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   Chapter 16 THE BRIDGE AND THE FORD.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 10316

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The two men were on their feet at once.

"Dacoits! Dacoits!" growled Jim, dashing the sleep from his eyes and gripping his weapon. "How in thunder do they come on us so soon? Have we overslept?"

"No," said Buck, glancing at his watch. "We're inside our time. They must have picked up our trail quicker than we thought, and followed a lot faster than we travelled with the ponies."

By this time Jack had taken cover behind a boulder, and was drawing a bead on the first of the oncoming figures. Up the hill-side was streaming a broken line of crouching little men in blue, following, with the skill of born trackers, the signs of the fugitives' march. Jack's finger pressed on the trigger, and the leader dropped. At once the men in blue seemed to disappear as if the earth had swallowed them. They vanished behind rock, or bush, or tuft of grass, and the hill-side was empty save for the fallen figure. At this instant Buck and Jim crept to Jack's shoulder.

"How do they come to be so near to us as that?" cried Buck in surprise. "In two minutes again they'd have been in the camp slicing us up as we lay."

"Me Dain was asleep," said Jack briefly. "I happened to wake up and hear him snore. So I nipped up and took a look round and dropped my eye on the dacoits making straight for us."

"Good for you, Jack," replied Buck. "That's saved all our lives, for a certainty."

A groan of misery behind them drew their attention. They glanced over their shoulders and saw Me Dain seated on his rock, a picture of shame. He had been awakened by Jack's call and the crack of his rifle, but sat still, unable to face the men whose lives he had risked by giving way to his desire for more slumber.

"Me Dain, you fat, brown-faced villain of the world," cried Buck. "What d'ye mean by letting the dacoits nearly get us?"

"Me sorry, me very sorry, sahibs," cried the Burman. "The sleep just catch me. Me very sorry."

"You'd better be sorry," returned Buck. "I've a good mind to boot you till your nose turns grey. If it hadn't been for Jack, the king-pin o' this outfit, we should all have hit the long trail this morning."

"We'd better give those chaps down there a volley," said Jack. "See how the tufts of grass shake as they creep on us."

"You're right," said Jim. "They're trying to get within range. At present they can't reach us with their muzzle-loaders, but we can pepper them easy enough."

Firing steadily but swiftly, the three comrades raked every patch of cover with a stream of Mannlicher bullets. This checked the advance; no more signs of movement were seen.

The voice of the Burman was now heard behind them.

"Sahibs," he said, "let us go on. Two miles more we reach a deep river, and break the bridge. No Kachins follow then."

"Sounds like a chance for us," remarked Jim. "Get the ponies, Me Dain, and cut along ahead. We'll follow in a minute."

The Burman at once slipped the hobbles from the ponies, whose packs had not been removed, and led them quickly away. From the head of the slope the path crossed a kind of tableland, and they could easily keep their guide in sight for a long distance.

"Now to search the places where these fellows below are in hiding," cried Jack. "That will hold them back from following us till we get a good start."

"That's it," returned Jim. "Just what I was thinking of."

Each man spent a couple of magazine loads in firing into every spot where a Kachin had been seen to move or to go to cover. Then they drew back out of sight, leapt to their feet, and ran at full speed after Me Dain, who was hurrying the ponies along in the distance.

"After that bit o' shootin' they'll wait a while before they push on to the top of the slope and find we're gone," said Jim as they ran. "And that will give us a good start to cross the river."

Within a mile they caught up the Burman. Jack looked back as they ran up to the ponies, but the top of the slope was now out of sight, and he could not discover whether the Kachins had swarmed up to it or not.

The fugitives were now following a well-worn path, clearly that used by the people of the country-side to gain the bridge over the stream in front.

Jack was now leading the way, while Buck and Jim formed a rearguard behind the ponies. Looking ahead, Jack saw that the path began to descend very rapidly and fell out of sight. He ran forward and found himself on the lip of a ravine with steep sides. At the foot of the ravine flowed the river, and Jack gave a shout of joy when he saw how near they were to the stream which promised safety.

Then the sound of swift, heavy blows came to his ears, and he looked in the direction whence they proceeded. His call of joy was checked in an instant. What were those three figures in blue doing down there? In a second he saw what it meant, and he dropped on one knee and clapped his Mannlicher to his shoulder with a cry of anger. The dacoits had been more cunning than they suspected. The pursuers knew also of the bridge, and at this very instant three powerful Kachins were hacking away with their keen, heavy dahs, cutting the bridge down.

The three men

in blue were so intent on their work that they never once glanced upwards. They were slashing fiercely at the nearer end of the bridge, and were about two hundred and fifty yards away. A rifle-bullet would reach them more quickly than anything, and Jack drew a careful bead on the nearest worker and fired. His bullet went through the arm which had just swung up the heavy blade for a fresh stroke at the frail bridge, and the dah dropped into the water, while the dacoit's yell of pain came clearly to the ears of the party now gathered on the edge of the ravine.

"Gosh!" cried Buck. "They're ahead of us."

"So they are," snapped Jim. "They're cutting down the bridge and penning us in. Drop 'em, boys, drop 'em quick, or it's all over with us."

At the next instant a swift shower of the tiny slips of lead was pelting on to the bridge head where the two dacoits still hacked away, striking harder and faster now that the rifles cracked on the lip of the ravine. One dropped into the river with a splash, the other leapt into cover of the big tree to which the bridge was swung, and was safe from the darting bullets. But his gleaming dah still flashed into sight now and again as he hewed fiercely at the bridge.

Jack at once bounded out, and, followed by his companions, raced madly for the place. The bridge was but a slight affair, a native structure formed of a couple of long bamboo poles with cross pieces lashed into place by native cordage.

The lower slope of the ravine was covered with tall bushes of wild plum, and, as Jack ran through these, he lost sight, for a few moments, of the bridge and the busy dacoit. He burst through them with a straight, open run before him of seventy yards to the bridge head. His heart beat thick and fast as he flew across the open. The blows of the dah had ceased. Had the bridge gone or not? A little clump of water-grasses on the bank hid the bridge from him, but the silence was terribly ominous. He thought he saw a blue kilt disappearing among the trees, but he did not stay to intercept it. He shot up to the edge of the stream, and saw a horrible space of blank water between bank and bank. The bridge was swinging slowly towards the other side. Held fast there, the current was thrusting the slight structure across the stream. The dacoits had succeeded in their plan.

Jack stood still and looked round for their enemies. There was no sign of a Kachin to be seen. One had dropped into the river, and the current had certainly carried him away; the others had escaped into the jungle which grew thickly within a short distance of the bridge head.

"By Jingo!" cried Jim Dent blankly, as he ran up. "The bridge has gone. We're in a pretty fix."

"Gone," echoed Buck. "They've cut us off after all. Boys, we're in a tight place."

"Bridge gone!" cried Me Dain. "Bridge gone! What shall we do? Sahibs, oh, what shall we do?"

Jack looked from one to the other in some surprise at hearing this outburst of deep anxiety.

"It isn't very wide," he cried. "Why on earth can't we swim over? That would be simple enough."

"Ay, ay," said Jim Dent. "Easy enough if we were sure of getting to the other side, but we're not. All these rivers swarm with alligators, big, savage brutes that would pull a man under as easy as if he were a dog."

Jack's looks were now as blank as the others. This put a very different face on crossing the river, and he gazed on the dark, swift stream with horror. In those gloomy depths lurked huge, dreadful reptiles whose vast jaws would drag a swimmer down to a frightful death.

"It's not a short journey across this creek, d'ye see," said Buck. "The stream's so fast that a swimmer would be swept down full a hundred yards in crossing from bank to bank, and in that time it would give an alligator plenty of chance to lay hold of him."

"We can't cross here, sahibs," put in Me Dain. "Stream too swift, too strong. The bridge is here because the river at this place is very narrow, but about a mile down there is a ford."

"We'd better light out for it without losing any more time then," cried Buck. "We might see an ugly row of Kachins any minute now along the brink of the gully behind us."

"True for you, Buck," said Jack. "Lead us at once to the ford, Me Dain."

The Burman turned and hurried down the banks of the stream, and the others followed. In a moment they were lost to sight among the tall bushes which were dotted about the bank. When the sound of their footsteps had completely died away, two figures slipped from the edge of the jungle and approached the spot where the fugitives had stood. The newcomers were a couple of dacoits, one the man who had been wounded by Jack's first shot. The short, broad, powerful figures stood for a moment in close conversation, then the wounded man started to climb the bank of the ravine. The second dacoit plunged into the bushes, and followed easily the track left by four men and two ponies. It was his task to track the intruders down: his comrade was despatched to find the rest of the band and lead them to enjoy the revenge for which the blood-thirsty dacoits lusted.

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