Winnetou and the Tigress

Winnetou And The Tigress

‘Winnetou and the Tigress’ is an excerpt from a very early Winnetou story; it was first published as ‘Inn-Nu-Woh’ in 1875, and in 1878 Karl May edited it to turn the Sioux chief Inn-Nu-Woh into the Apache chief Winnetou, and published it under that title.

The scene takes place on a steamboat while travelling up the Mississippi … the tigres escaped the cage; the feline belonged to an animal tamer who was travelling on the same boat with his menagerie.


Excerpt from Savage To Saint: The Karl May Story available from

It wasn’t the usual, comfortable passenger steamer but one of those huge packet ships that only rarely served as passenger transports and mostly when the traveler numbers were at their peak at the beginning of the fever season. Hence, the vessel lacked all those conveniences by which the practical American made traveling less difficult and the people had to find space where they could.
After Ned had said his goodbyes, I climbed a pile of merchandise bales that flanked a row of square crates, which al- most stretched along the entire deck. I had a better view from up there; in addition, the cool breeze fanned my forehead and if I counted the freedom to stretch out as I pleased my spot was a relatively splendid one.
From my vantage point I looked around and saw that the owner of the coach and his lady as well as Winnetou the Indian were present. The former had both settled down near the railing and the latter climbed the bales and, so as not to invade my space, stretched out on the first of the crates, as it would have been too hot and uncomfortable in the disorderly crowd.
As soon as he sat down a sudden, deep and terrible roar jolted the passengers, and everyone leapt up to investigate the cause of the terrible bellowing. Only Winnetou remained calmly seated, although the angry, thunderous growling emanated precisely from the crate below him. No feature in his brown, expressionless face, temporarily disfigured by a thick whip wale, revealed even the slightest trace of surprise, let alone panic, and he deemed the alarmed people below him hardly worth even half a glance.
That’s when a hatch opened and a man climbed out whose appearance explained the roars immediately. I had seen him in Boston, New York, and later also in Philadelphia and Charles- ton and had become fairly well acquainted with him. He was Fred Forster, the famous animal tamer, who visited the major cities of the United States and wherever he traveled caused a sensation with the display of power he exercised over even the wildest beasts.
The crates belonged to him and contained the cages of his zoological subordinates. The Indian had taken a seat on the mobile home of the lion and by doing so had disturbed its siesta, which prompted it to emit those disharmonious sounds and Forster to rush up and investigate the cause.
Transporting an entire menagerie without the slightest concerns and comprehensive security would have been un- thinkable in cautious Europe. But the American was also less restrained in such things. Danger was a permanent feature in his country; the people were accustomed to it and knew it in its many permutations; they respected danger, but didn’t fear it; because they were used to encounters with the untamed de- nizens of the wilderness, they also felt little trepidation when they met them in a tamed state.
The travelers had only been alarmed by the unexpected. When they were informed of the contents of the numerous crates, they laughed about their initial shock and urged the owner of the animals to lift the cover of the cages.
“Alright, I don’t mind at all if you have some fun, ladies and gentleman; some fresh air will be good for the creatures in any case. But ask the captain; I can’t do anything off my own bat!” he replied and then turned to the Indian:
“Won’t you please descend from your throne, man? The lion is king and doesn’t like to have anyone above him!”
By a slight hand gesture and without saying a word the Indian indicated that he didn’t intend to vacate his spot and that he liked it up there.
“Very well, mister buffalo kid, that’s alright with me. But don’t complain if something undesirable should happen to you!” Someone had gone to fetch the captain, and after some hesitation he gave the permission to remove the boarding along one side of the cages. That was accomplished quickly with the assistance of the handlers and, since Forster wanted to use the opportunity to feed the animals, the spectatorslooked forward to a fascinating and entertaining spectacle.
