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   Chapter 42 IN THE COURTYARD.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 11443

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

When Jack came to himself after that rough tumble he felt bruised from crown to heel, and his head was aching dully. For a few moments his mind was in a puzzle as returning consciousness began slowly to array before him the last things he remembered. Then he came to himself with a start, and looked round eagerly to see where he was and what had happened to his companions.

The first glance told him that he was once more within the deserted city. He lay in the corner of a ruined house, bound hand and foot; two Kachins, with muskets across their knees, squatted within six feet of him, and watched him with a fixed stare. Over his head the sky was still bright with sunshine, but the low rays told him that the night was not far off.

"They've got us after all," thought Jack bitterly. "We're in their hands as tight as ever, and they'll take care, I know, that we don't slip out of them again."

It was heart-sickening that after their struggle through the pass, their fight in the pagoda, and their escape by a way which seemed to open for them in a magical fashion, that they should end by falling once more into the hands of their cruel foes. As the light faded, Jack lay and wondered what had become of his father and the native woman, and what would be the next turn in their strange and wild adventures.

The sun sank, and the night fell with tropic swiftness; soon he was gazing at a velvety sky, full of bright stars. Still no one came near them, and his guards sat before him like two statues.

An hour after nightfall a voice called to them from the lane without, and they obeyed the command at once. They sprang up, and removed from Jack's ankles the thong which bound them together. Next they dragged him to his feet and led him forward.

At the gap in the wall, where once a door had been, two other guards awaited the prisoner, and marched one before and one behind him. Thus closely watched, Jack was led along the narrow lane. They went fifty yards or more, and then entered the very courtyard into which the secret passage opened. Here a huge fire of brushwood and broken beams was burning, and the place was as light as day, and filled with busy figures. Jack was led across the courtyard and placed near the opposite wall.

He looked round, but could catch no glimpse of his father. He saw the native woman, their companion in misfortune, seated in a corner, a Kachin beside her as if on guard. The woman's head was bent upon her breast, and her child was closely clasped in her arms. She did not look up when Jack was brought in, and her attitude was one of utter dejection. She had already learned her fate. She was to be taken back to the village from which she had fled, and there suffer by fire in the presence of the other villagers. Thus would U Saw teach a lesson of obedience to all.

The Ruby King himself was seated on a rug spread over the stones of the courtyard on the other side of the great fire. A meal was just over. A smaller fire was smouldering near the entrance to the courtyard, and beside it lay cooking-pots and the long, square baskets in which food had been carried. Several of the retainers were still devouring the last fragments of their portion, and the rest were placidly smoking as they moved to and fro. U Saw was quietly pulling at a huge cheroot, his eyes fixed dreamily on the leaping flames of the great fire, and, save for the prisoner and his armed guards, the whole scene had the air of a peaceful camp, of a caravan of merchants resting for a night on their march.

An hour passed, and the scene had but changed to this extent that the moving figures had settled down to a man to give themselves up to the soothing influence of tobacco. On his rug, U Saw had not stirred a limb save to flick the ashes from his cheroot, nor had his gaze wandered aside from the glowing flame. The quiet had become profound. Then, in deep silence, there was a sound of footsteps approaching the courtyard. Without turning his head, U Saw raised his hand. The gesture was scarcely begun when Jack felt himself gripped from behind by more than one pair of hands, and he knew among them the deadly clutch of the Strangler.

He was gripped at the same instant by the throat, the waist, and the heels, nor, so cunning had been their approach, had he dreamed that an enemy stood behind him. In an instant the thong at his wrists was severed and his arms drawn out to their fullest extent, a rope tight about each wrist, while his ankles were lashed together with magical swiftness and dexterity. He was swung against the wall despite his struggles, and his body and feet bound to an upright beam. Then the ropes which were about his wrists were drawn taut and made fast, and he was a helpless prisoner.

Just as the last twist was given to the bonds, a group of four entered the courtyard. Saya Chone, the half-caste, came first, and he was followed by Mr. Haydon, under guard of a couple of Kachins. Now U Saw slowly rose from his rug and moved forward, his silken kilt catching the light and glowing with the softest, brightest hues of crimson and gold.

"How are you, Jack?" called out Mr. Haydon anxiously. "Any bones broken?"

"Not one, I believe, father," replied Jack; "only bruises."

"If either of you speak another word," said the half-caste smoothly, "I'll gag you till you choke."

Jack and his father knew that much significance lay under the quiet words, and they remained silent. U Saw and Saya Chone now spoke together in a low tone, and then father and son were brought face to face.

