I looked him over, not to be kitted out in German field dress, but a brown worsted business suit complete with bow tie and dome-topped bowler hat. The man was a civilian, youngish, maybe thirty, and well-groomed right down to his neatly trimmed moustache.
Gloeckner waved toward the stranger and spoke with exaggerated courteousness, "Allow me to introduce Mister Charles Dunstan of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency."
Dunstan tipped his hat. "I must say, Mister Kirsch, your wanted posters were looking rather weathered when the Pinkerton Agency was hired to find you."
Dunstan's near-perfect diction and New England accent could lead me to only one possible conclusion: I hated the weasely faced, overdressed mollycoddle-and I hated his hat.
The hat! Oh, damn and blast, I'd lost my new Stetson on the street when the Germans clobbered me-one more reason to kill Gloeckner.
Dunstan grinned, more in cordiality than gloating, and continued, "But, you know what they say, the Pinkertons always get their man."
Gloeckner's beaming smile-rather scary looking compared to Dunstan's vaporous grin-suggested he found much pleasure in Dunstan's boast. He added, "With the help of the Imperial German Army, of course-for which our fee is nothing more than a newspaper, to be mailed to me that I may read with pleasure the event of your hanging." Gloeckner's smile became feral. "Such a humiliating end is sufficient to satisfy my need for revenge."
Shooting began not long after my introduction to Mister Charles Dunstan. At first it was distant, sporadic, but the crack of rifle fire quickly swelled to a tumult and just as quickly engulfed the area of the city where the Germans had us holed up. Two patrols, each comprised of four German soldiers, arrived during this time, patrols who had likely been out looking for me. Twice, Chinese soldiers banged at the door and demanded entry. Both times, a gruff-voiced, burly German NCO, a vizefeldwebel-staff sergeant-by the braid on his collar, had declared the house occupied by troops of Imperial Germany and warned they would defend it with force of arms. By late afternoon the sounds of fighting died down to intermittent, scattered shooting.
By that time I had recovered enough to be up and on my feet, though my head still felt like a tradesman had drilled a hole clean through it. Pacing wasn't helping so I settled back to my rump underneath a tightly shuttered window.
We were in a fine house by Chinese standards, probably the home of a well-to-do trader in opium or an agent who sold American kerosene or tobacco. The family had apparently packed up their wealth and fled to escape the marauding soldiers.
Gloeckner had shown little interest in me once the shooting started, but rather upon his soldiers who were posted at all the doors of the house. There were also two soldiers posted to look after myself and Ping, and if there's one thing Germans do well it's keep sentry duty. I was well and truly thinking I might not find a way out of this scrape. A smile came to my lips as I remembered Father Hopfinger's recent words; if he were suddenly to appear I imagined that he would wag a thick finger in my face and declare that I was finally reaping my just harvest.
Ping, who never paced, scooted over next to me and settled to a cross-legged position. He whispered, "You have escape plan, Mister Bill?" Huh. Must've been something in my expression.
I examined Ping's swollen eye and split lip, then, with a wry twist on my lips, I replied, "I was just thinking that it appears my guardian angel has abandoned me just when we need allies." I glanced at the door and the sentries posted there, then muttered rather flippantly, "Too bad those uglies painted outside the door can't help us." I quickly regretted the words and glanced at Ping; I was usually careful not to insult my boy's cultural heritage.
Ping slowly blinked, then replied, "They are door gods."
"Door gods?" I asked, barely stifling what would have appeared a denigrating smile. "As in, well, gods?" I had to say (well, actually, I couldn't say it), the notion sounded rather silly.
Ping nodded his head then quietly recounted in Chinese, "One day, long ago, the emperor became ill and, during the night, believed he heard demons outside his door trying to get in. Each night was the same and his health worsened. To calm the emperor's fears, two of his finest warriors were placed as guards outside his door. For the first time in weeks the emperor slept peacefully. His health began to improve and after a time the emperor released his warriors from their nightly duty, but he ordered that the warriors have their portraits painted, looking as fierce as they could, and placed the portraits outside his door that they might continue to keep evil spirits away."
After a moment's quiet I said, also in Chinese, "I must say that's a nice story." Then I asked, "Do you expect help from these door gods, Ping?"
Ping shook his head. At the fourth shake he answered in English, "No, sir." A mischievous smile stole across his lips. "Working for you teach me we bloody well have to save ourselves, Mister Bill." With that he pushed aside the length of his wool coat just enough to show me his revolver. Of all the absurd luck-the Germans didn't search the boy! Ah, the notion of blundering German arrogance was sweeter than candy from the penny jar. I winked at Ping and quietly said, "You keep that piece safely hidden for now." It would be our ace in the hole when the time came to gamble for our lives.
Ah, some activity. Ping and I were placed too far from the doors to hear what was said, though we did observe Gloeckner give instructions to some of his soldiers before the sentries unbarred the door and two men, lead by an unteroffizier, quietly exited. The poor corporal had the same job in every army; "Go see if it's safe," orders the officer, and if it's not, there's a dead corporal, rather than a dead officer.
Two hours later the unteroffizier had not returned. Apparently, it wasn't safe.
More commotion; safe or not, the Germans were preparing to leave. It would be dark within the hour and it appeared Gloeckner wanted to be on his train and headed for the German colony city of Tsingtao before the curtain of night fell. The sergeant approached and motioned for Ping and I to stand. "Your hands vill be tied," he barked in rough, accented English.
I caught Gloeckner's eye as he and Dunstan approached. Unfortunately, I didn't catch my tongue. "Heathen yellow hordes giving you some trouble, Herr Gloeckner?" I smirked, my face expressing what could only be detestation. "My, my, I would almost say you looked... afraid."
