No rights infringement intended. M/F
A Sharpe Fan Fiction of Alan Kempner
a work of fan-fiction by Alan Kempner
Richard Sharpe and the
Man-Eater of Hyderabad India - 1802
To the many unsung hunters of India's past,
Who faced down the beast armed only
with their muzzle-loading muskets,
This story is with great admiration dedicated.
Dust. Fine, red dust.
For nearly a week now, it had become the dominant reality in Sergeant Richard Sharpe's life.
Propelled by scorching winds, it swept endlessly in a brick-colored cloud across the hot plains of the Deccan. Dust that found its way everywhere it was not supposed to be, regardless of whatever precautions he might take. Dust that got into the water of his canteen, into the hardtack and dried beef he carried in his pack, into the barrel and frizzen pan of his Brown Bess musket, dust that found its way into every fold of his uniform and turned both him and his companions into dull red statues. Dust that obscured his weathered, suntanned face and black hair. Dust that covered his hard-won sergeant's stripes. Dust that dried his throat and stung his eyes, that got into his mouth, down his nose, and up his arse.
He was beginning to think this little excursion hadn't been worth it after all. He turned and squinted at his two companions. Both, under their coats of the ever-present red dust, were British soldiers like him.
One stood sullenly, with his wrists tied before him with a length of rope. This was Corporal (soon to be Private) Tom Rumbold. He was in his early twenties, slender, with a weak chin and a thin thatch of hair that couldn't decide if it were brown or blonde. The soldier holding the end of the rope was shorter, squatter, with carrot-colored hair cut very short, and eyes as green as the hills of Ireland or the jungles of Mysore. This was Private Sam Kilpatrick.
It had all started two months ago in Mysore, when Rumbold had made the acquaintance of Shari, a young Indian woman of good, though impoverished birth. She came from a village on the southern border of the Province of Hyderabad. With her sisters and an elderly uncle as a chaperone, she had been on a pilgrimage, visiting the famous shrine of Sravanbelgoa, where she hoped to make an offering. Rumbold was on leave in the city, and spied her in the marketplace. Due to the inattention of her uncle, he was able to exchange greetings with Shari, and she agreed to meet him later behind their inn. Needless to say, by the end of that meeting, Rumbold was head over heels in love or lust, he wasn't sure which. Shari found the attention of the soldier from over the sea most flattering. She had to go back to her village, but she had made sure to tell him where it was located.
Rumbold had asked further leave to go there and bring her back as his bibi, and Captain Morris had rightly refused:
"Forget it, Private. You've had your leave, and besides, you don't make enough money to keep a bibi. Unless, perhaps, you'd like to share her?" And here Morris' tone had turned subtly lecherous.
"No Sir, I wouldn't."
"Well, there you are then. Permission denied."
This would have been enough for any man thinking with his brain, but Rumbold's brain had been taken over by other portions of his anatomy. He mentioned to Sharpe, his sergeant, that he planned to hop over to Shari's village and bring her back. Sharpe had told him not to be a fool, but foolishness was already firmly entrenched. The next morning, Rumbold had not answered the roll, and was not to be found anywhere within the fortress of Seringapatam. It did not require an Oxford don to guess where he had gone. Sharpe had dutifully reported the absence to his commanding officer, Major John Shee, who was fortunately in one of his rare periods of sobriety.
A week later, a runner came from one of the many bureaucrats who made up the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, informing Major Shee that the amorous corporal had shown up in Shari's village and attempted to take her back with him. Her brahmin father, scandalized at the though of his daughter becoming mistress to an untouchable foreigner, had promptly knocked Rumbold over the head with a piece of wood, dragged him into the empty goat pen, and locked him in. He had then sent to the Nizam's court, asking them to take Rumbold off of his hands, and they had promptly relayed the request on to the British force in Seringapatam. Shee had called for Sergeant Sharpe.
"Rumbold's Light Company, Sergeant Sharpe, so it falls to you to bring him back."
"I don't like you Sharpe, I never have. But there's no one else to spare."
"Be back inside of two weeks. Take one man with you, someone you can depend on."
"Yes Sir. Thank you, Sir"
"Go on, get out of here."
Sharpe was more than glad to go. It had been three years since the capture of Seringapatam, and he had seen no action since. It was getting boring keeping accounts in the armory, and he would definitely rather be elsewhere in the coming week, when Major Stokes would be taking inventory. A spell outdoors would do him good. And it would get him away from Sergeant Hakeswill for a while, and that was always a plus. Shee had been all for a full court-martial. Rumbold was to be given five hundred lashes and broken back to private. Sharpe had attempted to talk the punishment down, pointing out that Rumbold hadn't deserted, but had only left without leave, and had always intended to come back.. Eventually, Shee who was already half drunk and wanted to complete the process, had agreed to reduce it to fifty lashes, but still insisted Rumbold's rank was forfeit. Sharpe accepted that as the best he could get. He had hoped Rumbold would prove grateful. Such hopes were a bad habit of Sharpe's.
Shee had told Sharpe to take one man with him. Sharpe had chosen Kilpatrick, who he knew to be solid and dependable.
And now here they were. They had trekked the weary miles to the village, and taken Rumbold in hand. He had been anything but pleased to see them. No sooner had they gotten outside of the village than the Corporal had bolted, and Sharpe had run him down. Hence the rope that now adorned Rumbold's wrists, which Kirkpatrick would jerk occasionally, just to remind him that he wouldn't get far if he tried running again.
"C'mon, Dickie," Rumbold whined for the hundredth since they had got on the road that morning. "Have a heart. Just let me go, and tell Major Shee I'd hopped it before you got to the village. You can do that for a friend, can't you? No one'll know the difference."
Sharpe spat red dust into the red ground.
"And deprive His Majesty of your services, Private? Not bloody likely. You'll go back and take your punishment like a good little soldier. And it's Sergeant Sharpe to you. Where's your gratitude? Just you remember who got your flogging cut."
"When can we take a rest, Sergeant?" Kilpatrick wiped some sweat from his forehead with his sleeve.
Sharpe peered ahead, squinting through the dusty wind. Not only was it dusty, it was hot. Really hot. His uniform clung to his perspiring body, it's dampness a magnet for the dust. His throat was dry, his water low, and the mid-August afternoon sun was baking his brain inside of his skull. He was tempted to kick Rumbold for choosing the hottest time of the year to turn rabbit. A rest in some shade would do them all good.
It had not exactly been a holiday romp. In the past few days, the only travelers they had seen along the lonely road were black-robed sadhus, holy men with long unshorn hair and beards. They never bathed, so you knew they were coming a long time before they showed up, and you were aware of them a long time after they had left. Although not normally superstitious, Sharpe had tossed a handful of copper annas their way; otherwise they would have called down curses upon his head, and who knew what trouble that might bring? Better to be safe at the price of a few coins.
As they were crossing a rope suspension bridge over the gorge of the Krishna River, a colony of red monkeys who infested the bridge had pelted them with rotten fruit until Sharpe had fired his musket in the air and scattered them. That did not save the three of them from further missiles as they made their way up the path. Next, it had led up and down through rolling hills. Sharpe had heard this was a pilgrim path, and by walking it, the supplicant would guarantee good karma in the next life. All it had done for Sharpe is made him more hot and more tired.
But trees were now dotting the Deccan's landscape with increasingly greater frequency, sometimes forming groves. And before him stretched a green length of forest that stretched for miles. Kilpatrick and he had come through it on their way here, and Sharpe remembered that only a few miles inside, there was a rest station that was kept for pilgrims, with grass-thatched shelters and a big drinking trough fed by a tiny, crystal-clear stream. The more Sharpe thought of it, and the cool shade to be found there, and the mango tree that might provide a break from dried beef and hardtack, the better it sounded. He turned to his companions.
"There's a rest-station a few miles in. We'll stop there for the night."
Within half an hour, they passed under the forest's shade. Sharpe sighed in relief. After tramping another two miles, they could see the rest-station up ahead. The shelters were in a single row, and facing them was a larger, two-story stone building where lived the sadhu, the holy man who was keeper of the shelter. Rumbold and Kilpatrick knelt by the drinking trough with sighs of relief. Sharpe walked up to the sadhu's house and knocked on the door. He figured it would be best to advise the man of their presence and intention to spend the night. But there was no answer. Sharpe knocked again, waited, and then shrugged. He had tried.
He walked over to the trough and took a long, satisfying drink of cool water. Taking out his canteen, he held it under the water, watching the stream of bubbles as it filled. Plugging it, he looked up. Kilpatrick had taken a long wooden stake and a mallet out of his backpack, and now looked at Sharpe questioningly. Sharpe turned to Rumbold.
"Corporal, there's two ways we can do this. I can have Sam there drive that stake into the ground and tie you to it for the night. Or you can give me your word that you won't try to run and we'll leave you untied. The question is, can I trust you?"
Rumbold nodded eagerly.
"Oh, I swear, Sergeant, I'll be good. I won't turn rabbit on you."
"If you do, first I'll catch you, then I'll thoroughly kick your arse, then I'll hog-tie you for the night. Just don't test me, Corporal. You'll regret it."
"I won't never, Sergeant, I swear it on my mother's grave."
Sharpe nodded to Kilpatrick.
"Untie him." Kilpatrick complied. Sharpe spoke again to Rumbold, "Help me gather some wood for a fire."
Already, the shadows were lengthening. Darkness was falling with amazing speed, as it tended to do in the forest. Fortunately, there was a lot of wood lying around on the ground near the shelter. Sharpe soon had a good armful, brought it back to the fire pit, and then started collecting some more. Meanwhile, Kilpatrick had started a tentative blaze going with his tinder box, and was blowing on the dry twigs and feeding them with some of the smaller sticks.
Out in the darkness beyond the fire's reach, Raksha crouched down, invisible in the darkness. He had come to investigate the fire, for he had learned long ago that fire meant that the two-legs were near, and so they were. Three of them, with no shelter. Helpless. His tail began to twitch purposefully. If he had been a man, he would have smiled, cruelly.
Sharpe dumped a second load of wood near Kilpatrick, and then went to see if there were any mangos. There were none hanging from the tree within his reach, but several lay on the ground. He bent and began to squeeze them for firmness, rejecting the ones that had begun to rot. He collected a few that were not overripe, and then reached for another.
It was then that the snake bit him.
Sharpe saw a dim shape lash out from where it had coiled near the mango, so well camouflaged that he had no idea it was there until he felt the sting in his right forearm and jerked it back. Then he felt the pain and realized what had happened. He stumbled backward, out of the danger zone, and the snake hissed irritably and slithered off into the gloom.
The pain increased, turning to a fire in his arm. Sharpe groaned a curse, whipped off his belt and looped it around his arm, pulling it tight. Getting to his feet, he stumbled towards the fire, which Kilpatrick had gotten to blaze cheerfully. He looked up, and his expression turned to alarm as he saw Sharpe's agonized face.
"A snake," Sharpe snarled by way of explanation. He sat down heavily by the fire. The pain had spread to his shoulder, and he was beginning to feel dizzy and sick to his stomach. Kilpatrick tore his sleeve back from his forearm, and hissed in alarm as he saw how purple and swollen it was, only moments after the bite.
"What do I do?' He asked Sharpe. "We don't have snakes in Ireland."
"Take your knife and run it through the fire," Sharpe gasped. "Then cut over the bite and suck out as much of the poison as you can."
Kilpatrick nodded and took out his clasp knife, opening it and holding the blade through the fire. He took Sharpe's arm, held the blade above the swollen, purple flesh, and hesitated.
The Irishman grimaced and slashed the blade across the wound. Sharpe bit his lip to keep from crying out, tasted blood. He hauled harder on his belt. Kilpatrick bent his mouth to the wound, sucked hard, and then spat. He lowered his mouth to repeat the process.
Rumbold came up with an armload of wood. He looked at Kilpatrick and Sharpe, grasped what had happened, and saw his chance. Dumping the wood on the ground, he took off at a full run, heading off into the forest in the direction he had come. Sharpe looked after him. Even snakebit, he still had room for anger.
"Rumbold, you bastard! Get your arse back here!"
As he spoke, a great wave of nausea passed over him. He barely had time to lie down and turn his head to the side before he vomited up everything inside of him, and then gave way to a series of agonizing heaves that felt like they were going to turn him inside out, before he lapsed into blackness.
Raksha ran through the forest, closing the distance between him and the two-legs with each leap. This foolish one had separated himself from the others, marking him as easy prey. Already, the smell of his sweat was strong in Raksha's nostrils, and he saw his pale form in the darkness. And now the two-legs had stopped, and was leaning against a tree, breathing hard. Noiselessly, Raksha padded closer. He dug his great front talons into the ground to give himself purchase, while he drew up his massively muscled hindquarters under him for the leap. His tail was stiff and straight now, with only the tip twitching. His eye was fixed on the two-legs' pulsing throat.
Rumbold drew in great, gasping breaths. He felt a little bad about breaking his word, but Sergeant Sharpe's incapacity was too great an opportunity to pass up. Sharpe couldn't chase him, and Kilpatrick wouldn't leave the Sergeant alone. He would get back to Shari's village, this time by night, and find her where her father wasn't at hand. He couldn't go back to the British army, but he had heard that the Marathas paid better than they did anyway. He and Shari could make a new beginning there. It was then that he heard a low growl from behind him. A fraction of a second later, something moving with incredible speed and force slammed into him from behind and knocked him to the ground. As he felt mighty jaws close down on his neck, he had another fraction of a second to reflect that he would have been better off to stay with Sergeant Sharpe.
Much better off.
Kilpatrick had thought about going after Rumbold, but had decided that Sharpe needed him more. The hell with Rumbold, he thought. He sucked out another mouthful of blood and venom. Sharpe was unconscious, and tossing in a fever. Kilpatrick felt his forehead, it was burning hot. He felt so damned helpless!
And then he heard the scream.
It came from perhaps two hundred yards away, a howl of utter terror that must have torn the screamer's throat open, a scream that was cut off abruptly.
Kilpatrick's blood ran cold as he shot to his feet. That was Rumbold's scream, no doubt about it. Something out there had gotten him. Something terrible. He peered fearfully into the darkness surrounding the fire, but he saw nothing, heard nothing. He threw another log on the fire and shuddered.
Even if he didn't have Sharpe to look after, he wouldn't have gone looking for Rumbold for all the gold there never was in Ireland. Not in that darkness.
He sat back down and thanked all the saints for the fire. It would keep them safe until dawn. No beast would dare approach fire.
The night dragged by, one dark hour after another. Kilpatrick stayed by Sharpe, mopping his forehead with a wet cloth. He was all alert, peering into the blackness for the least noise, the smallest hint of movement.
A few hours past midnight, Sharpe began to come around. He opened his eyes and groaned. His vision was blurred, it was hard to make out details.
Kilpatrick smiled. "How're you feeling?"
Sharpe tried to sit up, groaned, and lay back down.
"Weak as a kitten, and dizzy. My arm doesn't burn so bad, though." He looked around. "Where's Rumbold?
"I heard him scream, once. Something out in the forest took him. Not to worry though. I've got a good fire going, and it should keep whatever it is at bay until dawn."
In the darkness just beyond the fire, Raksha crouched. He had eaten his fill, but he was not satisfied. He never was, when there were two-legs left alive. They were so foolish, thinking their fire would protect them. He had been around the two-legs far too long to fear fire. Earlier, he had killed for hunger. Now, he would kill for hate.
He gathered himself into a crouch, and moved closer.
Sharpe nodded. "Get my canteen."
Kilpatrick grinned, stood up, and walked over to Sharpe's discarded kit, fetching the wooden canteen, walking over to Sharpe, and holding it out. Sharpe reached out to take it.
And that was when something, something huge and black and moving like lightning, slammed into Kilpatrick from his left side and bore him down to the ground. Sharpe's arm was still stretched out for the canteen when Kilpatrick began screaming. He rolled over, gasping with the effort. In the semi-darkness cast by the flickering flames, he could see the Irishman lying on the ground about six feet away. A thing was crouching over him. To his blurred vision, the thing seemed like a huge living shadow, savagely wrenching him back and forth. Sharpe could make out the gleam of blood and hear flesh rending. Kilpatrick's screams reached a new crescendo, and then were cut off, abruptly and permanently.
For an instant, the thing continued to tear at him, thrashing his now limp body around like it were a dead chicken. Then, it released him and raised its head. It looked on Sharpe. Sharpe saw a single, gleaming yellow eye, and the sheer hatred in that eye was like a physical force that struck him in the face. If hate could kill, he would have dropped dead on the spot. The look in that eye promised only one thing: death, and death in a great deal of agony and terror.
The thing gave a low, grating growl like ice crunching underfoot. Slowly, causally, it began to pad towards him. It was in no hurry. He wasn't going anywhere.
Sharpe looked at his musket, a few feet away, reached feebly for it, and gasped again. In the state he was in, it might as well have been back in England. The thing was looming over him now, a great darkness, blotting out all else, infusing him with a sense of utter helplessness and doom. He felt a hot breath fanning his face
And then, the low crack! of a musket sounded, and Sharpe saw a flash of orange flame out of the corner of his eye. The dark thing above him started, and he heard a snarl.
Suddenly, so quickly that he wondered if it had ever been there, it was gone, and he was staring up at the trees and the night sky.
Now a face was looking into his. And it was neither dark nor menacing. It was brown and lined, with a gray beard and mustache, and a blue turban. Piercing black eyes looked into his, keen eyes that missed nothing, eyes now filled with concern.
He saw this for an instant, and then he fell into a blackness almost as deep as that of the thing that had loomed over him mere moments before.
Sharpe pried his gummy eyes open, squinting against the sunlight streaming in through the open door. And then a dark thing interposed itself between him and the sun. Some buried memory awoke in Sharpe's mind, and he cried out and struck at the thing. It quickly moved away, and he saw that it was only a young Indian girl, still in her teens. Moving to the doorway, she called out in Hindi.
"Sundar Singh! The English sahib is awake!"
Confused, Sharpe looked around him. He was clad only in his breeches, with a bandage on his right forearm. He lay in the single room of a mud brick hut with a thatched roof, lying on a sleeping mat on the packed dirt floor. Other mats were rolled up and stored in the corner. A few simple wooden chests and brass cooking utensils were the room's only other contents.
And then, a man stood in the doorway. He was an Indian, tall, as tall as Sharpe, though a bit leaner. Sharpe would have guessed that he was approaching sixty. But he still moved with the ease of a young man, and he had the erect bearing that marks a former soldier. He was clad in a light brown tunic and trousers, with leather sandals on his feet. His beard and mustache were more gray than black, and Sharpe guessed that his hair, concealed beneath the dark blue turban wound around his head, was the same color. His brown-skinned face was seamed with the tiny wrinkles and cracks that comes from a lifetime spent outdoors, braving the heat, the dust, the wind and the rain. The man looked slightly unnatural under the hut's roof, as if the forest would be a far more appropriate setting for him.
But Sharpe found his eyes the most arresting. They were large, keen and black, like the eyes of a hawk, and seemed to be taking in everything around him, never overlooking a single detail, seeing countless things that Sharpe would pass over, and drawing great significance from them. They were the eyes of a tracker. The man put a hand to his breast and bowed. He spoke in good, though accented English.
"Good morning, sahib. I am glad to see you still with us. I am Sundar Singh."
Sharpe nodded, his confusing fading. "I'm Sharpe. Where am I?"
"In the village of Thali, of which I have the privilege of being the kotwal, what you would call the headman.
He realized that he had glimpsed this man's face last night, right after and then his memories came flooding back.
"My friends! And that thing -"
He started up, and realized that he still felt a little weak and dizzy. Sundar Singh gently put a hand on his chest and pushed him back down.
"Easy, Sharpe sahib. Wait for your strength to return. One does not get up so quickly after a bite from Little Brother."
"The spotted krait that bit you. We call him Little Brother because he is so much smaller than the cobra. But I think he resents it, so he bites twice as many people as the cobra, so we will respect him. It is lucky for you that he needed his poison for the hunt, or we would be scattering your ashes today. But he withheld his poison, save for the least little trace. So it seems you are destined to walk the earth for a while longer. It was fortunate that your friend sucked out much of it so quickly. I applied a poultice of leaves from the Brahm Buti, and that took care of what remained."
Sharpe looked at the bandage binding his forearm, and sniffed at it, detecting a faint pungent but not unpleasant odor coming from it. He remembered the snake bite -then his memories came flooding back. He looked to Sundar Singh again.
The Indian shook his head regretfully.
"I fear they were not destined to walk the earth any longer. Both are dead."
"What was that thing that attacked up last night?"
Sundar Singh's face was grim. "A demon. A fiend who has haunted Hyderabad for the past seven years. Who has held thousand of people in the grip of terror. Until he is killed." And Sundar Singh's voice took on a tone of grim determination.
A noise from behind him caused him to turn. He faced Sharpe again, a smile on his face.
"Ah, our food is here. I take it you have an appetite?"
Sharpe found he did indeed. The young girl reentered, bearing two clay bowls, and on top of them, a basket covered with a cloth. The bowls contained a savory curry of lentils and chick-peas, while the basket held chapattis, the round, flat unleavened bread eaten across India. As they ate, the girl returned with steaming mugs of tea sweetened with jaggery, brown palm sap sugar. Sharpe knew something of how hard life was in these villages, and reflected that what he was now eating would ordinarily have fed an entire family here. These people took hospitality seriously. When they had finished, Sharpe set aside his bowl and then, carefully, he stood up.
"I'd like to see my men."
Sundar Singh nodded grimly. "You will not find it a pleasant sight, Sharpe sahib."
He turned, opened one of the wooden chests, and produced Sharpe's shirt and tunic, both freshly washed, and his shoes. Sharpe dressed and followed him out the door. It was a small Indian village like so many others he had seen, a low mud-brick wall surrounded small mud-brick; thatch roofed houses with single doors and no windows, a central well, and a larger central shrine for worship. There was something peculiar about the houses though, and Sharpe couldn't quite put his finger on it. Then it struck him.
All of the houses' doors, all of them, bore long, parallel scratches across their surfaces, grouped in fours. They were claw marks.
Sundar Singh led him to the very next house, which was virtually a twin to the one he had slept in. In the sunlight that shone in through the open door, Sharpe saw two shapes on the floor, both covered by cotton sheets. Sundar Singh went to the larger one and pulled the sheet up.
It was Kilpatrick. The angle at which his head lolled told Sharpe his neck had been broken, and he bore several large punctures in the sides of his neck.. He also had deep lacerations on his torso and arms. Sharpe walked over to him, knelt down, and put a hand on his forehead.
You didn't sign on for this, did you, you poor bastard? Sorry, Sam..
He stood, and Sundar Singh replaced the sheet. He looked at Sharpe seriously.
"I must warn you, Sharpe sahib. Your other friend is much worse. Perhaps you have seen enough?"
Sharpe shook his head and gestured at the second sheet. Sundar Singh tightened his lips and lifted it. Sharpe was only able to look for a few seconds before he had to turn away. The only recognizable parts left of Corporal John Rumbold were his hands and feet. All the rest was a litter of bones and fragments of torn flesh. Sundar Singh replaced the sheet.
"It is our custom to cremate our dead, Sharpe sahib, that their spirits may fly up to heaven. If this is acceptable to you, we will do this now, before the decay gets any worse."
Sharpe nodded, feeling sick. The subsequent removal of the bodies to two pyres covered with flowers picked that morning, the lighting of the fires, and the immolation of his companions (mercifully, Rumbold's remains were still wrapped in the sheet) went by in a daze. Although the villagers of Thali had not known either man, they all dutifully attended, and the women wailed. Sharpe was touched by their thoughtfulness. As the fires began to die down, Sundar Singh touched his arm.
"We will gather their ashes and scatter them in the river, so that in the fullness of time they made be borne to the sea. Now there are things we must discuss, Sharpe sahib. Please, come back to your hut with me."
When they were both sat down again, Sundar Singh produced a long clay pipe, filled it with tobacco from a pouch, lit it, and then took a long draw. He sighed in fulfillment and then offered the pipe to Sharpe, who shook his head. The Indian took in his breath, as if he were going to speak on something of great import.
"What killed your friends last night, Sharpe sahib, and what nearly killed you, was a leopard. An enormous black leopard, by far the largest I have ever seen, of tremendous strength and demonic cunning. Seven years ago, he turned man-eater, and since then, he has held thousands of people in Hyderabad in an iron grip of ceaseless terror.
"A man-eater is known to the authorities by the district in which he feeds. So it the city, this one is known as the man-eater of Hyderabad. But among the people who must walk in fear of him, he has but one name: Raksha."
"Raksha," mused Sharpe. "That's Hindi for - "
"Demon. For many in the villages believe he is Shaitan himself, with only the outward form of a leopard. They argue that no mere beast could be so cunning, so cruel, and have survived for so long. They say that no man can prevail against him, and it is our fate, one by one, to die beneath his fangs.
"But for all that, Raksha is a leopard. I know, because I was witness to his beginning. Let me tell you the tale."
Sharpe leaned forward in rapt attention.
"To the west of Hyderabad " Sundar Singh began, "is a small rajahstan called Akalkot. Twelve years ago, the Rajah of Akalkot sought to exterminate the Thugs and the cult of Kali, who had long murdered the people of his kingdom. His soldiers descended on their temple and slaughtered the stranglers there with a great slaughter. As the soldiers were walking among the dead and making sure of them, they saw a young black leopard feeding on the bodies of the dead. The Rajah's shikar, what you would call his huntsman, commanded a squad of soldiers to capture the leopard with a net, and it was brought in a cage to the Rajah. He was delighted with the animal, and gave it the name Raksha. He decided it would be his special executioner of those who most displeased him.
"He appointed his shikar to make a confirmed man-killer of the leopard. He was fed only on human flesh (dead bodies could always be found somewhere), so he grew accustomed to its smell and taste. But that was not enough. The Rajah wanted Raksha to kill men on sight, and for that, the leopard had to be taught to hate. The shikar and the soldiers under his command were appointed to guard Raksha's cage, and under his command they teased and tormented the animal. They would tie a rope to his food and jerk it away from him before he could eat. They starved him for weeks at a time. They would poke and cut him with spears jabbed through the bars of his cage. At first, the leopard would snarl and claw at them through the bars. But Raksha soon realized this was futile. He crouched in the cage and simply endured their torment. But his spirit was by no means broken. The glare in his eyes promised a hideous death to his tormenters if he ever got out of his cage. He was simply waiting for his chance.
"All this time, the leopard was growing, and it soon became plain that he would be a giant of his kind. When he attained his full growth, he was the size of a small tiger. A normal leopard weighs 150 pounds, but I would swear that Raksha beats that by at least a hundred. And it became plain that the shikar's work had been effective. Raksha hated men with a venom that passed belief. One could not pass his cage, even at a distance, without a chill of fear as his yellow eyes followed you.
"The Rajah ordered a small arena of wood constructed, perhaps a hundred feet across. He would sit in the stands with his court as convicted criminals were driven into the arena, and then Raksha would be released with them. What he did to them was indescribably savage. But for all that, the Rajah was dissatisfied, the men died too easily and quickly. He instructed his shikar to teach the leopard to torment his prey.
"Do you know, Sharpe sahib, how the leopard kills? He digs his claws into his prey to keep it from struggling, and then strangles it by clamping his jaws down on the windpipe. Death usually comes within thirty seconds.
