Heavy black clouds obliterated the moon, throwing the scrubby plain under a screen of darkness. The body of the waiting puma stiffened, and her tail twitched expectantly. Cautiously she inched forward, her belly almost scraping the ground. Eyes and ears trained forward to catch any unusual movement or sound, she padded silently through the brush.
The moon broke through and halted the pace of the cat, but it was quickly smothered again by another mass of forbidding clouds. Directly ahead of the crouching form milled a restless herd of cattle; her senses vibrated from their very presence. Under cover of the black night, her tense body relaxed a little, and eagerly she streaked toward the herd.
Moments later her high-pitched triumphant scream shattered the stillness.
The she-cat feasted on the heifer for two days. After each meal she lay on the outside ledge of the cave in which she had hidden the carcass and lazily watched the prairie beneath her.
The tawny cat had killed several of the herd in the two weeks since she had discovered the unguarded cattle. The plains and ravines they occupied ended sharply in a series of rocky hills and cliffs. The natural caves and large crevices afforded excellent places to hide. With deliberate caution she had chosen her home.
Its bones picked clean, the calfs remains were abandoned by the puma the third night, and she stalked the herd again. The night was clear and bright, but the cat did not feel the need of complete darknessher feasting had not been hindered before. In the soft silver light from the slice of moon she hunted for the herd. Finally she came upon them in a shallow ravine, bunched and quiet. It took only a few seconds to select a promising yearling and gather herself for attack. With released power she sprang for its neck.
A low whine and a sharp pain in her shoulder stopped the puma in mid-air. In painful surprise she wheeled and caught the scent of man! A rifle cracked twice more, but a few bounds sheltered her behind the rocks.
Trembling she retreated to the cave. Her shoulder smarted for awhile, and then the pain subsided, but the fear remained. The old fear from which she had run away once before had returned.
The breaking of dawn found the puma nervous and restless. She spent tense hours overlooking the grazing herd and the strange wagon settled nearby. Whenever she caught the scent of the three men wandering between the wagon and the cattle, a numbing terror sent her leaping headlong over the boulders and rocky crags to the cave. Minutes later she would emerge and cautiously wander back to her watch again.
Along the horizon a range of lofty mountains rose temptingly to the sky. An impulse to steal away, leaving the fear behind, gripped the cat. Among those rocky peaks she could retreat, forget the fear, and begin all over once again.
Swinging her great head around, her gaze lingered on the cave behind her. No, she could not leave. Not now. Besides, she was not sure. She had to be sure before she did anything.
A rock tumbled carelessly down the cliff beneath her paws. Fleetingly she saw the men go into action and heard the sharp reports of their rifles. Shrinking away from the face of the cliff, she disappeared from view.
Slowly and deliberately the tawny cat made her way back to the cave. She was sure. She knew why they had come. She knew they would not leave until they had accomplished it. And she knew now what she had to do.
The afternoon sun was beginning to lose some of its heat when the puma emerged from the dark coolness of the cave. She turned her gaze away from the fading mountains and bounded down the cliff side. Her ground-covering pace carried her swiftly away from the strange men. The plain seemed deserted except for the fleeing form of the cat, and her progress was uninterrupted.
Darkness settled slowly over the earth lighted only by a few lonely stars. The puma stopped and slaked her thirst in a muddy pool cached in the rocks, the water dripping from her mouth as she raised her head and peered into the blackness of the prairie night. Only a pair of crickets, singing to each other, disturbed the silence. Sighing, she lowered her head again and drank.
The rest was short. Her pace was slower now, but just as deliberate. She padded silently through the scrub grass, climbing hills, jumping boulders, or disappearing into deep ravines as each crossed her path. On and on into the night she pushed, never varying her course.
By morning she was on familiar ground. At the crest of a steep hill she paused and overlooked a wide valley. The rising sun bathed it in a brilliant gold, and the sight held her transfixed. She stared motionless until the color faded into the daylight scheme of green and brown and gray.
A rabbit startled the cat into actionthe chase was short and the end mercifully quick. She carried her catch to a secluded, sheltered spot and settled down to a much-needed meal.
