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Chapter 51 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

Another Delay

Next morning, the hunters were early in the saddle, and off for the karroo. For some distance, they rode along the bank of the stream which was fringed by a growth of willow-trees. This course was taken to get to windward of the ostriches, in the hope of having a shot at them as they ran up the wind. Had their object been to stalk any other species of animal, they would have advanced upon it from the leeward.

Before they had gone a great way over the karroo, five huge bipeds were seen about a mile away. They were ostriches. They were apparently coming towards them with great speed, and the four hunters extended their line to cut off an advance which the stupid bird mistakes for a retreat. They were moving in long rapid strides; and, as they drew nearer, the hunters saw that, to obtain a good shot, they must gallop farther to the north. The birds were going in a curved line that would carry them away from the place where the hunters expected to have met them. To get within sure range, these saw that they would have a sharp ride for it, and their horses were instantly put to their full speed.

Though the ostriches appeared to be running in a straight line from the place where they had started, such was not the case. They were curving around just sufficiently to avoid the hunters, and yet get to the windward of them. Their pace being much faster than that of the horses, they succeeded in crossing the course pursued by the latter, about three hundred yards in advance of them.

Willem and Hendrik hardly taking time to pull up, dismounted and fired. But not with the desired result. The ostriches were at too great a distance, and ran on untouched. Knowing that a stern chase after them would prove a failure, the hunters came to a stop.

Several other ostriches were afterwards seen; but, as on the open karroo, it was found impossible to approach them; and our adventurers were compelled to return to their camp without taking back a single feather. Their want of success was a source of great gratification to Swartboy. He could kill ostriches afoot, while four white men, although well-armed and mounted on fast horses, had failed to do so. The Bushman could not avoid making an exhibition of his conceit, and he proceeded to inform his masters that if they were very anxious to obtain ostrich-feathers, he could easily put them in the way. As none of the hunters were inclined to put Swartboy’s abilities for ostrich-hunting to a further test they acknowledged their defeat and resumed the interrupted journey.

After leaving the karroo, the hunters entered into a very beautiful and fertile country possessed by small tribes of peaceful Bechuanas, who had long been allowed to remain undisturbed by their warlike neighbours, for the reason that they lived at a great distance from any hostile tribe. It was a country Willem was reluctant to pass rapidly through; for, after leaving it behind, he knew there would be very little hope of again seeing giraffes.

Along the way, little groves of the cameel-doorn were occasionally seen; but, for all this, no camelopards.

At a village, passed by them on the route, they were informed that giraffes sometimes visited the neighbourhood, and that there was no time of the year, but that, with a little trouble, some of these animals might be found within a day’s distance.

This information, Hendrik, Arend, and Hans heard rather with regret: they knew that it was likely to cause another impediment to their homeward journey.

In this they were not deceived. Willem stoutly declared that he would proceed no further for the present; at the same time, telling the others that, if they were impatient to reach Graaf Reinet, they might go on without him.

This, all three would willingly have done, had they dared. But they knew that, on reaching home, they would be unable to give any satisfactory explanation for deserting their companion. People would inquire why they had not remained to assist the great hunter in his praiseworthy enterprise. What answer could they give?

There was both honour and profit to be derived by delivering two young giraffes to the Dutch consul, and they would not have been unwilling to share in both, if the thing could have been conveniently accomplished. For all that, they would have preferred returning home without further delay, but for the determination of Willem to remain.

The four Makololo were also a little chafed at the delay. They were anxious to see something of the wonders of civilisation, but their impatience was not openly expressed. Before setting out, they had been instructed by Macora in all things to be guided by Willem; and they had no intention of disobeying.

Congo was the only one who was wholly indifferent to the future. His home was with Groot Willem, and he seemed to have no more concern or remembrance for Graaf Reinet than his dog Spoor’em.

Choosing a convenient place for their encampment within a few miles of the Bechuana village, the youths resolved to stop for a while, and make a final effort at capturing the camelopards. Should they succeed in finding these animals, yet fail in taking any of them alive, Groot Willem promised that he would make no further opposition to returning home.

As all knew that the promise would be faithfully kept, they consented to stay for a few days without showing any signs of reluctance.

Crossing the country with a general course to the south-west, ran a stream, along which was a belt of timber, or rather a series of disconnected copses. The trees were mostly mimosas. In every copse could be seen some trees with torn branches, and twigs cut off, an evidence that they had been browsed upon by the camelopards; while the spoor of these animals appeared in many places along the edge of the stream.

As the damage done to the mimosas, and the tracks in the mud, showed signs of having been recently made, our hunters came to the conclusion that giraffes could not be far off.

“Something whispers me,” said Willem, “that we shall succeed at last. I left home with the intention of never returning without two young giraffes; and I have not yet relinquished the hope of seeing Graaf Reinet again. We will make no more pits; but let me once more set my eyes on a giraffe and, mark me, it is mine, if I have to run it down and capture it with my own hands.”

“That is not possible,” remarked Hendrik. “True, you might catch a wild elephant; but what would you do with it? or, rather, what would it do with you?”

“That question I shall take into serious consideration after I’ve caught my giraffe,” answered Willem. “I can only say now, that, if I meet with one, I’m not going to part with it alive,—not if I have to exchange my horse for it.”

Three days were passed in riding about the country; and, during that time, the hunters saw not a single giraffe. In this respect, they were more unfortunate than Swartboy and the Makololo, who remained at the camp. On the evening of the third day which the hunters had spent in beating some groves up the river, Swartboy reported, on their return, that two giraffes had passed within sight of the camp. He described them as an aged couple that had, no doubt, been often hunted. To these ancient inhabitants of the mimosa forest, the Bushman ascribed the spoor and other signs of giraffes that had been seen. He had compared the tracks of the animals that trotted past the camp, with those on the banks of the stream, and he pronounced both to have been made by the same feet.

Swartboy further informed his young masters that he could have captured the two animals he had seen, but did not, because they were old, and not worth the trouble.

If Hendrik, Arend, and Hans were inclined to place but little reliance on this boast of the Bushman, they gave to the rest of his story more than a fair share of credence. To them it was positive evidence that any longer stay in the neighbourhood would be simply a waste of time.

Willem saw that they were once more inclined on defeating his plans, but it only strengthened him in the resolution to continue a little longer in the place.

Each of the four had a cherished project he was anxious to see fulfilled. Willem’s wish was to obtain two young giraffes; and his three companions found that there was no chance of his relinquishing his design,—at least, not for many days.

Two more were passed upon the spot, and then our young adventurers, who, although young in years, were old in friendship, came very near parting company. At this crisis, a spectacle was presented to their eyes that had the happy effect of once more uniting them for a common purpose.

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