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The Elephant God By Gordon Casserly Characters: 19999

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The four transport elephants attached to the garrison of Ranga Duar for the purpose of bringing supplies for the men from the far distant railway were stabled in a peelkhana at the foot of the hills and a couple of thousand feet below the Fort. This building, a high-walled shed with thatched roof and brick standings for the animals, was erected beside the narrow road that zig-zagged down from the mountains into the forest and eventually joined a broader one leading to the narrow-gauge railway that pierced the jungle many miles away.

One morning, about three weeks after Dermot's first introduction to Badshah, the Major tramped down the rough track to the peelkhana, carrying a rifle and cartridge belt and a haversack containing his food for the day. Nearing the stables he blew a whistle, and a shrill trumpeting answered him from the building, as Badshah recognised his signal. Ramnath, hurriedly entering the impatient elephant's stall, loosed him from the iron shackles that held his legs. Then the huge beast walked with stately tread out of the building and went straight to where Dermot awaited him. For during these weeks the intimacy between man and animal had progressed rapidly. Elephants, though of an affectionate disposition, are not demonstrative as a rule. But Badshah always showed unmistakable signs of fondness for the white man, whom he seemed to regard as his friend and protector.

Dermot was in the habit of taking him out into the jungle every day, where he went ostensibly to shoot. After the first few occasions he displaced Ramnath from the guiding seat on Badshah's neck and acted as mahout himself. But, instead of using the ankus-the heavy iron implement shaped like a boat-hook head which natives use to emphasise their orders to their charges-the Major simply touched the huge head with his open hand. And his method proved equally, if not more, effective. He was soon able to dispense altogether with Ramnath on his expeditions, which was his object. For he did not want any witness to his secret explorations of the forest and the hills.

An elephant, when used as a beast of burden or for shooting from in thick jungle, carries on its back only a "pad"-a heavy, straw-stuffed mattress reaching from neck to tail and fastened on by a rope surcingle passing round the body. On this pad, if passengers are to be carried, a wooden seat with footboards hanging by cords from it and called a charjama is placed. Only for sport in open country or high grass jungle is the cage-like howdah employed.

Dermot replaced Badshah's heavy pad by a small, light one, especially made, or else took him out absolutely bare. No shackles were needed to secure the elephant when his white rider dismounted from his neck, for he followed Dermot like a dog, came to his whistle, or stood without moving from the spot where he had been ordered to remain. The most perfect understanding existed between the two; and the superstitious Hindus regarded with awe the extraordinary subjection of their sacred and revered Gunesh to the white man.

Now, after a greeting and a palatable gift to Badshah, Dermot seized the huge ears, placed his foot on the trunk which was curled to receive it and was swung up on to the neck by the well-trained animal. Then, answering the salaams of the mahouts and coolies, who invariably gathered to witness and wonder at his daily meeting with Badshah, he touched the elephant under the ears with his toe and was borne away into the jungle.

His object this day was not to explore but to shoot a deer to replenish the mess larder. Fresh meat was otherwise unprocurable in Ranga Duar; and an unvaried diet of tinned food was apt to become wearisome, especially as it was not helped out by bread and fresh vegetables. These were luxuries unknown to the British officers in this, as in many other, outposts.

The sea of vegetation closed around Badshah and submerged him, as he turned off a footpath and plunged into the dense undergrowth. The trees were mostly straight-stemmed giants of teak, branchless for some distance from the ground. Each strove to thrust its head above the others through the leafy canopy overhead, fighting for its share of the life-giving sunlight. In the green gloom below tangled masses of bushes, covered with large, bell-shaped flowers and tall grasses in which lurked countless thorny plants obstructed the view between the tree-trunks. Above and below was a bewildering confusion of creepers forming an intricate network, swinging from the upper branches and twisting around the boles, biting deep into the bark, strangling the life out of the stoutest trees or holding up the withered, lifeless trunks of others long dead. They filled the space between the tree-tops and the undergrowth, entangled, crisscrossed, festooned, like a petrified mass of writhing snakes.

