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Theodore Roosevelt
Chapter XI: The Lion Hunter
by Pearson, Edmund Lester


Other important events of President Roosevelt's administration will best be described farther on. For their importance increased after he was out of office, and they had a great influence upon a later campaign.

Here, it should be said that in 1904, as the term for which he was acting as Mr. McKinley's successor, drew toward an end, he was nominated by the Republican Party to succeed himself. There was some talk of opposition within his party, especially from the friends of "big business" who thought that he was not sufficiently reverent and submissive to the moneyed interests. This opposition took the form of a move to nominate Senator Hanna. But the Senator died, and the talk of opposition which was mostly moonshine, faded away.

When the campaign came in the autumn of 1904, his opponent was the Democratic nominee, Judge Parker, also from New York. Mr. Roosevelt was elected by a majority of more than two million and a half votes,--the largest majority ever given to a President in our history, either before or since that time.

On the night of election day he issued a statement in which he said: "Under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination." Of this he writes:

The reason for my choice of the exact phraseology used was twofold. In the first place, many of my supporters were insisting that, as I had served only three and a half years of my first term, coming in from the Vice-Presidency when President McKinley was killed, I had really had only one elective term, so that the third term custom did not apply to me; and I wished to repudiate this suggestion. I believed then (and I believe now) the third term custom or tradition to be wholesome, and therefore, I was determined to regard its substance, refusing to quibble over the words usually employed to express it. On the other hand I did not wish simply and specifically to say that I would not be a candidate for the nomination in 1908, because if I had specified the year when I would not be a candidate, it would have been widely accepted as meaning that I intended to be a candidate some other year; and I had no such intention, and had no idea that I would ever be a candidate again. Certain newspaper men did ask me if I intended to apply my prohibition to 1912, and I answered that I was not thinking of 1912, nor of 1920, nor of 1940, and that I must decline to say anything whatever except what appeared in my statement. [Footnote: "Autobiography," pp. 422-3.]

From March 4, 1905, until March 4, 1909, he was an elected President, not a President who had succeeded to the office through the death of another. When the end of his term approached he threw his influence in favor of the nomination of Mr. William H. Taft, Secretary of War in his Cabinet. He could have had the nomination himself if he had wished it; indeed he had to take precautions against being nominated. But Mr. Taft was nominated, and in November, 1908, was elected over Mr. Bryan, who was then running for the Presidency for the third time.

President Roosevelt and President-elect Taft drove up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol together, March 4, 1909, in a cold gale of wind, which had followed a sudden blizzard. The weather was an omen of the stormy change which was coming over the friendship of these two men. An hour or two later it was President Taft who drove back to the White House, while Mr. Roosevelt, once more a private citizen, was hurrying to his home in Oyster Bay, to get ready for his hunting trip to Africa.

This was the vacation to which he had been looking forward for years. He had long been a friend of a number of famous hunters, and had corresponded with and received visits from some of them. Chief among these was Mr. Frederick Selous, one of the greatest of African hunters. Those who have read any of Rider Haggard's fine stories of adventure (especially "King Solomon's Mines" and "Allan Quartermain") will be interested to know that Mr. Selous was the original of Quartermain. Adventures like these of Selous, the opportunity to see the marvelous African country, and the chance to shoot the dangerous big game, made Roosevelt long to visit Africa.

So he headed a scientific expedition sent out by the Smithsonian Institution to collect specimens for the National Museum at Washington. With him went his son Kermit, a student at Harvard; and three American naturalists. They left America only two or three weeks after his term as President had ended, and they came out of the African wilderness at Khartoum about a year later. With friends whom they met in Africa, English and American hunters, and a long train of native bearers and scouts, they visited the parts of Africa richest in game, and killed lions, leopards, hyenas, elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, and dozens of other kinds of animals. Mr. Roosevelt and Kermit shot about a dozen trophies for themselves; otherwise nothing was killed which was not intended as a museum specimen or for meat. No useless butchery of animals was allowed; often at great inconvenience and even danger, animals were avoided or driven off rather than let them be killed needlessly. Some of the finest groups of mounted animals in the country are now standing in the National Museum, as a result of this trip.

They saw many wonderful sights. They saw a band of Nandi warriors, fierce savages, naked, and armed only with shields and long spears, attack and kill a big lion. Kermit Roosevelt took photographs of most of the large game, coming up to close quarters in order to get his pictures. He took two or three photographs of a herd of wild elephants in the forest, going at great risk within twenty-five yards of the herd to be sure to get a good view.

One day's hunting, which Mr. Roosevelt describes, shows what the country was like, how full it was of all kinds of animals. Leaving camp at seven in the morning they were out altogether over fifteen hours. They were after a lion, so did not look for other game. They soon passed some zebra, and antelope, but left them alone. The country was a dry, brown grassland, with few trees, and in some places seems to have looked like our Western prairie. At noon they sighted three rhinoceros, which they tried to avoid, as they did not wish to shoot them. Of course, in such circumstances it is necessary to do nothing to disturb the temper of the animals-- stupid, short-sighted beasts--or else in their anger or alarm, they will blindly charge the hunter, who then is forced to shoot to save himself from being tossed and gored on that great horn. There was a hyena disturbing the other game, and as these are savage nuisances, Mr. Roosevelt shot this one at three hundred and fifty paces. While the porters were taking the skin, he could not help laughing, he says, at finding their party in the center of a great plain, stared at from all sides by enough wild animals to stock a circus. Vultures were flying overhead. The three rhinoceros were gazing at them, about half a mile away. Wildebeest (sometimes called gnu) which look something like the American buffalo or bison, and hartebeest, stood around in a ring, looking on. Four or five antelope came in closer to see what was happening, and a zebra trotted by, neighing and startling the rhinoceros.

