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CHAPTER XV
A LAST CAMP

Gray had no means of knowing who the new-comers were, but experience had taught him the value of an armed front when dealing with an unknown element. And Sir Lionel's story had excited his gravest fears.

Under the American's brisk directions the Mohammedans unloaded the animals and tied them near the well. The stores they carried to the outer bushes. Mirai Khan primed his breechloader resignedly.

"Said I not the wild camel tracks were a warning?" he muttered in his beard. "Likewise it is written that the grave of a white man shall be dug here in the Gobi. What is written, you may not escape. You could have turned back, but you would not."

"Take one man," ordered Gray sharply, "and watch the eastern side of the brush."

"A good idea," approved the Englishman, who had persuaded one of the hunters to place the roll of the tent in front of him. He laid the rifle across the bundle of canvas coolly. "We must beat off these chaps before we can go ahead." He nodded at Gray, calmly.

Gray left one of the hunters with Sir Lionel, well knowing the value of the presence of a white man among the Kirghiz. He himself took the further side of the triangle to the north. The knoll was on a ridge that ran roughly due east and west. The nearest sand ridges were some two hundred yards away. Behind them he could see an occasional rifle barrel or sheepskin cap.

By this arrangement, at least three rifles could be brought to bear in any quarter where a rush might be started; likewise, they could watch all menaced points. But their adversaries seemed little inclined to try tactics of that sort. They remained concealed behind the dunes, keeping up a scattering fire badly aimed into the knot of men in the brush.

This did small damage. The Kirghiz, once the matter was put to an issue, proved excellent marksmen, and gave back as good as they received. Gray, watching from his post under a bush, fancied that two or three of Mirai Khan's shots took effect. He himself did not shoot. An automatic is designed for rapid fire at close range, not for delicate sniping.

But Sir Lionel was at home with a rifle. Glancing back under the tamarisk Gray saw him adjust his eyeglass calmly, lay his sights on a target, and press the trigger, then peer over his shelter to see if his effort had been successful. The Englishman evidently had seen action before—many times, Gray guessed, judging the man.

"A reconnoissance in force, I should call it, old man," the Englishman called back at him. "I think we are safe here. But the delay is dangerous."

He paused to try a snap shot at the dune opposite. Gray scanned the ground in front of him, frowning. He knew that Sir Lionel was as impatient as he to start for Sungan. There was no help for it, unless the attacking party could be driven off.

Gray had been pondering the matter. Their adversaries appeared to be a small party, and they had suffered at least three or four casualties in the first hour. Gray's force was still intact.

As nearly as he could make out the men behind the dunes were Chinese—border Chinese, and ill armed. Why they attacked him, he did not know. Mirai Khan had taken it for granted.

"Any one who enters this part of the Gobi seems to be marked for execution," he thought grimly. "If that's the case, two can play at it. And we've got to start before nightfall."

Cautiously he wormed his way back into the bushes to the side held by Mirai Khan. To this individual he confided what was in his mind. The Kirghiz objected flatly at first. But when Gray assured him that unless they did as he planned, night would catch them on the knoll, and they would be unable to fight off a rush, he yielded.

"If God wills," he muttered, "we may do it. And I do not think I shall die here."

Blessing the fatalism of his guide for once, Gray summoned one of the hunters. He removed a spare clip of cartridges from his belt and took it in his left hand. This done, he nodded to the two Kirghiz, straightened and ran out along the ridge, on the side away from Sir Lionel.

The maneuver took their enemies by surprise. One or two shots were fired at the three as they raced along the dune and gained the summit behind which the Chinese had taken shelter. Gray saw four or five men rise hastily and start to flee.

He worked the trigger of his automatic four times, keeping count carefully. Accurate shooting is more a matter of coolness than of skill. Two of the Chinese fell to earth; another staggered and ran, limping. The survivors picked up the two wounded and disappeared among the dunes.

