1b – The Monk

THE MONK

ONE
“A Train Derailment is Always a Bad Thing”

all-the-seas-and-riversA derailment is always a bad thing, for anyone. But especially for the Huobu.

Jimmy Fu leaped from the overturned cattle car and, through the dust and desert night, landed on a large boulder with one sandaled foot. He tossed his Huobu stick-and-sack into the arms of a nearby saguaro cactus. From the top of the boulder, in the gray smooth light of the September moon, he could see the entire length of the train, rolled over on its side, crumpled and tumbled in places.

Far ahead and around a slight bend in the tracks, the fallen cars glowed in the thrashing yellow light of flame. Not just at the engine where fire was meant to be, but three or four cars behind it. The passenger cars.

This was his train now. His two traveling companions were crushed under the iron frame of the cattle car when its wooden siding peeled away against the desert hardpack. They had died good Huobu deaths, their fortunes read out and packed away.

This was his train now.

Jimmy Fu bounded from the boulder, back onto the cattle car, and began long-striding down the length of the dying train, taking each car in two leaps, three at most. He was grateful: the cattle cars were all empty. The train was on a return trip to the ranches of Chayan from the beef market in Costilla. The cows are gone, sold. No one to suffer harm but human beings.

As he bounded toward the flames, he noticed four unfamiliar box cars. These are new. There had been no freight when we pulled into San Caniche.

He renewed his focus and leaped over the first box car. Not a thought to these. Nothing but material goods down there. Ahead, people were scrambling out of the passenger cars, fleeing the blaze. He must help them.

This was his train, his duty. He was a warrior, a penniless wanderer, a Huobu monk. The train was his sword to sharpen and his escort to defend.

The founder of the Huobu School, whose name was Lu Long at the time, saw his first train during a diplomatic visit to Jackland.

When the Emperor of the Banner decided to send his daughter Shou Yan to tour the Flag Lands—and demonstrate to all of the outer world the grace and civility and beauty of the true civilization—only the best swordsman would do as her escort. So, he summoned the warriors of highest reputation from each of the four corners of Shou, and from the central province of Du, to a contest in the Capital City.

Lu Long was the man summoned from Du.

These warriors were hard-minded, trained by fighting monks, armed by the most gifted weapon-smiths in Shou. They came prepared to fight, perhaps to die, certain the Emperor had a brutal competition in store. Whom but the deadliest fighter could he trust to escort his princess among the uncooked savages of the outer world?

When the five warriors finally stood before the Emperor and his court (including the beautiful Shou Yan herself), their hearts were thundering in the anticipation of battle. Who would be called to fight first? Which swordsman would be pitted against whom?

“Lao Jun,” the Emperor called. The warrior from Mo Province stepped forward and prostrated himself before the Imperial presence. Everyone awaited the name of his opponent.

“Who made your sword?” the Emperor asked.

Lao Jun was confused, but dare not look at the Emperor for assurance that he had heard correctly. From his bent stance, he answered: “Your Majesty, my father forged this sword in his youth and passed it to me. May it be forever in the service of Your Imperial Highness.”

“That is good. You may step back in line.”

Next, the Emperor called Hua Gang of Tsaodi Province, and asked him the same question. His sword, Hua Gang told the Emperor, was made by a master smith of the Hongse Temple in the far west of the Empire. The Emperor told him: “That is good. You may step back in line.”

And so it went with the other warriors, until at last the Emperor came to Lu Long.

“Lu Long. Who made your sword?”

“Son of the Southern Star, nobody can make a sword.”

The members of the court took a breath. Several of them took a step backward. The Emperor smiled, but Lu Long could not see it, as he was facing the floor. After several quiet moments, during which neither the Emperor nor Lu Long moved in the slightest, Shou Yan leaned toward her father in curiosity. He waved the Princess permission to speak.

“Lu Long,” she said. “Four of the finest swordsmen in Shou have answered before you that their swords were indeed made, by their fathers,  by master smiths, or by their own hand. Do you contradict them?”

“Indeed, Daughter of Light, my sword came from my own forge. But I did not make it there. I found it, in the charwood, the fire that grew thereon, in the bricks of the oven that contained it, in the metal of the ore, and the water of the cooling basin. The sword existed, in spirit and potential, long before then. My role at the anvil was as a midwife’s role at the birthing bed.”

“Lu Long,” spoke the Emperor. “You have shown your worth. A man humble before even the weapon in his hand, tempered in his own forge, is a fit escort for my Princess. You will go with her to the Flag Lands of the outer world and defend her against all dangers. And, you may choose a company of swordsmen to go with you.”

“My Emperor,” said Lu Long, still prostrate against the throne room floor. “To answer the question of the princess, I would choose my four companions standing behind me. They each answered honestly and respectfully. I would never contradict such men, nor rob them of the honor of escorting the Princess on her tour of the outer world. If it is the will of Your Majesty.”

The Emperor knew he had chosen well in Lu Long. The five were shown to the Imperial flotilla, and provisioned for their long journey.

Both passenger cars were empty by the time Jimmy Fu reached them.

The monk landed flat on his belly next to a window of the first car, gripped the frame, folded the upper half of his body inside, and looked around. Satisfied that the car was empty, he lifted his head from the smoldering car, tucked his knee against his chest, set his sandal against the window frame, and pushed his body into the air.

He landed on the sloped side of the next passenger car as quiet as a hunting jaguar. Before Fu could peek inside, a man scrambled out of an open window, slid sideways down the face of the car, tumbled over an iron wheel, and landed between the empty tracks on his back, with a grunt and both boots in the air. His bowler hat rolled off into a stand of cactus.

Jimmy quickly poked his head inside the car and looked around. Empty, except for scattered baggage, broken seats and a crackling fire at each end. The smell of lamp oil and burning wood was strong in the air. The whole thing would be ablaze soon.

Jimmy pulled his head from the car and glanced around. The passengers were gathering in the desert at the edge of the firelight—standing, sitting in the dust, nursing wounds, some kneeling and praying. He located the conductor, vigilant to one side with a pistol in his hand. They all seemed safe. He looked down at the man who had just slipped out of the car.

The man’s duster was on fire, and he suddenly noticed it. He squawked in terror and rolled around between the rails, slapping wildly at the flames. The seam of the coat was dark with lamp oil.

Jimmy Fu leaped from the train into the fire-lit desert. The cluster of coughing, weeping passengers backed away in surprise as he landed in a crouch. He scooped the dust in both palms, made a ball with his hands, and launched himself again into the air.

The Huobu landed with one sandal on the burning longcoat, pinning the man to the cross ties. The man tugged at Jimmy’s ankle in desperation, but the monk’s stance was as solid as a tree.

“Git yer foot off’n me, ya filthy hobo!”

Jimmy Fu spread the sand over the burning cloth in a single smooth sweep of his hands. The flames vanished.

He heard voices shouting, fists pounding against wood. His eyes darted to the box between the passenger cars and the engine.  It was windowless and ringed in flame. The man in the burnt longcoat let go of the monk’s foot and tried to spin around to see where the sounds were coming from. The survivors  in the desert grew quiet.

“¡Socorro!”

“¡En la cocina!”

“¡Ayúdanos!”

A women shrieked in realization and the conductor shouted: “The kitchen car!” Several men set their boots toward the train, but Jimmy Fu was already in the air.

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