Aunty Droll and the Black Panther
Excerpt from: The Treasure in Silver-Lake
On board a Mississippi paddle steamer, reckless action had enabled the exhibition specimen of a travelling menagerie, namely a black panther, to escape from its cage, and harrass the passengers on board. First, the feline tackled Old Firehand, but the fearless hunter repelled it.
[The cat] averted its eyes from Old Firehand, and instead stared towards the fore deck where a girl, approximately thirteen years old, was standing motionless, as if paralysed from the shock, and holding both arms stretched out towards the bridge. She was the daughter of the lady whom Old Firehand had just a moment earlier saved from the panther. The girl had also been fleeing; but when she saw that her mother was in danger, she was gripped by horror and froze. She wore a light-coloured dress that was visible over a great distance, and it caught the panther’s attention. The cat took its paws from the stairs, turned away from it and bounded towards the child in three-metre leaps. The girl saw the terrifying creature approach and was incapable of either moving or making a sound.
“My child, my child!” the mother cried.
Those who witnessed it screamed or hollered as well; but none lifted a hand or foot to save the girl. There would not have been time for it anyway. No time? And was there truly no one who moved? But there was someone; in fact, it was the one who would have seemed the least likely, namely the young Indian [Nintropan-Homosh].
Together with his father [Nintropan-Hauey], he had been standing about ten paces away from the girl. When he realized the danger she was in, his eyes flashed. He looked to his right and left, as if he were searching for a way out; then he dropped the Zuni blanket from his shoulders and in the Tonkawa language called to his father:
“Tiakaitat; shai shoyana!” [Stay here; I’ll swim!]
He rushed up to the girl in two leaps, grabbed her by the belt around her waist, pulled her to the railing, and then hoisted her and himself onto it. He stopped for a moment to look back. The panther was behind him, and just then prepared to jump. As soon as the paws of the animal left the ground, the young Indian jumped from the railing into the water. So as not to land next to the animal, he had directed his leap sideways. The water closed above him and his burden. At the same time the panther sailed out over the railing and down into the river, since the animal had been unable to stop because of its momentum.
“Stop, engineer, stop immediately!” the captain had the presence of mind to issue his command through the speaking tube into the engine room.
The engineer immediately reversed the engine; the speed of the steamer slackened, with the wheels only churning enough to prevent drifting.
Since the danger to the passengers had disappeared, everyone hurried out from various hiding places and over to the railing. The mother of the girl had fainted; the father shouted:
“One thousand dollars for the rescue of my daughter, two thousand, three thousand, five thousand, and more, much more!”
No one took any notice of him. Everyone leaned over the railing to look down into the river. There the panther, as an excellent swimmer, was floating on the surface with its paws stretched out wide, looking for its prey—in vain. The daring boy and the girl were nowhere to be seen.
“They’ve drowned, they’ve drifted into the wheels!” the father lamented while he was tearing at his hair with both hands. At that moment the voice of the old Indian echoed across the deck from the other side:
“Nintropan-Homosh was smart. Swim away under ship, so that the panther doesn’t see. They are down here!”
Everyone ran across to starboard, and the captain ordered heaving lines to be lowered. And indeed, in the water below, hard against the hull of the steamer, the young bear slowly swam alongside it on his back, so as not to drift away. He had placed the unconscious girl across his body. The lines were quickly at hand; they were lowered. The boy fastened one of them under the arms of the girl, and while she was being pulled up on board he nimbly climbed up another.
Resounding cheers greeted him, but he proudly walked away without saying one word. However, when he passed the colonel, who had also been among the spectators [and who had mocked the Indians earlier], he stopped in front of him and loudly said, so that everyone could hear it:
“Well, does Tonkawa fear small, mangy cat? Colonel has run away with all of his twenty heroes; but Tonkawa has drawn big monster onto him to save girl and passengers. Colonel soon hear more about Tonkawa!”
