THE NIGHT OF THE JAGUAR
The east coast of the Yucatan.
After the days work was done on the fishing boats, Felipe would go to the barn to see his Uncle and learn the art of the sword. He liked the barn, like all buildings in this area of the rugged, windswept coast it was built to withstand the huge storms that came from the east during the summer heat. Built of stone and mortar with a smooth stucco covering, it was a long, low building with a red tile roof made of baked clay. The barn was always filled with the good, familiar scents of oiled leather, sweet oats, hay and the tallow from the burning candles.
As he entered his Uncle Andreas was honing a sword, lightly drawing a whetstone along the edge of the gleaming, polished blade. He saw Felipe and smiled, putting the blade down on the table.
“Hello Felipe, have you been practicing with your weapons?”
“Of course, every day. You know this, you practice with me Uncle.” Felipe smiled.
“What about at night?” Andreas asked.
“When the moon is full I practice with my bow and lance, you also know this. Why are you asking me these questions?”
Andreas looked at him for a few moments then said “We have lost three calves to a jaguar over the past few weeks. He hunts every three nights and has marked our pasture as his feeding ground. Tonight he will feed again, how old are you now eighteen?”
“Yes Uncle, almost nineteen.” he replied.
“I was seventeen when I killed my first jaguar.” Andreas said as his mind went back to that time.
“How did you kill it? Felipe asked.
“I used a bow and a lance, they do charge you when the arrow strikes, they do not run away. I am getting a little old for this type of thing, are you up for this task? We can use a musket if you wish.”
Felipe was afraid but he would not let that show. He had killed many charging wild boars with his lance. He buried his fear and answered. “I will kill it and have his pelt on the wall tomorrow at this time.”
Andreas looked at the boy in the flickering candlelight, he loved him as he would his own son. He had taught him from a small boy how to use his weapons. He knew that it was time to test him against a worthy adversary. Still, he was worried about the boy’s safety, after a few moments, he spoke. “Felipe, you do not have to prove anything to me, this is not a pig. This is a 300 pound jungle cat with reflexes as fast as lightning. They can see in the dark and have claws and fangs that can shred a man. Do you know how a jaguar kills its prey? He does not bite the throat and suffocate it as a lion does, he bites the head and drives his long fangs deep into the brain. At times they actually crush the skull.
They are so quick and agile, they can hear the sound of your bowstring in time to leap out of the way. This beast will not leave his kill, he will charge you and kill you if you do not kill him. You will only have one shot with your bow and your lance must take his heart when he charges, are you certain that you are ready for this?”
“Yes, I want to prove this to myself.” Felipe replied. He then reached for the brandy flask and his uncle stopped him.
“Do not dull your senses with brandy, for this night will be full of danger. We will celebrate after the beast is killed. Go and gather your weapons. You only need bring one arrow, you will not have time for two, and sharpen your lance. Tell your father nothing of this and meet me back here. We will stake out a calf, at least the beast will come to you.” With that Andreas got up and walked out into the pasture with a rope in his hand.
Felipe slowly walked back to his hacienda pondering what he had gotten himself into, asking himself if he was actually up to this task. He went to his room and gathered his weapons. His bow was taut so he picked up his quiver and chose his straightest arrow. He had fired this arrow many times, he knew its flight would be straight and true. He peered at the point and saw that it was sharp. Leaning in the corner was his lance, he had made this lance himself under the instruction of his Uncle. He reached for it and felt its weight, it was longer than he was tall, its shaft was made from ironwood imported from Brazil. Hard as steel, it would not break and could deflect a sword.
The tip was bronze and as he slid it along his arm, it shaved his hair, but still he took his whetstone and feathered the edge as he contemplated the night to come. He silently prayed for the strength and speed that he would need to conquer his foe. Gathering his strength, he walked back to the barn and to his fate.
When Felipe entered the barn Andreas was waiting with a calf on a rope. Without a word, they proceeded out into the far end of the pasture. Andreas had already pounded a stake deep into the ground and he tied the calf to it. The calf, as if sensing its fate began to cry out as soon as they walked away. Dusk was upon them and the night was falling quickly.
