Chapter 22 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The hideous Hyena.

Fatigued as they were, they would soon have fallen asleep. But they were not permitted to do so. As they lay with closed eyes in that half-dreamy state that precedes sleep, they were suddenly startled by strange voices near the camp.

These voices were uttered in peals of loud laughter; and no one, unacquainted with them, would have pronounced them to be anything else than the voices of human beings. They exactly resembled the strong treble produced by the laugh of a maniac negro. It seemed as if some Bedlam of negroes had been let loose, and were approaching the spot.

I say approaching, because each moment the sounds grew clearer and louder; and it was evident that whatever gave utterance to them was coming nearer to the camp.

That there was more than one creature was evident—ay, and it was equally evident that there was more than one kind of creature; for so varied were the voices, it would have puzzled a ventriloquist to have given imitations of them all. There was howling, and whining, and grunting, and growling, and low melancholy moaning as of some one in pain, and hissing, and chattering, and short sharp intonations, as if it were the barking of dogs, and then a moment or two of deep silence, and again that chorus of human-like laughter, that in point of horror and hideous suggestions surpassed all the other sounds.

You will suppose that such a wild concert must have put the camp in a state of great alarm. Not a bit of it. Nobody was frightened the least—not even innocent little Trüey, nor the diminutive Jan.

Had they been strangers to these sounds, no doubt they would have been more than frightened. They would have been terrified by them; for they were calculated to produce such an effect upon any one to whose ears they were new.

But Von Bloom and his family had lived too long upon the wild karoo to be ignorant of those voices. In the howling, and chattering, and yelping, they heard but the cries of the jackal; and they well knew the maniac laugh of the hideous hyena.

Instead of being alarmed, and springing from their beds, they lay still and listened—not dreading any attack from the noisy creatures.

Von Bloom and the children slept in the wagon; Swartboy and Totty upon the ground—but these lay close to the fires, and therefore did not fear wild beasts of any kind.

But the hyenas and jackals upon this occasion appeared to be both numerous and bold. In a few minutes after they were first heard, their cries rose around the camp on all sides, so near and so loud as to be positively disagreeable—even without considering the nature of the brutes that uttered them.

At last they came so close, that it was impossible to look in any direction without seeing a pair of green or red eyes gleaming under the light of the fires! White teeth, too, could be observed, as the hyenas opened their jaws, to give utterance to their harsh laughter-like cries.

With such a sight before their eyes, and such sounds ringing in their ears, neither Von Bloom nor any of his people—tired as they were—could go to sleep. Indeed, not only was sleep out of the question, but, worse than that, all—the field-cornet himself not excepted—began to experience some feelings of apprehension, if not actual alarm.

They had never beheld a troop of hyenas so numerous and fierce. There could not be less than two dozen of them around the camp, with twice that number of jackals.

Von Bloom knew that although, under ordinary circumstances, the hyena is not a dangerous animal, yet there are places and times when he will attack human beings. Swartboy knew this well, and Hans, too, from having read of it. No wonder, then, that some apprehension was felt by all of them.

The hyenas now behaved with such boldness, and appeared so ravenous, that sleep was out of the question. Some demonstration must be made to drive the brutes away from the camp.

Von Bloom, Hans, and Hendrik, laid hold of their guns, and got out of the wagon, while Swartboy armed himself with his bow and arrows. All four stood close by the trunk of the nwana, on the other side from that where the fires were. In this place they were in the shadow, where they could best observe anything that should come under the light of the fires without being themselves seen. Their position was well chosen.

They had scarcely fixed themselves in it, when they perceived a great piece of neglect they had been guilty of. Now, for the first time it occurred to them what had brought the hyenas around them in such numbers. Beyond a doubt it was the flesh of the elephant,—the biltongue.

That was what the beasts were after; and all now saw that a mistake had been committed in hanging the meat too low. The hyenas might easily get at it.

