Chapter 7 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

“Water! Water!”

On moved the little caravan, but not in silence. Swartboy’s voice and whip made an almost continual noise. The latter could be plainly heard more than a mile over the plain, like repeated discharges of a musket. Hendrik, too, did a good deal in the way of shouting; and even the usually quiet Hans was under the necessity of using his voice to urge the flock forward in the right direction.

Occasionally both the boys were called upon to give Swartboy a help with the leading oxen when these became obstinate or restive, and would turn out of the track. At such times either Hans or Hendrik would gallop up, set the heads of the animals right again, and ply the “jamboks” upon their sides.

This “jambok” is a severe chastener to an obstinate ox. It is an elastic whip made of rhinoceros or hippopotamus skin,—hippopotamus is the best,—near six feet long, and tapering regularly from butt to tip.

Whenever the led oxen misbehaved, and Swartboy could not reach them with his long “voorslag,” Hendrik was ever ready to tickle them with his tough jambok; and, by this means, frighten them into good behaviour. Indeed, one of the boys was obliged to be at their head nearly all the time.

A “leader” is used to accompany most teams of oxen in South Africa. But those of the field-cornet had been accustomed to draw the wagon without one, ever since the Hottentot servants fan away; and Swartboy had driven many miles with no other help than his long whip. But the strange look of everything, since the locusts passed, had made the oxen shy and wild; besides the insects had obliterated every track or path which oxen would have followed. The whole surface was alike,—there was neither trace nor mark. Even Von Bloom himself could with difficulty recognise the features of the country, and had to guide himself by the sun in the sky.

Hendrik stayed mostly by the head of the leading oxen. Hans had no difficulty in driving the flock when once fairly started. A sense of fear kept all together, and as there was no herbage upon any side to tempt them to stray, they moved regularly on.

Von Bloom rode in front to guide the caravan. Neither he nor any of them had made any change in their costume, but travelled in their everyday dress. The field-cornet himself was habited after the manner of most boors,—in wide leathern trousers, termed in that country “crackers;” a large roomy jacket of green cloth, with ample outside pockets; a fawn-skin waistcoat; a huge white felt hat, with the broadest of brims; and upon his feet a pair of brogans of African unstained leather, known among the boors as “feldt-schoenen” (country shoes). Over his saddle lay a “kaross,” or robe of leopard-skins, and upon his shoulder he carried his “roer”—a large smoothbore gun, about six feet in length, with an old-fashioned flint-lock,—quite a load of itself. This is the gun in which the boor puts all his trust; and although an American backwoodsman would at first sight be disposed to laugh at such a weapon, a little knowledge of the boor’s country would change his opinion of the “roer.” His own weapon—the small-bore rifle, with a bullet less than a pea—would be almost useless among the large game that inhabits the country of the boor. Upon the “karoos” of Africa there are crack shots and sterling hunters, as well as in the backwoods or on the prairies of America.

Curving round under the field-cornet’s left arm, and resting against his side, was an immense powder-horn—of such size as could only be produced upon the head of an African ox. It was from the country of the Bechuanas, though nearly all Cape oxen grow horns of vast dimensions. Of course it was used to carry the field-cornet’s powder, and, if full, it must have contained half-a-dozen pounds at least! A leopard-skin pouch hanging under his right arm, a hunting-knife stuck in his waist-belt, and a large meerschaum pipe through the band of his hat, completed the equipments of the trek-boor, Von Bloom.

Hans and Hendrik were very similarly attired, armed, and equipped. Of course their trousers were of dressed sheep-skin, wide—like the trousers of all young boors—and they also wore jackets and “feldt-schoenen,” and broad-brimmed white hats. Hans carried a light fowling-piece, while Hendrik’s gun was a stout rifle of the kind known as a “yäger”—an excellent gun for large game. In this piece Hendrik had great pride, and had learnt to drive a nail with it at nearly a hundred paces. Hendrik was par excellence the marksman of the party. Each of the boys also carried a large crescent-shaped powder-horn, with a pouch for bullets; and over the saddle of each was strapped the robe or kaross, differing only from their father’s in that his was of the rarer leopard-skin, while theirs were a commoner sort, one of antelope, and the other of jackal-skin. Little Jan also wore wide trousers, jacket, “feldt-schoenen,” and broad-brimmed beaver,—in fact, Jan, although scarce a yard high, was, in point of costume, a type of his father,—a diminutive type of the boor. Trüey was habited in a skirt of blue woollen stuff, with a neat bodice elaborately stitched and embroidered after the Dutch fashion, and over her fair locks she wore a light sun-hat of straw with a ribbon and strings. Totty was very plainly attired in strong homespun, without any head-dress. As for Swartboy, a pair of old leathern “crackers” and a striped shirt were all the clothing he carried, beside his sheep-skin kaross. Such were the costumes of our travellers.

