A hand reached down and picked up the bloodied cloth. Yusef, his lips quivering, kissed the blood-stained girdle of his eldest son. His chief husbandsman, Joshuah walked up to him, “I have never seen anything like this, Master.” he said incredulously, waving his arms over the field. “Never!”
All around the men was a scene of devastation. The kraal had been ripped asunder, and the ground within the rock cleft and by the cave entrance was littered with dead sheep. One or two live animals wandered aimlessly grazing in the morning sun, oblivious to the carnage and the loss of their flock mates.
Two more of Yusef’s men combed the field for clues to the disappearance of the boy.
“It is a leopard,” said one of the helpers, “But I have never seen an animal kill with this ferocity-”
“And David?” asked Yusef.
The two men looked nervously at each other, and one held out the shepherd boy’s harp. Yusef closed his eyes in grief and looked away. The three other men stood by, exchanging helpless looks.
Yusef screamed and ripped his tunic, tearing it in two down the middle, baring his chest. He dropped to his knees and gathered up handfuls of dust and smeared them on his forehead and chest, crying aloud in anguish. With a final frustrated roar, he stood up quickly.
Fury burned from his eyes beneath his dark eyebrows. “I shall not rest until I destroy the beast that did this!” He turned in a flurry of robes and marched swiftly to his waiting horse. He galloped back into the valley towards his house and his hunting dogs and his husbandsmen followed as best they could on foot, running breathlessly after their master.
The ears of the leopard pricked suddenly at the sound of the baying hounds, and she sat up, instantly awake. She recognized the sound and knew she was in danger. She stood up and sniffed her cubs and the infant, then walked to the mouth of the cave, testing the wind with her nostrils, then melted into the underbrush. In an instant, in a flowing gracefulness, she climbed the rock face and stood at the crest of the small canyon.
The hunting party was still a fair distance away, but her eyes darted, following the movement in the distance.
The dogs knew they were getting close to their prey. The spoor was fresher, and the side trails of the leopard’s continued presence in the area told them they were approaching her lair. Her smell was strong here. They bayed with an increased intensity, and Yusef and the handlers knew the cat would be nearby. All eyes scanned the rocks and crannys for a sign of the leopard. There was a reward of seven shekels for the first man to spot a leopard, and an extra seven if it turned out to be the animal which had carried David off.
The leopard watched the hunting party from her perch. Her eyesight was far keener than the dogs and men who pursued her, but she also knew that they were more stubborn than any other adversary she could face. She would have to move closer to them to lay a trail across their path to catch their attention, then she would have to lead them away from her babies, as far up the mountainside as she could go.
The baying of the hounds echoed faintly and caught the ears of the shepherd boy, David. He held up his hand and his dusty and tired rag tag party of ex-slaves came to a disorderly halt. Yohanna came up behind David.
“What is it?” she asked, brushing her hair from her eyes. Her face was swollen and bruised
“Dogs!” said David. “They have the scent of their quarry in their noses!”
“Are they after us?” asked Naña nervously.
David narrowed his eyes as he stared into the distance. “No, I think if the slave traders were after us the sound would come from behind us,” he said pointing back the way they had come. “If I am not mistaken-” he said slowly, his face brightening, “the lead dog is Nehushtan!”
A murmuring arose amongst the small group, and they all clutched for talismans that weren’t there to ward off Evil.
David laughed. “No, no! Not Nehushtan, the Evil One. Lord Protect us from Him! Nehushtan is my father’s favourite hunting dog!”
The tension drained from the crowd.
“We are saved!” cried one of them, “We are saved!”
The crowd was jubilant and David winced and turned pale, clutching his side. Only Yohanna noticed. “What is it?” she asked.
David recovered. “It is nothing!” he lied bravely.
“Nothing?” Yohanna pulled his hand away from his side. David”s tunic was wet and sticky with coagulated blood. “You’re hurt! You idiot! Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It’s nothing!” insisted David.
Yohanna turned and called to Naña, “Come quickly!” Naña was at their side in an instant.
“David is hurt!” Yohanna whispered to Naña.
“No, it’s-” David‘s knees collapsed, and he slid to the ground.
Yohanna held him in her arms. David’s eyes fluttered, “Go to the hounds!” he croaked hoarsely, “Find the hounds and you will find my father!”
The leopard had miscalculated badly. She had crossed her old trail, but the hounds were closer than she had first thought. Her way up the mountain and her only avenue of escape had been cut off. She had to return through the tiny wadi where her family lay hidden. She was trapped and knew it. She turned tail and ran.
The handlers released the dogs. They knew they were close enough to their prey to close in. With Nehushtan sounding the charge, the baying pack scrambled enthusiastically ahead of the men.
Her ears laid back, the leopard plunged into the stream and bounded through the shallows yowling in a low gutteral voice. She knew she was in deep trouble now, and that taking to water was a delaying tactic only. She leaped from the water then whirled to face the dogs as they clumsily descended into the small canyon on the opposite bank. She crouched down and yowled in defiance.
