THE KING'S ANKUS
These are the Four that are never content, that have never been filled since the Dews began-- Jacala's mouth, and the glut of the Kite, and the hands of the Ape, and the Eyes of Man. Jungle Saying.
Kaa, the big Rock Python, had changed his skin for perhaps the two-hundredth time since his birth; and Mowgli, who never forgot that he owed his life to Kaa for a night's work at Cold Lairs, which you may perhaps remember, went to congratulate him. Skin-changing always makes a snake moody and depressed till the new skin begins to shine and look beautiful. Kaa never made fun of Mowgli any more, but accepted him, as the other Jungle People did, for the Master of the Jungle, and brought him all the news that a python of his size would naturally hear. What Kaa did not know about the Middle Jungle, as they call it,--the life that runs close to the earth or under it, the boulder, burrow, and the tree-bole life,--might have been written upon the smallest of his scales.
That afternoon Mowgli was sitting in the circle of Kaa!s great coils, fingering the flaked and broken old skin that lay all looped and twisted among the rocks just as Kaa had left it. Kaa had very courteously packed himself under Mowgli's broad, bare shoulders, so that the boy was really resting in a living arm-chair.
"Even to the scales of the eyes it is perfect," said Mowgli, under his breath, playing with the old skin. "Strange to see the covering of one's own head at one's own feet!"
"Ay, but I lack feet," said Kaa; "and since this is the custom of all my people, I do not find it strange. Does thy skin never feel old and harsh?"
"Then go I and wash, Flathead; but, it is true, in the great heats I have wished I could slough my skin without pain, and run skinless."
"I wash, and ALSO I take off my skin. How looks the new coat?"
Mowgli ran his hand down the diagonal checkerings of the immense back. "The Turtle is harder-backed, but not so gay," he said judgmatically. "The Frog, my name-bearer, is more gay, but not so hard. It is very beautiful to see--like the mottling in the mouth of a lily."
"It needs water. A new skin never comes to full colour before the first bath. Let us go bathe."
"I will carry thee," said Mowgli; and he stooped down, laughing, to lift the middle section of Kaa's great body, just where the barrel was thickest. A man might just, as well have tried to heave up a two-foot water-main; and Kaa lay still, puffing with quiet amusement. Then the regular evening game began--the Boy in the flush of his great strength, and the Python in his sumptuous new skin, standing up one against the other for a wrestling match--a trial of eye and strength. Of course, Kaa could have crushed a dozen Mowglis if he had let himself go; but he played carefully, and never loosed one-tenth of his power. Ever since Mowgli was strong enough to endure a little rough handling, Kaa had taught him this game, and it suppled his limbs as nothing else could. Sometimes Mowgli would stand lapped almost to his throat in Kaa's shifting coils, striving to get one arm free and catch him by the throat. Then Kaa would give way limply, and Mowgli, with both quick-moving feet, would try to cramp the purchase of that huge tail as it flung backward feeling for a rock or a stump. They would rock to and fro, head to head, each waiting for his chance, till the beautiful, statue-like group melted in a whirl of black-and-yellow coils and struggling legs and arms, to rise up again and again. "Now! now! now!" said Kaa, making feints with his head that even Mowgli's quick hand could not turn aside. "Look! I touch thee here, Little Brother! Here, and here! Are thy hands numb? Here again!"
The game always ended in one way--with a straight, driving blow of the head that knocked the boy over and over. Mowgli could never learn the guard for that lightning lunge, and, as Kaa said, there was not the least use in trying.
"Good hunting!" Kaa grunted at last; and Mowgli, as usual, was shot away half a dozen yards, gasping and laughing. He rose with his fingers full of grass, and followed Kaa to the wise snake's pet bathing-place--a deep, pitchy-black pool surrounded with rocks, and made interesting by sunken tree-stumps. The boy slipped in, Jungle-fashion, without a sound, and dived across; rose, too, without a sound, and turned on his back, his arms behind his head, watching the moon rising above the rocks, and breaking up her reflection in the water with his toes. Kaa's diamond-shaped head cut the pool like a razor, and came out to rest on Mowgli's shoulder. They lay still, soaking luxuriously in the cool water.
