Death Of “The Baron”
My very friend has got his mortal hurt
In my behalf, my reputation stain’d
Romeo and Juliet
A piteous corse, a bloody piteous corse,
Pale, pale as ashes, all bedaubed in blood,
All in gore blood
Romeo and Juliet
Very often we made detours from the main caravan, rejoining it at a given spot, and this spirit of “wanderlust” brought us into a nice quandary one fine day. Going by the map and guided by the compass, Clarence was to arrive with the whole outfit at a precise place by nightfall, and we two, tired of the two-and-a-half miles an hour pace, did an excursion on sport intent, taking our own way to meet the caravan. We, with three hunters on the ever-willing ponies, left camp early, and going easily soon put a good distance between ourselves and the slow-coach camels. Dik-dik popped up everywhere but ’twas no use disturbing the jungle for such small game. Water-holes next loomed ahead, and into the mud the Somalis precipitated themselves to drink and dabble. It was really not fit to swallow, and sudden death would seem to be the probable result. Not at all! It gave a sudden impetus to our men, who grew quite lively, game for anything, as they chanted invitations to imaginary animals to come and be shot. All the song was of the “Dilly, Dilly, come and get killed” pattern, and was for the most part addressed to a rhinoceros who lived in fancy. “Wiyil, Wiyil, Mem-sahib calls you,” was the bedrock of the anthem, and like our homemade variety one sentence had to go a long way.
We found a track made by tortoises innumerable who evidently marched in solid phalanx to the water-holes. We followed the trail for a long way, but it seemed to be taking us to a Never-never land, so we turned, giving up the idea of discovering the source of the path. But in a tiny lake, as big as a bath and as shallow, we came on three tortoises swimming. They drew in their ugly snake-like heads with a sideway motion beneath their armor-plate residence, and there was nothing left to see but a flat, dirty, yellow carapace. They were quite small, and we pulled one out with a deft noose thrown by the second hunter. Each man took off his turned-up sandals and rested one bare foot at a time on the shelly back, “to make strong the feet.” They did this very solemnly, and, of course, in turns, mounting their ponies when the superstitious rite was well over.
We saw a very immature gerenük standing on his hind legs to feed on the young tops of a thorn bush. It went off at a crouching trot, stopping after a short run to turn and stare. It even returned a few paces, with unparalleled impudence, to gaze. It was a youngster of last season. The gerenük mother is not the highest type of jungle matron, frequently abandoning a little one to fend for itself weeks before it has been taught the ways of the jungle. And so it is that gerenük fawns are a great mainstay in the lion dietary.
We let our youthful friend investigate us to his liking, after which he trotted off. Gerenük seldom or never gallop and get up nothing like the speed of an oryx for instance.
We paused for lunch, and some surprised Midgans were located beneath a guda tree. Round about them were many fierce and vengeful-looking dogs. They had a fire over which they were roasting bits of flesh. A few dogs fought and wrangled over mangled remnants of bone, skin, and entrails. The horns and shield of an oryx hung on a khansa bush. The horns were not large, and were those of a cow oryx, killed to make a Midgan holiday, by the aid of the trained dogs, and with a coup-de-grâce of arrows. I have never seen the actual hunting, but I understand that these pariah dogs are bred by the Midgans to hunt the oryx, and going out in a pack make straight for the prey on being shown the antelope.
The music of the chase is noteless. The dogs hunt in silence, until they bring the antelope to his last stand, when they give tongue, guiding the tracking Midgans, who steal up, as concealed as may be, and let fly a flight of arrows which either settles the oryx there and then, or paves the way for an easy pull down later. Very often the antelope makes such a glorious stand that a couple of dogs are left on the field of battle for the hyænas. Though the dogs fasten on to their prey and are fierce beyond relief an oryx at bay is something to be afraid of. His swift forward rush, head down, with horns just fixed at the right angle for impaling an enemy, and sideway strike render him a formidable foe at close quarters.
