A RIP VAN WINKLE OF THE KALAHARI AND OTHER TALES OF SOUTH-WEST AFRICA
A RIP VAN WINKLE OF THE KALAHARI AND OTHER TALES OF SOUTH-WEST AFRICA
FREDERICK CARRUTHERS CORNELL
CAPETOWN: T. MASKEW MILLER LONDON: T. FISHER UNWIN, LTD.
A RIP VAN WINKLE OF THE KALAHARI INTRODUCTORY I - THE BLUE DIAMOND II - DEAD MEN IN THE DUNES III - THE SAND-STORM IV - THE PANS AND THE POISON FLOWERS V - I LOSE INYATI VI - THE CRATER THE PLEASANT BERRIES SLEEP AND THE AWAKENING VII - THE COUNTRY OF CRATERS, THE PATH OF SKULLS, AND THE SNAKE VIII - THE CATACLYSM THE PRIESTESS "LOOK AND FORGET" IX - FORTY YEARS! THE AWAKENING
THE SALTING OF THE GREAT NORTH-EASTERN FIELDS, BEING AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF DICK SYDNEY, PROSPECTOR CHAPTER I II III IV V
"THE DRINK OF THE DEAD"
THE WATERS OF ERONGO
MOST of these stories were written on the veldt; at odd times, in out- of-the-way prospecting camps, in the wilds of the Kalahari Desert, or of that equally little-known borderland between Klein Namaqualand, and Gordonia, Cape Colony, and what was at that time known as German South- West Africa.
Four of them appeared a few years back in The State an illustrated magazine now unhappily defunct; the others, though written about the same time, have never been published.
And now, time and circumstances have combined to bring the scene in which they are laid most prominently before the public.
Through the dangerous and difficult barrier of the desert sandbelt that extends all along the coast, General Botha and his formidable columns forced their way to Windhuk; from the remote lower reaches of the Orange River other troops steadily and relentlessly pushed north; and even to the east the well-nigh unexplored dunes of the southern Kalahari proved no safeguard to the Germans, for Union forces invaded them even there: and all eyes in South Africa are to-day turned towards this new addition to the Union and the Empire.
Whilst imagination has naturally played the chief part in these tales, the descriptions given of certain parts of this little-known region are accurate, and by no means overdrawn; at the same time, though they treat principally of the dangerous and waterless desert, it must be borne in mind that although the sand dunes form one of Damaraland's most striking features, yet it is by no means altogether the barren, scorching dust-heap it is popularly believed to be.
For once the sand region bordering the coast is traversed, and the higher plateau begins, vegetation and water become more abundant, the climate is magnificent, and cattle, sheep and goats thrive; whilst in the north much of which remains practically unexplored there is much fruitful and well-watered country teeming with game, and akin to Rhodesia, awaiting the settler.
Mining and stock-raising are the two great possibilities in this new country, where water conditions are never likely to allow of extensive agriculture being carried out successfully.
But above all mining! For much of the country and especially the north is very highly mineralized. Copper abounds; tin and gold have been found and there can be but little doubt that the former will eventually be located in abundance and, above all, the diamond fields of the south-west coastal belt have since their discovery in 1908 added enormously both to the value of the country and to its attractiveness.
To refer again to these tales; the description of Rip Van Winkle's ride through the desert, the sand-storm, the huge salt "pans," and indeed most of the earlier incidents, have been but common-place experiences of my own in the wastes of the southern Kalahari, slightly altered for the purposes of the story. Even the "poison flowers" exist there and no Bushman will sleep among them, beautiful as they are. And lest the huge diamond in the head of the "Snake" in the same story be considered an impossibility, let it be borne in mind that the Cullinan (enormous as it was) was but the fragment of a monster that must have been every whit as big as the one I describe. The cataclysm is also a possibility; for although rain falls but seldom in the desert, there are occasional thunderstorms of extraordinary violence, and I have seen wide stretches of the Kalahari near the dry bed of the extinct Molopo River (long since choked, and part of the desert) converted into a broad deep lake, after a cloudburst lasting but an hour or so, which drowned hundreds of head of cattle.
The incident in "Dick Sydney," of the fracas in the bar where the Germans were toasting to "The Day," was not written after war was declared, but one night in Luderitzbucht full three years ago, after hearing that toast drunk publicly in the manner described, and after witnessing a very similar ending to it! And that particular story was refused by the then editor of The State, as being too anti-German! Well times have indeed changed!
And lest a prospective "Dick Sydney" should think that the picture of that individual picking up a thousand carats of diamonds in an hour or so is far-fetched, let me assure him that the first discoverers of the Pomona fields, south of Luderitzbucht, did literally fill their pockets with the precious stones in that space of time: and that other fields as rich may well await discovery will be denied by few who know the country.
"Ex Africa semper aliquid novo" never was saying truer! and Damaraland, under the British flag, and with scope given to individual enterprise, may well provide still another striking example of that old adage.
FREDERICK C. CORNELL.
Cape Town, 1915.
A RIP VAN WINKLE OF THE KALAHARI
The manner of my meeting with him was strange in the extreme, and a fitting prelude to the wild and fantastic story he told me.
I had been trading and elephant shooting in Portuguese territory in Southern Angola; and hearing from my boys that ivory was plentiful in German territory, farther south, I had crossed the Kunene River into Amboland; and here, sure enough, I found elephants and ivory galore. So good, indeed, was both sport and trade in this country of the Ovampos that by the time I reached Etosha Pau my "trade" goods had vanished, and my wagon was heavily laden with fine tusks. So far had I penetrated into German territory that I decided to make my way south-west towards Walfisch Bay instead of returning to Portuguese territory. But I knew I must rest my cattle well before attempting it, for it would mean an arduous trek; I had no guide, and there were no roads; for at the time I speak of, the Germans had done but little to open up the northern part of their territory; and indeed even to the present day much of it still remains unexplored.
It is a wild and beautiful country, for the greater part well-wooded, and teeming with game; though towards the east it becomes drier and sandier until there stretches before the traveler nothing but the endless dunes of the unknown Kalahari desert.
Untraversed, unexplored, and mysterious, this land of "The Great Thirst" had always held a great fascination for me; its outlying dunes began but a few miles east of my camp, and from an isolated granite kopje near their border I had often gazed across the apparently limitless sea of sand: stretching as far as the eye could reach to where the dancing shimmer of the mirage linked sand and sky on the far horizon.
It was along the edge of these dunes that I one day followed a wounded eland so far that dusk overtook me a long distance from my wagon. My water-bottle was full, there was abundance of dry wood for a fire, and I was just debating whether I would try and get back to the wagon, or camp where I was, when my horse solved the question for me by shying violently at something, and throwing me clean out of the saddle.
My head must have struck a stone, for I was stunned, and for a time I knew no more.
When I came to myself it was dark, but a bright fire was burning near me, a blanket covered me, and I was lying upon something soft. Evidently some one was caring for me, and I concluded that my boys had found me though I had given them strict instructions not to leave the wagon.
"Jantje! Kambala!" I called, but there was no answer, and I tried to rise. But my hurt had apparently been a severe one, for my head spun round, the fire danced before my eyes, and I again lost consciousness.
When next I awoke the fire was still burning, and a figure was seated beside it: a figure that the leaping flames rendered monstrous and distorted. The back was towards me, but at the slight rustle I made upon my bed of dry leaves in awakening, the figure turned in my direction, and I caught a momentary glimpse of the face. Firelight plays strange tricks sometimes, but the momentary flicker showed me a countenance so grotesque that I must have made an involuntary movement of surprise, for with a short laugh the unknown man rose and came towards me, saying as he did so, "Don't be scared even the devil isn't as black as he's painted!" And, whoever he was, the way in which he tended to my throbbing head, advising me not to talk, but to rest and sleep, soon soothed my shaken nerves, and I slept again till broad daylight.
I could hear the low murmur of voices, and sitting up, I saw that Jantje and Kambala had put in an appearance and were talking in an unknown tongue to my friend of the night before—a white man—but surely the strangest-looking being I had ever beheld.
First of all he was a hunchback, and his body was twisted and distorted to a remarkable degree yet in spite of his curved shoulders he was of more than average height, and of a breadth incredible. But his face! who can describe it? Seamed and scarred in deep gashes, as though by some hideous torture, the nose broken and flattened almost upon the cheek, there remained but little human about the awful countenance except the eyes. But these, as I found later, were of a beauty and expressiveness to make one forget their terrible setting. Large, pellucid, of a bright hazel, there was something magnetic in their straight and honest gaze; and I can well believe that before he met with his awful disfigurement their owner must have been a man of superb appearance.
As I moved, he came towards me, holding out his hand as he did so, and a fine, warm-hearted grip he gave me.
"Better, eh?" he said. "No don't get up; you've had an ugly smack, and must take care of yourself for a bit. And I'm afraid," he continued, as he sat down beside me, "that I was the cause of your accident for your horse shied at me, and you came near breaking your neck!"
