The Man-Eaters of Tsavo/Chapter 22

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Chapter XXII: How Roshan Khan Saved My Life[edit]

On May 12 railhead reached the Athi River, where, as there was a great deal of miscellaneous work to be done, our headquarters remained established for some little time. One day not long after we had settled down in our new camp, I was joined quite unexpectedly by my friend Dr. Brock, who had shared the exciting adventure with me at Tsavo the night we were attacked in the goods-wagon by one of the man-eaters. Now Brock had so far not been fortunate enough to bag a lion, and was consequently most anxious to do so. Shortly after his arrival, accordingly, he suggested that we should go for a shooting expedition on the morrow, and that I should trot out for his benefit one of the local lions. Of course I said I should be delighted -- I was always ready for a hunt when it was possible for me to get away, and as just at the time we were "held up" by the Athi River, I could manage a day off quite easily. So we made the usual preparations for a day's absence from camp -- filled our water-bottles with tea, put a loaf of bread and a tin of sardines in our haversacks, looked carefully to our rifles and ammunition; and warned the "boys" who were to accompany us as beaters to be ready before dawn. I decided to make a very early start, as I knew that the most likely place for lions lay some distance away, and I wanted to get there if possible by daybreak. We should thus have a better chance of catching one of the lords of the plain as he returned from his nightly depredations to the kindly shelter of the tall grass and rushes which fringed the banks of the river. We therefore retired to rest early, and just as I was dozing off to sleep, one of my Indian servants, Roshan Khan, put his head through the slit at my tent door and asked leave to accompany the "Sahibs" in the morning so that he might see what shikar (hunting) was like. This request I sleepily granted, thinking that it could make little difference whether he came with us or stayed behind in camp. As things turned out, however, it made all the difference in the world, for if he had not accompanied us, my shikar would in all probability have ended disastrously next day. He was a very dusky-coloured young Pathan about twenty years of age, lithe and active, and honest and pleasant-looking, as Pathans go. He had been my "boy" for some time and was much attached to me, besides having a touching faith in my prowess in shikar: probably, indeed, this was the reason why he stuck so close to me throughout the hunt.

We breakfasted by candle light and managed to get several miles on our way towards the source of the Athi before dawn. As soon as it was thoroughly daylight, we extended in line, Dr. Brock, as the guest, being placed in the most likely position for a shot, while Roshan Khan followed close behind me with the day's provisions. In this order we trudged steadily forward for a couple of miles without coming across anything, though we advanced through many patches of rushes and long grass likely to conceal our expected quarry. It was most interesting and exciting work all the same, as we never knew but that a lion might the next moment jump up at our very feet. We had just beaten through a most hopeful-looking covert without success and had come out on to a beautiful open grassy glade which stretched away for some distance ahead of us, when I noticed a big herd of wildebeeste browsing quietly some distance to our right. I knew that Brock also wanted a wildebeeste, so I whistled softly to him, and pointed out the weird-looking, bison-like antelopes. He came across at once and started off towards the herd, while I sat down to watch the proceedings. He made a beautiful stalk, which was rendered really very difficult by the open nature of the country, but still the wildebeeste quickly noticed his approach and kept steadily moving on, until at last they disappeared over one of the gentle rises which are such a feature of the Athi Plains.

I still sat and waited, expecting every moment to hear the sound of Brock's rifle. Some time elapsed without a shot, however, and I was just about to follow him up and find out how things were going, when Roshan Khan suddenly exclaimed excitedly:-- " Dekko, Sahib, shenzi ata hain!" ("Look, Sahib, the savages are coming!"). I was not in the least alarmed at this somewhat startling announcement, as the Indians called all the natives of the interior of Africa shenzi, or savages; and on looking round I saw five tall, slim Masai approaching in Indian file, each carrying a six-foot spear in his right hand. On coming nearer, the leader of the party eagerly asked in Swahili, "What does the Bwana Makubwa ("Great Master") desire?"

"Simba" ("Lions"), said I.

"Come," he replied, "I will show you many."

This filled me with interest at once. "How far away are they?" I asked.

"M'bali kidogo" (" A little distance "), came the stereotyped reply.

I immediately had a good look round for Brock, but could see no sign of him, so, in case the "many" lions should get away in the meantime, I told the Masai to lead the way, and off we started.