The collection consisted of truly magnificent specimens and a Bengal tigress in particular caught everyone’s attention. The animal had only recently been captured and was then brought from India to America where she had been sold to her current owner. She had grown up in the wilderness, was still almost completely untamed and offered an imposing sight. The build of her mighty limbs, the elemental force of her mo- vements and her bone-chilling voice drew shouts of admiration.
“Do you enter this cage as well?” one of the bystanders asked the animal tamer.
“Why not? The beast can’t be tamed from a distance; Ihave to go inside if I want her to respect me.”
“But you risk your life every time you do.”
“I have done so a thousand times and am fairly used to it.
Besides, I take precautionary measures; I’m always armed when I approach an animal of which I’m unsure. A single strike with this baton here stuns the strongest lion if handled properly. But I rarely have the need for it; the power of a genuine animal tamer is of a different nature. Sometimes I enter a cage without any weapons.”
“But you wouldn’t dare to go into this one unarmed!”
“Who says? I’d climb inside at any given time, even now. Although the tigress already got a whiff of her ration I have no reason to fear her as long as she hasn’t seen any meat or blood.”
“No, you wouldn’t dare to join her in there!” the colonel remarked. He had observed the cages from a greater distance than the other onlookers but stepped closer while the young lady in his company, afraid of the crate occupants, remained at the front of the ship where she gazed over the railing into the waters that rushed up from the proud bow. “I’ll wager a hund- red dollars against anyone who matches this sum.”
The Yankee had a passion for betting and where he found an opportunity to indulge it he didn’t let it pass.
“You are rather careless, sir!” Forster replied. “Look how calmly and fearlessly the Indian sits on the cage of the Numidian lion. Do you really think that I, being the owner of these animals, have less courage?”
“Pshaw!” the colonel made a derisive gesture. “It’s not courage with this person, but ignorance and stupidity. If he un- derstood the danger he would immediately jump down or crawl into a corner to hide. He doesn’t even know what a lion is. These red scoundrels only know how to sneakily ambush an enemy by night. But they lack the guts to face danger openly.”
Winnetou may have understood every word yet his sharply chiseled features didn’t move and he continued to closely observe the forests that grew close to the water on the left riverbank. He didn’t seem to pay the slightest attention to what was going on nearby.
“You’re mistaken in the Indian as you are in me. Someone who has become acquainted with the people of the prairies, like I have, maintains a less contemptuous opinion about their abilities and qualities. I’m a White but I’ve encountered many Red Indians who would have given the best Kentucky man a run for his money.”
“Don’t embarrass yourself by keeping such company, sir! Let any one of your small animals out, the porcupine for all I care, I’m convinced that the Indian will jump into the river out of sheer terror as soon as he notices that it’s loose. These dogs are just as cowardly as they know how to be cruel; I know them better than you. You can cut twenty redskins from one decent trapper, but won’t cut a single decent trapper from a thousand Indians. They have no spirit or emotion, intellect or heart; they are but redskins, not humans. But we are getting sidetracked from our bet!”
“I’ll counter it. Captain, you’re our witness!”
“I am,” the ship’s commander replied. “But I can hardly let you climb into the cage as you proposed because I have the responsibility for everything that happens on board.”
“Nobody disputes that, but you can’t prevent a free citizen of the United States to do with his property as he sees fit. The animal is my property, and I can enter the cage now or later, today or tomorrow, armed or unarmed, for training purposes
or for a bet, entirely according to my own judgment and pleasure. Or do you think differently? And with regards to an ac- cident, I would be the only one involved and I think I’m man enough to shoulder that responsibility. Don’t you think so?”
The captain was Yankee enough to be attracted by such a peculiar bet and since he believed to have discharged his duty by giving the warning, he agreed.
“If you bear the consequences I can’t object to it. Do as you wish!”
“Alright, sir! Step back, people!” Forster ordered and handed club and whip to the colonel. Then he confidently stepped up to the cage and pushed the bolt back while he closely observed the animal.
