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Chapter 21

RIDING THE PLAINS.

From the mere point of view of lions, lion A hunting was very slow work indeed. It meant riding the whole of long days, from dawn until dark, investigating miles of country that looked all alike and in which we seemed to get nowhere. One by one the long billows of plain fell behind, until our camp hill had turned blue behind us, and we seemed to be out in illimitable space, with no possibility, in an ordinary lifetime, of ever getting in touch with anything again. What from above had looked as level as a floor now turned into a tremendously wide and placid ground swell. As a consequence we were always going imperceptibly up and up and up to a long-delayed sky-line, or tipping as gently down the other side of the wave. From crest to crest of these long billows measured two or three miles. The vertical distance in elevation from trough to top was perhaps not over fifty to one hundred feet.

Slowly we rode along the shallow grass and brush ravines in the troughs of the low billows, while the dogs worked eagerly in and out of cover, and our handful of savages cast stones and shouted. Occasionally we divided forces, and beat the length of a hill, two of us lying in wait at one end for the possible lion, the rest sweeping the sides and summits. Many animals came bounding along, but no lions. Then Harold Hill, unlimbering a huge, many-jointed telescope, would lie flat on his back, and sight the fearsome instrument over his crossed feet, in a general bird's-eye view of the plains for miles around. While he was at it we were privileged to look about us, less under the burden of responsibility. We could make out the game as little, light-coloured dots and speckles, thousands upon thousands of them, thicker than cattle ever grazed on the open range, and as far as the eye could make them out, and then a glance through our glasses picked them up again for mile after mile. Even the six-power could go no farther. The imagination was left the vision of more leagues of wild animals even to the half-guessed azure mountains--and beyond. I had seen abundant game elsewhere in Africa, but nothing like the multitudes inhabiting the Kapiti Plains at that time of year. In other seasons this locality is comparatively deserted.

The glass revealing nothing in our line, we rode again to the lower levels, and again took up our slow, painstaking search.

But although three days went by in this manner without our getting a glimpse of lions, they were far from being days lost. Minor adventure filled our hours. What elsewhere would be of major interest and strange and interesting experience met us at every turn. The game, while abundant, was very shy. This had nothing to do with distrust of hunters, but merely with the fact that it was the season of green grass. We liked to come upon animals unexpectedly, to see them buck-jump and cavort.

Otherwise we rode in a moving space cleared of animals, the beasts unobtrusively giving way before us, and as unobtrusively closing in behind. The sun flashed on the spears of savages travelling single file across the distance. Often we stopped short to gaze upon a wild and tumbled horizon of storm that Gustave Doré might have drawn.

The dogs were always joyously routing out some beast, desirable from their point of view, and chasing it hopelessly about, to our great amusement. Once they ran into a giant porcupine-about the size a setter would be, with shorter legs-which did not understand running away. They came upon it in a dense thicket, and the ensuing row was unholy. They managed to kill the porcupine among them, after which we plucked barbed quills from some very grieved dogs. The quills were large enough to make excellent penholders. The dogs also swore by all canine gods that they wouldn't do a thing to a hyena, if only they could get hold of one. They never got hold of one, for the hyena is a coward. His skull and teeth, however, are as big and powerful as those of a lioness; so I do not know which was luckier in his avoidance of trouble--he or the dogs.

Nor from the shooting standpoint did we lack for sport. We had to shoot for our men, and we occasionally needed meat ourselves. It was always interesting, when such necessities arose, to stalk the shy buck and do long-range rifle practice. This shooting, however, was done only after the day's hunt was over. We had no desire to spoil our lion chances.

The long circle towards our evening camp always proved very long indeed. We arrived at dusk to find supper ready for us. As we were old campaigners we ate this off chop boxes as tables, and sat on the ground. It was served by a Wakamba youth we had nicknamed Herbert Spencer, on account of his gigantic intellect. Herbert meant well, but about all he succeeded in accomplishing was a pathetically wrinkled brow of care and scared eyes. He had never been harshly treated by any of us, but he acted as though always ready to bolt. If there were twenty easy right methods of doing a thing and one difficult wrong method, Herbert would get the latter every time. No amount of experience could teach him the logic of our simplest ways. One evening he brought a tumbler of mixed water and condensed milk. Harold Hill glanced into the receptacle.

