On our ninth day from Yuen-nan Fu we had a welcome bit of excitement. We were climbing a long mountain trail to a pass over eight thousand feet high and were near the summit when a boy dashed breathlessly up to the caravan, jabbering wildly in Chinese. It required fifteen minutes of questioning before we finally learned that bandits had attacked a big caravan less than a mile ahead of us and were even then ransacking the loads.
He said that there were two hundred and fifty of them and that they had killed two mafus; almost immediately a second gesticulating Chinaman appeared and gave the number as three hundred and fifty and the dead as five. Allowing for the universal habit of exaggeration we felt quite sure that there were not more than fifty, and subsequently learned that forty was the correct number and that no one had been killed.
Our caravan was in a bad place to resist an attack but we got out our rifles and made for a village at the top of the pass. There were not more than a half dozen mud houses and in the narrow street between them perfect bedlam reigned. Several small caravans had halted to wait for us, and men, horses, loads, and chairs were packed and jammed together so tightly that it seemed impossible ever to extricate them. Our arrival added to the confusion, but leaving the mafus to scream and chatter among themselves, we scouted ahead to learn the true condition of affairs.
Almost within sight we found the caravan which had been robbed. Paper and cloth were strewn about, loads overturned, and loose mules wandered over the hillside. The frightened mafus were straggling back and told us that about forty bandits had suddenly surrounded the caravan, shooting and brandishing long knives. Instantly the mafus had run for their lives leaving the brigands to rifle the packs unmolested. The goods chiefly belonged to the retiring mandarin of Li-chiang, and included some five thousand dollars worth of jade and gold dust, all of which was taken.
Yuen-nan, like most of the outlying provinces of China, is infested with brigands who make traveling very unsafe. There are, of course, organized bands of robbers at all times, but these have been greatly augmented since the rebellion by dismissed soldiers or deserters who have taken to brigandage as the easiest means to avoid starvation.
The Chinese Government is totally unable to cope with the situation and makes only half-hearted attempts to punish even the most flagrant robberies, so that unguarded caravans carrying valuable material which arrive at their destination unmolested consider themselves very lucky.
So far as our expedition was concerned we did not feel great apprehension for it was generally known that we carried but little money and our equipment, except for guns, could not readily be disposed of. Throughout the entire expedition we paid our mafus and servants a part of their wages in advance when they were engaged, and arranged to have money sent by the mandarins or the British American Tobacco Co., to some large town which would be reached after several months. There the balance on salaries was paid and we carried with us only enough money for our daily needs.