"Shied at you?" I queried, in surprise for there was scarce cover for a cat just where I had been thrown "but where were you, then I never saw you?"
"No, but I saw you," he replied grimly, "and having been the cause of your downfall, I could do no less than look after you till your boys came."
Thus strangely began an acquaintance that lasted only all too short a time, but that was full of interest for me; for I found my new friend to be a remarkable man in more ways than in appearance. His knowledge of the region we were in was wonderful, the few natives we met treated him with every sign of respect and fear, and he seemed equally conversant with their language, as with that of my own boys, Jantje the Hottentot, and Kambala the Herero.
The habits of the game, the properties of each bush and shrub, each game-path and water-hole, he knew them all, and had something interesting to say about all of them; and the few days of our companionship were pleasant in the extreme.
I never knew his name, and had it not been that chance came to my aid, I should probably never have heard his strange history. But it so happened that a few days after our first meeting, a buffalo, with the finest horns I had ever seen, got up within twenty yards of us; and in my eagerness to secure his wonderful head, I shot badly, and only succeeded in wounding him slightly. His terrific charge was a thing to be remembered.
Straight at us he came, wild with rage, and my new friend's horse, gored and screaming, went down before him in a flash. The rider was thrown, and to my horror, before I could control my own frightened animal sufficiently to enable me to shoot, the bull was upon the fallen man, goring and trampling upon him in an awful manner. Leaping from my horse, I put bullet after bullet through the big bull's head, and at length he lurched forward, dead, upon the mangled body of his victim.
We had some difficulty in extricating the man, and never expected to find him alive, but though badly crushed and torn he still breathed, and naturally I did all I could to save his life.
That night he was delirious, and it was then that I had evidence of the almost superhuman strength with which he was endowed. Time after time he tore himself from the combined strength of my two sturdy boys, and always he raved of diamonds, and of a never-ending search for something, or some one, in the desert.
His hurts were sufficient to have killed half a dozen men, and I never expected him to live; but two days later he was able to tell the natives, in their own tongue, of certain herbs which they prepared under his direction, and in a week he was about again.
His cure was nothing short of miraculous in my eyes at least but he made light of his own share in the matter, and was all gratitude for the little I had been able to do to atone for the result of my bad shooting. And one night, by the camp fire, and with very little preamble, he told me the following strange story, which I have set down as nearly as possible in his own words.
A RIP VAN WINKLE OF THE KALAHARI
CHAPTER I THE BLUE DIAMOND
Diamonds first brought me to this country—a small glass phial full of them in the hands of an old sailor who had been shipwrecked on the South-west African coast, somewhere in the vicinity of Cape Cross, and who had spent many months wandering with the Bushmen who found him, before he eventually worked his way back safely to Walfisch Bay. Here one of the rare whalers, that occasionally called at that little-known spot, eventually picked him up, and he at length got back to Liverpool, with nothing but his tiny packet of little bright stones to show for all his months of hardship among the Bushmen.
The ignorant whalers had laughed at his assertion that the little crystals were of any value; as at that time diamonds were undreamed of in South Africa—for all this was long, long ago.
Chance threw me in the old man's way, and a small service I was able to render him led to his showing me the stones. He had been in Brazil and had seen rough diamonds there; and I too, who had also dug in the fields of Minhas Geraes, saw at once that he was right; they were diamonds.
I had money, but I wanted more; for there was a girl for whom I had sworn to make a fortune, and who in turn had sworn to wait for me, poor girl! She little knew how long that wait would be, or the kind of wreck that would return to her at last. And even as I poured the little glittering cascade of diamonds that old Anderson had found from one hand to the other, my mind was made up.
"Anderson," I said, "come out with me to Africa again, man; we can make ourselves rich men! Of course, there must be more where these came from?"
"More!" said the hard-bitten old seaman, who was as brown and withered as the Bushmen he had lived amongst so long; "More, is it? Why, sir, there's bushels of them in a valley as I knows of out there; so many that I couldn't believe myself that they was diamonds, so I only brought a few! But there they can stay for me. No more Bushmen for me, thank 'ee; they'd put a poisoned arrow through me if ever they saw me again. But if you want to go, well and good; I'll tell you where to find the diamonds!"
And the upshot was that I sailed for the Cape a week later, and a few months afterwards I landed at Walfisch Bay, from whence I intended trekking north in search of the Golconda old Anderson had described to me.
At that time, with the exception of a few traders, hunters, and missionaries near the coast, the country was uninhabited by white men; moreover, it was in a state of turmoil. From the north-east, a powerful Bantu race the Damaras, or Ovaherero as they term themselves had been gradually spreading over the land south and west, and had just come in contact with the Namaquas, a Hottentot race who had come from the south. The result had been a series of bloody native wars, in which neither race could for long claim decided advantage. Meanwhile the aboriginal Bushmen of the country had been almost exterminated, scattered tribes of them only remaining in the most inaccessible parts of the country. It was towards these wild people that my path lay, and the few settlers I met warned me that my trip was likely to be a dangerous one.
"And you have nothing to gain!" they pointed out, "these Bushmen have no cattle, no ivory, nothing! They are but vermin, and a poisoned arrow is all you are likely to get from them." But, secure in my knowledge of the riches awaiting me, I was not to be deterred; and there came a day when my wagon, loaded with a goodly stock of "trade" goods, trekked from the sands of Walfisch Bay towards the then unknown country lying to the north. Rain had fallen and I found the trek by no means as difficult as I had expected, for I had good native guides, and for a time all went well. But gradually the long sandy stretches were left behind, and the country became extremely difficult. On all sides rose vast table-topped mountains with almost perpendicular sides, and the wide valleys between them gradually narrowed till they became nothing but deep, narrow, precipitous gorges, impassable for a wagon. Deep we penetrated into this tangle of mountains, endeavoring in vain to find a way through in the direction I believed the valley to lie, and at length it became evident that to proceed farther with the wagon was out of the question. Here, therefore, in a well-wooded kloof, with an abundance of water, I made my central camp; and from it I proceeded to explore the country farther north. By this time the wild Bushmen, who had hitherto fled at our approach, had gained confidence, and came freely to the camp, and I had guides in plenty. For a time their extraordinary "click" language was utterly beyond my comprehension, but at length I learnt enough of it to make them understand what I wished to find.
But search as I would I could never find the spot—valley after valley they took me to, krantz after krantz, and kloof after kloof, I scrambled through and searched, but all in vain. Mineral wealth I found everywhere, copper and tin in abundance, and in one deep valley rich nuggets of gold, but still the diamonds evaded me. Nor did I ever find them, though I am sure that Anderson's tale was true, and that somewhere in those mountains lie diamonds galore. It may be that they are now buried deep in the sand; for at times the wind blows with incredible force; and in the terrific sandstorms, huge dunes are lifted and swept across the country; and it may well be that the deep valley of his day is now filled to the level of its walls.
Sick and disheartened I determined at last to offer a big reward to any of the guides who should bring in a diamond to me; and calling them all together, I made them understand as much; at the same time showing one of the little diamonds that Anderson had given me. A trade musket, with powder and shot, was to be the reward; and as this was a prize beyond the dreams of these poor Bushmen there was a general exodus from the camp in search of the "bright stones." From their excited exclamations when I showed them the diamond, I gathered that they had all seen such stones, and I cheered myself with the hope that at last I should be rewarded for all my hardships. But, alas! They brought in "bright stones" truly bright stones in abundance but quartz crystals chiefly; bright, clear, and sparkling, but of course utterly valueless; and though I sent them out again and again, they brought nothing in of any value.
Amongst my boys, who had followed me from Walfisch Bay, was one Inyati, who was much attached to me, and who had become a sort of body-servant to me. He was a fine upstanding chap who held himself absolutely aloof from the Griquas and Hottentots that formed the bulk of my paid followers, and to whose oblique eyes, and pepper-corn wool, his expressive orbs and shock of crinkled hair formed an agreeable contrast. As for the Bushmen, Inyati treated them, and looked upon them, absolutely as dogs. He was a good game spoorer, and I had taught him to shoot; and so intelligent was he, that I had taken a great interest in him, and had learnt to talk to him in his own tongue a sonorous, expressive language entirely different to the peculiar "click" of the local natives.
I knew that his dearest wish was to possess a gun of his own, and fully expected that he too would wish to join in the search that might lead to his gaining one; but, though he had examined the stones I had shown far more intently than any of them, he made no effort to leave the camp. Day after day he attended to my simple wants, spending all his spare time in polishing my weapons, a work he absolutely loved, and crooning interminable songs in a low monotone.
One day, when the Bushmen had again trooped off on their fruitless search, I called Inyati; and told him to make certain preparations, as, should they again bring in nothing, I would strike camp and return to Walfisch Bay. And then I asked him, out of curiosity, why he had not tried to earn the gun.
"Master," said he, scraping away at the hollow shin-bone of a buck that served him as a pipe, as a broad hint that his tobacco was finished; "I know not the land of these dogs of Bushmen. If it were in my own land now! But that is far away!"
