A week in the woods.—A tornado.—The leopards prowling about.—I kill a cobra and a scorpion.—Fight with a buffalo.—Hunting for wild boars.—A leopard takes a ride on a bull.—Sick with the fever.
Now, boys, fancy yourselves transported into the midst of a very dense and dark forest, where the trees never shed their leaves all at one time, where there is no food to be had except what you can get with your gun, and where wild beasts prowl around you at night while you sleep.
I found myself in such a place.
Immediately after we arrived in those gloomy solitudes we began to build an olako to shelter us from the rains.
I must tell you that Benito is a very strange country. It is situated, as you have seen by the map, near the equator. Of course you know what the equator is? There, at a certain time of the year, the sun is directly above your head at noon, and hence it is the hottest part of the earth. The days and nights are of the same length. The sun rises at six o'clock in the morning, and the sunset takes place at six o'clock in the evening. There is only a difference of a few minutes all the year round. There is no twilight, and half an hour before sunrise or after sunset it is dark. There is no snow except on very high mountains. There is no winter. There are only two seasons—the rainy season and the dry season. Our winter-time at home is the time of the rainy season in Equatorial Africa, and it is also the hottest period of the year. It rains harder there than in any other country. No such rain is to be witnessed either in the United States or Europe. And as to the thunder and lightning, you never have heard or seen the like; it is enough to make the hair of your head stand on end! Then come the tornadoes, a kind of hurricane which, for a few minutes, blows with terrible violence, carrying before it great trees. How wild the sky looks! How awful to see the black clouds sweeping through the sky with fearful velocity!
So you will not wonder that we busied ourselves in preparing our shelter, for I remember well it was in the month of February. We took good care not to have big trees around us, for fear they might be hurled upon us by a tornado, and bury us all alive under their weight. Accordingly, we built our olako near the banks of a beautiful little stream, so that we could get as much water as we wanted. Then we immediately began to fell trees. We carried two or three axes with us, for the axe is an indispensable article in the forests. With the foliage we made a shelter to keep off the rain.
While the men were busy building the olako, the women went in search of dried wood to cook our supper. We had brought some food from the village with us.
We were ready just in time. A most terrific tornado came upon us. The rain poured down in torrents. The thunder was stunning. The lightning flashed so vividly and often as nearly to blind us.
Our dogs had hidden themselves—indeed, all animals and birds of the forest were much frightened, which was not to be wondered at. How thankful I was to be sheltered from such a storm! We had collected plenty of fuel, and our fires burned brightly.
We formed a strange group while seated around the fires, the men and women smoking their pipes and telling stories. We had several fires, and, as they blazed up, their glare was thrown out through the gloom of the forest, and filled it with fantastic shadows. Though tired, every body seemed merry. We were full of hope for the morrow. Every one spoke of the particular animal he wished to kill, and of which he was most fond. Some wished for an antelope, others for an elephant, a wild boar, or a buffalo. I confess that I myself inclined toward the wild boar; and I believe that almost every one had the same wish, for that animal, when fat, is very good eating. Indeed, they already began to talk as if the pig were actually before them. All fancied they could eat a whole leg apiece, and their mouths fairly watered in thinking about it. No wonder they are so fond of meat, they have it so seldom. Who among us does not relish a good dinner, I should like to know?
By-and-by all became silent; one after the other we fell asleep, with the exception of two or three men who were to watch over the fires and keep them bright; for there were plenty of leopards prowling in the neighboring forest, and none of us wanted to serve as a meal for them. In fact, before going to sleep we had heard some of these animals howling in the far distance. During the night one came very near our camp. He went round and round, and, no doubt, lay in wait to see if one of us would go out alone, and then he would have pounced upon the careless fellow. I need not say we did not give him a chance; and you may be sure we kept the fire blazing. Finally, we fired a few guns, and he went off.
These leopards are dreadful animals, and eat a great many natives. They are generally shy; but once they have tasted human flesh, they become very fond of it, and the poor natives are carried off, one after another, in such numbers that the villages have to be abandoned.
The next day we went hunting. I had hardly gone into the forest when I saw, creeping on the ground under the dry leaves, an enormous black snake: I fancy I see it still. How close it was to me! One step more, and I should have just trodden upon it, and then should have been bitten, and a few minutes after have died, and then, boys, you know I should have had nothing to tell you about Africa. This snake was a cobra of the black variety (Dendrapspis angusticeps). It is a very common snake in that region, and, as I have said, very poisonous.
As soon as the reptile saw me he rose up, as if ready to spring upon me, gave one of his hissing sounds, and looked at me, showing, as he hissed, his sharp-pointed tongue. Of course, the first thing I did was to make a few steps backward. Then, leveling my gun, I fired and killed him. He was about eight feet long. I cut his head off, and examined his deadly fangs. What horrible things they were! They looked exactly like fish-bones, with very sharp ends. I looked at them carefully, and saw that he could raise and lower them at will; while the teeth are firmly implanted in a pouch, or little bag, which contains the poison. I saw in the end of the fang a little hole, which communicated with the pouch. When the snake opens his mouth to bite, he raises his fangs. Then he strikes them into the flesh of the animal he bites, and brings a pressure on the pouch, and the poison comes out by the little hole I have spoken of.
I cut open the cobra, and found in his stomach a very large bird. Andèké packed the bird and snake in leaves, and, on our return to the camp, the men were delighted. In the evening they made a nice soup of the snake, which they ate with great relish.
I had also killed a beautiful little striped squirrel, upon which I made my dinner. I felt almost sorry to kill it, it was such a pretty creature.
