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The Vast Desert Chapter 4


Chapter 4 – Going Straight to the Great Gobi Desert

Laughing coldly, Hu Tiehua said, “Some people, you can indeed ignore him; although he is angry, he can’t do anything to you, but I am definitely not that kind of person. If I get angry …”

Suddenly a head appeared from inside the carriage, looking at him and laughing indifferently, saying, “No need to get angry. He practically cannot hear you; he is deaf.”

Hu Tiehua nearly fell off his horse. “Ji Bingyan, it’s you!” he called out loudly, “You dead rooster, what trick are you playing?”

Unexpectedly, inside the carriage was indeed Ji Bingyan.

From the carriage window he stretched out his hand, made a signal, and the caravan immediately stopped. And then he pushed the door open and slowly got off the horse-drawn carriage.

Hu Tiehua was even more angry that he went mad, “Aren’t your legs broken?” he bellowed, “How come you can walk again now?”

It was as if Ji Bingyan did not hear him at all; he simply went to meet Chu Liuxiang, who was just coming over toward him. Chu Liuxiang also dismounted his horse and walked toward him.

The two men laughed at each other. Ji Bingyan said, “I came.”

“Very good,” Chu Liuxiang replied.

Ji Bingyan said, “I came late, because I had to make preparation to go out the Pass.”

Chu Liuxiang cast a quick glance at the caravan, he laughed and said, “You prepared too much.”

Ji Bingyan said, “Too much is always better than not enough.”

Chu Liuxiang said, “Naturally your experience is more than mine; I’ll listen to you.”

Ji Bingyan said, “We could also rest inside the carriage. How about I’ll let you inspect the equipment tomorrow morning?”

“All right,” Chu Liuxiang replied.

Unexpectedly the two had their lips sealed and did not say anything about the ‘broken legs’ thing; neither did they mention anything about Ban Bing, Ying Yan, as if it had never happened.

Hu Tiehua had been so angry that his face turned green; he could not help rushing over.

But Ji Bingyan simply laughed indifferently and said, “I have some wine on the carriage. If you are not drunk yet, drink a few more cups!”

Hu Tiehua was staring at him for half a day. Finally he also roared in laughter and said, “All right! Although you duped me, I was not being a true friend to you either. Let’s consider us even. After getting on the carriage, I will salute you three cups.”

When they got to the carriage, Hu Tiehua understood why Ji Bingyan built the carriage like a coffin, because this way, the space inside the carriage was bigger.

This was practically not like a horse-drawn carriage, but like a house.

Inside the carriage, there was a long, big, and comfortable soft couch; there were also several brocade pads, and a table. Obviously everything was arranged carefully; hence although there were many things, it did not appear too crowded.

Hu Tiehua was just thinking of asking, ‘Where’s the wine?’ Ji Bingyan already reached out to press something at the edge of the couch. A drawer popped up from under the brocade couch. Inside the drawer were six shiny silver cups, as well as ten square bottles made of cast silver.

Ji Bingyan said, “We have ten kinds of wine here, from Maotai, Da Qu, Zhuyeqing [green bamboo leaf], to Yang Ru Jiu [goat milk wine] from outside the Pass; everything. Although the bottles don’t look big, they could contain three jin [catty, approx. 500g] and twelve liang [tael, approx. 50g or 1/16 of a catty]. What do you want to drink? Just say it!”

Hu Tiehua already stared in disbelief at the drawer; half a day later, he sighed and said, “One flick of a hand, all kinds of wine came out. This is practically every drunkard’s dream. No wonder everybody wants to get rich; getting rich indeed has its advantages.”

