"It has gone to the fort," said the men—"bags always go to the fort." I pointed out that, if it had meant to go to the fort, it would have gone towards the fort, instead of in another direction; but the argument did not move them. "The fort is a jungle, and where else should a 'bag' take refuge but in a jungle?" However, I was obstinate, and pursued the original direction until we arrived at the brow of the hill, where it sloped steeply down to the sea. The whole slope, for half a mile, was covered with a dense scrub of Lantana bushes. This is another plant introduced in some by-gone century from South America, and planted first in gardens for its profuse clusters of red and pink verbena-like blossoms (it is a near relation of the garden verbena), whence it has spread like the rabbit in New Zealand, and become a nuisance. "There," I cried, pointing at the scrub, "there, without doubt, your wounded 'bag' is lying."
Some of the men, unbelieving still, were amusing themselves by rolling large stones down the slope, when suddenly there was a sound of scrambling, and across an opening in the scrub, in sight of us all, a huge hyaena scurried away "on three legs." I sent a man post-haste for my rifle, which I had not brought with me, never expecting to require it until a regular campaign could be arranged. As soon as it arrived, we formed in line and advanced, throwing stones in all directions.
Make no offering of admiration at the shrine of our hardihood, for we were in no peril. Among carnivorous beasts there is not a more contemptible poltroon than the hyaena, even when wounded. A friend of mine once tied up a billy goat as a bait for a panther and sat up over it in a tree. In the middle of the night a hyaena nosed it from afar, and came sneaking up in the rear, for hyaenas love the flesh of goats next to that of dogs. But the goat saw it, and, turning about bravely, presented his horned front. This the hyaena could not find stomach to face. For two hours he manoeuvred to take the goat in rear, but it turned as he circled, and stood up to him stoutly till the dawn came, and my friend cut short its disreputable career with a bullet.
To return to my story, we had not gone far when, on a lower level, not many yards from me, I was suddenly confronted by that repulsive, ghoulish physiognomy which can never be forgotten when once seen, the smoky-black snout, broad forehead and great upstanding ears. Instantly the beast wheeled and scrambled over a bank, receiving a hasty rear shot which, as I afterwards found, left it but one limb to go with, for the bullet passed clean through a hindleg and lodged in a foreleg. It went on, however, and some time passed before I descried it far off dragging itself painfully across an open space. A careful shot finished it, and it died under a thick bush, where we found it and dragged it out. It proved to be a large male, measuring 4 feet 7 inches, from which something over a foot must be deducted for its shabby tail.
The natives all maintained still that their cow had been killed by a panther, saying that the hyaena had come on the second night, after their manner, to fill its base belly with the leavings. And there was some circumstantial evidence in favour of this view. In the first place, I never heard of a hyaena having the audacity to attack a cow; in the second, the tooth-marks on the cow showed that it had been executed according to the tradition of all the great cats—by seizing its throat and breaking its neck; and in the third, a hyaena, sitting down to such a meal, would certainly have begun with calf's head and crunched up every bone of the skull before thinking of sirloin or rumpsteak. But the absurdity of a panther being found in such a region outweighed all this and I scoffed.
I was yet to learn a lesson in humility out of this adventure. Two years later I sailed over the bar and dropped anchor at the same spot. I was met with the intelligence that on the previous evening two panthers had been seen sitting on the brow of the hill and gazing at the beauties of the fading sunset, as wild beasts are so fond of doing. A night or two later a cow was attacked in a neighbouring field, and, staggering into the village, fell down and died in a narrow alley between two houses. The panther followed and prowled about all night, but the villagers, hammering at their doors with sticks, scared it from its meal.
I at once had a nest put up in a small tree, and took my position in it at sunset. The common people in India do not waste much money on lamp oil, preferring to sleep during the hours appointed by Nature for the purpose, so it was not long before all doors were securely barred and quietness reigned. Then the mosquitoes awoke and came to inquire for me, the little bats (how I blessed them!) wheeled about my head, the night-jar called to his fellow, and the little owls sat on a branch together and talked to each other about me. Hour after hour passed, and it became too dark in that narrow alley to see a panther if it had come. So I came down and got to my boat. The panther was engaged a mile away dining on another cow! On further inquiry I learned that there was some good forest a day's journey distant, and it was quite the fashion among the panthers of that place to spend a weekend occasionally at a spot so full of all delights as this dark, jungle-smothered fort.