I laughed, for by his manner of saying it, he conveyed the impression that there he could pick up diamonds under every bush.
"Dogs they may be, Inyati," I answered him, "but they are dogs with keen eyes; and yet they cannot find the stones I seek, and that I know, too, are not far away!" He stood, nodding gravely at my words, and still fidgeting with his bone pipe; a splendid figure of a man, nude except for his leopard-skin loin-cloth, his skin clear and glossy, of a golden-brown for he was no darker than, but entirely different from, the yellow Hottentots.
"Master," said he; "what magic will my master make with the little bright stones, should he find them?"
"No magic, Inyati," said I, "but in my country, across the great water, these things are worth many muskets, cattle aye, and even wives!"
"That may be, my master," he replied, "but magic they are; and hide themselves when dogs such as these Bushmen search for them. Still, master, we will wait and see what they bring to-night; though well I know that they will come back with empty hands as empty as is this my pipe!"
I could not help laughing at the way in which he had brought the subject of his finished tobacco to my notice, and in a fit of unwonted generosity I not only gave him a span of tobacco, but also a cheap pipe from my "trade" goods.
Poor chap, it was the first he had ever had, for his shin-bone had served him hitherto, and his delight was unmistakable. An hour later I saw him still at his everlasting polishing, and with the new pipe in full blast; and now he was crooning not only its praises, but my own. Half his improvised song was unintelligible to me, but I understood enough to learn that when the "dogs of Bushmen" had failed, he, Inyati "The Snake" would lead me to a land where there were magic stones in abundance, and by means of which, I gathered, we should both obtain wives galore!
I laughed at the poor chap's foolish bombast, as I thought it; but I have often wondered since whether the gift of that cheap pipe did not, after all, alter the whole of my life.
For that evening, sure enough, the Bushmen again returned empty-handed, and acting on my former resolve, I called my own followers together, and told them to make ready to return to Walfisch Bay. Later, as I sat in my tent writing up my diary by the light of a feeble candle, and with the gloomiest of thoughts for company, I heard Inyati's voice outside. "Master," he said, in a low tone but little above a whisper, "the dogs are full of meat, and sleeping; and there is that which I would show thee."
Without feeling much interest in what he might have got I bade him enter, and he stood before me in the dim light of my tallow candle.
Fumbling in his leopard skin, he drew forth a little tortoiseshell, such as the Hottentot women use for holding the hare's foot, ochre, buchu leaves, and other mysteries of their toilet. I had often seen him with it, and had chaffed him about carrying it before, and he evidently anticipated something of the kind again.
"Nay, master," he said, before I could speak, "true, as thou sayest, it is a woman's box, and a woman gave it me. But the box is naught; this is what I would show my master."
He shook something from the little box into the palm of his hand, clenched it, and with a dramatic gesture thrust it close to the dim light, and threw his fingers wide.
There, glittering in the yellow palm, flashing and scintillating with every movement, and looking as though the light it gathered and reflected really burnt in its liquid depths, lay the most marvelous diamond I had ever beheld!
The size of a small walnut, flawless, blue-tinted, and of wondrous luster and beauty, its many facets were as brilliantly polished as though fresh from the hands of the cutter, though it was a "rough" stone, untouched except by nature.
I was too stunned to speak, or do anything but clutch it, and gloat over it, and mutter "Where? where?"
DEAD MEN IN THE DUNES
I don't know how long I gazed in fascination at the wonderful stone, but at length a low chuckle from Inyati brought me back to reality. He stood looking at me, with a whimsical smile on his face.
"Magic," said he, "magic, my master! Did I not say there was magic in these 'bright stones'? And who shall say it is not so? Has not my master for a whole moon been lifeless and sad, until he looked even as the old cow that died of lung-sick but yesterday? And has not the very sight of the magic stone again brought fire to his eye, till he is again even as the young bull that killed two of those Bushmen dogs also but yesterday? Who shall say it is not magic?"
"Inyati," I stammered, coming back to my senses, and ignoring his extremely doubtful compliments, "speak, man; where did you get this?"
"In my own land, master; a far land, many moons' trek from here, and where there are many. But few dare touch them except indeed the devil- men and they are not men at all, but devils! Though I feared them little even then . . . and now, now that I have a gun (for surely my master will give me the little gun that speaks many times for this magic stone?) I fear them not at all! And we will go back and get many more if my master so wishes and I will see again the woman who gave me the stone as a talisman long years ago!"
Give him "the little gun that speaks many times" the Winchester for a diamond worth a king's ransom?
"Inyati," I said, though I was sorely tempted, "the gun is thine; not indeed for the stone, for that I will not take from thee, and it is worth more than all the guns and cattle I possess. But for the gun, guide thou me to this land of thine, that I may find these stones thou callest magic."
"That will I do readily, master," he answered, "and, in truth, I am well content to keep the stone, for the sake of the woman who gave it me. And there are many more! And did I not say truthfully that the stones were magic? See now, my master, the very sight of one has made my master give me the desire of my heart the little gun that speaks many times."
I gave him the Winchester there and then, and never did I see a human being so delighted.
Late into the night we sat and talked, and planned, whilst the Bushmen sat round their camp fire, and clucked and chattered in their queer- sounding speech, gorging themselves to repletion on the offal of an eland I had shot the previous day.
I learnt that Inyati's country lay far to the north-east, across the dreaded waterless stretches of the unknown Kalahari. He had fled from it years ago, his life forfeit to the priests or "devil-men" as he called them for some cause that he did not explain, or that my limited knowledge of his language did not permit of my understanding. The stones were plentiful, that he assured me of again and again, but they were sacred, or tabooed, and no one was allowed to handle them but the priests of whom he spoke.
He had always wanted to return, but had always Feared, but now with his "little gun" I believe Inyati would cheerfully have faced a thousand priests, or for the matter of that a thousand warriors. Danger there would be, but what was that to him and his master?
He could find his way back, though the journey would be long and difficult; and now was the only season in which it could be undertaken; the season when the wild melon made it possible to traverse the waterless wastes of the "Great Thirst Land."
I did not hesitate a moment, in fact no wink of sleep had I that night, but lay tossing and turning, longing for daylight to come that I might inspan and commence my long trek.
It came at last, my preparations for striking camp were soon made, and sending off my crowd of Bushmen camp-followers with a small present of tobacco, I turned my back to the sea and began my long journey to the north-east.
Out of the long defiles and valleys we threaded our way into the open country, past the huge flat-topped mountains of Ombokoro, the fastness of the Berg Damaras, thence following the dry river-bed of the Om- Mafako north-east to the confines of the Omaheke desert that great north-western outlier of the true Kalahari not far, indeed, from this very spot! So far the trek had been slow and tedious, but without untoward incident. We were well armed, and those natives who did not avoid us were only too eager to bring in food, or show us water in return for our trade goods.
But, as the broken, bushy country gave way to the sand, water became scarcer and scarcer, until it could only be obtained in small quantities by digging deep in the bone-dry bed of the parched-up river.
At length it became evident that we could take the wagon and oxen no farther; and so, at some Bushmen water-pits, at the every edge of the desert, where "toa" grass and other fodder was still plentiful, I decided to leave both vehicle and beasts in charge of my Hottentot and Griqua followers, and attempt the desert journey on horseback, and accompanied only by Inyati. Indeed there was no other course; for the few "pans" that might contain water on the route we should have to follow, were far between, and, as the season was late, even they might well be dry. "T'samma," therefore, the wild melon that serves for food and water for both man and beast in these desert stretches, would be our only resource; but even in this respect the lateness of the season was a source of anxiety, for, as you doubtless know, when once it is over-ripe the t'samma is useless.
Two riding and two pack horses were all therefore that we dare take; on the latter we loaded food, ammunition, spare arms and trade goods; and with our skin water-bags filled, one evening when the moon was nearly at its full, we bade goodbye to our little band, and struck due east across the desert.
Our plan was to hold in that direction as long as t'samma was abundant; and should it fail, to attempt to reach one of the "pans" Inyati had discovered in his flight across the desert years before, and which the strange instinct of locality common to all natives of these wastes would probably enable him to find again.
All night long we rode slowly and steadily through the dunes which were here favorable to our course; for their long parallel lines ran like the waves of the sea, almost due east and west, as far as the eye could reach, and we were able to ride in the "aars" or narrow valleys between them and make good progress.
So far vegetation of a sort was still abundant, tufted "toa" grass, sorrel, and other succulent plants offered juicy fodder for the horses, and I began to think that this much-dreaded desert was a desert but in name, and that our task was to be a light one. With dawn we off- saddled. From the summit of a high dune I looked round in all directions, and as far as the eye could reach could see nothing but the endless monotony of wave after wave of dunes, treeless, and apparently almost devoid of vegetation, for the little there was, was confined to the deep hollows between. A short distance away a fair-sized bush offered a modicum of shade, and here we rested for the day for we had planned to travel only in the cool of the night as long as the moon served. And here Inyati showed me how to make water from the young green t'samma, taking those the size of an orange only, and roasting them in the ashes, and thus turning their pulp into a clear liquid like water. Seldom though did we trouble to do this, eating the insipid cucumber-like fruit as we found it, but though refreshing and capable of supporting life, the longing for water is always present in the desert.