The three drank two cups of wine each, Hu Tiehua could not help saying, “Now, if there is Jiangbei’s [lit. north of the River] big shrimp rice, and Jinhua’s ham and paw to accompany the wine, this place would practically be heaven. Too bad …”

He has not finished speaking, another drawer popped up from underneath the brocade cushion. Inside, not only there were Jiangbei’s big shrimp rice and Jinhua’s ham, there were also Fuzhou’s pickled fish, Fuzhou’s roast goose, Haining’s sea bedbug, Wuxi’s meat bone, Changbai Mountain’s plum blossom bear paw … In short, if you can think of the most delicious dish to accompany the wine, chances are you will find it in the drawer.

Hu Tiehua cried out; he said, “You are performing conjuring tricks!”

Ji Bingyan responded indifferently, “Life must be enjoyed, especially those who have had too many faults. There was one time I was so hungry that I wanted to chop my own hand to eat. Therefore, now, no matter where I am going, I must pile up enough things to eat; even under the bed where I sleep, I always have wine and meat.”

Listening to that, Hu Tiehua wanted to laugh, but after thinking about it carefully, he no longer felt that there was nothing funny in that remark, on the contrary, there was something that made him wanting to cry. This ordinary, plain remark was actually brimming with pain and suffering. When a man was so afraid of ‘hunger’, the hardship and misery that he had suffered before, perhaps it was something that no one else could imagine!

Hu Tiehua was silent for a long time before he drank his third cup of wine; looking up and heaving a long sigh, he said, “Maybe I should not have forced you to come.”

Ji Bingyan coldly said, “You did not force me at all; if I was really unwilling to come, no one can force me.”

Hu Tiehua smiled bitterly; suddenly he asked, “What about those two Guniang? Why didn’t we invite them to drink a cup?”

“They have gone back,” Ji Bingyan replied.

“Why are you in a hurry to rush them back?” Hu Tiehua asked, “Chu Liuxiang and I are very tactful people; we could always find the opportunity to let you say goodbye to them.”

Ji Bingyan spoke indifferently, “Now there is no time to say goodbye. From now on, we are starting our journey straight toward the Great Gobi. From now on, this carriage will not stop for a rest more than the time needed to drink two cups of tea; furthermore, we can only stop a maximum of three times every day. I believe with our current endurance, we can strictly control urination and defecation.”

Hu Tiehua excitedly asked, “Are you saying we can’t even get off the car to walk?”

“Absolutely not,” Ji Bingyan replied.

“Why?” Hu Tiehua asked.

Ji Bingyan replied, “Although we do not know whether the opposite side has laid out ambushes along the way, or scouting Chu Liuxiang’s whereabouts, yet we simply must guard against this possibility.”

Hu Tiehua said, “But it doesn’t have to be …”

Ji Bingyan cut him off, “If we want to succeed, we must consider every possibility, only because since the opponent dares to provoke Chu Liuxiang, they are definitely not ordinary people.”

“Are you saying we are ordinary people?” Hu Tiehua asked.

Ji Bingyan replied, “I have already told you: these people grew up in the desert, they have also been tempered by the desert to have greater endurance than the camels, to be more refined than the foxes, to be more ruthless than the wolves, while in the desert, we are weaker than the rabbits.”

Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “Aren’t you unavoidably overestimating their resolve too much, while extinguishing our own prestige?”

Ji Bingyan said, “This is because I do not want to die in the desert, to let the bald eagles to come and suck my dead body, to let the wolves to come and gnaw my bones. My life is still very interesting.”

Hu Tiehua said, “But I still think …”

Ji Bingyan laughed coldly and said, “I don’t want to know what you think; I just want to know: since you guys wanted me to come, are you willing to listen to me or not?”

All along Chu Liuxiang was listening quietly. This moment he smiled and said, “You are able to come out from the desert alive and bring this much wealth; what you say is certainly reasonable, and reasonable words, I am always willing to listen.”

Ji Bingyan stared at Hu Tiehua and asked, “What about you?”

Hu Tiehua sighed. He smiled bitterly and said, “I can only say that I should not have forced you to come, but you already came; what can I do?”

“Good!” Ji Bingyan said.

