Chapter Seven: Antonio
The zebra’s shoulder slammed hard into Saka’s jaws, sending drool and a small amount of blood flying from his mouth. Pain exploded in his head as he collapsed. His hat flew off and landed just in front of where he fell.
Angrily, Saka ignored his throbbing head and grabbed his hat in his claws, roughly planting it on his head.
“They’re getting away!” Saka heard Qymaen shout, though it roughly translated as “Get up, you idiot! Don’t make me catch them myself!”
Saka responded in kind. “Not for long,” he growled, getting to his feet.
“Woo-HOO!” Taiche shouted. “Nice moves, Shani!”
“Hey,” Shani panted. “I get lucky sometimes. It’s not easy to ignore your instincts.”
“It’s a little early for a celebration, guys,” Mifi said, still swinging upside-down.
Manzi turned to look back. Sure enough, the cheetah and his partner were chasing them again, but further behind.
“We’re less than a minute from the pride,” Shani said. “I think we can make it. That cheetah can’t last much longer.”
“Who cares about the cheetah?” Taiche panted.
Mifi burped. “I feel sick.”
“Hold on,” Manzi said through her teeth, over the mouthful of Mifi’s tail. “Is everyone else okay?”
Taiche forced a sarcastic laugh. “Never better.”
Suddenly, Garoe went down. Before they realized it, Shani and Taiche ran past him.
“Stop!” Manzi shrieked.
Taiche was also more than happy to comply.
With a swing of her neck, Manzi helped Mifi climb onto Shani’s back. She jumped down once her cousin was safe.
Taiche panted. “We didn’t lose ‘em did we?”
Mifi burped again. “I don’t think so, but I did lose my lunch back there.”
Manzi started running back to Garoe. “Take them back to the pride, Shani! Get help!”
“But,” Shani began.
“Do as she says.” Taiche leaped onto the zebra’s back. “Go!”
Shani, though worried, took off running as fast as he could.
“Garoe!” Manzi said when she reached him. “Get up!”
Garoe, lying on the ground exhausted, wheezed as his belly rose and fell rapidly.
Manzi knew he would never be able to get up in time. In desperation, she took his tail and tried to pull him, but the cheetah would be on them in seconds. “Help!” Manzi cried, though she knew it was useless.
Then, an angry roar pierced the air. A huge golden lion with a ruffled, copper mane, blocked the cheetah and his partner’s path.
“Antonio,” Manzi breathed.
Qymaen stopped on a dime. He raised his head in surprise, clay-colored ears twitching. Then he narrowed his amber eyes, peering through the eye sockets of his skull-mask. “Out of my way, lion; that’s not your cub.”
“He’s not yours, either,” Antonio answered, in a distinct Spanish accent.
“That doesn’t matter. Hand him over to me and your cubs will not be harmed.”
Antonio advanced toward Qymaen, forcing him to take a step back as he was inches from his face. “Get out,” he growled.
Even Saka hung back warily, shifting nervously from foot to foot.
Qymaen had no choice when the rest of Antonio’s pride stood next to him. Four strong lionesses bared their teeth, ready for action.
Qymaen snorted before he stalked away. “You haven’t seen the last of us,” he hissed. Saka soon fell into step behind him as they broke into a run.
Antonio watched, his green gaze following them until they were gone. Then, his attention turned to Manzi and her friends. “Manzi are you alright?”
Manzi, still shaken, nodded.
Antonio looked down at Garoe, who now standing, was recovering from his brutal run. “Who is this?” Antonio asked.
Dafini stepped forward, kissing Antonio’s dark, chiseled muzzle before she explained. “Manzi found him all alone yesterday. His name is Garoe. I took him in, hoping you would do the same.”
Antonio smiled down at the quivering cub. He gently brushed some dirt off Garoe’s shoulder with a paw. “Let’s take you home,” he said, still smiling.
As he rested with Ruka and Tibali, Kenobi caught a familiar scent in the air. It was as welcome to him as an oasis in the desert. Kenobi ran up the hill to greet Antonio, with Ruka and Tibali on his heels.
“Oh my stars!” Chee exclaimed as she approached the returning group.
Kenobi came up behind her, but couldn’t seem to squeeze past her; she moved so much all the time.
“What happened?” Chee asked. She looked over Taiche and the other exhausted cubs, along with Shani, whose white, black and brown striped coat was lathered with sweat. “I saw you running and I was about to check it out when Dafini noticed you were in trouble and told me to stay here with Zolta while she got the other lionesses to help you and—”
Antonio cleared his throat.
Chee stopped her excited rambling and sprang to attention. “Antonio! You’re back! How did it go?”
That was my question. Kenobi thought.
“Everything was fine,” Antonio said, smiling. Then he frowned as he looked down at Taiche. He always seemed to know who needed to take responsibility; it helped that Shani was a tattletale. “I hadn’t planned on a rescue mission when I came home.”
Taiche shuffled his right, yellow paw, drawing circles in the dirt. He lowered his head. “I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Me too,” Mifi said in a small voice.
Antonio continued, “You know you’re not supposed to wander away from the pride alone.”
“Yes sir,” Mifi and Taiche said.
“I don’t want it to happen again, especially now with Qymaen ands Saka prowling around.”
Shani cocked his head. “You know those two characters?”
Antonio nodded, his thick, copper mane moving with his head. “They’re bounty hunters. But what would they be hunting for here?”
Kenobi glared at Garoe, who stood next to Antonio. “Probably looking for an easy meal.”
Antonio chuckled. “Now Kenobi… Be nice to Garoe here.”
He knows his name? Kenobi wondered, his bright green eyes widening. He’d forgotten it, himself.
Antonio spoke again. “He’s part of the family now.”
“Isn’t it great?” Manzi asked excitedly, wrapping an arm around Garoe. “I told you you’d be accepted!”
Taiche, Mifi, Ruka, Tibali, and even Neona joined the group hug. A real cub welcome.
Kenobi walked away unnoticed. Anything but “great” Manzi. He said to himself as he looked back in time to see Antonio gently padding Garoe on the back. Anything but.