The Midgans were very friendly. They were very ragged, and the quivers full of poisoned arrows hung on quite bare shoulders. They kindly showed us a track to our betterment, for the going now was stony and difficult. In and out among rocky nullahs were week-old pugs of lion, and farther, where rain had fallen, well-defined spoor of more lion, together with massed tracks of oryx and aoul. The spoor of the former is broad in the forefoot, somewhat resembling two pears set together, and the hind foot makes a much longer, narrower impress. We followed the rough track for a mile or more being led to an open “bun,” not extensive, where some few bunches of aoul grazed and an odd bull oryx also. We got off our ponies, and making the hunters into syces pro tem. did a stalk on all fours. Cover there was not, and the centre of the “bun” was the center of attraction to all the buck, the best grass probably growing there. It was completely out of reasonable range. A crackle, a rustle, or possibly a vision gave the alarm, and away went the oryx, out of sight instantly. The aoul fled affrightedly for a hundred yards or so, then brought up in a thick bunch to stare. One, inquisitive beyond belief, trotted towards us, advancing in short bounds in his anxiety to solve the mystery of these new squirming creatures. Head on, the aoul presented the position for the most reliable shot possible. A child would have brought it off. Cecily dropped the inquirer dead in his tracks.
We were very glad of the meat, and the horns were not amiss. The men would not be able to look forward to a resulting feast, as the “hallal” was left out. However, they had any amount of sun-dried meat to go on with. One pony had to carry the buck, which, after being cleaned, probably weighed less than the Somali who had occupied the saddle previously. Then we made tracks for the rendezvous. Looking behind us we saw a large jackal making off with the left-behind bits of aoul. Another and another came up, and then a set-to fight began as to who should eat the spoils. Whilst the battle raged with fang and claw a tiny jackal stealing up made off at best pace with most of the bone of contention.
At the arranged place of meeting we found no hospitably waiting tents, no cook trying to cook, no camels, no anything, but an arid waste of sand, sparsely dotted with adad bushes and a couple of very stunted guda trees. From the adad comes the gum arabic of Somali trading, a useless commodity to us. But we could see it for ourselves in amber lumps, in the crannies of the thorn.
Half an hour passed. The ponies nibbled the occasional brown spears that masqueraded as grass, and we sat down, and said things. One of the hunters got up a guda tree to help investigations, and we played: “Sister Ann, Sister Ann, do you see anybody coming?” until we were tired of it, and the man not being particularly agile missed his footing and fell with a plop to the ground. After he realized he still lived we had to listen to his complaints, which embraced everything from petitions to Allah, allusions to Kismet, to ordinary swear words consigning the tree and the bruises to altogether impossible places. It grew bitterly cold. A breeze sprang up and dashed the sand in little sprays about us. Then it got colder still, and darker; presently night would fall and find us unprepared. We guarded the ponies, and the men with nothing but a couple of shikar knives, cut thorn hurriedly, and we could not cry, “Hold, enough!” until a goodly pile had been collected. We started a fire then and sat about it holding the ponies by us. A comical group. The fire warmed us in front, but oh, the cold where the fire was not. I kept turning round and round like a meat-jack. We sat on like this in great discomfort until twelve o’clock. We had on drill jackets, so were very coldly clad. Then—a shot on the silence, cracking suddenly like ice splitting on a frozen lake. Crack again. We replied; and after a waste of cartridges on either side a dark mass loomed on our limited horizon, and the camel-men called words of endearment to the lost hunters. We were huffy enough to have dismissed the whole caravan and left ourselves stranded, but feigned to be propitiated by stories of how they lost their way and the compass, for a Somali will lose, as he can break, anything. The sight of our tents being erected and the prospect of bed and warmth mollified us as nothing else could have done, and we turned in as soon as the cook produced some soup. The men had to collect wood in the dark—a thing they hate. It was all a gross piece of bad management on the part of Clarence. Even Homer nods.
