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   Chapter 9 A CLOSE CALL.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 11324

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Jack did not rise at once. As he sank, the words of Buck flashed into his mind, and he dived and swam swiftly down stream. When he could stay under no longer, he came very slowly to the surface and put out his face. He drew a deep breath and looked eagerly about for the enemy, dreading to see a heavy oar poised against the sky to beat a swimmer under. But there was nothing close at hand, and he trod water and raised his head very carefully to look round.

Suddenly the splash of an oar falling upon the water came to his ears. He looked behind him and saw the dark mass of the skiff thirty yards away. One of the oarsmen was standing up and striking at some object in the water. A pang went through Jack's heart as he realised that one of his companions must be there, struggling for his life, and being brutally beaten under. Then he saw the frightful danger in which he stood himself. At any moment the skiff might shoot towards him. He turned and was about to strike away when a dark object appeared within a few yards of him down stream.

It looked like a head, and Jack struck out for it. He swam in silence, and within half a dozen strokes had a man by the hair. He turned the face up to the starlight and saw that it was Jim Dent, and that the gunsmith appeared to be unconscious. Taking a firmer grip of Jim's hair, Jack struck out down stream and swam as fast as he could towards the approaching light, which was now much bigger and brighter. He had turned on his side to swim, and looked back now and again as he rose to his stroke. To his horror he saw the long, dark line which marked the skiff begin to move swiftly after him. It was difficult to swim in silence and support Jim. His splashes had marked them out to the murderers, and they were hastening to beat him and his helpless companion under before help could arrive.

Jack marked the approaching light and lashed out more fiercely than ever. Unencumbered by Jim Dent, he would have had ten times as good a chance of escaping from the human tigers who pursued him, but of abandoning Jim, the gallant lad had never thought for a moment. Like a snake darting over the water, the skiff was upon them, and a figure in the bow raised an oar to strike at Jack's head. Lifting himself high out of the water with a tremendous stroke, Jack yelled, "Help! help!" at the top of his voice. The oar fell, but the man had been flurried by that sudden wild cry at his feet, and it missed its mark. Again he raised it and struck. Jack had turned on his back, and as the oar fell, he raised his hand, met the stroke, turned it aside, gripped the blade, and hung on desperately. The figure gave a muttered cry and strove to draw the oar back.

But now a warning murmur arose among his companions. The light was coming on at great speed. Jack's cry had been heard, and the vessel was rushing swiftly up to the place. The men in the skiff knew well now what vessel it was, and their only thought was of instant flight. The oar was abandoned, the skiff was turned round, and away it darted into the gloom which overhung the mid-stream. A moment later, a police launch, with its brightly-burning lamp, and two Sikh policemen aboard, shot up to the spot where Jack clung to the oar and to his comrade.

In an instant the two were drawn into the vessel and Jack was telling his story.

"There are two others of us in the river," he said, and he raised his voice and shouted, "Buck! Buck!"

"Hello!" came a cry from some distance, and Jack's heart thrilled with relief and delight.

The launch was headed in the direction whence the reply came, and soon Buck's head appeared in the ring of light cast upon the water by the bright lamp. He was drawn into the launch, and then the little steamer, circling to and fro, scoured the river to find the Shan boatman. While this was being done, with one policeman keeping a watch for the missing man, the second policeman, Risley, and Jack were hard at work on Jim Dent, trying to bring him back to consciousness.

"Say, this is great," suddenly snapped Buck. "I can feel old Jim's heart beginning to thump. He'll do, he'll do."

"Thank heaven," breathed Jack, who had been terrified at Dent's white face and clenched teeth, and thought hope was gone. "He'll come round then, you think, Buck?"

"He'll come all right," said Buck. "Keep on rubbing him."

"We'll take you ashore," said the first policeman; "there's no sign of your boatman. That was the man they were beating under, there is no doubt. Do you know anything of the men who attacked you?"

"Nothing at all," replied Buck. "We have no idea who they were."

"River-thieves," said the second policeman, "as hard to catch as a monkey in the jungle. They work by night always. If we hadn't come up, your bodies, stripped to the skin, would have been thrown up on the river bank to-morrow."

The police launch put them ashore near the rest-house where they were staying, and Jim was now sufficiently recovered to be able to walk.

"It was a close call that time," he said. "Who held me up? The only thing I remember is hitting my head a terrific crack against the prow of the sampan as I went over. I knew nothing after that till I sat up on the deck of the police-boat."

"Jack had got hold of you, good and all right, so the policeman told me," said Buck. "Where he found you I don't know."

Jack was compelled perforce to tell his story, and Jim Dent expressed his deep gratitude.

"By George, sir," he concluded, "I should have been a supper for an alligator to-night if you hadn't stuck to me. Those murdering rogues would have beaten me under easy enough, even if I hadn

't been drowned before giving them the trouble. I've got to thank you for my life."

