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Bushman's Paradise by Frederick Cornell

 

Author's note: The principal incident in the first part of this story, the shooting of the German soldier who found diamonds in German South- West Africa before they were heard of in Luderitzbucht, actually occurred, and the pocket-book containing the route to the oasis, now known as “Bush-man's Paradise,” is still in existence. Names and localities have been altered, naturally, and the second part of the story is pure fiction.

Jim Halloran was bored to death. With a natural curiosity he had drifted into Walfisch Bay, bitten as it were out of the huge expanse of German South-West Africa, vaguely expecting something out of the ordinary from such a queer locality. But he had found literally nothing to do. A few white officials and storekeepers, too slack even to be sick of their surroundings, and a few degraded families of Bushmen of uninteresting habits and extremely filthy, constituted the inhabitants. There was but little game in the small strip of British territory, and Halloran had made one or two abortive attempts to arrange a shooting and exploring trip into the German hinterland. Every one had warned him of the extreme peril from the shifting sand-dunes. Moreover, the war between the Germans and the Hereros was at its height, and the lieutenant in charge of the small garrison at Swakopmund had cautioned him not to venture beyond the limit of their patrols. There was no steamer for ten days, so that it was a veritable godsend to him when late one evening he received a message from the same friendly lieutenant to the effect that if he cared, he was welcome to accompany a patrol party which was to leave early the following morning in the direction of the little-known Geiesib Mountains. He might bring his rifle, as there was a chance of some buck.

Daylight found Halloran in the saddle on his way to the German quarters. The patrol consisted of ten troopers in addition to his friend the lieutenant, who explained that two of his men who had been sent on patrol in that direction a few days previously had not returned, and that he hoped to find traces of them. “What do you think has happened to them?” Halloran asked. The German shrugged his shoulders. “A hundred things may have happened,” he said “the Hereros or the Bushmen they may be under one of the shifting dunes or they are lost and may be dying of thirst who knows?”

The heat was terrific: the vibrant atmosphere over the red-hot sand looked as though it had become molten, and the glare to the eye was almost insufferable. There was not a breath of air stirring. Indeed, it was due solely to this fact that the patrol had ventured to cross the shifting dunes. Later, when the wind blew, it would be courting death to attempt it.

A few hours' sharp trot brought them to the nearest spurs of the mountain, where water had been found, by digging in the sand, bitter brak, but still drinkable, and here they had hoped to have found the lost troopers. But no trace of the missing men was to be seen. And over a hasty lunch Haussmann, the lieutenant, expressed his fear that they might never be found, but would go to swell the list of men who from time to time had disappeared from their little garrison. “In two years,” he said, “I have lost nine men. First there were Schmidt, Muller, and Brandhof, who were lost in the colossal and never-to-be-forgotten storm soon after I arrived; then my orderly Goertz went, and with him another. Then Kramer yes but Kramer, that was different!”

Halloran was curious. “What happened to Kramer?” he asked. And the German told him a strange story. Kramer was a queer mountebank sort of a chap who before conscription claimed him had been clown in a circus, and his antics and gymnastic feats had made him very popular with his fellow-troopers. He had been a good soldier too; and when he had become separated from his fellow-trooper in a sandstorm a day or more south of Swakopmund, and his companion had struggled through without him, no effort had been spared in searching for the missing man. But to no purpose; months passed and he had been almost forgotten. And then, to every one's surprise, he had one day turned up, safe and sound, at the camp. He was nearly naked, and bore traces of having lived like a savage, and the lieutenant believed that he had become affected by his privations and was slightly mad. At any rate, he had told a strange and improbable story. Lost in the drifting sands, he had struggled on he knew not whither until his horse dropped, then on foot, and, with all sense of direction utterly lost, he had staggered on till tired nature gave out and he sank to the ground in a dead faint. The storm must have abated shortly after, for he woke to find himself nearly buried but with the air clearer, and, somewhat refreshed, he had again moved on, until, water gone and nearly dead, he had eventually staggered clear of the sands and right into the arms of a number of Bushmen. For some reason they had spared his life. Later his acrobatic feats had made him even popular with them. His story went on to tell of a well-wooded oasis where the Bushmen lived, with water and game in plenty.

