Tanvi ran swiftly through the pine forest, the peppery smell of the herbs she crushed beneath her feet tickling her nostrils. She had to meet her friend Ramli, the goat girl at their favourite meeting place by the spring. Today they were planning to go down to the river bed and picnic there.
She was late. Ramli had said that they should leave before the sun rose too high or it would be too hot by the river. So eleven year old Tanvi hurried, her bag of lunch bouncing on her back.
She almost slammed into the men. They loomed out of the forest so suddenly. Three of them. Two seemed to be typical hill folk. The third — he looked a little different — the city type. They were carrying gunny bags, not in the casual way people carried loads of coal or wood chips, but a little carefully. They shifted their bags, as if to protect them. As if they were carrying something precious. She muttered an apology, was about to rush on, when she heard a crash. The man had dropped his sack after all.
There was a sound of glass splintering. The gunny bag fell open, something slid out. Two glass topped boxes, full of butterflies!
Tanvi’s eyes grew wide. An electric current charged through her mind. Mr. Sen’s butterflies! He was a famous lepideptorist: a person who studies butterflies. Who lived just a few houses away from theirs and she’d seen his collection several times. He had many rare specimens, valuable ones. And they’d been stolen two days ago!
Fearfully she glanced up at the men. Before she could react, her arm was grabbed roughly. She kicked, was about to scream, when a scabby palm was clamped over her mouth almost suffocating her. “Aieee!” she heard the man cry as she bit hard into his palm. A stinging slap made her see stars and a rag stinking of kerosene was stuffed into her mouth. Then, her arms and legs were tied up. She was lifted off her feet struggling and writhing.
“Jaldi!” she heard one of the men hiss. The one who had picked her up ran through the forest. He panted as he carried her up the slope. Tanvi’s heart sank. She knew where they were heading. To the caves!
The caves lay high up on the hillside. The hill people believe they were haunted and would never venture anywhere close to them. But not these men it seemed.
He flung her down in a corner of the cave. She heard the other two enter. “What should we do now?” one muttered.
“Do?” she heard a quick laugh. “We leave her here — and go. No one will ever find her.”
“Perfect!” It was the city type. “Hurry now. Remember, the car will be at the snake rock at twelve.”
“Mmmmm,” Tanvi tried to cry out in protest, but the gag filled her mouth. One of them bent to tighten the knots on her bonds. Without another word they left.
Tanvi’s heart flipped over. No one would come here. Not even Ramli. She felt her stomach knot up into a chill tight ball of fear
She had to escape. But how? She looked around, the cave was pitch dark. Except for the faint glimmer of light creeping in at the entrance. There was only one way
Bracing herself tight, she rolled towards the mouth of the cave. The ground sloped down steeply. It was risky rolling down towards the forest — she could get badly hurt. But it was better than lying there helplessly.
She shut her eyes tight and hurled herself down.
Sharp rocks, thorny bushes tore at her arms as she tumbled down at breakneck speed. She saw the tree that lay in her path. Tried to maneuver to avoid it. But it was no use. She slammed into it with such force that she was almost knocked out. For a few moments she lay there suspended trying to get her breath back. Then, as she began to edge away to complete her downhill journey back into the forest, her eye fell on the rock jutting out below. She would bang straight into it, hit her head hard.
Angry tears were burning her eyelids when she heard the birdcall. The sound of the whistling thrush. Once, twice, thrice! Ramli! This was the call with which they signalled to each other through the forest. But how could she reply?
Ramli whistled again. Tanvi twisted around in agony. If only she could get rid of the gag! Then — she noticed the chunk of flint lying close by. It was sharp and jagged. Somehow she pushed herself closer brought her tied up hands against it.
Slowly the stone bit into the rope, the rough strands frayed, her hands came free. Quickly she got rid of the gag, untied her feet. And raced pell-mell down the hill. She paused only to return Ramli’s call. Once, twice, thrice.
Soon, the tinkle of the goat bells filled her ears.
“I found you lunch-bag lying in the forest,” Ramly explained. “So I knew something had gone wrong. Specially when I saw some bushes trampled and the ground torn up near the place. In fact, I followed the footprints on the forest path right till here.”
“They took me to the caves,” Tanvi told.“The thieves — the men who stole Mr. Sen’s butterfly collection. Quick, Ramli, we have no time to lose.”
Ramli’s eyes grew wide as Tanvi told her the whole story as they ran through the forest. Their plans were hurriedly made. Tanvi should run to the tea shop on the main road and get help while Ramli would hurry to snake rock — a huge rock by the side of the road which had a fossilized snake implanted in it.
Would they be in time? Tanvi wondered, racing back with the four men who had enthusiastically volunteered to help catch the crooks.
As they rounded the bend, just before snake rock, Tanvi’s heart sank. She could hear a car engine start up.
“Hurry, hurry!” she cried, even though she knew it was no use. The car, a white Gypsy, was beginning to move.
Disheartened, she halted in her tracks. But then — “Wait, they’ve stopped!”
As she dashed forward again she heard the tinkle of goat bells. Ramli’s herd filled the road, made it impossible for the car to move.
The thieves jumped out and tried to make a run of it. But out-numbered, they were easily captured and hauled off to the police station.
“Much more fun,” Tanvi said, her mouth full of puri and aloo, as they sat down right there in the forest, “than picnicking by the river. Wasn’t it?”
Ramli smiled and nodded.