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The Vee-Boers Part 9

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This made still more intelligible the great congregation of crocodiles.

They were the denizens of nigh twenty miles of the stream's length, driven, by a long-continued drought, into such close companionship.

Crowded together, as frogs in a pond, they had devoured every fish, every living thing dammed up along with them in the sheet of stagnant water, and were famishing. Hence their hostility and fearlessness of man, due as much to hunger, as to any natural ferocity.

But the Vee-Boers thought no more about them now. Enough was there to occupy their minds in this second obstruction that had arisen, and which vexed them more than the first, their leader far more--to him a very chagrin--as he reflected on his want of forethought. He should not have been satisfied with such a short, careless reconnaissance, but examined the omaramba to the farthest end, wherever that might be. Resolved to act with more prudence in this second exploration, he had taken charge of it himself, nor turned back, till a.s.sured of the stream's re-issue and onward flow without any other interruption.

This a.s.surance had been obtained by discovering that the sandy tract they were traversing was but a belt of some ten or twelve leagues in breadth, beyond which the nature of the country was different, the surface-soil being firm and clayey. Rivers running over a bed of clay do not go underground, and there was no fear of a third obstruction, at least of that special kind. These facts were not all ascertained in a few hours, nor yet in a single day. Two, and part of a third, were spent in the exploration.



While it was in progress, those left behind had remained inactive, as there was nothing for them to do. Should there be no more stream, there could be no further navigation, and again taking the rafts to pieces would be so much labour lost. In this uncertainty, even their lading was left undisturbed; only such chattels carried on sh.o.r.e as were needed for a camp of temporary occupation. Nor did any of the people, white or coloured, elect to sleep on land, having by this time discovered the be a better place. Upon it they were less exposed to the torture of mosquitoes, to avoid which, the rafts were each night drawn out to some distance from the beach, and there brought to anchor. So shoal was it all round, they had no difficulty in communicating with the sh.o.r.e whenever desirable.

It was an interval of great anxiety, full of doubts and apprehensions.

Not all dulness, however, as the monotony of their life was now and then varied by episodes of a curious kind--scenes and incidents of nature, such as may be witnessed only in her wild, untrodden domain. One which occurred on the evening after their arrival was of this character-- indeed, so strange as to test the reader's credulity. Yet is it here chronicled as a fact, on the authority of trustworthy witnesses, the adventurers themselves.

It had got to be near sunset; the people all on sh.o.r.e, and seated at the nacht-maal, when a swishing and crackling among the trees close by, admonished them of some large quadruped making its way towards the water. It might be buffalo, rhinoceros, or hippopotamus; but, judging from the volume of sound, more likely an elephant. And an elephant it was, as was soon seen; one of the largest size, and a Karl-kop, in other words, a tuskless bull. Alone was he, which proclaimed him an outcast from elephantine society--an Ishmaelite in his own land.

All this indicated danger, as they watching him well knew. For the solitary male elephant is vicious beyond conception, being absolutely insane, or _musty_ as it is termed in India.

He was approaching the water, presumably to quench his thirst, and in a few more strides stood upon its edge, not fifty yards from the spot where the people were sitting, luckily behind some bushes that screened them from his sight. They were not all seated now, however, as several of the young Boers had sprung upon their feet, and were hastening to get hold of their guns. Some already had them in hand, but delayed opening fire, a word from baas Rynwald restraining them. A caution it was in view of the risk to be run. For, should they fail to kill the bull at once, and only wound and infuriate him, then would they all be at his mercy. Besides, he was only a Karl-kop, an aged one, and not worth powder and ball. These admonitions were spoken in a whisper, nor was there any noise made otherwise, lest the elephant should hear and strike off in retreat, or, what was just as likely, charge into their midst.

But the caution was acted upon, and not a shot fired; instead, silence preserved by one and all, so profound that the rustling of a leaf might have been heard from afar. There was not a breath of air stirring at the time, and the water was still and smooth as a mirror.

By this the old bull had entered it, and they now saw that something besides thirst had brought him thither. He drank, too, till satisfied, his first performance. After which, wading a stride or two farther in, he proceeded to give himself a shower-bath, drawing the water into his trunk, and blowing it out again upwards, so that it fell over his back in spray as from a whale-spout. For some five minutes had he been thus sprinkling himself, when he was seen all at once to start, pluck his proboscis out of the water, and, uttering a cry as of rage and pain, wheel back towards the beach.

What the cause of this unexpected demonstration was, the spectators could not tell. Amid the eddies he had raised, with floating froth and bubbles, nothing was observable to explain it. And the Karl-kop himself seemed equally ignorant of it, for, on reaching dry land, he faced round again, and stood regarding the spot he had so abruptly abandoned with a puzzled, mystified air.

