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CHAPTER X

LOOSE ON BOARDpainting of leopards from JUNGLE ANIMALS (1945)

I had just left Calcutta aboard the SS Granite State with a shipment of animals and birds. On the way down the Hooghly [Hugly] River we stopped at Budge Budge [Baj Baj], an oil station just below Calcutta, to discharge a cargo of oil.

We remained at Budge Budge all day. Shortly before we left I negotiated an unexpected deal for a leopard. In fact, the gang ladder was about to be pulled up when a native came tearing up in a small motor lorry with a crated leopard on it. The box bounced around uncertainly as the driver suddenly applied his brakes and came to a halt.

The native arrived with such dramatic suddenness and gave vent to so much excited chatter that he seemed like the bearer of important tidings or a man on an epoch-making mission. Before anyone could stop him he was on deck making more wild noises and gestures there. It seems that he had to see Buck Sahib.

This was quickly arranged. In fact, he bumped into me as I hurried over to see who was paging me so frantically. Breathlessly the native told me (partly in broken English and partly in Hindustani which my assistant Lal translated for me) that he had heard from Atool Achooli, the Calcutta bird and animal trader, with whom I did considerable business, that I was in the market for another leopard. He had one in the lorry below, an excellent addition to my collection, he assured me. In fact, it was the finest leopard in India, and if I didn't buy it I was making the mistake of my life.

I got hold of the mate. He was really too busy with his preparations for departure to be bothered, but he was good enough to give me a few minutes' grace before pulling up the gang ladder. Thus I was able to inspect the animal that the excited native had in the cage on the dock.

I went ashore, made a hasty examination, saw that the animal was a first-rate specimen, though not quite the finest leopard in India, and negotiated a quick deal. Lines were thrown over the side and made fast around the cage, and the latest addition to my floating menagerie was hoisted on board by hand.

My new cat was a full grown male spotted leopard in perfect condition. He was a savage devil, raising a rumpus with his snarling and growling whenever I went near him. When Lal attempted to pass a few hunks of perfectly good beef into the cage, the leopard, in his attempt to get at him, lunged against the bars with a roar that resounded from the poop deck to the forecastle head.

I saw at once that it would never do to keep this screaming cyclone near my better behaved cats. The others, leopards and tigers, were a fairly manageable lot, pretty much convinced that misconduct wouldn't get them anywhere, and I didn't want this rambunctious cuss to destroy the morale I had built up. With this villain to lead the rebellion there was much likelihood that the work I had done on all those other jungle tabbies would be undone. I therefore stowed his cage on the iron deck right down against the rail at the ship's side, a fair distance from the rest of my collection, which had been loaded on the tops of No. 1 and No. 2 hatches. There they were protected against the weather by a heavy tarpaulin flung tent-fashion over the cargo booms.

I spent a fair amount of my time on the bridge as the guest of Captain Harry Wallis, a friend of many voyages. Each of us thought the other had the most interesting pursuit in the world and, when the sea was calm and we had easy sailing, we'd swap stories.

During one of these chats a blow came on. Whenever anything like this occurred I would beat a hasty retreat, for no sea captain, no matter how good a friend, wants to be bothered when he has to think about the weather. The best way to be reinvited to the bridge is to know when to vacate it.

As I started to go, I mentioned that it would be a good idea to play safe and move my new leopard to a more protected spot.

With a laugh, the skipper accused me of babying my latest arrival. "How do you expect to make a sailor of him if you coddle him that way?" he asked. "A little spray won't hurt him. That's all he's in for. We won't take any green seas over the forward deck out here at this season." We had left the typhoon area in and about the China Sea far behind us by this time and were somewhere out in mid-Pacific.

About five-thirty o'clock the next morning there was a furious pounding on my door.

"What's the matter?" I yelled, half asleep.

"There's hell to pay!" I heard through the door. "Open up!"

Groggily I stumbled to the door in the semi-darkness. I didn't know whether I was being serenaded by a drunk, or whether we had another one of those practical jokers on board.

Opening the door and blinking, I discovered the third officer there. Pale and trembling, he looked like a man who had been having a bad dream.

"Come in and sit down," I sleepily greeted him. "You look all in."

