Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command Genghiz Khan's Hoard

Hideous brutes the dogs were, quite unlike the usual breed of bloodhound, for they were fully as large as young leopards and every whit as powerful and ferocious. They certainly possessed the drooping ears and heavy loose jowl of the bloodhound, but their hides were not smooth-haired, like the Cuban dog's, but rough and shaggy like a wolf's, with which animal it is quite possible their forebears had been crossed. Their legs were extremely long, but very massive and powerful, giving them the power of covering great distances at high speed; and altogether the appearance of the beasts was sufficient to inspire a very wholesome terror in any unfortunate person on whose track they were placed. There were, fortunately, only three of them, and as their masters had not yet appeared in sight Frobisher and Drake hoped to be able to settle them with their clubs and revolvers, and reach the shelter of the ruined city before the pirates could overtake and recapture them.
No time was to be lost, however, for they were still at a considerable distance from the nearest buildings on the outskirts of the city, while the dogs' owners would probably be not very far behind, since they would be certain to have come on horseback, so as to keep in reasonably close touch with the hounds.
Drake drew his revolver from a fold of his voluminous Chinese jacket, ranged himself alongside his friend, and, without a word, fired his weapon at the first of the dogs, which by this time was almost upon them. In his excitement, however, or perhaps because of the strain upon his muscles from the long and fatiguing flight, he missed; and before he could fire again the animal had sprung full at his throat, knocking him down and sending the revolver flying out of his hand. In another second Drake's throat would have been torn open by the savage, slavering beast, but Frobisher was either cooler or more fortunate. Whirling himself round right on top of the dog, he thrust his revolver's muzzle into its ear and fired, at the moment when the terrible jaws were in the very act of closing on his companion's throat.
He had no time to assist Drake to his feet, for the other two brutes were in the very act of springing as he turned away from the dead dog and cocked his weapon for a second shot. Strangely enough, this couple entirely ignored Drake, and confined their attentions to Frobisher, who only saved himself by making a rapid leap backward, and so avoiding their first charge. Baulked in their spring, they seemed, like almost all other savage animals, dazed for a moment, as though they could not understand why they had missed their prey; and that momentary hesitation gave Frobisher an opportunity to pull the trigger of his revolver, while Drake, who had caught sight of his own weapon, half-buried in the sand a few yards away, executed a quick roll in that direction, and in a second had the revolver in his hand. Frobisher's bullet struck the creature he aimed at in the upper part of the near fore leg, and, the heavy missile shattering the bone like a pipe stem, the brute collapsed upon the ground with a deep, raucous howl of pain.
At the same moment Drake raised his revolver and fired as he sat; and this time his aim was excellent, the bullet striking the hound Frobisher had just lamed full in the spine, severing the backbone and killing the creature instantly. The other dog, apparently cowed by the death of its mates, stood motionless, in a crouching attitude, glaring at each man in turn, and seemingly undecided which to attack first; and its hesitation or cowardice was fatal. The two men fired almost together, one bullet drilling a hole in its skull, and the other smashing in at one side of its body and out at the other. It did not live long enough to raise even a whimper, but dropped dead where it stood, a pool of blood immediately welling out from beneath the carcass.
"By Jove, Drake!" exclaimed Frobisher, "that shot of yours finished him off in fine style. But what in the world are you using in that pistol?" he went on, as he turned the body over and curiously examined a great hole in the brute's side. "I've seen wounds like this in a man who has been hit with a piece of `pot-leg' or a handful of nails, but never with an ordinary bullet."
Drake winked. "That", he remarked, "is a little device of my own. I have often noticed that it is a very difficult matter to bring down a man, especially a fanatical savage, with an ordinary bullet; it goes in at one side and out at the other so cleanly that the man whom it hits does not know that he is hit until he is dead, and he frequently manages to do a lot of damage before he dies. So I invented a little dodge which I call the `man-stopper'. It consists in simply `rymering' a hole in the nose of the bullet, with a file tang or anything else that comes handy; then, when the bullet strikes, the edges of the hole expand and become `mushroomed', and the man who is hit knows all about it, I assure you. Of course that sort of thing is not permitted in civilised warfare, but when fighting savages the trick is used quite frequently. Indeed, this is the only kind of missile that will effectually stop a rushing savage. I would advise you to treat your bullets in the same way as soon as you have time. But these dogs' masters may appear in sight at any moment; and if they do, before we leave this spot, and happen to be mounted--as I feel sure they are--they will catch us easily before we can possibly reach shelter, yonder. And we're scarcely prepared to fight a crowd."
