If you need to catch up, click through for Part One and Part Two.
As soon as it was light enough to
see, Isabel checked her snares. She’d had luck again, as she’d caught two more moonrats
out of four traps. Both leopards were just as happy to see these as the other
two. They chomped busily away, Isabel eating a durian fruit, when a gunshot
rang out, startling the jungle into a symphony of discordant shrieks, whistles
and howls. Isabel dropped her fruit; both leopards sprang to their feet, the mother
leopard with her trapped paw extended from her body, so she didn’t put any
weight on it.
“They’re coming,” Isabel whispered.
The shot they’d just heard was probably the poachers finishing off another
trapped animal a mile or two down the road. Isabel scrambled across the stream,
just as the mother leopard grunted softly to her cub. With several backward
glances at its mother and Isabel, it slunk off into the creepers.
Isabel knelt down just outside what
she thought of as the ‘leopard’s circle’. Heart pounding, she looked at the
leopard, whose eyes were still focused in the direction of the gunshot.
“I know you don’t trust me,” Isabel
said. “I know I’m one of them. But you have to let me help you. You know that,
don’t you?” The leopard turned and looked at Isabel, her yellow eyes
The leopard stood about a foot and
a half away from the edge of her six-foot across circle, which meant that
Isabel had to come well inside the animal’s strike range. She crawled slowly,
on hands and knees, to the point where she could just reach the release plate
of the jaw-hold trap. Bit by bit, she extended her arm, her eyes never leaving
the cat’s face.
Up until this point, the leopard
had remained perfectly still except for the white tip of her tail, which twitched
as she watched Isabel’s approach. Now, as Isabel’s hand came close to her foot,
the leopard pulled back slightly and swiped at Isabel’s arm with her good paw,
lip curled in a warning snarl. Isabel snatched her arm back to her chest, but
luckily the swipe had been a statement, not a true attack.
“Please,” Isabel said, meeting the
leopard’s eyes. “Please.” They stayed there for almost a full minute, Isabel on
her knees, the leopard a few feet away in a half-crouch, their eyes locked.
It was the leopard who broke eye
contact first. With a grunt, she lay down, her trapped paw extended, her other
paw tucked beneath her chest. A peace gesture. Or so Isabel hoped.
She edged forward again, extending
her arm once more, watching the cat for any sign of a reaction. There was none.
After what seemed like an eternity, her fingers touched the release pad. Isabel
took a deep breath and pressed.
The trap didn’t budge. It was old,
dirt-and blood-caked, left outdoors in several monsoon seasons, and the parts
simply weren’t gliding against each other like they used to. Isabel pressed
with her fingers until she thought her knuckles would crack, but the pad didn’t
give an inch.
With a shaky gulp, Isabel inched
closer, until she was kneeling right next to the trap. The leopard’s whiskers
were mere inches from her arm; she could feel warm breath tickling the hairs
below her elbow. Isabel straightened up, placed her hands one atop the other on
the pad, fingers interlaced, and pushed down with all her weight.
The trap groaned open, and before
Isabel could even turn her head, the leopard was gone, a spotted flank and
white-tipped tail disappearing into the green.
Isabel stayed in her position,
kneeling by the trap, her eyes focused on the place she’d seen the leopard
disappear, not even aware she was smiling, before the sound of a not-so-faraway
human voice snapped her out of her reverie. She crossed the stream and grabbed
her pack, then jogged several hundred meters back in the jungle and threw
herself down under a curtain of creepers, still grinning.
There was a soft rustling in the
distance which grew louder as the minutes passed. At last, four men stepped
into Isabel’s vision, whom she immediately recognized as the four who’d killed
Three of the men gave angry shouts
at the sight of the sprung trap, but the fourth simply went quietly to the
steel jaws and squatted down, brows knit in concentration. He ran his
forefinger on the inside of the closed trap, then held his hand up to his face,
rubbing his thumb and finger together.
The other three men had stopped
talking, and were intently watching this fourth man as he directed his
attention away from the trap and toward the ground. His dark eyes scanned the
disturbed leaves of the forest floor. Suddenly, he reached out and gingerly
traced a shape in the dirt with his pinky. He looked up at his companions and
said a few quiet words in Luru.
A subdued tension fell over the
group. One of the men still standing snapped a question at the man who still squatted
on the forest floor. The first part of his response was phrased seriously, then
a slow smile spread over his face for the second.
Two of the men still standing
laughed, and the third just smiled and shrugged. The fourth man stood, and they
walked back the way they came, disappearing into the forest.
As the jungle noises slowly
trickled back on after the men’s departure, Isabel let out a harsh breath and
let her forehead fall onto her folded hands. Even though her fear of the
poachers was still making her heart race, a thrill of rebelliousness prickled
under her skin. They’d taken something from her; she’d taken something from
them. They still weren’t anywhere near even, but it was still a victory,
something to keep her going on her grueling journey back to civilization. She
wriggled out from under the bushes, brushed herself off, and set off the way
she’d been going, the opposite direction from the poachers.
Around mid-afternoon, Isabel found
another small stream and dropped her pack for a short break. She mixed some
iodine tablets with a fresh bottle of water, drank the whole thing down, and
then made up a new one, putting it into the side pocket of her backpack. She
took off her hat so she could fix her ponytail, grimacing at the film of sweat
and dirt soaked into every strand of her light brown hair. Civilized women took
things like clean hair and toilet paper for granted. She worked her fingers
experimentally through a snarl, realized all she was accomplishing was ripping
her hair out by the roots, and twisted the whole tangled mess into a wild bun
at the back of her neck. She would have to soak her head in a bucket of
detangler for three days to get this mess out.
Isabel looked around her and spied
a durian tree. Her stomach cramped. A diet heavy in fruit was wreaking havoc on
her digestive system; most of the vegetables she was finding now required
cooking. She could happily kill someone for a steak and a baked potato. With a
sigh, Isabel gathered three of the fruits to put in her pack, knelt quickly by
the stream to freshen her protective layer of mud, and set off once more.
She’d just stepped over the stream,
though, when a prickling sensation on the back of her neck made her whirl
around and peer into the forest. She squinted into the thick, leafy green,
trying to discern a flash of movement, a patch of color that didn’t belong.
She saw nothing.
know, Isabel thought, your parents
spent about a hundred thousand dollars of college tuition on your mind. They’ll
probably be pretty annoyed if you lose it in the middle of the Bornean jungle.
Shaking her head, she turned and
was on her way.
By her estimate, Isabel had about
two more days of walking before she reached the small village she and her
guides had set out from. Someone there could probably arrange transport for her
back to the city, and once there the Embassy could get in contact with her
university, get Professor Keegan on the phone so she could explain everything
that had happened. Keegan was in charge of several field biologists, and had
been for years; she often thought of him personally, and not the university
itself, as base camp. He’d be able to sort everything out. After all, it wasn’t
as though she only had to worry about getting out of Borneo a month early;
there was the investigation of three murders which had occurred in the presence
of a foreigner to think about. She’d probably need a lawyer.
Her stomach growled, and Isabel
stopped, kneeling and swinging her pack off her shoulders to dig for the fruit
she’d gathered earlier. She should probably think about setting up camp for the
Isabel was so lost in thought, she
didn’t hear the man approaching until the steel barrel of his gun was pressed
to the base of her neck.
“Take your hands off the pack,”
said a heavily accented male voice. “Move very slowly.”
Tune in next week for the conclusion!
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