THEY moved slowly and cautiously, Clayton reconnoitering ahead of the others. Shrimp didn’t see why they had brought Alam, and was sure that they would become lost. In a weird sign language of his own invention, he was constantly asking Alam if they were on the right trail. The native, not having the slightest idea what Shrimp’s wild gesticulating meant, nodded and smiled as soon as Rosetti started to point and grimace.
Lucas and Bubonovitch were not as much concerned as Shrimp. They had more confidence in the Englishman than he. However, they could not know that Clayton needed no guide to show him the trail of a detachment of soldiers accompanied by a white girl and a native youth. Everywhere along the trail the signs of their recent passage were obvious to his trained senses.
It was dark when they approached the village. Clayton had the others wait while he went ahead to investigate. He found the village poorly guarded and entered it with ease. The night was moonless and clouds hid the stars. There were dim lights in a few of the houses. Conditions were ideal for the furtherance of the plan Clayton had worked out.
Close to the point at which he had entered his keen sense of smell located the white girl. He heard the angry jabbering of two Japs in the house with her. They would be the two officers still quarrelling over her.
He left the village at the same point at which he had entered it and passed around it to its lower end. There was a sentry here. Clayton did not wish any sentry at this point. The fellow patrolled back and forth. Clayton crouched behind a tree, waiting. The sentry approached. Something leaped upon him from behind; and before he could voice a cry of warning, a keen blade bit deep into his throat.
Clayton dragged the corpse out of the village, and returned to his companions. He whispered instructions; then he led them to the lower end of the village. “Your .45s,” he had said, “will probably fire the cartridges that are in the chambers. The chances are that the mechanisms are so rusted by this time that they will not eject the shell nor reload, but fire as long as they will fire. When they jam, throw rocks into the village to keep attention attracted in this direction. And all the while, yell like hell. Start this in three minutes. In four minutes, get out of there and get out quick. We’ll rendezvous on the back trail above the village. Keep your watch dial hidden from the village, Captain.” Then he was gone.
He returned to the upper end of the village and hid beneath the house in which were the two officers and the girl. A minute later, shots rang out at the lower end of the village and loud yells shattered the silence of the night. Clayton grinned. It sounded as though a strong force were attacking the village.
A second later the two officers ran from the house, screaming orders, demanding explanations. Soldiers swarmed from other houses and all ran in the direction of the disturbance. Then Clayton ran up the ladder that led to the doorway of the house and entered. The girl lay on sleeping mats at the rear of the single room. Her wrists and ankles were bound.
She saw this almost naked man cross the floor toward her at a run. He stooped down and gathered her in his arms, carried her from the house and out into the jungle. She was terrified. What new horror awaited her?
In the dim light within the room, she had only seen that the man was tall and that his skin was brown. Out along a jungle trail he bore her for a short distance. Then he halted and put her down. She felt something cold press against her wrists—and her hands were free. Then the cords around her ankles were cut.
“Who are you?” she demanded in Dutch.
“Quiet!” he cautioned.
Presently, four others joined them; and they all moved in silence with her along the dark trail. Who were they? What did they want of her? The one word, quiet, spoken in English had partially reassured her. At least they were not Japs.
For an hour they moved on in unbroken silence, Clayton constantly alert for sounds of pursuit. But none developed. At last he spoke. “I think we confused them,” he said. “If they are searching, it is probably in the other direction.”
“Who are you?” asked Corrie, this time in English.
“Friends,” replied Clayton. “Sing Tai told us about you. So we came and got you.”
“Sing Tai is not dead?”
“No, but badly wounded.”
Alam spoke to her then and reassured her. “You are safe now,” he said. “I have heard that Americans can do anything. Now I believe it.”
“These are Americans?” she asked incredulously. “Have they landed at last?”
“Only these few. Their plane was shot down.”
“That was a pretty cute trick, Colonel,” said Bubonovitch. “It certainly fooled them.”
“It came near doing worse than that to me, because I forgot to caution you as to the direction of your fire. Two bullets came rather too close to me for comfort.” He turned to the girl. “Do you feel strong enough to walk the rest of the night?” he asked.
“Yes, quite,” she replied. “You see I am used to walking. I have been doing a lot of it for the past two years, keeping out of the way of the Japs.”
“For two years?”
“Yes, ever since the invasion. I have been hiding in the mountains all this time, Sing Tai and I.” Clayton drew her out, and she told her story—the flight from the plantation, the death of her mother, the murder of her father and Lum Kam, the treachery of some natives, the loyalty of others.
They reached the village of Tiang Umar at dawn, but they remained there only long enough to get food; then they moved on, all but Alam. A plan had been worked out during the night. It was based on the belief that the Japs would eventually return to this village to look for the girl. Furthermore Corrie wished to have nothing done that would jeopardize the safety of these people who had befriended her.
Corrie and Sing Tai knew of many hiding places in the remote fastnesses of the mountains. They had been forced to move closer to Tiang Umar’s village because of their inability to get proper or sufficient food for themselves in these safer locations. But now it would be different. The Americans could do anything.
They had been forced to leave Sing Tai behind, as he was in no condition to travel. Tiang Umar assured them that he could hide the Chinese where the Japs could not find him if they should return to the village.
“If I can, I shall let you know where I am, Tiang Umar,” said Corrie; “then, perhaps, you will send Sing Tai to me when he is strong enough to travel.”
Corrie led the party deep into the wilds of the mountain hinterland. Here there were rugged gorges and leaping streams, forests of teak, huge stands of bamboo, open mountain meadows man deep with tough grasses.