"You're right, skipper," agreed Frobisher; "let's get along as fast as we can." And the two men, thrusting their revolvers into their pockets, set off at top speed toward the ruined city, not a little refreshed by their brief halt while fighting the dogs.
"I wonder," Drake jerked out as they ran, "how the pirates managed to set those dogs after us? They hadn't any garments of yours, had they? And I'm sure they had none of mine by which they could lay them on the scent."
"They had my boots, confound them!" returned Frobisher, "as I am beginning to realise to my cost. These wrappings are about worn through, and my feet are almost as sore as though they had been skinned."
"By Jove, yes! I had forgotten them," said the little skipper.
The two men pounded along over the sand in silence once more, the walls and buildings of the ruined town standing out more and more clearly every moment. Only another half-mile or so, and they would be safely hidden from view among the maze-like streets of the place. But could they do it in time? Would their pursuers sight them before they could get under cover? These were the questions which haunted them both.
"See," Drake presently panted, pointing in front of him, "we are pretty nearly there now. That opening in the walls is the site of one of the city gates; and once inside that, we are safe."
Frobisher took a hasty glance behind him, but the pursuers had not yet put in an appearance. There was nothing in sight but the three black dots on the sand, where the fight with the dogs had taken place.
"Nothing in sight as yet," he gasped encouragingly to Drake, on whom the pace was again beginning to tell. "Keep it up a little longer; we are nearly there now."
A couple of minutes more of hard running placed them almost in the shadow of the walls, and Frobisher was congratulating himself on their escape, when suddenly something whizzed past his ear with a shrill, whining sound, and starred itself out in a splash of metal on the stones of the gateway, plainly visible in the moonlight. A moment later the crack of a modern rifle made itself heard.
"Confound it!" growled Frobisher, looking round, "half a minute too late, by all that's annoying! Buck up, Drake! Those fellows are in sight and have spotted us," he shouted. "It will be touch-and-go now, and no mistake."
Drake nobly responded to the call, and a few seconds later the two men plunged through the gateway and were under cover. But, unfortunately, their pursuers had seen where they had gone, and would not now be at all likely to give up the chase until they had examined every possible hiding-place inside the walls.
Along the first street that the fugitives came to they dashed, then down a turning to the left, and along another street leading out of it, only to find that this was a blind alley, and that their way was stopped.
"Quick--back again!" gasped Drake. "We cannot get out this way. Hurry, or they'll catch us at the other end."
"No time," replied Frobisher, breathing heavily. "We must of necessity go forward now. Here, into this open doorway! This will give us shelter for the moment, and if they do not sight us they may not try this street at all."
Accordingly they dashed into the house indicated by Frobisher, and vanished from view just as a chorus of yells at the mouth of the street indicated the arrival of their pursuers, while the clatter of horses' hoofs told only too plainly that the pirates, even if they had not actually sighted their quarry, had decided to search that particular street, at all events.
"Here they come," whispered the skipper. "We mustn't stay here, or we shall be caught like rats in a trap. Up this staircase for your life! We'll get out on the roof, and make a stand there if they decide to search the house."
Taking the stone steps two at a time, the fugitives dashed upward, presently coming to a kind of landing from which several stone-flagged passages radiated; thence they climbed up another narrow staircase which led to the flat roof. They went up this last so quickly that Drake, who was leading, had popped his head up above the level of the parapet before he realised what he was doing. Luckily, none of the pirates happened to be looking upward at that particular moment; they were all riding helter-skelter down the street, evidently determined to see what lay at the end. Drake counted them before getting under cover again, and found that there were thirty of them; and that there might possibly be others searching elsewhere, was a contingency to be kept in mind.