As usual, the m'bali kidogo proved a good distance -- over two miles in this case. Indeed, I began to get impatient at the long tramp, and called out to the Masai to know where his lions were; but he vouchsafed me no answer and continued to walk steadily on, casting keen glances ahead. After a little I again asked, "Where are the lions?" This time he extended his spear in a most dramatic manner, and pointing to a clump of trees just ahead, exclaimed: "Look, Master; there are the lions." I looked, and at once caught sight of a lioness trotting off behind the bushes. I also saw some suspicious-looking thing at the foot of one of the big trees, but came to the conclusion that it was only a growth of some kind projecting from the trunk. I was soon to be undeceived, however, for as I started to run towards the trees in order to cut off the fast disappearing lioness from a stretch of rushes for which she was making, a low and sinister growl made me look closer at the object which had first aroused my suspicions. To my surprise and delight I saw that it was the head of a huge black-maned lion peering out from behind the trunk of the tree, which completely hid his body. I pulled up short and stared at him. Although he was not seventy yards away from me, yet owing to the nature of the background it was very difficult to make him out, especially as he kept his head perfectly still, gazing steadily at me. It was only when the great mouth opened in an angry snarl that I could see plainly what he really was. For a few seconds we stood thus and looked at each other; then he growled again and made off after the lioness. As I could not get a fair shot at him from where I stood, I ran with all my might for a point of vantage from which I might have a better chance of bagging him as he passed.

Now by this time I had almost got beyond the surprise stage where lions were concerned; yet I must admit that I was thoroughly startled and brought to a full stop in the middle of my race by seeing no less than four more lionesses jump up from the covert which the lion had just left. In the twinkling of an eye three of them had disappeared after their lord in long, low bounds, but the fourth stood broadside on, looking, not at me, but at my followers, who by this time were grouped together and talking and gesticulating excitedly. This gave me a splendid chance for a shoulder shot at about fifty yards' distance, so I knelt down at once and fired after taking careful aim. The lioness disappeared from sight instantly, and on looking over the top of the grass I saw that my shot had told, as she was on her back, clawing the air and growling viciously. As she looked to me to be done for, I shouted to some of the men to remain behind and watch her, while I set off once more at a run to try to catch up the lion. I feared that the check with the lioness might have lost him to me altogether, but to my relief I soon caught sight of him again. He had not made off very quickly, and had probably stopped several times to see what I was up to; indeed the men, who could see him all the time, afterwards told me that when he heard the growl of rage from the lioness after she was shot, he made quite a long halt, apparently deliberating whether he should return to her rescue. Evidently, however, he had decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Fortunately he was travelling leisurely, and I was delighted to find that I was gaining on him fast; but I had still to run about two hundred yards at my best pace, which, at an altitude of more than 5,000 feet above sea-level, leaves one very breathless at the end of it.

When the lion perceived me running towards him, he took up his station under a tree, where he was half hidden by some low bushes, above which only his head showed. Here he stood, watching my every movement and giving vent to his anger at my presence in low, threatening growls. I did not at all like the look of him, and if there had been another tree close by, I should certainly have scrambled up it into safety before attempting to fire. As a matter of fact, however, there was no shelter of any kind at hand; so, as I meant to have a try for him at all costs, I sat down where I was, about sixty yards from him, and covered his great head with my rifle. I was so breathless after my run, and my arms were so shaky, that it was all I could do to keep the sight on the fierce-looking target and I thought to myself, as the rifle barrel wobbled about, "If I don't knock him over with the first shot, he will be out of these bushes and down on me like greased lightning -- and then I know what to expect." It was a most exciting moment, but in spite of the risk I would not have missed it for the world; so, taking as steady an aim as was possible in the circumstances, I pulled the trigger. Instantly the shaggy head disappeared from view, and such a succession of angry roars and growls came up out of the bushes that I was fairly startled, and felt keenly anxious to finish him off before he could charge out and cover the short distance which separated us. I therefore fired half a dozen shots into the bushes at the spot where I imagined he lay, and soon the growling and commotion ceased, and all was still. I was confident the brute was dead, so I called up one of the men to stay and watch the place, while I again rushed off at full speed -- jumping over such rocks and bushes as came in my way -- to have a shot at a lioness that was still in sight.

