Chapter 18: A Way Out
Eight bare-chested men closed in in an arc brandishing knives, iron rulers, staffs, and spears, each more vicious and sinister than the last. But they didn’t dare spring on him suddenly after seeing how quick and ferocious he was just now.
Wenchang’s back was against a wall like a wild, cornered tiger, the dagger in his hand gleaming, ready to strike. “Brothers, you called yourselves men of the jianghu. Isn’t it against jianghu rules to gang up on someone? I don’t want to kill anyone, but if you all come at me at once I will be forced to drop that prohibition. If you don’t believe me then you will.”
“Bah!” The eight men bellowed and charged.
“Bah!” Wenchang echoed, and dashed to the right, his dagger magically turning into a blinding warped flash of light lashing out at the man on the far right’s left side, sweeping past in a twinkle, then he was already pressed to the next man’s side, jabbing with an elbow.
“Ah…” The first man let out a bloodcurdling scream as blood poured from his side. He charged, but his legs gave out.
“Ah…” At the same time, the back of the second man’s ribs were stabbed with an elbow. He screamed in pain and pitched forward, staggering and spinning, blocking the other men advancing from the left, his knife clattering to the floor.
Wenchang was near the third man in a flash, but this guy was ferocious, adept at using his iron ruler, which whipped down in a slanting arc as he yelled, performing the move “Upend the Milky Way” toward the top of Wenchang’s right shoulder.
Wenchang stepped back, then dodged, then crossed and matched the ruler’s arc with his dagger, only this one shooting up, connecting before shooting out and sending the ruler flying ten feet away.
“Ah…” The man screamed, his hand coming up to cover the left side of his face which was pouring blood like water from an overhang, the cut deep, down to the bone, a fissure opened up on his face from ear to chin, leaving him with a mark he would never forget.
In just a brief moment three of the eight men had been downed. Although their injuries were not fatal, they were no longer able to put up a fight.
His quick and crazy offensive left everyone watching stunned.
Wenchang was now behind the fourth man. He shouted, “Turn around.”
The man really did, turning right, knife out in a wild arc of light.
But he had figured wrong. Wenchang ducked down, now no more than four spans high, the knife passing five inches over the top of his head. At the same time, Wenchang’s left hand was waiting, grabbing the man’s sweeping right arm at the elbow like a huge pair of iron tongs, clamping onto his arm and hoisting it up as his right hand holding the dagger thrust out. He pulled the man toward him with his left hand, his dagger aiming for the man’s belly.
The man instinctively reached out to knock the back of Wenchang’s dagger hand away, but he missed and the dagger swept past and sliced off four of his fingers.
The dagger once again snaked out. The man was terror-stricken and cried, “Spare me, spare…”
At that critical moment a man appeared at the entrance. He had a pointed mouth, sunken cheeks, and a squirrely beard on his gaunt face. He led a dozen men into the room. He looked to be over fifty, tall and thin, wearing a long teal robe. “Go easy on him, Master Cai,” he said in his sharp, raspy voice.
Wenchang’s dagger stopped just before penetrating the man’s belly. He saw this was Sickly Wuchang’s right-hand man, Spirit Fox Li Peijie. He chuckled, the point of his dagger still touching the man’s belly. “You must be Spirit Fox. Pleased to meet you.”
The gamblers had witnessed two groups of jianghu men fighting it out, and someone had been killed, but aside from a few cowards, most of them had remained. They knew they were not in danger as long as they didn’t get involved. Owing to the fact that Master Cai was a decent, unassuming young man, the events of today and the day before had rocked Fine Horse Village. Now this incident in the gambling den was shocking, as he once again came to the aid of another and subdued several men, quickly taking out the number-one man in the gambling house, Walking Retribution. This was even more shocking. People even watched from the windows, everyone waiting to see how the situation would resolve.
Spirit Fox had appeared just in time, asking Wenchang to be lenient. Wenchang actually had no intention of killing anyone. He had punished that murderer with the knife he’d taken, but other than that he had only inflicted some injuries. After all, he wasn’t a cruel person by nature. His aggressiveness softened. If he wanted to rule the members of Fine Horse Village’s underworld then killing would make things worse in the days to come and make it harder for him to dominate.
Spirit Fox glanced at his wounded man on the floor. Walking Retribution was groaning and holding the wall as he struggled to his feet. He faltered three times before he managed to stand up.
“How hurt are you, Bensheng?” Spirit Fox said, concerned.
“Just get that son of a bitch!” Walking Retribution bellowed.
Wenchang released his captive and put away his dagger and faced Spirit Fox. Now free, the man he was holding suddenly threw a punch at the side of his head.
Wenchang hmphed and blocked it with his left hand and slapped the man back and forth with his right, smacking him on both sides of the neck. The man cried out and slumped to the floor, unconscious.
Wenchang leapt to the center of the room and sent four chairs flying. A spacious room was easier to fight in. He gestured for Spirit Fox to come at him. “Spirit Fox, let’s have a wager of fisticuffs. You can set the stakes.”
