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   Chapter 11 BELEAGUERED.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 11453

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

But they found no headman to tell them anything. The forest clearing, where the village had stood, was a scene of destruction. Their eyes fell upon ruined houses and burned huts, with here and there a figure lying about. They paused beside the first which lay in their way. It was the body of a big, heavy man, a Chetti, as they saw at once by his build, scored with the most terrible slashes.

"That's the work of a dah," said Buck. "This village has been raided by dacoits, and, by thunder, they're not far off."

Everyone looked round uneasily. The forest lay calm and silent in the evening sunshine all about the clearing, and no sign of a blue-clothed figure was to be seen on its edge, yet all felt that the dacoits were near, and that great danger hung over them. Jack had heard many times of the Kachin dacoits, the terrible mountain banditti who descend at times from their hills to plunder and slay, and now he was face to face with them.

"See how it was," said Jim. "This village was raided at daybreak this morning. Not a body has been torn by a wild animal, and the beasts would have been busy enough to-night. Then some of 'em were left lurking about, and they spied Me Dain coming, didn't see us behind, and thought he was coming to the village alone. Of course they slipped out of the bushes and nabbed him, thinking to whiff off his head and turn the ponies' packs out at their own leisure. But Jack upset their little plan, and Me Dain's head stops in the right spot."

"Many thanks, phaya (my lord), many thanks," said Me Dain, bending low before Jack. "Your servant thanks you for his life."

Crack! There was a dull roar as of someone firing a very heavy duck-gun from the forest, and a ball whistled by their heads.

"A jingal!" cried Buck. "We've got to hustle round and find shelter. The dacoits are on us."

"The pagoda, sahibs," cried Me Dain. "It is the only place of stone in the village. Let us hasten there."

He gathered up the leading-reins of the ponies-which had been easily caught-and hurried towards the spire. The others ran swiftly after him, their steps hastened by the roar of a second shot and the whistle of a second heavy ball.

In a couple of minutes they had reached the pagoda and leaped on the platform between the columns which supported the bulb-like roof crowned by its tapering spire. In the centre of the platform was a shrine. Jack glanced quickly round.

"This won't do," he said, "not enough cover here, supposing the dacoits attack us. What's that place?"

He pointed to a new, strongly-built house of stone a short distance from the pagoda.

Me Dain looked at it in surprise. "It has been built since I was here last," he cried.

"Looks just the thing for us," said Jack. "Come on," and the whole party hurried across to the building, whose door stood half open.

"It is a small monastery," cried Me Dain, as they approached, "some rich man has been winning merit since I was last this way. Stay a moment, sahibs; I will enter and see that all is safe." He flung the leading-reins to Buck and darted forward. In a few moments he reappeared, and cried out, "There is no one here but a wounded villager, sahibs. Come on, we shall be safe from the dacoits' guns in this new, strong house."

The party entered through a door formed of strong teak slabs, and Me Dain closed it behind them. They now found themselves in a large, wide apartment, formed of the whole ground floor of the building, from which wooden stairs led to upper rooms.

At the foot of the stairs was huddled a fine-looking old man, whose rich silken kilt and jacket of delicate muslin showed that he was a person of consequence. He had received a severe cut from a dah on the left shoulder, and while Me Dain skilfully bound up the wound, he talked with the old man and learned the story of the affair.

It proved to be the outcome of a blood-feud, one of those savage vendettas so common among the hill-tribes of Burmah. A band of Kachin dacoits had raided near the village some six months before, and three of the dacoits had been cut off and killed by the villagers. Now, in revenge, a strong troop of the savage mountain banditti had fallen upon the village, burning, slaying, plundering without mercy. The old man had fled for refuge to the monastery, his own monastery, for he had built it to house a party of Burmese monks.

"I am Kyaung-Taga Pah, 'Builder of a Monastery Pah,'" he declared proudly, and Me Dain bowed before him in much respect.

It is the great ambition of a wealthy Burman to show his piety by building a pagoda or a monastery, and when he has done so, he is always saluted by his fellows as "Builder of a Monastery," or "Builder of a Pagoda," titles held in very high regard. This was the meaning of Me Dain's phrase about some rich man winning merit, for it is considered that such good works meet with the deep approval of the gods.

When "The Builder of a Monastery," Pah, had finished his story, Buck inquired where the monks were, for, as a rule, such holy men are safe even in blood-feuds. The old Burman replied that they were absent at present. There was a great festival at a large village three days' journey away, and the monks had gone to attend it.

Jim had stayed at the door, keeping watch and ward.

"We're in for a little blood-feud, too," he remarked. "They're dottin' about pretty lively at the edge of the jungle."

Jack ran across to him and saw a large number of little figures in blue flitting through the trees; now and again he caught a flash of steel as some naked dah glittered in the rays of the sinking sun. Buck had come too, and was looking over his comrade's shoulders.

"Say, we shall have to fl

ip our guns a bit before we drive those blood-thirsty little ferrets away," he remarked.

"Yes, they'll do their level best to cut our throats," agreed Jim. "They're like a nest of hornets. Touch one and you've touched the lot."

"Hullo, they're bringing something forward," cried Jack. "It looks like a clumsy gun on a stand."

"That's a jingal," said Jim. "They're laying it for the door. We'll get out of the way. It's a clumsy weapon and a clumsy ball, but if it hits you, you get all you want an' a little bit over. I remember in '85"-for Jim had once been a British redcoat and had fought in the Burmese war-"we were carrying a stockade with a rush, and a chum o' mine got a jingal-ball and went down. He must have been a dead man when he dropped, for we found afterwards that the ball had fairly ripped the inside out of the poor chap."

He closed the door as he finished speaking, and a heavy bar was placed in position across the stout planks. From one of the small, slit-like windows they watched the movements of the dacoits. The jingal, a big muzzle-loader on a stand of iron forks, was touched off and a heavy shot crashed into the door.

"Whew!" whistled Jim. "That's a heavier shot than I thought. That bit of iron weighed nearer half a pound than anything."

"It's cut into the door pretty badly," cried Jack, who had run forward to look, and found a long streak of white in the plank which had been struck. "We shall have to stop that or the door will be down."

"Sure thing," said Buck, "an' those little tigers away to the left o' the jingal are massing for a rush as soon as the gunners have worked the door loose."

"You're right, Buck," said Jack, who had returned to his window. "Look here," he went on, "there are three windows facing that patch of jungle where the dacoits are clustered. We'll take a window apiece. I'll give the word, and we'll empty our magazines into them as fast as we can pull the trigger."

"Good plan," cried Buck. "It will show 'em we're well armed and an awkward lot to tackle, even if we don't scare 'em off."

"There ain't much scare about them, worse luck," said Jim, "but we'll pepper 'em a bit an' see what happens anyhow."

Each of them had unslung his Mannlicher and held it in hand since the moment of the first alarm, and now they opened the magazine and saw that all was in perfect order. Then they threw the deadly little rifles into the embrasures formed by the window slits, and all was ready for the word.

"Fire!" cried Jack, and the swift trill of rifle-cracks rang out on the soft evening silence. As swiftly as they could press finger on trigger, the three comrades emptied their magazines completely into the fringe of forest three hundred yards away. This storm of tiny, whirling slips of lead struck among the dacoits at point blank range, and, by the screams and yells of the banditti, did much execution. The watchers distinctly saw three or four fall, but these were swiftly dragged among the trees by their comrades, and for a moment not a single dacoit was to be seen. Then, just inside the shelter of the trees, five figures were observed very busy placing a new jingal in position. At a glance the besieged saw that the gun was much larger than the first, and would throw a heavier ball.

"We shall have to pick off those fellows at work with the new gun," said Jack. "Perhaps that will terrify them into flight."

"I hope so," said Jim, but there was not much hope in his voice. "The worst of these little chaps is that they never know when they're beaten. They'll give their lives to get yours, as cheerfully as possible."

"And they don't set any high value on their lives, either," chimed in Buck. "Whoever's runnin' the show over there, he'll spend his men's blood like water for the chance o' catchin' us and puttin' us to death as slowly as he can make the time spin out."

"Slowly? Killing us slowly, Buck?" said Jack. "What do you mean?"

"Torture," replied Buck, and the one dreadful word was answer enough.

Crack! It was Jim's Mannlicher which spoke, but the bullet missed its aim. The dacoits at work about the big jingal had artfully placed the weapon so that its mouth pointed from between two close-growing teak saplings, and the trees formed a safe cover for the gunners.

"I thought I could pick one of 'em off that time," remarked Jim, "but I believe I only hit a tree after all."

At this instant a figure was seen for a moment behind the long gun. A dacoit stepped into view, crouched down, and carefully trained the piece. There was a second crack, and the freebooter dropped under the jingal and never moved. Jack had fired and sent a Mannlicher bullet through the dacoit's brain.

"I say, you can shoot a bit," cried Jim Dent admiringly, and Buck chuckled.

"I guess he can, Jim. He put on a very pretty string o' bull's-eyes at Bisley, shootin' in the competition for public schools. The Professor grinned all over his face when he read how Jack headed the list with a highest possible."

Buck's speech was cut short by a loud roar from the jingal. The fallen dacoit had trained it perfectly before he dropped, and a comrade now touched off the piece. At the next moment a terrific crash rang through the building. The heavy missile had lighted full on the point where the door was secured by the stout bar, had smashed its way through door and bar and hurled the door open. As the portal flew back, there was a tremendous yell from the edge of the jungle. Then a cloud of blue figures burst into sight. With gleaming dahs flourished on high, or long-barrelled muskets thrown forward ready to fire, the blood-thirsty little men of the mountains rushed upon their prey.

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