The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XIV. A Day on the Isiola
Early one morning-we were still on the Isiola-we set forth on our horses to ride across the rolling, brush-grown plain. Our intention was to proceed at right angles to our own little stream until we had reached the forest growth of another, which we could dimly make out eight or ten miles distant. Billy went with us, so there were four a-horseback. Behind us trudged the gunbearers, and the syces, and after them straggled a dozen or fifteen porters.
The sun was just up, and the air was only tepid as yet. From patches of high grass whirred and rocketed grouse of two sorts. They were so much like our own ruffed grouse and prairie chicken that I could with no effort imagine myself once more a boy in the coverts of the Middle West. Only before us we could see the stripes of trotting zebra disappearing; and catch the glint of light on the bayonets of the oryx. Two giraffes galumphed away to the right. Little grass antelope darted from clump to clump of grass. Once we saw gerenuk-oh, far away in an impossible distance. Of course we tried to stalk them; and as usual we failed. The gerenuk we had come to look upon as our Lesser Hoodoo.
The beast is a gazelle about as big as a black-tailed deer. His peculiarity is his excessively long neck, a good deal on the giraffe order. With it he crops browse above high tide mark of other animals, especially when as often happens he balances cleverly on his hind legs. By means of it also he can, with his body completely concealed, look over the top of ordinary cover and see you long before you have made out his inconspicuous little head. Then he departs. He seems to have a lamentable lack of healthy curiosity about you. In that respect he should take lessons from the kongoni. After that you can follow him as far as you please; you will get only glimpses at three or four hundred yards.
We remounted sadly and rode on. The surface of the ground was rather soft, scattered with round rocks the size of a man's head, and full of pig holes.
"Cheerful country to ride over at speed," remarked Billy. Later in the day we had occasion to remember that statement.
The plains led us ever on. First would be a band of scattered brush growing singly and in small clumps: then a little open prairie; then a narrow, long grass swale; then perhaps a low, long hill with small single trees and rough, volcanic footing. Ten thousand things kept us interested. Game was everywhere, feeding singly, in groups, in herds, game of all sizes and descriptions. The rounded ears of jackals pointed at us from the grass. Hundreds of birds balanced or fluttered about us, birds of all sizes from the big ground hornbill to the littlest hummers and sun birds. Overhead, across the wonderful variegated sky of Africa the broad-winged carrion hunters and birds of prey wheeled. In all our stay on the Isiola we had not seen a single rhino track, so we rode quite care free and happy.
Finally, across a glade, not over a hundred and fifty yards away, we saw a solitary bull oryx standing under a bush. B. wanted an oryx. We discussed this one idly. He looked to be a decent oryx, but nothing especial. However, he offered a very good shot; so B., after some hesitation, decided to take it. It proved to be by far the best specimen we shot, the horns measuring thirty-six and three fourths inches! Almost immediately after, two of the rather rare striped hyenas leaped from the grass and departed rapidly over the top of a hill. We opened fire, and F. dropped one of them. By the time these trophies were prepared, the sun had mounted high in the heavens, and it was getting hot.
Accordingly we abandoned that still distant river and swung away in a wide circle to return to camp.
Several minor adventures brought us to high noon and the heat of the day. B. had succeeded in drawing a prize, one of the Grevy's or mountain zebra. He and the gunbearers engaged themselves with that, while we sat under the rather scanty shade of a small thorn tree and had lunch. Here we had a favourable chance to observe that very common, but always wonderful phenomenon, the gathering of the carrion birds. Within five minutes after the stoop of the first vulture above the carcass, the sky immediately over that one spot was fairly darkened with them. They were as thick as midges-or as ducks used to be in California. All sizes were there from the little carrion crows to the great dignified vultures and marabouts and eagles. The small fry flopped and scolded, and rose and fell in a dense mass; the marabouts walked with dignified pace to and fro through the grass all about. As far as the eye could penetrate the blue, it could make out more and yet more of the great soarers stooping with half bent wings. Below we could see uncertainly through the shimmer of the mirage the bent forms of the men.
We ate and waited; and after a little we dozed. I was awakened suddenly by a tremendous rushing roar, like the sound of a not too distant waterfall. The group of men were plodding toward us carrying burdens. And like plummets the birds were dropping straight down from the heavens, spreading wide their wings at the last moment to check their speed. This made the roaring sound that had awakened me.
A wide spot in the shimmer showed black and struggling against the ground. I arose and walked over, meeting halfway B. and the men carrying the meat. It took me probably about two minutes to reach the place where the zebra had been killed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the great birds were standing idly about; a dozen or so were flapping and scrambling in the centre. I stepped into view. With a mighty commotion they all took wing clumsily, awkwardly, reluctantly. A trampled, bloody space and the larger bones, picked absolutely clean, was all that remained! In less than two minutes the job had been done!
