|I||Against Moslem and Hindoo|
|II||Maurice Begins a New Life|
|III||The Interference of Antonio Silva|
|IV||Perils of the Jungle|
|V||Mervanji the Thug|
|VI||The Flight in the Ravine|
|VII||The Last of Fazl Khan|
|VIII||How the Fight Ended|
|IX||A Marvellous Gift|
|X||Bobbili of the Jungle|
|XI||The Sowars of Seranghur|
|XIII||A Cry in the Night|
|XIV||The Escape of the Panther|
|XVI||The Flag of Truce|
|XVII||The Cage of Serpents|
|XVIII||The Beginning of the End|
|XIX||Silva and the Tiger|
|XX||A Swim for Life|
|XXI||A Frightful Retribution|
|XXII||The Camp by the Nullah|
|XXIII||A Jungle Mystery|
|XXIV||Orders for Assam|
|XXV||A Chain of Adventure|
|XXVI||Ambushed by Nagas|
|XXVII||The Skipper of the ":Mary Shannon"|
|XXVIII||Deeds of Darkness|
|XXIX||The Bridge of Darkness|
|XXXI||Gunga Ra the Pilot|
|XXXII||A Crash in the Night|
|XXXIII||The Man With the Yellow Face|
|XXXIV||The Rampacious Rhinoceros|
|XXXV||A Stage of Siege|
|XXXVI||A Battle Royal|
|XXXVII||On Broad Waters|
|XXXVIII||Furies Set Loose|
|XXXIX||Shot and Flame|
|XL||Birds of Prey|
|XLII||Snatched From the Flames|
|XLIV||A Hot Chase|
|XLV||A Thrilling Discovery|
|XLVI||Light on Darkness|
For hours Maurice -- he knew no other name -- had been keeping an anxious and weary vigil. His bronzed and clean-cut features, the handsome, intelligent face, that seemed misplaced amid such dingy surroundings, wore a look of strained expectancy. His thick brown hair was dishevelled, and his hazel eyes were struggling against drowsiness. He started eagerly up at every passing footstep, every slight noise without, only to drop back each time with a murmur of disappointment. Presently he rose and opened a small window to one side of the door. He thrust his head out and glanced right and left along the dismal street, but no one was visible except a native policeman, who was slowly receding in the gloom. Closing and bolting the wooden shutter, the lad stood for a few moments in hesitation.
"No use to wait any longer," he told himself. "He won't return till morning, so I may as well go to bed. The same old story. Tom has broken another promise, in spite of his word. It was an hour before dark when he took the rifle away to sell, and instead of bringing the money home he has squandered it on drink. No doubt he is lying now in some foul hole, stupid with liquor. And not a rupee in the house. What is going to become of us I don't know. The business has gone to wreck and ruin, and I am not fit for anything else, or I should have tried long ago to find employment."
The outer room bore witness to dire, strenuous poverty. The walls were quite bare, and the floor of hard-trodden earth was covered with coarse and well- worn matting. The chairs were falling to pieces, the dishes piled on a bench were cracked and empty, and except for a half loaf of bread there was no sign of food. Picking up the lamp, Maurice opened the door leading to the tiny apartment in the rear. A ray of light, streaming ahead of him, showed two charpoys. or native beds, a small teak-wood chest, and a shelf on which were a dozen volumes. He crossed the threshold, and then stopped in sudden alarm as a confused uproar, swelling nearer and louder, was heard at a distance. His face grew pale, and hastily putting the lamp on the chest, he ran to the street door and threw it open.
Here the tumult was more distinct. Off to the left, hoarse, angry cries and the patter of many feet were rising on the night air. Excited Hindoos, roused from sleep, swarmed out of the neighbouring houses. The clamour drew rapidly near, increasing in volume, and now, at the end of the street, a bunch of torches flashed into view. Behind the lurid jets of fire came a frenzied, maddened crowd, packing the narrow space from wall to wall. They surged forward with fierce yells.
"What can it mean?"
As the lad's trembling lips uttered the words, a sickening dread, a premonition of disaster to the only friend he had in the world, struck to his heart. And the next instant his worst fears were realized, for the object of the mob's fury and pursuit was seen to be an Englishman, whose long legs were keeping him well in advance of his enemies. He wore a faded blue coat and linen trousers that were ragged and soiled. He was bare-headed and empty-handed, and his grey hair and beard streamed to the wind. His once attractive features, now bloated and discoloured by drink, were stamped with abject despair and terror. He tore madly on, blood dripping from a number of wounds, and stones and spears whizzing about him. With his fist he levelled a couple of natives who attempted to block the way. A few more strides brought him opposite to Maurice, and swerving to one side he staggered into the hovel. The lad, following instantly, hurled the door shut and dropped a heavy bar across it.
"Tom, is it really you?" he cried, in a tone of anguish. "Tell me, what's wrong? What have you done? You are wounded and bleeding."
"Only stone cuts," panted the other, breathlessly. "But -- but I'm a dead man, Maurice. A weapon, for Heaven's sake! Here they come! Don't you hear the devils howling? They're after my life blood."
"They'll not harm you in your own house, surely."
"They'll kill us both. Both, you understand. There's no hope. God forgive me for bringing you to this. I had no right to seek refuge here. I should have turned off in another direction, gone anywhere else. But I lost my head, and now you've got to suffer for my sins. No, that shan't be, my boy. I'll make a bolt for it again --"
"Stop! it's too late," Maurice interrupted; and his voice was almost drowned by the deafening clamour outside.
"Too late," echoed his companion. "You're right there's only one thing left to do. Listen! The murderous wretches are at the back as well as in front, so it's useless to try to escape by the compound. They'll spare you, perhaps, after they've glutted their vengeance on me. You must hide from them, that's the thing."
His face was grey with fright as he dragged the lad into the adjoining room and closed the frail door. In a trice the two beds and the chest were stacked against it. Out in the street the ravenous mob, with unerring scent, had gathered before the house. Shouts of "Din! Din!" the Mohammedan battle-cry for the faith, rose loud and shrill.
"A weapon, my boy," screeched the man. "There ought to be one left."
His bloodshot eyes roved about the room. Maurice shook his head sadly. "You pawned the last pistol three days ago," he said, "and the rifle --"
"Ah, the rifle," interrupted the other. "That's been my undoing, lad. I got thirty rupees for it from a gunsmith in the Bhurra Bazaar. Then thirst, and the jingle of coin in my pocket, made me a demon. I drank and drank, until I was mad. And this is the end of poor old Tom Dayleford. It's a just penalty. I deserve it. Hark! they are attacking. I won't go under till I've spitted a couple of the dogs."
As the house shook under a rain of furious blows, Dayleford broke an iron bar from one of the charpoys and stood on the defensive.
"Don't talk like that, Tom," pleaded Maurice, with tears in his eyes. "The mob won't dare to break in. The police will soon arrive -- or soldiers from the nearest barracks."
"Not in time to save me," Dayleford cried fiercely. "I tell you I'm a dead man."
"But what have you done, Tom? Nothing to deserve death?"
"Ay, a thousand times over, according to native law. Listen, my boy, and you shall know for yourself. I'll spin the tale in a few words. After visiting pretty near every rum-shop in Calcutta to-night, and drinking till I was stupid and my money was spent or stolen, I set off for home. Naturally enough I blundered from the right track, and my cursed ill-luck led me to a Mohammedan mosque --"
He paused an instant as the shouts and pounding rose to a higher pitch. The lad's face blanched with terror, for already he guessed how the story was to end, and realized his friend's desperate plight.
"I sailed into the mosque as if I owned the place," huskily resumed Dayleford, "and when the priests came at me, making a rare hullaballoo, I lost my senses and saw red. I snatched a weapon from one old grey- bearded chap and ran him through with it. Two others I pitched into a corner, upsetting the sacred lamp. I knocked a big idol down, and jumped on it, and smashed the jewels out of its eyes. Then the liquor suddenly left my brain, and I knew what I had done. Away I went for dear life, with the mob howling at my heels. I was sober then, and I'm sober now. I'll die sober, lad."
"Don't talk of dying," cried Maurice. "There must be some means of escape, Tom. Quick! before it is too late."
His voice was stifled by a rending, splitting sound, by the snapping of beams and the fall of plaster, as the street door and the frail wall surrounding it yielded to the attack. The fanatics had broken into the house, and were in possession of the front room, whence came a rush of feet and yells of triumph and rage. The next instant the mob were beating against the inner door.
"The time is short now," exclaimed Dayleford. "If I had a quarter of an hour's grace I would tell you a secret that concerns yourself, that I should have told you long ago. I've been doing you a bitter wrong, my boy, all these years. Heaven forgive me! I meant to confess some day, but kept putting it off. My lips were tied -- sealed with hush money, ashamed as I am to say it. And there was another reason, another temptation. After I learned to care for you as if you had been my own son --" "Then you know who my parents were," Maurice eagerly interrupted.
"No, I don't know that. I might have helped you to find them, perhaps. But it's no use wishing for what can't be. Fool that I was, I never thought to put down a statement in writing. You remember Captain Bonnick and the 'Mary Shannon'?"
"Yes, Tom, clearly."
"Well, don't forget those two names. There's your clue, and if you stick to it --" The man broke off with a groan of agony. During the short interval, while he was speaking, the clamouring mob in the next room had rained blows without cessation. Wall and door were fast yielding.
"Where are the police?" cried Maurice.
"No hope from them," exclaimed Dayleford. "Lad, pull out that top mattress," he added, in a voice that rang above the tumult. "Throw it in yonder corner, and creep under it. Ten to one they'll overlook you. Quick ! quick!"
"No, I'm going to stand by you," vowed Maurice. He tore the bookshelf from the wall, scattering the volumes right and left, and ran to his companion's side.
There was no time for more futile words. Crash! crash! With a sickening, grinding noise in fell the splintered door, ripped from its fastenings and hinges. Down toppled chest and charpoys, and the glare of torches filled the little room. On and over the debris leapt the maddened natives, Moslems and Hindoos fraternizing in common cause, brandishing weapons and shouting the watchwords of their religions.
Dayleford's iron missile, swinging unerringly, split the skull of the foremost ruffian. As he let drive again a stone whizzed by his shoulder, and Maurice, who had been borne back a pace or two by the rush, received a hard but glancing blow on the temple. The book-shelf dropped from his nerveless grasp. Lights flashed before his eyes, all grew swiftly dark, and he reeled heavily to the floor, where he lay apparently lifeless.
Dayleford, seeing the lad go down, uttered a cry of rage and grief. He struck at another of his foes, a big Moslem, smashing the fellow's arm from wrist to elbow. Again he swung his weapon, and just then a keen-pointed knife, launched with great force, sank deeply into his chest. He staggered, throwing up his hands. As quickly the infuriated fanatics were upon him with spears and daggers, and in less time than it takes to tell a brave but misspent life had ended.
Maurice, still lying motionless on the floor, was at the mercy of the assassins, who, although they believed him to be dead, were worked up to such a pitch of religious wrath that they would probably have plunged their weapons into his body. But fortunately intervention was near, and it came in time to save the unconscious lad. Already the affray had turned to a formidable riot, spreading in different directions, and rousing the authorities to action. Alarm bells could be heard clanging, and the cries without of "Din! Din! Kill the Feringhees!" turned to "The police! The soldiers!"
The invaders, their fury glutted, hastily withdrew from Dayleford's house, to find the narrow street crowded with scores of Moslems, Hindoos, and outcast Eurasians. Without regard to race or caste this mixed mob offered eager battle to the police, who had by now arrived on the scene. Fighting was fierce and continuous until two companies of sepoy infantry, commanded by English officers, approached from a neighbouring barracks. This turned the tide. The mob had no inclination to face volleys of musketry, and as they sullenly and slowly retreated, a fire, started either by accident or design, broke out in one of the native dwellings. Fanned by the wind, the flames were quickly beyond control.
When the morning dawned a few minutes later the Calcutta fire-department were engaged with the stubborn conflagration, and the sepoys and police were chasing the dismembered body of rioters from street to street.
Then the memory of the night's terrible deeds came to the lad in a flash, and at the same instant he discovered Tom Dayleford. Creeping over to the disfigured body of the man who had been his only friend in the world, he called him vainly by name. Knowing that the pallid lips were sealed for ever, he sobbed bitterly between hoarse threats of vengeance on the murderers. He was so dazed by grief that he scarcely heard the noise and clamour outside, nor perceived the smoke that was drifting into the room.
The words, accompanied by the touch of a hand, woke Maurice from his stupor. He looked up to find himself in the presence of a young English officer and and three sepoys. "You've come too late," he muttered reproachfully. "I'm afraid so," the officer replied. "The man is dead, that's certain. Dayleford is the name, I believe. Are you any relation of his?"
"None, sir," the lad admitted, "but he has been the same as a father to me -- And now." The next instant, before more could be said, two fresh arrivals climbed over the debris by the fallen door. They were Englishmen, at a glance, and one was a tall, spare-limbed man of about forty-five, with sharp, shrewd features, and eyes as keen as a hawk's. He was wiry of movement, and his brown hair and moustache were slightly grizzled. His companion was several inches shorter and of heavier build, clean-shaven, and with a good-humoured face. Both were attired in clean white linen and sola-topees.
With an exclamation of sorrow the taller man bent over Dayleford.
"The report was only too true, Carruthers," he cried. "Here lies the poor fellow, dead and mutilated."
"A victim of his own folly," interposed the officer. "I've got to the bottom of the matter, and it seems that while intoxicated he wandered into a Mohammedan mosque and committed various outrages. You'll understand what was bound to follow after that. It's an ugly affair, and had best be kept quiet. No arrests have been made, nor are the assassins likely to be identified. They had plenty of provocation, it must be admitted. But you are intruding here," he added. "May I ask your business? And your names?"
"Certainly," replied the tall stranger, in a dry tone. "I am Dermot Tearle, agent for Carl Hamrach and Company, of London and Hamburg. This is my assistant, Luke Carruthers. Hamrach and Company deal in wild animals, and we trap and export them them for the firm."
"Ah, something in his line," suggested the officer, glancing towards the dead man.
"Exactly," said Tearle. "Our business with Dayleford was professional. We have known him for years, and intended to have paid him a visit to-day."
"He was a good fellow -- when not in drink," declared Carruthers.
Maurice had meanwhile been looking closely at the two strangers, with dawning recognition. The veil of the past was lifting. "Don't you remember me, my lad?" asked Tearle. "I saw you six or seven years ago, when poor Dayleford was in very different circumstances, and on several occasions since. I have been in other countries for a long period, and only yesterday landed at Calcutta." "Yes, I remember you," said Maurice. His voice broke, and his eyes filled with tears. "Tom, Tom," he sobbed piteously. "How I wish I could bring you back! You were the only friend I had. The only one. You were always good to me." He had not forgotten Dayleford's last words, his partial confession of wrong doing and his vain regrets; but his sorrow was none the less sincere on that account, nor did he cherish the slightest resentment.
Carruthers blinked suspiciously, and turned aside. "Have you no friends or relatives in Calcutta?" inquired Tearle. "In India?"
"None anywhere," Maurice told him. "I am alone in the world now."
"Cheer up, my boy," said the officer, kindly. "Come, we must be moving. The quarter is on fire and the flames are rapidly sweeping this way."
He was right. The roaring and hissing of the conflagration could be distinctly heard, and smoke was pouring faster into the house. Maurice looked about him helplessly.
"I'll take care of you for the present," the officer added, while Tearle and Carruthers whispered together. "The magistrates will require you to give evidence. There appears to be nothing here worth saving. Did the murdered man have any papers?"
"Not a scrap," Maurice replied. "Those few books are the only things of any value left."
"The pawnshop swallowed the rest," muttered the officer, in an undertone -- he had known something of Dayleford's habits. He examined the teak-wood chest, which contained worn-out clothing, and peered briefly into the wrecked front room. Then, perceiving a door at the rear of the house, he threw it open and entered a small courtyard surrounded by high walls. They bristled at the top with formidable iron spikes, set closely in rows, so that escape from the mob by this means would have been impossible, as Dayleford knew at the time.
"Stop! stop!" cried Maurice, who did not immediately see where the officer had gone. "Be careful! There's danger."
The warning was too late. With a rattling noise and a savage snarl a great tawny leopard, that was fastened to the wall at one side, bounded to the end of his chain, and leaping upon the officer's breast bore him heavily to the ground. With great presence of mind the man did not stir. He uttered a low, urgent appeal for help. The beast's open jaws were within several inches of his face, as one of the sepoys sprang forward and levelled his rifle, but before he could fire Maurice threw himself in front of him.
"Stand aside," he shouted. "I'll get the leopard away. Don't shoot."
The sepoy obeyed reluctantly when Tearle interfered in behalf of the lad, who was swift to seize the opportunity. He boldly advanced, and struck the crouching animal a smart blow on the nose.
"Back, Lachme!" he cried, sternly. "How dare you misbehave? Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"
For an instant the beautiful brute hesitated, and then, growling sullenly, it left its victim and retreated against the wall.
"Well done!" approved Tearle.
"The lad is a born trainer," exclaimed Carruthers.
The officer rose quickly to his feet, unhurt save for a couple of scratches.
"Shoot that beast," he directed; and up went the sepoy's rifle.
"Stop! stop! don't kill Lachme," begged Maurice. "We are fond of each other, and that is why Tom never sold him."
The officer hesitated, the sepoy waiting stolidly.
"The lad's courage probably saved your life," said Tearle. "Moreover, the leopard represents a part of the dead man's property, and is worth money."
