Authors: Bali Rai
Shanti asked me what we were doing and I shook my head.
âI don't know,' I told her. âI was on my way here to find my father when the bandits got me.'
She looked around the shadowy hall.
âIs this where they brought him?' she asked.
âYes, the train to Lahore came through here some time ago. I failed him.'
I sat down and felt tears begin to pour down my cheeks. I'd been so caught up with escaping that I hadn't had time to react. Now, I felt great waves of sadness coursing through my body. Shanti held out her hand.
âWe can't stay here,' she told me. âWe'll get caught. We must keep moving, Arjan. Once my master realises what I've done, he will send men to kill us.'
I knew she was right, but the pain in my chest wouldn't stop. I wanted my dad. I was just a boy. How could I look after my family without him?
âCome on!' Shanti urged.
We left slowly, mostly because I held us up. Once outside, though, my determination returned.
âWe should follow the tracks,' I told Shanti. âIt will take longer but they work around towards my district. It will be safer than taking the back streets and alleys again.'
Shanti nodded. âThat is where my master will send his thugs.'
I took her hand and smiled. âDon't call him that any more. If something good has come from this terrible night, it's your freedom. He doesn't own you now.'
Her smile was wide and beaming.
âYou are a good friend, Arjan, âshe replied. âThe only one I've ever had.'
I hugged her and then we continued on our way.
* * *
It was half a mile before I saw it. At first I thought it was a mirage â my mind playing tricks on me. But it was real enough. I pulled Shanti into some bushes and put a finger to her lips.
âSsshhh!' I said, my heart jumping in my chest.
âWhat?' she whispered.
âUp ahead,' I told her excitedly. âIt's the night train!'
onfused soldiers surrounded the train, trying to get used to the darkness. They seemed to be searching each compartment and some were even on the roof. Others crawled along the track, searching the underside of each carriage. I thought quickly.
âI have to get inside somehow,' I told Shanti.
âThat's impossible,' she replied. âThey will see you.'
I shook my head. âI can't let them. I thought I'd failed but now I've got another chance. I have to help my dad.'
The tracks lay between two steep banks that were overgrown with weeds. We used them as cover and moved along the left bank, edging closer to the train. I felt the firecrackers in my pockets and the matches I'd taken when I'd started my journey.
âIf we let the firecrackers off, they'll think someone is attacking them,' I whispered to Shanti. âMaybe they'll investigate and I can sneak down?'
Shanti didn't seem convinced.
âBut it will be too dangerous,' she told me. âThey might shoot you.'
I told her my address and my mother's name. âIf anything happens to me, you go there and she'll help you.'
Shanti shook her head. âNo. We escaped together. Whatever happens now, we stay together.'
I nodded and pulled out the fireworks.
âWe'll set them off along the ridge, back there.' I said. âIf we're quick, we can light them and run across the tracks to the far bank. When the soldiers investigate, we can get onto the train.'
We edged back about twenty yards and stood the crackers on the ground, each one about two feet apart. Then I set out a second row, parallel with the first. I
could light two at a time that way. Starting with the ones farthest away, I got out my matches.
âGo now,' I told Shanti. âWait for me on the other bank.'
As she scampered across the tracks, I took a deep breath and lit my first match. The firecrackers had long wicks, so I managed to light several before the first two went bang. They were high-quality fireworks and the sound was almost deafening. White smoke billowed from them.
As the soldiers panicked and began to shout, I lit the rest and then hid in some bushes. All of them ran towards me, their rifles held out. I lit another cracker from my pockets and threw it further away from the tracks. When it exploded, the soldiers began to shoot into the gloom. I repeated my action three more times and then ran over to Shanti. In the darkness and confusion, we slipped past more armed men and made it to the train.
âThat was great!' said Shanti.
âWait here, then,' I said. âI'll go and check each carriage.'
âNo, I'll go first. If the soldiers see me, they won't shoot. I'm only a girl.'