Frobisher had now also crept out on to the roof through the small opening, or trap-door, at the top of the stairs, and both men cautiously peeped over the low parapet. And as they watched, they saw the horsemen come to a halt opposite the identical house they were in, evidently discussing matters. Some appeared to think that the men they wanted had not come that way at all, while others--these the majority--believed differently, and seemed to want to search every house in the street. At any rate they had certainly made up their minds to search this particular dwelling, for they began to dismount outside the doorway.
"We're bottled at last, I'm afraid," said Frobisher. "What do you say to our opening fire on 'em now?"
"Not yet," whispered Drake. "Let's see first if there isn't another way down. If once they discover our presence here, they will get us for certain; for we have only six shots left between us. I couldn't bring any spare cartridge for reloads."
"Phew!" whistled Frobisher under his breath. "That's bad. We are in a tight place indeed, then. Come, let's see if there's any other way down."
They crept silently away from the parapet toward the back of the house, and, to their intense gratification, discovered a flight of ruined stone steps leading down the outside of the wall to a narrow alley in the rear. Down these steps they at once made their way, then ran at top speed up the alley and out of the end of it into one of the broader streets of the city. They had now got a good start, for it would take some little time for the pirates to ride round, even if they should chance to catch sight of the fugitives. But no shouts were raised behind them to indicate that they had been seen, and they sprinted along over the rough cobbles for all they were worth. There was a large and very handsome building at the end of this road, and they determined to make for it, since a structure of that size would surely afford greater facilities for concealment than a smaller house.
From its extent, which became more apparent as they drew nearer, Frobisher conjectured that it was probably the ruins of some ancient mandarin's palace, or possibly the summer palace of one of the petty kings of China who ruled in the far-off days when the place was built; for he could see at a glance that the city had been abandoned for centuries, and that the buildings themselves were doubtless fairly ancient at the time of the abandonment.
So absorbed were both men on the goal they had set themselves that they dashed past the ends of sundry streets without even glancing down them, and so failed to realise that they were still in considerable danger until they heard a series of yells proceeding from one of them. The enemy had divided forces, and one of these had passed ahead and, searching the side streets, had seen the Englishmen run past. The clatter of horses' hoofs told Drake and Frobisher that their pursuers were close behind, and it did not seem possible now to get clear away. Without consultation, they at once determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible, and looked round them for some favourable place where they might make a last stand. Then, with a muttered exclamation, Frobisher seized Drake's arm and dragged him into a narrow passage between two houses, just as the pirates swept into the street. The passage was in deep shadow, and with one accord both men threw themselves down at full length, hoping that they would not be seen, and that the pirates would pass on, imagining their quarry still in front of them.
And, luckily, this was just what happened. The pirates never thought of examining the narrow passage--perhaps they never even saw it. At any rate they dashed past and turned down another street, which they evidently considered to be the road the fugitives had taken. The instant they were out of sight Drake and his companion rose to their feet and continued their run toward the palace, only a few hundred yards away now. But they were not yet at the end of their troubles.
The horsemen, as soon as they had turned down the side street alluded to, had seen that the fugitives were certainly not in it, or they would have been in full view, unless indeed they had taken refuge in one of the ruined houses thereabouts. Some of the pirates suggested searching these before looking elsewhere, while others insisted that they had overrun the pursuit, and advised going back at once. The whole band were noisily discussing the pros and cons when Drake and Frobisher darted past the end of the street; and, seeing the fugitives, the pirates wheeled their horses and, with a savage whoop, started in pursuit again.
One circumstance, however, gave the Englishmen a little advantage-- sufficient, indeed, as a matter of fact, to save their lives. While talking, the horsemen were all bunched together in a little crowd, and as it happened to be one of the men on the far side of the group who had been the first to catch sight of the fugitives, he galloped his horse right through the knot of his companions without a moment's hesitation or warning, thus throwing the whole company into momentary confusion, one man being unhorsed, while in another instance horse and rider went down together. Before the remainder could extricate themselves from the melde and make a fair start, Drake and Frobisher had obtained a full fifty yards' lead; and by the time their pursuers had reached the main street, the fugitives were more than half-way to the palace.