"Now, whenever Raksha had a living man's neck in his jaws, the shikar would jab at him until he let the man go, and then, once the man had recovered consciousness, the leopard would seize his throat again, and again, the shikar would force him to release his prey. And one time, when Raksha simply refused to release a man, the shikar seized a torch and thrust it at the animal's head. The whole left side of his face was burned, and now is but scar, and Raksha is blind in his left eye.
"But eventually, the leopard got the idea that he was not to kill his prey outright, but slowly. He would clamp down, release, clamp down, and release again, over and over, before he finally made his kill. So the victim would have to endure the agony of strangulation several times over before death took him. This was the monster that the shikar had created.
"Then, after Raksha had been captive to the Rajah for three years, the Thugs struck. Many of them had survived the destruction of their temple, and long had they plotted their revenge. Twenty of them gained entrance to the Rajah's palace, disguised as merchants with fine goods for the Rajah's inspection. They strangled the gate guards and opened the gates to fully four hundred of their number who had been waiting outside. They ran through the palace, killing all they found, and would have strangled the Rajah and his family if his bodyguard had not been alerted by the noise and stood firm. By that time, the garrison was aroused, and the Thugs were killed to the last man.
"But during the confusion, somehow, Raksha's cage was unlatched. His guards were the ones who had tormented him. I can only imagine their terror when they faced him without bars in between. He killed four of them, maimed two others, then leapt over the wall and escaped into the forest to the south. The Rajah blamed the shikar, and dismissed him from his court in disgrace. He was never heard from again.
"But soon after that, the killings began. At least once a week, sometimes twice or three times, in village after village, all through the year, stopping only during the season of the monsoons, for perhaps three months of the year. The few who witnessed the killings said they were done by a black leopard of enormous size, with a scarred face on the left and a blind left eye. And I knew that Raksha had come upon us. We were to pay for the shikar's sins.
"We have our share of man-eaters, Sharpe sahib, and we endure it as out lot in life. Most man-eaters are tigers, and they are bad enough. But a leopard who turns man-eater is infinitely worse, and Raksha is surely worst of them all. The tiger may wait by the wayside to gather up what Allah may send his way. He will pull down a charcoal-burner as he passes along the jungle road. A villager's luck may fail him one day, and on the next, his widow shall wail. A scared herdsman may bolt into a village with the news that the tiger has carried of his companion as they were driving their cattle. And all these attacks take place in the comforting light of day, when the tiger usually takes his prey.
"But the leopard who turns man-eater does all of this, and yet more. Those who despise the leopard because he is smaller and not as strong as the tiger often learn their mistake to their bitter cost. He is more cunning than the tiger, and that is saying a great deal. He is more stealthy, and can hide in ambush where the tiger never could. But it is his boldness that makes him so terrible. In this, he truly has no equal. He has neither respect nor fear of men or their dwelling places.
Sundar Singh gestured towards the open doorway. "Now, in the daylight, life goes on in the normal way. Men travel long distances to the bazaars to transact business, or to outlying villages to visit relatives or friends. Women go up on the hillsides to cut grass for thatching or for cattle fodder. Children go to school or into the jungle to graze goats or to collect firewood. And in the summer months, pilgrims travel along the pilgrim routes to sacred shrines both near and far.
"But as the sun sets and the shadows grow, the behavior of the people of Hyderabad changes. Those who sauntered to the bazaars or to outlying villages now hurry home; women stumble down the steep hillsides; children who are late coming home from school or have delayed in bringing in their flocks of goats or the firewood they have been sent out to collect are called by their fearful mothers; and the weary pilgrims are urged by all who pass them to hurry to shelter.
"When night comes, silence broods over the whole area. There is no movement, no sound anywhere. The entire populations of dozens of villages in Hyderabad huddle behind closed doors, and those pilgrims not fortunate enough to find shelter in houses wait for the dawn in pilgrim shelters. And none dare utter a word, for fear they may draw the attention of the man-eater. And Raksha walks through the streets of the villages as a tyrant walks through his kingdom, and none dare hinder him. You saw the marks of his claws on the doors? I tell you, Sharpe sahib, there is not a single door within twenty miles of where we sit that does not bear his mark. And for no reason will any man open his door by night, not if his mother, his father, his wife or his children are outside begging for shelter. Raksha has carried victims down the center of the street as they cry for aid, and their neighbors and friends dare not open their doors to rescue them, so great is the fear that he brings. Men will not even speak of him; for fear that doing so may mark them as his next victim. Only by the dawn's light do people again venture out, for another respite from the terror that comes by night. "Raksha has on many occasions entered a house where half a dozen people are sleeping, selected his prey, seized it and carried it out, ignoring the alarm raised by the others, to devour at his leisure. If he can find no other way in, he may claw through the door if it is weak, tunnel through the mud wall, or tear through the thatch roof. Nor does Raksha always kill for food. Often his victims have been found dead, but virtually untouched, killed for the sheer evil pleasure of the deed. According to the official records in the court of Hyderabad, Raksha has killed some 250 people. But the Nizam's clerks only count those victims whose remains are found. Often they are not, for Raksha may carry his kill several miles into the forest before he feeds. Nor are those victims counted who simply disappear, with none to see how or even if they died. Nor are those counted who escaped Raksha's claws, only to die later from their wounds. I can assure you, Sharpe sahib, that his count exceeds 500 people killed.
"The Nizam has not been indifferent to his people's plight. He has put a bounty of 10,000 rupees, a full fifth of a lakh, on Raksha's head, and for a while, there was no shortage of shikari and would-be shikari to step forward to claim it. But it was found that Raksha enjoys leading his hunters on into the forest, and then turning on them when the advantage was his. I know of at least twelve shikari who have died under his claws.
"Raksha may not be a demon, but he seems to have a demon's luck. Once, four shikari waited for him at the western bridge over the Krishna, two in each of the towers on the near side. When he crossed by night, all four fired, and all four rifles missed him. Only one nicked the outer toe of his left hind foot. That is how I can recognize his track anywhere. That and its size.
"On another occasion, a shikar had dug pit traps for Raksha. He caught some twenty leopards, but never the right one. Finally, word was brought to him that one of his pits held a huge black leopard with a scarred face, which was surely the one. No one had dared kill him; for fear that his spirit would haunt them. But when the hunter arrived, he found that Raksha had dug his way out of the trap and escaped.
"Still another time, Raksha had killed a man, and lay up with his kill in a small isolated patch of jungle. Next morning, as people were searching for the victim, they spotted Raksha leaving the cover of the trees. They saw him enter a cave in the hills, and they blocked it with thorn bushes and big rocks. Five days later, a shikar arrived, and ordered the blockage removed. He stood before the entrance with his rifle aimed. The leopard rushed out with such speed that the man had no time to shoot before his head was in its jaws. It crushed his skull with a single bite, and then escaped through the crowd, maiming whoever got in his way, though more than a hundred people had gathered
"Some shikari have laced his half-eaten kills with poison, that he may die when he comes back to finish feeding. I have heard that he has eaten the poisoned meat unharmed, though the poison has forever stained his mouth and tongue black. But I would need to see such a thing with my own eyes before I believe it. "And thus it has been these seven years, "Sharpe sahib. And I am determined that this shall be the last. If Allah so wills, I will track Raksha down and slay him before the monsoon season begins."
"Last night, how did you come to the rest station in time?"
Sundar Singh smiled ruefully and shook his head.
"That was none of my doing, but rather the will of Allah. Raksha's last attack was at the rest station, and I was in a machan, a hunter's platform not far from there, in a tree overlooking the trail I thought he would take. I had hoped he might use it and give me a shot, but again and again, he has taken another way than the one where I waited. I heard your friend's screams and came running, alas, too late for him, but not for you. It is lucky that my shot startled Raksha, he usually shows no fear of guns."
"How will you find him, when others have failed?"
Sundar Singh's eyes gleamed with enthusiasm. He reached into a knapsack at his side, and pulled out a map. It was written in Sanskrit and Sharpe could not read it, but it showed an area with a river he took to be the Krishna to the south and east, and hills to the north and west. In the flat land they surrounded, he saw green that he took be to jungle, which thinned out to light brown in places where were black dots with writing next to them, probably villages. On almost all of the villages were other marks in red.
"This is the area that Raksha holds as his territory. It is perhaps twenty-five miles east to west, twenty north to south. Usually, there is no pattern to his kills; I could never predict where he would strike next. By the time I received word and could get there, he was long gone. But I have studied the pattern of his kills over the years, the dates and the places, and I have discovered something, something that all the shikari before me have missed."
He placed his finger on one of the villages. "The red marks a kill, with a number to tell how many. Each year, a month before the monsoons come and he disappears, Raksha makes a circuit of his territory, traveling this way." He made a circle counter-clockwise around the territory, his finger going through most of the villages on its periphery. "And he begins it here, in Thali. I knew where he would show, and was waiting for him. And I know where he will go next, and after that, and after that. Because at this time of year, he never strays from his route." His hand went from village to village. "All around his route, he will be making kills. I can stay on his trail, and sooner or later, I will get to his kill before he is finished with it, and lie in wait for him. I can be there with my musket, and end his reign of terror. If Allah so wills it."
He hesitated, then tightened his jaw and spoke once again. "I wish you to help me, Sharpe sahib."
Sharpe was shocked. He should hunt a man-eating leopard that had killed over 500 people, including a dozen or more who were hunting it? He shook his head quickly, holding up his hands.
"You've got the wrong man, Sundar Singh. I don't know a thing about hunting or tracking-"
"I can teach you. "
"Get a local to help you."
"The local people would run from Raksha's three-day-old tracks. Most have never even held a gun. You are an English soldier, who, as is well known, fear nothing. No, Sharpe sahib. It must be you."
For a moment, the Indian looked old and weary. He rested his head on his hand briefly, and then looked up. His eyes were pleading, and brimming with tears.
"There is a special reason why I need your help, Sharpe sahib. I need you to be my eyes. My vision is failing me. By day, no hawk can see more clearly than I. I can spy the secrets of the trail as well as ever I could. But by night, that which was once sharp and clear is now dim and blurred. And night is when Raksha walks. Even if I have him in my sights, I can no longer be sure of a killing shot. Soon, I think, my eyes will fail me altogether. I have this one last chance before darkness falls to end this demon's reign, and if I can do it, it will mean that my life was not an entire waste. This is why I need you. My skill will guide us to the right spot for the kill, but your hand must the one on the trigger. It is the only hope I have of doing this thing."
Sharpe was sympathetic, but he had soon learned the first lesson of the soldier who plans to die in bed: never volunteer. He shook his head and got up, reaching for his kit.
"I'm sorry, Sundar Singh, but this just isn't my fight. I have to get back to my duties in Seringapatam."
The Indian made no attempt to stop him as he got to his feet, shrugged into his knapsack, hung his canteen from his belt, and picked up his musket. He exited the open door and then stopped.
Standing before him was what must have been the entire population of the village, men, women, and children. They were all staring at him with their dark eyes. And Sharpe could see and feel the terrible fear that lurked beneath that gaze.
From behind him, Sundar Singh spoke again.
"Before you leave, Sharpe sahib, let me introduce you to some of your hosts, whose hospitality you have enjoyed."
He stepped over to a stocky, black-mustached man, and spoke a few words in Hindi. The man replied in the same language, and Sundar Singh translated into English:
"My son was fourteen years old. He had the duty of looking after our herd of goats. To guard against thieves, he would sleep in the same room with them, on a mat he had set up in the corner. The room had no windows and only one door, and when the goats and my son were safely inside, I pulled the door to and fastened it with a short length of chain, and for safety, my son rolled a stone against it. This demon forced open the door with such strength that he broke the wood around the chain and pushed the rock back across the floor. He came through the goats, which fled into the night, and my son slept and heard nothing, for though I heard the bleats of the animals, no scream from him did I hear. He killed my son and carried him into the night, down a steep hillside, over some terraced fields to a deep ravine. There, after the sun came up, I found all that Raksha had left me of my son."
Sundar Singh walked to another, older man, and repeated the process of translation:
"My brother came from the neighboring village to visit me. As evening came on, I told him he must stay with me that night, lest the leopard should get him. We were in my sitting room, enjoying a final pipe before bed. There was one door, closed but not locked. It was around a bend in my wall, and we could not see it from where we sat. My brother was careless and dropped his pipe, scattering glowing ashes across the floor. I told him to be more careful, or he would set afire the rug we sat on. I bent to pick it up. I never heard a sound, sahib, not so much as a gasp, but when I looked up, my brother, who had been sitting only an arm's length from me, was not there. I ran to the door just in time to see the leopard carrying my brother through it. He was not struggling so I knew he was already dead. There was nothing I could do for him, so I waited until the leopard had been gone some little while, then shut the door and locked it. Then I went back to sit on my rug and weep for my brother."
Sundar Singh then went to the young girl who Sharpe had first seen when he regained consciousness:
"My mother was ill with a fever, and two of my aunts had come to nurse her. She lay in the inner room of our house, with my aunts sleeping to either side of her. The room had no windows and only one door leading to the outer room, which has a small window and a door that was locked. Here my father and I slept, that we might not disturb my mother. Raksha came in through the small window, passed by both I and my father as we slept, went into the second room and killed my mother without rousing either of my aunts. He then picked her up his jaws and began to carry her away, but he could not go through the small window with her, so he left her. As he jumped out of the window, he overturned a brass drinking vessel, and I awoke at the crash just in time to see his hind parts disappearing through the window. On the floor below it lay my mother, and in her throat were four great teeth marks."
Sundar Singh next went to a younger man and translated:
"I and my brother were moving our herd of thirty buffalo from one grazing ground to another. My brother's daughter, twelve years old was with us. We thought the leopard would never approach us with all the buffalo to protect us, so we made camp in a patch of flat ground. We cut stakes of bamboo and tethered the buffalo to them in a long row. After we had eaten, we laid out our blankets and went to sleep. Sometime in the early morning before dawn, we heard the bellowing of our buffalo, and knew that a leopard was near. We got up, and I lit a lantern. We left my niece asleep in her blanket and went to quiet the beasts, and make sure that none of them had broken their ropes. A few minutes later, when we returned, my niece was missing, and on her blanket were big splashes of blood. When daylight came, we followed the blood trail, which skirted the row of tethered buffalos, went across the narrow field and down the hillside only a few yards. Here, the leopard had eaten his kill. My brother never recovered from his grief, and sickened and died soon after."
Sundar Singh went to another man.
"He killed our only son, sahib, and we being old, our house is now desolate."
"He ate the mother of my five children - and the youngest but a few months old - and now there is none in the home to care for the children, or to cook the food."
"My son was taken ill at night. There was medicine in the next village that would have cured him, but no one dared go in the darkness for fear of the leopard, and so he died."
The last one Sundar Singh translated for was a middle-aged man with fresh bandages on the left side of his neck and his left arm, who stood with assistance from another man. First, Sundar Singh addressed Sharpe.
"This man, Sharpe sahib, ran and maintained the rest station where you and your friends were attacked. He would ordinarily have been in the stone house, and warned you against staying outside at night. But a few nights before you arrived, he was himself attacked." Sundar Singh now translated:
"Five nights ago, ten pilgrims from Madras arrived at my station, very weary. They intended to spend the night at my shelter. I warned them of the man-eater, and tried to persuade them to go on two more miles to this village, where they would get safe shelter. But nothing I could say would convince them, so I told them to come into my house for the night. After the evening meal, we locked ourselves in. There were no windows, and the heat was stifling. In the middle of the night, when I could endure it no longer, I went to the front door, opened it, and took but a single breath of fresh air. Even as I took it, I felt my throat gripped as in a vise, and something began to pull me away from the door. I knew it was the leopard, but, praise be to Allah, I was gripping the doorjamb with one hand, and as I fell back, I kicked out against him with both feet and tore his teeth from my throat, hurling him down the steps. I was losing much blood from my neck and felt as if I would faint. I got to my hands and knees when the man-eater sprang on me again and buried his claws in my arm. Again, he tried to drag me away, and again, I gripped the doorjamb and was saved for an instant. The leopard's claws tore all the way through the flesh of my arm, and they say I will never be able to use it again. Before he could spring on me a third time, the pilgrims, roused from their sleep by the noise, pulled me into the room and bolted the door. For the rest of the night, I lay fighting for my life, while Raksha growled and clawed at my door, and the pilgrims shook with terror. By dawn, they carried me to a healer, where they were able to stanch the bleeding. I am still too weak to be up, but I wanted to see the British sahib who has come to help us."
Sundar Singh turned to Sharpe.
"There are hundreds of stories like this, Sharpe sahib, in dozens of villages in Hyderabad, but I think you have heard enough. I will ask you but once more, and if your answer is the same, then go in peace. Will you help us?"
Sharpe gulped and looked at the crowd. They looked back at him, their eyes pleading.
Sharpe's bringing-up in the slums of London had been hard, and it had made him a hard man. Pity was something that you couldn't often spare, not when you barely knew where your next crust of bread was to come from. But for all his hardness, buried deep beneath it was a core of decency and compassion. Perhaps it came from the code of the streets, how faithfully the thieves, whores, pimps and pickpockets who had raised him looked after each other, saving their light-fingered skills only to practice on outsiders. He didn't like to admit it, but the villagers' adversity tugged at his heart.
Plus, he had Rumbold and Fitzgerald to avenge. Whatever their faults, they hadn't deserved to die that way. Plus, there was the matter of 10,000 rupees. He sighed.
"All right, I'll help you."
The villagers broke into cheers. Sundar Singh's lined face cracked into a smile.
The First Day.
The two men set out at first light after a quick breakfast. The morning was already warm, and would soon grow hot. They carried canteens and cartridge boxes slung from their belts, and knapsacks of provisions on their backs. Just before they started, Sundar Singh handed Sharpe a vest of thick leather, long enough to guard both chest and belly, similar to the one he himself was wearing.
"These may give some protection against Raksha's claws, at least I hope they will."
Sharpe unlaced the neck, slipped it on, and cinched it up. At least it didn't chafe, unlike that damned strangling leather stock, which he had since stowed in his knapsack. He reflected that the vest might help, but he had no intention of ever again letting the leopard get within claw range of him. Sundar Singh was armed with an Indian hunting musket, similar to the one Sharpe had used when he was a prisoner of the Tippo Sultan. Sharpe had his Brown Bess slung over his shoulder. Both would be useless beyond fifty feet or so, but shooting from a machan, set right over the beast's kill, the range would not be a problem. They headed west; in the direction they believed Raksha had gone.
"Already, runners have gone to the neighboring villages, who will send others to the next, and the next. Soon, word of us will have spread over the entire district. When Raksha strikes next, wherever it is, we'll have word of it within a day."
Their first destination was the rest station where Sharpe and his friends had encountered the leopard. When they arrived, it looked much the same as it had two nights before, with little trace of the carnage that had taken place. Sundar Singh knelt and examined the ground a short distance from the remains of the fire.
"Allah is with us, Sharpe sahib. Come and see."
Sharpe came over. He had seen leopard tracks before, but it was easy to see how much bigger and heavier this beast was. The Indian was examining another track.
"And here is his missing rear claw. It is Raksha, beyond a doubt."
They followed the trail through the soft earth around the rest station to the road. There, they lost it in the dense underbrush on either side. But they continued west, under the assumption that their quarry would travel in the same direction he had been going. It was turning into a beautiful day, full of the songs of birds and the chatter of monkeys. Even as he tracked, Sundar Singh enjoyed it. Sharpe however, showed no signs of awareness of his surroundings; all his attention was on the road, looking for some sign of the beast.
Sundar Singh sighed. Later, he would have to instruct his young companion in the wonders all around him. It was the least he could do to thank him for his help.
The trail led through a patch of denser forest on their left. It was around noon that they heard a noise in the distance, which soon grew into a clamorous racket; horns blowing, drums beating, and men shouting. Sundar Singh held up his hand.
"It is a beat. Wait here."
In a few minutes, they saw a large group of village men, perhaps a hundred in all, who were ranged out about four hundred yards, moving through the thick brush. Some were banging pots and pans with sticks, others trumpeted horns, while still others simply shouted periodically at the top of their lungs. Sundar Singh turned to Sharpe.
"They seek to flush Raksha from his hiding place. It will not work. He never rests near his kill. He is probably ten miles from here by now."
They waited as the beaters made their way to them. As they grew closer and closer and the section of dense brush grew smaller and smaller, the beaters enthusiasm flagged, as it became obvious that their efforts were in vain. Finally, as they drew abreast of the two hunters, they stopped. Their discouragement was palpable. Sundar Singh addressed them.
"Hai, brothers. What news do you bring?"
One of the beaters separated himself and came towards them. Sharpe later heard the translation.
"The shaitan, my brother. He visited my house last night and almost carried off my daughter. She slept last night in my house, while I, unable to sleep, was carving an axe handle from a length of wood. The man-eater came in through the door, picked up my child, and began to walk out the same door. I struck him with all my strength across the back, and the stick broke in my hands. He dropped my daughter and bounded away with terrible snarls."
"You are fortunate that you startled him, my brother. Raksha usually would avenge such a blow."
"My daughter now lies in my house, torn about the throat. Do you have the leaves of the Brahm Buti, Sundar Singh?
"I do. I will come to your house and see if I can help her."
It was only an hour's trek to the village, and did not take them off their route. Sundar Singh examined the tracks, saw where the leopard had crept up to the house, examined the scratch marks where he bounded through the door, the disturbance of the dirt floor where he had picked the child up, the drag marks where he had carried her, and the further disturbance where he had dropped her when the man had attacked it with the stick. The girl was wounded in the throat, but not too badly. Sundar Singh left a packet of leaves with her father with instructions on how often to apply it. It was a little past noon before they were on the trail again.
The sun was beginning to dip towards the horizon when they spied a small urchin running towards them down the road. They waited for him, and as he drew closer, they saw from his disheveled appearance and pallor that he was terrified. He ran up to Sundar Singh, still panting, knelt, and put his head on the shikar's feet, babbling out a string of Hindi:
"You are the mighty hunters, come to kill the demon! Praise be to Allah that I have found you! But two hours ago, I and three of my friends were driving our families' cattle when the demon bounded out of the forest, seized one of my friends, and dragged him away. We have already found his body in the jungle, but have not moved it until we first tried to find you."
With the boy to lead to way, they increased their pace along the road. Four miles later, they came to the village of Debgura. As they approached, the village headman and the father of the dead boy met them.
"Praise to Allah, you have come. This way, we will lead you to the body."
It was only a few hundred yards away. The body was lying on the edge of a strip of jungle perhaps twenty or thirty yards wide, bordering a wide gorge. The boy looked to be about nine or ten years old. He was lying in the middle of the brush under a mass of creepers that formed a sort of tent over him. Again, it was plain that the leopard had seized him by the throat. He must have died instantly. The father spoke.
"I wished to take away his body and prepare it for cremation. But I thought it best to seek you out first and see what you thought."
Sundar Singh laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "And so you shall do, my friend, but tomorrow at dawn. For look, your son's body is barely touched. It is plain that Raksha concealed him here, planning to return to him when he is hungry, and then we will be ready. I promise you, he will die before he touches your son's flesh, and tomorrow, you shall cremate him in comfort, knowing that his murderer is dead."
Perhaps twelve feet away was a good-sized tree, with thick branches. Sundar Singh inspected it and nodded in satisfaction.
"This will be our machan."
Within an hour, the villagers had nailed a platform some seven feet square together out of wooden planks. This was hoisted ten feet into the tree and tied firmly in place. While this was going on, Sundar Singh began to collect small stones from the ground, placing them in his pockets as he picked them up. Sharpe wondered what he was doing, but figured he had his reasons. The sun was setting as the hunters climbed up to the platform and lay prostrate upon it. They had their muskets, a good supply of cartridges, and their canteens. And Sundar Singh brought his stones.
They dined on chapattis from their knapsacks. There was nothing else to do but wait. And so they waited, as the shadows lengthened and the sun was engulfed in darkness. Time went by, and the sounds of the jungle at night began. Sharpe focused all of his attention on the clear ground before him, which Raksha might cross to get to his prey. That would be the chance for his shot. He had to stay alert. He had to focus all his attention, waiting for his chance. He had to "
Sundar Singh's gentle shake woke him up. Sharpe snapped his head up confused in the darkness, and then cursed himself. How could he have gone to sleep? He turned to apologize to his companion, but Sundar Singh quickly clapped his hand over Sharpe's mouth. He slowly removed it, and then gestured in the direction of the boy's body. The first thing Sharpe noticed was how quiet the jungle had become; all bird and animal noises had stopped. And then he heard the crunching, rending noise. The jungle was quiet in fear.
Raksha was here. And he was feeding.
They could not see him in the darkness, for the moon had not risen yet, and he was concealed under that mass of creepers, along with his victim's body. Time dragged on as they waited for their chance, for the beast to venture out into the open where they could get a shot. But he continued tearing at the body, and from the sounds, he was ravenous, and had no intention of leaving until his hunger was satisfied. Something had to be done.
Sundar Singh reached into his pocket and pulled out a stone. Drawing back, he hurled it at the creepers, hoping to startle the man-eater in to showing himself. Sharpe gripped his musket and lined it up on the empty space where he was sure Raksha must appear. But there was nothing. They heard a growl, which varied in pitch, indicating that the leopard was pacing around his kill, once, twice, and then he settled back down and they heard him resume his feeding.
Raksha had long ago lost his fear of man.
Sundar threw another stone, and another, and yet another. The first time or two, the leopard growled his acknowledgements, and circled his kill again. But after that, he seemed to grow bored with the missiles, and paid no more attention to them.
Sundar Singh turned to Sharpe. He did not bother to whisper; the leopard knew they were there.
"Try a shot. Aim at where the sounds are loudest."
Sharpe hitched himself forward, pointed his musket at the creepers, and drew a bead on that section where the sounds of the feeding leopard seemed to come from. The eased back the doghead, drew in a breath, held it, and squeezed the trigger. There was a flash from the frizzen pan, and a second later, the report of the musket startlingly loud in the silence of the jungle as the recoil slammed into his shoulder. A second later, he knew he had missed. The leopard gave a blood-curdling snarl and again paced around his kill, keeping as always, behind the cover of the creepers. A second later, the noise of his feeding began again. Already Sharpe was reloading. Again, he fired, aiming this time a little to the left of his first shot. This time, the beast only snarled, but didn't bother to circle. Then a third shot, and a fourth. By the fourth shot, Raksha was ignoring him, the sounds of his feeding continued unabated. He was not going to be moved. Sharpe had reloaded with a fifth, when Sundar Singh laid a hand on his arm and shook his head.
"It is not fated that we shall triumph this night, Sharpe sahib. But there will be others."
Sharpe didn't like conceding defeat, especially to an animal, but he bowed to his companion's greater experience in such matters. And so they simply waited in their tree in the blackness of the night, as the sound of the grisly feast went on from below. After another hour or so, the sounds of feeding stopped, and they heard the quiet pad of Raksha's footsteps. But he did not step out into the clear ground, but moved into the gorge, keeping the creepers between himself and the hunter's tree. Another hour passed, and the first hint of dawn appeared in the east. The leopard would be heading for his den now. Sharpe began to move off the machan.
"Perhaps he left a trail we can follow - "
Sundar Singh gripped Sharpe's arm and shook his head.