Gloeckner's stern gaze travelled to the two sentries, then he motioned toward me with a dip of his head. Immediately the soldiers shouldered their rifles and grappled my arms.
Gloeckner stepped up close and said, with a hint of menace, "You think to annoy me, Herr Kirsch? Perhaps you wish to goad me into behaving as something less than a gentleman." He shook his head, suddenly all smiles. "My conduct is always that of a gentleman when I am in the company of equals-" Gloeckner moved, surprisingly fast, and slammed the fist of his good hand into my gut, driving the air from my lungs. I hung limp in the arms of the two accomplices, stunned by the sudden attack. Gloeckner's voice cut through the fuzziness. "You, Kirsch, are not a gentleman. You have no claim on civility." He stepped back and the big brute of a sergeant stepped in to pile drive into my stomach again. The big ugly waited until I was gasping air into my lungs again before driving his fist into me yet again.
"Hauptmann von Gloeckner, I must protest!" Dunstan declared with disdain. "I need this man fit to travel."
"Oh, he will be able to travel, but I have every intention that he travel in discomfort."
The sergeant laughed with a harsh glee, then slammed his fist into me again.
Chinan-fu was a looted city; the doors and windows to the shops and godowns were broken or ajar, the buildings ransacked for anything of value. Scattered corpses uniformed in European pattern Chinese Imperial Army blue littered the intersections at the main streets, but most of the bodies lay in piles along walls where they had been shot down in groups. The dead included a high ratio of officers; the city garrison had obviously mutinied and killed their officers before joining with the marauding provincial troops. There was a German garrison in the foreign settlement, but they would have been impotent in the face of mass revolution; undoubtedly, the westerners were at that moment all gathered together and guarded by the German soldiers somewhere in the settlement.
In the last rays of sunlight I observed, here and there, Chinese peasants as they peered out windows and quickly disappeared into their darkened hovels; the poorest of Chinese had nothing to take and no where to go.
We turned north. That meant Gloeckner was headed for the northwest rail station rather than the west station at the foreign settlement. Of course-Gloeckner had technically committed a crime in kidnapping me. The last thing he wanted was interference from his own government.
We came across the corporal and his two companions when we were half way to the rail station. Their bodies were piled with those of a half-dozen Chinese corpses robed in richly brocaded silk gowns: bureaucrats of Peking's Manchu government. A basket next to the corpses contained all the heads. The corporal's bloodied head was nestled on top, positioned to stare wide-eyed down the street of our approach.
"Hauptmann," I called out, "you need to get your men off the street. It will be dark in a matter of minutes. Find a building of good construction to hole up in for the night."
The sergeant, next to Gloeckner, slowly nodded his head in agreement, his eyes scanning across the nearby narrow side streets.
Gloeckner sneered. "So. You add cowardice to your already maligned reputation, Kirsch?"
I gulped back my retort. Now was not the time for a contest of insults; my life was in as much danger as Gloeckner's. "The Chinese are waiting for you. They'll stop you from reaching the train."
"Don't be ridiculous," Gloeckner scoffed. "I am an officer of rank in the Imperial German Army. The Chinese know that the Kaiser's forces will reprise any crime committed against his troops." Word had in fact come north that the revolutionists were going to great lengths to avoid harming westerners, but there was no way that the corporal, in his German uniform, could have been identified as anything but.
I thrust my finger at the corporal's blank, wide-eyed expression from atop the head basket. "That is a warning intended for you. My guess is that these provincials have identified you and know what a murdering bastard you are. I think they intend to seek revenge."
Gloeckner sternly eyed me for a moment, then declared, "We go on."
I exchanged a meaningful glance with the sergeant: it was obvious he agreed with me, but I knew he would follow orders. It was the same in every army-officers make fool's decisions and get their men killed and sergeants ensure that the men die obediently.
We resumed our march down the wide market street, though the sergeant did disperse his soldiers along both sides of the thoroughfare. I feared that it would make no difference; the feldwebel commanded only fifteen soldiers-railroad troops by the black band and red trim on their felt hats. I was willing to bet that the German infantry in the settlement were unaware that Gloeckner and his railroad guard were even in Chinan-fu.
The shooting came abruptly from rooftops on our right, both in front and behind us. In the shadows of dusk I saw little more than rifle flashes. The soldier right behind Gloeckner fell, half of his neck blown away by a heavy rifle round.
Gloeckner rushed for the opening of a side street at the left, bellowing for his men to follow.
I grabbed for the sergeant's arm with my bound hands. "Nein, nicht so!" I yelled. "Not that way! That's what they want. We must go back the way we came!"
The sergeant jerked his arm out of my grasp then grabbed mine in turn and thrust me toward the side street. "You must do as you are ordered," he said in his rough Prussian accent. "I must shoot you if you do not."
I ran, crouching low with my bound arms stretched out to catch me if I fell, bullets exploding in the cheap gray brick of the wall just ahead of me-the shadows cast by the buildings made us poor targets. Turning the corner I almost tripped over the body of another soldier sprawled face down in the narrow street. A bullet had entered at the back of his head; imagination and experience flashed an image in my mind of the exit wound in his face.
Further down the side street Gloeckner and the lead Germans were
with more Chinese soldiers. Gloeckner veered into an alley that ran
the row of shops facing the market street. A mass of rifle fire from
far end of the narrow alley scattered the Germans to whatever cover
could find; just like sheep, we had been herded right to the position
which the Chinese wanted us.
Next - Chapter 3: Pinned Down
Previous - Chapter 1: God and Punishment
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.)