Chapter 54 - Water
“Let’s hurry up and look around,” urged Mazha. “It’s almost dark now. While we’re still alive, we should try to find the vein of gold. If another sandstorm blows up this evening and buries us alive, being able to see it will still allow us to die with no regrets.” The soldier pursed his lips. He was already thirsty beyond belief and now regretted wasting so much of his spittle on talking.
Guo Pingan noticed his discomfort and immediately unhooked his canteen from his belt and handed it to him, “Deputy, I still have some water!”
Mazha was ecstatic after seeing he had water to drink. He swiftly unscrewed the cap and gulped some water down. When he was about to take a second drink, he suddenly saw Shen Yu twisting her head around, as if she was trying to avoid seeing him drink water. Sheepish, he remembered that they still had a woman among them and that he should take better care of her. He offered the canteen to her.
Although Shen Yu took the proffered water, she didn’t immediately take a sip. Instead, she offered some to Tang Can. “You should drink some first!”
Tang Can shook his head in refusal. In these circumstances, how could he casually drink their already dwindling water supply. After recently feeling strong emotions when he thought she was dead, he was afraid of something happening to her again. The one who was last standing was the one who was tormented the most. He would rather die earlier if they were all fated to perish.
Seeing Tang Can and Shen Yu both hesitating, Guo Pingan patted his bulging abdomen and said, “Go ahead and drink some! I still have another canteen full here.”
When Mazha heard the good news, he almost jumped in joy. He grinned and jokingly cursed at the other man, “You little brat, you’re pretty sharp! Why did you bring an extra canteen along?”
Tang Can, seeing that Guo Pingan had extra water, turned to Shen Yu and said, “Stop refusing to drink the water, we have enough for now. Everyone should drink some to wet their throat!”
Shen Yu finally nodded and assented.
After they all had a drink of water, Tang Can twisted the canteen closed and gave it back to Guo Pingan. The four of the continued to journey up and down the sand dunes. After they passed a large hill, Tang Can looked at the sand closely before he decided that this the most likely place. All of them started to dig into the sand with the enthusiasm of young children playing in a sandbox.
At this point, Shen Yu no longer had much strength left in her body, but was afraid that the young officer would notice. She persevered on and continued to excavate the sand with her hands, keeping one eye on Tang Can. Whenever she noticed the young officer not paying attention to her, she stopped to rest and catch her breath.
Tang Can and Mazha were in deep concentration. Soldiers were often more fixated on honor and duty than civilians, and these two did not want to lose their chance to bring glory to their country. The young officer continuously analyzed the sand they dug up and used that information to direct them where to dig next. The sand was soft and easy to bring up, so using hands instead of shovels did not slow down their progress immensely. However, the longer they worked without tools, the more likely their hands would be rubbed raw at the end. After a period of time passed, Tang Can was about to issue an order for everyone to rest. Before he could, he heard Shen Yu cry out in astonishment. The young woman had fallen into a ditch! At first glance, he could still see half of her body above the sand but she quickly sunk deeper into the hole.
“Not good! This is a quicksand pit!” exclaimed the young officer as he swiftly reached over and grabbed onto Shen Yu’s arm. Once he got a grip on her, he quickly commanded her to stop moving and to calm down.
“Oh f*ck!” screamed Mazha when he noticed what was going on. He leapt forward along with Guo Pingan to grab onto Tang Can’s legs. Neither of them wanted their officer to also fall into the quicksand. They were desperately hoping that the pit wouldn’t widen enough to drag them all into it.
“Don’t move and relax, Shen Yu!” said Tang Can, trying to reassure her. “It’s the same thing as falling into a bog. The more you struggle, the more you’ll be sucked in. If you continue to go down, not even a god could save you!” Although his words were meant to calm her, they hid his inner panic. He was afraid that she would fall under the sand, and he would never be able to see her again!
Shen Yu slowly calmed down and stopped moving her body. Sure enough, she no longer continued to sink further into the ground.
The three men used up a tremendous amount of strength to drag her back onto dry land. All of them lay around the pit, exhausted after the effort, and panted heavily. After narrowly escaping death, the four of them all had uneasy feelings in their hearts.
Once the immediacy of danger was over, the young officer quickly bounced back. Tang Can continued to be optimistic and exhorted the rest of them to look on the bright side. Where there was quicksand, there was water. There was likely a source of water below the quicksand, they just had to find it.
Guo Pingan heaved a sigh of relief once he heard the good news. “That’s very good! We finally have water again!” With that, he said a prayer in thanks. Mazha cursed him out for being religious. He thought that as soldiers who were a part of the Revolutionary Army, they shouldn’t depend on religion or gods to see them through.
