Chapter 32 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

Hans chased by the Wildebeest.

“Well,” began Hans, “you had not been gone more than an hour, when a herd of wildebeests was seen approaching the vley. They came on in single file; but they had broken rank, and were splashing about in the water, before I thought of molesting them in any way.

“Of course I knew what they were, and that they were proper game; but I was so interested in watching their ludicrous gambols, that I did not think about my gun, until the whole herd had nearly finished drinking. Then I remembered that we were living on dry biltongue, and would be nothing the worse of a change. I noticed, moreover, that in the herd of gnoos there were some young ones—which I was able to tell from their being smaller than the rest, and also by their lighter colour. I knew that the flesh of these is most excellent eating, and therefore made up my mind we should all dine upon it.

“I rushed up the ladder for my gun; and then discovered how imprudent I had been in not loading it at the time you all went away. I had not thought of any sudden emergency,—but that was very foolish, for how knew I what might happen in a single hour or minute even?

“I loaded the piece in a grand hurry, for I saw the wildebeests leaving the water; and, as soon as the bullet was rammed home, I ran down the ladder. Before I had reached the bottom, I saw that I had forgotten to bring either powder-horn or pouch. I was in too hot a haste to go back for them, for I saw the last of the wildebeests moving off, and I fancied I might be too late. But I had no intention of going any great distance in pursuit. A single shot at them was all I wanted, and that in the gun would do.

“I hastened after the game, keeping as well as I could under cover. I found, after a little time, that I need not have been so cautious. The wildebeests, instead of being shy—as I had seen them in our old neighbourhood—appeared to have very little fear of me. This was especially the case with the old bulls, who capered and careered about within an hundred yards’ distance, and sometimes permitted me to approach even nearer. It was plain they had never been hunted.

“Once or twice I was within range of a pair of old bulls, who seemed to act as a rearguard. But I did not want to shoot one of them. I knew their flesh would turn out tough. I wished to get something more tender. I wished to send a bullet into a heifer, or one of the young bulls whose horns had not yet begun to curve. Of these I saw several in the herd.

“Tame as the animals were, I could not manage to get near enough to any of these. The old bulls at the head always led them beyond my range; and the two, that brought up the rear, seemed to drive them forward as I advanced upon them.

“Well, in this way they beguiled me along for more than a mile; and the excitement of the chase made me quite forget how wrong it was of me to go so far from the camp. But thinking about the meat, and still hopeful of getting a shot, I kept on.

“At length the hunt led me into ground where there was no longer any bush; but there was good cover, notwithstanding, in the ant-hills, that, like great tents, stood at equal distances from each other scattered over the plain. These were very large—some of them more than twelve feet high—and differing from the dome-shaped kind so common everywhere. They were of the shape of large cones, or rounded pyramids, with a number of smaller cones rising around their bases, and clustering like turrets along their sides. I knew they were the hills of a species of white ant called by entomologists Termes bellicosus.

“There were other hills, of cylinder shape and rounded tops, that stood only about a yard high; looking like rolls of unbleached linen set upright—each with an inverted basin upon its end. These were the homes of a very different species, the Termes mordax of the entomologists; though still another species of Termes (Termes atrox) build their nests in the same form.

“I did not stop then to examine these curious structures. I only speak of them now, to give you an idea of the sort of place it was, so that you may understand what followed.

“What with the cone-shaped hills and the cylinders, the plain was pretty well covered. One or the other was met with every two hundred yards; and I fancied with these for a shelter I should have but little difficulty in getting within shot of the gnoos.

“I made a circuit to head them, and crept up behind a large cone-shaped hill, near which the thick of the drove was feeding. When I peeped through the turrets, to my chagrin, I saw that the cows and younger ones had been drawn off beyond reach, and the two old bulls were, as before, capering between me and the herd.

