Thursday, 2 May 2013
A Fighter of the Veldt
By Samuel Scoville, Jr.
Illustrated by Edward Lassell
From The Open Road for Boys, February, 1931; Vol. 13, No. 2. Digitized by Doug Frizzle May 2013.
IT WAS that little time of frosty cold which comes to the scorched veldt just before dawn. Hardly had the light flared across the plain, tawny as a lion, with the river winding along its edge like a slow brown snake, when a Cape dog suddenly appeared in the open. He was up betimes, as befitted the leader of a hungry pack, and his sniffing nose soon led him to where an aardvark had once dug a burrow under a yew tree.
From the depths of the long tunnel came a grating growl like the rasping of iron with a file; two eyes blazed like green fire, and out into the sunlight came a ratel, or honey badger, who fears nothing which runs, flies, or crawls. As its round earless head, with its black face and white crown, showed at the entrance of the burrow, the crafty wildehonde moved backward, whimpering, with his white tail between his legs, camouflaging a courage fierce as fire so as to inveigle the ratel out.
As a matter of fact, no persuasion was needed, for a honey badger is the most willing fighter on the veldt. Moreover, this one had something to fight for,— four chubby, brown cubs which she had recently weaned and which were at that moment sleeping, rolled up in a round ball, in a grass-lined room deep beneath the roots of the yew.
As the ratel trundled out toward her enemy, three tawny shapes slipped out of a thicket and cut off her retreat, and two more joined the leader, for the hunting dog is a confirmed gangster and always has some of his pack lurking in a near-by thicket or hidden behind some convenient bush. Swiftly the six dogs, each one double the ratel's weight, closed in a ring of death and crept in closer. Odds, however, mean nothing to a ratel. Paying no attention to the rest of the pack, she rolled on like a baby tank toward the tawny burglar that had tried to break into her burrow.
Surrounded, her retreat cut off, outnumbered, outweighed, but never outgamed, the broad, flat figure of the ratel disappeared in a smother of hunting dogs. Her impenetrable hide stood the little battler in good stead that day. Loose and tough, it was as impervious to the fierce teeth of her assailants as De Bracy's Spanish breast-plate was to the shafts of Robin Hood.
Dog after dog gripped her with jaws more powerful than those of any Great Dane or British bulldog. They might as well have tried to worry a doormat. The ratel was so small and the dogs so large, and there were so many of them, that they got in each other's way. None of them, however, got in the ratel's way,—more than once. With her round, earless head tucked between her stumpy forelegs, she traded slashes with the whole pack. It was in vain that they worried her impenetrable body; and when, wounded, they staggered off, the mother badger, battered and gashed, went back into her burrow.
LATER that morning her mate came home after a successful night's hunting which had involved a deal of digging and the extinction of a lively family of gerbilles. When, at the bottom of the burrow, he was received with hungry whines from the cubs and a menacing growl from his mate, he perceived immediately that his duty, until further notice, was to provide food for six instead of one.
Later he was passing under a mimosa bush, bristling with eight-inch thorns like white daggers, when, from beneath its boughs, there came a sound at once fierce and ghastly, full of hate and soulless cruelty, a sound which turns the spine of a man to ice and his blood to water and which gives pause even to the fiercest beast—the hiss of a great serpent. To the honey badger the menace meant no more than a call to breakfast. His deep-set little eyes burned green in the dusk of the brush, as foot by foot a snake, with two broad white bands around its black body, reared itself threateningly in the path. Its swelling hood, of a livid shining black, surmounted by a sooty throat and head, marked it as a member of the deadly cobra clan.
At sight of the serpent the gray ratel, veteran fighter though he was, came to a sudden stop. Indeed, the ringhals, as the Dutch have named the fatal spitting cobra of South Africa—the only one of its kind in the world—is dangerous enough to bring pause to the progress of any beast. Only the black mamba and the terrible hamadryads of the Far East can compare in danger and deadliness with its five feet of death incarnate.
Hardly had the honey badger come to a halt when, with another sharp hiss, the cobra lowered its hood and like a streak of sudden death darted toward the waiting beast. A scant two yards distant it reared again, a dark threatening shape surmounted by glittering eyes which gleamed in the sunlight like tourmalines. Opening its grim mouth slightly, four short, grooved fangs showed, two on either side of its upper jaw. Then, arching its neck, the great snake suddenly struck toward the ratel, expelling at the same time, the air from its single lung, and contracting the muscles which sheathed the poison glands.
Instantly there shot through the air, straight toward the small deep-set eyes of the ratel, two thin, curved streams of pale gold, the very essence of death. Evidently, however, the ratel was familiar with ringhals tactics, for just before the deadly drops reached him, he sank his blunt head to the ground and with a curiously human gesture clasped both forepaws over his eyes.
Once more, hissing fiercely, the serpent sprayed forth its venom, but again the jets fell harmless and, drying in the hot sun, showed against the ratel's fur in tiny golden flakes.
Then, as a double attack, the great cobra rushed forward, buried its fangs in the wiry hair of the honey badger's neck and tried to drive them home with the curious chewing motion of its kind. But it failed to pierce the ratel's tough hide.