For full twenty miles the plain was wasted bare. Not a bite could the beasts obtain, and water there was none. The sun during the day shone brightly,—too brightly, for his beams were as hot as within the tropics. The travellers could scarce have borne them had it not been that a stiff breeze was blowing all day long. But this unfortunately blew directly in their faces, and the dry karoos are never without dust. The constant hopping of the locusts with their millions of tiny feet had loosened the crust of earth; and now the dust rose freely upon the wind. Clouds of it enveloped the little caravan, and rendered their forward movement both difficult and disagreeable. Long before night their clothes were covered, their mouths filled, and their eyes sore.

But all that was nothing. Long before night a far greater grievance was felt,—the want of water.

In their hurry to escape from the desolate scene at the kraal, Von Bloom had not thought of bringing a supply in the wagon—a sad oversight, in a country like South Africa, where springs are so rare, and running streams so uncertain. A sad oversight indeed, as they now learnt—for long before night they were all crying out for water—all were equally suffering from the pangs of thirst.

Von Bloom thirsted, but he did not think of himself, except that he suffered from self-accusation. He blamed himself for neglecting to bring a needful supply of water. He was the cause of the sufferings of all the rest. He felt sad and humbled on account of his thoughtless negligence.

He could promise them no relief—at least none until they should reach the spring. He knew of no water nearer.

It would be impossible to reach the spring that night. It was late when they started. Oxen travel slowly. Half the distance would be as much as they could make by sundown.

To reach the water they would have to travel all night; but they could not do that for many reasons. The oxen would require to rest—the more so that they were hungered; and now Von Bloom thought, when too late, of another neglect he had committed—that was, in not collecting, during the flight of the locusts, a sufficient quantity of them to have given his cattle a feed.

This plan is often adopted under similar circumstances; but the field-cornet had not thought of it: and as but few locusts fell in the kraals where the animals had been confined, they had therefore been without food since the previous day. The oxen in particular showed symptoms of weakness, and drew the wagon sluggishly; so that Swartboy’s voice and long whip were kept in constant action.

But there were other reasons why they would have to halt when night came on. The field-cornet was not so sure of the direction. He would not be able to follow it by night, as there was not the semblance of a track to guide him. Besides it would be dangerous to travel by night, for then the nocturnal robber of Africa—the fierce lion—is abroad.

They would be under the necessity, therefore, of halting for the night, water or no water.

It wanted yet half-an-hour of sundown when Von Bloom had arrived at this decision. He only kept on a little farther in hopes of reaching a spot where there was grass. They were now more than twenty miles from their starting-point, and still the black “spoor” of the locusts covered the plain. Still no grass to be seen, still the bushes bare of their leaves, and barked!

The field-cornet began to think that he was trekking right in the way the locusts had come. Westward he was heading for certain; he knew that. But he was not yet certain that the flight had not advanced from the west instead of the north. If so, they might go for days before coming upon a patch of grass!

These thoughts troubled him, and with anxious eyes he swept the plain in front, as well as to the right and left.

A shout from the keen-eyed Bushman produced a joyful effect. He saw grass in front. He saw some bushes with leaves! They were still a mile off, but the oxen, as if the announcement had been understood by them, moved more briskly forward.

Another mile passed over, and they came upon grass, sure enough. It was a very scanty pasture, though—a few scattered blades growing ever the reddish surface, but in no place a mouthful for an ox. There was just enough to tantalise the poor brutes without filling their stomachs. It assured Von Bloom, however, that they had now got beyond the track of the locusts; and he kept on a little farther in hopes that the pasture might get better.

It did not, however. The country through which they advanced was a wild, sterile plain—almost as destitute of vegetation as that over which they had hitherto been travelling. It no longer owed its nakedness to the locusts, but to the absence of water.

They had no more time to search for pasture. The sun was already below the horizon when they halted to “outspann.”

A “kraal” should have been built for the cattle, and another for the sheep and goats. There were bushes enough to have constructed them, but who of that tired party had the heart to cut them down and drag them to the spot?

It was labour enough—the slaughtering a sheep for supper, and collecting sufficient wood to cook it. No kraal was made. The horses were tied around the wagon. The oxen, cattle, and sheep and goats, were left free to go where they pleased. As there was no pasture near to tempt them, it was hoped that, after the fatigue of their long journey, they would not stray far from the camp-fire, which was kept burning throughout the night.