Chapter 35 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

Welcome Tidings.

The white hunters were greatly vexed at thought of the trouble they had brought upon the chief and his tribe, and tried to devise some plan by which all might be extricated from their difficulties.

They proposed that Macora and his people should seek refuge from their enemies by retreating to the country of the Bakwains,—a western branch of their own great nation, the Bechuanas, which was not far-away.

In reply to this proposal, Macora said that none of those people would give them protection. They dreaded to incur the displeasure of Moselekatse, and, to keep friends with him, would even assist his warriors in their destruction.

The hunters then proposed that Macora should take leave of his tribe and accompany them to the south, while his followers might go on to the country of Sebituane.

This plan the chief emphatically declined to adopt. Death would be preferable to that. He would not desert those who had so nobly stood by him.

Moreover, it was still doubtful whether they could succeed in reaching Sebituane. They might look for the Matabili by the break of day; and, encumbered as they were with women, children, and cattle, their flight was too slow for safety.

This opinion Macora expressed to some of his followers, and, at the same time, told them that there was one ox belonging to the tribe that the Matabili should not have. He described the ox as the fattest one in their possession.

His men took the hint; and in less than two hours an ox was killed, cooked, and eaten.

Early in the evening, a fire was seen and shouts were heard not more than half a mile from them. They believed that a body of their enemies was encamped near, and only waiting for a concentration of their forces before commencing another attack.

They were agreeably disappointed about this; for, when morning dawned, their eyes were gratified by the sight of two large covered wagons outspanned upon the plain, with several oxen and horses grazing near them. They were at no great distance off, and must have come there in the night. It could be nothing else than an encampment of white hunters or traders.

Our adventurers, one and all, rode hastily for the camp, and in a few minutes were exchanging salutations with the owners of the wagons. As they had conjectured, it was a party of traders. They were from Port Natal. They had been on an excursion to the north, and were now returning to the Port. They were attended by some Kaffirs who had accompanied them from Natal, and also a number of natives they had picked up in the north.

While our adventurers were trying to obtain from them a supply of ammunition and such other things as they stood in need of, their attention was called to Macora, by seeing that individual behaving somewhat after the manner of a mad man. Although his people were more than half a mile away, he was shouting to them and gesticulating in the most violent manner, as if imparting some communication or command.

The hunters looked in every direction, and with feelings of apprehension. They expected to see the Matabili again coming to the attack. But no foe was in sight.

It was not until the chief had succeeded in attracting the attention of his followers, and had worked them into a high state of excitement, with what he was saying to them, that our hunters understood the meaning of his words and gestures. It turned out that some of the native attendants who accompanied the white traders were from the country of Sebituane, and, therefore, the kindred of Macora’s people. Only a few days before they had left their native place. From these, the chief had learnt that Sebituane was no longer a living man. He had died some weeks before, leaving his daughter Ma-Mochisane in full authority at the head of the Makololo nation.

Macora was no longer afraid of returning to his nation. His only fear, now, was that the Matabili might come up in such strength as to destroy all chance of his ever revisiting his native land.

There was now an opportunity for his followers to have a secure and permanent home; and, at thought of this, old and young exerted themselves to hasten their departure from the perilous spot.

The party of traders consisted of three white men with nine African attendants, all of them well-armed. Their assistance—especially those who had fire-arms—might have been very valuable to the hunters in the difficulty in which they now found themselves.

Groot Willem, wholly unconscious that there were people who would not do as they would be done by, lost no time in telling them of the danger that threatened himself and his friends, and that they were every moment expecting an attack from a large party of hostile Matabili. He expressed his pleasure at the good fortune that had brought them a distance at such an opportune moment. He fancied that his communication would be sufficient to secure the co-operation of the traders, and that they would at once take the retreating party under their protection.

To his great surprise and indignation, as also that of his friends, the effect of his story upon the traders was the very opposite to that he had anticipated. They had not time for another word of conversation, but immediately commenced inspanning their oxen.

In ten minutes after, they were trekking to the south-east, en route for Port Natal. They were not the men to endanger their lives and property by remaining longer than they could possibly avoid in the society of those who had the misfortune to be surrounded by enemies.

Had there been in the minds of our adventurers the slightest desire to abandon the chief Macora in his hour of need, the conduct of the white traders would have killed it. The mean behaviour of the latter had one good effect. It inspired all hands with a determination to do their best in making their retreat before the Matabili; and the march was immediately resumed.

Men, women, and children were all equally active and earnest in getting beyond the reach of the pursuing foe. They knew that a long journey was before them, and a powerful and merciless enemy in their rear. Even the dogs seemed to understand the danger that menaced their masters, and exerted themselves in urging along the droves.

By travelling until a late hour, a good distance was made that same day; and as nothing was seen or heard of the pursuing savages, our adventurers began to think that the pursuit had been abandoned.

Although riding on horses, they were far more fatigued than the Makololo, who went on foot, and who, used to such an exodus, thought nothing of its toils. The hunters would gladly have given up their flight, thinking there was no longer a need for it. “It is only the wicked and foolish who flee when no man pursueth,” was their thought.

But in this, the chief did not agree with them. Instead of neglecting to take precautions, he was very particular about all the appointments of their night camp, stationing guards around it, and outlying pickets, to prevent any sudden surprise. Never, since the retreat commenced, had he appeared more apprehensive of an attack.

Our hunters became anxious to ascertain for what reason all these precautions were being taken; and with Congo’s assistance, they made inquiry.

The explanation Macora condescended to give was, that Moselekatse’s warriors never slept till they had accomplished their purpose. They would certainly not relinquish the pursuit without a greater defeat than they had yet sustained. They were, he said, only waiting until their different parties could be got together, and they should be in force sufficient to insure the destruction of him and his tribe. In two days more he would be able to reach the Makololo territory, where they would all be safe; and for that reason he was determined not to neglect any means that might secure the safety of his followers or that of the guests under his protection. His own life was little to him compared with the duty he had to perform for others.

Next morning, they were on the move before daybreak, and hastening forward with all possible speed. Hendrik, Arend, and Hans accompanied Macora with some reluctance, partly because they believed that flight was no longer necessary.

“Never mind,” urged Groot Willem, to encourage them. “It will only last two days longer, and we are going to a part of the country we have not yet visited.”

Before noon, there was some reason for believing that Macora had reasoned aright. A party of the Matabili suddenly appeared in advance of the route they were pursuing.

It was not large enough to attempt opposing the progress of the Makololo, and, on seeing the latter, fled.

In the afternoon, some scouts that had been left in the rear hastened with the news that a large body of the enemy was coming up in pursuit.

The forces of Moselekatse had become concentrated; and the hunters now agreed with Macora that flight could no longer avail them, and that in less than twenty-four hours a contest would be inevitable.

It would never do to be attacked when on the march. They must halt in some place favourable for defence. There was no such place within sight, but Macora believed he might find a more defensible position on the bank of the river; and towards that he hastily proceeded.