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CHAPTER X
THE MEM-SAHIB SPEAKS

It was nearly a week later, on the border of the Gobi, that Gray and Mirai Khan sighted the caravan. The day was rainy. During a space when the rain thinned, the Kirghiz pointed out a group of yurts surrounded by camels and ponies a mile away.

Gray scanned the encampment through his glasses, and made out that the caravan numbered a good many men, and that the yurts were being put up for the night. The rain began again, and cut off his view.

It was then late afternoon. Both men were tired. They had pushed ahead steadily from Liangchowfu, killing what they needed in the way of game, and occasionally buying goat's milk or dried fruit from a wayside shepherd. The few villages they met they avoided. Gray had not forgotten Wu Fang Chien, or the fears of Delabar.

"They are Kirghiz yurts," said Mirai Khan when the American described what he had seen. "And it is a caravan on the march, or we would have seen sheep. Many tribes use our yurts. They are taken down and put up in the time it takes a man to smoke a pipe. But these people are not Kirghiz. My kinsmen have not wealth to own so many camels."

"What do you think they are?"

"Chinese merchants, Excellency, or perhaps Turkestan traders from Kashgar."

Mirai Khan's respect for his companion had increased with the last few days. Gray's accurate shooting inspired his admiration, and the fortitude of the man surprised him.

On his part, Gray trusted the Kirghiz. If Mirai Khan had meant to rob him, he had enjoyed plenty of chances to do so. But the Kirghiz's code would not permit him to steal from one who was sharing his bread and salt.

"If they are Chinese," meditated the American, it will not be wise to ride up to their camp. What say you, Mirai Khan?"

The Kirghiz puffed tranquilly at his noisome pipe.

"This. It is the hour of sunset prayer. When that is ended you and I will dismount, Excellency, and stalk the encampment. By the favor of God we will then learn if these people are Chinese or Turkomans. If the last, we shall sleep in a dry aul, which is well, for my bones like not the damp."

Whereupon Mirai Khan removed his pipe and kneeled in the sand, facing toward the west, where was the holy city of his faith. So poverty-stricken was he that he did not even own a prayer carpet Gray watched, after tethering the three animals.

"Remember," he said sternly when Mirai Khan had finished the prayer, "there must be no stealing of beasts from the camp, whatever it may be."

The Kirghiz's weakness for horseflesh was well known to him. The hunter agreed readily and they set out under cover of the rain. By the time they were half way to the caravan the sudden twilight of the Gobi concealed them.

Guided by the occasional whinny of a horse, or the harsh bawl of a camel, Mirai Khan crept forward, sniffing the air like a dog. Several lights appeared out of the mist, and Gray took the lead.

He could make out figures that passed through the lighted entrances of the dome-shaped felt shelters. Drawing to one side he gained the camels which rested in a circle, apparently without a watcher.

Mirai Khan had been lost to view in the gloom and Gray walked slowly forward among the camels, trying to gain a clear glimpse of the men of the caravan. The few that he saw were undoubtedly servants, but their dress was unfamiliar.

Gray could almost make out the interior of one of the yurts, lighted by candles, with silk hangings and an array of cushions on the floor. He rose to his full height, to obtain a better view, and paused as he saw one of the figures look toward him.

The camels were moving uneasily. Gray could have sworn he heard a muffled exclamation near him. He turned his head, and a form uprose from the ground and gripped him.

Gray wrenched himself free from the man and struck out. The newcomer slipped under his arm and caught him about the knees. Other forms sprang from among the camels and lean arms twined around the American.

"Look out, Mirai Khan!" he cried in Chinese. "These are enemies."

A powerful white man who can handle his fists is a match for a round half dozen Mongolians, unarmed—if he has a clear footing and can see where to hit. Gray was held by at least four men; his rifle slung to one shoulder by a sling hampered him. He was cast to earth at once.

His face was ground into the sand, and his arms drawn behind his back. He heard his adversaries chattering in a strange tongue. Cold metal touched his wrists. He felt the click of a metal catch and realized that handcuffs had been snapped on him.

He wondered vaguely how handcuffs came to be in a Central Asian caravan, as he was pulled roughly to his feet. In the dark he could not make out the men who held him. But they advanced toward one of the tents—the same he had been trying to see into.

