It is coming this way!" Alberto shouted. There was a great crashing of brush as the dogs reversed direction and circled near. A small deer hurtled from a thicket, too panicked even to see us. The dogs changed direction again, their voices rising in fantastic chorus. It seemed that the entire Mato Grosso had erupted in sound.
We were running in a narrowing circle. From various sides I could hear the high-pitched shouts of the men. Above the din two shots exploded. I heard myself say, "Damn! They've shot the jaguar!" But over the frenetic bellow of the dogs Alberto yelled: "No! They are shooting into the air to keep the dogs running. The dogs are close. They are gaining on the jaguar." And then the barking changed. The long, insistent screams seemed to catch midway, as if the dogs were strangling and gasping for breath. Alberto shouted, "This way."
At first I did not see it, so perfectly did it blend into the blacks and grays and golds of the jungle's filtered sunlight. It watched me with fierce, amber eyes, as if it had known of this meeting all along and had been waiting for me to arrive. This was the big cat, the king of the New World, the prize at the end of a search that had begun almost 10 years before. Ten years of plotting and planning, and more than 10,000 miles of traveling, had led me finally to the base of this tree in the Mato Grosso (Great Forest) of Brazil, deep in the interior of South America.
The journey actually began in the dank, steaming rain forests of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico (SI, Jan. 26, 1959), where I first stalked the jaguar through 20-hour days and 100° heat. There was no trophy at the end of that trail, but I knew then with the certainty of obsession that someday, somewhere, I would meet the big cat.
For almost a year I thought it might be along the tangled jungle rivers of the Magdalena valley in northern Colombia, where two expatriate Americans had conceived grandiose plans for launching a modern floating sportsmen's lodge that "would move along with the game" into previously impenetrable equatorial estuaries. But the boat never got off, and the trip never came about.
I turned next to Venezuela, where I was offered not only a safari to match "the best in East Africa" but, unbelievably, I was guaranteed a jaguar. Outfitters occasionally complicate their lives by guaranteeing a client a shot at specific game (although the best ones seldom do), but this guarantee was unique. So, too, it proved later, was the outfitter. He managed to get himself killed in a duel over a misappropriated outboard motor.
I next tried Brazil. My inquiries there turned up numerous guides and outfitters, but the names of their previous clients are not to be found. Organized hunting as it exists in other big-game areas of the world simply does not exist in South America.
I had just about decided that setting up a jaguar hunt was as difficult as stalking the beast when I met an old friend, John Adams, at a cocktail party. He had spent considerable time in Brazil and knew many people there. John asked quite innocently if I had any interest in hunting jaguar and, if so, would I like him to set me up with his friend, Alberto Machado, "the best jaguar hunter in Brazil." It was a good party, and I was feeling mellow enough to humor his obviously warped wit. But the joke was on me a week later when inquiries turned up the astonishing information that Machado was indeed the best jaguar hunter in Brazil or, for that matter. South America.
For almost 20 years Alberto Machado had hunted the big cats. He had claimed more than 20 jaguars, 11 of which exceeded the measurements of the largest jaguar listed in the Boone and Crockett Club's Records of North American Big Game. South American trophies are not eligible for these records or Machado's name would fill half a page. Just this past summer, after five years of relentless effort, he had taken a rare black jaguar—possibly the first sports hunter ever to do so.
But Alberto Machado, a handsome, quiet and unassuming man, had neither a brochure to advertise his exceptional experience nor a particular interest in capitalizing upon it. For Machado, a medical doctor by training, hunting is purely sport, a luxury made possible by a prosperous vaccine business.
Machado was anything but enthusiastic about a female safari, but after much urging he finally agreed to guide me into the heart of the Mato Grosso. He warned that it would be hot, rough and rugged. Insects would be bad, and the rains might come at any time. We would have to bring everything with us, including food, because where we would hunt there were no provisions to be had.
