Chapter 58 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

The Lost are found.

After breakfast had been eaten, it was proposed to start off in search of the stolen property; and Groot Willem, not without reluctance, was prevailed upon to accompany the others. He was loath to part even for a few hours from the captives he prized so highly. His wildest dreams had been realised. Two young giraffes had been taken and were gradually getting tamed. He could caress them. They could be conducted with but little trouble to the colony of Graaf Reinet,—thence delivered to the Dutch consul, and both money and fame would be the reward.

Since returning to the camp and seeing the second giraffe, his companions had heard no more boasting about his own prowess, nor reproaches for their negligence. But now came the question of the ivory and other articles still lying in the camp. With such a large quantity of valuable property to transport to the settlements, the pack-horses and cattle were worth making an effort to recover; so, leaving Hans with Swartboy and two of the Makololo to guard the camp, the others started off with the intention to seek and, if possible, find them.

Believing that the tribe of Bechuanas that had taken them would be found living somewhere near a stream of water, they resolved to first proceed down the river on which they had their camp; and in this direction they set off.

For the first five miles nothing could be seen of the spoor of either horses or cattle. But the ground was hard and dry, and, even if cattle had been driven over it, it would have been impossible to take up their spoor. It had rained heavily, and that would do something to obliterate any tracks that might have been made. Soon they came to a place where the river-bank was low and marshy, and this they examined with care. They saw the hoof-marks of many animals that had quenched their thirst at the stream, all plainly impressed upon the soft earth. To their joy they perceived amongst them the tracks of horses and cattle, and easily recognised them as those of the animals they had lost. Beyond doubt they had been driven over the river at that point. Pleased at such a good beginning, they continued on, more hopefully. They were now sure that they had come in the right direction. The spoor still led down the bunks of the stream. Three or four miles farther on, they came within sight of a kraal, containing about forty huts. As they drew near, several men ran forward to meet them, and instantly demanded their business.

Swartboy informed them that they were looking after some stolen horses and cattle.

A tall, naked man, carrying a huge parasol of ostrich-feathers, acted as spokesman for the villagers. In reply to Swartboy, he stated that he knew what cattle were; that he had often seen such animals, but not lately. He had never seen any horses and knew not what sort of animals they were. As it chanced, the rain that had fallen upon the preceding night had so softened the ground that all footmarks made since could be distinguished without the slightest difficulty. It was evident the man with the parasol had not thought of this; for our adventurers at once saw that he was telling them a story. They had proofs that he was, by the sight of several horse-tracks with which the ground was indented around the spot where they had halted. They were so fresh as to show that horses must have been there but an hour ago; and it was not likely they could have been on that ground without being seen by the villagers and their chief.

Without saying another word to the natives, our party preceded on to the kraal. As they drew near, the first thing that fixed their attention was the skin of an ox freshly taken from the carcass, and hanging upon one of the huts. Swartboy, who was an acute observer, at once pronounced the hide to have belonged to one of the oxen he had lately assisted in driving; and the two Makololo were of the same opinion. They pointed out to the white hunters the marks of their own pack-saddle. None of the villagers who stood around could give any explanation of the presence of the hide. None of them had ever seen it before; and the features of all were painfully distorted into expressions of astonishment when it was shown them.

Passing out from the kraal the white hunters rode off over a plain that stretched northward. They did so because they saw something there that looked like a herd; and they conjectured it might turn out to belong to themselves. They were not astray. The herd consisted entirely of their own stolen animals. They were guarded only by some women and children, who fled wildly screaming at the approach of the white party.

Riding up to the cattle, Groot Willem and Hendrik galloped on after the frightened women, who, by the efforts they were making to escape, plainly showed that they expected nothing short of being killed if overtaken.

Too glad at recovering their property, the hunters had not the slightest desire to molest the helpless women, and yet, without intending it, they caused the death of one.

As they galloped after the affrighted crowd, one of the women was seen to lag a little behind, and then fall suddenly to the earth. The two horsemen pulled up, and then turned in the direction of the woman who had fallen. On getting near, they noticed that dim, glassy appearance of the eyes that denotes death.

Hendrik dismounted, and placed his hand over her heart. It had ceased to beat. There was no respiration. The woman was dead: she had been frightened to death.

By her side was a child not more than a few months old. And yet it gazed upon Hendrik with eyes flashing defiance. Its animal instinct had not been subdued by the fear of man, and its whole appearance gave evidence of the truth of an assertion often made, that an African child, like a lion’s cub, is born with its mental faculties wonderfully developed.

By this time the other women had gone far out of reach, and none of them could be recalled. Hendrik was not inclined to leave the child by the side of its dead mother. Undecided what to do, he appealed to Willem, who, by this, had come up.

“We have frightened the soul out of this woman,” said he, as the great hunter drew near. “She has left a child behind her. What shall we do with it? It won’t do to leave the poor thing here.”

“This is unfortunate, certainly,” said Willem; as he gazed at the dead body. “The blacks will think that we killed the woman, and will ever after have an opinion of white men they should not have. We must take the child to the kraal, and give it up to them. We can tell them that the woman died of her own folly, which is only the truth. Hand the piccaninny to me.”

As Hendrik attempted to obey this request, the child by loud screams protested against being taken away from its mother. Its resistance was not alone confined to cries. Like a young tiger, it scratched and bit at the hands that held it; thus exhibiting a strange contrast to the conduct of its adult kindred, the Bechuanas, who have an instinctive fear of white men as well as a distaste for hostilities in any way.

Holding the young black under one arm, Willem galloped after the cattle, that, with the aid of the others, in less than an hour, were driven up to the kraal. The only one missing was the ox whose hide had been seen upon the hut. The child was delivered over to the chief. Swartboy explained to him the circumstances under which it had been found; and at Willem’s request advised the Bechuanas never again to molest the property of other people. To the surprise of our adventurers, not only the chief but several of his elders loudly declared that they knew nothing whatever of the cattle, or the women found in charge of them; but, while they were thus talking, the two Makololo pointed out the men who were loudest in declaring their ignorance, as the very ones who had driven the animals away!

To escape from the discordant clamour of their tongues, the hunters turned hastily away, taking their cattle along with them.

Hendrik and Arend felt some inclination to punish the blacks for their treachery, as well as the loss of time and the trouble they had occasioned. This, however, was forbidden by the great-hearted Willem, who could no more blame the natives for what they had done than the bird that picks up a worm upon its path.

“These poor creatures,” said he, “know no better. They have never been taught the precepts of religion; and to them right and wrong are almost the same thing. Leave them to learn a lesson from our mercy.”