Chapter 34 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

Tyranny and Loyalty.

Before a start could be made the next morning, Moselekatse’s braves were seen assembling in large force on the opposite bank of the river. As we have said, the women, children, and cattle had been sent forward with all possible haste, while most of the men remained to check the advance of the enemy, and, if possible, cover the retreat for another day.

The Bushman Swartboy had been put in charge of several oxen laden with ivory,—a responsible trust, that partly reconciled him to the annoyance of leaving his white masters behind, and with no one to look after them but Congo, who, as he asserted, was always leading them into trouble.

On leaving home, the young hunters had taken the precaution to bring with them several guns, besides those used in the chase; and now the reserve pieces were brought out and made ready for use. By early daybreak the Matabili commenced crossing. Urged by the fear of the tyrant’s displeasure, in case their cowardice being reported to him, they advanced recklessly into the stream.

The first five or six were shot down. This did not check the ardour of the others, who rushed madly down the bank, and commenced wading through the water, which rose above their waists.

The only landing-place on the opposite side was by a small galley or ravine, not more than ten feet in breadth. To ascend through this gulley would be a work of some difficulty, even if unopposed. But with the passage disputed by the spears of the opposing Makololo, it would be one of desperate danger. For all that, the Matabili determined on the attempt, and were soon in the act of making it.

Plunging madly across the drift, they were soon gathered in a grand crowd at the entrance of the gulley, and striving to ascend it five or six at a time. The passage would admit of no more. At the first glance Macora saw the advantage of his position, and encouraged his men to hold it. Not one of a dozen of the Matabili, who strove to enter the ravine, succeeded in getting up its slippery sides. Without a firm footing their assegais and shields could not be used to any advantage; and their dead bodies were soon swept off by the current of the river.

Those who succeeded in getting a little way up the gulley were opposed by enemies on both sides of it, and easily speared to death. Meanwhile the white hunters were constantly loading and firing upon those who could not be reached by the spears of the Makololo; and in less than ten minutes the enemy again discovered that they had made a mistake. They saw the impracticability of getting across the river while opposed from the opposite bank. When this fact became fully comprehended, they retreated to the other shore, and the roar of battle was again hushed, or only continued by wild cries of vengeance.

In this second combat only four or five of the Makololo were wounded; their wounds being caused by assegais thrown by those who had no other opportunity of using their weapons.

Knowing that, should he abandon such a good position for defence, his enemies would immediately pursue, Macora determined to hold it, if possible, until such time as the unprotected portion of his tribe could get to some point distant from the scene of danger. For two hours the hostile parties on both sides of the river remained without further strife, except that which might be called a war of words. Threats and taunting speeches were freely exchanged, and mutual invitations to come across,—none of which was accepted.

It was at length determined by Macora and his people to leave the place, and proceed after the retreating tribe. It was not to be done, however, without a ruse; otherwise the Matabili would immediately cross and follow them. But this very thing had been thought of by Hendrik, who now laid his plan before the chief.

“Let all of your people steal off,” said he to Macora. “The trees will hinder the enemy from seeing them go. We that are mounted can easily escape at any time. Let us stay, then, and keep showing ourselves to the enemy as long as we can deceive them.”

The plan appeared feasible, excellent. Macora at once gave consent to its being put into execution.

“Stay,” said Groot Willem. “Don’t make any movement till I open practice upon them with my long roer. I think the gun will carry to where they are, over yonder. An occasional bullet whistling past their ears will let them know that some of us are still here, and keep them from suspecting that the others are gone.”

As Willem spoke, he crept out to a projecting point upon the bank, and, taking aim at a big Matabili who stood conspicuous on the other side, let fly at him. The man, with a loud yell, tumbled over in his tracks, while others, also exposed, hastened to conceal themselves behind the bushes. At this crisis the Makololo stole silently away, leaving their chief, with Sindo and one or two others who had horses, along with the four hunters, to guard the crossing of the stream.

During nearly an hour that they remained by the drift, no other attempt was made by the Matabili to approach near the bank. Nothing was seen of them; and Macora, beginning to suspect that they might have withdrawn from the place and got over by some other drift, suggested the giving up the guard, and hastening on after his tribe. There was good sense in the suggestion; for if the Matabili had found another crossing, the tribe might be in danger. It was determined, therefore, to withdraw, but in such a way that the enemy might still believe them to be there.

Several articles of dress were hung upon the bushes, only slightly showing towards the opposite side of the stream, and in such fashion as to look like a portion of their persons; and then, Groot Willem firing a last shot from his great gun, the guard withdrew one after another, riding stealthily off among the trees.

The sun was not more than an hour high, when they overtook their retreating comrades on foot, and a little later, all going together, came up with the women and children. As it was now near sundown, and water chanced to be close at hand, they decided to halt there for the night.

The Makololo chief was fortunate in overtaking his people at the time he did. Ten minutes later and they would have met with a greater misfortune than had yet befallen them; for, scarce had Macora commanded the halt, when a party of about a hundred Matabili were discovered hovering upon the flanks of the proposed camping-place, that, but for the arrival of Macora and his men, would have instantly made their attack. This party of the enemy must have crossed a drift higher up the river, as it was from that direction they appeared to have come.

Not thinking themselves strong enough to begin the assault, for their design had been to come up with the women and children while the warriors were by the river, the Matabili kept their distance. But this was soon increased by the action of the white hunters, who, mounted on their horses and making use of their guns, were more than a match for the hundred. These riding towards them, and firing a few shots, sent the Matabili scampering off to a safer distance. Having chased the hundred warriors out of sight, they returned to the camp, where they found Macora in a state of great anxiety. He could see nothing before him but the destruction of himself and his tribe. Groot Willem demanded an explanation of his increased apprehension, and reminded the chief that in their encounters with the enemy they had been so far successful. Macora stated in reply his belief that two of more detachments of Moselekatse’s army had been sent against him. They would yet unite and show no quarter to him, his tribe, or his friends. Their losses in the last two encounters had been too great for them to show the least mercy.

He furthermore informed his guests that none of Moselekatse’s warriors dare return to their chief unsuccessful. Both they and their leaders would be put to death; and this knowledge would stimulate them to a total recklessness of danger and a determination to succeed in their enterprise.

“There is but one plan I can think of,” continued the Makololo chief,—“but one way of saving my poor people, and that is, by sacrificing myself. By hurrying on to the west, they may yet succeed in evading the pursuit of these Matabili, and join their own kindred under the sway of the great chief Sebituane. He would be able to protect them. As for me,” added Macora with a sigh, “I cannot go along with them.”

The young hunters asked for an explanation, and it was given. Owing to some long past misunderstanding, Macora had incurred this ill-will of Sebituane, who never forgot nor forgave an offence, and, were he to return there, would surely order him to be killed.

Macora’s advice to the hunters was, that, provided as they were with horses, they should remove themselves out of the reach of danger, by taking their departure for their homes. This generous counsel Groot Willem at once refused to follow, and all the rest joined him in declining it, each saying something to give encouragement to the other. As for Macora’s own people, they now gave a rare proof of their loyalty. When counselled by their chief to save themselves, and leave him to his fate, one and all rebelled against the proposal; the warriors loudly declaring that sooner than forsake him they would die by his side.

For the first time in their lives our adventurers saw a chief who appeared to suffer affliction from being too much beloved by his people! He proposed saving their lives at the expense of his own, by requesting them to carry him a captive to Sebituane! But his followers were loyal to a man: to a man they rejected the proposal.