Pacific Odyssey:

Book II: China

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

Flight

 

 

Before sunrise, Zorro had ridden a mile to the north of the city wall.  Finally, as the first hints of pre-dawn light began showing in the east, he found a thicket near a small, wooded area.  Even more fortuitous was the presence of a stream rushing near the thicket.  This would be a good place to hide, he decided, far enough from Canton to be away from British influence, but close enough to be able to return quickly when the opportunity arose. 

The forest was not thick, but trees grew up the side of a hill, intermingled with brush and brambles, giving some seclusion to his hiding spot at the top of the hill.  He was able to scout the countryside and this area seemed to be remote enough that there was little traffic passing nearby.  Hobbling the horse, Zorro pulled off his mask and washed up in the stream.  He did not have the means to shave, he noted ruefully, rubbing his stubbled chin.  At least I won’t need to wear a disguise, especially if I have to hide out very long, he thought.   He had managed to grab some foodstuffs from the kitchen on his flight from the trade commission and he ate the last of the rice balls and smoked fish, washing it down with the cold stream water.  It was not much, but it would do for now.

As the sun rose, Diego perused his surroundings, seeing tealeaf pickers in distant hillside fields.  A dusty road showed several peasants pulling carts filled with fruits and vegetables and other saleable items.  Their braided queues hung down their bent backs, indicating the influence of the Manchu rulers.  Diego looked around his little resting place and saw no evidence of any animals he could catch or anything else edible.  He would have to pilfer what he ate.  Gazing again at the peasants traveling in the distance, Diego determined that he would not steal anything from these people who looked to not even have enough for themselves.  

After determining that his chosen campsite was secure, Diego changed into the clothing that Batisto had given him, and lay down to get some rest.  Using the saddle for a pillow, he fell asleep with his sword in his hand.

 

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

 

Sir William Buckley listened to the report of his sergeant of the guard with great interest.   “So you found the horse he stole, but not the bandit, himself?” 

“No, my Lord.  We can only assume that he is hiding somewhere in the city waiting to try to get to the Portuguese Trade Commission again tonight.  

“No, he left the city,” Sir William said, his voice sure.  At the questioning looks of the soldier, he continued.  “He is not stupid.  Even though he is homesick, he would not be so foolish as to stay where he could be so easily captured.  He is hiding in the countryside, hoping that the search will ease up in a week or two.  I have a notion that he feels comfortable, more sure of himself away from the city.”  He reached for his cup of tea.  “The absolute irony is that he is probably less safe in the country than he would be here.  He will stand out like gentry on London Bridge.”  Sir William smiled and then he began to laugh.  Several minutes later, his laughter subsided to soft chuckles and then to a feral smile.   Either way, he would have this bandit, this sailor who dared to destroy his company’s cargo and almost destroy a British ship.  He glanced back at his secretary, “Michael, I want word sent out to the local Chinese officials that a highly dangerous and wanted criminal could possibly be in their provinces.  And there will be ample reward for his capture and return to us.  Preferably alive.”  The secretary bowed and left. 

 

 

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

 

 

Diego woke when the sun was reaching its zenith, sprinkling the hidden thicket in which he lay hidden with dappled spots of brightness.  Stretching, he sat up from his makeshift bed and peered out between the branches, checking to make sure no one was nearby.  When he was satisfied, he crawled out of the thicket and checked on the horse in the small meadow at the top of the hill.  It was placidly grazing, hobbled to keep it from wandering too far away.  

Again, he saw peasants walking along the road, their voices barely discernable to him, floating up on the soft eddies of the light breezes.  On distant hills north of his position, tealeaf pickers continued their harvesting, backs bent over the short bushes.  Satisfied, Diego walked over to the stream and took off his shirt, washing up in the cool waters.  He also washed the rest of his clothing, only wearing the trousers of his costume while the wet items hung over bushes, drying in the afternoon sun.  While he waited for the day to grind toward sunset, Diego groomed the horse, pulling twigs from its mane and tail.  He ignored the growling of his stomach.  When his clothing had dried, he changed and pondered his short-term options.  He knew that staying in this place might be the wisest option, but he could not shake the fact that the Portuguese embassy was probably a closed avenue of escape for him.  The British envoy would stop at nothing to capture him.  Staying in one place might be well and good for a short time, but he had no provisions for such a stay.  He had to keep moving, even if he only circumnavigated the city while looking for some slight opportunity to return.  And to find food, he thought ruefully as he once again felt and heard his stomach rumble fiercely.  

He gazed again at the distant workers. While he was capable of traveling at night, using the stars as guides, he felt much more sure of his directions by day.  If I stay off the main road, he thought, I can make use of several hours of daylight.  And if the people in the distance all appear the same, then so, too, will I to them.  As he continued to watch the road, he saw several European and Chinese soldiers ride by.  From the loud voices among the Europeans, he knew they were British.  Sir William was indeed determined, Diego thought grimly.  He watched until they were gone.  He would have to move further away from the city. 

