Romance of Three Kingdoms Chapter 58


Ma Chao Launches An Expedition For Revenge;
Cao Cao Flees The Field In Disguise.

“What is this good plan of yours, friend Chen Qun?” asked Cao Cao of the speaker, who was a civilian in his service.

Chen Qun replied, “Your two principal enemies—Liu Bei and Sun Quan—are now firm allies, close as lips and teeth. But Liu Bei wants the West River Land and if you, O Prime Minister, send a mighty host against Sun Quan, Sun Quan must ask help from his friend Liu Bei, who, having his heart set on the west, will refuse it. Sun Quan without this aid cannot stand and will become so weak that the South Land will be yours for the taking, and Jingzhou will follow in a tap of the drum. The west will follow and the whole empire is yours.”

“Those are my thoughts put into words,” replied Cao Cao.

The expeditionary force of three hundred thousand troops set out for the south. Zhang Liao of Hefei was in command of the supply department.

Sun Quan speedily heard of the move and called in his advisers.

At the council Zhang Zhao said, “Let us send to Lu Su to tell him to write at once to Liu Bei that he may help us. They are good friends, and Liu Bei will certainly respond favorably. Beside, since Liu Bei and our lord are now connected by marriage, there is no risk of refusal. With the support of Liu Bei, there is no danger to our country.”

Sun Quan listened to this advice and sent to Lu Su bidding him to ask help from Liu Bei. Accordingly, on receipt of this command, a letter was written to Liu Bei, who after reading it, retained the messenger at the guest-house till Zhuge Liang could arrive from Nanjun. As soon as he arrived, Liu Bei showed him the letter.

The adviser said, “It is not necessary for the South Land’s troops to move, nor need we send ours. I can prevent Cao Cao from even daring to look in the southeast direction.”

So Zhuge Liang wrote a reply telling Lu Su:

“You can lay aside all anxiety and rest content, for if the northern army approach, they will be forced backward at once.”

The letter was given to the messenger, and then Liu Bei asked his adviser, “How could the Instructor hope to roll back the huge army of three hundred thousand troops that Cao Cao is preparing to bring south?”

Zhuge Liang replied, “Cao Cao’s chief fear is Xiliang. Now just lately he has slain Ma Teng and his sons as well, and the people of Xiliang are grinding their teeth with rage. Now you must write and ask Ma Chao to march through the pass, and Cao Cao will have no leisure to think of any expedition to the south.”

The letter was written, sent by a trusty hand, and duly delivered.

Now Ma Chao was in Xiliang. One night he had a vision. In his dream he saw himself lying out on a snowy plain and many tigers were coming up and biting him. He awoke in a fright and began to wonder what the dream portended. Failing to explain it, he told the dream to his officers. One of them ventured to say the portent was evil. This was General Pang De.

“What is your interpretation?” asked Ma Chao.

“Meeting with tigers on a snowy plain is a very inauspicious subject to dream about. Assuredly our old General is in trouble at the capital.”

And at that moment one entered in hot haste and cast himself on the earth, weeping and crying, “The Uncle and his sons are dead!”

It was Ma Dai, the nephew of Ma Teng. And he told the story of the evil: “Uncle Ma Teng and Huang Kui had planned to assassinate Cao Cao, but the plot had miscarried and become known. Ma Tie fell in the battlefield, Uncle Ma Teng and Ma Xiu were put to death in the market place, and I escaped in disguise.”

Ma Chao fell to the ground and wept bitterly, grinding his teeth with rage at his enemy Cao Cao. They lifted him to his feet and led him away to repose.

Soon after arrived a messenger with a letter from Liu Bei, which read like this:

“In these latter days of the hapless Hans, when the rebellious and tyrannical Cao Cao monopolizes all power, to the injury of the Emperor and the wretchedness of the people, I, Liu Bei, recall that your father and I were recipients of an edict and we swore to exterminate the recreant. Now your father has suffered death at the hands of the tyrant, and you must avenge him. As the holy books say, you cannot let the same sky cover you nor the same sunshine upon you and your father’s murderer. If you can lead your army to attack Cao Cao on one side, I will march my armies to prevent his retreat, and he will be taken, and all his evil crew can be exterminated. Then and thus will your father be avenged, and the Hans can be restored. I might add more, but I will await your reply.”

