Another Fascinating Story of the Series
ONLY a few miles out of the ancient imperial city of Cheng-tu, Hanecy passed his rival and very good enemy, Benson.
Hanecy chuckled as his yellow bearers swept along with his chair, and he recognised Benson in the chair ahead. Benson's carriers were not hurrying particularly.
"He's been bullying the boys, has he?" thought Hanecy. "Then I'll beat him to it easily." As the two chairs came along side, Hanecy leaned forward and spoke. "Hello, Mr. Benson! Going up to the Lao-tzu Temple, are you? Pleasant trip."
Benson, who was always deadly smooth and who never lost his head, looked at Hanecy with a viperish intensity.
"The same to you!" he retorted calmly. yet the words held a deep fierceness. Hanecy only grinned and waved his hand as his chair went into the lead. He knew that Benson would not dare shoot him in the back, before witnesses.
At the edge of the mountains which girdle the historic plain of Cheng-tu no three sides lay the Lao-tzu-miao, a temple dedicated to Lao-tzu, founder of Taoism. Somewhere in the vicinity of this temple lived a man named Tung Ho, who had in his possession some red amber taken from the tomb of the Emperor Ling Ti of the eastern Han dynasty. Hanecy knew little about it all, except from verbal information. Whether the amber was carved or whether Tung Ho would sell it he did not know.
Learning that Benson was setting forth rather secretly, Hanecy had engaged bearers and started. It was enough that Benson was going, for anything Benson went after in person was bound to be unusual.
SO scarce are the things of ancient days now become in China, so keen is the rivalry among dealers and agents, that choice things are noted down from afar and native collectors and their collections are listed and known intimately. Hanecy had the impression that this Tung Ho was no collector, but some hillman who would not know the value of the red amber. He knew, too, that he might be walking into some trap set by Benson—the enmity between the two men would cease only with death, but this possibility did not worry Hanecy. It was enough for him that Benson was also on the trail.
It was the end of the afternoon when Hanecy came to the temple. This was not one of the splendid and wealthy Buddhist shrines which abound through the mountains, but a Taoist edifice built during the Sung periods. It was, of course, walled and nearby had grown up a village of respectable proportions.
Hanecy observed that a temple fair was in progress—a fete or celebration to which all the mountain folk had gathered, bringing goods for barter or sale. There were many peddlers also in and about the village.
Hanecy went direct to the temple. He had no baggage. Pistol, pipe and tobacco and a large amount of money were enough to carry him anywhere. Paying oft his bearers and bidding them wait in the village until the morrow, he entered the temple. He found himself greeted with the usual courtesy, and one of the many guest rooms was assigned him.
His first inquiry was for Tung Ho. The priests Informed him that Tung Ho lived alone with a brother, Tung Fel, three miles distant in the hills. It was now too late to go there and return before dark, hence no guides could be obtained, for fear of tigers. The mountain folk stick close to home after nightfall. Hanecy perceived also from the manner of his informants that he would be unwise to try the trip alone. He concluded rightly that the two brothers did not have the best of reputations, and reluctantly decided to wait until morning.
"Since I've beaten Benson to it, I might as well have the pickings of the fair," he reflected.
Hastily cleaning up, he sauntered forth. To his gratification, he was able to pick up a number of small objects—nothing of any great importance—and he then turned his attention to a small canvas booth outside the temple wall, where some sort of mountebank was holding forth. Hanecy was attracted to it by the giggles and squeals of delight from the crowd around the booth.
He found the entertainment nothing wonderful. A peddler, evidently a wandering Korean, sat and begged for money. His display consisted of a thin glass case, closed with wire at the ends, in which were a number of small birds. The man wheezed at a mouth-organ, talking between whiles.
"All the years of my life I have spent training these birds," whined the dirty Korean. "Now, see, when I play they will dance."
