Chapter 38 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

Planning the capture of the Quaggas.

Up to this time the field-cornet had scarce deigned to notice the quaggas. He knew what they were, and had often seen a drove of them—perhaps the same one—approach the vley and drink. Neither he nor any of his people had molested them, though they might have killed many. They knew that the yellow oily flesh of these animals was not fit for food, and is only eaten by the hungry natives—that their hides, although sometimes used for grain-sacks and other common purposes, are of very little value. For these reasons, they had suffered them to come and go quietly. They did not wish to waste powder and lead upon them; neither did they desire wantonly to destroy such harmless creatures.

Every evening, therefore, the quaggas had drunk at the vley and gone off again, without exciting the slightest interest.

Not so upon this occasion. A grand design now occupied the mind of Von Bloom. The troop of quaggas became suddenly invested with as much interest as if it had been a herd of elephants; and the field-cornet had started to his feet, and stood gazing upon them—his eyes sparkling with pleasure and admiration.

He admired their prettily-striped heads, their plump well-turned bodies, their light elegant limbs; in short, he admired everything about them, size, colour, and proportions. Never before had quaggas appeared so beautiful in the eyes of the vee-boor.

But why this new-born admiration for the despised quaggas?—for despised they are by the Cape farmer, who shoots them only to feed his Hottentot servants. Why had they so suddenly become such favourites with the field-cornet? That you will understand by knowing the reflections that were just then passing through his mind. They were as follows:—

Might not a number of these animals be caught and broken in?—Why not? Might they not be trained to the saddle?—Why not? Might they not serve him for hunting the elephant just as well as horses?—Why not?

Von Bloom asked these three questions of himself. Half a minute served to answer them all in the affirmative. There was neither impossibility nor improbability in any of the three propositions. It was clear that the thing could be done, and without difficulty.

A new hope sprang up in the heart of the field-cornet. Once more his countenance became radiant with joy.

He communicated his thoughts both to the Bushman and “Bush-boys”—all of whom highly approved of the idea, and only wondered that none of them had thought of it before.

And now the question arose, as to how the quaggas were to be captured. This was the first point to be settled; and the four,—Von Bloom himself, Hans, Hendrik, and Swartboy,—sat deliberately down to concoct some plan of effecting this object.

Of course they could do nothing just then, and the drove that had come to drink was allowed to depart peacefully. The hunters knew they would return on the morrow about the same hour; and it was towards their return that the thought of all were bent.

Hendrik advised “creasing,” which means sending a bullet through the upper part of the neck near the withers, and by this means a quagga can be knocked over and captured. The shot, if properly directed, does not kill the animal. It soon recovers, and may be easily “broken,” though its spirit is generally broken at the same time. It is never “itself again.” Hendrik understood the mode of “creasing.” He had seen it practised by the boor-hunters. He knew the spot where the bullet should hit. He believed he could do it easily enough.

Hans considered the “creasing” too cruel a mode. They might kill many quaggas before obtaining one that was hit in the proper place. Besides there would be a waste of powder and bullets—a thing to be considered. Why could they not snare the animals? He had heard of nooses being set for animals as large as the Quaggas, and of many being caught in that manner.

Hendrik did not think the idea of snaring a good one. They might get one in that way—the foremost of the drove; but all the others, seeing the leader caught, would gallop off and return no more to the vley; and where would they set their snare for a second? It might be a long time before they should find another watering-place of these animals; whereas they might stalk and crease them upon the plains at any time.

Swartboy now put in his plan. It was the pit-fall. That was the way by which Bushmen most generally caught large animals, and Swartboy perfectly understood how to construct a pit for quaggas.

Hendrik saw objections to this, very similar to those he had urged against the snare. The foremost of the quaggas might be caught, but the others would not be fools enough to walk into the pit—after their leader had fallen in and laid the trap open. They of course would gallop off, and never come back that way again.

If it could be done at night, Hendrik admitted, the thing might be different. In the darkness several might rush in before catching the alarm. But no—the quaggas had always come to drink in day-time—one only could be trapped, and then the others alarmed would keep away.

