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Chapter 46 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

The Pool of Death

On coming up with their companions the two pioneers reported the glad tidings that water had been found. But the joy caused by this announcement was at once changed into gloom, when they expressed their doubts as to the purity of the element. Hans and Arend at once dismounted, and, taking Swartboy and two of the Makololo along with them, went on towards the pool.

On reaching it, Swartboy at once pronounced the water to be poisoned. It had been done, he said, with two separate kinds of poison, both of the deadliest nature. A bundle of roots that had been mashed between two stones was seen lying in the water, and floating on its surface was a large quantity of the skins of some poisonous species of berry.

There was no help for it. They must avoid the danger by going another way, or their animals, at scent of the water, could not be restrained from drinking it.

The buffalo had quenched its thirst and then sought the shade of the trees to lie down and die. The strong lion had tasted of the poisoned fluid, but his strength had not saved him. A few paces from the pool, and he had fallen down in his tracks. The jackals had partially devoured the lion, then slaked their thirst with the deadly draught, and returned to their repast only to renew, but never to finish it. After satisfying themselves that the pool had been poisoned, they were about returning to their companions, when they observed a great commotion amongst the cattle and horses of the expedition. The former were lowing, the latter neighing, in an unusual manner. The two horses which had already visited the imperilled spot, seemed especially impatient of control; and, in the efforts made by Hendrik to restrain him, the girth of his saddle got loose and was broken. As he dismounted for the purpose of repairing it, the horse broke away from him and galloped back towards the pool, uttering its shrill neigh, as if a signal for the others to follow.

The invitation was not slighted. The pack-horses immediately swept off in pursuit. The oxen seemed suddenly awakened to new life. Either instinct, or the example of the horses, had admonished them that water was near. The oxen, carrying heavy loads, that for the last few miles had been goaded onward with great difficulty, became suddenly reinvigorated and joined in the general stampede. The whole cavalcade had soon escaped beyond control.

Now occurred a race between the thirsty cattle and their owners, as to which should first reach the pool. Hans, Arend, and the two Makololo formed a line in front of it and strove to check the impetuous charge. Their efforts proved vain. Mad with the agony of thirst, the beasts had no longer any respect for the authority of man; and they who were trying to stay them from self-destruction only saved themselves from being trodden under foot, by getting quickly out of the way.

As the pond was not more than ten feet in diameter, and could only be approached on its lower edge, all the animals were unable to reach it. The first horse that approached the water, was instantly pushed into it by two others close following him, and, by the time the three had fairly commenced imbibing the poisoned fluid, they were charged upon by several of the oxen.

Heavy blows with jamboks and the butt-ends of rifles produced no effect in forcing the animals away. Everything was unheeded but the mad raging desire of quenching their thirst.

Fortunately for the hunters, all their cattle could not drink at the same time, as they stood in each others’ way. For about ten minutes, there was a scene of indescribable confusion amidst shouts and struggling. The three horses and two of the oxen, jammed tightly together, were unable to get out again,—even had they been so inclined. So firmly had they become wedged against each other and the high bank above, that neither could move a step.

The hole was about three feet in depth and the bodies of the five animals completely filled it up. Some others of the cattle, failing to reach the water from the low bank, scrambled up to the high one; but, on looking down, they could see nothing but the backs of the five animals in occupation. One of the oxen, in a tremendous effort made to get its mouth to the water, was borne down and trampled under the feet of the others.

After more than half an hour of hard work, the hunters, assisted by their black companions succeeded in driving all the animals away, except the five that retained possession of the pool. These five never left it. Three horses and two oxen were the loss that was sustained. They were pack animals that had thus perished; and fortunately they were not laden with powder, or any substance easily injured.

The packs were at once removed from them and placed on the backs of others,—an arrangement that, from that time forth, caused Congo and Swartboy to make their journey on foot. With this, Congo seemed quite satisfied. The loss of his “mount” did not trouble him so much as the fear that he should lose Spoor’em, his favourite hound, whose sufferings, as well as those of the other dogs, were now painful to witness.

By this time they had journeyed a few miles beyond the poisoned pond; the shade of night had again commenced gathering over the plain. They saw they would have to continue their journey throughout the night. The emergency would not admit of the least delay, for every hour was fast taking away what little strength was left either to themselves or their animals. But which way should they go? That was the question that required answering.

They did not think of returning to the north; but there were the east, south, and west for them to choose from. Which of those directions was the likeliest for water? This question the young hunters were wholly unable to answer, and must have left themselves to the guidance of chance, had they not been accompanied by Swartboy.

The Bushman suggested a course, of which, not only the Makololo, but Congo approved. For all this, his proposal was prefaced by the usual complaint against the Kaffir, as the cause of all their misfortunes. Having established this fact to his satisfaction, he proceeded to inform his masters, that he had heard much in his boyhood of the manners and customs of the Bechuanas.

Some weak tribe of that nation, he thought, had sought refuge from an enemy by making their home in the great karroo, or desert, through which the expedition was now passing. They had poisoned the pool for the purpose of preventing their enemies from receiving a supply of water while pursuing them. They who had done so could not be expecting an enemy from the north, nor yet from the south, where other tribes of their kindred dwelt. They could only look for foes from the east, from the land of the Zooloo Kaffirs; whom Swartboy declared to be the curse of the earth. For these reasons, Swartboy believed that a tribe of Bechuanas would be found to the west, and that, by a journey of a few hours in that direction, their kraal might be reached.

No one had any argument against this reasoning of Swartboy; and, yielding to his suggestion, the march was again commenced, with their faces turned westward.

There was one thing that gave the hunters a hope. It was the knowledge that they were not in that part of South Africa, where there is any very extensive karroo. They were too far to the south-east to have strayed into the great Kalahari desert. The karroo they were traversing, might be a small one, which could be crossed in a few hours had they been able to travel with any speed. Unfortunately, they were not.

So exhausted were their animals that the use of jamboks and the strongest language, spoken in the Dutch, English, Hottentot, Kaffir, and Makololo tongues could not make them move one step faster than two miles to the hour. This rate of travelling will annihilate a great distance, but only in a great deal of time; and, knowing that their cattle could not hold out much longer, our adventurers began to fear that their hunting expedition would turn out something worst than a failure.

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