This statement cooled the officer's wrath, and having countermanded his order he re-entered the house, leaving Maurice to put a wire muzzle on Lachme and unfasten his chain. Meanwhile an inspector of police and two of his men had arrived, and the task of removing Dayleford's few effects and the dead bodies -- the Moslem in the doorway had breathed his last -- was turned over to them. Without further delay the officer's little party, which included Tearle and his companion, set off to the barracks, making a detour to avoid the burning area. Quite a crowd followed, attracted by the curious spectacle of the leopard and its young master.
Lachme was chained up in the barracks yard, and after promising to see the lad again, Tearle departed with Carruthers. In spite of his grief Maurice was able to enjoy a hearty breakfast, and then, worn out by what he had gone through, he went to bed and slept soundly for the greater part of the day. He was wakened by a fanfare of bugles, and from his his [sic] window -- he was in the officers' quarters -- he could see the white-clad sepoys passing to and fro in the court below him. The sun was sinking in the west, and over the scene of the destructive fire a few wisps of smoke were lazily floating.
At nine o'clock the next morning Maurice was taken before the civil authorities, represented by a bench of magistrates, who had met to hold an inquiry into the cause of Dayleford's death and the subsequent rioting. Dermot Tearle, true to his word, was present with Carruthers, and there were other witnesses as well. The first part of the proceedings dealt with the sacrilege committed in the mosque, the flight of the intoxicated Englishman, and his death at the hands of the enraged mob. The comments of the magistrates, though not to Maurice's liking, were founded on precedent and justice. The validity of native law was acknowledged by the government of India, and it was well understood that the arrest of the Mohammedan priests, whose holy place had been outraged and defiled, would lead to serious trouble, such as had recently occurred, with much bloodshed and loss of life, at Allahabad and Benares. So the question of taking steps to punish the guilty parties -- there was not a chance in a thousand of identifying any of them -- was discreetly waived for the time being and the inquiry was resumed on other lines.
The meagre facts concerning the murdered man were soon established. As far as could be ascertained he had no relatives, and, indeed, very little was known of him. According to Dermot Tearle's testimony, Tom Dayleford had begun business in Calcutta twelve or thirteen years before, as a dealer in wild beasts. He was accustomed to trap them himself in the Bengal jungles, with the aid of native hunters, and he disposed of them to Hamrach and Company and to similar firms. He was a man of considerable education, but he had never spoken of his early life.
"I may be wrong," Tearle concluded, "but I have an idea that he had been a soldier, and that he deserted from his regiment, soon after it was ordered to India, owing to a quarrel with an officer who misused him."
Maurice was called up next, and his pathetic story, reluctantly drawn from him by a series of questions, was listened to with close attention and interest.
"I have no other name," he said, "and I don't know who my parents were. I can recollect scarcely anything about my childhood, and even that little seems like a dream. When I was very small I used to travel through the country -- it was in England -- with a circus and menagerie. I think my father was with me, though I am not sure. There were caravans, and wild animals, and people who performed in a ring. Then, one day, a strange man with a black moustache, whom I was afraid of, took me with him on a railway train. We came to a great city, which I believe was London, and there I was put aboard a ship. It was called the 'Mary Shannon,' and the captain's name was Bonnick."
"How long were you on this vessel?" asked one of the magistrates.
"Four years, sir, as nearly as I can remember. Captain Bonnick treated me cruelly, and would never tell me anything about myself, or let me ask any questions. Whenever the ship was in port I was locked up below until we had put to sea again. It went on like that until the 'Mary Shannon' sailed up the Hooghly -- it was her third or fourth trip to India. A couple of nights later, when we were anchored off Calcutta, the captain said that he had a new master for me. He took me ashore and left me with Tom Dayleford."
"When was this, my boy?"
"Eight years ago," Maurice replied. "A different life began then. Tom told me I must not ask any questions, and neither of us talked of our past lives. He was as kind as a father to me. He taught me to read and write, and to handle a rifle, and showed me how to trap wild beasts and birds and serpents. For five years I went with him on every trip he made to the jungles, until he -- he started to drink hard. He had to sell his cages and animals and discharge the native hunters. We moved to a mean part of Calcutta, and got poorer and poorer. Only Lachme was left, and Tom wouldn't sell him on my account. Then, last evening, he went away --"
At this point Maurice's voice broke, and his eyes filled with tears. He was compelled to stop, and gladly sat down. He hoped that the interrogation was finished, for he meant to be unselfishly loyal to his dead friend, and was determined to say nothing of Dayleford's last words.
The magistrates spent a brief time in considering what should be done with the young waif, but before they had come to any conclusion the problem was unexpectedly solved. Tearle and his companion approached Maurice, and the former, putting a hand on his shoulder, said kindly:
"My lad, I am going to make you an offer, and I trust you won't refuse it. If you spent eight years with poor Dayleford, and accompanied him on his trips to the jungle, you must have picked up ample and valuable experience."
"Tom often told me," Maurice modestly admitted, "that I knew as much about the business as himself."
"Good! Then you are just the chap we're looking for. We need an extra man, and you shall enter Hamrach and Company's employment at once, and have a small salary to start with."
"It is a fine life, though it means hard work some- times, and plenty of risk," put in Carruthers. "But you are used to it, and know what to expect. He will go up-country with us immediately, eh, Dermot?"
"Yes, in a few days. You shall keep Lachme, my boy we will take good care of the beast. And furthermore, since I'm interested in your story, at the first opportunity I'll help you to trace the mystery of your birth to discover your parents if they are still alive. Come, what is your answer?"
"The answer is yes," Maurice cried, his face brightening. "How can I thank you? I will serve you faithfully and work hard. It would please Tom to know that I am provided for."
He ratified the bargain by shaking hands with his new friends, who did not conceal the satisfaction the lad's decision gave them.
The matter was speedily arranged with the magistrates, and the three left the court. They proceeded first to the sepoy barracks, where they stopped to get the leopard, and then went on to the suburb of Kidderpore, by the Hooghly River. Here, close to the water, was a large warehouse belonging to the famous firm of animal dealers. In this wild beasts were stored, preparatory to shipping them to London and Hamburg. Tearle and Carruthers, with a corps of native employees, had quarters in an adjoining building.
That evening poor Dayleford was buried, and now Maurice fully realized that a new life had opened before him.
Within forty-eight hours after Tom Dayleford was laid to rest, Tearle and Carruthers left Calcutta, taking Maurice with them, and also their two favourite Hindoo shikarees, Sher Singh and Fazl Khan, who had been in Hamrach and Company's employ for several years. The native servants remained at the warehouse, in charge of a small number of animals that were awaiting shipment.
The railway journey up-country, a matter of between five and six hundred miles, was broken at Mahdpur and thence resumed to Hazarabad, the terminus of a branch line. The party were now in the Multanpur district of the Northwest Provinces in a neighbourhood of hills and dense jungles that stretched to the distant slopes of the Himalayas, and were known to be infested with wild beasts. Tearle had a large order to fill -- including at least one brace of tigers -- and he lost no time in setting to work. Native assistants were hired at Hararabad, and the village carpenters began to build strong wooden cages. As soon as these were ready, and supplied with spans of oxen, the hunters moved a dozen miles to the south and established a camp in the heart of the jungle. Neither Maurice nor his two friends having been in this particular part of India before, they were unaware of the fact -- it was one of little or no importance under ordinary circumstances -- that they had crossed the border-line of the small native state of Scranghur, ruled, with the usual limitations, by the Raja of that name.
Here commenced the actual labours. Within a radius of eight miles deep pitfalls were dug and large traps constructed, the former being covered over with brush and leaves, while the latter, shaped somewhat like a mouse-trap, acted on the same principle. At the end of a fortnight half of the wooden cages were occupied. The pitfalls had yielded a young elephant and a pair of buffaloes, and a panther and a leopard had been taken in the traps. The animals were driven singly into the cages and hauled to camp by strings of oxen, which was, as may be imagined, a tedious and difficult task, in some instances a road having to be cut through the jungle. To Tearle's disappointment tigers were apparently scarce, and as yet none had been seen. But he was determined to succeed, and kept the shikarees scouring the surrounding country; himself, with Maurice and Carruthers, meanwhile looking after the captives and providing them with the green stuff and flesh that they required for their food.
In the evenings, when work was done and the toilers were gathered about the camp-fire, Maurice had many a long chat with his friends, and the feelings of mutual good comradeship steadily ripened. The conversation often turned on the lad's early life, but he could recall little more than he had told the magistrates, and even that was beginning to fade from his mind.
During this comparatively uneventful period, there occurred an incident which Maurice had good cause never to forget. Among the cages was one that had been specially fitted up for the reception of reptiles, and on a certain day a snake-hunt was planned. The spot chosen was a sandy, open space in the jungle, not far off, covered with tall, parched grass and clumps of rock. Tearle posted his companions about this, and the grass having been set fire to at one side, it was not long until a swarm of ugly serpents came hissing and wriggling from their lairs. There was great excitement and scurrying to and fro. The natives, carrying long poles to which were attached hoops and bags, like huge butterfly nets, skilfully pursued and caught the many coloured snakes.
In the midst of the sport Sher Singh let fall his net, and as he sank to one knee to recover it a great cobra shot out of a rock cleft, rising erect from its coils. That the Hindoo was not immediately bitten was nothing short of miraculous. But the reptile, possessed by some strange freak, did not strike. Its reared head was less than a foot from the man's face. Its beady eyes sparkled, its fangs darted in and out, and its spotted head swelled with anger. Sher Singh, with wonderful presence of mind, remained in his crouching attitude, motionless as a graven image. Not a muscle quivered, though his face turned the hue of ashes. Knowing that the slightest move would mean death, his mental agony must have been terrible.
Thus man and reptile confronted each other for perhaps a quarter of a minute, until Maurice, who was ten feet to the left, suddenly discovered the Hindoo's peril. He dare not step an inch closer. He had just one chance, and that a slim one. His net was in one hand, and with the other he drew a revolver from his belt, cocked it, and taking a careful aim fired.
The report rang sharply, and simultaneously the cobra dropped in a writhing mass, shot through the head. Sher Singh's muscles relaxed and he toppled over backward, to rise the next instant as cool and impassive as ever.
"You saved my life, Maurice Sahib," said he. "Sher Singh will not forget. He will always be your friend and protector."
"That's good of you," Maurice replied carelessly, "but I don't see that I've done anything to earn your eternal gratitude. It was an easy shot, and I should have been ashamed of myself had I missed." With a shrug of the shoulders the Hindoo picked up his net, and the sport went on as if nothing had happened. Others had witnessed the episode, however, and that same evening it was the talk of the camp-fire.
Nearly a score of serpents were taken, and within a day or two they were packed carefully in sacks, between layers of matting, and sent down to Calcutta. In the course of the week that followed Sher Singh stuck to Maurice's heels like a faithful hound, keeping constantly on the alert to guard him against possible harm, and rarely letting him out of sight.
The tigers still eluded capture, and Tearle, finally, growing weary of such prolonged ill-luck, set off one morning on an expedition to a wilder region in the north. He took Sher Singh and half a dozen natives with him, but Maurice, to his keen disappointment, was left behind to look after Carruthers, who was suffering from a mild attack of jungle fever.
Early the next day a Hindoo came into camp with stirring news. He was the head man of a village five miles to the south east, and he declared that a man- eating tiger was ravaging that neighbourhood, which Tearle's shikarees had omitted to visit. The beast had frequently been seen, and was a splendid specimen, full-grown and in the prime of life. It had killed several persons, besides cattle and goats.
"I knew that you were encamped here, Sahibs, the Hindoo concluded," and on learning that you wished to take a tiger alive I started at once to bring the news."
Maurice's suggestion to despatch a messenger in search of Tearle was firmly opposed by Carruthers.
"No, I have a better plan," he said. "There is no time to waste, for the brute may go elsewhere. You know perfectly well what to do, so you must accompany this fellow to his village and capture the tiger yourself. It is hard luck, this fever, which ties me to my bed. But I am much better, and you need not fear to leave me."
Maurice hesitated at first, and then, secretly delighted, he accepted the task and vowed that he would do his best to succeed. He chose Fazl Khan and three natives to assist him, and with as little delay as possible they set off, taking with them a cage filled with tools and other material, and drawn by four bullocks. The guide, whose name was Ramput, conducted them by a rugged and circuitous way, and on reaching their destination at sunset they found the village in a state of terror. Twenty-four hours earlier the tiger had carried off and devoured a poor grass-cutter, and for fear that it would return to seek a fresh victim, the people dared not venture outside their doors.
The head man assigned a hut to his guests, and they slept through the night without alarm. Rising at break of day, Maurice hired extra natives, loading some with the tools and instructing others to fell a number of young trees. Ramput led the party to the spot where the grass-cutter had been seized a small jungle-glade, half a mile from the village. Dried blood was visible amid the grass, and near by was a nullah or water-course. There was every reason to believe that the man-eater was sleeping somewhere in the vicinity of his latest exploit.
For hours, under Maurice's supervision, the natives worked hard, while Fazl Khan kept constant vigil with a loaded rifle. The logs were cut at a distance on the farther side of the village and carried as noiselessly as possible to the place where they were required. By the close of the afternoon the trap was finished, and to the lad's satisfaction. The heavy door was lifted, and so arranged that it would crash down through the grooves directly the mechanism below was sprung. Then, having fastened a bleating goat inside the doorway, and a couple of yards back, Maurice and his companions returned to the village.
Another night passed quietly, and at the first streak of dawn -- the lad had been astir even before that -- a motley procession might have been seen wending its way through the jungle, led by Maurice and the head man. Some of the natives, too impatient to wait, quickened their pace and disappeared in front, and soon afterwards they begun to clamour and cheer.
"The tiger is caught!" exclaimed Ramput. "We have him! The wicked man-eater will trouble us no more."
"It must be true, Sahib," cried Fazl Khan, as the rest of the party came in sight of the glade. "The door has fallen."
Maurice ran forward, shouting for joy, and out-distancing the others he marched boldly up to the trap, which nobody had as yet dared to inspect at close range. He heard a rasping snarl, and then a deep, angry roar, as he stooped down and put his eyes to a crevice of the logs. There was the mangled carcase of the goat, half-devoured -- Ah ! and there, sure enough, was the tiger, securely caught. He was bounding from side to side, vainly seeking to escape. A prize indeed ! A monstrous fellow, plump and shapely, with superb stripes. The Hindoos crowded about the spot, their dusky faces reflecting the lad's pleasure.
With an air of importance and pride Maurice gave instructions.
"Fetch the cage here as quickly as you can," he said to the head man. "Take your people with you, Ramput, and don't let them come back -- except as many as you need to help you. They will only scare the tiger, and make it harder to transfer him. All shall have a look at him in good time. Fazl Khan," he added, "you and I, with our own men, will remain to watch the trap."
Ramput and his followers obediently took themselves off, and in considerably less than an hour they returned the head man and six companions bringing the cage and the bullocks.
"Now then, get to work," directed Maurice.
A fire had meanwhile been started, in which to heat the irons that might be required. The movable part of the cage was lifted from the trucks and put in position against the front end of the trap, and a little later, just as the heavy door was about to be raised from above, an unpleasant interruption occurred.
Two men stepped quietly out of the thickets sur rounding the glade. One was a lean, elderly native and the other, whose swarthy features proclaimed him to be a Portuguese, was tall, powerful, and sinister-looking, clad in blue flannels and hunting boots, and wearing his dark beard cut to a point. He carried a rifle and pistols, and a large leather wallet was slung over his shoulder.
A brief glance told the new arrivals what was taking place, and the Portuguese scowled with vexation.
"Have you the man-eater there?" he demanded, approaching Maurice.
"Yes," the lad replied. "I trapped him last night."
"He is my property," angrily declared the Portuguese, "and I claim him. This fellow," indicating his companion, "brought news of the tiger to my camp yesterday. I set off with him at once, and we have been travelling through the night. Am I to have my trouble for nothing? No. The beast is mine."
"But we heard of him two days ago," exclaimed Maurice, trying to keep cool at this threatening crisis. It is impossible that you can have the slightest claim to the tiger. You must admit that, Senor Antonio Silva. The animal's real owner is Dermot Tearle."
At the mention of Tearle's name the Portuguese started, and his eyes flashed dangerously for an instant.
"You know me?" he muttered. "Ah, yes, you are the lad who lived with Tom Dayleford in Calcutta, I have seen you there. And now that Dayleford is dead, it appears that you are in the employ of Hamrach and Company. How is that?"
Maurice offered a brief explanation, and all the while he was quaking inwardly, for he knew the Portuguese to be a most unscrupulous rascal.
Antonio Silva listened with an evil smile. "You deserve your good fortune," he said, "but I can do better for you. I am the agent, as you know, of Richter and Moss, the great firm of New York and Liverpool. My headquarters are at Madras, and my temporary camp is a few miles from here. If you join me you shall have a large salary, for I believe you are worth it. The matter is easily settled. We take the tiger and be off. Come, what do you say?"
"I am no traitor," Maurice replied. "That is my answer."
The Portuguese, with a harsh laugh, opened his leather wallet and showed that it was filled with coin.
"One hundred rupees, cash down," he said, "if you accept."
"Put up your money," Maurice told him con temptuously. "I am not to be bought."
Silva shrugged his shoulders, implying that he would waste no more breath on the lad. His keen eyes scanned the group for a moment, and then, shrewdly selecting Fazl Khan, he turned to him with his hands full of silver.
"Fifty rupees for you, and ten each for the others," he said. "There's a chance for you. I want the tiger, and all you need do is to haul him to my camp the cage will be returned to its owner. But as many of you as are working for Dermot Tearle can remain with me, if you wish. I will pay you well."
