CHAPTER XII. OLD NEPTUNE JOINS THE PARTY.

WE started from Geera, on the 23d of December, with our party complete. The Hamran sword-hunters were Abou Do, Jali, and Suleiman. My chief tracker was Taher Noor, who, although a good hunter, was not a professional aggahr, and I was accompanied by the father of Abou Do, who was a renowned "howarti," or harpooner of hippopotami. This magnificent old man might have been Neptune himself; he stood about six feet two, and his grizzled locks hung upon his shoulders in thick and massive curls, while his deep bronze features could not have been excelled in beauty of outline. A more classical figure I have never beheld than the old Abou Do with his harpoon, as he first breasted the torrent, and then landed dripping from the waves to join our party from the Arab camp on the opposite side of the river. In addition to my Tokrooris, I had engaged nine camels, each with a separate driver, of the Hamrans, who were to accompany us throughout the expedition. These people were glad to engage themselves, with their camels included, at one and a half dollars (six shillings) per month, for man and beast as one. We had not sufficient baggage to load five camels, but four carried a large supply of corn for our horses and people.

Hardly were we mounted and fairly started, than the monkey-like agility of our aggageers was displayed in a variety of antics, that were far more suited to performance in a circus than to a party of steady and experienced hunters, who wished to reserve the strength of their horses for a trying journey.

Abou Do was mounted on a beautiful Abyssinian horse, a grey; Suleiman rode a rough and inferior-looking beast; while little Jali, who was the pet of the party, rode a grey mare, not exceeding fourteen hands in height, which matched her rider exactly in fire, spirit, and speed. Never was there a more perfect picture of a wild Arab horseman than Jali on his mare. Hardly was he in the saddle, than away flew the mare over the loose shingles that formed the dry bed of the river, scattering the rounded pebbles in the air from her flinty hoofs, while her rider in the vigour of delight threw himself almost under her belly while at full speed, and picked up stones from the ground, which he flung, and again caught as they descended. Never were there more complete Centaurs than these Hamran Arabs; the horse and man appeared to be one animal, and that of the most elastic nature, that could twist and turn with the suppleness of a snake; the fact of their being separate beings was proved by the rider springing to the earth with his drawn sword while the horse was in full gallop over rough and difficult ground, and clutching the mane, he again vaulted into the saddle with the agility of a monkey, without once checking the speed. The fact of being on horseback had suddenly altered the character of these Arabs; from a sedate and proud bearing, they had become the wildest examples of the most savage disciples of Nimrod; excited by enthusiasm, they shook their naked blades aloft till the steel trembled in their grasp, and away they dashed over rocks, through thorny bush, across ravines, up and down steep inclinations, engaging in a mimic hunt, and going through the various acts supposed to occur in the attack of a furious elephant. I must acknowledge that, in spite of my admiration for their wonderful dexterity, I began to doubt their prudence. I had three excellent horses for my wife and myself; the Hamran hunters had only one for each; and, if the commencement were an example of their usual style of horsemanship, I felt sure that a dozen horses would not be sufficient for the work before us. However, it was not the moment to offer advice, as they were simply mad with excitement and delight.

The women raised their loud and shrill yell at parting, and our party of about twenty-five persons, with nine camels, six horses, and two donkeys, exclusive of the German Florian, with his kicking giraffe-hunter, and attendants, ascended the broken slope that formed the broad valley of the Settite river.

