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Chapter 3: Man-eaters

AS HE leaned morosely over the rail, gazing at the distant jungle, Jan's first intimation of danger was when something crashed down on his head with stunning force. Things grew blurred and indistinct, and there was a strange weakness in his arms and legs. He sank to the rail. Then, though he felt himself being lifted and heaved overboard, he was unable to make the slightest resistance— could not even turn his head to look at his unknown enemy.

He splashed into the waves head-on, and went down through a seething maelstrom of black waters. The shock of falling into the water partly revived him, and he struggled feebly to reach the surface, meanwhile instinctively holding his breath.

Presently, when it seemed that his aching lungs were about to collapse, his head emerged into the air. He took a deep breath, shook the water from his eyes, and looked about him. The yacht was already more than a quarter of a mile away, and rapidly widening the distance between them. To shout, he knew, would be useless. At his right, not more than a mile distant, stretched a white ribbon of moonlit beach, and behind it the mysterious jungle which had so intrigued him. He kicked off his oxfords and removed his mess jacket. Once free of these impediments, he set out for the shore with long, steady strokes.

His head cleared rapidly as he made his way shoreward, and it occurred to him to wonder who had made this attempt on his life. On all the yacht, so far as he knew, he had not one single enemy. The captain and crew had all been friendly throughout the voyage. The babu and his servant, both of whom had graciously been lent to his father in Singapore by the maharaja, so the former might act as their dragoman in Calcutta, had been especially obsequious. His father and mother were ruled out, of course. Nor could the don and doña have any possible reason for wanting to do away with him. But he had quarreled with Ramona. She had told him their engagement was over—that she never wanted to see him again.

Had Jan been brought up among men, he would have gained sufficient knowledge of human nature to be positive that the gentle Ramona, despite her tropical temper, would never attempt to kill him. But he had lived the greater part of his life in the jungle, and jungle codes were still a part of his nature.

Ramona had told him that she hated him—had been the only one on the yacht who had shown any open hostility toward him. And so he concluded that she had suited her actions to her words and had deliberately attempted to murder him. It was thus that any jungle creature would do—that he himself would do without compunction upon sufficient provocation.

The conviction brought him a greater sadness that he had ever known, for Ramona had come to mean more to him than life itself. And so, though he continued to swim onward with listless, automatic strokes, his heart was so heavy within him that he did not care whether he lived or died.

But in times of emergency, instinct is often stronger than reason or emotion. And so when Jan, chancing to look back, caught the glint of moonlight on a sail-like fin that was coming rapidly toward him, the instinct to live took command of him. He doubled, trebled, and presently quadrupled his former speed toward the shore. But each time, on glancing back, he saw that the dread killer of the sea was rapidly shortening the distance between them.

Presently, with the shore not more than a hundred yards distant, and the shark less than twenty feet behind him, he realized that his pursuer would be upon him before he could cover a third of the remaining distance. Ripping off his shirt, he flung it back over his head. It distracted the attention of the killer for a moment, during which the monster seized it and tore it to shreds in its razor sharp teeth. And during that moment, Jan gained a few feet. Taking his pocket knife from his trousers and placing it in his mouth, he wriggled free. Then, when the shark was a scant ten feet behind him, he tossed the sodden garment between them.

AGAIN the attention of the monster was distracted, and again Jan made a gain of a few feet. But the fish soon relinquished its tasteless morsel, and Jan, despite the fact that he was now making better progress than before, found himself being rapidly overhauled. Further flight, he saw, was futile, for it could only end in his being seized from behind in those cruel jaws. And with only a small pocket knife for a weapon, to turn and fight seemed equally hopeless.

But turn he did, after opening the blade and gripping the knife once more between his teeth. The monster was so close now that he could see it distinctly in the moonlight. It was a large hammerhead, fully fifteen feet in length, the most grotesque and one of the most dangerous of all the sharks that inhabit the Indian Ocean.

Seeing its toothsome quarry motionless, and apparently helpless, the shark plunged forward, opening its gleaming jaws to seize its prey. But when the flat snout was within two feet of him, Jan suddenly reached out with both hands and seized the two strange projections on each side of the monster's head, which gave it its name.

Puzzled by such unexpected tactics, the shark plunged onward, still trying to reach its intended victim. But it only succeeded in pushing the jungle man further toward the shore with each snapping lunge. Presently, after it had advanced about fifty feet in this fashion, it tired of such fruitless endeavors, shook its head free of those gripping hands, and backed away. Jan seized the opportunity to retreat, swimming backward and still keeping a sharp watch on his enemy.

