CHASING OSTRICHES

“Ali, come here. Take a look through these glasses and tell me what you
see,” called big Bob early one morning.

As he spoke he was approaching the encampment, where the Arabs were
preparing breakfast, at a run.

Ali looked up inquiringly, and Bob grasped him by an arm and urged him
forward, past the well, through the patches of garden stuff, down among
a grove of fig trees, to the edge of the oasis. They were facing
eastward, and the sun which had not been up long cast a dazzling
radiance over the sand dunes. These latter lay scattered
indiscriminately, like the waves in a choppy sea—great bare swellings of
sand, with here and there low stunted clumps of bush.

At first, gazing into the path of the sun, Ali could descry nothing, but
under Bob’s direction he finally located what had attracted the other’s
attention. This was a number of dark black objects seeming like bushes
in motion. But Ali’s better-trained desert eye solved what had merely
been a puzzle to Bob, and without taking the glasses from his eyes he
exclaimed

“Ostriches.”

“Ostriches?” Big Bob could hardly believe he had heard aright. “Why, you
don’t find ostriches here, do you? I thought the only ones left in
Africa were the domesticated ones on South African farms.”

Ali smiled.

“They run wild in the waste places and on the desert,” he said.

“Great Scott,” cried Bob, in high excitement, a sudden thought striking
him. “Can’t we break the monotony by having an ostrich hunt? Even if we
don’t catch any, it’ll be fun.”

“To hunt those birds we should have horses,” said Ali, dubiously. “They
run very swift. With horses, the hunters pursue them in a great circle,
relays of horsemen relieving the tired ones.”

“But won’t camels do?” Bob was eager to put his scheme into effect and
an appealing note crept into his voice which caused the kind-hearted Ali
to smile.

“We can try,” he said. “Only you must not be too disappointed, if you
see them run away from you.”

“All right,” promised Bob. “I won’t. Come on, let’s tell everybody,”

They hurried back to the encampment and Bob’s bellow quickly caused the
others to assemble. Then the news was told. It aroused less enthusiasm
than Bob had looked for. None of the Arabs was keen, to go, believing
that with camels it would be next to impossible to run any ostrich to
ground. Besides, what would they stand to profit? Ostrich meat is tough,
stringy and practically inedible. The great bird’s sole good to man is
to provide feathers for women’s adornment. As for Frank, he planned to
put the finishing touches to the restored radio set and could not be
turned aside from his project. Mr. Hampton intended to stick by his
patient who was beginning to mutter in his delirium. Most of his
mutterings were in Athensian, which Mr. Hampton could recognize as such
but which was meaningless to him. But in the midst of Athensian words,
he believed he could distinguish an occasional French word, and this
puzzled and interested him.

“Well,” said Bob, disappointed, “if nobody else goes, Ali and I will go
it alone.”

Jack grinned. “Count me in, old thing,” he said. “I’m as keen as you for
a little excitement. Only thing is, I hate to ride those dratted camels.
But what must be, must be. Let’s go.”

Three camels were brought up, accordingly, and saddled, and then Ali,
Bob and Jack mounted and ambled away. Mr. Hampton accompanied them to
the edge of the desert, warning them to look out that they did not come
to close quarters with an infuriated ostrich, especially if by any
chance they were unarmed.

“These African ostriches stand seven or eight feet tall, boys,” he
warned, “and they have tricky tempers. If by any chance you become
dismounted and an ostrich charges, throw yourself flat on the sand and
stay there. Then the ostrich can’t kick you. He’ll probably sit on you,
but hold your position until one of your comrades can come up and shoot
him. Remember, the ostrich kicks forward or sidewise, and a blow from
his powerful leg can cave in a man’s head or break a horse’s leg.”

“All right, Dad, we’ll be careful,” promised Jack, “but it’s hardly
likely we’ll ever get to close quarters. I imagine when the ostriches
see us coming, they’ll give a flirt of their tails and sail away.”

During the time taken for saddling up and getting started, the ostrich
herd had moved eastward and now was out of sight, even through the
glasses. Ali led for the place where they had been seen, and as they
rode gave the boys a little homily on the great birds they hoped soon to
stalk.

Ostriches are found throughout Africa, except in the central and coastal
regions of great forests. Especially do they haunt the waste places and
deserts, where stunted bushes furnish sufficient food for their needs.
Their hardihood and fleetness makes life possible where other animals
could not exist. Even sand and pebbles apparently can be digested by
them, and it is a fact that the domesticated ostriches of farms and zoos
have been known to swallow glass, barbed wire, bright-colored bits of
metal, bed springs, and other similar objects.




