Chapter 60 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

A Sudden Reverse of Fortune.

On the third morning after leaving the Bushmen’s kraal, our adventurers were awakened by the loud cries of a troop of black monkeys that appeared in a neighbouring grove.

Something was giving them trouble. This could be told by the cries, which were evidently those of distress.

As breakfast was being prepared, and the cattle laden for a start, Willem and Hendrik strolled towards the grove from whence the cries came. They were now more frightful than ever, and translated from the monkey language seemed to say “Murder!”

In a tree where there were between fifteen and twenty of those quadrumana, each about the size of an ordinary cat, was seen a young leopard, trying to capture a black monkey for his breakfast. To avoid this enemy, the apes had crawled out on the small slender branches, where the leopard dared not follow them, knowing that his weight would precipitate him to the ground.

For some time our adventurers amused themselves by watching the abortive efforts of the leopard to procure the means of breaking its fast. He would pursue a monkey along the limb until the branch became too small to be trusted any farther.

He would get within two or three feet of the screaming ape, and then stretch out one of his paws, while displaying his white teeth in a smile, as though desirous of shaking hands with the creature he was intending to destroy.

Finding his efforts to reach that particular monkey useless, he would then leave it, to go through the same game with another.

One of the apes was at length chased out upon a large dead limb that extended horizontally from the trunk. The top had been broken off, and there being no slender twigs on which the monkey could take refuge, there was nothing to prevent the leopard from following it to the extremity of the branch and seizing it at leisure. There was no other branch to which the monkey could spring; and it was fairly in a dilemma. On perceiving this, it turned to the hunters who stood below, and gazed at them with an expression that seemed to say, “Save me! save me!”

The leopard was so intent on obtaining his breakfast that he did not notice the arrival of the two hunters until they were within twenty yards of the tree, and until he was close pursuing the monkey along the dead limb.

At this point, however, he paused. He had caught sight of “the human face divine,” and instinct told him that danger was near. He gazed upon the intruders with flaming eyes, as if very little would induce him to change the nature of his intended repast.

“Reserve your fire, Hendrik!” exclaimed Willem as he brought the roer to his shoulder; “it may be needed.”

The leopard answered the report of the gun by making a somersault to the earth. There was no necessity for Hendrik to waste any ammunition upon him. He had fallen in the agonies of death; and, without even waiting for his last kick, Willem took hold of one of his hind legs and commenced dragging the carcass towards the camp.

The camp was not far-away, and they soon came within sight of it. To their surprise they saw that it was in a state of commotion. The horses and cattle were running in all directions, and so too were the men!

What could it mean?

The answer was obtained by their seeing a huge dark form standing in the middle of the camp. They recognised it as the body of a black rhinoceros, one of the largest kind. The fierce brute had taken his stand in the middle of the camping-ground, and seemed undecided as to which of the fugitives he should follow. His ill-humour had arisen from the circumstance that, on seeking the place where he was in the habit of quenching his thirst, he had found it occupied by strange intruders.

A black rhinoceros would not hesitate to charge upon a whole regiment of cavalry; and the manner in which the one in question had introduced himself to the camp was so impetuous as to cause a precipitate retreat both of man and beast,—in short, everything that was free to get off. One of the young giraffes had been too strongly secured to effect its escape. It was struggling on the ground, and by its side was an ox that the borelé had capsized in his first impetuous onset. The second of the giraffes was fleeing over the plain, and had already gone farther from the camp than any of the other animals. It seemed not only inspired by fear, but a renewed love of liberty.

The borelé soon selected an object for his pursuit, which was one of the pack-horses, and then charged right after him.

Meanwhile Willem and Hendrik hastened on to the camp, where they were joined by two of the Makololo. All the others had gone off after the cattle and horses. The giraffe, in its efforts to escape, had thrown itself upon the ground, and was fastened in such a way that it was in danger of being strangled in the rheims around its neck. As though to insure its death, the ox that had been gored by the borelé became entangled in the same fastenings, and tightened them by his violent struggles.

The first care of the returned hunters was to release the young giraffe. This could have been done immediately by setting it free from its fastenings; but then there was the danger of its following the example of its companion, and taking advantage of the liberty thus given to it.

As the ox, whose struggles were nearly breaking its neck, had been gored by the borelé and severely wounded, he saw it would be no use letting him live any longer, and without more ado he received his quietus from Hendrik’s rifle. The giraffe was now released, and restored to its proper fastenings. By this time the others had caught up with most of the horses and cattle.

None of them, except the one selected for especial pursuit by the borelé, had gone far, but, turning when out of danger, were easily caught. This was not the case with the camelopard that had got loose and fled among the foremost. Its flight had been continued until it was no longer seen!

It had entered the grove from which Willem and Hendrik had just come, and there were ten chances to one against their ever seeing it again.

Had Willem been on horseback at the time it ran off from the camp, he would have stood a chance of recapturing it, but, as it had now twenty minutes of start, the chances were very slight indeed. Not a moment was to be lost, however, before making the attempt, and, accompanied by Hendrik, Congo, and the dog Spoor’em, Willem started off for the forest, leaving the others to continue the task of collecting the animals still scattered over the plain.

But one brief hour before, Willem Van Wyk was the happiest hunter in existence, and now he was about the most miserable. One of the two captives, for which he had suffered so many hardships, had escaped, and in all probability would never be again seen by the eyes of a white man. The realisation of his fondest hopes was delayed for a time,—perhaps forever.

One camelopard was of but little value to him. He must have two; and fortune might never assist them in obtaining another. He was not sure of being able to keep the one that still remained. Death might take it out of their hands. It had been injured in the struggle; and, before leaving camp he had noticed that the efforts of the Makololo to get it to its feet had not succeeded. His great undertaking—the chief purpose of the expedition—was as far as ever from being accomplished.

Such were the thoughts that tortured him, as he urged Congo and the dog to greater haste, in following the spoor through the forest.