Continuing the exploits of an adventurer in early 20th Century China
The shooting quickly died down under the falling blanket of darkness. The Chinese could have rushed us and taken us at bayonet. Instead, it appeared they wanted us to squirm in the odorous dross that formed our only cover. A study in the last hint of sunlight showed Ping, Gloeckner, Dunstan, the sergeant, and eleven soldiers. Our party had already lost four men. One man was moaning, his breath rasping in his chest. Another German went to his aid. A rifle barked. Ten soldiers. The wounded man's rasping breath soon ceased. Nine soldiers.
The sergeant ended up laying next to me; it appeared he intended to keep tabs on me himself. "Now we're going to die here, sergeant," I spat at him, furious at his uncompromising obedience to foolish orders. "And it's because your officer treats all Chinese like they are animals!"
The sergeant thrust the butt of his carbine into my chest just short of hard enough to break ribs. "Ruhe!" he growled at me. "Shut up and die like a man!" Owe. I already felt like a worn out punching bag from my earlier beating.
"They are animals!" Gloeckner enunciated with equal ferocity. "Animals, Kirsch. You need proof? During the Boxer Rebellion the Chinese government put a bounty on the heads of foreigners. Do you know how much the head of a child was worth, Kirsch?" Gloeckner's lips twisted to form a fearfully ferocious visage. "Thirty taels of silver-twenty-two of your American dollars, for the decapitated head of a child-a child!."
Gloeckner and I lay silently glowering at each for what seemed like minutes before I turned to the sergeant and thrust my bound hands at him. "Cut me loose." The big, angry vizefeldwebel glared at me unyieldingly. I demanded again, quietly, in German, "Cut me loose. Allow me to die fighting as a man, not as a bound sheep."
I expected the sergeant to look to Gloeckner for permission. Instead, he slowly nodded his head and reached for his sheathed bayonet. He cut the ropes, then thrust my own Lee-Enfield rifle into my hands. Pointing at Ping he said, "Do not arm him. He is Chinese."
I briskly rubbed my hands together then thrust them into my armpits to warm them, trying to ignore the flaring pain from my ribs. It was going to be a cold night. There was as yet no moon, but there was enough illumination from the twinkling stars to see any moving bodies, and maybe even your own hand in front of your face.
I leaned closer to Ping, who lay next to me behind a large basket, and quietly said, "Ping. In the morning I'm going to rebind you with the ropes. You can say you were a prisoner of the Germans." Ping rarely argued with me; he well understood the accepted relationship between westerners and their Chinese servants. I was glad he didn't argue this time. "You're the only one who's getting out of this one, my friend."
"No, Mister Bill. I fight with you." Ah, now the argument.
My rising irritation colored my next words. "Don't be a fool, Ping. You work for me, remember? Just before dawn, I'm tying you up."
Ping was silent for a long moment before responding in Chinese. His voice carried with a conviction I had heard from him only once, when he had challenged my integrity that I might rescue his father: "When we returned father to Pao-ting-fu you gave my cimu a large sum of money, claiming that my father and you had renegotiated the price of my humble service." Ping was silent for another moment, perhaps to allow me a response. I had nothing to say-I already knew I had lost the argument. He continued, "You save face for her in the eyes of our family, making the money a correct payment and not charity. If I come out of this battle the way you say, I and my cimu will lose face." Ping finished in English, "Tomorrow, I die with you, Mister Bill."
What a people the Chinese were. They'd steal you blind and not think themselves dishonest, but, publicly challenge their reputation or injure their pride, their "face," and they'd risk everything, even life, to correct it.
As if my suddenly foul mood wasn't dark enough, Dunstan wriggled over next to me and leaned his shoulders against the side of an empty cage that once housed chickens. "I must say, Mister Kirsch, I'm beginning to regret taking the assignment to come looking for you." Dustan had the sense to keep his voice down, yet his quiet tones still implied an easy confidence and chipper manner.
"China's never what people expect it to be, Mister Dunstan."
"No, I suppose not." Some of the man's cheerfulness had left him. "The English statesman Francis Bacon wrote something that seems rather poignant just now: 'I do not believe that any man fears to be dead, but only the stroke of death'." Dunstan's sigh was loud enough for me to hear. "I suppose our only choice now is to die well or die poorly."
