The Praying Skipper and Other Stories/Chapter 3
"I'LL be gettin' five years—five years at least."
The surging fear became fixed in these words, and they, in turn, swung in with the cadenced tramp of Corporal Sweeney, the other prisoner, the sentry, and the young lieutenant along the Chien-men Road toward the American camp and the guard-house. As the refrain rolled itself over in the brain of the corporal, he discovered that he was muttering it aloud when the other prisoner said explosively:
"I know you will, and so will I; but, by ——, I'm going to make a run for it!"
"You're the silliest fool in Peking if you do," replied the corporal. "An' where would you be after runnin' to? No place to——"
He checked himself and turned his head. The sentry and the lieutenant were at their heels, but in the clamor of the crowded thoroughfare the talk had been unheard. A swirl of Chinese street merchants was scattering from in front of a German wagon-train, a troop of Bengal Lancers clattered recklessly into the ruck, and the road flung the tangled traffic to and fro between its walls, like a tide in a mill-race. The corporal muttered again to the scowling man beside him:
"Nothin' doin'. Sure to be captured this side Tientsin. Forget it. You're crazier than thim——"
A shout in his ear made him jump aside, and he saw the sentry lurch against the flank of a transport camel and lose his footing as a cart-wheel struck him from behind. The loaded rifle fell on the chaotic stone flagging. The other prisoner heard the crash and knew what it meant. Here seemed the chance he sought, but instead of doubling into one of the crooked side streets, he broke away down the middle of the Chien-men Road, and the traffic opened up for him, as the crowd, grasping as by instinct what was happening, scattered in panic.
The young lieutenant whipped his revolver from its holster and took a snap-shot at thirty yards, not caring overmuch if a Chinese got in range of the heavy bullet. As he fired, the fugitive seemed to trip and catch himself, then ran a few steps farther, falling all the time, until he crumpled up in the filthy mud of the pavement. The lieutenant stood looking at his quarry, his eye still ranging along the barrel of the revolver, while the sentry had picked up his muddy rifle, and, feeling faint and shaky, watched a private of his own regiment become, in an instant, something that looked like a roll of blankets doubled under the feet of the Chinese street mob.The two had forgotten the corporal, who stood beside them as intent as they upon the pitiable tragedy; and the three appeared to be posing for a military tableau. But almost as swiftly as death had come to the escaping prisoner, there swept over the one that remained a frenzy of desire to run. He knew how remote was the possibility of freedom, how desperately small the chance against recapture, dead or alive. But hammers were beating in his head the cadence of "I'll be gettin' five years—five years at least." And the opportunity was made by another's unwilling sacrifice.
The corporal was unconscious of a voluntary act, and something seemed swiftly to drag him, as he wheeled and dashed for the entrance of an alley not more than ten yards away. A peddler's shoulder-yoke was splintered against his shoulder, and he thought that the bruising impact was the shock of the expected bullet; the yells of the sweetmeat-sellers at the alley's mouth sounded like the outcry he dreaded to hear; but the lieutenant and the sentry turned in time to see only the trail of sprawling Chinese left in the wake of the escaping prisoner. The sentry jumped in pursuit, stumbled into the tortuous alley, and saw a blank wall ahead. Between that and the Chien-men Road three lanes twisted off to left and right, and he ran up the nearest one at random.
Somewhere beyond the huddled houses, he could hear the thud of leather-shod feet, the staccato flight of which marked the trail of the deserter; but the pursuer could find no way through or around. When he entered the street beyond, there was no blue overcoat in the crowded field of vision, and the shuffling sound of felt-soled native shoes gave no clew. He returned to the lieutenant, genuinely weary and speciously disappointed. The officer was leaning over the body of the other prisoner, and there was keen unhappiness in his flushed young face.
"I've found an empty cart," he said to the sentry. "Help me carry this poor fellow to camp. He has no use for a doctor. As for Sweeney, he can't get away. He's hiding in the American section, and I will get the provost-marshal over the field 'phone from headquarters, and have the guard sweep the district from end to end. The man will be captured before morning."
