The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
IX. The First Lion
One day we all set out to make our discoveries: F., B., and I with our gunbearers, Memba Sasa, Mavrouki, and Simba, and ten porters to bring in the trophies, which we wanted very much, and the meat, which the men wanted still more. We rode our horses, and the syces followed. This made quite a field force-nineteen men all told. Nineteen white men would be exceedingly unlikely to get within a liberal half mile of anything; but the native has sneaky ways.
At first we followed between the river and the low hills, but when the latter drew back to leave open a broad flat, we followed their line. At this point they rose to a clifflike headland a hundred and fifty feet high, flat on top. We decided to investigate that mesa, both for the possibilities of game, and for the chance of a view abroad.
The footing was exceedingly noisy and treacherous, for it was composed of flat, tinkling little stones. Dried-up, skimpy bushes just higher than our heads made a thin but regular cover. There seemed not to be a spear of anything edible, yet we caught the flash of red as a herd of impalla melted away at our rather noisy approach. Near the foot of the hill we dismounted, with orders to all the men but the gunbearers to sit down and make themselves comfortable. Should we need them we could easily either signal or send word. Then we set ourselves toilsomely to clamber up that volcanic hill.
It was not particularly easy going, especially as we were trying to walk quietly. You see, we were about to surmount a skyline. Surmounting a skyline is always most exciting anywhere, for what lies beyond is at once revealed as a whole and contains the very essence of the unknown; but most decidedly is this true in Africa. That mesa looked flat, and almost anything might be grazing or browsing there. So we proceeded gingerly, with due regard to the rolling of the loose rocks or the tinkling of the little pebbles.
But long before we had reached that alluring skyline we were halted by the gentle snapping of Mavrouki's fingers. That, strangely enough, is a sound to which wild animals seem to pay no attention, and is therefore most useful as a signal. We looked back. The three gunbearers were staring to the right of our course. About a hundred yards away, on the steep side hill, and partly concealed by the brush, stood two rhinoceroses.
They were side by side, apparently dozing. We squatted on our heels for a consultation.
The obvious thing, as the wind was from them, was to sneak quietly by, saying nuffin' to nobody. But although we wanted no more rhino, we very much wanted rhino pictures. A discussion developed no really good reason why we should not kodak these especial rhinos-except that there were two of them. So we began to worm our way quietly through the bushes in their direction.
F. and B. deployed on the flanks, their double-barrelled rifles ready for instant action. I occupied the middle with that dangerous weapon the 3A kodak. Memba Sasa followed at my elbow, holding my big gun.
Now the trouble with modern photography is that it is altogether too lavish in its depiction of distances. If you do not believe it, take a picture of a horse at as short a range as twenty-five yards. That equine will, in the development, have receded to a respectable middle distance. Therefore it had been agreed that the advance of the battle line was to cease only when those rhinoceroses loomed up reasonably large in the finder. I kept looking into the finder, you may be sure. Nearer and nearer we crept. The great beasts were evidently basking in the sun. Their little pig eyes alone gave any sign of life. Otherwise they exhibited the complete immobility of something done in granite. Probably no other beast impresses one with quite this quality. I suppose it is because even the little motions peculiar to other animals are with the rhinoceros entirely lacking. He is not in the least of a nervous disposition, so he does not stamp his feet nor change his position. It is useless for him to wag his tail; for, in the first place, the tail is absurdly inadequate; and, in the second place, flies are not among his troubles. Flies wouldn't bother you either, if you had a skin two inches thick. So there they stood, inert and solid as two huge brown rocks, save for the deep, wicked twinkle of their little eyes.
Yes, we were close enough to "see the whites of their eyes," if they had had any: and also to be within the range of their limited vision. Of course we were now stalking, and taking advantage of all the cover.
