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chemistry all played their little the traveller emerges from the parts. scrub-covered foot-hills, half an
All went as the artist had hour's drive from Rawalpindi planned. city. During that day and the next, the faint line had hardly grown to the eye.
The day after that called for a very long march over rolling ridges, between which ran stony valley bottoms, which one could almost call dry water-courses. Though the land lay higher and the temperature fell lower, yet the snow held off, and they had advanced into that strange region near region of central Tataristan, which is windless. Though marching was on this account vastly less arduous, they were tired when they reached the little water-hole that was to
It was clear to the little watching group that the train had rumbled its slow length safely over the second charge. The first charge must have detonated, probably wrecking a truck-load of old rails, and spoiling the permanent way. They could imagine the Reds chuckling over the trumpery damage, but a little bewildered by a raiding party so near home. Then the tiny current would act in the wire between the two charges, covered with loose earth. Punctually three and a half hours later would follow the second explosion, they hoped under a gun-truck or a locomotive. They hoped with the more assurance from the succession of explosions they had seen and heard. It would be some time before that train would move again.
In case inconvenient patrols should be prowling, they marched at once whilst it was yet dark.
Two days later, when the double grain-bags, woven of wool in red panels, were almost all empty, they sighted a low purple line on their eastern horizon.
They were destined to march a good many days yet before the purple line would shape itself into the vanguard of that inconceivably vast tangle of mountains that stretches for hundreds upon hundreds of miles to the point where
be their camp. Not physically tired, for every one had long passed the stage where the longest day's march could produce leg-weariness, yet mentally tired from the huge monotony.
They had unloaded their camels, and the two little tents were being pitched, when a man rode in from the advancedguard. As a precaution against surprise, the subaltern kept this out in observation until all was snug for the night.
He reported several strange horsemen a mile or so to the eastward. Here was news. Was it the enemy? If so, it probably meant another fight. Their business was not to fight, but to deliver the plan to the Ataman. Were they friends ? If so, well and good, but how should the subaltern find this out without disclosing the cara
van to the enemy if he chanced run again on that section. to be an enemy?
Luckily it was not yet dark, and the strange party were moving obliquely across the direction of their own trail.
The subaltern sent out Rokhalski, Iwwaz Bai, and half a dozen men, under the cover of a low ridge to a hollow a mile away, close by where the strangers must pass. They were to dismount, lie carefully concealed, let the strangers pass within a hundred yards or so of them, and then, if certain that they were friendly, to declare themselves. It was anxious work waiting the three-quarters of an hour that this took, but all was well. Rokhalski's party cantered in, tired as their horses were, with half a dozen Irtysh Cossacks under a Sotnik. All were very glad to meet, but best news of all was that the Ataman himself was but a mile away. couple of Cossacks had already been sent to fetch him.
The Sotnik explained that they were all part of a raid directed against a bridge on the railway, twenty miles north of where the subaltern's party had crossed it. A ripple of joyous laughter went round when they realised that the train which had encountered the calamity with the double demolition charge must have been the relief train sent up to repair the damage which the Cossacks had done to the bridge. It was a happy coincidence, and it promised to be a long time before traffic would
There were no repair-shops or trains to the north towards the front. The Cossack raid had been run on a system of echelons several of these, consisting of half a sotnia each, had been established at prearranged points along the line by the raid, so that advancing or returning parties could find fresh horses waiting for them, and where the actual raiders themselves, who would scatter after the attack, could rally and reorganise under the cover of their comrades.
The Ataman had been waiting a mile away, at the most forward echelon, at a place called Yetti Kalandar, for the last of the attacking party to come in. His little force had avoided halting for the night at a well for reasons of security, and they shifted their bivouac after dark fell for the same reason.
Soon the awaited Ataman rode in over the ridges, followed by his half-sotnia in fours, headed by a piper and his guidon, on the blue of which the Argent Saltire of Saint Andrew gleamed in the morning sun.
The fours wheeled close locked into line, and the Cossacks hurraed as the subaltern rode out to meet them. The tall grizzled Ataman shook him warmly by the hand, fell on the neck of his old friend Rokhalski, and they were soon listening to the news by the camp-fire. The story of the railway caused a hearty
chuckle, then the subaltern drew him aside to tell him of the Plan.
Time was now short, and the old man and the young both thought it best that the former should take the book then and there. His detachment, who had rested two days and who had no camels, could march sixty or seventy versts a day to their headquarters in the Yulduz Tau, whilst the others could follow more slowly with their weary camels. This would give time for the whole Plan to be assimilated, its details worked out, and the Voisko of Irtysh brought together for its execution.
The Ataman hesitated to leave the subaltern's small party behind, because if the bridge raiders were followed up, it would bear the brunt of the pursuit, which it was ill designed to do. The Ataman's own fresh half-sotnia was now actually the rearguard of the raiders. He arranged therefore to leave the Sotnik with half the Cossacks to reinforce the subaltern, whilst he himself pushed
Fortune having favoured them so far, especially in the matter of the railway, now turned her feminine back. For a time it seemed as if all were lost. Not only had a strange streak of the most desperate ill-luck nullified the value of all their efforts, but it would have been better, so it seemed, if they had never started.
on with all speed, accompanied by the other troop. This gave the subaltern another dozen rifles, and later on a support would be sent out to cover his progress into the hills.