She was right and I nodded. âAlright. But the first sign of trouble and you run.'
The first carriage was empty, save for some suitcases and bags. In the second, we found food and medical supplies. I guessed that they were for the fort at Lahore, and had been sent from Delhi. The train was the main transport for soldiers across Northern India. That was why it was so heavily guarded. In the third carriage, there were wooden boxes, stamped with words in English, which I couldn't understand. There were so many that we had to squeeze past them.
At the end, there was no door â only a metal ladder that led us onto the roof. We took it and made our way to the fourth carriage. Behind us, I could hear the soldiers returning. Shanti heard them too.
âWe must hurry!' she whispered.
We ran through three more carriages, all deserted, until we found the one we were looking for. It had no windows and the side doors were bolted shut. It had to be the prisoner transport coach.
The only way in was through doors at each end. And at the first stood a young guard, no more than eighteen years old. We crouched behind more boxes
and Shanti told me it was her turn to help. I wanted to stop her but she insisted.
âI'll lead him this way. Once we pass you, check the carriage.'
âBut what about you?'
She smiled. âI'll meet you outside, at the top of the bank.'
Counting to three, she stood and ran to the guard, pretending to cry. âHelp!' she screamed. âPlease!'
The guard looked startled but when he saw Shanti he didn't raise his rifle.
âWhat are you doing here?' he asked.
âI've escaped from some bandits!' she wailed. âThey are after me. Come quickly â you must protect me!'
The soldier looked puzzled. âWhat bandits?' he asked.
âThey're outside,' she told him. âPlease! If they take me, I will be killed!'
The soldier's face changed. His eyes grew narrow and he raised his gun. âShow me!' he demanded. âShow me these dogs that would harm a child!'
Shanti turned and led him past me. As soon as they were gone, I stood and ran into the carriage. It was
full of men, most sleeping on the rough floor. When they heard me enter, some of them woke up, blinking in the darkness.
âDad?' I whispered. âDad â it's me, Arjan!'
For a moment no one replied but then I heard a voice that made my heart leap.
âArjan â is that really you?' came my dad's voice. He sounded weak and tired.
âCome on!' I said. âWe have to go.'
And then he was at my side, his turban gone, and his long hair a mess. The right side of his face was swollen and the eye bruised over.
âWhat did they do?' I gasped.
I took his hand and we ran out, followed by some of the others.
âWhat are you doing here?' asked my dad.
âNever mind that now,' I told him. âWe have to leave before the soldiers come back.
At the door, two prisoners shoved past us and jumped down to the tracks. Before I could warn them, they ran towards the soldiers. I took my dad the other way, and we climbed the steep bank through thick weeds and bushes. I heard whistles blowing, soldiers shouting and the crack of three
rifle shots. Someone screamed and then I heard more soldiers.
Shanti tapped me on the shoulder, making me start. My heart was almost in my mouth with excitement.
âWhat happened to the soldier?' I asked.
âHe went to check some bushes and I hid,' she replied.
âYou're very brave,' I told her. âFor a girl.'
Shanti shoved me as my father looked on in utter confusion.
âI don't understand what's happening,' he said. âIs this a dream?'
Two more gunshots and the sound of a screaming, dying man told my dad it wasn't a dream â or a nightmare.
âFollow me,' said Shanti, standing up.
I helped my dad up, angered when I heard him groan in pain.
âQuickly!' Shanti whispered, leading us away from the tracks and back into the city before more patrols arrived.
he rest of the journey was slow and I was beginning to get tired. My dad could only limp. We had to hide several times, to avoid being seen. Not only were we running from the soldiers and the police, we had The Bull's thugs to think about too. By now he would be searching every street for us, according to Shanti.
I wondered what we would do, even if we did make it home. My father was a wanted man, and if we stayed in Amritsar it was just a question of whether the police or The Bull would get us first.
