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Chapter 47 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The wild hounds and the Hartebeest

Since the taming of the quaggas the hunting had been attended with tolerable success. Not a week passed without adding a pair of tusks—sometimes two or three pairs—to the collection, which now began to assume the form of a little pyramid of ivory standing near the bottom of the nwana.

Von Bloom, however, was not quite satisfied with his progress. He thought they might do far better if they only had a few dogs.

Though the quaggas were of great service to them, and with these they were often able to overtake the elephant, yet they as often lost their great game, and it is more easy to do so than most persons imagine.

But with dogs to join in the hunt, the result would be quite different. It is true these animals cannot pull down an elephant, nor do him the slightest injury; but they can follow him whithersoever he may go, and by their barking bring him to a stand.

Another valuable service which the dogs perform, is in drawing the attention of the elephant away from the hunters. The huge quadruped when enraged is, as we have already seen, exceedingly dangerous. On such occasions he will charge upon the noisy dogs, mistaking them for his real assailants. This, of course, gives the hunter a good opportunity of delivering his fire, and avoiding the deadly encounter of the elephant.

Now in several elephant-hunts which they had lately made, our hunters had run some very narrow risks. Their quaggas were neither so manageable nor so quick in their movements as horses would have been, and this rendered the hazard still greater. Some of them might one day fall a victim. So feared Von Bloom; and he would gladly have given for a number of dogs an elephant’s tusk a-piece—even though they were the most worthless of curs. Indeed, their quality is but of slight importance. Any dogs that can trace the elephant and pester him with their barring would do.

Von Bloom even thought of taming some hyenas, and training them to the hunt. This idea was by no means quixotic. The hyena is often used for such a purpose, and performs even better than many kinds of dogs.

One day Von Bloom was pondering over this subject. He was seated on a little platform that had been constructed very high up—near the top of the nwana-tree—from which a view could be had of the whole country around. It was a favourite resort of the field-cornet—his smoking-room, in fact—where he went every evening to enjoy a quiet pull out of his great meerschaum. His face was turned upon the plain that stretched from the border of the bosch as far as the eye could reach.

While quietly puffing away, his attention was attracted by some animals standing at a distance off upon the plain. The brilliant colour of their bodies had caught his eye.

They were of a lively sienna colour over the back and sides, and white underneath, with a list of black upon the outside of the legs, and some black stripes upon the face, as regularly defined as if laid on by the brush of a painter. They had horns of very irregular shape, roughly knotted—each curved into something of the shape of a reaping-hook, and rising directly from the top of one of the straightest and longest heads ever carried by an animal. These animals were far from being gracefully formed. They had drooping hind-quarters like the giraffe, though in a much less degree, shoulders greatly elevated, and long narrow heads. For the rest their forms were bony and angular. Each stood five feet high, from the fore-hoof to the shoulder, and full nine feet in length.

They were antelopes of course—that species known among Cape colonists as the “hartebeest” (Acronotus caama). There were in all about fifty of them in the herd.

When first observed by Von Bloom, they were quietly browsing upon the plain. The next moment, however, they were seen to run to and fro, as if suddenly alarmed by the approach of an enemy.

And an enemy there certainly was; for in a moment more the herd had taken to flight; and Von Bloom now saw that they were followed by a pack of hounds! I say a “pack of hounds,” for the creatures in the distance exactly resembled hounds more than anything in the world. Nay, more than resembled, for it actually was a pack of hounds—of wild hounds!

Of course Von Bloom knew what they were. He knew they were the “wilde-honden,” very absurdly named by sapient naturalists “Hyena venatica,” or “hunting hyena,” and by others, with equal absurdity, the “hunting dog.” I pronounce these names “absurd,” first because the animal in question bears no more resemblance to a hyena than it does to a hedgehog; and, secondly, because “hunting dog” is a very ridiculous appellation, since any dog may merit a similar title.

Now I would ask, why could these naturalists not let the nomenclature of the boors alone? If a better name than “wilde-honden” (wild hounds) can be given to these animals, I should like to hear it. Why, it is the very perfection of a name, and exactly expresses the character of the animal to which they apply it—that character, which coming under their everyday observation, suggested the name.

