Chapter 14 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The “Trek-Boken.”

Those who remained by the camp had had their adventures too; and their tale was by no means a merry one, for it disclosed the unpleasant fact, that the sheep and goats were all lost. The flock had been carried off, in a most singular manner; and there was but little hope of their ever being seen again.

Hans began his tale:—

“Nothing unusual occurred on the day you left us. I was busy all the afternoon in cutting ‘wait-a-bit’ thorns for a kraal. Totty helped me to drag them up, while Jan and Trüey looked after the flock. The animals did not stray out of the valley here, as the grass was good, and they had had enough of trotting lately.

“Well—Totty and I got the kraal, as you see, all ready. So, when night came, we drove the flock in; and, after milking the cow and getting our supper, we all went to bed. We were precious tired, and all of us slept soundly throughout the night without being disturbed. Both jackals and hyenas came around, but we knew they would not break into that kraal.”

Hans pointed to the circular enclosure of thorn-bushes, that had been well constructed.

He then proceeded with his narration:—

“In the morning we found everything right. Totty again milked the cow; and we had breakfast. The flock was let out upon the grass, and so were the cow and the two horses.

“Just about midday I began to think what we were to have for dinner, for the breakfast had cleared up everything. I did not like to kill another sheep, if it could be helped. So bidding Jan and Trüey stay close by the wagon, and leaving Totty to look after the flock, I took my gun and started off in search of game. I took no horse, for I thought I saw springboks out on the plain; and I would stalk them better afoot.

“Sure enough, there were springboks. When I got out of the valley here, and had a better view, I saw what astonished me, I can assure you.

“I could scarce credit my eyes. The whole plain, towards the west, appeared to be one vast crowd of animals; and by their bright yellow sides, and the snow-white hair on their rumps, I knew they were springboks. They were all in motion, some browsing along, while hundreds of them were constantly bounding up into the air full ten feet high, and leaping a-top of each other. I assure you all it was tone of the strangest sights I ever beheld, and one of the pleasantest too; for I knew that the creatures that covered the plain, instead of being fierce wild beasts, were nothing but graceful and beautiful little gazelles.

“My first thought was to get near them, and have a shot; and I was about to start off over the plain, when I perceived that the antelopes were coming towards me. I saw that they were approaching with considerable rapidity; and if I only remained where I was, they would save me the trouble of stalking in upon them. I lay down behind a bush and waited.

“I had not very long to wait. In less than a quarter of an hour the foremost of the herd drew near, and in five minutes more a score of them were within shot.

“I did not fire for some time. I knew they would come still nearer; and I lay watching the motions of those pretty creatures. I took notice of their light handsome forms, their smooth slender limbs, their cinnamon-coloured backs, and white bellies, with the band of chestnut along each side. I looked at the lyre-shaped horns of the bucks, and above all, at the singular flaps on their croup, that unfolded each time that they leaped up, displaying a profusion of long silky hair, as white as snow itself.

“All these points I noticed, and at length, tired of admiring them, I singled out a fine-looking doe—for I was thinking of my dinner, and knew that doe-venison was the most palatable.

“After aiming carefully, I fired. The doe fell, but, to my astonishment, the others did not run off. A few of the foremost only galloped back a bit, or bounded up into the air; but they again set to browsing quite unconcerned, and the main body advanced as before!

“I loaded as quickly as I could, and brought down another,—this time a buck—but as before without frightening the rest!

“I proceeded to load for the third time; but before I had finished, the front ranks had passed on both sides of me, and I found myself in the midst of the herd!

“I saw no need for covering myself any longer behind the bush, but rose to my knees, and, firing at the nearest, brought it down also. Its comrades did not pause, but ran over its body in thousands!

“I loaded again, and stood right up on my feet.

“Now for the first time it occurred to me to reflect on the strange conduct of the springboks; for, instead of making off at my appearance, they only bounded a little to one side, and then kept on their course. They seemed possessed by a species of infatuation. I remembered hearing that such was their way when upon one of their migrations, or ‘trek-bokens.’ This, then, thought I, must be a ‘trek-boken.’

“I was soon convinced of this, for the herd every moment grew thicker and thicker around me, until at length they became so crowded, that I began to feel very singularly situated. Not that I was afraid of the creatures, as they made no demonstration of using their horns upon me. On the contrary, they did all they could to get out of my way. But the nearest only were alarmed; and, as my presence in no way terrified those that were an hundred yards off, the latter made no attempt to give ground. Of course the nearest ones could only get a few paces from me, by pushing the others closer, or springing up over their backs—so that with the ones thus constantly bounding up into the air there was all the time a ring around me two deep!

“I cannot describe the strange feelings I had in this unusual situation, or how long I might have kept my place. Perhaps I might have loaded and fired away for some time, but just at the moment the sheep came into my mind.

“They’ll be carried away, thought I. I had heard that such a thing was common enough.

“I saw that the antelopes were heading towards the valley—the foremost were already into it, and would soon be on the spot, where I had just seen our little flock feeding!

“In hopes of yet heading the springboks, and driving the sheep into the kraal, before the former crowded on them, I started towards the valley. But, to my chagrin, I could get no faster than the herd was going!

“As I approached the creatures, to make my way through their mass, they leaped about and sprang over one another, but could not for their lives open a way for me as fast as I wanted one. I was so near some of them that I could have knocked them down with my gun!

