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About three o'clock I began to feel rested and ambitious. Therefore I called up our elegant guide and Memba Sasa, and set out on my first hunt for sable. F. was rather more done up by the hard morning, and so did not go along. The guide wore still his red tarboosh, his dark short jacket, his saffron yellow nether garment--it was not exactly a skirt--and his silver-headed rattan cane. The only change he made was to tuck up the skirt, leaving his long legs bare. It hardly seemed altogether a suitable costume for hunting; but he seemed to know what he was about.
We marched along ridges, and down into ravines, and across gulleys choked with brush. Horrible thickets alternated with and occasionally surrounded open green meadows hanging against the side hills. As we proceeded, the country became rougher, the ravines more precipitous. We struggled up steep hills, fairly bucking our way through low growth that proved all but impenetrable. The idea was to find a sable feeding in one of the little open glades; but whenever I allowed myself to think of the many adverse elements of the game, the chances seemed very slim. It took a half-hour to get from one glade to the next; there were thousands of glades. The sable is a rare shy animal that likes dense cover fully as well if not better than the open. Sheer rank bull luck alone seemed the only hope. And as I felt my strength going in that vicious struggle against heavy brush and steep hills, I began to have very strong doubts indeed as to that sable.
For it was cruel, hard work. In this climate one hailed a car or a rickshaw to do an errand two streets away, and considered oneself quite a hero if one took a leisurely two-mile stroll along the cliff heads at sunset. Here I was, after a five-hour uphill march, bucking into brush and through country that would be considered difficult going even in Canada. At the end of twenty minutes my every garment was not wringing but dripping wet, so that when I carried my rifle over my arm water ran down the barrel and off the muzzle in a steady stream. After a bit of this my knees began to weaken; and it became a question of saving energy, of getting along somehow, and of leaving the actual hunting to Memba Sasa and the guide. If they had shown me a sable, I very much doubt if I could have hit it.
However, we did not see one, and I staggered into camp at dusk pretty well exhausted. From the most grateful hot bath and clean clothes I derived much refreshment. Shortly I was sitting in my canvas chair, sipping a cocoanut, and describing the condition of affairs to F., who was naturally very curious as to how the trick was done.
"Now," I concluded, "I know just about what I can and what I cannot do. Three days more of this sort of work will feed me up. If we do not run across a sable in that time, I'm afraid we don't get any."
"Two days will do for me," said he.
We called up the guide and questioned him closely. He seemed quite confident; and asserted that in this country sable were found, when they were found at all, which was not often. They must be discovered in the small grassy openings. We began to understand why so very few people get sable.
We dismissed the guide, and sat quietly smoking in the warm soft evening. The air was absolutely still save for various night insects and birds, and the weird calling of natives across the valleys. Far out towards the sea a thunderstorm flashed; and after a long interval the rumblings came to us. So very distant was it that we paid it little attention, save as an interesting background to our own still evening. Almost between sentences of our slow conversation, however, it rushed up to the zenith, blotting out the stars. The tall palms began to sway and rustle in the forerunning breeze. Then with a swoop it was upon us, a tempest of fury. We turned in; and all night long the heavy deluges of rain fell, roaring like surf on an unfriendly coast.
By morning this had fallen to a light, steady drizzle in which we started off quite happily. In this climate one likes to get wet. The ground was sodden and deep with muck. Within a mile of camp we saw many fresh buffalo tracks.
This time we went downhill and still downhill through openings among batches of great forest trees. The new leaves were just coming out in pinks and russets, so that the effect at a little distance was almost precisely that of our autumn foliage in its duller phases. So familiar were made some of the low rounded knolls that for an instant we were respectively back in the hills of Surrey or Michigan, and told each other so.
Thus we moved slowly out from the dense cover to the grass openings. Far over on another ridge F. called my attention to something jet-black and indeterminate. In another country I should have named it as a charred log on an old pine burning, for that was precisely what it looked like. We glanced at it casually through our glasses. It was a sable buck lying down right out in the open. He was black and sleek, and we could make out his sweeping scimitar horns.
Memba Sasa and the Swahili dropped flat on their faces while F. and I crawled slowly and cautiously through the mud until we had gained the cover of a shallow ravine that ran in the beast's general direction. Noting carefully a certain small thicket as landmark, we stooped and moved as fast as we could down to that point of vantage. There we cautiously parted the grasses and looked. The sable had disappeared. The place where he had been lying was plainly to be identified, and there was no cover save a tiny bush between two and three feet high. We were quite certain he had neither seen nor winded us. Either he had risen and fled forward into the ravine up which we had made our stalk, or else he had entered the small thicket. F. agreed to stay on watch where he was, while I slipped back and examined the earth to leeward of the thicket.
I had hardly crawled ten yards, however, before the gentle snapping of F.'s fingers recalled me to his side.
"He's behind that bush," he whispered in my ear.
I looked. The bush was hardly large enough to conceal a setter dog, and the sable is somewhat larger than our elk. Nevertheless F. insisted that the animal was standing behind it, and that he had caught the toss of its head. We lay still for some time, while the soft, warm rain drizzled down on us, our eyes riveted on the bush. And then we caught the momentary flash of curved horns as the sable tossed his head. It seemed incredible even then that the tiny bush should conceal so large a beast. As a matter of fact we later found that the bush grew on a slight elevation, behind which was a depression. In this the sable stood, patiently enduring the drizzle.
We waited some time in hopes he would move forward a foot or so; but apparently he had selected his loafing place with care, and liked it. The danger of a shift of wind was always present. Finally I slipped back over the brink of the ravine, moved three yards to the left, and crawled up through the tall dripping grass to a new position behind a little bush. Cautiously raising my head, I found I could see plainly the sable's head and part of his shoulders. My position was cramped and out of balance for offhand shooting; but I did my best, and heard the loud plunk of the hit. The sable made off at a fast though rather awkward gallop, wheeled for an instant a hundred yards farther on, received another bullet in the shoulder, and disappeared over the brow of the hill. We raced over the top to get in another shot, and found him stone dead.
He was a fine beast, jet-black in coat, with white markings on the face, red-brown ears, and horns sweeping up and back scimitar fashion. He stood four feet and six inches at the shoulder, and his horns were the second best ever shot in British East Africa. This beast has been described by Heller as a new subspecies, and named Rooseveltii. His description was based upon an immature buck and a doe shot by Kermit Roosevelt. The determination of subspecies on so slight evidence seems to me unscientific in the extreme. While the immature males do exhibit the general brown tone relied on by Mr. Heller, the mature buck differs in no essential from the tropical sable. I find the alledged subspecies is not accepted by European scientists.
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