"No time for sitting, sir," he replied. "There's hell to pay!" Not having anything specific to worry about yet, and being more asleep than awake, I could think of nothing to do but yawn and drop into a chair. At least, this is what the officer afterwards told me I did. Also, he didn't mind telling me that this was no way to act when a ship's officer paid you an emergency call. Now I think it over, he was right. But I was sleepy.

"Put your clothes on, sir!" he barked. "Captain directs it. There's--"

My principal recollection of that sleepy session was that I had no desire to be told again that there was hell to pay. Fairly awake by now, I reveled in my triumph. I had frustrated the third attempt.

Mechanically I reached for my clothes and started to dress. "Faster, sir!" I was obviously not dressing very rapidly. "If you expect any speed out of me," I replied, "you'll have to tell me what's wrong."

The third officer was saving his news for a grand climax. He was a pleasant little chap on the whole but he was so constructed that when entrusted with an important message he liked to nurse it along, loath to part with it until he had squeezed the last drop of excitement out of it.

"What's wrong, you ask?" he echoed. "What's wrong indeed! Plenty's wrong! Your leopard's loose! The one on the iron deck! That's what's wrong. And, if you ask me, it's a bad situation, sir. Bad!"

I fairly leaped from my chair. "My leopard's loose? I'll be damned!" Feverishly I finished dressing, firing questions at the third officer in the process.

Vicious seas breaking over the forward deck with a sudden rush had sent the cage on a ten-foot spin and turned it upside down. The officer on watch evidently thought that a leopard in a cage bottom-side up was as safe as a leopard right-side up, as long as he was still inside his cage.

All went well until later when another tremendous sea came smashing over the upturned cage, pounding it amidships and completing the damage by dropping tons of water on the top-side bottom, which was never meant to be as strong as the real top. The roof of the cage was gone. A bewildered leopard scampered out, mixed a few growls with the roaring of the sea, and pattered down the iron deck to think things over among some oil barrels lashed around the mast and against the bulkhead.

I had heard enough--more than enough. My visitor was right. There was hell to pay, although I'd have shot him if he had said so again. He turned to go. "Anything I can do, sir?" He really was a decent sort despite my murderous thoughts.

"Yes, send a quartermaster at once to rout out my assistant Lal. Have him chased here as fast as his legs can travel."

My early morning caller left, looking graver than ever. I could even hear him run down the hall, a remarkable performance in so dignified a chap.

The passengers were still abed. There was one thing that had to be done immediately. The mid-section of the ship, the part occupied by the passengers, would have to be cut off from the foredeck and promenade deck.

In a few minutes Lal arrived, struggling to throw some clothes over himself as he entered on the run. I gave him some hasty commands. His principal task was to take a few dozen revolver bullets I tossed at him and pull out the lead noses with a pair of pliers. Then he was to stuff wadding into the empty ends to hold the powder in. He had done the job for me before.

I left on a hurried visit to the captain's quarters. He sportingly agreed to give me a chance to catch my leopard alive. I had to make a promise to shoot to kill if the escaped animal became a menace to passengers or crew. There was small likelihood of danger to the passengers, whose section of the vessel was quickly shut up, preventing access to open deck space. The crew could be warned to keep out of the way.

"But remember, Buck" (the captain speaking), "I reserve the right to step in whenever I see fit and order the animal killed. I can't let this leopard chase go on forever. The minute I decide you've had a fair chance to catch it, you'll have to submit to my decision. You know enough about the sea to realize I can't let this sort of thing interfere with efficient operation of my ship. Go ahead. But don't take any unnecessary chances. No leopard is worth it. Good luck."

Before leaving, I asked the captain if he would have instructions sent to the ship's carpenter to repair the broken cage at once. He readily agreed. "I don't know what I'll do with it," I said as I left, "but I'll want a place to put that damned leopard if I do catch him alive."

I returned to my cabin where Lal had completed his task. I didn't realize until he started questioning me that I had failed to tell him why I had routed him out of bed. The early morning assignment of castrating the revolver cartridges had puzzled him badly. By now be was used to any kind of instructions from me and he took his orders like a good soldier; but he'd get cross and irritable when he thought I was being secretive. I explained hastily that I had not had a chance to tell him, and pushing him out of the door as I grabbed my rifle, told him that the new leopard was loose.