“All this is probably true,” said the lieutenant, “but his brain must have been somewhat turned, for he declared that in this oasis the Bushmen's children made playthings of big rough diamonds the size of walnuts!” Kramer had watched for an opportunity to escape, but when it came he had had no chance of bringing away any of the stones, as the Bushmen had a vague idea that the white men valued them highly and that if they knew of their presence in the oasis their refuge would soon be lost to them. “He stuck to his tale,” said the lieutenant, “and his great idea was that I should help him to go back with a strong expedition as soon as his time of service expired, and he would make me a rich man. Of course,” he continued dogmatically, “there are no diamonds in this country, worse luck! so Kramer was laughed at by everybody.” He became madder than ever, sullen and morose. He thought of nothing but his mad dream of diamonds. A few months previously his discharge had come, and within a few days he had again disappeared into the unknown. He had bought a mule, and had gone away laden with water-bags, laughed and jeered at by his late comrades. He had never been heard of in the interval. “But,” said the lieutenant abruptly, “we must be off, as we must go on at least two or three hours further east, and I should suggest, Mr. Halloran, that if you care to do so you could stay here till our return. You are likely to get a shot here by the water.”

Halloran agreed, and the patrol trotted away over the thick sand that skirted the mountains eastward. The tale told by Haussmann had a strange fascination for him. Himself something of a prospector, the story of the diamonds did not appear so wild and improbable to him as it did to the matter-of-fact Teuton. He had often wished for a chance to prospect the slopes of these very mountains, which looked very promising for gold but diamonds! Was it possible? Choosing a spot among the rocks where he was somewhat sheltered from the sun and could command a view of the little pool and its approaches, he sat down to muse over the story and to await the chance of a possible shot. A couple of hours passed. The stillness and intense heat combined to make him drowsy, and he woke with a start to find he had been dreaming of diamonds as big as tennis balls. “Bad sportsman,” he yawned. “I shall never get a shot this way,” and, rubbing his eyes, he peered cautiously round in search of game. Not a thing in sight in any direction. Stop! was that a speck moving on a distant spur of the mountain? The atmosphere was deceptive, but surely it was some animal approaching in his direction. He had up till then forgotten his binoculars, but he was now wide awake and, looking first to his rifle, he got out his glasses and twisted them into focus upon the moving object in the distance. A startled exclamation rose to his lips as the field-glasses covered the moving spot; it was a man. Yes running, stumbling, crouching and at times almost crawling the object which he saw was a white man, naked except for a few rags. His desperate haste and the glances he threw back continually showed that he was being pursued. Even as Halloran gazed, figure after figure came running into view over the slope behind the forlorn and desperate-looking fugitive blacks these, and by their diminutive size he knew them for Bushmen. There were seven or eight of them in sight. How many more were behind he could not of course guess, nor did he stop to look, for every manly instinct in his body sent him flying out of his shelter towards the hunted man. He must shoot quick, for it was plain the Bushmen were gaining on their quarry. So, shouting with all his might, Halloran ran forward. A couple of hundred yards' sprint and they were within range. Down he went on one knee, and crack, crack went the sporting Mauser. The vibration of the hot air was sufficient excuse for bad shooting, and it was not until he had emptied his magazine that he had the satisfaction of sending the leading Bushman sprawling. But the others did not pause, and as Halloran thrust another clip into the magazine and ran forward again, shouting and using some very bad language in his excitement, he saw the leading figure throw up his hands and fall forward upon his face. He had the range better now, and was getting near. A second and a third Bushman fell dead, but the others made no attempt to retreat, and appeared to be rifling the body in frantic haste. Again Halloran paused, and sent a bullet into the bunch. Now they were flying away, leaving four of their number behind them. Shot after shot was sent after them till they were out of range, beyond the ridge, by which time Halloran had reached the fallen white man. There he lay, stone dead, with a Bushman's poisoned arrow between his shoulders and his body already swollen and horrible from the deadly poison. A white man without doubt, his feet bare and bleeding from his awful flight, his few poor rags almost torn from his body by the Bushmen. Though tanned almost black he had been a fair man, and his blue eyes stared horribly. He was beyond all succour, whoever he was, and Halloran turned savagely to the remnants of the murderous band. They had paid dearly. Three were stone dead. A fourth lay dying where Halloran had brought him down in his flight, and near him lay a tattered pocketbook. Halloran picked this up. He knew what name he should find in it before he glanced at the contents. Yes, there was the name: “Heinrich Kramer.” It was the man who had gone back for the diamonds. This, then, was why the Bushmen had followed and killed him and rifled the body. Halloran searched also, but the natives had done their work well. Nothing was to be found. However, as he turned to look at the wounded Bushman, who was in his death-agony, there fell from the stunted black fingers a pure and flawless diamond, lustrous and dazzling in the burning sunshine, and so perfect that it might just have left the hands of the cutter. . . . So it was true, after all!

