There is much difference in the nature and disposition of the different species. The mountain zebra is very shy and wild; the dauw is almost untameable; while the quagga is of a timid docile nature, and may be trained to harness with as much facility as a horse.
The reason why this has not been done, is simply because the farmers of South Africa have horses in plenty, and do not stand in need of the quagga, either for saddle or harness.
But though Von Bloom the farmer had never thought of "breaking in" a quagga, Von Bloom the hunter now did.
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT.
PLANNING THE CAPTURE OF THE QUAGGAS.
Up to this time the field-cornet had scarce deigned to notice the quaggas. He knew what they were, and had often seen a drove of them— perhaps the same one—approach the vley and drink. Neither he nor any of his people had molested them, though they might have killed many. They knew that the yellow oily flesh of these animals was not fit for food, and is only eaten by the hungry natives—that their hides, although sometimes used for grain-sacks and other common purposes, are of very little value. For these reasons, they had suffered them to come and go quietly. They did not wish to waste powder and lead upon them; neither did they desire wantonly to destroy such harmless creatures.
Every evening, therefore, the quaggas had drunk at the vley and gone off again, without exciting the slightest interest.
Not so upon this occasion. A grand design now occupied the mind of Von Bloom. The troop of quaggas became suddenly invested with as much interest as if it had been a herd of elephants; and the field-cornet had started to his feet, and stood gazing upon them—his eyes sparkling with pleasure and admiration.
He admired their prettily-striped heads, their plump well-turned bodies, their light elegant limbs; in short, he admired everything about them, size, colour, and proportions. Never before had quaggas appeared so beautiful in the eyes of the vee-boor.
But why this new-born admiration for the despised quaggas?—for despised they are by the Cape farmer, who shoots them only to feed his Hottentot servants. Why had they so suddenly become such favourites with the field-cornet? That you will understand by knowing the reflections that were just then passing through his mind. They were as follows:—
Might not a number of these animals be caught and broken in?—Why not? Might they not be trained to the saddle?—Why not? Might they not serve him for hunting the elephant just as well as horses?—Why not?
Von Bloom asked these three questions of himself. Half a minute served to answer them all in the affirmative. There was neither impossibility nor improbability in any of the three propositions. It was clear that the thing could be done, and without difficulty.
A new hope sprang up in the heart of the field-cornet. Once more his countenance became radiant with joy.
He communicated his thoughts both to the Bushman and "Bush-boys"—all of whom highly approved of the idea, and only wondered that none of them had thought of it before.
And now the question arose, as to how the quaggas were to be captured. This was the first point to be settled; and the four,—Von Bloom himself, Hans, Hendrik, and Swartboy,—sat deliberately down to concoct some plan of effecting this object.
Of course they could do nothing just then, and the drove that had come to drink was allowed to depart peacefully. The hunters knew they would return on the morrow about the same hour; and it was towards their return that the thought of all were bent.
Hendrik advised "creasing," which means sending a bullet through the upper part of the neck near the withers, and by this means a quagga can be knocked over and captured. The shot, if properly directed, does not kill the animal. It soon recovers, and may be easily "broken," though its spirit is generally broken at the same time. It is never "itself again." Hendrik understood the mode of "creasing." He had seen it practised by the boor-hunters. He knew the spot where the bullet should hit. He believed he could do it easily enough.
Hans considered the "creasing" too cruel a mode. They might kill many quaggas before obtaining one that was hit in the proper place. Besides there would be a waste of powder and bullets—a thing to be considered. Why could they not snare the animals? He had heard of nooses being set for animals as large as the Quaggas, and of many being caught in that manner.
Hendrik did not think the idea of snaring a good one. They might get one in that way—the foremost of the drove; but all the others, seeing the leader caught, would gallop off and return no more to the vley; and where would they set their snare for a second? It might be a long time before they should find another watering-place of these animals; whereas they might stalk and crease them upon the plains at any time.
Swartboy now put in his plan. It was the pit-fall. That was the way by which Bushmen most generally caught large animals, and Swartboy perfectly understood how to construct a pit for quaggas.
Hendrik saw objections to this, very similar to those he had urged against the snare. The foremost of the quaggas might be caught, but the others would not be fools enough to walk into the pit—after their leader had fallen in and laid the trap open. They of course would gallop off, and never come back that way again.
If it could be done at night, Hendrik admitted, the thing might be different. In the darkness several might rush in before catching the alarm. But no—the quaggas had always come to drink in day-time—one only could be trapped, and then the others alarmed would keep away.
There would have been reason in what Hendrik said, but for a remarkable fact which the field-cornet himself had observed when the quaggas came to the lake to drink. It was, that the animals had invariably entered the water at one point, and gone out at another. It was of course a mere accident that they did so, and owing to the nature of the ground; but such was the case, and Von Bloom had observed it on several occasions. They were accustomed to enter by the gorge, already described; and, after drinking, wade along the shallow edge for some yards, and then pass out by another break in the bank.
The knowledge of this fact was of the utmost importance, and all saw that at once. A pit-fall dug upon the path by which the animals entered the lake, would no doubt operate as Hendrik said—one might be caught, and all the rest frightened off. But a similar trap placed upon the trail that led outward, would bring about a very different result. Once the quaggas had finished drinking, and just at the moment they were heading out of the water, the hunters could show themselves upon the opposite side, set the troop in quick motion, and gallop them into the trap. By this means not only one, but a whole pit-full might be captured at once!
All this appeared so feasible that not another suggestion was offered— the plan of the pit-fall was at once, and unanimously adopted.
It remained only to dig the pit, cover it properly, and then wait the result.
During all the time their capture was being planned, the herd of quaggas had remained in sight, disporting themselves upon the open plain. It was a tantalising sight to Hendrik, who would have liked much to have shown his marksman skill by "creasing" one. But the young hunter saw that it would be imprudent to fire at them there, as it would prevent them from returning to the vley; so he restrained himself, and along with the others remained watching the quaggas—all regarding them with a degree of interest which they had never before felt in looking at a drove of these animals.
The quaggas saw nothing of them, although quite near to the great nwana-tree. They—the hunters—were up among the branches, where the animals did not think of looking, and there was nothing around the bottom of the tree to cause them alarm. The wagon-wheels had long ago been disposed of in the bush, partly to shelter them from the sun, and partly because game animals frequently came within shot of the tree, and were thus obtained without any trouble. There were scarce any traces upon the ground that would have betrayed the existence of a "camp" in the tree; and a person might have passed very near without noticing the odd aerial dwelling of the hunter family.
All this was design upon the part of the field-cornet. As yet he knew little of the country around. He did not know but that it might contain worse enemies than either hyenas or lions.
While they sat watching the manoeuvres of the quaggas, a movement was made by one of these creatures more singular than any that had yet been witnessed.
The animal in question was browsing quietly along, and at length approached a small clump of bushes that stood out in the open ground. When close to the copse it was observed to make a sudden spring forward; and almost at the same instant, a shaggy creature leaped out of the bushes, and ran off. This last was no other than the ugly "striped" hyena. Instead of turning upon the quagga and showing fight, as one might have supposed so strong and fierce a brute would have done, the hyena uttered a howl of alarm, and ran off as fast as its legs would carry it.
They did not carry it far. It was evidently making for a larger tract of bush that grew near: but before it had got half-way across the open ground, the quagga came up behind, and uttering his shrill "couaag," reared forward, and dropped with his fore-hoofs upon the hyena's back. At the same instant the neck of the carnivorous animal was clutched by the teeth of the ruminant and held as fast, as if grasped by a vice.
All looked to see the hyena free itself and run off again. They looked in vain. It never ran another yard. It never came alive out of the clutch of those terrible teeth.
The quagga still held his struggling victim with firm hold—trampling it with his hoofs, and shaking it in his strong jaws, until in a few minutes the screams of the hyena ceased, and his mangled carcass lay motionless upon the plain!
One would think that this incident might have been enough to warn our hunters to be cautious in their dealings with the quagga. Such a sharp biter would be no pleasant horse to "bit and bridle."
But all knew the antipathy that exists between the wild horse and the hyena; and that the quagga, though roused to fury at the sight of one of these animals, is very different in its behaviour towards man. So strong, in fact, is this antipathy, and so complete is the mastery of the ruminant over the carnivorous animal, that the frontier farmers often take advantage of these peculiar facts, and keep the hyenas from their cattle by bringing up with the herd a number of quaggas, who act as its guards and protectors.
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE.
