Chapter VII. The Water-Hole

A seasoned African traveller in ordinary circumstances sleeps very soundly, his ear attuned only to certain things. So Kingozi hardly stirred on his cork mattress, although the lions roared full-voiced satisfaction when they left the rhinoceros, and the yells of the hyenas rose to a pandemonium when at last they were permitted to join the feast. Likewise the nearer familiar noises of men rising to their daily tasks at four o'clock--the yawning, stretching, cracking of firewood, crackling of fire, low-voiced chatter--did not disturb him. Yet, so strangely is the human mind organized, had during the night a soft whisper of padded feet, even the deep breathing of a beast, sounded within the precincts of the camp, he would instantly have been broad awake, the rifle that stood loaded nearby clasped in his hand. Thus he lay quietly through the noises of men working, but came awake at the sound of men marching. He arose on his elbow and drew aside the flap of his tent.

At the same instant Cazi Moto stopped outside. The usual formula ensued.

"Hodie!" called Cazi Moto.

"Karibu," replied Kingozi.

Thus Cazi Moto at once awakened and greeted his master, and Kingozi acknowledged.

Cazi Moto entered the tent and lighted the tiny lantern, for it was still an hour and a half until daylight.

"I hear men marching," said Kingozi.

Cazi Moto stopped.

"It is the safari of Bibi-ya-chui." Already Kingozi's nickname for her had been adopted.

Cazi Moto disappeared, and a moment later was heard outside pouring water into the canvas basin.

Instead of arising immediately, as was his ordinary custom, Kingozi lay still. The Leopard Woman was already travelling! What could that mean? She was certainly taking some chances hiking around thus in the dark. Perhaps some aged or weak lion had not been permitted a share of that rhinoceros. And again she was taking chances pushing out blindly with over a hundred men into the aridity of the desert. Kingozi contemplated this thought for some time. Then, making up his mind, he arose and began to dress.

As he was drying his face Simba came for the guns, and a half-dozen of the porters prepared to strike and furl the tent. Already the canvas washstand had disappeared.

"Simba," observed Kingozi in English, of which language Simba knew but three words, "she is no fool. She knows where there is water out yonder; but it is water at least forty miles away. She's got to push and push hard to make it, and that's why she's making so early a start. I had a notion this 'country of the great Unknown' wasn't quite so 'unknown' as it might be."

He finished this speech coincidentally with the drying of his hands. The impatient Cazi Moto snatched the towel deftly but respectfully and packed it away. Simba, who had listened with deference until his bwana should finish this jargon, grinned.

"Yes, suh!" he used two of his English words at a bang.

Kingozi ate his breakfast by firelight. With the exception of his camp chair and the eating service, the camp was by now all packed, and the men were squatting before their fires waiting.

But there was a hitch. Kingozi called up Simba and began to question him.

"You say the water is four hours' march?"

"Yes, bwana."

"Four hours for you, or four hours for laden men?"

"The safari can go in four hours, bwana."

"Is there game there?"

"No, bwana. It is a guarded water, and there is no game."

Kingozi considered.

"Very well. I want six men. Before the march we must get meat."

Some time since the flames of the African sunrise had spread to the zenith, glowing and terrible as a furnace. Although the sky was thus brilliantly illuminated, the earth, strangely enough, was still gray with twilight. Objects fifty yards distant were indeterminate. Objects farther away were lost. The light was daylight, but it was inadequate, as though charged with mist.

And then suddenly the daylight was clear.

It was like the turning on by a switch. The dim shapes defined clearly, becoming trees, rocks, distant hills. And almost immediately the rim of the sun showed above the horizon.

Kingozi had already decided on the best direction in which to hunt. Neither the direction taken by the Leopard Woman's safari nor the immediate surroundings of the night's orgy over the rhino carcass was desirable. The fact that the big water-hole below camp had not only remained unvisited, but apparently even desired, led him to deduce the existence of another, alternative, drinking place. He had yesterday explored some distance downstream; therefore he now turned up.

Simba with the big rifle followed close at his heels. The six porters stole along fifty yards in the rear. They were quite as anxious for meat --promptly--as anybody, and were as unobtrusive as shadows.