And thus, trekking by night, and resting by day as much as the terrific heat would allow, we worked our tedious way into the heart of the desert; and now the magnitude of the task before me was becoming more fully apparent every day. For, toil as our willing beasts would, it was obvious that each long night's exhausting trek barely carried us ten miles forward as the crow flies. The dunes were each day becoming higher, till they were veritable mountains of sand, the patches of t'samma became less and less frequent, and it was evident that at any time they might fail altogether. All this time we saw no sign of human life, not even a solitary spoor upon the tell-tale sand. Animal life, however, there was in abundance, and we had no need to leave our path to shoot as much game as we required.
At times, on cresting the brow of a dune, we would come close upon a herd of gemsbok in the long "aar" beneath us; magnificent animals, whose long, straight, saber-like horns are feared even by the lion. Fearless of man, the whole troop would stand as one, gazing straight at us, immovable as statues, until we were within a few yards of them; then their leader, usually a magnificent bull, with horns of well on to four feet, would give a toss of his head and a stamp of his foot, and away the whole troop would fly; wheeling, trotting, halting and turning to gaze at us again, in such perfect unison, that they reminded one irresistibly of a well-drilled troop of cavalry.
Or a flock of ostriches would career across our path, their huge strides covering the ground at an incredible pace; queer-looking hartebeest were also plentiful, and duiker, steenbok, and smaller fry abounded everywhere.
Of lions we saw but little, though their spoors were abundant, and occasionally we heard them at night; the spoors of leopards were everywhere but these wily animals are seldom seen unless hunted for and often a pack of the dreaded wild hunting-dogs would stream across our path in pursuit of its quarry.
For strangely enough all of these animals appear to be absolutely independent of water, and some of them notably the gemsbok, apparently never drink.
There came a day when we entered an entirely different region, though still the sand stretched in all directions. But now the dunes were no longer either uniform in height or parallel as they had been, but tossed and tumbled in all directions in the utmost confusion; and here also t'samma, and in fact all vegetation, ceased. We reached this region of awful desolation a little after sunrise one morning, coming upon it abruptly from the edge of a dune whose hollow held the usual vegetation in plenty.
With my field-glasses I scanned the bare and barren waste before us in all directions, but no sign of life or vegetation broke the monotony of its awful desolation. I looked at Inyati, peering from under his palm in the same direction, and he answered my unspoken question.
"Yes, master, we must cross it. It runs for many days' journey north and south, and we cannot go round. I crossed it when I came, but farther south; and I found a little t'samma then. And yet I nearly died!"
That day the heat was very great, and here there were no bushes to give us a particle of shade. A few stunted "gar-boomen" there were, and the horses ate eagerly of the long bunches of bean-like fruit hanging from them; but their thin, withered foliage was no protection against the terrific power of the sun. Then Inyati showed me a Bushman trick; for, burrowing in the side of the dune, he soon made a considerable hollow, and breaking down the brittle "gar" bushes he roofed it over, throwing a whole pile of other bushes on top till it was light-proof enough to at least break some of the sun's glare.
And into this we crawled, and stewed till evening brought us some little respite.
Meanwhile we had discussed our chances of getting across.
"Three days, at least, my master, it will take the horses; and if we find no t'samma they will die. It is drier than when I crossed. But if we go not east, but turn somewhat to the south, there is a pan. It is two days only but who knows if there is water there? Still, mayhap, that is the better path." That night we had to wait late before trekking, as the moon was waning, and in the hideous jumble of dunes before us, we feared to trust solely to the stars. We were glad to rest too, and let our horses rest and take their fill of the last t'samma they were likely to get.
I lay smoking in the dark, waiting for the moon to rise, and listening to the "crunch, crunch" of the horses still steadily feeding, when a low call from Inyati made me spring to my feet, He had climbed to the top of the highest dune, and at his second call I ploughed my way up through the loose sand till I stood beside him. He was pointing away to the south-east.
"A fire, master," he said; "there are men there; that must be our way, for there must there be t'samma, or water!"
Sure enough a tiny fire was flickering far away, and apparently on the far horizon, though it is almost impossible to judge of the distance of a fire by night.
At any rate, it certainly seemed better for us to try to make our way to it, and without waiting longer for the moon we saddled up and started our floundering way across the labyrinth of dunes in its direction.
All night long we followed the faint gleam, which faded and vanished as morning found us, well-nigh exhausted, in the midst of the wilderness of bare sand.
But, though I could see nothing, Inyati's keen eyes made out a thin wreath of smoke from a prominent dune still some distance away; and in spite of our fatigue we struggled on, till, with the sun glaring down full upon us, we stood on the flank of the huge slope of sand. Near its crest, a few dry and blackened stumps and withered bushes showed where a little vegetation had once existed, and from near them rose the smoke. There was, however, no sign of life; and not a sound broke the awful silence of the desert, as we breasted the rise. Then a vulture flapped lazily up in front of us, and another and another and a tiger- wolf (hyena) lurched its gorged and ungainly carcass down the farther slope.
The fire was alive, but those that had built and lit it were dead . . . of thirst.
They lay there, all that the vultures had left, a fearsome sight; and their swollen and protruding tongues told the tale as plainly as though they had spoken. Yellow bodies, emaciated, but the bodies of what had once been a splendidly proportioned man and woman no Bushmen these!
"They are of my folk," said Inyati gravely, as he stooped to examine them, "mayhap they too have fled from the priests? . . And they have crossed the desert the way we would go and are dead of thirst!"
CHAPTER III THE SAND-STORM
We scraped a hasty grave in the sand for the poor remains, and stood gazing silently across the dunes in the direction that the fresh spoors showed the two poor creatures had come from; stood there regardless of our fatigue, and of the blazing heat, of everything in fact but the grim tragedy before us, and the terrible significance it bore for us, who would follow the same path.
"We must rest, and eat," at length said Inyati, "so too must the horses, or they may die before there is need."
We stripped the loads from the poor brutes, and divided the bags of t'samma we had piled upon them, and soon they were munching away contentedly, whilst we rigged up some sort of shelter and lay and panted till the evening.
Then, and then only, did we discuss what we were next to do. "Master," at length said Inyati, "think, and think well. To go back is still easy, to go forward may well be that we die even as these two have died!"
"The desert is drier than when I struggled through it, more dead than alive, by the path these people came by and that way it would be madness to try! South, we might find another path, but it will be a longer one and . . . my master can still return. And the stone that my master can take and I will go on and bring him more, if he will but return to the camp and there await me. . . . And if I come not in two moons, I shall be dead. . . ."
He held out the blue diamond as he spoke; but the offer, genuine as it undoubtedly was, acted as a taunt to me, and I bade him sternly put back the stone, and talk not to me of returning.
"Thou sayest that the desert is but beginning," I told him. "Am I then a weakling, to run back like a whipped hound, at the sight of a dead man? Nay, I will return with the stones I seek, or not at all!"
Inyati nodded his head sagely as he sucked at his cherished pipe.
"Aye! Aye!" he said softly. "Said I not that the stones were magic? Sad, even as a sick cow, was my master, till I showed him the stone, and now he is even again as a young bull!"
If he had meant to stir me from the apathy that the desert had brought upon me, he certainly succeeded, for his complimentary comparison of me to a sick cow again set me laughing! It was the first time I had laughed for days, and it did me good.
"Yes, we must go south," said Inyati, "but not far. Only half a march, and then we will turn again east. Thus shall we find the pans."
That night we did not wait for the moon, but saddled our still jaded nags before it was well dark, and walking most of the way to rest them, we set our faces towards the Southern Cross. Half way through the night we halted, and resting for a while, again pushed on, but this time due east. Dawn found us eagerly looking round for a change in the landscape if a featureless chaos of tumbled sand is worthy of such a name? but I, at any rate, could see nothing.
Not so Inyati; his eyes were better than my field-glasses.
"Look, master!" he said, as the sun rose, "there, and there, and there! little low clouds, just rising from those three places and they won't last long! They are pans, master, and it is mist that rises from them. There is moisture there may be water there."
"And food for the horses?" I asked him; for our poor brutes were in an awful state, and we had nothing to give them.
"That may well be," he said, "not on the pans, but near them. And, master, we must struggle on, and find out; for they cannot fast another day, and trek another night, without either food or drink."
The rising sun rapidly dispersed the little clouds that Inyati had pointed out, but we kept on in their direction, though the sand was now burning hot and the poor animals were suffering frightfully.
Now a few scattered bushes and tufts of bone-dry "toa" grass began to show in the hollows between the dunes, and at length, on breasting an unusually high one a veritable mountain of sand, three or four hundred feet in height a new and marvelous scene stretched before me.
