Read CHAPTER FOUR - TOM SEES WONDERFUL SIGHTS, AND AT LAST HAS HIS DREAMS FULFILLED of Hunting the Lions , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

Thus the travellers advanced day by day ­sometimes in sunshine, sometimes in rain, now successful in hunting and now unsuccessful ­until they reached the Zulu country and the banks of the river Umveloose.

Here they called a halt for a time, and began to hunt vigorously in all directions, aiming at every species of game.  Our hero’s first introduction to the river scenery was interesting, to himself at least, and singular.  Having placed himself at the disposal of his friends to be appointed to whatever duty they pleased, he was sent off in the small boat belonging to the party with plenty of ammunition and provisions; Lieutenant Wilkins being his companion, and the tall Caffre, Mafuta, his guide and instructor in African warfare against the brute creation.

Between Tom Brown and this man Mafuta there had sprung up a species of friendship, which grew stronger the more they became acquainted with each other.  Mafuta was an unusually honest, affectionate and straightforward Caffre, who had been much in the settlements, and could speak a little English.  He first drew forth our hero’s regard by nursing him with almost womanly tenderness during a three-days’ severe illness at the beginning of the journey.  Thereafter Tom gained his affection by repeated little acts of kindness, done in a quiet, offhand, careless way, as though he had pleasure in being kind, and did not care much whether the kindness were appreciated or not.  He also excited his admiration by the imperturbable coolness and smiling good-humour with which he received every event in life; from the offer of an elephant steak to the charge of a black rhinoceros.  Mafuta was also fond of Wilkins; but he worshipped Tom Brown.

On reaching the river the boat was launched on a part where there was nothing particularly striking to merit notice, so Tom said:  “D’you know, Bob, I’ve taken a fancy to ramble alone for an hour along the banks of this river; will you, like a good fellow, get into the boat with Mafuta, and let me go along the banks on foot for a few miles.  As your work will only be dropping down stream, you won’t find it hard.”

“By all means, Tom; a pleasant journey to you but see that you don’t fall into the jaws of a lion or a crocodile!”

Our hero smiled as he waved his hand to his companions, and, turning away, was soon lost to sight among the bushes.

Now the fact was that Tom Brown, so far from being the unromantic creature that his name is erroneously supposed to imply, had such a superabundance of romance in his composition that he had, for some time past, longed to get away from his companions, and the noise and bustle of the wagon train, and go off alone into the solitudes of the great African wilderness, there to revel in the full enjoyment of the fact that he was in reality far far away from the haunts of civilised men; alone with primeval Nature!

The day happened to be delightful.  Not too hot for walking, yet warm enough to incline one of Tom’s temperament to throw open his vest and bare his broad bosom to any breeze that might chance to gambol through the forest.  With characteristic nonchalance he pushed his wideawake off his forehead for the sake of coolness, and in so doing tilted it very much on one side, which gave him a somewhat rakish air.  He carried his heavy double-barrelled gun on one of his broad shoulders with the butt behind him, and his right hand grasping the muzzle, while in his left he held a handkerchief, with which he occasionally wiped his heated brow.  It was evident that Tom experienced the effects of the heat much, but he did not suffer from it.  He perspired profusely, breathed heavily, and swaggered unwittingly, while a beaming smile played on his ruddy countenance, which told of peace with himself and with all mankind.

Not so, however, with brute kind, as became apparent after he had advanced about half a mile in a dreamy state down the banks of the quiet river, for, happening to observe something of a tawny yellow colour among the bushes, he brought his gun to the “present” with great precipitancy, cocked both barrels, and advanced with the utmost caution.

Up to this period he had not been successful in accomplishing his great wish ­the shooting of a lion.  Many a time had he heard the strong voices of the brutes, and once or twice had seen their forms dimly in the night sneaking round the bullocks wagons, but he had not yet managed to get a fair full view of the forest king, or a good shot at him.  His heart now beat high with hope, for he believed that he was about to realise his ancient dream.  Slowly, step by step, he advanced, avoiding the dense bushes, stepping lightly over the small ones, insinuating himself through holes and round stems, and conducting himself in a way that would have done credit to a North American Indian, until he gained a tree, close on the other side of which he knew the tawny object lay.  With beating heart, but steady hand and frowning eye, he advanced another step and found ­that the object was a yellow stone!

