Pacific Odyssey:

Book II: China

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

The Hand is Quicker than the Sword

 

 

 

The next day, Zorro awoke as the golden hint of the sunrise manifested itself in the east.  Stretching stiff muscles, the bandit took the hobbles off of the horse, put his cape back on and mounted.  A short time later, just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, Zorro found a small pond where he freshened up.  Soon he was back on the main roadway and again, as he traveled south, he saw farmers and merchants in small groups, but he ignored them.  About midmorning, Zorro saw a small troop of traders leading packhorses carrying chests of opium.  Sighing, he felt his earlier resolve softening.  He was hungry, having been over a day and a half without any provisions, and he could see no other way to get any food other than to steal it from the opium traders.  Since Zorro was going in that direction anyway, he might as well lighten their load a bit, too, he thought with a grin.   With drawn sword, the bandit rode down on the procession and slashed the ropes holding the chests, dumping several of them before he realized that this was a trap.  The powder spilling from the container didn’t look like opium; it looked more like flour.   

The ‘traders’ shed their outer clothing. Soldiers! Zorro thought, angry with himself for not keeping his resolve.  Better hungry, than dead.  Some had pistols and began shooting.  Several balls whizzed above his head, then he heard someone shouting for the soldiers to stop shooting, which he thought was strange, but he ducked low and kept going, until two horsemen blocked his way in front. In alarm, Zorro realized what they were doing.  They don’t want to kill me, they want to capture me!  I will not let that happen.  It must not happen! 

Guiding the well-trained horse with his legs, he used a quick slashing movement to disarm the first horseman and he ducked the blow of a staff that the second swung at him.  Turning the horse into the shoulder of the second man’s mount, Zorro knocked the soldier slightly off balance, and then he finished the job with his fist.  The outlaw ran the two horses off with a yell, then turned and charged back into the melee.  One of the foot soldiers tried to stop him with a lance, but Zorro kicked it out of the way and out of habit slashed a ‘Z’ in the man’s padded cotton vest.  Then he wheeled the horse and continued down the road to the southeast, at which time he noticed that again, a man on horseback, watching from a slight rise.  This one, however, didn’t attempt to stop him, he simply watched until the bandit was out of sight.  Zorro felt more uneasy about this man than he had the last.  There was something powerful about him, something he couldn’t quite understand.   Now more than ever, it was imperative that he reach the ocean soon.   A strange sense of foreboding came over him. 

 

 

                                        ==============================

 

 

“Your Highness,” the Captain of the Imperial guard reported to Qing Kang Zhu.  He was chagrined at his inability to capture this man already and while not afraid of his prince’s disfavor, he felt he had let his Highness down.  “I have observed this bandit and even though he is a cunning and courageous warrior, one with a great deal of skill, I feel that with several wushu warriors we can corner and capture him. He fights in the European style, but he is vastly superior to any foreign soldier I have seen fighting. He very quickly disarmed the two best men I sent against him.   Again, I feel the only way to catch this bandit is with the Chinese martial arts, with which he seems unfamiliar.  I also have a man trained in the Okinawan style of fighting.  That would enable us to unhorse this foreign bandit, as he also very, very good on a horse.”              

“Maybe he fights like a foreigner because, according to my understanding, he is a foreigner,” Kang Zhu said dryly.  His Highness resented it sometimes when his advisors treated him as though he was still a child.  Having been to another continent and back, and almost twenty, he was more than able to make important decisions and judgments.  Calm down, the royal nephew admonished himself.  My advisor is right.  Anger serves no one except one’s adversary.  He brought himself back to what the captain had been saying.  “It is also my understanding that he was able to steal your adjutant’s horse,” his Highness said evenly.   “That means that he has the capability to outrun any soldier that I have.”  Kang Zhu sighed.  This was getting more and more difficult.  He had sincerely hoped that his men could corner and then convince the ‘Opium Bandit’ to surrender peacefully to them.  For some strange reason, he felt drawn to this man who had the courage to act against custom for something he believed in.  It was practically unheard of.  Is that a European trait?  Have I been influenced by my contact with these barbarians?            