This occurred to the fugitive, also, as certain to happen, when he staggered through a little courtyard, far in the heart of the "Chinese City," and fell into a corner of a smoke-fogged room. It was so nearly nightfall that the one occupant, failing to recognize the headlong visitor, yelled and scuttled away from the brazier which he was trying to coax into warmth against the winter night.
"It's me—all same—me come back. You no sabee this American soldier if men come to look see me," gasped the corporal.
The Chinaman nodded without speaking and slipped out. Sweeney was fighting for breath, and the fumes of coal-gas in the fetid room were suffocating him. He tore a hole in the side wall of oiled paper, and gulped his lungs full of the frosty night air. It was the room from which he had gone the day before, when, after drinking much Japanese beer, he had bought a quart of samshu to carry away with him.
It was the deadly, maddening samshu that had caused the downfall of Corporal Sweeney, and now he was trying to remember what had happened in the twenty-four hours before he had been marched down the Chien-men Road with the other prisoner. He knew that he had overstayed his leave, but that was a minor matter compared with the row in the canteen on Legation Street. He recalled that an American officer had entered the place to investigate the uproar, and the corporal's mind held a blurred picture of himself conspicuously cursing his superior officer with black oaths, and struggling to "knock the face off him." Then he had fled, to be picked up later by the lieutenant who had shot and killed Private Smathers on the way to camp.
The corporal drew back from the hole in the paper wall, and slumped down on the floor, a Chinese blue blouse tucked under his aching head.
"An' five years more, for attempted escape," he groaned, "an' two clane enlistments behind me, an' promotion a cinch in the next six months. Never a coort martial ag'in' me. It was all the —— samshu. Serves a white man right for foolin' with haythen liquor. An' they'll be pullin' me out of here in no time at all. Holy Mother! where kin I go?"
The disgraced soldier turned as a new dread smote him.
"An' the Boxer swine that kapes this poison-shop will be handin' me over as soon as he hears the news of the shindy down the Chien-men Road."
Panic fear caught hold of the corporal, body and soul, and he wrestled with it in the darkness. He knew not whither to turn. Hiding among the Chinese in the city was impossible, and to take to the open road meant capture at Tientsin or Taku if he made his way that far in a flight toward the seacoast. To go blindly into the country about Peking, unarmed and penniless as he was, knowing perhaps five words of Chinese, was to drag out the finish in slow starvation, or to be picked up by a foreign outpost, or to fall among hostile natives. He was as helpless as a castaway adrift on a raft in mid-ocean. The penalties of capture or surrender seemed worse than any sort of death, for Corporal Sweeney had been a good soldier, bred to a hardy outdoor life.
The disgrace tortured him, and either alternative of his situation was unthinkable. Yet after three hours of trembling in his trap, he would have welcomed the chance of flight into the open, beyond the walls of the nightmare city. The Chinese landlord had not returned, and it seemed likely that intruders had been warned away from the smoky room with the hole in the oiled paper of the side wall. The deserter had found a bottle of samshu, and tried to brace his nerves with a swallow of it, but the smell sickened him, and he flung it against the brick partition, in a passion of rage at the source of his cyclonic ruin. The heavy, yellow liquid guttered across the floor, and the stench of it drove the soldier into the courtyard, where the chatter of Chinese voices sent him quaking back into his little inferno.
He was not a coward, but he was alone in the darkness with such fears as wrested from him all weapons. Somewhere outside, a Chinese watchman, drifting along on his rounds, was beating a gong to frighten away evil-doers. The measured bong, bong, bong caused the fugitive to wish that sudden death might overtake the harmless old gentleman, for at each stroke it seemed as if tacks were being driven into his skull. Toward midnight Corporal Sweeney fell into a stupor of complete exhaustion that was no more than a caricature of sleep. A scratching on the paper door and a falsetto whisper awoke him, and he sprang to his feet, striking out in the gloom, to ram his fist through the fragile panel into something yielding which cried:
"O-w-w—a-i-i! Me, master; You Han. Somet'ing do-ing, all l-l-ight?"
The deserter extended a muscular arm, grasped a handful of wadded coat, and dragged the visitor in with one lightning sweep. Then, trying to choke his amazed voice into a whisper, he croaked:
"Oh, me cock-eyed darlin' lad! An' how did you dig me out? I niver felt like kissin' a Chink before. Now get me out o' this, or I'll break your back over me two knees. I'm down an' out this time. Are you goin' to give me up for the sake o' the rewarrd?"
