THE BOY AND THE PANTHER
As we eased out the back door an into the fog Tippy quietly asked me if I have the matches. Of course I whisper back we will need them to start the fire.
You really think we can kill a rabbit he asks? I do all the time I tell him. Usually hit em right through the head.
We’re whispering because we don’t want to wake my Mom and Dad and we don’t want to scare off the game we are hunting, in this case what ever we can find. Oh Mom and Dad know we are going alright and it wouldn’t surprise me if they are laying in the bedroom laughing at us not needing anyone wake us up for our big hunting trip but having to be woke up every morning for school about this same time. Bobby? Tippy says. What if we run into a bear? I don’t even have a gun and all you have is that single shot 22! You ever seen a bear I ask Tippy . No but they could still be around don’t you think? Nah I say back! There are people all over these orange groves all the time and the noise of the tractors and trucks and all the people would scare them off. I started to say that my dog would let us know if one was around but she has already left us and went hunting on her own. A little female Manchester Terrier. Black as the ace of spades with just a spot of white at the base of her throat and the tip of her tail. Hence her name Tippy. Not to be confused with the friend with me. Don’t know why his parents called him Tippy but they did so there you are. And besides she can smell the rabbits before we could see them and run them off anyway.
What you think we should do if we see one, shoot him? This catches me by surprise since Tippy lives just 2 or 3 miles down the road and should be as familiar with the area as I am I think. They are some of our nearest neighbors. He should know that if I were to shoot a bear with my rifle it would just make him mad. That would be kind of like back talkin Mom or Dad either one. Not a good plan! Run I say, these orange and grapefruit trees would be to easy for them to climb and then where do we go. Just run! Every man for himself and we laugh. I’m not to much in favor of that stand real still and hope he goes away idea I tell him. ME NEITHER he said!
Besides have you ever even heard of anyone seeing a bear around here? No he answers kind of slow like and while he answers I am thinking you know he isn’t really from here. His family just moved in a couple or years back and you can tell they are not really one of us.
Don’t get me wrong here we are not a family of hunters. All my vast knowledge comes from people such as James Fennimore Cooper, or Jack London. What I learned was more in the line of subsistence farming in preparation of this hobby farming of today.
Slowly easing along the road, that’s right we just walked down the road, that is our game trail, we constantly look for that ever elusive wild game. Looking down each furrow we pass for rabbits I turn and look back at the house. We can’t see it through the fog and it is probably no more than a few hundred feet behind us. By this time we are talking in normal tones knowing we can’t be heard; even if we cussed out loud. Well the rabbits or other wild game that we are supposedly hunting might hear us but that is not really the big issue. Sure we want to kill say a rabbit build a fire and cook it and pretend we could have survived the frontier life just like our ancestors did. But as I look around me I have to admit that killing our food is not a real issue this morning. It is hanging everywhere around us. We are in a citrus grove after all and even after harvest there is still fruit that has been missed or left for one reason or another. Hunger is not a real concern. But then it never was as I think about it. Money was in short supply but not food. And yes there were no doubt times I thought we should be buying our food just like all those kids I went to school with, even our neighbors. But probably not while we were eating. So on we go like teenage boys of that time and today too discussing weighty matters that probably only we two are qualified to handle. Did you see the new girl at school? The one with blond hair Tippy asks? As though I could miss a new face in a school of about 150 total, in all six grades I would guess. Yeah I saw her I said. Is she in your class? No Tippy responds. Me neither I say. What’s her name? John said it was Ivy then he called her poison Ivy Tippy tells me and we both laugh both knowing what that meant. We thought. The talk doesn’t stop our big hunting excursion though.
Rather quickly actually the fog begins to rise as the sun in SE FL rises very quickly heating the air and land along with it since it is so flat and as the day begins to warm we become less and less attentive to our hunting and speak more often and more openly of these serious matters. By the time we reach the western boundary of the grove my father works on the fog is gone and the day is beginning to warm. Not hot yet but not the chilly and damp 65 degrees we woke up to either. When we get there Tippy says hey Bobby which way now. I guess that is only normal since it is my home hunting grounds so to speak. I decide we should try the property just north of us since I have hunted that one a few times and don’t really have permission to go on the one behind us. This one requires wading a canal that separates the two properties though. Not deep and not wide particularly. Maybe 20 foot at the widest. Now I have never crossed it like this. I use the road across but that is about a mile back in the direction we just came. But most importantly I AM NOT GOING TO ADMIT THIS TO TIPPY.
Hey this is no big deal I tell Tippy as he looks skeptically down the bank. How about snakes and gators he asks? Well they are always around I say nonchalantly. In truth I am looking nervously at that water and all the weeds and vegetation we have to force our way through as well. And I betcha there is mud knee deep on the bottom. But again I ain’t gonna to point that out to him though. It might be good for a laugh. What I do say though is that there is a drainage ditch from the other side so we don’t have to climb that steep grassy bank. Just walk up into it.
