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O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1921 online

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certain civil office of the British Empire to put an exceedingly large
price on her head.

Gradually the fact dawned on her that unlike the deer and the buffalo,
this new game was more easily hunted in the daylight - particularly in
that tired-out, careless twilight hour when the herders and the
plantation hands came in from their work. At night the village folk
kept in their huts, and such wood-cutters and gipsies as slept without
wakened every hour to tend their fires. Nahara was deathly afraid of
fire. Night after night she would creep round and round a gipsy camp,
her eyes like two pale blue moons in the darkness, and would never
dare attack.

And because she was taking her living in a manner forbidden by the
laws of the jungle, the glory and beauty of her youth quickly departed
from her. There are no prisons for those that break the jungle laws,
no courts and no appointed officers, but because these are laws that
go down to the roots of life, punishment is always swift and
inevitable. "Thou shall not kill men," is the first law of the wild
creatures; and everyone knows that any animal or breed of animals that
breaks this law has sooner or later been hunted down and slain - just
like any other murderer. The mange came upon her, and she lost flesh,
and certain of her teeth began to come out. She was no longer the
beautiful female of her species, to be sung to by the weaver-birds as
she passed beneath. She was a hag and a vampire, hatred of whom lay
deep in every human heart in her hunting range.

Often the hunting was poor, and sometimes she went many days in a
stretch without making a single kill. And in all beasts, high and low,
this is the last step to the worst degeneracy of all. It instils a
curious, terrible kind of blood-lust - to kill, not once, but as many
times as possible in the same hunt; to be content not with one death,
but to slay and slay until the whole herd is destroyed. It is the
instinct that makes a little weasel kill all the chickens in a coop,
when one was all it could possibly carry away, and that will cause a
wolf to leap from sheep to sheep in a fold until every one is dead.
Nahara didn't get a chance to kill every day; so when the opportunity
did come, like a certain pitiable kind of human hunter who comes from
afar to hunt small game, she killed as many times as she could in
quick succession. And the British Empire raised the price on her head.

One afternoon found her within a half mile of Warwick's bungalow, and
for five days she had gone without food. One would not have thought of
her as a royal tigress, the queen of the felines and one of the most
beautiful of all living things. And since she was still tawny and
graceful, it would be hard to understand why she no longer gave the
impression of beauty. It was simply gone, as a flame goes, and her
queenliness was wholly departed, too. In some vague way she had become
a poisonous, a ghastly thing, to be named with such outcasts as the
jackals or hyenas.

Excessive hunger, in most of the flesh-eating animals, is really a
first cousin to madness. It brings bad dreams and visions, and, worst
of all, it induces an insubordination to all the forest laws of man
and beast. A well-fed wolf-pack will run in stark panic from a human
being; but even the wisest of mountaineers do not care to meet the
same gray band in the starving times of winter. Starvation brings
recklessness, a desperate frenzied courage that is likely to upset all
of one's preconceived notions as to the behaviour of animals. It also
brings, so that all men may be aware of its presence, a peculiar lurid
glow to the balls of the eyes.

In fact, the two pale circles of fire were the most noticeable
characteristics of the long, tawny cat that crept through the bamboos.
Except for them, she would hardly have been discernible at all. The
yellow grass made a perfect background, her black stripes looked like
the streaks of shadow between the stalks of bamboo, and for one that
is lame she crept with an astounding silence. One couldn't have
believed that such a great creature could lie so close to the earth
and be so utterly invisible in the low thickets.

A little peninsula of dwarf bamboos and tall jungle grass extended out
into the pasture before the village and Nahara crept out clear to its
point. She didn't seem to be moving. One couldn't catch the stir and
draw of muscles. And yet she slowly glided to the end; then began her
wait. Her head sunk low, her body grew tense, her tail whipped softly
back and forth, with as easy a motion as the swaying of a serpent. The
light flamed and died and flamed and died again in her pale eyes.

