Chapter 44 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

The Pit.

We believe there is a different sound expressed by each of the words, roar, shriek, yell, and scream: but the first expression of pain or terror of the elephant in the pit,—the sound that had caused its companion to retreat, seemed a combination of all the above. Since it first shook the surrounding atmosphere, it had been often repeated and the young hunters, familiar with most methods of killing elephants, were under the impression that the one in the pit was being subjected to some torture more horrible than any they had ever heard of.

“They have probably placed a pointed stake in the pit,” observed Hendrik, as they approached, “and the animal is impaled upon it.”

On coming nearer to the place, they saw that there were people around the pit,—both men and women. One of the men, intensely Ethiopic in appearance, came forward as the hunting party approached, and by signs offered for sale the tusks of the elephant still roaring underneath them.

“We are safe with these people,” remarked Congo. “They are used to traders, and will do us no more harm than to cheat us in a bargain, if they can.”

On arriving at the pit, our adventurers saw that it was not a square hole with an upright stake in the centre, as Hendrik had supposed. It was oval at the top and contracted to a point at the bottom, in the shape of an inverted cone, leaving no level space on which the elephant could stand. Its four feet were jammed together; and, compelled to support the weight of its immense body in this position, the agony it suffered must have been as intense as the creature was capable of enduring.

This pit, the plan of which was devised with devilish ingenuity for producing unnecessary torture, was about nine feet long and apparently seven or eight in depth, and the struggles of the elephant only had the effect of wedging its huge feet more closely together and increasing its tortures.

Two pits had been dug but a short distance from one another; and the wisdom of this plan had a living illustration before their eyes. Although the two had been nicely concealed, and the excavated earth carried away from the place, both had been discovered by the elephant, but one of them too late. Had there been but one, it would not have been caught, for it evidently had placed a foot on the first, detected the hidden danger, and, while in the act of avoiding it, had fallen suddenly and irrecoverably on to the other.

All the men standing around were armed, the most of them with assegais or spears, but they were making no attempt to end the agony of the captured elephant.

Groot Willem stepped in front of it, and was raising the long barrel of his roer to the level of one of the elephant’s eyes, when he was stopped by two or three of the blacks, who rushed forward and restrained him from discharging the piece.

Congo, who had professed to understand what they said, told Willem that the elephant was not to be killed at present.

“What can be the reason of that?” exclaimed Arend. “Can they wish the animal to live, merely for the sake of witnessing its sufferings? It cannot be saved. It must die where it is now.”

“I’ll tell you how it is,” said Hendrik. “They have a fine taste for music, and they intend keeping the elephant in that pit, like a bird in its cage, for the purpose of hearing the fine notes it is giving out.”

One of the blacks was armed with a gun, all but the lock, which last was wanting! The attention of Groot Willem was particularly directed to this weapon, its owner holding it out before him, and making signs that he wished some powder and a bullet for the purpose of loading it. Willem desired to be informed how the ammunition was to be used, but the black, by a shake of his woolly head, candidly admitted that he did not know.

“Ask him what he brought the gun here for,” said Willem, speaking to Congo.

In answer to the question, the man made another confession of ignorance.

A little excitement was now observed amongst the blacks, and another party was seen approaching from the direction of the village. They brought news that the head man of the kraal was coming in person, and that he was to have the honour of killing the elephant. He had lately purchased a new gun from some smouse or trader, and he was about to exhibit his skill in the use of it, before the eyes of his admiring subjects.

On the arrival of the chief, the young hunters saw that the gun in his possession was a common soldier’s musket, very much out of order, and one that a sportsman would hesitate about discharging.

“The man will never kill the great brute with that thing,” said Hendrik. “He will be far more likely to kill himself, or some of those around him. If the elephant waits till it is despatched in that way, it stands a good chance to die of starvation.”

The chief seemed very vain of being the owner of a gun, and anxious to show to his subjects the proper mode of despatching an elephant. Standing about twenty-five paces from the pit, he took aim at the animal’s head and fired.

The report of the musket was followed by a roar more expressive of rage than pain, and a small protuberance on the elephant’s head showed that the ball had done no more than to cause a slight abrasion of the skin. The operation of reloading the musket was performed in about six minutes and again the chief fired. This time, standing at the distance of fifteen paces. The elephant again astonished the chief and his followers, by continuing to live.

Another six or seven minutes were passed in loading the gun, which was again fired as before. The only acknowledgment the huge beast made of having received the shot, was another loud cry of impotent rage.

The company around the pit was then joined by a party not hitherto on the ground. It consisted of Hans with Swartboy and the other followers of the expedition. They had extracted the tusks of their elephant, lashed them with rheims to the pack-saddles of two horses, and brought them along.

“What is all this about?” asked Hans. “Can’t you kill that elephant? I’ve heard several shots.”

“They will not allow us to try,” replied Groot Willem. “A chief is trying to kill it with an old musket, and will neither allow me to fire, nor that well-armed gentleman standing near him.” Willem pointed to him who carried the gun without a lock.

At this moment, a communication was made to the Kaffir by the native chief. Annoyed at his want of success, he had some doubts as to his weapon being what had been represented by the smouse from whom he had purchased it. He wished to make a comparison of its destructive power with one of their guns, and Groot Willem was invited to take a shot at the elephant.

“But, baas Willem,” said Congo, as he finished this communication, “you not do that, you not shoot the elephant.”

“Why?” asked Willem, in surprise.

“You kill um with you roer, and then they want from you. They want it, and sure take it.”

“Take what—the elephant?”

“No, baas Willem, the roer,” answered the Kaffir.

Though not afraid of having his gun taken from him, Groot Willem and his companions were unwilling to have any difficulty with the blacks; and the invitation of the chief was courteously declined. The excuse made was that, after the failure of the great man himself, any similar attempts on their part would certainly be unsuccessful.

A general invitation was now given to the company to join in despatching the elephant; and it was immediately assailed by more than a dozen men armed with assegais and javelins. They succeeded in killing it in a little less than half an hour; and, during that time, the torture to which the poor beast was subjected aroused the indignation of our adventurers, who, if allowed, could have released it from its agonies in half a score of seconds. They were true hunters, and, although not sparing of animal life, they took no delight in its tortures.