The journey by night..
By Norah blake
Sher Singh's little brother, Kunwar, lay in the hut with a pain in his stomach that was getting worse.
Sher Singh himself was only 12 years old, small and cheerful, a child of the jungle, and his brother was several years younger. There had been other children, of course, but they were dead, carried off by cholera and influenza.
'I will wring out rags in boiling water and lay them on his stomach,' said his mother. She did not weep. She had lived through everything.
The steaming cloths did nothing. After a while Sher Singh's mother said, 'He mustbe carried to the hospital at Kalaghat.'
Then Sher Singh knew that his brother was dying, for all jungle people know that the hospital is the last resort of the doomed.
I will run for my father,' he cried.
'It may be days before you find him.'
Sher Singh's father was known far and wide as Sher Singh Bahadur—the Brave—a famour hunter with the title Bahadur added to his name like a medal because of all he had done. He lived his life here in Laldwani village, grazing his animals, cultivating his bit of land. But whenever an expedition entered the jungle in search of big game, they sent for Bahadur the Brave. All along his skull and back and shoulder went a scar where claws had opened his flesh to the bone when he was pulling a comrade away from a tiger.
Now he was away in the jungle with an expedition. All the men of Laldwani village too were away, as beaters. In this mud-and-grass hut, upon the floor of trodden earth, Kunwar lay crying sometimes, but mostly glazed and silent. Sher Singh saw death in his young brother's eyes.
'There are no men in the village,' he said. 'I will take him.'
His mother must stay behind to mind the cattle and work on the land without which they would all starve; and he and she both understood this without saying so. She took one of her two saris and making a sling for Sher Singh, lifted up Kunwar, and put him into it. Sher Singh could feel immediately the heat of the boy's body burning through the cotton cloth on his back. He felt the weight too, and wondered how he was going to manage.
'He is too big for you,' his mother whispered in despair. 'You will never get there.' Sher Singh said nothing. He set off into the jungle in the orange glow of evening. Kalaghat was 80 kilometres away, but Sher Singh hoped that if he could get through the jungle and cross the two rivers in between, he might get a lift in a bullock cart or perhaps even a broken-down truck for the last part of his journey.
He was alone on the track that wound into the forest, into night. Not quite alone, though. Around him lay primeval forest in which the struggle of life continued as it had done since the beginning of the world. The deer were now so poached and decimated that the beasts of prey had to kill domestic animals for food. Sometimes even man.
Night fell. The sky blazed with stars. Presently, the moon rose. The sight of bear tracks in the dust—the square front paw and long back one, with the shaggy claws—made him glance round uneasily. He had once seen a man who had been mauled by a bear, all his face torn away. He quickened his step.
Soon, on a cliff above a river-bed, Sher Singh knew he could go no further without rest. He set Kunwar down gently. Suddenly all Sher Singh's muscles, shrinking back to their natural positions, thrilled with piercing pain. He lay against a tree with his eyes shut, recovering.
It was then he heard the jostle and squeal of elephants. Below him on each side of the shallow river-bed, the elephants travelled. He could see the cows and the babies, and one great old tusker. He was swaying his trunk to and fro to learn whatever the breeze could tell him; and suddenly he hesitated. The trunk came round towards the boys.
Sher Singh chilled with fright. With Kunwar to carry, he could neither climb nor run. Prayer after prayer fled up from his frightened spirit.
The tusker snorted, trumpeted, shook his head. Suddenly he hurried on angrily up the river-bed, and all the herd with him. They disappeared.
Sher Singh breathed another prayer, of thanks this time, and made ready to move with Kunwar on his back once again. He scrambled down into the river-bed. Though the water was only waist-deep, he had to go slowly because of slime on the stones. Thank goodness there was a bridge at the second river, he thought. That bridge was an impermanent thing made of bamboo poles, stones, and thick grass. But it was at least a bridge.
As Sher Singh washed up on to the shore, water trickled in his foot prints before sinking into the sand. Coming up out of the river were another set of prints— a tiger's and there was glitter in them too. Even as he looked, they dried. He plodded steadily on, and his body pained and sobbed.
Towards midnight he heard the second river from far away, a steady roar of flood. When he came out on the shore, he saw it. A big head of snow must have melted yesterday, because from bank to bank, the river foamed. He looked for the bridge. It was not there. Only a fierce crest of water showed where it lay, submerged. Branches caught against the bridge feathered the wild glissade of water. Underneath, boulders moved. He could hear the river grinding its teeth. Then a tree, churning over and over, crashed against the drowned bridge, which heeled and broke, throwing up its bamboo ribs like a fan.
Sher Singh set Kunwar down and brought him water from the river in his hands.
'My brother—' the delirious little boy whispered, and drank.
Sher Singh gathered grass and, plaiting it into a rope, tied it round his brother and himself so they would keep together. Then he entered the water just above the bridge. The river seized them and flattened them against the wreck. Unable to move at first, he edged forward into the maelstrom, feeling for the split ends of bamboo. The deluge deafened him, timber banged and bruised him. It was so cold he could hardly keep his hold. He could not get his breath in the spray, and he did not know if his brother lived or died. But he kept the child's head above water, and moved slowly. Gasping in mortal struggle, he was deafened, blinded, frozen, drowned.
Gradually, the river seemed to lose power. They were through.
After that, Sher Singh did not know what happened. He was wet and ice-cold but he stumbled on, his knees bent and trembling. They gave way. He was crawling. Then there was a road and the yap of pi-dogs, heralding a village.
After that, the next he knew they were in a bullock-cart, then a truck.
'Where have you come from, boy?'
'You carried him alone? Across the river in flood?'
They were at the hospital.
Sher Singh felt shy of the big building. He did not go in.
Much later, the doctor came out on the veranda.
'Sher Singh Bahadur, are you there?' he called out.
'My father is not here,' replied the boy, going up to the veranda. 'But I am Sher Singh.'
'You are the boy who brought the child Kunwar in from Laldwani?'
Then a smile broke all over the doctor's great gentle face.
'Then you are Sher Singh Bahadur—the Brave!' he said. 'Your brother will live. Come and see.'