|The Enmity of Horseface and Scorpion
The morning sun sent its beams through the torn paper covering the door of the insignificant shrine. The dust diffused rays revealed a vagrant sleeping on his back. One of them shone on his grimy face. Rubbing his eyes with his knuckles, he sat up and with a groan stretched his arms and legs. He stood, picked up his sword and spear, and contemplated how he would get his stomach to cease growling.
He stepped out into the forest and followed a narrow path that meandered down into farmland. A village in the distance promised a chance for food. Halfway there, he walked past a farmer tilling his field who upon seeing him, jumped up from his exertions and ran to the village shouting, “A brigand is coming!”
At the outskirts of the village, a mob, wielding farming tools, confronted the intruder. Sugi stopped and yawned. Inserting his left hand under his filthy kimono, he scratched his hairy chest and chided them. “Now, now, don’t get excited over meeting a stranger. I may look like the devil, but you should not judge a man by his appearance. If so, at least let him take a bath before your judgment.”
An elderly farmer at the head of the mob spoke, “Wa... what do you want here? If you’re ga... going to cause any tra... trouble, you’ll regret it.”
The intruder waited until the shouts of support from the rest of the mob ended, and said, “My name is Sugi, and I would like something to eat.”
“You won’t ge... get it here. Go back.”
Roars of approval changed to groans of worry as Sugi gripped his spear in both hands. “I don’t intend to take your food. I offer to earn it. I am quite skillful with this weapon.” He demonstrated; with one swoop of his spear, he sliced through the wooden handles of a hoe and a scythe. The owners fell, uncut, flat on their haunches, the metal of their tools digging harmlessly into the soil between their legs.
The elderly spokesman bowed. “My wife can pa... prepare a simple bre... breakfast.”
Sugi grinned. “Lead the way old man.”
Two days later, three men from the south side of the nearby town approached the village to collect protection money. Their boss, Horseface, was ruthless. Knowing they were feared, they didn’t expect any trouble from the villagers.
Sugi sat unnoticed against a persimmon tree, a fruit in his hand and a blade of rice straw in his mouth. As the men came abreast of the tree, he called out, “Do you intend to go into that village?”
The men swiveled as one towards the sound, their hands on the hilt of their swords. One of them yelled, “Who’s there? Come out, weasel.”
Sugi stood, spit out the straw, and took a bite from the persimmon. “My, my, there’s no need to be rude so early in the day. Let me introduce myself. My name is Sugi. I’m the toll receiver.”
The three laughed. “You’re mistaken,” one of them said, “You’re the blade receiver.” They pulled out their swords, spreading out into the field to attack Sugi from the center and flanks.
Sugi threw the fruit, hitting squarely the face of the foe in front. Running, he attacked the one on the right, thrusting the spear into the gut. He yanked the spear up, ripping through the heart and freeing the blade in a fountain of blood. He swirled and skewered the man rushing from the opposite side. Releasing the spear, Sugi whipped out his sword in an upward arc, fending the downward blow from the persimmon stained foe. Before the man could recover, Sugi’s sword sliced cleanly through him.
He wiped his sword, sheathed it, and retrieved his spear. He collected their blades and sighed. “I’d rather be a toll receiver. Less work.”
Several hours later, Horseface, was becoming impatient. He packed a pinch of tobacco into the tiny bowl of his pipe and lit it with a rice straw ignited from an ember in the hibachi heating his small room. Footsteps approached and stopped, a voice penetrated the paper door. “Boss, some peasants have brought the bodies of the three tax collectors you sent.”
Horseface coughed out smoke. “What!? Where are they?”
The door slid open to reveal a tall broad shouldered man in a layer of kimonos. As his name suggested, he had the long face of a horse. Suspecting his rival, Scorpion, who controlled the north side of breaking their truce, he was furious. Gripping his sword, he strode into the hall. Bumping into and bowling over the messenger, he yelled, his voice booming throughout the house, “Fool! Follow me.”
He stepped outside. Prostrate in the dust of the road were four farmers. Horseface demanded, “What happened?”
One of the farmers, his face an inch from the dirt spoke, “Ray... raiders attacked our village. Your men died pro... protecting us.”
“How many were there?”
“You se... sent three.”
“You idiot, I meant the raiders.”
“I cu... couldn’t count... so many.”
“You coward, did you see nothing else?”
“They ca... carried off three of our women.”
Horseface kicked dust into the farmer’s face. “Go back to your farms, you worthless piece of shit.”
Horseface had his men gather. Standing in the hall opening into the yard, he boasted, “Boys, we’re going to show Scorpion he can’t push into our turf. Get ready for some killing.”
He had Fox, his ablest lieutenant, plan revenge; three of their rivals had to die. Fox chose his two best men. Disguising himself as a shamisen player, he had one disguise himself as a beggar monk, and the other a blind masseuse. They infiltrated their rival’s territory, and by the appointed hour had selected their victims.