Those rhinoceroses looked to me like two Dreadnaughts. The African two-horned rhinoceros is a bigger animal anyway than our circus friend, who generally comes from India. One of these brutes I measured went five feet nine inches at the shoulder, and was thirteen feet six inches from bow to stern. Compare these dimensions with your own height and with the length of your motor car. It is one thing to take on such beasts in the hurry of surprise, the excitement of a charge, or to stalk up to within a respectable range of them with a gun at ready. But this deliberate sneaking up with the hope of being able to sneak away again was a little too slow and cold-blooded. It made me nervous. I liked it, but I knew at the time I was going to like it a whole lot better when it was triumphantly over.
We were now within twenty yards (they were standing starboard side on), and I prepared to get my picture. To do so I would either have to step quietly out into sight, trusting to the shadow and the slowness of my movements to escape observation, or hold the camera above the bush, directing it by guess work. It was a little difficult to decide. I knew what I ought to do-
Without the slightest premonitory warning those two brutes snorted and whirled in their tracks to stand facing in our direction. After the dead stillness they made a tremendous row, what with the jerky suddenness of their movements, their loud snorts, and the avalanche of echoing stones and boulders they started down the hill.
This was the magnificent opportunity. At this point I should boldly have stepped out from behind my bush, levelled my trusty 3A, and coolly snapped the beasts, "charging at fifteen yards." Then, if B.'s and F.'s shots went absolutely true, or if the brutes didn't happen to smash the camera as well as me, I, or my executors as the case might be, would have had a fine picture.
But I didn't. I dropped that expensive 3A Special on some hard rocks, and grabbed my rifle from Memba Sasa. If you want really to know why, go confront your motor car at fifteen or twenty paces, multiply him by two, and endow him with an eagerly malicious disposition.
They advanced several yards, halted, faced us for perhaps five or six seconds, uttered snort, whirled with the agility of polo ponies, departed at a swinging trot and with surprising agility along the steep side hill.
I recovered the camera, undamaged, and we continued our climb.
The top of the mesa was disappointing as far as game was concerned. It was covered all over with red stones, round, and as large as a man's head. Thornbushes found some sort of sustenance in the interstices.
But we had gained to a magnificent view. Below us lay the narrow flat, then the winding jungle of our river, then long rolling desert country, gray with thorn scrub, sweeping upward to the base of castellated buttes and one tremendous riven cliff mountain, dropping over the horizon to a very distant blue range. Behind us eight or ten miles away was the low ridge through which our journey had come. The mesa on which we stood broke back at right angles to admit another stream flowing into our own. Beyond this stream were rolling hills, and scrub country, the hint of blue peaks and illimitable distances falling away to the unknown Tara Desert and the sea.
There seemed to be nothing much to be gained here, so we made up our minds to cut across the mesa, and from the other edge of it to overlook the valley of the tributary river. This we would descend until we came to our horses.
Accordingly we stumbled across a mile or so of those round and rolling stones. Then we found ourselves overlooking a wide flat or pocket where the stream valley widened. It extended even as far as the upward fling of the barrier ranges. Thick scrub covered it, but erratically, so that here and there were little openings or thin places. We sat down, manned our trusty prism glasses, and gave ourselves to the pleasing occupation of looking the country over inch by inch.
This is great fun. It is a game a good deal like puzzle pictures. Re-examination generally develops new and unexpected beasts. We repeated to each other aloud the results of our scrutiny, always without removing the glasses from our eyes.
"Oryx, one," said F.; "oryx, two."
"Giraffe," reported B., "and a herd of impalla."
I saw another giraffe, and another oryx, then two rhinoceroses.
The three bearers squatted on their heels behind us, their fierce eyes staring straight ahead, seeing with the naked eye what we were finding with six-power glasses.
We turned to descend the hill. In the very centre of the deep shade of a clump of trees, I saw the gleam of a waterbuck's horns. While I was telling of this, the beast stepped from his concealment, trotted a short distance upstream and turned to climb a little ridge parallel to that by which we were descending. About halfway up he stopped, staring in our direction, his head erect, the slight ruff under his neck standing forward. He was a good four hundred yards away. B., who wanted him, decided the shot too chancy. He and F. slipped backward until they had gained the cover of the little ridge, then hastened down the bed of the ravine. Their purpose was to follow the course already taken by the waterbuck until they should have sneaked within better range. In the meantime I and the gunbearers sat down in full view of the buck. This was to keep his attention distracted.