It was the end of October and of the Brazilian spring when we started into the interior. We—my husband, Bob Grimm, and I—had flown the 4,820 miles from New York to Rio nonstop in nine hours. The 900 miles from Rio to the frontier town of Corumbà, just east of the Bolivian border, and from there 160 miles north to the area we would hunt, took 16 hours in a series of aging and assorted aircraft. This was the very center of the South American continent, where the long fingers of the Paraguay River reach north to the southernmost source of the even greater Amazon, and thousands of tributaries form a watery web across the land. In these vast basins lie the most extensive tropical forests to be found anywhere, many of them still peopled by ancient tribes and unpenetrated by the white man. The state of Mato Grosso is the second largest in Brazil, bigger than France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium and Holland together. Yet its total population is less than 900,000, concentrated principally in the three main centers of Corumbà, Cuiabà and Campo Grande. The bulk of the state's 487,479 square miles is a steaming morass of jungles and swamps. Here the rivers are the only roads, and the airplane is the beast of burden.
In the dry season the only tracks through the wilderness are cattle trails, littered often with the bleached skeletons of fish left behind by last season's floods. In November, when the rains drench the lowlands, drowning vegetation, animals and not infrequently men, the pantanal, as this area is called, becomes a vast waterlogged breeding ground for billions of insects. Throughout this annual cycle of destruction and renewal the great forests that punctuate the swamps like lofty exclamation points, giving the Mato Grosso its name and substance for its formidable reputation, provide hunting ground and haven for the jaguar.
The Brazilians do not call the big cat jaguar, or tigre, as it is known in most Latin countries, but on√ßa (pronounced onsa), and they say the word in reverent, melodious tones. Nor do they speak simply of on√ßa, but always of the on√ßa, as if it were not a species (Felis on√ßa) but a single, supernatural creature. And well does the on√ßa justify their awe.
There is no cat so difficult to hunt (a fact best emphasized by the absence of jaguars in a majority of otherwise extensive trophy collections) nor is there any animal on this side of the globe so challenging. The jaguar's range is part of the reason. Most of the big cats of the world have managed, however unwillingly, to coexist with man. Tigers, in fact, inhabit some of the most densely populated regions in India. But the jaguar cannot withstand even the first fingers of civilization. Wherever people move in, it moves out. Thus it is found only in the wildest and most remote parts of the New World.
And, unlike the other big cats, the jaguar will rarely if ever come to a bait. It chooses its own quarry and makes its own kills. The African leopard, in contrast, seems to consider it perfectly natural to find a dead antelope high in a tree. The lion welcomes a free meal, and the tiger seldom finds cause for suspicion in the ropes that tether a young bullock close to its haunts. All these cats—the African leopard, the lion and the tiger—can eventually be lured to the hunter, and this is the way they generally are taken. But the hunter must go to the jaguar.
For almost three weeks I followed the on√ßa's trail through the Mato Grosso, galloping on horseback along the muddy edges of blossom-covered swamps, wading seas of wild cotton that stood higher than my head, crawling into brush so thick we could hack only narrow tunnels through the thorny maze, probing the dark caverns of ancient forests.
These days were some of the best I have ever known. They began usually in the predawn, before the sudden equatorial sunrise burst in a blaze of red and orange over the pantanal, while the ground was still wet with dew and the scents of night creatures were fresh in the air. We left camp each morning in a confusion of horses, dogs and Indians whose faces changed mysteriously from day to day as new Indians came to hunt with us and old ones grew tired of the chase or restless to move on. Our basic party was five—Alberto, Bob, myself and two wiry, wonderful vaqueros named Darzenha and Joseha.
Darzenha, our headman, was a fearless, devil-may-care caboclo who looked as if he could outdistance the dogs as he raced before us through the jungle on huge bare feet. He flirted uninhibitedly with the few Indian women we met, prancing and strutting like a peacock, blue shirt open to the waist and a great gold chain around his neck. The women giggled. The children adored him. And the men, including husbands, respected him. But Darzenha's two real loves were his machete and his .45.
Years ago he had been a wild and heavy drinker, and there are rumors of a man having been shot on one of his wetter nights. In any case, Darzenha suffered the Mato Grosso's severest penalty; his revolver was confiscated. The one he wears now is an elaborate Smith & Wesson, a gift from Alberto after one of their hunts together. The price of the gift was temperance, and Darzenha paid it eagerly.