As a result of the exposure, Cecily contracted rheumatism of some inflammatory description. We called it rheumatism for want of a better name, but her illness most coincided with something discussed in our medical work—our vade mecum—and most unfortunately the page was lost and the name of the complaint, as luck would have it, was on it.
We decided it must be rheumatism and treated it accordingly. The right arm was rendered quite useless, and it was agony for the poor girl to do more than crawl about. It was a most irritating affair for her and ever so disappointing. The best sport of the trip was now at hand. We were in the rhino country, and at breakfast next morning a Somali hunter rode in—it is marvelous the way in which these people track caravans and then seem to drop in from nowhere—and he brought news, great news for us. Clarence introduced the man, a fine upstanding Berserk, who gazed in bewilderment at the new type of sporting sahib. A rhinoceros was in the vicinity, that much we elicited, that much, and enough too. A flowing tobe was the reward for these tidings of great joy.
Leaving Clarence to glean all particulars, I rushed to Cecily’s tent to see if she would require me to remain in camp with her. She said, nobly, “Of course not.” Truth to tell, I don’t think I could have done it had she asked me to.
I was so overjoyed and excited that I saw to the condition of my rifle ten times over.
The only animal a Somali really fears is the rhinoceros. His charge, though so blundering, is so terrific; and though he has not the cunning of the elephant, in fact hardly any finesse at all, the native mind knows it is safer to take no chances. I learnt by after experience that a rhinoceros is, indeed, a very big thing to tackle; that his immense bulk is no deterrent to nimbleness, that his lumbering, bull-like charge is not the most he can do, for if needs be he can turn and double with agility.
As soon as possible after hearing the great news we prepared to try our luck. The country here was of the densest description, and Clarence’s idea was to make a detour south, by way of some water-holes, where we might come on tracks of more rhino. He said the one we had heard of would probably by now be far away, and, as we were right in the Ogaden, there was every possibility of our picking up fresh rhino spoor for ourselves almost immediately. We got ready quite a little expedition, and I detailed a camel to carry my requirements in case we thought it better to stay out all night, and with Clarence, the Baron, a syce, and two camel men my retinue was sufficiently imposing. Danger from the Ogaden Somalis never presented itself to me as a very real thing, in spite of certain lurid tales we had heard and read. Although we penetrated the country from end to end, the few tribes we met gave us no anxiety save that of the off-chance that we might catch some disease from them. They are very prone to small-pox, and go on walking about with it, giving it to all and sundry, when most people would be isolated.
But to return to that joint of mutton we sat down to. I took a whole armoury along with me, but had quite selected my 12-bore as the rifle for the job. I said goodbye to poor disappointed Cecily, thinking how lucky I was to be well and able to set off on this the greatest adventure of all my life. I little thought I was nearing one of its tragedies. As I rode along I felt light-hearted enough to sing. Even the woeful going and the consequent delays did not seriously vex me. The sandy plateaus presently changed to the most impossible thorn, and it became apparent we could get the encumbered camel no farther. The creature could not struggle on through such dense jungle, neither could the ponies. I would hear of no going back, and there was no going round, so I instructed the small caravan to await my reappearance under pain of all sorts of penalties whilst “the Baron,” myself, and Clarence pushed and crawled our way in a direction where we confidently hoped to come on rhino.
I simply held my breath, took a header into the sea of bush before us, and with the ubiquitous Clarence ever and anon carving out a rough path for me with his hunting knife, held on the way.
The heat was appalling. I can truthfully say I never was so hot in all my life. After about an hour of this, we all suddenly came upon a distinct passage through the jungle, running at right angles, a passage that could hardly be called one, still the way was easier, and it was apparent that, though the brushwood had closed together again more or less, some mighty creatures had passed along. But which way? Spooring was impossible, the broken thorns could not solve the puzzle. We must chance it. Clarence was for the left. I advocated the right. Something made me choose so; but oh, how devoutly afterwards I wished I had taken the man’s way and not mine own. It was not easy going now, but child’s play to what we endured at first. On and on, very, very slowly; and at last the heavy country broke up somewhat and we could see the sandy ground in patches once more. A space and then—rhino spoor! New, never-to-be-forgotten, I stooped down and examined it carefully. It was very distinct considering the dry nature of the ground. I ascribed this to his immense weight. I measured the imprint, and found it came out at nine and three-quarters long by eight and three-quarter inches broad. A rhino causes no havoc to the thorn bushes as he travels bar the injury of his passage. Unlike the elephant, he does not stop and eat all along the way. He waits until settled in some cherished feeding ground.