“I repeated the manoeuvre, and stalked in behind another large cone, close to which the beasts were feeding. When I raised myself for a shot, I was again disappointed. The herd had moved off as before, and the brace of bulls still kept guard in the rear.

“I began to feel provoked. The conduct of the bulls annoyed me exceedingly, and I really fancied that they knew it. Their manoeuvres were of the oddest kind, and some of them appeared to be made for the purpose of mocking me. At times they would charge up very close—their heads set in a menacing attitude; and I must confess that with their black shaggy fronts, their sharp horns, and glaring red eyes, they looked anything but pleasant neighbours.

“I got so provoked with them at last, that I resolved they should bother me no longer. If they would not permit me to shoot one of the others, I was determined they themselves should not escape scot-free, but should pay dearly for their temerity and insolence. I resolved to put a bullet through one of them, at least.

“Just as I was about raising my gun to fire, I perceived that they had placed themselves in attitude for a new fight. This they did by dropping on their knees, and sliding forward until their heads came in contact. They would then spring up, make a sudden bound forward, as if to get uppermost, and trample one another with their hoofs. Failing in this, both would rush past, until they were several yards apart; then wheel round, drop once more to their knees; and advance as before.

“Hitherto I had looked upon these conflicts as merely playful; and so I fancy most of them were. But this time the bulls seemed to be in earnest. The loud cracking of their helmet-covered foreheads against each other, their fierce snorting and bellowing, and, above all, their angry manner, convinced me that they had really quarrelled, and were serious about it.

“One of them, at length, seemed to be getting knocked over repeatedly. Every time he had partially risen to his feet, and before he could quite recover them, his antagonist rushed upon him, and butted him back upon his side.

“Seeing them so earnestly engaged, I thought I might as well make a sure shot of it, by going a little nearer; so I stepped from behind the ant-hill, and walked towards the combatants. Neither took any notice of my approach—the one because he had enough to do to guard himself from the terrible blows, and the other because he was so occupied in delivering them.

“When within twenty paces I levelled my gun. I chose the bull who appeared victor, partly as a punishment for his want of feeling in striking a fallen antagonist, but, perhaps, more because his broadside was towards me, and presented a fairer mark.

“I fired.

“The smoke hid both for a moment. When it cleared off, I saw the bull that had been conquered still down in a kneeling attitude, but, to my great surprise, the one at which I had aimed was upon his feet, apparently as brisk and sound as ever! I knew I had hit him somewhere—as I heard the ‘thud’ of the bullet on his fat body—but it was plain I had not crippled him.

“I was not allowed time for reflection as to where I had wounded him. Not an instant indeed, for the moment the smoke cleared away, instead of the bulls clearing off also, I saw the one I had shot at fling up his tail, lower his shaggy front, and charge right towards me!

“His fierce eyes glanced with a revengeful look, and his roar was enough to have terrified one more courageous than I. I assure you I was less frightened the other day when I encountered the lion.

“I did not know what to do for some moments. I thought of setting myself in an attitude of defence, and involuntarily had turned my gun which was now empty—intending to use it as a club. But I saw at once, that the slight blow I could deliver would not stop the onset of such a strong fierce animal, and that he would butt me over, and gore me, to a certainty.

“I turned my eyes to see what hope there lay in flight. Fortunately they fell upon an ant-hill—the one I had just emerged from. I saw at a glance, that by climbing it I would be out of reach of the fierce wildebeest. Would I have time to get to it before he could overtake me?

“I ran like a frightened fox. You, Hendrik, can beat me running upon ordinary occasions. I don’t think you could have got quicker to that ant-hill than I did.

“I was not a second too soon. As I clutched at the little turrets, and drew myself up, I could hear the rattle of the wildebeest’s hoofs behind me, and I fancied I felt his hot breath upon my heels.

“But I reached the top cone in safety; and then turned and looked down at my pursuer. I saw that he could not follow me any farther. Sharp as his horns were, I saw that I was safe out of their reach.”