Held by Chinese Brigands - Part 10

Part 10

Ling took a bridle path leading directly to the north, lying in a bee-line across the down-like hills. The man strode forward, walking at such a great pace that Frank was obliged to run to keep up with him. All this time he said nothing. He walked, staring straight in front of him--a gaunt, sinister and gigantic figure. Never for a moment did he release his hold of Frank's wrist, which felt as if it was held within a vice.

After a time they came to a river, or ca.n.a.l. Since the path led straight into the water and was visible in continuation upon the other bank, it was evident that there was a ford. Ling hesitated a moment, and then, hoisting his captive upon his shoulder, carried him high and dry to the other side, himself wading in water that reached to his knees. Beyond, he once more set down Frank upon the ground; and they went forward at the same steady pace. And at every step the water squelched in the soft felt shoes the Chinaman was wearing.

At the end of an hour, Frank was beginning to feel fatigued; he was considerably out of breath. Ling, on the other hand, appeared to be in no way exhausted. They came to a hut--the habitation, in all probability, of some swineherd or peasant.

Ling kicked open the door, and they found within an old man, very disreputable and dirty, clothed in rags, sound asleep before the glowing embers of a charcoal fire.

Ling touched the sleeper upon the shoulder, and the old man sat up.

"The mighty Ling!" he exclaimed, the moment he saw his visitor.

"Peace," said Ling. "I come in peace, my friend. You need not be discomfited. I ask for nothing more than you can give me."

The old man, who had now risen to his feet, bowed low.

"A mandarin of the Blue b.u.t.ton has but to speak," said he. "Who is a mere drover of foul pigs to gainsay the word of so distinguished a personage? Is it food you desire, or water, or an hour's rest upon your journey? All I have, sir, is your own."

"I want that which will cost you nothing," answered Ling. "This will not be the first time that you have aided me. I will reward you--at a later date--if all goes well with me."

"May the G.o.ds a.s.sist you," said the old man, bowing again.

"I rely upon myself," said Ling. "Tell me, Cheong-Chau's men have come from the mountains. They are reported on the Sang River. Have you seen anything of them?"

"I have indeed," said the other. "There is a junk anch.o.r.ed about three li west of the tower. I saw it this afternoon."

"Did you notice how many men were on board?"

"About five or six," said the old man.

"That agrees," said Ling, "with what I already know."

He remained silent for a moment, and then suddenly grasped Frank by an arm and thrust him through the door.

"Come!" he cried. "We have no time to lose."

The next moment Frank Armitage was on the road again, and throughout the early hours of the morning he continued to travel northward, in company with his grim and silent captor. Once the boy dared to speak, asking Ling where they were going; but he was at once ordered to hold his tongue.

"You need what breath you have," observed the Honanese. "I am not here to answer questions."

There was more than a little truth in the first remark, for the boy was obliged to keep up a steady jog-trot mile after mile, with never a halt or a rest by the wayside.

Presently they gained the crest of a chain of low-lying hills. The moonlight was sufficient to enable them to see for a considerable distance. Before them lay a valley--so far as Frank could make out--exceedingly fertile and picturesque, in which was a tall, thin tower, somewhat resembling a short factory chimney, except that at the top there was a narrow, circular balcony protected both from the rain and the powerful rays of the sun by one of those queer-shaped, overhanging roofs that are peculiar to Southern China.

Frank knew at a glance that this was the tower from which, in days gone by, it had been the custom of the Cantonese to throw little children, whose existence had grown irksome to their parents. At one time this barbarous and terrible custom was prevalent in the Middle Kingdom, until finally even the Chinese themselves revolted against the laws that permitted such a crime.

Flooded by the pure light of the moon, the valley appeared a perfect haven of rest. No one would have believed that such a beautiful spot had, in former times, been the scene of such terrible brutality. The tall tower shone like bra.s.s, and at its feet the broad waters of the Sang River flowed swiftly to the west.