Shen Yu side-eyed Mazha after his comment. It was now even more unikely that Mazha was actually from the Mongol tribes. The ethnic minority tribes here all believed in some type of religion. Even if the member wasn’t particularly zealous, he or she would never reject the concept of religion at all. However, they were all in a precarious situation, and it wasn’t guaranteed that any of them would leave this place with their lives still intact. Because of more pressing matters, Shen Yu soon placed her speculations about Mazha to the back of her mind.
Under Tang Can’s direction, all of them tried to search for water in the area around the sinkhole. They temporarily shelved the task of finding gold behind the need to find water. Without water, they would all die. If they died, how could they find the treasure?
By the time it reached the night, they still hadn’t found any water. A sandstorm also blew through. Unlike their previous two encounters, this storm was relatively mild and didn’t bury any of them. After the storm passed, the group huddled together sleepily and trembled throughout the night until dawn arrived again. The next morning, they were all subjected to Mazha’s curses again!
More sand dunes had popped up around them, and it looked like more sand had been dumped on top of them. The previous quicksand pit had already been stuffed full and was no longer visible. None of them tried to find water now. If one of them fell into the quicksand again, there would be no guarantee that they could escape easily.
It felt like they were in a perverse storybook. They had to dig the sand with their bare hands and then, in the night, the furious winds would send more sand than they had moved! Even Tang Can was starting to lose confidence in this endeavor. The most important thing was that they were out of both food and water. Without a source of either, their days among the living were numbered. Soon, they would run out of energy to move, let alone dig.
“Let’s go find some water!” Tang Can ordered reluctantly. He knew that as long as they stayed in this area, it was highly likely they would be able to hit gold. As soon as they left this place, they would probably never find it again. However, they needed to find water or else they would all need graves soon. It was difficult to say if anyone would ever find this place again!
Mazha had just finished drinking dry one of the canteens. He wanted to force Guo Pingan to hand over his other water but the other soldier hemmed and hawed. Ultimately, Guo Pingan refused to give the other canteen to Mazha, despite Mazha’s increasingly crude threats and pleads. In their circumstances, having water was power. Although Mazha cursed the other man for being a selfish person, it wasn’t surprising that Guo Pingan was acting this way. They were heading towards their graves, being selfish could mean the difference of living longer or dying!
At this point, Shen Yu was so weak that she fell down after taking a couple of steps. She couldn’t get up again. Tang Can blamed himself incessantly for their dismal condition. Had he not wasted precious time earlier trying to find gold, he might have been able to bring the people he was responsible for out of this hellhole. He should have spent more time trying to figure out how to get out of the desert!
He told Shen Yu to rest for a bit on one of the sand dunes while he and the others split up to find some water. Hopefully, one of them would be able to find the shrubs that had sheltered earlier. That place had water, and if they could get back there, they would be able to spend several more days in the desert. In fact, it was highly possible that an expedition group would loop by there and save them!
At noon, Tang Can had not been able to find the shrubs again but he did stumble across a small creek. The creek ran through a dried up riverbed of a much larger river. The amount of water left was not very much but there was enough to save them all. He hastily gulped down some water from the creek and filled his canteen. After finishing that task, he headed back.
Earlier, he had left behind trail signs to help him get back to where Shen Yu was waiting. When he got back, he found out that Mazha had already gotten back. The young soldier was lying on top of the dune and was so still that he couldn’t tell if he was still breathing. Tang Can was alarmed until Shen Yu informed him that the other man was just sleeping. The young officer let out a sigh of relief and then let both of them drink some water while he stood on top of the dune to look for Guo Pingan.
“Let’s leave Comrade Guo some water,” shouted Shen Yu hastily when she saw Mazha gulping down all of the water.
“Hmph! He still has some water on him! Why should we leave some for him?” sneered Mazha. The soldier pretended to not hear Shen Yu and flipped the canteen over his mouth. The last drop of water from the bottle landed into his mouth.
Tang Can spotted Guo Pingan from the top of the hill. The other man was only about a hundred meters from where they were and seemed to lying down on the ground. The three of them pelted over and found that Guo Pingan was already unconscious.
“Water!” ordered Tang Can when he saw the cracked and bleeding lips on the prone soldier. He wanted Mazha to give the canteen to him.
Mazha was still holding a grudge from earlier. He grumbled under his breath that the other man clearly had some water on him.
However, when Tang Can pushed away the unconscious man’s clothing, they didn’t see another canteen! In fact, the bulky object on his waist was a spare helmet, not a canteen!
When Mazha saw the truth, he screamed in horror, “Comrade! I can’t apologize enough to you!” With a loud thunk, he knelt in front of Guo Pingan and hung his head...
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