"Oh, you'd have done the same for me, Jim," said Jack. "We're bound to stick together."

At this moment Buck, who had gone forward, gave a loud cry of pleasure and surprise. Jack and Dent hurried after him, and entered the door of the rest-house. Here they saw Buck slapping the Shan boatman on the shoulder. The man, like themselves, was dripping from the river, and was telling his story to the Burman landlord. The latter acted as interpreter, and they learned how the Shan, as much at home in the river as out of it, had dodged the blows of the oar, and dived and swum so far that their assailants had believed him sunk for ever, and had followed up Jack and Jim. Meanwhile the Shan had swum quietly ashore and walked up to the rest-house. His only trouble now was the loss of his sampan, and his grief was soon turned to joy when he received a sufficient sum of rupees to buy another and leave him something in pocket.

"River-thieves," was the comment of the landlord on the story. "They are very daring sometimes. Without doubt they heard you speak English, and hoped to make a fine booty by drowning and stripping you." He bustled off to get them a supper, and Buck looked at his companions.

"I dunno as I put much faith in this river-thief theory," he remarked. "It's handy and natural, an' all these people jump at it, of course, but I don't think there was much river-thieves about that lot."

"Nor me, Buck," rejoined Dent. "I'd be willing to lay a trifle that some friends of U Saw had a finger in that little pie. It would have been a nice clean sweep of us, and as safe a way of being rid of us as could easily be found."

"After this I'm going to wear a gun," remarked Buck. "I fancy it would have been rather useful if you could have pumped a few bits of lead into that boat as it came swinging into us."

"Very useful, Buck," returned Jack, "but after all, this afternoon we were in a train where it would have seemed as out of place to wear a pistol as if you were going from the Mansion House to Westminster."

"Yes, things change mighty quick in this country," said Buck, "and you've got to be ready to change with 'em."

"By the way," said Jack, "those fellows who attacked us seemed to have nothing to shoot with."

"Best for them not," remarked Dent. "They've got their own way of going to work, and a good one too. Their chief aim is to work in silence. Suppose they'd cracked off gun or pistol at us. A sound like that travels a long way over water, and draws a lot of attention. You see what a sharp watch the river-police keep. Instead of one launch on a regular patrol, there would have been three or four shooting up to see what the row was about."

They stripped off their wet clothes, gave them to the Burman landlord to dry, and put on fresh garments from their baggage. Jim Dent unstrapped the ammunition case, and each took a revolver, carefully loaded it, and put it in a pocket hidden by the tunic.

"We don't want to walk about with holsters strapped round us just yet," said Buck, "and at the same time we might want to do some shooting at any minute. My opinion is that the gang is watching us all the time."

"So I think," said Jack. "How can we drop them, I wonder, so that we can make a start on our expedition without being ambushed as soon as we strike into the jungle?"

"It's going to be mighty dangerous to go into the Mogok country and follow up the Professor's trail straight from the beginning," said Buck. "We shall be spotted at once, and, as Jack says, an ambush will be laid for us as soon as we hit the jungle and leave the last policeman behind."

Jim Dent scratched his jaw thoughtfully.

"They're a trifle too handy at layin' a trap for you," he remarked. "Let's have a squint at the map. We ain't bound to follow just the only track which would give U Saw and his men the chance to scupper us without givin' us a chance to lay one or two of 'em out."

The map was spread on a table, and all three bent over it.

"See, now," said Jim, "everybody knows the road to Mogok. You go up the river by steamer to Thabeit-Kyim, and then you've got sixty miles of road across the hills to the ruby-mines."

"And the road about as quiet as Piccadilly on a fine afternoon in June," remarked Buck. "There are mule-trains and bullock-carts, an' men walkin' an' men ridin'. You can no more keep yourself hidden on that road than you can if you walked down the main street of Mandalay."

"Can't we take the place in flank?" asked Jack. "Drop somehow on my father's line without giving them such warning as they would receive by seeing us about Mogok?"

"Why, the bother is," said Jim, "we don't know the Professor's trail. We must pick up one of his guides. Buck, here, can lay his hand on one of the people who accompanied your father easily enough, but he's got to be in Mogok to do it."

"Wait a bit," said Buck. "Not so fast, Jim, my son. I see a glimpse o' daylight. What's this place farther up the river, Kyan Nyat. That's where the man came from who was the Professor's head man on his last trip, the chap who engaged the coolies and looked after everything. He was about as useful as they make 'em, the Professor said when he got back. His name's Me Dain, and he told me he was going back to his native village. He was tired of Mogok."

"We'll look him up then, Buck," said Jack. "If we can get hold of him, he could pilot us across country."

"Yes, yes," said Jim. "Straight from the river. Very good, now we know what we're after. The sailing orders are Kyan Nyat."

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