The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XII. More Lions
Nor do the last remarks of the preceding chapter mean that you shall not have your trophy in peace. Perhaps excitement and a slight doubt as to whether or not you are going to survive do not appeal to you; but nevertheless you would like a lion skin or so. By all means shoot one lion, or two, or three in the safest fashion you can. But after that you ought to play the game.
The surest way to get a lion is to kill a zebra, cut holes in him, fill the holes with strychnine, and come back next morning. This method is absolutely safe.
The next safest way is to follow the quarry with a pack of especially trained dogs. The lion is so busy and nervous over those dogs that you can walk up and shoot him in the ear. This method has the excitement of riding and following, the joy of a grand and noisy row, and the fun of seeing a good dog-fight. The same effect can be got chasing wart-hogs, hyenas, jackals-or jack-rabbits. The objection is that it wastes a noble beast in an inferior game. My personal opinion is that no man is justified in following with dogs any large animal that can be captured with reasonable certainty without them. The sport of coursing is another matter; but that is quite the same in essence whatever the size of the quarry. If you want to kill a lion or so quite safely, and at the same time enjoy a glorious and exciting gallop with lots of accompanying row, by all means follow the sport with hounds. But having killed one or two by that method, quit. Do not go on and clean up the country. You can do it. Poison and hounds are the sure methods of finding any lion there may be about; and after the first few, one is about as justifiable as the other. If you want the undoubtedly great joy of cross country pursuit, send your hounds in after less noble game.
The third safe method of killing a lion is nocturnal. You lay out a kill beneath a tree, and climb the tree. Or better, you hitch out a pig or donkey as live bait. When the lion comes to this free lunch, you try to see him; and, if you succeed in that, you try to shoot him. It is not easy to shoot at night; nor is it easy to see in the dark. Furthermore, lions only occasionally bother to come to bait. You may roost up that tree many nights before you get a chance. Once up, you have to stay up; for it is most decidedly not safe to go home after dark. The tropical night in the highlands is quite chilly. Branches seem to be quite as cramping and abrasive under the equator as in the temperate zones. Still, it is one method.
Another is to lay out a kill and visit it in the early morning. There is more to this, for you are afoot, must generally search out your beast in nearby cover, and can easily find any amount of excitement in the process.
The fourth way is to ride the lion. The hunter sees his quarry returning home across the plains, perhaps; or jumps it from some small bushy ravine. At once he spurs his horse in pursuit. The lion will run but a short distance before coming to a stop, for he is not particularly long either of wind or of patience. From this stand he almost invariably charges. The astute hunter, still mounted, turns and flees. When the lion gets tired of chasing, which he does in a very short time, the hunter faces about. At last the lion sits down in the grass, waiting for the game to develop. This is the time for the hunter to dismount and to take his shot. Quite likely he must now stand a charge afoot, and drop his beast before it gets to him.
This is real fun. It has many elements of safety, and many of danger.
To begin with, the hunter at this game generally has companions to back him: often he employs mounted Somalis to round the lion up and get it to stand. The charging lion is quite apt to make for the conspicuous mounted men-who can easily escape-ignoring the hunter afoot. As the game is largely played in the open, the movements of the beast are easily followed.
On the other hand, there is room for mistake. The hunter, for example, should never follow directly in the rear of his lion, but rather at a parallel course off the beast's flank. Then, if the lion stops suddenly, the man does not overrun before he can check his mount. He should never dismount nearer than a hundred and fifty yards from the embayed animal; and should never try to get off while the lion is moving in his direction. Then, too, a hard gallop is not conducive to the best of shooting. It is difficult to hold the front bead steady; and it is still more difficult to remember to wait, once the lion charges, until he has come near enough for a sure shot. A neglect in the inevitable excitement of the moment to remember these and a dozen other small matters may quite possibly cause trouble.
Two or three men together can make this one of the most exciting mounted games on earth; with enough of the give and take of real danger and battle to make it worth while. The hunter, however, who employs a dozen Somalis to ride the beast to a standstill, after which he goes to the front, has eliminated much of the thrill. Nor need that man's stay-at-home family feel any excessive uneasiness over Father Killing Lions in Africa.
The method that interested me more than any other is one exceedingly difficult to follow except under favourable circumstances. I refer to tracking them down afoot. This requires that your gunbearer should be an expert trailer, for, outside the fact that following a soft-padded animal over all sorts of ground is a very difficult thing to do, the hunter should be free to spy ahead. It is necessary also to possess much patience and to endure under many disappointments. But on the other hand there is in this sport a continuous keen thrill to be enjoyed in no other; and he who single handed tracks down and kills his lion thus, has well earned the title of shikari-the Hunter.
