By Zhu Yue
Translated by Jianan Qian
He had a strong, muscular figure, pitch black skin, and hair the color of gold. He rode a sturdy black horse, drifting from one town to another, never staying long. After he arrived, he would find a tavern for a whiskey, then visit a brothel, then a casino. When he spent all the gold nuggets in his sack, he would hitch up his horse and leave. No one knew where he went or where he had gotten all his gold. No one even knew his name. He came to be known only as the Black Baron.
One night, when the Black Baron got dead drunk, a wicked man tried to ferret out the source of the gold nuggets. But the Black Baron held fast to his secret. He said that his conscience was clear, that the gold was not stolen. After downing more whiskey, he added that getting the gold nuggets was not easy and it became harder and harder because it hurt more each time.
When the Black Baron rode out of town, the wicked man snuck after him. The wicked man was crafty indeed. Even across open land, he found ways to conceal himself and spy on the Black Baron. The wicked man followed his prey to a silent, secluded valley. By then, it was night. The Black Baron dismounted near a crumbling cliff and gathered branches to make a fire. The wicked man climbed a hill opposite to observe his target through a spyglass. He saw the Black Baron kneeling and murmuring something into the fire, as though in prayer. Next, the Black Baron slipped off his shirt, pressed the muzzle of his pistol against his left shoulder, and Qian lifted his head, squeezing his eyes shut. Muscles taut, he drew the pistol back and pulled the trigger. Right after this he aimed down and shot his left leg twice.
The Black Baron fell to the ground, twitched a few times, then lay dead still. After a long while, he strained to lift himself up. He took out a small knife from his pants pocket and held it over the fire, watching it glow. Then, clenching a branch between his teeth, he started cutting into his flesh. He dug out something from his shoulder and wiped the bloody object against his pant leg. It glinted gold in the firelight. The Black Baron grinned, mesmerized. Digging into his leg took even longer. When he was finished, the Black Baron slumped in exhaustion.
The wicked man was stunned. He quickly left the valley to report to his boss what he had seen. This boss was no businessman; he was a bandit leader, notorious for his cruelty.
By the time the Black Baron showed up in another town, it was two months later and he had regained his ox-like strength. But he had no idea that the men had gotten tired of waiting for him to reappear. Like before, the Black Baron drank with abandon, went to prostitutes, hit the casino, then left on his horse. As he crossed into the wilderness, the bandits surrounded him with guns drawn, leaving him no hope to resist or escape. They ordered him down from his horse. Then they tied his hands, stripped his clothes, and pushed him toward two crooked trees. The bandits strung him up on a pole hanging between the branches.
The Boss came up to the Black Baron. He said he truly admired him, and were it not for the gold nuggets, the two probably would have become friends. "You’re a real tough man. You deserve to be called Black Baron," he said. "Well, I won’t torture you. I’ll tell my men to make it quick." The Black Baron simply nodded, as if in gratitude.
The bandits lined up in front of the Black Baron and fired. Gunshots echoed through the wilderness, as though from a brutal battle. Afterward, the bandits lined up behind him and emptied their chambers. Then they unbound the bullet-riddled man and, with great anticipation, unsheathed their knives. It was noon, the scorching sun high above. From the black body, the bandits carved out handful after handful of huge gold nuggets. They held the nuggets in their hands, eyes blinded by the light.
Zhu Yue is the Beijing-born author of three short story collections: The Blindfold Traveler, The Masters of Sleep, and The Chaos of Fiction.
Jianan Qian is the author of a short story collection, People Grow Old, But Won't Die, and the Chinese translator of The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller. Qian is currently a second-year fiction student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop.