Goodfoote and the Galena Puzzle

Charles Goodfoote applies for a job.



Tom Hanratty

August, 2019

“Mr. Goodfoote?” A small, round man in white shirt with stripped pants and leather suspenders stuck his head around the office door. I had been in the waiting room for the better part of an hour. Most of the time, I stared out the long window that faced onto Randolph Street watching the drays haul heavy wagons through the mud. Chicago was mostly mud at this time of the year.

 "Mr. Charles Goodfoote?"

“That’s me,” I responded, although there was no one else in the antechamber.

“Come in, come in, Mr. Goodfoote. I’m Mr. Philpot,” he stuck out his hand, shook quickly and scurried down a short hallway. “I’m the Assistant Manager of Pinkerton’s,” he explained as he entered a small office plainly furnished with a desk and two chairs. 

Philpot bustled behind his desk. He didn’t sit down and didn’t ask me to.

“I’ve looked over your application and I’m afraid we can’t use you,” Philpot said. He seemed to be looking over my left shoulder, unable to meet my gaze. I’m accustomed to that, for I’ve been gifted with one brown eye and one blue. Some folks find it disconcerting. 

“Nonsense,” I said, with a wave of my hand. I sat down into a cushioned chair right in front of his desk, forcing him to either sit down or look like a fool. 

He sat down. 

I tossed my hat onto his desk.

“We’re not really hiring just now. All of our slots are filled.” He was beginning to sweat and I wondered why. It was warm, but not hot in the room. 

A stream of sunlight came in the window, around a large eye that had been painted on the outer pane. 

I pulled a cigar case out of an inner coat pocket and offered Philpot a hand-wrapped Havana. He refused but sat quietly while I lit one for myself.

“Really, Mr. Goodfoote, it’s nothing personal.” 

Which meant it was.

I took a long pull on my cigar and blew a cloud of smoke towards the ceiling. “The newspaper says you’re looking for a couple of men to replace the ones who got killed in Missouri. I’m here for the job and you say you’re not hiring.”

“Well, yes. It's just there are other people who have applied for the positions, and, frankly, they are better qualified.”

“How's that, Mr. Philpot?”

The round man squared his shoulders,  and opened the drawer in the middle of his desk. He produced a folder, and dropped in onto his desk blotter.

With a sigh, he flipped it open.   

“Well, first of all, you stand out in a crowd. You’re well over six feet tall and it would be hard for you to go unnoticed if you were following someone.

“ And here, it says your mother was a Blackfoot Indian. Now, much of our work is in Indian country and your loyalties may be divided.” He adjusted his glasses. “And, in truth, Mr. Goodfoote, your behavior since the War has been somewhat dubious.”

“Dubious?” I asked. “In what way?”

“Please don’t be offended, Mr. Goodfoote,” Philpot said. He flipped through several pages. I could see he stopped when he came across some newspaper clippings. “There was the matter of some unpleasant business in New Orleans a couple of years back. You had part in the whole business, even under suspicion for murder at one point, I believe. These newspapers are full of the incident, which it says had to do with poison darts and a rather suspicious death at a bordello. Prominent citizen died, according to the clipping here.” 

He turned a page to glance at another clipping. “Tut, tut, Mr. Goodfoote. A shooting in Texas earlier this year. Most distressful.” His lips pursed as he read. “Oh dear me, this reporter in Austin describes you as “… a half-breed man-killer, known for your dalliance with the ladies.” Philpot shook his head in disapproval. “Yellow journalism is given to exaggerations, but this is hardly the record of a man selected to represent The Pinkerton Detective Agency.”

I felt I should defend myself. “The shooting you mention was self-defense, as the court pronounced. I was shot at from a dark alley and simply returned fire. And the Chief of Police of Austin hired me to clean up the city. That was after I put the Reedley Gang into the ground, which prompted the newspapers to print those lies about me. It was all politics." I waved my cigar into the air, dismissing his newspaper reports like a bunch of pesky flies of no importance. But I felt it prudent to get his gaze off the yellow literature. "My years at Harvard surely must count for something.”

“Ah, yes,” he responded, going back to an earlier page. “Harvard. You left suddenly after two years. We next find you a civilian fighting for the Union during the Southern Succession. No record of your ever joining the Army.” He looked directly at me, his head cocked to one side. The sun pouring in the window glanced off his glasses making them opaque. “Why is that, Mr. Goodfoote?”

“I have reason to hate the Army, Mr. Philpot,” I responded. “But I also had reason to fight in that war.” I straightened the crease on my trousers. “I believe Mr. Pinkerton himself fought as a civilian for the Union.”

Philpot sat back in his chair and folded his hands across his wide stomach. 

“That is correct, Mr. Goodfoote. Our founder collected information for General Grant and President Lincoln. The story of his capture of Lily Rose, the notorious Rebel spy, is well known. Were you a spy, Mr. Goodfoote?”

“No sir, I was not. I joined to help out a friend from Harvard who had a habit of getting himself shot. My job was to keep him alive as long as possible.”

“And who is this friend, Sir? You list no one under personal references.”

I had the distinct impression he already knew the friend I spoke of was really my foster brother, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The man we both called father had asked me personally to keep Wendell from harm and I had done my best. I owed the famed poet and physician much, and gladly accepted the task. Besides, Wendell and I were closer than many kin, having been raised together since about the age of twelve. 

“The friend’s name is unimportant,” I said. “And my record stands on its own merits. I see no need to drag my friends into this.”

Philpot leaned forward so I could see his eyes once more, blue and large behind his gold-rimmed glasses. “On its own merits. Well, let’s go on then.” He turned another page and read for a few moments.

“After the war, you became a US Marshall and went off to Arizona Territory.” Philpot looked up. “Your departure from the Marshall’s Service was rather abrupt and final, I understand. A falling out with Federal Judge Jefferies.  Is my information correct, Mr. Goodfoote?”

I must have looked surprised. Philpot’s smile showed yellowed teeth. “We are thorough here at Pinkerton’s, Mr. Goodfoote,” he bragged. “Yes, we are thorough.”

I sat forward in my chair and placed an elbow on Philpot’s desk as I gave him my hardest look. “Then tell me what in hell this is all about. I’ve met some of your agents and I’m a schoolmarm compared to them.” 

I leaned back in my chair. “Two are currently on trail for murder. They burned down a house in Missouri with a woman and child inside. You have at least two other convicted felons on your payroll and an uncommon number of drunks. Your founder Alan Pinkerton himself left Scotland with an arrest warrant chasing him.” I gave him my slit-eyed stare. “I pride myself on my own thoroughness, Mr. Philpot.”

Philpot wiped his forehead with a white handkerchief, then shuffled some papers on his desk. “Yes, well, we have been a bit careless in the past. And believe me, this has nothing to do with your character. We simply have nothing to offer you at this time.”

Philpot cleared his throat. “However, we would like to keep your application on file in case we have need of your special talents.” He looked back at my application. “You speak several foreign languages?” Philpot read it like this was the first time he laid eyes on my resume. “It says you studied Mathematics at Harvard?” 

He was incredulous. How could a man raised until 12 years of age with the savages possibly know anything about the Calculus? 

“But there are some gaps in your application. You lived with the Blackfoot Indians until the age of twelve. Then there is a blank until the Civil War, some six or eight years later. Where were you during those formative years?” Philpot now was truly interested. He stared at me in a sort of awe.

“I believe I put down Boston.”

“Yes, but who did you live with during those years? We would want to have that information. Someone raised you and taught you civilized behavior and sent you off to school. You have deliberately withheld much information. One must wonder why.”

I stood to go. I had about enough of this business. My application was strong enough without a lot of irrelevant personal history. I suspected I was just too ‘Indian’ for this bunch.

“Apparently your fabled ‘thoroughness’ is overrated,” I said as I clapped my hat onto my head. “Or you’re a damned liar. Either way, this interview is now terminated by my choice, not yours.” I left without shaking his hand, heading downstairs and out into the September sunlight. My collar was about as tight as it gets without something getting broke, and this puissant of a paper-pusher was not worth the trouble a brawl would bring. 

Besides, there was something about the interview that bothered me. Something that had nothing to do with my Indian- ness. Philpot had only skimmed my application, although he had weeks to peruse it. I had the feeling Mr. Philpot was only the mouthpiece. Someone else was giving him orders, telling him to get rid of me. 

None of this matched with what I had heard about Pinkerton's Detective Agency. 

Or, I thought with a grimace, maybe my head was just too big and I really didn't fit in with this bunch. A solid lunch at the Languor would take the edge off my frustration.

Whenever I’m in Chicago, I stay at the Languor Hotel. It’s comfortable without being extravagant. I dismissed the carriage at the door, and tipped the doorman as I entered the large lobby. Approaching the desk, I noted they had hired a young woman as an apprentice clerk. She smiled brightly when I asked for my key. Her nametag gave the name of Miss Brown, and her large eyes matched her name. 

My mood was already being repaired.

“Oh, Mr. Goodfoote, you have a message. A telegram came for you while you were out,” she said looking up at me through long lashes. 

I returned her smile. “Thank you, Miss Brown.” To the best of my recollection,

 I hadn’t told anyone I was coming to Chicago, other than the Pinkerton Agency. I opened the envelope and read.


It was signed “OWH”. 

Now, here was a mystery. Was it Oliver Wendell Holmes, the elder, or his son? Either way, although it was a summons I couldn’t refuse, the train didn't leave until the next day. 

I walked back to the counter and smiled sincerely at Miss B

Randolph Street in Chicago in mid-1800's
A common street sign read "No bottom to this mud."
Randolph Street in Chicago in mid-1800's A common street sign read "No bottom to this mud."

Goodfoote and the Galena Puzzle

A code and a murder in Galena

Chapter 2

September, 2019



The Illinois Central pulled into the Galena station at noon. After I had gathered my luggage, I stood on the sidewalk and gazed across the Galena River, a tributary of the Mississippi, at the city. Built in the hill region of the Great River, Galena had once been the most populous city in the upper Midwest due to lead mining, and was still a thriving community. The need for the vast quantities of lead ended with the close of fighting in the Civil War, of course, but the city still maintained a vibrancy I found attractive.

A full nine generals in the Union army called Galena their home, including the current President, Ulysses S. Grant. His house on Bouthiller Street, given to him by a grateful citizenry, was within sight of the train depot. 

It was only a short carriage ride to the DeSoto House Hotel, a substantial five story structure containing some two hundred and fifty rooms. The hotel, only a few blocks from the Galena River, fronts onto the busy Main Street, crammed with carriages, wagons, and bicycles at this hour, the sidewalks a flowing river of pedestrians. 

The lobby, while not large, was elegant without being ostentatious. A large curved staircase swept upward, a hallway past it led to dining rooms. A billiards parlor stood across from the front desk

As I registered, the clerk, a young man dressed like a banker, handed me a folded piece of paper. “A letter, Mr. Goodfoote.”

“Meet me in the dining room,” was the laconic message . I recognized the handwriting as that of my foster brother, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Like the lobby, the dining room was not large. Perhaps ten tables, half occupied, were arranged in the center of the space, and long counters holding fresh flowers and other plants lined two of the walls. The far wall featured large windows admitting bright sunlight. 

I spotted Wendell immediately at a table near the door, as he rose to greet me. Other then letting his military mustaches grow long, my brother was unchanged. Rail thin, he was dressed in his usual black suit and gray vest, with a Harvard Law pin dangling from a gold watch chain. The years had been good to him, as his clear blue eyes shown beneath heavy eyebrows and thick, dark hair. 

Wendell grasped my outstretched hand and we laughed together. Finally, after our warm greeting, we sat at the table as the waiter poured coffee from a silver server. 

For the next half hour we discussed the health of his family, his Boston law practice, and my duties as in the U.S. Marshal Service. Somewhere in that time, we ordered lunch, and watched in silence as it was served.

After we finished and the table was cleared, we sipped our brandy and smoked Havana cigars.

“Charles,” Wendell said as he leaned forward, “your country needs your help again. It’s the reason I’m in Galena.”

“This must be serious, Wendie. It must be near a weeks trip out here from Boston.”

“Five days, actually. And, yes, it is serious. What I’m about to tell you must be held in absolute secrecy, not a word to anyone.”

“Well, as I’m not associated with any agency, I can certainly agree to that.”

“Yes, well. I’m afraid it was I who kept Pinkerton’s from hiring you. It was necessary for you to be a free man for what I'm about to ask of you. But, please, be assured, you’ll have a position with that agency when this matter in Galena is completed.”

We sat in silence while I pondered this bit of news. 

“All right,” I finally said, “let’s hear it.”

“First, you must be aware I am not only a member of the Bar in Boston, but I’m also a special, secret envoy for President Grant. And it’s in that capacity that I recommended and sought approval from the President to hire you as a free agent.

" I know your talents and courage, Charles, and this task will challenge both before it is finished.”

Photo of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr in public domain
Photo of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr in public domain

Goodfoote and the Galena Puzzle

Chapter 3


Goodfoote and the Galena Puzzle

Chapter 3

October, 2019

“Have you heard of a Frenchman, Louis Pasteur, and his theory of ‘germs’ as the cause of disease?” Wendell’s blue eyes bore into mine.

“Of course, Wendell. We discussed John Snow and cholera and Pasteur’s work, right before we left for the War.” Where was this going, I wondered. Professor Hayrick at Harvard had been a foremost advocate of Pasteur’s theory.

“You mention Snow, so you recall the cholera epidemic of London in the 1850’s, and The Black Death of the Middle Ages that took a full three-quarters of the population?” He glanced around the room.

“Yes, I have a recollection of those disasters, Wendie. What’s this about?” 

“To be brief, there’s a man who has made the ‘germ,’ as Pasteur calls it, into a deadly weapon, and he’s here in Galena.”

“What? What are you trying to tell me?” I looked around the room and lowered my voice. “Someone is thinking of starting the Black Death here in Galena?”

“Yes. Galena as a testing ground, and the big cities later. I need you to find him and stop his madness before this city becomes a ghost town.”

“If you have this much information, you must have someone close to him passing you clues. Why hasn’t this villain been arrested?”

“We’ve been keeping an eye on the main actor in this drama, hoping we could find his storage of these germs. He’s been followed, spied on, and his room in this hotel has been searched three times. But we still haven’t seen a vial or tube of this deadly disease.”

I sat back on my chair, and thought about the smallpox that swept across the prairie thirty- five or so years back. Shortly before I was born, it hit the Blackfoot people and killed maybe half in little more than a week. The rest of my People scattered into the mountains to escape the spotted death. From what I had read, the Black Death was worse, slaughtering men, women, and children across Europe and Asia. 

Now there was someone who wanted to unleash this horror on the population of Galena. How and why popped immediately to my mind.

“We have some idea who the madman is, and his motives are as mad as he.” Wendell answered my questions before I asked them. “He was a gifted man of natural science, a genius, but now he’s just a monster with a mind filled with hatred.”

“I’ll need a name, Wendell. And an idea where he can be located.”

“His name is Karl Wilhelm Buch. That much we know. But he disappeared from this very hotel, a week ago.  He was being watched by Army men, day and night, yet he slipped out without them the wiser.”

“And you want me to find him?”

“Well, yes, but that’s not the only reason I sent for you.” 

It was my turn to scan the room before I spoke. “Let’s hear it, Wendell. What am I doing in Galena, if not to chase down this Buch. I thought you needed my marshaling skills.”

Holmes shook his head. “No, Charles. It’s your mathematical skills I need.”

Here was a puzzle. My mathematical skills are hardly worthy of an assignment of this magnitude. My classes at Harvard were rudimentary.  Having been tossed out after a couple of years, I never got past some basic tenets of numbers. 

“You were considered precocious, Charles. And you enjoyed breaking ciphers.”

“Ciphers? Is that what this is about? You have a code you need broken?”

“Yes, Charles. One the Army Signal Corps considers unbreakable. We intercepted it before Buch could send it off.”

“So it means he’s communicating with others. Which means a conspiracy. Which means more trouble than just a single madman.” 

I took a pull on my cigar and let my eyes drift to the ceiling and thought about the extent of this problem. “How did you come by this cipher? You said you intercepted it. Was it your spy who got it for you?”

“No, our spy has disappeared also. We’ve had no communication for a month.”

“Then how?”

“We had another man watching Herr Buch. When Buch went out one night for a stroll down Main Street, our man was not far behind. Soon, Buch turned into River Street, and stopped to tie his shoe at a dead tree that’s fallen over next to the walkway. There is no street lamp nearby, but our man was close enough to see Buch take a slip of paper out of a burr hole, and put another in. After Buch strolled back toward this hotel, our man grabbed the note.”

“And that’s the cipher you want me to break?”

“That’s it, Charles. And now that Buch has disappeared, it becomes even more urgent. He may even now be getting ready to poison this whole city, by some heinous method we haven’t been able to fathom. We have little time to lose.”

“Let me see the cipher.” I took the folded piece of paper from Wendell and studied the note. “On first glance, this could be any of several codes. If the Army couldn’t break it, it means the simpler substitution codes are out. It’s all numbers, in groups of five. Hmm mm.  If the plaintext is in German, I may have even more trouble with it.”

“I have every confidence that you’ll do your best, Charles. And that’s all I ask.”

“So, Wendell. You want me to break this unbreakable code, find Karl Wilhelm Buch before he sets the Black Death upon Galena, and uncover whatever criminal conspiracy his diseased brain has devised.” I nodded as I studied the cipher. “I predict a long night ahead of me.”

Lobby of the  De Soto House Hotel in Galena, Illinois
Lobby of the De Soto House Hotel in Galena, Illinois

Master Bao and The Bandits


Master Bao and the Bandits


Tom Hanratty

July, 2019

Master Bao rode his ox, Xi, through the hushed, dripping forest, and Ping, his student, walked alongside. After two hours, Ping noticed that only a small patch of gray sky was visible among the overhead branches, and it was becoming difficult to see through the rising mist. He began to cast glances at the green curtain of trees bounding the narrow road, for bandits were common in the kingdom of Tatung, and this road was noted for road agents robbing travelers. 

To add to his unease, his brown traveling robe was already soaked through, and the sky had darkened in the past hour. Perhaps the mist will turn to rain, he thought.

Master Bao halted his ox and dismounted. He stood next to his steed, seeming to gaze at the road ahead. Just then, four men crashed out of the woods, the lower part of their faces covered. Shouting unintelligible words, they waved swords and sticks in the air as they ran onto the road towards Master Bao and Ping.

The tallest of the men, dressed in a patched shirt, stepped forward. He pointed his sword at the elderly Sage. 

“Give us your gold, old man, or I’ll take your head!”

Master Bao bowed. “We have no gold. Only a few coins for which to purchase lodging. It is too wet to sleep comfortably outdoors. Perhaps you could direct us to the nearest inn.”

“You can’t fool me,” the man replied. “All you old rich men travel with servants and gold. Now, give it up.”

“I have no servant. This boy is my student, and I’m his teacher. And, we have no gold.”

The bandit thrust his sword at Master Bao, but the monk turned sideways so the sword slid harmlessly past. “I do not wish to contend with you. I’m but a poor monk traveling to the village of Pang-Li. We have no gold.”

As the outlaw made more attempts to stab or chop Master Bao, the monk seemed to know where the blade was going and simply moved aside. 

Breathless, the road-agent yelled, “Men, attack this man. Kill him.”

But the three other bandits shook their heads. “He’s a holy man, Boss. It would bring evil upon us if we did him harm.”

“Then I will kill this boy,” the big man growled. He turned toward Ping who had not moved during the encounter. 

“I cannot allow that, Swordsman,” Master Bao said. He gripped the man’s shoulder, using a technique the Chinese Boxers call “praying mantis seizing ant,” and the man dropped his sword and sank to his knees. The three other road-agents fled into the woods.

“Come, Ping,” the monk said. He released the bandit and climbed aboard Xi. “I don’t believe this man will help us find the nearest inn.” 

Later that day, as Master Bao and Ping sat in the dining room of the Inn of Quiet Repose, Ping rose from the table, and bowed deeply, his hands clasped inside his copious sleeves. 

“Please enlighten this ignorant student, Master. How did you avoid the bandit’s blade so easily?”

“As you know, Ping, I am but a vessel, an empty jug. When I looked into the man with the sword, I saw his anger. And anger is the child of fear. I simply filled myself with air and floated away from his fear.”

 Remember what Master Lao Tzu said,

"I've heard of those who are good at cultivating life.

They are not harmed by weapons.

Rhino have nowhere to thrust their horn,

Tigers have no place to clasp their claws.

Soldiers have nowhere to stick their swords."

Art work by Fan Zeng (b. 1938)
Art work by Fan Zeng (b. 1938)

Master Bao and the Red Turbans


Master Bao and the Red Turbans

By Tom Hanratty

June, 2019

  Artwork by Fan Zeng (b. 1938)

“Master,” Ping shouted, as he wiped his face with his sleeve. “The rain has been pouring down for two days, and the snow in the mountains has melted. Do you think the bridge over the Peng-Li River will last?” 

Master Bao, riding his ox, Xi, turned to face his student Ping who was trudging alongside on the muddy road. “The fate of the bridge lies in the future, Ping. And the future is promised to no person and no bridge. The truth will be revealed when we get to the river later today.”

Soon, the raging flood of the Peng-Li River came in sight through the curtain of rain, and there was the wooden bridge, still intact.

“The water is rising fast, Ping. We will cross before the bridge is washed away.”

Ping fixed his eyes on the opposite bank, for he became dizzy if he looked at the raging torrent of brown water swirling just under the wooden planks. He gave a sigh of relief when they were safely on the road on the other side. They had gone only a short distance when, with a crash, the bridge was struck with a large tree caught in the flooded river, and was washed away  downstream. 

“ Ahead is an inn where we can sleep in comfort, Ping. Perhaps this rain will stop by tomorrow, and we can be on our way. The village of Half Moon is still another two days of travel.”

The black clouds in the darkened sky roiled and boiled as the rain continued to drench the land and the men, turning rice paddies into lakes, roads into quagmires, and drainage ditches into cascades of brown water. With heads bent into the storm, the two travelers approached a small building on the side of the road. Although the wooden sign bounced in the wind, Ping could read the characters proclaiming this to be the Inn of Happy Travelers. After getting the ox into the stable and wiped dry, Master Bao and Ping were nearly blown into the lounge of the inn. A fire blazed in the fireplace, and the smell of cooking spices welcomed the two men.

“Welcome, Master,” the round-shaped innkeeper said. “We have just two rooms still available. One on the top floor and one behind the kitchen. We have many guests washed up into our small wayside, but we always have room for more pilgrims. Step up to the fire to dry while I bring plates of food.”

After drying near the fire, Master Bao and Ping pulled a bench up to a table while the landlord and his daughter brought them bowls of steaming spiced rice. But before they could begin eating, the door to the inn burst open and a man dressed as a craftsman stumbled into the room. “The Red Turbans have broken through the Emperor’s troops and are headed this way. They are killing anyone they come across, men, women, and children. Even cows and geese,” he trumpeted.

“Surely the flooded river will stop them,” one of the guests shouted, as many voices in the crowded restaurant cried out in alarm.

“No, no,” the man gasped. “They are coming from the other direction, the village of Half Moon.”

“We are trapped,” someone screamed. “The bridge is washed out, and the fields are flooded. We will all be murdered by the Red Turbans.”

Ping watched the turmoil in the room, then looked at Master Bao who was peacefully eating his rice. “Master,” Ping exclaimed, “how will we escape the Red Turbans? We can’t go back the way we came, and we can’t escape across the fields. They will slaughter us, along with all of these good people.”

Master Bao put down his chopsticks. “This is a good lesson for you, Ping. The bridge is out and the river is too high and swift to cross. Therefore, we can’t go back. Just like in life, Ping, we can’t go back to the past to escape the present. Ahead on the road awaits death. Just like in life, Ping, the future we must all face is death, sooner or later. But, right now, in the present, we are dry, we are warm, and we are enjoying some of the tastiest rice I have ever eaten. Both the past and the future are ghosts, Student Ping, for neither exists at this moment, so worrying about either is pointless."

As for the Red Turbans, trust in the Will of Heaven to keep us safe.”

Seeing the calm face and attitude of the Sage, the rest of the patrons went back to their eating and drinking. The conversations were quiet and peaceful.

The next morning, dawn broke with a cloudless sky, bright sunlight, and cool temperatures. 

The door to the inn burst open, and a man dressed as a craftsman stumbled into the room. “His Excellency the Emperor’s troops have rounded up all the Red Turban gang and arrested them. The road to Half Moon Village is safe.”

Later, Master Bao and Ping took their leave of the landlord of the Inn of Happy Travelers, and set out for Half Moon Village. The sun had dried the mud and Ping smiled as he thought of the lessons he was learning about the way of the Dao. “The past and the future are ghosts, for they don’t exist in the present,” Ping remembered. “And trust in the Will of Heaven.” 

Right now, he thought, I’m warm, dry, and safe. And that is enough.

Master Bao and the Mountain Pass



Master Bao and the Mountain Pass


Tom Hanratty

May, 2019

Artwork by Fan Zeng (b. 1938)

Master Bao rode his ox, Xi, along a trail leading to a mountain pass. His pupil, Ping, walked along side. At one end of the pass was the village of Kang, while miles away through the mountains, was the village of Yan. A border guard stood watch at a small rest area, called the Kang garden, and here the two stopped to refresh themselves. 

“It’s time for our noon rice, Ping. Prepare the setting on that large rock so we can gaze at the magnificent mountain while we eat. The peaceful scene will help our food digest.”

After Ping had spread the bamboo mat on the large, flat rock, and arranged their chopsticks and bowls, he uncovered the clay travel urn and ladled out rice for Master Bao and himself. The men ate in silence, enraptured by the beauty of the scene before them. White clouds floated in an azure sky, and the lower purple mountain slopes were covered in dark pines. 

Ping was about to ask a question regarding the flow of the Dao, when they were approached by a man of middle years, with a pinched face and dark circles around his eyes. “Excuse, me, Sir,” he said. “I’m traveling from the village of Kang, and wonder if you know anything about the people in the village of Yan.”

“Yes,” Master Bao replied. “I’m very familiar with the people of Yan, for I’ve traveled there many times.”

“Well, I’ve come from that horrible village of Kang, where the people made me angry. It’s time I moved on.”

Master Bao nodded. “How did the people of Kang make you angry?”

“They made noise when I wanted to sleep. They were dirty and have trash in the streets, and they treated me poorly, with no respect.”

“That is terrible, Sir. How did you respond?”

The man sneered. “I punished them by sleeping during the day and making racket all night. And I collected my garbage and dumped it in the streets to teach them a lesson. And when I encountered them, I treated them as rudely as I can, just to show them how it feels.”

“Well,” Master Bao said, “I’m afraid the people of Yan are much like the people of Kang. You will find they treat you the same way”

The man gave a deep sigh. “I knew it,” he said, as he turned and walked away. “But somewhere is a place where the people are kind and will treat me with respect.” With that he went through the border gate, and took the trail to the next village.

Ping cleaned the bowls, rolled up the bamboo mat, and packed away the meal containers. Just as Master Bao was about to mount his Ox, a young man entered the small garden and approached the Sage.

“Excuse, me, Sir,” he said bowing low. “I’m traveling from the village of Kang, and wonder if you know anything about the people in the village of Yan.”

“Yes,” Master Bao replied, “I’m very familiar with the people of Yan, for I’ve traveled there many times.”

“I really hate to leave the village of Kang, for the people there are kind and good. They are quiet and clean, and treat me with great respect. Better people are hard to find. But I must find better work, for Kang is a poor village.”

“Well,” Master Bao said. “The people of Yan are the same. They will treat you with respect, and you will find them kind and good.”

“Thank you, Kind Sir,” he said with a deep bow. “You’ve been most helpful.”

After the man left, Ping approached Master Bao. “Excuse this ignorant student, Master,” he said with a deep bow. “You gave opposite information to two men about the same village. Please enlighten your dull student as to your reasons.”

“Look at the mountain, Ping. Tell me what you see.”

“I see a beautiful mountain, with wonderful trees on the lower slopes. The upper slopes are full of colors, purples and grays. The clouds drift along its peak and their shadows make interesting designs on the slopes.”

Master Bao nodded. “There are those who only see a blockage to their passage. They see they must walk further to find a pass, and complain about the hard stones of the trail upon which they will walk. The mountain doesn’t change, but the way people see the mountain depends on what is deep inside them.

“The man who found the people of Kang difficult will find the people of Yan, and any other village, the same way because of the way he treats people. The anger and hate is deep inside him, not in the village of Kang.

“The young man, who found the people of Kang respectful, will find people kind and good wherever he goes, for that is what is deep inside him.”

Ping bowed, his hands folded inside his wide sleeves. “I understand, Master. The village, like the mountain, hasn’t changed, but everything we either hate or love comes from deep within us. And that is what we see.”

“Yes, Ping. As Master Lao Zi said, ‘Those who are with kindness, kindness will be pleased to have them, and those who are with loss, loss will also pleased to have them.’ Now, we will travel to Yan and find a suitable inn for the night. ”

Thanks to Derik Lin for the idea. His work is to be found online in Tao Stories by Derik Lin.

Master Bao and the Caged Bird

Story for September 2018


Master Bao and the Caged Bird

September, 2018


Tom Hanratty

Master Bao and his pupil Ping sat in the rock garden of the White Crane Temple in the Peng Lai district of the Empire. They had finished their morning rice and sipped their Longjing green tea, waiting the return of their host. This was the third day of their visit to the head monk, Abbot Fang Ho. Tomorrow, the two travelers would be moving on, down from the mountains to the valley of the Yong River.

The Abbot, a tall, thin man with a peaceful smile, returned from conducting an interview with an unexpected visitor. The two guests stood and bowed in greeting to the Abbot, their hands clasped inside their copious sleeves. 

“I trust your visitor brought you good news, Abbot Fang,” said Master Bao.

As the Abbot returned Master Bao’s greeting, Master Bao thought the usually placid face of the head monk held a hint of concern. “The man was a messenger from Magistrate Lee who heard of your presence in his district and asked you to call on him at noon today. I must tell you, Master Bao, the Magistrate is known as a kindly man, but a bit overbearing at times. He was most insistent and is sending a palanquin for you and your pupil.”

“It is a major tenant of our Daoist creed to always accept whatever comes one’s way. Ping and I will be honored to visit the Magistrate,” Master Bao replied. “There is little crime and no unrest among the citizens of this district which means the Magistrate is a fair and just administrator. However, we will walk to the tribunal. Being carried by other men in a litter is not in keeping with my philosophy.”

Upon the hour of noon, Master Bao and Ping presented themselves at the gate of the large tribunal building.  Master Bao explained to Ping,  “It is a rule in China that anyone with a grievance can strike the large gong in the courtyard at any time, and the Magistrate will immediately open a court hearing. Regularly scheduled sessions are held in the morning, at noon, and again in the early evening. The hearings are open to the public and are a major attraction for many citizens who wish to keep up on the happenings in the district. The guard will strike the gong three times to announce the opening of the noon session"

The gong sounded three times just as Master Bao and Ping entered the court room. The Magistrate, a large man dressed in the dark green brocade robe of his office, pushed through a curtain behind an ornate chair at the far end of the room. He sat without ceremony, hammered the desk with a wooden gavel called “the wood that frightens the hall,” and ordered the clerk to read out the cases the court was to hear. 

Ping had never been in a tribunal before and stared at the court personnel. The Magistrate, called “the mother and father of the People” sat behind a raised bench covered with a white cloth. On either side of the high dais, two clerks occupied lower tables, and were getting their ink-stones and brushes ready to take down the testimony of witnesses. Below the platform, in front of the dais, stood six constables, three on each side. They carried the torture instruments of their office, whips, chains, and wooden presses with screws to crush ankles and wrists if the suspect didn’t confess to his crime. A large constable stood to one side, slowly swinging a heavy leather whip, a scowl on his face. Student Ping had heard of the terrible consequences for anyone accused of a crime and the fearsome power of the Magistrate to mete out justice. One didn’t come to court for  minor problems, Ping thought.

Two young men approached the bench and dropped to their knees. After knocking their heads on the tiled floor three times, one of the men looked up at the judge. “This miserable person is Koo Meng, the son of the late Koo Pin, and the brother to this disgraceful man next to me. On his death bed, our father insisted we split his property evenly between the two of us brothers, but now this ungrateful cur has taken the best of the land and buildings, leaving me with only a paltry piece of worthless land and decrepit structures. Right this wrong, Your Honor, and force my brother to divide up our holdings evenly.”

The Magistrate looked from one brother to the other. Both were dressed in good quality clothing and appeared well-fed and healthy. He addressed the second brother. “What have you to say to this?”

The second brother looked up at the judge. “This worthless person is Koo Pang, the younger son of our venerated father, Koo Pin. It’s true our father was a wealthy landowner, but he didn’t leave a will. And it’s also true that on his death bed, he told us to split the property evenly. But my lying brother here has it completely wrong about the land holdings and the buildings. He received the most productive land and the out buildings in the best repair. I was left with barren slopes on rocky mountains with run-down huts, while he took the best for himself. Right this wrong, Your Honor, and force my brother to divide up the holdings evenly.”

Magistrate Lee put his chin in his hand, rubbing his short beard, he appeared deep in thought. Finally, he said loudly, “Here is my decision. You, Koo Meng, will give all of the land and buildings your father left you, to your brother Koo Pang. And you, Koo Pang, will give all of the land and holdings your father left you, to your brother Koo Meng. Since you both insist the other has gotten the better of the deal, this should satisfy you both.”

As the brothers knocked their heads on the floor again, the audience in the filled court room roared with laughter. It was a wise settlement for the greedy brothers. Master Bao smiled at the clever way the Magistrate had solved this difficult dispute.

With the resolution to the case, and as no one else came forward, the Judge rapped his gavel and closed the session.

The Magistrate, recognizing Master Bao in the audience, sent one of his assistants with instructions to bring the monk and Ping to his private chamber through the curtain behind the dais. As he was removing his black cap with stiff wings and the heavy robes of his office, Magistrate Lee had the two travelers sit at a low desk. In a few minutes, tea was served and the Magistrate made small talk for several minutes before broaching the subject that troubled him. He glanced at Ping, decided to let the student remain in the room, and addressed the monk.

“Master Bao, I am a steadfast follower of the teachings of Confucius and believe our dark-haired people are well-served by his writings. One of his most revered instructions, and one I have followed my entire life is, ‘treat others as you wish to be treated.’ But I have run into a problem when I try to apply this sacred wisdom to women.” Here, the Magistrate paused and took a deep breath. “I simply don’t understand them at all.”

“Ah,” said Master Bao. “It is usually one lady in particular that brings this confusion to a learned mind. Can you give me more details?”

The Magistrate leaned back in his chair and let his eyes drift to the ceiling. He blew out a deep breath, then looked at Master Bao before he spoke.

“Two weeks ago, I was out riding in the rural country near the river Lan that borders our neighboring district to the South. At a small village, I came upon the most beautiful girl I had ever laid eyes on. I won’t even attempt to describe her beauty and personality for it is beyond any words. Sufficient to say, I immediately approached her father, a poor farmer, and purchased the girl, called by the name of Peach Blossom, to be my concubine. As you know, she has the right to refuse, so I think the price I paid was more than her family would make in ten years. The welfare of her kin may have persuaded her to join me.  I already have four wives, which is the most a Magistrate can have, but I’m allowed as many concubines as I please. 

“You may find it strange that I would buy a peasant girl. Usually, a concubine is a courtesan trained in art, music, poetry, and pleasant conversation, a skilled consort for a man in my position of responsibility. But so taken was I by Peach Blossom’s comeliness and wit that nothing mattered but for her to live in my home as my companion.”

The Judge finished a cup of tea, then another, before resuming his tale.

“I took her to my home in a closed palanquin, gave her two personal handmaidens to dress her in the finest silk, had the most skilled musicians play the most beautiful music for her, and gave her only the most delicious morsels to eat. She never has to work another day in her life. 

"After she stayed in her room crying for the first few days, I brought her mother and father in to visit and talk to her, thinking she was homesick for her parents. But her sadness and grief did not abate.

"This beautiful girl has become pale and ill. She refuses to eat and spends time in her room, either weeping or staring out of her window at the clouds in the sky. When I approach her, she clings to me as she weeps. I treated her as I would have wished to be treated, as the August Confucius said, but I have only brought pain to this woman I love.”

Silence filled the room as Magistrate Lee, his head hanging down, finished his story. 

“I’m sure there is a solution to this problem, Your Honor,” Master Bao said. “The Daoist Zhuangzi tells a story of a Sea Bird and a king, and we may receive some insight from it. Let me speak with Peach Blossom.”

Word was sent to the Magistrate’s personal quarters located in a villa behind the tribunal. It is forbidden for any males to see the wives of a Magistrate except on certain ceremonial occasions, and the women had withdrawn into a special chamber. Concubines, on the other hand, did not have this restriction, so the three men walked to the villa and, once inside, approached an ornate door at the end of a long hall. After knocking, the Judge entered the chamber of a beautiful young woman who was introduced as Peach Blossom. Her two handmaidens were dismissed and the Magistrate left Master Bao and Ping alone with the concubine.

Tea was elegantly served and Peach Blossom smiled bravely while speaking of her life on the small farm near the river. 

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate what Magistrate Lee is doing for me. In his mind, he took a young woman from a life of poverty and hard work and placed her in a palace. But I long for the music of the birds and the sound of the river gently flowing over rocks. The food I eat on the farm is from plants I have raised and nourished, prayed over, and cared for like friends. When rain comes, I run out into it to feel the power of the storm. Here, I am confined to my chamber when the weather is anything but sunny. 

“My work at home made me strong and full of energy. Here, I am expected to do nothing, not even dress myself. The women here are very nice, but they talk only of men they have lain with, or new colors of fashion. At home, I have sat with a cow all night when she was having trouble giving birth, and rejoiced when the calf came forth into this world. My joy is different from that of the women of this house. Digging my hands and feet into freshly dug soil gave me a great pleasure. But now my fingernails grow long and my feet are wrapped in cloth.” As if too heavy to hold up, Peach Blossom’s head dropped forward and tears flowed onto her silk gown.

“And yet my family was in great debt to the tax collector and we would have lost the farm if Magistrate Lee hadn’t found me attractive. So I will stay with him and do my best to please him.” She sighed as her tears coursed down her rouged cheeks.

Master Bao gave Peach Blossom some words of encouragement. He and Ping returned to the Tribunal late in the afternoon and met with Magistrate Lee after the evening session of the court.

“It is time for Zhuangzi’s story of a Sea Bird and a King,” Master Bao said to the Judge. “A beautiful Sea Bird came ashore in a small kingdom. The people all marveled at the beauty of the bird, and it even had a melodious song. Most sea birds are rather plain and have a rasping call, but this was a special bird. The king heard about this beautiful bird and sent his men to bring her to his palace, where the bird was given silk to sit on, delicious food, and beautiful music from a special group of the best musicians to surround her. But to the bird, the music was strange and disturbing, the food not something she herself had caught, and the silk was uncomfortable to a bird who had sat on rocks her entire life. Within a week, she sickened and died.”

The Magistrate hung his head. “Is this what I have brought to pass because of my love for this beautiful girl?” he asked.

“The two brothers in court today saw only their lack when compared to their brothers’  holdings,” Master Bao explained. “And you saw only the poverty and a life of labor for this beautiful girl, when compared to the rich life in your mansion. As an honorable man, you wanted to repair this injustice. But each of us has a different nature, and Peach Blossom is nourished by the freedom and connection to the Earth, rather then the riches of your world. 

“You must honor her nature, the clear spirit that resides inside her. Let the bird out of her cage sometimes. Let her return to her family’s farm every month, and she will return full of energy and strength.”

Magistrate Lee smiled for the first time in many days. He stood and clapped his hands. “I’ll do it, Master Bao. Maybe, in time, she’ll come to like it here as well and will spend even more time with me. You are truly a wise man, Master. Thank you for your counsel.”

Later that day, as Master Bao and Ping again reposed in the rock garden of the White Crane Temple, Ping raised his clasped hands above his head and bowed deeply to Master Bao. “Please explain to this ignorant pupil how Magistrate Lee caused such pain to Peach Blossom, even though he was following the virtuous rule of treating others as you would wish to be treated?”

“Ah,” replied Master Bao, “but he imposed his will on the young lady. That was something he wouldn’t have wanted done to him. When dealing with other people, Student Ping, one must assess what is best for their personal nature, not what we would desire. That is the lesson of Zhuangzi’s story.”

Chinese Wisdom: It is the beautiful bird that is caged.


Thanks to Zhuangzi (4th  century BCE)  for the idea and Sea Bird story.

Art work by Fan Zeng (1938 - ) of Beijing, China
Art work by Fan Zeng (1938 - ) of Beijing, China

Rex Granite Takes a Case

Interactive short story


Rex Granite Takes a Case 


Tom Hanratty

Rex Granite, Private Eye, sat behind his wooden desk and stared at the back of his office door. It was a good door for a Shamus, frosted upper with his name and trade in black lettering, backwards from where he was sitting. That door hadn’t admitted any new clients today and that was just fine with him. Too many unhappy people had been bothering him with meaningless, boring cases, most of which he refused. Someday a good, mind-bending mystery would walk in, rather than these people with their petty troubles cluttering up his office. 

He had plenty of dough from his last case, an interesting matter of a dame setting him up for a murder rap. But he had turned the tables on the little minx and collected a fat fee. The lady, if you could call the homicidal floozy a lady, was now doing twenty to life in the Big House for Dames.

With a sigh, Granite opened his laptop and booted up Number 31465 on a FreeCell website. For two days, he had been unsuccessful in winning this game, no matter what combinations he tried. But now, he was going to change his tactics completely, and just as he was making headway, a shadowy silhouette darkened the glass upper of his door, and the brass handle turned.

Granite immediately disliked the man who entered.  Everything about the guy spelled trouble. From the way he strolled into the room, scanning the office like he was going to buy it, to the way the sunlight from the window behind the desk bounced off the copper sharkskin suit the man wore. 

Shorter than Granite by a half foot and built like a beer keg, the prospective client finally met Granite’s eye. 

“You Granite?” the man said with an upward jerk of his head.

Granite had risen to greet the man, but didn’t offer his hand. “Just like on the door,” he replied as he sat down. His last case had involved just this kind of slugger, mob torpedoes working for some syndicate. Same greased hair, same dark eyes, same three day beard. And no neck.

“My wife is cheating on me.”

“I don’t do divorce cases.”

“She stole ten grand from my safe.”

“I don’t do petty thefts.”

The man paused, then nodded. “Ten grand is petty theft, huh?” He plopped down in one of the two client’s chairs, took off his flat hat and crossed one leg over the other. “You know who I am?” He began to jiggle his foot.

“No. You haven’t introduced yourself yet.” 

“I think the broad is dead.” Still no introduction.

“I don’t do homicides. That gets me in trouble with the cops.”

The man nodded again. He dropped both feet to the floor and leaned across the desk, rising slightly from his chair. “I’m August Pentipelli. I do real estate. Hell, I own half this city.” He looked around the office again. “Matter of fact, I think I own this building, It’s the kind of dump I specialize in.”

Granite said nothing.

“Look, I did some digging on you. Your real name ain’t Granite. You’re Eugene Potsum, and you’ve never been a cop or military. You got some lavender degree from a lefty school. I’m here because some friends of mine say you can figure things out.”

Granite remained silent.

“So, Gumshoe, what the Hell do you do?”

“I solve mysteries, that’s what I do.”

Pentipelli again nodded. “Yeah, well. I got one of them, too. She took my dog. She hates my dog, but she took him when she split. That’s a mystery, eh?”

“What kind of dog is it?”

“What the ? You give a rat’s ass what kind of dog? My wife is probably laying somewhere with her throat cut, and you’re asking what kind of dog? What are you, some kind of nut?”

“Poodle, Shih Tzu, what?”

The man just stared at Granite. Finally, “It’s a Rottweiler.” Granite noted Pentipelli hung his head, maybe showing some emotion for the first time. “Names Conon. Dog weighs more than the old lady.”

Granite shoved a printed paper across the desk. “This is my fee schedule. Plus daily expenses. I’ll find your dog.”


This is the start of a story for you to finish. Devise a mystery for Granite to solve based on what has already transpired. 

Remember, kids read these stories so no explicit sex or profanity.

Post it in the comment section on the Home page of the website ( and I’ll put up a separate page with the mystery you devise. Sorry, no prizes or rewards, other then seeing your story in print. 

Go get ‘em.




Master Bao and the Intelligent Ghost



Tom Hanratty

Artwork by Fan Zeng (b. 1938)


Master Bao and the Intelligent Ghost


Tom Hanratty

August, 2018

Master Bao and Ping sat on the balcony of the Kingfisher Restaurant overlooking Lake Hulang in the Northwestern empire of Tong. Piles of purple and pink clouds floated through the darkened sky, reflected in the smooth surface of the quiet pool. Dusk was coming on, and the two men, having finished their evening rice, were contemplating the peaceful scene.

“Master,” Ping began. “I see the flow of the Dao in the quiet water and the movement of the clouds. The water is now in its Yin state, quiet and yielding, and the clouds, with their movement, are in their Yang state of being. Is this correct?”

“Yes, Ping. The way of the Dao is change and flow, and when we follow the patterns of the ten thousand things of nature, we avoid misfortune that seems to plague some men.”

Just then, a clamor on the wooden stairs heralded the arrival of a man dressed as a wealthy guildmaster. His hat was askew on his head, his gown too large for his thin frame, and his pale face was lined with worry.  He dropped to his knees before Master Bao and knocked his forehead on the floor three times.

“Master Bao,” the man whined in a strained voice. “You must help me. I’m going mad.”

“Pour this man a cup of tea, Ping,” Master Bao said to his student. Then, to the mad man, “Please, Sir, have a seat at the table here and tell us your story.”

Slowly, the man climbed into a chair and gulped a cup of tea.  “You’ll think me mad also, but I must end this curse that has fallen on me. I have not slept for days, and barely eat enough to keep me alive, so distraught have I been.”

He quickly drank a second cup of tea. “I am Lo Chien, the proud owner of the largest jade shop in Tong,” the man began. “Many years ago, when I was quite young, I fell in love with a beautiful woman and, after an appropriate time, we married. My wife was not only beautiful, she was a brilliant businesswoman. But had kept her talent hidden, for women are kept out of sight and not allowed in business in our village. I was a jade craftsman and we prospered greatly from the first day due to my wife’s business sense. For many years we lived happily, making large amounts of money and enjoying each other’s company. The only regret we had was we were unable to conceive  a child, and so I had no sons to bring into the business. But it caused no rift in our happiness.” At this point, Lo Chien began to weep and placed his head in his hands.

“Order some rice for our friend here, Ping” Master Bao said. “And have the waiter bring another pot of tea, for I believe we have only begun this story.”

Lo Chien thanked Master Bao and gobbled up his bowl of rice when it arrived. After another two cups of tea, he resumed his tale.

“After many years of happiness, my wife became sick. I brought in several doctors, all well respected for their knowledge, but they all said my wife was going to die. There was no cure for her ailment. Within weeks, she became so weak she could no longer rise from her bed, so I sat with her and bathed her forehead. On the last day of her life, she motioned for me to draw close and, in a voice so soft I had to strain to hear, she said, ‘I love you and don’t want to leave you. You must promise me you’ll always be faithful to me, and won’t love or marry another woman even after I’m dead. If you break your promise, I will come back as a ghost and make your life miserable.’ With that, she died.”

Lo Chien shook his bowed head slowly .

“I was wonderfully faithful for many months, “ he resumed. “Then, I met a beautiful woman who seemed as smart as my wife. Soon, although I resisted as much as I could, I fell in love with this woman, and she with me. It has been two years since my first wife died, and I have become engaged to marry this lady. A  week ago, when we gathered some friends to announce our betrothal, my first wife appeared before me in my bedchamber as I was dressing for the party. ‘You have not kept your promise,’ she said. ‘I know all about you and this woman.’ Then, she repeated everything I had said, word for word, from that day. Every word that had passed between me and the woman I am to marry was thrown in my face.”

Gulping another cup of tea, Lo Chien uttered a great sigh. “Each night since, she has appeared to me and told each word that passed between my love and I. She also told me where we had gone, who we had met, and even how much money I had made that day. She knows everything. Nothing can be kept from her.”

Master Bao looked at the thin, pale face of Lo Chien. “What time does she appear each night?” 

Lo Chien gazed at the sun as it sunk behind the shore of Lake Hulang. “Just about this time. No matter where I am. If you wait for a few moments, you will see her yourself. What can I do to throw off this curse, Master Bao?”

Master Bao called the waiter over and asked him to bring a small bag of uncooked rice to the table. When he had it in hand, he leaned close and whispered to Lo Chien. “Your wife was very intelligent in life, and now she is a very intelligent ghost. When she comes tonight, hand her this bag of rice and ask her how many grains are in the bag.”

Within minutes, a mist formed on the balcony and slowly materialized into the ghost of a beautiful woman. “I know all about you and what you have been saying,” she said. “I know everything.” 

At this point, Lo Chien held out the bag of rice. “If you know everything, tell me how many grains of rice are in this bag.”

The ghost turned blue, then red, then green, finally disappearing in a cloud of mist.

“I think you have seen the last of your wife’s ghost,” Master Bao said. “Once she realized she didn’t know everything, she simply went back to the place where ghosts go.”

After profusely thanking Master Bao and Ping, Lo Chien clomped down the stairs singing with joy.

Ping folded his arms in his copious sleeves as he bowed deeply to Master Bao. “Please Master. Where does one go after one dies?”

“Now, Ping,” the old man said. “How would I know that?”

Ping bowed even deeper. “Because you are a Master.”

“Yes, Ping,” the monk replied, “but not a dead Master.”

Thanks to John Suler for the idea, Zen Stories to Tell your Neighbors, True Center Publishing, PA.

The Track and the Boy



The Track and the Boy


Tom Hanratty

July, 2018

Ohtoh of the Piegan band of the Blackfoot People knew the track was there. 

It was across the shorter grass of the beginning prairie, near the buffalo trail that skirted the woods. Yesterday, when hunting rabbits, the boy had spotted the track, but had no time to read its message. So today he rose before dawn and crept out of the sleeping camp to the trail.

Now he waited for Creator Sun to send him the knowledge of the animal that made the track. The impatience of youth was something he had learned to push aside, not unusual for a Blackfoot boy of ten summers of age. He pulled his elk robe closer around him to keep out the early Spring chill of the great grassland, and thought about what was to come, how his patience and vigilance would be rewarded.

It was the Moon When the Ice Breaks Up, and soon Stands-in-Thunder, the main chief, would decide the day for the small band to leave their winter camp in the trees along the river, and move out onto the plains, joining other bands for a great buffalo hunt. Ohtoh was still too young to hunt the huge shaggy beast, but his grandfather often took him to hunt smaller game, and he had proven he could be quiet on the trail, and read the wisdom of the tracks. Studying this print, and reporting his findings to his mentor grandfather, would show he practiced the knowledge of the tracker/ hunter.

The boy watched while the sky shed its stars, sending them to follow the Night Light Moon over the tall mountains to the West. Then, the tall buffalo grass, higher than a man sitting on horse, was now seen black against a pale gray smudge of light in the East. The hollows of the prairie were still filled with darkness, but the higher undulations slowly appeared first gray, then blue. A light breeze brought the scent of the wild prairie sage, and the rustle of the grass with blue stems, as the silence deepened, and the world of the prairie awaited daybreak

Now, the boy saw the track on the trail before him, visible as a dark spot on the Earth, where the animal had left part of its spirit for the boy to marvel at. And as the light became the color of the skin of the spotted fish called salmon, the birds began their welcoming chorus, and the track began to fill with meaningful shadows. Cracks and ridges told of the animal’s passage, when it walked through this place, and a score of other pieces of knowledge Creator Sun now gave to the boy. The World is a track, the old man had told him. But only those who pay attention can know its mysteries. 

The track of the great mountain cat, Omakatyo, lay before him, where the heaven softly touched the Earth. The chirp of the blue feathered jay sounded once at his back in the dark forest of tall cottonwood high over thick underbrush that stretched to the Swift-Running River. In front of him, the endless grassland, and behind him, the eternal forest and mountains.

The boy shifted his gaze to a spot a near the print of the cat. Here was a different track, a footprint that sent a quick jolt of fear through him. He breathed softly though his mouth, and his hearing became sharp enough to note the scampering of a rodent several feet away. He studied the new track, that of a moccasin print. He knew the Blackfoot People had footwear with parfleche soles, the dried hide of the buffalo carefully stitched onto the moccasins by the women of the tribe. But this was a soft soled print, the wearer’s toes slightly visible. 

When the Piegan warriors raided enemy camps, they returned with moccasins from each of the tribes. Ohtoh’s grandfather would make tracks wearing the foes’ footwear so Ohtoh could learn the difference between the sign of many of the enemies on the plains. And the boy knew this was the rounded, wide footprint of the hated Cree. And it was fresh. 

Ohtoh’s heart beat fast. If the enemy who made this track was scouting out the Piegan camp, he may be nearby watching. Slowly, the boy rose from his crouch, turned, and started to  walk back towards the trees. Thoughts of an arrow in the back made him want to run like an antelope, but if the Cree scout thought the boy hadn’t seen the track, he may let him go. Nearing the cottonwood forest, however, Ohtoh’s resolve failed him and the boy burst into a sprint, trampling the long grasses, racing into the camp, past the barking dogs to his grandfather’s lodge. 

That night, as the stars called the seven buffalo slowly moved toward their mountain resting place, Ohtoh sat with his grandfather in the shadow of their lodge. Early that morning, a counsel of the Crazy Dogs Warrior Society was called to discuss plans to deal with the Cree. Several warriors had gone to find the Cree scout after Ohtoh breathlessly told his grandfather of his discovery of the footprint, but no enemies were found. No one doubted the word of the boy, and the track was studied by the best trackers in the village. It was decided that the footprint had been made sometime near dawn. The boy had come close to losing his life, but the scout had since departed. An attack was most likely, as the scout had not noticed the boy reading the track. This was the conclusion of all the warriors.

“We will move the horses into the trees, and our warriors will hide and wait for the Cree to come into the forest. Then we will strike.”

And so it was. When the Cree war party slipped into the woods, they were met by the Crazy Dog men, and soundly defeated. It was a great victory for the Piegan people.

It was two days later that Ohtoh’s grandfather called the boy into the center of the camp. Lone Coyote, the leader of the Crazy Dog warriors, rose in front of the entire village to make a speech.

“Many winters ago,” he began, “before the time of our grandfather’s grandfathers, a great tracker lived among the People. It is said he could follow the trail of a spider across bare rock, track the birds in the sky, and see a footprint of an enemy before it was made. This man was named Looks-at-the-Ground.

“Today, we have a young man who shows the same gifts from the Sky People. Our Man-of-Knowledge, the Shaman Dancing Bear, has said the one blue eye of our little brother makes him a great tracker, one who sees the footprint of the enemy. 

“It is said the eagle sees far and the jumping mouse sees up close. But the hawk looks far and near, so the hawk is called “The Bird Who Looks at the Ground.” We honor our little brother Ohtoh with this feather from the wing of a Sun Hawk, and give him the name “Looks-at-the-Ground.” Although young in years, he will grow into this sacred name and bring honor to his People.”

Ohtoh stood tall when Lone Coyote fixed the hawk feather into his hair. He knew great knowledge was a gift from Creator Sun not for the boy or man, but for the well being of all the People. And it would take many years of hard work to earn the gift. Looks-at-the-Ground, as he faced the smiling people of his Piegan Blackfoot village, was ready to begin.

Behind the boy, his grandfather felt pride, but also sadness. He knew, as sure as the thunder rolls in the mountains and the wind sweeps the tall prairie grasses, that change was coming. Already the vast buffalo herds were smaller, and the number of lodges fewer each year at the Summer Sundance. But for now, Looks-at-the-Ground has earned the right to dance his joy, and let the old men fret about the coming storm clouds. The Piegans would be here, the grandfather thought, as long as the grass grows and the waters flow. And Looks-at-the-Ground would be a Blackfoot forever.

Master Bao and the Golden Peach



Master Bao and the Golden Peach


Tom Hanratty

June, 2018

Artwork by Fan Zeng (b.1938)

“Ping,” Master Bao said to his apprentice, “we will stay the night at the Hostel of Blissful Repose in the town of Linsang. Tomorrow, we will visit the famous Monastery of Immortals, where the sacred Golden Peach of the ancients is kept.”

“I look forward to seeing this most sacred relic, Master,” Ping said as he walked next to his mentor who was riding a water buffalo. “I understand the peach is solid gold and holds the secret to immortality.”

Master Bao smiled. “Yes,” he replied, “I have heard that also.”

Purple evening was coming on when the travelers reached the Hostel. After putting Master Bao’s ox in the stable, the two entered the lobby of the inn and approached its front desk. The clerk, a heavy man with a large paunch and a ring beard chewed on a toothpick as he leaned his elbows on the rough surface of the counter. Just off the lobby was a dining room abuzz with men huddled around several tables talking in undertones. Suspicious glances were cast at Master Bao and Ping.

“There’s one now,” a thin man expounded loudly. He sat at a nearby table and was surrounded by five men whose dress showed them to be craftsmen. All eyes turned to stare at the Monk and Ping.“Maybe he can tell us who stole the Golden Peach and robbed our town of its income. What do you say, Monk? People come from all over the Empire to see the sacred peach, and the people of this town earn a living from the silver the travelers spend. Maybe one of your followers took it.”

“A true follower of the Way would not steal even a rice cake,” Master Bao said. “But if you give me more information, I may be able to help find the thief and return your relic.”

“Perhaps I can enlighten you, Master, on the details of the crime.” A tall man wearing the leather vest of the town warden came in from a room behind the desk. He bowed deeply to Master Bao, his hands folded respectfully in front of him. “I’m Warden Ma and I would greatly appreciate your assistance in this most distressing matter.”

“Of course, Warden Ma,” the Monk said, bowing his head in greeting. “My student and I would welcome the opportunity to serve the people of Linsang.”

The warden led the way to a small private dining room on the opposite side of the lobby from the public eating hall. A dish of fresh vegetables and fruit was quickly placed on the table in front of the men. 

“The Golden Peach is thought to be thousands of years old, given to a famous monk by the Jade Emperor of the Mystical Cloud Heaven. When the monk left this world and became pure spirit in the Dao, the orb was passed down from one immortal to another. Each keeper of the relic, after living one hundred and fifty years on this earth, disappeared into pure spirit, leaving only their sandals behind. Finally, the last monk had no followers worthy of immortality so he had the monastery built and donated the Golden Peach to be kept until a worthy monk should appear.”

“This is a famous story,” said Ping excitedly. “It is said whoever possesses the Golden Peach will live a long life on this earth, then join the immortals in the Jade Emperor’s Empire in the Heavens. But surely a thief would not be worthy of such a reward.”

“Perhaps not,” the warden said, shaking his head. “A group of five Enlightened Monks keep the Golden Peach in a strong safe at night, then bring it into the viewing room in the morning. In front of all five, it is placed on a red silken cloth on a silver stand behind a chain. Visitors may view it, but no one, other than the five monks can touch or handle it. But now the Golden Peach is gone, and we have only three men who could have taken it. None of them are monks.”

“When was it taken, Warden?” Master Bao inquired.

“This morning,” the warden replied. “After the relic was placed on the stand, three visitors begged permission to view it. Each was taken, separately, into the viewing room, where they sat or knelt alone to meditate before the relic. The monk remained outside the room, also in a state of meditation. Each visitor is then escorted from the room and the next person is admitted.”

“Were these three men the only ones near the relic today, other than the Enlightened Monks?”

“Yes. When the five monks entered to move the relic back to the safe this evening, they noticed the Golden Peach was not the one they had placed in the viewing room this morning. This was a lead ball coated with gold paint. No one but these Enlightened Monks would have noticed the difference, but to them, who had handled this sacred item, it was obvious. They reported the loss immediately and I quickly arrested the three visitors.”

Master Bao thought for a long moment. “When we entered the lobby, I heard the song of a nightingale. Does the innkeeper keep such a bird?” Master Bao asked.

“Yes. It sings nearly constantly,”  Warden Ma responded, looking a bit confused.

“Please have the innkeeper bring the birdcage with the nightingale into this room. Have him bring another platter of fresh fruit and vegetables. And I’ll need a flask of wine and three rice cakes. Then, when I signal, bring in the three men. You can wait in the next room where you will hear all that transpires.”

The perplexed warden did as asked. 

Within minutes, the innkeeper brought a large birdcage with a loudly singing nightingale into the private dining room. A tray containing fresh fruit and cooked vegetables followed. A flask of wine and several cups was next, and finally, a plate full of dry rice cakes was placed on the table. Master Bao put the plate of rice cakes on a low stool behind him. When all was set, the monk motioned for the warden to bring in the three men.

The first man bowed respectfully and said his name was Yang. He was an elderly  apothecary from the capitol city. The second man was named Fong, a middle-aged boss of the silver-workers guild in a distant town. The third man was Li, also middle-aged and the head clerk in a government office in a large city.

Master Bao put the men at ease with a glass of wine and some fruit and cooked vegetables. The men told of their adventures on the road, and their ideas of life in general. After a short time, Master Bao asked each to see if they could sing as well as the nightingale that was trilling away. All three men puckered up and whistled loudly, if not harmoniously. When they had finished, Master Bao spoke about the theft of the Golden Peach. He then produced the plate of dry rice cakes and had each place a cake in his mouth, chew, and swallow it. Then the monk told them to whistle. Only two of the men could produce any whistle at all. Fong, the silver-workers guild boss, couldn’t make a sound, although he blew as hard as he could.

“This is your man, Warden Ma,” Master Bao said. “His mouth is dry because of the guilt he feels.”

Fong dropped to his knees and knocked his forehead on the floor three times. “You are right, Master,” he exclaimed in a strained voice. “I have a fatal disease and am afraid of death, I heard about the Golden Peach of Immortality and decided to steal it and leave a substitute in its place. I didn’t think the theft would be noticed. I hid the relic in a secret compartment in the clothes trunk in my room.”

After the warden led Fong away, Student Ping approached the monk, his hands folded inside his copious sleeves. “Please Master,” he began. “Enlighten this ignorant pupil. Are the stories of the Golden Peach true? Can you obtain long life and immortality by possessing this relic?”

“Sit here and share this food, Ping.  Have you not heard the story of the monkey who stole the Golden Orb? Or the tale of the novice Hsi who tried to produce the Golden Pill of Immortality with roots, herbs and precious stones? These are tales told to instruct the young who hope to follow the Way. 

“All the tales end the same way. An Immortal whose eyes are bright lights speaks to the novice and tells him to do the Qigong exercises, learn acupuncture and meditate for hours each day. These are the ingredients of the Golden Peach, and they lie in your head, just above your eyebrows. After years of learning to move within the Dao, the completed Golden Peach of Immortality will be deep inside you, behind your navel. Living a life of stillness, completely in accordance with the Dao, will allow you to enter the Shadowy Portal (Hsilan Men) to pass beyond this world of dust into the realm of the Immortals.

“But you must leave your sandals behind to let others know not to look for your body.”

Master Bao and the Three Riddles



Master Bao and the Three Riddles


Tom Hanratty

May, 2018

Artwork by Fan Zeng

     I was a cold evening in the small country of Xen (Chen) in the Northern part of China. Master Bao and Ping were approaching the town of Pang Lo, when the wind began to howl from between the mountains, and the snow began to fall in great swirls.

     “We will stay at the inn in the next street,” Master Bao said over the sound of the wind. “Cheer up, Student Ping. We will soon be warm and well fed.”

     The sign on the wooden flap over the door was blowing in the strong wind, but Ping could read the characters for “Inn of Happy Travelers.” He pulled his cape closer around him and hurried forward behind Master Bao’s great ox.

     The ox was put into the stable, and the stable lad said he would rub down the beast and feed it. Master Bao and Ping then entered the foyer of the “Inn of Happy Travelers” and walked up to the counter. A jovial-looking man, of stout build, with a ring beard, smiled at the two men. 

     “And you’d like a room for yourself and your companion, Master?” the man said, “But we are all filled up.” He paused. “Except for our most expensive room at the top of the stairs. And I doubt if a poor traveling monk could afford such luxuries.”

     “Perhaps,” Master Bao replied, “we could sleep in the straw in the stable, for a small fee?”

     The man rubbed his chin, then smiled widely. “Seeing as how you are a traveling monk and therefore a wise-man, I’ll make a bargain with you. If you can answer a riddle I propose, I may find a soft bed for you and a second bed for your companion.”

     Ping almost jumped for joy. “Master, there is no riddle too difficult for you. Perhaps I can answer the puzzle myself.”

     “We’ll see, “ said Master Bao. “Good Sir, what’s the riddle?”

    The Proprietor smiled. “You see that master potter in the corner of the restaurant. He is amazing, and can make five small pots in an hour. If he can make five pots in one hour, how long would it take 100 potters, equally skillful, to make 500 pots?”

    Ping tugged at his Master’s sleeve. “Please, Master. Let me answer this question. It is so easy, just simple numbers.” Ping could barely stand still with his excitement.

   “One moment, please Landlord. Let me speak to my student in private.” Master Bao took Ping to one side and spoke softly for several minutes. Then, with Ping shuffling behind, Master Bao approached the Landlord.

    “One hour,” the Monk said.

    “You are right. Your student probably would have said 100 hours. The room at the top of the stairs is yours for the night. Your companion can sleep in a room downstairs. Both of you can enjoy a great meal, compliments of the Inn of Happy Travelers.”

     The next morning, after the Monk and his Student had their morning rice, Ping approached Master Bao.

     “Please, Master” Ping said, his hands folded inside his copious sleeves. “Enlighten this ignorant student. How did I get the wrong answer to so simple a riddle?”

      “The answer, Student Ping, lies in listening carefully to the words of the riddle, for it is in the details of the puzzle that the answer is revealed.”


     Two months later, the Master and his student arrived in the town on Kang Ming, in the small country of Gong. The town was located in the Southern part of China, and was noted for its heat and vast swamplands. They approached a large inn beside the road.

     “We have gone far today, Student Ping,” Master Bao said. “Perhaps we can find a room at this inn.”

     The painted wooden sign over the door hung by two brass hinges, and Ping could read the characters for the “Inn of Heavenly Peace.” After seeing to the ox, the two travelers entered the foyer and stepped up to the long, polished counter. A thin, cadaverous man behind the desk dressed in a simple robe of good quality gave them a sidelong look. He studied the patched robe of the Monk and the barefeet of the student.

      “We have only one room available,” he snarled. “And it costs a silver piece for one night.”

     “Perhaps we could make our beds in the straw in the stable,” Master Bao said, “for a small fee.”

     A tall man dressed in fine clothes was standing near the desk, leaning on a pillar, idly watching the guests in the adjoining restaurant. He was solidly-built, with a full beard and side whiskers. He turned and stared at the Monk.

     “Wait, Innkeeper. This is a traveling monk and known for his wisdom. I’m stuck here in this hot town and bored. If this monk can answer a riddle correctly, I’ll put him and his student up in your available room.”

     “Oh yes, Dr. Mozi,” the innkeeper said, bowing solicitously. “A riddle, of course. Whatever you say, Sir.”

     “Come outside, Monk, and bring your companion. I’ll compose a riddle as we go, so I know it won’t be one you’ve heard. It won’t be easy, as I’m a lecturer in complicated numbers at the School for Enlightenment.”

     The three men went onto the long porch and looked out across the road at a pond that lay among the weeds. 

     “Here’s one for you. See that pond with the patch of lily pads? Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire pond, how long would it take the patch to cover half the pond?”

     Ping was beside himself with excitement, and he tugged at his master’s sleeve. “Please, Master, let me answer this question. It is so easy, just some simple number calculations.”

     “One moment, Dr. Mozi. Let me speak to my pupil is private.” 

Master Bao took Ping over to one side and conversed quietly for a few moments. Then, with Ping shuffling along behind, Master Bao approached Dr. Mozi.

     “47 days,” the Monk said.

     “Exactly right,” Dr. Mozi said with a large grin. Your student would have said 24 days. I’ll have the Innkeeper put you both in good rooms, and I’ll buy you both a fine supper,”. “And, if you’ll be so kind, I’ll enjoy a long conversation with you to pass the time.”

     The next morning, after the Monk and his Student had their morning rice, Ping approached Master Bao.

     “Please, Master” Ping said, his hands folded inside his copious sleeves. “Enlighten this ignorant student. How did I get the wrong answer to so simple a riddle?”

      “The answer, Student Ping, lies in listening carefully to the words of the riddle, for it is in the details of the puzzle that the answer is revealed.”

     Two months later, Master Bao and Ping were approaching the village of Lang, in the small country of LiFan. It was a thriving village near the Silk Road and noted for its vibrant business in trade.

     “We’ve had a long journey, Student Ping. Perhaps we can find a room at the inn just up ahead,” Master Bao said. The painted wooden sign above the door swung in the gentle breeze, but Ping could make out the characters for “Inn of Restful Repose.” After seeing to the ox, the two travelers entered the inn and stepped up to the polished counter. A short bald man behind the counter was calculating on his abacus, but put it aside and scurried around from behind the desk when he recognized Master Bao.

     “This poor inn is greatly honored by your esteemed presence, Master Bao,” said the innkeeper as he deeply bowed, his hands folded inside his copious sleeves. “You and your companion are welcome to stay as long as you wish, at no cost to you.” 

     “Thank you for your generosity, Innkeeper, but we insist on paying our way,” the Monk responded.

     The Innkeeper looked crestfallen. Then, he brightened and smiled widely. “I have it, Master. We have a riddle on the sign on the wall behind the counter. As you see, it says whoever solves the riddle, stays overnight at no cost. That would apply to your companion as well.”

Master Bao read the riddle.

     As I was going to Li Ives,

    I met a man with seven wives.

    Each wife had seven sacks,

    And each sack had seven cats.

    Each cat had seven kits.

    Kits, cats, sacks, wives,

    How many were going to Li Ives?

     Ping was beside himself with excitement, and he tugged at his master’s sleeve. “Please, Master, let me answer this question. It is so easy, for I have read it carefully.”

     “One moment, Innkeeper. Let me speak to my pupil is private.” 

     Master Bao took Ping over to one side and conversed quietly for a few moments. Then, with Ping walking respectfully behind the Monk, Master Bao approached the innkeeper.

     “My student Ping has solved the riddle. You may give the answer now, Ping.”

     Ping smiled widely. “One,” he said. “Only one was going to Liang Ives. The rest were returning.”

     “Correct,” the Innkeeper said. “Now you both can stay for no cost, and a large dinner is part of the package.”

     Later, after a delicious meal of cooked vegetables and fresh fruit, Student Ping approached Master Bao, his hands folded inside his copious sleeves.  “Esteemed Master,” he began holding his clasped hands above his downcast eyes. “This ignorant student now listens carefully, but suspects a deeper lesson is yet to be learned. Please enlighten him.”

     Master Bao thought for a long moment before he spoke. “When presented with a problem, be it a riddle or some difficulty in our daily lives, most often we jump to a solution before we have considered the entire problem from many angles. The initial answers are the most appealing, quick and simple, especially if the problem seems simple. But if one studies even the most innocent appearing problem from other angles, and listens or reads the problem carefully, the true answer will make itself known. Just as Master Lao Tzu instructs us, the Superior person will reflect on a situation before rushing to a conclusion, leaving ambition, anger, frustration, and greed far behind. 

“You have learned a valuable lesson, Student Ping, to be mindful of the problem presented and not to jump to a simple solution because it appears easiest and quickest.”