Through this maddening obstacle Badshah forced his way; while Dermot hacked at the impeding lianas with a sharp kukri, the heavy-bladed Gurkha knife. The elephant moved on at an easy pace, shouldering aside the surging waves of vegetation and bursting the clinging hold of the creepers. As he went he swept huge bunches of grass up in his trunk, tore down leafy trails or broke off small branches, and crammed them all impartially into his mouth. At a touch of Dermot's foot or the guiding pressure of his hand he swerved aside to avoid a tree or a particularly thorny bush.

There was little life to be seen. But occasionally, with a whirring sound of rushing wings, a bright-plumaged jungle cock with his attendant bevy of sober-clad hens swept up with startled squawks from under the huge feet and flew to perch high up on neighbouring trees, chattering and clucking indignantly in their fright. The pretty black and white Giant Squirrel ran along the upper branches; or a troop of little brown monkeys leapt away among the tree tops.

It was fascinating to be borne along without effort through the enchanted wood in the luminous green gloom that filled it, lulled by the swaying motion of the elephant's stride. The soothing silence of the woodland was broken only by the crowing of a jungle cock. The thick, leafy screen overhead excluded the glare of the tropic sunlight; and the heat was tempered to a welcome coolness by the dense shade.

But, despite the soporific motion of his huge charger, Dermot's vigilant eye searched the apparently lifeless jungle as he was borne along. Presently it was caught by a warm patch of colour, the bright chestnut hide of a deer; and he detected among the trees the graceful form of a sambhur hind. Accustomed to seeing wild elephants the animal gazed without apprehension at Badshah and failed to mark the man on his neck. But females of the deer tribe are sacred to the sportsman; and the hunter passed on. Half a mile farther on, in the deepest shadow of the undergrowth, he saw something darker still. It was the dull black hide of a sambhur stag, a fine beast fourteen hands high, with sharp brow antlers and thick horns branching into double points. Knowing the value of motionlessness as a concealment the animal never moved; and only an eye trained to the jungle would have detected it. Dermot noted it, but let it remain unscathed; for he knew well the exceeding toughness of its flesh. What he sought was a kakur, or barking deer, a much smaller but infinitely more palatable beast.

Hours passed; and he and Badshah had wandered for miles without finding what he wanted. He looked at his watch; for the sun was invisible. It was nearly noon. In a space free from undergrowth he halted the elephant and, patting the skull with his open hand, said:


Badshah at the word sank slowly down until he rested on his breast and belly with fore and hind legs stuck out stiffly along the ground. Dermot slipped off his neck and stretched his cramped limbs; for sitting long upright on an elephant without any support to the back is tiring. Then he reclined under a tree with his loaded rifle beside him-for the peaceful-seeming forest has its dangers. He made a frugal lunch off a packet of sandwiches from his haversack.

Eating made him thirsty. He had forgotten to bring his water-bottle with him; and he knew that there was no stream to be met with in the jungle for many miles. But he was aware that the forest could supply his wants. Rising, he drew his kukri and looked around him. Among the tangle of creepers festooned between the trees he detected the writhing coils of one with withered, cork-like bark, four-sided and about two inches in diameter. He walked over to it and, grasping it in his left hand, cut it through with a blow of his heavy knife. Its interior consisted of a white, moist pulp. With another blow he severed a piece a couple of feet long. Taking a metal cup from his haversack he cut the length of creeper into small pieces and held all their ends together over the little vessel. From them water began to drip, the drops came faster and finally little streams from the pulpy interior filled the cup to the brim with a cool, clear, and palatable liquid. The liana was the wonderful pani-bêl, or water-creeper.

Dermot drank until his thirst was quenched, then sat down with his back against a tree and lit his pipe. He smoked contentedly and watched Badshah grazing. The elephant plucked the long grass with a scythe-like sweep of his trunk, tore down succulent creepers and broke off small branches from the trees, chewing the wood and leaves with equal enjoyment. From time to time he looked towards his master, but, receiving no signal to prepare to move on, continued his meal.

At last the Major knocked out the ashes of his pipe, grinding them into the earth with his heel lest a chance spark might start a forest fire, and whistled to Badshah. The elephant came at once to him. From his haversack Dermot took out a couple of bananas and held them up. The snake-like trunk shot out and grasped them, then curving back placed the

m in the huge mouth. Dermot stood up and, slinging his rifle over his shoulder, seized Badshah's ears and was lifted again to his place astride the neck.