Suddenly he took the food and wine off the table. Reaching out, he pressed something, and the entire desktop unexpectedly flipped over; unexpectedly the reverse side was engraved with a detailed map.

Dipping his chopstick into the wine, Ji Bingyan drew a line on the map, saying, “We actually should not have gone out of the Pass from here, but because you did not know the way you came to this place; therefore, now we must travel along this road.”

“Is this the Yellow River?” Chu Liuxiang asked.

“That’s right,” Ji Bingyan replied, “This is precisely the upper reaches of the Yellow River. We could travel along the river all the way to Yinchuan. I know Zha Muge’s power in the past did not extend south of Yinshan [Yin Mountains in inner Mongolia]; therefore, in this section of the road, we cannot hope to obtain their track, but we still have to guard against their eyes and ears.”

Chu Liuxiang and Hu Tiehua did not interrupt him at all.

Ji Bingyan went on, “Therefore, when we get to the Old Longwan tomorrow, you must leave your horse there. I have a partner there, you won’t need to worry.”

Chu Liuxiang could not help saying, “I must take this horse along with me.”

“That’s out of the question!” Ji Bingyan said.

“Why?” Chu Liuxiang asked.

Ji Bingyan replied, “Not only this horse is too ostentatious, it is too conspicuous, plus it originally belonged to the opposite side. If we take this horse along, it will be no different than putting up advertisement; we definitely cannot take this risk.”

Chu Liuxiang thought about it; he no longer said anything.

Ji Bingyan said, “You must know that right now not only the opponent is waiting at their ease for the exhausted enemy, but they are also occupying the best position in terms of time, favorable location, and manpower, while basically we do not have the slightest bit of favorable condition. If we want to triumph over the opponent, we can only use troops appearing suddenly, catching them off guard. Therefore, before we find their whereabouts, we must not let them discover our track. Otherwise, if they rely on the desert’s advantage to mount sneak attack, we would die without a burial site.”

Chu Liuxiang was silent for half a day. Heaving a deep sigh, he said, “I did not think that much; I …”

Ji Bingyan spoke word by word, “You must remember, it is precisely because the other side knew that they cannot kill you anywhere else that they lured you into the desert. And they are luring you into the desert, naturally because they have the confidence of killing you in the desert. This is the most difficult battle in your life; how could you not think much?”

Smiling wryly, Chu Liuxiang said, “But some things we simply can’t think too much.”

Ji Bingyan drained his cup and said, “All right! Let’s not think about anything right now; let’s go to sleep first. Even if you cannot sleep, you must force yourself to sleep, because right now we absolutely cannot waste any energy.”

The brocade couch was very big, enough for the three men to sleep together. With a wine cup in his hand, Hu Tiehua suddenly laughed and said, “In any case, right now the three of us finally sleep together, just like more than ten years ago … Ay! Those happy, beautiful old days.”

Ji Bingyan coldly said, “Those days are not necessarily that good; at that time the wine we drank was sour wine, the place we lay down was wet and cold grassy meadow. Now, we have a soft and warm bed.”

Hu Tiehua sighed; he shook his head and said, “The past is always beautiful; it’s just a pity that this kind of thing, you will never understand, only because you are unromantic, also too realistic, too snobbish. You only know …”

He suddenly stopped talking; just because he discovered that Ji Bingyan has already fallen asleep.

The next day at dusk, they reached the Old Longwan. In a ranch belonging to Ji Bingyan, Chu Liuxiang and the others dismounted their horses. He suddenly realized that he was somewhat reluctant to part with this horse; he could not help muttering with a wry smile, “Perhaps I really am growing old, hence my heart is getting softer.”

The horse was hissing softly too.

Gently stroking the soft and smooth horseback, Chu Liuxiang laughed and said, “You hate to part with me too, don’t you? Are you afraid that I am going this time, I won’t ever come back?”