And the last method of all is to trust to the God of Chance. The secret of success is to be always ready to take instant advantage of what the moment offers.
An occasional hunting story is good in itself: and the following will also serve to illustrate what I have just been saying.
We were after that prize, the greater kudu, and in his pursuit had penetrated into some very rough country. Our hunting for the time being was over broad bench, perhaps four or five miles wide, below a range of mountains. The bench itself broke down in sheer cliffs some fifteen hundred feet, but one did not appreciate that fact unless he stood fairly on the edge of the precipice. To all intents and purposes we were on a rolling grassy plain, with low hills and cliffs, and a most beautiful little stream running down it beneath fine trees.
Up to now our hunting had gained us little beside information: that kudu had occasionally visited the region, that they had not been there for a month, and that the direction of their departure had been obscure. So we worked our way down the stream, trying out the possibilities. Of other game there seemed to be a fair supply: impalla, hartebeeste, zebra, eland, buffalo, wart-hog, sing-sing, and giraffe we had seen. I had secured a wonderful eland and a very fine impalla, and we had had a gorgeous close-quarters fight with a cheetah.* Now C. had gone out, a three weeks' journey, carrying to medical attendance a porter injured in the cheetah fracas. Billy and I were continuing the hunt alone.
*This animal quite disproved the assertion that cheetahs never assume the aggressive. He charged repeatedly.
We had marched two hours, and were pitching camp under a single tree near the edge of the bench. After seeing everything well under way, I took the Springfield and crossed the stream, which here ran in a deep canyon. My object was to see if I could get a sing-sing that had bounded away at our approach. I did not bother to take a gunbearer, because I did not expect to be gone five minutes.
The canyon proved unexpectedly deep and rough, and the stream up to my waist. When I had gained the top, I found grass growing patchily from six inches to two feet high; and small, scrubby trees from four to ten feet tall, spaced regularly, but very scattered. These little trees hardly formed cover, but their aggregation at sufficient distance limited the view.
The sing-sing had evidently found his way over the edge of the bench. I turned to go back to camp. A duiker-a small grass antelope-broke from a little patch of the taller grass, rushed, head down headlong after their fashion, suddenly changed his mind, and dashed back again. I stepped forward to see why he had changed his mind-and ran into two lions!
They were about thirty yards away, and sat there on their haunches, side by side, staring at me with expressionless yellow eyes. I stared back. The Springfield is a good little gun, and three times before I had been forced to shoot lions with it, but my real "lion gun" with which I had done best work was the 405 Winchester. The Springfield is too light for such game. Also there were two lions, very close. Also I was quite alone.
As the game stood, it hardly looked like my move; so I held still and waited. Presently one yawned, they looked at each other, turned quite leisurely, and began to move away at a walk.
This was a different matter. If I had fired while the two were facing me, I should probably have had them both to deal with. But now that their tails were turned toward me, I should very likely have to do with only the one: at the crack of the rifle the other would run the way he was headed. So I took a careful bead at the lioness and let drive.
My aim was to cripple the pelvic bone, but, unfortunately, just as I fired, the beast wriggled lithely sidewise to pass around a tuft of grass, so that the bullet inflicted merely a slight flesh wound on the rump. She whirled like a flash, and as she raised her head high to locate me, I had time to wish that the Springfield hit a trifle harder blow. Also I had time to throw another cartridge in the barrel.
The moment she saw me she dropped her head and charged. She was thoroughly angry and came very fast. I had just enough time to steady the gold bead on her chest and to pull trigger.
At the shot, to my great relief, she turned bottom up, and I saw her tail for an instant above the grass-an almost sure indication of a bad hit. She thrashed around, and made a tremendous hullabaloo of snarls and growls. I backed out slowly, my rifle ready. It was no place for me, for the grass was over knee high.
Once at a safe distance I blazed a tree with my hunting knife and departed for camp, well pleased to be out of it. At camp I ate lunch and had a smoke; then with Memba Sasa and Mavrouki returned to the scene of trouble. I had now the 405 Winchester, a light and handy weapon delivering a tremendous blow.
We found the place readily enough. My lioness had recovered from the first shock and had gone. I was very glad I had gone first.