They waited. An hour later, as dawn was breaking, they heard the leopard's padding footsteps approaching again, from behind their tree. He had only retreated a short distance and then waited, to see if he could lure either of them down. And had it not been for his companion, Sharpe would have fallen into Raksha's trap. He breathed a sigh of relief at his close escape, and nodded his thanks to Sundar Singh. And then they heard a new noise, from directly under their tree! It was a dull "thud, thud, thud," that sent vibrations through the trunk.
"He's climbing the tree!" yelled Sharpe. Each man poised his musket, ready to fire it into Raksha's face when it appeared over the edge of the machan. But there was nothing, the noise went on for another minute or so, and then they heard the noise of the man-eater padding away down into the gorge. Sharpe found that he was grateful to hear him go.
Dawn was clear now, and in the distance, they could hear the yelling of the villagers, asking if they were all right. Sundar Singh answered.
"We are well. We are coming down."
Stiff and sore, they descended the tree. One look at it and they knew what the strange noise had been. The trunk of the tree was scored again and again with the mark of Raksha's claws. He had used the very tree they had concealed themselves in as a scratching post, as if to show his contempt for them and their futile efforts to stop him.
Round One had definitely gone to Raksha.
Facing the boy's father was one of the hardest things either of them had done.
There was little left of his son. The man looked on this without saying a word. He cast a single withering glare at Sundar Singh, and bent to see if he could find a token large enough to cremate. Then he walked slowly away, looking neither to the right or the left.
It would be a long time before the memory of that moment no longer brought Sharpe pain.
The Second Day.
They cast about the area for a while, hoping to pick up the leopard's trail, but the heavy brush defeated that purpose. Then they continued west along the road, knowing that they were traveling parallel to their quarry's course. Sundar Singh sensed Sharpe's low spirits.
"When tracking a man-eater, Sharpe sahib, you will often see very terrible things. But it is most important to put those things behind you, no matter how terrible, when a new day dawns. Otherwise, the troubles of yesterday will lessen your vigilance today, and you may miss something of great importance. Forgetting yesterday's failures is one of the ways of the jungle."
Sharpe didn't respond. Sundar Singh nodded. It was time he thought, for Sharpe sahib's first lesson.
"Sharpe sahib, the ways of the jungle cannot be learned from a book written by man. It must be absorbed, a little at a time, and it goes on forever, for the book of the jungle has no beginning and no ending. Open the book wherever you choose, at any time of your life, and if you wish its knowledge, it will give freely. And no matter how long you study, each day you will learn new things.
"Look at the tree before you. See its gay blossoms, and the many birds of many colors that fit from branch to branch. Some drink the nectar of its flowers, others eat the petals, and still others eat the bees that are busily collecting honey. Tomorrow or the next day, the blossoms will give way to fruit, and a different multitude of birds will possess the tree. And each bird has its allotted place in the scheme of the jungle; one to beautify its garden, another to regenerate it, and still others to fill it with melody.
"Season after season, year after year, the scene changes. A new generation of birds of types beyond counting adorn the tree. The tree loses a limb, torn off in a storm, and one day it dies, and another tree takes its place, and the cycle goes on.
"Or look at the path at your feet. There is the track of a snake that passed this way an hour before sunrise. The snake was going from the right to the left across the path. His girth was three inches, and he was probably poisonous. And see there, it crosses the path of a snake that came by earlier, this one traveling from left to right. He was not poisonous.
"And so the knowledge you absorb today, Sharpe sahib, will be added to the knowledge you absorb tomorrow, and how much you know at the end will depend on how much you hunger to know. And at the end of your journey, be it tomorrow or in fifty years, you will find that you are only at the beginning, and the whole world of nature lies before you, waiting to be explored. But be assured that if you are not interested, if you have no desire to gain knowledge, you will learn nothing from the jungle."
And so it went throughout the day. Sharpe forgot his disappointment as Sundar Singh began to display the vast store of knowledge he had accumulated throughout his life. The miles slipped by unnoticed as Sharpe, still paying careful attention to the path and what was before him, attempted to take in at least a fraction of what his companion expounded on periodically as they walked.
"Look at that bird. We call him the racket-tailed drongo. He is the bravest bird in the jungle, and can mimic the call of all the other birds. He will attach himself to a flock of peafowl, jungle hens or thrushes as they forage on the jungle floor. Perching on a branch above their heads, he fills the air with his own songs and those of the other birds that he has learned. And all the while he keeps a sharp lookout for enemies, hawks, cats, or snakes, and they learn to heed his warning of approaching danger. In return for his services, he expects the flock to feed him, and when one of them uncovers a particularly juicy bug, he will swoop down with a scream like a hawk and snatch it from their very beaks. "He can even mimic the call of the cheetal, the spotted deer. Once he hears a cheetal giving the warning cry for a tiger or a leopard, he can repeat it exactly. I have seen one warn a herd of them of the approach of a leopard. I have even heard that they can learn to whistle the tune to a song if they hear it long enough."
And so the day passed. They saw no further sign of Raksha's tracks, and, as the day waned, they came to the village of Kahor, where they would spend the night. But first, there was still one thing Sundar Singh had to do. He asked around in the village, and then he and Sharpe set out a short distance.
"We are having no luck trying to pick up Raksha's trail by sheer chance. I want to see if we can entice him in."
A few hundred yards down the road was a small field, and in the center of this was a small enclosure of thorn bushes, erected by the owner of the field that traveling goatherds might camp there. Driven into this enclosure was a flock of sheep and goats that had come down the road the previous evening. The owner, a rugged-looking old Indian with a fierce white mustache, was just removing the thorn bush closing up the entrance to the enclosure when they came up. Sundar Singh called out to him.
"Hai, father! Have you seen anything of the leopard?"
"Nothing, friend. But just at dawn, my two sheepdogs gave tongue, and a few minutes later, a barking deer sounded in the jungle above the road."
Together, all three squatted on the ground in front of the enclosure. Both Indians produced their pipes and began to smoke contentedly. After a while, Sundar Singh spoke again.
"Will you sell us a goat, father?"
"For what reason do you wish a goat?"
"We hunt the leopard. I wish to tie him up as bait."
The man puffed away for a few moments.
"You are the two of whom I heard tell on my way down from my village near Agahura, and it grieves me that you should have come all this long way on a fruitless errand. The evil spirit that is responsible for all the deaths in Hyderabad is not an animal, as you think he is, which can be killed by musket or by any other means that you have tried or those others have tried before you. It is in truth a rakshasa, a demon. And in proof of what I say, I will tell you a story while I smoke. The story was told to me by my father who, as everyone knows, was never heard to tell a lie.
"My father was a young man then - and I unborn - when an evil spirit, like the one that is now troubling this land made its appearance in our village, and all said it was a leopard. Men, women, and children were killed in their homes and every effort was made, as has been made here to kill the animal. Traps were set, and famous shikari sat in trees and shot at it. When all these attempts to kill it had failed, a great terror seized the people, and none dared leave the shelter of their homes between the hours of sunset and sunrise.
"And then the headman of my father's village and the surrounding villages called all the men to a great meeting, and when everyone was assembled, he addressed the meeting and said that we must think of some new way to rid ourselves of this man-eating leopard, since the other ways had failed. And then an old man, whose grandson had been killed the previous night, and who had just come from his funeral pyre, arose and said that it was no leopard that had entered his house and killed his grandson as he lay asleep at his side, but one from among their own number, who, when he craved for human flesh and blood, assumed the shape of a leopard. And such a one could not be killed by the methods already tried, as had been amply proven, and could only be killed by fire. And suspicion fell on a fat sadhu who lived in a hut near the ruined temple. And others recalled that the sadhu had arrived at the village at about the time the killings had begun. And it was further recalled that on the day after a killing, the sadhu was wont to sleep all day.
"It was decided that no immediate action should be taken, but a watch should be kept on the sadhu's hut, concealed from his eyes, both by day and by night. For the next two nights, the sadhu did not leave his hut, and there were no killings. But on the third night, when my father was among those who watched, the door of the hut opened and the sadhu emerged and vanished into the night. Some hours later, a terrible scream echoed through the night air in the direction of a charcoal burner's hut far up the mountainside, and thereafter was silence.
"And as the gray dawn was being born in the east, they saw the sadhu hurrying home, and his hands and his mouth were dripping with blood. When he had gone inside his hut and closed the door, the watchers fastened it with a chain so he could not open it. They then went each to his haystack and returned with a big bundle of straw, and when the sun rose that morning, there was nothing but smoldering ash where the hut had been. From that day the killing stopped.
"And until this new evil spirit is found and burned, the people must suffer."
Sundar Singh asked again. "Will you sell us the goat, father?"
"I will not sell you a goat, for I have none to spare. But if, after hearing my story, you still want an animal to tie up for what you think is a man-eating leopard, I will lend you one. If it is killed you shall pay me its price, and if it is not killed no money shall pass between us."
Sundown was nearing as they selected a goat from the goatherd's flock, and leading it forth, they tied it a mile up the road where it ran through some heavy scrub jungle. Then they returned to the village of Kahor, where they slept through the night.
The Third Day.
In the morning, they found the goat dead, but uneaten. And around it were the tracks of the man-eater.
"He'll return tonight to feed," said Sundar Singh. He looked at the only tree in the vicinity, about fifty feet away. It was small, too small for both of them. He looked at Sharpe.
"Are you ready, Sharpe sahib, to sit alone tonight?"
Sharpe nodded. Inwardly, he didn't feel as ready as he would have liked. But he needed to face down his fear and silence the nagging voice within that told him he was fighting not a beast, but an unkillable thing. Sundar Singh nodded and went to pay the goatherd for his dead animal. Sharpe went back to Kahor to arrange for a small machan to be secured in the limbs of the tree.
Sharpe took up his position in the tree in late afternoon, when the sun was dipping, but not yet setting. Sundar Singh had gone over the do's and don'ts of waiting for a leopard from a machan, and took his leave with a final admonition:
"If you have seen nothing by dawn Sharpe sahib, return to the village. You can rest for a few hours before we go on our way. I will pray to Allah to give you success this night."
The noises of the birds and the animals of the jungle continued as normal, with no indication that a leopard was within miles of where he sat. The sun set, and darkness fell, a clear night well lit by stars. Sharpe sat and watched as the hours went by, and the goat was left undisturbed. As the sky began to lighten, he knew that the leopard would not come.
The sky was a pearly gray and the shadows still long as Sharpe made his way down the road towards Kahor. He reflected that hunting, like soldiering, was often a lot of marching and waiting, with an occasional few minutes of sheer terror thrown in for good measure. He was tired, and was looking forward to a nap before they were on the road again. The birds sang their morning songs from the scrub jungle to either side of the road. And slowly, the songs died out and were silent.
Raksha stalked low to the ground through the brush sliding easily through bushes and shrubs without a hint of a sound. He could sense the hot blood pulsing in the two leg's body as he walked down the road. His whole frame shook with blood lust. It had been so easy to wait under cover by the kill, waiting until daybreak, when the two-legs thought himself safe. And now, he was out in the open and unaware, a perfect target. He crouched and gathered himself for the sudden charge that would have him at the two leg's throat before he knew it, and then the joy of the kill-
Sharpe stopped suddenly. An indefinable sense of menace had come over him all of a sudden, and he didn't know why. And then he noticed. The birds were not singing. And then he knew. Raksha was stalking him. Instantly, Sharpe snapped back his doghead, brought his musket up and swept it to the right and left, and then looked behind him. He saw nothing. But he knew as surely as his name was Richard Sharpe that the leopard was very close, watching him from the cover of the brush. Perhaps preparing to attack. Sharpe began to walk very fast, not running, careful to give no outward sign of panic, constantly training his musket, right, left, and rear, right, left, and rear, facing in no direction for longer than a fraction of a second. What had been a leisurely walk back after a fruitless night in a tree had suddenly become a deadly serious business.
Raksha stopped himself just as he was about to hurl himself at the two-legs' back. He knew! He knew! He was aware. Raksha tensed again for the spring, and then relaxed. No, the night had faded, the distance to the two-legs was too great, he was on his guard, and he had his death-thing ready to kill. The risk was too great. Now was not the time. But Raksha was patient. Soon, soon, out in the darkness of the jungle, he would find the two-legs again, when all the advantages lay with him. And then, and then!
Raksha thought of the hot pumping sweetness of the blood and slavered.
The walk back to Kahor was only a mile, but it felt like ten. Sharpe's heart pounded in his chest as he strove to guard himself from every quarter, expecting any minute to feel a powerful body slam him to the ground, and then the grip of mighty jaws. When he was a hundred yards from the village gate, he couldn't stand it any more, he broke into a full sprint, and didn't slow down until he was in the village square.
When he told Sundar Singh, they quickly gathered their gear and set out to find the leopard's trail while it was still hot. They found it only five hundred yards from the village. The Indian tracker examined the beast's pug marks and let out an exclamation.
"Ayah, Sharpe sahib, Allah was indeed with you last night, as I prayed, or you would not stand now before me! See, where he has dug his fore claws into the earth, with most of his weight on his hind quarters? He was set to spring, but he did not."
"I don't know how I knew," said Sharpe. "But I just knew I had to get out of there fast if I was to have any chance at all. Something inside just told me."
"Instinct," nodded Sundar Singh. No shikar who lacks it may hope to last long in the jungle. You have the making of a fine huntsman, Sharpe sahib."
"Thanks, but when this is over, I plan to go back to something safe, like charging into a breach in a fortress' walls while the whole garrison shoots at me."
It did not take them long to find out what Raksha had been doing all night, instead of returning to the dead goat. A clamor came from up the road, and they soon saw a group of villagers running towards them. They knew what they would say.
"The man-eater, Sundar Singh. He killed a woman last night in our village. Please, come quickly."
The village, named Jhangaon, was not far, less than three miles, but it lay in the hills that formed the western border of the leopard's territory, and they had a steep climb. The day, though overcast, was sultry, and both men were bathed in sweat by the time they arrived. About a hundred yards from the village, the body lay in a ravine at one end of a narrow, terraced field. Several men were gathered around, and one sat to the side, rocking back and forth and weeping hysterically. Obviously, he was the husband.
They eased their way through the crowd and looked at the pitiful remains of a woman in the last stages of pregnancy. Raksha had killed two. Leading past her, going down into the ravine, were the tracks of the huge leopard. Sundar Singh went to the husband, sat next to him, and put an arm around his shoulder. He spoke gently.
"I grieve with you, my friend. Tell me what happened."
The man choked out his story through his tears.
"Last night, after the evening meal, my wife went to the door to wash out pots and pans, while I sat down to have a smoke. But as soon as she went out, but three feet from the door, I heard a clash as she dropped them. I could not see her by the light of our fire, so I called to her. She did not answer, and I knew what had happened, so I dashed forward, shut and barred the door.
"Am I a coward, Sundar Singh? Of what use would it have been for me to try to risk my life to recover a dead body?" He began to rock back and forth again. "And now my wife and my son to be are gone. I shall have no heir."
There was nothing more the tracker could say, so he rose and scanned the area. He motioned to Sharpe and pointed. Forty feet from the kill, there was a leafless, stunted walnut tree. Some six feet above the ground, a hayrack had been built into its branches, a grate of planks in the shape of a 'V', and filled with hay. It was a perfect hide. He turned to the villagers.
"Brothers, would one of you please go to your village and procure for me four lengths of bamboo, about three feet long, if such things are to be had?"
A man nodded, left, and returned with the bamboo a few minutes later. Sharpe watched, mystified, as Sundar Singh drew his knife and sharpened one end of each length, and then thrust two of them into the ground close to the body and parallel to it, so that perhaps two feet of bamboo remained above ground. The remaining two he drove into the hillside on the far side of the body. Then he took from his knapsack two pistols, which he began to prime and load. Notching the bamboo and producing a spool of silken line, he tied one pistol to a length on each side of the body, so that both to the right and to the left, the kill was covered. Now, he looped a length of line over the triggers and tied the opposite ends to the bamboo on each side of the body that had no pistols, forming two tripwires. Sharpe was impressed with the trap's simple ingenuity.
"You see, Sharpe sahib," he said as he worked, "if Raksha comes along the path he used last night, he will pull the lines and shoot himself. But if he comes by any other way and you fire on him while he is on the kill, he will be almost certain to run into the lines, for this is his natural path of retreat."
His work finished, he rose. Sharpe was looking up at the heavy cloud cover that had formed overhead.
"It will be a dark night. No moon, no stars through this. Hard to see him if he comes."
Sharpe looked around, and down in the ravine, he saw what he was searching for, a white rock, about the size of a knapsack. He went down, picked it up, carried it back, and laid it next to the woman, about a foot from her, going towards the village.
"I'll be able to see this in any night. When I hear the sound of his feeding, I'll know to aim to the right of it. That's where he'll be."
They went into the village, had a meal, and then Sharpe caught up on some much-needed sleep. As the day waned, they went back to the scene of the kill. Sundar Singh stepped over to his trap and, kneeling carefully by each pistol, eased the dogheads back until he heard the 'click.' Now, both weapons were cocked, any significant pressure on the lines should cause them to fire. Sharpe climbed into the hayrack, and grabbing his companion's hand, helped him in. They burrowed down into the hay and heaped it over themselves until they were completely covered, with only the barrels of their muskets protruding. They could still see the trap and the body clearly through the hay, but they were virtually invisible themselves.
And now the waiting began. They could not see the sun, just the gradual fading of the light, followed with startling suddenness by a deep blackness.
Hours passed and nothing happened. The only thing that relieved the darkness was the faint gleam of the white rock, now a shade of gray against the black. The noises of the jungle at night continued unabated. Then, in the space of a few seconds, the noises died down. Raksha had arrived.
Sharpe heard a rustling in the loose straw; the man-eater was passing right underneath his tree. He looked to the white stone, and started in shock. It was gone! At his side, he heard Sundar Singh start, and then sigh. For a moment, he could not figure out what had happened. Then, he heard the sounds of the leopard tearing at the body, and he understood. Raksha had approached the body, not from the right, but the left, and now his body obscured the stone.
He tried to remember exactly where in the blackness it had been, but he couldn't. If he tried a shot, his chances of a hit were small, and the leopard would bolt. Should he try one anyway, and hope the leopard blundered into the tripwires? He decided against it. He would train his musket in the direction he knew the stone to be, and wait for it to appear again as the leopard moved. Then he would make his best guess on whether the beast was to the right or left and fire.
For the next two hours, Sharpe had to listen as Raksha feasted on his victim. Sharpe tried, really tried to maintain his focus. But inevitably, as the time passed, he grew tired fatigued, and his high level of alertness flagged. Inevitably, Sharpe had to lower the musket to ease his aching muscles. As soon as he did so, the stone reappeared. It had happened so fast, but he thought it had reappeared to the left. He aimed to the left of the rock and fired, the shot echoing loudly in the silence.
He waited for the sound of the pistol-traps going off, but all he heard was the faint padding as the beast went on his way, receding in the distance. In the darkness, he and his companion exchanged a glance. They had failed again.
When dawn came, they descended from their hide. The tracks of Raksha shown under the tree, insultingly brazen. Sundar Singh went over to his trap and discharged the pistols into the ground. Then he looked closely at the white rock, took out a knife, and began to dig in its surface.
"Hai, Sharpe sahib, come and see this!"
Sharpe walked over and looked. Perched on the Indian's knife blade was his musket ball, and clinging to its surface, a wisp of black fur, cut from the leopard's neck as he had passed. Sundar Singh shook his head.
"So close. So close."
Sharpe didn't speak. In this deadly game, coming close meant nothing. But this was different from death on the battlefield somehow. He found it difficult to be as dispassionate as would be at the sight of a dead soldier. Here, every victim the leopard took was a personal loss for him, and he felt it deep in his heart.
They set off down the hill to the village, to tell the husband that he could carry away his wife - and his son's remains away for cremation.
The Fourth Day
Now they moved south, along the western border of Raksha's territory. The villagers had told them that the leopard had prowled through several local villages over the past two nights, so there was good reason to believe that he was still in the area. Occasionally, they came across Raksha's tracks where he had crossed the road. The followed the freshest spoors for a ways off the path, but always lost it in heavy brush or hard ground. They would set up in the next village and see if they got another shot at him. As they walked along the path, Sundar Singh continued Sharpe's education in the ways of the jungle.
"I am never happier than when I walk the jungle, for the jungle, by and large, is a happy kingdom. You can hear the joy all around you, from every bird an animal. For here, the law of the jungle prevails, and it is older and far better than man's laws, for it allows each creature to live its own life without thought of sorrows yet to come. Here, I can for a time forget the troubles and worries of life, and savor the life here.
"Among beasts there is no sorrow, no regret. A bird from a flock or an animal from a herd is taken by an eagle or a tiger, and those who are left rejoice that their time has not come today, and have no thought of tomorrow. Dangers there are for all, but these dangers only add zest to life, it keeps each creature alert, alive to the joy of living.
"When I see one beast brought down by another, I never intervene. The animal preyed on almost always dies within a short time in any case, and the animal that preys will simply seek another, for it must feed its hunger and the hunger of its young. There is a balance in the jungle, and it is the function of certain beasts to maintain that balance, and in performing this function it is necessary for them to kill. Usually, the killing is quick, for the killer must make sure to not attract attention. And this need for quickness also works to avoid unnecessary suffering. Normally, no animal kills for the sake of killing. That is why Raksha is such an abomination, and why he must , at all costs be destroyed.
"Do you hear that peacock screaming his mating call? Right now he is dancing, his tail-feathers spread for a crowd of admiring hens. And there is a jungle-cock, crowing his defiance to all of his rivals. But they rarely come to blows. And there is a sambhar deer, belling to warn the jungle folk of our presence.
"Look there, at that crowd of flycatchers. They have found an owl dozing in his tree, and they call to their companions to come see what they have found. They know they are safe, for an old owl will never kill in daylight. And the owl for his part knows that no matter how much he is feared and hated by his tormenters, he has nothing to fear from them, and when they tire of their sport they will leave him to his sleep.
"Do you hear that tap-tap-tapping? It is a golden-backed woodpecker making a hole in a dead tree for his new home. And that harsh braying, like an ass, is a cheetal stag, challenging his rival to battle.
"Look above you. That bird high in the heavens is a crested eagle, and still higher, a flock of vultures seeking their food, without them the jungle would be a cesspit of rotten flesh.
"And Sharpe sahib, the more you know of the ways of the jungle, the greater will be your confidence and your pleasure. The jungle will cease to hold any terrors for you, for you know there is little to be afraid of. If there was need, you could live here every day of the year, and never again set foot under a roof made by men. You can learn to maintain direction, without a compass and with no sight of the sun, and you need never again be lost whether you move by night or by day. You can train your eyes to see all within their line of vision, never missing the slightest movement. You can learn the language of the jungle folk, and follow their movement by their sound alone, for you know the ways of the jungle, and in that is life."
Again, to his surprise, Sharpe found that his sorrow over the woman and child's death was eased somewhat. They came to the next village, named Kala Agar, in mid-afternoon, and set up in a house that was put at their disposal. But before they could get settled, a runner came from the next village, Rikakhot. He spoke excitedly to Sundar Singh, while Sharpe followed as best as he could.
"Half a mile above this village, a man named Gawiya, of the untouchable caste cleared a small area of jungle and built himself a house, where he lived with his mother, wife, and three children. At daybreak this morning, I heard women wailing from his house. I shouted out asking what was wrong, and one of the women answered that the man-eater had carried off her man only half an hour before. I heard you were here and so came to find you."
Shouldering their gear, they set out to follow the man. It was a hot, steep climb with a lot of hairpin turns, and it was late in the afternoon before they arrived at a little isolated clearing in the forest, where Gawiya's hut stood. Two distracted women, his wife and mother, showed them where Gawiya had been sitting when the leopard had seized him. From the marks on the ground, they were able to reconstruct what had happened. Raksha had caught him by the throat, throttling his outcry, dragged him for a hundred yards, and then killed him. Then he picked him up and carried him another four hundred yards to a little hollow, surrounded by dense brush. The leopard had apparently not been hungry, for he had only eaten a small portion of the man's shoulder and thigh. There was every reason to believe he would come back. There were no trees within sight of the kill, so sitting up in one and shooting the beast when he returned was out. Before they left, Sundar Singh took out a small glass bottle from his knapsack. To Sharpe's questioning gaze, he explained:
"Poison, Sharpe sahib, distilled from the oil of the bitter almond. I have been told that Raksha thrives on poison, but we shall see when we see."
He unscrewed the cap and poured several drops of the deadly stuff into the wounds where the leopard had been feeding.
"Using poison on any animal goes against my grain, Sharpe sahib, it seems dishonorable, somehow. But we are not fighting a duel, we are trying to rid the people of Hyderabad of a monster who will keep on doing this," and here he gestured to the man's body, "until he is stopped."
It was now getting towards evening, so they took up position in a tree some four hundred yards from the kill, over a village path, which bore pugmarks that said the man-eater, had passed that way. The tree had been cut about fifteen feet above the ground many years before, and many stout branches had grown from the old stump. Sitting among these, they were perfectly concealed. From where they sat, they could see about ten yards of the path, which crossed a ravine on the left, and on the right, led to the bushes where the kill was lying. Thirty yards further down, a small spring fed several small ponds. As the sun was setting, a jungle-cock and two hens came down the hill, drank from the ponds, and went back the way they came. They passed right under the tree without seeing the two hunters, so their hide was a good one.
It turned out to be a brilliant starlit night. If the leopard came along this path, and its pugmarks showed it had done so last night, it would be an easy shot. The early part of the night was silent. A couple of hours after the last trace of sundown had faded, a kakar deer started barking in the direction of the kill, and then quickly quieted down. The leopard had come, and he had not taken the path by their tree. Two hours had passed, enough time for Raksha to have had a good meal and poisoned himself several times over. Perhaps, Sharpe hoped, he was even now lying dead.
Some two hours after midnight, they heard the noise of the leopard coming down the path from the direction of Gawiya's house. They tensed, ready. But a few yards before he would have come into their range of vision, they heard him pause. Then they heard him moving down a small depression in the ground, following it down to the lower path, bypassing their hide! Sharpe swore under his breath. The animal's instincts were incredible!
Again, they heard him pause. They were ready if he returned by their tree. Sharpe poised his musket, watching the path where it disappeared to his left, ready at any minute for Raksha's head to appear. The silent moments slipped by, the tension grew and grew, becoming unbearable - and then they heard him jump off the path and approach their tree at an angle. Was he aware of them? But no, he passed behind their tree and a few seconds later, they heard him noisily lapping at one of the ponds. For ten minutes, they listened to him drink, and then they heard him going up the hill on the far side of the ravine, until his footsteps faded into the night.
At no time had they seen him. He had kept to cover in those parts of the path where the moonlight did not reach.
They stayed in the tree for the rest of the night, watching the path and listening for sounds. As dawn broke, they revisited the kill. The leopard had eaten the leg they had poisoned, and also flesh from the left shoulder and back, both of which they had poisoned. Sharpe shook his head in amazement, and Sundar Singh could only shrug. It seemed the rumors of Raksha's immunity to poison were at least partly true. Sundar Singh looked up the slope from where the kill lay. It went steeply up another two thousand feet. The top of the hill was clothed in dense oak and pine, below which was scrub jungle.
"I want to check that area out. We may catch him sunning himself after he's eaten."