For upward of a mile the hunters encountered nothing but a few dik-dik and steinbuck--tiny grass antelope, too small for the purpose. Then a shift of wind brought to them a medley of sound--a great persistent barking of zebras supplying the main volume. At the same time they saw, over a distant slight rise, a cloud of dust.

Simba's eyes were gleaming.

"Game! Much game there, bwana!" he cried.

"I see," replied Kingozi quietly.

The porters accompanied them to within a few rods of the top of the rise. There they squatted, and the other two crawled up alone.

Below them, probably three hundred yards away, was a larger replica of the other water-hole. At its edge and in its shallows stood a few beasts. But the sun was now well above the horizon, the drinking time was practically over.

Three long strings of game animals were walking leisurely away in three different directions. They were proceeding soberly, in single file, nose to tail. The ranks ran with scarcely a break, to disappear over the low swells of the plain. Alongside the plodders skipped and ran, rushed back and forth the younger, frivolous characters, kicking up their heels, biting at one another, or lowering their horns in short mimic charges-- gay, animated flankers to the main army. There were several sorts, each in its little companies or bands, many times repeated, of from two or three to several score; although occasionally strange assortments and companionships were to be seen, as a black, shaggy-looking wildebeeste with a troop of kongoni. Kingozi saw, besides these two, also the bigger and smaller gazelles, many zebra, topi, the lordly eland; and, apart, a dozen giraffes, two rhinoceros, and some warthogs. There were probably two thousand wild animals in sight.

The hunters lay flat, watching. This multiplicity afforded them a wonderful spectacle, but that was about all. If they should crawl three yards farther they would indubitably be espied by some one. It was impossible to single out a beast as the object of a stalk: all the others must be considered, too. There was no cover.

Kingozi was too old at the business to hurry. He considered the elements of his problem soberly before coming back to his first and most obvious conclusion. Then he raised himself slowly to his favourite sitting position and threw off the safety.

The distance was a fair three hundred yards, which is a long shot--when it is three hundred yards. The fireside and sporting magazine hunters of big game are constantly hitting 'em through the heart at even greater distances--estimated. It is actually a fact, proven many times, that those estimates should be divided by two in order to get near the measured truth! The "four hundred yards if it's an inch!" becomes two hundred--and even two hundred yards at living game in natural surroundings is a long and creditable shot.

In taking his aim Kingozi modified his usual custom because of the distance. When one can get his beast broadside on, the most immediately fatal shot is one high in the shoulder, about three-quarters of the way up. That drops an animal dead in his tracks. The next best is a bullet low in the shoulder. Third is a really accurate heart shot. This latter is always fatal, of course; but ordinarily the quarry will run at racing speed for some little distance before falling dead. In certain types of country this means considerable tracking, may even mean the loss of the animal. Next comes anywhere in the barrel forward of the short ribs--a chancy proceeding, and one leading to long chases. After that the likelihood of a cripple is too great.

Now it is evident that one must aim at what he can be sure of hitting. The high shoulder shot is all right if the distance is so short that one can be absolutely certain of placing his bullet within a six-inch circle. Otherwise the chance of over-shooting--always great--becomes prohibitive. The low shoulder shot increases the circle to from eight to twelve inches, with the chance outside that of merely breaking a foreleg, grazing brisket, or missing entirely under the neck. The heart shot--or rather an attempt at it--is safer for a longer range, not because the mark is larger, but because even if one misses the heart, he is apt to land either the shoulder or the ribs well forward. The only miss is beneath, and that is clear, as the heart is low in the body. And at extreme ranges, the forward one-third of the barrel is the point of aim. It should only rarely be attempted. Unless a man is certain he can hit that mark, every time, he is not justified in taking the shot.

This principle applies to every one: as well to the beginner as to the expert. The only difference between the two is the range at which this certainty exists. The tyro's limit of absolute certainty for the heart shot may be--and probably is--a hundred yards; for the high shoulder it may be as near as thirty. This takes into consideration his inexperience in the presence of game as well as his inaccuracy with the rifle, and it keeps in mind that he must hit that mark not merely nine times out of ten, but every time. If he cannot get within the hundred yards by stalking, then he should refuse the chance. As expertness rises in the scale the distances increase. Provided there were no such things as nerves, luck, faulty judgment, and the estimate of distances one man should be as mercifully deadly as another. Naturally the man who had to stalk to within a hundred yards would not get as many shots as the one who could take his chance at two hundred. This conduct of venery is an ideal that is only approximated. Hence misses.

