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Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 13191

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

They now went a couple of miles in silence, keeping a sharp look-out on every hand. But they gained the foot of the hills which encircled the valley without seeing or hearing anything which might promise danger.

With Me Dain still in the van, they climbed steadily up a steep slope and over a rocky saddle between two peaks which lifted sharp points against the starry sky.

As they gained the saddle, Jack whispered sharply: "Stop, Me Dain, what's this? I smell something."

"Me too," said the Burman, snuffing cautiously. "There is a fire somewhere ahead."

"A fire," said Mr. Haydon. "We must take care. Who have lighted it, and what are they doing in a lonely spot like this?"

A dozen steps again and the questions were answered. They cleared a little ridge and saw, two or three hundred yards ahead, a great glowing patch of red where a big fire blazed up, and figures moved to and fro about it.

"A watch-fire," said Jack. "We'd better dodge back. Luckily they're up wind."

The fugitives retreated until the fire was hidden from their view by a great rock, then put their heads closely together to whisper to each other.

"Watchmen," said Me Dain; "they are watchmen keeping guard over the path which runs out of the valley towards the hills."

"Then those cunning villains have set a watch over every road," murmured Mr. Haydon. "Do you know of any way to get out without following a path, Me Dain, any way by which we can clamber over the hills?"

"No, sahib, I do not," replied the Burman; "but here is the woman who has lived ten years in the valley. I will ask her."

For a couple of minutes Me Dain and the native woman held a whispered conversation, then the Burman breathed a deep sigh of relief.

"She can take us out of the valley, sahibs. She can lead us by a way, very rough and hard to follow, but very little used, where they would not trouble to set a guard. But we cannot follow it in the darkness. She will take us to the mouth of the pass, and there we must wait for daylight."

"Good, good," said Jack in a cheerful whisper, "we'll dodge these fellows after all. What luck that the woman marched with us!"

The words were scarcely out of his mouth when a fierce yelping and snarling broke out not forty yards away, and the sound swiftly approached them.

"Confound it all, a dog, a dog!" growled Mr. Haydon.

In another instant the animal was leaping and bounding within two or three yards of them, snarling savagely, and then making the hill-side ring with its piercing barks. It belonged to one of the guards, and had been prowling about in search of food when it caught the scent of the fugitives.

"This way, this way, sahibs," cried Me Dain in low, eager tones. "Quick, quick, the men sure to come to see why the dog make a noise."

"Sure to, for a certainty," groaned Mr. Haydon. "Well, we must run for it."

Away they hurried as fast as the darkness would permit, and the wretched cur hung on their heels, yelping and barking without pause, and thus guiding the guards straight to their prey.

"We must stop this brute's mouth or we are utterly done for," said Jack. At that instant he stumbled over a large stone. He bent, picked it up, and turned round. Four or five yards behind them, and plainly to be marked by its eyes shining green in the darkness, was the dog, which, by its mere power of drawing enemies upon them, was, at the moment, the most terrible enemy of all.

For a second Jack hung on his aim, the heavy stone poised high in his right hand. Then he hurled it with all his force. Crash! He heard the missile strike the brute with a heavy thud. The dog gave one last frightful yelp of pain, then dropped and lay silent Whether the beast was dead or only stunned Jack did not know, nor did he care. He knew that he had silenced the miserable cur, and that was all he wished.

Enough harm had been done already. A bunch of dancing lights now shot into view, and he saw them borne swiftly on. The watchmen, carrying torches, were running to the spot where the dog had given the alarm.

Jack now caught up his friends with a few swift strides, and all the party hurried on, the woman leading the way and guiding them.

"Well done, Jack," murmured his father. "Well done, my lad. If you hadn't put a stop to that brute's yelping, he'd have brought those fellows on us as straight as they could run. Now they've got to look for us in the dark, and that's a very different affair."

"Do you think they'll pick up our trail from the spot where they find the dog?" asked Jack.

"Oh, no," said Mr. Haydon, "not easily. The ground is hard, and running a line by torchlight is a very different thing from running it by daylight. I hope to goodness we can make good headway before the dawn, for with the first peep of day they'll be after us as fast as they can lay foot to ground."

At this moment both looked back and saw the plump of torches come to a stand. The watchmen had reached the spot where Jack had struck down the dog, and, through the silence of the night, the eager, excited voices of the Kachins could plainly be heard as they debated hotly about the dog's fate, and what it meant.

Then the bunch of lights scattered and began to flicker here and there. The guards were looking for the trail of those who had struck down the dog. On and on ran the fugitives, and soon Jack saw that his father had been right about the difficulties of tracking by torchlight. The points of fire behind them became more and more scattered, and not one came on or followed them. Then they turned the shoulder of a hill, and all was darkness and silence once more.

It wanted an hour of daylight when they came to the mouth of the pass by which they were to escape through the ring of hills which encircled the valley.

"Must wait now," said Me Dain. "She say no man can go through the pass unless he can see the way."

"Are we to lose time, Me Dain?" said Jack. "Can't we creep on slowly and make a little headway?"

The Burman talked again to the woman, but she was most emphatic in declaring that nothing could be done until the day broke; so they crouched in silence under lee of a great boulder until the first faint bars of light began to show in the east.

As soon as it was possible to see a yard or so before them the march began. The woman led the way, with her sleeping child in her arms, Me Dain followed her closely, and Jack and his father brought up the rear.

They soon saw why daylight had been needed for the task of escaping from the valley by this road. Their way lay throug

h a narrow pass which ran through a deep cleft of the mountains, a cleft which seemed as though it had been carved out by a blow of a Titanic axe. There was scarcely a yard of the narrow path upon which a step could be taken smoothly and easily. For ages upon ages the forces of nature had been tearing huge boulders and slices of rock from the frowning heights above, and toppling them into this crevice between the mountains. Thus the way was littered with huge stones, over which they climbed, between which they threaded their way, down which they often slid and scrambled as best they could.

For some hours they toiled steadily along this wild, rocky gorge, then a halt was called to rest and breathe. The native woman, a lithe, nimble creature, was as little discomposed by the hard, rough march as any of them, although she carried her child, nor would she allow anyone to help her with her burden.

Their breathing space was but short. They had halted on a ridge which commanded a big stretch of the country they had crossed. Jack was seated on the ground, with his back to the wall of rock behind them. Suddenly he sprang to his feet. He looked steadily for a moment down the pass, then he said quietly, "We are pursued."

Mr. Haydon had stretched himself at full length on the ground to rest. Hearing those words from his son, he leapt also to his feet and looked eagerly in the direction to which Jack's outstretched finger was pointed. Far away a patch of the pass lay in sunlight. For the most part the narrow cleft through the hills lay in gloomy shadow of the precipices which bordered it on either hand, but the climbing sun shot pencils of light here and there into the deep rift. Across one of these sunny patches a line of tiny figures was streaming. Only for a moment were they visible. They crossed the field of light, then vanished into the huddle of rocks which littered the foot of the pass.

"Fifteen," said Jack, as the last of them disappeared.

Mr. Haydon whistled sharply and nodded.

"We've travelled fast, Jack," said he, with a troubled brow, "but these hard-bitten, wiry, little mountaineers have travelled faster. We must put our best foot foremost. It will be fatal to be caught in this narrow gully between the rocks. They will get round us and rush us from all sides at once."

"I thought we'd got a much better start than this," said Jack.

"So did I," replied his father, "but it has turned out otherwise."

Me Dain's words were short but to the point.

"Kachins!" he cried. "Come on," and pushed ahead with the woman, who was off like a deer at the first hint of danger.

"How far to the end of the pass, Me Dain?" called Mr. Haydon.

"Not more than two miles, sahib," replied the Burman.

"Good," said Jack, "if we can only clear the pass we may find some means of throwing them off. In the pass they have us tight between the walls."

"That's it, Jack," returned his father, and then they hurried over the wild broken track in silence.

Half a mile farther on Jack pointed forward. "Hallo!" he said, "here's another of those roads built along the precipice. I hope it will be a bit sounder than the last."

In another moment they arrived at a stretch of the path where the road was carried in mid-air over a deep chasm in the bed of the pass. They had already passed two such places, and at each point the road was constructed in the same manner. Holes had been cut horizontally in the sheer face of the precipice and huge beams driven into them. About six feet of each beam was left projecting from the hole, and upon these outstanding bars, smaller beams were laid parallel to the face of the rock. The earth had been heaped on all, and the result was a narrow road running along the cliff like a shelf.

The last they had passed had been very rotten, and Me Dain had gone through one hole up to his arm-pits. He had only been saved from a fall into the yawning gulf below by the promptness of Jack, who had flung himself on his knees and whipped his hands under the Burman's arms, and held him up. Warned by this misadventure, they moved slowly and carefully along the narrow track which now lay before them.

"Take care, take care," said Mr. Haydon, "this road is worse than the others. We must go in single file. These beams will not take any great weight."

They spread themselves out in a line, with a yard or more between each person, and went gingerly forward.

The truth was, that hundreds of years before, when some native ruler had gone to immense trouble and labour to build these roads, the pass had been an important highway. But a tremendous land-slide had blocked a portion of the pass, and swept away a number of the wooden roads, and the way had fallen into disuse. Since then the vast beams of teak which formed the road-bed had been slowly crumbling into decay, and many were very insecure.

As Jack brought up the rear of the little procession, he kept his eyes fixed on the road at his feet, and this for two reasons. One, to avoid the rotten places, and the other, because to look around from a roadway six feet wide into the yawning gulf which gaped beside him was very dizzying.

Suddenly he heard a scream from the native woman who guided them. He looked ahead at once, but could not see her. The little procession was now winding its way round an acute angle of the cliff about which the road had bent sharply. The woman was out of sight; Me Dain was disappearing. Mr. Haydon quickened his steps, and Jack hurried on too. What had that scream meant? It had not been loud, but low and full of awful terror. What lay beyond the angle?

Jack turned the corner and saw, and his brown face blanched as he saw the frightful corner into which circumstances had driven them. Ten yards beyond the angle, the road ended abruptly, broken short off. Whether the beams had given way and fallen into the chasm, or whether an avalanche of rocks had beaten the road into ruins, they knew not, nor did it matter. What mattered was this, that fifty yards beyond them the road had again joined the solid bed of the pass, and that now along that fifty yards nothing was left save here and there a broken stump of teak standing out from the face of the precipice. Nothing without wings could pass over the wide space where the road had been stripped from the cliff.

For a moment no one could speak. They could only stare aghast at the gulf beside and before them, at the little strip of road broken off short and square at their feet. How were they to pass this frightful, yawning abyss?

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