Soon a villager who had been working in Warwick's fields came trotting
in Oriental fashion across the meadow. His eyes were only human, and
he did not see the tawny shape in the tall grass. If any one had told
him that a full-grown tigress could have crept to such a place and
still remained invisible, he would have laughed. He was going to his
thatched hut, to brown wife and babies, and it was no wonder that he
trotted swiftly. The muscles of the great cat bunched, and now the
whipping tail began to have a little vertical motion that is the final
warning of a spring.

The man was already in leaping range; but the tiger had learned, in
many experiences, always to make sure. Still she crouched - a single
instant in which the trotting native came two paces nearer. Then the
man drew up with a gasp of fright.

For just as the clear outlines of an object that has long been
concealed in a maze of light and shadow will often leap, with sudden
vividness, to the eyes, the native suddenly perceived the tiger.

He caught the whole dread picture - the crouching form, the terrible
blue lights of the eyes, the whipping tail. The gasp he uttered from
his closing throat seemed to act like the fall of a firing-pin against
a shell on the bunched muscles of the animal; and she left her covert
in a streak of tawny light.

But Nahara's leaps had never been quite accurate since she had been
wounded by Warwick's bullet, months before. They were usually straight
enough for the general purposes of hunting, but they missed by a long
way the "theoretical centre of impact" of which artillery officers
speak. Her lame paw always seemed to disturb her balance. By
remembering it, she could usually partly overcome the disadvantage;
but to-day, in the madness of her hunger, she had been unable to
remember anything except the terrible rapture of killing. This
circumstance alone, however, would not have saved the native's life.
Even though her fangs missed his throat, the power of the blow and her
rending talons would have certainly snatched away his life as a storm
snatches a leaf. But there was one other determining factor. The
Burman had seen the tiger just before she leaped; and although there
had been no time for conscious thought, his guardian reflexes had
flung him to one side in a single frenzied effort to miss the full
force of the spring.

The result of both these things was that he received only an awkward,
sprawling blow from the animal's shoulder. Of course he was hurled to
the ground; for no human body in the world is built to withstand the
ton or so of shocking power of a three-hundred-pound cat leaping
through the air. The tigress sprawled down also, and because she
lighted on her wounded paw, she squealed with pain. It was possibly
three seconds before she had forgotten the stabbing pain in her paw
and had gathered herself to spring on the unconscious form of the
native. And that three seconds gave Warwick Sahib, sitting at the
window of his study, an opportunity to seize his rifle and fire.

Warwick knew tigers, and he had kept the rifle always ready for just
such a need as this. The distance was nearly five hundred yards, and
the bullet went wide of its mark. Nevertheless, it saved the native's
life. The great cat remembered this same far-off explosion from
another day, in a dry creek-bed of months before, and the sing of the
bullet was a remembered thing, too. Although it would speedily return
to her, her courage fled and she turned and faced into the bamboos.

In an instant, Warwick was on his great veranda, calling his beaters.
Gunga Singhai, his faithful gun-carrier, slipped shells into the
magazine of his master's high-calibered close-range tiger-rifle. "The
elephant, Sahib?" he asked swiftly.

"Nay, this will be on foot. Make the beaters circle about the fringe
of bamboos. Thou and I will cross the eastern fields and shoot at her
as she breaks through."

But there was really no time to plan a complete campaign. Even now,
the first gray of twilight was blurring the sharp outlines of the
jungle, and the soft jungle night was hovering, ready to descend.
Warwick's plan was to cut through to a certain little creek that
flowed into the river and with Singhai to continue on to the edge of
the bamboos that overlooked a wide field. The beaters would prevent
the tigress from turning back beyond the village, and it was at least
possible that he would get a shot at her as she burst from the jungle
and crossed the field to the heavier thickets beyond.

"Warwick Sahib walks into the teeth of his enemy," Khusru, the hunter,
told a little group that watched from the village gate. "Nahara will
collect her debts."

A little brown boy shivered at his words and wondered if the beaters
would turn and kick him, as they had always done before, if he should
attempt to follow them. It was the tiger-hunt, in view of his own
village, and he sat down, tremulous with rapture, in the grass to
watch. It was almost as if his dream - that he himself should be a
hunter of tigers - was coming true. He wondered why the beaters seemed
to move so slowly and with so little heart.