The full moon hung low in the evening sky.
Andreas had made a blind of some shrubs. He had left an opening facing the calf at a good bow range and instructed Felipe. “As soon as you shoot, step out of the blind so you can use your lance and have the freedom of movement. There is no need to try to conceal yourself, as his eyes will pick you out in there as if a lantern were shining on you. Take your shot while the calf is still struggling so the sound of your bowstring will be hidden by his struggles. His reflexes and hearing are so sharp, he will hear the sound of your bowstring and jump the string. Hit him in his heart, not his lungs, then be ready with your lance. When he charges you, make steady with your lance and strike the center of his chest as he leaps at you. God be with you, I will be at the barn, when you come back, we will return and I will help you to drag the beast back.” With that Andreas turned and silently walked away.
The night was falling fast and the sound of the insects, frogs and night birds began. Felipe never noticed just how loud that they were but now they were like a curse. How would he ever hear the beast approaching with this going on? The calf cried out non stop for it’s mother and herd, left alone in the night. After a very short time it was dark but the full moon illuminated the ground with a silvery light. The shadows grew as the hours passed. Felipe tried to imagine how much time had passed, it seemed like forever.
Maybe his uncle was wrong and the jaguar was not coming tonight. The night wore on past midnight when suddenly the calf stopped crying out and lowered it’s head, peering toward the west. Then it panicked and tried to back away struggling on the end of its rope crying out loudly. Felipe’s heart was pounding so hard he was sure that it could be heard. He very slowly eased his head forward and looked with one eye in the direction that the calf was trying to escape from. He saw nothing but the eerie moonlit ground, no shape, only shadows.
The beast very large and as black as the night, it melted into the darkness like a shadow on obsidian. It was not until it charged with lightning speed that Felipe realized it had crept within 20 yards away and he had never heard it, nor had the calf. It was on the calf before he knew it and just as his uncle said, the jaguar grabbed the calf’s head in his jaws and he heard the crunching of bones as the beast drove it’s fangs into the skull. Very quickly and the calf’s struggles rapidly grew weaker and then stopped. It happened so fast that he did not have the time to do as his uncle had told him, “Take your shot while the calf is still struggling so the sound of your bowstring will be hidden by his struggles. “
He was too late, the calf stopped struggling and became still. He silently drew his arrow, aimed and released it. It should have been an easy shot, the beast was standing broadside at just twenty yards. He aimed right behind the front leg where he knew the heart was. The flight of the arrow was true but just as his uncle said, the beast heard the twang of the bowstring and leaped quickly, pivoting to face the threat. The arrow which should have struck and pierced the heart buried itself deeply into the big cats buttock. It roared out in pain and anger, a savage sound that sent chills down Felipe’s spine. The cats eyes, full of anger picked him out immediately and it crouched preparing to charge him.
He dropped his bow, pulled his lance out of the ground and stepped out of his blind as he took two steps forward. He took his stance with his right leg behind him to give him strength. His lance was out in front of him five feet and he steadied himself. The beast charged him with a mighty roar. It came at him much more quickly than he expected and leaped into the air with it’s talons out, reaching for his head. He had faced many charging wild boar but the speed of this jungle cat was much faster. The speed and the height of the leap threw Felipe off and his lance did not penetrate the center of the chest but went in too low, into the belly of the beast. It was impaled on the shaft of his lance but did not try to retreat as a wild pig would.
Instead, it gyrated wildly and then lunged forward again screaming loudly in pain and fury. The tip of the lance buried itself another six inches and now one talon caught the side of Felipe’s face, slicing the skin open from the corner of his left eye down to his jaw line. His blood spilled down on his hands and the shaft of his lance making it slippery. He reached back and got more shaft in his hand, then slid his body back down the handle of the weapon as the huge, strong beast furiously struggled and fought toward him.
