By Eleanor DeHaai
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Sivalik range of the Himalaya: 1910
"Look, sahib!" The bearer had stopped abruptly and was pointing into the sedges that grew in the mud along the river bank. "The tiger walks this way - beside the nadi!"
The old hunter pried his buttocks from the slender trunk of the dead madhavi tree upon which he had been sitting, shouldered his rifle, and drew a good, biting gulp of whiskey from a flat metal flask. "Aye, no rest for the weary," he said.
Wiping his lips on his knuckles, he squinted out through the hog plums - the living madhavi - and vine-tangled oaks, into the clearing and toward the Ramganga, a quarter kilometer away. "Hallo! Hallo, lad! I hear you! Stay there!" he called to the dhoti-clad youth who paced up and down the bank.
The hunter crunched his way through the brush. He could see that in the clearing, shadows were spreading and melding; while across the river, a grazing mass of spotted chital deer, preparing for night, was inching toward the safety of thickets.
All around him in the forest, bird calls were changing. Soon, at dusk, the jolting cries of ban chhapak, the Indian nightjar, would mingle with other nocturnal cries, some benign, others not. He shuddered but ignored it, batted a fly.
"Sahib, come quick!"
"Yes, yes, all right. Don't get all in a dither," he retorted under his breath. He halted, propped his rifle against a tree, and rubbed his shoulder and fly-bitten neck. Raising the flask, he downed a quick swallow, then capped the flask and tucked it into a pouch on his belt. Rifle clamped under his arm, he drew a deep breath and strode into the clearing, over to the spot where his bearer was kneeling.
Angus Blair now squatted, bridged the rifle across his thighs, and touched one of the paw prints that had been pressed into the silty mud. "Like leather," he muttered, "and starting to crust." He squinched his eyes and peered at the trail of distinctive, splay-toed tracks. "Stale. First clear spoor in a bloody fortnight, and it's -"
"Nahin! No, burrha sah'b, dried by sun. Fresh. Pag fresh."
"Bah! Sheathe your blade and calm yourself. The pugmarks say two days, I tell you. Perhaps three. Pish, lad, he could be halfway to Naini Tal."
"Sahib, stink of sher lingers here."
"Rubbish." Blair hawked, then took aim and spat a wad of mucus at a ragged spider web lopped between two rushes. "'Tis algae and fish slime you smell, not cat."
"Na fish! Sher ham-ke pas hai, sah'b, the tiger is near! Do you not -"
Blair thrust up his hand. "Go now, Parmod," he said quietly. "Go back to camp. Build a fire. See to our supper."
"Enough. Should the scoundrel show his wretched face tonight, we'll have his bloomin' hide. And his devil's heart to boot. Now, off you go, eh?"
Frowning, Parmod Hami rose, shook his head, and turned away. He clearly hesitated, but then padded off clenching his knife, soon disappearing in a feathery sea of elephant grass.
Blair heaved a sigh, then stood up and slung his rifle over his back. His boots slopping mud, he followed the tracks a few meters, where the trail vanished into a dense clump of reeds before reappearing farther on down the bank. He stopped just short of the clump and eased down on his knees.
Bracing himself with his hands, he leaned forward and sniffed the last few pugmarks, then parted the reeds. Ho! Spray! By gad, the cat's scent was so raw he could taste it. "Soon, Siva," he murmured. "Come daybreak, you unholy, man-eating rascal."
With a grunt Blair hoisted himself to his feet. Rubbing his hands to brush off the muck, he studied the clearing. By the trees, a flock of chinkara gazelle, twitching at flies, grazed quietly among a family of peafowl. Nothing else stirred. Except for the birds' occasional meowing, all was still.
Ah, it had been a long day; he was spent. He stretched and gazed out over the leafy canopy. Sparkling cirri had wafted in from the north. Light was dwindling. The sky was reddening.
It somehow depressed him, this last gasp of day. Shielding his eyes, he looked toward the sun and watched its crimson death engrave itself on clouds that shone like opals.
Through the haze of distance he could see the gory light stain the first jutting rise of the Himalaya. There the anguish would last. Here in the foothills, night was imminent.
Langurs, with their usual, shrill monkey-gibber, frolicked and scuffled in the forest treetops. In the river's scummy shallows, froglets peeped, sprang, plopped.
It was but a facade; Blair could feel it. With his eyes he slowly traced the sedgy banks, following them a stone's throw, to the thicket from where the Ramganga glugged into the clearing.
Just then, from somewhere close by in the forest, a sambar stag shrieked. Monkeys scattered in the trees and throngs of magpies flushed, squawking. Hooves crashed through the brush; the pounding crescendoed, then faded.
Now all hung silent.
Blair stiffened. He reached for his rifle. "Come, Lord Siva," he whispered. "It is time."
His pupils caught a subtle darkening in the bushes at the thicket's edge. One by one, the hairs on his forearms bristled.
Rifle poised, he inched toward the spot. Ten meters shy of the bushes he stopped.
Now he glimpsed a flicker of movement there, an ebony ripple, a blur of white, a flash of - amber? He blinked the sweat from his eyes and crept closer.
The bushes stirred. Twigs snapped. Brush crackled. Ever so slowly, the foliage parted. There, where the leaves danced like flames, he saw two glowing discs. Trembling, he aimed his rifle between them.
He fired. He missed.
He gasped, cried out, stumbled backward.
Then, with his body pinned against the ground, he watched his crimson death engrave itself on eyes that shone like opals.
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