The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XXV. The Buffalo-continued
Some months later, and many hundreds of miles farther south, Billy and I found ourselves alone with twenty men, and two weeks to pass until C.-our companion at the time-should return from a long journey out with a wounded man. By slow stages, and relaying back and forth, we landed in a valley so beautiful in every way that we resolved to stay as long as possible. This could be but five days at most. At the end of that time we must start for our prearranged rendezvous with C.
The valley was in the shape of an ellipse, the sides of which were formed by great clifflike mountains, and the other two by hills lower, but still of considerable boldness and size. The longest radius was perhaps six or eight miles, and the shortest three or four. At one end a canyon dropped away to a lower level, and at the other a pass in the hills gave over to the country of the Narassara River. The name of the valley was Lengeetoto.
From the great mountains flowed many brooks of clear sparkling water, that ran beneath the most beautiful of open jungles, to unite finally in one main stream that disappeared down the canyon. Between these brooks were low broad rolling hills, sometimes grass covered, sometimes grown thinly with bushes. Where they headed in the mountains, long stringers of forest trees ran up to blocklike groves, apparently pasted like wafers against the base of the cliffs, but in reality occupying spacious slopes below them.
We decided to camp at the foot of a long grass slant within a hundred yards of the trees along one of the small streams. Before us we had the sweep of brown grass rising to a clear cut skyline; and all about us the distant great hills behind which the day dawned and fell. One afternoon a herd of giraffes stood silhouetted on this skyline quite a half hour gazing curiously down on our camp. Hartebeeste and zebra swarmed in the grassy openings; and impalla in the brush. We saw sing-sing and steinbuck, and other animals, and heard lions nearly every night. But principally we elected to stay because a herd of buffaloes ranged the foothills and dwelt in the groves of forest trees under the cliffs. We wanted a buffalo; and as Lengeetoto is practically unknown to white men, we thought this a good chance to get one. In that I reckoned without the fact that at certain seasons the Masai bring their cattle in, and at such times annoy the buffalo all they can.
We started out well enough. I sent Memba Sasa with two men to locate the herd. About three o'clock a messenger came to camp after me. We plunged through our own jungle, crossed a low swell, traversed another jungle, and got in touch with the other two men. They reported the buffalo had entered the thicket a few hundred yards below us. Cautiously reconnoitering the ground it soon became evident that we would be forced more definitely to locate the herd. To be sure, they had entered the stream jungle at a known point, but there could be no telling how far they might continue in the thicket, nor on what side of it they would emerge at sundown. Therefore we commenced cautiously and slowly follow the trail.
The going was very thick, naturally, and we could not see very far ahead. Our object was not now to try for a bull, but merely to find where the herd was feeding, in order that we might wait for it to come out. However, we were brought to a stand, in the middle of a jungle of green leaves, by the cropping sound of a beast grazing just the other side of a bush. We could not see it, and we stood stock still in the hope of escaping discovery ourselves. But an instant later a sudden crash of wood told us we had been seen. It was near work. The gunbearers crouched close to me. I held the heavy double gun ready. If the beast had elected to charge I would have had less than ten yards within which to stop it. Fortunately it did not do so. But instantly the herd was afoot and off at full speed. A locomotive amuck in a kindling pile could have made no more appalling a succession of rending crashes than did those heavy animals rushing here and there through the thick woody growth. We could see nothing. Twice the rush started in our direction, but stopped as suddenly as it had begun, to be succeeded by absolute stillness when everything, ourselves included, held its breath to listen. Finally, the first panic over, the herd started definitely away downstream. We ran as fast as we could out of the jungle to a commanding position on the hill. Thence we could determine the course of the herd. It continued on downstream as far as we could follow the sounds in the convolutions of the hills. Realizing that it would improbably recover enough from its alarmed condition to resume its regular habits that day, we returned to camp.
Next morning Memba Sasa and I were afield before daylight. We took no other men. In hunting I am a strong disbeliever in the common habit of trailing along a small army. It is simple enough, in case the kill is made, to send back for help. No matter how skilful your men are at stalking, the chances of alarming the game are greatly increased by numbers; while the possibilities of misunderstanding the plan of campaign, and so getting into the wrong place at the wrong time, are infinite. Alone, or with one gunbearer, a man can slip in and out a herd of formidable animals with the least chances of danger. Merely going out after camp meat is of course a different matter.