He would have known if he could have looked into their eyes. Each
black pupil was framed with white. Human hearts grow shaken and
bloodless from such sights as this they had just seen, and only the
heart of a jungle creature - the heart of the eagle that the jungle
gods, by some unheard-of fortune, had put in the breast of Little
Shikara - could prevail against them. Besides, the superstitious
Burmans thought that Warwick was walking straight to death - that the
time had come for Nahara to collect her debts.


III

Warwick Sahib and Singhai disappeared at once into the fringe of
jungle, and silence immediately fell upon them. The cries of the
beaters at once seemed curiously dim. It was as if no sound could live
in the great silences under the arching trees. Soon it was as if they
were alone.

They walked side by side, Warwick with his rifle held ready. He had no
false ideas in regard to this tiger-hunt. He knew that his prey was
desperate with hunger, that she had many old debts to pay, and that
she would charge on sight.

The self-rage that is felt on missing some particularly fortunate
chance is not confined to human beings alone. There is an old saying
in the forest that a feline that has missed his stroke is like a
jackal in dog-days - and that means that it is not safe to be anywhere
in the region with him. He simply goes rabid and is quite likely to
leap at the first living thing that stirs. Warwick knew that Nahara
had just been cheated out of her kill and someone in the jungle would
pay for it.

The gaudy birds that looked down from the tree-branches could scarcely
recognize this prematurely gray man as a hunter. He walked rather
quietly, yet with no conscious effort toward stealth. The rifle rested
easily in his arms, his gray eyes were quiet and thoughtful as always.
Singularly, his splendid features were quite in repose. The Burman,
however, had more of the outer signs of alertness; and yet there was
none of the blind terror upon him that marked the beaters.

"Where are the men?" Warwick asked quietly. "It is strange that we do
not hear them shouting."

"They are afraid, Sahib," Singhai replied. "The forest pigs have left
us to do our own hunting."

Warwick corrected him with a smile. "Forest pigs are brave enough," he
answered. "They are sheep - just sheep - sheep of the plains."

The broad trail divided, like a three-tined candlestick, into narrow
trails. Warwick halted beside the centre of the three that led to the
creek they were obliged to cross. Just for an instant he stood
watching, gazing into the deep-blue dusk of the deeper jungle.
Twilight was falling softly. The trails soon vanished into
shadow - patches of deep gloom, relieved here and there by a bright
leaf that reflected the last twilight rays. A living creature coughed
and rustled away in the thickets beside him.

"There is little use of going on," he said. "It is growing too dark.
But there will be killings before the dawn if we don't get her first."

The servant stood still, waiting. It was not his place to advise his
master.

"If we leave her, she'll come again before the dawn. Many of the
herders haven't returned - she'll get one of them sure. At least we may
cross the creek and get a view of the great fields. She is certain to
cross them if she has heard the beaters."

In utter silence they went on. One hundred yards farther they came to
the creek, and both strode in together to ford.

The water was only knee-deep, but Warwick's boots sank three inches in
the mud of the bottom. And at that instant the gods of the jungle,
always waiting with drawn scimitar for the unsuspecting, turned
against them.

Singhai suddenly splashed down into the water, on his hands and knees.
He did not cry out. If he made any sound at all, it was just a
shivering gasp that the splash of water wholly obscured. But the thing
that brought home the truth to Warwick was the pain that flashed,
vivid as lightning, across his dark face; and the horror of death that
left its shadow. Something churned and writhed in the mud; and then
Warwick fired.

Both of them had forgotten Mugger, the crocodile, that so loves to
wait in the mud of a ford. He had seized Singhai's foot, and had
already snatched him down into the water when Warwick fired. No living
flesh can withstand the terrible, rending shock of a high-powered
sporting rifle at close range. Mugger had plates of armour, but even
these could not have availed against it if he had been exposed to the
fire. As it was, several inches of water stood between, a more
effective armour than a two-inch steel plate on a battleship. Of
course the shock carried through, a smashing blow that caused the
reptile to release his hold on Singhai's leg; but before the native
could get to his feet he had struck again. The next instant both men
were fighting for their lives.

