Jock disliked kaffirs: so did Jim. To Jim there were three big divisions of the human race white men, Zulus, and niggers. Zulu, old or young, was greeted by him as equal, friend and comrade; but the rest were trash, and he cherished a most particular contempt for the Shangaans and Chopis, as a lot who were just about good enough for what they did that is, work in the mines. They could neither fight nor handle animals; and the sight of them stirred him to contempt and pricked him to hostilities.
It was not long before Jim discovered this bond of sympathy between him and Jock, and I am perfectly sure that the one bad habit which Jock was never cured of was due to deliberate encouragement from Jim on every possible opportunity. It would have been a matter of difficulty and patience in any case to teach Jock not to unnecessarily attack strange kaffirs. It was very important that he should have nothing to do with them, and should treat them with suspicion as possible enemies and keep them off the premises. I was glad that he did it by his own choice and instinct; but this being so, it needed all the more intelligence and training to get him to understand just where to draw the line. Jim made it worse; he made the already difficult task practically impossible by egging Jock on; and what finally made it quite impossible was the extremely funny turn it took, which caused such general amusement that every one joined in the conspiracy and backed up Jock.
Every one knows how laughable it is to see a person dancing about like a mad dervish, with legs and arms going in all directions, dodging the rushes of a dog, especially if the spectator knows that the dog will not do any real harm and is more intent on scaring his victim, just for the fun of the thing, than on hunting him. Well, that is how it began.
As far as I know the first incident arose out of the intrusion of a strange kaffir at one of the outspans. Jock objected, and he was forcing a scared boy back step by step doing the same feinting rushes that he practised with game until the boy tripped over a camp stool and sat plump down on the threelegged pot of porridge cooking at the camp fire. I did not see it; for Jock was, as usual, quite silent a feature which always had a most terrifying effect on his victims: it was a roar like a lion's from Jim that roused me. Jock was standing off with his feet on the move forwards and backwards, his head on one side and his face full of interest, as if he would dearly love another romp in; and the waggon-boys were reeling and rolling about the grass, helpless with laughter.
A dog is just as quick as a child to find out when he can take liberties; he knows that laughter and serious disapproval do not go together; and Jock with the backing of the boys thoroughly enjoyed himself. That was how it began; and by degrees it developed into the great practical joke. The curious thing to note was the way in which Jock entered into the spirit of the thing, and how he improved and varied his methods. It was never certain what he would do; sometimes it would be a wild romp, as it was that day; at other times he would stalk the intruder in the open, much as a pointer approaches his birds in the last strides, and with eyes fixed steadily and mouth tightly pursed up, he would move straight at him with infinite slowness and deliberation until, the boy's nerve failed, and he turned and ran. At other times again he trotted out as if he had seen nothing, and then stopped suddenly. If the boy came on, Jock waited; but if there was any sign of fear or hesitation, he lowered his head, humped up his shoulders as a stagey boxer does when he wants to appear ferocious and gave his head a kind of chuck forward, as if in the act of charging: this seldom failed to shake the intruder's nerve, and as soon as he turned or backed, the romp began. Still another trick was to make a round in the bush and come up behind unobserved, and then make a furious dash with rumbly gurgly growls; the startled boy invariably dropped all he had, breaking into a series of fantastic capers and excited yells, to the huge delight of Jim and the others.
But these things were considered trifles: the piece that always brought the house down was the Shangaan gang trick, which on one occasion nearly got us all into serious trouble. The natives going to or from the gold-fields travel in gangs of from four or five to forty or fifty; they walk along in Indian file, and even when going across the veld or walking on wide roads they wind along singly in the footsteps of the leader. What prompted the dog to start this new game I cannot imagine: certainly no one could have taught it to him; and as well as one could judge, he did it entirely 'off his own bat,' without anything to lead up to or suggest it.
One day a gang of about thirty of these Shangaans, each carrying his load of blankets, clothing, pots, billies and other valuables on his head, was coming along a footpath beside the road some twenty yards away from the waggons. Jock strolled out and sat himself down in the middle of the path; it was the way he did it and his air, utterly devoid of hostile or even serious purpose, that attracted my attention without rousing any doubts. The leader of the gang, however, was suspicious and shied off wide into the veld; he passed in a semicircle round Jock, a good ten yards away, and came safely back to the path again, and the dog with his nose in the air merely eyed him with a look of humorous interest and mild curiosity. The second kaffir made the loop shorter, and the third shorter still, as they found their alarm and suspicions unjustified; and so on, as each came along, the loop was lessened until they passed in safety almost brushing against Jock's nose. And still he never budged never moved except, as each boy approached, to look up at his face and, slowly turning his head, follow him round with his eyes until he re-entered the path. There was something extremely funny in the mechanical regularity with which his head swung round. It was so funny that not only the boys at the waggons noticed it and laughed; the unsuspecting Shangaans themselves shared the joke. When half a dozen had passed round in safety, comments followed by grunts of agreement or laughter ran along the line, and then, as each fresh boy passed and Jock's calm inspection was repeated, a regular chorus of guffaws and remarks broke out. The long heavy bundles on their heads made turning round a slow process, so that, except for the first half-dozen, they were content to enjoy what they saw in front and to know by the laughter from behind that the joke had been repeated all down the line.
The last one walked calmly by; but as he did there came one short muffled bark, "Whoop!" from Jock as he sprang out and nipped the unsuspecting Shangaan behind. The boy let out a yell that made the whole gang jump and clutch wildly at their toppling bundles, and Jock raced along the footpath, leaping, gurgling and snapping behind each one he came near, scattering them this way and that, in a romp of wild enjoyment. The shouts of the scared boys, the clatter of the tins as their bundles toppled down, the scrambling and scratching as they clawed the ground pretending to pick up stones or sticks to stop his rushes, and the ridiculous rout of the thirty Shangaans in every direction, abandoning their baggage and fleeing from the little red enemy only just visible in the grass as he hunted and harried them, were too much for my principles and far too much for my gravity. To be quite honest, I weakened badly, and from that day on preferred to look another way when Jock sallied out to inspect a gang of Shangaans. Between them, Jim and Jock had beaten me.
But the weakening brought its own punishment and the joke was not far from making a tragedy. Many times while lying some way off in the shade of a tree or under another waggon I heard Jim, all unconscious of my presence, call in a low deep voice, almost a whisper, "Jock, Jock; kaffirs; Shangaans!" Jock's head was up in a moment, and a romp of some sort followed unless I intervened. Afterwards, when Jock was deaf, Jim used to reach out and pull his foot or throw a handful of sand or a bunch of grass to rouse him, and when Jock's head switched up Jim's big black fist pointing to their common enemy was quite enough.
Jim had his faults, but getting others into mischief while keeping out of it himself was not one of them. If he egged Jock on, he was more than ready to stand by him, and on these occasions his first act was to jump for his sticks, which were always pretty handy, and lie in readiness to take a hand if any of the gang should use what he considered unfair means of defence, such as throwing stones and kerries or using assegais or knives; and Jim the friend of Jock, the assured enemy of all Shangaan, aching for an excuse to take a hand in the row himself was not, I fear, a very impartial judge.
There was day outside Barberton which I remember well. We were to start that evening, and knowing that if Jim got into the town, he might not be back and fit for work for days, I made him stay with the wagons. He lay there flat out under his waggon with his chin resting on his arms, staring steadily at the glistening corrugated iron roofs of the town, as morose and unapproachable as a surly old watchdog. From the tent of my waggon I saw him raise his head, and following his glance, picked out a row of bundles against the sky-line. Presently a long string of about fifty time-expired mine-boys came in sight. Jim on his hands and knees scrambled over to where Jock lay asleep, and shook him; for this incident occurred after Jock had become deaf.
"Shangaans, Jock; Shangaans! Kill them; kill, kill, kill!" said Jim in gusty ferocious whispers. It must have seemed as if Fate had kindly provided an outlet for the rebellious rage and the craving for a fight that were consuming him.
As Jock trotted out to head them off Jim reached up to the buck-rails and pulled down his bundle of sticks and lay down like a tiger on the spring. I had had a lot of trouble with Jim that day, and this annoyed me; but my angry call to stop was unavailing. Jim, pretending not to understand, made no attempt to stop Jock, but contented himself with calling to him to come back; and Jock, stone deaf, trotted evenly along with his head, neck, back, and tail, all level an old trick of Jess's which generally meant trouble for some one. Slowing down as he neared the Shangaans he walked quietly on until he headed off the leader, and there he stood across the path. It was just the same as before: the boys, finding that he did nothing, merely stepped aside to avoid bumping against him. They were boys taking back their purchases to their kraals to dazzle the eyes of the ignorant with the wonders of civilisation gaudy blankets, collections of bright tin billies and mugs, tin plates, three-legged pots, clothing, hats, and even small tin trunks painted brilliant yellow, helped to make up their huge bundles. The last boy was wearing a pair of Royal Artillery trousers; and I have no doubt he regarded it even afterwards as nothing less than a calamity that they were not safely stowed away in his bundle for a kaffir would sacrifice his skin rather than his new pants any day. It was from the seat of these too ample bags that Jock took a good mouthful; and it was the boy's frantic jump, rather than Jock's tug, that made the piece come out. The sudden fright and the attempts to face about quickly caused several downfalls; the clatter of these spread the panic; and on top of it all came Jock's charge along the broken line, and the excited shouts of those who thought they were going to be worried to death.
Jim had burst into great bellows of laughter and excited but quite superfluous shouts of encouragement to Jock, who could not have heard a trumpet at ten yards.
But there came a very unexpected change. One big Shangaan had drawn from his bundle a brand new side-axe: I saw the bright steel head flash, as he held it menacingly aloft by the short handle and marched towards Jock. There was a scrambling bound from under the waggon, and Jim, with face distorted and grey with fury, rushed out. In his right hand he brandished a tough stout fighting stick; in his left I was horrified to see an assegai, and well I knew that, with the fighting fury on him, he would think nothing of using it. The Shangaan saw him coming, and stopped; then, still facing Jim, and with the axe raised and feinting repeatedly to throw it, he began to back away. Jim never paused for a second: he came straight on with wild leaps and blood-curdling yells in Zulu fighting fashion and ended with a bound that seemed to drop him right on top of the other. The stick came down with a whirr and a crash that crimped every nerve in my body; and the Shangaan dropped like a log.
I had shouted myself hoarse at Jim, but he heard or heeded nothing; and seizing a stick from one the other boys I was already on the way to stop him, but before I got near him he had wrenched the axe from the kicking boy and, without pause, gone headlong for the next Shangaan he saw. Then everything went wrong: the more I shouted and the harder I ran, the worse the row. The Shangaans seemed to think I had joined in and was directing operations against them: Jim seemed to be inspired to wilder madness by my shouts and gesticulations; and Jock well, Jock at any rate had not the remotest doubt as to what he should do. When he saw me and Jim in full chase behind him, his plain duty was to go in for all he was worth; and he did it.
It was half an hour before I got that mad savage back. He was as unmanageable as a runaway horse. He had walloped the majority of the fifty himself; he had broken his own two sticks and used up a number of theirs; on his forehead there was a small cut and a lump like half an orange; and on the back of his head another cut left by the sticks of the enemy when eight or ten had rallied once in a half-hearted attempt to stand against him.
It was strange how Jim, even in that mood, yielded to the touch of one whom he regarded as his "Inkos." I could not have forced him back: in that maniac condition it would have needed a powerful combination indeed to bring him back against his will. He yielded to the light grip of my hand on his wrist and walked freely along with me; but a fiery bounding vitality possessed him, and with long springy strides he stepped out looking excitedly about, turning to right and left or even right about, and stepping sideways or even backwards to keep pace with me yet always yielding the imprisoned arm so as not to pull me about. And all the time there came from him a torrent of excited gabble in pure Zulu, too fast and too high-flown for me to follow, which was punctuated and paragraphed by bursting allusions to 'dogs of Shangaans' 'axes,' 'sticks,' and 'Jock.'
Near the waggons we passed over the 'battlefield,' and a huge guffaw of laughter broke from Jim as we came on the abandoned impedimenta of the defeated enemy. Several of these bundles had burst open from the violence of the fall, and the odd collections of the natives were scattered about; others had merely shed the outside luggage of tin billies, beakers, pans, boots and hats. Jim looked on it all as the spoils of war, wanting to stop and gather in his loot there and then, and when I pressed on, he shouted to the other drivers to come out and collect the booty.
But my chief anxiety was to end the wretched escapade as quickly as possible and get the Shangaans on their way again; so I sent Jim back to his place under the waggon, and told the cook-boy to give him the rest of my coffee and half a cup of sugar to provide him with something else to think of and to calm him down.
After a wait of half an hour or so, a head appeared just over the rise, and then another and another, at irregular intervals and at various points: they were scouting very cautiously before venturing back again. I sat in the tent-waggon out of sight and kept quiet, hoping that in a few minutes they would gain confidence, collect their goods, and go on their way again. Jim, lying flat under the waggon, was much lower than I was, and continuing his gabble to the other boys saw nothing. Unfortunately he looked around just as a scared face peered cautiously over the top of an ant-heap. The temptation was, I suppose, irresistible: he scrambled to his knees with a pretence of starting afresh and let out one ferocious yell that made my hair stand up; and in that second every head bobbed down and the field was deserted once more.
If this went on there could be but one ending: the police would be appealed to, Jim arrested, and I should spend days hanging about the courts waiting for a trial from which the noble Jim would probably emerge with three months' hard labour; so I sallied out as my own herald of peace. But the position was more difficult than it looked: as soon as the Shangaans saw my head appearing over the rise, they scattered like chaff before the wind, and ran as if they would never stop. They evidently took me for the advance guard in a fresh attack, and from the way they ran seemed to suspect that Jim and Jock might be doing separate flanking movements to cut them off. I stood upon an ant-heap and waved and called, but each shout resulted in a fresh spurt and each movement only made them more suspicious. It seemed a hopeless case, and I gave it up.
On the way back to the waggons, however, I thought of Sam Sam, with his neatly patched European clothes, with the slouchy heavy-footed walk of a nigger in boots, with his slack lanky figure and serious timid face! Sam would surely be the right envoy: even the routed Shangaans would feel that there was nothing to fear there. But Sam was by no means anxious to earn laurels; he was clearly of the poet's view that "the paths of glory lead but to the grave;" and it was a poor-looking weak-kneed and much dejected scarecrow that dragged its way reluctantly out into the veld to hold parley with the routed enemy that day.
At the first mention of Sam's name Jim had twitched round with a snort, but the humour of the situation tickled him when he saw the too obvious reluctance with which his rival received the honour conferred on him. Between rough gusts of laughter Jim rained on him crude ridicule and rude comments; and Sam slouched off with head bent, relieving his heart with occasional clicks and low murmurs of disgust. How far the new herald would have ventured, if he had not received most unexpected encouragement, is a matter for speculation. Jim's last shout was to advise him not to hide in an ant-bear hole; but, to Sam's relief, the Shangaans seemed to view him merely as a decoy, even more dangerous than I was; for, as no one else appeared, they had now no idea at all from which quarter the expected attack would come. They were widely scattered more than half a mile away when Sam came in sight; a brief pause followed in which they looked anxiously around, and then, after some aimless dashes about like a startled troop of buck, they seemed to find the line of flight and headed off in a long string down the valley towards the river.
Now, no one had ever run away from Sam before, and the exhilarating sight so encouraged him that he marched boldly on after them. Goodness knows when, if ever, they would have stopped, if Sam had not met a couple of other natives whom the Shangaan had passed and induced them to turn back and reassure the fugitives.
An hour later Sam came back in mild triumph, at the head of the Shangaan gang; and, 'clothed in a little brief authority,' stood guard and superintended while they collected their scattered goods all except the axe that caused the trouble. That they failed to find. The owner may have thought it wise to make no claim on me; Sam, if he remembered it, would have seen the Shangaans and all their belongings burned in a pile rather than raise so delicate a question with Jim; I had forgotten all about it being anxious only to end the trouble and get the Shangaans off; and that villain Jim 'lay low.' At the first outspan from Barbeton next day I saw him carving his mark on the handle, unabashed, under my very nose.
The next time Jim got drunk he added something to his opinion of Sam:
"Sam no good: Sam leada Bible! Shangaan, Sam; Shangaan!"
The last day of each trip in the Bushveld was always a day of trial and hard work for man and beast. The Berg stood up before us like an impassable barrier. Looked at from below the prospect was despairing from above, appalling, There was no road that the eye could follow. Here and there a broad furrowed streak of red soil straight down some steep grass-covered spur was visible: it looked like a mountain timber-slide or the scour of some tropical storm; and that was all one could see of it from below. For perhaps a week the towering bulwarks of the Highveld were visible as we toiled along at first only in occasional hazy glimpses, then daily clearer higher and grander, as the great barrier it was.
After many hard treks through the broken foothills, with their rocky sideling slopes and boulderstrewn torrent beds, at last the Berg itself was reached. There, on a flat-topped terrace-like spur where the last outspan was, we took breath, halved our loads, doublespanned, and pulled ourselves together for the last big climb.
From there the scoured red streaks stood out revealed as road tracks for, made road there was none; from there, lines of whitish rock and loose stones and big boulders, that one had taken for the beds of mountain torrents, stood revealed as bits of 'road,' linking up some of the broken sections of the route; but even from there not nearly all the track was visible. The bumpy rumbling and heavy clattering of waggons on the rocky trail, the shouts of drivers and the crack of whips, mixed with confusing echoes from somewhere above, set one puzzling and searching higher still. Then in unexpected places here and there other waggons would be seen against the shadowy mountains, creeping up with infinite labour foot by foot, tacking at all sorts of angles, winding by undetected spur and slope and ridge towards the summit the long spans of oxen and the bulky loads, dwarfed into miniature by the vast background, looking like snails upon a face of rock.
