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The Great Hunters

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Discomforts of the Pioneer: Parker Gillmore, Rain Hyaenas and Ants

Trying to get some sleep in a temporary camp on the borders of the Kalahari Desert, Gillmore found that he had fallen a prey to voracious ants. Then came a deluge of rain and hyaenas to stampede the horses. Fortunately good luck and a sense of humour brought the party safely through to the next morning.

What an admirable subject for an artist, one who excelled in lights and shadows!

A white man being rapidly divested of his clothing, with two black men assisting him to get rid of countless ants – all intent upon a meal from his luckless corporation; (1) and this on one of the darkest nights, the scene lit up by the glimmer of a struggling fire, which darkened the more the blackness of the surrounding country.

This was not employment for a few minutes; it must have taken upwards of half an hour, and the way the little devils held on to their prey was worthy of a better cause.

Afterwards my wounds had to be carefully smeared with a piece of fat – a process far from agreeable.

Fresh fuel having been added to the fire, I this time lay down under the cart, and at once was comfortably asleep. Possibly this lasted for half an hour, but at any rate for no longer, when rain began to descend in such enormous drops as are only to be witnessed in the tropics.

This gentle warning soon gave way to a regular and systematic downpour; and with it the violence of the wind increased, for it fairly shrieked and howled over the plain with an impetuosity that would make a listener believe it was positively actuated by a spirit of revenge and destruction.

My position under the cart was untenable, so I got inside it and pulled the tilt (2) up. Even there I was not safe from the penetrating power of the rain, for it beat with such violence against it as to make its weather-side a perfect spring of water.

Though rolled up in a couple of blankets, I was soon as saturated as a sponge, and so chilly that my teeth actually chattered. The storm was at its height when the horses began to struggle, and rushed to and fro in a most disconcerted manner. It became at once obvious that if the riems did not break they would throw themselves down, and cause each other serious injury. I shouted to them, and both boys were rushing to the spot, when a heavier plunge than any of the previous once tore them loose, and off they darted across the veldt as fast as their legs could carry them.

In an instant they were out of sight, and all we could learn of the direction in which they had gone was the fast dying out thud, thud, thud, of their galloping hoofs.

This was not a time for inaction.

Divesting myself of the blankets, and springing to the ground, I ordered my boys to follow, and made after the retreating quadrupeds. (3)  

It was impossible to see the obstacles lying in my way, so ere I had gone a hundred yards I stumbled over a bush, and received a fearful fall, causing me to think at the moment that I had broken one of my arms.

However, I had no time for thought; rapidity of movement was essential, as already it was with difficulty that I could hear the guiding sounds; but here the native’s instinct came in.

The Hottentot went in front of me, and I followed him at my best pace; but so intensely dark was the night, that though I was well aware he was close to me, it was with strained eyesight that I got an occasional glimpse of him.

But the fellow was equal to the difficulty, and bravely pushed on, momentarily calling on the frightened animals to stop.

In ten minutes we must have progressed more than a mile, and it was a regular case of “bellows to mend” with me, for I was so thoroughly pumped as to make me convinced that I must soon halt, so in broken sentences I called after my leader, that if I stopped he was to continue the pursuit.

In truth, I was in an akward position; for if he left me I doubted my capability to find my way back to the cart, for the other lad had long disappeared, goodness knew where! And to spend the night sitting out on the plain, with a blinding torrent of rain beating down upon me for five or six hours, was anything but a pleasant arrangement for contemplation.

Every step I took appeared as if it must be my last. I staggered to and fro like a drunken man, and my breath came and went in spasmodic gasps, when I heard, with unparalleled delight, the voice of my driver calling out, “Whoa, Tommy! Whoa, old man! Whoa, Bobby, whoa! What are you about, you rogues? Whoa!”

Immediately afterwards he sung out to me that he had caught one of the truants.

I knew that all was right now, for the animals had become so much attached to one another that were one went the other would follow.

When I reached my lad, I found that Tommy was a captive; and I had scarcely placed my hand upon the halter, when Bob walked up out of the darkness, and placed his head over his comrade’s shoulder, and in an instant was secured.

