Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Return to Fusang: Refugees and Bridges

Continued from HERE | Meanwhile...

It is our second day since meeting with Yao and the field agent Shea LeFavre. I had been ready to run some appalling risks to get into Fusang by myself, if need be, but the introduction, entirely out of the blue, of trusted friends and comrades from Steelhead-- no matter how far away off they might be when it was reported... well, this opens a world of possibilities I have not anticipated.

Perhaps I may emerge from this alive.

I admit I had not given thought of an alternative plan other than sneaking into the Fusang citadel and confronting Lieng. The rational part of me agrees this is a stupid idea-- not from lack of bravery, but the realization it would be a futile waste of life (and other lives not mine to waste). I am surprised how easy it was for me to jump on the idea of heading south to the Bridge city to link up with this "Feng's" army. I really must look into him. He sounds promising.

I still need to arrange a situation where I will be within a very short physical distance from Hsieh Lieng-- the facts are what they are. I have no chance of killing Lieng in any other situation. So we must be canny, and we must find strong allies. So, Feng it is then.

In the last two days, we have encountered and absorbed two more bands like Yao's and fought two sharp skirmishes with Cavalry patrols. We are moving fast, not as fast as I would like, but fast enough to outstrip any infantry force sent against us. Sadly, this means we cannot slow down to shelter a refugee column. I tell the ones on foot to head for the river and cross over to South of the Yalu as fast as they can. As we ride, the rain of the last three days abates and the sun breaks out. I realize, oddly, that I am strangely content. 20 years may have gone by, yet here I am, engaged in an irregular war, dressed in rags, bandoleered like a Mexican bandit, enjoying it far more than the bureaucracy and paperwork waiting for me back home. Every refugee group we meet has Ward or Gordon's name on their lips.. "Devil Soldier has Returned!" Silly, superstitious lot that they are.. they know, intellectually, that Ward was killed in a crossfire arranged by his own lieutenant years ago. That won't stop the hoping, no matter how hard I try to correct the assumption. I won't deny the comparison gives me an entirely irrational stab of pride-- the flattering devils.

But that has been the last two days. Today's encounter is shaping up to be a pickle.

Yao and Shea and I are on the edge of a drained rice field, having blundered into a Fusang cavalry force. The leader, a young Mongolian captain, brandishes his new-fangled Automatic pistol in my direction and gives the order to charge in guttural Cantonese "Look! It is the Long Nosed Devil there!". Suddenly, his face is blown off. The sergeant, behind him, canters forward, stops,and rips the Fusang symbol off of his tunic. The men follow suit, pulling out a crude imitation of the old EVA banner they had hidden in their saddlebags.

Yao and the Sergeant (Chen by name, apparently an EVA veteran from the red turban he puts on, but I don't recall the man) are having a spirited discussion as we head South towards the bridge. There is a large pattern of cavalry patrols near the river, performing a circular pattern search at Fusang General Yen's insistence. There is a large field force, Chen says, marching down the North bank of the Yalu with the intention of crossing the bridge to invade Feng's territory to the South. 10,000 men, all branches of arms, several guns, and the Land Dragon. Having killed the Land Dragon's pilot, I wondered how fast that devil's chariot would be moving onward any time soon.

I gaze up at the sky, worried.. three times today I have seen the strange kite-craft that moves against the wind.. a large unwieldy conveyance made of wings and gears and emitting a strange whirring sound, not unlike a modern sewing machine. The Kite-Craft is clearly here to observe and not fight-- he dropped some explosive charges last night, but they were weak, designed to flash and bang like fireworks, not explode and wound. I think they are signaling other forces to triangulate on our location.

There are about 200 bandits and refugees streaming along in our wake when we crest the bridge to gaze out at the mighty Yalu stretching out in front of us, armed with a motley collection of rifles, Fusang carbines, muskets, blunderbusses, Jingal Guns and even parangs. The Bridge City appears to be uninhabited-- the North section burnt and deserted, with only the bank, the gate house and the jail standing intact. I gesture to Yao, pointing at Bridge City downstream. He dispatches Chen and Red-Top, another bandit, to reconnoiter the city as we approach.

Within moments Red-Top is seen, pelting back to us as fast as his nag can carry him.

"Master Yao! Come Quick!"

Yao and I ride down to the village where we tie up our horses at the edge of the main street. I can see Chen frantically signaling me with a hand wave on top of the Gatehouse at the edge of the bridge. Quietly, Yao and I run over to talk to Chen.