To those who do not know, there is not much difference between spans of oxen; and the driving of them seems merely a matter of brute strength in arm and lung. One span looks like another; and the weird unearthly yells of the drivers, the cracks like rifle-shots of the long lashes, and the hum and thud of the more cruel doubled whip, seem to be all that is needed. But it is not so: heart and training in the cattle, skill and judgment in the driver, are needed there; for the Berg is a searching test of man and beast. Some, double-spanned and relieved of half their three-ton loads, will stick for a whole day where the pull is steepest, the road too narrow to swing the spans, and the curves too sharp to let the fifteen couples of bewildered and despairing oxen get a straight pull; whilst others will pass along slowly but steadily and without check, knowing what each beast will do and stand, when to urge and when to ease it, when and where to stop them for a blow, and how to get them all leaning to the yoke, ready and willing for the 'heave together' that is essential for restarting a heavy load against such a hill. Patience, understanding, judgment, and decision: those are the qualities it calls for, and here again the white man justifies his claim to lead and rule; for, although they are as ten or twenty to one, there is not a native driver who can compare with the best of the white men.
It was on the Berg that I first saw what a really first-class man can do. There were many waggons facing the pass that day; portions of loads, dumped off to ease the pull, dotted the roadside; tangles of disordered maddened spans blocked the way; and fragments of yokes, skeys, strops, and reims, and broken disselbooms, told the tale of trouble.
Old Charlie Roberts came along with his two waggons. He was 'old' with us being nearly fifty; he was also stout and in poor health. We buried him at Pilgrim's Rest a week later: the cold, clear air on top of the Berg that night, when he brought the last load up, brought out the fever. It was his last trek.
He walked slowly up past us, to "take a squint at things" as he put it, and see if it was possible to get past the stuck waggons; and a little later he started, making three loads of his two and going up with single spans of eighteen oxen each, because the other wagons, stuck in various places on the road, did not give him room to work double spans. To us it seemed madness to attempt with eighteen oxen a harder task than we and others were essaying with thirty; we would have waited until the road ahead was clear.
We were half-way up when we saw old Charlie coming along steadily and without any fuss at all. He had no second driver to help him; he did no shouting; he walked along heavily and with difficulty beside the span, playing the long whip lightly about as he gave the word to go or called quietly to individual oxen by name, but he did not touch them; and when he paused to 'blow' them he leaned heavily on his whip-stick to rest himself. We were stopped by some break in the gear and were completely blocking the road when he caught up. Any one else would have waited: he pulled out into the rough sideling track on the slope below, to pass us. Even a good span with a good driver may well come to grief in trying to pass another that is stuck for the sight and example are demoralising but old Charlie did not turn a hair; he went steadily on, giving a brisker call and touching up his oxen here and there with light flicks. They used to say he could kill a fly on a front ox or on the toe of his own boot with the voorslag of his big whip.
The track he took was merely the scorings made by skidding waggons coming down the mountain; it was so steep and rough there that a pull of ten yards between the spells for breath was all one could hope for; and many were thankful to have done much less. At the second pause, as they were passing us, one of his oxen turned, leaning inwards against the chain, and looked back. Old Charlie remarked quietly, "I thought he would chuck it; only bought him last week. He's got no heart."
He walked along the span up to the shirking animal, which continued to glare back at him in a frightened way, and touched it behind with the butt of his long whip-stick to bring it up to the yoke. The ox started forward into place with a jerk, but eased back again slightly as Charlie went back to his place near the after oxen. Once more the span went on, and the shirker got a reminder as Charlie gave the call to start, and he warmed it up well as a lesson while they pulled. At the next stop it lay back worse than before.
Not one driver in a hundred would have done then what he did: they would have tried other courses first. Charlie dropped his whip quietly and outspanned the ox and its mate, saying to me as I gave him a hand:
"When I strike a rotter, I chuck him out before he spoils the others!" In another ten minutes he and his stalwarts had left us behind.
Old Charlie knew his oxen each one of them, their characters and what they could do. I think he loved them too; at any rate, it was his care for them that day handling them himself instead of leaving it to his boys that killed him.
Other men had other methods. Some are by nature brutal; others, only undiscerning or impatient. Most of them sooner or later realise that they are only harming themselves by ill-treating their own cattle; and that is one but only the meanest reason why the white man learns to drive better than the native, who seldom owns the span he drives; the better and bigger reasons belong to the qualities of race and the effects of civilisation. But, with all this, experience is as essential as ever; a beginner has no balanced judgment, and that explains something that I heard an old transport-rider say in the earliest days something which I did not understand then, and heard with resentment and a boy's uppish scorn.
"The Lord help the beginner's boys and bullocks: starts by pettin', and ends by killin'. Too clever to learn; too young to own up; swearin' and sloggin' all the time; and never sets down to think until the boys are gone and the bullocks done!"
I felt hot all over, but had learned enough to keep quiet; besides, the hit was not meant for me, although the tip, I believe, was: the hit was at some one else who had just left us one who had been given a start before he had gained experience and, naturally, was then busy making a mess of things himself and laying down the law for others. It was when the offender had gone that the old transport-rider took up the general question and finished his observations with a proverb which I had not heard before perhaps he invented it :
"Yah!" he said, rising and stretching himself, "there's no rule for a young fool."
I did not quite know what he meant, and it seemed safer not to inquire.
The driving of bullocks is not an exalted occupation: it is a very humble calling indeed; yet, if one is able to learn, there are things worth learning in that useful school. But it is not good to stay at school all one's life.
Brains and character tell there as everywhere; experience only gives them scope; it is not a substitute. The men themselves would not tell you so; they never trouble themselves with introspections and analyses, and if you asked one of them the secret of success, he might tell you "Commonsense and hard work;" or curtly give you the maxims 'Watch it,' and 'Stick to it' which to him express the whole creed, and to you, I suppose, convey nothing. Among themselves, when the prime topics of loads, rates, grass, water and disease have been disposed of, there is as much interest in talking about their own and each other's oxen as there is in babies at a mothers' meeting. Spans are compared; individual oxen discussed in minute detail; and the reputations of 'front oxen,' in pairs or singly, are canvassed as earnestly as the importance of the subject warrants for "The front oxen are half the span," they say. The simple fact is that they 'talk shop,' and when you hear them discussing the characters and qualities of each individual animal you may be tempted to smile in a superior way, but it will not eventually escape you that they think and observe, and that they study their animals and reason out what to do to make the most of them; and when they preach patience, consistency and purpose, it is the fruit of much experience, and nothing more than what the best of them practise.
Every class has its world; each one's world however small is a whole world, and therefore a big world; for the little things are magnified and seem big, which is much the same thing: Crusoe's island was a world to him and he got as much satisfaction out of it as Alexander or Napoleon probably a great deal more. The little world is less complicated than the big, but the factors do not vary; and so it may be that the simpler the calling, the more clearly apparent are the working of principles and the relations of cause and effect. It was so with us. To you, as a beginner, there surely comes a day when things get out of hand and your span, which was a good one when you bought it, goes wrong: the load is not too heavy; the hill not too steep; the work is not beyond them for they have done it all before; but now no power on earth, it seems, will make them face the pull. Some jib and pull back; some bellow and thrust across; some stand out or swerve under the chain; some turn tail to front, half-choked by the twisted strops; the worn-out front oxen turn and charge downhill; and all are half frantic with excitement bewilderment or terror. The constant shouting, the battle with refractory animals, the work with the whip, and the hopeless chaos and failure, have just about done you up; and then some one who knows comes along, and, because you block the way where he would pass and he can see what is wrong, offers to give a hand. Dropping his whip he moves the front oxen to where the foothold is best and a straight pull is possible; then walks up and down the team a couple of times talking to the oxen and getting them into place, using his hand to prod them up without frightening them, until he has the sixteen standing as true as soldiers on parade their excitement calmed, their confidence won, and their attention given to him. Then, one word of encouragement and one clear call to start, and the sixteen lean forward like one, the wagon lifts and heaves, and out it goes with a rattle and rush.
It looks magical in its simplicity; but no lecturer is needed to explain the magic, and if honest with yourself you will turn it over that night, and with a sense of vague discomfort it will all become clear. You may be tempted, under cover of darkness, to find a translation for 'watch it' and 'stick to it!' more befitting your dignity and aspirations: 'observation and reasoning,' 'patience and purpose,' will seem better; but probably you will not say so to any one else, for fear of being laughed at.
And when the new-found knowledge has risen like yeast, and is ready to froth over in advice to others, certain things will be brought home to you with simple directness: that, sufficient unto the yeast is the loaf it has to make; that, there is only one person who has got to learn it from you yourself; and that, it is better to be still, for if you keep your knowledge to yourself you keep your ignorance from others.
A marked span brands the driver. The scored bullock may be a rogue or may be a sulky obstinate brute; but the chances are he is either badly trained or overworked, and the whip only makes matters worse; the beginner cannot judge, and the oxen suffer. Indeed, the beginner may well fail in the task, for there are many and great differences in the temperaments and characters of oxen, just as there are in other animals or in human beings. Once in Mashonaland, when lions broke into a kraal and killed and ate two donkeys out of a mixed lot, the mules were found next day twenty miles away; some of the oxen ran for several miles, and some stopped within a few hundred yards; two men who had been roused by the uproar saw in the moonlight one old bullock stroll out through the gap in the kraal and stop to scratch his back with his horn; and three others were contentedly dozing within ten yards of the half-eaten donkeys when we went to the kraal in the early morning and found what had happened.
There are no two alike! You find them nervous and lethargic, timid and bold, independent and sociable, exceptional and ordinary, willing and sulky, restless and content, staunch and faint-hearted just like human beings. I can remember some of them now far better than many of the men known then and since: Achmoed and Bakir, the big after-oxen who carried the disselboom contentedly through the trek and were spared all other work to save them for emergencies; who, at a word, heaved together their great backs bent like bows and their giant strength thrown in to hoist the waggon from the deepest hole and up the steepest hill; who were the stand-by in the worst descents, lying back on their haunches to hold the waggon up when brakes could do no more; and inseparables always even when outspanned the two old comrades walked together. There was little Zole, contented sociable and short of wind, looking like a fat boy on a hot day, always in distress. There was Bantom, the big red ox with the white band, lazy and selfish, with an enduring evil obstinacy that was simply incredible. There was Rooiland, the light red, with yellow eyeballs and topped horns, a fierce wild unapproachable unappeasable creature, restless and impatient, always straining to start, always moaning fretfully when delayed, nervous as a young thoroughbred, aloof and unfriendly to man and beast, ever ready to stab or kick even those who handled him daily, wild as a buck, but untouched by whip and uncalled by name; who would work with a straining, tearing impatience that there was no checking, ever ready to outpace the rest, and at the outspan standing out alone, hollow flanked and panting, eyes and nostrils wide with fierceness and distress, yet always ready to start again a miracle of intense vitality! And then there was old Zwaartland, the coal-black front ox, and the best of all: the sober steadfast leader of the span, who knew his work by heart and answered with quickened pace to any call of his name; swinging wide at every curve to avoid cutting corners; easing up, yet leading free, at every steep descent, so as neither to rush the incline nor entangle the span; holding his ground, steady as a rock when the big pull came, heedless of how the team swayed and strainedsteadfast even when his mate gave in. He stood out from all the rest; the massive horns like one huge spiral pin passed through his head, eight feet from tip to tipbalancing with easy swing; the clean limbs and small neat feet moving with the quick precision of a buck's tread; and the large grave eyes so soft and clear and deep!
For those who had eyes to see the book lay open: there, as elsewhere; there, as always. Jock, with his courage fidelity and concentration, held the secrets of success! Jim dissolute turbulent and savage could yield a lesson too; not a warning only, sometimes a crude but clear example! The work itself was full of test and teaching; the hard abstemious life had its daily lessons in patience and resource, driven home by every variety of means and incident on that unkindly road. And the dumb cattle in their plodding toil, in their sufferings from drought and over-work, and in their strength and weakness taught and tested too. There is little food for self-content when all that is best and worst comes out; but there is much food for thought.
There was a day at Kruger's Post when everything seemed small beside the figure of one black front ox, who held his ground when all others failed. The waggon had sunk to the bed-plank in gluey turf, and, although the whole load had been taken off, three spans linked together failed to move it. For eight hours that day we tried to dig and pull it out, but forty-four oxen on that soft greasy flat toiled in vain. The long string of bullocks, desperate from failure and bewilderment, swayed in the middle from side to side to seek escape from the flying whips; the unyielding waggon held them at one end, and the front oxen, with their straining forefeet scoring the slippery surface as they were dragged backwards, strove to hold them true at the other. Seven times that day we changed, trying to find a mate who would stand with Zwaartland; but he wore them all down. He broke their hearts and stood it out alone! I looked at the ground afterwards: it was grooved in long parallel lines where the swaying spans had pulled him backwards, with his four feet clawing the ground in the effort to hold them true; but he had never once turned or wavered.
And there was a day at Sand River, when we saw a different picture. The waggons were empty, yet as we came up out of the stony drift, Bantam the sulky hung lazily back, dragging on his yoke and throwing the span out of line. Jim curled the big whip round him, without any good effect, and when the span stopped for a breather in the deep narrow road, he lay down and refused to budge. There was no reason in the world for it except the animals's obstinate sulky temper. When the whip the giraffe-hide thong, doubled into a heavy loop produced no effect, the boys took the yoke off to see if freedom would tempt the animal to rise! It did. At the first touch of the whip Bantom jumped up and charged them; and then, seeing that there was nothing at all the matter, the boys inspanned him and made a fresh start not touching him again for fear of another fit of sulks; but at the first call on the team, down he went again.
Many are the stories of cruelty to oxen, and I had never understood how human beings could be so fiendishly cruel as to do some of the things that one heard of, such as stabbing, smothering and burning cattle; nor under what circumstances or for what reasons such acts of brutality could be perpetrated; but what I saw that day threw some light on these questions, and, more than anything else, it showed the length to which sulkiness and obstinacy will go, and made me wonder whether the explanation was to be sought in endurance of pain through temper or in sheer incapacity to feel pain at all. This is no defence of such things; it is a bare recital of what took place the only scene I can recall of what would be regarded as wanton cruelty to oxen; and to that extent it is an explanation, and nothing more! Much greater and real cruelty I have seen done by work and punishment; but it was due to ignorance, impatience, or on rare occasions uncontrollable temper; it did not look deliberate and wanton.
There were two considerations here which governed the whole case. The first was that as long as the ox lay there it was impossible to move the waggon, and there was no way for the others to pass it; the second, that the ox was free, strong and perfectly well, and all he had to do was to get up and walk.
The drivers from the other waggons came up to lend a hand and clear the way so that they might get on; sometimes three were at it together with their double whips; and, before they could be stopped, sticks and stones were used to hammer the animal on the head and horns, along the spine, on the hocks and shins, and wherever he was supposed to have feeling; then he was tied by the horns to the trek-chain, so that the span would drag him bodily; but not once did he make the smallest effort to rise. The road was merely a gutter scoured out by the floods and it was not possible either to drag the animal up the steep sides or to leave him and go on the waggon would have had to pass over him. And all this time he was outspanned and free to go; but would not stir.
Then they did the kaffir trick doubled the tail and bit it: very few bullocks will stand that, but Bantam never winced. Then they took their clasp knives and used them as spurs not stabbing to do real injury, but pricking enough to draw blood in the fleshy parts, where it would be most felt: he twitched to the pricks but nothing more. Then they made a fire close behind him, and as the wood blazed up, the heat seemed unendurable; the smell of singed hair was strong, and the flames, not a foot away, seemed to roast the flesh, and one of the drivers took a brand and pressed the glowing red coal against the inside of the hams; but, beyond a vicious kick at the fire, there was no result. Then they tried to suffocate him, gripping the mouth and nostrils so that he could not breathe; but, when the limit of endurance was reached and even the spectators tightened up with a sense of suffocation, a savage shake of the head always freed it the brute was too strong for them. Then they raised the head with reims, and with the nose held high poured water down the nostrils, at the same time keeping the mouth firmly closed; but he blew the water all over them and shook himself free again.
For the better part of an hour the struggle went on, but there was not the least sign of yielding on Bantom's part, and the string of waiting waggons grew longer, and many others, white men and black, gathered round watching, helping or suggesting. At last some one brought a bucket of water, and into this Bantom's muzzle was thrust as far as it would go, and reims passed through the ears of the bucket were slipped round his horns so that he could not shake himself free at will. We stood back and watched the animals's sides for signs of breathing. For an incredible time he held out; but at last with a sudden plunge he was up; a bubbling muffled bellow came from the bucket; the boys let go the reims; and the terrified animal ridding himself of the bucket after a frantic struggle, stood with legs apart and eyeballs starting from the sockets, shaking like a reed.
But nothing that had happened revealed the vicious ingrained obstinacy of the animal's nature so clearly as the last act in the struggle: it stood passive, and apparently beaten, while the boys inspanned it again. But at the first call to the team to start, and without a touch to provoke its temper again, it dropped down once more. Not one of all those looking on would have believed it possible; but there it was! In the most deliberate manner the challenge was again flung down, and the whole fight begun afresh.
We felt really desperate: one could think of nothing but to repeat the bucket trick; for it was the only one that had succeeded at all. The bucket had been flung aside on the stones as the ox freed itself, and one of the boys picked it up to fetch more water. But no more was needed: the rattle of the bucket brought Bantom to his feet with a terrified jump, and flinging his whole weight into the yoke, he gave the waggon a heave that started the whole span, and they went out at a run. The drivers had not even picked up their whips: the only incentive applied was the bucket, which the boy grasping the position at once rattled vigorously behind Bantom, doubling his frantic eagerness to get away, amid shouts of encouragement and laughter from the watching group.