Once more the jungle closed about them, as the elephant moved off. The rider, unslinging his rifle and laying it across his thighs, glanced from side to side as they proceeded. The forest grew more open. The undergrowth thinned; and occasionally they came to open glades carpeted with tall bracken and looking almost like an English wood. But the great boughs of the giant trees were matted thick with the glossy green leaves of orchid plants, from which drooped long trails of delicate mauve and white flowers.

Just as they were emerging from dense undergrowth on to such a glade, Dermot's eye was caught by something moving ahead of them. He checked Badshah; and they remained concealed in in the thick vegetation. Then through the trees came a trim little kakur buck, stepping daintily in advance of his doe which followed a few yards behind. As they moved their long ears twitched incessantly, pointing now in this, now in that, direction for any sound that might warn them of danger. But they did not detect the hidden peril. Dermot noiselessly raised his rifle, aimed hurriedly at the leader's shoulder and fired. The loud report sounded like thunder through the silent forest. The stricken buck sprang convulsively into the air, then fell in a heap; while his startled mate leaped over his body and disappeared in bounding flight.

At the touch of his rider's foot the elephant moved forward into the open; and without waiting for him to sink down Dermot slid to the ground. Old hunter that he was, the Major could never repress a feeling of pity when he looked on any harmless animal that he had shot; and he had long ago given up killing such except for food. He propped his rifle against a tree and, taking off his coat and rolling up his sleeves, drew his kukri and proceeded to disembowel and clean the kakur. While he was thus employed Badshah strayed away into the jungle to graze, for elephants feed incessantly.

When Dermot had finished his unpleasant task, it still remained to bind the buck's legs together and tie him on to Badshah's back. For this he would need cords; but he relied on the inexhaustible jungle to supply him with these.

While searching for the udal tree whose inner bark would furnish him with long, tough strips, he heard a crashing in the undergrowth not far away, but, concluding that it was caused by Badshah, he did not trouble to look round. Having got the cordage that he needed, he turned to go back to the spot where he had left the kakur. As he fought his way impatiently through the thorny tangled vegetation, he again heard the breaking of twigs and the trampling down of the undergrowth. He glanced in the direction of the sound, expecting to see Badshah appear.

To his dismay his eyes fell on a strange elephant, a large double-tusker. It had caught sight of him and, contrary to the usual habit of its kind, was advancing towards him instead of retreating. This showed that it was the most terrible of all wild animals, a man-killing "rogue" elephant, than which there is no more vicious or deadly brute on the earth.

Dermot instantly recognised his danger. It was very great. His rifle was some distance away, and before he could reach it the tusker would probably overtake him. He stopped and stood still, hoping that the rogue had not caught sight of him. But he saw at once that there was no doubt of this. The brute had its murderous little eyes fixed on him and was quickening its pace. The undergrowth that almost held the man a prisoner was no obstacle to this powerful beast.

Dermot realised that it meant to attack him. His heart nearly stopped, for he knew the terrible death that awaited him. He had seen the crushed bodies, battered to pulp and with the limbs torn away, of men killed by rogue elephants. The only hope of escape, a faint one, lay in flight.

Madly he strove to tear himself free from the clutching thorns and the grip of the entangling creepers that held him. He flung all his weight into his efforts to fight his way out clear of the malignant vegetation, that seemed a cruel, living thing striving to drag him to his death. The elephant saw his desperate struggles. It trumpeted shrilly and, with head held high, trunk curled up, and the lust of murder in its heart, it charged.

The tangled network of interlaced undergrowth parted like gossamer before it. Small trees went down and the tallest bushes were trampled flat; the stoutest creepers broke like pack-thread before its weight.

