I am a huge fan of the ‘tall story’ and was told many by my dad and uncles when a gullible child. I inherited the gift when, as a child incarcerated in hospital, I convinced the entire nursing staff my dad was a Red Indian and that was why he hadn’t come to see me. When he finally appeared, deeply tanned from his latest sea voyage, he was followed by a bevy of nurses who took his darkened skin as proof of my story. I imagine he was mildly confused by the attention.
The memory came back to me on reading this Tall Story, which I repeat verbatim, from the pen of Wilbur Smith, writing of his Grandfather Courtney James Smith. Courtney Smith had been a transporter rider in the Witwatersrand gold rush in the late 1880’s and in the Zulu war decimated the enemy with a Maxim gun team firing 600 rounds a minute. And before a UN commission accuses me of glorifying massacre, all I can say is, ‘What goes on in the past stays in the past.’ One thing for sure, the photo reveals one imbued with Victorian certainty.
This is his story as told by Wilbur Smith. Enjoy.
I remember the day he told me the tale of the sjambok — a long, stiff whip originally made of rhinoceros hide. 'One time I won a dog in a game of poker,' Grandpa told me. 'It was the biggest, dumbest boarhound you ever saw.
Four foot high, a big jowly brute, totally untrainable. I called him Brainless.
'One night, we were camped in the Lowveld. I was laid out to sleep in the cot in the back of one of the wagons — but that dog, that dog just kept barking, on and on, keeping us all awake.
'I groped around and I found my sjambok, and I slipped from the wagon and clobbered that dog until, suddenly, on the fourth or fifth strike, the dog started acting in a different way.
'It made a new sound, a sound it never made before. I was a bit taken aback. I reached into my pocket, struck one of my matches and held up the light.
'Right where Brainless the boarhound should have been was a fully grown male lion, its eyes mad with fury, its mane matted with blood. It had eaten my dog!
'I froze. Because there I was, giving this beast the hiding of its life with the sjambok. I turned and ran back to the cabin, jumped inside and stood there panting with horror and relief.
'And then I felt the sjambok twitching in my hand! I lit another match. It was no sjambok I was holding. It was a snake. I'd been beating that lion with a black mamba!'
Grandpa Courtney hollered with laughter, his guffaws echoing around the room.