The boy, whom the corporal had picked up, a starving outcast from a plundered village, on the march to Peking, tried to tell what he knew in painfully Pidgin English, shattered by his master's interruptions. He had learned that the corporal was a day overdue in camp, and had started out to find him early that morning. Then came the tragedy and the escape, the tidings of which were brought to the camp with the body of Private Smathers. You Han had heard the name "Sweeney" scattered through the excited talk of the company, until he pieced together a working impression of what had happened. He had ransacked canteens, tea-houses and gambling-dens from the camp to the Tatar city wall until he began to pick up the trail from groups at the street corners who had seen the "madman runaway soldier."
The corporal chopped the narrative short, because he was not interested in the way of his fall into the bottomless pit, but in an agony of speculation regarding the new possibility of a way out. The coming of You Han made him clutch the hope of the open country, anywhere, anyhow, no matter what lay beyond. The thought of flight alone among the millions of mysterious aliens had oppressed him horribly. You Han had the fidelity of a dog for the domineering American soldier, whose ways he did not understand, but, because they were his ways, they were believed to be impeccable. Now his lord had done something more extraordinary than usual, for which, it appeared, decapitation threatened. In addition to blind obedience, You Han knew what samshu was, and was ready to make large allowances. It was only this new tone of entreaty, almost of supplication, that alarmed the servant. Corporal Sweeney shook off the paralyzing grip of his fears long enough to give You Han orders in a voice that still quavered in little broken gasps:
"You get Peking cart, quick? Qui-qui—chop-chop—chase yourself—sabee? Have you got any money in thim flowin' robes?"
You Han flashed a bisecting grin that was like splitting a sheet of parchment, and dove into a knotted sash, where the clink of silver made reply. Then he was gone, and the deserter became instantly submerged in the returning rush of his manifold terrors. It seemed years before he heard the protesting shrieks of a cart axle and the rattle of harness in the compound. You Han stole in, and half dragging the corporal to the cart, helped him to crawl under the curtained hood, whispering:
"One piecee cart belong my cousin. No pay him. You stay bottom side. We go countlee."
As the cart jolted into the alley, the man beneath the cover heard, faint and far, the beat of cavalry hoofs on the frozen earth. They were coming nearer, and the fugitive flattened himself under a pile of quilts, while the sweat beaded on his face. In a few moments the clink of sabers and the creaking of saddle-leathers were audible, and the patrol wheeled into a side street so close to the jogging cart that the deserter caught the voice of a Sixth Cavalry trooper objecting:
"It's a blazin' cold night to be pokin' in all the rat-holes of Peking for as good a blank-blanked son of a gun as Jack Sweeney. Wonder how he got up against it so hard."
The reply was lost, for the deserter's heart was whanging against his ribs and sounding louder to him than the clatter of cavalry. You Han drove the mule at a gallop and said no word except once, when he turned and remarked:
"Samshu no good, master. Floget it. Dlink water, all l-l-ight."
At daylight the cart was beyond the outer wall of Peking, heading west, as aimless a derelict as ever tossed in uncharted seas. You Han did not veer toward his own home on the Pei-ho, for he knew that it lay in the track of the traffic to Tientsin, and that over the ruins of his village floated the flag of an American infantry outpost. The dawn came clear and cold, but sad in the gray aspect of tenantless villages, and the litter of ungarnered millet-fields stretching over the flat lands to the horizon. The driver told the deserter that the last foreign outpost had been passed, and that he might get out and walk with safety. Half frozen, bitterly bruised from tossing between floor and roof of the springless cart, hungry and weak, the deserter climbed from his ignominious hiding-place and trudged in silence along the rutted highway. Presently You Han turned off the road, threaded a course through the yards of a shattered temple, and drew up by a marble altar.
"Have chow now," said he, and the summons to breakfast aroused a shadow of animation in the deserter. He knew not where the meal was coming from, but he was past wondering, and the Chinese youth was in full command of the sorry expedition. You Han crawled into the cart and produced a charcoal stove, dried fish, potatoes, and a teapot.
