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The Secret Cave of Hydas by F. Barford

Chapter I.—The Fight and Theft in the Museum

A tall, muscular, black-bearded, dark-eyed, beak-nosed native strolled into the Lahore Museum, in the Punjab; he carried a massive five-foot-long stick with a crook handle, and studded with short brass-headed nails from handle to ferrule. He sauntered about until he came to a case containing ancient daggers and swords, which arrested his attention for some time.

About a dozen other visitors were in the room, and of these a couple strolled together from one object of interest to another; they were fine stalwart natives, and each possessed a stick of ordinary size.

These two men quietly walked about exchanging opinions on the various curios until they came face to face with the solitary man gazing at the antique weapons.

"What! art thou here, thou badmash (scoundrel)?" exclaimed one of the two.

"Ah, thou son of a swine, take that!" replied the tall man, and, with a quickness which proved him to be an expert in the handling of a stick, struck the native who had addressed him a vicious blow on the head, but, the said head being protected by many folds of his puggari, the stroke merely knocked him down without doing any serious injury.

In an instant the fallen man's friend struck at the assailant, and, the other man springing up, a fierce fight was quickly in full swing, two against one, and the noise of the sticks rattling together in powerful strokes, and the insulting taunts thrown at each other by the combatants, soon attracted the other sight-seers and the Museum attendants.

In a few minutes the fighters had been turned out of the building; they had done no damage except to themselves, and neither party would bring a charge against the other, so they scowlingly went in opposite directions as soon as they were outside.

"A family feud," said a bystander.

"Yes, I expect it is a vendetta," responded another.

These remarks, however, were very far from the truth, for the apparent enemies were the greatest friends and bound together by the most solemn vows, and in fact the realistic fight had been pre-arranged with a definite object, which was successfully attained, as indeed the Museum officials discovered later.

The day after the fracas Doctor Mullen, Government geologist, called at the Museum; he was accompanied by his son Mark, a sturdily built lad of about eighteen, who was preparing to follow his father's profession, and with them was Tom Ellison, the Doctor's assistant, a young man of twenty-four, tall and extremely active.

"Well, Ramji Daji, what's this I hear about a robbery at the Museum yesterday?" asked the doctor of the assistant curator.

"Ah, Sahib, I am very sorry, but the badmashes stole those pieces of strangely carved stones you found on the Salt Range mountains, and also another piece, which was lying near them on the table here," answered Ramji Daji.

"But what in the world did they carry them off for? They can be of no value to anybody," remarked the Doctor.

"I don't know, Sahib. There was a fight here yesterday, and some hours after we missed the five fragments of inscribed stone and one piece belonging to another set. Had they taken any of the gold or silver things we could have understood, but——" and Ramji Daji made a gesture expressive of the puzzled state of his own mind.

"There can be only two reasons for the strange theft—it is either a practical joke, or some one saw the stones who was able to decipher them—which we could not—but the joke theory seems the more probable," said the Doctor.

The pieces of stone referred to consisted of five irregular fragments of a slab, an inch or so thick, the largest being about seven inches long by four or five wide, and the smallest some four inches by two. These five parts would not fit evenly together, and in the Doctor's opinion they formed about half of the original slab.

The Doctor had taken a careful rubbing on paper of the letters on the stones, and sent it to a friend for the purpose of deciphering it if possible.

"I wonder, Doctor, whether any one from the Salt Range stole the stones? Do you remember that your tent was surreptitiously searched a few nights after you had found the pieces?" remarked Tom Ellison.

"I remember my things having been ransacked, and we concluded some thief had been disturbed, but we never for a moment thought they were after the bits of inscribed slab, which, by the way, I had sent off the day before when sending for stores for the camp," he replied.

"Well, if he was after the stones he may have followed us to Lahore and you to the Museum, when you came to take a rubbing of the lettering," said Tom.

"There must be a clue to something written on them, if any one took all the trouble to come so far for them," suggested Mark Mullen.

"To-morrow I hope to hear from Professor Muirson, and he will probably throw some light on the meaning of the inscription," said the Doctor. "But come, we must get back to work, for I have to finish my report before we start into camp again in a couple of days' time," he added, and they hurried away to their own office, but at least Mark's mind was full of thoughts concerning the stolen stones, and conjuring up all sorts of strange mysteries connected with them.

Doctor Mullen duly received from the Professor the expected letter, a part of which read as follows—

"There can be no doubt that the ruins in which you found the fragments of inscribed slab are those of a Greek settlement which was most probably founded on the Salt Range by camp followers, and possibly soldiers, of Alexander the Great's army who were left behind on his return from India.

"I can only conclude from the rubbing you have sent me that it is not from the original inspection, but that the slab of which you have found parts was inscribed from memory at a much later period, it being made up of three languages. The original sense may or may not have been retained, and as far as I am able to understand it the incomplete wording would in English read—' ... into thy charge ... guarded ... descendants with life ... of Hydas ... sacrifice ... the gods.'

"I have made no attempt to guess at the missing words, for, as you will see at a glance, the incomplete sentences allow of a variety of renderings, thereby causing great uncertainty with regard to the original meaning."

"I wish we had the other parts of the slab," exclaimed Mark, as soon as his father had read out the letter.

