Chapter 65 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

The Last of a Family.

Hendrik and Arend, who had imitated his movements, alone followed Groot Willem from the house. The boer, after promising so much, appeared so dilatory in his preparations that no dependence could be placed on his aid and the three hunters galloped off without waiting for any of the farm, or any of his servants, of whom they had seen several. His excuse for not making more haste to provide help was, that no one could tell the direction in which the runaways had gone, and that to search for them in the north, when the animals might have strayed south, was sheer silliness.

Much to the surprise or all, Congo had stayed behind instead of accompanying Groot Willem, according to universal custom. The Kaffir’s solicitude for the safety of his young master had been so great on all former occasions, and he had shown such an unwillingness to be separated from him, that his present behaviour was a surprise to everybody who knew him. He was allowed to have his own will and way, for it was known that any efforts at making him useful, by denying him this privilege, would be of no avail. True and faithful as he had ever shown himself, his actions were seldom controlled by the others.

“As soon as we get a mile or two away from the house,” said Hendrik, “we may be able to discover their tracks. It is no use our examining the ground over which so many cattle have passed. But supposing we should learn that we are on the right course, what then, Willem?”

“Then we must follow it till the giraffes are retaken,” answered Willem. “I should have but little hope of catching them again,” he continued, “did I not know that they are now quite tame. I should as soon think of my own horse absconding, and going a hundred miles into the wilderness, to avoid me. We shall find the giraffes if we persevere; and, once found, they won’t hinder us from catching them.”

From the quiet behaviour of the giraffes for the last three weeks, Arend and Hendrik could not deny the truth of Willem’s assertions; and all three urged their horses forward, more anxious than ever to come upon the spoor of the strays.

After passing beyond the ground tracked by the farm cattle, they once more came out upon the so-called road, along which they had travelled the day before. But for more than a mile, after the most careful examination, no spoor of giraffe, old or young, was to be seen. Even those made by them on the day before could no longer be distinguished in the dust. The rain, with the tracks of other animals coming after, had obliterated them. The state of the ground they were examining was now favourable for receiving a permanent impression; and, as none appeared, they became satisfied that the runaways had not returned that way.

After a long consultation which came near ending in a wrangle, Willem being opposed by his companions, it was decided that they should ride round in a circle of which the dwelling of the boer should be the centre. By so doing, the spoor of the lost animals should be found. It was the only plan for them to take, and slowly they rode on, feeling very uncomfortable at the uncertainty that surrounded them.

The country over which they were riding was a poor pasture with patches of thinly growing grass. A herd of cattle and horses, old and young, had lately gone over the ground, and often would the eye catch sight of tracks so like those made by a giraffe that one of the party would dismount for a closer examination before being able to decide.

To Groot Willem this slow process was torturing in the extreme. He believed that the giraffes were each moment moving farther away from the place.

After the search had been continued for nearly two hours, a spoor was at length found that was unmistakably that of a camelopard. With a shout of joy Willem turned his horse and commenced taking it up. It was fresh,—made but a few hours before.

Under the excitement of extreme fortune, whether it be good or bad, people do not act with much wisdom.

So thought Hendrik as he called the attention of Willem to the fact that they had started out for the purpose of finding the spoor but not following it; that they would require the help of Congo and Spoor’em; that they must provide themselves with food and other articles necessary for a two or three days’ journey.

Believing that, by the time they could go back to the house and return, the giraffes would gain a distance of not less than ten or fifteen miles, Hendrik’s suggestions seemed absurd, and his companion, without heeding them, kept on along the trail.

Hendrik and Arend could do nothing but follow. Before they had gone very far, Arend made the observation that the tracks they were now following appeared too large to have been made by the young giraffes.

“That’s all a fancy of yours,” rejoined Willem, as he hurried on.

“There appears to have been only one that went this way,” said Hendrik, after they had gone a little farther.

“Never mind,” answered Willem, “we have no time to look for the other. It won’t be far away from its companion, and we shall probably find them together.”

Notwithstanding what Willem said, his comrades were convinced that they were following the track of only one giraffe, and that larger than either of those that had been lost. They again ventured to give their opinion about it.

“Nonsense!” exclaimed Willem. “There has not been a giraffe in this part of the country for the last ten years, except the two we ourselves brought here.”

This statement would have been indorsed by every settler for a hundred miles around. For all that, it was a wrong one, as our adventurers soon had reason to be convinced.

Before they had gone another mile, the large body and lofty head of a giraffe loomed up before their eyes! On seeing it, they put spurs to their horses and rode straight toward it. They got within about three hundred yards of it before their approach was discovered.

For the first ten minutes of the chase that then ensued, the distance between the hunters and the retreating giraffe remained about the same.

Gradually it began to diminish. The giraffe appeared to become exhausted with only a slight exertion; and on reaching a piece of marshy ground, where its feet sunk into the mud, it made a violent struggle and then fell over on its side.

On riding forward to the spot, the hunters had an explanation of why the chase was so soon over. They were only surprised that the creature had been able to run at all.

It proved to be an ancient male of which but little was left but the skin and bones.

It looked as though it was the last of its race, about to become extinct.

On its back and other parts of its body were lumps as large as walnuts, the scars of old wounds, where musket-bullets had been lodged in its body several years before!

The rusty head of an arrow was also seen protruding from its side.

It had the appearance of having been hunted for a score of years, and hundreds of times to have been within an inch of losing its life.

Its enemy, man, had overtaken it at last, and was gazing upon its struggling not with exultation, but rather with pity and regret.

They felt no triumph in having run down and captured a thing that had been so long struggling with death. Groot Willem, who had been for a time highly elated with the prospect of recovering the lost giraffes, was again in great despondence. Much time had been squandered in this purposeless pursuit.

He was not one to yield easily to despair; and yet despair was now upon him. There was every symptom of a dark night coming down, and it was now near. Inspired either by pity or revenge, he sent a bullet from his roer into the head of the struggling skeleton; and, throwing himself into the saddle, he turned the head of his horse once more towards the house.

An attempt had been made to recover the lost giraffes. It had failed. Night was close at hand. Nothing more could be done for that day, and Willem now declared his willingness to return to Graaf Reinet and die.

Hope had departed from his heart, and he no longer felt a desire to live.

Hendrik and Arend, although sympathising with him in their common misfortune, exchanged looks of congratulation. They would now be permitted to go home.