Read CHAPTER NINE - THE LAST of Hunting the Lions , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

From this period everything like good fortune seemed to forsake the hunters.  The trader’s wound became so painful that he resolved to return to the settlements, and accordingly their faces were turned southward.

But the way was toilsome, the heat intense, and the water scarce ­more so than it had been on the outward journey.  To add to their troubles, fever and ague attacked most of the white men, and one of them (Ogilvie) died on the journey.

At last Tom Brown, who had up to that time been one of the strongest of the party, broke down, and it was found to be necessary to leave him behind at a native village, for it would have been certain death to the others to have remained with him, and their doing so could have done him no good.

“I cannot tell you, Tom,” said the major, as he sat beside his friend’s couch the night before they parted, “how deeply it grieves me to leave you in this way, but you see, my dear fellow, that the case is desperate.  You are incapable of moving.  If we remain here the most of us will die, for I find that it is all I can do to drag one leg after the other, and I have grave doubts as to whether I shall ever get out of this rascally country alive.  As to poor Bob Wilkins, he is in a worse condition than myself.  Now, our intention is to leave you all the physic, push on as fast as possible to the nearest settlement, where we shall get more for ourselves, and send out a party of natives under some trustworthy trader to fetch you out of the country.”

“You are very kind, major,” said Tom languidly, “but I cannot allow you to leave me all the physic.  Your own life may depend on having some of it, and ­”

“There, don’t exhaust yourself, Tom, with objections, for Bob and I have made up our minds to do it.  The very fact that every day we are getting nearer the habitable parts of the world will keep our spirits up and give us strength, and you may depend upon it, my poor fellow, that we won’t waste time in sending help to you.”

The major’s voice trembled a little, for he had become very weak, and had secret misgivings that he would never see his friend again.

“We are going to leave Mafuta with you,” he added quickly.

“That’s right,” exclaimed Tom, with an expression of satisfaction.  “If any one is able to pull me through this bout, Mafuta is the man.  By the way, major, will you do me the favour to open my portmanteau and fetch me the Bible you will find there.  I mean to read it.  Do you know I have been thinking that we are great fools to keep calling ourselves Christians when we have scarcely any of the signs of Christianity about us, and particularly in putting off the consideration of our souls’ interests to a time like this?”

“Upon my word, Tom, I agree with you,” said the major.

“Well, then,” said Tom, “like a good fellow, get the Bible for me, and let me advise you as a friend to make use of the one the missionary gave you.  I mean to turn over a new leaf.  My only fear is that if I get well I shall become as indifferent as I was before.”

“No fear of that, Tom, you are much too honest-hearted to be so changeable.”

“H’m, I don’t know,” said Tom, with an attempt at a smile; “I should not be easy if my salvation depended on the honesty of my heart.  I rather fear, major, that your method of comforting me is not what the missionary would call orthodox.  But good night, old fellow; I feel tired, and find it wonderfully difficult not only to speak but to think, so I’ll try to sleep.”

Saying this our hero turned on his side and soon fell into a quiet slumber, out of which he did not awake until late the following morning.

The major, meanwhile, sought for and found the Bible in his portmanteau, and laid it on his pillow, so that he might find it there on awaking.  For a long time he and Wilkins sat by the sick man’s side next morning, in the hope of his awaking, that they might bid him good-bye; but Tom did not rouse up, so, being unwilling to disturb him, they left without having the sad satisfaction of saying farewell.

When Tom Brown awoke, late in the day, he found Mafuta sitting at his feet with a broad grin on his dusky countenance.

“What are you laughing at, you rascal?” demanded Tom, somewhat sternly.

“Me laffin’ at you’s face!”

“Indeed, is it then so ridiculous?”

“Yis, oh yis, you’s bery ri’clous.  Jist no thicker dan de edge ob hatchet.”

Tom smiled.  “Well, I’m not fat, that’s certain; but I feel refreshed.  D’you know, Mafuta, I think I shall get well after all.”

