"Good luck," said the junior officer, "but I back the animals; they are very wary and very fierce."
"What is the betting?" cried the hunter.
"Oh no, my friend!" exclaimed the senior. "Keep your money for to- night; and don't drown yourself. We must have one game, you know."
"Very well. By the way, Compton?"
"You and Venning may as well amuse yourselves by getting the stores on board in case we leave to-morrow."
"That depends on how the game goes," replied the officer. "If you win, we must keep you for a return match."
"That is only fair. But I may lose; so, my lads, go on with the packing."
The boat went off up the river hugging the banks, and the whole village sat down to watch the stalk, all but a few who went to and fro between Venning at the house and Compton in the boat, carrying the stores. The two officers turned in, with mats drawn, to enjoy their siesta, and the guards on duty sought the shade of the trees by the bank to watch the hunt.
The hunt was not a matter to be decided out of hand, by a swift paddle straight up to the sand-bank in the river, and a chance shot.
The canoe crept up slowly and passed out of sight. The old hunters in the watching crowd took counsel together, and then the chief of them announced what would happen. The "slayer of crocodiles" would, he declared, get above the island and then slowly descend with the current upon the river-horse.
"May he shoot straight and his powder be strong," shouted a river- man; "for it is the father of bulls who sleeps there—he who has eaten many canoes."
"It is the same," said the old hunter; and, taking a pinch of snuff, he began to tell the deeds of the old bull hippo.
So the drowsy afternoon passed lazily away to the watchers, and wearily to the white boys. Their thoughts were in the canoe, and, moreover, they were irritated by the slowness of the men who carried the parcels. No man would carry more than one package at a time, and after each journey he sat down to rest and discuss the chances for and against the feast.
When the shadows were creeping across the deserted square—deserted save for the man bound to the post, Venning for the hundredth time looked across with an aching desire to rush over and cut the bonds. As his eyes ranged sadly over the bronzed figure, he detected a movement in the shadow of a hut opposite. Looking more attentively, he saw the round ears of a jackal, and then made out the sharp face resting between the outstretched paws, and the yellow eyes fixed intently on the chief.
Muata lifted his head slowly, as if it were top heavy for the muscles of his neck, and his gaze went sideways to see if any watched.
Venning nodded eagerly from the shelter of the room; made a movement with his hands as if he were cutting; pointed up the river and spread his arms like a swimmer.
Muata let fall his head again, with his chin on his naked breast; and the carriers ranged up for the last load. A shout from the bank made them hurry. Several people who had gone to see about their fires rushed, yelling, across the square to the bank.
"It was as I said," shouted the old black hunter. "See where he creeps down-stream on the bull." "Wow! he has hidden the canoe in leaves. It is as a tree floating."
"Ow ay, we smell meat!" sang a big man, stamping his feet.
"We smell meat—red meat, fat meat; the red meat of the fat cow for the women; the tough meat of the old bull for the men;" and the women clapped their hands.
The Belgian officers were awakened, and stepped out of their darkened rooms. They found the village empty, save for Venning stooping over his last parcel, and Muata at his post with what looked like a yellow native our lying at his feet.
"The bull opens his mouth!" chanted the old hunter. "He wakes from his sleep! There is the smell of man on the wind! He looks around! He sees a tree borne on the current! He will surely eat lead!"
Venning picked up his parcel and followed the officers. Out of the comer of his eye he saw the seeming yellow cur lift its head and smell at the thongs which were bound about the prisoner's legs. Then he hurried on.
"Wow! the bull drives, the cow into the water. He is cunning. Ow ay, he knows."
"What does he know, old talker?" asked one of the officers.
"The cow is fat," laughed the old man. "The hunter would shoot the fat cow first, and so the bull makes her take the risk. He is wise."
"He is shameless!" screamed the women.
"See them?" said Compton, offering his glasses to Venning and pointing up-stream.
Far up Venning saw three dark objects on the shining glance of the vast river. One, the canoe fringed with branches, slowly drifting upon the other two, raised but a few feet above the water on a gleaming yellow sand island. One hippo, with its huge head swinging, was standing up, looking not unlike an overfed prize pig. Then the other rose, and the two walked towards the water.
"Wow! the old bull keeps on the safe side. I said it; he is wise."
"Shameless!" cried the women.
"Wherefore does the crocodile-slayer delay? Surely he knows the body will sink in the river if it reach the water."
"The smoke! He fires!"
"The cow is down! To the boats children—to the boats!"
Men and boys made a rush, and, out of a tremendous uproar of splashing and shouting, half a dozen canoes were flying at full speed for the cow's meat, altogether indifferent to the future proceedings.
"The smoke again! The bull has it! He is down; he is up; he is in the water! Wow! Look out, O 'slayer of crocodiles!'"
"But the cow lies still!" cried a woman, anxiously.
"Oh ay, there will be meat for the feast. But what of your man in the canoe if the bull seize him?"
"It is his risk," said the woman, calmly.
Venning dropped the glass, and he and Compton stood looking from the island to the old hunter, who seemed to know every point in the game better than they could follow through the glasses.
"Ah, it is well. They tear the branches from the canoe. They row straight for the island. The white man jumps—the men tumble out— wow-wow!—the bull takes the canoe in his jaws. It will go hard with those who go for the meat if he get among them."
"The white man leaps in the water!" shouted another. "But he holds his gun above him. He reaches the sand; the others crawl up also. They run! I do not see the bull!"
"There are crocodiles!" shrilled a woman, pointing with an arm heavily ringed with brass bangles.
"This is not their fight, mother."
"But they will take our meat."
"It is the bull I think of." "Will he meet the canoes, or will he face the three on the island? The white man sees the canoes; he waves them to go back, but they smell meat; they keep on." "What is this? He points his gun at them. They stop; they turn back."
"A pity," said one of the officers, with a grin. "We should have seen sport."
"But the sport is not over," said the other. "I back the bull. Remember how he put you to flight, my friend. What is the meaning of this, old man?"—this to a hunter.
"Surely, O great one, it means one thing. The white man is afraid the canoes would draw the bull away. He wishes the bull to land—to attack him."
"More fool he, ay, my friend," said the officer, with a sneer.
"One of the men on the island is pointing," said Compton, who had taken up the glasses again. "I see something in the water where the canoe went down."
"I said it," shouted the old black; "the bull will fight. Stand, fast, O white man, for it is either you or he."
Those watching saw the bull land and hurl himself with amazing swiftness at Mr. Hume.
"Why doesn't he shoot?" yelled Compton.
"Wow! the white man springs aside. The bull squeals; he staggers; he is down. Behind the ear. I say it. There the bullet went in. There will be much meat." The old man took snuff, and cast a proud look around as if he alone had done the deed.
"By Jove!" muttered Venning, wiping his forehead. "It seemed a near squeak."
The two officers went back to their cool rooms, and the crowd broke up, the women and children going off dancing to collect firewood. The little fleet of canoes descended on the island, and in a few minutes the carcasses were hidden by bands of naked men, who slashed and cut, while crocodiles, attracted by the blood, appeared from all directions. In a very short time the fleet returned, and Mr. Hume, standing in a heavily laden craft, ran a greater risk than when he faced the savage old bull, for the gunwales were flush with the water, and the men were utterly reckless as they dashed along at the head of the flotilla.
As the men leapt ashore, women seized the meat, and the village at once entered upon the wild orgy of the feast, forgetting Mr. Hume and all else in the one desire to start their jaws on the half- cooked flesh.
"Is all aboard?" asked Mr. Hume, as he jumped ashore.
"Everything," said Compton. "We watched your shot, sir; it was splendid."
"Well, that part of the plan has gone off all right. It will be a more difficult job to free Muata and get away ourselves."
Venning described how he had seen the jackal approach the chief, and as he and Mr. Hume went into the village, leaving Compton in the boat, they cast an anxious glance at the square already agleam with fires in the growing dusk. Muata was still at the post, his head drooping and his body relaxed.
"That's bad," muttered the hunter; "he looks quite exhausted."
"Perhaps he's shamming."
"Let us hope so. In any case we may have to wait until past midnight, as I am afraid our hosts will not let me off. It would be better if we could get away early."
Fortune favoured them, for as the Zanzibar boy approached with a message from the officers, there arose the sound of rifle-shots from the forest beyond. The people in the square shouted a reply, and presently a party of men, dressed in long white robes, appeared. They halted in the square, and the leader came on alone. He stooped to stare into the face of Muata as he passed, then approached.
"Welcome, Hassan! My people are feasting; thanks to the skill of my friend here;" and the Belgian who had come forward indicated Mr. Hume.
The Arab peered into Mr. Hume's face and salaamed, with an evil smile on his wide, thin-lipped mouth.
"I am thankful," he said in the native dialect, "for your kindness in bringing back my slave"—pointing towards Muata.
"It was a small thing," said Mr. Hume.
"But it pleases me; and when you reach my zareba, all that is mine to command is yours."
He looked at Venning, and the boy noticed that the pupils of the eyes had a white speck, which gave to them a sinister appearance.
"Good," said the Belgian. "We will have a night. Pardon me for a short time while I discuss a little matter touching the reward for Muata with my friend Hassan."
The two went off, the Arab casting a ferocious look back at the chief.
Venning tugged at the hunter's arm. "Look," he whispered.
Muata was slipping down the post, as if his legs had utterly given way. The party of new-comers were stacking their arms at the "indaba" house at the end of the square, and the village people were talking, laughing, and eating. Muata reached the ground, but not in a state of collapse, for the next instant the two watchers saw him crawl to the shadow of a hut, where he remained as if stretching his limbs.
"Come," said Mr. Hume, in a fierce whisper, recovering from his surprise; and the two went swiftly to the river.
