The Man-Eaters of Tsavo/Chapter 20

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Chapter XX: A Day on the Athi River[edit]

In spite of all our difficulties, rapid progress continued to be made with the line. Each day railhead crept a mile or so further across the Plains, and on April 24 we reached the Stony Athi River, where our great camp was pitched for a few days while the temporary bridge was being thrown across the dry bed of the stream. Still another temporary bridge had to be arranged for the Athi itself, which was some eight miles further on, so I had to make one or two expeditions to this river in order to select a suitable place for the crossing and to make various other arrangements. On one of these occasions I was busy attending to the pitching of my tent after arriving at the Athi late in the evening, when on looking round I was very much surprised to see two European ladies sitting under the shade of some trees on the river bank. As I knew that this was anything but a safe place in which to rest, owing to the number of lions about, I went up to them to see if I could be of any assistance, and found that they were American missionaries journeying to their stations further inland. They were waiting for their camp equipment to arrive, but their porters had been considerably delayed by some very heavy rain, which of course made the roads bad and the tents about double their usual weight. The men of the party were expected every moment with the porters, but there was as yet no sign of the little caravan, and as a matter of fact it did not arrive until long after nightfall. In these circumstances it was perhaps a great blessing that I happened to be there; and as the ladies were both very tired and hungry, I was glad to be able to place my tent at their disposal and to offer them as good a dinner as it was possible to provide in the wilds. It is indeed wonderful what dangers and hardships these delicately nurtured ladies will face cheerfully in order to carry out their self-appointed mission.

When they had left next morning to resume their journey, I started out and made a search up and down the river for the proper position for my temporary bridge. After a thorough examination of all the possible situations, I chose the most suitable and pitched my tent close to it for a night or two while I made the necessary calculations for carrying out the work. The crossing on which I had decided had to be approached by a somewhat sharp curve in the line, and in laying this out with the theodolite I experienced considerable difficulty, as for some reason or other I could not make the last peg on the curve come anywhere near the tangent point where the curve should link up with the straight. I repeated the whole operation time after time, but always with the same result. Eventually I came to the conclusion that there must be some mistake in the table of angles from which I had been working, so I started to work them out for myself and soon discovered a serious misprint. This being rectified in my calculations, I proceeded to lay out the curve again, when at last everything came out accurately and to my satisfaction.

After I had pegged out this temporary diversion of the line, I thought I richly deserved a few hours' play, and accordingly determined to try my luck after lions up-stream towards the source of the Athi. The river -- which runs almost due north here, before taking a turn eastward to the Indian Ocean -- forms part of the western boundary of the Athi Plains, and is fringed all along its course by a belt of thorny hardwood trees. In some places this fringe is quite narrow, while in others it is about a quarter of a mile wide, with grassy glades here and there among the trees. Every now and again, too, the stream itself widens out into a broad stretch of water, nearly always covered over with tall reeds and elephant grass, while along the banks are frequent patches of stunted bushes, which struck me as very likely places for the king of beasts to sleep in after having drunk at the river. I had noticed that after having eaten and drunk well, a lion would throw himself down quite without caution in the first shady spot he came to; of course nothing except man ever disturbs him, and even of man the lions in this part of the country had as yet no fear, for they had rarely if ever been hunted previous to my time.

As I felt rather tired after my morning's work, I decided to use my pony on this expedition, although as a rule I went on foot. Mahina and half-a-dozen natives to beat the belt of trees were to accompany me, and after a hasty lunch off we started up the left bank of the river. I walked for some distance at first, partly because the ground was very stony and partly because I thought a lion might suddenly bound out of some likely patches in front of the beaters; but after having gone about six miles in this way without adventure of any kind, I decided to mount again. At this time the beaters were in line about a hundred yards behind me, shouting and halloing with all their might as they advanced through the scrub and undergrowth, while I rode well to the flank so as to be ready for any emergency. Just as the men got up to a rather thicker piece of jungle than usual, I fancied I saw a movement among the bushes and pulled up suddenly to watch the spot, but did not dismount. The next moment out bounded a lioness, who raced straight across the open strip into the next patch of jungle, quickly followed by another. Throwing myself off my pony, I seized my rifle to get a shot at the second lioness as she galloped past, and was just about to pull the trigger, when to my utter amazement out sprang a huge black-maned lion, making all haste after his mates. Before he could reach the further thicket, however, I fired, and had the satisfaction of hearing the deep growl that tells of a serious hit.

