The Chase of the Panther (Part 1)

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Editor’s note: The following is extracted from The Adventures of Gérard, the Lion Killer, by Jules Gérard, translated from the French by Charles E. Whitehead (published 1856). All spelling in the original.

The panther is found in all the three French provinces of Africa, between the seacoast and the highlands, but generally nearest the coast.

There are two species; the same in color, but different in size. The larger species is about the size of a two year old lioness. Her relative, about one-third smaller. This animal has the peculiarities and cunning of a cat, with all its hunting propensities. Although, at first, its character and habits might be thought to resemble that of a lion, yet they are essentially different.

While the lion lives on the herds of the people among whom he dwells; the panther feeds on the products of the chase in the forest.

The one boldly descends to the plains, and takes his evening meal from under the beard of the Arabs. The other, not daring to leave the woods even in the night, follows the wild hog, the jackal or the hare; and not succeeding in surprising one of these, will make his humble meal on a partridge or a rabbit.

The voice of the lion sounds like a roll of thunder, and one could readily mistake the cry of a panther for the braying of a jackass.

I remember a hunt in which I had the chance of making the acquaintance of this beast, and comparing his voice with that of the other inhabitants of the desert. On the 16th of July, 1845, I was called by the people of Mahouna, in the district of Guelma, to free them from the presence of a family of lions that had taken up their abode in their country, and were abusing the rights of hospitality.

After reaching the place, while gaining all the information I could about the residence and habits of these importunate guests, I learned that they came every night to drink at the Ouled Cherf. I immediately went to the banks of the river, and found not only their tracks, but a regular path they had made in their constant visits.

The family was a large one, being composed of a father and mother, and three children of full age.

I was standing near the brook, in the company of a dozen Arabs, and the lions’ trail was a few paces in front of me. At one side lay a deep jungle, which according to the natives, was the covert of the royal family.

Old Taïeb, the chief of the country, coming to me and taking me by the arm, pointed to the numerous tracks deeply impressed in the sand, and said:

“There are too many, let us go.”

Already, previous to this, I had passed more than a hundred nights under the open sky; sometimes crouched at the bottom of a ravine frequented by lions; sometimes beating the forest paths, scarcely discernible in the obscurity. I had encountered troops both of lions and brigands, yet, fortunately, by the aid of God and Saint Hubert, I had always come out of the contest in safety.

Experience had taught me that two balls will rarely kill an old lion; and every time that I entered the field, I remembered in spite of myself, the past nights that I had found too long, either because the fever made my hand tremble when I had most need of its being steady, or because of an inopportune storm that shut out the objects around me for continuous hours. And I thought of moments when the roar of the lion had answered to the rolling of the thunder, so near to me, that I felt as if each flash of lightning was a blessing, and that if it would only continue, I would willingly repay the favor with the half of my blood.

And yet I cherished this loneliness from veriest love, and I sought it as a means of abasing the pride of the Arabs, who prostrated themselves before me — the Frenchman, not so much for the services gratuitously rendered at the risk of his life, but because he accomplished alone what they dare not do with their whole tribe.

Every lion that fell before my gun, and whose death I announced to the attending valleys by my signal fires, was a subject of astonishment, and they never comprehended how a stranger dare pass the night in a mountain-pass, that they avoided even in the day.

The Arabs are brave in war, and fearless in every position, except when placed before their master, who draws his strength, as they say, from God; therefore the hunter is not obliged to awake the douars of the mountain with a distant peal of triumph in order to obtain their respect. It is sufficient if he even leaves his tent in the evening, and returns at daybreak. It can be easily understood that this feeling of these people forced me to walk in the path that I had commenced; that it was a great relief against the emotions of the heart, sometimes too strong, and I do not fear to add against the anguish and loneliness of the night, in a country filled with every danger.

My national amour propre that caused me at first to enter into this career, having been once satisfied by repeated successes, I could have had the company of true and brave comrades had I desired it; but I became so passionately addicted to the darkness, the solitude, the danger and adventure, and so in love with myself and my gun, that I have passed many a night in the shadowy woods, until day break, even without hope of meeting game, and returned to my tent only with the day dawn, wearied in body, and exhausted in mind from the excitement of the adventure.

I do not know if there is one of my readers who will understand this feeling, for I did not myself, before I learned it by experience.

If one of my brother hunters will travel with me from evening till morning, during a whole month among these savage gorges, that seem made for the abode of the lion alone, and can there hear the voice of the lord of the desert, that imposes silence and terror on all created things, tolling the hours of the night, he will feel unknown emotions throbbing in his breast, and teaching him a new life; but the presence of one of his race will detract from the scene some of its beauty, and from the heart some of its emotions, and prevent his tasting and perhaps understanding the feelings of the isolated hunter.