Fazl Khan, treacherous dog that he was, promptly yielded to the temptation and opened his palms for the promised reward. This was too much for Maurice. His anger roused beyond control, he sprang forward and threw himself between the two, dealing the greedy shikaree a blow that sent the coins flying out of his hands.
You scoundrel," he cried, confronting Silva, "leave my men alone."
"The bantam cock crows loudly," said Antonio Silva, with a sneer, "but we'll see who wins in the end. The tiger is mine, and since you won't be reasonable, I'll have to make sure that you don't carry any tales back to Dermot Tearle. I'll give you a last chance, you obstinate dog, and if you still refuse I'll slit your throat as I would a --"
"Coward!" exclaimed Maurice, perceiving the other's hand dropping stealthily to his side; and with that, in his hot anger, he struck him a blow on the mouth. It was a mad thing to do, and as swiftly he realized the folly of it.
But the sober impulse came too late. Silva snarled like a wild beast and uttered a fearful oath. With blood oozing to his cut lips, his features hideous and distorted, he whipped a long-bladed hunting knife from his belt. Maurice quickly withdrew several paces and swung his rifle over his shoulder, ready to meet the threatened attack.
"Keep off," he cried. "I warn you in time."
He had no sooner spoken than the rifle was jerked from his grasp by Fazl Khan, who had treacherously crept up behind the lad. Maurice was now defenceless, and the Portuguese, with murder in his eyes, was about to leap at him. He threw one glance towards the perfidious natives, and instantly abandoned all hope of aid from that quarter. There was but a single chance left, and he took it. He turned, dodging a blow from Fazl Khan, and darted at full speed across the glade.
"Stop him! Catch him!" roared Silva. "Twenty rupees to the man that brings him back."
The loud offer, and the greedy cries that followed, spurred Maurice to harder efforts. A rifle cracked, and the ball whistled close to his head. A pistol began to bark at him, and the rapidly-fired chambers punctuated every stride that he made towards freedom and safety. None of the shots struck him, however, and soon he plunged into the green leafy shelter of the jungle.
Fortunately for the lad, his adventurous experiences during the past years had taught him some knowledge of scientific running. He sped on and on as fast as the tangled vegetation would permit, bearing frequently to right or left. At intervals he heard the trampling and shouting of his pursuers, now in one direction and now in another, until he was convinced that they had quite surrounded him. Still hopeful of escape, with courage undaunted, he crept on his stomach into a clump of dense grass and found a safe hiding-place between two stones.
Here the young fugitive lay for three or four hours, while his determined enemies scoured the neighbourhood, and frequently drew near the spot. Once the Portuguese and Fazl Khan passed close to the thicket in which he was concealed, and he feared lest the loud beating of his heart should betray him.
"I'm as good as dead if I fall into Silva's hands," he told himself, "for rather than let me get back to camp, and report what has happened, the ruffian would kill me without mercy."
The sounds of pursuit gradually faded away, and at the end of another hour, when all was quiet, Maurice ventured forth from his shelter. His situation was deplorable. He was in the midst of a dark and tangled jungle that was infested with wild beasts and serpents. He lacked food and weapons, having lost his rifle during his flight. But his inborn pluck kept him in good heart; and indeed he was too indignant to think of anything but how to turn the tables on his foes.
"We'll see who gets the tiger in the end," he muttered. "By this time Silva and his hired traitors have doubtless made off with the cage and the animal, so I'll strike a bee-line for camp. I know what Dermot Tearle will do. Silva and that scoundrel Fazl Khan will feel pretty sore before we've finished with them."
He started off, hesitated, and stopped. To head for camp in a bee-line was easier said than done. How was he to find the way? The gloom of the jungle was like twilight, and overhead was an unbroken sheet of intermatted foliage. A grey glimmer filtered through -- that was all. However, after wandering aimlessly for twenty minutes, he came upon a wide-girthed tree, into which he climbed high, until he could catch a glimpse of the sun. Its position indicated several hours past noon-day.
Maurice had his bearings now, and knew that time was too precious to be wasted. Descending from the tree he set off briskly in the proper direction, and for hours plodded the mazy recesses of the jungle, guided by an occasional peep at the sun. But the distance was far, and he perforce made slow progress. As evening approached, perceptibly deepening the shadows, he realized that it was impossible for him to reach the camp that night. He shuddered at the thought of the perils that encompassed him -- perils at which the bravest of men in like circumstances must have quailed.
Twilight roused the savage guardians of the jungle and brought them forth from their lairs. Far and near they woke the sleeping echoes. A tiger roared thunderously, and a leopard answered with a plaintive wail. A great serpent wriggled through the grass with a hissing noise. The earth shook as a troop of elephants went crashing and trumpeting across the lad's front on their way to a drinking pool.
With a fast-beating heart, glancing fearfully to right and left, Maurice stumbled on his course, trying to keep his wits about him. His only hope, he knew well, was to find a tree large and stout enough to afford him shelter until morning. In vain he sought for one; all were undersized saplings that would have swayed down with his weight. A dry twig snapped behind him, and fancying that he heard stealthy, pattering footsteps, he began to run.
It was a blind, mad race, for sheer terror had robbed him of his self-possession. Stones bruised his ankles. Thorny bushes lacerated his hands and face, and blades of sword-grass cut like knives into his flesh. Twice he fell headlong, but rose and staggered forward. Suddenly his feet encountered something soft and yielding, and he felt himself to be sinking. He flung up his arms with a shrill cry, and then down he plunged -- down through empty space -- to land heavily on his head and shoulders. His brain reeled, and he remembered no more.
Consciousness returned to Maurice as to one waking from a troubled sleep. He stirred, sat up with an effort, and looked about him. He recalled his terror, and the subsequent flight through the jungle, but could not tell how long a time had elapsed since his as yet mysterious accident, though he judged that it might be as much as half an hour, from the fact that the moon was casting a bright glimmer on the tree-tops high above him.
His back was sore, and his limbs and head ached. He was keenly alive to the pangs of thirst and hunger, which were beyond his power to assuage. But fortunately no bones were broken, as he thankfully realized when he rose to his feet. The next thing was to investigate his present whereabouts, and in a few moments, his eyes growing accustomed to the gloom, he solved the problem, uttering an exclamation of astonishment as he discovered that he had stumbled into a native pitfall built for the purpose of catching tigers. It was probably an old and neglected one, since it was not baited, as was the custom, with a live goat or kid.
"That's all the better for me," thought Maurice.
Here and there lay loose brush and bamboo poles, part of the covering that he had brought down with him in his blind descent. The pit was ten feet deep, by perhaps twelve in width and twenty in length, and on the bottom were planted a dozen upright and sharp- pointed stakes, the meaning of which was obvious. That the lad had escaped being impaled on one of these was little short of miraculous. He made several futile attempts to climb the smooth, sheer walls of his prison, and then concluded that he was better off where he was.
"It's not such a bad place to spend the night," he reflected. "Wild animals are not likely to molest me here."
He had gathered a double armful of brush for bedding, and was about to carry it to one corner of the pit, when he heard a wheezing, shuffling noise. Frightened, he dropped his burden and looked up. A bar of moonlight was filtering through the jungle, and the silvery glow revealed a terrifying sight. On the brink of the pit stood a monstrous tiger, as immovable as though carved out of brass. Its eyes, like living coals, stared into the lad's own.
A fraction of a minute passed, neither uttering a sound, until the tiger opened its great jaws and gave a roar that echoed far through the jungle. Maurice dashed in fright to the opposite side of the pit, and as quickly the beast circled around after him. It was plainly ravenous with hunger and in search of a meal. For a time this grimly-sportive game continued, the lad dodging in all directions among the stakes, the tiger following tenaciously and with frequent roars.
It seemed that there could be but one ending to the contest, and Maurice shivered at the thought of it. He was losing strength and courage, and in vain he uttered shout upon shout ; his voice merely inflamed the passions of his foe. Suddenly the brute crouched for a spring, its long body violently agitated, and as the lad leapt blindly, desperately away he saw over his shoulder the shadow of a flying form, and heard a sickening, crunching noise. Recoiling from contact with the nearest wall of earth, he turned to behold a welcome sight -- his ferocious enemy fast on the jagged stakes, impaled through fore and hind quarters.
"Thank Heaven!" he murmured.
For a few moments the beast struggled in the throes of its death agony, biting and bending the stakes and roaring with pain till the jungle re-echoed, while Maurice looked on with a dreadful fascination. Then the majestic head dropped limply, and as the last scream died out in a moan, a second tiger, huge and striped, appeared on the edge of the pitfall.
This was evidently the mate of the dead animal, and without doubt the tigress understood what had happened to her lord, and was determined to wreak vengeance. She fixed her burning eyes on the lad, and roared with grief and rage; then pattered round and round the brink, seeking a place to descend.
As the moon rose higher the silvery glow brightened around the verge of the pit. The tigress was a large and beautiful creature, and the lad could not help but admire her savage charms, hard pressed though he was to keep at the farthest possible distance from her monstrous head and paws. He slipped from side to side, taking care that several of the stakes were always between him and his enemy. He tried to pull one of them out of the ground, thinking that it might serve as a useful weapon, but it was planted too deeply to be moved. Meanwhile the brute's rage increased, and she roared long and often, waking a chorus of frightened snarls and cries from the prowling animals of the jungle.
Maurice still retained his presence of mind. He watched every movement of the foe, and now and then he fashioned a trumpet of his hands and shouted as loudly as he could; for he had a faint hope that a native village might be within hearing. Presently, growing weary of futile trotting from point to point, the tigress paused for a moment. She squatted on her hind-quarters, and thrust her head and fore-paws over the edge of the hole just like a great cat. She quivered in every limb, and lashed her splendid tail ; her eyes flashed fire, and her double rows of ivories shone white in the moon's rays. Now she crept a little closer, preparing to drop lightly into the pit.
Maurice retreated behind the farthest stakes, and there, trembling with ghastly fear, he awaited the end. An irresistible fascination held his gaze on the animal, on the huge jaws which he believed would shortly rend his body apart. A few seconds passed, and to the doomed lad they seemed as many minutes. But just as the tigress was ready for the leap, when fate was trembling in the balance, the borders of the jungle rustled and snapped and a yellow light suddenly shone forth. Maurice, dazed for an instant, could scarcely credit his good luck. He saw the tawny beast wheel round and vanish. He heard hoarse shouting and a rifle-shot, blended with a ferocious, blood- curdling roar. Fire-arms rang twice. There was another roar, a brief scuffle, and all was still.
The flickering light approached the pit, and a hand appeared grasping a flaming torch. Two dusky faces looked down at the lad, and recognizing Fazl Khan and the evil-eyed servant of the Portuguese, he uttered a cry of joy. He was their prisoner, perhaps, but they had saved him from a horrible death. At the moment the sight of even Antonio Silva himself would have been welcome.
Fazl Khan took off his kummerbund, and lowered the silken folds into the pit, when Maurice tied a noose under his arms and was drawn to the top. He saw the corpse of the tigress lying near, then turned to his rescuers, and noted with uneasiness their sinister expressions.
"I had a close shave of it," he said. "You got here just in the nick of time. Are you coming back to camp with me, Fazl Khan?"
The Hindoo scowled, and glanced at his companion. " I will make your peace with Tearle," Maurice added. "He will forgive all when he learns how you saved my life."
"The young Sahib must die," declared Fazl Khan, with brutal frankness. "The Portuguese Sahib has said it. I am his servant now. And I hate Tearle Sahib, for once he beat me."
His eyes flashed at the recollection.
Realizing his awful plight, Maurice felt a sickening chill of horror course through his veins. He saw no chance of escape. Both of his captors were armed, and they would shoot him if he attempted to dash into the jungle. For an instant his brain was busy and fertile. At all hazards he must gain time.
"How did you find me?" he asked with forced composure.
"Mervanji is a jungle fellow," replied the shikaree, indicating his tawny comrade. "He has the scent of a jackal and the sight of a serpent. The Portuguese Sahib sent us on your trail. He bade us kill you, and bring him your head as a proof."
"Dead men betray not the living," croaked Mervanji, in a sepulchral voice. "It is written that you must perish, Sahib."
He looked intently at Fazl Khan, as if expecting a signal.
The lad's courage was ebbing fast. He knew that the ruffians would do anything for greed of gold. But life was sweet, and he hated to yield it up to this pair of hired assassins.
"If you murder me the crime will be discovered," he said hoarsely. "Fazl Khan, save my life. I have never done you an injury. Take me to my friends, and I swear that you shall have as many rupees as you may demand."
The Hindoo obstinately shook his head, and Maurice saw that further pleading would be useless. He drew a deep breath, glanced at the surrounding jungle, and nerved himself for a rapid dash. But Fazl Khan, shrewdly divining the lad's purpose, suddenly seized him from behind, pinning his arms together. A brief struggle, noisy and desperate, ensued. It availed Maurice nothing, for he was like a child in the grip of the powerful shikaree.
"The rope," cried Fazl Khan. "Be quick, Mervanji."
From the folds of his tunic the native produced a thin, silken lariat, with a running noose at one end. The lad cried out with horror, and renewed his puny efforts to break away. He had recognized Mervanji, by a peculiar daub of red ochre on his breast, as a Thug -- as one of that terrible sect of stranglers who have plied their nefarious vocation in India for centuries.
A hideous, gloating smile illumined Mervanji's evil countenance as, thrusting his torch into the ground, he approached with the rope. In vain Maurice made a last, frantic attempt to escape. The noose was slipped deftly over his head and he felt it tightening about his throat. He tried to shout, but only a choking sound came from his lips. Lights flashed before his eyes.
"Harder," said Fazl Khan. "Finish him quickly."
Crack! There was a jet of flame and smoke, and a sharp report, from a thicket close to the right.
Mervanji dropped the end of the silken rope on which he was pulling, and with a gasping cry he bounded in air, clutching at his chest. Again he leapt, clearing the brink of the pit and toppling into space. Two of the sharpened stakes instantly spitted the Thug's body, but he was dead before they touched him.
Terrified by the fate of his companion, Fazl Khan glanced in the direction whence the shot had come. He thrust the lad from him and took to his heels, not even waiting to snatch his rifle. A bullet whistled after him as he ran like a madman and vanished in the gloomy shadows.
The next moment, while Maurice stood swaying on his feet, dizzy and half-suffocated, a tall, dusky figure in white turban and waist-cloth, holding a smoking weapon, sprang into the glare of the torch. It was Sher Singh, and in a frenzy of delight he embraced the lad and tore the noose from his throat.
"Thank God!" Maurice exclaimed huskily. "And you, Sher Singh! Why, I can hardly believe that I am alive. What a night I've had! Are the others with with you? Where are they?"
"Encamped in the jungle, at no great distance from here," replied the faithful Hindoo. "I will tell you how it happened, Maurice Sahib. We returned from our expedition at midday, having met with no luck, and on learning that you had set off in search of a tiger, Tearle Sahib prepared to follow. We started shortly and travelled until sundown, when I was reluctant to stop. Fearing that you might encounter anger and be in need of help, I pressed on alone --"
"You faced the night perils of the jungle for my sake?" interrupted Maurice.
"Why not, Sahib? Something seemed to bid me come. I was led as if by an invisible hand, until, at last, I heard your cries. Then I extinguished my torch and hastened to the spot, just as the assassins were about to murder you."
"Your faithfulness saved my life," said Maurice.
"Does the Sahib forget the cobra?" quietly replied Sher Singh. "I am always your slave. My life belongs to you."
Maurice was not a little touched by this devotion; he was beginning to realize how far he had sounded the depths of an Oriental's gratitude. He described his thrilling adventures, and Sher Singh's usual stolidity gave way to unmeasured indignation. He invoked the wrath of his gods on the Portuguese and the perfidious natives.
After a glance at the dead tigers and the body of Mervanji the Thug, the lad and his rescuer set off for the distant camp, Maurice taking possession of Fazl Khan's rifle. It was a long and weary tramp, though not a dangerous one, since they carried firearms and blazing torches. About midnight they reached their destination, where they found Dermot Tearle and a force of eight natives. Carruthers was mending rapidly, but he had been left behind in charge of the main camp. The lad eagerly ate and drank, the while he told his story, and then he threw himself in a corner of the tent and slept like a log. Tearle's placid nature was roused to a pitch of fury, and it did not take him long to decide on a plan of action, which he communicated to his companions at early day-break. A little later the party were travelling through the jungle, bound on an expedition to recover the stolen tiger and to punish Antonio Silva and his treacherous allies. They pressed on as fast as possible, since it was expected that Fazl Khan had already reached Silva's camp and put him on his guard.
This welcome addition raised Tearle's party to twenty-two. Of his own natives four carried rifles, as did himself. Maurice, and Sher Singh. He eagerly gave the word to start, and wrath had so blinded him to prudence that he forgot the consequences which might result from taking the law into his own hands; nor did he remember that he was within the territory and jurisdiction of the Raja of Seranghur.
In very unmilitary fashion the savage band straggled out of the village, and made a brief halt at the scene of Maurice's late adventure, where the tiger trap lay in ruins. From this point the wheel-ruts of the stolen cage were easily followed, and the guide led the way at a rapid pace. The march was steadily kept up for three hours and more, along a tangled and rugged path, and then, the jungle-growth becoming thinner, the trail of the robbers emerged suddenly on a large open space that was trampled by many feet and scarred with recent fires. It was Antonio Silva's deserted camp-ground.
"What horrible luck!" cried Tearle. "The ruffian has fled."
"Yes, we're a little too late," assented Maurice, "but they can't be far ahead."