We sat there a long time. The buck never moved but continued to stare at what evidently puzzled him. Time passes very slowly in such circumstances, and it seemed incredible that the beast should continue much longer to hold his fixed attitude. Nevertheless B. and F. were working hard. We caught glimpses of them occasionally slipping from bush to bush. Finally B. knelt and levelled his rifle. At once I turned my glasses on the buck. Before the sound of the rifle had reached me, I saw him start convulsively, then make off at the tearing run that indicates a heart hit. A moment later the crack of the rifle and the dull plunk of the hitting bullet struck my ear.
We tracked him fifty yards to where he lay dead. He was a fine trophy, and we at once set the boys to preparing it and taking the meat. In the meantime we sauntered down to look at the stream. It was a small rapid affair, but in heavy papyrus, with sparse trees, and occasional thickets, and dry hard banks. The papyrus should make a good lurking place for almost anything; but the few points of access to the water failed to show many interesting tracks. Nevertheless we decided to explore a short distance.
For an hour we walked among high thornbushes, over baking hot earth. We saw two or three dik-dik and one of the giraffes. At that time it had become very hot, and the sun was bearing down on us as with the weight of a heavy hand. The air had the scorching, blasting quality of an opened furnace door. Our mouths were getting dry and sticky in that peculiar stage of thirst on which no luke-warm canteen water in necessarily limited quantity has any effect. So we turned back, picked up the men with the waterbuck, and plodded on down the little stream, or, rather, on the red-hot dry valley bottom outside the stream's course, to where the syces were waiting with our horses. We mounted with great thankfulness. It was now eleven o'clock, and we considered our day as finished.
The best way for a distance seemed to follow the course of the tributary stream to its point of junction with our river. We rode along, rather relaxed in the suffocating heat. F. was nearest the stream. At one point it freed itself of trees and brush and ran clear, save for low papyrus, ten feet down below a steep eroded bank. F. looked over and uttered a startled exclamation. I spurred my horse forward to see.
Below us, about fifteen yards away, was the carcass of a waterbuck half hidden in the foot-high grass. A lion and two lionesses stood upon it, staring up at us with great yellow eyes. That picture is a very vivid one in my memory, for those were the first wild lions I had ever seen. My most lively impression was of their unexpected size. They seemed to bulk fully a third larger than my expectation.
The magnificent beasts stood only long enough to see clearly what had disturbed them, then turned, and in two bounds had gained the shelter of the thicket.
Now the habit in Africa is to let your gunbearers carry all your guns. You yourself stride along hand free. It is an English idea, and is pretty generally adopted out there by every one, of whatever nationality. They will explain it to you by saying that in such a climate a man should do only necessary physical work, and that a good gunbearer will get a weapon into your hand so quickly and in so convenient a position that you will lose no time. I acknowledge the gunbearers are sometimes very skilful at this, but I do deny that there is no loss of time. The instant of distracted attention while receiving a weapon, the necessity of recollecting the nervous correlations after the transfer, very often mark just the difference between a sure instinctive snapshot and a lost opportunity. It reasons that the man with the rifle in his hand reacts instinctively, in one motion, to get his weapon into play. If the gunbearer has the gun, he must first react to pass it up, the master must receive it properly, and then, and not until then, may go on from where the other man began. As for physical labour in the tropics: if a grown man cannot without discomfort or evil effects carry an eight-pound rifle, he is too feeble to go out at all. In a long Western experience I have learned never to be separated from my weapon; and I believe the continuance of this habit in Africa saved me a good number of chances.
At any rate, we all flung ourselves off our horses. I, having my rifle in my hand, managed to throw a shot after the biggest lion as he vanished. It was a snap at nothing, and missed. Then in an opening on the edge a hundred yards away appeared one of the lionesses. She was trotting slowly, and on her I had time to draw a hasty aim. At the shot she bounded high in the air, fell, rolled over, and was up and into the thicket before I had much more than time to pump up another shell from the magazine. Memba Sasa in his eagerness got in the way-the first and last time he ever made a mistake in the field.