"Hai!" grunted Mirai Khan in delight, "there speaks the little gun of many tongues. Truly, never have I seen——"

"Follow these men," commanded Gray sternly. "See that they continue to flee." Motioning to the other Kirghiz, he trotted back across the ridge to the further side. Here he was met with a scattering fire which kicked up some dust, but caused no damage.

The Chinese on this side of the white men's stronghold had learned the fate of their fellows and did not await the coming of the "gun of many tongues."

Gray saw a half dozen figures melting into the dunes, and emptied the automatic at them, firing at a venture. He thought at least one of his shots had taken effect. Pressing forward, he and the Kirghiz—who had gained enormous confidence from the display of the automatic—drove their assailants for some distance. When the Chinese had passed out of sight, Gray hurried back to the knoll.

There he found Sir Lionel seated with his back against the roll of canvas with the excited Kirghiz.

"The coast seems to be clear," observed Gray. "We can set out——"

The Englishman coughed, and tried to smile. "I stay here, I'm afraid," he objected. "It's my rotten luck, Captain Gray. One of the beggars potted me in that last volley. A chance shot."

He motioned to his chest, where he had opened the shirt. The cloth was torn by the bullet. "Touched the lung, you know"—again he coughed, and spat blood—"badly."

Gray made a hasty examination of the wound. It was bleeding little outwardly; but internal bleeding had set in.

"We'll have to get you back to Ansichow," he said with forced cheerfulness. "A mule litter and one of the Kirghiz will do the trick."

"No, it won't, old man." Sir Lionel shook his head. "I'd never get there. One day's travel would do me up. I'll stick—here."

Mirai Khan, who had rejoined the party, drew his companions aside and talked with them earnestly. Gray did what he could to make the Englishman comfortable. Assisted by the hunters, who worked reluctantly, he had the tent pitched, and laid the wounded man on a blanket, where he was protected by the canvas from the sun.

This done, he filled and lighted his pipe and sat beside his friend, smoking moodily.

"You'll find a cigarette in my shirt pocket," said Sir Lionel quietly. "Will you light it for me? I've enough lung—to smoke, and——" he cleared his throat with difficulty. "Thanks a lot. I've something to say to you. Won't take—a minute. Fever's set in. Must talk. Last message, you know."

He smiled with strained lips.

"Strange," he added. "Thought it only happened—in books."

Gray watched the shadows crawling across the knoll, and frowned. Sir Lionel, he knew, could not survive another day. With the death of his friend, he would be alone. And he must find Mary Hastings. He wondered what the Englishman wished to tell him.

"You know," began the other, seizing a moment when his throat was clear, "I said I'd seen the faces of the men of Sungan. They had their hands on me, and I saw them close. I did not tell you at first what I deduced from that."

Gray nodded, thinking how the explorer had broken off in the middle of a sentence in his story of two hours ago.

"Don't forget, Captain Gray——" a flash of eagerness passed over the tanned face—"I was the first in Sungan. I want the men who sent me to know that. Well, the faces I saw were white—in spots."

Gray whistled softly, recalling the words of Brent. The missionary had said that the man he saw in the Gobi was partially white. Also, Mirai Khan had said the same.

"Those men, Captain Gray, were not white men. They were afflicted with a disease. I've seen it too often—to be mistaken. It is leprosy."

Mechanically, Gray fingered his pipe. Leprosy! This sickness, he knew, caused the flesh of the face to decay and turn white in the process. And leprosy was common in China.

"I've been thinking," continued the Englishman, "while I was waiting to sight your caravan. There are lepers in the ruins of Sungan. That may be why the spot is isolated. The Chinese have leper colonies."

"Yes," assented Gray. Neither man voiced the thought that was uppermost in his mind, that Mary had been seized by these men. "Mirai Khan told me that Sungan was an unclean place. The Kirghiz—who are fairly free from the disease—avoid Sungan. Delabar, my companion, feared it, I think."

"This explains the myth of the white race in the Gobi—perhaps. And the guards."

"Mirai Khan said that men were brought from China, from the coast, to the sands of Sungan," added Gray grimly. "God—why didn't they warn us?"

