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Chapter 46

THE GREATER KUDU.

Next morning, in a joking manner, I tried to impress Kongoni with a sense of delinquency in not knowing better his directions, especially as he had twice traversed the route. He declined to be impressed.

"It is not the business of man to walk at night," he replied with dignity.

And when you stop to think of it, it certainly is not--in Africa.

At this camp we lingered several days. The great prize of our journeying was still lacking, and, to tell the truth, we had about given up hope, if not our efforts. Almost we had begun to believe our friends in Nairobi who had scoffed at the uselessness of our quest. Always we conscientiously looked over good kudu country, hundreds of miles of it, and always with the same lack of result, or even of encouragement. Other game we saw in plenty, of a dozen different varieties, large and small; but our five weeks' search had thus far yielded us only the sight of the same old, old sign, made many months before. If you had stood with us atop one of the mountains, and with us had looked abroad on the countless leagues of rolling brush-clothed land, undulating away in all directions over a far horizon, you must with us have estimated as very slight the chances of happening on the exact pin point where the kudu at that moment happened to be feeding. For the beast is shy, it inhabits the densest, closest mountain cover, it possesses the keen eyesight and sense of smell of the bush-dwelling deer and antelope, and more than the average sense of hearing. There are very few of him. But the chief discouragement is that arising from his roaming tendencies. Other rare animals are apt to "use" about one locality, so that once the hunter finds tracks, new or old, his game is one of patient, skilful search. The greater kudu, however, seems in this country at least to be a wanderer. He is here to-day and gone to-morrow. Systematic search seems as foolish as in the case of the proverbial needle in the haystack. The only method is to sift constantly, and trust to luck. One cannot catch fish with the fly in the book, but one has at least a chance if one keeps it on the water.

Mavrouki was the only one among us who had the living faith that comes from having seen the animal in the flesh. That is a curious bit of hunter psychology. When a man is out after a species new to him, it is only by the utmost stretch of the imagination that he is able to realize that such an animal can exist at all. He cannot prefigure it, somehow. He generally exaggerates to himself the difficulty of making it out, of approaching it, of getting his shot; until at last, if he happens to have hunted some time in vain, the beast becomes almost mythical and unbelievable. Once he has seen the animal, whether he gets a shot or not, all this vanishes. The strain on faith relaxes. He knows what to look for, and what to expect; and even if he sees no other specimen for a month, he nevertheless goes about the business with a certain confidence.

One afternoon we had been hunting carefully certain low mountains, and were headed for camp, walking rather carelessly along the bed of a narrow, open valley below the bush-covered side hills. The sun had disappeared behind the ranges, and the dusk of evening was just beginning to rise like a mist from the deeps of the caņons. We had ceased hunting--it was time to hurry home--and happened not to be talking only because we were tired. By sheerest idle luck I chanced to look up to the densely covered face of the mountain. Across a single tiny opening in the tall brush five or six hundred yards away, I caught a movement. Still idly I lifted my glasses for a look at what I thought would prove the usual impalla or sing-sing, and was just in time to catch the spirals of a magnificent set of horns. It was the greater kudu at last!

I gave a little cluck of caution; and instantly, without question, after the African fashion, the three men ahead of me sank to the ground. C. looked at me inquiringly. I motioned with my eyes. He raised his glasses for one look.

"That's the fellow," he said quietly.

The kudu, as though he had merely stepped into the opening to give us a sight of him, melted into the brush.

It was magnificent and exciting to have seen this wonderful beast after so long a quest, but by the same token it was not very encouraging for all that. If we had had all the daylight we needed, and unlimited time, it would have been quite a feat to stalk the wary beast in that thick, noisy cover. Now it was almost dark, and would be quite dark within the half-hour. The kudu had moved out of sight. Whether he had gone on some distance, or whether he still lingered near the edge of the tiny opening was another matter to be determined, and to be determined quickly.

Leaving Kongoni and Mavrouki, C. and I wriggled pantingly up the hill, as fast and at the same time as cautiously as we could. At the edge of the opening we came to a halt, belly down, and began eagerly to scrutinize the brush across the way. If the kudu still lingered we had to find it out before we ventured out of cover to take up his trail. Inch by inch we scrutinized every possible concealment. Finally C. breathed sharp with satisfaction. He had caught sight of the tip of one horn. With some difficulty he indicated to me where. After staring long enough, we could dimly make out the kudu himself browsing, from the tender branch-ends.

All we could do was to lie low. If the kudu fed on out of sight into the cover, we could not possibly get a shot; if he should happen again to cross the opening, we would get a good shot. No one but a hunter can understand the panting, dry-mouthed excitement of those minutes; five weeks' hard work hung in the balance. The kudu did neither of these things; he ceased browsing, took three steps forward, and stood.

The game seemed blocked. The kudu had evidently settled down for a snooze; it was impossible, in the situation, to shorten the distance without being discovered; the daylight was almost gone; we could make out no trace of him except through our glasses. Look as hard as we could, we could see nothing with the naked eye. Unless something happened within the next two minutes, we would bring nothing into camp but the memory of a magnificent beast. And next day he would probably be inextricably lost in the wilderness of mountains.[31]

It was a time for desperate measures, and, to C.'s evident doubtful anxiety, I took them. Through the glasses the mane of the kudu showed as a dim gray streak. Carefully I picked out two twigs on a bush fifteen feet from me, and a tuft of grass ten yards on, all of which were in line with where the shoulder of the kudu ought to be. Then I lowered my glasses. The gray streak of the kudu's mane had disappeared in the blending twilight, but I could still see the tips of the twigs and the tuft of grass. Very carefully I aligned the sights with these; and, with a silent prayer to the Red Gods, loosed the bullet into the darkness.

At the crack of the rifle the kudu leapt into plain sight.

"Hit!" rasped C. in great excitement.

I did not wait to verify this, but fired four times more as fast as I could work the bolt. Three of the bullets told. At the last shot he crumpled and came rolling down the slope. We both raised a wild whoop of triumph, which was answered at once by the expectant gunbearers below.

The finest trophy in Africa was ours!

FOOTNOTES:

[31] Trailing for any distance was impossible on account of the stony soil.


Stewart Edward White

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