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CHAPTER XIII
THE DESERT

The next day Gray dispatched Mirai Khan to the amban's yamen to try to hire the necessary camels. He thought it better not to go himself. Without the consent of the Chinese official nothing could be done, as the amban would expect a liberal commission on every transaction in Ansichow. Also the official had a dozen ill-armed and ill-minded soldiery in the town barracks—enough to enforce his authority on Gray, although the Hastings' party was numerous enough to be independent of the Chinese.

Gray himself wandered moodily through the few streets of the village. Since the conversation of the evening before he had been restless. He had slept badly. Although he would not admit it to himself, the thought of Mary Hastings had preyed on him.

So it happened that his wandering took him to the camp of the Hastings.

He found Mary seated under the fly of the stores tent, inspecting and tallying a stock of provisions that Ram Singh had purchased. She looked up and nodded coolly at his approach.

"You are busy, Miss Hastings," he observed. "But I want to ask a favor. A half hour of your time."

The girl poised a pencil over her accounts doubtfully. Ram Singh scowled.

"We can talk here, Captain Gray," she compromised, "while I work. Sir Lionel wants these stores——"

"We can't talk here very well," objected Gray. "What I have to say is important. Last night your uncle gave me some valuable information. I want to give you return value for it."

"Where?"

Mary Hastings had the brisk manner of one accustomed to transacting business. Gray learned later—after the disaster that came upon them in the Gobi—that she handled the routine work of her uncle's expeditions, and very capably, too.

"Outside here, in the garden," he suggested. She hesitated; then rose, reaching for her sun helmet. A dilapidated wall encircled the camp, and a few aloes struggled for existence by the tumble-down stones.

Mary climbed the stones, refusing assistance from the American, until she perched on the summit of the garden wall. Here she could overlook the activity in the camp as she listened.

A haze hung in the air—born of the incessant flurries of fine sand that burden the atmosphere in the Gobi. But from their small elevation, beyond the low buildings of Ansichow, Gray could see the plain of dunes that marked the desert. A dull brown they were, stretching to the long line of the horizon in the west.

Gray was silent, admiring the girl's profile. There was something slender and boyish about her. Her dress was plain, and excessively neat. Under the crown of her helmet a few strands of copper hair curled against her tanned cheek.

Mary glanced at the watch on her wrist significantly.

"I'm afraid you are very lazy, Captain Gray," she said frankly. "I warn you that we are going to lose no time in starting from Ansichow."

"I am lazy," he agreed. "But I don't want you to start at all."

She looked at him calmly. "Why?"

"That's what I wanted to tell your uncle. I'm going to be as frank with you as I intended to be with Sir Lionel. Miss Hastings, the Gobi Desert—"

"Is not safe for a woman, I presume?"

"Exactly. If Sir Lionel knew all that I do, he would not want you to go with him. He'll have to go, of course. So will I. But you can stay here with Ram Singh until we get back. The Sikh is a good watchman. Sir Lionel can join you when he returns."

Mary rested her chin on her hands and scrutinized the aloes with friendly interest. "Why do you think it is dangerous for me to go to—Sungan?"

"I have a good reason for my warning, Miss Hastings. Two reasons. One—Sungan seems to be guarded by the Chinese priests. You have avoided them by coming up through Burma into Mongolia. I've had a taste of their kindly disposition."

He told her briefly of the opposition of Wu Fang Chien, the episode of the inn at Liangchowfu, and the fears of Delabar.

"So your companion turned back because he was afraid?" She smiled curiously. "What is your other reason, Captain Gray?"

"Sickness. That was what Delabar chiefly dreaded, I think. Brent, a missionary, went past the Gobi border here—and died of sickness. I don't say he was killed. He died."

"We are equipped to deal with that. I have means to purify the water we may have to use in the oases."

"It's not a question of water, in this case. Brent had his own. You may think I'm running to fancy a bit, Miss Hastings. But there's Mirai Khan. I've sounded him thoroughly. He is clearly afraid of the Sungan region, and of the pale sickness. I don't know what it is—don't even know that it exists. Still, the fact remains that Mirai Khan, who is a fearless sort of rascal, says his countrymen avoided this part of the Gobi on account of the plague—whatever it may be."

"All Kirghiz are liars by birth and environment. Really, you know, Captain Gray, the Buddhist priests invent such stories to keep visitors from their shrines. The coming of foreigners weakens their power."

"That may be true." Gray felt he was stating his case badly. "But you haven't established contact yet with the amiable Wu Fang Chien. Having a woman along would handicap Sir Lionel."

