THOUGH he had known Sharma for but a short time, Jan had conceived a strong affection for the little orphaned brown boy, and so when he found that the lad had disappeared from the camp and saw the tracks of many strange elephants and men, he feared that he had met with foul play.
However, careful examination of the river bank showed him that the two elephants, Rangini and Malikshah, had not emerged on this side of the river. Instead he saw the small footprints of the boy spaced wide apart, showing that he had run down to the water to join them. From this he judged that the boy and the two elephants had taken alarm at the approach of the larger party and had crossed the river in order to hide their trail.
Since the stream was so broad at this point that he was unable to spring across by means of the overhanging trees, and the ugly snouts of numerous muggers were in evidence, he decided to build a raft of bamboo. With his sharp jungle knife he quickly cut a number of large bamboo stalks in the nearest thicket and soon had a raft four feet wide and fifteen feet long bound together with tough, fibrous bark.
With a long bamboo pole in his hand he launched the raft and started across the stream. The crocodiles for the most part paid no attention to him, but there was one, a tremendous fellow, judging by the size and distance apart of the eye and nose bumps which projected above the water, who glided near him and was soon following the raft.
Jan kept an eye on him while he vigorously poled his frail craft toward the opposite bank. But he suddenly learned that it is often inadvisable to try to do two things at once, for the tip of his pole plunged down into the soft mud and stuck there. The raft had meanwhile glided so far ahead that Jan was compelled either to relinquish his hold on the pole or to let the raft glide out from beneath him.
He swiftly decided on the former course, and when he had regained his balance found himself without means of propulsion, as the spear which lay on the raft at his feet was not long enough to reach the bottom in midstream. He tried using the spear blade as a paddle, but made very indifferent progress against the current.
In the meantime the watchful mugger glided closer and closer. Jan could see the dark outline of his body in the water now, and it was tremendous. Frantically he paddled with the ineffectual spear head, and the mugger, as if sensing his panic, suddenly dived beneath the raft. Then its huge tail shot up out of the water and struck the frail craft amidships, shattering the bamboo poles and breaking the bindings that held them together. Jan found himself struggling in the water amid the shattered remains of his raft. Then a pair of gaping jaws opened to seize him.
He still clutched the spear, so now, treading water, he grasped it with both hands, raised it above his head and rammed it with all his strength down the yawning throat. The jaws clicked shut on the shaft, shearing it asunder, and Jan seized upon the moment of respite to whip out his jungle knife and dive beneath his formidable adversary. He grasped a taloned foreleg with one hand, and hanging on, plunged the keen knife again and again into the leathery belly. The saurian turned over and over in the water, which was now dyed crimson with its own blood, in an effort to dislodge its intended victim who had suddenly become a most dangerous foe. Jan hung on until he knew that his blade had pierced the reptilian heart; then he relinquished his hold and fought his way to the surface.
He saw other menacing snouts converging toward him now, and gripping the knife in his teeth, swam for the bank at his utmost speed. Most of the muggers, however, were deterred by the smell of their comrade’s blood and paused where the carcass had sunk to the bottom. Only two kept on after the jungle man, and these he soon outdistanced.
Panting from his exertions, he splashed up through the shallows and onto the bank, where his two pursuers gave up the chase. After a brief rest he set out along the stream in search of the trail left by Rangini and Malikshah, and presently found it about a quarter of a mile below the point where they had entered the water. He drank a deep draft from the river and instantly set out on the trail. It went straight back into the jungle and was so plainly marked that he could follow it as easily as a city dweller follows a boulevard.”
Presently he began to grow conscious of a gnawing hunger and kept a sharp lookout for game. The average white man traveling through this same jungle would have trod noisily, causing all wild things to take cover. But the jungle bred Jan instinctively moved as quietly and cautiously as the beasts themselves. And thus it was that he came suddenly and unexpectedly into the midst of a group of wild hogs which were rooting for forage beneath the leaf mould that carpeted the jungle floor.
The sows and pigs instantly took to their heels with grunts of alarm, but the old boar, evidently the patriarch of the herd, stood his ground, lowered his head and charged. Jan avoided those gouging tusks by leaping clear over the charging beast, then before the boar could again face him, turned and whipped out his jungle knife. The boar instantly whirled and charged again. Once more the jungle man sprung over him, but this time he alighted, facing the rear of the animal. Before the tusker could turn he had plunged a long knife into its savage heart.
Jan crouched beside his kill, and was soon dining on raw, warm boar’s flesh. He found it exceedingly tough and coarse, but this bothered him not at all. He had often eaten food that was much tougher and far less tasty. When he had his fill, he slashed a rattan, drank the clear water which ran from the cut end, and, much refreshed, resumed the trail.
He had expected to be able to overtake the two elephants in an hour or so, but soon found that they had traveled much faster than he anticipated and though he knew he was gaining upon them, they were still out of sight and hearing when the sun had reached the zenith.
Shortly thereafter, however, he heard the sound of heavy animals coming through the jungle and men talking in a language which he did not understand. He sprang up the nearest tree and out upon a limb to investigate. Three elephants were coming toward him, and on the first he made out the contrasting forms of the fat Babu Chandra Kumar and the small, wiry Kupta, both of whom he recognized. The babu carried a heavy double-barreled express rifle and a man on each of the other elephants held a repeating military rifle.
Jan shouted in friendly greeting and the babu looked up. Then to the surprise and consternation of the jungle man, he raised the heavy rifle to his shoulder and fired.
Jan felt a searing pain at his right temple and crashed downward through the interlacing branches as consciousness left him.