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Chapter Sixteen. An Enemy in the Air.
Though the old hen hornbill, after her long and seemingly forced period of incubation, might not prove such a tender morsel, they were nevertheless rejoiced at this accession to their now exhausted larder, and the pilot at once set about plucking her, while Murtagh kindled a fresh fire.

While they were thus engaged, Henry, who had greatly admired the ingenuity displayed by Saloo in the construction of his singular ladder, bethought him of ascending it. He was led to this exploit partly out of curiosity to try what such a climb would be like; but more from a desire to examine the odd nest so discovered—for to him, as to most boys of his age, a bird’s nest was a peculiarly attractive object. He thought that Saloo had not sufficiently examined the one first plundered, and that there might be another bird or an egg behind. He was not naturalist enough to know—what the ex-pilot’s old Sumatran experience had long ago taught him—that the hornbill only lays one egg, and brings forth but a single chick. Whether or no, he was determined to ascend and satisfy himself.

He had no fear of being able to climb the tree-ladder. It did not seem any more difficult than swarming up the shrouds of a ship, and not half so hard as going round the main-top without crawling through the “lubber’s hole”—a feat he had often performed on his father’s vessel. Therefore, without asking leave, or saying a word to any one, he laid hold of the bamboo pegs and started up the tree.

None of the others had taken any notice of him. Captain Redwood was engaged in wiping out his gun, with little Helen attending upon him, while Saloo was playing poulterer, and Murtagh, a little way off in the woods, gathering faggots for the fire. Henry kept on, hand over hand, and foot after foot, till he at length stood upon the topmost round of the unfinished ladder. Being almost as tall as Saloo himself, he easily got his arm into the cavity that contained the nest, and commenced groping all over it. He could find no other bird, nor yet an egg. Only the dried-up ordure of the denizens that had lately occupied the prison cell, along with some bits of the shell out of which the young hornbill had been but recently hatched.

After a moment or two spent in examining the curious cavity, and reflecting on the odd habit of a bird being thus plastered up and kept for weeks in close confinement—all, too, done by its own mate, who surely could not so act from any intention of cruelty—after in vain puzzling himself as to what could be the object of such a singular imprisonment, he determined upon returning to the ground, and seeking the explanation from Saloo.

He had returned upon the topmost step, and was about letting himself down to that next below, when not only were his ears assailed by sharp cries, but he suddenly saw his eyes in danger of being dug out of their sockets by the sharp beak of a bird, whose huge shadowy wings were flapping before his face!

Although somewhat surprised by the onslaught, so sudden and unexpected—and at the same time no little alarmed—there was no mystery about the matter. For he could see at a glance that the bird so assailing him was a hornbill; and a moment’s reflection told him it was the cock.

Afar off in the forest—no doubt in search of food—catering for his housekeeper and their new chick, of whose birth he was most probably aware, he could not have heard her cries of distress; else would he have rushed to the rescue, and appeared much sooner upon the scene. But at length he had arrived; and with one glance gathered in the ruin that had occurred during his absence. There was his carefully plastered wall pulled down, the interior of his domicile laid open, his darlings gone, no doubt dragged out, throttled and slaughtered, by the young robber still standing but a step from the door.

The enraged parent did not pause to look downward, else he might have seen a still more heart-rending spectacle at the bottom of the tree. He did not stay for this; on the instant he went swoop at the head of the destroyer, with a scream that rang far over the forest, and echoed in a thousand reverberations through the branches of the trees.

Fortunately for Henry, he had on his head a thick cloth cap, with its crown cotton-padded. But for this, which served as a helmet, the beak of the bird would have been into his skull, for at the first dab it struck right at his crown.

At the second onslaught, which followed quick after, Henry, being warned, was enabled to ward off the blow, parrying with one hand, while with the other supporting himself on his perch. For all this the danger was not at an end; as the bird, instead of being scared away, or showing any signs of an intention to retreat, only seemed to become more infuriated by the resistance, and continued its swooping and screaming more vigorously and determinedly than ever. The boy was well aware of the peril that impended; and so, too, were those below; who, of course, at the first screech of the hornbill, had looked up and seen what was passing above them.

They would have called upon him to come down, and he would have done so without being summoned, if there had been a chance. But there was none: for he could not descend a single step without using both hands on the ladder; and to do this would leave his face and head without protection. Either left unguarded for a single instant, and the beak of the bird, playing about like a pickaxe, would be struck into his skull, or buried deep in the sockets of his eyes. He knew this, and so also they who looked from below. He could do nothing but keep his place, and continue to fight off the furious assailant with his free arm—the hand getting torn at each contact, till the blood could be seen trickling from the tips of his fingers.

It is difficult to say how long this curious contest might have continued, or how it would have terminated, had the combatants been left to themselves. In all probability it would have ended by the boy’s having his skull cleft open or his eyes torn out; or, growing feeble, he would have lost his hold upon the ladder and fallen to the foot of the tree—of itself certain death.

It in reality looked as if this would be the lamentable result, and very quickly. Saloo had sprung to the tree, and was already ascending to the rescue. But for all that he might be too late; or even if successful in reaching the elevated point where Henry struggled against danger, he might still be unable to effect his deliverance. The alarmed father seemed to fear this, as he stood gazing, with agony depicted on his face—agony at the thought of seeing his dear boy exposed to such a fearful peril, and feeling himself so helpless to rescue him.

All at once a thought flashed into his mind, that at least gave him some relief through the necessity of action. His rifle, which fortunately after cleaning he had reloaded, stood resting against the trunk of the tree. He sprang toward and seized hold of it. In another second it was raised to his shoulder; its muzzle pointed almost vertically upward, and circling around to get bearing upon the body of the bird.

It was a dangerous shot to take, like that of Tell with the arrow and the apple. But it seemed yet more dangerous not to venture it; and with this reflection passing through his mind he watched the hornbill through several of its swoopings, and when at length in one of these it receded to some distance from Henry’s face, he took quick sight upon it, and pulled trigger.

A splendid shot—a broken wing—a huge bird seen fluttering through the air to the earth—then flopping and screaming over the ground, till its cries were stilled and its strugglings terminated by a few blows from a boat-hook held in the hands of the ship-carpenter;—all this was the spectacle of only a few seconds!


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