In the evening, as I was sitting by the fire and looking at the log that was burning, I spied a big, ugly black scorpion coming out of one of the crevices. I immediately laid upon its back a little stick which I had in my hand. You should have seen how its long tail flew up and stung the piece of wood! I shuddered as I thought that it might have stung my feet or hands instead of the wood. I immediately killed it, and the natives said these scorpions were quite common, and that people have to be careful when they handle dry sticks of wood, for these poisonous creatures delight to live under the dry bark, or between the crevices.
A nice country this to live in, thought I, after killing a snake and a scorpion the same day!
So, when I lay down on my pillow, which was merely a piece of wood, I looked to see if there were any scorpions upon it. I did not see any; but, during the night, I awoke suddenly and started up. I thought I felt hundreds of them creeping over me, and that one had just stung me, and caused me to wake up. The sweat covered my body. I looked around and saw nothing but sleeping people. There was no scorpion to be found. I must have been dreaming.
Not far from our camp was a beautiful little prairie. I had seen, daring my rambles there, several footprints of wild buffaloes, so I immediately told Andèké we must go in chase of them. Andèké, the son of the king, was a very nice fellow, and was, besides, a good hunter—just the very man I wanted.
So we went toward the little prairie, and lay hidden on the borders of it, among the trees. By-and-by I spied a huge bull, who was perfectly unaware of my presence, for the wind blew from him to me; had the wind blown the other way, the animal would have scented me and have made off. As it was, he came slowly toward me. I raised my gun and fired. My bullet struck a creeper on its way, and glanced aside, so I only wounded the beast. Turning fiercely, he rushed at me in a furious manner, with his head down. I was scared; for I was, at that time, but a young hunter; I got ready to run, though I had a second barrel in reserve. I thought the infuriated bull was too powerful for me, he looked so big. Just as I was about to make my escape, I found my foot entangled and hopelessly caught in a tough and thorny creeper. The bull was dashing toward me with head down and eyes inflamed, tearing down brushwood and creepers which barred his progress. Turning to meet the enemy, I felt my nerves suddenly grow firm as rock. If I missed the bull, all would be over with me. He would gore me to death. I took time to aim carefully, and then fired at his head. He gave one loud, hoarse bellow, and tumbled almost at my feet. In the mean time, Andèké was coming to the rescue.
I must say I felt very nervous after all was over. But, being but a lad, I thought I had done pretty well. It was the first direct attack a wild beast had ever made upon me. I found afterward that the bulls are generally very dangerous when wounded.
Now I must tell you how this beast looked. He was one of the wild buffaloes frequently to be met with in this part of Africa. During the greater part of the day they hide in the forest. When much hunted they become very shy. They are generally found in herds of from ten to twenty-five, though I have found them sometimes in much greater number.
This animal (Bos brachicheros) is called by some of the natives "niaré." It is of the size of our cattle. It is covered with thin red hair, which is much darker in the bull than in the cow. The hoofs are long and sharp; the ears are fringed with most beautiful silky hair; the horns are very handsome, and bend backward in a graceful curve. In shape, the buffalo looks like something between an antelope and a common cow; and when seen afar off, you might think these wild buffaloes were a herd of our cattle at home.
How glad the people were when Andèké and I brought the news that we had killed a bull! There was great rejoicing. But I was tired, and remained in the camp, while they went with knives and swords to cut the buffalo to pieces, and bring in the flesh.
What a fine place it was for hunting! The animals seemed to come down from the mountains beyond, and remain in the flat woody country along the sea-shore.
There were a great many wild boars. You know we all wanted one of these. So one night Andèké and I agreed to go and lie in wait for them on the prairie. In order to look like Andèké, I blackened my face and hands with charcoal, so that in the night the color of my face could not be distinguished.
We started from the camp before dark, and reached the prairie before night. I stationed myself behind a large ant-hill not far from the open space. There I lay; one hour passed—two hours—three hours, and still neither wild boar nor buffaloes. I looked at Andèké. He was fast asleep, at the foot of another ant-hill close by. Once I saw a whole herd of gazelles pass by; but they were too far from me. Occasionally a grunt, or the cracking of a twig, told me that a wild boar was not far off. At last every thing became silent, and I fell asleep unconsciously.
Suddenly I was awakened by an unearthly roar—the yell of a wild beast.
I rubbed my eyes in a hurry—what could be the matter?
I looked round me, and saw nothing. The woods were still resounding with the cry that had startled me. Then I heard a great crash in the forest, made by some heavy animal running away. Then I saw emerge from the forest a wild bull, on whose neck crouched an immense leopard. The poor buffalo reared, tossed, roared, and bellowed, but in vain. The leopard's enormous claws were firmly fixed in his victim's body, while his teeth were sunk deeply in the bull's neck. The leopard gave an awful roar, which seemed to make the earth shake. Then both buffalo and leopard disappeared in the forest, and the roars and the crashing of the trees soon ceased. All became silent again.
I had fired at the leopard, but it was too far off.
We stayed a week here, and I enjoyed myself very much in the woods. I collected birds and butterflies, killed a few nice little quadrupeds, and then we returned to the sea-shore village. There the fever laid me low on my bed of sickness. How wretched I felt! I had never had the fever before. For a few days my head was burning hot. When I got better, and looked at myself in my little looking-glass, I could not recognize myself; I had not a particle of color left in my cheeks, and I looked as yellow and pale as a lemon. I got frightened. This fever was the forerunner of what I had to expect in these equatorial regions.