"You were warned, Captain Gray. Our caravan traveled as secretly as possible. I—I paid no attention to what the Chinese said. They have their secrets. I should have been more cautious. I made the mistake of my race. Overconfidence in dealing with natives. I wanted to be the first white man in Sungan."

He paused, reaching for a cup of water that Gray had filled for him. The American watched him blankly. So the talk of the pale sickness had proved to be more than legend. And he had discovered the root of Delabar's dread of the Gobi. Why had not the scientist said in so many words that Sungan was a leper colony? Doubtless Delabar had known that Gray would not turn back until he had seen the truth of the matter for himself.

Had Wu Fang Chien reasoned along similar lines? It was natural that the Chinese authorities had not wanted the American to visit one of the isolated leper colonies. Wu Fang Chien had discovered Gray's mission. And the mandarin had been willing to kill Gray in order to keep him from Sungan. The Asiatic had tried to keep the white man from probing into one of the hidden, infected spots of Mongolia. Was this the truth? Gray, heart-sick from what Hastings had told him, believed so. Later, he came to understand more fully the motives that had actuated Wu Fang Chien.

"Remember," continued Sir Lionel wearily, "we learned that the Wusun were captives. The stone itself—the boundary stone we found at Ansichow—said as much."

"But the stone referred to the Wusun as conquerors."

"Some legend of a former century. Another of the riddles—of Asia. I'm afraid, Captain Gray, we've failed in our mission. And it has cost—much." He coughed, and raised his eyes to Gray. "We have found the lepers of Sungan. And we have let them take Mary. I'm out of the game, rather. And I'd prefer to die here than in a mule litter. You've done all for me you can."

Gray made a gesture of denial. The pluck of the Englishman, facing inevitable death, stirred his admiration. Lack of vitality, more than the wound, made it impossible to get Hastings out of the Gobi alive. Knowing this, Sir Lionel treated his own situation as indifferently as he might have disposed of a routine question of drill.

"I didn't tell you about the lepers at first," he continued, "because I was afraid you might lack the nerve to go on. I wouldn't blame you. But I've seen you under fire—and I know better."

"I'm going after Mary," said Gray grimly.

Sir Lionel nodded.

"Of course. Not much of a chance; but—I'm glad." He coughed and wiped his lips. "You were right, Captain Gray. She—she told me what you said at Ansichow. I regret that she—offended you. I have spoiled her, you know. A dear girl——" His cough silenced him.

Gray sought for words, and was silent. Neither man liked to reveal his feelings.

"My heedlessness brought Mary to Sungan, Captain Gray. Now I'm asking you to make good my mistake, if possible——"

"Excellency!" The shaggy head of Mirai Khan appeared between the tent flaps. "I must speak with you."

Gray went outside, to find the Kirghiz scowling and ill at ease. In their faces the sun was vanishing over the plain of the Gobi, dyeing the bare, yellow hillocks with deep crimson. A brown lizard trailed its body away from the two men, leaving the mark of its passage in the sand.

"Excellency, the hour of our parting is at hand. I go no further. The debt I owed you for saving my life I still owe, but—you will not turn back from Sungan. Hearken, hunter of the mighty little gun. I and my comrades followed the tracks of our enemies. They were camel tracks."

"Nonsense," growled Gray. "Those were men with guns. You saw them."

"And I saw the prints in the sands. They were not the tracks of men, but of camels. It is an evil thing when men are like to animals. My comrades were filled with a great fear. They have departed back to Sungan, taking the mules, for their pay——"

Gray glanced quickly about the encampment. It was empty, except for the tent.

"What is written may not be changed," uttered the Kirghiz sententiously. "The others are gone, and I will follow. God has forbidden that we remain in this evil spot. Because of my love for you, I have left you the rifle, standing against the wall of the cloth house, with its strap. If it is your will, you may shoot me with the little gun of many tongues, because I am leaving you. But I think you will not. I could have gone without your knowing."

Gray surveyed the hunter moodily. Mirai Khan smiled affectionately.