Far more useful in the jungle was Darzenha's machete—a knife that hangs from every belt in the Mato Grosso. Without the razor-sharp 18-inch blade no man could travel far in the jungle. In the hands of an expert like Darzenha, it felled vines, thickets, branches and even small trees at a single swift stroke. His technique was always an indication of how the day's hunt was going. When we were just scouting he meticulously manicured our paths, trimming away the most unobtrusive vines and twigs. But when the dogs quickened their pace, as if they might be on game, Darzenha chopped only what was necessary and ignored the finishing touches.
When we lost our way, as we did several times, it was Joseha who would step in and take charge and point out the direction. He was always somewhere close, quiet and unassuming, lacking the flamboyance and color of Darzenha but none of his strength and courage. Joseha's 65 years in the jungle had taught him most of what there is to know about the country and had given him the wisdom to let the other fellow make the first mistake.
In contrast to the muscular Darzenha, Joseha was tiny even by Brazilian standards. He stood just barely 5 feet tall and could not have weighed 100 pounds. But he rode only the fastest, most rambunctious horses, and there was never any question between them about who was boss.
Our horses were remarkable. I have ridden many in many places, from Thoroughbred Arabian stallions in Persia to champion Tennessee Walkers in our South, but these were the most enjoyable I have ever been on. They are unique to the Mato Grosso, small, sturdy descendants of Arabian-English stock, bred over generations to meet the particular demands of the pantanal, from which they get the name pantaniero. There are thousands and thousands of pantanieros in the Mato Grosso, where every mare is used only for breeding and no self-respecting vaquero would be found riding one.
The pantaniero is somewhat smaller than a polo pony—the right size for getting under low-hanging branches—with much of the polo pony's agility. Unlike the latter, it never seems to tire. Nor does the heat bother it at all. For 20 consecutive days that were often 10 and 12 hours long, I rode my horse, Cabral, harder than I have ever dared ride any horse, over much rougher terrain, with only brief rests and little if any relief from the sun. Yet never once was he lathered. And no matter how hard the day had been, he was always game for one last gallop.
In their own way, the dogs were as remarkable as the horses and every bit as important to the hunt. Our pack boasted some of the best jaguar hounds in the Mato Grosso, although appearances belied this fact. There is no special jaguar breed, and looks clearly have little to do with jaguar-hunting ability. We had dogs that resembled oversized pointers and others that looked like terrier-eared dachshunds. Basically they were hounds, but they came in an imaginative variety of colors, shapes and sizes. The best were fierce and vicious fighters, and all were tireless hunters.
Although most hunts wound up on foot, every hunt started out on horseback with the dogs. Sometimes we rode toward a specific destination; more often we had no destination at all. We would range one day to the east, another to the west, looking for signs of vultures that would indicate a kill nearby and giving the dogs opportunity to cover the area for the scent of a cat that might have passed in the night. If an Indian brought us news of a fresh cattle kill, we investigated, because the on√ßa, although it may roam great distances, sometimes stays in one area for a few days after a big kill. Beef is perhaps its favorite food, and the Mato Grosso offers an unlimited supply. On the big cattle farms, or fazendas, which stretch over hundreds of square miles, herds range wild and unprotected most of the year.
Generally the on√ßa will kill cows and calves, but even the gross, humped patriarchs of the herd are not safe. Where we hunted, an on√ßa had recently killed a 1,200-pound bull and then dragged it more than two miles to water. With gourmet thirsts as well as tastes, the on√ßa prefers to dine where it can also drink. During the Mato Grosso's seasonal drought, water is much scarcer than steak.
Food, in fact, presents so little a problem to the on√ßa in the pantanal that it frequently does not bother to return to yesterday's kill, varying its diet of beef with a horse or an alligator. Alligators, or, more accurately, the South American cayman, are everywhere there is water. Sometimes they are so numerous in a single pond that their protruding eyes make the surface resemble an inverted egg carton. Sometimes the tangled sea of vegetation that turns fetid lagoons into brilliant patchworks of greens, yellows and vermilions hides them entirely from view. Often, as we plunged across such swamps or rode along their edges, we set off sudden reptilian explosions that stirred plants and water into whirlpools all around us.
