Dust twirled up into the sky as the mother cheetah chased after the young gazelle. Like all cheetahs, she had a flexible spine, enabling her to cover the ground quickly by taking huge strides. Using her speed as a weapon she took a leap and brought the young animal down, then, taking it by the throat and piercing its windpipe, she suffocated it. Then she gulped down the bloody flesh quickly, for fresh meat soon attracts scavengers; a vulture, a jackal, a marabou stork, it seemed everyone had a share in her well-earned prize. After pulling most of the red bloody flesh off her dead animal she lifted her graceful strong head and raced off toward her den, which was holding two cubs.
As she came to a halt at the den, a huge flash of lightning struck the ground, and the sound of thunder cracked in the dark sky. A hyena screamed and ran from its hiding place, and a small herd of gazelles stood shivering, like a shimmering water hole on the grassy plain. The first drops of cold rain splattered onto the cheetah’s nose and descended slowly onto the bloody scruff.
She stood with her head up, sniffing the gusty air; for a second she stood frozen, then backed slowly down the passage to her screaming cubs. Slowly, slowly until she hit the tunnel end and found her pups. They lifted their tiny noses to her mouth and made worrying noises up to her. The regurgitated food dropped onto the sandy floor. The pups exploded with excitement and pushed their way toward it; their eyes were already open, and the stronger cub had dominance over the smaller, weaker one. Their mother lay down and started grooming her sandy brown fur. A bolt of lightning flashed down to the ground just near enough for them to see the sparks of fire, but with their eyes closed in pleasure they saw nothing.
Suddenly the grass was a licking amber flame. In an instant the frightened cheetah picked up the stronger cub and rushed to the entrance. The fire licked into the den as they proceeded up to it. Her strong back legs bunched under her and the rows of well-built muscle that had been developed for sprinting at ninety kilometers per hour were now all used to jump high into the air with the cub. The flames engulfed her like a lion jumping through a hoop of fire. They made it with ease and ran off through the golden grass.
The tiny cub screamed and dragged herself up to the entrance of the earth. The flames were too intense for her and they burnt her little whiskers and quivering wet nose. The frightened creature scampered helplessly back down to the chamber, her tail between her scrawny legs.
The earth fell away as she scratched at the soil. Every time her paws hit the solid wall she whimpered painfully. Where was the emergency exit? She tried in vain to cast her mind back to when the lioness had attacked them; her mother had saved them by blocking up the entrance. Now the soil that for so long had been her friend held her back. There must be a way out. She was sure of it! Glancing back to the entrance of the earth she saw, to her horror, one of the longer roots had burst into glowing flames. Frantically she started to dig. Her baby paws scrabbled at the sides of the tunnel, sending sheets of earth flying behind her. She battered at it with her head, desperate to force a way through. Earth clogged her eyes and nostrils. The large root had glowed dangerously for some time, now it burst with light and golden colors—flames!
The cub’s paws broke through the sidewall. She slid halfway down a sooty tunnel and stopped. Behind her the bedding had caught fire.
Breathing hard she kicked at the soft earth; the air was full of drifting dust. Her long pink tongue and throat were coated in sticky sand, and as she broke out of the tunnel a fine drizzle started, wetting her face. Bedraggled, disheveled and soaking wet, she struggled on, following the telltale scent of her mother. She screamed in triumph as the dark silhouette of her parent came into view. She scampered happily up to her, wagging her tail and purring in delight. They curled up with the older cub and closed their eyes in pleasure. Outside the wind howled round and the rain pelted down, while lightning lit up the sky. They were cozy and warm in their new-found den; it was small but comfortable with the small amount of bedding they found.
The dawning was wet, but with happiness for all animals that gathered. Herds of hundreds grazed on the grassfilled plains. Wildebeest, gazelles and large families of warthogs—they all scurried around a fallen tree finding food, and so did the cheetahs. Silently the two cubs and the long-legged female perched on the top of a warm, gray rock. The youngsters were too interested in the family of wobbly quail that were pecking at the long grass seeds. They never noticed the small herd of gazelle.
The mother cheetah, although young, was too wise to be distracted by such a small meal. The pickings she was focusing on were larger, stronger and faster; also, they were much more nutritious and rich in goodness and would help her produce better milk, so her cubs would grow stronger. Taking no notice of the noisy creatures, she padded down the rock onto the grass. She crept along on her tummy until within three meters, then sprang forward. It was a good take-off, and she was catching up with the young buck that she had being observing for some time. Her speed was tremendous, like a blurred object—faster than the eye could follow; she gripped the hard ground with her claws and pushed herself forward. The buck was slowing, and had tried to throw the cheetah off course, dodging this way and back. But a cheetah’s long, strong tail isn’t for nothing! It came into action. She swung it around, low and fast, the ground helping her. Just as she was on top of the prey, she did what no cheetah should ever do when in a highspeed chase: she turned her head.
The thing that had caught her eye made her gasp.
A lioness. No! No! The female lion slowly crept toward the cubs’ rock! WHAM! She skidded across the ground as the buck’s hooves smashed into her face. For a long time she lay unconscious—like an age of waiting. But in desperation to warn her cubs she forced herself to her feet. Screaming with anger she bounded toward the spot where the lioness had been. The strong, sweet smell of the lion made her feel sick. It was left where the cubs had been. She scanned the area and called out in the hope they might hear her. Listening carefully she heard little squeaks of happiness, the two lost cubs emerged from a tiny gap in the rocks! Another surprise for the happy cheetah mother was that in the two of their mouths was a plump quail chick!
Tired and hungry, they returned to the temporary den, and the cubs tried their first taste of meat. Later they tussled over the bones and scraps before falling asleep at their mother’s side. The female looked down upon them with pride; they’d make fine predators yet!