Spirit Fox’s beard shook and he rolled his eyes. He smiled sinisterly. “Let’s not mention that for now. Master Cai, you should not have come here.”
“But I did come, and for a reason.”
“Are you in cahoots with Bald Flood Dragon?”
“At noon I wounded three of his men and shaved off a layer of his scalp with a throwing knife. It was nothing.”
Spirit Fox was surprised, but his sinister smile deepened. “Little brother, it seems you’ve offended men on both sides.”
“I’m only after what’s right, I don’t care who I offend.”
“You must know we are all outlaws.”
“I too am a fugitive.”
“Good. Then on behalf of the other fugitives, I welcome you to our ranks. We need not discuss what just happened here. But I urge you to honor us with your presence at the arranged meeting tonight at Shangluo Inn.”
“I’ll be there. I’m not afraid of venturing into the tiger’s den.”
Spirit Fox yelled to the crowd, “Put away your weapons. Stop making fools of yourselves. Clear a path, I have a guest to see out.”
The crowd opened up a path out of the room. Wenchang held his head up and strode forward. “What kind of place are you running here, playing with loaded dice and killing people? Preposterous!”
“Little brother, it’s called an eye for an eye. There are some ways of the jianghu you are not yet clear on. You think we fight without any sense of morals, but did you know that Bald Flood Dragon has already killed several of our brothers without a word, never once even challenging them to an open fight? If you want to talk strength, to be honest we are fighting a losing battle with Bald Flood Dragon, like an egg smashing against a rock. But our livelihood is at stake. We have no choice but to deal with them. If you hadn’t come here just now, the thirty or so men of Bald Flood Dragon’s who are guarding outside would probably have poured in here, resulting in who knows how many deaths. You think those six can take on that many? They’re not stupid! In other words, you came here today and tore things up, but in the end you didn’t save anyone, though we still thank you for showing leniency. I was watching Chai Hua closely at the end of the alley. I was just a bit late, otherwise my nephew would have eaten more of your fists. Ah! It’s not easy to make a living. Little brother, you are our own townsman. We have to look out for each other. Don’t be so hard on us. Tonight, Daddy Guo will have a discussion with you. When that time comes I ask you to give us a little face on behalf of your fellow townsmen.”
They talked as they walked until they reached the main entrance. Spirit Fox clasped his hands in front of his chest and once again urged him to come to the banquet that evening.
Spirit Fox went back inside and said happily, “He can be cured of his virtues. We’ve a way out now. Eh! What’s wrong with all of you?” He looked around.
They were all glaring at him, gritting their teeth. One of them said, “Senior Uncle, you shouldn’t have let that guy go. He injured six of our brothers.”
Spirit Fox chuckled. “How is You the Seventh?”
“The knife lodged into the well of his shoulder. If things settle down tonight, even if he is saved he will be handicapped.”
Spirit Fox scanned the room. “What do you all know?” he said in a low voice. “You only know how to mess things up with your foolish bravado without a care in the world for what the thirty or so masterhands outside are doing, running around here and there. If Master Cai had not shown up tonight we would have been completely routed, and who knows, many may have been killed. Because the people here didn’t make a move, Chai Hua didn’t make a move either. We don’t know if we’re going to get any reinforcements from outside. They’re feeling things out. If we fall tonight you know what the aftermath would be. Brothers, don’t put the blame on others. We need to enlist Master Cai. He’s the only one who can help us through this rough patch. Let me tell you all, it’s not yet clear what happened about Bald Flood Dragon being hit with his knife, but it’s already confirmed that that bastard Ling’s strong men were severely injured. Big brother has already set up this Hongmen1 meeting for tonight. I have to find him and talk things over with him.”
He ordered some of his men to tend to the wounded, then hurried out.
Wenchang and Third Yu left the little alley and parted company, all smiles. Out on the street, Third Yu was still badly shaken; it still showed on his face. He hurried back to the smithy and made a big show of talking up what happened to everyone, shocking the young master, Zhang Ziyu, who was still in the shop.
Zhang Ziyu talked things over privately with Second Uncle Di. “Second Uncle, you must talk some sense into Master Cai. He was mistreated in his village for over a decade, his head’s not in the right place. This time he brazenly went down the alley to cause trouble, killed a man with a weapon and is now calling himself a fugitive. It’s very possible he might fall in with Sickly Wuchang and his ilk. These past two years we’ve all seen how intelligent and proud and decent he is. We can’t stand by and watch him fall and become a filthy thug.”
Second Uncle Di shook his head and smiled wryly. “I’ll do what I can, but I fear it will do no good. Ah! If only Head Steward or Teacher Shang were here, maybe they could pull him back. Out of everyone here those were the only two people he respected. The rest of us… We’re likely powerless to help!”
“We have to try. I give you full authority to handle it.” With that, Zhang Ziyu left.
- Famous banquet in which Xiang Yu tried to lure and kill Liu Bang during the Chu-Han Contention. Now the banquet name is used to refer to setting a trap on someone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_at_Hong_Gate ↩