Chapter 41 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

A wild ride on Quagga-back.

Hendrik was congratulating himself on his success. He anticipated some pleasure in the surprise he was about to create at camp, when he should march in with the eland—for he had no doubt that he would succeed in doing so.

Indeed, there appeared no reason to doubt it. The bull had already entered the gorge, and was moving down it, while Hendrik and his quagga were hurrying forward to follow.

The hunter had arrived within a few yards of the top, when a loud trampling noise sounded in his ears, as if a band of heavy-footed animals were coming up the gorge.

He spurred his quagga forward, in order to reach the edge, and get a view down the ravine. Before he was able to do so, he was surprised to see the eland gallop up again, and try to pass him upon the plain. It had evidently received fresh alarm, from something in the gorge; and preferred facing its old enemy to encountering the new.

Hendrik did not give his attention to the eland. He could ride it down at any time. He was more anxious first to know what had given it the start backward; so he continued to press forward to the head of the ravine.

He might have thought of lions, and acted with greater prudence; but the trampling of hoofs which still echoed up the pass told him that lions were not the cause of the eland’s alarm.

He at length reached a point where he could see down the declivity. He had not far to look—for already the animals that were making the noise were close up to him; and he perceived they were nothing more than a troop of quaggas.

He was not over-pleased at this interruption to his drive; and the less did he like it, that the intruders were quaggas—ill-conditioned brutes that they were! Had they been game animals, he would have shot one; but the only motive that would have induced him to shoot one of the quaggas would have been a feeling of anger—for, at that moment, he was really angry at them.

Without knowing it, poor brutes! they had likely given him cause for a good deal of trouble; for it would cost him a good deal, before he could head the eland again, and get it back into the pass. No wonder, then, he was vexed a little.

But his vexation was not so grievous as to cause him to fire upon the approaching herd; and, turning aside, he rode after the eland.

He had hardly left the spot, when the quaggas came out of the pass, following each other to the number of forty or fifty. Each, as he saw the mounted hunter, started with affright, and bolted off, until the whole drove stretched out in a long line over the plain, snorting and uttering their loud “coua-a-g” as they ran.

Hendrik would hardly have regarded this movement under ordinary circumstances. He had often seen herds of quaggas, and was in no way curious about them. But his attention was drawn to this herd, from his noticing, as they passed him, that four of them had their tails docked short; and from this circumstance, he recognised them as the four that had been caught in the pit-trap and afterwards set free. Swartboy, for some purpose of his own, had cut off the hair before letting them go.

Hendrik had no doubt it was they, and that the herd was the same that used to frequent the vley, but that on account of the ill-treatment they had met with, had never since shown themselves in the neighbourhood.

Now these circumstances coming into Hendrik’s mind at the moment, led him to regard the quaggas with a certain feeling of curiosity. The sudden fright which the animals took on seeing him, and the comic appearance of the four with the stumped tails, rather inclined Hendrik towards merriment, and he laughed as he galloped along.

As the quaggas went off in the same direction which the eland had taken, of course Hendrik’s road and theirs lay so far together; and on galloped he at their heels. He was curious to try the point—much disputed in regard to horses—how far a mounted quagga would be able to cope with an unmounted one. He was curious, moreover, to find out whether his own quagga was quite equal to any of its old companions. So on swept the chase—the eland leading, the quaggas after, and Hendrik bringing up the rear.

Hendrik had no need to ply the spur. His gallant steed flew like the wind. He seemed to feel that his character was staked upon the race. He gained upon the drove at every spring.

The heavy-going eland was soon overtaken, and as it trotted to one side, was passed. It halted, but the quaggas kept on.

Not only the drove kept on, but Hendrik’s quagga following close at their heels; and in less than five minutes they had left the eland a full mile in their rear, and were still scouring onward over the wide plain.

What was Hendrik about? Was he going to forsake the eland, and let it escape? Had he grown so interested in the race? Was he jealous about his quagga’s speed, and determined it should beat all the others?

So it would have appeared to any one witnessing the race from a distance. But one who could have had a nearer view of it, would have given a different explanation of Hendrik’s conduct.

The fact was, that as soon as the eland halted Hendrik intended to halt also; and for that purpose pulled strongly upon his bridle. But, to his astonishment, he found that his quagga did not share his intention. Instead of obeying the bit, the animal caught the steel in his teeth, and laying his ears back, galloped straight on!

Hendrik then endeavoured to turn the quagga to one side, and for this purpose wrenched his right rein; but with such fierceness, that the old bit-ring gave way—the bit slipped through the animal’s jaws—the head-stall came off with the jerk—and the quagga was completely unbridled!

Of course the animal was now free to go just as he liked; and it was plain that he liked to go with his old comrades. His old comrades he well knew them to be, as his snorting and occasional neigh of recognition testified.

At first Hendrik was disposed to look upon the breaking of his bit as only a slight misfortune. For a boy he was one of the best riders in South Africa, and needed no rein to steady him. He could keep his seat without one. The quagga would soon stop, and he could then repair the bit, and re-adjust the bridle which he still held in his hands. Such were his reflections at first.

But their spirit began to alter, when he found that the quagga, instead of lessening his pace kept on as hard as ever, and the herd still ran wildly before him without showing the slightest signs of coming to a halt.

