THE MASTER OF THE BUSH
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Author of "Twenty-five Years in the Jungle" etc. [actually the book is ‘Thirty Years in the Jungle, published in 1929.]
From the book True Tales of Pluck and Peril edited by Nelson, 1933. Digitized by Doug Frizzle June 2011.
[This story was told me by a prominent American mining engineer in the circumstances exactly as narrated. I can vouch for his veracity, and having seen something of bushmasters and their ways, the story does not seem at all remarkable to me.—A.H.V.]
OUR Jamaica "boys" had been clearing a trail through the jungle between the river and the mine. As they came trooping into their camp at the close of their day's work, we noticed that the giant coal-black foreman of the gang carried an eight-foot snake dangling from the tip of a bamboo pole.
"What's that?" asked Pierson, the newest arrival at our quarters. “Whew!" he added, "he is a nasty-looking brute!"
" Bushmaster," replied Anderson. "The deadliest snake in the jungle."
"Poor chap!" exclaimed Chadwick, the engineer. "It's hard luck to be killed just because Nature gave him two-inch fangs and a supply of deadly poison for his self-protection. Suppose they have to be killed, though. March of civilization and industry is bound to cause a lot of destruction and hardships. Still, I never hurt one of those snakes. I've got a soft spot in my heart for bushmasters."
Every one laughed. The idea of any one having a kindly feeling for these dreaded serpents seemed highly ridiculous and incomprehensible.
"Great Scot!" I cried. "That's a new one on me! I'm not afraid of snakes, and I've collected enough of them, alive and dead, to understand them pretty well. In fact, I rather like snakes in the aggregate. But I draw the line at being friendly with poisonous snakes, and bushmasters in particular. What's the reason for your fondness for them, Chadwick? Is there a yarn back of it? Now you've started and aroused our curiosity, let's have the story."
Chadwick filled and lit his pipe, lounged back in his hammock, and thoughtfully blew a cloud of smoke towards the palm-thatched roof of the house.
"Yes, there is a reason for my feelings," he said at last; "and there is a story, as you guessed. It explains why I regard bushmasters as my friends, and will go out of my way not to disturb or molest them.
"About five years back, when on that oil-prospecting trip in Venezuela, you know. I hadn't had much experience in the bush; in fact, it was my first tropical work in jungle country. I'd been on the west coast—Peru, Bolivia, and up and down the Andes—but never before in jungle country.
"It was all mighty strange and interesting, and particularly the wild life. Game was plentiful, and whenever I had the chance I went off for a hunt on my own. I'd bagged deer, peccaries, an ocelot, a lot of turkeys, and even a tapir; but I was keen on getting a jaguar.
"The natives swore there were plenty in the vicinity. They told tales of the beasts carrying off dogs and goats, and several times we heard a bull-like roaring in the night which they declared was made by a jaguar.
"But I hadn't seen a trace of the big cats until one morning I stumbled upon a jaguar's trail beside a little creek. The footprints in the mud were fresh—the water hadn't even filled them yet—and judging by their size the ' tiger ' was a monster.
“I trailed along the little gully for some time until the footprints led up the side of the ravine, and as cautiously as possible I began crawling up. The sides were rotten, decomposed ironstone, and treacherous stuff. Places that looked solid rock would be soft clay, and slippery as soap. It would have been bad enough climbing the bank at any time, but it was an uncommonly hard job to make it without raising the deuce of a noise and scaring everything within half a mile.
"But I managed it at last, waited until I got my wind, and peeping over the edge and seeing nothing, I drew myself up. The top of the bank was brushy, with big trees and palms thrusting up through the jungle, and I began searching about trying to pick up the jaguar's trail, and cursing a bit for fear I'd lost it.
"Suddenly a bit of bark came rattling down from overhead, and, startled at the unexpected sound, I glanced up.
"You can bet I gulped. There, crouched on a big limb not twenty yards away, was the biggest black jaguar I've ever seen.
"It was a dead easy shot, and surprised as I was, I was cool and steady enough.
"Throwing up my rifle, I covered the big cat's head, for I didn't want to spoil the hide, and fired. But at the very instant I pressed the trigger the rotten rock under my feet gave way.
“I slipped backward, lost my footing, and my shot went wild. It all happened in a split second. I was near the edge of the bank. I realized I was going over the brink, and with a wild yell I dropped my gun, grabbed frantically at a projecting root, and felt myself hurtling through space.
“I came to my senses with a stabbing pain in my right leg and side, and a head that felt as if there was a red-hot iron band about it. I couldn't move hand or foot; I felt paralysed, but my brain and eyes were all right.
"But the first thing I saw, as I opened my eyes, pretty near sent me off again.
“I was lying on my back among the rocks at the bottom of the ravine. And there, still crouched on the limb, and almost over me where I was lying helpless and unable to move, was the jaguar!
