Pursuers Unto Death
An uncovered wagon trundled across the rutted plain, two outriders accompanying it. Inside half a dozen Asian men, bare-headed, dressed in rough, dark work clothes. One sat slightly detached from the rest, taking in the passing countryside, lost in thought. The others were locked in conversation with each other, the occasional guffaw breaking out to shatter the silence of the surroundings.
Late afternoon and the sun blazed down. Bent over the reins, the driver wore a wide-brimmed straw sombrero, chewing tobacco as he stared at the ground, twisting his head every now and then to send a stream of dark brown spit into the air.
“We’ll take a rest amongst that outcrop,” said one of the outriders, pointing a leather-gloved finger towards a group of towering rocks some fifty or so paces off to the left.
“Do we have to?” said the driver, sounding annoyed. “I’d rather get this damn journey over with.”
“If I don’t rest soon, I’m gonna fall off this horse and break my neck,” returned the rider. “I need a break.”
“Oh, so it’s for your benefit, not theirs?”
“I couldn’t give a fig for them, murdering yellow bastards that they are,” said the rider.
“Shoot,” put in the other rider, “I’m half-starved, too. Let’s hold up for an hour or so.”
“An hour?” squawked the driver. “Shit, Benson, that’s way too long. We stop for thirty minutes and that’s it.”
Benson sighed and shot a glance to his companion, who shrugged and said, “All right. Thirty minutes. Make for the shade, Tawny. Meanwhile, me and Benson will cover this group of bastards.”
Dismounting, the two riders urged the Asian men out of the wagon, gesturing to them with their Winchesters to sit in the shade provided by a cluster of nearby rocks. They clambered out, jumping into the dirt, stretching their limbs. The laconic one offered his manacled wrists to Benson, who sniggered, “You gotta be joking. After what you done? Move your slimy ass over there, boy, and don’t test my patience.”
“Watch that one,” said Tawny, stretching out his back. “Story goes, he is the one who killed the railroad boss. With one blow, they said.”
“Shoot,” said Benson, regarding the slight man standing before him. “He don’t look no stronger than a weak-kneed schoolboy!”
“Well, he is, so keep your distance.”
With that, Benson took a step back, worked the lever of his Winchester and waggled it towards where the others were shuffling. “Move your ass, or I’ll blow a hole in you bigger than a sand-bucket.”
Shrugging, the slightly-built man averted his eyes and moved across to where his companions were flopping down onto the ground, all of them groaning or sighing. Some of them leaned towards the slight one and asked him questions, which he did not answer. Instead, he carried on staring into the distance, his flat face bereft of expression.
Tawny took the wagon to an area of deep shade. Having attached feeding bags to the two horses, he sauntered across to where the two outriders now sat and threw down a jute bag filled with hard-tack and biscuits. “Make what you can of that, boys. It’s all we have until we get to the fort.”
Benson prodded around inside, selected a largish piece of dried-up meat and crammed it into his mouth. “You not eating, Henkell?”
The other outrider turned down the corners of his mouth. “I just need to rest, that’s all. I’ll eat when I deliver this lot into the care of the U.S. government.”
“That’ll be about another four hours, I shouldn’t wonder,” said Tawny, sitting down next to them. He took off his hat and wiped his brow with his gloved hand. “It’s hellish hot. I reckon we will make it there by nightfall. I don’t want to linger here, boys. There is Injuns about.”
“Injuns are piss in the wind,” said Benson. “All them stories you hear, they is just meant to stop more settlers moving West.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen what they can do,” said Tawny. “I’ve seen it. Scalpings, rape, torture. Them Comanches, they is the worst, and they is ranging right across these parts nowadays, all the way down to the Mexican border.”
“Well, if we see ‘em, we shoot the bastards,” said Henkell, reaching for a water canteen. Pulling out the stopper, he raised it to his lips and took a long, deep drink.
“What about them?” said Benson, pointing to the group of Asian men. “What is it they done?”
“Got into a fight with some Irish,” said Tawny, considering the group. “Something about pay, or some such. Seems they took umbrage over them getting less than the Irish.”
“Irish get paid less than nothing.”
“Exactly. So them Chinamen, they got to having a beef and a fight broke out. That’s when the boss came over and the surly one,” Tawny pointed to the slightly-built silent man sitting crossed-legged now, still staring into the distance, “he hit the boss. Only once. Killed him outright.”
“Jeez…” Henkell shook his head. “It don’t seem possible.”
“When others came up, the little guy fought them, too. It took six of them to beat him to the dirt, using pick-axe handles so the story goes. He put at least four of ‘em in the ground.”
Tawny grunted. “Every single one.”
Benson paused in the act of popping another strip of beef-jerky into his mouth. “He killed four men with just his hands?”
“Five, including the boss. And the boss was worth a lot of money, friend. A lot of money. His brother came across from New York City and wanted that Oriental strung up there and then. But some lawman by the name of Hendershot stepped in and said it would be better if they went over to Fort Union and stood trial. Said it would send out a message to all them other heathens who are coming over to help build the railroads.”
“I don’t understand why they don’t use good, solid white folk,” said Henkell. “We don’t need those fucking Irish, nor them piggy-tailed little shits taking all the jobs.”
“Hell, Henkell, they work for less than two dollars a week. You know anyone who would work for that?” Tawny spat a trail of tobacco juice into the dirt. “The railroad will cut costs anyways they can. All they is interested in is profits, so they can sit on their fat asses and drink their fancy wines.”
“Excepting for this particular boss,” said Benson with a grin, munching down his beef.
“Damned right,” said Tawny, his eyes never leaving the slight Asian man. “I sure would have liked to have seen him do what he did.”
