IN THE NICK OF TIME
It may sound like slander for me to say that the elephant, which is admittedly one of the most intelligent members of the animal creation, is also one of the most vicious and treacherous. But it is a fact all the same. I have seen one of those beasts, that had been fed and treated with the greatest kindness for years by his keeper, turn upon him like a tiger, and, seizing him with that wonderful trunk of his, dash him to death before he could do more than utter a cry of protest and terror.
I have seen another, after waiting weeks for the opportunity, suddenly grasp an innocent person, and, kneeling upon him with his beam-like legs, knead him out of all semblance of humanity.
Columbus, who was the main attraction of Barnum's establishment some forty years ago, killed several keepers, and was likely to start on one of his terrible rampages at any moment. The giving away of a bridge in New England so injured him that he died, long before any of my young readers were born.
An elephant, fully as bad as Columbus, was Vladdok, who was brought to this country when quite young. A glimpse at his enormous ears told his African nativity at once, those from Asia and Ceylon having much smaller ears. He belonged to the old traveling circus of Blarcom & Burton, and made several journeys through our country in the days when those establishments found no use for the railways, but patiently plodded from town to town, delighting the hearts and eyes of our grandfathers and grandmothers when they were children just as we are now.
Vladdok had killed two keepers, besides badly wounding a couple of spectators in Memphis, when he yielded to one of his vicious moods. He had been fired upon and wounded more times than any one could remember, and Mr. Blarcom, who always traveled with his show, had been on the point more than once of ordering his destruction; but he was of such large size and possessed such extraordinary intelligence, that he constituted the main attraction of the exhibition and he hesitated, well aware that sooner or later, the wicked fellow would die "with his boots on."
It was after an afternoon performance in one of the Western States that Vladdok indulged in his last rampage. His sagacious keeper had come to understand the animal so well, that he knew the outbreak was coming. While Vladdok was unusually tractable and obedient, there was a dangerous glitter in his small eyes, and an occasional nervous movement of his head, which proved that he was only biding his time and waiting for the grand chance to present itself.
Fortunately, he did not rebel until after the exhibition was over, and the crowds had departed. Then, with a fierce trumpeting and one vast shiver of his enormous bulk, he made a dash which snapped his chains like so much whip-cord and went through the side of the tent as though it were cardboard.
On his wild charge, which set all the rest of the animals in a panic, he reached for his keeper, who with prodding spear and shouts, interposed himself in his path and tried to check him. But the man's inimitable dexterity and good fortune enabled him to dodge the beast and escape by a hair's breadth. The next minute, the elephant reached the public highway, down which he swung awkwardly but swiftly, on an excursion that was destined to be the most tragic in his whole career.
The first object on which he vented his wrath was a team of horses, driven by a farmer, whose wife was sitting beside him on the front seat. Neither they nor the team knew their danger until the avalanche of fury was upon them. The animals screamed in an agony of fright, and were rearing and plunging, when Vladdok grasped one with his trunk, lifted him in the air and dashed him to death. The other broke loose and plunged off at such headlong speed, that the elephant followed him only a few paces, when he turned to attack the man and woman.
But they were nowhere in sight, and, with a trumpet of disgust, he wheeled about, and turning from the highway, took to the woods.
The couple were saved by a singular occurrence. The violent rearing and backing of the horses overturned the wagon body, and the farmer and his better half were caught beneath it, before they could escape. They had sense enough to remain quiet, until the brute left, when they crept out, none the worse for their mishap.
"Consarn his pictur!" exclaimed the husband; "if that don't beat all creation! I allers said that circuses and shows was a burnin' shame, and now I know it; I'll make the owner of that elephant pay ten thousand dollars for the damage he done us, for he scart you and me so bad Betsy, that we'll never grow another inch."
Meanwhile, the runaway kept things moving. He knew his keeper and attendants were hot on his trail, and his sudden change of course was undoubtedly with a view of misleading them. It is hardly to be supposed that he expected to find any "game" in the woods, but nevertheless he did.
