At first, Isabel didn’t think she’d be able to obey his instructions; her whole body had frozen in shock and fear, her skin gone so cold she could feel the warmth of her own sweat beaded across her flesh. Slowly, though, her arms rose, seemingly under her own volition, above her head. A hand grasped her filthy hair roughly, knocking her hat off, and she couldn’t stifle a cry of pain as he pulled her to her feet and spun her around by the roots of her hair.
Three other men stood watching her, their dark brown faces crinkled into expressions of menace or amusement. She knew those faces; they’d been haunting the few dreams she’d had since leaving the bodies of her guides days before. The poachers.
Isabel swallowed; a useless gesture, since any moisture which had been in her mouth had dried up the minute the gun had been pressed against her neck. “I think there’s been a mistake,” she began, nervously. “I’m just trying to get to the village—I’m a scientist, I’m here to study the plants—”
The man holding her laughed sharply. “A scientist, eh? And you don’t hire any guides?” The malicious mockery in his voice sent an unexpected surge of rage up through her chest. “Do not play the fool. We know you are with the men we killed.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Isabel lied. “I still…I still haven’t seen anything.” She risked a glance at her captor’s face. “So you can let me go. No one will know about you.”
“That is not my concern,” the poacher said. “I keep the police well-paid. What is my concern…is what you have stolen from me.”
The poacher tightened his grip on her hair, pulling her head close so they were nose-to-nose. “Where is my leopard?”
Not trusting herself to speak, Isabel just widened her eyes and shook her head as much as the poacher’s hold would allow.
“Ah, she plays the fool again,” he said, relaxing his arm so Isabel could take half a step back. “My friend here, Daj—” he pointed with the gun to the man Isabel had seen inspecting the trap earlier “—he is a very talented man. A very talented tracker. He finds your tracks near our trap. He says you are probably nearby, watching. So we pretend to leave, and then follow you when you go. Because we want our leopard.”
“How do you even know there was ever a leopard in the trap?”
“Tracks,” the poacher replied. “And blood. Daj can smell from the blood what animal it comes from. Very talented man.” He paused thoughtfully. “Do you know how much leopard skin costs? Very many dollars, American dollars. So, when we lose leopard, we lose money. We cannot feed our families. And Daj’s wife is pregnant yet again.”
“How can you think that I—”
“No more playing the fool!” Her captor thrust Isabel roughly away, so she went sprawling into the leaves. When she looked up, he had his gun pointed at her, his lips curled in an angry snarl. “You will pay us for the leopard, or—”
But he never got to tell Isabel what her second option was, because a streak of yellow, black and white sailed out of the forest and knocked him to the ground. The gun went off, kicking up a divot of black loam an inch from Isabel’s side. When she looked up, she saw Daj raise his assault rifle and point it at the leopard.
“No!” Isabel screamed, and flung a stick at Daj. It wasn’t a very good throw, or a very big stick, but it hit him in the shoulder and made his attention waver for a split second, long enough for another, smaller streak to leap in from the side and catch him by the throat, throwing him to the ground.
The other two men seemed confused, unsure of what to do. They raised their rifles hesitantly, but both leopards were so entwined with their victims, there was no hope of shooting one without hitting the other.
At last, the man who had been holding Isabel lay still, and the leopard raised its bloodstained muzzle and looked right at Isabel. Their eyes locked in complete understanding.
Out of the corner of her eye, Isabel saw that one of the remaining poachers seemed to have rediscovered his courage, and was raising his rifle yet again. With a low growl, the leopard crossed in front of Isabel—still limping on her front paw—and stood between her and the poachers, head lowered and haunches tensed in a very deliberate gesture.
The poachers looked at the leopard, standing protectively in front of Isabel, its flicking tail actually touching her leg, looked at each other, and turned and ran, sprinting off into the forest.
The leopard grunted to call her cub. It left off viciously shaking Daj’s limp form and rejoined its mother with a soft chirp. Before Isabel could draw another breath, they were both gone.
