Seconds passed, and Isabel’s throat remained intact. Carefully, she pushed herself up to a sitting position and looked across the stream.
The leopard now lay with its back to her, legs splayed unnaturally. Curious, but still cautious, she stood up—and discovered the reason she was still alive.
The cat angrily gnawed at one front paw, encased in a heavy steel jaw-hold trap. The trap was anchored by three feet of thick chain attached to a stake driven into the ground. The leopard must have sensed Isabel’s movement, for it whirled around to face her once more with ears pressed flat against its head, snarling angrily.
No, it’s not angry, Isabel thought, as she looked at the cat’s dilated pupils. It’s scared.
The leopard backed up jerkily, making the chain rattle, lips still pulled back from ivory daggers. Isabel felt a hot wave of sympathy wash over her. This cat wasn’t stupid, she was sure. It probably knew any human it saw at this point was coming to kill it.
The leopard’s snarling still filling the air (and the macaques screaming overhead—she now realized they hadn’t been screaming at her, but at the leopard) Isabel slowly opened her pack and extracted a small cooking pot, which she filled with water from the stream. She stepped smoothly over the stream, a move which freshened the pitch of the leopard’s snarls, and set the pot down in the leaves. Looking around, she found what she was looking for, a long branch (really, a small tree) with a wide fork at the end. She used this to push the pot of water inside the circle formed by leopard and chain, careful not to push it directly at the leopard—given its current mood, she was pretty sure it would whack the pot away with its good paw and upset it. Then she withdrew back to the other side of the stream.
Isabel knew she would have to be patient and quiet for quite some time while the leopard worked up the courage to approach the strange, shiny object full of water. How much time depended on how long the animal had been in the trap before she found it. Luckily, botanists are as a rule very patient people. They have to be—it’s literally part of the job description to sit around and watch the grass grow.
So, Isabel took her shoes and socks off to let them dry out, rested her back against a tree (checking for fire ant nests first), pulled her hat down over her eyes, and meditated on her situation. Her inner cynic immediately spoke up.
You do realize, she said, that you are hundreds of miles from anywhere, with no food, no bug spray, and no guides, on an apparent poacher’s route, and here you are, snuggled up against a tree, waiting for the leopard to give you your pot back.
I couldn’t just leave it, Isabel argued. The poor thing has been trapped within spitting distance of a stream for God only knows how long without being able to take a drink.
And what are you going to do once it’s had its drink? the cynic asked.
For this, Isabel had no rational answer. She knew what she should do; collect her pot, put it back in her pack, and continue walking, following the road from a few feet away in the jungle until she came across a village, or another traveler, one without leopard skin hanging from his pack. She knew the poachers would be back here to collect their prize, and she should really make every effort to not be here when they returned.
The fact was, though, every time she thought about leaving and turning her back on the animal, her stomach twisted into a snarled bundle. Maybe it had something to do with leaving her guides, feeling their ghostly, accusing glares, unable to do anything more for them; maybe it was just that she was a sucker for animals. But Isabel felt pretty sure that, even though she knew, she knew she had to leave five minutes ago, her feet would never obey the directive.
“Oh, Iz, you stupid, stupid woman, you,” she murmured, just as the sounds of gentle lapping reached her ears.
The leopard didn’t snarl this time when Isabel approached. As she stepped across the stream, she held the dead moonrats up in the air for the animal to see. Its eyes widened, but otherwise it lay stock-still, focused on the carcasses. Isabel tossed them both inside the leopard’s circle.
At once, the cat attacked the meat with a violence that made Isabel flinch back. It was tearing greedily at the first carcass, its muzzle wholly entrenched in the moonrat’s stomach, when suddenly it lifted its head and gave a low, rhythmic grunting call.
The leaves opposite of where Isabel stood parted, and out tumbled a half-grown leopard cub which, with a cautious glance at the strange two-legged creature, settled down by its mother and began devouring the second carcass.
“Good thing I set more snares,” Isabel said with a sigh.
She had plenty of experience dealing with the creepy-crawlies of the jungle. Tonight, though, Isabel was trying to go to sleep with the knowledge that, a few yards away from her in the pitch-black, two leopards were watching her, one chained, one loose. Granted, clouded leopards, the kind native to Borneo, were much smaller than their Indian cousins; this meant that the unchained leopard cub, half the size of an adult, was only about fifteen to twenty pounds. But fifteen to twenty pounds of carefully evolved and heavily sinewed predator, however inexperienced, could conceivably kill her, and if not, deal her crippling injuries which could mean the difference between getting out of here alive—or not.
Something bumped her foot, and she bit back a scream, pressing herself back against the tree she leaned against and folding her knees against her chest. She heard a soft, surprised whuff at her flinch, then soft, warm breath, snuffling over her ankle, up her calf and down her thigh. At the top of her thigh, the nose forced itself between Isabel’s leg and stomach into her lap, investigating her crotch as a dog would, then continued upward, over her stomach and chest, poking into her armpits. A damp nose was pressed against the place where her neck met her shoulder, then pushed under the angle of her jaw. Isabel’s vocal cords trembled with the urge to scream, but she miraculously managed to remain still.
The leopard cub now investigated Isabel’s right ear, its fur brushing against her cheek. Then, it turned its head so they were nose-to-nose, warm meat-redolent breath washing over Isabel’s face and flooding her nostrils.
Just as quickly as it had come, the leopard cub was gone, and Isabel’s muscles, tensed to the point of rictus, collapsed, leaving her slumped on the damp earth of the forest floor.
Tune in next week for Part Three!
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