We did not follow in the direction taken by the herd the night before, but struck off toward the opposite side of the valley. For two hours we searched the wooded country at the base of the cliff mountains, working slowly around the circle, examining every inlet, ravine and gully. Plenty of other sorts of game we saw, including elephant tracks not a half hour old; but no buffalo. About eight o'clock, however, while looking through my glasses, I caught sight of some tiny chunky black dots crawling along below the mountains diagonally across the valley, and somewhat over three miles away. We started in that direction as fast as we could walk. At the end of an hour we surmounted the last swell, and stood at the edge of a steep drop. Immediately below us flowed a good-sized stream through a high jungle over the tops of which we looked to a triangular gentle slope overgrown with scattered bushes and high grass. Beyond this again ran another jungle, angling up hill from the first, to end in a forest of trees about thirty or forty acres in extent. This jungle and these trees were backed up against the slope of the mountain. The buffaloes we had first seen above the grove: they must now have sought cover among either the trees or the lower jungle, and it seemed reasonable that the beasts would emerge on the grass and bush area late in the afternoon. Therefore Memba Sasa and I selected good comfortable sheltered spots, leaned our backs against rocks, and resigned ourselves to long patience. It was now about nine o'clock in the morning, and we could not expect our game to come out before half past three at earliest. We could not, however, go away to come back later because of the chance that the buffaloes might take it into their heads to go travelling. I had been fooled that way before. For this reason, also, it was necessary, every five minutes or so, to examine carefully all our boundaries; lest the beasts might be slipping away through the cover.
The hours passed very slowly. We made lunch last as long as possible. I had in my pocket a small edition of Hawthorne's "The House of the Seven Gables," which I read, pausing every few minutes to raise my glasses for the periodical examination of the country. The mental focussing back from the pale gray half light of Hawthorne's New England to the actuality of wild Africa was a most extraordinary experience.
Through the heat of the day the world lay absolutely silent. At about half-past three, however, we heard rumblings and low bellows from the trees a half mile away. I repocketed Hawthorne, and aroused myself to continuous alertness.
The ensuing two hours passed more slowly than all the rest of the day, for we were constantly on the lookout. The buffaloes delayed most singularly, seemingly reluctant to leave their deep cover. The sun dropped behind the mountains, and their shadow commenced to climb the opposite range. I glanced at my watch. We had not more than a half hour of daylight left.
Fifteen minutes of this passed. It began to look as though our long and monotonous wait had been quite in vain; when, right below us, and perhaps five hundred yards away, four great black bodies fed leisurely from the bushes. Three of them we could see plainly. Two were bulls of fair size. The fourth, half concealed in the brush, was by far the biggest of the lot.
In order to reach them we would have to slip down the face of the hill on which we sat, cross the stream jungle at the bottom, climb out the other side, and make our stalk to within range. With a half hour more of daylight this would have been comparatively easy, but in such circumstances it is difficult to move at the same time rapidly and unseen. However, we decided to make the attempt. To that end we disencumbered ourselves of all our extras-lunch box, book, kodak, glasses, etc.-and wormed our way as rapidly as possible toward the bottom of the hill. We utilized the cover as much as we were able, but nevertheless breathed a sigh of relief when we had dropped below the line of the jungle. We wasted very little time crossing the latter, save for precautions against noise. Even in my haste, however, I had opportunity to notice its high and austere character, with the arching overhead vines, and the clear freedom from undergrowth in its heart. Across this cleared space we ran at full speed, crouching below the grasp of the vines, splashed across the brook and dashed up the other bank. Only a faint glimmer of light lingered in the jungle. At the upper edge we paused, collected ourselves, and pushed cautiously through the thick border-screen of bush.
The twilight was just fading into dusk. Of course we had taken our bearings from the other hill; so now, after reassuring ourselves of them, we began to wriggle our way at a great pace through the high grass. Our calculations were quite accurate. We stalked successfully, and at last, drenched in sweat, found ourselves lying flat within ten yards of a small bush behind which we could make out dimly the black mass of the largest beast we had seen from across the way.
Although it was now practically dark, we had the game in our own hands. From our low position the animal, once it fed forward from behind the single small bush, would be plainly outlined against the sky, and at ten yards I should be able to place my heavy bullets properly, even in the dark. Therefore, quite easy in our minds, we lay flat and rested. At the end of twenty seconds the animal began to step forward. I levelled my double gun, ready to press trigger the moment the shoulder appeared in the clear. Then against the saffron sky emerged the ugly outline and two upstanding horns of a rhinoceros!
"Faru!" I whispered disgustedly to Memba Sasa. With infinite pains we backed out, then retreated to a safe distance. It was of course now too late to hunt up the three genuine buffaloes of this ill-assorted group.
