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The four men stepped out of the stronghold. Under the bright sunlight, the green mountain and grassy hill extended in front of them, their spirit was greatly aroused. Xu Ziling took a deep breath, sighed and said, “That will do. If Zhu and Cao are convinced that Xiao Xian turns his back on the alliance, Xiao Xian’s next step must be crossing the river to the north, taking advantage while the two main armies are stuck in the siege of Dangyang and Yuan’an, to seize control over their army camps. In this case, the two could only retreat immediately. If the situation progresses to this stage, Shao Shuai ought to be able to take advantage of that!”

Bai Wenyuan nodded and said, “Not only Zhu Can and Cao Yinglong will have misgivings toward Xiao Xian, under this kind of ‘wind sighing and crane calling’ [i.e. panic at the slightest move], ‘every tree or bush an enemy soldier’ [i.e. seeing everyone as an enemy] situation, they could even be suspicious and jealous of each other, so it will be difficult for them to cooperate. We will have the opportunity.”

Remaining tranquil and calm, Kou Zhong said, “Based on our current strength, that is, including the Flying Horse Ranch and Jinling’s Duba Village’s former soldiers and generals, we could only attack one of those armies. Which unfortunate man Bai Xiong thinks we should pick?”

Grateful, Bai Wenyuan said, “Just by Shao Shuai’s words, Wenyuan is willing to serve you. Frankly speaking, naturally I wanted to pick Zhu Can to avenge my big hatred and deep enmity. But strategy-wise, this is not a prudent choice. This case can be divided into three aspects.”

Astonished, Luo Fang said, “I only thought that Zhu Can’s military power is strong, while Cao Yinglong’s is weak, but I never thought that there are two other reasons.”

Smiling, Bai Wenyuan said, “It’s simply because for the time being, Luo Xiongdi has not thought about it!”

Xu Ziling said, “I can only guess one more reason: if we strike and defeat Zhu Can, Xiao Xian might immediately deploy his troops crossing the River to seize control over the two raging allies’ territories. Cao Yinglong is, after all, a roving bandit; he knows how to attack but not to defend. As for blocking Xiao Xian crossing to the north, no matter what, he cannot be compared to Zhu Can.”

Kou Zhong laughed and said, “The third reason may be to take the lid off the goblet!”

Bai Wenyuan cheerfully said, “Actually, Xu Xiong said it well. Although Cao Yinglong’s military power reaches forty thousand men, all along they are just roving bandit on horseback; an army division that is brought together by chance. When winning, their momentum is like the rainbow, but as soon as they see their side defeated, they would beat a hasty retreat, their hearts will be in panic, and they will lose their will to fight. They are not like Zhu Can’s men at all, who have family and relatives in their homeland to protect. Most of them are single men, all alone in the world; when they say they want to go, they just go. As long as we can accurately predict the method, as well as the route, they are going to retreat, we will be able to thoroughly take them out in one fell swoop.”

Kou Zhong sighed and said, “Bai Xiong’s view is subtle and unique; Zhu Can, father and daughter’s desire to put you to death was very unwise.”

Smiling bitterly, Bai Wenyuan said, “It was precisely my strong opposition against alliance with Cao Yinglong that aroused Zhu Can’s murderous intent. Zhu Mei was already fed up with me for some time, fortunately two gentlemen came to my rescue. In the past few days I have had the opportunity to fight alongside all of you, it was indeed an unprecedented joy for me.”

Kou Zhong patted his back vigorously; letting out a long laugh he said, “In the future we will all be family.”

In his excitement, Luo Fang’s face turned deep red; he sighed and said, “Cao Yinglong strung through and filled with evil [idiom: guilty of monstrous crimes], we will kill him until not a single armor remains.”

Kou Zhong said, “In Bai Xiongdi’s opinion, where would Cao Yinglong withdraw to?”

Bai Wenyuan took out rolls of map from his pocket; selecting one of them, he spread it out on the ground. The other three men followed him squatting down, listening to his explanation, “Before the alliance, Cao Yinglong has suffered defeat under me, he retreated toward a village west of the Xi River south of Jingling; he captured more than a hundred small villages, so he is hated there and has no place to pick, and can only go to the east, returning to his old nest. He must first cross River Ju, across Mount Jingshan, and pass through River Zhang. If we could prepare an ambush on River Zhang, taking advantage while he is crossing the river to launch pincer attack from both sides, I guarantee they will never return to their old nest.”

Kou Zhong nodded and said, “This plan is a seamless heavenly clothes [i.e. flawless].”

Reaching out to Luo Fang’s shoulder, he laughed and said, “Xiao Fang ought to know what to do!”

Luo Fang puffed his breast and said, “I will hurry back to the Ranch immediately to notify Changzhu[Ranch Master].”

The entire Shaoshuai Army advanced toward the jungle on the east bank of River Zhang, set up their camp and prepared their food. Men and horses must try hard to have good rest, to eradicate the exhaustion over three days, day and night, continuous journey of rushing into this place.

Without stopping to rest, Kou Zhong, Xu Ziling, Bai Wenyuan and Xuan Yong, four men, galloped upstream along the east bank of the river.