Once on the straight, however, the horsemen had the advantage, and overhauled them so rapidly that when the Englishmen were still twenty yards from the palace steps the foremost of the pirates were so close behind that Frobisher knew they would be cut off unless something could be done. He therefore gave a warning cry to Drake, and instantly darted to one side; and as the first man dashed past, unable to rein up his horse, the Navy man fired point-blank into the animal, bringing it and its rider to the earth with a tremendous thud. Drake accounted for the next two men in quick succession, while Frobisher dropped a fourth; then, the others having reined up, the better to use their rifles, the two men took to their heels again and reached the long and broad flight of steps leading up to the palace entrance in the midst of a hail of bullets, none of which, fortunately, took effect.
The pirates wasted no time in reloading, but came on again to the foot of the steps. Here they were of course obliged to dismount, and some handed over their horses to others of their number to hold, so that they were only beginning to mount the steps as Drake and Frobisher reached the top and darted in through the great doorway. Drake was by this time dreadfully out of breath, and gaspingly protested that he had come to the end of his tether; nevertheless he managed to muster sufficient strength to jog along close behind his friend. At their last hiding-place they had sought concealment aloft, but Frobisher decided now to take refuge below, since the palace appeared to be the kind of structure that would afford a better prospect of escape from the vaults or cellars.
Accordingly the younger man kept his eyes open for a flight of steps leading downward, and, as the pirates were close behind, darted down the first that met his eyes. This was a narrow, winding, stone staircase that led downward so far that they appeared to be reaching to the very bowels of the earth; but the pair eventually came to the bottom, finding themselves in a long, stone-flagged corridor, extending a considerable distance, and very dimly lighted by small gratings which evidently communicated with some chamber above.
They seemed to have come to the end of their tether at last, however, for nowhere could they find an opening leading out of the corridor. And already they could hear the pirates descending the stairs.
"Come, Drake!" whispered Frobisher; "we dare not remain here. Let's try to the left; there may be a door concealed somewhere among the shadows. I wish we had a little more light."
The other end of the passage was reached without a single exit being discovered, and there was no time to run back and try farther in the other direction.
"This is the end, I guess," said Drake, as the approaching footsteps sounded nearer. "It's `backs against the wall and fight to the death' for us now, my friend."
Suiting the action to the word, the little skipper grasped his cudgel by the thinner end, took his revolver--with only one shot remaining--in his other, and flung himself backward against the wall.
Then a curious thing happened. The solid wall at the end of the passage yielded to the pressure of the skipper's body, and Drake, still leaning against it, fell farther and farther backward, until at last he found himself in a reclining position on the now sloping wall. Then, to Frobisher's unbounded amazement, the little man disappeared from view, a dull thud from below announcing the fact that he had dropped a distance of several feet. In an instant the younger man realised what had happened. The corridor had a purpose, after all; and the door at the end was probably secured by a concealed spring of some sort which Drake must have unwittingly pressed when he flung himself back against the wall.
Without losing an instant Frobisher knelt down at the edge of the dark opening, then turning, allowed himself to slip downward gradually, for it was obvious that there were no steps; and as his feet touched bottom he was barely in time to remove his fingers from the sill when the door swung to above him with a muffled "click."
The pirates had not reached the foot of the stairs when the door closed, so that, unless they knew or guessed at and found the secret of opening it, the fugitives were safe from them, at any rate. But the thought occurred to Frobisher when the door closed behind him: now that they were in, how were they to get out again?
He called softly to Drake, and soon found that that worthy was much more startled than hurt, although even yet hardly able to realise what had happened to him. As soon as the little skipper had recovered his faculties a little he listened, and hearing nothing of their pursuers, struck a match, a box of which he had fortunately concealed in his robe, and looked to see whether there was a spring inside the door. He failed to find one, however, and he and Frobisher exchanged glances full of apprehension. They seemed to have escaped a swift death for one of lingering starvation.