Abruptly from the foot of the steep dune-slope stretched a vast, glittering expanse of the purest white; to all appearance a snow- covered lake, spotless and dazzling in the brilliant sunshine. It was almost a perfect circle in shape and several miles in diameter, and on all sides it was hemmed in by gigantic dunes.
"Salt, master!" said Inyati. "I have seen such places before, but, wow! this is a big one! And this is not the pan I seek. No good to us, master; but is it not strange? Yonder in my land this salt is a precious thing; for a basketful, one can obtain a fat cow, for a sackful, two or more young wives! Here is salt enough to buy many wives, master; but none to gather it or for that matter, no wives to buy! . . . But water, master, is what we seek, and not salt water or t'samma. . . . We must cross, master; there on the other side I see thick bush in the dunes, there may be t'samma there, and the way across is easy. Come!"
He led the way down the steep slope, dragging his jaded animals after him. At the edge, where sand ended and salt began, lay many bones, bleached and white almost as the salt itself, and amongst them were the bones of men. Snorting and afraid, the animals stepped gingerly on the smooth, snow-like surface, which yielded but an inch or two to their tread, and was pleasantly cool to their hooves, parched and cracking from their long trek in the burning sand. Beneath the white surface was a moist black mud, and the liquid brine oozed quickly into the horses' footprints. Used as we were to the glare of the sun on the burning sand, here it was literally blinding, and long before we reached the farther side we were groping and stumbling like blind men. It was much wider, too, than it had first appeared, and we were utterly exhausted when at long length we reached the dunes again, and to our joy found bush, and a few t'samma, most of them old and hard, but still enough green ones to provide a scanty meal for the suffering animals. A respite it was, but a respite only, and well we knew that we must push on or return at once. Our water bags still held enough to keep us alive a day or two, but we must find water or t'samma for the horses soon, or it was evident they could not last. We threw ourselves down on the burning sand, with a blanket stretched over a tiny bush affording scant shade for our heads, and in spite of the roasting heat I slept the sleep of utter exhaustion.
I awoke to find Inyati afoot, and intent on adjusting the blanket to shade my face from the setting sun. I got up, aching and throbbing in every part of my body, and parched with a thirst that the lukewarm and already vile-tasting water from our skin bags did little to alleviate.
"Master," said Inyati, looking at me with concern, "take thou of the bitter powder (quinine); and sleep again. Before morning I will come back. For I must seek the pan I know of, where water may be found. This cursed salt pan I did not see when I crossed before: the pan I know is one of the others we saw the clouds rise from; which I know not? So I seek the nearest, and if water is there, by moonrise I will be here again. If not, and I must seek the farther one, then when the sun stands a span high I will be back. Nay, better that I should go alone; rest, master, and let the horses rest too, for if I find not the water, our path will be a hard one!"
He shouldered his Winchester, and strode off, all my arguments failing to persuade him to take a drop of our little remaining store of water. I watched him striding away through the dunes till he was lost to sight, then I turned to and made a fire and some food; for I felt weak and ill and my head was burning. Then I looked to the horses, hobbling them short in case they should stray though, poor brutes, they were too worn out to be likely to do anything of the kind. Then I gathered all the dry stumps and bush I could find, and made a fire, for lion and leopard spoor were very plentiful: moreover, a fire would help Inyati to find his way back. Later, as night fell, I lay down and tried to sleep; but exhausted as I was I could not rest. My thoughts were with Inyati. Would he find the pan and water? And if not, what would happen? The horses would scarce be able to struggle back to the nearest t'samma we had left, and in any case, to go back, beaten! No, if Inyati gave any hope at all, I would push on as long as life lasted.
So I lay and mused by the flickering fire, listening for the occasional yelp of a jackal, or the horrible laughter of a hyena.
Sleep I could not; the horses too were restless, snorting and fidgeting as they bunched close together, only a yard or two from where I lay.
I wondered if lions were prowling near, but could hear or see nothing. The air was hot and stifling, and there was none of the pleasant coolness usual to even these summer nights in the desert, and on climbing to the crest of the dune to look vainly towards where Inyati must be wandering, I saw that the sky in that direction was heavy with clouds; and even as I looked, flash after flash of lightning rent their heavy pall.
"Thank God!" was my first thought, "there will be rain there, and if the pans lie there, we shall find water."
I stood and watched for some time, and saw that the storm was traveling towards me, but it was still far distant, and I returned to the fire and again tried to sleep, for the moon would not rise for several hours, and Inyati had said he could not be back before then.
And this time I slept, a heavy sleep full of distorted dreams.
At length I awoke with a start, just as a gust of wind caught the fire and scattered the embers in all directions. Another and another followed, each more violent than the preceding one, then came a terrific blast that whirled the blanket I had been lying on away into the night: the last firebrand was snatched up as though by an unseen hand, and borne high over the dune, and before I had time to realize what was happening I was fighting for my life in the howling darkness of a terrific sandstorm. The wind was demoniacal; it apparently blew from all quarters at once, in short, sharp, incessant gusts, lifting and whirling away everything that came in its path, shifting the loose sand in such masses, and hurling it with such force that to stand still would have meant being buried. Luckily the scanty vegetation where we had rested had somewhat bound the sand, but in a few minutes of the awful struggle I realized that unless I could reach some firmer spot I must be overwhelmed. A momentary lull showed me the horses half buried, and apparently too stupefied to do more than stand passively awaiting their fate.
The salt pan! That was my only chance: there, at least, the very ground would not dissolve beneath my feet, as it was doing here! And I must make for it at once, for the whirling cataclysm of sand was again closing upon me. Seizing the horses I cut their hobbles, and throwing one of the packs across the nearest I coaxed and dragged him from the sand. I had my rifle, and I had no time for anything else, but made off in the direction of the pan, barely fifty yards away; but so terrible was now the force of the wind that I was hard put to it to reach it, and thankful indeed was I when a brief lull showed me the wide expanse of white spreading dimly before me in the murk.
Even here the ever-recurring whirlwinds bore huge volumes of sand eddying across the pan, and at times I feared I should be choked and overwhelmed, but as I gradually neared the centre the air grew clearer, and I knew that for the time, at least, I was safe.
The horses had struggled out after their leader, and stood trembling near me; luckily I had left them saddled and bridled in anticipation of an early start, but the other pack was lying there in the dunes. And thus I awaited the abatement of the storm, a prey to the most awful suspense.
Inyati! There in the distant dunes if the storm had caught him in their midst he must be dead, overwhelmed and buried in the chaos of sand! Or had he been able to gain one of the pans first; and would the abatement of the storm see him return to me?
Hour after hour I waited, and still it raged; the time for moonrise was long since past, though no gleam of its waning light could break through the whirling pall around me. Moonrise! That had been the time Inyati had hoped to return by, should he find water in the first pan; but where was he now, battling for his life among the dunes, or dead beneath them?
At length day dawned; and with the light the storm ceased as suddenly as it had begun, though still huge clouds of dust hung all around, through which the rising sun gleamed red and ray-less, as through a thick fog.
Soon not a breath of wind remained, and the dust rapidly settling, disclosed the tossed and distorted wilderness through which the storm had raged.
At no great distance from me, and, as I judged, in the direction of the spot at which the storm had overtaken me, a gigantic dune lay piled high above the others. This was some of the devilish work of the past night, for it had not been there yesterday!
There appeared no likelihood of a return of the storm; and, full of anxiety and distress, I made my way to this newly-formed dune, which apparently covered the exact spot of our camp of overnight; but now no vestige of bush remained in sight anywhere: it was all buried fathoms deep in sand. And gone too were many of our belongings, for with the exception of the one pack-saddle, to which one of the water-skins was providentially made fast, I had had no time to pick up anything; and now the half of our precious water, and much of our stores and ammunition, were covered by the thousands of tons of the gigantic dune. Search as I could, in all directions, I could find no trace of them, they had gone irretrievably; and gaze as I could from the highest point of the new dune I could see no sign of life, and the sad conviction was forced upon me that Inyati had perished, and that I was alone.