The trials and lessons of the work came in various shapes and at every turn; and there were many trials where the lesson was not easy to read. It would have taken a good man to handle Bantom, at any time even in the beginning; but, full-grown, and confirmed in his evil ways, only the butcher could make anything out of him.
And only the butcher did!
There is a spot on the edge of the Berg which we made our summer quarters. When September came round and the sun swung higher in the steely blue, blazing down more pitilessly than ever; when the little creeks were running dry and the water-holes became saucers of cracked mud; when the whole country smelt of fine impalpable dust; it was a relief to quit the Bushveld, and even the hunting was given up almost without regret.
On the Berg the air was clean and bracing, as well it might be five to seven thousand feet above the sea. The long green sweeps of undulating country were broken by deep gorges where the mountain streams had cut their way through the up-tilted outer edge of the big plateau and tumbled in countless waterfalls into the Bushveld below; and behind the rolling downs again stood the remnants of the upper formation the last tough fragments of those rocks which the miners believed originally held the gold worn and washed away, inch by inch and ounce by ounce ever since the Deluge. These broken parapets stood up like ruins of giant castles with every layer in their formation visible across their rugged time-worn fronts lines, in places a few yards only and in others a mile or more in length, laid one upon another as true as any spirit level could set them and a wealth of colouring over all that, day by day, one thought more wonderful in variety and blend. Grey and black and yellow, white and red and brown, were there; yet all harmonising, all shaded by growths of shrub and creeper, by festoons of moss or brilliant lichen, all weather-stained and softened, and toned, as time and nature do it, to make straight lines and many colours blend into the picturesque.
Paradise Camp perched on the very edge of the Berg. Behind us rolled green slopes to the feet of the higher peaks, and in front of us lay the Bushveld. From the broken battlements of the Berg we looked down three thousand feet, and eastward to the sea a hundred and fifty miles away, across the vast panorama. Black densely-timbered kloofs broke the edge of the plateau into a long series of projecting turrets, in some places cutting far in, deep crevices into which the bigger waterfalls plunged and were lost. But the top of the Berg itself was bare of trees: the breeze blew cool and fresh for ever there; the waters trickled and splashed in every little break or tumbled with steady roar down the greater gorges; deep pools, fringed with masses of ferns, smooth as mirrors or flecked with dancing sunlight, were set like brilliants in the silver chain of each little stream and rocks and pebbles, wonderful in their colours, were magnified and glorified into polished gems by the sparkling water.
But Nature has her moods, and it was not always thus at Paradise Camp. When the cold mist-rains, like wet grey fogs, swept over us and for a week blotted out creation, it was neither pleasant nor safe to grope along the edge of the Berg, in search of strayed cattle wet and cold, unable to see, and checked from time to time by a keener straighter gust that leapt up over the unseen precipice a few yards off.
And there was still another mood when the summer rains set in and the storms burst over us, and the lightning stabbed viciously in all directions, and the crackling crash of the thunder seemed as if the very Berg itself must be split and shattered. Then the rivers rose; the roar of waters was all around us; and Paradise Camp was isolated from the rest by floods which no man would lightly face.
Paradise Camp stood on the edge of the kloof where the nearest timber grew; Tumbling Waters, where stood the thousand grey sandstone sentinels of strange fantastic shapes, was a couple of miles away facing Black Bluff, the highest point of all, and The Camel, The Wolf, The Sitting Hen and scores more, rough casts in rock by Nature's hand, stood there. Close below us was the Bathing Pool, with its twenty feet of purest water, its three rock-ledge 'springboards,' and its banks of moss and canopies of tree ferns. Further down the stream spread in a thousand pools and rapids over a mile of black bedrock and then poured in one broad sheet over Graskop Falls. And still further down were the Mac Mac Falls, three hundred feet straight drop into the rock-strewn gorge, where the straight walls were draped with staghorn moss, like countless folds of delicate green lace, bespangled by the spray. We were felling and slipping timber for the goldfields then, and it was in these surroundings that the work was done.
It was a Sunday morning, and I was lying on my back on a sack-stretcher taking it easy, when Jock gave a growl and trotted out. Presently I heard voices in the next hut and wondered who the visitors were too lazily content to get up and see; then a cold nose was poked against my cheek and I looked round to see Jess's little eyes and flickering ears within a few inches of my face. For the moment she did not look cross, but as if a faint smile of welcome were flitting across a soured face; then she trotted back to the other hut where Ted was patting Jock and trying to trace a likeness to The Rat.
It was a long time since mother and son had been together, and if the difference between them was remarkable, the likeness seemed to me more striking still. Jock had grown up by himself and made himself; he was so different from other dogs that I had forgotten how much he owed to good old Jess; but now that they were once more side by side everything he did and had done recalled the likeness and yet showed the difference between them. Many times as we moved about the camp or worked in the woods they walked or stood together, sometimes sniffing along some spoor and sometimes waiting and watching for us to come up handsome son and ugly mother. Ugly she might be, with her little fretful hostile eyes and her uncertain ever-moving ears, and silent sour and cross; but stubborn fidelity and reckless courage were hers too; and all the good Jock had in him came from Jess.
To see them side by side was enough: every line in his golden brindled coat had its counterpart in her dull markings; his jaw was hers, with a difference, every whit as determined but without the savage look; his eyes were hers brown to black as the moods changed yet not fretful and cross, but serenely observant, when quiet, and black, hot and angry, like hers, when roused yet without the look of relentless cruelty; his ears were hers and yet how different, not shifting flickering and ever on the move, nor flattened back with the look of most uncertain temper, but sure in their movements and faithful reflectors of more sober moods and more balanced temper, and so often cocked one full and one half with a look of genuinely friendly interest which, when he put his head on one side, seemed to change in a curiously comical way into an expression of quiet amusement.
The work kept us close to camp and we gave no thought to shooting; yet Jess and Jock had some good sport together. We gave them courses for breathers after Oribi in the open, but these fleetest of little antelopes left them out of sight in very few minutes. Bushbuck too were plentiful enough, but so wily in keeping to the dark woods and deep kloofs that unless we organised a drive the only chance one got was to stalk them in the early morning as they fed on the fringes of the bush. I often wondered how the dogs would have fared with those desperate fighters that have injured and killed more dogs and more men than any other buck, save perhaps the Sable.
Once they caught an ant-bear in the open, and there was a rough-and-tumble; we had no weapons not even sticks with us, and the dogs had it all to themselves. The clumsy creature could do nothing with them; his powerful digging claws looked dangerous, but the dogs never gave him a chance; he tried hard to reach his hole, but they caught him as he somersaulted to dodge them, and, one in front and one behind, worried the life out of him.
Once they killed a tiger-cat. We heard the rush and the row, and scrambled down through the tangled woods as fast as we could, but they fought on, tumbling and rolling downhill before us, and when we came up to them it was all over and they were tugging and tearing at the lifeless black and white body, Jess at the throat and Jock at the stomach. The cat was as big as either of them and armed with most formidable claws, which it had used to some purpose, for both dogs were torn and bleeding freely in several places. Still they thoroughly enjoyed it and searched the place afresh every time we passed it, as regularly as a boy looks about where he once picked up a sixpence.
Then the dainty little klipspringers led them many a crazy dance along the crags and ledges of the mountain face, jumping from rock to rock with the utmost ease and certainty and looking down with calm curiosity at the clumsy scrambling dogs as they vainly tried to follow. The dassies too watchful silent and rubber-footed played hide-and-seek with them in the cracks and crevices; but the dogs had no chance there.
Often there were races after baboons. There were thousands of them along the Berg, but except when a few were found in the open, we always called the dogs in. Among a troop of baboons the best of dogs would have no show at all. Ugly, savage and treacherous as they are, they have at least one quality which compels admiration they stand by each other. If one is attacked or wounded the others will often turn back and help, and they will literally tear a dog to pieces. Even against one full-grown male a dog has little or no chance; for they are very powerful, quick as lightning, and fierce fighters. Their enormous jaws and teeth outmatch a dog's, and with four 'hands' to help them the advantage is altogether too great. Their method of fighting is to hold the dog with all four feet and tear pieces out of him with their teeth.
We knew the danger well, for there was a fighting baboon at a wayside place not far from us a savage brute, owned by a still greater savage. It was kept chained up to a pole with its house on the top of the pole; and what the owner considered to be a good joke was to entice dogs up, either to attack the baboon or at least to come sniffing about within reach of it, and then see them worried to death. The excuse was always the same: "Your dog attacked the baboon. I can't help it," Sometimes the dogs were rescued by their owners; but many were killed. To its native cunning this brute added all the tricks that experience had taught, sometimes hiding up in its box to induce the dog to come sniffing close up; sometimes grubbing in the sand for food, pretending not to see the intruder until he was well within reach; sometimes running back in feigned alarm to draw him on. Once it got a grip the baboon threw itself on its side or back and, with all four feet holding the dog off, tore lumps out of the helpless animal. A plucky dog that would try to make a fight of it had no chance; the only hope was to get away, if possible.
Not every baboon is a fighter like this, but in almost every troop there will be at least one terrible old fellow, and the biggest strongest and fiercest always dominate and lead the others; and their hostility and audacity are such that they will loiter behind the retreating troop and face a man on foot or on horseback, slowly and reluctantly giving way, or sometimes moving along abreast, a hostile escort, giving loud roars of defiance and hoarse challenges as though ready on the least provocation or excuse to charge. It is not a pleasant position for an unarmed man, as at the first move or call from the leader the whole troop would come charging down again. It is not actual danger that impresses one, but the uncanny effect of the short defiant roars, the savage half-human look of the repulsive creatures, their still more human methods of facial expression and threatening attitudes, their tactics in encircling their object and using cover to approach and peer out cautiously from behind it, and their evident co-operation and obedience to the leader's directions and example.
One day while at work in the woods there came to us a grizzled worn-looking old kaffir, whose head ring of polished black wax attested his dignity as a kehla. He carried an old musket and was attended by two youngsters armed with throwing-sticks and a hunting assegai each. He appeared to be a 'somebody' in a small way, and we knew at a glance that he had not come for nothing.
There is a certain courtesy and a good deal of formality observed among the natives which is appreciated by but few of the white men who come in contact with them. One reason for this failure in appreciation is that native courtesy is in its method and expression sometimes just the reverse of what we consider proper; and if actions which seem suggestive of disrespect were judged from the native's standpoint, and according to his code, there would be no misunderstanding. The old man, passing and ignoring the group of boys, came towards us as we sat in the shade for the midday rest, and slowly came to a stand a few yards off, leaning on his long flint-lock quietly taking stock of us each in turn, and waiting for us to inspect him. Then, after three or four minutes of this, he proceeded to salute us separately with "Sakubona, Umlungu!" delivered with mesured deliberation at intervals of about a quarter of a minute, each salutation being accompanied by the customary upward movement of the head their respectful equivalent of our nod or bow. When he had done the round, his two attendants took their turns, and when this was over, and another long pause had served to mark his respect, he drew back a few paces to a spot about half-way between us and where the kaffirs sat, and, tucking his loin skins comfortably under him, squatted down. Ten minutes more elapsed before he allowed his eyes to wander absently round towards the boys and finally to settle on them for a repetition of the performance that we had been favoured with. But in this case it was they who led off with the "Sakubona, Umganaam!" which he acknowledged with the raising of the head and a soft murmur of contented recognition, "A-hé."
Once more there was silence for a spell, while he waited to be questioned in the customary manner and to give an account of himself, before it would be courteous or proper to introduce the subject of his visit. It was Jim's voice that broke the silence clear and imperative, as usual, but not uncivil. It always was Jim who cut in, as those do who are naturally impatient of delays and formalities.
"Velapi, Umganaam?" (Where do you come from, friend?) he asked, putting the question which is recognised as courteously providing the stranger with an opening to give an account of himself; and he is expected and required to do so to their satisfaction before he in turn can ask about them, their occupations, homes, destination and master, and his occupation, purpose and possessions.
The talk went round in low exchanges until at last the old man moved closer and joined the circle; and then the other voices dropped out, only to be heard once in a while in some brief question or that briefest of all comments the kaffir click and "Ow!" It may mean anything, according to the tone, but it was clearly sympathetic on that occasion. The old man's voice went on monotonously in a low-pitched impassive tone; but the boys hung intent on every word to the end. Then one or two questions, briefly answered in the same tone of detached philosophic indifference, brought their talk to a close. The old fellow tapped his carved wood snuff-box with the carefully-preserved long yellowish nail of one forefinger, and pouring some snuff into the palm of his hand, drew it into each nostril in turn with long luxurious sniffs; and then, resting his arms on his knees, he relapsed into complete silence.
We called the boys to start work again, and they came away, as is their custom, without a word or look towards the man whose story had held them for the last half-hour. Nor did he speak or stir, but sat on unmoved, a picture of stoical indifference. But who can say if it be indifference or fatalism or the most astute diplomacy? Among white men opinions differ: I put it down as fatalism.
We asked no questions, for we knew it was no accident that had brought the old man our way: he wanted something, and we would learn soon enough what it was. So we waited.
As we gathered round the fallen tree to finish the cleaning and slip it down to the track Jim remarked irrelevantly that tigers were 'schelms,' and it was his conviction that there were a great many in the kloofs round about. At intervals during the next hour or so he dropped other scraps about tigers and their ways, and how to get at them and what good sport it was, winding up with a short account of how two seasons back an English 'Capitaine' had been killed by one only a few miles away.
Jim was no diplomatist: he had tiger on the brain, and showed it; so when I asked him bluntly what the old man had been talking about, the whole story came out. There was a tiger it was of course the biggest ever seen which had been preying on the old chief's kraal for the last six months: dogs, goats and kaffir sheep innumerable had disappeared, even fowls were not despised; and only two days ago the climax had been reached when, in the cool of the afternoon and in defiance of the yelling herdboy, it had slipped into the herd at the drinking-place and carried off a calf a heifer-calf too! The old man was poor: the tiger had nearly ruined him; and he had come up to see if we, "who were great hunters," would come down and kill the thief, or at least lend him a tiger-trap, as he could not afford to buy one.
In the evening when we returned to camp we found the old fellow there, and heard the story told with the same patient resignation or stoical indifference with which he had told it to the boys; and, if there was something inscrutable in the smoky eyes that might have hidden a more calculating spirit, it did not trouble us the tiger was what we wanted; the chance seemed good enough; and we decided to go. Tigers as they are almost invariably called, but properly, leopards were plentiful enough and were often to be heard at night in the kloofs below; but they are extremely wary animals and in the inhabited parts rarely move about by day; however, the marauding habits and the audacity of this fellow were full of promise.
The following afternoon we set off with our guns and blankets, a little food for two days, and the tiger-trap; and by nightfall we had reached the foot of the Berg by paths and ways you might think only a baboon could follow.
It was moonlight, and we moved along through the heavily-timbered kloofs in single file behind the shadowy figure of the shrivelled old chief. His years seemed no handicap to him, as with long easy soft-footed strides he went on hour after hour. The air was delightfully cool and sweet with the fresh smells of the woods; the damp carpet of moss and dead leaves dulled the sound of our more blundering steps; now and again through the thick canopy of evergreens we caught glimpses of the moon, and in odd places the light threw stumps or rocks into quaint relief or turned some tall bare trunk into a ghostly sentinel of the forest.
We had crossed the last of the many mountain streams and reached open ground when the old chief stopped, and pointing to the face of a high krans black and threatening in the shadow, as it seemed to overhang us said that somewhere up there was a cave which was the tiger's home, and it was from this safe refuge that he raided the countryside.
The kraal was not far off. From the top of the spur we could look round, as from the pit of some vast coliseum, and see the huge wall of the Berg towering up above and half enclosing us, the whole arena roofed over by the star-spattered sky. The brilliant moonlight picked out every ridge and hill, deepening the velvet black of the shadowed valleys, and on the rise before us there was the twinkling light of a small fire, and the sound of voices came to us, borne on the still night air, so clearly that words picked out here and there were repeated by our boys with grunting comments and chuckles of amusement.
We started on again down an easy slope passing through some bush, and at the bottom came on level ground thinly covered with big shady trees and scattered undergrowth. As we walked briskly through the flecked and dappled light and shade, we were startled by the sudden and furious rush of Jess and Jock off the path and away into the scrub on the left; and immediately after there was a grunting noise, a crashing and scrambling, and then one sharp clear yelp of pain from one of the dogs. The old chief ran back behind us, shouting "Ingwa, ingwa!" (Tiger, tiger). We slipped our rifles round and stood facing front, unable to see anything and not knowing what to expect. There were sounds of some sort in the bush something like a faint scratching, and something like smothered sobbing grunts, but so indistinct as to be more ominous and disquieting than absolute silence.
"He has killed the dogs," the old chief said, in a low voice.
But as he said it there was a rustle in front, and something came out towards us. The guns were up and levelled, instantly, but dropped again when we saw it was a dog; and Jess came back limping badly and stopping every few paces to shake her head and rub her mouth against her fore-paws. She was in great pain and breathed out faint barely-audible whines from time to time.
We waited for minutes, but Jock did not appear; and as the curious sounds still came from the bush we moved forward in open order, very slowly and with infinite caution. As we got closer, scouting each bush and open space, the sounds grew clearer, and suddenly it came to me that it was the noise of a body being dragged and the grunting breathing of a dog. I called sharply to Jock and the sound stopped; and taking a few paces forward then, I saw him in a moonlit space turning round and round on the pivot of his hind-legs and swinging or dragging something much bigger than himself.
