Ju-long crouched behind a pile of rails, arrows hissing past his head. Of all the Central Pacific Railroad workers, he was the only one who had known that the attack was coming, who had prepared a place of shelter.
But then, he was the only one who must enter the fight unarmed.
Behind him, the white workers had pulled out guns or run for horses. There were no other Chinese here today, their safety secured by the Cabal, along with the feathered coup stick clutched tight in Ju-long’s hand.
Tension knotted his guts as he peered at the Indian braves. They stalked through the mounds of dirt and heaps of wooden sleepers, most with weapons raised, some carrying torches and axes to destroy the railway workings. The shaman was near the back, directing them with his own coup stick.
It was a good thing for Ju-long that he had a plan.
He waited for a moment when he was not observed, then crept forward to the next stack of rails, and then a mound of dirt beyond that, as careful and precise as if her were setting Go pieces on the board. Every moment was planned, each step bringing him closer to controlling his opponent.
If only he could have used the magic of the Go stones. But the Cabal understood that, in the battle for America, one must learn to win the enemy’s games.
A group of white men charged out of a ditch, wielding picks and shovels. Ju-long dived beneath a wagon as a brutal melee erupted around him. The Indian braves easily cut down their attackers, men Ju-long had worked with, talked with, shared tea with. He saw Olaf Gunderson fall, blood streaming from his neck. Brin Rourke stiffened as the shaman hit him with his coup stick, then turned at the shaman’s command and started attacking his friends.
Fearing for his own life, Ju-long shrank into the shadows beneath the cart, even as he felt the sadness of Olaf’s loss. He had been a good man.
Now the whole construction site was a surging mass of bodies, the smells of blood and smoke filling the air. Men fought with reckless bravery, the sheer chaos of their struggle ruining Ju-long’s plan. There could be no careful advance now, no creeping from cover to cover.
He looked at the coup stick. Of course he could not win by calculation. Counting coup was not that sort of game.
It was a game of braves.
Across the workings, the shaman was advancing toward the men defending a locomotive. He was guarded not just by braves but by three white men who moved with lurching obedience, their souls under his thrall.
Taking a deep breath, Ju-long scrambled from beneath the wagon, and he ran.
Bullets whistled past him, the rifle-wielding whites mistaking him for another brave. The Indians lashed out at him with axes and spears, seeing a stranger in their midst. Something hit him and his legs went weak with pain, but he kept running even as blood ran hot down his side. There was more at stake here than him. He was just one piece on the game board.
His strength was fading, his body threatening to give in on him. With a last surge of will he summoned the spirit of the game, channelling a strength and daring he had never known before. It was exhilarating. He felt so alive.
The shaman turned, looking in confusion at Ju-long. But he was too late.
Ju-long ducked beneath an attack and leapt, touching the shaman with his stick. As he rolled in the dirt he saw the shaman stiffen, an angry fire battling with the coup magic clouding his eyes.
“You have me, brave.” He looked at Ju-long. “What is your will?”
“Your men will not attack me.” Ju-long clutched his side. He felt weak, too weak for a long battle of wills.
“Of course.” The shaman held up his hands and the Indians backed off, not just from Ju-long but from the relieved looking white men. “The attack is over.”
“No.” Ju-long shook his head. He had lived and worked with those men, but European power was still the enemy, expanding like a blight across the continent. The Cabal had their own plans for this land. “I am here to offer alliance. Kill them, and then we will talk.”
The shaman raised his coup stick, the fire gleaming more brightly in his eyes.
“Gladly,” he said.
With a series of war whoops, the fighting began again.
* * *
This story was inspired by Joel Zawada, who wanted to see more of the world of my previous story ‘Straight Poker‘. I refined the idea through a couple of Writing Excuses exercises. Thanks to Ben, Cas, Brittany and Liza for helping me develop my thinking and pick Ju-long as the protagonist. You folks pushed me to take this in an interesting direction, and I expect I’ll be back to this world again before too long.
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