An eerie silence ruled the night. It hadn’t always been like that. Soon after Ward’s army surrounded Sungkiang, out came the whiskey, and a wild, boisterous celebration broke out. Robert saw no reason for it. There had been no battle—no victory.
He had been outfitted with a Dreyse needle gun. The weapon was slung across his back. It was the first breech loading, bolt action rifle he’d handled. Ward said the Prussian and German armies used it, and it could fire up to a dozen rounds a minute. Robert also had a Colt revolver. He felt more like a bandit than a soldier.
Ward assigned a hundred of his roughs to be under Robert’s command. In his crude and clumsy Chinese, Robert talked to the noncommissioned officers in charge of the men under him. “I want to set a guard for tonight and have the men dig a trench between the city and us and fill it with wooden stakes.”
The swarthy men with pockmarked faces stared at him as if he were some apparition that had sprouted from the ground. They started talking among themselves in a language Robert didn’t understand. It wasn’t Chinese—at least any dialect he’d heard. The group stopped talking. Then they laughed and turned their backs on him and walked away.
He burned with anger and frustration. Soldiers should not act like this. He knew that in a regular army he’d be justified to shoot them. If he attempted to punish them now for their insubordination, some of them might shoot back. Robert’s Colt held six rounds, but there were at least a dozen heavily armed men in the group. He felt helpless.
After most of Ward’s army was dead drunk, Ayaou was escorted to Robert. “It’s about time you came,” he said in a scolding tone. “I’ve wanted to practice my Chinese.” He turned to her guards. “Thank General Ward for me. You may go. I’ll escort her back to his tent later.” He watched the men walk away. They were probably going to get drunk.
Ayaou stood shrouded like a dark, cloaked ghost with her face hidden. From where they stood, Sungkiang was below them. A moat and a wall surrounded the city, and a few lights flickered inside. On Ward’s side of the moat, the Taipings had planted a host of sharp, wooden spikes in the ground to slow the attack planned for morning.
“We may be the only two sober people here,” Robert said. “Ward is a fool. This army deserves a better leader or the officers a better army.”
Ayaou put a finger to his lips. “Shush,” she said. “The night has ears. I’d better go back to his tent soon, so he will not suspect anything.”
“You can’t leave,” he said. “I found a spot in a stand of trees where we can be alone.” Taking her hand, he led her through the snoring camp. Touching her excited him, but he had no choice but to contain his passion. Men were sprawled everywhere sleeping in drunken stupors. Robert didn’t see sentries.
When they reached the trees, Robert stopped outside the grove. “If things go wrong, we’ll meet in there. It will be a good place to make an escape to the countryside.”
She stepped back and folded her arms across her chest.
“Are you worried about him?” he asked, but didn’t add that he was worried too. He was unpredictable. “Ward will be drunk like most of his men,” Robert said. “We’ll be safe until morning.” He was willing to say anything to get her to relax and stay.
She shook her head. “Not good. He is a demon.”
“Nonsense,” he said. He pulled her against him and wrapped his arms around her and held her close. She didn’t struggle. “I don’t want you out of my sight. I don’t like what’s happening.” He waved a hand at the silent camp. “This is an invitation for disaster.”
“Show me how to use that.” She pointed at the pistol.
“Not here,” he said. He led her into the grove of trees to a small clearing where they had some privacy. “We’ll stay here tonight and part in the morning before the battle. If the fight turns against us, there’s a dry gully on the other side of these trees. We’ll follow it into the countryside.” He sat and directed Ayaou to sit by him. Robert taught her how to work the Colt. He made her repeat everything and show him by unloading and reloading the revolver several times.
She struggled to hold the weapon steady. “It’s heavy. What if I drop it?”
“Don’t worry. If you have to fight, you’ll find the strength, and they will be too close to miss. When you see the man you’re shooting at fall, shift to another target right away. Always pick the closest one. Keep firing until every cylinder is empty; then sit and reload. I’ll be right beside you. Don’t forget what I told you about turning the barrel of the pistol into a pointing finger. Just point that dangerous metal finger at the target and squeeze the trigger. Don’t jerk it.”
She put the Colt on her lap.
“Here,” Robert said, “wear this?” He unbuckled the holster and belt. It was too big for her waist. He used his dagger to dig another hole in the leather to get the belt to fit. When he buckled it on her, she leaned toward him. His hands found her naked body under her clothing. He kissed her neck and the soft skin behind an ear. Their lovemaking turned frantic. It was as if the world was going to end, and this was their last chance. When she peaked and had her orgasm, he thought the noise was going to wake the camp.