Sher Singh made a thorough examination of the clearing. "They have been gone two hours -- not so much perhaps, he reported. "Behold, Tearle Sahib, the ashes of the fire are quite warm."
"Good!" exclaimed Tearle. "I was afraid they had left at sunrise. Luck is with us, my boy. On with you, men," he added. "Two rupees each if we overhaul and capture the Portuguese."
For such a sum the natives would brave anything. They picked up the continuation of the trail, and pushed forward with quick strides, oblivious to heat and fatigue. Tearle and Maurice grew more hopeful at every step, for the freshly-beaten path indicated that Silva's party were burdened with quite a number of cages. Surely they could not much longer hold the lead.
Mid-day came and passed, and between one and two o'clock, as Tearle and the guide were marching at the head of the band, they caught a glimpse of a turbaned head moving some twenty yards beyond them. Tearle lifted his rifle and fired, and with the report a half-naked Hindoo, terrified by his narrow escape from death, leapt recklessly into the path. As swiftly he sprang back to cover and vanished.
"I didn't mean to kill the fellow," said Tearle. "I merely wanted him to show himself. A spy, I suppose."
"Without doubt, Sahib," exclaimed Sher Singh. "He was put here to watch. The Portuguese must be close by."
"He will know by the shot that we are in pursuit, before the spy can overtake him," declared Maurice.
The news spread from mouth to mouth, and excitement rose to fever-heat. The little band hurried on at an increased speed, each man preparing for a possible fight. Sher Singh, slipping alongside of Maurice, begged him not to expose himself needlessly.
"I'm not going to skulk at the rear, if that is what you mean," the lad replied, a trifle indignantly. "Every rifle may be needed, and I know how to use mine."
"Beware of the Portuguese and Fazl Khan," urged the shikaree. "They are to be feared, Sahib."
"They are just the chaps I want to meet," vowed Maurice. "Don't worry, Sher Singh, I shall be careful."
Five minutes later the jungle ended on the verge of a grassy, level plain that was perhaps a half-mile across. On the farther side was a range of low, densely-timbered foothills, with high peaks towering beyond them. And in the middle of the open stretch, thrilling sight! was the quarry that had inspired such a determined chase. No less than seven stout wooden cages, mounted on solid wheels, were jolting heavily over the soft ground, the bullocks now breaking into a gallop, now relaxing to a sullen trot, as the drivers ran alongside and plied their whips unsparingly. Right and left were a score or so of natives, and Silva's figure was to be recognized in front, astride of a dark horse; with him were several white companions, probably Portuguese.
"Faster! faster!" cried Tearle. "The scoundrels are pushing for yonder hills, and they'll give us serious trouble unless we can catch them up in the open."
With loud clamour the pursuers dashed over the plain and perceptibly gained on the enemy, who were making desperate efforts to escape. Some of the fleeing natives turned occasionally to discharge their matchlocks, and at this Tearle bade his own men fire high, hoping that the robbers might be induced to pull up and stand at bay. The spluttering fusillade increased. Bullets sang like bees through the air, and puffs of bluish smoke went wreathing towards the burning sky.
However, Tearle had incorrectly gauged the temper of his implacable foe. The procession of cages, instead of coming to a halt, rumbled forward with undiminished speed. They were now left entirely to the care of the drivers, for Silva, with nearly the whole of his force, had fallen a few yards behind, as if to guard the rear. But such was their intention only in part. Silva and his white companions were seen to dismount and give their horses in charge, and the next instant, wheeling suddenly round, they led an obstinate rush towards their pursuers, firing as they advanced in open order.
"Steady, men, steady!" beseeched Tearle.
The daring attack was unexpected, and the sight of the on-rushing foe, and the angry whistle of bullets, proved too much for the Englishman's supporters, who lost courage and began to retreat in confusion. One was shot dead. A ball carried away Maurice's cap, and another grazed Sher Singh's shoulder. Tearle, hit in the fleshy part of the left arm, hastily bound up the wound and shouting to them wrathfully tried to rally his scattered followers.
Maurice and Sher Singh did good work by getting around both flanks and threatening to shoot the skulkers, and the result was that the panic was soon allayed. The natives rose from the grass, where they had sought safety, and with valorous shouts came forward. But by this time the enemy had swiftly fallen back, having gained the advantage that had prompted the rush. They overtook the caravan, and the maddened bullocks swept at full-speed in the direction of the near-lying hills.
"Three rupees each if you check them on the plain," roared Tearle. "Three rupees, men! Let me see how you can fight."
Their greed thus appealed to, the motley herd pressed after their three leaders, not delaying to pick up the dead man. Slowly but surely they gained on the robbers.
Rifles began to crack again. On tore the clumsy, wheeled boxes, careening from side to side of the path, and the shelter of the hills was very close when all at once the rearmost cage struck a stone and went over with a crash. The timbers burst apart and out leapt a huge panther. Instantly the animal seized a native by the throat, bit him horribly, and then disappeared in the tall grass.
Naturally the accident caused delay and confusion, and while the bullocks were being cut loose from the broken cage the band of pursuers made a considerable gain.
"We've got them now," cried Tearle. "A bold dash will scatter the rascals like sheep. Don't waste your powder, men."
But another bitter disappointment was in store. At a few words of command from Silva a line of natives, a dozen or more in number, spread quickly to right and left. What they meant to do was soon alarmingly apparent. From various points rose curls of thick, yellowish smoke, and a moment later the flames, united in a lurid sheet, were rolling towards the Englishman's party. The enemy, half-hidden in the rear, uttered savage yells of triumph.
A fairly stiff breeze was blowing from the hills, and it furiously fanned the conflagration in three directions, driving it forward and spreading it on both flanks. The roaring red line, a leaping wave of fire, advanced like a devouring monster, consuming the dry, parched grass with amazing rapidity. At first there threatened to be no escape, and for a brief instant Tearle's natives huddled together in helpless, stupid panic. To advance was impossible, and they must speedily be overtaken by the flames if they tried to flee back to the jungle.
Maurice's stout heart quailed in the presence of so terrible a fate, and Tearle's face was stamped with grim despair. Thus the leader stood for a moment, and then, with a ringing shout and a gesture, he drew his companions about him. He pointed to the left, where the curving line of fire could be seen to terminate in a yellow veil of smoke.
"Our only chance," he cried. "Follow me, and don't lose your courage or your weapons. We must circle around the flames. I believe we'll get Silva yet, my lad."
His words inspired hope and confidence, and every man was at his heels as he started off through the clumps of grass. Sher Singh took hold of Maurice's arm, and assisted his flight. A desperate race for life ensued, and the issue was uncertain till the very end. Clouds of smoke drifted past the plucky fellows, and they breathed scorching air and sparks. But they plunged on, guided by Tearle's tall figure, and just when an agonizing death seemed inevitable they staggered out from the lurid, smoky curtain, and splashed knee-deep across a pool of water.
On the farther side they paused for breath, watching the flames race by, and then turned with one impulse to scan the plain with their smarting eyes. It was quite empty. The last of the cages was in the act of vanishing into a narrow defile between two of the foothills.
"Too late!" Maurice cried angrily. "It will take an army to drive them from that position."
"Not so, lad," vowed Tearle. "We have the strength to do it, and do it we will, or my name's not Dermot Tearle. But we must set about the task at once, and take the dogs by surprise. They will hardly be expecting an attack now. What think you, Sher Singh?"
"As the Sahib thinks," replied the shikaree. "It is a bad place, and there will be danger, but if all can be relied upon --"
"I will see to that," Tearle interrupted. "We are going to continue the chase into the mountains," he added to the natives, "and I expect you to show courage and earn your rupees. If you stand up to these robber budmashes they will run like jackals." He was answered by approving shouts, and a glance at the earnest, eager faces of the Hindoos satisfied him that they were to be trusted.
There was a hasty loading of weapons and looking to small arms, after which the score of smoke-grimed figures moved forward over the charred and smouldering plain, giving little thought to the whirl-wind of flames behind them. They reached the foothills within a few yards of the pass that had swallowed the enemy, and were soon swarming up the narrow, rugged defile, between towering walls of rock and serried vegetation. What road there was twisted right and left, and was at no point visible for more than a short distance, owing to many jutting angles.
"This is the sort of thing that tries one's nerves," said Maurice.
"Ay, that's right," assented Tearle. "The crack of a rifle would be a relief, eh? But I don't believe we are near the scoundrels yet."
"Be assured, Sahib," declared Sher Singh, "that sharp eyes are watching us."
Amid ominous silence they advanced, and had gone a thousand yards, when suddenly, from the next turn above, the roar of a matchlock woke the echoes and was followed by a flight of spears. One of the natives dropped, but before the others could lose heart Tearle's command to charge rang loud and shrill. Straight up the road swept the whole band, yelling and firing, and directly they were around the curve they found themselves face to face with the robbers, among whom neither Silva nor Fazl Khan was to be seen.
Here instantly began a struggle at close quarters, a hand-to-hand fight. Cries of pain and fury blended with the thud of hog-spears and rifle-locks and the swish of rusty tulwars. Tearle and Maurice were in the thick of it, and the lad struck out vigorously, his every movement observed by the faithful Sher Singh.
"No pistols if we can do without them," shouted Tearle. Cold lead was not needed as yet. The out-numbered wavered, drew back, and fled in confusion, leaving behind them two dead and two wounded. The victors noisily pushed their advantage, inflamed by passion and bloodshed, and a couple of minutes later a sharp bend brought them into full view of the cages, which were drawn up in a line at the base of the steep cliff on the left. On the opposite side of the narrow road yawned a dizzy precipice, and sixty feet below a mountain torrent brawled and foamed.
At this perilous spot occurred the worst of the fighting, for the fleeing Hindoos, turning at bay, were promptly reinforced by the rest of the band, including Fazl Khan, Silva, and two other Portuguese. Rifles and revolvers cracked, and a mist of powder-smoke overhung the scene. Maurice and Sher Singh were hemmed in by a circle of foes, and the lad, having felled one of them and broken his weapon by the force of the blow, was about to use his pistol when a stone knocked it out of his grasp.
"Take this, Sahib," cried the shikaree, thrusting a short, curved sword into his companion's hand. At the same instant he tore a spear from one of his assailants, and immediately ran the fellow through the chest.
Maurice had his work cut out for him. He slashed right and left, drawing blood, and then swung his weapon for a stroke at a new enemy who had just appeared on the scene, and was none other than the treacherous Fazl Khan. His evil face blazed with hatred.
" Die, pig of a Sahib," he snarled, as he took aim with a pistol.
Quick as lightning the lad's sword flashed, knocking the firearm upward, so that it was harmlessly discharged in the air. The keen blade went even farther, and laid Fazl Khan's cheek open to the bone. With a cry of rage the Hindoo leapt at Maurice and seized him in his muscular arms. They fell together, the lad making a desperate struggle to free himself. Unconsciously they rolled to the outer edge of the path, and before either could realize the danger they had plunged into space.
Swift as an arrow Maurice and Fazl Khan cleft the air, and skimming the surface of the rock-wall, their descent was first checked by a protruding thicket. They crashed into it with great force, and Fazl Khan, who happened to be the undermost, bore the brunt of the shock. But both were stunned, and very little consciousness was left between them as they recoiled from the bushes and whirled on to the bottom of the cliff, still locked in a tight embrace. Bruised and bleeding, they plunged with a tremendous splash into a deep, circular pool of icy water, above and below which a fierce current roared and foamed amid jagged boulders.
The effect of the cold bath was to immediately revive the combatants. A brief struggle freed Maurice from the grip of his enemy, and up he bobbed to the surface, gasping for breath. An instant later Fazl Khan's head and shoulders rose a little to the left. The wound on his cheek lent him a horrible appearance, and there was murder in the frenzied glare that flashed from his eyes.
"Dog of a Sahib, I'll have your life," he cried: and with that he swam vigorously towards the lad, leaving crimson stains in his wake.
Maurice himself was a good swimmer, and at once he struck out for the nearest edge of the pool, hoping to scramble ashore in time to elude his determined foe. However, neither had reckoned with the unseen force that lurked beneath the placid waters. A sucking undertow suddenly clutched its victims with a grasp from which there was no escape, and first the lad was drawn through a narrow aperture at the lower end of the pool, the Hindoo following at a slower pace, since his powers of resistance were greater. Then, battling wildly and vainly to stem the current, both were tossed about like corks, flung from wave-crest to wave-crest, as they shot down the spumy stretch of the torrent.
At this critical moment Sher Singh, who had been hard-pressed in the thick of the strife, gained an opportune breathing-spell and looked anxiously round him to see what had become of Maurice. He missed the lad, and fearing that he had been killed he sought for him among the fallen, heedless of the risks to which he was exposing himself. Then he hastened to the verge of the cliff, and casting his eyes far down into the ravine, he perceived two figures battling for life in the boiling cascades of the mountain stream. The distance was too great for positive recognition, but he was satisfied that Maurice was one of the two.
Forgetting his duty to his employers and the help that was expected of him, the devoted shikaree turned his back on the fighting and ran fleetly along the sloping path for thirty yards. He soon discovered what he was in search of -- a spot where the cliff fell at a slight angle, and was broken by projecting crags and tufts of stout grass. With a long spear grasped in one hand, he made his way down the dizzy incline, clutching at everything that offered the least support. Having safely reached the lower slope of stones and undergrowth, he increased his speed and gained the verge of the torrent.
Meanwhile, to go back a little, what had become of Maurice and Fazl Khan? The lad forgot for the moment the enemy behind him, and had all that he could do to save himself from drowning, as he was whirled on and on, now high on the crest of the pitching waves, now deep under the green waters. His frantic struggles were futile. He was as helpless as an infant. Again and again he collided with submerged rocks, and each second promised to be his last. He was bruised and half-choked, in the throes of suffocation, when, as he was lifted on the swell, he saw a jagged boulder close ahead. As quickly he reached blindly for it, and seized it in both arms.
For an instant he held fast in spite of the angry buffeting of the waves. Then, his strength returning a little, he was in act of drawing himself to a safer position when Fazl Khan came swinging alongside. The Hindoo saw and caught the rock, and while he clung tight with one hand he raised the other and struck the lad brutally in the face.
"Drown, you dog!" he shrieked. "Drown!"
At the third blow Maurice lost his grip, and with a cry of despair on his lips, with Fazl Khan's mocking laughter ringing in his ears, he was borne away by the merciless tide. Again he battled for life, tossing like a shuttlecock amid foam and spray, while the torrent seemed to grow wilder and swifter; and again, the current doing him a good turn, his mad flight to destruction was checked by another jagged crag that rose a short distance to the right of mid-channel. He embraced it with both arms, and gradually gained a securer hold with his knees. He now had a fair chance, for between the rock and the bank of the stream lay a comparatively quiet eddy.
"As soon as I am a little stronger," he thought, "I can swim or wade to shore."
But suddenly he remembered Fazl Khan, and glancing swiftly about him, he was horrified to perceive the Hindoo in the very act of scrambling out of the water. He had safely fought across the strip of raging billows that intervened. Before the lad could make an effort to swim the eddy his blood-thirsty foe was limping towards him with eager strides, carrying a stone of some pounds' weight which he had stopped to pick up.
An icy shiver coursed through Maurice's veins. He was face to face with death; apparently not a ray of hope was left. A few yards below the stream plunged down a slanting ledge of rocks, and lost itself in a boiling, funnel-shaped whirlpool. To release his hold, and trust himself once more to the current, would be nothing short of suicide.
Already Fazl Khan had reached a point on the rugged shore that was directly opposite to his intended victim. His dusky, lacerated countenance was distorted with vindictive triumph.
"Pig of a Sahib!" he hissed, as he lifted the stone in his hands. "Naught can save you this time, your body shall go to feed yonder whirlpool."
"Have mercy," begged Maurice, though he knew that it was useless to ask. "don't kill me in cold blood."
"A lakh of rupees would not purchase your life," snarled the ruffian. "The spirit of Mervanji the Thug calls for vengeance."
For a moment, with gloating enjoyment of his victim's torture, the Hindoo held the engine of death poised in air. He waited a second too long, and that brief respite saved Maurice. A spear, cast with unerring aim from a clump of bushes, penetrated Fazl Khan's back and emerged between his ribs. The stone fell from his nerveless grip, and with a horrid, gurgling cry he toppled headforemost into the water. The current rolled the mangled body to the edge of the whirlpool, where it was instantly sucked down into the churning depths.
The tragedy was so quickly done and over that Maurice had scarcely realized his good fortune when Sher Singh came leaping among the rocks to the brink of the torrent. With a cry of joy the faithful shikaree plunged into the eddy, breasted his way to the rock, and dragged the lad to the bank. His eyes flashed as he looked at the furious waves which had exultantly swallowed the corpse of Fazl Khan.
"Sahib, speak to me," he implored.
For a minute or two Maurice lay silent, helpless, on a patch of soft grass, glancing with mute gratitude at his preserver. Then his strength slowly rallying, he was able to sit erect.
"I owe you my life twice over, Sher Singh," he said huskily. " I was so near death that I can hardly believe I am alive. How shall I ever repay you?"
"Waste not your breath, Sahib," the Hindoo interrupted, "for you will need it. There may be great perils to face. Listen! they are still fighting savagely."
Sher Singh was right. Down the rocky gorge floated hoarse yells and the clanging sounds of strife. There was nothing to indicate a victory for either side.
"We must hasten to our friends," said Maurice, as he rose unsteadily to his feet. "If they are in straits they will require our assistance. I suppose there can be no doubt that Fazl Khan is dead?" he added.