"Yes, it is rather interesting. Well, we start to-morrow for the Salt Range to continue our work, and I will show you the exact spot where I found the pieces, and a diligent search there may be rewarded by the discovery of at least some of the other portion," said the Doctor; and both Mark and Tom Ellison hoped such might prove to be the case, little thinking what dangers they would be led into on account of those fragments of an old, broken slab.

 

Chapter II.—Mark Mullen Disappears

"Now then, Mark, down you come," said Tom Ellison, as he shook the lad, who had lowered the upper sleeping-berth in the train and gone to sleep.

"What time is it? Where are we?" Mark asked drowsily.

"Near midnight, and we are at Gunjyal," answered Tom.

"What a beastly hour to turn out!" grumbled Mark as he scrambled down.

In half an hour the servants and a camel—which had been waiting—had started for the Doctor's destination, a place on the Salt Range some twelve miles away.

At daybreak three horses arrived, and the Doctor and his two companions started for their camp.

After breakfast the Doctor took his son and Tom Ellison, accompanied by a servant, to a small valley about a quarter of a mile from the camp.

"Here you are," said the Doctor; "this is the exact spot where I found the pieces of slab."

"Then I should say the rest can't be far away," remarked Tom, and they commenced poking around with the ends of iron-shod sticks. They had been twenty minutes at their task when a boy in charge of some goats planted himself on a rock not far away and keenly watched the Sahibs at work.

"Don't you think it would be a good plan, Doctor, if we got a few coolies to loosen the subsoil and turn over some of these loose stones about here?—it would be easier for us to search," suggested Tom.

"Yes, we may as well make a thorough search now we are at it," replied the Doctor, who at once sent the servant to the village near the camp for some coolies and tools.

The boy had disappeared before the coolies arrived, for he had received a signal from a man who was secretly watching the search-party from the top of a cliff some seventy yards away.

The natives had not been long at work when one of them slipped, and his puggari pitched off exactly on to the spot where the next coolie had turned over a stone. The man picked up his puggari and moved a few yards off to wind it round his head again, and almost immediately the goat-boy appeared and asked him if he had seen a stray goat.

Tom Ellison happened to be standing up examining a strange fossil he had found, and as he casually glanced at the boy he saw the coolie hand him something, which he promptly hid in the folds of a kind of scarf hanging over his shoulder.

In a moment a suspicion flashed into Tom's mind, and he rushed forward and seized the boy before he could make off, and no sooner had he felt the lad's kupra (cloth) than he discovered that the youngster had hidden a newly found piece of the slab which had been picked up by the coolie.

The Doctor and Mark were at once by Tom's side examining the fragment and listening to Tom's explanation. In their excitement they forgot about the boy, and when they looked round became aware that both he and the coolie had disappeared.

The sides of the hills all about were covered with low shrubs, large stones, and nullahs, or ravines, and, although a quick search was made, neither man nor boy could be seen.

When the day was over they had met with no further success as regards finding parts of the slab, but they took away several other stones which they thought might possibly prove to be of some interest, and most of the evening after dinner was spent in discussing the reason which prompted the theft from the Museum, and the attempt to steal the stone found during the day.

"There can be no doubt I was seen examining the fragments I found," said the Doctor. "I remember now that three or four natives were watching me trying to place the several pieces together in my attempts to get an idea of the whole. Strange that these natives should take so keen an interest in an old, broken slab, for the pieces must have been lying there for years."

"I expect we shall have to keep a sharp eye on this piece, for they are sure to have a try for it, judging by what they have already done," said Tom.

"They seem to have a sharp eye on us. I shouldn't be surprised if they thought we came here purposely to hunt for the stones," said Mark.

"Well, I will take a copy of the letters on it at once, in case anything happens to the stone," said the Doctor.

Next day an official letter arrived which necessitated either the Doctor or Tom returning to Lahore for a few hours, and it was decided the letter should go.

"Now listen," said the Doctor as Tom was about to start on his journey. "Take the stone to the Museum and tell them to place it where they can watch any one who takes any peculiar interest in it. Further, get a description of those men who were fighting there on the day the stones were stolen; and don't forget to post my letter to the Professor, for it contains a rubbing from the last piece."

With these parting instructions Tom started on his ride to Gunjyal station so as to arrive there before dark, there being practically no road from the foot of the Salt Range across the miles of dismal tract of sandy plain to the station, although his train did not leave until midnight; but it was the only train in the twenty-four hours.

Tom was half-asleep when he got into the train; he had the compartment to himself, and he thought it likely he would remain alone until he arrived at Lala Musa, about eight o'clock, where he would have to change to get on to the main line, so he quickly spread his bedding, and, drawing the green-baize shade over the lamp, he was soon asleep.

He could not say where it happened, but when he roused up the train was in motion and he was just conscious he was not alone; but the instant he attempted to move, a rug was thrown over his face, and he knew he was being held down by at least two powerful assailants. In a very short time, notwithstanding his fierce struggles, he was bound hand and foot, a gag in his mouth, and blindfolded, without having the slightest idea of the appearance of those who had attacked him.

Whilst Tom was in this condition the train stopped several times, but no one entered the compartment, and, as the Venetian shutters were down, it was impossible for any one to peer through the window and so become aware of his position.

He tried to knock his feet against the side of the carriage at the first station, but he was bound too securely to the seat which formed his bed to allow of the slightest movement, so wearily and painfully the hours dragged on until the guard discovered him and set him free at Lala Musa station.