"It is VERY good," said Mowgli at last, sleepily. Now, in the Man-Pack, at this hour, as I remember, they laid them down upon hard pieces of wood in the inside of a mud-trap, and, having carefully shut out all the clean winds, drew foul cloth over their heavy heads and made evil songs through their noses. It is better in the Jungle."
A hurrying cobra slipped down over a rock and drank, gave them "Good hunting!" and went away.
"Sssh!" said Kaa, as though he had suddenly remembered something. "So the Jungle gives thee all that thou hast ever desired, Little Brother?"
"Not all," said Mowgli, laughing; "else there would be a new and strong Shere Khan to kill once a moon. Now, I could kill with my own hands, asking no help of buffaloes. And also I have wished the sun to shine in the middle of the Rains, and the Rains to cover the sun in the deep of summer; and also I have never gone empty but I wished that I had killed a goat; and also I have never killed a goat but I wished it had been buck; nor buck but I wished it had been nilghai. But thus do we feel, all of us."
"Thou hast no other desire?" the big snake demanded.
"What more can I wish? I have the Jungle, and the favour of the Jungle! Is there more anywhere between sunrise and sunset?"
"Now, the Cobra said----" Kaa began. What cobra? He that went away just now said nothing. He was hunting."
"It was another."
"Hast thou many dealings with the Poison People? I give them their own path. They carry death in the fore-tooth, and that is not good--for they are so small. But what hood is this thou hast spoken with?"
Kaa rolled slowly in the water like a steamer in a beam sea. "Three or four moons since," said he, "I hunted in Cold Lairs, which place thou hast not forgotten. And the thing I hunted fled shrieking past the tanks and to that house whose side I once broke for thy sake, and ran into the ground."
"But the people of Cold Lairs do not live in burrows." Mowgli knew that Kaa was telling of the Monkey People.
"This thing was not living, but seeking to live," Kaa replied, with a quiver of his tongue. "He ran into a burrow that led very far. I followed, and having killed, I slept. When I waked I went forward."
"Under the earth?"
"Even so, coming at last upon a White Hood [a white cobra], who spoke of things beyond my knowledge, and showed me many things I had never before seen."
"New game? Was it good hunting?" Mowgli turned quickly on his side.
"It was no game, and would have broken all my teeth; but the White Hood said that a man--he spoke as one that knew the breed--that a man would give the breath under his ribs for only the sight of those things."
"We will look," said Mowgli. "I now remember that I was once a man."
"Slowly--slowly. It was haste killed the Yellow Snake that ate the sun. We two spoke together under the earth, and I spoke of thee, naming thee as a man. Said the White Hood (and he is indeed as old as the Jungle): 'It is long since I have seen a man. Let him come, and he shall see all these things, for the least of which very many men would die.'"
"That MUST be new game. And yet the Poison People do not tell us when game is afoot. They are an unfriendly folk."
"It is NOT game. It is--it is--I cannot say what it is."
"We will go there. I have never seen a White Hood, and I wish to see the other things. Did he kill them?"
"They are all dead things. He says he is the keeper of them all."
"Ah! As a wolf stands above meat he has taken to his own lair. Let us go."
Mowgli swam to bank, rolled on the grass to dry himself, and the two set off for Cold Lairs, the deserted city of which you may have heard. Mowgli was not the least afraid of the Monkey People in those days, but the Monkey People had the liveliest horror of Mowgli. Their tribes, however, were raiding in the Jungle, and so Cold Lairs stood empty and silent in the moonlight. Kaa led up to the ruins of the queens' pavilion that stood on the terrace, slipped over the rubbish, and dived down the half- choked staircase that went underground from the centre of the pavilion. Mowgli gave the snake-call,--"We be of one blood, ye and I,"--and followed on his hands and knees. They crawled a long distance down a sloping passage that turned and twisted several times, and at last came to where the root of some great tree, growing thirty feet overhead, had forced out a solid stone in the wall. They crept through the gap, and found themselves in a large vault, whose domed roof had been also broken away by tree-roots so that a few streaks of light dropped down into the darkness.