"The traitor's body is tossing from rock to rock," replied Sher Singh, pointing to the torrent. "His fate was more merciful than he deserved. Come Sahib, your words are wise. We must gain the road above."
"How are we going to do that?" asked Maurice, looking in despair at the sheer precipice.
"Farther down the valley the slope grows less rugged," the Hindoo answered, "and, moreover, there will be the less danger of meeting any of the foe. My arms are strong. I will carry you."
"No, I can manage well enough," protested Maurice. "I feel all right, except for a few bruises and a headache."
He proved the assertion by vigorously shaking the water from his clothes and walking a few paces over the rough stones. Sher Singh was satisfied, and without comment he led his companion along the the bank of the stream. They were soon a couple of hundreds yards below the scene of Fazl Khan's death, and the sounds of battle from the distance rang fainter and fainter. A little farther on the steep sides of the valley fell away to timbered slopes, and here the two began the ascent.
At length, extricating himself from a tangle of foes, Tearle swung his rifle round him and cleared a wide swath. His face was bloody and powder-grimed, and he was a formidable figure to his enemies.
"Come on, my brave fellows," he shouted. "At them again. They are giving way."
The natives responded willingly, and their cries nearly drowned the clash and thud of weapons. The two Portuguese belonging to Silva's party were craven cowards at heart. They were poorly armed, and, moreover, they foresaw the certainty of defeat. Breaking suddenly from the circle they dashed up the path, and in less time than it takes to tell they had vanished beyond the cages. No pursuit was thought of or attempted.
"Let the dogs go," exclaimed Tearle, as he struck right and left with untiring energy. "We are well rid of them. The fight is ours. One more rush, my lads."
It was given eagerly, and now, the dusky forms closing in, the end was seen to be near. The desertion of his trusted allies had brought a flash of anger to Silva's eyes, and for an instant he too had meditated flight ; but while he hesitated the opportunity was lost, and he and the remnant of his band were forced back against the cliff. Here was a brief and bitter struggle, blood flowing freely, until Tearle cleared his way to the front and found himself face to face with Silva. The two leaders were armed with rifles, and using these as if they had been cudgels they parried each other's blows for a moment. Then, Silva's weapon parting at the stock, he reeled back against the rocky wall, expecting his death blow to follow. An impulse of mercy, however, withheld Tearle from striking.
"The law shall deal with you as you deserve," he vowed. "The game is up surrender, and spare your men."
"Never!" hissed Silva. "Malediction on you!"
With that, snatching a short spear from a native, he hurled it straight at his enemy. Tearle, though unprepared for such a treacherous deed, dodged swiftly to one side and thereby narrowly escaped instant death. The weapon passed under his right arm, and whizzing on with undiminished force, it buried itself in the fore-flank of one of the bullocks that were harnessed to the nearest cage.
Immediately happened a strange thing, and it was so swift and unexpected that Tearle had no chance of stretching the Portuguese lifeless on the ground, as he had intended to do. Maddened by pain the bullock swung half-round, dragging his mates with him. The cage was thrown over, and it struck the hard path with a force that jarred the timbers apart. From between them at once squeezed a hairy head and a pair of wicked-looking horns, which were followed, after a further rending of wood, by the huge body of a wild buffalo.
In all India there is no beast more to be dreaded at close quarters or when in a rage, and this particular specimen had been worked into a perfect frenzy by the noise of the fighting. He caught sight of his natural enemies, sniffed the air, and bellowed hoarsely. Then, with lowered head, he charged like a hurricane down the narrow path.
It was ludicrous to see how quickly the fight came to an end. There was a general scramble in various directions, the men of both parties jostling one another. Some ran to the verge of the precipice and swung dangling in space, and others, Tearle among them -- he was the first to set the example -- scrambled like cats up the rugged face of the cliff.
For a brief moment, dazed and maddened by his defeat, Silva stood still, and when he realized his peril it was too late to gain safe shelter. He turned down the path and fled at his topmost speed. The buffalo whirled by, ruthlessly trampling the bodies that lay in its course. Bellowing and snorting it sped on in pursuit of the Portuguese, while Tearle, with some of the natives, hastened along in the rear, fascinated by the excitement of the chase. The remainder of the foe, seizing this ripe opportunity, disappeared up the gorge without waste of time.
Silva was in a bad plight, though for more than a hundred yards he managed to keep ahead of his determined enemy. Then his strength began to fail him and he rapidly lost ground, encumbered as he was by boots and clothing.
"Jump into the ravine," shouted Tearle, "or try to climb the hill on the other side."
Either the Portuguese did not hear, or he was too frightened and confused to understand; he wheeled suddenly round, and as quickly the infuriated brute was upon him with lowered horns and bloodshot eyes. The man, tossed in air, was thrown to the right, so that he came down on the timbered slope, half a dozen feet above the level. He clutched at the undergrowth and held fast for an instant, then crawled slowly and painfully into the thick foliage and vanished from sight.
The buffalo stamped and snorted, glaring this way and that in search of his victim. For a moment he had thoughts of charging the little party in his rear, and turned to shake his shaggy head at them; but instead he went pounding down the path, a curve of which soon hid him from view.
It was now that Tearle, for the first time, missed Sher Singh and Maurice, and the discovery naturally banished all else from his mind. Before he could conjecture what had become of them, however, the absent ones appeared over the brink of the gorge, twenty yards below. The others hurried to meet them, and Maurice, who was exhausted by the steep climb, clung limply to the shikaree's arm as he related his thrilling adventures and timely rescue.
"Fazl Khan got no more than he deserved," was Tearle's comment. "I shan't forget what you've done, Sher Singh. Thank God that you are safe, my lad. I could not have spared you." He briefly told his side of the story. "That scoundrel of a Portuguese must not escape," he concluded, turning to the natives. "He was undoubtedly injured by the buffalo's horns, and can't have crawled very far, I should think. Search the hill, men. Look closely among the stones and bushes. I'll divide fifty rupees among you if you capture Silva."
Incited by the generous offer the natives swarmed up the bluff, to straggle back, in twos and threes, within a quarter of an hour. Out of their mixed stories was gleaned one conclusive fact; namely, that Antonio Silva, who could not have been badly hurt after all, had reached the dense line of timber that stretched along the base of the hills.
"Well, that is the end of the fellow, for the present," said Tearle. "It would be useless to pursue him. Come, we are wasting time here;" and he led the way up the path.
On arriving at the scene of the late fight half a dozen of Silva's party, who had boldly crept back to recover the cages, were taken by surprise. Four succeeded in escaping and two surrendered, though the latter were subsequently set at liberty. The victory was a dearly-bought one, Tearle having lost two men killed and Silva three, while several severely wounded natives of both parties were lying about. It was a matter for regret that the treacherous Ramput was among the missing.
Everything possible was promptly done. The path was cleared and the injured were placed on litters made of boughs and tenderly cared for; their wounds were bandaged and water was brought for them from the ravine, Sher Singh volunteering for that task. By Tearle's orders the dead and wounded foemen were put in a shady spot by the base of the cliff.
"No doubt their friends will return and carry them off," he said. "Our own dead we will take back to the village where they belong."
"And what is to be done with Silva's animals?" inquired Maurice. "Can we regard them as the spoils of war?"
"I'm afraid not, my lad," Tearle replied. "But the wisest course will be to take them with us, and then, in case any trouble grows out of this affair, we can turn them over to the proper authorities."
"Trouble!" Maurice asked uneasily.
"That's what I said. And trouble it is likely to be, sooner or later. We have taken the law into our own hands, you know, and we may be called to account for it."
"There was no other way," declared Maurice, indignantly. "Where would our tiger be now if we had waited to appeal to the nearest magistrate instead of going in pursuit of Silva?"
"True enough," assented Tearle, "and that is precisely why I acted as I did. I admit that I did not anticipate any loss of life. However, we must make the best of it. Don't worry, lad, we'll pull through all right. But come, we'll have a look at the casus belli, if that's good Latin."
Maurice followed him to the cage containing the tiger, who was indeed a magnificent brute. He glared at his visitors from between the stout bars, and snarled ferociously.
"Such a prize is well worth all we have gone through," said Tearle. "I don't wonder that Silva wanted the animal. And it was you did the trapping, lad. You are getting on famously."
Maurice thrilled with pride that was tempered by a note of sadness.
"Poor Tom taught me," he reflected. "I wish he was alive."
Altogether five cages remained intact. The tiger occupied one, and another was half-filled with camping paraphernalia. The other three contained respectively a black panther, a leopard, and a pair of hyenas. Their combined value represented no small amount of money, a loss which the Portuguese was not likely to bear with equanimity or inaction.
When twilight fell that evening the gorge and the surrounding forests were miles behind, and Tearle and his companions, with the string of cages, were in camp on the opposite-lying side of the plain which they had traversed earlier the same day, in pursuit of the marauders. Sentries were posted here and there, and huge fires were built, these precautions being deemed necessary lest Silva should collect a force of wild hill-men in the vicinity and make a night attack.
The dreaded hours of darkness passed without alarm, however, though there was little sleep for any one, owing to the groans of the suffering natives and the cries of the imprisoned animals. The bullocks, deprived of sufficient food and water, bellowed incessantly. With the first flush of dawn a start was made, and Tearle, in spite of the feverish conditions caused by his wound, marched at the head of the convoy. The village was reached by noon, and here there was an anxious scene, with loud lamentations, when the dead and injured were brought in. But the people were in a reasonable mood, and were easily pacified by the rupees that Tearle shared among them, their wrath being directed against Silva and his allies, especially the perfidious Ramput, who would have fared badly indeed had he happened to appear at that time.
Within an hour, having paid off his hired fighting-men, Tearle was pressing on with the handful of companions that were left to him. The sorely-taxed bullocks crawled slowly through the tangle of miry paths, making another night in the jungle imperative, so that the following day was half spent when the weary travellers arrived at their camp, where they found Carruthers quite well again, and with only good news to report.
He rejoiced at the capture of the tiger, but looked grave when he heard the complete story of the expedition. He and Tearle shut themselves up in the tent for several hours, holding a secret consultation, and meanwhile Maurice and Sher Singh attended to the placing of the new cages and to the feeding and watering of the bullocks and wild beasts.
Whatever conclusion Tearle and Carruthers may have reached, they were in cheerful enough spirits that night, when, the evening meal finished, they lounged by the camp-fire and enjoyed the solace of tobacco; nor did they drop a single word as to the possibility of future trouble, preferring to hold the conversation on pleasanter subjects.
"This life seems to suit you, my boy," said Carruthers.
"I love it," Maurice frankly admitted.
"And you are well-fitted for it. Poor Dayleford has taught you pretty much all he knew himself. It's a pity, though, that he died without revealing what knowledge he had of your past, without telling how you came into his hands."
"He meant to tell me," Maurice said, in a husky voice, "but but he never got the chance."
Tearle, puffing hard at his pipe, looked out from the cloud of tobacco-smoke with a sudden show of interest.
"Is your memory any clearer, my lad," he asked, "than it was the day the magistrates questioned you? Do you recall no more than you did then?"
"Nothing more," replied Maurice. "The travelling circus, the dark man who took me to London, the years on ship-board with Captain Bonnick, the beginning of the new life with Tom that is all. He hesitated for a moment. "But there is something I haven't spoken of it before that keeps coming into my mind," he added. "The night Tom was murdered he told me that he had wronged me, and that his lips were sealed by hush-money; and he said he might have helped me to find my parents, but that he didn't know who they were."
"Did Dayleford tell you all that?" asked Carruthers, with a significant glance at Tearle.
"Yes, those were almost his very words," declared the lad.
A disturbance among the bullocks interrupted the discussion, and a little later, after Maurice had sought his bed and was sleeping soundly, Tearle and Carruthers picked up the broken thread over their last pipes.
"It's a mysterious case, and a mighty deep one," said the former.
"With a crime back of it," hinted Carruthers.
"I shouldn't wonder. This is a wicked world, old man. It is certain, to my mind, that the boy comes of good stock his face shows that plainly enough."
"And his pluck and manners," assented Carruthers. "Breeding counts every time. Suppose we try to get to the bottom of this affair, while we are knocking about the globe."
"With all my heart," Tearle answered. "We'll do what we can. And I'll tell you one thing straight, once we've found Captain Bonnick, it won't be necessary to inquire much further."
The trapping operations had been more successful and remunerative of late, and most of the cages were filled. It would soon be time to return to Calcutta, whence the animals would be shipped to Hamburg or London, and meanwhile fresh instructions were certain to be received from the firm.
To what quarter of the globe the agents would be ordered next was a question that offered a wide range of surmise, and one baking, scorching afternoon it came up for discussion in camp. Tearle and Carruthers were stretched full length beneath a tent-flap, gasping and perspiring, and at their feet sat Maurice, looking rather more comfortable. Close by squatted Sher Singh, as calm and impassive as a bronze idol.
"Hamrach never knows his own mind till the last minute," Carruthers was saying. " He may order us to the Rocky mountains, or to the Himalayas, or the Terai, or the forests of the Congo, or to the desert beyond Suakim --"
"It is more likely that we shall sail with the animals for Hamburg," interrupted Tearle. "I am glad, at all events, that we are shortly going down to Calcutta."
"You are still worrying about Silva, then?" asked Carruthers.
"Yes, a little. He can easily trump up a black and damaging charge and lay it before the authorities. And his beasts and cages are in our possession. It would have been the wiser plan, I begin to think, to have abandoned them in the mountains. I hardly know what to do with them now."
"They are valuable, too," said Maurice. "That black panther in particular ought to be worth --"
"They really ought to belong to the house that Silva represents, Richter and Mass," broke in Carruthers. "They have an agency in Madras, and Jules Vanberg looks after their interests in Calcutta. We might turn the lot over to him."
"A good idea!" approved Tearle. "That solves the difficulty. A few more days will see our work here finished, and then --"
The end of the sentence was inaudible, for his voice was stifled by a noise of shouting from the out-skirts of the camp. Tearle and his three companions were instantly on their feet, and going forward they soon learned the cause of the excitement. Two of the native hunters, whose business it was to scour the jungles, had just arrived from different directions. And each, it seemed, had an interesting story to tell.
"A tiger, Sahibs," exclaimed Chandar. "I have discovered a big fellow. He is sleeping in a bed of reeds two miles to the south, and I have men watching the spot. It is a fine chance to use the nets."
"I also have been fortunate," cried Sri Das. "Listen, Sahibs. I passed by the pits that we dug to the eastward three days ago, and in one of them is a rhinoceros -- a fat, full-grown beast."
"You have both done well," said Tearle, handing to each the customary rupee. "If we can capture these animals they will complete the order," he added. We will set off at once, hot as it is. Carruthers, you and I will accompany Chandar, and try to bag the sleeping tiger."
"Very good, Dermot. And the rhinoceros --"
"Maurice will attend to that," directed Tearle, "with Sri Das and Sher Singh to assist him. We will both take other helpers, of course."
"Mine will be the easier task," said the lad, "but all the same I wish I was going after the tiger."
"You may have a stiffer contract than you expect," replied Carruthers, little thinking that he was uttering a prophecy. "A rhinoceros in a cage is worth three in a pit."
The necessary preparations were speedily made, and within an hour, as the heat of the afternoon was beginning to lose its intensity, the two parties started out in nearly opposite directions. In the rear of each a cage followed slowly, drawn by lagging bullocks in charge of natives.
With his rifle strapped to his back, and a sola-topee on his head, Maurice pushed eastward with his two chief helpers. A sort of a rough road, previously broken, led to the pits, which were about three and a half miles distant from the camp. Sri Das and Sher Singh carried spades and coils of rope. Their task was one of labour and skill rather than of peril, since they had to dig a narrow, sloping passage into the steep-walled excavation, and by this means drag or drive the rhinoceros to the cage.
The three travelled at a steady and easy pace, and they had covered close upon two miles when Maurice discovered that his hunting-knife had dropped from his belt. As the weapon was a gift from Tom Dayleford he prized it highly, and at once announced his intention of returning to look for it.
"Shall I come with you, Sahib?" asked Sher Singh.
"No, I will go alone," the lad answered firmly. "You had better push on, without delay, for not many hours of daylight are left. I shall probably overtake you before you reach the pits."
Sher Singh assented with evident reluctance, and strode ahead with his companion, while Maurice turned and retraced his steps along the path, moving slowly and watchfully. He had gone five hundred yards or so, passing the bullocks and cage about half-way, when the missing knife which he had begun to despair of finding caught his eye. He eagerly picked it up, and at the same instant discovered, on a patch of soft ground, the print of a naked, human foot. The toes pointed straight across the path, beyond which, within three or four yards, several other footprints were visible.
"This looks queer, to say the least," the lad told himself. " There can be no strange natives in the vicinity, so I shouldn't wonder if the fellow who makes these marks was a spy sent by Antonio Silva."
Tempted by the wish to prove or disprove his suspicions, yet intending to proceed but a short distance in any event, Maurice came to a hasty decision, and one that was to result in as strange an adventure as ever befell traveller or explorer. Leaving the beaten road he struck due north, and was immediately plunged into a semi-gloom caused by matted foliage overhead. The ground was comparatively open, and the prints of the naked feet, stamped here and there on a sandy spot, led him on and on, until he had gone much farther than he had dreamed was the fact. He carried the knife in one hand, but he carelessly did not unstrap his rifle, since he had frequently to squeeze between the trunks of trees and pull obstructing undergrowth apart. Moreover, at the worst, he expected to find nothing more formidable than a cowardly, unarmed native, who would flee at the sight of him.
