Young Ruskin observes a deadly confrontation between a cobra and a mongoose.

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I had a grandstand view of a fight between a mongoose and a cobra!Though the house and grounds belonged to my grandparents, the magnificent old banyan tree was mine—chiefly because Grandfather, at sixty-five, could no longer climb it.

Its spreading branches, which hung to the ground and took root, forming a number of twisting passages, gave me endless pleasure. Among the branches were birds, squirrels, snails, and butterflies. The tree was older than the house, older than Grand-father, as old as the city of Dehra Dun.

My first friend was a small gray squirrel. Arching his back and sniffing the air, he seemed at first to resent my invasion of his privacy. But when he found that I did not arm myself with catapult or air gun, he became friendly, and when I started bringing him pieces of cake and biscuit, he grew quite bold and was soon taking morsels from my hand.

Before long he was delving into my pockets and helping himself to whatever he could find.

In the spring, when the banyan tree was full of small red figs, birds of all kinds would flock into its branches: the red-bottomed bulbul, cheerful and greedy; gossipy rosy-pastors; parrots, mynas, and crows squabbling with one another. During the fig season, the banyan tree was the noisiest place in the garden.

Halfway up the tree I had built a crude platform, where I spent the afternoons when it was not too hot. I would read there, propping myself up against the bole of the tree with a cushion from the living room. Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, and The Story of Dr. Dolittle were some of the books that made up my banyan tree library.

When I did not feel like reading, I could look down through the leaves at the world below. And on one afternoon I had a grandstand view of that classic of the Indian wilds, a fight between a mongoose and a cobra!

The warm breezes of approach-ing summer had sent everyone, including the gardener, into the house. I was feeling drowsy myself, wondering if I should go to the pond and have a swim with my friend Ramu and his buffaloes, when I saw a huge cobra gliding out of a clump of cactus. At the same time a mongoose emerged from the bushes and went straight for the cobra.

In a clearing beneath the banyan tree, in bright sunshine, they came face to face.

The cobra knew only too well that the gray mongoose, three feet long, was a superb fighter, clever and aggressive. But the cobra, too, was a skillful and experienced fighter. He could move swiftly and strike with lightning speed, and the sacs behind his long, sharp fangs were full of deadly poison.

Hissing defiance, his forked tongue darting in and out, the cobra raised half of his six-foot length off the ground and spread his broad, spectacled hood. The mongoose bushed his tail, and the long hair on his spine stood up.

Though the combatants were unaware of my presence in the tree, they were soon made aware of the arrival of two other spectators. One was a myna, the other a jungle crow. The birds had seen these preparations for the battle and had settled on the cactus to watch the outcome. Had they been content only to watch, all would have been well.

The cobra stayed on the defen-sive, swaying slowly from side to side, trying to mesmerize the mongoose into making a false move. But the mongoose knew the power of his opponent’s glassy, unwinking eyes, and refused to meet them. Instead he fixed his gaze at a point just below the cobra’s hood, and opened the attack.

Moving forward quickly until he was just within the cobra’s reach, the mongoose made a pretended move to one side. Immediately the cobra struck. His great hood came down so swiftly that I thought nothing could save the mongoose. But the little fellow jumped neatly to one side and darted in as swiftly as the cobra, biting the snake on the back and darting away again out of reach.

At the moment that the cobra struck, the crow and the myna hurtled themselves at the snake, only to collide heavily in midair. Shrieking insults at each other, they returned to the cactus.

A few drops of blood glistened on the cobra’s back.

The cobra struck again and missed. Again the mongoose sprang aside, jumped in, and bit. Again the birds dived at the snake, bumped into each other instead, and returned shrieking to the safety of the cactus.

The third round followed the same course as the first but with one dramatic difference. The crow and the myna, still determined to take part in the proceedings, dived at the cobra, but this time they missed each other as well as the mark. The myna flew on and reached its perch, but the crow tried to pull up in midair and turn back. In the second that it took the bird to do this, the cobra whipped his head back and struck with great force, his snout thudding against the crow’s body.

I saw the bird flung nearly twenty feet across the garden. It fluttered about for a while, then lay still. The myna remained on the cactus plant, and when the snake and the mongoose returned to the fight, very wisely decided not to interfere again!

The cobra was weakening, and the mongoose, walking fearlessly up to him, rose up on his short legs and with a lightning snap had the big snake by the snout. The cobra writhed and lashed about in a frightening manner, and even coiled himself about the mongoose, but to no avail. The little fellow hung on grimly until the snake had ceased to struggle. He then sniffed along its quivering length, gripped it round the hood, and dragged it into the bushes.

The myna dropped cautiously to the ground, hopped about, peered into the bushes from a safe distance, and then, with a shrill cry of congratulations, flew away.