CHAPTER XI. The bull-elephant - Daring Hamrans - The elephant helpless - Visited by a minstrel - A determined musician - The nest of the outlaws - The Atbara River
Having explored the Settite into the gorge of the mountain chain of Abyssinia, we turned due south from our camp at Deladilla, and at a distance of twelve miles reached the river Royan. Our course now was directed up this stream, and at the junction of the Hor Mai Gubba, or Habbuk River, some of my Arabs, observing fresh tracks of horses on the sand, went in search of the aggageers of Taher Sherrif's party, whom they had expected to meet at this point. Soon after, they returned with the aggageers, whose camp was but a quarter of a mile distant. I agreed to have a hunt for elephants the next day with Taher Sherrif, and before the following sunrise we had started up the course of the Royan for a favorite resort of elephants.
We had ridden about thirty miles, and were beginning to despair, when suddenly we turned a sharp angle in the watercourse, and Taher Sherrif, who was leading, immediately reined in his horse and backed him toward the party. I followed his example, and we were at once concealed by the sharp bend of the river. He now whispered that a bull-elephant was drinking from a hole it had scooped in the sand, not far around the corner. Without the slightest confusion the hunters at once fell quietly into their respective places, Taher Sherrif leading, while I followed closely in the line, with my Tokrooris bringing up the rear; we were a party of seven horses.
Upon turning the corner we at once perceived the elephant, that was still drinking. It was a fine bull. The enormous ears were thrown forward, as the head was lowered in the act of drawing up the water through the trunk. These shaded the eyes, and with the wind favorable we advanced noiselessly upon the sand to within twenty yards before we were perceived. The elephant then threw up its head, and with the ears flapping forward it raised its trunk for an instant, and then slowly but easily ascended the steep bank and retreated. The aggageers now halted for about a minute to confer together, and then followed in their original order up the crumbled bank. We were now on most unfavorable ground; the fire that had cleared the country we had hitherto traversed had been stopped by the bed of the torrent. We were thus plunged at once into withered grass above our heads, unless we stood in the stirrups. The ground was strewn with fragments of rock, and altogether it was ill-adapted for riding.
However, Taher Sherrif broke into a trot, followed by the entire party, as the elephant was not in sight. We ascended a hill, and when near the summit we perceived the elephant about eighty yards ahead. It was looking behind during its retreat, by swinging its huge head from side to side, and upon seeing us approach it turned suddenly round and halted.
"Be ready, and take care of the rocks!" said Taher Sherrif, as I rode forward by his side. Hardly had he uttered these words of caution when the bull gave a vicious jerk with its head, and with a shrill scream charged down upon us with the greatest fury. Away we all went, helter-skelter, through the dry grass, which whistled in my ears, over the hidden rocks, at full gallop, with the elephant tearing after us for about a hundred and eighty yards at a tremendous pace. Tetel was a sure-footed horse, and being unshod he never slipped upon the stones. Thus, as we all scattered in different directions, the elephant became confused and relinquished the chase. It had been very near me at one time, and in such ground I was not sorry when it gave up the hunt. We now quickly united and again followed the elephant, that had once more retreated. Advancing at a canter, we shortly came in view. Upon seeing the horses the bull deliberately entered a stronghold composed of rocky and uneven ground, in the clefts of which grew thinly a few leafless trees of the thickness of a man's leg. It then turned boldly toward us, and stood determinedly at bay.
Now came the tug of war! Taher Sherrif came close to me, and said, "You had better shoot the elephant, as we shall have great difficulty in this rocky ground." This I declined, as I wished the fight ended as it had been commenced, with the sword; and I proposed that he should endeavor to drive the animal to more favorable ground. "Never mind," replied Taher, "Inshallah (please God) he shall not beat us." He now advised me to keep as close to him as possible and to look sharp for a charge.
The elephant stood facing us like a statue; it did not move a muscle beyond a quick and restless action of the eyes, that were watching all sides. Taher Sherrif and his youngest brother, Ibrahim, now separated, and each took opposite sides of the elephant, and then joined each other about twenty yards behind it. I accompanied them, until Taher advised me to keep about the same distance upon the left flank. My Tokrooris kept apart from the scene, as they were not required. In front of the elephant were two aggageers, one of whom was the renowned Roder Sherrif, with the withered arm. All being ready for action, Roder now rode slowly toward the head of the cunning old bull, who was quietly awaiting an opportunity to make certain of some one who might give him a good chance.
Roder Sherrif rode a bay mare that, having been thoroughly trained to these encounters, was perfect at her work. Slowly and coolly she advanced toward her wary antagonist until within about eight or nine yards of the elephant's head. The creature never moved, and the mise en scene was beautiful. Not a word was spoken, and we kept our places amid utter stillness, which was at length broken by a snort from the mare, who gazed intently at the elephant, as though watching for the moment of attack.