UNARMED and out on the end of the limb, with the black leopard ready to spring upon him, while the tiger waited expectantly below, Jan realized that he was in—grave danger. Yet he sat there calmly enough—waiting. Suddenly the leopard sprang. And with equal quickness, the jungle man dropped from his perch, swinging by his hands.
The tiger roared and leaped upward at sight of the man dangling so temptingly above him. The leopard, unable to check its impetus, turned in midair and tried to grasp the end of the limb. But Jan's sudden drop had pulled it down out of reach, and the black feline, now squalling with fear, hurtled downward, straight into the waiting claws of the tiger.
Jan once more swung lightly up on the limb, to watch the scrimmage going on in the little moonlight glade below him. He had expected to see the leopard instantly killed, and was therefore surprised to see that it was giving an excellent account of itself, falling on its back and using its fearful hind claws for defense each time it was attacked, while the jungle resounded with its spitting and caterwauling, mingled with the snarls and deep-throated roars of the tiger.
But, though he would have enjoyed seeing the conclusion of this jungle battle, it suddenly came to him that this was his golden opportunity for making good his escape. So he swung away through the interlaced branches and vines as easily as any arboreal ape—and far more swiftly. In a few moments all sounds of the battle died behind him, and the normal night cries of the smaller jungle inhabitants, which fear had stilled in the battle area, were resumed.
For mile after mile he swung along with tireless, effortless ease. And many and varied were the jungle scenes that unfolded beneath him. Once he passed quite near to a herd of elephants, feeding—great ponderous hulks in the moonlight, tearing off branches with their sinuous trunks and munching the leaves and twigs. Presently one of them trumpeted, and he identified the sound he had heard from the yacht.
Farther on he disturbed a tribe of rhesus monkeys in their leafy dormitory, and departed followed by their chattered imprecations. Later, a skulking leopard passed beneath him, its spots showing plainly in the moonlight, reminding him of the jaguars of his South American jungle.
Presently he came to a large tree in which a pair of peafowls roosted. The hen roused at his approach and flapped swiftly away through the jungle. But the cock awoke too late. He grasped it by the neck, took out his pocket knife, and in a few moments was feasting on its raw, warm flesh. Again he was reminded of his native jungle, and of the many curassows he had eaten in this same manner.
Having satisfied his hunger, he swung off once more, looking for water to quench his thirst. Presently he reached a tree that overhung a small stream. He was about to descend when a huge striped form slunk out of the shadows beneath him. The tiger waded into the stream up to its sagging belly and stood there lapping the water.
Presently it lay down, wallowing in the shallows. Weary of waiting, Jan presently grew sleepy. He decided to defer his drink until the morrow, so searched out a convenient crotch, curled up, and was soon asleep.
THE jungle man was awakened by a shaft of orange gold sunlight which, penetrating his leafy canopy, struck him full in the face. He arose, stretched, and looked down at the scene beneath him. The tiger was gone, but its huge pugs were plainly visible in the soft gravelly bank.
Thirsty as he was, Jan swung through the neighboring trees and made a careful survey of all the nearby thickets before he descended. The water was warm, but clear and sweet, and he noticed that a little farther out there were flat rocks in the stream bed. This gave him an idea; so, after he had satisfied his thirst, he waded out into the stream and looked about until he had found a hard flinty stone which roughly resembled a double-bitted ax head. Deftly he chipped away at it until he had two ragged cutting edges and a groove down the center on both sides.
This done, he cut a straight limb from an ironwood tree, shaped it into a stout haft with his knife, and after splitting one end, bound the head in place with strips of tough fibrous bark torn from a vine.
When his work was finished the sun had passed the meridian, but he had a stone ax as good as had ever been wielded by neanderthal man. More strips of bark, plaited together, formed a shoulder strap from which he slung his heavy weapon. And primitive though it was, it gave him a feeling of confidence, for he knew that sooner or later he must fight it out with the great carnivores of this jungle, and the weapon would help to counterbalance their superiority of tooth and claw. Indeed, he was more than a little anxious to try conclusions with the next tiger or leopard that might come this way, as he always preferred fight to flight, where there was anything approaching an equal chance.
Jan had been so engrossed in the making of his weapon that he had forgotten all about food. Now, however, his empty stomach began to remind him of his negligence. And the sight of a school of fish moving lazily through the shallows quickened his appetite. In a clump of bamboo near by he found a pole that had been broken off by the passage of some heavy animal, and was quite well seasoned. After trimming off the branches and cutting it down to the required length, he split the segment at one end into four pieces, which he held apart by means of crossed sticks bound with bits of bark. After sharpening the four ends he took his fishing spear to the stream and soon had three fat fish gasping on the bank.