Jim gave a yell and shot past me, plunging his assegai into the object and shouting "Porcupine, porcupine," at the top of his voice. We were all around it in a couple of seconds, but I think the porcupine was as good as dead even before Jim had stabbed it. Jock was still holding on grimly, tugging with all his might and always with the same movement of swinging it round him, or, of himself circling round it perhaps that is the fairer description, for the porcupine was much the heavier. He had it by the throat where the flesh is bare of quills, and had kept himself out of reach of the terrible spikes by pulling away all the time, just as he had done with the duiker and the other buck to avoid their hind feet.
This encounter with the porcupine gave us a better chance of getting the tiger than we ever expected too good a chance to be neglected; so we cut the animal up and used the worthless parts to bait the big tiger-trap, having first dragged them across the veld for a good distance each way to leave a blood spoor which would lead the tiger up to the trap. This with the quantity of blood spread about in the fight, lying right in the track of his usual prowling ought to attract his attention, we thought; and we fastened the trap to a big tree, making an avenue of bushes up to the bait so that he would have to walk right over the trap hidden under the dead leaves, in order to get at the bait. We hopd that, if it failed to hold, it would at least wound him badly enough to enable us to follow him up in the morning.
In the bright light of the fire that night, as Jock lay beside me having his share of the porcupine steaks, I noticed something curious about his chest, and on looking closer found the whole of his white shirt front speckled with dots of blood; he had been pricked in dozens of places, and it was clear that it had been no walk-over for him; he must have had a pretty rough handling before he got the porcupine on the swing. He was none the worse, however, and was the picture of contentment as he lay beside me in the ring facing the fire.
But Jess was a puzzle. From the time that she had come hobbling back to us, carrying her one foot in the air and stopping to rub her mouth on her paws, we had been trying to find out what was the matter. The foot trouble was clear enough, for there was a quill fifteen inches long and as stiff and thick as a lead pencil still piercing the ball of her foot, with the needle-like point sticking out between her toes. Fortunately it had not been driven far through and the hole was small, so that once it was drawn and the foot bandaged she got along fairly well. It was not the foot that was troubling her; all through the evening she kept repeating the movement of her head, either rubbing it on her front legs or wiping her muzzle with the paws, much as a cat does when washing its face. She would not touch food and could not lie still for five and we could do nothing to help her.
THE TIGER AND BABOONS
No one had doubted Jess's courage, even when we saw her come back alone: we knew there was something wrong, but in spite of every care and effort we could not find out what it was, and poor old Jess went through the night in suffering, making no sound, but moving from place to place weary and restless, giving long tired quivering sighs, and pawing at her mouth from time to time. In the morning light we again looked her all over carefully, and especially opened her mouth and examined that and her nostrils, but could find nothing to show what was wrong.
The puzzle was solved by accident: Ted was sitting on the ground when she came up to him, looking wistfully into his face again with one of the mute appeals for help.
"What is it, Jess, old girl?" he said, and reaching out, he caught her head in both hands and drew her towards him; but with a sharp exclamation he instantly let go again, pricked by something, and a drop of blood oozed from one finger-tip. Under Jess's right ear there was a hard sharp point just showing through the skin: we all felt it, and when the skin was forced back we saw it was the tip of a porcupine quill. There was no pulling it out or moving it, however, nor could we for a long time find where it had entered. At last Ted noticed what looked like a tiny narrow strip of bark adhering to the outside of her lower lip, and this turned out to be the broken end of the quill, snapped off close to the flesh; not even the end of the quill was visible only the little strip that had peeled off in the breaking.
Poor old Jess! We had no very grand appliances for surgery, and had to slit her lip down with an ordinary skinning knife. Ted held her between his knees and gripped her head with both hands, while one of us pulled with steel pliers on the broken quill until it came out. The quill had pierced her lower lip, entered the gums beside the front teeth, run all along the jaw and through the flesh behind, coming out just below the ear. It was over seven inches long. She struggled a little under the rough treatment, and there was a protesting whimper when we tugged; but she did not let out one cry under all the pain.
We knew then that Jess had done her share in the fight, and guessed that it was she who in her reckless charge had rolled the porcupine over and given Jock his chance.
The doctoring of Jess had delayed us considerably, and while we were still busy at it the old chief came up to say that his scouts had returned and reported that there was no tiger to be seen, but that they thought the trap had been sprung. They had not liked to go close up, preferring to observe the spot from a tree some way off.
The first question was what to do with Jess. We had no collar or chain, of course, and nothing would induce her to stay behind once Ted started; she would have bitten through ropes and reims in a few minutes, and no kaffir would have faced the job of watching over and checking her. Finally we put her into one of the reed and mud huts, closing the entrance with some raw hides weighted with heavy stones; and off we went.
We found the trap sprung and the bait untouched. The spoor was a tiger's, right enough, and we saw where it had circled suspiciously all round before finally entering the little fenced approach which we had built to shepherd it on to the trap. There each footprint was clear, and it appeared that instead of cautiously creeping right up to the bait and stepping on the setting-plate, it had made a pounce at the bait from about ten feet away, releasing the trap by knocking the spring or by touching the plate with the barrel of its body. The tiger had evidently been nipped, but the body was too big for the teeth to close on, and no doubt the spring it gave on feeling the grip underneath set it free with nothing worse than a bad scraping and a tremendous fright. There was plenty of hair and some skin on the teeth of the trap, but very little blood there, and none at all to be found round about.
That was almost the worst result we could have had: the tiger was not crippled, nor was it wounded enough to enable us to track it, but must have been so thoroughly alarmed that it would certainly be extremely nervous and suspicious of everything now, and would probably avoid the neighbourhood for some time to come.
The trap was clearly of no further use, but after coming so far for the tiger we were not disposed to give up the hunt without another effort. The natives told us it was quite useless to follow it up as it was a real 'schelm,' and by that time would be miles away in some inaccessible krans. We determined however to go on, and if we failed to get a trace of the tiger, to put in the day hunting bushbuck or wild pig, both of which were fairly plentiful.
We had not gone more than a few hundred yards when an exclamation from one of the boys made us look round, and we saw Jess on the opposite slope coming along full speed after us with her nose to the trail. She had scratched and bitten her way through the reed and mud wall of the hut, scared the wits out of a couple of boys who had tried to head her off, and raced away after us with a pack of kaffir mongrels yelping unnoticed at her heels. She really did not seem much the worse for her wounds, and was for her quite demonstrative in her delight at finding us again.
In any case there was nothing to be done but to let her come, and we went on once more beating up towards the lair in the black krans with the two dogs in the lead.
The guides led us down into the bed of one of the mountain streams, and following this up we were soon in the woods where the big trees meeting overhead made it dark and cool. It was difficult in that light to see anything clearly at first, and the considerable undergrowth of shrub and creepers and the boulders shed from the Berg added to the difficulty and made progress slow. We moved along as much as possible abreast, five or six yards apart, but were often driven by obstacles into the bed of the stream for short distances in order to make headway at all, and although there did not seem to be much chance of finding the tiger at home, we crept along cautiously and noiselessly, talking when we had to only in whispers.
We were bunched together, preparing to crawl along a rock overhanging a little pool, when the boy in front made a sign and pointed with his assegai to the dogs. They had crossed the stream and were walking very slowly and abreast near the water's edge. The rawest of beginners would have needed no explanation. The two stood for a few seconds sniffing at a particular spot and then both together looked steadily upstream: there was another pause and they moved very slowly and carefully forward a yard or so and sniffed again with their noses almost touching. As they did this the hair on their backs and shoulders began to rise until, as they reached the head of the pool, they were bristling like hedgehogs and giving little purring growls.
The guide went over to them while we waited, afraid to move lest the noise of our boots on the stones should betray us. After looking round for a bit he pointed to a spot on the bank where he had found the fresh spoor of the tiger, and picking up something there to show to us he came back to our side. It was a little fragment of whitish skin with white hairs on it. There was no doubt about it then: we were on the fresh spoor of the tiger where it had stopped to drink at the pool and probably to lick the scratches made by the trap; and leaving the bed of the stream it had gone through the thick undergrowth up towards the krans.
We were not more than a hundred yards from the krans then, and the track taken by the tiger was not at all an inviting one. It was at first merely a narrow tunnel in the undergrowth up the steep hillside, through which we crept in single file with the two dogs a few yards in front; they moved on in the same silent deliberate way, so intent and strung up that they started slightly and instantly looked up in front at the least sound. As the ascent became steeper and more rocky, the undergrowth thinned and we were able to spread out into line once more, threading our way through several roughly-parallel game tracks or natural openings and stooping low to watch the dogs and take our cue from them.
We were about fifteen yards from the precipitous face of the krans, and had just worked round a huge boulder into a space fairly free of bush but cumbered with many big rocks and loose stones, when the dogs stopped and stood quivering and bristling all over, moving their heads slowly about with noses well raised and sniffing persistently. There was something now that interested them more than the spoor: they winded the tiger itself, but could not tell where. No one stirred: we stood watching the dogs and snatching glances right and left among the boulders and their shady creeper-hidden caves and recesses, and as we stood thus, grouped together in breathless silence, an electrifying snarling roar came from the krans above and the spotted body of the tiger shot like a streak out of the black mouth of a cave and across our front into the bush; there was a series of crashing bounds, as though a stone rolled from the mountain were leaping through the jungle; and then absolute silence.
We explored the den; but there was nothing of interest in it no remains of food, no old bones, or other signs of cubs. It seemed to be the retreat of a male tiger secluded, quiet, and cool. The opening was not visible from any distance, a split-off slab of rock partly hiding it; but when we stood upon the rock platform we found that almost the whole of the horseshoe bay in the Berg into which we had descended was visible, and it was with a "Wow!" of surprise and mortification that the kraal boys found they could see the kraal itself and their goats and cattle grazing on the slopes and in the valley below.
Tigers do not take their kill to their dens unless there are young cubs to be fed; as a rule they feed where they kill, or as near to it as safety permits, and when they have fed their fill they carry off the remainder of the carcase and hide it. Lions, hyenas, and others leave what they cannot eat and return to it for their next feed; but tigers are more provident and more cunning, and being able to climb trees they are very much more difficult to follow or waylay by means of their kill. They are not big fellows, rarely exceeding seven feet from nose to tip of tail and 130 lb. in weight; but they are extraordinarily active and strong, and it is difficult to believe until one has seen the proof of it that they are able to climb the bare trunk of a tree carrying a kill much bigger and heavier than themselves, and hang it safely wedged in some hidden fork out of reach of any other animal. I have repeatedly seen the remains of their victims in the forks of trees; once it was part of a pig, but on the other occasions the remains were of horned animals; the pig was balanced in the fork; the others were hooked in by the heads and horns.
A well-known hunter once told me an experience of his illustrating the strength and habits of tigers. He had shot a young giraffe and carried off as much as he could put on his horse, and hid the rest; but when he returned next morning it had disappeared, and the spoor of a full-grown tiger told him why. He followed the drag mark up to the foot of a big tree and found the remains of the carcase, fully 300 lb. in weight, in a fork more than twenty feet from the ground.
He left it there as a bait and returned again the following morning on the chance of a shot; but the meat had once more been removed and on following up the spoor he found what was left hidden in another tree some two hundred yards away.
It would have been waste of time to follow our tiger he would be on the watch and on the move for hours; so we gave it up at once, and struck across the spurs for another part of the big arena where pig and bushbuck were known to feed in the mornings. It was slow and difficult work, as the bush was very dense and the ground rough. The place was riddled with game tracks, and we saw spoor of koodoo and eland several times, and tracks innumerable of wild pig, rietbuck, bushbuck, and duiker. But there was more than spoor: a dozen times we heard the crash of startled animals through the reeds or bush only a few yards away without being able to see a thing.
We had nearly reached the kloof we were aiming for when we had the good luck to get a bushbuck in a very unexpected way. We had worked our way out of a particularly dense patch of bush and brambles into a corner of the woods and were resting on the mossy ground in the shade of the big trees when the sound of clattering stones a good way off made us start up again and grab our rifles; and presently we saw, outlined against the band of light which marked the edge of the timber, a buck charging down towards us. Three of us fired together, and the buck rolled over within a few yards of where we stood.
We were then in a 'dead end' up against the precipitous face of the Berg where there was no road or path other than game tracks, and where no human being ever went except for the purpose of hunting. We knew there was no one else shooting there, and it puzzled us considerably to think what had scared the bushbuck; for the animal had certainly been startled and perhaps chased; the pace, the noise it made, and the blind recklessness of its dash, all showed that. The only explanation we could think of was that the tiger, in making a circuit along the slopes of the Berg to get away from us, must have put the buck up and driven it down on to us in the woods below, and if that were so, the reports of our rifles must have made him think that he was never going to get rid of us.
We skinned and cut up the buck and pushed on again; but the roughness of the trail and the various stoppages had delayed us greatly, and we failed to get the expected bag. We got one rietbuck and a young boar; the rietbuck was a dead shot; but the pig, from the shooting standpoint, was a most humiliating failure. A troop of twenty or thirty started up from under our feet as we came out of the blazing sunlight into the gloom of the woods, and no one could see well enough to aim. They were led by a grand boar, and the whole lot looked like a troop of charging lions as they raced by with their bristly manes erect and their tufted tails standing straight up.
As we stood there, crestfallen and disgusted, we heard fresh grunting behind, and turning round we saw one pig racing past in the open, having apparently missed the troop while wallowing in a mudhole and known nothing of our intrusion until he heard the shooting. We gave him a regular broadside, and as is usually the case when you think that quantity will do in place of quality made an awful mess of it, and before we had time to reload Jess and Jock had cut in, and we could not fire again for fear of hitting them. The boys, wildly delighted by this irregular development which gave them such a chance, joined in the chase and in a few seconds it became a chaotic romp like a rat hunt in a schoolroom. The dogs ranged up on each side and were on to the pig together, Jess hanging on to one ear and Jock at the neck; the boar dug right and left at them, but his tusks were short and blunt, and if he managed to get at them at all they bore no mark of it afterwards. For about twenty yards they dragged and tugged, and then all three came somersaulting over together. In the scramble Jock got his grip on the throat, and Jess rolled and trampled on appeared between the pigs hind-legs, sliding on her back with her teeth embedded in one of the hams. For half a minute the boar, grunting and snorting, plunged about madly, trying to get at them or to free himself; and then the boys caught up and riddled him with their assegais.
After the two bombardments of the pigs and the fearful row made by the boys there was not much chance of putting up anything more, and we made for the nearest stream in the woods for a feed and a rest before returning to camp.
We had failed to get the tiger, it is true, and it would be useless giving more time or further thought to him, for in all probability it would be a week or more before he returned to his old hunting-ground and his old marauding tricks, but the porcupine and the pig had provided more interest and amusement than much bigger game might have done, and on the whole, although disappointed, we were not dissatisfied: in fact, it would have needed an ungrateful spirit indeed to feel discontented in such surroundings.
Big trees of many kinds and shapes united to make a canopy of leaves overhead through which only occasional shafts of sunlight struck. The cold mountain stream tumbling over ledges, swirling among rocks or rippling over pebble-strewn reaches, gurgled splashed and bubbled with that wonderful medley of sounds that go to make the lullaby of the brook. The floor of the forest was carpeted with a pile of staghorn moss a foot thick, and maidenhair fern grew everywhere with the luxuriant profusion of weeds in a tropical garden. Traveller's Joy covered whole trees with dense creamy bloom and spread its fragrance everywhere; wild clematis trailed over stumps and fallen branches; quantities of maidenhair overflowed the banks and drooped to the water all along the course of the stream; whilst, marshalled on either side, huddled together on little islands, perched on rocks, and grouped on overhanging ledges, stood the tree-ferns as though they had come to drink their wide-reaching delicate fronds like giant green ostrich-feathers waving gently to each breath of air or quivering as the movement of the water shook the trunks.
Long-tailed greeny-gray monkeys with black faces peered down at us, moving lightly on their branch trapezes, and pulled faces or chattered their indignant protest against intrusion; in the tops of the wild fig-trees bright green pigeons watched us shyly great big birds of a wonderful green; gorgeous louries too flashed their colours and raised their crests pictures of extreme and comical surprise; golden cuckoos there were also and beautiful little green-backed ruby-throated honey-suckers, flitted like butterflies among the flowers on the sunlit fringe of the woods.
Now and again guinea-fowl and bush-pheasant craned their necks over some fallen log or stone to peer curiously at us, then stooping low again darted along their well-worn runs into the thick bush. The place was in fact a natural preserve; a 'bay' let into the wall of the Berg, half-encircled by cliffs which nothing could climb, a little world where the common enemy man seldom indeed intruded.
We stayed there until the afternoon sun had passed behind the crest of the Berg above us; and, instead of going back the way we came, skirted along the other arm enclosing the bay to have the cool shade of the mountain with us on our return journey. But the way was rough; the jungle was dense; we were hot and torn and tired; and the shadow of the mountain stretched far out across the foothills by the tune the corner was reached. We sat down to rest at last in the open on the long spur on which, a couple of miles away, the slanting sun picked out the red and black cattle, the white goats, and the brown huts of the kaffir kraal.
Our route lay along the side of the spur, skirting the rocky backbone and winding between occasional boulders, clumps of trees and bush, and we had moved on only a little way when a loud "Waugh" from a baboon on the mountain behind made us stop to look back. The hoarse shout was repeated several times, and each time more loudly and emphatically; it seemed like the warning call of a sentry who has seen us. Moved by curiosity we turned aside on to the ridge itself, and from the top of a big rock scanned the almost precipitous face opposite. The spur on which we stood was divided from the Berg itself only by a deep but narrow kloof or ravine, and every detail of the mountain side stood out in the clear evening air, but against the many-coloured rocks the grey figure of a baboon was not easy to find as long it as remained still, and although from time to time the barking roar was repeated, we were still scanning the opposite hill when one of the boys pointed down the slope immediately below us and called out, "There, there, Baas!"
