Continuing the exploits of an adventurer in early 20th Century China
I pressed on. "I believe you are honorable men, even in revolution. I believe you defy your emperor because you want a better China. Honorable men would consider a request for terms, even from his enemies."
There was silence for what seemed like minutes, then, "You may come forward to discuss terms."
I almost had him, whoever was in charge out there. "Will you guarantee my safety?"
Only a moment's hesitation: "You will be safe."
Betting everything on the officer's sense of honour, his "face", I loosened my grip on the Mannlicher and rose to my feet, motioning Ping to come along.
Gloeckner growled, "Vat do you sink you are doing, Kirsch?" I could imagine that he wished just about now that he had bothered to learn a little heathen Chinese.
I traded scowls for a moment, then said, "I'm going to discuss terms."
Gloeckner's scowl became livid. "You vill do no such zing," he spat at me. He turned his burning glare to the sergeant and ordered, "If he makes one step past our perimeter you vill shoot him."
Catching the sergeant's hard eyes with mine, I quietly said, "Minutes from now we will all be dead. No mission accomplished, no bastion defended, just pointlessly dead. I am the one chance to avoid that. Would you throw that away?"
The sergeant considered for a moment, then nodded toward the end of the alley.
I was impressed - a sergeant, a German one at that, who knew it was time to ignore his officer.
Ping and I returned with Imperial Army Captain Chu Shao-ch'i, a man I fully expected to be a general by the close of the week. Escorting us were ten Chinese soldiers.
"We're surrendering," I called out in German to the soldiers aiming their Mausers in my general direction. None of the Germans relaxed their aim until Captain Chu bowed his head in confirmation.
I motioned to Chu. "The honourable Captain Chu Shao-ch'i has guaranteed our safety," I announced. "But he requires that we surrender our rifles."
Gloeckner thrust himself to his feet, his face a deep red and his eyes wide with his fierce dismay. I just hoped his high blood pressure wouldn't press the eyeballs from their sockets. "Nein! Germans will not surrender to-to-" Gloeckner appeared unable to come up with an appropriate slur with which to end his rant.
I looked pointedly at the sergeant, then raised my eyebrows.
The big sergeant nodded briskly, and, with but a quick, surreptitious glance at Gloeckner, barked, "Surrender arms!" With that he laid his Mauser at Chu's feet. The other's quickly followed suit, including Dunstan. I noted Dunstan's blood-soaked coat sleeve and a poorly done bandage. His face was so pale he could pass for a dead man.
Captain Chu bent and selected a rifle from the pile. Drat. Mine. "Lee-Enfield three-oh-three, ten round magazine." He beamed a smile of delight. I sighed; my fine rifle had a new owner.
Disarmed and helpless, the Germans looked to me with expressions that ranged from obvious fear to uncertainty. It was the moment of truth when they would learn if they truly were to live past today.
I caught Ping's gaze and slowly nodded, just perceptively. He nodded in turn.
"There is one more thing," I declared. I turned to squarely face Gloeckner. "Hauptmann Albrecht von Gloeckner. These good Chinese soldiers know your name and know your deeds. Their attack was aimed directly at you. They demand justice for your crimes against the Chinese people."
A sturdy Chinese soldier with two stripes on his sleeve signifying his rank of sergeant stepped forward. In his hands he held a large, heavy sword. The leather-wrapped haft was almost half the length of the weapon, which was easily identified as an executioner's blade.
With lion-like savagery the German vizefeldwebel pounced on the closest Chinese soldier. He thrust his meaty fist into his adversary's face and jerked the soldier's Mannlicher free of his grip. In hardly more than a second he was aiming the weapon at Captain Chu.
A single shot rang out.
The vizefeldwebel, whose name I had never heard, fell dead, one eye destroyed by the bullet that had penetrated his brain. At the last he had acted as a sergeant. I had known he would.
Ping slowly lowered his Smith and Wesson revolver, then stepped up to face Gloeckner. "You come for get revenge on boss man Mister Bill," he blurted in emotion-tinged not so good English. "Instead, I claim revenge on you for kill my father."
Ping stepped back then turned to the Chinese Imperial Army executioner and bowed his head.
Two Chinese soldiers roughly gripped Gloeckner by the arms and forced him to his knees.
"Nein-nein!" he cried out, struggling with little effect to resist the soldiers' grasp. "You can not do this! I am an officer of the Imperial German Army!"
I stepped in front of Gloeckner. My words were quiet, uttered with little inflection. "A good man recently reminded me that a man in your position has only one choice left to him: to die well or die poorly."
Gloeckner stiffened with renewed rage at my rebuke. Then my words seemed to reach him. A look of surrender crossed his countenance, quickly followed by a bolstering courage. He bent forward, extending his head to allow a clean cut through his neck. Only at the last second did he turn a pleading, terrified face to me as the heavy blade came down.
Captain Chu examined the thirty-eight revolver closely, then pushed the side-opening cylinder back into firing position. "It is a fine weapon, Zhu Ping," he said, handing it across the table to my boy. "It has brought you honour among your people."
Ping bowed almost into his bean curd soup, then stared into Chu's eyes for an overlong time before waving at the collected firearms piled on another table. "The Colt Peacemaker belongs to Mister Bill. It is a cherished possession."
Chu looked upon Ping's expression of expectation for a moment then inclined his head, a hint of a smile on his lips. "You may present it to him."
Ping quickly rose from our table and brought me my venerable old six-shooter. I nodded a silent thanks. I think we both knew better than to say anything about the Lee-Enfield.
"Zhu Ping," Chu quietly addressed my boy. "We will soon remove the Manchu emperor in Peking and establish a new government. One of the most important tasks of the new government will be to redress the wrongs inflicted upon China by the western invaders, by such men as the German von Gloeckner. You would be welcome in our ranks. Will you join us?" I noted that Chu pointedly did not look at me.
Ping, however, did turn to look squarely at me. He spoke quietly, "Perhaps they are invaders, but some are not our enemies." He held my eyes for several seconds before looking back to the captain. Then, with more conviction, "No, sir. Mister Bill is my employer and my family is indebted to him." Ping opened his mouth to say more, then hesitated. His gaze strayed back to me and, with the barest hint of a smile, he added, "He is also my friend and I would not choose to abandon him."
A grin widened my lips and, though I would be loath to admit it, my eyes began to tear.
Chu nodded his head, apparently finding no fault with Ping's answer, then rose from the bench. "You are free to leave when you choose." With that, he left us, taking my Lee-Enfield with him.
From the corner of my eye I observed Dunstan enter the tea house and approach. His wound had been properly treated by a western-trained Chinese doctor who had not fled Chinan-fu. I noted that the Pinkerton's colour was much improved.
"Well, Mister Dunstan, I have a dilemma," I declared. "If I let you go I fear we'll only be at odds another day."
Dunstan shook his head. "You have nothing to worry about where I'm concerned, Mister Kirsch." At my raised eye brows he explained, "You saved my life, sir." He shrugged his shoulders but quickly arrested the movement with a wince. "Also, I don't think the William Kirsch I have observed here in China is the same William Kirsch that was described to me in the states." Dunstan bobbed his head in a single, firm nod. "I'm going to report that the William Kirsch I came after died in China."
I extended my hand to Charles Dunstan and we firmly shook. I said, "China will change a man, make him more than he was, if he'll let it." I looked at Ping and reached out to tousle his black, silky hair, then winked. "If he'll let it."
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.)