The fastest way to travel by bullock cart involves walking in front and tugging the bullock by a rope. This method is only slightly slower than walking alone unencumbered by bullock or cart, and considerably faster than riding in the cart and letting the bullock set the pace. I tried walking for a while but gave it up when I felt myself beginning to perspire. I didn’t want to sweat the tobacco juice off of my face, so I got into the creaking cart and let the bullock have it with a bamboo switch. This didn’t exactly put him in the thoroughbred league, but that was probably just as well; given the condition of the road – bumpy – and the condition of the cart – dilapidated – I don’t think a fast trip would have been advisable. I sat on the pile of straw, hunched forward to keep as much of my face hidden as possible, and let the bullock proceed at his own pace toward Tao Dan.
I spent the ride getting into character, teaching my eyes and my lips to behave as I wanted them to, teaching my body to adapt itself to the stance of a Laotian peasant. As my bullock and I neared the town, we passed other carts and an occasional car heading in the opposite direction. Now and then someone called a greeting, to which I would nod and mumble. Hardly an acid test, but I was encouraged by the fact that I did not seem to be attracting any attention.
Tao Dan turned out to be a rather busy little town, the marketplace and seat of government for the surrounding countryside. Ramshackle round huts with peaked roofs alternated with squat buildings of whitewashed concrete block. The streets were very narrow and extremely crowded. I was a new hand at the subtleties of guiding a bullock through heavy pedestrian traffic and after my beast came very close to trodding upon a little yellow infant, I gave up riding him and walked in front of him, my hat down over as much of my forehead as possible and my head and shoulders stooped. I made my way through a market street where old women sat selling bunches of indefinable vegetables, turned a corner, made my way through the local cattle market, shrugged off a variety of offers for my bullock, and generally drifted through the busy little town. It would have helped if I had known precisely who or what I was looking for, but I didn’t. It would also have helped if I had felt better physically. I was perspiring again and was sure it would have an undesirable effect upon my complexion. I had the feeling that my digestive system might be ruined beyond repair, and my head was beginning to throb, a persistent ache that began at the base of my skull and worked its way forward from there.
What had become of Dhang?
I decided that he must have found the object of his search, but it seemed unlikely that he could still be busy with a woman. Even taking his youth and the fervor of his desire into consideration, the fact remained that one could only continue that particular activity for a certain amount of time. Of course, I thought, if he had given full vent to his desires, he might well have driven himself past the point of exhaustion. Even so, a night’s sleep would have brought him awake again. Of course he might have resumed the original activity, but I hated to think it of him. We were friends, after all, and I couldn’t believe he would leave me shivering in the underbrush forever while he screwed himself silly.
What, for that matter, had become of Tuppence and the Kendall Bayard Quartet? I had the feeling that they were the prisoners of whom the old man had spoken and that they were somewhere in Tao Dan. But where were political prisoners lodged in Tao Dan? I didn’t know and I didn’t trust myself to ask directions.
I found one street that was a little less crowded than the others and hitched the bullock at the curb, tying his lead rope to a small concrete pillar erected for that express purpose. I shuffled along the street, then followed a small crowd of men into what seemed to be a cafe. Inside, men were drinking out of small handleless cups of tea. I couldn’t have any tea because I didn’t have any money. I moved to the rear of the cafe and tried to stay as deep in the shadows as possible. A dozen conversations went on at once around me. I listened to them in turn. The dialect was difficult for me to follow, and most of the conversations seemed to revolve upon the various problems inherent in the life of a peasant in Laos. The agricultural trade terms were largely unfamiliar ones, and I was pretty much at sea.
Until at length I heard a large, heavy man with a deep voice begin to talk about a criminal event that had transpired during the night. A small crowd gathered around him, anxious for details. I shouldered my way forward and listened to the storyteller.
He knew his trade well, beginning slowly, letting the excitement build. “And so you know the girl of whom I speak,” he said. “Her father is the commanding officer of the troop garrison. Just a young thing, she is, with the softest and purest skin, and a waist one could span with one’s hands, and breasts exquisitely shaped like cups of tea, and hair like fine black silk…”
He paused for a chorus of oohs and ahhs.
“And this stranger appeared, no one knows from where. A young man, crude in his ways, and followed the girl down the street. Some say she did not know she was being followed” – he lowered his voice – “and others say she well knew a man was behind her, and let her hips sway from side to side, eh? Eh?”
A low giggle rose up from the crowd.