"A safe lair," said Mowgli, rising to his firm feet, "but over-far to visit daily. And now what do we see?"
"Am I nothing?" said a voice in the middle of the vault; and Mowgli saw something white move till, little by little, there stood up the hugest cobra he had ever set eyes on--a creature nearly eight feet long, and bleached by being in darkness to an old ivory-white. Even the spectacle-marks of his spread hood had faded to faint yellow. His eyes were as red as rubies, and altogether he was most wonderful.
"Good hunting!" said Mowgli, who carried his manners with his knife, and that never left him.
"What of the city?" said the White Cobra, without answering the greeting. "What of the great, the walled city--the city of a hundred elephants and twenty thousand horses, and cattle past counting--the city of the King of Twenty Kings? I grow deaf here, and it is long since I heard their war-gongs."
"The Jungle is above our heads," said Mowgli. I know only Hathi and his sons among elephants. Bagheera has slain all the horses in one village, and--what is a King?"
"I told thee," said Kaa softly to the Cobra,--"I told thee, four moons ago, that thy city was not."
"The city--the great city of the forest whose gates are guarded by the King's towers--can never pass. They builded it before my father's father came from the egg, and it shall endure when my son's sons are as white as I! Salomdhi, son of Chandrabija, son of Viyeja, son of Yegasuri, made it in the days of Bappa Rawal. Whose cattle are YE?"
"It is a lost trail," said Mowgli, turning to Kaa. "I know not his talk."
"Nor I. He is very old. Father of Cobras, there is only the Jungle here, as it has been since the beginning."
"Then who is HE," said the White Cobra, "sitting down before me, unafraid, knowing not the name of the King, talking our talk through a man's lips? Who is he with the knife and the snake's tongue?"
"Mowgli they call me," was the answer. "I am of the Jungle. The wolves are my people, and Kaa here is my brother. Father of Cobras, who art thou?"
"I am the Warden of the King's Treasure. Kurrun Raja builded the stone above me, in the days when my skin was dark, that I might teach death to those who came to steal. Then they let down the treasure through the stone, and I heard the song of the Brahmins my masters."
"Umm!" said Mowgli to himself. "I have dealt with one Brahmin already, in the Man-Pack, and--I know what I know. Evil comes here in a little."
"Five times since I came here has the stone been lifted, but always to let down more, and never to take away. There are no riches like these riches--the treasures of a hundred kings. But it is long and long since the stone was last moved, and I think that my city has forgotten."
"There is no city. Look up. Yonder are roots of the great trees tearing the stones apart. Trees and men do not grow together," Kaa insisted.
"Twice and thrice have men found their way here," the White Cobra answered savagely; "but they never spoke till I came upon them groping in the dark, and then they cried only a little time. But ye come with lies, Man and Snake both, and would have me believe the city is not, and that my wardship ends. Little do men change in the years. But I change never! Till the stone is lifted, and the Brahmins come down singing the songs that I know, and feed me with warm milk, and take me to the light again, I--I--I, and no other, am the Warden of the King's Treasure! The city is dead, ye say, and here are the roots of the trees? Stoop down, then, and take what ye will. Earth has no treasure like to these. Man with the snake's tongue, if thou canst go alive by the way that thou hast entered it, the lesser Kings will be thy servants!"
"Again the trail is lost," said Mowgli coolly. "Can any jackal have burrowed so deep and bitten this great White Hood? He is surely mad. Father of Cobras, I see nothing here to take away."