When we each stalled as long as pride will allow us we take our pants off, so they will be dry on the other side and slide and or walk down the 8 to 10 foot bank into this treacherous Amazonian waterway that is no doubt infested with all kinds of dangers. Knee deep and hardly moving water that I only fish once or twice a week so I should KNOW what is there. But OH THE GAMES our imagination can play. The drainage ditch on the other side does provide a nice and easy escape without the need of climbing a weeded bank and no water in it. It is bordered on both sides with Australian Pines. The two banks are close enough that with the overhanging limbs what we come up into is almost a tunnel. Dark damp and very quite walking due to the carpet of long soft needles that stayed constantly damp on the ground. Slippery but quite.. Anyone could be as quite as an Indian in here if he just watched for down limbs and twigs.
Australian Pines were not native to our part of the world. They were brought in from Australia of course because of their rapid growth and wide limb coverage. Locally in my area at least the idea was as windbreaks to protect the orange groves. Another one if the many importations that did not do what was wanted but have hung around to become a problem.
It being my expedition, so to speak, I had to be the first down the bank, the first to cross, the first to venture into this unknown and potentially dangerous territory and you can bet the first to get my pants back on. HEY you don’t hang around other people any longer than you have to in your underwear. Even if it is another boy and a friend to boot. Nope you don’t do that. Tippy on the other hand took a little longer in all these steps I was dressed by the time he got across. Me being the patient type that I have always been I wasn’t going to just stand there and watch while he got dressed. Not Cool! You don’t do that. Besides he was even wearing shoes and socks. You know how long it takes to get them back on? Me? Nah. Shoes were something worn when you had to. So I was barefoot had my pants back on and was ready to go before he ever even got across the canal. Luckily neither one of us was attacked by an alligator or bitten by a water moccasin or even an overzealous snapping turtle. Any of these would have been preferable to the horrors our minds hand conjured up I’m sure.
While waiting for him I eased off down the bottom of that drainage ditch no doubt practicing my stealthy Indian walk until I found whatever it was that told me to climb out. No easy task now mind ya. The bank was covered in these same damp soft slick pine needles that made the bottom so easy to walk quietly on. Up I went no doubt holding on to saplings to keep me from falling and reached the top in short order. This grove just like all the rest has a single track road around it so I am standing on the edge of this road just looking around and waiting and glance to my left. A PANTHER!!! SH–!!!!! standing there looking at me every bit as surprised as I was no doubt.
My survival instinct kicks in. At least I guess that is what it was. Felt a whole lot like fear though if you want to know the truth of the matter. Up goes the rifle and with a quick shot more or less in it’s direction back into the ditch I go. I say it’s because I have no idea if it was male or female. Didn’t seem important at the time somehow. It was only about 30 or 40 feet away and in all truthfulness, I did not hang around to check.
Later, and every time I have though of it since, my thoughts went something like: Beautiful animal. Tawny brown color with upright ears and large round eyes. I had always pictured them as black. I even noticed his face around the eyes and sides of his muzzle were shaded darker, softly black, than the rest of him, or her as it may have been. And I fervently hope I did not hit it. Even to this day. Not much of a trophy hunter here.
Tippy of course wants to know what I shot. I tell him I saw a panther and shot AT it. Don’t know if I hit it but I shot in his general direction. I doubt he believed me so up the bank he goes and of course it did not hang around for a second viewing. I am not sure if he ever really believed me.
That of course was the high point of the big hunt but I did take him on to show him where I had one time seen the biggest bass I had ever seen. Huge I mean! Laying up in shallow water in the shade. All I had was a cane pole with earth worms for bait on a hook for blue gill. Rod and reel? Your kidding right. Dad had on old rod about 5′ long with a small Level Wind reel that I never saw him use. After I tried it I found out why. You could spend a lot more time untangling the birds nest in the line than fishing. Anyway I eased that worm up in front of him I say and he just inhaled, no swallowed, it. I would have never said inhaled then probably more like swallered it. Had him almost on land too and the line broke. The big one of course got away again.
I’m not sure my friend believed that story Neither but it happened! REALLY. IT DID! I wouldn’t lie to you.
That pretty much finished up that big hunting trip and no we did not kill that rabbit or cook our breakfast over an open fire like our ancestors had. What we did do though was have a very memorable day as young boys. At least for me. Tippy missed the good part and I don’t know if he ever really believed it happened. For me it was an experience on the farm that no one that I knew could ever match.
What did it look like? To me, even then, it looked very much like a Mountain Lion. My perception was and no doubt still is heavily influenced by TV and the few pictures I had seen of them in books. Yes we had a TV on the farm, that was not a Hobby Farm. It had been in our house for probably two or three years by then and we had two full time channels, well unless the weather was bad, and one that we could get sometime if one of us went out and slowly turned the antenna until it was just right. The TV viewing was kinda like the party line phone. Bad weather equals bad service.
I for one am not convinced that we were not better off then. Almost the only killings we heard about was on the westerns we watched and at the most that was usually one and he was the bad guy.
The Photos? They are not mine. I borrowed them from photo bucket. Incidently the one I saw was not nearly as fat as these but looked every bit as health and a lot more sleek