As formidable as the cayman seems, the jacaré, as it is known in Brazil, is no match for the on√ßa. The big cat can flip a 5-footer onto its back as easily as a tabby might flick a goldfish from a bowl, drag the jacaré with remarkable speed out of the water and deftly slit open its white belly with a single stroke.
Unhampered by traditional feline aversions to water, the on√ßa is a strong and skilled swimmer, and it makes the most of its talent. Day after day the hot, fresh scent of a jaguar only minutes ahead of us ended abruptly at the edge of a stream or pond. Sometimes the cat swam straight across and we picked up the scent on the other side, but more often than not it swam a safe distance before again taking to land, or it crossed back and forth, creating numerous false trails that sent the dogs into a frenzy.
About the only animal that is safe from the jaguar in water is the capivara. This whimsical creature, which looks like a round, furry guinea pig and swims like a fish, is the largest rodent in the world (up to 200 pounds) and the biggest nuisance on a jaguar hunt. Our dogs found the capivara irresistible, and they frequently ran it instead of jaguar. This is a breach comparable to a quail dog pointing hedgehogs and is equally as frustrating. There were hundreds of capivara in the area, and each day we lost precious time rounding up errant hounds. To me the word capivara soon came to be one of the two most hated words in the Portuguese language.
The other word was nada, which means "nothing." Chase after long wearying chase ended with the same dismal word: nada. The jaguar were here. Of that we had no doubt. Many mornings we would find new tracks in the mud; we found kills so fresh that the blood ran hot; we found the on√ßa's bed, still warm from recent sleep; we found its signature raked deep in the bark of trees.
Each time the dogs raced off we followed, sure that this, finally, was it. When the chase led into brush too thick for the horses we went on foot, running and stumbling down sunless, vine-crossed corridors, ignoring slashing thorns and the scorching bite of fire ants. Worst of all the stinging, biting, burrowing creatures that we met on these headlong charges were the maribondi, huge wasps that attack en masse. I stepped into a nest of them on the first day. Suddenly I felt stabbing pains shoot across my back and down my arms and legs. I looked to see black wasps the size of quarters all over me. I tried to brush them off as I ran, but they hung on as if glued. Finally I threw my rifle to the ground and literally ripped them from my body. Up ahead Alberto shouted," Come on. Don't fall behind. There is an on√ßa ahead." For one of the rare times of the hunt, I did not care.
There were many other interesting creatures in the Mato Grosso. One morning Bob called me to look at "something unusual." Just next to my cot, caught in the beam of his light, was a tarantula that was easily eight inches across. It was the most grotesque thing I have ever seen. Long reddish-black hair covered its body like thick fur, and it seemed to lean back on the rear sets of its eight legs as it probed the light with two clawlike feelers. Alberto said, "Stay back. Caranjueira. Very fast and very venomous!" One of the Indians rushed up with his zagaya, the long spear that goes along on every jaguar hunt, and pinioned it to the ground while another doused it in gasoline and set it afire. I had dressed without a light in exactly that spot about 10 minutes before. There were snakes in the area, too, including bush-masters and fer-de-lances, two of the deadliest in the world, but they kept their distance and so did we.
Despite Machado's warning, we had hoped for numerous game meals. These hopes never materialized. We shot one peccary, which was delicious, and several birds, which were only fair, but basically the forest produced remarkably little natural food. Part of the reason was that we could not afford to spend time hunting any game but jaguar. But beyond this, most amazing to us was that so little of what a man could eat grew wild anywhere in the area. In the midst of so much seeming plenty, there was not an edible berry, nut, fruit or root to be found, and enough of the plants and leaves were poisonous to make sampling them unwise.
If our diet was drab, our camps were unexpectedly luxurious. Instead of tents, we slept in tile-roofed huts complete with cots and mattresses. The 234-square-mile Fazenda da S√£o Jo√£o, on which we were hunting, had five such huts in as many outposts, each manned by a native family. We were a welcome and unusual change in the utter isolation of outpost life. My clothes and my jewelry especially were objects of long, silent study on the part of the wife and children. Candy rapidly bridged the language barrier with the latter, and my packet of baby pictures proved most fascinating of all not only to the wife, Nativa, but, surprisingly, to the men as well. They carefully passed them from hand to hand, peering at each in the flickering candlelight. Periodically, for the rest of the hunt, they asked me to bring them out for another look.