“Yes, Highness, that is true. Underestimating this man will not be a mistake we will make again,” the captain told him.  “The bandit seems to be heading with some purpose to the south now.  I think he is trying to get to the ocean.  For what reason, I know not.  But we will be able to ambush him anywhere along the southern road.”           

“I think the reason is obvious, Captain,” Kang Zhu said smugly, positive in his conclusions.  “The man is trying to escape from the country.  If he can find someone to sail him to a harbor where his exploits are unknown, then perhaps he figures he will be able to get to his homeland or someplace equally safe.”

The captain nodded and then said, “Yes, your Highness, that makes sense.  He is in trouble with the Europeans because he has destroyed the opium.  He cannot go back to Canton.”

“At least not without help,” Kang Zhu said thoughtfully.  

“Your Highness, we have this also.”  The captain showed the royal nephew the vest that the bandit had slashed.  “It is most curious.  The bandit did this as he was riding away, seemingly without thought.  None of the reports had mentioned anything like this before.”

Kang Zhu gasped when he saw the vest.  He felt as though he had been instantly transported back to the land of his confinement, back to the land where a man in black had rescued him.  How can this be?  The young man took it from his captain’s hands and felt the ‘Z’ cut into the cloth.  Again, he saw the man in black, riding on an equally black horse, blocking the path as his tormentor, the American, John Vincent, was taking him back into captivity.  He did not understand the words, but he saw the scene again as though it was yesterday and not months ago.  He heard the authoritarian call of his rescuer as the black horse reared.  He could only guess the words, but he knew that the man was there to rescue him, by force if necessary.  There was a whip held tightly in one hand and when Vincent did not do as he was ordered the masked man swept down the hill.   

In his mind, Kang Zhu heard the whistling of the whip, the sharp retort of the pistol as it fired.   He felt the pain as he fell off his horse and landed on his ankle.  The black clad man whipped out a sword and used it as though it was an extension of his own hand.  Even with a stout branch, Vincent did not have a chance.  The two men fought in a way that was rough and undisciplined, in his way of thinking, but even in that, the masked rescuer was elegant in his moves.   That someone he did not even know, whose language he didn’t understand, in whose land he didn’t even belong would swoop down, like a dragon and save him, still haunted him.  In his mind he saw his savior slashing a ‘Z’ into the cloth of Vincent’s jacket.            

“Does your Highness know what this means?” the Captain of the Imperial Guard asked, interrupting the prince’s reverie.  He watched with concern as his master seemed to go pale and began feeling the slashing mark that had been made in the soldier’s vest.            

“I believe I do, Captain,” he said softly, continuing to finger the garment.  “I am going to admonish you again, this man is not to be killed or wounded.  I want him brought to me.  I want you to do this personally,” he commanded, his voice brooking no disobedience. “I will hold you responsible for his safety as well as his capture.”            

The Captain of the Guard bowed deeply and left, wondering at the change in His Highnesses’ demeanor.  However, he wouldn’t question it.  He felt his master was still a little young to be in command of a large province such as this one, but he nevertheless was a more able administrator than some men three times his age.  If His Royal Highness had a special interest in this bandit, then that was fine with him.            

After the captain left, Kang Zhu continued to finger the vest as he walked the corridors of his past in the hot, dry place across the ocean, where a stranger had saved him from death and dishonor.  The man seemed to be an outlaw in that place, too, but nonetheless respected by most for his courage and honorable actions.  He had been told that the man’s name was Zorro.  His hand lightly covered the three slashes on the cotton vest, while his mind continued to remember events months ago and thousands of miles away.            

