Pacific Odyssey:

Book II: China

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten  

Stealing Horses is Frowned Upon

 

   

           

As reports of the mysterious ‘Opium Bandit’ kept filtering in to the Trade Commission, Enrique was delighted, because he knew that it had to be Diego and that his friend was still alive.  What he couldn’t totally understand was Diego’s reasoning for the destruction of the opium, but he knew that his fencing instructor was only acting according to his conscience.  Nor could he understand Diego’s travels so far away from Canton, either.   Enrique’s father exclaimed in exasperation, after the second such report came in, “We are going to have to find your fencing master, just to keep me and every other trade envoy from killing him with our bare hands.”

What the trade commissioner didn’t tell his son was that it would be virtually impossible to help the Spaniard at this time.  His various spies had reported de la Vega’s aborted attempt to return to his residence, and they had reported on the efforts of the British to capture the young man.  He had also heard of Sir William Buckley’s threat against himself if he should help their quarry.  Sighing, Batisto wondered just how de la Vega was going to get himself out of this mess. 

 

 

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In his residence in the mountains, Imperial Nephew Qing Kang Zhu listened to the reports of this bandit whose depredations kept coming closer and closer to his province.  Unlike his advisors, he viewed the activities of this ‘Opium Bandit’ with a great deal of amusement.  It seemed that all the man did was destroy opium and steal food and sometimes weapons; he never killed anyone, nor hurt them.  Kang Zhu assumed this was the same mysterious black clad man who had destroyed almost an entire shipment of opium on a British ship right under the noses of the crew, the one the British wanted so badly.  As he finished listening to the reports, he turned to his young bride, a dainty girl of exquisite beauty.  “Ai, I think I would like to meet this bandit.”

“But, my husband, he is a barbarian.  Why would you want to meet him?” she asked. 

“Because he reminds me of someone I met when I was kidnapped and taken to America.  The man saved me when I was a stranger in a very strange land,” Kang Zhu murmured. 

“Yes, last year.  The one who wore a mask?”

“Yes.  I will wait until this European bandit comes closer to the palace and then I will invite him to meet with me.”  Kang Zhu laughed softly.  Reluctantly turning his attention back to the scribe, he said, “Go, but leave the reports.”  The servant kowtowed, touching his forehead to the ground and then quickly left.  The Imperial nephew turned back to his wife, kissing her gently on the mouth.  

“I have never met a barbarian before,” his wife said with a slight giggle, letting her fingertips stray up the back of his neck.   

“Perhaps, if he is not too uncivilized, I will let you meet this one,” the royal nephew said, kissing her with more passion.  The bandit was temporarily forgotten.

           

When it was realized that the bandit was heading in the general direction of his province, representatives of the various foreign governments came to Qing Kang Zhu to protest.  The British were especially adamant, offering a reward that caused even him to blink in surprise.  The different representatives implored him to send troops out after the cursed bandit.  His advisor assured them all that His Highness would do everything within his power to capture the elusive outlaw and punish him if he came into his province, but Kang Zhu had done nothing so far except keep up with the bandit’s progress.  The foreigner had not acted against the Chinese government or its people.  In fact, he had heard that the man had actually helped some of the peasants during his travels.  As the nephew of the Emperor, who had himself ordered the opium dealers out of China, Qing Kang Zhu secretly relished what this outlaw was doing and hoped that he had the opportunity to meet him. 

   

 

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Zorro woke up in a cold sweat, resulting from the same recurring nightmare he had had every night since he had been in the little house of Lui Yuling; the nightmare of an emaciated man on the pallet.  Each night he kept seeing different people he knew lying in the same condition on the bed.  It was a short while before dawn, so at least this time he had received a bit more sleep before the hideous dream had come again.  Eating some of the provisions he had stolen the day before, he pulled out the knife he had taken from one of the opium traders two days previously and began to shave.  Without shaving soap, it was difficult to do a good job, but at least he hadn’t cut his throat yet, he thought wryly.   Washing up in a little stream nearby, he continued on the now eastward path.            

The caravan that he came upon today wasn’t dealing with just opium.  A crying woman was taking money for a young girl, apparently her daughter.  It would seem that opium isn’t enough, Zorro thought.  They have to deal with slaves.    After the coins had passed hands, one of the men reached down and jerked the girl up by the arm.  She screamed in pain, but the man just handled her more roughly, cuffing her and throwing her across his lap.  Several of the others in the caravan laughed.  The girl’s captor simply reached down and patted her bottom.  The girl did not cry out again.  