In fact our main necessity was to get through the river jungle before the afterglow had faded from the sky, leaving us in pitch darkness. I sent Memba Sasa across to pick up the effects we had left on the opposite ridge, while I myself struck directly across the flat toward camp.
I had plunged ahead thus, for two or three hundred yards, when I was brought up short by the violent snort of a rhinoceros just off the starboard bow. He was very close, but I was unable to locate him in the dusk. A cautious retreat and change of course cleared me from him, and I was about to start on again full speed when once more I was halted by another rhinoceros, this time dead ahead. Attempting to back away from him, I aroused another in my rear; and as though this were not enough a fourth opened up to the left.
It was absolutely impossible to see anything ten yards away unless it happened to be silhouetted against the sky. I backed cautiously toward a little bush, with a vague idea of having something to dodge around. As the old hunter said when, unarmed, he met the bear, "Anything, even a newspaper, would have come handy." To my great joy I backed against a conical ant hill four or five feet high. This I ascended and began anti-rhino demonstrations. I had no time to fool with rhinos, anyway. I wanted to get through that jungle before the leopards left their family circles. I hurled clods of earth and opprobrious shouts and epithets in the four directions of my four obstreperous friends, and I thought I counted four reluctant departures. Then, with considerable doubt, I descended from my ant hill and hurried down the slope, stumbling over grass hummocks, colliding with bushes, tangling with vines, but progressing in a gratifyingly rhinoless condition. Five minutes cautious but rapid feeling my way brought me through the jungle. Shortly after I raised the campfires; and so got home.
The next two days were repetitions, with slight variation, of this experience, minus the rhinos! Starting from camp before daylight we were only in time to see the herd-always aggravatingly on the other side of the cover, no matter which side we selected for our approach, slowly grazing into the dense jungle. And always they emerged so late and so far away that our very best efforts failed to get us near them before dark. The margin always so narrow, however, that our hopes were alive.
On the fourth day, which must be our last in Longeetoto, we found that the herd had shifted to fresh cover three miles along the base of the mountains. We had no faith in those buffaloes, but about half-past three we sallied forth dutifully and took position on a hill overlooking the new hiding place. This consisted of a wide grove of forest trees varied by occasional open glades and many dense thickets. So eager were we to win what had by now developed into a contest that I refused to shoot a lioness with a three-quarters-grown cub that appeared within easy shot from some reeds below us.
Time passed as usual until nearly sunset. Then through an opening into one of the small glades we caught sight of the herd travelling slowly but steadily from right to left. The glimpse was only momentary, but it was sufficient to indicate the direction from which we might expect them to emerge. Therefore we ran at top speed down from our own hill, tore through the jungle at its foot, and hastily, but with more caution, mounted the opposite slope through the scattered groves and high grass. We could hear occasionally indications of the buffaloes' slow advance, and we wanted to gain a good ambuscade above them before they emerged. We found it in the shape of a small conical hillock perched on the side hill itself, and covered with long grass. It commanded open vistas through the scattered trees in all directions. And the thicket itself ended not fifty yards away. No buffalo could possibly come out without our seeing him; and we had a good half hour of clear daylight before us. It really seemed that luck had changed at last.
We settled ourselves, unlimbered for action, and got our breath. The buffaloes came nearer and nearer. At length, through a tiny opening a hundred yards away, we could catch momentary glimpses of their great black bodies. I thrust forward the safety catch and waited. Finally a half dozen of the huge beasts were feeding not six feet inside the circle of brush, and only thirty-odd yards from where we lay.
And they came no farther! I never passed a more heart-breaking half hour of suspense than that in which little by little the daylight and our hopes faded, while those confounded buffaloes moved slowly out to the very edge of the thicket, turned, and moved as slowly back again. At times they came actually into view. We could see their sleek black bodies rolling lazily into sight and back again, like seals on the surface of water, but never could we make out more than that. I could have had a dozen good shots, but I could not even guess what I would be shooting at. And the daylight drained away and the minutes ticked by!
Finally, as I could see no end to this performance save that to which we had been so sickeningly accustomed in the last four days, I motioned to Memba Sasa, and together we glided like shadows into the thicket.
There it was already dusk. We sneaked breathlessly through the small openings, desperately in a hurry, almost painfully on the alert. In the dark shadow sixty yards ahead stood a half dozen monstrous bodies all facing our way. They suspected the presence of something unusual, but in the darkness and the stillness they could neither identify it nor locate it exactly. I dropped on one knee and snatched my prism glasses to my eyes. The magnification enabled me to see partially into the shadows. Every one of the group carried the sharply inturned points to the horns: they were all cows!