Half an hour later the patrol came back at a gallop, having heard the continuous firing. A few words explained all. It was Kramer right enough. As it was useless following the Bushmen, poor Kramer was buried and the patrol returned to Swakopmund, having found no trace of the men for whom they had been searching. In the presence of the men Halloran had not mentioned the pocketbook or diamond, but that night he told Haussmann all. The pocket-book contained many details, and although much was in cypher, the route taken by Kramer in reaching the oasis the second time was clearly noted. And between them a plan was formed.

Six months later Halloran arrived in Cape Town, having spent the interim in Europe, where he had made certain arrangements. He was met by his friend (and partner in the venture) the lieutenant on three months' sick leave and between them the expedition was organised which was to make both their fortunes. From Europe, Halloran had shipped half a dozen camels, and these ungainly beasts, in charge of two Arab drivers, formed an important item in his scheme. A small tug was chartered for three months, and a week after sailing from Cape Town the party landed on a wild and desolate part of the coast a hundred and fifty miles south of Walfisch Bay. The reason for choosing this spot was that, according to the directions in the pocket-book, it appeared clear that by striking inland due east from thereabouts they would reach the oasis much quicker than by the actual route followed by Kramer. But they knew it to be a waterless waste for at least four days' journey how much more it was impossible to say hence the camels, and hence also the numerous small barrels of water which formed an equally important part of the tug's cargo. There were four white men in the party Halloran, his younger brother Frank, Haussmann the German lieutenant, and a friend of the latter named Haupt. From Swakopmund, Haussmann had brought two Hottentots who could speak the extraordinary Bushman “click” language. These, with the Arab camel-men, made the actual number up to eight. Each was well armed, for Halloran, though he hoped to get the diamonds without violence, had a notion that in an extreme case a good deal could be done by eight determined men armed with Mausers and with plenty of ammunition. The tug with its crew of six men was to remain anchored in the little cove, keeping a sharp look-out shorewards. Halloran had chosen his time well. The windy season was at an end and there was no great probability of the much-dreaded sandstorms arising. The moon was nearly at its full and they would thus be able to keep a sharp look-out at night, and travel if they wished to. Five of the camels were laden with water casks, which were to be buried at intervals along the route, accurate bearings of each spot to be taken, and thus a safe line of retreat would be provided should such prove necessary. Speed was unnecessary on the outward journey, and the party walked, the sixth camel carrying their stores, ammunition, and a large assortment of Manchester trading goods likely to appeal to the aesthetic taste of the Bushmen. And so one evening as the last flaming rays of the setting sun were being vanquished by the soft moonlight, the venturesome party waved farewell to the watchers on the little tug and started on their journey over the seemingly illimitable sand-dunes. They trekked in single file and by the aid of the stars and a compass easily kept their eastward course. The murmur of the surf grew fainter and fainter until not a sound broke the stillness, the soft footfall of the camels being inaudible even to the men who led them. Halloran had enjoined silence for some reason, and he stopped his brother irritably when that usually irrepressible youth started to whistle feebly. With an occasional rest the expedition made slow but certain headway during the night, halting for the day when the rapidly brightening east warned them that old Sol would soon have to be reckoned with. A barrel of water was buried in the sand, a bamboo brought for the purpose being planted upright near the spot, and after a hasty breakfast the tired men were soon asleep under a light awning carried for the purpose; one man, however, being constantly on watch. By noon the heat had become intolerable. Roasting in the sun seemed preferable to stewing under the canvas, and by three o'clock the party were on their way again. They rested at midnight, and rested better. The fourth night found them still on the sand-dunes, and by this time the weird journey was beginning to tell upon the white men. The silence and mystery of the night, the vast expanse of sand shown so vaguely in the moonlight, the soft-treading, grotesquely-shaped camels, which seemed far less real and tangible than the black shadows thrown by them across the sand, and by day the blinding glare of the sun thrown back from the all-surrounding sand so fiercely that in spite of their sun-goggles they were nearly blinded, combined to make them high-strung and irritable. On the fourth night it fell to young Frank Halloran to take first watch. He had grumbled at it as unnecessary, for so far they had seen no living creature not even a bird. But though he grumbled he kept a sharp look-out, for he was conscious of a queer uneasy feeling that someone or something was watching him in turn. The moon was bright, but a slight haze seemed to hang over the sand, making objects a short distance away look vague and indistinct. He could see nothing, peer as he would into the soft, dim distance, but he could not shake off the uneasy feeling. Time wore on, half his watch was over. What was that? Surely something moving? His rifle came to his shoulder, the report rang out, and his comrades were awake instantly. Nothing could be found. His brother rated him for shooting at what was probably a jackal, if, indeed, it had not been pure imagination. But daylight, though it showed nothing to the white men, showed something to the wonderfully trained eyes of the Hottentots. “Bushman!” said Gert, the elder of the two. The spoor came from the east and led back in the same direction. Halloran was quite elated. He took it for proof that they were on the right track. . . .