Wiping his tears, Ma Chao wrote a reply which was returned by the bearer.

The Xiliang army was then mustered; horse and foot were assembled. Just before the day that had been fixed for the start, the Imperial Protector of Xizhou, Han Sui, sent for Ma Chao, to whom he showed a letter from Cao Cao promising the Lordship of Xiliang as a reward for sending Ma Chao a prisoner to the capital.

“Bind us both, Uncle, and send us thither! You need not move a single spear,” said the younger man prostrating himself.

But Han Sui raised him, saying, “Your father and I were sworn brothers. Think you I would harm you? Rather will I help if you are going to fight.”

Ma Chao expressed his gratitude. The unhappy bearer of Cao Cao’s letter was dragged forth and beheaded. This done, the two took count of their armies. Han Sui had eight divisions under eight commanders—Yang Qiu, Cheng Yin, Hou Xuan, Liang Xing, Cheng Yi, Li Kan, Ma Wan, and Zhang Han—all to be relied upon to follow Han Sui. Ma Chao had two leaders, Pang De and Ma Dai. The total force was two hundred thousand troops with which the commanders march to Changan.

The Governor of that city was Zhong Yao. As soon as he heard what was afoot, he sent a fleet messenger to Cao Cao and prepared for defense. He led his force out into the open plain and arrayed it for battle.

Ma Dai, with fifteen thousand, came on first, pouring over the countryside like a flood. Zhong Yao would parley with him, but Ma Dai came forward, sword in hand, to attack. However, the defender did not take the challenge but turned and fled. Ma Dai followed in pursuit. Soon the main body of the invaders arrived, and they surrounded the city, which Zhong Yao set about defending.

Changan had been the capital of the Western Han and so was well fortified with a solid wall and a deep moat, safe against the most terrific attacks. The new armies besieged the city for ten days without success. Then Pang De proposed a plan.

Said he, “Since the land about the city is barren and the water bitter, the people must have communication with the country around in order to live. Further they have no fuel. Ten days of siege must have exhausted the supplies in the city, wherefore if we relax for a time—well, you will see. We shall capture the city without moving a finger.”

“Your plan seems excellent,” said Ma Chao, when he heard what it was.

Thereupon they sent orders to each division to retire, and Ma Chao covered the retreat. Next day Zhong Yao went up on the walls to look around and saw that the besiegers had gone. However, suspecting a ruse, he sent out spies, who returned to say the soldiers had really moved away to a distance. Wherefore he felt much relieved and allowed both soldiers and people to go out into the country to cut the much needed firewood and bring in water. The city gates, thrown wide open, were thronged with those passing in and out.

This continued for five days, and then they heard that Ma Chao’s army was returning. A panic ensued. The people rushed into the city, and the gates were once more barred.

The General of the west gate was Zhong Jing, brother of Zhong Yao. About the third watch of the night, a torch was seen moving just inside the gate; and when Zhong Jing went to see what was wrong, and was passing the gateway, a man suddenly galloped up and slashed at him with a sword.

At the same time the attacker shouted, “Here is Pang De!”

Zhong Jing was taken aback, could not defend himself and was cut down. The gate guard was soon disposed of, the gates were shattered, and the soldiers of Ma Chao and Han Sui came pouring in. Zhong Yao escaped by the opposite gate and left the city in the hands of his enemies. He reached Tong Pass, where he fortified himself and sent news of the misfortune to Cao Cao.

Cao Cao threw aside all plans for his expedition to the south when Changan was lost.

He at once gave orders, “Cao Hong and Xu Huang are to march your ten thousand troops to Tong Pass to support Zhong Yao. You are to hold the Pass at all costs for ten days, or you will pay for its loss with your heads. After ten days the Pass will be no concern of yours, for I will be there with the main army.”

Cao Ren said, “Cao Hong short of temper is unfitted to hold the Pass. Everything could happen.”

Cao Cao replied, “You will go to reinforce him.”