THE PANS AND THE POISON FLOWERS
By this time the sun was high in the heavens, and I realized that if I would make a bid for life I must do it soon. Buffeted and almost choked with the battle of the past night, I was parched with thirst, and had perforce to encroach upon the scanty store left to me a bare quart at the outside; barely sufficient to keep life in me another day in the terrible heat. The horses, too, were suffering and would scarcely last that time, and I was now faced with the terrible problem as to whether I should attempt to return or to penetrate farther into the desert. To return would be difficult, for the storm had passed that way and all our spoors would be obliterated; moreover, we had gone out of our path so far when following the fire that I was by no means certain as to the absolute direction. Moreover, a glance that way showed me heavy, dun- colored clouds on the far horizon: there the storm was raging still, and I shuddered to think of what my fate might be in the loose bare dunes we had passed through with such difficulty. Besides, though Inyati's awful fate appeared but too certain, I felt impelled to follow the direction he had gone for there might, after all, be a faint hope that he had lived through the storm. But this alternative was a terrible one, for even if water had existed in the pans for which he was searching, it was all too probable that the storm would have filled up every pit with sand, and to penetrate so far would make return impossible. However, I could not remain where I was and die without a struggle; so, dividing the load as well as possible among the almost exhausted animals, I again entered the maze of dunes and struck due east, full of forebodings as to my own possible fate, and of sorrow for that of poor Inyati. For hours I stumbled through the bewildering mass of broken and barren dunes, finding no trace of vegetation, and full of apprehension lest the wind should rise before I reached the pan; in which case I was doomed. At long length, and when the afternoon was well advanced, a flat dark space showed between two dunes some distance ahead, and an hour later I stood upon the pan. No salt pan this time, but a flat, circular floor of dry mud, hard and entirely free from the surrounding sand. Here and there a few stunted bushes grew, and in the centre of the circle which was about a mile across stood a huge herd of gemsbok. They made off at a canter as I rode wearily across to the depression in the centre where I hoped to find water. But the shallow, hoof-trampled hollow was bone-dry; there was no sign of Inyati either, and my heart sank as I realized that my struggle had been in vain. Anyway, here I must rest and eat, and drink a little of my tiny stock of water, and on the morrow make my last struggle on foot, for it was evident that the horses could go no further, and were dying of thirst. I threw off their light loads, and they stood with drooping heads and ears, the picture of dejection. A mouthful of water was all I dare drink, and there remained less than a pint in the water-skin. Almost stupefied, exhausted, and despondent, I lay down beside a tiny bush, at whose dry twigs the famished horses were now trying to nibble, and sank into a state of half sleep, half stupor.
The sound of a shot aroused me from my lethargy had I been dreaming? No there it was again; and now across the pan came streaming back the herd of gemsbok, and after them ran and stumbled a nude black figure, that now and again paused to single out an animal and shoot.
"Inyati! Inyati! Thank God!" I cried out, for it could be no other; and as fast as my aching limbs allowed I hastened towards him. Now he was down beside one of the fallen animals, and his knife was at work; and now I realized why he had picked his victims, and had shot so many. It was not food he wanted, but drink, and he had shot only the cows, whose udders were full of rich sweet milk. It was time, too, that he drank, for he could not speak, and his cracked and swollen lips and blood-shot eyes told a tale of awful suffering.
Soon, however, he was able to talk. "The storm, master," he said; "near was I to being buried alive and I thought thee dead! Yet, could I not return before, for I have found no water. The other pan is dry also, but now I have seen from far off a spot where water is, and so I hastened back to find my master. It is far, but we shall win through." Caught by the storm between the two pans he had been hours staggering through the raging chaos, and had reached the pan only after the sun had risen and the storm had ceased to find it without a vestige of water.
Casting about in the dunes, he had searched for t'samma without avail, and filled with anxiety for me had been torn between a desire to return at once, and the absolute necessity of finding water. Hurrying from one prominent dune to another he had scanned the desert in all directions, and had even found one or two more pans, but again waterless. One, however, showed that it had held water recently for it was still moist, and there he had found a flock of the tiny Namaqua partridge, so plentiful in certain parts of the desert. These little birds are swift of flight, and fly long distances in search of water; and Inyati, as they rose in a cloud from their old drinking place, had marked the direction of their flight. North-east they went, and his keen eyes had followed them till they were no longer visible, and as he watched he saw many other flocks, and all flying in the same direction. "There is the water," thought Inyati, and he had toiled on in their wake, but the way was far, and it was hours before, from a high dune, he had seen a large pan in the distance, to which all the birds were converging. "A big pan, master," he said, "with thick bush and big trees an oasis or perhaps who knows? a river bed." And frantic with thirst as he was, he had not gone on, but turned back hoping to find me alive.
My heart leapt with joy at the news, for with the knowledge that water awaited us we could struggle on but the horses? Inyati shook his head as he examined them. "That one will die before morning," said he, "but maybe we can save the others, though they cannot carry us. We must eat, drink, and sleep, for the way is long and we are weak. And now, master, if all the tobacco is not there under the big dune with the other packs, I will smoke, for I have missed my tobacco sadly."
How he enjoyed himself, this lighthearted philosopher of the desert! Long steaks of tender gemsbok he cut and grilled on the wood ashes of the tiny fire, treating in a like manner the juicy udders after he had squeezed out most of the milk. The water he would not touch, but his appetite seemed unappeasable; steak after steak disappeared and still he carved and cooked, smoking between whiles, and singing some never- ending song of all the fine wives he would buy, and what he would do to certain priests, if he got his "little gun" safe to his own country. His cheery presence, and the reliance I placed in him cheered me enormously, and I realized that I, too, was hungry. And so we ate, and smoked, and slept, till nearly midnight; and then, keeping the Southern Cross low down on the horizon on our right, we once more entered the dunes.
The horse that Inyati had referred to was obviously dying, and a merciful bullet put an end to the poor brute's sufferings. The others trudged wearily after us, making but slow progress, but doing better than I had conceived possible of animals that had not eaten or drank for thirty-six hours. But morning found them dead beat; they stood stock still as the sun rose, and neither coaxing nor flogging could get the poor brutes a step farther. According to Inyati's reckoning we were still four hours from the water, and it was obvious that once we left them we could never hope to save them, for we could never bring back enough water to keep them alive.
"There is but one thing," said Inyati, as he slipped their loads off. "Water we cannot bring them, nor would it be in time, for once the sun is hot they will die. But stay here, and I will search for a certain thing. Nay, master," he continued, for I had made a gesture of dissent; "this time I go not far. But here I see rain has fallen of late, and though there is no t'samma, there may be another thing that will save the horses."
"Then I will seek it with you, Inyati," I said, for I was determined not to lose sight of him again.
"Better rest, master," he urged, "there will be no more sandstorms. And there is still far to go."
But go I would, and so we left the poor horses standing in a forlorn little group, gazing with sad lack-luster eyes at the masters who had brought them to such a plight. Inyati took with him a canvas bag that had been used as a saddlecloth, and I wondered what he hoped to find to fill it, for there was no vestige of vegetation to be seen, except some tiny seeds just sprouting here and there in the hollows between the dunes.
I could see no other evidence of the rain that Inyati spoke of, but soon, in a deeper depression than usual, we found signs that water had recently accumulated there, though the spot was now as dry as the surrounding dunes. But here Inyati, who had been keenly examining the ground, uttered a grunt of satisfaction, and pointed to a spot close to his feet. There was no trace of a plant, but a slight swelling, as it were, of the soil, which showed, too, some small cracks as though something was trying to burst its way to the surface.
"Cameel-brod," said he, and kneeling down he commenced scooping away the sand with his hands, and from a few inches below the surface he soon drew a whitish tuber the size of a large turnip. It was full of thin watery juice, acrid and sharp to the taste, but as I afterwards found, extremely acceptable to the horses.
Soon we had the bag nearly full, and cutting them up on our waterproof ground-sheet, we quickly had a quantity of watery pulp, at which the animals nuzzled greedily, and which revived them to a remarkable extent almost at once; so much so indeed, that we had very little difficulty in hurrying them forward again. The last drop of water had long since gone, and I was now consumed with thirst, and sick with misgiving as to what might be found at the pan Inyati had seen. Now we could see it, and, as yesterday, the flocks of partridges were all flying in that direction. How I envied them their wings, and how I grudged them the precious water they would be drinking! At length, footsore, weary, with eyes scorched by the blinding glare of the sun on the bare sand, and with lips cracked and tongues swollen with thirst, we staggered out of the dunes into a wide pan covered with bush and sprinkled with big trees huge cameel-doorn of thick verdant foliage, which gave the whole expanse a park-like appearance. They were full of gay-plumaged birds, butterflies were flitting everywhere, here and there were fine stretches of thick grass, in fact, after all we had suffered in the furnace of shade-less sand behind us, the place was a veritable paradise. And at length, where the trees were thickest, we espied tall green reeds growing thickly, and a few minutes later our fears were at an end, for here was water in plenty.
It was thick and muddy, and fouled by wild animals, whose spoors showed thick all around it; but to us it was absolute nectar, and it needed all Inyati's persuasion to prevent me from drinking to excess and probably dying on the spot.
We had to control the horses too, and let them drink but little at a time, or they too would probably have drank till they dropped dead in their tracks.
In this pleasant oasis we stayed for three days, resting, recuperating, and living on the fat of the land. Game there was in abundance, so much so, indeed, that they were a cause of anxiety, for the water in the vlei was decreasing rapidly from the number of animals that drank there nightly, and it was obvious that it would not last for very long unless rain fell. Signs were not wanting that the season had been exceptionally dry, for the vlei had at one time been of large extent, and now nothing but the one small pool remained. At it also drank myriads of partridges, the air being literally thick with the huge swarms of them that came in the early morning and again at night, so tame and fearless that they scarcely troubled to get out of our way, and we kept our pot going by simply knocking them over with a stick.