“Ho, yis,” said Mafuta, with a grin, nodding his woolly head violently, and displaying a magnificent double row of teeth; “you’s git well; you had slep an’ swet mos’ bootiful.  Me wish de major see you now.”

“The major; is he gone?”

“Yis, hoed off dis morrownin.”

“And Mr Wilkins?”

“Hoed off too.”

Tom Brown opened his eyes and stared silently for a few minutes at his companion.

“Then we are all alone, you and I,” he said suddenly.

“Yis, all alone, sept de two tousand Caffres ob de kraal; but dey is nobody ­only black beasts.”

Tom laughed to hear his attendant talk so scornfully of his countrymen, and Mafuta laughed to see his master in such good spirits; after which the former became grave, and, feeling a slight twinge of hunger, made a sudden demand for food.  Mafuta rose and left the tent, and Tom, turning on his side, observed the Bible lying on the pillow.  He opened it, but forgot to read, in consequence of his attention being arrested by the extreme thinness of his hands.  Recovering himself, he turned to the twenty-first psalm, but had only read the first verse when the book dropt from his fingers, and he again fell sound asleep.

This was the turning-point in his illness.  He began to mend a little, but so slowly, that he almost lost heart once or twice; and felt convinced that if he did not make an attempt to get out of the unhealthy region, he should never regain strength.

Acting on this belief, he left the native village on foot, carrying nothing but his rifle, which seemed to him, in his weak condition, to be as heavy as a small cannon.  Mafuta went on in advance, heavily laden with the blankets, a small tent, provisions, ammunition, etcetera, necessary for the journey.

At first Tom could scarcely walk a mile without sitting down several times to rest, on which occasions Mafuta endeavoured to cheer him up by threatening to leave him to his fate!  This was a somewhat singular mode of stimulating, but he deemed it the wisest course, and acted on it.  When Tom lay down under the shade of a tree, thoroughly knocked up, the Caffre would bid him farewell and go away; but in a short time he would return and urge him to make another attempt!

Thus Tom Brown travelled, day after day, under the broiling sun.  During that period ­which he afterwards described as the most dreadful of his life ­fever and ague reduced him to a state of excessive weakness.  In fact it was a battle between the dire disease and that powerful constitution for which the Brown family is celebrated.  For a considerable time it appeared very doubtful how the battle would end.

One morning Tom was awakened by his faithful attendant to resume his weary journey.  He got up with a heavy sigh, and almost fell down again from weakness.

“I think, Mafuta,” said Tom gravely, “that I’m pretty nearly used up.  You’ll have to leave me, I fear, and make the best of your way out of this wretched country alone.”

Dis a fuss-rate kontry,” said the Caffre quietly.

“Ah, true, Mafuta, I forgot for a moment that it is your native land.  However, I am bound to admit that it is a first-rate country for sport ­ also for killing Englishmen.  I don’t feel able to move a step.”

Tom sat down as he said this, and, uttering a sort of groan, leaned his back against a tree.

“W’at, yous no’ go fadder?”

“No,” said Tom, with some asperity, for he felt too much exhausted to speak.

“Berry good, me say good-bye.”

Mafuta nodded his head as he spoke, and, gravely shouldering his load, marched away.

Tom looked after him with a melancholy smile; for he quite understood the ruse by this time, and knew that he would return, although the simple native sincerely believed that his motives and intentions had been concealed with deep wisdom.  Tom was not sorry to get a respite, and threw himself flat down, in order to make the most of it, but Mafuta was more anxious than usual about his companion that morning.  He returned in ten minutes or so, having sat for that period behind a neighbouring tree to brood over his circumstances.

“Yous come on now, eh?” he said gently, regarding Tom with an anxious expression of countenance.

“Well, well,” replied our hero, getting up with a sort of desperate energy, “let’s push on; I can at all events walk till my legs refuse to carry me, and then it will not be I who shall have given in, but the legs! ­eh, Mafuta?”