Sure enough, when the music began, the birds began to flutter and hop, since the thin glass cage was not high enough to let them fly. The crowd shrieked in ecstasy.
Hanecy's eyes grew a bit more steely. He noted the mouth-organ and saw that it was of Japanese make. He had little doubt that the Korean was one of the many peddlers who were distributing morphia throughout the country under Japanese auspices.
Being red-headed, he was impulsive. Being an American, he detested needless cruelty to dumb things. He shouldered his way to the forefront of the crowd and without a word of explanation produced his automatic pistol and with it smashed the thin glass of the case. The tortured birds fluttered forth and took wing.
WITH a startled oath, the Korean leaped up, a knife flashing into his hand. Hanecy took him by the neck and dragged him forward across the booth.
"Listen,of a turtle!" The American's voice bit like steel. A murmur of amazement went up from the crowd as they heard the foreign devil speaking their dialect. "If you make the wrong move with that knife, you die! Drop it! I say drop it!"
The knife fell. Hanecy kicked aside the front of the booth. He exposed a burning candle, operated by a foot-tread, which at the will of the showman could move the candle close to the tin floor of the case or move it away.
"Begone, child of a blind fish!" said Hanecy scornfully.
The peddler vanished; pursued by hoots and jeers and not a few stones. The Chinese do not like Koreans, any way.
It was nearly dark when Benson arrived. Hanecy saw nothing of him, but heard his voice as he was being shown in to quarters.
After an excellent repast, Hanecy left the temple precincts for a walk and a smoke. He did not fancy the looks of his hosts. They were a debauched and sensual lot, and but few of them had the skull scars of genuine priests—the scars left by the three burning pastilles at initiation.
Returning to the outer gateway, Hanecy paused to clean his pipe and glance at the temple grounds, sprinkled with lanterns. The night was dark and close, with storm threatening. Despite the utter peace of the mountain night, the stillness of the scene, Hanecy was by no means off guard. When presently he observed a silent figure slipping to him along the wall, his hand slid abruptly under his left arm. Instant response to the gesture came in a low voice speaking fluent mandarin:
"Heavenborn, be careful with that weapon! I have come to speak with you."
"Hello! The Korean again!" thought Hanecy, and kept his hand on his pistol "You accursed devil, what do you want with me? Trying to stab me in the darkness?"
"Not at all, excellency!" murmured the Korean in an aggrieved tone. "That was a very clever trick you played upon me this afternoon, but I bear no malice."
Hanecy half expected a knife to leap forth as the man came close, but none came.
"Listen, heavenborn!" pursued the Korean eagerly. "You are a brave man and clever, and I hear you no ill-will, as I say. Now, I have learned why you are here and why the other foreign devil, who is also a merchant, is here. Indeed, he was inquiring for some one to take him tonight to the house of Tung Ho and Tung Fel, and I said nothing about knowing way thither."
Hanecy said nothing, either, for he was somewhat astonished at all this. In the tone of the Korean was a respectful admiration, combined with a cunning twist of words.
"Now, excellency," continued the man "I know those brethren well. Indeed, I came past their place only yesterday. It is true that they are bandits and men of no reputation. No one among these Chinese would willingly go to their place after dark, but I am no son of Han, heavenborn.'
"What do yon want with me?" snapped Hanecy somewhat testily.
The Korean cackled in crafty mirth.
"What but money. The other foreign devil offered ten silver liang to any one who would take him to the house of Tung Ho this night. Therefore, I said to myself, he and the other foreign devil are running a race. They are merchants. Tung Ho has something that they wish to buy, and each one wishes to get there ahead of the other. Is this so, heavenborn?"
"If it is," said Hanecy, "what business is it of yours?"
"My business is to make money, and the Korean laughed again. "If one foreign devil offers ten silver liang, how much will the other offer? Now, heavenborn, I can still go to the other man and tell him I will take him."
"What about the tigers?" asked Hanecy.
