Chapter 9 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

An Incident of the Road.

Next morning, they broke up their camp and moved down the river, extending their march into the second day.

After passing the drift where the Limpopo had been first crossed, Groot Willem, accompanied by Congo, was riding nearly a mile in advance of his companions. His object in leading the way so far ahead was to bag any game worthy of his notice, before it should be frightened by the others.

Occasionally, a small herd of some of the many varieties of antelopes in which South Africa abounds fled before him; but these the great hunter scarce deigned to notice. His thief object was to find a country frequented by hippopotami and giraffes.

On his way he passed many of the lofty pandanus or screw pine-trees. Some of these were covered from top to bottom with parasitic plants, giving them the appearance of tall towers or obelisks. Underneath one of these trees, near the river, and about three hundred yards from where he was riding, he saw a buffalo cow with her calf. The sun was low down; and the time had therefore arrived when some buffalo veal would be acceptable both to the men and dogs of the expedition.

Telling Congo to stay where he was, the hunter rode to the leeward of the buffalo cow, and, under cover of some bushes, commenced making approach. Knowing that a buffalo cow is easily alarmed, more especially when accompanied by her calf, he made his advances with the greatest caution. Knowing, also, that no animal shows more fierceness and contempt for danger, while protecting its young, he was anxious to get a dead shot, so as to avoid the risk of a conflict with the cow, should she be only wounded. When he had got as close as the cover would allow him, he took aim at the cow’s heart and fired.

Contrary to his expectation, the animal neither fell nor fled, but merely turned an inquiring glance in the direction from whence the report had proceeded.

This was a mystery the hunter could not explain. Why did the cow keep to the same spot? If not disabled by the bullet, why had she not gone off, taking her young one along with her?

“I might as well have been stalking a tree as this buffalo,” thought Willem, “for one seems as little inclined to move as the other.”

Hastily reloading his roer, he rode fearlessly forward, now quite confident that the cow could not escape him. She seemed not to care about retreating, and he had got close up to the spot where she stood, when all at once the buffalo charged furiously towards him, and was only stopped by receiving a second bullet from the roer that hit right in the centre of the forehead. One more plunge forward and the animal dropped on her knees, and died after the manner of buffaloes, with legs spread and back uppermost, instead of falling over on its side. Another shot finished the calf, which was crying pitifully by the side of its mother.

Congo now came up, and, while examining the calf, discovered that one of its legs had been already broken. This accounted for the cow not having attempted to save herself by flight. She knew that her offspring was disabled, and stayed by it from an instinct of maternal solicitude.

While Willem was engaged reloading his gun, he heard a loud rustling among the parasitical plants that loaded the pandanus-tree under which he and Congo were standing. Some large body was stirring among the branches. What could it be?

“Stand clear,” shouted Willem, as he swerved off from the tree, at the same time setting the cap upon his gun.

At the distance of ten or twelve paces he faced round, and stood ready to meet the moving object, whatever it might be. Just then he saw standing before him a tall man who had dropped down from among the leaves, while Willem’s back had been turned towards the tree.

The dress and general appearance of this individual proclaimed him to be a native African, but not one of those inferior varieties of the human race which that country produces. He was a man of about forty years of age, tall and muscular, with features well formed, and that expressed both intelligence and courage. His complexion was tawny brown, not black; and his hair was more like that of a European than an African.

These observations were made by the young hunter in six seconds; for the person who had thus suddenly appeared before him allowed no more time to elapse before setting off from the spot, and in such haste that the hunter thought he must be retreating in affright. And yet there was no sign of fear accompanying the act. Some other motive must have urged him to that precipitate departure.

There was; and Congo was the first to discover it. The man had gone in the direction of the river.

“Water, water!” exclaimed the Kaffir; “he want water.”

The truth of this remark was soon made evident; for, on following the stranger with their eyes, they saw him rush into the stream, plunge his head under water and commence filling himself in the same manner as he would have done, had his body been a bottle!

Hendrik and Arend, having heard the reports of the roer, feared that something might have gone wrong, and galloped forward, leaving Hans and Swartboy to bring up the pack-horses.

They reached the scene just as the African, after having quenched his thirst, had returned to the tree where the young hunter and Congo had remained.

Without taking the slightest notice of either of the others, the man walked up to Groot Willem, and, with an air of dignity, natural to most semi-barbarous people, began making a speech. Grateful for having been relieved from his imprisonment, he evidently believed that duty required him to say something, whether it might be understood or not.

“Can you understand him, Congo?” asked Willem.

“Yaas, a little I can,” answered the Kaffir; and in his own peculiar manner he interpreted what the African had to say.

It was simply that he owed his life to Groot Willem, and that the latter had only to ask for whatever he required, and it should be given him.

“That is certainly promising a good deal,” said the sarcastic Hendrik, “and I hope that Willem will not be too greedy in his request, but will leave something for the rest of mankind.”

Hans and Swartboy at this moment came up with the pack-horses; and, selecting a spot near the place where the cow had been killed, the party encamped for the night.

For some time, all hands were busy in gathering firewood and making other preparations for their bivouac,—among which were the skinning and cooking of the buffalo calf, duties that were assigned to the Bushman. During his performance of them, the others, assisted by Congo as interpreter, were extracting from the tall stranger a full account of the adventure to which they were indebted for his presence in the camp; and a strange story it was.