Her brows arched quizzically.

"Really? The amban of Ansichow and his men do not seem to be trying to prevent us from going ahead."

"Because they couldn't very well if they wanted to. But, did it strike you that you have already come so far that the Chinese are not worrying about you? That, if you go into the Gobi, they will count you lost. I've gathered as much, and Mirai Khan has listened in the bazaars. Won't you stay at Ansichow, Miss Hastings?"

His blunt appeal had a note of wistfulness in it. The possible danger to the girl had haunted him all that day. It would be useless he felt, to appeal to Sir Lionel. Mary Hastings was not in the habit of obeying her uncle's commands in matters affecting her own comfort or safety.

"And leave Sir Lionel to go alone into the Gobi?"

"Yes. He's bound to take the risk. You are not. I'm afraid your uncle is too wrapped up in his researches to pay much heed to possible danger. I don't think a white woman should take the risk."

Mary Hastings smiled slowly. She had a way of looking directly at a man—unlike most women—that disturbed Gray. He felt that he was blundering.

"Sir Lionel," she replied, "has set his heart on being the first white man in Sungan. He has staked his reputation as a scientist on this expedition. You do not know how much it means to him. If he finds the Sungan ruins and the descendants of the Wusun, he will have vindicated his judgment. If he fails it will be his last expedition. It is hard for a man of his age to fail. He has many rivals, at home and—in America."

"But you——"

"Sir Lionel needs me. I attend to the management of the caravan. And he can not spare Ram Singh."

She tossed her small head.

"Don't you think, Captain Gray, you've tried enough to spoil our chances of success? Isn't it rather mean of you to try to frighten me into leaving Sher Singh?" Mary Hastings was suddenly growing angry. Gray was committing the unpardonable sin of endeavoring—so she assured herself—to separate uncle and niece.

She wanted to be angrier than she was. But the wall perch was a bad strategic position for a display of temper, which she considered he had earned.

"You know that it would weaken our chances of success to divide our caravan!" she accused, feeling for foothold on the stones beneath.

Gray was unable to account for the swift change in mood. What had he said to offend her? He had meant it only for her good.

"No, Miss Hastings," he flushed. "I simply wanted to warn you of real danger."

The girl slid down the rocks to the earth. She stamped a neatly shod foot disdainfully. Gray was oblivious of the fact that the maneuver had been planned for this purpose. She was plainly very angry. He wondered why, miserably.

"I thought you were a sportsman, Captain Gray—even if you were not a big game hunter as you pretended. I find I am mistaken. Good afternoon."

"Good Lord!" Gray watched her slight figure return to the tent and set his teeth. "Good Lord!" He smiled ruefully. "Horse thief—schemer—I wonder if there's anything else that she thinks I am. Guess there's nothing else bad enough."

He climbed down from his rocks and left the encampment, avoiding Ram Singh who was ushering in a line of coolies as he did so. The Sikh strode by with a scowl.

So easily are quarrels made. And a woman, so fate has ordained, has the first voice in their making. But it is doubtful if Mary Hastings herself could have explained why she treated Gray as she did. Divinely is it decreed that a woman may not be asked to explain to a man.

Gray hesitated, half minded to seek out Sir Lionel and ask that the girl be kept in Ansichow. Realizing that this would be useless, he returned to his tent on the further side of the town. Mirai Khan was not there.

It was a good three hours before the Kirghiz appeared. Three hours in which Gray smoked moodily. Mirai Khan had news.

"Come, Excellency," he observed importantly. "Yonder is a sight you should see. Verily, it is a fine sight."

Gray took his hat and followed his companion to a knoll, where the Kirghiz pointed out to the plain.

Half a mile away a caravan of a dozen camels in single file was making its way into the sand dunes, leaving a dense haze of dust in its wake. He could see through his glasses Sir Lionel and Ram Singh on the leading beasts.

Near the end of the caravan he saw Mary Hastings. He thought that she turned and looked back at him. He could not be sure. He watched the slight figure with its veil about the sun helmet pass from view in the dust.

Then he walked back silently to the tent, beckoning Mirai Khan to follow.

"Have you the camels?" he asked when they were seated on the tattered rug that formed the tent floor.

"No, Excellency. The camels may not be hired."

"Then buy them."

Mirai Khan yawned and regarded his master with the benevolent scrutiny of the fatalist.

"It may not be. There were but eight two-hump camels in Ansichow, and these the Englishman bartered when he first came, in exchange for his tired beasts. He paid well."