"By the Gods of the Sun and Moon, it is the madness of death upon the boy!" hissed the Cobra. "Before thine eyes close I will allow thee this favour. Look thou, and see what man has never seen before!"
"They do not well in the Jungle who speak to Mowgli of favours," said the boy, between his teeth; "but the dark changes all, as I know. I will look, if that please thee."
He stared with puckered-up eyes round the vault, and then lifted up from the floor a handful of something that glittered.
"Oho!" said he, "this is like the stuff they play with in the Man-Pack: only this is yellow and the other was brown."
He let the gold pieces fall, and move forward. The floor of the vault was buried some five or six feet deep in coined gold and silver that had burst from the sacks it had been originally stored in, and, in the long years, the metal had packed and settled as sand packs at low tide. On it and in it and rising through it, as wrecks lift through the sand, were jewelled elephant-howdahs of embossed silver, studded with plates of hammered gold, and adorned with carbuncles and turquoises. There were palanquins and litters for carrying queens, framed and braced with silver and enamel, with jade-handled poles and amber curtain-rings; there were golden candlesticks hung with pierced emeralds that quivered on the branches; there were studded images, five feet high, of forgotten gods, silver with jewelled eyes; there were coats of mail, gold inlaid on steel, and fringed with rotted and blackened seed-pearls; there were helmets, crested and beaded with pigeon's-blood rubies; there were shields of lacquer, of tortoise-shell and rhinoceros-hide, strapped and bossed with red gold and set with emeralds at the edge; there were sheaves of diamond-hilted swords, daggers, and hunting-knives; there were golden sacrificial bowls and ladles, and portable altars of a shape that never sees the light of day; there were jade cups and bracelets; there were incense-burners, combs, and pots for perfume, henna, and eye-powder, all in embossed gold; there were nose-rings, armlets, head-bands, finger-rings, and girdles past any counting; there were belts, seven fingers broad, of square-cut diamonds and rubies, and wooden boxes, trebly clamped with iron, from which the wood had fallen away in powder, showing the pile of uncut star-sapphires, opals, cat's-eyes, sapphires, rubies, diamonds, emeralds, and garnets within.
The White Cobra was right. No mere money would begin to pay the value of this treasure, the sifted pickings of centuries of war, plunder, trade, and taxation. The coins alone were priceless, leaving out of count all the precious stones; and the dead weight of the gold and silver alone might be two or three hundred tons. Every native ruler in India to-day, however poor, has a hoard to which he is always adding; and though, once in a long while, some enlightened prince may send off forty or fifty bullock-cart loads of silver to be exchanged for Government securities, the bulk of them keep their treasure and the knowledge of it very closely to themselves.
But Mowgli naturally did not understand what these things meant. The knives interested him a little, but they did not balance so well as his own, and so he dropped them. At last he found something really fascinating laid on the front of a howdah half buried in the coins. It was a three-foot ankus, or elephant- goad--something like a small boat-hook. The top was one round, shining ruby, and eight inches of the handle below it were studded with rough turquoises close together, giving a most satisfactory grip. Below them was a rim of jade with a flower- pattern running round it--only the leaves were emeralds, and the blossoms were rubies sunk in the cool, green stone. The rest of the handle was a shaft of pure ivory, while the point--the spike and hook--was gold-inlaid steel with pictures of elephant- catching; and the pictures attracted Mowgli, who saw that they had something to do with his friend Hathi the Silent.
The White Cobra had been following him closely.
"Is this not worth dying to behold?" he said. Have I not done thee a great favour?"
"I do not understand," said Mowgli. "The things are hard and cold, and by no means good to eat. But this"--he lifted the ankus--"I desire to take away, that I may see it in the sun. Thou sayest they are all thine? Wilt thou give it to me, and I will bring thee frogs to eat?"
The White Cobra fairly shook with evil delight. "Assuredly I will give it," he said. "All that is here I will give thee-- till thou goest away."
"But I go now. This place is dark and cold, and I wish to take the thorn-pointed thing to the Jungle."