Compton had already cast off and was holding by the boat-hook.
"Bring her in."
The Okapi ran her stern into the bank, and the two stepped aboard, Mr. Hume going forward to the wheel, with his rifle in his hand.
"Shove her off; run as silently as you can out of hearing, and then work the levers."
Compton looked inquiringly at Venning as he picked up the oars, and then at the village, from which came a loud babble.
"Is he free already?"
"Good;" and then they bent themselves to the oars with every nerve on the quiver, and their eyes on the shore.
Obediently they stopped the way of the boat and backed her, wondering what had gone wrong. A turn of the wheel sent them in among the canoes. There was a flash of steel, a plunge of the strong arm down into the boats, accompanied by a ripping noise. Then the hunter waded ashore, and with his great hunting-knife ripped up the boats lying on the bank. Quickly he was back at his place.
Again they pushed off, the boys with their excitement increasing after this interlude, which showed them the imminence of danger. A few long strokes took the Okapi well out; then she was put about with her nose up-stream.
"The levers now, my lads!"
They perched themselves on the saddle-seats, and at the clanking of the levers the beautiful craft slipped swiftly up-stream.
Then out of the dark there rose the mournful howl of a jackal, almost instantly replied to by a similar call at a distance.
"The chief calling to his jackal," said Mr. Hume. "Thank Heaven, he has got away. Now I will let him know we are also off;" and he, too, gave the jackal hunting-cry.
Back out of the darkness came the chief's exultant war-cry, and on it a furious shout from the village, followed by the discharge of a rifle, and the rolling alarm of a war-drum. Then shone out the glare of torches at the river bank, and a savage yell announced that the men had discovered the injury done to the canoes.
One of the purchases made in London had been a lamp with very fine reflectors. This Mr. Hume fixed on a movable bracket within reach of his arm as he sat at the wheel, and when the lights at the village faded astern, he lit the lamp, in order to thread a passage by its light through the dark waters. As the noise of shouting, the drumming, and the report of fire-arms died down, other sounds reached their strained hearing—the booming of the Congo bittern, the harsh roar of a bull crocodile, and the cries of water-birds.
Then Venning laughed—a little short nervous laugh. "We have done it," he said.
"We have, indeed," said Compton.
"But if we can only pick up Muata and his jackal, we should be all right. Just a nice party."
The rudder-chains clanked; the boat set up a heavy wash as she turned from her course. There was a splashing, and something snorted almost in Venning's face.
"Nearly ran into a hippo!" sang out Mr. Hume. "We must keep out into mid-river; it's too risky inshore. Tell me when you are tired."
"We're quite fresh yet," replied Compton. "It is easier than sculling."
"Moves like clockwork," said Venning, gaily. "I could keep on all night."
"We'll have to keep on all night and all to-morrow," muttered Mr. Hume; and in a few minutes he relieved Compton, making him put on a heavy coat before taking the wheel. "It's the chill that is dangerous. In an hour you will relieve Venning."
Turn and turn the boys relieved each other at intervals, but Mr. Hume swang to his lever till the dawn, when the mast was stepped, the sail spread, and the spirit-lamp got out for the making of coffee. After breakfast the awning was spread, the mosquito curtains stretched round, and the boys were ordered to sleep. They demurred at first, but the hunter rather sharply insisted, and no sooner were they stretched on the rugs than they were asleep. The yoke had been slipped over the rudder, and, using the lines, Mr. Hume sailed the Okapi single-handed, taking her across the lake-like width till he was under the wooded hills of the south bank, where he beat about for an hour or so in the hope that Muata might have covered the distance at the native's trotting-pace. It was, he told himself, not likely, however, that the chief could have done so, after being for hours bound to a post; and after a time he beat out again into mid- stream afar off, so that no village natives should spy upon the craft. He did not share in the triumph of his young companions. Too well he knew that they had risked everything by their secret departure; but he could not see that any other course was open to them, as if they had remained it would have been difficult for them to prove that they were not concerned in Muata's escape. He knew, too, that if he had abandoned the chief, as the price of security, the boys would have lost all faith in him.
What, however, he did feel was, that the responsibility rested on him. If a mistake had been made it was his mistake, and if the boys suffered from it the blame would be his.
So he beat out into mid-stream, where the sail of the low-lying craft would be but a speck when viewed from the shore, and with a beam wind laid her on a course which she kept almost dead straight, with a tack at long intervals only. In the shade of the awning the boys slept the dreamless sleep of the healthy, and he let them sleep on till the sun stood almost above the mast, sending down a blaze that scorched. Then he beached the Okapi on the shelving shore of a sand-spit, without vegetation of any kind to give shelter to mosquitoes, and awoke them.
"All hands to bathe!" he shouted; and the three of them were soon in, and no sooner in than out; for, according to the hunter, the virtue of a bathe was not in long immersion, but in friction. "With their heads well protected, but their bodies bare to the sun, the friction was obtained by rubbing handfuls of the dry, clean sand over limbs and body till the skin glowed.
"Now I will snatch a few winks while you work the levers, until the wind springs up again."
Mr. Hume stretched himself forward under the awning after unstopping the mast; and the two friends, after tossing a bucket of water over the canvas awning, took their seats, clad in pyjamas and body-belts only, and bent gaily to the levers which "click-clanked" merrily. Their feet were naked, for Mr. Hume had taught the lesson that the feet should be cool and the head protected; their arms were bare to the elbow, of a fine mahogany hue; their movements were brisk; but the best evidence of health was in the clearness of their eyes. Fever shows its touch in the "gooseberry" eye, dull and clouded; in the moist pallor of the skin, and in a general listlessness. Even if they are free from fever, white men in Central Africa often grow listless because of insufficient nutriment. Their flesh-diet is chiefly the white meat of birds, and their blood-cells are really starved by the small amount of nitrogenous matter. A deficient diet in its turn is a frequent cause of diarrhoea and constipation, two of the most common complaints among new chums. In his hunting expeditions Mr. Hume had learnt his lesson from experience, and he accordingly was a martinet on the rules of health. All the drinking- water was first boiled. The boys could wear as little as they liked during the heat of the day, so long as they protected their heads and necks, but on the approach of evening they had to get into warm and dry under-garments; they had to keep a sharp watch for the striped "anophele" mosquito, were taught to spray the puncture, if they were tapped by the mosquito lancet, with chloride of ethyl, and had to submit occasionally to a hypodermic injection of quinine. The nitrogen they got from condensed meat juices.
"This is very much more like what I expected," said Venning, looking from the broad river to the distant wooded banks, and from the dark forest to the blue sky.
"I can see two string of duck, a whole crowd of ibis on a little island, a crocodile and a hippo."
Compton, who was facing the stern, glanced over his shoulder, then directed his gaze aft again.
"We seem to be traveling slowly," he growled.
"There's no hurry, is there?"
Compton raised his head a little, and looked under the shelter of a hand.
"They're coming," he said briefly.
"Eh?" Venning stopped, and looked back. The water glimmered under the sun like a vast silver sheet. "I can see nothing."
"Don't you see a dark smudge. Well, that is the smoke from a steamer. I thought at first it came from a land-fire. But it does not. Send her along."
Venning quickened up, and for some minutes pedals and levers worked at almost racing speed.
"We cannot keep this up. Give him a call!" Venning shouted, and Mr. Hume looked round.
"Bid you call?"
"They are after us," and Venning jerked his head back, while still bending to his work.
The hunter loosened the canvas awning, and stood up for a long look aft. Then he faced about, and threw a quick glance up-river.
"Keep her straight for that wooded island," he said, pointing ahead towards the south bank; and Venning pulled the steering-line to place the Okapi on a new course.
Mr. Hume took in the awning and packed it away. "Now, my lads," he said, "we'll just face the position. That's the fort launch racing up, and she could overhaul us in two hours. If we surrender we should be safe from violence, but they would probably confiscate our boat or detain us for weeks. If we resist they would be justified in running us down. What shall we do?"
"Escape," said Compton.
"Of course," Venning chimed in.
"By attempting to escape," continued Mr. Hume, "we as good as admit that we aided and abetted Muata, and, if captured, they would make it harder for us."
"At any rate, we meant to free Muata."
"Besides, we must escape," said Compton, with determination.
The perspiration was rolling off their faces, for, as soon as they worked at high pressure, they felt the pull of the screw.
"Come forward, both of you," said Mr. Hume, rolling up his sleeves. "Compton, you take the wheel, and Venning, you get out the guns."
They obeyed him, and he, kneeling on the aft-deck between the two levers, grasped one in either hand, and got more speed out of the Okapi than they had by their united efforts. The muscles stood out like ropes on his brawny arms, and the levers smoked in the slots.
"Keep her to the north of the island."
The boat hummed along, drew up to the nose of the island, skirted its reedy side, where stood a hippo eating at the rank grass, and then dropped it astern.
"Good," said Mr. Hume, with a great grunt of satisfaction, as he swept his eyes over the river.
"See those dark spots ahead? They must be the first of the thousand islands that stretch away right up to the Loanda river. If we can get into them we are safe."
"Can I help?" asked Venning, having set out the rifles in the well, with the ammunition handy.
"Whistle for a wind. That's all. Fix your eyes on the islands, Compton, and slip in where they are thickest."
"Ay, ay," muttered Compton, frowning under the stress of his excitement.
Venning searched for the field-glasses, and as the island they had passed sank low astern, he swept the river for sign of the pursuing launch.
"By Jove!" he muttered, with a start.
"She has shifted her course. I can see the white of her hull right under the trees on the south bank."
"She must have gained a lot, then," grunted Mr. Hume, "if you can see her hull."
