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Tent Life in Tigerland
Chapter XVI - A Jungle Tragedy

Varieties of winged game—News of a "big beat"—Get to camp—The marshes country—"Hunter's pot" — Charge of a wounded bull buffalo—A terrible impalement—On the track—Difficult country— Slow and dangerous tracking—Indications of our quarry—An unsuccessful day—A bad night—News with the dawn—Kesurue our quest—Horrible signs—Sickening gusts—A ghastly sight—Close of the tragedy—The funeral pyre.

In the middle of December, 1874, I was down at Burgammah superintending the packing of my indigo cakes, having already finished my own packing at the head factory; and as, unfortunately, the season had not been a very profitable one, and my assistant, Tom Hill, was on the spot, although suffering from fever and ague, poor fellow, my work was certainly not very onerous. I had, as may easily be imagined, plenty of spare time on my hands. There was splendid shooting in the neighbourhood, and I was not slow to take advantage of it. Some mornings I would go for a spin with my bobbery pack over the hard turfy uplands to the south of the factory, and kill a jackal or two, or possibly have a good course after a hare; and as my syce, or other attendants would generally be waiting at some predetermined spot with my gun, I would there dismount and shoot back to Burgammah, calling at various little jheels, i.e. small lagoons, on my way; or beating up sundry patches of thatching grass intervening; and could always be certain of making a heavy, though certainly a motley, bag.

Hares were numerous, quail were abundant, wild duck, mallard, widgeon, teal, red-heads, blue fowl, painted snipe, jack snipe, and ordinary snipe, to say nothing of wading birds of various kinds, and other varieties such as the golden plover, the tiny ortolan, ground pigeon—green pigeon occasionally —and the beautiful florican, with its graceful plumes, might any day be met with in a single beat.

And down by the river the varieties of small game were equally abundant .

I especially remember one day, having made some good shooting, coming into the factory with some half-dozen coolies laden with game of all kinds.

It happened to be one of Hill's good days, and he had met me in high spirits near the cake house, waving what seemed to be a letter excitedly over his head.

I found it to be a summons from my friend Joe to come down at once, as he was getting up a big hank—i.e. a drive-after big game, and stating that tiger and buffalo were both plentiful, and asking me to get as many elephants as I could, and to send down one of my tents and some stores. As our packing was just finished, we determined to enjoy a week's outing; and accordingly the next day, having in the meantime made every arrangement to carry out Joe's wishes, we dropped down the river in one of the factory boats, and arrived at night-fall in the vicinity of the camp.

We slept on board that night, to give time for our elephants and camp equipage to get down and to be in readiness, and next day rode for some three or four miles to where Joe had pitched his camp, south of Dumdaha village, and in the vicinity of a long chain of lagoons and marshes, which had been in former years a famous hunting-ground, and had been notable as a favourite haunt for the now very rare rhinoceros.

Between the marshes were high ridges of dense jungle grass and matted bamboo thickets. Wild boar and hog-deer were very plentiful, and it was always a certain haunt for tigers.

Down by the margin of the marshes, great herds of wild buffalo might generally be found, feeding on the succulent herbage and wallowing in the oozy slime round the edge of the lagoons. 'While on the broad reaches of shallow water, countless flocks of aquatic birds found favourite feeding quarters.

The great drawbacks were the still more teeming swarms of mosquitos, which in the hot weather really held undisputed sway, and absolutely forbade hunting of any kind in this otherwise favourite spot. But when the cold weather came, these buzzing pests were not, of course, so aggressive, and I had long looked forward to a hunt under Joe's captaincy in this famous locality.

On our arrival we found some indication of what we might expect in the way of sport, by seeing three fine tiger skins pegged out in front of Joe's hut, and half-a-dozen magnificent heads of great swamp buffaloes with splendid horns, the trophies of the preceding two or three days' shooting. We were soon deeply absorbed in the study of the mysteries of a "hunter's pot."

The hunter's pot was a thick luscious olla podrida of tongues and cuttings of various kinds of deer, the tit-bits from the breasts of florican, wild duck, snipe, etc., plovers' eggs galore, and a rich jelly cementing the mass, in which was embedded the contents of a couple of tins of champignons and a like proportion of truffles, two or three olives and some fine herbs; and a spoonful or two of this, eaten cold, with a mayonnaise dressing, for which I was renowned, and accompanied with crisp hot toast, generally formed our hunting breakfast.

Indeed we did not turn up our noses at it both for the mid-day and evening meal; and when washed down with copious draughts of artificially cooled beer or champagne cup, we considered it quite good enough for us poor hungry hunters in these far-off jungle solitudes.

"Yes! you had better believe it!!" They used to know how to take care of the inner man in the Purneah jungles.