The troop of baboons had evidently been quite close to us hidden from us only by the little line of rocks and on getting warning from their sentry on the mountain had stolen quietly away and were then disappearing into the timbered depth of the ravine. We sat still to watch them come out on the opposite side a few minutes later and clamber up the rocky face, for they are always worth watching; but while we watched, the stillness was broken by an agonised scream horribly human in its expression of terror followed by roars, barks, bellows and screams from scores of voices in every key; and the crackle of breaking sticks and the rattle of stones added to the medley of sound as the baboons raced out of the wood and up the bare rocky slope.
"What is it?" "What's the matter?" "There's something after them." "Look, look! there they come:" burst from one and another of us as we watched the extraordinary scene. The cries from below seemed to waken the whole mountain; great booming "waughs" came from different places far apart and ever so high up the face of the Berg; each big roar seemed to act like a trumpet-call and bring forth a multitude of others; and the air rang with bewildering shouts and echoes volleying round the kloofs and faces of the Berg. The strange thing was that the baboons did not continue their terrified scramble up the mountain, but, once out of the bush, they turned and rallied. Forming an irregular semi-circle they faced down hill, thrusting their heads forward with sudden jerks as though to launch their cries with greater vehemence, and feinting to charge; they showered loose earth, stones and debris of all sorts down with awkward underhand scrapes of their forepaws, and gradually but surely descended to within a dozen yards of the bush' edge.
"Baas, Baas, the tiger! Look, the tiger! There, there on the rock below!"
Jim shot the words out in vehement gusts, choky with excitement; and true enough, there the tiger was. The long spotted body was crouched on a flat rock just below the baboons; he was broad-side to us, with his fore-quarters slightly raised and his face turned towards the baboons; with wide-opened mouth he snarled savagely at the advancing line, and with right paw raised made threatening dabs in their direction. His left paw pinned down the body of a baboon.
The voices from the mountain boomed louder and nearer as, clattering and scrambling down the face, came more and more baboons: there must have been hundreds of them; the semicircle grew thicker and blacker, more and more threatening, foot by foot closer. The tiger raised himself a little more and took swift looks from side to side across the advancing front, and then his nerve went, and with one spring he shot from the rock into the bush.
There was an instant forward rush of the half-moon, and the rock was covered with roaring baboons, swarming over their rescued comrade; and a moment later the crowd scrambled up the slope again, taking the tiger's victim with them. In that seething rabble I could pick out nothing, but all the kaffirs maintained they could see the mauled one dragged along by its arms by two others, much as a child might be helped uphill.
We were still looking excitedly about trying to make out what the baboons were doing, watching the others still coming down the Berg, and peering anxiously for a sight of the tiger when once more Jim's voice gave us a shock.
"Where are the dogs?" he asked; and the question turned us cold. If they had gone after the baboons they were as good as dead already nothing could save them. Calling was useless: nothing could be heard in the roar and din that the enraged animals still kept up. We watched the other side of the ravine with something more than anxiety, and when Jock's reddish-looking form broke through the bracken near to the tiger's rock, I felt like shutting my eyes till all was over. We saw him move close under the rock and then disappear. We watched for some seconds it may have been a minute, but it seemed an eternity and then, feeling the utter futility of waiting there, jumped off the rock and ran down the slope in the hope that the dogs would hear us call from there.
From where the slope was steepest we looked down into the bed of the stream at the bottom of the ravine, and the two dogs were there: they were moving cautiously down the wide stony watercourse just as we had seen them move in the morning, their noses thrown up and heads turning slowly from side to side. We knew what was coming; there was no time to reach them through the bush below; the cries of the baboons made calling useless; and the three of us sat down with rifles levelled ready to fire at the first sight. With gun gripped and breath hard held, watching intently every bush and tree and rock, every spot of light and shade, we sat not daring to move. Then, over the edge of a big rock overlooking the two dogs, appeared something round; and, smoothly yet swiftly and with a snake-like movement, the long spotted body followed the head and, flattened against the rock, crept stealthily forward until the tiger looked straight down upon Jess and Jock. The three rifles cracked like one, and with a howl of rage and pain the tiger shot out over the dogs' heads, raced along the stony bed, and suddenly plunging its nose into the ground, pitched overdead.
It was shot through the heart, and down the ribs on each side were the scraped marks of the trap.
BUFFALO BUSHFIRE & WILD DOGS
The summer slipped away the full-pulsed ripeness of the year; beauty and passion; sunshine and storm; long spells of peace and gentleness, of springing life and radiant glory; short intervals of reckless tempest and destructive storm! Among the massed evergreens of the woods there stood out here and there bright spots of colour, the careless dabs from Nature's artist hand; yellow and brown, orange and crimson, all vividly distinct, yet all in perfect harmony. The rivers, fed from the replenished mountains' stores, ran full but clear; the days were bright; the nights were cold; the grass was rank and seeding; and it was time to go.
Once more the Bushveld beckoned us away.
We picked a spot where grass and water were good, and waited for the rivers to fall; and it was while loitering there that a small hunting party from the fields making for the Sabi came across us and camped for the night. In the morning two of our party joined them for a few days to try for something big.
It was too early in the season for really good sport. The rank tropical grass six to eight feet high in most places, twelve to fourteen in some was too green to burn yet, and the stout stems had heavy seed heads made walking as difficult as in a field of tangled sugar cane; for long stretches it was not possible to see five yards, and the dew in the early mornings was so heavy that after a hundred yards of such going one was drenched to the skin.
We were forced into the more open parts the higher, stonier, more barren ground where just then the bigger game was by no means plentiful.
On the third day two of us started out to try a new quarter in the hilly country rising towards the Berg. My companion, Francis, was an experienced hunter and his idea was that we should find the big game, not on the hot humid flats or the stony rises, but still higher up on the breezy hill tops or in the cool shady kloofs running towards the mountains. We passed a quantity of smaller game that morning, and several times heard the stampede of big animals wildebeeste and waterbuck, as we found by the spoor but it was absolutely impossible to see them. The dew was so heavy that even our hats were soaking wet, and times out of number we had to stop to wipe the water out of our eyes in order to see our way; a complete ducking would not have made the least difference.
Jock fared better than we did, finding openings and game tracks at his own level which were of no use to us; he also knew better than we did what was going on ahead, and it was tantalising in the extreme to see him slow down and stand with his nose thrown up, giving quick soft sniffs and ranging his head from side to side, when he knew there was something quite close, and knew too that a few more toiling steps in that rank grass would be followed by a rush of something which we would never see.
Once we heard a foot stamp not twenty yards off, and stood for a couple of minutes on tip-toe trying to pierce the screen of grass in front, absolutely certain that eyes and ears were turned on us in death-like silence waiting for the last little proof of the intruder that would satisfy their owners and start them off before we could get a glimpse. The silence must have made them suspicious, for at some signal unknown to us the troop broke away and we had the mortification to see something, which we ignored as a branch, tilt slowly back and disappear: there was no mistaking the koodoo bull's horns once they moved.
After two hours of this we struck a stream, and there we made somewhat better pace and less noise, often taking to the bed of the creek for easier going. There, too, we found plenty of drinking places and plenty of fresh spoor of the bigger game, and as the hills began to rise in view above the bush and trees, we found what Francis was looking for. Something caught his eye on the far side of the stream, and he waded in. I followed and when half way through saw the contented look on his face and caught his words: "Buffalo! I thought so!"
We sat down then to think it out. The spoor told of a troop of a dozen to sixteen animals bulls, cows, and calves; and it was that morning's spoor: even in the soft moist ground at the stream's edge the water had not yet oozed into most of the prints. Fortunately there was a light breeze from the hills, and as it seemed probable that in any case they would make that way for the hot part of the day we decided to follow for some distance on the track and then make for the likeliest poort in the hills.
The buffalo had come up from the low country in the night on a course striking the creek diagonally at the drinking place; their departing spoor went off at a slight tangent from the stream the two trails making a very wide angle at the drinking place and confirming the idea that after their night's feed in the rich grass lower down they were making for the hills again in the morning and had touched at the stream to drink.
Jock seemed to gather from our whispered conversation and silent movements that there was work to hand, and his eyes moved from one face to the other as we talked, much as a child watches the faces in a conversation it cannot quite follow. When we got up and began to move along the trail, he gave one of his little sideways bounds, as if he half thought of throwing a somersault and restrained himself; and then with several approving waggings of his tail settled down at once to business.
Jock went in front: it was best so, and quite safe, for, whilst certain to spot anything long before we could, there was not the least risk of his rushing it or making any noise. The slightest whisper of a "Hst" from me would have brought him to a breathless standstill at any moment; but even this was not likely to be needed, for he kept as close a watch on my face as I did on him.
There was, of course, no difficulty whatever in following the spoor; the animals were as big as cattle, and their trail through the rank grass was as plain as a road: our difficulty was to get near enough to see them without being heard. Under the down-trodden grass there were plenty of dry sticks to step on, many of which would have been as fatal to our chances as a pistol shot, and even the unavoidable rustle of the grass might betray us while the buffalo themselves remained hidden. Thus our progress was very slow, a particularly troublesome impediment being the grass stems thrown down across the trail by the animals crossing and re-crossing each others' spoor and stopping to crop a mouthful here and there or perhaps to play. The tambookie grass in these parts has a stem thicker than a lead pencil, more like young bamboo than grass; and these stems thrown cross-ways by storms or game make an entanglement through which the foot cannot be forced: it means high stepping all the time.
We expected to follow the spoor for several miles before coming on the buffalo probably right into the kloof towards which it appeared to lead but were nevertheless, quite prepared to drop on to them at any moment, knowing well how game will loiter on their way when undisturbed and vary their time and course, instinctively avoiding the too regular habits which would make them an easy prey.
Jock moved steadily along the trodden track, sliding easily through the grass or jumping softly and noiselessly over impediments, and we followed, looking ahead as far as the winding course of the trail permitted.
To right and left of us stood the screen of tall grass, bush and trees. Once Jock stopped, throwing up his nose, and stood for some seconds while we held our breath; but having satisfied himself that there was nothing of immediate consequence, he moved on again rather more slowly, as it appeared to us. I looked at Francis's face; it was pale and set like marble, and his watchful grey eyes were large and wide like an antelope's, as though opened out to take in everything; and those moments of intense interest and expectation were the best part of a memorable day.
There was something near: we felt it! Jock was going more carefully than ever, with his head up most of the time; and the feeling of expectation grew stronger and stronger until it amounted to absolute certainty. Then Jock stopped, stopped in mid-stride, not with his nose up ranging for scent, but with head erect, ears cocked, and tail poised dead still: he was looking at something.
We had reached the end of the grass where the bush and trees of the mountain slope had choked it out, and before us there was fairly thick bush mottled with black shadows and patches of bright sunlight in which it was most difficult to see anything. There we stood like statues, the dog in front with the two men abreast behind him, and all peering intently. Twice Jock slowly turned his head and looked into my eyes, and I felt keenly the sense of hopeless inferiority. "There it is, what are you going to do?" was what the first look seemed to say; and the second: "Well, what are you waiting for?"
How long we stood thus it is not possible to say: time is no measure of such things, and to me it seemed unending suspense; but we stood our ground scarcely breathing, knowing that something was there, because he saw it and told us so, and knowing that as soon as we moved it would be gone. Then close to the ground there was a movement something swung, and the full picture flashed upon us. It was a buffalo calf standing in the shade of a big bush with its back towards us, and it was the swishing of the tail that had betrayed it. We dared not breathe a word or pass a look a face turned might have caught some glint of light and shown us up; so we stood like statues each knowing that the other was looking for the herd and would fire when he got a chance at one of the full-grown animals.
My eyes were strained and burning from the intensity of the effort to see; but except the calf I could not make out a living thing: the glare of the yellow grass in which we stood, and the sun-splotchcd darkness beyond it beat me.
At last, in the corner of my eye, I saw Francis's rifle rise, as slowly almost as the mercury in a warmed thermometer. There was a long pause, and then came the shot and wild snorts of alarm and rage. A dozen huge black forms started into life for a second and as quickly vanished scattering and crashing through the jungle. The first clear impression was that of Jock, who after one swift run forward for a few yards stood ready to spring off in pursuit, looking back at me and waiting for the word to go; but at the sign of my raised hand, opened with palm towards him, he subsided slowly and lay down flat with his head resting on his paws.
"Did you see?" asked Francis.
"Not till you fired. I heard it strike. What was it?"
"Hanged if I know! I heard it too. It was one of the big uns; but bull or cow I don't know."
"Where did you get it?"
"Well, I couldn't make out more than a black patch in the bush. It moved once, but I couldn't see how it was standing end on or across. It may be hit anywhere. I took for the middle of the patch and let drive. Bit risky, Eh?"
"Seems like taking chances."
"Well, it was no use waiting: we came for this!" and then he added with a careless laugh, "They always clear from the first shot if you get 'em at close quarters, but the fun'll begin now. Expect he'll lay for us in the track somewhere."
That is the way of the wounded buffalo we all knew that; and old Rocky's advice came to mind with a good deal of point: "Keep cool and shoot straight or stay right home"; and Jock's expectant watchful smote me with another memory "It was my dawg!"
A few yards from where the buffalo had stood we picked up the blood spoor. There was not very much of it, but we saw from the marks on the bushes here and there, and more distinctly on some grass further on, that the wound was pretty high up and on the right side. Crossing a small stretch of more open bush we reached the dense growth along the banks of the stream, and as this continued up into the kloof it was clear we had a tough job before us.
Animals when badly wounded nearly always leave the herd, and very often go down wind so as to be able to scent and avoid their pursuers. This fellow had followed the herd up wind, and that rather puzzled us.
A wounded buffalo in thick bush is considered to be about as nasty a customer as any one may desire to tackle; for, its vindictive indomitable courage and extraordinary cunning are a very formidable combination, as a long list of fatalities bears witness. Its favourite device so old hunters will tell you is to make off down wind when hit, and after going for some distance, come back again in a semi-circle to intersect its own spoor, and there under good cover lie in wait for those who may follow up.
This makes the sport quite as interesting as need be, for the chances are more nearly even than they generally are in hunting. The buffalo chooses the ground that suits its purpose of ambushing its enemy, and naturally selects a spot where concealment is possible; but, making every allowance for this, it seems little short of a miracle that the huge black beast is able to hide itself so effectually that it can charge from a distance of a dozen yards onto those who are searching for it.
The secret of it seems to lie in two things: first, absolute stillness; and second, breaking up the colour. No wild animal, except those protected by distance and open country, will stand against a background of light or of uniform colour, nor will it as a rule allow its own shape to form an unbroken patch against its chosen background.
They work on Nature's lines. Look at the ostrich the cock, black and handsome, so strikingly different from the commonplace grey hen! Considering that for periods of six weeks at a stretch they are anchored to one spot hatching the eggs, turn and turn about, it seems that one or other must be an easy victim for the beast of prey, since the same background cannot possibly suit both. But they know that too; so the grey hen sits by day and the black cock by night! And the ostrich is not the fool it is thought to be burying its head in the sand! Knowing how the long stem of a neck will catch the eye, it lays it flat on the ground, as other birds do, when danger threatens the nest or brood, and concealment is better than flight. That tame chicks will do this in a bare paddock is only a laughable assertion of instinct.
Look at the zebra! There is nothing more striking, nothing that arrests the eye more sharply in the Zoo that this vivid contrast of colour; yet in the bush the wavy stripes of black and white, are a protection, enabling him to hide at will.
I have seen a wildebeeste effectually hidden by a single blighted branch; a koodoo bull, by a few twisty sticks; a crouching lion, by a wisp of feathery grass no higher than one's knee, no bigger than a vase of flowers! Yet, the marvel of it is always fresh.
After a couple of hundred yards of that sort of going, we changed our plan, taking to the creek again and making occasional cross-cuts to the trail, to be sure he was still ahead. It was certain then that the buffalo was following the herd and making for the poort, and as he had not stopped once on our account we took to the creek after the fourth crosscut and made what pace we could to reach the narrow gorge where we reckoned to pick up the spoor again.
There are, however, few short cuts and no certainties in hunting; when we reached the poort there was no trace to be found of the wounded buffalo; the rest of the herd had passed in, but we failed to find blood or other trace of the wounded one, and Jock was clearly as much at fault as we were.
We had overshot the mark and there was nothing for it but to hark back to the last blood spoor and, by following it up, find out what had happened. This took over an hour, for we spoored him then with the utmost caution, being convinced that the buffalo, if not dead, was badly wounded and lying in wait for us.
We came on his 'stand,' in a well-chosen spot, where the game path took a sharp turn round some heavy bushes. The buffalo had stood, not where one would naturally expect it in the dense cover which seemed just suited for his purpose but among lighter bush on the opposite side and about twenty yards nearer to us. There was no room for doubt about his hostile intentions; and when we recalled how we had instantly picked out the thick bush on the left to the exclusion of everything else as the spot to be watched, his selection of more open ground on the other side, and nearer to us, seemed so fiendishly clever that it made one feel cold and creepy. One hesitates to say it was deliberately planned; yet plan, instinct, or accident there was the fact.
The marks showed us he was badly hit; but there was no limb broken, and no doubt he was good for some hours yet. We followed along the spoor, more cautiously than ever; and when we reached the sharp turn beyond the thick bush we found that the path was only a few yards from the stream, so that on our way up the bed of the creek we had passed within twenty yards of where the buffalo was waiting for us. No doubt he had heard us then as we walked past, and had winded us later on when we got ahead of him into the poort.
What had he made of it? What had he done? Had he followed up to attack us? Was he waiting somewhere near? Or had he broken away into the bush on finding himself headed off? These were some of the questions we asked ourselves as we crept along.