"She's making out again. Perhaps she put in to speak a native village, and maybe they have not seen us; we are low in the water."
"They'll see us soon enough. Tell me when she passes the island we just left."
"She's making across. No, she's turning. Ah, now she's pointing straight for us. I can see several people in her bows."
"Now turn your glasses on the islands ahead."
Venning turned round, and looked up-stream.
"Is the launch nearer than the islands?"
"I can see a stork standing on the edge of the water. The first of the islands is nearest." He turned again to watch the launch. "There is more smoke—they are stoking up."
The launch was unquestionably coming up hand over hand, and it was not long before Venning could see the foam at her bows, and the flag of the Congo Free State flying at her stern. Then he saw a ball of smoke.
"She is firing!" he yelled.
Compton never took his eyes off the little cluster of reeds ahead that marked the first of the thousand islands.
"Keep her going!" he shouted.
Mr. Hume smiled grimly, for he was doing the work of two men.
"They are loading the gun!" cried Venning. "Oh, if I only could help!" He buttoned and unbuttoned his coat, then picked up the sculls, and fell to rowing with fierce energy. "The smoke!" he cried. Then, a moment later, "What's that noise?" as a menacing sound with a shrieking whistle to it smote on his ears.
There was no need for an answer. The shot struck the water about a hundred yards short, and skipped by, wide of the Okapi, but still too near to be pleasant.
"Keep on!" shouted Compton, fiercely.
The levers clanked furiously, and Venning, who had suspended his sculling under the menace of the shot, tugged again at his work.
The steam-whistle of the launch sounded a series of sharp, jerky calls, followed by the firing of a Mauser bullet. Venning's heart was pumping blood at express speed under the violence of his efforts, and his eyes in a wild stare were fixed on the approaching craft, which had now brought its living freight within recognizable distance. He could distinguish the two Belgian officers and the swart face of the Arab chief, Hassan. He could see the men with rifles, aiming, as it seemed, straight at him, and then he ducked his head as he saw the smoke once more belch from the seven-pounder. At the same moment he was nearly capsized by the sudden swerve of the Okapi, as she almost turned on her keel. The shot struck the water so close that the spray drenched them. Compton looked round and shouted aloud—
"They're aground! Hurrah!"
Venning, recovering himself, saw the men on the launch hurled to the deck.
"Hurray!" he shouted.
"Keep on!" shouted Compton; and, after another five minutes' burst, the Okapi swept behind one island and passed in between two others. "Now," he said, "give me the levers."
"You're welcome," said Mr. Hume, wiping the moisture from his brow and taking a huge breath.
He went forward to the wheel, and threaded the Okapi through narrow passages between islands of all shapes and sizes, until after having got into such a fastness as would be impracticable for the launch to reach, he ran the boat on a shelving sandbank. Then, before anything else was attempted, the awning was fixed, and they settled down for a needed rest. Next the boys smacked each other on the back.
"Was it by accident or design, Compton, that you led them into the shallows?"
"I saw we could not reach the shelter of the island, and was feeling bad, when I caught a ripple on the water to the right. I edged the Okapi on after the first ball shot was fired, and as we drew nearer I was sure there was a long sandbank. When I made that sharp turn as the second shot was fired, I could see the outline of the bank just under water, and turned to avoid it."
"It was a mercy you altered our course just at that moment, Compton."
"Wasn't it? It was touch and go. We stood to be run down or knocked into smithereens in another minute;" and Venning shook Compton's hand.
"Did you see them go over like ninepins," laughed Compton, "when they struck? But I'm not claiming any credit, you know. If it had not been for Mr. Hume——"
"We all did our share," said the hunter, "and we have every cause to be thankful; but we must not imagine that the chase is over."
THE THOUSAND ISLANDS
They shoved off again, and Compton, being the least tired, took the sculls and pushed on slowly in search of an anchorage for the night. They passed many likely places, but Mr. Hume had one objection or another to them, and the spot that finally satisfied him was a small wooded island flanked by others of larger size, and so placed that if they were menaced from any side there would be an opening for escape in the opposite direction. The channel into which they steered was so narrow that the branches of the trees joined overhead, and when they tied up, the Okapi was completely hidden. Before forcing their way into the leafy tunnel, they had taken down the awning, but now, after having broken away many branches, they refixed the canvas roof and drew the mosquito-curtains round, after which they sought out and killed all the insect pests that remained within the nets. There was no danger in showing a light, and accordingly the lantern was hung amidships, the spirit-lamp lit, to prepare a nourishing and at the same time "filling" soup. They made a hearty meal, got into warmer clothing, oiled the rifle-barrels, arranged their rugs, and prepared for the night, which came on them with a rush, heralded by the noise of birds seeking their accustomed roosting-places. Such an uproar the boys had not before heard. It seemed as if the Zoological Gardens had emptied its noisiest inhabitants. Parrots flew across the river, every one talking at the top of its voice, while colonies of ibis croaked out the news of the day in gruff, discordant notes; cranes flying laboriously, with long legs trailing, emitted their deep "honks;" frogs lifted up their voices from out the reeds, and at intervals came the booming cry of the shovel-beaked bittern, and the harsh, baboon-like bark of the green-crested toucan. The noise of the home-going of the winged multitudes ceased as the night drew its black mantle over the river.
Out of the spell of silence there grew presently other voices, soft whisperings, deep sighings; mysterious sounds telling of things stealthy and oppressed by the stillness; abrupt splashings that startled by their suddenness: grunts, rumblings, and the roar of bull crocodiles. It must not, however, be supposed that there was a continuous succession of sounds. Each noise had its own place, and there would be often long intervals between one sound and another.
Venning, who had the first watch, found this out. He would hear a startling splash, followed by a snort and the snap of jaws; then all would be quiet for several minutes, when, from another direction, would come perhaps a heavy sigh; then another interval of silence, again a splash, and so on until the impression grew on him that the beasts and reptiles who made the noises were working slowly towards him in a circle.
It was his first night on guard in the wilderness, and he felt the uneasiness of the hunter who discovers how limited are his senses compared with those of the wild creatures about him. Man, himself the most secret, the most cunning, the most deadly, and, if truth must be told, the most bloodthirsty, for he kills too often for the love of killing, is the most helpless in the dark. His sense of hearing, of sight, and of smell, fail him—thanks to a wise provision of Nature in the interests of her other children—for if man had the eyes of a cat, the nose of a wolf, and the hearing of a deer, he would have cleared the earth of its creatures, who would have had no rest night or day.
All the time, too, the river talked, as it rolled its great flood along, sending up a soft volume of song from the innumerable sounds produced as it washed along the islands and foamed against the rocks of the shores. Presently, down the narrow channel, there came a rush of water which rocked the boat, and next Venning heard close at hand a strange noise, which he took to be made by a large animal cropping at the river-grass. He looked about for a weapon, and, picking up the long boat-hook, lashed his hunting-knife to the iron hook at the top, converting it into a lance. He had read of hippos swamping boats by seizing the narrow bows or keel in their vast jaws, and he wished to be prepared for a possible attack. Presently the boat again rocked as another animal took to the water, then the new-comer dislodged the other with a snap of the jaws, and the first, with a complaining grunt, surged down the channel. Venning could see nothing in the inky blackness, but he knew the beast had seen the Okapi from the short note of alarm it sounded. Immediately the alarm was repeated. Snorts and splashes arose from all sides. Some great beast who had been standing unnoticed within a few yards of the boat, crashed through the bushes into the water with an uproar that woke the sleepers.
"What is it?" cried Compton.
Mr. Hume made a dart for his rifle.
The Okapi rocked and heaved, was lifted at the bows to fall back with a splash.
"Hippo," gasped Venning, making a drive with his weapon through the mosquito curtains. "Got him!—no!—missed!"
"What's that you've got there, Venning?"
"Sort of harpoon."
"By gum!" said Mr. Hume, taking the weapon, "I'm glad you missed the beggar. I would not give much for our chances if he turned crusty in this place."
The hippo reappeared aft with a snort, and, much to their relief, continued down the channel into the wider waters.
"Find the watch pleasant?" asked Compton, sleepily, as Mr. Hume turned in.
"Awfully cheerful," said Venning, earnestly; "but I'm not selfish, and you can take your turn at it on the tick of the hour."
Compton dived for his rugs, and Venning once more returned to his duties with his harpoon over his knees, and a string of winged visitors entering joyously by the hole he had made in the curtain. He pinned his handkerchief over the rent to stop further free entrance, then made war on those which had entered—an amusement which carried him well into the fourth and last hour of the first watch. Then he sat up to listen for the old sounds—the groans and the snorts—but they had ceased. A mist, like a wet blanket, had settled down over the Okapi, over the islands and the river; and, though any sounds made on the water were startlingly distinct, confined as the sound-waves were by the mist, the creatures had evidently gone to sleep. There was, however, one visitor faithful to him. The light of the lantern, which showed the rolling wreaths of the mist, just reached the water, and in the reflection he saw two greenish points. After long looking, he made out that these were the eyes of a crocodile, whose body was half in and half out of the water, the tail end of him being anchored on the little island. At eleven o'clock he roused Compton by dragging at his ankle.
Compton sat up, rubbed his eyes, and drew his rug over his shoulders.
"What's the countersign, comrade?" he asked, with a yawn.
"Yes; when the watch is relieved he has to say something or other, as a guide to the new man."
"Oh, I see. Well, let me introduce you to the companion of your watch. See those green points out there?"
"Yes—like dull glass."
"That's your new chum. He's been there an hour without moving, and it's no good trying to stare him down."
"What is it?"
"Crocodile. Good night. Wish you joy;" and Venning crept under his waterproof sheet with a sigh of relief.