We soon explored the pan or oasis which was almost circular in shape and about a mile in diameter, and completely encircled by dunes; most of them as barren and forbidding as those we had already passed through, though to the south there was a certain amount of vegetation. This, however, was useless to us, as our way was east or north-east, and in this direction all Inyati's reconnoitering failed to discover anything but bare dunes, as far as the eye could reach.
Pleasant as the shade and greenery of the oasis was, it was evident that our stay could not be a lengthy one; moreover, lions were increasingly numerous, and for the first time in our trip began to cause us serious anxiety. So bold were they that fires had to be lit at nightfall and kept going all night; and their roars made sleep impossible.
The nights were now dark and moonless, and on the third of our stay the lions were exceptionally troublesome. We could see little beyond the light of the fires, but roars and growls came from all quarters, and there were evidences that a large herd of some kind of buck was passing through the oasis, and these the lions were attacking.
Inyati was nervous and uneasy, not, as he explained, on account of the lions, his "little gun" would see to them, but as to what was happening at the water-hole, from which we had removed our camp some distance on account of the lions.
"Gemsbok, master, a big herd of them, that is what it is," he said, as we listened to the terrific roars in the direction of the water. "They seek not water, for they seldom drink, but if it comes in their way they may do so; moreover, they will be likely to trample the pool into mud to cool their hooves. Luckily our water-skin is full, and the horses have drunk well; but I fear what the morning will show."
All night we could hear the buck moving about and passing through there must have been thousands of them. All night, too, the roaring continued, culminating shortly before daybreak with the most terrific uproar in the direction of the pool it was possible to imagine.
There the lions seemed to be making a combined attack, and judging by the sounds they were also fighting among themselves. As soon as it was daylight we hurried anxiously in that direction, keeping our rifles ready, although, as a rule, lions are little to be feared by daylight, unless disturbed at their meal. They were even more numerous than we had imagined, for huge dun-colored forms slunk off in all directions through the bush as we neared the water. "Water!" did I say? There was no water now, for Inyati's fears had been well-founded. The little pool had been trampled into black mud by countless gemsbok, and the various half-eaten carcasses strewn about showed that the lions had taken heavy toll of them.
Not without cost to themselves, however; for there in the centre of what had been the pool lay a huge lion, dead, transfixed and impaled upon the long, sharp, straight horns of the magnificent gemsbok bull, that lay, with broken neck, almost hidden beneath the lion's formidable bulk.
"Wow!" said Inyati; "I have heard of the like before. He was a strong bull, that old one, and held his horns straight to meet the lion's spring. And, as I feared, master, the water is gone."
It was obvious that nothing could be done with the black mud before us, for where it still remained moist it was full of blood and filth; and a decision thus forced upon us, we but waited till the power of the sun had somewhat abated before striking once more into the desert, due east. Our horses were rested and refreshed, and we pushed on throughout the night, till just before dawn we stumbled through a small patch of t'samma, and immediately decided to give our horses the benefit of them. Unfortunately, daylight showed the patch to be but a tiny one, where an arbitrary shower had fallen at the right season, and it barely sufficed for the day.
And so for days we pushed on incessantly, often going many miles out of our course to visit one of the many pans we now came across frequently, but failing in every case to find enough water to even replenish our water-skin. T'samma we found occasionally, sufficient, at any rate, to keep us and our animals alive, but barely; and the horrible anxiety of constant fear of a death by thirst had began to tell upon me badly. Not so Inyati, who, thirsty or satisfied, was always cheerful, always optimistic that we should eventually find a way through to his country of many diamonds and many wives! Many a weary trek that had landed us waterless and still further involved in the vast wilderness of dunes, had seen me sink despondent on the sand, caring but little whether I ever tried to struggle farther; to be roused from my lethargy by the cheery whimsicalities of this Micawber of the desert.
He would bring out the blue diamond and pretend to consult it as an oracle, and it would always promise him wonderful things! Sometimes for game was now scarce it would be a fat buck for breakfast; sometimes a vast plain of t'samma, or a big pool of water; and his prophecies always ended in unlimited diamonds and unlimited wives! And cheered by this nonsense, I would shake off the fit of despondency, and struggle on; though as time went on I often thought of Van der Decken, the "Flying Dutchman," and his endless effort to weather the Cape of Storms.
For our endless zigzagging in search of the wherewithal to live, though it had brought us to the very heart of the vast desert, had taken us far from the true direction of what we were in search of, nor could all our efforts find us a way through.
The moon was with us now again, and we trekked at night, seldom riding, but plodding doggedly through the endless succession of dunes, with the spiritless horses strung out behind us. Their hooves were splayed to an enormous size through this incessant trekking through the sand; yet, though broken and enfeebled, they had become more inured to the conditions, and the few t'samma, or tubers dug from the sand for them, sufficed to keep them alive.
I had ceased to take account of the time, but there came a day when we came upon a tract where rain had fallen in abundance some time before. For from an absolutely barren dune, we suddenly looked down upon a thick garden of beautiful flowers; tall, and like a slender foxglove in appearance, they filled the wide hollows between the dunes in all directions. They were of endless variety in color, white, mauve, and an endless gamut of pinks, down to the deepest purple; and a more beautiful sight it would be impossible to imagine. But thickly as they grew for mile after mile, there was nothing else, no t'samma or any other refreshing plant or fruit, and the hungry horses would not look at them. I noticed, too, that Inyati seemed none too pleased at finding this gorgeous garden, and climbed dune after dune to peer in all directions as the sun rose on the morning we found it.
"We must cross it quickly, or go round," he said, as I stood beside him on the top of a high dune. "It is a poison flower, and makes one sleep and to sleep among it is to die. But I see no way round!" Far on the horizon we could see the clouds rising from a pan in the right direction.
"We must go on," said Inyati, "and cross this belt of poison flower by day, when it will harm us but little; to be among it after sundown is to sleep and to sleep among it is to die."
I had heard of this poison flower before, but had never heard of its being found in such abundance as to be a danger to life. It looked too beautiful to be harmful, and its perfume was but faint. But Inyati knew it well, and I could see that he was anxious, as after a short rest we trekked on through the never-ending stretches of gorgeous coloring, through them, as through a cornfield. And soon I found that even now in the glaring sunshine when they were considered innocuous, their perfume had a peculiar effect upon me, and long before we had half crossed to the pan I was seized with an overpowering desire to sleep. I nodded as I stumbled along nothing seemed to matter why should we worry to go farther, why not lie down and rest, and sleep?
I must have stumbled and fallen, drugged with the insidious poison of the faint perfume, for I came to myself lying upon the ground among the flowers, and with Inyati shaking me violently and shouting in my ear. I was drunk with sleep, and it was with the utmost difficulty that he induced me to mount the only horse still capable of carrying me. We were parched with thirst, and our plight was perhaps worse than it had ever been, for all around stretched the fatal flowers, and it might well be that we could not clear them before night fell, and their poison became overpowering in its strength. On the horse, my head cleared somewhat, probably because I was higher from the ground, where the perfume hung heavily, although I could not rid myself of the drowsiness. At midday we were forced to halt for a rest forced, too, to take it in the glaring sun, on the top of a bare dune, for we dare not even cover ourselves with a bundle of the plants for fear of the poison. An hour or two we sat and grilled, and then forced ourselves onward once more, for the pan was still distant, and we feared we should not reach it before dark which would mean we would never reach it at all! But struggle as we would, we could make but little progress, and it was with mortal fear that I beheld the sun sink, and saw from a high dune that there was fully a mile of thick flowers between us and the pan, where dark bush and big trees showed plainly, and where the flowers ended abruptly.
"Let us stay here," I urged Inyati, "surely we are safe here on the top of the dune?" for we were fully fifty feet above the sea of flowers.
"No, master, no!" he answered emphatically; "if it were twice the height we should die before the night is out. Push through we must, even if we leave all our pack here and return for it tomorrow; and the horses must come too, or we shall lose them. Nothing could live here through the night." Hastily, as he spoke, he threw off the horses' already light loads, leaving everything but his beloved "little gun" on the top of the dune, and dragging the halter of the leading beast, he started down the slope. Instantly on entering the dense growth I felt the effect of the scent, which was now, although the sun had barely disappeared, ten times stronger than it had been in the sunlight. No faint sweetness now, but an overpowering scent similar to that of the well-known "moon-lilies" but infinitely stronger, and stupefying to a degree. Before fifty yards were traversed my head was spinning, and I was staggering like a drunken man. I remember Inyati half dragging me on to the horse again and feeling him lashing me to girth and saddle, remember his hoarse shouts to the horse and myself becoming fainter, remember dimly that the sjambok he flogged the horse with fell frequently across my back and legs, but nothing could keep me from the overwhelming desire to sleep And then all was a blank.