No time was lost: the Ataman and his troop marched before 9 o'clock with the precious Plan in his saddle-bags. The rest, much relieved, settled down to a good night's rest, not, however, before they had taken a leaf out of the Ataman's book and shifted their camp a thousand yards from the water-hole. Well rested, they marched late next day, with both Cossacks and Pathans riding far out in observation. The tracks of the hoofs of the Ataman's horses were plain to see wherever the ground was bare. The subaltern congratulated himself on the bundle of brushwood which their last camel pulled behind him. Their rearguard rode right and left of the bare earth of the trail, and a spare horse, with his shoes reversed, jogged along at the end of a halter behind that deceitful last camel.
For as they came over one of the multitude of low ridges into a hollow, they found nearly a dozen dead Cossacks lying stark on the ground. Amongst these was the noble figure of the Ataman. Heedless of everything else, the subaltern sprang to where his horse lay dead, his fine half-Irish half-Turkoman bay mare. He pulled off
the saddle-bags: they were already open and empty. The Book was gone.
Too stunned and dazed for words, he searched mechanically in the wallets, in the cloak, and in the saddlery of every horse there, in the hope that it had been overlooked. There was no hope.
Everything had been ransacked, and there was little prospect that a Red commander would not overflow with suspicion at finding such a book, even if he could not read it.
Meanwhile the Risaldar and the men had searched the ground all about, and pieced together the story from the tracks. It was quite clear that the Ataman had been set upon from a totally unexpected direction, and that his little party was too small to withstand the attack. In a way, his unselfish concern for the subaltern's safety had been his destruction. Very soon that officer decided that there was a remedy, if a desperate one. His anger His anger made him determined to seek it, and to avenge the Ataman at any cost.
He would take Rokhalski and Iwwaz Bai and ten of the best mounted men to pursue the unknown Red whithersoever he might go. The rest must push on with the camels along the trail into the Yulduz Tau, now but three or four days off. At the last moment Xenia was included in the party, with many misgivings on the subaltern's part. She pointed out that no one knew the ropes as
well as she herself, especially as the enemy's trail seemed to lead towards the Beshkent oasis. Moreover, for standing long marches, fatigue, hunger, and thirst, she would give place to no man.
In half an hour they marched, with a couple of good loose horses that had strayed back towards the scene of the fight.
Their preparations had been short, since they could carry nothing but their arms, saddlebags, and cloaks. The two spare horses carried a little grain and meal.
The tracks of the enemy were easy to follow, and led them a little west of south.
If their previous trials in the Kizil Kum had been hard, they were nothing to what they now endured. They were hypnotised by the trail. They learnt each hoof-print of it by heart. They marched all day, eating occasionally a crust pulled out of a wallet, as they rode, and through most of the night. night. Their horses, however, were weary, and they could gain but little on the fresh animals in front of them. On the sixth evening of this nightmare chase, when every man reeled in his saddle and fought with sleep as a maniac might fight with his obsessions, they came to the edge of the great Beshkent oasis.
They spent the night huddled in the tiny walled stable-yard of a frightened Sart farmer, who was too bewildered, poor man, to know whether they were Red or White.
Still they were a full twenty versts from the city. The trail was yet good, and perhaps a day old. If the enemy were already at the Red headquarters in Beshkent, there was still hope that their leader would give the Plan to nobody but the President of the Soviet, and that they might well be delayed in finding some one to translate it for them.
The party were toil-worn and ragged enough to pass muster as Reds or anything else. Xenia certainly had no beard, but she looked now like a wild boy of the steppes.
Cossacks, deserters from the Irtysh. This was a newly established Voisko, which accepted new candidates, and hence had a good many backsliders after the revolution. The Soviet were especially anxious to secure some of these Cossacks to their side, so they might hope to go unquestioned. The Reds passed them by with a howl, so it seemed, partly of derision and partly of hate. Then a post of Red infantry at a road-crossing followed in the same way, and at last they were reeling and lurching along the hundred-yards-wide cobbled avenues of the Russian town, and between its single-storey stucco-fronted houses.
They found themselves soon in a long deserted street between high, blank, garden walls, lined as everywhere with poplars, and with the dwellings standing far back from the footpath.
It was now dark, and with quick glance backwards them suddenly led Xenia through a big wooden doorway in the wall to their left.
Five were as many as could ride into the city with any hope of bluffing through. These were the subaltern, Xenia, Afzal, and two Cossacks, one a veteran grizzled Prikaznik. Afzal's ignorance of Russian was no great drawback; he could for the time pass as a Tajik. So the five rode blindly towards the city, hoping that, in the teeth of a everything, something would turn up to help them in their quest. They left Rokhalski and the other six men hidden in the out-buildings of the Sart's farm as a report centre and rallying-point. It was easy enough to ride into the outskirts of the Russian town. Then they came almost into the arms of a Red patrol. It was now dusk, and at an inspired whisper from the Prikaznik they burst out into what purported to be drunken song. As he explained afterwards the Reds would take them for
She closed and barred it behind them on the empty street. For the moment they were hidden, and no one was likely to ask after them for a day or so. Through the rough weeds and withered fruit-bushes of the former garden she brought them by two more doorways to an inner enclosure, where they found a ramshackle It was shed for the horses. inconspicuous and not overlooked. Moreover, there was a