The return journey was not easy. The fire, at best a feeble one, had been all but extinguished by the heavy downpour of water, and there was no star visible by which we could direct our course. The storm had blown from the southward; the runaways had, on breaking loose, appeared to go down wind; so the only possible chance I could see of regaining the cart was to advance with the wind and rain in my face.

Giving the Hottentot a leg-up, I put him on Bob’s back, that horse being light in colour, and therefore more easily seen than the other, and told him to go in advance, which I followed on Tommy.

It was no easy task to make the animals face the driving rain, but we persevered for upwards of twenty minutes. Then the Hottentot shouted, with a hope that Gopani’s boy (4) would hear him; but no sound came in response to our call, except the wailing, idiotic howl of the hyaena.

“My master,” said the boy, “that’s the scoundrel that gave us all this trouble;” and I mentally cursed the brute.

It was scarcely a matter of suspicion on my mind, but had almost become a certainty, that we should be unable to find the cart; in fact, already I had resolved to dismount, and tie the horses together to prevent their again straying, when the driver turned sharply off to the left, somewhat increased the pace, and in about five minutes I had the pleasure of viewing the almost extinguished fire.

On reaching the cart, no vestige of the older lad could be seen. Again and again I called to him; still I received no answer.

Having tied the horses up, I thought I would once more dispose myself in the old position in the conveyance, when to my surprise I found the lost boy – huddled up in my blankets and in a state of such abject terror as to be incapable of speech, let alone locomotion. Without much ceremony I hauled him out, the poor wretch not resisting; but so demoralized had his system become through fear, that when we reached the ground he could hardly stand. A little bullying acted wonderfully as a restorative, for in a few minutes he was able to go about and assist in making up the fires.

Fortunately now the rain began to moderate, and the wind to loose much of its previous force, so that in a short time, the comforting blaze leapt aloft again, and gave us warmth and light.

Deeming the night pretty far advanced, I resolved not to turn in, but to make myself as comfortable as possible beside the fire.

“Driver, where is the rifle?” said I.

“In the cart, Baas!”

“Do you think it is dry?”

“I think not. What could deep dry such a night as this?”

“Well! Fetch it here;” and he brought it to me.

In case the cartridge had gone wet I removed it, replacing the old one with another from my pocket.

Then putting the flap of my coat over the lock, and laying it across my knees, I sat impatiently waiting for dawn. Talk about storm-tossed sailors anxiously looking for daybreak. No one looked forward more to its advent with greater longing than did I that night.

The hours seemed to be interminable, and it truly appeared as if they would never come to an end.

In the midst of our discomfort, however, there was one thing gratifying, viz, that the rain and wind had almost entirely ceased, and the black clouds which previously shut out the face of heaven rapidly began to break, and drift away to leeward. Place myself in what position I chose, my hands would come in contact with the soaking blanket which I had wrapped around me. But the result was apparent in the steam which ascended from the sodden covering.

That dawn was now at hand was evident, for that grey cold light which so mysteriously ushers in the day was creeping over the plain.

I was beginning to congratulate myself, when there was a second disturbance amonst the horses.

This time, however, they were more firmly secured; and the lesson we had learned a few hours before had not by any means been thrown away, for the boys at once sprang to their heads, while I stood in their rear and spoke to them.

It is wonderful how a man’s voice will soothe and reassure a frightened horse.

In a few seconds they had apparently overcome their terror.

Baas! look at the wolf!” and to windward of us stood one of these gentry, about twenty-five yards off, his eyes and ears denoting the interest he took in the scene before him.

I had my rifle in my hand. In a moment it was at my shoulder. I leveled low, for the distance was short, and with the report the night-prowler sprung into the air, turned round as if to bite his flank, and in an instant afterwards fell on his side, his head doubled under him, - dead.

Notes

  • Luckless corporation. Gillmore’s jocular reference to his stomach.
  • The tilt. The wagon’s canvas covering.
  • Quadrupeds. Four-legged animals.
  • Gopani’s boy. This young servant had been recommended to Gillmore by Gopani, an African Chief at Linekani.