When they reached an especially narrow gorge in the river, Bai Wenyuan pointed with his horsewhip straight ahead and said, “If we have enough time, we could build wooden structure here, and fill it with bags of sand and stones to stop the river. When Cao Yinglong cross the river, we could destroy the dam, and let the rolling waves flush away Cao Yinglong’s thieves crossing the river, so that their head and tail will be separated into two sections. At that time we could seize the opportunity to make a surprise attack. It will be as easy as blowing off dust.”

Xuan Yong regretfully said, “First, we do not even have bags, second, to build such wooden fence we will need at least ten days or more, not to mention exhausting the army, wearying the crowd. In term of time, we really cannot cope.”

Xu Ziling asked, “Bai Xiong has fought many times against Cao Yinglong; is there anything about him that we must pay particular attention to?”

Bai Wenyuan muttered to himself irresolutely, “There are three reasons why Cao Yinglong is able to move unhindered across Hubei: first, they are able to march really fast; they move swiftly and unpredictably. As soon as they encountered a dangerous and difficult path, they would immediately withdraw far away. This is the roving bandits’ inherent quality, yet it is really able to help him repeatedly going through numerous crises.”

After a short pause, he went on, “The second reason is that they use war to raise war. No matter how bad they suffer setback and crushing blow, as long as they were able to escape alive, they would go everywhere, looting and recruiting mobs to expand and rapidly grow. Finished ransacking one place, they would simply go to another place, completely without any fear of trouble from the rear.”

Kou Zhong commented, “But the disadvantage is that everybody joins in for individual interest, there is no identical ideal to be spoken about. As long as we can get rid of Cao Yinglong, Fang Jianding, and Xiang Baxian, these three head thieves, those loose sand will be dispersed and will never get together again.”

Xu Ziling recalled the former Sui dynasty’s troops, who, after defeat, went everywhere to burn and loot, to rape and kill; he spoke resolutely, “We must wipe out this kind of disciples who kill people like scything flax completely; otherwise, the neighboring villages will be facing imminent catastrophe.”

Xuan Yong nodded and said, “To destroy them completely will not be easy, but we are not completely without any way to do that.”

Kou Zhong asked Bai Wenyuan, “What other exclusive trick does Cao Yinglong have?”

Bai Wenyuan replied, “He is adept at night battle; whether marching or fighting, they especially choose to do it at night. Only then are they able to appear and disappear unpredictably [orig. gods appear and devils vanish]. Whether attacking or retreating, they will always occupy the advantageous position.”

Knitting his brows, Kou Zhong said, “How can we force them to cross the river in the full light of day then?”

Xu Ziling thought aloud, “If we can create certain situation that would make them aware that the Ranch’s main forces are following close at their heels, then they would not be able to choose either day or night.”

Kou Zhong said, “It would be best if Cao Yinglong cannot guess that we would arrive one step ahead of him, preserving and nurturing our spirit at the far riverbank, waiting for his arrival. Also, he would think that if they could cross the river, they would be able to throw away the pursuing troops, and return safely to the fertile countryside.”

Squeezing his horse’s belly, Bai Wenyuan said, “Follow me.” Turning the horse’s head, he galloped away downstream.

After repeatedly stopping and going for about ten li, Bai Wenyuan rushed back upstream. Only after four, five li, he flew off his horse, to let his horse, which was foaming on its mouth, to rest and eat grass. Bai Wenyuan carefully examined the area around the riverbank. Finally he stood behind an underbrush and laughed aloud, “The Emperor of Heaven does not turn his back on the believing man. I finally found the place where that Cao thief crossed the river last time.”

Kou Zhong, three men, were greatly delighted. They rushed over to him; from the underbrush that was pushed open by him, surprisingly they found four wooden stakes, as thick as a human body, which were driven deep into the ground. The stakes had groove on them to tie the rope.

Everybody dispersed to look, and found eight such stakes.

Bai Wenyuan said with delight, “Although the river here is ten zhang wide, the water is slow and flat, more suitable to river crossing than any other sections.”

Xuan Yong cast his gaze faraway toward the opposite bank; he laughed and said, “I am positive that in that jungle by the bank we will find hundreds of floating buckets. If they strung the thick ropes on the water, and put wooden planks on them, they can make pontoon bridge. In less than one sichen, they can build eight such bridges.”

Kou Zhong said, “The answer is in front of us. If only we know it as soon as we see it.”

Xu Ziling said, “We must force the thieves to cross the river in haste; otherwise, if we let them arrange battle formation on the shore first, and give them the opportunity to setup lookouts on high places, it would be difficult for us to mount a surprise attack.”

Kou Zhong said with a sigh, “It all depends on whether the beautiful Changzhu will obediently listen to us!”

Turning toward Xuan Yong, he said, “We will move the troops here tonight, and make all necessary preparations. Now we are going to cross the river to take a look. After making sure that the equipment for the pontoon bridge are hidden on the opposite bank, Wenyuan and I will meet the Ranch’s main forces. You and Ling Shao stay on this side.”

And then he laughed and said, “Persisting in evil brings about self-destruction. Oh evil thieves! This time Laotianye is putting you away, I am simply helping Laotianye accomplishing it!”

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