There was a sudden motion about Tom’s jaws, as if he had gnashed his teeth, and a short gasp issued from his mouth, but that was all.  The compressed steam was off; a smile wrinkled his visage immediately after, and quietly uncocking his gun he threw it over his shoulder and resumed his march.

On rounding a point a few minutes after, he was again arrested by a scene which, while it charmed, amazed him.  Often had he observed the multitudes of living creatures with which the Creator has peopled that great continent, but never before had he beheld such a concentrated picture as was presented at that moment.  Before him lay a wide stretch of the river, so wide, and apparently currentless, that it seemed like a calm lake, and so perfectly still that every object on and around it was faithfully mirrored on its depths ­even the fleecy clouds that floated in the calm sky were repeated far down in the azure vault below.

Every part of this beautiful scene teemed with living creatures of every sort and size, from the huge alligators that lay like stranded logs upon the mud-banks, basking in the sun, to the tiny plover that waded in cheerful activity among the sedges.  There were tall reeds in many places, and among these were thousands of cranes, herons, flamingoes, and other members of that long-necked and long-legged family; some engaged in solemnly searching for food, while others, already gorged, stood gravely on one leg, as if that position assisted digestion, and watched with quiet satisfaction the proceedings of their companions.  The glassy surface of the mirror was covered in places with a countless host of geese, widgeons, teals and other water-fowl either gambolling about in sport, or sleeping away a recent surfeit, and thousands of other small birds and beasts swarmed about everywhere, giving a sort of faint indication of the inconceivable numbers of the smaller creatures which were there, though not visible to the observer.  But Tom’s interest was chiefly centred on the huge animals ­the crocodiles and hippopotami ­which sprawled or floated about.

Not far from the bush from behind which he gazed, two large crocodiles lay basking on a mudbank ­rugged and rough in the hide as two ancient trees ­the one using the back of the other as a pillow.  A little beyond these three hippopotami floated in the water, only the upper parts of their heads and rotund bodies being visible.  These lay so motionless that they might have been mistaken for floating puncheons, and the observer would have thought them asleep, had he not noticed an occasional turn of the whites of their small eyes, and a slight puff of steam and water from their tightly compressed nostrils.

Truly it was a grand sight; one calculated to awaken in the most unthinking minds some thoughts about the infinite power of Him who made them all.  Tom’s mind did rise upwards for a little.  Although not at that time very seriously inclined, he was, nevertheless, a man whose mind had been trained to think with reverence of his Creator.  He was engaged in solemn contemplation of the scene before him, when a deep gurgling plunge almost under the bush at his feet aroused him.  It was a hippopotamus which had been standing on the river-brink within six yards of the muzzle of his gun.  Tom cocked and presented, but thinking that the position of the animal did not afford him a good chance of killing it, he waited, feeling sure, at all events, of securing one of the various huge creatures that were lying so near him.

It says much for Tom’s powers of wood-craft that he managed to advance as near as he did to these animals without disturbing them.  Few hunters could have done it; but it must be remembered that our hero, like all other heroes, was a man of unusual and astonishing parts!

While he hesitated for a few moments, undecided whether to fire at the crocodiles or the hippopotami, one of the latter suddenly uttered a prolonged snort or snore, and opened a mouth of such awful dimensions that Tom’s head and shoulders would have easily found room in it.  As he gazed into the dark red throat he felt that the wild fictions of untravelled men fell far short of the facts of actual life, in regard to grandeur and horribility, and it struck him that if the front half of a hippopotamus were sewed to the rear half of a crocodile there would be produced a monster incomparably more grand and horrible than the fiercest dragon St. George ever slew!  While these ideas were passing quickly through his excited brain, the boat, which he had totally forgotten, came quietly round the bend of the river above him.  But the sharp-eared and quick-eyed denizens of the wilderness were on the alert; it had scarcely shown its prow round the point of land, and the hippopotamus had not quite completed its lazy yawn, when the entire winged host rose with a rushing noise so thunderous, yet so soft and peculiar, that words cannot convey the idea of the sight and sound.  At the same time, many grunts and snorts and heavy plunges told that sundry amphibious creatures had been disturbed, and were seeking safety in the clear stream.

