The road, for the first few miles, lay through ground tolerably open, but over which were scattered numerous sandy knolls, covered with low bush. These mounds, and, in many parts, the adjacent plains also, for a distance of many yards, were frequented by large colonies of sand rats, by whom the ground was quite undermined. These queer little animals are rather pretty in appearance, and interest the observer by their quick, rabbit-like movements, but they are a great nuisance to the hunter, who not unfrequently is indebted to their subterranean excavations for a severe fall, and, as has occasionally happened, a horse's broken leg.
At this season there was but little cultivation, the khureef or monsoon crop having been gathered in.
Every here and there, however, the creaking of the draining apparatus of a well announced where irrigation was being carried on; and in these parts, green fields and small clusters of trees formed oases in the surrounding sandy soil.
Broad and deep watercourses, cut clean out of this plain, crossed it in several places. In some parts the banks were steep, sandy, jungle-covered slopes, but in others were perpendicular, and cleft from a friable rock, brilliant with many colours. Some contained a good deal of water in long pools, but in only one was it still running, the monsoon supply in the neighbouring hills being yet unexhausted. All took their course towards the Runn, and by their means a vast volume of water was emptied into it during the rainy months, and some of this yet lay in broad, shallow sheets, on the hard, salt-encrusted bed. But at the mouths of these streams were found tracts of mingled water and sand, and woe to the unwary man or beast who should seek without a guide those treacherous wastes of quicksand ! Nor were the streams higher up to be crossed everywhere with impunity, though there, extrication is usually feasible.*
* Appendix, Note B.
When these nullahs or other obstacles obliged the leaders to reduce the pace, the rearmost riders would close up, and much chaff and laughter take place. There was sure to be some little incident out of which mirthful capital could be made. One. riders horse - being guided to right or left of the ford, would get into a shallow quicksand, and only with some exertion on part of man and beast recover the safe ground.
Another s pony would exhibit a desire to lie down and take a roll in the water. The puggree of a third had become unrolled, and streamed in luxuriant length behind, affording an opportunity for others to make undignified comparisons.
Then some had to record the fact of having seen bustard, or chinkara, both of which were there to be found.
These and other incidents afforded subjects for mirth and conversation, till the obstacle passed, or the nags having had a sufficient break in their gallop the leading party would again start, followed in turn by the others. But not silently was the journey even then conducted. A shrill yell every now and then served to keep up a sort of vocal connection between the different component parts of the cavalcade ; for as certain as one party gave vent to its exuberance of spirits by the emission of a howl, so surely was it answered by the others. Many a startled agriculturist looked up wondering at the unearthly sounds which came from the throats of the mad sahib people, and many a village cur gave tongue as the distant howls came borne on the breeze.
Youth, health, and high spirits are, after all, the true elements of Midas' gift. The plain crossed, the ground began gradually to rise till it brought the party to a ridge. A steeper descent now took them into a narrow valley better cultivated than the plain above. Horses were changed at a village prettily situated among fields and trees, about which peafowl wandered in large numbers. Grey partridge, too, ran about cackling vigorously in the neighbourhood ; and the chuck-chuck-chuck-a-chuck of a more distant black or two, was occasionally to be heard as the day waned.* Sacred to Brahma, as to Juno, the peacock is " banned and barred, forbidden fare.
All sorts of animals had been pressed into the service of the travellers for the first stage, but now many had mounted the horses they intended to hunt on the morrow, and accordingly rode more leisurely down the valley. The road, in many parts, clung to the foot of highish hills on the left, but in others approached and followed the windings of the sandy bed of a dried-up stream. Once or twice this was crossed and recrossed, and as the party filed through the jow, or tamarisk jungle, which, in large patches, covered its sides and bed, the peculiar cool freshness which attaches to that shrub, or, perhaps, to the nature of its locality, increased the cold invigorating air of the late afternoon of the Indian winter.
* Appendix, Note C.
The sun had dipped behind the hills to the left, and the breeze struck chill on the horsemen, hot with the exertion of riding. But how delightful! Many a one bared his head and snuffed in the crisp, bracing elixir as it swept up the valley from across the wide rolling waste and belt of jungle before them.
The upper parts of the hills on the right were gleaming in full view of the descending sun, with the shadows of those opposite thrown strong across them, and the intervening valley lay in shade as the party came in view of the encampment, and quietly walked their horses, so as to take them in cool.
The clouds of dust raised by the cattle returning at evening from their but indifferently successful search after grass and edible shoots in the neighbourine; jungle, had some time before indicated to the riders the position of the village. It now appeared, separated from the encampment by a small tank. The camp itself was pitched on some hard ground over which a few baubel trees were irregularly scattered. The shade of large trees, though desirable, if conveniently situated, was not at this season so eminently a requisite as when the sun beat down with hot weather intensity.
As the hunters approached, syces rushed forward to take their masters' horses; but from the ruck advanced a figure so singular as to render necessary a brief description, especially as it plays no unimportant part in these pages.