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Guns On The Hillside

2006-07-13 21:59

  A shot rang out in the clear winter morning. Another and another. The sound echoed among the surrounding hills and sent a clamour of rooks flying into the air, cawing like crazy as they circled the deodar trees. Ten-year-old Bishnu stopped dead in his tracks. The hunters were back again! What were they after this time?

  With a couple of bounds Bishnu gained the main road above his village. The was just peeping over the hills to the east. Bishnu knew it was time he rushed to Col. Dutta's farm where he worked. There was lots to do in the apple orchard attached to the farm. The apple trees were being sprayed with fungicide and work began early in the morning. But Bishnu knew he could not go just then. First he had to find out what the shots were all about.

  From where he stood on the main road, Bishnu could see the orchard directly below him, some two hundred feet down the hill. To his left lay a stretch of terraced wheat fields. The wheat was ripe, the delicate ears turned from green to gold. Here and there an eager farmer had begun to harvest his crop and there were small squares of stubble among the wheat.

  Suddenly Bishnu understood. Partridges! At harvest time there were lots of partridges in the wheat, feeding on the grain that had dropped. And hunters knew about it… Another shot rang out. Bishnu forget all about the farm. He forget about the apple trees. Instead, like a whirlwind, he took off for the patch of wheat.

  At the edge of the fields he stopped and looked around. There were a few people to be seen on the hillside, but he knew all of them. He also knew that none of them possessed a gun. With a thudding heart Bishnu hurriedly scanned the wheat. But there was no movement anywhere except when the breeze stirred the crop. Not a bird chirped, only the rooks still circled in the sky. A hunter was at large. But where was he? Would he strike again?

  Bishnu went down on his knees and peered among the wheat. From that angle, only the stalks could be seen and the foliage was not so dense. Perhaps it would be easier for him to spot the intruder that way. Bishnu clenched his fists. He would teach the fellow a lesson. How dare he come here shooting birds?

  WHAM! But his fist paused in mid-air, for just then, scurrying among the stalks came a half-grown partridge. Even as Bishnu watched, the partridge lurched and fell to one side, flapping its wings helplessly. “It is hurt,” said Bishnu. “I must catch it before the hunters do.”

  Bishnu took a few quick steps. But the partridge knew what was coming and picking itself up, it limped down the rows of wheat stalks, out of Bishnu's reach. Bishnu pulled a face. “Stop!” he muttered under his breath. “I am not going to hurt you.” But the partridge hurried on. Bishnu crouched as low as he could and gave chase on all fours. But the partridge had been alarmed. Off it went, as fast as it could.

  Suddenly Bishnu had an idea. He took off his sweater and, holding it in both hands, went after the partridge. The bird scurried desperately, in fear for its life. Once again it flapped its wings, as if to fly, but fell on one side instead. And that was when Bishnu went into action. Creeping up from behind, with one swift, clean movement, he threw his sweater over the bird. Next minute he dashed out of the wheat, the partridge held firmly in both hands.

  Up the hill ran Bishnu, his bare feet flying over the dark brown earth. To his right was the wheat, to his left a barbed wire fence that Col. Dutta had put up. On his own, Bishnu had ducked under the fence several times. But he could not dream of doing it with the partridge in his hands. He had no choice but to run straight up to the road, turn left and race down to the safely of Col. Dutta's farm.

  Bishnu bent almost double as he spend on his way. He had nearly cleared the line of wheat when a harsh voice boomed out and behind him, “You there! Stop this minute or I will shoot!” called the voice again. No two voices. A minute later a shot rang out; Bishnu heard some pellets hit the barbed wire fence. His chest was heaving like the bellows his mother used back home to light the fire, but there was no stopping him.

  And now he heard footsteps behind him. Heavy, lumbering footsteps. Adult voices. Cursing. Calling him names. “Just you wait. We will grab you by the neck. What do you think you are doing, making off with other people's game?” The footsteps came nearer and nearer. Bishnu was beginning to tire and the partridge wriggled much. It seemed bent of breaking free. Bishnu clutched harder. Another yard, two, three and he had gained the main road.

  For a brief moment an outcrop of rock shielded Bishnu from view but it would not be for long. The hunters were gaining on him. Bishnu looked at the road. It swept pass him to the very edge of the hill before turning back in a giant loop and sloping down to Col. Dutta's farm. Bishnu knew he could not risk talking the road. It was too long and the hunters were sure to catch him before he reached the farm. No he would have to take a short cut.

  Without another thought, Bishnu turned and dived into the wild raspberry thicket to his left. It was one big mass of thorns and tangled branches and below it the hillside sloped sharply all the way to Col. Dutta's farmhouse. Not many people could go down that slope. But mountain goats did and Bishnu was determined to try. It was his only hope.