Smiling languidly at this conceit, Tom walked on, almost mechanically, for nearly twenty miles that day, with scarcely any shelter from the sun.

At night he reached a native village, the chief of which considerately let him rest in an old hut.  When Tom flung himself down in a corner of this, he felt so ill that he called his servant and bade him fetch the package which contained his slender stock of medicine.

“Open it, Mafuta, and let’s see what we have left.  I’m resolved to make some change in myself for better or worse, if I should have to eat up the whole affair.  Better be poisoned at once than die by inches in this way.”

“No more kineen,” said the Caffre, as he kneeled by his master’s side, turning over the papers and bottles.

“No more quinine,” repeated Tom sadly; “no more life, that means.”

“Not’ing more bot tree imuttics, an’ small drop ludnum,” said Mafuta.

“Three emetics,” said Tom, “and some laudanum; come, I’ll try these.  Mix the whole of ’em in a can, and be quick, like a good fellow; I’ll have one good jorum whatever happens.”

“Bot yous vil bost,” said Mafuta remonstratively.

“No fear.  Do as I bid you.”

The Caffre obeyed, and Tom swallowed the potion.  The result, however, was unsatisfactory, for, contrary to what was anticipated, they produced no effect whatever.  To make matters worse, the hut in which they lay was overrun with rats, which were not only sleepless and active, but daring, for they kept galloping round the floor all night, and chasing one another over Tom’s body and face.  After a time he became desperate.

“Here, Mafuta,” he cried, “strike a light, and get me a long feather of some sort out of a bird’s wings.”

The wondering native got up and did as he was commanded.

“Now, Mafuta, shove the feather down my throat.  Don’t be afraid.  I’ll give you a dig in the ribs if you go too far.”

The result of this operation was speedy and complete.  The sick man was relieved.  In a short time he fell into a deep sleep, which lasted for several hours.  After this he awoke much refreshed, and having obtained some rice from the native chief, ate a little with relish.

Next day they resumed their journey, and travelled till four in the afternoon, when the fit of ague prostrated Tom for a couple of hours, as it had been in the habit of doing regularly at the same hour for some time past, leaving him in a very exhausted state of body, and much depressed in spirits.

In the course of a week, however, this extreme depression passed away, and he managed to get along; painfully, it is true, but creditably.  They were fortunate enough, soon after, to meet with a trader, from whom our hero purchased two stout horses, and thenceforward the journey became more agreeable ­at least Tom’s returning strength enabled him to enjoy it; for it could not be said that the fatigues or privations of the way had decreased; on the contrary, in some respects they had increased considerably.

One day, while Tom was ambling along the margin of a belt of thick wood, with his sable guide riding in advance, he came suddenly in sight of a herd of giraffes.  He had been short of fresh meat for a couple of days, because, although there was no lack of game, his arm had not become sufficiently steady to enable him to take a good aim; and, being unwilling to resign the office of hunter to his attendant until reduced to the last extremity, he had taken all the chances that occurred, and had missed on every occasion!

Being determined not to miss this opportunity, he at once put spurs to his steed, and dashed after the giraffes at a breakneck pace.  The ground was very rocky, uneven, and full of holes and scrubby bushes.  The long-necked creatures at once set off at a pace which tried Tom’s steed, although a good one, to the utmost.  There was a thick forest of makolani trees about a mile away to the left, towards which the giraffes headed, evidently with the intention of taking refuge there.  Tom observed this, and made a detour in order to get between them and the wood.  This made it necessary to put on a spurt to regain lost distance, but on such ground the speed was dangerous.  He neared one of the animals, however, and was standing up in his stirrups, intent on taking a flying shot, when his horse suddenly put his foot in a hole, and fell so violently that he rolled heels over head several times like a hare shot in full career.  Fortunately his rider was sent out of the saddle like a rocket, and fell a considerable distance ahead, and out of the way of the rolling horse.  A friendly bush received him and saved his neck, but tore his coat to tatters.  Jumping up, he presented at the giraffe, which was galloping off about two hundred yards ahead.  In the fall the barrel of his rifle had been so covered with dead leaves and dust that he could not take aim.  Hastily wiping it with his sleeve, he presented again and fired.  The ball hit the giraffe on the hip, but it failed to bring him down.  A second shot, however, broke his leg, and the stately animal rolled over.  Before Tom reached him he was dead.

