The Princess And The Puma

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The Princess and the Puma is a short story by O. Henry. This tale combines humor and romance, featuring a man’s funny attempt to save the woman of his dreams, only for things to go embarrassingly wrong. This is a retelling. Enjoy

In the vast expanses of the Texan prairie, there had to be a king and queen, naturally. The king was a rough old guy who wore six-shooters and spurs, and his shouts were so loud that rattlesnakes would dive into their holes in fear. Before he amassed 50,000 acres of land and more cattle than he could count, folks called him “Whispering Ben.” Once he achieved his vast wealth, he became known as O’Donnell, “the Cattle King.”

The queen was a Mexican girl from Laredo, who became a good, mild wife and even taught Ben to tone down his voice enough to avoid breaking dishes. When Ben became king, she would sit on the porch of Espinosa Ranch and weave rush mats. Their wealth grew so much that upholstered chairs and a center table were brought down from San Antonio in wagons, and she bowed her smooth, dark head, sharing in the fate of Danae.

O’Donnell and his queen ruled their expansive ranch with the same ironclad resolve and gentle touch. Their story is not the focus here, however. This tale is about their daughter, the princess, and a remarkable incident that involved a happy thought and a lion that messed up.

Josefa O’Donnell was their daughter, the princess. She inherited her mother’s warmth and dusky, semi-tropic beauty, and from Ben, she got bravery, common sense, and leadership. Josefa, while riding her pony at a gallop, could put five out of six bullets through a tomato can swinging from a string. She could play for hours with her white kitten, dressing it in ridiculous outfits. Without a calculator, she could tell you off the top of her head what 1,545 two-year-olds would bring at $8.50 each. Espinosa Ranch stretched forty miles long and thirty miles wide, mostly leased land, and Josefa had explored every inch of it on her pony.

Every cow-puncher on the range knew her and was loyal to her. Ripley Givens, foreman of one of the Espinosa outfits, saw her one day and decided to propose a royal marriage. Presumptuous? Not really. In those days in the Nueces country, a man was a man. And, after all, the title of cattle king didn’t imply real royalty. Often, it just meant its owner was a master cattle rustler.

One day, Ripley Givens rode over to the Double Elm Ranch to check on some strayed yearlings. He set out late on his return trip, and it was sundown when he reached the White Horse Crossing of the Nueces. From there to his camp was sixteen miles. To the Espinosa ranch, it was twelve. Givens was tired, so he decided to spend the night at the Crossing.

There was a fine water hole in the riverbed. The banks were covered with large trees and brush. Fifty yards from the water hole was a stretch of curly mesquite grass—dinner for his horse and a bed for himself. Givens staked his horse and spread out his saddle blankets to dry.

He sat down against a tree and rolled a cigarette. From somewhere in the dense timber along the river came a sudden, angry, shivering wail. The pony danced at the end of its rope and snorted in fear. Givens puffed at his cigarette, but he reached for his pistol belt and spun the cylinder of his gun. A large gar fish splashed into the water hole. A little brown rabbit hopped around a bunch of catclaw and sat twitching its whiskers, humorously looking at Givens. The pony went back to eating grass.

It’s good to be reasonably watchful when a Mexican lion sings soprano along the arroyos at sundown. The song might mean that young calves and fat lambs are scarce, and that it has a taste for you.

In the grass lay an empty fruit can, left by some previous visitor. Givens saw it with a grunt of satisfaction. In his coat pocket tied behind his saddle was some ground coffee. Black coffee and cigarettes! What more could a rancher want?

In two minutes, he had a little fire going. He started for the water hole with his can. When he was fifteen yards from the edge, he saw, between the bushes, a side-saddled pony with its reins down, grazing a little to his left. Just rising from her hands and knees on the brink of the water hole was Josefa O’Donnell. She had been drinking water and was brushing the sand from her hands.

Ten yards to her right, half-hidden by a clump of sacuista, Givens saw the crouching form of the Mexican lion. Its amber eyes glared hungrily; six feet from them was the tip of its tail stretched straight like a pointer’s. Its hindquarters rocked with the motion of the cat tribe before a leap.

Givens did what he could. His six-shooter was thirty-five yards away on the grass. He gave a loud yell and dashed between the lion and the princess.

The “ruckus,” as Givens called it later, was brief and somewhat confused. When he reached the attack line, he saw a dim streak in the air and heard a couple of faint cracks. Then a hundred pounds of Mexican lion landed on his head and flattened him to the ground.

He remembered calling out, “Let up, now—no fair gouging!” Then he crawled out from under the lion like a worm, with his mouth full of grass and dirt, and a big lump on the back of his head where it hit the root of a water-elm. The lion lay motionless. Givens, feeling wronged and suspicious of fouls, shook his fist at the lion and shouted, “I’ll wrestle you again for twenty—” and then he came to his senses.

Josefa was standing where she had been, calmly reloading her silver-mounted .38. It had not been a difficult shot. The lion’s head was an easier target than a tomato can swinging from a string. There was a teasing, maddening smile on her lips and in her dark eyes.

The would-be rescuer felt the fire of his failure burn deep. Here had been his chance, the chance he had dreamed of; and Momus, not Cupid, had overseen it. The satyrs in the woods were probably holding their sides in silent, hilarious laughter. It had been like a vaudeville act—Signor Givens and his funny knockabout routine with the stuffed lion.

“Is that you, Mr. Givens?” said Josefa, in her sweet, deliberate voice. “You nearly spoiled my shot when you yelled. Did you hurt your head when you fell?”

