The Man-Eaters of Tsavo/Chapter 23

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Chapter XXIII: A Successful Lion Hunt[edit]

When the Athi river had been bridged, the section of the line to Nairobi was pushed forward as rapidly as possible, and from dawn to dark we all exerted ourselves to the very utmost. One day (May 28) the weather was exceptionally hot, and I had been out in the broiling sun ever since daylight superintending the construction of banks and cuttings and the erection of temporary bridges. On returning to my hut, therefore, at about three o'clock in the afternoon, I threw myself into a long deck chair, too tired for anything beyond a long cool drink. Here I rested for an hour or so, amused by the bustle at the small wayside station we had just built, and idly watching our tiny construction engine forging its way, with a great deal of clanking and puffing, up a steep gradient just across the river. It was touch-and-go whether it would manage to get its heavy load of rails and sleepers to the top of the incline or not, and I became so interested in the contest between steam and friction and gravity, that I did not notice that a visitor had approached and was standing quietly beside me.

On hearing the usual salutation, however, I turned round and saw a lean and withered half-bred Masai, clothed in a very inadequate piece of wildebeeste hide which was merely slipped under the left arm and looped up in a knot over the right shoulder. He stood for a moment with the right hand held out on a level with his shoulder, the fingers extended and the palm turned towards me -- all indicating that he came on a friendly visit. I returned his salutation, and asked him what he wanted. Before answering, he dropped down on his heels, his old bones cracking as he did so. "I want to lead the Great Master to two lions," he said; "they have just killed a zebra and are now devouring it." On hearing this I straightway forgot that I had already done a hard day's work in the full blaze of an equatorial sun; I forgot that I was tired and hungry; in fact, I forgot everything that was not directly connected with the excitement of lion-hunting. Even the old savage at my feet grinned when he saw how keen I was about it. I plied him with questions -- were they both lions or lionesses? had they manes? how far away were they? and so on. Naturally, to the last question he was bound to answer "M'bali kidogo." Of course they were not far away; nothing ever is to a native of East Africa. However, the upshot was that in a very few minutes I had a mule saddled, and with the old Masai as guide, started off accompanied by my faithful Mahina and another coolie to help to bring home the skin if I should prove successful. I also left word for my friend Spooner, the District Engineer, who happened to be absent from camp just at the moment, that I had gone after two lions, but hoped to be back by nightfall.

We travelled at a good pace, and within an hour had covered fully six miles; still there was no sign of lions. On the way we were joined by some Wa Kamba, even more scantily attired than our guide, and soon a dispute arose between these hangers-on and the old Masai, who refused to allow them to accompany us, as he was afraid that they would seize all the zebra-meat that the lions had not already eaten. However, I told him not to bother, but to hurry up and show me the lions, and that I would look after him all right. Eventually, on getting to the low crest of one of the long swells in the ground, our guide extended a long skinny finger and said proudly, "Tazama, Bwana" ("See, Master"). I looked in the direction in which he pointed, and sure enough, about six hundred yards off were a lion and a lioness busily engaged on the carcase of a zebra. On using my field-glasses, I was amused to observe a jackal in attendance on the pair. Every now and then he would come too close to the zebra, when the lion would make a short rush at him and scare him away. The little jackal looked most ridiculous, scampering off before the huge beast with his tail well down; but no sooner did the lion stop and return to his meal than he crept nearer again. The natives say, by the way, that a lion will eat every kind of animal -- including even other lions -- except a jackal or a hyena. I was also interested to notice the way in which the lion got at the flesh of the zebra; he took a short run at the body, and putting his claws well into the skin, in this manner tore off great strips of the hide.

While I was thus studying the picture, my followers became impatient at my inactivity, and coming up to the top of the rise, showed themselves on the sky-line. The lions saw them at once, turning round and standing erect to stare at them. There was not an atom of cover to be seen, nor any chance of taking advantage of the rolling ground, for it did not slope in the required direction; so I started to walk in the open in a sidelong direction towards the formidable-looking pair. They allowed me to come a hundred yards or so nearer them, and then the lioness bolted, the lion following her at a more leisurely trot. As soon as they left the body of the zebra, my African following made a rush for it, and began a fierce fight over the remains, so that I had to restore order and leave a coolie to see that our guide got the large share, as he deserved. In the meantime the lion, hearing the noise of the squabble, halted on the crest of the hill to take a deliberate look at me, and then disappeared over the brow. I jumped on to my mule and galloped as hard as I could after him, and luckily found the pair still in sight when I reached the top of the rise. As soon as they saw me following them up, the lioness took covert in some long grass that almost concealed her when she lay down, but the lion continued to move steadily away. Accordingly I made for a point which would bring me about two hundred yards to the right of the lioness, and which would leave a deep natural hollow between us, so as to give me a better chance, in the event of a charge, of bowling her over as she came up the rise towards me. I could plainly make out her light-coloured form in the grass, and took careful aim and fired. In an instant she was kicking on her back and tossing about, evidently hard hit; in a few seconds more she lay perfectly still, and I saw that she was dead.