"Bah! I am no mountain fool! I have two mules, and if you wish to go with me we can get to the place and be back before midnight; that is, if you offer me enough money to take you."
Hanecy bit on his empty pipestem and reflected.
HE DID not like the Korean in the least and did not trust him. None the less, there would be no trap set at night, and he scorned the thought of the peddler trying to kill him. The fellow's story rang true enough.
Here was the chance to beat Benson hands down. Benson could not possibly leave the temple before daylight.
"The moon, will rise in an hour," put in the Korean craftily.
Hanecy nodded. After all, this looked like a providential chance to get ahead of Benson. It mattered not that the Tung brethren were bandits. That was to be expected.
"Very well," said Hanecy with decision. "You are sure that you know the way?"
The Korean laughed scornfully. "Know it, heavenborn! I know every inch of these hills. Besides, the road is excellent and deeply worn."
"In that case," said Hanecy, "I will offer you 25 liang—not in silver, for I have none, but in notes of the Cheng-tu government. You know that they are good."
"None better, heavenborn. The price is sufficient,"
"How soon can you start?"
"My mules are just outside the village. There is no danger to them from a tiger, for I have charms about their necks which keep off all animals, excellency. If you will come outside town with me, we can start this moment; that is, of course, after the payment has been made.
Hanecy wondered if the fellow meant to take his money and then desert him. Or, simpler still, to make a brazen effort at robbery. Or whether the mules were but a bait for some trap. Anything was possible. Why not? Benson was thick as thieves with the local mandarin at Cheng-tu. and his influence reached out to all kinds of grafters, smugglers and bad characters generally.
Still, what of it? Benson was used to running chances. The odds were even that this Korean would take him to the house of the Tung brethren. If he got that far in safety, he might be assured that all was well. The risk lay close to hand, and Hanecy decided to take it. He lighted a match to assist him in counting the notes.
"I'm warned," he thought grimly as he reached for his money, "and if there's something phoney going on, let the other fellow look out. If they can take my hide while my eyes are open, let 'em go to it!"
He counted out 25 liang, which he put in the hand of the Korean.
"Come," he said briefly. "I'm all ready. Are these temple gates ever closed?"
"Not at this season or the year, heavenborn. You can return any time tonight."
The Korean obeyed Hanecy's peremptory gesture and led the way from the temple into the thick darkness.
The American followed him closely, sliding his pistol out into his hand in readiness. However, rather to his surprise, nothing happened. A little way out of the village the Korean slipped into a copse of dense bushes. Here if anywhere, thought Hanecy, would come the trap—but there was no trap.
The peddler, perhaps sensing the feeling of his companion, lighted a match. Two mules, with a large pack and the remnants of the canvas booth for the dancing birds were revealed. The peddler saddled the mules, wrapped a straw coat about himself to guard against the cold, and Hanecy followed him into the saddle.
A moment later they were out upon road.
It was a good enough road, as roads went in these parts. It was not like the roads of Shensi, worn down 50 to 100 feet between narrow walls, but it was worn down sufficiently by countless centuries of travel to give Hanecy the sensation of riding in a extremely narrow gulch up the valley.
And still he found that nothing happened. None the less, he held himself under a constant strain of tense vigilance, ready at each twist in the road for some treacherous surprise.
The Korean rode in silence-a good sign. If the man had been a babbler, Hanecy would have been certain of treachery. As it was, he remained fully on guard.
FOR three miles they followed a road which would have been impassable for horses. It was steep and extremely rough and rocky. Indeed Hanecy would much have preferred to negotiate it on foot, except that the mules were perfectly sure of themselves, despite the darkness. The road was circuitous, and Hanecy reflected that the distance was farther than he had counted upon. The three miles took them nearly an hour.
Here they came to a fork in the trail. The Korean halted his mules and pointed to that which led to the right.
"This is the road, heavenborn. As you can see, it is little only to the house of the Tung brethren, who live on temple ground and and farm it. The moon is already up, and in five minutes we will be in an open valley."