While they were watching the movements of the quaggas, Von Bloom rose suddenly to his feet. All turned their eyes upon him as he did so. They saw by his manner that he was about to propose something. What could it be?
The thought had just occurred to him that they should at once set about digging the pit.
It was near sunset—wanting only half-an-hour of it; and one would suppose he would have done better to leave the work till next morning. But no. There was a good reason why they should set about it at once; and that was, that they might not be able to complete it in time if they did not do part of it that night.
It would be no slight undertaking to dig a pit of proper size, for they would require one that would at least hold half-a-dozen quaggas at a time. Then there was the carrying away the earth that should come out of it, the cutting the poles and branches to cover it, and the placing of these in a proper manner.
To do all these things would take up a great deal of time; and they must be all done against the return of the quaggas, else the whole scheme would be a failure. Should the animals arrive upon the ground before the pit was covered in and all traces of the work removed, they would make off without entering the water, and perhaps never visit that vley again.
Such were the conjectures of the field-cornet. Hans, Hendrik, and Swartboy, acknowledged their justice. All saw the necessity of going to work at once, and to work they all went.
Fortunately among the "implements," were two good spades, a shovel, and a pick-axe, and all of them could be busy at the same time. There were baskets in which the dirt could be sanded off, and thrown into the deep channel close by, where it would not be seen. This was also a fortunate circumstance; for to have carried the stuff any great distance, would have made the job still heavier, and more difficult to execute in proper time.
Having marked the outlines of the pit, they went to work with spade, shovel, and pick. The ground proved tolerably loose, and the pick was but little needed. The field-cornet himself handled one of the spades, Hendrik the other, while Swartboy acted as shoveller, and filled the baskets as fast as Hans and Totty, assisted by Truey and little Jan, could empty them. These last carried a small basket of their own, and contributed very materially to the progress of the work, by lightening the labours of Hans and Totty.
And so the work went merrily on until midnight, and even after that hour, under the light of a full moon; by which time the diggers were buried to their necks.
But they were now fatigued. They knew they could easily complete the pit next day; and so they laid down their implements, and after performing their ablutions in the crystal water of the stream, retired to their sleeping-quarters in the tree.
By early dawn they were at it again, busy as bees; and the pit progressed so rapidly that before they stopped to take breakfast Von Bloom could scarce see out of it standing on his toes, and the crown of Swartboy's woolly head was nearly two feet below the surface. A little more digging would do.
After breakfast they went to work at briskly as ever; and laboured away until they considered that the hole was sunk to a sufficient depth. It would have taken a springbok to have leaped out of it; and no quagga could possibly have cleared itself from such a pit.
Poles and bushes were now cut; and the pit was neatly covered with these, and strewed over, as well as a large tract of the adjoining ground, with rushes and grass. The most sagacious animal would have been deceived by the appearance; even a fox could not have discovered the tray before tumbling into it.
They had completed the work before going to dinner,—which, consequently, fell late on that day—so nothing more remained to be done but to dine, and await the coming of the quaggas.
At dinner they were all very merry, notwithstanding the immense fatigue they had gone through. The prospect of capturing the quaggas was very exciting, and kept the party in high spirits.
Each offered a prognostication as to the result. Some said they would trap three quaggas at the least; while others were more sanguine, and believed they might take twice that number. Jan did not see why the pit should not be full; and Hendrik thought this probable enough— considering the way they intended to drive the quaggas into it.
It certainly seemed so. The pit had been made of sufficient width to preclude the possibility of the animals leaping over it, while it was dug lengthwise across the path, so that they could not miss it. The lay of the ground would guide them directly into it.
It is true that, were they to be left to themselves, and permitted to follow their usual method of marching—that is, in single file—only one, the leader, might be caught. The rest, seeing him fall in, would be sure to wheel round, and gallop off in a different direction.
But it was not the intention of the hunters to leave things thus. They had planned a way by which the quaggas, at a certain moment, would be thrown into a complete panic, and thus forced pell-mell upon the pit. In this lay their hopes of securing a large number of the animals.
Four was as many as were wanted. One for each of the hunters. Four would do; but of course it mattered not how many more got into the pit. The more the better, as a large number would give them the advantage of "pick and choose."
Dinner over, the hunters set about preparing for the reception of their expected visitors. As already stated, the dinner had been later than usual; and it was now near the hour when the quaggas might be looked for.
In order to be in time, each took his station. Hans, Hendrik, and Swartboy, placed themselves in ambush around the lake—at intervals from one another; but the lower end, where the animals usually approached and went out, was left quite open. Von Bloom remained on the platform in the tree, so as to mark the approach of the quaggas, and give warning by a signal to the other three. The positions taken by these were such, that they could guide the herd in the direction of the pit by merely coming out of the bushes where they lay concealed. In order that they should show themselves simultaneously, and at the proper moment, they were to wait for a signal from the tree. This was to be the firing of the great "roer," loaded blank. Hans and Hendrik were also to fire blank shots on discovering themselves, and by this means the desired panic would be produced.
The whole scheme was well contrived, and succeeded admirably. The herd appeared filing over the plain, just as on the preceding days. Von Bloom announced their approach to the three in ambush, by repeating in a subdued tone the words,—
"Quaggas are coming!"
The unsuspecting animals filed through the gorge, scattered about in the water, drank their fill, and then commenced retiring by the path on which lay the trap.
The leader having climbed the bank, and seeing the fresh grass and rushes strewed upon the path, uttered a snorting bark, and seemed half inclined to wheel round. But just at that moment boomed the loud detonation of the roer; and, then, like lesser echoes, the reports of the smaller guns on the right and left, while Swartboy shouted at the top pitch of his voice, from another quarter.
A look back showed the quaggas that they were well-nigh surrounded by strange enemies. But one course appeared open to them—the way they were wont to go; and barking with affright, the whole drove dashed up the bank, and crowded on towards the pit.
Then was heard a confused noise—the cracking of the poles—the trampling of many hoofs—the dull sounds of heavy bodies falling together, and mingling in a continuous struggle—and the wild snorting, as the creatures hurried forward in affright. Some were seen springing high in the air, as if to overleap the pit. Others poised themselves on their hind hoofs, and wheeling round, ran back into the lake. Some dashed off through the bushes, and escaped in that way; but the great body of the drove came running back, and plunging through the water, made off by the gorge through which they had come. In a few minutes not one was in sight.
The boys thought they had all escaped; but Von Bloom, from his more elevated position in the tree, could perceive the snouts of several protruding above the edge of the pit.
On arriving at the spot, to their great satisfaction the hunters discovered no less than eight full-grown quaggas in the trap—just twice the number required to mount the party.
In less than two weeks from that time, four of the quaggas were broken to the saddle, and perfectly obedient to the bit. Of course there was a good deal of kicking, and plunging, and flinging, and many hard gallops, and some ugly falls, before it came to this; but both the Bushman Swartboy and the Bush-boy Hendrik were expert in the manege of horses, and soon tamed the quaggas to a proper degree of docility.
Upon the very first occasion when these animals were used in the hunt of the elephant, they rendered the very service expected of them. The elephant, as usual, bolted after receiving the first shot; but the hunters on "quagga-back" were enabled to keep him in sight, and follow rapidly upon his heels. As soon as the elephant discovered that, run as he would, his pursuers had the power of overtaking him, he disdained to fly farther, and stood to bay; thus giving them the opportunity of delivering shot after shot, until a mortal wound brought his huge body to the earth.
Von Bloom was delighted. His hopes were high, his benignant star was once more in the ascendant.
He would yet accomplish his design. He would yet be rich. A few years would enable him to build up his fortune—to construct a pyramid of ivory!
DRIVING IN THE ELAND.
Of all the family Hendrik was the hunter par excellence. It was he who habitually stored the larder; and upon days when they were not engaged in the chase of the elephant, Hendrik would be abroad alone in pursuit of antelopes, and other creatures, that furnished their usual subsistence. Hendrik kept the table well supplied.
Antelopes are the principal game of South Africa—for Africa is the country of the antelope above all others. You may be surprised to hear that there are seventy different species of antelopes over all the earth—that more than fifty of these are African, and that thirty at least belong to South Africa—that is, the portion of the continent lying between the Cape of Good Hope and the Tropic of Capricorn.
It would require the space of a whole book, therefore, to give a fair account—a monograph—of the antelopes alone; and I cannot afford that space here. At present I can only say that Africa is the great antelope country, although many fine species exist also in Asia—that in America there is but one kind, the prong-horn, with which you are already well acquainted—and that in Europe there are two, though one of these, the well-known "chamois," is as much goat as antelope.