Cao Hong and Xu Huang made all haste to Tong Pass and took over the command from Zhong Yao. They confined themselves to defense; and though Ma Chao appeared every day and reviled and shouted shameful things of the three generations of Cao Cao’s family, the guardians of the Pass remained quiet. But Cao Hong fretted at the daily insults and would have led the defenders out to fight had not his colleague restrained him.

“Ma Chao only wishes to provoke you to come out, but remember our orders and go not. The Prime Minister has some master plan.”

So spoke Xu Huang. But the advice was hard to follow, for Ma Chao’s soldiers took turns in reviling the defenders of the Pass, resting neither day nor night. And Xu Huang found it hard to curb his colleague’s impatience.

Thus it continued till the ninth day. Then the defenders saw that their enemies had turned all their horses loose and were lolling about on the grass and sleeping as if quite fatigued.

Thereupon Cao Hong bade them saddle his horse, told off three thousand troops, and soon this small force was dashing down to catch the besiegers unprepared. The soldiers of Ma Chao at once fled, leaving their steeds and throwing aside their weapons. Cao Hong could not resist pursuit and chased them.

At this time Xu Huang was higher up the road taking in cartloads of grain and forage. But when he heard what his impulsive colleague had done, he hastily got a force together and went to his rescue. He shouted to Cao Hong to return.

Suddenly a great shouting arose near Xu Huang, and out dashed Ma Dai to attack. Both Cao Hong and Xu Huang turned to flee, but the drums rolled and two bodies of troops led by Ma Chao and Pang De came out from behind the hills. Then a battle began which went against Cao Cao’s troops from the first. They fell fast, but some of them cut an alley through the press and made for the Pass. Their enemies flooded into the Pass in close pursuit, and they had to abandon their post and flee whither they could find a way.

Pang De pursued after Cao Hong, but Cao Ren came to his rescue and they both fled. Ma Chao and Pang De took the Pass.

Cao Hong made all haste to his master to give him the evil tidings.

“When I gave you the limit of ten days, why did you leave the Pass on the ninth?”

“Those soldiers from Xiliang hurled every sort of insult at us,” replied Cao Hong. “And when I thought I had them unprepared, I took the opportunity. But I fell victim to their cunning.”

“You are young and impetuous. But, Xu Huang, you ought to have known.”

Xu Huang said, “He would not listen, though I told him many times. And that day I was taking in stores in another part of the Pass. As soon as they told me, I felt sure there would be some misfortune, and so I hastened after him, but it was too late.”

Cao Cao was annoyed and ordered Cao Hong to be put to death. But his colleague officers begged that he might be pardoned, and as he had confessed his fault, he was allowed to go free and unpunished.

Cao Cao advanced to Tong Pass.

Cao Ren said, “We should establish a strong stockade before attacking.”

So trees were felled and a strong stockade built. They made three camps: Cao Ren was in the left; Xiahou Yuan, the right; and Cao Cao himself was in the center one.

Soon after, Cao Cao and all his officers in a body rushed to attack the Pass. They ran against the Xiliang troops posted on two sides, halted and formed their array. This done, Cao Cao rode to the center standard whence he looked at his opponents.

He saw before him a body of fine troops, everyone with the bearing of a hero. And the leader, Ma Chao, was worthy of them, with his vivid face as if powdered and red lips as if colored, his supple hips and broad shoulders, his deep voice and fierce strength. He was wearing silver helmet and armor and gripping a long spear as he sat there on his charger. Pang De and Ma Dai supported him, and Cao Cao admired Ma Chao in his secret heart.

However, Cao Cao urged forward his steed and shouted to Ma Chao, “Why are you arrayed against the Hans, whom your father and grandfather served faithfully?”

Ma Chao ground his teeth and cursed Cao Cao, “Rebel! Betrayer of both prince and people! Murderer of my father and brothers! My hate for you is to the death: The same sky shall not continue to cover us, for I will take you captive and satiate my appetite on your living flesh.”

With this he set his spear and rode over toward Cao Cao as if to slay him. But Yu Jin came out from behind and engaged Ma Chao in battle. These two fought some half score bouts, and then Yu Jin had to flee. Zhang He, however, took his place and the two warriors exchanged twenty passes. Then Zhang He, too, ran away.

