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My arms ached from holding the rifle ready. My eyes burned from staring into the high grass. I dared not take them from the ring for an instant. At any moment the tiger might cross into the low grass it had scrupulously avoided. In the frenzied two-hour contest, there had been no chance at a shot. The only glimpses I had of the tiger were in the brief seconds when it threw itself at an elephant. The risk of shooting then was too great.
The elephants stopped finally at the far side of the ring. They were visibly weary. Somewhere in the yellow grass the tiger watched, waiting. The action had come to a standstill. His Majesty signaled for his riding elephant. "I shall ride around the circle," he said. "Perhaps the tiger can be driven to this side. Shoot if you see it."
He moved off, trailed by several soldiers on elephants. The grass was as high as their heads. There was no sign of the tiger. Presently His Majesty came back. He conferred in Nepalese with General Molla, who had remained in the howdah. Then His Majesty turned to me. "The tiger is there, but the elephants have not the heart to drive it further," he said. "If you wish, you may ride on your shooting elephant into the ring after it. General Molla will go with you. It will be difficult, but the tiger is a good one." I said I wished to try it.
The big elephant flattened the cloth barrier with its trunk and stepped into the circle. Behind us, other elephants deftly put the cloth into place again. We crossed toward the ring elephants. They watched our approach curiously.
The top-heavy howdah swayed from side to side. With each erratic step it bucked and rolled ominously. I braced my feet against the bench and hung onto the sides. The commander in chief motioned us past the ring elephants. Suddenly my elephant stopped short and threw up its trunk. It took a step backward.
"The tiger is right there," the commander whispered. I could not see it. I stared into the grass, conscious of an intense silence. Then the tableau erupted. "Down!" the general shouted as our elephant spun around. My hip struck the side of the howdah and I was thrown to my knees. All the elephants screamed. The noise was deafening, then there was quiet, and again the elephants moved in toward the tiger. Reluctantly mine followed. It seemed wary and nervous, halting, then going forward in jerky steps. I tried to hold the rifle and keep my balance at the same time. The tension was tremendous, and the elephants seemed to sense it as they advanced in a narrowing circle. The tiger might jump from the grass at any moment.
"There," the general whispered. I saw it at the same instant. It was a patch of ochre no larger than a grapefruit. At first I thought it was my imagination, it blended so perfectly into the yellow grass.
"Shoot," the general hissed. "It is ready to spring."
I had no idea what target the tiger offered. I raised my rifle and sighted. The elephant shifted uneasily beneath my feet. The rifle swayed, and I wondered if the recoil would knock me out of the howdah. I steadied the rifle.
If there was recoil, I never felt it. The tiger shot straight into the air. There was a tremendous roar. The elephant on my left dropped to its knees. It struggled to get back up, blood streaming from its trunk. The mahout beat on our elephant's skull, trying desperately to bring the panicked creature under control. It swung its head from side to side making terrifying sounds.