Zorro felt the heat of his anger grow inside him.  Whatever the customs of this land, he would not see the abuse of any woman and stand idly by.  Spurring his horse, he rushed in, shooting off two of his pistols into the air.  Horses bucked and screamed, throwing their riders and scattering in all directions.  Zorro tossed the empty pistols to the ground and pulled out another one with his left hand, drawing his sword with his right.  In the few days that the outlaw had ridden the horse, it had learned to follow leg commands. “Go!  If you value your lives, you will go now!” Zorro called out.  Most of the men left quickly, galloping down the road that led to the south.  Several men stayed, facing him, drawing their muskets.  Putting away the pistol and using a whip that he had confiscated from a caravan two days previously, Zorro relieved two of the men of their weapons before they hardly knew that their hands were empty.  They turned their horse’s heads and rode after their comrades.  

The man with the girl growled some kind of an oath and charged him, after flinging her to the ground.   He had a musket in his hand, but in his anger he only brandished it at Zorro.   The ‘Opium Bandit’ easily moved his horse out of the way and snapped the whip against the man’s back as he passed.   With a howl of pain, the man turned his horse and finally remembered to fire his weapon.  The ball whizzed above Zorro’s head, entirely too close for comfort.  With another snap of the whip the man was disarmed.   Seeing the glint of anger in Zorro’s eyes, the leader of the caravan decided to retreat.   

Zorro went through his ritual of destroying the opium and then approached the two women.  “You are free to go,” he said.  The girl and mother began to cry even more loudly, both of them holding to each other as though they were afraid of something.  Him?  Now Zorro was thoroughly confused.  “What is wrong?  Was selling your daughter what you wanted to do?”

“No, Yingyu, but this was the only way we could feed the rest of our family.  It is legal.  Now the men will come back with more men and destroy our house and fields.  We will all die.  If not from the beatings they will give us, then from starvation in the winter,” the woman explained, punctuating her comments with hand signs when Zorro didn’t understand.  “When the agreement is made, they who break it must pay.  It is the way it has always been.”            

Shocked, Zorro wondered how he could apologize for doing something he had felt justified in doing.   Am I trying to force my own moral judgments on these people; people whose customs are totally different than my own?  Their government says that the opium is bad, but nothing is done to stop it.  Their government says that selling your own children is all right and allows the killing of those who back away from such an arrangement.  Ai, how can things be so twisted?  Or is it just my thinking?  What am I doing here?  What difference am I making?  He looked around at the hills that were similar to those he had grown up in and yet so very different.  How I wish I were home . . . where I understand what is going on, where helping others is so simple.   He shook his head to clear his thoughts. 

The girl and her mother were still crying, but they had turned to walk back to their home.  Perhaps to them, this way of life is simple.  “Wait, please.  I will go with you to help you protect your property.  I am sorry for my mistake.” But it’s still wrong to have to sell your child to buy food! he thought in anguish.  They simply nodded, but said nothing.  As he had done with the young widow and her son, Zorro offered the use of a horse to the pair, allowing them to rest their bound feet.  Quickly, he gathered supplies and the money that had been left behind.   Mounting, he took the reins of the women’s horse and rode in the direction the woman pointed out to him.

At the little farm, the woman explained what had happened to her husband.  Zorro bowed and apologized.  “Please accept my humblest apologies, Xiansheng, for my mistake,” Zorro said, bowing.  

Yingyu, you acted out of ignorance, as most barbarians do,” the farmer said crossly, but then his features softened. “But I know that you acted to help my daughter.  Now we must go hide in the hills.  Maybe we will not come back.  The memories of the traders are long, longer than the Yangtze River.”   

“Perhaps this would help you buy another farm,” Zorro offered, handing the man a bag that contained money that he had confiscated from the opium caravans.  “I will make sure that the money that they gave you for your daughter goes back to them, but this is all from the sale of the opium caravans.  It would be good for it to help someone.” 

The farmer bowed and smiled.  “Yes, it would help to buy a very nice farm east of here,” he said.  Xiexie, I am most grateful.”  As soon as they had gathered most of their belongings and loaded them on a handcart, they left, leaving the farm to the crickets and soft winged bats that rustled in a hollow tree.   Zorro remained, stationing himself near the house.  The sun slowly sank over the western hills and the bats flew out of the tree.  Frogs began a symphony in the tiny stream that ran nearby.   

The traders didn’t see him at first when they came down the road, but when they attempted to burn the house he made sure they found him very quickly.  He fired one pistol and wounded the man with the torch, and then with the other pistol, shot a trader who had drawn on him.  Using his sword, he scattered all of the others.  The traders had been joined by what appeared to be soldiers, who were carrying lances and large knives.  Ah, these are more of a challenge!  They appear a bit more formidable then the lancers in Los Angeles.  Zorro mounted and rode to meet his remaining opponents.            