The five dogs stopped at the stream’s edge, and howled across the water at the leopard. They paced back and forth, unable to decide on an attack. They knew enough not to enter the water, as they would be at a disadvantage attacking the big cat from a lower position. The dogs would be at the mercy of the slashing claws as they tried to struggle up the stream bank from the water. They had her cornered, and they bayed across the water, their voices competing with the cat’s answering yowls, knowing that the men, their hunting partners, would arrive as they always did, to close in on the quarry.
Suddenly, unable to contain himself, one of the younger dogs threw himself into the water. With a great deal of effort he bounded toward the cat. The other dogs, one by one followed his lead, hesitating, then flinging themselves into the water. Yusef and Joshuah appeared on the crest of the canyon. “Nehushtan!” called Joshuah.
The old dog glanced behind him at his master with an apologetic look, then dove into the water with the rest of the pack. Yusef, Joshua and the rest of the hunting party scrambled quickly down the rock face calling back the dogs, but it was too late. The blood lust was upon the pack. The men charged after the dogs in a desperate attack to try and save their canine hunting companions. None of them, men or dog, gave any more thought to their own personal safety, they were propelled forward by the need to protect themselves as a single entity, of which they were all a part.
The air filled with the cries of the cat, the dogs and men. A dog yelped as he was ripped open with a single slash of the cat’s claws. Two more closed in on the cat’s flank, but were driven back by a furious rain of claws. A spear missed the cat by inches and she batted it out of the way. She kicked and slashed with lightning speed, screaming in rage at her adversaries, but she was terribly outnumbered and was beaten back by the pack of men and dogs. She backed almost to the den entrance, but realizing her cubs were in danger, with renewed fury, she charged into the pack of men and dogs. She fought valiantly, but hopelessly outnumbered, went down beneath the rain of spears and teeth.
Yusef lifted a huge rock above his head and hurled it downwards, crushing the cat’s skull. She kicked reflexively as she died. The dogs still ripped at her lifeless body growling, but the men were spent of their bloodlust. Yusef pulled his dagger from his sheath, and knelt over the body. He pushed the dogs out of the way and disembowelled the leopard. Her intestines spilled into the dust, and the dogs sniffed at the entrails, but the death had sobered them.
Yusef pulled the stomach from the carcass and hacked it open, wincing as the smell of bile spilled from the wound. Discarding the knife, he reached into the stomach and pulled out the contents. He spread the eflluent on the ground and examined it closely. Joshua leaned over Yusef, and lifted up a bone. Yusef looked at Joshua enquiringly, but Joshua shook his head.
“It is not the one,” he said simply.
At that moment, a mewling sound reached their ears. One of the hunters reached into the underbrush and pushed it to one side, uncovering the den entrance. The men crowded around the small cave and stared in shock at the small baby nestled between two leopard cubs.
The hunters clutched at talismans to ward off the jiin. A human child with a leopard mother was powerful magic, and none of them had any spells to ward off the effects of the damage they had done. They had obviously stumbled across a Mystery, and none knew how they could atone to the gods to correct their blunder. This was no ordinary leopard they had killed.
At that moment. Yusef looked up and saw Yohanna sillhouetted at the crest of the canyon. He shielded his eyes against the sun. Some of the men turned to follow his gaze.
“The witch of Endor!” cried one bringing his spear up defensively.
“Who are you?” called Yusef.
“Are you Yusef of Arimithea?” called Yohanna.
The men gasped in horror that the witch knew his name.
“I am!” declared Yusef bravely.
“I bring you news of your son!” she shouted. She began to climb downwards.
Yusef turned to his men. “Take the cubs and the cub-child!” he commanded.
The men clutched each other. They dared not touch the sacred children for fear that they may be enchanted by touching the magical beings.
Yohanna approached the group of men, and they huddled in fear of her as well. They were trapped between the witch and the jiin, and knew of no way to escape. Yusef sighed in exasperation. “Is not the Faith in the Lord enough to protect you?” he asked the huddled hunting party. They all shook their heads in unison.
“Are you a witch?” Yusef asked Yohanna.
Yohanna stopped a few paces from the men, her face frozen in fear. She was now in a difficult situation. The problem with being accused of being a witch was well known by followers of the Way. If the men truly thought she was a witch, and she denied being a witch, they would assume she was lying. If she said yes, they would believe her. She glanced quickly at the knot of frightened men.
“No!” she said confidently, making her mind up in a split second.
At that moment, the baby began to cry.
“What’s that?” Yohanna asked, stepping past the men.
She recognized the child immediately.
“Miriam!” she cried out, “Sister Miriam!”
The men gasped. The turn of events was too much to handle, and the men fell to their knees and offered supplications to God, pleading to be taken away from this place of abomination.
Yohanna lifted the child, and faced Yusef.
“My son!” he declared.
“You must come quickly!” whispered Yohanna as she moved past Yusef.
“Bring the cats for the Rabbi!” Yusef commanded Joshua and followed after Yohanna.