Another Uncomfortable Night
I see a man’s life is a tedious one. I have tired myself; and
for two nights together have made the ground my bed
You can imagine with what joy I looked forward to a good night’s rest after the previous twelve hours’ vigil, and therefore it is the more amusing to remember that, as Fate would have it, I had an even more occupied time during the midnight hours than ever. We had started to march, after returning to camp with the wart-hog, as we had news of splendid “khubbah” some miles off, given to us by a Somali who came in riding his unkempt pony. The Somali ponies, by the way, are never shod.
The ground was very bad going, and over one bit of sandy waste I thought we never should get. The camels sank in up to their knees at every forward move, then deeper, and at last so deep—it was almost like an American mud-hole—I began to fear consequences. The absurd creatures made no attempt to extricate themselves, but simply, when they found the place a perfect quagmire, settled down like squashed jellies.
It was too ridiculous for words, and I laughed and laughed. Everybody talked at once, and nobody did anything. At last we all, even the Somali who brought us the news of the distant game, and who seemed to like us very much, for we never got rid of him again lent a hand, and began to unload the laden camels, carrying the goods to terra-firma. some sixty yards away.
The moment the camels considered their loads lightened they condescended to heave themselves up a little. After loading up again we proceeded but a little way, indeed but a few hundred yards, when the whole thing repeated itself. The camels were embedded once more. Cecily and I decided to go on and leave them all to it, and try and get any sport that might be had, ordering the men to release the camels from this new quagmire of theirs, and to afterwards form zareba close to the place, I was really glad to ride away from the whole thing, confusion and everything. The disorganized, unsettled feeling I got reminded me of that which comes to one at home during the annual upheaval known as the spring-cleaning. The green grass was springing up with the recent rains, and our little ponies made light of the muddy going. The spoor of all sorts of game was everywhere apparent, and we were most interested to see traces of ostrich, although we did not that day come across any, indeed they are rather difficult creatures to see.
We separated, as was our wont, Cecily taking Clarence, and I the Baron, whom we had now, in spite of his romancing propensities, promoted to second in command. He had great acumen when he chose to display it, and was no sort of a coward. But then, in spite of what some travelers say, the average Somali rarely is. They are frightful “buck-sticks,” but I never saw any cowardice to disprove their boasting stories.
After leaving the ponies with two syces we went off at right angles, and after a long and heavy walk I came on a bunch of aoul, who winded me and darted away like lightning. Their flight started a great prize, whom I had not noticed before, so much the color of the reddish-brown earth was he. A dibatag buck. He fled too a little way, but then halted, appearing to think the sudden fright of the aoul unnecessary. I was crouching low behind a small bush, and took most careful aim. Off went the long-necked creature again, its quite lengthy tail held erect. He stood and faced me. He apparently mistrusted the bush, but had some weakness for the spot. It was a very long shot, but I tried it. The bullet found a billet, for I heard it tell, but the buck sprang feet into the air and was off in a moment. I took to my heels and ran like mad. I don’t know how I ever imagined I was to overtake the antelope. The Baron tore along behind me. I ran until I was completely winded, but I could see a strong blood-trail, so knew the antelope was hard hit. I ran on again, and we were now in very boggy ground, or rather surrounded by many oozy-looking water holes. It was a very shaky shot I got in next time. The dibatag dashed on for a few paces, and then took a crashing header into—of course—the largest pool in the vicinity. The Baron and I danced about on the edge in great vexation, but I did not mean to lose my splendid prize even if I had to go in after him myself. Satisfying myself that the water was not deep, I bribed the avaricious Somali to go in and help lift the animal whilst I rendered active assistance on dry land, and this was done. The Baron went in with a very bad grace, at which one cannot be surprised, and after prodigious splashing and any amount of exertion, for the buck was an immense weight, I held the dibatag out of the water whilst the Baron extricated himself, together with many leeches, from the pool. Then we both heaved together, and the buck was mine. The Baron now began to make such a fuss about his loss of blood caused by the leeches who would not let go I told him to go home to camp and put salt on them and then recover, and ordered him meanwhile to send the syce back to me with my pony.
I sat down and admired my dibatag, and was mightily pleased with my luck. For this antelope is very shy and difficult to stalk as a rule. Dibatag is, of course, the native name, but somehow the one most commonly used everywhere. The correct name is Clark’s Gazelle. The tail is really quite lengthy, and the one sported by my prize measured twelve-and-a-half inches. His horns were good and touched nine-and-three-quarter inches. Only the bucks carry horns.
The dibatag was so large we had the greatest difficulty in packing him on to the pony as I wanted to do, so we finally skinned him, keeping his head and the feet, which I afterwards had mounted as bell-pulls.
Going back to camp I came on Cecily, who recounted her adventures—not a quarter so interesting as mine, though, for she had drawn blank. It would be boring for anyone to have to wade through stories of stalks that came to nothing.