The beaters and I now advanced with great care, taking advantage of every bit of cover and keeping a sharp look-out for the wounded animal as we crept from tree to tree. Fully a quarter of an hour must have elapsed in this slow yet exciting search, before one of the men, some fifty or sixty yards to my left, and a little ahead of the line, called out that he could see the lion awaiting our approach, with his head just visible in a large bed of rushes only a short distance in front of where I then was. Almost at the same moment I found blood marks left by the wounded animal, leading apparently to a kind of gap in the bank of the river, which had evidently been worn down by a rhino going to and fro to drink. I accordingly made for this with the greatest caution, ordering all the men, except Mahina, to remain behind; and as noiselessly as possible I slipped from cover to cover in my endeavour to obtain a peep over the bank. I saw that it was no use to attempt to climb a tree, as the overspreading foliage would have prevented me from obtaining any view ahead; so I continued my slow advance with a fast-beating heart, not knowing where the huge brute was and expecting every moment that he would charge out at me over the bank from his reedy refuge. Emboldened to a certain extent, however, by the fact that up till then I had heard no movement on the part of my enemy, I crept steadily forward and at last, from the shelter of a friendly tree behind the bole of which I hid myself, I was able to look over the bank. And there, not twenty yards from me, crouched the lion -- luckily watching, not me, but the native who had first seen him and who had directed me to where he was. I raised my rifle very cautiously, without making the slightest sound, and steadying the barrel against the trunk of the tree and standing on tip-toe in order to get a better view, I fired plump at the side of his head. It was as if he had suddenly been hit with a sledgehammer, for he fell over instantly and lay like a log.

On my calling out that the lion was done for, the beaters came running up shouting with joy; and although I warned them to be careful, as the two lionesses were probably still close at hand, they did not seem to care in the slightest and in a twinkling had the dead lion lifted from the reeds on to the dry bank. Before I allowed anything further to be done, however, I had the patch of rushes thoroughly beaten out: but as no traces of the lionesses could be found, we commenced to skin my fine trophy. When this was about half done, I decided to let Mahina finish the operation, while I went on ahead to try my luck either with more lions or with any other game that might come my way. I followed up the river almost to its source, but no more lions crossed my path. Once indeed I felt convinced that I saw one, and gave chase to it with all my might as it rushed through the long grass: but a nearer view showed me nothing more than a huge wart-hog. As I wanted the tusks, which I noticed were very fine ones, I fired but only badly hipped him: so I ran up as fast as I could and at ten yards fired again. This time I missed him entirely, and was puzzled to account for my failure until I looked at my back sight and found that by some accident it had got raised and that I had the 200-yards sight up. On rectifying this, another shot quickly put the wounded animal out of pain.

Still my day's sport was not yet over. While rambling back through the trees I caught sight of a graceful-looking antelope in the distance, and on cautiously approaching closer saw that it was an impala. My stalk was crowned with success, the beautiful animal being bagged without much trouble; and on reaching my prize I was delighted to find that its horns were much above the average. On another occasion I was fortunate enough to get a successful snapshot of an impala just after it had been shot by a friend, and the photograph gives a very good idea of what mine was like.

As it was now growing late, I made all haste back to where I had left Mahina skinning the lion, but to my astonishment he was nowhere to be seen. I fired several shots and shouted myself hoarse, all without response; and the only conclusion I could come to was that he had returned to the camp at the temporary bridge. I accordingly pushed on, reaching home long after dark; and there I found Mahina safe and sound, with the lion's skin already pegged out to dry, so that I could not find it in my heart to give him the severe scolding he deserved for having returned without me. Next morning I packed up my trophies and returned to my work at railhead. On my way back I happened to meet one of the other engineers, who called out, "Hallo! I hear you have got a fine line."

My thoughts being full of my adventures of the day before, I answered: "Yes, I did; but how on earth did you hear of it?"

"Oh!" he said, "Reynolds told me."

"Good heavens," I replied, "why, he left before I shot it."

"Shot?" he exclaimed, "whatever do you mean?"

"Didn't you say," I asked, "that you heard I had got a fine lion?"

"No, no," was his reply; "a fine line for the temporary bridge over the river."

We both laughed heartily at the misunderstanding, and when he saw my trophy, which was being carried by my man just behind me, he agreed that it was quite fine enough to monopolise my thoughts and prevent me from thinking of anything else.