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Chapter 33 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

The Retreat

Macora and his party were in hopes that the pursuit might not be continued far,—that the enemy, satisfied in having broken up their camp and driven them off the ground, would return to their own country.

In this hope they were doomed to disappointment. It turned out that those in pursuit of them formed an expedition sent out by Moselekatse for the purpose of extending his dominion and there was not the least likelihood that the tyrant would relinquish his object until he had obtained success. This soon became the conviction of Macora; and he lost no time in hastening back to his home, and preparing for the invasion.

As the Makololo are of a race superior to most other South African tribes, the young hunters were surprised to see the feeling of alarm exhibited by them on learning that on of Moselekatse’s armies was advancing to attack them. In place of preparing to resist the approaching foe, a majority of the Makololo seemed only to contemplate flight.

A little information from Macora concerning Moselekatse was a satisfactory explanation of this mystery. He informed his white guests that the Matabili—that is, the people of Moselekatse—were the greatest warriors in Southern Africa,—that Moselekatse, their king, could command five thousand men, and that frequently his orders to the officers who led them to battle were to give no quarter to the enemy. Macora admitted that his own people were not cowards, but that he could not maintain a war against such a king as Moselekatse. He was quite certain that, should they make a stand and give battle to the foe, at least one half of his tribe would be killed. They would moreover be stripped of all their property, and what was left of the tribe would have to become slaves of the tyrant, and look after his cattle. There was but one way of holding their own with Moselekatse; and that was to remove everything of any value beyond his reach. By this means had Macora and his people maintained their independence for several years, and the same method must be resorted to again.

This was the decision arrived at; and, on reaching his own kraal, Macora at once put the design into execution.

The cattle were hastily collected and driven off, while the men, women, and children started after them, each carrying a load of household utensils, elephants’ teeth, and such other property as could be conveniently removed in such a hasty decampment. The women, children, and cattle were sent on in advance, while Macora and his warriors followed behind as a rear-guard, to protect them against any surprise.

Some time would be required in crossing the Limpopo, and, as the distance to the nearest drift was about five miles, there could be danger of an attack before all could effect the crossing of the stream. This fear was fully realised. The ford was not a safe one; and there was great difficulty in getting some of the cattle to take it: many of them had to be assisted in landing on the opposite bank. All this required time; and, before the crossing was completed an alarm was given. The Matabili were coming up in the rear.

So accustomed were Moselekatse’s warriors to success in any engagement, that they made no halt before commencing hostilities, although not more than two hundred of them had got forward upon the ground.

Armed with assegais, and defended with shields, they rushed forward with hideous yells, exhibiting an insatiate thirst for blood that can only be acquired by long familiarity with deeds of violence.

But although the Makololo had fled from their home without striking a blow in its defence, they now proved themselves warriors in the true sense of the word.

Rushing to the encounter, they met the Matabili hand to hand, and in the conflict that followed both parties fought with the fury of demons. One might have supposed that Macora’s principal object was the protecting of his white friends. From the behaviour of his men it was evident that he had commanded them to keep between the young hunters and the enemy. But the opportunity for practising a little of their own profession was not lost upon the two young soldiers Hendrik and Arend. They were foremost to fire on the Matabili; though their example was quickly followed by Willem and Hans, who took their first sight at the body of a human being along the barrel of a gun.

As the four pieces were discharged, a like number of Moselekatse’s men went to the earth; and two more were shot down the next instant by Macora, Sindo, and another Makololo, all three of whom chanced to be armed with muskets.

Under cover of their horses the hunters loaded again, and four more of their enemies were prevented from taking any further part in the conflict.

Could the assailants have closed with those who were shooting them down, the hunters would soon have fallen before their assegais, but this they were prevented from doing by the Makololo. Protected by their shields, and each side having great skill in using them, a single pair of the native combatants would contend for a long time before either would be seen to fall.

This, however, was not the case when any of the four hunters selected an antagonist for his aim. Every report of their guns was followed by the fall of a dusky assailant; and the Matabili warriors soon discovered the thinning of their ranks. They learnt too, that fire-arms, which they had long held in contempt, might, if properly handled, become very destructive weapons.

They now saw that they had made a mistake in commencing the action so confidently, and before the arrival of their full force, and were at length compelled to retreat, leaving more than thirty of the dead upon the ground.

In the affray, Macora lost but six men, and was so gratified with the result that he was half inclined to pursue his enemies, in the hope of rendering the victory more substantial and complete. Knowing, however, that any advantage he might obtain would be but temporary, that several thousand men would soon be against him, and that in the end he would be compelled to retreat, he abandoned the idea of pursuing the discomfited enemy, and continued the crossing of the stream.

By sunset the whole tribe, with all their property, was safe on the opposite shore, where the warriors were placed in a strong position to repel any attempt on the part of the Matabili to effect a crossing. This being done, the retreat was continued. Macora had now no country. He had lost his home, by assisting his white friends. He was now a fugitive, with a vengeful foe in his rear, and without friends in front. His tribe was too small to command respect amongst those he might encounter upon his march. They would soon hear that he was pursued by the great chief Moselekatse, and there was a prospect of his people being hunted from place to place, and allowed no rest until robbed of all their cattle,—their only wealth,—and perhaps also of their lives.

While Willem and his companions were regretting the misfortunes they had been the means of bringing upon their protector, the chief’s greatest trouble appeared to be his disappointment in having failed to assist them.

The last things taken over the river were the bodies of the Makololo killed in the battle; and these were buried during the night.

On the contrary, the bodies of the Matabili were left where they had fallen, to be stripped of their flesh by the beasts of prey.

To give the hunters some idea of the character and customs of his enemies, Macora informed them that none of the Matabili ever buried their dead, not even their own kindred; but that sons will drag the bodies of their parents out from their village into the open plain, and there leave them to the tender mercies of the hyenas and vultures.

During the night, the roars, growls, and other evidences of brutish strife, heard across the river, convinced the Makololo guard left there, that by morning only the bones of their slain enemies would be found upon the field of battle. This was music to the ears of the Makololo, while the thought of their having defeated the renowned warriors of Moselekatse almost compensated them for the loss of their homes.

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