They fought with their hands, and Warwick fought with his rifle, and
the native slashed again and again with the long knife that he carried
at his belt. To a casual glance, a crocodile is wholly incapable of
quick action. These two found him a slashing, darting, wolf-like
thing, lunging with astounding speed through the muddied water,
knocking them from their feet and striking at them as they fell.

The reptile was only half grown, but in the water they had none of the
usual advantages that man has over the beasts with which he does
battle. Warwick could not find a target for his rifle. But even human
bodies, usually so weak, find themselves possessed of an amazing
reserve strength and agility in the moment of need. These men realized
perfectly that their lives were the stakes for which they fought, and
they gave every ounce of strength and energy they had. Their aim was
to hold the mugger off until they could reach the shore.

At last, by a lucky stroke, Singhai's knife blinded one of the lurid
reptile eyes. He was prone in the water when he administered it, and
it went home just as the savage teeth were snapping at his throat. For
an instant the great reptile flopped in an impotent half-circle,
partly reared out of the water. It gave Warwick a chance to shoot, a
single instant in which the rifle seemed to whirl about in his arms,
drive to his shoulder, and blaze in the deepening twilight. And the
shot went true. It pierced the mugger from beneath, tearing upward
through the brain. And then the agitated waters of the ford slowly
grew quiet.

The last echo of the report was dying when Singhai stretched his
bleeding arms about Warwick's body, caught up the rifle and dragged
them forty feet up on the shore. It was an effort that cost the last
of his strength. And as the stars popped out of the sky, one by one,
through the gray of dusk, the two men lay silent, side by side, on the
grassy bank.

Warwick was the first to regain consciousness. At first he didn't
understand the lashing pain in his wrists, the strange numbness in one
of his legs, the darkness with the great white Indian stars shining
through. Then he remembered. And he tried to stretch his arm to the
prone form beside him.

The attempt was an absolute failure. The cool brain dispatched the
message, it flew along the telegraph-wires of the nerves, but the
muscles refused to react. He remembered that the teeth of the mugger
had met in one of the muscles of his upper arm, but before
unconsciousness had come upon him he had been able to lift the gun to
shoot. Possibly infection from the bite had in some manner temporarily
paralyzed the arm. He turned, wracked with pain, on his side and
lifted his left arm. In doing so his hand crossed before his eyes - and
then he smiled wanly in the darkness.

It was quite like Warwick, sportsman and English gentleman, to smile
at a time like this. Even in the gray darkness of the jungle night he
could see the hand quite plainly. It no longer looked slim and white.
And he remembered that the mugger had caught his fingers in one of its
last rushes.

He paused only for one glance at the mutilated member. He knew that
his first work was to see how Singhai had fared. In that glance he was
boundlessly relieved to see that the hand could unquestionably be
saved. The fingers were torn, yet their bones did not seem to be
severed. Temporarily at least, however, the hand was utterly useless.
The fingers felt strange and detached.

He reached out to the still form beside him, touching the dark skin
first with his fingers, and then, because they had ceased to function,
with the flesh of his wrist. He expected to find it cold. Singhai was
alive, however, and his warm blood beat close to the dark skin.

But he was deeply unconscious, and it was possible that one foot was
hopelessly mutilated.

For a moment Warwick lay quite still, looking his situation squarely
in the face. He did not believe that either he or his attendant was
mortally or even very seriously hurt. True, one of his arms had
suffered paralysis, but there was no reason for thinking it had been
permanently injured. His hand would be badly scarred, but soon as good
as ever. The real question that faced them was that of getting back to
the bungalow.

Walking was out of the question. His whole body was bruised and
lacerated, and he was already dangerously weak from loss of blood. It
would take all his energy, these first few hours, to keep his
consciousness. Besides, it was perfectly obvious that Singhai could
not walk. And English gentlemen do not desert their servants at a time
like this. The real mystery lay in the fact that the beaters had not
already found and rescued them.

He wore a watch with luminous dial on his left wrist, and he managed
to get it before his eyes. And then understanding came to him. A full
hour had passed since he and his servant had fought the mugger in the
ford. And the utter silence of early night had come down over the
jungle.

