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Chapter 45

THE ROAN.

Our last camp, before turning back, we pitched about two o'clock one afternoon. Up to this time we had marched steadily down wide valleys, around the end of mountain ranges, moving from one room to the other of this hill-divided plateau. At last we ended on a slope that descended gently to water. It was grown sparingly with thorn trees, among which we raised our tents. Over against us, and across several low swells of grass and scrub-grown hills, was a range of mountains. Here, Mavrouki claimed, dwelt roan antelope.

We settled down quite happily. The country round about was full of game; the weather was cool, the wide sweeps of country, the upward fling of mountains and buttes were much like some parts of our great West. Almost every evening the thunderstorms made gorgeous piled effects in the distance. At night the lions and hyenas roared or howled, and some of the tiny fever owls impudently answered them back.

Various adventures came our way, some of which have been elsewhere narrated. Here we killed the very big buffalo that nearly got Billy.[29] In addition, we collected two more specimens of the Neuman's hartebeeste, and two Chanler's reed buck.

But Mavrouki's glowing predictions as to roan were hardly borne out by facts. According to him the mountains simply swarmed with them--he had seen thirty-five in one day, etc. Of course we had discounted this, but some old tracks had to a certain extent borne out his statement.

Lunch time one day, however, found us on top of the highest ridge. Here we hunted up a bit of shade, and spent two hours out of the noon sun. While we lay there the sky slowly overcast, so that when we aroused ourselves to go on, the dazzling light had softened. As time was getting short, we decided to separate. Memba Sasa and Mavrouki were to go in one direction, while C., Kongoni and I took the other.

Before we started I remarked that I was offering two rupees for the capture of a roan.

We had not gone ten minutes when Kongoni turned his head cautiously and grinned back at us.

"My rupees," said he.

A fine buck roan stood motionless beneath a tree in the valley below us. He was on the other side of the stream jungle, and nearly a mile away. While we watched him, he lay down.

Our task now was to gain the shelter of the stream jungle below without being seen, to slip along it until opposite the roan, and then to penetrate the jungle near enough to get a shot. The first part of this contract seemed to us the most difficult, for we were forced to descend the face of the hill, like flies crawling down a blackboard, plain for him to see.

We slid cautiously from bush to bush; we moved by imperceptible inches across the numerous open spaces. About half-way down we were arrested by a violent snort ahead. Fifteen or twenty zebras nooning in the brush where no zebras were supposed to be, clattered down the hill like an avalanche. We froze where we were. The beasts ran fifty yards, then wheeled, and started back up the hill, trying to make us out. For twenty minutes all parties to the transaction remained stock still, the zebras staring, we hoping fervently they would decide to go down the valley and not up it, the roan dozing under his distant tree.

By luck our hopes were fulfilled. The zebra turned downstream, walking sedately away in single file. When we were certain they had all quite gone, we resumed our painful descent.

At length we dropped below the screen of trees, and could stand upright and straighten the kinks out of our backs. But now a new complication arose. The wind, which had been the very basis of our calculations, commenced to chop and veer. Here it blew from one quarter, up there on the side hill from another, and through the bushes in quite another direction still. Then without warning they would all shift about. We watched the tops of the grasses through our binoculars, hoping to read some logic into the condition. It was now four o'clock--our stalk had thus far consumed two hours--and the roan must soon begin to feed. If we were going to do anything, we must do it soon.

Therefore we crept through a very spiky, noisy jungle to its other edge, sneaked along the edge until we could make out the tree, and raised ourselves for a look. Through the glass I could just make out the roan's face stripe. He was still there!

Quite encouraged, I instantly dropped down and crawled to within range. When again I raised my head the roan had disappeared. One of these aggravating little side puffs of breeze had destroyed our two hours' work.

The outlook was not particularly encouraging. We had no means of telling how far the animal would go, nor into what sort of country; and the hour was well advanced toward sunset. However, we took up the track, and proceeded to follow it as well as we could. That was not easy, for the ground was hard and stony. Suddenly C. threw himself flat. Of course we followed his example. To us he whispered that he thought he had caught a glimpse of the animal through an opening and across the stream bed. We stalked carefully, and found ourselves in the middle of a small herd of topis, one of which, half concealed in the brush, had deceived C. This consumed valuable time. When again we had picked up the spoor, it was agreed that I was to still-hunt ahead as rapidly as I could, while C. and Kongoni would puzzle out the tracks as far as possible before dark.

Therefore I climbed the little rocky ridge on our left, and walked along near its crest, keeping a sharp lookout over the valley below--much as one would hunt August bucks in California. After two or three hundred yards I chanced on a short strip of soft earth in which the fresh tracks of the roan going uphill were clearly imprinted. I could not without making too much noise inform the others that I had cut in ahead of them; so I followed the tracks as cautiously and quietly as I could. On the very top of the hill the roan leapt from cover fifty yards away, and with a clatter of rocks dashed off down the ridge. The grass was very high, and I could see only his head and horns, but I dropped the front sight six inches and let drive at a guess. The guess happened to be a good one, for he turned a somersault seventy-two yards away.