Well! what he had done did not answer our questions. On reaching the poort again we found his spoor, freshly made since we had been there, and he had walked right along through the gorge without stopping again, and gone into the kloof beyond. Whether he had followed us up when we got ahead of him hoping to stalk us from behind; or had gone ahead, expecting to meet us coming down wind to look for him; or, when he heard us pass down stream again and, it may be, though we had given up pursuit had simply walked on after the herd, were questions never answered.
A breeze had risen since morning, and as we approached the hills it grew stronger: in the poort itself it was far too strong for our purpose the wind coming through the narrow opening like a forced draught. The herd would not stand there, and it was not probable that the wounded animal would stop until he joined the others or reached a more sheltered place. We were keen on the chase, and he had about an hour's start of us and it was already midday, there was no time to waste.
Inside the poort the kloof opened out into a big valley away to our left our left being the right bank of the stream and bordering the valley on that side there were many miles of timbered kloofs and green slopes, with a few kaffir kraals visible in the distance; but to the right the formation was quite different, and rather peculiar. The stream known to the natives as Hlamba-Nyati, or Buffalo's Bathing Place had in the course of time shortened its course to the poort by eating into the left bank, thus leaving a high, and in most places, inaccessible terrace above it on the left side and a wide stretch of flat alluvium on the right. This terrace was bounded on one side by the steep bank of the creek and walled in on the other side by the precipitous kranses of the mountains. At the top end it opened out like a fan which died away in a frayed edge in the numberless small kloofs and spurs fringing the amphitheatre of the hills. The shape was in fact something like the human arm and hand with the fingers outspread. The elbow was the poort, the arm the terrace except that the terrace was irregularly curved and the fingers the small kloofs in the mountains. No doubt the haunts of the buffalo were away in the 'fingers,' and we worked steadily along the spoor in that direction.
Game paths were numerous and very irregular, and the place was a perfect jungle of trees, bush, bramble and the tallest rankest grass. I have ridden in that valley many times since then through grass standing several feet above my head. It was desperately hard work, but we did want to get the buffalo; and although the place was full of game and we put up koodoo, wildebeeste, rietbuck, bushbuck, and duiker, we held to the wounded buffalo's spoor, neglecting all else.
Just before ascending the terrace we had heard the curious far-travelling sound of kaffirs calling to each other from a distance, but, except for a passing comment, paid no heed to it and passed on; later we heard it again and again, and at last, when we happened to pause in a more open portion of the bush after we had gone half way along the terrace, the calling became so frequent and came from so many quarters that we stopped to take note. Francis, who spoke Zulu like one of themselves, at last made out a word or two which gave the clue.
"They're after the wounded buffalo!" he said, "Come on, man, before they get their dogs, or we'll never see him again."
Knowing then that the buffalo was a long way ahead, we scrambled on as fast as we could whilst holding to his track; but it was very hot and very rough and, to add to our troubles, smoke from a grass fire came driving into our faces.
"Niggers burning on the slopes; confound them!" Francis growled.
They habitually fire the grass in patches during the summer and autumn, as soon as it is dry enough to burn, in order to get young grass for the winter or the early spring, and although the smoke worried us there did not seem to be anything unusual about the fire. But ten minutes later we stopped again; the smoke was perceptibly thicker; birds were flying past us down wind, with numbers of locusts and other insects; two or three times we heard buck and other animals break back; and all were going the same way. Then the same thought struck us both it was stamped in our faces: this was no ordinary mountain grass fire; it was the bush.
Francis was a quiet fellow, one of the sort it is well not to rouse. His grave is in the Bushveld where his unbeaten record among intrepid lion-hunters was made, and where he fell in the war, leaving another and greater record to his name. The blood rose slowly to his face, until it was bricky red, and he looked an ugly customer as he said:
"The black brutes have fired the valley to burn him out. Come on quick. We must get out of this on to the slopes! We did not know then that there were no slopes only a precipitous face of rock with dense jungle to the foot of it; and after we had spent a quarter of an hour in that effort, we found our way blocked by the krans and a tangle of undergrowth much worse than that in the middle of the terrace. The noise made by the wind in the trees and our struggling through the grass and bush had prevented our hearing the fire at first, but now its ever growing roar drowned all sounds. Ordinarily, there would have been no real difficulty in avoiding a bush fire; but, pinned in between the river and the precipice and with miles of dense bush behind us, it was not at all pleasant.
Had we turned back even then and made for the poort it is possible we might have travelled faster than the fire, but it would have been rough work indeed; moreover, that would have been going back and we did want to get the buffalo so we decided to make one more try, towards the river this time. It was not much of a try, however, and we had gone no further than the middle of the terrace again when it became alarmingly clear that this fire meant business.
The wind increased greatly, as it always done once a bush fire gets a start; the air was thick with smoke, and full of flying things; in the bush and grass about us there was a constant scurrying; the terror of stampede was in the very atmosphere. A few words of consultation decided us, and we started to burn a patch for standing room and protection.
The hot sun and strong wind had long evaporated all the dew and moisture from the grass, but the sap was still up, and the fire our fire seemed cruelly long in catching on. With bunches of dry grass for brands we started burns in twenty places over a length of a hundred yards, and each little flame licked up, spread a little, and then hesitated or died out: it seemed as if ours would never take, while the other came on with roars and leaps, sweeping clouds of sparks and ash over us in the dense rolling mass of smoke.
At last a fierce rush of wind struck down on us, and in a few seconds each little flame became a living demon of destruction; another minute, and the stretch before us was a field of swaying flame. There was a sudden roar and crackle, as of musketry, and the whole mass seemed lifted into the air in one blazing sheet: it simply leaped into life and swept everything before it.
When we opened our scorched eyes the ground in front of us was all black, with only here and there odd lights and torches dotted about like tapers on a pall; and on ahead, beyond the trellis work of bare scorched trees, the wall of flame swept on.
Then down on the wings of the wind came the other fire; and before it fled every living thing. Heaven only knows what passed us in those few minutes when a broken stream of terrified creatures dashed by, hardly swerving to avoid us. There is no coherent picture left of that scene just a medley of impressions linked up by flashes of unforgettable vividness. A herd of koodoo came crashing by; I know there was a herd, but only the first and last will come to mind the space between seems blurred. The clear impressions are of the koodoo bull in front, with nose outthrust, eyes shut against the bush, and great horns laid back upon the withers, as he swept along opening the way for his herd; and then, as they vanished, the big ears, ewe neck, and tilting hindquarters of the last cow between them nothing but a mass of moving grey!
The wildebeeste went by in Indian file, uniform in shape colour and horns; and strangely uniform in their mechanical action, lowered heads, and fiercely determined rush.
A rietbuck ram stopped close to us, looked back wide-eyed and anxious, and whistled shrilly, and then cantered on with head erect and white tail flapping; but its mate neither answered nor came by. A terrified hare with its ears laid flat scuttled past within a yard of Francis and did not seem to see him. Above us scared birds swept or fluttered down wind; while others again came up swirling and swinging about, darting boldly through the smoke to catch the insects driven before the fire.
But what comes back with the suggestion of infinitely pathetic helplessness is the picture of a beetle. We stood on the edge of our burn, waiting for the ground to cool, and at my feet a pair of tock-tockie beetles, hump backed and bandy legged, came toiling slowly and earnestly along; they reached the edge of our burn, touched the warm ash, and turned patiently aside to walk round it!
A school of chattering monkeys raced out on to the blackened flat, and screamed shrilly with terror as the hot earth and cinders burnt their feet.
Porcupine, antbear, meerkat! They are vague, so vague that nothing is left but the shadow of their passing; but there is one other thing seen in a flash as brief as the others, for a second or two only, but never to be forgotten! Out of the yellow grass, high up in the waving tops, came sailing down on us the swaying head and glittering eyes of a black mamba swiftest, most vicious, most deadly of snakes. Francis and I were not five yards apart and it passed between us, giving a quick chilly beady look at each pitiless, and hateful and one hiss as the slithering tongue shot out: that was all, and it sailed past with strange effortless movement. How much of the body was on the ground propelling it, I cannot even guess; but we had to look upwards to see the head as the snake passed between us
The scorching breath of the fire drove us before it on to the baked ground, inches deep in ashes and glowing cinders, where we kept marking time to ease our blistering feet; our hats were pulled down to screen our necks as we stood with our backs to the coming flames; our flannel shirts were so hot that we kept shifting our shoulders for relief. Jock, who had no screen and whose feet had no protection, was in my arms; and we strove to shield ourselves from the furnace blast with the branches we had used to beat out the fire round the big tree which was our main shelter.
The heat was awful! Live brands were flying past all the time, and some struck us; myriads of sparks fell round and on us, burning numberless small holes in our clothing, and dotting blisters on our backs; great sheets of flame leaped out from the driving glare, and, detached by many yards from their source, were visible for quite a space in front of us. Then, just at its maddest and fiercest there came a gasp and sob, and the fire devil died behind us as it reached the black bare ground. Our burn divided it as an island splits the flood, and it swept along our flanks in two great walls of living leaping roaring flame.
Two hundred yards away there was a bare yellow place in a world of inky black, and to that haven we ran. It was strange to look about and see the naked country all round us, where but a few minutes earlier the tall grass had shut us in; but the big bare ant heap was untouched, and there we flung ourselves down, utterly done.
Faint from heat and exhaustion scorched and blistered, face and arms, back and feet; weary and footsore, and with boots burnt through we reached camp long after dark, glad to be alive.
We had forgotten the wounded buffalo; he seemed part of another life!
* * * * * *
There was no more hunting for us: our feet had 'gone in,' and we were well content to sleep and rest. The burnt stubbly ends of the grass had pierced the baked leather of our boots many times; and Jock, too, had suffered badly and could hardly bear to set foot to the ground next day. The best we could hope for was to be sound enough to return to our own waggons in two or three days' time.
The camp was under a very large wild fig tree, whose dense canopy gave us shade all through the day. We had burnt the grass for some twenty or thirty yards round as a protection against bush fires; and as the trees and scrub were not thick just there it was possible to see in various directions rather further than one usually can in the Bushveld. The big tree was a fair landmark by day, and at night we made a good fire, which owing to the position of the camp one could see from a considerable distance. These precautions were for the benefit of strayed or belated members of the party but I mention them because the position of the camp and the fire brought us a strange visitor the last night of our stay there.
There were, I think, seven white men; and the moving spirit of the party old Teddy Blacklow of Ballarat was one of the old alluvial diggers, a warm-hearted, impulsive, ever-young old boy, and a rare good sportsman. That was Teddy, the 'man in muddy moleskins,' who stretched out the hand of friendship when the Boy was down, and said "You come along o' me!" one of 'God's sort.'
Teddy's spirits were always up; his presence breathed a cheery optimism on the blankest day; his humour lighted everything; his stories kept us going; and his language was a joy for ever. In a community, in which such things savoured of eccentricity, Teddy was an abstainer and never swore; but if actual profanity was avoided, the dear old boy all unconsciously afforded strong support to those who hold that a man must find relief in vigorous expression. To do this, without violating his principles, he invented words and phrases, meaningless in themselves but in general outline, so to say, resembling the worst in vogue; and the effect produced by them upon the sensitive was simply horrifying. Teddy himself was blissfully unconscious of this, for his language, being scrupulously innocent, was deemed by him to be suited to all circumstances and to every company. The inevitable consequence was that the first impression produced by him on the few women he ever met was that of an abandoned old reprobate whose scant veil of disguise only made the outrage of his language more marked. Poor old Teddy! Kindest and gentlest and dearest of souls! How he would have stared at this, speechless with surprise; and how we used to laugh at what some one called his 'glittering paro-fanities!' Pity it is that they too must go; for one dare not reproduce the best of them.
It was between eight and nine o'clock on the last day of our stay; Francis and I were fit again, and Jock's feet, thanks to care and washing and plenty of castor oil, no longer troubled him; we were examining our boots re-soled now with raw hide in the rough but effective veld fashion; Teddy was holding forth about the day's chase whilst he cut away the pith of a koodoo's horns and scraped the skull; others were busy on their trophies too; and the kaffirs round their own fire were keeping up the simultaneous gabble characteristic of hunting boys after a good day and with plenty of meat in camp.
I was sitting on a small camp stool critically examining a boot and wondering if the dried hide would grip well enough to permit of the top lacings being removed, and Jock was lying in front of me, carefully licking the last sore spot on one fore paw, when I saw his head switch up suddenly and his whole body set hard in a study of intense listening. Then he got up and trotted briskly off some ten or fifteen yards, and stood a bright spot picked out by the glare of the camp fire with his back towards me and his uneven ears topping him off.
I walked out to him, and silence fell on the camp; all watched and listened. At first we heard nothing, but soon the call of a wild dog explained Jock's movements; the sound, however, did not come from the direction in which he was looking, but a good deal to the right; and as he instantly looked to this new quarter I concluded that this was not the dog he had previously heard, or else it must have moved rapidly. There was another wait, and then there followed calls from other quarters.
There was nothing unusual in the presence of wild dogs: hyenas, jackals, wild dogs and all the smaller beasts of prey were heard nightly; what attracted attention in this case was the regular calling from different points. The boys said the wild dogs were hunting something and calling to each other to indicate the direction of the hunt, so that those in front might turn the buck and by keeping it in a circle enable fresh or rested dogs to jump in from time to time and so, eventually, wear the poor hunted creature down. This, according to the natives, is the system of the wild pack. When they cannot find easy prey in the young, weak or wounded, and are forced by hunger to hunt hard, they first scatter widely over the chosen area where game is located, and then one buck is chosen the easiest victim, a ewe with young for choice and cutting it out from the herd, they follow that one and that alone with remorseless invincible persistency. They begin the hunt knowing that it will last for hours knowing too that in speed they have no chance against the buck and when the intended victim is cut out from the herd one or two of the dogs so the natives say take up the chase and with long easy gallop keep it going, giving no moment's rest for breath; from time to time they give their weird peculiar call and others of the pack posted afar head the buck off to turn it back again; the fresh ones then take up the chase, and the first pair drop out to rest and wait, or follow slowly until their chance and turn come round again. There is something so hateful in the calculated pitiless method that one feels it is a duty to kill the cruel brutes whenever a chance occurs.
The hunt went on round us; sometimes near enough to hear the dogs' eager cries quite clearly; sometimes so far away that for a while nothing could be heard; and Jock moved from point to point in the outermost circle of the camp-fire's light nearest to the chase.
When at last hunters and hunted completed their wide circuit round the camp, and passed again the point where we had first heard them, the end seemed near; for there were no longer single calls widely separated, but the voices of the pack in hot close chase. They seemed to be passing half a mile away from us; but in the stillness of the night sound travels far, and one can only guess. Again a little while and the cries sounded nearer and as if coming from one quarter not moving round us as before; and a few minutes more, and it was certain they were still nearer and coming straight towards us. We took our guns then, and I called Jock back to where we stood under the tree with our backs to the fire.
The growing sounds came on out of the night where all was hidden with the weird crescendo effect of a coming flood; we could pick them out then the louder harsher cries; the crashing through bush; the rush in grass; the sobbing gasps in front; and the hungry panting after. The hunt came at us like a cyclone out of the stillness, and in the forefront of it there burst into the circle of light an impala ewe with open mouth and haunting hunted despairing eyes and wide spread ears; and the last staggering strides brought her in among us, tumbling at our feet.
A kaffir jumped out with assegai aloft; but Teddy, with the spring of a tiger and a yell of rage, swung his rifle round and down on assegai arm and head, and dropped the boy in his tracks.
"Go-sh! Da-ll! Cr-r-r-i-miny! What the Hex are you up to?" and the fiery soft-hearted old boy was down on to his knees in a second, panting with anger and excitement, and threw his arms about the buck.
The foremost of the pack followed hot foot close behind the buck oblivious of fire and men, seeing nothing but the quarry and at a distance of five yards a mixed volley of bullets and assegais tumbled it over. Another followed, and again another: both fell where they had stopped, a dozen yards away, puzzled by the fire and the shooting; and still more and more came on, but, warned by the unexpected check in front, they stopped at the clearing's edge, until over twenty pairs of eyes reflecting the fire's light shone out at us in a rough semi-circle. The shot guns came in better then; and more than half the pack went under that night before the others cleared off. Perhaps they did not realise that the shots and flashes were not part of the camp fire from which they seemed to come; perhaps their system of never relinquishing a chase had not been tried against the white man before.
One of the wild dogs, wounded by a shot, seemed to go mad with agony and raced straight into the clearing towards the fire, uttering the strangest maniac-like yaps. Jock had all along been straining to go for them from where I had jammed him between my feet as I sat and fired, and the charge of this dog was more than he could bear: he shot out like a rocket, and the collision sent the two flying apart; but he was on to the wild dog again and had it by the throat before it could recover. Instantly the row of lights went out, as if switched off they were no longer looking at us; there was a rustle and a sound of padded feet, and dim grey-looking forms gathered at the edge of the clearing nearest where Jock and the wounded dog fought. I shouted to Jock to come back, and several of us ran out to help, just as another of the pack made a dash in. It seemed certain that Jock, gripping and worrying his enemy's throat, had neither time nor thought for anything else; yet as the fresh dog came at him he let go his grip of the other, and jumped to meet the new-comer; in mid-spring Jock caught the other by the ear and the two spun completely round their positions being reversed; then, with another wrench as he landed, he flung the attacker behind him and jumped back at the wounded one which had already turned to go.
It looked like the clean and easy movement of a finished gymnast. It was an affair of a few seconds only, for of course the instant we got a chance at the dogs, without the risk to Jock, both were shot; and he, struggling to get at the others, was haled back to the tree.