Ling, still dragging Frank forward, descended the hill, and then turned to the right, towards a clump of trees. It was then, for the first time since they had left Canton, that, of his own accord, he spoke to his prisoner.

"Here is the place," he cried. "The Glade of Children's Tears. Here it is that Cheong-Chau's ransom money will be hidden."

Frank did not think it advisable to answer. Ling no longer held him by a wrist: such a precaution was now unnecessary. Frank could not possibly escape.

For a distance of about a hundred yards they walked in the heavy shadows under the branches of the trees, which were thick with leaves. And then, quite suddenly, they came once again into the bright moonlight, to find themselves confronted by a scene which was both grotesque and picturesque.

In ancient times the place had evidently been the site of a temple, of which only the ruined walls, a few stone steps and several flagstones remained. Here and there, lying upon the ground, overgrown by weeds and underwoods, were great broken, hideous idols, many of which were at least twelve feet in length. In the ghostly moonlight, it was like looking upon a scene which had been the battle-field of giants.

It was manifest that Ling knew the place well, for he walked straight up to a great circular stone, considerably darker in colour than the surrounding brickwork and rocks. Though this stone must have been of enormous weight, he rolled it away without difficulty. Beneath was a large hole. Going down upon his knees, the man struck a match, the light of which dimly illumined a vault as large as an ordinary room.

"Empty!" he exclaimed. "However, I did not expect to find the money here. It should arrive to-morrow, if my calculations are correct. I do not think that your friends will venture to waste time. Too much is at stake."

"My friends?" said Frank.

"Exactly," said the other. "I was so fortunate as to discover who you are. I confess that for days you deceived me. I never dreamt for a moment that the boy whose services I enlisted in Sanshui was a European. I congratulate you upon your accent and your knowledge of the Cantonese language. You speak it as well as I, who am a Northerner."

"And why," asked Frank, "have you brought me here?" This was the question he had long been burning to ask.

Ling shrugged his shoulders.

"You may have deceived me," said he, "but I am not altogether a fool."

And that, apparently, was all the reply he would condescend to give.

"I fail to understand," said Frank.

"Then you are very dense. Let me enlighten you: in a few hours, twenty thousand dollars will be hidden in this place. That money is intended for Cheong-Chau. Cheong-Chau will not receive a cent."

As he said these words, he rolled the stone back into its place.

"Cheong-Chau's junk lies up-stream," he continued, once again as if speaking to himself. "He had ten men with him. He took three with him to Ah Wu's opium den. Of those three, I have accounted for one at least, and I do not think the man I struck down with the lamp will be fit to fight for many a day. In any case, neither those three men nor Cheong-Chau himself are here. There are therefore only seven on board the junk. It is now about three o'clock in the morning. Six of those seven men are sound asleep. I propose to take the junk by storm."

"You mean," said Frank, "that you will do this--single-handed?"

"I have this," said Ling. "If necessary, I shall use it."

At that he produced the revolver he had taken from Yung How. He played with it for a moment in his great hands, and then put it back in his pocket.

"I shall require the junk," he added, "in order to take the treasure away. And even if I fail to get possession of it, I have you, my little one, who are so clever. You are worth, to me, at least another twenty thousand dollars."

Frank saw the truth as in a flash: once again he was a hostage. Ling no doubt intended to demand a second ransom as the price of the boy's freedom--perhaps his life. As the man remained silent for some minutes, Frank had the greater time to think the matter out. And the more he thought of it, the more was he obliged to admire the consummate subtlety of Ling, who had the faculty of grasping a situation without a moment's waste of time, estimating the salient factors at their proper value.

In the opium den, Frank's ident.i.ty had been unmasked, and his life threatened in a period of time which could not have been more than thirty or forty seconds. And yet, in those brief and breathless seconds, Ling, in hiding behind the curtain, had summed up the position at a glance. He had seen that Cheong-Chau--who for the moment was blind with rage--was about to throw away a human life that was likely to be extremely valuable to himself. It was not a sense of humanity that had prompted him to save the boy. He had done so for his own personal ends.