"You're certainly good workmen!" I exclaimed, "but I wonder how you all make a living!"
We started the men on to camp with the meat, and ourselves rested under the shade. The day had been a full and interesting one; but we considered it as finished. Remained only the hot journey back to camp.
After a half hour we mounted again and rode on slowly. The sun was very strong and a heavy shimmer clothed the plain. Through this shimmer we caught sight of something large and black and flapping. It looked like a crow-or, better, a scare-crow-crippled, half flying, half running, with waving wings or arms, now dwindling, now gigantic as the mirage caught it up or let it drop. As we watched, it developed, and we made it out to be a porter, clad in a long, ragged black overcoat, running zigzag through the bushes in our direction.
The moment we identified it we spurred our horses forward. As my horse leaped, Memba Sasa snatched the Springfield from my left hand and forced the 405 Winchester upon me. Clever Memba Sasa! He no more than we knew what was up, but shrewdly concluded that whatever it was it needed a heavy gun.
As we galloped to meet him, the porter stopped. We saw him to be a very long-legged, raggedy youth whom we had nicknamed the Marabout because of his exceedingly long, lean legs, the fact that his breeches were white, short and baggy, and because he kept his entire head shaved close. He called himself Fundi, which means The Expert, a sufficient indication of his confidence in himself.
He awaited us leaning on his safari stick, panting heavily, the sweat running off his face in splashes. "Simba!"* said he, and immediately set off on a long, easy lope ahead of us. We pulled down to a trot and followed him.
At the end of a half mile we made out a man up a tree. Fundi, out of breath, stopped short and pointed to this man. The latter, as soon as he had seen us, commenced to scramble down. We spurred forward to find out where the lions had been last seen.
Then Billy covered herself with glory by seeing them first. She apprised us of that fact with some excitement. We saw the long, yellow bodies of two of them disappearing in the edge of the brush about three hundred yards away. With a wild whoop we tore after them at a dead run.
Then began a wild ride. Do you remember Billy's remark about the nature of the footing? Before long we closed in near enough to catch occasional glimpses of the beasts, bounding easily along. At that moment B.'s horse went down in a heap. None of us thought for a moment of pulling up. I looked back to see B. getting up again, and thought I caught fragments of encouraging-sounding language. Then my horse went down. I managed to hold my rifle clear, and to cling to the reins. Did you ever try to get on a somewhat demoralized horse in a frantic hurry, when all your friends were getting farther away every minute, and so lessening your chances of being in the fun? I began to understand perfectly B.'s remarks of a moment before. However, on I scrambled, and soon overtook the hunt.
We dodged in and out of bushes, and around and over holes. Every few moments we would catch a glimpse of one of those silently bounding lions, and then we would let out a yell. Also every few moments one or the other of us would go down in a heap, and would scramble up and curse, and remount hastily. Billy had better luck. She had no gun, and belonged a little in the rear anyway, but was coming along game as a badger for all that.
My own horse had the legs of the others quite easily, and for that reason I was ahead far enough to see the magnificent sight of five lions sideways on, all in a row, standing in the grass gazing at me with a sort of calm and impersonal dignity. I wheeled my horse immediately so as to be ready in case of a charge, and yelled to the others to hurry up. While I sat there, they moved slowly off one after the other, so that by the time the men had come, the lions had gone. We now had no difficulty in running into them again. Once more my better animal brought me to the lead, so that for the second time I drew up facing the lions, and at about one hundred yards range. One by one they began to leave as before, very leisurely and haughtily, until a single old maned fellow remained. He, however, sat there, his great round head peering over the top of the grass.
"Well," he seemed to say, "here I am, what do you intend to do about it?"
The others arrived, and we all dismounted. B. had not yet killed his lion, so the shot was his. Billy very coolly came up behind and held his horse. I should like here to remark that Billy is very terrified of spiders. F. and I stood at the ready, and B. sat down.
Riding fast an exciting mile or so, getting chucked on your head two or three times, and facing your first lion are none of them conducive to steady shooting. The first shot therefore went high, but the second hit the lion square in the chest, and he rolled over dead.
We all danced a little war dance, and congratulated B. and turned to get the meaning of a queer little gurgling gasp behind us. There was Fundi! That long-legged scarecrow, not content with running to get us and then back again, had trailed us the whole distance of our mad chase over broken ground at terrific speed in order to be in at the death. And he was just about all in at the death. He could barely gasp his breath, his eyes stuck out; he looked close to apoplexy.
"Bwana! bwana!" was all he could say. "Master! master!"