The moment he was released he found that the only thing missing was the fragment of slab he was to have taken to the Museum.

"They followed me to Gunjyal and then slipped into my carriage at some station whilst I was asleep, and quietly slipped out at the next station when they had got what they wanted," mused Tom.

By the time he had given an account of what had happened to him he had only a few minutes in which to rush over to the refreshment-room and get some breakfast before his train was due.

When Tom arrived in Lahore he went straight to his office, and in a couple of hours he had completed the special work which had necessitated his journey; then he went over to the Museum.

"The thief has been caught, Sahib," said one of the attendants as Tom entered the building.

"When? Who is he?" asked Tom, in considerable surprise, for he had concluded that his late assailants were the men who had robbed the Museum.

"They caught him during last night, but I don't know much about it yet," replied the man.

Tom at once hurried off to the police-station to learn full particulars.

"Yes, we found a piece of stone with some strange device on it," said the Superintendent of Police. "This is it. Do you recognise it?" he added, as he handed Tom the stone.

"No, this is not the one the Doctor found," said Tom, after a moment's examination.

"Well, it is the only bit we got, and we are told it was stolen from the Museum with some others, during a fight," said the officer.

"How did you get this?" asked Tom.

"Well, in rather a strange way. The night after the stones had disappeared three clever burglaries took place in Lahore, and the thieves made valuable hauls in each case, but we could get no clue. Last night an anonymous letter came to us, and we decided to act upon it, so we searched a house in the bazaar and recovered this stone together with some gold and silver ornaments which had been stolen; we found them in the exact spot where we were told to look for them. The man says he is innocent, and that they were placed where we found them unknown to him. Now you know the whole case," said the police-officer.

"And the man you have arrested, do you think he is connected with the men who were fighting in the Museum?" asked Tom.

"He says not. He certainly is not one of the fighters. He does not bear the best of characters, however," was the reply.

Tom related what had happened to him in the train; several theories were advanced to account for the keen interest taken in the stones, and the police began exerting themselves to fathom the mystery.

The morning after Tom Ellison had left the camp a shikari went to Mark with the information that some oorial (wild sheep) were feeding about half a mile away, and Mark, who was a keen sportsman, promptly got his rifle and went with the shikari.

Mark was able to get a long shot, but missed, so sat down while the shikari climbed the peaks around to try and find the oorial again. In about ten minutes Mark heard a slight rustling in the bushes some twenty yards away, and he got a glimpse of a porcupine. He did not wish to fire at it lest he should startle the oorial if they had halted anywhere near, so he picked up a stone and threw it at the animal when next he saw it.

"I have hit it," he muttered, as he heard a peculiar cry, and he hurried forward, but he could find no sign of the porcupine, and he concluded it had entered a small cave he discovered.

Mark struck a match and went in a few feet, but it appeared to be very low, and when his match went out he decided to go no farther, for he had no desire to stumble on the top of a porcupine.

In a short time the shikari returned, and Mark thought no more about the animal until he had been back at the camp some time.

While Mark had been away on his shooting expedition, Harry Burton, the Superintendent of Police, had called, and during the afternoon Mark casually mentioned the incident of the porcupine.

"I think you are mistaken about it being a porcupine, my boy," said Burton.

"I don't think so. I saw it twice and hit it with the stone, for I distinctly heard it make a peculiar noise as though hurt," persisted Mark.

"That is exactly what makes me certain it was not a porcupine, for it is one of the animals without vocal cords, therefore cannot make a vocal sound. It was more likely a wild pig, for there are a number about here," said Burton, who was a great sportsman.

Mark, however, felt certain he had distinctly seen the animal's quills, so a little later he quietly left the camp without saying a word to any one as to where he was going.

At nine o'clock that night Mark had not returned to camp, and Burton, who had remained to dinner, suggested that he might have got lost, or met with an accident; so a search was at once commenced.

 

Chapter III.—The Mysterious Fakir

"Well, Burton, what is your opinion now?" asked Doctor Mullen on their return to camp about three o'clock in the morning, after an unsuccessful search for Mark.

"I am sorry to say I think he has met with a serious accident and is unable to help himself. Listen to those natives shouting 'Sahib! Sahib!' and far beyond them others are calling, and the boy would have replied if he could have done so. You are sure he went alone?" asked Burton.

"Yes. He took his gun, which seems to suggest that he started for that lake about a mile from here after duck. Had he gone after oorial he would have taken his rifle and would have been accompanied by the shikari," said the Doctor, who was greatly distressed about his son's disappearance.

"As soon as it is light I will have every nullah and bush searched for miles round," said Burton, and then he mused without giving expression to his thoughts. "He may have fallen over a kud (precipice), or his gun may have burst, or he may have been bitten by a snake, or he may have run against those—well, fragments of slab"; and he left the tent and sent off messages to the headmen of the villages around.

Harry Burton was one of the cleverest officers in the Indian police; he was a few years over thirty, a dark-complexioned man of medium height, very agile and powerful, and was known to the Salt Range natives as Koj (tracker) Burton Sahib, owing to his smartness in following up the slightest clue.

Burton, at the Doctor's request, went to occupy Mark's empty tent for an hour or two, and as he stretched himself on the camp bed his busy brain was engaged in trying to form a connection between the broken slab and Mark's absence, and these thoughts kept him awake, so he was the first to hear the footsteps of an approaching horse.