"All belong my cousin. He keep store; pay bimeby," said the boy, with what might have passed for a wink.
The companions ate in silence. Shame had begun to march in the foreground of the deserter's thoughts, crowding fear a little to the rear. The soldier of a conquering race was as helpless as a child in the hands of one of the conquered whom he had not considered wholly human, whose swarms had fled like rats before the path of the columns in khaki. The fugitive cursed and hated himself, possessed by an unmanly humiliation impossible to imagine a few hours before. The little dun mule munched dry millet-stalks, and squealed when You Han fetched him water from the temple well.
"I ain't got as much sand left in me as that sawed-off apology fer a mule," groaned the corporal; "an' he's a good deal more of a man than meself."
You Han resumed the march without consulting his lord, which made the deserter writhe anew, but he could say nothing. The cart trailed along the foot of an ancient military wall for several miles, while the man sullenly chewed the cud of bitterness and the boy revolved great things in his unruffled mind. You Han was about to venture on some fragmentary consolation, when the deserter, who was walking a little in advance, balked in his tracks and stood crouched as if he had seen a rattlesnake. The dun mule snorted and fanned his ears like an agitated jack-rabbit. A furlong beyond, the steel ribbons of a railway track cut across the road and vanished in sandy cuttings. Corporal Sweeney looked instinctively for a telegraph line and saw one wire threading the skyline in a humming loop. The sight hurled him back to the Chien-men Road and the lieutenant alertly picking off Private Smathers with a long snap-shot.
"What's this fool railroad doin' here? I wonder are they consthructin' it to ketch up with me? Come a-runnin' there pronto, chop-chop. Ain't there no gettin' away from annywhere?"
He volleyed the questions at You Han as if they had been jerked out of him. The boy looked puzzled as he replied:
"Devil cart go Pao-ting-fu, then go Peking. No belong to Amelican soldier. English have got."
They crossed the rails on the run, as if the metals burned their feet, and the deserter flogged the mule into a gallop, until their road twisted beyond sight of the track and its unexpected autograph of a civilization they were fleeing headlong. He would not have dared predict it, but in the afternoon Corporal Sweeney began to be a man again. They had passed beyond the area laid waste by the Christian allies, and the villages were populous and busy. You Han had glimpsed a shadow of the shame that smoldered in his master's mind, and he was for making little overtures, simple yet crafty, to win him back to himself. As the first step in reconstruction, he called "Look-see, master!" and pulled from beneath the body of the cart a "Krag" rifle, bayonet, and cartridge-belt. The deserter threw back his shoulders at sight of them, and in an outburst of gratitude smote his benefactor so that his head ached for several hours.
"Last night, when get cart, go back camp," twittered You Han; "find one piecee master's gun in tent. Plenty dark. Sently shoot, no can hit. Good, by golly!"
"Good! you twenty-four carat jewel of Asia! You're the goodest imitation of a white man that was ever bound in yeller leather by mistake. Now I feel as if I wanst looked like a man meself . Give me a rag an' a bit o' that stinkin' cookin'-grease, an' make room on the carrt till I do up me house-cleanin'."
You Han grinned and began to wail an interminable song about a girl called "Little Fat Spring Fragrance," who lived in the "Village of the Wise and Benevolent Magistrate." The ballad rose shriller as the singer saw the corporal swinging along ahead, his rifle nestling on his squared shoulder as if it had come home to its own, his back as flat as a board. You Han was even more jubilant when his master spun on his heel, and shouted with the rasp of the drill-ground in his voice:
"Shut up that racket! It's worse 'n the carrt axle."
The bracing wind swept keen out of the Siberian north, and sunshine flooded from a cloudless sky. The deserter forgot much of his weariness, and caught himself whistling "assembly," but broke off with a groan.
Toward sunset the surrounding wall of a village was outlined like a rocky island in the level plain. You Han halted a ragged wayfarer, and coaxingly addressing him as "great elder brother," dragged forth the information that the town was of considerable size, and that in it was the residence of the ruler of the district. The song of the "Village of the Wise and Benevolent Magistrate" had suggested an inspiration whose magnitude made You Han gasp. But he took possession of it without flinching, and when they were within a mile of the gateway in the wall he said to the deserter:
"You wait. I go look-see."
