BOH Han Me was one of the greatest generals who ever lived in the hill and water country. Just what his original name was nobody knows now, but this story tells how he gained his title.
One day he went into the jungle with his wife and his two children to gather nau, which is a kind of puc made from the young bamboo shoots. They were very successful in getting it, and were just on the point of going home with their loads, when right before them appeared a large black bear. The bear opened wide his mouth and roared, showing his immense white teeth and great throat, and came ambling toward them growling all the while in the fiercest kind of way.
Now as soon as the man saw the bear he just threw away all the nau that he had in his hands and ran for his life, calling on his wife to do the same. The two children followed their father and left their mother to get out of her trouble as best she could. She, however, was as brave as her husband was cowardly, and instead of running away, she took a handful of the longest of the shoots and thrust them down the open throat of the bear and killed him. She then took the short sword that they had brought from home to cut the shoots, and with it she skinned the bear, cut him up, and made the skin into a sack in which to carry the meat.
Meanwhile her cowardly husband did not stop running till he reached the city in which he lived, and then he told all his neighbors how he had been in the jungle and a great bear had attacked them; how he had fought bravely for a long while, but at last it had killed his wife and eaten her. The neighbors were very sorry for him, but advised him to get home and fasten all the doors and windows before the spirit of his wife would have time to get in, for they said, seeing that she was killed when he was with her, her ghost would without doubt try and gain admittance to the house and haunt it. Once in, it would be very difficult to get her out.
The man, more frightened than ever, ran home as fast as he could and called his children to bring all the rice that was already cooked into the house, and then they fastened up the two doors and the one window with bamboos and rattan. There was to be a feast in the city that night, and the two children wanted to go and see the fun, but their father was in such a fright that he would not give them permission to go, or even to look out through the holes in the sides of the house where the bamboo matting had come unfastened and bulged away from the posts.
By this time the sun had set and it was just getting dark, and the man, tired with the hunt in the jungle and the excitement after, was just going to sleep when he heard a voice that he recognized as his wife’s calling to be let in.
“Husband, oie!” it called, “open the door and let me in. I am very tired and hungry, and want rice and sleep. Get up quickly. Why have you fastened up the window and doors with bamboos and rattan? There are no bad men around; any one would think you were afraid thieves were coming to-night.”
The man was frightened almost to death when he heard his wife’s voice, for he felt sure it was her ghost coming to haunt him, so he called out:
“Ghost of my wife, oie! I will not let you in. If I did I would never be able to get you out again. You want to haunt this house. I will not let you in. Go away, go away!”
In vain the woman told him that she was indeed his wife, that she was not a ghost at all, but had killed the bear and had his skin on her back with the meat in it, and begged to be let in; the man would not believe her and so she had to wait outside. All night long she called and begged her husband to let her in, but in vain. When the sun had risen, however, he felt a little braver, and so he put his head out through the thatch, and saw that it really was his wife and not her ghost. With great joy he ran down, opened the door, and let her in, but when his wife told him how she had killed the bear, he again became frightened.
“We have arrived at great trouble,” said he. “When the people hear that you have killed a bear, they will most surely kill you. What shall we do to escape and be freed from the impending punishment?”
But his wife was a clever woman, and when the neighbors came in to ask how it was that she had not been killed, she told a wonderful story, how through the bravery of her husband she had been saved; that he had seen the bear, and by his bravery, that was so great it was good to marvel at, it had been driven off. The neighbors were very pleased that so brave a man lived in their quarter, and he became famous, people calling him Gon Han Me, or “the man who saw the bear.”
Gon Han Me was very proud of his title, as many other vain people have been proud of titles they never earned, but it came near costing him his life, and this was the way it led him into great danger. One day a large cobra fell into the well that was in the yard before the chief door of the king’s palace, and everybody was afraid to draw water because of it. When the amats told the king that a cobra was in the well, he gave orders that it was to be taken out, but nobody was brave enough to go down the well and kill the snake. The chief amat was in great distress. He feared the king would deprive him of his office if the snake were not killed immediately. He was not brave enough to descend himself, and money, promises, and threats were of no avail to induce any one else to go. Everybody declined to take the risk, and said: “Of what use is money, or horses, or buffaloes, to a man bitten by a cobra? Will that free him from death? Nay, go yourself.”
The poor amat was at his wits’ end, when at last one of the attendants told the king that in the quarter of the city where his sister lived, was a man so brave that he was called Gon Han Me, and said he: “If a man is brave enough to see a bear in the jungle and not be afraid, surely he will dare go down the well and kill the cobra.”
The king was much pleased with the attendant for showing a way out of the difficulty. “He surely is the man we want,” said he; “go and call him immediately to come and destroy the snake.”
