Chapter 42 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The Gun-Trap.

It was about this time that the field-cornet and his people were very much annoyed by beasts of prey. The savoury smell which their camp daily sent forth, as well as the remains of antelopes, killed for their venison, attracted these visitors. Hyenas and jackals were constantly skulking in the neighbourhood, and at night came around the great nwana-tree in scores, keeping up their horrid chorus for hours together. It is true that nobody feared these animals, as the children at night were safe in their aerial home, where the hyenas could not get at them. But for all that, the presence of the brutes was very offensive, as not a bit of meat—not a hide, nor rheim, nor any article of leather—could be left below without their getting their teeth upon it, and chewing it up.

Quarters of venison they had frequently stolen, and they had eaten up the leathern part of Swartboy’s saddle, and rendered it quite useless for a while. In short, so great a pest had the hyenas grown to be, that it became necessary to adopt some mode of destroying them.

It was not easy to get a shot at them. During the day they were wary, and either hid themselves in caves of the cliff or in the burrows of the ant-eater. At night they were bold enough, and came into the very camp; but then the darkness hindered a good aim, and the hunters knew too well the value of powder and lead to waste it on a chance shot, though now and then, when provoked by the brutes, they ventured one.

But some way must be thought of to thin the numbers of these animals, or get rid of them altogether. This was the opinion of everybody.

Two or three kinds of traps were tried, but without much success. A pit they could leap out of, and from a noose they could free themselves by cutting the rope with their sharp teeth!

At length the field-cornet resorted to a plan—much practised by the boors of Southern Africa for ridding their farms of these and similar vermin. It was the “gun-trap.”

Now there are several ways of constructing a gun-trap. Of course a gun is the principal part of the mechanism, and the trigger pulled by a string is the main point of the contrivance. In some countries the bait is tied to the string, and the animal on seizing the bait tightens the string, draws the trigger, and shoots itself. In this way, however, there is always some uncertainty as to the result. The animal may not place its body in the proper position with regard to the muzzle, and may either escape the shot altogether, or may be only “creased,” and of course get off.

The mode of setting the “gun-trap” in South Africa is a superior plan; and the creature that is so unfortunate as to draw the trigger rarely escapes, but is either killed upon the spot, or so badly wounded as to prevent its getting away.

Von Bloom constructed his trap after the approved fashion, as follows:—Near the camp he selected a spot where three saplings or young trees grew, standing in a line, and about a yard between each two of them. Had he not found three trees so disposed, stakes firmly driven into the ground would have answered his purpose equally well.

Thorn-bushes were now cut, and a kraal built in the usual manner—that is, with the tops of the bushes turned outwards. The size of the kraal was a matter of no consequence; and, of course, to save labour, a small one was constructed.

One point, however, was observed in making the kraal. Its door or opening was placed so that two of the three saplings stood like posts, one on each side of it; and an animal going into the enclosure must needs pass between these two trees.

Now for the part the gun had to play.

The weapon was placed in a horizontal position against two of the saplings,—that is, the stock against the one outside the kraal, and the barrel against one of the door-posts, and there firmly lashed. In this position the muzzle was close to the edge of the entrance, and pointing directly to the sapling on the opposite side. It was at such a height as to have ranged with the heart of a hyena standing in the opening.

The next move was to adjust the string. Already a piece of stick, several inches in length, had been fixed to the small of the stock, and, of course, behind the trigger. This was fastened transversely, but not so as to preclude all motion. A certain looseness in its adjustment gave it the freedom required to be worked as a lever—for that was its design.

To each end of this little stick was fastened a string. One of these strings was attached to the trigger; the other, after being carried through the thimbles of the ramrod, traversed across the entrance of the kraal, and was knotted upon the opposite side to the sapling that stood there. This string followed the horizontal direction of the barrel, and was just “taut;” so that any farther strain upon it would act upon the little lever, and by that means pull the trigger; and then of course “bang” would go the roer.

When this string was adjusted, and the gun loaded and cocked, the trap was set.

Nothing remained to be done but bait it. This was not a difficult task. It consisted simply in placing a piece of meat or carcass within the enclosure, and these leaving it to attract the prowling beasts to the spot.

When the gun had been set, Swartboy carried up the bait—the offal of an antelope killed that day—and flung it into the kraal; and then the party went quietly to their beds, without thinking more of the matter.

They had not slept a wink, however, before they were startled by the loud “crack” of the roer, followed by a short stifled cry that told them the gun-trap had done its work.

A torch was procured, and the four hunters proceeded to the spot. There they found the dead body of a huge “tiger-wolf” lying doubled up in the entrance, and right under the muzzle of the gun. He had not gone a step after receiving the shot—in fact, had hardly kicked before dying—as the bullet, wad, and all, had gone quite through his ribs and entered his heart, after making a large ugly hole in his side. Of course he must have been within a few inches of the muzzle, when his breast, pressing against the string, caused the gun to go off.

Having again loaded the roer, the hunters returned to their beds. One might suppose they would have dragged the suicidal hyena away from the spot, lest his carcass should serve as a warning to his comrades, and keep them away from the trap. But Swartboy knew better than that. Instead of being scared by the dead body of one of their kind, the hyenas only regard it as proper prey, and will devour it as they would the remains of a tender antelope!

Knowing this, Swartboy did not take the dead hyena away, but only drew it within the kraal to serve as a farther inducement for the others to attempt an entrance there.

Before morning they were once more awakened by the “bang” of the great gun. This time they lay still; but when day broke they visited their trap, and found that a second hyena had too rashly pressed his bosom against the fatal string.

Night after night they continued their warfare against the hyenas, changing the trap-kraal to different localities in the surrounding neighbourhood.

At length these creatures were nearly exterminated, or, at all events, became so rare and shy, that their presence by the camp was no longer an annoyance one way or the other.

About this time, however, there appeared another set of visitors, whose presence was far more to be dreaded, and whose destruction the hunters were more anxious to accomplish. That was a family of lions.

The spoor of these had been often seen in the neighbourhood; but it was some time before they began to frequent the camp. However, about the time the hyenas had been fairly got rid of, the lions took their place, and came every night, roaring about the camp in a most terrific manner.

Dreadful as these sounds were, the people were not so much afraid of them as one might imagine. They well knew that the lions could not get at them in the tree. Had it been leopards they might have felt less secure, as the latter are true tree-climbers; but they had seen no leopards in that country, and did not think of them.

They were not altogether without fear of the lions, however. They were annoyed, moreover, that they could not with safety descend from the tree after nightfall, but were every night besieged from sunset till morning. Besides, although the cow and the quaggas were shut in strong kraals, they dreaded each night that the lions would make a seizure of one or other of these animals; and the loss of any one of them, but especially their valuable friend “old Graaf,” would have been a very serious misfortune.

It was resolved, therefore, to try the gun-trap upon the lions, as it had succeeded so well with the hyenas.

There was no difference in the construction or contrivance of the trap. The gun only had to be placed upon a higher level, so that its muzzle might be opposite the lion’s heart, and the proper range was easily obtained. The bait, however, was not carcass, but an animal freshly killed; and for this purpose an antelope was procured.

The result was as desired. On the first night the old male lion “breasted” the fatal string and bit the dust. Next night the lioness was destroyed in a similar way; and shortly after a full-grown young male.

The trap then lay idle for a while; but about a week after a half-grown “cub” was shot near the camp by Hendrik, no doubt the last of that family, as no lions were seen for a long time after.

A great enemy to night-plunderers was that same gun-trap.