By this time the others had got hold of their weapons. We fronted the blank face of the thicket.
The wounded animal would stand a little waiting. We made a wide circle to the other side of the stream. There we quickly picked up the trail of the two uninjured beasts. They had headed directly over the hill, where we speedily lost all trace of them on the flint-like surface of the ground. We saw a big pack of baboons in the only likely direction for a lion to go. Being thus thrown back on a choice of a hundred other unlikely directions, we gave up that slim chance and returned to the thicket.
This proved to be a very dense piece of cover. Above the height of the waist the interlocking branches would absolutely prevent any progress, but by stooping low we could see dimly among the simpler main stems to a distance of perhaps fifteen or twenty feet. This combination at once afforded the wounded lioness plenty of cover in which to hide, plenty of room in which to charge home, and placed us under the disadvantage of a crouched or crawling attitude with limited vision. We talked the matter over very thoroughly. There was only one way to get that lioness out; and that was to go after her. The job of going after her needed some planning. The lion is cunning and exceeding fierce. A flank attack, once we were in the thicket, was as much to be expected as a frontal charge.
We advanced to the thicket's edge with many precautions. To our relief we found she had left us a definite trail. B. and I kneeling took up positions on either side, our rifles ready. F. and Simba crawled by inches eight or ten feet inside the thicket. Then, having executed this manoeuvre safely, B. moved up to protect our rear while I, with Memba Sasa, slid down to join F.
From this point we moved forward alternately. I would crouch, all alert, my rifle ready, while F. slipped by me and a few feet ahead. Then he get organized for battle while I passed him. Memba Sasa and Simba, game as badgers, their fine eyes gleaming with excitement, their faces shining, crept along at the rear. B. knelt outside the thicket, straining his eyes for the slightest movement either side of the line of our advance. Often these wily animals will sneak back in a half circle to attack their pursuers from behind. Two or three of the bolder porters crouched alongside B., peering eagerly. The rest had quite properly retired to the safe distance where the horses stood.
We progressed very, very slowly. Every splash of light or mottled shadow, every clump of bush stems, every fallen log had to be examined, and then examined again. And how we did strain our eyes in a vain attempt to penetrate the half lights, the duskinesses of the closed-in thicket not over fifteen feet away! And then the movement forward of two feet would bring into our field of vision an entirely new set of tiny vistas and possible lurking places.
Speaking for myself, I was keyed up to a tremendous tension. I stared until my eyes ached; every muscle and nerve was taut. Everything depended on seeing the beast promptly, and firing quickly. With the manifest advantage of being able to see us, she would spring to battle fully prepared. A yellow flash and a quick shot seemed about to size up that situation. Every few moments, I remember, I surreptitiously held out my hand to see if the constantly growing excitement and the long-continued strain had affected its steadiness.
The combination of heat and nervous strain was very exhausting. The sweat poured from me; and as F. passed me I saw the great drops standing out on his face. My tongue got dry, my breath came laboriously. Finally I began to wonder whether physically I should be able to hold out. We had been crawling, it seemed, for hours. I dared not look back, but we must have come a good quarter mile. Finally F. stopped.
"I'm all in for water," he gasped in a whisper.
Somehow that confession made me feel a lot better. I had thought that I was the only one. Cautiously we settled back on our heels. Memba Sasa and Simba wiped the sweat from their faces. It seemed that they too had found the work severe. That cheered me up still more.
Simba grinned at us, and, worming his way backward with the sinuousity of a snake, he disappeared in the direction from which we had come. F. cursed after him in a whisper both for departing and for taking the risk. But in a moment he had returned carrying two canteens of blessed water. We took a drink most gratefully.
I glanced at my watch. It was just under two hours since I had fired my shot. I looked back. My supposed quarter mile had shrunk to not over fifty feet!