I shall farther remark, that the seventy species of animals, by naturalists classed as antelopes, differ widely from one another in form, size, colour, pelage, habits; in short, in so many respects, that their classification under the name of Antelope is very arbitrary indeed. Some approximate closely to the goat tribe; others are more like deer; some resemble oxen; others are closely allied to the buffalo; while a few species possess many of the characteristics of wild sheep!
As a general thing, however, they are more like to deer than any other animals; and many species of them are, in common parlance, called deer. Indeed, many antelopes are more like to certain species of deer than to others of their own kind. The chief distinction noted between them and the deer is, that the antelopes have horny horns, that are persistent or permanent, while those of the deer are osseous or bony, and are annually cast.
Like the deer the different species of antelopes possess very different habits. Some frequent the wide open plains; some the deep forest; some wander by the shady banks of streams; while others love to dwell upon the rocky steep, or the dry ravines of the mountains. Some browse upon the grass; while others, goat-like, prefer the leaves and tender twigs of trees. In fact, so different are these creatures in habits, that whatever be the natural character of a district of country, it will be found the favourite home of one or more species. Even the very desert has its antelopes, that prefer the parched and waterless plain to the most fertile and verdant valley.
Of all antelopes the "eland," or "caana" (Antelope oreas) is the largest. It measures full seventeen hands at the shoulder—being thus equal in height to a very large horse. A large eland weighs one thousand pounds. It is a heavily formed animal, and an indifferent runner, as a mounted hunter can gallop up to one without effort. Its general proportions are not unlike those of a common ox, but its horns are straight and rise vertically from the crown, diverging only slightly from one another. These are two feet in length, and marked by a ridge that passes spirally around them nearly to the tips. The horns of the female are longer than those of the male.
The eyes of the eland, like those of most antelopes, are large, bright, and melting, without any expression of fierceness; and the animal, though so very large and strong, is of the most innocuous disposition— showing fight only when driven to desperation.
The general colour of this antelope is dun, with a rufous tinge. Sometimes ashy grey touched with ochre is the prevailing hue.
The eland is one of those antelopes that appear to be independent of water. It is met with upon the desert plains, far from either spring or stream; and it even seems to prefer such situations—perhaps from the greater security it finds there—though it is also a denizen of the fertile and wooded districts. It is gregarious, the sexes herding separately, and in groups of from ten to a hundred individuals.
The flesh of the eland is highly esteemed, and does not yield in delicacy to that of any of the antelope, deer, or bovine tribes. It has been compared to tender beef with a game flavour; and the muscles of the thighs when cured and dried produce a bonne bouche, known under the odd appellation of "thigh-tongues."
Of course the eland affording such excellent meat, and in so large a quantity, is zealously hunted for his spoils. Being only a poor runner and always very fat, the hunt is usually a short one; and ends in the eland being shot down, skinned, and cut up. There is no great excitement about this chase, except that it is not every day an eland can be started. The ease with which they can be captured, as well as the value of their venison, has led to the thinning off of these antelopes; and it is only in remote districts where a herd of them can be found.
Now since their arrival, no elands had been seen, though now and then their spoor was observed; and Hendrik, for several reasons, was very desirous of getting one. He had never shot an eland in his life—that was one reason—and another was, that he wished to procure a supply of the fine venison which lies in such quantities over the ribs of these animals.
It was, therefore, with great delight, that Hendrik one morning received the report that a herd of elands had been seen upon the upper plain, and not far off. Swartboy, who had been upon the cliffs, brought this report to camp.
Without losing any more time than sufficed to get the direction from Swartboy, Hendrik mounted his quagga, shouldered his rifle, and rode off in search of the herd.
Not far from the camp there was an easy pass, leading up the cliff to the plain above. It was a sort of gorge or ravine; and from the numerous tracks of animals in its bottom, it was evidently much used as a road from the upper plain to that in which were the spring and stream. Certain animals, such as the zebras and quaggas, and others that frequent the dry desert plains from preference, were in the habit of coming by this path when they required water.
Up the gorge rode Hendrik; and no sooner had he arrived at its top, than he discovered the herd of elands—seven old bulls—about a mile off upon the upper plain.
There was not cover enough to have sheltered a fox. The only growth near the spot where the elands were, consisted of straggling aloe-plants, euphorbias, with some stunted bushes, and tufts of dry grass, characteristic of the desert. There was no clump large enough to have sheltered a hunter from the eye of his game; and Hendrik at once came to the conclusion, that the elands could not be "stalked" in the situation they then occupied.
Now, though Hendrik had never hunted this antelope, he was well acquainted with its habits, and knew how it ought to be chased. He knew that it was a bad runner; that any old horse could bring up with it; and that his quagga—the fastest of the four that had been tamed—could do the same.
It was only a question of "start," therefore. Could he get near enough the bulls to have a fair start, he would run one of them down to a certainty. The result might be different should the elands take the alarm at a long distance off, and scour away over the plain.
To get within fair starting distance, that was the point to be attempted.
But Hendrik was a wary hunter, and soon accomplished this. Instead of riding direct for the elands, he made a grand circuit—until he had got the herd between him and the cliff—and then, heading his quagga for them, he rode quietly forward.
He did not sit erect in the saddle, but held himself bent down, until his breast almost touched the withers of the quagga. This he did to deceive the elands, who would otherwise have recognised him as an enemy. In such a fashion they could not make out what kind of creature was coming towards them; but stood for a long while gazing at Hendrik and his quagga with feelings of curiosity, and of course some little alarm.
They, however, permitted the hunter to get within five hundred yards distance—near enough for him—before they broke off in their heavy lumbering gallop.
Hendrik now rose in his saddle, put spurs to his quagga, and followed the herd at full speed.
As he had designed, so it came to pass. The elands ran straight in the direction of the cliff—not where the pass was, but where there was none—and, on reaching the precipice, were of course forced to turn into a new direction, transverse to their former one. This gave Hendrik the advantage, who, heading his quagga diagonally, was soon upon the heels of the herd.
It was Hendrik's intention to single out one of the bulls, and run him down—leaving the others to gallop off wherever they wished.
His intention was carried out; for shortly after, the fattest of the bulls shot to one side, as if to escape in that way, while the rest ran on.
The bull was not so cunning as he thought himself. Hendrik's eye was upon him; and in a moment the quagga was turned upon his track.
Another burst carried both game and pursuer nearly a mile across the plain. The eland had turned from a rufous dun colour to that of a leaden blue; the saliva fell from his lips in long streamers, foam dappled his broad chest, the tears rolled out of his big eyes, and his gallop became changed to a weary trot. He was evidently "blown."
In a few minutes more the quagga was close upon his heels; and then the huge antelope, seeing that farther running could not serve him, halted in despair, and faced round towards his pursuer.
Now Hendrik had his loaded rifle in his hand, and you expect to hear that he instantly raised it to his shoulder, took aim, fired, and brought down the eland.
I must disappoint you, then, by telling you that he did no such thing.
Hendrik was a real hunter—neither rash nor wasteful of his resources. He knew a better plan than to kill the eland upon the spot. He knew that the animal was now quite in his power; and that he could drive him wherever he pleased, just like a tame ox. To have killed the creature on the spot would have been a waste of powder and shot. More than that, it would have rendered necessary all the trouble of transporting its flesh to camp—a double journey at least—and with the risk of the hyenas eating up most of it in his absence. Whereas he could save all this trouble by driving the eland to camp; and this was his design.
Without firing a shot, therefore, he galloped on past the blown bull, headed him, turned him round, and then drove him before him in the direction of the cliff.
The bull could make neither resistance nor opposition. Now and again, he would turn and trot off in a contrary direction; but he was easily headed again, and at length forced forward to the top of the pass.
CHAPTER FORTY ONE.
A WILD RIDE ON QUAGGA-BACK.
Hendrik was congratulating himself on his success. He anticipated some pleasure in the surprise he was about to create at camp, when he should march in with the eland—for he had no doubt that he would succeed in doing so.
Indeed, there appeared no reason to doubt it. The bull had already entered the gorge, and was moving down it, while Hendrik and his quagga were hurrying forward to follow.
The hunter had arrived within a few yards of the top, when a loud trampling noise sounded in his ears, as if a band of heavy-footed animals were coming up the gorge.