Sharpe had his doubts that their adversary would be so careless, but he kept them to himself. They kept to the edge of the scrub jungle and went round the shoulder of the hill. Before them was a wide gorge which went up the hill for half a mile, the results of an old landslide. It was all dense scrub, but at its end, the ground was open. At the upper end of the gorge was a rock wall, between twenty and forty feet tall, about a hundred yards long. Halfway up this was a deep cleft a few yards wide. Above this was a narrow band of scrub jungle.
The earth was damp under their feet as they made their way down, muskets at the ready.
"The kill is easily seen from the house," said Sundar Singh. He'd want to keep to cover as he left it. That would put him somewhere - here!
He knelt by a fresh footprint planted in some loose earth at the base of a bush. A few yards further on there was an area of flattened grass. Raksha had been lying there. Sundar Singh lay in the same spot, viewing the area from a leopard's perspective. Neither he nor Sharpe moved for several minutes. Their every sense was strained, trying to catch the slightest movement that would give away their quarry's position. There was nothing. No movement, no sound. But still, Sundar Singh was convinced he was still there. Hew motioned to Sharpe, who crouched down beside him.
"He has two natural lines of retreat if he wants to avoid coming out into the open. One is down the hill towards the road, and the other is up the hill. If we can get him to move up the hill, he'll go up that cleft in the rocks so he can get under cover in those bushes. If he does that, we can get off a shot at him."
They entered the gorge a little below where they thought the leopard was, and started to zigzag very slowly across it, gaining a few feet of height every time they turned. Sharpe listened for the sudden silencing of jungle noises that would tell him Raksha was on the move. They had worked their way about forty yards up the gorge, moving backwards and forwards across it, when the birds fell silent. They raised their muskets, stood perfectly still for a minute, and then started slowly moving forward again.
Sharpe's eyes were fixed on the rocky cleft where Raksha would appear, and not on the ground at his feet. Of course, he slipped in the wet mud. As he was trying to regain his balance, the leopard made his move, and startled, a group of kaleege pheasants burst from the bushes and flew into Sundar Singh's face. He shooed them aside just in time to catch a glimpse of a great black shape disappearing into the brush above the rocky cleft. Raksha had eluded them again.
Sundar Singh sighed. It would be both useless and dangerous to try to track him in the bush. He motioned to Sharpe, and they began to work their way back down the hill towards Rikakhot.
The Fifth Day.
When they arrived at the village, they set up in the house provided for them. Some of the villagers told them that Raksha had prowled there last night, and tried to rip out a plank from the door of one hut, while the family within sat in silent terror. Eventually, he had given up and contented himself with killing one of their cows, which had been tethered next to the house. As they were considering this news, Sharpe turned to Sundar Singh.
"Do you think Raksha might return to Rikakhot?"
"He may. He was denied his chosen prey, and had to make do with a cow. He will still want a man."
"I have an idea," Sharpe said.
They discussed it, and Sundar Singh thought it worthy of a try. They slept for a few hours, and were roused that afternoon by the news that another runner had arrived at the village and asked for them. He was directed to their house. This runner was dressed in the Nizam's livery, and he bore a large, flat object wrapped in cloth. Sundar Singh smiled grimly.
"Ah, it has come."
He unwrapped it, and Sharpe's eyes widened. It was one of the most fearsome things he had ever seen. It was a massive trap, whose steel jaws were lined with sharp three-inch teeth. When opened, its gape would spread two feet, but it would take both of them to force back its powerful springs. Affixed to it was a stout five-foot chain. He tried not to think of what it would do to anyone's leg who had the misfortune of stepping on it when it was set.
"We will see how Raksha fares against this," said Sundar Singh. Then he frowned and looked closer. "Eh? What is this?"
One of the steel teeth had snapped off, leaving a small gap in the trap. The runner spread his hands in apology.
"A thousand apologies, Sundar Singh. The trap fell to the floor before I set out, and the tooth broke off. There was no time to repair it, for we knew your request was urgent. It is but one tooth, surely it cannot matter."
The tracker was annoyed, but he nodded. Surely, it could not matter. In any case, it did not figure in Sharpe's plans. They would save it for later, if need be.
When they told the villagers what they planned, the people fell in with it enthusiastically, and quickly provided them with the materials they needed to put Sharpe's plan into effect. They made a dummy. First, they placed a jacket around a bale of straw and positioned it in a chair before the front door, with a pillow-head over which they wrapped a turban. Finally they draped a sari over the lower part of the bale in imitation of legs. When they were done, it was surprisingly convincing. Hopefully, Raksha would find it so.
After they had eaten and rested, they built a barricade of boxes within the house, waist high, in the leftmost rear corner. The area behind the barricade they heaped with cushions, so that they were high enough to aim their muskets over the boxes from their seats. The range to the dummy was only twelve feet, an easy shot. If Raksha attacked it as they hoped, they couldn't miss.
They took up their positions behind the barricade as the sun set. A small brazier kept a kettle of tea hot, this and chapattis constituted their evening meal. All around them, doors were shutting, and for the villagers, another night of terror was beginning.
Sharpe felt some anxiety, for the sun had gone down abruptly, and the stars were not yet bright enough to give any significant light. He would have welcomed the jungle, whose noises he could faintly hear in the distance, instead of this deathly silence. At intervals, he could hear the faint call of a roosting jungle-cock, and there was the cry of a peacock. Sharpe knew that many inhabitants were listening behind closed doors, waiting for the death screams that would announce that Raksha had claimed another victim.
Time passed and one by one, the stars came out and visibility steadily improved until Sharpe could see all the way down the street, although indistinctly. The hours seemed to drag by on leaden wheels. To help it pass, they talked in low voices while Sundar Singh puffed on his pipe. Sharpe told him something of his life in the slums of London's east end, his time in Flanders, and how he had won his sergeant's stripes at the siege of Seringapatam. In return, Sundar Singh told him of the other man-eaters he had hunted down and killed over the years, twelve tigers and one other leopard. But none, he affirmed, could match Raksha for his devilish cunning.
A strong wind picked up, and the sky clouded over. Again, visibility dropped, and Sharpe peered into the blackness, striving to see any hint of movement. Suddenly, they heard a rustle, very near. Snapping to full alertness, they gripped their muskets and trained them on the dim outline of the dummy. And then they heard the squeaking. It was only a rat, scampering across the roof and dropping with a thud to the floor. They saw its dim shape as it crossed the doorway behind their dummy and then faded into the darkness.
Now the thin sickle of a new moon showed in the sky, still low. About an hour later, a sambar stag bugled from the jungle, first a sharp note, and then a series of short cries in quick succession.
And then, the jungle grew silent. The two men looked at each other silently. They knew what it meant.
More time passed, and then, Sharpe caught a hint of movement down the lane. He trained his musket on it and waited as it came closer. It was definitely an animal, walking on four feet, right down the middle of the street. Were they going to get this clear a shot at the leopard? It was now about thirty yards away and came on boldly, without any attempt at stealth. Not exactly the behavior one would expect from a killer leopard. And the more clearly Sharpe saw it, the more it seemed too small and frail for their quarry. And then he saw it clearly.
It was a village dog, mangy and thin. It feebly wagged its skinny tail as it looked at them. Sharpe took a chapatti and hurled it through the door, as far away as he could, and the mutt took off after it.
More time passed, and midnight came. An owl hooted dismally from the edge of the forest, its cry sounding like a death-knell. One, two, three more hours dragged past, and they strained their tired and aching eyes and ears for movement or sound. Close by now, came the cry of a plover, its cry sounding uncannily like "Did-you-do-it, Did-you-do-it, Did-you-do-it, Did-you-do-it?" Something had startled the bird.
And suddenly, very near at hand, they heard a snarling growl. They both bolted to attention and trained their muskets on the dummy.
Ten feet from the doorway, Raksha crouched low to the ground, one with the shadows that bordered the street. After nights of frustration and shut doors, he had found one of the two-legs foolishly sitting out in the open. Now, he gathered himself for his attack - and then he paused. His eyes narrowed in suspicion. The past nights had seen the two-legs cowering behind their shelters, where they thought themselves safe. Why would one sleep out in the open now?
Instinct, the quality that hunters needed above all others, was one he possessed in abundance. It was the chief reason that he still lived when so many of the two-legs had sought his death. And now that instinct told Raksha clearly that he faced a trap, that death waited for him here. He gave a single low coughing snarl. Immediately, his keen ears picked up quick stealthy movement from within the house. He was right! But he would not go into the trap. There were other ways
Suddenly, Sharpe and Sundar Singh heard a dull thud! from above them, followed by a stealthy but purposeful rustling of the thatch of their roof. Training their muskets upwards, they tried to track the leopard's progress, but they could not pinpoint the location. They didn't want to risk a shot that would make the beast bolt. Their chance might still come.
So they waited in the darkness, all senses straining to hear, to see. Sharpe sensed a better chance would not present itself, made his best guess, and shot through the thatch ceiling. A derisive snarl told him he had missed, and then a sharp rustle from the roof told him the leopard had leaped. And then in the distance, they heard the screams, loud, panicked, despairing.
Instantly, they knocked down the barricade, pushed past their useless dummy, and sprinted with all their speed in the direction of the screams. The cries were higher, more frenzied, and mixed in with them was the blood hungry snarls of a great leopard. Sharpe had pinpointed the noises now; they came from a house on the right, perhaps a hundred feet down the lane. And then they saw a long dark shape emerge from a hole in the house's thatched roof. Sharpe stopped, brought up his musket and fired, the gun blazing in the darkness. But the range was too great for any realistic hope of a hit, and the leopard, sprang unharmed from the roof to the top of the mud-brick wall, and then disappeared into the night.
In spite of his age, Sundar Singh was there first. He pushed the houses' door open and entered. He was only inside for a few seconds. As Sharpe came up, he came out, looking sick and pale, and blocked Sharpe when he would have entered himself.
"Do not go in there, Sharpe sahib. They are all dead, a father, a mother, and two children. Raksha could not get his prey through the hole he made in their roof, so in his rage he killed them all."
Sharpe stood there for a moment, and then dropped to his knees in sheer, frustrated anguish, grinding out words under his breath:
"This bastard is going down, if it's the last thing I ever do!"
Sundar Singh came over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Their eyes met, and they understood without words. They would not again set a trap for Raksha within a village. It put the villagers at too great a risk. In the morning, there would be more funerals, and they wanted to be gone before they started.
The Sixth Day.
Dawn found them on the road, eager to leave Rikakhot and their latest defeat far behind. Soon they came to the broad expanse of the Krishna River, flowing roughly east to west before them. The road they were traveling now veered sharply to the left, going along its bank. Sundar Singh turned to Sharpe.
"This is the southern boundary of Raksha's territory. We will turn east now, and travel along the left bank.."
"What's to stop Raksha from swimming the river over to the other side?" Sharpe asked, gazing at the flowing green water and the lush jungle brush lining either bank.
The Indian shook his head. "The river is wide, swift and cold, and leopards are not like the tiger. They hate the water. I think that is why we do not see Raksha during the monsoon months. He holds up somewhere and makes do with whatever prey he can find within a short distance, until the rain stops and he can prowl again. No, if he were to cross the river, he would use one of the two bridges in his territory. And I have ensured that he cannot do that."
They traveled along the river now, and Sharpe found the breeze that came off its surface refreshing after the stifling heat of their march. Within two miles, they came to the first bridge. It was a suspension bridge, with two heavy ropes stretched across the hundred yards or so to the right bank. On these was laid a gangway of wooden planks, with a second pair of ropes stretched some four feet above this to provide handholds. The ropes were anchored at either end by stone towers some twenty feet tall, which formed an arch over the bridge's start. Sharpe saw a turbaned head and a musket barrel project above the top of the near tower as they approached it, and then the man, obviously the caretaker of the bridge, waved a greeting and came down. He and Sundar Singh exchanged some words in Hindi, and Sharpe found that he had picked up enough of the tongue to get some idea of what they spoke of.
"What news do you have? Has the leopard come this way?"
"Late last night, after the setting of the moon, O Sundar Singh, we heard his cough, and today we found his tracks. He did not attempt a crossing, and we got no shot at him, alas."
Sundar Singh turned to Sharpe. "From sunset to sunrise, two men armed with muskets guard each tower, and that is wedged into the bridge's path." 'That' was a big tangle of thorn bushes, expertly woven together. They were the vicious Indian thorns that grow to the hardness of iron after they die, and Sharpe didn't see how any beast could get through them.
"Don't the people object to having their way across the river blocked?"
"Nay, Sharpe sahib, for none use the bridge by night in any case, for fear of the leopard."
As they proceeded, they still came across Raksha's tracks, but none were fresh enough to be worth pursuing. Sundar Singh took the opportunity to continue to instruct Sharpe. He pointed to a clutch of flowers along the road.
"If ever you are wounded in the jungle, Sharpe sahib, I will show you a little plant that will both staunch the bleeding and heal the wound better than anything else that I know. You have seen me use it before. See, it has a daisy-like flower, and these fleshy, jagged leaves. If you break off a few of the leaves, rinse them in water to wash off the dust, squeeze the leaves between finger and thumb, and pour the juice into the wound, no further treatment is needed. If the wound is not a deep one, it will heal in a day or two."
He pointed to a large black and white bird that seemed to have an extra beak on top of its head. It was busy doing something on the trunk of the tree on which it was perched, something that Sharpe couldn't make out.
"That is the giant hornbill. They nest in hollow trees, and the males will seal the female into the tree when she is ready to lay her eggs. During that time she molts and grows too fat to fly, and so to the male falls the task of feeding the whole family. He will seal up their hole save for a small opening, through which the female sticks the tip of her beak to take the food that the male brings her.
"Do you see those light green patches along the path up ahead? They are saplings of the shisam tree, which have grown from seeds washed down from foothills by the monsoon floods. When they grow to maturity, those saplings will provide the best timber for cart wheels and furniture. The dark green patches between them with clusters of red berries are runi trees, which provide the kamala powder. When you rub the berries against the inside of your basket, the powder will collect in the bottom. It makes the finest red dye. And if you boil the berries in mustard oil, they are a cure for the aches of the joints that old age brings.
"And those trees with the feathery leaves? They are khair trees. Their wood makes fine plowshares, and chips of it, when boiled in water, provide the brown dye that you see in my tunic and trousers. We call it khaki.
"Look, in that single plum tree, you can see no less than eleven types of birds: Bengal and pintail green pigeons, crimson-breasted barbets, green barbets, the black bulbul, the Bengal, the red-whiskered, and the white-cheeked bulbul. And there are rose-ringed parakeets, Alexandrine parakeets, and the blossom headed. And below the tree, scratching in the dead leaves is a flock of white-capped laughing thrushes.
"And behold how each tree has flowers, of every color of the rainbow. The tree with the orange-colored flower is the dhank. It produces a red gum used for dying the finest silk. The trees with the showers of golden blooms are amaltas, and their seedpods contain a sweet jelly that helps with ailments of the bowels. The trees with the big lilac colored flowers are kachnar. The red are samal trees, and their sweet flowers are loved by birds and monkeys, and deer and pigs eat them when they fall to the ground, so that their seeds are spread throughout the jungle in the animals' dung. The pink are kusan trees. Later in the year, their flowers will give way to large woolly seedpods. When the hot winds blow in April, these pods will explode like cannon shells and a white cloud of tiny wisps of silk cotton, each one carrying a seed, will drift away to begin new life."
Again, Sharpe listened entranced. Later, he would be frustrated by how small a fraction of all of this he could remember.
By mid-afternoon, they came to Matela, the next village on their route. There they bought a goat from the local herdsman. Half a mile from the village walls, a footpath led across a field about forty yards wide to a three foot bank of earth, which led to an area of rough, broken ground covered in scrub jungle, heavy in some places, light in others. A small outbuilding stood near the field, intended for storing grain, now mostly empty, and perhaps thirty feet from it, a small hayrack, raised about six feet above the ground. Sharpe pointed to it.
"I'll take that. It's only big enough for one man anyway. You hide in the outbuilding. That way, we can cover whichever way he comes ."
Sundar Singh nodded, pleased at the initiative that Sharpe was showing. He was obviously a quick study and getting a feel for their task.
They tied the goat to a peg driven into the ground at a bend in the track, some thirty feet from the start of the rough ground. Next to it, they set up the steel trap. As Sundar Singh had instructed him the night the trap had arrived, Sharpe dug a shallow hole in the path, wide and deep enough so that the trap would lay in it flush with the path's surface. Meanwhile, Sundar Singh produced a mallet from his knapsack and, taking the steel ring in which the trap's chain ended, he put a stout stake through the ring and pounded it into the ground. Placing it on the ground they each gripped a jaw and pulled towards themselves, grunting with the effort. The iron teeth parted and the powerful springs compressed, and they heard the click! as the ratchet snapped in to hold the jaws agape. They then sprinkled green leaves and concealing loose earth over it, making sure that the twigs, dead leaves and grasses around the path looked undisturbed. Finally, they planted some thorn tangles on either side of the path to force the beast to take it. Satisfied with their efforts, they set up for their night's vigil, Sharpe climbed into the hayrack, lying prone and piling straw on top of himself, with only his musket barrel showing. His companion sat down within the outbuilding and peered through a crack in the door, his own gun at the ready. And once again, they waited.
Evening fell and it was cloudy and dark. The moon rose after some three hours, and even through the clouds, what had been black turned to different shades of gray, a slight improvement in visibility. The goat bleated regularly, with a shrill and piercing bleat.
After another hour they heard that the goat had stopped calling. Peering through the straw, Sharpe saw the animal's ears cock forward, looking up toward the bushes. Then he shook his head violently and backed up to the full length of the rope. He was seeing something that Sharpe couldn't see, and he did not like it. The leopard had come. The fact that he had not pounced on the goat immediately indicated that he was suspicious. Sharpe strained his eyes to see through the shadows.
Suddenly, he heard an enraged "Waaaow!" from the direction of the trap, and Sharpe saw a dim shape rear up along the path. The leopard had stepped in the trap, and the terrible steel jaws had closed on its foreleg. Sundar Singh shot, but his aim was off. His ball missed the leopard but struck the trap's chain and severed it with a flash of sparks. The beast began to bound along the field in great leaps, still roaring terribly, carrying the trap before it. Sharpe drew a bead and fired, heard the leopard grunt, and knew with savage satisfaction that he had hit it.
Sharpe got up, straw spilling from his head and shoulders, and began to reload. In fifteen seconds, he had a new bullet primed and ready. Leaping down from the hayrack, he went after his quarry, Sundar Singh, also reloaded, was at his side, holding high a covered oil lantern. Halfway along the field was an outcrop of rock, and from right behind it, they could hear ferocious growls. Sharpe brought his musket up, ready to fire, and cautiously stepped forward, the Indian right behind him, holding the lantern high and shining it over his shoulder. Sharpe saw the beast crouching down in a depression behind the rock, facing them and growling. He fired, and his musket ball took the leopard in the head and stilled his growls forever. In the shot's receding echo, they stepped forward and shone the lantern on their kill. It was a big male leopard - with a beautiful spotted coat.
It was not Raksha.
Sharpe bent down to examine it, and saw to his amazement that it had almost torn its paw free of the trap, the steel jaws now held only a thin strip of skin. The goat had begun to bleat again. He sighed.
"Well, at least we know the trap works."
And then, from the rough ground above them, they heard another leopard's call; deep, throaty, powerful. They exchanged glances. Raksha! Sharpe reloaded, and they stepped forward to see if he was visible. The moon had found a break in the clouds, and the area was bathed in a silver light. Muskets at the ready, they made their way about a hundred yards up the path where it ran across the face of the hill and over its shoulder. They saw nothing. Not the least flicker of a whisker. For a few minutes, they stood and strained their eyes, looking for any sign of Raksha's position. Nothing. Sundar Singh shrugged, and then motioned to Sharpe. They began to descend the path, while Sharpe glanced periodically behind them. Then they noticed something.
The goat had stopped bleating. They increased their pace. But when they arrived at their hide, all that remained of the goat was the broken rope, still attached to the peg. And leading down the path were the tracks of an enormous leopard, nearly half again the size of the ones from the leopard they had just killed, and whose tracks also were present.
Fifty yards further down the track, they saw something white lying across it. They made their way down to the object. It was the goat, laid across the track. Blood was oozing from its throat, and its muscles were still twitching. And from behind them, further up the hill from which they had just come, came again the call of Raksha. It mocked them.
"He is toying with us," said Sundar Singh.
From the village, they heard shouts. They had heard the shots and would now doubtless be celebrating the death of the man-eater. Now the two would have to go into the village and tell them the disappointing news. Raksha would not come that way again this night. He had already made his point.
Higher up the hill, Raksha ran out his tongue and laughed a leopard's laugh.
The Seventh Day.
They were just about ready to leave Matela when four runners arrived from the second village to the east, Kundal. By this time, Both Sharpe and Sundar Singh knew what news they would bring. The man-eater had killed a woman in their village.
The four villagers accompanied them as they walked down the road, filling Sundar Singh in on the details. The victim was a young woman, twenty years old. Two days ago, her husband had gone to the next village on business, leaving her with their six-month child and with his father. After they had finished the evening meal and it was getting near time for bed, the girl, who had been nursing her child, handed her over to her father-in-law and, unlatching the door, went outside to relieve herself. When the child was transferred from mother to grandfather, he started crying, so he could not have heard what happened outside. It was dark now, and after waiting for a few minutes, the old man called to the girl. When she did not answer, he called again, and then, in great fear, he hurriedly got up, closed and latched the door.
They came to the house a little before noon. It had rained around the village in the night, and it was easy to see the man-eater's pugmarks and first reconstruct what had happened, and then track it. Jumping over the village wall, Raksha had crouched down behind a rock in the field, about thirty yards to the left front of the door. Here, the leopard had lain for some time - perhaps listening to the man and the woman talking. The woman had been squatting down on the right side of the door with her back to the beast. Creeping around the far side of the rock, Raksha had covered the twenty yards between him and the corner of the house, belly to the ground. Stalking along close to the wall of the house, he had caught the woman from behind by the throat and dragged her to the rock, where he killed her. Then the leopard had picked her up and, holding her high so that no mark of hand or foot showed in the mud, had carried her across one field, down a three-foot bank, and across another field, which ended in a twelve-foot drop onto a well-used footpath. Sharpe was amazed at the strength of the beast, for during all this he had not once let any portion of her body come in contact with the ground.
When they had finished following the leopard's trail, they came to a little grassy glade where she was lying on her face, with her hands at her side, under the shade of a tree roofed over with dense creepers. Some twenty men stood around her, keeping guard. She bore the marks of four great teeth in her neck. The leopard had ripped off her cloths and licked over her body, they could see the abrasions of his tongue's bristles. But he had eaten only a few pounds of flesh from her body. He would be sure to return.
When they had eaten and rested in the village for a time, they came back to the kill to choose their hide. Raksha was likely to be cautious on returning to his kill, so they rejected the nearest tree, choosing another one about sixty feet away on the hill overlooking the glade. It was a stunted oak, growing out of the hill at almost a right angle, with one large limb pointing towards the kill, and another one on the opposite side pointing away from it towards the heavy jungle towards which Raksha's tracks left. Sharpe, with his superior night vision, would sit here, watch for his approach, and try for a shot. If he failed in this and the leopard began to feed, he and Sundar Singh would trade places, and he would sit on the branch pointing towards the woman's body and make his shot then.
They set up the steel trap as before, placing it between the woman's legs, on which the leopard had fed the night before, and on which they hoped he would feed tonight. As the sun was setting, they took up their places, and another dark vigil began. They heard the bark of a kakar deer after a few hours, and a few minutes later, it dashed down the hill, still barking. On the shoulder of the hill it pulled up and remained barking for some time before it disappeared down the hill, and its barking faded in the distance. Something had undoubtedly disturbed it, and they didn't need to guess what.
Less than an hour later, they heard the noise of dislodged earth rolling down the hill. Raksha was here. But he was cautious, perhaps suspecting danger, and so had approached down the hill instead of from the jungle, so that both Sharpe and Sundar Singh were positioned wrongly to take a shot at him. But from his position, he could look downhill and see both of them clearly. They heard his coughing snarl, receding in the distance, he was retreating. And though they kept vigil throughout the rest of the night, they heard nothing more of him.
They descended the tree in the gray half-light of breaking dawn. A ground mist was coming from the river, and played about their feet in white wisps as they approached the woman's body. It was untouched from yesterday, it was at least some small victory to keep Raksha from feeding off his kill. They turned and began to descend the hill.
As they walked down the hill, the mist grew thicker and higher, blotting out the weak rays of the rising sun. The visibility was now only fifty feet. And a few steps later, it was forty, and then twenty. And then only ten. They knew that when they got to the path at the hill's base, the village was a few hundred yards to the left. They weren't worried.
Until they heard the snarl from somewhere in the mist. They froze.
Raksha was out there somewhere. He had not left at dawn, but like the first day, had waited for them to come down, on the chance that something might give him an advantage.
That something was all around them now. With their visibility cut down to next to nothing, the advantage of their muskets was nullified. Sundar Singh spoke urgently to Sharpe.
"Back to back with me, now!"
They cocked their dogheads and knelt back to back, their muskets trained, scanning them back-to-back in the billowing whiteness. Sharpe desperately peered into the mist, desperately seeking some hint of movement. Now, behind him at some distance, he heard the leopard's snarl. And even as he swung his musket to cover that angle, he heard it again to his left. The beast was circling them. It would be no good to fire at the noise, he would already have moved. It sounded like he was no more than twenty feet away, but in this fog, it might as well be twenty miles. Without a target, he was helpless. And he had an uncomfortable feeling that Raksha knew just where they were.
Raksha prowled through the mist. He had felt its coming in the taste of the air and waited. And now the advantage was his. He knew just where the two legs were. He could hear their breath, the pounding of the sweet hot blood in their veins. And he could smell their fear in the air. He knew they could not see him, and where they could not see, their death-things were useless. Now they would die And then would come the sweet taste of blood, and the feeding .
Sundar Singh's whisper sounded loud in the silence.
"He is near."
Sharpe could feel his heart pounding as if it were going to burst through his chest. He didn't mind admitting it, he was afraid. Fighting an enemy he could see, who used a musket and bayonet like he did was one thing. But looking into this white nothingness, knowing that somewhere out there was a raging monster that thirsted for his blood, a monster he could not see but could only hear, that was something else entirely. He breathed deeply, trying to calm himself, but couldn't seem to suck enough air in. Where was he? Sundar spoke again, and Sharpe could hear the fear in his voice, and knew the depth of their danger.
"He is very near."
He constantly swung his musket back and forth, never keeping it still for more than a second. He had only one shot, there would be no time to reload. His heart seemed to pound harder with every beat, as he strove to master his fear. He knew that when the attack came, it would come like lightning. He had to wait until the attack began, until the beast was almost on top of him before he fired. And if he missed Now! Before the mist lifted and the advantage was lost, kill now! v The attack came from his right rear, just as he had scanned past that area. Sharpe had an eyelash's flick of time to see the dark shape charging out of the mist, covering the ground with terrifying speed. With a stomach churning effort, he tried to swing his musket back, knowing as he did so that he was too slow. And then Raksha hit him, hard, bowling him over. Sharpe squeezed the trigger involuntarily, and his shot went helplessly into the misty sky. For a fraction of a second, he saw a frenzied face above him, a single glaring yellow eye above gleaming white fangs, felt breath like a furnace on his face and a sting at his chest. Then, the roar of a musket sounded in Sharpe's ear and he saw the orange flash of the shot. And like a black ghost, Raksha was gone into the mist, and they heard final snarled 'Waaaow! echoing behind him. Sharpe lay on his back panting for a few seconds, and then looked to his left, where Sundar Singh was kneeling, his musket still smoking. As Sharpe struggled up, he could see that the mist was lifting, the visibility was already fifty feet and improving by the second.