As soon as the soldiers were gone, Diego saddled the gelding, and then began riding toward the northeast, further away from the city.  Tomorrow, he would begin a more southerly course, one that would not only take him around the city, but more toward the coastline.  When he could, he rode off-trail, but often the narrow road was his only option.  Several times he had to hide behind thickets or rock croppings while groups of people, mostly peasants, walked by.  As the day ground toward sunset, and the sky began to darken, the traffic thickened as people left the fields and made their way to their homes.  Diego guided the gelding into the countryside, and through fields recently abandoned by workers.  He was able to avoid being seen until he rode over a small rise and suddenly came upon a woman and her young son gathering wood near the road.  They both jumped back from the trail in fear and shock. 

He decided that there was no need to leave now; the damage had been done.  If the woman was predisposed to report him, she would.  Seeing their difficulty trying to gather wood in the deepening dusk, he dismounted.  Ma,” he said gently.  “Let me help you.” She looked up at him in open-mouthed disbelief, not saying anything, her eyes filled with fear.  “Please, I will not hurt you.”  Diego didn’t know if it was the offer itself or his atrocious Chinese, but he was relieved when she finally nodded.  He dismounted and took the branches and a rope from the boy, and tied the wood into a bundle, securing it behind the saddle.  He continued to help them break up the rest of a dead bush and add it to the first bundle, until there was enough for her to cook several meals.  She continued to regard him in silence even as they worked together.  

Seeing how difficult it was for the woman to get around on her bound feet, Diego asked, “Ma, would you like to ride home on my horse?”  He used hand motions to make sure she understood him.  She nodded slowly, still acting as though she was in shock as he lifted her up into the saddle.  Then he handed the boy up to his mother.  “Where is your home, ma? 

“It is down that path,” she answered, pointing.  Diego picked up the reins and began leading the horse down the narrow trail.  “Why is a European here, where Europeans are not allowed?” she asked slowly, perceiving his limited knowledge of her language. 

“I am in trouble with my fellow Europeans.”  Diego now fully understood her shock at seeing him and sighed, remembering Xian and her deep suspicion of him.  This people’s xenophobic nature was going to make his escape to the coast extremely difficult.  “I am trying to get to the coast,” he answered simply.  He led the horse down the path until he saw a tiny one-room hovel in the post sunset dimness.  

“That is our home,” she said.  

After he had helped them both down, the woman flitted inside and then surreptitiously leaned out the door and motioned for him to come in.  He gave part of the bundle of sticks to the boy and then he pulled the horse around to the back of the house and hobbled him.  Lastly, he gathered the rest of the sticks, his own bundle and went inside.  There was a stench that was cloying, but Diego couldn’t place it.

“I am Lui Yuling and that is my husband, Xu Jiang,” she said simply, pointing into one corner of the hovel as he laid the wood down by a small hearth.  She quickly laid some of the sticks in a small brazier and lit them with a few coals that she had in an ash-filled clay pot, blowing on them gently until the dry wood burst flames.  The room filled with a soft yellow light. 

Yuling pointed to a small pallet in one corner on which lay what appeared to be nothing more than a heaped up blanket.  Finally, Diego was able to discern a starvation thin body under the threadbare covering.  He was so shocked when he saw the condition of the husband, as he lay sprawled on his pallet, that he checked to see if the man was still alive.  The stench of the room was that of death and Diego almost gagged as he examined the man.  The man was still among the living, but so emaciated that he couldn’t be very far from death.   Diego looked up at the woman for an explanation, wondering what sickness could have brought this man to such a state.  

“It is the opium,” she said softly, seeing his puzzled look.  “He used to go to the opium dens after working to harvest the tealeaves.  It was not so bad then.  He made the money and only spent a little of it on the opium.  Then he began to stay longer and longer in the village and when he came home, he had very little money and even less food.  We have a few vegetables in the garden behind our house.  Tomorrow I will kill a chicken for our dinner.   Huang will find eggs for our breakfast tomorrow morning.”

Drawing in a deep ragged breath, Diego realized that he was seeing a perfect example of the disastrous results of the illicit trade.  He was stunned, and quickly left the hovel to try to clear his head of the sight and smell of the death that the opium dealt to its most far-gone users.  He swallowed to keep his seditious stomach from rebelling, but the sight of the man could not be so easily purged from his mind.  Looking above, Diego saw the stars showing themselves in the near black vault of the sky.  Gazing back down at his shirt, he realized that the light-colored clothes would be easily seen at night.  Quickly changing into his black outfit without putting on the mask, he returned to the little house, where he was almost invisible in the darkness of the room.  