“And he followed her, or perhaps she led him, into the house of her father. The house of her father!” The crowd bubbled at the thought, a mixture of indignation from the puritans and grudging respect from the libertines. “And in the house of her father, in the bed of her father, this wayward one prepared to take her. Some say he meant to force himself upon her and to overcome her resistance with beatings and terror” – again the voice went conspiratorially soft – “and others have it that no terror was necessary, that the girl would have willingly participated in what he wished!”
More hubbub from his listeners. It may not astonish you to learn that I had guessed the identity of the male participant in the drama. Poor Dhang, I thought. I hoped at least that he had attained the object of his desires before they killed him. At least he would have died happy.
But such was not the case.
“Fortunately,” the fat man continued, “the chastity of the little one was preserved. Fortunately her own father arrived in the nick of time, reaching his beloved daughter’s side before the culprit could complete his evil mission. With tears of frustration in his beady eyes the criminal was led away screaming.”
I could well believe it.
“And the criminal?” someone demanded.
“He shall receive the punishment that is his due.”
What else indeed? Dhang, I thought wearily, led a profoundly uncharmed life. First he had attempted to ravish a girl during the Week of Tears and Sighs, and the tears and sighs were all his own. And now, when he had settled on a succulent young Laotian girl, he had had the ill luck to select the daughter of the most powerful man in Tao Dan, the commander of the military garrison. It did not surprise me that he had been sentenced to death. But had the sentence been carried out yet?
Someone else asked the same question. “He shall die this evening,” the storyteller replied. “By nightfall” – he pointed off to his left – “his head shall decorate a post at the command headquarters.”
Not, I thought, if I could help it. Poor Dhang! I thought of the times during the night when I had accused him of treachery while he had trembled under the sentence of death. No doubt he had had the opportunity to betray me then. He could have attempted to tell them my whereabouts in exchange for his freedom. But he had kept his silence, and now, somehow, I had to find a way to free him.
I slipped unquestioned from the cafe. I stood for a moment on the sidewalk, getting my bearings. Then I retrieved my bullock and led him off in the direction the storyteller had indicated. The streets of Tao Dan were a maze, and I had to stop to ask directions to the command headquarters. I managed to select a myopic old gentleman who didn’t seem to pay much attention to my non-Laotian face.
He pointed the way and mumbled directions. I walked on, hauling the bullock along behind me. I turned a corner as indicated and stopped in front of a large whitewashed concrete building from which an unfamiliar flag was flying.
There was no question about it – this was the place. The armed guards at attention on either side of the front doors indicated this, but something else confirmed it beyond question. There was a row of high metal posts off to the side of the doorway, one of which the storyteller had said Dhang’s head would decorate.
Four posts were already decorated. I stood, holding the bullock’s rope with one hand and my own jaw with the other, and gazed horrified at the four disembodied black heads of the Kendall Bayard Quartet.
Bad as it is to discover a worm in an apple, it is considerably more unpleasant to find half a worm in an apple. By the same token, there is something infinitely more grisly in the discovery of a portion of a corpse than in stumbling upon the deceased as a unit. I stared at the heads of the four musicians, and they stared back at me. I blinked, but they did not go away. They went on staring.
“American devil dogs,” said a voice at my elbow. “Thieves and conspirators captured by our noble soldiers. See how their sightless eyes shine with evil.”
I swayed on my feet. A hand gripped my arm. I turned shakily and looked down into a gnarled and wrinkled face. “You are so pale, young one,” the old woman said. “Have you an illness?”
“I do not feel well.”
She looked over my shoulder at the four black heads. “The spectacle bothers you?”
“I have never before seen such a sight.”
“Nor have I. For all time I had thought that the American devils were white, like the accursed French. But now it seems that they are black devils. You have the pallor of a white devil yourself, young one. You are not of Tao Dan.”
“I have come from the north.”
“Ah, there is a northern touch to your speech! I thought I had recognized it. What is your village?”
My mind whirled. “I am from the countryside,” I said helplessly.
“Which village lies nearest to your home?”
“Kao Pectate,” I said. The diseased spirit offers up its own unbidden puns. I said Kao Pectate because, at the moment, I damned well needed it, but when I realized what I’d said, I wanted to crawl under a flat rock. The old crone was still clinging to my arm like a barnacle to a ship – a foundering ship, in this instance.
“I have never heard of this town,” she said.
“It is many days travel from Tao Dan.”
“So it may be.”
I felt it might be time to change the subject. “They have told me that another devil is to be beheaded,” I said.
“A madman. He attacked a young girl last evening.”
“I was told that there was a woman. A black woman.”
The hag peered shrewdly at me. “Some say that this is so. Others say that it is not. There is little talk in Tao Dan of the black woman, and few have heard of her. Who told you she was within the command headquarters?”
“There was talk in another village.”