Written by Ted Schnack
The hunter felt the animal in him awaken. His dulled senses were becoming keen, taking on a sharper edge. The danger of being alone in the killing grounds of the man-eater had become, to his senses, a whetstone to dull steel. As he was drawn deeper into the dappled canopy and moist undergrowth, it was as if each step dragged his dull blade across a gritty stone bringing his senses back razor sharp.
Once he had been a famous and celebrated killer of man-eaters. He was the one to count on for the kill after all others had failed – some sort of darling hero for the crown, but he had seen no glory in any of it. He had been in a sweet death spiral of booze, opium and heartbreak that had left him a broken wreck. He longed for death to come calling, he had been so lost in the loving vapor of the White Dragon’s breath that he wondered at times if he would even know when it came.
That dark shadow didn’t come, but instead, the British guard came and dragged him out of his wretched room in Calcutta. When the bright sunlight burned his eyes his only hope was that they had come to hang him for his sins. The British knew, they always knew the one thing he held precious, and they would force him to hunt one more time.
Slowly, moment by moment, he was becoming sharper, keener,- more alive.
Now, as always, danger was his drug. It was his nemesis, yet he never felt more alive than when terror teased and lurked close by. It had been that way in the carnage of WWI where metal and industry met flesh and bone. He had been young once, believing in the goodness of man. His lust for gallantry led him to enlist at seventeen for the “Great War”, his mind racing with thoughts of adventure, valor and bravery that soon would be replaced by unspeakable horrors of the trenches that would stain his soul and blacken his heart. Here under the jungle canopy though it was quieter, more subtle and one on one it was always more personal. He once had the heart of a poet but now the cold senses of the most cunning of killers.
The din of the city and voices in his head had finally quieted. He was sharply focused now, hearing the slightest rustle of small creatures -- clicking insects, the soft fluttering of birds, and the low chatters or screams of quarreling monkeys. He listened to the cackles and slithers of the multitudes. They were his scouts and spies and they told him what he needed to know. He saw what others were blind to – splattered dewdrops, flower pollen knocked across the petal, blades of grass bent unnaturally, a leaf fallen before its time, a flower that had not turned its face to the sun in time, turned earth. Animal tracks told him even more. Anyone could tell an animal that had passed, even the most naïve hunter could do this. But the track told him much more, was it a she or a he, old- young, hungry or fed, stalking or walking, trying to decive any that followed and looking for hidden spot to set a trap. The jungle had distinct signals as clear to him as the writing on a page or the score of a familiar symphony. Through studied eyes he absorbed his surroundings, seeing natural paths of movement, secretive under-trails and ambush points of killers. The thick cool breeze was in his face. It carried the soft aroma of flower blooms, the smell of rotting foliage, rich earth and new life. But in this breeze there was a sickening scent he knew all too well.
He slipped quietly into the river of life, floating in its currents. Once again he became an accepted brethren of the beast.
The Tiger knew the perils of his new found taste for man-meat. It was a dangerous business indeed. When he had first gone man-eater, he took his fresh prey deep into hidden glades or a dark cave to feed in seclusion. Finishing in haste he would quickly disappear deep into the dark heart of the jungle where he knew no one would dare follow -- but suddenly everything had changed.
He lay on a short outcropping underneath the low shadow of a spreading fern licking his festering hot and rancid paw. He could taste bitter pus from the septic wound. A low grumbling came from his chest at the dull sting of each lap of his tongue. His once splendid claws that had killed and slashed scores of animals now hung useless, the velvet touch pads of his foot ruined and bones splintered. His claws were still connected by tendons that had hardened into filthy rawhide cords dangling like bone tassels. His paw and hunger were all he thought about and it kept him in an evil mood.
The hunter moved quietly down the long wooded ridge that fell away toward the lazy river. For a few moments he closed his eyes to heighten his sense of smell, trying to pick up the slightest tang of Tiger mixed in the rancid breeze. Slowing his pace he picked his path carefully and secreted himself in the shadows and out of the eyes of betraying monkeys. Creeping slowly and waiting for long pauses between each step, he placed his foot down softly knowing that one misplaced step, a snapping twig or rolled stone would crack like a rifle shot in the silence.