Tom hesitated no longer.  He aimed at the yawning hippopotamus and fired, hitting it on the skull, but at such an angle that the ball glanced off.  If there was noise before, the riot and confusion now was indescribable!  Water-fowl that had not moved at the first alarm now sprang in myriads from reeds and sedges, and darkened the very air.  The two alligators just under Tom’s nose spun their tails in the air with a whirl of awful energy that seemed quite incompatible with their sluggish nature, and rushed into the river.  The hippopotami dived with a splash that covered the water around them with foam, and sent a wave of considerable size to the shore.  The sudden burst of excitement, noise, splutter, and confusion was not less impressive than the previous calm had been, but Tom had not leisure to contemplate it, being himself involved in the whirl.  Four shots from the boat told him that his companions were also engaged.  One of the crocodiles re-appeared suddenly as if to have another look at Tom, who discharged his second barrel at it, sent a ball into its brain, and turned it over dead.  He reloaded in great haste, and was in the act of capping when he heard a loud shout in the direction of the boat, and looking up, observed that Wilkins was standing in the bow gesticulating violently.  He listened for a moment, but could not make out what he said.

“Hallo!” he cried, “shout louder; I don’t hear you.”

Again Wilkins shouted at the top of his voice, and waved his arms more frantically than before.  Tom could not make out the words.  He judged, however, that no man would put himself to such violent physical exertion without good reason, so he turned and looked cautiously around him.  Presently he heard a crashing sound in the bushes, and a few moments afterwards observed three buffaloes tearing along the path in which he stood.  It was these that Wilkins had seen from the boat when he attempted in vain to warn his friend.  Tom jumped behind a bush, and as they passed tried to fire, but the foliage was so dense that he failed to get a good aim.  Reserving his fire, therefore, he dashed after them at full speed.  After running some distance the buffaloes stood still, and the nearest bull turned round and looked at Tom, who instantly sent a two ounce ball crashing into his shoulder.  This turned them, and they all three made off at once, but the wounded one fell behind.  Tom therefore stopped to reload, feeling pretty sure of him.  Starting off in pursuit, he gained on the wounded animal at every stride, and was about to fire again, when his limbs were for a moment paralysed, and his heart was made almost to stand still at the sight of three full-grown lions which sprang at the unfortunate brute from a neighbouring thicket.  They had no doubt gone there to rest for the day, but the sight of a lame and bleeding buffalo was a temptation too strong for them.  The lions did not leap upon him, but, seizing him with their teeth and claws, stood on their hind legs and tried to tear him down with terrible ferocity.

Our hero, who, as we have said, was for a few moments bereft of the power of action, could do nothing but stand and gaze in amazement.  All the dreams of his youth and manhood were as nothing to this!  The poor buffalo fought nobly, but it had no chance against such odds, and would certainly have been torn to pieces and devoured had not Tom recovered his self-possession in a few minutes.  Creeping up to within thirty yards he fired at one of the lions with such good aim that it fell dead almost on the spot, having time only to turn and seize a bush savagely with its teeth ere it died.  The second barrel was discharged, but not with the same effect.  Another of the lions was wounded, and sprang into the bushes with an angry roar.  The third merely lifted his head, looked at Tom for a moment as if with indignant surprise, and then went on tearing at the carcass as hard as ever.

With a feeling of thankfulness that this particular king of the forest had treated him so contemptuously, Tom slunk behind a tree and recharged his gun, after which he advanced cautiously and sent a ball crashing through the lion’s shoulder.  It ought to have killed him, he thought, but it did not, for he made off as fast as possible, just as Wilkins and Mafuta arrived, panting, on the scene of action.

“What a magnificent fellow!” exclaimed Wilkins going up to the dead lion.  “Bravissimo, Tom, you’ve done it at last.”

“Done it!” cried Tom, as he loaded hastily, “why, I’ve all but done three.  Follow up the trail, man, as fast as you can.  I’ll overtake you in no time!”

Wilkins did not wait for more, but dashed into the thicket after Mafuta, who had preceded him.

Tom was quickly on their heels, and they had not gone far when one of the wounded lions was found lying on the ground quite dead.  The other was not overtaken, but, as Wilkins said, two lions, a buffalo, and a hippopotamus, which latter he had shot from the boat, was not a bad beginning!

That night they encamped under the shelter of a spreading tree, and as they reclined at full length between two fires, which were kindled to keep off the wild beasts, enjoying a pipe after having feasted luxuriously on hippopotamus steaks and marrow bones, Tom Brown remarked:  “Well, my dream has been realised at last, and, upon my word, I have not been disappointed.”