The Lion Sleeps Tonight

He sat on his haunches in the light drizzle, hugging his rifle as the sounds of the jungle surrounded him. As black of the night pressed in on him. The sound of his companion in the bushes and the flickering light of the lantern his only comfort. The shadows danced with the faint flame in the middle of its glass cage, sometimes sharpening, sometimes receding, making the surrounding jungle a little larger or just that much smaller as it did so. He crouched a little lower and hugged his rifle a little tighter, keeping it an angle so that the water falling through the tree above him didn't find its way into the barrel.
Blinking to get the water out of his eyes, he strained his ears hoping to pick up any sound. Taking the night watch had been a mistake, he was too young for this, but somebody had to do it. He looked at his companion picking his way back through the puddles and felt a little better. Much older than him, his companion was an experienced hunter, and bore the scars to prove it. He'd had a few close calls before, almost lost an arm in one of them and there he was, still standing, limping but still standing. If only he would talk a little more. It seemed like he was constantly hunting. Rarely making a sound. He moved like a cat in spite of his limp, surefooted, lithe, the rifle seeming like an extension of his arm.
The old man settled down with his back against the tree. They sat silently in the small, flickering circle of light, watching for any movement in the darkness beyond it. The sound of the crickets lulled the young man towards sleep. A sharp jab in the ribs woke him and awake he stayed, keeping vigil, trying to look in all directions at the same time. The old man indicated that his eyes were useless, his ears, on the other hand were immensely useful. The youth listened, not just heard. The jungle seemed to take on a life that hadn't been there before. The sounds of the crickets seemed to jump out of the night, the rhythm seeming like a symphony. The wind whistling through the swaying trees. The drops of rain falling into the puddles surrounding him. The sounds of the jungle as it slumbered.
The old man listened for something that was still awake. His ears hunted for something like himself, for something that hunted in the night.
The lion stood absolutely still, watching the two men sitting in the shelter of the large tree. The water slid down his coat, matting his fur, but he was unaware of it. His eyes, as sharp as they were when he was a cub, were riveted to the two men. His body, still as a pond in winter, tensed like a spring waiting to be uncoiled. His claws digging miniature ravines in the wet mud beneath his paws as he retracted and extended them, waiting patiently for the moment to strike.
The hunters waited for their prey.
The old man stood, trying to get the circulation in his legs going again. The signs of age showing in his movement. Arthritis sent shots of pain through his joints. His body tensed as he heard the bushes to his left rustle. Standing very still he indicated to his companion to get up. The young man sat frozen with fear. His limbs refused to move. He stared at the bushes surrounding him, each one baring its malice. The shadows held nightmares waiting to spring. Each sound the jungle made heralded the coming of the apocalypse. Each drop of rain that touched him seemed like a nail in his coffin. Fear ruled his senses. Terror gripped his limbs. Each breath was an effort. His rifle shook as he shivered in the cold, mirthless night.
The old man growled to himself and cursed silently. The boy was all but useless, probably worse. He scanned the woods for anything out of the ordinary, any sign, any warning. He hoped he'd see it in time.
The lion growled under his breath. The water dripping from his mane into his eyes made him blink, but he dared not try to shake it off. He'd had already announced his presence. They were alert now. The smell of fear from the young one made his whiskers twitch, made him impatient. Years of hunting instinct, honed and sharpened in the jungle, could not battle impatience and hunger. It had been two days since somebody from the village had come out. It frustrated him that he had to hunt humans. He was too old, too slow to hunt in the jungle. Iron like muscles contracted under his skin, making crevices in which the water flowing over his body found a place to stay. He crouched, balancing his weight across his legs, preparing to charge.The damp soil gave way beneath his paws. Hunger boiled in his mind, frustration burned in his soul.
The old man blinked to get the water out of his eyes, cursing that he could not see as well as he used to. Years of experience and instinct, sharpened in the jungle, told him this was the best time to strike down your prey. He could almost feel the lion's eyes on him. The slit like pupils watching every little movement he made. And he didn't know where the damn thing was! It was out there though, he was sure of that. He listened, hoping he'd hear a warning, hoping he'd hear it in time.
A blood curdling roar filled the jungle around him, the sound seemed to come from everywhere at once. He pushed down his fear and paid attention to the sound, trying to identify the direction it came from. Terror struck the young man like lightning. He gibbered and scrambled to his feet. Flailing about, he aimed his rifle in the direction of every new sound he heard. Stumbling backward away from the tree, he tripped over a root and dropped his rifle in the mud.
The lion charged out of the bushes seeing that one of the men was down, his paws splashing through the puddles of water. If he could just move fast enough he'd be able to take the young one before the old man even managed to move.
The old man heard the splashes and rushed towards his fallen comrade, keeping his eye and the sight of his gun on the bushes. He burst out of the cover of the bushes, a yellow and black blur. His breath misted ahead of him, powerful lungs sucking in air like a bellows. His curved teeth gleamed in the lamplight. His eyes shone with a fever for meat, for food. He lunged at his fallen prey.
The old man threw himself forward, firing blindly, hoping that he'd hit his target. He landed on the ground on his side, his arm beneath him.
The lion felt something knock the wind out of him. He landed, hard, almost as soon as he had started to pounce. His side ached, blood seeping out of it into the puddle he'd landed in, giving the water a reddish tinge like the sunset on a clear day. He tasted bile, the acrid sensation spreading in his mouth. The adrenaline pumping into his brain numbed the pain, taking the edge off. He got to his feet and charged towards his fallen opponent with a roar.
The old man tried to get his arm out from under him so that he could position his rifle. He saw the yellow blur rush toward, a hair slower than it had been just a few seconds earlier. He'd managed to hit it. The lion landed on him with the force of pile driver, crushing his arm. He could feel the hot breath of the lion close to his neck. He felt the blood ooze out of the beast's side onto his thigh. With all the strength he could muster he drove his knee into the lion's side. The resulting roar almost deafened him. It also gave him enough slack to be able to move his rifle. He tried to get his finger around the trigger, his hands slipping over the wet wood.
The lion bared his teeth close to the old man's face, saliva dripping from his curved teeth. The weight of the lion seemed to pause all other sensations, he felt something warm flow down his shoulder. His finger found the trigger.
It seemed like an age before the young man could move from his place against the tree. He trembled as he pushed himself onto his feet and gathered his rifle in the flickering lamplight. On tottering steps he walked to the old man and picked him up. Dragging him toward the village through dark jungle. He walked through the open gates of the village. Past the waiting sentries, one of whom ran through the peaceful village, banging on doors, waking its sleeping inhabitants.
They gathered in the village square. People walking slowly behind the the hunters. The young man got to the square and dropped the corpse.
"The lion sleeps tonight", he said to the people behind him.
He knelt next to the old man and whispered, "The lions sleep tonight."