It so happened that Jack Norton and Billy Wiggins, a couple of boys not more than fourteen years of age, were engaged on a little hunt that same afternoon. The teachers had sent such bad reports home about them that their parents inflicted the most awful kind of punishment; they did not permit them to attend the circus, to which they had been looking forward for weeks. The father of Billy was specially stern, and forbade his hopeful to take his gun, when he joined Jack on a little hunting ramble in the woods. Mr. Norton felt some slight compunctions, when he noted how patiently his boy accepted his fate, and relented to that degree that he permitted him to take his rifle, though he knew there was little chance of his securing any game.
The boys had walked about a mile, and, coming to a fallen tree, sat down to rest awhile, for the day was warm and the gun which they had taken turns in carrying, was heavy.
"I guess this hunt ain't agoin' to amount to much," sighed Jack, as he leaned the rifle against the prostrate trunk, on which they were seated.
"Why not?" asked Billy.
"'Cause there ain't nothin' to hunt; I heerd Budge Jones say that when he was a boy, these woods used to be full of bears and deers and tigers and lions and giraffes and that sort of thing."
"Yes, and the folks were so mean they killed 'em all, but I've the idea, Jack, that maybe some of the lions or tigers has hid somewhere in the woods and we might find 'em."
"Golly! I don't know whether I'd want to find 'em or not," replied Jack, looking about him, with a scared expression.
"Why not? Hain't you got a gun?"
"Yes, but while I was killin' one the others might chaw me all to pieces; but if there was only one, I wouldn't care, if he was an elephant as big as a barn——"
"My gracious! there he comes!"
A terrific crashing of the undergrowth caused both lads to glance affrightedly behind them, and there, sure enough, was Vladdok, the fearful elephant, almost upon them. They started to run, their courses so diverging that the beast was forced to select one and let the other alone for the moment. He fixed upon Billy Wiggins, who had taken barely twenty steps, when the trunk of the beast inclosed his waist and he was lifted, as if he was a feather from the ground, and the next instant he felt himself whizzing through space.
A marvelous providence saved him. Instead of dashing him against a tree, or upon the ground, the elephant, in one of his mad freaks, flung him from him as though he was a ball. He spun through the air, the leaves and limbs whizzing against his face and body, and instinctively clutching with both hands, succeeded in grasping enough branches to support the weight of his body and check his descent.
Then, when he collected his senses and stared around, he found that he was a dozen yards above the ground, with the elephant beneath, looking up, and apparently waiting for him to fall within his reach, that he might finish him.
"Not much," muttered Billy; "I'm going to stay here and I don't believe you know how to climb a tree. Helloa! how do you like that?"
Jack Norton had dashed only a few yards, when the terrified look he cast over his shoulder told him the elephant was giving his whole attention to Billy, and seemed to have forgotten all about him. Instantly he was filled with alarm for his young friend, and started back to the log to get his rifle, that neither had thought of in the panic.
As he knelt behind the fallen tree, to make his aim sure, he descried a queer object going through the limbs of a large oak, and did not identify it, until it lodged fast, as his friend Billy Wiggins.
Jack had no more idea of the fatal point at which to aim his weapon than you have, but knowing that he must do something, and, with a dread that the elephant after all, might succeed in climbing the oak and getting at his friend, he let fly.
Gordon Cumming himself could not have done better. The tiny bullet bored its way into the vast bulk, just back of the fore leg and went directly through the heart. The huge brute, as if conscious that he was mortally hurt, swung part way round, so as to face the point whence the shot had come. Catching sight of the kneeling youngster, with the muzzle of his rifle still smoking, he plunged toward him. He took a couple of steps, swayed to one side, moved uncertainly forward again, then stopped, tried to steady himself, and finally went over sideways, like a mountain, crashing the saplings and undergrowth near him, and snapping one of his magnificent tusks into splinters. He was dead.
When the boys fully comprehended what had taken place, they were not a little alarmed and puzzled, and started home, wondering whether their game was a descendant of the creatures that used to inhabit that section, or whether he was a visitor to these parts. They had not gone far, however, when they met the attaches of the menagerie and circus to whom they related what had occurred.
The proprietors were relieved on learning the whole truth, for there could be little doubt that the sudden ending of the career of Vladdok was the means of saving more than one person from death.
As for Jack Norton and Billy Wiggins, it was generally conceded that they spoke the truth, when they declared:
"Our fathers wouldn't let us go to the circus that afternoon, but I guess we had a bigger circus than any of you all to ourselves."