Counting Coup – a #FlashFriday story

Posted: February 13, 2015 in story
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Picture by takomabibelot via Flickr Creative Commons

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.

If you’d like to receive these stories direct to your inbox every Friday, please sign up for my mailing list. You’ll also receive a free copy of Riding the Mainspring, my steampunk anthology, which includes two more weird west stories, ‘The Cast Iron Kid’ and ‘The Horse Whose Hooves Cried Thunder’.

And as always, if you have an idea for one of my future flash Friday stories, or are writing Flash Friday stories yourself and would like my readers to see them, then leave a comment.

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Comments
  1. glenatron says:

    Great stuff!

    An idea that I had reading that about the motives of the mysterious cabal- the Chinese are building the foundations of America and they are playing a long game, one that brings them ownership subtly, irresistibly, over decades and centuries.

    Also remember that we are in the 19th century here, the term shaman is something that has only grown popular recently ( can you guess it’s a pet peeve of mine? ) and at this time would probably only have been used in the traditional areas ( Siberia? Lapland? ) where the term originates. If you wanted to connect more to the terminology of the first peoples in America then it seems as though medicine man or elder would be more fitting, perhaps “wu” if you wanted something from Ju Loong’s culture. Not that everyone wouldn’t understand what you mean by “Shaman” – it works fine, it’s just… to me it leaches a little bit of diversity from very distinctive cultures by tying them all to this- now entirely generic – word.

    • Medicine man – that’s the phrase I was after! I knew there was something better, but couldn’t think of it. Will do that differently next time I return to this world. I didn’t know ‘wu’, but I’ll try to remember that one too.

      Your comment about the Chinese approach is pretty similar to what I have in mind. I see the styles of games as expressive of political cultures as well as magical powers in this setting. The white Americans play poker, they expand with bold gambles and risk taking. The Plains Indians are about courage, physical prowess and honest display. And the Chinese magical cabals are slowly, carefully building a web of influence. Theirs is the long game.

      I’m starting to think this could build up to something big, and possibly a very different fate for North America.

      • glenatron says:

        I don’t know about different- America is a process. If you were to imagine it as a process being steered by the Chinese with a long view to their power play, I haven’t seen much to contradict that over the last twenty years or so. The more long-sighted American commentators have been saying for a while that some kind of reckoning between the two countries is inevitable sooner or later. Maybe subtle magicians cabals would see the same and be working to make any such event a foregone conclusion.

  2. Sue Archer says:

    This is fantastic, Andrew. I love this world you are creating around games. Looking forward to more stories!

  3. […] that works. If you enjoyed this then you might also like the previous stories, Straight Poker and Counting Coup. And you can read my other weird western work in my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, […]

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