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Chapter 9 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

A Lion “Couchant”

They had not proceeded an hundred steps when an object appeared before them that caused all three to draw bridle suddenly and simultaneously. That object was a lion!

He was couched upon the plain directly in the path they intended to take—the very same path by which they had come!

How was it they had not seen him before? He was under the lee of a low bush; but, thanks to the locusts, this bush was leafless, and its thin naked twigs formed no concealment for so large a creature as a lion. His tawny hide shone conspicuously through them.

The truth is, he had not been there when the horsemen passed towards the kraal. He had just fled from among the carcasses, on seeing them approach; and had skulked around the walls, and then run to their rear. He had executed this manoeuvre to avoid an encounter—for a lion reasons as a man does, though not to the same extent. Seeing the horsemen come that way, his reasoning powers were strong enough to tell him that they were not likely to return by the same path. It was more natural they should continue on. A man, ignorant of all the preceding events connected with their journey would have reasoned much in the same way. If you have been at all observant, you have seen other animals—such as dogs, deer, hares, or even birds—act just as the lion did on this occasion.

Beyond a doubt the intellectual process described passed through the mind of this lion; and he had skulked round to shun an encounter with the three travellers.

Now a lion will not always act so—though he will in five cases out of six, or oftener. Hence very erroneous views are held in relation to the courage of this animal. Some naturalists, led away by what appears to be a feeling of envy or anger, accuse the lion of downright cowardice, denying him a single noble quality of all those that have from earliest times been ascribed to him! Others, on the contrary, assert that he knows no fear, either of man or beast; and these endow him with many virtues besides courage. Both parties back up their views, not by mere assertions, but by an ample narration of well-attested facts!

How is this? There is a dilemma here. Both cannot be right in their opinions? And yet, odd as it may appear to say so, both are right in a certain sense.

The fact is, some lions are cowardly, while others are brave.

The truth of this might be shown by whole pages of facts, but in this little volume we have not room. I think, however, boy reader, I can satisfy you with an analogy.

Answer me—Do you know any species of animal, the individuals of which are exactly alike in character? Think over the dogs of your acquaintance! Are they alike, or anything near it? Are not some of them noble, generous, faithful, brave to the death? Are not others mean, sneaking, cowardly curs? So is it with lions.

Now, you are satisfied that my statement about the lions may be true.

There are many causes to affect the courage and ferocity of the lion. His age—the state of his stomach—the season of the year—the hour of the day—but, above all, the sort of hunters that belong to the district he inhabits.

This last fact appears quite natural to those who believe in the intellect of animals, which of course I do. It is perfectly natural that the lion, as well as other animals, should soon learn the character of his enemy, and fear him or not, as the case may be. Is this not an old story with us? If I remember aright, we had a talk upon this subject when speaking of the crocodiles of America. We remarked that the alligator of the Mississippi rarely attacks man in modern times; but it has not been always so. The rifle of the alligator-leather hunter has tamed its ferocity. The very same species in South America eats Indians by scores every year; and the crocodile of Africa is dreaded in some parts even more than the lion!

It is asserted that the lions of the Cape are more cowardly in some districts than in others. They are less brave in those districts where they have been “jaged” by the courageous and stalwart boor with his long loud-cracking “roer.”

Beyond the frontier, where they have no enemy but the tiny arrow of the Bushman (who does not desire to kill them!) and the slender “assegai” of the Bechuana, the lion has little or no fear of man.

Whether the one, before the eyes of our party, was naturally a brave one, could not yet be told. He was one with a huge black mane, or “schwart-fore life,” as the boors term it; and these are esteemed the fiercest and most dangerous. The “yellow-maned,”—for there is considerable variety in the colour of the Cape lions—is regarded as possessing less courage; but there is some doubt about the truth of this. The young “black-manes” may often be mistaken for the true yellow variety, and their character ascribed to him to his prejudice,—for the swarthy colour of the mane only comes after the lion is many years of age.

Whether the “schwart-fore life” was a fierce and brave one, Von Bloom did not stay to think about. It was evident that the edge had been taken off the animal’s appetite. It was evident he did not meditate an attack; and that had the horsemen chosen to make a détour, and ride peacefully away, they might have continued their journey without ever seeing or hearing of him again.

But the field-cornet had no such intention. He had lost his precious oxen and cattle. That lion had pulled down some of them, at least. The Dutch blood was up, and if the beast had been the strongest and fiercest of his tribe, he was bound to be brought out of that bush.

Ordering the others to remain where they were, Von Bloom advanced on horseback until within about fifty paces of where the lion lay. Here he drew up, coolly dismounted, passed the bridle over his arm, stuck his loading-rod into the ground, and knelt down behind it.

You will fancy he would have been safer to have kept his saddle, as the lion cannot overtake a horse. True; but the lion would have been safer too. It is no easy matter to fire correctly from any horse, but when the mark happens to be a grim lion, he is a well-trained steed that will stand sufficiently firm to admit of a true aim. A shot from the saddle under such circumstances is a mere chance shot; and the field-cornet was not in the mood to be satisfied with a chance shot. Laying his roer athwart the loading-rod, and holding the long barrel steady against it, he took deliberate aim through the ivory sights.

During all this time the lion had not stirred. The bush was between him and the hunter; but he could hardly have believed that it sufficed to conceal him. Far from it. His yellow flanks were distinctly visible through the thorny twigs, and his head could be seen with his muzzle and whiskers stained red with the blood of the oxen.

No—he did not believe himself hid. A slight growl, with one or two shakes of his tail, proved the contrary. He lay still however, as lions usually do, until more nearly approached. The hunter, as already stated, was full fifty yards from him.

Excepting the motion of his tail, he made no other till Von Bloom pulled trigger; and then with a scream he sprang several feet into the air. The hunter had been afraid of the twigs causing his bullet to glance off; but it was plain it had told truly, for he saw the fur fly from the side of that lion where it struck him.

It was but a wound; and not deadly, as soon appeared.

With long bounds the angry brute came on—lashing his tail, and showing his fearful teeth. His mane, now on end, seemed to have doubled his size. He looked as large as a bull!

In a few seconds time he had crossed the distance that separated him from the hunter, but the latter was gone far from that spot. The moment he had delivered his fire, he leaped upon his well-trained horse, and rode off towards the others.

All three were for a short while together—Hendrik holding his yäger cocked and ready, while Swartboy grasped his bow and arrows. But the lion dashed forward before either could fire; and they were obliged to spur and gallop out of his way.

Swartboy had ridden to one side, while Von Bloom and Hendrik took the other; and the game was now between the two parties—both of which had pulled up at some distance off.

The lion, after the failure of his charge, halted, and looked first at one, then at the other—as if uncertain which to pursue.

His appearance at this moment was terrible beyond expression. His whole fierce nature was roused. His mane stood erect—his tail lasher his flanks—his mouth, widely open, showed the firm-set trenchant teeth—their white spikes contrasting with the red blood that clotted his cheeks and snout, while his angry roaring added horror to his appearance.

But none of the three were terrified out of their senses. Hendrik at this moment covered him with his rifle, took cool aim, and fired; while at the same instant Swartboy sent an arrow whistling through the air.

Both had aimed truly. Both bullet and arrow struck; and the shaft of the latter could be seen sticking in the lion’s thigh.

The fierce brute that up to this time had exhibited the most determined courage, now seemed overcome with a sudden fear. Either the arrow or one of the bullets must have sickened him with the combat; for, dropping his mop-like tail to a level with the line of his back, he broke away; and, trotting sulkily forward, sprang in at the door of the kraal!

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