Chapter 8 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The fate of the Hero.

But they did stray.

When day broke, and the travellers looked around them, not a head of the oxen or cattle was to be seen. Yes, there was one, and one only—the milch-cow. Totty, after milking her on the previous night, had left her tied to a bush where she still remained. All the rest were gone, and the sheep and goats as well.

Whither had they strayed?

The horses were mounted, and search was made. The sheep and goats were found among some bushes not far off; but it soon appeared that the other animals had gone clean away.

Their spoor was traced for a mile or two. It led back on the very track they had come; and no doubt any longer existed that they had returned to the kraal.

To overtake them before reaching that point, would be difficult, if at all possible. Their tracks showed that they had gone off early in the night, and had travelled at a rapid rate—so that by this time they had most likely arrived at their old home.

This was a sad discovery. To have followed them on the thirsting and hungry horses would have been a useless work; yet without the yoke-oxen how was the wagon to be taken forward to the spring?

It appeared to be a sad dilemma they were in; but after a short consultation the thoughtful Hans suggested a solution of it.

“Can we not attach the horses to the wagon?” inquired he. “The five could surely draw it on to the spring?”

“What! and leave the cattle behind?” said Hendrik. “If we do not go after them, they will be all lost, and then—”

“We could go for them afterwards,” replied Hans; “but is it not better first to push forward to the spring; and, after resting the horses a while, return then for the oxen? They will have reached the kraal by this time. There they will be sure of water anyhow, and that will keep them alive till we get there.”

The course suggested by Hans seemed feasible enough. At all events, it was the best plan they could pursue; so they at once set about putting it in execution. The horses were attached to the wagon in the best way they could think of. Fortunately some old horse-harness formed part of the contents of the vehicle, and these were brought out and fitted on, as well as could be done.

Two horses were made fast to the disselboom as “wheelers;” two others to the trektow cut to the proper length; and the fifth horse was placed in front as a leader.

When all was ready, Swartboy again mounted the voor-kist, gathered up his reins, cracked his whip, and set his team in motion. To the delight of every one, the huge heavy-laden wagon moved off as freely as if a full team had been inspanned.

Von Bloom, Hendrik, and Hans, cheered as it passed them; and setting the milch-cow and the flock of sheep and goats in motion, moved briskly after. Little Jan and Trüey still rode in the wagon; but the others now travelled afoot, partly because they had the flock to drive, and partly that they might not increase the load upon the horses.

They all suffered greatly from thirst, but they would have suffered still more had it not been for that valuable creature that trotted along behind the wagon—the cow—“old Graaf,” as she was called. She had yielded several pints of milk, both the night before and that morning; and this well-timed supply had given considerable relief to the travellers.

The horses behaved beautifully. Notwithstanding that their harness was both incomplete and ill fitted, they pulled the wagon along after them as if not a strap or buckle had been wanting. They appeared to know that their kind master was in a dilemma, and were determined to draw him out of it. Perhaps, too, they smelt the spring-water before them. At all events, before they had been many hours in harness, they were drawing the wagon through a pretty little valley covered with green, meadow-looking sward; and in five minutes more were standing halted near a cool crystal spring.

In a short time all had drunk heartily, and were refreshed. The horses were turned out upon the grass, and the other animals browsed over the meadow. A good fire was made near the spring, and a quarter of mutton cooked—upon which the travellers dined—and then all sat waiting for the horses to fill themselves.

The field-cornet, seated upon one of the wagon-chests, smoked his great pipe. He could have been contented, but for one thing—the absence of his cattle.

He had arrived at a beautiful pasture-ground—a sort of oasis in the wild plains, where there were wood, water, and grass,—everything that the heart of a “vee-boor” could desire. It did not appear to be a large tract, but enough to have sustained many hundred head of cattle—enough for a very fine “stock farm.” It would have answered his purpose admirably; and had he succeeded in bringing on his oxen and cattle, he would at that moment have felt happy enough. But without them what availed the fine pasturage? What could he do there without them to stock it? They were his wealth—at least, he had hoped in time that their increase would become wealth. They were all of excellent breeds; and, with the exception of his twelve yoke-oxen, and one or two long-horned Bechuana bulls, all the others were fine young cows calculated soon to produce a large herd.