There was very little game in the neighbourhood, as it was completely overrun by the Arabs and their flocks; and we were to march about fifty miles E.S.E. before we should arrive in the happy hunting-grounds of the Base country, where we were led to expect great results. Previous to leaving Wat el Negur I had thoroughly drilled my Tokrooris in their duties as gun-bearers, which had established a discipline well exemplified in the recent affair with the elephants. I had entrusted to them my favourite rifles, and had instructed them in their use; each man paid particular regard to the rifle that he carried, and, as several were of the same pattern, they had marked them with small pieces of rag tied round the trigger guards. This esprit de corps was most beneficial to the preservation of the arms, which were kept in admirable order. Mahomet, the dragoman, rode my spare horse, and carried my short double-barrelled rifle, slung across his back, in the place of his pistols and gun, which he had wilfully thrown upon the desert when leaving Berber. As the horse was restive, and he had placed the hammers upon the caps, his shirt caught in the lock, and one barrel suddenly exploded, which, with an elephant-charge of six drachms of powder, was rather startling, within a few inches of his ear, and narrowly escaped the back of his skull. Florian possessed a single-barrelled rifle, which he declared had accompanied him through many years of sports: this weapon had become so fond of shooting, that it was constantly going off on its own account, to the great danger of the bystanders, and no sooner were we well off on our journey, than off went this abominable instrument in a spontaneous feu de joie, in the very midst of us! Its master was accordingly OFF likewise, as his horse gave the accustomed kick, that was invariably the deed of separation. However, we cantered on ahead of the dangerous party, and joined the aggageers, until we at length reached the table land above the Settite valley. Hardly were we arrived, than we noticed in the distance a flock of sheep and goats attended by some Arab boys. Suddenly, as Don Quixote charged the sheep, lance in hand, the aggageers started off in full gallop, and as the frightened flock scattered in all directions, in a few moments they were overtaken by the hunters, each of whom snatched a kid, or a goat, from the ground while at full speed, and placed it upon the neck of his horse, without either halting or dismounting. This was a very independent proceeding; but, as the flock belonged to their own tribe, they laughed at the question of property that I had immediately raised, and assured me that this was the Arab custom of insuring their breakfast, as we should kill no game during that day. In this they were mistaken, as I killed sufficient guinea-fowl to render the party independent of other food.

In a day's march through a beautiful country, sometimes upon the high table land to cut off a bend in the river, at other times upon the margin of the stream in the romantic valley, broken into countless hills and ravines covered with mimosas, we arrived at Ombrega (mother of the thorn), about twenty-four miles from Geera. In that country, although uninhabited from fear of the Base, every locality upon the borders of the river has a name. Ombrega is a beautiful situation, where white sandstone cliffs of about two hundred feet perpendicular height, wall in the river, which, even at this dry season, was a noble stream impassable except at certain places, where it was fordable. Having descended the valley we bivouacked in the shade of thick nabbuk trees (Rhamnus lotus), whose evergreen foliage forms a pleasing exception to the general barrenness of the mimosas during the season of drought. We soon arranged a resting-place, and cleared away the grass that produced the thorn which had given rise to the name of Ombrega, and in a short time we were comfortably settled for the night. We were within fifty yards of the river - the horses were luxuriating in the green grass that grew upon its banks, and the camels were hobbled, to prevent them from wandering from the protection of the camp fires, as we were now in the wilderness, where the Base by day, and the lion and leopard by night, were hostile to man and beast. The goats, upon which we depended for our supply of milk, were objects of especial care: these were picketed to pegs driven in the ground close to the fires, and men were ordered to sleep on either side. We had three greyhounds belonging to the Arabs, and it was arranged that, in addition to these guards, a watch should be kept by night.

The dense shade of the nabbuk had been chosen by the Arabs as a screen to the camp-fires, that might otherwise attract the Base, who might be prowling about the country; but, as a rule, however pleasant may be the shade during the day, the thick jungle, and even the overhanging boughs of a tree, should be avoided at night. Snakes and noxious insects generally come forth after dark - many of these inhabit the boughs of trees, and may drop upon the bed of the unwary sleeper; beasts of prey invariably inhabit the thick jungles, in which they may creep unperceived to within springing distance of an object in the camp.

We were fast asleep a little after midnight, when we were awakened by the loud barking of the dogs, and by a confusion in the camp. Jumping up on the instant, I heard the dogs, far away in the dark jungles, barking in different directions. One of the goats was gone! A leopard had sprung into the camp, and had torn a goat from its fastening, although tied to a peg, between two men, close to a large fire. The dogs had given chase; but, as usual in such cases, they were so alarmed as to be almost useless. We quickly collected firebrands, and searched the jungles, and shortly we arrived where a dog was barking violently. Near this spot we heard the moaning of some animal among the bushes, and upon a search with firebrands we discovered the goat, helpless upon the ground, with its throat lacerated by the leopard. A sudden cry from the dog at a few yards' distance, and the barking ceased.

The goat was carried to the camp, when it shortly died. We succeeded in recalling two of the dogs; but the third, that was the best, was missing, having been struck by the leopard. We searched for the body in vain, and concluded that it had been carried off.