The trail was not very plain, but it could be followed a foot or so at a time, with many faults and casts back. I walked a yard to one side while the men followed the spoor. Owing to the abundance of cover it was very nervous work, for the beast might be almost anywhere, and would certainly charge. We tried to keep a neutral zone around ourselves by tossing stones ahead of and on both sides of our line of advance. My own position was not bad, for I had the rifle ready in my hand, but the men were in danger. Of course I was protecting them as well as I could, but there was always a chance that the lioness might spring on them in such a manner that I would be unable to use my weapon. Once I suggested that as the work was dangerous, they could quit if they wanted to.
"Hapana!" they both refused indignantly.
We had proceeded thus for half a mile when to our relief, right ahead of us, sounded the commanding, rumbling half-roar, half-growl of the lion at bay.
Instantly Memba Sasa and Mavrouki dropped back to me. We all peered ahead. One of the boys made her out first, crouched under a bush thirty-two yards away. Even as I raised the rifle she saw us and charged. I caught her in the chest before she had come ten feet. The heavy bullet stopped her dead. Then she recovered and started forward slowly, very weak, but game to the last. Another shot finished her.
The remarkable point of this incident was the action of the little Springfield bullet. Evidently the very high velocity of this bullet from its shock to the nervous system had delivered a paralyzing blow sufficient to knock out the lioness for the time being. Its damage to tissue, however, was slight. Inasmuch as the initial shock did not cause immediate death, the lioness recovered sufficiently to be able, two hours later, to take the offensive. This point is of the greatest interest to the student of ballistics; but it is curious to even the ordinary reader.
That is a very typical example of finding lions by sheer chance. Generally a man is out looking for the smallest kind of game when he runs up against them. Now happened to follow an equally typical example of tracking.
The next day after the killing of the lioness Memba Sasa, Kongoni and I dropped off the bench, and hunted greater kudu on a series of terraces fifteen hundred feet below. All we found were two rhino, some sing-sing, a heard of impalla, and a tremendous thirst. In the meantime, Mavrouki had, under orders, scouted the foothills of the mountain range at the back. He reported none but old tracks of kudu, but said he had seen eight lions not far from our encounter of the day before.
Therefore, as soon next morning as we could see plainly, we again crossed the canyon and the waist-deep stream. I had with me all three of the gun men, and in addition two of the most courageous porters to help with the tracking and the looking.
About eight o'clock we found the first fresh pad mark plainly outlined in an isolated piece of soft earth. Immediately we began that most fascinating of games-trailing over difficult ground. In this we could all take part, for the tracks were some hours old, and the cover scanty. Very rarely could we make out more than three successive marks. Then we had to spy carefully for the slightest indication of direction. Kongoni in especial was wonderful at this, and time and again picked up a broken grass blade or the minutest inch-fraction of disturbed earth. We moved slowly, in long hesitations and castings about, and in swift little dashes forward of a few feet; and often we went astray on false scents, only to return finally to the last certain spot. In this manner we crossed the little plain with the scattered shrub trees and arrived at the edge of the low bluff above the stream bottom.
This bottom was well wooded along the immediate bank of the stream itself, fringed with low thick brush, and in the open spaces grown to the edges with high, green, coarse grass.
As soon as we had managed to follow without fault to this grass, our difficulties of trailing were at an end. The lions' heavy bodies had made distinct paths through the tangle. These paths went forward sinuously, sometimes separating one from the other, sometimes intertwining, sometimes combining into one for a short distance. We could not determine accurately the number of beasts that had made them.
"They have gone to drink water," said Memba Sasa.
We slipped along the twisting paths, alert for indications; came to the edge of the thicket, stooped through the fringe, and descended to the stream under the tall trees. The soft earth at the water's edge was covered with tracks, thickly overlaid one over the other. The boys felt of the earth, examined, even smelled, and came to the conclusion that the beasts must have watered about five o'clock. If so, they might be ten miles away, or as many rods.
We had difficulty in determining just where the party left this place, until finally Kongoni caught sight of suspicious indications over the way. The lions had crossed the stream. We did likewise, followed the trail out of the thicket, into the grass, below the little cliffs parallel to the stream, back into the thicket, across the river once more, up the other side, in the thicket for a quarter mile, then out into the grass on that side, and so on. They were evidently wandering, rather idly, up the general course of the stream. Certainly, unlike most cats, they did not mind getting their feet wet, for they crossed the stream four times.
At last the twining paths in the shoulder-high grass fanned out separately. We counted.
"You were right, Mavrouki," said I, "there were eight."