The attendant of the king came to Gon Han Me and said: “Brother, oie! the king has heard that you are a very brave man, so brave, in fact, that your neighbors all talk of you and you have arrived at the rank of being called ‘Gon Han Me.’ Now in the royal well there is a snake, a cobra, which as you know is called the worst snake that lives. It is a very wicked snake and everybody has arrived at great trouble because of it. Nobody dares draw water there, and the king has given orders that it is to be killed. However, no one at the palace is brave enough to descend the well and kill the snake, but when his majesty heard of your great bravery, he sent me to order you to come immediately, descend the well, and kill the cobra. He will give you great rewards, and besides will make you a boh (officer) in the royal army.”
When Gon Han Me heard this he was in great distress and called his wife. “Wife, oie!” he said; “this unlucky name will certainly be the cause of my death. It will truly kill me. The king has called me to descend the royal well and kill a wicked snake that is frightening everybody in the palace. I am not brave enough to go. If I do not go, the king will have me executed. I shall be killed whichever I do. If I go the snake will kill me, if I do not go the king will kill me. I shall arrive at destruction, and all because of this miserable name.”
The wife pondered awhile and then advised her husband to get dressed in his best clothes and go to the palace, look down the well to see what it was like, then make some excuse to come back home and she would tell him what next to do.
The man was soon dressed in his best clothes, and was already going down the steps of the house when his wife called out that he had left his hsan behind him. Now when the Shans go into the jungle, or on a journey, they carry with them a rice-bag, or hsan. This is a long narrow bag, more like a footless hose than anything else, and when filled with rice it is worn around the waist, where it looks like a big snake coiled around. Now Gon Han Me was very proud of his rice-bag, for instead of being made of plain white cloth, as is the custom, it was embroidered all over with different colored wools, and was so long that it went around his waist several times.
He was so excited and terrified that when he reached the well he did not notice that one end had been unfastened and was dragging on the ground, and as he went to the well to look over, it caught around his legs, overbalanced him, and he went head first into the well with a tremendous splash. The next instant the snake lifting its head darted at him, and all that the men above, who were waiting with breathless interest to discover how the battle would end, could hear, was an infinite amount of splashing, yells, and hissing. Gon Han Me never knew how it was, but in the fall his hsan became twisted around the neck of the snake, and in a few minutes it was choked to death.
The man for a while could hardly believe that the snake was really dead. It seemed too good to be true, but he came to the conclusion that his kam was good, and he would yet be a great and famous man. He therefore assumed a heroic air, and at the top of his voice called to the men at the mouth of the well:
“Brethren, oie! I have killed the snake and thus freed you from the great danger from which you were suffering. I will now throw up the end of this long rice-bag. Do you catch it and pull me and the dead snake up to dry ground.” He thereupon threw up the end of the embroidered hsan, the men caught it, and the next minute he appeared with the dead snake in his hand.
The king was very pleased with Gon Han Me for his brave act. He gave him great rewards as he had promised, and also gave order that in future he should be known by the name of “Boh Han Me,” or “the officer who saw the bear.”
Some time after this there was war between the king and the ruler of the next province. There was a great council called and it was unanimously agreed that as Boh Han Me was the bravest man in the country, he should be appointed as commander-in-chief.
When the message came to his house, however, it caused him great distress, for as he told his wife, he did not want to be killed in the least; he did not wish to run the risk of being killed or even hurt. Besides he had never been on horseback in his life. He had a buffalo that ploughed his fields, and it is true that occasionally, tired with the day’s work, he had ridden home on its back when the sun sank into the west, but he was sure that if he got on the back of a horse it would immediately divine that he was ignorant of the art of riding, did not mau as he said, and he would be thrown to the ground and hurt, killed maybe. Who could tell?
Again his clever wife came to the rescue. “You must go to the fight whether you want to or not,” said she. “The king has given orders and he must be obeyed. To disobey the king is more dangerous than seeing a bear or even fighting a snake, so go you must. As to riding, that is easily managed. Bring your pony here and I will show you how to ride without danger.”
On the never-to-be-forgotten day when the whole family went into the jungle to gather nau, they were very poor, but since the fight with the snake in the well, they had become rich, and so now the boh had servants to do his bidding, and he therefore called one of them to saddle his pony and bring it to the door of his house. This was soon done. He took his seat, and then his wife took long pieces of rawhide and fastened his legs, from ankle to knee, on both sides to the stirrups and girths. She knotted them securely so that there would be no chance of his falling off his steed. He was very pleased that he had such a clever wife, who could help him out of every trouble into which he might fall, and rode away well pleased with himself, and soon reached the place where the soldiers were assembled awaiting his appearance before beginning the march.
To have seen him nobody would have thought that he was frightened sick. He sat up bravely, and you would have thought that he was the best horseman in all the hill and water country, but all the time he was turning over in his mind the advice given by his wife when they talked it over the night before. This was what she said to him: “Now, when you get to the soldiers, see them start off. Give all the orders in a very loud, pompous tone. Talk high, and they will think you mau very much (are very clever). Then you can easily find some excuse to get to the rear, and you must stay there till the fighting is all finished.”