"Soo-ur kabutcha! (Hindi: son-of-a-pig)" exclaimed Lal. "Better you shoot him quick, tuan, he's bad leopard." Then giving me a sort of disappointed look, he displayed the handful of blank cartridges and asked, "Why you want these no good bullets?"

"Never mind," I said, "just hold on to those blanks. I think I'll have some use for 'em in a little while." A grunt which savored of disgust was his only reply as we hurried along the passageway.

As we made for the iron deck I examined my rifle. It was in fine working order. One of Lal's duties on shipboard was to keep it in good shape, ready for immediate use in just such an emergency as this.

I wanted to get in among those oil barrels and gradually work my way back to the spot where the leopard had taken refuge. How near I should get to the savage beast would depend upon his behavior. But before making any definite decision or plans about taking him alive I had to find out just how his new found liberty was affecting his morale. If he proved as ferocious loose on the deck as he had been while in the cage then, of course, he must be shot immediately. While I felt pretty certain that he would be more scared than vicious, my first job was to make sure.

Lal was carrying my revolver, which he had loaded with the blank cartridges. He also had with him, in addition to a further supply of blanks, a round of perfect revolver bullets ready for use.

With Lal at my side I began to crawl in among the barrels. I was prepared to shoot to kill. Lal, aware of this, was delighted. He believed that the animal had sinned grievously and should be punished. The only fit punishment was death.

We crept up closer and closer. I raised my rifle for action, getting a bead on the leopard not more than fifteen feet away. My finger was on the trigger. I had no desire to shoot. But I was prepared to pull the trigger if he gave any signs of springing at me. I crept a few inches closer. All the leopard did was snarl and bare his claws and once or twice make a movement as if he were going to jump up on top of the barrels to get away from me. Everything in his manner indicated that the thought uppermost in his mind was escape. Of course he would fight unto death if attacked but my guess was--one plays hunches in my business, there being no rule-book by which to judge animals--that here was a badly worried leopard. In surroundings that were more familiar to him, where he would be surer of himself, he might have forced the fight, lashing out with his vicious claws and ripping open everything in sight with his cruel teeth. But my experience told me that here was an animal that considered himself at a disadvantage.

"We can take him alive, Lal," I whispered. I've never seen Lalís face take on a more disappointed look. The animal had caused much trouble and should be shot before he caused more, was the way he felt.

Dragging Lal along by the arm, I crawled out, leaving the leopard where he was, and made for the steps leading from the iron cargo deck up to the ship's main promenade deck where the officers' mess-room was located. I looked the ground over carefully and decided that it would be possible to drive the leopard up the steps and into the mess-room.

With Lal's assistance--he still thought the animal should be shot but that didn't interfere with his speed and sureness as a helper--I hauled the empty cage, now repaired by the ship's carpenter, up the steps to a space near the door of the mess-room. Leaving the door open, I had all other means of reaching the room closed.

Then I went after my leopard, revolver in hand. It was loaded with blanks but I don't mind saying that I wasn't taking any chances. I am not one of those fearless adventurers who snap their fingers, in their memoirs, at any rate, and step right up to the jaws of death while someone, miraculously on the scene with a camera, takes a picture. After all, a leopard is a leopard. These spotted cats have killed many human beings and I had no desire to be added to the list. My loose leopard, in addition to being worried, was perhaps rather scared (any wild animal, no matter how ferocious normally, is at a disadvantage in a setting that befuddles him) but he was still a leopard; and once he got it into his head that he was fighting for his life, he would become a terror. This is by way of explaining that I wasn't as bold as I seemed when I set forth with my blank-cartridge pistol. I saw to it that Lal was by my side with my loaded rifle, ready to hand it to me any second, or to blaze away himself if there was not sufficient time to hand me the weapon.

Again Lal and I were among the oil barrels facing the enemy. The leopard, at a loss to know what to do, was approximately where we had left him. My mind was made up. There was nothing for me to do but to chase him from the position he had taken up among these barrels, get him to scamper up those steps leading into the mess-room, drive him into this chamber and then slap the open cage against the door and drive him into that.