“What’s hit is history, but what’s missed is mystery,” though, of course, each several excursion teemed with myriad interests for us on the spot.
Sometimes I spoored for hours without getting a shot, involving a great knowledge of the habits of animals, keen eyes and judgment, all of which Clarence possessed in a high degree. Then his ability to speak English, even imperfectly, was such an advantage, and we beguiled many an hour in conversation.
I wonder if we human beings will ever be able to hunt for its own sake, without the desire for its cruel consummation. Much though I love the old primitive instinct of pursuing, I am not able to forgo the shot, and particularly when I want a lovely pair of horns. I suppose we keep the balance, and if we did not kill the lions and leopards would get the upper hand. But often I wished when I was flushed with success, and I saw my beast lying dead, that I had not done it. It seemed so cruel, and all antelope are so very beautiful. Of course, we had to kill for food as well as sport, and I think we spared generously on the whole, for we could have trebled the bag.
I began to feel tired of the actual killing as soon as I had perfect specimens of each sort, and always preferred the nobler sport of more dangerous game. I think if I went again I could in most instances deny myself the shot, and content myself with watching and photographing. As it was, I often lay for an hour and watched game, after crawling to within fifty yards. On one occasion an aoul and I eyed each other at twenty paces, and so motionless was I he could neither make head nor tail of me.
The camp was in a turmoil and every camel-man shouting at the top of his voice—the one thing I do object to in Somalis. Their very whispers almost break your ear-drum, and I suppose a loud voice is the result of many centuries of calling over vast spaces.
Three of the camels, heavily laden, had turned aggressive, bitten several men, and shaken the dust of the place off their feet. Of course, the levanting camels proved to be the ones loaded up with our tents and bedding. They had a very excellent start before anyone thought it necessary to go in pursuit. It was all gross carelessness, as a loaded camel is easy enough to stop if the stopping is done by its own driver.
There was nothing for us to do in the matter, and supper seemed the main object just then. The cook served us up some soup and broiled chops, and we topped up with some delicious jam out of the useful little pots from the A. and N. Stores, holding enough for a not-very-greedy person. Cecily voted for blackberry, and I sampled the raspberry.
Night fell, and still no returning camels. I rode out a little way, but the going was too impossible in the dark. My pony was a gallant little beast, a bit of a stargazer, but I prefer a horse with his heart in the right place, wherever his looks may be.
I was by this time aching all over, and there was nothing to do but make provision for as comfortable a night as might be. We collected what spare blankets we could, and lay down near one of the fires. Though so weary I could not sleep, and the camp was never silent for a moment. The fires were kept high, and shots fired at intervals to guide the wandering camel-men.
The men lay about or sat about the watch-fires, and in the middle of the night, two of them began to fight. In the lurid light the scene was sufficiently realistic to be unpleasant. They began with loud words, progressed to blows, and then advanced to spears. Thinking that rifles would probably be the next resource, I got up and called on the men to desist. They took no more notice of me, naturally than if I had never spoken. And as the now thoroughly awakened camp appeared to be going to take sides in the business, I got my “express” and shrieked out loudly that I then and there meant to make an end of both the combatants. Although they were not supposed to understand English, they translated enough from my resolute manner and threatening gestures to know that I would put up with no nonsense. They ceased the combat as suddenly as they began it, but not before camel-man No. 1 had jabbed camel-man No. 2 in the fleshy part of his thigh.
I told Clarence to hold No. 1 in durance vile whilst No. 2 had to be attended to with as much care as if we really sympathized with him. All my desire was to be able to shoot both of them on sight. I was so tired I could hardly see, and too aching to do more than drag myself around. We had to dress the man’s wound for fear of consequences and went on messing away with him until the first signs of dawn saw the return of the prodigals, travel-stained and weary. The camels promptly sank down and began chewing the cud composedly. Really the camel is the most philosophical of all living things!
Next morning I held a court-martial of sorts on the offenders and threatened them both with the loss of the promised bonus to be given at the end of the trip provided all things pleased us. I also docked them of some pay. This had the desired effect, and battles, except wordy ones, were “off” henceforward.
The wound by rights ought to have been stitched, but we rather shied off doing it. The dressing was pantomime enough; I nearly lost my temper many times. An expedition like ours is a grand field on which to practice repression, and I was forever trying conclusions with my capabilities in that direction.
Out early near here one morning we came on an astonishing sight—an oryx lying down in a thorn patch, and all around him, like familiars of a witch, crouched jackals, the length of one of their kind apart, watching with never flinching stare the center of attraction. We cantered up, and the jackals reluctantly made off. One big fellow struck me as unlike his brethren, and a bit of a prize. So, reining in the pony, I jumped to the ground, losing a lot of time in the process, and fired with rather a shaky hand. The result was I hit the loping animal in the leg only, laming it, causing it to howl terribly, and causing me much shame for my unskilled aim.