He spurred his quagga forward, in order to reach the edge, and get a view down the ravine. Before he was able to do so, he was surprised to see the eland gallop up again, and try to pass him upon the plain. It had evidently received fresh alarm, from something in the gorge; and preferred facing its old enemy to encountering the new.
Hendrik did not give his attention to the eland. He could ride it down at any time. He was more anxious first to know what had given it the start backward; so he continued to press forward to the head of the ravine.
He might have thought of lions, and acted with greater prudence; but the trampling of hoofs which still echoed up the pass told him that lions were not the cause of the eland's alarm.
He at length reached a point where he could see down the declivity. He had not far to look—for already the animals that were making the noise were close up to him; and he perceived they were nothing more than a troop of quaggas.
He was not over-pleased at this interruption to his drive; and the less did he like it, that the intruders were quaggas—ill-conditioned brutes that they were! Had they been game animals, he would have shot one; but the only motive that would have induced him to shoot one of the quaggas would have been a feeling of anger—for, at that moment, he was really angry at them.
Without knowing it, poor brutes! they had likely given him cause for a good deal of trouble; for it would cost him a good deal, before he could head the eland again, and get it back into the pass. No wonder, then, he was vexed a little.
But his vexation was not so grievous as to cause him to fire upon the approaching herd; and, turning aside, he rode after the eland.
He had hardly left the spot, when the quaggas came out of the pass, following each other to the number of forty or fifty. Each, as he saw the mounted hunter, started with affright, and bolted off, until the whole drove stretched out in a long line over the plain, snorting and uttering their loud "coua-a-g" as they ran.
Hendrik would hardly have regarded this movement under ordinary circumstances. He had often seen herds of quaggas, and was in no way curious about them. But his attention was drawn to this herd, from his noticing, as they passed him, that four of them had their tails docked short; and from this circumstance, he recognised them as the four that had been caught in the pit-trap and afterwards set free. Swartboy, for some purpose of his own, had cut off the hair before letting them go.
Hendrik had no doubt it was they, and that the herd was the same that used to frequent the vley, but that on account of the ill-treatment they had met with, had never since shown themselves in the neighbourhood.
Now these circumstances coming into Hendrik's mind at the moment, led him to regard the quaggas with a certain feeling of curiosity. The sudden fright which the animals took on seeing him, and the comic appearance of the four with the stumped tails, rather inclined Hendrik towards merriment, and he laughed as he galloped along.
As the quaggas went off in the same direction which the eland had taken, of course Hendrik's road and theirs lay so far together; and on galloped he at their heels. He was curious to try the point—much disputed in regard to horses—how far a mounted quagga would be able to cope with an unmounted one. He was curious, moreover, to find out whether his own quagga was quite equal to any of its old companions. So on swept the chase—the eland leading, the quaggas after, and Hendrik bringing up the rear.
Hendrik had no need to ply the spur. His gallant steed flew like the wind. He seemed to feel that his character was staked upon the race. He gained upon the drove at every spring.
The heavy-going eland was soon overtaken, and as it trotted to one side, was passed. It halted, but the quaggas kept on.
Not only the drove kept on, but Hendrik's quagga following close at their heels; and in less than five minutes they had left the eland a full mile in their rear, and were still scouring onward over the wide plain.
What was Hendrik about? Was he going to forsake the eland, and let it escape? Had he grown so interested in the race? Was he jealous about his quagga's speed, and determined it should beat all the others?
So it would have appeared to any one witnessing the race from a distance. But one who could have had a nearer view of it, would have given a different explanation of Hendrik's conduct.
The fact was, that as soon as the eland halted Hendrik intended to halt also; and for that purpose pulled strongly upon his bridle. But, to his astonishment, he found that his quagga did not share his intention. Instead of obeying the bit, the animal caught the steel in his teeth, and laying his ears back, galloped straight on!
Hendrik then endeavoured to turn the quagga to one side, and for this purpose wrenched his right rein; but with such fierceness, that the old bit-ring gave way—the bit slipped through the animal's jaws—the head-stall came off with the jerk—and the quagga was completely unbridled!
Of course the animal was now free to go just as he liked; and it was plain that he liked to go with his old comrades. His old comrades he well knew them to be, as his snorting and occasional neigh of recognition testified.
At first Hendrik was disposed to look upon the breaking of his bit as only a slight misfortune. For a boy he was one of the best riders in South Africa, and needed no rein to steady him. He could keep his seat without one. The quagga would soon stop, and he could then repair the bit, and re-adjust the bridle which he still held in his hands. Such were his reflections at first.
But their spirit began to alter, when he found that the quagga, instead of lessening his pace kept on as hard as ever, and the herd still ran wildly before him without showing the slightest signs of coming to a halt.
In fact, the quaggas were running through fear. They saw the mounted hunter behind them in hot pursuit; and although their old comrade knew who they were, how were they to tell what he was, with such a tall hunch upon his back? No quagga he, but some terrible monster, they imagined, thirsting for their lives, and eager to devour one and all of them!
No wonder they showed their heels in the best style they knew how; and so well did they show them, that Hendrik's quagga—notwithstanding his keen desire to get forward among them, and explain away the awkward business upon his back—was not able to come an inch closer.
He did not lose ground, however. His eagerness to regain his old associates—to partake once more of their wild freedom—for he was desperately tired of civilised society, and sick of elephant-hunting— all these ideas crowded into his mind at the moment, and nerved him to the utmost exertion. Could he only get up into the body of the crowd— for the herd now ran in a crowd—a few whimpers would suffice to explain—they would come to a halt at once,—they would gather around him, and assist both with hoofs and teeth to get "shed" of the ugly two-legged thing that clung so tightly to his dorsal vertebras.
It was "no go," however. Although he was so close to their heels, that they flung dust in his face, and small pebbles in the face of his rider, to the no slight inconvenience of the latter; although he "whighered" whenever he could spare breath, and uttered his "couag,—couag!" in reality calling them by name, it was "no go." "They would not stay. They would not hear."
And what did Hendrik during all this time? Nothing—he could do nothing. He could not stay the impetuous flight of his steed. He dared not dismount. He would have been hurled among sharp rocks, had he attempted such a thing. His neck would have been broken. He could do nothing—nothing but keep his seat.
What thought he? At first, not much. At first he regarded the adventure lightly. When he was about completing his third mile, he began to deem it more serious; and as he entered upon the fifth, he became convinced that he was neither more nor less than in a very awkward scrape.
But the fifth mile was left behind, and then a sixth, and a seventh; and still the quaggas galloped wildly on—the drove actuated by the fear of losing their liberty, and their old comrade by the desire of regaining his.
Hendrik now felt real uneasiness. Where were they going? Where was the brute carrying him? Perhaps off to the desert, where he might be lost and perish of hunger or thirst! Already he was many miles from the cliffs, and he could no longer tell their direction. Even had he halted then and there, he could not tell which way to turn himself. He would be lost!
He grew more than anxious. He became frightened in earnest.
What was he to do? Leap down, and risk his neck in the fall? He would lose his quagga and his saddle as well—he regarded the eland as already lost—he would have to walk back to camp, and get laughed at on his return.
No matter for all that; his life was in danger if he kept on. The quaggas might gallop twenty,—ay, fifty miles before halting. They showed no symptoms of being blown—no signs of giving out. He must fling himself to the ground, and let quagga and saddle go.
He had formed this resolution, and was actually about to put it in practice. He was just considering how he might best escape an ugly fall—looking for a soft spot—when, all at once, a grand idea rushed into his mind.
He remembered that in taming this same quagga and breaking him to the saddle, he had been vastly aided by a very simple contrivance—that was a "blind." The blind was nothing more than a piece of soft leather tied over the animal's eyes; but so complete had been its effect, that it had transformed the quagga at once from a kicking screaming creature into a docile animal.
Hendrik now thought of the blind.
True, he had none. Was there nothing about him that would serve as one? His handkerchief? No, it would be too thin. Hurrah! His jacket would do!
His rifle was in the way. It must be got rid of. It must be dropped to the ground, he could return for it.
It was let down as gently as possible, and soon left far behind.
In a twinkling Hendrik stripped off his jacket. How was it to be arranged so as to blind the quagga? It would not do to drop it.
A moment's consideration served the ready boy to mature his plan. After a moment he bent down, passed a sleeve upon each side under the quagga's throat, and then knotted them together. The jacket thus rested over the animal's mane, with the collar near its withers, and the peak or skirt upon the small of its neck.
Hendrik next leaned as far forward as he could, and with his extended arms pushed the jacket up the animal's neck, until the skirt passed over its ears, and fell down in front of its face.
