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- The Bushman - 20/51 -


[sketch of "The Bivouac."]

Our horses were soon relieved of their saddles, and each man leading his own steed by the long tether-rope which had been carefully coiled round its neck, took it to a neighbouring pool to drink, and then proceeded in search of the best pasture. Our animals having been attended to, our next thought was of ourselves; and every one took his bundle of blankets and cloaks out of the cart, and unrolled it beneath the sloping skreen of boughs, and prepared his bed according to his particular taste or experience; testing the accommodation from time to time by flinging himself upon his couch, and ascertaining the different vents by which the wind would be likely to prove annoying during the night. These were next stopped up by handfuls of xanthorea leaves, or by strips of bark from the paper-tree.

The lodging being pronounced perfect, and the sun being level with the horizon, we hastened the preparation for our meal; and hampers and boxes soon gave forth their stores of cold fowls, tongues, hams, and meat-pies. Sausages are excellent things in bush-campaigns; and as every man toasts his own on the point of a long stick, a high degree of nervous excitement is felt by each, lest he should lose his savoury morsel in the fire.

The kettle soon boiled, and as we ate our tea-dinner, the sun went down, and night quickly swallowed up the short twilight, leaving us to depend entirely on our fire, which presented a goodly pile that shot forth cheerful flames, making the scenery around us bright with light. The ground for the space of many yards glittered beneath the flickering rays; the bowls of the tall trees seemed whiter than usual; even the brown cheeks of the natives looked less dark, as they chattered and laughed over their supper. Cold grog, or hot brandy-and-water, was leisurely sipped by those who lay on their couches in the full tranquillity of after-dinner ease; and as digestion proceeded, songs and catches awakened the echoes of the woods.

Tired at last, we sank to sleep, having first, however, visited our horses and changed their tether. During the night I woke up. All around were fast asleep in different postures; some rolling about uneasily in their dreams; others still as the dead. I heaped fresh logs upon the fire, which blazed forth anew. The natives were all huddled under their wigwams, which are about the size and shape of an open umbrella resting on its edge. The night was dark throughout the forest, and overhead; the little circle of light within which I stood, seemed like a magician's ring, sacred and safe from evil spirits that filled the air around. It was as the speck of Time amid the ocean of Eternity -- as Hope, bright and solitary in the midst of unfathomable darkness. There I felt safe and secure -- but without -- who might tell what spirits roamed abroad, melancholy and malignant? Peering into that dark boundary of forest, the eye vainly endeavoured to pierce the gloom. Fancy peopled its confines with flitting shapes, and beheld a grinning hobgoblin in the grotesque stump of many a half-burnt tree, on which the light momentarily flickered. The ear listened eagerly for sounds in the distant solitude; and one almost expected to hear shrieks of laughter or of terror borne upon the night-wind from the recesses of the hills. Evil spirits seem peculiarly the companions of heathen savages. A wild, desert, and desolate region, traversed only in the day-time, and rarely even then, by straggling barbarians whose hearts have never known a single gentle emotion, seems naturally to be the haunt of the Spirits of Evil.

Chingi, the terror of our natives, is often seen by them, as they lie cowering under their kangaroo skins, and huddled together in the extremity of fear, stalking giant-like and gloomy along the summits of the hills, whilst the moon shrinks timidly behind her curtain of clouds.

On that night, however, there was no moon, and Chingi was not visible to me, nor did any sound break in upon the silence of the forest, save that of our horses eating their food, and giving an occasional snort as the sand affected their nostrils. Anxious to behold any spirits that might please to be visible, I walked to the spot occupied by my quadruped, with the intention of changing his quarters; but finding him comfortably stretched in repose, I left him to dream of his own distant manger and two quarterns of oats, and returned to my couch. The appearance of the bivouac, to one viewing it from the surrounding darkness, was very picturesque. Every object was lighted up by the cheerful blaze -- the cart with its packages in or about it, the sleepers in their blue or red woollen shirts, under the sloping roof, their guns leaning against the uprights, their shot-belts and pouches hanging in front -- the kangaroo-dogs lying round the fire, and as near to it as possible -- the surrounding trees and shrubs glittering with a silvery light, their evergreen foliage rustling at the breath of the soft land-breeze -- altogether formed a striking and peculiar scene.

