Chapter 54: End of the Rope
As he neared the hill, Wenchang saw a middle-aged man handing three ropes over a tree branch. He was in the middle of tying a knot. Two children, a boy and a girl, each seven or eight years old, held each other and cried under the tree. The man's clothes were in rags, dirty grey cotton stuffing sticking through the rips and holes. He was barefoot and his face was gaunt and sallow. He was a bag of bones. The children's faces were yellow as well, thin and feeble. They looked malnourished and sick.
Wenchang hid behind a tree. His hair stood on end when he saw the slip knots in the three ropes. Heavens! They were hangman's nooses.
The man tied the knots, tears streaming down his face, and grabbed two big clumps of mud and piled them underneath one of the ropes. It was a makeshift stepstool.
When everything was ready, the man motioned the children over and said in a quavering voice, "Children, it's time to go. Wan'er, you go first. You'll be the first to see mommy again."
The children stopped crying and held each other as they walked over. The girl played with the rope, tears brimming and spilling down her face. "Dad, can this rope really help us find mommy in heaven?"
The man inclined his head with great effort and knelt down and reached out and hugged the girl. "Yes. Dad will be right behind you. Don't be afraid, child. Soon the whole family will be together in heaven. There will be no cold or hunger there. Come. Be brave, child. Dry your tears. That's a good girl. Don't… Don't cry…"
He picked the girl up and carried her to the last rope. A trembling hand groped for the noose. He closed his eyes and let his tears fall, then put the noose over the girl's head. As soon as he let go of her, this pitiful child would…
Wenchang and the others were hiding fifty feet away behind a tree. The little beggar was about to go over there, but Wenchang had already beat him to it.
The man gritted his teeth and said ominously, "Child, you… you go… you go first…"
He released his grip and dropped into a squat. The girl didn't want to let go of her daddy's neck at first, but the rope tightened and she let go as she cried out.
Wenchang grabbed her at the same time, broke the noose, and smacked the man in the side of the head and knocked him down. "Even a vicious tiger won't eat its young. You're worse than an animal. If you want to die then die on your own, why take these little ones with you?"
The man lay on the ground, groaning weakly. He struggled to sit up.
The little beggar came over and held the boy. He took off his tattered jacket and threw it over the boy to keep him warm and tenderly held him close to his chest.
The man staggered to his feet, a sullen look on his face. "Little brother, don't get involved and try to force someone who's better off dead than alive. Why bother with this sinner?"
"You shouldn't take these two kids with you," Wenchang seethed.
"I'd rather them die to spare them a miserable life."
"It's true, little brother. If they live they will become slaves. There's no point living a life of suffering. Dying is better."
"You're on dire straits?"
"Yes. I owe a debt I cannot repay. I'm living in disgrace, but dying will wipe it clean."
"How much do you owe? Who do you owe?"
"Twenty taels to Third Master Feng in the city. I'll never be able to pay it off in this life, unless I use my children to do it. But I can't bear to ruin them by selling them into servitude…"
"Motherf*cker! It's that Bloodsucker. He deserves death!"
The man shook his head and smiled wryly. "It's not Third Master Feng's fault, it's mine. Half a year ago my wife fell deathly ill. I had to borrow five taels of silver from a friend to save her. But the medicine didn't work, and two months later she still couldn't be saved. The debt was transferred to Third Master Feng, but the interest increased from 20% to 60%. For six months the interest compounded, and though I paid a little off each month, I still over twenty-one taels. Third Master Feng agreed to call off the debt in exchange for these two as lifetime servants, but he doesn't need so many servants himself. He will surely sell them off. How can I be so cruel to make turn my children into slaves for the rest of their lives? It's better to die now so we can hurry up and be reborn anew."
"That despicable son of a bitch!" Black Iron Pagoda thundered. "He's dead meat!"
"No!" the man yelled, shaking his hand. "You could say Third Master Feng is my benefactor. He allowed my wife to live another two months. I'm deeply grateful to him. The fault is my own. I'm just a failure. I couldn't take care of my wife and children. Once dead I still will not be able to repay Third Master Feng. I will have to be reborn as a dog or a horse in recompense."