It is quite a libel to call this beautiful creature a hyena. He has neither the ugly form, the harsh pelage, the dull colour, nor the filthy habits of one. Call him a “wolf,” or “wild dog,” if you please, but he is at the same time the handsomest wolf or wild dog in creation. But we shall name him, as the boors have done, a “wild hound.” That is his true title, let naturalists class him as they may.

His size, shape, his smooth clean coat, as well as his colour, approximate him more to the hound than to any other animal. In the last—which is a ground of “tan” blotched and mottled with large spots of black and grey—he bears a striking resemblance to the common hound; and the superior size of his ears would seem to assimilate him still more to this animal. The ears however, as in all the wild species of Canis, are of course not hanging, but erect.

His habits, however, crown the resemblance. In his natural state the wild hound never prowls alone; but boldly runs down his game, following it in large organised packs, just as hounds do; and in his hunting he exhibits as much skill as if he had Tom Moody riding at his heels, to guide with whip and horn.

It was the field-cornet’s good fortune to witness an exhibition of this skill.

The hounds had come unexpectedly upon the hartebeest herd; and almost at the first dash, one of the antelopes became separated from the rest, and ran in an opposite direction. This was just what the cunning dogs wanted; and the whole pack, instead of following the herd, turned after the single one, and ran “tail on end.”

Now this hartebeest, although an ill-shaped antelope, is one of the very swiftest of the tribe; and the wild hound does not capture it without a severe chase. In fact, he could not capture it at all, if speed were the only point between the two animals. But it is not. The hartebeest has a weakness in its character, opposite to which the wild hound possesses a cunning.

The former when chased, although it runs in a straight line, does not keep long in a direct course. Now and then it diverges to one side or the other, led perhaps by the form of the ground, or some other circumstance. In this habit lies its weakness. The wild hound is well aware of it, and takes advantage of it by a manoeuvre, which certainly savours strongly of reflection on his part.

Our field-cornet had a proof of this as he watched the chase. His elevated position gave him a view of the whole ground, and he could note every movement both of pursuer and pursued.

On breaking off, the hartebeest ran in a right line, and the hounds followed straight after. They had not gone far, however, when Von Bloom perceived that one hound was forging ahead of the rest, and running much faster than any of them. He might have been a swifter dog than the others, but the hunter did not think it was that. He appeared rather to be running harder than they, as if sent forward to push the hartebeest, while the rest saved their wind.

This proved to be really the case; for the dog, by a desperate effort, having gained upon the antelope, caused the latter to turn slightly from its original course; and the pack, perceiving this, changed their direction at the same time, and held along a diagonal line, as if to head the game. By this means they avoided the détour which both the antelope and their companion had made.

The hartebeest was now running upon a new line; and as before, one of the hounds was soon seen to head the pack, and press forward at the top of his speed. The one that first led, as soon as the antelope turned from its original course, fell back, rejoined the pack, and was now lagging among the hindmost! His “turn” of duty was over.

Again the hartebeest verged from its course. Again the pack ran obliquely, and made a second “cut” upon him—again a fresh dog took the lead, and on swept the chase as before—the wild hounds uttering their yelping notes as they ran.

Several times was this manoeuvre executed by the cunning dogs—until the desired result was accomplished, and the antelope was completely “blown.”

Then, as if they felt that it was in their power, and that further strategy was not needed, the whole pack rushed forward simultaneously, and closed rapidly upon the game.

The hartebeest made one last despairing effort to escape, but, finding that speed would no longer avail, the creature wheeled suddenly round, and placed itself in an attitude of defiance—the foam falling from its lips, while its red eyes sparkled like coals of fire.

In another moment the dogs were around it.

“What a splendid pack!” exclaimed Von Bloom. “Oh! that I had such an one!

“Ha!” he continued, as a new thought struck him, “and why not, just such an one?—why not?”

Now the train of reflections that passed through the mind of the field-cornet was as follows:—

That the wild hounds might be tamed, and trained to hunting,—easiest of all, to the chase of the elephant. He knew that this could be done, for boor-hunters had often done it. True, the dogs must be taken young, but where were young ones to be obtained? It is not so easy to capture the pups of the wild hound. Until they are able to run well, their mothers do not permit them to stray far from the caves in which they are littered; and these are usually crevices among rocks quite inaccessible to man. How could he obtain a set of them? He had already formed such an intention. Where could be their breeding-place?

