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   Chapter 36 PENNED IN THE PASS.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 12245

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"What's to be done now, father," said Jack in a low, quick voice; "the road's clean gone. We're trapped."

Both stepped forward and looked over the edge of the sheer descent where the road ended. A broad torrent foamed along fifty feet below. The side of the precipice fell away to the stream as smooth as a wall. It rose above them just as smooth. No way up or down. They saw that in an instant.

"Better go back and try another way," said Mr. Haydon. "Ask her, Me Dain."

A few swift words passed between the Burman and the native woman. Then the guide shook his head soberly. There was no other way that she knew of.

Jack stepped back to the angle and peered carefully round it. "The Kachins are coming," he said.

The shelf-road had risen as it ran along the precipice, and from this point he could see a long way down the pass. He saw the bunch of pursuers sweep into sight and race up the pass. His father joined him at once.

"They would see us now if we went back," said Mr. Haydon. "What on earth are we to do, Jack?"

Jack knit his brows in perplexity, but made no answer. He could not see what to answer. Behind them a band of savage and determined enemies; before them a gulf over which none but a bird could pass.

"We're in a frightful fix," he murmured at last.

"Frightful," rejoined his father. "I give you my word that I see no way out."

"Nor I, father," said Jack. "It seems to me that all we can do is to try to hold them off at this corner."

"But how?" asked Mr. Haydon.

"The road's fearfully rotten just at the bend," said Jack. "I think we could break it down pretty easily. It trembled and shook as I passed over it."

"I see," returned his father, "break the road down and keep them from rushing us. But what of ourselves? How will it advantage us to be isolated on a patch of road, stuck against the face of the cliff like a swallow's nest against a wall?"

"Frankly, I don't know, father," replied Jack. "I simply put that forward as the only means I can see of gaining a slight respite. Otherwise they will be among us and cut our throats in short order."

"Or make us captives, which would be a long sight worse," said Mr. Haydon. "Well, Jack, we'll give ourselves an hour or two longer to look at the sun. Down goes the road!"

The three men sprang to the task at once. First, with their hands, they scraped away the earth, which was very thin on the face of many of the beams. When this was removed, there was exposed to sight the flooring of small beams laid lengthways across the big beams which jutted from the rock. From this flooring each selected the soundest stick he could find.

Jack was lucky in dropping across a bit of teak in capital preservation, a bar eight feet long, four inches square, and as hard as iron. With this he began to batter at the rotten patch of roadway where the angle of the cliff was turned, and a few strokes on the rotten timbers served to tumble them headlong into the raging torrent below. His father and Me Dain were hard at work beside him, and in a very few minutes they had broken away the softest part of the road, leaving a ragged gap fifteen feet wide, just at the turn.

They made the last strokes at the outer side in the very face of their enemies. When they withdrew to the shelter of the inner angle, the racing Kachins were not a hundred yards away. In another moment the fugitives heard their pursuers gather close at hand. The little men in blue were now only a few yards away, clustered about the farther edge of the gap, and chattering to each other in a very excited fashion.

Me Dain listened intently. "They make a bridge," he whispered.

"Ay, ay," returned Mr. Haydon. "Drop a few sticks across and come at us."

Jack gripped his stout bar of teak as a plan flashed into his mind. He crept forward inch by inch until he was on the verge of the gap they had torn in the road. Yet all the time a friendly rib of rock at the projecting angle of the precipice protected him from the long iron-barrelled muzzle-loaders carried by U Saw's retainers.

The expert hands of the Kachins made short work of tearing up a number of small beams. Jack heard them dragging the timbers forward, and he poised his bar. A beam was flung across, and a second almost at once fell beside it. Out darted Jack's bar, and both were hurled into the chasm.

The Kachins gave a yell of anger, and threw the next beam across at the outer angle, as far as possible from the face of the cliff. But Jack could just reach it, and that, too, he thrust into space. Again and again they tried to make for themselves a footbridge by which the gap could be crossed, but every time Jack's ready bar foiled their purpose completely. There was a still louder yell of anger from the savage little men as the last beam they had torn up was hurled from its place. Then for a few moments there was a respite. The fugitives could hear them draw off to a short distance and hold a conference in low murmurs. Jack now looked round at his companions. His father and Me Dain were close behind him. The native woman, her child closely clasped to her breast, was watching his every movement, her face filled with mingled feelings of fear and hope.

"Well done, Jack!" murmured his father. "You've been one too many for them at that game."

The Burman now crept forward, and thrust his head as far as he dared round the angle. The voices of the Kachins had risen in eager debate, and many of their words could be caught. Me Dain listened intently. In a few moments he turned his head, and there was a very puzzled look on his face.

"They are-they are," he began, then stopped. Clearly his English could not bear him out this time. He said a few words in Burmese to Mr. Haydon.

"They are casting lots," said the latter to Jack.

"What for, I wonder?" said Jack. "Seems a queer thing."

"They're a queer little crew," returned his father. "As savage and blood-thirsty as so many ferrets. We shall soon see."

Within five minutes they did see, and the event proved how desperate an enemy they had to deal with.

Me Dain

had retired, and Jack had once more taken up his place beside the gap, his bar in his hands, and his ears strained to catch the faintest sound made by those who beleaguered the little party.

Lucky for them was it that he kept so close a watch. For there was a sudden patter of feet beyond the gap, and then a figure with flying kilt, and fierce, dark face flashed into sight. Upon this Kachin had the lot fallen to leap the gap and lead an attack on the fugitives. Had not Jack's bar been ready, the fiery mountaineer would have been among them, with his gleaming dah poised for the stroke.

But even as he landed, his splendid bound carrying him a couple of feet over the edge, the heavy bar shot out and caught him a tremendous butting blow, full in the chest. He reeled, staggered, and his dah flew from his hands, as he made a frantic clutch at the bar. For a second he struggled to make his foothold good on the brink of the abyss, but failed. He dropped back and vanished into the gulf without a sound.

Jack recovered his bar, and waited with a stern, grim face for the next attack. It was a life and death struggle now, and it was his duty to guard the gap. Mr. Haydon caught up the dah which had flown from the hand of the Kachin, and swung it with a deep guttural sound of satisfaction. Me Dain had his great knife in his hand.

For some time there was complete silence among their enemies. The terrible fall of the man who had been chosen by lot to lead the way, seemed to teach them a little caution. But it had not the smallest effect in the direction of quelling their desire to come to close quarters with the fugitives. The Kachin is utterly too careless of human life, whether his own or another's, for that.

Half an hour passed before a fresh assault was made. The minutes dragged by with horrible slowness to those who awaited their fate on the isolated patch of ledge.

Then, with no more warning of their approach than the patter of naked feet on the earthen path, a second assault was made in the same fashion. Again a Kachin leapt into sight, but farther out, and so more out of reach of the bar. His hands were empty, too, and as Jack stepped forward and thrust at him, he clutched the end of the bar. This he did just as he alighted, and, dropping on his feet as nimbly as a cat, he strove to turn the bar aside. Swift upon his heels three more Kachins came, clearing the gulf and landing in safety, while their comrade and Jack struggled for mastery of the bar.

Upon the instant the tiny ledge was filled with the fury of a desperate combat. Mr. Haydon sprang out and cut down the second Kachin, as he ran forward to strike at Jack with his heavy weapon. The third attacked the Burman, and the fourth closed with Mr. Haydon, their heavy swords clashing together as they slashed fiercely at each other.

Jack had no eyes for any but his own enemy. The Kachin, perched as he was on the very brink of a horrible abyss, fought as coolly as possible to master the bar and avoid the swift thrusts by which at every second Jack threatened to drive him over the edge.

Suddenly the Kachin gave way and dropped flat. Jack thought his enemy was disposed of, but the shifty mountaineer had only fallen along the lip of the gulf to dodge the powerful strokes delivered by the English lad. With a swift movement the Kachin rolled under the bar, and then was up like lightning and rushing on Jack, a long dagger, plucked from his girdle, in his hand.

Jack had no weapon but his fists, but with these he sprang to meet the savage, blue-kilted figure. Taking advantage of his longer reach, he let fly with his right fist. The Kachin was clearly no boxer, for though he raised his left arm, Jack's fist went straight through the feeble guard and landed full between his opponent's eyes. This shook the Kachin so much that the vicious knife-thrust he launched went wide of its mark, and at the next moment Jack closed with him and tried to wrench the knife from his grasp.

But though the Kachin was no boxer, he was a wrestler of uncommon power and skill, and Jack felt the little man seize upon him with an iron clutch. To and fro they swung on the horrible, dizzying edge, each straining every nerve and muscle to free himself from his enemy's clutch and fling his opponent into the torrent which roared and foamed far below.

Locked in this clinging embrace, they stumbled and fell headlong, still bound together by that straining clutch. They were now actually hanging with heads over the brink of the gulf, and the uproar of the rushing waters below sounded loud in Jack's ears. Suddenly he felt that they were both going over, slowly but steadily. The Kachin was no longer trying to master his foe. So that his enemy went, he was willing to fall with him. He was now driving his heels into the roadway, and, with all the force of the iron muscles packed in his compact body, was trying to force himself and Jack over the brink.

Before Jack had mastered his meaning, the pair were head and shoulders clear of the last beam, and the Kachin was working his way outwards and downwards, inch by inch. Jack made a terrific effort and hurled himself backwards. He gained a few of the lost inches, and felt his shoulders against the edge of the beam. Getting a purchase, he strove to raise himself and fling the Kachin off. In vain. The arms were closed around him in a powerful grip, the savage face within a few inches of his own was working convulsively with hate and rage, and the Kachin now was blind to everything save the desire of destroying the white man.

Another twist and turn in the desperate life-and-death wrestle, and Jack's face was turned towards the opposite side of the gulf. But this was only to show him that a new danger hung over him with fearful menace. He looked straight down a gun-barrel. On the farther brink knelt one of his enemies, a long-barrelled muzzle-loader in his hands. He was leaning across with the evident purpose of firing a heavy iron bullet into Jack's brain. Yet, though beset with death on every hand, Jack struggled on gamely.

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