The tiger was troubled by the thought of not moving, but his aging and wounded body needed rest and one more meal. It was becoming increasing painful to walk, it sapped his strength and spirit. He put his wounded claw in his worn teeth and gently tried to pull it from his foot. He had once done this with a festered thorn, but this was different. There are few things tougher than tiger tendon and it ran deep. A blinding pain shot through his paw and up his foreleg. Wincing he let loose and started the incessant licking again.
His sensitive sense of smell that could pick up the smallest airborne scent in the heavy mist had not aged and he had become wiser with time. Living men gave off different odors – fresh sweat, fear, and the smell of their breath. The white ones smelled different from the brown ones, women different from men, the ones that ate meat and those that didn’t. He had learned the language of men, the sounds they made moving the herds and collecting food, their excited yips and cries of alarm and fear and soft babbling to each other- soft whimpers when they mated.
He had to pay homage to the demon God that is hunger. He knew it was clouding his instincts when his mind told him to run from this place. He thought of the times of easy feasts on a fat pig or deer and long cool naps in the dappled rays of jungle light. Those days were gone. He had spent his life avoiding man and how he sought them out. Dangerous indeed.
He knew men were weak physically, no claws or fangs, but they had something - a strange charm. They were clever and through some of the incantation or the blackest magic spit death and bite with the sticks they carried.
In his prime he had been 500 pounds of lean muscle, sinew and bone. Now he was old and injured, but his senses were still flesh and blood radar, finely tuned to the timeless pulse of the jungle. What he had lost in supple strength he had gained in wisdom.
He knew men would be coming. Usually he ghosted away, but now he had been lingering longer and longer at his kills. It was almost dark and he knew that last night’s moon was but a sliver and would be the same tonight. They would be coming tomorrow – but he would be gone. They never came at night. The night was a comfort to him where he was master of it all. Sometimes he watched the wiry brown men, stinking of fear, coming through the jungle. Wide-eyed and tense they would come to take what was left of his kill, carrying pots and pans, machetes and maybe a wired together fire-stick. There was hardly ever enough left of the kill to fill a woven reed basket. He never understood why they would risk so much when there was so little left.
At times he heard the seductive moans of she-tigers in heat calling for a mate. The sound used to consume him, sending hot flashes through his mind and a lusting fury through his loins. The lust in him was still alive, teasing, lingering. He remembered when he was feared by all, but knew now that call would do the same to young males in thier prime and certainty that a fight with one would be his last.
The hunter followed the retch downhill as he came across the fresh drag and tiger pugs. Squatting low his fingertips touched the outlines of the tiger track - he could see it was a large male. Tilting his head he looked for telling shadows across the track and the angles of the stride. Tigers normally leave a track with a smooth cadence of power, balance and grace like flowing water over smooth rock. Something sent a chill through him even in the humid heat. The rhythm of the track was broken- the tiger had an injured front paw. He could see it clearly. He suddenly felt a wave of trembling fear remembering the Racshass she-bitch that seemingly mocked him as she killed scores with her ruined hind leg. Natives were a superstitious lot and were convinced she was the devil herself. By then he had taken a dozen man eating tigers and leopards and was used to hearing tale of witches, demons and dark spells conjured up about these killers.
In the long black jungle night he had laid in wait for her over bawling stakeout goats or the remains of a hapless villager. His mind left to slither through his nightmares and his first taste of insanity crept into the quiets of the long night and that silent space. In those endless nights he heard hideous screeches and cackling barks, yipping gibbers - demon-like sounds from another world that he had never heard before or since. In the dark soul of those nights he could feel his sanity slipping, feel it pulling away, not ever quite knowing what was real. His madness had come like a lover in the night, slowly and on kitten’s feet and driven him to the dragon. She was the one man-eater he had never taken or even had a glimpse of as she kept on her rampage and then simply disappeared, leaving him wondering if any of it was real.
Peering through a veil of leaves he saw a slight rustle, a flicker of movement and was started still. He could hear the sound of chewing and smacking. When the wind moved the swaying bank of grass he could see the bat ears and silver guard hairs of a jackal. It looked his way showing its white teeth and bloody muzzle. He had never known a tiger to tolerate a jackal on their kill if they were close. He felt himself relax a bit.