Next to come forth was Li Tong. Ma Chao’s martial prowess was now at its height, and he made short work of Li Tong, who went out of the saddle at the first blow. Then Ma Chao flourished his spear at the troops behind him as a signal for them to come on, which they did like a flood. They overwhelmed Cao Cao’s forces, and Ma Chao, Pang De, and Ma Dai rode forward to try to capture Cao Cao.

They came close. Cao Cao heard one of his pursuers shout to another, “Cao Cao is he in the red dress!”

So he hastily tore off his red robe and threw it away. He also heard one say “Cao Cao is he with the long beard!”

At once Cao Cao took the sword that he wore at his side and sawed off some of the beard. Yet again a soldier recognized him and told Ma Chao that Cao Cao had now cut his beard, whereupon the order went forth to capture short beards. And then Cao Cao wrapped the corner of a flag about neck and jowl and fled.

[hip, hip, hip]
Panic seized upon the soldiers at Tong Pass;
Frightened, Cao Cao flung off his brocade robe
And, terror-stricken, sawed his beard off with a sword.
The fame of Ma Chao rose even to the sky.
[yip, yip, yip]

Cao Cao had got clear of the battle and was getting calmer. Then again the sound of hoofs fell upon his ears. And on looking round, he perceived Ma Chao quite close. He and those near were panic-stricken, and all scattered for their lives, careless of the fate of their leader.

“Cao Cao, do not flee!” cried Ma Chao coming nearer.

The whip dropped from Cao Cao’s nerveless hand as he saw his enemy coming closer and closer. But just as Ma Chao had leveled his spear for a thrust, Cao Cao slipped behind a tree, changed the direction of his flight and so escaped, while Ma Chao struck the tree. He quickly pulled out his spear, but the delay gave the fugitive an advantage, although it did not quite free him from pursuit, for Ma Chao was soon again galloping on his track.

As they drew near the slope of some hills, a bold general suddenly appeared, who cried, “Do not hurt my lord!”

This was Cao Hong, and he went toward Ma Chao, whirling his sword. Ma Chao was stopped, and this saved Cao Cao’s life. Cao Hong and Ma Chao fought half a hundred bouts till Cao Hong began to grow weary and become uncertain of his strokes. And when, shortly after, Xiahou Yuan appeared with some thirty horsemen, Ma Chao found it prudent to retire.

Then Cao Cao was escorted to his camp defended by Cao Ren. He found the camps were still unharmed and the losses had not been great.

As he sat in his tent, Cao Cao said, “Had I not spared Cao Hong, I should have fallen at the hands of Ma Chao today.”

So he called in his rescuer and rewarded him well.

And they got together the scattered troops and strengthened the camp, deepening the moat and raising the rampart. Ma Chao came daily and challenged anyone to combat and abused them all shamefully, but, by the order of the Prime Minister, these insults were treated with silent contempt.

“Our enemies use long spears,” said the officers. “We will meet them with bows and crossbows.”

“They may have long spears,” replied Cao Cao, “but whether I give battle or not depends on my decision. How can they thrust at us if we do not go out? All you have to do is to take no notice of them, and they will speedily retire.”

The officers wondered. They said one to another, “The Prime Minister came out on this expedition of his own will and was foremost in the fight. Why does he accept defeat so easily?”

After some days the spies reported: “Ma Chao has been reinforced by twenty thousand Qiangs, the tribespeople beyond the frontier.”

Cao Cao took the news gleefully. His officers asked him why the news pleased him.

He replied, “Wait till I have defeated them, and I will explain.”

Three days later there was a report of further reinforcements, and Cao Cao not only smiled but gave a banquet. His officers ridiculed him in secret.

Then said Cao Cao, “You gentlemen laugh because I cannot destroy Ma Chao. Well then, can anyone of you propose a plan?”

Then rose Xu Huang and said, “O Prime Minister, you have a large force here, and the enemy also accumulate their strength on the Pass. This means that on the west side of Yellow River, behind their back, they are unprepared. If you can get an army secretly across the river and cross the Cattail Ferry, you will cut off their retreat. Then if you can march down and smite them on the banks of River Wei, they can get no reinforcements and must fail.”