At the end of each path was a beaten-down little space where evidently the beasts had been lying down. With an exclamation the three gunbearers darted forward to investigate. The lairs were still warm! Their occupants had evidently made off only at our approach!
Not five minutes later we were halted by a low warning growl right ahead. We stopped. The boys squatted on their heels close to me, and we consulted in whispers.
Of course it would be sheer madness to attack eight lions in grass so high we could not see five feet in front of us. That went without saying. On the other hand, Mavrouki swore that he had yesterday seen no small cubs with the band, and our examination of the tracks made in soft earth seemed to bear him out. The chances were therefore that, unless themselves attacked or too close pressed, the lions would not attack us. By keeping just in their rear we might be able to urge them gently along until they should enter more open cover. Then we could see.
Therefore we gave the owner of that growl about five minutes to forget it, and then advanced very cautiously. We soon found where the objector had halted, and plainly read by the indications where he had stood for a moment or so, and then moved on. We slipped along after.
For five hours we hung at the heels of that band of lions, moving very slowly, perfectly willing to halt whenever they told us to, and going forward again only when we became convinced that they too had gone on. Except for the first half hour, we were never more than twenty or thirty yards from the nearest lion, and often much closer. Three or four times I saw slowly gliding yellow bodies just ahead of me, but in the circumstances it would have been sheer stark lunacy to have fired. Probably six or eight times-I did not count-we were commanded to stop, and we did stop.
It was very exciting work, but the men never faltered. Of course I went first, in case one of the beasts had the toothache or otherwise did not play up to our calculations on good nature. One or the other of the gunbearers was always just behind me. Only once was any comment made. Kongoni looked very closely into my face.
"There are very many lions," he remarked doubtfully.
"Very many lions," I agreed, as though assenting to a mere statement of fact.
Although I am convinced there was no real danger, as long as we stuck to our plan of campaign, nevertheless it was quite interesting to be for so long a period so near these great brutes. They led us for a mile or so along the course of the stream, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other. Several times they emerged into better cover, and even into the open, but always ducked back into the thick again before we ourselves had followed their trail to the clear.
At noon we were halted by the usual growl just as we had reached the edge of the river. So we sat down on the banks and had lunch.
Finally our chance came. The trail led us, for the dozenth time, from the high grass into the thicket along the river. We ducked our heads to enter. Memba Sasa, next my shoulder, snapped his fingers violently. Following the direction of the brown arm that shot over my shoulder, I strained my eyes into the dimness of the thicket. At first I could see nothing at all, but at length a slight motion drew my eye. Then I made out the silhouette of a lion's head, facing us steadily. One of the rear guard had again turned to halt us, but this time where he and his surroundings could be seen.
Luckily I always use a Sheard gold bead sight, and even in the dimness of the tree-shaded thicket it showed up well. The beast was only forty yards away, so I fired at his head. He rolled over without a sound.
We took the usual great precautions in determining the genuineness of his demise, then carried him into the open. Strangely enough the bullet had gone so cleanly into his left eye that it had not even broken the edge of the eyelid; so that when skinned he did not show a mark. He was a very decent maned lion, three feet four inches at the shoulder, and nine feet long as he lay. We found that he had indeed been the rear guard, and that the rest, on the other side of the thicket, had made off at the shot. So in spite of the apparent danger of the situation, our calculations had worked out perfectly. Also we had enjoyed a half day's sport of an intensity quite impossible to be extracted from any other method of following the lion.
In trying to guess how any particular lions may act, however, you will find yourself often at fault. The lion is a very intelligent and crafty beast, and addicted to tricks. If you follow a lion to a small hill, it is well to go around that hill on the side opposite to that taken by your quarry. You are quite likely to meet him for he is clever enough thus to try to get in your rear. He will lie until you have actually passed him before breaking off. He will circle ahead, then back to confuse his trail. And when you catch sight of him in the distance, you would never suspect that he knew of your presence at all. He saunters slowly, apparently aimlessly, along pausing often, evidently too bored to take any interest in life. You wait quite breathlessly for him to pass behind cover. Then you are going to make a very rapid advance, and catch his leisurely retreat. But the moment old Leo does pass behind the cover, his appearance of idle stroller vanishes. In a dozen bounds he is gone.
That is what makes lion hunting delightful. There are some regions, very near settlements, where it is perhaps justifiable to poison these beasts. If you are a true sportsman you will confine your hound-hunting to those districts. Elsewhere, as far as playing fair with a noble beast is concerned, you may as well toss a coin to see which you shall take-your pack or a strychnine bottle.