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CHAPTER XXVI
THE BRONZE CIRCLET

The girl gave a quick cry. It was answered by a shout from Gela.

One of the Chinese fired. The man who was supporting Timur dropped to the ground with a moan, hands clasped to his stomach.

Both Gela and Gray sprang forward at the same time. Wu Fang Chien caught sight of them and lifted his rifle. His followers shot wildly, doing no damage in the uncertain light.

The mandarin, Gray thought swiftly as he ran, had rallied some of the fugitives at the camp. Possibly he had guessed Gray's intention to leave Sungan, and was determined to prevent it at all costs.

Gray could see the man clearly as he peered at him over the sights of the rifle. The weapon was steady. Behind him, a warning shout echoed from the Wusun. Gela, at his side, did not slacken his pace.

Still Wu Fang Chien held his fire. Gray, watching intently, saw that the rifle the mandarin held was one of his own—stolen from his luggage. The thought wrought on him with grim humor. It did not occur to him to turn back. He could not leave Gela to go forward alone. The Kha Khan was panting as he ran, wearied by his efforts, but grimly intent on Wu Fang Chien.

Behind Wu Fang Chien, he saw the horses struggling at their tethers. His senses were strangely sharpened by the tensity of the moment. He heard Gela pant, and even caught the distant lament of the women of the Wusun. The coughing of frightened camels came to him clearly.

The lantern glinted on the rifle barrel that was aimed full at him. He saw Wu Fang Chien's evil eyes narrow. Then they widened. The rifle barrel wavered. And dropped to the sand. Gela and the white man halted in their tracks.

From the throat of Wu Fang Chien projected an arrow shaft, the feathers sticking grotesquely under his chin.

Slowly the mandarin's knees gave way and he fell forward on the sand, both hands gripping the arrow that snapped the thread of his life.

"Aie!" the voice of Timur rang out. "I have taken a life. I have slain an enemy of my people!"

Gray turned and saw the old chieftain standing bow in hand beside Mary. His cry had barely ceased when a yellow-robed priest sprang at him from a tent.

The Buddhist held a knife. His course took him directly toward Mary. The girl waited helplessly. Gela's warning cry rang out. Several of the Wusun were running toward her. But too far away to aid.

The priest was within a few paces of the girl, too near for Gela or Gray to interfere in time.

Then the figure of Timur limped forward. The old man struck at the priest feebly with his bow. And caught him by the shoulders.

The Buddhist stabbed the Wusun viciously, burying his knife in Timur's back. The old man uttered no sound, but kept his hold, snarling under the bite of the knife. Gray stepped to the side of Wu Fang Chien and caught up the mandarin's rifle.

It was his own piece and loaded. He laid the sights on the man in the yellow robe as the latter threw off the clinging form of Timur. The rifle cracked as the Buddhist stepped toward Mary.

The priest staggered to his knees. It had been a quick shot, and an excellent one, considering the light. Gela grunted approval.

Gray saw the girl go to the side of the stricken Timur. Then he looked about the camp. Wu Fang Chien was dead, and his remaining followers had run from the camp into the desert. Only Gela's band of the Wusun were visible, thinned in numbers, but triumphant. They thronged toward their leader, bearing useless rifles as spoil, tired, yet chuckling loudly.

The fight was over.

Gela motioned significantly to the moon which was high overhead. Time was passing, and the white man must be dispatched while the coast was free. He had not forgotten his promise in the council hall. The Kha Khan returned to Mary and led her away from the old chieftain.

Gray saw that the girl was crying. Not noisily, but quietly, trying to keep back the tears. The strain of the night was beginning to tell on her, and the death of Timur at her side had been a shock. She did not want to look back.

"I—I liked Timur," she said softfy. "He was good to me."

"He was a good sort," assented Gray heartily.

For the girl's sake, he wished to leave the camp at once. Delay would mean peril. Gela seemed to have guessed his thought. The Kha Khan issued brisk orders to his followers. Then he threw his own warm, sheepskin khalat over the girl's shoulders.

Two camels, the pick of those in the encampment, were produced. These were fitted hastily with blankets. A third was loaded—protesting loudly after the fashion of the beasts—with foodstuffs and water, commandeered from the supplies of the Chinese. Gela examined the goat skin water bags attentively and nodded with satisfaction. They were all-important.

This done, he turned to Gray and pointed again to the moon. Then he motioned out over the desert to the west to a gray expanse of shimmering earth, with scattering wisps of stunted bushes.

"He wants us to go in that direction," said the girl, "not back to China."

Gray had already reasoned out their best course. The direction of Gala agreed with his own conclusion. To the west four or five days' fast ride on camels was the river Tarim, with isolated settlements of shepherds. Here they would be across the boundary of Kashgaria and free from the authority of the Chinese Buddhists. And beyond the Tarim was Khotan—just north of the Karakorum Pass to India. He still had his maps and compass.

"From there,"assented the girl, "we can reach Kashgar, where there will be merchants from Kashmir. My uncle has been at Khotan with me. It is not hard to travel to India from there."

Urged by Gela they mounted the kneeling camels. The Wusun clustered around. Out of the camp they led the white man and woman until the towers of Sungan were barely visible on the horizon.

Here they were beyond danger of meeting with Chinese fugitives. Gela halted and raised his hand in farewell. Gray and the girl did likewise.

"He has kept his word to us, and he is proud of it," whispered Mary, "and we can't thank him." For neither could speak Gela's tongue.

"Good-by, old man, and good luck," said Gray heartily, in English.

Turning back after an interval, he saw the Kha Khan and the Wusun watching them. They were seated in the sand, their faces bent toward the departing camels. Until the two were out of sight, Gela remained there.

The camels were fresh and moved swiftly. It was a clear night, with a touch of cold in the air, a forerunner of the winter that was settling down on Central Asia. The miles passed swiftly behind, as Gray, guided by his compass, kept on to the west.

They did not speak. Behind them the crimson of dawn flooded the sky. The moon paled, coldly. Early morning chill numbed the man and the girl. The long shadows of the camels appeared on the sand before them. Mists, wraith-like and grotesque, receded on the skyline. From black to gray, and then to brown the sand dunes turned. Waves of sand swept to the sky-line on either side.

They were alone in the infinity of Asia.

Gray wanted to speak, but a strong shyness gripped him. He urged his beast beside the girl's and took her hand. She did not withdraw it. This made him bold. Already the sun warmed their backs. The camels slowed to a steady trudge.

"Our honeymoon has begun," he said. His heart was beating in unruly fashion. "And in Kashgar, we can find a missionary, to—to make you really my wife—if you will."

She did not answer. Instead, she drew hack the khalat that the Wusun had given her. Gray saw that the bronze circlet was still about her throat.


THE END