FICTION

Old Battle Tank

African jungle drama with a rhinocerous in the stellar role

PAUL ANNIXTER August 15 1935
FICTION

Old Battle Tank

African jungle drama with a rhinocerous in the stellar role

PAUL ANNIXTER August 15 1935

Old Battle Tank

African jungle drama with a rhinocerous in the stellar role

PAUL ANNIXTER

THROUGH the long, somnolent afternoon, in a still heat of 103 degrees, Kabuli, the great grey twohorned rhinoceros, slept away the hours, his vast bulk masked in a screen of brush and upas trees, while his three guardian tick birds stood watch, perched on different spots along his muddy, undulating sides. One of these rested on the broad rump that rose like a mud-stained boulder amid the leafage; another with head tucked under his wing, slept on the corrugated fore-shoulder, just outside the swaying area caused by his majesty’s heavy breathing. The third rested on a dead limb above the monster’s head, flapping his wings and squawking intermittently with feelings of well-being, having fed (o repletion on the variegated insect life that had been attracted thence by Kabuli’s hot steamy breath.

Strange creatures, these rhinoceros birds, as necessary to his majesty the rhino as he was to them. They had travelled with Kabuli over 200 miles of disgruntled wandering from the high game plateaus to the south to this river country of the Nyassa hinterland. Each was a source of protection and livelihood to the other. The tick birds, by roosting ever on the old bull’s back, found protection from all their natural enemies, who hesitated to approach the three tons of heavilyarmored, crushing force their great friend carried with him. In return, by keeping their sharp eyes and ears ever on the alert, they were always able to warn Kabuli of the approach of any of his own enemies, man included.

Kabuli, be it known, though unchallenged lord of all the river bush, was logy and half-blind and as stupid as the elephant is wise. He needed all the co-operation the tick birds could give him. Not that he was incapable of worsting tne mightiest of enemies, barring the elephant, in single combat. He had put many a pair of hunting lions to route on the game plains—when they had stayed to fight. The point was, none of Kabuli’s usual enemies ever remained long enough within the range of his myopic vision. Beyond fifty paces they were lost to him, and Kabuli, never swerving from the line of his brainless charge, inevitably found himself battering thickets and mudbanks instead of things of flesh. His temper was the vilest in all the jungle and no creature, except in the suicidal months of famine, would wantonly attack him.

Here was none of your runty specimens seen in the zoo, all of which come from Asia. Kabuli was of the great grey, square-lipped species which has never been successfully transported. He stood as high as a horse at the shoulder, his blue-grey corrugated hide was almost bulletproof, and his great front horn was a steel-hard sabre over fifty inches long.

As he lay there swathed in his folds of fat and armor, he was like unto no other creature that walks the round earth. The shapeless cut of him back of the shoulders was reminiscent of the foolish hippo, except for the bad slope downward, which was pure pig and from which he doubtless derived his abominable disposition, though they blame that on his cousin, the tapir. His legs, caked with mud from his recent wallowing, were huge, round and shapeless as tree trunks, and nature had forgotten to finish his feet. Only three great toes he had. like mighty pestles, while his head was a very nightmare of deformity. It had been hammered out of all shape to put horns where his brains should have been, and his eyes were far down in his nose—a couple of shoe-buttons sewn on in the wrong place. It gave one a start to come upon them there, clear out of line with the brain, like something modelled in Hades. Age was writ all over him. an untellable age that stretched back into dim Pleistocene times when his primordial cousins had browsed with the dinosaurs.

THE AFTERNOON dragged away, and silence and the growing heat held full sway. Kabuli slept on, sunk in the delicious torpor that comes from feeding long on rich grasses and chinaberry bushes. Perhaps he dreamed of those far-off times when the great browsers were rulers of all the

earth and man was not. The green gloom of the bush was like a cave of the dead except for the grey lories who planed silently from tree to tree.

A band of spidery monkeys came swinging through the trees, searching for something to pry into which was none of their affair. The blue-grey sleeping bulk was soon spied out and all the little devils came to rest above Kabuli’s head. They were well acquainted with this customer, for it was Kabuli’s rôle to furnish most of the comedy in the drama of jungle life.

Immediately the vagabonds began the game that is dear to the monkey heart. Crowding the lower branches above the sleeper, they chattered in chorus and showered sticks and twigs and spiny burrs upon his head. The tick birds rose clamoring from their roost. A hard nut struck Kabuli upon the nose, and with a puff like a steam engine, he heaved up on his haunches, wide-awake and dangerous as frozen dynamite. The monkeys shrieked and bounced with importance, and made horrible faces of defiance.