An instant after I had made out this fact, they stampeded across our face. The whole band thundered and crashed away.
Desperately we sprang after them, our guns atrail, our bodies stooped low to keep down in the shadow of the earth. And suddenly, without the slightest warning we plumped around a bush square on top of the entire herd. It had stopped and was staring back in our direction. I could see nothing but the wild toss of a hundred pair of horns silhouetted against such of the irregular saffron afterglow as had not been blocked off by the twigs and branches of the thicket. All below was indistinguishable blackness.
They stood in a long compact semicircular line thirty yards away, quite still, evidently staring intently into the dusk to find out what had alarmed them. At any moment they were likely to make another rush; and if they did so in the direction they were facing, they would most certainly run over us and trample us down.
Remembering the dusk I thought it likely that the unexpected vivid flash of the gun might turn them off before they got started. Therefore I raised the big double Holland, aimed below the line of heads, and was just about to pull trigger when my eye caught the silhouette of a pair of horns whose tips spread out instead of turning in. This was a bull, and I immediately shifted the gun in his direction. At the heavy double report, the herd broke wildly to right and left and thundered away. I confess I was quite relieved.
A low moaning bellow told us that our bull was down. The last few days' experience at being out late had taught us wisdom so Memba Sasa had brought a lantern. By the light of this, we discovered our bull down, and all but dead. To make sure, I put a Winchester bullet into his backbone.
We felt ourselves legitimately open to congratulations, for we had killed this bull from a practically nocturnal herd, in the face of considerable danger and more than considerable difficulty. Therefore we shook hands and made appropriate remarks to each other, lacking anybody to make them for us.
By now it was pitch dark in the thicket, and just about so outside. We had to do a little planning. I took the Holland gun, gave Memba Sasa the Winchester, and started him for camp after help. As he carried off the lantern, it was now up to me to make a fire and to make it quickly.
For the past hour a fine drizzle had been falling; and the whole country was wet from previous rains. I hastily dragged in all the dead wood I could find near, collected what ought to be good kindling, and started in to light a fire. Now, although I am no Boy Scout, I have lit several fires in my time. But never when I was at the same time in such a desperate need and hurry; and in possession of such poor materials. The harder I worked, the worse things sputtered and smouldered. Probably the relief from the long tension of the buffalo hunt had something to do with my general piffling inefficiency. If I had taken time to do a proper job once instead of a halfway job a dozen times, as I should have done and usually would have done, I would have had a fire in no time. I imagine I was somewhat scared. The lioness and her hulking cub had smelled the buffalo and were prowling around. I could hear them purring and uttering their hollow grunts. However, at last the flame held. I fed it sparingly, lit a pipe, placed the Holland gun next my hand, and resigned myself to waiting. For two hours this was not so bad. I smoked, and rested up, and dried out before my little fire. Then my fuel began to run low. I arose and tore down all the remaining dead limbs within the circle of my firelight. These were not many, so I stepped out into the darkness for more. Immediately I was warned back by a deep growl!
The next hour was not one of such solid comfort. I began to get parsimonious about my supply of firewood, trying to use it in such a manner as to keep up an adequate blaze, and at the same time to make it last until Memba Sasa should return with the men. I did it, though I got down to charred ends before I was through. The old lioness hung around within a hundred yards or so below, and the buffalo herd, returning, filed by above, pausing to stamp and snort at the fire. Finally, about nine o'clock, I made out two lanterns bobbing up to me through the trees.
The last incident to be selected from many experiences with buffaloes took place in quite an unvisited district over the mountains from the Loieta Plains. For nearly two months we had ranged far in this lovely upland country of groves and valleys and wide grass bottoms between hills, hunting for greater kudu. One day we all set out from camp to sweep the base of a range of low mountains in search of a good specimen of Newman's hartebeeste, or anything else especially desirable that might happen along. The gentle slope from the mountains was of grass cut by numerous small ravines grown with low brush. This brush was so scanty as to afford but indifferent cover for anything larger than one of the small grass antelopes. All the ravines led down a mile or so to a deeper main watercourse paralleling the mountains. Some water stood in the pools here; and the cover was a little more dense, but consisted at best of but a "stringer" no wider than a city street. Flanking the stringer were scattered high bushes for a few yards; and then the open country. Altogether as unlikely a place for the shade-loving buffalo as could be imagined.
