The night fire of a little band of elephant-catchers burned fitfully at the edge of the jungle. They were silent men—for they had lived long on the elephant trails—and curiously scarred and sombre. They smoked their cheroots, and waited for Ahmad Din to speak.
“You have all heard?” he asked at last.
All but one of them nodded. Of course this did not count the most despised one of them all—old Langur Dass—who sat at the very edge of the shadow. His long hair was grey, and his youth had gone where the sun goes at evening. They scarcely addressed a word to him, or he to them. True, he knew the elephants, but was he not possessed of evil spirits? He was always without rupees, too, a creature of the wild that could not seem to understand the gathering of money. As a man, according to the standards of men, he was an abject failure.
“Khusru has failed to catch White-Skin, but he has lived to tell many lies about it. He comes to-night.”
It was noticeable that Langur Dass, at the edge of the circle, pricked up his ears.
“Do you mean the white elephant of which the Manipur people tell so many lies?” he asked. “Do you, skilled catchers that you are, believe that such an elephant is still wild in the jungle?”
Ahmad Din scowled. “The Manipur people tell of him, but for once they tell the truth,” was the reply. “He is the greatest elephant, the richest prize, in all of Burma. Too many people have seen him to doubt. I add my word to theirs, thou son of immorality!”
Ahmad Din hesitated before he continued. Perhaps it was a mistake to tell of the great, light-coloured elephant until this man should have gone away. But what harm could this wanderer do them? All men knew that the jungle had maddened him.
Langur Dass’s face lit suddenly. “Then it could be none but Muztagh, escaped from Dugan Sahib fifteen years ago. That calf was also white. He was also overgrown for his years.”
One of the trackers suddenly gasped. “Then that is why he spared Khusru!” he cried. “He remembered men.”
The others nodded gravely. “They never forget,” said Langur Dass.
“You will be silent while I speak,” Ahmad Din went on. Langur grew silent as commanded, but his thoughts were flowing backward twenty years, to days at the elephant lines in distant hills. Muztagh was the one living creature that in all his days had loved Langur Dass. The man shut his eyes, and his limbs seemed to relax as if he had lost all interest in the talk. The evil one took hold of him at such times, the people said, letting understanding follow his thoughts back into the purple hills and the far-off spaces of the jungle. But to-night he was only pretending. He meant to hear every word of the talk before he left the circle.
“He tells a mad story, as you know, of the elephant sparing him when he was beneath his feet,” Ahmad Din went on; “that part of his story does not matter to us. Hai! He might have been frightened enough to say that the sun set at noon. But what matters to us more is that he knows where the herd is—but a day’s journey beyond the river. And there is no time to be lost.”