And that was the beginning of a running chain of events in which old Kabuli played a witless part that is still remembered by many a denizen of that region. The old bull saw in a moment the source of the bombardment and the uselessness of retaliation against these grimacing aeronauts. Any other sort of foe would have been neatly steam-rolled in the small end of a second. As it was, Kabuli stood for a space, his little eyes glowing, and tried to maintain his dignity. But the tormentors grew bolder and swung far down on the hanging bush-ropes.

Kabuli pivoted for all his bulk as lightly and quickly as a stag. His great shoulders, brought sharp up against the trunk of the overspreading tree, seemed to flash an instantaneous message to his brain. A mighty heave of fury, a rending of wood and the entire tree crashed to the ground. Kabuli lunged on and over it, and never stopped till he was 300 yards up the valley in an open glade. As for the apes, they, you may be sure, were all a hundred feet away ere the tree struck the earth, nor did they tarry for further deviltry. But neither Kabuli nor the monkeys dreamed that less than a hundred feet down wind, in a cleverly constructed blind of green branches, the all-seeing eye of a motionpicture camera had been registering it all from the beginning of the tableau, the clicking of its mechanism providentially drowned by the hubbub.

THE CAMP of Seldes and Beaumont, cameraman and field director for the Wild Animal Motion Picture Company of New York, lay a half-mile away in the dense thorn scrub that flanked the Sabi River. F'or three weeks now. the two sportsmen with a dozen black carriers had been here, watching and waiting, taking short trips into the great game plateau to the south, but with little result from a motion-picture point of view until today. They had taken some remarkable studies of certain footpads of the brute creation—jackals, hyenas, and the dwarfed foxes of the veldt; a brief tableau of a leopard attacking an ant-bear; also some shots of baboons feeding on a cliff. These shots had entailed eighteen empty and successive days of watching on the part of the cameramen, in a torment of heat and hardship, meshed in a constant web of danger.

However, it was old stuff to both Britishers, whose pictures were internationally known. This trip the partners were bent on capturing alive and unhurt some rare zoological specimens to take back to America, besides authentic camera studies of the capture. At present their focal point was none other than old Kabuli, the lone bull rhino, whose haunts they had come upon by chance in the dense thorn scrub.

Since the day he had first sighted the great beast on the river bank, Beaumont had been obsessed with the idea of capturing the monster alive for shipment. It was an undertaking which no more than one or two men in the history of wild-animal catching had ever attempted, and which if it

proved successful would bring no more than an added murmur or two from an apathetic, shockproof public. But no such thought as this entered the minds of the two friends for an instant. The reward for their kind lay in the heat of the game itself.

Through days of stalking and watching they had learned the extent of the old bull’s range, his habits and favorite sleeping places. Rhinos are creatures of fixed routine and are rarely given to wandering. Kabuli’s range was restricted to a grassy valley that wound up among the thorn-clad hills, and from this he rarely wandered. Seldes, with infinite patience, had rigged upa clockwork device in several spots to accustom the rhino to the sound of the motion-picture camera, while Beaumont with half a dozen Inyati carriers, had busied himself over some strange preparations of his own, including the digging of a ten-foot pit at the narrow head of the valley.

When the dust of Kabuli’s wrathful charge had settled, Beaumont, who had been perched above Seldes on the limb of a low thorn tree, descended to the latter’s camera platform, his face aglow with anticipation.

“What a big blunderbuss!” he grinned, wiping the beaded sweat from his forehead. “He’d make a great war tank, our grey friend. Look at that trail he left behind him.” He was looking at the path of destruction in Kabuli’s wake, through thickets that would have taken a man an hour to cut through. Snapped-off bushes lay broken and crushed into the ground by the great round feet.

Seldes was afire with a photographer’s zeal, his eyes aglow with a light that did not come from the sun.

“A record run!” he cried. “And I got it all, even to an iris-out. Wait till we touch Hollywood with six reels of this kind of stuff!”

“Right,” Beaumont nodded. “Only hurry up with your end of the show. That trick of the monkeys has given me a great idea. Have you noticed how the big numskull runs straight up the valley every time? I’ve an idea he refuses to run up grade; he has chosen this valley for his own and nothing is going to drive him out of it.”

“A mind of his own, even if there is nothing in it,” commented Seldes. “And stubborn as ten thousand ostriches. He’s the heavy villain of this part of the African stage.”

‘Tonight I am going to finish that big pit at the narrow head of the valley, so give yourself twenty-four hours more to finish your rhino picture. By tomorrow night we should be starting back for that log raft the chief of the Inyati made us.”