Gray, perforce, made no further resistance. He was fully occupied in spitting sand from his mouth and trying to shake it from his eyes.

So it happened that when he stood in the lighted yurt, he was nearly blind with the dust and the sudden glare. He heard excited native gutturals, and then——

"Why, it's a white man."

It was a woman's voice, and it spoke English. Moreover the voice was clear, even musical. It reflected genuine surprise, a tinge of pity—inspired perhaps by his damaged appearance—and no little bewilderment.

"Yes, chota missy," echoed a man near him, "but this, in the dark, we knew it not. And he cried out in another tongue."

Gray reflected that his warning to Mirai Khan had been ill-timed. His eyes still smarted with the sand. It was not possible for him to use his hands to clear them, because of the handcuffs which bound his wrists behind his back. Not for the world would Gray have asked for assistance in his plight.

He winked rapidly, and presently was able to see the others in the tent clearly. The men who had brought him hither he made out to be slender, dark skinned fellows. By their clean dress, and small, ornamented turbans draped over the right shoulder he guessed them to be Indian natives—most probably Sikhs. This surprised him, for he had been prepared to face Dungans or Turkomans.

A portable stove gave out a comfortable warmth, beside a take-down table. The rough felt covering of the yurt was concealed behind hangings of striped silk. Gray stared; he little expected to find such an interior in the nomad shelter.

The table was covered with a clean cloth. Behind it hung a canvas curtain, evidently meant to divide one corner from the rest of the tent, perhaps for sleeping purposes. In front of the partition, behind the table, was a comfortable steamer chair. And in the chair, watching him from wide, gray eyes was a young woman.

He had not seen a white woman for months. But his first glance told him that the girl in the chair was more than ordinarily pretty—that she would be considered so even in Washington or Paris. She was neatly dressed in light tan walking skirt and white waist, a shawl over her slender shoulders.

She was considering him silently, chin on hand, a slight frown wrinkling her smooth brow. The bronze hair was dressed low against the neck in a manner that Gray liked to see—at a distance, for he was shy in the presence of women.

The eyes that looked into his were clear, and seemed inclined to be friendly. Just now, they were dubious. The small nose tilted up from a mouth parted over even teeth. She was deeply sunburned, even to throat and arms. Ordinarily, women take in great pains to protect their skin from exposure to the sun.

There was the stamp of pride in the brown face, and the head poised erect on strong young shoulders. Gray knew horses. And this woman reminded him of a thoroughbred. Later, he was to find that his estimate of her pride was accurate; for the present, he was hardly in the mood to make other and stronger deductions concerning the girl.

He flushed, hoping that it did not show under the sand.

"Right," he admitted with a rueful smile. "Beneath the mud and dirt, I happen to be an Aryan."

"An Englishman?" she asked quickly, almost skeptically, "Or American?"

"American," he admitted. "My name is Robert Gray."

Her glance flickered curiously at this. He was not too miserable to wonder who she was. What was a white woman doing in this stretch of the Gobi? A white woman who was master, or rather mistress of a large caravan, and seemed quite at home in her surroundings?

He wondered why he had flushed. And why he felt so uncomfortable under her quiet gaze. To his utter surprise the frown cleared from her brow, and her lips parted in a quick smile which crept into her eyes. Then she was serious again. But he found that his pulses were throbbing in wrist and throat.

"Where did you find this feringhi, Ram Singh?" she asked curiously.

"Among the camels, mem-sahib," promptly answered the man who had spoken before. "His servant was making off the while with our horses."

Gray looked around. At the rear of the group, arms pinioned to his sides and his bearded face bearing marks of a struggle, was Mirai Khan. The Kirghiz wore a sheepish expression and avoided his eye.

"The servant," explained Ram Singh in stern disapproval, "had untethered two of the ponies. One he had mounted when we seized him. Said I not the plain was rife with horse thieves?"

Gray glared at Mirai Khan.

"Did I not warn you," he asked angrily, "that there was to be no stealing of animals?"

The Kirghiz twisted uneasily in his bonds.

"Aye, Excellency. But the ponies seemed unguarded and you had need of one to ride. If these accursed Sikhs had not been watching for horse lifters we would have gone free."