"Even if you had threatened to shoot us, Excellency, we would not have taken another pace nearer Sungan. The spot is unclean. And why should you shoot us—for saving our lives? My comrades said that soon you will be dead, and would not need the mules, so they took the animals. I do not know if you will die, or not. You have the quick wits of a mountain sheep, and the courage of a tiger. But I fear greatly for you. He who is inside——"

Mirai Khan pointed to the tent.

"He who is inside will die here. Did I not foretell a white man would die? But you will go on, for the men of Sungan have taken the white woman who warmed your heart. I have eyes, and I have seen your love for the woman."

Gray walked to the rifle and inspected it. The chamber was empty, and the cartridges had gone from the bandolier. Sir Lionel had used up the small supply in the belt. Gray had no reserve ammunition. Wu Fang Chien had taken that. He handed the weapon to Mirai Khan.

"I have no more bullets for it," he said briefly. "Take it. Also, send word to the nearest white missionary behind Ansichow. Tell him what has passed here, and that I set out to-night for Sungan. Ask him to send the message back to my country, to this man."

On a sheet of paper torn from a corner of the maps he still carried, Gray wrote down Van Schaick's name and address.

"It shall be done as you say," acknowledged the hunter, placing the paper in his belt. "The gun is a fine gun. But the little one of many tongues is better. Remember, we could have fallen upon you in the house of cloth and taken all you had. My comrades wished to do it, but I would not, for we have eaten salt together."

Mirai Khan lifted his hand in farewell, caught up the precious rifle, and hurried away, calling over his shoulder, "I must come up with the hunters before dark, or they will take the mule that is mine and leave me. As you have said, your message shall be sent."

He vanished in the dunes to the east, his cloth-wrapped feet moving soundlessly over the sand. Gray watched him go. He could not force the Kirghiz to continue on to Sungan. Even if he tried to do so, he had seen enough to know that from this point on Mirai Khan would be useless to him.

Before returning to Sir Lionel he made a circuit of the ridge and inspected the footprints where their enemies of the afternoon had passed. He saw a network of curious prints, marks of broad, splay hoofs. Occasionally, there was a blood stain.

He had been too far from the attacking party to notice their feet—and too busy to think about any such matter. But, undeniably, as Mirai Khan had said, here were camel tracks and nothing else.

"The devil!" he swore. "I certainly saw those Chinese—and they were men. Probably a trick—it certainly worked well enough to scare my guides."

He dismissed the matter with a shrug and made his way back to the tent.

"Anything gone wrong?" asked the Englishman.

"Nothing new," Gray evaded, unwilling to distress Sir Lionel with the truth.

"Then you'll be setting out, I fancy." He spoke with an effort. "I'll do nicely here—if you'll fill my water jar, and light the candle I see beside it. Don't leave me food—can't eat, you know. Deuced hemorrhage——"

Gray left him coughing, and filled the jar at the well. Also his own canteen which was slung at his belt. He lit the candle and placed it in the sand by the Englishman. Sir Lionel counted the cigarettes that lay beside the candle.

"They'll last—long enough," he whispered. "Close the tent, please, when you go out."

As if a giant hand had blotted out the light, the tent became darker. Sir Lionel looked up. "Sunset," he muttered, "no parade. I'll keep to my barracks."

Gray turned away. He could see that the man was nerving himself to be alone, and mustering his strength for the coming ordeal. The Englishman was utterly brave.

The American adjusted the blankets, and placed the remaining food—some flour cakes—in his shirt. Sir Lionel forced a smile.

"Right!" he whispered. "Strike due west—moonlight will show you compass bearings. Watch out for the ruins. Know you'll get Mary out, if it can be done. Good-by and good luck!"

"You're game!" exclaimed Gray involuntarily. "Good-by."

The Englishman adjusted his eyeglass as they shook hands. "Remember—due west."

Gray glanced back as he closed the curtains of the tent and tied the flap cords. Sir Lionel was lighting himself a cigarette at the candle.

That was the last he saw of Major Hastings. Sir Lionel died without complaint, a brave man doing his duty as best he could.