They dropped to the ground and stood yawning and stretching luxuriously in the relief of long-cramped muscles. “Five hours,” said Beaumont, consulting his watch. “No wonder I felt myself grow giddy a while back.”

“How time flies in the waste places,” said Seldes wryly. The two returned to camp to wrap the precious roll of film in damp-proof tin foil, then Seldes. with his camera under his arm, set out again, to try what luck the last of the afternoon light might bring.

OLD KABULI, having come to rest in another thicket, 500 yards up the valley, had regained something of his composure but not his torpor. To precipitate three tons of brainless brawn under a man-killing African sun at express-train velocity, is not conducive to tranquillity. With eyes half closed, Kabuli feigned indifference, while the tick birds settled once more about him. The rhino is a stoic but also a devil, and in all the wilderness there is none more crafty in dissimulation. Kabuli’s temper waxed deadlier with every passing minute. He was not in the habit of rising until six for supper, but here he was wide-awake in the hottest hour of the afternoon, with nothing to do but sweat and fume.

It was some half hour after Kabuli had taken refuge in the heart of the second thicket that the tick birds’ chatter took on another and different note—a note which communicated an instantaneous message to their great host. The cause was a stealthy figure threading the near-by thickets, followed by a queer subdued chatter that presently issued from the undergrowth.

Kabuli was on his feet in an instant, his little eyes glowing red as charcoal pits. There was a loud snort and he had pivoted clean about, his evil snout raised to test the breeze from the four quarters. Kabuli’s sense of smell, be it known, was as keen as his sight was dim. Poised there on the alert, waiting for a clearer story to come down the wind, he was as fearsome and formidable a spectacle as lives on this earth— as evil to look upon as the man-eating shark, as malignant as the hump-shouldered hyena.

At such a moment as this none ever knew what Kabuli would do. One couldn’t even bank on his doing the opposite. The queer chatter continued from the thicket. Kabuli was still several seconds behind the tick birds in getting the message. But his rope-like tail lashed back and forth twice —warning of imminent eruption to all in the vicinity. Then a telltale breeze came straying through the brush with the whole story. Man, his one formidable enemy, was near at hand. Kabuli snorted again like the exhaust of a steam engine—then he charged.

From complete repose he sprang into full speed ahead on the instant, undoing all laws of bulk and gravity. Men have heard that snort in African thickets while sitting a horse forty feet distant and have seen and known no more till they awoke in bandages, to be told of the destruction of the mount they rode—while that snort was still in the air.

Kabuli thundered directly toward the alien sound, straight as his nose knew, which is straight as any surveyor’s line. He feared no living thing; in his volcanic nature was no room for such a feeling. He ripped through twenty feet of impenetrable thorn-brush like a runaway freight car, and

bore down upon the small khaki-clad figure who was producing the disturbing chatter.

The bole of an adjacent thorn tree probably saved the life of Seldes. Kabuli’s great side grazed the tree trunk; it swerved him a trifle in his course, and the precious seconds were enough for the cameraman to swing himself up into the low branches. Kabuli swept past, head down, tail up, shaking the earth’s crust. A thrilling spectacle, a tornado on legs! He doubtless saw neither Seldes nor the camera. His wrath was blinding.

He thundered on and away, at a velocity that would never slacken until his anger died of its own red sting. Presently Seldes dropped to the ground again. He was not even scratched. But the camera! Sorrowfully he viewed the six)t where the instrument had fallen. In a hollow made by one great circular footprint was all that remained of the working parts of the best field camera he had ever carried—smashed and flattened bits of glass and metal amid the splinters that had been the tripod.

nPIIAT NIGHT saw the completion of the ten-foot pit at the narrow head of the valley which was to be Kabuli’s undoing. Three of the Inyati had been at work on it for the past twelve hours. Beaumont was on fire with a fervid zeal that few but animal catchers ever experience. It had been a

full year for the partners; there was little they had not collected and photographed, from Sumatran orchids to gorillas on Mount Nelx> and four-ton hip{X)s on the Zambesi. If Beaumont could make this final coup—the shipment of one of the largest and rarest of living creatures across the sea—he promised himself a well-earned rest back in his own land.

The quick tropic twilight drew down in fold on fold of blue and royal purple shrouding the distant hills and dongas, bringing with it a sense of lurking and unknown things. A few scattered baobab trees in the near distance stood out like sprawling monsters in the dusk. It was insufferably hot in the white men’s camp. The skin prickled, the lungs strained for a breath of cooling air—one of those South African nights that key every nerve-end till the blood throbs audibly in the temples.