Hanecy nodded and motioned the peddler to go on.
They turned into the right-hand trail. As the Korean said, five minutes took them out of the gorgelike, worn road into a path that wound up a small, rocky valley. The moon was up, and Hanecy began to feel more convinced that his guide might be trusted. It seemed silly to be carrying a pistol in his hand, here in the moonlight, and with a grim smile he replaced the weapon beneath his armpit.
They came to an ancient entrance of which little remained but stones carved with clouds and dragons, doubtless the symbols of temple property. Here the Korean paused.
"Yonder is the house, heavenborn. Let us leave the mules here. Let me do the talking at first, for they will know my voice."
Hanecy looked at the building, which stood out stark in the moon light, all trees cleared from around it. It was a low house of stone, and the house was darker than the night outside. Some one was at home, however. The twanging of a lute came faintly as they listened.
Hanecy's last remnant of suspicion fled.
The two men crossed the open space of moonlight ground afoot. As they did so the sound of the plunking lute ceased very suddenly.
The building was little more than a rude shack of stone, built in older days. Hanecy perceived that the door was very large and heavy, massively built. The Korean knocked upon it loudly.
"Who is there?" demanded a voice from within, speaking a rude dialect hardly intelligible to Hanecy.
"It is I—Yao-men, the peddler!" responded the Korean. "With me there is a foreign devil, a strange white man, a merchant. He was at the Lao-tau temple, and he paid me to guide him here. He has come to buy something."
"Teng-iteng!" growled a second voice. "Wait a little, son of Korean devils, until we see if it be you indeed and not some mountain spirit come to mock us."
To one side of the door a shutter grated. Hanecy could well imagine the fear and suspicion filling the eyes of the brethren as they looked out, for Chinese legend is full of mountain and river fairies who come by moon light, and Taoists are superstitious above all others. The Chinese have imagined more gruesome forms of vampires than any scenario writer ever dared to pen.
"It is the peddler, brother," grunted the first voice, "and a foreign devil with him."
"Perhaps they are spirits of drowned men come to take our bodies," said the second.
"Nay, there is no water around here, fool! Ho, peddler! Walk in a circle!"
Chuckling, the Korean made a circle in the moonlight, and Hanecy followed suit, thus apprising the brethren that they were human and not devils—for devils can move only in a straight line. Hanecy, smiling, addressed the invisible brethren.
"Fear not, my friends! I have come here to see a certain piece of red amber which I heard that you owned. I may wish to buy it, and I may not."
"We do not wish to sell it!" growled one of the voices. "It is only a lump of amber, and it is not carven. The priests will pay more for it than will foreign devils."
"At all events," said Hanecy, "suppose that we talk it over."
THERE was a low mutter of voices as the two brethren doubtless conferred. Then one of the brethren came to the door and began to unfasten bolts and locks. The Korean turned to Hanecy and gestured toward the gate.
"Heavenborn, I will remain with the mules until you return."
Hanecy nodded, and the Korean departed, his thin straw sandals flapping on the ground.
The massive door swung open. Inside appeared the figure of a tall, muscular yellow man holding aloft a temple candle with a huge wick and a soft, red-painted body. It was one of those candles whose cotton wick burns red for twenty minutes after it is extinguished.
"Come in," said the Chinese.
Hanecy's caution had prompted him to leave his coat open, the better to reach his pistol. He saw no reason for suspicion here, yet some intuition warned him not to enter. Reason laughed at the warning. He took a step across the threshold. The China man quickly pulled the door to and swung a bolt. Then——
The candle was extinguished and fell to the floor.
Out of the darkness leaped a thin blade of cold steel. It slithered through the coat of Hanecy and quivered in the door behind. Only the American's swift side-step had saved him from that deadly thrust.