  Bishnu fought his way out of the thicket, pushing with his elbows and ducking when the thorns came too close to his eyes. His arms legs were scratched and bleeding. One of his sleeves had almost apart. His mother would be cross, but at least the partridge was sage between his hands. Bishnu bent down and brushed the partridge with his cheek. “I won't.” But deep with in he was not so sure.

  Bishnu stepped out of the thicket and tried to run down the hill at the angle. He knew that it was the best way to go down a steep slope. But it did not work. His feet slipped on the short grass, still wet with the morning dew. Now Bishnu had no choice but to sit down and slide the rest of the way. When he hit a level patch of ground, he got up and ran again. Sliding and running by turns, he reached the wild plum tree half-way down the hillside.

  Here he paused to rest and get back his breath, for he was completely winded. A few minutes later, sweat pouring down his face, his shirt in tatters, and the skin peeled off his right big toe, Bishnu reached the woodshed at the back of Col. Dutta's farmhouse. Luckily for him, the door was open. Bishnu dived in and hid behind a pile of firewood, the partridge still clutched to his heart.

  Slowly he regained his breath and his heart stopped beating like a wild thing. As the ringing in his ears stopped too, he became aware of other sounds. The pressure cooker whistling in the kitchen. The hens in their coops, scratching for corn and Amar Singh, the oldest farmhand, patiently sweeping the yard. All at once a loud barking filled the air. Bishnu froze. Hansa, Col. Dutta's Alsatian! Hansa barking meant only one thing-strangers on the farm. So the hunters had caught up with him!

  Bishnu knew that he was safe inside the woodshed. Nobody came there except early in the morning. And if the stuck around long enough, he would not be discovered. But he could not contain his curiosity. He found an old basket in a corner, put the partridge in, sweater and all, and closed the lid firmly. “Now to see what is happening outside,” said Bishnu.

  The roof of the woodshed sloped down to a convenient height at the back. Bishnu scrambled up. He tiptoed his way over the slate tiles and hid behind a chimney. Through the opening at the top of the chimney, he could see the path sloping to the farmhouse. Coming down the path were two tough-looking men. Both carried guns and both had large bags slung over their shoulders. Hansa was barking loud enough to deafen anyone. Col. Dutta quietened her. He faced the two men. “Yes, what can I do for you?” he asked.

  One of the men said, “A boy from your farm has stolen our game. A partridge. More likely two. We must have them back.”

  “Oh, so it was your guns I heard.”

  “Yes.”

  “You come every year?”

  “We do. We have a license and Madho Ram, the sarpanch of this village, knows us very well.”

  “What do you do with the partridge that you collect?”

  “Eat them, naturally. And now, will you please get hold of the boy and let us have the birds back?”

  But Col. Dutta was not done yet. He towered over the two men and boomed, “You come every year, shoot down a whole lot of partridges, collect a few and leave the rest to die among the wheat! What do you mean by this?”

  The men looked uneasy. They were not prepared for this attack. Col. Dutta went on, “If you hunt for the table, the least that you can do is not to kill any more than you need. And you must take care to put a wounded bird out of its misery. Please leave my farm this minute. I don't wish to exchange another word with people like you!”

  From his position behind the chimney, Bishnu saw the two men turn on their heels and, without another word, march up the path to the main road. A minute later, Col. Dutta's voice rang through the house, “Amar Singh, get the sprayer. Quick! We must start work on the orchard right away!”

  Bishnu jumped down from the roof, grabbed the partridge and ran into the house. “Bauji, Bauji,” he cried, “please take a look at this partridge. It is hurt.”

  Col. Dutta frowned. “Oh, so it was you! And what are you going to do with that partridge?” he asked sharply.

  “Keep it as a pet, of course,” said Bishnu.

  Col. Dutta softened. “Okay, okay. Partridge make fantastic pets, all right.” He examined the wounded bird. “Hm,” he said. “One wing is broken. It will probably never fly too well again but the wound will heal in a few days. What it needs is a few drops of juice from the marigold leaf.”

  As Bishnu ran towards the door' Col. Dutta called out, “Feed it with dalia (wheat germ) and will soon be following you around the house like a little puppy. By the way, do you know the partridge call?”

  Bishnu was right on cue. Kabeel ka ka ka,“ he called. ”Kabeel ka ka ka. Kabeel ka ka ka…“

  “Hey, boy,” cried Col. Dutta, “you sound like the real thing!”

  Bishnu looked at him and grinned from ear to ear.

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