“They're harmless enough when left alone, but fiends incarnate when wounded or at bay. The Indians believe the black ones are inhabited by devils, and I could well believe they were right when I saw that beast above me in the ravine.
“The jaguar's lips were drawn back in a nasty snarl, baring his sharp white teeth; his purple-red tongue was licking his chops, his ears were laid flat back to his head, and his eyes fairly blazed green fire.
“And he was wounded. He was so close that I could see a long gash across his shoulder where my bullet had ripped through his skin, and I knew he had it in for me all right. His muscles bunched and rippled under his satiny black skin, his tail waved back and forth, and he was ready to spring.
"If I hadn't stirred or opened my eyes he might have thought me dead and gone off, but he knew I was alive, and I knew that only a fraction of a second stood between me and that black death. I could hear my heart pounding, and could feel my bursting pulse; the veins in my throat were almost strangling me, but I was incapable of moving, for I was hypnotized with terror.
“Then, to my strained, half-dazed senses came a strange sound; a low vibrating, whirring hum like that of a gigantic bee. For an instant I was dimly aware of this, dully, slightly puzzled; and then with a terrified, breath-taking start I recognized the noise. Slowly, almost painfully, I dragged my gaze from the great cat and half turned my head.
"Instantly the jaguar was forgotten and the blood seemed to freeze in my veins.
“Within a foot of me was an enormous bushmaster! His great, ugly, flat, arrow-shaped head was raised, his tongue darted in and out, his glassy, unwinking yellow eyes were staring coldly at me, and he seemed to be saying as plainly as in words, 'Look out! I'm master of the bush! I'm mad as blazes, and my stroke means death!'
"Slowly the head, with its great two-inch fangs, drew back for the lightning-like stroke that would mean an awful agonizing death for me. Slowly the great beautifully marked, shimmering coils rippled in the sun as the body was gathered to deal the death-blow, and, so rapidly that the eye could not follow it, the horny-tipped tail beat the earth and sent that buzzing warning note of danger.
“Then, just as I expected to see the head dart forward, as if released by a coiled spring, there was a snarl from overhead, and a rattle of falling bark, and I turned my eyes in time to catch a glimpse of a streak of black plunging down through the air.
"A ton of rock seemed to drop upon me. A searing pain shot through my chest. The hot, fetid breath of the maddened beast was in my face, and as I lost consciousness a terrible scream of savage rage deafened my ears.
"More dead than alive I again opened my eyes, and for an instant I felt that it was my spirit gazing on another world.
“That I had escaped death seemed utterly incredible. But it was true. I was sore, crushed, suffering excruciating pain, but still living, and apparently in my right senses.
“And as consciousness fully returned I became aware of odd sounds near by—whispering, sobbing, plaintive whimperings like those of an injured child, a faint scratching, and low moans.
“With an effort that brought a groan of agony from my lips and sweat to my face, I turned my head, momentarily forgetting the deadly peril of the giant snake. My eyes widened with wonder at the sight which greeted them.
"A few yards distant the jaguar was painfully, slowly dragging himself towards the muddy pools of water in the ravine. His hind feet were extended, and trailed after him as though his back had been broken. His tongue hung from his foam-covered jaws, his head drooped, his eyes were lifeless and dull, and at each effort he uttered those plaintive, agonized sobs I had heard.
"Instantly I realized what had occurred.
“The bushmaster had struck. But his stroke had not been aimed at me; his fangs had buried themselves in the jaguar at the instant he had fallen upon me.
“I had been saved from a terrible death by the deadly bushmaster, by the menace which had driven me almost mad. And with that thought my eyes turned to where I had last seen the great serpent coiled.
“Fearfully, realizing that once again that flat, arrow-shaped head might dart forward with my slightest movement, I peered about. But there was no sign of the snake. Then, from the bank above my feet, came the sound of pebbles rattling down.
"Wonderingly I looked in that direction and saw a sinuous, ten-foot, shining body of mottled orange, fawn, and black swiftly gliding up the bank. Over the projecting root of a tree it looped and slipped. Then the great head rose, swayed uncertainly for a moment, and darted into a crevice among the rocks. Slowly the checkered body followed, foot after foot disappeared, and at last the horny tail-tip vanished.
"The master of the bush had sought his den.
"Two hours later my men found me. My shirt was ripped from shoulder to elbow, and a jagged cut was seen across my chest, where the jaguar's claws had struck. My leg was broken by my fall, and there was a lump as big as an egg on the back of my head.
"A dozen yards away they found the jaguar, stretched dead beside the water, his face buried in the pool, his limbs contracted, his great claws bared.
"But there was no trace of the snake, and I gave thanks that there was not.
"To the natives he would have been merely a deadly, dangerous serpent; a menace to human life, and a thing to be ruthlessly destroyed; but to me he was a providential saviour, for to his weapons the maddened wounded jaguar had fallen.
"In every way he had proved himself the 'master of the bush.'
"Do you wonder that ever since then I look upon bushmasters as friends, and never harm one?"