The mule browsed by the roadside, the corporal sprawled near by, and the brave figure in blue cotton trudged on alone to the town, the strangeness of which made his heart flutter. He swaggered in past the outer wall, searched out the yamen of the district magistrate, and that dignitary graciously consented to see the importunate pilgrim. You Han kotowed before the heart-quaking presence in the gilded audience-room, and with wailing stammer delivered the oration composed on the cart:
"An illustrious and most honorable general of the foreign soldiers comes to visit your beautiful city. I am his insignificant and thrice-despised servant. This valiant and inexpressibly distinguished hero is of the Americans, who protect and do not plunder and destroy. He comes to extend peace and protecting power to your Heavenly Presence, and to learn whether you have been molested by other foreign-devil armies, whom he will swiftly punish if it be your august pleasure to ask it. My insufferably benevolent master leaves soldiers, cannon, horses behind him, lest he terrify the country round about, already in fear of the devastating foreign fighting-men. He sends the greetings of one ruler to another, and also his card."
You Han bobbed his head to the floor by way of incessant punctuation, and watching eagerly from the tail of his eye for results hopeful or otherwise, laid before the magistrate the vivid label of a tin of "Army Cut Plug," on which heroes in blue and khaki posed nonchalantly in a "baptism of fire." A group of official servants, crowding within ear-shot, saw a gleam of surprised pleasure twinkle through the huge spectacles of their ruler. They took their cue, and helping the trembling You Han to his feet, were soon bustling through the courtyard, propelled by vehement commands to make haste.
Half an hour later, the deserter saw approaching a procession led by You Han and a squad of yamen runners, whom he knew by the red tassels on their flat hats. These rode shaggy rats of ponies, and behind them tailed off scores of villagers on foot and convoys of squealing children. The American grabbed his rifle and dodged behind the cart, ready to run or open fire, until he heard You Han's shrill shouts of reassurance. Then he was swept up in an admiring throng, whose bodies doubled in homage, down to the wee tots who fell on their flat noses when they tried to kotow.
You Han had no time for explanations. He was expanding in the reflected glory of his own devising, and busy chasing children from under the agile hoofs of the ponies. In their layers of wadded coats, like so many puffballs, the jolly youngsters rolled to the roadside, and the deserter felt a stir of emotion which he could not have defined. Yes, there were homes and firesides and mothers and play and work and love in this land of desolation, and the smoke of the village hearths beckoned with vague homeliness.
The shopkeepers left their wares and the old men in the doorways tucked away their pipes when the procession filled the little streets, and the deserter rode to the yamen like a conquering hero. In the courtyard of the compound other servants waited to escort the "benevolent foreign general" to rooms made ready for him. There was fire in the brick kang, or sleeping-platform, and chickens, eggs, fruit and potatoes, and a fur-lined robe were heaped on a table. You Han vanished, and the outlaw sat himself down in speechless wonderment. Presently You Han returned and announced that the magistrate would be inexpressibly honored to receive the Personage in the evening, and the reason for not inviting him to dine was that he knew the guest would prefer his food prepared after his own strange fashion by his own servant. As in a gorgeous dream the deserter dined, with three attendants squabbling with You Han for the honor of passing each dish. Then he brushed his dusty leggings and blue clothes and summoned a barber.
A little later the guest was greeted as a person of rare distinction by the dignified elderly gentleman in red-silk robes who ruled and "squeezed" the district. The corporal rose grandly to the occasion. The two mingled to a nicety their mutual attitudes of respect, cordiality, protection. They talked laboriously through the doubtful medium of the overpowered You Han, whom the intricacies of the mandarin dialect bowled over from the one side, and on the other such instructions as these from the corporal:
"Tell old Four-Eyes that I'm the personal ripresintative of George Washington and Gineral Grant, an' that when I stamp me fut a million brave soldiers trimble violently; but that because I know a great intellect when I see one, me heart is swelled with pride to sit down and talk it over as man to man. Poke that into him good and har-r-d."
