It all began, as most things do, with an eeny, meeny, miny, mo. Now I was lying flat in the long grass, sweat snaking down my forehead before falling to make tiny craters in the sun-baked ground. You might think it strange that we could get from that simple rhyme to here, risking our lives on the burning savannah, but we never found that kind of thing hard. We could get from that simple rhyme to anywhere.

I tried to blink the dust from my eyes. I wanted to rub them but I couldn’t risk it. That could give away my position, and if I was spotted they would tear me open and leave me for dead.

Something moved in the grass up ahead. Instinctively I tensed and gripped my spear tighter, ready to spring into the chase at the first shout from our leader, on lookout high in the tree. The shout never came, and eventually I relaxed. Perhaps I had just been seeing things.

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo…

We had been at the swing; a tyre hung by a length of old rope in a shady grove of trees. It was one of those lazy times – we were just lounging, letting the warm breeze wash over us and listening to the gentle rustle of the leaves. I was swinging slowly on the tyre, the rope creaking in rhythm. Matthew and John were laid out on the bank, while Andrew had pulled himself up into the tree and was sitting on a branch, his legs dangling idly. It was the perfect kind of day to be busy doing nothing.

John picked a daisy and began to say the rhyme, pulling off one petal for each word. He knew it was meant to be ‘she loves me, she loves me not’, but he didn’t want to say that. We made him blush last time, asking who his girlfriend was.

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Wintertime

“You could never do that,” Andrew said. “Catchin’ tigers by toes. Bet they don’t even have toes.”

“’Course they got toes,” I replied. “Everything’s got toes.”

“Not tigers.”

Matthew stood up, and we all dropped into silence. Being a couple of years older than the rest of us, he naturally had the position of authority. He was our Fearless Leader, and we treated him with the respect this demands.

“Only one way to sort this,” he said, looking at each of us in turn. “We’ve gotta go catch us a tiger. Easiest way.”

I jumped off the swing, tripping as I hit the ground. Andrew pushed himself off the branch and managed a much more graceful landing than I had achieved. Only John remained still, staying on the soft grass.

“I don’t wanna catch tigers,” he said. “They’re too scary.”

When we were all equipped we trouped down the hill into the next field, and while we did so Matthew told us his plan. We would use the chocolate bar he had in his pocket as bait, by leaving it in the middle of the field and the three of us forming a ring around it. Matthew would climb that tree there and be on lookout. When he yelled, we would pounce. We all agreed that as plans go, it was a pretty good one.
We got into position as he climbed. The heat haze was rising off the parched ground, making the air shimmer and dance. I peeled off my sweat-soaked shirt and tossed it damply to the ground, then crouched in the long grass to wait.

But we weren’t listening. We were very democratic, in our own little way. We followed the majority, and the majority invariably followed Matthew. We knew John would soon come after us if we left.

He turned up just as Matthew was explaining the intricacies of tiger hunting to us. We were sat in the top field, but the hunt would take place in the next one down the hill. As Matthew said, after all, it’s bigger, so there’s bound to be more tigers in it.

“Now,” he continued, “the thing about tigers is – oh. What do you want?”

“Hunt tigers,” John replied.

Andrew and I shifted over, to give him a place to sit down.

“Thought you didn’t want to,” Matthew sniffed. “Thought you were just gonna be scared and stay at the swing.”

“Got boring. I wanna hunt now.”

He was lying, we could tell, but it was always the same. It would be wrong to say that we lived out in the sticks; the sticks were a distant memory by the time you reached our kind of isolation. There may as well have only been the four of us in the world. Maybe John didn’t want to hunt tigers, but there was nothing else to do.

“Well, alright,” Matthew conceded. “You can come too, but you have to get us some weapons first. Gonna need weapons to hunt tigers with.” John nodded and scurried off, and Matthew continued to teach us how to track big game. “The thing about tigers is that they want you to be scared of ‘em, see? If you’re scared of ‘em, then they’re in control. You gotta stand up to ‘em, don’t run. Just run straight at ‘em, screamin’. Then they get scared.”