With an appeased stomach and a luxurious stretch of her tired muscles, the puma felt physically refreshed. As if forgetting the set way she had traveled the night before, she wandered aimlessly around the valley. After twice around, fruitlessly, she threw her head high and uttered a lonely scream, letting it die slowly and echoing back from the rocks.
She resumed the patient wandering, slowly padding from rocks to trees, ravines to cliffs, and hills to level land. Pausing, she tensed as she heard a low snarl in the scrub. The bushes rustled slightly and parted as a male cat appeared. He stopped uncertainly.
The difference between the two was striking. The male cat, not yet fully grown, was long and lean, his muscles soft and untrained. The she-cat was large-boned and lithe, and her muscles rippled smoothly under her tawny hide.
She advanced slowly with a low rumbling noise in her throat. A few feet away from him she pawed the air questioningly. He responded gently and they fawned playfully for a few minutes with swinging paws and guttural noises.
Suddenly the big cat broke away and loped easily across the hill. He followed slowly and cautiously. She waited for the smaller cat to catch up, stood still as he playfully nipped her neck, then broke away again. This time he ran after her. She fawned him gently and started walking away from the valley.
The pumas, the larger one in the lead, had covered a few miles at this slow pace when the male stopped. He wheeled around and looked back toward the valley, then stared after the retreating she-cat. He bounded back a few steps, turned around, loped toward the valley, then stopped completely. Seeing his indecision, the big puma paused. She emitted her long, lonely scream.
As her scream finally died among the rocks, the young male cat, with a brief look over his shoulder at the valley, ran lightly across the scrub and caught up to her once more. She nipped his neck gently.
The she-cat abandoned the slow pace, now sure of the youngsters affection, and streaked back along the same path she had followed the night before. With only brief pauses to rest or slake their thirst, the two pumas traveled swiftly across the prairie under the glare of the sun. When the young male lagged wearily, she growled menacingly and cuffed him smartly with her paw.
It was far into the night when they reached the jumble of rocky hills and cliffs that rose sharply to the side of the prairie. The she-cat flopped wearily among the bushes at the base of a cliff; her companion sighed weakly and lay panting, his sides rising and falling heavily with every rasping breath. Exhausted, he slept.
The morning was still silent and dark when the puma woke him. He stretched and rolled luxuriously on the ground while she watched him patiently, then he bounded playfully to her side. She cautioned him with a low growl, turned, and moved sure-footedly up the cliff sides. He followed curiously, taking care to be as silent as she.
When the two reached the cliff overlooking the herd, a faint streak of dawn lifted the black night and replaced it with a dull, gray earth. The she-cat felt the smaller puma stiffen as they finally made out the dark shadows beneath them, milling restlessly. She made no move as he turned abruptly and eagerly made his way down the cliff, scrambling over the boulders and rocks.
An eternity seemed to pass as the puma waited on the top of the cliff. The whole world seemed to be holding its breathno bird chirped in the bushes, no snake emerged from its secret hole, no breeze rustled the scrub grass. Even the sighing of dawn seemed to cease. An involuntary shudder ran through the cat.
With little warning, a rifle cracked, then another, and a piercing, triumphant scream was cut off in the middle. A calf bawled for its mother, and the restless stamp of frightened cattle shook the earth.
Dawn let go with all her glory.
The wagon, the men, and the body of the young puma were gone. Hating the smell of death, the herd was drifting slowly away from the ravine. And at last the still form of the tawny cat on the cliff above stirred. She stretched her cramped muscles, padded slowly across the rocks to the cave, and disappeared.
In a few moments she returned with two young cubs in her mouth. While the soft, fat babies rolled playfully on the warm rock and purred contentedly, the puma lifted her head toward the distant mountains.
This story is protected by copyright (© 1962, 2000 Neta J. [Thiessen] Jackson).
You are permitted to print ONE copy for personal enjoyment. Any other copying,
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* The Sacrifice by Neta J. (Thiessen) Jackson was initially published as a Scholastic Magazine First Place short-short story winner in Literary Cavalcade, May 1962, pp. 20-22.