The official volleyed many questions, and the deserter parried what fragments of them You Han was able to pass along. A military escort to the next village was offered, but the guest declined with polite emphasis. He was not seeking ostentation in public. When he went to his apartments after a surfeit of cakes, wine, and tobacco, Corporal John Sweeney rubbed his close-cropped head and puzzled over his identity. As he curled up on the warm brick kang, he was a deserter fast becoming reconciled to his fate.
"It strains the rivets of me imagination to believe it's rale. I hope there's more miracles in stock where this one was projuced," he murmured sleepily.
Just at dawn he awoke. There was a clatter of voices in the courtyard, and the sound of horses moving hurriedly. Presently the paper of the latticed wall was ripped, and a brown finger popped through. All the fears of the refugee came trooping back with squadrons reinforced. He ripped the door open, rifle in hand. A string of traders' ponies was filing out for an early start toward Peking, and a hostler stood with his face pressed against the hole in the wall, trying to catch a glimpse of the lordly foreigner. That was all. But the deserter saw again the smoky room in the "Chinese City," and heard the Sixth Cavalry squad wheel just in rear of his frantic flight. The "illustrious guest" was again the fugitive, escaping, he knew not whither, from "five years—five years at least."
He kicked the sleeping You Han into action, and the cart was under way as soon as the mule had fed.
"Only thirty miles from Peking," growled the corporal; "not half far enough. An' cavalry is prancin' out to loot, pacify, an' scatter Christian blessings with th' mailed fisht where they have no business to be thinkin' of. I hike till I drop, an' that's me ultimatum."
They pressed on all day until the dun mule swayed in the shafts and the pilgrims were ready to drop by the roadside. The night was passed in a village tavern, for You Han was too weary to organize a reception. The deserter slept fitfully, and awoke often talking to himself. Nervous and footsore, he took the trail at dawn of the third day, You Han watchful and worried. As the deserter turned frequently to look behind him, the aspect of the future crushed him, while the imminent past lashed him to persistent flight. Camp, and the close comradeship of men in blue and khaki; the routine round of his army years; the Chicago streets that had known his boyhood; the father and mother who were proud of his record—these and all other links in the chain of his thirty years were as if they had never been forged. Names, faces and scenes of which he had been an intimate part were in an obliterating distance, and nothing that had gone before was given strength to follow him, except the incidents of his escape, and these filled all the landscape with portents.
Soon they came to a schoolhouse in the middle of a tiny hamlet. You Han knew it for such when the refugees were rods away, since from the squat building came an incessant sound like the hum of a gigantic top. The children were reciting their daily task from the Confucian Analects at the limit of their lung power, when the foreigner was spied by a truant outpost, and the teacher could not hold the clamorous flock in leash. By scores they tumbled out to scamper off in terror until You Han shouted his message of good will and the corporal laughed, threw down his rifle, and became one of them. It was not long before uproarious applause greeted his attempts to play jackstones and strike the sharpened stick to make it fly into the miniature mud-pie "city."
Again the feeling of homeliness tugged at his heart, and he lingered among the children until the teacher gathered them in, with labor like that of collecting spilled quicksilver.
You Han swaggered into the next village beyond, with a port inspired by remembrance of the magistrate's yamen, but he came to grief at the hands of the village bully. There was no mistaking the character of this truculent ruffian. His garments were studiously awry, and his queue was loosely braided and coiled around his neck to show that he thirsted for combat. He resented the lofty bearing of the stranger, and the two clashed with disaster to the features of You Han, who was plucky but overmatched. He was rescued by the corporal, who gave the bully the worst beating of his career. The feat was applauded by a throng of villagers whose peace had been much disturbed by this chronic nuisance, and they feasted the hero at the house of the head man with complex and effusive hospitality. The wayfarers were pressed to stay and make the town their home for life.
This incident, coming in a sequence of revelations of the life of this hitherto despised people, set the thoughts of the deserter definitely into a new and hopeful channel.
"I begin to think," he said to You Han, "that I could stick it out in one of these back counties, at worst until the troops are l'avin' China in the spring. An' I could come pretty near to runnin' a town or two meself. One more day's march an' I'll risk stakin' out a claim for a while. An' I'll be a leadin' an' dignified citizen, an' grandfather by brevet to all the kids in the camp."