His reflections were interrupted at this point, by very singular behaviour on the part of the wild hounds, and which gave him a new idea of their intelligence that quite electrified him.

When the hartebeest stood to bay, and the hounds came up, Von Bloom very naturally expected to see the latter run in upon their game, and at once pull it to the ground. This he knew was their usual habit. What was his astonishment at seeing the whole pack standing off to one side, as if they intended to leave the antelope alone! Some of them even lay down to rest themselves, while the others stood with open jaws and lolling tongues, but without showing any signs that they intended further to molest the panting quarry!

The field-cornet could observe the situation well, for the antelope was on his side—that is, towards the cliffs—while the dogs were farther out upon the plain. Another circumstance that astonished him was, that the dogs, after running up and around the hartebeest, had actually drawn off to their present position!

What could it mean? Were they afraid of its ugly horns? Were they resting themselves before they should make their bloody onslaught?

The hunter kept his gaze intently fixed upon the interesting group.

After a while the antelope, having recovered its wind a little, and seeing the pack so distant, made a fresh start.

This time it ran in a side direction, apparently with the intention of gaining a hill that lay in that way, and up the sides of which it no doubt calculated upon gaining some advantage. But the creature had hardly stretched itself, when the hounds struck out after it; and in five hundred yards running, once more brought it to a stand. Again the pack took station at a distance, and the hartebeest stood upon the plain alone!

Once more it essayed to escape, and started off with all the speed that was left in its legs—the hounds as before trooping after.

This time the antelope headed in a new direction, making for a point in the cliffs; and as the chase now passed very near to the nwana-tree, everybody had a fine view of it.

The hartebeest seemed to be going faster than ever, or, at all events, the dogs did not now appear to gain upon it; and the field-cornet, as well as all the young people, were in hopes the poor creature would escape from its tireless pursuers.

They watched the chase, until they could just see the bright body of the hartebeest afar off, appearing like a yellow spot upon the face of the rocks, but the dogs were no longer visible. Then the yellow spot suddenly disappeared like the going out of a candle, and they could see it no more.

No doubt the antelope was pulled down!

A strange suspicion entered the mind of Von Bloom, and, calling upon them to saddle the quaggas, he, with Hans and Hendrik, rode off towards the place where the hartebeest had been last seen.

They approached the ground with caution; and under the shelter of some bushes were enabled to get within two hundred yards of the spot without being observed. A singular spectacle rewarded their pains.

Within a dozen yards of the cliff lay the body of the hartebeest, where it had been “pulled down” by the dogs. It was already half-eaten, not by the hounds that had hunted it, but by their puppies of all ages, that to the number of more than threescore were now standing around the carcass, tugging away at its flesh and snarling at one another! Some of the grown dogs that had taken part in the chase could be seen lying upon the ground, still panting after their hard run; but most of them had disappeared, no doubt into the numerous small caves and crevices that opened along the bottom of the cliffs.

There was no room left to doubt the singular fact—that the wild hounds had regularly driven the hartebeest up to their breeding-place to feed their young, and that they had abstained from killing it out upon the plain to save themselves the labour of dragging it from a distance!

Indeed these animals—unlike the Felida—have not the power of transporting a large mass to any considerable distance; hence the wonderful instinct which led them to guide the antelope to the very spot where its flesh was wanted!

That they were in the constant practice of this singular habit was attested, by the numerous bones and horns of large antelopes of different kinds, that lay strewed around the place.

Von Bloom had his eye upon the young puppies, and all three made a rush towards them. But it was to no purpose. Cunning as their fathers and mothers, the little fellows forsook their meal at first sight of the intruders, and darted off into their caves!

But they were not cunning enough to escape the snares, which were laid for them every day for a week after; and, before the end of that time, more than a dozen of them were safely domiciled in a little kennel built especially for their use, under the shadow of the great nwana-tree.

In less than six months from that time, several of them were in the field, and trained to the chase of the elephant, which duty they performed with all the courage and skill that could have been shown by hounds of the purest breed!

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