The officer swore under his breath, beginning to realize what an unenviable position Mirai Khan had placed him in. Robbing a caravan was no light offense in this country. And the horses had belonged to the woman!

Gray silently thrust his manacled hands further out of sight, wishing himself anywhere but here. Covered with the grime of a week's hike across the plain, with a stubby beard on his chin, eyes bleared with sand, and his hat lost, he must look the part of a horse lifter—and Mirai Khan's appearance did not conduce to confidence.

"Is this true?" the girl asked. Again the elfin spirit of amusement seemed to dance in the gray eyes.

"Every word of it," he said frankly. Searching for words to explain, his shyness gripped him. "That is, Mirai Khan was undoubtedly taking your ponies, but I didn't know what he was up to——"

He broke off, mentally cursing his awkwardness. It is not easy to converse equably with a self-possessed young lady, owner of a damaging pair of cool, gray eyes. Especially when one is battered and bound by suspicious and efficient servants.

"Why didn't you come direct to the yurt?" she observed tentatively.

"Because I thought you might be—a Chinaman."

"A Chinaman!" The small head perched inquisitively aslant "But I'm not, Captain Gray. Why should I be? Why should you dislike the Chinese?"

Two things in her speech interested Gray. She seemed to be an Englishwoman. And she had given him his army rank, although he himself had not mentioned it. Most certainly there could be nothing in his appearance to suggest the service.

"I have reason to dislike one Chinaman," returned Gray. "So I was obliged to take precautions," he blundered, and then strove to remedy his mistake. "If I had known you were the owner of the yurt, I would have come straight here."

Too late, he realized that he had made his blunder worse. The girl's brows went up, also her nose—just a trifle.

"Why should you be so cautious, Mr. Gray?" The civilian title was accented firmly. Yet a minute ago she had addressed him as "captain." "Surely"—this was plainly ironical—"the Chinese are harmless?"

Gray thought grimly of Liangchowfu.

"Sometimes," he said, "they are—inquisitive." The girl glanced at him. Surely she did not take this as a personal dig? Gray did not understand women. "Miss"—he hesitated—"Memsahib"—she stared—"you see, I've gone beyond the limits mentioned in my passport." He was unwilling, placed in such circumstances, to tell the whole truth of his mission and rank. So he compromised. Which proved to be a mistake. "And the governor fellow of Liangchowfu is anxious to head me off."

"Really? Perhaps the official," and she glanced fleetingly at Mirai Khan, "thinks you do not keep good company. Will you show me your passport? You don't have to, you know."

No, he did not have to. But in his present plight he felt that a refusal would be a mistake. He moved to reach the papers in his breast pocket, and was checked by the handcuffs. He glanced at Ram Singh angrily. The native looked at him complacently. It was an awkward moment.

"Ram Singh!" The girl spoke sharply. "Have you bound the white man's hands?"

The Sikh grunted non-committally. She pointed at Gray.

"Undo his hands. Is a white man to be tied like a horse-stealing Kirghiz?"

Reluctantly, Ram Singh obeyed, and stood near vigilantly. Gray felt in his pocket with stiffened fingers and produced his passport. This the girl scanned curiously.

"I want to apologize," ventured Gray, "for Mirai Khan's attempt on your horses. He was acting contrary to orders. But I take the blame for what he did."

He spoke formally, even stiffly. The woman in the chair glanced at him swiftly, studying him from under level brows. He felt a great wish that he should be absolved from the stigma of guilt before her. And, man-like, he pinned his trust in formal explanation.

She seemed not to heed his words. She returned his papers, biting her lip thoughtfully. He would have given much to know what she was thinking about, but the girl's bright face was unreadable.

"Ram Singh," she ordered absently, "the Sahib's rifle must be filled with sand. See that it is cleaned. Take him to the store tent where he can wash the sand from his eyes. Will you come back here, Captain Gray? I would like ever so much to talk to you."

While Gray washed gratefully, and while the natives brushed his coat and shoes, his mind was on the girl of the yurt. He told himself savagely that he did not desire to be sympathized with. Like a woman, he thought, she had taken pity on his discomfort. Of course, she had to treat him decently, before the natives.

In this, he was more right than wrong.