Resting her paddle across the bow, Carmen watched the scenery glide by. Her dad’s strong strokes kept the canoe moving at a steady pace. A full day of drifting, paddling and portaging the Nueces River had melted her early morning enthusiasm.
“Let’s call it a day and rustle some grub?” Paul said.
“I’m ready! I’ll build the fire. You clean the fish.”
”That’s a deal. When we get past these bluffs and around the bend, we’ll find a camp site.”
The black panther lay flat against the big oak limb above the game trail. He hadn’t eaten in three days. With rhythmic easy snuffs, he inhaled the scents floating past his nostrils on the gentle breeze, testing them. He listened intently, flicking one ear, then another. He must eat soon.
Not far away a doe and fawn moved cautiously down the trail, heading for the river. The acorns beneath the oak would get their attention after they drank. Flicking her ears, the doe paused, listening and looking, sniffing the air. Taking a few soft steps she moved forward, before repeating the process.
The panther saw the doe and the fawn before he smelt them. As they came closer, his tail twitched ever so slightly. Screech…… The grinding of the canoe’s keel striking gravel at the river’s edge startled the animals. The doe and fawn wheeled and fled. The panther, crouching lower, blinked slowly and often, watching the movement at the river.
“Dad! Did you see those deer?” Carmen whispered, pointing. “Did you see their tail-flags bouncing as they ran away?”
“Yes. They were coming down that trail to the river. We may see something else after we get quite.”
Unloading the canoe, they erected a pup-tent and stored their sleeping bags and duffle.
“I’m getting wood” Carmen shouted, heading towards the oak. Picking up an arm-load of twigs and dead-fall she returned to the campsite and made a fire-pit. Soon, fire-tongues were flickering through the dry kindling. She would need more wood to have coals for cooking and afterwards, a night fire. Her dad was kneeling by the river wielding a knife on the featured highlight for the evening meal.
Carmen had picked up a few small sticks when she noticed a large limb beyond the big oak. Lightening had blasted it from the tree some time ago and it was just what she was looking for. The powerful aroma of burning oak and fried fish were about to become a reality. Looking into the tree to see where the branch had been attached, the flicking movement of the panther’s tail drew her attention to the cat’s dark silhouette.
“Dad!” she cried, dropping her wood and backing up.
The panther roared as he stood on the limb, an awesome intense scream so powerful that Carmen sank to the ground in fear. Blinking, the panther looked behind him, looked at Carmen, and then leaped gracefully to the ground, disappearing into the shadowy underbrush.
“It’s okay, Carmen” her dad said, kneeling and holding her from behind. “He’s gone. He was waiting for those deer. We messed up his plans. They don’t usually bother people, thank God.”
Later that night, after enjoying cornmeal battered fish fried in an iron skillet, several canned accessories and chocolate pudding, Carmen regained her composure. Refreshed, she stretched out on her sleeping bag in pajamas, both ends of the tent opened to catch the night breeze. She kept thinking about the panther, and her dad’s tales of how they screamed like a woman being murdered. She didn’t hear any night sounds she thought were unusual, but still….. It was a long time before she tripped into sleep.
Early in the night, something warm, wet and raspy dragged across her instep. “Panther!...............” As if shot from a cannon, she ran leaping over the red coals of the dying fire, racing across the clearing to the safety of an old mesquite. From behind the tree, she looked back.
In the moonlight, her dad was crawling out the front of the tent. At the rear, a cow had her head inside, licking her sleeping bag. Carmen hugged the roughed-bark tree, laughing so hard a startled owl fled above her.
“Dad! That cow licked me.”
“Good. Lick her back and get some sleep.”
Sweet are the memories of the watch-care of our heavenly Father, and our earthly father, especially when nights were dark.
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