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The Shortest Bamboo, or How to Catch A Thief, An East Indian Story

There was a terrible stir in the barracks of the —th Native Infantry at Sekundurabad (Alexander's Town) one bright morning at the beginning of the "dry season." Some money had been stolen from the officers' quarters during the night, and all that could be made out about it was that the theft must have been committed by one of those inside the building, for nobody had got in from without.

The officers' native servants and the sepoy soldiers, to a man, stoutly declared that they knew nothing about it; and the officer of the day, with very great disgust, went to make his report to the Colonel.

Now the Colonel was a hard-headed old Scotchman, who had spent the best part of his life in India, and knew the Hindoos and their ways by heart. He heard the story to an end without any sign of what he thought of it, except a queer twinkle in the corner of his small gray eye; and then he gave orders to turn out the men for morning parade.

When the Colonel appeared on the parade-ground, everybody expected that the first thing would be an inquiry about the stolen money; but that was not the old officer's way. Everything went on just as usual, and the thief probably chuckled to himself at the idea of getting off so easily. But if so, he chuckled a little too soon. Just as the parade was over, and the men were about to "dismiss," the Colonel stepped forward, and shouted, "Halt!"

The men wonderingly obeyed. The Colonel planted himself right in front of the line (carrying a small bag under his arm, as was now noticed for the first time), and running his eye keenly over the long ranks of white frocks and dark faces, spoke to them in Hindoostanee:

"Soldiers! I find there are dogs among you who are not 'true to their salt,' and after taking the money of the Ranee of Inglistan [Queen of England], steal from her officers. But such misdeeds never go unpunished. Last night" (here the Colonel's tone suddenly became very deep and solemn) "I had a dream. I dreamed that a black cloud hovered over me, and out of it came a figure—the figure of Kali."

At the name of this terrible goddess (who holds the same place in the Brahmin religion as the Evil One in our own) the swarthy faces turned perfectly livid, and more than one stalwart fellow was seen to shiver from head to foot.

"'There is a thief among your soldiers,' she said, 'and I will teach you how to detect him. Give each of your men a splinter of bamboo, and the thief, let him do what he may, will be sure to get the longest; and when he is found, let him dread my vengeance.'"

By this time every soldier on the ground was looking so frightened that had the Colonel expected to detect the thief by his looks, he might have thought the whole regiment equally guilty. But his plan was far deeper than that. At his signal each man in turn drew a bamboo chip from the bag which the Colonel held; and when all were supplied, he ordered them to come forward one by one, and give back the chips which they had drawn.

He was obeyed; but scarcely had a dozen men passed, when the Colonel suddenly sprang forward, seized a tall Rajpoot by the throat, and shouted, in a voice of thunder, "You're the man!"

"Mercy, mercy, Sahib" (master), howled the culprit, falling on his knees. "I'll bring back the money—I'll bear any punishment you please—only don't give me up to the vengeance of Kali."

"Well," said the Colonel, sternly, "I'll forgive you this once; but if you're ever caught again, you know what to expect. Dismiss!"

"I say, C——, how on earth did you manage that?" asked the senior Major, as he and the Colonel walked away together; "I suppose you don't want me to believe that you really did get that idea in a dream?"

"Hardly," laughed the Colonel. "The fact is, those bamboo chips were all exactly the same length; and the thief, to make sure of not getting the longest, bit off the end of his, and so I knew him at once. Take my word for it, there'll be no more thieving in the regiment while I'm its Colonel."

And indeed there never was.