There was only one thing to believe. The beaters had evidently heard
him shoot, sought in vain for him in the thickets, possibly passed
within a few hundred feet of him, and because he had been unconscious
he had not heard them or called to them, and now they had given him up
for lost. He remembered with bitterness how all of them had been sure
that an encounter with Nahara would cost him his life, and would thus
be all the more quick to believe he had died in her talons. Nahara had
her mate and her own lameness to avenge, they had said, attributing in
their superstition human emotions to the brute natures of animals. It
would have been quite useless for Warwick to attempt to tell them that
the male tiger, in the mind of her wicked mate, was no longer even a
memory, and that premeditated vengeance is an emotion almost unknown
in the animal world. Without leaders or encouragement, and terribly
frightened by the scene they had beheld before the village, they had
quickly given up any attempt to find his body. There had been none
among them coolheaded enough to reason out which trail he had likely
taken, and thus look for him by the ford. Likely they were already
huddled in their thatched huts, waiting till daylight.

Then he called in the darkness. A heavy body brushed through the
creepers, and stepping falsely, broke a twig. He thought at first that
it might be one of the villagers, coming to look for him. But at once
the step was silenced.

Warwick had a disturbing thought that the creature that had broken the
twig had not gone away, but was crouching down, in a curious manner,
in the deep shadows. Nahara had returned to her hunting.


IV

"Some time I, too, will be a hunter of tigers," Little Shikara told
his mother when the beaters began to circle through the bamboos. "To
carry a gun beside Warwick Sahib - and to be honoured in the circle
under the tree!"

But his mother hardly listened. She was quivering with fright. She had
seen the last part of the drama in front of the village; and she was
too frightened even to notice the curious imperturbability of her
little son. But there was no orderly retreat after Little Shikara had
heard the two reports of the rifle. At first there were only the
shouts of the beaters, singularly high-pitched, much running back and
forth in the shadows, and then a pell-mell scurry to the shelter of
the villages.

For a few minutes there was wild excitement at the village gates.
Warwick Sahib was dead, they said - they had heard the shots and run to
the place of firing, and beat up and down through the bamboos; and
Warwick Sahib had surely been killed and carried off by the tigress.
This dreadful story told, most of the villagers went to hide at once
in their huts; only a little circle of the bravest men hovered at the
gate. They watched with drawn faces the growing darkness.

But there was one among them who was not yet a man grown; a boy so
small that he could hover, unnoticed, in the very smallest of the
terrible shadow-patches. He was Little Shikara, and he was shocked to
the very depths of his worshipping heart. For Warwick had been his
hero, the greatest man of all time, and he felt himself burning with
indignation that the beaters should return so soon. And it was a
curious fact that he had not as yet been infected with the contagion
of terror that was being passed from man to man among the villagers.
Perhaps his indignation was too absorbing an emotion to leave room for
terror, and perhaps, far down in his childish spirit, he was made of
different stuff. He was a child of the jungle, and perhaps he had
shared of that great imperturbability and impassiveness that is the
eternal trait of the wildernesses.

He went up to one of the younger beaters who had told and retold a
story of catching a glimpse of Nahara in the thickets until no one was
left to tell it to. He was standing silent, and Little Shikara thought
it possible that he might reach his ears.

"Give ear, Puran," he pleaded. "Didst thou look for his body beside
the ford over Tarai stream?"

"Nay, little one - though I passed within one hundred paces."

"Dost thou not know that he and Singhai would of a certainty cross at
the ford to reach the fringe of jungle from which he might watch the
eastern field? Some of you looked on the trail beside the ford, but
none looked at the ford itself. And the sound of the rifle seemed to
come from thence."

"But why did he not call out?"

"Dead men could not call, but at least ye might have frightened Nahara
from the body. But perhaps he is wounded, unable to speak, and lies
there still - "

But Puran had found another listener for his story, and speedily
forgot the boy. He hurried over to another of the villagers, Khusru
the hunter.

"Did no one look by the ford?" he asked, almost sobbing. "For that is
the place he had gone."

The native's eyes seemed to light. "_Hai_, little one, thou hast
thought of what thy elders had forgotten. There is level land there,



Online LibraryVariousO. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1921 → online text (page 3 of 28)