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Chapter 24 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

Little Jan’s Adventure

It would have been better that Jan had never seen the little “ourebi,”—better both for Jan and the antelope, for that night the innocent creature was the cause of a terrible panic in the camp.

They had all gone to sleep as on the previous night,—Von Bloom and the four children in the wagon, while the Bushman and Totty slept upon the grass. The latter lay under the wagon; but Swartboy had kindled a large fire at a little distance from it, and beside this had stretched himself, rolled up in his sheep-skin kaross.

They had all gone to sleep without being disturbed by the hyenas. This was easily accounted for. The three horses that had been shot that day occupied the attention of these gentry, for their hideous voices could be heard off in the direction where the carcasses lay. Having enough to give them a supper, they found no occasion to risk themselves in the neighbourhood of the camp, where they had experienced such a hostile reception on the previous night. So reasoned Von Bloom, as he turned over and fell asleep.

He did not reason correctly, however. It was true that the hyenas were just then making a meal upon the horses; but it was a mistake to suppose that that would satisfy these ravenous brutes, who never seem to have enough. Long before morning, had Von Bloom been awake he would have heard the maniac laugh closer to the camp, and might have seen the green eyes of the hyena glancing under the expiring blaze of Swartboy’s camp-fire.

Indeed, he had heard the beasts once that he awoke; but, knowing that the biltongue had been this night placed out of their reach, and thinking that there was nothing to which they could do any harm, he gave no heed to their noisy demonstrations, and went to sleep again.

He was awakened, however, by a shrill squeak, as of some animal in the agonies of death; and then there was a second squeak, that seemed to be suddenly interrupted by the stifling of the creature’s utterance!

In these cries Von Bloom, as well as the others—who were now also awake—recognised the bleat of the ourebi, for they had heard it several times during the afternoon.

“The hyenas are killing it!” thought they. But they had not time to say so, before another and far different cry reached their ears, and caused them all to start as if a bomb-shell had burst under the wagon. That cry was the voice of Jan, and sounded in the same direction whence came the scream of the stifled antelope!

“O heaven! what could it mean?”

The child’s voice first reached them in a sudden screech—then there was a confused noise resembling a scuffle—and Jan was again heard crying aloud for help, while at the same time his voice was interrupted, and each call appeared to come from a greater distance! Something or somebody was carrying him off!

This idea occurred to Von Bloom, Hans, and Hendrik, at the same instant. Of course it filled them with consternation; and, as they were scarce yet awake, they knew not what to do.

The cries of Jan, however, soon brought them to their senses; and to run towards the direction whence these came was the first thought of all.

To grope for their guns would waste time, and all three leaped out of the wagon without them.

Totty was upon her feet and jabbering, but she knew no more than they what had happened.

They did not stop long to question her. The voice of Swartboy, uttered in loud barks and clicks, summoned them elsewhere; and they now beheld a red flaming brand rushing through the darkness, which no doubt was carried in the hands of that worthy.

They started off in the direction of the blazing torch, and ran as fast as they could. They still heard the Bushman’s voice, and to their dismay beyond it the screams of little Jan!

Of course they could not tell what was causing all this. They only pressed on with fearful apprehensions.

When they had got within some fifty paces of the torch, they perceived it suddenly descend, then raised again, and again brought down, in a rapid and violent manner! They could hear the voice of the Bushman barking and clicking louder than ever, as though he was engaged in chastising some creature.

But Jan’s voice they no longer heard—he was screaming no more—was he dead?

With terrible forebodings they rushed on.

When they arrived upon the spot, a singular picture presented itself to their eyes. Jan lay upon the ground, close in by the roots of some bushes which he was holding tightly in his grasp. From one of his wrists extended a stout thong, or rheim, which passed through among the bushes to the distance of several feet; and, fast to its other end, was the ourebi fawn, dead, and terribly mangled! Over the spot stood Swartboy with his burning tree, which blazed all the brighter that he had just been using it over the back of a ravenous hyena. The latter was not in sight. It had long since skulked off, but no one thought of pursuit, as all were too anxious about Jan.

No time was lost in lifting the child to his feet. The eyes of all ran eagerly over him to see where he was wounded; and an exclamation of joy soon broke forth when they saw that, except the scratches of the thorns, and the deep track of a cord upon his wrist, nothing in the shape of a wound could be discovered upon his diminutive body. He had now come to himself, and assured them all that he was not hurt a bit. Hurrah! Jan was safe!

It now fell to Jan’s lot to explain all this mysterious business.

He had been lying in the wagon along with the rest, but not like them asleep. No. He could not sleep a wink for thinking on his new pet, which, for want of room in the wagon, had been left below tied to one of the wheels.

Jan had taken it into his head that he would like to have another look at the ourebi before going to sleep. So, without saying a word to any one, he crept out of the cap-tent, and descended to where the antelope was tied. He unloosed it gently, and then led it forward to the light of the fire, where he sat down to admire the creature.

After gazing upon it for some time with delight, he thought that Swartboy could not do otherwise than share his feelings; and without more ado, he shook the Bushman awake.

The latter had no great stomach for being roused out of sleep to look at an animal, hundreds of which he had eaten in his time. But Jan and Swartboy were sworn friends, and the Bushman was not angry. He, therefore, indulged his young master in the fancy he had taken; and the two sat for a while conversing about the pet.

At length Swartboy proposed sleep. Jan would agree to this only upon the terms that Swartboy would allow him to sleep alongside of him. He would bring his blanket from the wagon, and would not trouble Swartboy by requiring part of the latter’s kaross.

Swartboy objected at first; but Jan urged that he had felt cold in the wagon, and that was partly why he had come down to the fire. All this was sheer cunning in the little imp. But Swartboy could not refuse him anything, and at length consented. He could see no harm in it, as there were no signs of rain.

Jan then returned to the wagon, climbed noiselessly up, drew out his own blankets, and brought them to the fire. He then wrapped himself up, and lay down alongside of Swartboy, with the ourebi standing near, and in such a situation that he could still have his eyes upon it, even when lying. To secure it from wandering, he had fastened a strong rheim around its neck, the other end of which he had looped tightly upon his own wrist.

He lay for some time contemplating his beautiful pet. But sleep at length overcame him, and the image of the ourebi melted before his eyes.

Beyond this Jan could tell little of what happened to him. He was awakened by a sudden jerking at his wrist, and hearing the antelope scream. But he had not quite opened his eyes, before he felt himself dragged violently over the ground.

He thought at first it was Swartboy playing some trick upon him; but as he passed the fire, he saw by its light that it was a huge black animal that had seized the ourebi, and was dragging both him and it along.

Of course he then began to scream for help, and caught at everything he could to keep himself from being carried away. But he could lay hold of nothing, until he found himself among thick bushes, and these he seized and held with all his might.

He could not have held out long against the strength of the hyena; but it was just at that moment that Swartboy came up with his firebrand, and beat off the ravisher with a shower of blows.

When they got back to the light of the fire they found that Jan was all right. But the poor ourebi—it had been sadly mangled, and was now of no more value than a dead rat.

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