Neither of the two boys smoked, taking the advice of Mr. Hume, who persuaded them that tobacco acted as a poison when used too early, and spoiled good hunting. It lowered the action of the heart, affected the hearing and the sense of smell. In place of a pipe, therefore, Compton found comfort in chewing, not tobacco, but a meat lozenge. As he chewed he watched the two little dull green spots, and the crocodile watched him with the deadly patience that so often brings grist to the mill, or, rather, food to his jaws.
It was not a pleasant companionship, and Compton, after a long attempt to stare the reptile down, turned his back to it and watched the efforts of several large moths to get at the light through the mosquito curtains. He could not so much see them as hear them, from the way they bumped into the net, and the little soft splash they made as they dropped into the water. By-and-by there came another sound, made by some large fish, who had also been attracted by the light, and then by the fat moths.
The news that these were good eating quickly spread under water, and presently there was quite a gathering about the boat. Then Compton turned to look at his unwelcome watcher. He was still at his post, his eyes still fixed in an unwinking stare, but seemingly brighter than before. Yes, he was evidently nearer. He was moving! Compton picked up the boat-hook with its dagger-ended spear, and prepared for the attack. Slowly, almost without a ripple, the reptile slithered into the water; then came a rush, a snap of jaws, a swirl of waters, and something heavy and wet came right through the mosquito nets, landing in the well of the boat with a tremendous whack.
"Look out," yelled Compton; "keep out of his reach."
"What the dickens is it now?" roared Mr. Hume, as a series of resounding thwacks arose out of the well.
Compton drove his harpoon into the well, and held on like grim death, as the impaled thing lashed out to free itself.
"A crocodile!" he shouted. "I can't hold him down much longer."
"Crocodile be blowed!" shouted Mr. Hume, unhooking the lantern and directing its light into the well. "It's a fish."
"But," said Compton, "I saw the crocodile. It came straight for the boat. Venning saw it too."
"It was over there," said Venning, peering into the dark.
"Then the fish must have jumped aboard to escape the crocodile. Anyway, we can have fish-steak for breakfast," and Mr. Hume quieted the fish with a blow on the head.
"I made sure it was the crocodile," said Compton, in an aggrieved tone. "Look at the hole in the curtains; there'll be tons of skeeters aboard."
"You turn in and I'll smoke," said the hunter, who smoked enough for three; and, with his pipe filled and lit, he took up the watch.
Once more the little party settled down to pass the night, and this time there was no disturbance until, in the chill of the early morning, the sleepers were awakened to get in the awning, to make all shipshape aboard, and to prepare breakfast. The fish was not handsome-looking, but he cut up into really good steaks, which were grilled on a gridiron fitted over the stove, and, with hot coffee and a biscuit apiece, they ate a meal which made them proof against the depressing surroundings.
Both Compton and Venning, as soon as there was light enough, took a careful look around for the crocodile; but though that wily brute was probably near, he did not show himself. They could, however, see the track made by the hippo when he had broken through into the water, and Mr. Hume, stepping ashore, went up this track to spy around. He returned with the report that the natives were signaling from village to village by columns of smoke sent up from fires fed with damp wood to make a heavy smoke.
"They will be keeping a sharp look-out, and we had better remain here."
"It seems to me," said Compton, "that we have been here already a week."
"Quite that," said Venning.
"The time has seemed long because you have been receiving new impressions."
"I thought it was a fish I received," murmured Compton.
"Each impression," continued the hunter, "is a sort of milestone in your memory, so that an hour crowded with several of these milestones will appear to be longer than a whole blank day. You will get used to such interrupted nights—that is, if our journey does not end here."
"Oh, come, sir, we have dodged them beautifully."
"The feeling of security is the beginning of disaster," said Mr. Hume, oracularly. "The rule of the bush is to keep your eyes skinned."
"What is the order of the day, then?"
"The order of the day is to watch and wait. Venning will crawl on to the little island on our right and watch the south hank. You, Compton, will take the head of the large island on our left, and I will watch from the other end. If any of us see danger, we will give the whistle of the sand-piper. Each will take water and food, and each, of course, will keep himself hid."
"We take our guns, of course?"
"Best not. A gunshot would bring a host down upon us. Don't be discouraged," continued the hunter, as he saw the boys' faces drop. "We have got the advantage of position, and we've got grit—eh?"
He nodded cheerfully, and they smiled back, and then each crept out to his allotted post. The first part of the watch was by no means bad—so the boys decided when they had settled down, Venning under a bush palm and Compton behind a log. There was a pleasant freshness in the air; and as the broad river uncoiled under the mist, it disclosed fresh beauties, till the lifting veil revealed the wooded heights and the tall columns of smoke, grey against the dark of the woods and black against the indigo blue of the sky. They marked where the hippos stood with their bulky heads to the sun, and saw the crocodiles on the sands of other islands lying motionless with distended jaws. And then the birds came to the hunting. Strings of dark ibis, of duck, and storks; small kingfishers all bejeweled, and greater kingfishers in black and white. The air was full of bird- calls, of the musical ripple of waters, of the hum of the forest moved by the morning wind.
By-and-by, however, the sun got to work in earnest, and the pleasure went out of the watching as the air grew hot and steamy. The sand- flies and the mosquitoes found them out, and blessed the day that brought two tender white boys into their very midst. They gathered to the feast in clouds, but these boys were not there for the fun of the thing. They drew gossamer veils over the brims of their felt hats, and gathered them in about their necks. They pulled their soft high boots up to their knees and secured them there; and, moreover, they smeared an abomination of grease and eucalyptus oil over their hands. The mosquitoes set up a shrill trumpeting that could be heard ten paces away, and held a mass meeting to protest; whereupon the father of all the dragon-flies, a magnificent warrior in a steel- blue armour, saw that a conspiracy was afoot, and swept into the midst with a whirr and a snap, a turn here and a flash there, that scattered the host in a twinkling of a gnat's eye.
The islands shimmered in the glare as if they were afloat; the hippos took to the water, and a deep and drowsy silence fell upon the great river. But man, ever restless, was astir, and through the stillness there was borne to the three a soft continuous humming, that merged quietly into the short, clamorous throbs of an engine at work under pressure.
The launch was afloat again! Mr. Hume caught the trail of the smoke first, and Compton next. They marked the course under the north bank right up to a bend about six miles off, and they judged that the launch had stopped there, as the smoke went up in a straight thin column. Then Venning saw a canoe dart out from the south bank, followed by two others from different points. The sun struck like fire on gun-barrel and spear-head, and gleamed on the wet paddles. He moistened his parched lips with a taste of water from his filter- bottle, and gave the call. The answer came, and he drew his friends to him with a low whistling. As they came crouching, he pointed upriver.
"Three canoes put out. Two are hidden behind that outside island, and there is the other creeping round the end."
"Oh ay," said Mr. Hume. "If they're after us, they will have placed outlooks in the tallest trees;" and with his glass he swept the forest.
"They could not see us at that distance."
"But they could see our boat as soon as we appeared in open water. We'll stay where we are."
"Then we shall need our guns."
"It is not our guns that will save us, my lad, but strategy. Any one could fire off a rifle, but it takes nerve to keep cool in readiness to do the right thing at the right time."
"But," said Compton, obstinately, "we don't want to be caught undefended."
"Leave this matter with me," said the hunter, sternly. "See that crocodile asleep on that stretch of sand? He's our best protector. Why? Because he is asleep. The natives, seeing him, would think we were not near. We will, however, keep watch together."
They returned to the boat, made all ready for an instant departure, in case they were discovered, then settled down to wait and watch once more. Gradually the strain wore off, the old silence fell upon the scene, and their eyes grew heavy from sheer monotony. The night had seemed long, bat the day was worse.
Then the boys rubbed their eyes and lifted their heads. Where there had been a bare stretch of water white under the sun between two islands a quarter of a mile off, there appeared a long canoe, with a tall spearman standing in the bows, and a full crew behind.
The man in the bows looked straight down the channel to their lair, where in the narrow cut the Okapi lay hidden behind a screen of leaves. Then he moved his hand to the right, and the canoe, silently, without a ripple almost, skirted the island on that side, into whose reedy sides the men darted their glances. Again the hand was moved, and the long boat crept across to the island on the left, which was swept by the sharp suspicious eyes of the natives. Again the bowman directed his gaze into the narrow opening, and this time he looked long. There was one small island to pass, and if the canoe kept on the north side, it would have to come right into the hiding- place; if it kept to the south, it would reappear at the end of the passage by which the Okapi had entered.
In either case, the danger of discovery seemed certain. The three pairs of eyes from behind the tall grass were glued to the man's face. They saw him start, then move his hand to the left, and as the canoe went stealthily out of their view round the south side, they heard the sullen plunge made by a crocodile as, disturbed from his sleep, he took to the waters.
Then the three crept back to the boat. "Pull her through the screen," whispered the hunter, as he caught up his rifle, "but make no noise;" and he took up another position ashore, this time facing the other end of the channel.
With great caution the boys coaxed the Okapi through the trailing branches, so that she would be hidden from view if the natives looked up the channel. Then they waited and waited for ages before the hunter showed himself.
"Well?" they asked in a whisper.
"They have passed on."
"And?" they said, watching his face.
"I don't quite like it. They may have no suspicions, but I think they have; for one man pointed up in this direction."
"If they suspected anything they would have stopped surely."
"Perhaps not. The native doesn't like the look of a trap, and it maybe that they passed on with the intention of returning at night. Or they may have gone for the other boats." Mr. Hume stood up to glance shorewards.
"Would it not be better to move on?" said Venning.