We listened, utterly enthralled, as Matthew told us about other times that he had caught tigers in these fields. It’d been a couple of summers since then, the rest of us were prob’ly too young to remember, but yeah, he’d caught loads of tigers here. It was pretty much like today, all hot and sunny, and he’d come down here with a few friends. He’d been creepin’ through the grass when one of his friends shouted, and he looked up to see this huge tiger. They all ran after it, but it’d been real fast so only Matthew could keep up with it. He’d had to leap on its back and hold it down till his friends caught up, being real careful to avoid the teeth.

John came hurrying back, a clutch of sturdy wooden sticks under one arm, rope over one shoulder and an electric fence pole in the other hand. No-one had asked for the rope – no-one had needed to. At six years old, you always want rope.

“Hey, great,” Matthew said, looking up. “Right. I’ll carry the rope, and everyone needs a spear. Hey, gimme the metal one.”

The fence-pole was a metal spike coated in smooth, grippable plastic, pretty much the ultimate weapon where tiger-hunting was concerned. John looked a bit reluctant, but handed it over anyway. He had some ground to make up and besides, Matthew was the leader. Everyone knew that leaders got the best weapons. It was just sense.

When we were all equipped we trouped down the hill into the next field, and while we did so Matthew told us his plan. We would use the chocolate bar he had in his pocket as bait, by leaving it in the middle of the field and the three of us forming a ring around it. Matthew would climb that tree there and be on lookout. When he yelled, we would pounce. We all agreed that as plans go, it was a pretty good one.
We got into position as he climbed. The heat haze was rising off the parched ground, making the air shimmer and dance. I peeled off my sweat-soaked shirt and tossed it damply to the ground, then crouched in the long grass to wait.

So there I was, hunting the finest predator on the plains, boy against nature, swept along in the wake of an eeny, meeny, miny, mo. I don’t know how long I waited there. It felt like hours were passing in a world without time – the sun liked where it was and did not intend to move, however long I was here. It was becoming increasingly hard to concentrate on the bait and the tigers that were sure to come investigating. The possibility that tigers might not like chocolate was never even considered.

All around me, grasshoppers sang and bounced through the swirling blades, adding a narcotic melody to my thumping heartbeat. The heat and the signing were making me drowsy, and I felt myself slowly being carried away on the musky, pollen-sweetened breeze… but a buzzard screamed above me and the trance was broken. I glanced up to see it wheeling across the sky, trying to pull away from the crows that mobbed it for whatever was held in its claws.

A group of crows is called a murder. I found that out a few years later. Strange how they always seemed a bit more menacing after that.

Something rustled in the grass behind me. I rolled over, grabbing my spear and pointing it upwards to see Matthew, staring down at me critically.

“Y’know,” he said, “If I was a tiger, you’d be dead now. Come on, get up. We need a new plan. This one ain’t working.”

I nodded and ran down to collect Andrew and John, who were still hiding in the brush. Once I had found them we ran panting up the hill, where Matthew was waiting in the tree’s cool shade.

“Right,” he said, when we collapsed on the grass in front of him. “I don’t reckon that plan was working. What d’you lot think?”

We all looked at each other. “Didn’t see no tigers,” Andrew said, finally.

“That’s right. No tigers. I reckon if we wanna catch one, we’ve gotta go find ‘em.”

We were really going on the hunt now. No more cowardly ambushes – real men didn’t hunt that way. We would take the fight right into the tiger’s maw. Each of us would patrol one corner of the field, and when someone saw a tiger he would yell and we would all chase.

“But remember,” Matthew warned us, “you gotta be real loud. You gotta keep it scared till we all get there.”

He scratched a rough box in the dust and stabbed it to tell us where to go. I had the opposite corner of the field, John and Andrew on either side of me while Matthew had the bit we were sitting in. He went over the plan one more time, and we scurried off.

