By Ernest Ingersoll. Edit

Published in Short Story 1899

The sun was only just gilding the crowns of the tallest palms of the jungle where the monkeys were climbing among the topmost twigs to warm their ears in its rays and search for breakfast. One or two jungle-cocks, up in the rocky nullah, were still to be heard crowing good morning to each other, and the bubbling notes of wild bulbuls were answered from many a cage in the little native village, while fields of young rice and sugar-cane half a mile lower down the valley would soon glow like a sheet of emerald.

Down the hill through a winding path in the thick woods three young villagers, bare-footed and bare-armed, were coming to their work in the fields, humming a quaint song as they walked. The chant of the leader suddenly stopped, and he pointed to the ground.

'" A tiger !" he exclaimed ; but the others knew the footprints as well as he, and each man turned his eyes over his shoulder and bent his ears to the whispering jungle, for the great beast, dreaded of all men, might be right beside them.

The tracks were many hours old, however, and the claw marks pointed up the nullah, so the men went on without much fear ; but there was no more singing until they were free of the shadowy path and out into the open space at the edge of the cane-fields. Here they sat down to smoke their pipes a few moments and wait until others came to the day's work.

"Did you hear the tale the Fakeer was telling at Father Latchoumana's last night?" asked Rangani, a powerful young Tamil, who had been the first to see the tracks, and who was a wonder to his friends for courage, though that need not praise him very highly, for these farmers and cow-herders of Madras are a timid folk.

"No," he was answered. "We could not stay there. They told me a 'cheeta' was prowling about my goats, and I asked Chama here to go with me and help light fires and beat a drum to scare him away."

"Huh !" Rangani grunted, in deep contempt for their fears. "Well, he told us that over toward Kistnagiri, on the other side of the hills, the people knew of a tiger that growled around the village every night. They built a trap for him, setting up a great slab of stone on some sticks and fixing a bait, so that when the tiger seized the meat he would pull out the sticks and the stone would fall and smash him as if an elephant had kneeled on him twice."

"Why could not we make such a trap?" asked Rangani.

"Perhaps we could ; but it would not be worth while, for a tiger does not come here once a year."

"No; that is true. I have not seen any tracks since last summer until this morning," said Vardapa, the second man of the trio. "But go on with your story."

"The next morning after sunrise — but wait. I will try to tell it as the Fakeer did, so that you may feel surprise. The good man — may the sweet mahua flowers bloom over his bones ! — was at the English sahib's post, about ten miles away, where the collector and his clerks are; and when the sun was about three hours high there came a few villagers, who brought upon a bamboo a dead tiger and laid it down at the Sahib's tent, and began to tell him how they had taken it in a trap, and so on. The Sahib did not listen long, but commanded his men to skin the beast and to pay them the government reward ; and his clerk gave to the men forty rupees and then they went away."

"Forty rupees ! "Ai,' that is a lot of money !" cried Charma.

"Yes," said Rangani with a deep sigh. "It is — it is. Half of that would give me all that my heart longs for."

"Well, is that all?" asked Vardapa, arousing Rangani from his sighing.

"No; good and bad luck go together. An hour afterward another lot of men came running in from the forest, and all began to shout at once for justice, saying that it was they who had set the trap, and that the first men had found the tiger in it, and had stolen it to get the reward wrongfully. This was true. But nobody knew who the thieves were, or where they belonged, and so the poor owners of the trap fed with rupees the jackals of another village !"

The two listeners laughed at this tale until the mina-birds out in the paddy-field heard them and flew away ; but Rangani only sighed, and refused to see any fun in it, or in anything else.

" "Ai, ai,' " he lamented, '"if only I could get some of that silver! "Ai, aiT

Just then a lad came running down the path, calling to the men.

"A soldier has come from the Sahib, ordering all the men in the village to go and help build a bridge which the flood has broken, but the headman says you three are not to go, but must stay here and draw water to-day, for the crops need it badly."

So they knocked the ashes out of their pipes and walked on together to the well.

This well was more truly a square cistern, or bowrie, cut in the hard ground and lined with clay and rocks, making a smooth, hard wall, through which the water could not leak; and it was fed by the rains and a rivulet, but the latter was. dry most of the year.

Such cisterns are common all over Central and Southern India, and are sometimes of great size, and constructed of careful masonry, and these are called tanks. In them is stored up the water that falls in the rainy season for use in irrigating the rice-fields during the long months of drouth. This was a poor little village, and its community-fields were only a few acres in extent, so that the bowrie here was small and cheap ; nevertheless the water in it was six or eight feet deep, even when, as now, the cistern was only half full.

Above its edge hung an "ettam" — one of the quaint contrivances by which the Hindoos lift water. Two strong posts,, connected near the top by a cross-bar, were set firmly in the soil near the edge of the cistern ; and resting upon the crossbar, about fourteen feet above the ground, was laid a heavy spar, so balanced that its ends would swing up and down like a seesaw. One end of this spar reached out over the cistern, and there hung from it, by a rope, a metal bucket as big as a large barrel.

Tlie men laid aside their coats, or whatever answered to a coat, and began to work. Rangani and Vardapa climbed rapidly up one of the posts, in whose sides were notches convenient for their bare feet, and perched themselves upon the spar, while Charma seized the bucket and swung it out over the bowrie, where its weight tipped and sank it down into the water. As soon as it was full the two men on the spar walked out toward the landward end until their weight bore down that end of this big lever and lifted the full bucket up above the surface, where Charma had only to push it far enough toward one side to tip the water into a trough, whence it ran away down into the irrigating channels, and thence spread among the thirsty plants.