By this time my followers numbered about thirty men, as when one is hunting in these plains natives seem to spring from nowhere in the most mysterious manner, and attach themselves to one in the hope of obtaining same portion of the kill. By signal I ordered them to advance in line on the thicket in which the lioness had just taken refuge, while I took up my position on one side, so as to obtain a good shot when she broke covert. The line of natives shouting their native cries and striking their spears together soon disturbed her, and out she sprang into the open, making for a clump of rushes close to the river. Unfortunately she broke out at the most unfavourable spot from my point of view, as some of the natives masked my fire, and I had consequently to wait until she got almost to the edge of the rushes. Whether or not I hit her then I cannot say; at any rate, she made good her escape into the reeds, where I decided to leave her until Brock should arrive.

I now retraced my steps towards the spot where I had shot the lion, expecting, of course, to find the man I had told to watch him still on guard. To my intense vexation, however, I found that my sentry had deserted his post and had joined the other men of the party, having become frightened when left by himself. The result of his disobedience was that now I could not tell where lay the dead lion -- or, rather, the lion which I believed to be dead; but I had no intention of losing so fine a trophy, so I began a systematic search, dividing the jungle into strips, and thus going over the whole place thoroughly. The task of finding him, however, was not so easy as might be thought; the chase after the lioness had taken us some distance from where I had shot him, and as there were numbers of trees about similar to that under which he fell, it was really a very difficult matter to hit upon the right place. At last one of the men sang out joyfully that he had found the lion at the same time running away from the spot as hard as ever he could. A number of those nearest to him, both Indians and natives, had more courage or curiosity, and went up to have a look at the beast. I shouted to them as I hurried along to be careful and not to go too near, in case by any chance he might not be dead; but they paid little heed to the warning, and by the time I got up, some half-dozen of them were gathered in a group at the lion's tail, gesticulating wildly and chattering each in his own language, and all very pleased and excited. On getting near I asked if the lion was dead, and was told that he was nearly so, but that he still breathed. He was lying at full length on his side, and when I saw him at close quarters I was more delighted than I can tell, for he was indeed a very fine specimen. For a moment or two I stood with the group of natives, admiring him. He still breathed regularly, as his flanks heaved with each respiration; but as he lay absolutely still with all the men jabbering within a yard of him, I assumed that he was on the point of death and unable to rise. Possessed with this belief, I very foolishly allowed my curiosity to run away with my caution, and stepped round to have a look at his head. The moment I came into his view, however, he suddenly became possessed of a diabolical ferocity. With a great roar he sprang to his feet, as if he were quite unhurt; his eyes blazed with fury, and his lips were drawn well back, exposing his tusks and teeth in a way I hope never to witness again. When this perilous situation so unexpectedly developed itself, I was not more than three paces away from him.

The instant the lion rose, all the men fled as if the Evil One himself were after them, and made for the nearest trees -- with one exception, for as I took a step backwards, keeping my eye on the infuriated animal, I almost trod on Roshan Khan, who had still remained close behind me. Fortunately for me, I had approached the lion's head with my rifle ready, and as I stepped back I fired. The impact of the .303 bullet threw him back on his haunches just as he was in the act of springing, but in an instant he was up again and coming for me so quickly that I had not even time to raise my rifle to my shoulder, but fired point blank at him from my hip, delaying him for a second or so as before. He was up again like lightning, and again at the muzzle of my rifle; and this time I thought that nothing on earth could save me, as I was almost within his clutches. Help came from an unexpected and unconscious quarter, for just at this critical moment Roshan Khan seemed all at once to realise the danger of the situation, and suddenly fled for his life, screaming and shrieking with all his might. Beyond all question this movement saved me, for the sight of something darting away from him diverted the lion's attention from me, and following his natural instinct, he gave chase instead to the yelling fugitive.

Roshan Khan having thus unwittingly rescued me from my perilous position, it now became my turn to do all I could to save him, if this were possible. In far less time than it takes to tell the story, I had swung round after the pursuing lion, levelled my rifle and fired; but whether because of the speed at which he was going, or because of my over-anxiety to save my "boy", I missed him completely, and saw the bullet raise the dust at the heels of a flying Masai. Like lightning I loaded again from the magazine, but now the lion was within a spring of his prey, and it seemed hopeless to expect to save poor Roshan Khan from his clutches. Just at this moment, however, the terrified youth caught sight of the brute over his left shoulder, and providentially made a quick swerve to the right. As the lion turned to follow him, he came broadside on to me, and just as he had Roshan Khan within striking distance and was about to seize him, he dropped in the middle of what would otherwise assuredly have been the fatal spring -- bowled over with a broken shoulder. This gave me time to run up and give him a final shot, and with a deep roar he fell back full length on the grass, stone-dead.

