Chapter 47 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

The Water-Root.

Throughout that long and dreary night they toiled on, driving the cattle before them. Guided by the Southern Cross they pursued nearly a straight course. When morning dawned upon the scene, they observed that the surface of the country still continued the same,—presenting that lumpy appearance with which during the last two days they had become so familiar.

Although all were hungry, weary, and suffering grievously from thirst, there was no time for making a stop. The cattle must be taken on as speedily as possible, or abandoned, along with their loads.

Slowly the sun climbed up into the sky, until it was directly over their heads; and yet, judging by the appearance of the country, they had not moved a step from the place where they had first entered upon the karroo. The landscape around them seemed exactly the same!

“We have had about enough of this sort of travelling,” remarked Hendrik, “and it’s quite time that we began to think of ourselves, and not quite so much of our property.”

“What do you wish?” asked Willem. “Abandon the pack-oxen?”

“We shall probably have to do so in the end. It appears as if the time had come. We had better save our horses and ourselves and let the others go.”

“You forget, Hendrik,” rejoined his brother, “that we are not all mounted. We cannot desert those who are afoot.”

“Of course not,” answered the young cornet, “but even Swart, who is not a fast traveller, could go two miles to one he is doing now, with all his time engaged in urging forward the animals.”

This conversation was interrupted by a shout from Swartboy himself. He was standing over a little plant with narrow leaves, that rose not more than six inches above the surface of the plain. It was the stem of the water-root,—a plant that, on the karroos of South Africa, has saved the lives of thousands of thirsty travellers, that would otherwise have perished. Several stems of the plant were seen growing around the spot, and the Bushman knew that the want from which all had been suffering, would be at least partially supplied. A pick-axe and spade were hastily procured from a pack carried by one of the oxen; and Swartboy commenced digging around the stem of the plant first discovered. The earth, baked by the sun nearly as hard as a burnt brick, was removed in large flakes, and the bulb was soon reached,—at the depth of ten or twelve inches below the surface. When taken out, it was seen to be of an oval shape, about seven inches in its longest diameter, and covered with a thin cuticle of a bright brown colour. The juicy pulp of the water-root was cut into slices, and chewed. It tasted like water itself, that is, it had no taste at all. Assegais and knives were now called into active play; and so abundant was the plant growing near, that in a short time every man, horse, and ox had been refreshed with a bulb.

The first root obtained by Congo was shared with Spoor’em, the hound, which, with his tongue far-extended, had been crawling along with much difficulty.

The young hunters might have passed over miles of karroo covered with the bulb, without knowing that its slender, insignificant stems were the indication of a fountain spread bountifully beneath their feet.

Congo and the Makololo were also ignorant of the character of this curious plant; and all would have gone on without discovering it, had Swartboy not been of the party. For the advantage he had given them, by introducing them to the plant, the Bushman claimed nearly as much credit as though he had created it. As no one was disposed to underrate the service he had done, he obtained what appeared full compensation for all the annoyance he had felt at being so long neglected.

Partly refreshed by the cooling sap of the water-root, the cattle behaved as though they thought there was still something worth living for. They moved forward with renewed animation; and a long march was made in the course of the afternoon.

Just as the sun was setting, several huts were descried to the south; and our travellers continued towards them, quite confident that a full supply of water would be found near the huts, which, as they drew towards them, proved to be a kraal of the Bechuanas. The fear of losing their cattle was no longer felt.

Before arriving at the huts, their owners came forth to meet them. Their first salutation was a statement of their surprise that any travellers could have succeeded in reaching their secluded habitation.

Swartboy replied to this by a request to be conducted to the nearest place where water could be obtained,—of course to the stream, pools, or wells that supplied the kraal. The answer was astounding. It was that they knew of no open water within less than a day’s journey! Months had passed since any of them had seen such a thing, and all the inhabitants of the kraal had been living without it!

“What does this mean?” demanded Hendrik. “Surely they are telling lies. They don’t want to give us the water and their story is but a subterfuge to conceal it. Tell them, Swart that we don’t believe them.”

The Bushman did as he was desired, but the Bechuanas only reiterated their previous statement.

“What nonsense!” exclaimed Arend. “They take us for such fools as to suppose people can live without water! They have a supply somewhere. We must make a search for it and help ourselves.”

“No, baas Arend,” interposed Swartboy. “Don’t do this. They show us water by an by. We better wait.”

Acting under the advice of the Bushman, the oxen were unladen, and a camp established close to the kraal. Although pretending to be satisfied with the statement of the Bechuanas, that they were living without water, our travellers had their eyes on the alert, sending glances of inquiry in every direction, in the hope of discovering where the much-desired element was kept. They saw not the slightest indications of stream or pool, well or water-hole, of any kind. The place all around had the same sterile appearance as that of the country over which they had journeyed for the last two days, and certainly things looked confirmatory of the Bechuanas’ statement. After all, they might be telling the truth! It was not very cheering to think so; and our travellers became quite disconsolate.

Swartboy, however, did something to assure them, by counselling them to say nothing, but submit quietly,—trusting to time and patience. They followed his instructions, for the want of knowing what else they could do. They felt that they were in his hands; and, observing his confident manner one and all awaited the end without murmuring.