"You are such a slippery couple, and have evaded us so often," said the half-caste, "that we are going to pay you the compliment of dealing with y

ou once and for all upon the spot. Now you can be assured that your last chance of saving your skins has arrived. Here and now we settle the matter. You can start for Bhamo or Mandalay with the break of dawn, or you can become food for wild beasts. It remains with you to decide."

"Don't say a word, father," broke in Jack impetuously. "Don't you see that we're done for in any case? If you told, do you think such men as these would keep their word? Dead men tell no tales."

"That's horribly true, Jack," said his father in a low voice.

The faces of the Ruby King and the half-caste had blackened with rage upon hearing this swift, shrewd speech, which laid bare their motives and intentions, for Jack had hit the mark fair in the centre. Saya Chone thrust his face forward till it was within six inches of Jack's.

"Bold words," he hissed viciously, "bold words; but we shall see before we have done with you."

At this moment there ran into the courtyard a man who panted as if he had travelled far and fast. He bore beneath his arm a small basket made of rushes very closely and strongly woven. The Ruby King gave a grunt of satisfaction, and moved towards him.

Saya Chone now sprang forward and seized the collar of Jack's tunic. He fixed both hands in it and ripped it open. Then he gripped the collar of the flannel shirt beneath and made a snatch at that With a grin of vicious pleasure he rent that open too, and tore a piece of the stuff clean out. He raised his open hand and struck the bare breast of the English lad with a resounding slap.

"Now we shall see," he cried, "now we shall see!"

At sight of this Mr. Haydon had attempted to spring forward, but half a dozen of the iron-muscled little men had leapt at him like cats, and kept him in his place. They hung on to him and held him a close prisoner during the scene which followed.

Jack was little affected by the slap. He had his eyes on U Saw. He felt strongly that the grim, silent Ruby King was the man to be feared above all.

U Saw and the man with the basket had retired to the other side of the fire, and a group of Kachins watched the Ruby King respectfully from a little distance. The watching group now gave a loud murmur of wonder and admiration, as if they had divined some superlatively clever trick of their master's, and were applauding it. Then U Saw turned and came across the courtyard, his right arm oddly and stiffly extended.

Jack watched him come, and wondered what it was that seemed to move and writhe about his arm as he came. The Ruby King stepped into the full light of the great, blazing pile, and Jack saw what it was that moved, and felt his blood run cold within him.

Upon his right hand U Saw wore a thick leathern hunting glove, and his right arm was heavily swathed with a woollen girdle. About his arm the body of a snake was twisted, and he held the head firmly in his hand. A terrible groan of agony burst from Thomas Haydon's lips as he saw the venomous reptile coiling and uncoiling its short, thick body round the arm of the Ruby King. It was a small cobra of the most venomous kind, a creature whose bite took effect at once, and was followed swiftly by death.

U Saw walked up to Jack and held the head of the horrible creature within a foot of Jack's face. The latter tried to look steadily at the frightful death which menaced him, and, for a few seconds, was fascinated by the dreadful sight. The tiny, glittering, bead-like eyes of the reptile sparkled with rage, and its hood swelled and swelled in its fury as it sought something to strike, something upon which it might expend its store of deadly venom. But the grip of the Ruby King held head and neck immovable except as he wished, and the cobra had no power save over its coils. These were in constant and furious motion. They were now wrapped tightly round U Saw's arm, now flung loose, and then tightened anew as the angry snake twisted and writhed and sought to free itself from the clutch which imprisoned its head.

Inch by inch U Saw advanced the frightful flat head until the forked tongue played immediately before Jack's eyes, and the grip on the head was now slightly loosened, and the cobra opened wide its horrid jaws and disclosed its poison fangs, and made convulsive efforts to reach and strike the face just before it.

Jack closed his eyes and drew a long, quivering breath. This torture was exquisite beyond any bodily pain. But there was no thought of yielding in his heart. Among these dark-skinned Asiatics he and his father stood alone, and it lay with them to maintain the English name and credit in this moment when men of a weaker race would have given way and cringed and begged for mercy.

Summoning up his utmost resolution, Jack opened his eyes again, resolute to deny to his enemies the smallest token of their triumph. But he found that the horrid, gaping jaws were no longer close to his face. U Saw had stepped a pace backwards, and was adjusting his grip of the reptile with the greatest care.

He grasped it anew and more tightly, and stepped forward once more. Now he advanced the flat head little by little towards Jack's naked breast. At last it was so close that the cobra's tongue, darting in and out, was touching the lad's body. Ah! that was horrible. To feel the cold, forked tongue playing upon the warm flesh above the beating heart, that heart which would be silenced for ever were but the keen fangs advanced an inch or so farther.

The natural repugnance of the flesh to so horrible a situation was too strong for the spirit, and Jack could not restrain a convulsive shudder, which shook him from head to foot. His father groaned in rage and agony.

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