All this can be gathered from the notes in Halloran's handwriting, which are to be found in the pocket-book that had belonged to Kramer. The book had had a strange fascination for him, and he had used it for his own diary. Indeed, these short and sometimes disconnected sentences are the only real record of the grim tragedy that followed.

The little caravan got through the sand-belt safely in six days, and without further alarms from the Bushmen. Then came stony kopjes with stunted bush, and here and there traces of game and lions. Water could not be far off. On the tenth day they had found the oasis, and by sending the Hottentots on ahead with presents they had met with no open hostility from the Bushmen. There was plenty of water. Halloran seems to have tried to get the diamonds by bartering goods for them, but for some days the Bushmen had kept up the pretence that there were no diamonds there. Then force was threatened and a demonstration made as to what could be done with eight repeating rifles. Finally Halloran seems to have laid violent hands on the chief and to have held him to ransom against the production of the stones. But from this time the pocket-book speaks best for itself.

“August 13th. They have given in. Gert has taken the chief's message, and they have brought us a skin-bag full of the stones. These are diamonds right enough fine big stones of eight or nine carats, nearly all the same size and we are rich men. The sight of them made us greedy, and we told the chief they were not enough. He told us through Gert that we had broken our word. Have we? Of course we did not tell him for how many diamonds we would let him go. Besides, we will give him all the trading goods in return. He said something to his wives which even the Hottentots could not understand, but they came again with a dozen very large diamonds, and we let him go.

“I do not like the look of things. Every Bushman has disappeared. Do they intend to attack us later? We shall water the camels as soon as it is cool enough, fill our water-bags and start on our return journey. Luckily we have buried water all the way back, we can travel lightly and rapidly.

“What shall we do? They have poisoned the water-pools. One of the Arabs, the younger Hottentot, and three of our camels are dead. Lucidly, the poison was swift, and they fell dead before Gert and the other camels could get to the pool. We must fly as best we may, our nearest cask is only twelve hours away.

“14th. We are resting the camels for a short spell about three hours from the first cask. We have neglected the camels in our anxiety for the diamonds. They have had no water for three days. We must give them most of the first cask. It is awful work riding two on a camel, but we can get through in four or five days, and then—-

“I am almost too stunned to write. We found the cask. We had not thought of its being tampered with. My poor brother Frank drank the first pannikin greedily, and fell dying at our feet as he drank. The fiends had found the water and poisoned it. As the poor boy lay dying in my arms the water ran unheeded into the sands. A camel sucked it up eagerly. It is dead also. We must on again. Surely they cannot have found the other casks.

“17th. I am alone. The others are all dead all. We tried the water in the other casks by giving some first to the camels. It had all been poisoned. They are following us too, but too far off to shoot them. Gert went mad and drank the water it was so bright and clear. Each time we hoped they might not have found the next cask; but so far they have found them all. There are three more. The young German turned back to die fighting the black devils. We heard him shooting for a long time, but he must be dead too. The Arab was missing in the night. He too had gone back. . . . We have dragged on till within eighteen hours of the coast, but I can go no further. When the lieutenant and I dug up the last cask we cast lots as to who should try it. It fell to him. I wished him to sip it only, but once his lips were wet I could not tear him away. . . . He cursed me as he died. ... I have all the diamonds now and would give them all for a drink of pure water. . . . Surely they cannot have found the other casks. I will win through yet. It is but six hours to the next cask.

“Another cask but I dare not. It is bright and cool and clear; but so were the others! And yet I am dying of thirst. I can go no further. . . . They are creeping nearer. They know my rifle has gone, and I know that if I do not drink they will shoot me as they did that other man through the back with a poisoned arrow. But I will not wait for that. This water looks so cool and clear, surely . . .”

The diary ends abruptly, A week later the engineer and skipper of the little tug, venturing across the sands in the hope of meeting the party returning, found Halloran's body by the side of the water-cask. Near by lay the fatal pocket-book. But the diamonds had gone.