Only for a few seconds stood he thus, when his little eyes began to sparkle with a peculiar intelligence, his ears giving indication of the same by a satisfied flap or two, as much as to say, "Now I know what did it." Then, as if determined to have his bath out, he strode back into the water, till nearly knee-deep, and once more plunged his proboscis underneath. But his design was all different, as the spectators were soon made aware by seeing a ripple on the surface of the water, a moving furrow as from the dorsal fin of a shark, but which they knew to be caused by a crocodile. And a crocodile it was; one of small size, not over six or seven feet in length. But surely the same that had made a snap at the elephant's trunk, inflicting a wound which, though slight, was enough to account for that angry scream, with the action accompanying.

Many tales have been told of the sagacity of elephants, and many instances recorded, truthful too. But, perhaps, never one affording better proof of it, and certainly none stranger, than that the Vee-Boers were witnesses of there and then. Standing still, with trunk partly submerged, the great pachyderm kept the long, flexible feeler in constant, but gentle oscillation, playing its tip horizontally from side to side, as an angler his fly, or mock-minnow.

The bait took almost instantly. Scarce a minute had elapsed, ere the crocodile, drawing close up, under the surface, cautiously, made a second attempt to seize it. This time to get seized itself, and jerked out of the water, as if it had been but a sprat. Then the elephant again facing sh.o.r.eward, strode out, still holding it in his trunk with octopus-like clasp, more than one lap of the gristly tube being around it. High in air was the reptile raised, to be hoisted yet higher, as soon as the Karl-kop set foot on land.

For it was tossed up into a tree, and fell in a fork between two branches, elastic boughs, that, closing upon it, held it as in a vice, despite all its writhings and wrigglings!

The spectators affirm that the elephant flung it into that particular crotch, with a foreknowledge of the result, though I myself rather think that the deposition was a thing of chance.

From that high eminence the ugly creature never came down, though a bullet, afterwards sent into it in mercy, brought its struggles to an end.

But before this, the Karl-kop had been permitted so depart in peace, without a shot fired at him, young Boers and all now desirous that he should go unscathed. Recalling the scare which the crocodiles had given them, they looked upon him in the light of an ally and avenger. So that without seeing, or having any suspicion of the danger so near him, he went away back upon the same spoor, to continue his lonely life and wanderings.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.

AFLOAT ON THE LIMPOPO.

A broad river coursing eastward for the Indian Ocean, nearly in the lat.i.tude of the Tropic of Capricorn. Drifting down it is a large raft, with many people upon it, and that which, seen from a distance, might be taken for three trek-waggons. On nearer view, however, these are discovered to be but waggon--tilts, supported on upright posts instead of wheels. Needless to say, they are the same which have been all along sheltering our party of migrating Boers, and the river the Limpopo; while the large raft is a composite structure of the three small ones lashed and braced together, with some additional timbers to give it greater size and strength. The original beams of koker-boom had been carried across the second portage, put together as before, and brought on down the branch stream, without encountering any other interruption.

On reaching its mouth, however, it was deemed better to continue the voyage with the three united in one, and the union has been made. In the new arrangement the waggon-tilts still hold position on the quarter-deck, side by side and parallel to one another; while only one of the steering-oars--the central one--is retained. The sheds are also re-erected on the fore-deck, with the cargo collected into one pile, and instead of three fire-hearths, a single one now serves for all. With the thermometer often at 100 degrees in the shade it is not there for warmth, but culinary needs.

There are still a half-score of the water-horses attached, but now in tow astern, and with no one bestriding them. Nor have they been much ridden since that great crocodile scare; all along the branch stream, thence downward, the reptiles being in such numbers, and so fiercely disposed, as to make it unsafe. The horses, however, have been retained to meet certain emergencies, as when quick communication with the banks may be necessary or desirable. But there is now another tender attached, of quite a different kind; a canoe full twenty feet in length, with a beam's breadth of about five, capable of holding a crew of eight or ten. It is of the "dug-out" pattern, hollowed from a single trunk, the handicraft of the Imacobas.

All this occupied time, more than a fortnight having been spent in the work of remodelling and reconstruction, the scene of operations being inside the embouchure of the tributary. During that period the people were, of course, compelled to live on land, and there pa.s.sing sleepless nights, through the torment of mosquitoes, they are glad to get out upon the bosom of the broad river, where but few of these persecutors will follow them [Note 1].