It was with some difficulty that the rider, bent down as he was, could retain his seat; for as soon as the thick flap of cloth came down over the eyes of the quagga, the latter halted as if he had been shot dead in his tracks. He did not fall, however, but only stood still, quivering with terror. His gallop was at an end!
Hendrik leaded to the ground. He was no longer afraid that the quagga, blinded as he now was, would make any attempt to get off; nor did he.
In a few minutes the broken bit-ring was replaced by a strong rheim of raw leather; the bit inserted between the quagga's teeth, the head-stall safely buckled, and Hendrik once more in the saddle, with his jacket upon his back.
The quagga felt that he was conquered. His old associates were no longer in sight to tempt him from his allegiance; and with these considerations, aided by a slight dose of bit and spur, he turned his head, and moved sullenly upon the back-track. Hendrik knew nothing about the route he should take. He followed back the spoor of the quaggas to the place where he had dropped his gun, which after riding a mile or two he recovered.
As there was no sun in the sky, nor other object to guide him, he thought he could not do better than trace back the spoor; and although it led him by many a devious route, and he saw nothing more of his eland, before night he reached the pass in the cliff, and was soon after sitting under the shadow of the nwana-tree, regaling a most interested audience with the narrative of his day's adventures.
CHAPTER FORTY TWO.
It was about this time that the field-cornet and his people were very much annoyed by beasts of prey. The savoury smell which their camp daily sent forth, as well as the remains of antelopes, killed for their venison, attracted these visitors. Hyenas and jackals were constantly skulking in the neighbourhood, and at night came around the great nwana-tree in scores, keeping up their horrid chorus for hours together. It is true that nobody feared these animals, as the children at night were safe in their aerial home, where the hyenas could not get at them. But for all that, the presence of the brutes was very offensive, as not a bit of meat—not a hide, nor rheim, nor any article of leather—could be left below without their getting their teeth upon it, and chewing it up.
Quarters of venison they had frequently stolen, and they had eaten up the leathern part of Swartboy's saddle, and rendered it quite useless for a while. In short, so great a pest had the hyenas grown to be, that it became necessary to adopt some mode of destroying them.
It was not easy to get a shot at them. During the day they were wary, and either hid themselves in caves of the cliff or in the burrows of the ant-eater. At night they were bold enough, and came into the very camp; but then the darkness hindered a good aim, and the hunters knew too well the value of powder and lead to waste it on a chance shot, though now and then, when provoked by the brutes, they ventured one.
But some way must be thought of to thin the numbers of these animals, or get rid of them altogether. This was the opinion of everybody.
Two or three kinds of traps were tried, but without much success. A pit they could leap out of, and from a noose they could free themselves by cutting the rope with their sharp teeth!
At length the field-cornet resorted to a plan—much practised by the boors of Southern Africa for ridding their farms of these and similar vermin. It was the "gun-trap."
Now there are several ways of constructing a gun-trap. Of course a gun is the principal part of the mechanism, and the trigger pulled by a string is the main point of the contrivance. In some countries the bait is tied to the string, and the animal on seizing the bait tightens the string, draws the trigger, and shoots itself. In this way, however, there is always some uncertainty as to the result. The animal may not place its body in the proper position with regard to the muzzle, and may either escape the shot altogether, or may be only "creased," and of course get off.
The mode of setting the "gun-trap" in South Africa is a superior plan; and the creature that is so unfortunate as to draw the trigger rarely escapes, but is either killed upon the spot, or so badly wounded as to prevent its getting away.
Von Bloom constructed his trap after the approved fashion, as follows:— Near the camp he selected a spot where three saplings or young trees grew, standing in a line, and about a yard between each two of them. Had he not found three trees so disposed, stakes firmly driven into the ground would have answered his purpose equally well.
Thorn-bushes were now cut, and a kraal built in the usual manner—that is, with the tops of the bushes turned outwards. The size of the kraal was a matter of no consequence; and, of course, to save labour, a small one was constructed.
One point, however, was observed in making the kraal. Its door or opening was placed so that two of the three saplings stood like posts, one on each side of it; and an animal going into the enclosure must needs pass between these two trees.
Now for the part the gun had to play.
The weapon was placed in a horizontal position against two of the saplings,—that is, the stock against the one outside the kraal, and the barrel against one of the door-posts, and there firmly lashed. In this position the muzzle was close to the edge of the entrance, and pointing directly to the sapling on the opposite side. It was at such a height as to have ranged with the heart of a hyena standing in the opening.
The next move was to adjust the string. Already a piece of stick, several inches in length, had been fixed to the small of the stock, and, of course, behind the trigger. This was fastened transversely, but not so as to preclude all motion. A certain looseness in its adjustment gave it the freedom required to be worked as a lever—for that was its design.
To each end of this little stick was fastened a string. One of these strings was attached to the trigger; the other, after being carried through the thimbles of the ramrod, traversed across the entrance of the kraal, and was knotted upon the opposite side to the sapling that stood there. This string followed the horizontal direction of the barrel, and was just "taut;" so that any farther strain upon it would act upon the little lever, and by that means pull the trigger; and then of course "bang" would go the roer.
When this string was adjusted, and the gun loaded and cocked, the trap was set.
Nothing remained to be done but bait it. This was not a difficult task. It consisted simply in placing a piece of meat or carcass within the enclosure, and these leaving it to attract the prowling beasts to the spot.
When the gun had been set, Swartboy carried up the bait—the offal of an antelope killed that day—and flung it into the kraal; and then the party went quietly to their beds, without thinking more of the matter.
They had not slept a wink, however, before they were startled by the loud "crack" of the roer, followed by a short stifled cry that told them the gun-trap had done its work.
A torch was procured, and the four hunters proceeded to the spot. There they found the dead body of a huge "tiger-wolf" lying doubled up in the entrance, and right under the muzzle of the gun. He had not gone a step after receiving the shot—in fact, had hardly kicked before dying—as the bullet, wad, and all, had gone quite through his ribs and entered his heart, after making a large ugly hole in his side. Of course he must have been within a few inches of the muzzle, when his breast, pressing against the string, caused the gun to go off.
Having again loaded the roer, the hunters returned to their beds. One might suppose they would have dragged the suicidal hyena away from the spot, lest his carcass should serve as a warning to his comrades, and keep them away from the trap. But Swartboy knew better than that. Instead of being scared by the dead body of one of their kind, the hyenas only regard it as proper prey, and will devour it as they would the remains of a tender antelope!
Knowing this, Swartboy did not take the dead hyena away, but only drew it within the kraal to serve as a farther inducement for the others to attempt an entrance there.
Before morning they were once more awakened by the "bang" of the great gun. This time they lay still; but when day broke they visited their trap, and found that a second hyena had too rashly pressed his bosom against the fatal string.
Night after night they continued their warfare against the hyenas, changing the trap-kraal to different localities in the surrounding neighbourhood.
At length these creatures were nearly exterminated, or, at all events, became so rare and shy, that their presence by the camp was no longer an annoyance one way or the other.
About this time, however, there appeared another set of visitors, whose presence was far more to be dreaded, and whose destruction the hunters were more anxious to accomplish. That was a family of lions.
The spoor of these had been often seen in the neighbourhood; but it was some time before they began to frequent the camp. However, about the time the hyenas had been fairly got rid of, the lions took their place, and came every night, roaring about the camp in a most terrific manner.
Dreadful as these sounds were, the people were not so much afraid of them as one might imagine. They well knew that the lions could not get at them in the tree. Had it been leopards they might have felt less secure, as the latter are true tree-climbers; but they had seen no leopards in that country, and did not think of them.
They were not altogether without fear of the lions, however. They were annoyed, moreover, that they could not with safety descend from the tree after nightfall, but were every night besieged from sunset till morning. Besides, although the cow and the quaggas were shut in strong kraals, they dreaded each night that the lions would make a seizure of one or other of these animals; and the loss of any one of them, but especially their valuable friend "old Graaf," would have been a very serious misfortune.
It was resolved, therefore, to try the gun-trap upon the lions, as it had succeeded so well with the hyenas.
There was no difference in the construction or contrivance of the trap. The gun only had to be placed upon a higher level, so that its muzzle might be opposite the lion's heart, and the proper range was easily obtained. The bait, however, was not carcass, but an animal freshly killed; and for this purpose an antelope was procured.
The result was as desired. On the first night the old male lion "breasted" the fatal string and bit the dust. Next night the lioness was destroyed in a similar way; and shortly after a full-grown young male.