The two friends sat long, smoking beneath their mosquito nets, listening with senses sharpened as by drugs into the crepitant dark of the bush. They were weary, but sleep was far off—a feel in the air as of something impending, something threatening. To their hunter’s instincts, sharpened by many years in the wild, had come certain signs during the afternoon that could not be disregarded. There had been inexplicable startled flights of the browsing animals in the

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Old Battle Tank

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near-by hills, likewise from time to time a sense of unseen surveillance that had put them on their guard. The Inyati carriers had likewise evinced a similar uneasiness.

For weeks the little party had been watched by sullen eyes they rarely saw, but they were the eyes of prowling wild beasts. This was different. It was now Beaumont s belief that the desolate fastness of the thorn bush that stretched for unknown miles to the west and north was not uninhabited by men. What that might mean in this remote corner of the hinterland no man might say, but Beaumont did not like the look of things. As yet, however, he had voiced nothing of this to Seldes.

By common consent they had refrained from making a supper fire that night, knowing old Kabuli’s explosive and unreckonable temper and how the smallest thing might ; make him charge the camp and spoil the coup toward which they had worked for weeks.

“If only the big blunderbuss was in the pit now,” Beaumont muttered thinking aloud.

“Eh?” said Seldes, who had been lamenting his ruined camera.

‘‘I was remarking, I wish the specimens were already collected and on their way down river.” Beaumont rose and moved over to the water bag that lay in a bulging heap on the ground, and there were prolonged gurglings. “What a country ! What’s the use of washing and drinking? The more you drink the more you sweat, until you run away in puddles. But it’s been worth it all, I fancy. If something really smashing and dramatic could happen to end up this run, we would have an epic picture, plus the specimens.”

“Don’t despair, old top,” from Seldes hollowly. “The worst may happen momentarily. In fact, I seem to feel something of the sort hanging by the merest thread.”

“Better turn in now and get some rest. I’m going to sit up awhile and wait for the breeze to cool. Besides I have no cells for the fever germs, you know.”

Beaumont had said nothing of it to Seldes, but he intended to remain on guard all night.

TWO HOURS wore away. Seldes finally fell into fitful sleep, but Beaumont sat on, smoking to ward off the coma of fatigue. He had an immunity Seldes had never achieved, to strain and tropic fever. In his blood was the philosophy of calm, almost phlegmatic peace, that nerve waste did not consume. Seldes had often had to grant that suspense, tedium and danger did not wear his friend down like other men; Beaumont became fitter and more nerveless than at any other time when absorbed in the thrall of his hobby—the catching and photographing of wild animals.

Once, much later, Beaumont was positive that someone or something was watching the camp from the thickets, but nothing happened. Not until the dawn fires played in the east did he rouse Seldes.

An hour later the two friends made preparations. The old bull had been sighted with the first light, still browsing lethargically near the head of the valley. All was in readiness, the pit covered and camouflaged with earth and leaves that would fool any but one of the feline tribe. There remained the touchy process of rousing the big bull and heading him up the valley in one of his brainless charges—a matter that was to be left up to native craft and cunning.

The carriers knew their parts. They I departed in silence, bent on approaching Kabuli up the wind. A half hour passed and ' nothing came to break the tranced stillness j of the bush. The two white men had taken up their station in the dense thorn scrub, with camera ready. Beaumont also had his rifle ready to shoot in case of necessity, for with rhinos you never know. Their Zeiss

binocular passed from hand to hand while the minutes dragged.

Kabuli, all unconscious of the trickery pending, stood half-masked in a thicket, with only his horns protruding. Fed to repletion through the long night hours, he was contemplating imminent sleep ere the heat began, the foolish sleep of the rhino, standing bolt upright on his four thick legs, with shoe-button eyes wide open. Only the sharpest of even the wild folk would have known he was there at all, so skillfully had he learned to mask his great bulk in the undergrowth.

Still nothing happened. The bush remained steeped in its own silence, a silence that was rather incongruous as both watchers agreed, for it was still the first hour of sunrise, time of highest lifetide for all the smaller things of the bush, when birds were wont to fill the air with clamant song. Beaumont glanced here and there in perplexity.

It came at last, a sharp squawking cry of petulance and warning. A tick-bird’s and none other. The telescope eye picked them out, all three, Kabuli’s satellites. They rose flapping into the branches of the trees. Kabuli’s head was seen to rise as he peered on either side of his great front horn, like an old beldame from behind her spectacles. He swung about suddenly and the bushes swayed as if in a stiff wind. As has been seen, lie had been nursing a grouch against man for a matter of twenty-four hours, and here he was dragged once more from the arms of Morpheus. It was too much.