As the re-embarkation has been just effected, they are as yet uncertain how the new craft will behave. But with the buoyant koker-booms holding it high in the water, its gives promise of good "floating" qualities, which has put all on board into the best of spirits. Besides, they are again experiencing that exquisite sense of pleasure derived from motion without toil, with the added delight of ever-changing scenes. The tract of country they are now traversing is different from any they have yet pa.s.sed over; a vast level plain, with no mountain, not even a hill, visible on either side; treeless to a far distance, the only vegetation near being tall gra.s.s and reeds, with here and there on the higher stretches of bank a thin scattering of bushes, chiefly acacias. At a different period of the year, most of the land in sight would be under water--inundated. Even now portions of it are marsh, though it is the season of drought, and the river at its lowest. Yet is there no lack of animal life, birds especially abounding; birds of largest size and endless variety of species. Standing balanced on one leg, or leisurely winging through the air, can be seen the "Wattled" and "Blue" cranes; while on some bit of smooth sand beach may be witnessed that curious spectacle, "Caffre" cranes [Note 2], dancing a quadrille, with wings extended and waving about, as the gauzy skirts of ladies in a ball-room.

Not far off, but solitary, is the great "Goliath heron," as also the white egret, two kinds of flamingoes, and storks of several species; among these the gigantic "Adjutant" [Note 3], whose beak, like a pick-axe when pointed upward with neck at full stretch, will reach to the height of a man's head. Affrighted from their watery rest, flocks of wild geese and ducks fly to and fro; while the ostriches and great "Kori" bustards go stalking over the plain, or, approaching the river's bank, stand gazing at the raft, half in wonder, half alarmed. High in the heaven's above are vultures of various kinds; also eagles, kites, and others of the falcon tribe, each soaring in its own curve, with eyes on the _qui vive_ for quarry below.

Nor are quadrupeds scarce; instead plenteous, both in number and species. Here and there a hippopotamus appears swimming about in the river, or but for a moment showing its clumsy head, with thick truncated muzzle above the surface as it rises to breathe; then going under again to leave a large eddy with floating froth and bubbles. Now and then a rhinoceros comes crashing through the reeds by the river's edge on its way to drink, while troops of quaggas, zebras, and antelopes, the last varied in size and sort, roam over the veldt beyond.

But the spectacle most interesting of all was one afforded by the largest of quadrupeds--the elephant itself; a sight so rare as to well deserve being called wonderful; and so the old jager, Jan Van Dorn, p.r.o.nounced it--even he never having witnessed the like before.

During the time they were engaged in raft-building, they had observed elephants on the opposite side of the great river; not a single herd, but straggling bands all moving in the same direction--downward. Day after day they had noticed this stream of the great pachyderms, supposing them to be the same animals that had returned up in the night, and were thus journeying to and fro for food, or water.

Now they had evidence to the contrary, and in less than an hour after embarking. As they pa.s.sed down, with eyes scanning the plain on both sides of the river, they arrived opposite a wide expanse of wet marsh, or savanna, extending away from the right bank. On this was a herd of elephants, a mult.i.tude so vast as to seem all of the elephant kind inhabiting South Africa. The ground was thick covered and black with them for miles upon miles, the whole drove certainly numbering not less than a thousand head! They were up to their bellies browsing on a green sedge--that grew luxuriantly in the wet marshy soil--no doubt the cause of their being so congregated.

To the young Boers it was a sight not less tantalising than strange, and their elders had a difficulty in restraining them. One and all were for bringing the raft in to the bank, landing, and making slaughter among the pachyderms. But the old jager in command would not listen to this; knowing as he did, that the first shot fired would send the herd helter-skelter, even should they stand to receive a first shot.

Besides, he urged another and more convincing objection. To stalk such game on that ground, bare of trees and other protecting cover, would be attended with the greatest danger. Instead of retreating, just as likely might they charge upon the stalkers, and put them to flight, with scarce a chance of escape.

In fine, the elephants were let alone, though not without sore reluctance on the part of the young hunters. Even the baases disliked it; for it seemed almost as the leaving behind some thousands of pounds of ivory, with as many hundreds of pounds sterling. But it had to be done; the uncertainty, with peril attendant, determining the sacrifice.

And there was still another factor which just then interfered. The raft, hitherto gliding smoothly on at a fair rate of speed, had been found to be gradually slowing, and was now scarce making way at all.

The cause was clear enough. Up to this point, or rather _down_ to it, they had been carried along on the current of the inflowing stream, which here came to an end amid the more sluggish waters of the great river.

By Jan Van Dorn this new and unexpected impediment was looked upon with something more than vexation--indeed alarm--the wiser ones sharing it.

Before them were long leagues of river navigation; how many they could not tell, or what time it might take to reach the sea. But they knew there was also a rainy season before them, during which the low-lying coast-land becomes a hotbed of malarial fever, almost always fatal to white men. No wonder then at their dreading delay.