Pinned to the door by that slender blade, Hanecy felt hands reaching at his throat. For the moment he had been taken off guard. He was unable to get at his pistol. However, he flung his knee sharply upward, felt it thud into a body, and his assailant was gone.
"Trapped!" he thought. "The whole thing was a plant. Benson sent that damned Korean to lure me here—had it all framed up——"
While he thought, he was whipping out his pistol. He fired at random, merely for information. The flash showed him two Chinamen to right and left, coming forward at him with bared steel.
Hanecy fired a second time. One of the two men went down with a crash and a groan. The other man flung himself on Hanecy in time to deflect the third bullet.
Gripping the American's wrist so that the automatic roared up at the roof, he stabbed. Hanecy jerked himself free of the knife that held him to the door, wrenched himself about so that the lunging arm passed over his shoulder, and his left hand shot up. His fist smashed into the assassin's face and jolted the man backward.
At this instant from the floor at his feet Hanecy heard a rattling cough, and about his ankles fastened the hands of the first man whom he had shot. That grip was totally unexpected and came near being ruinous. Hanecy went down heavily. His right hand, dashed violently against the door behind him, lost the automatic pistol.
Realizing in a flash that he was in desperate straits, Hanecy kicked out as he lay there. He freed his ankles from that terrible dying grip, rolled over, and came to his feet in the pitch darkness.
"Where is he?" panted the voice of the living man. It was answered from the floor by a rattling, choking cough.
Hanecy, cursing the luck which had cost him the pistol, stooped and fumbled for it. With the sound, there was a rush of feet as the remaining bandit leaped. Hanecy staggered beneath the impact. The yellow man crashed into him sidewise. By sheer good fortune his fingers clutched on the knife arm reaching for his throat, and now for a moment the two men stood breast to breast, swaying.
The finish came swiftly. Hanecy waited only to catch his breath, then worked his right arm against the other's breast. With a swinging heave of the body, he back-heeled the assassin, breaking loose his hold and sending him hurtling backward with an oath and a smashing fall. Leaping to the door, Hanecy groped along the floor for his pistol—and found it.
He straightened up, waiting. Only silence ensued. He stood motionless. The dying bandit at his feet coughed and coughed again. No other sound broke the dread stillness of the room. At length, with ready weapon, Hanecy took a match from his pocket and struck it. As the tiny flame arose he saw the second assassin lying against the farther wall in a huddled heap. The man had fallen upon his own knife and was dead.
The American leaned over and picked up the dropped candle. The wick was still a red cinder, smoking blackly, and burst into flame from his match. He held up the candle and looked down at the coughing man. As he looked the cough ceased and the body relaxed.
"Poor devils!" said Hanecy. "Benson was behind it somewhere. That damned peddler helped, and probably the priests had a hand in it. And these two ignorant lumps of clay pay the penalty for all that crooked work. But if Benson was behind it—then what about the lump of red amber?"
HE WAS shaken by the ghastly swiftness of the tragedy, but he was more perplexed and puzzled by the possibility that Benson had planned his murder thus. He held aloft the candle and surveyed the room. On a small table in one corner he saw a huge lump of some blood-red substance, glistening with a transparent luster in the candle-glow. The American stared at the thing and his jaw dropped.
"By glory!" he muttered. "They had the blood amber all right, but why hasn't Benson got hold of it before this? He knew it was here, and if he planned this affair he would surely have taken——
A scratching noise at the door aroused him. It was followed by the voice of the Korean, speaking the dialect.
"Hei, brothers! Open to me quickly. I can tell you where the foreign devil keeps his money—I can——
Hanecy looked at the dead men on the floor with a trace of pity in his eyes. After all, they were but tools—poor, ignorant tools of more crafty men. The pity in his eyes turned to steel as he strode to the door and opened it.
A single shot volleyed echoes through the mountain glens.
