Shere Khan needed no more trampling. He was dead, and the kites were coming for him already.
“Brothers, that was a dog’s death,” said Mowgli, feeling for the knife he always carried in a sheath round his neck now that he lived with men. “But he would never have shown fight. His hide will look well on the Council Rock. We must get to work swiftly.”
A boy trained among men would never have dreamed of skinning a ten-foot tiger alone, but Mowgli knew better than anyone else how an animal’s skin is fitted on, and how it can be taken off. But it was hard work, and Mowgli slashed and tore and grunted for an hour, while the wolves lolled out their tongues, or came forward and tugged as he ordered them. Presently a hand fell on his shoulder, and looking up he saw Buldeo with the Tower musket. The children had told the village about the buffalo stampede, and Buldeo went out angrily, only too anxious to correct Mowgli for not taking better care of the herd. The wolves dropped out of sight as soon as they saw the man coming.
“What is this folly?” said Buldeo angrily. “To think that thou canst skin a tiger! Where did the buffaloes kill him? It is the Lame Tiger too, and there is a hundred rupees on his head. Well, well, we will overlook thy letting the herd run off, and perhaps I will give thee one of the rupees of the reward when I have taken the skin to Khanhiwara.” He fumbled in his waist cloth for flint and steel, and stooped down to singe Shere Khan’s whiskers. Most native hunters always singe a tiger’s whiskers to prevent his ghost from haunting them.
“Hum!” said Mowgli, half to himself as he ripped back the skin of a forepaw. “So thou wilt take the hide to Khanhiwara for the reward, and perhaps give me one rupee? Now it is in my mind that I need the skin for my own use. Heh! Old man, take away that fire!”
“What talk is this to the chief hunter of the village? Thy luck and the stupidity of thy buffaloes have helped thee to this kill. The tiger has just fed, or he would have gone twenty miles by this time. Thou canst not even skin him properly, little beggar brat, and forsooth I, Buldeo, must be told not to singe his whiskers. Mowgli, I will not give thee one anna of the reward, but only a very big beating. Leave the carcass!”
“By the Bull that bought me,” said Mowgli, who was trying to get at the shoulder, “must I stay babbling to an old ape all noon? Here, Akela, this man plagues me.”
Buldeo, who was still stooping over Shere Khan’s head, found himself sprawling on the grass, with a gray wolf standing over him, while Mowgli went on skinning as though he were alone in all India.
“Ye-es,” he said, between his teeth. “Thou art altogether right, Buldeo. Thou wilt never give me one anna of the reward. There is an old war between this lame tiger and myself—a very old war, and—I have won.”
To do Buldeo justice, if he had been ten years younger he would have taken his chance with Akela had he met the wolf in the woods, but a wolf who obeyed the orders of this boy who had private wars with man-eating tigers was not a common animal. It was sorcery, magic of the worst kind, thought Buldeo, and he wondered whether the amulet round his neck would protect him. He lay as still as still, expecting every minute to see Mowgli turn into a tiger too.
“Maharaj! Great King,” he said at last in a husky whisper.
“Yes,” said Mowgli, without turning his head, chuckling a little.
“I am an old man. I did not know that thou wast anything more than a herdsboy. May I rise up and go away, or will thy servant tear me to pieces?”
“Go, and peace go with thee. Only, another time do not meddle with my game. Let him go, Akela.”
Buldeo hobbled away to the village as fast as he could, looking back over his shoulder in case Mowgli should change into something terrible. When he got to the village he told a tale of magic and enchantment and sorcery that made the priest look very grave.