The rescued girl was carried into the cabin. At that moment the helmsman, who had the best lookout position, pointed portside and called out:
“See the panther; see the raft!”
Everyone ran to the other side again where a new and no less exciting spectacle was on offer. Because of the events just mentioned, no one had noticed the small craft, which had been put together with tree branches and reeds, and which was carrying two people who were obviously attempting to reach the steamer from the right river bank. They were working with two makeshift paddles that had also been fashioned from branches. One of the people was a boy, the other seemed to be a woman wearing peculiar clothing. The passengers saw a head covering, akin to an old poke bonnet, and underneath it a full, red-cheeked face with small eyes. The rest of the body was clad in a wide sack or some such thing, the cut and style of which was undeterminable because the person was sitting down. Black Tom stood next to Old Firehand and asked him:
“Sir, do you know this woman?”
“No. Is she so famous that I ought to know her?”
“Indeed. To be precise, she is not a woman but a man, a prairie hunter and trapper. And there the panther is approaching. You’re about to see what a woman, who’s a man, is capable of.”
He leaned over the railing and called down:
“Hola, Aunty Droll, pay attention! This animal here wants to eat you.”
The raft was still approximately fifty metres from the steamer. The panther had been swimming up and down the side of the vessel, all the while looking for its prey. At that point it spotted the raft and headed for it. The person on it, who looked like a woman, gazed up at the deck, recognized the one who had called down, and then replied with a high-pitched falsetto voice:
“What good luck, is that you, Tom? I’m very pleased to see you if that’s necessary! What kind of animal is it?”
“A black panther that’s jumped overboard. Get away from here, quickly, quickly!”
“Oho! Aunty Droll doesn’t run away from anyone, not even from a panther, may it be black, blue or green. Am I permitted to shoot the beast?”
“Of course! But you won’t be able to do it. It belongs to a menagerie and is the most dangerous predator in the world. Flee to the other side of the steamer.”
No one except Tom knew the peculiar figure, yet everyone shouted their warning in the direction of the raft. The person, however, seemed to derive some kind of pleasure from playing catch with the panther. She worked the paddle with astonishing precision, and with the same falsetto voice called the question:
“I’ll certainly do it, old Tom. Where shall I shoot such a creature, if that’s necessary?”
“Into the eye,” Old Firehand replied.
“Alright! Then let the water rat come a little closer.” The person put the paddle aside and reached for the rifle, which had been lying next to her. Raft and panther quickly drew closer. The predator stared at the enemy with wide-open eyes; the person lifted the firearm, aimed swiftly and pulled the trigger twice. To put the gun down, grab the paddle and drive the raft back a stretch was the work of a single moment. The panther had disappeared. Where it had last been spotted a swirl marked its death struggle; then it surfaced again further downstream, motionless and dead; it drifted for a few seconds and was then pulled back into the deep water.
“A masterful shot!” Tom shouted down from the deck, and the other passengers enthusiastically agreed, except for the menagerie owner, who had lost his expensive panther as well as his tamer.
“There were two shots,” the odd-looking person replied from down below. “One in each eye. Where is this steamer headed, if it’s necessary?”
“It’ll go as far as it finds enough water,” the captain replied.
“We wish to board, and have built a raft on the bank for that purpose. Will you permit us to come up?”
“Can you pay your fare, Ma’am, or Sir? I truly don’t know whether to haul you up as a man or a woman.”
“As an aunt, sir. To be precise, I’m Aunty Droll, if that’s necessary. And talking of the fare, I’m used to paying with real money, or even gold nuggets.”
“In that case I’ll send the rope ladder down to you. Come aboard! We’ll have to see to it that we can get away from this unfortunate spot.”
The rope ladder was lowered. First the boy, who was also armed with a gun, climbed up; then the other person hung the rifle across her back, grabbed the ladder, pushed the raft below away and, as agile as a squirrel climbed up on deck where she was greeted by the stares of the incredulous, astonished passengers.