The advance was checked by the discovery that the cart axle had split and must be repaired to prevent a breakdown over the next bit of rough going. The corporal was in a bluster of impatience to press forward. Delay had not lost its power to frighten him. The next village lay ten miles beyond, but between was a desolate stretch of waste land in which no one lived, in which nothing grew. From the tiled roof of the tavern the corporal could see this little desert rolling like a lake almost from the village walls to the sky line. It caught his fancy with a huge onset of relief. Once beyond this barrier, he would feel secure against discovery, and he magnified it as the borderland of safety. You Han was surrounded by a group of voluble citizens who urged waiting two days until a new axle could be hewn from the solid tree; but the deserter exploded the conference by shouting:
"Dump the carrt here. Pack the mule, an' we'll send back for the Noah's ark when we get settled over beyant. Make haste an' upholster the mule with the baggage of light marchin' order."
When the dun mule, in tow of the boy, limped out of the gateway across the crumbling moat, its small hoofs sank to the fetlock in white sand, and the trail of cart-wheels winding across the plain shimmered in an aching dazzle of sunlight. At the end of an hour the village behind them was a brown smudge not more than two miles distant. The deserter made peevish comments, but there was cheerfulness in the crack of his profanity, as he plodded painfully ahead of the boy and the mule. Whenever they paused to rest he talked to You Han, not caring whether the boy understood one word in five. The two seemed alone in all the world; their calamitous fortunes were more closely knit than at any time in the flight; and hope lay somewhere beyond this barricade provided by a fate grown strangely kind.
"You'll have the next week to get the sand out o' thim foolish shoes o' yourn," observed the corporal. "An' me blisters will be attinded to by the chief surgeon of the county. Like chickens an' silk overcoats, my son? We're goin' hell-bent for the comforts of life by the carrt-load."
You Han talked to the mule in aging whistles and replied, "Can do," to the monologue of the corporal, who rambled on:
"Say, thim kids did me more good than a barrel o' monkeys. Weren't they corkers? By the holy poker! I'm goin' to marry you off to a little squeeze-toed fairy in the big town over the way, an' you'll live without worrkin' forevermore. Maybe the old man will follow suit. It's me life ambition to be idle an' palatial. An' You Han will be the hottest sport in fifty li. Dinghowdy? All right?"
In the third hour they were not more than halfway across, and the short winter afternoon was reddening. The level desolation had begun to tumble up into crowding little hills and sand barriers among which the trail now and then entangled itself. But the air was crystal and windless, and scrambling to the top of one of the white hills, the corporal could see the faintest tracery of a towered temple on the farther side of the desert as a guiding landmark. It was a forced march, and a halt was made only for a fragment of supper and a swig for man and mule from the water-bottle on the pack. The moon rose in the sleeping dusk, but before it was clear of the scalloping ridges of sand the sky became spattered with rags of flying cloud. Presently the wind behind the angry scud began to pick up gusts of sand and flirt them from one crest to another. The travelers rubbed their eyes and coughed as they plowed steadily westward, steering a course by the cart-trail, still discernible, and by the moon behind them. "We're more 'n halfway over," shouted the corporal, "an' it's silly to be dr'amin' of losin' ourselves in this two-by-four desert."
Then the gray sky closed down in blackness everywhere, and leaping billows of sand seemed to meet it. The rush of the terrific wind wiped out the trail as if it had been no more than a finger-mark. There were no more hills nor winding passages among them, only a fog of whirling sand. The wind had an icy edge as it brought the killing cold of Mongolian steppes a thousand miles away. The deserter and the boy covered their faces with their hands, their garments; and almost instantly they were adrift, cowering, lost, helpless. So dense was the driving smother of sand that they could scarcely see the mule straining at the end of its halter-rope. The hillocks were shifting with a complaining roar, and the shriek of the wind in mid-air was pierced with a shrill rasp like the commotion of innumerable iron filings.