"Hello! Is that you, Ellison?" greeted Burton, as the new arrival dismounted.

"Yes. I heard at Gunjyal about Mark, so, instead of waiting for daylight, I hunted up a horse, and, by all this shouting, I conclude Mark is still missing," said Tom, and in a very few minutes he had related to Burton and the Doctor his experience in the train and what he had learnt in Lahore.

"Ah, things are getting a bit more complicated," said Burton aloud, and then muttered to himself, "But I begin to get a better hold of the idea."

"Now you clearly understand me," said Burton when instructing the headmen. "You are to send out every available man and boy from your villages, and they are to search every nullah until they meet the men from the next village. We think the young Sahib has met with an accident, and if you find him you are to send word here immediately; and you, Appoyas, instruct your men to be most careful in searching those cliffs near your village."

"What's that man's name?" asked the Doctor as soon as the men had gone.

"Appoyas. It is an unusual name—certainly not a Punjabi one," replied Burton.

"I never heard the name before. He is a fine-looking man," remarked the Doctor.

"And a very wealthy man, according to report. That is his village on the very edge of those cliffs about a mile away. It is the most prosperous village on the Salt Range, and celebrated for its stamped-cloth work. Appoyas and his brother Atlasul—another uncommon name—buy up all the cloth made and stamped in the place, and give a good price too, and their camels frequently go off laden with bales. But come over here a minute," and Burton led the Doctor some short distance from the camp.

"I can scarcely credit it; surely it is too improbable, how——" began the Doctor when he had heard what Burton had to say.

"Never mind; kindly act in the manner I suggest," interrupted Burton, "and I think you will find I am right. Now I must be off, and—well, expect me when you see me, as they say"; and in a couple of minutes he was riding from the camp on a secret and dangerous expedition.

The search was continued all day, but not the slightest sign of Mark could be discovered.

 

If any one, about sunset, had been near the place where Mark was resting at the time he thought he saw the porcupine, a Fakir might have been seen sitting on the identical spot. He appeared to be in deep meditation, but, as soon as it was dark, he crept cautiously to the entrance of the cave into which Mark thought the porcupine had disappeared.

The Fakir paused, and after listening intently for a few moments he scrambled in; and after again listening he produced a bull's-eye lamp—a most unusual thing for a native to possess—and carefully lit it.

He next examined a revolver and a knife he carried in a girdle under a loose garment he had wrapped round him, and in addition to these weapons he had an iron rod about three feet and a-half long, similar to what many Fakirs carry.

He now advanced along a narrow passage which widened into a large cave, from which opened another narrow passage, and this he proceeded cautiously to explore, but when he had gone about a hundred yards it came to an abrupt end, the roof here being exceedingly high, and as he flashed his light around he could not see the top.

For the space of an hour he probed about with his iron rod, and felt in the cracks and crevices in the walls; then suddenly he sat down, and, had any one been near enough, they would have heard him chuckling to himself, for he had made a great discovery.

In a short time he made his way out of the cave and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

 

"What do you make of this, Ellison?" said the Doctor early next morning. "I have just found this note in my tent; it is written in Punjabi, and in English it reads: 'If the Sahib wishes to learn where his son is he will be told if you promise to give up the other pieces of stone you found. Let the Sahib write his promise on the blank part of this paper and place it on the small olive-tree near the salt spring. The Sahib's men need not watch, for they will not see who fetches it.'

"Do you think it is a hoax?" asked the Doctor.

"I don't know. I scarcely think so. I wish Burton was back," said Tom, who thought that Burton's experience might enable him to get something of a clue from the strange message. "They have got all the stones," he added.

"We took others that did not belong to the slab," said the Doctor.

"Of course, I had forgotten; and the writer of this is under the impression they are parts of the slab," remarked Tom.

"If this is genuine, then Mark is a prisoner, which is Burton's opinion; and I believe he is acting in some secret manner on his opinion," said the Doctor.

After a long consultation the Doctor tore off the blank piece of paper and wrote on it in the native language: "You must first give me some proof that you know where my son is before I promise to comply with your request. Let him write to me."

"We both know where the salt spring is, Tom, so I will take the paper there, and you go to some place where you can watch the spring through your field-glasses," said the Doctor.

"Very good. By the time we get a reply Burton may be back," said Tom, and they left the camp.

Tom watched patiently all day, but, with the exception of a boy in charge of some goats, no one went near the spring, and the boy did not go within a hundred yards of it, though his goats were feeding all round and close to it.

"Glad to see you back, Burton," exclaimed Tom when he returned to camp and found the officer there.

"What luck, Tom?" asked the Doctor.

"Bad. I waited until it was too dark to see, and the message had not been taken when I came away," he replied.

"You are wrong, Tom, my boy, for I saw it taken," said Burton.

"How? Where were you?" asked Tom, in surprise.

"Not far from you, and I saw a goat sniff it and quickly walk off with the paper in its mouth, and five minutes later the boy had it in his hand. Here, smell this," and Burton held out the paper containing the message to the Doctor.

"A peculiar smell," said Tom.

"Yes, and the goat is trained to carry anything impregnated with that subtle odour," explained Burton.

"Do you believe the writer of this knows where Mark is, Burton? Have you discovered anything?" asked Tom.

"Yes, the man knows well enough, and I know to half a mile," said Burton.

"They why not try to release him at once?" exclaimed Tom.