It seemed a poor alternative, taking to oars; but they had hopes of again getting into a current farther down, and so took to them. Poling they did not think of now; as, despite the river being at its lowest, it was too deep for that. But there were oars in plenty, with men to man them; so out went they, to be worked with a will.

Notwithstanding, their progress was unsatisfactory, the c.u.mbrous structure refusing to move at a speed of much more than a mile to the hour. And as still further discouragement a long reach of the river-- leagues of it--stretched before them, straight as a ca.n.a.l, and to all appearance as stagnant. But this, at first dispiriting, after a little became suggestive. If in directness of course the stream resembled a ca.n.a.l, either of its banks--smooth, firm, and level as they were--might be likened to a tow-path.

Why should they not try towing? Just the idea that occurred to baas Van Dorn; to be acted upon without an instant's delay. Quick as it could be done, the old waggon trek-trouws were spliced together, one end made fast to the raft, and the other carried ash.o.r.e, with a score of Hottentots and Caffres to do the towing. Which commenced amid a chorus of encouraging cries; and soon the huge, heavy craft, with constantly increasing speed, was "walking the water like a thing of life."

Note 1. If a wide river, mosquitoes are rarely found far from the bank.

Along the water's edge is their favourite haunt, especially where wooded.

Note 2. The "Wattled" crane (_Grus carunculata_). The "Blue" crane of the South African colonists is that better known to naturalists as the Stanley crane (_Anthropoides Stanleya.n.u.s_). The "Caffre" crane is the beautiful species with coronetted head (_Balearica Regulorum_); called also "Crowned" crane, and sometimes "Balearic" from its being an inhabitant of the Balearic Isles.

Note 3. The Adjutant, or, as more commonly called, "Adjutant bird"

(_Ciconia Argali)_, belongs to the family of storks, of which South Africa possesses no less than seven distinct species. The species of _Ardeinae_ or Herons, are there even much more numerous, there being fifteen of them including true herons, egrets, and bitterns.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.

LEGS EASILY BROKEN.

The towers had advanced but a very short way when an incident arose, ill.u.s.trating a strange ornithological fact--indeed, so strange as to seem apocryphal. While pulling onward with shouts and laughter, they saw before them two large birds, which all knew to be _Slangvreters_ [Note 1],--easily recognisable as such by their slender bodies, thick aquiline beaks, and long stilt-like legs. But still more, by the spike of plumelets growing out of their crowns with a backward slant; which, from a fancied resemblance to the old-fashioned quill-pen stuck behind the ear of clerk or scrivener, has earned for them the more common t.i.tle of "Secretary birds." When first observed, they were out on the open veldt serpent-hunting. One had even seized a large green snake, borne it aloft into the air, and was in the act of dashing it to the ground, where the other, with outstretched neck and vibrating wings, was waiting to pounce upon it. They were but a little out of the way of the towers, who expected to see them drop the snake, and retreat further, or carry it away. They did drop the snake, but instead of making off, drew nearer with a rush, half running, half flying; nor stopped they till close up, and direct on the path the towing party must take. Not to remain at rest there, but with continued fluttering around a mimosa-bush that grew upon the bank--all the while screaming affrightedly.

There was no mystery about their behaviour, strange as it appeared. Its cause was declared by cries, a sort of guttural rattling, which came responsive out of the mimosa, where a nest was now descried with young in it. It was an immense cl.u.s.ter of sticks loosely put together, through which the long legs of the two young secretaries--for there was but a pair--hung dangling down. By this the towers were beside it, and a scramble ensued to get hold of the chicks, the old birds having at length despairingly forsaken them, though still tarrying near. But the youngsters were not to be caught so easily. Nearly full-fledged and grown, before hand could be laid on either, they bolted out of the nest, and struck off in run over the veldt, flapping their wings to a.s.sist them. Half a dozen of the men followed, eagerly bent on capture. For the slangvreter is a favourite pet with the South African Dutch; often tamed and kept as a protector of the poultry-yard. But notwithstanding the swiftness of some of their pursuers, the young secretaries, running like ostriches, would doubtless have escaped, but for an accident depriving them of the use of their limbs. Traversing the line of their retreat was a fissure in the ground, and into it both tumbled head foremost, from their eyes being all on the pursuers behind. It was a dry rain-gulch, so shallow, it seemed as though the birds might easily have got out again, and continued on. So could they, and would, had their legs but held good, which they did not. Instead the young secretaries lay struggling at the bottom of the gulch; and when taken up, it was found that one had both legs broken, the other a leg and a wing!

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The Vee-Boers Part 9 summary

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