The woman was bent over a small hearth, starting a fire.  The little boy stood near her, a small cooking pot in his hands.  Diego spoke to her and she turned around and gave a small cry of shock.  “Opium Bandit,” she said in recognition. “I heard the stories in the village this morning about you, but I thought it was the imaginations of an opium dreamer.  You really destroyed opium on a ship?” 

“Yes,” he said simply.

“Destroy the opium in the village, please,” she pleaded, her eyes flitting back to her husband.          

Diego paused. 

“Opium Bandit, please, please destroy the opium.  Please.”

Diego gaped at the woman, his thoughts churning.  If he did this; if he went into this village so very close to Canton, and destroyed the opium, the British would know where he was and where to hunt for him.  The British would be even angrier at his effrontery.  The hongs would probably not be happy either. 

“Please.” There were tears in Yuling’s eyes.  The little boy stood next to his mother, gazing at him with wide eyes, eyes that were haunting, eyes that were everlastingly too large for the thin and mournful face.  He looked beyond them to where the man who should be providing for these two lay dying.  The man had made a choice, but the choice had made him a prisoner and had made these two pitiful people victims.  “Please understand, it is one thing to destroy opium on a ship in the middle of the sea, but I am on land now.  I am in a place that is different from my home, with different laws and customs.  Where the people do not trust those of my race.” 

“Our Emperor does not want the Europeans to bring the opium into the country.  There is no law against destroying the opium.”  The tears traced a path down her cheeks.  He looked over at the small, barely living bundle on the pallet.  “Please, destroy the opium here, in this village,” she asked him again. “It will be a good thing to know that this was done before I die.” 

Again, Diego gazed at the dying man then back at the raggedly dressed woman.  He sighed.  He nodded, finding that he could not refuse this woman’s request.   “Yes, I will do this for you tomorrow.” 

She smiled, glancing at her dying husband again.  Xiexie.”  

“I will be back in the morning,” he said, and slipped out into the night.  Even though he was hungry, he was not about to ask the woman for what was probably just enough food for her son.  If those who delivered the opium carried food with them, which trade processions usually did, then perhaps, he thought with a smile, he could eat well after all.  He would wait for morning and scout the larger trails. The little house was away from a main trail, so he found a small clump of bushes nearby, tied the horse to a limb and curled up under his cape to sleep.  He laid there for some time, watching the stars progress in the night sky, remembering the hills, the wild flowers, the dark-eyed señoritas, the breezes from the ocean, the scent of pine, the horses and cattle running like thunder across the valleys.  Finally, he fell asleep.           

In the morning, he awoke to see Huang crouched nearby, staring at him.  Diego hoped that this would not become a habit.  The boy looked as though he had been crying.  “What is wrong, little one?” he asked softly.  The boy only took his sleeve and pulled him towards the house.  There he saw Lui Yuling preparing her husband for burial.            

“By the Saints,” he breathed.  Yuling turned around and saw him.  She just shook her head.  Diego made the motions for a burial, since he didn’t know all the words.  “Where?” he asked.  She pointed out back where he had spent the night.  Looking everywhere for something to use to dig a suitable grave, he found nothing, so he finally settled on the stout branch of a nearby tree. With the woman and the boy helping, pulling away dirt with wooden bowls, they were eventually able to dig a hole big enough to bury the man.  Diego changed into the clothing given him by Batisto and then removed the hobbles from the horse.  He lifted the woman on its back, and mounting behind her, headed into the village.  At a building just outside the little town, she bade him wait, while she slipped from the horse and approached the door.  A thin man in heavy robes met her and they talked for a few minutes.  Diego realized this was a priest.    While she was talking to him, the priest gazed up at him several times, at first in disbelief and fear, and then in astonishment.    Diego heard the words, ‘Opium Bandit’ several times.  

Finally the Chinese cleric approached and Diego dismounted, offering the reins to the priest.  “No, Yingyu,” the man said.  “Let the woman ride.”   Diego lifted Yuling up on the gelding and the two men walked side by side, leading the horse up the narrow trails to the young widow’s house, where Diego backed off several paces, and stood quietly while the husband was interred.  After the funeral, he approached the priest and asked what trail the traders of opium used to deliver their goods.   The priest pointed back to the village and then indicated a main trail that went west from there.           