"If we could be sure that we should not be seen from the land, that would be the move." He stroked his beard. "I guess we'll move," he said, "just about dusk, for I'm pretty sure in my mind that they did take particular notice of this channel, and my policy is always to listen to your instincts."
"Instincts," muttered Compton; "call them nerves."
Mr. Hume laughed. "About the time you were born, Dick, I was playing a lone hand in Lo-Ben's country as trader and hunter, when a loss of nerve would have meant loss of life. See! So just leave this to me, and shove her along."
Compton grinned back at the hunter, and tugged at his oar, for the levers clanked too loud for this work. They crept along to another berth a little way off, and tied up in the shadow of the bank; and they had scarcely settled themselves when they heard again the beat of engines. The launch was returning, and was returning in answer to a signal that the game had been found! A pungent smell of smoke suddenly reached them, and, standing up, they saw over the reeds that a fire had been made on one of the neighbouring islands.
That was the signal!
Glancing shorewards they saw that more canoes were putting off—dark smudges on the water, but growing clearer as the crews dashed the paddles. But there were enemies even nearer. As they pulled the Okapi closer into the shadows a boat swept into view, and, evidently obeying directions given from the island where the fire was, took up a position overlooking the first hiding-place of the Okapi. All the time the launch drew nearer, racing evidently to take advantage of the brief spell of light before the dark, and the canoes raced from the shore to take part in the great man-hunt. As they drew near, the fleet scattered, some going up-stream, others down, and the remainder dashing straight on in among the islands.
As they scattered to take up their positions, there came a report from the launch's gun.
It was the signal for the drive to begin, and as the echo rolled away, a deep silence followed the previous uproar. The savage look- out men, standing erect in the sharp bows of the long canoes, motioned to the paddlemen to stop, and all heads were turned to the wind to catch any sound in case the hunted should attempt to move away. Fierce eyes were directed towards one spot, where the fire blazed on the island over against the place where the Okapi had laid up.
Not a whisper had come from the three in the boat. After they had first seen the signal smoke, which told them so plainly that Mr. Hume's suspicions were justified, they had crouched low, watching every move that was visible to them.
A canoe rounded their hiding-place and crept stealthily by towards the narrow passage with its screen of bushes, every man fixing his gaze directly ahead, the broad nostrils quivering, and spears grasped in the hands that were not busy with the paddles.
Then through the silence there came the sharp yap of a dog who has struck the scent, and next the loud, excited bark. Too cautious to land on the suspected island themselves, some of the canoe-men had drawn near from the north side and thrown a cur on the island to find the white men in their supposed hiding. The dog had, of course, struck the spoor and found the dark hiding, empty, but suspicious- looking. In his fear he gave tongue. The gun from the launch fired, a yell rose from every side, and all the canoes near dashed forward.
Mr. Hume shoved out, and the Okapi slipped up-stream undetected under the uproar, darting from one island to another, and keeping as near the banks as possible. They were doing splendidly! The enemy was behind; it seemed that they must reap the advantage of their caution and resourcefulness, when, without any intimation of danger, they came right upon a canoe lying in mid-channel between two of the innumerable islands.
"Back-water!" cried Mr. Hume, at once.
The boys obeyed without, of course, any knowledge of the course, and the Okapi slackened down.
"Well met, my friends," came a voice they knew; and the two looked over their shoulders.
"Dished, after all!" muttered Compton, bitterly; then he snatched up his rifle.
"Hassan thought you would come along this way," went on the junior officer—for it was he; "but I doubted, and yet here you are."
"The praise be to Allah," remarked Hassan, piously, as he glanced along his rifle.
The Okapi had lost the little way she was making, and began to move with the current away from the canoe. Mr. Hume suddenly spoke for the first time since his order.
"Turn that canoe round!" he roared; and his Express leapt to his shoulder. The boys followed suit.
The paddle-men promptly ducked their heads, and one of them called out in his lingo that this was the slayer of crocodiles and of the great bull.
"But, my friend——" began the Belgian, who now, together with Hassan and several Arabs in the stern of the canoe, came under the levelled barrels.
"Oblige me," said the hunter. "Compton, cover that Arab Hassan with your rifle, and Venning, take the man to the right. If they move their weapons, shoot."
Hassan snarled and turned a furious face to the Belgian. "This is your folly!" he hissed. "Why didn't you fire at once?"
Mr. Hume repeated his orders in the native tongue, and the cowed men, using their paddles, turned the long canoe round.
"Now, keep straight on in silence, till I tell you to stop. Follow them"—this to the boys, who immediately picked up their sculls.
The Belgian glanced back. "Come," he said, "this is not amiable. See, we could, had we liked, have caught you in an ambush."
"And so your friend Hassan advised you, eh?" replied Mr. Hume; "but you thought we would surrender at discretion. You see, you were mistaken. Now just listen to me. Do not look back again, or this rifle may go off. Out with the sculls, lads."
Hassan growled out curses at this complete turning of the tables upon him, but the natives bent to their paddles. They bad no wish to be shot down in the cause of the slave-hunter, however ready they would have been to have fallen on the Englishmen if the advantage had been with them.
The darkness was coming on fast as the strange procession passed up the channel to thread the intricate passages among the clustering islands. In a few minutes the canoe would be almost hidden from sight; but the very last thing Mr. Hume wanted was to keep company.
"Baleka!" he cried. "Quicker! I have your heads in one line. One bullet would stretch you all dead. Quicker!" he roared.
The broad paddles flashed, the water churned fiercely, and the long canoe shot off into the dusk; and as it sped on the hunter pulled the wheel over, altering the course of the Okapi, and taking it towards the open water between the islands and the south bank.
"By Jove! you did that splendidly," said Compton. "I thought it was all over."
Venning laughed that little nervous laugh of his. "I wonder why they gave in like that?"
"We had the drop on then," said Mr. Hume, grimly; "and we knew our own minds. Now, then! up with the sail, and, dark or not, we must get on."
Very smartly and silently the boys hoisted the sail, and as the Okapi beat up they heard a great uproar from the left. Apparently Hassan was using violent language to the Belgian officer for not having ambushed the "dogs of Englishmen." Then several rifle-shots were fired from the canoe, and answered from the people down-stream, who were still searching for their prey. But the Okapi slipped on, making a musical ripple under her bows, until she beat up under the great wall of woods on the south bank, when she tacked away into the gathering darkness, feeling for the wind. Down-river was the glare of fires at different spots, where the men had landed from the different canoes; but there was no light ahead through the whole vast width of the river, and they dare not even rig up their own lamp to get what little guidance it could give. The wind was fitful, and the direct progress was slow, so that when the glow went out of the sky they were still within hearing of the shouting. Indeed, it seemed that the shouting gained on them, as if the men in Hassan's boat were keeping their place in the renewed pursuit, and directing other crews as to the line they should take.
Then the sail napped idly against the mast as the wind died down, and as they unstepped the mast before depending on the screw, a fire sprang out right ahead, sending up a tall column of flame that flung its reflection far across the waters.
"We must make out into the islands again," said Mr. Hume; but, as the boat pointed on the new course, an answering flame sprang up, and then another and another at brief intervals, until from the fire on the bank there was a semicircle of flame from island to island barring their advance.
"There must be an army out," muttered Venning.
"It is one canoe, but most likely Hassan's, firing the dried reeds as they pass from island to island."
"Then the flames will die out soon."
"Yes, they will die down; but in the mean time other canoes will come up, and if there are men on the shore waiting, they will see us outlined against the reflection."
Even as he finished there came a shrill cry from the shore, followed by the wild beat of the war-drum, and next by the sound of paddling.
"Shall we make a bolt for it?" asked Compton.
"Not yet," said the hunter; and he brought the Okapi stem on for the deep shadows under the bank.
The oars moved softly, covered by the noise of the paddling, and the Okapi slipped out of the reflection into the darkness, while the canoes dashed straight on, passing about one hundred yards behind her stem.
"Easy now," whispered Mr. Hume, "and keep quite still."
The oars were drawn in as the Okapi, caught in a current, was borne right into the bank at a spot where the trees came down to the brink. Mr. Hume caught a branch, and the stern swung round. Before them, about a quarter of a mile off perhaps, was the great fire they had first seen, still fed by natives, whose dark figures stood out and disappeared as they moved about. Out on the river they could hear the noise of paddles, and of men calling to each other.
Near them on the bank something moved, and above the swishing of the current they heard the low whine of an animal.
Mr. Hume pricked his ears at the sound, and crept into the well, where the boys sat anxiously watching.
"Put on your coats," he muttered.
Again there came the whine, then the sound of an animal scrambling, and next the patter of feet.
"A dog," whispered Venning.
"I advise keeping on," said Compton.
"And I," replied Mr. Hume, "advise that we have something to eat. Will you serve us, Venning?"
They ate hungrily, for through the day they had been too much excited to think of food. And as they feasted their eyes were on the move, and their ears on the stretch. Their manoeuvre had apparently succeeded, for the canoes were all beating up towards the fires under the belief that the Okapi had kept on, and there was no suspicious movement by the people on the shore. So they remained where they were, keeping themselves in position by holding on to the branches. To the boys it was a weird scene, with the blood-red glow on the waters and the sense of vastness and of wildness. They were not afraid, but they could not help a feeling of weariness, and they edged nearer the hunter for the comfort of his presence. For a long time they watched, sitting silent; and by-and-by the fires on the islands died down one by one, until only the flare on the bank remained as a beacon to those on the river. Then the sound of paddling drew near again.
Again the whine came from behind the screen of trees, and there was a rustling among the branches.
Taking a bit of the dried meat he had been eating, Mr. Hume tossed it through the leaves. There came a sniff, a snap of the jaws, and a whimper. The hunter shifted his rifle till it pointed through the boughs.
