Read Jade Palace Vendetta Online

Authors: Dale Furutani

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

Jade Palace Vendetta (8 page)

“I…” the merchant started, then thought a bit about what he was
about to say. “You’re right,” Hishigawa said to the samurai. “There’s no reason for us to fight,” the merchant said with forced affability to Hanzo and Goro. “We all want to get out of here.”

Goro looked up at Kaze. “Do you think the bandits are gone now?” he asked.

The samurai shook his head. “They won’t rest until they get that chest of gold. I laid a false trail for quite a distance. Eventually they’ll figure out that the cart didn’t go through the woods. Then they’ll come back to the point where we took the cart off the road and start searching.”

Kaze put his hands on the tree limb to steady himself and unfolded his legs from the lotus position. Then, with the lightness of a child, he swung downward from the limb, hanging from his arms briefly before he dropped to the earth.

Picking himself up as quickly as he had dropped, Kaze said, “Come on. Let’s get back to the path that leads toward the mountain.”

         
CHAPTER 8
 

Swirling water is
deep and murky. I claw to
the surface and gasp
.

 

B
efore they came to the mountain path’s branch, they came across an old peasant trudging down the path with a load of firewood on his back. Seeing there was a samurai in the group, the old man bowed his head and stood to one side of the path.

“Do you have any coppers?” Kaze asked Hishigawa.

“Why?”

“I need a few.”

“For what?”

Kaze held out his hand, and, reluctantly, Hishigawa put three coppers into it.

Kaze walked over to the old peasant and said, “Hello, Grandfather. Are you traveling a long way?”

The peasant, startled that a samurai was talking to him, bowed his head even further and mumbled, “All the way to the barrier, Samurai-sama.”

“Then you will be going through the valley of the reeds.”

“Yes, Samurai-sama. To get to the barrier, one must travel through that valley.”

“I would like you to do a service for us, Grandfather.”

The peasant, who had seen Kaze get the coppers from Hishigawa,
looked up and eyed Kaze shrewdly. “What service is that, Samurai-sama?”

“When you go through the valley of the reeds, or perhaps before then, you may be stopped by some men. If you are, they will ask you if you have seen two men with a pushcart. All you have to do is say no. As you can see, we are four men with a pushcart, so you won’t even have to lie. Can you do that?”

“Hai. Yes, Samurai-sama.”

Kaze held out the coppers, and the peasant reached forward with both hands cupped together. Kaze dropped the coppers into the old man’s hands. The peasant put his hands together and brought them up to his forehead in a sign of gratitude. “Rest assured, Samurai-sama, I shall say nothing.”

“Good.”

Kaze rejoined the group and started moving the pushcart down the path.

“You should have killed him,” Hishigawa said. As a samurai, Kaze had the right to kill any peasant for any reason.

“Perhaps,” Kaze observed mildly, “but so many men have already died on this journey, and there is no need to add another. Besides, I don’t like to use a dead man’s sword to kill another.”

D
arkness fell before the men reached the mountain path branch, so they pulled the cart off the path and fell down around it, exhausted. Hishigawa told Hanzo to get the iron pot from the cart and make some tea.

“It’s all muddy,” Hanzo said.

“Nonsense,” Hishigawa said. “Only tea water is boiled in that pot.”

“Well, it appears—”

“Don’t bother,” Kaze said. “We shouldn’t make a fire tonight anyway. If we stay quiet and the bandits come down the trail tonight, they’ll miss us in the dark. If we make a fire, they’ll certainly see us.

After some grumbling by Hishigawa, Kaze prevailed, and the men
made a meager supper of some cold brown rice that Hanzo and Goro had brought with them.

The next morning, Goro was up first. He looked about him in the half-light of dawn and saw that all the others were still sleeping soundly. Stealthily, he got up and crept to the pushcart. He looked at the strongbox on the cart, reached out with one hand, and speculatively fingered the rope tying the treasure chest to the cart.

“Even if you took some, I’d find you.”

Goro jumped in surprise, spinning around to find the ronin standing behind him, watching him.

“You scared me, Samurai-sama!” Goro said. “I was, ah, I was …”

“I promised you gold,” Kaze said, “but you must earn it.”

“I wasn’t thinking about stealing!”

“Of course not. Now come with me into the woods so we can gather some roots for breakfast.”