But how could Zorro be all the way over the ocean in China? he thought, incredulous.  Perhaps the same way that I was all the way across the ocean there, he thought.  If so, would he feel as helpless and hopeless as I did?  Would he despair of ever getting back home?  Suddenly, he felt as though he had missed something in the reports that had been sent to him recently.  Kang Zhu called for a servant.  When the man came close and kowtowed, the royal nephew ordered, “I want all the reports that have been sent here about the ‘Opium Bandit.’ I want the reports that I have received from my Portuguese spies as well as my British spies. I also want the reports that my uncle’s spies sent here about the British ship that the ‘Opium Bandit’ was on.  Bring them here quickly.”  The servant kowtowed again and ran out of the room. 

 

                                          =====================

 

The ‘Opium Bandit’ was enjoying a few hours of respite from being chased and ambushed.  The previous night had been long and sleepless, having to be constantly on his guard against ambush or attack.  He had been chased several times since his encounter with the fake caravan, including twice today, and even the hardy military horse was beginning to show signs of fatigue.  When he felt he had lost his pursuers, Zorro had stopped at a small stream to let the horse drink, and also to refresh himself.  The water felt cool on this warm afternoon, and he now sat up on a small rise where he could observe the road without being seen.  Ah, if it had not been for Miguel do Santos and his greed, I’d most likely be on a ship sailing to Manila by now.  Picking up a rock, he threw it at a boulder, where it made a satisfying plink.  He did that several more times, until he ran out of rocks, all the while wishing darkly that he had Miguel do Santos in front of him. He would do more then throw rocks at him.  Then he looked back to his activities these past six, or was it seven, days and sighed.  And if I hadn’t gotten so much involved in local politics, I might have made it to the coast by now.  I have been my own worst enemy.

Zorro had decided it would be wise to wait until near dark to continue.  Apparently he had irritated some local official over his little faux pas with the slave traders, since he had not been bothered until that time.  Somehow, he figured that taking the soldier’s horses hadn’t endeared him to the local bureaucrats either.  Settling himself in a concealed thicket, with the horse hobbled nearby, Zorro tried to take a short nap.  He succeeded in dozing off for a little while, but was not able to accomplish anything that could be considered restful. After giving up his attempt to sleep, he continued to lie there for a short while longer, listening to the insects and birds, until the sun was no longer blazing down quite as hot.  Then he got up from the hard ground, stretched and reconnoitered.  Other than workers in a distant field there were few people to be seen.  It is almost suppertime.            

Zorro got another drink from the stream, and checked the saddle, making sure the straps were secure.  The bulkier, higher pommeled saddles of the Chinese warriors needed heavier straps to hold them on than the ones he was used to.  The outlaw remounted his horse.  Darkness is not too far off.  Perhaps I can get close to the ocean before it gets too dark, he thought.  He wished he knew the territory enough to be able to ride off the main road, but that was something that couldn’t be helped.   

Listening to a particularly beautiful bird in a nearby tree, Zorro realized that it was very quiet and peaceful this far from Canton.  This is a beautiful country, but it is not my home.   In his mind’s eye he saw the hills around the hacienda de la Vega and his heart constricted with longing.  Then he pictured his father, Bernardo, and the casa grande itself.  Most of the time the memories were still vivid, but he had sometimes awakened from nightmares in which he felt he had forgotten the things of his past.  Lately his life in California seemed remote and inaccessible.  Not wanting to be gone so long he could no longer remember his homeland, he spurred the horse into a canter.

 

                                =======================

 

A mile to the south, the Imperial Captain of the Guard sat his horse easily, assured that this time he would have success.  One of his scouts galloped up to him and reported that the bandit was coming towards them on the main road.    The captain looked down at the warrior standing next to him.  “You are sure you can unhorse him without hurting him?” he asked.            

“Captain, he will certainly know he has been unhorsed, he will carry the bruises, but I will most assuredly not kill him,” the warrior reassured the Captain.  “The methods of fighting that I learned in Okinawa can kill, but they don’t have to.  The foreigner will be rendered harmless with a minimum of effort.”            

“You had better be positive, because His Highness was most adamant about making sure this man is not harmed,” the Captain said, thinking it strange that His Highness seemed to be anticipating this man as a guest rather than a prisoner.  He gave orders to his warrior to stand ready for the ambush.  With silent deliberation, the men found their pre-arranged places.