"Come," he cried, "to the junk! I promise you I will flutter the dovecot. I will scatter them like ducks."

At that he strode forward, followed by Frank, amazed at the man's calmness and audacity.



Ling walked in an easterly direction, keeping at a distance of about a hundred yards from the river bank. The morning was exceedingly still; nothing disturbed the silence but the ceaseless sound of the current of the river, stirring the tall reeds that grew in the shallow water. The Sang River, which at this place was about a hundred and fifty yards across, is one of the main tributaries of the Pe-kiang, which flows into Canton from the north. As Frank knew well, it was navigable for a considerable distance, even for sea-going junks. Presently Ling began to talk to himself in a low voice, but loud enough for the boy to hear.

"The sages have told us," he observed, "to think before we act. Men speak of the 'road of life.' That is a false metaphor. In life there are many roads; it is open to us to travel by one or by another. The junk will be anch.o.r.ed in midstream." He broke off, turning quickly to the boy. "Tell me, can you swim?"

Frank replied that he was a good swimmer.

"That is well," said Ling. "It will be necessary for you to accompany me into the water. It is to your advantage to do so. On board, you will find the two friends you left in Cheong-Chau's cave in the mountains."

"So if you capture the junk," said Frank, "if you overpower those on board, you will have three hostages instead of one."

"That is true," said Ling. "But better for you and your friends to be in my hands than in the hands of Cheong-Chau, who is a blind, senseless fool."

"You will be satisfied with the ransom?"

"Concerning that," said Ling, "I have not yet made up my mind."

He spoke no more, but continued to stride forward, the boy following in his footsteps. They came to marshy ground, where their shoes squelched in the mud. And here, knowing that they could not be far from the junk, they walked more slowly, as silently as possible.

A little after, at a place where the river turned abruptly to the north, they found themselves before the junk, which lay at anchor not fifty yards from the bank. Ling took off his coat, and the boy followed his example. Then, without a word, the Chinese, like a great water-snake, glided silently into the river.

Frank hesitated to follow. It was within his power to escape. Perhaps the great Chinaman did not care whether he did so or not. For two reasons, the boy divested himself of his coat and followed Ling: first, he had by now so great a respect for the man's ability and prowess that he doubted very much whether he would succeed in getting away; secondly, and chiefly, he had an overmastering desire to set eyes upon his uncle, to know that both Sir Thomas and Mr Waldron were still alive and safe.

The current being somewhat swift, it was fortunate that Frank was a strong swimmer. In the moonlight he could see before him the great head of Ling, moving rapidly and silently forward upon the surface of the water.

The man reached the prow of the junk, and there, laying hold of the chain to which the anchor was attached, he lifted himself half out of the water, and in this position he remained, waiting for Frank. In a few seconds the boy had joined him.

The moonlight fell full upon the Honanese. The man's yellow skin glistened. In his teeth he held his revolver which, whilst swimming, he had held high and dry. Then quite slowly he drew himself up the chain until he had gained the deck--the high forecastle-peak which is to be found on every sea-going Chinese junk. There he crouched behind the capstan.

In a few minutes, Frank Armitage had joined him. The boy was out of breath from swimming.

Side by side, they lay quite still for about five minutes. Ling evidently intended to give his young a.s.sistant time to recover his breath. At last, the man whispered in Frank's ear.

"Fools!" he exclaimed. "They have not even posted a sentry."

As he said the words, a man appeared from behind the mast--a man who was smoking a cigarette.

The end of the cigarette glowed brightly. It was plain that the man had just lighted it. In all probability he had gone behind the mast for that purpose, in order to be sheltered from the wind. He appeared to have no suspicion that intruders had come on board, for he walked leisurely forward, smoking and singing to himself a weird Chinese tune--a melody on three notes, each long sustained.

