“Yes,” said Mowgli, “all the jungle fear Bagheera—all except Mowgli.”
“Oh, thou art a man’s cub,” said the Black Panther very tenderly. “And even as I returned to my jungle, so thou must go back to men at last—to the men who are thy brothers—if thou art not killed in the Council.”
“But why—but why should any wish to kill me?” said Mowgli.
“Look at me,” said Bagheera. And Mowgli looked at him steadily between the eyes. The big panther turned his head away in half a minute.
“That is why,” he said, shifting his paw on the leaves. “Not even I can look thee between the eyes, and I was born among men, and I love thee, Little Brother. The others they hate thee because their eyes cannot meet thine; because thou art wise; because thou hast pulled out thorns from their feet—because thou art a man.”
“I did not know these things,” said Mowgli sullenly, and he frowned under his heavy black eyebrows.
“What is the Law of the Jungle? Strike first and then give tongue. By thy very carelessness they know that thou art a man. But be wise. It is in my heart that when Akela misses his next kill—and at each hunt it costs him more to pin the buck—the Pack will turn against him and against thee. They will hold a jungle Council at the Rock, and then—and then—I have it!” said Bagheera, leaping up. “Go thou down quickly to the men’s huts in the valley, and take some of the Red Flower which they grow there, so that when the time comes thou mayest have even a stronger friend than I or Baloo or those of the Pack that love thee. Get the Red Flower.”
By Red Flower Bagheera meant fire, only no creature in the jungle will call fire by its proper name. Every beast lives in deadly fear of it, and invents a hundred ways of describing it.
“The Red Flower?” said Mowgli. “That grows outside their huts in the twilight. I will get some.”
“There speaks the man’s cub,” said Bagheera proudly. “Remember that it grows in little pots. Get one swiftly, and keep it by thee for time of need.”
“Good!” said Mowgli. “I go. But art thou sure, O my Bagheera”—he slipped his arm around the splendid neck and looked deep into the big eyes—”art thou sure that all this is Shere Khan’s doing?”
“By the Broken Lock that freed me, I am sure, Little Brother.”
“Then, by the Bull that bought me, I will pay Shere Khan full tale for this, and it may be a little over,” said Mowgli, and he bounded away.
“That is a man. That is all a man,” said Bagheera to himself, lying down again. “Oh, Shere Khan, never was a blacker hunting than that frog-hunt of thine ten years ago!”
Mowgli was far and far through the forest, running hard, and his heart was hot in him. He came to the cave as the evening mist rose, and drew breath, and looked down the valley. The cubs were out, but Mother Wolf, at the back of the cave, knew by his breathing that something was troubling her frog.
“What is it, Son?” she said.
“Some bat’s chatter of Shere Khan,” he called back. “I hunt among the plowed fields tonight,” and he plunged downward through the bushes, to the stream at the bottom of the valley. There he checked, for he heard the yell of the Pack hunting, heard the bellow of a hunted Sambhur, and the snort as the buck turned at bay. Then there were wicked, bitter howls from the young wolves: “Akela! Akela! Let the Lone Wolf show his strength. Room for the leader of the Pack! Spring, Akela!”
The Lone Wolf must have sprung and missed his hold, for Mowgli heard the snap of his teeth and then a yelp as the Sambhur knocked him over with his forefoot.
He did not wait for anything more, but dashed on; and the yells grew fainter behind him as he ran into the croplands where the villagers lived.
“Bagheera spoke truth,” he panted, as he nestled down in some cattle fodder by the window of a hut. “To-morrow is one day both for Akela and for me.”