On the following day, we discovered fresh tracks of elephants at sunrise. No time was lost in starting, and upon crossing the river, we found that a large herd had been drinking, and had retreated by a peculiar ravine. This cleft through the sandstone rocks, which rose like walls for about a hundred feet upon either side, formed an alley about twenty yards broad, the bottom consisting of snow-white sand that, in the rainy season, formed the bed of a torrent from the upper country. This herd must have comprised about fifty elephants, that must have been in the same locality for several days, as the ground was trampled in all directions, and the mimosas upon the higher land were uprooted in great numnbers: but after following upon the tracks for several hours with great difficulty, owing to the intricacy of their windings upon the dry and hard ground, we met with a sign fatal to success, - the footprints of two men. In a short time we met the men themselves, two elephant-hunters who had followed the herd on foot, with the sword as their only weapon: they had found the elephants, which had obtained their wind and had retreated.

The Sheik Abou Do was furious at the audacity of these two Hamrans, who had dared to disturb our hunting-grounds, and he immediately ordered them to return to Geera.

In addition to the tracks of the herd, we had seen that of a large single bull elephant; this we now carefully followed, and, after many windings, we felt convinced that he was still within the broken ground that formed the Settite valley. After some hours' most difficult tracking, Taher Noor, who was leading the way, suddenly sank gently upon all fours. This movement was immediately, but quietly imitated by the whole party, and I quickly distinguished a large grey mass about sixty yards distant among the bushes, which, being quite leafless, screened the form of the bull elephant, as seen through a veil of treble gauze. I felt quite sure that we should fail in a close approach with so large a party. I therefore proposed that I should lead the way with the Ceylon No. 10, and creep quite close to the elephant, while one of th aggageers should attempt to sabre the back sinew. Jali whispered, that the sword was useless in the high and thick grass in which he was standing, surrounded by thorns; accordingly I told Florian to follow me, and I crept forward. With difficulty, upon hands and knees, I avoided the hooked thorns that would otherwise have fastened upon my clothes, and, with the wind favourable, I at length succeeded in passing through the intervening jungle, and arrived at a small plot of grass that was sufficiently high to reach the shoulder of the elephant. This open space was about fifteen yards in diameter, and was surrounded upon all sides by thick jungle. He was a splendid bull, and stood temptingly for a forehead shot, according to Ceylon practice, as he was exactly facing me at about ten yards' distance. Having been fortunate with the front shot at Geera, I determined to try the effect; I aimed low, and crack went the old Ceylon No. 10 rifle, with seven drachms of powder, and a ball of quicksilver and lead. For an instant the smoke in the high grass obscured the effect, but almost immediately after, I heard a tremendous rush, and, instead of falling, as I had expected, I saw the elephant crash headlong through the thorny jungle. No one was behind me, as Florian had misunderstood the arrangement that he was to endeavour to obtain a quick shot should I fail. I began to believe in what I had frequently heard asserted, that the forehead shot so fatal to the Indian elephant had no effect upon the African species, except by mere chance. I had taken so steady an aim at the convexity at the root of the trunk, that every advantage had been given to the bullet; but the rifle that in Ceylon had been almost certain at an elephant, had completely failed. It was quite impossible to follow the animal through the jungle of hooked thorns. On our way toward the camp we saw tracks of rhinoceroses, giraffes, buffaloes, and a variety of antelopes, but none of the animals themselves.

On the following morning we started, several times fording the river to avoid the bends: our course was due east. After the first three hours' ride through a beautiful country bordering the Settite valley, which we several times descended, we came in clear view of the magnificent range of mountains, that from Geera could hardly be discerned; this was the great range of Abyssinia, some points of which exceed 10,000 feet. The country that we now traversed was so totally uninhabited that it was devoid of all footprints of human beings; even the sand by the river's side, that like the snow confessed every print, was free from all traces of man. The Base were evidently absent from our neighbourhood.