He had seen no footprints for fifty yards or so, and was in the mind to turn back, when he emerged from the gloom on a tiny nullah, or ravine, that was bordered by dense jungle and lofty trees. A shallow pool lay in the middle of it, and suddenly, from a clump of reeds by the water's edge, a great panther rose up and confronted the terrified lad. The two were scarcely six feet apart, and thus they stood for a moment in silence, Maurice helpless except for the feeble knife, the tawny beast quivering with rage and switching its tail.
"I'm done for," thought the lad; and just then, as he saw that the creature was about to spring, a story that Tom Dayleford had once told him flashed into his mind.
"I'll try it," he vowed quickly, as a drowning man clutches at a straw.
Drawing himself to his full height, and making his limbs as rigid as possible, he stared tensely, with fearless menace, at his enraged foe. Immediately the panther, meeting the lad's steady, fixed glance, betrayed signs of uneasiness, as if it must perforce quail and tremble before the power of the human eye. Its crouching attitude relaxed, and its flattened ears rose a little. It snarled and whimpered more in distress than anger, and then, having cowered low like a whipped hound, it was obviously on the point of crawling away when a harsh, peculiar cry came from the left. As swiftly the beast was transformed, and wheeling with a blood-curdling scream it leapt at Maurice.
"What can it be?" he thought, wishing that he had the power to take to his heels.
Again that peculiar cry. The thing advanced on all fours, like a big monkey, apparently a mixture of brute and human being. Then, rising suddenly to an erect attitude, it revealed itself unmistakably as a young Hindoo boy of perhaps fourteen or fifteen years of age. Just as evidently he was a child of the forest, a half-savage creature whose bed was the ground and his roof the canopy of stars, who had probably been cast adrift by his parents in the time of famine, to live or die as the issue might be.
He carried a short bamboo spear sharpened at one end, and was naked except for a waist covering fashioned from the skin of a spotted deer. His limbs were well-formed and he was as agile and graceful as a cat, while masses of neglected hair, thick and matted, dangled over his back and chest and shoulders, nearly hiding his features, yet not able to conceal a pair of large dark eyes, as keen and piercing as a falcon-hawk's.
If Maurice was surprised at these details, which he noted at a swift look, he was more than startled by what happened next; for at once the panther crawled over to the feet of the native boy, with whom it seemed to be on the most friendly terms, and settled itself there in a crouching position, purring with pleasure. Clearly the first cry from the jungle had been a sign to the beast that the young Hindoo was near, and the second had been a warning to it not to harm the English lad.
"Am I awake or dreaming?" Maurice asked himself. "No, it's all real enough, and I've had about the narrowest escape of my life. I should like to slip off, and I would do so this minute if I thought that precious couple yonder would attend to their own affairs and leave me to look after mine."
Before he could seize the opportunity of vanishing, however, it was too late. The Hindoo youth approached, followed by his hideous pet. He came close up to Maurice, and after regarding him curiously for a few seconds, he touched him on the eyelids and at the same time pointed to the panther. Then, clapping his hands on his breast and laughing, he began to talk rapidly.
"I've no doubt you mean well," Maurice interjected politely, "but I'm sorry to say that I can't understand you."
The strange creature laughed again, and a torrent of thick, uncouth language continued to flow from his lips. Mixed with it, however, were several familiar native phrases and an occasional English word; and it gradually dawned upon Maurice that his display of will-power over the panther had been seen by his companion, and that by virtue of this peculiar gift, which the jungle-child also shared, the latter was laying claim to a sort of blood brotherhood.
"Things are getting a bit awkward," concluded Maurice. "I hope he won't want me to go off to the forest and live with him and the panther."
An impulse to unstrap his rifle was prudently resisted. He shook his head, and pointed behind him.
"Bobbili, kutchi dar Bobbili," said the Hindoo lad.
With that he dropped to one knee, and taking Maurice's two hands he pressed them briefly upon his mop of tangled hair. Then rising, he struck across the glade with the panther trotting at his heels. At the farther edge both turned, and the lad made inviting gestures.
"Bobbili, Bobbili," he exclaimed earnestly.
"If Bobbili is your name," said Maurice, "I'm glad to know it. But I can't come with you, and it's no use to ask."
An interval of silence, which was prolonged to perhaps twenty seconds, was broken suddenly by an angry snarl from the panther, who lashed his tail and stiffened to a threatening attitude. The young Hindoo craned his neck to listen, and tapped the beast lightly with his spear. The next instant both had disappeared, quickly and noiselessly, behind the leafy screen of the jungle.
"Well, of all amazing things this beats the record," vowed Maurice, aloud. "I shouldn't wonder if that chap hadn't been suckled by some wild animal, like Romulus and Remus. But what could have started them off in such a hurry?"
A rustling noise fell on his ear, and into the glade stalked Sher Singh, providing a sufficient answer to the lad's question.
"Will the Sahib be graciously pleased to pardon my disobedience?" said the faithful shikaree. "I returned lest harm should befall. And indeed you have wandered far from the path."
"I followed the naked footprints," explained Maurice. "You saw them?"
"They guided me hither," was the reply.
"If you had come a little sooner, Sher Singh, you would have seen a strange sight. I've had an adventure with a panther and with a half-savage thing that walked on two legs and spoke three tongues, though one of them must have been a wild beast dialect, from its sound."
He went on to describe his experience, and the shikaree listened with grave attention.
"I have heard such a tale before, Sahib," he declared. "It is not uncommon. It happens once in a while that a child is abandoned by its parents, or is lost in the jungle; and sometimes the animals of the forest, more merciful than mankind, will nurture and care for the helpless one. It will be wise, Sahib," he added, "if we make haste to our appointed task. You would not wish to lose the rhinoceros."
"I should say not," exclaimed Maurice. "You are right, Sher Singh. We will hurry on as fast as possible." As he started, keeping pace with the Hindoo's long strides, he looked back once at the glade. "Good-bye, Bobbili, old chap," he said to himself. "I wonder if I shall ever see you again."
Without difficulty the two retraced their steps to the beaten path, and when they had followed it for a mile they had come upon the wheeled cage, which had been delayed by a fallen tree. Sri Das had stopped here to assist the natives, and as the obstruction was now all but removed, he desisted from the task and pressed on with Maurice and Sher Singh. They soon passed the first of the pits, its covering of grass and bamboo undisturbed, and several minutes later a dull, pounding noise made itself heard, mingled with angry snorting.
"Yonder is the spot," exclaimed Sri Das, "and the brute appears to be in an ugly temper."
"Let me go in advance," said Sher Singh. "There may be danger. Keep back, Sahib."
"There can be danger only from one source," replied Maurice, "and I don't believe there is much chance of that. The pits were carefully dug."
He ran on at the heels of the two shikarees, and the intervening strip of jungle was quickly crossed, while the menacing sounds grew louder and nearer.
Here was the place at last, and what Sher Singh had feared, but not expressed in words, proved to be a reality. The rhinoceros was almost free. With his pointed snout and horn he had undermined an endwall of his prison, causing the soil to cave in. He was busily engaged in beating and tramping the loose earth, and the slope thus formed reached already to within a few feet of the top of the pit.
"We are just in time," said Sri Das.
The captive, who was a splendid, full-grown animal, stopped operations long enough to snort savagely, and to glare at the intruders out of his wicked little eyes. Then he went strenuously on with the fight for freedom.
"I fear we shall lose him, Sahib," declared Sher Singh. "It was a bad spot that was selected for digging. Behold, the soil is loose and rotten."
"I'm not going to lose such a fine brute if I can help it," vowed Maurice. "Quick, let us throw a noosed rope over his head, and try to haul him to this end of the pit. That will give us a chance to straighten the wall."
"A wise plan, Sahib, if we can carry it out," approved Sher Singh. "Doubtless the cage will be here shortly."
The rope was deftly adjusted, and at the third or fourth cast the noose dropped over the head of the rhinoceros. The three pulled on it with all their strength, and after a number of frantic lunges to right and left, the great beast permitted himself to be forced slowly backward, yielding inch by inch.
"Now hold him fast," cried Maurice as he unstrapped his rifle and threw it to the ground. He picked up a spade, and lustily attacked the ruined wall.
"Be careful, Sahib," warned Sher Singh.
At that very instant the treacherous edge crumbled, and down the lad went. He was caught and tightly gripped by the loose soil, which covered him to his knees, and before he could extricate himself the rhinoceros made a desperate lunge forward. Sher Singh let go of the rope in time, but Sri Das was jerked bodily into the pit.
With a snort of passion the brute charged up the eloping wall of earth, straight at Maurice, who felt that his last moment had come as he struggled vainly to escape.
"Dodge him, Sahib," yelled Sher Singh. "Run this way."
But Maurice did not have his full wits about him, and was still too dazed to take advantage of the slim chance of escape that offered. Instead of doubling to one side or the other he sped straight forward, with the vicious and enraged brute in hot pursuit. He felt its warm steamy breath, heard its puffing snorts and the clumsy trample of its hoofs. The branches of a tree, hanging over his course just ahead, inspired him with a desperate ray of hope. He leapt high at the lowest bough, clutched it, and secured a weak hold with his finger-tips. For a fraction of a second he swung in air, and then was hurled upward and wrenched violently from his frail support.
At first Maurice was stupefied and half-blinded. The heated atmosphere surged violently against his face. There was a warm hard surface under him and when he threw out his hands in fright at the dizzy, swaying motion, they clutched something rough and wrinkled. He heard vague, husky shouts at a distance, and suddenly he realized the almost incredible truth. The rhinoceros had swept him free of the limb, and now, perched on the animal's broad back, he was being whirled at headlong speed through the jungle. It was indeed a unique situation, and not without a grave element of peril. But at least it was better than being at the mercy of the brute's hoofs and horn, as the lad told himself.
Having straddled his leathery seat as flatly as possible, and taken a firmer hold of the tough folds of skin on the neck, he crouched low and tried to think calmly; which was not an easy thing to do in such circumstances. The rhinoceros was by far the more frightened of the two. It was a new experience to find itself turned into a beast of burden, and it was naturally panic-stricken by the living, breathing weight that clung to its back. So, breaking into furious flight, tearing along an aimless course, it quickly out-distanced Sher Singh and Sri Das, who attempted to follow.
Maurice held tight, though buffeted and scratched by the overhanging foliage. He wondered how long the amazing ride would last, and how and where it would end. He was afraid to roll off, lest the maddened quadruped should turn on him and rend him to pieces. Though fear and suspense magnified the few minutes which he spent astride of his novel steed, it was really but a short time until the two parted company, and the lad's precarious position was exchanged for another even less to be desired. Faster and faster he was borne through the jungle, cleaving the gloomy thickets with the speed of a galloping horse, and then, of a sudden, scrub and forest melted away, and all around him was a flood of light that was dazzling by contrast with the recent shadows.
Crunch! crunch! Splash! Splash! Splash! Fresh, cool water spurted over Maurice's face and hands. He lifted his head and looked about. The rhinoceros was fording a swift and narrow river, perhaps two hundred yards broad. The dusky glow that precedes the twilight was just fading from the horizon. Still urged on by fear, the huge animal went splashing and pounding across the stream, now belly-deep, now submerged so far that the lad was wet to the hips.
In mid-channel was a bit of an island -- a mere mud-bank --that gave existence to an eddy off its lower end. Here the circling currents had scooped out the bottom, and directly the rhinoceros reached the edge of this hole, a crocodile poked its bony snout from the depths. The quadruped snorted with terror, and swerved round so unexpectedly that the lad lost his grip and was shot head foremost into the river.
He retained his presence of mind, and on reaching the surface, and finding himself in the clutches of a swift current, he splashed and kicked vigorously as it swept him clear of the perilous eddy and carried him on at a rapid pace. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the rhinoceros beating its way up-stream, its tail lashing like the paddle of a stern-wheel steamer. The crocodile had vanished entirely.
"I ought to be thankful to that scaly mugger," reflected Maurice, "but come to think of it, I don't know that I'm much better off than I was before. Crocodiles don't grow singly, and there may be half a score of them watching me at this very minute."
Frightened by the bare idea of such a thing, the lad splashed more noisily than ever, while he swam with hard and steady strokes. He attempted to gain the eastern bank of the river, but he was rather nearer to opposite shore, and, to increase the odds against him, the current was setting strongly in that direction. So, contrary to choice, he finally crawled out on the bank of the stream that was farthest from camp and friends. Exhausted by his struggle he dropped, panting and dripping wet, on the narrow strip of sand; and there he lay for a time, while the shadows of the night gathered, until a confused medley of sounds -- he could not tell from what direction they came -- startled him with their suggestion of some new peril.
The next instant a lively pattering and jingling swelled nearer, blending with a murmur of voices, and out from the gloom of the forest, into the dusky open, cantered, by twos and threes, a little squadron of cavalry. The thud of hoofs and tinkle of accoutrements was all around Maurice before he realized the situation. He sprang to his feet with a shrill cry, and dropped as quickly beneath the legs of the fore-most horse.
"Halt!" rang an authoritative voice. "Back, men, back."
The speaker, who was the officer in command, swung from his saddle and lifted Maurice in his strong arms. Others pressed closely, amazed and curious.
"An English lad!" exclaimed one.
"And soaking wet and unconscious," added a second. "A bit of a mystery, this."
"It appears so," assented Captain Rogers. "There is no time to fathom it now. The fellow must have crawled from the river just as my horse struck him and knocked him down. I don't believe he is much hurt. He seems to be breathing regularly."
"The hoofs never touched him, that I'll swear to," vowed a bronzed trooper with a gigantic moustache, who wore a sergeant's uniform. He dismounted and came forward. "Not a sign of an injury," he added after making a brief examination. "He is only stunned, and will be all right presently. I'm thinking he may be one of those named in the warrant, captain."
"Not likely; he is a mere boy, as far as I can tell," was the reply. "Here, Campbell, you take charge of him. We must be off without further delay."
Accordingly, Sergeant Campbell having remounted, the unconscious lad was hoisted on to the saddle in front of him. Captain Rogers held a short conversation with a gray-bearded native astride of a lean horse, who was evidently present in the capacity of guide. Then the latter ignited a torch, and the next moment the command to start was given. The score and ten of troopers turned north and rode their steeds along the bank of the river until the old native, who was in front with the leader, designated a fording-place, when all spurred recklessly across heedless of crocodiles -- and filed into the jungle behind the wavering glow of the torch.
The return of consciousness to Maurice, not long afterwards, brought with it a gradual but clear recollection of all that had happened. It was true that he had escaped injury from the hoofs of the captain's horse; the blow that had stunned him -- a sharp one over the temple -- was caused by a stone on which he fell. With aching head and limbs he rested loosely against Sergeant Campbell's broad chest, and from half-open lids his eyes furtively watched the torchlight flashing on steeds and riders, and gleaming right and left into the depths of the forest. He had not spent so many years of his life in India for nothing, and from the fact that half of the troopers were swarthy Hindoo sowars in silver-grey uniform faced with orange and blue, while the others were irregular fighting-men of the same colour, armed and attired with Oriental splendour, he knew them to be in the service of some powerful native potentate; in whose pay also, without a doubt, were Captain Rogers and three more English-men of the party.
"Indian sowars don't ride at night for pleasure," thought Maurice. "There is something unusual in the wind, and I mean to find out what it is. I could make a close guess at it, I'll be bound."
His suspicions were soon verified, and that in a most alarming manner. By listened intently, and relaxing his attitude so as to feign insensibility the better, he heard and understood much of the conversation that was freely carried on around him. For a time his brain was planning shrewdly and actively.
"Silva's work just as I imagined," he said to himself. "He has laid a complaint before the Raja of Seranghur -- all the trouble seems to have occurred inside of his territory and now is sending these fellows to arrest Tearle and Carruthers. Perhaps they want me as well. Luckily, however, they don't know as yet who I am. If I could only manage to slip away, and warn my friends in time! I must do it -- I must. But how?"
The question was speedily answered, for a little later a familiar clump of rocks was passed, and by these the lad got his bearings instantly and correctly. The troopers were following what had been originally a mere elephant-path. It would lead to Tearle's camp, but by a very roundabout way, while straight across the forest the distance was less by almost one half.
Maurice's plan was formed, though to carry it out successfully was a different matter. The knowledge of what depended on him, as he believed, made him cool and clear-headed. He watched and waited until presently chance favoured him. The trail becoming suddenly narrow, and dipping between serried walls of brake, the lad slipped limply and quickly down from beneath Sergeant Campbell's arms. He landed on his feet, and the next instant he had plunged into the jungle and was running blindly and at full speed.
Pursuit would have been utterly useless, as Captain Rogers well knew. The troopers pulled up for a moment, but not a man dismounted. There was some grumbling and swearing, with loud complaints of the lad's trickery, and then the squadron reluctantly rode on.
Though the muffled tramp of hoofs soon died away in the distance, to Maurice's vast relief, he continued his flight at a rapid pace, keeping his bearings as best he could. Thorns and spear-grass tore his clothing and scratched his flesh, and now and then, with considerable uneasiness, he heard the howling of wild beasts.
The suspense was quickly at an end, and it may be imagined with what joy Maurice discovered the unknown ones to be Sher Singh and Sri Das. The faithful Hindoos were no less delighted, and in a few words Sher Singh gave an explanation.
"We pursued the rhinoceros," he said, "dreading lest we should find your mangled body. Darkness fell upon us, and as we were returning to camp, with heavy hearts, we heard the coming of the horsemen and hid by the path. We saw you slip to the ground and run, and as quickly as possible we followed after you. But tell me, Sahib, why are these native sowars, with Feringhee officers, abroad to-night?"
The answer to Sher Singh's question, which Maurice briefly stated, caused his companions to share his keen anxiety. Precious time had already been lost, and without further delay the three resumed their journey through the dark and lonely jungle.