“I commenced hallooing, and, brandishing the gun about, I was making a lane more rapidly, when I perceived in front what appeared to be a large open space. I pushed forward for this, but the nearer I came to its border the more densely I found the creatures packed. I could only see that it was an open space by leaping up. I did not know what was causing it. I did not stay to reflect. I only wished to get forward as rapidly as possible, thinking about our flock.

“I continued to clear my way, and at length found myself in the position I had coveted; while the lane I had made, in getting there, closed instantaneously behind me. I was about to rush on, and take advantage of the bit of clear ground, when, what should I see in the centre, and directly before me, but a great yellow lion!

“That accounted for the break in the herd. Had I known what had been causing it, Hans's encounter with the lion I should have fought my way in any other direction but that; but there was I, out in the open ground, the lion not ten paces from me, and a fence of springboks two deep around both of us!

“I need not say I was frightened, and badly too. I did not for some moments know how to act. My gun was still loaded—for, after thinking of saving our little flock, I did not care to empty it at the antelopes. I could get one, thought I, at any time when I had secured the sheep in the kraal. The piece, therefore, was loaded and with bullets.

“Should I take aim at the lion, and fire? I asked myself this question, and was just on the point of deciding in the affirmative, when I reflected that it would be imprudent. I observed that the lion, whose back was turned to me, had either not seen, or as yet took no notice of me. Should I only wound him—and from the position he was in I was not likely to do more,—how then? I would most likely be torn to pieces.

“These were my reflections, all of which scarce occupied a second of time. I was about to ‘back out’ or back in among the springboks, and make my way in some other direction, and had even got near the edge, when, in looking over my shoulder, I saw the lion suddenly halt and turn round. I halted too, knowing that to be the safest plan; and, as I did so, I glanced back at the lion’s eyes.

“To my relief, I saw they were not upon me. He seemed to have taken some fancy in his head. His appetite, perhaps, had returned; for the next moment he ran a few yards, and then, rising with a terrific bound, launched himself far into the herd, and came down right upon the back of one of the antelopes! The others sprang right and left, and a new space was soon opened around him.

“He was now nearer than ever to where I stood, and I could see him distinctly crouched over his victim. His claws held its quivering body, and his long teeth grasped the poor creature by the neck. But, with the exception of his tail, he was making not the slightest motion, and that vibrated gently from side to side, just as a kitten that had caught a tiny mouse. I could see, too, that his eyes were close shut, as though he were asleep!

“Now I had heard that under such circumstances the lion may be approached without much danger. Not that I wished to go any nearer—for I was near enough for my gun—but it was this recollection, I believe, that put me in the notion of firing. At all events, something whispered me I would succeed, and I could not resist trying.

“The broad blind jaw of the brute was fair before me. I took aim, and pulled trigger; but, instead of waiting to see the effect of my shot, I ran right off in an opposite direction.

“I did not halt till I had put several acres of antelopes between myself and the place where I had last stood; and then I made the best of my way to the wagon.

“Long before I had reached it, I could see that Jan, and Trüey, and Totty, were safe under the tent. That gave me pleasure, but I also saw that the sheep and goats had got mixed up with the springboks, and were moving off with them as if they belonged to the same species! I fear they are all lost.”

“And the lion?” inquired Hendrik.

“Yonder he lies!” answered Hans, modestly pointing to a yellow mass out upon the plain, over which the vultures were already beginning to hover. “Yonder he lies, you could hardly have done it better yourself, brother Hendrik.”

As Hans said this, he smiled in such a manner as to show, that he had no idea of making a boast of his achievements.

Hendrik was loud in acknowledging that it was a most splendid feat, and also in regretting that he had not been on the ground to witness the wonderful migration of the springboks.

But there was no time for much idle talk. Von Bloom and his party were in a very unpleasant situation. His flocks were all gone. The cow and horses alone remained; and for these not a blade of grass had been left by the antelopes. Upon what were they to be fed?

To follow the spoor of the migratory springboks with the hope of recovering their flock would be quite useless. Swartboy assured them of this. The poor animals might be carried hundreds of miles before they could separate themselves from the great herd, or bring their involuntary journey to an end!

The horses could travel but little farther. There was nought to feed them on but the leaves of the mimosas, and this was but poor food for hungry horses. It would be fortunate if they could be kept alive until they should reach some pasture; and where now was pasture to be found? Locusts and antelopes between them seemed to have turned all Africa into a desert!

The field-cornet soon formed his resolution. He would remain there for the night, and early on the morrow set out in search of some other spring.

Fortunately Hans had not neglected to secure a brace of the springboks; and their fat venison now came into general use. A roast of that, and a drink of cool water from the spring, soon refreshed the three wearied travellers.

The horses were let loose among the mimosa-trees, and allowed to shift for themselves; and although under ordinary circumstances they would have “turned up their noses” at such food as mimosa-leaves, they now turned them up in a different sense, and cleared the thorny branches like so many giraffes.

Some naturalist of the “Buffon” school has stated that neither wolf, fox, hyena, nor jackal, will eat the carcass of a lion,—that their fear of the royal despot continues even after his death.

The field-cornet and his family had proof of the want of truth in this assertion. Before many hours both jackals and hyenas attacked the carcass of the king of beasts, and in a very short while there was not a morsel of him there but his bones. Even his tawny skin was swallowed by these ravenous creatures, and many of the bones broken by the strong jaws of the hyenas. The respect which these brutes entertain for the lion ends with his life. When dead, he is eaten by them with as much audacity as if he were the meanest of animals.