Unfit for food, these great birds are valued because of their beautiful
feathers, which can be plucked at certain seasons of the year without
harm to them. For this reason, the Arabs of northern Africa and the
colonists of South Africa for long have domesticated ostriches. In South
Africa alone, latest estimates were that the number of domestic
ostriches was between 800,000 and 900,000. Ostrich-raising also has been
introduced into California and Arizona with varying success. One of the
chief worries of the ostrich raiser is proper incubation of the eggs,
which take at least forty days to hatch and more frequently a full seven
weeks.

In their wild state, the ostriches lay their nests of great eggs—ivory
white in color among the birds of the Sahara, mottled among those of
Basutoland and South Africa—on the top of a sand dune, whence they can
see in all directions and guard against surprise. The male takes his
turn with the female in sitting on the nest. Jackals, drawn by the
chance of obtaining some of these eggs, almost invariably haunt the
ostriches. When an unguarded nest is found, the jackal pushes a big egg
up the sand slope with his nose and then lets it roll down into the
nest. Coming into contact with another egg, usually both become cracked.
Then the jackal sucks the contents. There is so little on the desert to
feed the jackal that the dangers he runs from the attack of an
infuriated ostrich are braved in order to obtain such a succulent feast.
Observers have reported seeing a jackal pursued by an ostrich and
running in zigzag fashion for his burrow. If he fails to reach it in
time, one swipe of the ostrich’s leg tosses him yards away and
disembowels him.

When the desert people conduct an ostrich hunt, it is for the purpose of
capturing birds to be incorporated into their herds. They go out in
numbers on fleet horses, circle widely to fixed stations, and the chase
begins. The fleeing ostrich for a time can outrun the swiftest horse.
Therefore, the pursuer keeps going until his horse lags, whereupon he
gives way to another horseman. A desert creature, strangely enough the
ostrich is not inured to great heat, and sometimes when being pursued
under a hot sun will suddenly keel over, dead of apoplexy.

Some of the above Ali explained to the boys as they lurched forward on
camel-back. It was not their intention to kill an ostrich, but, if
possible, to capture one. For this purpose, Ali had provided lengths of
rope, weighted at each end, which if well cast would wrap around the
legs of an ostrich and bring it down. Bags to be clapped over the head
also had been provided. Ali smiled discreetly to himself, however,
realizing that on camel-back and without practise, it was next to
impossible that either Jack or Bob would succeed in bagging an ostrich.

The latter pair, however, while resolved to do their best, given the
opportunity, were under no illusion, either. They did not count on
capturing an ostrich. What they sought was a closer view of them, a
chase and the attendant excitement. That would repay them for the trip,
would provide a welcome break in the dullness of their days.

Before leaving, each had taken with him a small radio receiving set,
fastened in the crown of the solar topee or sun hat. It differed
materially from the set Frank had borne on camel back as they approached
the oasis, and over which they had received Professor Souchard’s last
message. This set was built on a small panel fastened on the inside of
the sun helmet. To use it, it would be necessary to halt and set up an
aerial and bury a ground. The ground, a small mass of zinc, was carried
slung to Bob’s saddle, and the aerial—seventy-five feet of thin wire,
hung coiled in the same place. A pair of jointed steel rods, of special
construction, both light and durable, was strapped to his rifle
scabbard. Before returning, it was planned to set up the aerial, and
test whether Frank had succeeded in repairing the Professor’s sending
station.

Presently, surmounting a sand dune slightly in advance of the others,
while Bob and Jack still struggled up its sliding slopes, Ali placing
the glasses to his eyes saw the ostriches due east and about a mile and
a half away. He dropped back at once, cautioning the boys to stay beside
him rather than surmount the dune.

“Ostriches have very good sight, and almost as good hearing,” he
explained. “I will stay here, and do you two work to right and left of
me under shelter of these sand dunes until you judge we have the herd
encircled. Then I’ll approach and start them. You keep your stations
until I turn over the chase to one or other of you. The ostriches will
run in a wide circle.”

“All right,” said Bob. “I’m off.” And he started away to the left.

With a wave of the hand, Jack set out to the right, little dreaming of
the momentous events to occur before he saw Bob again.