Diego thanked the priest, and, after the man had left, he changed back into his costume, put on his mask and mounted the gelding.  Then as Yuling and her son watched, he headed back towards the village.  Several people watched as he rode through, but no one tried to stop him.  When he asked a shopkeeper where the opium den was, the man shook his head as though he didn’t understand.  Zorro asked others, but everyone seemed afraid of him or of the dealers from the hongs, he wasn’t sure which.  Continuing on until he came to a house where many people came and went, Zorro opened the door, and realized he had found the opium den.  The smell was appalling.  He detected the odor of burning opium, presumably from the pipes used to smoke it, and also the stench of those whose lives only existed to consume the foul substance.  Like in the hovel, the odor of death prevailed.  His anger quickened and he marched inside.  Two men tried to stop him, but he shoved them both aside and continued to the rear of the building, where he found packages of the narcotic stored on a shelf.  Taking out his sword and slashing open all of the packages of opium, he watched with satisfaction as clumps fell onto the ground.  Zorro also dumped all of the larger chests of the narcotic, stomping a great deal of it underfoot.  There was a bucket of water, which he poured on the dumped opium.  Then he went back to the main room and ordered everyone to leave.  The two men brandished staves this time, but when they saw the look in Zorro’s eyes, along with the cold gleam of his sword, they backed out of the building.  Another man laying on a pallet wasn’t able to get out on his own, so the masked man gently picked him up and took him out, ordering one of those watching nearby to take care of him.           

Zorro went back in and found a good strong rope, which he tied to the main support beam in the middle of the biggest room.  The other end, he tied to the saddle of the horse, and then he mounted, sincerely hoping that the house was built as flimsily as it appeared to be.  He urged the horse forward; once, twice, and then three times, at which time the beam gave way and the building collapsed to the ground.  Cutting the rope with his sword, Zorro rode out of the village on the trail the priest had indicated the traders had taken.            

By midmorning, the outlaw caught up with a trading party.  Most of its members were Chinese, but there was also a European accompanying them.  When he rode down on them in a frontal attack, they were so surprised that they didn’t even take their pistols out.  Zorro confiscated two of the weapons along with all of the ammunition and powder, and threw the other pistols away in the bushes.  Taking the reins of the lead packhorse, he rode down a side trail until he came to a stream.  There were ten animals in the caravan, each with two chests tied to its back.   He opened the chests and dumped the cloth wrapped, egg-shaped bundles of opium into the water, then he walked his horse up and down the stream, thoroughly grinding the narcotic into a muddy paste.  Each horse also carried a bundle of food, and he gathered each bundle, tying them all to the front and back of his saddle.  Using his sword, Zorro cut the harnesses from the horses and set them free.  Then he rode back up the trail at a gallop, scattering the trading party that was following him on foot.           

He ate enough of the food to fill his empty stomach, relishing the slight sweetness of the rice balls and tang of an unfamiliar dish, but most he took back to the woman and her son.  When she looked at the brownish stains on the horse’s hooves, she smiled, intensely satisfied.  “Ai, Opium Bandit.  Xiexie, I thank you.  Please stay here until you can return to Canton.  It would be an honor.” 

“I am afraid that I cannot.  The owners of the opium will be angry and I do not want them to know that you helped me.” 

Lui Yuling nodded.  “I understand.” As he turned to leave, though, she reached up and touched his sleeve.  “Wait.”  Zorro stood patiently.  “Perhaps there is one who can help you,” she offered.  The masked man felt a slight flickering of hope in his heart.  “The emperor’s nephew, who lives not too far from here, is known as one who despises the opium trade.  Perhaps he would listen and help you, since you have dealt thusly with the opium traders.” 

“Where does the Emperor’s nephew live?” Zorro asked, hopeful. 

“His palace is some days to the east of Guangzhou,” she responded.  “His name is Qing Kang Zhu.” 

For some strange reason, the name seemed slightly familiar to him, but he couldn’t recall why and finally he shrugged it off.   He thanked her and mounted his horse. “Zaijian,” he said, bidding her good-bye and then he rode off on the trail that she had pointed out as being in the general direction of the nephew’s palace.            

As he rode along secluded paths into the hills east of Canton, Zorro thought of the widow’s advice.  Would a member of Chinese royalty even deign to have an audience with him, much less help him?  Could even the Chinese hope to stand against the might of the British Empire?  The British were evidently quite powerful in this part of the world, apparently even more powerful than the Emperor, to be able to keep importing the opium into the country.  With a sigh, Zorro realized that he could not really count on help from that quarter either.  He would have to rely on himself and hope that one of his patron saints could work some kind of miracle in his behalf. 

Having made that determination, Zorro pondered his best course of action.  He was unfamiliar with the countryside, not totally fluent in the language, and he had no money.  Finally, he decided that his best option would be to travel away from the city for a few days and then head around to the east side of Canton and beyond that to the coast.  If he happened on the Emperor’s nephew, then he would tell his story and hope for the best, otherwise, he would attempt to get a fisherman to take him to a safe port where he could arrange passage to California.  He had remembered the map of China that Mr. Bowman had shown him after they had left Singapore.  The Philippines was not too far to the southeast of China, and that country belonged to Spain.  Looking at the position of the sun and the direction of the road in the valley below him, Zorro continued up the eastern road.

   

 

 

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