"Well, buy the camels he left."

"That would be folly. A week must pass before these eight can bear burdens. They are nearly dead with hard use. The Englishman did not spare them."

Gray frowned meditatively. He must have beasts of burden, to carry at least ten days' stock of water, with necessary food. The Gobi was a barren land.

"Do you think a trader's caravan may visit Ansichow, Mirai Khan?"

"Perhaps. In another moon, or possibly three or four. Why should they come to this dung-heap in the sand?"

"Coolies might carry our supplies—if we paid them enough." Gray knew that this would be risky; but he was not in a position to choose. Time was pressing. Mirai Khan smiled, showing yellow, serried teeth.

"No, Excellency. An ounce of gold apiece will not bribe these Chinese to come into the Gobi."

"The Kirghiz?"

Mirai Khan squinted thoughtfully at the glare of sunlight without the tent. "Is the Excellency determined to go into the Gobi?"

"Yes."

"What God wills, will come to pass. I, Mirai Khan, have helped you to safety. For the space of ten days I have eaten the food you have killed. Because of this, I shall go a part of the way into the Gobi. Also, a tribe of Kirghiz should be here within four days, from the northern steppe. It may so happen that some of these will come with us. I know not."

"Four days!" Gray groaned.

"Likewise, the men of this tribe will not be carriers of burdens. It is not their custom."

"Mirai Khan: why is it that you fear the city of Sungan? I thought you were a brave man."

Gray's purposeful taunt failed of its effect. Mirai Khan stared at him and spat out into the sand.

"The region of Sungan is unclean. It is the law of the Prophet that no one shall touch what is unclean."

"But you do not know that," cried the exasperated white man. "You are running from a shadow."

"A shadow may betoken evil. My father said it, and it is so."

Gray sighed. "Then buy a half dozen mules. They can carry our stores. Watch for the coming of the tribe you spoke of. When they are here let me know. Meanwhile, purchase water jars, flour, rice and tea sufficient for six men for three weeks."

The Kirghiz blinked understandingly.

"It is written that a white man shall go into the desert from here," he assented. "What is written will come to pass. It is also said by our priests that a white man's grave is waiting in the Gobi. If this thing also comes to pass, I and my comrades will bury you, so the kites will not make a meal of your eyes—for once you saved my life."

Whereupon the hunter turned over on his side and went to sleep, leaving Gray to his own thoughts. They were not cheerful.

The Hastings had left for Sungan. They had camels and would make good time. With luck, if they escaped the black sand-storms, they should be at their destination in seven or eight days. No wonder, he thought, Sir Lionel had spoken frankly to him about the inscription, when he had all the camels bought.

Camels could move faster than mules, over the bad footing. Gray would make his start four days—three if the Kirghiz arrived promptly—later than Sir Lionel. And he would fall behind steadily.

If it had been possible, he would have gone alone. But he could not carry the necessary food and water for ten days. For a moment he pondered the advisability of pushing on alone as soon as the mules could be bought.

This plan he dismissed as useless. Mirai Khan had assured him that it would take at least two days to get the animals and the needed supplies. Also, he would be without a guide—for Mirai Khan would not start until the tribesmen arrived.

It would be tempting providence for one man to venture with a string of mules into the Gobi. Even so, Gray might have attempted it if he had a guide.

There was nothing for it but to wait. And Gray passed the time as best he could, overhauling his rifle and small stock of ammunition, and packing with the help of Mirai Khan the food the latter bought for him.

Fate moves in strange ways. If Gray had started before the four days were up, the events that took place in the Gobi would have shaped themselves differently. For one thing, he would not have seen the tracks of the wild camel in the sand.

Nor would he have heard the story of the pale sickness.

As Mirai Khan had assured him, the Kirghiz tribe appeared at Ansichow the evening of the third day. The hunter took Gray to their aul near where Sir Lionel's encampment had been.

Acting as interpreter, he harangued the newcomers. Moreover, as he informed the American later, he did not translate what Gray said literally. If he had done so, he asserted, they would not have gone into the Gobi.

The reason that Mirai Khan set forth seemed sufficient, for after long debate, the elder of the tribe and two evil looking hunters consented to accompany Gray. They agreed to go on foot. Somewhat to the American's surprise nothing was said about turning back.

He broke camp at dawn, and the cavalcade of mules passed out of Ansichow with Mirai Khan leading. By the time the sun had broken through the mist they were well into the sand dunes.

There had been no wind-storm since the Hastings passed that way and Mirai Khan was content to follow the camel tracks.