While this was going on the impala stood with wide spread legs, dazed and helpless, between Teddy's feet, just as he had placed it. Its breath came in broken choking sobs; the look of terror and despair had not yet faded from the staring eyes; the head swayed from side to side; the mouth hung open and the tongue lolled out; all told beyond the power of words the tale of desperate struggle and exhaustion. It drank greedily from the dish that Teddy held for it emptied it, and five minutes later drank it again and then lay down.
For half an hour it lay there, slowly recovering; sometimes for spells of a few minutes it appeared to breathe normally once more; then the heavy open-mouthed panting would return again; and all the time Teddy kept on stroking or patting it gently and talking to it as if he were comforting a child, and every now and then bursting out with sudden gusty execrations, in his own particular style, of wild dogs and kaffirs. At last it rose briskly, and standing between his knees looked about, taking no notice of Teddy's hands laid on either side and gently patting it. No one moved or spoke. Jock, at my feet, appeared most interested of all, but I am afraid his views differed considerably from ours on that occasion, and he must have been greatly puzzled; he remained watching intently with his head laid on his paws, his ears cocked, and his brown eyes fixed unblinkingly; and at each movement on the buck's part something stirred in him, drawing every muscle tense and ready for the spring internal grips which were reflected in the twitching and stiffening of his neck and back; but each time as I laid a hand on him he slackened out again and subsided.
We sat like statues as the impala walked out from its stall between Teddy's knees, and stood looking about wonderingly at the faces white and black, at the strange figures, and at the fire. It stepped out quite quietly, much as it might have moved about here and there any peaceful morning in its usual haunts; the head swung about briskly, but unalarmed; and ears and eyes were turned this way and that in easy confidence and mild curiosity.
With a few more steps it threaded its way close to one sitting figure and round a bucket; stepped daintily over Teddy's rifle; and passed the koodoo's head unnoticed.
It seemed to us even to us, and at the moment like a scene in fairyland in which some spell held us while the beautiful wild thing strolled about unfrightened.
A few yards away it stopped for perhaps a couple of minutes; its back was towards us and the fire; the silence was absolute; and it stood thus with eyes and ears for the bush alone. There was a warning whisk of the white tail and it started off again this time at a brisk trot and we thought it had gone; but at the edge of the clearing it once more stood and listened. Now and again the ears flickered and the head turned one way or another, but no sound came from the bush; the out-thrust nose was raised with gentle tosses, but no taint reached it on the gentle breeze.
All was well!
It looked slowly round, giving one long full gaze back at us which seemed to be "Good-bye, and thank you!" and cantered out into the dark.
SNOWBALL & TSETSE
Snowball was an 'old soldier' I say it with all respect! He had been through the wars; that is to say, he had seen the ups and downs of life and had learnt the equine equivalent of "God helps those who help themselves." For Snowball was a horse.
Tsetse was also an old soldier, but he was what you might call a gentleman old soldier, with a sense of duty; and in his case the discipline and honour of his calling were not garments for occasion but part of himself. Snowball was no gentleman: he was selfish and unscrupulous, a confirmed shirker, often absent without leave, and upon occasions a rank deserter for which last he once narrowly escaped being shot.
Tsetse belonged to my friend Hall; but Snowball was mine! What I know about him was learnt with mortification of the spirit and flesh; and what he could not teach in that way was 'over the head' of the most indurated old dodger that ever lived.
Tsetse had his peculiarities and prejudices: like many old soldiers was a stickler for etiquette and did not like departures from habit and routine; for instance, he would not under any circumstances permit mounting on the wrong side a most preposterous stand for an old salted shooting horse to take, and the cause of much inconvenience at times. On the mountains it often happened that the path was too narrow and the slope too steep to permit one to mount on the left side, whereas the sharp rise of the ground made it very easy on the right. But Tsetse made no allowance for this, and if the attempt were made he would stand quite still until the rider was off the ground but not yet in the saddle, and then buck continuously until the offender shot overhead and went skidding down the slope. To one encumbered with a rifle in hand, and a kettle or perhaps a couple of legs of buck slung on the saddle, Tsetse's protest was usually irresistible.
Snowball had no unpracticable prejudices: he objected to work that was all. He was a pure white horse, goodness knows how old, with enormously long teeth; every vestige of grey or other tinge had faded out of him, and his eyes had an aged and resigned look: one warmed to him at sight as a "dear old pet of a Dobbin!" who ought to be passing his last years grazing contentedly in a meadow and giving bareback rides to little children. The reproach of his venerable look nearly put me off taking him it seemed such a shame to make the dear old fellow work; but I hardened my heart and, feeling rather a brute, bought him because he was 'salted' and would live in the Bushveld: beside that, all other considerations were trivial. Of course he was said to be a shooting horse, and he certainly took no notice of a gun fired under his nose or from his back which was all the test I could apply at the time; and then his legs were quite sound; his feet were excellent; he had lost no teeth yet; and he was in tip top condition. What more could one want?
"He looks rather a fool of a horse!" I had remarked dubiously to Joey the Smith, who was 'willin' to let him go,' and I can recall now the peculiar glint in Joey's eye and the way he sort of steadied himself with a little cough before he answered feelingly:
"He's no fool, sonny! You won't want to get a cleverer horse as long as you live!" And no more I did as we used to say!
Snowball had one disfigurement, consisting of a large black swelling as big as a small orange behind his left eye, which must have annoyed him greatly; it could easily have been removed, and many suggestions were made on the subject but all of them were firmly declined. Without that lump I should have had no chance against him: it was the weak spot in his defence: it was the only cover under which it was possible to stalk him when he made one of his determined attempts to dodge or desert; for he could see nothing that came up behind him on the left side without turning his head completely round; hence one part of the country was always hidden from him, and of course it was from this quarter that we invariably made our approaches to attack.
So well did Snowball realise this that when the old villain intended giving trouble he would start off with his head swung away to the right, and when far enough away to graze in security a hundred yards or so was enough would turn right about and face towards the waggons or camp, or wherever the danger-quarter was; then, keeping us well in view, he would either graze off sideways, or from time to time walk briskly off to occupy a new place, with the right eye swung round on us like a search-light.
Against all this, however, it is only fair to admit that there were times when for days, and even weeks, at a stretch he would behave admirably, giving no more trouble than Jock did. Moreover he had qualities which were not to be despised: he was as sound as a bell, very clever on his feet, never lost his condition, and although not fast, could last for ever at his own pace.
Experience taught me to take no chances with Snowball. After a hard day he was apt to think that 'enough was as good as a feast' and then trouble might be expected. But there was really no safe rule with him; he seemed to have moods to 'get out of bed on the wrong side' on certain days and, for no reason in the world, behave with a calculated hostility that was simply maddening.
Hunting horses live almost entirely by grazing, as it is seldom possible to carry any grain or other foods for them and never possible to carry enough; and salted horses have therefore a particular value in that they can be turned out to graze at night or in the morning and evening dews when animals not immunised will contract horse-sickness; thus they feed during the hours when hunting is not possible and keep their condition when an unsalted horse would fall away from sheer want of food.
According to their training, disposition, and knowledge of good and evil, horses are differently treated when 'offsaddled'; some may be trusted without even a halter, and can be caught and saddled when and where required; others are knee-haltered; others are hobbled by a strap coupling either both fore feet, or one fore and one hind foot, with enough slack to allow walking, but not enough for the greater reach of a trot or gallop; whilst some incorrigibles are both knee-haltered and hobbled; and in this gallery Snowball figured upon occasion a mournful and injured innocent, if appearances went for anything!
It was not, as a rule, at the outspan, where many hands were available, that Snowball gave trouble, but out hunting when I was alone or with only one companion. A trained shooting horse should stop as soon as his rider lays hand on mane to dismount, and should remain where he is left for any length of time until his master returns; some horses require the reins to be dropped over their heads to remind them of their duty but many can safely be left to themselves and will be found grazing quietly where left.
Snowball knew well what to do, but he pleased himself about doing it; sometimes he would stand; sometimes move off a little way, and keep moving just out of reach holding his head well on one side so that he should not tread on the trailing reins or the long weighted reimpje which was attached to his bit for the purpose of hindering and catching him; sometimes, with a troop of buck moving on ahead or perhaps a wounded one to follow, this old sinner would right-about-face and simply walk off only a few yards separating us with his ears laid back, his tail tucked down ominously, and occasional little liftings of his hindquarters to let me know what to expect and his right eye on me all the while; and, if I ran to head him off, he would break into a trot and leave me a little worse off than before; and sometimes, in familiar country, he would make straight away for the waggons without more ado.
It is demoralising in the extreme to be expecting a jerk when in the act of aiming and Snowball, who cared no more for shooting than a deaf gunner, would plunge like a two-year-old when he was play-acting and it is little better, while creeping forward for a shot, to hear your horse strolling off behind and realise that you will have to hunt for him and perhaps walk many miles back to camp without means of carrying anything you may shoot. The result of experience was that I had to choose between two alternatives: either to hook him up to a tree or bush each time or hobble him with his reins, and so lose many good chances of quick shots when coming unexpectedly on game; or to slip an arm through the reins and take chance of being plucked off my aim or jerked violently backwards as I fired. But it was at the 'offsaddles' on long journeys across country or during the rest in a day's hunt that trouble was most to be feared, and although hobbling is dangerous in a country so full of holes, stumps, and all sorts of grass-hidden obstacles, there were times when consideration for Snowball seemed mighty like pure foolishness, and it would have been no grief to me if he had broken his neck!
To the credit of Snowball stand certain things, however, and it is but justice to say that, when once in the ranks, he played his part well; and it is due to him to say that during one hard season a camp of waggons with their complement of men had to be kept in meat, and it was Snowball who carried for short and long distances, through dry rough country, at all times of day and night, hot, thirsty and tired, and without a breakdown or a day's sickness a bag that totalled many thousands of pounds in weight, and the man who made the bag.
"That wall-eyed brute of yours" was launched at me in bitterness of spirit on many occasions when Snowball led the normally well-behaved ones astray; and it is curious to note how strength of character or clear purpose will establish leadership among animals, as among men. Rooiland the restless, when dissatisfied with the grass or in want of water, would cast about up wind for a few minutes and then with his hot eyeballs staring and nostrils well distended choose his line, going resolutely along and only pausing from time to time to give a low moan for signal and allow the straggling string of unquestioning followers to catch up. When Rooiland had 'trek fever' there was no rest for herd boys. So too with old Snowball: he led the well-behaved astray and they followed him blindly. Had Snowball been a schoolboy, a wise headmaster would have expelled him for the general good and discipline of the school.
On one long horseback journey through Swaziland to the coast, where few white men and no horses had yet been seen, we learned to know Snowball and Tsetse well, and found out what a horse can do when put to it. It was a curious experience on that trip to see whole villages flee in terror at the first sight of the new strange animals one brown and one white; in some places not even the grown men would approach, but too proud to show fear, they stood their ground, their bronze faces blanching visibly and setting hard as we rode up; the women fled with half-stifled cries of alarm; and once, when we came unexpectedly upon a party of naked urchins playing on the banks of a stream, the whole pack set off full cry for the water and, jumping in like a school of alarmed frogs, disappeared. Infinitely amused by the stampede we rode up to see what had become of them, but the silence was absolute, and for a while they seemed to have vanished altogether; then a tell-tale ripple gave the clue, and under the banks among the ferns and exposed roots we picked out little black faces half submerged and pairs of frightened eyes staring at us from all sides. They were not to be reassured, either: the only effect produced by our laughing comments and friendly overtures being that the head which deemed itself pointedly addressed would disappear completely and remain so long out of sight as to make us feel quite smothery and criminally responsible.
It is in the rivers that a man feels the importance of a good horse with a stout heart, and his dependence on it. There were no roads, and not even known tracks, there; and when we reached the Black Umbelusi we picked a place where there was little current and apparently an easy way out on the opposite side. It was much deeper than it looked; however, we were prepared, and thirty yards of swimming did not trouble us; yet it certainly was a surprise to us when the horses swam right up to the other bank without finding bottom and, turning aside, began to swim up stream. Looking down into the clear depths we saw that there was a sheer wall of rock to within a few inches of the surface. Now, a horse with a man on his back swims low only the head and half the neck showing above water and by what instinct or means the horses realised the position I do not know, but, with little hesitation and apparently of one accord, they got back a yard or two from the ledge and, raising first one fore foot and then the other, literally climbed out exactly as a man or a dog does out of a swimming bath hoisting their riders out with them without apparent difficulty. That was something which we had not thought possible, an to satisfy ourselves we dismounted and tried the depth; but the ten foot reeds failed to reach bottom.
When it came to crossing the Crocodile River we chose the widest spot in the hope that it would be shallow and free of rocks. We fired some shots into the river to scare the crocodiles, and started to cross; but to our surprise Tsetse, the strong-nerved and reliable, who always had the post of honour in front, absolutely refused to enter.
The water of the Crocodile is at its best of amber clearness and we could not see bottom, but the sloping grassy bank promised well enough and no hint reached us of what the horses knew quite well. All we had was on our horses food, blankets, billy, rifles and ammunition. We were off on a long trip and, to vary or supplement the game diet, carried a small packet of tea, a little sugar, flour, and salt, and some beads with which to trade for native fowls and thick milk; the guns had to do the rest. Thus there were certain things we could not afford to wet, and these we used to wrap up in a mackintosh and carry high when it came to swimming, but this crossing looked so easy that it seemed sufficient to raise the packs instead of carrying part of them.
Tsetse, who in the ordinary way regarded the spur as part of the accepted discipline, promptly resented it when there seemed to him to be sufficient reason; and when Hall, astonished at Tsetse's unexpected obstinacy, gave him both heels, the old horse considerately swung round away from the river, and with a couple of neatly executed bucks shot his encumbered rider off the raised pack, yards away on to the soft grass water-bottle, rifle, bandolier and man landing in a lovely tangle.
I then put old Snowball at it, fully expecting trouble; but the old soldier was quite at home; he walked quietly to the edge, sat down comfortably, and slid into the water launching himself with scarce a ripple just like an old hippo. That gave us the explanation of Tsetse's tantrum: the water came up to the seat of my saddle and walking was only just possible. I stopped at once, waiting for Tsetse to follow; and Hall, prepared for another refusal, sat back and again used his spurs. No doubt Tsetse, once he knew the depth, was quite satisfied and meant to go in quietly, and the prick of the spur must have been unexpected, for he gave a plunge forward, landing with his fore feet in deep water and hind quarters still on the bank, and Hall shot out overhead, landing half across old Snowball's back. There was a moment of ludicrous but agonised suspense! Hall's legs were firmly gripping Tsetse behind the ears while he sprawled on his stomach on Snowball's crupper, with the reins still in one hand and the rifle in the other. Doubled up with suppressed laughter I grabbed a fist full of shirt and held on, every moment expecting Tsetse to hoist his head or pull back and complete the disaster, while Hall was spluttering out directions, entreaties and imprecations; but good old Tsetse never moved, and Hall handing me the rifle managed to swarm backwards on to Tsetse's withers and scramble on to the pack again.
Then, saddle-deep in the river duckings and crocodiles forgotten we sat looking at each other and laughed till we ached.
The river was about three hundred yards wide there with a good sandy bottom and of uniform depth, but, to our disappointment, we found that the other bank which had appeared to slope gently to the water edge was in fact a sheer wall standing up several feet above the river level. The beautiful slope which we had seen consisted of water grass and reed tops; the bank itself was of firm moist clay; and the river bottom close under it was soft mud. We tried a little way up and down, but found deeper water, more mud and reeds, and no break in the bank; there was not even a lagavaan slide, a game path, or a drinking-place. There seemed to be nothing for it but to go back again and try somewhere else.
Hall was 'bad to beat' when he started on anything he did not know how to give in; but when he looked at the bank and said, "We'll have a shot at this," I thought at first he was joking. Later, to my remark that "no horse ever born would face that," he answered that any way we could try: it would be just as good as hunting for more places of the same sort!"
I do not know the height of the bank, as we were not thinking of records at that time, but there are certain facts which enable one to guess fairly closely.
Tsetse was ranged up beside the bank, and Hall standing in the saddle threw his rifle and bandolier up and scrambled out himself. I then loosened Tsetses girths from my seat on Snowball, and handed up the packed saddle Hall lying down on the bank to take it from me; and we did the same with Snowball's load, including my own clothes, for, as it was already sundown, a ducking was not desirable. I loosened one side of Tsetse's reins, and after attaching one of mine in order to give the necessary length to them threw the end up to Hall, and he cut and handed me a long supple rod for a whip to stir Tsetse to his best endeavours. The water there was rather more than half saddle-flap high; I know that because it just left me a good expanse of hindquarters to aim at when the moment came.
" Now!" yelled Hall, "Up, Tsetse! Up!"; and whack went the stick! Tsetse reared up, right on end; he could not reach the top but struck his fore feet into the moist bank near the top, and with a mighty plunge that soused Snowball and me, went out. The tug on the leading rein, on which Hall had thrown all his weight when Tsetse used it to lever himself up, had jerked Hall flat on his face; but he was up in a minute, and releasing Tsetse threw back the rein to get Snowball to face it while the example was fresh.
Then for the first time we thought of the crocodilesand the river was full of them! But Snowball without some one behind him with a stick would never face that jump, and there was nothing for it but to fire some scaring shots, and slip into the water and get the job over as quickly as possible.
Snarleyow was with us I had left Jock at the waggons fearing that we would get into fly country on the Umbelusi and the back was too high and too steep for him; he huddled up against it half supported by reeds, and whined plaintively.
To our relief Snowball faced the jump quite readily; indeed, the old sinner did it with much less effort and splash than the bigger Tsetse. But then came an extremely unpleasant spell. Snowball got a scare, because Hall in his anxiety to get me out rushed up to him on the warty side to get the reins off; and the old ruffian waltzed around, dragging Hall through the thorns, while Snarleyow and I waited in the water for help.
