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The Vee-Boers Part 1

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The Vee-Boers.

by Mayne Reid.

CHAPTER ONE.

ON THE KAROO.

A vast plain, seemingly bounded but by the horizon; treeless, save where a solitary _cameel-doorn_ [Note 1] spreads its feathered leaves, or a clump of arborescent aloes, mingled with rigid-stemmed euphorbias, breaks the continuity of its outline. These types of desert vegetation but proclaim its sterility, which is further evinced by tufts of whiteish withered gra.s.s, growing thinly between them.



Over it three waggons are moving; immense vehicles with bodies above four yards in length, surrounded by an arching of bamboo canes covered with canvas. To each is attached eight pairs of long-horned oxen, with a driver seated on the box, who flourishes a whip, in length like a fishing-rod; another on foot alongside, wielding the terrible _jambok_, while at the head of the extended team marches the "foreloper," _reim_ in hand, guiding the oxen along the track.

Half a score hors.e.m.e.n ride here and there upon the flanks, with three others in advance; and bringing up the rear is a drove of milch cows-- some with calves at the foot--and a flock of _fat-tailed_ sheep, their tails full fifty pounds in weight, and trailing on the ground.

The cows and sheep are in charge of ten or a dozen dark-skinned herdsmen, most of them all but naked; while a like number of large wolfish-looking dogs completes the list of living things visible outside the waggons. But, were the end curtains raised, under their tilts would be seen women with children--of both s.e.xes and all ages--in each the members of a single family, its male head excepted.

Of the last there are three, corresponding to the number of the waggons, of which they are the respective proprietors--the three men riding in advance. Their names, Jan Van Dorn, Hans Blom, and Klaas Rynwald. All Dutch names, and Dutch are they who bear them, at least by descent, for the scene _is_ Southern Africa, and they are _Boers_.

Not of the ordinary cla.s.s, though, as may be told by their large accompaniment of unattached cattle and sheep--over a hundred of the former, and three times as many of the latter. These, with other signs well-known to South Africans, proclaim them to be Vee-Boers [Note 2].

They are far away from any settlement of civilised or white men, the nearest being their own frontier town, Zoutpansberg, in the Transvaal, from which they are distant full three hundred miles northward. Nor are they in Transvaalian territory, but that of the Tebele, beyond the Limpopo river, and journeying on north.

Why they are there calls for explanation, and a word will suffice. The world has of late heard much of the Transvaal Republic and its brave people; how distasteful to them was annexation to the English Government; indeed, so repugnant, that many plucked up the rooftrees they had but lately planted, and were off again, scarce thinking or caring whither, so long as they got beyond the reach of British rule.

It is on record--a painful one--that many of those political fugitives pa.s.sed through hardships scarce conceivable, and not a few perished by the way--miserably perished, the victims of fatigue, hunger, and thirst.

And it is of just such a party we purpose giving account of, their journeyings, adventures, and dangers, by flood and by field.

The time was just after the annexation, and our Vee-Boers, as introduced to the reader, were weeks away from their abandoned homes in the Transvaal.

That they had permission to enter the territory of the Tebele, might be taken for granted, otherwise they would have been on dangerous ground.

For its powerful and despotic chief was not the man to allow intrusion into his dominions, even by peaceful travellers.

But they had his leave, backed by invitation, not only to pa.s.s through, but make permanent home in them, if they wished. Jan Van Dorn, the "_baas_" [Note 3] of the migrating party, an old _jager_, had, in bygone days, hunted all over the Tebele country, smoked the pipe of peace with Moselekatse himself, and so established a friendship still existing. In one of his expeditions he had discovered a magnificent grazing country-- a very paradise for the Vee-Boer--and it was for this they were now making.

They were journeying by night, or rather early morning, before daybreak.

It was not their habit to lie late; but just then they had more than one reason for being up betimes and moving. It was in the Torrid Zone, where travelling by day is oft a very torture, especially over a plain such as that they were crossing.

They had entered upon a track of _karoo_ [Note 4], which they knew to extend for more than 100 miles; treeless, shadeless, and without water, save here and there in pools, or natural cisterns, at long distances apart. Besides, no rain had fallen on it for months, and like as not the water reservoirs would all be dried up. Not strange, then, their travelling by night, as by day; for it was life or death to them to get across the karoo.

Luckily they were favoured by moonlight, with stars in a clear, unclouded sky, which insured them against straying from the practicable route. And as their guide, a Hottentot, by name s.m.u.tz knew every inch of it, they had confidence in his piloting.

So on they moved, noiselessly, save when now and then crack of whip, the sharp snap of a _jambok_ [Note 5], or the e.j.a.c.u.l.a.t.i.o.ns of the men wielding this formidable instrument of animal torture, disturbed the stillness of the night. More rarely was it broken by the rumble of wheels, these for the most part being fellies deep in soft, yielding sand.

Note 1. The "cameel-doorn," literally, camel-thorn, is a species of acacia, whose tender shoots and leaves are the favourite food of the cameleopard, or giraffe. It is a common and characteristic tree in most districts of southern Africa, having pinnate leaves, and, like most of the acacia tribe, bright yellow blossoms.

Note 2. "Vee-boers" are distinguished from other Boers by their special employment being the grazing and raising of cattle. To this they devote themselves exclusively, as the _stockmen_ of Australia, and the _ranchmen_ of Western America. They have no fixed habitation, flitting about from place to place with their flocks wherever the pasture tempts them, and making house and home of their huge _trek-waggons_, just as the "cheap jacks" of England. They have tents also, and sometimes erect rude huts.

Note 3. "Baas," master. It is synonymous with the "boss" of the Southern United States, which, no doubt, was carried thither by the slave negroes who had had dealings with the Dutch of South Africa.