The tigress had crouched down at the far end of the narrow space and lay on the cage floor, blinked her eyes, lowered her broad, short head onto her outstretched front paws, and draped her tail up the back wall. When the tamer approached the cage door, she opened her eyes wide and intensely focused on him with an ominous and threatening gaze. The blood- thirsty inhabitant of the Indian jungle had been disturbed from her dreams of the faraway homeland and reminded of her imprisonment. The green shimmering pupils grew increasingly narrow; she tightened her paws and pulled them close to her body; her rear end rose quietly and almost unnoticeably; at the very moment the bolt rattled a brief shiver rippled over her soft, beautifully marked coat and a horrifying sound thun- dered out between the iron bars. The tigress launched herself against the gate with irresistible force and as Forster was flung away by the impact the animal leapt across the deck with mighty springs.
A collective scream of panic erupted from the crowd and everyone tried to save themselves as quickly as possible. It was a minute of the most terrible dismay and confusion. All the animals of the menagerie joined in with their howling, roaring, screaming and raging voices; people fell over each other while they tried to reach the hatches, protected corners, masts and rope ladders; some called for help, others for any kind of weapon, all caused such a ruckus that even the puffing engine became inaudible.
I had jumped back up onto the merchandise bales that I had left earlier to say hello to Forster and stayed up there fro- zen from horror because just ahead of me I saw the poor young lady as she stood by the railing, doomed. The escaped animal had leapt directly towards her, crouched down only eight or nine paces away from her and prepared for the fatal leap. The face of the poor child was deathly white and rigid, like that of a corpse; she stood with arms outstretched, as if calling for help, incapable of moving; if there wasn’t going to be a miracle, she was in all likelihood going to be torn to pieces in the next few seconds.
That’s when a figure rushed past me and with cat-like agility vaulted along the open space through the center of the deck, past the tigress in long, carnivore-like bounds, grabbed the girl with his left arm, supported himself on the rail with his right, and in an instant disappeared into the deep, muddy- yellow flow of the Mississippi. It was Winnetou.
The crowd emitted one single shout. Was it one of joy or new concern? It was difficult to discern, because the tigress had also jumped over the railing immediately to follow the two people. Everyone scrambled to that side of the deck to look down. The captain issued hasty and loud commands.
“Man at the wheel, heave to! Engineer, stop, stop!”
Everyone was aghast. The carnivore floated on the surface, her legs outstretched; she watched every ripple on the water with her keen eyes. Then the Indian surfaced so forcefully that he rose almost half out of the water, a few strokes away from the animal. We could clearly see that the barely conscious girl had clenched both her arms around his neck.
He had little time to catch his breath before the tigress spotted him and sped towards him. He once more dove and resurfaced a short distance away to breathe but was immediately pursued by the animal and forced to submerge again. That’s how the terrible chase continued for a while and under the circumstances seemed to go on forever.
A number of heaving lines had been lowered over the bulwarks at starboard including the rope ladder, but the smart Indian knew very well that these measures were of no use to him. Before he could have climbed up and out of danger the tigress would have reached him. There was only one way to save himself—he had to dive under the ship, which was not impossible with the machine at rest. If he swam around the ship the animal would have followed him, and the climb up portside would have been just as impossible as it was star- board side.
He therefore tried to remain on the surface for as long as possible and draw in sufficient air. He signaled his intention; then he disappeared again.
The captain ordered more lines heaved down at portside.
Everyone hurried to the other side and, true enough, it did not take long for Winnetou to reappear and swim for the first rope within his reach.
“Come on, come on, hurry up!” the captain urged. Because of the fear evident in his voice the passengers looked at him.
Without saying another word he pointed to the yellow waves. Everyone looked in the direction he indicated and im- mediately shouted the same urgent call.
“For God’s sake, hurry, quickly, the ‘gators are coming!”
Not too far away three furrows in the water rapidly closed in on the ship.
“My child, my poor child!” the girl’s father lamented. He had already believed her saved but saw his daughter as well as her courageous rescuer exposed to even greater danger. He leaned far over the railing, and with wide-open eyes and fear- torn face he stretched his trembling arms down in an attempt at grabbing the two people before the alligators snatched them.