Chapter 53 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

A Weary Watch.

Throwing himself out of his saddle, Willem seized the fallen creature, and hindered it from rising, by keeping its head close pressed against the ground. This was easily done, for the long slender neck of the animal, without much muscular strength, gave him a good chance of holding it down. The weight of the huge hunter’s body was sufficient for that, without any exertion of his strength.

Meanwhile the old ones continued their flight, while Willem’s horse, relieved of his load, proceeded to refresh himself by browsing upon the dry herbage that grew near. Willem had obtained what he wanted, a young giraffe. It was actually in his possession. He was holding it under perfect control, and yet it appeared to him that he was as far as ever from the realisation of his hopes! Now that he had got the giraffe, all that he could do was to keep it on the spot where it had fallen. The instant its head might be released from his hold it would spring to its feet again and escape in spite of all his efforts to retain it.

He could not allow it to go thus. He had hoped too wildly, travelled too far, and waited too long, for that. The fear that he would still have to surrender his prize or destroy it, was to him a painful thought, and it was only relieved by the hope that in time he might be joined by his companions. They might discover the spoor of his horse, and come to him. In that case there would be no difficulty. The giraffe could then be secured with rheims and become their travelling companion for the rest of the journey to Graaf Reinet. About their coming there was much uncertainty,—at least, their coming in time. They would wait for his return perhaps, until the next morning, before starting out in search of him.

Before their arrival, the young giraffe would kill itself with the violent exertions it still continued to make. It was kicking and struggling as if it wanted to leap out of its skin. Such terrible throes could not fail to injure it. Willem was himself suffering from thirst. A long afternoon was before him. It would be followed by a long night,—one in which the lion, that prowling tyrant of the African plains, would be seeking his supper.

Would the hunter be allowed to retain possession of his prize? His steed, the faithful creature that had carried him through so many perils, was wandering away from his sight. The horse, too, might stray beyond the chance of being found again. He might be devoured by wild beasts. The horse could still be recovered. Would it not be better to abandon the giraffe and endeavour to get back to his companions? By remaining where he was, he might lose all three,—his horse, his prize, and his own life. What was best to be done? The young hunter was never more perplexed in his life. He was in an agony of doubt and uncertainty. Streams of perspiration were pouring down his cheeks, and his throat felt as if on fire. Slowly he saw the horse strolling away, until he was almost beyond the reach of his vision, and yet could not bring himself to a determination as to what should be done. He had travelled fifteen hundred miles to capture two such creatures as the one now underneath him. He had seized upon one, and, if his companions had done their duty, they might have taken another. This thought counselled him to hold on to the captured giraffe; and he saw the horse disappear over a swell of the plain, just as the sun sunk down below the horizon.

For a long time, the giraffe struggled wildly to release itself. Then it remained quiet for a while, not as if it had given up the intention to escape, but as if reflecting on some plan to free itself. Again it would recommence its struggles, and again rest awhile, as though gathering strength for a fresh effort. Gradually it grew resigned to its position, and seemed to breath more tranquilly, while its exertions were less frequent and more feeble. It had learnt that it could remain in the presence of man without meeting death. It had become familiar with his company, and conscious of its own inability to part from it, while man opposed its efforts.

Night came down and found Willem still seated by the side of the giraffe, with his arms around its neck. He had the satisfaction of thinking that his companions would now be uneasy at his absence. He felt sure that within a few hours Congo and Spoor’em would be upon his track, with the others following; and, when all should arrive, the young giraffe would be secured. The prospect of such a termination to his adventure did much to make him disregard the agony he was enduring. He soon discovered he was not to be left alone in his vigil; nor was his right to the prize to be left undisputed.

His first visitors were hyenas; but their laughter—apparently put forth at seeing him in his ludicrous position—did not induce him to abandon it; and the fierce brutes circled around him, smiling and showing their teeth to no purpose. They were too cowardly to attempt an attack; and their efforts to frighten him were more amusing than otherwise.

Soon after sunset the night became very dark,—so dark that although the hyenas approached within a few paces, nothing could be seen of them except their shining eyes. It was just such a night as lions select for going in search of prey,—so dark that the king of beasts can move about unseen, and, while thus protected by invisibility, will pounce upon a man with as much confidence as he will upon a springbok.

As Willem was trying to while away the time by hopeful thoughts, the air was shaken around him, by a voice which he knew to be the roar of the lion. One was abroad seeking blood.

The clouds that had been for some time rolling up from the south-west became blacker at the instant, and seemed separated by streams of fire, while the low murmurings of distant thunder could be heard far-off in the sky. They were signs that could not be mistaken. A tropical storm was approaching.

The voice of the lion told that he was doing the same. Every moment it could be heard, nearer, and more intensely terrifying.

Which of them would come first,—the storm or the beast of prey? It seemed a question between them. Already heavy rain-drops were plashing around him. Thirsting as he was, this would have been a welcome sound, but for that other that proceeded from the throat of the lion.

The hunter’s familiarity with the habits of the great cat gave him a good idea of how he might expect the latter to approach him. There would be a simultaneous bound and roar, followed by the mangling of a body and the crunching of bones, which he could hardly doubt would be his own.

Willem was not often tortured with fear, though at that moment he was not free from apprehension. Still, he awaited the event with calmness.

Most people, when frightened, feel an irresistible desire to make a sudden departure from the place where they have been seized with the malady; but this was not the case with Groot Willem. He had the sense to know that by making a move he might run into the jaws of the very danger he wished to avoid; for the roar of the lion gives no guide to the direction the animal may be in. Besides, he was not yet so badly scared as to think of abandoning the prize he had taken such trouble to retain.

The rain now came down, and for some time continued to fall in torrents. Brief periods of darkness were followed by gleams of electric light, dazzling in its brilliancy.

In a few minutes the fiercest of the storm appeared to be over, and then, as a wind-up to it, there came a long continued blaze of lightning, more brilliant than ever, and a peal of thunder louder than any that had preceded it.

By that flash Willem was nearly blinded. The electric shock seemed to strike every nerve in his body, and, had he been standing erect, he certainly would have fallen to the ground. The instant after, so intensely black was all around that he might well have thought for a moment or two that the flash had destroyed his power of vision; but there was another thought on his mind more terrible than this.

When the heavens and earth were illumed by that flash, he had obtained a momentary glimpse of an object that drove from his mind every thought but that of immediate death. There was a lion within ten feet of him, just crouching for a spring! Willem would have rushed out of the way, and, abandoning the giraffe, have fled far from the spot. This was his first instinct, but unfortunately he was unable to yield to it. Prostrated, body and soul, by the electric fluid, that had struck the earth within a few feet of him, for a time he was unable to stir.

The first distinct thought that came into his mind was astonishment at finding the minute after that the claws of the lion were not buried in his flesh! The blow that had stunned him was not from the paw of the lion, but the lightning. It had saved his life, as the king of beasts, scorched and terrified by the shock, had retreated on the same instant.

The storm soon passed over, and a small patch of clear sky appeared opening up on the western horizon. It was soon after occupied by the disk of a silvery moon, under whose soft light Willem continued his vigil, without further molestation from either lion or hyenas.

The giraffe was still alive and lying quietly upon the ground; but, from its long and laboured respiration, Willem began to fear that it might die before he would have the chance to release it from the irksome attitude in which he felt bound to retain it.