I now turned my attention to the lion, who meanwhile had disappeared over another rise. By this time Mahina and the other Indian, with three or four of the disappointed Wa Kamba, had come up, so we started off in a body in pursuit of him. I felt sure that he was lurking somewhere in the grass not far off, and I knew that I could depend upon the native eye to find him if he showed so much as the tip of his ear. Nor was I disappointed, for we had scarcely topped the next rise when one of the Wa Kamba spotted the dark brown head of the brute as he raised it for an instant above the grass in order to watch us. We pretended not to have seen him, however, and advanced to within two hundred yards or so, when, as he seemed to be getting uneasy, I thought it best to risk a shot even at this range. I put up the 200-yards sight and the bullet fell short; but the lion never moved. Raising the sight another fifty yards, I rested the rifle on Mahina's back for the next shot, and again missed; fortunately, however, the lion still remained quiet. I then decided to put into practice the scheme I had thought out the day I sat astride the lion I had killed on the Kapiti Plain: so I told all my followers to move off to the right, taking the mule with them, and to make a half-circle round the animal, while I lay motionless in the grass and waited. The ruse succeeded admirably, for as the men moved round so did the lion, offering me at last a splendid shoulder shot. I took very careful, steady aim and fired, with the result that he rolled over and over, and then made one or two attempts to get up but failed. I then ran up to within a few yards of him, and -- helpless as he was with a bullet through both shoulders -- he was still game, and twist round so as to face me, giving vent all the time to savage growls. A final shot laid him out, however, and we at once proceeded to skin him. While we were busy doing this, one of the Wa Kamba suddenly drew my attention to the fact that we were actually being stalked at that very moment by two other lions, who eventually approached to within five hundred yards' distance and then lay down to watch us skinning their dead brother, their big shaggy heads rising every now and again above the grass to give us a prolonged stare. At the time I little knew what a stirring adventure was in store for me next day while in pursuit of these same brutes.

It was almost dark when the skinning process was finished, so without delay we started on our way back to camp, which was about seven miles off. The lioness I thought I should leave to be skinned the next day; but the men I sent out to do the job on the morrow were unable to find any trace of her -- they probably missed the place where she lay, for I am sure that I killed her. It was a good two hours after night had fallen before we got anywhere near the railway, and the last few miles I was obliged to do by the guidance of the stars. Tramping over the plain on a pitch-dark night, with lions and rhino all about, was by no means pleasant work and I heartily wished myself and my men safely back in camp. Indeed, I was beginning to think that I must have lost my bearings and was getting anxious about it, when to my relief I heard a rifle shot about half a mile ahead of us. I guessed at once that it was fired by my good friend Spooner in order to guide me, so I gave a reply signal; and on getting to the top of the next rise, I saw the plain in front of me all twinkling with lights. When he found that I had not returned by nightfall, Spooner had become nervous about me, and fearing that I had met with some mishap, had come out with a number of the workmen in camp to search for me in the direction I had taken in the afternoon. He was delighted to find me safe and sound and with a lion's skin as a trophy, while I was equally glad to have his escort and company back to camp, which was still over a mile away.

When we had settled down comfortably to dinner that night, I fired Spooner's sporting ardour by telling him of the fine pair of lions who had watched us skinning their companion, and we agreed at once to go out next day and try to bag them both. Spooner and I had often had many friendly arguments in regard to the comparative courage of the lion and the tiger, he holding the view that "Stripes" was the more formidable foe, while I, though admitting to the full-the courage of the tiger, maintained from lively personal experience that the lion when once roused was unequalled for pluck and daring, and was in fact the most dangerous enemy one could meet with. He may at times slink off and not show fight; but get him in the mood, or wound him, and only his death or yours will end the fray -- that, at least, was my experience of East African lions. I think that Spooner has now come round to my opinion, his conversion taking place the next day in a very melancholy manner.