"Peace," said a low voice. "It is Muata and his beast. They hunt me yet."
"Us also, O chief!"
The canoes came rushing in. Already some of the crews had landed near the fire; but others were coming down-stream, hugging the banks for safety, or, maybe, having a last look for the Englishmen.
"It is Muata!" cried Venning, in a joyous whisper. "Muata and his jackal. What luck!"
A canoe went by some distance out, after it another, and as they swept into the darkness, a third announced its presence, coming more slowly and closer in. While it was nearly opposite the hiding the howl of the jackal rose from out the bush, wringing a startled exclamation from the two boys by its suddenness.
"What devil's noise is that?" sang out a voice they recognized as that of the Belgian officer.
A sharp order was given, the paddles ceased, and the canoe, looming long and black on the water, drifted towards the Okapi.
"I have heard that cry before," said a rasping voice. "Be ready with your weapons. Allah the merciful may yet deliver those we seek."
"What would they be doing here inshore?" asked the Belgian.
"They would be here because it is here they would not expect us to search. I think I see something gleam."
In the water by the shore there was a faint splash, and again the jackal whined.
Mr. Hume pressed his hand on Compton's shoulder, forcing him into the well; and he did the same by Venning.
"Surely," said the Belgian, "it is something. Shall we call in the other canoes, and guard the place till daylight?"
"I will have them now," said Hassan, with fury.
"They will not look on another sun;" and he gave the order to his men to kill when they closed in. "It is they who let free the thief of the forest—the dog Muata."
"You lie, O woman stealer; Muata freed himself;" and out of the water, out of the blackness, came the voice, without warning, "Muata is here, by your side, man-thief."
The Arab fired, and the flash from his discharged rifle flamed into the water, into which he peered with features convulsed.
"Kill him!" he yelled.
"Muata!" cried the paddlers. "Haw! To the shore, to the shore, or we perish! The water-wolf, he!"
"Yavuma!" cried the voice from the water; and the canoe heeled over as the chief rose under the sharp bow. "Yavuma!"—he wrenched a paddle from one of the men and hurled it at the Arab. The crank craft rolled as some of the excited men in the stem tried to use their spears. "Yavuma!"—this time with a triumphant whoop, and the canoe turned over!
With a couple of powerful strokes the swimmer had his hand on the Okapi.
"O great one," he cried, "Muata is come to work and to watch—to be your shield and your spear."
Mr. Hume reached out a strong hand and pulled the chief on board.
Muata gave a low cry, and with a frightened whimper the jackal shot out from the bank and lighted on the deck. Then the Okapi slid out silently into the river.
"By Jenkins!" gasped Venning.
"It beats all," laughed Compton. "Well done, Muata."
As the capsized crew struggled to the shore they yelled abuse and threats, but their power for mischief had gone with the loss of their weapons. Some of them went off down the bank shouting for the canoes that had gone on, and others made their way to the fire; but Mr. Hume and Muata took a spell at the levers, heedless of the noise made, and under their powerful arms the boat was soon far out in the waste of waters—safe, at any rate, for that night.
THE BULLS AND THE WILD DOGS
After an hour or so Muata was sent forward as look-out, and with his jackal by his side, apparently aiding him in his task, he showed such eyes for the night that they kept on safely till the morning, when the sail was hoisted, and by breakfast-time they judged they had covered about forty miles—quite enough for safety. They ran the Okapi in among the islands which still stretched away as far as they could see, and made fast, to eat and to sleep. The noon heat woke them. They sat up under the awning and talked of the great drive, of Muata's escape, and of his wonderful luck in finding them—though he made out that there was nothing strange about it, since from the woods he had seen the preparations for the hunt, and had, too, made out the Okapi in the dusk. For the rest, his jackal had scented out the white man's lair, and all he, the chief, had to do was to upset the canoe of the Arab.
"That was no great work for Muata—the otter, the water-wolf," he said.
"And how did the chief escape?"
"Before the shouting arose that Muata was gone, he found a calabash of fat for the cooking, by the door of a hut. Some fat he rubbed on the soles of his feet to kill the scent. Then he sent the jackal into the woods and crawled into a hut, being stiff from the binding. In the hut he remained, rubbing the fat into the joints, till the people came back to the feast."
"The feast was made by us, so that while the people ate we could loosen your bonds."
"Wow! Never yet have I known any to give such thought to a stranger."
"It is our way to stand by those who stand by us."
"It is a great word that;" and the chief turned the thought over in his mind. "Ow aye! They came again to the feast, and Muata went out into the woods in peace."
"And was that all?"
"There was a man gathering fruit in the morning as I passed through a garden, and his knife I took."
"And what did the man do?"
"He took a message to my father, the chief," said Muata, enigmatically. "The chief's son has been like a hunted dog. His stomach hungers for red meat. His spirit thirsts for the hunt. Wow! O hunter, set your shining boat for the shore, and let us follow the trail. There be buffalo in the lands beyond the hills which line the river."
"That's a splendid idea!" cried Venning. "I'm beginning to get mouldy. A trip ashore would be ripping, now that we have distanced our pursuers."
"I second that motion," said Compton, with a longing glance shorewards. "Do you know, sir, that we have not shot a thing since we entered the Congo?"
"I have no objection," said the hunter. "And we must have a good supply of biltong before we enter the forest; but we cannot afford to take risks. Just examine the shore for a creek, and at dusk we will run across."
The boys passed the afternoon searching the south bank for signs of a creek, and in the evening the Okapi shaped her course across to a likely spot they had marked out. But though they found a creek, it was not one that commended itself as a hiding to Mr. Hume, and it was not till after a wearisome hunt for hours in the dark that they found a channel leading through the hills which he agreed to follow up; and then, when they had entered about a mile, Muata, with his jackal, was landed to "feel" around for native paths or villages. Muata, after a long absence, reported all safe as far as he could judge, and they tied up. In the morning they found themselves in the thick of the woods, and pushed on down a dark and sluggish stream strewn with fallen timber, till they came to a pool in a gorge. Here they resolved to leave their boat.
They took the Okapi to pieces, stowed them away in a dry cavern in the krantz, covered them with the tarpaulins, and pushed on down through the gorge on foot, emerging beyond the hills which bordered the Congo into a rolling country, park-like in appearance. They studied the land well before they continued, first for signs of native villages, and next for game. Smoke rose far away to the right, but nearer, the country seemed deserted, and as plenty of game appeared in sight, they determined to camp on the slopes of the hill. So they looked about for a good pitch, and made choice of a sunny spot at the foot of a rocky cliff, not far from the stream they had followed, and well screened from view by a thicket of bush in the front. They stowed away their blankets in a small cave at the base of the cliff, and then started off for the first hunt, the boys in a fine state of excitement. They struck into a game-path leading through thick scrub, and five minutes from the start there was a sullen snort, a tremendous crashing in the woods, as if, at least, a herd of elephant were stampeding. Mr. Hume dashed down the game- path, and before the boys could see what manner of beast it was, he had fired and bowled it over with a bullet behind the ear.
"A bit of luck," he said, as they reached him.
"What is it?" asked Venning, glancing around with bright eyes.
"A buffalo, over there."
The two boys saw a dark form on the ground, half hidden by a bush, and were running forward.
"Quietly," said the hunter. "Always approach dangerous game cautiously when they are down—especially buffalo;" and with his finger on the trigger he went up slow-footed.
But the buffalo was stone-dead—a great bull with an immense boss between the bend of his sharp horns.
"It's the luck of hunting," said Mr. Hume, as the boys walked round the great beast. "Some days you never get a shot, and other times you find game at your back door, so to speak. One of you boys will stay with Muata to skin and cut up. It will be a good lesson."
The two looked at each other, and then away over the plain. Skinning and cutting up was not exactly amusing.
"All right; I'll stay," said Venning.
"Each in his turn," said the hunter. "Come along, Compton;" and they went off, as Venning turned up his shirt-sleeves.
It was hard work, this cutting up, but Muata was a master at the job, and Venning learnt his lesson thoroughly.
The great hide was taken off in one piece without a slit; then long strips of meat were cut off and hung over the branches of a tree. When the rest of the meat had been stripped off, they packed it all away in the hide, slung the bundle to a sapling, and, with each end of the pole on a shoulder, they slowly carried the whole to the camp. Venning hoped that his labours were over; but they had only completed one task. They had now to build a scaffolding on which to hang the strips, after each had been well peppered to keep off the flies, for the drying and smoking. This took another slice out of the day; and when Venning had washed in the river, and cooked and eaten his buffalo-steak, he resigned himself to the study of insects in place of the pursuit of game, while Muata, who had melted down the fat from the kidneys, sat and rubbed the oil into his limbs till his skin shone.
"Have you seen many buffalo?" asked Venning, with a keen eye on a bit of crooked stick that had seemed to move.
"And you understand their ways?"
"I have watched as you watch the stick that is not a stick."
Venning picked up an insect—a strange creature which had adapted itself to its surroundings by pretending to be a dried twig.
"Tell me what you saw."
"I saw the twin bulls when they were calves, and I saw them when they led the herd, and when they lost the leadership. I watched them. Ow aye, I knew their ways. Sometime, when I was yet a boy, I could understand what they said."
"What they said, chief?"
"See, the creatures are like men in their ways, and men are like animals—each man like to one kind of animal. Haw! So I judged what the buffalo would say if he could talk like men."
"And what was the talk? Tell it me; for I also have given speech to animals when I have watched alone."
"I will tell you what I thought when I was young, and watched the things of the forest. The wisest among the people I have met is a woman; and among the things of the forest, the wisest were even a buffalo cow who never had calf, and the mother of the yellow pack, who had white eyes in her long head. Haw!