The trap then lay idle for a while; but about a week after a half-grown "cub" was shot near the camp by Hendrik, no doubt the last of that family, as no lions were seen for a long time after.
A great enemy to night-plunderers was that same gun-trap.
CHAPTER FORTY THREE.
Now that the beasts of prey had been destroyed, or driven from about the camp, there was no longer any danger in that quarter, and the children could be left by themselves. Totty of course always stayed with them; while the four hunters went forth upon the chase of the elephant—each mounted upon his quagga.
They had done so many a time, and as no harm had happened to the children in their absence, such a course became habitual with them. Jan and Truey were cautioned not to stray far from the nwana, and always to climb to the tree, should they perceive any animal that might be dangerous. Before the destruction of the hyenas and lions, they had been used to remain altogether in the tree, while the hunters were absent. But this had been quite an imprisonment to them; and now that the danger was not considered much, they were allowed to come down and play upon the grassy plain, or wander along the shore of the little lake.
On one occasion when the hunters were abroad, Truey had strayed down to the edge of the water. She was alone, if we except the company of the gazelle, which followed at her heels wherever she went. This pretty creature had grown to full size, and had turned out a great beauty, with large round eyes that had a lovely melting expression, like the eyes of Truey herself.
Well, as I have said, Truey was alone. Jan was busy near the bottom of the tree, working a new rod into his bird-cage, and Totty was out upon the plain herding "old Graaf"—so Truey and the pet springbok went strolling along by themselves.
Now Truey had not gone down to the water without an object. She had one. She had gone to give her pet a drink, and collect some blue lilies for a bouquet. All this she had done, and still continued to walk along the shore.
On one side of the lake, and that the farthest from the nwana-tree, a low spit of land projected into the water. It had once been but a sand-bar, but grass had grown upon it, until a green turf was formed. There was not over a square perch of it altogether, but it was not square in shape. On the contrary, it was of oval form, and much narrower nearest the land, where it formed a neck, or isthmus, not more than three feet in width. It was, in short, a miniature peninsula, which by a very little work with the spade could have been converted into a miniature island—had that been desired.
Now there is nothing very remarkable about a little peninsula projecting into a lake. In nearly every lake such a thing may be seen. But about this one there was something remarkable.
Upon its extreme end grew a tree of singular form and foliage. It was not a large tree, and its branches drooped downwards until their tips almost touched the water. The pendulous boughs, and long lanceolate silvery leaves, rendered it easy to tell what sort of tree it was. It was the weeping or Babylonian willow—so-called, because it was upon trees of this species that the captive Jews hung their harps when they "sat and wept by the streams of Babel." This beautiful tree casts its waving shadow over the streams of South Africa, as well as those of Assyria; and often is the eye of the traveller gladdened by the sight of its silvery leaves, as he beholds them,—sure indications of water— shining afar over the parched and thirsty desert. If a Christian, he fails not to remember that highly poetical passage of sacred writing, that speaks of the willow of Babylon.
Now the one which grew upon the little peninsula had all these points of interest for little Truey—but it had others as well. Upon its branches that overhung the water a very singular appearance presented itself. Upon these was suspended—one upon the end of each branch—a number of odd-shaped objects, that hung drooping down until their lower ends nearly rested upon the surface of the water. These objects, as stated, were of a peculiar shape. At the upper ends—where they were attached to the branches—they were globe-shaped, but the lower part consisted of a long cylinder of much smaller diameter, and at the bottom of this cylinder was the entrance. They bore some resemblance to salad-oil bottles inverted, with their necks considerably lengthened; or they might be compared to the glass retorts seen in the laboratory of the chemist.
They were each twelve or fifteen inches in length, and of a greenish colour—nearly as green as the leaves of the tree itself. Were they its fruit?
No. The weeping-willow bears no fruit of that size. They were not fruit. They were nests of birds!
Yes; they were the nests of a colony of harmless finches of the genus Ploceus,—better known to you under the appellation of "weaver-birds."
I am sure you have heard of weaver-birds before this; and you know that these creatures are so-called on account of the skill which they exhibit in the construction of their nests. They do not build nests, as other birds, but actually weave them, in a most ingenious manner.
You are not to suppose that there is but one species of weaver-bird—one kind alone that forms these curious nests. In Africa—which is the principal home of these birds—there are many different kinds, forming different genera, whose hard names I shall not trouble you with. Each of these different kinds builds a nest of peculiar shape, and each chooses a material different from the others. Some, as the Ploceus icterocephalus, make their nests of a kidney-shape, with the entrance upon the sides, and the latter not circular, but like an arched doorway. Others of the genus Plocepasser weave their nests in such a manner, that the thick ends of the stalks stick out all around the outside, giving them the appearance of suspended hedgehogs; while the birds of another genus closely allied to the latter, construct their nests of slender twigs, leaving the ends of these to project in a similar manner. The "social gros-beak" (Loxia socia) fabricates a republic of nests in one clump, and all under one roof. The entrances are in the under-surface of this mass, which, occupying the whole top of a tree, has the appearance of a haystack, or a dense piece of thatch.
All these weaver-birds, though of different genera, bear a considerable resemblance to each other in their habits. They are usually granivorous, though some are insectivorous; and one species, the red-billed weaver-bird, (Textor erythrorhynchus), is a parasite of the wild buffaloes.
It is a mistake to suppose that weaver-birds are only found in Africa and the Old World, as stated in the works of many naturalists. In tropical America, birds of this character are found in many species of the genera Cassicus and Icterus, who weave pensile nests of a similar kind upon the trees of the Amazon and Orinoco. But the true weaver-birds—that is to say, those which are considered the type of the class,—are those of the genus Ploceus; and it was a species of this genus that had hung their pendulous habitations upon the weeping-willow. They were of the species known as the "pensile weaver-bird" (Ploceus pensilis).
There were full twenty of their nests in all, shaped as already described, and of green colour—for the tough "Bushman's grass," out of which they had been woven, had not yet lost its verdant hue, nor would it for a long time. Being of this colour, they actually looked like something that grew upon the tree,—like great pear-shaped fruits. No doubt from this source have been derived the tales of ancient travellers, who represented that in Africa were trees with fruits upon them, which, upon being broken open, disclosed to view either living birds or their eggs!
Now the sight of the weaver-birds, and their nests, was nothing new to Truey. It was some time since the colony had established itself upon the willow-tree, and she and they had grown well acquainted. She had often visited the birds, had collected seeds, and carried them down to the tree; and there was not one of the whole colony that would not have perched upon her wrist or her pretty white shoulders, or hopped about over her fair locks, without fear. It was nothing unusual to her to see the pretty creatures playing about the branches, or entering the long vertical tunnels that led upward to their nests—nothing unusual for Truey to listen for hours to their sweet twittering, or watch their love-gambols around the borders of the vley.
She was not thinking of them at the moment, but of something else, perhaps of the blue water-lilies—perhaps of the springbok—but certainly not of them, as she tripped gaily along the edge of the lake.
Her attention, however, was suddenly attracted to the birds.
All at once, and without any apparent cause, they commenced screaming and fluttering around the tree, their cries and gestures betokening a high state of excitement or alarm.
CHAPTER FORTY FOUR.
"What can be the matter with my pretty birds?" asked Truey of herself. "Something wrong surely! I see no hawk. Perhaps they are fighting among themselves. I shall go round and see. I shall soon pacify them."
And so saying she mended her pace; and passing round the end of the lake, walked out upon the peninsula until she stood under the willow.
There was no underwood. The tree stood alone upon the very end of the spit of land, and Truey went close in to its trunk. Here she stopped and looked up among the branches, to ascertain what was causing so much excitement among the birds.
As she approached, several of the little creatures had flown towards her, and alighted upon her arms and shoulders; but not as was their wont when desiring to be fed. They appeared to be in a state of alarm, and had come to her for protection.
Some enemy certainly must be near, thought Truey, though she could see none.
She looked around and above. There were no hawks in the air, nor on the neighbouring trees,—no birds of prey of any kind. Had there been one in the willow, she could easily have seen it, as the foliage was light and thin; besides a hawk would not have remained in the tree with her standing so near. What, then, caused the trouble among the birds? what was still causing it—for they were as noisy and terrified as ever? Ha! At last the enemy appears—at last Truey's eyes have fallen upon the monster who has disturbed the peaceful colony of weavers, and roused them to such a pitch of excitement.