These people were distinctively different from any of the natives with whom we had hunted in other parts of the world. They were easily the best fed, in spite of a monotonous rice-beans-beef diet, and certainly the most pleasantly independent, with wry humor and unexpected gentleness. Even the toughest man would stop what he was doing to cradle a crying child or to commiserate with a dog that had been scratched by a thorn. Invariably they included the woman, Nativa, in everything, as they did us. Nor was there ever a suggestion of subservience. We ate together, relaxed together, hunted together, and no amount of money could have bought this comradeship.
When the men stopped for the several-times-daily ritual of guaranà, that mysterious Indian potion produced in the Amazon and believed throughout the interior to give one strength and I am not quite sure what else, they always mixed one for us, and we drank from the same glass. Nor were we "Bwana" or "Memsahib"—or their Brazilian equivalent—as we have been on hunts elsewhere in the world. Bob was "Bop" and I was "Jeen—ee," which always made me think I should rise in a puff of smoke from some magic lamp.
We spent 10 days at this first camp, and we were on jaguars nine of those days. All eluded us. "They are very smart," Alberto said. "If once they have been run, they learn, and they will never tree. If they do not take to the tree, they will always outrun us." Just as we were growing most depressed, word of fresh cattle kills came from another outpost. We hastily loaded gear, cots, mattresses, dehydrated food and other assorted paraphernalia into a very unstable-looking two-wheeled wagon pulled by eight oxen and began the two-day journey. Our luck was even worse here. There had indeed been jaguars in the area and they had killed widely, but by the time we arrived they were gone. We spent three days hunting from this camp, and we did not once come across a fresh trail. The dogs were tired after so many days without rest, and this part of the fazenda was extremely dry, which made tracking difficult. Our time was running out.
The three remaining outposts reported no signs of the on√ßa anywhere. One by one, the Indians who had been hunting with us had left, and we were now down to our original party of five. Although we would again lose two days in traveling, we decided to return to the first camp where we had at least found fresh signs of the on√ßa at almost every turn. This time, however, we were going to hunt by new rules. Instead of 4 a.m. we would all rise at 3, so that we could be farther from camp by sunup, which was the best hunting part of the day. We would cut lunch breaks in half and cut rest breaks out entirely. We had only two more days to hunt, but we were going to put everything we had left into them.
From the moment we returned to Camp I, I felt somehow convinced that our luck had changed. Heading out through the darkness the next morning, we felt a special excitement in the air. The waking songs of the birds were merrier than ever before. New dogs had mysteriously joined the pack in the night, and a smiling young gaucho had ridden four days to hunt with us. Almost immediately commotion broke out ahead, and halfway up a tree we saw a fat, golden-furred anteater. Joseha was disgusted. It was the only time we ever saw his calm disturbed.
"It is the very worst kind of bad luck," Alberto explained. "To see an anteater means that there will be bad hunting all day. Joseha says we might just as well go back now, for there will be no on√ßa today."
"Tell Joseha," I said to Alberto, "that we come from the other side of the equator, where everything is opposite to here. His summer is our winter. His fall is our spring. What is bad luck for him will be good luck for us. Now I know that we shall meet the on√ßa."
We did not strike a hot trail until late afternoon. It led us finally into thick brush, through which we chopped and crawled in one direction and then another. The dogs seemed confused, and they backtracked several times. Finally we realized that one of them had stopped in the center of a massive mound of thorns and briers. It was growling in long, low rumbles.
We spent almost 10 minutes chopping through the brush, and still we could see nothing. All the time the dog growled as he might over a bone that another dog was trying to take from him. Then Joseha dropped to his knees and disappeared into the thicket. The dog growled louder. Joseha said something in a sharp voice. Minutes later he reappeared carrying a small, crumpled ball of spotted fur about the size of a Siamese cat. The dogs had found the den of the on√ßa and destroyed its cub.