Note 4. The "karoos" of Southern Africa may be compared with our moorlands, only more extended in area, and with a different sort of vegetation. Heaths of many beautiful species are among their characteristic plants, as all may know who take a pride in the keeping of hothouses.

Note 5. The "jambok," or "schambok," is an elastic whip, all stock and no lash, or if you like, _vice versa_. Some six feet long, it tapers from a b.u.t.t of about an inch in diameter to the tiniest tip; and, when forcibly laid on, will make _weals_ on the skin of a horse, and cut that of a man clean through. It is a cruel instrument of torture, and, I regret to say, not exclusively employed to punish animals, as the natives of South Africa too well know. To threaten a disobedient servant with the jambok--be he Hottentot, Fingo, or Caffre--is to bring him back to kneeling obeisance. The best jamboks are made of hippopotamus hide.

CHAPTER TWO.

A WEIRD SPECTACLE.

Going at a slow crawl in profound silence, the huge vehicles, with their dark bodies and white tilts, the long serried line of yoked oxen extended in advance of them, would have presented a strange mystifying spectacle to one not knowing what it was. Weird and ghostlike under the silvery light of the moon, a native of the country, where such had never been seen before, viewing it from a distance, might have imagined it some monster of a world unknown.

But before morning came, the travellers were themselves witnesses of a spectacle common enough in that same district, yet, in seeming, quite as strange and mysterious as that of the waggon-train.

Proceeding in the opposite direction, and at no great distance off, appeared a number of dark forms, one following the other in single file.

Immense creatures they were; each nearly as large as any of the waggons, but, unlike these, living and breathing. For they were elephants--a troop on the march--nigh threescore in number, their line extending for hundreds and hundreds of yards across the karoo. They were pa.s.sing on silent as spectres, the tread of the ponderous pachyderm being noiseless as that of a cat. Even on stony ground it is scarce distinguishable at the shortest distance, and on that sand-bestrewed plain it made not the slightest sound to betray their presence.

Adding to their spectral appearance were the long, withered gra.s.s-tufts and karoo bushes, white as if coated with h.o.a.r frost. These concealing their stride, they seemed to glide along as boats upon water, propelled by some invisible agency, acting underneath.

To the Vee-Boers, as much hunters as herdsmen, it was a tempting, tantalising sight, and under other circ.u.mstances the silence of the night would have been broken by the cracking of shots. But they knew that to attack the elephants might infuriate and bring them in charge upon the waggon-train, which would surely be its destruction. [Note 1.]

So they resisted the temptation, and let the herd pa.s.s on; the two parties, silent and weird-like as ever, gradually widening the s.p.a.ce between, till at length they were beyond sight of one another.

Soon after daylight declared itself; but it brought no rest to the now wearied wayfarers--not even when the sun had risen high above the horizon. For they had failed to come across any water, and halting without that were worse than keeping on. Already suffering from thirst, it would but prolong their suffering to make stop or stay.

Several of the so-called cisterns, or natural tanks, had been pa.s.sed, and as many pools, but all were dry, or with only just enough moisture to keep the mud in their bottoms. Remaining by these would be rest neither to them nor the animals, now needing water as much or more than themselves.

Another element also contributed to their torture--heat. As the sun mounted higher in the firmament, this became excessive; so sultry that men and animals were perspiring at every pore; while on the ground, hot as the floor of a baker's oven, it was painful to set foot.

The shoeless natives--Hottentots and Caffres alike--suffered especially, notwithstanding the soles of their feet being callous, and hard as horn.

Some were seen to adopt a singular plan for keeping them cool--by a plaster of mud, taken from the waterless but still moist pools, applying it poultice-fashion, and at intervals damping them with the juice of the euphorbia, and other succulent plants.

Equally odd, and more amusing, was the behaviour of the dogs. They would make a rush ahead of the waggons; dive under a bush, tussock of gra.s.s, or anything giving shade; and there lie panting till the train got past. Then, rising reluctantly, they would stand for a time contemplating the heated surface of sand, afraid to set paw upon it; whine piteously; and finally, with a plunge, start off afresh, dash past the waggons, and repeat the performance as before.

Thus on over the sun-parched plain moved the party of migrant Boers; but not now silent as in the night. What with oxen bellowing, cows lowing in response to their bawling calves, sheep bleating, and dogs howling, there was noise enough, and a surfeit of it.

And mingling with these cries of distress, at intervals came the crack of a whip, loud as the report of a pistol, and the shouts of the drivers urging their oxen on.

As if to add to their difficulty, they had entered upon a tract thickly overgrown with _waaght-een-beetje_ [Note 2]; while those of them who were on foot, had their ankles lacerated by the "_grapple-plant_."

[Note 3.]

r.e.t.a.r.ded by these various obstructions, they made but slow progress; less than three miles an hour--the orthodox rate of speed made by South African travellers "on trek;" and it had come to be a struggle painful as it was perilous. Fearfully dispiriting too; since they knew not when or how it was to end. Their sole hope rested on a large pond or lake their guide told them of, and which he had never known to go dry. But it was still over ten miles distant, which meant at least four hours of time--an appalling prospect in their then condition; men, horses, and oxen, all athirst, all tottering in their steps. There was no help for it, no alternative, but keep on; and on they kept.

Note 1. Elephants often march in single file--indeed, it is their common way--the sagacity of these animals telling them they are thus less exposed to danger. Often, too, a party of hunters, especially Vee-Boers, well acquainted with the habits of the great pachyderms, will allow them to pa.s.s unmolested, to be pursued and attacked farther on. A charge of infuriated elephants on a camp might result in its wholesale destruction.

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