The Pothunters/Chapter 8
'Fetchimout!' said the voice, all in one word.
'Nice cheery remark to make!' thought Barrett. 'He'll have to do a good bit of digging before he fetches _me_ out. I'm a fixture for the present.'
There was a sound of scratching as if the dog, in his eagerness to oblige, were trying to uproot the tree. Barrett, realizing that unless the keeper took it into his head to climb, which was unlikely, he was as safe as if he had been in his study at Philpott's, chuckled within himself, and listened intently.
'What is it, then?' said the keeper. 'Good dog, at 'em! Fetch him out, Jack.'
Jack barked excitedly, and redoubled his efforts.
The sound of scratching proceeded.
'R-r-r-ats-s-s!' said the mendacious keeper. Jack had evidently paused for breath. Barrett began quite to sympathize with him. The thought that the animal was getting farther away from the object of his search with every ounce of earth he removed, tickled him hugely. He would have liked to have been able to see the operations, though. At present it was like listening to a conversation through a telephone. He could only guess at what was going on.
Then he heard somebody whistling 'The Lincolnshire Poacher', a strangely inappropriate air in the mouth of a keeper. The sound was too far away to be the work of Jack's owner, unless he had gone for a stroll since his last remark. No, it was another keeper. A new voice came up to him.
Ullo, Ned, what's the dog after?'
'Thinks 'e's smelt a rabbit, seems to me.'
Ain't a rabbit hole 'ere.'
'Thinks there is, anyhow. Look at the pore beast!'
They both laughed. Jack meanwhile, unaware that he was turning himself into an exhibition to make a keeper's holiday, dug assiduously. 'Come away, Jack,' said the first keeper at length. 'Ain't nothin' there. Ought to know that, clever dog like you.'
There was a sound as if he had pulled Jack bodily from his hole.
'Wait! 'Ere, Ned, what's that on the ground there?' Barrett gasped. His pill-boxes had been discovered. Surely they would put two and two together now, and climb the tree after him.
'Eggs. Two of 'em. 'Ow did they get 'ere, then?'
'It's one of them young devils from the School. Master says to me this morning, "Look out," 'e says, "Saunders, for them boys as come in 'ere after eggs, and frighten all the birds out of the dratted place. You keep your eyes open, Saunders," 'e says.'
'Well, if 'e's still in the woods, we'll 'ave 'im safe.'
'_If_ he's still in the woods!' thought Barrett with a shiver.
After this there was silence. Barrett waited for what he thought was a quarter of an hour--it was really five minutes or less--then he peeped cautiously over the edge of his hiding-place. Yes, they had certainly gone, unless--horrible thought--they were waiting so close to the trunk of the tree as to be invisible from where he stood. He decided that the possibility must be risked. He was down on the ground in record time. Nothing happened. No hand shot out from its ambush to clutch him. He breathed more freely, and began to debate within himself which way to go. Up the hill it must be, of course, but should he go straight up, or to the left or to the right? He would have given much to know which way the keepers had gone, particularly he of the dog. They had separated, he knew. He began to reason the thing out. In the first place if they had separated, they must have gone different ways. It did not take him long to arrive at that conclusion. The odds, therefore, were that one had gone to the right up-stream, the other down-stream to the left. His knowledge of human nature told him that nobody would willingly walk up-hill if it was possible for him to walk on the flat. Therefore, assuming the two keepers to be human, they had gone along the valley. Therefore, his best plan would be to make straight for the top of the hill, as straight as he could steer, and risk it. Just as he was about to start, his eye caught the two pill-boxes, lying on the turf a few yards from where he had placed them.
'May as well take what I can get,' he thought. He placed them carefully in his pocket. As he did so a faint bark came to him on the breeze from down-stream. That must be friend Jack. He waited no longer, but dived into the bushes in the direction of the summit. He was congratulating himself on being out of danger--already he was more than half way up the hill--when suddenly he received a terrible shock. From the bushes to his left, not ten yards from where he stood, came the clear, sharp sound of a whistle. The sound was repeated, and this time an answer came from far out to his right. Before he could move another whistle joined in, again from the left, but farther off and higher up the hill than the first he had heard. He recalled what Grey had said about 'millions' of keepers. The expression, he thought, had understated the true facts, if anything. He remembered the case of Babington. It was a moment for action. No guile could save him now. It must be a stern chase for the rest of the distance. He drew a breath, and was off like an arrow. The noise he made was appalling. No one in the wood could help hearing it.