"Stir it," he commanded briefly.

Herbert Spencer obeyed. We talked about something else. Some five or ten minutes later one of us noticed that Herbert was still stirring, and called attention to the fact. When the latter saw our eyes were on him he speeded up until the spoon fairly rattled in the tumbler. Then, when he thought our attention had relaxed again, he relaxed also his efforts--the spoon travelled slower and slower in its dreamy circle. We amused ourselves for some time thus. Then we became so weak from laughter that we fell backward off our seats, and some one gasped a command that Herbert cease.

I am afraid, after a little, that we rather enjoyed mildly tormenting poor Herbert Spencer. He tried so hard, and looked so scared, and was so unbelievably stupid! Almost always he had to pick his orders word by word from a vast amount of high-flown, unnecessary English.

"O Herbert Spencer," the command would run, "if you would condescend to bend your mighty intellect to the lowly subject of maji, and will snatch time from your profound cerebrations to assure its being moto sans, I would esteem it infinite condescension on your part to let pesi pesi."

And Herbert, listening to all this with a painful, strained intensity, would catch the six-key words, and would falter forth a trembling "N'dio bwana."

Somewhere down deep within Herbert Spencer's make up, however, was a sense of moral duty. When we finally broke camp for good, on the great hill of Lucania, Herbert Spencer, relieved from his job, bolted like a shot. As far as we could see him he was running at top speed. If he had not possessed a sense of duty, he would have done this long ago.

We camped always well up on some of the numerous hills; for, although anxious enough to find lions in the daytime, we had no use for them at all by night. This usually meant that the boys had to carry water some distance. We kept a canvas bath-tub full for the benefit of the dogs, from which they could drink at any time. This necessary privilege after a hard day nearly drove Captain D. crazy. It happened like this:

We were riding along the slope of a hillside, when in the ravine, a half mile away and below us, we saw something dark pop up in sight and then down again. We shouted to some of the savage Wakamba to go and investigate. They closed in from all sides, their long spears poised to strike. At the last moment out darted, not an animal, but a badly frightened old man armed with bow and arrow. He dashed out under the upraised spears, clasped one of the men around the knees, and implored protection. Our savages, their spears ready, glanced over their shoulders for instruction. They would have liked nothing better than to have spitted the poor old fellow.

We galloped down as fast as possible to the rescue. With reluctance our spearmen drew back, releasing their prize. We picked up his scattered bows and arrows, restored them to him, and uttered many reassurances. He was so badly frightened that he could not stand for the trembling of his knees. Undoubtedly he thought that war had broken out, and that he was the first of its unconscious victims. After calming him down, we told him what we were doing, and offered to shoot him meat if he cared to accompany us. He accepted the offer with joy. So pleased and relieved was he, that he skipped about like a young and nimble goat. His hunting companion, who all this time had stood atop of a hill at a safe distance, viewed these performances with concern. Our captive shouted loudly for him to come join us and share in the good fortune. Not he! He knew a trap when he saw one! Not a bit disturbed by the tales this man would probably carry back home, our old fellow attached himself to us for three days!

Near sundown, to make our promise good, and also to give our own men a feast, I shot two hartebeeste near camp.

The evening was beautiful. The Machakos Range, miles distant across the valley, was mantled with thick, soft clouds. From our elevation we could see over them, and catch the glow of moonlight on their upper surfaces. We were very tired, so we turned in early and settled ourselves for a good rest.

Outside our tent the little "Injun fire" we had built for our own comfort died down to coals. A short distance away, however, was a huge bonfire around which all the savages were gathered. They squatted comfortably on their heels, roasting meat. Behind each man was planted his glittering long-bladed spear. The old man held the place of honour, as befitted his flirtation with death that morning. Everybody was absolutely happy--a good fire, plenty of meat, and strangers with whom to have a grand "shauri." The clatter of tongues was a babel, for almost every one talked at once and excitedly. Those who did not talk crooned weird, improvised chants, in which they detailed the doings of the camp.