"Easier said than done, and I am fully convinced it would be dangerous to force matters without careful arrangements. I practically know with whom we have to deal, and, if I am any judge of native character, I believe we are in conflict with some of the most cunning and fearless men in India—men who had been carrying on their work for many years, and that, too, without raising suspicion, and who will not hesitate to risk life and cause death to accomplish their purpose, and——" Burton suddenly stopped speaking; then, almost in a whisper, he hurriedly said, "Go on talking about Mark," and noiselessly he left the tent.

In a few moments there was a sound of a scuffle at the back of the tent, followed by a thud and an exclamation from Burton; so they rushed out to see what had happened, the Doctor taking the lamp from the tent-pole as he passed.

"What's the matter, Burton?" asked Tom.

"Bring the lamp here," he answered, rubbing his knees. "They were too smart for me, and I got the worst of it this time," he added.

"What is that rope doing there?" asked the Doctor, as the light revealed a long rope extending from a tent-peg to a considerable distance into the darkness.

"Oh, it is there for a purpose, and it answers too well to suit me, for it has given me one of the heaviest falls I have had for a long time. A man was there listening to us, and it would have made no difference which way I had come round the tent, for the eavesdropper would have gone in the opposite direction. When I heard him making off I dashed after him, and his comrade, who was at the far end of the rope, jerked it taut when it was between me and the man I was after, with the result that I came a most terrific cropper; then they promptly fled, and are safely away by this time," explained Burton.

"But how did you know there was any one outside?" asked Tom. "I never heard a sound."

"I saw the side of the tent shake, and there is not a breath of air stirring. The man who was listening must know English, I feel sure; and I am afraid we have made a terrible mistake in not taking precautionary measures against being overheard. If they understood what I said about suspecting who they are, I may make up my mind to having a rather lively time." Burton said in a whisper, for he did not know but some one might still be listening screened in the darkness.

"They may have only come to watch us, and probably did not grasp the meaning of our conversation," said the Doctor, in a low voice.

"Let us hope so, for it may mean life or death," was Burton's serious reply, and that night guards were set over the camp.

Early next morning Burton left, but before going he slipped a letter into the Doctor's hand, saying as he did so, "Don't open it unless I am not back by eight o'clock to-morrow morning. Inside you will find full instructions what to do if I have not returned."

 

Chapter IV.—A Capture

Soon after Burton had left the camp the Doctor received a letter from Professor Muirson in which he said, "The only word on the rubbing you sent me from the last fragment of slab you found means 'Cave,' and I think it should be placed before the words 'of Hydas'; thus you have a reference to the 'Cave of Hydas,' in which there is, or was, something to be carefully guarded."

"Then, putting two and two together, the men who hold Mark a prisoner are either anxious to learn where this Cave of Hydas is, or they know where it is and do not wish any one else to obtain the knowledge," said the Doctor.

"I am inclined to think that Mark is in that very cave at the present moment," said Tom.

"Quite possible. By the way, Tom, tell the natives who are crowding about the camp to continue the search for Mark. Burton wishes it to be kept up for some reason or other," said the Doctor as he went into his tent.

"Hi! Tom; come here a moment," almost immediately shouted the Doctor; and as soon as Tom had joined him he said, "I have just found this—listen: 'I have been asked to say that I am all right, and to advise you to do what my captors have requested you. Your reply is to be written on the blank part of this paper and placed where you put the last. Mark.' There can be no doubt about the writing—it is Mark's, and my mind is greatly relieved," said the Doctor.

"Mark knows one of his captors understands English or he would have written more; he was only allowed to write what he was told," said Tom.

The Doctor at once wrote the following reply: "Mark, you are to tell them that if one of their number will come with you here he may take away any of the stones we have found."

This answer was written with the object of delay until Burton's return; and, as before, the Doctor took the paper to the salt spring, while Tom went to a position where he could watch the goat carry away the message to the boy; and he had not long to wait, for within a couple of hours the boy and his goats appeared and slowly passed the place, and, as they quietly went along from bush to bush cropping the leaves, one took the letter, and in a few minutes the boy had taken it from the goat.

That night, as soon as it was dark, the mysterious Fakir again entered the cave he had examined a couple of nights previously. He lit his lamp as soon as he was inside, and went straight to the far end.

Here he stood for a time and listened; then he flashed his light up the chimney-shaped opening high above him, the top of which extended far beyond the reach of his light; then, having satisfied himself that all was quiet, he put his arm into a narrow crack in the side of the cave and his fingers grasped two thin ropes; he gave them a sharp jerk, and instantly there was a rustling, swishing noise as a rope-ladder came tumbling down.

The Fakir tugged at the ladder, and, finding that it was securely fastened above, he at once climbed up. When he had gone about forty feet he found the entrance to another passage; but before venturing to explore it he carefully drew up the ladder as it had been before.

The Fakir cautiously made his way, frequently stopping to put his ear to the floor to listen, and keeping a sharp look-out for any side galleries, of which he passed three, but they were much narrower than the one he was following.

He had proceeded about three hundred yards when he suddenly closed the shutter of his lamp; then, after listening a while, he went on in the dark, and it was well he had turned off his light, for the passage took an abrupt turn, and he saw the glimmer of a light in the distance and faintly heard the sound of voices.

Slowly and noiselessly he approached the light, for he concluded it came from some side cave, and this proved to be the case when he had gone a little farther.