The natives were preparing the evening meal over blazing fires, and Tearle and Carruthers were lounging and smoking by the tent, when the absent ones arrived in safety and burst impetuously into the cleared space that was hemmed around by the circle of cages.
"Where have you been?" demanded Carruthers. "We were just thinking of starting out to look for you. The cage returned long ago, and the driver and his companions declared that you were not at the pits, which were all empty."
"I hope you've not been as unfortunate as we were," said Tearle. "The tiger gave us the slip, and --"
He paused, suddenly observing Maurice's white agitated face.
"Lad, what's wrong?" he questioned. "Speak quickly."
"A troop of cavalry the Raja's sowars with English officers," panted Maurice. "They are coming to arrest you be here in a few minutes don't wait for them better hide in the jungle."
"Troopers coming to arrest us?" gasped Tearle.
"By heavens, we'll give them a warm reception," cried Carruthers.
"Antonio Silva is at the bottom of this, of course."
"He is, that's right," assented the lad. "From what I overheard --"
Both men dashed into the tent, and emerged with rifles in their hands.
"Don't you mean to get out of the way?" Maurice asked in surprise.
"Not a bit of it, my lad," vowed Tearle. "We have done nothing wrong, so why should we slip off and abandon our property? I intend to face the music."
"And I'm with you, Dermot," exclaimed Carruthers. " It's an ugly scrape, but we'll see it through."
"You can count on me, whatever happens," declared Maurice, who was rather pleased than otherwise by the decision. "I was a fool to think that you would desert the camp. I lost my head when I heard those fellows talking of what they were going to do."
Inspired by the example of his companions, he possessed himself of a rifle.
"I want to know more about this business," said Tearle. "Let us have the whole story, my lad."
Maurice began to describe his adventures, and, without interruption, he got as far as the point where the horse knocked him down. Then a crashing noise rose from the jungle, and the shrill notes of a bugle quivered on the night air. Consternation seized the natives, and they sought shelter beneath the cages, between which, here and there, was had a glimpse of a silver-gray uniform. Evidently the camp was already surrounded. Maurice and his employers stood their ground, for the moment undecided how to act, and the two shikarees remained with them.
"Here they are," muttered Camithers, with an oath.
"Be careful," warned Tearle. "Offer no resistance; I come in the name of the Government," shouted a stern voice; and with that Captain Rogers spurred into the enclosure, half a dozen sowars riding at his heels. He glanced curiously about him, and then, dismounting, he approached the little group before the tent.
"I am in search of two persons," he said quietly, "Dermot Tearle and Luke Carruthers by name. I have a warrant for their arrest a warrant signed by a judge of the High Court of Calcutta."
Tearle stepped forward. His face was flushed and angry, and he handled his rifle in such a threatening manner that several of the troopers instinctively lifted their weapons to cover him.
"I am one of the two you have named," he said, "and this is Luke Carruthers. But I assure you that the affair is a mistake, and one that can be easily explained. It is we who should have sworn out the warrant."
"That's true enough," broke in Carruthers, indignantly. "We have been badly treated from beginning to end, and if ever I get hold of that scoundrel of a Portuguese I'll wring his yellow neck."
"I don't want to hear your story," replied Captain Rogers. "The time for that will come later. Indeed, it is my duty to advise you to say nothing. You must prepare to accompany me at once, as I can't spend the night in your camp."
"I should like to know, sir, on what charges the warrant is based," persisted Tearle.
"There is more than one," was the reply. "You are accused of murder, of highway robbery with violence, and of recruiting armed men for unlawful purposes in His Majesty's tributary state of Seranghur;" and with that he read the warrant aloud.
The string of pompous and solemn legal phrases, and the seals attached to the document, had a subduing effect on Maurice and the shikarees, while Carruthers scowled and bit hard on the stem of his pipe.
"A string of lies," he declared.
"This is preposterous," said Tearle to the officer. "It would be laughable if it were not likely to entail serious consequences before the truth can be reached. But of course, sir, you are only doing your duty, and we shall be ready to accompany you in a short time. First, however, I beg permission to ask a few questions."
"They must be very brief, then," said Captain Rogers, looking at his watch. "we have a night ride of fourteen miles before us. Go ahead."
"Thank you. Will you tell me the name of our accuser?"
"There are two of them," was the reply. "Antonio Silva, a Portuguese, and a Hindoo by the name of Ramput. The latter is from the village of Dowla."
"Exactly; I thought so. When was the charge preferred?"
"Some few days ago."
"It was laid before the proper person, the Raja Gopal Mirza, who consulted the British Resident at his Court of Seranghur. The information sworn to, being of a serious nature, was forwarded to Calcutta. The warrant was issued there, and I am here to serve it, acting under civil authority."
"And where are our accusers at the present moment?" asked Tearle.
"I can't tell you that, for I don't know," the officer replied impatiently. "They have probably left the Court of Seranghur, but you will have a chance to confront them at the preliminary hearing in Calcutta."
"Calcutta?" gasped Tearle. "Are we to be taken down there?"
"Certainly. The case is beyond the jurisdiction of the Seranghur magistrates."
There was a moment of silence. Tearle and Carruthers exchanged uneasy, significant glances.
"Come, we must be off," said the officer, curtly.
"Wait," implored Tearle, "I have a request to make. Our arrest is a piece of sheer malice, I assure you; and not only that, but there is a dastardly plot of some sort back of this charge. I'll swear to it, though I can offer no proof. If you take us down to Calcutta, our property will be in danger. Will you leave an escort here?"
"Nonsense!" laughed Captain Rogers. "To hear you talk, one would think we were in a hostile country. The peril exists only in your imagination. I have no men to spare. If anything goes wrong, your servants can send word to the cantonments at Seranghur."
"You refuse my request, then?" Tearle said bitterly. "Well, sir, remember that I shall hold you personally responsible for whatever happens. Mark my word, our accusers will not appear at the hearing in Calcutta or anywhere else."
The officer hesitated thoughtfully for an instant, and tugged at his drooping moustache.
"My instructions are plain," he replied. "I can waste no more time in fruitless talking. In five minutes we start."
He signalled to his bugler, who blew a couple of notes that brought the remainder of the sowars into the enclosure. At first, terrified by the near presence of the wild beasts, the horses did some lively kicking and plunging. Tearle and Carruthers, accepting the inevitable with the gloomiest of apprehensions, prepared hurriedly for the journey; and meanwhile Captain Rogers sat stiffly in the saddle, with torches flaring about him and lighting up the scene. He glanced frequently at Maurice, but if he recognized the lad -- as he must have done -- he gave no sign to that effect.
"By-the-by, I must leave somebody here," he said, as Tearle came out of the tent. "The Portuguese claims several of the animals."
"You had better leave half of your force," Tearle told him.
The officer, ignoring the remark, turned to the sergeant. "Campbell," said he, "I put the camp in your charge; see that nothing is removed. That will be your duty until further orders."
Sergeant Campbell dismounted, his face clouded with discontent, and proceeded to picket his horse near the bullocks.
"Listen, my boy," whispered Tearle, as he drew Maurice aside. "Be vigilant while Luke and I are gone, and keep watch by day and night. It is a ruse on Silva's part -- our arrest. I am satisfied that he is plotting mischief, and means to attack the camp."
"Why was I not included in the warrant?" asked Maurice. "Ah, that's the worst of it," was the reply. "It looks as if Silva wanted to find you here. He has a grudge against you, you know. So be careful, lad. May Heaven preserve you from harm! We shall not be detained long in Calcutta, and as soon as --"
A gruff summons from the officer interrupted the conversation. A minute later, after hasty farewells had been spoken, a bugle sounded and the whole troop rode forth in the jungle path. Tearle and Carruthers, each mounted behind a stalwart sowar, turned to wave their hands. Then they had vanished, and the glimmer of the guide's torch faded from sight.
As calmly as if nothing had happened the native employees crept back to their culinary duties and heaped fresh wood on the neglected fires, while Sergeant Campbell, sauntering near by, cast hungry eyes at the untasted food. Maurice had slipped off unperceived, wishing to have an interval of quiet reflection, and he was sitting on a box at the far end of the camp, depressed and troubled by the onerous weight of responsibility that had fallen upon him, when he suddenly caught sight of a dusky object stealing towards him from between two of the nearest cages.
"Why, it's Bobbili!" he muttered aloud.
He was not mistaken; the intruder was the jungle-child whose acquaintance he had made the same afternoon. The next instant the strange creature had wriggled to Maurice's feet, where, rising to his haunches like a monkey, he pressed one hand to his lips and pointed with the other towards the fires.
"All right," whispered Maurice. "But what are you doing here, Bobbili? I hope you haven't brought the panther with you. Oh, I forgot you can't understand."
However, Bobbili's errand was not one that called for speech, though a few incoherent words fell softly from his lips. Having fumbled briefly at his girdle, he placed in Maurice's hand something that felt like a tiny round stone. Then, turning and dropping to all fours, he swiftly glided away as he had come. He vanished at the edge of the forest, outside the circle of cages, and a mewling, purring noise, together with a fleeting glimpse of a pair of fiery orbs, told that his savage pet, the panther, had been waiting for him there. A rustling among the trees was followed by utter silence.
"Well, that was a surprise visit," thought Maurice. "It's like living in a real fairy-tale. I wonder what's up now. The next thing, I suppose, will be a lamp that I'm to rub whenever I want Bobbili and his panther to obey my commands. Or perhaps that was a magic stone he just brought me. I had better have a look at it."
He started across the enclosure, impatient to examine his strange gift, and was met half-way by Sher Singh, who had come in search of him.
"My heart was troubled by your absence, Sahib," explained the devoted shikaree.
"I wasn't far off," replied Maurice. " The jungle-boy has been here, Sher Singh, and he gave me this."
Opening his clenched hand he displayed, not a rounded stone, but a button of smooth and polished brass. The shikaree, with a grave expression, touched it and turned it over.
"I have seen others like it," he declared. "Antonio Silva wears them on his linen tunic."
"So he does, that's a fact," exclaimed Maurice. " I remember now. But how did Bobbili get this, and why did he fetch it to me."
"It means danger, Sahib," said Sher Singh, "and it was brought to you as a warning."
"I believe you are right," assented Maurice.
It was the only theory, he had to admit, that the peculiar nature and circumstances of the gift would warrant. For a time he remained in earnest conversation with Sher Singh, and while neither suggested by what means the jungle-child had obtained the button or how he could have known that danger threatened the camp, both were agreed that Antonio Silva was somewhere in the vicinity and that the warning was not one to be disregarded. Clearly the peril was very real.
"I didn't expect trouble so soon," said Maurice, "but when it comes we'll be ready for it. We'll lose no time in putting everything in shape for a siege."
"Our force is weak," replied Sher Singh in a gloomy tone.
"It is strong enough to beat off the Portuguese, if he comes," the lad said hopefully. "Unless he has too many at his back," he added to himself.
The two rejoined their companions -- not many minutes had elapsed since the departure of Tearle and Carruthers and they found supper waiting for them. The meal began in constraint and silence, for the presence of the bronzed, long-limbed cavalryman was resented as an intrusion. Sher Singh and Sri Das watched him furtively, and the other natives scowled at him behind his back.
But Sergeant Campbell was not a person with whom one could be on unfriendly terms. Jollity and good-humour beamed from his eyes, and lurked under his shaggy moustache, which nearly concealed his mouth.
"Cheer up, comrades," he cried with a mellow laugh. "Though I'm here against your wishes and mine, why not make the best of it and be happy? Your friends will return before many suns rise and set, I'm thinking, and meanwhile I'll gladly take a hand if there's to be any fighting. And between you and me, I'm hoping there will be. I saw the yellow-faced Portuguese at Seranghur, and I wouldn't have trusted him any more than a serpent."
"I wish you had told the captain that," said Maurice.
"Bless you, he'd never have believed me," was the reply, "and it wouldn't have made any difference if he had. Orders are orders."
The sergeant soon had the entire confidence of Maurice and the two shikarees, and of the rest as well. He spoke freely of the charges preferred by Silva and Ramput, and offered some valuable suggestions in the way of preparation for an attack.
After supper all hands set to work, and under Maurice's supervision the entire arrangement of the camp was altered. The cages were drawn so close as to contract the circle by one-half, and, for the protection of the animals, the outer sides were stoutly boarded up. A single, narrow opening was left for the bullocks to reach the water-hole, which was forty or fifty yards distant, and near this exit was the brush lean-to where the natives slept. The tent was at the opposite side of the enclosure. Then a more formidable task was undertaken and finished. Large quantities of thorn-bushes were cut, and formed into a zareba outside the cordon of cages -- an extra barrier which was not easily to be penetrated by a foeman.
The beasts -- wild and domestic -- had been fed and watered before the arrival of the troopers, and needed no further attention. At a late hour the final touches were added. The force in camp numbered ten, and Maurice divided these into two watches, who were to go on duty alternately. He took personal charge of one, and gave the other to Sergeant Campbell.
Contrary to expectation, the night passed by without alarm, and the approach of dawn was eagerly welcomed. However, this was no sign that the danger was lessened, and sunset was looked forward to with feelings of dread. There was employment for everybody during the day, the bullocks and wild animals having to be fed and watered, and the cages to be cleaned. Sher Singh and Sri Das ventured into the jungle to obtain fresh meat and returned with a couple of spotted deer. They had exercised their knowledge of woodcraft to the utmost, but without finding any trace of human beings in the vicinity.
"There is plenty of time yet," said Maurice. "Silva is probably lying low and waiting his chance, or else he has gone off to recruit more followers. When he plans to do anything he does it well."
"Trust a Portuguese for that," replied Campbell. "And the rascal knows that your friends can't get back from Calcutta in less than a week or ten days."
"Sahibs, would it not be wise to hire a small force from the village of Dowla?" spoke up Sher Singh.
Maurice caught eagerly at the suggestion.
"That's what I'll do to-morrow," he declared. "I'm glad you thought of it."
By now the afternoon was drawing to a close. Soon the shades of evening settled down on the camp, and the fires were lighted. Until nearly midnight Maurice and Campbell sat by the tent, keeping up their spirits by cheerful conversation. The sergeant, puffing the while at a blackened briar-wood, chatted for hours of his adventurous life in the service, and finally rose and stretched his stiffened limbs.
"Time for sentry-go," he remarked, as he refilled his pipe. "My fellows are ready for me, and I see yours have already turned in. You had better join them, lad, and get some sleep."
"I will," said Maurice. "I don't believe we shall be disturbed to-night. And the first thing in the morning I am going to the village of Dowla with a bag filled with rupees. I'm sure that is what Tearle would wish me to do."
"Ay, that he would," assented Campbell, "Pleasant dreams, my boy. I'll rouse you when you are needed."
Striding across the enclosure he sent his men to their respective posts of duty, and for an hour he paid frequent visits to them and kept the fires in a constant blaze.
Maurice had long since fallen into a heavy slumber within the tent, and at his feet lay Sher Singh, wrapped in a blanket. Suddenly a shrill, gurgling cry rang on the silence of the night. A deep groan followed, and all was as still as before. The shikaree slept on, but the lad sprang up, seized his rifle, and and dashed outside. At first inclined to believe himself the victim of a bad dream, he knew better when he saw Sergeant Campbell drop an armful of wood, and stare wildly about him.
"You heard it too?" demanded the trooper.
"It was an ugly sound one to curdle the blood. And I'll take my oath it was a death-cry."
"It came from beyond the camp," said Maurice. "I'm afraid we are going to be attacked. Shall I rouse my men?"
"No, not yet. Hold on a bit."
They waited a full minute, scarcely daring to breathe. But there was no further alarm, nor did the sentries rush in. A dusky figure crept up to the two, and the voice of Sher Singh asked, "Is there danger, Sahibs?"
Campbell briefly explained, and the shikaree's face clouded with perplexity.
" I must take a look around the camp," added the sergeant. "Be ready in ease anything happens."
"I will go with you," declared Maurice.
Sher Singh followed them, and Campbell lighted the way with a blazing brand. The first sentry was found at his post, just outside the camp. It was clear that he had recently wakened from sleep, for he denied all knowledge of the mysterious sound. They pushed on to the second sentry, who was in a pitiable state of fright. He had heard the shrill cry and declared that it came from a short distance away.
"Be quick," said Campbell.
The little party hastened forward, taking the man with them, and when a semicircle of the camp had been almost completed the glow of the torch, flaring ahead, shone on the tiny cleared space in the jungle where the third sentinel had been stationed. The post was empty.
Campbell was first on the scene, and a sharp exclamation escaped his lips as he raised the brand high and let the flames shine on the trampled grass -- on dabs and spatters of blood.
"Murder has been done," he gasped hoarsely. "Foul murder."
"Perhaps a tiger pounced on the poor fellow and carried him off," suggested Maurice, peering anxiously about as he cocked his rifle.
"A human tiger," said Sher Singh, who had stepped over the blood-stains and parted the surrounding screen of bushes, "Behold, Sahibs."
"The work of some prowling jungle-thief," he vowed. "I would give the assassin a mighty short shrift if I had him."
"I fear he was more than a jungle-thief, Sahib," said Sher Singh.
"That's right," vowed Maurice. "Depend on it, Silva is not far away, and the murderer is one of his spies."
"It sounds likely," admitted Campbell. "If that's the case, we're running a big risk in stopping here."
"We must return and rouse the whole force," said Maurice. "The camp is certainly in danger. But we ought to pay a visit to the last post."
" We'll go back that way," replied the sergeant.