Now a dreadful thing had just happened. We were soon put in possession of the particulars.

One of Joe's trusted beaters had met with an appalling death, the record of which may sound like a romance, may even excite the derision of the flippant sceptic, but which happened in all its tragic ghastliness just as I shall describe it, if you permit me.

The facts were these.

Two days before, Joe had been "out with his party, and they beat along the edge of one of these lagoons I have spoken of. They had put up a large herd of buffaloes, amongst whom were two or three very fine bulls.

One fierce, solitary brute had charged down on the line, and although Joe had undoubtedly wounded him, yet, not having his Express rifle, he had not succeeded in indicting any serious wound, but had only infuriated and maddened the already sufficiently fierce and ill-tempered brute. Tearing through the thick jungle, up the side of one of the hog-back ridges, the infuriated beast had charged right into a knot of coolies and beaters, who had there retired to a little cleared space while the shooting had been going on below. Making straight for these poor frightened fellows, with his strong, cruel horns lowered to the charge, the buffalo impaled one of Joe's men; and so determined was his charge and so terrible the force of his thrust, that one of the sharp-pointed horns had crushed clear through the coolie's body, right between the collar-bone and the shoulder-blade of the unfortunate victim, while the other horn pierced sheer through the bones of the pelvis, and pinned the hapless wretch to the earth.

So fierce was the thrust that the wounded brute was not able to shake his ghastly burden off, and before the horror-stricken companions of the poor man could do anything to help him, and long before the elephants could come up, the buffalo had run into the fastnesses of the jungle beyond, bearing the shrieking man impaled alive upon the cruel horns. The party quickly formed into line and followed up as speedily as they could.

It was an awful fate, and each felt—European and native alike—chilled with horror as they thought over the sickening details of the ghastly tragedy. There was little doubt that the poor creature could not long have survived the first agony of his terrible position.

Evidences were not wanting at almost every step, in the blood-marked, trampled bushes and stained earth, that the maddened beast had vainly striven to rid himself of the burden of poor bleeding, bruised humanity that had thus found such an awful resting-place.

Time after time they came upon trampled grass and bushes where the experienced eye of the trackers could see that the beast had endeavoured to brush the dead body of the hapless hunter from off his horns. But the first deadly thrust had been so terribly fierce, that it was evident the bull could not so easily dispose of his novel burden.

They followed the trail all that day, and the next day also they took it up. The tracks led them into most dangerous and little frequented ground.

Two or three elephants had become almost hopelessly bogged, and on the morning of our arrival—the third day since the terrible catastrophe—they had not succeeded in getting either the buffalo or the mangled carcase of the poor fellow whose fate they were all eager to avenge. Being put in possession of these facts, we determined to make one final effort to track the buffalo, so striking camp, we sent the tents

forward some eight or ten miles, and then forming in line with our thirteen elephants, the number we had been able to procure, we set out on what was one of the most horrible quests in which I had ever been a participator.

All that day we floundered through the most terrible quagmires and frightful country. We put up numberless herds of buffalo, but in none of them could we see that one weighted with his dread burden for which we were searching.

The sun vaulted high in the heavens, reached his zenith and declined, until at length he sank, a great red fiery globe, beneath the copper-coloured sky in the west. Every now and then during the day we had been stimulated to an increased vigour in our search by frequent indications of the nearness of the wounded buffalo.

But tracking in such dangerous country was very difficult work for elephants. The great, tall water reeds grew in dense masses so thick that even one's adjacent elephant in the line, although but a few paces distant, was frequently quite undiscernible; and in amongst the great peaty masses of gigantic tussocks, amid which the black oozy mud quivered for yards all around at every step, and from whose slimy depths rose great green bubbles of deadly gas, our progress was necessarily very slow. At nightfall, therefore, we were perforce obliged to retire to the tents, and seek the welcome refreshment of our camp dinner, and weary and agitated, with the gloom of this fatal event depressing our spirits, we sought our couches and were soon asleep.

The horrible details had taken such possession of my imagination that my dreams were full of frightful suggestions, and I re-enacted all the shocking tragedy over again in my sleep. I could not help thinking too of the poor creature's humble home, so suddenly plunged into mourning. Too commonly in India, where life is often held so cheap, where there are such teeming multitudes of little-considered humble fellow-mortals around us, whom we are accustomed to regard as just so many pawns in the game of fortune we play, the keener susceptibilities get blunted, and we are apt to forget that each dusky body envelops a soul, with emotions, affections, aspirations, and relationships quite as keen and binding as our own. We enter too little in our sympathies with the tender and touching human ties which are as strong and passionate in the poor jungle beater as perhaps they are with the lordly Sahib who orders him about with such regal disdain.

