Chapter 43 - Xiao Chen
Shen Yu’s heart lurched when she heard their voices. The woman didn’t sound like Zhang Fei. So, who was she? That night, she slept poorly.
The next morning, Shen Yu soon found herself leaving her bad mood behind. Her new group of friends were all lively and boisterous people. As they traveled, they all laughed and talked about interesting topics.
When they were able to without losing too much time, they admired the scenery of the cities and towns they passed through. All of this made her spirits rise. What made her happier was that whenever they encountered difficulties, the two Li brothers were always able to find some other backpackers who could help them out. Because of their friendly natures, by the time they reached Xinjiang, the original group of six had expanded by adding around ten more other people.
Originally, Shen Yu had believed that Fang Rui and the others wanted to eat the famed Hami melon in Hami city. However, a couple of backpackers who were on their way to the Tianshan mountains convinced them otherwise. They said that the Tianshan mountains had a beautiful lake, Lake Tianchi, and also a mysterious valley.
At the east gate of Hami city, Shen Yu had to depart from Fang Rui and the others. Shen Yu and Xiao Chen needed to go further west to get to their destinations. The other four were headed northwest to get to the Tianshan mountains.
Separations were always difficult and the three women sobbed and cried when they had to part. Shen Yu felt intensely sad at having to leave her new friends.
The two brothers and Xiao Chen had also become close after traveling together. Before Li Fang left, he decided to exchange gifts with Xiao Chen. People traveling rarely had room to carry around random gifts, so they could only give what they had on them. It turns out that both of them gave the other their outer jacket. Li Fang left, wearing Xiao Chen’s military jacket, and Xiao Chen put on Li Fang’s sport jacket.
Because Xiao Chen had changed his wardrobe, Tang Can didn’t recognize him at first when he and Shen Yu finally arrived to where the armed forces were waiting. Even though Xiao Chen just went by with a couple of suitcases, Tang Can still asked Shen Yu, “Eh? Where is Xiao Chen?”
Shen Yu paused for a second, confused, and replied, “Didn’t he just walk by you with the suitcases?”
Tang Can looked startled. “He did? I didn’t see him!”
Shen Yu thought that there was something wrong with his eyes. Maybe he was shortsighted and needed glasses. In actuality, Tang Can had focused most of his attention on Shen Yu and had not been paying attention. Xiao Chen was just an afterthought for him.
For the next couple of days, Shen Yu was still able to see Xiao Chen from time to time. He had already changed into a new military uniform and had gone back into his assigned troop. When he saw her, he would smile brightly to greet her.
During that time, Tang Can refused to let Shen Yu out of his sight, as if he was afraid she would get left behind again. Shen Yu was under the impression that his grandfather also came along with them to Xinjiang. It turned out that she was wrong. Grandfather Tang had gone back to the military command complex. However, Old Mr. Yun was still here. Apparently, before Old Mr. Tang left, he had given orders that Old Mr. Yun would lead the expedition here. By doing that, e had set a fox among the chickens. Old Mr. Yun happily used his new power to make things difficult for everyone here, including Tang Can.
Even Zhang Fei couldn’t escape the old geezer’s torments. At night, he asked her to help him wash his feet. When his disgusting, old feet came out of his shoes, the odor that came with them was enough to fell an adult man. Naturally, Zhang Fei could not tolerate it and scampered away, hiding from the old man.
Once again, it was the kind and good hearted Mazha who stepped in to take over the job. Washing Old Mr. Yun’s feet had become his assignment. During each session, the old geezer would smoke his tobacco pipe and praise Mazha for being almost as good as a professional foot washer. Was he complimenting the soldier or making fun of him? It was hard to tell.
The group had reached Ruoqiang County in the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, which was located in Xinjiang province. After entering the county, they would soon reach Lop Nor, as it was not a long distance away. Lop Nor was actually located in the north-eastern part of Ruoqiang County.
The best time to enter a desert was in the summer. However, it wasn’t as simple as Shen Yu had originally thought. When they entered Ruoqiang, they stopped for several days and didn’t proceed. Tang Can explained that going into a desert required making preparations first. They needed to find a guide and rent camels to ride before entering.
