The stream is shrunk — the pool is dry,
And we be comrades, thou and I;
With fevered jowl and dusty flank
Each jostling each along the bank;
And by one drouthy fear made still,
Forgoing thought of quest or kill.
Now ‘neath his dam the fawn may see,
The lean Pack-wolf as cowed as he,
And the tall buck, unflinching, note
The fangs that tore his father’s throat.
The pools are shrunk — the streams are dry,
And we be playmates, thou and I,
Till yonder cloud — Good Hunting! — loose
The rain that breaks our Water Truce.
The Law of the Jungle — which is by far the oldest law in the world — has arranged for almost every kind of accident that may befall the Jungle People, till now its code is as perfect as time and custom can make it. You will remember that Mowgli spent a great part of his life in the Seeonee Wolf-Pack, learning the Law from Baloo, the Brown Bear; and it was Baloo who told him, when the boy grew impatient at the constant orders, that the Law was like the Giant Creeper, because it dropped across every one’s back and no one could escape. “When thou hast lived as long as I have, Little Brother, thou wilt see how all the Jungle obeys at least one Law. And that will be no pleasant sight,” said Baloo.
This talk went in at one ear and out at the other, for a boy who spends his life eating and sleeping does not worry about anything till it actually stares him in the face. But, one year, Baloo’s words came true, and Mowgli saw all the Jungle working under the Law.
It began when the winter Rains failed almost entirely, and Ikki, the Porcupine, meeting Mowgli in a bamboo-thicket, told him that the wild yams were drying up. Now everybody knows that Ikki is ridiculously fastidious in his choice of food, and will eat nothing but the very best and ripest. So Mowgli laughed and said, “What is that to me?”
“Not much NOW,” said Ikki, rattling his quills in a stiff, uncomfortable way, “but later we shall see. Is there any more diving into the deep rock-pool below the Bee-Rocks, Little Brother?”
“No. The foolish water is going all away, and I do not wish to break my head,” said Mowgli, who, in those days, was quite sure that he knew as much as any five of the Jungle People put together.
“That is thy loss. A small crack might let in some wisdom.” Ikki ducked quickly to prevent Mowgli from pulling his nose-bristles, and Mowgli told Baloo what Ikki had said. Baloo looked very grave, and mumbled half to himself: “If I were alone I would change my hunting-grounds now, before the others began to think. And yet — hunting among strangers ends in fighting; and they might hurt the Man-cub. We must wait and see how the mohwa blooms.”
That spring the mohwa tree, that Baloo was so fond of, never flowered. The greeny, cream-coloured, waxy blossoms were heat-killed before they were born, and only a few bad-smelling petals came down when he stood on his hind legs and shook the tree. Then, inch by inch, the untempered heat crept into the heart of the Jungle, turning it yellow, brown, and at last black. The green growths in the sides of the ravines burned up to broken wires and curled films of dead stuff; the hidden pools sank down and caked over, keeping the last least footmark on their edges as if it had been cast in iron; the juicy-stemmed creepers fell away from the trees they clung to and died at their feet; the bamboos withered, clanking when the hot winds blew, and the moss peeled off the rocks deep in the Jungle, till they were as bare and as hot as the quivering blue boulders in the bed of the stream.
The birds and the monkey-people went north early in the year, for they knew what was coming; and the deer and the wild pig broke far away to the perished fields of the villages, dying sometimes before the eyes of men too weak to kill them. Chil, the Kite, stayed and grew fat, for there was a great deal of carrion, and evening after evening he brought the news to the beasts, too weak to force their way to fresh hunting-grounds, that the sun was killing the Jungle for three days’ flight in every direction.
Mowgli, who had never known what real hunger meant, fell back on stale honey, three years old, scraped out of deserted rock-hives — honey black as a sloe, and dusty with dried sugar. He hunted, too, for deep-boring grubs under the bark of the trees, and robbed the wasps of their new broods. All the game in the jungle was no more than skin and bone, and Bagheera could kill thrice in a night, and hardly get a full meal. But the want of water was the worst, for though the Jungle People drink seldom they must drink deep.
And the heat went on and on, and sucked up all the moisture, till at last the main channel of the Waingunga was the only stream that carried a trickle of water between its dead banks; and when Hathi, the wild elephant, who lives for a hundred years and more, saw a long, lean blue ridge of rock show dry in the very centre of the stream, he knew that he was looking at the Peace Rock, and then and there he lifted up his trunk and proclaimed the Water Truce, as his father before him had proclaimed it fifty years ago. The deer, wild pig, and buffalo took up the cry hoarsely; and Chil, the Kite, flew in great circles far and wide, whistling and shrieking the warning.