"Look by thy foot! What is that there?" Mowgli picked up something white and smooth. "It is the bone of a man's head," he said quietly. "And here are two more."
"They came to take the treasure away many years ago. I spoke to them in the dark, and they lay still."
"But what do I need of this that is called treasure? If thou wilt give me the ankus to take away, it is good hunting. If not, it is good hunting none the less. I do not fight with the Poison People, and I was also taught the Master-word of thy tribe."
"There is but one Master-word here. It is mine!"
Kaa flung himself forward with blazing eyes. "Who bade me bring the Man?" he hissed.
"I surely," the old Cobra lisped. "It is long since I have seen Man, and this Man speaks our tongue."
"But there was no talk of killing. How can I go to the Jungle and say that I have led him to his death?" said Kaa.
"I talk not of killing till the time. And as to thy going or not going, there is the hole in the wall. Peace, now, thou fat monkey-killer! I have but to touch thy neck, and the Jungle will know thee no longer. Never Man came here that went away with the breath under his ribs. I am the Warden of the Treasure of the King's City!"
"But, thou white worm of the dark, I tell thee there is neither king nor city! The Jungle is all about us!" cried Kaa.
"There is still the Treasure. But this can be done. Wait awhile, Kaa of the Rocks, and see the boy run. There is room for great sport here. Life is good. Run to and fro awhile, and make sport, boy!"
Mowgli put his hand on Kaa's head quietly.
"The white thing has dealt with men of the Man-Pack until now. He does not know me," he whispered. "He has asked for this hunting. Let him have it." Mowgli had been standing with the ankus held point down. He flung it from him quickly and it dropped crossways just behind the great snake's hood, pinning him to the floor. In a flash, Kaa's weight was upon the writhing body, paralysing it from hood to tail. The red eyes burned, and the six spare inches of the head struck furiously right and left.
"Kill!" said Kaa, as Mowgli's hand went to his knife.
"No," he said, as he drew the blade; "I will never kill again save for food. But look you, Kaa!" He caught the snake behind the hood, forced the mouth open with the blade of the knife, and showed the terrible poison-fangs of the upper jaw lying black and withered in the gum. The White Cobra had outlived his poison, as a snake will.
"THUU" ("It is dried up"--Literally, a rotted out tree-stump), said Mowgli; and motioning Kaa away, he picked up the ankus, setting the White Cobra free.
"The King's Treasure needs a new Warden, he said gravely. "Thuu, thou hast not done well. Run to and fro and make sport, Thuu!"
"I am ashamed. Kill me!" hissed the White Cobra.
"There has been too much talk of killing. We will go now. I take the thorn-pointed thing, Thuu, because I have fought and worsted thee."
"See, then, that the thing does not kill thee at last. It is Death! Remember, it is Death! There is enough in that thing to kill the men of all my city. Not long wilt thou hold it, Jungle Man, nor he who takes it from thee. They will kill, and kill, and kill for its sake! My strength is dried up, but the ankus will do my work. It is Death! It is Death! It is Death!"
Mowgli crawled out through the hole into the passage again, and the last that he saw was the White Cobra striking furiously with his harmless fangs at the stolid golden faces of the gods that lay on the floor, and hissing, "It is Death!"
They were glad to get to the light of day once more; and when they were back in their own Jungle and Mowgli made the ankus glitter in the morning light, he was almost as pleased as though he had found a bunch of new flowers to stick in his hair.
"This is brighter than Bagheera's eyes," he said delightedly, as he twirled the ruby. "I will show it to him; but what did the Thuu mean when he talked of death?"
"I cannot say. I am sorrowful to my tail's tail that he felt not thy knife. There is always evil at Cold Lairs--above ground or below. But now I am hungry. Dost thou hunt with me this dawn?" said Kaa.