Additionally, they were waiting for some other people to arrive. They needed some expert miners to join the team as well as the Gold Armed Division’s engineers. These people had set out from Tang Can’s headquarters earlier and were about three-quarters of the way there. In a couple of days, they would be able to join up with the rest of the team.
Tang Can emphasized that it wasn’t a simple manner to enter a desert, especially since they weren’t there to sight-see but to find minerals and precious metals. He advised her to get ready as it was possible they may have to stay here for two to three years to explore everything. Shen Yu immediately started complaining. She had originally thought that it wasn’t possible that they would have to spend a lot of time in the desert. It’d be like shopping at a mall, if you didn’t find what you liked, you’d leave. She had never suspected that Tang Can would insist on taking so much time out of her life!
Seeing the ugly look on her face, Tang Can tried to comfort her, “In the fall and winter, we can’t enter the desert. So don’t worry, in the winter, we’ll give you some time off so you can go home and visit family.” He smiled sweetly at her.
His words did little to console her worries. Shortly thereafter, Tang Can overheard Shen Yu talking to her family on the phone. The conversation lasted for a couple of hours. Afterwards, it was apparent that her parents had not elicited any complaints over this plan of his. When she hung up the phone, her mood had improved perceptively and she even talked to him a little bit. He did notice that she was able to smile slightly, but it wasn’t the most sincere smile he had ever seen.
Tang Can proposed that they walk around about. Since they had nothing better to do, they might as well take the time to do something. At first, Shen Yu thought that Tang Can was trying to take care of her, and felt pretty happy about the whole situation. Later on, after the visited a small village, she found out that she was being naive again! Tang Can clearly had another purpose in mind. She had eavesdropped on his conversation with the old geezer and found out he was asking the old man if they were at the right place!
The village was called Aketiqi and Old Mr. Yun had led the way. As they walked, the old geezer had mentioned it had been more than twenty years since he last stepped foot in this area. But Shen Yu knew better. She had seen that the old man had not hesitated one step when he brought them around the area. The old fox had to be lying again.
More than twenty years had passed since the 1980s. Even though rural villages developed slowly compared to bustling cities, it was unlikely a place could stay exactly the same over a couple of decades. There were always people dismantling old homes and building new ones.
Shen Yu and Tang Can exchanged a look but didn’t say anything. Tang Can was not stupid and he obviously noticed the same details she did. He merely smiled at her.
This time, they brought Mazha along with them. Although Zhang Fei threw a horrible tantrum, she was still left behind. Tang Can adamantly refused to bring her along. At the time, Shen Yu was in the back of the group as they left. Sulking, the female soldier had thrown something at her back. It had smashed into pieces at her feet and pieces of glass cut her ankle. The wounds hurt but were not serious.
Tang Can had gone black with fury but he didn’t scold Zhang Fei for her actions. The female soldier had immediately started sobbing with fat rolls of tears streaming down her face. Men had their arms to defend themselves, and women had their tears. Zhang Fei had mastered this weapon. Every time she did something wrong, she could always avoid being criticized by crying.
As they were about to enter an Uyghur family’s home, Tang Can’s cellphone started ringing. Someone from the military guesthouse back in Changsha was calling him. They wanted to know if he was missing any soldiers from his command. Apparently, they just had a homicide case occur. In one of the storage closets, they found the corpse of a male soldier. He was wearing military issued underwear, and they estimated he was around twenty to twenty-one years of age. Unfortunately, his face had been gravely disfigured so they couldn’t identify him. The guesthouse had already started looking at the records of who stayed there for the past month. They needed Tang Can to help them figure out who was missing.
After receiving the call and agreeing to their request, Tang Can called Zhang Fei to have her look into this. He needed her to investigate the backgrounds of everyone that came with them. Although Zhang Fei was still angry and acted huffy towards the young officer, she couldn’t disobey his commands. Almost twenty minutes passed before she returned his call. She said that there wasn’t any problems with anyone’s backgrounds and she couldn’t figure out who might be missing.
Tang Can hung up the phone and immediately gave the guesthouse a call. After he told them that nothing was out of the ordinary here, he suddenly remembered Xiao Chen. He frowned and asked Shen Yu, “Are you sure that Xiao Chen came here with you?”
Shen Yu looked at him with wide eyes, confused.
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