I then looked round to see if Roshan Khan was all right, as I was not sure whether the lion had succeeded in mauling him or not. The sight that met my eyes turned tragedy into comedy in an instant, and made me roar with laughter; indeed, it was so utterly absurd that I threw myself down on the grass and rolled over and over, convulsed with uncontrollable mirth. For there was Roshan Khan, half-way up a thorn tree, earnestly bent on getting to the very topmost branch as quickly as ever he could climb; not a moment, indeed, was he able to spare to cast a glance at what was happening beneath. His puggaree had been torn off by one thorn, and waved gracefully in the breeze; a fancy waistcoat adorned another spiky branch, and his long white cotton gown was torn to ribbons in his mad endeavour to put as great a distance as possible between himself and the dead lion. As soon as I could stop laughing, I called out to him to come down, but quite in vain. There was no stopping him, indeed, until he had reached the very top of the tree; and even then he could scarcely be induced to come down again. Poor fellow, he had been thoroughly terrified, and little wonder.

My followers now began to emerge from the shelter of the various trees and bushes where they had concealed themselves after their wild flight from the resuscitated lion, and crowded round his dead body in the highest spirits. The Masai, especially, seemed delighted at the way in which he had been defeated, and to my surprise and amusement proved themselves excellent mimics, some three or four of them beginning at once to act the whole adventure. One played the part of the lion and jumped growling at a comrade, who immediately ran backwards just as I had done, shouting "Ta, Ta, Ta" and cracking his fingers to represent the rifle-shots. Finally the whole audience roared with delight when another bolted as fast as he could to Roshan Khan's tree with the pseudo lion roaring after him. At the end of these proceedings up came Brock, who had been attracted to the place by the sound of the firing. He was much astonished to see my fine dead lion lying stretched out, and his first remark was, "You are a lucky beggar!" Afterwards, when he heard the full story of the adventure, he rightly considered me even more lucky than he had first thought.

Our next business was to go back to the lioness which I had first shot and left for dead. Like her mate, however, she was still very much alive when we reached her, so I stalked carefully up to a neighbouring tree, from whose shelter I gave her the finishing shot. We then left Mahina and the other men to skin the two beasts, and went on to the rushes where the second lioness had taken cover. Here all our efforts to turn her out failed, so we reluctantly abandoned the chase and were fated to see no more lions that day.

Our only other adventure was with a stolid old rhino, who gave me rather a fright and induced Brock to indulge in some lively exercise. Separated by about a hundred yards or so, we were walking over the undulating ground a short distance from the river, when, on gaining the top of a gentle rise, I suddenly came upon the ungainly animal as it lay wallowing in a hollow. It jumped to its feet instantly and came for where I stood, and as I had no wish to shoot it, I made a dash for cover round the knoll. On reaching the top of the rise, the rhino winded my companion and at once changed its direction and made for him. Brock lost no time in putting on his best pace in an endeavour to reach the shelter of a tree which stood some distance off, while I sat down and watched the exciting race. I thought it would be a pretty close thing, but felt confident that Brock, who was very active, would manage to pull it off. When he got about half-way to the tree, however, he turned to see how far his pursuer was behind, and in doing so put his foot in a hole in the ground, and to my horror fell head over heels, his rifle flying from his grasp. I expected the great brute to be on him in a moment, but to my intense relief the old rhino stopped dead when he saw the catastrophe which had taken place, and then, failing (I suppose) to understand it, suddenly made off in the opposite direction as hard as he could go. In the meantime Brock had got to his feet again, and raced for dear life to the tree without ever looking round. It was a most comical sight, and I sat on the rise and for the second time that day laughed till my sides ached.

After this we returned to the scene of my morning's adventure, where we found that the invaluable Mahina had finished skinning the two lions. We accordingly made our way back to camp with our trophies, all of us, with perhaps the exception of Roshan Khan, well satisfied with the day's outing. Whenever afterwards I wanted to chaff this "boy", I had only to ask whether he would like to come and see some more shikar. He would then look very solemn, shake his head emphatically and assure me "Kabhi nahin, Sahib" ("Never again, Sir").