“What you propose is just what I think,” said Cao Cao.

So Xu Huang was placed over four thousand troops, and with Zhu Ling, marched to the west of Yellow River and hid in the gullies. They were to wait till Cao Cao crossed the Yellow River so that both could strike together.

Then Cao Cao ordered Cao Hong to prepare boats and rafts. Cao Ren was left in command of the camps. Cao Cao himself marched to the east bank of Yellow River first, and from there attempted to cross to the west bank.

When Ma Chao heard of the new military movements, he said, “I understand. The Pass is left, rafts are being prepared: That means that he is going to cross to the west side and cut off my retreat. I must coast along the river and keep him off. If I can do that, his food will run short within twenty days in the east bank, and that will cause a mutiny. Then I will travel south along the river and attack.”

Han Sui did not approve this plan. He quoted the military maxim to strike when troops were half over the river.

“Attack from the south when his army is in the act of crossing, and his army will be drowned in the river,” said he.

“Uncle, your words are good,” replied Ma Chao. And the spies went forth to find out the time of crossing the river.

When Cao Cao’s preparations were complete and all was ready, he sent three parties of soldiers over the river first. They reached the ferry at the first sign of dawn, and the veterans were sent over first and lay out a camp. Cao Cao and his guard took up station on the east bank to watch the crossing.

Very soon the sentinels reported, “A general dressed all in white is approaching.”

Everyone knew it must be Ma Chao. This terrified them and they made a rush to get into the boats. The river bank became a scene of shouting men struggling who could first embark. Cao Cao sat watching and never stirred. He only issued orders to stop the confusion. Meanwhile, the yelling of the troops and the neighing of the horses of the approaching army came nearer and nearer.

Suddenly a general jumped out of one of the boats and shouted to Cao Cao: “The rebels are close! Get into a boat, O Prime Minister!”

“The rebels are near. What matter?” replied Cao Cao simply to the speaker, who was Xu Chu. And he turned round to look at them.

As a fact Ma Chao was very close, not a hundred paces away, and Xu Chu laid hold of Cao Cao and dragged him down the bank. The boat had already pushed off and was ten spans from the bank, but Xu Chu took Cao Cao on his back and leaped on board. The boat was small and in danger of being overturned, wherefore Xu Chu drew his sword and chopped away at the hands clinging to the side so that the soldiers fell back into the water.

The boat went down stream, Xu Chu standing in the prow poling as hard as he could. His master crouched out of sight at his feet.

When Ma Chao saw the boat in midstream drifting down with the current, he took his bow and arrows and began to shoot. He also ordered his brave generals to go along the river and shoot so that a shower of arrows fell about the boat. Xu Chu fearing Cao Cao would be wounded, protected him with a saddle which he held over him with his left hand, for Ma Chao’s shooting was not in vain. Many of the soldiers working the boat were wounded. Some had fallen overboard, while more lay in the bottom of the boat. The boat itself got out of control and was whirled hither and thither by the current. Xu Chu straddled over the tiller and tried thus to guide the boat, while he poled with one hand and with the other held the protecting saddle over Cao Cao’s head.

Then the Magistrate of Weinan, Ding Fei, who from a hill top saw that Cao Cao was very closely pressed, even in danger of his life, drove out from his camp all the cattle and horses there, so that they scattered over the hillside. This was too much for the born Qiang herdsmen of the plains. At sight of the beasts, they left the river and ran off to secure the cattle. Nor had they any inclination to pursue their enemy.

And so Cao Cao escaped. As soon as they reached the west bank of Yellow River (which was also the north bank of River Wei), the boat was scuttled. The rumor had spread that Cao Cao was on the river and in danger, so all his officers came to his aid. But he was now safe on shore. Xu Chu’s double armor was stuck full of arrows. The officers escorted Cao Cao to the camp where they made their obeisance and expressed the hope that he had not suffered seriously.

“The rebels very nearly caught me today,” said he smiling.