He reached the peak of the vessel, and there stood still for a moment, looking across country towards the hills. And then it was that Ling sprang upon him. The man was s.n.a.t.c.hed from off his feet. He had no time to cry out, to give the alarm, for almost at once one of the great hands of the Honanese was placed upon his mouth. He was gagged in less than a minute with an oily rag that was found lying upon the deck, which must have been extremely unpleasant to the taste.

There is never any difficulty on board a ship of any kind in finding rope, and it was not long before the unfortunate sentry was bound hand and foot and left upon the deck.

Then Ling, still followed by Frank, advanced on tiptoe until he came to a little hatchway, a kind of trap-door, which communicated with the foul cabin in which Chinese fishermen and their families are wont to live, eat and sleep.

Lying down at his full length, Ling turned an ear downward and remained for some time listening. From below there issued sounds of heavy snoring.

Having satisfied himself that everything was in order, the Honanese got to his feet, and returned to the man whom he had gagged and bound in the forepart of the ship. With his great fingers he tore the man's coat into shreds. These he folded carefully. Then, searching the deck, he found a long cord, which he cut into several pieces, each about a yard in length. Thrusting all these materials into his pockets, he returned to the hatchway, where he lowered himself carefully and silently into the cabin below.

What followed Frank could only guess. By reason of the darkness in the cabin, the boy was able to see nothing. He heard faint sounds of struggling--an occasional gasp or choke---once or twice a muttered Chinese oath, stifled suddenly in the midst of a syllable.

It was apparent that the mighty Ling fell upon his victims one by one, in quick succession. He dealt with them in detail, pouncing upon each man when he was deep in heavy slumber.

Not one of these unfortunates was given time to cry out, to give the alarm to his comrades. Each in turn was gagged before he was fully awake. And then his hands were bound behind his back and his feet tied together.

The Honanese had accounted for six in this manner, when he struck a match and lighted a hanging paraffin lamp suspended from one of the beams that supported the deck. He then ordered Frank to descend.

The boy found himself in a small cabin that extended from one side of the ship to the other. It was indescribably dirty. All sorts of things were scattered upon the floor: pieces of rope, fishing tackle, unwashed plates and rice-bowls and articles of clothing. Upon the floor lay six men in a row, gagged and bound, each one wearing the scarlet coat which was the distinctive uniform of the followers of Cheong-Chau.

The place was not high enough to enable Ling to stand upright. He stood in the middle of the cabin, almost bent double, in which position he resembled a huge gorilla. He was grinning from ear to ear.

"A simple affair," said he. "They were delivered into my hands by that benevolent Providence that unerringly guides the footsteps of those who have acquired merit. Were I not a generous and kind-hearted man I should throw them, one after the other, into the water. As it is, they can lie where they are."

By then he had discovered a door at the after end of the cabin. On attempting to open this door, and finding it locked, he turned again to Frank.

"Search those fools," he ordered. "On one of them, I have little doubt, you will find a bunch of keys."

Frank did as he was commanded, but failing to find that for which he looked, suggested that the man on deck might have had charge of the keys.

"That may be so," said Ling. "I am not disposed to wait. I have an idea that beyond this door we shall find your European friends."

So saying, with a great blow with his foot, he kicked in the door so that the lock was broken. He then took the paraffin lamp from the hook from which it was hanging, and followed by the boy, entered a small cubby-hole.

This place was probably intended for a storeroom, for though it extended from one side of the ship to the other, it was little more than two yards across, terminating in a bulkhead which divided the junk amidships.

Upon the floor were two men, both of whom were sitting bolt upright, with their eyes wide open. They appeared to have been fast asleep when they had been rudely awakened by the breaking open of the door. Each man had his feet tied together, and his hands bound behind his back. They were hatless, and their clothes were reduced to rags.

Frank Armitage gave vent to an exclamation of delight, and rushing forward, flung his arms around his uncle. The other prisoner, it is needless to say, was Mr Hennessy K. Waldron, who had certainly undergone some very astonishing and unpleasant adventures since leaving Paradise City, Nevada, U.S.A.