The monk followed one of Scorpion’s men. Seeing him enter a noodle shop, he took up position just outside with his beggar bowl in his hand. When his victim stepped out, he begged, “Please, a penny for a prayer.” As the man put his hand into his kimono for his purse, his eyes bulged and his lips pulled back, revealing crooked stained teeth. The monk withdrew his stiletto from the victim’s heart, sat him leaning against the wall, and, as promised, raised his hand in prayer and left.
The masseuse tapping his cane entered a brothel. Stooping and bowing, he sniffed and turned towards the scent of perfume. “Are any of your customers interested in a comforting massage after their exertions?”
The proprietor spoke, “I’m sure some are, but before I let you do business here, I’d like a demonstration.”
“I would be glad to. Who would you like me to show my craft on?”
“On myself, of course. Take my hand. I’ll lead you to my room.”
She slid the door open. As they entered the room the smell of incense wafted into the corridor. Standing in the middle of the room, she said, “Help me take off this kimono.”
His hand caressed her neck. “Madam’s skin is softer than the finest silk.”
“Don’t be thinking of pleasure, just show your skill at releasing the tension in my neck and shoulders.”
“My apologies. Please lie down.”
He straddled her back, both knees on the floor, and placed his hands on either side of her head. He opened his eyes and saw they were alone. Twisting her head with a powerful jerk, he broke her neck with an audible crack. He whispered into her ear, “All the tension is gone, sweet mistress.” Surveying the room, he saw a window and escaped.
The shamisen player walked through the streets of the town softly stroking the strings of his instrument, singing his songs, and swaying his body in sinuous rhythm. His delicate features gave him a feminine grace, while his painted face advertised his business. Watching the hips of the shamisen player was Crow, his eyes as black as the bird of his namesake. High in the hierarchy of Scorpion’s gang, his status had been won the hard bloody way. He leaned out the window, and with a smile, invited, “Would you come in and move me with a song?”
The player paused in his song and dipping his head, said, “Gladly.” Sliding the door open, he entered his customer’s home saying the traditional salutation, “I shall intrude.” Crow led him to a back room facing the garden and placed a cushion on the floor for him. The player sat down and played his songs while reciprocating the meaningful gaze of Crow.
Half an hour later the shamisen player was ready to depart. Crow, suspended from a beam by the shamisen string wrapped around his neck, blocked the way. The shamisen player pushed Crow aside causing him to swing. As the string rubbed against wood, an eerie note filled the room to accompany the soft singing of Fox and the low gurgling of Crow.
When the trio returned, they saw on the stone floor, just inside the entrance of Horseface’s home, a man lying blindfolded and bound. Fox still holding the shamisen looked up at his boss and asked, “Who’s this?”
Horseface smirked. “One of Scorpion’s men. He’s going to send a message for us.”
Fox spoke, “Boss, there’s something fishy going on. Everything was too easy. None of our victims were on guard. The peasants might be pulling one over on us.”
“Those shivering cowards? Nah, I don’t believe it.”
“They might have hired mercenaries.”
“So, you’re saying, we made an unprovoked attack on Scorpion... Damn! If it's true, he’s not going to sit still. He’ll act to keep his honor."
"If we fight Scorpion, we’ll be doing what the mercenaries want.”
"It's hard to believe those peasants have the guts to oppose me. We need to find out the truth."
“I could go to the village. If they hired mercenaries, I'll bring one back alive. It might prevent a war.”
“Hmm. So, what’s your plan?”
At the next dawn, Fox had a dozen men positioned around the village. At his signal they swooped into the village. They searched for the mercenaries, yelling and kicking open doors, but found only crouching terrified villagers.
They gathered them in the center of a field. Fox approached the crouching mass. He pointed at a quaking farmer and screamed, “Where are they?”
“I... I don’t know wa... what you’re talking about.”
Fox kicked him. “Liar! I’ll give you one more chance. Where are your mercenaries?”
Another farmer shouted, “We haven’t hired anyone except you.”
Fox knocked him down. “I didn’t ask you.” He grabbed a boy away from his mother and put a dagger to his throat. “One more time. Where are they?”
The boy’s mother prostrated herself at Fox’s feet. “Please, if you must kill someone, kill me.”
Fox kicked her away and tossed the boy on top of her. “Take your smelly monkey.” Turning to his men, he said, “We’ve been tricked. They’re not here. Run back to the town.”
In the north part of town, a man ran to the gate of Scorpion’s home. The guards recognized him and let him through. At the door he was stopped and told to wait. A few minutes later the man was allowed to enter and was escorted to Scorpion’s room. Scorpion asked, “What news do you bring?”
The man bowed. “Half of Horseface’s men went south on the road to the farming village.”
Scorpion tossed him a coin. “Well done.” Dismissing him with a wave of his meaty hand, he turned to the other man in the room. “It’s as you said things would happen. It was a brilliant plan. When this is over, I’ll appease the souls of the three I sacrificed.”
