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   Chapter 40 THE BATTLE ON THE STAIRS.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 8122

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Jack was about to spring down the ladder and see what had become of their companion, when a low cry of warning burst from his father's lips. The elder man had been watching the enemy, and now he called out, "They are coming! they are coming!"

Jack caught up his dah and ran at once for the stairs. The mystery of the woman's disappearance must wait; the first thing to be done was to keep the Kachins from their throats.

He and his father had already settled upon the point which they would occupy for defence. Halfway down the narrow winding flight there was a small landing, about six feet long, with a sharp turn above and below. Jack felt his way down to this in the darkness, then stood and listened eagerly for any sounds of movement in the vault below. He heard his father softly tiptoeing after him, and then all was silence, save for the mournful cries of the tiger cubs trying to rouse their dead dam.

"They have not come in yet," whispered Jack to his father.

"No," replied Mr. Haydon, "but I saw seven of them start across the open space, clearly bent on a fresh attack."

At this moment a muffled sound of voices rang through the vault and came up the narrow stairs. The Kachins were at the entrance. Then there was silence for a short time. The next sound was a joyous yell, which rang and re-echoed from wall to wall. The Kachins had discovered the dead tigress. Then the vault resounded with voices as they ran to and fro, searching every corner.

The fugitives knew that the flight of steps running upwards must be discovered at once, and Mr. Haydon gave a low murmur as they heard a party of searchers gather at the foot of the stairs. Up to this moment Jack and his father had stood in complete darkness, but now a faint glimmer of light began to shine up from below, and they knew that the flare of their pursuers' torches was being reflected along the winding walls.

The preparations of the savage little men in blue were quickly made, and up they came. As Jack heard their feet shuffle swiftly up the steps, and saw the shine of the torches become brighter and brighter, he poised his heavy blade and prepared to launch a swinging blow. Nearer, nearer came the light and the chattering voices, for they talked as they came. Then a gleaming spear-head flashed round the bend below. It was held by the leading Kachin, and the second man carried a torch to light his comrade's way.

Jack drew aside to the wall, and waited for the man's head to appear. In an instant it came, and the dark face and glittering eyes of the mountaineer were filled with excitement as he saw the white men within arm's length. He shortened his grasp of the spear to strike at Jack, but the broad, gleaming dah fell at that very instant with tremendous force.

The Kachin whirled up the spear to guard his head, but the trenchant blade, wielded by those powerful young arms, was not to be denied. It shore clean through the stout shaft of the spear, it fell upon the shoulder of the Kachin, and clove him to the spine. He pitched backwards among those following, and the torch was dashed from its bearer's hand. But it was caught as it fell, and another of the dauntless little men sprang up to cross swords with the defender who could strike so dreadful a blow.

Again Jack launched a sweeping cut at his assailant, but this time his blade was caught upon a blade of equal strength and temper, and the iron muscles of the wiry Kachin turned the slashing stroke. He fetched a swift return blow at Jack, and the latter avoided this by springing a pace backwards as he recovered his own weapon.

The little man followed with the leap of a cat, and gave a grunt of satisfaction. This was his aim, to make ground, and Jack saw it in an instant. It allowed another man to come round the turn and support the assault with a long spear. The second Kachin was crouching low, and at the next moment the shining head of a spear darted past the first assailant and was directed at Jack's thigh. Jack avoided it by a miracle. He did not see it, did

not know the man had struck at him, for he was too busy cutting and parrying with the leader. But as the spear-head was darted at him, he sprang aside to avoid the dah, and so dodged both sword and spear.

The Kachin with the spear had made his stroke so heartily, and with such certainty of reaching his mark, that on missing his blow he sprawled forward. Mr. Haydon bent down, gripped the strong shaft behind the spear-head, and tore the weapon from the baffled Kachin's grasp. Then, with a growl of satisfaction that he could take a share in the fray, he reversed the long weapon, and swung its keen point forward.

The spear came to his hand at a most opportune moment. A third man was creeping on hands and knees beside the wall, aiming to pass his leader. He gripped a huge knife in his hand. In another instant he would have seized Jack by the ankles and dragged him down, had not Mr. Haydon driven the spear into him with such force that the head was completely buried in his body. He dropped to the floor with a frightful yell, and at that moment the leading Kachin gave way and leapt back among his friends. Jack had half cut through the swordman's right arm, and the latter could no longer wield the heavy dah.

"Come back a few steps, Jack!" cried his father. "They are meeting us on the flat, and that is to their advantage."

Father and son darted up half a dozen steps from the landing, gained the sharp turn above, then faced about again. But no Kachin was following them. The little men chattered and yelled, argued and disputed with each other, but did not advance. Finally, they retired to the vault below, taking their fallen with them.

"First round to us," breathed Jack. "How strange they brought no muskets with them! My dread from first to last was of a bullet being loosed into us."

"I observed as they crossed towards the door that they carried only spears and swords," said his father. "That is U Saw. He wishes to take us alive, wounded, perhaps, but still alive. So he forbade shooting."

"What next?" murmured Jack.

"I wish we knew," replied his father, "then we might be prepared for it." But no preparation within their power could have availed against the cunning of the next assault. They had been watching and waiting half an hour or more in the darkness, when again the red shine of fire began to glow on the walls below them.

"What is this?" muttered Mr. Haydon. "This light is far too strong for torches." And now with the gleam of fire came gusts of heat sweeping up to them, and clouds of thick pungent smoke. Half choked, and with smarting eyes, they watched for the fire to appear. Presently they saw it below them, and saw that a furnace of leaping flame was advancing towards them, flame which filled the whole of the space, licking walls, roof, and floor. They watched it with horrified eyes. It was impossible to meet this subtle and dreadful enemy with spear or dah.

"What is it?" cried Jack.

"A cunning trick, a cruelly cunning trick," replied his father. "They are thrusting great burning bundles of dried reeds and grass before them. The draught comes up the stairs and keeps the air cool and sweet for them, while it drives suffocating smoke and heat upon us."

Jack ground his teeth as he saw how perfectly the plan was calculated to drive them out of the staircase into the open room above, where the numbers of the Kachins could be used to deadly purpose.

"The fire is flagging," gasped Jack.

"For the moment, yes," said his father.

The glowing mass of flames wavered and began to sink. Then they saw how it was fed. A huge bundle of dried canes and reeds on the end of a spear was thrust into the flickering glow, and at once took fire and burned with the utmost fury. Fresh bundles were pushed forward beside it, and these, too, flared up with a shrill crackle of snapping canes and the roar of a fire fanned by a strong draught. Inch by inch the flames moved forward, themselves a terrible enemy, and behind them crept up and up a savage and merciless foe.

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