Again the strong beast lunged toward him and pushed the blade deeper into its belly. In it’s pain and fury, it went absolutely wild in its desire to kill it’s tormentor. Again a talon raked his left arm laying it open deeply from his elbow to his wrist. Again Felipe slid back on the shaft. His hands and the shaft of the lance were now completely covered with blood, they kept sliding forward, he kept losing precious inches as his hands slid. The beast was wild with rage and continued to lunge forward toward him, gaining six inches of shaft at a time. Felipe felt the end of his shaft and with one more lunge the beast would be upon him. He was out of options, he couldn’t drop the shaft and run. Once again, the enraged beast lunged forward. He could feel its hot breath now in his face. The jaguar raised both huge paws back and extended its claws for its final lunge.
Suddenly a fast swishing sound cut through the night and there was a flash of moonlight on polished steel. The animal’s head simply fell off and thudded on the ground. The hot blood spurted from the arteries into Felipe’s face. All went silent as the dead weight of the beast was twitching on his shaft. He let it fall to the ground and looked to his right. His uncle Andreas was wiping the blood from his blade with a piece of cloth. He looked at Felipe and calmly said “I told you to shoot him in the heart, not in his ass.”
Felipe was stunned “You were here all of this time? I was almost killed! He clawed my face and arm. He almost killed me! Why did you wait so long to help me? I’m scarred now and bleeding.”
Andreas slid his sword back into his scabbard and said with a gentle voice, “You wanted to test yourself tonight and I let you. I will not always be there to cover your back. You need to learn to listen to what I say in the matters of life and death. So tell me, did you learn anything tonight?”
“Yes!” he replied, “I learned not to fool with jaguars!”
Andreas laughed loudly and produced a pipe and a flask of fine brandy. He sat on the ground and Felipe joined him. He wrapped Felipe’s wounds in clean cloth and then he lit the pipe, gently stoking the bowl to life. The flickering flame illuminated his strong, dark features and Felipe realized how much he loved and respected this man. His father had taught him strong work ethics but this man, his Uncle, taught him how to be a man. How to face danger and possible death, how to fight and win.
Andreas smoked his pipe as they sat in the moonlit field and passed the flask back and forth. The brandy was sweet and the warmth of it spread down his throat and into his chest. His heart was still beating wildly so he took deep, slow breaths to calm down. The moonlight made everything appear surreal. He looked down at the dead jaguar and realized just how close to death that he had come.
As he was contemplating this his uncle said. “You are still bleeding, come and let us bind your wounds properly, we will come back for the beast.” With that he stood and offered his hand to Felipe and pulled him up. They walked back to the barn. Andreas sat Felipe at a table and got a bottle of rum. He poured it on the wounds, it burned fiercely but Felipe made no sound, he took the pain. Andreas went to a shelf and got a clay pot. “I collected these earlier, I thought that you might need them.” He smiled and slid the jar to Felipe. Felipe took the pot and looked inside. There were several dozen of the large ants that lived in the nearby jungle. They had a large head and long sharp jaws.
“I could pull the sides of the wound together and sew it up with a needle and thread, but their jaws are much sharper and smaller, there will be less pain. After they bite, I will pinch their head off and the jaws will remain locked. In two weeks they will be dry and you can simply thump them off. This is how the slaves that they have here did this when they were in Africa.”
He handed Felipe the flask and said “Take several strong drinks and prepare yourself.” Felipe took several long drinks of the sweet brandy while Andreas lit more candles and a lantern. He took some tweezers and pinched the sides of the wound on his face together. Felipe winced with the pain and Andreas scolded him “Relax your face! Your skin will grow back together crooked.” Felipe relaxed his muscles and Andreas placed the first ant. The large pincers dug deep into his skin closing the wound and he deftly pinched the head off. The jaws remained locked in place. He repeated this placing the ant heads very close together. “This will make a fine scar that will send fear into the hearts of your enemies and some women will find it very masculine .” He closed the face wound and then the arm. He wrapped them in fine, clean linen and bound them up tightly.
“Now, go to sleep, there are more jaguars in the jungle and you need practice.