Chapter 48 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

An odd sort of Suction Pump.

It was not long before all were convinced of the prudent course which Swartboy had counselled them to pursue. Had they insisted on being supplied with water, or made an attempt to take it by force, they would have been disappointed. They would not have been able to find a drop within many miles of the place where more than two hundred people were living. For all this, there was water not far off; and, trusting to that feeling of generosity which rarely fails when relied upon, they were at length supplied with it. Water was brought to them. Not much at first, but in small quantities, and carried in the shells of ostrich-eggs.

They soon had enough to satisfy their own thirst and allow them to turn their attention to the wants of their cattle. After drinking off the contents of an ostrich shell, Groot Willem by signs, directed the attention of the woman who had given it to him, to the suffering condition of his horse. The woman, who could not exactly be called an “ornament to her sex,” only shook her wool-covered head and walked thoughtfully away.

“Unless we can get some drink for our horses,” said Willem, turning to his companions, “we must keep on. If we stop much longer here the animals will die.”

“Wait, baas Willem,” said Swartboy; “the heart of the Bechuana grow bigger soon. He like de Bushman.”

Swartboy’s prophecy proved correct. Not long after it was spoken, one of the Bechuanas came to the camp, and asked to be conducted to the chief. Groot Willem was immediately pointed out by Swartboy as the individual who answered to that appellation, and the black walked up to him. His errand was to say that the horses and cattle could only be watered one at a time. This was satisfactory enough. Willem’s horse, as belonging to the chief of the party, should be supplied first, and was led away by the man, its owner following at its heels. A short distance from the kraal they came to a well, from which a covering of earth had recently been removed. The well, for some purpose, had been concealed, as if it were a pitfall for the capturing of elephants.

With a bucket made of buffalo hide, water was drawn out, until the horse had as much as he cared to drink. He was then led away and another brought to the place, and then another, and after them the cattle, until all the animals had drunk to their satisfaction.

This method of watering them showed some intelligence on the part of the Bechuanas. It avoided the struggle and confusion which would certainly have taken place, had the thirsty animals been driven to the well at the same time.

That evening the hunters had a long conversation with the head man of the kraal, Swartboy acting as interpreter. The chief said that his tribe had once been large and powerful; but what from desertion, and wars with the Kaffirs, they had become reduced to their present number. In order to live in peace and security, he had sought refuge in the solitary karroo, where the hardships to be encountered in reaching his remote home would deter any enemy from making the attempt. In order to make assurance doubly sure, he admitted having caused several water-holes to be poisoned; and he appeared greatly satisfied at telling them how, on one occasion, his plan had met with a splendid success. A party of his Kaffir enemies had partaken of the water from one of the poisoned pools, and had died upon the spot.

This portion of the narrative, which was interpreted by Swartboy, seemed to give the latter as much satisfaction as it did the chief himself. He grinned with intense delight as he translated the account of this strange episode.

In order to give his guests an exalted idea of his greatness the chief informed them that he was brother to Kalatah. Groot Willem expressed a wish to know who or what the great Kalatah might be. The chief was astonished, not to say chagrined, at the confession of so much ignorance, and the hunters were instantly enlightened. Kalatah was the most noble warrior, the best brother, the most loyal subject, in fact the best man in every way, that ever lived, and his memory was, and ought to be, respected over the whole world. This was news to our adventurers, and they were anxious to learn more of the chief and his wonderful relative. Willing to gratify his guests, he further informed them that the Kaffirs had made another attempt to reach the remote kraal in which he now dwelt. They had entered the karroo with a large force well prepared for crossing it, and would probably have succeeded, had they not been led astray. His brother, Kalatah, had deserted to the enemy for the express purpose of becoming a false guide, and under this pretence he had succeeded in drawing them off the scent. He had conducted them far to the north, and into the heart of the great Kalahari desert. Not one of these befooled foemen lived to return to their own country, all having perished by thirst.

“But Kalatah! what of him?” eagerly inquired the listeners. “How did he escape the same fate?”

“Kalatah did not escape it,” coolly answered the chief. “He perished with the rest. He sacrificed his own life for the sake of saving his countrymen!”

This act had endeared him to the memory of his people; and the hunters, on hearing it, became convinced that the Bechuanas, whom they had been taught to regard as a soul-less, degraded people, had still soul enough to respect the performance of a noble action.

Next morning our travellers were made acquainted with the method by which the water was obtained for the daily supply of the kraal. None was allowed to be exposed either to the sun or to view, the well being carefully covered up with a thick stratum of turf. The kraal had been built near a spring, which had of course decided the selection of its site; and over the spring a new surface had been given to the ground, so that the presence of water underneath could not be suspected.

In order to obtain it for daily use, a hollow reed was inserted into a small, inconspicuous aperture, left open for the purpose, and covered by a stone when the reed was not in use. The water was drawn up by suction,—the women performing the operation by applying their lips to the upper end of the reed, filling the mouth with the fluid, and then discharging it into the egg-shells.

The water supplied to the hunters on their first arrival had been “pumped” up in this original fashion!

The well was only uncovered and the bucket called into requisition, upon rare and extraordinary occasions, such as that which had arisen from the necessity of supplying the horses and cattle of their guests.

Our travellers remained for two days in the Karroo village, during which they did not suffer much from ennui. They had sufficient employment in mending their travelling equipments; and the delay gave their cattle a chance of recruiting their strength, sadly exhausted by the long toilsome journey just made.

The whites of the party were much interested in observing the habits and customs of the simple people among whom they had strayed. None of the Bechuanas appeared to have the slightest wish to go away from the place they had chosen for a permanent home. To them it afforded tranquillity, and that was all that could be said of it, for it afforded little besides. That was all they required. Not one of them seemed afflicted with ordinary human desires. They had no ambition, no curiosity, no love of wealth,—none of those wants that render wretched the lives of civilised people.

A place less suited for the abode of men could scarce have been found, or even imagined. The soil was sterile, unproductive, and rarely visited by game worthy of being hunted. The few roots and other articles of food they were enabled to raise, furnished but a precarious subsistence.

So limited was their supply of ordinary utensils, that even the most trifling article was in their eyes valuable, and anything given them by their guests was received with a gratitude scarce conceivable. They had discovered the art of living in peace and happiness, and were making the most of the discovery.

From what they were told by the villagers, our travellers could not expect to get out of the karroo in less than two days, and no water could be obtained along the route. But, as their cattle were now well rested, they were not so apprehensive, and after a friendly leave-taking with the Bechuanas, they once more continued their journey.

The trouble they had given to their simple hosts was remunerated without much cost. A glass bottle that had once contained “Cape Smoke,” was thought by the latter to be of greater value than a gun; and, taking their circumstances into account, they were perhaps not far astray in their estimate.