Sher Singh released his grip of the bushes, which swung together and hid the ghastly sight of the dead man. Then, with fast-beating hearts, the little group crept along the outside of the camp. They were half-way to the spot where Chandar, the fourth sentry, was stationed, when Campbell halted abruptly. He spoke no word, but reached the torch down by his side. A narrow gap was seen in the hedge of thorn-bushes that were stacked against the cages.
"It is freshly made," whispered Sher Singh. "The assassin is within the camp."
"What luck!" said Maurice. "Quick! let us hurry round to the entrance."
"There is a better and surer way," replied the sergeant. "I'll show you."
Having dropped his torch and ground it under heel until every spark was extinguished, he crept on hands and knees into the gap.
"Follow me," he whispered, "and keep your mouths shut. Don't utter a sound."
It was a daring venture, since the exact whereabouts of the intruder, who might even be Silva himself, were unknown. Maurice followed Campbell, and Sher Singh and the relieved sentry brought up the rear. Singly they issued from the hedge, and were now beneath one of the cages. The tent, staked a few yards away, prevented a clear view of the enclosure.
"We'll have the rascal if he is still lurking about," muttered the sergeant.
He stood erect and went cautiously forward, the rest of the party slipping after him. Maurice, diverging slightly to one side, failed to observe a dark blot, cunningly interwoven with the trampled grass, until he had tripped upon it and fallen head- long. He felt a warm, squirming body under him, heard a savage snarl, and was immediately gripped by a pair of sinewy arms. Realizing that he was in the clutches of the assassin, he fought desperately for life, shouting as he rolled over and over. Before anyone could interfere, however, the lad's antagonist -- he was as slippery as an eel -- had twisted himself free. He darted off like a streak and when Maurice rose dizzily to his feet he saw the dusky figure speeding towards the exit of the camp.
"Out of the way there," cried Campbell. "I'll stop him."
His rifle went to his shoulder, and the report crashed on the night air. The ball sped true, and the fleeing enemy, with a convulsive leap, tumbled at the edge of the fire.
An instant later a very pandemonium raged. The frightened bullocks stamped and bellowed, tugging at their ropes, while the wild animals roared and screeched and dashed against the bars of their cages. The natives burst out of their sleeping- quarters in a state of panic and terror, and just as the sergeant and his companions reached the fire the two sentries who were out hastened into the enclosure, drawn thither by the shot.
All gathered about the victim, who was stone dead. The spy, if such he was, had paid dearly for his crime and his temerity. He was a most repulsive-looking fellow, small of stature, but tough and wiry. Except for a waist-cloth and a kummerbund he was stark naked. His features were brutal and depraved, and his long black hair was matted and unkempt.
"A just end, if ever there was one," muttered Campbell. "I don't regret killing him. Look, the wretch has the stolen cartridge-belt."
"He dropped the rifle when I fell over him," said Maurice. "He is a queer-looking chap, and I don't believe he belongs to these parts."
"You are right, Sahib," Sher Singh answered solemnly. "The presence of this man here means grave peril. He is one of the half-civilized tribesmen who dwell among the hills to the north beyond where we had the battle. They are cruel and blood-thirsty, and many of them are Thugs."
"I've heard tell of them," said Campbell. "They are regular fanatics at fighting -- don't care a hang for man or beast."
"Then Antonio Silva must have hired a lot of them," replied Maurice. "Things are worse than I thought they were. We seem to be in a bad scrape."
"Which we will do our best to get out of," vowed Campbell. "If there are any final preparations to be made let us tackle them now, for we don't want to be caught napping. An attack may begin at any minute." The sergeant's words increased the sense of impending danger which his companions felt, but no sign of fear was shown, since Dermot Tearle had been careful to hire only brave and experienced men. All were provided with rifles, and some of the weapons were repeaters. More ammunition was needed, and Maurice and Sher Singh hurried to the tent to fill that want, while Campbell issued brief instructions to the force, posting two of them at the exit of the camp. Then, followed by Chandar, he ran to the rear of the enclosure and stopped the gap in the hedge.
He returned just as Maurice and the shikaree arrived at the fire with a box of cartridges. The others swarmed about them, eager to stuff their belts, and just at this unguarded moment a straggling volley of rifle shots rang on the still air. One of the sentries without fell dead, and the other escaped by an agile dash into the camp, which appeared to be already surrounded by the foe, to judge from the shrill, blood-curdling yells that were poured from a score of throats. The attack coming thus swiftly, and without the least warning, annihilation and defeat at first threatened the little band. But Maurice and Sergeant Campbell were happily equal to the emergency, and at once, as the order was given, the men scattered. They withdrew from the fire, and sought safety in the deep shadows to right and left.
"Down with you," shouted the sergeant. "Flat on the ground."
The command was no sooner obeyed than a second volley of musketry -- not a heavy one -- whistled overhead. The greater part of the enemy, however, were very fortunately armed only with spears, which they rapidly hurled as they pushed on doggedly.
"Unless we can drive them back, Sahib, we are lost," declared Sher Singh.
"Look sharp," urged Campbell. "We are going to have things our own way for a time at least."
In that he was right. Now was a splendid opportunity for the besieged, and they took the utmost advantage of it. The exit of the camp and the space outside was alive with hideous, half-naked wretches, who as yet were darting aimlessly to and fro. The assailants were indeed the fanatical hill-men from the northern forests, though if Antonio Silva was in command of them he discreetly kept himself well concealed.
"Fire!" cried Maurice. "Don't waste a shot."
His followers they lay deep in the grass on both sides of the enclosure heard and understood, and waited with cool nerves, as steady as old soldiers. The next instant, as the attack began in earnest, the cluster of rifle-barrels, focussed on the mouth of the passage, belched flame and lead with telling effect. Through the drifting smoke the foremost of the foe, well within the camp, could be seen to reel and tumble, clutching at the ground in their agonies. Those behind pressed on unchecked, trampling the fallen, yelling like fiends and brandishing their spears.
Maurice and the sergeant continued to shout to their companions, but could scarcely be heard for the deafening din and tumult. The wild beasts were raging and roaring in their cages, and the bullocks, who had succeeded in freeing themselves, were bellowing madly as they galloped to and fro. The plucky fighters aimed and pulled until the weapons grew hot in their grasp, and still the savage tribesmen repeatedly charged the enclosure, hoping to come to close quarters and end the fray by sheer weight of numbers. As yet the blazing fire and a shroud of pungent powder-smoke was between them and the besieged.
But valour and determination were of little account against such a fanatical horde, as Campbell, with rage and grief, soon had to admit.
"It's no use, my brave fellows," he cried in a ringing voice. "One more volley, and then we'll run for our lives. We must break out by the hedge at the rear of the camp."
"I won't run," Maurice vowed fiercely. "I'll die first. I mean to stick to my trust, whatever happens."
"It will be folly to do that, Sahib," entreated Sher Singh, who was at the lad's elbow. "Be wise, and escape while you may. No mercy is to be expected from these human fiends."
Maurice's reply was a frenzied shout, as with a steady hand he aimed and fired across the flame-lit canopy of smoke. For a few seconds the rifles spluttered, drawing several harmless shots in reply, but that final volley, ordered by the sergeant, was as futile as the first to stem the wild rush. A bunch of the foe had gained the farther edge of the fire, and dusky forms were advancing from the rear, thirsting for pillage and slaughter.
"Back with you," yelled Campbell, springing to his feet. "It's a race for life now, men. Come, lad, we'll stick together. "Are you mad?" he cried, as Maurice stubbornly held his ground. "It's our last chance."
But even as he spoke, at this fateful crisis, a truly providential thing happened in almost less time than it takes to tell, swiftly altering and saving the situation. A rasping succession of snarls rang from the nearest cage, and above the noise of strife was heard the rending and splintering of wooden bars. The black panther was free. With a scream the infuriated beast leapt blindly from its broken cage and landed in the very midst of the clustered bullocks, who, thrown into maddening terror, instantly stampeded for the exit of the camp.
Bellowing and bawling and tossing their horned heads, the maddened little herd pounded past the startled defenders, narrowly missing them. They tore on, struck and overthrew the leading line of foemen, and went thundering into the passage, which they completely filled. It was too much for the courage of the fanatical tribesmen, and as many as were able to do so turned and fled, abandoned to helpless panic. For a moment or two hoarse cries mingled with the bawling and snorting of the horned animals. Then the space was clear, save for the dead and maimed, and the frightened bullocks were dispersing widely into the jungle.
Three of the hill-men, who had dodged the charge, remained within the enclosure. One made his escape, and the other two were shot by Campbell and Sri Das. Meanwhile such of the wounded as could move crawled painfully away, and several more, who were in a worse plight, were dragged into the thickets by their friends.
The delight and amazement of the besieged -- with Maurice joy was tempered by the loss of the bullocks and the black panther -- can be easier imagined than described. Their satisfaction was short-lived, however, since it stood to reason that they had gained only a breathing-spell. Doubtless the foe they were clearly in strong force would soon rally and again press the attack. A gap nearly through the hedge, which was immediately repaired, showed what mischief the wily hill-men had been plotting when the bullocks created such a fortunate diversion.
"Now is your chance," urged Campbell. "There is no hope whatever of holding out. The end is certain, sooner or later. Come, I'll take the lead."
He started towards the rear of the camp, but Chandar touched his arm and detained him.
"Be careful, Sahib," he warned. "The panther is lurking yonder in the darkness. He will spring upon you."
There was a moment of fateful indecision. Sher Singh, and others as well, kept anxious and watchful eyes on the passage. The sergeant's face flushed and he clenched his fist.
"Coward is a hard name, lad," he muttered, with a scowl. "No man calls me that at his pleasure -- I'll settle with you at a more suitable time. Look here, you know well enough that if we wait for another attack we are lost."
"I don't know anything of the sort," Maurice answered scornfully. "I won't abandon the camp. Besides, I'm master here, and you have no right to interfere with my authority, nor will I allow it. Come, sergeant, help me with this cage, and then we'll see if we can't stand the scoundrels off."
The cage referred to formed the left wall of the passage and contained Silva's spare luggage, which, since its capture, had been only superficially examined. Campbell's sullen face cleared, and he forgot his resentment, as he saw what the lad meant to do. He hastened with the others to lend a hand. The cage was quickly hauled around broadside, so that it completely blocked the exit with the exception of a very narrow gap to the left. While this extra barricade was being put in position, the enemy, strange to say, made no sign. Either they were disheartened by their heavy losses, or were planning fresh devilry.
"Your scheme is not half a bad one, lad," said the sergeant, approvingly. "This is what we should have done in the first place. With twice as many men I should feel reasonably sure of holding the camp. However, I'll stick by you, come what may."
"I hope you won't regret it," Maurice replied. "For my part, I believe the odds are in our favour. The only weak spot in the circle is this slit here."
" We'll soon fix that," vowed Campbell. "Come, men, all hands. Tear down the lean-to yonder."
The little shed was quickly demolished, and the timber was used to stop up the crevice and otherwise strengthen the barricade. Scarcely was this work finished when the foe assembled outside. For a few minutes they yelled ferociously, wasting powder and ball and hurling spears over the tops of the cages. But nobody was hurt, and presently the hill-men drew off again. A deep silence ensued that was fraught with ominous meaning.
"The rascals have discovered that the passage is barred to them," said Maurice. "I wonder what they will try next."
"I daresay they will go spying about in search of a weak point," Campbell answered in a low voice. "The siege won't be raised before daylight at the earliest, that's certain."
"Not if Silva commands them," assented Maurice, "and of course he does."
"No doubt of it, Sahib," declared Sher Singh. "The Portuguese is bent on revenge, and he will not be easily discouraged. He has many fighting men with him, and they are as fearless and savage as the wild beasts of their native hills."
"We had better put out the fire," wisely suggested the sergeant. "Then we can move about freely and with less risk, and our eyes will soon grow accustomed to the darkness. At present we can't stir without more or less danger of being shot."
Chandar volunteered for this perilous duty, and the brave fellow succeeded in extinguishing the flames without drawing a bullet or a missile from the enemy. The camp was now shrouded in gloom not so thick, however, but that the outlines of the cages and of human figures could be discerned. The loss of the two sentries had reduced the garrison to eight, and a small enough force it was to keep at bay such a horde of fanatical tribesmen.
Another consultation was held, and all agreed that in constant and unremitting vigilance lay the one and only hope.
"We have reliable guns and plenty of reserve ammunition," said Maurice, "which means much. The best thing we can do is to scatter about the camp, and depend more on our ears than on our eyes. At the first sign of danger give a low whistle. That will summon the rest of us to the spot."
No better plan of defence could have been adopted for the barricading of the exit left the camp equally protected on all sides, and the enemy might attempt to break through the cordon at any point. Sergeant Campbell undertook the charge of one side of the enclosure, and Maurice worked his way along the other. He had assigned two men to their posts of duty, and was counting off the distance for the third, when a dusky form rose at his very feet and bounded across the circle. The fellow had a good chance of escape, for, in their surprise, none fired at him. But just as he reached the middle of the camp he was pounced upon by the black panther, who had been lying concealed in the grass.
The blood-curdling screech of the animal mingled with the man's death-cry. There was a rush towards the spot, and Maurice, outdistancing the others, dropped to one knee and aimed at the pair of fiery eyes. The hammer fell with a click -- the cartridge had missed fire. There was a rasping squall, a flying shadow, as the panther sprang at and over the daring lad, who was struck to the ground by a blow on the shoulder. And the next instant, when the beast was about to fasten teeth and claws in Maurice's body, a swift and remarkable thing happened.
A second panther, sprung apparently from nowhere, suddenly attacked the first one. They fought savagely and with shrill outcry, rolling from place to place, and then the brief combat -- it lasted only a few seconds -- was terminated by a peculiar whistle. The two animals fell apart, bolting in opposite directions, and Maurice, who got to his feet just at that time, could have sworn that he saw for an instant, ere it vanished in the gloom, a childish figure with a bushy head of hair.
The entire occurrence was quickly done and over. Amid noisy clamour several rifles were discharged at the fleeing panthers, but without visible effect. They escaped either by leaping over or between the cages.
"You had a close call, lad," said Campbell. "Are you hurt?"
"Not a bit," replied Maurice, who was astounded and a little dazed by his marvellous adventure. "I thought it was all up with me, though, when the cartridge missed fire."
"And where did the other panther come from?"
"I can't tell you, sergeant."
"It's a queer thing. I don't understand it."
The panther's victim he had been forgotten for the moment was now remembered. He lay where he had been pulled down, quite dead, and by the dim light his bitten and mangled throat could be seen.
"One of the hill-men," declared Maurice, stooping over the body; "I suppose he was with the attacking party, and ran in this direction when the bullocks stampeded."
"Yes, that's right," assented Campbell. "He was watching his chance to slip away. Well, the black panther won't trouble us any more or the other one either. Back to your posts, men. We are giving the enemy too good an opportunity."
"Sahib, did you see the jungle child?" whispered Sher Singh, as he furtively sidled near to the lad.
"He was here," Maurice answered in a low voice. "Bobbili saved my life by sending his savage pet to the rescue. He must have wriggled under the hedge like a snake, and gone out in the same manner. Don't say a word about it to any one else, Sher Singh," he added. "They would only laugh at the story."
"I shall be silent, Sahib," promised the Hindoo.
The dead man was left where he had met his fate, and the tragedy soon lost its interest, for there were more portentous things to be thought of. Maurice, having made sure that the men were properly posted, took his own position close to Campbell. The caged animals, who had been stirred to a high pitch of excitement by the shooting, presently became quiet again, except for an occasional wheeze or howl.
The surrounding jungle seemed to be deserted and not a sound could be heard. Thus nearly an hour slipped by, and to the little band of eight, shut in by bloodthirsty foes, the period was one of constant and trying suspense. They listened with keen ears for the expected signal, straining their eyes through the murky gloom. At frequent intervals either Maurice or the sergeant paced around the enclosure, and as time went on, the hope that the enemy had retreated, very fault at first, began to grow stronger.
It was a mistake, however, to hope at all, and the lad's heart would have filled with anguish could he have foreseen the result of his refusal to escape when the chance had been open. To Sher Singh fell the credit of discovering the next attack. The brave shikaree was posted on the left of the camp, where, hearing guttural voices and a rustling in the bushes, he promptly gave the signal a sharp, clear whistle. It was quickly responded to, and as his comrades reached the spot a number of half-naked savages, reckless of thorns, impetuously forced a gap in the hedge and burst through.
"Down!" cried Maurice. "Now let them have it. Aim low." The volley that ensued did some execution, and took the foe by surprise. With shrieks of agony they fled back to the shelter of the jungle, and when the defenders ceased fire, after continuing to blaze away for a few seconds, all was quiet. Beneath the cages several bodies could be perceived.
"That was well done," said Campbell. "The wretches have had two severe lessons to-night."
"And we'll teach them as many more as they want," replied Maurice. "This is a dangerous spot, and will require careful watching. Look after it well, Sher Singh. I'll leave Chandar here to keep you company. Lie flat on the ground, so that the enemy will have the less chance of shooting or spearing you."
The gap in the hedge was hastily built up, and then, the men having gone back to their places, Maurice and the sergeant tramped round and round the camp. They felt that it would be risky to put too much reliance on signals, since the wild beasts were again in a state of panic and making considerable noise. Not five minutes later came a third attack, from the opposite side of the enclosure. This time, however, the savages did not succeed in breaking through the hedge. A well-delivered volley caught them while they were entangled in the meshes of the thorn-bushes, and another volley dispersed them.
"They mean to keep it up," said Campbell.
"It looks that way," Maurice assented.
Chapters I - XV
Chapters XVI - XXX
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