"Are you all right, Sharpe sahib?"
"I think so - " Sharpe stopped in mid-sentence and felt his chest, which still stung. His fingers came away covered with blood. His thick leather vest bore four long slash marks across the chest. The beast's talons had gone all the way through and grazed his skin.
Now he knew how much use the garment was against Raksha's claws.
Sundar Singh examined the wound.
"He was testing our defenses, seeing how quickly we could react. Now he knows."
They got to their feet. The mist was almost gone, and they made their way towards the village at the base of the hill.
The Eighth Day.
They persuaded the villagers to leave the woman's body in place for one night more. Since the leopard had not been able to feed on it the night before, they hoped he would tonight, providing he was unmolested. They left the trap where they had concealed it, and chose a big pine tree perhaps a hundred yards down the hill for their machan. Earlier, they had gone to once again inspect the woman's body and the trap, and Sundar Singh had sprinkled some more poison on those areas where the leopard had fed.
Sharpe said nothing. As they walked down the hill, Sundar Singh looked at his young companion in concern. Sharpe had been unusually listless today, almost as if he was in a stupor. He spoke little, and his eyes had a haunted, far-away stare. He stumbled along the path with little indication he knew or cared where he was going.
Sundar Singh had seen this before. Sharpe was tired, mentally and emotionally, the type of exhaustion that mere sleep does not address. Tired by the constant tension of long nights keeping watch over Raksha's kills or bait goats. Tired of constantly straining his senses to hear some hint of the man-eater's coming. They had pursued the leopard with an intensity that they could not sustain much longer. If this kept up, sooner or later one of them would make a fatal mistake, and Raksha would be there to make them pay for it.
After tonight, Sundar Singh promised himself, they would take a much-needed day's break from the stresses of the hunt.
Sunset found them in a large, comfortable machan set about fifteen feet up in the pine tree. They had covered its surface with a thick layer of straw, and now lay prone upon it, sipping hot tea from their canteens and munching chapattis. Afterward, Sundar Singh took out his pipe, and they talked freely, for they were not near the kill and had no need for silence. They would listen for the angry roars of the leopard as he stepped into the trap, and then run in to finish him. But as an extra security measure, they had ringed the base of the tree with dense tangles of thorn bushes, and roped them firmly in place. They slept in two-hour long shifts, Sharpe going first while Sundar Singh kept watch.
Darkness fell, and the moon rose in her third quarter. The quiet chatter of scimitar babblers, laughing thrushes and drongos told them that the leopard was not near. Sometime past midnight, Sundar Singh shook Sharpe awake for his second shift and then laid his head down on his folded arms. Within moments, his steady breathing told Sharpe he was asleep.
Sharpe stared off into the darkness, striving to make sense of the patterns of black and gray thrown by the weak moon. He sighed. What was wrong with him? He had slept, but he was still tired. He felt like a leather thong stretched to the utmost, on the edge of breaking.
He blinked in surprise. Suddenly, the forest was not there, it was the barracks back at Seringapatam, stretching before him in the light of the noonday sun. He shifted on his machan, totally confused at why the pine tree was growing out of the middle of the parade ground. And standing before him was Sergeant Obediah Hakeswill.
"'Ey you, Sharpie! What're you doing up in that tree? Get yer arse down from there, and make it snappy! We don't allow no monkeys in 'is Majesty's army! Sez so in the Scriptures!"
Sharpe just stared at him, too bewildered to answer. Hakeswill strode over to the base of the tree and looked up at him. Sharpe stuck his head over the edge of the machan. Hakeswill leaned over and seized a tangle of thorns in his jaws from where they were tied around the tree's base. He twisted, the muscles on his neck standing out, tore the thorns free, threw them aside, and then gripped another bunch with his jaws. Sharpe watched, too mystified to say anything, as Hakeswill tore bunch after bunch of thorns from the tree's base, and the rope that had held them in place sagged and drooped towards the ground.
Now, Hakeswill had cleared a path through the thorns to the tree's trunk.. Gathering his legs under him, he gave a great leap, impacting on the tree with a dull thud, about seven feet up. His fingernails dug into the tree's trunk, and he began to make his way up to where Sharpe watched. He was surprised to see that the Sergeant had only one eye, for the left one was milky and filmed over. The right one glared at him, yellow and hate-filled.
Now Hakeswill was only five feet from him, working his way steadily up the tree. Four feet. Three feet. He grinned, and Sharpe saw that his teeth were long and very -
The cry had come from Sundar Singh, who had just woken up. Sharpe snapped awake, to look into that hate-filled yellow eye, and the snarling fangs; Raksha was coming over the edge of the machan! Already, he had one great paw on the platform, and his yellow eye glared at Sharpe with murderous intensity.
More by instinct than conscious thought, Sharpe thrust his musket in the beast's face and pulled the trigger. The frizzen pan flashed, but the beast released his grip and dropped to the ground just as the musket ball whizzed just over his head. Sundar Singh, who had fired at the same instant as Sharpe, also missed.
Now the beast was at the base of the tree, and the machan blocked their arc of fire. They could not shoot or even see the leopard, and he was careful to keep in the zone of safety. He circled the tree again and again, snarling and growling ferociously. Periodically, he would seize another bunch of thorn bushes in his jaws and twist them away from the trunk.
Sharpe pounded his head on the platform in anguish and humiliation. What was wrong with him? He had fallen asleep on guard! That would have gotten him flogged if not shot in the army. And this situation was far more dangerous. He had failed his companion and almost gotten the two of them killed. Only Sundar Singh's waking at the last possible moment had saved them. He turned his head to look at the tracker, who laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder.
"It is all right, Sharpe sahib."
But it wasn't all right, at least as far as Sharpe was concerned. It would be a long time before he forgave himself for this failure.
For most of the night, Raksha prowled around their tree, systematically destroying their thorn barrier and slashing up the tree's trunk with his claws. Then, as dawn was breaking, they heard him padding off into the distance.
They did not venture down until it was full dawn. Their thorn barrier law in shambles all around the tree, whose trunk was scored over and over again as the leopard had taken out his rage on it with his claws. They made their way to the kill. Raksha had fed heavily in the night, and there was quite a bit less left of the body than there had been yesterday. Amazingly, the leopard had eaten in all the places Sundar Singh had poisoned, but again without any apparent effect. Raksha had not looked very dead last night.
Sharpe shook his head in bewildered astonishment, and he felt the cold hand of fear, fear of the unknown. What was this thing they were chasing? Was it really a leopard, or was truly it some sort of unkillable demon of the night? What animal could eat poison? And at every pass, the beast had been one step ahead of them, almost as if he already knew what they would try next. And if he were a demon, how could they hope to win?
By his tracks around the kill, they could see that Raksha had started where he had left off, feeding off the flesh of the woman's legs, right where they had put the trap. The leopard had spread his forepaws wide and rested them on the buried levers of the trap, reaching over the jaws and eating in safety from their snapping shut. Both men let out a sigh. The leopard had won again, and almost taken the whole game. Sundar Singh looked at Sharpe's fatigued, dispirited face.
"We need a rest from the hunt, Sharpe sahib. Let us go fishing."
The Ninth Day.
After a short rest in the village, they made their way towards the river, to a special spot that Sundar Singh knew of. A portion of the river had branched off around a small bluff, running parallel to it, and cascading over a twelve-foot waterfall. It formed a pool some two hundred yards long and thirty to forty yards wide. Plant life was lush and green along both banks, and Sharpe saw that the water was crystal-clear; he could see weeds waving in its depth, count pebbles on the bottom, and see the darting shadows of small fish. Sundar Singh removed his sandals, and Sharpe, following suit, took off his shoes.
On the opposite side of the pool, at the base of the waterfall, Sharpe saw a number of men sitting on a rock, armed with a triangular net attached to a long bamboo pole. Several of them gave him and Sundar Singh a friendly wave and a smile. Suddenly, one of them got to his feet and pointed excitedly into the foaming white water. Two others got up and held out the pole-net close to the fall. Sharpe could now see a shoal of fish, some of them quite large, trying to leap the fall. Suddenly, one of them leaped clear of the water, and as it fell back, they caught it expertly in the net. They pulled the net back, transferred the fish to a basket, and held the net out again. Sharpe sat on the pool's bank, watching them, while Sundar Singh made his preparations. Inside of half an hour, they caught four fish, all of which looked to weigh about ten pounds.
Sundar Singh called to Sharpe, who came over to see the contraption the Indian held. It consisted of a smooth bronze ring, which he held in his left hand. A heavy silken line was attached to it, and then was wound many times around his outstretched fingers. He held the opposite end of the line dangling from his right hand, and Sharpe saw that it ended in a strong barbed hook, and about three inches up, it looped through a piece of shiny brass. Now Sundar Singh swung this end in a circle, and then cast it out over the water. He held his left fingers straight out as the line unspooled from them, and the hook hit the water fifty feet out with a plop! Hardly had it touched when a fish seized it. Sundar Singh let it run out line as it dashed down the pool, and then reeled the line back about his fingers. Sharpe could see the fish standing straight with its nose just under the surface. Then it shook its head from side to side and ran again. And again, his companion played out the line and then reeled it back when it slackened. Over the course of the next half hour, he was able to turn the fish's head back towards their position and very gently pulled him around the bend where a projection of rock formed a backwater. He slowly drew the fish towards the rock, and Sharpe reached down and grabbed the fish by the gills. It had been docile up to this point, but now, feeling its throat seized, it lashed out and almost tipped him into the water. Sharpe grabbed it with his other hand and landed it.
It was about ten pounds, hump-backed, grayish-green on the top, shading to white on the sides and belly. Its barbelled mouth and big scales marked it as a carp. Sundar Singh bent to release the hook.
"That is a mahseer, the finest game fish in India. Only a small one, of course. Some weigh two hundred pounds, but those we only net."
He produced another fishing ring and line for Sharpe, showed him how to hold it, how to keep the line from tangling on his fingers, how to cast it like a grappling hook, when to play a fish, when to reel it in. Sharpe tried a cast, overshot, and hit the shallows on the other side of the pool. He reeled back in and tried again, and this time fell short. The third cast went exactly where he wanted it to go. At his side, Sundar Singh coached him.
"Now Sharpe sahib, wait a moment for it to sink. Now draw it back towards you, but give it little jerks so the brass will spin -"
Even as he spoke, a mahseer shot forward. The next instant, with the hook firmly fixed in its mouth, it jumped clean out of the water, fell back with a great splash and went madly downstream. The line paid out, and when Sharpe was a few coils short of reaching the end, he stopped and Sharpe began to wind him in. The fish fought gamely, but eventually, Sharpe drew him around the bend and landed him by the little backwater at the foot of the rock. Sundar Singh laughed, and Sharpe joined him.
And so the day went. The village fishermen across the pool left, their basket full. The sun mounted higher in the sky and began its journey downwards. Sharpe and Sundar Singh sat on the bank, casting and reeling in, casting and reeling in. Periodically, one of them would get a bite and they would play their catch into the backwater. Gradually, their pile of mahseer grew. What they didn't eat themselves, they would give to the villagers.
And as he fished, Sharpe felt the fatigue and discouragement fade from his mind and his spirit. He couldn't remember when he'd had more fun. The surroundings, the waterfall, the limpid pool, the green growth all around, the buzz of water insects and the hiss of the gentle breeze were incredibly soothing. Sharpe could say without hesitation that he had never felt so at peace as he did now.
He heard a noise over his shoulder, turned his head, and froze.
Raksha was crouched right behind him. Sharpe could have reached out and swatted him on the nose.
He had never seen the beast clearly before now, just hurried and confused glimpses in the dark. He reflected that few men had seen Raksha as close up as he was seeing him now. And none of them were now alive.
He was enormous, the size of a small tiger. Massive, corded muscles rippled under his night black fur, giving a hint of the inhuman strength he was capable of.
Once he might have been a splendid animal, one to stimulate admiration. But now he was hideous. His whole frame was crossed and recrossed with grayish-purple scars that cut through the fur of his limbs, his flanks and his back like lines on a map, scars from spears and swords that had been jabbed at him when he had been taught to hate men. But it was his head that was the worst.
The whole left side of his head was naked scar tissue, a shiny hairless grayish-purple, with only a few tufts of black fur dotting it here and there. His left eye had a milky film over it and was obviously blind. This was the work of the Rajah's shikar, with his flaming torch. But the other eye glared at Sharpe as he had seen it glare before, a glare of sheer hate. But there was more, there was pleasure. Raksha knew Sharpe was helpless. And he reveled in it.
The two-legs had the look in his eyes, the look that gave Raksha such pleasure. It was the look of utter terror, of realization that death has come, the look he had enjoyed on so many two-legs' faces before. When he had circled back on his trail and picked up the trail of the pair of two-legs that had hunted him, to find them sitting by the pool away from their death-things, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. And now, he had this one helpless before him, and the two-legs knew it! His fear tasted almost as good as his blood would
Sharpe, still frozen, glanced out of the corner of his eyes for his musket. It was about eight feet from him, on the right. If it had been eight inches, it still would have been too far.
Raksha opened his jaws and snarled softly, revealing his great ivory fangs. Sharpe was fascinated to see that his tongue and the inside of his mouth were black, with only a trace of pink.
Sharpe tensed, internally preparing himself to make a leap for his musket, knowing full well as he prepared that he didn't have a chance in hell of even touching it
Now! Kill now!
Raksha's tail twitched once, twice, and then stood out straight. The beast's massive muscles tensed
"Hai!" A whizzing thing hurtled through the air and struck the leopard on the nose. It was Sundar Singh, who had cast his fishing hook at the beast. Startled, Raksha turned and batted at the line, as Sundar Singh pulled it back and hurled it again. For only an instant was the leopard distracted by this new attack, but that was enough. Sharpe dove to the right for his musket, while the Indian threw himself headlong and came up with his own.
No! The advantage was lost. They had their death-things! Get away, get to cover!
Sharpe rolled and came up in a kneeling position, thumbing back the doghead as he brought the weapon to his shoulder, pointing and firing. From a prone position a few feet away, Sundar Singh did the same, and their shots fired as one. But the leopard had whirled and leaped even as Sharpe came up, and with a second leap, disappeared into the jungle brush, both shots going wide.
Sharpe stared after him for a second, saw the bushes shaking where the beast had disappeared. Then he dropped his musket to the ground. He gasped for air and began to shake all over, as it came home to him how close he had come to dying.
Sundar Singh, now reloaded, came and crouched by him, put a steadying hand on his shoulder. He still scanned the brush where the man-eater had disappeared.
"He is tracking us now. And he will not stop until either he has killed us or we him." He looked down at Sharpe.
"I hope you have had a restful day, Sharpe sahib. This is the only rest we will get until this is done. We cannot let our guard down again."
Sharpe nodded, his composure returning.
"Thanks for such a lovely holiday. Let's do it again some time."
His answer was so ridiculous that Sundar Singh had to laugh.
The Tenth Day.
The villagers had been grateful for the fish, and, what with the ones the men with the net had caught, Kundal had a feast that night. Sharpe found that mahseer, heartily spiced, coated with clay and baked in the embers of the fire, was delicious. He ate his fill and slept heavily. At dawn, they were on the road again.
They stopped at two villages during the day as they made their way eastward along the river. At each of them, there was no report of the man-eater more recent than the killing of the young woman of Kundal. But that afternoon, as they neared the third village, which Sundar Singh said was named Babyar; they heard a commotion coming from it, voices raised in angry shouts. They hastened their pace. But for once, it was not what they expected.
They were still a couple of hundred feet from the village's walls when out through the gate burst a wild, disheveled figure. The man had a long, greasy beard and unshorn hair to match, and wore a simple black robe. Sharpe recognized him as a sadhu, one of the traveling holy men he had seen from time to time in India. Sharpe could see from his cuts and bruises that he had been beaten. Hot at his heels was a mob of some fifty frenzied villagers, chasing him with murderous intent. The fleeing holy man made the mistake of looking behind him and tripped. Before he could get up, the villagers seized him and began to pummel him with their fists. As the two hunters drew closer, they could make out what they were shouting:
"Demon! Man-eater! Now we have him, we must burn him!"
They turned and hustled the sadhu through the gates of the village. Sundar Singh caught one of the villagers by the sleeve.
"What goes on here, my brother?"
"We have caught the fiend who has eaten so many of our relatives and friends. Just last night, Grandmother Rani, the matriarch of our village who has helped most of us come into the world at birth, was taken from her house, just as she was closing her door. This demon had taken his other form of a great black leopard and dragged her down our village's lane. We could hear her screams for help as she struggled with the monster, for she was strong, but we feared greatly and stayed behind our doors.
"We have seen this demon in his human form, and often has he visited Grandmother Rani. And now we know that he was marking where she lived, that he might take her!"
They followed the villager through the gate, and saw the mob thrust the man into a small thatched goat pen, which had been emptied of its animals. Other villagers were piling armloads of straw on the hut. Still others brought blazing torches. Sharpe remembered the story the goatherd's father had told him. They were going to burn the sadhu alive!
Sundar Singh had to act quickly. He raised his arms and shouted until he had the mob's attention.
"Oh people of Babyar! No doubt you have indeed caught the monster that has troubled our villages these past seven years. But have any of you seen him return to his hut in the morning, with blood on his mouth and his hands?"
The villagers looked uneasily at each other. No one had actually seen the sadhu thus bloodied, but they had heard on good authority from other villages that had seen him. Sundar Singh went on quickly before the mob fury returned.
"Then to be sure that you have the monster, I urge a test. Let him be kept under guard tonight. My companion and I will watch over the body of Grandmother Rani if we can find her. If the leopard comes back for her tonight, we will know that the monster is still out there, and you have seized the wrong man."
The villagers nodded at each other. One spoke up.
"What you say sound good to us, Oh Sundar Singh, and we will do it. But if you do not find the fiend tonight, this one burns in the morning!"
A guard, armed with rusty mattocks and clubs set itself up before the goat pen. Accompanied by several villagers, they traced the man-eater's route. He had killed the woman about a hundred yards from her house, then picked her up and carried her across some open land, down a ravine and up the hill on the far side for another two hundred yards. There were no drag marks, but the blood trail was easy to follow. It led them to a small flat bit of ground, across to an earthen bank some eight feet tall, where there was a wild rose bush, which had grown up and smothered a stunted tree that grew from the bank. Lying beneath this bush, huddled up against the bank was the body of Grandmother Rani, an old, gray haired woman. Her clothes had been torn from her, and her body was flecked with white rose petals that had fallen from the bush. Sharpe felt pity surge in his heart, and he renewed his vow; the beast would die for this.
"There is no tree near the kill big enough for a machan," said Sundar Singh. "so we will have to depend on traps and poison."
So saying, he took out his bottle and poured the last of the poison into those portions of the body where the leopard had been feeding. It was better than nothing, Sharpe reflected. Perhaps the beast was already poisoned, and this last bit would be enough to finally finish him..
The leopard could approach his kill from any angle, but his most natural line of approach was along the fifteen or so feet of flat ground. Here, they once again set the great steel trap, digging a hole so it was flush with the ground, prying back the massive jaws, setting the trigger, and then covering it with loose earth, twigs, and dead leaves, making it look as natural and undisturbed as they could.
On either side of the body, they drove bamboo stakes into the ground. To these they tied Sundar Singh's pistols, primed and loaded. Both guns were angled towards the woman's head. The Indian took another length of silk cord from his pack and tied it to one pistol's trigger's, looped around the butt end, then looped around the woman's body at the waist, and finally around the second pistol's butt and tied to its trigger, If the leopard tried to move the body, both guns should fire, and hopefully hit him.
They stood and looked at their handiwork. Sharpe noticed something.
"If he approaches from the woman's feet, he could avoid both the trap and the guns."
"Then let us encourage him to approach her head," said Sundar Singh.
He drew a short crowbar from his pack and used it to uproot five thorn bushes he found a little distance away. Digging five holes a foot deep on the flat ground near the woman's feet, they planted the thorn bushes, stamping the earth round them, making them almost as secure and natural looking as when they were growing on the hillside. Lastly, Sundar Singh cocked both pistols.
They had done all they could do. No animal bigger than a rat could approach the kill without meeting death in one form or another. They returned to the village and set up a large machan in a big and spreading mango tree, and spread straw over the platform's surface, for they would be spending the night on it. The tree was about two hundred and thirty yards from the kill, and they wanted to the ready at an instant's notice to finish off the leopard if he were caught in the trap.
They took up the positions in the machan at sundown, their eyes scanning that curve of the hill along which they expected Raksha to come, but alert to other routes within their vision as well.
Sharpe dozed for a time, while Sundar Singh smoked his pipe and kept watch. The shadows cast by the hills to the west slowly crept up the hill where them woman's body lay. As the last hint of light faded, Sharpe woke and scanned the area. There was nothing to see, and darkness soon veiled all.
A little less than two hours passed. Then, from the direction of the kill came a savage, angry roar, and another, and another! Raksha, the man-eater of Hyderabad, was at long last in the trap.
They both leapt down from the machan, and avoided injuring themselves more by luck than skill. Sundar Singh lit his oil lantern, and with muskets ready, they set off over the rough ground as quickly as was safe. But, ominously, the screaming and roaring had stopped. They circled wide to avoid the silk lines and perhaps an angry and wounded leopard, and climbing a little farther up the hill, approached the kill from above. Sundar Singh was faster and got to it first, held the lamp high, and then stopped. He fell to his knees, and Sharpe heard his wail of sheer, disbelieving frustration.
"Ayee, I do not believe it!"
Sharpe got there a moment later, and likewise stared in disbelief. The trap - its jaws closed and empty, lay ten yards down the hillside. The kill was no longer lying with its head against the bank, and much of it had been eaten. Sharpe walked over to the trap to examine it closer, and swore. Bending closer, he pried a small piece of black furred skin from the jaws, right where the trap's tooth had broken off.
What were the chances? What were the odds that when Raksha had finished eating and was moving off, and stepped with his hind leg into the trap, when its steel jaws closed, what were the odds that they would close exactly where the steel tooth had snapped off, forming a single gap where everywhere else, the teeth fitted together perfectly? It defied belief. But nonetheless, it had happened. Sharpe looked at his companion, dumfounded.
"If this Raksha is not a demon," the tracker groaned, "then he has the protection of demons! I would not have believed it if my own eyes had not seen it!"
From his tracks, they could tell that Raksha had come from the direction they had expected. When he had arrived at the flat strip of ground, he had skirted around and below it, and had then approached the kill from the side where they had planted the thorn bushes. Rather than be deterred by this obstacle, the leopard had simply uprooted three of them with his teeth, creating a wide enough gap to go through. When he had taken hold of his kill, he had pulled it towards the pistols, thus slackening the line so that the triggers were never pulled. When he had done this, he began to feed, and had very carefully eaten around those areas they had poisoned.
When he had satisfied his hunger, the leopard left the kill and stepped with his rear left leg into the trap. He had torn it from the ground, lifting its whole weight on his leg, and carried it ten yards down the hill before he tore his leg free, with only minor injury, judging from his tracks as they led away. They followed them down the hill to the mango tree where they had their machan. Raksha had circled their hide several times. Already, the slight blood trail in his tracks was gone. He had then walked to the village gates and ran his claws across them several times. Sundar and Singh passed the rest of the night in the village. There was no more point of staying out tonight.
The Eleventh Day.
The scrap of skin that Sharpe had recovered from the trap was sufficient to prove the sadhu innocent. The villagers released him from the goat pen, to his great relief. The two trackers got some satisfaction from this, the night had not been a total failure. They dismantled the trap, which they now considered useless, and left it with the villagers. They were out of poison, so from here on out, it would be muskets only. Before noon, the Krishna River veered sharply to the left. They had reached the eastern border of Raksha's territory, and now proceeded north, with the river still on their right. As he had done throughout their hunt, Sundar Singh took every opportunity to instruct Sharpe, and today his emphasis was on tracking. He pointed out a series of cloven-hoofed prints in their path.
"When I was much younger, Sharpe sahib, it was difficult for me to distinguish between the tracks of different animals. Take for instance, the tracks of a very large wild pig and those of a sambhar deer. Both divide the hoof, and have a smaller hoof set just behind the main one. But in the pig, they are longer, and there mark can always be seen in his tracks, whereas, with the sambhar, the smaller hoof can only be seen when they have sunk into soft ground."
"How can you tell the difference between the tracks of a big leopard, like Raksha, and a tiger that isn't yet full-grown?" asked Sharpe.
"By the imprint of the toes, Sharpe sahib. The toes of a young tiger will be bigger compared to his main pad than even a huge leopard. "I have also found that the tracks of dhole, wild dogs, and hyenas are often confused with the tracks of leopards. Here is a simple rule to remember: If an animals runs down its prey like the dhole or the hyena, its toes will be bigger than its pads, and the imprints of their toenails will show in their tracks. But if an animal stalks its prey, like the tiger or the leopard, its toes will be smaller than its pads, and its toenails will not show in its tracks. If you look at the feet of a common dog or cat, you will see the difference.
"And here we have the track of a snake. Did he go left to right or right to left?"
Sharpe shrugged and shook his head, and Sundar Singh knelt down and motioned for him to peer closely at the track.
"Do you see in the path, some particles of sand stand up higher than others? These particles that stand upright we call the 'pile.' When a snake passes over sand or soil, it lays the pile flat in the direction in which it has gone, and if you remember this, you can always tell what way it has gone."
"Can you tell the track of a poisonous snake from one that's safe?" Sharpe asked.
"Most poisonous snakes lie in wait for their prey, they have no need for speed. See, here is the track of a krait, like the one that bit you. See how he travels in short curves, with much wriggling? If you saw the track of a snake with no poison, like the rat snake or the black rock snake, you would see that he chases his prey down. He leaves a straight track, and over rough ground, his belly marks only the high, not the low places of his path. Also, the larger the width of the snake's track, the more likely he bears no poison.
"Hai! And here, Sharpe sahib, is our good friend the porcupine. You see, five toes and a pad, and each footprint is distinct, for a porcupine has no need to stalk, and does not put his hind feet in the tracks of his forefeet, and his hind pads are quite long. And if you need any other proof, see these finely drawn lines made by his quills where they droop? But our friend has taken fright at something, and scurried back. And just ahead, we can see the reason for his fright. A bear has crossed the road, you see, going from right to left. And the bear disturbed a pack of wild pigs and a herd of cheetal deer, and they dashed across the road into the jungle on the right.
"And here, a little farther on, a sambhar stag came out on the right, browsed on that bush there, and see on this sapling, where he sharpened his antlers! Then he turned around and went back into the jungle. And a little further on here, a mother serow, a four-horned antelope came out with a fawn. See the dainty hoof prints, no bigger than a child's fingernail? And here the fawn skipped along the road, until the mother took fright, dashed down the road for a few yards, and both she and her fawn disappeared in the jungle. And here, at this bend in the road, we can see what she feared, for here a hyena stood, and then he turned and went back the way he came."
And so it continued throughout the day. Sharpe was awestruck at the extent of his companion's knowledge, and realized that he would need his whole life to become as proficient. After a while, Sundar Singh saw something in the road, dashed to it, and gestured in excitement.
