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   Chapter 24 AN UNWELCOME MEETING.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 8633

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


When he awoke the next morning the pot of rice was once more bubbling over the fire, and one of the natives was squatted near by, feeding the fire with dry chips; the second man was not to be seen. The Panthay feeding the fire looked up with a cheerful grin when he heard Jack move, and pointed to the cooking-pot, as if to assure him that breakfast would soon be ready.

Jack stretched himself and yawned. After his long sleep he felt like a giant refreshed. He wondered what time it was, and glanced at his watch. But his watch had stopped, he had forgotten to wind it up. The sun, however, showed him, by its height, that the morning was well advanced.

"I've slept off my weariness with a vengeance," murmured Jack to himself. "It must be nine or ten o'clock by the look of the sun."

At this moment the native by the fire uttered a cry which was answered from without. The second Panthay ran up at that moment, panting as if he had travelled fast and far. He bore upon his shoulders a basket from which he took a couple of chickens, half a dozen plantains, and a fresh supply of rice.

"Then there's a village somewhere in the neighbourhood," thought Jack. "But it may be ten or a dozen miles off. This fellow looks as if he had had a long run for the stuff. I suppose it is in my honour."

The two men prepared one of the chickens in a trice. They stripped off the feathers, cut up the fowl, and broiled the pieces over the fire on little skewers of hard wood. In a short time an excellent breakfast of broiled chicken, rice, and plantain was set before him, and Jack devoured it with the utmost relish. Then he set himself to work by means of signs to make them understand that he wished them to lead him to the village from which the Panthay had fetched the supplies.

In the end they understood him, and put their axes in a corner of the cave. By motions of their heads and hands they gave him to understand that they would lay by work for the day, and become his guides. Jack patted them on the back, and gave them another couple of rupees apiece to strengthen them in this excellent resolution.

When he had finished his meal, Jack sat down again on the heap of grass to await the pleasure of his companions. The second man had not eaten, but he soon despatched his portion of rice, and then they were ready for the road.

They left the cave, and the two Panthays led the way down the ravine, retracing the line the elephants had taken in coming into this part of the country.

"That's good," thought Jack. "We're striking on the road back at once. I wish I knew the name of the village where the festival was held, but I'm pretty certain to find someone in the place these chaps come from who can tell me. People were marching to the feast from a much greater distance away than this can be."

Their progress was slow, for the day was one of scorching heat. The naked Panthays slipped through the jungle as easily as the monkeys skipped through the trees, but Jack could not move at any speed. As the sun approached high noon a halt was called in shade of a thicket on a little ridge, where the air was fresher than in the dark, steaming hollows. Here they stayed for three hours, and Jack, after he had eaten the meal the Panthays prepared, dozed in the shade.

When he saw his guides gathering their baggage and packing it into the big basket which one carried slung over his shoulders, Jack sprang to his feet, stretched himself, and strolled forward half a dozen yards. They had halted beside a narrow path which crossed the ridge, and he wished to see toward what kind of country below the path led.

The bushes thinned, and he saw that a vast plain was opening out before him. But he did not leave the cover of the edge of the thicket. Something moving below caught his eye, and he parted the tall shoots of a bush before him, and peeped through the huge trails of pink and crimson convolvuli which festooned the branches of the low trees. Straight before him the path ran down a steep slope and then wound over a broad plain, showing itself here and there in the gaps between patches of bamboo and acacias and palms. It was among a clump of palms at some distance that Jack had caught sight of a moving object, and he now looked eagerly to see it come into view again.

I

t was not that he feared any particular evil at the moment, but in his present desperate circumstances, utterly stranded in these wilds among savage hill-tribes, he knew not at any moment when a savage enemy might appear. He knew well that he had been lucky in falling in with these quiet wood-cutters, and he hoped that such luck would stay with him for a little till he could rejoin his friends.

The thought had scarcely crossed his mind when he saw that it was vain, and that at this very moment he stood in the utmost danger from his worst and deadliest foes. The moving objects he had seen came in sight once more, a couple of naked fellows in turban and waist-cloth. Jack knew them for Panthays, like the men who were now behind him making ready for the march. Then, at the next second, he saw two brilliant spots of colour, and knew that the Panthays were not alone. A little cavalcade of six riders, mounted on ponies, followed the two naked men on foot. The whole of the tiny procession passed over a little clearing, and was lost again in a clump of bamboos.

Jack's heart beat fast and he drew a deep breath. Who were these men the Panthays were leading towards him? He remembered two of his enemies yesterday, and the two leading riders brought them to mind again. Saya Chone had worn a head-dress of brilliant flaming scarlet, the Strangler a turban of bright yellow.

A SUDDEN ALARM.

Again the little procession filed into sight, out of the bamboos. Scarlet and yellow the head-dresses of the first couple of mounted men flashed vivid into the burning radiance of the sunlight. The riders were too far off for Jack to make out their faces, but he did not need that; he felt in his bones that his terrible enemies were upon him once more, and he turned to fly. It was plain enough, too, how they had hit upon his whereabouts. They had followed up the tracks of the flying elephants, and inquired in every village round-about. Then the Panthay, returning to his home for food, had spoken of the sahib they had found among the hills, and had put the pursuers on Jack's trail.

As Jack turned he heard a grunt of surprise. One of the Panthays had stepped forward and caught sight of the approaching cavalcade. Jack sprang upon him, seized his naked shoulder, and drew him back into shelter of the thicket. The two men looked at him in wonder. Our hero had nothing but signs with which to communicate to these men the danger in which he stood. He chose three effective movements. He pointed to the oncoming strangers, he pointed to himself; finally he seized the dah which one carried swinging in a thong over his shoulders, and made a motion as of passing the keen weapon across his throat.

By their looks of intelligence he saw that the Panthays had fully grasped his meaning. They spoke swiftly to each other for a few moments.

Jack awaited the upshot in keenest anxiety. If these men did not stand by him he was indeed lost. Then, to his immense relief, the elder man, he who had dropped into the howdah and had taken the lead from the first, stepped forward, raised Jack's hand, and kissed it. Then he pointed to the depth of the jungle. Jack nodded and patted him on the shoulder. The younger Panthay swung the basket on his back, and away glided the three, leaving the path, and striking off directly among the trees.

In two minutes they were out of sight of their camping-place, and as the advancing party was not yet at the foot of the slope, Jack never doubted but that the half-caste would be thrown off the scent, and would pass on towards the ravine where the wood-cutters were known to be at work. But he had made one mistake, the error of supposing that the two Panthays in front of the horsemen were the first of the party. They were not. A single tracker had led the way some distance ahead, and him Jack had missed among the thickets and groves which hid the path here and there. So that, as the three fugitives disappeared among the thicker growth of jungle, a dark figure gained the crown of the slope, and with swift and noiseless tread approached their camping-place.

The quick eye of the Panthay at once caught sight of the retreating men, above all of the sahib, so easily to be known by his dress, and the tracker drew back instantly into the bushes.

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