"I tell you again that you have got all the stones if, as you say, you have stolen the one Ellison Sahib was taking to Lahore."

The words were spoken in a loud voice, and so suddenly had they broken the stillness of the dismal place that the Fakir started with surprise, and then crouched closer to listen.

"What the Sahib says is not true, for we have only got one of the last you found the other day," said another speaker.

"Then get the rest if you can, for I know nothing about any more. How long is this farce going to last? My father says he will let you have any stones he has found if one of you will go with me for them, but I told you when you first captured me that you would get nothing of value by keeping me a prisoner," replied Mark, for he it was.

"Then you shall not leave this cave until the other parts of the broken slab are discovered and in our hands, and I may tell you that it is more than a hundred years since the slab was broken and some of the parts stolen and lost. Take him back to his cave"; and the Fakir could hear footsteps ascending steps and then die away in the distance.

"Now, brothers, hearken," began the speaker who had addressed Mark. "We have learnt that Koj Burton has almost guessed who we are, and if he follows up his idea he will surely track us down. Our forefathers through many generations protected the secret of their work and amassed wealth in the way we are doing, and, with the exception of the man who accidentally found his way into this cave and stole the inscribed slab, no outsider has ever known the secret of the Cave of Hydas—and that man met his death without having an opportunity of revealing what he had learnt, although he caused us to lose part of that on which was written the command to guard the secret of the cave with our lives.

"Are we now going to allow this Koj Burton to bring destruction upon us and thereby destroy our method of obtaining wealth?" asked the speaker fiercely.

"Never! never! never!" shouted fully half a dozen voices.

"Then he must die, and I will see that he does so, and in such a manner that his death cannot in any way be traced to us"; and as the Fakir heard these words he gripped his revolver more tightly, and a grim smile played about his mouth.

"If this Koj Burton suspects who we are, do you not think, Appoyas, that he may also have gained some idea of the Cave of Hydas?" a voice asked.

"It may be so, and we will have the cave well guarded. Do not forget that to-morrow night at ten o'clock it will be, according to the records, exactly fifty years since the offerings in the Temple of Atlas were removed to the Temple of Hydas. This has been done every fifty years, and only on those occasions is the inner temple opened, and——" the speaker stopped abruptly, and then, after a moment's pause, continued—"and, brothers, you may now go."

On hearing the last words so suddenly spoken the Fakir began quickly and noiselessly to retreat along the passage, but, as no one appeared to be following, he stopped.

For some minutes he heard men talking, and dimly saw some figures come into the passage and go in the opposite direction, and in a short time the sound of footsteps died away and the Fakir was left alone in the silent darkness.

More than a quarter of an hour he remained motionless; then he felt his way to the entrance of the side cave in which he had heard the men, and, finding all still, he turned on his light.

It was a cave-chamber, about twelve feet square; the walls were fairly smooth, but the roof was uneven—it was evidently an enlarged cave. From this cave-chamber there was a flight of steps to a passage above, and the Fakir was on the point of ascending them when he heard quick footsteps coming along the passage towards him, which caused him to hurry back into the passage he had left; then, turning off his light, he waited and listened.

"One of the brothers must have come back for something," the Fakir heard some one mutter. "It is all right, though; I will return to my prisoner," and then he went away.

Without venturing to turn on his light the Fakir started for the rope-ladder; every few paces he paused to listen; he appeared extremely suspicious, for at times he would halt for three or four minutes and was constantly feeling his revolver.

At last he had nearly reached the ladder, when suddenly he saw a faint glimmer as though from a light in the passage below, so, inch by inch, he approached the edge until he was able to peer down, and almost at the instant he did so the light below went out; but he had learnt much in that one glance, and, as the sound of a severe struggle from below reached him, he quickly lowered the ladder and quietly slipped down.

No sooner had he reached the bottom than he turned on his light for an instant, which revealed Tom Ellison and a powerful native trying to get the better of each other, the latter having a knife in his hand, but Tom was holding him by the wrist and preventing him using it.

In a moment the Fakir had twisted the knife from the man's grasp, and in a few seconds the man was bound and gagged.

"Well I'm——" began Tom, but the Fakir put his hand over Tom's mouth and, taking him by the arm, led him to the cave-entrance.

"Speak low, Tom," said the Fakir in a low voice.

"Marvellous! Is it you, Burton? I should never have known you in that get-up," whispered the surprised Tom.

"Seems like it. But quick's the word, my boy. We must have that man out before any of his comrades come along, and this must be done without his discovering who I am. We must blindfold him, for there is a rope-ladder hanging near him, and on no account must he learn that it is down, and that we are aware of its existence; as soon as we have him here I will return and place the ladder as I found it," said Burton.

"Ah, now I understand why you so promptly put out your light when you had secured the knife," said Tom. "But where shall you take the man? His comrades will hear about his capture if you take him to the camp," he added.

"That is the very last thing I wish them to learn. About an hour's walk from here—but two hours for us to-night, I am afraid—there is a salt-mine, and to-day I arranged—in case I needed it—to use part of it as a temporary prison until we make a grand coup on the rest of the gang. I have a couple of my men waiting near the mine now," explained Burton.

It was a difficult tramp they had with their prisoner. They kept him blindfolded, and his hands bound; and each held him by an arm as they stumbled over the rough ground in the dark, for Burton would not risk using his lamp lest the light, at that unusual hour, should attract the attention of the man's friends and cause them to try and discover what it meant.