This was soon made manifest; for, even at the moment while they stood watching the red festoons, plainly visible under the light of Swartboy’s fires, a shaggy spotted brute rushed forward, reared up on his hind-legs, seized one of the pieces, dragged it down from the pole, and then ran off with it into the darkness.

A rushing sound could be heard as the others joined him to get share of his plunder; and, no doubt, in less than half a minute the morsel was consumed; for, at the end of that time, glancing eyes and gleaming teeth showed that the whole troop was back again and ready to make a fresh seizure.

None of the hunters had fired, as the nimbleness with which the brutes moved about rendered it difficult to take aim at any one of them; and all knew that powder and lead were too precious to be wasted on a “flying shot.”

Emboldened by their success, the hyenas had now drawn nearer, and in a moment more would have made a general charge upon the scaffolds of flesh, and, no doubt, would have succeeded in carrying off a large quantity of it. But just then it occurred to Von Bloom that it would be best to lay aside their guns and remedy the mistake they had made, by putting the biltongue out of reach. If they did not do so, they would either have to remain awake all night and guard it, or else lose every string of it.

How was it to be put out of reach?

At first they thought of collecting it into a heap and stowing it away in the wagon. That would not only be an unpleasant job, but it would interfere with their sleeping-quarters.

An alternative, however, presented itself. They saw that if the scaffolds were only high enough, the meat might be easily hung so as to be out of reach of the hyenas. The only question was, how to place the cross-poles a little higher. In the darkness they could not obtain a new set of uprights, and therein lay the difficulty. How were they to get over it?

Hans had the credit of suggesting a way: and that was, to take out some of the uprights, splice them to the others, with the forked ends uppermost, and then rest the horizontal poles on the upper forks. That would give a scaffold tall enough to hang the meat beyond the reach of either jackals or hyenas.

Hans’s suggestion was at once adopted. Half of the uprights were taken up and spliced against the others so as to raise their forks full twelve feet in the air; and then the cross-poles were rested over their tops. By standing upon one of the wagon-chests, Von Bloom was able to fling the strips of meat over the horizontal poles, and in such a manner that it hung only a few inches down, and was now quite beyond the reach of the ravenous brutes.

When the business was finished, the party resumed their station under the shadow of the tree, intending to watch for a while, and see how the wolfish intruders would act.

They had not long to watch. In less than five minutes the troop approached the biltongue, howling, and gibbering, and laughing, as before; only this time uttering peculiar cries, as if to express disappointment. They saw at a glance that the tempting festoons were no longer within their reach!

They were not going to leave the ground, however, without assuring themselves of this fact; and several of the largest approached boldly under the scaffolds, and commenced leaping up to try the height.

After several attempts, springing each time as high as they were able, they appeared to grow discouraged; and no doubt would in time have imitated the fox with the grapes, and gone quietly away. But Von Bloom, indignant at being roused after such a fashion, from his pleasant rest, was determined to take some revenge upon his tormenters; so he whispered the word to the others, and a volley was delivered from behind the tree.

The unexpected discharge caused a quick scattering of both hyenas and jackals, and the pattering of their numerous feet could be heard as they ran off. When the ground under the scaffold was examined, two of the larger of these ravenous quadrupeds, and one of the smaller, were found to have bitten the dust.

Swartboy had discharged his arrow along with the guns, and it was he that had slain the jackal, for the poisoned shaft was seen sticking between the animal’s ribs.

The guns were again loaded, the party took their stations as before; but, although they waited another half-hour, neither hyena nor jackal made their appearance.

They had not gone far away, however, as their wild music testified; but the reason they did not return was, that they had now discovered the half carcass of the elephant that lay in the lake, and upon that they were making their supper. Their plunging in the water could be distinctly heard from the camp, and during the whole night they quarrelled and growled, and laughed and yelled, as they gorged themselves on their ample prey.

Of course Von Bloom and his people did not sit up all night to listen to this medley of noises. As soon as they perceived that the brutes were not likely to come any more near the camp, they laid aside their weapons, returned to their respective sleeping-places, and were all soon buried in the sweet slumber that follows a day of healthy exercise.