By the Law of the Jungle it is death to kill at the drinking-places when once the Water Truce has been declared. The reason of this is that drinking comes before eating. Every one in the Jungle can scramble along somehow when only game is scarce; but water is water, and when there is but one source of supply, all hunting stops while the Jungle People go there for their needs. In good seasons, when water was plentiful, those who came down to drink at the Waingunga — or anywhere else, for that matter — did so at the risk of their lives, and that risk made no small part of the fascination of the night’s doings. To move down so cunningly that never a leaf stirred; to wade knee-deep in the roaring shallows that drown all noise from behind; to drink, looking backward over one shoulder, every muscle ready for the first desperate bound of keen terror; to roll on the sandy margin, and return, wet-muzzled and well plumped out, to the admiring herd, was a thing that all tall-antlered young bucks took a delight in, precisely because they knew that at any moment Bagheera or Shere Khan might leap upon them and bear them down. But now all that life-and-death fun was ended, and the Jungle People came up, starved and weary, to the shrunken river, — tiger, bear, deer, buffalo, and pig, all together, — drank the fouled waters, and hung above them, too exhausted to move off.
The deer and the pig had tramped all day in search of something better than dried bark and withered leaves. The buffaloes had found no wallows to be cool in, and no green crops to steal. The snakes had left the Jungle and come down to the river in the hope of finding a stray frog. They curled round wet stones, and never offered to strike when the nose of a rooting pig dislodged them. The river-turtles had long ago been killed by Bagheera, cleverest of hunters, and the fish had buried themselves deep in the dry mud. Only the Peace Rock lay across the shallows like a long snake, and the little tired ripples hissed as they dried on its hot side.
It was here that Mowgli came nightly for the cool and the companionship. The most hungry of his enemies would hardly have cared for the boy then. His naked hide made him seem more lean and wretched than any of his fellows. His hair was bleached to tow colour by the sun; his ribs stood out like the ribs of a basket, and the lumps on his knees and elbows, where he was used to track on all fours, gave his shrunken limbs the look of knotted grass-stems. But his eye, under his matted forelock, was cool and quiet, for Bagheera was his adviser in this time of trouble, and told him to go quietly, hunt slowly, and never, on any account, to lose his temper.
“It is an evil time,” said the Black Panther, one furnace-hot evening, “but it will go if we can live till the end. Is thy stomach full, Man-cub?”
“There is stuff in my stomach, but I get no good of it. Think you, Bagheera, the Rains have forgotten us and will never come again?”
“Not I! We shall see the mohwa in blossom yet, and the little fawns all fat with new grass. Come down to the Peace Rock and hear the news. On my back, Little Brother.”
“This is no time to carry weight. I can still stand alone, but — indeed we be no fatted bullocks, we two.”
Bagheera looked along his ragged, dusty flank and whispered. “Last night I killed a bullock under the yoke. So low was I brought that I think I should not have dared to spring if he had been loose. WOU!”
Mowgli laughed. “Yes, we be great hunters now,” said he. “I am very bold — to eat grubs,” and the two came down together through the crackling undergrowth to the river-bank and the lace-work of shoals that ran out from it in every direction.
“The water cannot live long,” said Baloo, joining them. “Look across. Yonder are trails like the roads of Man.”
On the level plain of the farther bank the stiff jungle-grass had died standing, and, dying, had mummied. The beaten tracks of the deer and the pig, all heading toward the river, had striped that colourless plain with dusty gullies driven through the ten-foot grass, and, early as it was, each long avenue was full of first-comers hastening to the water. You could hear the does and fawns coughing in the snuff-like dust.
Up-stream, at the bend of the sluggish pool round the Peace Rock, and Warden of the Water Truce, stood Hathi, the wild elephant, with his sons, gaunt and gray in the moonlight, rocking to and fro — always rocking. Below him a little were the vanguard of the deer; below these, again, the pig and the wild buffalo; and on the opposite bank, where the tall trees came down to the water’s edge, was the place set apart for the Eaters of Flesh — the tiger, the wolves, the panther, the bear, and the others.
“We are under one Law, indeed,” said Bagheera, wading into the water and looking across at the lines of clicking horns and starting eyes where the deer and the pig pushed each other to and fro. “Good hunting, all you of my blood,” he added, lying down at full length, one flank thrust out of the shallows; and then, between his teeth, “But for that which is the Law it would be VERY good hunting.”
The quick-spread ears of the deer caught the last sentence, and a frightened whisper ran along the ranks. “The Truce! Remember the Truce!”
“Peace there, peace!” gurgled Hathi, the wild elephant. “The Truce holds, Bagheera. This is no time to talk of hunting.”
“Who should know better than I?” Bagheera answered, rolling his yellow eyes up-stream. “I am an eater of turtles — a fisher of frogs. Ngaayah! Would I could get good from chewing branches!”
