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Marching Sands/Chapter 9

 

CHAPTER IX
THE LIU SHA

Mirai Khan agreed with Gray that it would be useless to stay where they were until dark. They had no food. In spite of the risk of discovery, they must go forward.

"If we sleep," the hunter agreed, "we will waken with empty bellies and our strength will be less than now. The time will come when we shall need meat; and there is none here. To the west, we may see a village or shoot a gazelle.

Without further delay they unhitched the mules, packing the small remainder of Gray's outfit—a tent, and his personal kit—on one animal. The American mounted the other, not without protest from the beast, who scented water and forage.

With Mirai Khan leading on his shaggy pony they made their way westward out of the hillocks to the plain. They were now on the Mongolian plain—a barren tableland of brown hills and stony alleys. No huts were to be seen.

They had left teeming China behind, and were entering the outskirts of Central Asia and the Gobi Desert. A steady wind blew at their backs. The blue sky overhead was cloudless.

Gray had left the useless boxes of vinegar behind. And as he went he puzzled over the riddle of Arminius Delabar. It was a riddle. Van Schaick and Balch had said little about the man, for they had been in a hurry to get Gray started on his voyage. He remembered they said Delabar was a Syrian or Persian by birth, an inveterate traveler who had been in most of the corners of the earth, and—the only man in America who could speak Chinese, Turki, Persian and Russian, the four languages a knowledge of which might be necessary on their expedition, and who thoroughly understood anthropology, with the history of Central Asia.

This being the case, Gray had taken a good deal on himself when he sent Delabar back. But he had done right. The vinegar boxes proved it.

Gray had a steady, logical mind which arrived at decisions slowly, but usually accurately. He now reasoned out several things.

Delabar, he guessed, had not come willingly on the expedition. Even on the steamer he had shown fear of the Gobi. Why? He must have known something about the desert that he did not tell Gray. What was that? Gray did not know.

This led to another question. Why, if the man was afraid, had he come at all? He might have refused to start. Instead he had bought, purposely, a shipment of worthless stores; he had worked on Gray's mind to the best of his ability.

Gray suspected that Delabar had come because he wanted to prevent him—Gray—from reaching the Gobi. But Delabar might have stated his objections before they left San Francisco. Why had he not done so?

Possibly because, so reasoned Gray, Delabar had thought if he prevented Gray from starting on the mission, Van Schaick and Balch would engage another man.

Gray checked up the extent of his reasoning so far. He had decided that Delabar had been bent on preventing not him but any American from undertaking the trip to the Gobi. And to do that the Syrian had come along himself, although he was afraid.

Yes, Delabar had certainly been afraid. Of what? Of Wu Fang Chien for one thing; also the Buddhists. He had been on the verge of a breakdown at the inn at Liangchowfu after their experience in the temple.

Gray recalled a number of things he had passed over at the time: Delabar's pretext of purchasing supplies at Shanghai. The scientist had been absent from him for many hours, but had bought nothing. Then the incident of the Chinese steward on the river steamer of the Yang-tze. Something had been thrown overboard which a passing junk had picked up. Had this something been information about Gray's route? It was more than possible.

And the attack at Honanfu. How had the Chinese known that Gray kept a rifle under his bed—unless Delabar had so informed them? Delabar had been frightened at the attack. Perhaps, because it failed.

Lastly, at Liangchowfu Delabar had tried to steal the all-important maps. Failing that, the man had, literally, collapsed. And—Gray whistled softly—it might have been Delabar who gave the information that led to the delayal of McCann, whom Gray needed, at Los Angeles. No one else, except Van Schaick and Balch, had known that Gray had sent for McCann.

It was reasonably clear that Delabar had sought to turn back Gray. When the American had ordered him back, instead, the man had protested. Obviously, he dreaded this. Yet he was safer than here with Gray. Delabar had said, in an unguarded moment, that he feared to be caught by Wu Fang Chien. Why?

What was Delabar's relation to Wu Fang Chien? When drunk, he had said that the mandarin was only a slave of an unknown master. Who was the master? Obviously a man possessing great power in Central Asia—if a man at all.

This was what Delabar had feared, the master of Wu Fang Chien. Was Delabar also a slave? Gray laughed. His reasoning was going beyond the borders of logic. But he was convinced that his late companion had been serving not Van Schaick but another; that he feared this other; and that his fear had increased instead of diminished when Gray ordered him back.

Gray looked up as Mirai Khan turned, with a warning hiss. The Kirghiz had reined in his mount and Gray did likewise.

A short rise was in front of them. Over this the hunter had evidently seen something that aroused him.

"Look!" he growled. "Take the windows of long sight and look."