"Here, Sharpe sahib! Can you tell what made this?"
Sharpe walked over. They had come to a part of the road that was hard packed and showed no tracks, with a steep slope on their left and a steep bank on their right. Sundar Singh was pointing to a little furrow, about three inches long and two deep, lying at right angles to the road. Sharpe shook his head. For the life of him, he could not imagine any creature that would leave such a track. The Indian laughed.
"I was just as confused when I first saw a track like this. Come, let us follow it for a bit. But be careful to keep behind me, and stay quiet."
They went down the slope about twenty feet. On a leaf, they saw a patch of red on a green leaf. It was blood, not quite dry. Sundar Singh had no difficulty tracking after that, and fifty yards further on, he drew Sharpe's attention to a pugmark in the soil. It was of a big cat, even bigger than Raksha, with outsized toes stemming from the pad.
"Tiger?" Sharpe asked. Sundar Singh nodded his approval.
"Very good, Sharpe sahib. The tiger took a cheetal stag, and jumped from the bank onto the path above with the deer in its mouth. It held it high so there were no drag marks, but a point of an antler dragged across the road and dug that furrow."
A narrow glade ran from where they crouched, ending in a small stream a hundred feet away. Beyond the stream was dense brush. Sundar Singh pointed to this.
"That is where he must be lying up with his kill. Stay very still."
Suddenly, the tracker put his hands to his mouth and gave a very convincing imitation of a leopard's cough! Instantly, there was a rustling in the brush, and the tiger stepped into view.
He was magnificent, truly the lord of the jungle. For a long minute, he stood with his head held high, surveying the scene, and then, with slow, unhurried steps he started to cross the glade. The sun lit up his rich coat. If he was aware of the two men, he was completely indifferent to them. Sharpe remembered the tiger he had killed in the Tippo Sultan's dungeons. Then, he had seen it only as an adversary, a thing to kill before it killed him. But now, he could truly appreciate what a spectacularly beautiful animal this was. With head turning now to the left and now to the right, he walked across the glade to the stream, where he lay down and slaked his thirst. Then suddenly, he sprang to his feet, leapt into the jungle, and was gone. Sharpe let out the breath he hadn't realized he had been holding.
"Lord," he said in sheer awe.
From a few hundred yards away, they heard the tiger call three times, an indication that another of the jungle folk had died to satisfy his hunger.
Sundar Singh nodded. "I have killed many tigers in my time, and always I have done it with great regret, for the tiger is truly a beautiful and majestic beast, and they only turn to man-eaters when they are injured, and must eat men or starve. Unlike the beast we seek, who has declared war on all men, and kills for the sheer pleasure as much as for food."
They made their way back to the path and continued on.
In mid-afternoon, they picked up the man-eater's trail, going down the road towards the village of Dungari, and then past it. The tracks led off the path and across a ravine, and then up a rough track back into the hill country. Half a mile later, they noticed a change in the tracks. Sundar Singh knelt down to examine them.
"He is increasing his pace. See, Sharpe sahib, when a leopard walks at his normal pace, we see only the imprints of his hind feet as he steps in those of his fore feet. But see here, he is placing his hind feet on the ground in advance of his forefeet. He is loping."
They followed the beast's trail another hundred yards, saw the stride increase.
"Now he is running."
And then, a little more than three hundred yards to their left, they heard a low growling, but from two sources, and then, the roaring and snarling of a savage fight.
Raksha ran through the heavy bush, his whole body quivering in rage. He had heard it, he had heard the call of an intruder in his territory. In HIS territory! In the ground that he had claimed, in which he had hunted for seven seasons, the ground that he had defended from all challengers. No intruder challenged him and lived.
The tiger stood and surveyed the clearing. At his feet was the carcass of a young sadhu he had just brought down, still warm and quivering. He bent his head to begin his leisurely feeding - but was suddenly interrupted by a low, menacing growl from the edge of the glade.
The tiger stared incredulously at the huge black leopard with the scarred head that had issued the challenge. Although a giant of his kind, the newcomer was still noticeably smaller and lighter than him. Yet as it stalked forward, it became obvious that the leopard was going to follow up on its challenge.
The tiger's incredulity gave way to anger. How dare this pathetic nothing, this cat attempt to take him on? He would finish this quickly.
The tiger was still young and inexperienced, or he would not have charged blindly forward, trusting in his superior size and strength to crush his opponent. For Raksha had a lifetime of fighting experience to draw off of.
The tiger hurtled across the clearing, a juggernaut of massive claws and fangs, outstretched to rend and destroy. But when his charge ended, his challenger was no longer there. The leopard had stepped aside almost casually and raked his talons across the tiger's flank as he passed. It was a painful, though not a deadly wound. The striped cat howled in surprise as much as in pain and whirled. The black leopard stood in the center of the clearing, awaiting his attack, snarling disdainfully. Again the tiger charged, and again, the leopard stepped out of the way and raked his lunging opponent again, his claws tearing down the opposite flank this time.
The tiger bellowed in sheer rage. This miserable cat was humiliating him, while he had not yet succeeded in laying a single talon on him. Now his opponent stood before him, almost within reach, sneering his contempt for his fighting ability!
The tiger lost all control, all caution. He launched himself forward, both mighty paws extended, his jaws gaping wide, his only thought to reduce this contemptible beast into a pile of shattered bones, torn flesh, and bloody black fur. And that loss of control was just what Raksha had been waiting for.
As the tiger rushed him a third time, Raksha again sidestepped. But this time, he did not lash out as his opponent passed. Instead, he reared up on his hind legs, and as the tiger passed under him, Raksha came down on top of him, his talons digging into the striped shoulders and holding fast. Raksha opened his great jaws to their fullest gape. Rearing his head back, he brought it down with all the power of his massive neck muscles. His upper canines, two dagger-sharp ivory spikes, stabbed down on the tiger's head, punching through his skull and into his brain. And even as that brain was telling the tiger's limbs to turn and rend his opponent, it died, and the brain's death sent a message of death through the body and limbs. With a single deep groan, the tiger collapsed, quivered for a moment, and was still.
Raksha stood above his defeated opponent, and then raised his head and gave a single call of triumph. Then he disappeared into the jungle.
Sharpe and Sundar Singh arrived a few minutes later, edging cautiously into the clearing, their muskets ready. Sundar Singh cried out in astonishment as he saw the tiger's body.
"Ayee, what is this beast we follow? Never, never have I even heard of a leopard slaying a tiger! It is a thing unheard of, undreamt of!"
But they could not deny the evidence of their eyes. Sharpe bent to examine the dead cat. He was shaken at the brutal killing of the beautiful beast he had so recently admired, but he fought it down.
"Two teeth marks in the skull. Must have gone right into the brain. But we can be amazed later on. The trail is still fresh."
They followed the man-eater's trail for five hundred yards before they lost it in the dense brush. So they retraced their steps and returned to the road. As the sun was setting they saw another thorn enclosure close by the road, with a man standing by it. As they drew closer, they saw that it was their old friend the goatherd. When he saw them, he waved. They told him of the dead tiger they had just found, and the evidence of the fight.
"Hai, my friends, did I not tell you that you sought a devil against which naught but fire would prevail? And this last night he has killed my prize goat."
The goatherd spoke over his shoulder as he led them to the kill.
"My march yesterday was a long one, and I arrived too late at this thorn enclosure to repair the weak places in it. During the night, several of my goats wandered out, and my best the demon has killed, during the early hours of the morning. The barking of my dogs aroused me, and when it got light, I found it lying here."
He gestured to a beautiful steel-gray goat as big as a pony, lying dead near the road. It was uneaten, the man-eater had killed it for sport. His tracks returned to the road and led down it. From the thorn enclosure, Sharpe could hear the barking of the goatherd's two dogs. As they entered, he saw that they were big, black, and tethered to stout pegs with heavy lengths of chain. They were very formidable animals, and together they might have given Raksha a run for his money.
They made their way back to the enclosure and squatted down inside it. Both Sundar Singh and the goatherd pulled out their pipes. Sundar Singh spoke first.
"My father, perhaps it would be wise to sell your dogs to camel men the next time you visit the great bazaar of Hyderabad, for it is plain that they are lacking in courage."
"O Sundar Singh," the goatherd replied. "Even an old man is apt at times to make mistakes and suffer for them, even as I have this day suffered by losing my best goat. My dogs have the courage of tigers, and are the best dogs in all Hyderabad, and you insult them when you say they are only fit to be sold to camel men. My camp, as you have doubtless observed, is very close to the road, and I feared that if by chance anyone came along the road by night my dogs might do them an injury, so I chained them up inside the thorn enclosure, instead of leaving them loose as is my custom. You can see the result, but do not blame the dogs, Sundar Singh, for in their efforts to save my goat their collars have bitten deep into their necks, and made wounds that will take many days to heal."
Sundar Singh apologized.
That night, they shared the goatherd's hospitality, a curry of mixed vegetables and goat cheese with chapattis. They contributed the tea and tobacco, some of each of which they gave to the grateful goatherd for his future use.
They sat for a while in the darkness, and only the glow of Sundar Singh's pipe showed he was there. From somewhere beyond the hedge, a hooting sounded.
"That," said Sundar Singh, "is the call of the churail, one of the most feared of the evil spirits of the night. She appears in the form of a woman, but a man can tell a churail because her feet are turned the wrong way, with the toes behind her. She can entrance a man with her eyes and lead him to his doom. The only defense against a churail is to shield one's eyes with the hands or any piece of cloth that is handy."
"It sounds like an owl," said Sharpe.
"That is her trick, to sound like an owl," said Sundar Singh. "Only once in my life have I seen a churail.
It was one night after the harvest, and our village was alive with happy sounds. After dinnertime, I heard the churail call, and instantly, every sound in the village was hushed. On the right corner of the village, there is a tall old haldu tree that rises over our walls. I heard the call again, and perched in the topmost branches of the tree, I saw the churail. She had cleverly taken the form of an owl, but I was not fooled. I thought of shooting her, but of what use is a gun against a churail? After calling again, the churail spread her wings and flew off into the night."
"Perhaps it was an owl," said Sharpe.
"And why would an owl make the call of a churail?" "But you said they mimic the call of an owl."
"And who but a churail could disguise her call as that of an owl?"
Sharpe had the feeling his leg was being pulled, but decided against pursuing the matter further. Afterwards, they lay on sleeping mats under the stars. The goat's carcass they had left where it lay, but the dogs were quiet, so it appeared that the leopard was nowhere near. They were glad to spend a night without him.
The Twelfth Day.
They were making ready to go as dawn was breaking, they north, the goatherd south, when a commotion from outside caught all their attention. They rushed out of the enclosure. Standing in the middle of the path was a large animal. From its dark color and size, Sharpe first thought it was a bear, but as it ran closer, he saw it was a big wild boar. Sharpe had seen dead ones before, for British officers had found a new sport in the native wild boars. They had taken to running them down with lances on horseback as a substitute for foxhunting. They called it "pig-sticking." The beast was quite a bit more formidable alive, Sharpe thought. Its heavy, knife-edge back came higher than his waist, and its champing tusks looked to be at least six inches long.
Following it came a pack of dholes, wild dogs perhaps two-thirds the size of a wolf, with short reddish fur and tails that curved up over their backs. There looked to be about forty of them, and they were all giving voice to their howls and they closed in on their prey. The boar ran down a long grassy slope, with an odd bush
here and there, ending in a belt of dense brush bordering the river. Sharpe, Sundar Singh, and the goatherd ran after to keep the drama in sight. The dholes were catching up over the rough, broken ground, and at the edge of the brush, the boar turned at bay, lowered his head, and squealed his defiance. There was a flurry of dashing bodies as the dholes closed in, and then they gave back. The boar was still standing, and fresh blood glinted on his tusks. Two dholes lay unmoving on the ground, one was trying to drag itself away, and one limped badly. The dholes encircled their quarry, baying fiercely, but with his back guarded by the brush, he was unfazed. His opponents were cautious, reluctant to close again. They had seen what those tusks could do. Again, they attacked, this time for only a moment, and Sharpe saw a gutted dhole flung completely into the air by a lunge of the boar's head. The dholes gave back a few feet, still baying.
The extra space was all the boar needed. He plunged into the brush, and all three men plunged in as well, eager to witness the climax. They came out of the brush on the river's edge, and the boar emerged about a hundred feet away. He stood on a narrow strip of sand. The baying of the dholes indicated that they were following close behind. The boar stood perfectly still for a few seconds, and then with a little run plunged into the river, swimming strongly. A moment later, the pack emerged into the open and lined the bank, baying in anger.
The current was strong, but the boar showed great heart, and a few minutes later, he emerged on the farther bank, shook himself vigorously, and disappeared into the bush. Sundar Singh shook his head in admiration.
"He may be an unclean animal, but by Allah, there is no stouter a fighter in all of India than the wild boar.'
The drama over, they accompanied the goatherd back to the thorn enclosure, before which they took their leave of him.
"Good bye, my father," said Sundar Singh. "We go to shoot the beast you think an evil spirit, but which I know is a leopard."
"Have it your own way, O Sundar Singh," he answered. "And now as you are going, and we may never meet again, take my blessing with you, and time will prove whether you or I are right."
They soon picked up Raksha's trail, and found he was traveling north, as they were.
"How can you tell how long ago a track was made?" Sharpe asked.
"Well, look at Raksha's pug marks. The path is red clay, trodden hard by bare human feet. Over this clay is a coating of fine white dust. See first, the pile of the dust where it took his weight is laid flat and smooth, and the walls of the dust surrounding his pads and toes are clear cut and more or less straight up. We can guess from this that these tracks are fresh. Later today, the wind and they sun will make the pile stand up again, and the walls will begin to crumble. See here, his tracks cross those of a pine martin who came this way yesterday, and you can see how his tracks have collapsed. And do you see the little trails across its tracks? They are from insects that only come out at night, so we know it made them before then. Dust has drifted into them, and here, bits of dry grass and leaves have been blown into them. By these, the tracks will soon be eliminated. If you learn how to read the position of the track, whether it is in an exposed or in a sheltered spot, at what time of day or of night it was made and what insects have crossed it, if the wind has blown across it or if dew has dripped into it, you can make a good guess as to when the track was made."
"Can you tell from a track whether a leopard is a male or female, old or young, big or small?" asked Sharpe.
"The male will have a rounded track, the female more oval. If the leopard is young, its toes will still be round and close together, and there will be no cracks and creases in the pads. As far as size goes, you will have to see many tigers and leopards and compare them to their tracks before you can determine that." Sundar Singh walked on a short way, then motioned Sharpe over and pointed to a maze of tracks made when a herd of cheetal had crossed the path.
"How many animals passed by here, Sharpe sahib?"
Sharpe looked at the bewildering profusion of hoof marks; it looked like a thousand animals had gone through here. He shook his head, and his companion grinned.
"I will tell you. From a cheetal's front legs to its hind legs is perhaps thirty inches, or three lengths of your foot. Measure off thirty inches of these tracks, and mark it."
Sharpe took out his bayonet and drew a line through the tracks, and from there paced back three foot lengths along their left side. He then drew a second line through the tracks and looked at the Indian, who nodded, a teacher pleased with his pupil.
"Now count the number of hoof prints between those two lines."
Counting the hoof prints in this space was not easy, but it was possible. Sharpe marked each hoof print with a dot from his bayonet tip. After a few minutes, he looked up.
"I make it to be about sixty."
Sundar Singh nodded again. "Now, divide that number of hoof prints by four, for the four feet that each animal has, and you will be able to guess that the number of animals that passed by here was about -"
"Fifteen," Sharpe said, pleased with this new knowledge.
"And if it is a larger animal, like a sambar deer, simply make it forty inches between the fore and hind feet. For smaller animals, make it twenty inches.
"And think you, Sharpe sahib, how this will well serve you as a soldier. Let us say that you are in enemy country and you come across footprints. You note their size and shape, the absence or presence of hob nails, whether the heels are iron shod or plain, and you can determine whether these tracks were made by your own companions or the enemy. To find out how many men passed this way, you draw a line across the track, and with the toe of your foot on the line take a step of thirty inches, and draw a second line across the track. The number of heel marks between these two lines divided by two will give you the number of men in the party. You can also determine how fast they were moving. When a man moves at a normal pace, he places his weight evenly over his footprint, and his stride is from thirty to thirty-two inches, depending on his height. As he increases his speed, more weight falls on his toe and less on his heel, and the imprint of his toe is greater and that of his heel less, and the length of his stride grows longer. The faster he goes, the plainer this becomes, and when he is running at full speed, little more than the ball of his foot and his toes make a mark in the ground. Also, if the party was a small one, say ten or twelve, you can see if any were limping, and blood on the trail will tell you that one or more were wounded."
Sharpe could see how valuable this might prove some day. They proceeded down the path for a while. Then he thought of something else he had wondered about, just before they had seen the tiger.
"I didn't know you could mimic a leopard's call."
Sundar Singh nodded. "It has given me much pleasure over the years to understand the talk of the jungle folk. They have many languages, each type of beast and bird has his own, and yet what they say is understood by all in the jungle. And no creature has a more adaptable voice than man, except perhaps for the racket-tailed drongo. It is possible for a man to speak with many of the birds and beasts. But it is not enough to know how to make their calls. The birds and beasts do not call without reason, and their calls are different according to the reason for which it is made.
"You can see it in the barking of a dog. He barks, and all who hear it know he is barking to welcome his master, or barking with excitement at being taken for a run, or barking in frustration at a treed cat, or barking with anger at a stranger, or just barking because he is chained up. In all these cases, it is the tone of the bark that allows us to determine why the dog is barking.
"In the same way, a cheetal may bark to call her young to her, or to warn the herd that danger is near. Once you understand this and can imitate the calls, you can get many birds and beasts to follow you. And it is also important to know how to locate a sound. Animals can pinpoint a sound's source in an instant, for their lives depend on it, and a man can do the same. Sounds that are repeated over and over again are easy to locate, as for instance, the barking of a langur monkey at a leopard, the barking of a cheetal because she has seen a suspicious movement, or the call of a peafowl when it spots a tiger. It is the sound that is only heard once, such as the snapping of a twig, a low growl, or a single warning call of a bird that is difficult to locate, but it means that danger is near, and action must be taken now.
"And for this reason, Sharpe sahib, you must train yourself to see everything within your line of vision, not only in front, where movement is easy to detect and deal with, but also far to the left and right, where all is vague and indistinct. For these things can be the most dangerous, and are most to be feared, and the eye must be trained against them. On one occasion it may be the darting in and out of a cobra's forked tongue in the hollow of a tree, and on another the moving of the tip of the tail of a wounded leopard lying behind a bush. You must see these things in time to react, before the cobra can strike or the leopard spring. And these skills, Sharpe sahib, can only be learned through long years of practice in the jungle."
That afternoon they found a fresh set of Raksha's tracks leading a couple of miles into the brush, and then lost them on the slopes of another hill. They knew he would be resting under cover, and there was little chance of finding him now. From their elevation, they looked down the hill and saw two young men making their way across it, obviously heading towards their village. They hurried down the hill and intercepted them. Sundar Singh raised his hand in greeting.
"Hai, brothers! We seek the man-eater. Have you seen anything?"
One of the men nodded.
"Last night, we heard a leopard call from this very hill."
"Can we buy a goat in your village? We need to set one out as bait."
"We can sell you one. We will go to our village and bring him back here, two hours before sunset."
The villagers went on their way, and the two hunters looked around for a place where they could lie in wait for Raksha. The only tree in that whole part of the hill was a solitary pine, growing on the ridge close to the path down which the men had come. From under it, another path ran across the face of the hill, skirting the upper edge of some broken ground. They would be able to see a long way, but its boughs, sparsely needled, would give them little cover. And it would be difficult for them to climb, though easy for the leopard.
As the sun was approaching the horizon, the two villagers returned with a goat. Sundar Singh paid them and tied it to an exposed root of the tree. One of them looked around.
"Where will you sit, my brothers?"
Sharpe pointed to the pine, and both men started laughing. The one who had asked spoke again.
"Without a rope ladder, climbing it will not be possible, and further, even if you succeed in climbing it and remain there all night, what will protect you from the man-eater, who can climb it without trouble?"
Sundar Singh patted his musket.
"This will protect us, my brothers, this and the blessing of Allah. As for climbing it "
He looked at the tree speculatively. Then he slung his musket over his shoulder and whipped his turban off of his head. His gray-black hair fell to his shoulders as he unraveled the dark blue cloth, which was about a dozen feet long. Doubling it into a stout six feet length, he whipped it around the tree trunk with his right hand and caught the other end in his left. Then, keeping pressure on the cloth, he quickly jumped with both legs and planted his feet on either side of the trunk. As agile as a langur, he straightened out his legs as he slacked on the cloth, drew it another three feet up the tree, and then gripped with it again and drew his legs up. He repeated this process another four or five times, and was then within grasping distance of the lowest branch, about twenty feet up. Gripping this, he pulled himself up, sat down, and threw his turban down to Sharpe.
Sharpe caught it, whipped it around the tree, and copied his companion's efforts. Within a minute, in spite of a couple of slips, he had attained his own branch and sat down. The Indians below smiled and clapped appreciatively. Sundar Singh spoke in Sharpe's ear.
"Let us go into the higher branches, Sharpe sahib, the cover is better there."
They made their way another thirty feet up the tree, and sat down on two branches at right angles to each other, Sharpe's facing south and his companion's facing west. Sundar Singh called down to the villagers.
"Is your goat a good bleater? We want to make sure to draw the leopard."
"Yes, he is a fine bleater, my brother. We will go back to our village now, and return early in the morning."
The goat watched the men walk out of sight, and then it started to nibble the short grass at the foot of the tree. So far, it had not bleated once. Hopefully, it would do its job once the leopard showed up. It would be a well-lit night, and from their elevated positions, they should be able to kill the beast before it got anywhere near the goat.
The shadows cast by the hills had reached the silver ribbon of the Krishna. Soon, there was only a red glow from the tips of the hills, and then this glow faded out. The goat, completely indifferent, finished grazing off the grass around its tether, scratched a shallow hole for itself, lay down and went to sleep. This was a problem. They needed the goat to bleat and attract the leopard, and now it looked like it would slumber through the night. Suddenly, Sharpe had an idea.
"What happens when one leopard hears another leopard calling?"
"He will go and investigate it. If it is a female, he may try to mate with it. If it is a male, he will kill it or drive it out, for a leopard does not tolerate rivals in his territory."
"Can you try to call him?"
Sundar Singh nodded thoughtfully.
"That just might work, Sharpe sahib."
It was now quite dark. Sundar Singh put his cupped hands to his mouth and gave the moaning cough of a leopard.
And immediately, it was answered, from some four hundred yards down the hill, a little to the right.
The ground downhill was strewn with great rocks and overgrown with matted thorn bushes. Raksha would not come in a straight line towards them, but would skirt this broken ground and come up a second ridge parallel to the one their tree was on. When next he called, they knew he was doing just that. Again, Sundar Singh answered. Five minutes later, he called again, and they knew he was coming up the path that went under their tree and ran around the shoulder of the hill. He was about two hundred yards away now. Sundar Singh answered again, giving the beast direction.
Three minutes later, he called again, from a distance of a hundred yards.
Sharpe lifted his musket and, peering down through the branches, aimed it down the path. From the root of the tree where the goat was tied, the path ran back about fifty yards and bent sharply. Carefully, he thumbed back the doghead to full cock. Sharpe would have to wait until the leopard was almost on the goat.
Just beyond the bend now, about sixty yards away, the leopard called again - and suddenly, unexpectedly, another leopard answered the call far up the hill!
The leopard was too close now for Sundar Singh to call again, and obviously, he was assuming that a female had moved further up the hill, and was calling him to join her there. But perhaps he would still come up the path to where it joined the second path that wound around the hill, and that would bring him past the goat and allow Sharpe his shot.
But the goat was lucky that night, and Sharpe was not. They heard Raksha's padding as he cut across the angle formed by the two paths. The next time he called he was a hundred yards up the hill, and the female answered him coaxingly. The calling of the leopards drew nearer and nearer together, and finally stopped. There was a long period of silence; and then the caterwauling of two mating leopards came floating down to the tree where Sharpe and Sundar Singh sat. It came from the crest, where the grassland ended and the dense forest began, continued for several minutes and then died down.
And then, without any warning, an incredibly powerful gust of wind struck the tree, which bent so sharply that the two hunter's heads and heels switched positions, and only the desperate grip of their legs kept them from tumbling to the ground! For a few seconds, it seemed impossible that the tree could snap back to upright, or that they could maintain their hold. But then the pressure eased, and the tree and the two men got back to where they had been. Fearing that worse wind might follow, both hunters slung their muskets over their shoulders and hung on with both hands. Sundar Singh spoke, his voice urgent.
"Sharpe sahib, quickly! Break off as many branches as you can reach. Our extra weight is causing the tree to bend too far, and we must lighten the load."
First sitting, and then standing, they began to systematically snap off branches, one after another, as far as they could reach. How much difference it made, they could not know for sure, but after they had lightened the tree, when the wind next gusted, the pine did not seem to bend over as dangerously as it had first done. It was fortunate that the pine was young and supple, with deep-set roots, for it was tossed about for an hour like a blade of grass, forcing them to cling for dear life. And then, as suddenly as it had started, the wind died down.
They neither saw nor heard anything of the leopard for the rest of the night. Sundar Singh lit his pipe, and Sharpe dozed. As the sun was rising, they heard a call from the bottom of the tree. The youths from the village stood by the goat, along with two more who had come to see. One called up.
"How did it go with you last night, my brother, and what has happened to the tree?"
Sundar Singh grinned.
"We had a friendly conversation with the leopards last night. And because we had nothing else to do, we amused ourselves by breaking off the branches of our tree."
The villagers laughed. In a few moments, Sharpe and Sundar Singh had made their way down to the ground. Sundar Singh spoke again.
"Did you happen to notice a little wind during the night, my brothers?"
"A little wind! Such a big wind has never been known, and it blew away my hut."
Another villager spoke up.
"That is no matter for regret, for Sher Singh has long been planning to rebuild his hut, and now the wind has saved him the trouble."
They all laughed at that, and the villagers were happy to take the goat back and return Sundar Singh's money.
The goat had not bleated once.
The Thirteenth Day.
They did not pick up the man-eater's trail that morning. They searched in vain for some sign of him in the jungle surrounding their tree. He had not returned to the road, and was probably laid up some where with his new mate.
Around noon, they came to the second bridge over the Krishna that fell within the leopard's territory, noticed that the thorn barrier had been laid aside so that people might pass by day. They called out to the caretaker, who promptly came down.
"Have you heard anything of the man-eater, my brother?"
"Yes, last night, he killed my little dog. I heard him barking in the night, then a yelp. In the morning, all I found was his broken rope."
"That won't be enough for him," said Sundar Singh. "If he is on the prowl again, there will be another kill further on."
The ground was hard packed around the bridge, and they saw no tracks. But they picked them up again a mile up the road, before they led into the bush again. After another few miles, they came in sight of another village, Hairakhan. As they drew close, they heard the hysterical, grief-laden wailing of a woman. They knew what to expect.
They were recognized, and a group of men came out to meet them. Among them was the village headman.
"Praise be to Allah, you have come. A boy was killed last night."
As they walked through the village gates, he filled them in on the details.