"Well said, Mister Dunstan." I reached out and laid my hand on his arm. "I think you'll do well when the time comes." I figured only a brave man would make such a supposition.
An uncomfortable silence sat heavily between us for a moment before Dunstan attempted to move our conversation away from our pending deaths. "After observing you today, I would guess you have some military experience. Am I right?"
"Just enough to know we're all dead men come morning." Yeah, a little blunt; truth was, escape from death didn't appear to be in the cards, not this time.
"You blame von Gloeckner."
The statement could hardly be a guess after the harsh words between Gloeckner and myself. I smiled, though Dunstan could hardly see it, and responded with heavy sarcasm, "You Pinkerton detectives do keep your eyes open, don't you?" The detective didn't respond so I added, though more congenially, "Gloeckner's a fool. Frankly, I expected better soldiering from a German. We'd have done better if the sergeant were in charge." I shrugged my shoulders. "It's the same in every army."
"You don't think much of soldiers, I take it."
I mused on that for a moment then replied, "Most folks don't, Mister Dunstan, especially here in China. But, for me, that's not it; it's the officers I can do without."
Arizona summers were uncomfortably hot and dry-especially dry in a man's throat. Dust kicked up by horses' hooves made throats even dryer yet clung to sweating bodies and became mud, making the heat that much less tolerable. The super-heated Arizona summer could kill a man just as easily as an Apache bullet if he wasn't careful.
"Apache are likely concealed up on the rim of those cliffs, sir. If they are, they'd shoot us up pretty badly if we ride under 'em." Sergeant Tolley waved back over his shoulder. "A mile back is a track that would allow us to skirt the cliffs from a greater distance. If the Apache are still running we'll pick up their tracks on the other side of the cliffs, or just as likely find a track to the top of the cliff."
Captain Jowett shook his head firmly. "If the Apache are not on those cliffs and are still on the move, we'd have lost at least an hour." Again the captain shook his head. "Geronimo's raiding bands have repeatedly made fools of us, sergeant, leading us in a wild goose chase all across the Arizona Territory. Well, not this time. General Crook's orders are very clear: Drive the Chiricahua bandits hard and hunt them mercilessly until they surrender. I'll be damned if I'll lose them over fear of a sniper's bullet."
"Sir," Sergeant Tolley protested, "I've fought these Apache for eight years." The sergeant nodded his head once, firmly. "I'm telling you, sir, that cliff is just the place they look for-too steep for us to put out pickets to protect our flank. They'll be waiting for us to be too bold."
Captain Jowett glared menacingly at the sergeant; he disdained having his NCOs argue with him. "Well, sergeant, I agree that we can't risk the whole troop. You'll personally investigate the face of that cliff. Take four troopers with you. We'll wait until we see you at the top."
Sergeant Tolley stared at his captain for several seconds before he flicked his gaze to the lieutenant, but that officer dropped his gaze and looked away. Tolley looked back to his captain, saluted briskly, and picked his men. Trooper Kirsch was his final selection, the newest and youngest soldier in the troop; the most expendable.
They left their horses with the troop and headed up the rising track on foot, moving from one rocky outcropping to another, seeking what cover they could as they moved up the rugged track. They were almost below the face of the steeply sloping cliff when Sergeant Tolley halted in the minimal shade of a massive boulder. He leaned his back against the sun-heated rock and mopped at his leathery, sun-browned face with the sleeve of his blue uniform shirt, then pulled the brim of his felt hat lower to shade his face. Slowly he scanned the faces of the troopers, looking into the eyes of each man. The troopers gazed back expectantly, none more so than young Kirsch.
"I'm sorry," Tolley said. "I'm sorry, but we have to follow orders." He shook his head. "We're soldiers."
Tolley stepped around the outcropping and started up the steep incline, his men obediently following.
The still quiet of the heated, dry air was shattered by a single shot, which was quickly followed by a flurry of deadly rifle rounds. The troopers tried to find their attackers to shoot back, but it was over in seconds. Each and every man lay dead or wounded and bleeding into the hot, rocky soil.
Trooper Kirsch gripped his thigh tightly as blood seeped between his fingers. But it was not his leg that held his attention. It was Sergeant Tolley. The sergeant lay only a few feet from Kirsch, gasping his last few breaths, blood flowing freely from two bullet wounds in his chest.
