CHAPTER XXIX. CAMPING ON THE NAM-TING RIVER

Every morning the valley at Meng-ting was filled with a thick white mist and when we broke camp at daylight each mule was swallowed up in the fog as soon as it left the rice field. We followed the sound of the leader's bell, but not until ten o'clock was the entire caravan visible. For thirty li the valley is broad and flat as at Meng-ting and filled with a luxuriant growth of rank grass, but it narrows suddenly where the river has carved its way through a range of hills.

The trail led uncertainly along a steep bank through a dense, tropical jungle. Palms and huge ferns, broad-leaved bananas, and giant trees laced and interlaced with thorny vines and hanging creepers formed a living wall of green as impenetrable as though it were a net of steel. We followed the trail all day, sometimes picking our way among the rocks high above the river or padding along in the soft earth almost at the water's edge. At night we camped in a little clearing where some adventurous native had fought the jungle and been defeated; his bamboo hut was in ruins and the fields were overgrown with a tangle of throttling vegetation.

We had seen no mammals, but the birds along the road were fascinating. Brilliant green parrots screamed in the tree tops and tiny sun-birds dressed in garments of red and gold and purple, flashed across the trail like living jewels. Once we heard a strange whirr and saw a huge hornbill flapping heavily over the river, every beat of his stiff wing feathers sounding like the motor of an aeroplane. Bamboo partridges called from the bushes and dozens of unfamiliar bird notes filled the air.

At eleven o'clock on the following morning we passed two thatched huts in a little clearing beside the trail and the guide remarked that our camping place was not far away. We reached it shortly and were delighted. Two enormous trees, like great umbrellas, spread a cool, dark shade above a sparkling stream on the edge of an abandoned rice field. From a patch of ground as level as a floor, where our tents were pitched, we could look across the brown rice dykes to the enclosing walls of jungle and up to the green mountain beyond. A half mile farther down the trail, but hidden away in the jungle, lay a picturesque Shan village of a dozen huts, where the guide said we should be able to find hunters.

As soon as tiffin was over we went up the creek with a bag of steel traps to set them on the tiny trails which wound through the jungle in every direction. Selecting a well-beaten patch we buried the trap in the center, covered it carefully with leaves, and suspended the body of a bird or a chunk of meat by a wire over the pan about three feet from the ground. A light branch was fastened to the chain as a "drag." When the trap is pulled this invariably catches in the grass or vines and, while holding the animal firmly, still gives enough "spring" to prevent its freeing itself.

Trapping is exceedingly interesting for it is a contest of wits between the trapper and the animal with the odds by no means in favor of the former. The trap may not be covered in a natural way; the surroundings may be unduly disturbed; a scent of human hands may linger about the bait, or there may be numberless other possibilities to frighten the suspicious animal.

In the evening our guide brought a strange individual whom he introduced as the best hunter in the village. He was a tall Mohammedan Chinese who dressed like a Shan and was married to a Shan woman. He seemed to be afflicted with mental and physical inertia, for when he spoke it was in slow drawl hardly louder than a whisper, and every movement of his body was correspondingly deliberate. We immediately named him the "Dying Rabbit" but discovered very shortly that he really had boundless energy and was an excellent hunter.

The next morning he collected a dozen Shans for beaters and we drove a patch of jungle above camp but without success. There were many sambur tracks in the clearings, but we realized at once that it was going to be difficult to get deer because of the dense cover; the open places were so few and small that a sambur had every chance to break through without giving a shot.

Nearly all the beaters carried guns. The "Dying Rabbit" was armed with a .45-caliber bolt action rifle into which he had managed to fit a .303 shell and several of the men had Winchester carbines, model 1875. The guns had all been brought from Burma and most were without ammunition, but each man had an assortment of different cartridges and used whichever he could force into his rifle.

The men worked splendidly under the direction of the "Dying Rabbit." On the second day they put up a sambur which ran within a hundred feet of us but was absolutely invisible in the high grass. When we returned to camp we found that a civet (Viverra) had walked past our tent and begun to eat the scraps about the cook box, regardless of the shouts of the mafus and servants who were imploring Heller to bring his gun. After considerable difficulty they persuaded him that there really was some cause for their excitement and he shot the animal. It was probably ill, for its flesh was dry and yellow, but the skin was in excellent condition.