It was well that he did so, for in a moment the shark darted forward once more, this time with lightning speed. Again Jan thrust out his hands, but this time, instead of merely employing them to keep his attacker away from him, he tightly gripped the two projections, and bearing down upon them, somersaulted over onto the creature's back and clamped his legs beneath the body just in front of the pectoral fins.

The monster instantly plunged under water, turning over and over to dislodge him. But he held his breath, and shifting his hold to the gill slits, turned his body so he was facing forward. Then he again clamped his legs around the body, and taking his pocket knife from between his teeth, tried to force the puny blade into the creature's brain. The thick skull, however, baffled him, so he shifted his attack to the eyes, which were situated at the extremities of the hammer-like projections. He successfully gouged out first one eye, then the other, while he maintained his precarious seat by means of his body-scissors and the gill slits. Then he carefully felt for and cut the jaw hinges on each side, rendering the shark incapable of seizing its prey.

This done, he kicked himself free of the monster, and swam for the surface, where he filled his aching lungs again and again. The shark broke water about thirty feet behind him a moment later, and he saw, to his consternation, that two more man-eaters were converging toward him, evidently attracted by the sounds of the struggle or the scent of animal blood.

THE shore was now but a hundred feet distant, and without a moment's hesitation, Jan turned and swam for it at top speed. But to his surprise and consternation, the maimed shark followed him as swiftly and unerringly as if it had not lost its sight—evidently by scent or sound, or perhaps both. In the meantime, the other two sharks came in from both sides with tremendous speed.

Jan covered fifty feet, and was again forced to turn and prepare to fight, but with three enemies this time instead of one. They came so swiftly that the last fifty feet might have been a mile, so far as his hope of escape was concerned. It was the most desperate situation in which he had ever found himself— desperate to the point of hopelessness. For what could he do against three such mighty enemies in their own element?

The two oncoming sharks drew up beside their maimed companion, now less than five feet from Jan. Then an astounding thing happened. For, instead of assisting in the pursuit, both simultaneously attacked the wounded hammerhead. In an instant there was a terrific struggle, a mighty threshing in the boiling, foaming water.

But Jan did not wait to see the outcome. Instead, he turned and once more struck out for the beach. A dozen powerful strokes, and he felt the sloping sand beneath his feet. He rose and ran splashing through the shallows. Not until dry sand was beneath him did he turn. The three contestants had disappeared, leaving only a few bubbles to mark the point of the struggle.

By this time, the yacht was only a speck of light upon the horizon. Jan stood resting from his exertions and watched it until it disappeared from view. Then he turned toward the dark, mysterious jungle behind him. The breeze carried the same scents and sounds that had attracted him when on the yacht. But the scents were much stronger, and the sounds much plainer, now.

For some time he stood there listening—sniffing the air. There remained to him only a few shreds of his underclothing, which had been torn in his struggle with the shark, and his pocket knife. He skilfully twisted the shreds into a G string and with his wet socks made a small pouch at one side for the knife. Then he melted silently into the shadowy depths of the forest.

Though his tread was as noiseless as that of any jungle cat, and his eyes, ears and nostrils were keenly alert for danger from the denizens of this unknown wilderness, the jungle bred Jan made his way forward as fearlessly as any man born and reared in civilization would walk the streets of his native city.

Presently, there came to him a powerful, unmistakable cat scent from close behind him, brought to him by a sudden shifting of the breeze. Instantly, he knew that a big feline of a breed new and strange to him was stalking him; and near enough for the charge. He turned, and caught the gleam of a great blinking pair of eyes.

Knowing itself discovered, the beast let out a roar, and charged. But with an agility which equaled that of the great cat, Jan sprang for the nearest tree, and swung himself into the lower branches just in time to escape the raking claws beneath him. He quickly made his way upward, but paused in his climb when a low growl suddenly came from the branch above him, accompanied by a new cat scent and the scratching of nails on bark, which told him that another large feline was descending to attack him.

Instantly he swung outward as far as he dared, on the limb upon which he was perched. Then, in a mottled patch of moonlight he caught sight of the descending brute against the trunk of the tree. It was jet black, with great yellow eyes, and about the size of a cougar.

On the ground below him the moonlight revealed the striped body of a cat that was larger, but no more dangerous to an unarmed man, than the one that was descending toward him. And while the tiger gazed upward, snarling and expectantly licking its chops, the black fury dropped lightly to the limb on which Jan was balanced, and with ears laid back and tail lashing the leaves, crouched for a spring.