CREEPING forward from tree to tree, the white men saw a strange thing. A high whistle of insensate rage filled the air, like the blast of a steamboat and almost as loud, followed by the crackling of the dry steely stems of lantana scrub, and Kabuli burst from cover. He sprang into his terrible gallop that is as fast as a running horse, but it was not in the direction of the covered pit. Head down, sabre-like horn curved up at an eviscerating angle, ropy tail lashing, he cut through another thicket, mowing down the brush like some armored tank out of No Man’s Land.

Just there the interest of science was dropped so far as Kabuli was concerned, for that particular thicket was alive ! In a black and yelling wave it gave up its secret in a score of leaping forms—painted yelling savages, but no savages who had ever known the white man’s payroll. They were naked as Genesis, and upon the face and body of each were streaks of fearsome paint in white and red and yellow. Sofali warriors from the interior, as was later learned.

Kabuli was seen to flick his head as he ran. It was really no more than that—and a fleeing warrior shot eight feet in air with a blood-curdling howl. He was dead before ever he crashed to his final resting place; and Kabuli thundered on, fulfilling his reputation as the most terrible destroyer of the African bush. The fleeing natives took to the thickets, which was suicidal. There they must worm their way through closepacked dusters of barbed growth, while Kabuli was past master of the bush-whacking game. He ripped through the second thicket full speed ahead and the bushes parted like blown straws. He loomed among the savages, monstrous and terrible, a gunmetal nightmare. Then he wheeled, stamping, ramping and whistling like a Minotaur, and when the thicket emptied there were two less of the enemy.

Kabuli’s rage was cataclysmic. The detestable man smell filled his nostrils, maddening every sense. For a whole day he had been tortured by it without seeing anything; now at last, it appeared. He had shagged the enemy from cover and he meant to make the most of his opportunity.

Fifty yards from the scene of retribution, the two white men, skirting the undergrowth, came suddenly upon one of their

Inyati boys, dead, drilled through from back to chest by a hurled spear. The whole unseen tableau of early dawn became clear in a flash. Had the other carriers fled or met the same silent end?

Beaumont could envision it all now— those premonitory warnings of the past twenty-four hours, the secret spying upon the camp by enemy scouts who only this morning had been overtaken by the main party of the blacks. That sinister advance of the unseen foe upon the camp had been exactly timed by the dock of jungle affairs. He knew the tactics of these customers from the far interior; ten more minutes perhaps, and the little clearing in the thorn scrub would have been the scene of one of those silent and terrible massacres which the bush knows so well how to hide in its inscrutable heart—but for the brainless intervention of old Kabuli, turned suddenly into an engine of destruction.

“The canoe—the specimen cases! Run for it, man !” Seldes’s arm was seized in a grip that made him wince.

The white men plunged headlong toward camp and the river, Seldes still only halfcognizant of the fate they had escaped and the miracle by which it was wrought.

IT WAS an hour later, some four miles down river, before the eight remaining carriers ceased their frenzied efforts at the paddles and let the canoes drift with the current. Three others had failed to come in. Seldes sat hunched forward with his tin cases of films still clutched between his knees. Despite the catastrophe, the trip had been a winning from a photographic standpoint.

“This ends the African chapter, old man,” Seldes said ruefully. “Lord, if we could have got that charge through the niggers’ goal posts, we’d be made! But the camera end hasn’t been so bad, all told. I say, what will we do about his nibs now? I don’t yearn to sequester hereabouts longer than necessary.” He brought forth brown papers and conjured a tight cigarette with a few deft jerks of the elbow.

Beaumont, sitting in the stern, studied the lean, hunched shoulders, the attenuated body and skin that had grown sallow from many half-won bouts with tropic fever, and the battered French shako, cocked rakishly over Seldes’s eyebrow, and vented something unintelligible. He had known for days that Seldes was not getting on, that Africa was killing him in more ways than one. And yet the other was willing to go back again to please a comrade.

“You mean you would still return with the raft to have another try for the rhino?” he asked.

“Right.” Seldes’s reply was as nonchalant as the flick of his dead match overside. “We threw in together on a fifty-fifty basis. I scored and you didn’t. I’m with you whenever and wherever needed until we reach Loango again.”

Beaumont produced one of his rare grins. “As far as my collections go, I still have some use for this life here below. Besides, it’s all too plain to me that if it wasn’t for that old war tank back there neither of us would be here. After today I wouldn’t care to think of him cramped behind bars for the rest of his life, with me to blame for it.”

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