"No; Bagheera must see this thing. Good hunting!" Mowgli danced off, flourishing the great ankus, and stopping from time to time to admire it, till he came to that part of the Jungle Bagheera chiefly used, and found him drinking after a heavy kill. Mowgli told him all his adventures from beginning to end, and Bagheera sniffed at the ankus between whiles. When Mowgli came to the White Cobra's last words, the Panther purred approvingly.
"Then the White Hood spoke the thing which is?" Mowgli asked quickly.
"I was born in the King's cages at Oodeypore, and it is in my stomach that I know some little of Man. Very many men would kill thrice in a night for the sake of that one big red stone alone."
"But the stone makes it heavy to the hand. My little bright knife is better; and--see! the red stone is not good to eat. Then WHY would they kill?"
"Mowgli, go thou and sleep. Thou hast lived among men, and----"
"I remember. Men kill because they are not hunting;--for idleness and pleasure. Wake again, Bagheera. For what use was this thorn-pointed thing made?"
Bagheera half opened his eyes--he was very sleepy--with a malicious twinkle.
"It was made by men to thrust into the head of the sons of Hathi, so that the blood should pour out. I have seen the like in the street of Oodeypore, before our cages. That thing has tasted the blood of many such as Hathi."
"But why do they thrust into the heads of elephants?"
"To teach them Man's Law. Having neither claws nor teeth, men make these things--and worse."
"Always more blood when I come near, even to the things the Man-Pack have made," said Mowgli disgustedly. He was getting a little tired of the weight of the ankus. "If I had known this, I would not have taken it. First it was Messua's blood on the thongs, and now it is Hathi's. I will use it no more. Look!"
The ankus flew sparkling, and buried itself point down thirty yards away, between the trees. "So my hands are clean of Death," said Mowgli, rubbing his palms on the fresh, moist earth. "The Thuu said Death would follow me. He is old and white and mad."
"White or black, or death or life, I am going to sleep, Little Brother. I cannot hunt all night and howl all day, as do some folk."
Bagheera went off to a hunting-lair that he knew, about two miles off. Mowgli made an easy way for himself up a convenient tree, knotted three or four creepers together, and in less time than it takes to tell was swinging in a hammock fifty feet above ground. Though he had no positive objection to strong daylight, Mowgli followed the custom of his friends, and used it as little as he could. When he waked among the very loud-voiced peoples that live in the trees, it was twilight once more, and he had been dreaming of the beautiful pebbles he had thrown away.
"At least I will look at the thing again," he said, and slid down a creeper to the earth; but Bagheera was before him. Mowgli could hear him snuffing in the half light.
"Where is the thorn-pointed thing?" cried Mowgli.
"A man has taken it. Here is the trail."
"Now we shall see whether the Thuu spoke truth. If the pointed thing is Death, that man will die. Let us follow."
"Kill first," said Bagheera. "An empty stomach makes a careless eye. Men go very slowly, and the Jungle is wet enough to hold the lightest mark."
They killed as soon as they could, but it was nearly three hours before they finished their meat and drink and buckled down to the trail. The Jungle People know that nothing makes up for being hurried over your meals.
"Think you the pointed thing will turn in the man's hand and kill him?" Mowgli asked. "The Thuu said it was Death."
"We shall see when we find," said Bagheera, trotting with his head low. "It is single-foot" (he meant that there was only one man), "and the weight of the thing has pressed his heel far into the ground."
"Hai! This is as clear as summer lightning," Mowgli answered; and they fell into the quick, choppy trail-trot in and out through the checkers of the moonlight, following the marks of those two bare feet.
"Now he runs swiftly," said Mowgli. "The toes are spread apart." They went on over some wet ground. "Now why does he turn aside here?"
"Wait!" said Bagheera, and flung himself forward with one superb bound as far as ever he could. The first thing to do when a trail ceases to explain itself is to cast forward without leaving, your own confusing foot-marks on the ground. Bagheera turned as he landed, and faced Mowgli, crying, "Here comes another trail to meet him. It is a smaller foot, this second trail, and the toes turn inward."