By the time we had done another hour, the spoor still holding on, the country was comparatively clear. I was so fatigued and winded I lay down and hardly knew what to do with myself. I sent Clarence and the Baron on a bit to prospect, and had really nearly forgotten their existence in exhausted sleep when they appeared again all tingling with excitement and eagerness, and with many signs and mysterious facial contortions explained the rhino was not far off. A wave of the hand to a far away fastness of thicket showed me its lair, and as we crept closer a pensive munching sound betrayed the occupation of our prey.
Aching all over, I silently crept on. In the stillness, I could more plainly hear the crunching of the thorns as they made a meal for the great pachyderm. But I saw nothing, and how I was to penetrate the wait-a-bit with any degree of safety I could not see. Few people would care to meet a rhinoceros at such a disadvantage, and I had to add to other drawbacks the fact that I had for safety’s sake to let the hammers of my rifle down ere negotiating such dense undergrowth. It would be highly dangerous to proceed with the rifle cocked, but I wanted it very much cocked indeed on my first introduction to so vast and important an animal. The thing was to circumvent the wood—if I may call the place by so home-like a word—and on reaching one spot where the thorn grew sparser, I decided to penetrate here. I could not bear to leave it longer, and could not wait all day; besides, I prefer to meet a rhino in some place where there is a pretence at cover anyway to trying conclusions with him in a patch of conspicuously open ground.
My men showed no sign of fear, and following me came on as carefully and steadily as ever. Both were armed, inadequately it is to be feared, but the onus of the business was to fall, presumably, on me. At last! In one dazzling minute of surprise, I saw the huge lumbering bulk we know as the rhinoceros. I have a bowing acquaintance with his relatives in many zoos, yet he seemed to me a stranger. Surely they never were so colossal, so mighty, so altogether awe-inspiring.
My hands trembled violently. I was for the moment unsteady. It all seemed so impossible I could kill the wondrous brute.
The cocking of the hammers seemed to echo through the jungle. To let him hear us now would present difficulties unthinkable. Beads of perspiration rolled down my forehead, and my heart beat so loudly that I wondered if Clarence heard it. This would never do, so rating myself to myself—a method that never fails to pull me together—I took long, steady, and careful aim at the pachyderm’s shoulder. The frontal shot is never of the slightest use, and I could not get in a heart one. I know now I had no business to fire at all, but my keenness was great, my ignorance greater, and Clarence had not protested once.
I fired! Instantly a noise like the letting off steam of a C.P.R. engine, twice as noisy as any other. The rhino sniffed the air with his huge muzzle, and I could clearly see his prehensile upper lip. In a moment he seemed on us—through us; we scattered as he came. Then I saw what a truly awful business we were in for, and, recognizing there must be no delay in getting the sights on him again, I dashed after the animal, who was now about to double on his tracks, and I crawled into the insignificant shelter of a thorn bush to await developments.