At that moment, another trader fired a pistol and the Portuguese horse that had been so faithful for all of these past days pitched forward.  Zorro rolled out of the saddle with his sword drawn. When he saw the lancers bear down on him, he sheathed it quickly, so he could use both hands to dodge the first lance, and grab the second.  The rider landed heavily in the dust, where he lay groaning.  Using the appropriated lance, he knocked the other man off of his horse, and then dropping the lance, vaulted onto the animal.  In the saddle again, he galloped toward the traders who were still trying to destroy the house.  This time they scattered, mounted their horses, and fled.  Zorro rode up to a trader slowly getting up from the dust.  “Here is the money that was paid for the girl.  Now go!”  The trader picked up the money pouch that had been tossed at his feet, mounted and then rode away.   Astonished at his good fortune in routing all of his adversaries, he felt that if he left now, the brunt of the retribution would fall on him.  He turned the soldier’s horse to the east and continued swiftly down the trail. 

                

 

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Qing Kang Zhu frowned, his dark eyes troubled.  This report was disturbing.  The ‘Opium Bandit’ had flouted local custom.  He had routed and beaten government officials, and stolen an Imperial horse.  As long as the bandit had kept his activities to stealing breakfast and destroying opium, Kang Zhu didn’t mind, but now he would have to act upon this report. 

He turned to the Captain of his Imperial Guard.  The man was stockily built, a bit taller than the norm, but he could not be accused of being fat.  Heavily muscled, the Captain was a master of the martial arts. “I want you to get your best men, those trained in wushu, as well as the regular soldiers.  This bandit seems to have routed several soldiers and a contingent of traders.  The one thing I want to impress upon you is that I want the man taken alive.  And I will unmask him, not you or your men,” he commanded.  “Do you understand?”           

The Captain understood.  He bowed deeply and left.

   

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Zorro woke screaming about mid-morning of the sixth day since he had fled Canton.  His dream had been the same, but the victim on the pallet had been his own father.  Sucking in a ragged breath, Zorro jerked off the bandanna and mask and found them to be soaked in sweat.  He noticed his hands trembling as he rinsed the cloth in a nearby stream.  He wiped his face and neck with it, and rinsing it again, he wrung it out and then put it back on.   The mask soon followed.  

Sitting back on his heels, Zorro surveyed the hills ahead of him.  In the mid-morning sun, they appeared startlingly green.  In the distance he watched harvesters picking tealeaves.  If he remembered Bowman’s map correctly, beyond the hills was the sea.  Shaking his head, he realized that he had been tilting at windmills.  It was not that he hadn’t kept his ultimate goal of escape in the back of his mind.  However, he had not kept his focus entirely on getting home.  Now the inner fire that he had felt the last few days had burned itself out.  He still felt the same way about the opium, but it was simply that he knew he was fighting a losing battle and he felt he was in danger of never getting home due to his involvement in local politics.  He felt groggy and drained of all ambition, except for one, to get back to California.   The last confrontation had shaken him, and he had slept badly the night before, even before the nightmare that woke him.  The only way to avoid another night like this one is to avoid any more confrontations, he thought.            

With that new resolve in his mind, Zorro finished the last of the provisions and took a long drink from the stream. Suddenly his horse snorted, alerting him to possible danger.  In an instant he had drawn his sword, swung around and found himself facing three soldiers who also had their swords drawn.  By the Saints, how did they get so close without me hearing them?  Indeed it is time to end my sojourn as a bandit in the faraway place, he thought, berating himself over his inattentiveness.  Assuming a defensive stance, the outlaw noticed another man nearby, one simply dressed in white cotton trousers, a loose flowing shirt with a band around his middle.  A large stave was in his right hand.  He stood statue still on a top of a large rock, watching intently.  The spectator seemed to have no other weapons, but somehow Zorro felt that he was dangerous and he would have to keep an eye on him, too.             

One of the soldiers closed for an attack.  These Chinese swordsmen used a two handed method of fighting, instead of the one handed fencing that he was accustomed to.  It gave them more strength in the blow, but he believed that he had more agility.  He parried the man’s blow lightly, backing a step to take most of the force out of his opponent’s swing.  He didn’t want the other’s sword to make direct contact, fearing it would probably snap his thinner blade.  Zorro ducked from under the soldier’s next thrust and used his foot to shove him down.  The next two men came towards him simultaneously, and he advanced on one before the man knew what had happened, scoring a deep cut on his arm.  His assailant dropped his sword and stumbled away to take care of his wound.  The third man saw that he would have to be more aggressive; he came on with a yell, brandishing his long saber-like sword directly in front of him.            

Zorro laughed, ducked out of the man’s way and used the flat of his blade across the man’s posterior.  The soldier screamed in rage and came at him again, this time with the sword held lower.  This time when he ducked, Zorro swung his left fist and let the man use his own momentum to give added force to his punch.  The soldier dropped like a stone.  The outlaw turned his attention to the man on the rock, and found that he wasn’t there anymore.             

