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   Chapter 33 THE POTHOODAW.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 11929

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Jack could make no answer. Mr. Haydon now remained silent, and his brow was knitted in deep thought as he turned their cruel situation over and over, yet saw no hope of release for his son save in betraying the secrets of those who employed him, secrets he was in honour bound not to disclose.

The sun sank swiftly. Before it had disappeared Jack saw swarms of the dreaded mosquitoes begin to thicken in the air, like flights of gnats on a summer evening in England. The swift tropic dark swept over swamp and hill-side, and almost at once the framework which covered each of the captives was literally hidden with the vast masses of the venomous insects, which knew that a fresh prey awaited them within.

It did not need sight to tell the prisoners that an incalculable number of their tiny but deadly enemies awaited the moment when the nets would be drawn aside, the sense of hearing told them only too clearly. The air was filled with a steady hum caused by the beating of myriads upon myriads of tiny wings.

Jack shuddered. He had already been bitten severely by mosquitoes when they had invaded a camp in their dozens and scores, and he had been free to defend himself, but what hideous torture would lie in that moment when they would be exposed to the onslaught of these innumerable swarms, and be unable to move a finger to disturb them at their dreadful feast upon the life-blood of their victims.

Jack and his father had spent half an hour in silence, when a yellow glow brightened over the swamp, and presently the moon came up and cast a strong light over the scene. Now Jack saw the mosquitoes. They hovered in vast clouds around and above the netting, they hung in huge festoons from every fold, from every corner, from every point of vantage where foothold could be gained. It had seemed incredible to him at first that such tiny creatures could drain the body of a man of every drop of blood, but now that eye and ear together assured him of the vast number of their swarming myriads, he wondered no longer.

He was still staring at them when there was a flare on the edge of the slope above. He glanced up and saw a couple of men in the moonlight. They bore burning green branches, and waved them to and fro to keep off the clouds of mosquitoes which danced about them. From the midst of the smoke came a voice. "In ten minutes more the first hour will have gone and the first cord will be pulled."

It was the voice of Saya Chone, and he added no word to that brief message. He and his attendant withdrew, and the prisoners were left in silence to stare at the horrible death which now hung with terrible nearness over the head of Jack.

Mr. Haydon gave a deep groan.

"This is too dreadful, Jack," he said, in a low, shaking voice. "I see they mean it. There can be no possible doubt of that now." Then suddenly the note of his voice changed. It became tense, vibrating, eager. "What's that?" he said, and again, "What's that?" and fell silent.

Jack turned his head and saw what his father meant. Twenty yards to their right a large patch of reeds grew on the edge of the swamp. From the reeds the figure of a man was slowly creeping towards them. Swathed from head to foot in folds of thick white linen, to defend himself from the bites of the venomous mosquitoes, the man was working his way inch by inch along the ground.

Jack watched the stranger's progress with deep and burning interest. Surely he came as a friend! The bitterest enemy could not come to make their situation worse than it was at present.

With a last swift wriggle the creeping figure was at the foot of the net which shrouded Jack. The latter looked down and saw that the man was literally covered from head to foot with masses of the swarming insects. Then, with wonderful dexterity, the newcomer jerked aside the insects which were massed upon him, raised the lower edge of the net, and shot with a swift, sinuous movement inside.

As he sprang to his feet, his linen wrapper fell aside, and, to his great astonishment, Jack saw the bald shaven head of the pothoodaw flash up into the moonlight. Then the holy man smiled, and Jack knew the cheerful grin. His heart leapt for joy. It was Me Dain, the Burman guide. Out gleamed a keen knife, half-a-dozen rapid cuts were delivered, and Jack's bonds, gag and all, hung in shreds about him. Jack caught a fervent, grateful whisper from the neighbouring framework.

"Thank God! a friend, a friend!" Mr. Haydon breathed in a tone of intense relief.

"Wait!" breathed Me Dain in Jack's ear, and was gone. The Burman wrapped himself again in his linen shield, wormed his way across to the framework where Mr. Haydon was a captive, and cut him free in an instant.

"Me Dain!" Jack caught the whisper from his father, and knew that the latter had recognised his old guide. A few whispered words passed between the Burman and Mr. Haydon, then the latter whispered across to his son: "Wrap your coat round your head, Jack, to keep these venomous little brutes off as much as possible, then follow us."

Jack whipped off his Norfolk tunic and folded it about his head, leaving himself a peep-hole to watch the guide. He did as he saw them do. He dropped to the ground, wriggled under the net, then sprang to his feet and hurried beside his father, following Me Dain, who led the way back to the patch of reeds whence he had crept. Skirting the reeds he raced at full speed along the edge of the swamp, keeping at the foot of the slope which ran down to the marsh, but heading away from the spot where Saya Chone and his attendant Kachins were posted.

The torture of that journey through the swamp was a thing which Jack never forgot. The mosquitoes worked their way into every crevice of the tunic he had folded about his head. They crept into his hair, down his neck, and swarmed over his face through the breathing hole he was compelled to leave open in front of it. The pain of their sti

ng was such that he had to set his teeth to keep back a growl of malediction upon their evil fangs. Every venomous little wretch seemed to carry a red-hot needle which it thrust joyfully into the soft flesh wherever it happened to alight.

At last, after three hundred yards of silent scurry through this pestilential tract, they struck hard ground, and went at full speed up the hill-side for open country and purer air. Still following Me Dain, who pushed on as fast as he could go, Jack and his father plunged into a bamboo groove, and followed a narrow path. This brought them in a few minutes to a small clearing, where the Burman paused, and all were glad of an opportunity to draw breath, and knock off the mosquitoes which still clung to them.

Jack sprang forward and seized the guide by the hand.

"Me Dain," he cried, "wherever have you sprung from to lend us a hand in this fashion, just in the nick of time?"

"Ay, ay," said Mr. Haydon, "just at the moment of our hardest trial and greatest danger. Me Dain, old fellow, we are enormously indebted to you."

Father and son shook hands with the Burman and thanked him over and over again, and Me Dain grinned all over his broad, pleasant face.

"Better get on," he said, "Saya Chone not far away yet."

These words recalled the fugitives to a sense of the great danger in which they stood as long as U Saw's valley still held them, and they hastened to follow Me Dain, who was now walking briskly forward. Twenty minutes of swift and silent progress brought them to a native hut in a little clearing.

"Here you must stay for a time," said the Burman.

"But will it be safe, Me Dain?" murmured Mr. Haydon. "Whoever lives here must belong body and soul to U Saw. We shall be informed upon at once."

"No, no," said the Burman emphatically, "not by this woman. She tell nothing. She help you all she can. She is the wife of the man who was killed in the swamp. The young sahib save her child. She never forget that. Oh, no, I settle with her to-night. She keep you safe."

Mr. Haydon said no more, and all three crept under cover of a patch of plantains to the shelter of the broad eaves of the thatch of reeds which covered the dwelling. Here they found that a hole had been made in the cane walls, and they crept into the house, thus avoiding the entrance by the door, which faced another house at some little distance away.

Inside the place they found no one but the woman and her child. She came forward and shekoed again and again, and Mr. Haydon, who had a fair knowledge of the language of the country, spoke to her and thanked her for the refuge which she offered to them.

At one end of the cottage there was a rude loft of logs where the little household had stored their stock of rice and other necessaries when the time of harvest came. The loft was now partly empty, and at its farther end there was plenty of room for two men to lie in hiding behind a row of tall earthen jars in which the paddy was stored after threshing.

In this place of safety Me Dain bestowed them, assuring them that no one ever went to the loft save the woman herself, and that he must be off at once to show himself at the local monastery in his character of pothoodaw, and so avert all suspicion that he had been concerned in the escape.

"The monks give me a room," said Me Dain. "I jump through the window, and jump back. No one knows then that I leave it. Must be careful. U Saw and Saya Chone, both bad men, very bad men."

We must now return to that very bad man Saya Chone, who was also about to be a very disappointed and furious one. On the stroke of the hour he reappeared at the brink of the slope, just after the fugitives had vanished round the patch of reeds. Had they not muffled their heads they would have heard his call to Mr. Haydon. Had he not been thickly surrounded by the smoke of the green boughs which partly kept off the clouds of venomous assailants, he would have seen that the frameworks were empty in the moonlight. But such an idea as that his victims could escape never for an instant came into his mind. The whole neighbourhood was under the thumb of his brutal lord, and he knew that no one would interfere to save a friend from U Saw's hand, much less a pair of strangers and foreigners.

Thrice he shouted his threats and warnings to the empty cages, and he judged that the silence meant stubborn resolution not to be conquered. Then, with his own hand, he pulled the cord which should have stripped the net from Jack.

"Now the father will give way," thought the half-caste, and strained his ears to catch a sound of yielding from Thomas Haydon.

When never a sound was heard, the half-caste played what he thought would be his trump card. He ordered a Kachin to dart down, and cut the gag loose from Jack's mouth. Saya Chone counted for certain that the son's moans of agony would be too much for the father to stand, and that the latter would give way. But in an instant the nimble blue-kilt was back, his face full of a surprise beyond description.

"The white men have gone," he gasped.

"Gone!" screamed Saya Chone, and he rushed down the slope waving a smoking bough about his head. A glance at the prisons told him that the man's words were true, and for a second he stared in stupefied amazement at the severed bonds before he rushed back up the slope. He ran at full speed to the place where U Saw was placidly chewing betel and waiting the upshot of the affair. The Ruby King was fearfully incensed at the idea that anyone had dared to meddle with the prisoners, and both he and the half-caste breathed the most furious threats of torture and death against all concerned in the affair. That they would re-capture Jack and his father they did not doubt for an instant. The fugitives must be somewhere in the valley, and within an hour they had a hundred men threading every path and searching every corner of the vale.

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