Sugi bowed. “Thank you.” Grabbing a bamboo scratcher, he relieved an itch on his back and rose, “I’ll gather the men in the yard.”
Soon, Scorpion heard the clamor of men. He pushed his stout frame off the tatami with a grunt, stepped out, and faced his men. “We have word Horseface has only half his men with him. Fortune has given us this chance to avenge the deaths of our brethen. Uphold your honor! Kill our enemy!”
The men roared their approval, the gates were swung open, and Scorpion with his twenty-five men raced toward the house of Horseface.
The shouts of approaching men warned the two guards at the gates of Horseface’s dwelling of an imminent attack. In haste, they closed and barred the thick wooden doors of the gate and clanged the heavy iron bell again and again, commanding their comrades to rush to battle.
Scorpion’s men turned the last corner and stopped at the gate. Two men leaned a ladder on the wall encircling Horseface’s residence. Four men, two of them carrying nets, scaled the wall and waited for the gate keepers to approach. The guards, expecting the enemy to leap down onto the grounds, rushed blindly into the trap. The attackers threw the nets over the guards, ensnaring them. Jumping down, they easily killed the guards and opened the gate.
The men roared as they rushed toward the house. The path, bordered on both sides by thorn laced hedges, hemmed in the men, slowing them down. The vanguard burst out into the yard; four large doors slid open, revealing five kneeling archers, their right arms and shoulders exposed, pulling back feathered arrows. The song of arrows whistling through the air was rapidly accompanied by screams of agony as the arrows pierced cloth and skin.
Five men, Horseface in the center, brushed past the archers and leapt onto the ground. Arrows whizzing overhead, the men smashed into the foe. They pushed the enemy momentarily back as the clang of steel meeting steel accompanied the screams of men stabbed and slashed. But there were too many, and as the men around Horseface were cut down, the archers tossed their bows aside to battle beside him with their blades.
Scorpion and his men encircled the six, and like a pack of wolves isolated them one by one, slaughtering them with ease. When hope was dying in Horseface’s heart a cry was heard; Fox had returned with a dozen men. Spilling into the yard, strewed with the dead and dying, they flew into the fray with desperate fury.
Scorpion shouted, “Sugi, lead our men. Kill the swine! I’ll take care of Horseface.”
Horseface stood alone, breathless. In the confusion caused by the entry of Fox, Horseface saw his chance. Jumping into the house, he taunted Scorpion, “Come fight me without your jackals, worm.” He slowly backed deeper into the room, enticing his foe. Scorpion rushed into the house as Horseface disappeared into the adjoining room.
Scorpion kicked off his straw sandals. Slowly and silently he proceeded down the hall. Sweat streaked down his face as he strained to hear a breath or movement from his foe.
Unknown to Scorpion, one of his men was tightly bound at the entrance of the house. Hearing the sounds of battle, he had renewed his attempts at escape.
Scorpion heard a rustle straight ahead. He smirked, Horseface really is trying to escape, he thought.
Horseface stood next to the sliding door, paper covering the wooden lattice. He held his breath as he heard the creak of a heavy weight on the wooden planks of the floor. The silhouette of Scorpion appeared. He plunged his sword through the paper. Blood spattered the door testifying to his accuracy. He withdrew his sword, and Scorpion crashed through the door and into the room. Horseface raised his sword and severed the head of Scorpion.
He grasped the long loose hair, lifted the head, and spitting into its face, said, “I’ll feed you to the crows.” As he headed back to the yard, the sounds of battle diminished and ceased. Wondering if he needed to fight again, he entered the room opening out into the yard.
The battle was over. Fox and Sugi, spattered with blood, stood alone and together. They turned to look at the victor holding the head of the slain. “Damn!” spoke Sugi. “You win, Fox.”
Horseface, utterly exhausted, could only look at the two smiling men. Finally, it sunk through. “You tricked us. You tricked both of us into fighting.”
A spear flew into Horseface’s chest, toppling him over flat on his back, and pinning him to the floor. Scorpion’s head, released, hit the wall and bounced back against Horseface’s body. Sugi went to retrieve his spear. Pulling it out, he saw Horseface and Scorpion staring into each other’s dead eyes.
He joined Fox and asked, “How did you know Horseface would win?”
Fox put his arm on Sugi’s shoulder and confessed, “I knew something you didn’t.” As they walked through the carnage he told him of the man bound and gagged in the entrance of the house, and advised him on the art of gambling.
They walked through the gate and into the street, parting the crowd that had gathered. Fox asked Sugi, “Shall we go to the village to collect our reward?”
Sugi scratched his stomach and answered, “Hell, yeah. We earned it... but maybe I should go alone. You terrorized them.”
Fox smiled. “I’m sure they’ll see I’m really a gentle soul.”