“WE wish so, very greatly,” bleated a young fawn, who had only been born that spring, and did not at all like it. Wretched as the Jungle People were, even Hathi could not help chuckling; while Mowgli, lying on his elbows in the warm water, laughed aloud, and beat up the scum with his feet.
“Well spoken, little bud-horn,” Bagheera purred. “When the Truce ends that shall be remembered in thy favour,” and he looked keenly through the darkness to make sure of recognising the fawn again.
Gradually the talking spread up and down the drinking-places. One could hear the scuffling, snorting pig asking for more room; the buffaloes grunting among themselves as they lurched out across the sand-bars, and the deer telling pitiful stories of their long foot-sore wanderings in quest of food. Now and again they asked some question of the Eaters of Flesh across the river, but all the news was bad, and the roaring hot wind of the Jungle came and went between the rocks and the rattling branches, and scattered twigs, and dust on the water.
“The men-folk, too, they die beside their ploughs,” said a young sambhur. “I passed three between sunset and night. They lay still, and their Bullocks with them. We also shall lie still in a little.”
“The river has fallen since last night,” said Baloo. “O Hathi, hast thou ever seen the like of this drought?”
“It will pass, it will pass,” said Hathi, squirting water along his back and sides.
“We have one here that cannot endure long,” said Baloo; and he looked toward the boy he loved.
“I?” said Mowgli indignantly, sitting up in the water. “I have no long fur to cover my bones, but — but if THY hide were taken off, Baloo — ”
Hathi shook all over at the idea, and Baloo said severely:
“Man-cub, that is not seemly to tell a Teacher of the Law. Never have I been seen without my hide.”
“Nay, I meant no harm, Baloo; but only that thou art, as it were, like the cocoanut in the husk, and I am the same cocoanut all naked. Now that brown husk of thine — ” Mowgli was sitting cross-legged, and explaining things with his forefinger in his usual way, when Bagheera put out a paddy paw and pulled him over backward into the water.
“Worse and worse,” said the Black Panther, as the boy rose spluttering. “First Baloo is to be skinned, and now he is a cocoanut. Be careful that he does not do what the ripe cocoanuts do.”
“And what is that?” said Mowgli, off his guard for the minute, though that is one of the oldest catches in the Jungle.
“Break thy head,” said Bagheera quietly, pulling him under again.
“It is not good to make a jest of thy teacher,” said the bear, when Mowgli had been ducked for the third time.
“Not good! What would ye have? That naked thing running to and fro makes a monkey-jest of those who have once been good hunters, and pulls the best of us by the whiskers for sport.” This was Shere Khan, the Lame Tiger, limping down to the water. He waited a little to enjoy the sensation he made among the deer on the opposite bank; then he dropped his square, frilled head and began to lap, growling: “The jungle has become a whelping-ground for naked cubs now. Look at me, Man-cub!”
Mowgli looked — stared, rather — as insolently as he knew how, and in a minute Shere Khan turned away uneasily. “Man-cub this, and Man-cub that,” he rumbled, going on with his drink, “the cub is neither man nor cub, or he would have been afraid. Next season I shall have to beg his leave for a drink. Augrh!”
“That may come, too,” said Bagheera, looking him steadily between the eyes. “That may come, too — Faugh, Shere Khan! — what new shame hast thou brought here?”
The Lame Tiger had dipped his chin and jowl in the water, and dark, oily streaks were floating from it down-stream.
“Man!” said Shere Khan coolly, “I killed an hour since.” He went on purring and growling to himself.
The line of beasts shook and wavered to and fro, and a whisper went up that grew to a cry. “Man! Man! He has killed Man!” Then all looked towards Hathi, the wild elephant, but he seemed not to hear. Hathi never does anything till the time comes, and that is one of the reasons why he lives so long.
“At such a season as this to kill Man! Was no other game afoot?” said Bagheera scornfully, drawing himself out of the tainted water, and shaking each paw, cat-fashion, as he did so.
“I killed for choice — not for food.” The horrified whisper began again, and Hathi’s watchful little white eye cocked itself in Shere Khan’s direction. “For choice,” Shere Khan drawled. “Now come I to drink and make me clean again. Is there any to forbid?”
Bagheera’s back began to curve like a bamboo in a high wind, but Hathi lifted up his trunk and spoke quietly.
“Thy kill was from choice?” he asked; and when Hathi asks a question it is best to answer.
“Even so. It was my right and my Night. Thou knowest, O Hathi.” Shere Khan spoke almost courteously.
“Yes, I know,” Hathi answered; and, after a little silence, “Hast thou drunk thy fill?”
“For to-night, yes.”