Thus the travellers were supplied with a sufficiency of meat for some days, and they pushed steadily forward without paying attention to the game, which happened to be very plentiful in that district, as their great desire was to get out of the unhealthy region as quickly as possible.  Sometimes, however, they were compelled to shoot in self-defence.

Upon one occasion, while Mafuta was looking for water in the bush, he was charged by a black rhinoceros, and had a very narrow escape.  Tom Brown was within sight of him at the time, engaged also in looking for water.  He heard the crash of bushes when the monster charged, and looking hastily round, saw Mafuta make a quick motion as if he meant to run to a neighbouring tree, but the rhinoceros was so close on him that there was no time.

“Quick, man!” shouted Tom, in an agony of alarm as he ran to the rescue, for the Caffre had no gun.

But Mafuta, instead of taking this advice, suddenly stood stock still, as if he had been petrified!

Tom threw forward his rifle, intending, in desperation, to try the effect of a long shot, although certain that it was impossible to kill the rhinoceros even if he should hit, while the risk of killing his faithful servant was very great.  Before he had time to fire, however, the animal ran past the motionless Caffre without doing him any injury!

Whether it is owing to the smallness of its eyes, or to the horns on its nose being in the way, we cannot tell, but it is a fact that the black rhinoceros does not see well, and Mafuta, aware of this defect, had taken advantage of it in a way what is sometimes practised by bold men.  Had he continued to run he would certainly have been overtaken and killed; but, standing perfectly still, he was no doubt taken for a tree stump by the animal.  At all events it brushed past him, and Mafuta, doubling on his track, ran to a tree, up which he vaulted like a monkey.

Meanwhile Tom Brown got within range, and sent a ball crashing against the animal’s hard sides without doing it any injury.  The second barrel was discharged with no better result, except that a splinter of its horn was knocked off.  Before he could reload, the rhinoceros was gone, and Tom had to content himself with carrying off the splinter as a memorial of the adventure.

That night the travellers made their encampment at the foot of a tree, on the lower branches of which they hung up a quantity of meat.  Tom lay in a small tent which he carried with him, but Mafuta preferred to sleep by the fire outside.

During the day they had seen and heard several lions.  It was therefore deemed advisable to picket the horses close to the tent, between it and the fire.

“Mafuta,” said Tom Brown, as he lay contemplating the fire on which the Caffre had just heaped fresh logs, “give me some more tea, and cook another giraffe steak.  D’you know I feel my appetite coming back with great force?”

“Dat am good,” said Mafuta.

“Yes, that is undoubtedly good,” said Tom.  “I never knew what it was to have a poor appetite until I came to this wonderful land of yours, and I assure you that I will not pay it another visit in a hurry ­although, upon the whole, I’m very well pleased to have hunted in it.”

“W’at for you come because of?” asked Mafuta.

“Well, I came for fun, as the little boys in my country say.  I came for change, for variety, for amusement, for relaxation, for sport.  Do you understand any of these expressions?”

“Me not onderstan’ moch,” answered Mafuta with great simplicity of manner; “bot why you want for change?  Me nivir wants no change?”

“Ah, Mafuta,” replied Tom with a smile, “you’re a happy man?  The fact is, that we civilised people lead artificial lives, to a large extent, and, therefore, require a change sometimes to recruit our energies ­that is, to put us right again, whereas you and your friends live in a natural way, and therefore don’t require putting right.  D’you understand?”

