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CHAPTER IX. A TERRIBLE FIGHT.
Just at the instant when Philip Garland believed his career as a trader in wild animals was to be ended by death the panther turned his head slightly and began to paw up the leaves, his tail moving angrily from side to side, much as if an adversary was approaching from the opposite direction. At the same moment was heard a fierce growling and snarling from the left, a short distance away, followed immediately by the sound of claws raking the bark as this new-comer evidently sprang into a tree.

There was now an opportunity for the shipwrecked youth to make his escape; but the fascination of the scene held him spell-bound.

The panther, who had been standing guard over the deer, crouched for an instant with every muscle quivering, and then leaped high in the air as a huge body shot from out the foliage with the force and velocity of a cannon-ball, the two animals coming together with a shock several feet from the ground.

The combatants rolled over and over, snarling like cats, full twenty paces from where the revolver hung suspended, and Philip moved cautiously forward[69] without being observed by either of the participants in the deadly strife.

A moment later he had secured the weapon, and made his way with considerable difficulty up the side of the cliff until he arrived at a stout but not tall tree, within view of the animals. To ascend the trunk of this was but the work of a moment, and he seated himself among the branches to await the result of the sanguinary battle.

Over and over the two panthers rolled, snarling and tearing at each other’s throats as they uttered from time to time such roars as seemingly caused the very air to tremble.

During fully fifteen minutes these huge cats tore and slashed, each gripping his adversary’s neck, and at the expiration of that time one arose to his feet with a mighty roar. The other lay dead, his glossy coat cut into ribbons, and his life-blood staining the foliage for a dozen feet on either side.

Whether the victor was the one who had first confronted him Philip could not decide; but he came directly toward the carcass, after licking his wounds; and now the question arose as to whether the hungry man should see his dinner devoured when, possibly, he had the means of preventing it.

Recharging the two chambers of the weapon which had been emptied into the body of the deer, Philip took careful aim between the panther’s eyes and fired.

The ball simply grazed the animal’s skull, half stunning him for an instant, and causing him to[70] whirl around in such a manner that there was no chance of firing a second shot with any degree of accuracy.

With an angry scream the panther leaped to his feet once more, immediately searching for this new antagonist, whom he discovered with but little difficulty after a few seconds. The blood blinded his eyes; but he made a desperate leap with such effect that one of his huge paws brushed Philip’s foot. The foliage was not sufficiently thick to check the impetus of his jump, and he fell on the opposite side with a force that rolled him over half a dozen times.

Philip could not afford to waste ammunition, therefore he decided to fire only when there was a probability of hitting the mark fairly; and from his reasonably safe position he watched the antics of the enraged animal.

Three different times did the panther run back from the tree and then spring toward his enemy, but never leaping higher than at the first attempt. With each failure he lost more and more of his temper. He rolled on the ground and roared in impotent rage, made frantic rushes at the tree, and twice climbed nearly to where Philip sat.

Four times did the hunter fire point-blank at the animal; but little execution was done, save to further enrage the beast, because of the foliage which impeded the view.

[71]

As Philip emerged from the ravine he discovered a panther standing over the game.—(See page 67.)

[72]

It was not until after fully an hour had passed that the panther settled down on his haunches and gazed steadily at the tree, as if trying to decide what his next move should be.

This was the opportunity for which Philip had waited, and with a well-directed shot he ended the contest, tumbling the huge cat over, where, after a few spasmodic twitches of the muscles, he lay motionless and dead.

When Philip became convinced there was no longer any life in the beast he descended from the tree, hastily cut out a quarter of the deer, and made his way with all possible speed down the ravine, for the neighborhood was one in which he did not care to linger. Under other circumstances he might have had sufficient curiosity to examine the bodies of the animals; but just now it was dinner, not natural history, in which he was interested, and his one thought was to roast as quickly as possible the meat which had so nearly cost him his life.

By following up the ravine toward the east he came upon a small stream which had its source among a series of hills, of which the one he ascended was the westernmost, and here he halted.

After gathering a quantity of dry twigs and leaves he soon started a blaze by discharging his revolver directly into the inflammable material, and half an hour later his hunger was satisfied with venison steaks, several of which were eaten before the fire had made any very great change in their appearance.

The fatigue, excitement and mental distress of the past three days had wearied him to the verge of[73] exhaustion, and now that the desire for food was appeased he hastened to enjoy the repose so sadly needed.

Among some tamarind-trees which grew near the edge of the stream he laid down, after hanging the remnant of meat among the branches for safe-keeping, and hardly was his head upon the mossy pillow ere his eyes closed in the most profound slumber.

How long that sleep lasted he knew not, save from the fact that when he closed his eyes the sun was in the zenith, and on opening them again it was precisely at the same point; therefore it seemed as if what was intended for a short nap must have continued exactly twenty-four hours.

The meat hung where he left it; but the tropical sun had already begun to taint it. To a man in Philip’s position such an incident is but trifling, and despite its condition he broiled for himself another meal, saying, as he did so:

“I sha’n’t miss the seasoning while it is so rank, therefore there is no great loss without some small gain.”

After the repast was ended he remained seated in the shelter of the trees trying to form some plan of relief, when he became aware of a certain rustling near-by which could not have been produced by the gentle breeze among the foliage.

Any unusual sound, however slight, in such a place demanded immediate attention, because of the variety of enemies he had already met, and with his revolver ready for instant use he advanced cautiously[74] toward the spot from whence the noise appeared to proceed.

Slowly, on tiptoe and with bated breath, he continued his way to a thicket of mimosas, and raising the thorny branches with the utmost caution peered forward at that which caused him to stand as if spell-bound with horror.

Before him, suspended to the branches of a tree, was a huge skeleton, its bones, which were bleached white as ivory, standing out in vivid contrast against the dark green leaves.

It was some moments before Philip could control his emotions sufficiently to approach this horrible object; but when he did so, alarm gave way to surprise. He seized the foot of the rustling, ominous-looking fruit borne by the mimosa, but it proved to be a hand. In an instant he understood that the skeleton was that of an ape—a gigantic mandrill, enemy of the baboon, with whom it shares the empire of ferocity.

Judging from the size of the bones, Philip knew that the ape to which it formerly belonged must have surpassed in size and strength any of the species he had ever seen; but how it chanced to be suspended in such a manner was something concerning which he could form no plausible idea.

That the animal had been skinned before being strung up like a malefactor was apparent from the fact that no fragment of hide was to be found at the bottom of the tree or clinging to the bones.

Improbable as was the thought, Philip fancied[75] he looked upon the evidences of an execution. It surely appeared as if the mandrill had been hanged, and then, to make the punishment more degrading, skinned after death.

As may be supposed, Philip did not linger long in this vicinity. His own condition afforded plenty of food for sorrow, and there was no necessity to torture his mind with a sinister object such as called forth speculations which could not be otherwise than painful.

The suspended skeleton had the effect, however, of lessening his troubles to a certain extent, for as he made his way toward the east once more there was in his mind plenty of food for thought other than the forlorn condition in which he had so suddenly been plunged.

What spot on this vast globe had he found where apes usurped the place of man? And was there a human being dwelling on the island? How did it happen that the different species of monkeys he had seen were so familiar with man?

This last question caused him to have more faith that he would soon find others of his kind, and he pressed forward with renewed hope and vigor.


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