“Killing, you mean?”
Nodding, Tawny pulled out a wet wad of chewing tobacco from a leather bag and cut off a hunk with a knife. “Anyways, they is heading for the hangman’s noose, and all we have to do is make sure they get there on time.” He chomped through the piece of tobacco, eyes closing in delight, cheeks bulging, a trail of juice running from the corner of his mouth.
The first clue they had of the Indians’ approach was when an arrow slammed into the chest of one of the Chinese. In a sudden burst of panic, the others leaped up, trying to flap their arms and scurry away, neither movement possible due to the manacles restricting both hands and feet.
“Get down, you idiots!” barked Tawny, already breaking cover, working the lever of his rifle, scanning the tops of the rocks for any sign of the attackers. Both Benson and Henkell were also running in a half-crouch, looking to where they believed the archer had loosed off the arrow. Meanwhile, the stricken Chinaman floundered in the dirt, desperate to pull out the protruding dart, but not able to gain enough leverage. Another arrow hit him in the throat and he died among the screams of terror erupting from his companions.
From that point, it was as if the world had been turned upside down, mayhem replacing the stillness, the whooping of the warriors sending a chill through everyone present. Appearing out of the air like phantoms, one moment there, the next disappearing, the warriors moved with almost hypnotic grace, flitting from rock to rock, space to space, hatchets raised, their blood-curdling cries freezing their quarry with fear.
Henkell responded too late, swinging around his Winchester, firing wildly. None of his bullets hit their intended marks and, as he fumbled and fought to reload, a warrior pounced on him and threw him to the ground, one strong hand pinning him, the other raised high, brandishing a knife.
Grappling with his attacker’s wrists, Henkell writhed desperately beneath the wiry body of the Comanche, doing his utmost to free himself. But the warrior was too strong, too intent on killing and Henkell squealed in horror at the terrible realization of his impending doom. The hot blade sliced into his midriff and arced upwards, cutting through lung and heart. His eyes rolled, body grew limp and the lifeblood seeped out of him to mingle with the dust and the dirt.
As arrows fizzed through the hot air, the Chinese prisoners screamed as one, pleading to be set free. The slight one held out his wrists and, for a moment, Tawny looked into his eyes and knew there was no choice. As he fitted the key and set the man free, an arrow hit Tawny high up on the right shoulder and he dropped to his knees, groaning and grimacing with the pain. Ignoring him, the little Chinaman glided forward as if floating above the ground, his feet barely touching the earth. Tawny saw him, moving like the breeze, free, easy and powerful, striking at Henkell’s killer, chopping him across the neck, punching him between the eyes.
More warriors poured out from every hiding place – eight of them, possibly more. In the confusion, it was difficult to estimate accurately. They focused their efforts on the Chinese who, manacled as they were, proved easy prey, except for the little Chinaman, who fought using his hands and feet to devastating effect. He dodged arrows and vicious tomahawk blows, swaying left and right, eyes never blinking, alert to any danger. Tawny, mouth agog, forgot the pain in his shoulder as he watched. He had never seen anything like this. The Chinaman was a demon, landing every blow with precise, measured ferocity and any warrior within reach fell to the ground, either lifeless, or so damaged they were no longer a threat.
And then, almost as quickly as it had begun, it was over. Those warriors who were able, slunk off, leaving Tawny and the little Chinaman to recover, regain some strength.
“You will need your shoulder bandaged,” said the Chinaman, moving between his fallen companions, checking their wounds. One or two groaned, but almost all were dead. Shaking his head, the Chinaman picked up Henkell’s Winchester and pressed home seven more cartridges.
“Why don’t you just kill me and have done with it?” Tawny said, twisting himself into a sitting position. Throwing his head back, eyes closed, he pulled in several ragged breaths, wincing with pain. “I’m going to die anyway.”
Working the lever, the Chinaman studied the surrounding rocks. “No. Not if we get the arrow out, then bandage you.”
“You speak darn good English for a Chinaman,” said Tawny, looking at him through screwed-up eyes, the pain like a constant burning in his shoulder.
“I am Okinawan.”
A blank look for a reply. “Well, whatever you are, you sure as hell can fight, I give you that. How many you kill?”
“Okinawa-te,” he said in a distant voice, scouring the tops of the rocky outcrops. “They will be back, probably tonight. They want the horses.”
“You know a lot about it.”
“I have fought Comanche before. I know them.” He went over to the wagon, glancing every now and then to where the attackers had first swarmed. Benson lay dead, slumped face down against the closest wheel. The little man pulled him away, used him as a sort of scaling ladder and clambered into the back of the open cart. Rummaging around for a few moments, he vaulted over the rim to the ground and held up the knife. “I’ll have to cut it out.”
“Jeez, you can’t do that. Hot dang, I don’t think I can take the pain.”
“Either that or you die.” He studied the blade. “I will sharpen, then boil it. After I have got the arrow out, we walk.”
“You sure they only want the horses? I’ve heard nothing but bad about those—”
“They attacked us for the horses, but now…” His voice faded away as he took another look upwards.
“But now that we’ve killed so many of their own, they’ll be wanting revenge.”
The Asian man nodded, face flat and expressionless.
“Where’d you learn to fight like that?”
Tawny winced as he tried to readjust his sitting position. “I guess we’d better set to getting this damned thing out of my shoulder. You sure you know what you’re doing?”
“I know.” He took down a pair of metal pots from the side of the wagon and considered their sizes, placing the knife inside each one in turn to check if the blade would fit. Satisfied, he discarded the smaller one and moved towards a flattish area of ground.
“If you’re going to be cutting into me, I should know your name. I’m Tawny.”
“You are a lawman.”