It took a moment's puzzling before the American realized that his companion referred to the field glasses slung over his shoulder. He dismounted and crept with Mirai Khan to the top of the rise. Through the glasses he made out, at the hunter's directions, a pair of gazelles moving slowly across the plain some distance away.

Immediately Mirai Khan became a marvel of activity. He tethered the beasts to a stunted tamarisk, loaded his long musket, cut himself a stick in the form of a crotch, and struck out to one side of the trail, beckoning the American to follow.

The gazelles had been feeding across the trail, and Mirai Khan trotted steadily to the leeward of them, keeping behind sheltering hummocks. It was a long run.

From time to time Mirai Khan halted and peered at the animals. Then he pressed forward. Gray was not easily tired; but he had been long without food and he stumbled as he ran after the hardy Kirghiz who was afire with the spirit of the chase.

"Allah has given us meat for our pot this night," he whispered to Gray, "if we are clever and the animals do not get wind of us."

Gray understood how important their quest was. Their shadows were 1engthening swiftly on the sand, and the sun, like a red brazier, was settling over the horizon in front of them. If they did not bag a gazelle, they would have no food that night, and—both men were weakened by hunger.

Mirai Khan stalked his prey with the skill of long experience, pushing ahead patiently until the wind blew from the gazelles to them. But darkness falls fast at the edge of the Gobi. The sky had changed from blue to purple when Mirai Khan threw himself in the sand and began to crawl to the summit of a rise, pushing his crotched stick in front of him.

Following, Gray made out the gazelles feeding some hundred and fifty yards in front of them. The light brown and white bodies were barely discernible against the brown plain, but Mirai Khan arranged his stick, and laid the musket on it carefully.

Gray, stretched out beside him, hazarded a guess as to the distance. The hunter touched him warningly.

"Let me have the shot, Excellency," he whispered. "If I cannot slay—even at this distance—no other man can."

He said a brief prayer and sighted, gripping his long weapon in a steady hand. He had removed his sheepskin cap and his white hair and bushy eyebrows gave him the appearance of a keen-eyed bird of prey.

Gray waited, watching the gazelles. As Mirai Khan had claimed the first shot, Gray humored him, but at the same time threw a cartridge into the chamber of his own weapon.

The gazelles had sighted or smelted something alarming, for they quickened their pace away from the hunters. Mirai Khan fired, and swore darkly. Both animals were unhurt, and they had broken into a swift run, gliding away into the twilight.

Gray had laid his own sights on the game, and when the Kirghiz missed the difficult shot, the American pressed the trigger.

A spurt of dust this side of the fleeing animals told him his elevation was wrong. Calmly, he raised his rear sight and fired again, as the gazelles appeared in the eye of the sun on a hillock.

The animal at which he had aimed stumbled and sank to earth. It had been a difficult shot at three hundred yards in a bad light, but Gray was an expert marksman and knew his weapon.

A wild yell broke from Mirai Khan. He flung himself at Gray's feet and kissed his shoes.

"A miracle, Excellency!" he chattered joyously. "That was a shot among a thousand. Aye, I shall tell the hunters of the desert of it, but they will not believe. Truly, I have not seen the like. By the beards of my fathers, I swear it! I did well when I followed you from Liangchowfu——"

Still babbling his exultation, he hurried to the slain animal and whipped out his knife.

By nightfall, the two had made camp in a gully near the tethered animals. Mirai Khan had dug a well, knowing that water was to be found in this manner, and, over a brisk fire of tamarisk roots, was cooking a gazelle steak.

Gray stretched a blanket on the sand near the fire, watching the flicker of the flames. The gully concealed them from observation. He was reasonably sure by now that they had escaped any pursuing party Wu Fang Chien had sent from Liangchowfu—if one had been sent.

Mirai Khan ate enormously of the steak. When the hunger of the two was satisfied and the white man's pipe was alight, he turned to the Kirghiz thoughtfully.

"Have you ever heard," he asked, "of the city of Sungan?"


Mirai Khan, Gray gathered, was a Mohammedan, a fatalist, a skilled horse-thief, and a dweller at the edge of the Gobi, where life was gleaned from hardship. He was a man of the yurts, or tents, a nomad who ranged from the mosques of Bokhara to the outskirts of China. Somewhere, perhaps, Mirai Khan had an aul, with a flock of sheep, a dog, and even a wife and children.

The Kirghiz glanced at him keenly and shook his head.

"I have heard the name," he responded. "It was spoken by my father. But Sungan I have never seen."

"It is a city a week's ride beyond Ansichow," persisted Gray, "in the Desert of Gobi."

"That is in the sands," Mirai Khan reflected. "No game is found there, Excellency. Why should a man go to such a place?"

"Have you been there?"

"Does a horse go into a quicksand?"

"Have you known others who went there?"