We had several times disturbed antelopes during the early portion of the march, and we had just ascended from the rugged slopes of the valley, when we observed a troop of about a hundred baboons, who were gathering gum arabic from the mimosas; upon seeing us, they immediately waddled off. "Would the lady like to have a girrit (baboon)?" exclaimed the ever-excited Jali: being answered in the affirmative, away dashed the three hunters in full gallop after the astonished apes, who, finding themselves pursued, went off at their best speed. The ground was rough, being full of broken hollows, covered scantily with mimosas, and the stupid baboons, instead of turning to the right into the rugged and steep valley of the Settite, where they would have been secure from the aggageers, kept a straight course before the horses. It was a curious hunt; some of the very young baboons were riding on their mothers' backs: these were now going at their best pace, holding on to their maternal steeds, and looking absurdly human; but, in a few minutes, as we closely followed the Arabs, we were all in the midst of the herd, and with great dexterity two of the aggageers, while at full speed, stooped like falcons from their saddles, and seized each a half-grown ape by the back of the neck and hoisted them upon the necks of the horses. Instead of biting, as I had expected, the astonished captives sat astride of the horses, and clung tenaciously with both arms to the necks of their steeds, screaming with fear. The hunt was over, and we halted to secure the prisoners. Dismounting, to my surprise the Arabs immediately stripped from a mimosa several thongs of bark, and having tied the baboons by the neck, they gave them a merciless whipping with their powerful coorbatches of hippopotamus hide. It was in vain that I remonstrated against this harsh treatment; they persisted in the punishment, otherwise they declared that the baboons would bite, but if well whipped they would become "miskeen" (humble). At length my wife insisted upon mercy, and the unfortunate captives wore an expression of countenance like prisoners about to be led to execution, and they looked imploringly at our faces, in which they evidently discovered some sympathy with their fate. They were quickly placed on horseback before their captors, and once more we continued our journey, highly amused with the little entr'acte.

We had hardly ridden half a mile, when I perceived a fine bull tetel (Antelopus Bubalis) standing near a bush a few hundred yards distant. Motioning to the party to halt, I dismounted, and with the little Fletcher rifle I endeavoured to obtain a shot. When within about a hundred and seventy yards, he observed our party, and I was obliged to take the shot, although I could have approached unseen to a closer distance, had his attention not been attracted by the noise of the horses. He threw his head up preparatory to starting off, and he was just upon the move as I touched the trigger. He fell like a stone to the shot, but almost immediately he regained his feet, and bounded off, receiving a bullet from the second barrel without a flinch; in full speed he rushed away across the party of aggageers about three hundred yards distant. Out dashed Abou Do from the ranks on his active grey horse, and away he flew after the wounded tetel; his long hair floating in the wind, his naked sword in hand, and his heels digging into the flanks of his horse, as though armed with spurs in the last finish of a race. It was a beautiful course; Abou Do hunted like a cunning greyhound; the tetel turned, and taking advantage of the double, he cut off the angle; succeeding by the manoeuvre, he again followed at tremendous speed over the numerous inequalities of the ground, gaining in the race until he was within twenty yards of the tetel, when we lost sight of both game and hunter in the thick bushes. By this time I had regained my horse, that was brought to meet me, and I followed to the spot, towards which my wife, and the aggageers encumbered with the unwilling apes, were already hastening. Upon arrival I found, in high yellow grass beneath a large tree, the tetel dead, and Abou Do wiping his bloody sword, surrounded by the foremost of the party. He had hamstrung the animal so delicately, that the keen edge of the blade was not injured against the bone. My two bullets had passed through the tetel; the first was too high, having entered above the shoulder - this had dropped the animal for a moment; the second was through the flank. The Arabs now tied the baboons to trees, and employed themselves in carefully skinning the tetel so as to form a sack from the hide; they had about half finished the operation, when we were disturbed by a peculiar sound at a considerable distance in the jungle, which, being repeated, we knew to be the cry of buffaloes. In an instant the tetel was neglected, the aggageers mounted their horses, and leaving my wife with a few men to take charge of the game, accompanied by Florian we went in search of the buffaloes. This part of the country was covered with grass about nine feet high, that was reduced to such extreme dryness that the stems broke into several pieces like glass as we brushed through it. The jungle was open, composed of thorny mimosas at such wide intervals, that a horse could be ridden at considerable speed if accustomed to the country. Altogether it was the perfection of ground for shooting, and the chances were in favour of the rifle.