There was one party to this arrangement, however, that they had both failed to take into account when making their plans, and that was the pony. They neither remembered that there was a possibility of the pony taking it into his head to carry his master where the latter did not want to go, but that was just what happened, for, when the pony saw all the other horses and the men marching off, he too commenced to move forward. He was a fine big pony and was accustomed to head processions, not to come at the tail end, and so he started off of his own accord. Now we have said that his rider had never been on horseback before, but had often ridden his buffalo from the paddy field when the day’s work of ploughing was over. When a man on a buffalo wishes to stop, he jerks the rope that is fastened to the animal’s nose, and obedient to the signal, it stops. So, when the boh found his steed forging ahead a little faster than suited him, he jerked the reins, expecting the pony to stop, but to his consternation, he found it go all the faster. He jerked harder, the pony broke into a quick trot. He jerked again, the pony began to gallop. He was now thoroughly frightened and called out at the top of his voice, but this only frightened the pony more and it began to gallop just as fast as ever it could, and worse than all, it headed straight for the enemies’ soldiers, whom he could see in the distance getting ready to receive him. He cursed his wife with all his heart. If he could only fall off! She had taken too good precautions against that. He pulled and tugged, but the rawhide was strong; the knots were too tight; and every minute brought him nearer to his enemies. He could hear the shouts of his friends in the distance getting fainter and fainter as the distance increased, calling him to come back. How he wished he could! He swayed from side to side, first on one flank then on the other. The pony now had its head down between its knees, the bit between its teeth, and was tearing along like the wind. It would be hard to say which was the more frightened, the horse or its rider; each frightened the other. But there was a lower depth yet to be reached. In jumping over a hole the saddle slipped to the side, the next instant away it went, turned, and saddle, rider, and all slipped clear around, and Boh Han Me found himself still securely lashed to the saddle, squarely under his horse instead of on it.
Meanwhile in the camp of the enemy a council of war was being held. “Can any one tell me,” asked the king, “who commands our foes?”
“Our lord,” said one of the amats, “it is a man who has been picked out of the whole army, and is the bravest man who ever drew a sword. He is called Boh Han Me because he conquered a great fierce bear in the jungle. He also went down a well in the royal palace and killed the largest and fiercest snake ever seen in all the hill and water country.”
The king was much disquieted when he heard of the prowess of this man, and was pondering whether it would not be better to fight with silver than steel, and offer a great reward to any man in the enemies’ camp who would bring to him the head of this doughty soldier, when he heard a great shout. He sprang to the tent door and looked anxiously out. All eyes were bent in one direction and a look of intense wonder, not unmixed with fear, sat on each face. The king naturally expected to see the whole army of the enemy approaching in overwhelming numbers, but he shared the wonder of his soldiers when he saw, not an army, but one single man dashing toward him. The next instant the rider disappeared entirely, but the horse came on faster than before. Next instant there was the rider again, arms tossing in the air, hair streaming behind, only to disappear the following moment in the same mysterious way.
The face of the king blanched with terror as he asked in a whisper, “Who is this man?”
A hundred voices cried: “It is Boh Han Me, the bravest man alive! He has some charm that makes him invisible whenever he wishes, and he cannot be hurt by sword or arrow.”
Nothing spreads so quickly as a panic, and almost before the king was aware of it, he was carried away in the fierce rush to escape. His men were blind with fear; they threw away their arms; men and officers fled for their lives, their only thought to flee from that horse and its terrible rider who disappeared and reappeared in such an awful fashion, and in a few minutes the field was deserted and the whole army in full retreat.
The horse by this time was exhausted. It stumbled, but regained its feet only to fall again immediately. It made another effort to struggle to its feet, but this time unsuccessfully, and then lay still on its side, its flanks heaving and its breath coming and going in quick sobs. Very cautiously Boh Han Me drew a knife and slowly cut one knot. The horse did not stir. Another followed, and soon one leg was freed. This made the task easier, and soon both legs were cut from their bonds and he sprang to his feet, bruised and sore, it is true, but no bones broken, and only too glad to be on solid earth again, and he vowed he would never from that day forth ever get on anything that moved faster than a buffalo.
What the king said when he reached the place where the foes had encamped may be imagined. He declared that a man as brave as his general had never lived in any age or country. For one man to charge a whole army, and, what was more, drive it off too, was a thing good to marvel at, and Boh Han Me did the wisest thing he ever did in his life, he just held his peace. When they had gathered together the spoil they returned home with the hero by the side of the king. The latter gave him a grand palace with gold, silver, oxen, buffaloes, elephants, and slaves in abundance, and also the rank of Boh Hoh Sök, which is the highest rank of general in the army, and means, “head of all the troops.” The happy man lived many, many years, but he kept his promise, and whenever he wished to travel he rode upon an elephant and never again as long as he lived got upon the back of a horse.