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THE LESSER KUDU.
About eight o'clock, the evening of our first day on the Swanee, the heat broke in a tropical downpour. We heard it coming from a long distance, like the roar of a great wind. The velvet blackness, star hung, was troubled by an invisible blurring mist, evidenced only through a subtle effect on the subconsciousness. Every leaf above us, in the circle of our firelight, depended absolutely motionless from its stem. The insects had ceased their shrilling; the night birds their chirping; the animals, great and small, their callings or their stealthy rustling to and fro. Of the world of sound there remained only the crackling of our fires, the tiny singing of the blood in our ears, and that far-off portentous roar. Our simple dispositions were made. Trenches had been dug around the tents; the pegs had been driven well home; our stores had been put in shelter. We waited silently, puffing away our pipes.
The roaring increased in volume. Beneath it we began to hear the long, rolling crash of thunder. Overhead the stars, already dimmed, were suddenly blotted from existence. Then came the rain, in a literal deluge, as though the god of floods had turned over an entire reservoir with one twist of his mighty hand. Our fire went out instantly; the whole world went out with it. We lay on our canvas cots unable to see a foot beyond our tent opening; unable to hear anything but the insistent, terrible drumming over our heads; unable to think of anything through the tumult of waters. As a man's body might struggle from behind a waterfall through the torrents, so our imaginations, half drowned, managed dimly to picture forth little bits--the men huddled close in their tiny tents, their cowled blankets over their heads. All the rest of the universe had gone.
After a time the insistent beat and rush of waters began to wear through our patience. We willed that this wracking tumult should cease; we willed it with all the force that was in us. Then, as this proved vain, we too humped our spiritual backs, cowled our souls with patience, and waited dumbly for the force of the storm to spend itself. Our faculties were quite as effectually drowned out by the unceasing roar and crash of the waters as our bodily comfort would have been had we lacked the protection of our tent.
Abruptly the storm passed. It did not die away slowly in the diminuendo of ordinary storms. It ceased as though the reservoir had been tipped back again. The rapid drip, drip, drip of waters now made the whole of sound; all the rest of the world lay breathless. Then, inside our tent, a cricket struck up bravely.
This homely, cheerful little sound roused us. We went forth to count damages and to put our house in order. The men hunted out dry wood and made another fire; the creatures of the jungle and the stars above them ventured forth.
Next morning we marched into a world swept clean. The ground was as smooth as though a new broom had gone over it. Every track now was fresh, and meant an animal near at hand. The bushes and grasses were hung with jewels. Merry little showers shook down from trees sharing a joke with some tiny wind. White steam rose from a moist, fertile-looking soil. The smell of greenhouses was in the air. Looking back, we were stricken motionless by the sight of Kilimanjaro, its twin peaks suspended a clean blue sky, fresh snow mantling its shoulders.
This day, so cheeringly opened, was destined to fulfil its promise. In the dense scrub dwell a shy and rare animal called the lesser kudu specimens of which we greatly desired. The beast keeps to the thickest and driest cove where it is impossible to see fifty yards ahead but where the slightest movement breaks the numberless dry interlacements of which the place seems made. To move really quietly one could not cover over a half-mile in an hour. As the countryside extends a thousand square miles or more, and the lesser kudu is rare, it can be seen that hunting them might have to be a slow and painful process. We had twice seen the peculiar tracks.
On this morning, however, we caught a glimpse of the beast itself. A flash of gray, with an impression of the characteristic harness-like stripes--that was all. The trail, in the ground, was of course very plain. I left the others and followed it into the brush. As usual the thorn scrub was so thick that I had to stoop and twist to get through it at all, and so brittle that the least false move made a crackling like a fire. The rain of the night before had, however, softened the débris lying on the ground. I moved forward as quickly as I could, half suffocated in the steaming heat of the dense thicket. After three or four hundred yards the beast fell into a walk, so I immediately halted. I reasoned that after a few steps at this gait he would look back to see whether or not he was followed. If his scouting showed him nothing he might throw off suspicion. After ten minutes I crept forward again. The spoor showed my surmises to be correct, for I came to where the animal had turned, behind a small bush, and had stood for a few minutes. Taking up the tracks from this point, I was delighted to find that the kudu had forgotten its fear, and was browsing. At the end of five minutes more of very careful work, I was fortunate enough to see it, feeding from the top of a small bush thirty-five yards away. The raking shot from the Springfield dropped it in its tracks.
It proved to be a doe, a great prize of course, but not to be compared with the male. We skinned her carefully, and moved on, delighted to have the species.
Our luck was not over, however. At the end of six hours we picked our camp in a pretty grove by the swift-running stream. There we sat down to await the safari. The tree-tops were full of both the brown and blue monkeys, baboons barked at us from a distance, the air was musical with many sweet birds. Big thunder-clouds were gathering around the horizon.
The safari came in. Mohammed immediately sought us out to report, in great excitement, that he had seen five kudu across the stream. He claimed to have watched them even after the safari had passed, and that they had not been alarmed. The chance was slight that the kudu could be found, but still it was a chance. Accordingly we rather reluctantly gave up our plans for a loaf and a nap. Mohammed said the place was an hour back; we had had six hours march already. However, about two o'clock we set out. Before we had arrived quite at the spot we caught a glimpse of the five kudu as they dashed across a tiny opening ahead of us. They had moved downstream and crossed the river.
It seemed rather hopeless to follow them into that thick country once they had been alarmed, but the prize was great. Therefore Memba Sasa and I took up the trail. We crept forward a mile, very quiet, very tense--very sweaty. Then simultaneously, through a chance opening and a long distance away, we caught a patch of gray with a single transverse white stripe. There was no chance to ascertain the sex of the beast, nor what part of its anatomy was thus exposed. I took a bull's eye chance on that patch of gray; had the luck to hit it in the middle. The animal went down. Memba Sasa leapt forward like a madman; I could not begin to keep pace with him. When I had struggled through the thorn, I found him dancing with delight.
"Monuome, bwana! buck, master!" he cried as soon as he saw me, and made a spiral gesture in imitation of the male's beautiful corkscrew horns.
While the men prepared the trophy, F. and I followed on after the other four to see what they would do, and speedily came to the conclusion that we were lucky to land two of the wily beasts. The four ran compactly together and in a wide curve for several hundred yards. Then two faced directly back, while the other two, one on either side, made a short detour out and back to guard the flanks.
We did not get back to camp until after dark. A tremendous pair of electric storms were volleying and roaring at each other across the space of night; leopards were crying; a pack of wild dogs were barking vociferously. The camp, as we approached it, was a globe of light in a bower of darkness. The fire, shining and flickering on the under sides of the leaves, lent them a strangely unreal stage-like appearance; the porters, their half-naked bodies and red blankets catching the blaze, roasted huge chunks of meat over little fires.
We ate a belated supper in comfort, peace, and satisfaction. Then the storms joined forces and fell upon us.
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