Laying on a high point cloaked in shadows the tiger had a hidden view of his cache. There had been no call of excited alarm or fear, yet he sensed the natural rhythm of the earth was off and it caught his attention. Maybe it was one less bird squawking, the tone of monkey yips or the slight flicker of a passing bird – something was wrong. His jackal scout was still at his kill nervously eating - his grim watchdog paid with a bit of gore. The tiger was stone still, in the shadows his blaze had tuned to old copper and black slashes blended with the shadows to hide his form. His agate jade eyes searching, ink black pupil pulsing to the changing light, nose up testing the drifting thermals and ears flicking towards the tiniest of sounds. He swallowed a low rumble in his chest, his eyes narrowed,- looking for any betraying movement or stink of man in the drifting breeze. His lithe body was slinking down as his hind legs were slowly coiling underneath into the soft earth.
The hunter paused, still in the deep shadow watching and waiting. He looked closer at the scene, adjusting the focus on his brass monocular.
Scattered in the leaves was the broken rag doll remains of the village girl. A tattered piece of blue cloth and a copper earring were tangled in her black hair. Chubby emerald-blue blow flies swarmed in a happy low buzz over her face which was oddly untouched, eyes gently closed as if sleeping and dreaming peacefully. She looked surreal, like a resting angel her profile filling the blurry pitted glass of his scope as prisms of rainbow lights in the setting sun bathed her in a heavenly radiance.
Momentarily he let the sight of this young girl touch his heart. He thought of her putting on that earring, bundling her hair as her black eyes flirted with the village boys as she left with her berry basket, plucking a flower along the way to crush against the soft cocoa skin of her neck. Letting his mind wander ever so slightly, he almost expected her to shoo away a pesky fly, sitting up flashing a shy smile as she fixed a lock of fallen hair, embarrassed she had been caught napping. Maybe the hard heart he needed for this had softened. One should never let his guard down in the killing grounds of a man-eater.
The sun cut a bloody gash across the distant sky and soon it would be dark.
Bats had started to flutter out of the shadows, dodging and cutting for their airborne prey, sightless but knowing, radar picking up the tiniest of movement. The tiger alerted, saw three bats dip low and then flared off, and then another. There was something below them, he was sure of it. Then a terrifying sight. -- a man, a white devil, trying to steal his food and coming for him. Even more terrifying the man carried the extra arm that threw claws and fang that bit with fire, the kind of bite that had torn away half his foot. Two blazing thoughts flashed in his mind. He was torn between a panicked dash into the jungle and a seething hate to attack and kill, but he was an ambush killer and he waited quietly knowing that sudden surprise was best chance. He settled lower to the ground, muscles tensed, knowing the advantage was still his. The tiger had spent a lifetime knowing the split second when both man and beast know they are in extreme danger and he saw it now.
The breeze shifted slightly giving the hunter its betrayal of the rank smell of tiger musk. The cold slap of fear struck him hard -- it was the girls killer and it was close.
It was the moment for both of them – fight or flight. In instinctive reaction, the tiger decided he still had surprise on his side. That advantage would be gone in a moment and forever. Energized by his hate, and risk he was no longer old and broken. He was once again in his prime and suddenly moved in furious and shocking quickness. He knew those men with fire-fangs like to see what they are throwing their teeth and claws at. The tiger dodged low and quickly, staying below the foliage in a startling blur of amber, ivory and black slash.
The hunter had been on a keen edge for hours, his senses probing for the tiniest hint of the tiger’s presence. Suddenly the charging man-eater made a great rip through the fabric of waist high undergrowth. His attack was like an avalanche of sight and sound. He could hear the soft heavy thuds of the tiger’s pugs as they hit the ground. He picked up a whip-snap pattern of moving green undergrowth. Pure instinct and without a thought the hunters gun was up to his shoulder.
The tiger had learned a trick when he was young. He broke off his attack and side-stepped getting to a small piece of high ground to make the final pounce from an unexpected location.
The hunter fired where the tiger would have been if he had come straight at him like every tiger had before. Instead of a bullet smashing flesh and bone, the heavy slug took a shovel sized hole out of the moist ground five paces from the hunter. He caught a flash of blazed copper as the tiger zigzagged and pounced in a quick blur. For the briefest moment they looked into each other eyes. One handed from his hip throwing up his other arm in an instinctive block, he fired his second and last barrel. In a split second the hunter was blinded by fire and felt the gun snap back on his wrist. A blast ringing dagger pierced his ear and as he saw black. Free at last.