After resting a few moments longer, we again took up our systematic advance. We made perhaps another fifty feet. We were ascending a very gentle slope. F. was for the moment ahead. Right before us the lion growled; a deep rumbling like the end of a great thunder roll, fathoms and fathoms deep, with the inner subterranean vibrations of a heavy train of cars passing a man inside a sealed building. At the same moment over F.'s shoulder I saw a huge yellow head rise up, the round eyes flashing anger, the small black-tipped ears laid back, the great fangs snarling. The beast was not over twelve feet distant. F. immediately fired. His shot, hitting an intervening twig, went wild. With the utmost coolness he immediately pulled the other trigger of his double barrel. The cartridge snapped.
"If you will kindly stoop down-" said I, in what I now remember to be rather an exaggeratedly polite tone. As F.'s head disappeared, I placed the little gold bead of my 405 Winchester where I thought it would do the most good, and pulled trigger. She rolled over dead.
The whole affair had begun and finished with unbelievable swiftness. From the growl to the fatal shot I don't suppose four seconds elapsed, for our various actions had followed one another with the speed of the instinctive. The lioness had growled at our approach, had raised her head to charge, and had received her deathblow before she had released her muscles in the spring. There had been no time to get frightened.
We sat back for a second. A brown hand reached over my shoulder.
"Mizouri-mizouri sana!" cried Memba Sasa joyously. I shook the hand.
"Good business!" said F. "Congratulate you on your first lion."
We then remembered B., and shouted to him that all was over. He and the other men wriggled in to where we were lying. He made this distance in about fifteen seconds. It had taken us nearly an hour.
We had the lioness dragged out into the open. She was not an especially large beast, as compared to most of the others I killed later, but at that time she looked to me about as big as they made them. As a matter of fact she was quite big enough, for she stood three feet two inches at the shoulder-measure that against the wall-and was seven feet and six inches in length. My first bullet had hit her leg, and the last had reached her heart.
Every one shook me by the hand. The gunbearers squatted about the carcass, skilfully removing the skin to an undertone of curious crooning that every few moments broke out into one or two bars of a chant. As the body was uncovered, the men crouched about to cut off little pieces of fat. These they rubbed on their foreheads and over their chests, to make them brave, they said, and cunning, like the lion.
We remounted and took up our interrupted journey to camp. It was a little after two, and the heat was at its worst. We rode rather sleepily, for the reaction from the high tension of excitement had set in. Behind us marched the three gunbearers, all abreast, very military and proud. Then came the porters in single file, the one carrying the folded lion skin leading the way; those bearing the waterbuck trophy and meat bringing up the rear. They kept up an undertone of humming in a minor key; occasionally breaking into a short musical phrase in full voice.
We rode an hour. The camp looked very cool and inviting under its wide high trees, with the river slipping by around the islands of papyrus. A number of black heads bobbed about in the shallows. The small fires sent up little wisps of smoke. Around them our boys sprawled, playing simple games, mending, talking, roasting meat. Their tiny white tents gleamed pleasantly among the cool shadows.
I had thought of riding nonchalantly up to our own tents, of dismounting with a careless word of greeting-
"Oh, yes," I would say, "we did have a good enough day. Pretty hot. Roy got a fine waterbuck. Yes, I got a lion." (Tableau on part of Billy.)
But Memba Sasa used up all the nonchalance there was. As we entered camp he remarked casually to the nearest man.
"Bwana na piga simba-the master has killed a lion."
The man leaped to his feet.
"Simba! simba! simba!" he yelled. "Na piga simba!"
Every one in camp also leaped to his feet, taking up the cry. From the water it was echoed as the bathers scrambled ashore. The camp broke into pandemonium. We were surrounded by a dense struggling mass of men. They reached up scores of black hands to grasp my own; they seized from me everything portable and bore it in triumph before me-my water bottle, my rifle, my camera, my whip, my field glasses, even my hat, everything that was detachable. Those on the outside danced and lifted up their voices in song, improvised for the most part, and in honor of the day's work. In a vast swirling, laughing, shouting, triumphant mob we swept through the camp to where Billy-by now not very much surprised-was waiting to get the official news. By the measure of this extravagant joy could we gauge what the killing of a lion means to these people who have always lived under the dread of his rule.