Chapter 13: Meeting the Flood Dragon
Wenchang appeared on the southern dock the next day at noon wearing the same clothes he had on the day before. A dozen or so sampans were moored on the riverside, loaded with local products. These sampans were pitifully small, not able to hold much cargo, and could only transport five or six passengers. During summer when the water level was at its fullest the channel was still dangerous, putting people off from traveling down it unless they were escorting goods. Otherwise it wasn't worth the risk.
Aside from the dozen or so sampans there were two small skiffs moored quietly beside the dock. On the dock, Pit Viper's azure turban was pulled down to his eyebrows and covered his ears; he faced the water to avoid being noticed while four men sat on the dock humming a little ditty. They seemed quite at their leisure.
At high noon the laborers stopped work and took the chance to get out of the cruel sun for a bit, so there were few people around. Pit Viper had already noticed Wenchang's particularly imposing frame. He waited until Wenchang was close, then turned slowly and cupped his fist in salute. "Master Cai is really a trustworthy person. Hello."
"Hello, Brother Sang." Wenchang returned the greeting, then asked, "The one who manages Bald Flood Dragon Ling's affairs is…"
"That would be this humble senior."
"Oh! So Brother Sang is not passing through here alone. I failed to recognise your eminence. So you're quite the talent, no wonder you're so fearless since you have such strong backing. Manager Ling favored me with an invitation, so I couldn't not come. But I don't know what Manager Ling's…"
"Haha! Master Cai is making fun of me. I was sent here to wait for you. Please come aboard and I will take you to the other shore as arranged. After you."
A skilled man is bold. Wenchang knew his prowess on the water; even though the boat was tiny, what was he to fear? He stepped down into the boat calmly.
Two of the men on the docks leapt down and hurried to the bow and the skiff shot off like a fish into the turbulent river. The seething current seemed to have no effect on the skiff as the two long oars paddled swiftly. When they reached the other side and turned to look, the dock was exactly opposite them on the other side, proof that the men's steering was top-notch.
Pit Viper leapt onto shore first and the two of them walked side by side into the woods by the riverbank. Soon they came to a grove at the base of a hillside, before which sat a thatched hut. Eight men in tidy clothes stood in front of the hut, clustered around three middle-aged men.
The one in the center was wearing neither turban nor hat, and his bald head was shiny, his eyes like bronze bells. His lion-like nose was large, his mouth wide, and he had a 八-shaped mustache and jug ears. A bit of a simple look penetrated his otherwise rough and ferocious facade. He wasn't very tall and a little fat. He wore neat azure clothes. He wasn't carrying a weapon. One look at his glossy bald head and you would know it was Han River Bald Flood Dragon Ling Yuan.
Seafaring heroes were rarely called "manager"; because they lived on boats they were called cabinmaster, or tillermaster. But Bald Flood Dragon was different. He didn't live on a boat. The Han River was cramped, unable to contain this flood dragon. He had established several secret hideouts on land in various places, where he managed things. He didn't board a ship unless he had to. Wenchang knew the ways of the jianghu, even if he didn't fully understand them, but he called him by the correct title.
The one on the left was tall and thin, with long arms and legs; he was certainly predisposed to water. With his arms he could paddle twice as far in one stroke than a shorter man. He had an olive-shaped head and a protruding mouth. He gave off a strangely sinister, lifeless vibe.
The man on the right was nothing special to look at, like Wu the Elder.1 His facial features were all mushed together, and he was no more than five spans tall. Aside from his underbite which made his jaw look strong, there was nothing distinguishable about him. How was he qualified to be in this shady, maritime business?
The three men stood in the doorway of the hut, not coming out to greet their guest. When they were closer Pit Viper took two strides forward and saluted. "Reporting, Manager; Master Cai has arrived."
Eleven pairs of intense eyes sized up the guest. Wenchang had never been in such a tense situation before; he was a bit nervous being surrounded by a dozen men. Fortunately, he didn't let it show on his face, didn't let any emotion show at all, which was an imperceptible help to him, not revealing to them his diffidence. He cupped his fist in salute and forced himself to speak calmly. "I have come in answer to Manager Ling's esteemed invitation. I came here in haste, I hope you will not be offended."