We shook hands with Fundi.
"My son," said I, "you're a true sport, and you'll surely get yours later."
He did not understand me, but he grinned. The gunbearers began to drift in, also completely pumped. They set up a feeble shout when they saw the dead lion. It was a good maned beast, three feet six inches at the shoulder, and nine feet long.
We left Fundi with the lion, instructing him to stay there until some of the other men came up. We remounted and pushed on slowly in hopes of coming on one of the others.
Here and there we rode, our courses interweaving, looking eagerly. And lo! through a tiny opening in the brush we espied one of those elusive gerenuk standing not over one hundred yards away. Whereupon I dismounted and did some of the worst shooting I perpetrated in Africa, for I let loose three times at him before I landed. But land I did, and there was one Lesser Hoodoo broken. Truly this was our day.
We measured him and started to prepare the trophy, when to us came Mavrouki and a porter, quite out of breath, but able to tell us that they had been scouting around and had seen two of the lions. Then, instead of leaving one up a tree to watch, both had come pell-mell to tell us all about it. We pointed this out to them, and called their attention to the fact that the brush was wide, that lions are not stationary objects, and that, unlike the leopard, they can change their spots quite readily. However, we remounted and went to take a look.
Of course there was nothing. So we rode on, rather aimlessly, weaving in and out of the bushes and open spaces. I think we were all a little tired from the long day and the excitement, and hence a bit listless. Suddenly we were fairly shaken out of our saddles by an angry roar just ahead. Usually a lion growls, low and thunderous, when he wants, to warn you that you have gone about far enough; but this one was angry all through at being followed about so much, and he just plain yelled at us.
He crouched near a bush forty yards away, and was switching his tail. I had heard that this was a sure premonition of an instant charge, but I had not before realized exactly what "switching the tail" meant. I had thought of it as a slow sweeping from side to side, after the manner of the domestic cat. This lion's tail was whirling perpendicularly from right to left, and from left to right with the speed and energy of a flail actuated by a particularly instantaneous kind of machinery. I could see only the outline of the head and this vigorous tail; but I took instant aim and let drive. The whole affair sank out of sight.
We made a detour around the dead lion without stopping to examine him, shouting to one of the men to stay and watch the carcass. Billy alone seemed uninfected with the now prevalent idea that we were likely to find lions almost anywhere. Her skepticism was justified. We found no more lions; but another miracle took place for all that. We ran across the second imbecile gerenuk, and B. collected it! These two were the only ones we ever got within decent shot of, and they sandwiched themselves neatly with lions. Truly, it was our day.
After a time we gave it up, and went back to measure and photograph our latest prize. It proved to be a male, maneless, two inches shorter than that killed by B., and three feet five and one half inches tall at the shoulder. My bullet had reached the brain just over the left eye.
Now, toward sunset, we headed definitely toward camp. The long shadows and beautiful lights of evening were falling across the hills far the other side the Isiola. A little breeze with a touch of coolness breathed down from distant unseen Kenia. We plodded on through the grass quite happily, noting the different animals coming out to the cool of the evening. The line of brush that marked the course of the Isiola came imperceptibly nearer until we could make out the white gleam of the porters' tents and wisps of smoke curling upward.
Then a small black mass disengaged itself from the camp and came slowly across the prairie in our direction. As it approached we made it out to be our Monumwezis, twenty strong. The news of the lions had reached them, and they were coming to meet us. They were huddled in a close knot, their heads inclined toward the centre. Each man carried upright a peeled white wand. They moved in absolute unison and rhythm, on a slanting zigzag in our direction: first three steps to the right, then three to the left, with a strong stamp of the foot between. Their bodies swayed together. Sulimani led them, dancing backward, his wand upheld.
"Sheeka!" he enunciated in a piercing half whistle.
And the swaying men responded in chorus, half hushed, rumbling, with strong aspiration.
"Goom zoop! goom zoop!"
When fifty yards from us, however, the formation broke and they rushed us with a yell. Our horses plunged in astonishment, and we had hard work to prevent their bolting, small blame to 'em! The men surrounded us, shaking our hands frantically. At once they appropriated everything we or our gunbearers carried. One who got left otherwise insisted on having Billy's parasol. Then we all broke for camp at full speed, yelling like fiends, firing our revolvers in the air. It was a grand entry, and a grand reception. The rest of the camp poured out with wild shouts. The dark forms thronged about us, teeth flashing, arms waving. And in the background, under the shadows of the trees were the Monumwezis, their formation regained, close gathered, heads bent, two steps swaying to the right-stamp! two steps swaying to the left-stamp!-the white wands gleaming, and the rumble of their lion song rolling in an undertone:
"Goom zoop! goom zoop!"