“They would have got across the river had they not been enticed away by the freeing of the cattle and horses,” said Xu Chu.

“Who was it that drew them off?” said Cao Cao.

Someone who knew told him. Before long Magistrate Ding Fei came in to pay his respects, and Cao Cao thanked him.

“I should have been a prisoner but for your happy thought,” said Cao Cao.

And the Magistrate received a rank of Commander in the army.

“Though they have gone, yet they will assuredly return tomorrow,” said Ding Fei. “You must prepare to repel them.”

“My preparations are all made,” was the reply.

Cao Cao ordered his generals to spread themselves along the river bank and throw up mounds as shelters for camps. If they saw the enemy approaching, the soldiers were to be withdrawn from behind the mounds, leaving the ensigns all flying, so as to give the impression that each camp contained a garrison. Along the river they were to dig ditches and put up sheds, thus to entice the enemy there and their army would stumble into the pits and fall easy victims.

Ma Chao returned to Han Sui and told him, saying, “I would have captured Cao Cao, but a certain bold general had taken him on his back and leaped with him into a boat.”

Han Sui replied, “I have heard that Cao Cao had a body guard of the bravest and strongest soldiers under the command of Dian Wei and Xu Chu. They are called the Tiger Guard. Now as Dian Wei is dead, the man you saw must have been Xu Chu. He is both brave and powerful and goes by the name of Tiger Lust. You will do well to avoid him.”

“I know his name, too,” said Ma Chao.

“Cao Cao now means to attack our rear,” continued Han Sui. “Let us attack first, before he can establish camps and stockades. If once he can do that, it will be difficult to dislodge him.”

“My idea is that we should hold the north bank of River Wei, and prevent him from crossing south.”

“Worthy nephew, keep guard here while I go along the bank of the river and fight Cao Cao.”

“If you will take Pang De as your Van Leader, I am content,” said Ma Chao.

So Han Sui and Pang De, with fifty thousand troops, went away down to the River Wei, while Cao Cao again warned his generals to entice the enemy. Pang De was in advance with a goodly squadron of iron-clad horsemen, and they burst along at full speed. Then there arose a confused shouting as they all went plunging into the ditches prepared for them. Pang De soon leaped out, gained the level ground, and laid about him with all his might. He slew many Cao Cao’s soldiers and presently got out of the thick of the fight.

But Han Sui had also been involved, and Pang De went afoot to try to aid him. On the way he met Cao Yong, a general of Cao Ren. Pang De cut Cao Yong down. Then mounting the dead man’s steed, he rode forward fiercely, slaying as he passed. He reached his leader whom he led away southeast. The troops of Cao Cao pursued him, but Ma Chao came with reinforcements and drove them off. Ma Chao rescued a great number, and they continued fighting till evening when they withdrew and mustered their troops. Two commanders, Cheng Yin and Zhang Han, were missing, and a couple of hundred soldiers had been killed when they fell into the pits.

Ma Chao and Han Sui discussed what should next be done.

“If we give the enemy time, he will make himself strong on the north bank. I think we can do no better than to raid his camp tonight,” said Ma Chao.

“We must have a force and supports for it,” said Han Sui.

So it was decided that Ma Chao should lead the striking force with Pang De and Ma Dai as supports. They would start at nightfall.

Now Cao Cao’s troops were on the north bank of River Wei, and he gave his generals orders, saying, “The rebels will try to surprise us as they are deceived by my not having set up stockades. You will place your soldiers in ambush. At the bomb signal, you will rush out from four directions to capture them.”

At nightfall Ma Chao sent out a small scouting party headed by Cheng Yi. Seeing nothing, Cheng Yi penetrated deep into the enemy’s lines. Presently, a bomb was exploded. Out leapt the hidden troops, and in a few moments the whole scouting party were killed. Cheng Yi was cut down by the blade of Xiahou Yuan.

But close at hand came the main army led by Ma Chao, Ma Dai, and Pang De that rushed into the ambush forces.

[hip, hip, hip]
Wait for the foe all undismayed.
Place your men in ambuscade.
Generals striving to outvie
Are not beaten easily.
[yip, yip, yip]

Who got the advantage will presently be told.

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