AS THE raging serpent started to draw back, the yellow venom trickling from the corner of its grim mouth, the ratel, still keeping his eyes shielded with his fore-paws, suddenly twisted his head, and in an instant had gripped the livid hood in his traplike jaws, filled with gleaming white stilettos, double-edged daggers, and razor-sharp grinders. Once more the great snake hissed menacingly, and lashed again and again at the ratel's impervious body, while, slowly, the rending teeth cut through skin and muscle and met at the base of the serpent's brain. The long, black body writhed horribly and went suddenly limp. Then, although his enemy lay helpless, the wise gray beast carefully severed the fatal head before he swung the dangling carcass over his shoulder and started back to his burrow.
The sun was well up in the sky before the ratel came out again. As he moved along over the tawny scorched grass and past bushes and thickets a strange thing happened. A honey guide, a gray bird the size of a starling, suddenly appeared from nowhere and called and called excitedly as she flew beside him. For a moment he stopped, and the beast and the bird stared at each other in silence. Then the honey guide moved away, stopping repeatedly and calling back to the ratel as, with half-open wings, she fluttered just ahead.
Thousands of years ago, an ancestor of that gray bird had discovered a call of power, and today, by virtue of it, the gray beast trailed after the bird across the veldt, his quaint clicking chuckle answering her insistent summons. Across a tawny plain, along a bush-choked ravine and straight through a patch of dense jungle, the bird led and the beast followed.
For miles the strangely matched pair traveled together until in the distance showed a high krantz, as the Boers have christened those gray cliffs found here and there in the veldt. Straight toward its weathered face the calling bird flew to where, fifty feet up, a swarm of black jungle bees eddied like smoke in and out of a crevice in the rock. Once more the bird cried her call, which meant that liquid, golden nectar of the wild-folk—honey. What catnip is to the cat clan, honey is to the ratel folk—a lure, a delight, for which they will dare any danger.
On and on the ratel hurried toward the cliff, hissing like a teakettle and clucking like a hen, and before him the gray bird fluttered her wings excitedly as if cheering him along the last lap of a long race.
There are few animals indeed which will dare to face the million stings of a swarm of wild bees. The honey badger is one of those few.
Hooking one sturdy paw after another into the crevices of the cliff, the ratel began to haul himself by main strength up the almost perpendicular face of the rock until he reached a little ledge fronting a cave from which a steep path sloped away and disappeared in a tangle of bushes and vines. Not twenty feet above was the honey-filled crevice, the goal of his endeavor.
AS HE was pulling himself over the edge of the shelf, from the cavern beyond came an angry yowl, and suddenly into the open was thrust the fierce head of a caracal, or rooi-kat, the lynx of South Africa. For an instant the gooseberry-green eyes of the caracal stared flamingly into the black ones of the ratel, which glittered like glass in the sunlight. Then the brick-red body of the great cat moved forward, and with one armed forepaw after another he struck swift, dabbing blows at the beast before him. The sudden attack broke the scant grip of the ratel and dashed him down the side of the cliff. Even as he fell, however, he hooked the five curved claws of one forepaw deep into the caracal's soft fur and tugged with all his might. Already overbalanced by his last stroke, the red cat was dragged over the cliff, and with a furious snarl followed the ratel in a sheer drop to the rocks below.
Tucking his round head well down between his fore legs, the honey-badger coiled himself up like a ball, and, although he struck on the bare rock, his iron-boned, leather-lined body received no injury whatever. In a second he was up on his stumpy legs again, hissing and clucking with rage.
The caracal had righted himself in the air with the quick turn of his kind and landed as lightly as if on steel springs. He desired, however, no further argument with the gray battler that confronted him, and as the ratel rolled toward him, clucking his war cry, the rooi-kat disappeared in the scrub like a red streak.
The badger had started to follow the red cat's trail when just above him sounded again the twitter of the honey guide. Fluttering down until she was only a yard away from the ratel's blunt muzzle, the gray bird called him back to the cliff with an insistence which would not be denied.
At the sound of her voice the little fighter seemed to forget all about the rude behavior of the rooi-kat. Bubbling and clicking like an alarm clock, he once more hauled himself by sheer strength straight up the side of the cliff. This time he did not stop until he stood before the opening in the rock, which was lined and backed with solid tiers of comb, filled with golden honey.
As the gray beast waddled into the little cave, with the roar of a million wings a black wave of buzzing, stinging bees burst over his body. Almost any other animal would have been killed by that raging swarm then and there, but the ratel, in his armor did not even seem to notice them.
Stretching out first one paw and then the other, he tore down masses of the dripping comb and with chuckles of contentment filled himself full of honey, bees, wax, and grubs, and then threw down on the rocks below what was left.
That was the moment for which the honey guide had waited. With loud chirrups of delight she swooped down upon the brood cells filled with plump white grubs intended to become workers, drones, or queens, and gobbled them up as her share in the partnership venture with the ratel. Like the European cuckoo and the American cowbird, she had no family cares to disturb her feasting. Long weeks ago she had deposited five speckled eggs in as many different nests, where her little ones would be hatched, fed, and fledged gratis by other birds, leaving her free to hunt for bees' nests, and when found to persuade ratels or humans to ransack them and give her the grubs.
It was nearly sunset before the beast and the bird finished the last scrap of honeycomb and the final fat grub of the devastated swarm. Then the honey guide fluttered lazily to the top of a tree and with a final chirp flew away, while the ratel, sticky but satisfied, with many contented chuckles followed the long trail back to the burrow beneath the yew.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.