From the moment that the first star springs to its place in the evening sky, until the red flush of the dawning, the solitary man has to be ever on the watch to catch the slightest motion, to hear the faintest sound, to judge quickly and decidedly whether he is mistaking stones for robbers, if he is following a path or not, if the thicket at his side conceals a foe, to listen and detect if he is followed, and in a word to remember that death is around and about him in a thousand forms, and there is no help or hope from living man but himself. He therefore feels a constant emotion, and yet always has the readiness and coolness to fight a battle which cannot always save him, but without which he is lost beyond redemption. These are the reasons that made me love the chase of the lion alone in the wilderness.

If there is among the hunters, for whom these lines are written, any one who would wish to enter the lists in order to comprehend the joys which outweigh all fatigue, I would say to him: The road is open, enter it who will.

But away with the covered blinds and ambuscades which are used by the Arabs! Away with the daylight hunt, either alone or with friends to drive away fear! Wait for the night, and at the first roar of the lion set out alone and on foot. If you do not meet the animal, try it again on the following night, and the next, and the next, until you have succeeded.

If you should live to come back from this hunt, and I hope you may, that I can resign to you my position, I promise you in exchange for the monument you otherwise would have received, a perfect indifference to death which you will thereafter be always ready to meet under whatever form it may come. I will promise you the esteem, affection, gratitude, and more besides, of an entire people, who are always hostile to others of your country and religion; and I will promise you last of all, the remembrance of scenes that will make your soul to laugh, and rejuvenate your old age.

But if you should not come back, which I should regret, both on your account and my own, you may rest assured that on the spot where the Arabs find your remains, they will raise, not a mausoleum as with us, but a stone, on which they will place a broken pot, some old iron, cannon balls, and a crowd of other things which, with the child of the desert, take the place of an epitaph, and signify, Here died a man!

It is well that you learn that among the Arabs a moustache and bearded chin do not make a man; but know also, that their simple epitaph, like the one I have given, has more meaning than many a higher sounding eulogium, and for myself I desire none other.

Please let this digression serve to relieve the monotony of the narrative I have left, and I will now resume.

The old Shiek Taïeb, at first insisted that I should return to the douar, and then that he should leave with me some of his men, who judging from the expression of their countenances as he spoke, seemed but little anxious to adopt the suggestion.

I refused both of these propositions, and urged the chief and his men to depart as the evening was coming on, and the lions might make their appearance at any moment.

The brave man prepared with regret to comply with my wishes, but before leaving, he asked my permission to say his evening prayer with his people, in order that God might have me in His guard during this night, in which not an eye would be closed on the mountain, but both great and small would listen with beating hearts for the sound of my gun.

There are those who have no faith in prayer; but as for me, and I would say it boldly, at the risk of the ridicule of atheists whose opinions are not worth the powder I fired away at sparrows when a boy, I believe in it with my whole soul.

The sight of these men of a wild and hostile religion, bending in prayer for a Christian, affected me sincerely, and I regretted that the rites I professed permitted me to join only mentally in a petition offered to the God of all men, in the forest and on the very spot where in a few hours I would be an actor in death’s tragedy.

The prayer having been finished, the Shiek arose, and coming to me, said:

“If God hears our prayers, and you will reassure those who love you; after you have killed your enemy, set fire to the pile of wood that my men will gather for you; so that when our ears are trembling with the sound of the conflict, our eyes may be gladdened with the token of victory, and I promise you we will return answer to it.”

I willingly agreed to Taïeb’s request, and in a moment an immense pile of dry wood was gathered together, and arranged so that a spark would kindle it. While the Arabs were engaged in this work with an alacrity very seldom seen among them, who are generally laziness personified, the Shiek remained by me and said,

“If I knew you would not mock at me, I would give you a counsel.”

“The words of an old man,” I replied, “are always to be honored.”

“Then listen, my son! If the lions come here to-night, the seignor with the big head (the Arabs give this name only to the adult male lion), will walk in front; don’t pay any attention to the others. The young ones are so old that the mother don’t take any further care of them, and all rely on the father. Therefore, I commend to thee the seignor with the big head, and, remember, if thy last hour is at hand it is he that will kill thee, and the young ones will eat thee.”

His men calling to him at this moment, he answered them to go on ahead, and that he would follow, and then leaning forward he put his mouth to my ear, and said, “He stole my finest horse and ten beeves.”

“Who did that?” I replied.

“He did it,” he answered pointing towards the slope of the mountain.

“But who is the thief?” I asked, impatient at the delay.

“The seignor with the big head.”

These last words were said so low that I could hear only the last syllables; but I divined his meaning and could not prevent myself from laughing outright.

A few moments and the Shiek had disappeared down the mountain path with his followers, and I was left alone by the side of the lions tracks, and in front of the mysterious lair which was already enveloped in the shades of night, and my eye ran along the different trails and endeavored to count the foot-marks imbedded in the sand, and my fancy pictured the seignor with the big head with his wife and family reposing on his couch in the jungle above, and measured the strength of my single arm with their united might.

The Mahouna gorge in which I was lying, is at once the most picturesque and the most savage of the African defiles. Fancy two high mountains running up to a sharp peak with their sides wrinkled by deep ravines, and shadowed by impenetrable forests of cork trees, wild olives and mastics. Between these mountains flows the brook of Ouled Cherf, a roaring torrent in winter, but in the torrid summer exposing its gravelly bed cut up by the paths of animals of every kind, that come thither to drink or bathe.

