Chapter 56 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

The Search for Willem.

To all appearance, Congo had some secret method of communicating to the dog Spoor’em what was required of him. The animal ran to the right and left, keeping a little in the advance, and with its muzzle close down to the surface, as if searching for a spoor. Most of the time it was out of sight, hidden by the darkness, but every now and then it would flit like a shadow across their track, and they could hear an occasional sniff as it lifted the scent from the ground.

They had not proceeded more than half a mile in this manner when Spoor’em expressed a more decided opinion of something that interested him, by giving utterance to a short, sharp bark.

“He’s found the spoor,” exclaimed Congo, hastening forward. “I told um do that, and I knowed he would.”

They were all soon up with the dog, which kept moving forward at a slow trot, occasionally lowering its snout to the grass, as though to make sure against going astray. Unlike most other hounds, Spoor’em would follow a track without rushing forward on the scent, and leaving the hunters behind.

Arend and Hendrik knew this, though still uncertain about being on the traces of Groot Willem.

The night was so dark they could not distinguish footmarks, and they had not the slightest evidence of their own for believing that they were on the tracks of Willem’s horse.

“How do you know that we are going right, Cong?” asked Hendrik.

“We follow Spoor’em; he know it,” answered the Kaffir. “He find anything that go over the grass.”

“But can you be sure that he is following the spoor of Willem’s horse?”

“Yaas, Master Hendrik, very sure of it. Spoor’em is no fool. He knows well what we want.”

With blind confidence in the sagacity both of the Kaffir and his dog, the two hunters rode on at a gentle trot, taking more than an hour to travel the same distance that Willem had gone over in a few minutes.

There was a prospect that the trail they were following might conduct them back to the camp, and that there would be found the man they were in search of. Willem would be certain not to return over the same ground where he had pursued the giraffes, and they might be spending the night upon his tracks, while he was waiting for them at the camp.

This thought suggested a return.

Another consideration might have counselled them to it. A thunder-storm was threatening, and the difficulties of their search would be greatly increased.

But all inclinations to go back were subdued by the reflection that possibly Willem might be in danger, and in need of their assistance, and with this thought they determined to go on.

The dog was now urged forward at a greater speed. The storm was rapidly approaching; and they knew that, after the ground had been saturated by a fall of rain, the scent would be less easily taken up, and their tracking might be brought to an end.

The elements soon after opened upon them, but still they kept on in the midst of the pelting rain, consoling themselves for what was disagreeable, by the reflection that they were performing their duty to their lost friend.

It was not until the thunder-shower had passed over, that Spoor’em began to show some doubt as to the course he was pursuing. The heavy rain had not only destroyed the scent but the traces of the footmarks, and the dog was no longer able to make them out. For the last half hour, they had been moving through an atmosphere dark as Erebus itself. They had been unable to see each other, except when the universe seemed illumed by the flashes of lightning.

The night had now become clear. The moon had made her appearance in the western sky; and the search might have been continued with less difficulty than before, but for the obliteration of the spoor. The dog seemed bewildered, and ran about in short broken circles, as though quite frantic at the thought of having lost the use of the most important of his senses.

“We shall have to return at last,” said Hendrik, despairingly. “We can do nothing more to-night.”

They were about to act according to this advice, when the loud roar of a lion was heard some half mile off, and in the direction from which they had just ridden. In going back that way they might encounter the fierce creature.

“I have kept the lock of my rifle as dry as possible,” said Arend, “but it may not be safe to trust it. I think I shall reload.”

Drawing the rifle out of the piece of leopard skin with which the lock had been covered, Arend pointed the muzzle upwards and pulled trigger. The gun went off.

As the report fainted away in the distance, the far-off sound of a human voice could be heard as if shouted back in answer to the shot. What they heard was the word “Hilloo.”

They hastened in the direction from whence the sound seemed to proceed. Even the dog appeared suddenly relieved from its perplexity, and led the way. In less than ten minutes they were standing around Willem, delighted at finding him in safety, and in the possession of a live giraffe.

“How long have you been here?” asked Hendrik, after the first moments of their joyful greeting had passed.

“Ever since noon,” was Willem’s reply.

“And how much longer would you have stayed, had we not found you?”

“Until either this giraffe or I should have died,” answered Willem. “I should not have abandoned it before.”

“But supposing you had died first, how would it have been then?” asked Arend.

“No doubt,” replied Willem, “something would very soon have taken me away. But why don’t you take my place here, one of you? I must stretch my legs, or I shall never be able to stand upright again.”

Hendrik placed his hands on the head of the giraffe, and Willem with some difficulty arose, and, after walking around the prostrate animal, declared that he had never been happy until that moment.

It was decided that they should not attempt to stir from the place until morning; and the rest of the night, with the exception of an hour or two devoted to sleep, was passed in asking questions and giving explanations. Willem was a little woeful about the loss of his riding-horse, and also on learning of the robbery of the cattle; but these misfortunes could not entirely counteract the joy he felt at having taken the young giraffe.

“This creature is quite tame now,” said he; “and if I cannot find my horse again, I shall ride it to Graaf Reinet. Before I do that, however, I shall use it in catching another. I must and shall have two, and we can easily find another chance. You and Hans ought to be ashamed of yourselves. The three of you have not done so well as I. You have allowed two or more young giraffes to escape, while I, single-handed, captured all the young that were in the herd I followed.”

Arend and Hendrik glanced significantly at one another while Congo stared at both of them. A shake of the head given by Hendrik was understood by the two who were in the secret, for Congo had been told of the capture of the second giraffe, and of course not a word was said to Willem of that affair. His companions preferred giving him a surprise.