He crouched beside his catch, ate them raw, and after a long, satisfying drink from the stream, proceeded along the bank. He had followed the stream for some distance when, upon rounding a sharp turn, he suddenly came face to face with a huge, leather-armored beast with a horn on its snout, wallowing in the mud.
With an angry snort, the rhinoceros scrambled to its feet and charged. Jan hurled his spear straight at the monster's lowered head and, turning, sprang up the bank. He caught hold of a stout vine and scrambled up hand over hand, just in time to escape the earth-shaking charge. The bamboo spear, instead of checking the brute, had only served to infuriate it, and it rooted angrily at the base of the tree, gouging out great chunks of bark.
But the jungle man did not remain in that tree. Instead, he resumed his journey, keeping to the trees and vines which overhung the stream. He traveled thus until the sun hung low on the horizon. Then there came to his sensitive nostrils the pungent smell of wood smoke, and something else—the strong, scent of tiger.
Cautiously, soundlessly, he swung onward, and in a moment saw the source of the smoke. A brown man, naked save for the dhoti about his loins, and his turban, was bending over a small cooking fire. With him was a brown boy similarly attired, who had just brought up an armful of wood and was starting out for another. Jan saw that the man was stirring something in a small kettle over the fire, that a large, double curved knife hung at his side, and a long spear lay near at hand. A few feet from the fire was a crude shelter of bamboo thatched with leaves.
THE boy walked straight toward the tree in which the jungle man was perched. In his right hand he carried a knife, double-curved like that of the man, but smaller, and with this, as he came beneath the tree, he began cutting bits of underbrush for firewood.
At this instant Jan discovered the source of the cat scent. A huge tigress, taking advantage of every bit of available cover, was noiselessly stalking the boy—was at that moment not thirty feet from him.
Swiftly the jungle man dropped from limb to limb. To shout a warning to the boy he knew would be useless. The great cat would have him before he could run ten feet. As Jan reached the lowermost limb the tigress uttered a rumbling growl and charged. The boy stood rooted to his tracks by terror.
Lightly the jungle man dropped between the charging feline and its prey, his stone ax ready for action. The tigress paused for an instant, then seeing that only a man faced her, charged forward with renewed fury.
Jan waited until she reared up on her hind legs to seize him. Then he swung his stone ax with a circular motion that caught the brute a terrific blow on the side of the head. The jagged stone struck between eye and ear with such force that the eye popped out of its socket and the beast was bowled over on her right side.
Roaring with fury, the tigress scrambled to her feet and renewed the attack. This time Jan clouted her on the other side of the head, again knocking her off balance and rolling her over and over. Half dazed, she lay still for a moment, and the jungle man rushed in for the finishing stroke. But the tigress was far from dead, though she was now reduced to fighting defensively.
Throwing herself first on one side, then the other, she succeeded in warding off the blows from her head and body with her raking claws, and also in inflicting several deep gashes upon her enemy.
At this juncture Jan heard a shriek from the direction of the camp. From the tail of his eye he saw beside the fire the naked brown man struggling in the jaws of a tiger, evidently the mate of the beast he was fighting. The tigress, however, was still very much alive, so much so that the jungle man dared not turn away or relinquish the advantage he had gained. To do so would have meant almost certain death.
When next he was able to look toward the camp fire he saw that it was deserted. A moment later a childish voice that shook with terror sounded behind him.
"I have brought my father's spear for you, sahib ."
"Give it to me."
The spear was thrust around in front of him.
Jan dropped the ax and seized it. In a moment he had plunged the long steel blade through the heart of the snarling carnivore, pinning her to the ground; and in another, she had relaxed in death.
The jungle man turned and looked at the small brown boy, who stood with tears coursing down his cheeks.
"O great shikari, O mighty hunter," he quavered. "The other bagh has carried off my father. Perhaps he still lives. Will you kill it also, and save him for me?"
"I'll try," Jan promised.
HE wrenched the spear from the carcass of the fallen tigress, took up his stone ax, and slung it from the carry strap. Then he hurried to the camp fire. The trail left by the man-eater was plain enough. The brute had bounded away with great twenty-foot leaps, carrying the man as easily as a cat carries a rat. Occasional gouts of blood from the wounded man spattered the trail.
Jan set out, following at a swift, tireless trot. The little brown boy clung close at his heels. Soon the track showed that the tiger had slowed down to a trot. The huge pugs were comparatively close together, and there were narrow lines left by the dragging feet of its victim.
The trail paralleled the little stream and suddenly brought them to its confluence with a broader one—a small river. Here the pugs led straight down to the water's edge and ended in the shallows.