Slowly gliding along a horizontal branch, grasping the limb in its many spiral folds, appeared the body of a large serpent. Its scales glittered as it moved, and it was the shining of these that had caught Truey's eyes, and directed them upon the hideous reptile.
When she first saw it, it was gliding spirally along one of the horizontal branches of the willow, and coming, as it were, from the nests of the birds. Her eyes, however, had scarce rested upon it, before its long slippery body passed from the branch, and the next moment it was crawling head-foremost down the main trunk of the tree.
Truey had scarce time to start back, before its head was opposite the spot where she had stood. No doubt, had she kept her place she would have been bitten by the serpent at once; for the reptile, on reaching that point, detached its head from the tree, spread its jaws wide open, projected its forked tongue, and hissed horribly. It was evidently enraged—partly because it had failed in its plundering intentions, not having been able to reach the nests of the birds,—and partly that the latter had repeatedly struck it with their beaks—no doubt causing it considerable pain. It was further provoked by the arrival of Truey, in whom it recognised the rescuer of its intended victims.
Whatever were its thoughts at that moment, it was evidently in a rage— as the motion of its head and the flashing of its eyes testified; and it would have sprung upon any creature that had unfortunately come in its way.
Truey, however, had no intention of getting in its way if she could avoid it. It might be a harmless serpent for all she knew; but a snake, nearly six feet in length, whether it be harmless or venomous, is a terrible object to be near; and Truey had instinctively glided to one side, and stood off from it as far as the water would allow her.
She would have run back over the narrow isthmus; but something told her that the snake was about to take that direction, and might overtake her; and this thought induced her to pass to one side of the peninsula, in hopes the reptile would follow the path that led out to the mainland.
Having got close to the water's edge, she stood gazing upon the hideous form, and trembled as she gazed.
Had Truey known the character of that reptile, she would have trembled all the more. She saw before her one of the most venomous of serpents, the black naja, or "spitting-snake"—the cobra of Africa—far more dangerous than its congener the cobra de capello of India, because far more active in its movements, and equally fatal in its bite.
Truey knew not this. She only knew that there was a great ugly snake, nearly twice her own length, with a large open mouth and glistening tongue, apparently ready to eat her up. That was fearful enough for her, poor thing! and she gazed and trembled, and trembled and gazed again.
Angry as the cobra appeared, it did not turn aside to attack her. Neither did it remain by the tree. After uttering its long loud hiss, it descended to the ground, and glided rapidly off.
It made directly for the isthmus, as if intending to pass it, and retreat to some bushes that grew at a distance off on the mainland.
Truey was in hopes that such was its design, and was just beginning to feel safe again, when, all at once, the snake coiled itself upon the narrow neck of land, as if it intended to stay there.
It had executed this manoeuvre so suddenly, and so apparently without premeditation, that Truey looked to discover the cause. The moment before, it was gliding along in rapid retreat, its glistening form stretched to its full length along the earth. The next instant it had assumed the appearance of a coiled cable, over the edge of which projected its fierce head, with the scaly skin of its neck broadly extended, into that hood-like form which characterises the cobra.
Truey, we have said, looked for the cause of this sudden change in the tactics of the reptile. She learnt it at the first glance.
There stretched a piece of smooth sloping ground from the edge of the lake back into the plain. By this the little peninsula was approached. As she glanced outward, she saw the springbok advancing down this slope. It was the approach of the antelope that had interrupted the retreat of the serpent!
Truey, on first discovering the snake, had uttered a cry of alarm. This cry had summoned her pet—that had lingered behind browsing upon the grass—and it was now bounding forward, with its white tail erect, and its large brown eyes glistening with an expression of inquiry.
It saw its mistress out upon the peninsula. Had she called it? Why had she uttered that strange cry? They were not sounds of joyful import it had heard. Was anything amiss? Yonder she stood. It would gallop to her and see what was wanted; and with such thoughts passing through its brain, the bright little creature bounded down the bank towards the edge of the lake.
Truey trembled for her pet. Another spring, and it would be upon the lurking serpent—another— "Ha! it is safe!"
These words escaped from the lips of the young girl, as she saw the springbok rise high into the air, and leap far and clear over the coiled reptile. The antelope had observed the snake in time, and saved itself by one of those tremendous bounds, such as only a springbok can make. The fond creature, having passed the danger, now ran on to its mistress, and stood with its big shining eyes bent upon her inquiringly.
But the cry that Truey had uttered had summoned another individual. To her horror, she now saw little Jan running down the slope, and coming directly upon the path where the cobra lay coiled!
CHAPTER FORTY FIVE.
Jan's danger was imminent. He was rushing impetuously forward upon the coiled serpent. He knew not that it was before him. No warning would reach him in time to stay his haste. In another moment he would be on the narrow path, and then no power could save him from the deadly bite. It would be impossible for him to leap aside or over the reptile, as the antelope had done; for even then Truey had noticed that the cobra had darted its long neck several feet upwards. It would be certain to reach little Jan, perhaps, coil itself around him. Jan would be lost!
For some moments Truey was speechless. Terror had robbed her of the power of speech. She could only scream, and fling her arms wildly about.
But these demonstrations, instead of warning Jan of the danger, only rendered it the more certain. He connected the cries which Truey now uttered with that which had first summoned him. She was in some trouble—he knew not what; but as she continued to scream, he believed that something had attacked her. A snake he thought it might be; but whatever it was, his first impulse was to hurry up to her rescue. He could do no good until close to her; and, therefore, he did not think of halting until he should reach the spot where she stood.
Her screams, therefore, and the wild gestures that accompanied them, only caused him to run the faster; and as his eyes were bent anxiously on Truey, there was not the slightest hope that he would perceive the serpent until he had either trodden upon it, or felt its fatal bite.
Truey uttered one last cry of warning, pronouncing at the same time the words:—
"O, brother! back! The snake! the snake!"
The words were uttered in vain. Jan heard them, but did not comprehend their meaning. He heard the word "snake." He was expecting as much; it had attacked Truey; and although he did not see it, it was no doubt wound about her body. He hurried on.
Already he was within six paces of the dread reptile, that had erected its long spread neck to receive him. Another moment, and its envenomed fangs would pierce deep into his flesh.
With a despairing scream Truey rushed forward. She hoped to attract the monster upon herself. She would risk her own life to save that of her brother!
She had got within six feet of the threatening reptile. Jan was about the same distance from it on the opposite side. They were equally in peril; and one or the other—perhaps both—would have fallen a sacrifice to the deadly cobra; but at that moment their saviour was nigh. A dark shadow passed under their eyes—in their ears was a rushing sound like the "whish" of a falling body—and at the same instant a large bird darted down between them!
It did not stay to alight. For a moment its strong broad wings agitated the air in their faces; but the next moment the bird made a sudden effort, and rose vertically upwards.
Truey's eyes fell upon the ground. The cobra was no longer there.
With an exclamation of joy she sprang forward, and, throwing her arms around Jan, cried out,—
"We are saved, brother!—we are saved!"
Jan was somewhat bewildered. As yet he had seen no snake. He had seen the bird dart down between them; but so adroitly had it seized the cobra and carried it off, that Jan, looking only at Truey, had not perceived the serpent in its beak. He was bewildered and terrified, for he still fancied that Truey was in danger.
When he heard her exclaim, "We are saved!" he was bewildered all the more.
"But the snake!" he cried out. "Where is the snake?"
As he put these questions, he kept examining Truey from head to foot, as if expecting to see a reptile twined around some part of her body.
"The snake, Jan! Did you not see it? It was just there, at our feet; but now—see! yonder it is. The secretary has got it. See! They are fighting! Good bird! I hope it will punish the villain for trying to rob my pretty weavers. That's it, good bird! Give it to him! See, Jan! What a fight!"
"Oh, ah!" said Jan, now comprehending the situation. "Oh, ah! Sure yonder is a snake, and a whopper, too. Ne'er fear, Truey! Trust my secretary. He'll give the rascal a taste of his claws. There's a lick well put in! Another touch like that, and there won't be much life left in the scaly villain. There again,—wop!"
With these and similar exclamations the two children stood watching the fierce conflict that raged between the bird and the reptile.