Toptit, who was Hanecy's partner and a young man of poetical tendencies, was very comfortably esconced in the Tu-kung temple, just outside the south gate of Cheng-tu. It quite suited him, for the temple was a memorial of Master Tu, a poet of the eighth century, and naturally like monks in charge were partial to poets.
Toptit was finishing up a translation of the famous Oak-tree Poem of Tu, which hung in the main hall of the temple, when Jim Hanecy came back from his trip to the hills. Hanecy walked in, bearing under his arm a large bundle. He was weary and unshaven, but greeted Toptit with his usual cheerful grin.
"Hello!" said Toptit, springing up. "Did you get the amber?"
"I usually get things, don't I?" Hanecy dropped thankfully into a chair and put the bundle in his lap. "For heaven's sake, give me some tobacco! I ran out. And rustle me up some grub, will you?"
Toptit summoned a boy and ordered refreshments. Meantime, Hanecy was getting his pipe into action with much enjoyment.
"Did you catch up with Benson?" queried the poet excitedly.
Hanecy's eyes twinkled. "I did," he responded, "but I had a devil of a time doing it, I can tell you! And I didn't catch up with him, after all—that is, I haven't caught up with him yet. I can't make out one or two things. Why, in heaven's name, for instance, he left this thing for me when he might have secured it himself."
Ignoring, the bundle, Hanecy proceeded to give his partner a brief account of what had happened in the hills. He spared some of the details, for Toptit was possessed of a highly imaginative sense of justice, and would scarcely have approved a good many things which Jim Hanecy did.
"Now, If Benson was behind it," he concluded, "why didn't he secure this thing tor himself? He didn't need to leave it as a bait for me."
Toptit regarded him meditatively.
"I have a slight hunch in the matter," be responded at length. "I'll bet you one whole dollar that your friend Benson never went farther than the temple—never went up into the hill at all, and never intended to! I'll bet that he simply drew you into going—drew you into leaving town in a hurry, too!"
Hanecy stared at his partner, and perplexedly ruffled up his red hair.
"Eh? I don't get you, old man. What's the answer?"
"Let's see the loot."
Hanecy unwrapped many cloths from about the bundle in his lap. He disclosed the red, red lump of translucent brightness which he had carried from the house of Tung Ho—a lump nearly as large as his head, of irregular shape, and in hue the magnificent scarlet of true-blood amber.
TOPTIT took the lump into his own hands and scrutinized it. He drew forth his pocketknife and scraped at the surface. Then he gave Hanecy a rather non-committal smile.
"You've tested this?"
"Tested it? I've had no chance, you ass! Besides, there's no doubt it's the piece we are after. Look on the outer side and you'll see the characters for Ling Ti carved into the amber. That's the bit from the old emperor's grave, all right."
"Say, Hanecy, you're the one man who never falls for the faked stuff, aren't you? You're the one guy who never buys fake Chou bronzes and all that, eh? Well, my guess about Mr. Benson was dead right. He left this thing there for you because he didn't want it himself! That explains the whole matter."
"What does?" growled Hanecy.
Toptit chuckled again.
"This!" Toptit tapped the red lump with his knife blade. "Whoever got it with the other stuff from the grave of Ling Ti probably thought it was genuine. To make it more genuine, he had the two ideographs cut in the surface—savvy? This isn't amber at all. It's red glass, probably melted in some fire and buried a few hundred years——"
With a subdued oath, Hanecy leaned forward and seized the red lump. This was the first time he had dared examine it in daylight—the first time he had been able to do so in security from other eyes. Now he saw that Toptit had spoken truth. This was not amber at all, as the feel and the edges of the lump testified. It was nothing but glass.
Hanecy rose and went to the doorway. He stood there for a moment, then tossed the red lump out into the temple garden.
"And to think." he said slowly, "that I had a devil of a trip—for a bit of red glass!"
"I was thinking," returned Toptit reflectively, "that this bit of red glass had taken a large toll of human life."
The whole point of view of each man was expressed in those two remarks.