Wenchang looked at the others, speechless. Common people were simple by nature, clearly distinguishing right and wrong, always blaming everyone but themselves. So they were surprised to hear him blame himself instead. How could they talk him into wanting revenge?"
Black Iron Pagoda snorted. The little beggar was dumbfounded.
Wenchang thought for a moment. "Brother, what if I repaid your debt?"
The man smiled wryly. "I owe too many people in this life, I don't want to…"
"Pfft, I'm just lending you some silver to pay off your debt. You can pay me back gradually. Besides, I'm sure you can pay me back. I have faith in you. I'm not helping you to take pity on you. I need you to do something for me."
"Do something? You…"
"I'll give you forty taels of silver…"
"No! No! Twenty is enough! But please tell me what it is you need me to do. If I can do it, I'll consider it. And forgive me, but I can't do anything underhanded."
Wenchang returned the girl to the man's arms and said seriously, "Listen. I have a relative by the name of… Shang, given name, Lan. He's roaming the jianghu somewhere, but I don't know where. I'm really anxious about him. I pray for his safety day and night, but I lack free time. I need you to erect a small altar for me and pray every morning and night, and burn incense twice a day, praying that he's alright. I need you to do this for four years, that will make up for the forty taels. Can you do it?"
The man was dumbfounded. He looked skeptical and at a loss for words. "Little brother, are you for real?"
"I'm only asking if you can do it or not," Wenchang said.
The man knelt on the ground, racked with sobs. "I acknowledge you as my benefactor. For years is nothing, for as long as I live I will…"
Wenchang helped him to his feet. "No need for that. I just wish you can give it your all for four years."
"Benefactor, may I know your honorable name? My surname is Lu, given name Chong. This is my son, Tong'er, and the girl is Wan'er. Children, thank your benefactors for their great kindness." The man was weeping.
Each of the children hugged the little beggar and Black Iron Pagoda.
"Us three are vagrants; we never give our names," Wenchang said. He held his hand out to the little beggar. "Little brother, if you don't mind?"
The little beggar took out an ingot of gold and one of silver, each worth ten taels. "The gold is worth forty taels. The other ten is a gift for the boy."
Wenchang added five taels of silver of his own, but he didn't give him the half-ingot of gold. He was afraid it might bring trouble for Lu Chong since that ingot was stolen from Chang'an Tavern. Black Iron Pagoda didn't have any silver on him, so he took out the head ornaments he had just stolen and gave them to Wan'er. Wenchang waved his hand. "No, let me handle this."
He took a handkerchief and bundled a dozen or so head ornaments and stuffed them in the girl's robe. "Brother Lu, it was fate that made us meet here on this hill in the wilderness. These head ornaments can be used as betrothal gifts for the little ones later on. Please remember, whatever you do, don't show these ornaments for the next ten years. They must be treasured properly." He put the gold and silver in Lu Chong's hands, said "take care", and raised his hand and the little beggar and Black Iron Pagoda let go of the kids and the three of them ran off like lightning and were gone.
Lu Chong stood there in a daze, not believing this was real. By the time he snapped out of it they were already gone. He felt with his hands, and yes, the gold and silver were really there, stamped with Huazhou and Xi'an markings. Yes, they were real, but his benefactors? They were gone. He commanded his children to bow down on the ground, facing every direction in turn, because he didn't know which way his benefactors has went. He even began to suspect they had been emissaries sent from the heavens to save them.
Three horses galloped toward Benediction Temple. Off to the side, not far behind, Thousand-Faced Abbess brushed past, smiling, following them closely.
Benediction Temple was about three miles away from the city. On a plain to the northeast was The Temple of Compassion, and the Great Wild Goose Pagoda in the distance. It was slightly lower than the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, but it was more magnificent. Close to the south side of Benediction Temple was Prevailing Charity Temple. Further south was Fanzhou, the fief of Han dynasty general Fan Kuai. The Fan family was already in decline. Vice Commissioner of the Right Li Chunshui's estate was in Fanzhou. Probably Jade-faced Tiger and the rest of that luckless bunch had not yet returned.