"The bagh has swum the river," said the boy.
"We will swim after him," Jan replied.
"But there are muggers—big ones. They would eat us."
The lad pointed to where several ugly crocodile snouts projected above the surface.
Jan barely glanced at them. Then he looked across the narrow river. The farther bank was plainly visible, and there were no tiger pugs on it. Yet the tiger could not have climbed up that bank without leaving a plain trail. Perhaps it had only swum up or down stream for a short distance, then come out on the same side. Jan searched the bank for a half mile in both directions, but found no tracks.
"Maybe the muggers got both," hazarded the boy.
"In any event, it will be too late to save your father if we find him now," Jan replied.
"But I would save him from being eaten, sahib, that I may perform the true duties of an eldest son."
"And what may that be?"
"To burn his body and cast his ashes into the Ganges."
Jan shook his head uncomprehendingly. He could not understand the sense of risking one's life to save a dead body, only to burn it immediately afterward. Yet, somehow, he liked this black-eyed, brown-skinned lad.
"We will cross the river," he announced.
Some distance upstream he had noticed a place where the leafy vault of trees and vines came almost together above the stream. He led the way to this point, the boy following.
"Get up on my back," he ordered, "and hold the spear."
The lad did as he was bidden, and Jan swarmed effortlessly up a thick vine with his light burden. He soon found a stout projecting limb that suited his purpose, and walked out on it until he stood high above the middle of the stream.
"Hang on," he cried. Then he leaped as a diver leaps from a springboard. The brown boy gasped, but clung tightly as they hurtled dizzily through space.
Jan caught a limb of the opposite tree some ten feet lower down, and clung. It sagged dangerously, and a huge mugger below them opened its jaws as if in pleasant anticipation. But the limb held, and in a moment more the two stood safely on the bank. Jan took the spear.
"Now we will look for the bagh," he said.
THEY walked back along the bank, and presently. the jungle man saw the trail which, had escaped him before.
The tiger had swum straight across, but instead of going up the bank had pulled itself up on the trunk of a tree undermined by the current which sagged out horizontally only a foot above the water.
The trail led straight back through the trees, over a low hill, and into a patch of tall jungle grass. Jan went warily through that grass, his spear ready poised in his hand for instant action. It was an ideal hiding place for any animal, but most especially for a tiger, whose stripes so perfectly simulated its pattern of light and shadow.
The path wound through the grass for a short distance. Then they suddenly came upon the trampled, blood-soaked spot where the tiger had devoured its kill. The signs were unmistakable. And all that the beast had left consisted of a bedraggled turban, some chewed bits of loin cloth, and the long, double-curved knife which the deceased had worn at his waist, attached to the ragged stubs of what had once been a leather belt.
The boy gathered the grisly tokens into a little pile, then squatted on his heels before them, rocking back and forth and moaning.
Jan watched him for some time in silence. Presently he said: "Come. We have yet to find the bagh and slay it."
"It is useless to find the bagh now," groaned the boy, "for I cannot perform the funeral rites for my father."
"Why not?" Jan asked. "Since your father is inside the bagh, we will slay the beast and burn it. Thus you may perform the funeral rites for your father and later cast his ashes into the Ganges."
The lad looked up thoughtfully.
"I do not know that the Brahmins would approve of such a burning," he said. "And yet, it is all that is left to do. So let us look for the bagh." He picked up the turban and knife, and stood up. The former, he fitted over his own small turban. The latter he extended to Jan. "Take this kukrie," he said, "since you do not have one. It will be very useful in the jungle."
Jan accepted the gift with befitting gravity, and set off once more on the trail of the tiger. It wound through the grass for some distance, then led back through the trees toward the river. Soon the cat scent grew very strong, and the jungle man moved forward with the utmost caution. Presently he saw the tiger sprawling in the shallows in a little inlet that connected with the river.
Noiselessly, he raised the heavy spear for the cast. But it was never made. For at that instant, Jan felt a stinging pain in his right forearm. A great, spade-shaped serpent head was clamped upon it. He dropped the spear, and gripping the snake behind the head with his left hand, squeezed it until its jaws loosened. But in the meantime the heavy coils of its enormous body had slithered down from the branch on which they were draped, and were flung, one after another, around his shoulder, as a hawser is thrown over a mooring post. Jan managed to keep his head and body free of those coils, but his right arm and shoulder were imprisoned.
Hearing the struggle so close at hand, the tiger bounded to its feet. Instantly catching sight of the jungle man, it growled thunderously and charged. Jan made a superhuman effort to wrench his arm and shoulder free from those crushing folds, but he could not loosen the vise-like grip of the reptile.