A while later, the scout hissed a warning that the bandit was approaching the curve of the road.  The soldiers took on a look of eager anticipation.

 

 

                                   =============================

 

            

As he rounded a curve in the road, Zorro was shocked to see a man seemingly flying at him from the right, feet first.  There was no time to draw his sword or a pistol.  Jerking on the reins caused the horse to cut left only slightly before the man made contact.   Zorro knew that he could not avoid the warrior’s assault and had pulled his feet out of the stirrups even as he was reining.   When the man’s feet hit him in the side, Zorro felt the air rush out of his lungs, but there was surprisingly little pain from the blow.  The force was incredible, though, and by the time his lungs had emptied, he felt himself hit the ground.  This time there was pain, a great deal of it as his left shoulder hit the hard-packed earth with a popping noise.  His momentum caused him to roll several times and the pain in the shoulder and arm was joined by sharp pain in his head when he hit a rock.   

The sky and the ground blended into shades of white, then black as his vision blurred, wavered and slowly returned to some semblance of normal.  His stomach lurched and he swallowed several times to get control of the sudden nausea.  Breath finally came in a heaving gasp, but Zorro continued to lie still on the ground until his breathing evened.  He heard footsteps; saw feet approach within the line of vision that his half-closed eyes afforded him.  Hoping that it was the leader of the group of warriors, Zorro continued to wait motionless. 

When the man was within reach, Zorro’s arm shot out, grabbing one foot at the ankle and jerking the soldier off balance.  As the man hit the ground, Zorro tried to get up before anyone else could attack.  The soldier was very agile; he rolled backwards and was up before the outlaw could get to his knees.  It was then that Zorro realized his left arm was useless, with excruciating pain radiating outward from the shoulder.  Biting his lip against the intense throbbing, he gazed at his adversaries, wondering what they were going to do to him.  I am their prisoner, his mind yammered. The warriors seemed to be waiting to see what his next move would be.  As he pushed himself off the ground unsteadily, the leader of the soldiers seemed to be saying something to him. What is he saying?  Surrender? No! his mind said.  To surrender would be to never go home.  He would be here forever.  Better that he die in battle here in this strange land.  Die as he had lived, with a sword in his hand.  Surrender?  Never!  No more!  What choice do I have?  To die!  To die with honor!  “Father, I have lived honorably and I will die honorably!” he shouted in Spanish. 

And then all he wanted to do was to kill these men who were keeping him from his goal.  Because of them, I cannot go home, his mind raged.  They will pay!  His unreasoning anger intensified the pain in his head, which in turn continued to fuel his anger until it became a raging flood.  Zorro let it grow; it increased his resolve to not be taken prisoner.  Never will I be taken prisoner, he thought.  Like a volcano, a great outpouring of the despair, hopelessness, and helplessness of his situation of the past weeks overflowed into a fiery wrath.  I will not be captured again! he continued to rage illogically in his mind.  With a loud challenging cry, he untied his cape and let it drop.  He would not be able to keep it out of his way with his useless left arm, which he had stuck in his sash. The warriors momentarily gave way to him when he unsheathed his sword and with a loud cry, advanced quickly and savagely.  They fell back even more from his ferocious attack and his feral grin disconcerted them.

The Captain was surprised at the vehemence of the man’s assault.  He had entertained a great hope, when the wushu expert had unhorsed this bandit, that the capture would be simple and without incident, but when he looked into the injured man’s eyes, what he saw greatly disturbed him.  The eyes were full of rage, an almost insane rage.  Warning the others of this new development, the Captain admonished his men to try and restrain the bandit without hurting him.  At the same time, he noticed the blood trickling from a head wound, and the useless left arm, which fact the Captain pointed out to the others, also.  Several of the soldiers had withdrawn; frightened, and fearing the bandit was demon possessed. The Captain reminded them of their duty, but was considering that possibility himself.            