Dermot tore himself free from the clutch of the last clinging, curving thorns that rent his garments and cut deep into his flesh. Gaining comparatively open ground he ran for his life. But he had lost all sense of direction and could not remember where his rifle stood. Escape seemed hopeless. He knew only too well that in the jungle a pursuing elephant will always overtake a fleeing man. The trees offered no refuge, for the lowest branches were high above his reach and the trunks too thick and straight to climb. He fled, knowing that each moment might be his last. A false step, a trip over a root or a creeper and he was lost. He would be gored, battered to death, stamped out of existence, torn limb from limb by the vicious brute.

The rogue was almost upon him. He swerved suddenly and with failing breath and fiercely beating heart ran madly on. But the respite was momentary. His head was dizzy, his legs heavy as lead, his strength almost gone. He could hear the terrible pursuer only a few yards behind him.

Already the great beast's uncurled trunk was stretched out to seize its prey. Dermot's last moment had come when, with a fierce, shrill scream, a huge body burst out of the jungle and hurled itself at his assailant. Badshah had come to the rescue of his man.

Before the rogue could swing round to meet him the gallant animal had charged furiously into it, driving his single tusk with all his immense weight behind it into the strange elephant's side. The shock staggered the murderous brute and almost knocked it to the ground. Only the fact of its having turned slightly at Badshah's cry, so that his tusk inflicted a somewhat slanting blow, had saved it from a mortal wound. Before it could recover its footing Badshah gored it again.

Dermot, plucked at the last moment from the most terrible of deaths, staggered panting to a tree and tried to stand, supporting himself against the trunk. But the strain had been too great. He turned faint and sank exhausted to the earth, almost unconscious. But the remembrance of Badshah's peril from a better-armed antagonist-for the possession of two tusks gave the rogue a great advantage-nerved him. Holding on to the tree he dragged himself up and looked around for his rifle. He could not see it, and he dared not cross the arena in which the two huge combatants were fighting.

As Badshah drew back to gain impetus for another charge, the rogue regained its feet and prepared to hurl itself on the unexpected assailant. Dermot was in despair at being unable to aid his saviour, who he feared must succumb to the superior weapons of his opponent. He gazed fascinated at the titanic combat.

The rogue trumpeted a shrill challenge. Then it curled its trunk between its tusks out of harm's way and with ears cocked forward and tail erect rushed to the assault. But suddenly it propped on stiffened forelegs and stopped dead. It stared at Badshah, who was about to charge again, and backed slowly, seemingly panic-stricken. Then as the tame elephant moved forward to the attack the rogue screamed with terror, swung about, and with ears and tail dropped, bolted into the undergrowth.

With a trumpet of triumph Badshah pursued. Dermot, left alone, could hardly credit the passing of the danger. The whole episode seemed a hideous nightmare from which he had just awaked. He could scarcely believe that it had actually taken place, although the trampled vegetation and the crashing sounds of the great animals' progress through the undergrowth were evidence of its reality. The need for action had not passed. The rogue might return, for a fight between wild bull-elephants often lasts a whole day and consists of short and desperate encounters, retreats, pursuits, and fresh battles. So he hurriedly searched for his rifle, which he eventually found some distance away. He opened the breach and replaced the soft-nosed bullets with solid ones, more suitable for such big game. Then, once more feeling a strong man armed, he waited expectantly. The sounds of the chase had died away. But after a while he heard a heavy body forcing a passage through the undergrowth and held his rifle ready. Then through the tangle of bushes and creepers Badshah's head appeared. The elephant came straight to him and touched him all over with outstretched trunk, just as mother-elephants do their calves, as if to assure himself of his man's safety.

Dermot could have kissed the soft, snake-like proboscis, and he patted the animal affectionately and murmured his thanks to him. Badshah seemed to understand him and wrapped his trunk around his friend's shoulders. Then, apparently satisfied, he moved away and began to graze calmly, as if nothing out of the common had taken place.

Dermot pulled himself together. Near the foot of the tree at which he had sunk down he found the cord-like strips of bark which he had cut. Picking them up he went to the carcase of the buck and tied its legs together. A whistle brought the elephant to him, and, hoisting the deer on to the pad, he fastened it to the surcingle. Then, grasping the elephant's ears, he was lifted to his place on the neck.

Turning Badshah's head towards home he started off; but, as he went, he looked back at the trampled glade and thanked Heaven that his body was not lying there, crushed and lifeless.

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