This was not hard work, and it went on steadily while the sun climbed higher and higher in the dome of the sky, and the innumerable sounds of the tropical jungle in the early morning had ceased one by one. The bucket went down with a splash, the two men walked away along the beam until it came down and the bucket grated harshly on the stones of the curb ; then the water gurgled and rippled away through the troughs, and the '"ettam" creaked again as the bucket was returned to the tank. Finally these were the only sounds heard, for the heat of the approaching noonday was hushing the wilderness.

At last Charma declared that he was weary of his part, and that after they had smoked a pipeful of betel and tobacco he would go up on the spar and Rangani might take his place at the well.

When they were squatting in the shadow of a tamarind bush, enjoying their rest, Vardapa noticed the gloom on the face of his friend, and said to him :

"Brother Rangani, why are you so sad to-day? What troubles you? You do nothing but sigh, and we have not once heard you boast of how you could twist out the horn of a bull gaur, if you cared to."

" Ai, ai' !" cried that hero, "I do not care for anything now, because I am so poor."

"How is that? And why do you talk of poverty? All of us are poor, and some much worse off than you."

"That is nothing. A man is not poor until he covets something that he cannot buy. I have no money to purchase from her parents the wife my heart longs for, and I am as one lost in the deepest jungle.

"Do you know," he went on, after a moment's sympathetic silence, "Adja — that jewel in the ring — that flower in the garden — of Father Latchoumana? My eyes have dwelt upon her as she came and went with the goats ; and last night I watched her as she sat apart with the women while the Fakeer was talking to us. I knew that happiness would never sit as a welcome guest in my heart until I could take her away to my own house and see her tending the goats, and going to and coming from the well with watering, and gathering sticks for the fire, for mer

"Did you speak to her father?" Vardapa asked.

"Yes ; but it is of no use. He says he must have two cows for her."

"Two cows !" exclaimed the men in chorus. ^"Why didn't he say two elephants — two rubies!"

Each felt that there was no help for the despairing and disconsolate lover if the girl was held at such a value as that ; although, privately, they did not think she was worth it. They advised him to wait a while, expressing the opinion that the price would fall ; but this was of no comfort as a sentiment and useless as advice, because he had not enough money to buy even a calf, not to speak of two milch-cows, nor to mention the cost of the wedding feasts. So there was really nothing to be said or done, and they went back to their duty, the two comrades climbing up to move the spar, while Rangani stayed below. They were walking back and forth, seesawing the beam and droning out together, in time to its creaking, that waterman's song which all India sings at such labor, when

Flash ! A great yellow body sprang at the man by the well.

None of the three saw the tiger until he was on the point of leaping; but, perhaps, Rangani perceived the danger an instant sooner than the others, for he found time to swing around and throw himself down a little out of the way. Perhaps, too, the men on the spar made some motion, in their alarm, that moved the beam and bucket, which rested empty on the edge of the bowrie, just ready to go down. At any rate, the tiger found its iron rim in his grasp instead of sinking his claws into a man's shoulder. Now the stroke of his paws and the weight of his body together were enough almost to topple the big bucket over the edge, but not quite ; and doubtless the great agile cat, clutching at the ground frantically with his hind legs, would finally have recovered his balance, had not Rangani, true to his bold nature, picked himself up, rushed to the opposite side of the bucket, where his face was within a yard of those burning eyeballs and frothing fangs, and given it a push with all his strength. That impetus alone was needed, and down went the tiger with a rush that nearly hurled the frightened men off the beam, and struck the water with an immense souse and a horrible scream that sent Rangani scrambling up to the very top of the posts, for he had exhausted the last drop of his valor in that grand effort of boldness — done before he thought.

Now the animal went swimming round and round in the tank, whining, snarling, and clawing at the stonework in a frantic attempt to find some way up the smooth walls.

All the men were scared and excited almost out of their wits, but finally gathered nerve enough to lift out the bucket, for fear the brute might try to climb the rope ; and at last, when they saw he was quite unable to get out of the tank, they descended from their perches. Then they squatted on the curbing, and while the poor, beautiful beast struggled round and round his fatal death-pen they showered upon him all the elaborate abuse of himself, his ancestors and his progeny, which constitutes the invective of the East ; and having thus relieved their minds they began to hurl sharp stones at his head.

Suddenly Rangani sprang to his feet, and, yelling wild shouts at the top of his voice, began to clap his hands, dance, spin round, leap and down, and act like a mad Dervish. His companions forgot their foe, and gazed at him in amazement, until they caught the burden of his song :

" 'Ai, ai' ! The king of the tigers is slain. He will be drowned. I killed him, I, Rangani ! The Sahib will give me a reward — me, Rangani! Forty rupees will he bestow upon me, and I shall buy cows as white as milk, and I shall give them to Father Latchoumana, and the beautiful Adja — she with the grace of the 'chousingha,' whose hair is like the crest of the pucras gleaming at dawn — ^she, whose eyes outshine the orbs of the chital, and whose breath is sought of all the bees in the jungle — she will be mine, mine ! for I am Rangani, the brave one, and I have killed the tiger this day !

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