But they had no time to spend in dismal forebodings. They could now faintly hear the uproar above them in the passage as the pirates hunted for the door by which their quarry had escaped, and crouched down together, wondering whether their pursuers would hit upon the spring. Minute after minute passed, however, and the door still remained closed; and after about a quarter of an hour the pirates were heard to take their departure, probably convinced that the fugitives had not gone down the stairs, after all.
With a sigh of relief Frobisher turned to Drake and asked him to strike another light, so that they might get some sort of notion where they were. Drake did so; and the first thing the light revealed was a great bundle of torches, evidently placed there in the bygone days for the use of people whose business took them into this underground chamber. The two men eagerly lighted one each, and then, taking a few more as a stand-by, proceeded to explore.
The enormous chamber which the light revealed appeared to contain nothing whatever; but there were several passages leading from it--seven in all, as the explorers counted--and they tried the first they came to, to ascertain where it led.
It extended for a distance of about a hundred feet, and then terminated; nor did there appear to be any door, concealed or otherwise, at the end of it. Two more passages were explored with the same result; but the fourth, or middle passage of the seven, was different, in that, at the end, they came to a massive iron door. Drake stretched out his hand and made an attempt to twist the iron handle, but it would not budge. Again he tried, and this time it seemed to move a little; and as it did so Frobisher thought he caught a slight grinding, whirring sound, like rusty machinery reluctantly moving.
What it was that prompted him to act he did not know, but suddenly becoming possessed with a suspicion of that door and a sense of danger in its vicinity, he dragged Drake quickly away from the handle, and himself retreated a few steps.
It was well that he did so, for at that moment the grinding sounds became quite perceptible, waxed louder, and then--like lightning from a cloud, a row of curved swordblades shot out of slots in the stone-work which the men had not previously noticed, and swept together for all the world like a pair of calliper legs. Any person standing by the door must have infallibly been stabbed through and through by that deadly device. Then, just as suddenly, the blades sprang back into the wall and the door swung back on its hinges, revealing another and smaller chamber beyond.
"By all the Powers," gasped Drake, wiping the perspiration from his forehead, "what a fiendish invention! Mr Frobisher, that's the second time this night that you've saved my life. I shall not forget."
"Pshaw!" answered Frobisher; "what about the times you've saved mine? But, Drake," he continued excitedly, "I've got an idea that we are on the point of discovering something. The man who owned this palace must have had something very well worth guarding, or he would never have taken the trouble to instal such an elaborate arrangement as that to destroy possible thieves, for that's what it was intended to do, without a doubt. Let's get along and see what there is to see; but be careful, for goodness' sake. There may be more of these man-traps about, and we don't want to be left dead in this hole."
So saying, Frobisher stepped slowly and cautiously through the door-way, holding his torch high above his head, and at once found himself in a small, circular chamber, which was almost completely filled with ironbound cases and chests of every description.
"Great Caesar's ghost!" almost shouted Frobisher to Drake, who was standing just inside the door, with mouth wide open and torch almost dropping out of his hand; "we have dropped right into somebody's treasure-house, and no mistake. If those chests do not contain valuables, my name is not Murray Frobisher. Bring your stick, and let us see whether we can wrench off one of the locks. It should not be very difficult, for the wood looks so rotten as almost to be crumbling to powder."
No sooner said than done. Drake eagerly placed the end of his stout cudgel under the hasp of the nearest of the boxes and, using it as a lever, soon sent the iron flying, the nails drawing out of the soft, "punky" wood as easily as though they had been set in putty. Next they swung the lid back; and then--what a sight met their astounded eyes!
The box contained neither gold nor silver, but was full to the brim with jewels of the most magnificent description, unset, every one of them, and all flashing and scintillating in the glare of the torches like a boxful of the most exquisitely coloured liquid fire. The sight was so extraordinarily beautiful that it fairly took the beholders' breath away, and for quite a minute neither of them could speak a word; they simply stood still, gasping with wonder and delight.
Another chest, and then another was opened, both of
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