Then Mowgli ran up and looked. "It is the foot of a Gond hunter," he said. "Look! Here he dragged his bow on the grass. That is why the first trail turned aside so quickly. Big Foot hid from Little Foot."
"That is true," said Bagheera. "Now, lest by crossing each other's tracks we foul the signs, let each take one trail. I am Big Foot, Little Brother, and thou art Little Foot, the Gond."
Bagheera leaped back to the original trail, leaving Mowgli stooping above the curious narrow track of the wild little man of the woods.
"Now," said Bagheera, moving step by step along the chain of footprints, "I, Big Foot, turn aside here. Now I hide me behind a rock and stand still," not daring to shift my feet. Cry thy trail, Little Brother."
"Now, I, Little Foot, come to the rock," said Mowgli, running up his trail. "Now, I sit down under the rock, leaning upon my right hand, and resting my bow between my toes. I wait long, for the mark of my feet is deep here."
"I also, said Bagheera, hidden behind the rock. I wait, resting the end of the thorn-pointed thing upon a stone. It slips, for here is a scratch upon the stone. Cry thy trail, Little Brother."
"One, two twigs and a big branch are broken here," said Mowgli, in an undertone. "Now, how shall I cry THAT? Ah! It is plain now. I, Little Foot, go away making noises and tramplings so that Big Foot may hear me." He moved away from the rock pace by pace among the trees, his voice rising in the distance as he approached a little cascade. "I--go--far--away--to--where--the-- noise--of--falling-water--covers--my--noise; and--here--I--wait. Cry thy trail, Bagheera, Big Foot!"
The panther had been casting in every direction to see how Big Foot's trail led away from behind the rock. Then he gave tongue:
"I come from behind the rock upon my knees, dragging the thorn- pointed thing. Seeing no one, I run. I, Big Foot, run swiftly. The trail is clear. Let each follow his own. I run!"
Bagheera swept on along the clearly-marked trail, and Mowgli followed the steps of the Gond. For some time there was silence in the Jungle.
"Where art thou, Little Foot?" cried Bagheera. Mowgli's voice answered him not fifty yards to the right.
"Um!" said the Panther, with a deep cough. "The two run side by side, drawing nearer!"
They raced on another half-mile, always keeping about the same distance, till Mowgli, whose head was not so close to the ground as Bagheera's, cried: "They have met. Good hunting--look! Here stood Little Foot, with his knee on a rock--and yonder is Big Foot indeed!"
Not ten yards in front of them, stretched across a pile of broken rocks, lay the body of a villager of the district, a long, small-feathered Gond arrow through his back and breast.
"Was the Thuu so old and so mad, Little Brother?" said Bagheera gently. "Here is one death, at least."
"Follow on. But where is the drinker of elephant's blood--the red-eyed thorn?"
"Little Foot has it--perhaps. It is single-foot again now."
The single trail of a light man who had been running quickly and bearing a burden on his left shoulder held on round a long, low spur of dried grass, where each footfall seemed, to the sharp eyes of the trackers, marked in hot iron.
Neither spoke till the trail ran up to the ashes of a camp-fire hidden in a ravine.
"Again!" said Bagheera, checking as though he had been turned into stone.
The body of a little wizened Gond lay with its feet in the ashes, and Bagheera looked inquiringly at Mowgli.
"That was done with a bamboo," said the boy, after one glance. "I have used such a thing among the buffaloes when I served in the Man-Pack. The Father of Cobras--I am sorrowful that I made a jest of him--knew the breed well, as I might have known. Said I not that men kill for idleness?"
"Indeed, they killed for the sake of the red and blue stones," Bagheera answered. "Remember, I was in the King's cages at Oodeypore."
