Chapter 64 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

“Strayed or Stolen.”

It was not until ten o’clock next morning that Hans awoke and then aroused his companions.

“We should be ashamed of ourselves,” exclaimed Willem, as he hastily commenced making his toilet. “We have swallowed too much smoke and overslept ourselves!”

“No,” answered Hans, who was always anxious to prove himself the philosopher of the company. “We should rather feel pride in the circumstance that the small quantity we drank has produced so great an effect. It is proof that we have not been in the habit of indulging in the use of ardent spirits, and that pride we should ever strive to maintain.”

The travellers were soon in the presence of their host and hostess, whom they found waiting to do the honours of a well-appointed breakfast, to which each of the hunters except Willem sat down. Willem could not be contented to eat, until he had looked to the property in which he professed to have a much greater interest than his companions, and he would not sit down to the breakfast-table till he had paid a visit to his darling giraffes.

Walking out of the house he went toward the sheds where the cattle and native servants had been housed for the night. On entering the hut where he had left his black companion the evening before, he had before him a melancholy evidence of the evils of intemperance. The four Makololo were rolling about upon the floor, moaning heavily, as though in the last agonies of death.

Swartboy and Congo, more accustomed to the effects of strong drink, only showed by their heavy breathing that they were endeavouring to recover from their night’s debauch by indulging in a sound slumber.

They were quickly roused to consciousness by Willem, who used the toe of his boot for the purpose; though even this rude appliance had no effect on any of the four Makololo.

The Kaffir sprang to his feet, and, as though trying to carry his head in his hands, reeled out of the room. He was followed by his master, who saw that all efforts at inducing the Makololo to resume their journey would be for several hours unavailable.

On moving around to the shed where the two giraffes had been tied, Willem was somewhat alarmed by an indescribable expression seen on the features of Congo.

The eyes seemed as if about to start from the Kaffir’s head!

The distance between his chin and nose had alarmingly extended, and his whole appearance formed a frightful picture of astonishment and fear.

To Willem there needed no explanation. One glance was enough.

The camelopards were gone!

The Bushman and Kaffir had promised to watch over them in turns, and had both neglected their duty by getting drunk.

Willem uttered not one word of reproach. Hope, fear, and chagrin kept him for a moment silent.

Within his mind was struggling a faint idea that the giraffes had been removed by some servants of the boer to a place not far-away,—perhaps to a more secure shed.

This hope was dashed with the fear that they had been stolen, or had helped themselves to freedom, and might never again be found.

During the first moments of his agony and despair Groot Willem had the good sense to blame himself. He had been as negligent as either of the two terror-stricken men now standing before him.

He should not have left to others the sole care of what he prized so highly. For the sake of a few hours of better fare than that to which he had lately been accustomed, why had he neglected to look after a prize that had cost so many toils and so much time in obtaining? Why could he not have lived a few days longer, as he had done for so many months, watchful, thoughtful,—on the alert? All would then have been well.

A search of five minutes among the huts and sheds told him that the giraffes were certainly gone.

The task was to recover them. Directing Swartboy and Congo to make all the inquiries they could, as to the time and manner of their disappearance, the great hunter turned despairingly towards the house to communicate to his companions the misfortune that had befallen them.

The news took away every appetite. The grand breakfast prepared by the vrow and her dusky handmaidens was likely to remain uneaten; for all, starting up from their seats, hastened towards the shed where the giraffes had been confined.

The hospitable boer expressed a keen sympathy for their misfortune, and declared his willingness to spend a month, if need be, with all his servants, in the recovery of the lost camelopards.

“All dish comes of dranking do mush smokes,” said he. “Mine beoples last night all got more so drunk; put dey must do so no more. I shall spill all de smokes on the ground, and puy no more forever.”

One of the giraffes had been tied to a post forming part of the shed in which they had been shut up. The post had not only been torn out of the earth, but from its fastenings at the top, and was lying on the ground, six or eight paces from where it had formerly stood. Two other posts adjoining had been pushed down, making a breach in the enclosure sufficiently large for the giraffes to have made their exit.

Had they been tied to trees as usual, they could not have escaped. The rheims around their slender necks would have held them.

Perhaps by the weight and strength of their bodies they had pushed down the stockade, and the rheims had slipped over the ends of the posts after they had fallen. In this manner they might have escaped. But, though it seemed simple enough, still there was something strange in it, and our travellers thought so.

The captives had lately shown no disposition to get free, and it was odd they should do so now. Moreover there must have been a premeditated, jointly-contrived plan between them, and this could hardly be supposed to exist.

They were gone, however, and must be sought for and brought back.

For this duty Congo was already making preparations, though with very little prospect of success. Rain had been falling heavily all the night, and had destroyed any chance of the lost animals being tracked, even by Spoor’em.

Within a large enclosure, contiguous to the boer’s dwelling, more than five hundred cattle had been penned up during the eight. These had been turned out to graze that morning, and, in consequence, the ground was everywhere covered with the hoof-marks of horses and cattle.

A full hour was spent in finding a track that could, with any certainty, be pronounced that of a giraffe, and this had been made by the animal going in the direction of the sheds. Of course it was the spoor of the camelopards when first led up on the evening before.

“Hendrik,” exclaimed Willem, nearly frantic with despair; “what shall we do? Those giraffes are somewhere, and must be found.”

“They are just as likely to have gone in one direction as another,” answered Hendrik, “and suppose we look for them in the direction of Graaf Reinet.”

This remark but increased Willem’s despair, for it showed an unwillingness on the part of his comrade to make any farther delay on account of their misfortune.

The boer declared himself willing to furnish horses and men for a search, if the hunters could ascertain, with any certainty, the direction the runaways had taken.

Hans now volunteered a bit of advice, which was listened to by Willem, as being the most sensible yet given.

“Our late captives,” said that philosopher, “have made the most of a good opportunity for escaping. It was, no doubt, done under an instinct; and the same instinct will be likely to guide them back toward their native land. If we go in search of them, let the search be made in the direction from whence they came.”

“Mine poys,” broke in the boer, “dare ish no use lookin’ if they goed that way. Dey will not wait fast enough for anypoddy to catch up to ’em.”

Hendrik and Arend expressed themselves of the same opinion.

“Congo, you black scoundrel!” exclaimed Willem, “where are our giraffes? Which way shall we look for them?”

In answer to this question the bewildered Kaffir could only shake his aching head.

Willem had great faith in Congo’s instinct, and was not satisfied with the limited information received from him.

“Do you think, Congo, we had better follow the spoor we made in coming here?” he asked.

Again the Kaffir shook his head.

“You sooty idiot!” exclaimed the distracted questioner, “answer me in some other way. No more wabbling of your head, or I’ll break it for you.”

“I don’t think at all now, baas Willem,” said Congo. “My head feel too big for the question you put ’um.”

Hendrik was about to observe that there was a vast difference between the Kaffir and his master, but, not wishing to vex the latter any more, he proposed that something should be done besides talking.

“Hans,” exclaimed Willem, “you stay here and look after our property. All the others who wish it can come along with me; but whoever does must get into his saddle in the shortest possible time. I’m off this instant in search of the fugitives.”

So saying, Groot Willem made a rush towards the shed under which his horse had been stabled, and, putting on the saddle with his own hands, he sprang into it and rode hastily away.