Lucas and Clayton had decided to go thus deeper into the mountains and then cut to the southeast before turning toward the coast. In this way they would avoid the area in which the plane had crashed, where the Japs had probably already instituted a thorough search. They would also encounter few if any villages whose inhabitants might put Japs upon their trail.
Clayton often foraged ahead for food, always returning with something. It might be partridge or pheasant, sometimes deer. And now at their camps he made fire, so that the Americans could cook their food.
On the trail, Clayton and Corrie always led the way, then came Bubonovitch, with Lucas and Shrimp bringing up the rear, keeping as far away from the Dutch girl as possible. They were unreconciled to the presence of a woman. It was not so much that Corrie might jeopardize their chances to escape. It was just that they objected to women on general principles.
“But I suppose we gotta put up wit de dame,” said Rosetti. “We can’t leaf the Japs get her.”
Jerry Lucas agreed. “If she were a man, or even a monkey, it wouldn’t be so bad. But I just plain don’t have any time for women.”
“Some dame double-cross you?” asked Shrimp.
“I could have forgiven her throwing me over for a 4-F as soon as I was out of sight,” said Jerry, “but the so-and-so was a Republican into the bargain.”
“She ain’t hard to look at,” conceded Shrimp, grudgingly.
“They’re the worst,” said Jerry. “Utterly selfish and greedy. Always gouging some one. Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! That’s all they think of. If you ever decide to marry, Shrimp,” advised Jerry, pedantically, “marry an old bag who’d be grateful to any one for marrying her.”
“Who wants to marry an old bag?” demanded Shrimp.
“You wouldn’t have to worry about wolves.”
“Whoever marries dis little Dutch number’ll have plenty to worry about. All de wolves in de woods’ll be howlin’ round his back door. Ever notice dem lamps w’en she smiles?”
“You falling for her, Shrimp?”
“Hell, no; but I got eyes, ain’t I?”
“I never look at her,” lied Jerry.
Just then a covey of partridges broke cover. Clayton already had an arrow fitted to his bow. Instantly the string twanged and a partridge fell. The man’s movements were as swift and sure and smooth as the passage of light.
“Geez!” exclaimed Rosetti. “I give. The guy’s not human. Howinell did he know them boids was goin’ to bust out? How could he hit ’em with dat t’ing?”
Jerry shook his head. “Search me. He probably smelled ’em, or heard ’em. Lots of the things he does are just plain uncanny.”
“I’m goin’ to learn to shoot one of dem t’ings,” said Shrimp.
Presently, Rosetti overcame his Anglophobia sufficiently to permit him to ask Clayton to show him how to make a bow and arrows. Lucas and Bubonovitch expressed a similar desire. The next day Clayton gathered the necessary materials, and they all set to work under his guidance to fashion weapons, even to Corrie.
The Dutch girl braided the bow strings from fibers from the long tough grasses they found in open spaces in the mountains. Clayton shot birds for the feathers, and taught the others how properly to fletch their arrows. The fashioning of the weapons was a pleasant interlude to long days of scaling cliffs, battling through jungle undergrowth, marching down one declivity only to climb up once more to descend another. It was the first time that the five had had any protracted social intercourse, for after each hard day’s march their greatest need had been sleep.
The Dutch girl sat near Jerry Lucas. He watched her nimble fingers braiding the fibers, and thought that she had pretty hands—small and well shaped. He noticed, too, that notwithstanding two years of bitter hardships she still gave attention to her nails. He glanced at his own, ruefully. Somehow, she always looked trim and neat. How she accomplished it was beyond him.
“It will be fun to hunt with these,” she said to him in her precise, almost Oxford English.
“If we can hit anything,” he replied. She speaks better English than I, he thought.
“We must practice a great deal,” she said. “It is not right that we four grown-up people should be dependent upon Colonel Clayton for everything, as though we were little children.”
“No,” he said.
“Is he not wonderful?”
Jerry mumbled a “Yes,” and went on with his work. With awkward, unaccustomed fingers he was trying to fletch an arrow. He wished the girl would keep still. He wished she were in Halifax. Why did there have to be girls around to spoil a man’s world?
Corrie glanced up at him, puzzled. Her eyes reflected it. Then she noticed his awkward attempts to hold a feather in place and fasten it there with a bit of fiber. “Here,” she said. “Let me help you. You hold the feather and I’ll bind the fiber around the shaft. Hold it close in the groove. There, that’s right.” Her hands, passing the fiber around the arrow, often touched his. He found the contact pleasant; and because he found it so, it made him angry.
“Here,” he said, almost rudely, “I can do this myself. You need not bother.”
She looked up at him, surprised. Then she went back to braiding the bow strings. She did not say anything, but in that brief glance when their eyes had met he had seen surprise and hurt in hers. He had seen the same once in a deer he had shot, and he had never again shot a deer.
You’re a damned heel, he thought of himself. Then, with a great effort of will power, he said, “I am sorry. I did not mean to be rude.”
“You do not like me,” she said. “Why? Have I done something to offend you?”
“Of course not. And what makes you think I don’t like you?”
“It has been quite obvious. The little sergeant does not like me, either. Sometimes I catch him looking at me as though he would like to bite off my head.”
“Some men are shy around women,” he said.
The girl smiled. “Not you,” she said.
They were silent for a moment. Then he said, “Would you mind helping me again? I am terribly awkward at this.”
Corrie thought, He is a gentleman, after all.
Again she bound the feathers fast while he held them in place. And their hands touched. Chagrined, Jerry found himself moving his so that they would touch oftener.