"Now, the pack hunted on the same veld where a troop of buffalo grazed, but the bull who led the troop was wise. He took counsel with the old cow that was calf-less, and the pack could never find the fat heifers or the younger calves unguarded. In the troop were two young bulls—brothers; and these I had watched grow—watched from my hiding. They were strong and fierce, and they eyed the old bull full. Scarcely would they turn from his path. Wow! One morning the old bull stood in the game-path, considering in his mind how it came to happen that the earth had been fresh turned. While he stood, the young bulls pressing behind suddenly put their horns to his flanks and urged him forward. Mawoh! The old bull stepped on to the newly turned earth, and went down into a pit that the hunters had dug. He called to the troop to run from the danger, and they crashed through the wood to the open glade.
"Haw! A young dog of the pack heard the bellow from the earth, and creeping near, he looked down upon the great bull. Then, with his nose to the ground, he ran upon the trail of the troop till he saw them in the opening. The young bulls moved among the cows. They pushed the old cow aside, and later went through the tall grass into a shallow vlei, where they wallowed in the mud. Then the young dog ran back to the pack. This is what he said, as I understood—
"'Behold, O mother,' he said, 'the great bull, even the leader, is fallen in the trap made by man in the path.'
"Who leads the troop now—the old cow or the two brothers?"
'The young bulls, O mother, and they lie in the mud.'
"Then the she-dog called the pack together. I heard the call, and knew there would be hunting. She called them and made a plan. I saw afterwards the plan she made. The young dogs she sent round to the far side of the vlei, and she came with the biggest of the pack to the side nearest the forest. From the edge of the wood she looked out on the open. The old cow stood alone, with her head turning now this way, then that way. The others grazed with their calves. The heifers stood foot-deep in the water near the bulls.
"The old dog turned to the pack. 'This comes of the folly of the young,' she said; and her white eyes ran from dog to dog. 'Those two lie like pigs. We will eat buffalo to-night. Scatter and wait.'
"Three dogs went to the right of her and three to the left. They stretched themselves in the grass. The old cow blew through her nostrils. She struck the ground, and the cows with the young calves ran to her. They gathered in a bunch, heads out. From beyond came the hunting-cry of the young dogs. The heifers moved, but the bulls kept still.' It is but a dog yapping after a hare,' they said. 'Stand you still.'
"But the hunting-cry drew nearer. The cows lowered their heads, bellowing, and the heifers ran. Wow! The young dogs cut one out, and raced her right to where the great mother of the pack crouched. As the heifer came by, the white jaws snapped at her belly, and bit deep, so that blood flowed, and on the scent of the blood the pack went into the forest. They ate buffalo that night.
"The young bulls rose from the mud. They ran to and fro in the open; their eyes were red, and the foam dripped from their black lips. Wow! they were angry, Ow aye, they were covered with shame and mud. The old cow moved away, and the cows with young followed her. The heifers, trembling in their limbs, would have followed also, but the bulls headed them off. There was much talk in the forest over this. They said the bulls had learnt wisdom. No dog would take a member of the troop again. The bulls tossed their horns. 'If a lion comes,' they said, 'we would beat him off.'
"The pack tried again, and were beaten off; but the old she yawned. 'In a few days, my children,' she said, 'we will eat buffalo, even of the meat of the young bulls. There never were two leaders in a pack'—and her white eyes went to a dog who had hopes of the leadership—'never; and in a day, or two days, these brothers will fight. They will fight hard; and when the fight is done the pack will steal upon them. When they stand panting, with lowered heads and feet wide apart, we will bite at the softness of their bellies.' She licked her lips, and the tongues of the pack curled over their lips also. So the young dogs were set to watch upon the brothers; and it came to pass as the old mother said—the brothers fought. It began in play. One swung his head at the other, and the other swung back.
"When a grown bull swings his head, O white boy, who picked me out of the sea, it is like the blow of a falling tree. There is the weight of his head with the heavy horns, the arch of his neck, and the power in his shoulders where the muscles lie. The blows roused the fury in them. They looked sideways at each other, then their tails went up, and they came together. Wow!! The noise rang far. The hunting dogs ran swiftly to the pack, and as they ran there followed them the noise of the fight.
"I stole near to watch. It was a battle. The ground was torn up as in the hoeing, where their hoofs clung for a footing under the pressure. First they pushed, head to head, nose near the ground, red eyes looking into red eyes. The heifers stood in a cluster watching. It was a still battle. They saved their breath, and as they breathed the dust flew. For many minutes they pushed, swaying, one losing ground for a time, then gaining it back. The foam gathered on their lips and dropped to the ground. The sweat ran under their bellies. Then one slipped, and the other struck under the shoulder. From the lower rib to the back there ran a white mark. The white mark turned black, and blood came out. At the pain of it the stricken bull grunted and struck up. His horn struck under the body, and with the cracking of his joints he heaved the other over. Haw! He rolled him right over and sprang at him. Wow!! He struck and stood back. The other was on his feet swiftly. With the swiftness of a little cat he gained his feet. So they stood with their heads up, staring with red eyes. Again they came together. Again they shoved and strained, and the dust caked on the blood that covered them. The ground beneath them that was dry, was now muddy from the trampled blood. Then they swung their heads and struck, grunting at the blows, and stood apart, and came together, till the blood started from their ears. Their breath came in gasps, and the silence was broken. From their lips, all blood-covered, there came a moaning. Ow aye, the moaning of a mother over her dead. The heifers ran forward, then back; they ran round and galloped away, afraid—galloped into the forest.
"In my heart, O white friend, I was sorry for the brothers. The moaning was the cry of sorrow that one felt for the other. 'O my brother, I must slay you,' that was the meaning of the moaning. Their tongues rolled out, swollen; their legs shook, their eyes were covered with mist. Yet they swung their heads, and each time the horns were wet with blood, and the moaning came always. Then they came together, and went on their knees. Their muzzles were in the mud; their hind legs were wide apart.
"Ow aye, I looked away and saw the white eyes of the mother of the pack. She was creeping up. Her lips were wet; the hair on her neck stood up. Behind her came others. I gave the low growl of a lion— the cry he makes when he is angry at being disturbed. She threw up her head and sniffed the air. Then she growled in her throat, for there was no taint of lion in the air, but the taint of man! Her white eyes found me out where I sat in a low tree, and there was death in them. So I gathered the air in my lungs and shouted. A man's shout is as much dreaded as the lion's roar. The dogs jumped up, but the old mother called to them, and they crouched down. The brothers stood moaning head to head. I shouted again; I whistled. Then the bulls drew apart. One fell slowly on his side; the other smelt at the fallen one. Then he tried to bellow, but his tongue was thick in his mouth. The she-dog crept forward, and I whistled loud. This time he flung up his head and looked around. He saw the white eyes above the grass; he saw the round ears everywhere around. Then he smelt at his brother. Wow! He smelt at him; he licked the blood from his nostrils.
"This is the law among the wild things—when one is down he is down. The weak are driven forth by their fellows; the hurt are left. The bull smelt at his brother; then again he flung his head up to look at the white-eyed one, and he moved away for the vlei, moaning as he went. The dogs let him pass; their eyes scarcely went to him, for they were fixed on the fallen. They moved upon him in silence, a few steps at a time, then crouched with hanging tongues; then a few more steps; and as they closed in the fallen bull watched those he could see. Meat for dogs! He a chief in the forest, who could toss the largest dog the height of a tree! Wow! He gathered his hind feet under him and lifted. Slowly he reached his feet, and the white-eyed mother ran in open-mouthed. She gripped the sinews of his hind leg and held on. The pack crowded in. Haw! It was no fight. The bull looked after his brother, who was slowly moving to the vlei, moaning as he went. Then, but for a little time, he fought as a chief should fight when his foes are on him. With a swing of his head here, and a swing there, he stove in the ribs of two of the pack; then he sprang on another, flung him, as a boy would a stone, into the air, watched him go up, watched him come down, then flung him up again, and fell forward on his knees with his nose on the ground, and the pack snapped the flesh from him in mouthfuls. The other bull turned not at the howling of the pack. He walked on slow and straight to the vlei, drank deep, and made a bed in the mud. He covered his wounds with mud, and when his wounds were healed he was an outcast. The troop had another leader, and the old cow led them all to another grazing-ground."
"And what became of you, Muata?"
"Muata stayed in the tree. Mawoh! Muata was afraid. The mother of the pack had not forgotten. Even while she ate she looked at him, and when the milk-mothers with their young came to the forest, having been called, she lay off and watched, with her evil eyes on me. The jackals, smelling blood, howled, sitting on their haunches, and a lion came up growling in his throat. But he did not come right up; he stood a way off, watching, and presently he stretched himself on his stomach to wait. Haw! Even the lion will not attempt to drive the pack from its kill. Ow aye, it is so. The old mother never turned her eyes to watch the lion, but when the pups played, having eaten their fill, she stood up. The pack looked at her and moved off; then the lion rose and came forward. The old one stood her ground, and the great one, when he was within three bounds of her, also stood. The white eyes turned away from the yellow eyes— they turned to me; then she yapped and went off after the pack. The lion looked after her; then he stretched himself on the ground again and stared. He lifted his head to the wind and sniffed. Mawoh! Well, I knew the old mother had told him of my presence; but the lion never looks up. It was well for me, for his mind was uneasy. A long time he lay, while the jackals sat howling. Then he crept round the tree and the carcase. Twice he crept round; then, as the smell of the meal was too much, he trotted up to the carcass and growled at his feast. His back was toward me, and I fled."
"And did you meet the white-eyed mother again?"