Our hopes are somewhat dashed as we climb up on top of the Gatehouse, for, rounding the North bend of the Yalu has come something new to this section of the river. With a loud ringing of bells and whoosh of steam whistles, a large deep water River monitor of Germanic design is approaching under a full head of steam, her guns rotating to place the Bridge City's northern side in her sights. The Iron River Dragon is finally ready, weeks ahead of schedule. And she appears ready to blast her way to Kowloon, if she hast to.

DAMN that kite-like thing in the sky, it had been calmly transmitting our location to this ship the entire time! A ranging shot from the forward gun fires; it lands short but with an impressive spray of water. I look up on the ridge, where the rest of them are dangerously overexposed, and run for my horse. Yao is right behind me.. it takes but a second to get to the force of bandits on the hillside, and to start them moving towards the hard points in the city-- the customs house, gatehouse and remains of the bank. We are going to need hard walls here.

Yao, LeFavre and I take stock. We have about 80 rifles, varying amounts of ammunition. One light rapid firing gun we took off a cavalry patrol, about 5 drums of ammunition for it. Not enough, not enough. As we disperse the men (and women) to firing positions, the first shell lands in courtyard, the shock wave sending roof tiles, bricks and dust flying.. I run over to my horse to get her under cover. She turns, stares at me for a second, and crumples to the ground to lie on her side, dying in seconds. A shell splinter has ripped her throat open, leaving me staring, blinking back tears. She was such an excellent little mare. I pull two ammo bandoleers off of the saddle and run for the bridge. Red-Top, Chen and Le Fevre are there, gazing at the approaching Iron River Dragon. It has stopped, rotating against the current and bringing the North side under her guns again. Le Fevre gestures excitedly and hands me his binoculars. The River Dragon is dropping boats over the side, as cool as ye please. White jacketed Chinese soldiers are starting to load into the boats-- I have to assume these are some form of marines.

I see Yao's men setting up the little rapid fire pea shooter on top of the Customs House. I wave and point at the boats, making a chopping motion. He grins, catching on and directs rifle and rapid fire on the boats. Sadly, they are out of range yet. The Fusang officer in charge of the landing force is taking no chances.

We are in a fix here. We can't cross the bridge without getting shot to pieces. There appear to be no boats, no fording places handy. Heavy caliber shells are landing on the village, but not the bridge, which tells me something. They are only using light caliber secondaries to fire on the bridge itself. They don't wish to damage it-- the Fusangs want to take and KEEP the village. Why is that? To get to the other side with a large force, that's why. So that tells me there is likely a large field force on its way here, which means they have come out to fight The Progressives at last. Chan's report from the field is borne out by the evidence of my eyes now.

Suddenly, I have an idea. Wrapping a rag around my head in imitation of the old EVA turban, I sling my rifle, and explain my thought to Red-Cap. He grins excitedly and runs off for necessary equipment, returning with a box, a spool of twine and a rope spool. I put the box on my shoulder, and he winds the twine around the empty spool. Then with infinite care, walking as if I had all the time in the world, I move towards the center of the bridge, standing up to do so. Red-top follows behind, unspooling the twine, looking for all the world like an engineer's assistant in the EVA helping a engineering officer mine a bridge. The secondaries open up fire again, but as I predicted, they don't have the range yet. We make it to the middle of the bridge before the River Dragon has drifted downstream long enough to fire on the center of the bridge with her secondaries. Red-top and I leap the last ten feet or so, as the bullets are now spattering on the metal parapet of the bridge, getting all too close.

I think they have bought it hook line and sinker. I laugh, turning to Red-top to congratulate him. He returns a glassy stare. I hadn't heard the bullet hit him, but it had gone through the base of his throat so quickly he didn't have time to react.. he just dies. I nod, closing his eyes for him. Slowly, I raise my head over the parapet to assess the situation. The parapet of the bridge is taking heavy small arms fire from the River Dragon, still, but they do not know where I am. Yao is waving at me but he is too far away for me to make out what he is going on about.. is he pointing DOWN stream? Or Up?

I risk a peek-- the landing boats are still coming, gun fire or no. It appears that a bloody fight is in the offing, one which a bandit force is ill equipped to handle with only one light quick firing gun and some rifles. The bandits may have to find another way to cross over into the country south of the river. I am running out of ideas.

Suddenly, I understand what Yao is gesturing and waving about. I hear a chuff chuff chuff sound from down river, followed by the immediate appearance of a the lead ship in a small flotilla that is making its was upstream. The lead boat is flying a strange flag with Chinese characters, but is followed by the British flag. Grinning, I reach out and pull a strip of red cloth from Red-Top's turban. tie it to my rifle barrel and wave it at the River flotilla.

"Good heavens! It took you lads long enough!! Do you have any coffee? I'm dying for some!"


No comments: