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   Chapter 37 HOW THEY MADE A ROPE.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 12021

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"He may miss," muttered the plucky English lad to himself. "Anyhow, I'm not going to let this chap chuck me over here if I can help it."

At this moment an unexpected diversion was made in his favour. The native woman had crouched stolidly in rear of the combat, until she saw the Kachin about to empty his weapon into his English foe. Now she rose swiftly to her feet, a heavy stone in her right hand. Just as the Kachin was crooking his finger on the trigger she hurled it with all her force.

It proved the luckiest of shots. The missile struck the stooping man square on the top of his head and caused him to start violently. As he did so the jet of smoke and flame spurted from the long barrel and the bullet sped. But not in the direction he had intended. The muzzle of the piece was jerked a foot aside, and the wrestler received the charge full in his body. He gave a convulsive start, then his arm fell limp, and Jack was free.

Up he sprang, aflame to see what was happening with his father and Me Dain. Long as his own struggle had seemed, it had only been a matter of seconds, and Mr. Haydon and the fourth Kachin were still engaged in fierce sword play. Me Dain and the third man had closed in savage wrestle, and were trying to find each other's heart with their knives.

Jack whipped up the bar with the speed of thought, and dropped it on the head of the man with whom his father was engaged. Down went the Kachin, stunned and helpless. But at that very instant a wild scream went up from the two struggling figures close at hand. Jack turned his head to see the last flutter of their garments. The rotten foothold had given way beneath them, and, held fast in each other's clutch, they had fallen headlong into the deeps below. Jack and his father were about to leap forward to see the last of their faithful guide, when a musket cracked and a bullet flew by their heads. They sprang back into cover and looked at each other.

"We have lost Me Dain!" cried Jack. "Brave fellow, he has gone, fighting to the last."

Mr. Haydon nodded gloomily. "It is a cruel, bad business for all of us," he said.

A profound silence now fell upon the little battlefield. The remaining Kachins made no further attempt at an assault. Jack peered out very cautiously to see what they were doing, and was surprised to see them drawing off. His father joined him, and they watched the mountaineers retire to the point where the shelf-road began. Here they squatted on the ground, lighted their pipes, and calmly smoked, motionless as the rocks around them.

"There are two short," said Jack, after counting them.

"Yes," returned his father, "they have been despatched for reinforcements, and to give word that we have been discovered. Their friends are on guard."

At this moment the Kachin whom Jack had felled with the bar began to move. Jack was upon him in a moment, whipping off his girdle, and tying him hand and foot with stout strips of it. Mr. Haydon now began to talk with the native woman. As a rule he had preferred to speak with her through Me Dain, for her dialect contained many words unfamiliar to him. But now Me Dain, their stout-hearted, faithful guide, was gone, and it seemed as if no great interval could elapse before their fate, too, would be settled.

The woman had brought a small store of food with her. She ate, and offered some to her companions. But they would not touch it, though hunger was gnawing keenly at them.

Mr. Haydon sat down with his back against the cliff, but Jack could not keep still. He moved restlessly to and fro on their narrow patch, and glanced into the depths on every side. Was there nothing to be done? Must they wait idly here until their enemies were strong enough to rush them in overwhelming force?

Jack had gone to the farthest point of their refuge, and was lying at full length with his head over the edge of the last beam. He was staring into the wild foaming torrent, when an inequality in the face of the descending cliff caught his eye. He looked intently, and saw that some fifteen feet above the river a narrow ledge ran horizontally along the cliff. He followed the ledge with his eye. It ran down towards the river, narrowed, and disappeared. He raised his head and called his father. Mr. Haydon was by his side in a moment. Jack pointed out the ledge.

"If we could drop on to that," he said, "we might get away up the pass after all."

"I'm afraid there's not much of a chance there," returned his father. "The ledge shelves away to the river. But in any case, how are we going to descend a precipice as smooth as glass? It's a good five-and-thirty feet down to that point."

Jack bit his lip in perplexity for a moment. Then his brow cleared, as a sudden idea slipped into his mind.

"We'll make a rope," he said. "There's stout stuff in these fellows' kilts and jackets," and he pointed to the Kachins lying near at hand.

Mr. Haydon slapped his son on the shoulder. "Good for you, Jack, my boy!" he cried. "We'll have a try at it."

He spoke a few words to the native woman, and she laid her child down and sprang at once to help. She proved by far the deftest and cleverest of the three at the task now to be performed. Jack and his father quickly stripped off belt, jacket, girdle, and turban from the fallen Kachins, and their clothes were tossed over to the woman. With a small, sharp knife which she produced from the little basket in which she had carried her food, she swiftly cut up kilts and jackets, while the other two knotted together turbans and girdles. Half an hour's hard work saw the heap of clothing converted into a stout, well-knotted rope. Jack took a glance at the men on guard. They were still seated at the end of the shelf-road, smoking calmly, and confident that their prey could not escape them. Jack now tied a heavy stone at the end of the rope and let it down. The stone slid along the face of the precipice and rested on the ledge. Nine or ten feet of their rope were

still unpaid out.

"Plenty long enough," said Jack, and they hauled the rope up quickly.

The woman and her child were, of course, sent down first. With a broad strip of the strong home-spun the child was bound on its mother's breast, so that she might at least have one hand free to hold herself steady as she was lowered. At the end of the rope they made a broad loop, and this was drawn tight about her body. When all was ready, she slipped over the edge of the abyss with all the coolness and bravery of her race, and the strong hands began to lower her. Foot by foot she slid down the face of the cliff, and at last those above felt the strain upon their muscles suddenly relieved. The woman was safely on the ledge.

They now made the rope secure around the outer beam, which, luckily, was fairly sound. The Kachin who was their prisoner was shouting and yelling at the full pitch of his voice to warn his comrades that the fugitives were escaping. His dark eyes snapped and glittered with fury. He cared not what danger he brought upon himself if he could but warn his friends. Jack and Mr. Haydon took no notice whatever of the man's clamour. A hundred voices would have been drowned in the hoarse roar of the torrent which thundered below.

"I'll go down now, father," said Jack, "and hold the rope steady for you." He slipped over the side and was gone. Hand below hand he swung himself swiftly down the rope, and was on the ledge in a few moments. He held the rope steady, and Mr. Haydon descended in safety.

They left the rope where it hung, and crept forward along the narrow ledge. Jack led the way, the woman came next, and Mr. Haydon brought up the rear. There was very little room on the ledge, but it was sound and smooth. It had clearly been made by the river eating away the softer rock in times of flood. It descended gently towards the stream, and within thirty yards it broke short off. The river was now not more than five feet below, and Jack bent and looked into it. Then he swung himself off the ledge, and dropped into the stream with a cry of delight. It was clear and shallow, and he stood in it barely knee-deep. He helped the woman down, his father sprang after them, and they all waded on in a shallow backwater, where the furious torrent of the main stream died away to an easy flow.

Moving on in this manner, they gained the farther side of the ravine, which had been spanned by the shelf-road. Here a vast mass of rock and boulders lay piled along the cliff wall.

"That's the landslip which carried away the road," said Mr. Haydon.

Jack eyed it critically.

"We can get up into the pass again by it," he said. "It'll be a rough climb, but we can do it."

Jack was right. They did it. It took them an hour's hard climbing, but at last they stood at the point where the shelf-road had joined the main path along the pass. Here they rested awhile, for the steep climb under a burning sun had been very exhausting.

Then Jack sprang to his feet "Come on," he cried cheerily. "We'll hit on Buck and Jim's camp yet, and with them at our back we'll stand off U Saw and his men easily enough."

"I think I can strike towards it all right once we clear this path," said his father. Mr. Haydon had had much talk with Me Dain about the spot where he had left Buck and Jim, and he believed that he could find the place.

"Poor old Me Dain," said Jack, in a tone of bitter sorrow; "if we'd only brought him up with us out of the fix there, it would have been all right. He was a fine, brave chap."

"He was," said Mr. Haydon; "it is a terrible loss to us that he has gone."

They pushed on in silence, thinking of the good, faithful Burman who had fallen, close-grappled with his enemy, into the raging torrent. From this sad reverie they were roused by the voice of the native woman speaking to Mr. Haydon.

"She says that we shall soon be out in the open country," said he to his son.

"Good business!" replied Jack. "As long as we are between these walls of rock, there seems a trap-like feeling about the affair."

Ten minutes later they crossed a low ridge, and at once the precipice which had encompassed them opened out swiftly on either hand. Before them lay a huge, cup-like hollow, filled with buildings.

"A town!" gasped Jack. "We shall be seen!"

"Deserted, my boy," said his father quietly. The more experienced eye had at once seen the true nature of the place. Jack looked again, and saw that all was silent, and that the buildings were empty shells. The walls of the houses stood up along the streets, the vane of a pagoda darted aloft and glittered in the sun, but no form moved along the narrow ways, no face peered out upon them as they passed.

Their way lay along what had been the main street of the city, and the silence, which had been pleasant in the pass, became strange and creepy here. It told of utter ruin, and seized upon the spirit of those who passed with a sense of haunting desolation.

Suddenly, into this eerie silence, there broke a sound which set every heart leaping. It was the swift rattle of a pony's hoofs galloping towards them. The sound had broken out sharply and near, for the main street was paved, and the rider had burst on to it from the sandy track beyond, where he had ridden in silence. They could not see the rider, for the way bent sharply just before them, and their only thought was to hide from this newcomer, for to be seen by anyone in this country spelled danger.

Close at hand was a narrow alley, and into this they hurried. Just inside the opening was an empty doorway, and they ran through it, and paused inside a house which turned a blank wall to the street A huge crack seamed this wall from top to bottom, and Jack, springing forward softly, clapped his eye to it.

The wall stood at an angle to the street, and the rider darted into sight as Jack peered out. The latter turned and shot a single whisper over his shoulder, "Danger," and all stood silent.

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