We fell very quickly into the half doze of too great exhaustion. It never became more than a half doze. I suppose every one who reads this has had at some time the experience of dropping asleep to the accompaniment of some noise that ought soon to cease--a conversation in the next room, singing, the barking of a dog, the playing of music, or the like. The fact that it ought soon to cease, permits the falling asleep. When, after an interval, the subconsciousness finds the row still going on, inexcusable and unabated, it arouses the victim to staring exasperation. That was our case here. Those natives should have turned in for sleep after a reasonable amount of pow-wow. They did nothing of the kind. On the contrary, I dragged reluctantly back to consciousness and the realization that they had quite happily settled down to make a night of it. I glanced across the little tent to where Captain D. lay on his cot. He was staring straight upward, his eyes wide open.

After a few seconds he slipped out softly and silently. Our little fire had sunk to embers. A dozen sticks radiated from the centre of coals. Each made a firebrand with one end cool to the grasp. Captain D. hurled one of these at the devoted and unconscious group.

It whirled through the air and fell plunk in the other fire, scattering sparks and coals in all directions. The second was under way before the first had landed. It hit a native with similar results, plus astonished and grieved language. The rest followed in rapid-magazine-fire. Every one hit its mark fair and square. The air was full of sparks exploding in all directions. The brush was full of Wakamba, their blankets flapping in the breeze of their going. The convention was adjourned. There fell the sucking vacuum of a great silence. Captain D., breathing righteous wrath, flopped heavily and determinedly down on his cot. I caught a faint snicker from the tent next door.

Captain D. sighed deeply, turned over, and prepared to sleep. Then one of the dogs uprose--I think it was Ben--stretched himself, yawned, approached deliberately, and began to drink from the canvas bath-tub just outside. He drank--lap, lap, lap, lap--for a very long time. It seemed incredible that any mere dog--or canvas bath-tub--could hold so much water. The steady repetition of this sound long after it should logically have ceased was worse than the shenzi gathering around the fire. Each lap should have been the last, but it was not. The shenzi convention had been abated with firebrands, but the dog was strictly within his rights. The poor pups had had a long day with little water, and they could hardly be blamed for feeling a bit feverish now. At last Ben ceased. Next morning Captain D. claimed vehemently that he had drunk two hours forty-nine minutes and ten seconds. With a contented sigh Ben lay down. Then Ruby got up, shook herself, and yawned. A bright idea struck her. She too went over and had a drink. After that I, personally, went to sleep. But in the morning I found Captain D. staring-eyed and strung nearly to madness, trying feverishly to calculate how seven dogs drinking on an average of three hours apiece could have finished by morning. When Harold Hill innocently asked if he had slept well, the captain threw the remaining but now extinct firebrand at him.

One of the safari boys, a big Baganda, had twisted his foot a little, and it had swelled up considerably. In the morning he came to have it attended to. The obvious treatment was very hot water and rest; but it would never do to tell him so. The recommendation of so simple a remedy would lose me his faith. So I gave him a little dab of tick ointment wrapped in a leaf.

"This," said I, "is most wonderful medicine; but it is also most dangerous. If you were to rub it on your foot or your hand or any part of you, that part would drop off. But if you wash the part in very hot water continuously for a half hour, and then put on the medicine, it is good, and will cure you very soon." I am sure I do not know what they put in tick ointment; nor, for the purpose, did it greatly matter. That night, also, Herbert Spencer reached the climax of his absurdities. The chops he had cooked did not quite suffice for our hunger, so we instructed him to give us some of the leg. By this we meant steak, of course. Herbert Spencer was gone so long a time that finally we went to see what possibly could be the matter. We found him trying desperately to cook the whole leg in a frying-pan!


Stewart Edward White

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