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   Chapter 34 THE HIDING-PLACE AND THE THIEF.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 12009

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Jack and his father spent the night safely stowed behind the great earthen jars on the loft. Stretched out on a heap of soft, dried grass, they slept and watched in turns, for it was not safe for both to go to sleep at once.

At break of day the woman brought them a meal, and they ate and drank, and Jack gave her a few rupees. A couple of hours after dawn they heard a movement below and saw a sight which they welcomed gladly. The loft stood upon a dozen wooden supports raised six or seven feet from the ground. It had no window, but, upon moving the dried grass aside, they could peep through the chinks in the floor of logs. Peering cautiously down, they saw a yellow umbrella, and presently that was laid aside as the pothoodaw seated himself in shade of the loft and began busily to recite his prayers.

When these were ended he sat to all appearance absorbed in profound meditation. But had anyone been near enough, they would have found that a busy whispered conversation was going on between the pothoodaw and those hidden in the loft above his head.

For half an hour the holy man sat there, then went his way. But in that time Jack and his father had learned much of deep interest to them. Me Dain told them that Buck and Jim Dent were now camped in a lonely place among the hills near upon twenty miles away, awaiting the Burman's return. The latter had been sent in disguise to U Saw's village to pick up what information he could, and had only just arrived when Jack saw him on the edge of the slope above the swamp. He told them he would stay in the neighbourhood and watch for a favourable moment to make a start for the camp where their friends awaited them.

For two days the fugitives lay in hiding under the care of the native woman and in perfect safety. They proved once more the truth of the old adage that "the nearer to danger the nearer to safety." U Saw and Saya Chone urged the pursuit with the most savage eagerness. They searched every corner of the great swamp, every cane-brake, every patch of forest, every nook, and every corner. They had a cordon of sentinels drawn round the valley, patrolling day and night, so that no one could slip through their hands. But it never occurred to them for an instant to search a cottage lying almost beneath the walls of the Ruby King's stronghold, a hut so slight that it seemed incapable of concealing anything.

Another piece of luck greatly befriended them.

On the day that they were tied up at the edge of the swamp, one of U Saw's retainers had been cruelly flogged for some misdemeanour. The man had deserted the same night, and was never heard of again. The idea at once got abroad that it was he who had released the prisoners in order to spite the Ruby King, and had guided them out of the country.

Then, on the third night, the luck of the Haydons came to an end, and their hiding-place was hit upon in a very odd fashion, a fashion which could not have been foreseen or guarded against. It was about midnight, and Jack had the watch, for one or other stood on guard all the time. He sat with his back against a great post which ran from ground to ridge-pole, and, without the least warning, he felt that it was shaking very slightly.

In an instant Jack was on the alert. He could not hear the faintest sound, but the post still trembled, and Jack felt certain that something or someone was climbing up it. In a few moments he was certain of this, for he heard faint rustlings on the reed roof as if someone was moving about. He stretched out his hand and shook his father gently. Mr. Haydon woke at once. He made no sound, only shook Jack's arm in return to let his son know that he was on the alert.

The rustling on the roof grew a little louder. The thatch was being torn aside, but so cautiously, so cleverly, that the two watching below could only catch the sound by listening intently. Suddenly the stars flashed upon them. A hole had already been made above them, and in this hole they saw the head of a native against the sky.

They remained perfectly still and silent, and watched the hole grow. Silently, deftly, the midnight marauder plucked handful after handful of the reed thatch away and enlarged the opening. Both of those below who watched him, had grasped by this time what it all meant. This was no man in the pay of U Saw, who suspected a hiding-place; it was just a common thief, pure and simple, who had an eye to nothing save the widow's paddy. Believing that she was alone and defenceless in the house, he had come to plunder her loft.

But, whatever his motive, the risk to the Haydons remained the same. In another moment he would drop among them and infallibly discover their presence. Then his outcries would arouse the village and their capture would be certain.

Very, very slowly the thief slipped his legs in at the hole, which was now big enough to admit him, and began to slide downwards. As Jack watched the rogue gently drop upon them, he felt for a second his father's hand laid upon his throat, and he understood; the man was to be seized and choked into silence; nothing else remained for them to do.

Inch by inch the rascal slipped down. So cunning was he that he made less noise than a mouse moving among the dried grass, and, without doubt, he thought that he was carrying out his raid finely, and would make the widow's store of rice smart for it.

The thief loosed his hold upon the rafter of the roof by which he hung, and his long, slender, naked body, bare but for his waist-cloth, dropped as a great snake might drop between Jack and his father. Mr. Haydon made one clutch, and closed his fingers in a tremendous throttling grip about the rogue's neck. Jack caught him by the arms.

A most extraordinary struggle followed. The fellow was like an eel, and it proved a task of the greatest difficulty to hold him and keep him from getting loose and raising a disturbance. He was like an eel not only in his marvellous agility, his twists, h

is feints, his wriggling, but in his actual bodily slipperiness. The cunning rascal had smeared his naked body from head to foot with oil, so that, if seized, he could the more easily wriggle out of the hands of his captors.

How clever a device this was Jack learned to his great surprise. The arms he seized were whipped out of his clutch as if he was trying to lay hold of quicksilver. He grabbed something which proved to be a leg. A swift jerk, and his fingers slipped off the greasy limb. Finally he settled the matter by throwing both arms round the slim, bare waist, and closing upon the rogue with a bear's hug which drove the breath out of the thief's body.

Together they threw the man upon the dried grass, and Mr. Haydon, who had made his hold good by locking his fingers about the fellow's windpipe, now eased his grip a little so that the man could breathe.

Suddenly a light flashed upon this scene of fierce but silent struggle. The woman herself had been aroused from her couch in the room below, had lighted a small lamp, and climbed the rude steps to the loft.

THE MIDNIGHT THIEF.

Mr. Haydon turned his head, saw her, and snapped out a single word. She set down her lamp, disappeared, and was back in an instant with a long strip of cloth in her hand. Mr. Haydon took this, and soon whipped a gag round the mouth of the intruder, while Jack held him down. In response to another whispered request of Mr. Haydon's, the woman fetched a length of cord, and in two minutes the thief was bound hand and foot. Then father and son got up and stood looking down at their captive, who stared sullenly up at them from his dark eyes.

"If this isn't a confounded fix," murmured Mr. Haydon. "Why should this thieving rogue choose us to drop in on, of all people?"

"The unprotected house drew him, I expect," replied Jack.

"Ah, true," returned his father. "I wonder, though, if he had any accomplices."

He turned and spoke to the woman, and she at once blew out the lamp.

"The light in any case is dangerous as likely to attract attention," whispered Mr. Haydon. "Now, listen."

They listened intently for some time, but there was not the faintest sound of any movement in the neighbourhood.

"I hope to goodness this rascal was working by himself," went on Mr. Haydon, "and no one knew what he was about. We don't want a companion peering in to see what has happened to him."

"What under the sun are we going to do with him, father?" whispered Jack.

"We must leave him tied up here and run for it," replied Mr. Haydon. "I see nothing else that we can do."

"Nor I," replied Jack; "and the sooner we march the better. We don't know that there was not someone outside to help him carry off the spoil, and the accomplice may have learned of our presence."

"You are right, Jack," said his father.

"But there is Me Dain, we must pick him up," pursued Jack. "Without him we do not know where to strike. How can we get hold of him?"

"The woman will be of service there," said his father. "She is our only hope."

He spoke with the native woman for a few moments, then gave a whistle of satisfaction below his breath.

"She knows where he is lodging, and thinks she can rouse him without disturbing anyone else," whispered Mr. Haydon; "at any rate, she is going to try."

The woman shuffled down the steps, and was gone in an instant.

"We may as well go down and be ready for a move," murmured Mr. Haydon, "but we'll try this chap's knots first."

They examined the bound thief, and made certain that he could not easily shuffle out of his bonds, then they went down to the main room of the hut and posted themselves near the door.

The time they waited seemed never-ending. In reality it was not more than twenty minutes. But when they feared that every sound would see an alarm raised upon them and their escape hopelessly cut off, every minute seemed an hour.

Jack had his eye at a huge crack in the door, and to his immense relief he made out at last a couple of figures approaching the house under the dim shade of the trees.

"Here they are," he breathed. "She's brought it off all right. I can make out Me Dain."

Two seconds later the Burman shot into the hut with a stealthy, noiseless glide.

"Come on," he said. "Not stop at all. She tell me everything."

Away they went at once, Me Dain leading the way, with Jack and his father close behind. The Burman dodged round the corner of the hut, and struck at once into a hard well-trodden path which was at once swallowed up in the thick shade of a close-set grove of bamboos. It was a path leading to a pagoda much frequented by the villagers, and would show no sign by which they might be tracked on the morrow. Me Dain had made himself familiar with the ins and outs of the place, and he marched forward with a swift and assured step. Luckily, the hut stood right on the outskirts of the village, and in a few moments they were out of sight of any house, and when they turned aside from the path to the pagoda they soon left behind all sign of human presence.

As they crossed a little clearing, Jack thought he heard a soft footfall in their rear. He turned, and saw, to his surprise, that the native woman was a short distance behind them, with her child in her arms.

"Why," said Jack, "the woman of the hut is following us."

"Yes," replied Me Dain. "She must come, sahib. If U Saw catch her, he burn her alive for hiding you."

"Likely enough, the unspeakable brute," murmured Mr. Haydon. "We must put the poor woman in a place of safety, Me Dain. We owe her a great deal."

"She not want to stop in that place, anyhow, sahib," replied the Burman. "She belong to a village over the hills. She want to go back, now her husband is dead."

"Oh, very good," said Mr. Haydon. "We'll put her right if we have the chance."

"Yes, yes," said Jack. "She's been a good staunch friend to us, the same as you, Me Dain."

"Very true, Jack," said Mr. Haydon.

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