E
arly in the morning the men returned to the branch in the path and turned onto the road to the mountain. Soon the path grew stonier and started rising in elevation, which made moving the push-cart harder. The men were pushing the cart up a path cut into the lower slope of a volcanic mountain. The gray rock was pierced with sparse outcroppings of the most tenacious plants, but otherwise it was bare and forbidding. The desolate nature of the surroundings silenced even Goro and Hanzo; the only sound was the grunting of the men, the creaking of the cart wheels, and the rush of a river, down the slope from the path.

Hot and thirsty, the men stopped the cart. Goro picked up the water jug from the cart and peered inside. “It’s almost empty,” he said.

Kaze pointed down to the river, rushing at the foot of the path. “There’s an unlimited supply of fresh water,” he said.

Goro and Hanzo made their way down the long incline to the river with the jug to fetch fresh water. All the way down the slope, the two men were arguing.

“When we get paid for this job, I think we should pool our money and start a business,” Hanzo said.

“Well, I want to keep my money and enjoy myself. We’ll be in Kamakura and can have a lot of fun. If we have enough, I might want to go and see the new capital, Edo.”

“Wasting money on pleasure is not the way to wealth. We should save it for a business.”

“What business?”

“How should I know? We’ll decide that after we see how much money we get. The samurai said gold.”

“The samurai didn’t even have copper. He had to get the money for the old peasant from the merchant. The merchant said copper.”

They reached the river. It was full from the recent rains and flowing swiftly. Goro got on a large rock, bent down, and dipped the jug into the swiftly flowing current to fill it. Standing up, he said, “Regardless of whether it’s gold or copper, I want to have a good time with it.”

“You’re stupid,” Hanzo said. “A business is the right thing to do with it.”

“You don’t even know what business to be in. You’re the one who’s stupid!”

“I am not!”

“You are too!”

His face red with anger, Hanzo gave Goro a push. Goro, off balance because he was holding a heavy jug, staggered backward, slipping off the rock and into the rushing river. He was instantly swept up by the river’s current, moving downstream at a rapid rate.

“Help!” Hanzo screamed. He looked up the slope at Kaze and Hishigawa. “Please help! Goro can’t swim, and neither can I!”

Kaze handed his sword to Hishigawa and started running down the road, following Goro’s progress in the river. When he caught up with the hapless peasant, he plunged down the steep slope to the river, keeping to his feet with amazing balance.

“Try to hold on to a rock,” Kaze shouted to Goro.

The peasant heard the command and tried to flail out and secure himself to a rock. He wasn’t able to, but his efforts slowed him down as Kaze leapt from rock to rock in an effort to reach the peasant. Finally, seeing that he was as close as he was going to get by acting like a mountain goat, Kaze plunged into the foaming river.

Swimming with the current, Kaze avoided being thrown against the rocks that studded the stream. Right before he reached Goro, the peasant disappeared under the water. Hanzo, who could still see the two bobbing heads moving ever farther away, gave a great groan when he saw his friend disappear under the swirling water.

Kaze reached the spot where Goro had vanished and dove under the water, frantically searching for the peasant. He realized that he could be dashed against a rock or drowned himself, but he focused on trying to save the quarrelsome peasant and put such considerations out of his mind. He looked about underwater, but the water was too turbulent and murky. He surfaced to see if Goro had made his way to the top again, didn’t see him, took a quick breath, and dove under the surface once more. Reaching out into the swirling water, his hand brushed against a piece of cloth. Propelling himself forward with a powerful kick, he grabbed the cloth with his strong grip and held on to it with tenacity.

Breaking the surface of the water, he hauled the peasant, gasping and coughing, back into the sweet air.

Kaze swam to a quiet eddy in the river and dragged the peasant onto the shore. Goro continued to cough, spitting up water.

Hanzo, who had made his way downstream, rushed to the side of his friend, holding him in his arms. “Goro, Goro! Please forgive me! It was stupid of me to push you. Please say you forgive me.”

Goro looked up into Hanzo’s face, then spit up a mouthful of water into it.

“You idiot!” Hanzo said.

“You were the one who just said he was an idiot.”

“I said I was stupid to push you. That’s not the same thing as being an idiot.”

“Well, then you’re stupid.”

“If I’m stupid, then you’re an idiot.”

Kaze shook his head and started making his way back up the stream to the place where Hishigawa was waiting with the pushcart. He was sitting on the money chest, resting his feet as Kaze came up the slope.