This was much more like it. Real hunters didn’t lay traps; they faced their prey on its own terms. Of course, it would still be necessary to sneak up on the tiger so as not to scare it off, so we crept along quietly, trying to keep as low as possible. In a few days this field would be cut for hay, so the grass was very long and hid us easily. It also meant that soon the tigers would be moving on. They didn’t like open country. If we were going to catch one we had to do it today.

It was becoming personal, a test of my manhood. If we came back with a tiger then we would be men, proved to the world. But if we failed our chance would be gone; we would be boys forever. Probably, if we had known how many rites of passage we would go through later, we would never have kept dreaming up new ones. People look back on their childhood as simple, but if you’re honest it never was. It just had a different set of complications.

I finished patrolling one edge of my territory and began to curve downhill. I still hadn’t seen any tigers, so I decided to cut straight across the diagonal, towards the dark tree-line that marked the field’s edge. When I reached it, I found John lying in the shade.

“Hi,” I said, sitting down beside him. “Seen anything yet?”

“Nope,” John shrugged, slashing idly at the grass with his spear.

I leaned back against the tree. We were both meant to be patrolling, but the day was far too hot to do much.

“There ain’t any tigers here,” John said, suddenly.

“Yeah there are,” I replied. “Matthew said – ”

“I know.”

I looked at him uneasily. Our group had very few crimes, but mutiny was one of the worst. If you weren’t careful, he might not speak to you for days…

“I mean,” John continued, relentless, “we’ve been down here loads o’ times. I’ve never seen a tiger. Have you?”

“No…” I started, “but, maybe they’re just – ”

“TIGER! TIGER!”

I gave John a triumphant look, grabbed my spear and began to run up the hill. John ran with me, a few paces behind. It had been Andrew who shouted, and he was still screaming and running through the grass. I fell in behind him, and Matthew was catching up.

With a final shout, Andrew threw his spear at something that flashed and danced through the waving blades. And then I saw it. The tiger. The spear sailed to one side to clatter uselessly on the hard ground; and the tiger stopped, turned, and stared at us with eyes like polished amber. It must have been a metre long, orange and black and hugely majestic. It stared at us and we stopped running, mesmerised by the magnificent animal. Everyone knows that lions are the kings of the beasts, but they only have the throne because tigers are too smart to want it. It was clearly lord of the grassland, nothing here on the savannah even came close. Who were we, to dare to hunt this glorious creature?

“Get it!” Matthew yelled, and the spell was broken.

The tiger bounded off and we dived after it, grass blades snapping at our legs like whips, the slope giving us extra speed as we ran. I could just see the tiger’s tail as it zigzagged down the hill. We were slowly catching up. Matthew accelerated past me, raising his vicious metal spear and preparing to throw, bringing his arm back… and Andrew tripped, sending them both sprawling. The metal spike flew out of Matthew’s hand and was lost in the grass.

“You idiot!” Matthew yelled. “I was gonna get him!”

Andrew acknowledged him with a grunt and tried to get back up, but Matthew pushed him down. He didn’t try to get up again.

“All ‘cause of you, we’ve lost it! That might’ve been our only chance and you’ve ruined it!” He turned round to face John and me. “Come on. We gotta go find another one now.”

I looked at Andrew. He tried to stand, but his left leg collapsed underneath him and he fell, trying not to cry.

“Hey, Matthew, he looks really hurt.”

“So? He’ll be alright.”

I stared at him. “But… we gotta take him home…”

“He’ll be fine,” Matthew repeated. “It’s just a scratch. Now come on! We’ve gotta catch that tiger!”

“No,” John replied. “We ain’t. Now shut up and help us get him home.”

Without another word we dropped our spears, propped Andrew up on our shoulders and began to trudge up the hill. I risked one guilty look back at Matthew as we climbed. He was just standing there, mouth open, not moving at all. Eventually, for the first time, he began to follow us.

I was a bit worried about how he would react tomorrow, but today it didn’t matter. Today that look on his face told us we had done exactly what we had come down here to do. Today we had caught ourselves a tiger.

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