There would have been reason in what Hendrik said, but for a remarkable fact which the field-cornet himself had observed when the quaggas came to the lake to drink. It was, that the animals had invariably entered the water at one point, and gone out at another. It was of course a mere accident that they did so, and owing to the nature of the ground; but such was the case, and Von Bloom had observed it on several occasions. They were accustomed to enter by the gorge, already described; and, after drinking, wade along the shallow edge for some yards, and then pass out by another break in the bank.

The knowledge of this fact was of the utmost importance, and all saw that at once. A pit-fall dug upon the path by which the animals entered the lake, would no doubt operate as Hendrik said—one might be caught, and all the rest frightened off. But a similar trap placed upon the trail that led outward, would bring about a very different result. Once the quaggas had finished drinking, and just at the moment they were heading out of the water, the hunters could show themselves upon the opposite side, set the troop in quick motion, and gallop them into the trap. By this means not only one, but a whole pit-full might be captured at once!

All this appeared so feasible that not another suggestion was offered—the plan of the pit-fall was at once, and unanimously adopted.

It remained only to dig the pit, cover it properly, and then wait the result.

During all the time their capture was being planned, the herd of quaggas had remained in sight, disporting themselves upon the open plain. It was a tantalising sight to Hendrik, who would have liked much to have shown his marksman skill by “creasing” one. But the young hunter saw that it would be imprudent to fire at them there, as it would prevent them from returning to the vley; so he restrained himself, and along with the others remained watching the quaggas—all regarding them with a degree of interest which they had never before felt in looking at a drove of these animals.

The quaggas saw nothing of them, although quite near to the great nwana-tree. They—the hunters—were up among the branches, where the animals did not think of looking, and there was nothing around the bottom of the tree to cause them alarm. The wagon-wheels had long ago been disposed of in the bush, partly to shelter them from the sun, and partly because game animals frequently came within shot of the tree, and were thus obtained without any trouble. There were scarce any traces upon the ground that would have betrayed the existence of a “camp” in the tree; and a person might have passed very near without noticing the odd aerial dwelling of the hunter family.

All this was design upon the part of the field-cornet. As yet he knew little of the country around. He did not know but that it might contain worse enemies than either hyenas or lions.

While they sat watching the manoeuvres of the quaggas, a movement was made by one of these creatures more singular than any that had yet been witnessed.

The animal in question was browsing quietly along, and at length approached a small clump of bushes that stood out in the open ground. When close to the copse it was observed to make a sudden spring forward; and almost at the same instant, a shaggy creature leaped out of the bushes, and ran off. This last was no other than the ugly The quagga and the hyena “striped” hyena. Instead of turning upon the quagga and showing fight, as one might have supposed so strong and fierce a brute would have done, the hyena uttered a howl of alarm, and ran off as fast as its legs would carry it.

They did not carry it far. It was evidently making for a larger tract of bush that grew near: but before it had got half-way across the open ground, the quagga came up behind, and uttering his shrill “couaag,” reared forward, and dropped with his fore-hoofs upon the hyena’s back. At the same instant the neck of the carnivorous animal was clutched by the teeth of the ruminant and held as fast, as if grasped by a vice.

All looked to see the hyena free itself and run off again. They looked in vain. It never ran another yard. It never came alive out of the clutch of those terrible teeth.

The quagga still held his struggling victim with firm hold—trampling it with his hoofs, and shaking it in his strong jaws, until in a few minutes the screams of the hyena ceased, and his mangled carcass lay motionless upon the plain!

One would think that this incident might have been enough to warn our hunters to be cautious in their dealings with the quagga. Such a sharp biter would be no pleasant horse to “bit and bridle.”

But all knew the antipathy that exists between the wild horse and the hyena; and that the quagga, though roused to fury at the sight of one of these animals, is very different in its behaviour towards man. So strong, in fact, is this antipathy, and so complete is the mastery of the ruminant over the carnivorous animal, that the frontier farmers often take advantage of these peculiar facts, and keep the hyenas from their cattle by bringing up with the herd a number of quaggas, who act as its guards and protectors.