Chapter 13 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The travellers benighted.

Our travellers would have talked much more about lions, but for the condition of their horses. This made them feel uneasy. With the exception of a few hours grazing, the poor brutes had been without food since the appearance of the locusts. Horses do not travel well upon soft grass, and of course they were now suffering severely.

It would be far in the night before the horsemen could reach the camp—although they were pushing on as fast as the horses could travel.

It was quite dark, when they arrived at the spot where they had halted the previous evening. In fact, it was very dark. Neither moon nor stars were to be seen in the sky; and thick black clouds covered the whole canopy of the heavens. It looked as though a rain-storm might be expected—still no rain had as yet fallen.

It was the intention of the travellers to halt at this place, and let their horses graze a while. With this view they all dismounted; but, after trying one or two places, they could find no grass!

This appeared strange, as they had certainly observed grass at that very spot the day before. Now there was none!

The horses put their noses to the ground, but raised them up again, snorting as they did so, and evidently disappointed. They were hungry enough to have eaten grass had there been any, for they eagerly snatched at the leaves of the bushes as they passed along!

Had the locusts been there also? No. The mimosa-bushes still retained their delicate foliage, which would not have been the case had the locusts visited the spot.

Our travellers were astonished that there was no grass. Surely there was some the day before? Had they got upon a new track?

The darkness prevented them from having a view of the ground; yet Von Bloom could not be mistaken about the route—having travelled it four times already. Though he could not see the surface, every now and again he caught a glimpse of some tree or bush, which he had marked in his former journeys, and these assured him they were still upon the right track.

Surprised at the absence of grass where they had so lately observed it, they would have examined the surface more carefully; but they were anxious to push on to the spring, and at length gave up the idea of halting. The water in their gourds had been used up long before this; and both they and their horses were once more suffering from thirst.

Besides, Von Bloom was not without some anxiety about the children at the wagon. He had been separated from them now a full day and a half, and many a change might take place—many a danger might arise in that time. In fact, he began to blame himself for having left them alone. It would have been better to have let his cattle perish. So thought he now. A presentiment that all was not right was gradually forming in his mind; and he grew more anxious to proceed as he reflected.

They rode on in silence. It was only on Hendrik expressing a doubt about the way, that the conversation recommenced. Swartboy also thought they were taking a wrong course.

At first Von Bloom assured them they were right: but after going a little farther, he admitted that he was in doubt; and then, after another half-mile’s travelling, he declared that he had lost the track. He could no longer recognise any one of the marks or bearings he had taken.

The proper thing to be done under these circumstances was to leave the horses to themselves; and this all three well knew. But the animals were suffering the pangs of hunger, and when left to themselves, would not journey forward, but rushed up to the mimosa-bushes, and eagerly commenced devouring their leaves.

The consequence was, that their riders were obliged to keep them going with whip and spur; and in that way there was no certainty of the horses taking the right direction.

After several hours’ advancing, all the while in a state of suspense, and as yet no appearance of either wagon or camp-fire, the travellers resolved upon coming to a halt. It was of no use going forward. They believed they could not be far from the camp; but they were now as likely to be riding from as towards it; and they concluded at length, that it would be wiser to remain where they were until the day broke.

They all dismounted therefore, and fastened their horses to the bushes—so that the animals could browse upon the leaves till morning—which could not now be very far off. They rolled themselves up in their karosses, and lay down upon the earth.

Hendrik and Swartboy were soon asleep. Von Bloom would have slept too, for he was tired enough; but the heart of the father was too full of anxiety to allow repose to his eyes, and he lay awake watching for the dawn.

It came at length, and at the first light his eyes swept the surface of the surrounding country. The party had by chance halted on an eminence that commanded a good view for miles on each side, but the field-cornet had not glanced half around the circle, when an object came before his eyes that brought gladness to his heart. It was the white tent of the wagon!

The joyful exclamation he uttered awoke the sleepers, who immediately sprang to their feet; and all three stood gazing at the welcome sight.

As they continued to gaze, their joy gradually gave place to feelings of surprise. Was it their wagon, after all?

It certainly looked like theirs; but it was a full half-mile off, and at such a distance one wagon would look just like another. But what led them to doubt its being theirs? It was the appearance of the place in which they saw it. Surely it was not the same place in which they had outspanned!

Theirs had been left in an oblong valley between two gentle ridges—in such a valley was this one standing. Near a small pool formed by a spring—here, too, was the same, for they could perceive the water shining. But in all other respects the situation was different. The surface of the valley in which their wagon had been left was covered, both sides and bottom, with a verdant carpet of grass; whereas the one now before their eyes was brown and bare! not a blade of grass was to be seen—the trees seeming to be the only things that had any verdure. Even the low bushes appeared to be destitute of leaves! The scene had no resemblance whatever to that where they had outspanned. It must be the camp of some other travellers, thought they.

They had fully arrived at this conclusion, when Swartboy, whose eyes had been rolling about everywhere, now rested upon the ground at his feet. After a moment’s observation—which the increasing light now enabled him to make—he turned suddenly to the others, and directed their attention to the surface of the plain. This they saw was covered with tracks, as if a thousand hoofs had passed over it. In fact, it presented the appearance of a vast sheep-pen; so vast, that as far as their sight extended, they beheld the same tracked and trampled appearance!

What could this mean? Hendrik did not know. Von Bloom was in doubt. Swartboy could tell at the first glance. It was no new sight to him.

“All right, baas,” he said, looking up in his master’s face. “Da’s da ole wagon!—da same spring an’ vley—da same place—dar hab been um trek-boken!”

“A trek-boken!” cried Von Bloom and Hendrik, in a breath.

“Ya, baas—a mighty big one too; das de spoor of dem antelope—See!”

Von Bloom now comprehended all. The bareness of the country, the absence of the leaves on the lower bushes, the millions of small hoof-tracks, all were now explained. A migration of the springbok antelope, a “trek-boken,” had swept over the spot. That it was that had caused such a mighty change. The wagon they saw was theirs, after all.

They lost no time, but, catching their horses, bridled them, and rode rapidly down the hill.

Though somewhat relieved at seeing the wagon, Von Bloom was still apprehensive.

As they approached, they perceived the two horses standing beside it, and tied to the wheels, the cow also was there—but neither goats nor sheep were in the neighbourhood.

There was a fire burning in the rear of the hind-wheels, and a dark mass underneath the wagon, but no human form could be observed.

The hearts of the horsemen beat loudly as they advanced. Their eyes were bent earnestly upon the wagon. They felt keen anxiety.

They had got within three hundred yards, and still no one stirred—no human form made its appearance. Von Bloom and Hendrik now suffered intensely.

At this moment the two horses by the wagon neighed loudly; the dark mass under the wagon moved, rolled outward, rose up, and stood erect. Totty was recognised!

And now the “after-clap” of the wagon was hurriedly drawn aside, and three young faces were seen peeping forth.

A shout of joy burst from the horsemen, and the next moment little Jan and Trüey leaped out from the cap-tent into the arms of their father—while the mutual congratulations of Hans and Hendrik, Swartboy and Totty, produced for some moments a scene of joyful confusion quite indescribable.