I spent a bad night. The thought of the poor fellow's bereaved wife and helpless orphans would intrude itself on my imagination, and I was glad when the grey chill streaks of dawn began to struggle with the dank mists around the tents.

Early next morning we were roused to a fresh prosecution of our search by news brought in by one of the trackers, that he had run the buffalo to earth at last, or rather to water, for, as the sequel proved, the distracted brute, still bearing its ghastly burden, had retreated to a dense bamboo jungle in the midst of a wide stretch of shallow lagoon, much like what we had searched the day previous, only more open, but with here and there a ridge of bamboo crowned island, almost inaccessible to elephants, and on that account very seldom disturbed.

After a hasty breakfast, away we led. Our guide led us by devious, difficult paths through some most terrible country, till at length he pointed out to us horrible evidences that we were on the right track, by showing here and there portions of tattered rags stained with horrible human juices, and with bits of putrid rotting human flesh still adhering in fragments to them.

We had now to proceed warily. The footing was treacherous. The broad shallows of the gleaming lagoon stretched before us. In the middle rose the long hog-backed ridge of the bamboo thicket. In the centre of the island we were told was a clear space, the site of a long dismantled shrine; and here it was the buffalo had taken sanctuary. Slowly we splashed and floundered through the slimy shallows. Again the black surging ooze emitted its poisonous gases, and as we neared the island, the stench became almost overpowering.

The wind was toward us, and sickening gusts came wafted to us; and presently we could dimly discern through a slight break in the boscage ahead an indistinct mass moving slowly to and fro in seemingly ceaseless incertitude; and as we still pressed on, and the elephants now cautiously bent aside the intervening stems, we saw a sight which for downright ghastliness and sickening horror I never have seen equalled.

In the centre of the raised clearing, gaunt, grisly, and with hollow hearing flanks, stood the buffalo, his tottering legs bending 'neath the weight of his emaciated shrunken frame, his massive neck swaying feebly from side to side beneath the weight of his great bony skull, and on the wide impaling horns that ghastly burden!

An awful burden that! A gruesome spectacle! The poor rotting carcase still fixed on the terrible horns. The festering juices from the decomposed body had streamed down glistening and ghastly over the shaggy front and into the eyes and nostrils of the wretched wild beast. A baleful, buzzing swarm of flies and hornets circled round in a dark moving mass, settling thick as blight on the sweltering remains of what the sun had scorched and blistered, and the night mists had sodden, and the cruel bushes and thorns had lacerated and torn, and which, in the mad, furious efforts to disengage itself of his ghastly burden, the buffalo had dashed against every obstacle in his path, till it was battered and beaten out of all semblance to humanity, but which only four days agone had been a lusty, sinewy, agile hunter, with bounding pulse and vigorous limbs. But now! Horrible! Horrible!!

The buffalo presented indeed a pitiful spectacle. For at least two or three days it must have been nearly blind. It was now wholly so. It could not have eaten for some days. Its great bones stared out from the shrunken, wrinkled hide. The poor beater, even in death, had taken a living and a terrible revenge.

The stench was so overpowering and the spectacle so appalling, that, hardened as we were, and accustomed to weird sights in these wild jungles, we did not care long to stay.

The blinded brute wearily lifted his burdened head, and turned his trembling front towards us, as his deadened senses caught the tokens of our approach.

Ah God! what a horrible sight was that! The maggots moving in the festering mass of dropping flesh—the sightless pockets of the living brute swarming with the hateful, odious crawling things, eating into the yet living tissues, and mingling dead and living in one horrible medley of seething corruption! The charnel smell—the sickening horror of the whole scene was indescribable.

"Put the poor brute out of this awful misery," said I to Joe.

Joe raised his rifle—glanced along the polished barrel.

A bang—a puff—a lumbering lurch—a staggering forward roll, and all was over!

Angrily buzzed the swarm of carrion flies. A few faint specks hovering far aloft in the pure empyrean betokened that the vultures were gathering for the feast.

At least we could avert that one last crowning horror. We could baulk the jackals, too, of their anticipated snarling orgie over the remains of the hapless hunter, and save the poor frail tenement of clay that one last crowning indignity. And so, though only a poor coolie, we remembered that, after all, he had been a brother sportsman, and giving hasty orders, we soon had a great pile of withered grass and bamboos heaped high over both the wretched buffalo and his unhappy victim, and then the pyre was lit. We watched while the fierce flames roared and raged over the senseless remains, and licked the bones and greedily devoured the flesh, and so, in a wild holocaust of furious fire, the hollow bamboo stems crackling and exploding with a sound like guns, as if a funeral volley were being fired over the hapless hunter's remains, we consumed all traces of this sad and awful tragedy of the Koosee jungles.

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