“I had a hard time after you were gone the night after we ...” She stopped talking as if searching for words. “My father told me that I’d be Ward’s woman, and I didn’t want to go on breathing. He said Ward would kill him and the rest of the family if I took my life.”
She leaned her head on Robert’s shoulder. He smelled the familiar scent of the ocean in her hair. He wanted to see her face. The campfires had died, and there was no moon to light the night. He explored her face with his fingertips. Soon they were kissing and made love again. After they finished, he wrapped a blanket around her. “I want you to sleep now,” he said.
“What about you?”
“I’m not tired.” He scooted back and leaned against the nearest tree. He patted his lap. “Put your head here. Let me be your pillow.” He watched her fall asleep wrapped inside the blanket like a caterpillar inside its cocoon—to wake at dawn a butterfly. He didn’t want a butterfly. He wanted a Mute Swan, Ireland’s largest bird. They mated for life.
Ayaou cried out Shao-mei’s name in her sleep. She didn’t know that Shao-mei was Robert’s concubine. When she found out, would she get angry and accuse him of betraying their love? He felt as if he were a coward for not telling her. It seemed impossible that so much had happened so fast.
He thought about the Chinese people he’d met since arriving on the mainland a year ago. Most had been friendly, and they were always respectful. China, with its many spoken languages, had found one common bond with one written language, something that did not exist in Europe. However, the Chinese were not all the same. He’d met a few from the north and discovered that up there the Chinese were more Mongol like than those who lived around Shanghai or Hong Kong. They were hard living and stood taller. They were also conservative in their beliefs.
In Hong Kong, on the other hand, he’d met a different type from a more sophisticated culture living an easier life. The southeastern Chinese were not as physically strong as those from the north. The northern Chinese were wheat eaters, and those farther south primarily ate rice. He wondered if eating wheat was the reason for the taller, more robust physique of the northern Chinese?
Some stars appeared in the sky. It took a few minutes to adjust to the darkness. Ayaou was sound asleep and didn’t move when he ran his fingers through her long hair. It felt soft and silky. He lifted a strand. When he let go, he watched it flow like water back into place. He loved this woman, and he didn’t know her well. He knew that she had courage. During that battle with the Taipings, she’d stood by his side and fought hard and saved his life as he had saved hers. That wasn’t such a bad beginning.
Then he wondered what his next move was going to be. How was he going to keep her? He had to admit that it had been foolish to rush into this without a plan. It wasn’t like him. All the way through college, he’d never approached anything without a plan except where women were concerned. When he was around attractive women, he lost control. He hated losing control. He tried to think of something that he could do to keep her. He was exhausted from the long day. Maybe that was it. Maybe he just needed some sleep. It was frustrating. Here she was in his arms. They had made love twice. He questioned his purpose. It sickened him to think that he might have been motivated to have intercourse with her again. If true , he was a hypocrite.
It was late and clouds obscured the stars. A chill arrived. He buttoned his jacket and pulled the collar around his neck and ears. He yawned. His eyes started to close. It was a struggle to stay awake. He wanted to watch over Ayaou but decided to rest his eyes for a few minutes. How could that hurt?
* * * *
The first sounds Robert heard were the cocks crowing from the surrounding farms. He awoke to the washed-out blue light of dawn. That was when the enemy came. With the morning sun behind them, the Taipings charged from the city. They came with muskets, crossbows, swords, spears, axes and clubs. They hacked their way into the camp killing many of the drunken men of Ward’s small army where they slept.
The crackling sound of musket fire on the outskirts of Ward’s camp woke everyone deeper inside. The army panicked. Those that survived dropped their rifles and ran.
Robert started searching for targets and fired his weapon as quickly as possible—pulling the trigger and reloading. He checked Ayaou often. The last time he saw her, she was calmly sitting there reloading the pistol. That was when Taipings, like locusts, swarmed over them in that grove of birch trees.
When Robert’s rifle emptied, he reversed it and used it as a club. A young Taiping overcame him. The man obviously had been trained in a hand-to-hand form of combat. After a few kicks and blows, he took Robert’s rifle away from him.
Several other Taipings surrounded Robert shouting and cursing. He was determined not to cry for mercy or die like a coward. Then one man pounded on the back of his head. He felt a stabbing pain run down his side as a sword scored his ribs. Before he lost consciousness, he heard several loud, rapid gunshots.