Bald Flood Dragon grinned and chuckled, his 八-shaped mustache trembling. "You flatter me. I made a special trip here to your domain to pay my respects, but unfortunately I have no one to introduce me to the great men in the area. But Brother Cai, your name precedes you…"
Wenchang was not used to exchanging formalities. He cut in, "Manager flatters me too much, I don't deserve your praise. I just use what little skill I have to make a living. All I can do is forge some weapons that are a laughing stock before real masters. Manager Ling, may I ask…"
"Haha, don't be so modest. Master Cai's craftsmanship is known to all. That move you pulled yesterday, 'Part the Flowers, Brush the Willow', was expertly executed, adeptly accurate, and flawless. Absolutely brilliant. Let me introduce you to these two gentlemen."
The tall one was Barracuda Zhang Hao.
The short one was River Rat Guan Jiang.
Introductions made, he extended his arm toward inside the hut. "Please come in for a chat. This place isn't much, forgive the inconvenience."
"After you, Manager," Wenchang declined modestly.
Bald Flood Dragon had actually already pompously taken the lead in entering, paying no heed to Wenchang's polite words. Once they were all seated a man served fragrant tea. Bald Flood Dragon laughed gratingly. "Master Cai, do you know why I've come here?"
"I'm just a simpleton, unable to guess. Please tell me." Wenchang smiled, but he really didn't know. No one in Fine Horse Village knew except for Zhang Ziyu and his sister.
"Haha! Your Sickly Wuchang here is named Guo. He dominates commerce here, including the gambling dens and brothels, stopping at nothing. My men have been humiliated here several times. As manager I can't just look the other way, so this time I have led my men to launch a punitive campaign. I know this place harbors many crouching tigers and hidden dragons; there's no lack of expert heroes here. You, Master Cai, are one of them. I'm determined to succeed in this venture. I'm hoping for support from the local heroes. Although I'm not worthy, I would like to become sworn brothers with the great men in this area, go through adversity together, share our wealth and reputation. Several dear friends here have already burned incense and smeared their lips with blood in allegiance to me. Master Cai, not only are you an exceptional man, your martial arts…"
Wenchang now knew what this was all about. Many thoughts flashed through his mind. He had an idea. "Aside from my workmanship," he cut in, "all I have is a bit of brute strength. Besides, I'm just a simple commoner. I don't dare cling to higher-ups. Manager, I hope you understand."
Bald Flood Dragon's face fell. He gave a frosty chuckle. "Master Cai, I come to you in good faith. This is not just empty talk."
"There's really nothing I can do; I must decline this honor."
River Rat Guan Jiang slammed his palm on the table with a bang, knocking the teacups to the floor and smashing them to pieces. "You don't appreciate this honor! You decline with all sorts of excuses. Do you look down on us Han River heroes? Have you not considered that being called a brother of ours is a priceless honor, worth more than a lifetime of your blacksmithing?"
Barracuda Zhang Hao waved his hands in mediation. "Easy, third brother, Master Cai isn't a fool. He's thought of that. We're all brothers here. Quarreling won't do us any good going forward."
"Hmph! If he'd thought of it then he doesn't need you to speak up for him."
"Third brother, no need to get angry. The boss of East Road, Li San, and Scabby Head Wang the Fourth of the south docks were not faint of heart, but both since last night have been feeding the turtles in the river. Master Cai is also not faint of heart, but he surely knows what's good for him. Third brother, don't get so worked up."
They were echoing each other, displaying the severity of the situation. Wenchang shot up, looking to take up a favorable position.
But he was a step late. The eight other men were already blocking the door.
Wenchang had already planned for this. "You sirs want me to join you?" he said plainly.
Bald Flood Dragon stood and nodded. "There are two paths to take, one bright, one dark."