After a rest for luncheon, they went on, looking for lions. Two wart-hogs jumped up, and Mr. Roosevelt shot the biggest of them. By this time it was getting late in the afternoon; time for lions to be about. At last they saw one; a big lioness. She ran along the bed of a stream, crouching so as not to be seen in the failing light. The two hunters rode past and would have missed her if one of the native followers had not sighted her a second time. Then Roosevelt and the other hunter left their horses, and came in close on foot. This is perhaps as dangerous as any hunting in Africa. A man must be cool and a good shot to go after lions; sooner or later almost every lion hunter either gets badly hurt or gets killed.

This time all went well; Roosevelt hit her with his first shot; ran in close and finished her. She weighed over three hundred pounds. The porters--much excited, as they always are at the death of a lion--wished to carry the whole body without skinning it, back to camp. While they were lashing it to a pole another lion began to growl hungrily. The night was dark, without a moon, and the work of getting back was hard for the porters, as well as rather terrifying to them. Lions were grunting all about; twice one of them kept alongside the men as they walked,--much to their discomfort. Then a rhinoceros, nearby, let off a series of snorts, like a locomotive. This did not cheer up the porters to any great degree. Roosevelt and the other white hunter had trouble to keep them together and to keep on the watch, with their rifles ready to drive off any animals which might attack.

At last they came to the camp of a tribe of savages called Masai. As they were still four miles from their own camp and as the porters were about exhausted from carrying the lion, they decided to go in there, skin the lion and rest for a while. There was some trouble about this, as the Masai feared that the scent of the dead lion would scare their cattle. They agreed at last, however, admitted the white men and the porters, and stood about, in the fire-light, leaning on their spears, and laughing, while the lion was being skinned. They gave Roosevelt milk to drink and seemed pleased to have a call from "Bwana Makuba," the Great Chief, as the porters called him.

So here was an Ex-President of the United States, not many months from his work as Chief Magistrate in the Capitol of a civilized nation, talking to a group of savages, who in their dwellings, weapons, clothing and customs had hardly changed in three thousand years; the twentieth century A. D. meeting the tenth century B.C.

At ten o'clock they got back to their own camp, and after a hot bath, sat down to a supper of eland venison and broiled spur fowl,--"and surely no supper ever tasted more delicious."

Another day, when hunting with the same companion he had the experience of being charged by a wounded lion. It was a big, male lion, with a black and yellow mane. They chased him on horseback for about two miles. Then he stopped and hid behind a bush. A shot wounded him slightly and, Mr. Tarlton, Roosevelt's companion, an experienced lion-hunter, told him that the lion was sure to charge.

Again I knelt and fired; but the mass of hair on the lion made me think he was nearer than he was, and I undershot, inflicting a flesh wound that was neither crippling nor fatal. He was already grunting savagely and tossing his tail erect, with his head held low; and at the shot the great sinewy beast came toward us with the speed of a greyhound. Tarlton then very properly fired, for lion hunting is no child's play, and it is not good to run risks. Ordinarily it is a very mean thing to experience joy at a friend's miss, but this was not an ordinary case, and I felt keen delight when the bullet from the badly sighted rifle missed, striking the ground many yards short. I was sighting carefully from my knee, and I knew I had the lion all right; for though he galloped at a great pace he came on steadily--ears laid back, and uttering terrific coughing grunts--and there was now no question of making allowance for distance, nor, as he was out in the open, for the fact that he had not before been distinctly visible. The bead of my foresight was exactly on the center of his chest as I pressed the trigger, and the bullet went as true as if the place had been plotted with dividers. The blow brought him up all standing, and he fell forward on his head.

The soft-nosed Winchester bullet had gone straight through the chest cavity, smashing the lungs and the big blood-vessels of the heart. Painfully he recovered his feet, and tried to come on, his ferocious courage holding out to the last; but he staggered and turned from side to side, unable to stand firmly, still less to advance at a faster pace than a walk. He had not ten seconds to live; but it is a sound principle to take no chances with lions. Tarlton hit him with his second bullet probably in the shoulder; and with my next shot I broke his neck. I had stopped him when he was still a hundred yards away, and certainly no finer sight could be imagined than that of this great maned lion as he charged. [Footnote: "African Game Trails," pp. 192-3.]

To the man who can shoot straight, and shoot just as straight at a savage animal as at a target, African game-hunting is for part of the time not very dangerous. Nine or ten lions or elephants or rhinoceros may be killed, without seeming risk. The tenth time something unexpected happens, and death comes very near to the hunter.

In shooting an elephant in the forest one day, Roosevelt had what was perhaps his closest call since the bear nearly killed him, years before in Idaho. He had just shot an elephant, when there came a surprise:

But at that very instant, before there was a moment's time in which to reload, the thick bushes parted immediately on my left front, and through them surged the vast bulk of a charging bull elephant, the matted mass of tough creepers snapping like packthread before his rush. He was so close that he could have touched me with his trunk. I leaped to one side and dodged behind a tree trunk, opening the rifle, throwing out the empty shells, and slipping in two cartridges. Meantime Cunninghame fired right and left, at the same time throwing himself into the bushes on the other side. Both his bullets went home, and the bull stopped short in his charge, wheeled, and immediately disappeared in the thick cover. We ran forward, but the forest had closed over his wake. We heard him trumpet shrilly, and then all sounds ceased. [Footnote: "African Game Trails," p. 251.]

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