Chapter 45 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

On the Karroo.

After killing the elephant, the natives commenced the less difficult task of cutting it up and carrying it off to their kraal. The feet were reserved for the especial use of the chief; and, while waiting for some of his dependents to procure them, he granted our hunters an audience. They were desirous to learn whether the kraal was ever visited by traders,—a class of people they were anxious to meet, though Groot Willem was more anxious to know whether giraffes ever visited the neighbourhood. Congo was called, and for some time he and the chief were heard talking in loud tones, and both at the same time; neither exhibiting the least inclination to listen to one another! Their voices grew louder and louder; and our adventurers saw that they were engaged in a hot dispute, that threatened to end in something more unpleasant than a war of words.

“What does he say, Congo,” asked Willem.

“I don’t know, baas Willem,” answered the Kaffir with a shake of the head, that betrayed some shame at his own ignorance.

“How is that?” demanded his master. “Can’t you understand the language he speaks?”

“No, baas Willem, he talks no Zooloo, no Kaffir of any kind.”

“Then why were you pretending to interpret his language a few minutes ago?” asked Hendrik.

“I was trying to learn it,” answered Congo, in a tone conveying the belief that he had given a satisfactory answer.

“We have no time to stop here for you to learn a language,” said Hendrik. “And if you can’t converse with the man why did you not say so? How came you to tell us what he was saying a few minutes ago?”

The attention of all was now called to Swartboy, who seemed overpowered with joy.

It was some time before he was able to make himself understood; but at last he was heard to mutter:—

“I tole you that Congo was a ole fool. Now you all see for yourselfs. Look at ’im! Don’t he look four, five, six times fool. I tole ye so.”

“Can you understand what the chief says?” asked Groot Willem.

“Yaas, baas Willem; any Swartman know dat.”

“Then talk to him yourself. You know what we wish to learn from him.”

The Bushman’s features now assumed a quizzically comical expression; and from this the hunters saw that he had become serious.

Going up to the chief he commenced a conversation, from which Willem learned, after it was translated to him, that no giraffes had been seen in the neighbourhood for many moons. Very few traders visited the tribe; and those who had done so had not left a good name behind them.

The chief lived in the kraal seen not far away; and the hunters were invited to pay him a visit.

This invitation was immediately accepted by Willem, who seemed to have lost all desire to return to Graaf Reinet again.

This attempt on the part of Willem to delay their homeward journey was easily defeated by Hendrik.

“Why should we go to their kraal?” asked he. “We shouldn’t be allowed to leave it for two or three days, and we want to go on in search of giraffes. There are none here.”

With this argument Willem was well pleased; and they prepared to continue their journey.

Before making a move, they saw most of the elephant’s flesh taken away by the Bechuanas. Three oxen were laden with it, and several of the natives staggered under heavy loads,—covered from head to foot with long strips cut from the animal’s sides. Some of the blacks carried large square flakes of the flesh with their heads thrust through a hole cut in the centre,—the broad disk descending over the shoulders like the skirts of a Mexican’s serapé.

The sight of these people apparently clothed with bleeding flesh, and staggering under its weight towards their homes, was, as Hendrik observed, an “antidote against hunger, effectual for at least a month.”

After taking leave of the tribe, our travellers continued on towards the south. It was quite dark before they arrived at a suitable camping-place. They had met with no water since leaving the pools passed in the morning, and the cattle were sadly in want of it.

Unable to make much progress in the darkness that came thickly over them, the animals—both oxen and horses—were unladen and a halt was made, with the intention of resuming the march at the first dawn of day. By early morning they were on the move, anxious to reach water as soon as possible.

For several miles they journeyed over a tract of ground, the surface of which resembled that of the ocean lashed by a storm. It was a constantly recurring series of abrupt undulations, like huge billows and the troughs between them.

Now for the first time they noticed the great difference that thirst produces between horses and cow cattle. The latter seemed to think that they could obtain relief by quietly yielding to the enervating effect of thirst, and travelling as slowly as their drivers would permit them. They were urged forward with much difficulty, and the Makololo were constantly wielding their huge jamboks to induce them to go quicker. With a rolling gait they crawled unwillingly forward, their tongues protruding from their mouths, each offering as perfect a picture of despair as could well be imagined.

The horses on the contrary seemed eager to get over the ground as quickly as possible. They appeared to act under the guidance of reason, as if knowing that they were still far from the wished-for water, and that the faster they travelled the sooner it would be reached.

Throughout the afternoon Hendrik and Willem rode in advance of the others, anxiously looking out for spring, pool, or stream. The all-sustaining fluid must be found that night, or their cattle would perish. Their knowledge of this filled them with forebodings for the future, and they travelled on almost as despairingly as their oxen. They had made a great mistake in so imprudently parting with the Bechuanas, without making inquiries about the country through which they should have to travel. Had they done so, they might have avoided the difficulty their indiscretion had now brought upon them.

A little before sunset a hill, higher than any they had seen during the day, was descried to the right of their course. At its base they saw growing a grove of stunted trees. Raising their heads and cocking their ears, the horses ridden by Willem and Hendrik started off towards the hill at a brisk pace, each uttering a low whimpering, that their riders interpreted into the word Water. Before reaching the grove they passed a dead lion, part of which had been eaten by some carrion-feeding denizens of the desert. By the side of the carcass were also seen three or four dead jackals, which they supposed the lion to have killed before giving up the ghost himself.

On reaching the grove, they discovered a small pool of muddy water; and with outstretched necks their horses rushed towards it. By its edge lay the dead body of a buffalo; and near by a hyena in the same condition.

“Hold your horse!” exclaimed Hendrik, suddenly reining in his own. “Perhaps the water is poisoned. See that buffalo and hyena,—and we have just passed the other dead animals.”

It required all their strength to hinder the horses from plunging into the pool. Only by turning their heads in the opposite direction and driving the spurs into their sides, did they succeed in keeping them away from the water. Even then the suffering animals seemed determined to rear backwards into the pool; and it was not without a struggle that they were forced away from it.

The hunters now rode back to meet their companions and warn them off, till the water in the pool should be tested by Swartboy, Congo, and the Makololo.