Next morning we were up before the sun, and having breakfasted, proceeded on horseback in search of the herd of wild cattle, which we knew, from the reports of natives, to be somewhere in the neighbourhood. We rode down an extensive plain, covered plentifully with grass, and presenting numerous clumps of trees, which afforded shelter to bronze-winged pigeons and immense flights of white cockatoos. The latter screamed fearfully as we drew nigh, but did not remain long enough to allow us the chance of a shot. Many tracks of the cattle were visible, traversing these plains in every direction; but on reaching a small pool, we found such recent traces as led us to believe the animals could not be far distant. Remaining stationary for a few moments, we allowed the two natives who accompanied us to ascertain the direction in which the herd had wandered, and their signs soon led us to follow in profound silence. The natives walked rapidly ahead; the tracks were very apparent, and we were all in high glee, and growing extremely excited. The sun shone brightly, but as it was in the month of May, the air was mild and pleasant, without being hot. After proceeding along the plains for several miles we came to a thick jungle, through which the cattle had formed a path. The interior presented a rocky area of considerable extent. Fragments of rock lay jostled together, among which trees and shrubs appeared, and here and there an open space afforded room for the herbage which had tempted the cattle into this rough scene. In parts where grass refused to grow, beautiful purple flowers raised their heads in clusters -- and ever in the most rugged and barren spots the gayest flowers are found to bloom. How grateful do we feel to Nature for bestowing such charms upon the wild desert! cheering our spirits with a sense of the beautiful, that else would droop and despond as we journeyed through the lone and dreary waste.

Although we sometimes proceeded over a surface of bare rock, and at others over large and loose stones, where no foot-print was visible to the eye of a white man, the natives never failed to discover the traces which they sought with unerring sagacity. After a ride of nearly two hours we observed one of the natives making signs to us to halt. "There they are!" passed in eager whispers from one to the other. Before us was a belt of wood, through which we could perceive about a dozen cattle grazing on a broad plain.

Already they had a suspicion of danger, and began to look around them. One of the natives, with my double-barrelled gun loaded with heavy ball was creeping toward them through the grass upon his hands and knees, whilst we cautiously drew up at the side of the wood.

The herd consisted of a huge mouse-coloured bull, with an enormous hunch on his shoulders, and about a dozen cows, with a few calves. The bull came slowly towards us, muttering low bellows, and shaking his fierce head and ponderous neck, on which grew a short, black mane. From some unexplained cause or other the native fired his gun before the animal was within range, and the bull, being a beast of discretion, stopped short, as though extremely surprised, and after a little hesitation, turned round and rejoined his female friends. The whole herd then began to trot off at a slow pace across the plain, which was thereabout a mile broad. We were now all eagerness for the pursuit; and Tom H-----, the most experienced of the party, calling on us to follow him, dashed off at right angles from the herd, and outside the belt of wood, in the belief that he would be able to head the animals by a little manoeuvring; but at the instant he started the old bull turned short on his course, and made across the plain in a new direction. I happened to be the last of our party, and was the only one who perceived this new disposition of the enemy. Anxious to be the first in the melee, I allowed my friends to gallop off, and dashed myself through the wood directly in pursuit of the herd. Thinking there was no time to lose, I waited not for my gun, but resolved to trust to the pistols in my holsters.

The cattle, who had begun their retreat at a steady trot, increased their speed as they saw me gallopping up to them. I was afraid of their crossing the plain, and escaping in the thick forest beyond, and so pushed my good horse to his utmost speed. He seemed to be as much excited as myself, and in a few minutes I headed the herd, and tried to turn them back; but they would not deviate from their course, and would have rushed through a regiment of foot, had it been in their way: I therefore avoided the old bull, who came charging along at the head of the phalanx, and found myself in the midst of the herd. It was a moment of delightful excitement; some skill was required to avoid the hurtling forest of horns, but I turned round and gallopped with the mass; and having perfect confidence in my horse and horsemanship, I felt that I could pick out any of the animals I pleased. My gun, however, was wanting to bring the huge bull to his bearings. He looked so enormous as I gallopped alongside of him, that I despaired of making any impression with a pistol, and resolved to limit my ambition to the slaughter of one of the cows. We were now across the plain, the bull had entered the forest, and the others were in the act of doing the same, when I rode against the outside cow, in the hope of turning her away from the thick cover, and keeping her in the open plain. She would not, however, turn aside, and I fired my first pistol at her eye, and though I only grazed her cheek, succeeded in separating her from her companions, and turning her up the long plain. At this moment four kangaroo-dogs, (a cross between a greyhound and a blood-hound, bold, powerful, and swift,) that had followed me in the chase, but had only gallopped alongside of the cattle, finding me seriously engaged with one of the number, made a simultaneous dash at the unfortunate cow, and endeavoured to impede her career by barking, and biting at her nostrils, dew-lap, and flanks.

It was a fine sight to see these four noble hounds chasing away on either side of the animal, whilst she, every now and then, stooped low her head and made a dash at them, without pausing in her career. Away she went at a slapping pace, keeping me on the gallop. Fearful of hurting the dogs, I refrained from firing for some time, but at length got a chance, and aimed a ball behind her shoulders, but it struck her ribs, and penetrated no deeper than the skin. Loading as I rode along, I delivered another ball with better success, and she began to abate her speed. The rest of the party now came up, cheering and hallooing, but the game had dashed into a swamp in which the reeds and shrubs were high enough to conceal horses and huntsmen; nevertheless, we pushed through, and found her on the bank of a muddy pool, where she stood at bay, whilst the dogs barked cautiously before her. She was covered with sweat, blood, and dirt, and perfectly furious; and the moment we approached she made a rush,


The Bushman - 20/51

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