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Chapter 55 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

A Reverse of Fortune

Having given their captive the desired rest, during which it had displayed its good sense by remaining most of the time in quiet, the hunters prepared to drive it to their camp.

Mounted on their horses, Arend and Hans each took the end of a rheim, which was fastened midway to its neck. They intended to ride a little in advance of the captive, keeping also some distance apart from each other. This would hinder it from turning either to the right or left. Hendrik was to come on behind and urge the creature forward, should it show a disposition to try the strength of its neck by hanging back upon the rheims.

This plan worked extremely well. The young captive was compelled to follow the two horsemen in an undeviating line; and every attempt made to remain stationary or go backwards was rewarded by a blow from Hendrik’s jambok. Then the strain on the ropes would instantly be relieved by the animal springing forward. In this manner the creature was conducted along without the slightest trouble; and near the middle of the afternoon, they reached the place from whence they had started out on the hunt.

On the ground they discovered their pack-saddles, cooking utensils, and other impedimenta, but nothing was seen of Congo, Swartboy, the four Makololo, or the cattle! All were away! Moreover, they had hopes of meeting Groot Willem on their return, and were anticipating great pleasure from the encounter. They knew how rejoiced he would be at their success. But where were the camp followers? Where were Swartboy and Congo?

There was a mystery in their absence that none of the three hunters could solve.

Why had the property been left exposed by those placed in charge of it? Could the Makololo have robbed them of their cattle? Had Congo and Swartboy proved traitors? This was very improbable. But why were they not there?

For some time our adventurers could do nothing but wait, in the hope that time would explain all, and bring the absentees back.

Not an ox, horse, or dog was to be seen. The bundles of ivory, enveloped in grass matting, were lying where they had been left in the morning. If a robbery had been committed, why was this valuable property left untouched?

As no one could make answer, the solution had to be left to time.

Evening came on, and the three hunters were still distracted by conflicting hopes, fears, and doubts. The prolonged absence of Willem now began to cause them a serious apprehension. It was time something should be done towards finding him; but what were they to do? Where should they seek? They knew not; still, they should go somewhere.

As night approached, leaving Hans to take care of the young giraffe, Arend and Hendrik started off in the direction in which Willem had last been seen.

The twilight was fast disappearing before they had proceeded a mile from the camp, but under its dim light they perceived Congo and Swartboy coming towards them. They were only accompanied by the dogs.

The two hunters hastened forward, and soon came up with them. Hendrik commenced hastily questioning the Bushman, while Arend did the same to the Kaffir, in the endeavour to get some information of what had so much mystified them.

The questions “Where is Willem?” “Where are the cattle?” “Why did you leave the camp?” “Where are the Makololo?” were asked in rapid succession, and to all they received but one answer,—the word “Yaas.”

“Will you not tell me, you yellow demon?” shouted Hendrik, impatient at not getting the answer he wished.

“Yaas, baas Hendrik,” answered Swartboy; “what you want to know first?”

“Where is Willem?”

This was a question that, in the Bushman’s way of thinking, required some consideration before he could venture on a reply; but while he was hesitating, Congo answered, “We don’t know.”

“Ha, ha! Congo is a fool,” exclaimed Swartboy. “We saw baas Willem going away this morning with the ress of you, after the tootlas.”

It was not until the youths were driven nearly wild with impatience that they succeeded in learning what they wished. Willem had not returned, and the two Africans knew less about the cause of his absence than they did themselves. During the day, the cattle, in feeding, had strayed to some distance over the plain. The four Makololo had gone after them, and had not returned. Swartboy and Congo admitted that they had slept awhile in the afternoon, and only on awaking had discovered that the cattle and Makololo were missing. They had then started out in search of both. They had found the ambassadors of Macora in great trouble. A party of Bechuanas had chanced upon them, and taken from them the whole of the cattle!

The Makololo were in great distress about the affair, and, fearing they would be blamed for the loss of the cattle, were afraid to return to the camp of the hunters. They were then halted about two miles down the river, and were talking of going back to their home, quite certain that the white hunters would have nothing more to do with them.

The folly of having left their property unprotected, when in the neighbourhood of African tribes whose honesty could not be relied on, now, for the first time, occurred to our adventurers.

The Bechuanas, who will steal from each other, or from the people of any nation, in all probability would not have taken the cattle, had one of the whites been present to claim ownership in them.

The Bechuana robbers had found them in the possession of only four strange men, Africans, who belonged far north, and had no right to be within Bechuana territory. The opportunity was too good to be lost, and, so tempted, they had driven the animals away.

There could be no help for what had happened,—at all events, not for the present. To discover the whereabouts of Willem was the care that was most pressing, and they one more proceeded in search of him.

As the night had now come on they could have done nothing of themselves, but the presence of Congo, accompanied by his hound Spoor’em, inspired them with fresh hope, and they proceeded onward.

After a time it became so dark that Arend proposed a halt until morning. To this Hendrik objected, Congo taking sides with him.

“Do you remember the night you were under the baobab-tree, dodging the borelé?” asked Hendrik.

“Say no more,” answered Arend. “If you wish it I am willing to go on.”

Swartboy was sent back to the camp to join Hans, while the Kaffir and Spoor’em led the way. Under the direction of Hendrik they soon came to the place where Willem had been last seen. There were no signs of him anywhere.

The joy with which they had returned to their camp had now departed. Something unusual had happened to their companion,—something disastrous. Their cattle and pack-horses were lost, driven away they knew not whither, by a tribe that might be able to retain them, even should they be found.

Under these circumstances what cared they any longer for the captured giraffe.

Such were the reveries of Hendrik and Arend as they followed their Kaffir guide through the gloom of the night.

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