Grabbing the horse, Zorro swung onto its back.  He had no intention of waiting around and seeing what surprises the fourth man had in store for him.  As he was spurring the horse into a gallop, he saw the man step out from behind the boulder, already in mid swing with a long pole.  The weapon struck the horse across the chest, causing it to stumble and fall.  Zorro leaped from the stricken animal’s back, slashing at his assailant with his sword at the same time.  The man was extremely agile and so the outlaw’s blow was only glancing, simply making a tear in his opponent’s sleeve.  Quickly glancing around, Zorro saw the soldier’s horse only a few paces away.  Without slackening his speed, he used an old vaquero’s trick and started the horse in a gallop before getting into the saddle.  He ran several steps with the animal and then sprang onto the horse’s back, but he was shocked as he looked back down the trail to see that his opponent had almost caught up with him before he got on the horse.             

Zorro wasn’t sure what kind of a soldier this man was, but he knew that it would be much harder to escape from him the next time they met.  But there will not be a next time, Zorro thought, mentally laughing.  I will be on the ocean, riding eastward, going home.  For some uncanny reason, the outlaw also had the distinct impression that the man had been sizing up his fighting abilities when he was standing on the rock watching.  Feeling the rhythm of the horse beneath him, hearing the steady, non-labored breathing of the animal, Zorro realized that he had stolen a very good horse.  The other one had been sturdy, but a bit small for his taste whereas this horse was very responsive and quick.  He set his path on a more southeasterly course in order to get to the ocean quicker. 

Several hours later, Zorro realized this animal had a great deal of stamina, much like Tornado’s.  It had run at an easy cantor the entire time after fleeing his attackers and the horse didn’t even appear to be the slightest bit winded.  Stopping near a stream, Zorro drank and then rested, letting the horse do the same.  As a precaution, he didn’t take the gelding’s saddle off, and he kept his sword by his side, but he did let himself relax a bit in the shade of a tree, the horse’s reins wrapped around his wrist. After about an hour, Zorro took another drink from the stream, remounted and continued down the road. 

The sun continued making its journey toward the western hills and his stomach growled, reminding Zorro that the only thing he had eaten today was the tiny bit of rice that had been left of his provisions this morning.  Several times he had come across streams and had drunk his fill, but as the hot late afternoon sun beat down on him, Zorro realized that he needed to find something to eat.  He had avoided caravans and farms, detouring away from the road when he saw either.   He felt that such strategy delayed his journey, but he had avoided any ambushes.  

His stomach growled again as he came over a rise on a trail that paralleled the main road to the southeast.   Pulling the horse to a stop, Zorro perused the territory ahead.  It was quiet, although not empty.  The smoke of numerous little homes rose to the sky, indicating that the inhabitants were having their supper.   Forget about your stomach.  Surely the ocean is nearby!  Food enough then.   He rode on, not bothering to hide from the farmers and laborers that were still traveling to their homes.   Some made exclamations of fear, but many just gazed at him quickly and then continued on their way.   Zorro journeyed onward, returning to the main road as the sky darkened, checking each rise, hoping to see evidence of the ocean in the distance.   A slight breeze seemed to hint of salt and fish, but he thought it might be his imagination playing tricks on him.  Finally, just before it became too dark to safely see the road, the bandit saw a thicket where he could sleep without being disturbed.  Zorro hobbled his horse and smoothed a piece of ground, and then he rolled up in his cape, ignoring the protests of his empty stomach.  Tomorrow he would reach the ocean, and then the beginning of his journey home.     

 

 

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Sitting in his bedroom one night, Alejandro picked up the worn piece of paper that sat on his bedside stand and read it again, even though the words were burned in his heart.  My Father, I will come home.  By whatever means possible, I will return.  Do not give up hope.’ 

“But it is so hard, Diego, so very hard,” he murmured.  It became harder and harder to go to Diego’s room, to pass through it and into the secret room.  The last time he had gone down the secret passage from his own room and then back up the stairs to the secret room where all the accoutrements of Zorro were stored.  All of this so he could avoid going through Diego’s room.   He wondered when it would be too hard to even do that.  There was so much of Diego in that secret little room.  At times when he put on the black clothes, he turned quickly, feeling the presence of his son, knowing that Diego was not there, but having to look anyway.   He sighed.   How long would it be?   How long could he keep this up?   Alejandro looked at the letter again.  He read the emotion of Diego’s words, his son’s fierce determination, and the old don felt overwhelming love for his son well up in his chest.   Alejandro realized that he would continue for as long as necessary. 

 

 

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