Chapter 36 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid


It wanted but an hour to sundown when the Makololo reached the river. The enemy could not be far-away, and preparations were immediately commenced for receiving them.

Hendrik and Arend, laying claim to more wisdom in military affairs than the others, rode a little in advance for the purpose of choosing the battle-field.

Good fortune had conducted them to a spot favourable to the carrying out of their scheme.

A little above the place where they first struck the stream, the current had made a sort of horseshoe bend, leaving a peninsula, which, during the rainy season when the river was swollen, formed a large island. The narrow and shallow channel was here uncovered with water to the width of about fifty yards, and over this the cattle were driven. Quickly did the Makololo secure themselves and their property in a position where they could not be surrounded.

There was but one way in which the enemy could easily reach them,—by the isthmus, which was not more than fifty yards in width. Growing by the side of the river and on the edge of the isthmus, was a gigantic nwana-tree, which nature had been for hundreds of years producing,—as Hendrik declared, for the special purpose of saving them.

The nwana is one of the most remarkable trees of the African forest. Some of them obtain the extraordinary size of ninety feet in circumference, and are lofty in proportion. Its wood is as soft as a green cabbage-stalk, and has been pronounced “utterly unserviceable.” The hunters did not find it so.

Amongst other implements brought from Graaf Reinet were two good axes, which their former experiences of a hunter’s life had taught our young adventurers were indispensable on an expedition.

The nwana-tree was to be felled across the bar, so as to block up the approach to the peninsula. It would form a barricade behind which an enemy could be efficiently opposed. Swartboy produced the axes, and the hunters set to work to cut down the tree,—two working at a time, and in turns relieving each other. At every blow the axes were buried in the soft spongy wood. A grand gingerbread cake could not have yielded more readily to their efforts.

Fortunate that it was so, as they believed that their safety depended on felling this forest monarch before the arrival of the Matabili. The latter could not be far-off, and every exertion was made to get the fortress ready for receiving the attack. There was a doubt as to the direction the tree would take in falling. Should it topple over into the water, their labour would be lost, and the way would be open for the Matabili to reach them by a rush. Should it fall across the isthmus, it would form an insurmountable barrier to their enemies. In silence and with intense interest did the Makololo stand watching for the result. At length the tree began to move; slowly at first, but as they gazed upon its trembling top, they could see that it was going to come down in the right direction. Gaining velocity as it got lower, a swishing sound was made by its branches as they passed through the air; and then the gigantic mass struck the ground with a crash, till its huge trunk lay stretched across the isthmus, filling it from side to side, with the exception of a few feet at each end. They had now a barricade that could not be easily broken, if but manfully defended. They were ready to receive the attack of the foe.

They would not have long to wait. As night came down, large fires were observed in the distance. The Matabili had evidently arrived, and were probably waiting for day, to obtain a knowledge of their position before they should commence the attack. Before taking their stand by the river, Macora had called for four volunteers to proceed by stealth from the spot, and if possible reach some neutral tribe that might come to his rescue. He was now in a position from which he could not move without the certainty of being defeated and of course destroyed. He might be able to maintain it for several days; and knowing that his enemies would not raise the siege until compelled to do so, his only hope was that of obtaining aid from some neighbouring chief, jealous of the encroachments of the Matabili.

Anxious to become fully reinstated in the good opinion of his chief, Sindo was the first who had offered to go upon this perilous scout. Three others having also volunteered, they had been despatched in couples,—one pair leaving an hour after the departure of the first. This division of the embassy was to insure a greater chance of its being successful. If one couple should have the ill luck to get captured, the other might escape.

By the earliest hour of day the enemy began to show himself, not far from the fortified camp. From the top of the fallen nwana our hunters could see a large crowd of dusky warriors, that appeared to number at least six hundred. To oppose these, Macora had not more than two hundred and fifty men who were capable of taking part in the fight.

At either end of the great trunk, as already stated there was an open space that would require to be carefully watched. At both points Macora had placed some of his bravest warriors, while the others were distributed along the barricade, with instructions to spear any of the enemy that should attempt to scale it.

The Matabili had already examined the position and appeared confident of success. They had at last brought their game to bay, and were only resting from the fatigue of the long chase before taking steps to “carry the fortress.”

It was bright daylight as they advanced to the assault. Dividing themselves into two parties, they made a rush at the open spaces by the ends of the barricade. A fierce conflict came on which lasted for some ten minutes, and at length resulted in the assailants being forced to retreat, after leaving several of their warriors dead in the gaps.

But this temporary victory was not obtained without loss. Eight of the Makololo had also fallen dead, while several others were severely wounded.

Macora’s features began to assume an anxious and troubled expression. Knowing that an enemy of superior force to his own was before him, that all means of retreat was now cut off, and that an attempt to enter the enclosure had nearly proved successful, he could not avoid feeling a gloomy foreboding for the fate of his people.

He knew too well the disposition of the Matabili to suppose that they would easily relinquish their design.

Fear of Moselekatse’s displeasure on account of the losses they had already sustained, as well as the prospect of plunder, would inspire them with the determination to fight on as long as there was the slightest hope of obtaining a victory.

No assistance could be expected from other tribes of the Makololo in less than three days. Could his position be maintained for that time?

As the chief looked at the dead and wounded lying around him, this question could not be answered in a satisfactory manner. His foes were too numerous, and repeated attempts would in the end enable them to succeed.

This was the belief of the Makololo chief; and, notwithstanding his confidence in the wisdom and strategic prowess of the white hunters, he was now in a state of great anxiety.

Two hours after the attack the only Matabili in sight were those they had killed, but for all that it was well known that the survivors were not far off.

Night descended over the scene. The camp-fires of the enemy could be distinguished through the darkness; but that signified nothing.

Morning found our adventurers still undisturbed. To all appearance Moselekatse’s warriors, yielding to despair, had returned to their chief, to suffer the punishment that would certainly follow from their permitting themselves to be defeated.

This was the belief of the white hunters, who now earnestly urged Macora to make no further delay, but hasten on towards his countrymen.

This advice the chief positively refused to follow. He admitted the superiority of his allies in the arts of hunting and even war, but in a knowledge of the character of Moselekatse and his warriors he knew himself to be their superior. He was now in a position where he and his people might successfully sustain themselves, and he disliked leaving it, lest they should fall into some ambuscade of the enemy. Had he not had reasons for expecting assistance, the case might have been different, but confident that aid would be immediately sent to him, he thought it better to remain where they were.

Believing that there was a possibility of the chief being in the right, Groot Willem and his companions of course consented to remain; not, however, without stipulations.

If within thirty-six hours there was no appearance of either friends or enemies, Macora promised that he would continue the march towards his country.