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A Strange Fellow Voyager - Harper's

 

I've had many a queer voyage in my time, said Captain M——, but the queerest I ever had was one that I made (somewhat unexpectedly, as you will see), upon the Great Fish River, in South Africa, on my way back from a hunting excursion.

As I neared the bank I saw that the river was in full flood, more than twice its usual breadth, and running like a mill-race. I knew at once that I should have a very tough job to get across, for a flooded African river is no joke, I can tell you. But I knew also that my wife would be terribly anxious if I didn't come back on the day I had fixed—South Africa being a place where a good many things may happen to a man—and so I determined to chance it.

Just at the water's edge I found an old Bushman that I knew well, who had a boat of his own; so I hailed him at once:

"Well, Kaloomi, what will you take to put me across the river?"

"No go fifty dollar this time, baas" (master), said the old fellow, in his half-Dutch, half-English jargon. "Boat no get 'cross to-day; water groed" (great).

And never a bit could I persuade him, although I offered him money enough to make any ordinary Bushman jump head-first down a precipice. Money was good, he said, but it would be no use to him when he was drowned; and in short he wouldn't budge.

"Well, if you won't put me across," said I at last, "lend me your boat, and I'll just do the job for myself; I can't very well take my horse with me, so I'll just leave him here in pledge that I'll pay for the boat when I come back."

"Keep horse for you, master, quite willing; but s'pose you try cross to-day, you never come back to ask for him."

He spoke so positively that, although I'm not easily frightened, I certainly did feel rather uncomfortable. However, when you've got to do a thing of that sort, the less you think of it the better, so I jumped into the boat and shoved off.

I had barely got clear of the shore when I found that the old fellow was right, for the boat shot down the stream like an arrow. I saw in a moment that there was no hope of paddling her across, and that all I could do was just to keep her head straight. But I hadn't the chance of doing even that very long, for just then a big tree came driving along, and hitting my boat full on the quarter, smashed her like an egg-shell. I had just time to clutch the projecting roots, and whisk myself up on to them, and then tree and I went away down stream together, at I don't know how many miles an hour.

At first I was so rejoiced at escaping just when all seemed over with me, that I didn't think much of what was to come next; but before long I got something to think about with a vengeance. The tree, as I've said, was a large one, and the branch end (the opposite one to where I sat) was all one mass of green leaves. All at once, just as I was shifting myself to a safer place among the roots, the leaves suddenly shook and parted, and out popped the great yellow head and fierce eyes of an enormous lion.

I don't think I ever got such a fright in my life. My gun had gone to the bottom along with the boat, and the only weapon I had left was a short hunting knife, which against such a beast as that would be of no more use than a bodkin. I fairly gave myself up for lost, making sure that in another moment he'd spring forward and tear me to bits.

But whether it was that he had already gorged himself with prey, or whether (as I suspect) he was really frightened at finding himself in such a scrape, he showed no disposition to attack me, so long at least as I remained still. The instant I made any movement, however, he would begin roaring and lashing his tail, as if he were going to fall on me at once. So, to avoid provoking him, I was forced to remain stock-still, although sitting so long in one position cramped me dreadfully.

There we sat, Mr. Lion and I, staring at each other with all our might—a very picturesque group, no doubt, if there had been anybody there to see it. Down, down the stream we went, the banks seeming to race past us as if we were going by train, while all around broken timber, wagon wheels, trees, bushes, and the carcasses of drowned horses and cattle, went whirling past us upon the thick brown water.

All at once I noticed that the lion seemed to be getting strangely restless, turning his great head from side to side in a nervous kind of way, as if he saw or heard something that he didn't like. At first I couldn't imagine what on earth was the matter with him, but presently I caught a sound which scared me much worse than it had done the lion. Far in the distance I could hear a dull, booming roar, which I had heard too often not to recognize at once: we were nearing a water-fall!

I had seen the Great Falls of the Fish River more than once, and the bare thought of being carried over those tremendous precipices made my very blood run cold. Yet being devoured by a lion would hardly be much of an improvement; and as I hadn't the ghost of a chance of being able to swim ashore, there really seemed to be no other alternative.

Faster and faster we went; louder and louder grew the roar of the cataract. The lion seemed to have quite given himself up for lost, and crouched down among the leaves, only uttering a low moaning whine every now and then. I was fairly at my wits' end what to do, when all of a sudden I caught sight of something that gave me a gleam of hope.

A little way ahead of us the river narrowed suddenly, and a rocky headland thrust itself out a good way into the stream. On one of the lowest points of it grew a thick clump of trees, whose boughs overhung the water; and it struck me that if we only passed near enough, I might manage to catch hold of one of the branches, and swing myself up on to the rock.

No sooner said than done. I started up, hardly caring whether the lion attacked me or not, and planted myself firmly upon one of the biggest roots, where I could take a good spring when the time came. I knew that this would be my last chance, for by this time we were so near the precipice that I could see quite plainly, a little way ahead, the great cloud of spray and vapor that hovered over the great water-fall. Even at the best it was a desperate venture, and I can tell you that I felt my heart beginning to thump like a sledge-hammer as we came closer and closer to the point, and I thought of what would happen if I missed my leap.

Just as we neared it, it happened, by the special mercy of God, that our tree struck against something, and turned fairly crosswise to the current, the end with the lion on it swinging out into mid-stream, while my end was driven close to the rock on which the clump of trees grew.

Now or never! I made one spring (I don't think I ever made such another before or since), and just clutched the lowest bough; and as I dragged myself on to it I heard the last roar of the doomed lion mingling with the thunder of the water-fall, as he vanished into the cloud of mist that overhung the precipice.

As for me, it was late enough that night before I got home, and I found my poor wife in a fine fright about me; so I thought it just as well, on the whole, to keep my adventure to myself, and it wasn't till nearly a year later that she heard a word about my strange fellow-voyager.