The bandit advanced on the Captain of the Imperial Guard again, and he used the heel of his hand against the outlaw’s jaw, snapping his head back and then grabbing his sword arm.  The Captain was able to restrain his arm to prevent him from using the sword, but the foreigner seemed to have gained an almost superhuman strength; he simply couldn’t pry the sword from the man’s hand.  Then, the foreign warrior stamped on his instep with his boot.  The Captain let go with a short cry of pain, berating himself for his inattentiveness.  This man was an excellent warrior in his own right, and in his present condition that made him very dangerous to them as well as to himself.           

Zorro, for his part, was able to keep the soldiers at bay, but wasn’t able to gain an advantage.  They didn’t fight straight on, but they stood in positions where only their sides were exposed, and their hands kept moving and flashing in all directions, disconcerting him.  One kept jabbing at him with fingers that were close together like the beak of a bird and when they connected with his bruised body, they felt like bird’s beaks.  Zorro cried out in pain as one warrior hit him in the side, the same spot where the ‘flying man’ had hit him.  Another danced around, and every time Zorro tried to advance, the man found a vulnerable place to hit him.  Angry, the bandit shouted a curse and slashed with his sword, but the warrior danced out of the way.  Still another kept trying to kick him, but the outlaw’s flashing sword kept that one from making contact with him.  He became more and more infuriated as the soldiers kept advancing on him.  All he wanted to do was hurt them, get away to the ocean and go home, but the outlaw found that even in his rage, there was something that refused to allow him to actually kill them.           

Seeing his horse standing nearby, Zorro whistled to it as he would Tornado, but the horse didn’t respond.  Why won’t he come? Ai, this is not Tornado, he reminded himself.   He could still escape, though, if he could get to the horse.  It was fast.  With another challenging cry, one meant to baffle his opponents, he ran to jump on the horse, but in the fogginess of his thinking, he forgot that he no longer had the agility he needed for vaulting on the horse. 

Angry at his disability, he threw the sword down and tried to swing into the saddle.  However, Zorro was immediately jerked to the ground.  With a cry of deep despair and rage, he fought with all of his strength, which his adversaries found to be considerable.  Forgotten was the pain in his shoulder, forgotten was his fatigue, remembered was the homeland that seemed to get further and further away from him.  Now, he just wanted to get away.  He just wanted to go home.  He could not be a prisoner.  He had to be free!  His thoughts thundered like runaway horses. I have lost!  I cannot even die honorably.  I have lost….  He tried to struggle more, but his strength was gone.  There was nothing left inside with which to fight.   The warriors were too great in numbers for him to overcome and soon they had overwhelmed him.  

Two soldiers tied up his feet; another held his good hand in a viselike grip. Only then, the Captain noticed, did the man stop struggling and lay very still.  There was still rage in his eyes, but it was as though all of his will had drained out of him, and he suddenly looked very weary.  Despair was also plain to see, and the Captain suddenly had the impression that this man, who despite the mask, appeared to be young, had been through much, seen much and experienced more than most men encounter in an entire lifetime.  The bandit unexpectedly murmured something in another language, closed his eyes and went limp.  

The Captain checked to make sure of his breathing, which he found to be rapid and shallow.  This didn’t seem natural to the warrior leader; they would need to get the prisoner to the Imperial physician as soon as possible. 

“Quickly, we must get him to the palace.  Make a litter, and be careful with him.”  While his men were preparing the litter, using the materials at hand, the captain undid the sash at the bandit’s waist to bind his left arm against his body to immobilize it.  The European moaned softly in pain, but did not regain consciousness.  When they had the bandit secure on the litter, with his cape around him for warmth, they began the journey back to the Imperial residence.  The Captain sent a warrior ahead with the horses and with instructions to have the royal physician waiting for them.  He personally took charge of the bandit’s sword, a very fine saber of European make.

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve
Chapter One
Pacific Odyssey Main Page
Zorro Contents
Main Page