It was only a matter of seconds before the creature pounced. I could see it clearly from my little knoll on the hillside that overlooked Maria's farm. I couldn't understand why she wanted to live in such a wild country, surrounded by brush and long grass. The house seemed so remote and isolated as all farmsteads do.
A wisp of smoke fluttered up from the chimney of the house and drifted slowly towards me. Good. The big cat was down wind of me and had neither seen me nor smelt my presence. That would give me the only chance I had to get nearer and achieve a quick clean shot, for one shot I had, and if I missed then I knew the wounded animal would be upon Maria and I would be too late to save her. One bullet, one shot. My heart thumped as I struggled to decide whether to fire in the air and hope that the animal would flee. But what if I did fire to scare it and it turned on me? I would die as surely and quickly as a bull in an abattoir. And what of Maria then? She would be on her own, defenceless, a mere morsel of food waiting to be snapped up. No, I decided almost before I had finished compiling my thoughts, the only way to save the girl I loved was to shoot to kill.
I looked down at my hand. It was no longer the steady calm limb I used for shooting the marauding bandits. Then I had only my own life in my hands. But now everything had changed. I had a purpose in life. Maria had agreed to marry me and to lose my own life now was unthinkable. And if I died...I couldn't contemplate it any longer. I shook my head and wiped the sweat from my eyes. As fast as I could, I crept forward through the long grass, hoping that the breeze was strong enough to carry the sound I made away from the ears of the stalking animal.
I could still see it clearly. In seconds, it was under the perimeter fence and heading towards the green lawns of Maria's garden. I could see her clearly as well, her face pale and delicate, shaded from the afternoon sun by a light blue sun hat. She was reading a book as she often had been doing whenever I walked from town to visit her. It rested lightly on her lap amongst the folds of her long pink dress. She turned a page and as she did so she looked up and rested her eyes.
The big cat stopped. The cunning of the feline species had always amazed me. It was approaching her from the side and must have known that she might see it through the corner of her eye, should it continue to stalk her. It stood perfectly still, its ears forward, its pink nose sniffing the air. The tip of its outstretched tail flicked from side to side. It didn't see me, or at least it chose not to be distracted if it had. I didn't stop. Every second was vital. The closer I got to the stalker the surer I could be of saving Maria.
I could see her face clearly now. Wildly, my thoughts flooded through my brain, memories of our first kiss, the first walk we shared beside the river, our first day out in town. She dipped her head again and continued to read, oblivious of anything else around her. My heart missed a beat. The animal had begun to move forward again, only now, as if to make up for lost time, it had broken into a stealthy, foot-padded trot. There was no mistaking its intentions now. It was only yards away from the one I loved more than anybody or anything in the world. I sprang to my feet, raised my rifle and aimed. It seemed to take for ever to lift the bead to the creature's shoulder blade, and when I had it where I intended, my eyes blurred with the trickling sweat from my forehead.
Hurriedly I swept my sleeve across my face and then took aim again. It was harder this time. The cat was moving faster and was already dipping and placing its weight on its back legs to give it the spring to launch itself into the air. There was no time left.
The gun barrel followed it as the cat took off from the ground. The bead of the sight arched through the air against its shoulder blade as it sailed in slow motion towards Maria I squeezed the trigger and the gun fired. Despite the shot, I heard nothing. The recoil of the rifle driving my shoulder backwards was the only realization I had of firing the gun. All my other senses were directed towards the one I loved with all my heart. Had I fired too late? Or was it too soon? Was the cat dead as it floated towards her as if in a solution of thick syrup. Had I hit it? I must have hit it, I was a good shot. My friends had said I was the best rifleman they had ever known. I had to have hit my target. I stood there, mesmerized. The cat's front legs were still outstretched towards my Maria, but I couldn't tell if they had life in them or not.
At the last moment, Maria must have realized that the animal was coming towards her for she had turned her head before I fired my one and only shot. And when I fired and then waited for the cat to begin to lose its life-filled form, for one brief moment Maria looked beyond it and seemed to smile at me, before setting her eyes once again upon the animal that was descending upon her.
‘What took you so long?’ Maria asked, as she caught the cat that had jumped up on her lap. She let it settle into the soft material of her skirts, stroked it gently on its head and then looked back towards me.
"Had a run in with a few bandits," I stated matter of factly as I swung the spent weapon over my shoulder.
She smiled again, glanced at my wooden rifle and tilted her head to one side. She studied me with her large blue eyes as her delicate fingers swept a tress of hair from her face. ‘I thought perhaps your mum had made you stay in again,’ she said, smiling at me once more.
I shrugged my shoulders. ‘Don't do anything I don't want to,’ I stated, taking hold of the handles of her wheelchair. She watched my face as I looked at hers. We seemed to be able to read each other's thoughts.
‘I'm glad,’ she said softly as I wheeled her towards the house. ‘You can come with me. Daddy is taking me for the cast off this afternoon.’
updated by @bryce-thomas: 01/28/16 10:42:11PM