I pursued my quarry, because I could not leave it out wounded, and overtook it just as it fled into a lair of thick adad bushes. Dismounting, I let the pony stand, and going to the bushes I stooped down to peer in, laying my rifle on the sand. A flare of green eyes and snarling teeth, a flat yellow head shot out as a snake strikes. My coat sleeve was gripped in a gin of white fangs, but only the incisors cut into my flesh—caught by the left arm in a flash. Before worse could happen I pulled my shikar pistol from my belt, and in the tussle—for we neither of us took things lying down—the weapon went off anyhow. My enemy sank inert, still gripping my sleeve. He was hit mortally and died in a moment or two. My arm began to smart a trifle, and I had some difficulty in dragging the wolf-creature from its deep-in lair. It was a wolf, not large—no bigger than a jackal, and much smaller than a hyæna. Its coat was marked with brown, and right down the middle of the back was a fine upstanding length of hair that formed a black-tipped mane or ridge. The tail was long and thick, very black on the lower part and very yellow at the upper. The forefeet were five-toed; I counted them carefully.
It was a bit of a struggle to lift the carcase across the pony, and I had to walk, holding it on, to the place where I left Cecily. She was watching over the departed oryx, and vultures sat around her wistfully regarding the feast that might have been. In the side of the dead antelope an arrow still stabbed, and marks of a whole flight were in evidence all over the glossy coat. Some Midgans hunting without dogs had missed their quarry somehow. Cecily had put the big bull out of his pain, and there we were with an embarras de richesse miles from camp and alone. The oryx had very finely turned horns, and it seemed a sin to waste them. We set off to decapitate him with the only implement we had, a very small shikar knife. It took a long time in the doing, and we were so hot and tired and sick by the end of the performance, I thought we must be struck with the sun. The water in our bottles was quite hot.
The instant we left the carcase of the oryx the vultures came from all sides, hanging over it with legs poised to alight, screaming as they flapped along the ground and settled on the bushes around. We took it in turns to ride the spare pony; the other was a beast of burden for our spoils. A flock of quail ran ahead and disappeared beneath the khansa. The walking one walked, and the riding one rode, and at last we had to take our coats off. The heat grew insufferable, the sun blazed a-shimmer through the purple-blue coverlet of the sky. Even the sun-loving sun-birds kept in the shade of the bushes. My rifle—best of playthings—took on a pound or two in weight.
Cecily wears perpetually a single-stone diamond ring, given her by a friend now in Purgatory, if everyone gets their deserts, as we are told is the invariable rule. The sun danced on the exquisite stone, and as she moved her hand a glinting light flickered from it on the sand here and there, like a will-o’-the-wisp.
Our pony shied—actually pretending to possess nerves—at a porcupine, who suddenly rustled his quills like the upsetting of a box of pens. The oryx head fell off, and the mettlesome steed backed on to it, damaging the horn near the tip against a sharp stone. A small kink, but a pity. Cecily made the pony walk up to our friend of the quills, but as it seemed likely to result in the wolf being chucked off also, we abandoned horse-training notions for the present.
Getting back to camp, we found the men lining up for their devotions, so waited patiently until they were over. Everybody’s creed, or form of it, should be respected, because each separate religion, multitudinous though they are, is but one religion, and a part of the vast whole. The seeming difference in all sects are merely the individual temperamental superstitions. It does not matter, therefore, if we worship Allah or Joss, Buddha or Mrs. Eddy. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” To certain people certain names for religion are necessary—to others the “Religion Universal” serves. Now, our chef belonged to—I am sure—the Peculiar People, and didn’t know it, and called himself a Mussulman of the Shafai sect. He must have been peculiar to think he deceived us into believing he was a cook, ever had been, or ever would be. Some people are born cooks, some achieve cooking, and some have cooking thrust upon them. Our satellite was of the latter kind.
We bought a couple of sheep that night from a passing caravan but told the men they would be the last we should provide if the animals could not be despatched in a quicker, more humane manner. The “halal” slash across the throat seems only to be really efficacious if the animal to be killed is in full possession of its senses. They might easily be stunned first. When we killed antelope for meat the shikari always satisfied himself first that the animal was alive before he bothered to give the “halal.” This seems rather an Irishism, but you understand how I mean.
Somali sheep are never shorn, for their wool attains no length. This is another of dear Nature’s wise arrangements. I do not like to imagine the condition of any poor sheep in the Somali sun with a coat on like unto the ones grown by our animals at home. The number of sheep in Somaliland is as the sands of the sea. Such vast flocks would be large even in an avowedly sheep-producing country where the rearing of them is reduced to a fine art. The Somali animals thrive and multiply with hardly any attention. They never grow horns, and have the most extraordinary tails, huge lumps of fat, which wax all very fine and large if the pasturage is good, and dwindle at once if the herbage is scanty. Carefully fostered, the sheep-raising industry could support the country. The export at present is as nothing to what it might be engineered into.
Chapter VIII will follow
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