When they had safely lodged their prisoner they started for the camp.

"What caused you to go to that cave, Tom?" asked Burton, as they walked along.

"Oh, the word on that last piece of stone turns out to be 'cave,' and when thinking the matter over I thought of the place Mark had entered after the porcupine, so I spotted the place before dark, and then quietly left the camp after dinner on a private exploring expedition. That man suddenly sprang upon me just before you so opportunely appeared on the scene," explained Tom.

"Then that's all right—you were followed from the camp; I was afraid they had placed a guard over that entrance," said Burton. "I branch off here, for I cannot enter the camp in this disguise; I want to use it again, and as a Fakir I do not wish to be seen near the camp; but I hope to turn up early in the—or rather this morning. I advise you to get all the rest you can, for I think I can promise you a very lively time before many hours are over."

As Burton went on alone, he muttered, "Yes, I must have all arrangements carefully made. I expect we shall have a dangerous tussle, for they are not the class of men to give in quietly."

 

Chapter V.—A Valuable Find in the Temple of Atlas

"It's what I call a tall order, Burton," exclaimed Tom Ellison, who, with the Doctor, had been listening to the police officer's plan to raid the Cave of Hydas.

"I am glad you turned up before eight o'clock, Burton, for it would be difficult to enter the cave and find our way about without your guidance. It seems a likely place to get one's head cracked in the dark," remarked the Doctor.

"It would not be easy for you to get in, but had I been caught last night you would have found a clue to my whereabouts in the letter I gave you. However, we are all here yet, and I expect we shall get the better of Appoyas and his gang if our plans work out properly, and if they don't, then, well—look out for yourselves," said Burton, and he shrugged his shoulders.

"What led you to suspect Appoyas, who you say is supposed to be one the wealthiest and most respected men on the Salt Range, Burton?" asked the Doctor.

"Well, I saw him with that long brass-studded stick, and his general description answers to the tall man who fought the other two in the museum. Then I followed the goat-boy who got the message from the goat, and the boy handed the message to a man, and this man took it to Appoyas, and finally my suspicions were confirmed when I heard Appoyas addressed by name in the cave last night," explained Burton.

"It must have been pleasant listening to your own death-sentence!" remarked the Doctor.

"I am glad I heard it," said Burton, "for never was it more true than in my case that to be fore-warned is to be fore-armed. Two traps have been already laid this morning to get me away from the Salt Range, and—I believe here is another," he said, as a coolie came at the trot with a telegram in his hand.

"Come at once. Most serious. Mirkwort," read out Burton, as soon as the coolie had retired. "This pretends to be a message ordering my speedy return to headquarters, and I shall make a pretence of going, but I shall soon be back in this neighbourhood in disguise," he added.

"How do you know it is an attempt to get you away?" asked the Doctor.

"Because I requested Mirkwort to use a cypher in all his communications for some days, and this is not in cypher," replied Burton. "But to persist in staying here would only cause Appoyas to suspect that I am about to take some decisive steps. I have twenty men around here now, and as soon as it is dark to-night some of them will watch the house of Appoyas in the village on the top of the cliffs, for I feel convinced there is an entrance to the cave from his house.

"At the foot of the cliffs and immediately under the village there is another entrance through a house built against the rocks, and other men will watch there. I shall be near the camp at nightfall, together with some specially picked men who will have arrived by that time, and we shall enter the cave by what I will call the porcupine entrance, and, once inside—well, we have to rescue Mark and capture as many of the gang as we can. We must take all precautionary measures, for I do not know how many rascals we shall have to contend with, and that cave is like a rabbit-warren. Expect me as a Fakir at dusk. I will send for you when the time comes," and as Burton clattered away on his horse the camp understood that he had been called to headquarters on important business.

It was about nine o'clock and very dark when Burton, with a number of his men, though not in uniform, were sitting under the bushes a couple of hundred yards or so from the cave entrance.

"Ali Khan, go and meet the party from the camp and see that they make as little noise as possible," said Burton to one of his men; and then to another he said, "Sergeant, come with me; we must find out whether there is a guard placed at the entrance; if there is, we must secure him."

The two crept stealthily along, and, when some twenty yards from the cave, a man sprang up within a few feet of them and dashed off towards the cave, but he had not taken many steps when he tripped, and before he could recover himself Burton pounced upon him, and in a few moments the man was gagged and bound.

By the time the Doctor and Tom with the rest of the men had arrived, Burton had explored the cave as far as the rope-ladder without any further encounter.

Two men were left at the entrance of the cave with the prisoner, another was stationed at the foot of the ladder and two more at the top, and a man was left at each of the side passages opening from the main gallery.

"Now, Doctor," said Burton, when he had led the party some distance into the cave beyond the ladder, "will you remain here with the men whilst Tom goes with me to try and discover where Appoyas and his gang are, and how many we have to deal with? They have some special work on at ten o'clock in what they call the Temple of Atlas, and I don't know where it is. If you hear me whistle, then light your lamps and come on as quickly as possible. Now quietly, Tom," and they went ahead.

"She—e—e! See, there's a light. Some of them are in the cave-chamber where I heard them last night," whispered Burton to Tom.

Hearing voices, they silently crept nearer until they could hear what was said.