We collected our Newmanii after rather a long hunt; and just at noon, when the heat of the day began to come on, we wandered down to the water for lunch. Here we found a good clear pool and drank. The boys began to make themselves comfortable by the water's edge; C. went to superintend the disposal of Billy's mule. Billy had sat down beneath the shade of the most hospitable of the bushes a hundred feet or so away, and was taking off her veil and gloves. I was carrying to her the lunch box. When I was about halfway from where the boys were drinking at the stream's edge to where she sat, a buffalo bull thrust his head from the bushes just the other side of her. His head was thrust up and forward, as he reached after some of the higher tender leaves on the bushes. So close was he that I could see plainly the drops glistening on his moist black nose. As for Billy, peacefully unwinding her long veil, she seemed fairly under the beast.
I had no weapon, and any moment might bring some word or some noise that would catch the animal's attention. Fortunately, for the moment, every one, relaxed in the first reaction after the long morning, was keeping silence. If the buffalo should look down, he could not fail to see Billy; and if he saw her, he would indubitably kill her.
As has been explained, snapping the fingers does not seem to reach the attention of wild animals. Therefore I snapped mine as vigorously as I knew how. Billy heard, looked toward me, turned in the direction of my gaze, and slowly sank prone against the ground. Some of the boys heard me also, and I could see the heads of all of them popping up in interest from the banks of the stream. My cautious but very frantic signals to lie low were understood: the heads dropped back. Mavrouki, a rifle in each hand, came worming his way toward me through the grass with incredible quickness and agility. A moment later he thrust the 405 Winchester into my hand.
This weapon, powerful and accurate as it is, the best of the lot for lions, was altogether too small for the tremendous brute before me. However, the Holland was in camp; and I was very glad in the circumstances to get this. The buffalo had browsed slowly forward into the clear, and was now taking the top off a small bush, and facing half away from us. It seemed to me quite the largest buffalo I had ever seen, though I should have been willing to have acknowledged at that moment that the circumstances had something to do with the estimate. However, later we found that the impression was correct. He was verily a giant of his kind. His height at the shoulder was five feet ten inches; and his build was even chunkier than the usual solid robust pattern of buffaloes. For example, his neck, just back of the horns, was two feet eight inches thick! He weighed not far from three thousand pounds.
Once the rifle was in my hands I lost the feeling of utter helplessness, and began to plan the best way out of the situation. As yet the beast was totally unconscious of our presence; but that could not continue long. There were too many men about. A chance current of air from any one of a half dozen directions could not fail to give him the scent. Then there would be lively doings. It was exceedingly desirable to deliver the first careful blow of the engagement while he was unaware. On the other hand, his present attitude-half away from me-was not favourable; nor, in my exposed position dared I move to a better place. There seemed nothing better than to wait; so wait we did. Mavrouki crouched close at my elbow, showing not the faintest indication of a desire to be anywhere but there.
The buffalo browsed for a minute or so; then swung slowly broadside on. So massive and low were the bosses of his horns that the brain shot was impossible. Therefore I aimed low in the shoulder. The shock of the bullet actually knocked that great beast off his feet! My respect for the hitting power of the 405 went up several notches. The only trouble was that he rebounded like a rubber ball. Without an instant's hesitation I gave him another in the same place. This brought him to his knees for an instant; but he was immediately afoot again. Billy had, with great good sense and courage, continued to lie absolutely flat within a few yards of the beast, Mavrouki and I had kept low, and C. and the men were out of sight. The buffalo therefore had seen none of his antagonists. He charged at a guess, and guessed wrong. As he went by I fired at his head, and, as we found out afterward, broke his jaw. A moment later C.'s great elephant gun roared from somewhere behind me as he fired by a glimpse through the brush at the charging animal. It was an excellent snapshot, and landed back of the ribs.
When the buffalo broke through the screen of brush I dashed after him, for I thought our only chance of avoiding danger lay in keeping close track of where that buffalo went. On the other side the bushes I found a little grassy opening, and then a small but dense thicket into which the animal had plunged. To my left, C. was running up, followed closely by Billy, who, with her usual good sense, had figured out the safest place to be immediately back of the guns. We came together at the thicket's edge.
The animal's movements could be plainly followed by the sound of his crashing. We heard him dash away some distance, pause, circle a bit to the right, and then come rushing back in our direction. Stooping low we peered into the darkness of the thicket. Suddenly we saw him, not a dozen yards away. He was still afoot, but very slow. I dropped the magazine of five shots into him as fast as I could work the lever. We later found all the bullet-holes in a spot as big as the palm of your hand. These successive heavy blows delivered all in the same place were too much for even his tremendous vitality; and slowly he sank on his side.