“Not moch,” answered the Caffre, gazing into the fire with a puzzled look.  “You say we lives nat’ral life an’ don’t need be put right; berry good, why you not live nat’ral life too, an’ no need be put right ­be always right?”

Tom laughed at this.

“It’s not easy to answer that question, Mafuta.  We have surrounded ourselves with a lot of wants, some of which are right and some wrong.  For instance, we want clothes, and houses, and books, and tobacco, and hundreds of other things, which cost a great deal of money, and in order to make the money we must work late and early, which hurts our health, and many of us must sit all day instead of walk or ride, so that we get ill and require a change of life, such as a trip to Africa to shoot lions, else we should die too soon.  In fact, most of our lives consists in a perpetual struggle between healthy constitutions and false modes of living.”

“Dat berry foolish,” said Mafuta, shaking his head.  “Me onderstan’ dat baccy good, berry good, bot what de use of clo’es; why you not go nakit? s’pose ’cause you not black, eh?”

“Well, not exactly.  The fact is ­”

At this point the conversation was interrupted by the low murmuring growl of the lion.  The two men gazed at one another earnestly and listened.  Tom quietly laid his hand on his rifle, which always lay ready loaded at his side, and Mafuta grasped the handle of the knife that hung at his girdle.  For some minutes they remained silent and motionless, waiting for a repetition of the sound, while the camp-fire glittered brightly, lighting up the expressive countenance of our hero, and causing the whites of Mafuta’s eyes to glisten.  Again they heard the growl much nearer than before, and it became evident that the lion was intent on claiming hospitality.  The horses pricked up their ears, snuffed the night air wildly, and showed every symptom of being ill at ease.  Tom Brown, without rising, slowly cocked his rifle, and Mafuta, drawing his knife, showed his brilliant white teeth as if he had been a dog.

Gradually and stealthily the king of the forest drew near, muttering to himself, as it were, in an undertone.  He evidently did not care to disturb the horses, having set his heart upon the meat which hung on the tree, and the anxious listeners in the tent heard him attempting to claw it down.

Tom Brown was hastily revolving in his mind the best mode of killing or scaring away this presumptuous visitor, when the lion, in its wanderings round the tree, tripped over one of the lines of the tent, causing it to vibrate.  He uttered a growl of dissatisfaction, and seized the cord in his teeth.

“Look out, Mafuta!” exclaimed Tom, as he observed the shadow of the beast against the curtain.

He fired as he spoke.

A terrific roar followed, the canvas was instantly torn open, and the whole tent fell in dire confusion on the top of its inmates.

Tom Brown did not move.  He always acted on the principle of letting well alone, and, feeling that he was unhurt, lay as still as a mouse, but Mafuta uttered a wild yell, sprang through the rent canvas, and bounded up the tree in violent haste.  There he remained, and Tom lay quietly under the tent for full ten minutes without moving, almost without breathing, but as no sound was heard, our hero at last ventured to raise his head.  Then he got slowly upon his knees, and, gently removing the incumbent folds of canvas, looked out.  The sight that he beheld was satisfactory.  An enormous lion lay stretched out at the font of the tree quite dead!  His half random shot at the shadow had been most successful, having passed right through the lion’s heart.

Not long after this, Tom Brown reached the settlements, where he found the major and Wilkins, who had quite recovered from the effects of their excursion into the interior, and from whom he learned that a party had been sent off in search of himself.

Thereafter he went to the Cape, where he joined his father in business.  He did not, however, give up hunting entirely, for he belonged to a family which, as we have said elsewhere, is so sternly romantic and full of animal life that many of its members are led to attempt and to accomplish great things, both in the spiritual and physical worlds, undamped by repeated rebuffs and failures.  Moreover, he did not forget his resolutions, or his Bible, after he got well; but we are bound to add that he did forget his resolve never again to visit the African wilderness, for if report speaks truth, he was seen there many a time, in after years, with Mafuta, hunting the lions.