"The mother is a widow with two children, the boy, age twelve, and a girl, age nine. She had taken them with a neighbor's son last night to draw water from the well. The neighbor's son was leading as they walked back, and he said he saw an animal laying in the shadows a few steps away. He thought it was a dog, and said nothing about it, and the others did not see it. The girl followed him, then the woman, and last of all her son. As she reached the door of her house, she heard the heavy brass jug he was carrying fall to the ground, and turned to scold him for dropping it. All she saw was the overturned jug. She went down to pick it up and looked around for her son. He was nowhere in sight, and she assumed he had gotten frightened and run away, so she started calling to him. Neighbors heard the noise and came to their doors.
"One brought a lantern, showed it where the jug had fallen, and found a splash of blood. We followed the blood trail across the village square and over the low wall. Beyond the wall was a yam field, and in the soft earth, we found the man-eater's pugmarks. It was growing dark, and we feared to follow any further. The woman has been in a hysteria of grief from that hour to this."
The mother's wails sounded in their ears as he spoke. As they neared the scene of the kill, she rushed out and threw her arms around Sundar Singh's neck.
"You have come at last! Oh, if only you had been here last night, instead of all these cowards, you might have run after the leopard and rescued my son, as his father would have done had he been alive."
Embarrassed, Sundar Singh gently disengaged her arms and bent to examine the bloodstain. He looked at the woman and shook his head regretfully.
"Your words are unfair to the men of your village, my sister. Your son died instantly, right here."
The woman was obviously on the verge of another breakdown, and neither of them wanted to be on hand for it. To avoid that, they traced the dried blood trail to the eight-foot wall and climbed over. The leopard had dragged his kill across the yam field, down a gully, across another field to the edge of a thick hedge of rambler roses four feet high. Here, the beast had released his hold on the boy's neck and picked him up by the small of the back. He had leaped the hedge and gone down into a deep ravine on the other side. After another quarter of a mile, they found the boy's body at the bottom of the ravine. It was untouched, so the leopard would be back.
They were in an area of big rocks and dense brushwood. There were some small trees around the area, but none of them were big enough to sit in. But some thirty yards from the kill, they found a long rock with a little hollow at its base. Sundar Singh examined it. It was big enough for both him and Sharpe, and was deep enough so that when they were sitting in it, the ground would be at the level of their chests. It was a naturally made trench. Sundar Singh turned to Sharpe.
"We will wait for him here."
Sharpe nodded and then looked overhead. They sky was gray and overcast, and there was a threatening, heavy feel in the air. In the distance, they could see lightning flash and hear the remote rumbling of thunder. Neither said anything, but each was thinking the same thing: heavy rain now could bring disaster.
From his concealment among the boulders up the slope of the ravine, Raksha watched the two-legs examine his kill. His eyes narrowed as he noted where they hid themselves. He raised his head and sniffed the air, smelling rain. Soon, soon, the advantage would be his. His time had come. He flexed his claws and growled low in his throat. Tonight was the night he hunted his hunters.
They masked the trench with some dense thorn bushes and then settled in. Their seat was dry and comfortable, so far. The two hunters readied their muskets and waited. The day grew dimmer as the sun set behind the clouds. It was soon dark, and Raksha would be making his way towards his kill. There was absolute silence in the ravine. The ground was covered with dry leaves, and they should be able to hear their crackle as the man-eater approached.
It was now quite dark, and neither the stars nor the moon was visible. And the leopard had not come. Neither man spoke. As the hours passed, they strained their ears to hear the least little trace of sound. At perhaps an hour past midnight, Sharpe felt a heavy drop of rain fall on his hand. And then the heavens opened, and a driving, pounding deluge slammed down on them from above. The monsoon had come.
Within minutes, they and everything they had was soaked through and through. There was no guarding anything from this cloudburst. Worst of all, the powder in their frizzen pans was surely soaked; their muskets were now useless. But they knew that leopards hated getting wet. Perhaps Raksha was lying up somewhere, waiting for it to ease up before coming to his kill. It was completely dark now; they couldn't see their hands before their faces.
And then, from out in the rain-driven blackness, they heard a snarl.
Sundar Singh grabbed Sharpe's shoulder and spoke into his ear.
"He knows where we are! Fix your bayonet, Sharpe sahib!"
Sharpe drew his musket back through the thorn bushes, felt for his bayonet, drew it and fixed it with a twist to his musket muzzle. Now all that stood between him and Raksha's claws was seventeen inches of badly-forged steel. Beside him, he heard Sundar Singh draw his twenty-inch Khyber knife. Even as he did so, they felt their thorn barrier seized and torn away from them with a single twist of the leopard's jaws. They heard the snarl again, right in their faces, and there was a note of triumph in it. He knew their helplessness.
Sharpe thrust his bayonet into the darkness, connected with nothing. To his right, he heard Sundar Singh cry out, stabbed forward of where his cry sounded. This time he felt his blade strike, but the beast twisted away from it, and when it batted the musket aside, he felt the shock wave all through his body. He heard another snarl, and something seized his musket and tried to twist it out of his hand. He heard Sundar Singh lunge forward, and a chance stroke of lightning showed him a glimpse of his knife stabbing into the great cat's flank as it gripped his musket in its jaws. On an off chance, Sharpe pulled the trigger. But the shot that would have gone through the beast's head never happened, as he feared, his powder was soaked.
And then the beast was gone, and they sat next to each other, panting. From perhaps twenty feet away, they could hear Raksha snarling as he paced.
"It is not over, Sharpe sahib. Stay ready."
Sharpe felt for his bayonet and cursed. It was bent almost double. He straightened it out as best he could against a rock. And then they waited.
If he lived to be a thousand, Sharpe knew that he would never experience anything to match the sheer, unrelenting terror of that night. They sat in their trench, peering into the blackness, striving and failing to see any hint of anything as the rain lashed down. But the blood-hungry snarls of their enemy sounded from only a few yards away. They would hear the pad of his feet coming closer as he moved in to attack, and would have but a split second to prepare themselves. Then they would stab into the darkness, sometimes missing, sometimes wounding, but they got the worst of the exchanges. The sleeves of their tunics were soon shredded, and long cuts scored the flesh of their arms as Raksha had clawed at them. Then, after a few seconds frenzied melee, the leopard withdrew and they went back to watching and waiting.
Five times that night, they fought off Raksha's attacks. Whatever damage they were doing to him, it wasn't enough to stop him. Not nearly.
And the waiting was in some ways worse than the fighting. The tension built and built, higher and higher. Sharpe peered into the inky darkness, striving to see some sign of the next attack. His heart beat harder and harder, until it seemed that it surely must tear its way out of his chest. It was getting more and more difficult to get his breath, and he was afraid to blink, lest he lose the split-second's warning of the beast's next attack. Sharpe didn't mind admitting, he was afraid as he had never been afraid, and the fear grew and grew with each passing hour, winding its icy fingers around his spine, squeezing his lungs and throat in a strangler's grip. But the fear didn't paralyze him. It heightened his senses and reaction time. So in the end, perhaps fear was his servant.
The night dragged on and on, the rain gave no hint of let-up, and still the beast's snarls sounded so close. It seemed that they had been there for years, and Sharpe was thinking that they would sit there forever, eternally fighting off a demon they could not see, but who could see them and lusted for their flesh.
And then they saw a faint lightening in the gray east. Dawn was breaking behind the clouds.
No! The advantage was shifting, and still the two-legs lived. Kill them now! Now!
Even as he saw the dawn, Sharpe heard the thumping of the man-eater's pads as he charged in to attack. Again, Sharpe thrust in the darkness, felt his bayonet strike hard solid bone, and heard the snap and clatter as his blade broke off and fell to the ground. And then he sensed the man-eater turning towards him, held his musket before him as a guard, and felt mighty jaws crunch down on the stock and force it back on his throat. A taloned paw raked along his left shoulder, digging deep, and he cried out in pain. Then Sundar Singh lunged forward with his knife, felt it strike and it tip go in. Raksha lashed out with his claws at this new attack as Sundar Singh ducked back. He wasn't fast enough, and the tips of the talons raked through his left cheek. Sharpe felt the beast release his musket and lunge for the Indian. He reversed his grip, raised the musket over his head, and brought its butt down with all his strength. It connected solidly with the beast's back, and the leopard slashed in retaliation across his belly. His claws dug four long furrows in the leather vest that had saved him from disembowelment.
Then the leopard withdrew, and from some thirty yards away, they heard him snarl at them a last time. There was silence after that, and somehow, they both knew he had gone.
They kept careful watch anyway, and as the day lightened through the rain, they saw that Raksha had picked up the boy's body and taken it with him. They scanned the walls of the ravine. He would be somewhere up there now, feeding. And there was no chance of tracking him over the barren rock.
They looked at each other. They were both in bad condition. Their sleeves were in bloody shreds from scores of wounds to their arms. Sharpe was bleeding slightly from the shoulder and the belly, where the leopard's claws had grazed his skin through the leather vest. Sundar Singh was bleeding profusely from four parallel claw marks on his cheek, just under the eye. Neither man could say anything; they were exhausted in mind, body, and spirit. Too exhausted to speak.
After a while, they got up and made their way back to the village. The slow dispirited quality of their walk advertised their failure to the villagers. The boy's mother was first among the crowd, and she ran up to Sundar Singh.
"You failed! You did not kill the murder of my son, whose life was taken from him just as it was beginning. What mighty hunters!"
She spat in Sundar Singh's face. He made no effort to prevent her. He and Sharpe just trudged down the road, away from her grief and their failure. The rain pounded down unrelentingly.
The Fourteenth Day.
Sundar Singh was too discouraged to instruct Sharpe any further in the ways of the jungle that day, and Sharpe couldn't think of anything to say to him, so they trudged through the mud in silence, while the rain drummed down on their backs. The road veered west again, they had almost completed their circuit of Raksha's territory, and were approaching their starting point, Sundar Singh's home village of Thali. Well before the village came in sight, they caught hints of a distant cacophony, horns blowing, drums beating, metal clanging, men shouting, and over all the trumpeting of elephants. As they came closer, they saw an amazing sight.
It was a beat, but a massive one, far larger than the one that Sharpe and Sundar Singh had seen when they had started their hunt. Whoever was putting it on must have emptied every village within a day's journey of its men. Sharpe estimated that there were two thousand of them, employing their noisemaking implements in an irregular line that stretched from the road nearly a mile to the right, into the scrub brush that bordered the village. Interspersed between each was an elephant, ten in all, whose mahouts were keeping them from outpacing the men on their flanks.
Then, standing off to the side, they saw a figure in a richly brocaded red tunic and white turban standing among the village leaders, shouting orders. Sundar Singh peered at this figure, and then groaned.
"Oh no, it cannot be."
"You know him?"
"I do, Sharpe sahib. It is Mungal Rao, chief shikar to the Nizam of Hyderabad. The greatest shikar in all of India, at least in his own mind."
"You don't agree?"
The Indian shook his head.
"I knew him when he was a young shikar. I tried to instruct him in tracking and the ways of the jungle, but he was too full of himself to ever learn anything. His skill lies in flattering great men so that they give him their trust. He then surrounds himself with men of greater hunting and tracking skill than himself, but who are children in exalting themselves in the eyes of others. He takes credit for their deeds, and if they complain, a bribe from his ample pockets is usually enough to silence them."
They walked up to the group where Mungal Rao was standing. Sharpe could see that he was portly, almost fat, and his garish clothes advertised his great wealth. He had an enormous black mustache that curled back over his round face to meet his sideburns. He turned, and his eyebrows rose in recognition. His black eyes were small and crafty.
"By Rama, it is Sundar Singh. Welcome back, old teacher. I had heard that you were on the track of the man-eater. But now your problems are solved. I will soon have the beast where I want him."
He gestured to the beat. "We found his fresh tracks near the rest station. This beat will flush him out."
Standing at his side, he gestured to a small, elderly court official, and behind him, two formidable looking sepoys who carried an iron strongbox between them.
"Here is the Nizam's agent, with the reward of 10,000 rupees. I told the Nizam that he should send the reward here, so I can give some alms to the villagers whose loved ones were killed."
Somehow, Sharpe doubted that more than a few coins would find their way to the bereaved villagers, if that much. He shook his head. "You won't find him. He doesn't lay up this close to the road."
Mungal Rao turned a disdainful gaze on Sharpe. "Who is this infidel?"
Sharpe bristled. He was quickly deciding he didn't like this pompous ass.
"Sergeant Richard Sharpe, His Majesty's 33rd Regiment of Foot."
"Well, Sergeant Richard Sharpe, His Majesty's 33rd Regiment of Foot, I suggest you leave the tracking to the experts."
Now Sharpe knew he didn't like this pompous ass. But he made no reply. He and Sundar Singh just stood and watched as the beat made its way through the scrub brush. No leopard was flushed, nor was there any sign of him being anywhere near. Sharpe turned to Sundar Singh.
"Do you want to check the tracks at the rest station?"
Sundar Singh shook his head. His tone was dejected. "No Sharpe sahib, there is no point. Now that the monsoons have begun, we will hear little of him until the spring. Any kills he makes will be random and impossible to follow up. Also, I cannot work with that man."
He turned and began to walk towards the village gates. He turned and glanced back at Sharpe.
"Your obligation to me is finished, Sharpe sahib. It was a good hunt, and I thank you for it, but there is no need for you to concern yourself any longer in these matters."
Sharpe watched him trudge away, and then turned back to watch the beat breaking up his mind racing over the events of the last two weeks.
It couldn't end here. It just couldn't! After all the havoc this beast had done, they couldn't leave him alive. There had to be something he and his companion were not seeing, some way to track Raksha through the monsoons.
And then it hit him. So obvious it was like a brick in the face. He turned and ran for Sundar Singh's house. The tracker had lain down on his sleeping pallet and was staring at the ceiling.
"Sundar Singh! Show me the map of Raksha's territory."
The Indian's brows lowered, but he shrugged, got up and fumbled in his backpack., producing the map. Sharpe grabbed it from him and rolled it out on the floor. He traced a finger around the perimeter of Raksha's territory, taking in all the villages they had visited.
"Look, these are the villages that Raksha preys on, just before he disappears for the monsoon season. Is that right?"
Sundar Singh nodded.
"Well, it stands to reason that if he ends his killing for the season here, then his lair must be close by. You said that leopards hate getting wet, and he wouldn't trudge long distances through this rain if he didn't have to. I think his lair has to be - somewhere in - here!"
He swept his hand over the area encircled by the road and villages through which they had traveled. It looked to be wild territory, with no villages or even isolated huts. Sundar Singh leaned forward in sudden interest, then smote his forehead with his hand.
"Allah forgive me! How could I have missed it?"
He turned to Sharpe. "That area is shunned by all, for it has an evil reputation. Twelve years ago, it was a stronghold of the Thugs, the strangler cult of Kali. And here," - his finger stabbed down into the center of the map - 'here is their abandoned temple, the very same one where Raksha was captured twelve years ago!"
He looked up towards the ceiling. "He went back to his beginning, to the first place where he tasted man's flesh and felt man's hand."
He looked again at Sharpe. It was clear in his face, his spirit was revived.
"And tomorrow, Sharpe sahib, you and I will travel to that temple, which is no more than twelve miles to the south of here, and we shall take Raksha in his own den!"
A new voice sounded from behind him.
"Excellent, Sundar Singh, I knew you would have an idea of where the beast is to be found."
They turned, to see Mungal Rao standing behind them.
"You will of course, need an expert shikar to aid you in tracking him down. Luckily for you, I am available tomorrow to accompany you. I will even allow you the use of my spare tent."
Sharpe and Sundar Singh looked at each other in dismay. Sharpe turned to Mungal Rao, ready to tell him to bugger off. Then he thought again and sighed. Neither of them wanted this boastful fool to go with them.
But short of shooting him, how could they stop him?
The Fifteenth Day.
Sharpe rose with the dawn and dressed quickly. He had eaten well and slept well. Now he was ready for what he was sure was the climax of the hunt. He went to Sundar Singh's house. The front door was open, and the tracker was dressed and sitting up on his pallet. Sharpe called out to him.
"Ready to go?"
"Ready, Sharpe sahib."
He rose and followed Sharpe out the door. It was raining steadily. Mungal Rao stood by the gate with two loaded mules. Obviously, he didn't believe in traveling light. Well, he'd have to keep up with the pace they set, they wouldn't wait for him.
They trudged down the road towards the rest station, for they wanted to inspect the scene of Raksha's latest kill. Word had reached the village just before they left. A large group of pilgrims, some fifty or more had stopped there for the night while on their way to the shrine of Sravanbelgoa. The main shelter was open on the side nearest the road and closed on all its other sides. The caretaker of the rest station, who had taken up his duties again after convalescing from the wounds he had received in his own encounter with Raksha, had urged them to go on to Thali and seek safe shelter behind its walls. The pilgrims were tired and unwilling to accept this advice, and began to prepare and cook their evening meal. One of the men, a sadhu, told the caretaker that if any leopard, man-eater or no, dared molest them, he would reach down its throat and turn it inside out. The pilgrims all laughed, and the caretaker shrugged and went into his house, figuring that he had issued his warning and his duty to them was done. To his thinking, verbally challenging this beast that might be a demon was most unwise.
During the night, one of the men started up and complained that a scorpion had stung him on the foot. One of his companions lit a lantern, and examining the man's foot, saw a small scratch from which a little blood was flowing. It did not seem to be serious, so he doused the lantern and everyone went back to sleep.
In the morning, the sadhu was missing, and there was a splash of fresh blood where he had slept. In the mud outside of the shelter, they found the man-eater's tracks coming and going. The leopard had walked over all the sleeping people, killed the sadhu, and carried him off. As he did so, his claw had accidentally scratched the pilgrim's foot. The sadhu had indeed been most unwise to challenge Raksha.
They arrived at the rest station an hour after dawn. Sharpe thought back to when he, Rumbold and Kilpatrick had stopped here. Had it really only been two weeks ago? So much had happened that it felt like two years. He knelt down to examine the tracks. Sundar Singh stood behind him. Sharpe turned to him.
"It's Raksha, no doubt about it."
Sundar Singh nodded.
The man-eater's tracks led back to the road, but not along it as before. They went across the road and into the bush on the far side, heading due south. As they followed, it became obvious that this path was little used. It was narrow and overgrown with growth, and great shaggy trees bent over it, obscuring the rainy sky. They all had leather skins wrapped around their muskets to keep out the water, and carried them with their hands on the stocks, ready to strip the covering off if they needed to fire. Sharpe took the lead, scanning left, right, and up, determined to not be taken by surprise. Sundar Singh followed, and Mungal Rao and his pack mules brought up the rear. The Nizam's shikar kept up a non-stop litany of his accomplishment, and with each step, it grated more and more on Sharpe's nerves.
"You are indeed fortunate to have me, the most famous shikar in all the lands, to help you on the hunt. Have you heard of how I brought down the Chowgarh tiger? No? Well I had heard that this tiger had killed over fifty people. I went down and knew immediately where I could find the beast. No tiger could have seen my hide, I was too clever. With a single shot at six hundred yards "
And so it went, through the Chowgarh tiger, the Mohan tiger, the Pipal tiger, the Thak tiger, and a dozen others. To hear Mungal Rao, it was a wonder that there were any tigers or leopards or anything else left in India that could conceivably harm a man.
Sharpe endured it for an hour before he reached his limit. He stopped, laid his musket down, walked back to where Mungal Rao was shouting his own praises. He grabbed the man by the collar and glared into his eyes.
"Listen, you fat fool, and listen good! We happen to be on the track of the most dangerous animal in the province, if not the whole damned country. Your braying may already have tipped him off that we're here! Take a cue from your own jackasses: keep your mouth shut!"
He released the man's collars and stalked back to the front of the column. Mungal Rao was too shocked to say anything, no one had ever spoken to him that way before! But the glare in the infidel's eyes gave him pause, it might be best to humor such an ill-tempered fellow. He continued to walk along, but in silence this time, with a sulky expression on his face.
They had traveled about ten miles. It had been hard going over the rough road, and the sun was beginning to slide downward. Suddenly, Mungal Rao stopped, stripped off the skin from his musket, aimed and fired. Both Sharpe and Sundar Singh whirled at the loud report, to see the fat shikar running into the brush to their right. They followed. Seventy feet from the path, lay a black leopard, dead.
Mungal Rao was there first, his musket held up in triumph.
"I glimpsed him for but a moment, but that was enough. One shot, one kill!"
Sharpe had to admit, there was nothing wrong with the man's marksmanship. For just an instant, Sharpe thought Mungal Rao had killed their quarry, but then he saw that it was noticeably smaller. When he arrived at the side of the dead beast, he saw it was a beautiful black leopard, with an unmarked head and body.
"That isn't Raksha," Sharpe said.
He lifted one of the beast's hind legs for a moment with the toe of his boot. "It isn't even a male," he said disgustedly.
Mungal Rao was quick to defend himself.
"What of it? It was a leopard, and a dangerous beast we no longer have to worry about - "
A low snarl from above them jerked their heads up.
Raksha was crouched on a branch above them, snarling, his dark mass laden with menace. He was a few feet above Sundar Singh's head! In an instant, Sharpe understood: they had killed the man-eater's mate.
Mungal Rao began to reload frantically, while Sharpe whipped off the skin and brought his Brown Bess up to his shoulder, cocked back the doghead, aimed and fired. The frizzen sparked, but there was no shot following from the muzzle. Sharpe cursed. He had misfired!
Meanwhile, Sundar Singh was pointing his muzzle all around, as if he couldn't see the beast above his head. But the man-eater's single eye was focused on the tracker was a ferocious intensity. Oddly, Raksha seemed frozen in place.
"SHOOT HIM!!!" Sharpe bellowed.
Sundar Singh fired, and his shot went two feet below the beast and a foot to the left. Startled out of his paralysis, the man-eater leaped away and was lost among the dense leaves. Sharpe ran to Sundar Singh and grabbed him by the shoulders.
"How? How could you have possibly missed him? He was right over your head! You could have reached out and touched him with your musket!"
Sundar Singh sighed, and suddenly, looked very old.
"I am sorry, Sharpe sahib. But you see, I am blind."
Sharpe was sure he hadn't heard right.
Shocked, Sharpe waved his hand in front of the tracker's eyes, they did not follow the movement. He could barely get out his next question.
"It happened during the night. I woke to darkness and knew that my eyes had finally failed me."
"How were you able to walk with us?"
"I simply followed the noise of your voices and footsteps."
"But why did you come with us? Surely you knew that you couldn't join in the hunt?"
Sundar Singh sighed again. "Forgive an old man's selfishness, Sharpe sahib. Bringing down Raksha was to be the capstone of my life, the one thing that would have told me I was not a failure. Even if I cannot hunt him, still, I need to be there when you bring him down. That would be of comfort to me. Can you understand that?"
Sharpe couldn't imagine what had been going through his companion's mind all day, but he sympathized with his desperate desire.
"Don't worry, I'll see to it."
He looked up at the sky, which was darkening through the rain.
"We may as well make camp here. Mungal Rao, I'll need you to help me gather thorn bushes for a shelter."
Mungal Rao had covered the beast's carcass with a leather skin and was binding it to the back of one of his mules. He turned to Sharpe.
"But of course, infidel."
Sharpe held his temper, telling himself that in a couple of days, he wouldn't have to listen to this fool anymore. Together, they began to carry thorn tangles in to form a circular shelter.
Raksha raged through the jungle, his whole frame quivering with uncontrolled hate. It was him! HIM! When he had looked down from the tree and seen him up close, he had known that it was the one two-legs who he would never forget. Tonight, whatever else happened, he would die. HE WOULD DIE!!!
He snarled his rage to the jungle, and all the beasts that heard him were silent in fear.
Once the shelter erected, the next step was to build a fire and get the evening meal going. Sharpe took over that duty, since Mungal Rao said he had never cooked before. While the fat shikar was erecting his tents, one for him and one for his two unwilling companions, Sharpe made a curry from dried lentils and chickpeas, soaked in water and then spiced as Sundar Singh directed. The Indian tracker sat next to Sharpe had held his hands out to the fire he could no longer see. Sharpe took some cold chapattis from his pack, and then brewed some strong tea.
The tents erected, they ate in silence. It was now quite dark, and the rain came down without pause. Sharpe turned to Mungal Rao.
"Get some sleep. I'll take first watch and wake you in two hours."
Mungal Rao nodded and without another word, made his way to his tent. Sharpe turned to his companion.
"I have a feeling that tomorrow, one way or another, it will end."
Sundar Singh nodded. "At the very place where it began, twelve years ago."
Sharpe threw a stone at their thorn shelter.
"You know who I'd like to give what-for to, if I could just get my hands on him? That shikar you told me about, the one that the Rajah ordered to teach Raksha to hate, who burned his face. He made a monster, and the people in these parts have been paying for it ever since."
Sundar Singh sighed and was silent for a moment. Then he stood and faced Sharpe.
"Allah seems to be inclined to grant your wishes this night, Sharpe sahib. That very shikar stands before you now. Do as you will to me."
For the second time that night, Sharpe was shocked beyond words. He shot to his feet, and for a few moments, struggled to speak.
"You? That was you?"
Sundar Singh nodded and sat back down. All strength seemed to have gone from him, and he so looked old and frail. Tears streamed from his blind eyes. After a moment, Sharpe sat too. His emotions were churning within him, but he didn't know how he felt yet.
"I was younger then, far more foolish, and eager for advancement in the court of the Rajah of Akalkot. I had not yet truly learned the ways of the jungle and its people, and thought nothing of hurting a mere animal if it would please my master. I didn't begin to really learn until the Rajah dismissed me and put Mungal Rao in my place. That was the beginning of his climb to fame. I became a simple headman of my home village and was forgotten. I never dreamed of what would happen next.
"When the killings began, I though they were Allah's just punishment for my wrongdoing, and that if I attempted to stop them I would be rejecting the will of Allah. So I endured, and each death of a man, a woman, or a child was another knife driven into my heart. I felt as if I were dying, over and over again. I prayed that one of the many shikari that hunted Raksha would bring him down, that I might know that my punishment was at an end. But all of them failed, and many of them died.
"But then, but a month before you and your two friends came to the rest station, the man-eater took my granddaughter, my Jarella. She was but seven years old, the only member of my family left to me, since my son and his wife had died of sickness three years before, and my wife last year. I had so hoped to see her grow up and marry some fine man, and dreamed of someday playing with my great-grandchildren. But Raksha took her as she played outside my very door. I called her name, and all I saw was her ball rolling across the ground.
"When that happened, I determined I would spend whatever life I had left tracking Raksha down. I had lost all I could lose, and my life was worth nothing to me. But I had to see the beast dead before I breathed my last. But it seems Allah has willed otherwise, and has taken my eyes. It is his will, I am reaping the bitter harvest I have sown."
Try as he might, Sharpe couldn't hate Sundar Singh. The man who sat next to him was wracked by guilt and grief, and had already suffered more than Sharpe could ever make him suffer. And now to lose his wonderful eyes that saw so much! He had done wrong, but he had also striven to put those wrongs right. Sharpe couldn't ask for more than that. He laid a hand on the tracker's shoulder.
"It's all right, friend. I guess a man makes a lot of mistakes throughout his life, but it's how he ends that really matters. And you will end well. I promise you, the beast will die if I can make it happen."
Sundar Singh nodded and stood.
"I think I will try to sleep now."
He stood. Sharpe did likewise and taking him by the shoulders, turned him in the direction of his tent. He walked towards it. As he neared its flap, Sharpe called to him.