We had proceeded carefully about half a mile when I heard a rustling in the grass, and I shortly perceived a bull buffalo standing alone beneath a tree, close to the sandy bed of a dried stream, about a hundred yards distant between us and the animal; the grass had been entirely destroyed by the trampling of a large herd. I took aim at the shoulder with one of my No. 10 Reilly rifles, and the buffalo rushed forward at the shot, and fell about a hundred paces beyond in the bush. At the report of the shot, the herd that we had not observed, which had been lying upon the sandy bed of the stream, rushed past us with a sound like thunder, in a cloud of dust raised by several hundreds of large animals in full gallop. I could hardly see them distinctly, and I waited for a good chance, when presently a mighty bull separated from the rest, and gave me a fair shoulder shot. I fired a little too forward, and missed the shoulder; but I made a still better shot by mistake, as the Reilly bullet broke the spine through the neck, and dropped him dead. Florian, poor fellow, had not the necessary tools for the work, and one of his light guns produced no effect. Now came the time for the aggageers. Away dashed Jali on his fiery mare, closely followed by Abou Do and Suleiman, who in a few instants were obscured in the cloud of dust raised by the retreating buffaloes. As soon as I could mount my horse that had been led behind me, I followed at full speed, and spurring hard, I shortly came in sight of the three aggageers, not only in the dust, but actually among the rear buffaloes of the herd. Suddenly, Jali almost disappeared from the saddle as he leaned forward with a jerk, and seized a fine young buffalo by the tail. In a moment Abou Do and Suleiman sprang from their horses, and I arrived just in time to assist them in securing a fine little bull of about twelve hands high, whose horns were six or seven inches long. A pretty fight we had with the young Hercules. The Arabs stuck to him like bull-dogs, in spite of his tremendous struggles, and Florian, with other men, shortly arriving, we secured him by lashing his legs together with our belts until impromptu ropes could be made with mimosa bark. I now returned to the spot where we had left my wife and the tetel. I found her standing about fifty yards from the spot with a double rifle cocked, awaiting an expected charge from one of the buffaloes that, separated from the herd, had happened to rush in her direction. Mahomet had been in an awful fright, and was now standing secure behind his mistress. I rode through the grass with the hope of getting a shot, but the animal had disappeared. We returned to the dead tetel and to our captive baboons; but times had changed since we had left them. One had taken advantage of our absence, and, having bitten through his tether, he had escaped; the other had used force instead of cunning, and, in attempting to tear away from confinement, had strangled himself with the slip-knot of the rope.

The aggageers now came up with the young buffalo. This was a great prize, as zoological specimens were much sought after at Cassala by an agent from Italy, who had given contracts for a supply. My hunters, to whom I willingly gave my share in the animal, left one of their party with several of my people to obtain the assistance of the camel-drivers, who were not far distant in the rear; these were to bring the flesh of the animals, and to drive the young bull on the march.

We now pushed on ahead, and at 5 P.M. we arrived at the spot on the margin of the Settite river at which we were to encamp for some time.

In this position, the valley of the Settite had changed its character: instead of the rugged and broken slopes on either side of the river, ascending gradually to the high table lands, the east bank of the river was low, and extended, in a perfect flat for about eight miles, to the foot of an abrupt range of hills; the base had many ages ago formed the margin of the stream, which had washed this enormous mass of soil towards the Atbara river, to be carried by the Nile for a deposit in Lower Egypt. During the rainy season, the river overflowed its banks, and attained a width in many places of six and seven hundred yards. The soil was rich, and, having imbibed much moisture from a periodical overflow, it gave birth to thick jungles of nabbuk (Rhamnus lotus), together with luxuriant grass, which being beautifully green while all other leaves and herbage were parched and withered, afforded pasturage and shade that attracted a number of wild animals. For many miles on either side the river was fringed with dense groves of the green nabbuk, but upon the east bank, an island had been formed of about three hundred acres; this was a perfect oasis of verdure, covered with large nabbuk trees, about thirty feet high, and forming a mixture of the densest coverts, with small open glades of rich but low herbage. To reach this island, upon which we were to encamp, it was necessary to cross the arm of the river, that was now dry, with the exception of deep pools, in one of which we perceived a large bull buffalo drinking, just as we descended the hill. As this would be close to the larder, I stalked to within ninety yards, and fired a Reilly No. 10 into his back, as his head inclined to the water. For the moment he fell upon his knees, but recovering immediately, he rushed up the steep bank of the island, receiving my left-hand barrel between the shoulders, and he disappeared in the dense covert of green nabbuk on the margin. As we were to camp within a few yards of the spot, he was close to home; therefore, having crossed the river, we carefully followed the blood tracks through the jungle; but, after having pushed our way for about twenty paces through the dense covert, I came to the wise conclusion that it was not the place for following a wounded buffalo, and that we should find him dead on the next morning. A few yards upon our right hand was a beautiful open glade, commanding a view of the river, and surrounded by the largest nabbuk trees, that afforded a delightful shade in the midst of the thick covert. This was a spot that in former years had been used by the aggageers as a camp, and we accordingly dismounted, and turned the horses to graze upon the welcome grass. Each horse was secured to a peg by a long leathern thong, as the lions in this neighbourhood were extremely dangerous, having the advantage of thick and opaque jungle.