"One, two, three, four tracks," said Mowgli, stooping over the ashes. "Four tracks of men with shod feet. They do not go so quickly as Gonds. Now, what evil had the little woodman done to them? See, they talked together, all five, standing up, before they killed him. Bagheera, let us go back. My stomach is heavy in me, and yet it heaves up and down like an oriole's nest at the end of a branch."
"It is not good hunting to leave game afoot. Follow!" said the panther. "Those eight shod feet have not gone far."
No more was said for fully an hour, as they worked up the broad trail of the four men with shod feet.
It was clear, hot daylight now, and Bagheera said, "I smell smoke."
Men are always more ready to eat than to run, Mowgli answered, trotting in and out between the low scrub bushes of the new Jungle they were exploring. Bagheera, a little to his left, made an indescribable noise in his throat.
"Here is one that has done with feeding," said he. A tumbled bundle of gay-coloured clothes lay under a bush, and round it was some spilt flour.
"That was done by the bamboo again," said Mowgli. " See! that white dust is what men eat. They have taken the kill from this one,--he carried their food,--and given him for a kill to Chil, the Kite."
"It is the third," said Bagheera.
"I will go with new, big frogs to the Father of Cobras, and feed him fat," said Mowgli to himself. "The drinker of elephant's blood is Death himself--but still I do not understand!"
"Follow!" said Bagheera.
They had not gone half a mile farther when they heard Ko, the Crow, singing the death-song in the top of a tamarisk under whose shade three men were lying. A half-dead fire smoked in the centre of the circle, under an iron plate which held a blackened and burned cake of unleavened bread. Close to the fire, and blazing in the sunshine, lay the ruby-and-turquoise ankus.
"The thing works quickly; all ends here," said Bagheera. "How did THESE die, Mowgli? There is no mark on any."
A Jungle-dweller gets to learn by experience as much as many doctors know of poisonous plants and berries. Mowgli sniffed the smoke that came up from the fire, broke off a morsel of the blackened bread, tasted it, and spat it out again.
"Apple of Death," he coughed. "The first must have made it ready in the food for THESE, who killed him, having first killed the Gond."
"Good hunting, indeed! The kills follow close," said Bagheera.
"Apple of Death" is what the Jungle call thorn-apple or dhatura, the readiest poison in all India.
"What now?" said the panther. "Must thou and I kill each other for yonder red-eyed slayer?"
"Can it speak?" said Mowgli in a whisper. Did I do it a wrong when I threw it away? Between us two it can do no wrong, for we do not desire what men desire. If it be left here, it will assuredly continue to kill men one after another as fast as nuts fall in a high wind. I have no love to men, but even I would not have them die six in a night."
"What matter? They are only men. They killed one another, and were well pleased," said Bagheera. "That first little woodman hunted well."
"They are cubs none the less; and a cub will drown himself to bite the moon's light on the water. The fault was mine," said Mowgli, who spoke as though he knew all about everything. "I will never again bring into the Jungle strange things--not though they be as beautiful as flowers. This"--he handled the ankus gingerly--"goes back to the Father of Cobras. But first we must sleep, and we cannot sleep near these sleepers. Also we must bury HIM, lest he run away and kill another six. Dig me a hole under that tree."
"But, Little Brother," said Bagheera, moving off to the spot, "I tell thee it is no fault of the blood-drinker. The trouble is with the men."
"All one," said Mowgli. "Dig the hole deep. When we wake I will take him up and carry him back."
Two nights later, as the White Cobra sat mourning in the darkness of the vault, ashamed, and robbed, and alone, the turquoise ankus whirled through the hole in the wall, and clashed on the floor of golden coins.
"Father of Cobras," said Mowgli (he was careful to keep the other side of the wall), "get thee a young and ripe one of thine own people to help thee guard the King's Treasure, so that no man may come away alive any more."
"Ah-ha! It returns, then. I said the thing was Death. How comes it that thou art still alive?" the old Cobra mumbled, twining lovingly round the ankus-haft.
"By the Bull that bought me, I do not know! That thing has killed six times in a night. Let him go out no more."Next