Soon we were on familiar ground, as we skirted the marketplace. We didn't cut through, though, because I'd spotted some shady-looking men.
âBandits!' I whispered to Shanti and my dad.
When she saw them, Shanti's face went pale. âHis men,' she said in disgust. âI recognise them.'
I looked at my dad, who seemed to be close to passing out. A dark patch was growing on his side. When I touched it, I saw blood on my fingers.
He shook his head. âThey wanted me to give them information,' he whispered, his voice hoarse. âI tried to tell them I was innocent butâ¦'
Shanti turned her head suddenly. âNo, God,
âWhat's the matter?'
Shanti's eyes filled with tears. âIt's him! The Bull!'
He stood by the far end of the market square, carrying a kerosene lamp in his left hand. In his right was a length of thick rope. On the end of the rope was the nastiest-looking dog I had ever seen.
It had huge, powerful shoulders and a long snout, filled with sharp teeth. Its front paws were massive, almost too big for its body. It snapped and growled and The Bull's men seemed scared of it.
âHe calls it Death,' she told me. âI've seen it rip out a man's throat before.'
We were in serious trouble. Once the dog caught our scents, we were finished. We couldn't outrun it or its master. Not with my dad as injured as he was.
That was when I felt the air around us change. It grew thicker and warmer, and carried the scent of mangoes and fresh cream. Even before she appeared, I knew she would. Heeraâ¦
âI had a feeling we'd meet again,' she said. âWhat is it about you and dogs, Arjan?'
She smiled and looked at my father. âYou need attention, Mit Singh,' she told him. Then she saw Shanti. âHello, child. Aren't you a pretty thing?'
She saw a line of dirt on Shanti's left cheek, reached out and wiped it away. I thought Shanti would react but she seemed mesmerised. I looked back to the bandits. The Bull had them searching now, and he was giving the dog fabric to sniff.
âThat's my top,' Shanti told me. âThe one I left behind.'
The dog's growl echoed in the empty square. It lurched from its master's hands and started to follow
the scent trail. As it came closer, I could see how big it was.
âWe must run!' I said to Heera.
She shook her head and told us to get behind her. Then she knelt down, just as the beast approached our hiding place. Behind it, the bandits continued to search too. The dog stopped ten yards short of us and bared its huge teeth but Heera was unfazed. Shanti began to sob, her hands shaking. I pulled her behind me.
âIf it attacks, you run,' I whispered to her.
Heera took something from under her shawl. It was a simple tin whistle. She put it to her mouth and blew. I heard no noise but the dog seemed to. It cocked its massive head to one side and looked puzzled.
Suddenly, more dogs began to bark. A pack of them emerged from a lane across the square from us. I saw the leader â the same dogs that had cornered me earlier that night. The largest one snarled, and the others sprinted in our direction. The bandit's dog sensed them. It let out a low, deep rumbling growl and turned to face the stray pack. Within seconds it was surrounded â the strays biting and tearing at it. I heard The Bull call for a gun from his men.
âCome,' Heera told us. âNo one else will harm any of you tonight. You have my word.'
She put my dad's arm around her shoulder and we entered the dark alley where I'd first encountered her. I had so many questions but first we needed to be safe. The door to her dwelling was unlocked and we rushed inside.
âLock it,' Heera told me.
The padlock was old and rusty and I wondered if it would keep the bandits out.
âDon't worry about them,' Heera said to me. âNo one enters this house without my permission. The Bull can wait for another day. He and I will have our reckoning when Fate decrees it.'
How did she do that â understand what I was thinking? And was there anyone in Amritsar she
As she tended to my father's wounds, she told Shanti to light another candle and make some tea.
âWe'll wait here until they leave,' she said. âAnd I will answer those questions, Arjan. After tonight, this city will cease to be your home.'
* * *
Later, as both Shanti and my father slept, I sat with Heera and drank more tea. I was weary but I couldn't rest.
âWhat happened to the teenager you freed?' I asked her.