"The wisest among the people I have met," said Muata, gravely, "was a woman; and among the creatures of the forest, the wisest was a she-dog. It is in my mind that the leader of the pack was umtaguati. Ow aye, she was a wizard; and it is not well to make war against such."
Venning looked at the chief with curiosity. "Are there many wizards in the forest, Muata?" he asked with a smile.
"By day and night, many; but most by night. Our people will not venture forth in the darkness of the forest for fear of the wizards and the bad spirits that watch from behind the trees and follow stealthily; but a spell was given to Muata. He could walk in the night."
"Have you seen these—eh—spirits, Muata?" Muata put the question aside. He rose and pointed to the east.
"The sun dies away and the hunters return."
"I don't hear them. Where are they?" "The birds cry out and fly. That is the sign that man is on the move; for hear, you who split up the shining boat, birds will scold at a leopard or a great snake, hovering around as they scold; but they fly from man. From nothing else will they fly. From an eagle they will hide after giving the warning call; but from man they fly."
A few minutes later the two arrived, Mr. Hume carrying an antelope on his shoulder.
A LION'S CHARGE
They turned in very early after banking up leaves over the fires under the biltong strips, to give them a good smoking during the night, but in the small hours, when the night is at its quietest, the moonlight, shining on Venning's face, woke him. The fires were glowing bright, altogether too bright for safety, and he rose to cover the glare with some green leaves. He looked at his sleeping companions, for all, tired out by disturbed nights, slept on, except the jackal, which had one eye open.
Venning sat awhile looking down upon the dim uncertain shadows that came and went, as a fleecy mist-like cloud passed overhead. Beyond the fitful murmur of the wind there was no sound but the hooting of a great homed owl somewhere from the woods above. Drawing his blanket round him, and picking up his gun, he walked to a point on the right overlooking the bed of the little river, and there he sat down with his back to a rock and his gun over his knees. Scarcely was he seated when the jackal startled him by its sudden appearance at his side. He scratched its ears, and it sat close to him, staring fixedly down on the river. Just below there was a stretch of sand in the bed gleaming white under the moonlight, and Venning watched this with the eye of a naturalist, in the hope of seeing some of the great forms of animal life. And he had his hope, for several creatures crossed the white patch, and each time the jackal was the first to see them. The round ears would suddenly prick forward, the sharp nose would twitch, and then Venning would dimly discover something down there in the uncertain light. A porcupine he made out, its quills gleaming and rustling as it went down to the water; then a great wart-pig with curved tusks; and next, after a long interval, a fine buck with long powerful horns. A water-buck he judged it to be from the length of its horns, and it stood there long with its face up-stream, motionless, save for the constant twitching of the large ears. He rested his elbows on his knees as he sat and aimed at the shoulders, but did not fire, for fear of alarming the camp; and presently the buck, even as he watched, vanished as softly and silently as it came. Then Venning's eyes closed, his chin dropped, the gun settled between his knees, and he was asleep.
He was asleep, and he was awake again so suddenly that he did not know he had slept until he saw the position of the gun. The jackal plucked at his blanket. He remembered that something had disturbed him, and he judged that the jackal had done the same thing just before. He yawned and patted its head; but, instead of sitting down, it ran a few yards, sniffed the air, whined, came back, glanced long over its shoulder into the riverbed, looked into Venning's face, then ran off in the direction of the camp. As soon as it was gone Venning felt lonely. He stood up, thinking to return to the camp, then sat down again, for he heard the sharp stamp that an antelope makes when alarmed, and he hoped to see it come into the moonlight. So he settled down to watch again, and drowsiness fell upon his eyes. He could see the white patch of sand, and as his heavy lids were lowered and lifted between the drowsy intervals, he became dimly conscious that there was something on the sand. Yes; there it was, something grey, short, and thick. A donkey, he told himself. He smiled sleepily. A donkey! It was strange to see the old familiar form out there in the wilderness. He wondered dreamily where it came from; then a shadow cast by the moon on a passing cloud blotted out the river-bed. He rubbed his eyes, and when the cloud had gone there were two animals—donkeys, unmistakably—one larger than the other, both with their heads turned upwards towards him. Another cloud sailed by, and when it had passed he missed them, and, his curiosity roused, he rubbed his eyes again for a closer scrutiny. Surely that was not a bush on the bank? No! it moved. The donkeys were coming towards him. One of them, the larger, moved forward quickly, then stopped. Then a chill ran through him, his heart grew weak, his breathing grew sharp, and the sweat suddenly started out all over his face and body. That was no donkey standing there, with its huge head now sunk almost to the ground, now lifted high, as it tried to make out what manner of living creature it was crouching there by the rock above!
Venning felt the hair stir on his head as the two animals stood gazing at him, and then he knew. The one behind sank to the ground, and with long steps began to creep round to the right. The moon struck along its side, and showed the tawny hide and the whitish under-parts of a lioness. The other, then, was a lion! With a sort of gurgling in his throat he turned his eyes to it, and he saw it trotting up straight for him, its shaggy mane giving to its head and shoulders an enormous size. He felt spell-bound, incapable of moving hand or foot. It was the silence of the ferocious beasts that paralyzed him. Then the jackal howled behind him, and his blood rushed through his veins. His tongue no longer clave to the roof of his mouth, and when the great beast was within ten yards of him, he let forth a terrific yell and jumped to his feet, with his rifle in his hands.
The lion stopped suddenly in its charge with a low harsh grunt of surprise. Never before in its hunting had it heard such a wild uncanny noise. In one motion it stopped in its charge and swerved to the right, and as it swerved the boy fired. The lion gave a mighty bound, he heard it strike the ground with a heavy thud, and then it seemed to disappear, though he knew it was near from the low growling it set up.
From the camp there came a confused shouting, followed by the sound of a man running.
Venning moistened his lips. "Look out," he shouted, "there is a lion here."
"Where are you?"
"Here, by this rock."
"Stay there, and keep quite still."
The growling increased, and once more the same paralysis attacked the boy so that he could scarcely breathe. Then some one stood at his side, and the fear went from him at once.
"He's over there, somewhere; but I can't see him."
"I can. Get round the rock, my boy. He's lying flat with his head between his paws, and it's a mercy you did not fire again and draw his charge."
Venning moved round the rock, and Mr. Hume slowly followed. He stopped awhile to listen to the incessant growling.
"You've hit him, but not, I think, mortally; anyway, we'll leave him, if he will leave us. Move on towards the camp quietly—don't run."
"No, sir," said Venning; but it required an effort not to make a bolt for it when he saw the friendly gleam of the fire.
Mr. Hume followed slowly, with his head over his shoulder, towards the place where the growling came from. When he reached the fire he gave a great sigh of relief.
"Thank God. Now tell us what happened, my boy;" and he put his hand on Venning's arm.
Venning started violently, for just then from the river there came a harsh, growling call; and no sooner had it ceased than the ground shook to a terrific roar.
"The lion answers the lioness," said the chief, calmly.
"Throw a little wood on the fire, Muata. Now, my lad."
Venning told his story, and Compton listened with intense excitement; but the hunter treated the whole thing calmly, with set purpose. He had in his experience seen the effect of a terrible shock, in the complete breakdown of the victim, and, personally, he had known one man die from the shock to his system caused exactly by the sudden and unexpected appearance of a lion at night. He kept Venning's thoughts off the mental picture of the charging lion until dawn, when all hands prepared for the hunt.
"If you hit him hard he will be lying near, and I guess it will be a different matter meeting him by daylight—eh, my lad?"
Venning looked into the hunter's calm eyes, and felt strong. He went straight to the rock against which he had crouched, and pointed to the deep scars made in the hard ground by the sharp claws as the lion had stopped his charge and wheeled.
Compton measured the distance from the rock to the claw-marks.
"Fifteen feet! By Jove! it was a narrow squeak. I would have yelled like fits."
"I did yell."
Muata pointed to the ground.
"Blood spoor, eh? You did hit him. Put the jackal on the track, chief," said Mr. Hume.
The jackal took one sniff at the ground, stared sharply around, then peered up into his master's face.
"Search," said the chief, in his own tongue. "Follow the great one, O little friend. The trail is laid; the great one has sought out a moist spot; he lies angry and sore in the shade. Search and find."
The jackal looked intently into the chiefs face, sniffed at the ground, ran forward a few yards, stopped, sniffed again with lifted mane at a spot where the grass was pressed down, threw up his head with eyes half closed, then ran down towards the river, stopping on the bank to look back.
"That is where he joined his mate. There is the spoor on the sand going and returning. That is the round pad of the lion; just note and compare it with the pads of the lioness over there. Just look, and read the writing."
The two boys looked at the marks in the sand, and followed them down to the moist ground on the edge of the water.
"They entered the river side by side," they said.
"That is plain; but the writing tells another story. See, this footprint here is faint—very faint, eh? He did not rest his weight on his left fore-foot. Why, eh?"
"Because the bullet struck the left front leg," they both said.
"They learn the signs, Muata. They will be hunters yet. Tell them if the lion be hard hit, chief."
Muata waded into the river, which reached to his armpits at the deepest, and bent over something on the further shore. They undressed, and waded through to him.
"Congela," he said, pointing to the bank. "The great ones came out here. The great, great one was not sore hurt, for he came right through, using all his feet to swim."
"It will be luck, then, if we find him," said the hunter.
"Bad luck," muttered Compton to Venning, with a grin.
"Forward, little friend!" cried Muata. "Search and find. It is a great hunt this day. We follow the hunter of all things."
They slipped into their clothes and followed at a trot after the jackal, which ran straight on, its bushy tail held low. It followed the river down for a mile or so, then stopped, looking back at its master.