We were heartbroken. It was a beautiful silken kitten no more than a few days old; a tragic, needless waste. But we could not blame the dog. Small jaguars smell like big ones. Fighting cats to the death is the dog's job and lifetime training. We could not expect it to stop to consider age.
We covered the area all around the den until almost dark. Nearby we found the freshly killed carcass of a capivara on which the on√ßa had been feeding.
"The mother is nursing and will be close by," Alberto said. "She will return to her cub. We will come back to this place tomorrow before daylight, and we will find her here. The female is much braver than the male and she will be very dangerous. She will know we have been here and will be angry and waiting for us. If you do not shoot straight, we might lose a dog—or one of us."
Conflicting thoughts ran through my mind as we rode out the next morning to our rendezvous with a moment for which I had been waiting 10 years. Had I the right to ask these people to risk their lives for my whim? Could I keep them from doing so if I wanted? And had I the right to risk my own life, if, indeed, that was what I was doing? Would I be brave before this great cat? Or would I panic? I had stood the charge of an angry elephant and had faced a grizzly bear in thick alders. I had been sounded by a shark and stalked by a Cape buffalo. But each situation is different. Each challenge is new. I had no guarantee that I could meet this one as I had met the others. In those last moments on that long ride of the final day I prayed that no one would be hurt. And I prayed that I would be brave.
We left our horses at the edge of the brush and started in on foot. Nobody spoke. We moved swiftly in single file along yesterday's trail, the dogs fanning out ahead, testing the ground and air for scent. Then the lead dog howled, and the others took up the cry. We plunged after them, glancing nervously into the brush as we ran. The dogs circled, racing past us. They circled again, still howling as they backtracked a second time. They stopped at the edge of a broad bayou. Some of the dogs swam across. The rest remained on our side, quartering the bank. The barking died to a weary yap. Then from the thick bushes across the bayou it started again, loud and excited.
Darzenha nodded and motioned us to follow. He waded into the thigh-deep water. At his right a dark shape broke upon the surface. A tremendous bellow, like a lion's roar, rolled on the morning still. Darzenha drew his .45 and took another step forward. I started in behind him. From our left came another roar. Joseha moved forward and put his hand on my arm. He motioned me to wait. It was a reprieve. The murky water was now dotted with eyes, and piranhas plucked at the surface. Expressionlessly Joseha tossed a stick into the water in front of Darzenha. Instantly another huge shape rolled to the surface. All around us the terrible, thunderous roars of the jacarés filled the air. Darzenha leaped for the bank, pushing me before him, and we raced along the water's edge looking for a way around. Some of the dogs had made it across, but in that sinister pool one of us surely would not have been as lucky.
The dogs now had a long lead. Their barking slowed to a rhythmic yap. Darzenha shouted, encouraging them with the shrill jungle calls of his ancestors. The trail wound hopelessly through the thickets. The dogs increased their lead. Then just ahead we saw daylight. Darzenha stopped short. Alberto said, "The on√ßa has crossed the open." Far ahead we could see the dogs bouncing like rubber balls across the tangled marsh grass. Catching up with them on foot was impossible.
We ran back to where we had left the horses hours before. Stretching themselves in a final surge of speed, the horses brought us to the edge of a forest, and in a single motion I was out of the saddle and off at a run. Somewhere ahead the dogs had stopped. They were barking in a steady chant. I was so close behind Darzenha that I stepped on his heels when he came to a stop. He listened, translating the messages of the dogs. Bob ran up behind, his sleeve red from the long slash of a thorn. We all moved forward, slowly, approaching the dogs a step at a time. We could not see them.
"It is on the ground," Alberto panted. "The on√ßa has chosen to fight. You will have but an instant to shoot. You will see no more than a flash of yellow moving at you in this brush."
Something yellow moved directly ahead. Instinctively I raised my rifle. It was a dog. Three more materialized in the bushes. They were moaning and crying at the base of a dense patch of briers.
"Be ready," Alberto said. "Don't look down. Keep your eyes and your rifle at waist level. That is where you will see the on√ßa. Not on the ground."
Darzenha moved alongside me and hacked at the thicket. We inched forward. The dogs crawled ahead on their bellies, growling in low rumbles. At my shoulder Alberto whispered, "Soon. Now it is cornered. It must come this way. Be ready."