Of course his anxiety about these animals rendered it impossible for him to enjoy a moment’s peace of mind, until he should start back in search of them. He had only taken out his pipe to pass the time, while the horses were gathering a bite of grass. As soon as their strength should be recruited a little, it was his design to take three of the strongest of them, and with Hendrik and Swartboy, ride back to the old kraal.

As soon, therefore, as the horses were ready for the road again, they were caught and saddled up; and Von Bloom, Hendrik, and Swartboy, mounted and set out, while Hans remained in charge of the camp.

They rode at a brisk rate, determined to travel all night, and, if possible, reach the kraal before morning. At the last point on the route where there was grass, they off-saddled, and allowed their horses to rest and refresh themselves. They had brought with them some slices of the roast mutton, and this time they had not forgotten to fill their gourd-canteens with water—so that they should not again suffer from thirst. After an hour’s halt they continued their journey.

It was quite night when they arrived at the spot where the oxen had deserted them; but a clear moon was in the sky, and they were able to follow back the wheel-tracks of the wagon, that were quite conspicuous under the moonlight. Now and then to be satisfied, Von Bloom requested Swartboy to examine the spoor, and see whether the cattle had still kept the back-track. To answer this gave no great trouble to the Bushman. He would drop from his horse, and bending over the ground, would reply in an instant. In every case the answer was in the affirmative. The animals had certainly gone back to their old home.

Von Bloom believed they would be sure to find them there, but should they find them alive? That was the question that rendered him anxious.

The creatures could obtain water by the spring, but food—where? Not a bite would they find anywhere, and would not hunger have destroyed them all before this?

Day was breaking when they came in sight of the old homestead. It presented a very odd appearance. Not one of the three would have recognised it. After the invasion of the locusts it showed a very altered look, but now there was something else that added to the singularity of its appearance. A row of strange objects seemed to be placed upon the roof ridge, and along the walls of the kraals. What were these strange objects, for they certainly did not belong to the buildings? This question was put by Von Bloom, partly to himself, but loud enough for the others to hear him.

“Da vogels!” (the vultures), replied Swartboy.

Sure enough, it was a string of vultures that appeared along the walls.

The sight of these filthy birds was more than ominous. It filled Von Bloom with apprehension. What could they be doing there? There must be carrion near?

The party rode forward. The day was now up, and the vultures had grown busy. They flapped their shadowy wings, rose from the walls, and alighted at different points around the house.

“Surely there must be carrion,” muttered Von Bloom.

There was carrion, and plenty of it. As the horsemen drew near the vultures rose into the air, and a score of half-devoured carcasses could be seen upon the ground. The long curving horns that appeared beside each carcass, rendered it easy to tell to what sort of animals they belonged. In the torn and mutilated fragments, Von Bloom recognised the remains of his lost herd!

Not one was left alive. There could be seen the remains of all of them, both cows and oxen, lying near the enclosures and on the adjacent plain—each where it had fallen.

But how had they fallen? That was the mystery.

Surely they could not have perished of hunger, and so suddenly? They could not have died of thirst, for there was the spring bubbling up just beside where they lay? The vultures had not killed them! What then?

Von Bloom did not ask many questions. He was not left long in doubt. As he and his companions rode over the ground, the mystery was explained. The tracks of lions, hyenas, and jackals, made everything clear enough. A large troop of these animals had been upon the ground. The scarcity of game, caused by the migration of the locusts, had no doubt rendered them more than usually ravenous, and in consequence the cattle became their prey.

Where were they now? The morning light, and the sight of the house perhaps, had driven them off. But their spoor was quite fresh. They were near at hand, and would be certain to return again upon the following night.

Von Bloom felt a strong desire to be revenged upon the hideous brutes; and, under other circumstances, would have remained to get a shot at them. But just then that would have been both imprudent and unprofitable work. It would be as much as their horses could accomplish, to get back to camp that night; so, without even entering the old house, they watered their animals, refilled their calabashes at the spring, and with heavy hearts once more rode away from the kraal.