The corporal and You Han groped toward the side of a hillock, seeking a lee; but the flooding sand tumbled down its side knee-deep, and the wind sucked round and searched them out, as if in chase. The flinty particles pelted in sheets, and bit their faces like incessant volleys of fine shot. There was no more time to think of what should be done than when a swimmer is plunged over a dam.
It did not seem possible that the danger of death was menacing in this absurdly small theater of action, yet it could not have been many moments before the deserter began to realize where lay the odds in another hour's exposure to such a storm. All sense of direction had been snatched from him, and he fought only for breath. You Han had no knowledge of desert storms in his home on the bank of the Pei-ho. He gasped whatever prayers came to him, but placed his active faith, still unshaken, in the ability of his master to save him from the choking, freezing terror. The man and the boy were not only stifled, but soon benumbed, for neither had ever felt anything to compare with the searching cold of this blast. They stumbled from one hill to another, sometimes keeping their feet, falling oftener, rising more slowly, the little mule trying in vain to turn tail to the storm.
There could be no conversation. At length the deserter muttered drowsily to the storm such fragments as these:
"No place like home. It's the finish that's comin' to me. Cudn't take me medicine like a man. P'rhaps this 'll blow over soon. I'm blinded entirely. Good God! forgive me poor cowardly sowl! I niver meant to go wrong. Had to bring that poor fool You Han into this mess."
The deserter pitched forward on hands and knees, his rifle buried somewhere in his circling wake. He caught hold of You Han's queue lest they lose each other, and then the mule pushed impetuously between them, ears forward, muzzle outstretched, trumpeting joyfully.
"He b'lieve can find. He sabee plenty," feebly sputtered You Han.
The frantic mule dragged the boy by the lead-rope a few paces, the corporal falling, sliding after, and then stopped. The linked procession could go no farther. You Han collapsed in a little heap, and the corporal toppled face down. The boy had tied the lead-rope around his own wrist, and the impatient mule was jerking it so that the forlorn figure in the sand seemed to make appealing gestures. The corporal was without motion, and with a mighty effort You Han pulled himself a little nearer, and the mule followed protestingly. The swaying curtain of sand closed in around the three figures.
You Han struggled to his knees and with his teeth loosed the knotted cinch, and the pack fell from the mule. The boy writhed over on the corporal and tried to raise the dead weight, tried to talk to him in a wordless and appealing whimper. The deserter strove to rise, and failed until he dully comprehended that the boy sought to make him mount the mule, or at least to hitch him in tow with the lead-rope. Then the soldier awoke, and fighting off the death that had almost mastered him, lurched to one knee and pushed You Han toward the mule that was standing over them. His voice thick and rasping as if his tongue were of sandpaper, the deserter succeeded in saying:
"Get aboard that mule. No Chinese village in mine. Better man than me—you an' mule both better men. You won't? —— —— you, take that!"
The deserter swung his fist against the jaw of the struggling boy, and the blow went home with the last flicker of the old-time fighting strength of Corporal Sweeney. You Han dropped limp, as if shot. Then the fugitive from army justice braced himself, tried, and failed to lift the light body in his arms. Three times he tried and failed, and then, as the mule swerved, he fell against it and dropped the lad across its back, like a bundle of quilts. The cinch, trailing in the sand, tripped the man, and he slipped it over You Han and pulled it tight before he fell back in the tossing sand. The mule stumbled a step or two with its burden, found that it was free and in a moment tottered beyond the vision of the deserter.
Not more than a hundred yards away a camel-trail lay encamped against the storm, and to the Mongolian drivers, huddled in furs close to their beasts, came a little dun mule half dragging an unconscious Chinese youth, whom they took for dead as they wonderingly cut him loose from his lashing.
Daylight and the tail of the sand-storm had come before he was able to speak, and the camels were jostling into the line of march. The swarthy drivers scoffed at the story told by the raving stranger, until the bell-camel shied at something nearly buried in the sand. You Han fought the greedy northerners off until he had disclosed a figure in army blue and a clean-cut Irish face whose expression was vastly peaceful.
The last silver coin was gone from the knotted sash of You Han after he had persuaded the camel-men to carry the body to the village where Corporal Sweeney had expected to find a refuge from fear.
- Soldiers who have campaigned in the Philippines use the word pronto for "hurry up" or "hustle."