But Hu Tiehua was very excited; he was on the other side, inspecting the camel, the cart and the horses with Ji Bingyan. Every single item, he had to take a look, he had to ask question.

Now he knew that the deaf and mute big man was called ‘Shi Tuo’ [lit. stone camel]; but he could not figure out how a person’s skin could become like this.

Now he also knew that the young guy driving the carriage was called ‘Xiao Pan’ [lit. little Pan (surname, also ‘Pan’ in Greek mythology)]. This Xiao Pan was actually no longer a young man for a long time already; he was at least thirty something. But because he was born with a baby face, plus he would laugh first before speaking, and he would laugh after speaking, nobody could lose his temper against him.

The more Hu Tiehua looked, the more interested he was; he could not help asking, “Xiao Pan, could you be thirty-five this year?”

Xiao Pan giggled; he replied, “To tell you a secret, in another month, Xiaoren will be forty-three.”

Hu Tiehua laughed in spite of himself, “Forty-three; I really can’t see it … More than forty-year-old man, you are still called ‘Xiao Pan’; you really should be happy.”

Beaming with smile, Xiao Pan said, “Even if Xiaoren live to be eighty, I will still be called ‘Little’ Pan. But this is not something that I am proud of; this is simply humiliating.”

Fixing his gaze on Xiao Pan, Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “Since Ji Bingyan brought you along, you must have some special skill. What skill do you have? How about opening both hands and show it to me?”

Smiling apologetically, Xiao Pan said, “Xiaoren’s skill is precisely I can’t do anything, I don’t understand anything. When someone lives to more than forty years and still does not have any skill, this is not an easy thing; don’t you agree?”

Hu Tiehua roared in laughter and said, “You are able to say that, obviously your skill is not small.”

It was quite a long time later that he discovered that not only Xiao Pan was able to ‘seeing people speak people’s language, seeing ghosts speak ghosts’ talk’, he also had some kind of special skill. North and south of the Chang Jiang [lit. long river, i.e. Yangtze River], both banks of the Da He [lit. great river, i.e. Yellow River], Fujian Lingnan [south of the five ranges/old term for south China, esp. Guangdong and Guangxi], Qian Gui Chuan E [Guizhou, Sichuan, Hubei], no matter which dialect, he could unexpectedly speak fluently and naturally, totally equal to the locally-born-and-bred people from that area; no matter what kind of business transaction, just leave it to him without any worries. Even if he had his eyes closed, he would not suffer any losses.

And that Shi Tuo, although he could not speak with human, he could communicate with the beasts – he seemed to be able to use some kind of mysterious language to link his thought with that of the beast. Whether it was a donkey, a horse, a camel, whatever it was thinking, he knew everything. Whatever he wanted these beasts to do, they would unexpectedly do it obediently.

Sometimes Hu Tiehua simply could not figure out what kind of strange method Ji Bingyan was using to find such two people; he really could not help but to admire him.

As expected, day and night, the carriage did not stop hurrying along the road. It appeared that Xiao Pan and Shi Tuo did not sleep at all. But after several days, Xiao Pan was still happy and excited, with smiling expression across his face. Shi Tuo’s head did not even drooping.

Hu Tiehua could not help asking, “Could it be that these two did not need any sleep?”

Ji Bingyan replied, “Some people are able to sleep, no matter what they are doing.”

“Can they sleep while driving the carriage?” Hu Tiehua asked.

Ji Bingyan replied, “The horse already knew the way, why can’t the driver sleep?”

Hu Tiehua thought for a moment; he said, “That’s right! While driving, he is still sitting. But that Shi Tuo, not only he is not sitting, he practically is not even standing; could it be that he can sleep while walking?”

“Exactly the case,” Ji Bingyan replied indifferently.

Hu Tiehua laughed aloud and said, “You think I am a three-year-old child?”

Ji Bingyan’s countenance sank; he no longer spoke.

