In this scene, Katya and Lieutenant Carr have fled Kashgar in advance of the Soviet Army.
Katya was glad of the darkness and the pounding of the horses’ hooves on the dusty road. It meant that she could cry without her companion noticing. After a while, the roan stopped hauling at the bit and Katya was able to relax her hands on the reins. She didn’t know how long or far they had travelled until the Lieutenant eased his horse back to a walk. The roan slowed, its sides heaved and Katya wiped her face with her sleeve.
“Are you all right?” Lieutenant Carr asked.
“I’m fine.” She didn’t want to talk. She was tired and she knew that she was going to be very saddle sore in the morning. Katya didn’t want him to know that. She was glad of the moonless night and the cool breeze that blew from the mountains.
“If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure.” She was nearly seventeen; she wasn’t going to let him see her cry. She didn’t think he’d want that.
“We’ve been running a good couple of hours, we should reach Yapchan soon.”
Katya nodded, she was too weary to speak. She let the roan plod on and wished for the softness of a bed. She doubted that the Inn would have such a thing. The Inns on the journey from Urumchi to Kashgar were little more than a couple of crowded rooms and a few sleeping platforms in the courtyards. Katya had soon learned that the sleeping platforms were better. The beds were a haven for bedbugs and other creatures and she would wake covered in bites. She shifted in the saddle and tried to get comfortable.
After another hour of riding through the dark, Katya spotted a golden flicker of light in the distance. She found enough energy to sit up in the saddle. A sleeping platform awaited her and it was all that she wanted. She wasn’t even hungry. It was hard to keep her eyes open, the roan seemed to know the way, and it was too easy to nod off to the shuffling four beat rhythm of its walk…
“Miss Shaw?” A man’s voice nudged through her sleep, a gentle squeeze of her leg. “Miss Shaw?”
“Huh?” Katya felt as if she were glued to the saddle. Her foot wouldn’t move from the stirrup.
“We’re here.” Lieutenant Carr told her.
“Here.” She repeated.
“All right.” Katya tried to move her foot.
She thought he sounded annoyed. “I can’t move.” She replied. “I don’t know why.”
He sighed. “Exhaustion, most likely.” Another sigh, “I’ll sort it.”
Katya felt herself being eased out of the saddle. A warm pair of hands gripped her waist and she decided that it felt rather nice.
“Do you think you can walk?” His arm slid around her waist when her feet met the ground.
“I think so.” She walked, and tried to remember that it required her to put one foot in front of the other. Her legs, however, refused to hold her.
“It’s all right. I have you. Just lean on me.”
He was warmth against the chill of the desert night. Katya leaned against him as the Innkeeper bustled into the courtyard, grinning at the sight of two guests. In the dim glow of the lamps, Katya noticed that there were no other guests. Chickens roosted on one of the sleeping platforms, and a chorus of toads rumbled softly from a dark corner. She heard the Lieutenant talking in labored Uighur with the proprietor. She was too tired to intervene in the haggling and left him to it, listening to the feigned disappointment in the innkeeper’s voice as he considered his guest’s poor, insulting offer, and suggested another price, an edge of hope in his tone. The Lieutenant countered with a price, delivered with a disappointed sigh, as if the innkeeper was trying to rob him blind. She waited and opened her eyes, watching the proprietor’s face as he considered the offer. He shook his head sadly, rubbed his chin and his caterpillar eyebrows drew together in a clown’s expression of pain. When he spoke, his voice was heavy with mock defeat. It was clear that he had no choice but to agree to his guest’s poor offer because a pittance was better than nothing at all. In spite of her exhaustion, Katya smiled. It was clear that the Lieutenant was no fool when it came to dealing with the locals.
The proprietor sent a boy out to help the Lieutenant with the horses. They were tethered to a rail under a shade in a far corner of the yard while Katya was left sitting on the platform they’d been assigned. When he tossed their sleeping rolls onto the platform, she summoned the strength to untie them and spread them out. Hers was too tempting to resist, she rolled onto it, found her pillow and fell asleep beneath the stars.