My mouth was dry. For the thousandth time I rechecked the safety, not daring to take my eyes from the dark shadows ahead. Suddenly one of the dogs sprang forward, disappearing under the brush. His whine rose to a howl. Darzenha slapped the brush with the side of his machete. "Nada" he said. "Nada! Nada! Nada!"
The on√ßa had tricked us again. We spent an hour repacking the area, trying to figure out how. Unquestionably it had stopped in that brier patch, but it had either escaped from the other side or the dogs had been running the trail backward from its beginning at the bayou. We remounted and started back toward camp, still not quite believing that the chase was ended. Of the dozens of chases we had made before, none had so completely aroused our hopes and our imaginations.
We had long ago missed lunch, the sun was now at its most unbearable peak and we were all very much ready for a recharge of guaranà at the first shady spot. Even the horses, for the first time, were beginning to show signs of wear; the dogs were exhausted. They dragged themselves across a horseshoe of mud to a shaded point on the other side. But in the instant that the first dog touched the bank, everything changed.
As if electrified, he threw his head into the air and bellowed. The other dogs bounded alongside him. In a blur of white and brown they were off across the point, yipping hysterically as they tore along a trail that was not minutes, but seconds old. In the mud the deep impression of a paw was beginning to fill with water. This was no mother seeking a missing cub. This was a giant disturbed at its midday rest. In one voice we yelled "on√ßa !" and all the weariness vanished with the fury of our ride.
A branch struck me on the shoulder, knocking me off balance. I rolled to the ground, grabbing my rifle as I fell. Darzenha was already on foot, and I knew this time that he would wait for no one. Never had the barking of the dogs been so wild; never had the on√ßa been so close. All the frustrations of the past three weeks infused me with a strength that was not my own. I tripped and stumbled and fell, but my feet kept moving forward, carrying me around logs, over vines, under bushes, guided only by the screaming of the dogs and the flash of Darzenha's blue shirt in the distance.
It seemed that the trail went on forever. It broke out into marshes, doubled back into tall palms, twisted and turned through thorn thickets. I was bleeding and bruised and blinded by perspiration. Suddenly I was thrown headlong, my foot caught in a noose of vines behind me. Frantically I tried to rip myself free. I could hear Alberto coming behind me, the dried roots of other seasons crackling like kindling beneath his feet. I shouted for help, and he swung his machete at my shackles. As my foot pulled free I felt the blow of his knife on my heel and did not know until later that its blade had slashed with a razor's stroke through a quarter inch of leather to my sock inside. At that moment I knew only that the on√ßa was near.
There was no pattern now to the chase. We raced in circles, bumping into each other, plunging blindly through thickets that led nowhere and down trails we had just run. All around us great trees rose like the spires of a vast cathedral, blocking out the sun. We zigzagged among them, following fleeting blurs of color.
"Here it comes," Alberto shouted. "Behind you! Behind you!" Even as I swung around, the dogs veered off in still another direction.
"It is circling," he yelled. "Be ready!" A dog flashed by me, howling hysterically.
"This way," Alberto called. "This is it!" A colony of monkeys screamed agreement, and the harsh screech of a macaw accented the din. Alberto sprinted forward, waving his arms in wild gesture. I ran after him, no longer sure of what was happening. I did not know if he had seen the on√ßa or not. Darzenha burst from the brush at my side, his .45 held high in the air. Up ahead I could see the others break into a clearing. We were all converging on one spot. Everyone was yelling at once.
Then abruptly there was quiet. The incessant, insistent sounds of the jungle stopped as though by command. The only noise I was conscious of was the pounding of my own blood. I felt myself crouching as I scanned the brush on all sides. Then I looked up—and there was my jaguar. It was hugging the forked branch of a tree above me. For a moment we studied each other. In the lengthening afternoon shadows a long tail flicked once, and a great golden paw punched menacingly at the still air. As I sighted along the barrel of my rifle, I could see sinewy muscle begin to flex and tighten beneath the spotted shoulder. But by then the contest was over.
At the end of the hunt, the author holds her trophy which, if eligible for Boone and Crockett listing, would he the seventh largest.