"The bright path is we call each other brothers. The dark path is we tie you to a big rock and throw you into the river, in accordance with out rules."
"What is your plan for me if I join you?"
"You will manage Zhang Ironware under Third brother's supervision."
"In other words, I would just be a lackey?"
"We all address each other as brother here."
"I have a condition," Wenchang said simply.
"All land and water transport in Fine Horse Village will be under my jurisdiction. 40% of the protection money will go to me, and the other 60% will be dispersed to the other brothers here."
"You must be dreaming!" River Rat exclaimed.
"I'm not asleep. Right now the sun is at its zenith."
"On what basis?"
"My martial prowess. If you doubt it you're welcome to test it."
River Rat Guan Jiang roared and advanced on him with a chop of his hand. He looked down on Wenchang. A meager blacksmith. What could his brute strength do against the internal force of his palm strike? If he struck, once was enough!
Wenchang dodged to the right just as River Rat's left hand came down.
Now was his chance. Wenchang sliced with his left palm, knocking his opponent's hand up as he closed in like a flash, his right fist exploding like lightning.
Two short punches tenderized River Rat's ribs, his left palm changing to a strike, hitting and hooking him to the side, then advancing to strike again. River Rat's inclined head was rocked back with a blast to the right cheek and he sailed back, legs flying up. He came down flat on his back with a crash ten feet away. He didn't make a sound, already half dead.
They had connected with each other than separated in the blink of an eye. All anyone heard were iron fists pounding on meat like a string of exploding fireworks. It was so fast.
He didn't wait for the others to make sense of what had happened. Wenchang rushed for the small open window and he smashed through the hut wall with a bang and ran ten feet straight out before turning back and shouting, "Sirs, think hard about my condition."
The hut was in disarray. Bald Flood Dragon raged like thunder and charged out, the others shouting behind him, brandishing their weapons.
Wenchang turned his head as he ran. "You all are really fearless, don't blame me for being ruthless. Bald Flood Dragon, watch your head!"
A shuttle-like knife whipped out in a ball of light, so fast it was hardly distinguishable, spinning straight over the crown of Bald Flood Dragon's head. The knife wasn't flying straight but spinning flat as it scraped a layer of skin off Flood Dragon's head, a close call.
Flood Dragon just felt a coolness on his head. He stopped and winced and felt his head, his hand coming away bloody. Wenchang's shout reached his ear. "Whoever's fastest ought to be careful about his right ear."
Pit Viper knew how good he was. "Brothers, don't push him too far," he cried, "this guy's concealed weapons are devastating."
Wenchang opened up his lightness skill and was out of the woods in three to five flashes. He reached the riverbank and looked back but didn't see anyone. He could only hear their shouts.
The skiff had been half-pulled onto shore. When the two oarsmen heard the shouts they stood to get a better look, but Wenchang was already upon them.
"You really are ungrateful," one of them said. "Let me send you to the Dragon King."2 He reached into the boat and picked up something.
Wenchang was like a gale-force wind. The other man hadn't had time to reach for something when he was pounced on like a ferocious tiger pouncing on a sheep.
Wenchang burst upon him with his move "Double Whirlhands", then kicked the man fumbling for his weapon and knocked him back, the weapon still not drawn.
He had to finish what he started. Wenchang hooked his hand around the nape of the man's neck. He was going to press his acupoint, but he knew he wasn't good enough at that yet and was afraid he might not hit it correctly. Whatever, why waste time? He chopped with his right palm with a spearhand to the man's back, who cried out and slumped to the ground.
He pushed the skiff out into the water and took up an oar and it shot off like an arrow. Once he was midway across the river he turned and shouted, "Fellas, think well before you act. See you around."
Bald Flood Dragon and the others stood riverside by the grove, gnashing their teeth in fury.
Wu the Elder is a character from the novel Water Margin (水滸傳, aka Outlaws of the Marsh). He is the older brother of Wu Song and is known for being short and homely. ↩ A water and weather god, he controls the creatures of the sea and is king of the dragons. ↩