“Oh, no,” said Givens quietly, “that didn’t hurt.” He stooped and dragged his best Stetson hat from under the beast. It was crushed and wrinkled to a fine comedic effect. Then he knelt down and softly stroked the fierce, open-jawed head of the dead lion.

“Poor old Bill!” he exclaimed mournfully.

“What’s that?” asked Josefa sharply.

“Of course, you didn’t know, Miss Josefa,” said Givens, with the air of one letting magnanimity triumph over grief. “Nobody can blame you. I tried to save him, but I couldn’t let you know in time.”

“Save who?”

“Why, Bill. I’ve been looking for him all day. You see, he’s been our camp pet for two years. Poor old fellow, he wouldn’t have hurt a rabbit. The boys will be heartbroken when they hear about it. But you couldn’t know that Bill was just trying to play with you.”

Josefa’s black eyes burned steadily upon him. Ripley Givens met her gaze successfully. He stood, pensively rumpling the yellow-brown curls on his head. Regret mixed with gentle reproach in his eyes. His smooth features showed undisputable sorrow. Josefa wavered.

“What was your pet doing here?” she asked, making a last stand. “There’s no camp near the White Horse Crossing.”

“The old rascal ran away from camp yesterday,” answered Givens readily. “It’s a wonder the coyotes didn’t scare him to death. You see, Jim Webster, our horse wrangler, brought a terrier pup into camp last week. The pup made life miserable for Bill—chasing him around and chewing his hind legs. Every night, Bill would sneak under one of the boys’ blankets to sleep and hide from the pup. I reckon he must have been desperate or he wouldn’t have run away. He was always afraid to leave camp.”

Josefa looked at the body of the fierce animal. Givens gently patted one of the paws that could have killed a yearling calf with one blow. Slowly, a red flush spread across the dark olive face of the girl. Was it the shame of a true sportsman who has brought down ignoble prey? Her eyes softened, and the mockery left them.

“I’m very sorry,” she said humbly; “but he looked so big and jumped so high that—”

“Poor old Bill was hungry,” interrupted Givens, defending the deceased. “We always made him jump for his supper in camp. He’d lie down and roll over for a piece of meat. When he saw you, he thought he was going to get something to eat.”

Suddenly, Josefa’s eyes widened.

“I might have shot you!” she exclaimed. “You ran right in between. You risked your life to save your pet! That was brave, Mr. Givens. I admire a man who is kind to animals.”

Yes, there was even admiration in her gaze now. After all, a hero was rising out of the ruins of the anti-climax. Givens’s expression would have earned him a high position in the SPCA.

“I always loved animals,” he said; “horses, dogs, Mexican lions, cows, alligators—”

“I hate alligators,” Josefa instantly disagreed. “Crawly, muddy things!”

“Did I say alligators?” said Givens. “I meant antelopes, of course.”

Josefa’s conscience drove her to make further amends. She held out her hand penitently. Tears glistened in her eyes.

“Please forgive me, Mr. Givens, won’t you? I’m just a girl, and I was scared at first. I’m very, very sorry I shot Bill. I wouldn’t have done it for anything.”

Givens took her hand. He held it for a moment, allowing the generosity of his nature to overcome his grief for Bill. It was clear he had forgiven her.

“Please don’t mention it again, Miss Josefa. It would have frightened anyone the way Bill looked. I’ll explain it to the boys.”

“Are you really sure you don’t hate me?” Josefa moved closer to him impulsively. Her eyes were sweet and pleading with genuine regret. “I would hate anyone who killed my kitten. And how brave and kind of you to risk getting shot to save him! Very few men would have done that!” Victory wrested from defeat! Vaudeville turned into drama! Bravo, Ripley Givens!

It was now twilight. Of course, Miss Josefa couldn’t be allowed to ride to the ranch house alone. Givens resaddled his pony despite the animal’s reproachful looks and rode with her. Side by side, they galloped across the smooth grass—the princess and the man who was kind to animals. The prairie smells of fertile earth and delicate blooms were thick and sweet around them. Coyotes yelped on the hill! No fear. And yet—

Josefa rode closer. A little hand seemed to grope. Givens found it with his own. The ponies kept an even pace. The hands lingered together, and the owner of one explained:

“I was never scared before, but just think! How terrible it would be to meet a really wild lion! Poor Bill! I’m so glad you came with me!”

O’Donnell was sitting on the ranch porch.

“Hello, Rip!” he shouted. “That you?”

“He rode in with me,” said Josefa. “I got lost and was late.”

“Thanks,” called the cattle king. “Stay over, Rip, and ride to camp in the morning.”

But Givens declined. He needed to push on to camp. There was a bunch of steers to start off on the trail at daybreak. He said goodnight and trotted away.

An hour later, when the lights were out, Josefa, in her nightgown, came to her door and called to her father in his room across the hallway:

“Hey, Dad, you know that old Mexican lion they call the ‘Gotch-eared Devil’—the one that killed Gonzales, Mr. Martin’s sheep herder, and about fifty calves on the Salado range? Well, I took him down this afternoon over at the White Horse Crossing. Put two bullets in his head with my .38 while he was jumping. I recognized him by the slice missing from his left ear that old Gonzales cut off with his machete. You couldn’t have made a better shot yourself, Dad.”

“Bully for you!” thundered Whispering Ben from the darkness of his royal chamber.

Also Read: A Story of Regret

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