In looking at this valley from a distance it would appear to be inhabitable, and indeed there are found some families, who, when menaced on the plain, have taken refuge in this spot, as the only retreat against their foes, and a place to which they could never be followed. In spite of the ravages made by the lion in their families, they have never thought of emigrating, and when they take their annual count of their stock, they say so much for the lion, so much for the government, and so much for ourselves, and the share of the lion is always ten times greater than that of the government.

The paths between these two mountains are so narrow and precipitous, that even the Arab scout cannot follow them without danger. The fords communicating from the slope of one mountain to the slope of the opposite one, are equally difficult, and the path frequented by the lions, who came down to drink, was like the other, a narrow defile between bluff banks. At this point, the Ouled Cherf forms an elbow which shuts out the view from every side, so that the place where I lay in ambush, was like the bottom of a funnel, and so embowered that the rays of the sun, nor of the moon, that other sun for me, never penetrated to it.

Since that time, I have passed many a night in desert places, yet none to me has ever seemed so short. Seated at the side of a rose tree that overlooked the ford, I tried to catch some sound of the barking of a dog, or the lowing of an ox, or gleam of a watch-fire, or something, no matter how trifling, that would say to me, you are not alone. But around me every sound was stilled in the gloom of the forest, and as far as eye or ear could pierce, there was no sound or sight of human voice or skill; I was alone with my gun.

The hours stole by with noiseless tread, and the moon, that I had scarcely hoped to see, cast occasional bars of light through the foliage, giving a faint gleam that marked the outlines of surrounding objects.

It grew near eleven o’clock, and I was wondering at having to wait so long without any visitors, when I thought I heard steps under the trees. Little by little the sound became more audible, and I distinguished the steps of several large animals. In a moment more, I caught the sight of several luminous points of a fiery red color, that were moving towards me. I at once recognized the family of lions, marching in single file, and coming towards the ford I was guarding. Instead of five, I could count only three, and when they stopped at the water’s edge, at fifteen paces from me, it seemed to me that the leader, although of a height and bearing more than ordinarily imposing, was not the seignor with the big head, whose appearance had been described to me by the Sheik.

They had all halted on the bank together, and were regarding me with a look of doubtful astonishment, when I took aim at the shoulder of the foremost one, and fired.

A roar of pain and anger followed the ringing of my rifle, and awoke the echoes of the forest, and the smoke obscured my sight for a moment, so that I could not see; but when my eyes could pierce the veil, two of the lions were going back to the woods, at a slow pace, and the third was dragging himself towards me on his belly, with both shoulders broken.

I comprehended at once that the father and mother were not with the young lions on this party of pleasure, and I did not regret it even for an instant.

After thus being assured of the flight of the others, I directed my attention to the wounded lion. I had just rammed home my ball, when, with a great effort, that cost him a roar of pain, he bounded up the bank to within three steps of me; a second ball in the breast sent him rolling in the bed of the torrent. Three times he repeated the attack, and three times was felled into the ravine, by the fire of my gun; and it was only at the third ball that was fired directly in his eye, that the desperate beast fell over on his back dead.

With the first report of my gun, and the roar of the lion that accompanied it, I heard behind me, as though she been a delighted spectator of the conflict, the wild yell of a panther. At the second roar of the lion, following my second shot, another screamed from the left bank of the Ouled Cherf, and then another answered from further up the ford, and so through all the continuance of this drama, three or four panthers, whose presence I had never suspected in these regions, and whom I had never encountered before or since, held an infernal jubilee over the fate of a foe they had feared to attack themselves; and their sharper cry mingled with the thunder of the lion, and the report of my gun, to make the peopled forest like the theatre of a mysterious tragedy.

With one moment of pause after my last shot, to listen to the lessening echoes that died in the hollow gorges of the mountain, and to be certain that the lion was completely dead, I descended into the gully to look at my prey. It was an animal about three years of age, large, and full in flesh, and graced with teeth and mane that would have done honor to one of the patriarchs of his race; and I was well assured that he was worth my four charges of powder, and that the Arabs would hail his demise with a paean of joy.

I then thought of the signal fire that the Sheik had prepared for me, and applied a match to the pile of dry wood, and sat down the while by the side of my royal game to await the result. Slowly the flames climbed from branch to branch in the dry heap, reflecting from bush to tree-top, until they finally illuminated the dark slopes of the two mountains with a ruddy glare, like morning. Presently I heard a gun in the valley, and then a distant fusillade from the douar of the Sheik, the sign that my signal was recognized. The sound of victory was answered from douar to douar, till all the tents of Mahouna where ringing with the chorus of barkings and cries, and the rattle of fire-arms. All night I sat by my lion, and listened to the triumph that was answered from valley to valley. I alone on the hill-side, and all the country ringing triumph to my victory.

(Continue to Part 2)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.


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