“I can see the peasant didn’t drown,” Hishigawa said casually, pointing to Goro and Hanzo, also making their way up stream and still arguing. “This has been a terrible waste of time.”

Kaze said nothing but took back the sword from Hishigawa and also sat on the cart to rest. Goro and Hanzo made their way up the slope, miraculously stopping their bickering. They came up to the cart and dropped to their knees in front of Kaze. They bent down with their hands on either side of their heads and touched their foreheads to the ground in a deep kowtow.

“Thank you for saving me, Samurai-sama,” Goro said. “I will be eternally grateful.”

“Thank you for saving my friend,” Hanzo said. “I am sorry my foolish act caused you so much trouble.”

“Get up,” Kaze said gruffly. “I didn’t want Goro’s dead body stinking up the river, so I had to save him before he drowned.”

Surprised, the two peasants looked up. When they saw the small smile on Kaze’s face, they both started laughing.

Kaze’s kimono was barely dry when they pushed the cart around a corner and were confronted by a half dozen armed men waiting a good distance up the narrow road. At the sight of the pushcart, the men started advancing, swords and spears at the ready.

“That old man must have betrayed us,” Hishigawa said. “He told them we were heading back to the mountain path.”

“Probably,” Kaze said. “Wait here.” He walked behind the cart a short distance until he could get a clear view of the twisting road behind
them. Coming up the mountain path were four men. They were armed with swords and spears, too.

They were trapped.

Kaze approached the cart. “There are men coming up the path, too.”

Hishigawa looked at the narrow path, with the mountain on one side and the steep slope down to the river on the other. There was no place to move the cart, except either up or down the path. Looking at the samurai with terror in his eyes, he asked, “What should we do?”

“Hurry,” Kaze said, “we only have a few minutes.”

“What is it?”

“With the men coming up the trail and the six ahead of us, there are ten men to fight.”

“You’ll fight ten men?” the merchant said, incredulous.

“If I must. I hope not to.” He took out his sword.

“Are we going to fight, too?” Hanzo said, with a quiver to his voice. “I said we weren’t fighters.”

“No, you’re not going to fight. Just keep out of the way. I have an idea. Perhaps none of us will have to fight.”

“What is it?” Hishigawa asked.

“Just watch.”

Kaze walked to the cart and used his sword to cut the ropes holding the strongbox to the cart. As he finished, the two groups of men coming up and down the path saw each other, the cart trapped between them.

“Help me,” Kaze said urgently. He grabbed one end of the heavy strongbox. Hanzo, still not understanding Kaze’s plan, rushed to take the other end.

“Now, what, Samurai-sama?” he asked.

“Help me move it away from the cart.”

“What are you doing?” Hishigawa said, a touch of alarm in his voice.

“Just watch,” Kaze answered.

Kaze and Hanzo staggered to the edge of the road just as the two groups of men converged on the cart.

“Give us the gold,” one of the bandits shouted.

“If you want the gold, you must work for it,” Kaze said.

Kaze suddenly took his end of the box and dropped it over the edge of the road. Hanzo, who was unable to hold the box on his own, gave a cry and almost dove off the road to try to catch the box. Kaze grabbed him by the collar of his kimono and shouted to the ban-dits,“You better go after it before the gold gets washed away in the river.”

Hishigawa gave a cry of pain, and Goro stood horrified as the box tumbled down the mountainside, end over end, making its long way down to the bottom of the mountain and into the river with a splash. The bandits stood mesmerized as the box somersaulted its way down the slope. The men formed a frozen tableau, watching the gold receding from their grasp. Suddenly, all the bandits started scrambling down the slope, some slipping in the loose dirt, one actually falling and sliding down the slope on his face.

“My gold!” Hishigawa sobbed.

“Samurai-sama, why did you do that?” Hanzo cried.

Kaze, seeing the road ahead was clear, said, “Quick, let’s get out of here.”

He reached over and grabbed one of the shafts of the pushcart.

“Why are you taking the cart?” Hishigawa said. “It’s worthless now that you’ve gotten rid of the gold.”

Kaze commanded, “Do as I tell you. Take the cart. Come on, let’s go!”

Looking bewildered, Goro and Hanzo resumed their positions behind the cart pushing, but Hishigawa refused to grab on the cart’s shaft to pull.

“It’s still heavy,” Goro grunted.

“But not as heavy as when that strongbox was on the cart,” Kaze said. “Come on, let’s hurry.”

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