We employed ourselves until the camels should arrive, in cutting thorn branches, and constructing a zareeba, or fenced camp, to protect our animals during the night from the attack of wild beasts. I also hollowed out a thick green bush to form an arbour, as a retreat during the heat of the day, and in a short space of time we were prepared for the reception of the camels and effects. The river had cast up immense stores of dry wood; this we had collected, and, by the time the camels arrived with the remainder of our party after dark, huge fires were blazing high in air, the light of which had guided them direct to our camp. They were heavily laden with meat, which is the Arab's great source of happiness, therefore in a few minutes the whole party was busily employed in cutting the flesh into long thin strips to dry; these were hung in festoons over the surrounding trees, while the fires were heaped with tit-bits of all descriptions. I had chosen a remarkably snug position for ourselves; the two angareps (stretchers) were neatly arranged in the middle of a small open space free from overhanging boughs; near these blazed a large fire, upon which were roasting a row of marrow-bones of buffalo and tetel, while the table was spread with a clean cloth, and arranged for dinner.

The woman Barrake, who had discovered with regret that she was not a wife but a servant, had got over the disappointment, and was now making dhurra cakes upon the doka: this is a round earthenware tray about eighteen inches in diameter, which, supported upon three stones or lumps of earth, over a fire of glowing embers, forms a hearth. Slices of liver, well peppered with cayenne and salt, were grilling on the gridiron, and we were preparing to dine, when a terrific roar within a hundred and fifty yards informed us that a lion was also thinking of dinner. A confusion of tremendous roars proceeding from several lions followed the first round, and my aggageers quietly remarked, "There is no danger for the horses to-night, the lions have found your wounded buffalo!"

Such a magnificent chorus of bass voices I had never heard; the jungle cracked, as with repeated roars they dragged the carcase of the buffalo through the thorns to the spot where they intended to devour it. That which was music to our ears was discord to that of Mahomet, who with terror in hs face came to us and exclaimed: "Master, what's that? What for master and the missus come to this bad country? That's one bad kind will eat the missus in the night! Perhaps he come and eat Mahomet!" This after-thought was too much for him, and Bacheet immediately comforted him by telling the most horrible tales of death and destruction that had been wrought by lions, until the nerves of Mahomet were completely unhinged.

This was a signal for story-telling, when suddenly the aggageers changed the conversation by a few tales of the Base natives, which so thoroughly eclipsed the dangers of wild beasts, that in a short time the entire party would almost have welcomed a lion, provided would he only have agreed to protect them from the Base. In this very spot where we were then camped, a party of Arab hunters had, two years previous, been surprised at night and killed by the Base, who still boasted of the swords that they possessed as spoils from that occasion. The Base knew this spot as the favourite resting-place of the Hamran hunting-parties, and they might be not far distant now, as we were in the heart of their country. This intelligence was a regular damper to the spirits of some of the party. Mahomet quietly retired and sat down by Barrake, the ex-slave woman, having expressed a resolution to keep awake every hour that he should be compelled to remain in that horrible country. The lions roared louder and louder, but no one appeared to notice such small thunder; all thoughts were fixed upon the Base, so thoroughly had the aggageers succeeded in frightening not only Mahomet, but also our Tokrooris.