Now this bird was a very peculiar one—so much so, that in all the world there is no other of the same kind. In form it resembled a crane, having very long legs, and being about the height and size of a crane. Its head and beak, however, were more like those of an eagle or vulture. It had well-developed wings, armed with spurs, and a very long tail, with the two middle feathers longer than the rest. Its general colour was bluish grey, with a white throat and breast, and a reddish tinge upon the wing-feathers. But, perhaps, the most remarkable thing about the bird was its "crest." This consisted of a number of long, blackish plumes growing out of its occiput, and extending down the back of its neck nearly to the shoulders. These gave the bird a very peculiar appearance; and the fancied resemblance to a secretary of the olden time with his long quill behind his ear—before steel pens came into fashion—is the reason why the bird has received the very inappropriate name of the "Secretary-bird."
It is more properly named the "serpent-eater," and naturalists have given it the title Gypogeranus, or "crane-vulture." It is sometimes also called "the messenger," from the staid solemn manner of its walk, as it stalks over the plain.
Of all its names that of "serpent-eater" is the best adapted to the character of the bird. It is true there are other birds that kill and eat serpents,—as the "guaco" bird of South America, and many hawks and kites,—but the secretary is the only winged creature that makes reptiles of this class exclusively its prey, and carries on a constant war against them. It is not strictly correct to say that it feeds exclusively upon snakes. It will also eat lizards, tortoises, and even locusts; but snakes are certainly its favourite food, and to obtain these it risks its life in many a deadly encounter with those of a very large kind. The serpent-eater is an African bird, and is not peculiar to South Africa alone, as it is found in the Gambia country. It is also a native of the Philippine Isles. There is some doubt whether the species of the Philippine Isles is identical with that of Africa. A difference is noted in the plumage, though very slight. The disposition of the crest-plumes differs in the two, and the tail-feathers are differently arranged. In the African species the two middle ones are the longest, while in the serpent-eater of the Philippines it is the two outside feathers that project—giving the bird the appearance of having a "fork" or "swallow" tail. Some points of distinction have also been observed between the South African bird and that of the Gambia.
The serpent-eater is, however, a very unique bird; and naturalists, failing to class it with either hawks, eagles, vultures, gallinae, or cranes, have elevated it, so as to form a distinct tribe, family, genus, and species, of itself.
In South Africa it frequents the great plains and dry karoos, stalking about in search of its prey. It is not gregarious, but lives solitary or in pairs, making its nest in trees,—usually those of a thick thorny species,—which renders the nest most difficult of approach. The whole edifice is about three feet in diameter, and resembles the nests of the tree-building eagles. It is usually lined with feathers and down, and two or three eggs are the number deposited for a single hatching.
The serpent-eater is an excellent runner, and spends more time on foot than on the wing. It is a shy wary bird, yet, notwithstanding, it is most easily domesticated; and it is not uncommon to see them about the houses of the Cape farmers, where they are kept as pets, on account of their usefulness in destroying snakes, lizards, and other vermin. They have been long ago introduced into the French West India Islands, and naturalised there—in order that they should make war upon the dangerous "yellow serpent" (Trigonocephalus lanceolatus), the plague of the plantations in those parts.
Now the bird which had so opportunely appeared between Jan and Truey, and had no doubt saved one or the other, or both, from the deadly bite of the spuugh-slang, was a serpent-eater,—one that had been tamed, and that made its home among the branches of the great nwana-tree. The hunters had found it upon the plain, wounded by some animal,—perhaps a very large snake,—and had brought it home as a curiosity. In time it quite recovered from its wounds; but the kindness it had received, during the period when it was an invalid, was not thrown away upon it. When it recovered the use of its wings, it refused to leave the society of its protectors, but remained habitually in the camp—although it made frequent excursions into the surrounding plains in search of its favourite food. It always, however, returned at night, and roosted among the branches of the great nwana-tree. Of course it was Jan's pet, and Jan was very good to it; but it now repaid all his kindness in saving him from the fangs of the deadly cobra.
The children, having recovered from their alarm, stood watching the singular conflict between serpent and serpent-eater.
On first seizing the reptile the bird had caught it by the neck in its beak. It might not have accomplished this so readily, had not the attention of the snake been occupied by the children, thus throwing it off its guard.
Having succeeded in seizing the reptile, the bird rose nearly in a vertical direction to a height of many yards, and then opening his beak permitted the serpent to fall to the ground. His object was to stun the latter by the fall; and the more effectually to do this, he would have carried the cobra still higher, had not the latter prevented it by attempting to coil itself around his wings.
Upon letting fall his prey the serpent-eater did not remain in the air. On the contrary, he darted after the falling reptile, and the moment the latter touched the ground, and before it could put itself in an attitude of defence, the bird "pounced" upon it with spread foot, striking it a violent blow near the neck. The snake was still but slightly damaged, and throwing itself into a coil stood upon its defence. Its mouth was opened to its widest extent, its tongue protruded, its fangs were erect, and its eyes flashing with rage and poison. A terrible antagonist it appeared, and for a moment the secretary seemed to think so, as he stood on the ground confronting it.
But the bird soon began to advance upon it for a renewal of the attack, though this advance was made in a cautious manner. With the pinions of one of his strong wings spread broadly out for a shield, he approached the reptile sideways, and, when near enough, suddenly wheeled, turning upon his leg as on a pivot, and struck sharply out with his other wing. The blow was delivered with good effect. It reached the head of the snake, and seemed to stun it. Its neck drooped, and the coils became loosened. Before it could recover itself it was once more in the beak of the serpent-eater, and trailing through the air.
This time the bird rose to a much greater height than before—as he was not hampered by the writhing of the serpent—and as before suffered the reptile to fall, and then darted suddenly after.
When the snake came to the ground a second time it lay for a moment stretched at full length, as if stunned or dead. It was not dead, however, and would once more have coiled itself; but, before it could do so, the bird had repeatedly "pounced" upon its neck with his spread and horny feet; and at length, watching his opportunity when the head of the serpent lay flat, he struck a blow with his sharp beak so violent, that it split the skull of the reptile in twain! Life was now extinct, and the hideous form, extended to its full length, lay lithe and motionless upon the grass.
Jan and Truey clapped their hands, and uttered exclamations of joy.
The serpent-eater took no heed of their demonstrations, but, approaching the dead cobra, bent over it, and coolly set about making his dinner.
CHAPTER FORTY SIX.
TOTTY AND THE CHACMAS.
Von Bloom and his family had now been months without bread. They were not without a substitute, however, as various roots and nuts supplied them with a change of food. Of the latter, they had the ground or pig-nut (Arachis hypogea), which grows in all parts of Southern Africa, and which forms a staple food of the native inhabitants. For vegetables they had the bulbs of many species of Ixias and Mesembryanthemums, among others the "Hottentot fig" (Mesembryanthemum edule). They had the "Caffir bread"—the inside pith of the stems of a species of Zamia; and the "Caffir chestnut," the fruit of the Brabeium stellatum; and last, not least, the enormous roots of the "elephant's foot" (Testudinaria elephantipes). They had wild onions and garlic too; and in the white flower-tops of a beautiful floating plant (Aponogeton distachys), they found a substitute for asparagus.
All these roots and fruits were to be obtained in the neighbourhood, and no man knew better how to find them, and "crow" them up when found, than did Swartboy the Bushman. Well might he, for in Swartboy's early days he had often been compelled to subsist for weeks, and even months, on roots alone!
But although they could procure a constant supply of these natural productions, they considered them but a poor substitute for bread; and all of them longed to eat once more what is usually termed the "staff of life"—though in South Africa, where so many people live exclusively upon the flesh of animals, bread is hardly entitled to that appellation.
Bread they were likely to have, and soon. When trekking from the old kraal, they had brought with them a small bag of maize. It was the last of their previous year's stock; and there was not in all over a bushel of it. But that was enough for seed, and would produce many bushels if properly planted, and carefully tended.
This had been done shortly after their arrival at their present home. A fertile spot of ground had been selected, only a few hundred yards from the nwana-tree. It had been turned up with the spade, for want of a plough, and the seeds planted at proper distances.
Many an hour had been given to the weeding and hoeing of it, and around every plant a little hill of soft mould had been raised, to nourish the roots, and protect them from the heat of the sun. The plants were even watered now and then.
Partly on account of this attention, and partly from the richness of the virgin soil, a splendid growth was the result; and the stalks stood full twelve feet high, with ears nearly a foot long. They had almost ripened; and the field-cornet intended in about a week or ten days to gather in the crop.
Both he and all his people were anticipating pleasant feasts of maize-bread, and "hominy," with "mash and milk" and various other dishes, that with Totty's skill could be manufactured out of the Indian corn.
About this time an incident occurred that nearly deprived them, not only of their whole plot of maize-plants, but also of their valuable housekeeper, Totty. It was as follows.