CHAPTER V I LOSE INYATI
Water! Delicious cold water, being dashed in my face and trickling down my parched throat, brought me again to my senses. I lay, sore and bruised and with throbbing head and limbs, beside some tall reeds, between which water glittered in the light of the rising moon.
Inyati bent over me and he uttered an exclamation of joy as I opened my eyes.
"Master! master! I thought thee dead," he cried, "and surely would I then have died too! Right sorely did I beat thee, master, there among the devil flowers, to keep thee from the sleep that kills; but there was no one to beat me, and I had but strength and sense to tie myself too upon my horse before I too slept. And surely my sjambok must have helped them against the poison flowers, for they came right through, having smelt the water maybe; and brought us here to its very side, where I awoke to find them drinking. But the other is there in the dunes he will sleep well, that one; and die."
And die he did; for the next day, refreshed and fearing the flowers little in the day time, we went back to the dune where we had left our packs. It was barely a mile, and about half way we found the third horse, dead.
The pan was but a small one, and the delicious water of the night proved to be but a few gallons of stagnant liquid full of animalculae; but there was grass for the horses, and to our joy we found that the flower belt did not extend beyond where we had emerged from it. Bare dunes spread again beyond, but even these were welcome, after our experience of the "devil flowers," as Inyati called them. Buck was plentiful, and for a day or two we ate, drank, and slept to our heart's content, gathering all the strength we could for our next attempt. Inyati was full of confidence for the future, confident that we should never have difficulties to encounter equal to those we had surmounted, and that the diamonds and wives would soon be at our disposal.
"North, master! almost due north now and we shall find pans on the way with water! My magic stone has told me that and it makes no mistakes! And to-morrow we start again; for the water will last but a few days moreover, we have been long on the path."
Poor Inyati! the bravest, cheeriest comrade black or white that I have ever had; little did I dream when he spoke thus that he would never live to see the morrow!
That evening, as we sat smoking by the fire, we noticed that the two horses were extremely nervous, pricking their ears and snorting as they cropped the dry grasses a few yards away from us.
"Leopards," suggested Inyati, "there are many spoors here, but no lions."
But scarcely had he spoken when the booming roar of a lion came from the direction of the pool; to be immediately answered by another, and another; until it was evident that the pan had been invaded by a numerous troop of them. We both started to our feet with the same thought in our minds. If they were hungry they might probably attack the horses! It was still light, but no time was to be lost; so hastily cutting down a number of the stunted thorn bushes with which the pan abounded, we proceeded to build a "scherm" in which to pass the night.
We enclosed a space about fifteen yards square, and into this we brought the horses, together with enough wood to keep a fire burning all night; and as the hedge was seven or eight feet in height, and of impenetrable thorn, we felt but little anxiety as to the presence of the lions. As night fell, however, their roars became louder and nearer, and by mid-night there were at least a dozen of them pacing round our scherm, and barely kept at a distance by the frequent fire- brands we threw over the fragile protection. Occasionally the huge beasts fought amongst themselves, and the snarling, growling pandemonium would become more deafening; then this diversion would cease, and the whole troop would continue their pacing round our fence, sniffing and snorting at us through the thorn bushes and making us feel as one can imagine a mouse feels when caught in a trap, and with a hungry cat peering through the bars at him. Time after time we scared them away by throwing fire-brands among them, but always they returned, and to our dismay, long before morning we realized that our stock of firewood would not nearly last till daylight.
We had refrained from shooting, as it was impossible to see the brutes through our scherm; but as the fire got lower, and they became more daring, we sent a few shots among them, and the hellish hubbub that ensued showed that some of them were hit. But this proved disastrous, for a wounded animal, in its death struggles near the fence, came in contact with the bushes and almost tore down our only protection before a few more bullets finished it. There came a lull for a short time after this, and we were congratulating ourselves that morning would soon be dawning, when the lions would slink away, or when the light would enable us to finish them when without the least warning a huge form leapt clean over the hedge and landed in the centre of the scherm, scattering the few remaining embers in all directions.
A second spring, and before either of us could shoot, the lion had pounced upon Inyati, and had him down upon the ground beneath him, shaking the poor fellow like a terrier shakes a rat. Mad with rage I sent bullet after bullet into the brute's head and body till the click of the hammer of my Winchester showed the magazine was empty, and the lion rolled over dead, with Inyati still in its mighty grip, and to all appearance dead also.
Then I must have gone berserk mad. I remember cramming the magazine full again, and throwing aside the bush that blocked the entrance, I stepped out among the lions.
I can never understand why I was not killed instantly; but not a lion reached me, and at close range I fired shot after shot in the bright moonlight, and lion after lion fell, till but two were left; and as morning dawned these slunk away, leaving me alone with my dead.
Then I came back to the scherm, my mad fit of rage over, and nothing but grief, and a sorrow too deep for words to express, left in my heart. The huge lion lay right across the poor boy's body, still gripping his crushed shoulder in its mighty jaws; but now I saw that in spite of his terrible injuries Inyati was not dead, though he was dying even as I came back to him. Strong as I was, no strength of mine could have freed him from the grip of those terrible jaws, and as I struggled to do so, his beseeching glance stopped me. I knelt down beside him.
"Finished, master! finished," he whispered, "yet we have made a good fight and you, master, will win. Straight north now! Bury the little gun with me, master. It may serve me who knows? And take thou the blue stone, and this my armlet, it may help . . . master, master, I go. . . ."
And with his eyes fixed upon me, he died; that brave heart, that had served me so well.
I was stupefied with the blow that had fallen upon me, and lay for an hour or more as one stunned.
Once or twice the craven thought came upon me to use a bullet to end it all, and once I actually lifted my revolver to my head; but dead Inyati's last whisper seemed again to sound in my ear had I made a "good fight," to end it like a coward?
And so I lay in the shade of a tree, and sleep, the blessed healer, came to me and saved my reason. For when I awoke, although my heart was heavy, my brain was clear, and I knew what lay before me, and no longer shirked the task.
The lion's head I hewed from its body, for I could not tear its huge jaws asunder to release Inyati, and there I buried victim and victor together.
And so, I was alone, in the heart of the desert, with return an impossibility.
I struck north, as Inyati had told me, due north; in spite of the fact that in that direction the dunes were of the worst; and for a day, and half a night, I wayfared, striving in sheer physical suffering to drown the sorrow of losing Inyati. God knows what I went through, or the poor horses that I drove ruthlessly forward; moreover, the fever that was already burning in my veins may have rendered me delirious? Certain it is that this part, and many a day afterwards, is but a confused dream to me. A dream of suffering, of incessant wandering from pan to pan; here a few mouthfuls of stagnant water, and there a few t'samma still keeping myself and the horses alive. For days the wandering must have been purely mechanical: but one day I came to myself just as the sun was setting. I felt weak and exhausted but perfectly sane. I was parched, and my water-skin was gone, probably thrown away in a fit of frenzy or despair I could not remember.
The horses, mere wrecks of what they had been, were munching the last of a small patch of t'samma; and I was barely in time to rescue a couple of still eatable ones, to moisten my parched tongue.
I had no idea how long I had been lying there unconscious, but the idea of pushing north had now become an obsession with me, and I staggered to the highest dune to look around me. I was still in a wilderness of dunes, but I noticed that what little vegetation there was, was new and strange to me; indeed, except for the t'samma there was scarce a bush or plant I could recognize.
It was evident that I had traveled far in my delirium, and my heart bounded, as I made out, away to the north, a kopje of rugged rocks rising from the dunes. Here, apparently, then, I was at length reaching the confines of this wilderness of sand, for these were the first rocks that I had seen since we entered the desert it seemed a lifetime back!
The kopje was in the right direction too, for Inyati had said "keep north" and by reaching it I should at least be able to spy out the land.
I lost no time in saddling up, finding that I had still a small amount of biltong and plenty of ammunition left. Nearly all night I trekked through barren dunes, but these were now small and easy to traverse compared to the mountains of sand I had already passed through, and when I lay down for an hour before dawn I felt sure daylight would show me to be near the kopje. Such was the case, for I found myself barely a mile from it, and soon had reached its bare and boulder-strewn base. It was perhaps three hundred feet high, of bare granite boulders heaped one on the other, with big cavities between them, and all so rounded and smooth that I had great difficulty in climbing it, but at length I stood on the huge boulder poised on the summit. And from it, to my joy, I saw glimmering away on the far northern horizon a wide stretch of water. I rubbed my eyes and peered again and again, for often the false mirage had raised my hopes to a frantic pitch by its glittering deception. But this was water, and I could scarce refrain from setting forth immediately in its direction, yet, knowing the exhausted state of the horses I feared to do so, and seeking a hollow under a gigantic boulder I lay through the heat of that long scorching day, parched and longing for the water I had seen, dreaming of it when I dozed, and gloating over it when awake. How I would revel in it; could I ever be satisfied again to do aught but drink, and drink, and lay and soak my sun-scorched body in it, and drink again?