At that moment I had a poorer opinion of Snowball and Snarley than at any other I can remember. I wished Snarley dead twenty times in twenty seconds. Crocodiles love dogs; and it seemed to me a million to one that a pair of green eyes and a black snout must slide out of the water any moment, drawn to us by those advertising whines! And the worst of it was, I was outside Snarley with my white legs gleaming in the open water while his cringing form was tucked away half hidden by the reeds. What an age it seemed! How each reed shaken by the river breeze caught the eye, giving me goose-flesh and sending waves of cold shudders creeping over me. How the cold smooth touch of a reed stem against my leg made me want to jump and to get out with out with one huge plunge as the horses had done! And even when I had passed the struggling yowling Snarley up, the few remaining seconds seemed painfully long. Hall had to lie flat and reach his furthest to grip my hand; and I nearly pulled him in, scrambling up that bank like a chased cat up a tree.
When one comes to think it out, the bank must have been nine feet high. It was mighty unpleasant; but it taught us what a horse can do when he puts his back into it!
Half-way between the Crocodile and Komati Rivers, a few miles south of the old road, there are half a dozen or more small kopjes between which lie broad richly grassed depressions, too wide and flat to be called valleys. The fall of the country is slight, yet the rich loamy soil has been washed out in places into dongas of considerable depth. There is no running water there in winter, but there are a few big pools long narrow irregularly shaped bits of water with shady trees around them.
I came upon the place by accident one day, and thereafter we kept it dark as our own preserve; for it was full of game, and a most delightful spot. It was there that Snarleyow twice cleaned out the hunter's pot.
Apart from the discovery of this preserve, the day was memorable for the reason that it was my first experience of a big mixed herd; and I learned that day how difficult the work may be when several kinds of game run together. After a dry and warm morning the sight of the big pool had prompted an offsaddle; Snowball was tethered in a patch of good grass, and Jock and I were lying in the shade.
When he began to sniff and walk up wind I took the rifle and followed, and only a little way off we came into dry vlei ground where there were few trees and the grass stood about waist high. Some two hundred yards away where the ground rose slightly and the bush became thicker there was a fair sized troop of impala, perhaps a hundred or more, and just behind, and mostly to one side of them, were between twenty and thirty tsessebe. We saw them clearly and in time to avoid exposing ourselves: they were neither feeding nor resting, but simply standing about and individual animals were moving unconcernedly from time to time with an air of idle loitering. I tried to pick out a good tsessebe ram, but the impala were in the way, and it was necessary to crawl for some distance to reach certain cover away on the right.
Crawling is hard work and very rough on both hands and knees in the Bushveld, frequent rests being necessary; and in one of the pauses I heard a curious sound of soft padded feet jumping behind me, and looking quickly about caught Jock in the act of taking his observations. The grass was too high for him to see over, even when he stood up on his hind legs, and he was giving jumps of slowly increasing strength to get the height which would enable him to see what was on. I shall never forget that first view of Jock's ballooning observations; it became a regular practice afterwards and I grew accustomed to seeing him stand on his hind legs or jump when his view was shut out indeed sometimes when we were having a slow time I used to draw him by pretending to stalk something; but it is that first view that remains a picture of him. I turned at the instant when he was at the top of his jump; his legs were all bunched up, his eyes staring eagerly and his ears had flapped out, giving him a look of comic astonishment. It was a most surprisingly unreal sight: he looked like a caricature of Jock shot into the air by a galvanic shock. A sign with my hand brought him flat on the ground, looking distinctly guilty, and we moved along again; but I was shaking with silent laughter.
At the next stop I had a look back to see how he was behaving, and to my surprise, although he was following carefully close behind me, he was looking steadily away to our immediate right. I subsided gently on to my left side to see what it was that interested him, and to my delight saw a troop of twenty to twenty-five Blue Wildebeeste. They, too, were 'standing any way,' and evidently had not seen us.
I worked myself cautiously round to face them so as to be able to pick my shot and take it kneeling, thus clearing the tops of the grass; but whilst doing this another surprising development took place. Looking hard and carefully at the wildebeeste two hundred yards away, I became conscious of something else in between us, and only half the distance off, looking at me. It had the effect of a shock; the disagreeable effect produced by having a book or picture suddenly thrust close to the face; the feeling of wanting to get further away from it to re-focus one's sight.
What I saw was simply a dozen quagga, all exactly alike, all standing alike, all looking at me, all full face to me, their fore feet together, their ears cocked, and their heads quite motionless all gazing steadily at me, alive with interest and curiosity. There was something quite ludicrous in it, and something perplexing also: when I looked at the quagga the wildebeeste seemed to get out of focus and were lost to me; when I looked at the wildebeeste the quagga 'blurred' and faded out of sight. The difference in distance, perhaps as much as the very marked difference in the distinctive colourings, threw me out; and the effect of being watched also told. Of course I wanted to get a wildebeeste, but I was conscious of the watching quagga all the time, and, for the life of me, could not help constantly looking at them to see if they were going to start off and stampede the others.
Whilst trying to pick out the best of the wildebeeste a movement away on the left made me look that way: the impala jumped off like one animal, scaring the tsessebe into a scattering rout; the quagga switched round and thundered off like a stampede of horses; and the wildebeeste simply vanished. One signal in one troop had sent the whole lot off. Jock and I were left alone, still crouching, looking from side to side, staring at the slowly drifting dust, and listening to the distant dying sound of galloping feet.
It was a great disappointment, but the conviction that we had found a really good spot made some amends, and Snowball was left undisturbed to feed and rest for another two hours. We made for the waggons along another route taking in some of the newly discovered country in the home sweep, and the promise of the morning was fulfilled. We had not been more than a few minutes on the way when a fine rietbuck ram jumped up within a dozen yards of Snowball's nose. Old Rocky had taught me to imitate the rietbuck's shrill whistle and this one fell to the first shot. He was a fine big fellow, and as Snowball put on airs and pretended to be nervous when it came to packing the meat, I had to blindfold him, and after hoisting the buck up to a horizontal branch lowered it on to his back.
Snowball was villainously slow and bad to lead. He knew that whilst being led neither whip nor spur could touch him, and when loaded up with meat he dragged along at a miserable walk: one had to haul him. Once but only once I had tried driving him before me, trusting to about 400 lb. weight of koodoo meat to keep him steady; but no sooner had I stepped behind with a switch than he went off with a cumbrous plunge and bucked like a frantic mule until he rid himself of his load, saddle and all. The fact is one person could not manage him on foot, it needed on at each end of him, and he knew it: thus it worked out at a compromise: he carried my load, and I went his pace.
We were labouring along in this fashion when we came on the wildebeeste again. A white man on foot seems to be recognised as an enemy; but if accompanied by animals, either on horseback, driving in a vehicle, leading a horse, or walking among cattle, he may pass unnoticed for a long while: attention seems to be fixed on the animals rather than the man, and frank curiosity instead of alarm is quite evidently the feeling aroused.
The wildebeeste had allowed me to get close up, and I picked out the big bull and took the shot kneeling, with my toe hooked in the reins to secure Snowball, taking chance of being jerked off my aim rather than let him go; but he behaved like an angel, and once more that day a single shot was enough.
It was a long and tedious job skinning the big fellow, cutting him up, hauling the heavy limbs and the rest of the meat up into a suitable tree, and making all safe against the robbers of the earth and the air; and most troublesome of all was packing the head and skin on Snowball, who showed the profoundest mistrust of this dark ferocious-looking monster.
Snowball and I had had enough of it when we reached camp, well after dark; but Jock I am not so sure of: his invincible keenness seemed at times to have something in it of a mute reproach the tinge of disappointment in those they love which great hearts feel, and strive to hide! I never outstayed Jock, and never once knew him 'own up' that he had had enough.
No two days were quite alike; yet many were alike in the sense that they were successful without hitch and without interest to any but the hunters; many others were marked by chases in which Jock's part most essential to success too closely resembled that of other days to be worth repeating. On that day he had, as usual, been the one to see the wildebeeste and had 'given the word' in time; the rest was only one straight shot. That was fair partnership in which both were happy; but there was nothing to talk about.
There was very little wanton shooting with us, for when we had more fresh meat than was required, as often happens, it was dried as 'bultong' for the days of shortage which were sure to come.
I started off early next morning with the boys to bring in the meat, and went on foot, giving Snowball a rest, more or less deserved. By nine o'clock the boys were on their way back, and leaving them to take the direct route I struck away eastwards along the line of the pools, not expecting much and least of all dreaming that fate had one of the worst days in store for us: "From cloudless heavens her lightnings glance" did not occur to my mind as we moved silently along in the bright sunshine.
We passed the second pool, loitering a few minutes in the cool shade of the evergreens to watch the green pigeons feeding on the wild figs and peering down curiously at us; then moved briskly into more open ground. It was not wise to step too suddenly out of the dark shade into strong glare, and it may have been that act of carelessness that enabled the koodoo to get off before I saw them. They cantered away in a string with the cows in the rear, between me and two full grown bulls. It was a running shot end on and the last of the troop, a big cow, gave a stumble; but catching herself up again she cantered off slowly. Her body was all bunched up and she was pitching greatly, and her hind legs kept flying out in irregular kicks, much as you may see a horse kick out when a blind fly is biting him.
There was no time for a second shot and we started off in hot pursuit; and fifty yards further on where there was a clear view I saw that the koodoo was going no faster than an easy canter, and Jock was close behind.
Whether he was misled by the curious action, and believed there was a broken leg to grip, or was simply over bold, it is impossible to know. Whatever the reason, he jumped for one of the hind legs, and at the same moment the koodoo lashed out viciously. One foot struck him under the jaw close to the throat, 'whipped' his head and neck back like a bent switch, and hurled him somersaulting backwards.
I have the impression as one sees oneself in a nightmare of a person throwing his arms and calling the name of his child as a train passed over it.
Jock lay limp and motionless, with the blood oozing from mouth, nose, and eyes. I recollect feeling for his heart-beat and breath, and shaking him roughly and calling him by name; then, remembering the pool near by, I left him in the shade of a tree, filled my hat with water, ran back again and poured it over him and into his mouth, shaking him again to rouse him, and several times pressing his sides bellows fashion in a ridiculous effort to restore breathing.
The old hat was leaky and I had to grip the rough-cut ventilations to make it hold any water at all, and I was returning with a second supply when with a great big heart-jump, I saw Jock heel over from his side and with his forelegs flat on the ground raise himself to a resting position, his head wagging groggily and his eyes blinking in a very dazed way.
He took no notice when I called his name, but at the touch of my hand his ears moved up and the stumpy tail scraped feebly in the dead leaves. He was stone deaf; but I did not know it then. He lapped a little of the water, sneezed the blood away and licked his chops; and then, with evident effort, stood up.
But this is the picture which it is impossible to forget. The dog was still so dazed and shaken that he reeled slightly, steadying himself by spreading his legs well apart, and there followed a few seconds' pause in which he stood thus; and then he began to walk forward with the uncertain staggery walk of a toddling child. His jaws were set close; his eyes were beady black, and he looked fight all over. He took no notice of me: and I, never dreaming that he was after the koodoo, watched the walk quicken to a laboured trot before I moved or called; but he paid no heed to the call. For the first time in his life there was rank open defiance of orders, and he trotted slowly along with his nose to the ground.
Then I understood; and, thinking he was maddened by the kick and not quite responsible for himself, andmore than that admiring his pluck far too much to be angry, I ran to bring him back; but at a turn in his course he saw me coming, and this time he obeyed the call and signal instantly, and with a limp of disappointment followed quietly back to the tree.
The reason for Jock's persistent disobedience that day was not even suspected then; I put everything down to the kick; and he seemed to me to be 'all wrong,' but indeed there was excuse enough for him. Nevertheless it was puzzling that at times he should ignore me in positively contemptuous fashion, and at others obey with all his old readiness: I neither knew he was deaf, nor realised that the habit of using certain signs and gestures when I spoke to him and even of using them in place of orders when silence was imperative had made him almost independent of the word of mouth. From that day he depended wholly upon signs; for he never heard another sound.
Jock came back with me and lay down; but he was not content. Presently he rose again and remained standing with his back to me, looking steadily in the direction taken by the koodoo. It was fine to see the indomitable spirit, but I did not mean to let him try again; the koodoo was as good as dead no doubt, yet a hundred koodoo would not have tempted me to risk taking him out: to rest him and get him back to the camp was the only thought. I was feeling very soft about the dog then. And while I sat thus watching him and waiting for him to rest and recover, once more and almost within reach of me he started off again. But it was not as he had done before: this time he went with a spring and a rush, and with head lowered and meaning business. In vain I called and followed: he outpaced me and left me in a few strides.
The koodoo had gone along the right bank of the donga which, commencing just below the pool, extended half a mile or more down the flat valley. Jock's rush was magnificent, but it was puzzling, and his direction was even more so; for he made straight for the donga.
I ran back for the rifle and followed, and he had already disappeared down the steep bank of the donga when, through the trees on the opposite side, I saw a koodoo cow moving along at a slow cramped walk. The donga was a deep one with perpendicular sides, and in places even overhanging crumbling banks, and I reached it as Jock, slipping and struggling, worked his way up the other wall writhing and climbing through the tree roots exposed by the floods. As he rushed out the koodoo saw him and turned; there was just a chance a second of time: a foot of space before he got in the line of fire; and I took it. One hind leg gave way, and in the short sidelong stagger that followed Jock jumped at the koodoo's throat and they went down together.
It took me several minutes to get through the donga, and by that time the koodoo was dead and Jock was standing, wide-mouthed and panting, on guard at its head: the second shot had been enough.
It was an unexpected and puzzling end; and, in a way, not a welcome one, as it meant delay in getting back. After the morning's experience there was not much inclination for the skinning and cutting up of a big animal and I set to work gathering branches and grass to hide the carcase, meaning to send the boys back for it.
But the day's experiences were not over yet: a low growl from Jock made me look sharply round, to see half a dozen kaffirs coming through the bush with a string of mongrel hounds at their heels.
So that was the explanation of the koodoo's return to us! The natives, a hunting party, had heard the shot and coming along in hopes of meat had met and headed off the wounded koodoo, turning her back almost on her own tracks. There was satisfaction in having the puzzle solved, but the more practical point was that here was all the help I wanted; and the boys readily agreed to skin the animal and carry the four quarters to the camp for the gift of the rest.
Then my trouble began with Jock. He flew at the first of the kaffir dogs that sneaked up to sniff at the koodoo. Shouting at him produced no effect whatever, and before I could get hold of him he had mauled the animal pretty badly. After hauling him off I sat down in the shade, with him beside me; but there were many dogs, and a succession of affairs, and I, knowing nothing of his deafness, became thoroughly exasperated and surprised by poor old Jock's behaviour.
His instinct to defend our kills, which was always strong, was roused that day beyond control, and his hatred of kaffir dogs an implacable one in any case made a perfect fury of him; still, the sickening awful feeling that came over me as he lay limp and lifeless was too fresh, and it was not possible to be really angry; and after half a dozen of the dogs had been badly handled there was something so comical in the way they sheered off and eyed Jock that I could only laugh. They sneaked behind bushes and tried to circumvent him in all sorts of ways, but fled precipitately as soon as he moved a step or lowered his head and humped his shoulders threateningly. Even the kaffir owners, who had begun to look glum, broke into appreciative laughter and shouts of admiration for the white man's dog.
Jock kept up an unbroken string of growls, not loud, of course, but I could feel them going all the while like a volcano's rumbling as my restraining hand rested on him, and when the boys came up to skin the koodoo I had to hold him down and shake him sharply. The dog was mad with fight; he bristled all over; and no patting or talking produced more than a flicker of his ears. The growling went on; the hair stood up; the tail was quite unresponsive; his jaws were set like a vice; and his eyes shone like two black diamonds. He had actually struggled to get free of my hand when the boys began to skin, and they were so scared by his resolute attempt that they would not start until I put him down between my knees and held him.
I was siting against a tree only three or four yards from the koodoo, and the boys, who had lighted a fire in anticipation of early tit-bits which would grill while they worked, were getting along well with the skinning, when one of them saw fit to pause in order to hold forth in the native fashion on the glories of the chase and the might of the white man. Jock's head lay on his paws and his mouth was shut like a rat-trap; his growling grew louder as the bombastic nigger, all unconscious of the wicked watching eyes behind him, waved his blood-stained knife and warmed to his theme.
"Great you thought yourself," proclaimed the orator, addressing the dead koodoo in a long rigmarole which was only partly understood by me but evidently much approved by the other boys as they stooped to their work, "Swift of foot and strong of limb. But the white man came, and there!" I could not make out the words with any certainty; but whatever the last word was, it was intended as a dramatic climax, and to lend additional force to his point the orator let fly a resounding kick on the koodoo's stomach.
The effect was quite electrical! Like an arrow from the bow Jock flew at him! The warning shout came too late, and as Jock's teeth fastened in him behind the terrified boy gave a wild bound over the koodoo, carrying Jock like a streaming coat-tail behind him.
The work was stopped and the natives drew off in grave consultation. I thought that they had had enough of Jock for one day and that they would strike work and leave me, probably returning later on to steal the meat while I went for help from the waggons. But it turned out that the consultation was purely medical, and in a few minutes I had an interesting exhibition of native doctoring. They laid the late orator out face downwards, and one burly 'brother' straddled him across the small of the back; then after a little preliminary examination of the four slits left by Jock's fangs, he proceeded to cauterise them with the glowing ends of sundry sticks which an assistant took from the fire and handed to him as required. The victim flapped his hands on the ground and hallooed out "My babo! My babo!" but he did not struggle; and the operator toasted away with methodical indifference.
The orator stood it well!
I took Jock away to the big tree near the pool: it was evident that he, too, had had enough of it for one day.
( I | II | III | IV )
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