But even if a man lives rigorously up to his principles and knowledge, there are other elements that bring in uncertainty. For one thing, he must be able to estimate distance with some degree of accuracy. It avails little to know that you can hit a given mark at two hundred and fifty yards, if you do not know what two hundred and fifty yards is. And here enter a thousand deceits: direction of light, slope of ground, nature of cover, temperature, mirage, time of day, and the like. An apparent hundred yards over water or across a canon would--were, by some dissolving-view- change, bush-dotted plain to be substituted--become nearer three hundred in the latter circumstances. There is a limit to the best man's experience; a margin of error in the best man's judgment. Hence more misses.

There is only one method for any man to acquire even this proximate skill; and that requires long and patient practice. It is this: he should sight over his rifle at a wild animal, noting carefully the apparent relative size of the front sight-bead and the animal's body. He should then pace the distance between himself and that animal. After he has done this a hundred times, he will be able to make a pretty close guess by marking how large the beast shows up through the sights. That is, for that one species of game! In Central Africa, where in a well-stocked district there are from twenty to thirty species, the practice becomes more onerous. This same practice--of pacing the distances--however, has also trained a man's eye for country. He is able to supplement the front-sight method by the usual estimate by eye. Most men do not take this trouble. They practise at target range until they can hit the bull's-eye with fair regularity, miss with nearly equal regularity in the hunting field, and thenceforth talk vaguely of "missed him at five hundred yards." It must have been five hundred. The beast looked very small, there was an awful lot of country between him and it, and "I wasn't a bit rattled--cool as a cucumber--and I know I never miss an object of that size at any reasonable range." He was right: he shot as deliberately as he ever did at the butts. He missed, not because of the distance, but because he did not know the distance. It was exactly the range at which he had done the most of his practice--two hundred yards!

All these considerations have taken several pages to tell. Kingozi weighed each one of them. Yet so long had been his experience, so habitual had become his reactions, that his decision was made almost instantly. A glance at the intervening ground, another through his sights. The top of the bead covered half a zebra's shoulder. The distance was not far under or over three hundred. Kingozi knew that, barring sheer accident, he could hit his mark at that distance.

The animals meantime were moving forward slowly along the three diverging trails. The last of them had left the water-hole. Kingozi nodded to Simba. Simba, understanding from long association just what was required of him, rose slowly and evenly to his feet.

The apparition of this strange figure on the skyline brought a score of animals to a stand. They turned their heads, staring intently, making up their minds, their nostrils wide. Kingozi, who had already picked his beast and partially assured his aim, almost immediately squeezed the trigger.

Over a second after the flat crack of the rifle a hollow plunk indicated that the bullet had told. It was a strange sound, unmistakable to one who has once heard it, much as though one brought a drinking glass smartly, hollow down, into the surface of water.

"Hah!" ejaculated Simba.

"Where?" asked Kingozi, who knew by long experience that Simba's sharp eyes had noted the smallest particular of the beast's behaviour when the bullet landed, and thence had already deduced its location.

Without removing his eyes, Simba indicated with his forefinger a shot about midway of the ribs.

At the sound the rear guard of the animals raced madly away for about seventy yards, whirled in a phalanx, and gazed back. Neither man moved. Simba continued to stare, and Kingozi had lifted his prism glasses. A tyro would have attempted to draw near for a finishing shot, and so would probably have been let in for a long chase. A freshly wounded animal, if kept moving, is capable of astonishing endurance. But these two knew better than that. In a very few minutes the zebra, without fright, without suffering--for a modern bullet benumbs--toppled over dead. Again Simba raised his voice exultantly to the waiting porters.

"Nyama! nyama!" he shouted.

And they, racing eagerly forward, their faces illuminated with one of the strongest joys the native knows, shouted back:

"Nyama! nyama!"

For another two days the provisioning was assured.