"I sent no message to the Doctor Sahib to-day, lest Koj Burton should remain to inquire into it. Brothers, Koj Burton is far away, and at the bottom of the river Hydaspes (Jhelum), I hope, if our men did their duty. Now, brothers, follow me to the Temple of Atlas and we will take the fifty years' offerings to the inner Temple of Hydas. By giving liberal offerings to the gods they bless us and we get much wealth. Come, it is the time."

The speaker was Appoyas, and under cover of the noise made in the chamber as his men lighted torches and prepared to follow him, Burton and Tom slipped some distance back along the passage, for they knew not which direction the men would take.

"Seven," whispered Burton as Appoyas and his men came into the passage and fortunately went the opposite way to where the Englishmen were watching.

Cautiously they followed; suddenly the men disappeared down a flight of steps, and when Burton and Tom peered below they were amazed at what they saw.

They were gazing into a large cave-temple, and at the far end was an enormous statute of a figure evidently representing Atlas with a large globe on his shoulders.

Burton and Tom were intently watching the men in the temple, when they were startled by hearing some on rapidly approaching along the passage. The man carried no light, and as the two Englishmen crouched close to the side of the cave to allow him to pass he knocked against Tom's arm.

"Strangers in the cave!" shouted the man, and he turned and fled.

For a moment the men in the temple were too amazed to move; then, simultaneously, they stamped out their torches.

"We have them trapped below if they have no other exit but the steps. That man's gone for help," said Burton, and blew his whistle. "We will have a look at them," he added, and turned on his lamp.

In an instant something flashed in the light and the lamp was knocked out of his hand and fell with a clatter down the steps, for Appoyas had crept up with his long brass-studded stick.

Next moment Tom felt himself hooked by the ankle, and before he could free himself his legs were jerked from under him and he fell on his back; then he felt a bare foot placed on his chest as some one trod on him and dashed down the passage.

No one else was able to pass, for Burton stood on the top of the steps, swinging his iron rod to and fro, and at the same time holding his whistle in his mouth and blowing until some of his men arrived with lights.

"Tom, you stop here with some of the men, and don't let any of these rascals escape. Listen! The Doctor is having a tussle; there is a fight going on all over the place, and I must discover where Mark is lest they should try to injure him." Taking a couple of men, he hurried away in the direction of the shouts which were ringing through the galleries.

"Hi! This way, Bur—r—r——" some one tried to shout in English.

"That's Mark's voice, and they are strangling him," said Burton. "Quick with your lamp, Sergeant, this way," he added.

Burton found Mark in the grasp of two men, who dashed the lad to the ground and then fled in the darkness, after showing fight for a few seconds, Burton pursuing them hotly, received a terrific blow on the head after being tripped by Appoyas, who was waiting in a side passage, and Burton lay partly stunned for some time.

Appoyas fought like a fiend, doing great damage with his stick, but at last he fled along a side passage.

In half an hour the fight was over, and Burton found they had eight prisoners; among whom was Atlasul, but Appoyas and some of the others had escaped.

Burton and Tom were exploring one of the narrow galleries when they suddenly came face to face with Appoyas, who, after throwing a knife at Burton, dashed down the passage followed by the two Englishmen.

They had gone about a hundred yards when Appoyas stopped, and his pursuers could see that he was standing on the very edge of a black chasm. For a moment he stood and faced them, his eyes flashing fiercely in the light of the lamp.

"You cannot escape us now, Appoyas," said Burton, covering him with a revolver.

"I will have a bitter revenge on you, Koj Burton. Here is the end of the passage, below is the Cave of Doom, but you have not got me yet," and, to the astonishment of Burton and Tom, Appoyas shouted a fierce cry of "Revenge!" and sprang into the fearsome black abyss.

"He must be dashed to pieces. I can't see the bottom," said Tom, holding his lamp over the gulf.

"I am doubtful. We will get a rope and make a search," said Burton.

Some time later a lamp was lowered, and far below, about six feet from the bottom, could be seen a strong net stretched the full width of the chasm.

"He dropped into that, and escaped by a secret exit," said Burton.

They proceeded to thoroughly explore the cave, and were astonished at the extent and number of side passages.

"I say, Burton, this globe on the shoulders of old Atlas is hollow and has a big slit in it like a letter-box, and has a lock on it," exclaimed Mark as they were examining the Temple of Atlas.

When the globe was opened it proved to be nearly full of gold and silver ornaments, precious stones, and coins.

"Ah, these are the offerings to the gods, a portion of the things stolen by these thieves during the last fifty years. A system of theft and sacrifice which has been handed down from father to son for many generations," exclaimed Burton.

The prisoners proved to be connected with burglaries which had taken place all over the Punjab and far beyond. The villains had been in the habit of placing a few of the things stolen in some innocent person's house, and had employed a variety of tricks to avoid suspicion resting on themselves.

The valuables recovered in the Temple of Atlas were restored to their rightful owners where they could be traced, and the balance was ultimately considered as treasure-trove, the Government claiming four annas in the rupee, thus leaving three-fourths of the value to be divided amongst those who had discovered it.

Many hours did the Englishmen spend in trying to discover the inner Temple of Hydas, but its secret baffled all their efforts, neither were they able to find any parts of the broken slab which might have aided them in their search. They were equally unsuccessful in getting any trace of Appoyas, who had so suddenly disappeared while his cry of revenge was ringing through the Cave of Hydas.