She passed the ‘animal stall,’ selling terrified exotic animals, with her usual disgust, until something caught her eye. A new cage, right out front, with several interested spectators lined up in front of it. She peered around the sari of one woman, and her heart froze. A tiny, dirty leopard cub was curled in fear in one corner of the cage.
Isabel shouldered through the crowd and squatted down by the cage. The cub had its back wedged so firmly into the back corner of the cage that its skin bulged out between the wire. Its eyes, pupils dilated in fear, landed on Isabel.
Isabel looked up to find a mostly-toothless man in a sarong and button-down shirt staring down at her.
“English?” she asked, and he nodded suspiciously. “How much?” she asked, pointing to the cage with the leopard.
Isabel sighed. “No, I’m not a cop.”
A small smile began to curl the corners of the man’s lips. “American dollar?”
“Five hundred!” he proclaimed proudly. Isabel snorted.
“One fifty,” she said.
Isabel stood, pulling her travel wallet, which hung around her neck, out from under her shirt. “Done,” she said, counting out the money and handing it to the man. As he recounted it eagerly, Isabel hooked her fingers through the top of the wire and began to lift the cage.
“No, no!” the man said. “Cage extra fifty.”
“You suck,” Isabel muttered under her breath, as she searched for the latch. As she opened the top of the cage, the cub pushed itself even more firmly against the wire, hissing menacingly.
“You’re all right, you’re all right,” she murmured, getting her hand close enough to stroke the top of the leopard’s head with one finger. The poor thing couldn’t have been more than six weeks old. She gently grasped it by the scruff of the neck and lifted it out of the cage, settling it against her chest. The cub’s nostrils flared as it took in her scent.
“You going to freak on me?” she murmured. The leopard seemed to take a few more moments to decide before burying its head under her armpit.
“Okay,” she said, smiling. “Still more baby than tough guy.”
“May I help you?” A smiling woman, dressed in a sari, with a long, dark braid trailing over her shoulder to her waist, stood next to a tree, hands folded.
“Um, yes,” Isabel said, trying to wrestle the reluctant cub out from under her now irreversibly stretched out shirt. “Do you accept refugees?”
The woman’s eyes widened as the leopard cub appeared, growling at the loss of his hiding place. “Why don’t you come into the office?” she said, gesturing to a hut behind her.
The woman introduced herself as May; Isabel thought she had probably anglicized it from something less pronounceable. She made Isabel a cup of strong, hot tea and listened to her story without comment.
When Isabel was finished speaking, May took a sip of tea.
“That is quite an experience,” May said. “And this is why you…?” She gestured to the leopard cub’s tail, the only visible part of the animal, since it had re-ensconced itself safely under Isabel’s shirt.
“Yes,” Isabel said. “I know you’re not supposed to buy the animals like that, it just makes the poachers go out and hunt more, but…”
May nodded. “In the wider sense, yes, it is not good to do. However, in the smaller sense…the cub most likely would have been bought by someone who would have kept it in a small cage until it grew large enough to produce a profitable pelt. For this animal, it was the right thing to do.”
“Can you take him?”
May smiled. “We never turn any animals away. Of course, we could unfortunately not reimburse you your investment…”
“No, of course not. And,” Isabel pulled her wallet out of her shirt again, evoking a growl from the cub. She pulled out two more one hundred dollar bills and laid them on the table. “I’m sure he’ll have a pretty big appetite.”
May eyed the money with a look of relief. “I cannot even begin to thank you for your kindness.”
“Not at all.” Isabel pulled the cub out of her shirt and held him up to her face. “Good luck, buddy,” she said. She made to hand the cub to May, but caught a glimpse of a Polaroid camera on a small table nearby. “Would you mind taking a picture? I could pay you for the film.”
May waved her hand dismissively and got up to get the camera. “Not at all,” she said. Isabel held the cub up to her face and smiled while May took the picture. When the film came out, she handed it to Isabel. “Thank you again.”
Isabel took the picture, handed over the cub, and walked slowly back to the cab, feeling light and fulfilled, as though she’d discharged at least a part of her debt.
I hope you enjoyed this little story of mine! Come back next Friday, and I'll tell you another. And don't forget...you can always click on the links to the right to buy my book, Blind Study. See you next week!
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