Harry served as a missionary in Burma. One afternoon he went to his door to find Kothar-byaw, headman of the village, standing there.
“Thakin, every night an elephant comes and breaks down my banana plants,” the headman moaned. “He eats the fruit and the young, tender leaves, and tramples the rest into the ground. Soon I’ll have nothing left.”
“Where is your plantation?” Harry asked.
“On the outskirts of the village, right beside the stream. Each night the elephant comes to drink, and then he sees my banana plants so handy, and he eats and tramples. Alas for me!”
“Is it only one elephant, not a herd?”
“Yes, Thakin. I wish you would kill him.”
Could this be a rogue elephant, one ostracized by the herd? Harry wondered. Perhaps the rogue bull with a broken tusk that the government is hunting? To find out, I must get close enough to see whether the tip of his tusk is broken.
“About what time does he come?” Harry asked.
“Not long after sunset, Thakin.”
“Do you think I’d see him if I came to your plantation tonight?”
“Of course, Thakin. Be there before the sun sets, and I will take you and show you the damage he has done.”
Despite his good intentions, Harry was delayed, and the sun’s last rays were fading behind the treetops when he panted up to Kothar-byaw’s bamboo house.
The headman was waiting for him at the foot of the ladder, anxiety etching deep lines in his leathery face. “Hurry, Thakin. He will come at any moment.”
The two hastened down the deserted streets. In a village so close to the jungle no one ventured outside after nightfall. Livestock were herded into protected enclosures. Even dogs stayed indoors, for leopards regularly prowled the streets in search of their favorite food.
Once the two men passed the last hut, the grayness and silence closed around them. It was a clear, warm night, and the moon would soon be high enough to see by. Harry shook off the scary feeling that enveloped him when Kothar-byaw grabbed his arm and announced hoarsely, “This is it.”
Four huge mango trees in a straight line, 30 or 40 yards apart, led from the edge of Kothar-byaw’s plantation down to the stream. Harry shinnied up the thick trunk of the first tree and hid among the leaves. Kothar-byaw’s shadowy form melted into the dusk as the headman hurried back to the safety of his house.
Soon a faint gurgling and splashing advertised the elephant’s arrival. For what seemed like an hour Harry listened to him drinking and showering trunkfuls of water over his broad back.
Then there was silence, and Harry pictured the animal wading across the small stream, climbing the bank, and heading straight for Kothar-byaw’s bananas. He could not see through the thick curtain of leaves, but a moment later the distinct scrunch of sap-filled banana trunks being torn out of the ground told him that he was correct.
Harry twisted and turned, climbed quietly to a higher branch, and burrowed deeper into the leafy screen. Still he could not see the animal.
I wonder whether I could see him if I climbed down and ran to the next tree?
Harry weighed the matter. Elephants move surprisingly fast, but this one must be nearly 100 yards away. Surely I could reach the next tree before he reached me.
Finally Harry decided to take the risk, and moving as quietly as he could, he slid down the thick trunk and raced to the next tree. The elephant stopped chewing, and Harry knew that it had heard him running and was listening. But it was a still night, and there was no breeze to waft his scent. Presently the scrunching sounds began again.
Harry climbed as far as he dared into the high branches of the mango tree, but still he could not see.
“Botheration!” he muttered to himself. The banana plants were confined to the lower part of the garden; there was nothing to lure the elephant up his way.
The third tree was only 30 yards away. Surely if he was very careful–
Again Harry decided to risk it. He slid noiselessly out of the tree and began to move toward the third mango tree. His brain throbbed with fear at the peril of his situation, and his heart pounded so loudly that he felt sure the animal would hear it. Should he forget about noise and make a quick dash for safety, or should he act cautiously?
The elephant stopped chewing, and Harry stood still until he heard the scrunch and squelch of succulent banana leaves again. Then he darted forward.
But the elephant’s quick ears heard his movement, and once more the chewing stopped. Harry stood like a poised statue, ready to run for his life if the elephant moved in his direction. Again the animal resumed feeding, and again Harry darted toward the third tree. To his agonizing mind it seemed to take hours to cover the 30 yards.
Just as he reached the foot of the tree, the elephant saw him.
With a desperate effort Harry leaped for the lowest branch and swung himself into the tree, climbing rapidly upward until the leaves hid him from view. But the elephant knew now that he was there, and Harry wondered what its next move would be.
Carefully pulling the leaves aside, he peered through. At least he had a perfect view of the elephant. It stood perfectly still, staring at the tree. Elephants have poor eyesight, and perhaps it was trying to decide what kind of beast had disappeared into the mango tree.
All around the animal was clear space where its frequent forays had uprooted Kothar-byaw’s banana plants. The moon shone like a spotlight illuminatng the scene.
Seconds ticked by, and Harry’s suspense mounted. Would the elephant attack? Was it preparing to tear down the tree, branch by branch? He knew that he would stand no chance against that reaching, probing trunk. It would fling him to the ground, and the great feet would trample him into pulp.
Still the elephant made no move. Harry’s taut nerves were stretched to the breaking point when suddenly a tiger stepped into the small clearing. Silent as a drifting cloud, it confronted the elephant.
Harry breathed a prayer of gratitude. Now the elephant’s attention was diverted from him, and he might witness something interesting. Many times he had listened to hunters, both European and Burmese, arguing about whether the elephant or the tiger was king of the jungle. Now he would see for himself.
Suspense swelled into a tangible sensation. Not a leaf stirred, not a frog croaked; the mosquitoes ceased their maddening hum. The whole jungle held its breath as the two motionless, kingly creatures stared at each other.
Suddenly the great elephant panicked. Screaming like a frightened child, he circled madly around the small clearing, seeking escape from the tiger’s bared fangs. Blindly he collided with the fourth mango tree, ricocheted back into the banana plants, and finally bolted across the stream and into the jungle, thrusting bushes and bamboo aside in his mad flight.
For a long time Harry listened to him crashing through the jungle, his uphill progress marked by sounds of cracking and splitting and terrified trumpetings. But now what was Harry to do? Even though the elephant was gone, the tiger might still be somewhere about. He would be risking his life if he tried to get back to Kothar-byaw’s house.
Harry felt that he had taken enough risks for one night. He would have to spend the night in the mango tree.
Taking from his pocket the piece of cord he always carried, he tied his gun to a stout branch. He wedged his body between the trunk and a thick branch and spent the rest of the uncomfortable night dozing in his leafy bedroom.
As soon as it was light, Harry clambered stiffly from the tree and trudged through the wet grass to the headman’s house. Kothar-byaw and the rest of the villagers had listened, trembling behind barred doors, to the commotion of the previous night.
Eager to know the outcome, Harry and Kothar-byaw followed the cowardly elephant’s trail. Torn branches, uprooted bushes, and overturned rocks littered the jungle. At the crest of the hill deep skid marks down the other side showed that the panic-stricken elephant had plumped onto his giant rump and skidded down into the valley.
Harry’s imagination pictured the scene, and he laughed until the tears came. “What a tale he’ll tell when he rejoins the herd,” he said to Kothar-byaw. And to himself he reflected that likely as not there was no such creature as king of the jungle. Animals are like people, he decided. In any species or group some are brave and some are fearful, and one isolated incident can’t be used to prove a point.
“There’s only one thing I’m sure of,” Harry told the chief. “The elephant who ruined your banana plants is not the wanted rogue. I saw his tusks plainly in the moonlight, and they were whole, beautiful ivories.”
Rounding up the rogue would have to be for another night. Then again, maybe not.
Reprinted from You Can Never Tell When You May Meet a Leopard (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980).
Written by Goldie M. Down
Illustrated by Ralph Butler