A few scattered villages were in between Prevailing Charity Temple and Benediction Temple. These villages had been thrown into an uproar by the monks from these two temples.
The monks at Benediction Temple were Chan Buddhists and Prevailing Charity Temple was the headquarters of the esoteric sect of Lamaism. The current emperor revered the Lama, who was more popular than other Chan disciples, and was treated better and had a higher status and rank. In those days, Gelug Tibetan Buddhism, newly founded by Je Tsongkhapa, had not yet taken root in the Central Plains, so the Lama at Prevailing Charity Temple was a worldly, depraved monk of the Nyingma Sect. There were over a thousand Chan disciples there, and the temple was larger than Benediction Temple, and more magnificent. The emperor worshipped the Lama, who became known as Heaven's favored one, and he ran the original Chan disciples out of the temple and installed the Lama. So the temple became the base for the Lama in Shaanxi. He drank wine, ate meat, and took a wife. In Shanxi, Mt. Wutai was the Lama's headquarters. In those days the majority of the Gelug followers gradually came from Gansu and Mongolia and spread throughout the Central Plains. Consequently, the Nyingma Sect not only fought with the other Buddhist sects in the Central Plains, they also prepared to declare war on the Gelug Sect, fearing the latter might revolt. They wanted to expand their sphere of influence and recruit more followers, which became a headache for the locals.
Buddhism spread during the Eastern Han dynasty, evolving again and again and becoming sinicized. The ten principal schools rose up, three of them created in China. They were very popular: Huayan Buddhism, Tiantai Buddhism, and Chan Buddhism. Even though Chan was nominally not supposed to be transmitted, it underwent deep development due to its support from Shaolin Monastery. In Lamaism one could take a wife and have children, but in the eyes of the common people it was seen as simply a reaction against Buddhism, an unorthodox, heretical sect. However, they had the government's backing so there was nothing Buddhist disciples could do about it; it was hard to avoid secretive scheming and open conflict. There were both kinds of monks in this area, so you can imagine things were not peaceful.
There was a small town on the left side of the public road, a good place for travelers to stop and rest. There were several small shops within, but these rustic shops were within the village walls and outside the walls was a peach grove.
This peach grove was large, supposedly moved from Xuandu Temple to the left of Prevailing Charity Temple. The trees were all over thirty years old, densely packed within an area not less than ten acres. Every tree was full with buds ready to bloom. Five or six rustic shops were set up within the peach grove. During the spring people came to see the sea of peach blossoms and have a few drinks. It was a lovely sight. The village was called Woodbend. The peach grove of Woodbend was very famous. The only downside was there was no inn there. If you wanted to find an inn you had to go to the small town near Benediction Temple, or stay the night in the temple itself.
Hoofbeats pounded as the three horses turned off the public road into the peach grove. They halted in the grove and the riders dismounted, hitched the horses up. There were already a dozen horse hitched up there; clearly, others had beaten them here.
A tavern sign banner stood outside the peach grove, and a trail led into the grove. Several shops were spread out every twenty paces, and not far off was the village gates of Woodbend. There was a wooden signboard at the first shop which read: Woodbend Refreshments.
Woodbend Refreshments was a two-room thatched hut with wooden walls. It was small and quaint with an ancient, antique vibe and shaped like a small mountain pavilion. It stood out among the other tile-roofed establishments, attracting many tourists. The front room was the dining hall with a mat awning out front made from peach branches, sunny during spring and summer, and big enough for ten or so tables to be set up underneath it. But it was cold and gloomy now, so the area was empty. Big curtains that hung to the floor were draped over the windows on each side of the main hall to ward off the frigid wind, so you couldn't see outside.
The little beggar hitched up his horse and led the way directly to Woodbend Refreshments. He pushed open the heavy curtain and went into the hall.