C. and Kongoni came up. The sun had just set. In fifteen minutes it would be pitch dark. We dispatched Kongoni for help and lanterns, and turned to on the job of building a signal fire and skinning the trophy.

The reason for our strangely chopping wind now became apparent. From our elevation we could see piled thunder-clouds looming up from the west. They were spreading upward and outward in the swift, rushing manner of tropic storms; and I saw I must hustle if I was to get my fire going at all. The first little blaze was easy, and after that I had to pile on quantities of any wood I could lay my hands to. The deluge blotted out every vestige of daylight and nearly drowned out my fire. I had started to help C. with the roan, but soon found that I had my own job cut out for me, and so went back to nursing my blaze. The water descended in sheets. We were immediately soaked through, and very cold. The surface of the ground was steep and covered with loose round rocks, and in my continuous trips for firewood I stumbled and slipped and ran into thorns miserably.[30]

After a long interval of this the lanterns came bobbing through the darkness, and a few moments later the dim light revealed the shining rain-soaked faces of our men.

We wasted no time in the distribution of burdens. C. with one of the lanterns brought up the rear, while I with the other went on ahead.

Now as Kongoni had but this minute completed the round trip to camp, we concluded that he would be the best one to give us a lead. This was a mistake. He took us out of the hills well enough, and a good job that was, for we could not see the length of our arms into the thick, rainy blackness, and we had to go entirely by the slants of the country. But once in the more open, sloping country, with its innumerable bushy or wooded ravines, he began to stray. I felt this from the first; but Kongoni insisted strongly he was right, and in the rain and darkness we had no way of proving him wrong. In fact I had no reason for thinking him wrong; I only felt it. This sense of direction is apparently a fifth wheel or extra adjustment some people happen to possess. It has nothing to do with acquired knowledge, as is very well proved by the fact that in my own case it acts only as long as I do not think about it. As soon as I begin consciously to consider the matter I am likely to go wrong. Thus many, many times I have back-tracked in the dark over ground I had traversed but once before, and have caught myself turning out for bushes or trees I could not see, but which my subconscious memory recalled. This would happen only when I would think of something besides the way home. As soon as I took charge, I groped as badly as the next man. It is a curious and sometimes valuable extra, but by no means to be depended upon.

Now, however, as I was following Kongoni, this faculty had full play, and it assured me vehemently that we were wrong. I called C. up from the rear for consultation. Kongoni was very positive he was right; but as we had now been walking over an hour, and camp should not have been more than three miles from where we had killed the roan, we were inclined towards my instinct. So we took the compass direction, in order to assure consistency at least, and struck off at full right angles to the left.

So we tramped for a long time. Every few moments Kongoni would want another look at that compass. It happened that we were now going due north, and his notion was that the needle pointed the way to camp. We profoundly hoped that his faith in white man's magic would not be shattered. At the end of an hour the rain let up, and it cleared sufficiently to disclose some of the mountain outlines. They convinced us that we were in the main right; though just where, to the north, camp now lay was beyond our power to determine. Kongoni's detour had been rather indeterminate in direction and distance.

The country now became very rough, in a small way. The feeble light of our leading lantern revealed only ghosts and phantoms and looming, warning suggestions of things which the shadows confused and shifted. Heavily laden men would have found it difficult travelling by prosaic daylight; but now, with the added impossibility of picking a route ahead, we found ourselves in all sorts of trouble. Many times we had to back out and try again. The ghostly flickering tree shapes against the fathomless black offered us apparently endless aisles that nevertheless closed before us like the doors of a trap when we attempted to enter them.

We kept doggedly to the same general northerly direction. When you are lost, nothing is more foolish than to make up your mind hastily and without due reflection; and nothing is more foolish than to change your mind once you have made it up. That way vacillation, confusion, and disaster lie. Should you decide, after due consideration of all the elements of the problem, that you should go east, then east you go, and nothing must turn you. You may get to the Atlantic Ocean if nothing else. And if you begin to modify your original plan, then you begin to circle. Believe me; I know.

Kongoni was plainly sceptical, and said so until I shut him up with some rather peremptory sarcasm. The bearers, who had to stumble in the dark under heavy burdens, were good-natured and joking. This we appreciated. One can never tell whether or not he is popular with a native until he and the native are caught in a dangerous or disagreeable fix.

We walked two hours as in a treadmill. Then that invaluable though erratic sixth sense of mine awoke. I stopped short.

"I believe we've come far enough," I shouted back to C., and fired my rifle.

We received an almost immediate answer from a short distance to the left. Not over two hundred yards in that direction we met our camp men bearing torches, and so were escorted in triumph after a sixteen-hour day.

FOOTNOTES:

[29] "The Land of Footprints."

[30] Six months after I had reached home, one of these thorns worked its way out of the calf of my leg.


Stewart Edward White

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