Squawking parrots flew over tiny thatched huts splitting the dawn air with their raucous calls. Pamela stretched and yawned. She rose from a thin mat as the sun began to peek over the distant hills that looked like clusters of broccoli crammed together.
Her younger brother, Alex, was waiting for her outside. “Morning, Sis, happy twenty-third birthday.”
“I’m still surprised you wanted to spend your special day looking for gold.”
“Might as well. Maybe we’ll soon be rich.”
Ready for another day of hiking?”
“My legs are still sore from yesterday’s trek, but we’ve got to keep going. Maybe we’ll find the gold soon.”
After a quick breakfast of bananas and beef jerky, they joined their Australian guide, Ethan, and his two porters and left the village of Gaudagasul.
The group trudged through the thick rainforest on a steep and slippery trail. Pamela took a deep breath. The pungent fragrance of tropical flowers filled the moist air.
How strange. Why couldn’t she shake the impression strangers were peering at her from the thick vegetation?
She shivered in spite of the humidity and pushed back strands of long golden hair sweat had plastered to her forehead. This was not what she expected. Why had she plunged ahead with her crazy plan to hunt for gold in such a remote place? If she was the sole one in jeopardy on this primitive island, it would be bad enough, but she had also endangered her brother—probably the guide and his two porters too. But it was too late now. They were where she had insisted they go . . . the Black Cat Trail.
It was hard to slog through the muck, and she kept slipping. If only she hadn’t found Great-Grandpa’s letter that contained three thumb-sized gold nuggets. He was only twenty-three, her age, when he wrote to his bride from Papua New Guinea where he fought during World War Two.
Pamela’s heavy backpack snagged on a branch. She staggered and grabbed the only nearby support, prickly nettles, to steady herself. “Ouch!”
Ethan reached out and held her arm. “Watch out for those sticky plants. Here let me carry a few of your belongings.”
“No, you’re weighted down enough. I’ll be okay.” After all, it was her fault they were there. She had better do her fair share of the work. The group forged through the mud as the calls of Birds of Paradise echoed through the forest canopy.
Alex abruptly stopped and yelled, “Something just bit me.” He crouched to look closer at the source of his pain—a tiger leech sucking blood from his ankle. “Oh no. I forgot to put on my leech-guard socks.”
“Apply the salt mixture I gave you,” Ethan said.
Alex pulled a spray bottle from his backpack and blasted the leech, and it let go. The vile creatures could smell trekkers and somehow crawled up their feet and clung to them. They sucked until inflated with their blood. Shoes and ordinary socks wouldn’t stop them.
Pamela couldn’t dismiss the feeling someone was watching them.
Finally, the trekkers came to a clearing. There in front of them lay scattered remnants of long-abandoned huts and fragments of pottery—the clear witness of villagers who fled from danger during World War II.
She gasped. “This must be where Great-Grandpa found gold!”
Alex grinned. “Ethan, I’m sure from his letter this is the place.”
Pamela dashed off and ran about thirty feet in front of the others to a stream. She stooped at the edge of the immense trees and studied the clay fragments scattered on the grass. “Alex! Ethan! Bits of gold are embedded in the pottery! This is the place he wrote about.”
Without warning, a whooshing sound exploded through the air. She turned as Ethan spun on his heels and shouted, “Bandits!” A spear quivered in the palm trunk inches above his head. Clothed in loincloths, six Papuans grasping machetes and spears rushed from the jungle. Their leader with a crazed glint in his eyes grabbed her arm with both of his powerful hands.
“No. No. Let go!” she shrieked. Ethan charged after them and grasped the savage’s arm, but the swarthy abductor threw him on the moss-covered dirt. His head struck a rock, and he momentarily lay motionless.
“Oh, no. Oh, Ethan. No . . . no! Let go of me! Leave me alone!” She screamed.
The thieves’ leader dragged her out of the clearing into the dense jungle.
“Let me go! Please let me go!”
“No, you be my woman.” He dragged her farther and farther into the steamy forest.
Pamela fought with all her might, but he wouldn’t let go.
Ethan stood, picked up his rifle, and bolted after them.
In the distance, the two porters, Thomas and Petrus, with Alex beside them pursued her kidnapper through the forest.
She gasped as Thomas’ foot got tangled in a low spreading vine, and he fell flat on his face. But he sprang up again and charged after the Papuan.
Thomas grabbed the muscular attacker’s arms and wrenched them off her. “You no hurt Missy Pamela!”
The savage glowered. “You no keep me from my woman. She mine!”
While the two men locked in ferocious combat, Pamela raced back to the clearing.
One of the other thieves tossed a machete on the ground near her tormenter, and the bandit leader pounced on it. Thomas tried to rip the weapon from his hand, but the vicious kidnapper lifted it high and slashed Thomas’ neck with the sharp blade.
Ethan’s rifle bellowed. When the robber crumpled to the forest floor, the other bandits ran off.
Thomas slumped to the ground. Ethan pulled a long strip of cloth from his backpack and tried to stop the flow of blood.
Thomas groaned and raised his eyes to heaven. “Dear Father, me forgive him.” He focused his eyes on his companions and whispered. “Me . . . go . . . to . . . Jesus . . . now.” Then he closed his eyes and stopped breathing.
Pamela moaned and covered her face with her hands. “No. No. Not Thomas. If I hadn’t insisted on this gold expedition, he’d still be alive. I might as well have stabbed him myself.” She fell on her knees beside him. “He died for me!”
Alex knelt beside her trying to stop tears from choking his voice. “Jesus said, ‘Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.’”