Chapter 42 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

The Poisoned Spring.

On the evening of the eighth day after leaving Macora the hunters encamped on the bank of a small stream, which they computed to be about one hundred and twenty miles south of the place from where their return journey commenced.

Within the mind of Groot Willem, there was still a lingering hope that they might again meet with giraffes; and he had never lost an opportunity of looking for them along the route.

The delays caused by his explorations had been a source of constant annoyance to the others; but as Willem had a will of his own,—one, nevertheless, united with a disposition so cheerful as to be proof against any attempts at a controversy,—his companions were compelled to be content with the knowledge that they were slowly progressing towards Graaf Reinet.

In the morning after entering their new camp, they arose to look upon a scene more beautiful than any other they had yet beheld in the extended country over which they had wandered. Near them was a grove of oleander bushes, loaded with beautiful blossoms. Every branch was adorned by the presence of two or more beautiful green sugar-birds,—the certhia (Nectarinia) famosa. Nothing in nature can exceed in splendour the plumage of the sugar-bird. The little vale in which the hunters had encamped seemed a paradise, bathed in golden sunlight; and even the cattle appeared to leave it with some reluctance.

On moving down the bed of the watercourse, they found that they were not travelling by the side of a running stream, but by what, in the dry season, was a chain of lakelets or water-holes. After crossing a bar between two of these ponds, they were much annoyed by a horrible stench borne upon the breeze, and coming from the direction they intended to take. As they journeyed on, so offensive grew the smell that a halt was made, and a resolution passed without a dissenting voice, that they should turn to the east and get to windward of this offensive odour, still unexplained.

While doing this, they observed to the west, a flock of vultures, wheeling high up in the air; and, down upon the plain below, hundreds of jackals and hyenas were seen leaping about. So large an assemblage of these carrion-feeding creatures called for an explanation; and, on riding nearer, the hunters saw a number of dead antelopes lying within a few feet of each other.

As they rode farther along the plain, more dead antelopes were seen, and they began to fear that they had entered some valley of death, from which they might never go out. The mystery—for such it was to them—was readily cleared up by the Makololo and Congo. The antelopes had been drinking water from a pond or spring poisoned by the natives; which proved that our travellers had arrived in the neighbourhood of some tribe of the Bechuanas. Of this method for wantonly destroying animal life, practised by many of the native African tribes, the hunters had often heard. The many stories which they had been told of the wholesale destruction of game by poison, and which they had treated with incredulity, after all, had not been exaggerated. They estimated the number of dead antelopes lying within a circumference of a mile, at not less than two hundred. One of the water-holes of the chain by which they had halted, had been poisoned. A herd of antelopes had quenched their thirst at the place, and had only climbed up the bank to lie down and die.

“We have been very fortunate,” remarked Groot Willem, “in not encamping by the poisoned water ourselves. Had we done so, we would all, by this time, have been food for the jackals and hyenas, as these antelopes now are.”

To this unqualified surmise, Congo did not wholly give his assent. He believed that men would not be likely to drink a sufficient quantity of the water to cause death; though he further stated that their cattle and horses, had they quenched their thirst at the pond, would have been killed to a certainty.

For the sake of procuring three or four antelopes for food, with the least trouble, the Bechuanas had destroyed a whole herd. This is the usual economy practised by those who live in a land teeming with a too great abundance of animal life.

To get away from the sickening scene thus presented to their view, even Groot Willem was willing to continue the journey; and it was resumed, all being thankful that the distance accomplished on the day before had not been so long, by a mile or two, as it might have been.

Knowing that they were in the neighbourhood of Bechuanas, the Makololo professed some fear for their cattle. They said that these might be stolen or taken from them by force. But the hunters believed such fears too flattering to the Bechuana character. From all they had heard of the people composing that numerous nation, they were under the impression that they were too cowardly and indolent to be regarded with any apprehension.

The next morning, when continuing their journey, Arend, who was riding a little in advance, suddenly reined up, at the same time, calling out—

“I see a kraal and a field of maize.”

Groot Willem and Hendrik rode forward, and became convinced that Arend was in the right. Almost at the same instant, the hunter descried other objects in which he was more interested than in a village of Bechuanas, or anything belonging to them. Two large elephants were seen moving across the plain, in the direction of the maize-field.

“Let us steal upon them silently,” suggested Willem. “We need not all go. Two or three will be enough. Some one must stay with the cattle.”

Saying this, he rode off, followed by Hendrik and Arend.

Hans assented to stay behind, attended by Swartboy; and Congo, with the assistance of the Makololo, halted the cattle and pack-horses; thus tarrying, they were witnesses of what they expected to prove an interesting scene. They saw nothing to prevent the stalkers from obtaining a fine opportunity for a shot; and they knew that a wounded elephant seldom seeks safety in flight. One or both of the animals would be killed; and the violent death of an elephant is, under all circumstances, a spectacle painfully interesting.

“But for us,” said Groot Willem, as he rode by the side of Hendrik, “those elephants would destroy that field of maize. The owners of the field could not prevent them, if they were to try. They cannot even frighten them away from their work of devastation.”

The young hunter was soon to be undeceived.