"Ernest Hemingway's Black Panther"
We were the only two Europeans staying in the village’s tiny six roomed hotel but not the only whites. Our second floor room faced towards the mountain ridge line that bordered that most private of African nations. Outside the hotel were big leafy palms growing near the public well. The streets are packed earth. In the evening we dine with the others in the hotel and at night we drink until all the others are gone.
“The Great Hunter,” that’s what they tell me.
“I don’t like the look of those men,” Lady Ambrose says. She grips my arm a little tighter. I smell juniper berries.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “These men take travelers into Wakanda every day. We’ll be fine,” I lie to her. To myself.
“Is that what we are? Travelers,” she asks. I avoid her question by fixing my gaze on the high, straw colored grasses that line the road past the village gates and the brick colored mountains beyond them.
The boy must be no more than ten. He loads the rest of the wooden crates of ammunition into the truck. He reaches for the last crate. “Leave that one,” I say. “I’ll get it.” That one has the whiskey. I can’t chance some local dropping it or worse, hearing the clink of the glass bottles. Not this far from civilization.
The heat of the day has failed to ebb. I have to shield my eyes against the red glare. Last night’s gin wore off around mid-day and Lady Ambrose has been sleeping off and on as the road and bouncing truck allow. I took the chance to slip one of the greasy glass whiskey bottles into my own pocket but it’s not helped the heat.
Along the ridge line is where I first see the lion. I order the driver to stop the truck. With a grinding of gears and a lurch it stops. Two hundred yards away, I take aim and fire. The shot takes the big cat high in the shoulder and down it goes. That’s when the natives start shouting. “Another silhouette on the hill,” they say and they’re leaping out of the truck and running.
And I see the Panther. I see the King of the Jungle.
I leap off the open back of the truck and my boots kick up miniature clouds of dust. I drop to one knee and my fingers fumble reaching for another cartridge. I taste the dirt in my mouth and nostrils. The silhouette is charging me, crouched low as a cat and moving faster than a man. I rub the sweat and afternoon glare out of my eyes and throw the bolt on my rifle. Lady Ambrose is yelling something I can’t hear but just now I think of how she smelled under the mosquito netting, of vanilla and cigarettes. I reload the rifle and squint, taking careful aim.
The last thing I see is the sun high overhead. It hangs red and blinding and I remember what it was the villagers had said.