The rhino had not as yet realized what was the matter, or quite gathered who his foes were. I fired again, another shoulder shot. This bullet “told” heavily, and the maddened creature, smarting and furious, passed me like the wind and charged like a Juggernaut right over the Baron, who, in meaning to evade the rush, fell into it through the unexpected agility of the brute. A most awful stifled shriek arose as my poor fellow went down. Frightened as I was, I felt I should be everlastingly branded to myself as a coward if I made no attempt to save the man, although I understood how altogether impossible salvation was just then. The pachyderm was giving the prostrate body a number of vicious rams with his horn. I advanced quite close, and the rhino, seeing me, blunderingly charged, passing so near I got the very breath from his nostrils. I luckily managed to get in a heart shot, and yet another. The animal lurched on, and then fell, as a loaded furniture van might, with a terrific crash. But it was not entirely accounted for even yet, and continued to emit little squeals and plough the ground up all about it. Still, I knew it would rise no more, and I gave my rifle to Clarence with a sign to him to do the happy despatch. I went to the fallen Baron, and even now cannot write of the dreadful nature of his wounds without a shudder at the manner of so hideous a death. I was overwhelmed, but Clarence was still imperturbable as he looked back from the great mass that now lay as inert as my poor follower.
There was no use trying anything; the Baron was dead. I did my best to hide my stress of mind from the calm shikari, and endeavored to think what it was best to do. I wanted to have the body taken back to camp and bury it decently, but, after all, it was a silly idea enough, and a mere relic of home associations. The man had to be buried, so why not do it where he fell? Then the rhinoceros, with all its value in hide and horn, lay there to be dealt with. The only way seemed to be to return to the spot where we left the camel, let Clarence lead two men to the scene of the débâcle, and then I would proceed to camp and order out further assistance.
We covered the poor Baron with cut thorns, which seemed a slight barrier of protection for his body; and the thought of the inroads of some beasts of prey made me hurry and almost run back through the awful way we had come so short a time ago. Our passage had cleared it a very little, and my mind was so much occupied with the catastrophe that it did not seem very long before we reached the philosophic camel and the help of which we stood in need.
One camel-man I instructed to return to camp with his charge; the other and my syce I detailed to go back with Clarence to attend to the Baron and the rhino. I got on my own pony, leading the others, and going as hard as I could under such harassing conditions, I returned an hour or so after with a few men, whom I led to the edge of the thick jungle into which I heartily wished I had never penetrated, and explained to the leader the exact location of the scene of the disaster. I arranged that a rifle should be fired three times to acquaint me of his meeting with Clarence at the awful spot. For myself, I was too utterly done to take on the journey down that path again. I sat and waited for the signal, and felt a little easier in my mind as I heard the welcome one, two, three.
I wearily returned to camp, and having fully explained to Cecily the extent of the disaster, lay on my bed, face down, for ages. The death of the poor hunter could not, strictly speaking, be ascribed to me. I might so easily have been the victim myself, but the horror of it all and the pity of it bothered me as I suppose it would not have done a real sportsman. For, in retailing it now to my uncle, he pooh-poohs my trouble and says it is the fortune of big game hunting. “You hunt big game, big game hunt you,” as the case may be.
Cecily tried in her loving way to comfort me, and the cook made me a soporific in the shape of tea, and the kettle had really boiled. I was very glad to see Clarence back before the light gave out, and hear that the Baron had been buried deeply and far out of the reach of hungry jackals and hyænas.
I spent a fearful night of regrets and recriminations. When pain is acute it is as well to let it bite deep, because the reaction is greater in proportion to the pain. I’m not sure that the old adage about crying over spilt milk isn’t a fraud. It does a woman good to cry, so I wept and wept.
Next morning I thoroughly overhauled my prize so dearly bought. The spoil must have taken some carrying. The head, which I kept entire—I mean without despoiling it of horns—was not so large as I somehow expected from an animal of his bulk. Still, it was big enough in all conscience. The skin appeared like some freshly-peeled fruit, and was of great thickness, though it afterwards shrank in the drying a little.
After the epidermis is removed, the hide, when polished, comes up like clouded amber, and makes the most exquisite top for a table, of which the four feet form the base. In my worry at the time I neglected to measure the rhinoceros as he lay, but in any case we were quite unable to move him. I afterwards took the dimensions of the horns, and the length of the anterior was sixteen inches, the posterior being at seven. I could not settle in that camp again, nor hunt with any happiness. As soon as Cecily was well enough to trek we struck camp, and held on in the direction of Galadi, wherever that might be.
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