"Aye, it may be."

"What had they to say of the desert?"

"It is an evil place."

The Kirghiz nodded sleepily. Having eaten heavily, he was ready for his blanket.

"Why did they call it an evil place?"

"How should I know—who have not been there?"

Mirai Khan yawned and stretched his stocky arms and legs, as a dog stretches. "It is because of the pale sickness, they say."

Gray looked up quickly from his inspection of the fire. He had heard that phrase before. Delabar had used it.

"What is the pale sickness?" he asked patiently. Mirai Khan ceased yawning.

"Out in the sands, in the liu sha, hangs the pale sickness. It is in the air. It is an evil sickness. It leaves its mark on those who go too near. I have heard of men who went too far into the liu sha and did not return."

"Why?"

"It is forbidden."

"By the priests of the prophet?"

"Not so. Why should they deal with an evil thing? Is it not the law of the Koran that a man may not touch what is unclean? The rat priests of China, who worship the bronze god, have warned us from the region. I have heard the caravan merchants say that men are brought from China and placed out in the sands, the liu sha."

Gray frowned. Mirai Khan spoke frankly, and without intent to deceive him. But he spoke in the manner of his kind—in parables.

"Three times, Mirai Khan," he said, "you have said liu sha. What does that mean?"

The Kirghiz lifted some sand in his scarred hand, sifting it through his fingers to the ground.

"This is it," he explained. "We call it in my tongue the kara kum—dark sands. Yet the liu sha are not the sand you find elsewhere. They are the marching sands."

Gray smiled. He was progressing, in his search for information, from one riddle to another.

"You mean the dust that moves with the wind," he hazarded.

Mirai Khan made a decisive, guttural denial. "Not so. It is the will of Allah that moves the sands. Once there was a city that sinned——"

"And a holy mullah." Gray recalled the legend Delabar had related on the steamer. "He alone escaped the dust that fell from the sky. It was long ago. So that is your liu sha!"

The hunter's slant eyes widened in astonishment. "By the beard of my father! Are you a reader of the Koran, to know such things as this? Aye, it is so. The liu sha came because of a sin, and without doubt that is why the place is still inhabited of a plague. The Chinese priests bring men there—men who are already in the shadow of death."

"Then, Mirai Khan, there must be a city or an encampment, if many men live there."

"I have not seen it. Nor have those who talked to me."

"But you have not been there?"

"How should I—seeing that the place is inhabited of a sin? No Mohammedan will go there."

"What manner of sickness is this—the pale plague?"

"I know not. But for many miles, aye, the space of a week's ride, no men will bring their yurts for fear of it."

Gray gave it up with a shrug. The Kirghiz was speaking riddles, twisted recollections of legends, and tales doubtless exaggerated. While Mirai Khan snored away comfortably, the American went over what he had said in his mind.

The night had grown cold, and he threw the last of the wood on the fire, tucking his blanket about his feet. Their camp was utterly silent, except for the occasional splutter of the flames.

Mirai Khan had said positively that he had seen no city in the Gobi where Gray was bound, nor heard of one. The American knew that if buildings existed on the immense plain of the Gobi they would be visible for miles around. Even if the comrades of Mirai Khan had kept away from the place which they considered unhealthy, they would have sighted the buildings, at one time or another.

Yet Brent had declared that he saw the summits of towers. Imagination, perhaps. Although missionaries were not as a rule inclined to fancies.

Here was one contradiction. Then there were the liu sha. Mere legend, doubtless. Central Asia was rife with tales of former greatness.

But one thing was clear. The Chinese priests came to this spot in the desert. And the legend of the plague might be framed to keep the Mohammedans away from the place. Since the late rebellion Mohammedan and Chinese had frequently taken up arms against each other—they had never been on friendly terms. Evidently the Buddhists, for some reason, took pains to keep this part of the desert to themselves.

They even guarded it against intrusion—as Brent had discovered.

And Brent had died of sickness. What was the pale sickness? Were men inflicted with it brought to the Gobi—the dreariest stretch of land on the surface of the earth?

Gray nodded sleepily. The riddles presented no answer. He determined that he would learn the truth for himself. Wearied with his exertions, he was soon asleep. Silence held the camp, the brooding silence of great spaces, the threshold of infinity which opens before the wanderer in the Gobi. The wind stirred the sand into tiny spirals that leaped and danced, like dust wraiths across the gully, powdering the blankets of the sleeping men and the rough coats of the mules.

Along the summit of the ridge a shadow passed across the stars. It hesitated to leeward of the embers of the fire, and the jackal crept on. The crescent moon moved slowly overhead, throwing a hazy half-light on the surface of the sand, and picking out the bleached bones of an antelope.

Night had claimed the Mongolian steppe.