"You knew." Kirsch's words were hardly more than a ragged whisper, yet they were empowered with a desperate energy. "You knew they were waiting for us." Tears began flowing from Kirsch's hurt-filled eyes. "We trusted you, yet you killed us because an officer told you to." Enraged at his valueless expendability, Kirsch turned his tear-blurred vision toward his captain and seethed with a sudden hate.
I shivered, again, from the chill night temperature, then pushed away the arm that was thrown over my shoulder. Dunstan, still sleeping, had pressed up against me like a lover in the night, seeking warmth.
The sergeant slithered along in the muck, checking on his soldiers, waking his men or making sure each man was alert and ready. Gloeckner sat only a few feet behind me, his lips twisted in a snarl that was quickly becoming a permanent facial feature. He gripped his Lugar pistol in his left hand. I noted my Peacemaker thrust into his waist belt. I imagined it was a terrible insult to the man that he was about to die at the hands of heathen slit-eyes.
A glance at Ping informed me that he was awake. He had acquired a Mauser carbine during the night. I had expected he would. His blank, stony gaze was fixed at the end of the alley; he would not meet my gaze.
I turned and nudged Dunstan with the toe of my boot. "We're about to be killed by the Chinese. You don't want to miss it, do you?" The Pinkerton cracked his swollen, tired eyes and peered at me in the dim light, a curiously offended expression on his countenance. I thrust another Mauser taken from a dead German into his hands. "The man who dies well usually dies fighting back."
Dunstan rose on one elbow and glanced down the alley, then worked the Mauser's straight bolt to chamber the first round. Good, he knew how to use a rifle.
Movement. "Ofnen sie feuer!" the sergeant barked.
Suddenly the alley was full of blue uniforms rushing right at us as the German Mausers began cracking out their concentrated fire. I shot into the mass of soldiers, rapidly worked the bolt and fired again, and again. Ten rounds-empty! I thrust myself to my feet just in time to deflect the long bayonet of a Chinese soldier's Mannlicher rifle, then pivoted the Lee-Enfield in my hands and drove the butt into the soldier's teeth. As he fell backward I dropped my rifle and jerked the longer Mannlicher from his hands. With the longer firearm, I deflected another bayonet intended for my gut and thrust my own bayonet into the soldier's throat.
A cry from behind me-I turned-a Chinese had gotten past our line and and was assailing Dunstan. He was on the ground, trying to fend off bayonet thrusts. I watched as the soldier ran the long blade into the Pinkerton's left arm. The Chinese soldier quickly withdrew the blade and lifted his rifle to strike again.
I rushed him, using the Mannlicher as a long, two-handed sword. My swipe with the bayonet took the Chinese soldier across the throat, cutting half through his neck.
"Mister Bill!" I turned to face the Chinese assault and found myself back-pedaling to avoid the thrust of a bayonet. I wasn't going to make it. I was off-balance, the point of the bayonet coming straight for my heart. Suddenly a form drove into the gut of my attacker, pitching him and his deadly bayonet away from me. It was Ping! Before the Chinese soldier could recover, Ping thrust the barrel of his short carbine under the man's jaw as if it were tipped with a bayonet. It wasn't, but it was just as deadly-it was still loaded. Ping pulled the trigger. The right side of the soldier's face exploded, splattering Ping's face and hair with bloody gore.
There were no more. They'd run!
Sniping from the far end of the alley sent us back to cover.
I glanced as best I could across our position. We'd lost three more of the Germans. Several of the survivors were wounded. Gloeckner had taken a bullet high in the shoulder and already his sleeve was soaked with blood. His good hand would be shooting no more today. We locked eyes for a brief moment; obviously, he was as pleased to see me still alive as I was to see him.
Dozens of Chinese lay dead or wounded to either side of our position. We had repulsed the attack but the momentary success hardly mattered. In the end we'd still be dead.
A plan-I suddenly had a plan! It was a gamble, but... the time had come to gamble for our lives.
"I am William Kirsch," I called out to the Chinese, adrenalin making my
voice shaky. "I wish to seek honourable terms for our surrender."
Next - Chapter 4: The Gamble
Previous - Chapter 2: An Unwelcome Return
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.)