He turned his sightless eyes towards Sharpe.
"I'm glad I met you. You've taught me so much. Even if I can't remember it all, I'll never forget you."
A faint smile played across the tracker's face.
"There is so much more I could have taught you. What flowers and fruit are safe to eat, where to find edible roots, how to find a substitute for tea in the jungle, what plants, barks, and leaves will cure fevers, sores, and illnesses of the throat. What barks and creepers can be used to carry a wounded man, how to get heavy equipment and guns across a ravine or a river, how to avoid jungle rot in your feet or skin, how to get dry wood and make fire when all in the jungle is wet. How to kill game without a gun, how to cook or make tea without pots or pans, where you can find a substitute for salt, how to treat snake bites, deep wounds, or pains of the stomach -
"Enough," Sharpe laughed, holding up his hands. "I could spend my lifetime learning from you, Sundar Singh. But I'm glad we had these two weeks together."
Sundar Singh nodded, smiled broadly, and went into the tent. A little later, Sharpe roused Mungal Rao to take the next watch, while he went into the tent. He had to admit, it was good to sleep out of the rain. He wouldn't want to haul around this much canvas on campaign, though. In the fire's dimness, he could see Sundar Singh sleeping peacefully on his pallet. Sharpe took the other. He was glad that his friend was respected in the village, they would surely take care of him there, even if they were not his family.
Mungal Rao roused him two hours later to take the next watch. He sat by the fire, his eyes and ears roving the night beyond their thorn enclosure. He heard nothing.
In the darkness beyond the thorn barrier, Raksha prowled back and forth, back and forth, in a frenzy of sheer rage. HE was here, the tormenter. Raksha could hear the slow, even breathing of his sleep but a few feet away, smell the particular smell that this two-leg had.
He stopped pacing and gripped a section of the thorn barrier in his mighty jaws. Thorns stabbed into his mouth, but he did not care. He tore it loose, hurled it away, and then sank his jaws in again.
Nothing would keep him from the tormenter tonight.
Sundar Singh held his granddaughter on his knee. She smiled and laughed, and his heart was happy. He was sitting by a limpid pool where tame mahseer came to the surface to be fed, while all around where fruit trees of all kinds, mangos, plums, bananas. And everywhere were flowers of every color, reds and blues and oranges and yellows and purples, and their sweet smell wafted through the air. Tame sadhu and cheetal nuzzled his shoulder, wanting attention, and pure white peacocks called their joy.
And here came his son as handsome as ever, his daughter-in law, and his beloved wife. His heart overflowed with happiness, as they embraced him. At last, at long last, he had his family back.
And then he woke up to darkness. Slowly, inexorably, reality seeped back into his mind, and he sighed. Not yet.
From the darkness about a foot from his face, he heard a snarl.
Sharpe kept his second watch without incident, neither seeing nor hearing anything. Perhaps tonight Raksha would give them a reprieve. When his two hours were up, he got up and woke Mungal Rao to take the final watch.
He made his way into his tent and looked at Sundar Singh's pallet.
Sundar Singh was not there. Where he had been was a great splash of blood. There was a large hole ripped through the ten's fabric, and looking through it, Sharpe could see a tunnel bored right through their thorn barrier. He cried out in horror.
"Sundar Singh!" Sundar Singh!"
He hurled himself through the tear in the tent, his musket held out before him. Crouching down, he pulled himself through the barrier and frantically looked around himself in the blackness.
"Sundar Singh! Sundar Singh!"
And then Mungal Rao was there, holding a lantern high. By its light, they could see a blood trail seeping away in the drizzle, and beside it, still distinct, the tracks of a huge leopard. Sharpe began to run along the trail, his companion huffing and puffing to keep up with him. Periodically, he cried out again, more in anguish this time.
"Sundar Singh!" Sundar Singh!"
Two hundred yards from the enclosure, they found him in the scrub brush. Sundar Singh's early misdeeds had finally caught up with him. The leopard had not eaten, for he had made this kill not for food, but for revenge. He had slashed and mangled the body of his old enemy almost beyond recognition, and probably would have done more if Sharpe and his companion had not driven him off. From the distance, they heard his defiant call, once.
Gripped in Sundar Singh's torn right hand was his Khyber knife. In the light of the lantern, Sharpe could see that the blade was bloody, and he smiled in grim satisfaction.
At least Raksha had paid a price for his kill.
Sharpe bent and, heedless of the blood that was staining his tunic, picked up his friend and carried him back to their shelter.
The Last Day.
They repaired the thorn barrier and stayed up for the rest of the night. Sharpe wrapped Sundar Singh's body in a clean cloth and set it aside. After that, they sat around the fire, eyes and ears alert for any further attack. They said nothing. Sharpe had nothing to say, and Mungal Rao had learned that Sharpe didn't want to hear anything from him, so he withheld his vast repertoire of stories about his hunting exploits. As dawn broke, they tethered the mules where there was plenty of grazing, struck the tents, and shouldered their muskets. They closed the thorn barrier behind them. Although they now knew that it wouldn't stand up to a determined attack from the leopard, Sharpe hoped that Raksha would have no further interest in it now that he had killed his enemy. And in any case, he hoped to give the leopard something else to occupy his attention.
After proceeding down the path for two miles, they came to the temple.
Even abandoned and overgrown by the jungle, it looked sinister and forbidding. The temple stood in the center of perhaps a hundred yards of cleared land, now well on its way to becoming jungle again. It was built of some dark stone, perhaps basalt. Like other Indian temples, every square inch of its exterior was covered with carvings. But on this temple, the majority of the carvings were various arrangements of human skulls and bones. The temple was of simple enough design, a single doorway leading to a small foyer, which in turn led to a larger chamber, some thirty feet long and twenty wide, where the Thugs had gathered to worship.
The morning sun was lightening the sky to the east, and by it, Sharpe could make out an image at the far end of the large chamber. He came closer, and his lips drew back in a grimace of loathing. It was Kali.
Sharpe had never seen an idol so hideous. It was perhaps twice the size of a man, sat on the floor in a lotus position, and was obviously meant to depict a female deity. Her skin had originally been painted black, but age had flaked away most of the paint, so that the green verdigris of tarnished bronze showed through beneath it. She had six arms, two of which held curved swords, two of which held vicious-looking hooks, and two of which held severed human heads. She wore a heavy necklace around her neck that drooped down between her breasts and into her lap. It was composed of miniature human skulls threaded together. Her upturned face had a wild mane of snake-like hair, eyes that bulged out of her head, and a gaping mouth filled with fangs. Her tongue, still with traces of red paint, lolled out of her mouth between two great tusks that jutted upward from her lower jaw. They were as long as his forearm, and when he tentatively touched the tip of one, he found that they were still quite sharp.
It was here, Sharpe reflected, that the Thugs had offered her the lives of the people they had strangled on the roads of India. He shuddered, glad that the temple was now deserted.
"What an ugly bitch," he muttered.
"Be careful, infidel," said Mungal Rao. "It is best not to anger the goddess."
As they drew closer, Sharpe became aware of a smell, the heavy, musty odor of an animal's lair. If that wasn't enough to persuade him that he had found Raksha's lair, what lay at the foot of the idol was.
Piled up before Kali like some horrible offering were bones, dozens of them, apparently almost all human. Sharpe could recognize at least twenty human skulls among them. And all of the bones showed the grooves of gnawing teeth. There was no question of who laired here.
Sharpe turned to Mungal Rao, all business now.
"This is his lair, and he won't give it up. He'll come here to kill whoever's invaded it. You find a tree somewhere to sit up in. If you can get a shot at him as he approaches, take it."
"Where will you be?" asked Mungal Rao.
"I'll make my stand right here."
Sharpe cleared away the bones from the floor so that nothing would interfere with his shot. Meanwhile, Mungal Rao found a suitable tree to sit in. He would have a clear field of fire if Raksha crossed the temple grounds before the doorway. There was little more to do, so they ate some cold chapattis. And they waited, and waited. The sun, unseen behind the clouds, dipped towards the horizon.
From the brush, Raksha watched the two legs who had violated his lair with cold anger. He saw one go into the trees, and one go into the doorway of his lair itself. The two-legs were so predictable. They thought he would go into his lair and allow them to use their death-things. But he knew something they did not
Deep in his throat, Raksha growled in satisfaction and anticipation. Tonight
As darkness fell, Sharpe took up his position before the idol.
Here, this night, the long duel would end. One way or another, either he or Raksha would be dead before the dawn.
His eyes became accustomed to the darkness, and he could make out the doorway as a rectangle of gray in the black wall. When the leopard appeared, Sharpe would have a clear shot at him, and at thirty feet, he couldn't miss.
Then again, Mungal Rao might take him down outside the temple. Somehow, though, Sharpe doubted it. Raksha had shown himself a master of stealth, and probably would be able to enter the temple unseen. So in the end, it would fall to Sharpe to make the killing shot. And he only had one. He should have brought Sundar Singh's musket with him, so he could snatch it up after he had fired his own. But it was too late now. And in any case, Sharpe reflected, if he didn't kill or at least cripple the man-eater with his first shot, there would be no time to grab another gun before the beast was at his throat.
The long, dark hours passed. And so he waited. And waited. And waited. The moon rose behind the clouds, giving some faint illumination and showing up the doorway more distinctly. Sharpe did not feel at all sleepy. The deadly seriousness of what he was doing was ample incentive to his keeping awake. He lifted his musket and aimed along its barrel, imagining a scarred head with one glaring eye and one eye blind in his sights.
There was no sound anywhere, excepted for his slow, quiet breathing.
Long ago, Raksha had thoroughly scouted out the area around his lair, and he knew it down to the last detail. And years ago, he had discovered the tunnel, some five hundred feet from the temple. It was hidden beneath an overgrowth of scrub brush, and was so low that a man would have to squat down to navigate it. He of course, could pad down it easily. He had no idea that it had been built centuries before, and lined with stone so it would not collapse. He did not know that it was designed to give the Thugs who had built the temple a way of escape if their temple was surrounded by their enemies.
All he knew was that it exited inside the temple, directly behind the idol of Kali.
Slavering in anticipation of his kill, he entered the tunnel and made his way noiselessly down its length.
Sharpe was standing, pointing his musket at the doorway, as he had done regularly since he took up his vigil.
When he heard the low growl from behind him, he knew he was dead.
To his credit, Sharpe tried, really tried to correct his fatal blunder. He whirled around with every ounce of speed he had, his musket poised, his finger on the trigger. He was of course, too late.
Sharpe's musket barrel struck the beast's shoulder as he leaped. Raksha's massive body struck him in the chest and bore him to the ground. A swipe of a mighty paw struck the gun from his hands, and it went clattering across the floor into a corner. Sharpe tried desperately to grip the beast's neck, to keep his jaws away, but he shrugged his hands aside contemptuously and lunged down. Sharpe felt his neck locked in a viselike grip.
Instantly, all of his air way shut off. He gripped the beast's head, striving with all his strength to break the grip of those jaws. He might as well have tried to move a mountain. His whole system screamed for life-giving oxygen, but none could come in. Already, sparks were flying before his vision, and a ringing sounded in his ears.
From his machan, Mungal Rao heard the noises of the struggle from inside. How? How could this beast have slipped unseen past him, the greatest shikar in India? But there was time for such questions later. He had to get into that temple before the infidel took the kill that was rightfully his.
He jumped down from his platform, and hastily made his way to the temple and stood in the doorway. He raised his musket and then paused. Before him and in front of the idol was a chaotic scene of thrashing limbs and black fur. The man-eater was on top of the infidel, steadily throttling him, but still, there was so much motion that he could not get a clear shot. He wavered his aim, trying to track the movements of the beast's head. And then the thrashing stopped, and the beast, still gripping Sharpe's neck, glared at him with its single yellow eye. And Sharpe, his head hanging upside down in Raksha's grasp, also locked eyes with Mungal Rao.
The double glare of predator and prey turned the fat shikar's nerves to water. With a strangled cry, he turned and ran from the temple. Let someone else track this beast. But as Mungal Rao fled, his mind was already devising a way to claim the credit.
It was what he was best at.
As Sharpe struggled, the leopard dug its fore claws into his torso, the talons easily piercing the leather of his vest. The more he struggled, the deeper they dug, until the pain grew so great that his struggles ebbed. His heels drummed on the floor in a last convulsive effort, and then were still.
As the blackness closed in, Sharpe felt a sense of euphoria and calm acceptance. The final defenses of his body when faced with final extinguishment kicked in. His pain ebbed, and he dispassionately watched that single yellow eye glaring at him, until final blackness closed over him
Slowly, the blackness receded. Before he saw anything, Sharpe was aware of a terrible pain in his throat. He reached up to touch it, and then heard a menacing growl from before him. The darkness drew back from his eyes, and he realized to his surprise that he still lived. Before him, Raksha paced back and forth, faster and faster, working himself into a frenzy. Sharpe remembered what Sundar Singh had told him of the man-eater, how the Rajah of Akalkot had bade him tra
in the beast to torture his prey, to clamp a man's throat in a death grip, release him, and then clamp down again and again, so that the victim would know the agony of strangulation many times before the leopard finally made the kill. This was what he was doing now. He had released Sharpe at the moment of death and allowed him to revive.
Even as this realization came to him, Raksha launched himself at Sharpe's throat again. His efforts to resist were even more feeble this time. He barely brushed his hands against Raksha's head, vainly trying to ward those jaws from his throat, helpless against the leopard's vastly greater strength. Inexorably, those jaws closed down, and the blackness, the stars, and the ringing of his ears came back in overwhelming power. His fists beat weakly at the massive muscles of Raksha's back. Again, the euphoria and calm acceptance eased the agony of his strangulation, and once again, the last thing he saw was Raksha's baleful eye
And again, the blackness receded. The pain in Sharpe's throat was worse, and he coughed feebly. The ringing in his ears receded and his vision returned. Again, Raksha paced up and down before him, faster and faster, snarling and growling in an ever growing. lathered rage. His lips drew back from his great fangs convulsively, again and again, and he was shaking his scarred head back and forth as if in remembered pain.
Gasping in precious gulps of air, Sharpe edged back across the floor, and felt the idol's knees press into his back. As the realization of life dawned on him once again, he saw the leopard stop pacing and crouch before him, about ten feet away. His great claws dug into the stone floor for purchase, and he gathered up his hindquarters to spring. Sharpe looked into that single yellow eye with its black slit of a pupil. It was filled with sheer, unadulterated hate and fury. He saw his death in that eye.
And Sharpe knew, this was the last time. When Raksha next closed his jaws on Sharpe's neck, he would not release them until Sharpe's life was gone.
And in the back of his mind, Sharpe found a narrow chance.
He gathered his own legs underneath him, still propped against the idol. He had to get this right the first time; there wouldn't be a second. He didn't allow his mind to guess his chances of success, if he had, he would have put them at about a hundred to one.
The tip of Raksha's tail twitched, once, twice, and then the tail stood out straight.
Now! Now make the kill! And after that the hot blood and the warm flesh!
Raksha straightened out his hind legs and launched himself through the air, a 250-pound missile of black fur and steely muscles and razored claws and fangs.
And Sharpe straightened out his own legs and leaped to meet him. His chin was tucked into his chest to protect his neck, and his raised arms guarded his face. He gripped the beast in mid-leap, and as he felt his great weight, the claws piercing his flesh, he twisted his body hard to the right, using Raksha's own momentum against him, pulling him in the direction that he was already going in. The leopard's body twisted in mid air swinging around -
And then, with all the strength left in his body, he slammed Raksha down on the two great bronze tusks that jutted from the idol's jaw!
"WAAAAAOOOOOWWWW!" Raksha howled in surprise and pain.
Sharpe put all of his weight on the beast, forcing it down on those two points. The leopard screamed again, higher-pitched, and there was agony in the cry now, as the tusks pierced his hide and went in. Sharpe pressed down harder and harder, screaming as he did so:
"Die, you bastard! Die! Die! DIE!!!"
Raksha thrashed convulsively as the tusks erupted from his right side. The right-hand one had crunched through his ribcage, grazing the heart and tearing through the lungs. The left-hand one sliced through the viscera of his belly and emerged with a gray loop of gut entwined around it. Blood fountained from the wounds and poured out over Sharpe and over the floor in a red flood, and the leopard's screams reached a new crescendo of agony and rage.
If only one tusk had pierced, Sharpe probably would have died there, for Raksha could have curved his spine around its point and torn his enemy to pieces. But both spikes held him immobile, he could not twist around them both, and all he could do was reach for Sharpe with his paws, unable to bring them to full bear on him. But what he did reach, he tore, and Sharpe's leather vest on both sides was shredded by the beast's fore and hind claws, and then they found the flesh beneath. Sharpe tried hard to ignore the searing pain that lanced up his sides and back and burst in red agony in his brain. He didn't let himself think about surviving his wounds. He just pressed down on the beast's body, harder, and harder, and harder, until the bronze tusks had gone into the beast for their full length. He voice was now a grating groan escaping from between his clenched teeth:
"Die-damn-you-Die-damn-you-Die damn-you-Die-damn-you-Die-damn-you -"
It seemed that Raksha would never die. His screams went on for an eternity, and Sharpe was sure he had no flesh left for the beast to claw on his back and flanks. But after what seemed hours, the beast's struggles lessened grew more feeble, and his screams became gurgles as his gullet filled with blood. And then he was barely moving at all.
Sharpe's strength evaporated like dew on a hot day. He released his hold on the beast and slid limply to the floor, where he lay in his enemy's blood.
He looked up into the beast's face. Raksha was not quite dead, and still, with the last of his strength, he strove defiantly to reach his enemy and tear him. He snarled a last time, a low, thick sound obscured by the blood in his throat. His single eye fixed on Sharpe with a hate that would haunt his dreams for a long time. And then that eye glazed over and was fixed, and the great scarred head lolled down with blood streaming from his jaws. The beast shuddered once and was still.
Sharpe painfully pulled himself over to a wall and sat propped against it. His wounds hurt terribly, but for the moment, all he was aware of was astonishment.
He had done it. He had killed the unkillable beast. Raksha had outsmarted him at virtually every turn, but he had lost the last match.
There was a lot to do. He would have to get back to the thorn enclosure and see if Mungal Rao had left him a mule. Then he would have to dress his wounds as best he could, and somehow load up the leopard's body and that of Sundar Singh on the mule's back. And he would have to get this done in time to reach Thali while it was still daylight.
Sharpe tried to stand up, then groaned in pain and slid back down to the temple's floor.
There was a lot for him to do, and he would do it.
Just not now.
There was excitement in the village of Thali that afternoon, for Mungal Rao had killed the man-eater that had held them in the grip of terror these past seven years. There was laughter, cheering, dancing for joy. Some villagers edged closer to touch the beast's black coat as it lay slung across the back of the shikar's mule. The few who had glimpsed Raksha thought that he had been bigger when they had seen him alive. And had they looked closely at his head, they would have noticed that the fur on the left side of the face was only recently shaved off, and the skin had fresh nicks and cuts in it. But if things went according to plan, these things would not be noticed until Mungal Rao and the bounty for the man-eater were long gone. Mungal Rao stood in the village square next to the Nizam's agent, the chest of 10,000 rupees at his feet. The shikar was reaching the climax of his story.
"I broke into the clearing and saw the leopard feeding off the remains of the poor English sahib. I took careful aim, and at a hundred-foot range, I put my musket ball through the demon-beast's skull. Now I have brought him here that you may see that your days of fear are over."
The villagers broke into cheers again.
And those cheers died down quite suddenly, beginning with the villagers by the gate and reaching last to those in the square. Everyone looked towards the gate. Several women cried out in shock at the figure who stood there.
It was Sharpe. His tunic was open, and through it, they could see that almost his whole torso was swathed in bloody bandages crudely cut from one of the tents that Mungal Rao had left behind in his precipitate flight. A similar bandage, likewise bloody, encircled his neck. His arms and face were covered with scratches. He looked exhausted, but there was an inner fire burning in his eyes that propelled him on when his body cried for him to stop.
He led one of the fat shikar's mules. Under a stained white cloth, the long shape of Sundar Singh was tied to the saddle. And tied in front of that was the body of a monstrous black leopard, nearly twice the size of the one that Mungal Rao boasted over, a leopard whose face on the left side was old scar, with one eye milked over.
Sharpe led the mule through the crowd to where Mungal Rao stood frozen. Loosening the ropes around Raksha's body, he dumped the beast's carcass at his feet.
Mungal Rao simply stood there, not speaking, his lip quivering, his face the color of curdled milk, gripped in the fear and humiliation of a liar and a fraud who has been finally and irrefutably exposed.
All during the trek back to Thali, Sharpe had been rehearsing what he would say to the fat shikar, how he was a worthless bastard who ran out on a companion fighting for his life, that he wasn't worthy to carry Sundar Singh's sandals. But as he looked at the quivering slime bag, Sharpe realized that the swine wasn't worth what he'd come prepared to say.
Sharpe just stared at him with cold blue eyes for a few moments. Then he spoke three words.
"Oh, bugger it."
Sharpe hit him. His fist shattered the cartilage of Mungal Rao's nose and knocked him to the ground. He sat up, blood gushing from his nostrils, and began to cry in great broken sobs.
Sharpe turned to the Nizam's official, who put his hands together and bowed.
"The bounty is yours, sahib, 10,000 rupees."
Sharpe glared at the smarmy court official, liking him only slightly more than the man on the ground. He glanced down at the strongbox, which the official opened, smiling and gesturing. It was brimming with silver coins. He glanced at the villagers all around him, remembered the stories they had told him the day he had agreed to go on the hunt with Sundar Singh. His eyes returned to the Nizam's man.
"You know which villages lost people to the leopard. Go to each one and give at least ten rupees to each of their families. There should be enough there to cover it."
The Nizam's official was stunned. He had heard that the English were the most greedy of people, and their soldiers worst of all. He salaamed again.
"It shall be done as you command, sahib -"
"See that it is," Sharpe told him curtly. Suddenly he realized how much pain he was in, and that he felt very, very tired.
He turned and trudged towards the house that had been put at his disposal.
The next day, Sharpe stood on the bank of the Krishna River. He held a blazing torch in his hand. Besides and behind him were the people of the villages which Raksha had terrorized for seven long years. Sharpe guessed that they numbered at least some five or six thousand souls.
They had lined the path as he and the people of Thali had borne the body of Sundar Singh to the river's bank, coming out in droves as word had passed from one village to another. And now, they had all gathered here to do him honor. Sharpe hoped that the old tracker who for two weeks had been his companion - and yes, his friend, was aware of this, wherever he was. Sharpe knew it would have made him very happy.
Before him, the body of Sundar Singh lay on a pile of oil-soaked wood. As if joining in the spirit of the occasion, the weather had cleared for a time, the pyre would burn well. Sundar Singh's body was covered with brilliant flowers, reds, oranges, yellows, so that only his face was visible. But Sharpe knew that under the flowers he was clad in his best khaki tunic and trousers, with a new turban on his head and fine new sandals on his feet. At his side were his musket and his Khyber knife. For all anyone knew, he might need them in the next life.
Lying at Sundar Singh's feet was the body of Raksha, the great black leopard that he had given the last of his life to slay. The official had wanted to present the skin to the Nizam, but Sharpe had been firm. As far as Sharpe was concerned, only one man had a claim to that skin.
He walked forward and touched the torch to the wood. It blazed up fiercely, and began to burn, soon obscuring the occupants of the pyre. He smelled the sweet odor of burning flowers, and the sweeter odor of burning flesh. Behind him, the people began to sing a song in their own language. It had a triumphant air. Sharpe found that appropriate.
When the pyre burned out, the villagers would collect the ashes and ceremoniously pour them into the river. The hunter and the beast he had hunted would thus become one in the end. In the fullness of time, they would be borne to the sea, the final great equalizer of all. And Sharpe somehow knew that Sundar Singh would find that appropriate as well.
Tomorrow, he would begin his trek back to the barracks at Seringapatam. There would of course be questions; where were Rumbold and Kilpatrick? And why was he two weeks late?
And when his superior officers asked these questions, he would take the bandages from his neck and sides. He would show them the wounds, and they would answer for him. They were the marks left by the demon-beast that had terrified a whole district for seven years, the man-eater of Hyderabad, the unkillable beast that he had killed. The marks whose scars he would bear for the rest of his life.
The marks of Raksha; Sharpe's leopard.
A Note on Sources and History.
"Sharpe's Leopard" was in many ways, easier to write than either of its predecessors, "Sharpe's Gator" and "Harper's Egypt." Since the story does not deal with an actual historical situation, less background research was necessary. I read David Holmes' definitive work "Sahib: The British Soldier in India," which assured me that I wasn't going wrong in how I depicted life in the barracks at Seringapatam. Also good were Byron Farwell's "Soldiers of the Raj," and "Mr. Kipling's Army, though they were less helpful, since they dealt with the British during the Victorian era when the Raj was at its height. I also re-read "Sharpe's Tiger," "Sharpe's Triumph," and "Sharpe's Fortress," so that I might keep Bernard Cornwell's feel for India uppermost in my mind.
Where research was crucial, however, was in the whole subject of man-eaters and the men who hunt them. Here, my primary sources, and the most important of my research was the writing of Jim Corbett. Corbett was an Anglo-Indian born at the height of the Raj, who lived to see India's independence. He dearly loved his country and its amazing wildlife. The monologues that Sundar Singh spoke to Sharpe on the ways of the jungle were taken from his book, "Jungle Lore."
Corbett was a professional hunter who government officials would call in to deal with tigers and leopards that had turned to man-eaters. He did most of his work in his home province of Kumaon, on the Nepalese border. He never hunted for trophies, only for food and to eliminate man-eaters, and even this he did with regret, for he loved tigers and leopards, considering them beautiful animals much better shot with a camera. He collected the most dramatic of his hunts into his most famous work "Man-Eaters of India," and of these, the most dramatic hunt was the one for "The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag" which took place in 1925-26. The leopard killed a recorded 125 people, and forms the basis for Raksha. If I exaggerated Raksha's cunning beyond that of his real-life counterpart, I did not exaggerate much, and most of the incidents of "Sharpe's Leopard" have their counterparts in the true-to-life story.
Also useful was "The Mammoth Book of Man-eaters" for the following articles: "A Devilish Cunning Panther" and "The Spotted Devil of Gummalapur" by William Blackwood, "A Leopard in Botswana," London Times - July 17, 1995, "Leopard on the Campus," Times of India - September 22, 2001, "The New Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag,," London Daily Telegraph - April 6, 1999, and "The Leopard of Dehra Dun, Annanova - March 14, 2001.
As far as the history goes, Sundar Singh and Mungal Rao are not based on real life hunters, though I am sure there were some of both types. There are no records of man-eating tigers or leopards any earlier than the late nineteenth century, but they did exist in Sharpe's time, and when they began to prey upon humans, some one had to go after them and put them down, armed with the weapons of the day. The methods of hunting man-eaters were the same then as now. Although poison and traps were used, the favorite technique was to sit up a tree in a machan, waiting for the beast to return to his kill and shooting him. Only the equipment has changed. The courage it took for Corbett to hunt a man-eater with a high-powered, bolt-action, multi-shot rifle is impressive enough. It boggles the mind to think of the bravery of those men who tracked such beasts armed only with muzzle-loading single-shot muskets.
It is to these unsung heroes that this work is dedicated.