'Stop, there!' shouted someone. The voice came from behind, a fact which he noted almost automatically and rejoiced at. He had a start at any rate.
'Stop!' shouted the voice once again. The whistle blew like a steam siren, and once more the other two answered it. They were all behind him now. Surely a man of the public schools in flannels and gymnasium shoes, and trained to the last ounce for just such a sprint as this, could beat a handful of keepers in their leggings and heavy boots. Barrett raced on. Close behind him a crashing in the undergrowth and the sound of heavy breathing told him that keeper number one was doing his best. To left and right similar sounds were to be heard. But Barrett had placed these competitors out of the running at once. The race was between him and the man behind.
Fifty yards of difficult country, bushes which caught his clothes as if they were trying to stop him in the interests of law and order, branches which lashed him across the face, and rabbit-holes half hidden in the bracken, and still he kept his lead. He was increasing it. He must win now. The man behind was panting in deep gasps, for the pace had been warm and he was not in training. Barrett cast a glance over his shoulder, and as he looked the keeper's foot caught in a hole and he fell heavily. Barrett uttered a shout of triumph. Victory was his.
In front of him was a small hollow fringed with bushes. Collecting his strength he cleared these with a bound. Then another of the events of this eventful afternoon happened. Instead of the hard turf, his foot struck something soft, something which sat up suddenly with a yell. Barrett rolled down the slope and halfway up the other side like a shot rabbit. Dimly he recognized that he had jumped on to a human being. The figure did not wear the official velveteens. Therefore he had no business in the Dingle. And close behind thundered the keeper, now on his feet once more, dust on his clothes and wrath in his heart in equal proportions. 'Look out, man!' shouted Barrett, as the injured person rose to his feet. 'Run! Cut, quick! Keeper!' There was no time to say more. He ran. Another second and he was at the top, over the railing, and in the good, honest, public high-road again, safe. A hoarse shout of 'Got yer!' from below told a harrowing tale of capture. The stranger had fallen into the hands of the enemy. Very cautiously Barrett left the road and crept to the railing again. It was a rash thing to do, but curiosity overcame him. He had to see, or, if that was impossible, to hear what had happened.
For a moment the only sound to be heard was the gasping of the keeper. After a few seconds a rapidly nearing series of crashes announced the arrival of the man from the right flank of the pursuing forces, while almost simultaneously his colleague on the left came up.
Barrett could see nothing, but it was easy to understand what was going on. Keeper number one was exhibiting his prisoner. His narrative, punctuated with gasps, was told mostly in hoarse whispers, and Barrett missed most of it.
'Foot (gasp) rabbit-'ole.' More gasps. 'Up agen ... minute ... (indistinct mutterings) ... and (triumphantly) COTCHED IM!'
Exclamations of approval from the other two. 'I assure you,' said another voice. The prisoner was having his say. 'I assure you that I was doing no harm whatever in this wood. I....'
'Better tell that tale to Sir Alfred,' cut in one of his captors.
E'll learn yer,' said the keeper previously referred to as number one, vindictively. He was feeling shaken up with his run and his heavy fall, and his temper was proportionately short.
'I swear I've heard that voice before somewhere,' thought Barrett. 'Wonder if it's a Coll. chap.'
Keeper number one added something here, which was inaudible to Barrett.
'I tell you I'm not a poacher,' said the prisoner, indignantly. 'And I object to your language. I tell you I was lying here doing nothing and some fool or other came and jumped on me. I....'
The rest was inaudible. But Barrett had heard enough.
'I knew I'd heard that voice before. Plunkett, by Jove! Golly, what is the world coming to, when heads of Houses and School-prefects go on the poach! Fancy! Plunkett of all people, too! This is a knock-out, I'm hanged if it isn't.'
From below came the sound of movement. The keepers were going down the hill again. To Barrett's guilty conscience it seemed that they were coming up. He turned and fled.
The hedge separating Sir Alfred Venner's land from the road was not a high one, though the drop the other side was considerable. Barrett had not reckoned on this. He leapt the hedge, and staggered across the road. At the same moment a grey-clad cyclist, who was pedalling in a leisurely manner in the direction of the School, arrived at the spot. A collision seemed imminent, but the stranger in a perfectly composed manner, as if he had suddenly made up his mind to take a sharp turning, rode his machine up the bank, whence he fell with easy grace to the road, just in time to act as a cushion for Barrett. The two lay there in a tangled heap. Barrett was the first to rise.