But Chu Liuxiang laughed and said, “He is not pulling your leg; some people indeed can sleep while they are walking; only because although their legs are walking, their spirit has been completely loosened, which is similar to when other people are sleeping.”

Laughing in spite of himself, Hu Tiehua said, “This skill is really not a minor one.”

Ji Bingyan coldly said, “This skill was not innate at all, but acquired through tempering oneself. If someone was driven by other people using a whip, constantly, without any break – walking for a year, as soon as he closed his eyes he would suffer the whip, then later on, even if he is walking barefoot in the snow, he could still sleep just the same.”

Emotionally moved, Hu Tiehua said, “Could it be that Shi Tuo has been subjected to such suffering?”

“Hmm!” Ji Bingyan responded.

Hu Tiehua sighed. And then he went on, “But why did the other people want him to keep walking, moreover, walking for a year?”

Ji Bingyan was silent for half a day. He suddenly said, “Have you seen a donkey pulling millstone?”

“I have,” Hu Tiehua replied.

Ji Bingyan slowly said, “One time people were using him as the donkey pulling the millstone, but he was more miserable than a donkey. Donkey still has the time to rest, but his legs did not stop; he was pulling the millstone for a whole year.”

Hu Tiehua could not help shuddering; he angrily said, “Who was that person? Why was he so cruel? Why would he treat him like that?”

Ji Bingyan shook his head, but did not open his mouth.

Hu Tiehua drank his wine again; inwardly he was still a bit skeptical. ‘How could someone sleep while walking?’

He was determined to see clearly.

Although this carriage was the most comfortable vehicle in the world, but being cooped up all day and all night inside, very soon Hu Tiehua was bored, and it has driven him crazy.

Originally he wanted to find something to do. Thereupon he leaned over the carriage window, opening his eyes wide to look at that Shi Tuo. He wanted to see how this man could sleep while he was walking.

Shi Tuo’s pair of grey, overcast eyes were always staring; he was always staring blankly at the distance, as if he could see some beautiful scenery that no one else could.

Hu Tiehua kept his eyes on him at all times. After a day, he suddenly roared in laughter and said, “Good Dead Rooster, turns out you are pulling my leg.”

Ji Bingyan frowned; he said, “Pulling your leg?”

Hu Tiehua said, “He did not even close his eyes, how could he sleep?”

Ji Bingyan said, “When he sleeps, he does not need to close his eyes.”

“Why is that?” Hu Tiehua asked.

Ji Bingyan replied indifferently, “Because he is blind.”

Hu Tiehua sprang up. “He is blind?” he said, “You said this man not only deaf and mute, he is also blind?”

Ji Bingyan kept his mouth shut. When he spoke, he never said it the second time.

Hu Tiehua said, “No wonder his eyes look so strange. But … but how could a blind man walk like him? I really cannot figure it out even more.”

Ji Bingyan said, “The beast by his side is his eyes.”

“What if there is no beast by his side?” Hu Tiehua asked.

“Then he would find a way to call one,” Ji Bingyan replied.

Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “The more you talk, the more mysterious it is; you practically say that he is not like a human, that he is practically like a beast.”

Ji Bingyan said, “Sometimes he is practically a beast, just because he himself wishes that he was a beast. He thinks that being with a beast is much easier than getting along with people.”

Hu Tiehua was silent for a long time. He said, “Then why did he want to work for you?”

Ji Bingyan kept his mouth shut again.

Hu Tiehua could see that not only he was unwilling to answer this question, he was also unwilling to continue discussing this matter.

Who would have thought that half a day later, Ji Bingyan unexpectedly said, word-by-word, “It was only because I saved his life.”

Hu Tiehua was silent for a long time again, and then he sighed and said, “In that case, why would you take such a deaf, mute, and blind man to the desert to face such dangers?”

Ji Bingyan coldly said, “Just because on the desert, he is much more useful than ten people who are not deaf, not mute, not blind.”

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