In fact, the quaggas were running through fear. They saw the mounted hunter behind them in hot pursuit; and although their old comrade knew who they were, how were they to tell what he was, with such a tall hunch upon his back? No quagga he, but some terrible monster, they imagined, thirsting for their lives, and eager to devour one and all of them!

No wonder they showed their heels in the best style they knew how; and so well did they show them, that Hendrik’s quagga—notwithstanding his keen desire to get forward among them, and explain away the awkward business upon his back—was not able to come an inch closer.

He did not lose ground, however. His eagerness to regain his old associates—to partake once more of their wild freedom—for he was desperately tired of civilised society, and sick of elephant-hunting—all these ideas crowded into his mind at the moment, and nerved him to the utmost exertion. Could he only get up into the body of the crowd—for the herd now ran in a crowd—a few whimpers would suffice to explain—they would come to a halt at once,—they would gather around him, and assist both with hoofs and teeth to get “shed” of the ugly two-legged thing that clung so tightly to his dorsal vertebras.

It was “no go,” however. Although he was so close to their heels, that they flung dust in his face, and small pebbles in the face of his rider, to the no slight inconvenience of the latter; although he “whighered” whenever he could spare breath, and uttered his “couag,—couag!” in reality calling them by name, it was “no go.” “They would not stay. They would not hear.”

And what did Hendrik during all this time? Nothing—he could do nothing. He could not stay the impetuous flight of his steed. He dared not dismount. He would have been hurled among sharp rocks, had he attempted such a thing. His neck would have been broken. He could do nothing—nothing but keep his seat.

What thought he? At first, not much. At first he regarded the adventure lightly. When he was about completing his third mile, he began to deem it more serious; and as he entered upon the fifth, he became convinced that he was neither more nor less than in a very awkward scrape.

But the fifth mile was left behind, and then a sixth, and a seventh; and still the quaggas galloped wildly on—the drove actuated by the fear of losing their liberty, and their old comrade by the desire of regaining his.

Hendrik now felt real uneasiness. Where were they going? Where was the brute carrying him? Perhaps off to the desert, where he might be lost and perish of hunger or thirst! Already he was many miles from the cliffs, and he could no longer tell their direction. Even had he halted then and there, he could not tell which way to turn himself. He would be lost!

He grew more than anxious. He became frightened in earnest.

What was he to do? Leap down, and risk his neck in the fall? He would lose his quagga and his saddle as well—he regarded the eland as already lost—he would have to walk back to camp, and get laughed at on his return.

No matter for all that; his life was in danger if he kept on. The quaggas might gallop twenty,—ay, fifty miles before halting. They showed no symptoms of being blown—no signs of giving out. He must fling himself to the ground, and let quagga and saddle go.

He had formed this resolution, and was actually about to put it in practice. He was just considering how he might best escape an ugly fall—looking for a soft spot—when, all at once, a grand idea rushed into his mind.

He remembered that in taming this same quagga and breaking him to the saddle, he had been vastly aided by a very simple contrivance—that was a “blind.” The blind was nothing more than a piece of soft leather tied over the animal’s eyes; but so complete had been its effect, that it had transformed the quagga at once from a kicking screaming creature into a docile animal.

Hendrik now thought of the blind.

True, he had none. Was there nothing about him that would serve as one? His handkerchief? No, it would be too thin. Hurrah! His jacket would do!

His rifle was in the way. It must be got rid of. It must be dropped to the ground, he could return for it.

It was let down as gently as possible, and soon left far behind.

In a twinkling Hendrik stripped off his jacket. How was it to be arranged so as to blind the quagga? It would not do to drop it.

A moment’s consideration served the ready boy to mature his plan. After a moment he bent down, passed a sleeve upon each side under the quagga’s throat, and then knotted them together. The jacket thus rested over the animal’s mane, with the collar near its withers, and the peak or skirt upon the small of its neck.

Hendrik next leaned as far forward as he could, and with his extended arms pushed the jacket up the animal’s neck, until the skirt passed over its ears, and fell down in front of its face.

It was with some difficulty that the rider, bent down as he was, could retain his seat; for as soon as the thick flap of cloth came down over the eyes of the quagga, the latter halted as if he had been shot dead in his tracks. He did not fall, however, but only stood still, quivering with terror. His gallop was at an end!

Hendrik leaded to the ground. He was no longer afraid that the quagga, blinded as he now was, would make any attempt to get off; nor did he.

In a few minutes the broken bit-ring was replaced by a strong rheim of raw leather; the bit inserted between the quagga’s teeth, the head-stall safely buckled, and Hendrik once more in the saddle, with his jacket upon his back.

The quagga felt that he was conquered. His old associates were no longer in sight to tempt him from his allegiance; and with these considerations, aided by a slight dose of bit and spur, he turned his head, and moved sullenly upon the back-track. Hendrik knew nothing about the route he should take. He followed back the spoor of the quaggas to the place where he had dropped his gun, which after riding a mile or two he recovered.

As there was no sun in the sky, nor other object to guide him, he thought he could not do better than trace back the spoor; and although it led him by many a devious route, and he saw nothing more of his eland, before night he reached the pass in the cliff, and was soon after sitting under the shadow of the nwana-tree, regaling a most interested audience with the narrative of his day’s adventures.