The Elephant's Lifesaver


     Harry sat hunched over the paper-littered table. Sweat dripping from the end of his nose smeared part of his writing into indecipherable blotches.

     "It's no use," he sighed, running his fingers through his thick brown hair until it stood up like stubble in a hayfield. "I'll have to do a lot of thinking before I can get this passage right."

     Today seemed to be hotter than yesterday, and yesterday hotter than the day before. Yes, and every word seemed harder to translate into Burmese than the one before it.

     Harry almost wished that the mission had not discovered his flair for languages. Then he would not have had the task of translating Scripture portions into the difficult Poh Kuhnluhn dialect.

     But he didn't quite wish it, because he had long ago decided that he would do God's work, whatever or wherever it might be.

     "All the same," he muttered out loud, "I'd rather be on active service than poring over books and papers all day long. I'll go mad or my head will burst if I don't get outside for a break."

     Except for the flies buzzing irritatingly around the clay pots in the kitchen, there was no one to hear or answer. Harry slammed his topee (pith helmet) on his head, took his gun from the wall rack, and strode out into the boiling afternoon sun.

     Harry knew better than to venture outside without either hat or gun. The jungle around teemed with wildlife, and he never knew when he might encounter a poisonous snake or a vicious animal.

     As the cooler shadowy jungle closed in about him, Harry relaxed into a sensitive awareness of his surroundings. Treading lightly and taking care not to snare his gun in looping vines, he pressed along the jungle trail.

     Then a faint clanking sound off to the right made him pause. Head cocked, he listened intently. Clink-clank, clink-clank. Was it a birdcall that he had not heard before?

     Quietly he pushed his way toward the sound. Suddenly he chuckled, recognizing the sound as the clanking of an elephant's chain. Tamed elephants must be working nearby.

     Harry had often watched the great beasts twist their strong trunks around tall trees and wrench them out of the ground. At a word of command from their mahouts (drivers), they rolled huge logs into position, butting them with iron-hard heads or lifting them high in the air with their leathery trunks and stacking them neatly on waiting carriers as effortlessly as Harry gathered sticks of firewood.

As Harry pushed through the last clinging, thorny bush into a place where the undergrowth had been flattened, he saw the dark-gray bulk of a huge cow elephant tethered to a stalwart tree. An incredibly small baby swayed at her side.

     At the sight of Harry a trembling mahout leaped to his feet and saluted. Harry saw that he was a member of the Manipuri tribe from India. The government usually employed Manipuris because of their expertise in handling elephants.

     "What's the trouble here?" Harry asked in the local dialect. It had taken him only a moment to see that something was amiss–the pitifully skinny baby, the feverishly restless mother elephant clanking her tethering chain, and the mahout's obvious fear.

     "Oh, Sahib, I am about to be killed!" The mahout's black eyes rolled wildly. "This elephant and its baby are about to die, and the government officer will surely kill me."

     "H'mmm." Trained work elephants were extremely valuable, and no doubt the government officer would be angry, but Harry doubted the mahout's extravagant claim. "What's gone wrong?"

     "Three days ago the elephant gave birth to this baby–such a small creature. It is so tiny it cannot reach up to suck its mother's milk, and so it is starving, dying. And because the baby cannot suck her, the mother has milk fever. She is hot and restless and getting worse by the hour. They will both die for sure, and the government officer will kill me."

     "Three days ago," echoed Harry. "Surely you could have thought of something in that time. Why didn't you go to the village and bring milk for the baby? I know they have cows there, and plenty of milk."

     "Oh, Sahib, I couldn't do that. If I left these animals alone for a minute, a leopard might pounce on the baby and eat it. You know how many leopards there are in this jungle."

     Harry nodded, tapping his rifle reflectively. Yes, he knew about the leopards. There was hardly a dog left in any village for miles around. Daily, at dusk, the leopards crept into the villages seeking their favorite food, and only the stoutest animal pen withstood their determined claws.

     "I've thought of a plan to save you and the elephants," Harry said. "You can run, can't you?"

     "Like a deer, Sahib."

     "All right. You run to the village, fetch a bucket of milk, and run all the way back with it. I know you'll spill some, but never mind; get back as fast as you can. Bring a bottle with you–a big beer bottle would be best. I'll stay here and guard the elephants while you go. Now run!"

     The mahout dashed off down the jungle path, and Harry sat on a stump with his rifle across his knees. The mother elephant stamped her feet restlessly and flapped her huge ears, twisting her head this way and that in a vain effort to see her baby. The tiny creature looked too weak to stand, and Harry expected it to topple over and die at any moment.

     Harry began to hum a hymn tune, not so loudly that he would frighten the mother elephant, but loudly enough to let predators know he was on guard.

     In an incredibly short time the mahout panted back with the bucket still two thirds full of milk and a long-necked beer bottle tucked into his loincloth.

     "Have you got a funnel of some sort?" Harry asked.

     The mahout ran to his hut and came back with a rusty tin funnel. Between them they managed to fill the bottle with milk.

     "Now bring the little baby over here in case the mother gets suspicious and tries to attack us."

     The mahout put his arms around the baby elephant's middle and half dragged, half carried him to Harry. The little creature was too weak to protest or struggle.      They managed to thrust the baby's head back, hold its trunk aside, and push the bottle of milk into its mouth.

     As soon as he tasted the milk the baby began to suck, downing bottle after bottle until the bucket was empty. The nourishment took instantaneous effect. The little animal lost his listless apathy and staggered about on wobbly legs, curling his tiny trunk around in search of more.

     "That's fixed him," Harry chuckled. "Now let's see what we can do for the mother. Have you got another chain?"

    "Yes, Sahib." The mahout's leathery face looked less grim. "I always keep two chains."

    He disappeared into his hut and came out dragging a heavy chain. They fastened the second chain to the mother elephant's front leg and secured it to another tree.

     Then Harry stood back and surveyed the situation. Back home in Australia he had milked hundreds of cows, but milking an elephant was a different proposition. He wondered whether anyone had ever tried it. Cows are milked from the side, but an elephant would have to be milked from between the front legs.

     Harry cautiously approached the huge animal. One blow from her swaying trunk could kill him. But the mother elephant seemed to know that he was trying to help her, and she stood still while he manipulated her swollen udder.

     Harry prodded and punched and kneaded and finally managed to extract enough milk to soften the swollen glands a little. He knew that his efforts must be causing the mother elephant much pain. At last, triumphantly he backed away from her long tusks and grinned at the mahout.

"Now we'll build a platform so the baby can reach its mother."

     Harry skirted around the clearing, gathering armfuls of sticks and leaves. The mahout tore down branches and collected clods of dirt. They pushed their materials under the elephant's chest, making a mound.

     When it was completed, Harry maneuvered the baby into position and held its head back so that it could reach its mother's milk supply. As soon as it tasted the warm milk the little elephant sucked with all its might. It nuzzled its mother's belly and twitched its tiny tail in contentment. The mother stopped her restless swaying and caressed the baby elephant's body with her trunk.

     Harry surveyed them with a satisfied smile. So did the mahout. He did not say a word of thanks, but the relief on his face was so evident that Harry grinned to himself. Well, we saved their lives, and some trouble for you, too, he thought.

     As he walked back to his bungalow, Harry felt greatly refreshed. He thanked God that he had been led to the clearing and had been used to save the lives of two of God's wonderful creatures and to help the mahout out of a bad situation.

Coldie M. Down